KC: Who is Hugh Gallagher, where do you come from and what makes Bangkok, Thailand the base camp of choice for you?
HG: Genetically I have risen from the soils of Ireland. My grandparents came to the US, landed in New York, and that’s where I started. Then I grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, returned to New York to attend NYU and lived in NYC for most of my life. I’ve also lived 5 years in Portland, Oregon, and 4 in Bangkok. Although an idol of mine would say “it ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you at.”
Bangkok surprised me when I landed here. I had no preconception of the city, and I was just amazed at how vibrant, funky, and alive it is. I loved that it had almost no artistic or literary tradition in the West. There’s tons of writers who have done Paris, or Mexico, or Italy, or even Japan, Jamaica. Lots of foreign lands fly flags on the expat literary map. Bangkok was just not on that map, as far as I had seen. So it felt like discovery. And it wasn’t like I always dreamed of coming here. So I hit the ground very open minded, expecting very little. What I found is what lots of people love about this town. It’s both fast and relaxed, fascinating and opaque, smokey and bright. Epic party town. Dripping with sex. I met a great bunch of expats through comedy nights and jazz jams, and made Thai friends playing badminton. Add cheap rents and cheap food– which every creative person needs– and you have a wonderful place to work. Plus you have these beaches, very easy to access through trains and there’s cheap hotels everywhere. Love it.
KC: Among your many accomplishments you appeared center stage, alone, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York and completely won over the audience. That has to rank right up there with playing Carnegie Hall. Tell me about that entire episode. What led up to getting that gig; what happened of note during the performance?
HG: Before Von Von Von, I had a writing career which included features for Rolling Stone and Wired, and a novel published by Simon and Schuster. But the planes hit the world trade centers and it really changed everything. The mood was so dark, so depressing, so wounded. The last place you wanted to be was sitting in your room all day alone, tripping on it. Which is what writers do. I just had to be out there, I had to be with people. Others must have felt the same as I did because there was this whole underground neo vaudeville performance art thing happening mostly based in Brooklyn. I put together Von Von Von. I was living on Tenth Avenue, across from the projects but right around the corner from all these high powered art galleries. I went to openings because they had free wine and lots of my friends were visual artists. I think that mix of rich, European collectors, and street culture found its form in vVv. So I wrote some songs, found a faux fur coat went out there. I first performed in some art galleries and bars, and then had a weekly show at this place called Galapagos.
Hugh Gallagher as Von Von Von
It was really fun, but really enormously challenging. I was always hungry. I had no money. I was trying to figure out how to get over in the music industry, which is just the most brutal beast out there. Musicians are the toughest people in the world. Writers have to be strong. Musicians have to be tough. Warriors. There’s so much darkness in the business, metaphorically and also literally, as much of the cash changes hands after hours, when the show is over, and there’s liquor bottles all over the place in the club. Fucked. Crazy.
Anyway, I’m trying to find my way through this low rent, after hours, downtown maze when I heard this ad on the radio one day. I was just lying in my apartment and this voice came on saying “Would YOU like to be on the world famous APOLLO THEATRE?! Come audition for Showtime!” I jumped up, got a pen, and wrote down the address for the audition spot. It was a community center somewhere up on like 144th street. Line around the block. People had flown in from North Carolina, Florida, heads from all over New York. It was like a pilgrimage for black performers and entertainers. It’s such a hallowed hall. I waited in line for about four hours, did my thing, and they sent me a letter in the mail a few weeks later. It was rad. Had the Apollo letter head in big red spotlights. I spent my last money on a good haircut, went up to the Apollo and hit it.
The funny thing about that performance– and what was cut from the show– was that I was booed off the stage TWICE before I even opened my mouth. I walked out there, chalk white, in a fur vest and Harlem Just. Wasn’t. Having. That. Not at all. Finally, the host Rudy Rush calmed them down. I remember him saying– “C’mon Harlem, give this brother a chance, he flew all the way from Antwerp.” Then I went out there and it was all love. Puts a smile on my face just thinking about it. One of the best experiences of my life, hands down. And stakes were high. Back then they still had the Sandman. He would come out wearing diapers, dancing, and shoot you with a toy bow and arrow if you got booed off. You didn’t want that happening to you. It didn’t. I just totally got over. The band rocked, I hit my mark and we lit up Harlem. Felt like walking on the moon. Blessed.
KC: Ever since Kato Kaelin came along, fame has been devalued in the USA. Unlike Kato, you are multi-talented, a traditionally published novelist, comedian, musician, writer, and even have your own apartment. You’ve captured fame and notoriety. You’ve held it and tasted it. More than once. You talk about the fame game at HughGallagher.net and how difficult the rules of engagement are. Tell me about the pursuit of fame, the achievements you are most proud of, and the difficulties that come with taking fame to the household name level.
HG: I feel that finding fame is accidental. You do something, it hits, and Fame on. Once you have it, there are things you can do to build and reinforce it. I do what interests me, and what I love. Because most projects have a really long build. Books take years, so did Von Von Von. You have to stay with it. It takes so much will power and belief and love for what you’re doing that for me, there’s no way I could just do something to be famous. That being said- and tying into your thoughts about the devaluation of fame- we’re in a culture where Fame=Success. If you don’t catch fame, you drown and die. Nobody sees you. Nobody talks about you. So whatever you do, you have to make it famous to really get over. That’s not a science I’ve perfected. I’ve done lots of things that haven’t hit at all. The funny thing is that my college essay is more famous than I am. It’s all over the place. It was the first viral comedy hit of the internet, and it’s one of the most famous pieces of written American humor. I’m amazed at how many people have read it. But not so many people know I wrote it. So it goes.
The great thing about fame is that people want to meet you, and work comes to you. Most of our life– everybody– we’re hustling. We’re trying to get jobs, trying to get paid, trying really hard to fight our way up the slanted landscape. When you’re famous, the landscape tilts towards you. Opportunities, jobs, and women come to you. You don’t have to chase. You get a team around you that handles and manages your business, and that’s great if you have the right people. That part of business gets easier, and it’s a tremendous relief, and a huge advantage that lets you work without stressing the rent. With a steady stream of offers and opportunities, life is great.
But it does bring other stressors. People expect you to rock every spot the way your big hits have. There’s less room to make mistakes. Fame moves fast, and you have to roll with it or lose it. I think that’s why lots of popular artists get in a loop with their work. What made them famous is encouraged by their team and their fans. It’s very hard to break off into new territory. And breaking into new territory is a sloppy process. You make mistakes finding your way. Famous people aren’t really supposed to make mistakes. If they do, lot of shit comes down on them, and they lose lots of fans, maybe even their fame.
After I did the Apollo, I had Harlem fame, which was probably the coolest shit ever. I was recording up on 155th street, so I was always up around Jackie Robinson Park, or on the A train uptown. So many people would pass me on the street and be like: “Yo von.” Just that. Or “hey Von.” Real low key and familiar, maybe a fist bump and that’s all. You’re walking down 125 and some real big black dude passes by with a “alright von”, little head nod, it just rocks. I remember one night very late on the train, I was exhausted, had been recording, it was four in the morning probably, and I always wore my shades in the train at night because the lights are so bright and the ride is long. So I’m half falling asleep, and half wondering what the hell I’m doing with my life. I mean, there I am in a fur coat on a train from Harlem at 4 AM in the middle of a pretty absurd recording career. Where is this all going? What the hell am I doing? Then I heard laughter across the train. It got louder, and these kids were just busting up. Three fifteen year old black kids, with the NYC flat brim hats, the tims, big old jeans, everything. And they were just lit up laughing, and I heard one of them say “That’s Von Von Von.”
KC: Pablo Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” What inspires you? Tell me about some of your work.
HG: Great quote. I’m one of those shark writers. You know how sharks die if they stop swimming? I can’t handle reality without writing. I’m wired for it. I have to do it. Whether people are reading or not, it just balances me out. If I stop I get really edgy and unsettled. Not that I’m a lake of tranquility when I’m living as a writer. But I feel in tune. Writing just flows through me. I do the best I can to manage it.
But inspiration to write comes from different places. The inspiration for Teeth came from spending lots of time within the US pop culture machine. It’s this thing that pumps out so much flash but very little introspection. I wanted to trip on it for a while, and explore the reality beyond the facade. My college essay started because I was bored in a high school typing class. They had all this boring shit we were supposed to type and I just started writing all this wild stuff to entertain myself and crack up my friends. At the same time, I was applying for colleges, so the two things merged and found form.
Von Von Von was all about being out there, my love of music, having fun, and creating an idealized life style that I wanted, but was out of reach. I couldn’t fly around the world and make love, but I could sing about it.
Lifted, my lizard people sci-fi book, was inspired after Von Von Von failed. I had failed, 100% for the first time in my life. I had to process it. I dipped into lots of ancient spiritual texts, and realized that very few of them say planet earth is a good place. And I had met a dude talking about lizard people at a Los Angeles UFO convention I wrote about in the nineties. After all the failure I had been through, and all the freaky weird shit I had seen in the music industry, it wasn’t hard to believe this world is run by monsters. Before I had a lot of success and life was fun. I mean, it was still Life, it’s hard, but I was getting paid and getting invited to great parties. When all that fell off I saw life from another angle. I had to find hope for myself, and inspiration, that was entirely free from worldly success or acceptance by the larger culture. These great characters started coming to me, and the lizard people is such a funky funny idea that I rolled with it. The writing process was exhilarating. The characters were very alive for me. They got me through that time in my life by giving me a story to help understand loss, disappointment, and the harder parts of life. Then say: fuck it, I’m still fighting. Maybe that’s all that book was for. Just helping me get through losing everything and starting from scratch.
The ghostwriting book and the doomed time travel thriller were both inspiring because they paid. Then I got into it and it was a blast writing trashy thrillers. Sex scenes, meetings at the Pentagon, shit blowing up… So ridiculous and so fun to write.
YO CHING was inspired by True Player. What he said, and the wisdom he had was so deep for me. It’s a treasure of life strategy. There’s so much in that book about how to flow with reality. And I love the way he phrases things. It’s the only cosmic, timeless truth filled book that uses the word “motherfucker.” Plus I have this huge love of hip hop culture, and uptown NYC culture. I lived way up in Harlem for years, then deep in the Bronx. I was an outsider but I heard stuff, I saw stuff- it’s like this whole other world, as deep as any foreign country. An essential element of black culture that inspires me most is the “show and prove” thing. “You were great yesterday, fine. Show me. Prove it. Right here, right now.” Or: “Oh, you’re doing what you did yesterday and you still think that shit is great today? Next.” No one gets a pass. It shapes their artists into fiercely innovative creators. As a 14 year old kid learning drums, I was listening to drummers like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, trying to understand how they played with time. Shit they do is wildly sophisticated. As an 18 year old trying to find my voice as a writer, I was having my mind blown by hip hop artists like Rakim and Chuck D. Those men put words together like tapestries. Some of their rhymes should be framed in the Smithsonian. I have gotten so much from their culture that I wanted to celebrate it. True Player, who’s from the Bronx, gave me that chance when I met him. I was also trying to find a way to share the blessing of living in Asia with friends from home. I wanted to bring some of this part of the world to them. Which is another whole other planet. So I guess I went to two different planets and wanted to write it down.
How all this happens is random. I don’t have a defined method, theory, or path. Things hit me. If they hit me hard enough, I run with them.
KC: Let’s talk books. Around the time your first novel, Teeth was published Amazon lost almost $700,000,000 in one year, the Kindle did not exist and previous E-readers had flopped. Fast forward fifteen years and you come out with, Yo Ching: Ancient Knowledge for Streets Today, which you produced in collaboration with True Player, a wise man of the streets. Tell me about the two books. Comment on the tsunami of change that has occurred during your professional writing career.
HG: My writing career started on a very traditional literary path. I was published in Harpers as a young one, did features for Rolling Stone as a teenager, then wrote for Wired, and a few other smaller magazines, and then landed a book deal with Simon and Schuster. They really invested in me. Put me on tour, bought out ad pages, and really put money into the goal of launching me. A first time writer could not hope for more. But the sales didn’t follow. This happens often in publishing, where books and authors can take time to find their audience. Unfortunately, I didn’t have money to wait that out. I had to find work. So I turned down a chance to write another book, because after the taxes, agency fee, and just the time it takes to write, I would have had to leave NYC, which I didn’t want to do at the time. Teeth disappeared and I fell out of the literary world.
Through a man I will always be grateful too– huge shout out to Jonathan Cohen of Critical Mass in NYC– I got into advertising. The release of Teeth had been disappointing, and I was bitching about it while we walked through Central Park on a beautiful sunny day. Jonathon listened about as long as he could. Then he was like “Dude, I hate to break it to you, but having your first book be a best seller is about as likely as us getting struck by lightning right now. If you want to make a living, look into branding and advertising. I can help you.” He did. He knew some people at Arnell, and I met Sara Arnell and started learning branding. Arnell Group was like the inventor of the stuff, led by this DaVinci type visionary Peter Arnell who had helped launch Tommy Hilfiger. There was so much interesting shit flying through that office– designers, architects, writers, installation artists. This was late nineties. Digital culture was just starting. They were really hammering out the future of branding in the digital age. And they paid their people well. Which was great. Everything I learned there and throughout a 15+ year career in branding and advertising that followed came into play when I finally published my next book, YO CHING.
The source material of YO CHING was hugely inspiring on its own: an interactive, decision making tool based on the oldest book on the planet… China’s I Ching. The wisdom from this book has been around for 3,000 years. Things survive that long for a reason. They work. YO CHING has so much wisdom to help people live better. It’s real. It’s not one of these “dream it, you can do it!” life strategy books. Those books sell not because they are true, but because everybody wants to be told they can be anything and have it all. They can’t. We live in reality. It has rules. Go dream of being a multi-millionaire pantomime artist. See what happens. You have to recognize what’s working in reality, and how to flow with it. That might seem basic, but people are moving farther and farther from reality every day. We live in bubbles of entertainment and prepared experiences. We stare at screens and think that’s life. It’s not. Look out the window. That’s life. True Player, the visionary genius behind YO CHING, would reflect on this shit in very entertaining ways. He is deep, funny, and very inspiring.
With my first book, Teeth it had been about me, my feelings, and was based on my life. Many years later, I had been around the block a few times and “escaped the tyranny of self” as Gore Vidal has so eloquently described the process of growing as a writer. What he means– I think– is that you have to get over yourself. Forget your limited view and see the larger picture. YO CHING is definitely about the larger picture. True Player, my collaborator, looks at nature, the galaxy, he references the ocean, the cycle of a star’s life, and then relates that to how society moves, how people interact, how business is done, how eras rise and fall. Shit like that is large. I was into it. I loved it. I was ready for it. What I love about Teeth is it helped me figure myself out. YO CHING helped me figure the world out. And I thought YO CHING would be helpful to others too. It’s ethically and morally strong, without being sanctimonious. It combines an open spirituality with pragmatic realism. The lessons inside provide strategies for managing reality at optimum levels. It’s not a “me” book– it’s a “we” book that shows how to harmonize with others, so everybody improves together.
KC: Managing reality. That sounds useful. I have a friend who could use some True Player wisdom and reality management. We’re close. Same age as me. Same height and weight too. Coincidence.
My friend doesn’t like when people try and get into his rice bowl. He also sees the world as having a set script and when the characters deviate from his imaginary world he sees himself as Oliver Stone and tries to influence the outcome. How would Yo Ching provide advice for my friend?
HG: The first thing we do is take that issue and frame it into a simple YO CHING question:
YO CHING, please tell us helpful advice for Kevin’s friend.
YO CHING was straight up with an answer for your friend. Check this out:
True Player STAYING CHILL in his heart and mind. It’s hard to chill the heart. Near impossible to chill the mind, yo.
Chill so much he stare at the wall.
Out in the yard don’t see his people.
Player STAYING CHILL when it’s time to chill. Move when it’s time to move. Brother like that rolling with the rhythm of things.
When a Player STAYING CHILL on deep levels, his mind and heart turn real calm. He sees shit clear. That helps him move right. True Players meditate. Ain’t have to be no monk for that shit. Just sit there breathing, stare at the motherfucking wall. Do it right, the whole world chill out. Drama just disappear a minute. Players STAYING CHILL at a deep level like that tune into rhythm of things. Make the right moves, at the right time. Ain’t ever roll on bust ass plays.
Buildings close together:
The look of Staying Chill.
Don’t trip out on what ain’t in his area.
Ain’t no motherfucker ever stop thinking. But a True Player focus his thought. Thinks right here right now. Crab ass have his head all over the place. Tripping on shit downtown, while handling business uptown. Stresses on shit from last week, while dropping the ball today. True Player have his head where he’s at. That’s all.
Part of YO CHING is interpreting the answers. It’s really an art, and the more familiar you get with the text, the more fun you’ll have doing it. Ideally, people should look at YO CHING like a dialogue. The spirit of True Player should inspire them to think for themselves, not tell them what to do. There’s lots in this particular reading that I will point out, which is total YO and why I love the book.
First, True Player has a compassionate view. YO acknowledges right at the top:
It’s hard to chill the heart. Near impossible to chill the mind, yo.
So what your friend is doing is a challenge for everybody. I’m hearing YO point out the need to just think a minute. It’s that choice we have in every situation between reacting and responding. When we react, we don’t think. We’re on automatic pilot from conditioned responses. When we respond, we’re making that choice on how to handle the situation. A helpful way to do that is to meditate; taking that chance to breathe. That could be anything from counting from 10-1 before you speak in a highly charged situation, to taking a few days to really meditate on the smartest play, in a major situation.
Another element cited in this Wrexagram is a central idea in YO CHING. That’s “the rhythm of things”. We are all part of a larger pattern, and situations have a flow and rhythm to them. What a True Player does is feel that rhythm. How he chooses to move in any situation is a matter of harmonizing with “the rhythm of things”; the Tao, The Flow, the Will of The Cosmos, whatever you want to call that. We hit that when a decision “feels right”. It feels right because it’s in “the rhythm of things.” We’re in the groove, and flowing with how reality wants to roll.
Staying Chill finishes with a very simple and strong message: Deal with what’s in front of you. Not what happened last week, or in another area of your life– just what’s up right here, right now. Meditation in a classical sense is real helpful tool for this, as YO points out here. People who meditate get a chance to observe their thoughts as separate from them. You put that little distance between yourself and the thought clouds that are rolling through. That also helps players in the game make smart decisions.
So there we have some spot on YO CHING advice: Staying Chill Even if your friend doesn’t read farther than the two word title of The Wrexagram, it helps. That’s why YO CHING rocks.
KC: Hugh, this interview is running long, but you had me at disappearing drama. And besides, I like The Paris Review interviews. Tell me more.
HG: If YO CHING started with the words “this is what you have to do” your mind would instantly throw up defenses that are hard to get through– nobody likes to be told what to do. But how can you be defensive against six lines of illustration? Or some abstract poetic statement? You can’t– and in fact, the opposite happens. Your mind opens up, searching for reasons, explanations, and the defenses are down. After that, YO slips in the Knowledge. This is highly sophisticated shit. And this structure goes back 3000 years. The most modern arts of Neuro Linguistic Programming use similar tactics. NLP jedi warriors will do shit like lead with statements that make no sense, or have no real meaning. The most famous being “once upon a time” to start stories. I mean, what does that mean? Why does it start every story? For no reason than disarming the listener, and letting the story teller past the subconscious defensive systems we all have for self protection.
That’s why I love YO CHING— there are so many levels to what’s happening in that book. The language is plain and blunt, sometimes humorous, deceptively casual. But there are tremendous depths of knowledge within. The more a reader meditates on YO CHING, Staying Chill with the learning, the more they will uncover.
KC: Any final thoughts on Yo Ching?
HG: People who live YO CHING style will make the world a better place. No doubt. All this made me punch it, regardless of results. I’m happy I did. YO CHING rocks. It’s on Amazon. We’ll see what happens. As True Player says: “Streets decide what’s good and when.”
You can buy YO CHING on Amazon: HERE
You can buy Teeth on Amazon: HERE
Visit Hugh’s sites:
Keith Nolan’s Beyond the Lines Interview of Hugh Gallagher: HERE