“Heaven must be similar to a recovery meeting or a bingo hall”: in which we talk with the songwriter about his recent memoir, his post-GOR trajectory, and how an “expat reprobate broke-ass writer” wound up on Oaxaca, Mexico.
BY FRED MILLS
While billed as “a false memoir,” The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings (published by the book wing of Britain’s Cadiz Music) contains nary a bum note. Oh sure, author Dan Stuart, who steered proto-Americana rockers Green On Red throughout the college rock years and into the early alternative rock era until the band dissolved in a haze of drugs and diminishing artistic returns in the early ‘90s, does take frequent literary liberties throughout this often-provocative, sometimes-harrowing, consistently-entertaining 150-page volume. Practically everyone, from bandmembers to roadies to girlfriends to record company folks, is given a nom du rawk; for example, Stuart becomes the titular Marlowe Billings, his Green On Red cohort Chuck Prophet is “Billy” (no surprise there: GoR fans often referred to the guitar-slinging Prophet as “Billy the Kid”), and Memphis producer Jim Dickinson becomes “Bubba,” appropriately enough for the Southern sonic savant. Certain timelines and events get compressed or altered, presumably in the interest of narrative efficiency or poetic license; the sections featuring the aforementioned Bubba might appear to be detailing a recording session, but in fact Dickinson worked with GoR over the course of two albums, while the ’86 Farm Aid the band performed at is fancifully described here as “Cowboy Longhair’s festival to save the narwhals or something.”
None of that is off-putting, however. In fact, for a reader already familiar with the general Green On Red history, and certainly for fans who know the entire good/bad/ugly of that story (I fall into the latter category – for proof, go HERE to read my BLURT feature on the band, and check out some audio and video treats as well), his “false memoir” aspect of the book is key to its appeal, rock fandom-wise. I mean, who needs another tired tale about a band that forms, catches a popularity wave, and rides it until the inevitable crash and damaged dissolution arrives, including the equally inevitable collateral damage that accrues in its wake? That’s 99.9% of rock groups anyway. So what Stuart has done is latched onto a means of making the story fresh, narrating from a matter-of-fact, unsentimental 1st person perspective (as any good memoir or autobiography must be narrated) and lending the yarn a kind of noir-ish sheen—that’s clear at the outset, with the hard-boiled moniker he gives himself—and following it through to his ultimate “deliverance,” in this case a serious drug addiction, precious few friends left, and a trip to a psychiatric facility.
Billings/Stuart provides some fascinating snapshots of the late ‘70s punk scene in Tucson, where he grew up and eventually formed The Serfers, later rechristened Green On Red when the band moved to L.A. to seek fame and fortune. (Intriguingly, Tucson landmarks such as local clubs and music gear shop the Chicago Store retain their real names for the book. It’s also worth noting that there are a number of actual archival snapshots included, many of them photos of the bandmembers.) Soon enough, the group’s star begins to rise as they record an album for the “Trash” label—that would be Slash Records—and then graduate to a succession of larger, better funded ones. Touring is initially a whirlwind of chaotic fun, at least until fissures emerge among the personalities to take their collective toll upon the band, which finally splits up, leaving Billings and Billy to work with hired hands. But by the time the concluding pages draw near, music has taken a distant back seat to drugs, the pair sometimes reduced to scoring dubious-quality dope from squirrelly street junkies. Billings is strung out at his own wedding; Billy overdoses in a hotel room and has to be slapped back to consciousness by Billings. Somehow they still manage to land record deals, cut albums and tour, but like with any good crime novel, you sense that these characters are on their own personal highways to hell.
Danny Stuart once told me, either during a phone conversation or down at the record store in Tucson where I worked during the ‘90s, that he was “not a recovering anything.” In the context of his then-recent history he meant that he didn’t necessarily subscribe to the 12-step philosophy, that he viewed himself as simply haven beaten his drug addiction while still taking full ownership of his weaknesses and all the shitty things he’d done over the years. More recently, in the foreword to Marlowe Billings he admits that he’s “not a particularly nice person,” adding, of the book, “There is no real plot because I refuse to put a false arc on these events in order to make it all digestible to middlebrow sludge. If you’re fine with all that then read on, friend, read on. If not, put the book down and pick up some other post-punk tale of sin and redemption. You’ll find none of that here, I promise.” (Emphasis Stuart’s.)
That’s for sure. It’s no coincidence that Keith Richards’ recent memoir was judged so entertaining by fans and critics: in refusing to give in to his own temptation for revisionist history, Richards came across as candid and honest, a tell-it-like-it-really-was kinda guy. Likewise, by steering clear of those sin/redemption clichés that mark most celebrity “survival” stories, Stuart has done the rock-lit world a favor. His warts-and-all (some would say, “syringe-and-all”) style of storytelling may seem excessively grim and depressing, but hey, sorry to break the news to ya kids, but rock ‘n’ roll is populated by a lot of losers, misfits, egomaniacs and outright sociopaths who’ve committed far worse crimes against kith and kin than Stuart. So next time you read one of those survival yarns in which the artist emerges from rehab at the end of the book and, having seen the light and the error of his/her ways, pledges to go out and make the world a better place, squint at it with a big side order of salt ‘cos they’re just reciting from a script and trust me, you’ve seen this movie before.
I’ll take a dose of deliverance over a routine redemption any day.
Meanwhile, as Stuart and I initially met back in the mid ‘80s and since then, apparently discoving in one another semi-kindred spirits, have communed in some form or fashion at least once every ten years, we agreed that now would be a good juncture to discuss his book. Email is a beautiful thing, especially when one guy (me) is in North Carolina and has to get up early and get a kid off to school, and the other guy lives in Oaxaca, Mexico (him) and, per the “musicians hours” dictate, probably sleeps late…
BLURT: Okay, so roughly outline for our readers what you’ve been doing since I last saw you at the Tucson Green On Red reunion show in 2005…
DAN STUART: After GOR played some shows in 2005 I wrote a few tunes and took ’em to Chuck but he wisely thought GOR shouldn’t record again. Very few have pulled that off, maybe Wire. At the same time I’m like, well fuck, I wonder if I miss recording so I took a couple of those tunes to Steve Wynn who had just broken his ankle and was laid up in upper Manhattan. We wrote for awhile and that became the second Danny & Dusty record [2007’s Cast Iron Soul] that was completely ignored in the land of Americana, go figure.
Then I’m like, double-fuck, I’ve always wanted to play in an art band so I started The Slummers with JD Foster and we made this cool record [2010’s Love of the Amateur]with the founding members of Sacri Cuori, toured a little and even less people cared. At that point my marriage imploded and my brain broke and Antonio Gramentieri from Sacri Cuori told me I was a pussy and just needed to make a solo record, quit hiding behind shit, and Jack Waterson from GOR concurred so we cut The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings album with those guys producing and one thing led to another… that’s how I became an expat reprobate broke-ass writer living in Oaxaca.
Sacri Cuori was the band for most of the record; they are this mostly instrumental ensemble from Romagna Italy that inhabit a post WWII cultural space between Italy and the rest of the world… they’re like a buffer or righteous diplomats or something. Very rarefied but not pretentious in the least. They turned me on to Paolo Conte and racchettoni and taught me not to eat bread with pasta… I learned to play and laugh again and I taught ’em a little about rock n roll, how to offend yourself basically. Those guys saved me.
When and why did you decide to move to Mexico? Too many ghosts in Tucson (or skeletons in the desert)?
I’m a dutiful husband… I was told to leave so I did, after twenty years with La Españnola, the last 8 in NYC. We had lived in Tucson for eight years before that after moving from Madrid… never go home, that’s all I can tell ya. Once gone stay git. As for NYC, I couldn’t have caught it at a worse time… or it me.
How did the Marlowe CD segue into this book, or was it the other way around? Your foreword has a 2010 dateline.
Well,  is when it became publishable, I guess, you know how it goes. I had been writing it for awhile, just these little vignettes that are tied together in a gnarly knot… that was the tricky part. The Marlowe record was cut pretty much the same time as the book was being written, it was all part of the same thing… regurgitation of self.
How did the project initially come about and subsequently evolve? That’s a pretty hardboiled name, by the way.
“Marlowe Billings” has been around for ages… back to The Serfers [Green On Red’s original name] I think, maybe before. There’s this line from my teenage years: “I hunted grunion in my prime”… well, that’s Marlowe.
Conversely I’m completely against “name hogs”… you know, musicians who go by all these different names… I just record or write under my own name, but make no mistake, Marlowe is always hovering, jealous even. Shit, I forgot about Danny & Dusty… scratch that. Ha!
The most obvious question is why did you choose the “false memoir” aspect – altered names, compression of certain events, etc. – and had you ever considered doing an actual rock ‘n’ roll-type novel “loosely based on real events” so to speak instead? The fact that many of the personalities in the book can be teased out pretty easily by someone familiar with the GoR backstory suggests to me that this wasn’t done to ward off slander lawsuits or keep feathers from being ruffled… and in fact, for me at least, half the fun was reading between the lines.
Yeah an editor at [Serpent’s Tale books] said I was gonna get sued anyway, just lay it all out. But that’s not the point, I wasn’t writing history, or an autobiography… more a roman á clef. The book is just a little French dagger, that’s all it is. I tried to write it like a good punk song, linear yet sometimes obtuse. I wasn’t trying to be cute, I name some people and others I don’t… Why? I have no idea.
“Deliverance” versus “sin and redemption”: I think you draw a pretty clear line in the sand with that distinction. I don’t think the world needs another typical fresh-outta-rehab-and-planning-to-be-a-productive-citizen celebrity memoir anyhow. Discuss.
It’s interesting… deliverance does not translate well into Latin languages. It means a liberation of some sort, or a getting ready for, like marinating meat, but for what exactly… being put on the coals? No, I don’t believe in redemption… from what, pray tell? “Amazing Grace” is a great song, but such bullshit… “a wretch like me”? Really? ‘Cause you want to fuck and scheme and get as high as you can while there’s still time? Heaven must be similar to a recovery meeting or a bingo hall … do I really wanna be here with this bunch? I’m happy to burn, the movies will be much better down there.
You don’t pull many, if any, punches, and you’re pretty hard on yourself too. Without asking a clichéd question like, “Was the book cathartic to you?” I would be curious to know some of the emotions that got stirred up in the process.
I wrote a lot of it in a “severe depressive episode,” as the shrinks say, so the catharsis of it was the actual doing. I loved going to different cafes in Oaxaca and spending the afternoon doing this one little thing, writing and revising a book that appealed to no one but myself in that particular moment. It’s the ultimate subversion, mostly pointless but who cares? Darby was right: “What we do is secret.”
What kind of feedback, if any, have you gotten from people who appear in the book – especially Chuck, Chris or Jack?
Oh the boys have been very supportive. They know I’m a psychotic hypocrite but love me nonetheless. It’s hard for outsiders to know how deep it all goes; we’re brothers to the end. A few of the other characters read it before release, I thought that only fair. I might add that Cliff Green provided invaluable photos as did some other photographers, that was my one concession I guess for a more entertaining book… without those images the humanity in it might have been impossible to discern.
Lastly, the inevitable, “What’s next for you?” question. What are you doing these days in Mexico, and what kind of music-making is on tap?
Well I played about 50 gigs this last year, mostly in Europe, hope to keep playing as long as people still give a shit. Some shows were with Chris, Chuck and Jack, all individually, pretty special for me. I also have recorded 20 songs or so recently that are in different stages of undress around the world… some are in the hands of Sacri Cuori in Italy while others I cut in Mexico City with Twin Tones, another fabulous band.
I’m finishing a second book, Marlowe’s search for a just demise in Mexico, not an easy task. It’s all completely unsustainable but what isn’t nowadays? I don’t fear the future, death is our friend, enjoy the now… Mexico has taught me that.