If you have been to more than one rock show at a club in Chicago, you have probably seen him. You may have wondered, “Who is that weird old guy up there and what the hell is he talking about?” He’s Thax Douglas and he’s Chicago’s rock and roll poet laureate, best known for reading spontaneously written poems as introductions for indie rock bands at shows across the city. He’s been praised by Chicago icons from Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy to This American Life‘s Ira Glass, who said of Douglas’ Tragic Faggot Syndrome, “It’s shocking that such disturbing dark poems come out of such a calm decent-seeming man. I read with great interest, worrying about Thax.”
Glorious Noise had the pleasure to conduct an interview with Thax earlier this year.
GLONO: How long have you been introducing bands with your poetry? Who was the first band you wrote a poem for?
Thax Douglas: The very first poem was for a sort of jam band called Stamen on April 6, 1994. I was writing very little then and the poem was written as a novelty. I used to host variety shows at Lounge Ax and when I had a band in my shows I’d introduce them with a poem, starting around 1997. And it picked up momentum until I reached my current 20 poems a month about 2 years ago. Sue Miller’s husband, Jeff Tweedy, a poetry-lover, was very encouraging. It started to be less of a novelty when I realized that this way of creating met my aesthetic needs and that bands and audiences actually like it! My next book, which is 144 band poems, has the Stamen poem in it for nostalgia reasons.
GLONO: Can you tell me a little about your variety act at the Lounge Ax? What was a typical line-up? Was the audience receptive?
Thax: The Lounge Ax show started out as a “performance art” variety show, a genre that was popular in Chicago in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Performance art is a now-dead genre where people would just do weird stuff on stage. So my show would have monologuists, poets, musicians, comedians, and “performance artists.” The owners of Lounge Ax, bless their heart, let me do it even though I didn’t bring a whole lot of people. Plus they always let me in for free, which gave me a place to go to during many lonely weekend nights in the 90’s. I also had a few showcases of a fictional label “Lottery Records”—the fiction was that I had won the lottery and started a label. Which was a mistake; Andy Warhol warns that you should never under any circumstances pretend you have money when you don’t, and the IRS got on my ass big time!
GLONO: Do you miss the days of performance art in Chicago? Or was it just as annoying an pretentious as it sounds? Did people have fun with it, or were they dead serious? Or both?
Thax: The lower links scene was unpretentious. A lot of it was only a step away from what someone like Margaret Cho is doing now. A good deal of it was meant to be ephemeral. It’s when you get into the academic scene that the pretentiousness becomes suffocating, which is why I’m not part of that scene. In fact, academics don’t consider themselves a “scene”—they consider themselves the only rightful bearers of culture.
GLONO: How bad do you miss the Lounge Ax? Do you think there will ever be a club that can fill its shoes?
Thax: Lounge Ax’s shoes are being filled as we speak, but by a variety of clubs. There are a lot more indie rock clubs than there were 10 years ago. But Lounge Ax will always live as a standard as long as there are rock clubs.
GLONO: How many nights a week do you go out and listen to bands? It seems like you’re at almost every show I go to! Do we just have similar taste in music, or are you EVERYWHERE?
Thax: I go out every night, sometimes to 2 shows. My tastes are broad, although rooted in a pop sensibility. I consider, say, US Maple to be a pop band. I’m not a jazz lover. Sometimes I take a night off just because I have to, but I’m a bohemian—I don’t have a job, so my life is going to shows. I don’t pay to go to shows—I just show up and read. Although I get hostility at times, most of the time I get respect from club owners, etc. I’m poor and squeak by by giving plasma, putting on shows occasionally, etc. It’s good and bad—I can’t afford to travel, see movies, or buy anything, but that’s the classic role of the poet. I’m glad to see with the advent of hip-hop that this role is changing.
GLONO: When can we expect your book of 144 band poems? Do you have a publisher? How do you think it holds up outside the context of a rock and roll bar?
Thax: I might get a little bitchy here, so be warned. The book is called White Shrines. Like the first book, it has a cover by Tony Fitzpatrick. I’m doing a series of benefits to raise the printing costs of the book, so it may be awhile. It costs about $3,500 to print a thousand. For Tragic Faggot Syndrome, I had a couple of goofballs say they would publish it and then string me along for a year or so. The 2nd time this happened I believed him so I had my friend Neal Pollack who’d expressed interest do a cover story in the Reader about me to celebrate the impending book. Unfortunately, this is when I discovered that it was all a joke and this guy never had any intention of publishing my book—it was all some conceptual art piece about failure or something. So my friend Brian Potrafka got so angry that he just borrowed some money from his grandfather and put out the book himself, along with a book of his own. I was a mess at this point and lived with Brian as well at the time. But Brian came through and the book came out great. However, Brian’s in no position to put out another book of mine. I think he feels used in fact, even though we’re close friends.
GLONO: I see that Tragic Faggot Syndrome, is available via Amazon. That’s pretty cool. How has it been received?
Thax:The book was received very well. Have you seen it? It’s a beautiful object. And what I really love is people who don’t like poetry enjoy the book. I sold most of them by carrying a few in my bookbag, and when someone would come up and say they liked such and such a poem I read, I would take out the book and say, “Well, have you seen this?” I would sell an average of 2-3 a week until they were gone. I was also glad to be able to give some of my favorite rock stars, such as Mark Arm, copies of the book. It made it a lot easier to ask if I could do poems for their bands. In fact, the only places you can get copies now are Reckless Records—1 copy at Broadway, 6 in Wicker Park—4 new and 6 used at Amazon, and 14 at lastgasp.com who acted as a nominal “distributor” for the book. Once these copies are sold, the book officially becomes a collector’s item.
GLONO: I know you recorded an album with Steve Albini. How did that come about? Are you happy with how the album turned out?
Thax: The record with Steve was made November 12, 1991. It was made with a noise guitarist named Alan Jones. It is a good record mostly because of Steve’s magic. It’s called Produced by Steve Albini, originally to be irritating, but now as a tribute. Someone’s allegedly putting it out, but there are money problems—the story of my life. God forbid someone with a good business sense should be interested in putting something of mine out. As you may know, it is very easy to record with Steve and I’d recommend to anyone that they record with him at least once, but that they know what they want and tell him so—otherwise he’ll do things you may not like.
GLONO: Is the Steve Albini album still available? I would think there would be any number of Chicago-based indie labels who would jump at the chance to put that out (Undertow, Drag City, etc.).
Thax: You’ve got to be fucking kidding! I didn’t do much with the recording—considering it a mere curiosity—until 1998 when I made 200 cassette copies which I gave away. I’ve never had a shadow of a whisper of a hint of anybody even mildly considering putting it out! The Quintron guy heard it in 1993 and said, “If I had a label, I’d put it out,” but when he did get a label I never heard from him. I think most people think I’m just a goofball, no different than the characters on the corner of Damen and Milwaukee and North. The fact that bands and audiences like what I do is seen as some sort of cosmic accident worthy of a few smirks, but not any backing certainly.
WHINING COMING UP—SORRY JAKE… I would put the book out myself but I have no credit cards or financial resources. I’m 45 years old but I’ve spent most of that time just survivng barely. I come form a poor abusive background, had a mysterious disability that kept me barely functioning for years yet was unable to get on disability—unlike Wesley Willis—and was very isolated, having no friends until I was in my early 30’s. I haven’t worked in 5 years and seem unemployable at this point. So the only things I have going for me are my talent and my will to survive. I’ve developed this Gregory Corso-like attitude lately, namely Fuck You, I’m a great poet and the world owes me a living. It’s the only attitude left to have. People think I’m laid back and easy going but I’m pretty angry. As for Drag City: Dan Koretzky just stares angrily at me whenever I’m in his vicinity. Ask him why. I’d like to know. [Glorious Noise could not immediately reach Koretzky – ed.]
By the way, the guy who wanted to release Produced by Steve Albini has so far only produced about 25 CD-Rs. He’s a good guy but has no money or business sense. Which is why I complained—God forbid anyone with resources would consider my stuff worth backing. I guess the fact that I sold 1,000 books on my own with no backing isn’t worth mentioning.
GLONO: Well it certainly sounds like you’ve got reason enough to be grouchy about the book and record deals. I’m just amazed that no one has jumped on the opportunity to do those cds. It seems to me like any small label could press up 1,000 cds for about $1,200, and sell them for $6 a piece and be profitable after only selling 200 of them! Seems like a no brainer.
Thax: Thanks for sympathizing with my whining! I think another reason is just I’m a “between the cracks” sort of guy. I’m a poet, not a musician. The idea in indie rock that if something’s good, a market can and should be created for that market, that was the original Touch & Go credo. But of course now T&G is counting on clinging to the audience it has. Like the majors, indie labels don’t want to go beyond the received cliches of what a rock person should be, and a 45-year-old non-cute non-leftist poet does not fit any of the cliches.
GLONO: You’re pretty prolific. Do you write every day? When do you find time to write when you’re always out at rock shows?
Thax: I write an average of 20-23 poems a month. If I hadn’t written a poem for a few days, I will write one for a person. Sometimes I suggest to a fan that for 10 or 20 bucks, I will write a poem for him, and usually that person will say yes. I only suggest this when I have no money and need to eat or something.
GLONO: I’ve seen you read poems at least twice for Quasar Wut-Wut, a grossly underappreciated Chicago rock band. What do you think of those guys?
Thax: I love Quasar Wut-Wut. Did you seem them on Feb 1? They played for 90 minutes. Chicago has hundreds of good bands. I like their polka type beat. QWW is like an east european rock band in some ways.
GLONO: Are you always familiar with the work of the bands you write poems for? Or are some of your poems not written specifically for a particular band, but instead are just general poems that you use to introduce a band? Do you have to like a band to write a poem for them, or doesn’t that matter?
Thax: Yes, the poem is always about the band. I use my poetic techniques, gleaned from many 20th century Russian poets and the Beats, to wrap words around the image the thought of the band creates within my mind. I am a so-called spontaneous writer, so the poems are wriiten within minutes and are never revised. It’s something you can only get away with if your’re as talented as I am. I prefer to write my poems in the club on the night of the performance.
GLONO: Who are some of your favorite Chicago bands? What is it about rock an roll that inspires you?
Thax: I consider myself part of the music community, not the poetry community. We have hundreds of good bands. Some of my favorites: The Detholz and Pistolwhipped are two bands that I try to see every show by. I know I’ll forget some… Danger Adventure. Crackpot. 36 Invisibles. Intelligent Dennis. Card Catalog. These are just the more obscure bands that I like. Then there are the bands everyone knows and loves, whom I needn’t name.
GLONO: I like how when I’m at a show and I see you read how sometimes I can only catch snippets of phrases here and there. It’s sort of like how you can usually only catch bits and pieces of a band’s lyrics when you see them live. It creates this weird, atmospheric understanding of what the artist is communicating, that may or may not have anything to do with what the artists is intending. Do you welcome that, or does it bother you that because of clinking beer bottles and lousy sound systems, sometimes an audience can’t hear 100% of what you’re saying? We always catch the vibe though.
Thax: A good deal of performance is telepathic, so people get the general idea. I don’t mind when people talk. In fact, sometimes when the entire crowd becomes dead silent, I take it as a compliment, but I do feel self-conscious. But people get the general idea.