David Swinson began his career at the height of the punk rock movement in the early 1980s when he booked and promoted punk rock and alternative music in Long Beach, California. He also started on Wednesday nights An Evening of Conversation with luminaries such as Hunter S. Thompson, Dr. Timothy Leary, John Waters and Jim Carroll. In 1990, he co-produced Sound Bites from the Counter Culture for Atlantic Records that featured writers, orators and politicians, as well as an offbeat buddy film entitled Roadside Prophets.

In 1994, Swinson changed course completely and joined the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department where he served in positions as diverse as tactical officer, plainclothes/undercover officer, investigator and Detective to the Special Investigations Bureau/Major Crimes. During his 16 years of service, he received many awards, including Detective of the Year Award (2003); Meritorious Service Medals; Achievement Medals of Honor from the Department of Justice and United States Attorney's Annual Law Enforcement Awards for significant case investigations. He also received awards from Target Corporation for Outstanding Community Service.

Swinson’s latest book, The Second Girl, was named the New York Times Best Crime Novel of the Year and Stay Thirsty Magazine was very pleased to visit with David Swinson at his home for this Conversation.

STAY THIRSTY: Your newest novel, The Second Girl, takes place in Washington, D.C., where you served as a uniformed police officer, a tactical officer, an undercover officer targeting narcotics, an investigator and then a detective during a sixteen-year career. How does your police background inform you as a novelist and especially in this new book?

DAVID SWINSON: For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer, but honestly, I could not have written The Second Girl, or Crime Song, without that life experience. Working in law enforcement is more than a job. It’s a way of life, that continues even now, in retirement. It is something I never would have understood if I had not lived it. It allowed me to see the best and the worst in humanity. I believe that brought a certain authenticity to the books.

Unlike Frank Marr, I was a man of rules and procedure. I didn’t want to write a typical police procedural. It was too constraining. Not fun. Frank Marr freed me from that. I was able to use all my life experience, but had fun breaking the rules.

STAY THIRSTY: In your book, secret lives clash with the high intensity of public notoriety. Are there any parallels to your life? Do you carry any secrets from your youth with you today?

DAVID SWINSON: I don’t recall. Maybe a couple of glasses of a fine single malt will help to refresh my memory.

STAY THIRSTY: Well before your law enforcement career began, your resume reads like a history of California punk/alternative rock combined with gonzo journalism. What do you remember most about your music promoter days and which bands had the most influence on you?

DAVID SWINSON: I was a booking agent/promoter from about 1983 to 1989. There weren’t any great alternative venues in Long Beach, prior to Fender’s Ballroom, Melody Dance Center, and Bogart’s. There were some great concert venues in Orange County and Los Angeles, but again, not any spots for the kids to hang, and listen to the bands they loved in the Long Beach area. A couple venues popped up in the later eighties, though.

For me, I am most proud of being a part of the scene, and bringing some great acts into Long Beach. So many of those bands influenced me – The Pixies, Social Distortion, Bad Brains, The Descendants, John Cale…I could go on and on. The one band that I always gravitate to, more than any other, when it comes to inspiration for writing, is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

I create playlists for all my books, and always Nick Cave finds a place on every one of them. The third book in the series, Mouth of the River, already has a growing list. Nick Cave was one of the first ones on it. There’s something about his music that is perfect for Frank Marr, and obviously for me. I think it’s not only about the man behind the music, but a certain sadness combined with incredible life experience that he brings to it.

STAY THIRSTY: Simultaneously with your music promotion, you founded a spoken word forum at Bogart’s Nightclub in Long Beach, California, that hosted Hunter S. Thompson, Dr. Timothy Leary, John Waters and Jim Carroll, among others. Did you consider yourself part of the counter culture movement? How did the ideas and philosophies of Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson shape your thinking at that time and through the rest of your life?

DAVID SWINSON: The spoken word forum, or what we called, An Evening of Conversation with… was created because we had a dead night. Wednesday, at Bogart’s that never seemed to bring a crowd, no matter who we booked. I came up with the idea of allowing counter-culture personalities and writers to just get up and do whatever they wanted – and it went from there. We were the first club to pair up Timothy Leary with G. Gordon Liddy, and to have John Waters speak and do stand-up comedy. It was incredible. Jim Carroll appeared with his girlfriend on guitar and did poetry. It was more like rap poetry. I have never considered myself a part of the counter-culture movement, but I think I had a small part in creating a stomping ground for the movement in an area that would not have otherwise been able to experience it.

Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson, are the two people that have always stayed with me throughout my life. I initially met them through Bogart’s Nightclub, but we stayed in contact and worked on other ventures. The film Roadside Prophets, for instance, was conceived in Leary’s home, when Bill Stankey, his lecture agent, and I, sat at his table, in his Beverly Hills home, eating cookies. Normal cookies. Really. We talked about virtual reality. Timothy told me that there would come a day when I might be on the East Coast (prophetic) and he was in L.A., and we’d put on goggles and play tennis together. This was around 1989.

Then there was Hunter S. Thompson. I personally picked him up at the airport for every speaking engagement that I booked. After I left Bogart’s in 1989, we tried to get other projects going. In the short span of time that I knew him, Hunter never became someone I could consider a friend. But he did work his way into my life, and is a major influence. There was something about him, that creeped in, in a good way, and managed to stay with me. The odd thing is, that this happened over the course of a short time, whether it was with him in person, or correspondence via fax and telephone. There are some good stories, but I don’t think we have the room here to tell them.

STAY THIRSTY: In 1990, you co-produced a spoken-word record for Atlantic Records entitled, Sound Bites, featuring Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary, Jim Carroll, Abbie Hoffman and Eugene McCarthy. What was your purpose with this record? Have you listened to it recently and if so, do the speakers seem current or more like a time capsule in history?

DAVID SWINSON: I co-produced that album with my friend Bill Stankey, who was the lecture agent for most of them. Gail Shepherd, my girlfriend at the time, was the Associate Producer. Billboard Magazine called it essential listening, and the Los Angeles Times said it was a …no-holds-barred spoken-word album. It was supposed to be about anti-censorship. It was during that time when 2 Live Crew was being attacked by Tipper Gore. Most of the speakers were recorded live At Bogart’s. Leary was recorded at Club Lingerie in Hollywood. Henry Rollins did this whole bit about Black Sabbath, and Jim Carroll (as I mentioned earlier) performed what I can only call rap poetry, but what Timothy Leary, Eugene McCarthy, Abbey Hoffman and Hunter Thompson spoke about is still relevant today. Some of it is uncanny.

STAY THIRSTY: Also, in 1990, you developed an idea for a film with Timothy Leary and Billy Henderson that was released as Roadside Prophets and starred, among others, John Cusack, David Carradine and Arlo Guthrie. Do you miss that period from the early 1980s through the early 1990s that was filled with high creativity and anarchy?

DAVID SWINSON: You forgot, Adam Horovitz, of the Beastie Boys, and John Doe from X. So many other cool actors and non-actors were in it too. I can’t say that I had fun making that movie. We did have fun developing it. When we got a deal with New Line Cinema/FineLine Features, it became something different. Hollywood? There was nothing creative about the process. I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but after that film was done, I was totally discouraged. There would be other projects; most of them never saw the light of day. I can honestly say that I don’t miss it. I do miss the concert booking and promoting days. That was creativity and anarchy. The way we promoted shows in the beginning was beautiful. We had nothing, but we made it work with booking five bands for five dollars, and a couple of thousand flyers. That was all it took.

There was intense creativity after the concert scene, but that was when I was independent, and with friends like Billy Henderson, and Bill Stankey. It all changed when we got “The Deal.”

STAY THIRSTY: Of course, the really obvious question is, how did you go from punk rock and the counter culture of California to the D.C. police force? How did you explain your resume when you applied for the job? What happened in your life from 1990 to 1994 that motivated your transformation to a career in law enforcement?

DAVID SWINSON: I’m pretty sure you realize I became very unhappy with the movie business. After a few unsuccessful attempts at getting projects done, I got tired and quit. I didn’t know what to do with my life. I always considered myself a creative person, but most importantly, a writer. I came to the decision that I needed to reinvent myself, but not only that – experience life. When I went to college I originally wanted to major in criminal justice. There is a history in my family with law enforcement, and government work. Washington, D.C. was always home base for our family between countries. I went to high school there, and really did grow to love the city. There was something romantic about becoming a cop, returning to my home base, and trying to make a difference. I also wanted the experience. Maybe it would help my writing? So the next thing I know, I quit smoking, got in shape, and applied. Damn, I was accepted, and given a three-day notice to return to D.C. and enter the academy. I did not realize then how much my life would change. 

STAY THIRSTY: What is the next book project on your drawing board?

DAVID SWINSON: I’m finishing Mouth of the River, the third book in the Marr trilogy. There is only so far you can go with a character like Frank Marr. The third book is not only a conclusion, but maybe an open door to a new venture.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.