The Rumpus Interview with Phil Milstein


About twenty years ago, Phil X. Milstein damaged the psyches of my miscreant writer and musician friends in the Bay Area. From Boston, he mailed cassettes of a rare recording of the dream narratives of Dion McGregor. In Milstein’s words this album is “a masterpiece of inadvertent surrealism.” My friends fetishized its long, bizarre stories. For instance, “Then there was Vern Spaal. Old Vern Spaal. Yes, he ran the mortician’s shop. Hmmm … some say … well I don’t like to say it—when he did a very good job, he used to prop the body up in the window. Now how’s that?!”

Curious about McGregor and his strange LP, Milstein embarked on a years-long quest. It resulted in additional recorded dreams—risqué ones this time—on the Tzadik label, with extensive liner notes also available on his website. Milstein’s research inspired the experimental band Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, contributors to the underground fanzine Bananafish, and many more oddballs who lived before YouTube and social networking made us blasé about obscure freaks.

Another deep-level archival project delves into song-poems—lyrics sent in by aspiring songwriters that are set to music by hacks. The best of these are on a series called MSR Madness, compiled in collaboration with the likes of drummers Don Bolles and the late Tom Ardolino. These songs have a lingering charm because they’re so earnest and idiosyncratic. Try listening to the recorded song-poem “Jimmy Carter Says Yes” and not get tingly.

Milstein has also compiled scores of examples of anti-masturbation literature dating from as early as The Egyptian Book of the Dead. I spoke with him on the phone recently, curious to find out what the most dogged researcher on the planet has been up to.


The Rumpus: How do you decide what to research?

Phil Milstein: An aura of mystery is what’s drawn me in to every one of my major research projects, from Velvet Underground to song-poems to anti-masturbation literature to the Dion McGregor dream-tapes. I’m quite comfortable with not having all the answers to a subject, but with topics that are unknown yet presumably knowable I eventually become frustrated by the dearth of information and yearn to know more. Being constitutionally indolent I usually don’t even want to pursue these things, but when the big pull comes over me I can’t stop myself.

Rumpus: I was thinking about the dichotomy with the types of work you’re interested in, such as the song-poem ads found in, as you say, “the human misery ghetto” at the back of magazines or your found letters or your ABC celebrity gum project. There’s the attitude of a prankster combined with sympathy toward human yearning—

Milstein: Human urine?

Rumpus: Not urine. Well—urine might be part of it if …

Milstein: I’ve never done a human urine project, but now you’ve got me thinking …

Rumpus: Not urine: yearning. It seems like a project like the found love letters that were published in Rollerderby in the early 1990s and were a topic of This American Life might stem from intellectual or artistic curiosity. Yet years or decades later, other people, like the magazine Found, have made a cottage industry out of similar interests.

Milstein: The stuff they did early on in Found—I haven’t seen it past the first few issues—turned me off. I loved the idea of it, but I learned, from looking through those issues, that found stuff presented in raw form is meaningful only to the finder, and maybe his or her friends. But to be meaningful to neutral people begs for a more thoughtful presentation. Their stuff seemed slapped together without care.

Rumpus: Is that how you and your collaborators approached the MSR Madness project of recorded song-poems—to make a thoughtful presentation with great cover art by Dan Clowes, entertaining liner notes, etc.?

Milstein: Exactly. To give it context, and help flesh out its meaning. Fortunately, we’re far from alone in that. On the other hand, I think some of these MP3 blogs provide way too much context, and don’t let the music speak for itself.

Rumpus: Have you exhausted song-poem music as a topic?

Milstein: I’m hoping to collaborate with a writer on a book covering the entire story of song-poem music—a history with analysis, or something like that. Not to sentimentalize it but it was sort of a dying wish of Tom Ardolino’s that a book finally be done, and that’s inspired me to make a push for it. I already did all the research, in fact I did exhaust that quite a while ago. The research was a gas and the stories I recorded are amazing, but writing it would be onerous—hence the need for a collaborator. The plan is to use my research, his writing and our shared thinking on the subject. If it gets done as planned, I think it’ll be worthy of Tom’s wish.

Rumpus: But you’re a good writer. Your style is very engaging. It’s informative but approachable.

Milstein: Thanks, but I hate to write. I have a good vocabulary but my access to it is very weak—I had a lot of concussions when I was a kid—so I struggle severely to find the word I mean. Every sentence is like wrestling a bear, so I tend to write only when there’s something I’m burning to say.

Rumpus: Have you ever tried to write your own song-poem?

Milstein: Yeah, in fact I’ve done several of them over the years, one of them even before I began researching song-poem music. With another, I’d requested the song be done in a C&W style, but it came out sounding like a third-rate Leo Sayer outtake. On top of that they got the lyrics wrong. The company advertised a free remake if the customer wasn’t happy, so I tried to invoke that. But they refused, on the grounds that the first version was perfect! In a way I had it coming to me, as by being aware that the thing was a ripoff I felt I was above it, and immune to being ripped off myself. I was impressed that they still managed to rip me off, but then again a hundred bucks is a hundred bucks and I was pissed off. So I sent them a cease-and-desist letter on a fake lawyer letterhead, and they finally refunded my dough. The entire story is kind of funny and also illustrates the song-poem scam pretty well, so Jennifer Sharpe documented it, including all the mail correspondence between the company and myself and the finished recording, for her website.

Rumpus: Do you think some projects could only be done at a certain time, and with the Internet and social networking sites some of those projects wouldn’t be so interesting to you now? For instance, a 1997 episode of This American Life profiled your interest in found letters, with Sarah Vowell casting you as a deviant to inject a false conflict. (She obviously didn’t get your sense of humor.) I don’t know if she could make that point now because everyone’s making private stuff public.

Milstein: I think that’s totally true. My own view of the work I’ve done—some of it, anyway—is that it’s in a mode I call “post-ironic.” Post-irony is a mix of pure irony and pure sincerity, which are twisted around each other like the double-helix of DNA. In the ironic stance the artist feels superior to his subject, where in post-irony he also feels a deep identification and affinity with it. Even though they’re opposites, in this mode these attitudes are inseparable from one another. In a nutshell, post-irony is irony without smugness. Certain friends of mine, such as Gregg Turkington [aka comedian Neil Hamburger] and Tom Ardolino, are masters of post-irony, as it comes naturally to them, whereas I had to learn it.

Rumpus: It’s your aesthetic …

Milstein: A long time ago, for various reasons I made the decision to make my art be the re-presentation of other people’s art. I didn’t know this at the time, but I gather that’s what’s meant by postmodernism, or at least it’s one aspect of postmodernism. But, of course, what we do with that material, what we mean with our re-presentation and what our attitude is toward the original makes all the difference.

In the past ten to fifteen years, irony and post-irony—especially irony—have become almost mainstream. An example would be when someone started restaging Brady Bunch scripts. I loved the idea when I first heard it (just like with Found magazine), but when I heard it in more detail—I never did see one of those shows—I learned that the way the material was presented actually mocked it, which struck me as way too easy—like kicking a cripple. If I can’t find a deeper meaning than that in a thing, then I can’t be interested.

Rumpus: What’s the status of the book of anti-masturbation literature?

Milstein: Dormant. Unless and until someone materializes who can edit it it’ll remain that way. Besides the workload, I feel too close to it to make objective judgments. I’ve written introductions to each of the pieces, but I now think they’re inadequate.

Rumpus: Would you say you had 600 pages, single-lined, in the manuscript, with art?

Milstein: It’s very large, and the degree it’d need to be edited would depend on what kind of book the publisher wanted to make of it. Where things sit with Feral House is that they want something much lighter than the version I delivered. I have no problem with that being done, but I can’t be the person to do it.

Rumpus: I thought a lot of what I’d read in your manuscript was funny, but a lot of it was so bizarre and anti-human or sadistic in a way, too, that you need an authorial vision to present it so people today can understand, for instance some of the Victorian contraptions …

Milstein: You’re right—ideally it’d have some historical context, but not so much that it reads like a textbook. Over time I came to a pretty good understanding of the material, but I’m not a medical writer and I’m not a religion writer—which are the two fields this material mostly falls under—and I couldn’t give it the authoritative tone it needs, so I decided that my intros weren’t good enough after all. So that’s another thing an editor would have to work out.

Rumpus: Does the project fit into your post-irony point of view?

Milstein: I suppose it does at some level, but overall it doesn’t seem quite the same thing. What the book does is collect excerpted samples of the ways masturbation was suppressed over the ages—what maladies it was thought to be the source of, and what means were tried to conquer it. The concepts are really bizarre, and we have little or no sense of that thinking left anymore. When I was a kid there was still a lingering awareness of the common belief that masturbation was shameful and sinful and the cause of extreme debility, but that view has softened so much that it’s now fodder for jokes on TV. I think what caused this turnabout is in the era of more openness about sex we got honest about how prevalent masturbation is, and came to realize that suppressing it was therefore impossible. Even though the turnaround is extremely recent, it’s so complete that new generations have no idea of how seriously it was taken.

Rumpus: But look what happened to Paul Reuben’s career, too, and that wasn’t that long ago.

Milstein: Yeah, but it’s one thing to talk about it in public, and another to do it in public. In the Clinton administration, Jocelyn Elders, the surgeon general, made an offhand remark that masturbation maybe wasn’t the worst thing in the world and maybe the country should be concentrating its resources on more serious problems. The backlash was so severe—obviously coming from the Right—that Clinton was forced to fire her. Yet the Right has hardly complained at all about the glib and humorous treatment of masturbation in entertainment that’s now commonplace, maybe because they simply feel outgunned. Internet culture has overwhelmed a lot of social-conservative advocacy.

Rumpus: Can you give one example of masturbation suppression?

Milstein: There were a lot of people who, even in the twentieth century, suffered genital surgery as a cure for chronic masturbation. Here’s a single word that will illustrate what I’m talking about: clitoridectomy.

Rumpus: Ew.

Milstein: Exactly, and it wasn’t even all that rare. At the height of the Victorian era and well into the twentieth century some of these quacks were going at it without even family authority, let alone from the patient. They’d reason that without a clitoris the patient wouldn’t masturbate so much, and if she didn’t masturbate so much she could recover and become a whole and productive person again. So, they’d just yank it the hell out—extirpate, in the medical jargon. For males, masturbation suppression was the reason for the spread of circumcision beyond the Jews.

Rumpus: I wonder if we’ll look back at this era of extreme cosmetic surgery in the same way.

Milstein: I absolutely think so. I’m certain that if our society today were examined by some future one, or by space aliens, and they became aware of the prevalence of cosmetic mutilation for no good reason, they’d conclude that we were severely disordered, or at least very backwards. I actually lost a friend by insisting to her that people who get cosmetic surgery for no good reason were like a subhuman race, only to learn that she’d recently gotten liposuction. Oops! I still feel the same way, but I wish I’d put it with more tact.

Rumpus: Can you take a post-ironic stance on that, or is it not that interesting to you?

Milstein: I wish I could, but it’s just too depressing. Someone’s who’s more detached from society could do it, but I still feel too close. Sometimes I want to get further away myself, but then I start thinking that’s a dangerous path, and head back to the mall.

Rumpus: There’s post-irony, then there’s, What the fuck? People are fucking sick! Like this newspaper quote: “Bat attack victim now believes cannibalism suspect planned to eat his organs, too.”

Milstein:  I hear you, it’s like in the last 15 years or so the world has shed its last inhibitions and let its freak flag fully fly. “Beat on the Brat” as a stadium anthem? A New York stage musical about The Shaggs? The world’s rarest records as easy to hear as buttering toast? Everything’s upside-down from what I used to understand, not necessarily in bad ways but it sure is disorienting. The only way I know of to contend with it is to write a giant “WTF?” underneath the photo in my brain, and walk away in equal parts thrilled and confounded.

Alex Behr is a writer and musician in Portland, OR. Her work has appeared in many online and print publications, including Bitch, Mutha, Propeller, Nailed, Salon, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and Tin House. Her debut story collection, Planet Grim, was published by 7.13 Books. More from this author →