Henry Rosenthal might just be West Coast punk’s Renaissance Man. One-time drummer for the legendary S.F. punk band Crime, he has had an amazingly varied creative career. Before his life of Crime, he was part of an avant garde musical group and a medieval music ensemble, collected art. Since Crime’s demise, he has produced and made numerous documentary films, including the award-winning The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Gregory Daurer spoke to Rosenthal for PKM about his eclectic career, and his most recent projects on Bill Nye The Science Guy and Stewart Brand and his Whole Earth Catalog.
Before Henry S. Rosenthal became a notable American underground film producer, he was drummer Hank Rank in the seminal 1970s San Francisco punk act Crime. Combining the former – his film-wrangling talent – with the latter – his musical history – Rosenthal has fittingly overseen the 2019 release of San Francisco’s First and Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Movie: Crime 1978, a short film featuring Crime tearing-it-up live at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens, that early seismic-epicenter of Bay Area punk. Superior Viaduct has released a DVD of the film, accompanied by two 7″ records containing the concert. And there are plans to tour the film, perhaps accompanied by…a Crime cover band from Los Angeles?!
Although credited as being among the earliest of West Coast punk bands (the band’s single “Hot Wire My Heart”/”Baby You’re So Repulsive” was released in late ’76), Crime dubbed themselves, rather, as “San Francisco’s First and Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Band.” They combined antagonistic bravado, a rebellious sound, and natty styling – playing, early on, in leather jackets and, later, in police uniforms (among other threads). Crime has subsequently gone on to worldwide recognition as an elegantly-sleazy emblem of first generation punk rock. Rosenthal has been interviewed about the band for the zine Ugly Things, as well as for the book Gimme Something Better, an oral history of Bay Area punk. Speaking here with PKM, Rosenthal provides additional insights into the group. (Rosenthal has also played with the experimental musical aggregation Other Music; with the late Johnny Strike, his onetime Crime bandmate, in the group Naked Beast; and with the jug band Poontang Wranglers.)
With over two dozen movie credits under his belt, Rosenthal’s film production work has included: The Devil and Daniel Johnston; Author: The JT LeRoy Story; Welcome to Nollywood; Bill Nye: Science Guy; Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story; and Jeff, Embrace Your Past, an examination of artist Jeff Koons. The world premiere of We Are As Gods takes place at SXSW in March. Rosenthal also collaborated with the late artist and underground filmmaker Bruce Conner, who created music videos for both Devo and David Byrne-Brian Eno; Rosenthal penned a remembrance included within It’s All True, a retrospective look at Conner’s artistic career. And then there is that controversial 1996 Marilyn Manson video that Rosenthal helmed.
Rosenthal, 64, spoke by phone for this wide-ranging conversation from his eclectic home in San Francisco, while sitting behind his storied desk, within the same building-complex as his collection of two-headed stuffed calves.
PKM: Congratulations on getting this Crime film released. I enjoyed it. It’s been a long time in the making, hasn’t it?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yeah, that it has. I’m glad you got a kick out of it. I just got back from showing it at a festival in Petaluma, and it went over really well. The event, when we showed it in San Francisco, was spectacular! And the film is taking on a life of its own. We’re getting requests to show it around the country. And then, the emergence of this mysterious Crime tribute band [Crimewave], kind of coincidentally with the exhibition of the film, is getting everybody excited about booking the show as a unit. And it’s quite something.
PKM: What do you find mysterious about the tribute band? You know who they are!
Henry S. Rosenthal: I do. But they formed for Halloween…And they had no idea that the Crime film existed or anything. They were just picking one of their favorite bands – an obscure band, they thought, that nobody in attendance – or very few people – would know who they were. They did it for a Halloween show in Los Angeles, and then the word got back to somebody at Amoeba Music, and [the band] got contacted and [asked], “How would you guys like to come up [to San Francisco] and play this Crime movie night?” And they said, “Wait, Crime is making a movie?!” And [the Amoeba people] said, “No, Crime made a movie! It’s done. Do you want to play?” And they said, “Hell, yes!” And they piled in a car and came up and played to a packed house. It just was a beautiful night, and it all came together.
PKM: Were there attendees who had been Crime devotees, at one time?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Oh yes, many. Many people who were actually in the film were in the audience.
PKM: Well, it’s good that some of them survived.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yes, that’s a good thing.
PKM: We’ll come back to Crime in just a moment. But I always like to ask people where they came up. You grew up in Cincinnati, didn’t you?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yes.
PKM: From what I’ve read, your father was a big pop art collector.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Well, he was an art collector – more of a modern art collector. He famously bought the first [Campbell’s] Soup Can that Warhol sold out of Warhol’s first one-man show in Los Angeles – that was [Warhol’s] first one-man show, period. My father happened to be visiting Los Angeles, and went to the gallery, and, sort of, on a lark, bought this painting that turned out to be quite historical. But that, I believe, was my father’s only foray into pop art. I started collecting pop art when I was very young, when I was 10. And that was more of my specialty.
PKM: And who were your favorite artists besides Warhol?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Well, my first purchase was a Roy Lichtenstein. And I followed that with a purchase of a piece by an artist I loved – and love to this day – a lesser-known artist named Ernest Trova; he was a St. Louis artist who was a second-tier pop artist, at the time, and never really broke through to the level of Warhol or Lichtenstein and the like. But I loved Oldenburg and Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns – I loved all the pillars of pop art – and Wesselmann.
PKM: And you took really early on to rock ‘n’ roll. Proto-punk, shall we say. Is that correct? Did you see a bunch of shows in Cincinnati – or was it after you moved to the Bay Area that your concert-going days began?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Oh, no, they began very young. I started going to live shows around the time I was 12, 13. And I was able to go to an all-ages club near my home, which was very close to the University of Cincinnati. And it was a club called the Black Dome and it was a tiny little place, but they allowed underage people in. And it was there that I saw Alice Cooper’s first US tour, I saw Taj Mahal’s first US tour, the James Cotton Blues Band. But then out of that grew a scene, another venue, the Ludlow Garage, which became very famous. And that was actually very close to my house. So, I was able to walk there and see my favorite bands as a kid – Iggy and the Stooges and the MC5 – who were on a circuit, who would come down from Ann Arbor regularly and play in Cincinnati. I also developed an early love for James Brown, and saw him many, many times at many venues in Cincinnati – many times being one of the very few white faces in that crowd. So, I was in musical heaven, from a very young age.
And before I left Cincinnati, I was able to tour the empty King Records facility. That was the big Cincinnati label that released all of James Brown’s early records – and many, many others. Country and bluegrass. They were an eclectic label. But they had a state-of-the-art facility with everything under one roof: recording studio, pressing plant, printing plant. They could literally record a record, press it up, and ship it out the back door of the same building. It was quite an operation. It was there that I was able to see James Brown’s desk that had been left behind, because it had been built into his office and couldn’t be removed. So, it was the one piece of furniture left in the building. A spectacular desk that made a deep imprint on me. And years later, I was able to acquire that desk – and I’m sitting at it, right now!
I also developed an early love for James Brown, and saw him many, many times at many venues in Cincinnati – many times being one of the very few white faces in that crowd.
PKM: I’ve seen that desk in film and in photos of you…So that’s James Brown’s desk?!
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yeah. Before that, it was Syd Nathan’s desk. Syd Nathan was the owner of King Records. But he gifted it to James, and James had the white marble top made for it with his initials inlayed into it. And when [Syd] died, [James] had a brass plaque put into the marble that says, “I’ll always remember the man, S. Nathan.”
PKM: Okay, you leave Cincinnati and choose the Bay Area for school.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yeah, I came to a weird, experimental college called the New College of California. It had formed just a couple of years before I attended. I found out about it from a display ad that they ran on the back of Rolling Stone magazine, of which I was an early subscriber. I was very much into the whole music scene. I was caught up in Beatlemania; Beatlemania hit when I was about nine or ten. So, I was into music at a very early age and got swept up in the whole music of the time that led into my concert-going years. So, finding this ad in Rolling Stone, I visited the college the summer I was 17. I drove across country with friends and decided I would seriously consider it. And when I graduated from high school, that’s where I ended up. And I moved to San Francisco. I’ve lived here ever since; I can’t imagine ever living anywhere else, and I’ve dug my roots pretty deep here.
PKM: And before punk rock, you were involved in the experimental music scene, is that right?
Henry S. Rosenthal: That’s correct. I was always interested in experimental film and experimental music, so I had a pretty good background in that. When I came to college, I got involved with the professors there that were doing avant garde music, and formed a group called Other Music that was together for a long time. We recorded a couple albums and we built our own instruments, and eventually built a very formal gamelan to our own specifications, using our own tuning system. And then performed and composed and recorded with that group for many years. And then, also in college, I was in a medieval music ensemble; I played recorder and studied that. And that was a very fertile time for me in college, those years I did those two: explored interests that I had, and interests that I was developing at the time. And also did a lot of theater work, and just kind of put all those pieces together.
PKM: How did you get into punk rock? Did you see shows before Crime?
Henry S. Rosenthal: No. Well, of course, there was no punk rock [in San Francisco] before Crime.
And what brought me into the world of punk rock was that, through Other Music, I was friends with people in the experimental music – or, as we called used to call it, the “New Music” – community in the Bay Area. And Mills College was a center for that activity: a lot of composers worked there and they had a very good program. I became friends with a guy named William Novak, who went by the name Novak, and he worked in the recording studio at Mills College. And he had recorded Crime’s second single – “Murder by Guitar” and “Frustration” – in the Mills College studio. I didn’t know anything about Crime, at that point, but I knew about Novak. And he put a band together called Novak that used to play the Mabuhay Gardens. Because of his relationship with Crime, having just produced their record, his band Novak was opening for Crime; and he invited me to come see his band, not Crime. So, I went to the Mabuhay Gardens for the first time to see Novak. And then, after Novak came off the stage, Crime came on – and that’s when my life changed.
I saw that band, and, to me, it was like the bands that I loved the most all had come back to life, were all, like, combined into one band. I thought it was one of the greatest shows I’d ever seen. And at the conclusion of that show, [the Mabuhay Gardens’ m.c.] Dirk Dirksen comes on the stage and says, “Crime is looking for a drummer. So, if anybody knows any, get in touch.” And I decided at that moment that I was going to be that drummer.
Of course, I didn’t own drums and didn’t play drums, but I had played other music, including percussion music. I knew I could keep a beat and I felt relatively confident that I could play a traditional trap set. So, I contacted the band and sent them a resume and a very impassioned letter and photographs of myself. I went out and got my hair cut, so that I would more closely fit into the band; and cut out pictures of myself and put them between pictures of Frankie [Fix] and Johnny [Strike], so they could see it would all work out. And I sent it off to their P.O. Box and I covered the envelope with one cent stamps, so that it would stick out from all of the hundreds of resumes they were considering. And I got a call a week later from Johnny, who said, “You’re in the band.” We never even met face-to-face, first. And I, later, of course, found out that mine was the only application for the job that they received. But I didn’t care, I was on top of the world: I had just joined the best band in the city, one of the best bands I’d ever seen in my whole life! They were already a headlining band.
PKM: How did you get the name Hank Rank?
Henry S. Rosenthal: I chose the name, so I wouldn’t have to change any of my monograms – towels, shirts. I knew my punk rock name would have to have the same initials.
Well, of course, there was no punk rock [in San Francisco] before Crime.
PKM: Crime was unique in the sense that it had dual frontmen, Frankie Fix and Johnny Strike, who alternated on vocals.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yeah, in that sense, they were very much like The Beatles.
PKM: I’m trying to get a sense of what Frankie Fix was like. Do you have an anecdote that kind of captures him?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Frankie was all about the surface – his surface and presentation. He was very conscious of his fashion and the way he was perceived by people. As an example, Frankie drove a 1959 Chrysler Imperial. I think it was a ’59, it could have been a ’58. I’ll have to check on that. Anyway, it was the gaudiest car that Detroit ever made. It had more chrome, more fins, more lines – it was the height of what we think of as ’50s craziness in Detroit. And this car looked great, but, mechanically, it was disastrous. And Frankie was very careful with his money, let’s put it that way. He never liked to spend a dime on fixing this car. The only money he would spend on it was painting it – which he did every few months. It would be purple, it would be green, it would be another outrageous color. So, he would get these cheap paint jobs – and that’s all he would do to the car. The interior was completely destroyed: All the seats were shredded, and stuffing and springs coming out of everything. Nothing worked on the car, it barely rolled. But he loved to have that shiny, new paint job. So that kind of sums up Frankie: He was all about the show.
PKM: And Johnny had an intensity to him, and he drew on, I gather, his Beat influences – his Burroughsian kind of influence – within some of his lyrical presentation. He was maybe not as flamboyant onstage as Frankie, but his intensity carried his end of the bargain.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Well, Johnny was an intellectual. And Frankie was not. Frankie didn’t have a strong intellectual curiosity, and Johnny always did. Johnny was always reading and growing and thinking and planning – and Frankie was not. Frankie lived for the day. And Frankie led the band into a descent into debilitating drugs, which is what ultimately led to my departure from the group, because the band was falling apart and it was clear that it was done. But Johnny, who followed Frankie into that realm, was able to pull himself out, thankfully, and survive. And Frankie just did not have that discipline or the drive to save himself. And it was tragic. His death was tragic, unnecessary – as was the death of every member of Crime. [The deaths of Ricky Williams, Brittley Black, and Frankie Fix] were drug-related and very, very sad.
PKM: When you first joined the band, Ron “The Ripper” Greco was still the bass player. I like to think of him as bringing a kind of prog rock sensibility to a punk rock framework. He seemed to be going all over the place with his bass playing. It almost calls to mind, for me, Chris Squire of Yes.
Henry S. Rosenthal: I agree. Ron was by far the most accomplished musician of the group. [The preceding drummer] Brittley Black was also a very excellent drummer – coming from his father who was also a famous drummer. But, yes, “Ripper” brought that very fluid, noodley, complex bass sound to the band – which, in a way, kind of defined the band, even though Frankie and Johnny often fought against it, and were always trying to rein “Ripper” in, and there was always that tension in the band. Frankie and Johnny didn’t really understand what “Ripper” was doing and always wanted him to play more simply. And “Ripper” just bristled against that. But I thought it really kind of defined the Crime sound, in a very real sense. He really carried a lot of melodic content in his bass playing – and that’s great. If he had played, you know, Dee Dee Ramone-style bass, I don’t think Crime would be nearly as listenable as it is.
And I got a call a week later from Johnny, who said, “You’re in the band.” We never even met face-to-face, first. And I, later, of course, found out that mine was the only application for the job that they received.
PKM: What was the highlight of being in Crime for you?
Henry S. Rosenthal: There were a few moments that I’ll always cherish. Headlining [in Los Angeles] the Troubadour and the Whisky a Go Go, those were big moments for me, because I knew about all the rock history there – The Doors and all the bands that played there before. And to see Crime’s name on the marquee of the Whisky – that was so huge for me. You know, as a kid in Cincinnati, reading Rolling Stone and seeing these bands and reading these stories about these clubs and then, just a few years later, there I am, that was so great.
The San Quentin [penitentiary] show was a triumph of p.r., and the kind of fulfillment of our artistic vision. And that show got me the one piece of press that I am most the proud of in my whole life: And that is, our picture for playing at San Quentin appeared in the Weekly World News, the sleaziest supermarket tabloid out there. And right next to Bat Boy, and the aliens in the White House, and all the other crap that they published, there we were. They considered that enough of a novelty item to make it into their pages. I will always be proud of that.
PKM: You weren’t on any of Crime’s three singles.
PKM: And you guys only played on the West Coast.
Henry S. Rosenthal: That’s correct. We did a Northwest tour and we did a couple trips to LA.
After Novak came off the stage, Crime came on – and that’s when my life changed. I saw that band, and, to me, it was like the bands that I loved the most all had come back to life, were all, like, combined into one band.
PKM: But then starting in the ’90s, there’s this renewed interest in Crime with the first-time release of San Francisco’s Doomed, which you do appear on.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yes, and then I guess it wasn’t until 2005 that Crime was asked to reunite in some form and headline a two-day punk rock festival in Rome. And so Johnny and I got two other friends to fill in the other parts and we performed as Crime in Rome – and that was a story in itself. But it happened, we pulled it off. But that band didn’t survive.
I took great pains to consolidate the Crime recordings and the compositions and the publishing. I had formed a publishing company for other purposes, and then used that to acquire the rights to Frankie and Johnny’s songs. I wanted to unify them under one ownership, so then they would be easier to deal with as projects came down the line. And, over the years, as I’ve been approached for different projects, it has made life, you know, very easy.
PKM: What was your reaction when Sonic Youth covered Johnny Strike’s song “Hot Wire My Heart” on Sister?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Well, that was a complete surprise. It came out of nowhere. That was really the spark that kept Crime from being forgotten completely. I think we would have just slipped into obscurity had that not revived interest among a new generation of music lovers. This business about, like, “Well, who’s Crime? Who is this band?” began this Internet interest, which continues to this day; Crime today is known because of the resonance of the Internet.
PKM: It seems like over the past decade or so – I don’t know if they’re bootlegs or not – I’ve seen the Crime logo on T-shirts, as well.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yes, there’s tremendous bootleg material, because the logo’s so strong and it’s been copied a lot. And our images and posters and flyers were so strong, they’ve been widely reproduced.
There are these pockets of the world that have these weird, rabid, Crime fans. [Besides Italy,] Japan is another one. My kids are in a band and just got back from a Japanese tour and every time they go over there, they find shrines to Crime in different sorts of underground music venues and bars and things. It’s very weird how Crime has found its way into the cracks and crevices of the underground, all over the world.
PKM: What stands out for you seeing that footage again that appears in the movie?
Henry S. Rosenthal: The film is a time machine. And it really takes you right back there. One thing that I was struck by at the Victoria [Theater], where the film screened, was that, because of the surround sound track that my son [George S. Rosenthal] created from the two mono tracks that we had to work with, the audience was completely immersed, and they applauded after every song like they were at the show. It was really crazy. And it really does bring back the sights, sounds, and smells of the Mabuhay Gardens. And it was exactly like that. That’s all I can say. You are there. And it takes me right back there, when I see it.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Absolutely. That’s correct.
PKM: And then you began collaborating with him on a film project that, unfortunately, hasn’t fully seen the light of day, about a gospel music act, The Soul Stirrers.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yes, however, I’m happy to report that I am now turning my attention to that project and working on it once again. And that movie will see the light of day. It will take a few years, but we’re digging back into that project finally. There’s momentum and there’s some money that’s been raised. So, we’re moving that forward. That project is the great albatross that hangs around my neck as a producer – and I mean to have that finished and out, before I die.
My kids are in a band and just got back from a Japanese tour and every time they go over there, they find shrines to Crime in different sorts of underground music venues and bars and things.
PKM: Conner was such a presence in underground film, and you were such a viewer of underground film, it must have been a kick for you to meet him, at that time.
Henry S. Rosenthal: It was…I’ll confess: I was not as familiar with Bruce’s work when I met him as I was with other contemporaries of his. But I quickly came to love his work and understand his position within the history of underground film. And our friendship took off very quickly, and, I believe, I’m the only person credited as producer on any Bruce Conner film. And we made, I think, four or five films together, over the years. And I was able to work with him very closely in a variety of ways. It was a remarkable experience. And I was one of his caretakers during the last 2 1/2 years of his life when his health was in steep decline and was with him a lot during that period.
PKM: Didn’t you take him to a celebration in his honor, attended by people he’d known, like Dennis Hopper?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Oh, yes. Dennis invited him to a film festival that [Dennis] was curating in Las Vegas, and flew Bruce to Las Vegas on his private plane. And we hung out with [Dennis] there, quite a bit. And that Las Vegas festival was quite a moment for Bruce. He was already quite sick, but to have him honored and recognized by not just Dennis Hopper, but in attendance at that festival and in the audience for Bruce’s program were David Lynch and Julian Schnabel and Val Kilmer. It was quite the stellar group…Oh, and Jack Nicholson. We got to hang out with Jack Nicholson, which was pretty unbelievable. What a night that was.
PKM: You’ve taught a class on film production. What’s the ultimate lesson you try to pass along to students?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Oh, gosh. Well, I’ve taught some version of producing classes for years and years for a whole variety of Bay Area colleges and universities and what-not. And each class has a slightly different slant on it. I try to impart to filmmakers a kind of intelligence about what they’re doing. Filmmakers are never short on passion and they’re never short on ideas. But sifting through them to figure out what’s a good idea and what makes sense in the context of the world in which they’re living, that’s the lesson I try to teach them. I try to give them a reality dose, because I’ve had reality thrown in my face, so many times. I want to save people from making the mistakes I’ve made, over and over again. I’m cursed with unpopular taste – and that’s a very dangerous thing when you’re working in a mass market medium. It’s a recipe for disaster. So, I try to save other people from the pain and heartbreak that I, myself, have suffered repeatedly.
PKM: Perhaps your most noted film production is The Devil and Daniel Johnston. How did that come together?
Henry S. Rosenthal: That was around the year 2000. I had a track record of producing a series of low-budget, underground films, many of which had gone to Sundance and the great festivals of the world. Many had sold to German television and other esoteric venues around the world. Some had limited theatrical release. So, I had something going on, but my film career has not been particularly lucrative; it’s been far more a critical success than a financial one. But around that time, I had been a fan of Daniel Johnston. He had not been performing for many years; he was far too ill to perform. But he began performing again – sort of out of nowhere, just popped up.
I met Jeff Feuerzeig, the director, in Berlin when he was there with his first feature film: a music documentary about Half Japanese, Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King. I couldn’t believe that someone had made a film about the most obscure band in the world, who I had known through Bruce Conner; Bruce Conner was friends with Jad Fair, and had been in correspondence with them for years. So, I couldn’t believe that film had gotten made without me even knowing about it. But, it did. When Jeff and I met, we talked about our love of Daniel Johnston. After that, ten years went by. We remained in touch and got to be closer friends. Finally when Daniel emerged from his hiatus, Jeff called me and said, “Let’s make the Daniel Johnston movie.”
I’m cursed with unpopular taste – and that’s a very dangerous thing when you’re working in a mass market medium. It’s a recipe for disaster. So, I try to save other people from the pain and heartbreak that I, myself, have suffered repeatedly.
When we went down to interview Daniel, chaos took over. And we ended up getting deep into this project, once we found out that Daniel and his family had maintained this voluminous archive of material. We took the time to sift through that, transcribing tapes, indexing and cross-indexing everything. It was a massive undertaking. And then out of that, we began to construct the film that later went on to premiere at Sundance, win the best [documentary] director award, get picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for North American distribution, and then other distributors all over the world, and be named by IndieWire magazine, recently, as the number one greatest music documentary of the 21st Century. And then, of course, with Daniel’s recent death, interest in the film has revived; there have been revival screenings all over the world. I watched it again for the first time in about ten years, and just marveled at how fresh it looked and how beautifully it’s held up, and what a really timeless work it is. I think it’s my one claim to a masterpiece – if I’m even allowed to say that about my own work.
PKM: It’s a really layered, groundbreaking film in a lot of ways.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yeah, and Jeff and I worked really closely together on that. It was really the two of us, making that film together. And I had an unprecedented level of input into that film. In fact, Jeff would not roll the camera, after setting up a shot, until I put my eye to the eyepiece and approved of every shot – and I’ve never been given that power before by any of the directors I’ve ever worked with. And it was just great, because we were able to conceive a lot of the film together and build those scenes, and dig really, really deep. It took us 4 1/2 years to make that film. And those were 4 1/2 beautiful years of torture and pain. It nearly killed me – literally. I was very, very ill during that period, and had to do a lot of physical labor, and that nearly took me to my limits. But I was very very gratified that it received the recognition that it did. Although, I’ve still never made my money back from that film. And I never will.
Finally when Daniel emerged from his hiatus, Jeff called me and said, “Let’s make the Daniel Johnston movie.”
PKM: What was your most memorable experience interacting with Daniel Johnston?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Oh, God. Daniel’s a very difficult guy and nobody’s really friends with Daniel Johnston, because he’s very changeable. He was on lots of medication. He was very unpredictable, very difficult, easily angered, very obstinate, and I could tell you a lot of very frustrating stories.
We brought a whole crew down there: cinematographer and sound guy, we had lights and dollies and tracks. We had all this equipment in this godforsaken hellhole of Waller, Texas. And we’re sitting there and Daniel would say, “I don’t feel like filming today.” And, you know, every day is costing me thousands of dollars just to be there, house and feed this crew. And Daniel decides he doesn’t want to shoot! It made my head explode. And, finally, after day after day of Daniel just not being that into it, out of desperation, exasperation, I finally said to him, “Okay, Daniel, look: This is your crew. You’ve made movies before, make a movie! Direct your crew. You make your movie. You don’t want to make ours, make your own.” And, of course, that didn’t work either.
The whole film was pulling teeth. Nothing was easy, everything was an uphill battle, right to the end. You’ll notice, if you see the film, that Daniel does not host his own story. We interviewed Daniel for 5 1/2 hours on film, and there isn’t a single frame of that in the final film, because Daniel was incapable of hosting his own film. He couldn’t tell his own story. So, we had to triangulate his story from the people around him and from everything else. Daniel barely appears in his own film. But it’s a much better film for it! Trust me. You would not want to watch that 5 1/2 hours of interview footage. It’s impenetrable.
PKM: You went on to work with Jeff Feuerzeig on the documentary Author: The JT Leroy Story. Was that an easier experience?
Henry S. Rosenthal: That was also nightmarish, but for completely different reasons. The subject of that film was also very challenging – not unlike Daniel, in certain regards. But I was not as intimately involved with the production of that film as I had been with the Daniel Johnston film. I was the one who connected Jeff to Laura Albert, the subject, and then helped to manage that relationship all the way through. That film had many pitfalls in it, but that was a film that was made more, I would say, close to the Hollywood system. So, the stakes were higher, the level of scrutiny and oversight were much higher than I had been used to as an independent producer. So, I was on the production team, but I was not the key, sole producer on the film like I was with Daniel Johnston.
Henry S. Rosenthal: The Living End was another kind of breakthrough film. It was a trangsressive AIDS-themed movie, made by a gay man, which was very shocking at the time. It’s still a shocking film to this day. I watched it again for the first time in many years, recently, and again was amazed at how well it holds up.
Henry S. Rosenthal: That’s really true. It’s a very chaste film, at the core of it. That was another film that kind of came out of that period where I was meeting other filmmakers and just loving their work. I heard there was a screening of a film called Hippy Porn in the basement of pizza parlor in Berkeley. So, I went over there and I watched this movie and was highly amused by it, and met [writer and director] Jon Moritsugu in that basement.
It took us 4 1/2 years to make that film. And those were 4 1/2 beautiful years of torture and pain. It nearly killed me – literally. I was very, very ill during that period, and had to do a lot of physical labor, and that nearly took me to my limits.
A lot of [1994’s Mod Fuck Explosion] was shot in my own home, my home in San Francisco, where I am right now, where I’ve been for forty years. We built sets on the first floor. A lot of the key scenes were shot here, including the infamous meat garden scene: The scene in which, in the script, it says this character falls asleep and has a dream that she’s walking through a garden made out of meat. That’s all it said. I had no idea this was going to involve 2,000 pounds of rotted meat and carcasses and rib cages, snouts and hooves being brought in and hung up to create this fantasy meat garden for that scene. I was luckily out of town for that weekend when it was shot, but I was told that the stench was so horrendous, especially under the hot lights, that crew members were running out into the street and vomiting between takes. So, luckily they bleached the place and had it cleaned up by the time that I came home.
PKM: What aspect of the documentary Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story do you still get a kick out of? (Ed: The documentary is billed on Amazon as, “An engaging look at the fascinating subculture of the song-poem industry, where a dream and a song come together as ordinary people mail in their poems to be set to music for a fee.”)
Henry S. Rosenthal: Well, Off the Charts is still many people’s favorite film that I’ve ever produced. And it has rabid fans. That movie had a huge impact on a lot of people and it continues to resonate today. It’s really all about the spirit of creation, and the drive that people have to be recognized and to create. So, I love that movie with an unholy passion. It’s such a heartwarming film. And also heartbreaking.
Daniel barely appears in his own film. But it’s a much better film for it! Trust me.
PKM: The song “Blind Man’s Penis” does get stuck in your mind, even if you don’t want it to.
Henry S. Rosenthal: It does. That is, of course, the big hit that came out of the entire “song-poem movement.” Basically, it boils down to that one song. And getting to meet John Trubee and hear him digging into the whole history of that song and the story behind it was really great.
And then all the crazy characters who were involved in that sort of shady, underworld scheme – it just was really great to see that world exposed, really for the first time. Talk about groundbreaking: that film really brought to light something that had been around for decades and decades, but nobody had ever really shined a light on it. It was always in the shadows. And that film lifted the veil on the crazy world of “song sharking.”
PKM: Then there’s the dream project that got away, that existed in your wildest fantasies: Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson as Raymond and Peter, the characters at the heart of the Shut Up, Little Man! phenomenon.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Did you see the documentary?
PKM: Yes, I saw the film you’re interviewed in – Shut Up Little Man!– the one in which you provided the filmmakers with video of Peter.
Henry S. Rosenthal: That documentary is unfortunately not the film that it should have been, because it didn’t get the story right.
The great service that I was able to do was to unify the rights [between the competing claims to the Shut Up, Little Man! material], so that another producer was able to make a film, which was eventually released as Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth. It was basically a filmed version of the stage play that Gregg Gibbs had written from the tapes. So, every word was from the tapes. And it was very stylized. It never got widely seen, but it got made. The Shut Up Little Man! documentary acted like that film never got made. Well, it did get made.
But my vision of the film – doing it with Nicholson and Brando – that, unfortunately, did not get made. Brando died in the middle of that process and that put that notion to bed.
I was luckily out of town for that weekend when it was shot, but I was told that the stench was so horrendous, especially under the hot lights, that crew members were running out into the street and vomiting between takes.
PKM: Was Brando, in your mind, going to be Peter saying, “Shut up, Little Man!”
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yeah, I could see that. I saw him as the big guy. They were sort of like a big guy and a little guy. [Raymond and Peter] were like Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy. They had that dynamic. And Pete was the big guy and Ray was the weaselly guy. Ray was the mean one, but Pete would lord his size over Ray. Just a crazy dynamic between the two of them.
PKM: Were you aware that the Marilyn Manson video “Antichrist Superstar” that you produced would be so controversial for the record company?
Henry S. Rosenthal: No, we were very surprised by the reaction to the video when we submitted it. We were able to produce it without any record company interference. And, when we submitted it, we were expecting to be lavished with praise. And there was complete silence. So after a few days, I called up, “Uh, did you receive it? Did you look at it?” And they said, “Yes, but we can’t use it.” And I said, “Why?” And they said, “It’s full of Nazis!” I said, “No, it’s not!” And they said, “Yes it is!” I said, “But there’s no swastikas anywhere. Where are the Nazis?!” And they said, “They’re all marching and they look like Nazis. We can’t use that, because you can’t put Nazis on TV.” And I said, “What about the History Channel?! It’s 24-hour Nazi! Nobody complains about that.” They said, “Well, they can’t play [the video] on MTV.” Of course, it did play on MTV; so, [MTV] did play it for some kind of Halloween special, and slipped it in. It did play a couple of times. But it certainly didn’t go into rotation like it was supposed to.
PKM: What do you feel the video is saying?
Henry S. Rosenthal: It’s basically a dystopian, apocalyptic story with Marilyn Manson playing a sort of Satanic preacher character. Just kind of images of death, destruction, mayhem. I don’t know that there’s more to it than that.
PKM: Did you get along with Manson, working on it together?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Oh yeah, very sweet guy. You know, he wasn’t a huge star at that point. He came into the studio where we were shooting, he did his own makeup. He was quiet and unassuming. We had nice conversation. He did his job and went home.
PKM: Besides the Bruce Conner film, what other projects do you have on the burners, right now?
Henry S. Rosenthal: The Crime film is just finished and is going to go on its merry way. I’m hoping it will be embraced all over the world. Every town that’s got a little punk rock community is going to want to see it.
I am in the final stages of a film that I’ve been working on for two years: another science-related documentary…We haven’t talked about the Bill Nye: Science Guy film.
PKM: How involved were you in that one?
Henry S. Rosenthal: I was quite involved. I was consulting with the filmmakers from an early stage and then I got very involved in the final stages of the filming and post-production and then the emergence [into] festival life. And that’s been a very popular and successful film. It’s on Netflix now, and has a 100% Rotten Tomatoes rating, which is not an easy thing to pull off. That means it’s unanimously heralded by critics.
So, I’m working with that same director team on a film about Stewart Brand, the creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue. It’s been a fascinating project. I really considered the Bill Nye film to be a work of activism in response to the bizarre twists, turns that our country has taken. And I felt like it was time for me to step up and take a stand, and the Bill Nye film deals with issues of the day that I consider to be very important.
PKM: Like climate science and religious fundamentalism?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Exactly. And the Stewart Brand film [We Are As Gods] will expand on those concepts in a variety of very interesting ways; he founded the Long Now Foundation, and he’s also involved in the de-extinction movement – actually bringing back extinct species and re-populating the earth with them.
PKM: Speaking of unusual species, it’s my understanding you have at least 36 two-headed, stuffed calves.
Henry S. Rosenthal: Yes, I do have the world’s largest collection of two-headed calves. I don’t have a precise count, but I think I have somewhere close to 50 head of cattle.
PKM: [Laughs.] Wait a minute…”Fifty head of cattle?” Is that 25 calves with two heads?
Henry S. Rosenthal: You count cattle by the head, don’t you?
PKM: So, there’s at least 25 with two heads?
Henry S. Rosenthal: I haven’t counted lately, but there’s a whole bunch. And I have them in a little private museum area in my home.
PKM: Why do you collect them? What it about that pursuit that appeals to you?
Henry S. Rosenthal: Well, from a very early age I was involved in monsters and freaks and the sideshow. It was just a world I always loved. And a two-headed calf is a classic sideshow item.
You look at one two-headed calf, and you’re like “Okay, that’s interesting.” But if you look at a whole herd of them, it does something to your brain – and it’s hard to explain.
(Bonus feature: Video of Henry S. Rosenthal discussing punk history at a San Francisco Public Library presentation, hosted by Avengers singer Penelope Houston.)