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By Sarah L. Myers
New York, NY, USA
Photos courtesy of BP Fallon
“Sitting here now, Johnny's lived-in face, the mouth grins lopsidedly and there's a twinkle from under the drooping eyelids and for a moment he looks so happy and so vulnerable, the wounded artist touching the sunlight for a moment and you understand again why you love him.”
BP Fallon and Jack White
(credit: Jo McCaughey - Third Man Records)
BP Fallon writes of friend and musician Johnny Thunders with a poetic cadence also found in his speaking voice - a gentle, pointed, rolling voice not much louder than a whisper at times. He is a legend of a man, as the list of titles he doesn’t hold is much shorter. Writer, DJ, promoter, photographer, manager, historian, and personality are only the first that come to mind. His work with Johnny Thunders, T. Rex, Thin Lizzy and Led Zeppelin certified him as a legend more than two decades ago, and he continues to inspire. He just released his first single, “I Believe in Elvis Presley” on friend Jack White’s Third Man label.
I met BP at a Motorhead show in Austin, Texas for SXSW. I was upstairs on the VIP deck at Stubb’s BBQ and spotted his trademark bowler hat, oversized blazer, and pink Converse out of the corner of my eye. The next night I stood with Jim Jones (of the fantastic Jim Jones Revue) and watched BP rip through a set with band mates Clem Burke, Aaron Lee Tasjan and Nigel Harrison, while Bob Gruen snapped photos in front of the stage. One month later we sat across from each other in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel and talked for more than two hours. A true ambassador of rock n’ roll, his Wang Dang Doodle radio show spotlights buzz bands like Naked Heroes and Fuck Buttons with classic punk mash-ups in between. He’s electric. He’s Thirsty. He’s BP Fallon. And it all starts right now…
THIRSTY: What’s in your pockets?
BP Fallon: One lighter. One pen, felt-tipped, for writing with. One lighter. Some American coinage. Oh, and my notebook. Black.
BP Fallon - live in Texas
(credit: Jennifer Brandon, 2010)
THIRSTY: So you’re always armed?
BP Fallon: Someone once described me as a hippie with a dagger up my sleeve. Not to be used, but to be (there).
THIRSTY: Do you think that really describes you?
BP Fallon: I think it does. (pause) I think it does.
THIRSTY: I’m titling the piece, “The Weekend Starts Here”. Do you think your life is all about the next big party? Or it’s one big weekend?
BP Fallon: But I work very hard. In order to play you have to have a foundation. Otherwise it becomes vacuous.
THIRSTY: Do you live your life always looking forward to the next big thing that’s happening?
BP Fallon: No, I need to enjoy what’s happening now. The next thing hasn’t happened. Anything that happens is now. The rest is all hypothetical. The past is gone. Tomorrow isn’t there. Be here now.
THIRSTY: So what else is happening tonight, after this?
BP Fallon: I’m going to finish a song. I’m going to record it roughly, and then I’ll record it with two of the band.
THIRSTY: When are you playing New York?
Alan McGee and Kate Moss
(Death Disco, New York 2004)
BP Fallon: We don’t want to go on tour. What we want to do is just do a gig here, and a gig there, and a gig there, and every gig being an event. Gigs themselves are largely boring, in predictable venues, in predictable situations, predictable happenings, predictable people, lots of them. We don’t want to be predictable. No one’s told them they don’t have to be. So we go to these places and if they’re really enthusiastic they shake their beer can a little bit and wobble their left kneecap. And then they go home. That’s not playing the full tilt. (Here in New York) is supposed to be cutting edge, but it’s by and large frighteningly conservative. People are scared. Scared of lots of stuff. Waiting for the other shoe to drop, if we haven’t gotten there. They’re scared to have fun, and by and large the music, rather than challenging the grayness, it permeates and consolidates it. So many of them don’t communicate.
THIRSTY: Do you miss the old New York?
BP Fallon: I don’t miss anything. When I came here originally it was more dirty, it was more dangerous, it was more exciting. You could go to Max’s any night and there’s Andy Warhol, dressed in his wig in the corner. Or Lou Reed, or whoever it was. I don’t think there’s a place like that here now. Having to be 21 to drink is ridiculous. I don’t drink so I don’t care personally, but it’s ridiculous that I it takes two years away off youth. Many of that age, you know, if you want to drink, you’re going to drink. If you want to have sex, you’re going to have sex. If you want to take drugs, you’re going to take drugs. It doesn’t matter what you’re advised or told or allowed or prohibited. That’s how it works. Therefore it should be legitimized. Because it’s wrong to penalize people for stupid law. We’d rather send them off to the Army to get shot at, but you can’t have a drink? I’ve seen some situations where a person playing in the band, this is a New Yorker who was under 21, after much negotiation, was allowed in the venue to play the set and then leave. Where would Michael Jackson have played? But (old New York), people hadn’t thought about the long-time run of it - drugs and so on and so forth. So it was more laissez-faire. It wasn’t so uptight sexually. The adventure was fresh.
THIRSTY: Could a place like Max’s even exist now?
BP Fallon: It different, but I feel this way it’s probably better because you have better opportunities to find out if the lion will bite you before you put your head in its mouth. You know? I love the Internet, I think it’s wonderful. You can go to a band’s Myspace and in 10 seconds you know whether you like them or not. Just like that. But, yes, it’s a different process. But nonetheless the strongest things still sustain. If someone tells you personally about something, you’re more likely to check it out. And if it’s something amazing, it becomes viral. It just spreads, non-stopping. If, for example, Jimi Hendrix, as an unknown 21-year-old, played in the Lower East Side tonight, and there were five people there, by tomorrow thousands of people would know about it. Not because it was Jimi Hendrix because no one would know it was Jimi Hendrix! But because of the fucking undeniable quality! A lot of music that’s on, off at the moment is neither here nor there. It’s just filled with space. Who cares.
Slash (John Varvatos opening party)
THIRSTY: It’s disposable.
BP Fallon: It’s not even disposable because if you have a bottle of water, a plastic water, you can drink the water. There’s no water in this (music).
THIRSTY: We need something with some meat on it.
BP Fallon: Yeah.
THIRSTY: Tell me about your favorite bands. The ones you feature in the Wang Dang Doodle. I know you like the Naked Heroes.
BP Fallon: I like the Dead Skeletons. Sounds of Kaleidoscope are very good. I’ve lately come into the Brian Jonestown Massacre. I’ve never seen the movie. But at my parties I keep running into them, you know. One here and one in England. I like them. I like Steve Conte’s records. I love Steve Conte. I didn’t really want to like him because I was like, “this guy thinks he’s Johnny Thunders.” He’s a very nice man and he’s a fucking incredible musician and a great asset to the Dolls. The Lonesome Heroes I like. They’re a boy and a girl, sort a folk psychedelic country from Austin. Really just gorgeous. I like Fuck Buttons, who are djs. They do for me what the Chemical Brothers would have been doing in the Chemical Brothers’ heyday, 400 years ago! Kills I love. My Bloody Valentine. Primal Scream.
THIRSTY: Can you talk to me about your time at the hotel?
BP Fallon: Yeah, I used to stay at the Chelsea because it was cheap. It isn’t now. It wasn’t really cheap even then. It’d be like $800 a week or something, you know. But the quality of the accommodations, I don’t know what it’s like now but it was appalling. It was really just, cracks in the sink type of thing. And shower curtains falling off. Pretty tacky. But over and above that was this sort of ambiance and everything, it just had something magic about it. It’s a strange place.
THIRSTY: When you were young, you’d seen Gene Vincent during a sound check. You called it a “magnificent tragedy.” It seems to be a fitting description not only for the punk movement but rock n’ roll in general. And when you talk about the blues, you said, “people like to hear their idols cry.” What did you mean by that?
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BP Fallon: The magnificent tragedy, it was very obvious to this school boy going into this other world, the New York Rialto, and sunshine, into this sort of musty cinema in the afternoon, and at the end of the room was this band, and this singer Gene Vincent. The first real flesh and blood rock n’ roll star that I’ve ever seen. This man who made these still magnificent records. And instead of seeing the glow of a warming light bulb, I saw shattered glass. And it was magnetic because Gene Vincent’s whole life was a triumph but it was a series of tragedies. And like many artists he was ripped off left, right, and center. He drank too much. He took painkillers for his leg, his dodgy leg. And after “Be-Bep-A-Lula”, this wonderful record - that even Bill Black and Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana from Elvis’s band gave Elvis a hard time for going into the studio without it, you know, “how could you do this?” He loved that record, Elvis did, actually. And they met one time and Elvis went up to Gene Vincent and said, “well done. Congratuations.” And Elvis’s rocket is going up and Gene Vincent’s is already wobbling, you know. And it’s not like this sort of car crash mentality. It’s more like through all this self-evident pain and self doubt there’s great artistry. This man can sing amazingly. He could do these beautiful lost and lonesome country songs, he could do the most nearly-pornographic records like “Woman Love”, and all these other records that are just a celebration of rock n’ roll. And he’s one of a few people who took the ball into the court. Rock n’ roll has been going for fifty or sixty years. It’s been going longer for the black people because they knew about it already. Elvis taught the white people that there was something under the belt. Before that it was all done with the lights off.
And animalistic behavior is very much part of rock n’ roll.
One isn’t against the cerebral and, you know, intelligence and proper behavior. The throwing aside of tradition and morals was what the elders were afraid of back in the day of dancing in the street and young people making out and maybe having sex. That’s what they were worried about. And so they should because that’s what happened! They were right. Thank God! That’s the point of it. People generally listen to music for two reasons. Either for the comfort and familiarity, “I remember” and so on, like a Valium. Or for the danger and excitement of hearing something new. I’m more the second one. I mean, I like old records and stuff. Of course I do. But give me volume!
THIRSTY: You have a line in “I Believe in Elvis Presley” that says, “God isn’t Elvis singing ‘How Great Thou Art’”. Is this a comment on our worship of celebrities? Or like Bukowski said, elevating fools into rich heroes? What impact is that having on rock n’ roll?
BP Fallon: Yeah, the line is, “all we’ve got to go on is our worshipping of icons, AND God, or is it Elvis singing ’How Great Thou Art’. You mean the fame game? There’s always been the fame game. I’m sure there was some dickhead trying to get pictures of Marilyn Monroe nude through the window or something. I don’t think that’s new. What is new is that it’s at such a volume now. People sort of come up in the listings who wouldn’t get in the door before, you know. And it’s very rollover. You have say Lady Gaga or something, but then further down the line we have all these people who are on some celebrity beach or something, kissed someone, fine, they’ve got their 15 seconds. I mean, fame’s very interesting. It doesn’t exist really. But people put so much value to it. People even who would pretend they aren’t interested, are interested. If J.Lo came in there right now, we might not give a fuck about J.Lo, but we’d both be having a look, you know what I mean?
THIRSTY: Talk to me about your relationship with Johnny Thunders. I love what you wrote about him. What was it like being Johnny’s friend? And to work with him?
BP Fallon: “So Alone” is a brilliant record. It was a nightmare to make. Well, first of all, Johnny had the songs. Secondly, the ability, both instrumentally and vocally, charismatically. We made sure that he had a very good support team, with Steve and Paul from the Pistols, Chrissie Hynde, Peter Perrett and Steve Marriott, so there were very good people around to, not help him, because that sounds too pathetic, but to bring even more magic to the situation. And it worked. And Johnny would always say it was his best record. It’s a great record, very good record. Once you hear “Pipeline” you know. It’s great. That’s a good band - Phil Lynott, Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Johnny Thunders, you know. Fantastic. Phil wasn’t sure about coming down. I rang him up. His wife Carol and I talked him into it.
Karen Elson: The Ghost Who Walks
THIRSTY: Was Johnny messed up the whole time?
BP Fallon: You mean was he on heroin?
BP Fallon: (long pause) Pretty much.
THIRSTY: And that affected the way you worked.
BP Fallon: Well, heroin effects everything. It’s not recommended. It’s very dark fucking stuff. And Johnny was a junkie, you know. As much as he was passion and in love with the music, unless the heroin situation was sorted out every day the music couldn’t happen. And that’s pathetic. You know. It’s very time consuming as well.
THIRSTY: Did you spend a lot of time with him outside the studio?
BP Fallon: Yeah.
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He was a lovely man, you see. Very, very nice man. Self-obsessed like all artists. And sometimes his interest in additioning himself with narcotics, it’s not the best thing for character. But he was a nice man. He was a rogue, as well. I mean, I’d always read it, you know what I mean? And he’d sit down and start talking in a particular voice which meant he wanted money. You know, you’d know this was coming up. But he wouldn’t know you’d know. And then there you go again, with big eyes, you know. Artists! They turn into children if you let them. “I can’t do this, I can’t do that.” Well, I’m not going to do it for you, so you’re going to have to do it.
THIRSTY: Do you have a favorite memory with Johnny?
BP Fallon: Oh, we had laughs many a times, you know. That day sitting in Dublin was very nice, actually, when we were listening to old tracks and new tracks of his. He was over in Ireland just sitting there in the sunlight, and it was lovely. It was the last time I saw him. (long pause) But in a situation like that you just do your best. But it was hard work. Heartbreaking sometimes.
THIRSTY: “So Alone” is such a beautiful, emotive song.
BP Fallon: Well, I wanted that on the (record) originally, as an additional track. And he wouldn’t, he didn’t want it. It’s not really finished but it is as is, you know. “The Wizard”, I play the harmonica and sing on that. Very good record. Looks great and everything. Johnny was very stylish, you know, very stylish man. Even in his haze, you know. I loved Johnny. He was a rogue but I loved him.
THIRSTY: What is your idea of romance?
BP Fallon: Very good question. The tingle of being alive, I’d imagine. Are you looking for me to say lying on the beach covered in roses or something? I think romance is in everything. I like romance. I like it. I don’t believe women and men are the same. They’re not. I think that’s the whole point. You know. And I’m a bit non-PC sometimes. I like to open the door for a woman, or to stand up or something. It’s very un-PC because you’re not meant to do that, because we’re all the same you know? But we’re not. They say a lady should never touch a handle.
THIRSTY: Do you have a favorite sound?
BP Fallon: Well, I like guitars. I like rock n’ roll. I don’t have a favorite sound like dripping water, you know. I do actually like the sound of streams, because it’s very soothing. I have sounds I don’t like. I don’t like intrusive mechanical sounds when I’m not in that mode. I like the birds singing.
Agyness Deyn and Alison Mosshart
THIRSTY: Tell me about your work with the Kills. How did you first meet Alison and Jaime?
BP Fallon: I met them when they started off, at a Death Disco in London and we’ve sort of known each other since then, you know, and I’ve always liked them. I think they’re tremendous, and people would say to me, ‘it’s a guy and a girl and it’s very limited and they could be, a few people could like them but it’s not really going to happen, you know.’ And I said, ‘I don’t agree.’ And it has happened. They’re really, really good. Very, very great. Very good onstage. Very, sexual tension. It’s brilliant. When I went to see the Dead Weather afterwards I said to Alison and Jack White, I said, ‘you know, I didn’t really want to like this band and I know why now. Because I love the Kills so much I think it was territorial pissings. I was jealous that Alison might be whisked away and it would ruin the Kills.’ I’ve now realized that they’re actually bringing something to the table and adding more, you know. It’s an extension of one thing to another. It doesn’t negate the first one. So I’m very excited to see them. So I started djing with them here and there basically. Here or in London and Ireland.
THIRSTY: Do you have a favorite Kills song?
BP Fallon: I like “Fuck the People”. I like “No Wow”. I like tons of them actually.
THIRSTY: “Pull A U” is my favorite. Especially live. Jaime always does this thing where he kicks one leg out and slides it back in. Some of those songs… you just need to listen to those in the dark. Can you tell me about your relationship with Dee Dee Ramone? You told a great story about being here at the Chelsea Hotel with him (http://www.bpfallon.com/article_dee_dee.html).
BP Fallon: True. He was just standing out there when I arrived. “Hello.” Ah, Dee Dee Ramone. I met him, I probably met him in London I suppose. I do remember introducing Marc Bolan to the Ramones and they were so thrilled. There’s a great picture of Joey just grabbing Marc’s hand. Joey was a glam kid from Queens. Platform heels, the hair and everything. I toured twice with the Ramones not working with the Ramones but working with the band that was working with the Ramones. The first time was the Ramones and the Boomtown Rats and Talking Heads did a tour in England. This was after the Roundhouse. It was the first time the Talking Heads came over and the first gigs the Rats ever did. And then another one with this chap called Snips. And they were fantastic, the Ramones. They were just, they were the snarling engine of a Phil Spector record without the sweetening.
BP Fallon, Jeff Dexter, Marc Bolan,
Johnnie Fingers, Bob Geldof
(credit: Kevin Cummins, 1977)
And Joey was very romantic. You asked me earlier what’s my idea of romance, you know? Joey was very, very romantic.
If you listen to “Baby, I Love You” it’s beautiful. And so many of their songs. “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend”. Fantastic. Just fantastic. It wasn’t just - you know, people say Led Zeppelin was a heavy metal group, fuck off. It’s much wider than that. The Ramones were much wider than just 1-2-3-4. Dee Dee was a fantastic lyricist, in a way there’s a sort of loose parallel with Brian Wilson. You know, when he was deemed to be gone with the wind to perform with the band, they could still (use his) songwriting. And Dee Dee is a very good songwriter. Really good. If you read “Please Kill Me”, which I’m sure everyone reading this piece has, and if you haven’t you should, it’s all a history of punk starting with the Velvets and the Stooges and so on, and half the people are dead on heroin. Literally. It’s fucking pathetic. Stupid. It’s about time people learned. If I look at “So Alone”, because Johnny’s dead, you know, Jerry’s dead. Steve Marriott’s dead. Phil Lynott is dead. And these are comparatively young people. Silly. It is a waste, yeah. I mean, Johnny had it all. He had the songs, he had the look, he had the pizzazz, he had the style, he had the cockiness. No one played guitar like him. But he was, underneath all of that, terrified and insecure.
THIRSTY: And you think that’s how Dee Dee was as well?
BP Fallon and his band
(credit: Bob Gruen)
BP Fallon: I think all artists have that in them, I think that’s why they’re artists. And I think it’s more easy for them to go into dark corners because they see it as some sort of foundation. They feel comfortable. But it’s only internal, and it doesn’t go past your eyeballs and into the world. You’re sitting there with the building falling on top of you and shit in your pants and it doesn’t matter because you feel fine. You can’t run your life like that.
THIRSTY: You never went down that road, did you?
BP Fallon: It’s not the sort of thing I like to do. I wouldn’t say I’ve never done anything, but you know, if you’re half intelligent and you have a survival instinct, after awhile you realize what works for you and what doesn’t. I’m not stupid, you know. And life is too precious for me to piss on it. It’s the reason I’m here and other people aren’t. They were less irresponsible if you like to call it than me. And why? I don’t know.