The Underground Press Quarterly2/01
THE ART OF FEAR OR LOOKING FOR MR. REALITY CHECK
by Darren Ecstein
It’s not often that a relativly unknown columnist from a rock n’ roll weekly begins to take hold of the radical press, dubbing himself a “rogue journalist” and invitingly begs for comparisons to H.L. Mencken or Hunter Thompson. And it is even more rare that the same man can pull it off with painful consistency. James Campion, if not already a thorn in the side of all that is not sacred, wants you to believe all this. And anyone who has taken notice has yet to deny him that.
Not that Campion’s Reality Check column, read weekly in the New Jersey-based, Aquarian Weekly entertainment paper, is nothing if not a home for the findings of the mysteriously potent News & Information Desk. There is very little journalism involved. “There’s no room for the truth in hardcore reporting,” Campion smirks, biting down hard on a cigar and jiggling the ice in his half-gulped Gin & Tonic. Campion not only insists in biting the media hand that feeds him at every turn, but also refuses to do interviews outside of bars, pubs or taverns. “The darkness becomes the subject matter,” he jokes, as we sit to chat about all things underground.
But Campion’s gruff exterior adds to his current status as 21st century enigma, spending days working sporting events and press conferences like a legitimate reporter, penning two books (Deep Tank Jersey, published in 1996 and Fear No Art just out last year) in a three-year period and finding solace in the company of young writers and even occasionally middle school students who hang on his every word during early morning, high-octane fueled lectures. As much as he mocks his peers and a growing profession as a freelancer, Campion cares about the craft of writing, often citing other’s work and referring to his style as “hackneyed ranting with limited punctuation.” He tells his audiance to learn the rules before breaking them. “It’s a Picasso thing,” he smiles.
The “Picasso thing” has served Campion well for the past decade or so of rogue journalism. When we sat down to chat in a downtown bar in Yorktown, NY, just a hop and a skip up the Taconic Parkway into Westchester and a mere mile or so from the infamous Putnam Bunker, where most of his most celebrated and villified musings originate, he appeared relaxed, but later came on as frantic and untamed as his work. Our hour long discussion rarely broke the furious momentum and added to an already legendary list of annoying, but informative past interviews, to which we proudly count our humble publication as one.
How close do the original pieces in Fear No Art echo the ones that hit the news stands for three years in the Aquarian Weekly?
That’s interesting you’d ask that, considering we didn’t really promote the fact that a great deal of my original columns were edited in some form or another for their initial publication, and it is true that they appear in more or less their original form in the book. But, really, the reason we don’t harp on that is the Aquarian Weekly is one of the bravest, balls-out publications on the East Coast, bar none. That is the sole reason I still practice this meanignless journalism crap. Those crazy bastards print some of the most insane gibbersish I can muster. I’ve even sent them stuff that I was sure wouldn’t make it to press, but there it was the following week.
But wasn’t that the bedrock of Fear No Art, to reissue work in its original form?
Right again, but that’s not the reason it was finalazed. That gave me the excuse to unload already published stuff. That, and because I’ve quadrupled my readership since ’97 when I started there, so many of the people who are interested now had no idea who I was or what the hell was going on at the News Desk. So, why not release it in a compendeum form and kind of archive it.
Is it fair to say that at the time you started penning Reality Check, when, I think it was called something else, you would’ve considered yourself more a non-fiction author than a journalist.
No, I wrote and published one book. I still don’t think of myself as an author yet. I went to school for journalism. I don’t know, but I guess I’m just facinated with the human element in a story, the relatable effects of fragility and endurance in our collective spirit. I find it an ever available impetus for creativity.
Do you think you’re a mean person? You know, I mean, for instance, do you ever cringe at, say, a title of one of your Fear No Art pieces called “In Defense of Larry Flynt & Other Scumbags Like Him?”
No. I thought that was quite charming. Sort of like Flynt himself. He’s both repulsive and charming in his own way. It was more of a homage to Flynt and his ilk really.
Are you kidding right now?
Not at all. That piece speaks for itself. Interestingly enough, I think after that one came out the editors asked me to take over the headlines. I usually don’t like that part of the gig. But I don’t think I’m mean.
Just sarcastic for the sake of meaness.
See that’s missing the whole point of satire. You think anyone but me, even fans of my work, gives a shit what I think, really? Commentary is so transient. It’s all part of the background noise. I saw Larry Flynt speak at some free speech thing and he called himself a scumbag. I did my homework on that one.
Fear No Art also has a preponderance of serious material, emotional insights. Then, BAM! you’re hitting below the belt again.
A preponderance? Yes, I am a complicated specimen. It’s part of my lovable quality.
I guess what I’m aiming at is your unique ability to play both sides of the emotion for intrigue or reaction.
Yes, okay. I see that, but not the first part about being mean. My wife has a great way of describing my thing. She says that even though I don’t mean to be horrible, it is very easy to take it that way. You see, you need human interaction to understand the level of muck you can dredge up when you live in that part of your head. But as easily as I can get whipped up into that kind of frenzy, I’m out. So, it’s not anger or frustration or even angst that boils up inside me, it’s manufactured from parts of my brain I won’t let out in normal circumstances. Like right now, I can tear your head off, just snap and start bashing you over the head with this stool, but I choose to bottle that and use it for artistic pursuits. You know, let it flow in a more resourceful fashion. It’s quite civilized.
I appreciate your presently reserved additude.
No problem. I am trained, like a literary Samuri.
Literary Samuri. That’s pretty good. Now what’s the deal with this guy, Willie?
Is he real?
Of course, why not? You think I can make that up. People who say that give me more credit than I deserve. I’m not a fiction writer. I couldn’t make him up. Willie’s name has been changed to protect the guilt-ridden, but he is all man and he’s coming for you.
So all of Willie’s exploits are one hundred percent on the level, not embelished for purposes of sensationalism or readership, as you someitmes elude to.
Well it’s good to see you actaully read the stuff. Usually people who ask me about Willie are coming from the rumor mill loaded for bear. No, as much as I joke for the sake of legal, almost safety, purposes, those stories are dead on. I’m afraid to admit it, but it’s true. Willie is a freelancer’s dream. He knows news before it happens. It’s a level of clarvoyance rarely seen. I could expect calls from him daily if I didn’t set limits. Actually the limits are set by society and its penal system, but for the most part, I need to corrall that additude for my own selfish gain. But it’s quite symbiotic in its twisted way. Willie loves the publicity and the glare of being an outlaw and I love writing about outlaws, so it works.
Did you ever leave something out of the stories for legal purposes or thought better about sending one of your adventures to print?
Nope. I don’t have a very aggresssive editor in my head. And, like I say, I wouldn’t trade the Aquarian Weekly in for Time magazine. Maybe the paycheck, but the freedom is the key. If anything, I feel the need to find even more disgusting displays of humanity to dissect. It’s much more interesting.
What is your relationship to the mainstream press?
I don’t have one.
You still have to deal with it.
Sure, but I don’t have any relationships that effect my writing or my view. I have friends in the press, network, print, magazine, but the whole thing is a blur and I don’t get emotionally involved. I will defend the press at every juncture, because there is always a trickle down effect. Anyone who says there isn’t ain’t paying attention. You see, I’m able to stay insulated because someone else has to be responsible. The main stream always takes the first hit. That’s why I like being mired in the freelance, the underground. People tend to talk to you more. They make the common mistake in thinking that it will not make it into a national magazine, but they’re wrong.
So what your saying is you can be as maverick as you want and the press take more crap by simply having a greater audience.
If you will. Although the responsibility in actual reporting is getting less and less prevalent to the layman.
You don’t use mainstream connections to take on a story?
I admit to nothing. And anyway, I’m not writing stories. I write columns, editorial blather. I could not care any less about stories. I see it one way and then there is the way it is either reported or accepted. I often refer to the JFK assasination. Where was the balls of the liberal press then? While their boy is lying in a pool of blood they’re cranking out AP or UPI background CIA bullshit on Oswald? I know this for a fact because I’ve talked to some of the press guys who dropped the ball on that one. More recently, the story I personally had solid was when Pat Buchanan left the GOP. That one was under the proverbial radar for months. No one believed it for one minute, but I knew those guys at Buchanan headquarters who were already geering up for a presidential campaign and decided they weren’t going into a field of one hundred Republicans. I hung with those guys, had constant phone and E-mail connection with them. Some of these people had Pat’s ear and they used me to leak out that shit about the GOP to soften up the blow. Not just me, some other popel started to hammer away on it outside the mainstream. And then when they had enough ink floating aorund out there, they went mainstream. Not that I’m comparing Uncle Pat to the Kennedy assasination, but I use both incidents to expose the pack mentality of the press. In the wake of CNN and the Internet, it’s flacid response is staggering. Nobody bought the Buchanan story at first, but I did. And I defy anyone to say they beat me with it.
That brings me to Georgetown.
I’m not talking about Georgetown.
But he is the essence of your style. He’s full of mystery and innuendo and hyperbole. Many think him a metaphor or an annonymous sounding board for your more radical and libelous views.
Yes, well, that’s great.
Can you at least address him as a character or a symbol?
Why? What’s the point? I’ve had enough problems with the likes of him already. He’s sick. He has many psychological problems that I will not address here. It wouldn’t be fair to him or his family, whether he’s working with an alias or not. I cannot talk about him nor do I even want to think about him until I am forced to. Do you understand the kind of pressure even knowing that son of a bitch has brought to me? Jesus, it’s frightening to even broach it.
See, that seems like more hyperbole.
Fine, but I’m not going to talk about it.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up the book on my sabatical to Israel a few years back. It took longer than I wanted because of my journalism kick, this column, running the goddamn New & Information Desk, working on some bullshit screenplay and now this insane scroll I’m penning for the BLAZO!! people. It’s twisted and deranged and I don’t think I can reveal any of it. I don’t even know what it is. I guess another underground journal or something akin to a living urban legend. Chief Wonka and the boys on the run. Pretty heady stuff. I would quit the thing, but I signed on for life. Once in the care of Wonka, there’s no going back to legit publishing.
I’m in deep, man. I don’t even know if I’ll live to finish it. It’s fucking killing me and wasting my friggin’ time, but it’s also fulfilling in a strange sort of way. Almost masochistic in its charm. I don’t mind telling you it’s the worst crap I’ve ever committed to paper and no one is going to believe or understand a word of it. I just wish Lewis Carroll or one of those drugged-out bastards like Huxley or Baum were alive to write it, so I can go back to gambling or stealing wine from the Pataki people.
Hey, did you really do that?
If you believe what they put in the papers. But I don’t. Do you?Press