INTERVIEW: Larry Livermore On Spy Rock Memories

By Tom Aylott

Today, we’re bringing you an interview with Lookout! Records founder and extremely well published writer Larry Livermore. He’s about to release his first ever book ‘Spy Rock Memories’, and visits the UK promoting the book at All Ages Camden on August 27, Eggs Milk Butter Dalston on August 25 and Banquet Records Kingston next month.

Have a read of the interview below, and there’s a chance to win a signed copy of the book at the bottom of the article!

Firstly, how are you today?

Quite well, thank you very much. Very excited to be coming back to the UK in just a few days!

The main thing to talk about today is about your new book, ‘Spy Rock Memories’. For those who aren’t familiar with you or the book – what’s it all about?

It’s primarily about when I, back at the beginning of the 1980s, got it into my head to leave my decadent, bourgeois city slicker lifestyle behind and move off into the wilderness, beyond the reach of paved roads or telephones or electricity, and make a new life for myself. The comedy part comes from the fact that I didn’t have the faintest clue what I was doing, had never lived in the country before, and had no idea how to get along with the strange, fascinating, and sometimes downright crazy people who lived there. It’s also about how I learned to make my way in this new community, which was a bit like the Wild West, and while doing so, start a magazine, a punk rock band, and a record label in the most unlikeliest and unpromising of settings (put it this way: many of the people who lived in those mountains had never heard of punk rock, and most of those who had wished they hadn’t).

Though the excerpts have now been taken down from your blog, you’ve used to post early parts of the book online. As someone that’s seen the huge digitisation in publishing across all types of media, was there anything in particular that made you persist in making ‘Spy Rock Memories’ a traditionally printed book?

Spy Rock Memories started out as a short newspaper article, meant to be no more than a few thousand words, but it kept growing, and by the time I’d got to three or four chapters I knew it had to eventually become a book. It was never a serious question in my mind as to whether it should be in digitised or printed or audiobook form; I’ve always been more interested in the message than the medium. This was just as true when I was putting out records (i.e., by ‘records’ I mean vinyl, cassettes, CDs, and I’m sure if digital downloads would have existed back then, I would have done those as well). I don’t think one format is ‘better’ than another; different people have different tastes and needs. I have friends who told me that though they wanted to read my book, they probably wouldn’t unless it came out as an e-book, while others said just the opposite, that they only read physical books. So I’m happy we were able to do it in both forms. No audiobook yet, though I’d definitely like to do one someday.

I will say, though, that there is something about holding a physical book in my hands that, for me at least, makes it feel more significant than seeing my writing on a computer screen. Maybe it’s just because I’m older and come from a generation when books were taken quite seriously, but honestly, having a printed book does feel more ‘important’ somehow. I know it isn’t really; the only truly important thing for any writer, I think, is to be read, no matter how that is accomplished.

You’ve been putting pen to paper for years and ‘Spy Rock Memories’ has been (to steal your own words) something you’ve been working on for more years than you care to remember – what were the biggest challenges putting it together, and what advice would you have for people trying to write in that form?

I’ve been writing ever since I was a child, have published 40 issues of my own magazine, written for many other magazines, and I’ve even completed manuscripts for two books before this, but Spy Rock Memories is the first book I’ve seen all the way through to publication. I learned a great deal in the process. The most valuable lessons came in the editing process, and foremost among those was that editing typically takes much longer than the actual writing. I had help from several people, including Zach from Don Giovanni, who is a book editor in his day job, and my old friend Aaron Cometbus, who taught me that you have to do an awful lot of polishing and rewriting to give it that easy, natural flow that makes it sound as though the words just fell out of your brain and onto the page without a moment’s thought or hesitation. And that’s the advice I would give to anyone who wants to write: rewrite, rewrite, and rewrite again. Not in the sense of constantly ripping everything up and starting over, but once you get the initial story on paper (or your computer), then keep going over it until your eyes fall out and/or there isn’t a single word that you don’t want there, or that feels, looks, or sounds out of place, or that couldn’t be replaced by a clearer, more specific word. It’s like sculpture: someone trying to create a human face or head out of a block of stone has to keep chipping away until all the bits of stone that aren’t part of the face are gone. In the same way, someone writing a story has to keep chipping away at all the words until only the story remains.

Is there anything in the book that you’ve had to leave out that you would have really liked to include?

Yes, there are things I would have liked to include but didn’t, some because they would have intruded too much on people’s privacy, others because while they contained valuable or interesting information, disrupted the general direction of the story. What I most regret leaving out was a couple of pages describing the Native Americans who had lived in the region (and in many cases still did), what had happened to them when the European settlers arrived, and how it devastated their culture. It’s an important aspect of understanding the place I was describing, but as my editor Zach pointed out, it read like a sudden diversion into a history lesson. I spent a couple of months trying to figure out how to keep it in the book, but in the end had to give up. Hopefully I’ll turn it into another article some day. I also regret leaving out characters or events that for some reason I just didn’t think of while I was writing. Unfortunately, by the time a book is nearly done, it becomes difficult to sandwich in new passages without upsetting the entire applecart. And in some cases, I didn’t even remember certain people, in particular an elderly and irascible scientist who lived on top of a mountain in a solar house growing 20-foot tall tomato plants indoors so that he could pick tomatoes without having to go downstairs or outside. It wasn’t until the book was already finished and in my hands that I thought, “Hang on, he was one of my favorite people on the mountain! How could I possibly have forgot about him?”

What would you say are the main reasons someone should pick up ‘Spy Rock Memories’?

From my own selfish point of view, I’d say that if people don’t buy and read this book, I might not get a chance to publish another one! But what I’d most like people to get out of Spy Rock Memories is an insight into a time and place completely unlike anything most of them will have ever encountered. This is even more true for UK readers, because there is something specifically American about the community that grew up around Spy Rock. As I said earlier, it was a bit like the American Wild West; while there are remote and isolated areas of the UK, I don’t think there’s anything quite like the American frontier mentality, that convinces people that, like Huckleberry Finn, they can always “light out for the territory,” i.e., go to a new and as yet unsettled place where they can wipe the slate clean, re-invent themselves and their lives, and start over. Even the Spy Rock that I portray represents a vanishing way of life, one which, barely 30 years later, no longer exists as I found it. I was quite shocked to discover they’ve even put tarmac down on the lower end of the road, something I truly never expected to see.

Another reason people might be interested in Spy Rock Memories is the account of how Lookout Records and my band, the Lookouts, came into existence, and how, even though punk rock is generally thought of as a thoroughly urban phenomenon, Spy Rock and the mountain way of life left their mark on our music and those who participated in it. There’s also the story of how Green Day got their drummer.

You’re making the trip over to the UK for a few dates on your book tour – how did you get together with the Everything Sucks guys for the UK release, and what drew you to the UK on this particular trip?

I’ve been coming to the UK ever since the mid-1970s, and I lived there from 1997 to 2007, and I really consider it my other home. So it’s only natural that I’d want to share my book with the people there. The fact that this trip coincides with the opening of football season doesn’t hurt, either.

I met Dave from Everything Sucks around the time I was leaving London to move back to America. He approached me at a gig at the Underworld in Camden, and told me he’d heard that we supported the same football team (Fulham, for anyone who’s curious). One of the saddest parts of leaving London was having to give up my season ticket at Craven Cottage, so Dave assured me he’d do his best to help me get tickets whenever I came back to visit, and he’s been true to his word. So he and I have been attending Fulham matches together ever since, whenever I’m able to get over. And Dave’s work sometimes brings him to New York, so we see a fair bit of each other, considering that we live several thousand miles apart.

I was quite chuffed when he asked about distributing Spy Rock Memories in the UK, because until then, I had no idea of how to go about making the book available over there. And maybe I’m wrong, but it was always my impression, at least among the people I know, that British people tended to read more than Americans, so I’m hoping to find a receptive audience there!

You’ve noted that you’re writing another book – how far along with that are you at the moment?

I’m actually working on two, which people keep telling me is an insane thing to attempt, but then they’ve been telling me that about most things I’ve tried over the years, so I’ll probably keep on doing it. One of them is sort of the city sequel to Spy Rock Memories, which means that it will focus more on music and bands and especially Lookout Records. The other one is about London, specifically about how I arrived there as a clueless foreigner and learned to become a part of it, and eventually to fall totally in love with it.

In general, people involved in various scenes across the world would probably have a huge amount to say if given the chance – is there anyone you’ve met along the road that you’d love to read a book by?

Interesting question, and one I hadn’t thought about before. Having lived as long as I have, traveled as much as I have, and been involved in as many subcultures, countercultures, and concatenations of misfits, loudmouths and malcontents as I have, it could easily seem that every other person I’ve met could write a book. In many cases, they already have.

But at this moment, I can’t think of anyone’s story I’d be particularly keen to read, except perhaps this older African-American gentleman I shared a table with in the dining car of a train traveling back from New Orleans earlier this year. He had grown up during the time when black people weren’t allowed to drink from the same water fountains as white people, but rose to become a Supreme Court Chief Justice in one of the largest (and historically most racist) states in America’s Deep South.

He had marched with Martin Luther King, hung out with Presidents Clinton and Obama, won all sorts of awards and honors, but the main thing on his mind was finding ways to help drug-addicted young people, and when he learned about my own history of drug abuse, started asking ME for advice and opinions.

I don’t think he has any plans to write a book, but that’s the kind of thing I’d read in an instant. Oh, and anything by Aaron Cometbus.

Thank you to Larry for taking the time to answer our questions – if you’re intrigued about the book (which you should be), here’s how you can win a signed copy:

Follow @punktastic on Twitter and post this message:
“Hey, @punktastic! Give me a signed copy of that new @LarryLivermore book!”

Tell us on this Facebook post what your favourite Lookout! Records band was.

That’s all! Here’s those all important book tour dates again!

Sunday 25th August (4pm) – Eggs Milk Butter, Dalston
Tuesday 27th August (6pm) – All Ages Records, Camden
Sunday 22nd September (6pm) – Banquet Records, Kingston

you can purchase the book in the UK from Everything Sucks Music here –


Try these three interviews

Interview: Greywind [Reading 2016]

Interview: Arcane Roots [Reading 2016]

Interview: Trash Boat [Reading 2016]