Penn Jillette is an American illusionist, comedian, actor and author, best known as the taller, more hirsute half of world famous magic duo Penn and Teller. Less well known is the singer's life-long love of rock 'n' roll and his friendships with some of the most iconic musicians in rock history. We sat down with the 59-year-old Massachusetts-born magician for a fascinating look into his secret rock 'n' roll life...
The secret rock 'n' roll life of magician Penn Jillette
Who knew the superstar musician was one of us?
TeamRock: How did you first discover rock 'n' roll?
Penn Jillette: “I'm was indoctrinated by American corporations as part of an orchestrated plan to move us into rock 'n' roll. They came up with The Monkees when I was 12, and that came on TV, and I bought their records and then The Monkees led me directly to the Mothers of Invention, who were on their TV show, and Jimi Hendrix, who opened for The Monkees, which led me to Dylan. By the time I was 14 or 15 I was listening to Zappa, Velvet Underground, Dylan, Captain Beefheart, etc,. And that was all from The Monkees being on TV.”
Were you playing music by then too?
“I was always in a band of some sort, first as a drummer, then later as a bass player. I basically loved rock 'n' roll so of course I wanted to play as well as listen.”
And who were the first live band you ever saw?
“Well, I grew up in a little town in Western Massachusetts, a little dead factory town in New England, so no bands were coming anywhere near my town. But when I first got a driver's license, within a week, I drove 100 miles to Boston to see the Mothers of Invention. All that a driver's license meant to me was the freedom to be able to see rock 'n' roll. I drove up to Boston to see people like Chuck Berry, Jethro Tull, The Faces... but the life-changing one was seeing the Mothers: that 1973 tour when I was a child was one of the finest rock tours ever.”
So then you took a step from there into the world of punk rock?
“Oh yeah, right away. I was a fan of the Ramones and Jonathan Richman originally, Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers first, then the Ramones. And then a friend of mine who lived in England called me one day and he played Anarchy In The UK over the phone to me and said 'You have to find the Sex Pistols', so the very first day that the Sex Pistols released anything in the US I had a copy. And from there I went to The Clash and Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe and that whole Stiff records set. And of course the Velvet Underground, who didn't have to change their mould much to fit with the punks. Teller and I actually had tickets to see the Sex Pistols in Atlanta on their very first US tour, but we got a show that night so we couldn't go: shows were rare enough back then that we had to take every one we got, and so we had to miss the Pistols, and didn't see them until years later.”
I believe you struck up a friendship with the Ramones?
“I was good friends with the Ramones, I was very, very good friends with Lou Reed, I was very good friends with Debbie Harry, I went out with Debbie for years and years...”
Wait, you dated Debbie Harry in the '70s?
“Well, in the early '80s. So yeah, I was pretty into that New York rock 'n' roll scene.”
That must have been a hugely exciting time to be around those musicians?
“It was. It was a great time, there was great music, and I pretty much got to see all the great bands. By the late '80s, early '90s, Teller and I were on Broadway, so like, when Elvis Costello did his Broadway run with the spinning wheel, we hosted it. By then obviously it had gone from the Sex Pistols to PiL, so I saw them a few times, and the B-52's...lots of fun bands.”
And then you hooked up with underground noise king Kramer and recorded as Captain Howdy: how did that come to be?
“We just started hanging out in that world. And then through Kramer I got into the whole Gwar, Butthole Surfers, Residents, alternative/noise/avant garde punk stuff. There were some very odd evenings back then. I'd finish up my show on Broadway and then hop in a limo and go downtown to CBGBs and play bass with Half Japanese or Mareen Tucker or Lou Reed, I'd be the bass player in punk bands while I was appearing on Broadway. I'm still in touch with Kramer, I'm actually going to meet up with him in New York very soon to record a song for a new movie that I'm producing.”
How did Lou Reed end up writing songs for Captain Howdy?
“Well, he was my friend. He wrote Tattoo Of Blood, which Debbie did with us. Basically I'd got a tattoo without ink, which makes it hurt more and makes it bleed more, and Lou thought that was a really great idea.”
What was the theory behind getting a tattoo without ink?
“The theory was all pain and no gain! I was at a biker convention, for Harley's 90th anniversary, and all these biker guys were getting tattoos. And I said, 'Well, my relationships never last more than two or three years, so I'll get a tattoo without ink.' So I basically just let the tattoo guy scrawl on me without ink to create all these bloody scars all over me. Lou thought that was very, very cool.”
So tell us about your current band, the No God Band?
“We tend to play one benefit show a year, for the James Randi Educational Foundation, and we get a couple of thousand people to come, and play for free but ask if people will donate to the charity and we make $30,000 or $40,000 each time. This year we're going to make a music video to run over the final credits at the end of that movie I'm producing, Director's Cut: we're doing a special song for that called I Quit My Job, My Job Becomes Hunting You.”
There's a huge disclaimer from you on the No God Band website, warning people of the rudeness that lies within: have people been stumbling upon it via Googling you?
“Yeah, and I want to be very careful: this is a party with a lot of obscenity and a lot of fun and if you like the stuff that Penn and Teller do, or the stuff that I write, that's no guarantee that you'll like the No God Band. It's basic dirty rock 'n' roll, no barriers are being pushed at all, but there's a lot of blasphemy and a lot of sex. I don't think you ever really get more than two lines without a mention of either blasphemy or sex.”
So if one of our readers wanted to investigate the music of Penn Jillette, where would you recommend they start?
“Oh, start with the No God Band. Start deep and hard. It's the only way.”
Penn & Teller play a nine date UK tour in June, with shows in Manchester, Birmningham and London. You can purchase tickets here.