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The Peace & Freedom Magazine Craig Runyon Interview


Craig Runyon interviewed by Paul Rance for Peace & Freedom, No. 5, Vol. 3, Spring/Summer 1988

The man who went on a peace march from Aldermaston to Faslane with nuns and monks of Nipponzan Myohoji in '79 with the relics of Lord Buddha's body. The man who was wanted dead in America on occasions, i.e. attempts on his life. Helped in the Peace Pagodas in Milton Keynes and London. Has appeared recently in “Melody Maker” and “Underground” interviews, also been in “NME” and “Sounds” – yet is broke. Financed his own albums. Started off life living in a log cabin with deer and wild raccoons running around, now lives in a flat in London. Not a singer, a poet, who is Craig Runyon? 

PR. How long have you been writing poetry? 

CR. I don't strictly regard myself as a poet, or lyricist – in a role. I suppose I'd lean more in the direction of a poet in the respect that I write things down, then I work with a drummer (I was a drummer for ten years) to write the rhythm section. Then I let other musicians write the harmony and melody. I'm more regarded as a poet in America; in Britain hardly anyone sees me as that. 

I've been writing since 1983 – necessity is the mother of invention. I had something I wanted to say – it was like an abscess that had to explode. I'm very good friends with Simon Crabtree of Bourbonese Qualk, and he's said that there's so many people saying things and having messages, he doesn't even tell people what his lyrics are and concentrates on the musical element – I'm the opposite extreme. Everyone's stating the obvious and it's not capturing people's imagination. I want to express something spiritually from my soul. I'm hearing music when I write – I hope I can be as unpretentious and as honest as possible. 

I try to use different elements of my background – Baltimore, U.S.A. Growing up with black, white, and Jewish people, and my mother and father being hillbillies - most white kids didn't mix with as many different types of Americans as I did. I was made an honorary member of my student council when I was eleven, I've always had the gift of the gab, though I felt alienated and was very quiet when I was younger. 

PR. You've shown a lot of dedication in getting your work out on record – has it been worthwhile? 

CR. Yes, it has. There are some people who are very pretentious in calling themselves artists, and calculate things to make money and be famous, then there are people who really love what they do, and I hope I fall under the second category. I'm not the only one, people I've met like Mike Keen out of Royal Family and the Poor, B. Qualk, Patrick Fitzgerald... They work ever so hard - they never get any money out of it, but they love to make something. People like that would be dead without their creativity. For the last ten years all I've done is grit my teeth and bear any kind of shit, and that was to make my albums to the best of my ability. I felt compelled to do them. I know some people make albums, and they're working for the BBC, or they're computer programmers, and they'd love to be sex symbols, toy boys, or page three Madonna girls. Most people now assume that's what you want. 

This year I thought I was going to make money out of my music, but, as a matter of fact, I'll lose money. I think, since the stock market crashed, it is beginning to filter down to us small fry very quickly. I'd never give it up, as a matter of fact, I feel more into it, and I'm sure a lot of people feel the same, because the creative aspect of human nature is the true attribute of human kind. What we need is everybody in factories dropping out for a little while – do a few gigs, or an album. There can never be too many painters, poets... It'd just mean fewer people would be violent, and more people would be happy. It's a sort of spiritual thing. The creative element is intrinsically intertwined with your spiritual life, and all those good things in the world. 

PR. What are the fundamental differences between Britain and the U.S. In terms of life? 

CR. As I see the welfare state being dismantled at a horrific level... A friend of mine, Deborah Wichner, and I  went through Brixton. We both agreed that a feeling is developing that feels like Howard St. in Baltimore in the late 60s and early 70s. That run-down feeling. 

I went up to Luton – I use to go to Luton Art College – the local teenage girls there are cheerleaders, and into American Football – I emigrated to get away from that boring shit! American history is written in blood (and English – Ed.) - and in massive genocide, but it has its good points. 

It is always very touchy here, as an immigrant... for example, if you were debating some political or social issue, the immediate thing would be to say, “You're just a dumb foreigner.” That side of Britain is very negative. I remember, I was working with a young person who was going to get an eight year prison sentence for what was called armed robbery, and he was drunk, because his girlfriend had had a miscarriage, and he had a penknife on him, mugging people. One third of the prison population in Britain are under 21, which is horrific. I discussed it with someone who had been in prison, and he said, “The trouble with you foreigners is you come over here and want to change everything.” It's that xenophobic element coming out in British people. There's a society here to collectively live together. Tom Jones came over to Los Angeles and said that he had alarms under his furniture, so if any nuts came in to machine-gun down his family... that's not worth it. 

In terms of capitalism it makes sense to just let Broadwater get on with it, “Let 'em riot, let 'em kill each other.” It is cheaper to contain them in their poverty than it is to cure it. Happiness is against the law... The more materialistic you get, the more grief-stricken you are at someone stealing it. As you accumulate wealth, somebody else doesn't have any, but there are some amazing people – that's what the Peace Pagoda is all about (in Battersea Park). That was the last project the GLC ever did – it was assisted by guys like Lord Phillip Neal Baker, Lord Fenner Brockway (now passed on – Ed.), around a hundred years old, and colleagues of Bevan. Thatcher did everything to stop that pagoda being put up. 

PR. What are your views on Thatcherism? 

CR. She probably had to do a lot of dirty work in this country. I do believe, in her heart, she believes she's doing the best she can. Somebody told me she resented the liberal lifestyle of the sixties, worked really hard, and wants us to pay for it. It's very easy to get abusive towards her – everyone does these days. I don't think that is constructive, or idle chat. The unemployment/CND marches of the early 80s dissipated, because that kind of resistance is made up of people who like the sound of their own voice. The elder members of the Labour Party saw it dying in the 80s – what they created in their lifetime, died in their lifetime. I think Thatcher lives in the shadow of America, so that the British people who want to improve their country need to think internationally. 

I think a lot of far-out people are gonna conform now. With my “White Light” album I talked to and met a lot of young people and I felt ostracised. I want these misunderstandings to be cleared up. My album is as important as my work in the community, because over at the Peace Pagoda we want to form what is called The Friends of the Peace Pagoda, which could be a collective of people, and my idea is to get people together, through east and west.  

I've seen the membership of CND rise from 2,000 to 60,000 in one year. I remember a peace demonstration at Trafalgar Square in the early 80s (Anthony Benn was speaking) – I arrived with Lord Phillip Neal Baker, and The Venerable Fujii (who shared the Nehru Award with Martin Luther King), who is the head monk who is responsible for the Peace Pagoda in London and Milton Keynes – it was his last wish that (he died in '85 – Ed.) it should be built for the people of London. CND called me a foreign guest, but I could see that they despised that I was near any kind of power. I only cared about working for peace. They are all well off, and are inactive. Class doesn't matter to me, but they are from the right universities. I said I'd clean the toilets, but they didn't want to know me. They let people in who used CND to launch their careers. I'd like to meet ordinary working people interested in peace. Being treated like a stranger seems an awful torture. I've told everyone that they're welcome to come and meet me. 

There is virtually nothing happening on any level. What I would like to do is create a catalyst. I've been asked to help organise a peace march from Moscow to London, and I'll need help, and I hope that could have a constructive influence on the British people, because we'd like to build a Peace Pagoda in New York, near to the United Nations building. Yoko Ono has agreed to help build this pagoda. It's so hard to do anything in this society. If you want to be a pimp it's as if you've got full blessing of society, but if you want to do anything humane... The first thing to do to someone sensitive and moral is accuse them of immorality. As Martin Luther King said, “It's very unfortunate that people who want to do evil are more zealous and powerful than people who want to do things to better humanity.” 

I've made an album for the people of London and the people of London don't understand me. The early 80s Socialists are no threat to Thatcher, armchair Socialists. I have to resolve the immediate situation in my life with the people I live with, and when the time comes that I can live and work with them and they can understand me, and I can work for peace and share art and humanity, and you do where you live, Thatcher's powerless, but, ultimately, people such as you and I are virtually confronting every value that she propagates and that this society ticks over on now. If there was peace there'd be no pimps, no drug dealers – they've got a lot to lose if humanity goes the right way. I'm not being a fuddy-duddy, but if you had a young son or daughter there's three things you'd be thinking about in London – they could end up being sucked into prostitution, if they're working class, or they can be on heroin, or in prison. 

That is the future for Thatcher's youth here – prison and coercion. Can you achieve anything with the people you live and work with? If not, there's no way that you can change this society. If we can  achieve something with our friends, our family, our community, we can change society for the better. At the moment we're all working against each other. The harmony's not there. 

PR. Are there any up and coming poets that you feel an affinity with? 

CR. The people that inspired me to begin with, were Patrick Fitzgerald and Anne Clark, seeing them with The Ghost of Individuals and realising how ordinary people could be creative, but I'm not a poetry scene, or music biz person. I'm quite a vulnerable person – I'm trying through my art, music, and writing to achieve something in life. When my first album came out I was desperately poor (living in a place 6ft wide, 10ft long – Ed.), lonely, and unhealthy – I had no cooking facilities. I wasn't getting invited to parties, meeting these up and coming writers. I wish I had more mobility, but that's connected to money. I'd like to know more about what is going on. 

PR. Your poems contain some great depth, and diversity of topic, what spurs you to write – news stories, personal experience, a cross-section of things? 

CR. I don't write about what I haven't experienced myself, and my motto is quality not quantity. It doesn't come out of me quickly or easily. I'm a third Native American Indian, but I don't know a lot about it, but that side of me relates to Japanese/Oriental poets. I've heard about poets who have thought about bamboo for fifteen years and each word has a lot of power, and that's how I try to be. People like Tom Waits... they say he lives with alcoholics awhile, he slums it, back in his limmo – then writes about it. I think that's ugly and vulgar and at the expense of the victims he's scrutinised. I'm a soul man, I like to write from my soul. 

PR. Why do you see Buddhism as a good way of life? 

CR. I think the best thing to say is that The Venerable Fujii said in Milton Keynes in 1979, “The primary purpose of Nichiren Buddhism is not to convert people, but to cause unity in mankind.” I feel the most imperative issue is the unity of mankind. The world is full of people using religion to beat people, to subjugate people. I think we're reaching an apocalypse. Bodhi (meaning to share knowledge with people) Satfa Nicher derived from the Lotus Sutra. In this time he called this the final era, he called it Mappo, in Japanese, which is very much like talking about the Book of Revelation, when they're talking about this final crisis of humankind. Venerable Fujii says on the very end of my first album, which is a prophesy of all the countries of the world uniting for peace. 

It's very hippy to talk about gurus, but Venerable Fujii was very involved with the British people and was a friend of mine. He never sold anything, and he worked very closely with Gandhi. A man of great wisdom, knowledge, and experience. I have a great affection and respect for Britain and its people, regardless of its imperialism, I still love it. Venerable Fujii was the same – and he said the Peace Pagoda would be a turning point of the western world to a better place. So, although Margaret Thatcher has said she'd like to drive the Socialists to the sea, she'd have to re-crucify Christ himself to take that spirit out of the British people. 

I'd like to experience other people's faiths and ideas – I'd like to prevent wars, and I think Nichiren Buddhism and the Peace Pagoda would be a good catalyst. I tried to be a monk, but I'm not strong enough, but to know you give up everything you own and live on the merits of your character is not easy. It's when you put your whole life on the line all the time. Like with all these misunderstandings, I give up, then I stand up, but there's that lazy side where you can give up and two-three-four-five-eight years slip by. I don't feel I've accomplished enough in my life and that goes back to a spiritual question. Maybe I'll be a monk when I'm older. I've been celibate since 1980, and in the kind of medieval society that's being developed that really freaks people out, because gay people feel, can feel, you're against them, and then heterosexual people think maybe you're gay. Everyone's upset with me! I wish they'd make me an honorary member of what ever they are if that would help them understand me. Before my album was released I stayed and prayed five hours a day at Milton Keynes monastery, because people would go past me in cars screaming at me and things, and I was scared and confused, so many people having so many misunderstandings about me. If people see me scared they get angry, because they interpret fear as some kind of rejection of them when it's only a weakness in your own self. I'm just as weak and as vulnerable, and as untogether as anybody else. I'm not saying I've got all the answers, but I wanna try. All I want is justice and reconciliation, and the opportunity to work together – which would be my most special dream fulfilled. 

PR. The Pagoda in Milton Keynes you were involved in setting up – why there, and what do you hope it will achieve? 

CR. The Peace Pagoda in Milton Keynes was the first place of a peace pagoda ever built in the western world, so that makes it unbelievably historic, but the Peace Pagoda was built for the British and Western people – the local opposition was from Japanese Prisoners of War, who said Oriental people were savages and that they were going to put a nuclear bomb inside the pagoda.  

Until last summer, I hadn't spent any real time there for years and what I found was unbelievable connections it had developed throughout the west, Barbados, Vietnamese people in Paris. Thousands of people feel the tranquillity of the peace park there, mini peace walks. The faith is not understood by words – it's understood by actions. It's profound the effect the pagoda has on people. Birds from every direction fly there, rabbits follow you, and the geese with their goslings. Basically, it is the turning point of Western civilisation from violence to non-violence. 

PR. Although you have a good band, you've kept the poetry as poetry and not as songs, is this something you intend to stick to? 

CR. People like The Last Poets or Gil Scott-Heron have choruses, which tend to give their stuff a bit more rhythmic feeling, which I haven't really done. I don't really regard myself as strictly poetical. Greek and Roman poets sang their poetry with lutes and harps, so maybe it's poetry from that direction. Before the empire fell in Greece they were looking for one great poet to save all of Greece. I know John Peel said on the television recently something I thought was ludicrous, “No music or poetry has ever changed anything.” Well, my ex-landlord said that if it wasn't for the six most famous poets in Hungary there'd have been no revolution in 1956 – people need that inspiration, which comes from the person that can express their heart and mind. A friend of mine who's an opera singer says, “A songwriter would write twenty songs out of one of my compositions, because he'd water it down.” 

My first album was all electronic and this one was all live and improvised and I just hope that I can grow and evolve. Some of my great heroes, like Voltaire, wrote little ditties like me, then got brave enough to write books and plays, and all sorts of things. I don't think I'd ever write a book, though. I like to work in a band and perform in front of people. If I make another album I'll  have to struggle and start from scratch, but I'm very determined, but I'll always go back to sharing my heart and mind with people. 

PR. What are your future plans and ambitions? 

CR. I would very much like to tour the youth custody prisons. I had asked The Last Poets, who agreed over the phone (who had been performing in prisons in New York). All the way I based my poetry on Buddhism, they had based there's from the Muslim faith, so that we were kindred spirits. I've learnt a lot from them, like the way Martin Luther King was confronting white America's values. They sold a million albums in New York, on the streets, and they were expressing the hearts and minds of the people at the time. They did work, I think, with Hendrix, in Greenwich Village, and from doing all that they got reduced to pumping gas in petrol stations. I think it was some rich English patron who brought them onto the road. I've learnt from their example that what you do may not be accepted, but you keep doing it and hope. 

I hope to tour Germany, Russia, and Ireland. I might be invited to go to Russia by that Art Trotsky who was on “Night Network”, but I'll have to fund all this myself. I'd also like to work with Charles Lloyd, who is someone who inspired me to compose “White Light”; he once invited me to play with him, and I hope that still holds true. I've thought of writing to Prince Charles to set up an inter-faith group of young people that would go to America to help build the Peace Pagoda. I'd like to meet him as a person, as I feel he's spiritually inclined, and work with him.

Hear Craig's Bodhi Beat Poets music on MySpace:

The Bodhi Beat Poets - White Light Review



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