The Praxis Interview: Dan Kennedy

April 1, 2010

by Andie Nash

Dan Kennedy’s rich imagination and unconventional career path have provided him with a wealth of material. In his riotous 2003 memoir Loser Goes First: My Thirty-Something Years of Dumb Luck and Minor Humiliation, he recounts his childhood fantasies of rock stardom, imagines romancing his “Dyan Cannon-esque” sixth grade homeroom teacher, and becomes obsessed with winning competitive fishing tournaments. After graduating high school, he toils at a record warehouse in rural California (his first foray into the music business), then later works as a graphic designer, a fire-jumper, a barista, and a movie extra, appearing alongside Sandra Bullock as “Guy Buying Sunglasses” in The Vanishing. At one point he takes a belated shot at rock stardom just as the grunge music scene is about to explode in Seattle. He dusts off his axe, packs up his car, and heads for Austin, Texas—where he misses the whole grunge thing completely. Later, on a whim, he moves to New York to audition as a VJ for MTV. He fails the audition but lucks into a $500 a day copy-writing gig, where (in the interest of conserving his creative energy) he limits himself to three days of work per month.

Kennedy’s second book Rock On: An Office Power Ballad chronicles his eighteen months as Director of Creative Development with Atlantic Records, a position he acquires after impressing the president of Motown with a TV promo celebrating the label’s 40th anniversary. Kennedy’s experiences as a music industry insider range from the glamorous (meeting Duran Duran, hanging out with the Donnas, directing a commercial for hip-hop artist Fat Joe) to the ludicrous (pow-wows with record execs who wear sunglasses indoors and get paid obscene amounts of money to discuss singer Ryan Cabrera’s hairstyle). These days, Kennedy writes for GQ and McSweeney’s and is a regular performer at the popular New York spoken-word venue, Stories at the Moth. He recently took time to talk with Praxis about his favorite books, his various Twitter musings, and the journey from being “that guy in the very back by the bar” to a successful writer and performer.

AN: Can you give us little background on Stories at the Moth, and how you came to be involved with the project?

DK: George Dawes Green started The Moth in 1997, in his living room here in New York, and it grew from there to what it is today. I got involved with them in 2000. I called the office, I think I was just that sort of simple or naïve – I had heard about it and just thought: “Hmm…I guess…I’ll just dial them up and tell them I want to try it?” Basically, I was just some guy who was unemployed, I had stopped partying, I was trying to figure out what the hell I could do with my time, I needed to make new friends, I was just…probably a little mental. So like some giant child I just called them up and left a message with someone: “Hi, yeah, um, I’d like to do the story thing, please?”And then weeks went by and it became painfully apparent that this is not the way to go about it. But then, still weeks and weeks later, oddly enough, I got a call back from Joey Xanders. She was the Creative Director back then. Anyway, I had this story about my days spent learning by trial and error on the 90’s music scene that I’m really not good at trying to be a musician. They put me on the bill for this mainstage show and I told that story. The Moth didn’t feel like a scene to me. It was just this overwhelming feeling of finding a place where you finally felt like you fit in; like you could actually kind of do the thing that everyone there was doing – it might have been the first time in my life to have felt like that. Joey told me much later on that the reason she had returned my call back then was completely random; she had been talking to her therapist about how guilty she felt for not having the time to return all of the calls from the phone messages that were piling up — and her therapist told her to just take baby steps and return one phone call; just close your eyes, pick one message off the stack, dial the number. So my phone rang in this little tiny apartment I was living in without any furniture, I picked it up, and ten years raced by.

AN: In your memoir you talk about being a kid and getting a journal for Christmas (instead of the coveted black Gibson Les Paul guitar). What was the first thing you remember writing?

DK: The first thing I ever remember writing was when I was twelve. It was a punishment for talking in class or something and I…it’s a long story, but basically I wasn’t talking in class, I made a look, just to myself, at something the teacher said. But everyone started laughing, and this teacher, Mr. Kisner, totally had it in for me, and so he punished me for something I didn’t do – and he said I had to write a one thousand word essay about why I shouldn’t talk in class. So I wrote this satire of him and his broad, simple rules, handed it in to him the next day. He read the first few sentences and threw his stapler across the room at the wall and it opened and all the staples went flying everywhere. I just kind of thought: Jesus, writing is pretty powerful — he read, like, three sentences, turned bright red, and starting throwing shit. I didn’t write anything humorous again until I was twenty-six.

AN: Why the long hiatus?

DK: I dunno, you know, someone chucks a stapler at you and you think: eh, I don’t really need any more of that. Maybe take a break on the satire.

AN: Your longtime girlfriend Maria Lilja is also a writer. I’ve always imagined that two writers in a relationship would butt heads a bit. What are the pros and cons of loving another creative type?

DK: I would say one of the good things about being in a relationship with another writer is that your work is under some scrutiny instead of automatic approval. At home if I’m working on something, and I run it by her—read it out loud in the living room—and Maria doesn’t like it, she makes it, um, very clear. And she almost always knows why it’s not working, she tells me, and I work on it more. So, the down side of being in a relationship with another writer would be that, basically, you’re going to bomb in your own living room sometimes. You would think the living room would be the easiest room to play.

AN: Speaking of love, in Loser Goes First, you imagine confronting your sixth grade homeroom teacher Mrs. Davis and confessing your feelings for her: “Look, I know about everything—periods, sex, bras—all of it. So let’s get honest here and start talking about taking this to the true love level.” That’s a great line. Have you ever actually used that on anyone?

DK: Something tells me it might be a lot less charming coming from a lonely forty-something year-old guy at a dinner party as opposed to a twelve year-old daydreaming it in a memoir.

AN: You’re an avid Twitter enthusiast; how would you explain Twitter to your pre-teen ‘70s self?

DK: In the future there will be a CB that you type into instead of talking into it. But the signal will reach all around the world.

AN: What would your Twitter feed have looked like back in the ‘70s—assuming you’d have found time to tweet in between homework and dates with Mrs. Davis? Can you give me a few 140-character updates that would’ve been typical of the time period?

DK:

-          Today me and Steven took off our pants off in the fort #notgay

-          KISS is playing a concert, but I don’t want to go and have someone stab a needle full of drugs into me.

-          Blew up tangerine with firecracker. I can’t imagine this ever NOT being awesome to do.

AN: Although you haven’t become a rock star yet, music has played a big part in your life. You’ve talked about your love for artists like Iggy Pop, David Bowie, The Jam, Led Zeppelin and The Replacements. Are there any albums in your record collection that would surprise your fans?

DK: Lots of No Doubt, lots of Fleetwood Mac, Journey, Genesis. And I don’t have a brainy and ironic thesis as to why I like these bands, I just like them. They’ve made some fucking perfect pop songs. In the early nineties I had to hide their CDs at the back of my collection behind the Nick Cave and all the cool stuff. But now when people see those tracks on your iPod they just think you’re being hip and ironic; that you’re listening to these tracks as some tongue-in-cheek guilty pleasure. I’ve said it onstage before that I’m still pissed that I had to hide Purple Rain until it became okay to admit you like Prince.

AN: In Rock On, you wonder “is there anything sincere about hipster irony? Can you imagine Joey Ramone ever standing on a stage and thinking ‘Man, this is hilarious—I’m being totally ironic; my hair is hanging over my face, I’m super tall, I’m singing about some place called Rock and Roll High School? Get it? Me? In high school?’” You also imagine KISS joking around backstage: “’How classic was that? I was all, ‘Alright, New York, do you people want to rock and roll all night?’ And then I was all, ‘I can’t hear you!’ and they yelled even louder! I think they thought I was serious!’” Where do you think our generation’s obsession with irony comes from?

DK: I don’t know, I suppose it’s just a safe way for people to enjoy something without feeling vulnerable about what they like. You’re into something, but while you’re enjoying it, you’re basically saying, “Oh, this? I’m not really enjoying it. I’m enjoying it as a sort of joke.” But at the end of the day, I mean, you obviously like it, so cut the bullshit and just leave it at that.

AN: You’ve mentioned being confused with a “get rich quick” motivational speaker who shares your name. Personally, I prefer your words of wisdom on achieving success, which you frequently offer up on twitter:

  • It won’t be yours until you stop caring whether or not you’ll ever get it.
  • The secret nobody tells you is that by slowing down things start to happen fast.
  • Nothing brilliant can happen until you feel left behind, lost, and far outside of any so-called scene. Then you are onto something.
  • You know those people that have life all figured out? They don’t, and they’re the last to know.
  • Feeling like it’s never going to happen is part of it happening eventually.
  • You start on your life’s best work the moment you finally stop caring so much about getting what you think you want.

Have you found these maxims to be true?

DK: Yeah, those maxims have been true in my experience. I get it that now it probably seems like I’m on the inside to anyone looking, but…. I still think the best thing about doing a reading or doing a Moth gig is that there’s a little area to sit and have some water backstage.

AN: Why is that the best thing about performing?

DK: Because my whole life I’ve been that guy in the very back by the bar, trying to see the stage, feeling claustrophobic, crammed up against ten guys spilling beer or talking the whole time.

AN: In the tongue-in-cheek “Reading Group” section of Rock On, you write: “Book groups and book clubs are important…Anything besides going to the office, coming home, going to the office, coming home, going to the office, and coming home is an important use of time. It’s amazing how little effort it takes to enrich our day-to-day lives. Read a book and schedule a time to meet and discuss it, and you’re ahead of, like, 80 percent of the populace in terms of mental stimulation.” Do you feel, in this age of Dancing With the Stars and viral YouTube videos, that people are putting less and less mental effort into their daily lives?

DK: I guess I was just thinking that there are tons of distractions these days and it takes a lot to create any kind of social ritual past television, the internet, and going out to drinks with friends from work then getting back on the internet to tweet about it. I mean, maybe there have always been tons of distractions. Maybe it’s nothing new. Well, I’m pretty sure the Internet is new. I think the Internet started in the nineties.

AN: Imagine you have your own book club a la Oprah, wherein you can advise people which books to read. Name some books that you would choose and why.

DK: The part I loved about imagining this is that I had a Gulfstream-V and a place in Italy. But then I got to the part where I recommend what to read and I didn’t like imagining it anymore. I’m getting confused and I might be messing up the question. I’ll just tell you what I’ve been reading lately:

-          Shoplifting From American Apparel by Tao Lin

-          Just Kids by Patti Smith

-          The White Album by Joan Didion

-          Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion

-          Bowie by Marc Spitz

-          What I’d Say to The Martians by Jack Handey

-          Eat Me by Kenny Shopsin

I’ve also been fairly glued to Ben Katchor’s stuff again. And I’ve been skipping around in Helter Skelter again. And a bunch of catalogs, mostly because catalog copy is still very calming or alluring to me. Like there’s nothing wrong in the world and all you need to know is that there’s finally a great executive pen and pencil set, or a better fishing vest than ever before.

AN: If one of the authors you selected to participate in your group dissed your book club before appearing on your afternoon talk show—like Jonathan Franzen did to Oprah after she chose The Corrections—how would you handle it?

DK: I don’t know, you know…ask him if he wants bottle of water before we go on, I guess. In this imaginary scenario, do I still have the jet and the villa?

AN: Of course you can have the jet and the villa! Why should Oprah be the only talk show host with all the cool 007 stuff?

DK: Okay, then, yeah…I would just say: “Hey, really dug your book. You need anything? You want a water?”

AN: I sometimes feel like it’s a curse to have been born a writer. Do you ever feel that way? Of all the talents you could have been born with, do you find yourself thinking, “Dammit, why couldn’t I have been born a Nobel Prize-winning physicist or something?”

DK: On the good days it’s amazing, on the bad days it feels like you fell for the biggest con job on the planet. But you know, that’s probably everything.  I mean, there are probably days when the Nobel Prize winning physicist is thinking, “I’m so sick of sitting here struggling with the separated oscillatory fields method. Fuck the hydrogen maser, I should’ve opened a café in Costa Rica when I had the chance. I’d be surfing right now.”

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