KLIPSCHUTZ STEPS OUT OF THE SHADOWS
a far-ranging interview with the elusive poet
and frequent Chuck Prophet collaborator
By Jules Brazeau | APR 27, 2017
klipschutz (pen name of Kurt Lipschutz) started out as a poet, and has remained one, while picking up significant songwriting credits along the way, and dabbling in literary journalism. Born in Indio, California, he has lived in San Francisco for more than thirty years, where he shares an apartment with Colette Jappy and two tuxedo cats. His poems have appeared internationally, and in several collections: The Erection of Scaffolding for the Re-Painting of Heaven by the Lowest Bidder (o.p., 1985), The Good Neighbor Policy (1989), Twilight of the Male Ego (2002), the limited edition collectible ALL ROADS . . . But This One (an anthology of four poets, 2006), This Drawn & Quartered Moon (2013), and A Visit to the Ranch & other poems (2015). He has co-penned over a hundred songs, chiefly with Chuck Prophet. Eight of their co-writes appear on Prophet’s current release, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins. Beyond high school, klipschutz is an autodidact, a word he says nobody knows the meaning of anymore.
How did your passion for poetry develop?
I think of it as more of a compulsion – if not an illness. Something seizes you and won’t let go. Until it does. When inspiration departs, as it does for long stretches, things get scary.
For those who are new to your poetry, what is a good starting point?
Maybe This Drawn & Quartered Moon, but I might have a different answer on a different day.
Across North America, there are hundreds of Creative Writing programs, each graduating a new crop of poets each year. And this doesn’t include the countless numbers who write poetry outside of academia. Where is poetry going? What is the best way of getting your work out there and noticed? Are book fairs a good start? How difficult is it to get one’s foot inside that publisher’s door?
As to where poetry is going, the world is going to hell, and poetry exists in this world. I’d say the best way to get your work out and there and get noticed is to do the opposite of what I do. Book fairs are good places to meet people, and to get frustrated. Schmoozing is a grind. Several publishers have restraining orders against me.
What prompted the move to the Gold Rush city of San Francisco?
I was living in Boulder, Colorado, studying with Allen Ginsberg and company at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics – where I never formally enrolled, just sat in on classes, and got married, to Donna Semenza, who had dropped out of college and was working at Mustard’s Last Stand slinging hot dogs. She wanted to go back to school to study physical therapy and the university system in California was tuition-free back then, once you established residency. That’s what brought me here, many moons before it was a soul-sucking money pit.
You were inactive for twelve years between The Good Neighbor Policy and Twilight of the Male Ego, and another six between All Roads . . . But This One and This Drawn & Quartered Moon. What did you do during those periods of inactivity?
I’m always active, and have a backlog of manuscripts. What you term “inactivity” represents my unwillingness to self-publish, and my low marks at charm school.
What are some of your favorite poets, novelists? Who are some of your influences?
I’ll start out with the chestnut “too many to mention,” then pick some names that float to the top, Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Bukowski, Shakespeare, Henry Miller, Celine, Lorca, Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Jeffers, Patchen (especially Patchen), Leonard Cohen, Homer, Juvenal, Catullus, Ai, Amy Gerstler, Kay Ryan, Li Po, Du Fu, the New York Dolls, Marianne Moore, Zbigniew Herbert, all the Beats, notably Corso and Bob Kaufman, Bob Dylan again, and Bill Knott. Cervantes, Melville, Twain, Whitman, and Bill Knott again.
Four by Two, the literary magazine you co-edited, was like nothing else out there. Do you think you will ever revisit this project and have it relaunched?
Never say never, but it's unlikely we'll relaunch it. More likely, we will continue to do one-off projects. By we, I mean me and Jeremy Gaulke, who's about half my age and on the move. When we started the mag in 2014 he lived in Yakima, WA, where he was brought up. Since then he's relocated to Richmond, VA and now Smithsburg, MD, with his wife Cara. We're still working on the twelfth and final issue, which has such heavy hitters that I'm stepping away from the page almost entirely. Jeremy, who designs, illustrates, prints, and assembles the mag, came up with a new folding pattern for our swan song. As of yesterday we've closed a deal with a major university to purchase a complete set of Four by Twos for its special collections library. Since you're from Canada where the arts are publicly supported, especially compared to here, you might appreciate that we put out twelve issues, 300 copies each, sold out each run, all on our own dime, and lost only a manageable number of simoleons thanks to subscribers and a handful of heroic patrons. It's been one hell of a ride.
There are certain poets I associate with musicians, such as Bukowski and Kerouac with Tom Russell. The same can be said for you and Chuck Prophet. I read that Russell said that poets don’t usually make good songwriters and vice versa. He did say that the late Leonard Cohen was the exception, and that he had given up poetry. Your co-writes with Chuck go back to 1997’s Homemade Blood. These co-writes continued through all his albums since: The Hurting Business, No Other Love, Age of Miracles, Soap and Water, Let Freedom Ring, Temple Beautiful, Night Surfer and now Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins.
How and when did you and Chuck Prophet meet? How did this songwriting relationship develop?
Actually, our co-writes started in 1990, with Balinese Dancer. I was writing songs with Bone Cootes, whose band was The Living Wrecks, and Chuck saw a set at The Albion, a tiny club on 16th Street in the Mission. One thing led to another.
Let’s talk music now, specifically 2014’s Night Surfer and 2012’s Temple Beautiful. We’ll get to the new release later. On Night Surfer, you co-wrote “Wish Me Luck,” “Guilty as a Saint,” “They Don’t Know About You and Me,” “Laughing On The Inside,” “Felony Glamour,” “Truth Will Out (Ballad of Melissa and Remy),” “Tell Me Anything (Turn to Gold),” and “Love Is The Only Thing.” “Guilty as a Saint” and “They Know About You and Me” are great back-to-back, especially on how they start lyrically:
I was just an altar boy
’Til I lost my way
Signed up for the war
To see who I could save
There used to be a subway
Right above your head
My father played for the passers-by
On his violin
Can you tell me more about these two songs? Is there a process for the two of you when it comes to writing songs?
We sit in a small room and shoot gloomy looks at each other, and listen to obscure legends on Chuck’s $40 LP player, then he picks up his guitar and starts to strum, then words come out of my mouth and/or his, and hopefully the tape is rolling or I’m not too lazy to take notes. Six months later, the song is done. It’s just that easy and efficient.
The two tunes you mention:
“Guilty as a Saint” we wrote during the Temple Beautiful sessions – there were 35 songs from those sessions, to get 12 – and redid it both lyrically and musically in the build-up to Night Surfer.
“They Don’t Know About Me and You” came from trying to write some dystopian material, for whatever reason. Lyrically, it could have been on Temple Beautiful.
Do you take a different approach when writing a song compared to writing a poem?
Analysis kills creativity, at least for me. I don’t even like to hear the word “process.”
I might as well ask you about “Laughing On The Inside.” What a great song. Can you tell me more about it?
Again, we were on a dystopian kick for a while. The opening lines:
The head of a horse
The heart of a dog
What kind of creature is that?
set up a lot of expectations. It took us forever to get past the first verse. That may have been the hardest song ever for us to finish.
I hear the Talking Heads on Night Surfer, but can also hear REM’s Peter Buck’s guitars along with Prairie Prince of the Tubes, and Bill Rieflin, ex-Ministry, taking turns on drums. So Chuck’s a fan of The Completion Backward Principle? This might be a question for Chuck, but I’ll make it a question for you.
How did those musicians end up on the album?
Your instincts were right: it is a question for Chuck. And, pardon my ignorance, but I had never heard of the Tubes disc you mention before looking it up just now.
You co-wrote all the songs on Temple Beautiful, which pays homage to Chuck’s and your adopted hometown of San Francisco. What a great idea it was to promote it by offering a guided bus tour of San Francisco to 40 fans on the day the album was released, a tour hosted by KFOG/KGO radio personality Peter Finch. Were you one of the passengers?
Yes I was. Chuck and I cooked up and scripted the entire affair, along with Hernan Cortez, though of course almost everything went wrong. Which had me pulling my hair out. Naturally, no one else noticed and it was a smashing success.
What were the first few songs written for the album? At what point did the album become a San Francisco album?
I’d have to consult notes to know which ones we wrote first. But first I’d have to find my notes. We always wanted it to be San Francisco-centric, but never had anything approaching a theory, program, or strategy. We’re pretty much 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. guys, with lunch at 2 and coffee at 4.
Of possible interest is the fact that Chuck and I stopped writing together – and speaking to each other – between 2000 and 2010. During that time co-writes continued to appear on his albums, from our back catalogue, but fewer of them. Then we ran into each other in an underground Muni station and he apologized. (At least that’s the way I remember it. Ha ha.) Temple Beautiful is the result of that chance encounter.
In a March 2012 interview with American Songwriter, Chuck revealed “Now there’s been some interest in turning [Temple Beautiful] into a musical. That could work!” Talking about a musical one month after the album’s release. Where was this interest coming from?
From a rumor we started. The interest was coming from voices in our heads.
It’s been five years since Temple was released. Is this transformation from album to musical going to be realized?
For three years we were working on a commission from an S.F.-based theatre company. Our director and all-around co-conspirator, Emilie Whelan, was based in New Orleans. She is a gem – and quite the taskmaster, in the best possible way. There were a couple of “book writers” involved, but gradually I assumed the lead role in writing the libretto. And I’m someone who has rarely seen the inside of a college classroom, much less a theatre arts program. In early January 2017, we turned in the contractual First Draft, which I hear is a milestone. Then the theatre company went into “reorganization.” Time to start another rumor.
Chuck’s latest disc, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins, was released this February. How close was the album to completion when the protest song “Alex Nieto” was recorded in March 2016? Was it always the plan to have this song included on the album? Had “Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins” already been written by then?
“Alex Nieto” pretty much came out of nowhere, fully formed. It’s a song we wish wasn’t necessary, but it was – and is. Too much of a true story. Songs end up on albums if they belong there. The song belongs. As to the title track, it was lurking around from early on, but didn’t assert itself until Chuck had studio dates set and we needed to get serious and fix a few lines.
“We got one foot on the altar, one in the grave / You got me where you want me, girl.” is interesting. How did “In The Mausoleum (for Alan Vega)” get written?
We wrote a tune called “In the Colosseum” during the Night Surfer sessions. Pretty much a misfire. The breakthrough came when we changed Colosseum to Mausoleum and quit trying to write articulate lyrics. Chuck’s guitar ace, James DePrato co-wrote that one with us.
“The Thin White Duke took a final bow,” along with many other heroes in 2016. It certainly was a “Bad Year For Rock and Roll”, but it was so much more than that. Can you talk about the genesis of the song? Also, the lyrics “And I’m all dressed up / In my mohair suit / Watching Peter Sellers / Thinking of you / Wondering where it’s all gonna end” are just great. How did Peter Sellers make it into the song?
The song existed in early form before Bowie died. The mounting electoral cataclysm also figured into the “bad year” mix. Then Bowie died and found his way in and almost took over the song. You ask about Peter Sellers. Let me give you a less than mystical answer. It’s better to use specific references than just to say something like “watching tv.” It was a name we could both agree on. Somebody we both would have watched when his movies first came out, before they started to turn up on the Late Show. If Chuck and I can find anything to agree on, that’s a high five moment – and lunch is more pleasant too.