For His Honor:
Harlan Ellison On Clifford Meth
(editor's note: contains harsh language. Hey,
it's Harlan Ellison. No way am I censoring him.)
"Clifford-you and I are cut from the same cloth. We
can't be bought and we can't be scared."
-Harlan Ellison to Clifford Meth, 1994
Ellison is one of the most critically acclaimed writers of
our time. He was awarded the Hugo Award eight times and the
Nebula Award three times, not to mention the awards he received
from the Horror Writers of America, the Mystery Writers of
America, and the Writer's Guild of America. The guy can flat
is also the victim of Internet file sharing. In 2000, many
of Ellison's short stories were placed onto a file sharing
system without his permission. As a result of what Ellison
sees as a cold-handed theft of his intellectual property,
he is currently engaged in a lawsuit against AOL. The suit
has already consumed over $250,000 of Ellison's own money.
aid Ellison's cause, his close friend Clifford Meth will be
releasing a new anthology of his own writing to help raise
money for Ellison's legal defense. god's 15 minutes will be
released in January 2004 from Aardwolf
Publishing and will contain material from all of Meth's
seven short story collections along with obscure and seldom-seen
material from Meth's fanzine days and before. It will also
feature art by such comics luminaries as George Perez, Gene
Colan, Alex Toth, Dave Cockrum, and many more.
about the type of friendship that would lead Meth to donate
so much material to aid Ellison's cause, I called Ellison
to ask him about his relationship with Clifford Meth.
SACKS: Tell me about Clifford Meth.
Let me preamble whatever anecdotes I may give by telling you
Cliff Meth is one of the most ethical people I've ever met.
That sounds like one of those encomiums that you read on a
tombstone, but we live in a time in which ethics has become
those of us who would live or die by our ethics, by giving
I don't care much about morality, I don't care
if you fuck chickens in the window of Bloomingdales, but ethics
matters to me considerably. And I'm compelled to deal in the
course of every day business and in my life with people who
just have no conception.
are people who steal over the Internet and think it's OK.
There are business people who give me their words and then
say, "oh, well, gee, I wasn't able to do that because
such-and-such happened subsequently, which is all the floating
ethics of a world in which a George Bush can be elected.
is from an earlier time, or from a better time, or from a
happier, alternate universe. If Clifford gives you his word,
you can make book on it. As Bobby Blake and I used to say,
you can take that one to the bank. He's very careful before
he gives his word, and he stands by it to the letter.
I think, is the strongest indication of a person's character,
and is more telling than any anecdotes, or any kind of "well,
he did this for me" or "he did that for me"
nonsense. Clifford Meth is an ethical, upright, straight-arrow
guy, and that's invaluable in these parlous times.
quite remember how Clifford and I met. He'd probably remember.
I think maybe he wrote to me and wanted me to contribute something
to a book. I can't really recall. But when we met, I was in
New York to do Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect,"
which was on Comedy Central. He and I and I think
has to be at least 15,16,17,18 years ago. I can't remember
my wife being with me-I think this was before I married Susan.
But one of my editors, Ellen Datlow from OMNI was with us.
And while we were waiting in that particular building-way
over on the West Side, there were a bunch of people waiting
to get into another show-I think it was the "Geraldo
Clifford, being an Orthodox Jew, was wearing a yarmulke. And
there were some guys who made a remark. It wasn't anything
as flamboyant as, "Hey, you dirty kike," or anything
like that, but whatever it was, it was enough to get Clifford's
go cruising for a fight - he wasn't particularly angry, but
he was alert. So when we came back down out of the building
- and I think he'd had a little run in with them inside where
the two lines sort of merged for a moment before we went into
one studio and they went into another one
and it was
a bunch of thuggy kind of boys - they were not from the intelligentsia;
that is to say, they were not outpatients from Columbia University.
think they exchanged words again - a lot of this is very foggy
in my mind because it happened a long time ago.
the show, we went downstairs and there was a pizza joint there
and we went in to have a slice and sit and talk. I had to
go off and do something else and Clifford had to go back to
wherever it was he was going back to. So were sitting there
and these guys started again. A couple of them came in or
they were there already - whatever it was, the paths crossed
again. And Clifford took umbrage at what they said - certainly
hear it or I'd have been in there with him because I love
street fighting. I still do. In fact, earlier this week, I
caught a reckless driver up here on our mountain road and
I hemmed him in until the cops came and took him away and
when he gave me shit, I popped him one in the mouth.
said, "You know you can be arrested for that?" and
I said, "Right-I've made a citizen's arrest; I arrested
the bad guy for you, and you're telling me you're going to
arrest me? If you're going to arrest me then turn me loose
on the motherfucker so I can beat the crap out of him before
I go to jail."
cop said, "What is it with you? You're an old man?"
And I said, "I'm not that old - I'm 69!" and the
cop said, "But the guy is six-foot-four and he's wearing
a tank top!"
said, "Then I'll get him on the ground and stomp his
head that way he won't be six-foot-four; he'll be three-inches
shook their heads and took the guy away.
So I didn't
actually hear the whole thing, but the next thing I knew,
Cliff was gone from the table. Apparently, he went Bruce Lee
on their asses and took them down outside on the street. There
were four or five of them, but Cliff only had to take out
two of them before the others turned into the cowardly lion.
accomplished - he's one of those odd creatures who is martially
adept and he is more than capable of taking care of himself.
But he blows it off. He's not looking to hassle anybody, nor
let anybody hassle him. But if pressed to it, he can turn
into one of Fred Saberhagen's berserkers.
It's a good story. Standing up for his honor.
Absolutely. He takes Jewishness very seriously.
wonderful story: After he was divorced from his first wife
and he was going to marry the woman that he is married to
now, her father is a rabbi, and he's a very Orthodox rabbi,
and he was not sure if Clifford was the sort of man that he
wanted his daughter to marry.
it turned out that he had heard my name - the father had heard
my name. And I guess it had some salutary effect on him because
he was speaking to Clifford and he said, "This is a vonderful,
vonderful writer, this fella." I had written some stories
with a Jewish background. So Clifford said, "Well, he's
a very close friend of mine." And he said, "Yeah,
sure, right, close, right."
calls me and he says, "He's very impressed by you."
So I said I'd call him. Cliff said, "You're gonna call
the rebbe?" I said yeah, I'll call the rebbe. So I called
the rebbe and this is the accent I put on - I said, "Rabbi,
rabbi-this is Harlan Ellison. And I want to tell you, I know
this boy Clifford Meth. He's a good boy, he's a stand-up boy,
he's a very, very sincere, earnest, honest boy; he's devoted
- your daughter could do a lot worse, trust me on this."
apparently was impressed enough by my rodomontade that
he gave the okay to the wedding.
That's a wonderful story. It really shows the depth of your
(laughing) Well, there isn't anything I won't do for
same token, if somebody fucks me, I either think them out
of my universe - I mean, this is about as deep into philosophy
as I get, but I think it's a terrific bit of philosophy. It
took me decades to come up with it, but I think it really
works and this is it: Most of what we think is evil can be
chalked up to ineptitude.
do stupid things or say stupid things or get involved in bad
situations mostly because they think it's a good idea at the
time, which of course is the behavior of idiots. But since
we're all idiots most of the time anyhow, this is why we get
did you get involved with that man? You knew he was bad for
you?" "Well, I don't know. It seemed like a good
idea at the time."
did you set fire to that kindling outside in the wooded area?
It started a big fire." "Well, I don't know. It
seemed like a good idea at the time."
tell me, Napoleon: What made you think you could take over
Russia?" "I don't know. It seemed like a good idea
at the time."
excuses an awful lot of human behavior. Meanness, maliciousness,
and repeated evil, like Ashcroft and the rest of his crowd,
is a different matter entirely.
does something that I don't think is right, one of two things
happens. If it's an I-thought-it-was-a-good-idea-at-the-time,
or it's just ineptitude or it's just stupidity, I never give
them a second chance, because once you've fucked me, that's
enough, but I think them out of my universe. They just don't
exist anymore. They're on a parallel timeline and I don't
have to deal with them. And if they keep coming back again
and again and again and again, I just ignore it. And I ignore
it on a very deep, deep level. They just don't fucking exist.
once in a while something will happen that is codified in
- there's a quote from Alexandre Dumas . He said, "There
are some words that close a conversation like an iron door."
once in a while, someone will do something that is so egregious,
so insulting, so hurtful, that I am compelled to deal with
them in the equal-and-opposite reaction theory. If somebody
does me a favor, I am theirs forever. They can call on me
any hour of the day or night and I'm there. But if somebody
fucks me to the extent of that same kind of hurt, I will eventually
either piss in their open grave or their open mouth - one
or the other.
So I understand
Clifford's behavior - and while I understand it has its downside
for a lot of people who are very egalitarian and say, well,
you should never fight with anyone and "everybody's opinion
matters; everybody's opinion is the same," which is bullshit,
of course - I understand the dangers and downside of this
kind of philosophy, but I am precisely the person that I meant
to be when I was a kid; I always wanted to be who I am now,
so I have no one to blame.
age 69, I figure that's a philosophy I can live by. And others
who live by the same kind of philosophy naturally have a reverberation
with me that I respond to. And Clifford's one of those people.
He is an incredibly loyal friend, beyond the bounds of what
most people think is friendship.
to be your friend when there ain't no shit coming down. It's
when the nails are being driven into your wrists that you
find out whether somebody is a real friend and a stand-up
person. And that's Cliff.
I see why you guys are such good friends because he says the
same things about you.
Well, that's very flattering. I suspect in most ways he's
a better man than I
Except for this Orthodox Jewry business
- what a pain in the ass! He can't come to visit me because
we can't find a proper deli! We're literally going to have
to lay in boots for the weirdo.
(laughing) He mentioned that he'll be flying out in October.
Yeah. And I'm thinking to myself, you know, I can't take him
to Mogo's Mongolian Bar-B-Que, I can't take him to the Argentinean
Chilescaria, I can't take him to the Thai Restaurant - you
know, everything he looks at is traif, street-kill. Everything
is traif to him. So I don't know how he's going to do it.
He's probably going to come in a trailer packing kosher food.
(laughing) I'm sure there's a kosher deli or two down there.
It can't even be just kosher. It's got to be, as they say,
frum. Levels above!
I was raised reform so we never got into that kind of depth.
I was raised Jewish, but just sort of High Holy Days and that's
it. But I became an atheist at about the age of nine, and
I never looked back. Although if I hear the word kike I just
ball up very quickly, and I do the same thing Cliff does.
Cliff tells one more story about you supporting his honor
the time he got fired from WIZARD. It had something to do
with Barry Windsor-Smith. He said that you called Gareb Shamus
asking him to hire Cliff back.
Yeah, I did. I'm not sure if Gareb did, but, yeah, that happened.
everybody, and when you know everybody
Look, I'm not
terribly impressed with my own celebrity, as you may have
gathered. I take what I do seriously, but I don't take me
very seriously. I'm as big an asshole as the next guy.
actually, since I know who the next guy is, I'm not quite
that big an asshole.
a fairly ridiculous person. If you work at something for 50
years, which I have, eventually you get some minor celebrity,
if you're any good at all, and you tend to run with people
who themselves have achieved. And I know a lot of really well
known people and people who are in positions of some authority.
always has been very decent to me. So when Cliff got fired,
it was absolutely no effort, no skin off my nose at all, just
to pick up the phone and call him and say, "Hey, this
guy's terrific - don't fire the guy." Whether it had
any effect or not I don't know, it's been so far back I can't
remember, but I suspect it did.
Regardless, it ended up working out fine in the long-term,
I think, because it gave him more chance to write what he
really wants to write, not the kinds of puff pieces that WIZARD
The only thing about Cliff's writing that makes me crazy is
the demented titles that he puts on them. They're just so
fucking bad. For a guy who writes as well as he does, and
who thinks as deeply as he does, I can't figure out what -
I mean, he's not doing it as a gag, he's doesn't think they're
cute - he thinks they're actually apropos. Like, you know,
Pus Suckers & Running Sores: 6 Stories of Tragedy &
Jesus Christ, kiddo! Even god's 15 minutes is an interesting
title, but I'm not sure he's not gonna just suddenly start
getting people from the religious right buying the book.
more information on god's 15 minutes and Ellison's suit against
AOL, visit http://harlanellison.com/news.htm