Jun 6 2008, 7:20pm

As far as records go, "spoken word" is generally a euphemism for "overwrought, sanctimonious bullshit." But believe it or not (whippersnappers), there was a time when this wasn’t the case. Or maybe it was actually the case back then and we were just too blinded by our own sense of adolescent melodrama to tell otherwise (and are now crippled with nostalgia). Whatever the reason, talking seemed good, and few people’s words seemed better chosen than Eugene S. Robinson of Oxbow fame’s. OK? You people sometimes.

In 1987, Eugene assembled a spoken-word LP based on three issues of his zine The Birth of Tragedy. Like Vice, BoT ran on the theme system, and for the album he cherry-picked interview subjects from his Fear, Power, and God issues to record pieces—people like Lydia Lunch, Charles Manson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and, yes, we know, Jello Biafra. Again, it was an innocenter age. The folks at Blackhouse Records have finally committed this forgotten gem to CD and will hopefully get around to releasing it one of these days. Until then, here’s an interview with Mr. Robinson to tide you over.

Vice: First thing’s first. How did you start doing The Birth of Tragedy?
Eugene S. Robinson:
I had one of the worst jobs—no, actually it was one of the best jobs ever. My job was essentially to cover for a boss who had a severe drug problem. I had access to a typewriter and a Xerox machine, and I was inspired by that Richard Kern series The Heroin Addict and The Valium Addict. So I decided to start The Birth of Tragedy in this office where I had nothing to do.

How’d you pick the themes for each issue?
I’m an egomaniac. It was what was going on in my life, but it was also universal themes. They also seemed to have a logical flow to them. Themes are kinda cool, but they’re also a jail cell.

No kidding. Why’d you pick the three you did for the album?
The first issue was Sex and Depression, which to me are one and the same. Then came Fear, Power, God, Love, and finally Madness. I wanted something punchy and dark, and I thought Fear, Power, and God worked as a set.

How thoroughly would you prepare for the interviews in Birth of Tragedy?
I did a certain amount of research, but most of it was bullshit and compromise. I wanted to go for something that would help me understand. My goal was to go for something that was left of center. So I would do the research, to have that one question to start with.
When I interviewed Allen Ginsberg, he was trying to bully me around. The day I interviewed him the New York Times had described him as a "garbage man." So rather than have that be the last question I asked, he was being so difficult I asked him that first, and it changed the dynamic of the interview. 

Do any of them stand out as your favorites?
One of my favorites is one that I didn’t do. It’s the one with Nick Cave. He has this great line, "I will do anything to change how it is that I am now." That was in the God issue. The Russ Meyer one in Love was great for different reasons. My photographer had a nervous breakdown, from which he never recovered. We’re sitting at Russ’s house, and I glance at his notes for the photo shoot, and it’s clear he’s left the planet of the sane. When it came time to do the photos, he said to Russ, "Do you have a bedroom? Show me." Then he put him in the bed, took six photos, and said, "That’s it." Just walked out of the house, left the door wide open.
I really like the Anton LaVey one too. In the middle of it he says, "I’m an atheist, I just do this to make money." He hadn’t given an interview in like 15 years, and he made me look an idiot. It was the beginning of a certain resurgence for him. I guess I was part of that, but I don’t know that I need that kind of credit.

What about of the different pieces on the album?
I like Anton LaVey’s quite a bit, as well as Manson’s and Lydia’s. Some of them sound horribly dated, like the Biafra thing, but it’s a document of the times. This was the kind of thing that nobody thought was going to be successful. It was one of those Hollywood moments where I had to keep going home to get more copies made, because it was selling out. I’m happy to see it come out.
We had this whole plan to edit in pieces of interviews and things like that. The problem is that just because you can fit 75 minutes on a CD, doesn’t mean you should. I had to say, "Is it gratuitous or is it necessary?" I would like it to be necessary, but given that the audio quality is not so great, we should leave it as is. Some of these guys have gotten less interesting over time, so do we really want outtakes of them? If we had unlimited time and resources we would do a whole new album.

So how come you stopped making Birth of Tragedy?
A lot of things interfered. Largely what happened, in the midst of the Madness Issue, I realized I wasn’t nearly quite as mad as I thought. The order was kind of screwy. What comes after Love? I had to recast the Madness Issue to come after Love. I had a hard time articulating it.
My second novel has everything to do with where we ended off on the Love issue, so I’m not tired of trying to articulate it, but the format where I use other people as a sounding board, that’s over. I’ll do that for other people’s magazines. For myself though, I’m addressing it much more directly. It sparked from general disgust at this self-reflexive school of writing that’s found it’s smelly, rotten, stinking home in the form of the blog. Nobody’s forcing me to read blogs, but if I go to a bar and have somebody else tell me they have a blog, I’ll shoot myself.

This interview’s for our blog.


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