Editor’s Note: Last week, I was saddened to hear that British Columbian alternative media personality John Ruskin–better known as Nardwuar the Human Serviette–had been admitted to Vancouver General Hospital after suffering a stroke. Fortunately, there wasn’t any need to be too sad; Nardwuar was discharged six days later, in reportedly good health. But the scare reminded me of a piece I wrote about Nardwuar back in March of 2006, soon after the release of a video compilation named after his deliberately cloying interview signoff: Doot Doola Doot Doo…Doot Doo! Revisiting that post reminded me of the affection I have for Nardwuar’s bizarre blend of hard-hitting guerrilla journalism, absurdist anti-comedy, and postmodern performance art. More so than most of the old pieces I throw up on this blog, I still stand by it–with the one caveat that in my effort to capture Ruskin’s audacity, I failed to mention his palpable good humor and sweetness, which is surely the reason why only a handful of his interviews have ended with harsh words or threats of physical violence. He’s a lovable guy, and I’m glad he’s doing okay. Let’s hope he keeps on rockin’ in the free world for a long, long time. – Z.H.
I remember vividly the first time I stumbled across Nardwuar the Human Serviette. It was the summer of 2002, and I, like many music listeners, was just embarking on what would be an ongoing love affair with the White Stripes. I’d bought three of their records–White Blood Cells, De Stijl, and a bootleg of their 2001 Peel Sessions–watched their buzzmaking MTV Movie Awards performance, and even seen them in concert for the first time, at Chene Park in Detroit with the Strokes opening. At that time I also frequented White Stripes.net, an obsessively detailed fansite and message board that regularly posted interview and live performance links for obsessively detailed fan dissection. It was on this page where I found an audio interview with the Stripes by some oddball Canadian who called himself “Nardwuar” : quite possibly the weirdest and funniest exchange between artist and journalist that I’d ever heard.
You have to realize, too, that I wasn’t even getting the full experience. Hearing Nardwuar, whose squeaky, lisping, Canadian-accented voice falls somewhere between Emo Phillips and an overexcited first-grader, is weird enough as it is, but seeing him is something else entirely: that Prince Valiant haircut, almost always covered with his trademark “toque” ; that mostly-plaid, vintage, mismatched wardrobe, which looks like the aftermath of an explosion in a senior citizen’s closet. In the White Stripes interview (now available in Real Video, MP3, and transcribed text form on Nardwuar’s almost excessively well-designed website), the “Human Serviette” wore a voluminous Stars and Stripes windbreaker and opened proceedings by unveiling a gigantic poster of the Stripes’ fellow Detroiter, Bob Seger, as depicted on his Stranger in Town album cover. Then, the grilling began: a flurry of rapid-fire questions, addressing everything from Billy Childish to Loretta Lynn to Jack White‘s alleged exploits with groupies via Internet rumor. He would punctuate these questions by repeatedly asking for the names of his interviewees. Jack and Meg, standing helpless beside this whirlwind of hyperactivity, appeared alternately bemused and stricken.
“Nardwuar vs. the White Stripes” (his interviews are always best described in antagonistic terms) can be seen in excerpted form on his new DVD, entitled Doot Doola Doot Doo…Doot Doo! after the singsong “shave and a haircut” rhythm with which he ends every session. I was glad to see it, since the summer when I first heard that interview still makes me a little nostalgic. But the thing is, it’s neither the most interesting nor the most surreal thing to be seen on this disc. In a mind-boggling five and a half hours of footage, Nardwuar’s DVD features Q&A sessions with such luminaries as Iggy Pop (he asks a series of questions about his cock), Marilyn Manson (he exposes his bare chest for no apparent reason), Vanilla Ice (he asks whether Ice was “necking with Corey Feldman” at a party), and ex-Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev (he says his trademark closing line, “keep on rockin’ in the free world,” in Russian). Nard’s singularly obnoxious, sub-gonzo interviewing style–which has provoked at least two hair-metal has-beens, Sebastian Bach of Skid Row and Kevin DuBrow of Quiet Riot, to near-violence–is usually the root of these interviews’ hilarity: from peppering an obviously perturbed Henry Rollins with questions and no space for answers, to having his fellow Vancouver native THOR bend bars with his teeth in front of an aloof, arrogant, and for once wordless Gene Simmons. But this isn’t some warped Canadian version of Punk’d, as Nardwuar himself would be quick to remind us: schtick or no schtick, this dude takes himself seriously.
Just look at Nard Wars II, the most illuminating feature on the disc: a complete MuchMusic special following Nard on a long and arduous attempt to track down Snoop Dogg for their third, sporadically uncomfortable interview. We watch him on every step of his preparation: consulting with a record shop-owner for vinyl gifts to bring for Snoop, staking out a hotel room for the interview, and making several calls to Snoop’s people, most of which are met with indifference. Somehow, it’s both depressing and inspiring: the former because, for most of the five hours he waits, Nardwuar seems likely to get the cold shoulder; and the latter not only because he secures the interview, but also because his persistence and unflappable enthusiasm in the process is truly infectious.
The fruits of Nardwuar’s considerable efforts, with Snoop Dogg and others, can be viewed extensively on both Nard Wars I, the original MuchMusic special, and on the disc two special features, some three hours of unedited footage entitled Nard Raw. But fans of such details as context and coherency might find themselves a little disappointed: the original special casts its net wider than an hour-long runtime allows and incorporates that irritating post-MTV jump-editing, unwisely skipping between random interviews when one of the joys of a Nardwuar interview is the slow, creeping alienation of its interviewee. Nard Raw fares better, but it isn’t quite as “raw” as it claims: a montage of clips between Nard and his longtime sparring partner/current distributor, Jello Biafra, splices together footage taken over 16 years into one 15-minute segment. It’s a disorienting viewing experience, to be sure, but then again, there’s something instructive about the juxtaposition: by boiling one of Nardwuar’s many love/hate relationships into such a compact package, Doot Doola Doot Doo allows us to glimpse a strange kind of love taking the lead.
Besides, it’s a little silly to quibble about too much editing on a package as bizarrely lavish as this: Doot Doola Doot Doo contains not only Nardwuar’s interviews, but videos and amateur live tapings of his bands the Evaporators and Thee Goblins, a 16-page booklet with some very funny historical press clippings and interview excerpts, and even audio commentary by the Nard himself. It begs the question: is anyone really this big a fan of Nardwuar? But hey, Alternative Tentacles isn’t exactly known for putting out packages with mass appeal; and the beauty of this DVD is that the more you get to know Nardwuar, the more you respect him as a personality, a human being, and yes, even a journalist. Nardwuar isn’t just some goofball in coke bottle glasses and a tartan hat: his musical knowledge, of punk and beyond, is encyclopaedic, and he has a knack for digging up some truly odd bits of trivia amidst all the absurdity. Once you see a Nardwuar interview, you’ll never forget it…and I promise, after five and a half hours of this DVD, you’ll wish you could.
Doot Doola Doot Doo…Doot Doo! is available for purchase on Amazon.