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The Jerry Moriarty Interview

GROTH: Describe the transition from a greaser to whatever the hell you became: a pseudo-beat, or something?

MORIARTY: No. First I became Ivy League guy. Totally: I had short hair —

GROTH: Sweaters? What does that mean, Ivy League? It’s hard to imagine you, even, as that.

MORIARTY: Yeah, it’s funny. I actually have some images to show you.

GROTH: So does that mean you were casting about, trying to find out who you were or what your persona was?

MORIARTY: I was just being the — OK, yeah, this is the history of me [showing photos].

GROTH: You had a greaser phase.  ]Looking at photos] Tough guy.

MORIARTY: Yeah, I’m doing the slight greaser thing. I think the one before it is even more — yeah. See, there we are.

GROTH: Ah.

MORIARTY: That’s at 17 or 16. Like one-button roll,  flannel suit, with the peg pants, ruffled at the bottom.

GROTH: And a cigarette.

MORIARTY: And a cigarette, always, that was part of the cool thing. That’s me in high school, I was the art editor of the newspaper, which — I was art everything. Mr. Art Guy.

GROTH: Were you in the Army [looking at a photo of Moriarty in a uniform]?

MORIARTY: No, I joined the civil air patrol, because I loved airplanes and that whole idea, but every time I got into a uniform, I fucked it up. Even Boy Scouts. I wanted to be in the Boy Scouts, so I get that cherry car I was talking about. The first year at Pratt, there I am on the right. No, I’m sorry, that’s my graduation — that’s the girl I married.

GROTH: The schizophrenic?

MORIARTY: Yeah. She’s great — she’s just another combination, Italian-Irish. Again, there is that pull.

GROTH: A certain exoticism there.

MORIARTY: Exactly, yeah. Now I’m in the Princeton look [continuing to show photos]. That’s because she was sophisticated. I’m the president of the dorm at Pratt, by the way, because I went in there, I was such an American boy, that all these vets said, “Well, he should be the president of the dorm,” and it was a brand-new dorm.

GROTH: There you go, the Ivy-League look, right here. Sweater, I was right.

MORIARTY: Exactly right: crew-neck and the Princeton haircut.

GROTH: A bit preppy.

MORIARTY: Absolutely. Not in person, but everything about that was preppy.

GROTH: No grease at all in that hair.

MORIARTY: No way. And that’s a surprise.

GROTH: [Laughs.] So you made a conscious decision at some point to change your style?

MORIARTY: Yeah. Well you could see the stiffs, the preppies. I didn’t have that distinction yet.  I sort of thought, “You’re in college now, right? So look like a college guy.” And Pratt had a big “P,” so people thought I went to Princeton.

GROTH: Better yet!

MORIARTY: I smoked a leather pipe, temporarily. I got over that though. Here I am, responsible. See, that’s a dorm right behind me there.

GROTH: So you were changing your look, but were you also changing the way you thought? I mean, did you try to conform to an Ivy League perspective?

MORIARTY: I didn’t have any sense of what it was. Everything was so brand new. When we came there from Binghamton, there was this guy from my hometown. The kid was going to art school, and his parents drove us down. He, I think, ultimately dropped out, but we drove in under the El. It was like going into a film noir: all the shadows coming from Myrtle Avenue out, and these cobblestone streets —

GROTH: In Queens?

MORIARTY: No. It would have been in Queens, yeah, eventually. This is Brooklyn then, from Manhattan Bridge going up Myrtle Avenue, in the district of Queens. And it was the El. I guess it’s not there at all now.

So here I am [showing more photos] for the first time seeing New York — I’d been in New York before, but not stayed much —but going for the first time to see the school. Because there was no in-person interview or anything, it was all done by mail. And it was like, “OK, it’s another world. We’re just driving into a movie, now. It’s another world and I am loving it.” I’ve got travel phobia, I’m the kind of guy who can’t go anywhere, but then I didn’t have that. Everything was supposed to be like this. I got in there, so here I am, I’m part of another experience, and how does one adapt to that? Because I know I was rapidly leaving my past behind, Binghamton is gone, there’s no way that could have any meaningful qualities to my existence. I had no attitude about their Republican brains, totally in public and country.

Rod Serling is from Binghamton, it is the original Twilight Zone. [Laughs.] When he got out, he actually made reference to Binghamton a lot, I think acknowledging his freedom from Binghamton, in a way. Not that anyone is held there; it’s easy to get out. It’s just like there’s kind of separation of values and things that happen.

GROTH: Am I correct? I seem to remember Binghamton was a working-class town, maybe an industrial town.

MORIARTY: Yeah. Endicott Johnson, which makes shoes, was mostly immigrants. My grandfather worked there. He was a coal miner at the turn of the century. He would never retire. You’re supposed to retire at 60, this guy goes and works in the shoe factory. He’s a tough guy. He was a Socialist, literally was a brawler in bars. Strong as an ox, scared everybody to death all the time. His family left him, just to get out of their home.

I had a grandfather who once took me on a walk at the age of 8. He wanted to walk from Binghamton to Endicott — which is like two towns away, but they’re all joined together, so it’s called the triple cities, but you’re walking on country roads there — to go to this factory he worked in.

So, I mean, I was eight years old. This guy takes out this chewing tobacco, like Indian chewing tobacco, which is another sign. And he says, “Here, have a bite.” “No, no, Granddad. I don’t want it.” And he goes, “No? You kids today.” At eight years old, he was walking to the mines, to go to work. My mom would — these cylinder lunch pails, they weren’t flat, so the soup would be in the bottom to heat the other stuff, so you would stay warm all day, so when you ate lunch, whenever, it would be warm. It was a real meal I got. And as soon as the pail didn’t drag on the ground, you went into the mines. Arm-length and the pail wouldn’t drag on the ground. So at eight years old it was just right so the pail wouldn’t drag on the ground. He’s walking off to the mines at five in the morning at the age of eight.

But he had a brain, but he never had any education, so he ends up being an organizer, then he finally becomes a drunk well into his later years, his 40s. So he wasn’t much of an inspiration as a grandfather. He’s not your usual grandfather, as if any of them are.

But in any event, he takes me for this walk, and we’re going down this road, totally back-country road, there’s like smashed possum on the road, all this pink shit all over the place. He said, “Take that off the road.” I said, “Granddad!” He said, “Take it off the road!” And I go, “Ugh.” And he says, “You kids today.” And he just keeps walking. I’m pulling this thing apart to pull it off the road. [Laughter.] I’m eight years old, and my little legs. And he’s over the hill now, I don’t even see him. He’s just still walking. I’m running: “Granddad! Granddad!” We walked fucking 10 miles, you know. I’m eight years old. We get there, he doesn’t even talk to me, he’s been maybe saying a few words, but he starts talking to his cronies, who are still working there in this tanning place, it stinks to high heaven. Totally ignores me now. And finally, he’s through with his friends, and we get on the bus and come back. That was my experience with my grandfather. [Laughs.]

GROTH: Wow.

MORIARTY: I love the fact that I had an experience with really a 19th-century man; this guy was totally 19th century; 20th century baffled him. 

GROTH: That would have been, let’s see, the year after the war.

MORIARTY: Yeah, right. 1946, ’47. And my mother didn’t know what the hell he did with me that day. She was surprised that he even … But I mean, he felt so little guilt about not being a good parent to his kids.

GROTH: Was your father in the war?

MORIARTY: No. My father, he volunteered, which is — they said, “No, Jack, you’ve got four kids and you work for a telephone company, so you’re useful.” [Laughs.]

And he volunteered. Not to get away from us, but he had that — he just missed World War I, because he was born in 1900. So he would have been 17 in 1917, and then he got the flu along with my mother, that big flu, that epidemic, and all their hair fell out. They survived, of course. They didn’t know each other, he was from Rochester.

GROTH: So he was a little old by the time World War II came around, too. 41.

MORIARTY: Yeah, he would have been 41. But he still … he had the hero thing, and he was a great Brooklyn Dodgers fan, and stuff like that.

GROTH: To get back to your journey in New York and at Pratt, you became an Ivy Leaguer, or a pseudo-Ivy Leaguer —

MORIARTY: Beginning: first semester. Because I was influenced by the girl I hadn’t yet married, because she was so smart and so — she was in the best sorority in high school. I was in the best fraternity, actually.

I was with all the rich kids. I was always in a different element: the rich people. I got along with them… but I sensed that there was a certain difference, but not anything insurmountable, because I did have my hand on the hope machine, after all. The one thing that cuts right through all those class structures is art. Not that they had any feeling for it, but they knew I was some kind of talent — especially rich people would say, “Well, this kid’s an artist.” One kid in my class in grade school, [his mom] sort of hired me to go and paint with her son to inspire him. But her son didn’t want to paint, he was in my class, he wanted to read books and stuff. So there’s a certain value they gave it, that if I didn’t have that, I was like zero. I was a good-looking kid, so I wasn’t really zero.

GROTH: But that definitely raised you in their estimation.

MORIARTY: Yeah, I think good looks — I mean, relative good looks, all-American looks, gave me more edge than I realized, even after … I only realized that since I got ugly.

GROTH: [Laughs.] When was this?

MORIARTY: Normal kind of aging. But the notion that I got some advantages as an illustrator, that I looked harmless, that I looked loyal, trustworthy, and kind or whatever, and I would accept responsibility with a great — whatever, you know. Just because you look [like you’re] not a problem, and I didn’t look wacky, I didn’t have things that I would… Even if I did stretch the look, I was playing the part, I wasn’t really weird. Even though, I was really weird. These people who are preppy looking are fucking strange.

GROTH: Oh yeah. More twisted than we are.

MORIARTY: Yeah. So here I was, acceptable in my playing a working-class guy type thing, even though I was truly that. But this was far more working class than me, and I always feel guilty about even accepting that. There’s people that are really working class, and we weren’t really that, we were lower middle class, perhaps, maybe upper working class, but I never got past that first thing as a sense of myself. But it’s not like we were poor or any of that other stuff. We just had enough, had to budget stuff, and no one sensed that. But I did know what rich was. That was clear.

So, when I was in this fraternity, it was like this sympathy thing, because I was one of the first kids to have a father die in high school, so that got a kind of sympathy. And then I got drunk as a pledge and I was a real problem for them, and I was determined not to quit on that, you know. So they had to give me extra paddles and things for me to stay, because I had all the — what they call black marks for being a bad pledge.

GROTH: What do you mean, extra paddles? What does that mean?

MORIARTY: Well, at the end, when they found out, at the last initiation. They whack you in the ass with rolled-up magazines, which hurt, but they won’t break your spine. So that last day you get your —

GROTH: They must leave marks —

MORIARTY: Yeah, and they sting like hell. I said, “Fuck you, I’m going to stay with it.”

GROTH: And that was the punishment for getting plastered?

MORIARTY: Yeah. Well, a bunch of us were supposed to serve the fraternity. I hate the idea of fraternities now, why is that even in high school, because clearly people from other sections of the city, who weren’t in this fraternity, wouldn’t even be asked. Because I was living in a certain part of town, even though in a poor section of it, I was OK, plus the fact that some people knew that my father died. I think that was how I got in … because I wasn’t a social guy, much. People would come to visit me in my house, because I worked in the cellar, they could squeeze through the cellar window, so they didn’t have to go through the house even. They’d come and they’d knock on the cellar window.

GROTH: In Binghamton?

MORIARTY: In Binghamton. They knew I’d be up all night, because that’s my hours. They would come to visit me and come into the cellar, and we’d drink and stuff there.

GROTH: This fraternity was at Pratt?

MORIARTY: No, this was at high school. Thank god there weren’t any fraternities at Pratt, because I wouldn’t have gone that route again. But I did meet a lot of rich people, and they weren’t bad. There’s a character problem there, because they pull up in these great cars and I’d pull up in my ’39 Chevy Coupe. And you’d go to fraternity meetings in their houses, and you go like, “Holy shit. Look at this.” I mean, they’ve got extra rooms and they got all this other stuff. Fraternity meeting at my house was like a crowded mess. But yeah, I wasn’t ashamed of it.

GROTH: But you knew the difference.

MORIARTY: I knew the difference. That was it. And I definitely related to the other extreme, well, not total extreme, but some other side of this.

GROTH: Well, back to Pratt. You start out as a greaser, you kind of turned into an Ivy Leaguer, and what was the next phase?

MORIARTY: The next phase was, when I got awakened to this sense of the beat scene, and the sense of really what went on there. It wasn’t what I assumed went on at Rutgers and Princeton. I had people in high school who had graduated with me who went to Rutgers and Princeton and these other places. I mean, not that they were the rich people — Rutgers is a state school, so that was free, and Princeton I don’t know if I did know anybody; I did know one person who went to Princeton. I know a person who went to Yale, too. And they were, you know.

You knew when you came home Christmas time, these guys were going to be all Ivy-ed up. Like, the difference between the way they were before, they just wanted to show that right away. And so I looked that way. But the next time, I realized, that’s not my ace in the hole. What they want me to look like, and what I want to look like, is an artist! So I got to be this so-called beatnik look, which I began to understand what that was. It’s totally phony, but there are real people that way.

GROTH: What’s this? Describe that look.

MORIARTY: Well, that look was a beard. You could still have the short hair, because beatniks had relatively short hair compared to what the ’60s did. But they had beards, and beards were like — if you had a beard in Binghamton, you were Castro. People would yell, they’d cuss, “Castro! Hahahha.” And you just realized this was retarded. These people, like — because I’m feeling my superiority, right? Talk about ego. I was working the ego maximum. Because now I got the art change, here, I got the art — what was really the difference, it wasn’t just because I had this skill in drawing Spider-Man, or then it was Superman. But I had these skills, and that wasn’t a lifestyle, it was like a party trick. I could also stick out my stomach in line in school, I could make a big fat stomach and sink it back. That was my other trick, between that and art, art had longevity. People got sick of the stomach thing. So the art thing was always renewable.

So, when I got to art school, no big deal, right? But there was this whole other race of people — and there are people that want to stay in their hometown, they’re art students, and it was a little like, why not spend that money you got, well, not money, but the opportunity? Why not take advantage of that? They didn’t want to not do that, and usually they were kind of boring artists. Not that I was exciting, but I was willing to be. It was as simple as that. I was, “Hey, it’s my movie now. I’m in this movie.”

GROTH: So you adopted a beat look.

MORIARTY: I adopted that, and then there’s a responsibility — if you’re honest to yourself, you look this way, you’re a guy with a beard, you’re a Unabomber. That’s what they called the guy that blew up the subways in the arch. I looked like a Unabomber. So I get on the subway, and strangely enough, even in New York, there wasn’t a lot of beards on people, especially working-class types. I mean, sophisticates might have them, but they wouldn’t be on the subway anyway.

So, the beard thing had legs, as they say. There was a bunch of us, not together — I mean, you didn’t want your friends to grow a beard when you had one. Goatees weren’t too cool, it was full beards: you had to look like you were committed. [Laughs.]  So I’m still getting haircuts. It was still Eisenhower’s time, you know. Just consider that: ’50s was Eisenhower’s period. And he was the grandfather of all that other stuff, and the biggest demonstration would be “Ban the Bomb,” that would be the only thing. Bertrand Russell’s “Ban the Bomb,” the upside down circle, that whole business. And there’d be solemn people there with “Ban the Bomb,” and they’re so pathetic, and you’d just look at them like some sorority/fraternity reject people, if there was such a thing.

GROTH: But the beats were a reaction against that buttoned-down Eisenhower sterility.

MORIARTY: Yeah. Plus, they had the WWII mentality, you know? That’s what we had there. We had Korean War mentality. These guys, we had sailors, we had Air Force guys, one of the first people I met was an Air Force guy. There was a guy who was a jet-fighter pilot who was in one of my classes. I fucked up on ROTC too. I actually joined ROTC. Anything that had a uniform, I joined, because I had this leftover John Wayne thing — Sands of Iwo Jima, the whole nine yards. Here I am now, I tried the Boy Scouts, and I couldn’t follow their rules. I tried CAP (Civil Air Patrol) and we were just doing close-order drill all the time, I thought that sucked, and we never got into an airplane once. So at school, I joined the ROTC. Then I figured, this is serious, now. I can be a lieutenant, after this, really.

GROTH: So you had these conflicting images.

MORIARTY: Yeah, the hero side, which was real world, and then the artist-hero side, which was my world, in a sense. I had this, and still do, these bifurcations. I go between these two … not extremes, because they’re not that far apart in me, but when I slip, I slip into —

GROTH: John Wayne and Allen Ginsberg are pretty far apart.

MORIARTY: But I think in a Warhol sense, they’re not that far apart. In the beat sense, they’re not that far apart. They are, yes, ideologically far apart, but their belief structure and their hero concepts are the same. I mean, whether one’s Burroughs and the other is John Ford. He didn’t go to war, John Wayne didn’t. John Ford did. John Ford always asked him, “Why didn’t you go?” He said, “Well, I have this old football [injury] — ” Bullshit.

GROTH: Like Reagan.

MORIARTY: Yeah, right. Well, Reagan, at least, appeared in training films. [Groth laughs.] John Wayne never even did that. And he’s the guy who’s the image of World War II. He’s the one guy who didn’t go.

So the hero thing was real life now, because I’m in art school, that’s a natural step. This is actually accessible, to be in art school with no clue what it was like — I mean, a totally unsophisticated kid. To me, I heard it was the best art school. It turns out Cooper Union was a better art school, but you had to get a scholarship to go there. And I didn’t know that at all. I found out Cooper Union was a better art school later, but it was fine by me, because it wouldn’t have been used as well as Pratt was for me.

So the first year is indoctrination, and I was totally on top of the social thing. Like I said, I was the president of the dorm, so I was arranging parties between the girl’s dorm and the boy’s dorm. In high school, when we graduated, I was the guy that spoke for somebody running for school president in front of I don’t know how many hundreds of people we had in my high school. So I was outgoing, I was taking the social thing further. My girlfriend, this girl, had brought me out. My car, too, which made me cool. I mean, everybody had cars, but people liked my car. So I had a lot of parking: I got laid my first time. So I was emerging into the world and willing to be there.

But before that, I was the kid who stayed in the cellar and did my art. I worked in a bowling alley, which was nighttime, instead of working as a caddy in a golf course, which is daytime. I set pins for the proletariat. I was a proletariat. There was these working-class people throwing balls at me, and I’m sending the ball back for them to throw it back at me. I wasn’t making any political connections, like caddies would make with Republican businessmen golfers in the fresh air. It was perfect, the set up, and it was not a problem, I had no pains about this, it was fine by me.

So to go to art school, I was exposed to— now there’s an intellectual quotient, which, I always felt that, and people always told me, “Oh, you can do better if you applied yourself.” They say that to dummies, too. There’s nothing new with that [laughs]. My school thing said I was not smart, in that sense of the word. Technically, I was for sure, and I’ll take full credit for that. But if I’m going to say I’m rationally smart, or academically smart, or even like comprehension from another source, I can comprehend visual things. I’m not going to say otherwise. But for the values of what people use as intelligent. I never knew what my IQ is. I think it’s a reasonable thing for me not to find out, because —

TAPE CUTS OUT

Transcription: Darby McShain, Kristy Valenti, Janice Lee

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5 Responses to The Jerry Moriarty Interview

  1. ant says:

    ….and OF COURSE he has great taste in music!
    Great interview; I treasure that Buenaventura Press edition of “Jack Survives”.

  2. patrick ford says:

    TAPE CUTS OUT

    Ouch. Would groveling help? It would be worth it.

  3. patrick ford says:

    MORIARTY: So between Superman and garbage men, which I had a great love for when I was a kid…

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_tah-KV4qmHA/TPVjuRYQ-AI/AAAAAAAAAUk/im4-okfW2_Y/s1600/trashytown_zimmerman.jpg

  4. David Roel says:

    I would try adjusting the speed in Audacity. I bet that would work.

  5. Adrian Hill says:

    It looks like the “here” link in the sentence “there is more of Jerry Moriarty here” is broken.

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