(editor’s note: contains harsh language. Hey, it’s Harlan Ellison. No way am I censoring him.)
“Clifford-you and I are cut from the same cloth. We can’t be bought and we can’t be scared.”
-Harlan Ellison to Clifford Meth, 1994
Harlan Ellison is one of the most critically acclaimed writers of our time. He was awarded the Hugo Award eight times and the Nebula Award three times, not to mention the awards he received from the Horror Writers of America, the Mystery Writers of America, and the Writer’s Guild of America. The guy can flat write.
Ellison is also the victim of Internet file sharing. In 2000, many of Ellison’s short stories were placed onto a file sharing system without his permission. As a result of what Ellison sees as a cold-handed theft of his intellectual property, he is currently engaged in a lawsuit against AOL. The suit has already consumed over $250,000 of Ellison’s own money.
To aid Ellison’s cause, his close friend Clifford Meth will be releasing a new anthology of his own writing to help raise money for Ellison’s legal defense. god’s 15 minutes will be released in January 2004 from Aardwolf Publishing and will contain material from all of Meth’s seven short story collections along with obscure and seldom-seen material from Meth’s fanzine days and before. It will also feature art by such comics luminaries as George Perez, Gene Colan, Alex Toth, Dave Cockrum, and many more.
Curious about the type of friendship that would lead Meth to donate so much material to aid Ellison’s cause, I called Ellison to ask him about his relationship with Clifford Meth.
JASON SACKS: Tell me about Clifford Meth.
HARLAN ELLISON: Let me preamble whatever anecdotes I may give by telling you Cliff Meth is one of the most ethical people I’ve ever met. That sounds like one of those encomiums that you read on a tombstone, but we live in a time in which ethics has become almost nonexistent.
And for those of us who would live or die by our ethics, by giving our word… I don’t care much about morality, I don’t care if you fuck chickens in the window of Bloomingdales, but ethics matters to me considerably. And I’m compelled to deal in the course of every day business and in my life with people who just have no conception.
There are people who steal over the Internet and think it’s OK. There are business people who give me their words and then say, “oh, well, gee, I wasn’t able to do that because such-and-such happened subsequently, which is all the floating ethics of a world in which a George Bush can be elected. Clifford is from an earlier time, or from a better time, or from a happier, alternate universe. If Clifford gives you his word, you can make book on it. As Bobby Blake and I used to say, you can take that one to the bank. He’s very careful before he gives his word, and he stands by it to the letter.
This, I think, is the strongest indication of a person’s character, and is more telling than any anecdotes, or any kind of “well, he did this for me” or “he did that for me” nonsense. Clifford Meth is an ethical, upright, straight-arrow guy, and that’s invaluable in these parlous times.
I can’t quite remember how Clifford and I met. He’d probably remember. I think maybe he wrote to me and wanted me to contribute something to a book. I can’t really recall. But when we met, I was in New York to do Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect,” which was on Comedy Central. He and I and I think… this has to be at least 15,16,17,18 years ago. I can’t remember my wife being with me-I think this was before I married Susan. But one of my editors, Ellen Datlow from OMNI was with us. And while we were waiting in that particular building-way over on the West Side, there were a bunch of people waiting to get into another show-I think it was the “Geraldo Rivera Show.”
Well, Clifford, being an Orthodox Jew, was wearing a yarmulke. And there were some guys who made a remark. It wasn’t anything as flamboyant as, “Hey, you dirty kike,” or anything like that, but whatever it was, it was enough to get Clifford’s antennae up. He didn’t go cruising for a fight – he wasn’t particularly angry, but he was alert. So when we came back down out of the building – and I think he’d had a little run in with them inside where the two lines sort of merged for a moment before we went into one studio and they went into another one…and it was a bunch of thuggy kind of boys – they were not from the intelligentsia; that is to say, they were not outpatients from Columbia University.
And I think they exchanged words again – a lot of this is very foggy in my mind because it happened a long time ago.
After the show, we went downstairs and there was a pizza joint there and we went in to have a slice and sit and talk. I had to go off and do something else and Clifford had to go back to wherever it was he was going back to. So were sitting there and these guys started again. A couple of them came in or they were there already – whatever it was, the paths crossed again. And Clifford took umbrage at what they said – certainly umbrage enough.
I didn’t hear it or I’d have been in there with him because I love street fighting. I still do. In fact, earlier this week, I caught a reckless driver up here on our mountain road and I hemmed him in until the cops came and took him away and when he gave me shit, I popped him one in the mouth.
The cop said, “You know you can be arrested for that?” and I said, “Right-I’ve made a citizen’s arrest; I arrested the bad guy for you, and you’re telling me you’re going to arrest me? If you’re going to arrest me then turn me loose on the motherfucker so I can beat the crap out of him before I go to jail.”
And the cop said, “What is it with you? You’re an old man?” And I said, “I’m not that old – I’m 69!” and the cop said, “But the guy is six-foot-four and he’s wearing a tank top!”
And I said, “Then I’ll get him on the ground and stomp his head that way he won’t be six-foot-four; he’ll be three-inches thick.”
The cops shook their heads and took the guy away.
So I didn’t actually hear the whole thing, but the next thing I knew, Cliff was gone from the table. Apparently, he went Bruce Lee on their asses and took them down outside on the street. There were four or five of them, but Cliff only had to take out two of them before the others turned into the cowardly lion.
He’s very accomplished – he’s one of those odd creatures who is martially adept and he is more than capable of taking care of himself. But he blows it off. He’s not looking to hassle anybody, nor let anybody hassle him. But if pressed to it, he can turn into one of Fred Saberhagen’s berserkers.
JS: It’s a good story. Standing up for his honor.
HE: Absolutely. He takes Jewishness very seriously.
Another wonderful story: After he was divorced from his first wife and he was going to marry the woman that he is married to now, her father is a rabbi, and he’s a very Orthodox rabbi, and he was not sure if Clifford was the sort of man that he wanted his daughter to marry. Well, it turned out that he had heard my name – the father had heard my name. And I guess it had some salutary effect on him because he was speaking to Clifford and he said, “This is a vonderful, vonderful writer, this fella.” I had written some stories with a Jewish background. So Clifford said, “Well, he’s a very close friend of mine.” And he said, “Yeah, sure, right, close, right.”
So Clifford calls me and he says, “He’s very impressed by you.” So I said I’d call him. Cliff said, “You’re gonna call the rebbe?” I said yeah, I’ll call the rebbe. So I called the rebbe and this is the accent I put on – I said, “Rabbi, rabbi-this is Harlan Ellison. And I want to tell you, I know this boy Clifford Meth. He’s a good boy, he’s a stand-up boy, he’s a very, very sincere, earnest, honest boy; he’s devoted – your daughter could do a lot worse, trust me on this.”
So he apparently was impressed enough by my rodomontade that he gave the okay to the wedding.
JS: That’s a wonderful story. It really shows the depth of your friendship.
HE: (laughing) Well, there isn’t anything I won’t do for my friends.
By the same token, if somebody fucks me, I either think them out of my universe – I mean, this is about as deep into philosophy as I get, but I think it’s a terrific bit of philosophy. It took me decades to come up with it, but I think it really works and this is it: Most of what we think is evil can be chalked up to ineptitude.
Most people do stupid things or say stupid things or get involved in bad situations mostly because they think it’s a good idea at the time, which of course is the behavior of idiots. But since we’re all idiots most of the time anyhow, this is why we get into bad…you know:
“Why did you get involved with that man? You knew he was bad for you?” “Well, I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“Why did you set fire to that kindling outside in the wooded area? It started a big fire.” “Well, I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“So tell me, Napoleon: What made you think you could take over Russia?” “I don’t know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
And that excuses an awful lot of human behavior. Meanness, maliciousness, and repeated evil, like Ashcroft and the rest of his crowd, is a different matter entirely.
When somebody does something that I don’t think is right, one of two things happens. If it’s an I-thought-it-was-a-good-idea-at-the-time, or it’s just ineptitude or it’s just stupidity, I never give them a second chance, because once you’ve fucked me, that’s enough, but I think them out of my universe. They just don’t exist anymore. They’re on a parallel timeline and I don’t have to deal with them. And if they keep coming back again and again and again and again, I just ignore it. And I ignore it on a very deep, deep level. They just don’t fucking exist.
But every once in a while something will happen that is codified in – there’s a quote from Alexandre Dumas . He said, “There are some words that close a conversation like an iron door.”
And every once in a while, someone will do something that is so egregious, so insulting, so hurtful, that I am compelled to deal with them in the equal-and-opposite reaction theory. If somebody does me a favor, I am theirs forever. They can call on me any hour of the day or night and I’m there. But if somebody fucks me to the extent of that same kind of hurt, I will eventually either piss in their open grave or their open mouth – one or the other.
So I understand Clifford’s behavior – and while I understand it has its downside for a lot of people who are very egalitarian and say, well, you should never fight with anyone and “everybody’s opinion matters; everybody’s opinion is the same,” which is bullshit, of course – I understand the dangers and downside of this kind of philosophy, but I am precisely the person that I meant to be when I was a kid; I always wanted to be who I am now, so I have no one to blame.
So at age 69, I figure that’s a philosophy I can live by. And others who live by the same kind of philosophy naturally have a reverberation with me that I respond to. And Clifford’s one of those people. He is an incredibly loyal friend, beyond the bounds of what most people think is friendship.
It’s easy to be your friend when there ain’t no shit coming down. It’s when the nails are being driven into your wrists that you find out whether somebody is a real friend and a stand-up person. And that’s Cliff.
JS: I see why you guys are such good friends because he says the same things about you.
HE: Well, that’s very flattering. I suspect in most ways he’s a better man than I… Except for this Orthodox Jewry business – what a pain in the ass! He can’t come to visit me because we can’t find a proper deli! We’re literally going to have to lay in boots for the weirdo.
JS: (laughing) He mentioned that he’ll be flying out in October.
HE: Yeah. And I’m thinking to myself, you know, I can’t take him to Mogo’s Mongolian Bar-B-Que, I can’t take him to the Argentinean Chilescaria, I can’t take him to the Thai Restaurant – you know, everything he looks at is traif, street-kill. Everything is traif to him. So I don’t know how he’s going to do it. He’s probably going to come in a trailer packing kosher food.
JS: (laughing) I’m sure there’s a kosher deli or two down there.
HE: It can’t even be just kosher. It’s got to be, as they say, frum. Levels above!
JS: I was raised reform so we never got into that kind of depth.
HE: I was raised Jewish, but just sort of High Holy Days and that’s it. But I became an atheist at about the age of nine, and I never looked back. Although if I hear the word kike I just ball up very quickly, and I do the same thing Cliff does.
JS: Cliff tells one more story about you supporting his honor the time he got fired from WIZARD. It had something to do with Barry Windsor-Smith. He said that you called Gareb Shamus asking him to hire Cliff back.
HE: Yeah, I did. I’m not sure if Gareb did, but, yeah, that happened.
I know everybody, and when you know everybody… Look, I’m not terribly impressed with my own celebrity, as you may have gathered. I take what I do seriously, but I don’t take me very seriously. I’m as big an asshole as the next guy. Well, actually, since I know who the next guy is, I’m not quite that big an asshole.
But I’m a fairly ridiculous person. If you work at something for 50 years, which I have, eventually you get some minor celebrity, if you’re any good at all, and you tend to run with people who themselves have achieved. And I know a lot of really well known people and people who are in positions of some authority.
Gareb always has been very decent to me. So when Cliff got fired, it was absolutely no effort, no skin off my nose at all, just to pick up the phone and call him and say, “Hey, this guy’s terrific – don’t fire the guy.” Whether it had any effect or not I don’t know, it’s been so far back I can’t remember, but I suspect it did.
JS: Regardless, it ended up working out fine in the long-term, I think, because it gave him more chance to write what he really wants to write, not the kinds of puff pieces that WIZARD requires.
HE: The only thing about Cliff’s writing that makes me crazy is the demented titles that he puts on them. They’re just so fucking bad. For a guy who writes as well as he does, and who thinks as deeply as he does, I can’t figure out what – I mean, he’s not doing it as a gag, he’s doesn’t think they’re cute – he thinks they’re actually apropos. Like, you know, Pus Suckers & Running Sores: 6 Stories of Tragedy & Love…
I mean, Jesus Christ, kiddo! Even god’s 15 minutes is an interesting title, but I’m not sure he’s not gonna just suddenly start getting people from the religious right buying the book.
For more information on god’s 15 minutes and Ellison’s suit against AOL, visit http://harlanellison.com/news.htm