By Pete Hamill / June 5, 1975
Do you think of New York as home now?
Yeah, this is the longest I've ever been away from England. I've almost lived here as long as I've lived in London. I was in London from, let's see, '64, '65, '66, '67, actually in London 'cause then it was your Beatlemania bit and we all ended up like a lot of rock & rollers end up, living an hour away from London in the country, the drivin'-in-from-the-big-estate bit. 'Cause you couldn't live in London, 'cause people just bugged the ass off you. So I've lived in New York longer than I actually lived in London.
In view of the immigration case, is one reason you've stayed here so long because if you left, they'd pull a Charlie Chaplin on you and not let you back in?
You bet. There's no way they would let me back. And . . . it's worth it to me. I can last out, without leaving here, another ten years, if that's the way they want to play it. I'll earn enough to keep paying them. I'm really getting blackmailed. I'm paying to stay. Paying takes, on one hand, about a half million dollars, and I've hardly worked very hard for that. I mean, that's with sittin' on me arse and I've paid a half million in taxes. So I'm paying them to attack me and keep me busy and harass me, on one hand, while on the other hand I've got to pay me own lawyers. Some people think I'm here just to make the American dollars. But I don't have to be here to make the dollars. I could earn American dollars just sittin' in a recording studio in Hong Kong. Wherever I am, the money follows me. It's gonna come out of America whether they like it or not.
Right. And the government doesn't choose that John Lennon makes money. The people who buy your music do that.
The implication that John Lennon wants to come to the land of milk and honey 'cause it's easier to pick up the money, so I can pick it up directly instead of waiting for it to arrive in England. Or Brazil. Or wherever I decide to do it. I resent the implication, especially as I'm payin' through the nose. I don't mind paying taxes, either, which is strange. I never did. I don't like 'em using it for bombs and that. But I don't think I could do a Joan Baez. I don't have that kind of gut. I did never complain in England either, because, well, it's buying people teeth . . . I'm sick of gettin' sick about taxes. Taxes is what seems to be it, and there's nothin' to be done about it unless you choose to make a crusade about it. And I'm sick of being in crusades because I always get nailed up before I'm even in the crusade. They get me in the queue while I'm readin' the pages about it: "Oh, there's a crusade on, I wonder should I . . ." I mean, I get caught before I've ever done anything about it.
You went through a period of really heavy involvement in radical causes. Lately you seem to have gone back to your art in a more direct way. What happened?
I'll tell you what happened literally. I got off the boat, only it was an airplane, and landed in New York, and the first people who got in touch with me was Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. It's as simple as that. It's those two famous guys from America who's callin': "Hey, yeah, what's happenin', what's goin' on? . . ." And the next thing you know, I'm doin' John Sinclair benefits and one thing and another. I'm pretty movable, as an artist, you know. They almost greeted me off the plane and the next minute I'm involved, you know.
How did all of this affect your work?
It almost ruined it, in a way. It became journalism and not poetry. And I basically feel that I'm a poet. Even if it does go ba-deeble, eedle, eedle, it, da-deedle, deedle, it. I'm not a formalized poet, I have no education, so I have to write in the simplest forms usually. And I realized that over a period of time - and not just 'cause I met Jerry Rubin off the plane - but that was like a culmination. I realized that we were poets but we were really folk poets, and rock & roll was folk poetry - I've always felt that. Rock & roll was folk music. Then I began to take it seriously on another level, saying, "Well, I am reflecting what is going on, right?" And then I was making an effort to reflect what was going on. Well, it doesn't work like that. It doesn't work as pop music or what I want to do. It just doesn't make sense. You get into that bit where you can't talk about trees, 'cause, y'know, y'gotta talk about "Corruption on Fifty-fourth Street"! It's nothing to do with that. It's a bit larger than that. It's the usual lesson that I've learned in me little thirty-four years: As soon as you've clutched onto something, you think - you're always clutchin' at straws - this is what life is all about. I think artists are lucky because the straws are always blowin' out of their hands. But the unfortunate thing is that most people find the straw hat and hang on to it, like your best friend that got the job at the bank when he was fifteen and looked twenty-eight before he was twenty. "Oh, this is it! Now I know what I'm doing! Right? Down this road for the next hundred years" . . . and it ain't never that. Whether it's a religious hat or a political hat or a no-political hat: whatever hat is was, always looking for these straw hats. I think I found out it's a waste of time. There is no hat to wear. Just keep moving around and changing clothes is the best. That's all that goes on: change.
At one time I thought, well, I'm avoidin' that thing called the Age Thing, whether it hits you at twenty-one, when you take your first job - I always keep referrin' to that because it has nothing to do, virtually, with your physical age. I mean, we all know the guys who took the jobs when we left school, the straight jobs, they all look like old guys within six weeks. You'd meet them and they'd be lookin' like Well, I've Settled Down Now. So I never want to settle down, in that respect. I always want to be immature in that respect. But then I felt that if I keep bangin' my head on the wall it'll stop me from gettin' that kind of age in the head. By keeping creating, consciously or unconsciously, extraordinary situations which in the end you'd write about. But maybe it has nothin' to do with it. I'm still mullin' that over. Still mullin' over last year now. Maybe that was it. I was still trying to avoid somethin' but doin' it the wrong way 'round. Whether it's called age or whatever.
Is it called growing up?
I don't want to grow up but I'm sick of not growing up - that way. I'll find a different way of not growing up. There's a better way of doing it than torturing your body. And then your mind. The guilt! It's just so dumb. And it makes me furious to be dumb because I don't like dumb people. And there I am, doing the dumbest things . . . I seem to do the things that I despise the most, almost. All of that to - what? - avoid being normal.
I have this great fear of this normal thing. You know, the ones that passed their exams, the ones that went to their jobs, the ones that didn't become rock & rollers, the ones that settle for it, settled for it, settled for the deal! That's what I'm trying to avoid. But I'm sick of avoiding it with violence, you know? I've gotta do it some other way. I think I will. I think just the fact that I've realized it is a good step forward. Alive in '75 is my new motto. I've just made it up. That's the one. I've decided I want to live. I'd decided I wanted to live before, but I didn't know what it meant, really. It's taken however many years and I want to have a go at it.