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Howl's Moving Hassle: Penny Rimbaud Interviewed
Duncan Seaman , September 16th, 2020 08:21

Duncan Seaman talks to the perennial agitator/artist about poetry, punk and Crass

From activist to poet, novelist to painter, musician to philosopher, Penny Rimbaud’s creative life has taken him in many directions since he co-founded the anarchist punk band Crass back in 1977.

But his new album How? takes him back to an early inspiration: Allen Ginsberg. Rimbaud, 77, says he arrived at his poetry “via Walt Whitman... who I would say is my greatest influence, I was introduced to him in my late teens and that then led to the American Beats”.

Following a live recital of Ginsberg’s most famous work Howl at a club in 2003, Rimbaud was invited to perform the poem again at the London Jazz Festival but ran into problems with copyright holders HarperCollins, part of Rupert Murdoch’s publishing empire.

“It was extraordinarily difficult,” he says. “I wrote to City Lights and then to HarperCollins and got nowhere. When I found out HarperCollins was owned by Rupert Murdoch I thought, ‘Sorry, I’m not prepared to buy into that.' Ginsberg would have crawled out of his grave in anger if he knew that.”

Knowing that he had the gig booked, he decided he had to “rewrite” the poem in his own style. “I felt it was actually pertinent to do so,” he says, adding: “I also found out at the same that George Bush was coming to the UK and I learnt a big march (to protest against the Iraq War) was being planned on the day of the gig, so that was the inspiration to use the sentiments of Howl against a different opponent. I basically chose corporate capitalism, but most notably its effects on the arts, how the best minds of my generation were bought up with the dollar. I saw that happening constantly in the same way as Ginsberg is constantly repeating the defeat of progressive thought in Howl.

"We’ve moved into much more of an accepted censorial world and that is what I was really attacking mostly, but it also gave me an opportunity to take a blast at all of the illnesses of the 21st century.”

This recording of How? dates from 2017. Rimbaud decided it was apt to release it now. “Without wanting to be vain, most of my works seems to grow in pertinence. I would certainly say that about Crass’s stuff which at the time seemed pretty radical but now seems so prescient that it’s horrifying. How? is one I’ve constantly gone back to because it always seems relevant, I often ad lib during it when I feel there’s something I should notably comment on that’s going on at the moment, it gives me that freedom although it is actually one of the most exhausting pieces of work that I’ve written to perform, it’s non-stop.

"I think the growth of corporate capitalism has been incremental ever since. It is now going through what maybe is a form of stoppage, which I sincerely hope is one that we can creatively work ourselves around. I suppose it was about that in a way – all is not lost.

“At one point it was scheduled to be released next year, and I thought, ‘No, we’ve got to move this forward to the front of the stack’ because it in some way or other is making a commentary about what’s going on, certainly it’s making commentary on why it’s going on in the manner it is, and I knew with liner notes I could up it into the current crisis.”

The Covid crisis has prompted much discussion about reordering society. Rimbaud feels such debate is the crux of How?: “It’s been at the heart of what I’ve said all my creative life. The actual tactic might change – in Crass we came close to being a sort of revolutionary outfit in the true sense of the word. Certainly our aims were revolutionary. We wanted to create a street revolution out there but since then I’ve become much more inward [looking], much more contemplative, and come to understand and believe that no revolution can come before the great inner revolution. This is the revolution of self, which then presents new, more profound avenues into global change. It concerns adopting and adapting an essential belief that all governance is wrong, all work is slavery - actually all of the old anarchist cant - but trying to find newer, more positive settings.

“So often revolution can turn into nihilistic or negative thinking, as it did with Crass. It was very much a them and us situation. In How? I was trying to take a broader picture. The first two parts say, ‘This is how it is’ and then the second two parts are very much, ‘This is how it could be’, with humour and love, every bit as much chanting the desperate need for change, just in a different setting.

“I’m not a conceptualist, in the sense that I don’t think ‘Oh, I’ve got to do that’, I do stuff because that’s how I feel it, that’s how I perform it, that’s how I write it. I can’t do things if I don’t feel, and I certainly never do anything to order. My work is always sort of stream of consciousness, which I add to when I perform it.”

The values of self-sufficiency and free-thinking are the key tenets of Dial House, the anarchist-pacifist community that Rimbaud and his partner, the artist Gee Vaucher, helped to establish in the Essex countryside in 1967. Rimbaud, however, says he can trace the lineage of his thinking back much further, to childhood, and the strained relationship he had with his father, who had fought in the Second World War.

“When I was about five or six I took a book out of my parents’ library about the (Nazi concentration) camps. An innocent young kid opens the pages and there they are – all the corpses in the pits. I didn’t meet my father until I was about three, and when I did meet him I didn’t like him very much because he was destroying my intimate relationship with my mother. This person had turned up, so I took exception to him and I took strong exception to his reference to the ‘real world’.

"I thought the real world was in my mum’s arms, not this thing he was talking about, and when I saw the camp pictures I remember thinking, ‘That’s what he was up to, no wonder I don’t like him.' A kid doesn’t know or understand, he didn’t talk about them and I didn’t dare ask him, so that delusion was with me for a little while.

“At the age of five or six I determined I don’t like that real world. If the real world is all bodies in pits and grumpy old men, I don’t want anything to do with it. I did spend the rest of my life, up until today, trying to find ways to challenge, reject, totally demolish any way which I don’t have to belong to such a horror.

“I was introduced to Zen thought when I was in my early teens etcetera, all of these things started giving me great meaning or at least escape routes from a media material world. My whole life has been trying to make better something as a very early child I realised was just downright horrible. That’s a simple word ‘horrible’, but that’s what it is and that’s what it remains. It’s got even more horrible in so many ways and unjust and unfair, mean and cruel and all the rest of it.”

Crass grew out of the community at Dial House when in 1977 a then 16-year-old Steve Ignorant said he wanted to form a band. “We certainly didn’t want to create a conventional rock band and I don’t think it even occurred to us that we were creating anything at all,” says Rimbaud. “Everything that goes on here has always been very organic. There’s two people visiting today and maybe one of them will come up with an idea we can help with – that’s what it boils down to.

“Another thing I was introduced to when I was in my teens was karmic yoga, which was the yoga of servants helping other people. That influenced me deeply, that gave me a meaning to life. What is the meaning of life? Helping other people. And really most of the things that have happened here have come out of that.

“Crass came about because a young kid turned up whose brother used to come here regularly, he used to come occasionally and said he wanted to start a band and all of his mates in Dagenham told him to piss off, so I said, ‘I’ve got a drum kit, I’ll start a band.' I was 32 and he was 16, I think. So we started a band and I don’t think the two of us ever thought anything more of it. I’ve always had a little rehearsal studio here so we used to bash around, and people would pass by and said, ‘Can we join?’ It was like kids playing, and it always is. Everything that happens here is like kids playing.

“We had no ambition, we had no ideas about getting into rock & roll or punk or anything else. I liked early rock & roll and I liked some early punk, but generally speaking I like European avant garde classical music and free jazz, that’s been my beautiful bag. Again, no one could ever point a finger at Crass and say it was contrived, it organically grew out of an older bloke and a younger bloke who were both very pissed off getting together and mucking about in the music.”

The band’s membership would expand, with the likes of Vaucher, N A Palmer, Eve Libertine and Joy De Vivre all joining their ranks. Crass’s records, such as The Feeding Of The 5000, Stations Of The Crass and Penis Envy, confounded those on both political left and right and even at one point brought them to the attention of the Russian KGB – “and MI5 and MI6 and a few others” – and they remained wary of being co-opted by other movements for their own end.

“We were very wary, and it was not just the obvious political Left or Right,” Rimbaud says. “It was also all sorts from terrorist groups to Situationist groups. Everyone wanted to buy in, or hoped to buy in, or have us accommodate us in camp. We were very conscious of the programme that we were progressively developing that any form of allegiance was dangerous.

“I sometimes wish now, looking back on it, that I’d made an effort to contact [Arthur] Scargill and an effort to contact [Gerry] Adams, they were two figures within a revolutionary potential. Had we contacted them, I think there would’ve been a very powerful front, but we didn’t do that. I’ve often thought how that might have happened and that quite possibly we could’ve got further down the road towards some true revolutionary situation.”

Nevertheless the last thing Crass aspired to be was as leaders of an anarcho-punk movement. Rimbaud says “the fact that people thought too much of us and too little of themselves” contributed to the band’s final schism in 1984. “We were aware that people were waiting for what we would do next and that just wasn’t what we were about. They were looking for leadership and our whole message was ‘Don’t look here’, so that contributed towards a general disillusionment, and that disillusionment also created a schism between those who wanted to follow possibly a more activist route than a cultural route.

"It wasn’t extreme but it was there, it was very much a schism between those who I have to say were the more creative – in the real sense of the word – members of the band who were all for using new trajectories to say the same old stuff, which was basically ‘Get a life’, whilst the other half of the band were more along the lines of, ‘Can’t we keep a bit of this life?’ and we knew we couldn’t, we were no longer using the right tactic.

"Getting up on stage singing songs, whatever they were saying, we’d done that, there wasn’t anything else to say, we’d written the entire script for a revolutionary learner, we couldn’t say any more, so there was a schism.

“It was very sad as well. For seven years we worked very closely, there weren’t arguments, there weren’t conflicts. Having about ten people living in the same place was pretty ambitious and we did it. It was a spectacular achievement. All of us were true right through to the end. There were differences, towards the end. I remember the band insisted I put my own name on a particular handout flysheet which was very much promoting more direct action, and some of the members of the band didn’t feel that should come from us so it had to come from me. They were never unpleasant, it was ‘OK, well I’ll do it myself’, but it became untenable really eventually.”

In the years since Crass, Rimbaud has written poetry, philosophy, essays, novels and plays. He says he’s currently working on a “lockdown movie” made over Skype with his friend Mick Duffield.

“He was a filmmaker with Crass who I’ve continued working with, he actually made the How? film,” he says. “And I’ve been writing as ever. My main preoccupation has been trying to find some true creative and substantial and sustainable response to Covid. I do a daily tweet which is just a thought of the day sort of thing, all of which are trying to go towards some sort of positive notion within what’s happening, how can deal with this? What are we doing? Etcetera etcetera.

“It’s probably one of the most difficult times in my life. I’m a sort of eternal optimist and finding good in the current situation I find very difficult, except the obvious good that has grown in some cases between people, but that’s then shadowed by the obvious not good – the horrible rise of domestic violence and all that sort of stuff. I think after the killings [in America], the Black Lives Matter stuff, I find it difficult to hang on. This is just desperate, when are we going to learn? But I’ll manage and I’ll go on managing.

“Sometimes I will spend the first three hours of the day just in contemplation and meditation, trying to find my own peace so I can offer something to the world. It’s no big deal but it’s what I can do, it’s what I can contribute. It doesn’t get any easier but then that’s the test anyway. I see that as a gift. We always liked to think we’ve arrived at a sort of non-deluded point of life and every time something will come and kick the ground from underneath your feet. That’s terrific, really. I can’t begin to know what I’ve learnt yet. I’m beginning to get a picture of possibility and probability way outside of the materialist narrative but one which still includes us as material beings, and that’s what I’m mucking about with. It sometimes seems a bit like sci-fi, I have to say.”

How? is out now. One Little Independent is releasing the repackaged/ remastered 'Crassical Collection' of Crass albums on October 2