Katherine Wolf and Pat Thomas directed a short film called Have You Ever Had a Beard starring Calvin Johnson and Chris Estey. I begged Chris to tell us what it was like to sit that close to Calvin and talk about body hair, and he agreed.
Why was I asked to do a movie with Calvin Johnson? I have no idea. And I’m afraid to ask.
The people who asked me to do the film, Katherine Wolf and Pat Thomas, had become friends of mine over the previous year. Pat had become the A&R guy at a label I had worked at and loved. Kathy was mutual friends with lots of fellow art-nerds from the 80s. After hanging out with me for a bit, Kathy and I bonded over writing and large “Pearl Divers” (a sublime oyster, onion, and mushroom pizza available at Bill’s Pasta on Cap Hill and loathed by the servers for its smell). After a cozy New Year’s at my apartment where we talked and listened to the Michael Chapman album Pat brought to Light In The Attic, they decided they wanted to make a short flick about me chatting with Calvin. Pat was encouraging Kathy with this idea, which I believe was hers, as he is a very encouraging guy.
I don’t actually know how Kathy knew Calvin, but I think it was through her ex-husband Steve Fisk (producer of Nirvana, Jesse Bernstein, etc.). Steve had worked with Calvin in the past a few times, was going to do sound for the movie, and considering their records and what comrades say about them personally, it was like, “Why not?” I hate to be photographed but I really like how much people are annoyed by the way I look. I had no great desire to do this, but a deep acceptance of being given a chance to piss off old enemies by continuing to exist in public.
I sat on a cold steel chair outside of a closer restaurant on The Ave as I waited for Kathy and Pat to pick me up early on a damp, dark morning (I don't drive). As they parked nearby, a tall, leggy young woman dressed as a fox staggered out of the front door of the place, where she had apparently crashed after the open mic last night. She asked me the whereabouts of a local group house for gay punks, but though friends of mine from there have come to my apartment to hang out, I didn’t really know where it was. I gave her directions to the local Teen Feed, and then Pat and Kathy put me in the car. I felt bad leaving the fox behind, and we joked about bringing her along, but they said it probably would have freaked out Steve and Calvin. I really wish we had.
I rarely go anywhere but a few miles from my apartment, but they drove me all the way to the gorgeous, ancient, redone Columbia City Theater, a new music venue managed by friends. Steve Fisk was there, setting up gear, and we talked nervously and weary. Calvin came in and I talked with him about Brian, a mutually beloved pal and the keyboard player for Dub Narcotic Sound System, which recorded “Fuck Shit Up” back in the 90s. Then Calvin recorded a swaggering, bracing take on “Get In,” his recent single with the Hive Dwellers, where he describes his love for fuck ups like me -- the inclusion of those who don’t see well, can’t wear nice clothes, are driven to the streets and bedsits by the extremes within them. I felt a warm glow as they did a couple more takes, reminded of how my parents described seeing Sinatra in a small club in Vegas, feeling that presence in the room.
They wanted me to read from my contribution to the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2010 book as my performance part of the movie, and I did so. I was sweating on the CCT stage beneath the hot lights, itching and feeling awkward. The essay, “Phil Ochs Greatest Hits,” was about my love for the protest singer’s fake “best of” anthology, where like a science fiction writer he re-imagined his entire career as a commercial property. It also referenced the machismo and masochism of the “middle class American male,” who does things like working for a living and going to war and obeying the government when all of that is obviously bullshit and self-hating and what Valerie Solanas really wanted to shoot instead of Warhol. It was written for my personal ‘zine, and got into a mainstream journalism book entirely by accident -- and me not feeling I had the right to say "no," as my life was given that story to share.
Kathy saw how nervous I was while reading out loud and brought me a half-gallon of Jack Daniels from the bar and we tried more takes. I think I grew into my part better drunk, which is appropriate, considering Ochs’ own fondness for the bottle. Later, Calvin and I sat at a small table nearby and he was so gracious. He and I were both first wave DIY kids, young teenagers freaking out seeing Patti Smith in the Pac NW in the late 70s. So we chatted about our music fandom (Morrissey!), his incredible records, my shitty fanzines, for quite a while. It was all kicked off by my asking him, “Have you ever had a beard?” I honestly don’t remember the conversation too much, and haven’t seen the film yet, so don't know what to expect when I do.
I don’t know what the filmmakers intended, and it is their “holy moment” to possess (it’s none of my business; I was meant to simply exist in their frame). I do know that Calvin is an old punk like me. And both of us staying alive despite many accidents helped us share a space for a recorded half an hour for you. And that being there was just as important as doing all those things.