Since receiving Prestel’s catalogue in the mail about a year before the book was released, I’ve been excited about DIRTY BABY ($125). I’ve always admired cross-arts collaborations, and expected a lot from the DIRTY BABY power trio of poet David Breskin, guitarist Nels Cline, and artist Ed Ruscha. The book is assembled of three creative parts in collaboration: two series of Ed Ruscha’s paintings, a two-disc album by Nels Cline, and 66 ghazals by David Breskin. The book’s diverse parts stand up on their own, and interact with each other even more powerfully in combination. Its two greatest strengths are its vastness—as Breskin says below, the book “opens out”—and the quality of dialogue—Breskin has called it a “trialogue”—that that space allows to take place between the three artists.
David Breskin and I talked over the phone, though soon after we sat down in the lobby of the Santa Monica Miramar, to discuss the project at greater length. I was also fortunate to attend Nels Cline Singers with Yuka C. Honda performance at the Getty, where Cline played music from Initiate, a second album produced by David Breskin. A second post, focusing more exclusively on the poetry within DIRTY BABY and featuring several complete poems can be found here, and several complete collaborative examples can be found here.
Let’s get started just talking about the idea behind DIRTY BABY. How did you guys conceive of it? How did you begin working on it?
Yeah, not to be to Monty Pythonish about it, but the idea was mine. Maybe going back ten years ago, I had an idea to do a number of books that would be collaborations with artists who I held in particularly high regard. The three I had in mind were Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha, and Hiroshi Sugimoto. The Richter book actually led to the Ruscha book, because Ruscha and I had one friend in common, Chelsea Hadley, and she gave Ed the RICHTER 858 book as an Xmas gift in 2002. Turned out he really liked it. That book had a lot of poetry in it as well, thirteen poets. Even though I was the editor, I was sort of the last and least of the poets involved, only because a couple of the other poets ganged up on me at the end and said that if I didn’t actually write a poem for the book they would do something like break my kneecaps.
And so Ruscha and I started talking. This would’ve been 2003—see how far it goes back?—about what a collaboration would be like. Ed doesn’t jump into things too easily. He’s never really contemplated this kind of thing where’s he giving up so much control over the use of the work, which in and of itself is a bit of a scary thing for artists to do, I think especially those that have achieved a certain kind of prominence. He’d been on the scene for 45 years by then. So we started talking about it and we kinda had it on the backburner for a couple years. Then he read more of my poetry and heard some of the records I’d produced, music I was involved with, and decided it was worth a gamble. So it really started with just that idea. Then we had to decide if he was going to contribute new work to the book (where we’d be using brand new, never-before-seen pieces, and building a book around those) or rather letting me go into the archives to find my way into a book. While I’d hoped for the former going in, we ended up with the latter. You know, I was initially disappointed, but I came to realize that Ed was completely honest and correct in saying that he wouldn’t feel so very natural creating work knowing that I was going to do something “to it.” He said he would feel me “looking over his shoulder” and that he wouldn’t feel “pure” in making that work.
Neither of us were very interested in dealing with his “greatest hits,” and in fact his only restriction on the whole project was that I not use images that were already overused: the Hollywood Sign, Standard stations, things like that. I didn’t want to anyway! So he gave me an extreme amount of freedom, just like Richter had done. It’s a mixed blessing. Wow, you now have complete freedom to do whatever you want with Ed Ruscha!! But it also feels like a lot of responsibility. Don’t fuck up, you know? You’ve got Ed Ruscha and this amazing freedom—you’d better do something damn worthwhile with it!
How did Nels Cline get involved? Was that after the fact?
While I was writing my previous book, SUPERMODEL, which was a one-sentence long epic poem, I’d been listening to his last record quite a lot. It was called The Giant Pin, with his band The Nels Cline Singers. And during that listening, he’d gone from an artist that I always respected and was interested in, to a musician that I was damn near obsessed with.
For Ruscha though, because of the typical language present in the pictures, I was thinking I needed a lyricist and a singer-songwriter. Most of the music that I’ve worked on has been in the instrumental vein. And of course there’s no singing in The Nels Cline Singers. It’s an ironic band name. If I was going for a singer-songwriter, I thought it should be a LA-based person, because Ruscha is so associated with Los Angeles, I wanted a certain kind of vibe. So I approached Jon Brion. He’s done some amazing soundtracks, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I ♥ Huckabees, Punch-Drunk Love, and Magnolia, and many other really interesting things. I thought he’d be damn near perfect for Ruscha given his romantic-yet-ironic nature, his kind of whimsical and deadpan humor. I approach Jon about it, and you know, despite being acutely sensitive visually—obviously so, to do all those films—he didn’t know who the hell Ruscha was, didn’t know much about that part of the art world. I sent him a bunch of Ruscha books, but it was like a third or fourth language for him. So while he loved the Richter book, and knew the musician I’d worked with there—Bill Frisell, a guitar player Jon thinks is a genius—he passed on the Ruscha project. He also had health issues at the time, tendinitis in his hands, as well as a totally insane schedule.
As it turned out, the breakthrough with the music ended up coming directly from the breakthrough with the Ruscha work itself: just me figuring out a way into the book by using pictures where there were actually no words to be seen. No overt language floating in the picture plane—as in “normal” Ruschas—but instead words censored out by what people generally call censor strips, which Ed called “dumb blocks.” For me, the censoring of the language, the repression or suppression of the language, paradoxically intensifies the language. This led me for the first time to think I didn’t need lyrics as part of the music, and that the music could be more abstract and less literal in relating to Ed’s pictures. So then I developed a very long list of musicians I wanted to work with. There was exactly one musician on the list: Nels Cline. Bill Frisell gave me his phone number some nanoseconds later and I called Nels and left a voicemail, introducing myself, sort of sheepishly. And within the hour I’d gotten a call back, and the happy accident is that Nels said he knew and liked a lot of the records I’d produced for a number of different artists. We were on! It was almost like we were halfway down the road by the end of our first conversation.
After all that, how is it that Jon Brion actually ended up involved in the recording?
Well, it’s a wonderful life. Nels and Jon know each other, they’ve played together a bunch at Largo, the club in Los Angeles. When Jon heard that this was actually happening—after being a pipe dream for some years—he said to Nels, “I’ll be there, I knew about this early on and I want to be there.” When the recording happened, three years ago, January of 2008—he was really sick, fever and all, and he got out of bed and he came to Ocean Studios in Burbank and he played all over Side A. The rather Indian-sounding synth thing on Part V, which is like the mandala that piece revolves around, is Jon Brion playing this vintage, analogue briefcase-synthesizer. In Part VI, he’s the voice you’re hearing on the Trip-Hop thing, singing into a condenser microphone, the only voice on the recording, sounding like a monster. I believe the proper King’s English definition of Jon is: bad-ass muthafucka.
I’m interested in the physicality of DIRTY BABY. It’s huge for a book of poetry and I think it’s the perfect example of the kind of book that can only succeed in physical form. You can’t have an e-book of DIRTY BABY, it would change the character of the work immensely. I wonder if you could speak to that.
Thank you for noticing! The Richter book—I’ll go back to the predecessor, not that one slavishly follows the other—that was a big book too. But it was more landscape-oriented, it wasn’t a square, like the Ruscha. Have you seen that book?
I haven’t seen it, no.
We’ll try to correct that at some point.
That sounds great.
The Richter book came in an aluminum slipcase because seven of the eight Richter paintings that were the “subject” of the book were painted on aluminum panels and I wanted to book to feel like Richter’s blank “canvas,” a blank piece of aluminum as a starting point. I was hoping for, if not necessarily a unifying of form and content, than at least an interesting relationship and correspondence.
With DIRTY BABY you get this idea of analogue again, obviously we’re playing with that, what with the 33 pieces on Side A and 33 on Side B, and the book itself the same size as ye olde LP record sleeve, an album. What is an analogue to what? In a way, you could say the whole project is pursuing that shape-shifting question, and the answers themselves are shape-shifting. But yes, badda bing, size matters. And the size of the book is a challenge for the poetry. In the Richter book, you had these really big landscape-oriented pages, and how could we give the poems their own life so it didn’t feel like the poems were getting the shit kicked out of them by Richter’s pictures? Likewise, with the Ruscha, the trim of the book is driven by wanting to have the images be a certain size. The Cityscape paintings that comprise all of Side B have never really been published except for a tiny catalogue Leo Castelli published when Ed showed the work there in 1997. And in real life they are quite small, whereas a lot of Ruscha’s painting skews way big and is wall-filling, like much of the Silhouette work on Side A. But the Cityscapes are really small works, commonly 20” x 16” or 16” x 20”, or in that neighborhood. By reproducing them big in the book, we could really achieve a kind of materiality, a sensuality. You’d can see the weave of that fabric—the paintings themselves are mostly on rayon, like book-binding fabric, or linen—and you can really get a sense of the texture of the acrylic paint and the bleach, where Ed is using bleach to take away pigment to make his dumb blocks. So that’s what set the size of the thing, that and the need to make the much bigger Side A Silhouettes have room to breathe, and not feel like post-cards, which they sometimes can when reproduced smaller.
I want these books to open out instead of close down. I’ve got a library full of what I consider fantastic, successful art books, but the main modality of art books tends to be forensic. The art’s put on the table and it’s examined, and the experts come in and they tell you about it. They tell you what made the thing, brought it to life, who the parents were, what ultimately killed it. Sometimes it ends up feeling (for all the attention spent on it) kind of small and microscopic. But the idea of these books is that the book opens up and out, instead of closing in and down. I hope to open up a discussion. And the idea here was to have a book that didn’t have a beginning and an end, but rather a Side A and a Side B. You could turn it over, you could read Side B first if you wanted to.
But the size of the thing and the double-sidedness is only part of the physicality I’m talking about. The materials you used, what the book feels like in your hands, is another thing…
Yeah, the material we used to wrap the hardback, which has a real tactile quality is called Senzo and it wasn’t even invented until a few years ago. It’s a latex-impregnated paper, super sensuous. But then we had to protect the Senzo with a slipcase, and that slipcase became a crazy science project done over in Verona, Italy last May. And luckily I got to work with the same guy I did the Richter project with, an unbelievable master printer, guy named Massimo Tonolli and his whole team at Trifolio, to try and come up with something that would protect the Senzo and at the same time fit the concept of the book: dirty and tough but at the same time elegant and beautiful. I was going for a kind of friction between the materials. We found this rough, nasty kind of black recycled paper for the outside of the slipcase, and then a sandwich of two layers of black micro-cardboard, which has corrugated edges—love corrugation!!—and then, after about six stabs at other materials for the inside of the slipcase, which we called “the placenta,” we finally found our magic material, Plastazote LD33. The “33” designation seemed too good to be true given the structure and concept of the book. I’m not making this shit up—
—That’s stuff’s crazy. I actually noticed that stuff when I first pulled the book’s slipcase off, I was feeling inside of it because it was so strange.
Well, that was like our seventh try! The other things we were putting inside the slipcase were all “ghosting” onto the Senzo, creating a chemical change on the cover of the book. The point of a slipcase is to protect a book, not to fuck it up, right? Every day we were dying a little bit, getting desperate, but it was like comedy: we’re doing these rub tests and these pressure tests and putting the dummies, the mock-ups, under heavy weights overnight, just trying to find something that wouldn’t kill the Senzo cover of the book. So we ended up with this super-lightweight, nitrogen-charged, closed-cell polyethylene foam that I don’t think has ever touched a book before. It’s inert and it’s weirdly sexy. It also has a gorgeous gray color, like the grisaille of all the Ruscha Silhouettes on Side A, so it felt right in every way. Then, by cutting the eight die cuts in the slipcase to reveal the title, the author names and the coin on the book cover, we could make the outside of the book feel like the inside, with the die cuts being like an inversion of Ed’s dumb blocks on the pictures themselves. I always try to make the punishment fit the crime.
So did you actually go to Italy to do all those tests?
Awesome, that’s so cool. I was just smelling the inside of the slipcase, I was so interested in it I’m sticking my nose in here.
Well, it smells like some kind of out there Comme des Garcons perfume or something. The thing is, the regular books that I’ve done—the straight books of poetry, the one for Cleveland State and the two for Soft Skull, the Viking novel, the collection of interviews of filmmakers—you want them to look nice and all, I’ve had a hand in the design sometimes, but, I mean, you’d never go on a quest for books like that. It’d be silly to go on press, unless you just like the smell of ink. But these art books, the Richter book and then this one, there’re so many things that are attached to it. If it’s your baby, you’d better attend the birth. I’d designed the book, with some assistance, and we were making these decisions together with the publisher, Mary Delmonico of Delmonico Books·Prestel. And the printer, the master bookmaker—in this case Massimo—he’s really making the book with you. And there are 101 or 1001 details and if you get an important one wrong it can really kill your book. For instance, we wanted a paper that didn’t feel like a typical art-book stock, it’s a paper that feels like an uncoated paper but is actually a coated stock. It’s much more matte so that the poetry would feel comfortable on the page—since half of the book is text and not image.
You can definitely tell. It doesn’t blind you to read the poems.
Right, it’s hard reading the text in a lot of art books because the pages are too glossy: great for the images, lousy for the texts. And then I wanted you to have that color identification with each “side” of the book so you’d always know where you were—getting those colors right on the endpapers and the compact discs and then having them show up again in the middle, in those hyper-glossy divider pages in the crotch of the book, was an insane challenge. Those dividing pages are not a special stock, they’re just regular sheets the same as the rest of the book, but they’re UV-varnished to within an inch of their lives so that they almost look like finish-fetish LA art. It goes back to the car world, and Ruscha, and that reflectivity bounces you back to the outside of the book where you’ve got the silkscreened title and author names, and the dime—all of which are reflective. Is anybody going to “get” those things? I don’t know. But will people “feel” those things without necessarily intellectualizing them? I think so. I hope so.
The book doesn’t come with any user instructions. This has frustrated a few people. Some reviewers were almost pissed. What are you supposed to do with it? What are you supposed to put on first? Are you supposed to read the poems while you’re listening to the music? Are you supposed to listen to the music while you’re looking at the pictures? Well, suit yourself!
Some poetry reviews I’ve seen have sort of been overwhelmed by the vastness of the book, whereas I think that’s its great strength. What you’ve accomplished is producing something vast—a real dialogue. It opens out like you said.
Yeah, it’s not big for bigness’ sake. Look, I love the tiniest chapbook as much as anybody, but you have to play well with your mates. You’ve got music, which has no physicality to it, but has a certain kind of sweep to it, and scale. You’ve got Ed Ruscha, who is a kind of “sign painter.” You’ve got poetry which attempts a sort of cockeyed time-lapse history of Western Civilization in one-half of the book and an interrogation of the Iraq War on the other half. I’m happy to do tiny books too, but this couldn’t be tiny. Maybe I should make my next one the size of a postage stamp.
The great architect Louis Kahn talked about making the building “what it wants to be.” I felt this was what the book wanted to be. And of course you expose yourself to snarky criticism that something is grandiose instead of grand, or overbearing instead of ambitious. Whatever. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but it felt like this is what it needed to be.
I’m obviously a huge fan of the book. You’ve got a dime in the cover, which is pretty awesome. Where did that come from?
It’s true that you don’t have a clue until you see the first picture on Side B, “IN GOD WE TRUST,” which gives you some kind of context and reference. I’m happy for it to be a complete mystery for a while. I was thinking about the recent World Financial Crisis, which started here in the U.S., and thinking back to the Depression of the 1930s. And I was thinking about all the phrases we have with dimes: Not on my dime. One thin dime. Dime a dance. Not a dime’s worth of difference. He can’t jump over a dime. Brother can you spare a dime? Don’t nickel and dime me. Dime a dozen.
I don’t know. The dime is cheap and thin and beautiful, plus I’d never seen a coin “imbedded” in a book cover. Why not? It just goes back to that surreal quality, of early Ruscha, small objects of actual size floating in fields. Plus the whole of Side B is a meditation on the Iraq war and God, God and gold, money and power. I’m glad you like the dime.
Yeah, definitely. What you’re working on now? Do you have any more collaborations in mind, any more artists in your scope?
Well, you know the original idea was that maybe I’d do three of these nutty collaborative books with artists, with Richter and Ruscha and Sugimoto. But the Ruscha took five, six years. We got trapped with the wrong publisher for a year before I found Mary Delmonico of Prestel. It just ended up being an enormous undertaking. That’s a long way of saying I’m not sure what’s next. And now I’ve done two books of poetry in a row that weren’t conventional, since SUPERMODEL was an odd duck as well, so maybe it’s time I did a kind of regular collection of poems. I expect I’ll produce more music for Nels. I produced Initiate for The Nels Cline Singers well after DIRTY BABY was recorded, but the book took so long to come out Initiate actually got released first. I certainly hope to do more with Nels, but as for the writing… I’m sort of decompressing for now.