Stories from Spy Rock: An Interview With Larry Livermore


If you’ve been paying attention to punk rock over the past few decades, chances are good that you’re familiar with Larry Livermore. He founded Lookout! Records, and his columns for Punk Planet took a satirical approach to challenging pretty much every punk orthodoxy you could think of. Earlier this year, Don Giovanni released Spy Rock Memories, Livermore’s account of his years living in a cabin in the California mountains, making music with The Lookouts, and starting the record label that would introduce thousands to the likes of Green Day, Operation Ivy, and many more. Our conversation covered everything from the process of writing Spy Rock Memories to the upcoming Premier League season to the historical role of MRR.

When you were beginning to write this book, how did you zero in on the house on Spy Rock Road as the central point? 

If nothing else, when you’re living in the wilderness, where no other human structures are visible, your house does become extremely central to your existence. I remember sometimes seeing it, especially on cold and stormy winter nights, as the glowing heart of life. As long as the solar panels kept producing electricity, and as long as there was enough wood to keep feeding into the stove, things would be all right. Or at least bearable. After a long day or night of battling the elements, maybe digging like mad to clear a blocked culvert to keep a road or hillside from collapsing, I’d come in the door and collapse in front of the fire, knowing that for at least the moment, I would be safe and warm.

But if you’re asking more along the lines, “Why Spy Rock? Why not, for example, Gilman Street, or the Lookout Records office, or Telegraph Avenue, or any of the other places and environments that were crucial to my life during those years?” I’d say that I set out to tell the story of Spy Rock because the experiences I had there, especially in terms of becoming self-reliant and developing a clearer sense of who I was and what I stood for, were crucial to everything that would come afterward. Since Lookout Records, as well as my band and my magazine, had their gestation on Spy Rock, naturally they’re woven into the story, but they aren’t nearly as essential to it, ultimately, as the tale of learning to live, both in the wilderness and in a community.

Spy Rock Memories has a different tone from, say, your Punk Planet columns from the late 90s. To what extent do you consider the audience who might be reading something you’ve written?

The audience I imagine Spy Rock Memories attracting would probably look a lot more like the audience I had with Lookout magazine, which started out in 1984 as little more than a newsletter for the relative handful of people and families who lived in the backwoods of Spy Rock and Iron Peak, but gradually grew into what some might have seen as unwieldy but others found homespun and charming amalgam of local news, politics and environmentalism with straight-up punk rock and rabble rousing. The Lookout attracted readers from a wide range of ages, from pre-teens to senior citizens, and from both urban and rural areas, not just in Northern California, but across the country and in several other countries as well. I’d be very happy if Spy Rock Memories accomplishes something similar.

Gabrielle Bell shows up briefly in your book (and, unless I’m remembering incorrectly, you appeared briefly in her The Voyeurs). Do the two of you come from a family that encouraged creativity, or are both of you more exceptions?

As many of her friends and family will attest, it’s difficult to visit or interact with Gabrielle without sooner or later ending up as a character in one or more of her comics. Personally, I consider it a great honor anytime I show up in her work because I honestly feel she’s one of the best artists and writers working today, and I think her reputation will only grow by leaps and bounds as more people discover her work. Obviously I’m also thrilled that she agreed to do the cover art for Spy Rock Memories; it was especially poignant for me to see her rendering of the house, because I pictured her vision of it being filtered through the eyes of the small child she was when she used to be a regular visitor there.

As to whether anything she or I might have accomplished “runs in the family,” well, I think we’d all like to consider ourself exceptions, or at least exceptional. There are other members of our family who have pursued creative enterprises, including music and acting, but I wouldn’t say that creativity was exactly “encouraged.” It was probably more along the lines of the typical response to a child who shows promise in the arts: “Well, that’s fine, dear, but how is it ever going to help you make a living?”

Have you given any thought to what a second book might be like?

Yes. In fact, both the second and the third book are already in progress, and my big stumbling block right at the moment is trying to decide whether to try to write two books at once or prioritize one in front of the other. It’s difficult, because they cover two very different subjects, but are both very exciting to me. One is about London, the other about what came next, after Spy Rock.

What did you learn from the process of writing Spy Rock Memories that you plan to apply to the next two books?

What didn’t I learn?! That writing a book is a lot harder than it looks, for starters. I’d actually written two other books previously, but neither was published, and I found that it’s a very different business when you’re getting ready to put something before the public. For a lot of writers, myself included, editing and writing takes longer (by quite a bit) than the actual writing. So if one single thing stands out, it would be to get the initial writing down on paper (figuratively speaking) as quickly as possible, without worrying quite so much about making it perfect the first time around, and thus allow myself that much more time and energy for the real work. Also, I want to pay more attention to detail, both physical and psychological, and focus more on other characters and maybe at least a little bit less on myself.

In Spy Rock Memories, you wrote about your involvement with MRR; you were also a regular contributor to Punk Planet. Do you find that there is any one entity — print or online — that’s filled the space left by the latter?

No, there is nothing that comes close, and, I suspect, there never will be. It’s probably impossible to explain to young people who weren’t around in the 1980s how central, crucial, and all-encompassing a role MRR played on the punk scene at that time. Without exaggerating too much, I think it would be safe to say that if your band, zine or whatever wasn’t in MRR, it almost didn’t exist. MRR was essentially the clearinghouse for punk rock from round the world, and for the most part, it did a very good job at that. It definitely played a major role in helping Lookout and Gilman attain the positions of prominence that they did.

But with great power comes, as the saying goes, great responsibility, and there were times when MRR fell short, particularly when certain people, and I don’t think I need to name any names, launched a vendetta against someone, be it an individual, a band, a label, or an entire sub-genre of music. That’s what finally led to what I like to call The Great Schism of 1994, when people went off in several different directions to form magazines to cover the stuff that MRR was ignoring, either deliberately or, in some cases, obliviously. Punk Planet was, of course, one of those, and the most successful of the lot. However, almost 20 years later, ironically or not, MRR is the only one still standing, and still doing a creditable job of maintaining its own unique values in its own unique universe, even if, to be fair, it casts a much shorter shadow than it once did.

But that’s more a result of the world, and especially of technology, moving on rather than any specific shortcoming on MRR‘s part. Despite my acrimonious departure from the zine, my dispute was primarily with Tim, and any hard feelings have long since been resolved on my part. I now look back on my years at MRR with great fondness, and stand in admiration of the tenacity with which they’ve held true to their principles and kept the magazine alive when so many other much larger and more powerful ones have ignominiously bitten the dust.

With the Premier League season starting up in a month, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask if you had any thoughts on it…

You’re talking to a Fulham supporter, which means any Premier League developments are fraught with nagging doubt and terror; as a fellow fan put it in the English media just today, we’re “constantly biting our nails hoping for 40 points.” Still, I keep going back, and I’m in love with the ground, Craven Cottage, that part of London, and the whole specific ambience of the club, which is distinctly different from any other football club, not just in the Premier League, but in all of England (I’ve visited quite a few clubs, too, probably upwards of 30 of them.) Of course this sort of distinction and character is probably only visible to a fan and would probably be meaningless to an outsider or casual observer. I took my niece to a match once, hoping she’d find the same excitement in it that I did, but when I asked her afterward what she’d thought of it, she responded, “It was just a bunch of men standing around drinking beer.” I was quite taken aback, but could only protest that there had been at least a couple dozen women standing around drinking beer as well.

As for how the coming season will turn out: one of the three or four very annoying big-money clubs at the top will almost certainly win everything again, and the rest of us will live in hope that at least one year it will turn out differently. This week news has come through that Fulham may be sold to an American with tons of money and an enormous if not preposterous mustache, so it may well be that we’re in for much bigger changes that we bargained for. Such is football, and life. Or, as the immortal Bill Shankly put it, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

Apparently Shankly borrowed and adapted that saying from, of all things, an American football coach, but managed to extract most of the fame and credit for himself. But as Morrissey, or Oscar Wilde, or, no doubt, someone else before him, said, “Talent borrows, genius steals.” Or has a megabucks-wielding sheik to buy up all the talent and genius from every other club in the world.

In his blurb, Aaron Cometbus mentions that the area you wrote about in Spy Rock Memories hasn’t been particularly well-chronicled in books. Is this a case where other writers haven’t written about it at all, or more that it hasn’t been written about accurately?

Actually, a great deal has been written about the area, but very little of it has reached the outside world. When I first arrived in the Emerald Triangle, I was surprised and gratified to find such a thriving alternative publishing scene, with something like half a dozen local magazines and newspapers (by which I mean political or countercultural publications, in addition to the conventional weekly or semi-weekly newspapers that existed in most of the towns). And some of the writing was of quite a good standard, but typically had a very specific regional focus that limited its interest or appeal beyond the Redwood Curtain (which is what we only half-facetiously described the veil of media obliviousness that typically left us feeling as though we existed in our own private universe). There have also been books written and published about the area, but most of them either (a) focused primarily or exclusively on one of the more sensational aspects of Emerald Triangle life, usually marijuana and the subculture surrounding it; or (b) were written by outsiders or short-term residents who, try as valiantly as they might to immerse themselves in the local zeitgeist, couldn’t quite capture its essential nature.

Of course I realize I could be accused of the same “outsider” status, since my own time on the mountain was limited to about ten years as a full time resident and a bit less than a quarter century in total (there are 80 year old ranchers up there who have never lived anywhere else in their lives and in some cases may have never traveled more than 100 miles or so away from Spy Rock). But the readers, and above all, the people who were there and who participated in the adventures I describe, will have to be the ultimate judges of that.

You’ve written a lot about your listening habits; what does your taste in books tend towards?

Ever since I was a small child, I tended to read anything that had words printed on it. I mostly taught myself to read before I started school (it only occurs to me now what a nuisance I must have been to my parents at age 4 or so, sprawled out on the living room floor studying a newspaper or magazine or even an advertising flyer and asking them what every other word meant), and since we didn’t get our first TV until I was 7 (and even my parents discouraged me from watching anything they didn’t think of as “educational”), I formed a lifelong reading habit before Howdy Doody and the like had begun to have their way with my young mind. That being said, today I have a lot less time and a lot more reading material than when I was a child (although mine was a bookish family, we were also poor and didn’t have a large selection of reading material, which is probably why I mainly learned to read from the newspaper).

So I’ve always been a newspaper and magazine kind of guy, having written for a few and even published one myself, but when it comes to books, I tend to prefer the novel most of all. I know this is a matter of taste and preference, not any kind of absolute principle, but as far as I personally am concerned, fiction — specifically the novel — represents the best way of getting at, illustrating, and illuminating the truth (and, not incidentally, making it interesting enough so that people will actually read it). I enjoy a lot of non-fiction, especially biographies and memoirs and histories (which I guess I see as memoirs or biographies of societies rather than individuals), but even there, I prefer the ones that read like novels even if they contain nothing but stone cold fact. It’s definitely the approach I tried to take in writing Spy Rock Memories, and I will continue to use that approach in my next two books, which will also be memoirs. By the time I’m done with those, I hope I’ll finally be ready to tackle my own novel, which is pretty much all plotted out already, and which is the work that I’m by far most excited about. So yeah, write novels, people. And don’t forget to read them!

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