In the Air With Don Bajema

Interview by Bryan Bence & Alexander Laurence
(c) 1994 Bryan Bence & Alexander Laurence

We ran into Don Bajema at Brainwash a few days after he returned from a "Spoken Word" tour in Europe with singer/writer Henry Rollins. Bajema is the author of Boy In The Air (2-13-61) and has read all over the country performing his "Stand-up tragedy" with Rollins, Exene Cervenka, Lydia Lunch, and Hubert Selby jr. With these writers he also read at The Warfield in San Francisco to a packed house last month. He recently performed an adaptation of Boy In The Air at Intersection of The Arts. Bajema has a theatrical background, he lifts weights, he trains potential bodybuilders at his space Above Brainwash, appropriately titled. He has just finished a movie about a family of pool players entitled CHALK: directed by Rob Neilson and written by Bajema. During the interview outside the door at Brainwash, Bajema had to bounce a drunk man. So the afternoon was lively and filled with potential violence and grappling with the unknown.

Bryan Bence
To start off. What kind of coffee do you drink? Where do you go?
Don Bajema
Here, I usually order a Rocket. It's a regular pint of coffee with a depth charge of espresso in it. And I usually have one every day right here at Brainwash.
BB
Are there any other cafes that you like to go to?
DB
The coffee is good at Spaghetti Western, but that's not really a cafe. Spike's is a great place. I'd go there more if I lived closer. Ground Zero. I like the coffee at The Horseshoe but the scene makes me uncomfortable.
Alexander Laurence
Above Brainwash, which you have been running for over a year now, is a great space for theater. Could you describe what its all about?
DB
I was doing work in theater and I was working out in gyms. I've been a trainer for a long time. I thought that it would be great to have a place where people could get stronger in the day, and where I could provide theater at night. Generally, I'm appalled by the media. Especially the film media. And contemporary music for the most part. There needs to be other sources. I just think that theater is important.
BB
There's a lot of arguments over the terms "poetry" and "spoken word." What do you call your performances? And do you ever read in cafes?
DB
I have read at the Blue Monkey. But I don't like to read at cafes or bookstores because it seems like you're preaching to the converted. The writers there become more competitive and/or phonally congratulatory of each person's work. It's an isolated scene most of the time. For me, I felt that I got a real response when I started to get sprung on audiences in rock venues. It was a different time. In the mid 80s, it was acceptable to bomb Libya. People you knew would say this. It would make you tear your hair out. The culture was in that environment. I did some confrontational stuff in clubs. I was totally unknown. I would get yelled at. People would throw stuff at me. It was a good experience because I wasn't in a friendly safe environment where there were these phony smiles. I went to a reading the other night, and I saw that wimpy paper wrestling and that competitive yawning that goes on between readers, and I would prefer an audience to turn against me.
BB
Are you driven by an artistic vision or by politics?
DB
I don't have any political, ethical, or institutional viewpoint. I don't believe in anything. Zero! I don't want to be governed. I don't want to be told to go to war. I believe in nothing. I really hate emulation. It's spiritually bankrupt. If I believe in anything, it's that if people are given the chance, they will be generally good to one another. I don't have any beliefs in any system of ethics or any values. It's not to say that I'm an immoral person. I act as honest and fair as I can. But this oppressive government and culture which I discovered very early on in San Diego where I grew up on a military base. It all sounds like "Sieg Heil" to me. Every single time.
AL
What is the response to spoken word in Europe compared to here in the United States?
DB
It's like night and day. They listen. They get the nuances. They know more about America than most of the population here. They understand how we're being manipulated. For instance, I've gone on public radio in Germany and also in Holland calling The Bush Administration up for war crimes. They know that the United States are the hitman of the planet. In Germany, we had some great readings at venues the size of 800 to 1500 seats. About the size of The Warfield. There was a sense of understanding which you often don't find here.
BB
Is there much of a spoken word scene in Europe?
DB
It's only beginning. They don't do it too much, because one of the things that America is, is the future. So they are looking at us. We're where everyone's going. In Europe, in many places like Ireland and Scotland, where their own culture is disappearing, you got young kids looking through American magazines to figure out what style to adopt next. You got Irish kids walking and talking the black thing. I don't think that the European Community is happening. It may just be padding the nazi movement that is growing in Germany.

One of my biggest fears is to somehow be asked later "why I sat around while the cattlecars were unloading at Dachau." I feel like a dupe. I feel like I am part of the most evil form of government since nazi Germany. This is what causes me to write. I'm not converting people over to my opinions. I have to say it or I'll explode.

BB
Why is spoken word so popular?
DB
By definition, to begin with, people know that there's no commercial value. That's appealing. You're operating without a net. There's a stage, there's a microphone, and there's you. It's a "thought" thing, through your voice and presence.
AL
Are there any writers who inspire you?
DB
I wrote a piece called "Best Time Of The Day" because I was so impressed with Tennessee Williams. I don't think that you're going to get much better writing than his early plays. Then there's other people from Mars. It's like you'll never approach a bit of their talent. Like Shakespeare. In San Diego, I went to see many plays at the Old Globe. Macbeth is a great play. It's an amazing warning about many things. Other writers: Carson McCullers, O. Henry, and Eudora Welty affected me a lot.
AL
Are there any writers in San Francisco that you would like to mention? That our readers should check out for themselves?
DB
I like Kathy Acker. Danielle Willis has really entertained me. David Barth is a very important playwright. I have a lot of respect for Cintra Wilson's work. I hope that I'm not leaving anyone out. I like the Pep Boys. And Jane Handel is a wonderful writer.
BB
You participated with Lisa Palac on the Cybergasm recording. What exactly did you do on that?
DB
It was a piece about a hand job. To me it was an experiment. Lisa said "We've got this type of technology." They put on the headphones on me, and I said "This is intense..."
BB
Do you have any advice for writers?
DB
Get involved in as many things as you can artistically, rather than being one thing. One of the things that helped my writing was being an actor, because you take on characters. When you take on the lives other than your own, that is helpful for writing. And read as much as you can. Never try to please your audience.


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