The Cynics, Part 2
Michael, have you always been kind of a ham?
Michael: “Yeah, I was kind of a class clown all through grade school. And then through the first year of high school it just turned into not being a class clown, just more bein’ a bullied guy. But then the last year of high school I went to this different school, and there I was a little more respected for my sense of humor. But see, also the other thing – while I was in high school being bullied at school, I was also in all these different punk rock bands in Pittsburgh, and there I was adored! ‘Hey, that’s Michael from Dub Sex!’ ‘Hey, that’s Michael from The Boat People!’ I was in these punk bands, The Wake, and 96 Tears and stuff when I was in high school, while being abused at high school. I was like 16, 17 years old, I was just barely even getting my driver’s license – but I’d be playing at these punk rock clubs all night. Then I’d go to school in the morning and they’d be like, ‘Fucking faggot…’ I was like, ‘Little do you know what I did last night! It was definitely faggotry. Definitely some fuckery,’ hahaha!”
How did you get involved in that so young?
Michael: “That’s a very good question. You know what it was? It was two things. There was a record store called Jim’s Records. Even before I could drive, but my friend who was in this band with me called The Boat People, he could drive to the Bloomfield part of Pittsburgh, and we’d go to Jim’s Records, and I’d buy Patti Smith records and Roxy Music records. And also, there was a public radio station here that still exists, but [nowadays] it’s total fucking shit. But at that time, like in the late ’70s, WYEP was actually a legitimate force to hear underground music. And so there were these people who had these radio shows on WYEP, and I lived out in the suburbs. It was a city public station, but I would listen to it at night and be like, ‘Oh my God!’ That’s the first time I ever heard the fuckin’ Fall! I was listening to WYEP, and this guy is playing a band called The Fall. And I tried to get in touch with [the DJ] – I called the station and asked him, ‘What’s your deal?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, well, I’m in these bands, and we play in Oakland and stuff…’ – the college area of Pittsburgh. I’m like, ‘Wow, I’m in a band, too, called The Boat People!’ And he’s like, ‘Well that’s the most hilarious name I’ve ever heard for a band.’ And The Boat People – me and my teenage friends – we actually had a P.A., but these local punk rock bands didn’t have a P.A., they would have to rent a P.A. from the music store for like a hundred dollars a night. We’re like, ‘Look, we’ll provide the P.A., if you let us play with you.’ Hahaha! So they would just have this teenage band play with them at house parties and stuff, as long as we brought the P.A. And we didn’t mind! It was totally fuckin’ fun. We’re like 14, 15, 16 years old, and we get to fuckin’ drink free beer, and play a house party! So, yeah, that’s totally how I got involved in the punk rock thing. Very young.
“I did lose my virginity at one of those house parties. But that’s a whole other story. I lost it to a woman! She’s sitting on top of me, she’s like, ‘I can make you come, little Boat boy, I can make you come…’ I’m like, ‘No you can’t! No you can’t!’ But actually she did make me come. So I consider that my loss of virginity – to a woman! She might’ve been like 20. She was like a freshman in college or something. So, more of a girl than a woman. But when I was like 14, I would call her a woman. And, our bass player who drove me there, because he actually had a driver’s license, he’s waiting for me, like, ‘We were supposed to leave hours ago! My mom’s gonna be so mad! Where were you? What were you doing?’ I’m like, ‘Uhhh, lemme tell ya…lemme tell ya… I was fuckin’ spermin’ into Madge!’ Hahaha! He was so jealous, he was like, ‘You don’t even like girls!’ I’m like, ‘I know!’”
Did you ever get to go drinking with Mark E. Smith before he died?
Michael: “Uh… define ‘before he died’! Yes, I drank with him, but that was the fuckin’ ‘80s, hahaha! Oh, my God… the man [was] a true, true genius. I never got to see them play in their later days. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw The Fall actually play live. It might’ve been mid-2000s or something. He was in a wheelchair, and I think at that time he was only in a wheelchair for effect. He was like, ‘OK, I’m showin’ up, I broke my hip!’ He didn’t even break his hip! Hahaha! Anyway, Mark E. Smith was truly one of my idols. The only time I actually got to hang out with him and drink was like late ’80s. The only thing that would’ve been better would be if I was sitting in my hotel room shooting up heroin with William Burroughs. But it was actually more funny, because Mark E. Smith I think actually has a better sense of humor than William Burroughs. He was snortin’ Vivarin or somethin’. He was like, ‘You can’t get any good cocaine in Chicago, so I’m snortin up this…’ I was like, ‘What is this?’ ‘It’s called Vivarin, I bought it at the 7-11…’ What the fuck??? Oh my God… But what a fuckin’ genius. ’Til the very end. ’Til the very end, when he’s dying, with the bloated face, and the cancer, and I don’t know what was going on with his head. But like, a few days before he fuckin’ died he was onstage in a wheelchair! Just laughing his head off. And you know how he rolls his tongue around? ‘Ahhhh now-ah, we are The Fall-ah,’ and he’s doing wheelies in a wheelchair! God fuckin’ dammit… he was the best.”
So, The Cynics took a break for about four years, before reigniting this year…
Michael: “We’ve taken breaks before. I was just like, OK, we’ve done what we can do for now, and I’m just not really that…enthused about doin’ it. And I feel like if I’m not enthused… then I’m cheating the audience. I don’t mean to paraphrase Johnny Rotten, but when I can’t throw my total mind and soul into it, I feel like, ‘Well, why am I doing this?’ But now I’m back into it! I’m back in the game, baby!”
Gregg: “I don’t think we ever went through the motions. I think we always played our best, or close to it, or tried to be our best. Sometimes it’s really hard, some nights it’s just not clicking. But we haven’t had that ‘not clicking’ night in a long, long time. We’ve been clicking, really, since Angel and Pibli joined the group. Because you don’t have this internal shit where somebody in the band, they’re not lifers, you know, they don’t wanna do it. [Now] we have a team of four guys that are lifers. And that hasn’t happened since the first lineup.”
What occupied your spare time during this latest break?
Michael: “Oh, well, I’ve been very annoying on social media. I also took care of my dad, who was dying of congestive heart failure. And the last two years, I’ve mainly been taking my mom to chemotherapy for breast cancer. So that keeps you kinda busy. What the fuck are you gonna do? My mom took care of me from when I was born until this day. My dad took care of me my whole life. You’re not gonna take care of them, Michael? How could you not do that? I mean, you gotta. I’m not making that as an excuse for us not playing, but there was no way I could be touring while my parents are on the edge of death.”
Gregg: “I’ve been going to church on Sundays. You know, no one goes to church anymore, but just to be ‘anti,’ I decided I wanna start going to fuckin’ church. The least I can do is play folk hymns. All the great singers and songwriters start in church. I’m bored to death, I’m not playing – I’m gonna go find God! That type of thing. And I started listening… It’s just non-denominational. It’s just Christian, it’s no Jehovah’s Witness, no Catholic. It’s just people doing good things for the community, and helping make things happen. And everybody counsels, if people need counsel they’re always there. If it wasn’t for that and my cat and yoga, I woulda lost my marbles. Those three things saved me. Just, the people in the church – they’ve been through a lot of crazy coincidences, too. I had them do sort of like a minor exorcism, because I felt bad juju when I uncovered [some] bullshit with my family… Things have come around since we had that cleansing.
“Since I was four years old, I said, ‘There’s no such thing as coincidences.’ Bob Dylan said it, too, when I was six years old, in a couple of his songs. And it always bothered me, and I started paying attention, and really, I’ve been unscathed this whole…almost 60 years, I’ve been unscathed… And, I’ve been fucking lucky. I’ve been lucky to escape death. But there’s so much death and destruction around me, that, I don’t know… there’s work that I still have not finished and I still have to do. And I think that’s what’s saving me and keeping me alive, and keeping the fire burning. I mean, I hate to go off course with you, but I’m just telling you, there’s too many coincidences, man, that have me believin’.”
You’re doing yoga now?
Gregg: “Yeah, yoga, and [I’ve been] walking for three and a half years, which really got me on the right track to feeling better. And I am still overweight, but I’m getting it down a little bit more right now, you know, ‘cause I’m a nervous wreck, business is rough, I’m getting up early, I’m constantly moving. So, I’ve got the energy. The moving and walking. I wanna live every minute of the fucking day…”
Michael, how close would you consider you and Gregg?
Michael: “I would say ‘brothers from different mothers.’ We never got to the Ray Davies and Dave Davies [level], he never hit me. Hahaha! And I’ve just taunted him so much. I’m like, ‘Come on – hit me! Hit me!’ He never did. And if he did hit me, I’d probably be totally dead. But, you know, we’ve had our ups and downs. It’s like a weird brother relationship. It’s like a thing that’s very…I don’t know… Is he my longest friend ever in my life? Maybe. Come to think of it, I might have some friends that are a little older than that, like friends from those punk rock bands. So I might have longer friends than Gregg, but never a closer friend that long. Seriously, it’s been since the early ‘80s – that’s a longtime friend, right?”
Besides your love of music, what do you think you have most in common?
Michael: “That’s a really tough question, because there’s so many things. We have so many things in common because of our kind of common age – even though he’s way older than me. I think our love of All in the Family, our love of bad jokes and stuff. I think the main thing we have in common is we both have kind of a dark sense of humor. We just laugh at the darkest things!”
What do you think is most different about the two of you?
Michael: “Huh… You mean, besides weight? Look, I’m weighing in at 144 now. I’m getting down to fighting mode. No, besides that, I think that he’s more business-oriented, and I’m more like a woman, emotionally. It’s kind of like Archie Bunker and Edith. I’m more like Edith, he’s more like… no, no, that’s not right, he’s not like Archie at all. Actually I’m probably more like Archie. No, I think it’s a feminine-masculine thing. He’s more into business, numbers and stuff, and I’m more emotional, like a woman. I think that’s what it is, yeah. Gregg’s the masculine brother, and I’m the emotional fuckin’ faggot boy or whatever. And any time anyone tried to approach me – like I said, he never hit me, even though I egged him on to – he is always the first to defend me.”
Gregg does have the look of a mafia don nowadays, too.
Michael: “Yeah! If anyone even approaches me in a violent way, Gregg will just stand in front of me and go, ‘You even go near him, I will fuckin’ punch your fuckin’ head off.’ I’m like, ‘Wow! Thanks, daddy!’ So I guess that’s a difference between us! He’s the daddy, I’m the son. Hahaha!”
Gregg: “I’m a little bit older. I am his big daddy, or whatever the fuck. And I’ll take it, Jeff. I love him. I always love Michael, but sometimes he would turn against me and say stupid shit. And then it led to me saying stupid shit about him. If I did criticize him back in the day, it’s because I knew he could do better, and I want him to do better. I don’t like going through motions. I mean, maybe I stand up and play and look like a cardboard cutout, and you may think I’m passionless, but that’s not the case. I wanna fuckin’ make sure the guitar sounds good, and the fuckin’ notes are right. It’s all about doing my job. Brian Jones wasn’t doing cartwheels. We’re not Green Day, I’m not gonna be a jackass. I’ve got the lead singer to do the movin’ and groovin’.”
I’ve always been dismayed that The Cynics have never really caught on with the garage punk kids or power pop kids like a lot of other older bands have. I guess you’re just not punk enough, or obscure enough, or cool enough, or whatever…
Michael: “I’m always trying to get young people interested in our music…But I gave up on that. We’re not gonna reach any kids. No kids care about the fuckin’ Cynics. So I give up. We’re just gonna play to elderly people, I guess, at festivals. Eh, that’s OK. As long as they give me a hotel room! As long as the fuckin’ shower works in the hotel room, I’m down with it. I don’t give a shit. Fuck these kids today, hahaha!”
Living is the best revenge.
Gregg: “I’m starting to finally recognize, and I think Michael has too – and Barbara’s been screaming at us both for years, because she loves the band, and she would throw everything else in the garbage – the band is number one. And she sees how happy we are playing. Even if we’re angry about something. You know, we’re angry about fucking up, and making mistakes, or fucking up our lives. Michael is gonna continue to drink, there’s no doubt about it. I’ll smoke weed now and then, and I’ll have a drink now and then, but it’s not a priority. I could get through the whole year with the same case of beer in my house. I drink water. I’m getting five or six miles a day in exercise, and right now I gotta go home and cut grass. I don’t fuck around, Jeff. I’ve been walking for the last three and a half years. Every day. I’m averaging over three or four miles a day for the last three or four years. I take the steps, I keep moving, man, because, here’s how it started happening – I noticed the people that were dropping were sedentary. And I said, you know, my parents and grandparents, they all kept moving, and they lived to their eighties or nineties, outside of a fluke or accidental death. They all lived long lives. So, that don’t mean I can’t go out over some dumb fuckin’ shit… But I mean, Michael seems to be upright. He is my brother, you know, and I always worry about him. But I’m trying to do good and take care of myself, too. I think it’s bringing more of a better attitude toward playing, too. I’m excited about playing this little east coast tour.”
Michael: “I’m sure I’ve probably told you this story before, because I kind of repeat myself, but one time when we played at The EARL, we got all these bags and bags of boiled peanuts. And we actually had them on the dashboard of the van for, I swear to God, like one week. But they still tasted the same a week later! Hahaha! I was eating them with the shell, and they’re boiled, I think a couple of them might’ve given me some anal fissures. Your body does not completely digest the shell, right? I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I bleeding outta my ass! I’m gonna die. I have cancer.’ And the doctor said, ‘Yeah, I think that might be a peanut shell.’ Oh, Lord… So anyway, the boiled peanuts [at The EARL], I’m looking forward to that.”
The Cynics are gonna play some rock ‘n’ roll at The EARL on Friday, August 23. Paint Fumes and Bad Spell will do the same, only different.
Live photo by Alain Cazenave.
Go back to Part 1.