An Interview With John Cage
by Ted Berrigan
The following interview is pieced together from a series of tape-recorded interviews with John Cage during his recent visit to New York. They were made at parties, in flats, and in taxis.
What about Marshall McLuhan?
Just this: the media is not a message. I would like to sound a word of warning to Mr. McLuhan: to speak is to lie. To lie is to collaborate.
How does that relate?
Do you know the Zen story of the mother who had just lost her only son? She is sitting by the side of the road weeping and the monk comes along and asks her why she’s weeping and she says she has lost her only son and so he hits her on the head and says, “There, that’ll give you something to cry about.”
Yes, somebody should have kicked that monk in the ass!
I agree. Somebody said that Brecht wanted everybody to think alike. I want everybody to think alike. But Brecht wanted to do it through Communism, in a way. Russia is doing it under government. It’s happening here all by itself without being under a strict government; so if it’s working without trying, why can’t it work without being Communist? Everybody looks and acts alike, and we’re getting more and more that way. I think everybody should be a machine. I think everybody should be alike.
Isn’t that like Pop Art?
Yes, that’s what Pop Art is, liking things, which incidentally is a pretty boring idea.
Does the fact that it comes from a machine diminish its value to you?
Certainly not! I think that any artistic product must stand or fall on what’s there. A chimpanzee can do an abstract painting, if it’s good, that’s great!
Mary McCarthy has characterized you as a sour Utopian. Is that accurate?
I do definitely mean to be taken literally, yes. All of my work is directed against those who are bent, through stupidity or design, on blowing up the planet.
Well, that is very interesting, Mr. Cage, but I wanted to know what you think in the larger context, i.e., the Utopian.
I don’t know exactly what you mean there . . . I think the prestige of poetry is very high in the public esteem right now, perhaps height is not the right yardstick, but it is perhaps higher than ever. If you can sell poetry, you can sell anything. No, I think it’s a wonderful time for poetry and I really fell that something is about to boil. And in answer to your question about whether poetry could resume something like the Elizabethan spread, I think it’s perfectly possible that this could happen in the next four or five years. All it needs is the right genius to come along and let fly. And old Masefield, I was pleased to see the other day celebrating his ninetieth birthday, I think, said that there are still lots of good tales to tell. I thought that was very nice, and it’s true, too.
Do you think, that is, are you satisfied with the way we are presently conducting the war in Viet Nam?
I am highly dissatisfied with the way we are waging this nasty war.
Incidentally, your rooms are very beautiful.
Nothing incidental about it at all. These are lovely houses; there are two for sale next door, a bargain, too, but they’re just shells. They’ve got to be all fixed up inside as this one was, too. They were just tearing them down when I got the Poetry Society over here to invite Hy Sobiloff, the only millionaire poet, to come down and read, and he was taken in hand and shown this house next door, the one that I grew up in, and what a pitiful state it was in. Pick-axes had already gone through the roof. And so he bought four of them and fixed this one up for our use as long as we live, rent free.
Not bad. Tell me, have you ever though of doing sound tracks for Hollywood movies?
Why not? Any composer of genuine ability should work in Hollywood today. Get the Money! However, few screen composers possess homes in Bel-Air, illuminated swimming pools, wives in full-length mink coats, three servants, and that air of tired genius turned sour Utopian. Without that, today, you are nothing. Alas, money buys pathetically little in Hollywood beyond the pleasures of living in an unreal world, associating with a group of narrow people who think, talk, and drink, most of them bad people; and the doubtful pleasure of watching famous actors and actresses guzzle up the juice and stuff the old gut in some of the rudest restaurants in the world. Me, I have never given it a thought.
Tell me about Silence.
Sure. You never know what publishers are up to. I had the damnedest time with Silence. My publishers, H***, R***, and W***, at first were very excited about doing it, and then they handed it over to a young editor who wanted to rewrite it entirely, and proceeded to do so; he made a complete hash of it. And I protested about this and the whole thing–the contract was about to be signed–and they withdrew it, because of this impasse. The Publisher, who is my friend, said, “Well, John, we never really took this seriously, did we? So why don’t we just forget it?” And I replied, “Damn it all, I did take it seriously; I want to get published.” Well, then they fired this young man who was rewriting me, and everything was peaceful. But there was still some static about irregularities of tone in Silence. So I said, “Well, I’ll just tone them down a little, tune the whole thing up, so to speak.” But I did nothing of the sort, of course! I simply changed the order. I sent it back re-arranged, and then they wanted me to do something else; finally I just took the whole thing somewhere else.
What was your father like?
I don’t want to speak of him. My mother detested him.
What sort of person was your mother?
Very religious. Very. But now she is crazy. She lay on top of me when I was tied to the bed. She writes me all the time begging me to return. Why do we have to speak of my mother?
Do you move in patterns?
Yes. It isn’t so much repeating patterns, it’s repetition of similar attitudes that lead to further growth. Everything we do keeps growing, the skills are there, and are used in different ways each time. The main thing is to do faithfully those tasks assigned by oneself in order to further awareness of the body.
Do you believe that all good art is unengaging?
Yes I do.
Then what about beauty?
Many dirty hands have fondled beauty, made it their banner; I’d like to chop off those hands, because I do believe in that banner . . . the difference is that art is beauty, which the Beatniks naturally lack!
The Beatniks, notably Ed Sanders, are being harassed by the police lately. Do you approve?
On the contrary. The problem is that the police are unloved. The police in New York are all paranoid . . . they were so hateful for so long that everybody got to hate them, and that just accumulated and built up. The only answer to viciousness is kindness. The trouble is that the younger kids just haven’t realized that you’ve got to make love to the police in order to solve the police problem.
But how do you force love on the police?
Make love to the police. We need highly trained squads of lovemakers to go everywhere and make love.
But there are so many police, it is a practical problem.
Yes, I know, it will certainly take time, but what a lovely project.
Do you think it is better to be brutal than to be indifferent?
Yes. It is better to be brutal than indifferent. Some artists prefer the stream of consciousness. Not me. I’d rather beat people up.
Say something about Happenings. You are credited with being the spiritual daddy of the Happening.
Happenings are boring. When I hear the word “Happening” I spew wildly into my lunch!
But Allan Kaprow calls you “the only living Happening.”
Allan Kaprow can go eat a Hershey-bar!
Hmmm. Well put. Now, to take a different tack, let me ask you: what about sex?
Sex is a biologic weapon, insofar as I can see it. I feel that sex, like every other human manifestation, has been degraded for anti-human purposes. I had a dream recently in which I returned to the family home and found a different father and mother in the bed, though they were still somehow my father and mother. What I would like, in the way of theatre, is that somehow a method would be devised, a new form, that would allow each member of the audience at a play to watch his own parents, young again, make love. Fuck, that is, not court.
That certainly would be different, wouldn’t it? What other theatrical vent interests you?
Death. The Time Birth Death gimmick. I went recently to see “Dr. No” at Forty-Second Street. It’s a fantastic movie, so cool. I walked outside and somebody threw a cherry bomb right in front of me, in this big crowd. And there was blood, I saw blood on people and all over. I felt like I was bleeding all over. I saw in the paper that week that more and more people are throwing them. Artists, too. It’s just part of the scene – hurting people.
How does Love come into all this?
It doesn’t. It comes later. Love is memory. In the immediate present we don’t love; life is too much with us. We lust, wilt, snort, swallow, gobble, hustle, nuzzle, etc. Later, memory flashes images swathed in nostalgia and yearning. We call that Love. Ha! Better to call it Madness.
Is everything erotic to you?
Not lately. No, I’m just kidding. Of course everything is erotic to me; if it isn’t erotic, it isn’t interesting.
Is life serious?
Perhaps. How should I know? In any case, one must not be serious. Not only is it absurd, but a serious person cannot have sex.
Very interesting! But, why not?
If you have to ask, you’ll never know.
The above interview is completely a product of its author. John Cage served neither as collaborator nor as interviewee.
“Family Romance” – Department of Eagles (mp3)
“The Piano in the Bathtub” – Department of Eagles (mp3)
“Noam Chomsky Spring Break 2002” – Department of Eagles (mp3)
PREVIOUSLY ON THIS RECORDING
I think I was thinking when I was
ahead I’d be somewhere like Perry street erudite
dazzlingly slim and badly loved
contemplating my new book of poems
to be printed in simple type on old brown paper
feminine marvelous and tough