Interview with Speed Levitch


"'On this bridge,' Lorca warns, 'life is not a dream. Beware. And beware. And beware.' And so many think because Then happened, Now isn't. But didn't I mention the ongoing "wow" is happening right now? We are all co-authors of this dancing exuberance where even our inabilities are having a ROAST! We are the authors of ourselves, co-authoring a gigantic Dostoevsky novel, starring clowns. This entire thing we're involved with called the world is an opportunity to exhibit how exciting alienation can be. Life is a matter of a miracle that is collected over time by moments, flabbergasted to be in each other's presence. The world is an exam to see if we can rise into the direct experiences. Our eyesight is here as a test to see if we can see beyond it. Matter is here as a test for our curiosity. Doubt is here as an exam for our vitality. Thomas Mann wrote that he would rather participate in life than write 100 stories. Giacometti was once run down by a car, and he recalled falling into a lucid faint, a sudden exhilaration, as he realized that at last, something was happening to him. An assumption develops that you cannot understand life and live life simultaneously. I do not agree entirely. Which is to say I do not exactly disagree. I would say that life understood is life lived. But the paradoxes bug me, and I can learn to love and make love to the paradoxes that bug me. And on really romantic evenings of self, I go salsa dancing with my confusion. Before you drift off, don't forget. Which is to say, remember. Because remembering is so much more a psychotic activity than forgetting. Lorca, in that same poem, said that the iguana will bite those who do not dream. And as one realizes that one is a dream figure in another person's dream, that is self awareness."

- Speed Levitch in Waking Life

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New York City's seasonal beatnik tour-guide--who you know well if you happen to have caught the full-length documentary about him called The Cruise, and who you vaguely recognize if you're only a casual Richard Linklater fan--has a new travel show on Hulu, called Up To Speed. He visits unexpectedly weird American landmarks and has conversations with inanimate monuments about their emotional relationships to historical events and surrounding geographies.

Are you from New York originally?

My parents were from Kansas City, they moved to New York as a young couple. I was born and raised there, I went to high school in the Bronx and went to NYU for college. I became a tour-guide right after college, I got my license right before I graduated. It was at that disturbing and confusing time when people were telling me I had to get a job. I had done a couple of odds-and-ends things along the way. I was confused. I wasn't sure what I could get together to be functional to society. I had been studying theatre, performance, writing and play writing, so I was kind of adrift in my own world. But the tour-guiding made perfect sense at that time, it was a great mix of all those things I loved. History, the city, performing, performance... so much of it is entertainment. And on a double-decker bus I literally had a microphone, so it was like a cabaret act.

What's your main gig at the moment? 

I'm an artist, writer, performer... My profession is tour-guiding. I've been a tour-guide for 20 years now. In different places, not just New York. But it's true that New York is my fast-ball, if you will. I was waiting tables before I got swept up in this magical history tour with Hulu, just an artist climbing the uphill climb. Of course this gig has been pretty all-immersing ever since. It's a wonderful opportunity; Hulu creates these platforms for eccentrics like myself to form launch-pads and let it slide. It's been really really lovely all the great sentiment and feedback we've been getting from the episodes now that we're sharing them with everyone.

How did you fall in with Richard Linklater?

I met him in Austin in the winter of 1998. I was in a black and white full-length documentary at the time called The Cruise. When that film was first going around, it was in Austin getting a screening by the Austin film society. It was there that I met Richard at that screening, and I first started hanging out with him that very night. We were collaborating pretty soon after that.

Do you have a favorite episode so far of Up To Speed?

Of course they're all my children... And I love my collaborators. It's been a great conversation with Hulu right from the beginning. The opening pitch for the show was, "a history show meets The Muppet Show." And during the pitch meeting, Hulu really helped us percolate it and raise the stakes of it and bring it to further outlandishness. So that said, all the episodes are my children and I love them all, but I'm particularly thrilled by the Jefferson episode. The "Many Flavors of Jefferson". Because here was a straight-no-chaser example of a subject matter that I found so boring in 10th grade history class. It was a great example of an opportunity to rock out over something I had previously been so bored by. I think there's an alchemy in us all about turning boring stuff into something interesting, it's a good feeling.

How did you end up in a Y-100 sonic session with Weezer?



I'm glad you mention it! Weezer are still good friends of mine, especially Brian Bell the guitarist, who I still hang out with. Weezer have nominated themselves number one fans of the show. I think if we do more episodes, they'll be interested in participating in some way. Brian's been hosting premieres of the show. I had been on the road with them, and we were playing much larger venues where everything was amplified. So I was going out on stage live, and doing that monologue--or riffs of that monologue--with the sweater song. The song is structured that way, with a conversation in the original version. But it was shorter, and I just made the conversation longer. So I would go out and converse and just have fun with it. When you're in the arenas and everything is amplified, you can't really hear anything I'm saying, but in that acoustic setting you can hear the whole thing. That [Y-100] Sweater Song recording, I know I'm biased towards it, but I really love that version of the song. It's an amorphous, mis-shaped version of a hit-song. I was so psyched to be granted that opportunity by the band, they're really generous.

Could I ask you to participate in a little exercise with me. I'd like to read you some quotes, and then get your reactions--whether you agree with these, or disagree or even if a non-sequiturial avenue occurs... Would you mind doing that?

Sure!

"As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it." (Albert Einstein)

The first thing I think of is the Eastern mystics. If you're into reincarnation and Buddhism and karma, and you start opening up the conversation of what a life is. The least important thing you're getting is knowledge. It's that old "you can't take it with you." Still, I believe Eve was right. Eve, reaching for the knowledge and going for it. I'm on the side that believes Eve was right, but maybe her timing was off. She could have worked out better timing. But reaching for that knowledge is a big part of the journey.

"Sex is kicking death in the ass while singing..." (Charles Bukowski)

 ....It's a nice image... Good writing.... Another important point about coitus that I was just reading recently is that Georges Bataille argues that the rotation of the earth is actually happening due to the motion of coitus. You know, between the entire animal kingdom. The act of coitus moves the planet. And now I always think about that when I'm going to the grocery store.

"When we quit thinking about ourselves and our own self-preservation, we undergo a truly heroic transformation of consciousness." (Joseph Campbell)

Heroic... I like that word "heroic" there. And that "consciousness" can be heroically used, is great. I've heard it said before that this is the inevitable transformation that happens to all mothers. Maybe fathers too, I don't know, I've just heard that that's part of the journey into motherhood is that you're literally prioritizing another soul over your own, which is a total swerve to your consciousness and gives you a whole other view to the world. I'm an artist, I'm a little too self absorbed for that experience, [laughs] but I'm a humanitarian, and I still have faith in the human race.

"Follow your own genius wherever it leads without any regard for the apparent needs of the world, which in fact has no needs as such but rather moments of exhaustion in which it's incapable of prejudice." (Hal Hartley)

Wow, that's nice. I bet that kind of audaciousness leads to being able to do what RuPaul always said. One of RuPaul's great one-liners was "Everybody's gotta bring something to the Birthday Party." So following your own bebop, that lets you bring something unique to the birthday party. I love this idea that the world doesn't have needs, it takes a lot of pressures off your shoulders.

"Every generation revolts against its fathers and makes friends with its grandfathers." (Lewis Mumford)

That one's deep, you know... I can see the idea that every generation has to do both. Revolt against something and aligning with something, that seems to be part of the duality that we're shaped by or trapped in. But every generation is kind of a generalization, because it seems like that thought might emanate from the time when there was a lot more family dinners. Don't you think? Society's gotten a lot more dismembered since then. There's a lot less community. There's a lot less bowling leagues, and I don't even know if there's that much time hanging out with grandfathers to befriend them. I get a sense that it's much more chaotic right now, but in the old days, I get a sense that people really knew these characters in their lives.

How was your relationship with your grandparents?

It was always great, I used to visit them in Kansas City, and just cruise around living large on the streets of KC. I have one grandparent still alive, she's 99 years old. Still pretty lucid too. That's why I'm in Kansas City right now, I'm helping out my mother while she's helping out her mother.

I saw in The Cruise that it was tough for you to rectify with your grandparents about the general type of lifestyle that you chose to participate in, as opposed to something more traditional...

That's a moment in the film... that's a fascinating question from where I'm standing, because The Cruise was a four-year project, and there was a hundred hours of footage shot over that time-span. I said a lot of things over that time, and there was a lot of experimentation with improv and bebop and philosophy in front of the camera for years. So that moment about the grandparents, great example, that's not a moment I would have necessarily selected for the final cut. At the same time, obviously the final cut works really well, people really like that movie. It was made by a master film-director, and--by the way--a rock-and-roll editor. Michael Levine edited The Cruise. He's still a great documentary editor. There were a lot of great filmmaker minds involved with the construction of that. So I'm sure the grandparent moment fit well into the construction of the piece. And, might I add, I've had so many people mention that moment to me, that they related to it. So I'm really glad people can groove with that moment.

That's really the beautiful thing about The Cruise, is that it's a portrait. It's a portrait painting. But it's done in the age of the moving image. So it has a shamanic quality. You can understand that if you left me alone with that hundred hours of footage, I would have come out with a completely different 76 minutes. I'm sure it wouldn't have been as well-made or had the same gravitas. But in any case, it's a fun exercise to think about. It was a big block of marble, anybody could have tapped a statue out of it. That's the whole art of portraiture. I've heard by Da Vinci and Picasso--in different ways--that every portrait is a self-portrait. There's some self-portrait within every portrait. That's why the portrait painter is doing it. There is a self-expression, they're not just photographing the person. So that's what The Cruise is.

Where did the whole "cruise" paradigm start for you?

It's kind of a tour-guide's gesture. A tour-guide points out what's happening on the left, and what's happening on the right. It's a tour-guide's gesture of clarity, to point out what's happening on different sides of the bus. It's useful to people. If they can incorporate it into their lives, that's the most important thing.

It started when I started walking the streets of the city. I was going to school in the Bronx, living in the suburbs, and most of my friends lived in Manhattan. So I was taking 45 minute train rides into Grand Central in 11th, 12th grade. I didn't know my way around very well. New York was very provincial like that, you grow up in the North Bronx, and you're out in the suburbs, you go to Manhattan sometimes, but you get pretty lost. I'd be walking the streets of Manhattan lost at 16.

You strike me as generally OK with being lost?

Yea, as a civilized person that can be challenging, I understand. But in a way, when you are lost planetarily, you're being quite specific about your place in the universe.

"I will go very far, farther than those hills, farther than the seas, close to the stars, to beg Christ the Lord to give back the soul I had of old, when I was a child, ripened with legends, with a feathered cap and a wooden sword." (Lorca)

I had a friend who took his two year old to Coney Island, and the two year old was looking around going, "Oh yeah, I was here when I was old." Even in my close circle of friends, I've heard different two year olds say things like that. A little bit of another angle, this "getting close to the stars", that's one of my favorite quotes from Terence McKenna: He's describing the world today, and he goes, "perhaps this is what it looks like when a species is getting ready to launch into the stars."

You seem very comfortable with silence. Even though you're known for talking a lot, you don't seem uncomfortable just sitting in those incidental silences during a diologue?

I love silence, definitely. I've never been an expert meditator, like you said I am a pretty frenetic, peripatetic soul. But I love silence, I learned it from my first girlfriend, my first love, she was a very quiet person. Perhaps that's part of the passion I was feeling towards here at the time. We sat in quietude--[laughs] as Jack Black calls it, quietude--for long periods of time. I've always loved silence since then, I considered her to be my teacher in it.

Do you have any love interests right now?

No. I'm a playboy with no action right now. That's often my scenario. I have dreams of being a playboy, and in my mind it's happening, but that's not actually reality. I'm working on making it actual. I love women but I'm afraid of institutions. Maybe it's an artist's credo. I can't be too scientific about it because I can't fully understand how it all operates, but I think that sex is the engine of awareness. And that's why my goddess worship, my passion for womankind is synonymous with my creativity to me. It's all the same river.

What was the process of preparing the research for Up To Speed?

A lot of the monuments that are featured in the episodes are old friends of mine, I've been chatting with them for years. And several of the tours were developed over time. The Virginia episode, as an example, began as a tour I was giving of the Univeristy of Virgina Campus for the Virgina Film Festival. A lot of these tours started after The Cruise went around, I was getting invited to different film festivals to give tours of their locations. So, it was a great opportunity. It's kind of a kamikaze assignment because you're just getting your stuff together and then presenting a rough draft. But a tour is theatre, you do it over and over again and eventually make it your own.

What are your thoughts on Breaking Bad?

I haven't watch the last couple seasons, but the premise of Breaking Bad smacks so much of our age. I thought it was a great premise that a chemistry teacher gone mad turns into a maker of premier meth. That's just very exciting and right, that he would know his way around the meth lab. That essential gesture is one of those explanations, documentations of our age, which our age just knew was right. The violence doesn't get me too excited, a lot of the violence I find on TV is so repetitive. But the premise is very exciting. Similarly, if there's time-capsules for our age that we'll bury in the ground for people to open in a thousand years, they should put all The Simpsons and South Park DVDs in there, cause those are the great descriptions of our time.

I have one last quote... "Intelligence is not a discipline, it is an experience." (Speed Levitch).

Yeah, that sounds awfully familiar, I totally groove with that. I used to define intelligence as a sensation--no, no, an explosion that sometimes blows up buildings; I'm sorry I hurt your feelings. That was stated pre-9/11 of course, but in any case, intelligence is a joyride. I think it might be helpful for a lot of people for turning their good afternoons into great afternoons, to remember that intelligence is not a discipline. Again, institutions unnerve me a little bit, cause there's an example where they sorta kicked the rock-and-roll out of intelligence by turning it into something that you study or build to in ways other than sensory-curiosity and direct, ecstatic experience and direct communication with the present-tense. This probably relates back to why the archival is so popular in our age. This again is a McKenna type of sampling, but the whole notion that body-piercing, tattoos, catastrophe theory, jazz, abstract expressionism, mosh pits... These things are all archaic, but we're reviving them for ourselves, because we have some deep human need to get back to a time when intelligence was understood as an experience and a journey; intense direct experience was primary, like in a mosh pit [laughs]. I'm glad you reminded me of that quote, I like that one. My favorite thing about getting the show out there, is that I knew it would attract the like minded...

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"We were talking about the grid-plan. I made the comment that the grid plan emanates from our weaknesses, this layout of avenues and streets in New York City, this system of 90 degree avenues. The grid plan is puritan, it's homogenizing. In a city where there is no homogenization available, there is only total existence, total cacophony, a total flowing of human ethnicities and tribes and beings and gradations of awareness and consciousness and cruising. And this woman turns to me and goes, 'Well, I never even thought of that,' she goes, 'I can’t imagine it. Everyone likes the grid plan!'

And of course the question is, 'Who is everyone?'

Whoever that is under the white comforter cuddled up with 34th St. and Broadway, existing on the concrete of this city, hungry and disheveled, struggling to crawl their way onto this island, with all of their imagined rages and hellishness and self-orchestrated purgatories… I mean, what does that person think about the grid plan? Probably much more on my plane of thinking, my gradation of being, which is like, let’s blow up the grid plan and rewrite the streets to be much more a self-portraiture of our personal struggles rather than some real estate broker’s wet dream from 1807. We’re forced to walk in these right angles, I mean isn't it infuriating? By being so completely legion to the grid plan, I think most noteworthy is this idiom, 'I can’t even imagine changing the grid plan.' She’s really aligning herself with this civilization. It’s like saying, 'Well, I can’t imagine altering this civilization. I can’t imagine altering this meek and lying morality that rules our lives. I can’t imagine standing up on a chair in the middle of a room to change perspective. I can’t imagine changing my mind on anything. I, in the end, can’t imagine having my own identity that contradicts other identities.'

When she says to me after my statement, 'Everyone likes the grid plan,' isn’t she automatically excluding myself from everyone? 'How could you not like the grid plan? It’s so functional! Take a right turn, and a right turn, and a right turn, and there’s a red light and a green light and a yellow light. It’s so symmetrical!' By saying that everyone likes the grid plan, you’re saying 'I’m going to relive all the mistakes my parents made, I’m going to identify with and relive all the sorrows my mother ever lived through. I will propagate and create dysfunctional children in the same dysfunctional way that I was raised. I will spread neurosis throughout the landscape and do my best to recreate myself and the damages of my life for the next generation.'
-- Speed Levitch in The Cruise

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