Monday, July 19, 2010

Scott Kempner Breaks His Silence

Pals of Mrs. Meth’s boy Clifford know I'll swan dive into hemorrhagic shock if forced to go too long without the good stuff, and it’s been too long, my droogs, since fellas with guitar guts, soul ripping, honest, have burned across these bankrupt airwaves. There's nothing coming through that we haven’t already heard half a million times until everything holy has become muzak to broken ears... So your love-starved author contacted Scott "Top 10" Kempner, then drove to the edge of town, climbed out of his rusting Jap garbage hauler, slammed the door, and strode through the woods until he reached the banks of the Rockaway River. And there he fell to his knees and looked to the sky. Who will save rock and roll?

Meth: When did you first realize that The Dictators had passed into a serious part of rock-and-roll history?

Kempner: Well, this is not an open-shut, widely accepted or widely held concept to begin with, our being part of rock’n’roll history. I think it is close to 50/50 as to how often the band is given any kind of recognition in, for example, the printed word: books, magazines, etc., things that serve as accepted proof of one’s relevance. Timing-wise, we were really born on the cusp—that’s one reason why. We in no way had any kind of D.I.Y. work ethic or sound; we bordered on metal, we had Ross, and we started on the tail end of the Dolls, and a year or two before the Ramones are all other reasons why. That last point is what I mean about being born on the cusp. But, there’s a difference of opinion out there. A confusion, maybe, as to who we actually are, or were. Plus, what would come to be defined as the “Punk” sound, that downstroke eighth-note thing that The Ramones used in every song they recorded for their entire career, more or less, was not something we participated in. Ironically, it would become something we did rely on decades later around the recording of DFFD.

All of this sets up the answer to your actual question, which is I am completely unsure as to exactly how much we have passed into rock’n’roll history. I mean, we’re not ever mentioned in the same breath as The Ramones, Blondie, Television, Talking Heads, or even The Dead Boys. Which, to me, totally makes sense. It’s always some other classification outside of those bands that we’re put into, when we’re mentioned at all that is. Which also makes sense to me.

On the other hand, I do meet people all the time who are thrilled to meet Top 10 of The Dictators, and who really get it, and as a rule, the fans we have love us. And, sometimes it’s more about how big you are in the hearts of your fans than just how big you are. And, we have ferocious fans. It does make me smile just thinkin’ about ‘em. So, where do we stand in The Big Book? I just don’t really know.

Meth: I was called a punk fiction writer in print by no less than Andy Shernoff. But to be honest, I have no idea what that means anymore. To me, James Dean was punk. Brando. Joey Ramone. Sid Vicious... But Green Day? Jesus Murphy! If that’s punk, then flush me now.

Kempner: Punk is a word that has survived on the strength of sheer flexibility, the ability to mutate, and to finally find a home in a financially lucrative host. It has always denoted some form of outlaw status. A punk was misunderstood, a victim, embodied a slow smoldering rage at one’s own ineffectiveness, the little engine that can’t. As far as I know the word has its origins in prisons. The one who becomes sex slave to others was a punk. A humble beginning, for sure. It retained some of the victim vibe of its prison origin in its travels until it gets transferred to an actual outlaw and/or, perhaps, criminal. But, definitely an outsider. Brando becomes a punk icon by assuming outsider-ness, vulnerability, rage, unpredictability and anti-heroism. The latter is retained forevermore in the punk ethos. It’s all about anti-hero, by virtue of all this iconography that has preceded it.

In Rock’n’Roll, punk reaches its more contemporary meaning when the tag begins to be worn proudly, as a statement that contains all the previous meanings and mutations, except the original one, the prison one. First as a description of all the post-Beatles one hit wonders and the thousands of band that began making a racket in mom and dad’s garage. Then, it gets codified as an umbrella tag for the mid-70’s CBGB scene we were a part of. Finally, Green Day institutionalized it by making millions off of it. What’s the connection? Along the way, that Ramones sound becomes institutionalized as “the Punk” guitar style. And that, right there, that little head of a pin, the Johnny Ramone guitar style that Green Day adapted and built on, that is why they are now Punk!

I would say that Shernoff being the astute fellow I know him to be was referring to your individuality, your uncompromising style and attitude, all of which would be pure outsiderness. That would be what Andy was talking about. He’s talking about a more aesthetically “pure” use of the term punk. I would say we would all use the term punk to describe Richard Meltzer, the Dictators’ godfather. I would also put my personal opinions about the word punk closer to Andy’s than I would to the explanation and chronology of the word I’ve offered, especially when it comes to you. It’s a compliment.

Meth: I don’t remember what I expected from DFFD—I guess a sort of retro-fit BLOOD BROTHERS (my favorite of the 'Tators original LPs). But I was ossified, pal. It wasn’t only the best Dictators album by light years, it became an instant classic in the Meth household. One of my favorite 25 albums ever. Did you guys realize how giant it was at the time?

Kempner: That record took a very long time to make, and we went through about another half dozen songs, or more, in all kinds of styles that were rejected along the way. I do think it has the best stuff we ever recorded, although I’m not crazy about the whole thing. It was also a difficult time for me personally in the band. It wasn’t long after the record finally came out that I left the band. Maybe six months after it came out. I guess it had been coming for awhile, and a disagreement over a tour of Australia in the Summer of ’02 brought my 30 years in the band crashing to a close. I was sure at the time that I would never play with them again, and I didn’t play another show with the band for two years.

My return to the fold only happened because Little Steven was having his Underground Garage Festival, wanted the Dictators, and didn’t think it was The Dictators without me. He went to battle for me unbeknownst to me, at first. But, his opinion is an opinion I happened to share, which is of course exactly where we stand at the moment, and this time it isn’t me on the outside. If Steven hadn’t gotten involved at that level I don’t know for sure if I ever would have played with them again. I’m very grateful he did what he did, believe me. I hope the other guys feel the same way.

But, as for DFFD, I put WHO WILL SAVE ROCK’N’ROLL?, I AM RIGHT, AVENUE A, IT’S ALL RIGHT, SAVAGE BEAT, CHANNEL SURFIN’ and JIM GORDON BLUES up there as the best things we ever committed to record. The record also sounds way better than anything we had ever recorded, mostly because we were way better than we were when we were recording in the 70’s. And, if it stands as the last studio document of the band, which at this time seems to be the likely case, I think it does a good job of that of representing where the band was at in the 21st century.

Meth: It kills me that there’s nothing new coming out of the ‘tators. I’m pals with Richard and Andy so I sort of get it. Any thoughts on this?

Kempner: Well, for one thing, the Dictators record at an agonizingly slow pace. That’s part of the problem. We’ve always had major personality differences within the band, as well. Not that this is an unusual thing for a band. I don’t know if any band is totally free of the artistic differences, personality clashes, and such, but another thing that Steven says that I totally agree with is that seeing as to how hard it is to make a band work, and to stick it out together, yet, how fantastic a thing a great band is, and how rare it is, Steven’s take is: you do anything and everything you gotta do, go through whatever you gotta go through, to keep that band together. He’s right about that.

So, ultimately it breaks my heart a bit that we have been torn asunder by these same clichés that have plagued rock’n’roll bands since the beginning of bands. But, that’s because those clichés are real, and painful, and very hard to overcome. So, it is very hard to accept the likelihood that the band will never play together again, but that does seem to be the case. I thank God I have the Del-Lords back in my life. And, at this point, I don’t really think about the Dictators much. I’ve come to some sort of acceptance that this is the way it is, and having the Del-Lords back, which is something into which I have a much greater creative input, being the songwriter and all.

Just want to add a bit about the word "Punk" question. The final resting place for punk, the final irony of the word's gestation and mutation, is that its connection to the outlaw/outsider vibe is now inverted and perverted, as Green Day has taken the word full circle, from outsider status to now describing a band who is as big an insider as anyone in the music biz.

Well they suck. I wouldn’t give them a chance to bore me. But that’s why God gave us memories and recording studios--that we might have roses in winter and Dictators' music after breakfast.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great article. Scott is one of the most articulate guys in rock. He's right about the fans, we want shows, put the petty stuff aside and give us at least one or two a year.

So many of the bands from that period of NYC have lost members -- there is no better band than the 'taters to carry the torch.

Who will save rock and roll?