And that, to me, seemed like the heart and soul of what music is all about anyway: how can you get people to actually really put themselves inside of what you’re doing? You have to create that mystique about it, and that was my original plan in the beginning, but it was just never allowed to happen. I mean, even on the independent basis, where you’re working on your own label, if you want to get any kind of distribution, you have to make nothing but compromises with people…”
story and interview by marc covert
Judged by the standards of a grasping, money-driven corporate culture, Greg Sage is a fuck-up; a perennial loser who doesn’t have the good sense to reach out and grab whatever he can; a cantankerous, stubborn, uncooperative man who has pissed away countless opportunities to cash in on his talents. He’s been laughed at on his way up and simply ripped off when record companies have not been able to cajole him into complying with their demands on how to make his art. His unwillingness to buy into a businesslike means of marketing his work would have been his undoing if not for the fact that Greg Sage simply does not give up in the face of greedy hucksterism. He learned early on to just say “no.”
Judged by the standards of music lovers who are willing to put in a little effort, however, Sage is a legendary figure, an enigmatic artist who defies categorization. When the Wipers first began storming through Portland, Oregon nightclubs like the Long Goodbye, the Earth Tavern, and the Euphoria in 1976, nobody quite knew what to think of them, much less what to call them; Sage himself was always unwilling to play into labeling himself. Within a year the first rumblings of Portland’s punk scene began, and after the 1977 appearance of the Ramones at the Paramount Theater, it broke wide open. The Wipers were soon considered punks; by the time they released their first LP, 1979’s “Is This Real?,” the Wipers had no equal in the intensity or vitality their live performances, and Sage was already demonstrating his incredible talents for creating and capturing his signature sound on vinyl. Now considered a punk classic, “Is This Real?” was not exactly greeted with unbridled enthusiasm by the punk rock scene or any other; it was and remains a fiercely original work of art. Often lauded for its songs of alienation, loneliness, or rejection, “Is This Real?” is a sonic assault of epiphanies; stark realizations of crossroads; seeing life all too clearly and screaming in anguish when you can’t block it out. There is a world of difference between Sage’s “Potential Suicide” and lazy hack work like Ozzy’s “Suicide Solution” (italics mine).
Sage should not be judged solely by his music or his onstage persona. When you meet him in person or get him talking about his art, Sage is a personable, engaging man, full of dark humor, especially when recounting his treatment at the hands of the music industry and scene he so despises. He will regale you with stories of the many times he has seen his music and his money flying into the ether on little cartoon wings, the record company employees who laughed in his face and hung up on him, or his refusal of Kurt Cobain’s entreaty to tour as an opening act for Nirvana. Cobain could have learned a lot from Sage; perhaps his tragic end was inevitable, but Sage has harsh words for the way Cobain was treated by the rock world. Sage’s refusal to play a part on any terms other than his own probably made the difference between Cobain dying at the end of a shotgun held in his own hands and Sage quietly plugging away at Zeno studios, a long way from rich, probably a lot closer to poor, but alive and doing what he loves. Sage squirms at the thought of being considered a living legend, won’t be nailed down on plans for live performances, and sees little in the way of creative output from the youth of today, most of them much too young to have seen him in his touring days.
Greg Sage lives today in Phoenix, Arizona, where he spends his time ensconced at his studio, Zeno Records, (www.zenorecords.com) where he produces bands, remasters tapes for CD format, and has released sporadic CDs of new material by the Wipers and as a solo artist. His latest effort is “The History of Portland Punk, Vol. I,” a collection of singles from his old label, Trap Records, as well as the legendary “Death to Disco” punk show from 1979. He took time in mid-April to sit down and talk about the history of punk, the Wipers, and today’s creative environment, among other topics.
Smokebox: You’ve always been pretty steadfast in wanting to look to the future, and to concentrate on what you’re doing now, so it seems The History of Portland Punk is a departure from what you ordinarily do. Why did you decide to start a series of “History of Portland Punk” collections?
Sage: Well, primarily, it was all stuff I’d produced for a label I had 20 years ago, Trap Records, that I started with the first Wipers release. There’s a lot of bootlegs and a lot of those records floating around, and people have asked, “Why don’t you put out the real masters, if you still have them?” So I said, “yeah, that’s a good idea,” and, you know, there wasn’t anything out there that really had all of our 7-inch stuff, all in one place. And it also seems that people are looking backwards instead of forward in the late nineties and this century.
Smokebox: It still amazes me to see these punks, in their teens, walking down the street with the rooster haircuts, the spikes, that whole punk look; it really isn’t anything new.
Sage: There isn’t any pioneering any more. It’s almost not even accepted to be pioneering; for some reason that seems to be the attitude now. I’d say ’93 to ’95 was kind of the curvature towards things slowly reversing. It’s to the point where music is just definitely a rehash of the past, and I guess, maybe people don’t sense that there’s a future ahead of them, so subconsciously they look backward.
Smokebox: You mentioned ’93 or so, and that was when the whole grunge thing was starting; would you consider that a part of that tendency to look back, to rehash what has been done before?
Sage: Well, I wouldn’t think that about grunge, but from my memory, it was a period of time, the last period of time that I remember hearing some really unique, different, innovative styles out there. People were out there pioneering new things, and then pretty much after ‘93-’94, that was about it.
Smokebox: Who were some of those bands?
Sage: Towards the end of it, I would say, Codeine struck me as doing something completely new and different; a band called Slint, you know, thousands of bands basically copied their style after that. That was the last really unique, pioneering trend, I thought, that I really noticed or that really stuck out to me, and then after that, there was not a lot.
Smokebox: What was going through your mind when you dusted off some of these old tapes, these old masters you had?
Sage: Oh, just a lot of memories, from a different period of time, where young kids were doing something, you know, expressing themselves. It definitely brought back a lot of different points of view as far as peoples’ outlooks, twenty or seventeen or whatever years ago.
Smokebox: I went to a lot of those shows, and maybe it was naïve of me, but I just assumed that every city had a punk scene, and that really wasn’t the case.
Sage: Well, I think a lot did; Portland was always strictly overlooked, I mean, even when we were putting out records back then, we had to move to New York to actually distribute the stuff that was already done. The history of a lot of those bands out of Portland is, all the main distributors were in New York, and they’d tell you, “yeah, I’ve heard of this band, I’ve heard of that band, where’s your label out of?” And I’d say, “Portland, Oregon,” and they’d laugh and hang up. So we actually went to New York and distributed out of there for about a year, a little over a year, and they thought we were a New York label, so it went fine.
You know, I think it was about ’83 or so, ’82, maybe, where you could be a band from Athens, Georgia and be accepted. The whole attitude changed. In the beginning, it was, you know, if you weren’t L.A., New York, London, you were not really considered punk; it was locale, it was locale and costume in the beginning, I think, you know, that really affected the trend. And then after a few years it kind of shed that wall around it, and it became more concentrated on music.
So, punk Portland was always considered a logger’s town, the most uncool place. I mean, we had people who did interviews just beg us to say we were from some other city, other than Portland; “Yeah, no one’s gonna pay attention to you otherwise…”
Smokebox: Was a lot of that attitude industry-driven?
Sage: No. It was just an attitude in the beginning. Usually when something new starts off, it is quite elitist, you know, to the point of being prejudiced. But, within a year or two, that’s when it changed.
Smokebox: There were some reunion shows here recently, with Lo-Tek, and the Styphnoids, and Sado Nation; I was wondering if you’d heard about that and had any thoughts on getting the bands back together again?
Sage: Oh yeah, a lot of them thought it was funny, because no one paid attention to them fifteen years ago, and now all of a sudden crowds are coming to see them.
Smokebox: Kind of like your own experience; you’ve said in interviews before that it takes about six years for people to appreciate your records, and by then they hate your new one.
Sage: That’s because they just want something that sounds exactly like the last one, and reminds them of the last one. But I think it’s healthy to go in different directions.
Smokebox: This latest CD is called The History of Portland Punk, and you’ve always resisted the idea of being considered strictly a punk artist; I was wondering if you’ve just learned to accept that over the years and just let your music speak for itself?
Sage: Well, now that punk is twenty years old—we definitely weren’t under the pretense of being punk, we didn’t wear black leather coats with chains and “The Clash” spray painted on the back during that time—that’s what being punk was at the beginning, it was definitely a statement, at least in my opinion. It evolved to a more musical pretense by 1982-83. I just never liked being labeled anything. But now, twenty years later—punk was more of a period of time than an actual sound, I mean, how do you classify jazz, how do you classify classical? It goes into so many thousands and thousands of different categories.
Smokebox: Sure, then you hear about “post-punk”…
Sage: But punk to me was a period of time, and that’s what that History Of, Volume I is. It was a specific period of time which, looking back now, was how it would be labeled, it was definitely punk.
Smokebox: You left Portland at least ten years ago, you said that the scene was changing, did you just get fed up at that point?
Sage: Not fed up, it was definitely changing, though, and being very co-opted; to being very self-minded, in a sense, where many bands were competing with others for who had the largest draw, which seemed kind of pointless to me. Heroin was basically flushing down too many of my friends, and it wasn’t inspiring to me. I was always really fond of the desert, myself; it was 180 degrees different from the northwest, so I just sort of ended up here.
Smokebox: You mention the heroin problem; what do you suppose is the draw of heroin? The problem hasn’t gone away around here, believe me.
Sage: I don’t know…I know, from what I always felt, Portland always seemed like a very powerful vortex, a really powerful, creative vortex…oh, I don’t know, I couldn’t even judge at the time, but definitely, in the eighties, it wasn’t just music, it was the attitude; it was the actual power force that was there, that made you, whether you were a musician or an artist, very creative. It was a very creative and unique place at the time and then one day it just changed. It wasn’t anything that I could put my finger on, but one day it just, I could sense that the vortex had just shifted. Immediately after that it seemed, to me at least, that it had a major effect on a lot of people. The creativity level changed, and I just took off from there, and I ended up here, from out of the blue, because it felt powerful here like it used to in Portland. I go back there from time to time, and it definitely isn’t how I remember it feeling. Vortexes or power points are never strictly territorial; I think they shift, and I probably went with it.
Smokebox: I’ve lived in Portland my whole life, and it’s hard to put a finger on it, what’s happening now; downtown twenty years ago used to be deserted at night, except for maybe the few clubs that these bands played in, and now you can’t even park at night, and it’s very trendy…
Sage: That’s how it is anywhere, I mean, even Phoenix has quadrupled in growth since I’ve been here. I don’t know where all the people come from, outer space or somewhere, but I think it’s like that everywhere.
Smokebox: All these places have bands playing, and not necessarily that good, but it seems that if every single place has live music, it could go either way—it could cheapen the currency, or it could lead to some creative things happening again, maybe getting that power back?
Sage: Well, I think too, it’s just the lack of youth involvement. The way I always remember it, looking through music history, is that being 14 through 18, there’s normally this power curve, that you normally wanted to rebel against something. At those ages you open your eyes up to the world and you realize it’s not the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus, like you’ve been told. It gives you a sense of pushing away from your adolescent beliefs, I think, and music—it always seemed like that was the outlet for people of that age group, whether is was the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties—and the thing I’ve noticed a lot is that you don’t see that any more, that sense of rebellion in youth. That almost seems unnatural to me, and I think that trickles down to music or art too, since that’s the age and that’s the aggression that usually draws them to music or art, which is a really powerful force at that period in time, and that seems to be what I’ve noticed is over the last seven or eight years, is the decline of youth involvement.
Smokebox: Well, I’m naturally prejudiced toward what I like, but it just seems the music today just doesn’t have the same power, and punch, and color that—
Sage: It doesn’t have the same truth, or honesty either. Communication has changed drastically; people don’t communicate to each other the way they used to. Now, it’s not uncommon to see people sitting at a table talking to each other through their cell phones, three feet away from each other; that really strikes me as odd. It’s just like people used to be able to communicate through instruments, and now they communicate almost the same way through a cell phone. It’s some type of shield, I guess, like the Internet, where you have some type of shield to communicate to somebody else.
I think those items are easier to learn and to craft than musical instruments. When you go into a music store, you look at musical instruments, and what’s made these days is basically garbage, and I wonder how a kid would get a stick of wood like that, or a box with a…well, I guess there are speakers in it…and get anything musical out of it? It’s almost like the whole system has gone non-musical, you know, not just from the individual aspect, but from the whole mechanical aspect of it. The heart and soul of it is in orbit somewhere else, and for some reason I don’t see that orbit coming back to earth any time soon. It’ll evolve to something else.
Smokebox: Do you think digitalization had anything to do with that?
Sage: No, I don’t think there’s anything to really point the finger at, I think it’s a combination of many things, just like how evolution changes things. It might be, possibly, an evolutionary change; I also think, well, it’s a crazy theory of mine, but that everybody is subconsciously clairvoyant, and that maybe since your subconscious has no communication with your conscious, that maybe people foresee the future being so different that they remove themselves from it, consciously, but without being aware of it. I think that would make a little more sense than pointing the finger at any one particular thing, whether it be computers, or video games, or cell phones.
Smokebox: You’ve mentioned Kurt Cobain in some of your past interviews, and he produced the “14 Songs for Greg Sage and the Wipers” CD; things didn’t end up too pleasantly for him, either. It seems that the big industry push in the nineties that had Nirvana as the next big thing, it seems that was just too much for him to handle. You knew him personally, didn’t you?
Smokebox: Do you think that was a big part of it, that the industry tried to make a big money machine out of his band?
Sage: Well, I can’t really speculate other than what he said to me, which was, he wasn’t at all happy about it, success to him seemed like, I think, a brick wall. There was nowhere else to go but down, it was too artificial for him, and he wasn’t an artificial person at all. He was actually, two weeks after he died, he was supposed to come here and he wanted to record a bunch of Leadbelly covers. It was kind of in secret, because, I mean, people would definitely not allow him to do that. You also have to wonder, he was a billion-dollar industry at the time, and if the industry had any idea at all of him wishing or wanting to get out, they couldn’t have allowed that, you know, in life, because if he was just to get out of the scene, he’d be totally forgotten, but if he was to die, he’d be immortalized.
Smokebox: That’s quite a statement.
Sage: Don’t get me wrong on that subject, I’m not trying to state that I thought that he was murdered due to his wish to get out of the Nevermind hit record mindset. It was just an odd set of circumstances up to that point. So, I always kind of wonder about that end of the business, because when you’re a billion-dollar industry, you’re not a free artist at all, you’re just under a state of Mafia control. I mean, I even had my life threatened, basically twice, from that end of that establishment, because of some people wanting to put out movies with, including some songs that I wrote. I was basically told, for my own good, to say no, and I would say to them, “well, so okay, I wrote a song, and if someone wanted to pay me a million dollars to use it, I should say no?” And they said, “Correct.” And they’d just say, “it’s in your best interests.” So, I can’t say my life was threatened, but the tone of it was very, very uh…
Sage:…very, very ominous! And then when I’d say, “Well, are you guys planning on paying us royalties for the stuff of mine that they’ve covered, that you’ve released?” and they would hang up. So, you can formulate your own opinion off that, I’m not going to say, but that end of the business is really, as you said, ominous.
Smokebox: I couldn’t help but notice the similarities, I mean, I guess a lot of people will never understand why you never decided to cash in; it’s almost like these bands think that’s the end-all and be-all of what they’re doing, and here Greg Sage is saying over and over again, “screw you, I’m not interested.” Maybe things could have been different for Cobain if he had just said no, but it doesn’t sound like he ever got that chance.
Sage: Well, yeah, I mean, if I…I just realized a long long time ago what the business is, I mean, most people just see the glamorous end of it, and that’s all they see, they think, “I want to be a rock star.” From the beginning, my whole goal was to do something completely different in music. My goal was, originally, to do fifteen albums in ten years, never do interviews, never release photographs, have absolutely no information about us at all, and never tour. And the reason behind that, it would have been something completely different, and maybe after five or six records, there would be so much curiosity of who these people are, what are they doing, since there is nothing out there about them, it would make them listen deeper into what we were doing. And that, to me, seemed like the heart and soul of what music is all about anyway: how can you get people to actually really put themselves inside of what your’re doing? You have to create that mystique about it, and that was my original plan in the beginning, but it was just never allowed to happen. I mean, even on the independent basis, where you’re working on your own label, if you want to get any kind of distribution, you have to make nothing but compromises with people. Where I did draw the line was, we never did a video. I think doing a video would have put us in a completely different league, it would have been a good business decision, it would have helped pay the bills, but it would have also changed the whole ideal of what I wanted to do, because people see a video, and you create an image in their mind of what you’re trying to do, and the whole thing about music, the magic of music, is that it’s a real individualist thing. When somebody listens to something, they conjure up in their mind, in their imagination, their own image of it, whatever it might be, whether it’s the color, flavor, or whatever. That’s their own personal creation that they create off of somebody else’s creation. Once you do a video, you plant in their mind your image, so it totally removes the participation of the actual listener. So I totally flatly stayed away from making videos, even though as a business decision it was the worst thing I could have possibly done.
Smokebox: Are there any bootleg videos out there that you know of?
Sage: Videos? Well, I was talking music videos…I don’t know, I’m sure there are, there’s always been people like, sneaking cameras and such in.
Smokebox: Another thing that I wanted to ask about was, this week, Joey Ramone died, and one little bit of Wipers lore that I remember from years ago, was that you went to see them at a Catch a Rising Star show at the Paramount [here in Portland] in 1977. Did you go to that show?
Smokebox: I was there too, and I was thinking that was really a seminal event for the Portland punk scene; I can remember Paul Heim and Chuck Arjavac going to that show, dressed up punk style as a joke, and next thing I knew they were putting together bands like Hari Kari and Sado Nation, and they were taking it very seriously…
Sage: Wasn’t that with Elvis Costello and AC/DC?
Smokebox: No, I think it was the Lewd, and maybe Elvis Costello, I’m not sure, but the Ramones were headlining and it was like a dollar to get in.
Sage: Yeah, it was a dollar at the Paramount…it was AC/DC, I think, and Elvis Costello.
Smokebox: So the story has it that that was one of the things that caused you to realize that the time was right to get out there with the Wipers and start playing.
Sage: No, I was already doing the Wipers for about a year. There was no avenue for it; one day I heard about this show on the car stereo, I’d never heard of Ramones, never heard of Elvis Costello, but when I heard, “Ramones,” it just sounded like such a, just the name itself, it just sounded cool. But yeah, that was kind of a pinnacle, because then I thought, “Wow! We’re doing stuff like that,” I didn’t think anybody was. I never listened to music, I mean, I never listened to other peoples’ music, I just never did, because I’d be too busy writing, and I didn’t want to be influenced by anyone. I was never in the loop or in any scene at all. I just remember, hearing the name, “Ramones,” and that just sounded so unique to me.
Smokebox: What did you think of the show?
Sage: Well, the Ramones, that was the first time I’d heard something different, and I was doing something different, so I just thought, “oh man,” you know?
Smokebox: I have a classic old poster somewhere, a real treasure; I took it off of a telephone pole in the late 70s or early 80s, it doesn’t have a date on it. It’s for a Ramones show at the Earth Tavern, and at the bottom it says, “with special guests The Wipers, with a photo of you singing. Do you remember that show? Did you meet the Ramones, or get a chance to talk to Joey in particular?
Sage: I got to know the Ramones better while we were living in New York City in ’81. Joey, of course, was the coolest and most friendly. I would run into him at least once a week and he always had something interesting to say. We never had the chance to do a show together again, but it was always talked about. Real sad about his death, he never changed his attitude in the past 20 years.
Smokebox: I saw that you sold your old Gibson SG to the EMP [Experience Music Project]; was that the same one you used for all those years?
Sage: Umm-hmm. Yeah, I finished the last Wipers record I was going to do, and it just seemed sort of fitting to retire it. I have another one.
Smokebox: Do you have any plans to tour again, in Europe at least?
Sage: Oh yeah, it’s possible, I’m going to be working on something different here pretty soon.
Smokebox: Another Wipers project?
Sage: No, I don’t think it’ll be Wipers this time. The last thing wasn’t going to be, but it ended up sounding that way, so I thought, “well, at least we can finish it up the way we started it.”
Smokebox: Now, was “The Power of One” the one you put on the back burner at the time you recorded “Silver Sail?”
Sage: No, none of that I ever recorded…well, I did start to record it, but then you know, it became the flavor of the month, I think, to cover Wipers songs, and I just got cold feet. So I wrote “Silver Sail” because it wasn’t like anything people would expect. Another bad business decision.
Smokebox: Well, maybe bad business, but good art. Any chance of touring America again, or Portland?
Sage: Hopefully. Yeah, sure. I don’t know what I’ll be doing, but sure.
Smokebox: Any idea when that might be?
Sage: No, I’m just working on another recording, and then who knows?
Smokebox: Could you talk a little bit about what you’re working on now?
Sage: Not really, it’s just something I’ve been planning on doing, a little different.