Jim “the Hound” Marshall is known to the avid listeners of his radio shows over the years, both on WFMU in the 80s and 90s and until recently on Little Water Radio because of his encyclopedic knowledge of rhythm-and-blues, rockabilly, country, rock and roll, punk and much else that might be unjustly forgotten, overlooked or simply too good to make it into mass mediocre taste. He’s also followed for pretty much saying whatever he feels like saying but he’s too well-reflected and interested in his subject to be playing for any shock value. Instead he has spent his life discovering music—although that’s not exactly all he’s done (“I should have brought my liver X-ray”).
The archived shows are wonderfully worth listening to, commencing with the sound of snarling dog and playing records that make you feel as if you too have just discovered the music, which you have. He’s also a writer (one website calls him “the undisputed king of living rock critics”) and in 1996 opened the much-missed Lakeside Lounge bar in the East Village, which closed in 2012 for the usual reason—soaring rent. He would have been one of those cool people that you were a bit daunted by … he is one of those cool people who you are a bit daunted by. Talking to him evoked a past that isn’t coming back, no matter how willed by vinyl-buying kids in their twenties, but there is probably no one better qualified to bring it alive for them.
I guess we have to start at the beginning—what did you want to be when you grew up? Were you a musician?
No, I was a writer, I guess, when I started. I wasn’t really thinking that far along. I just wanted to get as far away from my family as I possibly could.
And where was that?
At that time we were living in Florida. I was born in Paterson, New Jersey. I moved here, the day I turned eighteen, literally on my birthday, the day I could leave Florida without them legally stopping me.
And what were you going to do here?
In the days before the Internet there were like fanzines and magazines and I was already writing for magazines. There was sort of like this network of pen pals that would correspond with each other. I had this friend from Ohio who was playing drums in a band called The Cramps and she had just moved into this huge raw space down on Warren Street—it was the “The Cramps’ Home for Teenage Dirt” and it was 6000-square foot basement that was $300 a month.
That’s where I came to when I first moved here. There wasn’t even a Tribeca back then. There were people living next door to us—this band called The Contortions and there was a band upstairs called Mars, living on crazy money. We could literally yell to the people on the next block and we would all walk up to CBGB and we would hit every bar on the Bowery for a 50-cent drink on the way there.
What kind of writer did you want to be?
It wasn’t even that thought out. I didn’t even know anybody who had thought of the idea of a career. We assumed that we were going to get blown up by a nuclear weapon anyway. The streets were empty! New York was like a playground! We had the place to ourselves. There was no adult supervision—you never even saw a cop!
So you weren’t ambitious.
My ambition was to finally get away from my family and to have some fun. What did I want to do? I wanted to do everything.
And how much of that did you achieve?
Too much. I should have brought my liver X-ray.
Would you write about any kind of music?
No, I was very specific. There was this music that I was discovering, kind of punk. Punk rock was coalescing—it was my social world and that was stuff to write about and I had a fanzine like all kids did.
You mean like Sid Vicious …
Well even before that. To us, like people who really knew punk rock, they were like The Monkees. They were put together by fashion designers.
So who were you thinking of?
Well, I was thinking of Iggy and the Stooges and the New York Dolls as the real deal. They were like Howlin’ Wolf to the Rolling Stones. And then there was other stuff. In the back of junk stores and flea market [were records]—this whole golden age of pop culture, all this stuff that no one wanted from the 20s—it ends around the mid-70s. It just sitting there—and it was like for pennies. I really zeroed in on this. My favorite thing in the world were these guys who had like this vision—like they’d heard Elvis, or Little Richard or Muddy Waters and they’d said, “I can do that” and they’d make their own record. They’d get some tiny label and they’d put their whole heart into it.
They weren’t as good looking as Elvis or as talented—they had no hope—but they made these incredibly fucked-up records and they’re thousands and thousands of them—they’re incredibly hard to find. A lot of people collect them, especially in the UK. It was like the Teddy Boy thing and the Rockabilly thing, which is hillbillies who thought they were Elvis. I kind of narrowed on this very specific thing rather than writing about how wonderful the latest Patti Smith record is, which isn’t a great way to build a career. Everybody’s got a story and there’s no one telling it. Some of these guys were completely insane and some of these guys were geniuses.
And when did your radio career begin?
I started doing WFMU, I guess 1983, and once you were on the radio, especially like, pre-Internet, that gives you this sort of weird powerbase because now everybody loves you, especially the old guys like Ike Turner, because now they can come on your show—who else is going to play those records?
But I know you’re lamenting to some degree the past but I think right now you have like a “retro-value”, if you like. Everybody is yearning for what you describe once was. Why not have a Sirius show?
I’m the only person who would not be offered a job at Sirius. Sirius has a playlist—literally they have Andrew Loog Oldham—who produced and discovered the Rolling Stones—pick off a playlist?! Like Andrew Oldman doesn’t know what is fucking good or bad? He has to listen to Little Steven? [Stephen Van Zandt created and formats some Sirius playlists] First of all it’s a very conservative Texas corporation—these really creepy rightwing Texas people. It’s very formulated.
In terms of what part of the ghetto where I would be is run by this guy Little Steven, nice enough guy on some level—he was with Bruce Springsteen and he was on the Sopranos … massive ego. He’s not very bright and you’d have to tiptoe around a stupid person and not insult them and have them condescend to you …I’m sorry but there are other ways to make money. If they were going to pay me what they pay Howard Stern, I can put up with a lot … I don’t need a playlist. I have a roomful of records that he never even heard of …
So where is your place then?
I don’t know! It’s not my position to say. I’m so far out in left field that you can’t even Google me. That’s exactly where I want to be. I know I’m not ever going to make money in what ever value I might have to the world culturally so what I really like is being in a place where you have to have all the cultural references and connections and be smart enough to figure out how to find me.
I am a snob. I’m a terrible snob.
So when people find you, what are they looking for?
They’re looking for an alternative to whatever else there is. At this point everything is at your fingertips. Right now we could pick up our phone and I could show where to find music from Upper Volta in the 1950s. It would take me three seconds, something that would have taken me two years to find twenty years ago. I do love rock and roll because like jazz it was the ultimate egalitarian form. White people didn’t steal it from black people and black people didn’t steal it from white people.
Everybody got thrown together and when they figured out they could make a buck from it, all of a sudden they were all friends. Rock and roll, really, it’s a combination of every ethnic group, every regional style, every area had its own sound, its own thing. In Brooklyn it was doo-wop, in New Orleans it was the second line rolling beat, in Memphis it had that sort of country twang, in Chicago it had the very distorted bluesy thing. Every region had its thing. So people love rock and roll for so many good reasons and we celebrate in punk rock—it’s become the acceptable face of dissension in the world—it’s utterly primitive and everyone can do it—but not everyone can do it!
It seems like any idiot can do it. I can take my guitar out of the basement and hand it to you and in half an hour you can play Louie Louie but you have to have something else for it to be great. Have you ever met the Ramones? Joey was a fairly smart guy with a lot of problems. He had to put his coffee cup down a 150 times—and Dee Dee, he was literally like the idiot savant. I had the manuscript of his first book and literally he used to like, type letters backwards—it’s actually a pretty good book. But to be like that, to be hopeless and retarded and still make something really great out of it … part of it is the chemistry, the time, the place … like my favorite picture of them on the subway, Johnny’s got his guitar in a paper shopping bag! But it was real. He could afford a guitar but he couldn’t afford a case with it. The case was ten dollars extra. Who had ten dollars?
So do you feel we now live in a world that lacks spontaneity?
To put it mildly. Or the spontaneity that is there is so the wrong kind of spontaneity. You know, the little shocks you get like, “Really, the president is standing up for the Nazis?”
But you can’t have lost faith completely … music wise what does renew you?
I don’t lose faith in music. I lose faith in the music industry.
But that’s been the lament forever, no?
Well it was an industry but it was very much like the early film industry, like these Jewish guys who came from Eastern Europe mostly and had like two hundred bucks. “Well we can’t get into the diamond business, so we’ll put out a record. We’ve got these black kids around the corner …” So now that that’s being run by Sony who are owned by Polygram who are owned by BMG who we call Big Mean Germans, who report to their stock holders, so all of sudden if Taylor Swift’s new record doesn’t sell, 26 people have lost their jobs … [laughs].
But you know what gives me faith in music is when I here somebody sing, when three guys come on to the subway and sing Life is But a Dream … then it’s like every person on this train has headphones on. They don’t even hear it any more—this is one of the great joys of New York—a bunch of guys standing around a garbage can harmonizing
What do you do now?
Well I’ve been doing this radio thing. I was at this station called Little Water. It was down by the Seaport. All that land by the Seaport is owned either by the Dursts or the Hughes. The Hughes are actually even creepier than the Dursts because they’re Mormons. Most people when they do radio shows, they take their phone, they make a playlist from Spotify and they plug it in and that’s their radio show.
You know I have son who is 25 and if he was listening to you now, he would be hanging on your every word. He would be agreeing with everything you say. You would be like a kind of hero figure to him …
Well, there’s definitely people out there.
It would seem with your wealth of knowledge and your take on things, you’re kind of evoking world that is a world that they wish was still alive now.
It was an era where there wasn’t a million people doing every single thing. Like back then, if you were going to go into rock and roll, pretty much your family would disown you. You could get killed for having long hair.
I guess everything has its moment, and then it doesn’t.
Yeah … pop culture is kind of Rorschach blot. Because it’s so simple and primitive you’ve can read anything you want into it and get anything you want out of it. And punk rock is really like the ultimate Rorschach blot because it’s got this built-in rebellion aspect of it. In 1976 John Lydon was an anarchist and now two of the four Sex Pistols live in Malibu and endorse Trump! Taxes are high in Malibu!
Exactly. Although you live rather well—this might be called, dare I say it, bourgeois.
Yeah … personally I exist on shit-ass luck and pretty much always have. I’m not an ambitious person at all. My idea of a perfect day is to listen to records and watch TV—and drink.
Again, my son would be in awe and envy of your collection of vinyl records.
It’s almost like they’re fetish items in a way. They’re cultural signifiers of a world that’s gone.
You owned a bar, the Lakeside Lounge—did you decide you wanted to make more money or didn’t you really care about that sort of thing?
Well it didn’t take a genius to figure out that you weren’t going to be able to live the bohemian life and that it was disappearing really fast. All of a sudden these shitholes that we lived in and loved, the vultures were hovering, dollar signs in their eyes and life was about to change radically.
How did you end up owning a bar?
I had a nice clean arrest record and I got a liquor licence. Back then, when we opened the Lakeside, there was a crack house next door and nobody cared. They liked the idea that there was a bar there because it meant there were lights on at night.
What’s it like owning a bar?
Well we were young. I had a partner named Eric Ambel who had played with Joan Jett. One thing was that there were no bars in the neighborhood where we really liked the music and we wanted a place where we were going to have one band for one hour every night and they can’t play so loud that you can’t talk over them. And then we’re going to have a juke box and a photo booth.
And it worked?
Yeah, it worked until our rent went up. We [also] tried to do a jazz club but it’s really hard to make money in jazz. With jazz musicians you have to pay ’em because it’s really hard to play jazz—they’re not going to do it for exposure—and they’re always broke and they’re always junkies so they’re always coming to you for advances. But you could put this crappiest three-chord rock band in the bar and pack the place and you could put Charles Gale in the other side of the street and no one would come. It was that change over in the neighborhood. The younger generation was too stupid for jazz. Now we’ve got a generation too stupid for rock and roll—what would you say about that! [laughs] Now we’re really fucked!
But there is other music … fabulous music …
There’s almost too much music. [So for me ] that process of discovering music … you know, at the end of that process, you realize, oh, that was my life.
What do you enjoy doing most?
I think the thing I’m best at is radio. If you think about it, I did FMU for twenty years and I had a huge following but I never made a penny.
And how much did that matter to you?
It’s like anything in life—it’s how you think about it. How you choose to think about it and whether you’re having a good day or a bad day. So when there’s a day when you’re sitting there (because at that point FMU was still in East Orange) and you’re sitting in traffic in both directions, so there’s the actual physical bullshit of getting yourself there, and doing all this work for free, and there’s the guy who owns FMU who lives in a house twice as big as this and owns a lake as big as Lake George and I think, I’m working for this guy for free? And you know you’re thinking Rush Limbaugh is making 50 million a year and Howard Stern is making 200 million, they should give me at least one … and at that point I would have settled for literally one dollar a year. It’s almost better to have a selective audience of smart people than a bigger audience of idiots.
So give a shout out to some contemporary music artist you love …
I like … Lamarr …
Well it’s hard to miss—it comes throbbing out of every car passing by. But he’s not singing for me.