Hard, Loud And Fast:
By Ryan Bartelmay

First posted: 5-31-01

After dropping out of college in the early seventies, Eric Bogosian, like many of his generation, left his Woburn, Massachusetts home for the cultural epicenter of New York City. Twenty-five years later, Bogosian is an established writer and thespian with a recognizable face. Although his website claims that only .25 percent (or one in four hundred) of America’s population is familiar with his work, those of us who know Bogosian identify him as the irreverent poster-boy for attitude, the satirical stabber who manifests his wit in his writing and the actor with a full-throttle, in-your-face energy.  

He’s the writer and ranter of the three Obie Award-winning one-man shows Drinking in America, Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, and Pounding Nails in the Floor with My Forehead. He’s the scribe behind the stage play and movie SubUrbia. And he’s most recognized as Barry Champlain, the character he originally wrote for the stage play Talk Radio and later immortalized in Oliver Stone’s 1988 film adaptation.  

And now he’s written a book, Mall—a novel with characters so removed, yet so familiar to the suburban landscape. Like all of Bogosian’s characters, Mall’s subjects are slaves to their addictions, alone in the night looking for their next fix, whether it be sex, drugs, food, underwear models or murder. Their lives collide one night at the shopping mall when the main character, Mal, sets the plot into motion by going berserk with a duffel bag full of weapons in a tuxedo rental store.

Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Bogosian via telephone about his latest literary offering, some of his past work, punk rock aesthetic and what the hell to call this man of many faces.

I think a lot of people associate you with Barry Champlain [from Talk Radio], at least because of the anger and the ranting. How much of that character is you?

It’s me minus parts. In those days, I was pretty hot tempered; I was pretty difficult. I created a character that was that way without any remorse for being that way. If it makes people happy, then, yeah, I’m like the guy. I think that’s the romance in believing in over-the-top performers, but I’m not going to pretend I’m like that any more.

So, you’ve toned it down a little bit over the years?

If I kept it up like I was fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t be alive today. I had to do something. I’m still who I am. I guess there’s a part of me who is lively.

Do you still have some of that attitude?

To use the analogy of punk rock, you can say they [punk rock musicians] are playing songs, but there are many ways to play songs. You can play them hard and loud and fast, and that’s a style. I guess that’s what I’m doing with my stuff, I’m playing hard and loud and fast. So the style is just as important to me as anything in particular that I’m doing.   

How has the one-man stage show changed over the years?

For a long time, my shows were about people walking out or about getting my gigs canceled or having the presenter not wanting to pay me. Then one day it all switched, and all of a sudden it was really cool to see my stuff or cool to come to my shows. And I was kind of surprised, but I liked it. Nobody likes to be unpopular, and I was starving, too. But it changed the way it all works. It’s all kind of a wink-wink now, instead of me being more desperate when I was doing it at smaller places a long time ago.

I read on your website that you are frequently called a performance artist, but you don’t consider yourself a performance artist.  What do you call yourself?

I don’t think of it that much. I like words. I’m a talker, but that comes in all different forms. I write, but I also act. I don’t know. I guess monologist when it comes to my one-man shows, but that sounds pretentious. Monologist sounds like someone who’s British, someone who’s going to teach you a lesson. I don’t think describing or giving myself a label or even telling people what characters I’m going to play will give you a sense of it. I don’t know anybody who does what I do. I’m very underground. I think of myself in relation to performance the way Tom Waits is to music. I have my own particular crowd that likes my stuff. It’s raw and it’s funny. But it’s not Neil Simon funny. It’s Frank Zappa funny.

In your work, you frequently portray youth as lazy and dull-witted, definitely lacking motivation. I’m specifically thinking of the adrift characters in SubUrbia, the ridiculous, drugged-out kid in Talk Radio and the mall rats in your novel. How do you view youth of today? Is it with disdain?

I don’t view anybody with disdain. If there’s somebody I disdain, then I don’t write about them. I do write about people who are complex and are striving with something and can’t quite get past their own stuff, which would be a proxy for myself because that’s what the deal is with me.

I get the feeling that Jeff in SubUrbia and Jeff in Mall are a literary manifestation of a seventeen-year-old Eric Bogosian in Woburn, Massachusetts.

Yeah, they’re me. I don’t know how anybody can really see himself, but I’m trying. I know that I’m inadequate, but I never thought that at seventeen. I thought I was doing the best I could. I thought I was being idealistic. I’ve wanted to write about that type of confused character who is trying to do the best thing, but isn’t sure what that may be.

I think it’s interesting that Richard Linklater adapted SubUrbia to the screen. I thought the two of you collaborating was a strange coupling. How did it come about?

I was a big fan of Dazed and Confused. I thought Rick would be a very good choice to get that type of energy. The stage show has a lot of energy, although he chose to shoot it in a way that was more laid back than the stage show. I like him. He seems to come from a similar place of trying to understand where we are and where we are going in this culture.

I think of him as glamorizing the adrift mentality, but in your play and the movie, I get the feeling you’re critical of the slacker lifestyle.

I don’t know that I was saying this is wrong or this is right. From my perspective of a guy in his late forties, it’s becoming more and more clear to me that the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do all depend on what part of life you are looking at it from. If we all lived to be twenty-five and we all knew we were going to die on that day, who could say what would be the right thing to do up to that point? Maybe the right thing to do is to race your cars around and sit around and drink all day and never think about the future, which is the natural way to be when you’re that age. If we all knew we were going to live to be 150 years old, we’d all approach our lives very differently. So, I’m interested in that. Because I’m always interested in the right move. Is there a right move? Maybe there isn’t a right move. I think that’s where I ended up at the end of that play, anyway.

With Mall, why a book and not a play or movie?

Well, there are some things I could do in a book that I couldn’t do in dialogue. I can hear people’s thoughts. I can take a point of view past all the characters. In the book there was a larger point of view, which was my feeling about the suburbs. Also in a book, I have no constraints on time and place. There are playwrights who do that, who make cuts, and it’s a lot of lights going up and down. I can’t stand that stuff. In a book it’s effortless, wherever I want to go I go to that place. I’m in a lounge, I’m in a new car lot, wherever I want to be. I’m in the woods, I’m in Haiti, bam, I’m there.

Did you like the experience of writing a book?

I loved it.

A recent issue of The Boston Globe ran a negative review of your book. What do you think of critics who tear people down to make a name for themselves?

Well, it doesn’t really hurt the book because in the long run books are about word of mouth, and over the years I’ve had enough bad things said about me. I think everyone has the right to say what they like or don’t like, just don’t tell me what to write. Don’t tell me how to write the book. They can say it doesn’t work for me. I think that’s honest. I don’t understand how that works from a critic’s perspective. It would seem obvious that not everything is to everybody’s taste. I don’t like everything, but I don’t say that person doesn’t try or that person doesn’t do good work.

The characters in Mall seem isolated from each other, each having their own internal problems. The only character that externalizes his problems is Mal. Do you think this "burying of problems" that manifests itself as extreme rage like "shooting up a mall" is indicative of suburbia?

If you say city to people, people have no problem thinking of the city as rife with problematic, screwed-up people, but if you say suburbs—and I’m not the first person to say this, it’s been said over and over again in literature—there’s a sense of normalcy. It certainly should be a happy place by design. But, there are all kinds of bad things happening there. Jeez, now you have me all worked up about this review. Did he just rip me a new asshole?

No, no, no, no. I wouldn’t say he ripped you. It was like you were saying earlier, why do critics think they can tell people what to write about. He basically said, another Eric Bogosian waxing of suburbia and how it’s overplayed.

It’s my territory. It’s like telling Louis Armstrong not to play the blues. I think the funny thing about me writing about the suburbs is that I grew up in the suburbs, and they are very deeply a part of me. I still spend a lot of time in them. If all I ever wrote about was inner city freaks, I think it would be dishonest. I think it is more important for me to write about the middle-class people and their foibles than to be endlessly regenerating these very interesting underclass people. I can’t claim to be one of these people, because I’m not. The honest thing would be to be honest. Who am I? I’m a guy who has two kids and drives an SUV and pays rent and looks at a computer screen all day long. Like a lot of other people. And those are the things I want to talk about.  

Do you want to be remembered for what you say or how you say it?

I think how I say it.

Really, that surprises me.

I don’t think I’m saying anything that hasn’t been said before. It’s all been said. I don’t think of myself as groundbreaking. I’m just a guy who’s here now, doing stuff now. As soon as the dirt is hitting the casket, it’ll all be forgotten. There will be some little thing at the back of The New York Times: "Eric Bogosian, well known performance artist, died today at the age of 70 in an old age home in Queens where he’d been seriously ill for the last three years. Bogosian, noted for his performance art pieces, was one of the better known performance artists of the performance art era." And I’ll be up in heaven chewing my guts out over that one.

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