Swastikas, Chainsaws, and Cleveland: An Interview With electric eels' Own John Morton

The controversial Ohio proto-punks are back...sort of.

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Dec 20 2014, 5:18pm

Photo by Michele Zalopany

If you’re the type of guy or gal who has way more records than you do friends, I’m sure you’re more than familiar with Cleveland, Ohio’s proto-punk legends, the electric eels. Along with other legendary Ohio units like Pere Ubu, The Mirrors, and Rocket from the Tombs, the electric eels (written in all lower case as a tribute to e.e. cummings) formed in the static void that was Middle America in the early 70s. Inspired in equal parts by John Cage, Peter Green, The Kinks, Stockhausen, The Fugs, The Stooges and the catalog of the East Village-based record label ESP-Disk, the eels unleashed a gush of chaotic and angry noise'n'roll light years ahead of what many of the wearers of safety pins, big black boots and torn clothing were doing in the 70s and 80s.

The five live shows they pulled off in their existence were stopped almost immediately by club owners, which resulted in eels guitar player and founding member John Morton beating both band and audience members to an inch of their life. The band never had a chance to release the miniscule amount of material they recorded before breaking up in 1976, but over the past thirty-five years, most of it has leaked out on such illustrious labels as Rough Trade, Homestead, Scat and HoZac. This week, the fine San Francisco-based label Superior Viaduct will be unleashing the definitive collection of the eels' material in the form of a self-titled full length that collect sthe majority of the eels recorded material, including such snot-bagged classics as "Agitated," "Spliterty Splat," and "You Crummy Fags." They will also be re-upping the bands’ classic Spin Age Blasters 7" that was originally released by the Mustard label back in 1981.

Noisey got a hold of John Morton to talk about the eels' inspirations, Ohio's art scene in the early 70’s, the Dead Boys, and the wearing of pup tents to arena rock shows.

Noisey: First off, let’s talk about the cultural climate of Cleveland in the early 70’s and how it contributed to the creation of the electric eels.
John Morton:
I’d say that TV had maybe a bigger influence than Cleveland itself. In the eels domicile, we watched Joseph Losey’s These Are the Damned and were so struck with it we recorded the song “Black Leather Rock” from it; I just re-recorded it with my band, X___X. Oliver Reed as a sexually deviant Teddy Boy, can’t get better than that! The Addam’s Family, Patty Duke, Dobie Gillis, and movies on TV like The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), Fiend without a Face, and the Ishirō Honda classic, The Mysterians. I suffered from night terrors when I was a kid, and the idea of seeing a monster picture at the Saturday movies . . . I won’t say I thought I’d be scared, but I did think it might spawn more nightmares and the aspect of that kept me away, so the first monster picture I saw was The Mysterians. The scary alien invaders were Japanese fellows in space uniforms with sunglasses on. I had popped my cherry.

You might even say that Cleveland didn’t have a cultural climate. The Cleveland Institute of Art denizens held sway. If you didn’t go there or teach there, you were the shits and I neither matriculated or pedantasized there. At one of my DIY art exhibitions, the East Side elite said: “Oh, you use color!” Yeah, that cheap carny trick of using the verboten color on my sculpture (sculpture is only supposed to be monochromatic!). They'd also say, “I hate myself for liking your work!” Yeah, stay in Cleveland to suffer gladly at the hands of fools.

Here is an amusing tale: I was being interviewed by Helen Cullinan, the art critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer for the DIY exhibition just mentioned, and Jane Scott, the "World’s Oldest Teenager" and Cleveland Plain Dealer Teen Beat reporter, sauntered in and sat at her adjacent desk. Jane had always been kind to the lot of us young Cleveland musicians, she knew me. I said, “Jane, I got a new band!” She smiled and put a new sheet of paper in the Remington and started typing, then I brooked, “It’s called ‘Johnny & the Dicks!’” She smiled and then removed the sheet of paper from the typewriter. They wouldn’t print the word “dicks” in the Plain Dealer. On a recent Itunes release of mine, they redacted my song titles “You're Full of S**t” and “I’m So F**ked Up”. Come on, are we kids? And hasn’t every kid already heard those words?

Basically, we—Mirrors, eels, Rockets from the Tomb—were all trying to function in a vacuum. I have nothing nice to say about Cleveland, at least as a cultural bastion. Sherman Lee, Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art during that timespan, said, “As long as I am director of this museum, a Warhol will never hang on its walls,” and I wanted to see Warhols. I did get a lot of visual inspiration from the lift bridges over the Cuyahoga River: blast furnaces, ore boats. Basically, Cleveland was and is, a great place to leave.

How long were the eels a band before securing your first gig in the winter of 1973? Did you have regular practices?
Like . . . what is time? I know we practiced diligently but rather ineptly, and with long hours. We would play a song over and over, thinking that that in itself would mend some of the inherent errors. It never occurred to us to say something like, “We need to tighten up the timing on the intro.” In the first incarnation of the eels, I was playing the harp from a piano, Brian was on guitar and Dave E. was singing (one of those stupid decisions that turned out wonderfully: Dave E. was the only one who didn’t play an instrument so he sang). I guessed we were fleshing out the eels for a year or two. Besides, none of us had the vaguest idea how to book a gig. I guess we expected someone to knock at the door and say, “Hey, just passing by and heard the tunes. You guys wanna play at my night club? I can offer you a thousand bucks a week to start!”

Being dudes in Ohio into things as disparate as John Cage, Velvets and Amon Duul II, did you feel like it was you all against the world?
Amon Duul? I had one fucking album and listened to one fucking song, "Wolf City." I still like it, but I wouldn’t call them an influence. Musically I’d say our sort of cumulative musical influences were Then Play On-era Fleetwood Mac, Desert Shore-era Nico, The Church of Anthrax album by John Cale and Terry Reilly, The Dolls, The Captain and his Magic Band, Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, and much more The Stooges than The Velvets. Yeah, John Cage, but also Harry Partch, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Charles Ives, Pierre Henry, Ornette Coleman, The (ESP) Godz, The Fugs, William S. Burroughs' spoken word (look out for that fucking time flak!) Ludwig Wittgenstein (he couldn’t play but he could think) and always The Kinks (Dave Davies really pioneered much of the “punk” guitar sound, I wrote "Full of Shit" and "Dolly Boy" with his bar chords in mind). As far as anyone outside of our friends who got us? No, but Jill Marotta said that she was a friend, but also a fan. Peter Laughner and his then wife, Charlotte Pressler dug us muchly.

I know that what the eels did came from sheer gut instinct, but was there anything in the presentation of the live shows, the actual band, or the artwork for fliers that was preconceived? Where were you drawing influences from in that department?
I don’t quite know what you mean by preconceived. I mean, I do know what preconceived means, but that is kinda like the term "proto-punk." It didn’t exist until punk came along...it's that backwards reality thing.

We knew Dave E. was bringing a power lawn mower to the gig with the intention of playing it as a solo instrument, but was that preconceived? Was the artwork I did in relation to the band, like the infamous flyer for the Special Extermination Music Night followed a series of silk screens I had been doing in my visual art; was working on temporal materials in a conceptual art/Dadaist sensibility? I had been drawing swastikas since the second grade. My Dad was a WWII vet of Battle of the Bulge, and all my 5th grade peers did likewise. We played Army and the swastika looked—and still does look—REALLY COOL! We eels were certainly aware of the shock value of what we were doing. Is that preconceived? I think it is a little more like drink beer, throw the I Ching and see what the fuck results.

Cover art for electric eels' 'Die Electric Eels' LP

In between practicing, what did you and the rest of the eels do to pass the time?
Drank beer, watched TV, work at menial jobs, tried to fuck girls (for the most part, girls), talked about nihilism, hanging round an inkwell. Brian worked for a while a trailer hitch company. His new uniform work shirts came back with his name tag spelled, “Brain.”

When did the move from Cleveland to Columbus happen and what was the reason for the move?
Maybe 1972. In reality, my ex-girlfriend was in a group of men, three of which I had cuckolded—a talent I seemed to have as a young wag—who were discussing the possibility of a Hell’s Angel’s hit on me for two hundred dollars. I erred on the side of caution. That was the only reason. Columbus was not Cleveland, it was just further away.

There’s plenty of folklore that surround the eels in regards to violence, antagonistic live shows, use of Nazi imagery, etc. How much is true?
I declare it was all true. It is true that at one time or another I beat up every member of the band, along with the occasional heckler. There is no such thing—as far as I’m cognizant—a time machine, so it is nonsensical to suggest changing the past. It did take me every step of my life to get here; as in the present. I will say, I am not violent any more. Sure, I get fucking angry! Sure, I greatly admire Charlie Manson’s forehead swastika tattoo. Sure, I was hoping my sister’s dumbass neighbor who was chopping limbs off a tree in his front yard with a chainsaw with a dangerously dull chain held way overhead would lob off his hand, arm, and face, and that it would land on his too-fucking-cute, nine -year-old daughter’s panties as she was at the zenith of her way-too-fucking-cute somersaults. But what I did instead was to go over and suggest he use the available ladder he had next to the tree, qualifying my free advice with the true fact that my sobriquet is “Chainsaw John," and when leaving his lawn, I smiled and waved to his little still-too-way-fucking cute daughter. That’s the new kinder, gentler John D. Morton. Now to find one’s way out of this labyrinthine parenthetical morass!

Is there anything you wish you didn’t do or say in the eels?
Having regrets for an action is not the same as wanting to change the past. If the eels were not violently implosive without an idea of how to get a gig, we would have been the Dead Boys; that’s said with respect. However, we would not have removed our Nazi regalia if the record producer made a big stink about her parents being in Dachau or something. Then again, the eels never made it into a recording studio.

How did Jon Savage become aware of the band and how did his enthusiasm get the Agitated 7" to come out on Rough Trade?
Cleveland musician, Jim Jones (Pere Ubu, Mirrors, Easter Monkeys) was roadying for Pere Ubu before he joined the band on their first European tour. He made the acquaintance of Jon Savage at an Ubu gig, and they were sitting in the Ubu van talking. Jim put in a practice tape of the eels. Savage went gleefully ballistic and called Rough Trade the next day, insisting they put out "Agitated" as a single. When Rough Trade contacted Paul Marotta about it, Paul noted that the recording quality was poor. They responded, “We don’t care if it was recorded in a closet.”

Cover art for electric eels' 'Spin Age Blasters' / 'Bunnies' 7"

Were you bitter at all that the eels were gaining recognition after the fact?
That seems the way it is for me. This spring, I was putting together the X______X’s X STICKY FINGERS X album which Jon Savage wrote the liner notes for. A lot of work, graphics, sound files, editing type stuff was done. Later on in that evening, I went back to work re-creating a sculpture that was originally exhibited in “The Real Estate Show” (Dec 1979) after we broke into a city-owned building in New York City. The James Fuentes Gallery was mounting a reprise of the original exhibition. Oddly, the gallery is located on Delancey Street, same as the original show. Then I remembered that it was my 61st birthday that day and I was working on two projects that were initially produced over 35 years earlier. Better having a 61st birthday than not. Better working on two projects that are 35 years old than not.

In summary, I’d rather gain recognition after the fact than not at all. It was a vindication; that we weren’t just a bunch of talentless fuck ups that couldn’t play. Well, I guess we were fuck ups, but talented.

What is your relationships with the other eels like at the present time?
Pretty strained. I think they think we are The Beach Boys. There’s lawyers involved and back biting over a couple dollars. Really fucking sad. I did get some payback by buying the domains Brian-McMahon-is-a-scumbag.com and Paul-Marotta-is-a-nazi.com. Well worth it at ten dollars per domain for a year. Revenge is best served as a dish.

I tried to get hold of Dave E. when X__X did a gig in Cleveland in November, but his phone number had changed and no one else knew of another number. He has been very elusive over that past decades. I finally just stopped over at the address I had; something I do not do. I never just show up, I always call. I knocked, but no answer. I looked into the windows which were lighted but I saw no people; only an empty birdcage. That is very Dave E. iconographically. I wrote him a snail mail. I think Dave E. is a genius, a loving, hilarious, emotionally and physically troubled person, but during the aegis of the eels he was my best friend, and I have not had too many of those.

Why do you think there is still an interest in the eels forty years after the band existed?
Because we were good, innovative, and we synthesized worthy new music. Call it proto-punk or punk; we were just doing the music that sounded right to us. Dave and I seriously worked at building a new genre of music. Not in a grandiose way; we really plotted out what the best music would be for us. I think we would be a huge success, but it has taken forty years to get our fifteen minutes. I saw Dave E. about twelve years ago, and when he went to piss or something, his wife asked where I knew Dave from. When I told her I knew him from the eels, she looked surprised and said, ‘David was in a band?’ He just locked that part of life away like it had never existed. I feel a little bad about talking about Dave at all, but with our history together, I can’t really talk about myself or the eels without talking about him and how he has dealt with it. He is a public person who denies it.

We eels stood on the shoulders of giants and I do say this with humility.

This is random question, but I interviewed Brian McMahon back in 1996 and he told a story of you two going to see Derek & The Dominos. He told me you wore a teepee to the gig. Is this true?
Yes, it was half of a pup tent. It made a great stylish waterproof cape.

The re-issues of the electric eels material can be ordered directly from Superior Viaduct here.