Blast From the Past: John Morton
SPECIAL JOHN MORTON EDITION! Below you will find an interview that James, the impresario behind Violet Times did for Maximum Rocknroll in 2011, if you want the authentic newsprint feelings you can grab the issue #337 right here.
Since this majestic interview took place a few exciting developments in eels/mortonia have developed that the psychotic minds that are drawn to such ideals might want in on… x___x have a new record coming out! ON the illustrious SMOG VEIL label… Someone unearthed a live JAZZ DESTROYERS set which you can listen to here, fans of Dave E vocal stylings rejoice! You can also send off for John Morton art via his amazing website. I drink coffee out of an electric eels mug daily and it has increased my satisfaction twenty-fold. You can get a post card set! You can also read a great interview that Alex Ratcharge, MRR columnist and arts issue editor, did with John Morton for Ugly Things here.
There’s been much written about the musical exploits of the early 70’s Cleveland, Ohio band known as electric eels (yes, lower case as per lead vocalist Dave E’s intention) over the years, some of it true even. The band deservedly looms very large in under-the-counterculture sound circles and I strongly encourage anyone reading this to seek out their music, read about their exploits in a pre-punk world if you haven’t already done so. The liner notes to the 3×10” vinyl offering on Scat Records “Those Were Different Times” are a great place to start, w/ plenty of other stuff out there to read as well. One could even be justified in calling them the very first ‘punk’ band, whatever that means- if nothing else they remain to this day one of the most intense sounding and unique. After all of these years, it very much still is artastic.
In honor of his inclusion in the Violet Times curated art show, Foggy Notion, I decided it would be a good time to find out about some of band leader John Morton’s other little-known doings over the years, specifically his visual art and other music he’s done post- eels.
MRR: I’ve been told that only about 100 people total ever saw electric eels, would you agree and care to elaborate on their reaction/s, if any? Especially at the two Columbus, Ohio shows, pre- Extermination Night, where the other performers Mirrors & Rocket From The Tombs would at least be of a non-mainstream music making mindset, also making their own music of a sort not yet known or accepted by the mass ear. What about the non-members of those bands, just ‘regular’ audience members- who the heck were they, why’d they show up and what’d they think? (not presuming you know why they were there, etc. but just saying)
John Morton… 100 sounds like a plausible number. Our fan base, consisted of persons made up of people (who like people) who knew us, such as Bradly Field, Charlotte Pressler, other like-minded band people, such as Dan Didonato and Peter Laughner, at least understood what we were attempting. Family members such as Jill Marotta & Michele Zalopany, well they had to like us.
Our first gig was August of 1974 at the Moonshine Co-op in Columbus. We had the power pulled on us (I’ve heard that that is not a unique occurrence with punk bands, but there were no other “punk” bands at the time.)
We opened for “Hard Sauce” fronted by Jamie “Little Bit of Soul” Lyons. Jamie had one of the best set of pipes I ever heard. Davey and I were arrested that night. I remember every detail. Dave E. wore a trench coat festooned with rattraps, and I wore a safety pin jacket. Jamie bailed Dave E. out of jail. Our career? All downhill after that.
We thought the eels were going to be a huge success on a par with David Blowie (meant affectionately). WE WERE NOT!
I am gratified that we’ve had a modicum of post mortem success.
MRR: Now for some post- eels band stuff, starting w/ the eels ’76 session? Everyone knows electric eels ended in ’75, so what’s this and how’d it come about and was that truly the end then?
JM… Those sessions were the electric eels with additional side musicians and just for feces & laughs 1. I called us “The Men From Uncle.” It was meant to go on, but never got further than that recording session. We were ostensibly (obviously in error) recording a tape to be played on WMMS as “Rocket From The Tombs” had done. I remember Laughner remonstrating the radio audience to [paraphrasing] “Record your own tapes, man!” in a sort of combo meritocracy/ noblesse oblige kind of way. It does mean something to be less acceptable than the “Rockets.”MRR: Which leads into X___X (ed. note- gentle reader, if you don’t know, say ‘ X blank X ‘ ) which has been receiving more and more recognition these days. When did it start and end, did you play out much more?
JM… I was having a birthday party (maybe 25, 26, I could figure it out if I bothered to do the math.) Jim Ellis (and some of his junkie friends who later robbed us) and Andrew Klimek (Jamie “Mirrors” Klimek’s brother) attended. I remember I cut the birthday cake with a judo chop (hand smeared with frosting) because it was punk. Wife #1, the artist Michele Zalopany & I were moving to NYC in 7 months I thought I would form a band that lasted 6 months. Why??? Just seemed like a good idea at the time.
X____X. You could put anything between the X’s, like “Appearing tonight, “X ‘Charles Manson and the Family’ X” In our short 6 month career we played out 4 times, recorded two 45s on Drome Records. We were a very tight band, not by design. Tony (Anton) Fier 2. added a lot of professionalism with his work on the drumbo kit. MRR: What about Johnny & The Dicks, which is very interesting, very much performance art and not as music oriented, with a ‘fake’ band photo making the rounds, an LP release w/ no record included and the pre-recorded backing track done by The Styrenes independent of this ‘band’
JM… I was just a touch grandiose (or ‘grandioser’) in those days. I loved being an artist, but it didn’t fulfill the exhilaration of performance, so I decided I would form a band that didn’t play music, but did ”art!” Visual art songs like making polyester resin sculpture, posing for photos (one of the dicks was a professional photographer) and lip-syncing to the tape of a song I performed with The Styrenes. We did release a self-titled album that didn’t contain a record, each one unique with a smattering of polyester resin on it. Michele, (Wife # 1) was a Dick, along with my friend and Mirrors drummer, Michael Weldon, future Bush Tetras, Laura Kennedy and Cynthia Sley, Andrew Klimek and his sister, Karen K. Karen Karen, and photographer/artist Charles Gilchrist. Oh yeah, and a guy named Paul Paternoster. In retrospect, these people following me into the void was pretty amazing. I am in their debt (OK, now they have to say they were in my debt) And fucking kudos to the brave them that’s followed me into the eels, X___X, Amoeba (raft boy), The New Fag MotherFuckers and The Dunking Swine of Chelsea.
MRR:Which came first for you, art or music and how much would you say the two are related, electric eels often being dubbed a form of ‘art terrorism’, which seems more apt than even any kind of ‘proto-punk’ tag that people try to label you or your music as in hindsight.
JM… I always did both art and music. I got to play twelve string whilst the nerds of Lake Ridge Academy 3. sang “Michael Row the Fuckin’ Boat Ashore.” They all wore white shirts and dark trousers and skirts. I however got to wear the “Roger (nee Jim) McGuinn folk singer outfit”, bulky knit turtleneck sweater and corduroy jacket. Cool!
I did the junior high bands (faking the lyrics to Louie Louie (“I stuck my boner in her hair”)) worked my way into high school bands then it was the eels.
Art Terrorism was a purposeful quantification or updating of the Dadaist agit-prop nihilist/annihilation twisty band thing. When conceptual art was just beginning, there were two strata, in both divisions, the “Object” was deemed un-important simply the by-product of the more golden idea. (down with the Mona Lisa! It’s just some very old canvas with some fucking paint on it. Fuckin’ lumpen objet d’art worshippers!), The path I chose (also known as “The wrong path”) was based on the Dada/absurdist sensibility that the object is not important and neither is the idea, The successful branch Conceptualists were the effete [pseudo] intellectuals making cherished “golden and geniused” and oh so collectable ideas. Conceptual artists, reading Wittgenstein (which they had no fathom of) and drawing fucking numbers on the wall AND FUCKING SELLING the fucking photographs of the fucking numbers (photographs, which, by the way ARE objects.) Sour grapes? I’ll let you, Dear Reader, decide after you digest the following anecdote. A little dog & pony show of a conceptual art piece where the artist (me) actually understands Wittgenstein (at least a bit). Wittgenstein had a proof against solipsism. 4. He postulated that the solipsist could not maintain his or her solipsism in the close proximity of another human in intense physical and/or emotional pain. I informed my philosophy professor that when I was on heroin, I could have beheld a chopped baby at my feet and said, “Oh wow man!” The Prof excitedly waved his hands and outburst, “Why you’ve disproved Wittgenstein’s theory!” Fuck you right path conceptualists AND I got an “A” in philosophy for taking drugs!MRR: When was your first visual art show? I know a little about “Murder, Suicide and Junk” and something in Buffalo at an Arts Center (maybe it was just a Johnny & The Dicks performance?) – any other shows over the years and how do they compare w/ the most recent “Photo Falling – Word Falling” in ’08 ?
JM… Kinda’ Wittgensteinian stuff continued. One of my greatest exhibition coups was exhibiting at MoMA without knowing it. People were telling me they saw a photograph of me shooting dope at MoMA. In 1980 I had organized the ‘Murder, Suicide & Junk’ at ‘A B C No Rio.’ I had Tom Warren take a photograph of me hitting up. 30 years later MoMA mounted a lame and [ludicrous] exhibition called LOOKING AT MUSIC: SIDE 2” replete with pictures of Sonic Youth, Television, my wiki-enemy Richard Hell and the most unpunk of punk, The Talking Heads. It was supposedly the NY [oh so hip] music/art scene of the 70’s and 80’s, and for the back-story they printed a poster from the ABC No Rio book including (you got it) THE JUNKIE PHOTO!! “Look at me [Made it,] Ma! Top of the world!”I was exhibiting art since the early 70’s, but I found my niche and peers when I moved to New York, exhibiting with Collaborative Projects Inc in The Times Square Show, A Real Estate Show, etc.
MRR:The loft in what’s now known as (the quite different from back then) Carroll Gardens that you lived in w/ Paul Marotta staged a few multi-media events throughout the ’80s, were you around for these and did you participate- in what capacity, if so?
JM… The event we did was freezing our asses off in the winter and having to import water from outside.
MRR: What about the “lost years” of the 80’s and 90’s, of which the public knows hardly anything Mortonian? I’ve read that piece you wrote in a 90’s Cle Magazine, is that basically how it was for you, making art, surfing, doping, writing?
JM… Wife left, left bereft, crying, suicide attempt, further suicide attempts sublimated via “Why kill myself when they’ve invented this nifty drug, heroin, which will do it for me!” Couple years being a junkie then stopped taking heroin. “At least I can drink!” & boy could I drink! Proudly made it to stage four on the Jellinek Scale of Alcoholism. That’s the stage that includes, jails, institutions and death. Jailed in Madrid (jails), hospitalized (institutions) after a nasty pistol whipping (or more properly Uzi whipping) for saying “Fuck You” to a carabiniere in Venice. I’ve heard that normal people don’t engage the services of a psychologist in Lisbon when they are on vacation. Stint on the flight deck. Depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Bipolar II, Co-occurring psychiatric and substance abuse disorders. Time just seemed to fucking fly by.
VT… Which leads us to yr more recent activities. How did The New Fag MotherFuckers, Amoeba (raft boy) and/or any other bands you’ve had more recently come about and why did they end so abruptly? Anything to say about the recent Dymaxion Tour marking the 35th anniversary of The Styrenes, of which you were a participant?;
JM… The bands came about because I wanted to do a band. Just like forever. Why did they end so abruptly? That’s what bands always seem to do, unless you’re the Rolling Stones. Bands are costly and a lot of work. In NYC the rhythm sections expect to get paid to practice.
I talked about forming a new band for twenty (count em, 20!) years in bars. I finally formed a band Amoeba (raft boy) seven months after I got sober in 1994. I’m not at all advocating sobriety; it just worked for me. Twelve step groups can be a haven for musicians that are still alive.
Confidentially between you and me, I was spared the final crushing embarrassment of being drunk on Facebook as a Cleveland colleague recently did as evidenced by his “slurring of written words.”
RE: The Styrenes Dymaxion Tour, I wanted too leave off the 35th Anniversary stuff or at least call it 25th Anniversary. I had a great time.
MRR: Recent art you’ve been doing? Including the youtube videos you’ve done in recent times which are pretty great and funny, how’s the comedy career coming along? Also, Mortonia has come along as less of a ‘fuck you’ to the world and more a fine, fine showcase for much of the art and music that you’ve done over the years, any reason behind that you’d care to share?
JM… Comedy career?
Punk Henny Youngman, “Take my wife . . . fuck you!”
(I forgot to ask, but can MRR afford italics?)
I was once asked what kind of music do you do 30 years after the eels? The answer is “the kind of music I would do 30 years after the eels.” Same with visual art, I’m doing what I’m doing because it’s what I’m doing.MRR: For being known as such an extreme persona over the years and a self-proclaimed nihilist, you really seem at peace w/ your world when i’ve spoken or emailed w/ you. Even more so than others i’ve dealt w/ from back in the days just post- the Cuyahoga River catching fire. How did this come about, or am i just being the set up man here for the ‘fuck you’ punch line?
JM… Fuck you, James.
I’ve reached a point in my life where nihilism and peace are not a dichotomy. More than one wife (actually #s 2 and 3) had felt it necessary to admonish me with, “No Swastikas!” Who would self-proclaim oneself as a nihilist? Is one a self-proclaimed Muslim or Jew? Everyone thinks a nihilist kills his or her roommate’s cat. We get a lot of bad press. Nihilism is the new existential morass!
A nihilist is just a sociopath that has taken a college course in philosophy.I usually do my art (and in this case music) site specific. What is appropriate can change with the venue. I mean, I wanted to get James Levine to stage dive at the met, but he didn’t go for it.
MRR: How do you feel about the recent recognition you’ve been getting and/or the word ‘legacy’ as it may or may not apply to you and your life? In my world and many others reading this, you loom very large to this day and will continue to.
JM… Yes James, I think it would actually be pretentious of me not to take on the mantle of . . . legend. Perhaps that realization is why my memoirs are simply entitled . . . “I.”
No further explanation is required. It should be out this year.
& I said I was grateful before. I won’t say it again.
MRR: Finally, did you really beat up all of the other electric eels ? -and when’s the last time you saw Dave E.?
JM… Yes, I am not particularly proud of it but I did do the smash-a-roo thing to the other band mates (except Nick Knox.)
Dave E. is very private these days. I saw him maybe ten or twelve years ago. He is born again (as in born again Christian); married with doves, a cat and a dog.
The eels Dave E. surfaced when I told him that Brian McMahon was working on his autobiography. He got his eels-incredulous look that only he could countenance like when he asked Nick, “Why do you stink so bad?”
Dave and I were glad to see each other. Don’t tell him about my memoirs.Comic by Sonja Eklund1. Shits and giggles
2. I knew Tony as Tony for years. I couldn’t suddenly adjust to him as Anton, (and Anton said it was OK to call him Tony) however I would insist on people calling me by my various noms de guerre. (Blue Tree, Johnny Lightning, J. Regular etc. (can dish it out. cannot take it!))
3. My parents sent me there to straighten me out. I was expelled for doing a drawing that had the word “Fuck” on it.
4. Look it up!