Barred for Life! Interview with Stewart Dean Ebersole on SourPuss
March 28th, 2014
I remember meeting Stewart when I worked selling Vespas in Philadelphia. His stories about traveling to Italy, art, and music drew me in and I forced him to become my friend and then co-worker. If you have never met Stewart, the first thing you will notice is how tall he is and what a warm and friendly personality he has. I am glad he could take time out of his schedule to answer some questions so you might get to know him a little better and purchase his outstanding book Barred For Life.
Can you tell me a little about yourself, like where are you from? How old are you? Etc...?
Well, yes. My name is Stewart Dean Ebersole. My dad and I share the same name, but he doesn't like using Stewart, so I don't have to use Jr. or "the second" or anything like that. I just turned 47 last month. As for the background, I've lived a lot of places. Was born in York, PA, moved to Newark, DE, for college, then moved to Philadelphia for grad school, then moved to Cincinnati, OH, to finish grad school. After finishing school I moved to Philadelphia again, and then out to Exton (on the Mainline) for my first teaching job. After leaving teaching I moved back to Philadelphia for about five years, and most recently moved to upstate New York for a new job as a Marine Geologist. I lived a few summers in Italy, but I wouldn't say that I ever actually "lived" there. So that is it. In all, I probably lived in almost 40 different houses and apartments.
What are the top 5 most played songs on your iPod?
I know that this is going to make me out to be a bit of an old-head, but I don't have an iPod. That said, I do have some things on heavy rotation on Spotify, but not all of it is exactly up-to-date, and mostly I listen to entire albums, so that is what I am going to lay out. 1) Misfits; Earth AD/Wolf's Blood is one that I return to a lot. In my opinion, that album captures the pure evil that the Misfits lack in some of their more comedic releases. 2) Stereolab; Space Age Bachelor Pad Music. Love that album. All of it. 3) Cat Power; What Would the Community Think. A keystone album in the "music to slit your wrists to" genera. 4) My Bloody Valentine; Loveless. Not sure I need to qualify as to why I listen to this album over and over for days on end. It is a strange love affair that I have with MBV, and it has something to do with the fact that I have some favorite songs on this album, but in many ways all of the songs sound like one long song on this album. 5) Lungfish; Sounds in Time. I LOVE LUNGFISH. If I were stranded on a desert island and forced to pick one person to stay there with me and talk to me about human origins, outer-space and religious epiphanies, it would have to be Dan Higgs; Lungfish's most fantastical frontman
Is Black Flag your favorite band? If not who is?
Absolutely not. I really liked Black Flag in the early 80's, and knew most of their songs by heart. I could sing just about every song on Jealous Again and Damaged. I could even sing most of My War Side A, and a few from Slip It In... From that point on I didn't like Black Flag at all, and spent a lot of time actively avoiding their music until they broke up. I passed up about 5 opportunities to see them play. They were just that big of a disappointment to me.
Who is my favorite band..? Well, technically, I've always loved DEVO, but slightly more recently I'd say Lungfish. Most recently, I don't really have a favorite. I just listen to a lot of music these days that transcend "now," so saying I have favorites is admitting that most of my favorite bands broke up when I was still in my early 30's.
When did you get your first tattoo and what was it?
My first tattoo was my Straight Edge tattoo. I got that in 1987 I believe. I was so scared to go into the tattoo shop to ask the crazy biker guy to give me a Straight Edge tattoo, but he did. Then, I found out that he was sober. He had no idea what Straight Edge was, and I had no idea that you could stop drinking after years of being an alcoholic, so we bonded over that.
Do you have a favorite tattoo artist now that you go to?
I don't have favorite tattoo artists, but I have some friends who I go to for my work. Mike Dorsey in Cincinnati Ohio is my go-to guy for tattoos. Naomi Fuller out in Columbus Ohio is my next in line. I am currently looking for somebody local that I've known for a long time to start on my left arm, but I don't have any leads yet. I am not the kind of person to walk into a shop and just ask for a tattoo. That seems way too impersonal to me. Since this stuff is going to be on my skin for the rest of my life, I want somebody tattooing me that will take some blame if it looks like shit. Seriously, if I just walk into some random shop and get a bad tattoo, that is my own fault. A little planning people...!
Is this the first book you have written?
It is the first documentary that I've written. Before this I wrote a 250 page master's thesis about the Late Permian Mass Extinction. It is a thrilling read.
What inspired you to write it?
As an Aquarius, I am constantly keeping my social calendar filled with art projects. I had just finished a 5 year run doing some fine art stuff, then some graffiti stuff, then some guerilla art stuff and some "outsider" art collective stuff, and needed to focus some attention on things that I felt were more historically important to me. The whole Punk Rock thing was "that" thing. I had gotten a Black Flag tattoo back in 1988, and I was seeing more and more of them surfacing in the mid 2000's, and one day I was sitting at a tattoo shop in Ohio with about five friends, all of whom had the Black Flag bars tattooed on them, and I was confident that doing a documentary about this image was my next big artistic endeavor. At first I thought that I could probably do what I needed to do to document the image in a year or so, but six years later is when the book finally hit the shelves. It became such an all-consuming thing that it was a lot like having a full time, non-paying, sort of job. After a year of going door-to-door and shooting portraits of one or two people at a time, I organized the tour in 09, quit my job, and traveled around the US and Europe in trains, planes, and automobiles for 3 months to get the story. It really was the craziest (in a good way) thing that I'd done in my entire life.
Had you always wanted to write this book?
No. I don't think that I ever thought that I'd write a book (or shoot photos and write a book) until I decided to write it in like 2006. Before that I would have been content painting and showing my paintings every now and again. I would have been happy just to show them and not sell them. Then, like an oops pregnancy, this idea came to me. At that moment I knew that I had to do it. It was such an oddball idea that it had to be sent to me straight from a loving, caring, dead relative.
Had you met Black Flag before you started the book?
Nope. It is very important to remember that this band broke up in 1986. They were very, very, very important to ALL Punk Rockers, but by 2006 there wasn't much chatter about them, except for that time that Nirvana mentioned them in a Rolling Stone interview as being a huge influence on their music. When I first started the doing research for the book in 2006 I had no intention to meet the people in the band and interview them because this was a book about a cultural phenomenon, not really one about Black Flag as a band. Somehow, though, I just kept meeting people that knew Dez Cadena around 2007, and when one of them asked me if I'd like to interview him, um, I said yes. Dez has the bars tattooed on him, so I figured that I could get away with having him tucked away in the book with all of the other people that have the same tattoo, but then, all of a sudden, an altogether new chunk of the book began developing.
Ron Reyes, also called Chavo Pederast on Jealous Again, was my Punk Rock hero in 1983. I made it a sort of goal to get him to agree to an interview, which happened after meeting a woman from Vancouver that knew where he worked. I began sending letters to his work, until eventually I scored his email address. He was rumored to have moved to Puerto Rico a few years after quitting Black Flag, but that turned out to be a bunch of crap. He was living in Vancouver, BC, and I worked my ass off to get him to give his first interview about his years in Black Flag since quitting the band in 1981. While on tour 2009, I think that he declined about four times. Then, one day while sitting at a small cafe in Bozeman, Montana, I got an email agreeing to meet at the Vancouver photo shoot for an interview. That one moment in time was life changing. It totally changed the character of the book I was imagining in my head. Now, instead of just being people with Black Flag tattoos, the book was going to have interviews with as many former Black Flag members as I could round up and talk to. It was a game changer, as they say.
How long did it take you to write?
Too long. From the first photo shoot in 2007 until the finished product arrived on my mom's doorstep was almost 6 and a half years. I made it through college and two years of graduate school in that same amount of time. Nothing should take six years to complete, really.
Do you have a favorite photo or story in it? if so which one?
The whole book is my favorite story. I have some favorite photos and interviews in it, but I find the whole book to be a total hoot. Barred For Life was one of those things that appeared like magic. I took the idea seriously and began doing some poking and prodding of friends to see if it were a good idea. Then I did some research. Then I did some preliminary writing and layout.
At every moment I couldn't believe that this wonderful topic had fallen into my skull. Usually I have bid ideas for things, but on this one I had no idea. It was an idea that fell out of the sky and landed on my lap. If I had decided not to do it, well, so be it. Nobody would have cared one way or another. However, I decided to do it, and as a result I busted myths, learned a lot, met thousands of amazing people all over the world who share a collective passion for Punk Rock and Alternative Culture, and met some of my Punk Rock heroes from 20 years past.
One of my favorite moments was, while on tour, we were invited to Chuck Dukowski's house for an interview. After being fired from Black Flag by Greg Ginn, Chuck stayed on to manage Black Flag. He was part owner of SST, so he had a vested interest. At some point Ginn moved SST to Texas and cut Chuck out of equation and off the payroll. Ginn is a true American dick in my eyes because he doubly fucked his most ardent supporter, Chuck Dukowski. Anyway, Chuck was very cautious about letting us come to his home and interview him. While we were on our way to Venice Beach that evening, Chuck called me to tell me that he changed his mind, and that we should not come over. Then, five minutes later he called me again and asked me who I was working for..? He seriously thought that Greg Ginn had put me up to interviewing him. I told him that this was all on my dime, and so he reluctantly agreed. We arrived at around 9pm. He invited us into his home. His wife brought us drinks and his kids were super excited to see their father talking about being in Black Flag. It turned out to be one of the most amazing moments of the tour, and the photos we shot of him were just so emotional. This very thoughtful and intense man just smiled a lot and did the robot while I was photographing him. So, yes, I'd say that is my favorite story from the tour, at least.
Is there any photo or story you left out and regret not putting it in?
Yes and no. On the one hand, I have zero regrets about the final product. In my estimation, it is one of the most thorough books on the topic of fandom in Punk Rock, and I did my job well. On the other hand, there is a kid that I let remain in the book despite him super fucking me while we were in California. I won't mention him by name, but we shot him in a squat in Brooklyn very early on in the evolution of the book. He moved back to his home of San Francisco, and while shooting photos there in 2009 he showed up at the shoot. He mentioned to me that he was in school for videography, and I asked him if he wanted to video the interviews that we were doing in California with Chuck Dukowski, Kira Roessler, and Keith Morris. He was super into it, and he asked if I would pay his way to LA. I agreed. A few days later I pick him and his equipment up at the LA train station, and we set about doing our interviews.
I was sooooo stoked to have this all on video, just in case I wanted to put the interviews on line or whatever. We complete all of the interviews and he tells me that he doesn't want to give me the master copies (which I paid for), but would process the video and send me DVD copies. I send him back to San Fran a few days later with a handshake promise of getting the interviews inside a few weeks.
I get home from tour in January of 2010 and no DVD copies are to be found. This individual now stops answering my emails and phone calls, and I don't hear from him for months. Chuck Dukowski is worried because I agreed that his interview would never be posted anywhere without his permission, and I am not sure what the video-kid is going to do with the interviews.
Anyway, about a year later I get this emotional email from video-kid about how he has been going crazy and doing drugs, and he is not sure what he is doing with his life, and that he will send me the original copies of the interviews immediately. I tell him that it is cool and that I will pay for the shipping if he wants. He says no, and then goes on to tell me that I should hate him, but I don't feel that way. A week goes by. Then a month goes by. Then another month goes by. I get nothing from him. I decide that I no longer give a fuck about the video nor video kid, and resort to the recording s that I took on a tiny hand-held audio recorder of each interview, and I use this little device to do my transcriptions. I cannot see the mouths of the interviewees move, so I don't know if I got some words right, but I did the best that I could. And, that is my story. I don't hate video kid, but if I ever see him again I may nut-punch him for being such a sketchy dick-for-brains. I still have no idea what became of those recordings.
Who funded your trips to get interviews and photographs?
Hmmm, that is a tough question to answer. Overall, I used my savings to do everything. When my savings wasn't being consumed by rental cars and gasoline, a number of fund raisers were held to benefit the tour back in the summer of 2009. In that way, a lot of people contributed, but I estimate that I used almost 8,000 dollars of my own money to finish Barred For Life.
That, one might say, is a lot of money. But the one thing that gives me a little bit of comfort is that I spread that debt over 6 years (at least I like to tell myself that), so it amounts to a bit over a thousand dollars a year. I spend a thousand dollars a year on my iced tea obsession, and I spend way more than that on gasoline each year, so that isn't so bad, right..?
What have you been doing since it was printed?
When the book arrived at my apartment, I was working as a Marine Geologist for a little bit over one year. I studied to be a Geologist in college, so it isn't so strange that I was working as a Geologist, though people always think that it is strange that a geeky scientist wrote a book about Punk Rock and Black Flag tattoos.
Do you have any other books in your future?
I sure hope so. I have a very amazing publisher in PM Press, and they have encouraged me to do another book at some point. I still haven't exhausted my promotion of Barred For Life, so I will think about another book when I feel like I've come to the end of pushing BFL. The one thing that I do know is that I will not do another book on Punk Rock or Black Flag. I don't like re-covering ground I've already covered, so it will likely be a book about something else that really and profoundly influenced my life.
Anything else you would like to add?
Well, first off, if you haven't bought/read Barred For Life then I encourage you to do so immediately. Buy the book from anybody but Amazon, who really undercuts your local online and retail stores. Secondly, if you are reading this and ever thought of doing something that every person (besides your inner voice) tells you is only going to lead you down a long and winding road to getting angry; Fuck'em. If I would have based my decision to do Barred For Life on my friends reactions I would have quit before the first photo shoot. When I was pulling hundreds of dollars from the ATM to feed my crew and put gas in my car driving all over the place to shoot photos of kids with Black Flag tattoos, and my girlfriend was telling me that I was throwing my money away, I could have thrown in the towel. Well, she's no longer in my life, but I released a rather amazing book for my efforts. I don't have to tell people that doing what seems to be against the grain will generally bring you the most satisfaction. Abraham Lincoln did not have a lot of supporters when he issued his Emancipation Proclamation, but that is Abraham Lincoln's most important contribution to our civilization. Shit just works out like that. If your idea helps people, then even better. Just stay focused and fuck every voice that tried to break your focus. That said, just make sure that you finish it if you start it, okay..?