The Heavy Mental Interview with
Penny Rimbaud of CRASS
INTERVIEW BY GAVIN MCINNES
PORTRAITS BY TODD JORDAN
Via The Heavy Mental
Back in 1969, an art student who called himself Penny Rimbaud was walking through the English countryside and discovered a 16th Century farm house. Where most would have continued walking, Rimbaud saw infinite possibilities. “This could be an anarchist collective art center,” he immediately thought, “where people from all over the world would come to exchange ideas.” “Then they’d go back home and start their own!” he yelled aloud.
Over the next few years he pieced together a band of other art school kids and they called themselves EXIT. Things were slow at first and Penny’s dreams looked like they may not make it much farther than Epping Forest where the house was located. Then a truant teenager named Steve Ignorant walked up the driveway and shortly after, the anarchist punk band Crass was formed. Unlike EXIT, Crass didn’t ostracize their audience by playing avant-garde noise. They played songs. And they weren’t just songs, they were empowering anthems about going your own way and never letting anyone tell you what to do. By the late 70s, the momentum was overwhelming. Pen’s best friend from art school Gee Vaucher moved back from New York and began to give the band a visual identity. Now Crass were a “thing” and Dial House was their headquarters. Their pranks garnered global media attention and had Margaret Thatcher denouncing them in parliament. Smart punks around the world who felt bored by fashionistas like the Sex Pistols and the Exploited, latched on to Crass’ intellectual revolution. I was one of those kids and we duplicated the Crass graffiti stencils from the records so we could cover our own streets with the words “THERE IS NO AUTHORITY BUT YOURSELF.” They weren’t just a band. They were the brains of punk and provided the foundation for the modern anarchist movement. It’s hard to imagine Occupy without Crass. In fact, it’s hard to imaging a lot of teenage punk rebellion without Crass.
It’s been a quarter of a century since the band disbanded but Dial House is still regularly attended by anarchists and outcasts seeking to change their own environments. It’s been over 40 years since Penny had his epiphany on that hill in Essex and despite it all, it’s still happening. That’s because, no matter what you say about Penny and Gee (yes, she still lives there) they walk the walk. The band has come and gone but the ethos of Dial House has never faltered. That’s why, at 70-years-old, Rimbaud is finalizing a plan to continue the culture of Dial House after he’s gone. He recently had an art show at New York’s Boo Hooray to sell a collection of his drawings in order to pay off the remaining debt on the home and convert the entire estate into a trust that will continue to do what it’s been doing since he found it. It will remain a place where people come to exchange ideas, forever. I’ve gotten to know Penny quite well over the years and visit Dial House with my kids regularly. I always come back feeling refreshed and inspired. The kids say, “It’s magic there.”
Penny Rimbaud: I’d like to point out that the above ‘history’ is fairly inaccurate on several levels, but as it seems to be a rather nicely put together little piece, I’m not going to spend time correcting it. Everyone has their own version of events, and the above one is most decidedly Gavin’s, which is fine by me.
The bike accident happened something like ten years ago, and there are those who believe that it wasn’t a simple accident. I’d just spent something in the region of twenty years retired from public life, writing and painting. Shibboleth, my autobiography, had just been published. Included in the book were a good few ‘facts’ that the authorities would have preferred not to have been made public, and if those authorities had hoped that my retirement was to be everlasting, Shibboleth certainly went a long way in reasserting my role as an agent provocateur and cultural terrorist. Of the accident itself, I recall nothing more than turning into the street where it occurred. The next thing I knew was coming out of concussion, laid out on the sidewalk, surrounded by a group of local cops who were totally pissed off that the Special Branch (the SWAT-like drugs and terrorism division of the UK police force) had been operating in their hood unannounced. It was the Specials who had, they later claimed, accidentally knocked me off my bike whilst, they claimed, in pursuit of a drug dealer. But that didn’t explain why when I had a full body scan to ascertain the degree of my injuries. I was informed that rather than a bike accident, it looked more as if I’d been severely ‘done over.’ So, yes, I’d just come out of twenty years isolation, and it was obvious that I was still as angry as ever and ready for action, so maybe it wasn’t an accident. Maybe it was an attempt to ‘put me out’ of action. Maybe, maybe. There are those who have said I should take hypnosis to reclaim the moments lost in concussion, but, d’you know what? I really don’t want to know.
Is that what led you to rerelease the Crass lyrics with everybody’s name on them? I always assumed “Reality Asylum” was written by Eve Libertine.
After the accident I was hospitalized. I had a broken collarbone, which put an end to any future serious climbing (which was a quite a loss), and there was concern that I might have a hairline crack in my skull and could suffer further concussive attacks. On top of that, just about every bone on my body seemed to screech out in pain, not helped by the fact that I refused to take ‘blocker’ pain killers, and that the coffee in the hospital was crap. After one night on the ward, I was rescued by Eve Libertine who arrived, double espresso in hand, and helped me sign myself out (despite being barely able to walk). For the next two to three months I lay in bed, nursing my wounds, and wondering where the hell I went next. Having had a near brush with death, I began to consider what might have happened if I had died. One thing I realized was that whereas I had already written a will leaving much of my past to work to friends, in the case of my work with Crass I was unable to do so because we had almost from the beginning operated a joint ownership on all of our material. This had been done not as a philosophical statement, but as a piece of circumspection when “Reality Asylum,” which I wrote, was up for prosecution under laws of criminal blasphemy. We knew that the state would be far less likely to follow through a prosecution against the whole band than against one person. As it happens, we were right, and the case was dropped, while, at the same time, we never went back to named authorship of our songs. Twenty years down the line, and following my accident, I felt it was time for us to be able to claim our songs as our own so that they might be able to belong to the ‘body of work’ of the individual band members responsible for them. Having written something in the region of seventy percent of Crass’ material, this was particularly pertinent to me. Several members of the band, led by Pete Wright the bassist, thoroughly objected to my suggestion, but after several months of thoroughly negative communications with him and the others, I quoted my own tenet, ‘There is no authority but yourself’, and gave Pamono Books (who were about to publish our entire cannon as a paperback volume) the go ahead to individually name the author of each song. It was the first in a series of disputes between Pete and myself concerning Crass and whatever past it was that any one of us recalled.
I know you’re bored of talking about Crass but I can’t resist. In the song “Systematic Death” we hear “System system system, force him to crawl.” Don’t babies learn to crawl on their own?
Yes, babies do learn to crawl, and then they learn to walk, run, hop, skip and jump. And if they do that with too much joy and enthusiasm, it’s not uncommon for them to have their feet kicked away from beneath them by parents, teachers, preachers, politicians, bullies, beasts and bigot bosses, or maybe they’re just force-fed Ritalin or some other chemical kosh. Either way, within the system of social control practiced by the western ‘democracies,’ the boss class likes to ensure that we crawl in groveling deference to their pitiful handouts. It’s the only way that they can maintain their control.
Also, in “Time Out” it says, “Teaching little Johnny to use a gun / Terrific way for father to get to know his son.” Isn’t it a great way to get to know your son?
As I understand it, the American Constitution gave its citizens the right to bear arms as defense against the potential tyrannies of government. Regrettably, it would appear that those arms were not used to prevent such tyranny from arising, so that there now exists the most powerful, tyrannical hegemony ever know in the history of the world. So, rather than having become a positive guarantee for social justice, the right to bear arms has created a minefield of problems which, clearly, no one has a clue how to deal with. Fact is, if a gun is designed to kill people, that’s what it will be used for, so I guess the question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not we want to endorse that practice in any way at all. Frankly, I don’t.
You’re so against “the system” but I get the feeling boarding school was good for you, in a way. It’s not like anyone doesn’t hate their parents from 14 to 18. Why not send them away?
I didn’t hate my parents. In fact, I loved them. I didn’t agree with a lot of what they believed in, but that was their business not mine. Sadly, however, it didn’t quite work the other way round; they didn’t agree with a lot of what I believed in, and actively set about attempting to change my attitudes. Largely, they failed. Sending me to boarding school was, they hoped, a way in which my waywardness might be bought under control. As it happens, boarding school proved for me to be a fertile ground for personal development away from their intrusions.
Do you still think the Clash were “trash”?
Largely speaking, yes. Their music was no better than your average rock’n’roll, but their politics were archetypal trendy leftist whitewash, which for all its bravado did little but dis-empower and disillusion a body of youth who deserved (and expected) better.
Are you mad at The Exploited for calling you “A bunch of wankers”?
I never was ‘mad’ about it, in fact I really couldn’t care a toss about what The Exploited think (if, indeed, they are capable of any such activity). In any case, show me a man who claims not to be a wanker, and I’ll show you a liar.
I heard you say one of the reasons behind British youth’s violent behavior is the fact that they know nobody they attack is going to have a gun. Wouldn’t Britain be better off with more guns?
I don’t know about ‘better off,’ but the Russian mafia (who do most of the gun running in the UK) certainly would be. And yes, I do believe that in slavishly imitating American cultural trends, British youth is able to come up with ridiculously exaggerated versions safe in the knowledge that, generally speaking, opponents to their activities will not be armed.
Although, it has to be said that as the UK police are becoming increasingly armed-up in their ‘war on terror and drugs’ (the war against the poor), so those who they are most likely to terrorize (the young poor both black and white) are also becoming more likely to be armed. The vicious circle of violence is really little more than a playground game being practiced by those generally old enough to know better. But if the state is happy to believe that oil is worth killing for, then it can hardly complain if its children think the same about a mobile phone or a packet of gum. Life is cheaper than bullets.
Isn’t part of the infighting that Crass members went through recently over the rerelease of a box set ultimately about you and bassist Pete Wright? Doesn’t it come down to the fact that you are anarchists and he is essentially a communist? You wrote something about a fight you guys had where he was angry that you said guitars and microphones could be used as weapons. I guess only the state should have weapons.
As a matter of fact, I don’t regard myself as an anarchist, and never really did to any real degree. I’m not really too keen on labels, but yes, the differences between us can certainly be seen in that way. Whereas Pete would tend to see things through the eyes of what to me was an abstract notion of the ‘people,’ I would tend to see things very much more from an individual viewpoint. I would consider what I might feel about any given situation, while he would be more inclined to try and imagine what the ‘people’ might feel. I used to ask him who these people were, but I don’t think I ever got an understandable answer. Equally, whereas I am inclined to believe that real answers come from looking inwards to the deeper, inner self, he seemed to see both problems and answers as emanating from ‘outside.’ In this sense, whereas he was probably essentially a materialist, I am essentially a mystic.
I’m not quite sure that I understand what you mean by saying that ‘only the state should have weapons.’ Certainly it allows the state to be the biggest bully in the playground, but is that a good thing? Certainly it allowed for the Holocaust in Nazi Germany, or is allowing for the mass-incarcerations in the USA (the new holocaust). Is that good?
[Late note from Gavin: “I was being sarcastic. I think everyone deserves a gun.”]
I’ve always been disturbed by the number of socialists at Dial House. Sure big business has its faults but they don’t throw you in jail when you don’t pay them. It’s illegal not to pay the government. How do these anarchists reconcile the fact that most of their plans involve more regulation AKA more government power?
I’m not really sure how you came up with your count. Certainly the majority of people who either live at or visit Dial House are politically left of center, but I don’t really understand how you see so many of them specifically as ‘socialists.’ Before the ‘New World Order’ undermined any real sense of working class community in the western (so called) democracies, the unions played an important part in protecting working people from suffering the indignities of outright slavery that the ruling class appear to consider their right to impose on others (either industrially or militaristically). In those days, and in that respect, socialism had some real meaning and political clout, but now that most industrial activity is in the Far East, it ceases to have much to offer: working communities have collapsed, leaving impoverished, bankrupt voids like Detroit, but still the ruling classes strut around celebrating their wealth at the cost of the many. And no, big businesses don’t throw you in jail if you don’t pay them, they just send the bailiffs round to tear apart your home, or they sack you if you complain about working absurdly long hours for their slave wages, or they shoot you down if you object to their plunder of resources – the callous contempt of capitalism.
You also seem to be missing the point that, increasingly, western governments are at the beck and call of the multi corporations, not that this is anything new (check out Standard Oil’s despicable record with Nazi Germany). Was Iraq fought over in the interests of the American people, or those of the corporations who benefit so much by exploiting them? Are the Chinese sweatshops operating for the benefit of the American working classes, or their capitalist, corporate bosses? The days of political power as a force are over (if indeed they ever existed). Politics are led by, controlled by and sustained by corporate interests. The days of ‘people’ are over.
Aren’t libertarians just smart anarchists?
Not necessarily. They might just as easily be smart capitalists.
Which are you?
I’m an existentialist, although politically I feel closer to libertarianism than I do to anarchism. As you said in another interview, there seems to be too many rules and do’s and don’t’s associated with anarchism to make it an attractive option. As a political theory, it seems to have developed a politically correct code of words and action, which seems every bit as oppressive as that of any religious fundamentalism.
There was a huge backlash from fans after Steve Ignorant did the “Last Supper” tour where his band did Crass songs. I saw the venues on that tour. He’d have been lucky to have broken even. Wasn’t that backlash living proof that these kids are insatiable? They’re like the Taliban. You just can’t please them.
There are always those who want to find faults, if only to cover their own. There’s a section within the anarcho-punk ‘scene’ (the fact that there still is one says it all) who seem to see their role to be that of policing others. It was they who shouted ‘sell out’ when Gee and myself spent five years repackaging and remastering the Crass catalog for which, I might point out, we have received virtually no remuneration. Yes, it was an act of love, designed to make the very best of what we could from material that was beginning to look and sound tired. We knew that there was a new generation of youth who were interested in our work, and we wanted to give them something worthwhile about which we (and they) could be proud.
As far as I’m aware, Steve made hardly any money at all from his ‘world tour,’ which is ridiculous. Someone of his stature deserves at the very least to earn a living wage for what he does. I get bored shitless by those punks with their holier than thou attitudes, those who seem to imagine that they have the right to take whatever they want for themselves without giving anything back in return.
Would you ever do a GAP ad?
I haven’t been asked, and I don’t imagine I ever will be. But I wouldn’t say no automatically. I’d look into what was being offered to see whether in some way it could be put to some good political or creative use and go from there.
At a screening here in New York recently for the documentary There is no Authority but Yourself, you mentioned a violent nut who came to Dial House to visit you and became quite threatening. He knew he was visiting two old people and he knew they wouldn’t be armed. You must have thought, “I could blow his head off and bury him the ground and nobody would be the wiser.”
No, I didn’t think that. What I did think was how I could touch something within the guy which might help him find a way out of his pain, find some softer, deeper part of himself that might respond to human kindness. I felt sorry for him and really wanted to help.
Also, in that same movie you say, “I’m not a prostitute” and minutes later claim you, “Beat off B.T.” How many executives at British Telecom did you masturbate?
American and English are very different languages, and I think it a great shame that American is becoming increasingly adopted by British youth as the hipper of the two languages. As I’m sure you know, in English, ‘beat off’ means to force a retreat.
Is it true you gave your dad a wank on his deathbed?
Over the six or so years that my father suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, he had shrunk away to being little more than a barely moving skeleton, losing all the attributes normally associated with being human. For the last days of his life, I sat by his bedside wishing for his sake that he would at last die. On this occasion I was stroking his brow in the vain hope that it might bring him some sort of comfort when suddenly, with a strength that was unbelievable from someone as emaciated as he was, he grabbed hold of my hand and pulled it down to his cock which, shockingly, was erect. He seemed to want me to hold it, which I did. Then I gently rubbed his dying manhood until, miraculously, he drifted into a peaceful sleep from which he never really awoke again. He died the next day. It was Christmas Eve. I told my mother that it was the only gift that he was able to give us.
You’ve had a myriad of guests at Dial House over the years but one of my favorite stories is when there was some aboriginal victim of a genocide or something there and all the white people were fawning over him and he was really playing up the martyr thing and you just yelled, “YOU CAN’T OWN PAIN!”
Yes, I think that is true. I get very tired of victims wearing their pain like medals.
How can you scoff at the idea of karma but also believe in crystals?
I do not accept the Buddhist idea of rebirth or the essentially moralistic view that we are on some kind of life test which, if we’re good, we’ll come back next time one degree better, or if we’re bad we’ll suffer for it in the next round. It all stinks a little to me of the Christian heaven and hell syndrome. Neither do I accept the Buddhist view that life is suffering: the Christian reflection of this is the notion of inherited guilt. I do, however, believe that we get from life what we give to life, which is a form of karmic law within the one lifetime that we have.
Crystals are extraordinarily intense particle clusters harboring intense stores of energy which under the right conditions can be utilized for the common good. This is not a piece of mystical fantasy. It is a quantum fact.
The economics of Dial House is incredibly complicated mostly because British Law is so fucking ancient, it seems like everything there revolves around “The Council.” It’s only very recently you were able to stop renting Dial House (which was so cheap it was basically squatting) and actually buy it. Can you briefly explain the story in laymen’s terms?
The history of Dial House and our battle to hold on to it against massive pressure from greedy landlords and avaricious developers would take a book to fully explain. Basically, I found a derelict house in 1967 and decided I wanted to live there. Because it was in such bad condition, I paid virtually no rent. This was the case until may years later when the land was bought by property developers whose first action was to attempt to evict me and the other residents. For the next ten years we were in and out of court, fighting for our rights against a system, which in fairness, seemed largely supportive of our case. Eventually we won on all fronts and the developers were left with the only option available to them, that of selling on. Although they did everything in their power to see that we didn’t manage to buy the house, we were able to buy it from beneath their feet at auction on money borrowed from friends.
And now you are down to a few thousand pounds before it’s completely paid off. Is that what inspired you to put on this show?
Yes, I had hoped that the show of my drawings at the Boo-Hooray gallery might raise enough money to payoff the remaining debt. Regrettably, it didn’t, but it was worth a try.
In my mind, you’re a writer. I heard Gee say you made these drawings because you “Lost your word.” Is that as simple as “writer’s block.”
Yes. It was in 2002. It lasted a year. However, for the record, I trained as an artist at the same art school as Gee, which is, of course, how and where we met. Throughout my life I have both written and painted, as well a making music. After leaving art school, I became a reasonably successful portraitist and also taught life drawing and painting part-time at an art school in east London. I have always enjoyed moving between genres.
You seem much more at peace these past couple of years but they’ve been especially tumultuous. You’ve had a love life that was right out of a soap opera and then a brutal cancer scare. Why aren’t you a shell of a man shaking with despair?
Because out of the dark night of the soul to which those four or five tumultuous years took me, I finally found myself. In the past, I had always looked to others for the love that I should have sought for in myself. I had seen lovers as an essential part of a process of universalization, that through them, I might find myself. But I now realize that it was through them that the opposite occurred. I lost myself or at least forever wandered further away from myself, lost in a terrible state of yearning. Having been pushed deeper and deeper into darkness through a series of illnesses and a romantic relationship that challenged all my philosophical pretensions, I finally arrived at a place of total despair and for six months struggled against ideas of suicide. Following a major operation to remove a cyst from my jaw (which happily turned out to be non cancerous), I awoke to a sense of absolute liberation. All the despair had departed and I realized that the very thing that I had always looked for in the world around me was (and always had been) deep within me – the angel inside. At last, I could love myself. The demons were at last destroyed. Since then, I have felt blessed with joy and peace, at one with myself every bit as much as ‘as one with myself.’ It had taken seventy years to get to know the self within, the beautiful, smiling face of unconditional love.