Wednesday, April 02, 2003

Lech Kowalski interview, April 2003

I interviewed director Lech Kowalski for CKUT-FM in spring of 2003. Later I'd been in contact with Punk Planet magazine and had sent them some of the draft and the expressed interest in the interview, so I typed it up as follows and sent it to them. It never ran for some reason I don't remember. Here it is:


This month’s release of Hey Is Dee-Dee Home, at a time of pop-culture fascination with 70s punk, may well finally make a name for underground documentarist Lech Kowalski. Responsible for such uncompromising pictures as D.O.A.: A Rite Of Passage, and Story of a Junkie, Kowalski’s best-known works are his films documenting the underbelly of New York City, to which his participation as an artist and music fan allowed him unprecedented access. Filming D.O.A., he was allowed to travel on the Sex Pistols’ tour bus and document their botched American odyssey up close, and 1989’s Rock Soup found him documenting, with trademark unrepentant realism, the lives of New York’s homeless people.

Within the past few years, he has focused on underground communities in his native Poland, following the lives of squatter-punks that run a fledgling business making boots out of cast-off materials in Boot Factory, and some of Poland’s 15 000 prostitutes in The Fabulous Art of Survival.

Returning, for the moment, to the New York punk scene where he inaugurated his career, Hey Is Dee-Dee Home is a different kind of movie than the rest of Kowalski’s body of work. Originally filmed only as an interview for an eventual documentary on Johnny Thunders, Dee-Dee is little more than Dee Dee Ramone sitting on a stool and talking for over and hour. And he is absolutely entertaining: poignant, funny, frightening, weird, and pitiable, the man could tell stories, and that’s precisely what he does. Kowalski’s hand is present but deft—he makes the film happen and decides how you watch it without ever pushing you around. Brave enough to risk boring his audience with straight-up monologue, Kowalski’s gamble pays off as he gives the viewer the closest thing left to the experience of sitting down and talking with Dee Dee Ramone.

I recently spoke with Lech Kowalski about Dee Dee Ramone, rock and roll, and mythmaking. This is how it went:

JB. Staniforth: I just saw the press screening of Dee-Dee. It was fantastic.

Lech Kowalski: Thank you. It's essentially a work-in-progress. There are a few little snips and additions to what you saw in that screening, but that's our final test screening, and I wanted to do that in Montreal. My film D.O.A. premiered there in '83.

Yeah, I saw it there when it played in '99. It's funny, your stuff is really hard to find. Even the more left-field places don't seem to carry it.

It's very obscure, and I kind of like that. But, actually, it's all coming out in the next two years, fifteen of my films, on DVD.

Are you expecting a wide distribution of that?

It's gonna be world-wide. The first deal is happening in Japan now, and then next deals are happening here in the States, and in Canada, and in France, and in England. And then the rest of the world. You know, my films are, like, these cult items that appear here and there, and real hardcore fans can get ahold of them. But the last two films I've made were made for French television, so those are easier to see. But the other stuff is usually privately financed, and there's always some kind of weird problems with the films, they have very strange distribution patterns.

I worked in a video store for a few years, and we carried everything, but we never had any of your films. They were definitely off the beaten track, though I'm sure that's how you like it.

Yeah, it's fine with me. But now they're coming out and they have this history to them, and, in fact, I think that history is a commodity. So, finally, I'll be able to make some money off of my films.

You haven't been making much money until now?

Well, you know, I can't complain, because I was always able to find financing to make these films, but I'm not a wealthy person. I’m not poor, I'm not complaining. But for instance, when D.O.A. came out it was even hard to get a distribution deal on it. But over the years, there's more and more demand for it. I've actually made more money on that film in the last six or seven years than in the first two or three. But it's strange, you know? If you take a Hollywood film that was made in '81 or '82, chances are there's no value left in it? I mean, who cares about yesterday's newspapers? My films have a long shelf life, and I think it will continue that way. For me, that's great. I'm very happy with that.

Well, especially D.O.A. I'd figure that especially in the last six or seven years, considering the revival of "punk rock fashion," and "punk rock," though I'm hesitant to call it punk rock music when a lot of it is just pop music sped up. At the same time, it's paved the way for people to discover older bands. I think way more people were upset this year when Joe Strummer died than, say, if he'd have kicked off ten years ago.

Absolutely, that's true. And Joe also appeared in a lot of films. He had, and he continues to have, a long shelf life. I think there's an integrity factor here. If something has integrity, and also has artistic merit, the marriage of the two is pretty incredible, I think.

What makes good punk rock, I think, is honesty. That's the same of any music. If you can hear some degree of honesty in it, that will make up for bad recording quality, or flat singing, or whatever.

I think that's true of anything. It's really true of films. When you take, like, a typical contemporary film, all the problems in those films are solved with money. In other words, they'll buy the best talent, they'll buy the best sets, they'll buy the best special effects. But they sort of miss the point that something at the core of the film needs to be very honest, very real, and have some kind of emotional or political or artistic art to it that will allow people to feel the film as opposed to just view it. I think the standard that applies to punk rock applies to everything.

I’ve read that you weren’t initially interested in punk rock until the time when it started to disintegrate. Is that true?

Well, it depends on how you define punk rock. When I was into that scene in New York, you didn’t go into CBGB’s, or Max’s, or whatever, thinking you were a punk rocker. You were going there because you enjoyed the music. The whole punk thing filtered in slowly, so by the time the word, and the punk fashion, and punk the way that we know it now glommed onto it, it was pretty much over. It was finished. And as it was finishing I became interested in it. As a form of expressing myself.

The people that were punks, for instance, the people who were in D.O.A., they were expressing something that I found interesting, and they were expressing it for me. But my idea was not to document the music at all, it was just to take those images and the music and combine it together and reintroduce my own look at life, and use all that to create another thing. It’s not a punk movie, it’s my creative interpretation of the reality I saw through my eyes. So it’s not like wanting to document the punk thing, or wanting to be a punk rock filmmaker, it was just that that aesthetic and that music suited my creative talent and needs.

It’s true that there was something happening that you wanted to document, though.

Yeah, there was. The only thing is that the scale of it was quite small. It was not a big thing. But it was vital in a way that nothing else that I saw in that time period was vital, meaning that it was touching on something that also touched me. It was like a tennis game between my self and the punk rock thing, and what was going on in the world. So I felt like I was connected to that energy in a way that was not just cerebral, that wasn’t just making a product. It was more about making a point. I can’t tell you what the point is other than a lot of little points that add up to something greater that now you can look at in retrospect and make judgments on.

I think that still stands up. The proof is that when I saw D.O.A. three years ago at a midnight screening, the place was still packed. Part of that’s the music, sure, but I think the main reason is people still want to watch the personalities that were emerging out of that particular time and situation. Of course, though, for years kids have been trying to recreate that tiny period, in music or in fashion or in copping attitude from Sid Vicious. Do you think that there’s anything worth looking back at, or is that time something we should be progressing beyond?

It’s kind of weird to me because we’re about talking 25 years ago. If you looked at Elvis Presley 25 years after Elvis Presley came out… I remember people who were into Elvis at that time and we looked at them like dinosaurs. In fact, there’s a scene in D.O.A. at Graceland where Elvis Presley is buried, and we I remember filming people coming in dressed as Elvis Presleys, and thinking, these people are weird. So now, I live in Paris. I went to a book-signing party that Dee Dee’s translator had when his book came out, and I saw these kids, people in their 20s, there. And they looked like little Sids, or Dee Dees, or upgraded versions of Johnny Rotten, and it was strange to me. It seems like there’s a time warp there. But I understand what they’re trying to do, they’re probably upset because there’s nothing really vital happening in world culture right now in terms of them being able to identify with something and express themselves. So they hang onto this punk thing, and in some ways that’s a little bit sad, that it hasn’t gone beyond that. Of course, we’ve had other musical things happening like rap, but those things too have become commodities. And I think most white kids identify with rap in a different way than they identify with punk.

I’ve got a quote of yours from an interview: “The essence of rock'n'roll is a way of thinking that is uniquely American, allowing yourself to be completely undisciplined in terms of the way academics, or an academic social structure wants you to be. It's like being uniquely yourself.” In your interviews with Dee Dee Ramone he talks often about being an outlaw, living outside of society. Would you say then that rock and roll is about the negation of society?

Negation? I remember being in high school and being excited by rock and roll music. What it was telling me was to do things the way that I want to do them, and not pay attention to how people were telling me to act and behave. I think that’s the answer. There’s something in rock and roll that speaks to individuality. And once you feel comfortable by yourself, with your imperfections that fuck you up so much when you’re young, then you enter into the next level, which is the club, and he club is structured around musical tastes.

One thing I noticed about watching Dee Dee was the number of times throughout the film that he refers to himself in the third person, explaining how he’d get into trouble for “just being Dee Dee.”


In terms of both him and Johnny Thunders, who’s the subject of a lot of the discussion in the film, were they making up personas for themselves as a product of the music they were making?

Absolutely. I think it’s really important to understand, because Johnny Thunders made up a myth about himself, and later on that myth killed him. And I think the same thing happened with Dee Dee. He was an extremely irresponsible person who was heavily into drugs, who was very creative, wrote a lot of the lyrics of the Ramones songs. And he was kind of, for me, an idiot savant. And he continued to have to act like an idiot savant. Right through that interview, you can see it all the time, where he’s playing himself, while knowing that he’s something else, but unable to grow up beyond that. These are the pitfalls of rock and roll.

His myth, and Johnny’s myth, did not allow them to grow up. Johnny could never grow out of being that junkie musician that everyone wanted to see performing a certain kind of song. In his 30s, he’d go out and tour. He never had a record label or support, so he’d play 200 or more gigs a year because he had to earn that money. And he was always upset because people only wanted to hear “Chinese Rocks” or “Too Much Junkie Business,” never his new material. He was stuck in his myth-role, just as Dee Dee was stuck. The material I filmed of Dee Dee has a certain charm that captures that tragic element. For me, Dee Dee was the most important star of that scene. Johnny has a specific role, but Dee Dee is in another category because he was the most successful and was under tremendous pressure. He was, perhaps, more of an artist than Johnny. I think Dee Dee had a real artist’s soul, which allowed him to get lost in the creative world. And he was unable to be realistic in terms of keeping his life together. He fucked up in so many ways, but the charm of that artistic soul allowed him to survive. The film has a real, deep Dee Dee Ramone sense of humour to it.

Initially, I filmed this material to be part of the Johnny Thunders film (Born To Lose), but as I was shooting that film over the years, it was slowly dawning on me that the story is much greater. I started collecting all this material, about 500 hours worth, and around the time that Dee Dee died, I decided to make a series of films that are all structured around Johnny to a certain degree, like the Dee Dee film is, but are actually about the people talking. It’s easier to make a film about somebody not really concentrating on themselves, because you can really see them.

Putting it that way really plays upon the myth of Johnny Thunders.

The myth of Johnny Thunders is a myth that hangs over the entire New York punk rock of that time period. You can’t have that scene without it. If you take Johnny Thunders out if it, you’re defining the period by groups that I don’t think are as important, like the Talking Heads, or Blondie. Those were the success stories of that period, but they’re not really part of that scene. Whereas the Heartbreakers, the Ramones, the Dead Boys, etc., Johnny is part of that myth. You can’t split them up.

Were you expecting Dee Dee was going to die in the same way that everyone figured Johnny would eventually die?

It’s weird. When I was filming with Dee Dee, I had this feeling that he was very sick, and I had this feeling that something was not right with him. I felt something was going to happen. But he continued living for another ten years, so I just forgot about that. But when he died, it was kind of a surprise to me that he died the way he did. I thought he’d tossed the needle away. But I guess he didn’t.

I think that his death, like Johnny’s death, is more complex. It’s not just a death by a drug overdose; there were other problems in his life, personal problems, psychological problems, and a certain kind of unhappiness. Dee Dee was deeply unhappy about a lot of things.

He talks about his own depression in the movie, about his own depression and Johnny Thunders’s depression.

Yeah. But the thing is, these depressions, if we talk about it this way, it sounds like such a downer. But in fact, these guys were able to take their depressions and do something creative with them. The depression and the problems that engulfed their lives or that they gravitated towards also fed their music and their creativity and the way they looked. You can’t take one and create a situation where everything would be perfect and they would be great musicians. You need that interplay. Like great jazz musicians of the 50s and 60s. They had drug problems, they had social problems, economic problems. Black people had huge problems in terms of the culture in the states. So all these things together made for better music. Look at Lenny Bruce, man, you know? New York Jew, who had a drug problem, who was discriminated against because he was Jewish and because he was a genius. If you take any of those elements out, you wouldn’t have Lenny Bruce. Tragedy is linked to great creativity in these cases. We’re living in these very dull times, but some young generation, maybe not this one or the next, is going to rediscover that equation, and we’ll have something new to look forward to in terms of creativity that will then put rock and roll way back into its place.

Reading about Dee Dee over the years as I was growing up, I always had a feeling that he was doomed to self-destruction. He was a perennial outsider.

Yeah. He was. He was a male hustler, which people don’t want to talk about. The way he set up his deals… the fact that he quit the Ramones and became a rap singer? That move alone was so destructive. Because he wasn’t a rap singer. He liked to fuck around, to walk the edge that way.

Some people seem to think that Dee Dee died the way he did because he’d never been able to put money away, and as a result of that he wasn’t able to get a consistent grade of drugs. Would you agree?

To me, that’s a pretty cynical way to look at it. No, I don’t believe that. He had money. He was doing okay. I don’t think it’s a question of that. I think that Dee Dee was just exhausted by reality and by his life. He just got very tired. And he had some other personal problems. He had people in his life that he was not happy with. I even think there were much deeper problems with him in terms of his relationship to women, and men, and certain ways that he was forced to be that were not natural to who he was. I won’t want to get any deeper than that because I don’t want to say things that— these are just deeply personal things that I know about him. But I think that Dee Dee’s unhappiness caught up with him.

There’s a definite suggestion through the film that there’s something very problematic about the way he relates to other people.

Yeah. Extremely. He can’t. I mean, before I filmed him, we talked about it. We were shooting in the afternoon, and in 35mm, so we had a big crew, because I wanted it to have a very classic look to it. That morning he asked me to go to his shrink to discuss the shoot with his shrink, and I thought it was kind of weird. So I went with him to 14th street to his psychiatrist. And as it turned out, man, his fucking psychiatrist was just a two-bit shrink whose objective was to make money, who just prescribed various medications. He didn’t even want to talk to me. There was nothing to say. So Dee Dee got some medication prescribed. But here’s the interesting thing: he didn’t take it before the shoot. Because Dee Dee understood that if he took it, he wouldn’t be who he really was. The camera’s very sensitive. If he’d taken anything, other than smoking pot on camera, it would change the way he comes across. You’d see in his mannerisms a certain sloppiness. It was only later on he took the medication.

You say in the director’s notes to Boot Factory that one of the main objectives of the people running the factory is “to make each of the co-workers self-sufficient enough so that the need to obliterate themselves with substance abuse will not have to be a necessary escape mechanism.” Would you say that for the people that you’ve filmed who’ve been trying to live outside of the obligation to conform to other people’s expectations, it becomes almost a necessary evil to face up to addiction?

I think the problem that everyone faces is that when you get to a certain age, to a certain stage, you have to deal with the fact that you’re going to be under somebody’s thumb. You have to make a living. And I think that creative people then have to start understanding how they’re going to compromising. In that compromising process, big messes occur, and people’s lives fall apart, or they succeed. The kind of success that most of these people want, they don’t really understand it, and they don’t have the goods to go all the way. So they have to find these plateaus on which to survive. Johnny Thunders found his plateau; Dee Dee Ramone found his. All of them had bigger dreams, but they could never go beyond that. They were probably never supposed to go beyond that, and their plateaus were great for what they were. Does that answer the question?

I’m just trying to tie together the problem of addiction as it runs through your films, and the people in them who are desperately trying to live by their own rules beyond the control of other people.

The substance abuse thing is a hard battle to win, but as you’re fighting that battle, it’s a lot of fun. Somewhere along the way, though, something’s gotta give. You can’t just keep having fun with it. The odds are against you.

It seems to me that drugs are a more quintessentially American product than rock and roll. All of America is hooked on something.

The thing is that Americans don’t even want to deal with this thing, but in Middle America, people who are not creative, who are not involved in rock and roll and couldn’t care less about it, factory workers, lawyers, doctors, the entire middle class, they take a lot of drugs, man. And they don’t call them drugs. Because they’re kidding themselves. But they survive day-to-day because life is so boring, and as a result of that boredom so painful to them, that they can’t face up to that reality. So in a certain way, the Johnny Thunderses and the Dee Dee Ramones of the world are ahead of the curve. They’re not hiding it. They have the same problem, they just make it a little more obvious.

Or think of the rumours that circulated that Barbara Bush was supposedly whacked out on Halcyon.

Look at all the Bushes!

Do you think there’s something doomed about a country that’s in a perpetual state of trying to escape itself?

Absolutely. And I think that America is in serious trouble. Real serious trouble. I see so much gloom here, an inability to call a spade a spade. Americans don’t have an objectivity about themselves. I think it’s something like 20% or less of Americans that have a passport. Which means that the other 80% plus haven’t even been outside of the United States, so how can they see themselves?