An Interview with Peter Blegvad

Characters in Peter Blegvad’s Leviathan:
Blank-faced, questioning infants
Wise feline pets with stripes
Pointy-eared bunny toys
Discursive dogs
Tintinnabulating milkmen

An Interview with Peter Blegvad

Characters in Peter Blegvad’s Leviathan:
Blank-faced, questioning infants
Wise feline pets with stripes
Pointy-eared bunny toys
Discursive dogs
Tintinnabulating milkmen

An Interview with Peter Blegvad

Franklin Bruno
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Though this interview was conducted by email, Peter Blegvad and I met briefly a few months later in New York, when he participated in a conference on “The Word-Image Problem” at The New School, organized by Ben Katchor to celebrate the work of Swiss cartoon-strip pioneer Rodolphe Töpffer. In a lecture hall that may have been the least rock-friendly venue imaginable, Blegvad sang solo electric versions of “God Detector” (from 2001’s Choices Under Pressure) and “Bee Dream” (first heard on John Greaves’s 1984 album Parrot Fashions), accompanied by a PowerPoint show of his own charming, cryptic illustrations. It was the first time I had seen him perform since the mid-1980s, when he toured Southern California with Anton Fier’s group the Golden Palominos.

These appearances give some measure of the varied company Blegvad keeps, and of the difficulty of placing his artistic output on a high-low continuum. The scope of his visual and graphic work makes “cartoonist” a misleading label. An online search for his essay “On Numinous Objects and their Manufacture,” with its accompanying “Morphological Tables,” may explain why. Still, he may be best known for Leviathan, an allusive, frightening, and funny take on the “imaginative child” trope of comic strips from Peanuts to Calvin and Hobbes. The strip ran weekly from 1992 through 1999 in the London Independent on Sunday; a selection published by Sort Of Books was reissued by Overlook Press in the US last year.

Similarly, “singer-songwriter” fails to capture the range of a musician whose associates have included Slapp Happy cofounders Dagmar Krause and Anthony Moore, Marxist prog-rockers Henry Cow, and John Zorn, as well as the dB’s Chris Stamey and XTC’s Andy Partridge. Kew. Rhone. (1977), credited to Blegvad, Greaves, and singer Lisa Herman, takes an Oulipian approach to what might be called “The Word-Music Problem,” while such solo albums as The Naked Shakespeare (1983), King Strut (1990), and Hangman’s Hill (1998) raise the bar for “literate songcraft” to Empyrean heights. Recently, Blegvad has turned to non–song-based recordings, including Orpheus—The Lowdown (2004), a collaboration with Partridge, and audio essays (“eartoons”) for the BBC. In 2007, Loudon Wainwright III’s version of “Daughter” (from 1995’s Just Woke Up) was featured in Judd Apatow’s film Knocked Up, exposing an unsuspecting blockbuster-sized audience to his writing.

Blegvad currently lives in London; on top of his other activities, he teaches creative writing at Warwick University and helps direct that school’s International Gateway for Gifted Youth.

—Franklin Bruno


THE BELIEVER: Which came first for you: music, writing, or drawing?

PETER BLEGVAD: Hand in hand, since I was a teenager. For decades I’d flit from drawing table to typewriter to guitar with no sense of strain or contradiction. They all exercised the same psychic muscle (the Imagination), and working in one medium refreshed my appetite for the others. These days I’m less supple and more entrenched, so it’s a wrench to switch. But writing and drawing a Leviathan strip, say, isn’t all that different from composing a song. They both involve a text embedded in another medium. My father, Erik Blegvad, is an illustrator—he’s at work on his 107th title—and my mother, Lenore, was (she died last September) an author/illustrator/painter, so this symbiosis seems perfectly natural to me. My favorite artists, Marcel Duchamp being perhaps the paradigm, deliberately flouted the decree that art must not be “literary.” The musical heroes of my youth were John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Captain Beefheart, all of whom drew/wrote/painted when they weren’t composing/performing/recording. I recently learned the word liminal: “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.” That’s where I feel most at home, for better or worse.

BLVR: I can’t think of many singer-songwriters who have combined an interest in songwriting, in a fairly traditional sense, with what most people would call “progressive” or “experimental” music to the extent you have. How did that balancing act come about?

PB: Songs came first. I started out in 1965 trying to copy the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Stones, like most kids I knew. I’m still trying. Songs are hard to beat. They’re spells, for one thing. Chant is the root of incantation. Even something as slickly manufactured as the Archies crooning “Sugar sugar, honey honey” is potent voodoo. Songs have a synesthetic appeal to me—objects of various shapes, colors, and weights constructed of words and music. Portable, flexible, adhesive; appealing to mind, heart, and body as required. They can unite a community or touch the solitary in each listener or both at once. No mean feat. A song can be reduced, too, to maybe just a loop and a word or two.

Surely my liminal tendency has its source in having been plucked from Connecticut at fourteen and sent to a progressive, co-ed, Quaker, vegetarian establishment in Letchworth Garden City called St. Christopher’s. It wasn’t as radical as Summerhill, but there was very little academic pressure. By about 1967, Anthony Moore and I were being “experimental” there. We were hippies, beads and kaftans, the whole bit. At a school dance we performed a number called “Your Hair is the Swimmer’s Nightmare,” which consisted of me playing “Walk Don’t Run” in C over Anthony slashing away on an F# minor chord. We kept at it until one of the teachers pulled out the plug of our Vox AC 30. I remember us using the name Jumpin’ Jonah & the Wails, which I stole from Mad magazine, but Neil Murray, who played drums with us, says we were called Slap Happy. (The “Slap” got an extra “p” later, when we were cutting our first album, Sort Of, in Hamburg. Neil wasn’t with us by then—he went on to be a bass ace for Whitesnake and Black Sabbath, among others.)

BLVR: How did you come to return to the States? Were there particular musical or nonmusical opportunities in New York?

PB: I thought I’d follow in my father’s shoes and try to make a living in New York City as an illustrator. I arrived in summer 1975 with a slim portfolio and began making the rounds in a rather desultory way. I did a few drawings for Steve Heller at the New York Times. (I was still drawing for him, thirty years later, for the same money, more or less). At the same time, I studied poetry with Gilbert Sorrentino at the New School and made friends with Ammiel Alcalay and other inspiring types.

I wanted to be a poet and/or an artist, but I was very lazy (frightened of failure, I guess) and drank too much. I spent years in the Forty-second Street library planning a book about how to freeze time, and began an encyclopedia of everything in the world depicted thrice. That’s a project I’m still working on.

BLVR: I had no idea that you’d known Sorrentino, who was better-known as a poet than a novelist at that point. How did that come about?

PB: In 1973 I met Clayton Eshleman in Paris while he was teaching at the American College, where the girl I was in love with was enrolled. The text he used in class was the Rothenberg/Quasha anthology America, A Prophecy. That and Clayton’s magazine Caterpillar were eye-openers. Clayton didn’t think much of Bob Dylan or other songwriters as poets, but I remember telling him that I thought poetry and song might be reconciled, and that I planned to investigate the matter. He wished me luck. I visited him and his wife Caryl in the Dordogne the summer they began exploring Paleolithic caves (the immersion that led, thirty years later, to his book Juniper Fuse). I remember him praising a line in the Slapp Happy song “Europa”: “lupine nipples squirted infant Rome.” It seemed a significant validation at the time.

I’d been taken with “Coast of Texas,” a poem of Sorrentino’s in Caterpillar, which treated of erotic obsession: “In the pale light he sees her mouth / open and the tongue come out / in her heat.” So when I saw his New School course advertised, I signed up. Actually, I took the course under my girlfriend’s name, for credit toward her Parsons degree. (I think I earned her a B.) As a teacher, Sorrentino was a lovely combination of serious and funny. In response to a particularly mawkish student effort, he buried his head in his hands and groaned, “Tell it to the Marines” in a way that didn’t seem merely cruel. One entire class was taken up by him reading us Flann O’Brien’s essay “A Bash in the Tunnel” with contagious glee. I remember him mocking what he called “New Yorker poetry,” intoning portentously, “I dreamed I was an oyster on the shore of life.…” Another week he brought his pal Hubert Selby, Jr., in to talk to us.

BLVR: Were you still writing songs during all this?

PB: Until Greaves arrived in the summer of ’76 to make Kew. Rhone., I kind of forgot about playing music, though I listened to a lot. I was discovering jazz. I was investing most of my energy into a tempestuous relationship with the person who became my first wife. I wrote “gegenstand” for Sorrentino’s class and he remarked approvingly that it wasn’t something that could be set to music and sung. When I repeated this to John Greaves, he set it to music and Lisa Herman sang it.

BLVR: Kew. Rhone. was released on the very same day as Never Mind The Bollocks; one could hardly name two more different records. Within the scenes that you were involved in, what was the attitude toward the advent of punk?

PB: Those two records came out on the same label, too. A decisive and divisive day in the history of Virgin Records, which up until that time had been an “alternative” label, losing money on projects like ours. I missed the British punk scene, living in NYC, but I was a fan of the bands I saw at CBGBs. (While we were composing Kew. Rhone, John Greaves jotted down David Byrne’s phone number on the flyleaf of my battered copy of Fear and Trembling. We were going to give this talented unknown his big break, invite him to sing on our Virgin record. But then we auditioned Lisa Herman and realized we needed her.) Like most of my downtown peers at the time, I was under the spell of Marcel Duchamp. I sometimes joshed (or was I serious?) that, just as Duchamp’s Large Glass had “killed painting,” our record would kill rock and roll, or the concept album, or maybe just our own past effusions, especially the confessional songs I’d written. I wanted to disavow all that.

BLVR: Do you have any set way of working on a song? (Fiddling with the guitar, finding a vocal hook, writing down phrases…)

PB: I’ve tried all those. Rhyme is the constraint I’m most addicted to. A lyric like “Special Delivery” is an exercise in rhyming. I had no idea what I wanted to say before I lost myself in the process of composition. Until fairly recently, I regularly experienced an almost physical appetite to make music, to strum and mumble until something shapely evolved from it. That doesn’t seem to happen much anymore. I remember Bob Dylan saying in an interview that at a certain point he’d had to learn to do consciously what he’d previously done unconsciously or automatically. That resonates.

BLVR: What guides whether you’re going to work with abstruse subject matter or imagery (“Special Delivery” or “King Strut,” say) or something closer to the singer-songwriter tradition (“Stranger to Myself” or “Say No, Now”)?

PB: I’ve written a lot of wordy, erudite, pretentious songs, but believe it or not, I’m usually doing my damnedest to resist the temptation to be overly “clever,” and trying to keep things as accessible—and singable—as possible. As the song evolves, so does the sense of what it needs lyrically. Sometimes it’s Here are two gentlemen and a lady contemplating a length of dug up pipeline and sometimes it’s Your stink is on my finger till the end of time. Some songs seem to achieve the quality of a geometric object—a ball, box, or cone—and I don’t mess with ’em. “Stranger to Myself” was built around its guitar riff and was part of an attempt, stimulated by working with the Golden Palominos, to feel my way into American roots music of various kinds. I wanted to emulate country music’s way with outlandish metaphors and narratives that don’t seem bookish or elitist. I met someone the other day who said he’d quoted my lyric “I gave myself to you intact / but you gave twisted wreckage back” in his divorce proceedings. Always glad to be of service.


BLVR: Your recent records have turned away from songs in favor of something closer in my mind to the German hörspiel [radio drama] tradition. How did that change come about?

PB: It seems unecological to add to the glut of unwanted music. Does that sound like self-pity? It’s partly pragmatism as well. There being so little demand for that line of product, I started to channel my efforts into developing another. I’ve been experimenting with spoken-word tracks since “Alcohol,” a Slapp Happy curio recorded in 1973. All that, and eight years of drawing a regular comic strip, combined to inspire the idea of the “eartoon.” For the past six years I’ve been writer/actor/producer of short radio routines I call “eartoons” for a weekly magazine program about language on BBC Radio 3 called The Verb. They’re three- to seven-minute-long dialogues between the two halves of my divided self—with occasional guests. I’ve done about sixty. The subjects have included “Words of Power” in early rock and roll (“Poppa ooma-mowmow,” “Wop bop a loobop,” “Diddy Wah Diddy”), initiation ceremonies, the Phraselator translation device used by the US Army in Iraq, universal languages, book burning, and screams. They aspire to strangeness and comedy, in the vein of Ken Nordine’s “Word Jazz,” but they’re quite didactic as well—there’s an aspect to them of the illustrated lecture. Teaching is a form of show business, as Steve Martin says in his memoir.

Drawing a Leviathan strip (or doing the Peanuts books in the ’70s), backgrounds often seemed to take a lot of effort and time. One of the beauties of working in radio is the way a whole setting can be richly evoked simply by the addition to the track of a little birdsong and a church bell in the distance. In other words, the sorts of sounds traditionally provided by the technicians known as Foley artists: “Writing on air,” as Gregory Whitehead called it. Or painting. Or illustrating. Anyway, it ties in with my interest in mental images, and my love of Cocteau’s film Orphée, in which Jean Marais takes dictation from the radio in Death’s Rolls-Royce: “A single glass of water lights the world.”

BLVR: Do you share that Orphic sense of being a conduit for “your” writing?

PB: I’m not a visionary, but I’ve spent half my life drawing things Imagined, Remembered, and Observed, comparing the differences between them, and my study confirms that “the difference between night and day / is not as great as people say.” We’re dreaming all the time. When I was writing lyrics for John Greaves back in the ’70s and ’80s, I didn’t want to take responsibility for what I wrote, so out of insecurity and boredom I developed an elaborate form of displacement activity, a self-estranging technique, creating what I called “angel trap stationery”—paper painted with symbols and impregnated with scents designed to attract various powers and dominions of the air to aid me in the act of composition. I wanted to be dictated to, like my poetic heroes—Yeats, Rilke, Cocteau, Jack Spicer. It worked, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek way.

Peter Blegvad, Angel Trap (Blue), 1977.
Ink and watercolor impregnated with Suze (liquor made from blue gentian).

BLVR: What about drawing and visual imagery? Does it “come to you” the same way?

PB: At art school, around 1970, we were exhorted in life class to “draw what you see, not what you know.” We were taught to take a step back, to “look at looking.” I remember the first time I “got it.” I’d done a drawing of the model using only peripheral vision, looking at a spot on the wall to the right of where she sat. It wasn’t really a drawing of her I produced; it was a drawing of the cloud of lights and darks she dissolved into when I focused on the spot. You could look at my drawing of this cloud and read it as a nude female figure, though a little translation was required. A certain investment. But you wouldn’t resent having to make this—it would add to your pleasure—because by making it you, too, could “see seeing” a little clearer, or from a new angle. The exercise made one feel creative. A little less dead. With effort we learned to observe processes we hadn’t been conscious of before. It’s all nicely encapsulated in Paul Valéry’s famous remark: “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.”

Like most kids, I loved pressing on my closed eyes until they blazed with kaleidoscopic mandalas. And anyone who grew up in the psychedelic ’60s probably experienced their share of hypnagogic fireworks. Just as sex got me hooked on anatomy, so drugs were probably what first got me interested in entoptic phenomena, phosphenes, and hypnagogic imagery. In drawing from imagination and memory, an interior kind of “seeing” is involved, which is trickier to look at. I’m trying to develop ways of looking at the looking we do with the “mind’s eye.” The data we scan with it seems to be a hybrid of word and picture. This probably wouldn’t impress an expert, and that’s the next step—to involve other people, professionals, in all this. If my floating eyes and flashing hair don’t scare them off.

To not answer your question.

BLVR: Going backward a bit, just what did you do for the Peanuts empire? Did you do it for peanuts?

PB: Ole Risom, an editor at Random House who was a fellow Dane and a friend of my father’s, gave me the gig. Actually, it was pretty well-paid. Beginning with It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown, I did backgrounds in gouache and pencil for five or six books based on the Peanuts TV specials, from 1976 to 1983 or so.

BLVR: Did that involve any personal contact with Charles Schulz?

PB: No, alas. The books were based on the animations, which he had to approve, though they were much cruder than Schulz’s own work. I assume he must have seen the books, but I never heard what he felt about them. It seemed odd to me that my backgrounds were in a completely different style to the figures, but no one objected. (Early Disney and other animated films often had richly shaded and detailed backgrounds while the characters had to be simple and flat, so maybe those famous precedents enabled me to get away with it.) I was so inexperienced: I learned a lot doing them, but I never thought of them as comics.

BLVR: Have you had a look at David Michaelis’s recent biography of Schulz? It paints him as more tortured and conflicted than his audience might expect.

PB: No, but I assume it’s pretty unanimous Schulz was a driven genius and that what readers respond to in Peanuts is partly the fear-and-trembling-and-the-sickness-unto-death he depicted so winningly decade after decade. It’s no surprise to me that he was no saint. I’d be surprised if it were otherwise. In my experience, the usual image of a cartoonist is that of the tortured artist and occasional bastard. I’m more the tortured bastard and occasional artist.


BLVR: Your own comic strip Leviathan made use of a good deal of philosophical and scientific material, in a form (and in its original newspaper publication, a venue) in which such things aren’t normally expected.

PB: Yeah, the Levi strip offered another opportunity to be liminal. It amused me to subvert what I imagined readers’ expectations might be. As a young wannabe writer, I was blown away by the swottish erudition Flann O’Brien employs to such devastating effect—de Selby’s Golden Hours and all that. S. J. Perelman is good at it too. And it’s all very pataphysical—Jarry is maybe the daddy of this technique. The learned, pompous, and highfalutin tone I use is usually meant to provoke a dry laugh, though I know it doesn’t always succeed in being funny.

Peter Blegvad, Leviathan strip (part three of a four-part story).
From the 
Independent on Sunday, November 21, 1993.

BLVR: Do you ever think that you’re avoiding commitment by switching among different media?

PB: I don’t deny it. I’ve always had an immature horror of being defined, so that’s part of it too. Would I have made more progress or been more successful if I’d devoted myself to just one form of expression? Who knows? I’m not thus constituted. I’m a dilettante, “polymorphously perverse,” a perpetual amateur. But let us not forget that amateur derives from amor. The miracle is that at fifty-eight years old, I’m still being paid to do things I love doing and no one’s ordering me to change it to fit some target audience.

BLVR: As far as I know your visual work, it’s in graphic, reproducible forms. (I include cover art.) How did that become your métier?

PB: My father, as I said, is mainly a children’s book illustrator (an appreciation I wrote of his work came out in the last issue of The Ganzfeld). Partly because of his shadow, no doubt, I’ve always wanted to take the concept of illustration somewhere else, to find a form in which images and texts participate in a new way. It’s less true these days, but when I was younger, illustration was despised by “fine” artists and critics, even while they genuflected in front of Duchamp’s Large Glass with its accompanying boxes of notes.

BLVR: Have you ever thought about working more seriously in more durable, singular media?

PB: I fantasize about devoting a period to getting my act together as a visual artist, although I think I’d be more inclined to create work that would appear as pictures in a book rather than as paintings to hang on the wall. Although they could be both, of course—a liminal book. In March 2007, actually, I showed work from the past thirty years at the Fumetto Festival, a comics festival at the Lucerne Kunsthalle. In this context, too, handsomely framed in this luminous space, my stuff was kind of liminal. Fumetto is a comics festival and purists might have objected that I didn’t show much that could be called “comics.”

BLVR: How did you select what to show?

PB: Most of it was related to the project I’ve been engaged with for thirty years: “Imagined, Observed, Remembered,” an encyclopedia of everything in the universe depicted thrice. First, as I imagine it to be; second, as I observe it; and lastly, after a suitable interval, as I remember it to have been. It’s amateur ontology, or “pataphysical” epistemology. It’s also an attempt (in the remembered and imagined images) to pin down and depict mental imagery. Which is a bit like trying to taste your own tongue, as Ken Campbell said.

Peter Blegvad, Lion — Imagined, Observed, Remembered. Ink and watercolor, 1984.

BLVR: This sounds uncompletable in principle, like something one of Borges’s protagonists would have come up with.

PB: Yes, it’s an impossible project. The only kind I’d be able/willing to pursue. I began in 1975 or so, very much with the sense of it being a lifelong labor. Its form would be a sprawl, a constellation, fragments, a sparagmos—anti-forms in vogue at the time. Borges confirmed my distaste for “the madness of composing vast books,” and I eagerly agreed that “the better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.” But I needed some monumental encyclopedic mission to distract and protect me from the void—my “self”—and maybe to precipitate a “second birth,” because the first hadn’t quite done the trick.

Over the last thirty years, the project has taken various forms. Exhibitions, articles, cartoons, radio pieces, a play with live music and projected visuals commissioned by De Balie—an arts center in Amsterdam—for a symposium called “Imaginary Media” in 2004. There’s a CD-ROM of that version available. Earlier this year I led a ten-week workshop at Warwick called “Imagine, Observe, Remember,” which culminated in a student production of the same piece. That can be viewed on the CAPITAL Centre website. CAPITAL is publishing a slim volume of what purports to be my teaching notes for workshops on mental imagery, memory failure, and imagination, and the loci system of mnemonics.[1] I need a couple of years of isolation in which to assemble and make sense of all this material. One of those country-club prisons white-collar criminals get sent to, or a nice clean clinic on Magic Mountain.

BLVR: Supposing that you had the chance to put it together, what would the “final” form look like?

PB: My original idea was that it would be an encyclopedia: a vast bildungsatlas, which would be an expression both of humility and defiance. On the one hand, it would acknowledge my ignorance and my desire to learn. On the other, it would demonstrate that poverty of knowledge could alternatively be seen as wealth of ignorance. Ignorance was not nothing. I decided, therefore, to make two encyclopedias. My ignorance would require a volume to itself. Between its covers would be preserved a record of the spurious model of all creation I had in my head, a prelapsarian construct, uncorrupted by the facts. When this volume was finished, I’d begin work on the factual version, in which would be recorded, from “Aa” to “Zymotic,” the progress of my enlightenment, or as far as I could get before my time was up. Both volumes would feature the same entries, in the same (alphabetical) order, based on the contents of the Everyman’s Encyclopaedia (1931–32), which I’d come across in an old house in Cornwall.

BLVR: But now it’s grown beyond that?

PB: Gradually, the project became even more ambitious. My interest shifted from the object observed to the subject observing, or rather to “the mysterious operation by which the same organ, perceiving in the same surroundings the same object, discovers in it a growing number of things.” This last phrase is from Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory, in which he describes perception, as he perceives it.

My reasoning went something like this: let’s say that before an object is revealed to me, I try to imagine it. I am, in effect, trying to imagine the future. In order to observe it, the object must be present. Later, when it’s gone, I remember it in the past. Both the thing imagined and the thing remembered are versions of the thing observed. They are new objects. To make my encyclopedia more comprehensive, therefore, I decided it would be in three volumes: Imagined, Observed, and Remembered.

BLVR: Is some (or all?) of your other work also part of this larger project, whether explicitly labeled as such or not?

PB: The goal of all my work is essentially the same: demonstrating that magic is real or that reality is magic, by paying attention, and finding compensation or consolation for what is essentially a tragic existence. Or something like that.

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