Countercultural anthropologist and founding member of Blue Cheer, V. Vale has documented the 1970s San Francisco punk scene and explored the subcultures of industrial music, body modification, and more with his Search and Destroy zine and RE/Search book series. He is still exploring new ways of expression and shocking Jesse Helms’ ghost on a daily basis forty years later. Amanda Sheppard spoke with V. Vale for PKM.
Armed with a carefree spirit and a degree in English Lit from UC Berkeley, writer V. Vale began following his curiosity through various corners of San Francisco’s counterculture, starting with a stint as a keyboardist in an early six-piece lineup of Blue Cheer [listed in the band bio as Vale Hamanaka]. The proto-metal group, however, sized down to a three-piece band and went on to score a hit in 1968 with a cover of “Summertime Blues”. Vale continued on in San Francisco despite his Blue Cheer exit and became friends with Allen Ginsberg and Philip Lamantia and worked as a buyer for Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books.
Henry Rollins asks V. Vale about his early days in Blue Cheer at the LA Zine Fest 2012:
While working at City Lights, Vale followed the emerging punk scenes in New York and London through the pages of Crawdaddy and Sounds magazines. Before long, punk made its way to the West Coast and around the corner to Filipino piano bar/supper club turned Dirk Dirksen all-ages music venue, Mabuhay Gardens. With a hundred-dollar check from Allen Ginsberg and another from Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Vale published his own punk zine, Search and Destroy.
Louder, Faster, Shorter Live at The Mabuhay Gardens 1978: A Benefit For Striking Coal Miners (UXA, Dils, Avengers, Sleepers, and The Mutants):
Vale: I did the first punk rock zine out of San Francisco called Search and Destroy that was modeled on Andy Warhol’s magazine, Interview. Therefore, it was pretty much all interviews, a few articles, and my objective was to capture primary source thinking from smart people about what punk was and where it was going… So, when our movement started in very late ’76, really ’77, my punk rock zine didn’t come out until some date in June in ’77 and it only really lasted through November of ’78. It was really only a year and a half, I think plus the previous month that we were incubating but, we only had a great movement until about November of ’78 and then all this violence came in, which is invented and exported from Orange County. I feel that all the violence was hatched by a conservative think tank down in Orange County trying to figure out “How can we kill punk rock? Our daughters and sons are all getting into it. How do we kill it?” So, they succeeded, violence always works. And drugs.
Dead Kennedys: California Über Alles/Viva Las Vegas – Mabuhay Gardens 1979 (Liberty and Justice for None):
Copies of Search and Destroy are available online from RE/Search Publications and feature a veritable who’s who of punk from the Avengers and Dead Kennedys to Siouxsie Sioux and Joe Strummer as well as interviews with John Waters, Russ Meyer, William S. Burroughs, and JG Ballard.
Vale: I put Burroughs in Search and Destroy. That wasn’t an accident, I wanted him in there from day one and it took until Issue #10 to get him, same for JG Ballard. I wanted to put them both into Search and Destroy Issue #1 if I had the money which I obviously did not have because I feel ideas are what are most important. If you want to have a different world future, you’ve got to have different ideas. You can’t create that new future with the same old ideas and with that same old language which of course, I reiterate, is crippling people from creating a new future. So, Burroughs, if anyone’s really read Burroughs, there’s like a million books on him by now, but I think you can only pick out one and the key one is The Job, for me. The book has so many ideas, practically at least one idea per page.
Vale also featured interviews with pioneering Industrial bands Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire and delved further into industrial music along with its roots in William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s cut-ups and Dada and Surrealism in RE/Search #4/5: Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Throbbing Gristle and RE/Search #6/7: Industrial Culture Handbook. Throbbing Gristle’s Genesis P-Orridge and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson even mixed an album of Burroughs’ tape recorder experiments in 1981 for Industrial Records called Nothing Here Now But The Recordings.
RE/Search #4/5 features interviews with Burroughs, Gysin, and Throbbing Gristle along with a portion of Burroughs’ Revised Boy Scout Manual. Both books offer a fascinating window into the emerging industrial music scene in the early eighties. Vale, however, maintains an uneasy relationship to the legacy of RE/Search #4/5 in light of TG guitarist Cosey Fanni Tutti’s account of her musical and personal relationship with Genesis P-Orridge in her 2017 autobiography Art Sex Music.
Cabaret Voltaire – Nag Nag Nag (1979):
Nothing Here Now But The Recordings: A Conversation With Genesis Breyer P-Orridge:
Vale: RE/Search #4/5, that was done when I was still dazzled by Genesis P-Orridge, I’m completely the opposite now, having read Cosey Fanni Tutti’s incredible autobiography. I urge Genesis P-Orridge fans to read that book and read it carefully.
Throbbing Gristle – Discipline:
“In the foregoing pages I have described a number of revolutionary weapons, devices, and procedures, clearly recognizable as weapons designed to kill or incapacitate opponents. Revolutionaries, having been forced into armed opposition, are prone to be suspicious of other weapons. If you can’t hit someone over the head with it right now they don’t want to know. Who are the enemies? The following statement, which was intended to outline the policy of a newspaper to be called MOB, I think will show us who the enemies are.
MY OWN BUSINESS…M.O.B….MOB…assumes the right of every individual to possess his inner space, to do what interests him with people he wants to see. In some areas this right was more respected a hundred years ago than it is in the permissive society.” –William S. Burroughs taken from the Revised Boy Scout Manual
Vale: Stuff in the Revised Boy Scout Manual, that’s pretty funny, especially part one that I use, part two and three, maybe not so rewarding, but what the hell! I’m glad it finally got released by Ohio University Press. So, yeah, if you want to have a different future, then you have to have a different history, so the history I tried to restore for people did involve Burroughs and Ballard. To a lesser extent, Brion Gysin, who is important but not as important as Genesis P-Orridge makes out. Sure, he kind of maybe invented the Cut-Up, where you literally cut up columns of newspaper text and then re-arrange them on a page and then see what the hell came out. Even Burroughs heavily edited his cut-ups, not any old cut-up works. Maybe one out of one hundred and you have to start with pretty good material, too.
Vale: RE/Search #4/5, there’s not much to say, I had no money back then. It has interviews and it has, you know, writings that I got permission to use, and it’s a magazine. And I just keep it in print until I die, I guess. I wouldn’t do it, but people still read it, so it must have some value. It’s been around almost 40 years.
Genesis P-Orridge also appears in Vale’s 1989 “Investigation of Contemporary Adornment and Ritual” Modern Primitives.
Vale: This was a very simple idea. I was the first person to put into print that I know of which is put into the covers of only one book every single body modification and decoration practice humans have done to decorate and beautify, that they think, whatever, their bodies! Everything they’ve ever done all over the planet since the dawn of time which is possible to do outside of doctors and hospitals and surgery.
If you want to have a different future, then you have to have a different history, so the history I tried to restore for people did involve Burroughs and Ballard.
Modern Primitives features interviews with several notable the tattoo and body modification enthusiasts (Anton LaVey and S&M performance artist Sheree Rose) along with legendary tattoo artists (Lyle Tuttle, Ed Hardy, Vyvyn Lazonga) and body piercers Jim Ward and Fakir Musafar who incidentally coined the term Modern Primitive “to describe a non-tribal person who responds to primal urges and does something with the body.”
Contemporary thoughts on cultural appropriation from the late Mr. Musafar aside, the book is now regarded as a cult classic and credited with bringing tattoos and body piercing into the mainstream.
Vale: Well, I was just lucky enough to meet him [Fakir Musafar] before he was famous, in 1982 and then I spent eight hours talking to him and visited him in his house and all this stuff and I just print what he says and then, guess what? He wanted to cut out a ton of stuff that he said. So, then I learned my lesson, never interview anyone and show them the transcript before it is printed. (Laughs) Big mistake! I mean, I did that twice and had problems, so I try to learn from my past mistakes which of course is impossible. Anyway, Fakir, he was an adventure! He used his own body as a canvas to do all these kinds of experiments just like Bob Flanagan. I did a whole book on him, Bob Flanagan: Supermasochist!
The late S&M performance artist Bob Flanagan spent his childhood in and out of hospitals undergoing painful treatments for Cystic Fibrosis and credited S&M for living well-past the CF life expectancy in the mid-nineties at the age of 42.
PKM: Yeah, he was really fascinating!
Vale: They both were! Anyone who deeply goes inside themselves, so to speak, and returns and in an articulate manner, is capable of communicating, you know, I don’t know, the entire spectrum of their exploration.
If anyone can make you distant from the human race, it’s medical school where you have to dissect a real human being, I mean “Whoa! (laughs) Is that me I’m dissecting?”
PKM: Yeah, like I know for Fakir Musafar, it was a more spiritual tribal thing and he was doing the Sun Dance and he felt a real spiritual connection there and it seemed like Bob Flanagan’s was more on the empowering pleasure and pain getting through his Cystic Fibrosis, right?
Vale: But it was for him a spiritual component as well, but artistic component as well, what Bob did. Like, “Can I live through this?” He would ask himself a lot during his life. Like, “I guess I survived that, I’ll try this!” (Laughs) You can’t get me to drive nails through my balls, though. I mean, I don’t care if I can survive it or not. There’s a lot of people you don’t really trust. You interview them and you capture their words, but I don’t think it’s the wisest thing to imitate everything they did in my book, especially.
Bob Flanagan: Visiting Hours (1992):
Vale: I had sort of a goal, though, which was try to capture everything that people can sort of do to themselves in a ritual way or whatever you call it, self-exploration way and survive.
Vale and co-author and RE/Search co-founder Andrea Juno featured a video of Bob Flanagan’s scaffold routine with partner Sheree Rose as part of their Modern Primitives exhibit for Seattle’s CoCA Museum in 1989.
The exhibit presented the photographs by Bobby Neel Adams, Dan Micoletta, Bill Samon and others of Modern Primitives luminaries such as Fakir Musafar and Tattoo Mike Wilson. The exhibition ran June 23 – August 26 and the opening night reception featured live tattoo demonstrations by Madame Lazonga, tattoo and fashion show, sword swallowing and fire eating performance by circus performer, Captain Don Leslie and films by Leslie Gladsjo. “Modern Primitives” was part of a series curated by CoCA Program Director Larry Reid as a response to the National Endowment for the Arts funding cutbacks and the politically repressive climate of the period. In an unpublished interview, Reid mentioned that there was a constant line of people waiting to pay $1 to see the exhibit (CoCA Members free). – CoCA Archives
Naturally, this sparked the attention of the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms who sent a letter to National Endowment for the Arts chairman John E. Frohnmayer targeting the CoCA and RE/Search Publications’ as part of his ongoing attacks on the NEA for the “funding of immoral trash” in order to impose restrictions on future NEA grants with his “Helms Amendment”. A copy of Helms’ letter to Frohnmayer (along with plenty of fun facts about the GOP’s attacks on the NEA and more) can be seen in Linda Kauffman’s 1998 book Bad Girls and Sick Boys: Fantasies in Contemporary Culture (University of California Press).
Vale: He was one of many right-wing political figures trying to make a name for himself by attacking cutting edge art practice.
PKM: Yeah, he was gunning for the National Endowment for the Arts.
Vale: He attacked NEA, yeah, “You’re giving money to all these perverts! Social enemies of society!” (laughs) Right-wingers like that will always be with us guaranteed because it’s a way to like, puff up themselves for notoriety. They all wanna be celebrities, too.
PKM: JG Ballard really liked your Modern Primitives book.
Vale: Anthropology, yeah, because he appreciated urban anthropology or ethnography or whatever word you come up with. Every writer is kind of an urban anthropologist, they’re all outsiders that’s why they can write about anything. If you’re too involved, you just can’t see yourself, you can’t describe the way it is.
Vale followed up the self-exploration of Modern Primitives in 1990 with an expanded RE/Search Edition of Ballard’s novel The Atrocity Exhibition. Vale and co-author Andrea Juno teamed up with photographer Ana Barrado and medical illustrator Phoebe Gloeckner to bring to life Ballard’s mid-twentieth century fever dream of violence, death, and celebrity obsession and with annotations from JG Ballard, himself.
Vale: Ballard was an outsider from day one, privileged white guy with a good education put in, more or less, a prison camp, in Shanghai for I don’t know how many years, but then he gets out of it and he gets moved to England which is another foreign country to him, too. And as soon as he could, he goes to Canada and trains with an RAF pilot and somewhere along the way, he tried out medical school and didn’t like it, the same way Burroughs did. I mean, if anyone can make you distant from the human race, it’s medical school where you have to dissect a real human being, I mean “Whoa! (laughs) Is that me I’m dissecting?” I mean, how can you get more objective than medical school about what it is to be a human?
That’s why they invented the word black humor, so we could cope with this crazy world we live in, (laughs) in which things are worse than even the worst the most imaginative person can describe.
The Atrocity Exhibition was first published in the US in 1970, but Doubleday, the publisher, quickly pulped the copies over the inclusion of Chapter 14, “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan”. Inspired by his own bewilderment over the Gipper’s political ascent, Ballard had written “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” as a position paper on Reagan’s appeal as Presidential contender and unwittingly foretold of his candidacy.
Incidence of orgasms in fantasies of sexual intercourse with Ronald Reagan. Patients were provided with assembly kit photographs of sexual partners during intercourse. In each case Reagan’s face was superimposed upon the original partner. Vaginal intercourse with ‘Reagan’ proved uniformly disappointing, producing orgasm in only 2 percent of subjects. Axillary, buccal, naval, aural, and orbital modes produced proximal erections. The preferred mode of entry overwhelmingly proved to be the rectal.
Taken from “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” – The Atrocity Exhibition
Grove Press published a US edition of The Atrocity Exhibition in 1972 retitled as Love and Napalm Export: USA with a preface by William S. Burroughs, whom Ballard admired a great deal. Burroughs’ original Preface is also featured in the expanded RE/Search edition.
The Atrocity Exhibition is a profound and disquieting book. The nonsexual roots of sexuality are explored with a surgeon’s precision. An auto crash can be more sexually stimulating than a pornographic picture. (Surveys indicate that wet dreams in many cases have no overt sexual content, whereas dreams with an overt sexual content in many cases do not result in orgasm.) – Taken from the Preface by William S. Burroughs
Vale: Both Burroughs and Ballard, they’re really more or less what you’d call Sci-Fi writers. Neither one of them thought of themselves as that, they were just sort of Speculative Fiction people imagining the worst-case scenarios and writing about them, that’s all they did. And unfortunately, a lot of that in real life is even worse than what they wrote about. It’s funny how that happens. That’s why they invented the word black humor, so we could cope with this crazy world we live in, (laughs) in which things are worse than even the worst the most imaginative person can describe. The reality is even worse than that. That’s why we read Ballard and Burroughs just to try and even be able to cope better with what the future is bringing us, that’s all.And for some reason, those two are better at it than most people. I don’t even bother reading most fiction today because it’s so bourgeois, still. It’s not extreme enough, for me, at least.
In a wacky turn of events, a group of ex-Situationists re-printed copies of “Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan” on Republican National Committee stationery and handed them out at the 1980 San Francisco Republican Convention without raising so much as an eyebrow. According to Ballard, “…it was accepted for what it resembled, a psychological position paper on the candidate’s subliminal appeal, commissioned from some maverick think-tank.” (The Atrocity Exhibition)
Vale will be at Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1 with RE/Search books and zines for purchase from September 19-22nd.