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Jewcy Interviews: Jesse Michaels of Operation Ivy

When I was twelve I got in trouble for credit card fraud, among other things and was faced with the choice of facing serious trouble, or having to go to a boot camp like program for delinquent kids.  Music was contraband but I managed to sneak a tape of Energy by Operation Ivy.  Every couple of nights I’d fine the one kid that snuck in a walkman and we’d sit in our tents, our heads pressed together sharing the pair of headphones listening to songs like, “Soundsystem” and “Unity.”  To this day I’ve found no sweeter escape than how I felt with one headphone pressed to my ear listening to those songs.  The words felt like the most honest and profound ever written.  I’d never fully realized how powerful music could be, that it could change my brain chemistry, take me away from I was.

A few months later, I returned home, all cleaned up and well-behaved.  I began to study for and then celebrated my Bar Mitzvah.  I agreed to wear the suit my parents picked out and even left my hair un-spiked for the day.  While most of the guests gave me checks, the amounts in multiples of $18, one couple oddly gave me a small bar of platinum, which I immediately put in the pocket of my suit pants.  A few days later I had a friend drive me to a jewelry store that bought the piece of platinum from me for $200.  From there we drove to a tattoo parlor that we knew wouldn’t ask for ID.  I brought along a record and asked the guy to give me the image on cover.  It was the Plea for Peace 7 inch by Operation Ivy and although the image itself didn’t mean that much to me, everything behind it did, and still does.

Operation Ivy started in 1987 and broke up in 1989.  It’s punk rock legend that the band broke up to avoid selling out.  Two of the band members went on to form Rancid, but little was heard from the Op Ivy singer Jesse Michaels.  People speculated to his wareabouts in the years after Operation Ivy and rumors abounded about his journeys across the world and his time in a monastery.  Eventually he re-emerged to form the band Common Rider, followed by a brief solo stint.  Most recently he’s teamed up with the band Hard Girls to form Classic’s of Love.  Jesse is also the son of Leonard Michaels who is considered by many to be one of the great modern Jewish writers.  For a lot of people, Op Ivy is the band that ushered them into the world of punk rock.  For others they are the band that made it all click.   For me, it’s the band that got me through puberty and taught me how powerful music can be, and there is nothing anyone could say that would change that, not even Jesse.  Still, I wanted to talk the guy who was closely involved in this thing that meant so much to so many, even if just to learn a single tiny detail more that I didn’t already know.  If not, at least I’d get to talk to the guy who drew my only tattoo.

Somehow, what you did in Operation Ivy meant a great deal to a lot of people.  For so many people who I’ve talked to about punk rock, Operation Ivy was the entrance into it.  I know people who’ve moved on past punk and listen mostly to music on the opposite side of spectrum, but when the record comes on, they know all the words.  I guess my question is this, why do you think that this thing that you were a part of means so much to so many people.

Well, I can’t really take responsibility for it, I mean the whole was greater than the sum of it’s parts and I was just one of those parts.  I don’t want to sound like I’m being heroic like, “oh I’m glad I could do my little part.”  But, It’s true, I just did my bit and then the whole, which is something I couldn’t control or predict, took on a life of its own.  Which is wonderful, but I’m as much of an observer of the phenomenon as a fan would be.  I was never in a big band, you know, I was in a garage band!  I was never writing anything profound, I was just listening to The Clash and the Bad Brains and trying to do something like that.  Then it took on this bigger life, which is great, it’s cool.  It’s something that I never expected but of course I enjoyed it.  As to why?  I dunno, I guess we were a good band.

I find it interesting to hear you say that you never expected Op Ivy to become what it was.  To me there always seed to be this intrinsic factor… I don’t know, it’s just this one perfect album called, “Energy,” with that striking image on the cover.  Looking at it from the outside, it almost seemed fated.  So I guess I’m surprised to hear that you never expected the reaction.

When I grew up you had these classic punk records, many of which no one has ever heard of anymore.  There was the Bad Brains first album, Jerry’s kids “Is this my world.”  76% uncertain, that was a Connecticut band, there album, “Estimated Monkey Time” was a classic to me.  Then there were some bigger ones like The Dead Kennedy’s and stuff.  So, here are these records that in my world are these huge things.  I expected our record would be much smaller and less important than any of those.  I thought we’d sell maybe 2,000 copies.  But the great thing about punk is that it’s a real medium, it’s not a commercial medium it’s not a marketing medium.  So I didn’t know that because it was punk, it would extend into the future, but I didn’t expect it to expand.  These old bands had sort of a linear extension into the future.  The same amount of people always liked them.  But there was always someone new because it’s real fuckin’ rebel music and it’s always going to have a life.  I had no expectations that our record would expand or become more popular.  That was completely surprising to me.

At this point, I’m sure you’ve had a lot of people express their feelings to you about the band.  I imagine you’ve gotten used to people coming up to you and expressing these deep feelings for this thing that you did.  Do you feel jaded to it?

Okay, for instance, Jaded.  I learned what the word, “Jaded” meant after listening to the song “Jaded” and then looking it up in the dictionary so I could better understand what the song meant.  I think there’s a lot of kids who’ve had similar experiences.  So, do people approach you a lot?  What’s your general reaction?

Well, sort of, I’m not very recognizable and the people who are into the music that I was involved with are generally very classy.  They know that it’s not supposed to be a rock star thing so they’re on their best behavior, which is something I appreciate and it’s the same way I would act toward a band I was into. You never want to appear to be too much of a fan, because it’s sort of against the rules.


You know, as soon as I start thinking of myself as some kind of rock star, I’m a prick.  So, I guard against that because I don’t want to be a prick.  It’s not because I’m heroic or super modest or spiritual, it’s just because I don’t want to to be a fuckin’ douche bag.  So if someone comes up to me and is all, “ooh ahh,” I’m sort of like, “wow you have a interesting fixation on me, and that’s okay, but it has absolutely nothing to do with who I am.”  I’m just a guy with problems.

On the other hand, great art is great art.  If that’s great art to someone, fantastic.  The music and art that I love, I love it.  Of course there’s a natural attraction to someone who’s made something that’s meaningful. I’m as subject to this as anyone else.  When I met Joe Strummer, I almost shit my pants.  At the same time, I know that it’s just kind of this imaginary thing that I’m doing in my head, that he’s just another guy with problems.

I would imagine that being put on a pedestal for so long would do strange things to a person’s sense of self.  I mean, did you go through a period where it was hard to find fulfillment artistically?  I’d think you’d sort of…

Want to recapture it?

Right.  Or that whatever you might try to do next would be held up to this standard.  Or, if you were to decide that art or music wasn’t for you, what makes for achievement after that, after inspiring people?

You know, I’m human, and of course I’ve thought about those things and been troubled by them.  My side of the street is to do what I can, every day, to do my job as a person.  So, with Common Rider, which was the first serious band I did after Op Ivy, of course those expectations were there.  I also wanted to exploit them.  I wanted to see if I could use the success of Op Ivy to generate more success, I’m not a fucking saint.  But I found that it’s impossible.  People only give a shit about what you’re doing right now.  If you were in a great band and then you come out with a crap band, not saying that Common Rider was a crap band, you’re going to get some legs, you’ll get some gigs and articles and shit.  But ultimately, if you’re not bringing the rock…it’s only going to go so far.  Ultimately it’s just a matter of trying to create the best art that you can, always.

If anything, for me the biggest surprise was…

Okay, so I was in Op Ivy and we didn’t always get along so well, but every time we played music this magical thing happened where the songs came out and they were always really good.  I just thought that was the way it was because I’d never experienced anything else.   It was a big surprise to me when I realized that it’s not always quite that easy, when I found out how lucky we were.  If anything, I developed not so much a fame ego, but an artistic ego, like, “I can just make this musical art and it’s always going to be that good.” And that’s just not true.   That was the hardest pill to swallow.  But I mean, it was a good lesson.  It taught me humility, it taught me to appreciate what I have.  Now I’m in a band and I think we’re pretty good, we’re very part time and I don’t have any expectations, but I appreciate the fact that I’m playing with people and we get each other and are able to do cool stuff.

I think a lot of other artists have this experience.  Take Brett Easton Ellis for instance, he wrote his first novel very young and people really responded.  Then he goes on to and writes other books.  Some are received well and some that aren’t but no matter what he does, people will always be comparing him to this thing that he did as a kid, this thing that was like his first attempt at really creating. Common Rider was great, but it was always prefaced with, “this is the guy from Op Ivy’s new band.”  You’re new band has been pretty well received as well.  So, it seems like you have some kind of perspective on this.

Yeah, I do.  You know, Op Ivy was a white-hot magic.  Now I’m working with slower magic, but that’s fine.  You know, it happens all the time.  It happens basically with every band.  We played a show a week ago and it was really successful, it was a real punk show you know.  The energy was there.   I’m happy with the way things are largely because I don’t have many expectations.  It’s funny that people get so hung up on this stuff and a lot of it has to do with economic factors.  A person hits thirty and they start to worry about their place in the world, but really if you look at it honestly and with a little bit of humility, any success is on the plus side.

Look at it this way, if someone gave me a cake yesterday and I’m sitting here going, “My life sucks because I don’t have a cake today,” It’s not just a bad attitude, it’s also crazy attitude.  Any success you have is incredibly fortunate and the proper attitude should be gratefulness.  If it’s followed by more, even better.  If it’s not, then you’ll still had a great thing.  It’s a privilege to have anyone care about your music at all.  I mean how many bands are out there that nobody gives a shit about.  If you make one song that affects people, that’s a privilege.

I want to ask about what you did after Operation Ivy, when you sort of disappeared.

There was no disappearance, not to sound like I’m bickering with you but just speaking to that idea.  I just made a choice not to be a public figure.  People look at that and say, “Oh he disappeared, how mysterious.”  Really I just never thought of the public life as being all that important.

Were you aware at that point that it was a choice?  Were you aware at that point that people were curious what you were doing?

Yes I was and I basically just ignored it.  Because I was doing other shit, you know?

I know that you went to Nicaragua during that period.  Can you tell me about the time you spent in Nicaragua specifically?  What was your life like when you were there and do you consider to have been a worthwhile experience in the end?

I went to Nicaragua for a couple of months to help with a construction project that was sponsored by a lefty Berkeley organization.  I was depressed and contributed less than I should have.  Although, I remember laying a foundation and moving some giant bricks around.  The main thing I learned from that trip is that most people in the world don’t live the way that we do.  The average Nicaraguan has a dirt floor in their house.  The other thing I learned is that people in other countries have a level of personal kindness that you just don’t experience here.  It’s just a fact in much of the world.  The daily alienation and estrangement we experience in urban America is just not there.  On the other hand, I don’t mean to idealize it.  Obviously, they have their own problems, but warmth is not one of them.

I’ve also read that you were a monk.  Can you tell me about that?

I was never actually a monk.  I studied Zen in connection with the San Francisco Zen Center for about a year.  I like and Zen and I still practice mediation, but it was too much for me.  They meditated for an hour at 4 in the morning and then one hour at noon and then one hour at 8 PM.  If you want to know why it was too much, try it for a couple of weeks.  I was so enchanted by the beauty of the teaching that I wanted to try and get it.  Being young, I went to extremes and it didn’t last.  I made it for about ten months with that kind of practice.  That being said, I learned a lot from my studies and I still carry many of them with me to this day.

I read an interview in which you talk about your early twenties as having been a really difficult time for you.  Since reading that I’ve experienced it myself and met a lot of people who have as well.  I also know that suicide prevention is a focus of the Plea for Peace organization, of which you support.

I was wondering if you knew of Nick Traina, the singer of Link 80 and son of the writer Daniel Steele who lived in the East Bay and died of a heroin overdose.  I ask because it was clear from his music that he was a huge Op Ivy fan.  You’ve mentioned addiction as an issue that you feel strongly about.  Were you aware of what happened with Nick?  Did you know him?

I knew Nick.  Well, I didn’t know him, I met him a couple of times.  As far as the problem of addiction goes, it’s a serious problem.  Without disclosing too much about my personal life, I’ve had some issues with that.  But after many years I was successful in eradicating that problem.  It’s really sad that some people don’t make it.  You know, Nick was a good guy.  It’s just that he had a illness and the illness got the best of him.  I don’t think of addiction as important as a general issue but just as something that I’ve dealt with and overcome and so now I see it as a duty of mine that if other people have a problem with it, to extend myself to them in my life, in my practice of life.

Having been through the unique set of circumstances that you’ve been through, is there a piece of wisdom you feel compelled to share?

When you get angry don’t talk or email or text or whatever.  Wait all the way until you aren’t angry any more and only then say something.  It took me twenty years to learn this.

I want to ask you about your growing up.  Your father Leonard, was an accomplished writer.  Did this have any affect on how you turned out as an artist?

Yes definitely, he taught me the value, the importance of art.  It was never a consideration whether art was important, it was just a given.  I mean art in the largest sense of the word, movies, music, anything.  His psyche influenced mine and I definitely picked up this legacy of creative activity.  More importantly I always just loved him dearly, and I still do.  That was always more important than anything.  All the writer stuff my brother and I just made fun of, but that was definitely there and I’m sure that had some self-conscious implications.

What do you mean “writer stuff?”

He would get some award and we would think it was funny and make fun of him.  He would have writers over and they would have writer talk, and we were always sort of awe-struck.  At the same time he was just out dad and it was all just this drama he did in the world that had nothing to do with our relationship with him.

Leonard Michaels and Jesse Michaels

Did he know about your music?

Yeah he did.

Do you think he was proud of you?

Yes, he was proud.  He didn’t understand it.  He was an academic.  He related to education and scholarship.  But he was stoked about it.  He couldn’t quite wrap his mind around it, but he certainly was proud of it.

Often, when I’ve read about your dad, he’s mentioned as a “modern Jewish writer.”  Were you raised Jewish?  Was that a big part of your life?

Well, he came from a generation of Jewish academics in the 50’s and 60’s that were very Jewish culturally but very secular.  Other examples would be like Philip Roth or Woody Allen.  They’re intensely Jewish but not very religious.  If anything they make fun of religion.  That’s how he was.  We would do the holidays and stuff sometimes, but it was always slightly ironic.  I think he had spiritual values but he didn’t really buy the whole religion thing.

Have you considered writing a book?

I have written one book.  It’s a novella and I’m sort of shopping it around and it might get published this year.  Then I’m sort of figuring out what I’m going to do next.

Do you think being a part of the DIY punk scene affected the way you do things now?

Yeah, definitely.  I’ve learned a lot from punk and I’m just kind of a lifer.  Even though I don’t dress punk, or act punk, or identify as punk, it’s in my blood.  It’s the first thing I really loved.  I was twelve years old when I got into it and I loved it.  So, I love it, but it’s also completely stupid, and it’s completely fun and great and hopelessly dysfunctional.  On the one hand I learned sort of independent thinking on the other hand I’ve learned to avoid mental ghettos.  Because punk can be a mental ghetto.  People get into it and make all these rules and pretty soon they’re worse than born again Christians and have stupid three hour conversation about things like, which band is a sellout and is straight edge cool or un-cool and it’s just completely idiotic.  So punk has taught me the aesthetic of the outsider, which is great, but it’s also taught me not to get involved in petty little cults.

Are there any punk bands playing currently that you really like?

I like the Red Dawns.  I like anything that Doug from the Red Dons does.  I think he’s one of the great ones.  I like all the Virginia Neo Hardcore bands like Wasted Time.  I think Government Warning might be the best band in America, but that might be just because I’m an old man and they sound like the shit I listened to as a kid.  Good luck is pretty good, the Tubers, Bomb the Music Industry.

I have to ask you this, I don’t want to, but I have to.  People are always wondering about the possibility of an Op Ivy reunion.  I’m sure you’ve thought of the potential.  I mean a big show or tour could make lots of money for a great cause…. Is there any possibility of a reunion and if not, why not?

I don’t know.  All I can tell you, and I wish I could be more definite, is that my life hasn’t taken that direction and those guys lives haven’t taken that direction.  I don’t think any of those guys are planning on it, and I don’t really talk to them about it.  I think all of us are pretty happy with out lives the way they are.  I don’t think it would be a service to the legacy of the band to have a reunion, I think it would be more of a service not to have a reunion.  People always want more, and I understand that, but sometimes less is more.  Take Minor Threat, could you imagine a Minor Threat reunion?  It would be such a fuckin’ disaster.  I mean it would probably be a lot of fun, but it would be like, “Is this really necessary or helpful?”  So the short answer is life is unpredictable, but there’s no plan for it to happen.

What was the most thrilling moment of your life?

Probably skating.  You know, just shredding. I wasn’t very good but that’s probably most fun I’ve ever had.  Actually shows would be the most thrilling moments of my life and I’m lucky, I’ve had that moment over and over again.

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