As a luminary with a decades-long career in music promotion, science, and visual arts, Howard Bloom likely doesn’t mind being called a Renaissance Man—and not just because one of his personal heroes is Galileo. I talked with him about topics as varied as his history with the internet, getting kicked out of his own art studio, and potentially founding the hippie scene.
Edmund Barker: Hello Howard, it’s a pleasure to talk with you. Now let’s get the serious questions out of the way first—are you the real-life Buckaroo Banzai with your dual loves for rock music and science?
Howard Bloom: Real life what?
EB: Oh, it’s a movie with Peter Weller. I just bring it up because he plays a rock-and-roll-playing astrophysicist in it…I think.
HB: Well, I guess so…I mean, I got into science at the age of ten. I was the most unpopular kid in Buffalo, New York—no other kids wanted anything to do with me! And my parents didn’t seem to want anything to do with me either. One day, this book opens in my lap, and you know how books are at that age…you know the location of every book in your parents’ house. But this was a book that had never been there before, I opened it and it said the first rule of science was “the truth at any price, including the price of your life.” It gave me the example of Galileo…it told the story all wrong, but it gave a raw version that I really needed, a version in which Galileo is willing to go to the stake to defend his truth. So I went on to the second rule of science, which said “look at things under your nose as if you’ve never seen them before, look for things invisible to you and everyone else and proceed from there.” It gave the example of Anton van Leeuwenhoek, who made the microscope. So those two rules became my religion, and I started reading two books a day about science and science fiction…one book under the school desk and the other when I got home from school. At the age of twelve I started assembling scientific credentials…minor ones, like co-designing a computer. I schlepped in for a meeting at University of Buffalo, my hometown school, and instead of giving me five minutes [to talk] as a courtesy, they gave me a full hour. We discussed the hottest topics in science at the time, like the big bang theory. We came out of the office and he [the department head] put his hand on my shoulder and told my mom, “You don’t need to seek grad school for him, he’ll get fellowship at any school he wants.”
And I was tutored in outside-the-box science by the head of research and development for the company that made the valves of the first plane to break the sound barrier. When I was thirteen—look, here’s where the rock and roll comes in—I was a musical incompetent. My mom thought, “ok, he’s Jewish, he’s skinny, he’s little, he looks like a perfect violinist.” She got the second violinist of the Buffalo Philharmonic to give me lessons, and one day we were there in the living room with the book open. I was scratching away at whatever I had been practicing for that week, and I suddenly saw a fist the size of a ham entering the screen of my vision from the right…it hit the violin across fifteen feet, right into the velvet curtains. Thank God they were velvet! It fell perfectly to the floor, in a crumple of velvet, so that was the end of me and the violin. A few years later, I got into jazz, and I wanted to be a trombone player…I enrolled into trombone class at my junior high school, and I was thrown out of it in two weeks. I had never heard of a kid being thrown out of music class of any kind in a school! So, I was a musical incompetent, but there were two things that happened that yoked music to my science. Number one: I realized at the age of twelve that I was an atheist, but I wouldn’t allow myself to confess to it, because my bar mitzvah was coming up, and it was gonna be the first party in Buffalo, NY I’d actually been invited to. There were going to be presents! So I kept it out of my mind, atheism, long enough to have my bar mitzvah and spent two months writing thank you notes for the presents…and then, by late August or early September, I was free and clear to admit to myself I was an atheist. Now, just after the first of September comes the Jewish high holiday. My parents were not observant, they went to Temple for weddings or bar mitzvahs with grandkids—but when it came to the high holidays, they were apparently deadly serious. So they somehow got me in a suit, got me in their four-door automobile, drove me all the way to Richmond Avenue where the synagogue was, and I wouldn’t go any further. I was hanging onto the doorframe with both hands while my parents tried to drag me out of the car by my ankles. Literally.
I had a revelation! Galileo made his discovery by taking this new device invented in the Netherlands, a piece of military equipment that allowed you to see the enemy troops coming before they realized you could spot them. It was called a spyglass, just a tube with lenses. And Galileo made a copy of it and instead of turning it horizontally, on the horizon, he did something ridiculous and radical—he looked at the sky. And that was ridiculous and radical because everybody knew that was the underside of God’s smock, that was God’s underwear; and you don’t look up God’s underwear. Plus, everybody knew what was up there. Aristotle had said that the circle and sphere were the only perfect forms, and that God was perfect. Hence, everything in the sky had to be a perfect sphere or perfect circle. And that’s not at all what Galileo discovered. He discovered there were things up there that looked like balls of rock and were filled with imperfections. Van Leeuwenhoek [the first microbiologist] made his discovery by taking something he used, a lens, as a draper in Holland who imported fabrics. He used the lens to see how fine the weave was on fabrics. But then he turned that horizontal lens downwards and looked at pondwater and human sperm. He discovered in both of them something totally unexpected—what he called an invisible animal kingdom. A whole world of living things we had shared this planet with ever since we had become modern humans 200,000 years ago and had never realized were there.
So there I am, clinging to the doorframe with both hands, my parents tugging at my socks and willing to turn me into a sack of meat being dragged up the street, my face braised like it’s sandpaper from the dragging, and I had a sudden insight. Since I’m an atheist, there are no gods in the sky, there’re no gods in the earth, but there are gods I can see. Where are they? They are inside this intense passion in my parents, willing to turn their firstborn son into a sack of hamburger to get him to the temple. And if the gods are inside of my parents, then the gods are inside of me. So, I felt my job as a scientist was to look at this phenomena of the gods inside of us, both through the lens of feeling it and understanding it scientifically. At the same time, when I finished cashing all the checks from the bar mitzvah, the first thing that I bought was something brand new—it was called a hi-fi. Up until that point we had gramophones, and they played without amplification through a horn. But the hi-fi worked different—it took all the bass sounds and it channeled them towards one big speaker, with all the treble sounds for a really high fidelity kinda music. So I bought one of those [players], and I’d listen to Bartok, Bach, Stravinsky, Beethoven, music like that. Why? Because rock and roll was the music of kids who beat me up, I didn’t wanna have anything to do with it! But then, there was a promotion at the grocery store—if you bought thirteen dollars’ worth of groceries, which worth roughly a hundred today, you could get this new thing called a long-play record for fifty-nine cents, and new one was offered every month. So I got the first record I could and it turned out to be the RCA Encyclopedia of Jazz: A Thirteen Volume Collection. I put them on my turntable three at a time and had six hours of uninterrupted music, and listened while I was awake and reading, then listened while I was sleeping. So music was intensely important to me…my uncle and I used to stand in front of a great big radio with twelve-inch speaker, unusual back then, and we’d compete to see who could identify a piece of classical music by its first four notes, or if we were lucky, its first note. That’s how music and science got together in my life.
EB: That’s fascinating, to compare your discoveries to Galileo’s thinking outside the box. Sounds like you’re equally interested in the cosmos and the microscopic world.
HB: And the internal world. I’m an atheist but I’m fascinated by what you’d call the spiritual world. When I was fourteen, I was seeking a mystical experience, I was seeking an ecstatic experience, and I was seeking the gods inside. I was doing it in a manner that my friend Robin Fox—he’s the founder of the anthropology department at Rutgers and the author of The Imperial Animal, an amazing book—he calls it being a participant of science, where you immerse yourself in something so you can feel it at a narrow, gut level, and try to understand. It’s what Margaret Mead did when she went to Samoa, and immersed herself so deeply throughout her study that she was named a tribal chief…to be a tribal chief, they had to admire her as one of their own. So that’s what I was into when it came to ecstatic experiences. Then I heard there was a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience, and it sounded like this book was made as if it were part of my quest. It took me six months to find a copy, because we didn’t have Amazon in those days, and Buffalo isn’t a bookstore-rich city. But finally at the University of Buffalo bookstore I find a copy, and it was as if William James wrote this book in 1902 and left it for me. He left five examples of the ecstatic experience, including George Fox, who saw blood raining from the sky and running down the streets of Lichfield. He was the founder of Quakerism. It included Saint Teresa, who lay in her dark, cold stone cell at night, and felt angels and Jesus piercing the walls and her with a flaming spear…it gave her the ecstatic experience of being carried high above the earth, where she could see everything filled with a love of God beyond what she could imagine. She founded an order of nuns that is still going strong today.
William James’ message was twofold: “here are five examples of the ecstatic experience you’re seeking. I tried my best to understand with the scientific schools of my time, but couldn’t. When you come along fifty years later, you’re gonna have the tools. I left you this assignment.” And his second lesson was that these are psycho-pathological experiences, they are mental illnesses. They’re delusions. But in the hands of the right person, a psycho-pathological experience like this can be the engine of history, in the way that Quakerism was, in the way that Saint Teresa’s movement was. I wanted to explain this experience…it would take me years before I would connect it to the music I love so much, and the gods inside I was looking for. Eventually, I would find them in, of all places, the type of music I didn’t listen to: rock and roll!
EB: Inspiring. I can certainly relate to that drive to be “spiritual but not religious”, as I think Paul McCartney said.
HB: There is a phrase that can come in handy, someone used it on me a few years ago. They called me a “material mystic”. So you can embrace material mysticism.
EB: Material mysticism. I like that, I’ll remember it. Now, you wrote in the past about how you had a fifteen-year experience with chronic fatigue syndrome where you tried to stay active in showbiz while virtually bedridden. Do you think that prepared you for a year like this where everyone felt stuck in their homes at one point?
HB: Absolutely! You hit it on the head. In 1988 I became ill…at the time I had founded the biggest PR firm in the music industry, I worked with Michael Jackson, Prince, Bob Marley, Bette Midler, AC/DC, Aerosmith, Run DMC, Queen, Paul Simon, Billy Idol, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne, etc. And I helped establish the whole world of crossover country when it was trying to get out of the ghetto of the Bible Belt. I was involved with the editors of Rolling Stone in founding an entirely new genre, the heavy metal magazine. I started to work on research for my first book in 1981, and I was encouraged by a couple of journalists like Timothy White from Rolling Stone and AP to do it. Which of course I needed to do—I was raised by books the way that Mowgli in The Jungle Book was raised by wolves! I started assembling materials for the book in 1984, I had an outline by 1985 and showed it to Timothy White; it was only a page and a half long. It took him three hours to get through the first ten sentences and he said “Stop! Stop! Stop! I think you’ve got a book.” …so I started writing the book around 1988, and frankly I was getting tired of rock and roll. I thought I had learned everything I could, I wanted to get back to science. Now, when U2 came to me I showed no enthusiasm—I wasn’t a fan, I didn’t care for the music. When Mick Jagger’s assistant—who I loved—came to me and asked if I would work with Mick, I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to work with a spoiled rock star, I had done that already and simply wasn’t interested.
Then in 1988 I came down with an absolutely ferocious illness, which did not have a name…none of my doctors could tell me what it was I had. I ended up in bed, too weak to talk for five years, and too weak to have another person in the room with me. At first, in the first month, I struggled everyday to sit at my desk in my favorite office chair and do some work, it seemed impossible. I didn’t know what to do, and I felt stripped of my humanity, because you always have this image of what you’re going to be in the future…and if you lose your sense of a calling card that other people will recognize you for, it’s a very confusing time. So it finally occurred to me to ask my assistant to set up two computers next to my bed, that could be controlled by one monitor and one keyboard, and I went on the internet. Now with the internet, in the 1970s, I had been so envious of college professors that had access to this new thing, it was ridiculous. Then in 1983, I had a stroke of good luck. Someone in the music business worked out an arrangement by which if you subscribed to his service, you could be on the internet…in 1983! Before the IBM personal computer was available. So I’d been on the internet since 1983, but then I had to give up on living in the real world, and the only world where I could literally walk around was the internet. I was asked to give a speech at an art college, and they created a whole virtual world for the sake of lectures like mine. You met everybody in a virtual world, and you had an avatar, your avatar could fly through clouds and planets…and you could actually walk around through the greenery of their world [the campus]. So the only way I walked was in that world. The only way I could have a romantic experience was in that world. And I learned that the soul comes alive online. A person could weigh 400 pounds and have the face of a bulldog, and you wouldn’t know that, because she is online, where only her soul shines! And the same happens with you. Doesn’t matter if you’re five-foot-five—diminutive—which I am. It simply doesn’t matter, it’s the power of your soul. So I came alive online, I reconstituted and finally had an identity. I met one of my heroes in anthropology, Napoleon Chagnon, online, and he brought me into a group he was heading at the time, the Behavioral Evolution Society.
I was able to become a very vocal voice in that group, when I realized there was a problem in evolutionary biology—that nobody was able to accept something called group selection. Something called individual selection ruled the day, said that only competition between individuals counts in the process of evolution. I knew that groups count in evolution, as I saw a whole subculture develop around metal and around punk. Rap also gave a voice to a whole subculture. I had been helping subculture after subculture; I had been helping groups, and those groups were in competition with each other. There was no doubt about it. Plus, I had immersed myself in history since I was sixteen years old. You could find example after example after example, like Rome, of groups coming together to establish an empire or to rebel against Rome. There were other subgroups and migrants coming into Rome to pillage it in 1412 A.D. These were competitions between groups, not among individuals. Among the Yanomami people of Brazil, if your group is defeated enough times, the winners will steal your women and leave you as a refugee in the woods, watching your own garden from afar as your group dies out. So if you don’t belong to a group with winners, you suffer the fate of extinction. But the problem was group selection would not be accepted at all in mainstream evolutionary society, so I formed something called the Group Selection Squad. It was a team of about forty people from all over the world, and we successfully reversed the utter contempt in which group selection was held. We reversed the fact that if you spoke up or wrote an article about group selection, you would be banned from major publications and journals of significance, and you would lose your tenure. Your career would be over. We ended that, we made group selection speakable.
EB: So you were an early internet adopter.
HB: Oh, all of it. I was introduced, on the internet, to the director of computational intelligence at the National Science Foundation—which is the Vatican of science. He started to school me on something called space solar power; harvesting power in space and sending it to earth with the same sort of harmless signal as your cellphone. He introduced me to Pavel Karakin in Moscow, and Pavel and I wrote an article that appears in RC4, which was the pre-print leading site for advanced mathematics and advanced theoretical physics. All of this was online! It sounds like a rich and full life. I created two international scientific groups, the next one was the International Paleopsychology Project. And I wrote three books, and I sold my first book and published it while I was in a bed. The only reason I was able to do that was because of the internet. When we were confined to our homes and using the internet as our only means of social relation—hey, I have fifteen years of experience at that! This was natural to me.
EB: You saw the revolution coming, with how the internet would really bridge the home and the outer world.
HB: I was around on the internet, living my only life on the internet, when a guy named Jeff Bezos founded an online bookselling company called Amazon. In 1994 I was one of the first people to sign up for it. I was there when something new called the worldwide web was introduced, I was there when the first browsers were introduced, and I was there when Google was introduced. All these things, I snapped up avidly—why? Because my only life was online.
EB: I read somewhere that you got your start, before rock, in the visual art world. Is that right?
HB: Absolutely correct. I took poetry very seriously from the time I was fourteen years old, I spent a year writing one four page poem. And my life was guided by two pieces of poetry. When I was fifteen years old, I finally understood The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock by T.S. Eliot, and I latched onto a poem called Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay. The message of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock is, if you have something heroic to do, something you think will define you, something you think will bring the nubile young mermaids swimming at your feet…do it NOW. Don’t put it off for a single day. Start it this hour, because once you begin to procrastinate, you will continue to procrastinate. And someday you will wake up and realize you don’t have the energy to do that thing you had in mind. And you will spend the rest of your life in a state of regret. So if you have something important to do, do it now. And poem number two, Renascence, said that to understand the intimate in the tiniest things, you have to be able to feel the emotion of people all over the world—and the extreme emotions, especially sorrow and pain. And I took those poems so seriously that I started reading them out loud in high school. I went to the local jazz club, waited until the musicians got off the stage at two in the morning, and then read them out loud. It took me years and years and years to realize—I knew I was was reading these poems to people to wake them up, but I didn’t know I was reading them to wake myself up. So I love poetry, and I took classes from poets in residence at NYU. One day in my junior year, one said “Look Bloom, wait until everybody leaves the room, close the door, sit there.” And he pointed at a seat. I was in trouble for some reason, apparently. So I did as he said and sat, and he said “last year I asked you to be on the staff of a literary magazine. You never even showed up. This year I’m telling you: you are now the editor of the literary magazine. You don’t even have faculty involved with it. The minute you walk out that door, you are it. Now walk out that door.”
And I walked out the door all baffled and confused because I hated literary magazines! They had these pale, eggshell-blue covers that could put you to sleep, they had the most misbegotten choice of typefaces on the cover…if you had a rip-roarin’ party and tossed a literary magazine into the room, you could empty that room in thirty seconds. I wanted to have nothing to do with literary magazines. I stood there looking befuddled, and a student I didn’t know said “you look confused, can I help you?” I said “yes, I’ve just been named editor of a literary magazine!” And he invited me down for a cup of coffee—I didn’t know what having a cup of coffee meant, because I grew up among guinea pigs and lab rats in my bedroom. I ordered a glass of water and he ordered a coffee, then he asked me one of the most important questions of my life: “if you could do anything you wanted with the magazine, what’d it be?” I said that it would be a picture book, and he said “you got it.” So in addition to assembling a literary staff, I assembled a graphics staff. When that magazine first came out with its unusual format, it was called The Washington Square Review. The format was twelve inches by twelve inches squared, the same size as an LP. It was in full color, it was absolutely gorgeous, and one day I got a call that the student activities committee wanted to see me. I didn’t even know we had a student activities committee! So I showed up at their meeting, and they raved about this magazine, and they doubled my budget for the second issue. Have you ever heard of any budget being doubled in your life?
HB: I certainly hadn’t, but that became a common thing for me when I got into the corporate world later. So I gathered the staff—the second issue, by the way, nobody commented on at all; but I had calls from the art director at Look Magazine, which was a glossy, full-color magazine that came out every other week, and it was amazing. The art director at Evergreen Review, which was the leading bohemian magazine in the world at the time, and the art director of Boys Life—they all wanted me. So we had created a stir, but it wasn’t on campus. It was in the real world, where art innovation counted, and we were art innovators. So at the end of senior year I graduated magna cum laude at Phi Beta Kappa. The head of the graduate physics department had been right—I got fellowships at four different universities. They were in something that didn’t have a name yet, today it’s called neuroscience. And I realized that if I went to grad school, it would be Auschwitz for the mind! Here I was on the hunt for the ecstatic experience, for the gods inside. And I wouldn’t be let anywhere near those gods, I would be given paper and pencil tests for college students in exchange for psychology credits. How many ecstatic experiences are you gonna see when at a desk taking paper and pencil tests? Zero. Plus, there’s one other thing. I need to take you back for a second. When I was sixteen, my parents blessedly said that if I didn’t wanna go to public high school—which felt to me like prison—then they’d send me to this private school in Buffalo, with something like 400 acres of beautiful, gorgeous ground. And I wasn’t more popular there then I had been at any other place in my life. I got a soccer ball kicked in my face, for example. But there was this thing called the program committee. We had five assemblies a week, starting every day of the week before we went to our classes. And the head of the program emceed all five of them. One day, the juniors came to me and said “we’re having a dance, could you advertise our dance for us?” And they didn’t realize how absurd that statement was. If there was a dance anywhere in Buffalo, or a party of any kind, I was cordially invited to stay as far away as possible, preferably Cleveland or Phoenix, Arizona.
So this is another event coming up that I would not at all be welcome at. But I put a piece of music on behind the stage [at the dance], having no idea what I was gonna do. I cannot dance, Edmund! I cannot do the foxtrot, I cannot do the waltz, I can’t do any of it. And I danced…and it was unlike anything you’ve ever seen in your life. It was like a Looney Tunes drawn on a night when Chuck Jones had just dropped LSD. It was crazy, it was absurd, it was bizarre. I saw the people in the audience’s eyes widening, I saw their faces melt. I had an out-of-body experience…I was on the ceiling watching all of this take place. I felt the audience members spill into each other, one giant collective ball of energy, like an amoeba. And that amoeba of energy reached out to me like in a tunnel, and sent that energy into me from my navel to my head. All of the energy flowed out of my body and back into the audience again. And their eyes kept widening farther and farther and farther, and finally the piece of music finished. The audience did something that looked like they had practiced all their life, they did it with such perfection. It was something they had never done before in my high school experience and would never do again—they surfed me down from the foot of the stage, picked me up on a chair, and carried me out of the auditorium and up the walkway to the building where we had our classes, then let me down. It was amazing. Here I had been pursuing the ecstatic experience for approximately four years at that point, and now, all of a sudden, I’d had it.
So back to the arts studio. At the end of my final year at NYU I had all these fellowships, but they did not feel like the right place to be for the kind of experience I was pursuing. And I walked into the apartment of my lead [magazine] artist, the most astonishingly gifted artist. There was no furniture in the room, there was wall-to-wall carpet, and his wife, himself, and his three-year-old lady were all on the carpet crying. I asked what the problem was, and they said “the furniture has been repossessed, the electricity and phones are being turned off, and we’re being evicted from our apartment; we can’t pay the rent.” I said “but you’re fucking brilliant! If anybody sees your work, they’re gonna give you work right away! So if you put your work in a portfolio, I will take that portfolio out and get you enough work to pay rent. It’ll take me two weeks, and then I’ll be able to find a summer job before I go to Columbia University.” And he said “well, if you take my work out, you have to take out the work of my best friend too, because the two of us came to art school to found an art studio.” Well, his best friend I found literally nauseating. But, if that’s what it took to pay his rent, the answer was yes. So he put together a portfolio—he, his best friend, and his best friend’s wife—and I went out to find them work. At the end of the summer I got New York Magazine interested in doing a feature story on us, but I hadn’t found them any work. Now, when I start something, I can’t stop. Plus, my wife was signaling to me that I was her second marriage. Her first marriage had been to a guy going to school for therapy, and she gave me the signal she was tired of having stupid husbands. And I didn’t want to lose my wife. So I take all those factors together and call Columbia University to tell them I won’t be coming this year, I’ll be coming next year. I continued with the art studio, and over the course of time I made it on the cover of Art Direction Magazine, I invented a new animation technique for NBC TV, and we did all the graphics for ABC7 FM station as they were making a really heavy duty gamble. There was a new format that had popped up at Bart College, home of bohemianism, called progressive radio. It basically said that instead of just playing the Top 40, a DJ could play whatever he wants, including an entire album if he wanted to. And they adopted that format for a couple stations, it caused them suicide. They asked me to form an advertising agency to handle their work, which I didn’t want to do…but it was doing that FM station for ABC that got me into rock and roll. The head of promotions saw how ignorant was—I could only just about tell apart James Taylor and Carole King, because Carole King is the name of a woman and James Taylor is the name of a man. She tried her best to educate me in rock and roll, and one day she said to me “we’re having a live concert in Studio B, you can come.” So I said yes and brought my lead artist, the one who’d been crying on the floor. And my artist embarrassed the hell out of me. There was a piano player onstage who was very good, but my artist stood the entire time, he wouldn’t sit. He stood yipping, yapping, hollering, ooh-ing, and whistling. I was so embarrassed that I wanted to crawl under my seat, because everybody could obviously tell that I was blushing. And then the live album came out, of the event, and I realized something. When I am performing onstage, I live off the energy of the most engaged person in the audience…the energy of that person is what drives you. So Peter Bramley, my artist, had made that concert what it was, in part, by giving it his energy.
And this performer’s name? Elton John. And you can find this live album, today, if you want to. Go on Pandora or Spotify, and I suspect that if you listen carefully, you will hear yipping, yahooing, and hollering. And that is all my artist, Peter Bramley. So it was the art studio that led me into rock and roll, and then there was a guy named Matty Simmons, he’d invented something new called the credit card for American Express. He’d made a fortune, and he wanted to spend that fortune on a magazine—a magazine that came out of Harvard every single year, went on sale on newsstands all over the country, and sold out in two hours. So Matty went up to Boston, met the two people running the magazine that year, their names were Doug Kenney and Henry Beard, and he made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. He said if you come to New York, I will put you up in the finest homes, I will give you the finest salaries, and all you have to do is turn out that magazine on a monthly basis. They said yeah, and founded a magazine. The magazine in Boston was called The Lampoon. The magazine that Matty founded was called The National Lampoon. And it became the weathervane for humor in North America. That was it, humor central. Well, they hired me and my art studio to art direct the thing. So I brought that back down to Cloud Studio, and remember that untalented artist whose work made me nauseous? He basically told the other members of the studio “look, now we’re getting this great big fat check every single month from National Lampoon, why don’t we throw Howard out of the studio and take his percentage? We’ll have more money for each of us!” But what he was really doing was something more insidious. Not only was he trying to get me thrown out the studio, because he knew I wouldn’t let him art direct the magazine, he wanted to take over the art direction entirely, and he did. And he turned it into a nauseating mess. So that lasted seven months, then finally The National Lampoon got rid of Cloud Studio.
Now, when I was twelve years old, one day a girl in class did something I had never experienced before: she actually looked at me. And then she made eye contact. She told me that she had told her mother that I actually understand the theory of relativity. Well back then, the reputation of the theory of relativity was that only seven people in the world could understand it. And I didn’t understand it…yes, I was reading two science books a day, and achieving all these science accomplishments, but I didn’t understand the theory. So as soon as school got out I jumped on a bicycle and rode a mile to the local library, where the librarian knew me better than my mother did. And said “give me everything you’ve got on the theory of relativity.” They rummaged through their stacks, and gave me two books: a great big fat book by Einstein and two collaborators, and a little skinny book by Einstein himself. And I had learned that if you put yourself through the hardest thing, you get the most out of it. If you read a book you don’t think you understand at all, by the time you’ve finished it you’ll understand something. So when I got home I started with the great big fat book, which had about seven English words on a page and the rest were equations. And Edmund, I’ve never understood equations in my life.
EB: Me neither!
HB: So I put myself through fifty pages of that, and by eight o’clock that’s as far as I was into the book. So then I realized, okay, I now have two hours before my mom puts me to bed—two hours to understand the theory of relativity. I abandoned the big fat book and turned to the little skinny book, When I opened it I began to read the introduction, it felt like, in the same way that Millay had reached out through the pages and grabbed me by the lapels, that Albert Einstein had personally reach out and grabbed my shirt, put his nose up to mine, and said, “listen up, schmuck. To be a genius, it is not enough to come up with a theory that only seven men in the world can understand. To be a genius, you have to be able to come up with that theory and then you have to explain it, so clearly, that anyone with a high school education and reasonable intelligence can understand it. So I decided, when I was twelve years old, that I had been given my marching orders. If I wanted to be an original scientific thinker, the only thing I had ever wanted to be, I was gonna have to be a writer. And not just any writer—you are going to have to be a delicious writer. You’re gonna have to be a writer who’s so good that people won’t be able to put your work down. So I became totally obsessed with writing. And when I was creating Cloud Studio, I realized my next step as a writer. I had already written and edited for the head of the Middlesex County Mental Health Clinic in New Brunswick, New Jersey; and I had written for the Boy Scouts of America, which is absurd, because I was thrown out of the Scouts at eleven. There’s another thing I’d never heard of, a kid being thrown out of the Boy Scouts!
I had a friend who had a contact with Esquire, and I did a project investigating the kids of suburban Connecticut, and their subculture. I discovered that the drug culture I helped found when I dropped out of college for the first time and accidentally started the hippie movement on the west coast, that that culture had gone from eighteen-year-olds to down to eleven-year-olds…a bunch of shocking things. Well, meanwhile, about four blocks away from my studio on 2nd Ave and 4th St in the East Village, there was a designer, a clothing designer, who’d eventually design costumes for the Metropolitan Opera. And I would buy her clothes, and the two of us would work together and codesign clothes together. So I went up the elevator in a building in the garment district to visit a new magazine, an underground fashion magazine, that was being bankrolled by Baron Wolman, the guy who worked on Rolling Stone. This magazine was called Rags.
And I stepped out of the elevator ready to put my vinyl portfolio down a desk, and I see threw women ooh-ing and ah-ing—which never happens. They saw my clothes and adored them and said, “do you have more of these?” I said, “yes, got a whole closet of them, why?” These are the outfits I codesigned with her [the designer], many of which she designed herself. They said, “do you think you could write an article about this?” Wow! All of a sudden, I’d been asked to write a magazine article. I said yes, went home and wrote an article that night, and turned it into them the next day, and they loved it. They made me into a contributing editor, and I wrote 175 pieces for them. Then, another contributing editor to Rags decided to start her own magazine, National Lifestyle, so she made me a contributing editor on that. So I had just been thrown out of the art studio, I’m covering a parapsychology convention for National Lifestyle, and I stood there the way I always stood when doing an assignment, pen in my left hand. I wrote a lot of notes, because if I don’t write things down, I was never gonna remember them—you need vivid detail and content for something like this. And a kid walked up to me and he said, “would you like to edit a magazine?” It was a journal of some kind. I didn’t know what to do, since I was still trying to start a new art studio. I said yes, because I had been getting at six in the morning, going naked to a Remington Manual Typewriter whose keys required the power of a sledgehammer to work, and writing til eight in the morning, then getting my clothes, going to the art studio and building it up, and then coming home and writing again til eleven o’clock at night. I was getting tired, and I thought: if I was the editor of a magazine, then I could write during the day! Wouldn’t have to go through this horrible schedule. So I said yes, was given an appointment with the magazine publisher, and didn’t even bother to see what the magazine was about, because I’d been kicked out of the Boy Scouts but I could successfully write about knotting, fishing, and ten steps to organize a Boy Scout troop, simply by loving my audience. And if I were allowed to do research, I could write for anything or anyone, so long as I loved my audience.
I was given the name of the publisher—now today, you would immediately put that name on Google and see all about him and his magazine. There was no Google in those days! So when I walked into the office complex, there were convertibles and two guys packing their bags to leave—those were the editors. When I walked into his [the publisher’s] office, with a view two miles up and down the river, it was an amazing office. His magazine was called Circus, and I figured that I wasn’t really into clowns and elephants, but he explained it wasn’t about clowns and elephants; it was a rock and roll magazine. That’s how I got into rock and roll thanks to the commercial art studio, so what you heard is correct.
EB: Pretty incredible story. That ties into my next question, about your involvement with the progressive stations and National Lampoon. You have a book called How I Accidentally Started the Sixties, so is that a responsibility you share with Timothy Leary?
HB: Well, Timothy Leary founded the psychedelic aspect of the sixties. I, frankly, went out to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which was considered the Harvard of the west and had the highest median SATs of any school in the country. The years that I was there it was higher than Harvard, higher than MIT, higher than CalTech. And it was an extraordinary educational opportunity, but…I had become hooked on the beatniks when I was sixteen years old. I felt that if I could find the beatniks, they would be the first people in my life worth stalking. And I had an experience of that when I was fifteen, when my dad took us during summer vacation to the tip of Cape Cod, to Providencetown. And Providencetown, I don’t know if my dad had known, had become an artist colony. So I had been reading about the beatniks in Time, which I read cover to cover every week.
But my dad taking us to Providencetown was a huge mistake! I was walking down the main street of town and saw a very interesting-looking gallery, I walked in, and there were a bunch of adults in their thirties and forties having a heated intellectual discussion. And they invited me to join! And I did, and then they made me part of this group for the rest of the time I was in Providencetown. It was the first time in my life I had been accepted, not to mention accepted eagerly, into a group. So when I was at Reed College I was really aching to find the beatniks, but the beatniks weren’t then in that area, and I wanted to find the hallucinatory as part of my fascination with ecstatic states. So even though I was in the top ten percent of my class, which I didn’t know because they won’t reveal your grades to you at Reed, I dropped out six weeks before the end of my freshman year and went looking for beatniks. So I hitchhiked down to San Francisco, where the beatniks were supposed to be, and I went to North Beach where the beatniks were supposed to be headquartered. I went to City Lights Bookstore, founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the most important poet in the beat movement, expecting to find the beatniks. I walked into the store, it was empty, but there was one guy behind the counter reading a book. I asked him where the beatniks were, he acted as if I didn’t exist. I walked out of the store looking just as befuddled as I had with that literary magazine, and again, the kindness of strangers is amazing. A total stranger walked up to me and said, “you looked perplexed, can I help you with something?” I said I was looking for the beatniks, and he rolled his eyes up into his head, scratched his head thinking of how he could help me, and finally said, “oh, they’re not here anymore, have you tried Colorado?” That was a little too vague of a destination for me, and I hitchhiked back up to where my friends were, Seattle. Eventually, we ended up in a great big think in Berkeley, California, three blocks away from the Berkeley campus. And people just dropped out of their jobs to follow us and, specifically, me! Which came as an utter shock to me. And all I was doing was looking for the beatniks when they weren’t there.
Eventually, our reputation traveled so far that two kids, a guy and a girl, dropped out of college in Virginia, jumped into a little red MG, and drove all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific to find us and join us! I mean, this was ridiculous. Now, every time I hitchhiked the roads or rails, I was picked up by the police. The police would end up saying, “how long’s it been since you’ve seen your mother?” I’d say a year, and they’d give me a lecture on how you cannot do that. I would be in an empty boxcar, riding the rails illegally, and an alcoholic fruit-picker would be sitting across from me, asking, “how long’s it been since you’ve seen your mother?” And again, he’d be horrified that I hadn’t seen my mother for a year. I was picked up by three murderers, which is a lead chapter in How I Accidentally Started the Sixties. And the lead murderer, after trying to impress me with how many people they’d killed and how many blowjobs they’d gotten, came down to being concerned about the lack of purpose in my life. And they lectured me on how you can’t have a life without purpose; you have to have a purpose, you have to have a woman. And of course they were right—I didn’t have a purpose. But when it came to my mother and not seeing her for a year, they were horrified! So eventually, I got on a freight train to Buffalo, New York to go see my parents. And my parents, when I got home, sent me to Israel, and when I came back from Israel, Time Life Magazine—the same magazine that’d raised me—had named this thing the hippie movement. And it was the movement I had accidentally helped start.
EB: Well, you’ve given me enough fascinating material for three interviews, I really have to thank you. I could go on and on, and I’m especially tempted to ask you about Peter Gabriel since I’m a big fan.
HB: So I can tell you a Peter Gabriel story, it’s really very simple. I had not yet worked out my technique that I call secular shamanism, which was about getting to the very soul of the artist. Nonetheless, I was looking for a hook with Peter, and it turns out he’s fascinated by technology—his father helped establish a national computerized system for England, for the British post office. So they were way ahead of us on that. When I first met him, he asked me, “could you find me a book called Technology in the Arts?” I not only found him the book, I found him the author of the book, and he suggested that we do a program together—that we brainstorm about the entertainment technology of the 90s. Now this was the 70s, 1979, so the 90s seemed way, way, way off in the distance. We did a whole bunch of brainstorming about the future of technology—I came up with wild, wacky ideas, like remember the Star Wars scene where Princess Leia is looking at a little hologram? Well, I thought we’d be able to have coffee table holograms of, say, a Rolling Stones concert that was interactive in the way that Pong was interactive. That if you moved at a certain point, Mick Jagger would come to the edge of the coffee table and stick his tongue out at you; and if you applauded, he’d come out to the edge and throw rose petals at you. And I predicted a whole bunch of other things for the 1990s that would never happen. My predictions were ornate, they were complicated, even if they were interesting. But Peter’s was very simple: he said there was going to be some form of personal computer, and it will democratize computers. At that point, only the biggest companies in the world and governments could afford computers. I turned out to be wrong about every single one of my predictions, and Peter turned out to be spot-on target! And when I showed up on the internet in 1983, when it was a dark and lonely place with very few of us on there, Peter spotted me, and he came over to basically hug me, virtually, in the darkness of the internet. And we do stay in touch…not much, but when I put out a new book I let him know about it in case he wants to read it.
EB: That’s a brilliant story, sounds like you’re both trailblazers. I want to thank you again for this talk, and I hope we cross paths again.
The official website for Howard Bloom may be found at https://www.HowardBloom.net