Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Roger Richards and Claude Pelieu

By Laki Vazakas on Friday, January 10, 2003 07:26 pm
2002 came to a sad and sudden end with the passing of two friends, Roger Richards and Claude Pelieu, both of whom were integral to the extended Beat family we celebrate on this site.

Roger and Claude shared the same birthday, December 20th, and both savored the company of literary outlaws. For four decades, each man enjoyed the warm camaraderie of artists, novelists and poets, some of whom happened to be part of the Beat pantheon. Most importantly, each man forged a full, honest, alternative life far from the constrictions of the mainstream. I'm not sure if Claude and Roger ever met, but if they did, I think they must have hit it off.

Roger died on his 70th birthday, surrounded by family and friends in St. Vincent's hospital. He had suffered a stroke at his apartment on Horatio Street on December 18th, and did not regain consciousness.

Claude passed away on Christmas Eve, four days after his 68th birthday. For several years, he'd been fighting circulatory problems caused by diabetes. On Christmas Day, I spoke with his wife Mary Beach. She told me that she had telephoned Claude on the morning of the 24th, and he had sounded well. So like Roger, Claude left us very suddenly.

Roger Richards was an unsung hero among New York's underground literati. He was quick to share his keen intelligence and was particularly accessible and responsive to younger folks who were interested in literature, Beat or otherwise. Along with his gracious wife Irvyne, Roger owned the Rare Book Room on Greenwich Avenue, where Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Ted Joans, Jack Micheline, Carl Solomon, Marty Matz and other writers congregated and caroused. In Roger and Irvyne's shop, you could find a painted self-portrait by Henry Miller, drawings by William Burroughs, Patti Smith and Andy Warhol, and first editions by any number of transgressive authors.

Before opening the Rare Book Room, Roger paid his dues, working at The Strand (where his co-workers included, I was told by his old friend Larry Lawrence, Lux Interior of the Cramps and Robert Quine of Lou Reed's band), at Brentano's (where I believe he oversaw the rare book collection). Roger also had a book shop with his cherished friend Brian Bailey.

Roger knew books and ephemera, and shared his knowledge willingly. But he was so much more than a book man. He was an aficionado of opera, a translator of ancient Greek, a cable access pioneer. Most generously, Roger and Irvyne helped nurture a small community of friends, many of whom enjoyed their hospitality in the aforementioned walk-up on Horatio.

Many writers and poets, some, like Joans and Micheline visiting from out of town, crashed with the Richards. Walking into their apartment, one immediately felt welcome. A plate of food was offered, a smoke or a drink was extended. Unpretentious conversation flowed in their salon; boxes of books lined the walls. When I was making my documentary "Huncke and Louis", I spent many evenings at their table, many nights on their couch. Some mornings, I was awakened by Gregory Corso, who lived with Roger and Irvyne for twelve years or so.

At this juncture I should mention that Jim Knipfel wrote a deeply insightful article on the friendship between Roger and Gregory. The piece was aptly titled "Underground Saints" and was the cover story in the February 28-March 6, 2001 edition of the New York Press. I highly recommend reading Knipfel's piece, which sheds a great deal of light on both men.

So Gregory Corso was part of Roger and Irvyne's household for almost a dozen years. When I first met them, in 1989, Gregory had just come to live with them, and he pretty much kept to himself. Over the years, as he came to trust Roger and Irvyne and their close friends, Gregory opened up--he watched Jets games with us, played Scrabble with us, and shared his incredible wit and autodidactic mind with us. It was a privilege to see Gregory feel at home, and to be treated as part of the family.

It is worth noting that Corso's "Mindfield" is dedicated --in addition to his son Nile and friend Burroughs--to Roger, Irvyne, and Roger's daughter Hillary:

--slayers of homelessness
preservers of all lovely
things--

In recent years, Roger and Irvyne savored the company of Anton and Joan Rosenberg, Marty Matz, Andy Clausen and other dear friends. Their door was always open.

But Roger should not be remembered or defined by the people he knew. Many of the Beats confided in him, precisely because he was so kind and accessible. Roger was a loving husband, father, grandfather (to Lucy and Violet). He was a great friend, always observing the Johnson ethos to share what you have with friends. He shared his intelligence, his passion for books and poetry, his love of music, and most of all, to his capacity to bring people together under his modest roof.

In marked contrast to Roger's humility, Claude Pelieu possessed a vibrant irreverence, a quality in short supply these days. Claude was an exquisite collage artist, a poet, a publisher, a translator and a provocateur.

I met Claude through Charles and Pam Plymell at the Cherry Valley Arts Festival in August of 1998. Breath Cox and Thai Harnett had organized a tribute to the hamlet's bohemian legacy (Cherry Valley is where Allen Ginsberg had his farm/retreat, also known as The Committee on Poetry). In addition to readings and musical performances, Breath and Thai thoughtfully curated a show of Claude and his wife Mary Beach's collage in the town's renovated school.

On the second day of the festival, Rani Singh, the director of the Harry Smith archives, asked me to videotape an interview with Mary and Claude. They had taken Harry Smith into their Cooperstown home in the 70s, and were amenable to describing life with Harry. Their stories were both hilarious and horrific. Claude described all the odd things Harry hoarded away in his bedroom closet: twigs, mushrooms, jars of his own piss. I gathered that Harry was not exactly the ideal housemate. But Claude and Mary described him in loving terms, and clearly looked upon those days with affection.

After the interview, I took time to look at Claude and Mary's collage, and was struck by their brilliant juxtapositions. I asked them some questions about how they worked, and they were forthcoming and generous in their replies.

We kept in touch through letters, and I visited them a few times at their home in Norwich, New York. One memorable visit took place later that fall, when Charles Plymell, Grant Hart and I drove over from Cherry Valley. Grant had hoped to select a collage by either Claude or Mary for the cover of his new cd, "Good News For Modern Man." The collage Grant chose was accidentally sent to a gallery show in France, but we had such a grand time that day (getting pleasantly lost on the way home, and happening upon a graveyard of Model A Fords) that the wayward collage was but an amusing footnote.

Claude's health began to decline due to diabetes. When his hands lost the dexterity required to accomplish the fine cutting required by collage, he simply utilized a new, ingenious cutting approach. He cut up comics and reproductions of master paintings to stunning effect. He and Mary were inspiring in their dedication to create collage each and every day.

It's crucial to note that Claude and Mary Beach were creative partners for decades. They met in Paris in the early 1960s, then moved to San Francisco (where they published Beach Books--including the American edition of "Minutes to Go"). In the late 60s they lived in the Chelsea Hotel, where they befriended many of the hotel's lumi naries. From New York, they moved on to London. At each stop, they connected with the artists and writers who were engaged in the most daring experimentation. (For a concise description of Claude and Mary's life at the Chelsea, consult Barry Miles' memoirs; Miles tells the story of when Claude took a piss in Norman Mailer's pocket, at Panna Grady's party). They did French translations of the work of Burroughs and Bob Kaufman. Mary painted trenchant portraits of many friends, including Anne Waldman, Gerard Malanga, Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie.

At the service for Claude, in Norwich on December 30, Mary's 1986 portrait of Claude was displayed next to his casket. The image reveals Claude's incredible sensitivity, and perhaps paradoxically hints at how seriously he pursued his mixmastering of irreverent images.

Claude's longtime friends Pierre Joris and Nicole Peyrafitte paid tribute by reading, translating and singing his poetry. Pierre had met Claude in the Chelsea in 1969, and looked upon Claude as an older brother. Clearly he admired Claude's life and work, and mentioned the great extent to which Pelieu's work is revered in France. Like many accomplished improvisers (so many jazz musicians come to mind), Claude work was celebrated by the French, and badly neglected in the USA, his adopted country.

I'm certain that Claude and Mary's huge body of work will be appreciated this year. A retrospective gallery show is long overdue.

Roger Richards and Claude Pelieu shared the same birthday. They also shared full lives, deep connections with avant-garde artists, and an abiding belief in power of art to both enlighten and transgress. Lastly, each man possessed a gift for sharing his respective talent with friends.

Our extended Beat family has lost two Johnsons.
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