A lover and a fighter, Glaswegian writer David Keenan does not pass through this world unnoticed. He has had a song written for him, a TV character based on him, he's been quoted in The Wall Street Journal and played support on the night Oasis got discovered. He's been writing for The Wire since 1995 and has also written for NME, Mojo, The Sunday Herald and written liner notes for Throbbing Gristle, Albert Ayler, Pita and Gary Smith to name a few. Keenan's debut book, England's Hidden Reverse, which is being re-printed next year, plus his many contributions to The Wire, have been crucial in his quest to champion unpopular art, culture and music. Having played and written about music for years, Keenan, while keeping his toe in the water, is now focused on writing fiction. Fascinated with the esoteric, Keenan's novels have found a home at the head-quarters of weird publishing house Strange Attractor. David Keenan's first novel The Comfort of Women is set for publication in late 2014.
When did you start writing about music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started writing about music when I was 16 years old. I was initially inspired by the upsurge in DIY culture that was happening in the UK in the mid-1980s, where you could still go into a store like Virgin Records on Union Street in Glasgow and pick up fanzines, things like Coca Cola Cowboy and Simply Thrilled Honey and The Same Sky. I started my own fanzine, it was called Firm N Fruity and we had features/interviews with people like The Pastels, The Vaselines, The Shop Assistants, Marine Girls, Pussy Galore, stuff like that. Seeing The Pastels and The Vaselines live at Fury Murrys in 1987 changed everything for me.
But it was definitely my discovery of Lester Bangs that sent me into overdrive. The first edition of Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung became my bible and I can still quote from it verbatim. I was still living at home in Airdrie when I first started writing. Airdrie is a small town about 21 miles outside of Glasgow, a magical small town actually, populated by eccentrics and weirdoes, despite its reputation as being ugly and a rough place to grow up in.
I would talk about Lester like he was a friend that I had been having a conversation with, you know, like telling my mum that ‘Lester says Astral Weeks is... blah blah blah” Luckily my mum shared my passion for stuff like Lou Reed, so she could put up with it. My dad was more into Perry Como, who I learned to love later in my life and who I would take over Frank Sinatra or any of these light entertainment bozos any day of the week. Listen to a song like “It’s Impossible” or “For The Good Times” and get back to me. That shit is elemental. But I can’t really listen to it without crying.
The thing about Lester was that he joined the dots between a bunch of what, up until then, had seemed like mutually exclusive passions and articulated an aesthetic that I was attempting to make sense of myself, you know, what was it that linked 60s garage band music and high energy Detroit rock and free jazz and psychotronic movies and horror and sci-fi and literature and Cleveland avant garage and poetry and outsider art and noise and psychedelic music and improvised folk and country blues and punk? That was – and is – exactly where my head was at. Plus he was really romantic, like me, and so he was kind of an intellectual soundtrack to me falling in love with arty girls from Glasgow and feeling doomed and fated and caught up in it all.
From there I dug deeper into the more gonzo US rock/write scene, getting into Richard Meltzer and Nick Tosches and Robot Hull and Creem and picking up zines like Throat Culture and Muckraker and Bananafish and Forced Exposure and distro lists like Fourth Dimension and Shock and Fisheye. I remember travelling to New York for the first time with my brother where we stayed at Alan Licht’s pad. He was living in Hoboken at the time, back then he looked like a young Charlie Watts and he had a picture of him just above his bed. His flat was a crazy mess, with copies of Alan Silva triple LPs just lying on the floor outside of their sleeves and the hairiest sink I have ever washed my face in and like mold growing on the bedroom wall. It was amazing, and he gave me all these photocopies of original, uncollected Bangs and Meltzer and Tosches articles – this was well before they were compiled in books or available on-line - and it felt like the goddamn motherlode. Since then I have lost interest a little in Meltzer and Tosches, it feels kind of like a schtick and there’s not much to learn there. I get tired of that simple goofing off with little soul or heart or understanding, plus I think, like so many writers, they kind of ossified stylistically and became kind of bitter. Though Tosches has written some good books, for sure, Bangs has stayed with me. There's something so personal and super-smart and earnestly real and original about his writing that always speaks to me no matter where I’m at.
So I decided to send some of my writing away to a music magazine, I was writing night and day at this point, reviewing anything, taking notes on everything, really working. In other words, trying to live out my own model of what a writer’s life was like. Sitting up until four in the morning in my attic room at my mum’s house in Airdrie typing, I drank whiskey and hated it but forced it down regardless, writing while I had friends around drinking and playing music, really trying to live it, to make it real. I saw an advert in this short-lived UK music magazine called Spiral Scratch looking for writers. I sent them a review and they published it and the next thing I knew a box of LPs arrived at the door for review for the next issue. It was amazing. The magazine folded pretty soon after wards, but it was briefly resurrected by the staff as MXPress, which I also wrote for. After that I got a job writing for Melody Maker, back when its brief was wide enough to include interesting music, and after I wrote a piece on Japanese underground music, based around the release of the Virgin 2xCD set Cosmic Kurushi Monsters in 1996, complete with a cool picture of Keiji Haino, I got a message on my answering machine from Tony Herrington, who was the editor at the time, asking me if I wanted to come over to The Wire and write for them instead. I loved The Wire and had been reading it for years and had often thought of pitching something to them but I always wondered if I was smart enough, so it was kind of a dream come true. I owe Tony a lot for his belief in me at such an early stage and my subsequent career. Since then it has been my true place of freedom as a writer. I remember buying Einsturzende Neubauten’s Hause Der Luge LP in 1989, I was 18 years old, the one with the big horse cock on the front, which was enough in itself, and then reading Biba Kopf’s liner notes and thinking, "fuck me, will I ever be smart enough or brave enough to get all of this?" I still think it’s great that I get to work alongside him these days and count him as a friend.
What are your main impulses to write about music?
Evangelism, enthusiasm. I think of myself primarily as an enthusiast, in every aspect of my life. I am a yea sayer, never a naysayer, I’m not against stuff, I am totally for it. I’m not a protestor; it’s just not in my nature. I like things. My main motivation is to sing the praises of what I consider the bravest, most daring, most personally resonant and transformative music and art and literature and lifestyles out there. I like to give voice to more marginal concerns and fight for their place in the culture at large. I guess because I’m a weird person, unfathomable even to myself sometimes.
I’m always attracted to people who invent their whole life, who are extraordinary and who don’t give in to the conformist pressures that would deny a truly satisfying and fulfilled life to most of us. I think it’s a brave thing to do.
My greatest love is for the genuine artists, the people who are driven to create no matter what, regardless of musical standards or public opinion or acclaim or financial reward, which goes back to my obsession with DIY. To me doing it yourself and self-publishing is the hallmark of artistic seriousness, that you believe in what you are doing so strongly that you don’t wait for the approval of anyone else and you put it out yourself, which invariably involves art and music that is so ahead of the curve that the audience or infrastructure or context for understanding it doesn’t exist yet, so it's art and music that dares to act as the catalyst for its own understanding.
I like to think that’s what I do myself in my own writing, and I try to catalyse new understandings of radical art, music and culture, generating the kind of context in which super personal stuff like Jandek, The Dead C, Keiji Haino, Heather Leigh, Matthew Valentine and Harry Pussy can be understood and thrive.
Of course I have no problem writing negative reviews or sinking the boot in when needs be, ha ha. I don’t go looking for stuff to write negative reviews about though, I prefer to write about what I love but if I am commissioned to write about something and I end up not liking it, I am incapable of deceit or masking my opinion, even when it might be politically expedient or personally advisable, which has cost me many friendships and countless hostilities across the years. But I don’t care, in fact I enjoy it, I enjoy the attacks as much as the praise and respond to them both as variations of the same energy. After all, where would the Wire letters page be without me?
Plus I am a rocker at heart, I like a bit of glam and sex and savvy and style and attitude, I like tough-ass shit, I’m just not into baldies with laptops. What can I say? I have a low geek threshold.