An Interview with the Late Counterculture Publisher Adam Parfrey

By Tamra Lucid

Source: Reality Sandwich

The following interview was originally published on Newtopia Magazine. 

Adam Parfrey has left the building. On May 10, the writer, publisher, and journalist passed away at the age of 61. He was a great curator. His curio shops, Feral House and Process, showcased the most fascinating underground culture and lost history for decades. Finding one of his creations at a Tower Records changed many a life. He found, encouraged and presented a treasure trove of writers on a spectrum of subjects from the absurd to the profound. As Isis Aquarian said, so much would have been lost if not for his efforts. Not just books, but people. Many an odd ball and rogue scholar found a home under Feral House’s wing.

Adam was working on his memoir. What a loss that we won’t have that. There’s no one to compare him to in publishing. He broke new ground, pissed off all the right people, and even managed to keep his business and his community intact as Amazon grew enormous and Tower Records disappeared. And that was just the tip of his iceberg.

I’ll miss his sardonic wit, the hearts he’d place on certain posts (a conversation in itself), his readiness to answer my questions about all sorts of shit having to do with publishing and culture in general, and that feeling that a giant was still standing in the world of independent creativity, a creative force who impacted so many lives, and who gave confidence, inspiration, education and opportunity to many.

Here’s an interview I did with the man a few years ago.

 

Tamra Lucid: So let me get this straight, you went to Santa Monica High School in the early seventies?

Adam Parfrey: Yes, dear old Samohi. I lived near the Ventura County Line, and the school bus rides were an hour each way. On the way into Santa Monica, the bus picked up a girl with special needs who seemed to always choose to sit next to me. She was an epileptic, and all too often she would have a seizure in which her arms were flailing into my face. Fellow students on the bus shouted at me to stick a pencil into this poor girl’s mouth. I knew nothing about what to do, but it didn’t seem wise to me to stick writing utensils into her mouth.

Then attended UCLA (where you were co-editor of the Arts Section of The Daily Bruin?)  So what was it like? 

This was 1976, and I learned a great deal about writing doing reviews and features. At this time I received a small stipend, too. This was a time when it was quite cheap to attend school. One of my biggest memories of working on this paper was the time when Iranian students were protesting The Shah, and for reasons unknown they decided to not allow us to leave the building while chanting “DOWN WITH THE SHAH!” The good thing about all this was that I was able to purchase from the protesters the earliest Khomeini propaganda that included great political cartoons of Jimmy Carter as Satan himself.

Were you an already macabre fish out of water or did the surfer stoner good vibes inspire you to counter them? Or did you simply party away all the mellow until only the feral remained?

Though I loved living near the beach, and did a lot of fishing, clamming, and body surfing, I was very pale, dark-haired and looked too goth prior to the time that goth even existed. As such, I did not fit the surfer archetype at all. I also didn’t much care for the “Locals Only” xenophobia.

When you were 21 you toured with what you called a “second rate Shakespearean company.” What roles did you play?

This group was called The New Shakespeare Co., and it was run by a Weimar-period German woman named Margit Roma and her man friend. She spoke about Max Reinhardt to me a great deal. We traveled around the country, particularly the deep South, and we were particularly coveted visitors by the girls at women-only Christian colleges down in Georgia and Tennessee. Sometimes we’d crash at locals’ homes. One woman in Arizona imagined that I looked like Elvis Presley, and as such wanted me to fulfill her Elvis fetish. The group was racially mixed, and as a result we were booted from some cafes and motels in some towns in Mississippi and Alabama. It gave me an understanding why so many honkies are particularly venomous about our mulatto President.

I joined this group to see the country, and we did, but mainly from the point of view of the cheapest hotels at the perimeter of various towns. I was hired after Margit Roma saw me in a touring college production of A Midsummer Nights Dream playing Oberon. It was all strange fun.

The hilarious Encyclopaedia of Hell: An Invasion Manual for Demons Concerning the Planet Earth and the Human Race Which Infests It compels me to ask if you were a fan of the original National Lampoon.

That magazine was a great thing for a while in the ‘70s….

How is the evolution (devolution?) of publishing and book selling from brick and mortar to ebooks impacting Feral?

Our office is now in our house, and we try not to have too many expenses so that there are lesser consequences to selling fewer books, as it happens these days. Several chains that sold a lot of Feral House books are now out of business… Tower Books, Virgin Megastore, Borders… also a lot of independents. People have so many distractions today in the form of reading material that I’m amazed that we’re still able to keep going. But we do.

You co-wrote and published Ritual America in 2012, accompanying the stops on your book tour with a slide show.  The book reveals the American fetish for secret societies and shows how even the most apparently innocent can turn out to have dark secrets.  What was the most surprising fact for you personally that you uncovered?

What surprised me the most was that at least half the entire country belonged to some secret society or another from the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, how they were literally everywhere and possessed a major role in the structure of the nuclear family.

This year the film you co-produced The Source documentary, directed by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos, played SXSW and other important film festivals. Besides the hot hippie chicks, what drew you to this quirky story of a judo champion who had once robbed a bank who turned into an organic foods pioneer and guru to a small tribe, many of whom still revere him?  What have you learned about the rapidly changing world of documentary filmmaking?

Jodi and I had great interest in “cults” and communes, and how society treated and often mischaracterized them. I was working on a book about The Process Church of the Final Judgment, and one day while browsing Amoeba Records I discovered a student video about The Source Family and showed it to Jodi, who on her own contacted the group, and as a result had a long-lasting connection to many ex-members. First was the book, and then Jodi and Maria’s film, which is really extraordinary. They did a great job with it.

With the white witch of Los Angeles, the glamorous Maja D’Aoust you co-authored the Secret Source in 2004, a revised edition was released this year.  The book shows how the ideas behind the fad of positive thinking unleashed by The Secret are just the latest in a long line of positive thinkers that ultimately reach back to some of the most profound, esoteric, and ancient roots of spiritual culture. It passes what I guess is the Adam acid test: does it muckrake?

There were a few things I discovered and revealed about people involved with The Secret, but the primary reason for the book was unveiling the occult beliefs in American and world history.

But the tone is sincere and frankly metaphysical. Is this the inner Adam?  Or did you adopt neutrality while traveling through yet another intriguing frontier?

It would have been easiest for me to fall back on a skeptical point of view, and disparage all metaphysical ideas as utter hogwash, but that wouldn’t have been true to my personal experiences. For example, before I took Ibogaine I would have never believed that plants had a certain intelligence and connection to human experience. Now I cannot deny that it happens. Now I see Skepticism, the kind with the capital S, as another belief system that provides comfort to many by empowering believers with the illusion that they know all. Why reduce the mystery of the Universe to ideas that can be encompassed in a 6th grade Science class. BTW, I love Science, and have subscriptions to Science magazines.

In 2012 you published Psychic Blues: Confessions of a Conflicted Medium, a book by a three-decade veteran magician from the Magic Castle about his career as a cold reader pretending to be a psychic. It reminds me of the popular documentary Kumare, because both pose the question can someone pretending to have spiritual insight to scam people actually do some good despite themselves?  As the author himself says, no doubt sometimes something is happening, but when you try to make a buck off it consistently it turns into pure entertainment. The Fox Sisters could have told him that a hundred years ago!

Actually the Fox Sisters found their way into Ritual America.  It intrigued me that the author of Psychic Blues didn’t reduce psychic beliefs to a total Nightmare Alley situation, but I’m also interested in the ways of those who conduct those gypsy scams, too.

Still, I’d be surprised if you hadn’t had any uncanny experiences yourself?

I have.

In 1995 in an interview in Cyberpsychos you said you believed you might be on some sort of blacklist. While magazines like Conde Nast would call you for ideas, they wouldn’t entertain the idea of simply publishing your writing. So are you blacker now more than ever?

For a couple years after Apocalypse Culture was first released, it sold well and had certain notoriety, but for some time no one wrote about it or reviewed it. Some of this, I think, had to do with an article called “Aesthetic Terrorism” which tried to draw the blinds on the scammery of Fine Art. It even named names, and you just don’t do that because a lot of people in that world controlled magazines and newspapers. I didn’t say the right things or kiss the right ass to receive media glory.

Has almost two decades of the world wide web changed the way blacklists work?

Absolutely. Prior to the web fewer people and fewer publications controlled a great deal more. Now it’s all everywhere, and even the New York Times does feature articles on Feral House publications, like the other day with a piece on Psychic Blues.

You commissioned and published Snitch Culture: How Citizens are Turned into the Eyes and Ears of the State, before Bush won the 2000 election, before 9/11.  So you’re probably not surprised by how much more privacy and liberty have eroded under Bush and Obama?

We tend to forget what happened under the Clinton Administration, like the so-called Crime Bill, which later ushered in Bush’s Patriot Act. Both Democrats as well as Republicans are interested in building up the police state.

In 2002 you edited Extreme Islam: Anti-American Propaganda of Muslim Fundamentalism.  You took strong stands when you published 50 Reasons Not to Vote for Bush in 2004, and then 35 Articles of Impeachment and the Case for Prosecuting George W. Bush.  It was a courageous choice since you were potentially inviting trouble, again.

Disliking George W. wasn’t a particularly courageous choice. Difficult not to speak out when this douchebag was our figurehead.

Last year you were involved in an interesting problem regarding the Process Media book The Urban Homestead: Your Guide to Self-Sufficient Living in the Heart of the City, published three months before the Dervaes family, one of a handful of urban farming pioneers, decided to trademark “urban homestead.”  On Valentine’s Day you received the cease and desist letter that had been popping up in mail boxes across the nation as the Dervaes tried to sew up their control of the phrase.  Then mentions of the book began disappearing from Facebook, from Process Media’s own page!  Facebook told you they were banning the links until they heard otherwise from the owners of the trademark.  You warned the Dervaes you’d take them to court if they didn’t back down, but they didn’t back down.  Of course, I want to know what’s happened since, but also how did you feel about Facebook deciding to vanish your important book and what it says about the potential and actual pitfalls of digital culture?

The great Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has taken up our cause with Urban Homestead and the patent/trademark office. Hopefully this govt. organization will see that they gave a private party the ability to abuse rights to a generic common term. Thousands of backyard gardeners support our cause here, and even have their own Facebook page.

Five years ago you left Los Angeles for Port Townsend, Washington, like Gertrude Stein leaving Paris for her farmhouse, instead of salons you now entertain stayovers. I know you visit often, but what made you give up on your hometown? And what do you love best about your new hometown?

It may sound strange, but in LA I felt bombarded by issues of traffic and electromagnetic radiation, and felt better getting out to the country, where I can more easily grow food and keep a big dog and chickens. I like to get out of Port Townsend in winters particularly. I do love LA too. My past is all there, and so are many of my friends.

What new projects are you working on that you’re excited about?

I’m glad to say that my excitement level of projects that I’m working on have not receded at all.  One book coming soon is called “Dying for the Truth”… It’s primarily from the Mexican blog called blogdelnarco.com … But the book has other images and information that has not yet appeared on the blog.  The book is called “Dying for the Truth” since the journalists and citizens involved in it have been threatened and killed as a result of revealing the gruesome stark truth of what’s going on just South of the border and throughout Mexico itself.  It’s going to be particularly difficult to publish due to the insanity of the situation down there, the stacking of bodies and limbs and the bizarre dark aesthetic of the murderers. It may be the most gruesome book that’s ever been published. But we need to examine why much of Mexico and its citizens are dying.  We’re also excited about forthcoming films with scripts that I co-wrote. One is a feature film based on Lords of Chaos, and the other is a thriller of sorts based on the weirder aspects of the JFK assassination cover-up called “Dallas in Wonderland.”

You’ve seen society from so many unique and often ignored perspectives through so many changes from the hippie optimism that flourished when you were a kid to today’s rampant pessimism. Looking to the future of our country and our world what is your biggest fear and what is your biggest hope?

This a complex issue. I’m not a fan of mass movements per se; they seem to bury unorthodox thought, but I do see a need for hive-like beliefs if the human race wishes to carry on in the future. What are seven, eight, nine, ten billion humans going to do when the land and water is totally poisoned and exhausted? It may not be pretty.

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