An exclusive HITS dialogue with Andrew Vachss
By Bruce Haring
Andrew Vachss has had a diverse career. The eye-patched author—"I lost it at age seven to a kid swinging a bicycle chain. I never saw him again"—is also a former federal investigator of sexually transmitted diseases, a social caseworker and director of a maximum security prison for youthful offenders. Now a lawyer in private practice, he confines his caseload exclusively to children's issues.
Vachss' eleventh novel, "Safe House," released in April by Alfred A. Knopf, brings back the hardboiled Burke—ex-con, urban survivalist, career criminal and a man the literary magazine Kirkus calls "one of the most fascinating male characters in crime fiction." One part Doc Savage, one part Travis Bickel, Burke is the epitome of an anti-hero.
In "Safe House," Burke's street-smarts and extended crime family are pitted against a mysterious stalker who's apparently being protected by the federal government. The book comes with a unique accompaniment, a companion album of blues classics from the likes of Buddy Guy, Irma Thomas, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, many of them referenced by Burke in his moody drives through the mean streets of New York City. The CD booklet also contains "Reaching Back," an original short story by the author. "Andrew Vachss' Safe House: A Collection of Blues" was issued through Repeat/Relativity. HIT's own gumshoe Bruce "Creamed" Haring caught up with the author and tried to hit him up for some free legal advice.
Tell me how the project for the album came together.
All that really happened was that my partner Lou Bank, who's a marketing genius, got the idea of having a soundtrack to the book. He had seen the book and said, "Why don't I just see if I can get a record label to buy the particular tracks that are mentioned in the book and make an album out of it?" He runs a marketing company called Ten Angry Pitbulls.
How do you feel the album turned out? Any complaints?
Well, sure, I got complaints. But not about the music. I think they did a really nice job of remastering the stuff. It sounds great. I think it's a little addle-brained to package it like they did, because if you're walking through a music section and you see "Safe House" by Andrew Vachss, your natural reaction is is, "What instrument does he play?" So one wouldn't make the connection and you wouldn't really have the idea of the contents by looking at the cover. And, of course, if you are a fan, the fact that this contains an original short story that you can't get anyplace else would also be lost on you.
What would your ideal cover look like?
It would probably have some big sticker spattered across it that says who's in it. And then a little sticker that also says it contains this original written material.
What does music mean to you? Obviously you're a fan. Does it represent an emotional release?
I don't know that I'm a fan of it, but I'm an admirer of certain kinds. And it's the closest thing to emotion-evoking that I know.
But you don't want to go so far to say that it profoundly touches you?
It's hard for me, given what I do and how my nerve-endings are so cauterized...I don't know if I'd be telling the truth if I say anything profoundly touched me. But this comes as close as anything... That's the most honest thing I could say.
Are you a fan of any genres besides the blues?
Well, it depends on how you define the blues, but I'm a fan of the Bronx blues too, you know, doo-wop.
You had a songwriting credit on this album. Tell me about that.
That's simply because the guy who did that song took big pieces of the lyrics right from the book. So I'm not a songwriter, although I tried for years with my great, good and deeply missed friend Doc Pomus to write one together. It's something we were always screwing around with and never quite succeeded at.
You would toss out some lyrics and Doc would try to build a song?
He would say, "Are you crazy?"
Are you someone that hangs around musicians a lot?
No. I hung around Doc, but I would have hung around him whether he was a musician or a card player.
How did you choose the songs that wound up on the album?
I chose 40 songs that I really thought were magnificent and they acquired the rights to this many, probably because they were the low bidders, and that's how it happened. I mean, I could have chosen 500. The winnowing-down process would have been much more difficult for me.
The album is intended to be marketed with the book?
Well, you mean, was. It's a bit late for that. No. I think that train's gone, you know? If the album had come out at the same time as the book, I can tell you from the tour, I could have sold thousands of copies of the CD. It just didn't exist. So they were about a month late.
Is there an awareness out there that the album even exists?
I don't think so. We know that we had all kinds of people writing angry letters to the website saying, "You know. I bought the book. I saw on the flap about the CD. I went to the store and they didn't have the damn CD." So I can't honestly answer that. The CD's only been out a real short time.
Burke seems very critical about the Internet in the book, yet you have a fairly extensive web-site.
I don't see where he's critical of the Internet. He's critical of cyber-chumps. I mean, if you go to my web-site and you look up cyber-chumps, you'll see I've written a whole piece about it for the Microsoft Network. He's critical of anybody who sets themselves up to be a fool, to be used or manipulated.
But you have no particular qualms about the medium itself?
No. I don't have qualms about anything. I have qualms about the way it's used. An edged weapon can be a scalpel to cut out a tumor or something to entertain a serial killer. It's a neutral piece of technology sitting there. And so is the Internet.
Do you have any position on people who feel certain rock & roll lyrics should be banned because they make people commit crimes?
Yeah. I think they're idiots. Remember, you're not talking to somebody your age, so I heard about how rock & roll was devil lyrics when I was a kid, and it was responsible for juvenile delinquency, etc. That whole Judas Priest stuff, it was allegedly driving kids to suicide—people really confuse methodology with motivation. Movies don't make kids shoot people. But stupid kids who watch movies hold handguns the wrong way and get the shell castings blown back in their face, because they're imitating what they see in the movie. That's the confusion. People who are stressed right to the snapping point can access almost anything to finish the job...music or art or a church sermon. But no, I don't think music lyrics cause anybody to do anything.
So you're not in favor of any toning down?
I'm not in favor of it, but you have to be really careful. I don't consider child pornography a speech issue. And I don't consider banning it to be censorship. So, with that caveat, no. I think censorship is real dangerous, because who gets to do it?
What about something like 2 Live Crew, where the lyrics were graphic?
Yeah. I mean, listen. There's plenty of disgusting, repulsive, reprehensible crap out there. But if you want to really hear some stuff, you should hear the hyper-right stuff...kill the niggers, kill the Jews. It's easily offensive. And I think that there are people always fascinated by something that's disgusting or repellent. But I certainly wouldn't deny them their right to have bad taste.
You worked some tough places in your career. How does the music industry measure up to these places?
It's nothing. I mean, because it contain liars? Whoopee. I mean, no one's shooting at me. I don't know enough about the music industry to criticize it. I mean, certainly the music industry at the time Doc was recording appears to have taken gross advantage of artists. I don't know if that's still true. I'm not an artist. But in the music industry, like in any other, quote-unquote, entertainment industry, the real trick to understanding it is that it's not a meritocracy. So Vanilla Ice out-sells Muddy Waters. That tells you all you have to know about music. But you could say the same thing about writing or painting or any other thing that was designed to entertain people. As far as the industry, the executives, that kind of thing—I haven't had any pleasant experiences with them, but I certainly haven't had enough to generalize.
There are some people who might see Burke in a lot of record industry executives.
I hope not. But I don't plan to have a real extensive relationship with the music industry.
No other albums tied to books?
That is going to happen. This thing really worked and everyone who's heard it really loves the idea, but I certainly would never do it without some better control so that they do happen simultaneously. I mean, that hurt everything.
What are you working on?
My case load is what I'm working on. If you mean a new project, there isn't any.
When will you write next? Do you wait for a mood?
When my anger coalesces around a particular theme is when I write. I don't sign contracts for books. I don't take advances. I don't have deadlines. I have a career that's not connected to writing at all. So when the two things come together, I do the book and then I approach the publisher.
Courtesy: HITS magazine.