A MOSTLY UNEDITED CONVERSATION WITH CHUCK JONES ABOUT SOME OF THE THINGS THAT HE DOES, WITH SINGING
(Chuck Jones has a cozy apartment in Chicago’s Logan Square. He lives with his wife, Kim, and his three pets; Frank, a dog, Michael, a cat, and Sailor, another cat. "Sailor is gay," says Chuck. Frank barks at me for a long time after I step into the room. Chuck assures me that Frank is a friendly dog, but I keep my distance. Dogs have never liked me, as much as I might want them to.
The purpose of my trip is to see Chuck’s
latest video, 50 + 1, and to talk to him about his latest project, called Changing
The Shape Of Dinner Tonight. ("50+1 is a collage of 51 one minute clips
from films shot–or said to be shot–in each of the fifty states,
plus Washington D.C. at the end. Consisting of mostly Hollywood films, the video
is punctuated by documentaries, independent and otherwise.[a complete list of
clips can be found "States" of Babygorillla.com]) After we watch the
movie we sit down at Chuck’s computer and talk. The first question I ask
is about a Public Service Announcement which appeared after the movie. It is
a picture of House Speaker Henry Hyde (R, Illinois) interspersed with the phrase
"Do I make you horny baby?")
GREG: Did you make that after the election? The 2000 Presidential election, I think.
CHUCK: Before, but I have a thing about Henry Hyde.
GREG: Well, he’s not the best guy in the world.
CHUCK: Yeah, there are other people who are worse, like Bob Barr–a bigot–and Tom Delay, but unfortunately he’s getting more press now so that’s a little outdated. People didn’t know who he was before so I just wanted people to know who he was.
GREG: "Forget about Jesse Helms. I’m your crazy daddy now. I’m Tom Delay, the majority whip." Ha ha. So, this is a difficult project. I’m assuming you started this right before the election.
CHUCK: No, I’ve been working on this for three years. Here, I’ve got some bumper stickers…
GREG: Okay, the point of this one–it says Abortion–the point of this one is that it’s just completely noncommittal.
CHUCK: First of all, it’s using 1980’s women’s clinics colors. Abortions rights people don’t generally use the word "abortion," anti-choice people always use the word "abortion". Or, like, "Ten thousand babies dead this day from choice." It’s using the aesthetics from both sides but it’s not really saying anything. You know, people put that on the back of their car and the people behind them aren’t going to have any idea what they stand for. Plus that font–you know, you’ll see them on the trains–"Pregnant? Scared? We have information about abortion choices" but it’s really just a place where they give you a drug store pregnancy test and show you The Silent Scream.
GREG: I don’t see you doing the same thing in the bumper stickers as I see you doing in the PSAs. The PSAs are a little bit more explicit.
CHUCK: The PSAs are very pointed but the bumper stickers, because they have a very specific…um…they’re always pointed, they’re always, "My child and money go to Northwestern University"…um, like, "The more I know people the more I like my dog."
GREG: But with the PSAs you’re robbing the aesthetic to make your own point.
CHUCK: Here’s the game plan for the whole project. I’m trying not to make any more new pieces for it. I’m trying to finish all of the pieces I’ve started. There’s the two videos: 50 + 1 and the Public Service Announcements; I’m writing a new song for each of the 50 states and that’s going to be on a new CD or a series of CDs, there’s going to be the postcards and the bumper stickers, whatever those end up being. Everything ends up going into a tote bag because it’s a more leftist use of packaging as opposed to the box…
GREG: You were saying that the box is more for the rich, like a humidor…
CHUCK: Yeah. But, you know, PBS has a tote bag…
GREG: It’s the first line of promotion for non-profit organizations…
CHUCK: There’s something about the reusable packaging, like the community vegetable co-op. The Hyde Park Co-Op has a tote bag…at least, I think they have a tote bag…maybe Tacoma Park has one…
GREG: Tote bags are for people who have to walk to where they’re going.
CHUCK: Yes. They’re not driving. Though the bumper stickers, they are for people who are driving, so... There are also going to be a few wall hangings, sort of like these [points to a series of large pink rabbit heads cut from wood] which are cut-outs of the United States.
GREG: In the shape of the state-states, or…?
CHUCK: Like in the PSAs where there’s no text but just an amorphous blob representing the United States and you sort of lose focus. You know it’s the United States but you don’t really know. The shape is not quite right. Here’s an example, I’m thinking of giving these to Karl [shows me two amorphous but vaguely US-shaped drawings]. I’ll cut these out on a nice hardwood, maybe walnut.
GREG: What’s the name of this project again?
CHUCK: Uh, let’s see… change…change the shape…shit…Changing the Shape of Dinner Tonight. Which is from a box of pasta. Uh, let’s see here. Then, I was going to have a fake straight-edge band. Straight edge bands always have three other things going on, one being straight-edge, and then, two can either be Hare Krishna, or eco-terrorism, or, uh…
GREG: Food not bombs.
CHUCK: Yeah, Food not Bombs, or Earth Crisis. So the thing I had was, one was straight edge, and then you’ve got love for the elderly and fire safety.
Here’s one of the songs right here, called CMD, you know, for Carbon Monoxide Detector:
I can’t see it!
I can’t smell it!
But what is this gas that I’m breathing?
It’s choking me!
Cutting off my lungs!
If I only had a detector!
What is the price of my health?
If I only had detector!
Maybe I could make it out!
There’s one. Here’s Smoke Alarm:
Everyday lives are lost!
I’m not going to die in my sleep
because I’ve got a nine volt battery keeping watch!
Smoke Kill, but I’m armed!
Fight the smoke with Smoke Alarms!
Every night lives are lost!
I’m not going to choke in my sleep
because I’ve got a nine volt battery watching my back!
"Watching my back" is a really big straight-edge phrase:
Smoke kills but I’m charmed!
I fight the smoke with smoke alarms!
Where there’s smoke
Where there’s smoke
There’s also Do You Know Your
Way Out of the House and Stop, Drop and Roll. I worked for a punk rock record
distributor for five months, Rotz Records, which was a terrible, terrible place.
We, the staff, liked to sneak up behind people and push them in the back and
yell, "youfuckedup!" in a German accent because our boss was German.
Ha ha. I don’t think that any of the co-workers even speak to each other
GREG: Are these going into the tote bag?
CHUCK: No, these I haven’t even begun yet.
GREG: It’s interesting that you would take from this aesthetic. I wouldn’t say I really grew up with it, but I would say that a lot of my friends were indebted to Ian MacKaye…
CHUCK: I've met him.
CHUCK: Yeah, I'm friends with his sister, Amanda, went to my high school.
GREG: So, what is the cost of producing one of these sets?
CHUCK: Well, there are two different issues. One is, I want people to buy it. The Box Set [a wonderful collection of 4 CD's, a video, a one hundred page booklet and a T-shirt all documenting/celebrating the position of authority, via volume and repetition, in communication–eds.] was two hundred dollars and I’m sure I lost a couple thousand bucks, you know, and this one I think is going to be more.
GREG: The last one was the one…
CHUCK: Yeah, it’s the one you reviewed in New Art Examiner. So, only three people bought it, and I gave bits and pieces of it away to different people that I was indebted to for some reason or another. I don’t know, I can’t really factor cost into it. I’m not one of the artists I know who actually sells their work. For instance, Stephanie Brooks sells enough of her work to almost break even. That’s a sign of success for me. Breaking even is good. Okay. There is also a book. A hundred-page book that explains the entire project. Here I’ve got some letters to Henry Hyde. (reads letters, one of which urges Hyde to throw himself into a dark well with the other House leaders and begs them to start devouring each other).
CHUCK: It is vitriolic.. I don’t know. He’s just a penis. And it’s sort of the glowing, happy, fat Santa guy thing he’s got going…
GREG: Just like lots of people in Congress, really.
CHUCK: Yeah. Let me play you some of the songs…
GREG: Before you do that, I want to know what songs you listened to when you were a kid, when you were younger. I see a lot of heavy metal, a lot of this sort of punk rock.
CHUCK: It’s sort of where I am now. It’s also the music I can play well. My mom’s a piano teacher and my dad was a semi-deaf man who could sing. He would sing hymns. But like every male in America I always had a band. All of us had a band. Were you in a band?
GREG: I was in a band called The Storks.
CHUCK: I was in a band called The Grateful Testicles. (To Kim) Hey, you going out? (To Frank) You wanna go out? You wanna go out, buddy?
GREG: Look how happy.
CHUCK: Hey, buddy! Hey, buddy!
GREG: Look at this. Frank hates me.
CHUCK: No, no, he doesn’t. Really, truly.
KIM: It takes him a while to warm up to people.
CHUCK: Also, we didn’t give you any cheese to feed him.
GREG: Oh. Well, either way, I like Frank. Bye, Frank.
CHUCK: Bye, buddy.
GREG: Okay, I’m thinking The Sweetest Part of the Leaf [one of the CD's in The Boxed Set, consisting of one 74 minute track of a live band playing the riff for Black Sabbath's Sweet Leaf over and over–eds.] and all the heavy metal in the PSAs.
CHUCK: Recently I’ve fallen more in love with Black Sabbath.
GREG: It’s good stuff.
CHUCK: It’s good stuff and it’s really heavy in the right way and the lyrics are just terrible, just unbelievably horrible.
GREG: (singing) "Fairies wear boots and you’ve got to believe me…"
CHUCK: Just horrible. Oh God. They recently went on tour again, not only did the drummer have a heart attack, but Ozzy Osbourne had to use a TelePrompTer. Now with the State Songs that I’m writing I’m trying to stay away from the Punk and metal. Maryland has a punk rock song. Washington DC has a version of NIB from Black Sabbath as if it had been recorded by Fugazi, which is going to be hard…
GREG: Who’s Marilyn?
CHUCK: Maryland is going to have this Seattle rock…
GREG: Wait, who’s this Marilyn again?
GREG: Oh, Mary-land, sure. Maryland.
CHUCK: Maryland. Yeah. Maryland. Maryland. Yeah. But a lot of the State Songs are going to be choir pieces.
GREG: Okay, I really want to know what Michigan sounds like.
CHUCK: Well, here it is now. I made it on the Rebirth™, which is a drum machine program that mimics the Roland 303/808, but I used it wrongly. But it sort of goes like this. Come on, play, you fucker… wait a minute, I have to do one thing… I find these to be more like electronica (Michigan State Song starts, sounds like something off of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports).
GREG: This doesn’t sound like Michigan. I don’t think of Michigan as being that ambient.
CHUCK: No, it’s not. Sometimes I’m playing against the state. Here’s Georgia. (Plays something similar but with crows cawing and bees buzzing in the background).
GREG: Got it.
CHUCK: Yeah, but most of them don’t sound like that. The rest of the ones that don’t have lyrics sound much happier. Here’s New Hampshire, which doesn’t have lyrics yet. It’s a sea shanty. (Plays New Hampshire–it sounds like a sea shanty). Arkansas has lyrics, but it’s only one line, "Arkansas, Heiny-hole." I want an old man to sing it, like, "AR-kan-saaaw, HI-nee-hooooo" (Plays Arkansas, a swing blues).
GREG: Oh, I see. (Singing, to music)"AR-kan-saaaw…"
TOGETHER: "…HI-nee-hooooo, AR-kan-saaaw, HI-nee-hooooo…"
GREG: That’s good stuff.
CHUCK: Yeah, but do the drums sound like a drum machine?
GREG: They seem just enough not like a drum machine to sound good but just enough like a drum machine to sound like a part of this project.
CHUCK: Check it out. (Plays Arkansas again, listens). All right, I can’t figure it out. One of the upsetting things about this project is that I had already started, I had four or five songs already written when John Linnell of They Might Be Giants released a State Song CD with 14 of the state songs. He got on the radio and they talked about it almost exactly the way I had been thinking about it at that time, which was that State Songs, all in all, are sort of inane. They were all written at about the same time when State Songs were fashionable, and all the lyrics are sort of, you know, "Delaware, we praise you from one place in Delaware to another place in Delaware," and they all have a Sousaesque sound without being as good as Sousa. It may be cliché now, but he’s good, and the rest of them just aren’t.
(We listen to a few more State Songs, together, in relative silence).
CHUCK: This is what I do. I’m always pointing to or playing the work so I don’t have to talk about it. I suppose we don’t really have much of an interview, yet.
GREG: No, I wouldn’t say that. So what did this project start with?
CHUCK: There’s a line that I’ve been telling myself, and I tend to remember it and forget it. Ah…(long pause). Just, I like America. But I hate Patriotic America.
GREG: Have you been to all 50 states?
CHUCK: No, not nearly.
(Discussion about politics ensues. Chuck really does hate patriotism. We both agree that Clinton’s worst move was to sign the Welfare Reform bill. We talk a little bit about the video, about how Chuck wants it to be "an emotional portrait of America," but since the movie is taken from perfectly-edited one-minute clips of films representing each of the 50 states plus Washington DC, the subject of the conversation quickly winds up being about the kind of movies we like. Then, I remember that I’m supposed to interview him, and so I play the game where I give him a name and he’s supposed to free-associate. But by that time we’re both getting a little bit bored, so I go home because Chuck has another interview to do at 10:00. I make sure to say good-bye to Frank, who seems to have calmed down a bit.)
3/29/02 Chuck Jones writes:
"While I'm not exactly sure when we did this interview, it was certainly months before the terrorist attacks. Since the bombings, I've realized that I can never again have a pre-bombing response. When you write state songs about revolutionary assassination (in accordance with the current state song for Maryland), or produce posters comparing the United States with a drunk and abusive husband ("Nice When Sober." and "Butthole Patriot"), you can expect that after this attack you and your work might be considered suspect. After the attacks, we got to see (and still see) the best and worst parts of the United States bubble up to the surface. Exhibit A, White House Spokesman Ari Fleisher warned Americans to "watch what you say," while extremists were murdering Arabs, Seiks, and Hindu citizens in cold blood. Exhibit B, people died in order to save others from a fiery end; people in Montana prayed for New Yorkers; oceans of needed blood was donated.
Still I believe that I was not alone with being super uncomfortable about all of the flags and pins and the "dead or alive" business. In many ways, I feel that the way a vast and vocal population of this country acted after the bombing has validated my prior feelings; as Robert Hanson, the FBI traitor wrote to his Russian/Soviet handlers "The U.S. can be errantly likened to a powerfully built but retarded child, potentially dangerous, but young, immature and easily manipulated. But don't be fooled by that appearance. It is also one which can turn ingenious quickly, like an idiot savant, once convinced of a goal."
Also I now have a website, www.babygorilla.com where all of the recordings mentioned above can be found.
Thank you for your time.