Punk Professor Confesses: Iggy’s Touch May Have Saved My Life! Danny Fields Interviews Maria Damon Introduction by Gillian McCain

Maria Damon: How Please Kill Me Changed My Life!

Punk Professor Confesses: Iggy’s Touch May Have Saved My Life! Danny Fields Interviews Maria Damon

I had the pleasure of meeting Maria Damon on February 9, 2011 at Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye’s 40th anniversary performance at the Poetry Project at St. Marks Church. She’s a poetry scholar—so it turns out we had a few friends in common—but imagine my bigger surprise when she told me she was a huge Please Kill Me fan and that our book was a major factor in inspiring her to teach a course on Punk Literature at the University of Minnesota. (Minneapolis was a perfect career move for a gal who got a degree in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford).
We “friended” each other on Facebook—and that’s how I got the okay to give Danny Fields her phone number (doesn’t that sound so 16 magazine?!) Well, they hit it off (which I knew they would) and below is what transpired…
PS: Yes, the RAW POWER scarf was created by Maria. Not only is she an intellectual but damn tactile, too. Check out her art work here. —G.M.

Maria Damon wearing her “Raw Power” scarf, St. Marks Church, NYC. Photo by Megan Cump.
Maria Damon wearing her “Raw Power” scarf, St. Marks Church, NYC. Photo by Megan Cump.

Danny Fields: My first question for you is: what is your contact for Natalie Stoogeling? How do you reach her, or, can you just tell her to get in touch with me?

Maria Damon: I can tell you how to get in touch with her… her name is Schlossman…

DF: Omigod, I know that! Because, a friend of mine is making a movie about me, to be released posthumously, I hope. His name is Brendan Toller, and his senior project at college was to make a movie, so he made one about indie record stores, called I Need That Record… anyway, he would love to interview Natalie for it.

MD: I’ll email you Natalie’s contact info.

DF: Thanks! Now, tell me, did you meet Gillian from Facebooking her, or through a poetry connection, or PKM, or some combination of those factors?

MD: Please Kill Me. When I got the book I saw that she’d been involved with the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, but I hadn’t known that previously.

DF: OK, why did you get the book in the first place?

MD: I’ll tell you the saga. It must have been five or six years ago, I went to see Richard Hell at the Walker Art Center [in Minneapolis]. He was giving a reading, and I was hosting a poet who was giving a talk… Ammiel Alcalay. Afterwards, we all went out to dinner, and during the course of the evening I got interested in teaching a course on punk literature, although I knew I didn’t know anything about it.
About a month after that, I told some friends of mine from Chicago, “You know, I’m interested in teaching this class…” and my friend said, “Oh, you’ve got to read Please Kill Me.” So I bought it and it was a really really fun read, a guilty pleasure, in the sense that I couldn’t put it down. It was just hugely entertaining.

DF: Did you read it as if it were a narrative, turning the pages one at a time?

MD: Oh yes, I read it straight through. I was very taken with the narrative art.

DF: OK, now let’s talk about how you discovered the music of the Stooges, because you wrote of your very strong and very positive feelings about them in the mini auto-bio that you sent me. Ugh… I KNOW nobody can talk about music, and nobody should, and I hate to even try to talk about music, but… OK, let me ask you when you first “heard” their music, or about it, or about them.

MD: You know, it’s very intimately connected to PKM. Because I had heard some of their music… see I’d always been pretty much a Patti Smith fan, and a Jim Carroll fan, I never took the Ramones very seriously, and I liked the Sex Pistols, but that had been fairly recent, the last ten or fifteen years or so—NOT in the 70’s. I was so taken with the sensibilities in the book, that kind of maudit thing. I think for me Genet was pretty much the most important writer in my formative years… Burroughs less so. And I’d also read that Richard Hell novel, Go Now, I liked that a lot, and I loved Jim Carroll’s prose…

DF: What did you like about the Sex Pistols? The songs, the lyrics, the production, the politics, the art, the ethos…

MD: I liked Johnny. I liked his charisma. It was when I first saw The Filth and the Fury, that I became a Sex Pistols fan.

DF: Great movie.

MD: Yeah, and I just thought he was mesmerizing—his peculiar way of moving, his rage, his spitting, his snarling. It was so REAL.

DF: Of course it’s not, it’s a complete fraud, ha ha ha! You know, he’s on a stage, he’s supposed to be performing, and he’s a brilliant performer. I didn’t mean literally “fraudulent”; he’s an actor, and it’s an act. Like all rock & roll.

MD: But then I’d look at interviews he’d done, and he would be a snarling young man.

DF: Yes, of course, he had it covered. That’s one of the things that’s so smart about him. He had his affect down pat. You believe he’s snarling, and he believes he’s performing and that everyone should think he’s snarling, and that’s what great performers do. And he’s great at it. I don’t in any way want to seem dismissive of the Sex Pistols, but the real force behind them was Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. The Pistols were originally invented as a fashion statement, to promote a store.

MD: But Johnny kind of took on a life of his own with P.I.L.

DF: OK, lets get to the Stooges. Where in time are we now?

MD: It was about ten years ago, and I was reading PKM, and I realized that there was not a lot of attention to the music, and I thought I should educate myself…

DF: Well, you and I just agreed that you can’t really use words to describe music, so do you think the book “short-shifted” the music?

MD: No, I agree about that, but I think that there are ways that people can describe what they’re trying to do with sound, even if it’s inarticulate…

DF: Most musicians are REALLY inarticulate. There are very few who can do it. I myself prefer that they don’t. I’ve done thousands of interviews with musicians, and unless they insist on talking about music, I’d rather stick with other things. I like to know what someone likes, what they’re listening to, whose careers they’re interested in, but not about music. My feeling is that the people in PKM could NOT have talked about the music… that’s my take on what you thought was short-shifted.

MD: OK, well in the book there’s this character Iggy, and every single time there was a picture of him, I thought, How can that be the same person who is labeled “Iggy” in all of these pictures? He looked different in every single one. So I thought, Why don’t I just check out Iggy Pop on You Tube? And one of the best things on You Tube is Iggy doing “The Passenger” at the Manchester Apollo in 1977. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe that somebody could convey that much emotion—to me it was spiritual. It looked to me like someone who was trying to get outside of his body, or someone who was trying to make his body do what a body can’t do. It was astonishing. And that was the beginning. Then I worked my way from learning a lot about Iggy, and working my way back to the Stooges. I looked at everything I could online. Then Ron Asheton died… I was following everything; I got involved in everything—in my head. And then they did that thing where they were going to play through Raw Power, the 40th anniversary of its release, in London in 2010, and as soon as tickets went on sale I got them, and that was going to be in May…

DF: So this was going to be the first time you would see them?

MD: Yes. So the time came around, and I also had some research trips to Europe planned, and I organized them around going to those two concerts. I had a conference in Riga, Latvia in mid-June… and then I was also going to go to Switzerland. And I’d gone to the doctor and had my usual checkup, and something was wrong. It turned out that I was going to have to have some pretty dramatic surgery, and they kept saying to me, “You can’t go on these trips.”

DF: Were they saying you have to have the surgery and THEN you can go, or that you just couldn’t do anything that strenuous? Was it urgent that you have the surgery?

MD: Yes, the timing of it was that they wanted to operate within six weeks of the diagnosis. And what I did was cancel everything except the trip to London… everything but Iggy and the Stooges. And I got home on a Saturday, and I had the surgery on Monday.

DF: So what dates did you see the Stooges perform?

MD: I saw them on May 2nd and 3rd.

DF: You went two nights. And you first impression of them live was…

MD: OH MY GOD!! I was completely fueled by adrenaline, and I knew from watching videos of other shows that Iggy invited people to come up on the stage. So I got right up front, and I asked this sweet young bouncer, you know, a security guy, “You’re going to help me get up there, right?” It was such an eye-opening experience, because all the people standing around were so nice, and very interesting… there was a guy on my right from San Antonio who had also come to London to see the Stooges, he was a realtor; and the guy behind us said, “Oh, you’re Americans, I’m a bricklayer and the son of a bricklayer, but I love America, because my America is the America of Jack Kerouac, the Beats, the romantic writers.” It was a very “poetic” experience. People who were so warm. And I’d always had this fear of the chaos of mosh-pits…

DF: This would have been an older, errr… a mixed-age crowd, right? Not totally testosteroned 17-year-olds.

MD: No, they weren’t, and luckily I was right up against the front barrier so I was steadied by that. So before I got up on stage, Iggy had been doing his thing of walking back and forth for the photographers pit, and—lets just say that this was not my normal way of behaving. It was very adrenaline fueled, very euphoric… and then I got up on stage, and managed to touch him, kind of like a touch-down kind of thing, you know, Could I do it? And it was an unbelievable experience. Oh, and Suicide opened for them.

DF: Oh, aren’t they wonderful?

MD: Great! Oh my god, that was another band that I learned about in PKM. After Iggy, I think that Alan Vega is the closest to the most exciting person I’d discovered. You know, just harrowing… And when they started I felt like I was Jonah in the whale, because of the intensity and the throbbing of the sound. A HAPPY Jonah. The first thing I thought of was Edgar Allen Poe’s “Message In A Bottle,” where it’s like being in a ship that’s about to be in a shipwreck, and it goes down an eddy… a whirlpool…

DF: Wait, there’s a word for it, “maelstrom,” isn’t that it? Isn’t that the title, “Descent Into the Maelstrom”?

MD: Oh, you might be right. But it felt like when the ship starts to creak and crack, and you’re in it and you can’t get out, but you don’t want to get out, because it’s so great. Anyhow, Suicide was just phenomenal. And it was so sweet because Marty Rev came out, surrounded by a halo of blue light, and that’s all you could see for a minute because the lights had been turned off, and then Alan Vega came out, and they hugged, and then they played through their first album. It was just great. But then, when Iggy came out the crowd went crazy. I hadn’t been prepared for that—suddenly you were being banged up against the barrier, but it was so much fun, it was really exciting. So there I was, right up front, and Bob Matheu the photographer, was in the pit…

DF: Oh him!! He’s like the Stooges official photography guy.

MD: Well, I met him and chatted with him, and I sort of told him my health issue, and I said, “Oh, I want you to tell Iggy something. I want you to tell him that I have cancer and that I gave up everything except coming to see him, and I’m going to have surgery when I get back, and blah blah…”

DF: You know, I must tell you that this is a famous show business cliché.

MD: What is?

DF: When you work for an artist, you always get notes sent backstage by people in the audience, saying, I’m dying of a mysterious disease, and only you can save my life, or, this will be the last time in my life I ever go to a show, I may not last another week… it’s a famous plea that, if you’ve been backstage a lot, you see many, many times. But this time it worked?!? So when did you meet Iggy?

MD: Well, I haven’t met Iggy! Iggy is inaccessible, which is probably just as well. I’ve hugged him, but I haven’t met him. Ha ha ha.

DF: Well, did you hug him, like, in a reception line?

MD: I went to the Stooges concerts in San Francisco in December, and now my thing is to try and get onstage and touch Iggy. It’s a joke now.

DF: Does he know that?

MD: I have no idea! But anyway, I got up on stage, let’s see… it was December 4th, and at the end, I was in the right place at the right time… This was very recent, 2010, and I’m in my fifties, so I’m like sort of growing up backwards, embracing all these things that were intimidating for me at the time.

DF: Tell me about your illness then, when you got back, after the doctor said that you shouldn’t be traveling in the first place.

MD: I had been diagnosed with… even though it was “early stage,” it was a “lobular” breast cancer, which can appear in multiple places, and it can develop for a long time before it becomes apparent. And I had been told that I was “triple negative,” which means I would have to go through chemo. “Triple negative” is associated with rapidly moving cancers. My friends afterwards told me that it was really scary. I didn’t do much reading about it, I was a little naïve. But, so I went to the concert in London and came back and had my surgery. Well, first I learned that it had not spread to the lymph nodes, which is very good, and then I learned that they had gotten it all, which was really good. And then, when I went for my first meeting with the oncological surgeon, she gave me the report, and I was reading the fine print, and it said, “estrogen, 57% positive.” And I said, “Wait a minute, I thought you said I was triple negative, and here I was with estrogen 57% positive.” So she looked at it, and she made a phone call, and she got off the phone and she said, “This is correct, you are estrogen-positive, which is excellent news, because that was a mis-diagnosis that you were triple negative.”

DF: Really? What would have been the consequences of your following through on that mis-diagnosis?

MD: I would have had to have had chemo.

DF: Omigod! And how long would it have been until someone went, “Whoops! Better do that one again! Something is not coordinating on our computer?” You could have really suffered through chemo!

MD: Yes, and I’m fine now. I still have to take the hormone inhibitor for a few years… and my little joke about it is, that, you know, was I mis-diagnosed originally or, was it that “raw power” reversed the course of the illness? Apparently, musicians hate to hear stuff like that, so…

DF: Musicians hate to hear stuff like what? That they may have “the magic touch”? Because then they’re going to get all those requests, people will come backstage and say, “I have leprosy! Touch me please.” God, what are you going to say? Get in line…?

MD: Yeah, a laying on of hands is requested, ha ha ha. So yeah, I got off very easy. So you could say Please Kill Me changed my life.

DF: Oh, it’s usually; I read it and I changed my job, I took a course in design, etc… but with you, it really did! It… errrr… existentially changed your life!

MD: My values are a little different now. Mostly because of the illness, but all these things lined up, at the right place at the right time. Now I’m not that obsessed with getting publications out… I just want to make things that are attractive, and I want to participate in an artistic endeavor that… And I’ve got this project, my little crafts project…

Maria Damon's Raw Power scarf
A close-up of Maria’s brilliant handiwork.

DF:That’s wonderful. Do you pass on… well, to put it mildly, nobody could have quite the same experience you did, but when you speak about PKM, you can’t say: Oh, it changed my life because it cured me. So, what do you say? Hey, this book is a lot fun?

MD: Well, I applaud it. I ended up teaching it in that Punk Lit class, but that was before the cancer and all the high drama, and it’s the first book we read in that class, because it’s so engaging; it’s so conversational. And it’s multi-layered without being dense and unapproachable. We had a lot of fun. And then one student, a graduate student with whom I’d had this little conversation about Iggy Pop ended up teaching it in his class…

DF: God, I love talking to you so much.

MD: Me, too! You’re great!

DF: Thanks. I do give and get good interviews. I would love to continue. I need to absorb what we’ve done. It’s wonderful. It’s almost too wonderful. But I don’t want to un-sentimentalize… errr… un-sentimentalitize anything. It certainly is an amazing story. And Iggy, you know, he’s like… my son, or brother, or… I mean, I’m proud of the little part I played in foisting Iggy upon the world. He would have been foisted with or without me, but I’m… happy about that. And I’m reeling from your story.

MD: Oh you’re too kind, ha ha ha.

DF: Gillian is going to be thrilled that we finally hooked up, even if it was only by phone.

MD: You know, I’ve met her once, at the Patti Smith St. Mark’s Fortieth Anniversary event, and I was wearing the white silk scarf I made for James Williamson. And then I saw her read at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project Marathon.

DF: You were there??

MD: This year, yes.

DF: Oh! I wish I’d known.

MD: Well I get to New York every once in whatever.

DF: Oh great, we’ll get together, and I can show you my Iggy universe. Most of it has been sold to Gillian, who also has an Iggy universe.

MD: I’ve got a James Williamson Bobblehead. Signed. And someone just sent me the Iggy Toys-R-Us action figure.

Maria Damon with James Williamson.
Maria Damon with James Williamson.

DF: And someone just sent me two Ramones action figures. Made in China, originated in Seattle. Has my life become this grotesque?

MD: But you have Proust to console you. I can’t wait to read the translation you told me about in your email.

DF: It changed my life, it really did. And it continues to, with every page. I’d never thought that writing would get me that high. It’s like an acid trip. It’s like we were saying about music, it’s beyond words. Except it is words. Oh, here’s a good punk anecdote: I had dinner at the Chelsea Hotel with Tommy Ramone about a month ago, we hadn’t really talked in a long time, and when it came to “So what are you doing these days?” I said that I was reading Proust, and he said, “Oh, the poetic translation?” I was a little insulted that he assumed I was reading a translation, ha ha ha, but, hey, the original drummer of the Ramones wants to know what version of Proust I’m reading. There’s a story you can tell your class.

MD: He was the “intellectual” Ramone, right?

DF: They were all extremely smart, but in terms of book learnin’, yeah. So let me get this done…

MD: You do the transcribing?

DF: Not my favorite thing in the world, but it has to be done. Hey, you made my day!

MD: Likewise!

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