Helen Donlon Interviews Jim McCarthy for Omnibus Press

Jim, your name has become synonymous with two musical areas in recent years, namely your ongoing work in the Latin Rock arena and your work on what has become a series of graphic biographies based around the lives of musicians. Let’s start with the second area. What was the impetus for the first book in the series, Godspeed: The Life of Kurt Cobain? Did you come in as a hardcore Nirvana fan?

The first one (Godspeed) I wrote in conjunction with Barney Legg. Barney was a creative spirit and he was a Nirvana fan. I have always liked balls-out music and Nirvana had the rage on stage that The Sex Pistols had plus the dynamism of the first Move band in the sixties (along with The Who etc). I was not a great fan of grunge (I found it pretty uncharismatic and dreary) but thought Nirvana’s attack was superb. Plus Dave Grohl’s drumming was spot on. Plus Kurt’s undoubted song writing genius. I remember how Kurt’s death affected Barney at that time. I used to manage Barney in a band called Prettymouth. He was the main creative force and had a good voice and I liked his song writing at that time. We got them gigs all around London and even did a mad tour around the UK with Roy Wood.

Barney was a really cool guy. He wrote a Bix Barton story ( a character I had devised with Peter Milligan; renowned comic writer) for 2000AD (Britain’s premier comic featuring Judge Dredd) that I drew and we also recorded some interesting music together. I liked our combined ideas and me and Barn went through a lot of stuff together over a ten year period. I met him up in Grimsby, wouldja’ believe? We also demoed Barney at EMI in London to try and get a music publishing contract as well! I had just done the Santana Voices Of Latin Rock book for Hal Leonard in the USA. We had an amazing launch party in San Francisco for that book but I guess that is another story.

The Kurt book was an elliptical dreamlike book told from Kurt’s point of view and examined his distressing background in which I believe lay much of the genesis for his later depression, manic depression (or bi-polar depression as it is now called) plus his substance misuse problems, combined together. I believe these demons caused him to take his own life. Anway the Kurt Cobain book sold very, very well.

Yes it was so popular…I remember French, German, Spanish, Croatian and Czech deals followed at the very first Frankfurt Book Fair following its release. And I recall that at the French launch party organised by Flammarion in the Paris hall famous for Zola’s j’accuse speech they had bands like Syd Matters debuting their Nirvana tributes. People really responded to this visual telling of the Cobain story. ‘The rage on stage’ you describe…was that something that drew you in the same way to Eminem, when it came to doing the second book in the series for Omnibus?

Eminem aka Marshall Mathers aka Slim Shady is a comic book character in his own right (like say Sid Vicious). He had that quality of “venting his spleen”, a very different approach to some of the mainstream rap. I don’t know if you could call him a poet laureate or a Rimbaud or a William Blake but he has a very lyrical aspect in the rap. It is monochromatic in some ways but made up for by song snippets and a punchy dynamism in phrasing and backing arrangements, a lot of which I believe were put together by Tommy Coster Jr who was responsible for that sick, catchy harpsichord riff on The Real Slim Shady for example – classical meets rap by way of the hood. (Coster’s dad incidentally, in a Latin rock connection, was the long time keyboardist with Santana).

The Eminem book was presented as a series of comic character vignettes in which Mather/Shady/Eminem acts out through the biographical aspects of his life fantasy sequences and scenarios to underline the rebellion, the rage and the turmoil of his inner being as well. It had a fantastical reverie like quality with a sign off from the man himself. It also looks at his background in Detroit, a city left to rot after the motor car industry declined there. See stuff like Capitalism – A Love Story by Michael Moore for more insights into US capitalistic and corporate chicanery.

When it came to The Sex Pistols what kind of texts or ideas or background reading did you take inspiration from?

I was very aware and alert to that scene as I was around when it happened. I researched y’know old stuff like the Vermorel book, a bit of England’s Dreaming by Jon Savage…but a lot was asking Jah Wobble questions about the back story; about McLaren, Sid and Lydon etc. He was there and knew them all and Sid gave Jah his actual first bass guitar. I believe they may have been in a squat together then. I knew the story pretty well apart from various smaller details, and it was great to write as again I identified with the raging fury in the music, a sterling moment in music history. And one in which the Establishment felt totally threatened – a delicious moment, but one infused with the negativity of that scene and the baseness of a lot of the music. A lot of it was unlistenable dreck! It was not a beautiful time with all the sulphate/speed and then smack around. But it was a reaction against all the pompous horseshit that ELP, Yes, Rick Wakemen etc. were doing with prog rock. It brought its own set of “rules” and frankly a lot of bad playing and shitty singing and a lack of any real “soul” in many ways. But the Pistols, to me, with Steve Jones’ incredible guitar slinging were exemplary.

You also did a book on Tupac. To what extent does the culture of the rap world impact on the way graphic spreads need to be thought out and eventually written up? Is there a ‘method’ to writing about rap when that narrative is presented in the visual format? Did you listen to Tupac’s music a lot as you were writing? How did you find his voice?

Tupac was an extremely interesting subject for me, as I was and still am very interested in the African-American and Latino civil rights politics from the sixties and seventies and from where much of my favourite music emerged. I loved the “brown” sound of East LA with El Chicano and all those bands, plus Santana, Malo, Azteca et al in San Francisco. It was a time of cultural upheaval and great societal unrest – a bit like now. Tupac’s story to me mirrored the continuation through rap of those earlier rights issues, which could be likened to African tribal riots disseminating information and culture through the sound of the drum.

Rap boiled music down to its essence and I always particularly loved Tupac‘s California Love with a sample and backing by Zapp. I loved that riff; it rocks me big time. However, the downside was the horrendous story and criminality of Death Row Records and Suge Knight. (For further reading try Ronin Ro’s Have Gun Will Travel). Tupac was pulled into all of that gangster business, which I believe resulted in his early murder. I see the book’s main point of view as a dissolution and degeneration of those early fought for rights in the sixties. I don’t think I had a ”method” apart from having a more than average knowledge of The Black Panthers, The Brown Berets plus civil rights and Tupac’s music, plus a love of early Public Enemy recordings etc.

His voice in the book came from watching him act (the Gridlock’d film with with Tim Roth was great) and other sources. I really loved this book. The layouts and illustrations by Flameboy reflect the violence, the rush and the danger of that world. The ending of the book “speeds up” both writing and visual wise – a bit like the end of Scorsese’s Goodfellas – to try and depict the sudden violence of Tupac’s death.

Definitely. And in the same way the new book Neverland also contains at the end the sudden, untimely and – in more abstract, insidious ways – the ‘violent’ death of Michael Jackson. In other ways this is such a different story. Here we have an exuberantly successful boy-child who grew up into a megalithically successful boy-child and there’s a lot more innocence in him and his chosen lifestyle. But it’s tarred, as you quite rightly show, with the terrible cynicism of the media and the jaws of the machine he’s trapped in by virtue of his money and fame.

Did you decide from the beginning that you would select a ‘voice’ from how he perceived the world of his family, of American perceptions of child musicians, and of a boy/man who grew up learning how to communicate – always – like a famous person communicates (behind a mask)? Was it difficult to maintain what we’ve come to know as his naivete of delivery and keep the Jackson muse sincere? How do you portray in words a character who can match the images. What goes on in the head of a rhythm king who channels his all through his body with the dance, and how to make that 2-D, in other words.

Well, The Michael Jackson story was NOT easy to portray in just 80 pages. As preparation for this visual medium I talked with Brian Williamson, the book’s excellent illustrator, about channelling some wondrous and different styles of drawing into this. To go with the various time frames and stages of success and the years in which they happened. I believe early childhood abuse, in this case, a very controlling “conditional love” in parenting, where you get approval and love (of a kind) if you win, as in Jackson’s case, has time and time again produced devastating results.

I think MJ spent all his life trying to get Joe Jackson’s approval. (Similar to the astonishing talents of Marvin Gaye, whose relationship with his jealous, severe, religiously hypocritical and cross – dressing father drove Marvin insane, Marvin was another adored artist who’s sublime creativity I love). This led to a terrible inner sense of low self esteem and created a massive void for Michael. Couple that with his astounding talent and therein lies the primordial battle he must have dealt with. One can only guess at the volcanic inner turmoil as he got older and realised a sense of excoriating futility and emptiness inside – a spiritual bankruptcy (what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?)

I decided that a switch between an MJ inner dialogue and overt events would be the best way forward. The Motown back story was important and I had to include the influence of Berry Gordy as label head. Berry was one of the prominent African – American entrepreneurs at that time. Plus the prologue with James Jamerson (RIP) the sensational bass player for The Funk Brothers, bemoaning Motown’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles (see my earlier comment regarding Eminem and the Detroit scene also). Also I believe the abuse is dealt with sensitively but using the visual medium and it is important that in many ways you don’t have to have loads of verbal exposition, when a skilfully considered frame can SAY as much.

I empathise with all these people and in my way try to see what their lives were like inside. That is not too difficult for me and I’m not saying I understand or have experienced those things with that kind of intensity but I feel their pain and can attempt to be in “their world”. A genuine love of music and the process of its creation helps too; MJ’s music became blacker on the later recordings . Less pop and more urban, and he was still developing, even though those records did not sell as well. Obviously the drug problems were mounting and I think that MJ OD’ed, under the pressure of all the child abuse allegations, the comebacks etc. A very sorry and sad tale but one, for me, that goes to the heart of family and upbringing and the need for nurture.

You have a broad knowledge base about a lot of west coast music genres, including of course Latin Rock. Can you tell us a bit about the book and your work with these great musicians.

Latin Rock was the music that really hit me the hardest as a young boy growing up in London. I almost immediately felt a spiritual connection with Latino people and this wonderful (and then) strange music. No internet or mass media then (imagine no mobiles, computers, no landline phones even in a lot of houses, outside bogs, Fray Bentos, Sainsburys meat pies etc, etc) just music papers and they did not write about these guys, and it didn’t help that they never seemed to do interviews. So they were kind of mysterious as well back then. I had never seen guys like these. Santana seemed exotic and pretty wild. They looked great but they weren’t black (apart from David Brown (RIP) the original bassist) so what were they? They killed me on the Woodstock movie and blew all the other self indulgent guff away in a heartbeat.

My imagination was fired by them in terms of dress and I had already been into skinhead styles, had seen Free, The Small Faces, loved The Beatles, The Move, all the happening UK stuff, but this was a revelation. To me their music was not as flabby sounding as the other SF bands (Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane etc). It had the white blues and rock thing, it had the Latin rumba, cha-cha, the sinuous and sensuous vibes plus the tight -as – fuck black thing going on in the grooves. A truly multi – racial and ethnic tribal vibe going down!

The Voices Of Latin Rock book was something I knew I had to do before I croaked. It was a burning ambition to (a) write this book and (b) document the lives of these people in San Francisco’s Mission District (essentially the Hispanic barrio of San Francisco). I had NO help from anyone really.  I hopped a plane to SF and hung out with Mike Carabello the original conga player in the group and met others.

I started the book while working full time as an Addictions Counsellor and it led to a publishing deal with Hal Leonard in Milwaukee. Carlos Santana loved the book and invited me to Wembley Arena to meet him one-on-one and talk about the book. He may have been suspicious at first but was won over by my charm (lol) and my in-depth knowledge of that scene. I art directed the book, found and resourced about a thousand photos (cleaning loads up on Photoshop) and put the book together with a designer called Richard Mann. We designed the cover and laid the book out on Quark – it was a finished deal before publication.

So – a book totally completed before publication in my spare time etc…mad. Carlos wrote the Foreword before it was published, as he read it on the road when Santana were touring Australia. Since the book’s release we had a great launch party at Bimbos 625 Club in San Francisco, the original Santana band played for FREE apart from expenses and it was a staggering night. We had Brazilian dancers, a drum circle, awards were given out, Carlos sent a six foot high bouquet of lilies and a congratulatory telegram. We did these shows for Autism Awareness and there are some clips on my website. So these shows sort of became an annual event, with eight so far. One memorable and insane moment was Sly Stone and George Clinton showing up, cracked out of their heads to join Los Lobos for an insane version of Higher and Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin). It was truly and utterly bizarre. I reckon they had been smoking crack all night in a van in Columbus Avenue outside Bimbos before they arrived. We have had extraordinary musicos play at these events; Booker T, Taj Mahal, Carlos Santana, The Original Santana band, Los Lobos, Sly Stone and George Clinton, The Doobie Brothers, Azteca, Malo, Cold Blood and many other superb musicians. It’s been an eye opener to hear and watch these extraordinary musicians rehearse and play, really top level stuff. I feel part of those people’s lives now and it is a great privilege to have shared and recorded their stories and their lives. Viva la musica Latina!!

Helen Donlon interviewed Jim McCarthy.
*Neverland: The Life and Death of Michael Jackson is published this month by Omnibus Press

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