Across The Wire Vol. 2

The Dialectic of Rock Music

By Bill Whitten

Rock songs have their origin in the wound. 

Rock songs are born in the songwriter’s head and hands but then die. 

On stage or in a recording studio a rock band will bring them back to life like cut flowers in water.

Every guitar player is a historian.

Rock music is formed by a history that remains alive even in its decay.

Rock music is a territory that possesses no reality or connections other than those of a shared ecstasy.

The compulsion that drives the formation of any rock band is always the same: an impulsive, anarchic flight from society, propelled by something like romantic love.

A rock band is, of course, not like a family, but instead is like a religious order or a military unit or an urban guerilla.

Accordingly, the belief in something greater than itself is the glue that ties a band together. Instead of a god there is Keith Richards, the Beatles, Johnny Thunders, Lou Reed, Chuck Berry. Like divinities they can be worshipped or defied. 

Rock music is a military art; prepare for a performance or an album like a battle.

Refuse to choose between the beautiful and the unbeautiful.

In the recording studio the rock musician operates on himself and projects his suffering onto his songs. 

Contagion is both the lifeblood and the poison of rock music.

A rock musician is a being with no shell, open to pain, tormented by light, shaken by every sound.

Surrounded and controlled by machines, there is a compulsion to sing, talk and act like machines. It must be resisted.

Beethoven often played the piano with the lid closed.

Rock and roll when practiced correctly is never a reproduction of the past, but instead a present that is continually renewed. 

Devotion to rock music reinforces the worst traits of one’s character. 

The burning streets, the fuzzy horizon, the clouds, the river and fire, the cold, the suffering, the sadness, the vanished women. 

A man can never really know a woman, he can only pursue her indefinitely. It is the same with rock music.

Each rock song creates an infinite space.

Before the mutation took place that allowed homo sapien to speak, archaic humans had a signature, recognizable cry like that of the blue jay, the horse or the wolf.

Rock music is the color of black hair.

Bill Whitten is a musician and writer.  He is the founding member of St. Johnny, Grand Mal and currently records under the nom de guerre William Carlos Whitten. His latest recording *The Third Interval* was released in February 2024. His book BRUTES, a collection of short fiction was released in January 2022.

Issue 1 Issue 1 Fiction

J O H A N N  M U R K

By Bill Whitten

Bergamaschi, a furniture mover who wrote books that sold modestly in France and Germany, stood by the open rear door of his illegally parked Mercedes LP Truck outside the Carlton Arms Hotel on E. 25th Street.

Aged thirty-nine, six-foot-one, one hundred-eighty five pounds he looked at his watch and sneezed. It was May and his body was in revolt. A Linden Tree was in full flower above him. He sneezed again.

A tall man in his forties with brown hair, wearing a grey three-piece suit approached him. “Well, that should do it.” The man was carrying a black briefcase in his left hand and pulled a wheeled navy suitcase with his right. He stopped, lifted a hand – covered in smudges of blue ink – above his brow to shield his eyes from the sun. “Do I pay you now or upon completion of the job?”

Bergamaschi picked up the suitcase, threw it in the back of the truck and pulled down the roll-up door. More than a dozen legal file boxes were stacked and strapped against the truck’s back wall. Each box was stenciled in white letters: J.MURK CONFIDENTIAL. He placed a padlock over the handle. “When we’re done.”

“Can I ride with you? Or does that violate a law of some kind?”

“You can ride with me, Johann.” Bergamaschi smiled and pointed at Johann’s shoes: “Watch your step getting in. It might be tricky in those Bruno Magli’s…”

On Park Avenue South, as Bergamaschi navigated his truck among the yellow cabs and bike messengers, Johann began to weep.

“Should I pull over?”

Exhausted, dislocated, breath rattling in his throat: “No, no I’m fine. It’s just that today is my wedding anniversary and my wife served me divorce papers…” His baritone tremoloed, his chest heaved, “…only yesterday.” 

“I’m sorry to hear that…”

“My work, as my wife sees it – I’m a clinical psychiatrist – has destroyed not only my own life but hers as well. Columbia is currently attempting to fire me. I’m a tenured professor so lucky for me that will be nearly impossible. But they are discrediting me and she believes that due to the phenomenon known as guilt by association, her standing as a top-tier mathematician has been called into question.” He wiped tears from his cheeks with a monogrammed handkerchief. “It all has to do with a book I wrote – Interventions and Abductions – that has become a best-seller. ”

Bergamaschi slammed on the brakes as a UPS truck careened across the lanes in front of him. “What is the work you’re doing? What is the book about?”

Johann nodded his head as he pocketed the handkerchief. “I’ve spent the last decade interviewing and writing about the victims, or should I say, experiencers of alien abduction. This field of interest has possessed me. It feels as though I have no choice in the matter, as if I’ve been called to do this work.”

Bergamaschi looked past Murk at the side-view mirror on the passenger side of the truck as he attempted to change lanes. “You might think this is strange, but there is someone I know – an experiencer as you say – who might benefit from talking to you, if you’re interested and not too busy.” 

Murk closed his eyes, leaned back against the seat and took a deep breath. “I think it goes without saying that I’d be very interested.”


The two men sat at a table in Leshko’s on Avenue A. They stared out of its dirty windows as they waited for their coffees to arrive. A woman with tears streaming down her face, a nameless rapture in her eyes, paced back and forth on the sidewalk. She was followed by a man with a shaved head, dressed in black clasping a small white Chihuahua to his chest. There were dark circles beneath the man’s eyes and tearstains beneath the Chihuahua’s. Occasionally, the world revealed a strange, undeniable consonance. 

“The young man I’d like you to talk to is a painter. I met him through his girlfriend who lives in the apartment building next to mine.”

A waitress appeared. Young, blonde, Polish: “Your coffee gentlemen.”

Bergamaschi smiled: “Thank you Zuzanna.” He paused, lifted the cup, blew on the coffee. “He was scheduled to have a show at a gallery on West Broadway. Not a top gallery by any means, but his paintings would have received quite a bit of attention. At the last moment he backed out and then…like in some melodramatic movie from the 1950s…burnt all the paintings.”

Johann’s was a handsome, pockmarked, olive-skinned face. On some men, acne scars are almost a kind of decoration. Think of a statue pitted by time or disaster. Johann was one of these men. He stirred milk into his coffee, raised his eyebrows. “But why?”

“He claims that the subjects of his paintings were directly the result of…how do I put this…alien intervention. According to his girlfriend he claimed the aliens have been visiting him since his childhood. In the course of their interaction the aliens have shown him things; images from a vast archive that is essentially the history of human civilization. He’s seen the Crucifixion, the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk, the construction of Ai Kanoun as well as the Great Pyramids, the Battle of Somme, the beheading of Robespierre…an endless list of events and occurrences that were, according to him, imprinted directly onto his mind. These events became the subjects of his paintings…Even the idea of painting itself was suggested to him by the…the…aliens.”

Johann could not take his eyes off the man with the Chihuahua: “Most of the experiencers that I encounter feel that an urgent message about the fate of humanity has been delivered to them and it must be communicated to the rest of the word…before it’s too late.”

Bergamaschi nodded, sipped his coffee. “Prior to moving to New York from Missouri, he was a landscaper, a housepainter. He was fired from a job after he painted an image of an extra-terrestrial on someone’s garage door. He hitchhiked here, met the young woman I mentioned who encouraged him to paint. His paintings are – or were – like a crazy combination of Basquiat and Henri Rousseau. One gets the impression that this young man is being propelled through life by a force outside of himself. His girlfriend fears that something terrible is going to happen.”

“More terrible than the burning of his paintings?”

“Yes. Perhaps I could bring you to meet him? He doesn’t like the City and has moved to a town called West Stovefield, about an hour north of here.”

Johann had shifted his gaze from the man with the Chihuahua to the woman with tears streaming down her face. “The apartment you just moved me into is almost completely empty. There is one coffee cup in the cupboard, one can of Budweiser in the refrigerator. My only plans are to read the Zibaldone alone on my futon at night. Arrange for me to meet your friend. The sooner I get back to work, the better.”


The two men exited the Taconic State Parkway in Bergamaschi’s beige D-100 pick-up and approached West Stovefield along the narrow two lane Harvey Door Road as it wended its way along a tunnel-like corridor of birch, pine and elm. Occasionally, on the left or the right, the men saw in the perpetual sylvan twilight a grim looking double-wide rising from the earth. As often as not, a pick-up truck was parked nearby. Perhaps, somewhere on the adjoining property, a satellite dish pointed at the sky.  

Mark Finger was staying in a rented farmhouse on the edge of West Stovefield near its northern border with Granville. Grey with white shutters, it rose above rutted, fallow fields, the only structure visible for miles. Finger’s blue Chevy pickup truck was parked beneath a towering Oak. From the tree’s silent, gray branches a frayed rope swung in the wind. Perhaps a tire once hung from the end of it.

Finger stood on the front porch as Bergamaschi steered the truck along the dirt driveway. He was in his mid-twenties. Dark hair swept back from his forehead. Beneath a black t-shirt, broad shoulders and a narrow waist were visible. Except for a discolored, cracked front tooth there was a symmetry to his face and body.

Through the open window of his truck Bergamaschi observed the rhapsodic blue of the sky, the vapor trail of a fighter jet, the rustle of leaves in the wind…

Finger ran down the steps, across the lawn and stood outside of the truck waiting for the men to get out. He was laughing. He pointed at Murk. “I know who you are. I have your book.”

Murk climbed out of the truck, shut the door to the pick-up, smiled and began to laugh as well.

Bergamaschi leaned against the door of his truck. “What’s so funny?”

Murk: “Certain essential aspects of the world are accessible only through laughter.”

Finger: “Sometimes fear is laughter.”

Murk: “To laughter you can only oppose laughter.”

Bergamaschi followed the two men as they walked toward the house. “My grandmother used to say: madmen are the salt of the earth.”


“I want them to leave me alone. I’ve had enough. I reject them.”

The three men sat at the kitchen table, drinking from cans of beer. 

Murk drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Of all the experiencers I’ve encountered, more than half of them have expressed the desire to be left alone. It’s the same with mystics or visionaries: exposure to another reality can be unbearable.”

Bergamaschi stood up from the table and pointed toward the kitchen window. “Look.”

A woman, barefoot in a white linen suit crossed the lawn. Her hair was black and gleaming, her skin ivory, her eyes like bodies of water reflecting the sky.

In her left hand, held between thumb and index finger, a paperback copy of Interventions and Abductions. As she walked, plants broke through earth and rose to attention. Their flowering was violent, the colors jarred like wrong notes played on a piano. She continued to walk, grass sprouting at her feet, fog rising in front, behind her. 

She did not speak, but the three men heard her voice. “To survive you must transform the nature of all that exists and enter a completely new order of things. Debasement has been your fundamental principle of existence. The best painting, the best art is initiatory. It heralds a new world and helps bring it into being. We must guide you to a zone in which a new conception and a new birth can take place.” 

The woman continued walking until she was no longer visible. Bergamaschi once again sat down at the table. In the instant that followed the men were without memories, without plans. An interval of unknown duration passed as time rebuilt itself around them. 

Finally, Murk began to scribble in his notebook. He spoke in a hoarse voice: “There is a taxonomy of aliens; we know of the Greys, the Lizards, the Little Doctors and the ones like her called The Nordics. Sometimes they appear to our sensory organs as over seven feet tall.”

Finger was slumped in his chair. “They’re in the barn, they’re in the trees.” He gulped his beer.  “You hear noises at night. You might think it was crickets or toads or birds but it’s them. They won’t leave until I start painting again. They’ve made that clear.”  He stood and walked to the refrigerator, pulled open the door, retrieved another beer.  He pointed his chin toward the kitchen door. “If I drink myself to death or blow my head off or burn this place down they’ll be shit out of luck.” He gulped half the beer, then paused.  “But, that’s not what I want…I want to be…” He grimaced: “I want to be normal.”

Bergamaschi closed his dark eyes, rubbed a hand over the black stubble on his cheeks. “Why don’t you start painting again? I’d do anything to get rid of them…”

Johann closed his notebook. “Come with us when we go back to the City. I just moved into a large two-bedroom apartment that’s almost completely empty.”

Finger shrugged. He placed the empty can of beer on the table in front of him. “Let’s go shoot some guns. It’ll clear our heads, make us feel better.”


Murk put his right hand against the dashboard and braced himself as Finger jerked the wheel and steered his pick-up truck down a rutted dirt road.

They passed remnants of a shade tobacco field, then the charred skeleton of a tobacco-drying shed. 

Like a sullen teenager Murk frowned and stared straight ahead. “I always promised myself that I would never fire a gun.” 

“That’s pretty silly”. Finger turned and grinned. “Just a little farther now, Dr. Murk.”

The truck hit a rut and the three men’s heads nearly banged against its roof.

“Should we be firing guns after drinking alcohol?”

“It’s the best time to fire guns. The type of people I grew up with were always armed.” He lifted his hand from the steering wheel and tapped one of the rifles affixed to the gun rack. “These are tools; like a paintbrush or hammer.” He pulled up a pant leg. A derringer was visible in a boot holster.

Murk sighed. “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”

Finger laughed. “Whatever.”

Wedged against the passenger-side door, Bergamaschi was bored. “Why is that the aliens are so intent that you in particular, should paint?” 

“You heard her. They want the world to know that our technology has enslaved us and compelled us to participate in our own destruction.” 

“But why you?” 

Finger turned toward Bergamaschi and shrugged. “No clue. I have a feeling it’s just their cover story. They’re after something else. Doc Murk might know what that is.” He patted Murk on the back. “Stop shaking, I’m about to put a loaded gun in your hands.” 

Up ahead, like a beaver’s dam, a small mountain of brush blocked the road. 

“Here we go, gentlemen.” 

Finger stepped out of the truck, shut the door, leaned against it and pulled a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of his t-shirt. The sky was darkening. The holiday feel of an impending thunderstorm penetrated the air. He took off running. Thirty yards away from the truck he went about setting up a dozen empty, green Genesee Cream Ale cans. He jogged back to the truck, opened a door, removed the two rifles from the gun-rack and laid them on the hood of the truck. He pulled a gym-bag from behind the driver’s seat, removed a loaded magazine, popped it into an M-1 and handed it to Bergamaschi. 

“Patty Hearst’s favorite weapon, give it a try Mr. Bergamaschi.”

As Finger and Murk stepped aside Bergamaschi put it to his shoulder. Bergamaschi pulled the trigger. There was no evidence of the .30 caliber bullet striking anything near the row of cans. He lowered the weapon, rolled his shoulders and once again took aim. As he did he recited:

“Where there are no gods, the phantoms reign.”

He began firing. One after another, cans flew from the log as if pulled by a string.


An enormously tall, thin blonde-haired figure wearing a white tunic-like garment and fluorescent orange running shoes wandered in the distance, slightly to the right of where Finger had placed the targets.

Finger held a .44 Magnum at arms length. The gun discharged. Beer bottles exploded in the distance. “That’s Zaoos; he hardly ever shows his face.”

Bergamschi sat on the truck’s tailgate drinking a beer. “What happens if you shoot him?” 

“I’m pretty sure he dies.”

“Why don’t they intervene directly; cure disease, stop the aging process, disarm the nuclear bombs, clean up the polluted oceans etc etc etc.” 

Murk held a beer in each hand and drank first from one, then the other. “As Mark has said, they may in fact have other goals aside from our salvation. Some insist that their only interest is in maintaining themselves. Their true work is to use humans to propagate their own species with what have been called ‘hybrids’.”

Finger snorted and fired the Magnum.

Murk emptied a beer can, then crushed it in his fist. “When they first started visiting you did bright lights appear outside your window? Accompanied by a strange hum?”


“Did they de-materialize you?”

“Did they then transport you through walls or windows?”


“Did they take you to a mother-ship with gleaming modern appurtenances or a room that seemed like an ancient shrine or altar?” 

“Ancient shrine.”

“Did they perform medical interventions?”

“Harvest your sperm or take tissue samples?”


“Did their ship, as far as you understood, come from the stars or the oceans?”


Lightning flashed, claps of thunder quickly followed. A bit like a priest, a bit like a ballerina Zaoos wandered in the distance. His voice cleared a space in their brains: “What we seek is neither thick nor thin, neither short nor long, neither flame nor liquid, neither colored nor dark, neither wind nor ether, doesn’t stick, is without taste, without smell, without eyes, without ears, without breath, without mouth, without measure, without an inside, without an outside. It does not eat and is not eaten.”

Murk, holding his head in his hands, ran back to the truck. “We are not able to endure these creatures. Like Semele we’ll go up in a puff of smoke! I have a splitting headache! Let’s go! Back to the farmhouse and then the City. Please! My head!” 


Upon returning to Manhattan, both Bergamaschi and Murk were bedridden for a week with headaches and fevers. Finger, on the other hand, was afflicted by a kind of hyper-restlessness; he did not sleep and drank around the clock. He stayed with Murk for three weeks, then his girlfriend (who, after the burning of the paintings and the end of his art-career had become his ex-girlfriend) for two weeks, then with Bergamaschi for ten days. After that, he disappeared. For weeks following his departure, Bergamaschi dreamt of him. He thought often of Finger’s pathetic even poignant desire, which was both commonplace and exceptional in a city like New York: I want to be normal

The dreams usually ended with a vision of a vast conflagration. One morning upon waking Bergamaschi wrote down the details of his dream in the notebook he kept by his bed:

The house burnt, in the middle of all that empty space, like a torch. Windows popped, exploding outward, broken glass tinkling like ice-cubes on the frozen lawn. It seemed as if the house had been designed for only one purpose: to burn dramatically on a summer night beneath a sky full of stars. 

The old Oak went up along with the house. The rope acted as a wick and the tree, illumined by orange-red flames, bent in the wind as if it was dancing. 

A flaming branch fell on the hood of the truck. Then another. Soot rained down from the sky, plasma-like flame crawled upward from the windows, searching among the eaves…


Bill Whitten is a musician and writer.  He is the founding member of St. Johnny, Grand Mal and currently records under the nom de guerre William Carlos Whitten. His latest album Ecstatic Laments was released in June 2022. His book BRUTES, a collection of short fiction was released in January 2022.

Across The Wire

Interview with a Neighbor

Jason Sebastion Russo interviews Bill Whitten.

JSR: I had a first draft of questions for you about our mutual friend OD’ing in your band’s hotel room one long ago evening at SXSW, but I felt it was too salacious, even though it ends with me walking past the hotel gym at dawn and seeing you lifting weights in a black t-shirt and pair of jeans. I was still wet from having given our friend (no Narcan in those days) an ice-cold shower. I also had a couple of false starts about seeing you play guitar with Shady at the Knitting Factory (where we were pointed out to each other but not introduced, and you told Grasshopper I looked like a “young Kerouac” much to my great pride). I also wrote the story of Grand Mal playing at the Rhinecliff Hotel—which ended with you rolling around that filthy all-ages room without a shirt, and passing out at my and the late John DeVries’ couch in Poughkeepsie. But these questions were all starting to head into Hubert Selby territory; debauchery, treachery, substance abuse etc. etc. Should we pursue such a line of discussion?

BW: I feel somewhat queasy directly discussing (without the screens of fiction or abstraction) tales of past depravity. It’s probably best to take the Wittgensteinian approach: What we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence.

JSR: Fair enough. Ludwig missed his calling, imho. What is a central metaphor in your life? I’m obsessed with the image of a plant slowly growing toward a window, for example. 

BW: Waking up drunk in an enormous, empty, windowless, dark, locked room in a stranger’s house. After a period of time (hours? days? who knows?) finally escaping. Penniless, walking for miles trying to find to my way home, vowing to change my ways, to begin again…


JSR: Word, or amen, to that. Do you have a common, almost trite, saying that you’ve thought to yourself most of your life? For example, I have been saying, “live by the sword, die by the sword” to myself my entire life. And/or, “garbage in, garbage, out.” Direct quotes from my father’s childhood in the Bronx. You? 

BW: Again and again, the words of Divine come into my brain: Kill everyone, kill everyone right now

JSR: An enduring, undeniable platform. We both lived in the same Brooklyn building for years, yet I was surprised that as soon as you left NYC, you immediately started writing and singing about exile. I get it now that I spend 80% of my time in central New York. I assume the shift in locale impacted your creative life. Can you describe how?

BW: Being something of a pessimist, I expected, from the moment of my arrival in New York (America’s insane asylum) in 1990, delivered from a Peter Pan bus into its cold, dingy glitter and trash-strewn streets and neighborhoods, that my stay would be short-lived. Back then (maybe now?), it was a city of fugitives, of pilgrims – men and women like me – on the run from their families, from themselves, from their origins. I navigated it according to maps I’d brought with me, drawn by its victims and castoffs. I was fascinated with both the strange, vacant-faced men crouched in dark doorways and the glamorous youth who arrived en masse from every corner of the world to take part in the vast, industrial form of human sacrifice known as the ‘arts scene’.

I have notes from the first party I ever went to in the City:

How to pay attention to her words when the muscles jumping in her jaw, the blue veins pulsing beneath her eyes were all clearly visible beneath her starveling’s translucent skin. She ran her hands through her hair, touched her nose, her ears. “I’ve become (mumble) fixated on the (mumble) fact that a kind of apocalyptic menace follows me around (mumble), the City is on the verge of destruction, I can feel it.”

I moved constantly from neighborhood to neighborhood, borough to borough, always in search of a cheap apartment. Whenever I found one, there would be constant rumors among the tenants about imminent eviction, about the landlord’s desire to sell the building to speculators. Expulsion from NYC was always inevitable.

In 2018, as I stood on the stoop of my apartment in Brooklyn for the last time, I wondered what real difference would there be between NYC and a city in the Midwest. No matter where you go everyone is glued to their phones (an apparatus designed to enslave it users). The restaurants serve the same food, the same coffee. The men have the same haircuts. True, the people are more beautiful in NYC… but the world has been flattened and everyone on it made the same.

In any case, my only plausible claim to exile is from the bookstores of NYC (currently as close to extinction as the Yangtze Finless Porpoise); my true homeland. How great it was going from bookstore to bookstore like a pub-crawl and discovering Roberto Calasso, Jacques Ellul, Bruce Chatwin, Mavis Gallant etc etc. Of course, there are a handful of bookstores where I live now but none pass my personal test (a pretty low standard) of what makes a halfway decent bookshop – i.e. it must carry titles by Marguerite Duras and Giorgio Agamben…

Finally, circling back to your question, leaving NYC has had no impact on my creative life. I continue to pursue a bad idea (a life devoted to making art) stubbornly and against all reason.

JSR: What percentage of the world is evil?

BW: An ever-growing percentage. But, I believe in apocatastasis i.e. universal salvation, which means that when we die we all go to heaven. So evil is of less importance if we all will spend eternity in paradise.

JSR: Can people change?

BW: People’s actions can change, which is all that matters.

JSR: Well said. What percent of your personality can you choose?

BW: The easy way out is to proclaim that humans are purely determined by exterior forces i.e. people are social constructions, and their personalities are fungible. But if you’ve ever witnessed the birth of a child, you know that they come equipped with an already existing personality or what people used to call a “soul”. So the correct answer is zero.

JSR: I helped you move out. You were the only friend that showed up to move me into my first NYC apartment. We were an excellent moving team, in fact, and did a ton of moving gigs together; always glad to combine working out with making rent. Why pay for a gym when you can get paid to be a mover? Bonus: being a furniture mover is one of the best ways to get to know the five boroughs of NYC.

I spent a lot of time on your stoop before it became my stoop too. Before I finagled my way into the top-floor apartment of our building—no small task—thanks in part to you and Parker Kindred (one of the best drummers alive, who’s played with everyone from Lou Reed to Jeff Buckley to Cass McCombs etc). Something Parker probably regretted when I added to the guitar overdubbing, kick drum sampling, bass rehearsals competing in the hallway, the first time I dropped an amplified bass guitar on my floor/his ceiling. Ours was the kind of building that a body dropping past the window would have been noteworthy but not that shocking.

Our stoop was one of those easy-to-mythologize places like a Sesame Street set or Scorsese b-roll. During that very specific era of Brooklyn, at the decline of its vitality, in the heart of doomed Williamsburg. Thanks to our sweet landlady’s charity, we got a front seat to Rome’s burning. (“How will they be able to afford milk?” was how she explained keeping her tenant’s rent at one-third neighborhood’s market value.) We stocked the building with bandmates and friends, all of us touring and recording as the music industry turned to dust beneath us. Thank God you guys got me in. I was indeed running from the Minotaur, having just been evicted from my tiny basement apartment around the corner, in a building sold to developers by the owner’s son. Developers that turned it into a condo overnight. I was only homeless for a month before you and Parker convinced our landlady that I was good people… you threw a rope and hauled me up to safety.

I think some of my favorite stoop moments were your and Ken Griffin’s (Rollerskate Skinny, Favourite Sons, August Wells) endless debates. We’d gather around like Athenians and discuss books, film, music, television, romance, drugs, religion, politics, metaphysics. Everyone in our building was or had been in a band that I’d been a fan of prior, and it was nice to be amongst musicians that didn’t only want to talk about guitar pedals. So, here is my question: did our tight-knit cadre of NYC friends/reprobates impact your creative life in any way? Other than the obvious fact that you were constantly luring us to your living room to track vocals or guitars.

BW: More than one woman commented that our building resembled a barracks, or a halfway house for aging rock musicians or some kind of disreputable all-male commune. Of course, for me, my fellow ‘inmates’ were an enormous influence. Yes, I did get everyone (including yourself) in the building to play and sing on my albums Clandestine Songs and Burn My Letters. Collaborating with friends is an incredibly intimate, somewhat risky venture that requires trust and generosity. As the lockdown taught the world, interacting regularly with friends is indispensable and beneficial to the body and soul. I learned a lot from everyone and miss them all. Not a day goes by that I don’t wish I could sit down and have a cup of coffee with one of you guys. It goes without saying that texting and emailing and zooming are not in any way commensurate with in-person interaction.

JSR: Why do you get out of bed in the morning?

BW: To drink coffee, read, write, plot. 

JSR: Is everything singular or plural?

BW: To believe everything is singular, you’d have to be a Spinozaist (a Pantheist) and believe God was/is everything; trees, dirt, air etc. Against this idea of a monad as the totality of all things, there is the transcendent, for example, Christ (a being not part of our material world) exploding out of eternity, desacralizing the world, ending animism. I prefer the latter to the former. Lately I’ve been thinking that interdimensional Ufo’s rising out of the ocean/descending from the stars and acting as divine intercessors to prevent nuclear war…could fulfill a similar function. 

JSR: Would you choose to live again without knowing you were given a choice, if you had the choice? 

BW: Yes. The prime directive of every living creature is to persist by any means necessary. 

JSR: Is belief in God a choice?

BW: Not when someone is pointing a gun at you or punching you in the head or you’re suspended in that prolonged interval of time called a car crash. In those situations, appeals to god come forth unbidden from one’s lips. You realize (and then if you survive, forget) you’ve always been a believer.

JSR: Which percentage of utility have you lost from the internet

BW: In 2023, everyone is brain-damaged. Paul Virilio was often attacked for being too pessimistic or even reactionary when he detailed, way back in the ‘90s and early ‘oughts, all the damage that technology – by marooning in us in an eternal present – had rendered upon our senses. In America, 54% of the population now reads below the 6th-grade level. We can’t see, think, remember, move, write, or talk as we once did. And we’re all under 24/7 surveillance.

JSR: Is it safe to say music was your primary pursuit at the beginning of your creative life? Why or how did it surpass writing? And where is that balance now? Do you feel the same amount of excitement about both? Does one eclipse the other?

BW: I wrote when I was a kid and hid my stories in my underwear drawer. But writing was always unsatisfying and deeply shameful. I didn’t really want anyone to know my thoughts. I picked up a guitar pretty late, around age 23 or 24, driven to provide accompaniment to the songs that were (are) banging around in my head. Kandinsky described the compulsion to create an ‘inner necessity’, which sounds right to me. Whether I write or play music on any given day is dictated by the fact that I live in a small house with my family. Making music is noisy and disruptive, while typing into a 2008 Macbook is not. In some ways, these activities seem pretty much the same to me – they involve the constant erasure of bad ideas.

JSR: Can you describe the very early years when you were forming St. Johnny, and you were roommates with Dave Baker and bandmates withHartford Grasshopper? The stories I’ve heard remind me of living with John Devries in Poughkeepsie, where I apprenticed under Agitpop and Cellophane, incubated Hopewell, and got involved with Mercury Rev., which is to say, total chaos. What pushed you forward? How did you escape the chaos and make it to the big city? Music?

BW: Growing up, the key idea I learned from books, magazines, film was that all the best musicians and writers were insane, and they lived as outcasts on the margins of society. When I developed an ambition to be a rock musician, the first thing I did was try to become like the people I’d read about. As if a curse had been placed on me, I took Johnny Thunders as my role model. Naturally, I tried to find others who had similar interests. I moved to the nearest city – Hartford. I put an ad in a local ‘arts’ newspaper – “William Burroughs-style bassist wanted”. Grasshopper answered. He was working as a court reporter in Hartford and divided his time between there and Upstate New York, where he and the other members of Mercury Rev were working on Yerself is Steam. He played bass for a while in a nascent version of St. Johnny before disappearing (I learned of his departure from the note he left under the windshield wipers of my Chevy Nova) to go on tour with the Flaming Lips as their ‘lighting and explosives’ technician. Unlike myself, he was a college graduate and had a greater knowledge of music, film, and literature than I did, and his influence on me was not trivial. He eventually moved to NYC, I followed not long after, eventually landing in an apartment in Carroll Gardens with his bandmate Dave Baker. In those days (early 1990s), I was a terrible roommate. Evidence of this can be found written on the inside back cover of one of the books (Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty) I purchased around that time: 1) A man can never really know a woman, he can only pursue her indefinitely. 2) My musical instruments are razorblades that leave wounds on my body. 3) These wounds are the aesthetic models for my music. 4) My music is filled with hidden holes. 5) Things left out (the holes) are as important as what remains.

Bolano wrote in Savage Detectives: We were spectral figures, on whom you wouldn’t dwell at length without turning away. It is a nice description of my friends and I at that time…

JSR: That reminds me. I found your copy of Bolano’s Distant Star when I moved, I swore to return it, and one day I will. Glad you mention those holes; that’s a good way to describe a distinction I loosely subscribe to, that there are two kinds of creative people: negators and cheerleaders. Both are generative, though negators rely more on preventing or removing what doesn’t work. Discernment is central to the process. I’m married to an incredible negator that makes a fine film editor as a result, and I usually partner up with them creatively when I partner up at all. I require them to sift through the sheer amount of crap that I, a cheerleader, am always swept up in. I used to outsource a lot of my discernment to you, arriving in your kitchen stoked on a dozen ideas about all manner of everything, and you’d weigh in, reliably. It’s the case with many negators that they would never make or release anything if they didn’t work with a cheerleader. So, both sides of the coin have their merits. My creative relationship with Justin (younger brother and frontperson to the very amazing Silent League) is emblematic of my theory. He kept me in check, and I made sure he released things and had content to play with. I’m using some hyperbole here to make a point because of course he generates content on his own, and I am able to cut things. It’s more of an orientation than a hard and fast rule. Would you say your aesthetic sensibility relies on discernment?

BW: I’ve never been smart enough to have an aesthetic. My goal is usually: try to create something that does not make me ashamed or want to blow my brains out after playback or re-reading. 

JSR: Has having a family changed or cemented your worldview? 

BW: Christopher Lasch once said: a parent looks at the world and all its events in the darkest possible light. Deep pessimism and rage are feelings I experience every day. I’ve never known a more sinister time than the time we live in now.

JSR: Another important marker, I think, is when I started hearing barroom piano bounce off the wall of the building behind ours. Instead of electric guitars. It provided a soundtrack to the building’s bathrooms, all situated in the back of our apartments. You serenaded us all. Happily, you bequeathed that creaky old thing to Chuck Davis and me, and I’m staring at it while I type this. It’s the sound of your William Carlos Whitten records, some of the finest rock music ever made, in my opinion, ragged, dignified, and mastered to perfection by our old pal Dave Fridmann. A perfect third act to your musical legacy.

BW: In 2008, someone from Our Lady of Mt. Carmel on N.8th Street left a perfectly good upright piano on the curb. Incredibly, our mutual friends Kenneth Zoran Curwood and Adam Marnie put it on a pair of skateboards and wheeled it four blocks to my apartment. Luckily I lived on the first floor. I’m an autodidact in all things and thus completely self-taught when it comes to the piano, and naturally, play it all wrong like an aphasic chimpanzee. To me, my piano is the black monolith at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When someone who can actually play a piano comes over to my house and unleashes all the magic stored within it – it’s always leaves me stunned, amazed. As a side note, I’ve always had ambivalent relationships with musical instruments. My piano has never been tuned, I’ve only ever owned cheap, barely functional guitars. All my gear – recording devices, pre-amps, guitar amps, and effects, the computer I’m writing on now – are usually half broken and on their last legs. 

JSR: You and I subscribe to the same school when it comes to gear. My guitar tone depends on what pedals are discarded or forgotten by other players in the rehearsal space. The people that can afford really nice guitars are generally not the people who create music. But beyond all that, crappy gear is a form of limitation. Of boundaries. Which, as I get older, I realize is one of the most important aspects of the creative process.

I remember being handed a leaflet or missalette at a St. Johnny show- maybe at the Mercury Lounge or the old Knitting Factory- that was kind of a zine of your writing, which read like William Burroughs in my memory. Did they pre-date the band? Had you always been writing them? Care to describe what you were writing back then?

BW: I don’t remember, lol, and I regret the enormous influence William Burroughs (a pedophile and murderer) had on my life. I should have been reading Proust or Leopardi! The Beat Generation was a psyop! What a waste! Haha!

JSR: The Beat Generation is basically a dorm room poster at this point. Speaking of psyops…do you think the post-Nirvana-1990s indie rock explosion, which we were both part of, was a psyop? 

BW: If it was a psyop, what would the goal have been? To transform (in tandem with other cultural engineering projects) the population of the West into solipsistic, nihilistic, porn-addicted drug-takers, incapable of reading a book or watching a film in its entirety, compelled to stare helplessly at electronic devices 20 hours a day while fulfilling their role as the world’s consumer of last resort? Is there a clear trajectory from Kurt Cobain to the Strokes to Occupy Wall Street…and then…to Bernie Sanders and AOC advocating for vax mandates and nuclear war with Russia? Was/is Williamsburg, Brooklyn a CIA outpost, a Bermuda Triangle of transhumanist-mind-control-pseudo-left-lifestyle politics?


Bill Whitten has written a book called BRUTES and recorded many albums.

Jason Sebastian Russo is a rock musician and a writer.