June 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
He Walks Among Us: An Interview with Glenn Danzig (Originally published in the premiere issue of The Pitchfork Review)
Lodi, New Jersey is what you might expect, an East Coast working class burg, not many miles from New York City, but a world away in spirit. This is a static place – vinyl siding and rusted iron, a pocked sidewalk wet with rain outside the Satin Dolls Strip Club, the whole town caught in the murky amber of a dead-end era.
Growing up in Lodi, in the Sixties and Seventies, Glenn Allen Anzalone spent most of his time trying to find ways to escape. He read voraciously – Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelaire, stacks of superhero comics and dusty tomes on the occult. He stayed up watching late night B-horror and sci-fi flicks, Plan 9 From Outerspace, Vampira. He collected animal skulls and drew dark, fantastical worlds in spiral bound notebooks. He turned up the volume on the vinyl roar of Black Sabbath and Blue Cheer and Howlin’ Wolf.
Glenn also taught himself to play piano and electric guitar and started singing with an enviable range and a lusty, swaggering sort of voice, styled after Jim Morrison and Elvis. He played in and fronted a series of local dirt bag metal bands, acts with names like “Talus” and “Whodat And Boojang”.
By 11 years old, Glenn was jamming in his basement, smoking grass , guzzling booze, and stirring up trouble. By 15, he was sober. And by 18, he had finally found his way out, leaving to study at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and New York Institute of Photography. Soon after, he started his own band. The music he wrote for them would serve as the culmination of all that had obsessed him in Lodi, the books and movies and songs, that had helped him make his great escape.
The Misfits were comic book, horror film heroes, bent on castrating the swollen ego of commercial radio rock. They pumped iron and flexed muscle and spit in the face of convention. They ate babies, drank wolf’s blood and worshipped at the altar of a dark lord. Their logo, a grinning, menacing skull, based on a villain from a 1940s Republic Pictures serial, has become, nearly 40 years later, a universal signifier of defiant nonconformity.
With The Misfits, and his later bands, Samhain and Danzig, Glenn would create an enduring cultural aesthetic, an iconic sound and vision that encompasses heavy metal, punk rock, horror, gore, Satanism, sci-fi, fantasy and post-Apocalyptic glee.
Today, Glenn Allen Anzalone, or Glenn Danzig, as he is better known, has finally, truly, escaped the bonds of Lodi…and of the mundane and the mediocre. At 58, he has managed to build both a music and comic book empire, all while remaining an enduring outsider, working through much of his career without major label support or promotion.
Instead, he has found his audience the old fashioned way, by recording and touring consistently, his live shows, over the years enlisting a voracious army of loyal fans. Many of his early contemporaries, such as Black Flag and Metallica, count themselves among his minions. The latter helped to introduce The Misfits to a wider audience, through their 1987 covers album, The $5.98 E.P.: Garage Days Re-Revisited. Metallica’s guitar-shred versions of The Misfits tracks, “Last Caress”/”Green Hell” are largely credited with pulling Glenn’s first band out of obscurity and also for introducing his work to the music producer Rick Rubin.
Rubin would go on to collaborate on Danzig’s acclaimed, self-titled debut, releasing the album in 1988, on his label, Def American Recordings. The combination of Glenn’s wailing tenor and bluesy, unrelentingly heavy riffs, along with Rubin’s meaty, crunch-fuzz production, resulted a certified Gold record – still the band’s best-selling album to date.
Over the next 25 years, Danzig, both the band and the man, would continue to gain momentum, despite legal battles with former Misfits members and Glenn’s bristly, short-tempered reputation when dealing with bookers, venues, and the music press.
There was the now infamous 2004 live show, where Glenn was hit in the face and knocked-out cold, on camera, by the front man of a band called North Side Kings. The moment now lives in YouTube infamy. In 2011, citing crappy weather and a bad cold, Glenn hit Austin’s Fun Fun Fun Fest stage 45 minutes late and played an abbreviated set to an increasingly angry crowd. A near riot ensued. In 2012, at Bonoroo, Glenn was filmed attempting to start a fight with a particularly pushy photographer.
But the fact that Glenn Danzig is pissed off and doesn’t mind throwing a punch (or taking one), shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows his history…or his music. Danzig holds his anger as an asset, and it is this inner wrath, that has, in large part, fueled his creativity. His music and his art are a direct expression of his ire at the mediocre and the mundane. His, is a long-held disdain, for both music industry convention and societal norms.
Through both talent and passionate contempt, Glenn Danzig helped to define the sound and aesthetic of punk rock, hardcore and metal. He led the first screaming, bleeding, slam-dancing, charge – against the dictatorship of commercial radio. He ignited his teen-age angst into hot flames of discontent, abandoned the “suit and tie, 9-5” chains of the 20th Century man, for a life of sweat and fury.
He is a true rocknroller, a leather clad, corpse-painted anti-hero, a longtime crusader for outsiders and misfits and weirdos – everywhere.
Danzig, the band, just celebrated 25 years of success, playing a series of sold-out shows which included peace-keeping guest appearances from members of both Misfits and Samhain, and a “greatest hits” set-list featuring songs from all three of Glenn’s revolutionary acts. His comic book company sells adult-themed fantasies to avid readers around the globe. And, as long time director of his own music videos, the multi-talented artist is now focused on making the leap to the big screen.
Glenn Danzig not only escaped…he also endures. We talk to the master about his self-created, four decade long (and counting), musical and visual legacy.
JH: I was blown away by the range of ages at the show the other night. Can you talk about how you first formed a musical identity for yourself as a kid?
Glenn Danzig: The reason I started The Misfits in my basement was that I was just so frustrated with music in general, and what was going on with music at the time. All the bands that had come out of the Sixties were then sell-outs, and playing some of the worst, middle-of-the-road music ever at that point. And there was this whole system in place that kept perpetuating this—this idea of We need more of this now, We play this on the radio, We need more of this sound. It was a sound that was not so rebellious. It was very pedestrian—and that kind of music that was bought and sold on the radio. Mainstream radio wanted more of that sound, and that was really what spurred the punk movement, if you want to call it a musical revolution. I guess it really was. We wanted to change shit. We hated those bands, we wanted to do something different. When I tell you that I really hated Journey and Foreigner, to this day, I HATE those bands = with a passion. I can’t fucking stand them. The same thing with disco. It was like a fight against that mediocrity. It was like a war. Because as you must know, initially, no one would give punk the time of day. Naysayers said: We were just kids, we couldn’t play our instruments, we had no talent, etc. But, in those one or two minute songs we crafted, we packed more energy and excitement into what you could get on an entire album by one of those crappy bands I just mentioned. And those bands have their fans. They’re just not my fans. And it was more than just the music. It was sociological at the same time. We didn’t want to think like that. We didn’t want to dress like that. It was like, “I’m not doing that.” No one understood. Rolling Stone magazine certainly didn’t understand it, and neither did Circus or any of these magazines that were out there at the time. Nobody understood it really, except the people who got it and went to the shows. Now, in retrospect, it’s like the blues. We got no respect, we had to form and play our own circuit that we created, and now almost 40 later years people are ripping us off left and right and never giving credit to the people they stole this shit from. It’s just like the blues.
JH: You say it was a sociological movement and it really was: with The Misfits, you were creating not only music, but a completely new aesthetic—one that encompassed everything you loved in pop culture, old horror movies, comic books – looking back 35 years later, is that how you remember it?
GD: Well, all those things we liked were considered trash at the time. B Movies, in particular, were considered crap, and you were supposed to go see the new John Travolta movie if you went out to a theater. You know what I mean? Hollywood was stuffing crappy movies down everyone’s throat and rarely would you see a good horror movie really, until later on. Until people like David Cronenberg redefined what the horror movies was. Until Scanners was number one as an independently made movie, people could care less about horror movies. They only cared about the dollar. That’s how all these movie studios are now and were back then.
JH: Do you think it’s better now… or worse?
GD: I think it’s exactly the same. The only thing that’s maybe better now is that classic rock radio stations are less powerful now, and there is more metal on mainstream radio. That’s okay, but that means that the more metal that gets played on the radio, the more the radio suits are going to define metal by what sells and what doesn’t sell, instead of what’s good. Through much of my career, I never relied on radio, I never relied on MTV. The fans I have—the people you saw at the show the other night—that’s all from hard work, and from dealing directly with your audience, the people that come to your shows and buy your records. It’s from taking our live show out on the road. There are a lot of bands like that: taking their music out on the road, taking it directly to the people. And it’s gratifying that more than 35 years later, here I am and so many bands that were supposed to be “the next big thing” when we were coming out – are gone. I’ve seen all the flavors come and go.
JH: It gives you some hope for humanity that the cream most of the time rises to the top, that things that are honest and true tend to endure over the manufactured. Is that what you’re saying?
GD: Well not always, but most of the time. At least, I hope.
JH: There was a 10-year-old kid in front of me at the Danzig show, just freaking out and screaming along to the songs. Is that something you’ve come to expect—that one generation passes down their fandom to the next?
GD: It’s great when people bring their kids to the shows or kids discover your stuff. I liken it to when I was a kid and was discovering bands that weren’t of my generation and I would go to the show. Sometimes I talk to fans at the end of the shows and kids will tell me it’s their first rock concert and I’m always like, “Really? Where you been?” And they’ll say stuff like, “Well I used to go to raves a lot” or “I listen to a lot of stuff on my computer.” And I’m like – “Good. Get out of the house. Go experience life and the world. Life and the world is not just your computer. That’s just someone else telling you about what’s going on out there. You should go out there yourself and experience life. Go to shows. Go have lunch at a restaurant. See other humans. Talk to them. Get out there.
JH: I think sometimes that’s frightening to some people in our post-digital age. Connecting can be scary. I think a sign of that and something that is a huge pet peeve of mine is when you go to see a show and there are a million glowing i-Phones in the air. I feel like people use their phones to somehow block them, emotionally, from what is happening at a concert, blocking out the emotion of the music, block out getting swept up and losing themselves in the music and moment. I think it’s difficult for people to have the courage to be engaged and present. How do you feel about something like iPhones coming out in droves at shows?
GD: Well, you are always going have some people act like idiots like that at shows. But I think the reason why it doesn’t happen so much at our shows is that they’re there for the experience… for what I’m trying to give them. If you come and see us, you’re not coming to see the record be played live exactly how it sounds recorded. You’re coming to experience this crazy energy that’s coming off the stage and you get it and you send it back to me and I’ll send it back out to you, 20 times as powerful. I’m trying to make some kind of experience for you. It’s not just a concert. In fact, it should be some kind of ritual: you should lose your fucking mind for those two hours we’re on stage. You should go out of your fucking mind! That’s really what I’m trying to do. The sing-along? That goes back to early punk rock. It’s about everyone being part of it. You know the words? Then fucking sing along with me. You wanna scream your head off? Do it! And you can hear it. When we do “Mother,” for instance,I don’t even have to encourage them – I just hold the mic up and they sing along. It’s pretty cool. I am very lucky because people connect with what I’m trying to say and the music means something to them. That’s really what music is about.
JH: What were some of those first moment for you, of catharsis at a live show? Of going to a concert and losing your shit?
GD: The first live band I saw as a kid was Black Sabbath. And I remember there being things I liked about them and things I didn’t like about them. I like singers who go crazy on stage, like James Brown. And I don’t like singers that just stand there. So that’s what I realized: when I saw Black Sabbath, the most exciting person to watch in the band was Geezer Butler because he was going crazy. Tony Iommi was standing in the center where a singer would normally be, and Ozzy was off to the side, clapping his hands. I just remember that even though I liked the music, as a live performance, I probably connected more with like an Elvis or an Iggy Pop as far as vocalists go. I liked people that walked around and engaged the audience and talked to them. In that respect, I like Elvis and someone like Iggy who were communicating and going to the audience and saying, “This is me, here I am – who are you?” Elvis would do his thing, go down into the audience and interact. Iggy took it even further, and actually dove out into the audience and cut that line—he crossed it. I actually just did an intro to an Iggy book, and in there I said that Iggy was probably the first rock singer to truly erase that line between the performer and the fans. I don’t think anyone ever dove into the audience before Iggy.
JH: There is a freedom inherent in what he does and what you do on stage. There is never a shtick. There is never this feeling of the performer being self-consciousness or stagy. Your live performances shows are really raw. Is that what you hope the audience come away feeling?
GD: There are so many bands now that when they play their set, a lot of it is pre-recorded: All on a computer running everything. And they get up there and do a puppet show or karaoke or something. I don’t know what it is. I don’t care about it. We don’t do that.
JH: You say you hate the Internet. But you must use it to connect with your fans, no?
GD: Sure. I mean, of course I use the Internet. I have the Danzig and Verotik site and we post news there. The Internet isn’t all bad. It’s like anything: it just gets abused. It’s a good way to disseminate information, and also a good way to disseminate disinformation. You can put out stuff that is blatantly untrue and present it as fact on the Internet. Governments around the world have been conducting disinformation campaigns for centuries. But now, with the Internet, anyone can do it. Before you had to run a newspaper or a TV channel. But now, anyone can go on there and perpetrate untruths. Someone can go one there and say, for instance, “Pitchfork Magazine is out of business.” And you’re going to have to spend the week telling everyone that you’re NOT out of business. The internet has no culpability. Anyone can get on there and just lie.
JH: Sure. But at the same time, what about all those kids living in some Nowhereville feeling isolated, alone? What about the Internet allowing them access to all sorts of knowledge and to your music, to things that they can connect with and ultimately love? Things that make them feel like they belong in some way? The Internet is good for that, don’t you think?
GD: Yeah, but you know what? People always find this stuff. That’s what we did. We didn’t have the Internet and we found good music, movies, comics, etc. We heard about bands from this area or that area and we went and saw them play. We became their friends. There was an underground of information. And we were able to find out about things that we ended up loving. I don’t know how that exists now. The underground doesn’t exist any more.
JH: Well, the underground lasts for about a minute before it’s overground.
GD: Exactly. I just still do it the same way I always did it: I design the album covers; I write the songs; and then I take them to everybody.
JH: Is there anything you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do?
GD: Yes. I want to put my mark on film. That’s what I’ve been concentrating on the past few years—taking a lot of the ideas I’ve created and translating them to film. I think once that’s done, there will be a great weight lifted off my shoulders.
JH: That seems like a logical next step for someone who already is so involved in creating comics, art, music.
GD: Well, you know, I went to New York Institute of Photography in the 1970s, and I studied film, photography and art. Film is really important to me, and it was a big part of working with Rick Rubin in the beginning of Danzig, because it was really important to him as well. We also liked a lot of the same directors, and this lead to me directing a lot of Danzig’s music videos—this was really important to me as part of learning about that aspect of film. So the next step really is to direct a couple of feature films—some based on my comics, some live action. I’ve got a lot of ideas and we’ll have to see which one moves first.
JH: Let’s get back to what we were talking about at the beginning, about the range of ages at your show. What do you think keeps bringing new generations, new kids to your music? What is it they’re responding to?
GD: It could be so many different things. Maybe they like the music? Maybe they like the vocals? It could just be they just like the realness of it? I don’t know? I’m just lucky that people like it. And I just try to be true to myself. And in being true to myself, I know I’m being true to the people that have followed me all these years and to the new fans as well. And if I’ve learned anything over the last four decades, is that the best way to be true to your audience, is to be true to yourself.