Q&A with genuine rock’n’roll renaissance man, Mike Edison - speaks frequently on free speech, sex, drugs, and counterculture

"Better music programs in schools. It should be mandatory - all of the arts should be, but a solid introduction to blues and rock n' roll would make the world better, don’t you think?  And jazz — so people aren’t scared of it. And classical music, too, so people don’t think it is just for snobs. Mozart is fun. Miles Davis is fun."

Mike Edison: Rock n' Roll Is Here To Stay

Mike Edison is genuine rock’n’roll renaissance man. He is the former editor and publisher of famed cannabis magazine High Times, and was the editor-in-chief of the courageously irresponsible Screw. He is the author of 28 “adult” novels, and an internationally known musician who spent much of the 1980s and 90s seeing the world from behind a drum set, opening for bands as diverse as Sonic Youth, Sound Garden, and the Ramones. He has written extensive liner notes for, among others, Iggy Pop, and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and has contributed to numerous magazines and websites, including Huffington Post, the Daily Beast, the New York Observer, Spin (writing about the Rolling Stones), Interview, and New York Press, for which he covered classical music and professional wrestling.                    Mike Edison / Photo by  Michael Lavine

His books have included the highly-praised memoirs I Have Fun Everywhere I Go and You Are A Complete Disappointment, as well as the sprawling social history of sex on the newsstand, Dirty! Dirty! Dirty!, written during his time as a writer-in-residence at the New York Public Library. He also writes prolifically about food and wine, notably collaborating with restaurateur and viniculturist Joe Bastianich on his New York Times bestselling memoir, Restaurant Man, of which writer Bret Easton Ellis has said, “The directness and energy have a cinematic rush . . . not a single boring sentence.” His most recent book is Sympathy for the Drummer – Why Charlie Watts Matters (2019), a rawkus appreciation of the Rolling Stones drummer. Edison can frequently be seen with his long-running blues, gospel, and garage-punk experiment The Edison Rocket Train, and he speaks frequently on free speech, sex, drugs, and the American counterculture. Edison lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. 

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Rock counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I grew up in a very special time - I was just old enough to have grown up with blues and rock counterculture of the 1960s and the rock'n'roll of the early 1970s, everything from Hendrix and Black Sabbath, and of course the Rolling Stones, which lead me to Muddy Waters - who was still playing at the time, so I got to see him, and all the rest of the blues greats... but it was also the time when punk rock was starting, and soon hip hop, and I was in the middle of all of it, different countercultures colliding. But like Keith Richards, no matter what, it was Little Richard and Chuck Berry that moved me. Bo Diddley. Howlin' Wolf. Later Hank WIlliams, and Bob Marley - it just took longer to discover them. I was old enough to get to see a lot of great cats - I saw John Lee Hooker in a bar, I saw James Brown a lot of times when he was still in top form, so many great guys from Chicago and Mississippi - but also got to play with the Ramones. That's when you realize it's all the same - if it aint got that swing, it don’t mean a thing. At the time, older people hated punk rock, and punk rockers thought it was weird that I loved Chuck Berry. Now everyone sees it all for what it is, just different parts of the same revolution.

Where does your creative drive come from? What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

Start with rock'n'roll radio... my story isn't unique, not to anyone who heard the calling. Some people get called to the church, I got called to rock'n'roll.... I saw the Who destroying their gear, and thought that looked like a lot of fun... and when I saw Kandinsky on the museum wall, I thought, wow, there really are no rules! Punk rock with a strong blues background is a good foundation for anything, really.

"Music used to be political. The Stones and the Beatles were part of a rebellion, especially the Stones, they were mean and dangerous. Even heavy metal, it was its own sort of protest movement. Punk rock and hip-hop were underground youth movements till they were commercialized. Unfortunately, those things will never happen again." (Photo: Mike Edison and Edison Rocket Train, 2019)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I hate that it is so accessible... meaning that you can push a button on your phone and it is all there. It has no value. It used to be very hard to get a Howlin Wolf record, and when you did, it was special. Now people listen to something for three seconds and decide they don’t like it, because they have nothing invested in it, there is no sense of history or discovery. Everything is instant. Blues is ancient wisdom, and it is very difficult to play well. Very few young people will ever understand that.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Better music programs in schools. It should be mandatory - all of the arts should be, but a solid introduction to blues and rock n' roll would make the world better, don’t you think?  And jazz — so people aren’t scared of it. And classical music, too, so people don’t think it is just for snobs. Mozart is fun. Miles Davis is fun.

What were the reasons that you started the book "Sympathy for the Drummer – Why Charlie Watts Matters"?

I think I’ve wanted to write this since I began playing the drums when I was a teenager and fell in love with the Rolling Stones. They were so much different than any other band, Charlie Watts was so much different. Other drummers and musicians dismissed him because it seemed so simple, but in fact he had so much feeling, he was the part of the Stones that kept them true to the blues, and pure rock'n'roll. He was a jazz drummer in a rock band, and they could rock as hard as Led Zeppelin or the Who, but he gave them a unique, old-fashioned sense of swing. I’ve played in bands my whole life, and Charlie Watts was always number one - it made no sense to play like Keith Moon unless you were in the Who! I became more successful keeping Charlie Watts in mind, and the great blues and R&B drummers he loved. This book was to share all of this - the MUSICAL secrets of the Rolling Stones, the joy of the music. There is a lot about sex and drugs, but always he the music first. The rest comes later.

"In rock'n'roll there is salvation. It keeps people alive. It is the Holy Spirit - not just rock'n'roll, all music, but especially rock'n'roll. Chuck Berry is very optimistic. I listen to Chuck Berry and it makes me very happy. It makes me want to dance. People don't dance enough anymore. Dancing, too, is a form of rebellion. It is a sign of freedom. People would be happier if they listened to Chuck Berry and danced, I dunno, in their kitchens, whatever. It keeps me going." (Photo: Mike Edison's books) 

What was the hardest part of writing this book? What would you say characterizes Charlie Watts in comparison to other drummers?

My goal was to write not only the best book about drums and drumming and the history of early rock'n'roll drums, but it make it fun for everyone who loves music - not just musicians. The hardest part is explaining ROCK and ROLL and why the ROLL is the important part, and talking about Chuck Berry's drummers and Ray Charles drummers in a way that is interesting to everyone. The sex and drugs are easy to write about. The history is a little tougher, but I just kept it moving fast, like a great rock'n'roll record going at 45 RPM, and everyone seems to like it. People tell me they like to listen to the music I am writing about while they are reading. That makes me very happy.

As musician: Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

I HAVE FUN EVERYWHERE I GO is a lot about all the early punk rock gigs, all over Europe and Japan. We were crazy then, lots of drinking and drugs. It was the perfect time to be young... rock'n'roll made us feel like we could do anything. We worked very hard on the music so when it was show time, we could get crazy, we knew that's how it worked - music first, then you get crazy. Many great gigs, of course - opening for the Ramones a few times, playing with GG Allin, and then the opposite, a lot of small gigs in book shops.... I've written five books in the last ten years and I love doing book tours. I always bring musicians to play while I read and tell stories. I was very influenced by beatnik culture in that way, like Jack Kerouac, when he read about jazz. We've done gigs in liquor shops, butcher shops, guitar stores, wherever people will have us. Sometimes commercial book stores aren't the best places, they don’t like too much excitement.  For SYMPATHY FOR THE DRUMMER I did events in bars, book shops, record stores...  but everyone came out to hear about Charlie Watts. He has a lot of fans, a lot of people wanted to hear his story.

"I grew up in a very special time - I was just old enough to have grown up with blues and rock counterculture of the 1960s and the rock'n'roll of the early 1970s, everything from Hendrix and Black Sabbath, and of course the Rolling Stones, which lead me to Muddy Waters - who was still playing at the time, so I got to see him, and all the rest of the blues greats... but it was also the time when punk rock was starting, and soon hip hop, and I was in the middle of all of it, different countercultures colliding." (Photo: Mike Edison & Edison Rocket Train, 2019)

What is the impact of music and counterculture to the racial, political, spiritual and socio-cultural implications?

Music used to be political. The Stones and the Beatles were part of a rebellion, especially the Stones, they were mean and dangerous. Even heavy metal, it was its own sort of protest movement. Punk rock and hip-hop were underground youth movements till they were commercialized. Unfortunately, those things will never happen again.

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n' Roll culture? How do you want it (Rock n' Roll culture) to affect people?

In rock'n'roll there is salvation. It keeps people alive. It is the Holy Spirit - not just rock'n'roll, all music, but especially rock'n'roll. Chuck Berry is very optimistic. I listen to Chuck Berry and it makes me very happy. It makes me want to dance. People don't dance enough anymore. Dancing, too, is a form of rebellion. It is a sign of freedom. People would be happier if they listened to Chuck Berry and danced, I dunno, in their kitchens, whatever. It keeps me going.

What are some of the most important lessons (of life) you have learned from your paths in Rock n' Roll culture?

Show up on time. Rehearse. Make sure your gear works before you get to the gig.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Never piss-off the soundman before the show. Even if he sucks, no good can come of it.

"Blues is ancient wisdom, and it is very difficult to play well. Very few young people will ever understand that." (Photo: Mike Edison & Gary Lucas presented the political satire BYE BYE, MISS AMERICAN PIE, a filthy farce about a female politician caught in a sex scandal / New York Public Library 2019)

Do you consider the Blues a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Well... YES!

Where would you really want to go with a time machine and what memorabilia (albums, books) would you put in?

I’m more about the future... and I’m working on it!

Mike Edison - Home

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