Interview with Kosmo Vinyl - Full Transcript
For the third episode of Missing Words, we spoke with the famed Kosmo Vinyl. We went over a variety of topics including his 30 years in NYC, how he decided to react against Trump with his art, The Clash in Thailand, the Andy Warhol robot, and much more. You can read the full transcript of our interview below.
Artistically, with the Cisco Kid and everything with the art show, where did you find the inspiration in doing this? Was there a particular moment with the Trump administration or something before he got elected?
Kosmo Vinyl: When Donald Trump was first kind of in the fray of being the Republican nominee, I kind of felt that this was really of no concern of mine. The Republican Party is a mess and they’ve got all these freaks running and why should it bother me? I’m not surprised it’s a mess. There was no news there and I really wasn’t paying any attention. As time moved on, it became apparent to me that Trump was gonna be their nominee and that was kind of a game changer for me. I thought, this guy is going to come into our lives now and he’s going to be running for president. All the time, he’s getting worse and worse and worse. Just when you think he’s reached the bottom, he’s only scratched the surface. The bottom - we don’t even have any idea what that is. It’s not even conceivable to me. That was more worrying and then we made the remark that Mexicans being murderers and rapists and drug dealers - that was kind of beyond the pale. Truly appalling [and] just truly offensive to humanity. Then, he went on Saturday Night Live as the host. I felt that if he said about black people or Jewish people, there is no way he would have gone on Saturday Night Live. No way. That would have been blocked. The show is in New York. There’s no way they’d let that happen.
There was protesting but it was taken as almost a joke then.
Saturday Night Live was treating it as a joke and he’s the host. I came to the conclusion that there’s really one of two things. Either, there were no Latinos working really on Saturday Night Live or that’s what we as a city thought of Mexicans. It must be that they don’t have a power base. Therefore, I started to thinking, well, who would come to their defense? Once I knew Trump was gonna be the nominee, which was slightly before he got it [and] it was obvious, I decided I was going to do something. It was unconscionable not to be. I was looking and I found the Cisco Kid. I thought at first, it might be a wrestler. I found the Cisco Kid and then I found Jose Luis Salinas’ comic strip from the 50s and it just fit perfectly. I thought, ok, I’m going to do this. I had just finished a project that had run for five years on my soccer team and so I thought, I’ll start this on June the 1st and it will be over by November 10th. November the 10th I’ll be free. June to November, I can figure out what I’m doing and then everything will have settled down. And of course, I was completely wrong. Here we are in October of the following the year and Cisco Kid vs Donald Trump continues. It’s on Instagram and I post things there and then I got asked earlier in the year to participate in a Spring/Break art show which was in Times Square, which is a big, 150 artists displaying their stuff. I got asked if I would show Cisco there. I figured out a way to do that and the response was great and now I’m showing it in Washington DC.
There is obviously so much going on in DC. Did the Gallery reach out specifically about that?
Exactly what happened was there is an activist guy there called Mark Anderson, who goes way back into the punk community with Positive Force, which goes way back to the roots of DC punk scene. He had come to the show in Times Square and he said to me ‘you gotta put this on in DC.’ I was like, 'I would love to but where?' It was agreed that if he could find a place that was suitable for me that we could do it. Then, he found a spot and I met this guy Jason Hamacher and he has this new artist-run space called the Gallery of Lost Origin in Columbia Heights. Which is kind of a cool neighborhood with a heavy latin presence. It’s kind of in that triangle of U Street - Columbia Heights - Mount Pleasant. The punk community has a long-standing relationship in DC. In fact, while I’m in DC for the show, I’m actually staying at the Fugazi dads church, St. Stephens. There is a link to the whole community there. It’s an artist-run space. They wanted to put it on and I wanted to put it on and it's been a really great match. The response thus far has been very good.
Have you had any people outside the art scene - obviously the big visual imagery of the wall - the image for the show - I thought that was really striking and I wondered if anybody else was coming in kind of casual observer and really reacting to the show.
Not yet. I think it will be interesting because there was just a review it the Washington Post this last Sunday and I wonder if that will bring people out from the outside. The reality of the art world - I won’t say that you are preaching to the choir - it’s easy to go unnoticed outside of a certain group of people. The people can get on without their lives without participating and looking at art. Maybe not in the bigger picture but specific show at a specific space. You can not notice that. I have to be honest and say right now I don’t know but for me personally I just feel like spiritually and symbolically that I’m there, Congress is there at the same time and its why I waited to put the show on. I said I’ve got to do it when Congress is on even if they don’t pay any attention. I want to be doing it while they are there. We will see. A couple of people have come by that definitely work in politics so that’s interesting. They're more of what we call the right on site. It will be interesting to see if anybody comes but no I haven’t had a knockdown, drag-out with Steve Bannon or anything yet.
One can only hope.
Exactly! Bring it on baby! Bring it on.
With the images themselves, how did you go about compiling them? Did you have to get any sort of copyright?
I have to be honest that my motto with art has been that you don’t need permission for art. I don’t mean this in some kind of fanning the flames, kind of inflammatory way. I just mean that what I’m doing is art. I’m trying to make a statement and I’m trying to present a visual in a setting. I’m not printing t-shirts and I’m not running off thousands of postcards. I'm putting this thing on Instagram. I’m making these very nice prints and small runs. I’m not doing any more than having the show pay for itself. Hoping to cover costs. I don’t feel that there is any exploitation of the image and therefore, I don’t concern myself with that. I’d like to think that Salinas who drew the drawings in the 50s would approve. He was from Argentina and I am waging war with a racist, fascist, anti-Latino President. One would hope that he would be happy for Cisco to take that on.
It’s getting used for the right reasons.
I would like to think so and I’ve heard nothing to the contrary. In the past, I did a soccer thing for five years and I used a lot of imagery there and it gained the same thing. They were one-off pieces. On the other hand, if I was selling 50,000 t-shirts or was running off thousands of postcards, I could see that there would be an issue. I don’t feel as if I’m exploiting anybody.
With artists and political movements, was there anything from the past that really inspired you with this show?
Not really. I wouldn’t say anything specific. If there was anything specific, it might just be that I’m the father of two boys and we’re an intact family. I’m married to my wife and we’re all happily together. One is 25 and one is 21. They’ve grown up with me always blabbing on about fascist this and fascist that.
And now we have an actual fascist!
When Trump won the election, my oldest boy Jack said to me, “well dad, you’ve got yourself a real fascist now to take on!” I was like, you’re right. Only in that sense of like - you can tell by my Brooklyn accent - I recently come from East London and my grandfather was a docker. The Dockers fought the black shirts in the streets of East London. The Black Shirts were the British Nazis. This is in the 30s - its called The Battle of Cable Street. Family legend has it that my grandfather participated in that. Whether he did or not, I don’t know. He was passed on long before I would have had a chance to ask him. Either the dockers were mostly communists as was he and they did turn out and they did see them off. I was always immensely proud of that. I also thought that was the standard to hold one's self to. If anything like that happened, what would you do? I truly felt that this is a version of that. This really is a version of that. Where do you stand in all of this? I don’t claim to be doing anything great or anything special but I do claim to be doing more than nothing. I feel that it's almost an act of conscience. One wants to try and present it with some style, and élan and some humor in it. Basically, I was thinking, ‘what can you do for this? I’m an artist. I could do art for it. That’s what I could contribute.' That would be the best contribution I could make. I haven’t got any money so can’t send that in. I haven’t got any. That’s what I’ve done. In a sense, the grand historical kind of romantic notion of the anti-fascist legacy I guess in a way was an inspiration.
I think a lot of artists had that kind of reaction to it. A lot of musicians, artists, they wanted to create something as a reaction to it.
It can all feel a little hopeless sometimes in terms of feeling like you are influencing politics.
I think you’d be under an illusion if you were thinking you could do something artistic and it would change a specific circumstance. Maybe it can encourage the people that are fighting it or maybe it can give them a laugh or maybe it can give them something to march to. Like a band that marches in the beginning of an end of an army. I think to contribute something if only to boost morale or if only to make you feel like you are not alone in this or I agree with that. Just to perpetuate the resistance, if you like, I think is a contribution. If I’ve encouraged anybody to speak up once, the whole thing has been worth it.
You sort of heard this feeling during Bush but this feels way different.
Absolutely way different. I mean, this just seems to be ramped up because this man is - I guess he’s a man. What’s that’s joke? The funny thing on the end of a penis being a man, ya know? I mean, he is a man. Technically. He’s completely unapologetic. Self-interested. I don’t want to be going on how awful he is but it strikes me. He’s about as awful as a person can be within certain boundaries. He’s about as low as the species gets.
To sort of go back, when Bush was happening people would say “ok now music is gonna get great again. Now art is gonna get great again.” Do you believe that?
I don’t know that you can monitor one to the other but I did think Trump being so confrontational and so open and I think this has been the difference that he’s been open about these issues of race, privilege, gender, you name it, and he’s open about it. Money, exploitation of people, nationalism. I think that it’s so open that there’s no hiding. It’s impossible not to have an opinion right now. You are either for him or against him. I don’t see how there’s any middle ground.
The line has been drawn.
Before its like well maybe, [George] W. doesn’t want to say this or Bush #1 is so kind or gentler or whatever but this guy is just in your face. This is about old white men retaining power. We’ve got to get back to pre-beatnik America. Which is no good to me because beatnik America is where I come in. Jack Kerouac and Elvis Presley after that. These are the things that made my world. I have no interest in going back before that. Nor do I have any interest in guys going back home, not talking about anything and beating up their wives and black people being treated like dirt.
You cannot just ignore it. It’s not a matter of things getting better. It’s a matter of being active.
Exactly. I think, under those circumstances, it’s kind of inevitable that it’s gonna come out. Otherwise, what are you going to do? Not comment on the times? I don’t see how you comment on living in America right now without broaching that issue in some way.
Right. Whichever way you choose to do. Through art, socially, or local politics.
It’s in sports now. It’s everywhere. As it should be under these circumstances.
To kind of switch things up here a bit, you’ve been a New Yorker for so long.
I’ve been a New Yorker for 30 years now.
Do you feel like this is your home?
Absolutely. I have no intention of leaving America or moving somewhere else. My children are American. My wife’s American. I live in America. That’s where I choose to live. I don’t live here by default. I live here by choice.
One of the thing that’s sort of interesting about everything going on in politics and cities - not just New York - liberal-leaning places are called the bubble. How do you react to that idea?
I think that has to be kind of acknowledged on some level. I first came to New York in 1978. When I first came here, I quickly learned that New York is a nation onto itself. Has nothing to do with America. Really since 1978, I haven’t seen hardly any link to New York and America. In that sense, I think New York is somewhat unique in America and I don’t know if you could make an argument for Los Angeles not being America, I don’t know. I’ve been there many times but I never took a shine to it. I’ve never spent more time that I had to there. I wouldn’t know outside of that. I do think that cities, in general, have moved in one way and there are big expansions of the United States that have not moved in that direction. I think this is also an international phenomenon. I think this is true in England to some degree. Certainly in the Southeast. To compare it to the rest of the country and I’m sure the same with Paris, France. Whats unusual in America is that it’s such a big country that you have so many cities. Most countries have two or three big ones and the rest are on a much smaller scale. Living within that bubble, yes. I definitely think we do live within the bubble. I think that cities are a bubble but I also feel that modern technology and by modern technology I mean, the changes in how we consume information and access information and entertainment have allowed us to live in bubbles or streams regardless of where we are. On a certain level, I think you could say is rural America any less of a bubble?
It is its own version of another bubble.
Yeah exactly. I think what's happened is that there is very little interaction. You can watch Fox News. You can listen to Sean Hannity. You can read your paper and you can watch your shows and you really don’t have to participate in an alternative thing. I think that is problematic in general. The same goes elsewhere. Although it seems more so of a United States just because there are more powerful divided networks of entertainment and information. There’s not really quite the equivalent, I don’t think in Europe or right-wing broadcasting that there is in the United States. Or from their point of view, all us leftist commie pinko fags, and all the shows and radios stations and newspapers we own. That’s the real problem we have at the moment is that its all getting very streamlined. Neither side has to interact with anybody. I think this a real issue. We can live within bubbles within bubbles within bubbles. I’m guilty of it. I can listen to WKCR and pick my four radio stations and just listen to those and not watch these shows or that shows. I don’t watch Fox News. I don’t listen to right-wing radio. My wife use to listen to Bob Grandy because it’s hilarious. I don’t listen anymore. I think that’s is an issue of the times. I think that’s a two-way street. This is the problem in like how do you have a discourse? How do you have a discussion? How do you explain to people that you disagree with how you think? That strikes me as getting harder.
It really just can’t be a Facebook comment wall. Somehow its gotta be face to face. It just feels impossible.
It’s not impossible but I think it is difficult. It is a challenge of the times. One of the things I definitely wanted to do with Cisco was trying to make something that wasn’t going to be in your face offensive or graphically offensive to the point where it is like, ‘oh I’m not even looking at that.’ I was kind of hoping like, ‘oh that's a nice drawing what does it say?’
An artistic statement.
Yes, but it is an issue for sure.
Being a New Yorker and an American for 30 years, did your political beliefs here come gradually to you or did you feel like you were an American as soon as you came here?
Gradually. What happens is that you have a family and you become a parent. You kind of move from that kind of like, ‘oh I’m an outside the system beatnik kind, it doesn’t matter. I'm underground man.’ To this point of no, your kids have got to go to school and these things matter. Now, it's not just hows the police might treat you or your friends but it’s how they might treat your kids and their friends and how are they going to get to school. I think having a family makes you a citizen. It’s hard to be a responsible family member and not become a citizen in the true meaning of the word of participating in the society. I would say that as my kids grew, I became more and more aware and involved and realized that the consequences were much greater. When I was a kid the anarchists use to say like “if voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal” [sarcastic laughing]. You realize that no, you’ve got to be involved in these things and it does matter who your senator is and it does matter who your congressmen and it does matter who represents you in your neighborhood. These things matter. You can have some say. Maybe not much but you know all this small time stuff is much more vulnerable than people think.
You are seeing that a lot now. People are much more focused on politics on a local level.
That doesn’t mean that therefore only people with families make that transition but I’m talking about myself and that’s how I became more and more involved. I need my children to have a future. I’m invested. You move out of your kind of this existentialist - I’ll go down in a blaze of glory. Who cares? That’s what great about it. The other thing is that your kids go to school and you have to get to know people that aren’t like you. They go to school with kids and their parents aren’t like you. You get involved in the parents association or this or that. You have to mix it up a bit. That’s a good thing.
That’s when I felt like I was New Yorker. Coming to school here and being different people and different culture.
Exactly. I went with my son a couple years ago to a talk that Killer Mike gave at NYU. I can’t claim to be so hip that I kind of knew that was going to be great but my son was hip enough to know it would be great and he said to me, ‘dad, I think you should come hear this guy talk because I think you and him have a lot in common.’ It was a great talk and he was really terrific and the thing he said that I tried to walk away from and keep in mind was that he said: “you got to get know people that aren’t like you.” You’ve got to interact with people that aren’t like you. I kind of took that to heart and I’ve tried to make a point of doing better on that front. It wasn’t anything more specific than that. You’re going to be a type of person. You know a certain type of people. Get to know some different types of people. With that, you get the exchange in perspective.
You see things differently. You see things differently in a way you wouldn’t get surrounding yourself with 50 people like you.
A lot of what this president and the people that have been behind him are pushing is fear. Fear comes from not knowing. People thought they didn’t know any homosexuals so they thought they were all dangerous and predators and perverts because they didn’t know anything. People use to say that about Jewish people in East London where my grandfather was a young man. ‘Oh, they speak another language. They go to their secret churches. You can’t read what they are writing.’ People were afraid of them. Whether it’d be Muslims now or Rastafarians in the 60s, people are afraid of what they don’t know. If they can get to know I, I think that they find out there’s a lot less to be afraid of. Most of the time, there is nothing to be afraid of. That’s a two-way street. You’ve got to be aware of that for some of these people coming to America, they are looking at the way we’re dressed or the way we’re acting and they are just as frightened of us. They are like ‘oh my god, they don’t want my daughter to look like this. I don’t want my son to falling around the street drunk’ or whatever. It helps everyone if we can get to know each other better.
Do you plan on taking your show on the road? Do you want to go overseas again?
I’d like to show Cisco Kid vs Donald Trump really within reason anywhere in the United States that I can. I’ve shown it in New York. It’s ongoing on Instagram so, in one way, you can see it anywhere. It’s in DC right now. It’s going to Atlanta for January. There’s a guy in Atlanta who wants to put it on. Opening on January 20th, which would be the first anniversary of the inauguration. Hopefully, that’s gonna happen [in] Decatur, which is a kind of hip suburb of Atlanta. It’s kind of a groovy part of greater Atlanta. Atlanta is just expanding as we speak. By the time this interview is over, Atlanta will have grown another three blocks. I’d like to show it wherever I can - West Coast, wherever. I’d be happy to show it in Iowa, Ohio, or Montana. I would be happy to but obviously, I don’t have any funding or anything like that. Everything has to be looked at from a practical point of view. Logistically can it be done? I’m hoping that it will be shown in more places. I also got to think in terms of that I could be doing this for another three and a bit years.
Hopefully, that’s it. Not 8 years of this.
Let’s deal with the first term. If Trump were no longer to be president, then I am going to bow out because I really thought this was going to be a four or five-month gig. I really don’t fancy an eight-year stint on the subject of this guy.
I was wondering if anything from the 80s art scene ever influenced you. I know Futura worked with the Clash a lot.
I think the 80s art scene in New York was very much a part of thee scene. There really wasn’t too much demarcation. I kind of felt that kind of refreshing and I guess in a way took it for granted. As a New York thing, one really didn’t think it was so different going to a gallery show of graffiti artists then going to a gig to see avant-garde jazz thing or going to Disco Fever in the Bronx. It all seemed to be a part of one big milieu. The graffiti guys were very inspiring in their take to the streets kind of attitude and execution. It was phenomenal what they were doing. I don’t know that I paid too much attention to the finer tunings of the New York art scene. I went to gallery shows and people tell me ‘you were there with so and so and so and so so.’ I go, ‘ok yeah, I was. If you say so. I was there.’ Andy Warhol would be about and he would come to Clash shows and you would see him around. My favorite exchange with him - The Clash played at Shea Stadium and he came. At the time, there was talk of a robot. An Andy Warhol robot. It was going to exist or it existed. He was in the dressing room and I said to him, “Are you Andy or are you the robot?” He said, “I’m Andy. The robot is far more interesting.” I wasn’t really thinking about art in those days. I was thinking more in terms of music and culture and getting on with working with a band which was what I was doing. I wasn’t really thinking. Before I worked with the Clash, I worked with Ian Dury, who had been painter and an art teacher, and I never asked him anything about that. I shared a room with him for two years on the road. Never discussed it really. I was concentrating on what I was doing. Obviously, these things seep in.
Almost subconsciously I’m sure.
Absolutely. Subconsciously seeping in. That’s definitely true if there are any young parents out there listening to this. Take your kids to museums. Take your kids to the art shows because I know for a fact it seeps through. The voodoo just jumps into them and gets into them. They may look like they are running around and paying no attention but later on, they’ve got it all on board. I think like all great culture. If you are around it, it’s going to leak into you. It’s getting into you more ways than you’re aware.
Any particular artists or music you are really into these days?
Art-wise, I’m not the greatest spotter or whatever but I would say that the African American artists at the moment [are] just completely knockout. The Kerry James Marshall show that was at The Met Breuer. Just phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal. Kara Walker’s Sugar Sphinx was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen. There are some young British painters or Indian or West African painters and I’m not trying to single out that but we’re at a moment now they have seemed to acquire access into the art mainstream and they are producing some really great work. I like a bit of everything. I am always finding new stuff. I didn’t go to art school. I didn’t have anything like that. I’m going to museums and learning about people from the past all the time. One of the things I really like about art is that there is so much for me to learn and discover. I’m finding new people all the time. I go to the Metropolitan Museum all the time and others. I just like all kinds of stuff. My taste is eclectic in music and art. I like the stuff from the 30s or back further. There’s always something. In New York, there is always something to see art-wise. No such thing as nothing to see. Complete bologna with people that say there is nothing to see at the moment is lying.
Have you ever thought about going to fashion? I know you did a little bit of acting in the 80s but have you ever thought about going back into that?
No. Any acting I did was really by default. I never had any intention of being in acting. After I finished in music, I was interested in film as a medium. They drag you around and put you on the other side of the camera. Probably because their film is not going well and they are thinking, ‘well let's get this guy in and see if we can distract them for a few minutes.’ I did a bit of that but I have to say that I found film to be too big of a collaborative process. There are so many people involved. I just wasn’t comfortable with that. I decided that it wasn’t for me because it’s both an expensive medium. It’s this massive collaboration. You need a lot of people to make a film. You don’t need a lot of people to put on a music show although you need a lot of people to come. You don’t need a lot of people to make a record. To get a film made and out, you do need a lot of people. I just met too many people I didn’t like. I was just thinking - this is going to be impossible to figure this out all the way through. I’m sure this happens but you just gotta be more devoted then I am. I just decided - not quickly - but over a matter of time, I decided it wasn’t for me. I moved on from that. I was just busy being a father and Mr. Mom. I was the stay at home dad which I thoroughly enjoyed. It was absolutely fantastic. Then, I started messing around with art. I kind of came into that via the kitchen table so to speak.
One thing I’ve been fascinated about in Clash folklore is the Combat Rock-era and the band being in the Far East. Were you involved in the madness with everybody sort of going there own way and falling apart?
We were in Bangkok that long after that period. Basically, there was a tour of Japan and then it was New Zealand and Australia or the other way around. Then, we got the opportunity to play in Bangkok. Which at that time, hardly anyone had done. Thailand was not a big tourist destination at that time. We got the opportunity to stay in Thailand for 10 days. The cover of Combat Rock was photographed in Thailand. I was my intention to shoot the over in Hong Kong with all that fantastic Chinese character neon. It just didn’t happen in Hong Kong and we were just there for 36 hours and it didn’t happen. Just dragging Pennie Smith against her will all the way from London to Hong Kong to use color film, which she didn’t want to use. I dragged her further on to Bangkok and we got something to Thailand. We drove out to the countryside. You couldn’t read the road signs so I don’t know exactly where we were. We left Bangkok in a direction and we found some places and we photographed it. After that, everyone was hanging out for a week and then after that, things got tough because the mixing of Combat Rock became an issue. We couldn’t get it mixed internally in a way that would make everybody happy. Glyn Johns was brought in to mix the record which he did - and everyone would now agree - that he did a fine job but not everybody was happy about it at the time. In retrospect, the original band never recovered from the divide that caused. You can look at these things forever. I certainly do not like to dwell on it or nor do I want to disseminate whatever happened at the end of the Clash. Everybody’s got their story. I would say that the mixing of Combat Rock caused a divide and I think that was the beginning of the end. I don’t think anybody thought at that particular moment of the time that anybody thought it was the beginning of the end. My intention was that we would make the next LP in Mexico City.
What would Joe Strummer think of what is happening in America right now?
Well, he’d be telling us all to get off our backsides and be doing something about it. That’s what he would be doing. Just in case - there is anything after this - I’m going to be ok when I bump into Joe or Curtis Mayfield or Gil Scott-Heron or Woody Guthrie. That’s my concern. I’m gonna look those guy in the eyes and I’m gonna be like well I know it’s not much but its something. What about him - he didn’t do anything!
Thanks again to Kosmo for stopping by my apt in Brooklyn for the interview. Stay tuned to the Cisco Kid vs Donald Trump on IG.