Friday, July 11, 2008

On the Lower Frequencies: An Interview with Author Erick Lyle

By Matt Dineen

When I was asked if the community radio station I'm involved in would like to co-sponsor an event with legendary zinesters Erick Lyle (aka, Iggy Scam) author of Scam and Cindy Crabb (Doris), I enthusiastically signed us on right away. Before their reading at Food For Thought Books Collective in Amherst, MA, I was going to interview Erick on my radio show about his brand new book, On the Lower Frequencies: A Secret History of the City, and about the struggle to do what you love while surviving in a capitalist society. But that interview didn't happen. They were doing a late night event in New York featuring a performance by one of Erick's bands, Onion Flavored Rings, and my show is pretty earlier in the morning. So we just waited until after the event to chat.

Going into the interview I was inspired from their reading in which they took turns sharing stories from their books and zines. Cindy read about moving to the Ohio countryside and the challenge of talking about politics again without being dogmatic, while Erick told San Francisco tales of the city's most infamous 25 hour-a-day donut shop, transforming an abandon building on Market St. into a cultural center, and an April Fools Day "Pro-War" march right after the Iraq War began. I rode in their borrowed tour van back to Northampton, Ramones on the stereo, where Erick and I sat outside the local bowling alley off the freeway onramp and had the following conversation about writing, work, his book, and creating the kind of world we want to live in.

How do you usually respond when people ask you, "What do you do?" What does that question mean to you?

EL: What do I do? Well, I guess I've always felt like I'm a writer since I was a little kid. It's how I see the world—in terms of being a writer. I don't ever take pictures of things on vacations and stuff like that. I'm always just describing things in my head. I think writing informs my basic interaction with the world. And I've never thought of myself as an activist and all that, but I have always thought of myself as a writer.

Can you talk about living in San Francisco and not working a full-time wage job and what that means for someone who identifies as a writer?

EL: Well, it depends on what you call work. I haven't had a real, straight job in almost 20 years, but I live in one of the most expensive cities in the country to live in. So this is the paradox. I would say that I'm part of a community of folks in San Francisco—activists, writers, artists—that work harder than anybody, that are working like 80, 90 hours a week on their own projects. When I was at the Coalition on Homelessness working there, people didn't quit working until 10, 11 at night and then a lot of people slept in the office. None of those folks are really getting paid but it's their life's work to do this stuff.

In the book I talk about this street newspaper I used to do called, The Turd-Filled Donut with my best friend Ivy. We were putting out this skid row newspaper, living in welfare hotels and writing about the neighborhood, trying to highlight people's struggles: For tenants to organize against their shitty hotel owners, or for homeless people who were organizing to demand housing and things like that. We spent hours, all the time working on this paper, interviewing people, editing the paper, getting art for it, putting it out on the streets. It was a free newspaper. We gave it away. So that's work, but it's not work for financial remuneration.

That's kind of the subject of my buddy from San Francisco Chris Carlsson's new book [Nowtopia], how people are looking for community and meaningful work outside of, let's say, wage slavery. You know, most of the work that people are doing is completely meaningless and is not benefitting themselves or each other or the planet. It's just totally busy work and people are really dissatisfied with it. So there's all kinds of folks that are willing to work themselves to the bone 25 hours a day for what they believe in, but we're not working for…I haven't had a service industry job or something for a long time. The last real job I had was in 2000, I worked at a queer youth homeless shelter. That was the last "official" job I had. Since then, it's been freelance writing, crime, things like that…make ends meet. That's how it is. But always working on other stuff like putting on punk shows, protests, putting out a magazine that doesn't really pay for itself.

I think that element of community is so important, like the one in San Francisco you are part of, and relating that to the social pressure that a lot of people who don't have a community like that face. They can have these ideas, wanting to work on their own projects, doing things that aren't completely defined by a status job. But then they have pressure from their families, the larger society and just the economic realities of daily life. And that can be challenging even for people who do have really supportive communities.

EL: Yeah, I mean, things are awful right now with the economic situation…We're so far from changing things. We're sitting next to a freeway onramp. Everything is geared toward people having to drive everywhere they need to go. The food's being trucked in. The wage level is so low. The work is unskilled. People are working practically minimum wage. They need two or three jobs to make it. The economic situation in this country definitely makes it so that people are totally alienated and isolated. It's very cutthroat. It's an awful situation.

Some things you see are positive examples, like tonight we had an event sponsored by several collectives. People have come together to collectivize their workplace. That's one step in a positive direction. Is that gonna happen everywhere? I don't know. I don't think that invalidates the work that my community does, to say that we don't have an answer for how to get out of Wal-Mart or something. I know there are movements nationwide of people trying to hold these chain stores accountable for their labor practices, for their environmental practices...

Read this interview in its entirety at
Matt Dineen is a writer and the host of Passions and Survival, a weekly program on Valley Free Radio in Northampton, MA. Contact him at: