In other words, it's surreal and strange and goes in unpredictable directions. It's sad and funny and weird. There is concert footage and vintage clips and there are interviews, like you'd expect, but there are also imagined therapy sessions and re-enactments and animation, all in service of a story that's as much a meditation on reckoning with one's past self as it is a portrait of an individual artist.
The 55-year-old artist appeared on "Salon Talks" recently to discuss aging, animal rights and the pleasures of his "boring" life in sobriety.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You've got a new album coming revisiting your older songs out called "Reprise," and are the subject of a new documentary. You also published two memoirs in just the last five years. Why did you want to tell your story in these unique formats right now?
It's probably the product of being a relatively solipsistic only child. If someone says it's just narcissism, I'm like, "Yeah, maybe." But also I got sober around 13 years ago. I realized when I started going to 12-step meetings, one of my favorite things was hearing people's stories, because I'd never really experienced this, sitting in a room with 20 strangers and having these 20 strangers bare their souls, with a very narrative component, but such honesty.
I started thinking, there's literary precedent here. I've personally benefited from hearing other people's stories told in an either entertaining way or honest way or, ideally, both. In telling your story, hopefully you're sharing something of your experience or your insights that might reach someone and make them more comfortable maybe with the things that they're hiding or the things that they're ashamed of. Worst case scenario, it's just an exercise in self-involvement and narcissism, and then people don't have to pay attention.
Doing this movie, were you informed by the last two books you wrote, by the reactions, by the controversies?
It's a great, relevant question, but that never came up. I don't know why. We just kind of ignored it, almost unintentionally siloing things. The memoirs have an unconventional structure at times, but they're still relatively conventional as far as the way in which they were written, the way in which they're put together, whereas the movie is very unconventional. We were mainly thinking about, how do you tell a story, how do you make a documentary that doesn't rely on tried and true documentary tropes?
I used to be a judge for Tribeca Film Festival documentary, and I was a judge for the International Documentary Association, their music documentaries. I've watched a lot of music documentaries, and some of them are wonderful, but they're all kind of the same. I'm not maligning the world of music documentaries, but they tend to be chronological, some archival stuff, some new performances, tons of interviews with people telling you why the subject is interesting, as opposed to showing the subject being interesting. So director Rob Gordon Bralver and I just thought, okay, let's dispense with almost every conventional documentary narrative device and see what we're left with. If we want to tell a story, instead of saying, "How do we interview someone?" say, "What weird thing can we do that we think is interesting?"
There are a lot of themes that come up in this film, and one of them is looking back and confronting the person you were at different points in life. Did it feel different doing that in a cinematic way?
That's ultimately the goal of the movie, and whether anyone will take this away with them from watching it, it's looking at the human condition as represented through one person and their story. Looking at fear, shame, anxiety, the mistakes made as a result of being a part of the human condition, and hopefully coming to a place of resolution.
Aging is part and parcel of the human condition, if we're lucky. Or if we're not lucky. Aging is either the blessing of staying alive or the curse of staying alive. It's hard to take it personally, as is true with a lot of other aspects of the human condition, like watching the people around us get sick and die, sliding into quasi irrelevance. It's just the nature of things, becoming less attractive, becoming less sexual, becoming diminished by the criteria of youth and beauty. But it's okay, because it happens to everybody. Hopefully there's a degree of acceptance that can come along with that.
The idea of looking at the way in which I tried to almost insulate myself from my past and from the human condition more broadly. I believed, like a lot of people believed and continue to believe, that a degree of fame, a degree of external validation, was going to have this phenomenal magic utility of fixing all my prior issues and inuring me from the broader ravages of the human condition. In the documentary, the idea was to try and demonstrate it, sometimes very painfully, very uncomfortably, the lengths that I went to to try and accomplish that.
How do you reconcile the person you are now with the person who did those things? Do you have regrets?
It's fascinating because now I'm sober and I'm boring. Trust me, I'm not going to write a memoir about my life now because it would be one page long and you could just go to Kinko's and Xerox that one page and make 300 and staple it together, and that's my year. Wake up, have a smoothie, work on music, go hiking, read a book, watch TV. There you go. Copy and paste for the entire memoir. I think it's a fascinating paradox when you, in this case me, look back at your past and you understand on a genetic level, that you are that person, apart from maybe some epigenetic variables. You are the human that you were 20 years ago.
When I look back at that person, I don't recognize him, but I know fully that it was me. I look at the desperation that I had and the terrible choices that I made and the fact that I was drunk and high six or seven days a week, the fact that I was filled with anxiety and despair and desperately trying to control everything in my life. It's such an odd dissociative paradox where I don't see myself in that, but I know it's me.
A lot of people over this past year have not been able to maintain their mental health or their sobriety. You have that blessing of that boring life. How do you do it? How do you get to stay boring?
Partially it's because my past was so egregious. I read this story about, I think he was a South Korean monk, and he got a job working in a fast food restaurant when he was in his 20s. He was the happiest person in the world. He did the worst jobs, like cleaning the toilets, cleaning the dumpster out back.He happily did everything. I read this interview with him. He said people are always coming up to him saying, "How could you be so happy? What form of meditation do you do? What spiritual tradition are you aligned with? What's your practice?" He said, "Oh no, you don't understand. I spent 15 years sleeping on a stone floor in the cold eating old rice. This is great." He's like, "I'm not happy because of meditation. I'm happy, because I'm warm."
I don't want to go back to the past. I don't glorify the past. There's no part of it that's attractive to me because I was able to bottom out so badly. It's one of the benefits of getting close to death and really bottoming out in the worst way, you recoil as if from a hot flame. The happiness is also looking at, maybe this is not the nice thing to admit, but looking at the mistakes that other people make. Social media and media in general is a really good way to see other people, not the mistakes of anxiety, depression, whatever, but just people behaving badly and people grasping unnecessarily. I understand the inclination to want to do that. But thank you for showing me what it looks like. I'm just going to go make my smoothie and read another John Cheever story.
This film is bookended by your relationship with animals. Another big part of your story is growing up in poverty. What can all of us as consumers do so that people who don't have access to healthy foods not based on cruelty can be doing to feed their families?
I put out a book about 12 or 14 years ago about the consequences of animal agriculture, our food system, called "Gristle." Not a fun read. It's looking at animal agriculture from a bunch of different perspectives. From health, from climate, from the animal producers themselves, from communities. I did a very small book tour. And that question was the recurring, very valid, legitimate question. The answer is subsidies.
Everything comes down to subsidies, because without subsidies, unhealthy food would disappear, especially meat and dairy. A family of four who currently go to Burger King because it's their only viable option, that's subsidies. Now, that same family of four, if they went to Burger King without subsidies, it'd be $75. It's trillions of dollars of global subsidies, direct, federal, local, state, indirect subsidizing the production of food that's killing us, food that causes cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, food that has no fiber, that has no antioxidants, there's nothing fresh about it. It's subsidies.
With all my friends on the political side and the animal rights movement on the health side, everyone just scratches their head and they're like, "How do you address subsidies?" It's interesting, but Tom Vilsack, he's in the Biden administration, he used to be the problem. A senator from Iowa who protected subsidies for pig farmers, for dairy producers, and now he's slowly saying, "Okay." There's a little bit of daylight there and I'm encouraged, but still so profoundly frustrated that your tax dollars, my tax dollars, everybody's tax dollars, support industries that kill us, that make it impossible for people to find healthy food in food deserts. It's all subsidies. People can point to tradition. People can point to marketing. You can point to all of those things and those are all variables, but as long as we spend hundreds of billions of dollars of our tax dollars to subsidize food that is destroying us, we will be destroyed.
In the past couple of years, you've been getting tatted up. The neck, the face, the arms. You've been a vegan for over 30 years. What made you want to externalize it in this particular way?
One, I don't have a real job, so it's not like I'm going to get fired for having facial tattoos or tattoos. Two, there is nothing more important to me than ending the use of animals for human purposes, for the sake of the animals, for the sake of human health, for the sake of the rainforest, for the sake of climate, for the sake of antibiotic resistance, on and on and on. Animal agriculture is the worst industry in human history in terms of the horrible ways it destroys everything it touches. I feel like, one of the reasons we don't address animal agriculture is people almost can't wrap their head around how terrible it is, how utterly disastrous it is, to the point where at COP21, they wouldn't even mention it. It's the third leading cause of climate change. You have a climate change conference and no one at the conference will talk about it.
I was talking to Al Gore, and Al Gore describes it as the real inconvenient truth. For me, working to end animal agriculture, working to end the use of animals by and for humans, that's my life's work. All this other stuff is interesting and I love it. Like music, books, movies, I love it. It's partially why I don't think of that as a career, because it's too much fun. It's almost like the fun thing I do when I'm not working animal rights.
"Moby Doc" is in theaters and digital platforms beginning Friday, May 28.