Songs Of Crime And Punishment…And Punk Rock: An Interview With David Swinson

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Great crime writers have a way of coming on late. Raymond Chandler didn’t publish The Big Sleep until he was 50. James Lee Burke was also 50 when his first Dave Robicheaux novel, The Neon Rain, reached shelves, after years of epic rejection. Perhaps it’s because the genre demands decades of mean wisdom to be accumulated by its authors before these dark tales can take shape.  

David Swinson, 58, has amassed a couple of lifetimes. Indeed, his life story reads like a warped American Dream fable, from booking seminal Southern California punk bands in the Eighties to producing films and music videos to hanging with icons of the counterculture like Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson to, improbably, becoming a cop at age 33 and then serving sixteen highly decorated years on the Washington, D.C., police force. Yeah, David Swinson has been around a few blocks. Which might be why his writing sings with such battle-scarred confidence.

In 2016, he published his first crime novel, The Second Girl, featuring the unapologetic cokehead investigator Frank Marr. Like Swinson, Marr served sixteen years with the D.C. police. Unlike Swinson, he was unceremoniously dismissed for his addiction. Now Marr fights crime just like he snorts his blow — in private. This month, Swinson released his second Frank Marr story, called Crime Song.

Over rounds of beer and bourbon at the Ear Inn on Spring Street, I had the opportunity to chat with Swinson about his punk rock past, his days hanging with lit heroes like Hunter S. Thompson, and his unique views on law enforcement.

Village Voice: How did you go from booking bands to movies to becoming a detective? 

David Swinson: From booking bands to booking bad guys? Everything is weird, because nothing was forced. Everything was, like, a natural segue way. One thing flowed into another. After college, I fell into a dangerously beautiful bad relationship with a girl that lasted, like, nine years. But she got me into the scene. So we opened a record store in Seal Beach [California]. And Seal Beach was ultraconservative. I started getting a lot of punk albums and signings and stuff like that. We didn’t last there, but there was a scene in Long Beach. But there was no venue. You had to go to L.A., you had to go to the Cuckoo’s Nest in the O.C. So that’s when I found Fender’s Ballroom [in Long Beach]. The ceiling was low and the stage was high, so if the guy jumped too high he’d hit his head on the lights. But it was a good venue. I met this guy named Dave Rat, and he was just then creating sound systems. Now he does the sound system for everyone from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and even bigger bands. He developed the sound system for Bogart’s [also in Long Beach], and it worked. Because Fender’s was low-ceilinged and square, the acoustics were really weird. Our first show at Bogart’s, we got lucky. We booked the Violent Femmes and the Minutemen. Totally sold out. It made enough money to do it again and again and again. So the record store sort of moved to the concert thing. Fender’s moved to Bogart’s, and then we had Wednesday nights that were dead, so I developed an evening conversation. And that’s how I got involved with [producer] Bill Stankey. We were getting Timothy Leary and John Waters.

That’s how you met Hunter?

Hunter Thompson. It was during the Tipper Gore thing with N.W.A, all the anti-censorship kind of stuff. Hunter was doing a gig at a college and Abbie Hoffman died. It really tore Hunter Thompson up. And Hunter thought the CIA was involved, so he wanted to go back to Bogart’s and do a tribute to Abbie Hoffman. And then Stankey and I thought, why don’t we start booking these shows again, but recording them? Like getting Jello Biafra, Henry Rollins, Eugene McCarthy, Jim Carroll, a few other people. So, that turned into [1990’s] Sound Bites From the Counter Culture, for Atlantic Records. Billboard called it “essential listening.” It didn’t do well for Atlantic, but it was sort of ahead of its time, I think. So that became a thing with me and Stankey. I quit Bogarts in ’89 and we started a production company, but then I ended up having to make some money, so I worked for this company called AWGO, and we did a lot of the early music videos. We did Sacred Rite, Ozzy Osbourne. What was that heavy metal show on MTV?

Oh, Headbangers Ball.

Yes! So we ended up doing a lot of videos that ended up on Headbangers Ball.

I was a kid of the Eighties. I watched a lot of Headbangers Ball.

I did too, yeah. And, so I was still connected with Tim Leary, and one time Stankey was in town and we went to Timothy Leary’s house and just were talking about virtual reality and everything, then we thought of this idea. Like, Tim, wouldn’t it be really cool if we had sort of a road show where two guys are taking a trip and along the way they meet people like you? But it’s not you, but it is you. But you’re, like, a farmer, or whatever. And so Roadside Prophets was developed inside Timothy Leary’s home. Months later I ended up getting a deal with New Line Cinema. It was just a progression. It just flowed. It didn’t do great, but it did well enough that I had a little credibility. So that’s when I started working with Laila, Hunter’s ex-girlfriend — she had the rights to Fear and Loathing [in Las Vegas]. We worked together for a long time trying to get that made. What happened was — something triggered in me. I just got so sick of…I thought, “Is this what I want to do? Just be an independent producer and struggle and struggle?” I always wanted to be a writer. That’s all I wanted to do. And I wanted more life experience. It didn’t just come into my head, like, “Oh, let’s be a cop.” That was something I wanted to do when I was a kid. In college, I was originally going to major in criminal justice. And because of my dad — he did some funky things in the foreign service.

Give me a sense of where you grew up — kind of all over?

I grew up in Mexico City, Beirut — when it fell, we were evacuated — Stockholm, which didn’t have an American community school, so we had the choice between going to school in Frankfurt or Majorca, Spain. What’s a 16-year-old gonna pick?

Spain.

Oh, you got it. I would sneak out the windows of the dormitories and go to this place called El Matador, and the guy felt guilty because we were 16, so he gave us Shandys. So, I don’t know how it happened — maybe it was a romantic notion, an adventure, but I didn’t want to just apply to everywhere. I wanted to go back to D.C. And oddly enough, I got accepted.

How old were you then?

I was older. I was 33.

So you were in the police academy with guys who were a decade younger.

Yes, but here’s the thing. When I decided I was going to do that — for a year, I quit smoking, all I did was push-ups and sit-ups and ran. I was the most fit I’ve ever been in my life. It was a culture shock, because I’m not military. I went to college. My dad was military. But it changed me — in a good way.

What were some of those shocks? You’re going from L.A., a pretty fast, loose existence, to…

Racism. Racism was the real shock. I grew up in all these countries where you respect the country. You respect the people. And my friends in California were Hispanic and black and all kinds. It wasn’t like, “Oh, you’re black and you’re Hispanic,” it was just, “We’re friends, that’s all.”

Music will unite anything.

Yeah, music and creativity, that’s what it was all about. But that’s not what it’s like in the police department. You’re talking about all kinds of reverse racism. It’s everywhere. It’s not as crazy as you think in the police department, but it does exist. I’m talking more about when we got out into the city, that racism of black-Hispanic, Hispanic-black, white-black, black-white. It was in your face and I almost quit. I couldn’t take it. It was too much. Not because it was targeted at me, it was never anything like that. I can’t put myself in the equation. But even my friends who were black and Hispanic, they were frustrated. I never thought I’d stay as long as I did. Because I always thought I’d just get life experience.

You stayed sixteen years, the same as Frank, right?

Yeah, I was sixteen years. Didn’t go out like Frank, I swear, I will take a polygraph. But it’s very realistic how Frank went out, OK? I’m not saying it’s happened [laughs] but I’m sure it has — you have to look at the bigger picture. When you have somebody who’s put guys away for RICO cases…

The defense attorneys, they’re gonna say…

They’re gonna have a field day. It happened with the FBI, with the guy that was doing heroin. Can you imagine, every single person that the guy was responsible for locking up is gonna walk? Because that guy was on heroin, I mean, the courts are gonna be booked up for years.

It must happen, especially in narcotics…

It does, it’s gotta happen. I’ve heard about people disappearing. And resigning, or just — they’re gone and I heard they pissed dirty. But they weren’t retired. I think they had to resign.

How often were you tested?

It was random. I could go a year without being tested, but then all of a sudden I could be tested twice in a month, and I have to take a piss test. It’s funny with addiction, because I do think it’s a chemical thing. This comes from talking to these crackheads — when they get out sometimes they have to take weekly urine tests. If they piss dirty, they’re back in jail. They always think they can beat it. I’ve heard all the ways that they think they can beat it.

I noticed you had a few Hunter-isms sprinkled throughout your books — like, “Never apologize, never explain”…

That’s also a cop thing. But that is a very big Hunter thing. With cops, you don’t apologize. You don’t say, “I’m sorry.” You say, “I’m sorry for your loss,” but you never say, “I understand,” because, do you understand? That is very much a Hunter thing, but it is also a cop thing.

Was that a wisdom that cops would share? Or was it something that was officially drilled into you for legal reasons?

You’re taking on the crime. If it’s a victim and you say, “I apologize,” it’s almost like you could have stopped it. It’s not a lawsuit thing. It’s an interview, interrogation thing. There are certain words you just don’t use, because it can set off a witness, it can set off a victim. If I say, “I apologize this happened” — why? Well, all of a sudden it’s in their head, like, “Yeah, you weren’t there.” My biggest thing, through the Department of Justice, I was considered an expert interview. My favorite thing in the world was getting in the box with a defendant, with a bad guy, and just getting to know them. What it’s all about is not breaking them, you know? There’s no good cop, bad cop. It was like you and I talking. It was you getting to know me, and me getting to know you. I try to find something I can associate with about you. And then I got you, if I can find that one thing.

Some common ground?

Common ground, yeah, keep you talking. I just want to hear your story. Because I have to present something. It’s either going to be my story, of what I know, or it’s going to be your story.

You sound like a cop right now.

But I wasn’t really a cop, because I came from a different background.

But you were a decorated detective.

Yeah, I was Detective of the Year. I was highly decorated.

But you never saw yourself as a cop?

Not like that, no. My friends, most of my friends are cops. The other half is punk rockers, and, you know, writers. There are a lot of cops that just go from military that are incredible, that are great, and other guys that come from college and other diverse backgrounds, and they’re great too. They all bring their own thing. I can say honestly, the people that are friends with me are good cops. There are bad cops.

You’ve known plenty of bad cops?

There has to be. I think the worst time in [the Metropolitan Police Department] history was ’89, ’90, when Barry, mayor-for-life Marion Barry, there was such a police shortage that they got on megaphones and went all over the city saying, “Become a police officer.” And they didn’t do backgrounds. What they called the Dirty Dozen, that’s how they got in. There’s a lot of incredible cops and friends of mine that got in in ’89 to ’90 that are assistant chiefs now, inspectors, detectives, incredible — but there was a group, a large group, that got in that were bad. That were actually, they worked for crews.   

Now with all the shootings being caught on camera, it feels like all of a sudden cops are so demonized.

I’m not gonna say there’s not bad officers or I’m defending all officers. But I have to think about a 9-year-old kid who’s on a corner and who ends up getting shot in a drug-related shooting that has nothing to do with cops, you know, where’s that? Get up in arms about that. I mean, get up in arms. Cops should not abuse their authority. We’re not there to abuse our authority. If that happens, you know, do something about it. The best advice I could ever give is, if you get a cop like that, say, “Yes sir, yes sir,” and then go to his superior. Because they will entertain the complaint, they have to. It’s their job. What if that dude has had it in his past before? They’re going to look at it and say, “OK, this has happened again.” You can get fired or suspended or whatever. So that’s the frustrating part, because we’re talking a majority of them, a huge percentage that are so good and really want to do their job, they find themselves afraid to do their job now, because they’re afraid — what if I have to act to defend my life or the life of another? And what if I do and then am I going to be on a grand jury? Yes, you are. They do all go to that. But am I gonna get indicted, are people gonna come around and say I murdered somebody? It shouldn’t be like that.  

Do you think there’s a difference in the mentality of the guys that are going into the force now? 

When you’re in the academy, the training now, everything that happens, good or bad — “good” is the wrong word. Justified or unjustified. Ferguson, that shooting that happened in North Carolina — they all go into training. They show you the videos. When I was in the academy in ’93 to ’94, we would see videos of “justified” and “unjustified.” It would tear us up. But we were always shown those, always. It was drilled into our brains, when you can shoot and when you can’t shoot.  

People would travel from other countries to be with us during civil disobedience and stuff. It was before my time, but black cops and white cops and Hispanic cops had to stand the line for the KKK. You believe that? And they did. They protected them. That’s the most awful thing I could think of — I’d want to beat the crap out of those guys, I don’t want to protect them. Now, Frank Marr would beat the crap out of them. Not as a cop, but as a P.I. he would. That’s what I love about him so much. I was so married to police procedure. If you and I watch a TV show or a film, I’d be going, “Dude, that doesn’t happen! You’re not going to go into that warehouse without backup, looking for a serial killer?!” [Laughs] Or, “Take your finger off the trigger, you’re gonna shoot your ass off.” I was married to procedure. But Marr freed me from police procedure. He’s still procedural. He follows those rules, but he’s not going to go into an abandoned building by himself.

Did you have Marr in your head when you were still a cop? Was he forming?

He was in my head when I was a cop, but not as a cop — he was a burglar. Then he became a cop, like, a year later. He was in my head for a very long time and he developed. I mean, to me, he’s real. It’s weird. They become real to you. You live them.

Another Hunter line that you allude to — there’s no such thing as paranoia. When things catch up to you, I always think of that, like, wow, there really is no such thing as paranoia. That has to increase when you’re a detective, where you stop believing in it.

Yeah. Well, obviously, cocaine increases paranoia. But detectives, we’re trained to be OCD. I’m sitting in the worst possible position right now. You were sitting there —I don’t know if you did it purposely — but I wasn’t gonna go sit right next to you. It’s an OCD thing. I use that line in Crime Song [in the opening epigraph], the Hunter Thompson line about luck. A thin line between disaster and survival. And so Marr walks that thin line. He’s lucky. Not so much in Crime Song anymore, but he’s still lucky.

He’s lucky in that there were so many opportunities where everything could have gone bad. He’s got hot guns and a couple hundred grand of coke. How much is in his apartment – that stash?

The stash wall, you know, I’ve done search warrants where you’re knocking and something feels a little…and you’ll go break through the wall. Some of the places, you would not believe where we found stuff.

What’s the craziest place that you found stuff?

Um, a curtain that was sewed really nice, what’s it called on the edges going down? They sewed it and there was an opening that was Velcro. Inside they had hundreds of zips of heroin, hundreds and hundreds of zips of heroin in there. It was by accident, I was pulling the curtains and I thought, that feels a little weird. You know, teddy bears? They’re smarter now. Underneath carpets? They’re smarter now, not so much that. Marr found one under the carpet.

One of the first things that stood out for me — I found myself rooting for him to score. Not just in the way that you made a very sympathetic, functioning addict, but in the way that the hunt for coke was like the B plot. I remember being stoked for him when he found that pure rock under the grandmother’s sink.

I love the grandmother, by the way.

I know, but you shouldn’t be psyched for the addict finding his score.

Yeah, I know. But he’s helping out the communities. [Laughs] He’s screwing those boys up. They’re gonna have to owe somebody when that stash is gone.

And it was an awfully big stash.

Yeah, they’re gonna be in trouble. He’s helping out in his own warped, weird way. You know, he doesn’t give up everything.

 

Crime Song
By David Swinson
Mulholland Books
368 pp.