Crime was formed in 1976 by Johnny Strike, Frankie Fix, Ron "The Ripper" Greco (ex-Chosen Few/Flamin' Groovies), and Ricky James. They ripped post-hippie San Francisco a metaphorical new one when they released their first (and many say Punk’s first) single “Hot Wire My Heart / Baby You're So Repulsive.” There was no mistaking these guys for mere rockers; they mixed a rebellious and sexually-charged image (they were most often seen flaunting their vampiric, just-outta-rehab good looks in tight leather, regulation police uniforms, or old-time gangster duds) with their unique blend of intellectual and furious lo-fi rock and roll. Crime found local refuge at the now legendary Mabuhay Gardens, but became nationally notorious after playing a gig at San Quentin Penitentiary in full police uniforms (of course).
In 1977 Hank Rank joined the ranks, but left in 1979. The band split in 1982 when Strike quit Crime to focus on writing. Frankie Fix attempted a Crime reunion in the early 90’s, but Strike elected not join in. In 1996 Frankie Fix passed away.
Crime experienced a resurgence in recognition in the early 21st Century when both legitimate and unsanctioned bootlegs began to circulate. An official release of bootlegged live shows aptly named San Francisco is Still Doomed was released in 2004 by Swami Records. For their new album, Johnny Strike and Hank Rank recruited Bay Area garage rock vets Michael Lucas (A.K.A. Mickey Tractor) on bass and Brett Stillo (A.K.A. Count Fink) on guitar. This ought to be good!
I was lucky enough to corner Strike and Rank and ask them all about the old scene, the new record, and the occult. I mean, why the hell not?
AUDRA: Can you please describe San Francisco's social and musical climate back in ‘76 when CRIME got its start?
HANK RANK: It was a much more chaotic time in San Francisco, closer to the Barbary Coast days than where we are now. There was already nostalgia for the Summer of Love even though they hadn't picked up all the trash yet. But it was the pinnacle of the Gay Empire in the City, with bath houses more plentiful than McDonalds and the Castro was like Mardi Gras seven nights a week. Market Street was peppered with deteriorating grind houses, and life was good. REO Speedwagon and their ilk were packing the Cow Palace and we thought that was so sad, no, we resented it. The Ramones (who drew only a dozen people) opened for Journey(!) in Berkeley and it made me want to puke. Enough was enough; something HAD to be done, so that's when I committed myself to a life of CRIME.
A: Against that backdrop, CRIME's sound seemed completely new, to come from another planet! How was your sound born? Who were you listening to and what were you reading and watching at that time?
JOHNNY STRIKE: What came to be known as punk rock rose from the ashes of the short lived glam scene. Frankie and I were immersed in that scene and were big fans of Bowie, T-Rex, Roxy Music, Lou Reed, and the New York Dolls. We were also Stooges fanatics. Before that we were diehard Stones fans, and listened to a lot of their influences. We both had a love for soul music, rockabilly, surf, and garage. We really couldn't play any of those genres correctly, but we did our best, and eventually developed what came to be known as the CRIME sound. We were reading the beats, Burroughs, Ballard, Clockwork Orange, and seeing the Warhol films, as well as things like film noir and Alphaville.
HR: I was lucky enough to grow up in Cincinnati, a great rock and roll town, and was weaned on a steady diet of the MC5, Stooges, and James Brown. I grew up in the milieu of the avant garde, met Len Lye, and played John Cage at chess at an early age. Dada and Surrealism were still considered cutting edge ideas in 1960's middle America, then Warhol and his Exploding Plastic Inevitable blew the lid off everything for me. My die was cast.
A: In a recent interview, Aaron Goldberg described early Crime as having "looked like fags and played like cunts." What are your feelings on that statement.
HR: Aaron Goldberg sounds like a Jew who writes like a Nazi. [Editor’s Note: It’s ok for me and Hank to laugh at this because we’re Jewish. If you’re not Jewish, please avert your eyes for a second.]
JS: Very funny. You could say we looked like cunts and played like fags, too.
A: Please tell us a little about how the San Quentin Penitentiary gig came to pass.
HR: Contrary to popular perception, there were not many venues for early punk bands. Bill Graham publicly declared that he would never allow a punk band to play any of his venues, and many smaller clubs were scared by what they read about the goings-on at punk shows. That's why we were open to the idea of Museums Without Walls that put art and music in unlikely places, so when we were contacted with the opportunity by Lynn Hershman (now Leeson), we jumped. We were the only punk band on the show that hot sunny day in the exercise yard at the Q, and neither the prisoners nor the guards knew what to make of us. The window of the cell where Sirhan Sirhan was in solitary was directly opposite where we played, and I'd like to think that our show was the worst punishment of his life.
A: Why release a new album now in 2007? What led you to mobilize now?
JS: The same thing that mobilizes us to get up in the morning.
HR: The onset of senility has helped us forget the reality of how really shitty it is to be in a band.
A: Your new LP Exalted Masters will be released September 21, 2007. The title is quite mysterious and obscure…feel like shedding any light?
JS: Sorry but we’re sworn to secrecy.
HR: But for those into numerology, 9/21 is the new 9/11.
A: There seems to be a particular interest in the occult this time around. Was that always part of the Crime mythology?
JS: Yes, there was an interest in Crowley, Austin Spare, the Knights Templar, and the Raccoon Lodge from the Honeymooners. [Editor’s Note: It just so happens that Jackie Gleason was a huge collector of all things relating to parapsychology.]
HR: Not to mention the Trilateral Commission, E Clampus Vitus, and the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes Lodge from the Flintstones.
A: Crime has appeared as cops, gangsters, prisoners…any new personas for the upcoming album?
JS: Good Humor men come to mind, but no, we'll stick to this until the Masons come knocking on our doors, like the SF Police did back in the day.
A: Any reason Exalted Masters is being released on LP only?
JS: It seemed the classiest way to present it, at least initially.
HR: It was a tossup between 8-track tape, wax cylinder, or vinyl, and our three-sided coin came up vinyl. So dust off your turntables, but don't bother buying a new needle. It won't help. CRIME was, is, and will always be against the grain and a pain in the ass.
A: How was the new lineup chosen? Where's Ronnie?
JS: The last I heard he was on the Antiques Roadshow.
HR: And reportedly fetching a very nice price.
JS: Mickey Tractor (A.K.A. Michael Lucas) has been part of the CRIME family since the get go. After going through a couple of guitarists who didn't work out for one reason or another, Mickey brought in Count Fink (A.K.A. Brett Stillo) and the new syndicate was complete. Both the Count and Mickey fit the criteria. That is to say that they looked like cunts and played like fags.
A: Johnny, your new book A Loud Humming Sound Came From Above has a beautiful dedication to the “neglected writers of pulp literature.” Do you identify with these pulp writers of the past?
JS: In a big way. David Goodis, Cornell Woolrich, Carl Jacobi, Vin Packer (pseudonym for Marijane Meaker, one of Patricia Highsmith's lovers), Theodore Roscoe…the list goes on and on. They are as important to me as Kafka. They are the punk rock of fiction.
A: Were you a writer or a rocker first?
JS: at 12 years old I was writing stories with animals as the characters, singing the Fats Domino tune “I’m walking” in a talent show, and playing bongos in a school skit with a tropical island theme.
A: Morocco and its Paul Bowlesian occult aura crop up a lot in your writing. What is your connection to North Africa?
JS: I first went there to meet and interview Paul Bowles, and while I was there I interviewed Mohamed Choukri too. Both interviews were worked into an article I wrote about Tangier and Brian Jones. I fell in love with the place, and returned to spend a summer there to work on a book. Recently I repeated that.
A: The fantasy/occult author Gustav Meyrink claimed that his life was saved and his writing career begun by one simple event. As he told the story, he was standing on a chair with noose in hand when a door-to-door occult book salesmen came a-knocking. The salesman proceeded to sell Meyrink a set of books and the rest is literary history. Do you feel like you have ever had a dramatic career and life-changing event happen to you?
JS: What a great story. I'm so envious. No, 'fraid not.
A: Cartoonist Richard Sala provides these amazing expressionistic illustrations for your book that really capture your fiction's grittiness. How did you get hooked up with Sala? Do you read many comics?
JS: When I looked over the graphic novel section at the book stores, one artist always jumped out at me, Sala. I devoured all of his books. One day I was surfing the net, and came across his website. I dropped him a line and asked if he had any interest in illustrating my story collection. He asked to see the stories, and after he read them he wrote back saying he'd be pleased to come aboard.
A: If I may inquire, what's your next literary project?
JS: I'm working on a few things, but I’ve most recently completed a manuscript called “Curse of the Djinn” that takes place mostly in Tangier and deals with a murderous cult, expats, and Moroccan magic.
Thank you Johnny and Hank! We’re all very excited to get that new vinyl and book in hand, and meet the exalted masters.