Arthur Miller, born October 17, 1915 in New York City, died on February 10, 2005 at his home in Connecticut.
I have respect for Arthur Miller's entire career, but I feel one of his works stands out above the rest: the transcendent play Death of a Salesman. This contemporary tragedy about a small family facing business failure premiered in Broadway's Morosco Theater on February 10, 1949 (the author would later die on the anniversary of this opening day).
A great play needs a great title (witness A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Long Day's Journey into Night by Eugene O'Neill, etc.) but the title Death of a Salesman packs perhaps the most powerful punch of them all. Miller's drama approaches its lead character with compassion and understanding, yet the very title sneers at him. The words read like a slap in the face: death of a parasite, death of a pest. This is what Willy Loman feels like during every moment of the play.
Carr was a big influence on Kerouac, appearing as Kenneth Wood in the novel The Town and the City. He also supplied the now-legendary roll of paper that became the manuscript for On the Road.
(To learn more about Lucien Carr, read the LitKicks article here.)
In other news, a collection of Neal Cassady's letters has recently been published (Collected Letters, 1944-1967). Cassady's widow, Carolyn, has done an excellent job of promoting Neal's legacy as a writer, which often gets overshadowed by the legend that surrounds him. The collection includes letters to Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg among other Beat writers, as well as correspondence between Neal and Carolyn.
In fact, the sum total of my knowledge of Susan Sontag on the day I'd heard she'd died amounted to this:
1) she had black hair with a big streak of gray
2) Kevin Costner said something about her in the only good acting performance of his career, as Crash Davis in "Bull Durham"
3) her writings have sharp, thought-provoking titles, like Against Interpretation, Notes on Camp, Where the Stress Falls and Illness as Metaphor.
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
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.
Nobly undaunted to the last
And death has now united him
With ... heroes of the past
No sound of strife disturb his sleep!
Calmly he rests: no human pain
Or high ambition spurs him now
The peaks of glory to attain
(James Joyce, Ivy Day in the Committee Room)
November 22nd, 2002 marks the 9th anniversary of the death of British writer and composer Anthony Burgess. He died on that date, of lung cancer, in a London hospital, leaving behind an output of works that ranged from novels to non-fiction books, from articles to short stories, from an extensive and impressive range of musical compositions to television documentaries and screenplays. Aside from his works, Mr. Burgess is being survived by his family, a whole load of some pretty darn good friends, an inimical force invading his memory in the form of a wanna-be biographer (Andrew Biswell) to whom Burgess would most likely have a Joyce quote to throw at:
May everlasting shame consume
The memory of those who tried
To befoul and smear the exalted name
Of one who spurned them in his pride
(Joyce, Ivy Day in the Committee Room)
For the occasion, Carcanet Press in the UK will release a volume of poetry by Burgess, titled Revolutionary Sonnets, on November 25th, his "official" death date. He would have liked that, especially since the volume's title is the fictitious title of the poetry book of Burgess's character Enderby, whom Burgess had created to showcase his own poetry works that did not find a publisher while he was alive. Burgess wrote "old" poetry, in the style of Hopkins and Shakespeare; he paid great attention to old verse rules and, had he lived some 500 years earlier, he would have probably become one of the greatest poets of that time. Being born, and having lived, when he did, however, he became known primarily for his novels. Now, posthumously, he may find acceptance as a poet as well.
For Anthony Burgess, it was never enough to excel in only one sphere. He was a great writer, but it was one intrinsic merit of the man that he wanted more, much more, than that. He also wanted to succeed as a composer, a journalist, a critic, a translator, a biographer, a scholar, a teacher, a professor. What a steep task for one mere human life span! Some of this he managed to achieve before he ran out of time, while others of his goals are still in the processes of being achieved now, including establishing his standing as a poet and a composer.
It has been said that behind every great man stands a great woman, but in Burgess's case, it should be expanded to saying behind some great men stands an entire army of great people. It is a testimony to the writer's endearing character that, following his death, those he had left behind, wife, friends and son, all began dedicating their lives, or big parts thereof, to keeping his work alive and finishing whatever tasks he had been unable to complete by the time lung cancer cut him down, all too soon.
His widow, Liana, established the Burgess Center at Angers and started holding symposiums there on many aspects of Burgess's life and works. Aided by a former Burgess student, she tracked down his friends and asked them to contribute their articles and research, and not one of them declined. They traveled from all corners of the world to Angers, to attend conferences on Anthony Burgess and his life, to present papers, to partake in panels.
It is as though Joyce had called them all together, in honour of a writer who had fought throughout his life for a deeper understanding, of layman and scholar alike, of Joyce's works:
If they are gone beyond recall let us hope, at least,
that in gatherings ... we shall speak of them with
pride and affection, still cherish in our hearts the
memory of those dead and gone great ones whose
fame the world will not willingly let die
(Joyce, The Dead)
Further, Liana went through all her papers and sold them collectively to the University of Texas at Austin, to give the after-world access to her husband's works. She traveled tirelessly, despite her fear of flying, to be present at symposiums honouring her husband.
Ben Forkner, an American friend of his, edited some unpublished Burgess writings and released them in a book titled One Man's Chorus.
His Goddaughter junked a well-paying job at Penguin publishing to work for free to transcribe Burgess's interviews.
A former student and friend traveled to Brown University in Rhode Island, collected scores of forgotten Burgess music, and helped convince the Brown music scholar Paul Phillips to dedicate himself to categorizing and performing the music of Burgess. As a result, Burgess the composer was adopted by Brown, turning him posthumously into a veritable Ivy Leaguer; he received an entry in the Grove Dictionary of Musicians, and many of Burgess's pieces have already been performed by and at Brown. Phillips traveled to Monaco, on several occasions, for research of his upcoming book on Anthony Burgess the composer, and he joined the Burgess Center as musical advisor as well as becoming the world's foremost Burgess music expert.
As this example shows, even those who did not know him personally became infected by the enthusiasm of those who did, and loved the man all the same, enough to also start working to keep his name alive and ensure that everyone knows, even the generations to follow, that Anthony Burgess was about much more than merely his little novel A Clockwork Orange.
While he tended to portray himself as friendless and often stated that soon after his death he would be forgotten, Anthony Burgess's perception of those around him fell far, far from the truth. He was probably unaware of the love and affection he inspired in those he met, but the aftermath of his departure from this world is a living testimony to it. Touchingly, nobody of the hundreds of people, strewn across several continents, who work on Burgess's work do it for the money. Many of them use their own finances and resources to keep the Burgess archives growing, often putting in long hours after work, until the wee hours of morning, to fit their "Burgess work" around their regular work requirements that earn them a living. They all work for the sake of their love and admiration of the man. They are idealists, perhaps, or literary experts, but they are all people willing to dedicate parts of their lives to Burgess and they share one common denominator, that they were his friends. Not only were they his friends, but they are willing to work for the privilege, meaning, in effect, to put their labour where their mouths are.
Somebody once said: "a man can count himself lucky if, by the time he dies, he has made even a handful of true friends". Anthony Burgess, as the past decade has shown, has done better than that, much better. Perhaps, aside from his literary standing, this is where his true success in life lies. It is only when one's professional success is accompanied by personal success as well that a man, by the end of his life, can say that he has done truly well during his time on earth.
One wonders how many other writers can say of themselves to have, during the course of their lifetimes, made such impact of a personal nature to warrant this extent of dedication to their persona, even a decade after their deaths. This article would not do Burgess justice without evoking Joyce's images often and with gusto, so here is another fitting one:
There is no friends like the old friends, when all is said and done
(Joyce, The Sisters)
It is, perhaps, his ever-growing circle of friends that makes sure Burgess lives on, as he had always wanted. To Burgess, surviving through one's artistic works was a manner of surviving one's own death. He wished for that, but thought he would not achieve it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The year 2002 saw the release of his first biography, a satiric piece of work by a former Punch journalist that Burgess would probably laugh his head off about, and in 2003, a more serious biography of a scholarly nature, by the official biographer, Dr. Andrew Biswell, will follow. There will be books on Burgess's music, there will be the commercial release of his compositions, and Burgess himself is going to "keep writing" as further books are going to be published of his collected writings and correspondence. Other biographies are going to follow. There will be symposiums on Burgess as a Joyce scholar, on Burgess and Shakespeare, on Burgess and Marlowe. Movies are going to be made of his books, some of them based on his own screenplays. Students, perhaps, will one day be writing the Joyce theses that Burgess left behind, in titles only, for their consideration.
Over the next decades, the public is likely to learn more and more fascinating and undiscovered aspects about Burgess the man, Burgess the writer and Burgess the composer.
In many ways, Anthony Burgess gave his life to his reading public, seeking to entertain and educate with his works. He gave from his pen until its final run of ink, and from his vast knowledge until his final breath, writing even on his deathbed, not one, but three books. Joyce is qualified to comment on this, so much better than I am, that I have decided to hand the rest of this passage over to him:
better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and whither dismally with age
(Joyce, The Dead).
At the time of his death, Burgess was, very evidently, still in the full grip of his passion, for language and for his beloved, favourite writers, Joyce and Marlowe, for even as (here is Joyce again)
his soul approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead and he became conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence, and his ... own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling, ...
(Joyce, The Dead)
The shapes he recognized most of all were Joyce and Marlowe, and it was those two, largely, that Burgess packed his final writings with.
He gave freely, not only of his art but also of his time, always willing to dispense generously with advice or a kind word, always concerned that his friends had good careers and were doing well in their lives. Despite his massive work schedule, he found the time to cook for his wife and son, to write long letters, to help friends in need. As Joseph Heller once said of him, Anthony Burgess, as a person, was boundary-less in his generosity, and now history seems to be in the process of showing us that this Manchester writer's generosity paid off because he succeeded in touching his public not only as a writer but as a person as well, a rare feat to achieve for a novelist.
Nine years after his death, Anthony Burgess is probably as alive as ever, at least when it comes to his art. His loss is still felt painfully by those who knew him, including one friend who maintains a library of recent Burgess books without back covers for having removed all the back cover references to his demise, but the pain of their loss has been channelled, by all of the writer's friends with a very few exceptions, into a touching and admirable quest to keep his name and works alive and continue to establish him as one of the greatest English language writers of our time. They don't seem to have much time to hang around, moping, for the works ends when the work ends. Not before and rarely after (Burgess, The Clockwork Testament). Here is Joyce again, speaking on behalf of all of them:
There are always sadder thoughts that will recur
to our minds: thoughts of the past, of youth, of changes,
of absent faces that we miss here tonight. Our path through
life is strewn with many such sad memories: and were we to
brood upon them always we could not find the heart to go
on bravely among the living. We have all of us living duties
and living affections which claim, and rightly claim, our
(Joyce, The Dead)
That Burgess, recipient of countless awards such as the Commandeur des Arts et Lettres and the Critic of the Year Award, should have won a Booker, Pulitzer or Nobel, or all three, is increasingly clear to literary critics, but even without those, his name will survive, not only through our generation, but into the coming generations as well. Joyce wants to take over again, so I am going to hand the keyboard to him:
His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow
falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling,
like the descent of their last end, upon all
the living and the dead.
In some ways, Anthony Burgess still continues to be among the former.
Throughout his lifetime, Burgess, who had an endearing sense of British humour, cracked many jokes, some of them understood by the public, and some not. But his biggest joke, though not intended to be one, was probably the, somewhat hasty, statement:
After my death, I will soon be forgotten.
But, to paraphrase from Burgess's own words, in one of his last novels, A Dead Man in Deptford: nine years on, the dagger continues to pierce and it will never be blunted. But that inimitable voice sings on, as loud and clear as it always has, and it will always keep singing.
At the age of 22, he discovered modern art and began to paint. His playful, colorful ironic pastiches instantly gained notice, and he began balancing a career as a serious artist with his love of music. One of his earliest works to gain notice was an evocative, blurry testament to American history, "Washington Crossing the Delaware", which caused a sensation in 1953. As his career as a painter thrived, he became an increasinly familiar face within the subterranean social circuits of Greenwich Village, San Francisco, Paris and elsewhere, hanging out with painters like Franz Kline and Willem De Kooning and soon-to-be-legendary writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In 1959 he joined Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and David Amram to star as "Milo", the married railroad brakeman based on Neal Cassady, in the film "Pull My Daisy".
Rivers was considered one of the forerunners of the pop art movement in the 60s, especially in his use of humor and his light, colorful touch. In his later decades he became more and more playful and experimental, leaving behind the style-conscious seriousness of the 70s/80s/90s art scenes to express himself loudly, clearly and with much controversy in works like "History of Matzo: the Story of the Jews", an epic series that combined the ethereal beauty of Chagall with the commonplace style of Lichtenstein or Warhol. One of his works, "Dutch Masters and Cigars II", a takeoff on the famous cigar box, can be seen in the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.
Larry Rivers died three days before his 79th birthday, on August 14, 2002. I called David Amram when I heard the news, and here's what David told me:
"When I was in Paris after I left the army, the painter Joan Mitchell told me when I came back to New York I had to look up the sax player and painter Larry Rivers. She said I'd find him at the Cedar Tavern, so I went to the Cedar Tavern and they told me Larry was playing the Monday Night Jam Session that night at the 125 Club in Harlem. So I went up to the 125 Club, and there was Larry wailing away on his sax. We played together, and when the MC was thanking everybody for coming, Larry was still playing, all by himself. The crowd began to leave and they started putting up chairs, but Larry was still playing. Then Steve Pulliam, the trombonist, who was in charge of the jam session, turned to me as Larry continued to play alone and said 'Man, your blue-eyed soul brother has a lot of heart.'
"Larry finally stopped playing and we rode downtown on the subway together. We talked about music, and he told me he was working on something, but that he couldn't get it right. We played together often from that time on. One day I went into the Museum of Modern Art and saw "Washington Crossing the Delaware", painted by Larry Rivers. I saw him at the Cedar Tavern a few nights later and said to him, 'Larry, I'd heard you were a sax player and a painter, but you never told me that painting was really your thing.' Larry said, 'You never asked.'
"He was a wonderful artist in all mediums and he loved playing music. The last time we played together was at Terry Southern's memorial service. He sang 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' and played 'Blue Monk.'
"When we made 'Pull My Daisy', it was three weeks of crazed fun. This movie was filmed as a silent movie, and we overdubbed music later. I had the great alto master Sahib Shihab play saxophone on the soundtrack as Larry and I appeared to play music on the screen, making it appear as if we were playing the music. When Larry heard Sahib's fantastic solo later, he told me, 'David, I never sounded so good.'
"He had a lot of spirit, and continued to be productive as an artist and a real individual. I'll miss him a lot."
Of all the poets who came through the Doctor's doors, and the list is long and impressive, Jack was the only one who was a full time poet. I mean that's all Jack did, be a poet. He had no regular job, didn't teach, and at the time was sleeping on the subway. For drink and food Jack would take a poem or two in typescript, make copies, staple the pages inside a brown folder, and on the cover write the poem's title with a marker. On the inside there was a cover page with the title and Jack's signature and the edition number, like This Is Copy 3 Of A Limited Edition Of 10 Copies, again written by Jack with a marker. These productions he peddled for a few dollars each in saloons and on the street. Jack called them Midnight Special Editions.
At that time there were several saloons with regular poetry readings, uptown and downtown, The Tin Palace and St. Adrian's among them. Jack always showed up for these events, and always, invited or not, got on stage and recited a piece or two. Never read, always recited. He knew all his poems by heart. Other poets carried briefcases stuffed with paper, Jack carried his poems in his head.
At some point in the early 70s Jack moved out to San Francisco and we kept in touch by mail. In 1975 I was involved in the production of a book of his, Street of Lost Fools. I lived in Westhampton and had a studio connected to the garage behind the house, where I drank and wrote and kept the pot belly stove cranked up to 80 degrees. One winter night I ran out of plugs of wood for the stove, there was snow on the ground outside where the woodpile sat, I was shirtless and drunk and dreaming myself in Hawaii. No way was I going to get bundled up to go out in the freeze and get wood, no way. So I fed 30 or 40 unbound copies of Jack's book into the pot belly. The stove glowed. Never has any poet's work given me such immediate satisfaction.
In 1980 I moved back to Hawaii and lost touch with Jack. I got sober and realized the book burning was a terrible thing to do. I had to make an amends to Jack, but I had no idea where he was. So I wrote this poem to him:
To The Poet Jack Micheline
On the Occasion of
Another Saloon Reading
This ain't no Philharmonic Jack
no high walled box built
to amplify the lack which is
any tight wound string's condition
no straight backed hall raised
to reassure the greedy fry
that increase of sound
equals the sum of the song
no tall structure stuffed
with poached fish eager
to bathe in the gentle rip
of your rough songs.
A tavern where no cultured poet
dares lay academic intestines bare
for fear of guts
a bar where no thought lives
whose truth is hidden
behind wooly words
a saloon where any poem
is only as good as a turn of the head,
quiet vocabulary of the eyes
a roomful of strangers
come to drink and
listen each to his own voice.
Current poets ripple
in closed schools together
degreed, monied, granted
stiff fish listening only
to each other, learning
only from each other
and though this tiny pond
passes for the sea of poetry
here in the big city
scotch and ginger aristocrat
true man of the art whose book
is written on the living heart
though cut by age and passing fashion
you come on Sundays
to read yourself
in this saloon.
Consider this a sonnet on your door.
That was my amends to Jack, a true poet. I never thought I'd see him again. Then one night I got a call from Jack, drinking in a Village bar with the poet Dan Murray who had my phone number. 9 o'clock for me in Hawaii and 3am for them in New York. It was great to hear Jack's voice again. I got his address and we resumed correspondence. I told him about the books used as fuel and sent him the poem. He told me the burning was okay since I had to keep warm, and said he liked the poem, he was making copies to give out on the streets in San Francisco. Then I was in New York in 1994 and saw Jack on Bleecker Street, we had coffee and he said he was waiting for the limo to take him to the studio, he was taping the Conan O'Brien show. Next day he came out to Riverhead and on to Sag Harbor for a reading at Canio's and we spent the night as guests of a lady poetry lover whose name escapes me and the following day taped a television segment having to do with Street Press, which was the publisher of Street of Lost Fools. We had a good time. Then Jack went back to the West Coast and I went back to Hawaii. We wrote back and forth until Jack passed away.
I had quite a collection of letters and drawings and paintings Jack had sent me over the years. I needed to get new teeth so I sold them as a package to a person who collects things like that. I got the teeth and felt I should let Jack know about it, that once again I had used his writing for my personal satisfaction, so I wrote him this poem:
It hasn't changed Jack
they're still whipping the metal flanks
for speed and anybody of worth
has been turned out into the cold.
It's coming to a boil again
with new and bigger weapons,
any day now a bright light will dull
the sun and biochemistry lay waste millions.
Poetry's a murmur, starved thin
with washboard ribs, living
on the outskirts, taught in college
by mortgages in suits.
At least the night is quiet, full of peace
and sleeping birds dreaming dawn.
What's it like there ? Is it Paradise
or just another dry mouth morning?
I'm selling all your books and letters
because I need new teeth. I know
for teeth or hunger you'd forgive me Jack.
I've got food but nothing to eat it with.
The poet Martin Matz died in the evening of October 28, 2001 at the hospice unit of New York's Cabrini Hospital. I believe Marty was 67 years old. I met Marty in the Chelsea Hotel in 1989 and we remained close till his dying day. This is some of what I remember him telling me about his life. Because we were usually pleasantly loaded when we talked, some of my memories could be off a bit.
Marty was not a prolific poet, but he was a poet's poet. Marty's poetry was a unique fusion of Surrealism, Lyricism and Beatitude. He was inspired by, and refined, the traditions of vagabond poesy. Look on the back cover of his book Time Waits: Selected Poems 1956-1986 (JMF Publishing, 1987; privately revised and expanded, 1994), and you will find encomiums from the likes of Gregory Corso, Jack Micheline, Harold Norse and Howard Hart. Beat eminence Herbert Huncke wrote a stirring introduction to Matz's book of opium poems, 'Pipe Dreams' (privately published in 1989). Huncke wrote that Matz "...draws support for the solidity of his statements from the earth, the soil--all of nature; trees, rocks and gems--upheaval and restless winds--strange dream-producing flowers. His is an awareness of the endless mystery we are all so much a part of."
Marty was decidedly his own man, and stayed true to his own poetical calling. He wrote poems for himself and for his friends, and did not taste the admiration of a wider audience until late in his life. What quenched Marty's soul was late night pow-wows burnished with jazz, sharing tales of the brotherhood of fringe dwellers. His love of the nocturnal shines through in his masterful poem I KNOW WHERE RAINBOWS GO TO DIE (On The Death of Bob Kaufman):
TOGETHER WE WALKED THROUGH A FABLED CITY
OF HALLUCINATING GREEN
AND TALKED AWAY
A THOUSAND SMOKING NIGHTS
AS YOUR ACHING HEART
BEAT ITS BONES
IN TIME TO BIRD'S BRILLIANT SOUNDS
OVER THE NEON STREETS OF MURDERED SCHEMES
Matz was born in Brooklyn, spent his adolescence in Nebraska, and served in an alpine unit (no mean feat for a flatlander) in Colorado during the Korean conflict. After the service, Marty gravitated to San Francisco, where he studied anthropology and met Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso and Bob Kaufman. Just as he was becoming part of the incipient North Beach poetry scene in the late 1950s, Marty hit the road, heading south.
I AM THE PERPETUAL WANDERER
THE INSATIABLE TRAVELER
THE MYSTIC NOMAD
TOWARDS SOME STRANGE HORIZON
OF TWISTED DIMENSIONS
AND CHAOTIC DREAMS
(From "Under The Influence of Mozart" by Martin Matz)
His insatiable thirst for travel led Matz to Mexico and South America, where he wandered from the late 1950s through the late 1970s. He told me so many wondrous tales of his meandering in Peru, Chile, the Yucatan. On one of his journeys he ran into the legendary director John Huston. He told of how he and John and several others drank for a solid week, talking through the nights. Marty insisted that Huston never once slurred his words.
Marty was an intrepid traveler, restless, always seeking and finding the least-trodden path. He told me of how he was once bitten by a snake while crossing a river in Mexico. The flesh on his lower leg turned a hideous purple-black, but he kept going. He always kept moving.
Another time he was stricken with a flesh-eating parasite. Doctors told him that his arm would have to be amputated. He sought out a shaman, took a week of yage cures in a longhouse (in which the shaman "threw light" into the darkest corners of night), and successfully avoided any surgical procedure.
Matz became fascinated by pre-Columbian art, and translated an unknown Aztec codex, "The Pyramid of Fire" (for more information, please check out this site).
Marty was also an accomplished smuggler, but those are tales to be told at another time. Suffice it to state that National Geographic did a story which elucidated some of his unique talents as an contraband ceramist.
In the late 70s, Marty was pinched in Mexico with some grass and cocaine on him. Because Mexico had signed a treaty with the Nixon Administration which forbid transfers of drug prisoners, Matz's only recourse was to bribe his way into a somewhat inhabitable cell block in the notorious Lecumberi Prison.
Lecumberi was an old, dingy, frightfully overcrowded prison, built by Porferio Diaz in 1903. By his wits, Marty was able to survive four horrific years of the most abominable incarceration. In 1994, he told Huncke and me how he once was sitting in the Lecumberi yard when one man stabbed another in the throat, showering Marty with "a fountain of blood." He said: "I didn't know the human body could pump blood that fast." It was a tribute to Marty's formidable powers of resilience that he chuckled as he emphasized that "I don't like to be showered in blood." Matz's warm and infectious sense of humor always remained intact.
When the Mexican government decided to close Lecumberi and transfer the prisoners to a new facility, Marty and another prisoner hid for days in a tunnel which they had spent months excavating. They hoped the prison officials would eventually stop searching for them. They were finally captured after hiding for a week, and much ado was made of their daring exploits in the hyperbolic Mexican papers. (For moreinformation on Marty's experiences in Lecumberi, I suggest checking out his interview in Romy Ashby and Foxy Kidd's wonderful Goodie Magazine, issue number 6).
In 1978, Marty returned to the US as part of a prisoner exchange with Mexico. He settled in San Francisco and once again shared his poetry at readings. He renewed old friendships with the city's poets, including Jack Hirschman, Gene Ruggles and Neeli Cherkovski.
In the late 80s, Marty married film maker Barbara Alexander. They spent the better part of the next eight years in northern Thailand, living on Barbara's inheritance.
Marty and Barbara also spent some of this period in New York's Chelsea Hotel, where they presided over a convivial literary salon. Their Chelsea suite was filled with the lost art of conversation, the walls covered with exquisite artifacts from Thailand, Nepal and Burma. Painter Vali Myers, storyteller Herbert Huncke and poet Ira Cohen were frequent guests. At one memorable birthday party for Matz's longtime friend and patron Bob Yarra, Harry Smith held court. Huncke and Matz gave two compelling readings at The Living Theatre at this time.
In 1991, I traveled with Marty and Barbara to Thailand and Burma. Together, we made a 26-minute video travelogue called "Burma: Traces of the Buddha," which documents a boatride down the Irrawaddy River, a Shin Byu (coming of age) ceremony in Pagan and the dedication of a new temple in New Pagan. Our time spent exploring together was indeed inspiring. After our visit to Burma, I settled with Barbara and Marty in Ban Muong Noi, a small hilltribe village north of Chiang Mai in Thailand. It was in this small, remote village that Marty wrote his book of opium poems, 'Pipe Dreams'.
In the late 90s, after having settled in Healdsburg, California, Marty and Barbara separated. Marty again hit the road: Mexico; Vienna, Austria; Italy. He found a warm receptiveness for his poetry in Italy, where he joined a "Beat Bus" tour of poets, including Ira Cohen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Anne Waldman. For several readings, Marty was backed by avant-saxaphonist Steve Lacy. M arty stayed for months with friends outside of Rome, where he basked in the glow of recognition of his poetical gifts.
In 2000, Marty found himself back full circle in his native Brooklyn. He recorded a CD of his poetry ("A Sky of Fractured Feathers") with master musicians Chris Rael (sitar, guitar) and Deep Singh (tabla, harmonium). He gave memorable readings, embellished by Chris and Deep's deft playing, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the Gershwin Hotel.
Marty was a thoughtful and comforting presence throughout old and dear friend Gregory Corso's valiant final months battling cancer. Gregory affectionately referred to Marty as "my Matzoh Ball." Matz's eulogy for Gregorio was among the most moving at the memorial services for Corso at the Orensanz Foundation and the St. Mark's Poetry Project.
Matz spent his final months at Lower East Side apartment of his longtime friend Bob Yarra. Marty, like Huncke and Corso before him, received a new generation of admirers in a modest, tv-lit abode. He graciously acceded to interviews while drinking cognac and watching his beloved San Francisco 49ers (Marty loved football and the sweet science of boxing). Old friends Roger and Irvyne Richards, owners of the much-missed Rare Book Room, came by to watch the Yankee playoff games. All the while, Marty continued to spin his magical tales of a fiercely uncompromised, hectically picaresque life.
Like his close friends Herbert Huncke and Gregory Corso, Marty Matz stayed true to himself, always traveling, always savoring extraordinary experiences, always sharing freely his unique impressions yet never straying from his chosen, off-the-Beaten poetical path:
UNDER A SHADOW OF FRACTURED ECLIPSES
IN THE WINTER'S UNHARVESTED SHADE
IN SOME MARINADED ANGLE
SOME SECRET PERSPECTIVE
SOME HIDDEN TRAPEZOID
SOME MECHANIZED EQUATOR
OR OCCULTED WRINKLE
ON THE INVISIBLE LONGITUDE OF MADNESS
IN MONEY'S FROZEN SMILE
IN EXPLOSIONS OF ENDLESS EXPANSION
IN THE GULLEYS AND CANYONS OF TIME
(From "In Search of Paititi" by Martin Matz)
Before he passed, Marty bragged that he was "the laziest man in the world--and getting better at it every day." But like Huncke, Matz was not aware of how giving he was, how generous he was with his time and his tales. His words will resonate for decades to come.
Matz is survived by his wife Barbara Alexander of California, and his half brother Bruce Hoberman of Nebraska.
The long, strange trip came to an end for Ken Elton Kesey at 3:45 AM Saturday, November 10th, 2001, after 66 years and a few hundred lifetimes on this planet.
Ken was a great friend to my father, Neal Cassady, and almost a second father to me after Neal died in 1968 when I was 16 years old. Kesey was one of the kindest and wisest men I've ever known, and he was one of my biggest heroes and mentors starting soon after he met Neal in the early '60s, a feeling which continues in me to this day. The pearls of wisdom that he shared with me and others around him are too numerous to count, but thankfully he left a great legacy in his body of work that will last forever.
Neal always wanted to be a provider to his family, and little did he know that much of that provision would be accomplished posthumously through doors that were opened to me because of his famous friends like Kesey and the Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia being another of my heroes from about 1965 on).
Much to the worry of my mother, Kesey and Neal would come collect my sister and me at high school, giving the authorities some song and dance about dentist appointments or whatever, and they'd whisk us away to see the Dead play at some local high school prom dance, just after the Dead changed their name from the Warlocks. Some fond, early memories there. I recall once being called to the school office, not knowing what I had done to deserve what was surely going to be trouble from the evil principle, only to open the door and see Neal and Ken dressed in American flag jumpsuits complete with day-glo red Beatle boots and silly hats. The principle looked confused and said to me "this man claims to be your father!" He looked like he thought the circus was in town.
My mother needn't have worried. When I'd try to sniff the smoke from the reefers being passed around the car, Dad would admonish the passengers "no dope for the kid!" Kesey knew I was disappointed, but he always honored Neal's request in those early days.
After Neal's death Kesey would go out of his way to look us up when he was in the Bay Area, and he showed up unannounced at my wedding in November of 1975 on his way back from Egypt, while writing a piece for Rolling Stone. That was one heck of a party. I still have pictures of him holding my then-3-month-old son, Jamie, and beaming like a proud godfather.
Another warm memory was backstage at a Dead show in Eugene when Kesey's fellow prankster Zonker ceremoniously presented me with one of 2 railroad spikes that the Dead's roadie Ramrod, while on a sacred pilgrimage, had extracted from the tracks where Neal died in Mexico. And again when Kesey and Ken Babbs bequeathed Neal's black and white stripped shirt to me that he had worn on the bus trip to New York in 1964, this time during a show we did at the Fillmore in 1997 before bringing the bus to Cleveland, where it was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Ken called and asked if I would drive "Further" into Ohio "because Neal can't make it this trip." Although veteran Prankster driver and mechanic George Walker did the actual driving, Kesey's heart was in the right place. That road trip was surpassed only by the 4-week tour of the UK in 1999, sponsored by London's Channel Four studios. Traveling with Ken in close quarters for that long really made for a lasting bond between us, and he was at his peak as a performer. It was fun for me to play guitar behind his harmonica and the Thunder Machine. I last saw him as we said our goodbyes at SFO after that incredible journey, and I was sad to have not been able to do so again before last Saturday.
Ken Kesey was a great teacher and a beautiful soul, and he will be missed by all that his magic touched.
(I found these pictures of me at the wheel of the bus, and me with Ken, from San Francisco, April 28, 1997, just before the trip to Cleveland. That night was the "Psychedelic Era Reunion Party" (P.E.R.P.) at the old Fillmore Auditorium, what a gas. All the usual suspects from the '60s were there.)