We spoke with Jackie Greene about his subconscious connections to the phases of the moon, the silver lining of adolescence, performing with fearlessness and why we love the concept of the anti-hero.
I think there is something about your late teens and early twenties that feels like you against the world. I think you’re better for it, because it lets you in on a part of yourself that you may not know you have.
We asked Jackie what came to mind when presented with these phases of the moon.
I’ll close my eyes. I’ll do this very seriously.
I’d like to begin with your very first childhood memory. What was it, and where were you? Do you think this memory has been distorted or fictionalized with time?
Well, if I’m being totally honest, I don’t know if this is a childhood memory or a dream I had when I was a child. I remember it pretty vividly. I’m assuming that it’s a dream. I was in my parents’ bed between the two of them, and I hovered above them about five or six feet. I started spinning around like a hot dog on a spit. I would see them, and then I’d see the walls, then I’d look around and see the roof.
At the time when I was remembering it, I was remembering it from the vantage point of looking down and seeing my parents. But now I’m remembering it as seeing myself look down. And then I’d wake up and come crashing down on them with a big belly flop. It’s really stupid, but you’re asking the earliest thing. This is the earliest thing I remember. It’s not that interesting, but that’s what it is.
That’s fascinating, because it’s like a mix between a memory, a dream and an out-of-body experience.
For a long time, I rationally thought “Oh, it’s just a dream.” It became a dream that I would narrate. The viewpoint became different over time. It went from first-person to third-person. It’s a third-person memory of a dream. It’s just a little instance, but that is young. That’s about as far back as I can remember. I must have been an infant at the time. Memory is horrible. Memory is notoriously bad. People are super-suggestible.
From your childhood, I’d like to talk about your young adulthood. I read something interesting you wrote about discovering Bob Dylan’s electric period in your twenties — “We all tend to have a messiah complex at that age.” Can you meditate on that for me a bit? It kind of reminds me of how everything often feels extreme when you’re young, when you need the grand, sweeping gesture out of art and music. I mean, unless you’re kind of dull at that age, you tend to want magic.
Well, I think that’s exactly right. I think there is something about your late teens and early twenties that feels like you against the world, and there’s an aspect of Bob Dylan that sort of feeds that messiah complex ego. I think you’re better for it, because it lets you in on a part of yourself that you may not know you have, if you don’t go through it when you’re older. He can be kind of preachy, I guess, and prophetic in that time period.
The critics would call him “the voice of a generation,” or something like that, and later on he would be like “I never wanted to be that.” I can totally relate to that. I mean, I would never want to be that now. How ridiculous would that sound? But when you’re in your early twenties, it sounds like a pretty good gig. It sounds like something you’d want to do. You think you know something about the world.
I feel like Dylan totally cultivated that, though. I don’t think it was authentically like “Who, me?” He was totally playing into it, maybe while denying it at the same time.
He’s no slouch. He’s a smart dude. I think he knew what to do. But from the standpoint of what I was talking about, I think there’s a part in everyone’s life where you’re overly self-righteous, I guess.
Did you feel that way in your early twenties?
Yeah, sure, to a certain extent. I felt like I knew so much more than I did.
People really are diverse in their imaginations and their thoughts. Nobody wants to be a robot, you know?
I feel like that’s also kind of a needed mechanism in human development, to make you figure out how to be independent and pay your bills and stuff.
That would make sense. I mean, otherwise, what are you going to do? You’re going to just live with Mom forever. Then it becomes like the Oedipal mother, as psychologists would call it. Then you’re just like a withering little leaf. I think that’s right. Look, a lot of countries have conscription at that age, and they put them in the army because they don’t know what else to do with them. There’s some utility in that, I think.
There’s utility in pretending you know everything. I mean, it prepares you for real life. Because what is adulthood and business, really? Pretending you’re important to the right people. And they write biographies about people because, beyond their contributions to our culture, I think, they were assertive and memorably mean. Look at Steve Jobs, or Miles Davis.
Maybe it’s not the assholeish-ness, but having a strong personality in some form. Again, maybe recognizing that period in your life and allowing it to take shape in your twenties is important. But you don’t want just being right all the time to intrude on having a family or anything like that.
With a guy like John Lennon, I feel like that anger never faded even as he entered his thirties, and it was kind of unbecoming. He was kind of a mad kid until he died. I feel like there’s a limit to that.
This is pure devil’s advocacy, but I’ve been wondering about the “dark sides” of artists that are sometimes romanticized or vilified. Some might say that the role of an artist is to kind of live outside the boundaries of society, commenting on it from the streets, as it were. I don’t have an answer to this; I just wonder if consumers want to have their cake and eat it too, by wanting the gnarly art but not the kind of person who accesses that. Maybe I’m wrong.
I think about that too. I think that’s right. If you look at people who have done great things, they’ve also done horrible things. I just think that’s a truism. We don’t like people who are all just one thing. Look at Batman, for example. We like him because he’s a hero, but he’s also the Dark Knight. There’s a darkness, something mysterious…
Which is where shows like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos come from.
Exactly. That’s compelling to people, because we see ourselves in that. We’re complicated beings. We’re capable of really great things and intense evil. Whether you like it or not, Stalin was a human being like you and I. It wasn’t like he was an alien. We tend to step back and judge people — that’s just what we do. It’s not like it’s right or wrong.
There’s also this funny dynamic between public figures and their audiences where it’s easy to go “Oh, he or she is washed up and should just stop making records, films, whatever.” But it’s like “Dude, the fact they ended up doing what they wanted to do with their lives for a paying audience makes them 100% more impressive than you.”
Yeah, and by the way, the question someone should ask when they have those feelings about judging another person in that regard is “Do they have children?” And then ask yourself what you would do to feed your children. Say you need to pay the rent, pay the mortgage and put food in your kid’s belly. You get an opportunity. What are you going to do? You’re going to go out on tour. Maybe ask yourself that question, then you may have a different perspective on what someone should or shouldn’t do in their fifties.
The person who’s making those sweeping judgements on a “washed up” artist may or may not be working for Intel or AT&T and have a regular job. Maybe that musician they’re talking about had their heyday 20 or 30 years ago, but still has bills just like you. It’s sort of the same idea as when someone says “Oh, they’re a sell-out.” What does that mean? I think there’s a clear case for what selling out is, but I don’t think it’s what most people think. Again, does that person need to feed their children? What do you know about that person’s life? You don’t know a damn thing.
I understand that you recently kind of dove into the world of animation by collaborating with Bill Plympton a little bit. I’m not sure if you’re more of an enthusiast or a practitioner, but do you feel a kind of freedom in that sort of super-psychedelic animation work?
I wouldn’t say I’m an enthusiast or an expert. Animation, and comic books in general, is something I’ve had at least a minor interest in growing up. I remember there was a period of time before he created Spawn when Todd McFarlane drew a few issues of Spider-Man and it fucking blew me away. I remember it very vividly. He drew the characters way disproportionate. The muscles were ridiculous, everyone looked like a caricature. And the square boxes wouldn’t hold them. He’d draw them outside of the panels. There were no more boundaries inside the comic strip itself. I remember looking at that and just thinking I’d never seen anything like it. It was so inspiring to me.
From then on, I really wanted to be a comic book artist. I still paint to this day. But I met Bill through a friend of a friend of a friend and sort of became hip to his work a few years ago. I thought it was sort of challenging. He can piss a lot of people off, which I always think is a good sign. I just thought he was such a weirdo that this would be a cool thing to do. I didn’t go into it with anything in mind, really, other than to see what he could come up with. Really, it’s all him. I said “Hey, do your thing and go as far as you want.” For me, it’s more freeing because I don’t have to be in the video!
That kind of links back to what we just talked about, when you mentioned being able to piss people off, to throw them for a loop a little bit. You can go way too far with that attribute, but I think there’s a nice balance you can strike.
I guess what I’m saying is that he’s not concerned with being overly politically correct or anything like that. He’s like George Carlin, or any of these great comedians who aren’t concerned with the status quo. It’s a very valuable thing for artists to have, but like you said, you can take it too far and just exist to upset people. But it says something about your spirit if you’re willing to say what you have to say without worrying what other people have to think about it. Even if they don’t necessarily agree with you, if you can do it in such a way that people can see that, they can see it in themselves. They really are that complicated, they really are diverse in their imaginations and their thoughts. Nobody wants to be a robot, you know?
Every once in a while, something incredible happens, and you can’t get that incredible without falling on your face a few times first.
To take that idea a little further, that’s almost like an advertising technique, to give people the idea that they can choose. Sometimes I see subway ads in New York that are like “This is the perfect pharmacy for you.” Nobody wants to feel anonymous, especially in a congested city.
It’s heightened in a place like New York City, because mass civilization tends to make you feel anonymous. That feeling of isolation, oddly enough, can be higher in a place where you see millions and millions of people. You never see the same person twice. You can sort of drown in that. I think people want to stand out.
It’s funny, because when you grow up in a small town, you want to go out to a bar and it’s like “Oh, here’s five of my exes and my worst enemy.” But in New York, you can’t even get anyone to come to your house! I live off an esoteric stop on the M train, which for some is as prohibitive as living on the sun.
Exactly! You have to plan for a week to go up to the Upper East Side or something like that. I know what you mean. Look, I’m not going to hate on New York City that much, but I’m a little bit over it. That’s part of the reason we’re moving. You know, I didn’t grow up here. It’s a little much for me.
I’d like to shift gears from here and talk about the impressive list of folks you’ve worked with. I mean, Bob Weir! And dozens of other greats too. The Grateful Dead, to me, have some of the weirdest players ever. Nobody plays like Phil Lesh. I’m wondering what approaches may have been passed down to you by certain cats who lived in an entirely different structure of song composition and the music business. I imagine it was a completely different world in the 1960s and ‘70s.
All of those experiences inform my process now. It’s always been the case. The Grateful Dead is like an institution. It’s a humongous thing. I’ve played with Phil Lesh & Friends, and I remember very distinctly, back in 2006, that the first few dates were sort of worrying about the improvisational nature of the shows. For example, we’d be in the middle of a song — let’s say “Althea” or something — and Phil would turn to everyone and say “OK, let’s stay on this B minor for a while!” We play on that, and then he’d be like “Let’s do D major for a while!”
How is that even communicated onstage with a giant band?
He has a talk-back mic. If he presses a foot pedal, the mic just goes to the band. Every once in a while, he’ll forget to push it and the audience can hear it. Kind of funny.
But as the band got going, you didn’t need to do that anymore. You just listen to each other. Now, if I go play with Phil in Terrapin Family Band or something, I’ll just start playing something else in a sympathetic key and he’ll pick up on it, or vice versa. Then everyone will fall in without having to say anything. I think that’s a pretty unique way of performing, but at the time, it was terrifying. You’re in front of 2,000 people and it’s like “Okay, what if we fuck up? What if it sounds horrible?”
Well, as you know, the Dead weren’t afraid to sound horrible or make total blunders.
Exactly. What I realized is that the approach is fearless. Phil and all those guys are fearless. To the audience, that’s currency. That’s what they feed off of. Every once in a while, something incredible happens, and you can’t get that incredible without falling on your face a few times first. It becomes larger than it was ever intended to be to begin with. It doesn’t happen without just being fearless and going for it. Man, it took me a while to get that concept and be comfortable, but once I did, it was amazingly freeing. It makes it really fun. It makes it feel less like performing and more like discovering.
Curated by: Morgan Enos
Conducted by: Phone
Published: December 26, 2017
Total questions: 17 + 8
Word count: 2350
Reading time: Nine minutes
Moon phases: 8
adolescence, animation, army, Batman, Bill Plympton, Billy Gibbons, Bob Dylan, Breaking Bad, complex, conscription, cultivation, diverse, dream, football, George Carlin, guitar, hot dog, imagination, Jackie Greene, John Lennon, Julius Caesar, leaf, memory, messiah, moon, Oedipus, out-of-body experience, phases, robot, songwriting, Spider-Man, The Grateful Dead, The Sopranos, thought, Todd McFarlane, truism, withered
About the curator
Morgan Enos is a songwriter and journalist originally from California. His curatorial work for North of the Internet aims to strike a deeper place in his conversation subjects — the dreamy subtext to the linear everyday. Morgan also frequently writes power pop records as Other Houses about joy, outer space, frustration, chess and spiritual light. He resides in New York, where he continues to creatively fire on all cylinders.
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