Interview: Thax Douglas, Chicago’s lost indie rock poet
Why he left Chicago. His journey in mental health. Why indie rock is dead.
Poet Thax Douglas was a fixture at Chicago indie rock shows in the 1990s and early 2000s. He gained notoriety reading short poems to introduce bands such as Wilco, Spoon and The Flaming Lips. Ten years ago Scrappers Film Group co-founder Ben Kolak and director Alex Mackenzie (www.strangerthanfilm.com) produced the documentary Thax: The Movie which premiered at the 2007 Chicago Underground Film Festival. The film offers a window into a bygone era in the Chicago music scene, through the lens of Thax’ creative aspirations and tragic past. In early May 2018, Scrappers Film Group and CHIRP Radio will present a one-night-only screening at Constellation celebrating the 10th anniversary of the film and as a benefit for CHIRP Radio.
Thax has not been in Chicago since 2009. He is making the trek from his home in Madison, Wisconsin to attend the screening. Scrappers impact producer Luis Perez called Thax on a Friday night before the screening event to get an update from the man himself. Thax shared his feelings about the indie rock scene today, his journey to reclaim his mental health and reveals why he decided to leave Chicago and never expected to return.
How do feel about coming back to Chicago for the 10th anniversary screening of Thax: The Movie?
I’m fine. I don’t know who would come to see it, but we’ll find out.
Did you invite anyone?
You know… I really don’t like Chicago that much anymore. Like, I still have friends there, but I don’t ever see them. I’m just coming in, going to the show and going back. I lived there for 20 years so I really don’t have to see it again. You know, it’s a beautiful city to live in. Like when you walk around looking at the buildings, great buildings, but I don’t think of it as like a homecoming or anything like that.
When did you leave Chicago?
Thax: I left in 2009.
Thax: The Movie premiered in 2007, so you left only a few years after the film was finished.
What prompted you to leave?
I’d been wanting to leave for a long time. I had no income when I was living there, so I had no way of getting up. When a friend in Austin casually said, “I’m opening a gallery. Do you want to live in the gallery and take care of it?” I jumped on it and I went down there.
How long did you take care of your friend’s gallery in Austin?
Fourteen months. I loved the music scene in Austin, but I didn’t really like [the city]. Which is kind of the opposite of Chicago. The music scene is much better than Chicago, but when you’re not going to a show there are another 22 hours in the day and I just don’t like Austin as a city that much. So when the gallery closed I came up here to stay with my dad which I thought it was going to be for a couple of months, but I kind of wound up staying [in Madison, Wi]. There were other personal issues involved with that. My mom, who you see in the movie, we didn’t get along. You wouldn’t guess it from the movie, but that was actually the first time I’d seen her in five years. She died in 2007. So I really kind of liked the idea of just hanging out with my dad without my mom in the picture. I guess I realized that I needed… to recover from my 20 years in Chicago. So I literally spent three years just watching Turner classic movies.
“I would get up, turn on the TV, watch it for like 16 hours and then go to bed. I did that until I ran out of movies… Then, I finally got around to doing something I been meaning to do for a long time.”
Which was your favorite Turner Classic movie?
My very favorite? Well, I’ll tell you an obscure movie that I really like. It’s not considered a great movie. It’s called The Good Humor Man. It’s from 1950. If Pee-Wee Herman were making movies in 1950, that’s what this movie would be like. It’s different than any other movie I’ve ever seen. It’s a comedy about a Good Humor man whose head is in the clouds and he’s friends with a group of boys who who have a club house and he stumbles onto a murder and with the help of the boys he solves the murder.
If you see the movie, it’s totally Pee-Wee Herman. It’s like unbelievable that it’s not a cult movie. I mean, it’s amazing. The parallels between this movie and Pee-wee Herman are pretty amazing. So that would be one.
So you really spent three years just watching movies?
I did. I would get up, turn on the TV, watch it for like 16 hours and then go to bed. I did that until I ran out of movies. When they showed their whole library I’d notice I’d seen everything. Then I finally got around to doing something I been meaning to do for a long time. Four years ago I got diagnosed with autism. I’d known there was something the matter with me for many years and I’d wanted to get it checked out and I finally started seeing some doctors about it.
I thought that if I admitted I had autism it would define me, but I finally realized that’s kind of ridiculous.
How did you muster up the courage to get screened for autism?
Well, it took me until I was in my fifties to get that courage. I was afraid. In fact, people had said to me every now and then “you might have autism, you should check it out” and I regarded it as an insult. There’s a thing that I had called the disability mentality and I was really afraid of that. I thought that if I admitted I had autism it would define me, but I finally realized that’s kind of ridiculous. Part of it is the American Puritan idea that somehow mental health is a luxury, you know. That somehow you had to grit your teeth and get through it if you have depression or something like that, which is wrong.
How did you feel when you were officially diagnosed with autism?
I felt relief. Before that I sort of felt superstitious. Like, “oh, the gods are against me, the gods are laughing at me.” Stuff like that. I mean basically, autism [means] that your brain isn’t wired quite correctly and so it’s not as easy to get around in the world as it is for other people. When I was doing the research, I discovered a very interesting statistic. The amount of autistic people in the world is about one percent. But among the prison population it’s about 20 percent. So that kinda makes sense.
Do you feel like you’re in a better place now that you know about your autism?
Just the knowledge, it kind of makes things easier for me.
In what ways are things easier?
Well, I mean, one of the classic things about autism is that you can only go so far in your day to day dealings with people. After awhile you have to break it off and you could break it off in a way that could seem really rude or awkward and you don’t realize it. Now that still happens, but at least now I’m aware that it’s happening and it makes it easier to deal with it or it makes it easier to… ameliorate, and see that it doesn’t happen quite so badly.
And maybe you don’t get so insulted when somebody feels like you were being rude to them?
Exactly. If somebody acts in a way that I consider bad, then I’ll think twice about it. You don’t know where he’s coming from, that sort of thing.
When we told people we were doing a 10th anniversary of screening Thax: The Movie many remembered who you were and had most of them had some kind of a story about Thax or a memory that they associated with you. How does it feel to be remembered as a fixture in the Chicago indie rock scene?
It’s nice to be remembered that way. I had a thing in the movie where that Alex kind of misinterpreted where I said I wanted to be a celebrity and I think Alex thought that that meant that [I] wanted to be Paris Hilton or something. What I meant was… if people still remember me five years after I’ve stopped doing this, I’ll, we’ll, I’ll consider that a success. That’s basically what happened. I haven’t lived in Chicago now for nine years and people still remember me. So that’s good.
How did you starts reading poems at indie rock shows?
I was looking for something to do. The first two thirds of the poems in Tragic Faggot Syndrome [Thax’s book of poems from 1989–2000] are all… well the name says it all. They’re all what they used to call confessional poems. Like, you know, it’s all about, “this is me, this is my fucked up emotional life, this is me failing as a homosexual. This is me.” Blah, blah, blah, blah. And I kind of ran out of stuff to say about that. I just didn’t care anymore. I was looking around for something to write about and I tried writing poetry portraits of people for a while, but after a few months that fizzled out. See, I had to do something that suited my needs. I didn’t think in terms of having a career and doing whatever I had to do to have a career as a poet. [Whatever I did] had to suit my needs. That was the main thing. I had the idea [to read poems introducing bands] in the early nineties, but it seemed so ridiculous. I didn’t act on it until ’97. I used to have those shows, Thax After Dark at Lounge Ax and one show had a band as the last act. They were a band from Oak Park whose name was Amber Bug. And I just wrote a poem inspired by their music and introduced them with it. Then it clicked for me. I liked the way it made me feel. I was able to write the poetry I was into at the time.
In the nineties, I was heavily into Russian poetry that had been written almost a hundred years before it was called acmeist poetry. I liked that kind of writing style. It’s about real life and real things, but it’s very abstract. It’s not about abstractions like love and stuff. It’s about very specific things, but the language itself is really abstract. Almost like in a surreal quantum-physics sort of way, where the meanings of the words kind of form something that’s totally surreal, but [about] something that’s really there, if that makes any sense. A band is kind of an abstraction too. It’s not like a singer-songwriter. A band is its own weird thing. How ever many people there are in the band are who contribute to it. So my stuff was abstract, a band is an abstraction, so we seem to fit together somehow. So that’s how I started doing that. And then three months later I did another one and then I just slowly kept on doing it. I thought maybe one in 20 bands would love it and the other bands would just say “get outta here” but it turned out it was the opposite. Nineteen out of 20 bands loved it. Since there was a lot of positive feeling going on, I just slowly kept on doing it and by 2001 I was doing it every night.
Are you still writing and reading poetry?
I still do it live. I haven’t done one since December. I took a trip to Europe, finally, two years ago and in London I did a lot. I did it like every night again. I was in London for six weeks.
Are you writing the same kind of poetry? Do you think your style has changed since the “Thax After Dark” days?
It’s basically the same thing. The poems have gotten a little shorter, but that’s about it. It’s really easy to do. I mean, I could still do it every night. Things in the scene itself have changed, which is kind of frustrating.
What do you mean by “the scene has changed and it’s frustrating?”
Indie rock seems kind of stuck in the 20th century. It’s gotten kind of uninteresting. There aren’t any bands that are exciting anymore, they’re just pastiches of what a band sounded like 20 to 50 years ago. So when I do read nowadays, it’s usually when somebody that I read for often back in the aughts is doing this show and I’m just kind of like hooking up with them again. But there’s nothing like, “oh wow, this is really exciting. Something’s really exciting is happening. I’ve got to be a part of it.” It’s just not there… Recently, on facebook I saw something like, “here’s a new video for a band we just signed” and it was kind of an Interpol knock off. I mean, Interpol itself was already a knock off. It was a Bauhaus knock off. So that’s like watering it down a little too much. It’s like, why should I see a band who’s just imitating a band that would be on John Peel in the seventies and eighties when I can just listen to those bands from the seventies and eighties, you know. I don’t need to see a cover show or a pastiche. So it’s kind of frustrating. I’m not sure what to do about that.
I mean, that’s a scene that’s really happening… where you really feel like there’s something going on that you’re a part of.
When you say you’re not sure what to do… do you mean that you wish the scene were better or you wish that it was still what it was so you can get what you need from it as an artist?
Well, yeah, I mean College Rock, what they called it in the eighties, is not what it used to be for me because it doesn’t change anymore. It’s just the same old stuff, you know, you’d like something innovative, a little new, but people just keep imitating the same old stuff. The only thing that’s been exciting to me lately is stuff that’s not musical. It’s been Japanese manga and anime.
Tell me more about your interest in anime and manga.
I got into the Disney of the of the whole thing, [Osamu] Tezuka, back in ’08, but only Tezuka, nothing else. Three years ago now I just started getting into everything. That’s where the excitement is now. I have an anime themed hat actually and it’s amazing how I have conversations with random people and we talk about anime and that’s really nice. I mean, that’s a scene that’s really happening… where you really feel like there’s something going on that you’re a part of. It’s just frustrating to me because I don’t know how my poetry fits into it. I can’t go up and read a poem in front of a showing of an anime. It’s different. So probably if I do start doing this thing again [reading poems at shows], I’ll probably just keep on doing it and be sorry that the scene is not as good as it used to be.
Do you think art scenes are always doomed to a “not as good as it used to be” fate?
Well… I swore that I wasn’t going to go into anything political, but I guess I will. I I think we’re kind of at the tail of a certain sort of liberalism from the 20th century. We’re sort of entering a renaissance or golden age of African-American culture that will eventually take over the culture in general, but liberalism is having a hard time giving up the idea of being white.
It sounds like you’re saying liberalism is evolving into something else.
Well, yeah, I mean the legacy of racism is there, but the culture itself- like race is less and less of an issue. So in the 20th century racism was the barrow of the very spiritual being of America and that kind of racism isn’t there anymore. So the culture is going to change, but I think there are a lot of people that don’t want to deal with that change.
How do you think that change is going to affect art?
It’s going to be great. Whenever something new happens it regenerates art. Art is eternal, but you know, certain movements they become ossified in sclerotic and conservative, kind of the way indie rock is now, but then something eventually comes over to take its place. We’re kind of in that in between stage now… That’s the way it’s all been throughout the history of art. People still appreciate art of the past, but art itself changes. So you can’t keep doing the same stuff and sometimes people just don’t want to admit that. So when this new wave takes over, it’ll be something else. It won’t be Indie rock anymore. It’s not like people are going away, but it’ll just be a different mindset.
You speak so fondly about that time in the late 90s and early 00s and the synergy between your poetry and indie rock, but you also said that you were tired of Chicago. Can you explain these conflicting feelings?
Well- The film doesn’t address a couple of things. I didn’t have an income that whole time. In fact, while they were making the movie, the only income I was getting was giving plasma twice a week and I managed to get by because I had a crazy roommate who would get mad at me when I paid the rent, not when I didn’t pay them rent. And as soon as I figured that out, I basically stopped paying him rent.
It sounds like, for you, there was just no way to make ends meet in Chicago.
Well, it’s not that. I mean there are other things too… there are a lot of things about Chicago as opposed to like New York. There’s an old fashioned word… provincial. Chicago’s very provincial. It means it doesn’t think of itself as a major cultural center in the way New York is. [Chicago] could be, it has the potential to be one, but there’s something about it where it’s actively against it, and it’s kind of like proud of not being a major cultural center.
It’s more of a weird vibe, spiritual vibe than anything anyone does. I mean, I think there’s a reason why people like Kanye West or Fall Out Boy [when] they make it, they move away.* There’s no reason really. It’s a it’s a huge city. There’s really no reason why they should move away, but that’s just sort of the way it is. And there’s some people that kind of take advantage of that and make sure the scene stays small and narrow. And I had trouble dealing with that. I really wanted to move to New York, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t see how I could.
But in whose interest would it be to keep the Chicago music scene small? The promoters, the people at venues?
I think the record labels were the big thing. There are a lot of problems with indie rock in what you might call “sociological terms” or something like that. There’s this whole idea of indie rock being the rich kids soundtrack or the rich kids play thing. So going along with that, there’s this thing about indie rock being something very special and trying to keep it elite, it’s all about notions of elite culture, but somehow it blends into the idea of people with money being elite and it’s sometimes kind of hard to tell one from the other. It almost comes down to sort of basic snobbery. It just felt very constricted there in Chicago. I just felt I wanted to leave. And the reason I started reading for a lot of big bands, touring bands, was not because they were big bands, but because if I couldn’t leave Chicago, the next best thing was to read for somebody that would be leaving Chicago that day. At least I had some connection with the outside world.
Thax: The Movie screens at Constellation Chicago, 3111 N Western Ave. at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday May 3, 2018. The screening will include a special performance from Wallet-Sized Photo and a reading from the film’s protagonist Thax Douglas. Music by DJ Craig Reptile. All-proceeds will go to benefit the Chicago Independent Radio Project.
- Tickets — https://www.ticketfly.com/event/1673603-thax-movie-screening-chicago/
- Facebook Event — https://www.facebook.com/events/164702791010170/
*Editors Note: A previous version suggested Thax believed artists had to move away to be successful. The passage has been augmented to clarify the predicate; When they become successful, they move away.