All This Useless Beauty: George Pelecanos Interviews Steve Wynn


Bars, hotels and cars are settings common to Steve Wynn albums and George Pelecanos novels. MAGNET had Wynn (pictured) and Pelecanos (also an Emmy-nominated writer and producer for HBO series The Wire) drive to a hotel bar (in a car) to discuss all things punk, pop and pulp fiction. Photo by Christian Lantry.

Were this a Steve Wynn song or a George Pelecanos book, our main characters would be sketched out like so: two strangers who cast long shadows in their respective fields meeting out of mutual admiration. Here they are in Washington, D.C., at the Henley Park, a small hotel at 10th and Massachusetts, hunched over the bar with tape rolling.

Wynn is the guy sipping Maker’s Mark on the rocks. Former leader of the Dream Syndicate, a main mover behind Los Angeles’ Paisley Underground scene in the ‘80s, founding father of indie rock. What’s most important now is Here Come The Miracles (Innerstate), a double-CD masterpiece with overt literary references to noir fiction. In the press bio he wrote for Wynn, Pelecanos calls Miracles “Wynn’s Exile On Main Street, his Zen Arcade, and yeah, his Physical Graffiti,” and he’s right. Many thought Wynn would never top The Days Of Wine And Roses, the Dream Syndicate’s 1982 debut (which has just been reissued by Rhino), but Miracles does just that. It’s the best record he’s ever made.

Pelecanos is the guy downing the ice-cold Heinekens. Former dishwasher, a main mover of both shoes and electronics as a salesman in the D.C. retail scene in the ‘80s, father of three children. What’s most important now is that, since 1992, Pelecanos has written nine masterful, hard-boiled crime-fiction novels, some with overt musical references to Wynn and the Dream Syndicate. GQ calls Pelecanos “the coolest writer in America,” and they’re right. His latest book, Right As Rain, might not be the best thing he’s ever written (that would be his 1996 epic The Big Blowdown), but it’s as good as anything you’ll read this year. [Pelecanos started work on The Wire, which began airing in 2002, after this story was written. We believe he is responsible for many of the series’ best episodes—ed.]

Says Wynn: “[Pelecanos’ writing] transcends the genre of noir fiction and actually invokes some of the same emotions as the sweetest and saddest soul and jazz music—haunting tales of melancholy, dread, regret, obligation, heroism and retribution. In other words, all the good stuff.”

Says Pelecanos: “Steve Wynn? To me, his music is like a good book you take with you on the road. It’s literature, with guitar.”

Pelecanos: I was in Greece a couple months ago doing a book thing, and everywhere I went … they had an advance of Here Come The Miracles. They were more impressed with that than anything, my just being associated with you.
No kidding!

You’re like a god over there.
Glad to help the currency. It’s always been good over there. Greece was always one of the best places for the Dream Syndicate, because we were—this is about 1986—just about the first American type of indie-rock band or whatever you want to call it that got to play over there. They hadn’t been too open to outside influences in the ‘70s. They had the whole dictatorship over there until 1973.

It was like bursting wide open when you guys went over there.
Exactly. We were just there at the right time. We were the first band to come over. They hadn’t had any kind of Ramones or Talking Heads or anything else from the punk or post-punk thing—the Dream Syndicate were the first. Being the first in a place like that can really build a good lifetime following.

It’s much more cool, in a way, to be big in Europe than it is to be big in America, let’s face it. It damn sure is very nice for it to be reaching them because they tend to really appreciate writers and musicians and artists.
All the best jazz musicians and blues musicians and writers. Definitely more hard-boiled noir crime fiction … They’ve always been hipper to that than America has. They were into people like Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, everybody.

It took them to rediscover Jim Thompson, right? They told us who he was.
Right. As a matter of fact, I first heard about Jim Thompson while touring over in France in ‘83 or ‘84. They were telling me about Jim Thompson, comparing (the Dream Syndicate’s 1984 album) Medicine Show to Jim Thompson’s writing. That made me kind of curious. You have a good following over there. Because you wrote my bio, I’ve actually run into a lot of people over there who are big fans of your books.

Not to get too romantic about this, but you came out of the gate with a huge artistic achievement: The Days Of Wine And Roses. I know that when I got published for the first time, it was the biggest thrill of my life and not to be duplicated, no matter what kind of work I’ve done since. I imagine it must be like that to hear your stuff on the radio for the first time. Did you get the sense of, “Well, if I get hit crossing the road today by a car, at least I’ve done this”?
That’s exactly what I felt about that first record. The first time you make a record you know the catalog number, you know exactly how long the grooves are, you study this thing, like I’m sure you probably did the first time you saw your book. It’s a huge thrill. But on top of that, I knew it was a good record. I knew I wasn’t trying to fool myself or justify or say, “Considering how young I am,” or, “Considering it’s a first record.” I knew we did something good. That’s a huge thing, that first time. Making it wasn’t even that heavy an experience. I didn’t feel any kind of pressure, any kind of nervousness. I wasn’t awed by the situation or anything like that. The second I was done, when I held the record for the first time, that blew me away.

There’s a purity to it. Because you also don’t know anything about the business. Now you go up 20 years, and you’ve got this new record, Here Come The Miracles. It’s different, it’s not the same as Days Of Wine And Roses. But in my mind, it’s an equally great record. That’s something in rock ‘n’ roll to be proud of: You’ve gone 20 years, you’re still here and you’re still making these great records, man. It’s huge.
I’m proud of that. And as someone who is also a fan, I don’t know many people who have done that—who’ve made a record that, long after starting out, could stand up to what they had done before. I think the last Bob Dylan record is on par with what he’s done before. Or a couple Neil Young records that he made in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s were on par with his best records. Generally, you get about five to 10 good years, and that’s it. Then, at best, you’re trying to hang on and imitate or approximate something you did before. And if you can kind of be a shadow of what you were, even that’s an achievement. I’m really happy with the new record. I knew when we were making it that it was the shit. It’s a great feeling. To use a sports analogy, I was reading an interview with Barry Bonds this morning, and they asked him, “Why are you hitting so many home runs this year?” He said, “I have no idea why. Every time I hit a home run, I round the bases, get back to home, get back to the dugout and wonder how I did it. I have no idea how I did it, and if I could tell you how I did it, I’d do it all the time.”

Essentially, when you’re starting out, you’re not even writing for an audience, because you don’t know if you even have an audience.
Right. The idea of an audience … When you did your first book, I don’t know if there was …

I didn’t have a clue. I was writing in a void. I never tried to write anything before. I was sitting in a dark room, I had no contacts, no publisher, no agents, nothing. I didn’t know what I was doing. I just wanted to write a book. There’s a lot of energy that comes out of that. Do you feel now the same way you did then, in terms of—you probably thought like I did when I was younger—rock ‘n’ roll should be played by guys in their teens and 20s? Get those fucking guys with the gray beards and pot bellies off the stage?
I didn’t, though, that’s the thing. When I was 20, I thought 30 was old, and I thought 40 was really old. But I was a fan of blues musicians and a fan of jazz. I was excited about people who had been around for a long time. Even what I considered to be old rock ‘n’ roll performers of the time, like the Kinks or Eric Burdon, I was into that kind of stuff. So I didn’t have that kind of anti-age, punk-rock thing. Even though I was a punk-rock fan, I wasn’t one of those people that thought, “Anything that happened before now doesn’t matter.” I was into the whole history.

One thing that turned me off about punk was the crowds, the idea that you had to look a certain way. To me, that was just another kind of conformity. If I wanted to wear my hair longer in ‘77, man, I didn’t want to have to get it cut just so I could be like everybody else when I went to a club. So you guys came along, and this movement came along, I don’t know if you want to call it the underground. It was a real organic combination of punk and what had come before, the rock of the ‘70s, the best of it. And you guys weren’t afraid to play guitar and let it ride. I remember at the shows of some of these bands, all sorts of people were showing up. It was very egalitarian.
Yeah, because there were punks, there were old hippies, there were nerdy record collectors, there was every kind of people coming to the shows. I think what the Dream Syndicate and a lot of other bands in the Paisley Underground were doing was breaking the rules that had been set up by punk. We were playing songs over 10 minutes. We were really annoyed by what punk had turned into, which was a lot of rules and a lot of posturing and not any kind of freedom at all. And because of that, I think we intentionally set out to annoy people. People came to see us play a song on the record that they really liked, and we would play it completely differently. We would play the song twice as slow and twice as long. We would improvise and segue a song on Days Of Wine And Roses into about four other songs on the radio at the time. We’d do things that, now that I look back, are completely bratty things. We’d cover the worst Bryan Adams songs on the radio just to do it, just to see what people would do. We just didn’t want to be pigeonholed in any way. The second that people compared us to the Velvet Underground, we simultaneously denied the existence of the Velvet Underground and also dropped lyrics of the Velvet Underground into every show we would do. Just to fuck with it.

I was reading the last issue of MAGNET. They did a story on the Paisley Underground, and it surprises me they held up the Danny And Dusty album (a Wynn side project) as one of the two seminal albums from those years. Their claim is that it kicked off what is now the No Depression scene.
I don’t think we had as much to do with it. If anything, I think we were some sort of vague link to what became indie rock of the ‘90s. Bands like Nirvana, to some extent, or Yo La Tengo or Luna or all these bands that came out of some guitar-jamming, psychedelic sort of thing we were doing and no one else was doing at the time. I like a lot of the No Depression stuff, but I’m more excited by, for lack of a better term, psychedelic music. It kind of pushes the boundaries, and it’s head music. It takes you from one place, it takes you outside somewhere else and then brings you back where you started a little bit different from where you began.

The guys on the cover of the last MAGNET, Air, said that, if I remember the quote from them, “Rock is dead.” Certainly, music right now needs something, it needs a jolt. The time that we’re in right now in a lot of ways reminds me of the time right before punk hit. Not just musically, but also culturally. We have a very conservative administration and a very conservative culture. The upside of these things is that usually these conditions breed some sort of revolution. The first thing comes with young people and the music. Do you see anything coming?
I don’t know. When it happened before, it wasn’t a genre—it was more an individual voice was so unique, so passionate and so real that you couldn’t deny it. I don’t think the Sex Pistols happened because they were a punk band. It happened because Johnny Rotten had this voice that no one ever heard before. I don’t mean just the sound of his voice, but the way he expressed himself. The same thing with Kurt Cobain and the same thing with John Lennon. I think when it happens, it’s because somebody is so good and has this amazing connection with people’s emotions, with the subconscious, with things you can’t even define. In the mid-‘70s, music was bogged down by too much thought and too much planning and too much technique, too much boredom, too much cynicism, whatever, and I think it’s the same way now. I think it gets torn away by someone who just doesn’t care. I think that the main quality of the best music and maybe the best filmmaking and the best writing is fearlessness. It’s about not being pre-meditated and not thinking about the effect you’ll have.

There are generational things, like I happen to listen to a lot of hip hop, because I’m in the city and when I’m walking down the street I hear it, so it’s a part of my life. Also, my sons are into it. But there are things I can’t relate to being a 44-year-old man. I can’t romanticize death or anything like that anymore, but I can understand why 19-year-old boys are behind it. That’s what I’d be listening to if I was them. I think that rap really is the most honest musical art that’s out there right now.
I think that’s true. I think they’re the most interesting records, the best—not just the lyrical content—but they’re the best productions. Whenever anyone asks me who my favorite producer is or who the person I most want to work with …

Dr. Dre.
Absolutely. If I could work with anyone in the world, it would be with Dre. I’d love to make a record with him.

Anything he does, I wanna hear it.
I think he is this generation’s Phil Spector, this generation’s George Martin, this generation’s you-name-it. He’s the one. I think you and I have that connection. We were both fans of early-‘70s soul, which was huge to me. It’s funny because so much of my peer group, the people that I came up with and everything, were fans of country. I liked a lot of country music, but I was always more of a soul and R&B fan. I really thought the Dream Syndicate was a groove band. We weren’t a roots band or a country band or singer/songwriter band. We were really kind of a groove band with a lot of noise on top of it, which is all the Velvets and the Stooges were as well.

I get a big blues vibe from your older stuff and Miracles especially. I want to talk about that. Lyrically in Miracles, there’s a lot of running and looking back and the elation of not looking back. In “Sunset To The Sea,” you say that you shouldn’t have anything you’re afraid to leave—that line stuck with me. The record seems to be set in motel rooms and bars and cars and on the road and the freedom that’s inherent and rootlessness and then the price you pay for it. The record is almost like a cross-country road trip, like Nabokov is behind the wheel with Barry Gifford in the back seat. Its stories are noir-ish, but it doesn’t feel like it’s written by somebody who is trying to write a noir cycle and hasn’t lived the life yet. You kind of started doing this a lot with (1996’s) Melting In The Dark, which you’ve sort of brought forward. The fast stuff goes really hard, too. “Smash Myself To Bits” is something like if Miles Davis had cut a rock record.
That’s kind of the intention.

And then the guitar solo on “Good And Bad” is for the ages, man. But the rhythm section on this, specifically Linda (Pitmon)’s drumming, which is right out front—it’s like she’s pushing it toward a raw blues kind of thing, in the sense of rhythm and blues. It validates the lyrics in some way.
Right. I think the themes and the lyrics on this record wouldn’t have worked with a very slick record or a pop record. One thing on this record that I was hoping to do was eliminate most pop elements. Which wasn’t easy because I like pop music, I like songs with hooks. My roots are late-‘60s/early-‘70s AM radio. You build up to a glorious hook and you modulate and you have a fadeout, and it all happens in two minutes and 30 seconds, and that’s great. I wanted to be more visceral, more cathartic, and just go for the guts and not for all the pretty trimmings. I think this really worked very quickly, and I didn’t map things out that much. And we did things very spontaneously and by instinct. We picked up instruments because they were laying around and didn’t think in terms of arrangement. We thought in terms of throwing everything against the wall, splattering the paint against the wall. I didn’t go into this record with a theme, with an idea of it being noir or an idea of it being about traveling or even it being about California or the Southwest, which a lot of the record is about. I didn’t plan any of that at all. But the songs were all written in a short period of time. And I think it makes sense when you do that, that they are going to have a certain theme. And one theme I see over and over again is this kind of on/off switch, this thing where people are at a certain point and they have to decide either to go on or not go on. Whether this is the end, I don’t mean just death, I mean not living anymore—the difference there. Where you hit this point in your life where you say, “I’ve done everything I’m going to do. I look behind and nothing makes sense, I look ahead and nothing makes sense—I’m going to stop right now.” Most of the songs are about people at that point in their life. And trying to find a reason or a way to go on. Which can be a kind of corny, life-affirming thing, but with this record, I just didn’t give any answers. It’s not until the very end of the record where there’s any kind of a hope or an answer.

The best kind of art doesn’t answer anything, it just raises questions. That’s our job, basically, to ask questions.
I don’t like art that gives you easy answers. I know in your books you test your characters a lot. You throw obstacles in front of them, and you really give them the worst possible conditions. You don’t try to find an easy way out, either, in your books.

There’s no point in that. Life is ongoing. To try to tie it all up in a pretty ribbon is bullshit. It’s a lie.
I was happy with “Good And Bad” because that’s a song with an idea that’s not only important to me as a writer, but also as somebody who is a reader and a fan of movies and music. I don’t like when there are the good characters and the bad characters. The thing I really liked a lot in the best literature is the bad guys have a lot of humanity and the good guys have shortcomings and make mistakes left and right, which is the way life is.

You used Sandy Pearlman, Blue Öyster Cult’s producer, on Medicine Show. I want to talk about “Merritville” a little bit. The song just blows my mind.
I like the way you used it in your book. That was a great passage.

That was in (1998’s) The Sweet Forever. It would be the type of song that a coked-up guy in the middle of the night would turn way up and play air-guitar to. What you did in that song is you summarized this romance that people have about stepping toward the dark side. You actually did it more succinctly than in a lot of novels I’ve read that try to reach for it. The attraction to that—whether it’s taking drugs or getting in a car you shouldn’t or walking into a bar that you know you shouldn’t—for a while, it was a theme in a lot of your songs.
I think in the new record, too. Putting yourself intentionally in a position where bad things can happen to you. It’s not the way I live my life day-to-day, although I have. I think we both have, at various times. It’s something you almost have to do if you are creative to a certain point, but if you do it all the time it’s boring, just like anything else. To be continuously throwing yourself in the position of danger and self-destruction and the dark side on a completely, ceaselessly, never-ending basis, is as boring as paying the mortgage in the suburbs and giving everything up. I think you have to have both. I write about it because it’s more interesting. I’ve written I think maybe one or two songs in my life that would be anything like a love song, and even those were tempered with some kind of ugliness. I like putting the characters I write about in some kind of moral dilemma, pain, hopelessness, anger, desolation or rejection. The thing is, is it harder to write about that kind of thing as you get older and more settled in your life? As you get perspective, as a father or as a professional at what you do? Is that difficult?

Your world view broadens. I tend to think it adds richness to what you’re doing. You’ve gained more information just by living longer.
I’ve done maybe two or three records that weren’t very dark records. And they are my least favorites. I look back and I think they are somewhat inconsequential, so I begin to realize that I like the dark records. Do you ever feel that way about the books you write?

It gets emotionally draining to write about the things I write about, because, in the last few books, I’ve written a lot about what happens to kids in the inner city. I’m actually thinking about writing some books for teenagers, probably under a different name. Because I want to try and reach them. I want to do something like what S.E. Hinton was doing with books like The Outsiders. And I’d like to write some pulp novels. Like Shoedog, this book I wrote many years ago that’s out of print right now, which was straight-up pulp. I like those real lean books, where you don’t know what’s going to happen to the protagonist. He might be horrible, he might be a son of a bitch, he might die in the end or he might walk away unpunished. It’s a total surprise and without compromise. That’s the kind of stuff that I want to keep moving toward.
Trying all the time to have things be as emotionally naked and direct and believable as possible—that’s the kind of writing I like. I love books and songs and movies that are believable, where you can actually imagine a person being this way. I am a huge fan of John Cassavetes because his stuff is so stark and so painful and naked. I love that shit.

When you’re making a record, are you thinking about today or are you thinking about 20 years from now? For myself, when I write a book, I’m writing for 50 years from now. I want that book to still be alive in 50 years. I don’t give a shit what’s happening out there in the marketplace right now. I want to write the best book I can so somebody else can still be able to pick it up after I’m gone.
Entirely the same thing. A lot of my heroes were people who did great work and weren’t fully appreciated. Not that I’m going for that kind of romance and that failed, struggling-artist thing—there’s no romance in that for me. I was using sort of the Iggy Pop vs. Mark Farner thing: Would you rather be the Stooges or Grand Funk Railroad? Grand Funk Railroad was playing the stadiums and the arenas and making pretty much dunderhead rock, while the Stooges were doing something more incredible but less popular, not exactly tearing up the charts. Twenty years later, what are the records that make the most sense? I’d much rather make music that will hold up in 20 years as a great album than something that will be big right now.

You’ve done it, man.

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