The Reading Room: Anna-Marie O’Brien

The Reading Room: Anna-Marie O’Brien

The Reading Room

featuring Anna-Marie O’Brien

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Ink 19 magazine’s Reading Room is a celebration of books and the people who write good ones.

Stream the show for a mildly intellectual discussion of sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and Tipper Gore as Anna-Marie leaves childhood behind for the Los Angeles metal scene and a budding career with Metal Blade Records. Don’t mind the buttholes, people!

This episode was produced by Frank Dreyer, Ian Koss, Rose Petralia, and Gregory Schaefer. Theme music was composed by Avi Bortnick—check him out online at Big thanks to Rose Petralia from Ink 19 and Anna-Marie O’Brien.

Mötley Crüe, Too Fast for Love

  • Live Wire

Megadeth, Killing Is My Business… And Business Is Good

  • Chosen Ones

Missing Persons, Spring Session M.

  • Walking in L.A.

Concrete Blonde, Concrete Blonde

  • Still in Hollywood

Twisted Sister, You Can’t Stop Rock ‘N’ Roll

  • I’ve Had Enough

Twisted Sister, Stay Hungry

  • We’re Not Gonna Take It

Cannibal Corpse, Eaten Back to Life

  • Rotting Head

Episode Transcript

Rose Petralia: Hi, Anna Marie.

Anna-Marie O’Brien: Hi, Rose. Nice to be here.

RP: Good to see you.

AOB: Yeah, good to see you too.

RP: It’s good to connect.

AOB: Yeah, it is.

RP: So, um, I just finished reading your book.

AOB: Great.

RP: And yeah, yeah, it was a really, a very fun read. So, you call it a rock and roll memoir, but I kind of see it as a coming of age story, not of, you know, like most coming of age stories that start in puberty, but you know, one that really takes you from being, uh, a rebellious teenager…

AOB: Yeah.

RP: Um, you know, and an independent soul, to a full-blown adult with an independent soul.

AOB: Right. Right. And for some of us it’s quite a journey. Some of us do it easily and well, and some of us struggle. Um, but yeah, that’s, it is a coming of age memoir, really. I viewed it as a, as an adventure, kind of a going to the wilderness type of book.

AOB: I was really inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, you know, and I avoided that book as a librarian and I saw it on the shelf at work and the cover of it and the byline just really caught me and I kept avoiding it because I was like, “I know I have an adventure story.” Um, so I finally read it a couple of years after it was published, and it, it really tore me open as a person, as a woman, and as a writer. And that’s when I knew I had to, I had to get this story out. So, and that’s what I embarked on, and it took me a while, but I got it out, so.

RP: Yeah. I do see parallels, lots of parallels between Cheryl Strayed’s book and yours.

AOB: Yeah.

RP: The whole, the whole journey, she was wandering in the—not wandering, she was very directed—in the woods, on the trails, and you, um, went from your home in Ohio to Los Angeles, where you had wanted to be forever.

AOB: Right.

RP: You were driven to get there, right?

AOB: Yeah.

RP: To begin your life. So, so tell us about that. How Los Angeles, moving to Los Angeles at the age of 18 or 17, um, uh, kind of formed the rest of your life.

AOB: Yeah, so, you know, I think California just, uh, really, back growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, was kind of this glittery dream world. You know, Ohio is a very gray and flat, colorless place most of the year, except in the fall. So, you know, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to this stuff except through the bits of TV and stuff that I would watch, and, so that kind of, that idea of California just really stuck with me.

AOB: And then there’s, you know, the issues with my father. Uh, obviously that’s in the book, that also compelled me to California. And, uh, then the music obviously, that I go over extensively in the book, compelled me to get to Los Angeles.

AOB: And obviously it was driven by a lot of rebellion at home. A lot of family problems, um, you know, money issues, divorce, drug addictions, you know, stuff like that. So, there were many reasons I went to California. Um, and I think, you know, when I was ready to go, um, I had transformed from something into something else, and that’s kind of the journey. That’s the, you know, the, kind of the whole point is I went there to find out what it was, and it wasn’t quite what I thought it was. Um, and many of us come to those realizations. Sometimes they’re really hard lessons to learn, and to bear. As you get older, you realize the impact those things had on you. And it was only as, um, you know, a 40+ year old woman, having gone through motherhood a couple of times, having been in a long-term relationship, that I realized the impact of those, of the whole story, as to who I was and how it informed me growing up, so.

RP: Yeah. So the music does play a gigantic role in the book, I would say it’s its own character. And, and when you were in LA, you did have an opportunity to meet a lot of, uh, of the people that you had been listening to for years and idolizing. So, did seeing the personal side of your idols change how you felt about their music or influence how you felt about their music?

AOB: Um, it, it just made it more real and poignant to me. Um, for instance, meeting and talking with Dave Mustaine, of Megadeth, and the impact his music had had on me just a few years prior going through some of the toughest times up to that point in my life. Um, and being able to communicate that to him and being able to connect with him on some of the similarities we had had, as young people, yeah, the music, you know, it made it more, you know, humane and it had more humanity to it. It impacted me even more.

AOB: Um, so yeah, and, you know, meeting Tommy Lee the couple of times I did, and just realizing that, you know, these guys were just living their lives the best they could despite all the expectations from the fans, the fame, the money. These guys were really just a few years older than I was, you know, trying to make it in a really tough business, and I just, you know, appreciated seeing their humanity as artists, and understanding the process and the relationships that they had to balance and the responsibilities that were laid upon them, you know. They asked for it all, they wanted it all, they got what they wanted, but they did pay a price. And some of that was addiction, divorce, uh, band drama. So, yeah, so I got to see it all and it was, it was, um, great to relate to it that way.

RP: Yeah. That must have been powerful as a young person, just, you know, just getting into your life, just starting your adult life, to see rock stars as, you know, people with regular problems like everybody else.

AOB: Right. Yeah, there was a point when one of the band members in Megadeth had a car payment, and they were about ready to go on tour for 18 months, and they were trying to figure out what to do with this car. You know, just these very basic human problems. Like, “How do I still make a car payment while I’m gone for 18 months,” you know, and trying to figure those logistics out, uh, as a touring professional or as an artist really helped me, um, yeah, see the bigger picture of, of what it takes to make your living in the arts.

RP: Right. So tell us about Claire Elizabeth Bolton’s library.

AOB: Oh yeah. Claire Elizabeth. Um, her library still lives with me. Um, I do still have some of the books in my library. Most of them are, are in storage because they’re, they’re getting old and, um, you know, I have ‘em all wrapped up as best I can to keep them protected, ‘cause some of them are date-specific, like a 1978 astrological ephemeris for moon phases, like, I don’t really need that anymore. So, um, but the Aleister Crowley and some of her other, um, old astrology and metaphysical books are still with me. Yeah, and like I said in the book, her library was the seed of me kind of understanding that I was a caretaker of books and stories, and that informed me, you know—even though I avoided being a writer for most of my life—it helped inform me as I started writing this book, that her name literally meant clarity and her impact on me brought a lot of clarity. So that’s why I included her in the book, um, because she still affects me, you know, and I’ve, I’ve carried that through my life.

RP: I thought it was really interesting that you said her books were given to you to protect, and, uh, it seemed to me a really clear stepping stone—I mean, you might not have seen it at the time, right, but—to your career as a librarian.

AOB: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, you know, they’re, they’re keepers of stories. And, um, so it was, it’s been an honor all these years to have them with me because they, they carry a very powerful message to me.

RP: I love it. So, um, you talk in your book about Tipper Gore and her inspiration to your life as the organizer of the PMRC. Tell us about that and that era and how it affected you, too.

AOB: Well, you know, as I talk about in the book, it really activated some of my civic awareness, as a citizen of the country, that censorship in general was a very bad thing. And so as a 14 year old, and reading that they wanted to sensor Mötley Crüe and Prince, um, and NWA, and, uh, you know, all kinds of great music, it really just made me aware of what it was to have intellectual freedom in this country and what the first amendment is and what it continues to be. So, especially for artists, um, censorship is a very dangerous thing. It deprives our country of so much intellectual discourse. So, yeah, so it’s impacted me all the way through, from that time I was outraged that they were censoring Twisted Sister to even now what I see happening in the, in the open culture, there’s parallels all the way through. So I think, you know, what what’s happened today is much more extreme than what they were proposing back in 1985 and ‘86. Um, if only it had gone that far and stopped, but it hasn’t.

AOB: So, yeah, so I’m concerned, but I continue to believe that, uh, artists, especially artists, comedians, writers need to continue to express themselves truthfully. And so that’s the lesson I learned from Tipper Gore, that we do have to stand up and speak out, and when we see something wrong, uh, we do have a duty to claim that.

RP: So, um, I agree completely, but I think I felt kind of the same ways that you did when you were talking in your book about Cannibal Corpse. Uh, so you were, your, in your book, you talk about, um, kind of having to reconcile, defending, um, freedom of speech while also, uh, being completely repulsed by the material. So can you tell us about…

AOB: Yeah, so I think, you know, as you grow up, life hands you a lot of things that you have to reconcile in your mind, and you have to come to a point where you have to understand that two opposite things can be true at the same time. And I do specify that in the book, that although the material made me uncomfortable, I didn’t like the music, the artwork was just pointless to me, there, it offered nothing of value to the culture at large. I still had a responsibility, uh, to let them do that, to let them produce that music and, um, to let the people decide if they wanted to listen to it and purchase that music, um, and engage in that. So, yes. So yes, I didn’t like it, but, um, I have to stand by my, my values, which are freedom of expression and artistic freedom. Ultimately that’s the biggest value.

AOB: My personal preference, thank goodness, is still mine to make. Right? So nothing is forced upon me. I don’t have to listen to it. Um, so I don’t. And I think every person, uh, of consenting age should be able to make those decisions for themselves.

RP: Perfect. Absolutely. Absolutely. What, what pool are we going to draw from for inspiration if there’s no pool?

AOB: Correct. Yes. We have to keep the, we have to keep everything open. Uh, and, and we are adults, you know. We can make these choices about what to allow into our lives, what energy fields to interact with, what, uh, what money to put behind art that we believe in. Um, and likewise, we don’t have to support what we don’t like. So, um, that’s, that’s what makes this, uh, whole thing work, is the ability to respect each other’s choices, uh, and what we choose to engage in and, and, um, and consume.

RP: Has your mother read your book?

AOB: She made it through the book. Yeah, she cried, and she cried, my little Sicilian mother, but, um, you know, she’s so much of the inspiration for the book, because she did raise me with so few boundaries about what I could read, and what I could listen to, and watch. She was very, very liberal in those, in those values. So, um, and she understood the, um, the challenges as a single mom raising an only child, um, in an overly… I know back in the ’80s, things were different. It was very, you know, sexuality was different. Promiscuousness was different. Um, there was a whole different, uh, culture around consent and other things, um, and the age of consent. So yes, she read it. Um, she’s very proud and, uh, it was, um, yeah. Thanks, Ma!

RP: I love it. Okay, so it’s a little bit of a weird segue to go from talking about your mom, um, to the themes that I found in the book—just anybody’s mom. Uh, luck is a huge, huge theme in your book, um, the kindness of strangers, uh, survival, family. Also I wrote down, buttholes.

AOB: You know, that’s funny you say that. I re-read the book the other day and I kind of giggled a couple of times ‘cause I… it just seemed like a more polite and humorous term to use than any other anatomical description. But yeah, see, it makes us laugh. It’s a, it’s a funny word, butthole is a funny word. And I’ll s…

RP: It is, it’s, it is a funny word. It’s a much funnier than the, uh, than the courser word for it. And it also shows up in surprising ways, I have to say, in the book.

AOB: Yeah, yeah, for sure.

RP: A treat for the reader.

AOB: Yes!

RP: Uh, so what do you… this, this will be my last question, Anna Marie.

AOB: Sure.

RP: Um, what do you hope that people take away from your book, that readers leave your book feeling or knowing?

AOB: Yeah, just that, um, you know, we are each responsible for the experiences we have in our life. So, um, you know, we are each responsible for our own reactions, whatever life hands us, we do have to make the best of it. And despite whatever disadvantages you might have, well, you know, whether it be economic, um, the color of your skin, the god you worship, um, whatever, disadvantages you might feel you have, that ultimately is still upon you to make the most of it, that you do have a chance to make a great life, if you make smart choices and you follow your heart. And, um, I guess that’s what I hope people take away from it, that, you know, if I can do it, if I can survive and get through some of the challenges that I faced as a young person, um, and create a life that, I absolutely adore and love—I have a beautiful family, I have a great career, and you know, I’ve just written my first book. These are all things I thought were impossible. Absolutely impossible, but that, um, you know, just sticking with it and not quitting and believing in yourself can, can take you a long, long way in life. So I think that’s it.

RP: Well, I think you have a beautiful life.

AOB: Thank you. Thanks. It’s yeah.

RP: Thanks for sharing it with us.

AOB: Yeah. Yeah, it was a fun book to write. It was hard, but, um, it’s connected with a lot of people and that’s the value in it, is that’s what books do is it connects us across time and space through stories that, uh, we can all relate to in some way. So that’s what I really hoped to accomplish was to connect with people.

RP: Well, I’d say we’ve done that today.

AOB: Yeah, I hope so.

RP: It was really great reading your book, and thanks for talking with me today.

AOB: Thanks, Rose. Thanks so much.

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