From Beat Scene Poet to Psychedelic Multimedia Artist in San Francisco and Beyond, 1948-1978
With an Introduction by
Since 1954 the Regional Oral History Office has been interviewing leading participants in or well-placed witnesses to major events in the development of northern California, the West, and the nation. Oral history is a method of collecting historical information through tape-recorded interviews between a narrator with firsthand knowledge of historically significant events and a well-informed interviewer, with the goal of preserving substantive additions to the historical record. The tape recording is transcribed, lightly edited for continuity and clarity, and reviewed by the interviewee. The corrected manuscript is indexed, bound with photographs and illustrative materials, and placed in The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, and in other research collections for scholarly use. Because it is primary material, oral history is not intended to present the final, verified, or complete narrative of events. It is a spoken account, offered by the interviewee in response to questioning, and as such it is reflective, partisan, deeply involved, and irreplaceable.
All uses of this manuscript are covered by a legal agreement between The Regents of the University of California and Gerd Stern dated June 21, 1996. The manuscript is thereby made available for research purposes. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are jointly reserved to The Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, and to Gerd Stern. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of The Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, or of Gerd Stern.
Requests for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the Regional Oral History Office, 486 Bancroft Library, Mail Code 6000, University of California, Berkeley 94720-6000, and should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user. The legal agreement with Gerd Stern requires that he be notified of the request and allowed thirty days in which to respond.
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:
Gerd Stern, "From Beat Scene Poet to Psychedelic Multimedia Artist in San Francisco and Beyond, 1948-1978," an oral history conducted in 1996 by Victoria Morris Byerly, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2001.
Stern, Gerd (b. 1928)
From Beat Scene Poet to Psychedelic Multimedia Artist in San Francisco and Beyond, 1948-1978, 2001, ix, 397 pp.
Childhood and education in New York City; discovering poetry; moving to California, 1940s; writing poetry; meeting Allen Ginsberg, Maya Angelou; marriage to Jane Hill; marriage to Ann London; writing for Playboy magazine, 1960s; living on houseboat in Sausalito; USCO (multimedia art); marriage to Sally Shaw; Michael Callahan and Intermedia Systems Corp.; entering family cheese import business; reflections on art, poetry, counterculture, drugs, and the cheese industry. Includes sixty poems, with some commentary.
Introduction by Ivan Majdrakoff, longtime friend and collaborator.
Interviewed 1996 by Victoria Morris Byerly, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Introductionby Ivan Majdrakoff
To introduce Gerd Stern, my path is to recall my dehydrated memories. It was in New York's P.S. 187 concrete school yard that I was first aware of Gerd. Thick glasses and short pants signaled "different." His name then was Jack.
Later in my drama class at the High School of Music and Art, he emerged for me as a personality but an outsider. He was going to the prestigious Bronx High School of Science. I was aware that he had been successfully involved in a science competition with his own biology project. He then also became involved with our amateur theater group, called "The Rolling Players," named after our director, Hubert Rolling. We did many ambitious, passionate, "serious" plays together. About that time, and very startling to me, he, Jack, decided to change his name back to the original German, Gerd.
Our friendship grew and I discovered myself as the only one at his early graduation from William Howard Taft High School, to which he had switched. He now had his own room away from home. I recall drawing there from a nude person. It was almost an illicit feeling. Most adult!
While I worked for a year in my father's portrait photography studio, we slightly drifted apart. He, having left home, had another life and now was somehow living in Greenwich Village which in those days meant beret-Bohemia. The next summer, I worked at a kosher summer camp in upstate New York. Out walking on a day off, amazingly, I encountered, coming from the other direction, a sandalled Gerd, also hiking. We now became closer linked, even though for the next three years I was attending the Cranbrook Academy of Art outside of Detroit. After Cranbrook, I returned to New York. We connected, did similar things, knew some of the same people, and moved in criss-crossed paths. I was aware of some hospitalization weirdness of Gerd's but I linked this to the vagaries of living in the Village. About then, I illustrated, or rather abstractly interpreted, Gerd's first book of poems. This really made me confront his chanted, very solo-word voice. It was a lean, demanding territory.
An art gallery job was offered to me at the University of Minnesota and I was soon to leave. Gerd now had a west-side apartment and was involved with an older woman--Jane! She had left her husband and children for Gerd. Phew! Going away, they lent me their apartment where I held a farewell party. I decorated the walls with dozens of head drawings. The next morning, I cleaned up, and left for Minnesota in a $25, 1936 black Buick.
That winter, I returned to New York to marry the painter and ex-musician and artist, Julia Pearl. We spent our first married night in New Paltz, New York, with Gerd and Jane. Memorable was the meal of a very large white rabbit--a pet that Gerd and I had reluctantly shot and butchered.
After three years at Minnesota where I had become Acting Director of the University Gallery, Julia and I decided to move to California. Mutual correspondence and criss-cross meetings with him continued over these years. Contact was maintained.
Arriving in California, we stayed on Jane and Gerd's Sausalito barge and visited them also on Partington Ridge in Big Sur. Jane helped us look for a place to live. One barge night, I remember a group conversation about verbal visualization. Say the word "rose" and what image comes to mind? The variety of responses was fascinating. To hear Gerd claim that he thought of it only as an idea and abstraction, unlike my pink Whitman Chocolate sampler box image that flashed in my mind, was jolting.
In later years, another conversation boiled down to his insistent phrase, "think of the word as object." Often as a painting and drawing teacher, this was to be a useful and important pointer. It focused on the relationship between meaning and its physical coat, or the psychological intertwined with the pictorial. The focus was on all the grappling that visual form demands. It encouraged me to expand my use of words, numbers, and phrases in painting and assemblage. I spend several years working over this territory that Gerd had gestured towards. It has never left me.
To go back, his connection to Jane, an earth and woods mother, was profound. There was a first birth, Adam, and a second birth, Radha, whom I still remember holding in my arms on that barge. Now that I think of it, it was the first just-born that I had ever held.
Upon arrival in the Bay Area, I immediately got involved in one of Gerd's group productions. It was a puppet show, and I recall my recording the voice of the newly arrived hip, heavily accented New Yorker. Gerd's voice languorously intoned a laid-back Kenneth Rexroth. It was originally done in San Francisco's Fugazi Hall, and later to a crowd on the Sausalito barge.
Gerd's life seemed to dramatically change after Jane's departure. Ann London arrived on the scene. Ann was good-looking, literate, and a poet. Julia and I shared their wedding day. Quickly it seemed, Gerd became a public relations person, and actually had some good accounts. I recall Alexis' Tangier, for one. Herb Caen also seemed part of Gerd's expanding territory. Certainly to me, this was a new and surprising place--another world of words. There was Bill Ryan's Contact magazine. I contributed a black-and-white drawing and did a composite collage head for the Criminal Man issue. It was the literary world. For instance, I got to meet Theodore Roethke, and spent time with Evan Connell.
Ann and Gerd conceived of a very ambitious subscription project, called "Poems in Folio," for which I did their logo--a lyre. Also in another issue, I did a color drawing for a Louise Bogan poem. Their collaboration gave monthly subscribers a beautifully printed broadside poem. It was a combination of a fine Bay Area press printing of a new poem by a nationally-acclaimed poet.
Later, after separation from Ann, Gerd returned to the East Coast. He eventually took up with Judi. After a while he showed up in California with Judi. He was very excited by all the new ramifications of Pop Art and the electronic world. I was only too willing to listen, as I had gone through a backwash decade of what has since been called Abstract Expressionism. He saw that I had been painting words and said that it was unlike anyone in New York. When he lectured at San Jose State College, I went along and chimed in with my new pop enthusiasm. We also did a performance with multiple projectors flashing word slides. These I photographed. At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, we took over their vast rotunda space. There were screens and constructed booths within which personal interviews were held. There were many voice-overs and projected words and phrases culled from what Gerd called "The Verbal American Landscape." This complex, raucous performance was greeted with bewilderment and confusion. The second night, it came very close to creating an audience riot.
Sometime later, at a party, he asked me if I wanted to do a film with him. And I said "sure." But I did insist we spend discussion time to be sure we understood each other's point of view as much as possible before we started. We made the film, and it was an adventure. George Walker, the attorney, backed us and eventually we needed his help with censorship problems. In a Victorian house next to the Stockton Tunnel, I filmed at a six-inch distance a close-up trip upon Judi's body. This, combined with road-striping and several hundred road signs, was eventually edited into a 12-minute, 16 mm black-and-white film called "Y." There were several hundred cuts and Gerd and I collaged/edited it together. The soundtrack, done by Michael Callahan, was orgasmic breathing and the roaring of trucks. Earlier film of pubic hair (and armpit hair) was seized in the lab. George had to threaten legal action to get it back. Out of context we were dead, but we prevailed. It was a moving, nervous film. Amazingly, it won awards and we also eventually showed it commercially in North Beach.
Gerd also stimulated my attitude towards the presentation of events that I put together independently and called performances. These were in Fresno, San Jose, and for the San Francisco Art Institute's "Farewell to the Back Yard." They used multiple projectors, film, slides, tapes, and other diversions--a general audience media assault.
Later, at the San Francisco Arleigh Gallery of Lee Carlson, I was given two backroom galleries. There I made an environment and included my painting, assemblages, and collages. Additionally, all the senses were engaged--smell, uneven flooring, flashing lights, Vietnam machine-gun fire and the collaged music of that time. Interspersed in all of this, Gerd's influence was strong. His earlier participation in an LSD conference in San Francisco, for instance, had found me aggressively handling a spot-light that continually disturbed the audience. I then moved naturally into the assemblage area with a successfully reviewed show called "Things." That exhibit announced for me the firm arrival of my assemblage attitude.
Gerd left San Francisco and took "Y" and what seemed like a group of people on the road, ending up on the East Coast. I've just come across a lost accumulated correspondence from 1964-1965. There are over seventy closely typed pages from his side and I'm amazed by his drive, rushed energy, and clarity as he described ongoing projects and future possibilities. Alas, all my other correspondence with him was destroyed in the Oakland firestorm of 1991. We saw each other on my trips to New York and vice versa. So I was aware of his multi-media development in Woodstock, N.Y., and eventually his move to Cambridge, Mass. My ex-wife Julia Pearl was then Intermedia Systems' art director.
When he came to the West Coast, we would often meet together. I was now married to Ruth. Our exchanges and interests were personal and creatively ongoing. While we were together we seldom saw our original high school friends. In fact, a hostility on the part of a number of my old friends towards him startled me. They refused to respond or to believe in him as a poet. As the years have passed, I have wondered about this and recognized on my part a constant conviction and loyalty. As an artist, I've been strongly influenced by him and respond to Gerd's myriad world of words. For four decades, I've been exploring words and feel confident in using them in my art. It's a natural part of me.
His attitude towards classical poetry and that of his contemporaries' seems to me to be guarded. Broadly, I think, his seeming avoidance of nouns and lyric or narrative sweep makes audiences work hard. He demands people respond, and the beat-beat simplicity is off-putting to many. That, and not publishing traditionally, have delayed the evaluation of his poetry. But for me, there was always a flow of work coming out. His letter-writing voice is poetry. The writing is so multi-level--the pun, joke, duality, over and over. This alertness is his poetry.
My own feeling toward "poetry" has always been cautious, even confused. I knew it existed, read a bit, and as a heavy book reader myself could not avoid considering it. But I've seen that I'm not a natural abstractionist, perhaps more an expressionist with formalist tendencies and most of this in the fantasy world of the mind. At times I do give myself to visual, graphic pictorialization. My ability in this world still shocks me and I tend to avoid it. Perhaps for me the poetic is represented by the lyric.
Now comes a newfound power. Gerd began making things--assembling and collaging occurred. His arrival in San Francisco with new pieces was a great joy. I liked and approved of the direction. One remembers his carpentry skills and his ongoing interest in the contemporary painting world. I thought he was trying to fuse the word and object. It brings a smile to think that we now hang together in Renee di Rosa's collection in Napa.
As I watch the arch of his life from afar, particularly during the USCO days, it seems apparent that a huge part of his medium is people. Gerd's involvement with people is part of his palette. He easily moves from the "I" to the "We"--a natural collaborationist.
He has always seemed to intuit where the action is. His multiple contacts who were often on the leading edge continually surprised. He operated naturally in that area and only occasionally did I get a peek, a taste. These introduced contacts and brief events were always interesting but I never overly pursued them. Gerd's vision is to look out, contact, and then gather people and mold them to make events. Projects were always ongoing. It reveals his great creative gathering strength.
Years ago I asked him if he planned to write a book about his life and I lamented having lost most of his letters in the fire. He said "no." But he is almost doing it in this vast monologue. He once said of my father, the photographer M. I. Boris, that he was the first example of a father that creatively seemed to know what he wanted to do and was doing it. This finding of one's own way seems one of Gerd's quests. He swings through different media. Just to list a few of his project involvements would start to reveal his scope. "Poems in Folio," "Teleportraits," poetry, conferences, tapes, films, electronic systems, object-making, multi-media efforts and recording. They all add up. I used "Billie Master," Gerd's half-hour collage tape of voices made from KPFA's archives, in my experimental classes at the San Francisco Art Institute. All these are bindings of an intricately wrapped collaged figure. And the message is sometimes delivered verbally with ecstatic, messianic, almost rabbinical verve. Gerd's taped history is not only an attempt to document, but also to unwind and clarify what I am convinced is a unique fading historical time span. Perhaps he has verbally written a book!
Let me end here with some personal speculation. He has been a hard worker, a builder, and a wordsmith. His life has been one of elasticity. The word chain is there, binding it all. There is his sense of humor, at times wry, cynical, but most often he sees the comedy. There is a collage pounding sexuality to his life. He has been criticized as an operator, an entrepreneur. Of course money has been a nagging source of concern in his life. It even might be a nemesis to him. The role of women in his life seems a drama world in itself. I appreciate Gerd's putting on tape his analysis of his relationship with his father. There also is a pleasure in hearing Gerd's thumbnail descriptions of well-known public figures. Most often there he is generous, fair and apparently quite accurate. He is also a thoughtful connoisseur of the good life. The section of this oral history on the topic of cheese is a passionate gem!
These remarks--kaleidoscopic in nature--are concerned mainly with our relationship and are mostly without precise dates. I believe that as you listen or read, you will be led through a map of a particular fading time. You will also follow an evolving life that develops slowly into an amazing photo. Here is the portrait of a person involved in recreating and redefining himself as a complex artist. This ground-breaking time in America's cultural history should be recognized for its unique seminal contributions. And Gerd's journey, which is complex, rich, and ambiguous, is certainly not yet over. Sail on Gerd!
Gerd Stern arrived in San Francisco in the late forties just as the Beat scene was emerging here. Shortly after moving to the California Bay Area, he found himself with his new wife, Jane Hamner, living on a barge in Sausalito in the middle of an alternative bohemian culture of poetry and art. There he experienced the spirit of the times set against the backdrop of jazz musicians, weed, all-night parties around bottles of cheap wine, free love, and the birthing of a radical and iconoclastic alternative aesthetic.
By 1953, Stern was publishing his own poetry and was one of the founders of the Boobam Bamboo Drum Company, which produced a musical instrument that resembled the bongo drum. Later, he went on to write for Playboy magazine and, after Jane, was lover and manager of Maya Angelou. By the late sixties, Stern was a counterculture artist producing innovative kinetic art that involved light shows and surround sound, and as a founder of the artistic company USCO, produced the Timothy Leary Psychedelic Theatre. His avant-garde style, which was representative of the late sixties and early seventies psychedelic art, was taken seriously by both Harvard University and the University of California at Santa Cruz where he held lectureships. His artwork drew national attention in both Newsweek and Life magazines.
Stern and colleague Michael Callahan formed Intermedia Systems Corporation, in cooperation with a group from Harvard Business School during the seventies, which produced multimedia art internationally. Stern and Intermedia consulted and produced projects for the Venezuelan government under Presidents Raphael Caldera and Carlos Andres Perez, for the United States Government, as well as for the National Endowment for the Arts and others. As the seventies gave way to a more reserved eighties, Stern gravitated back to New York City where, with his step-brother, he carried on his family's international cheese import business, always maintaining his creation of poetry.
I met Gerd Stern as an interviewee for another ROHO oral history project on the San Franciscan bohemian anarchist artist Shirley Triest. I leaned from that initial interview that Stern had his own historically valuable account of the California counterculture movements of the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and after finding the funding to do so, we set out to document his story. What the reader will find impressive here is Stern's excellent memory of the names of the many people who were involved at the center and along the periphery of late 20th century California social and political history, a cultural history that reverberated throughout the nation.
This work represents a compilation of twenty-one tape recordings of interviews which I recorded in April and July 1996; it was supported by the children of Jane Hamner Buck. The interviewer in this particular interview exerted little influence on the direction of the interview as Stern's intense recollections proceeded without interruption for as long as eight hours at a time. These first interviews occurred in the spring of 1996. Stern returned to the Bay Area that summer and invited his long-time friend and former associate of Intermedia Systems Corp., Michael Callahan, to collaborate on this project. The conversation between the two of them, included here, deals specifically with the early history of multimedia art technology. Also, Stern read some of his published and unpublished poems here, an inclusion which represents a different style of oral history than is standard for the Regional Oral History Office.
The appendix of this volume includes various memorabilia of art shows and other artistic productions.
I was pleased to work with Gerd Stern on this project and have personally benefitted from his intimate connection to and participation in the beat and counterculture waves of bohemianism in the California Bay Area.
The Regional Oral History Office was established in 1954 to augment through tape-recorded memoirs the Library's materials on the history of California and the West. Copies of all interviews are available for research use in The Bancroft Library and in the UCLA Department of Special Collections. The office is under the direction of Willa K. Baum, Division Head, and the administrative direction of Charles B. Faulhaber, James D. Hart Director of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley
A Few Lines by Jak Simpson
the no you said yes to brought yesterday, now the way you made contact, love made now, so wow! so now love will show and the curtain will rise, and the lights will dim low
I 1930s: A New York City Childhood
1. ## This symbol indicates that a tape or tape segment has begun or ended. A guide to the tapes follows the transcript.
I was born on Columbus Day on October 12, 1928, in a place called Saargebiet, which means Saar basin. And it's actually the basin of the river Saar. It's right on the border of Germany and France. In fact, my mother's grave is in a Jewish cemetery in Saarbrücken, which is the name of the town. The gate of the cemetery is now in Germany, and the actual grave is in France, so you can see how borderline a little place it was.
The Saargebiet was the subject of a major controversy between Germany and France for a long time after the first world war, in which my father fought in the German army. It was a protectorate of the League of Nations, and it was the first place that [Adolf] Hitler took over, and he took it by plebiscite, which is a form of election. But it was a totally phony election because he sent in hordes of native Germans who were not citizens of the Saar to vote in the election, and they forced their way in, and he won. So we left.
By that time, my mother had died. She died very suddenly of causes that now would have been treated with penicillin or antibiotics. My grandmother, who was my closest friend, had left for the United States to join her son. My father and my mother's sister and brother were married to each other, which kind of complicated the familial situation. And my uncle--my mother's brother--had emigrated to the United States. He was a doctor, and he lived in the Bronx in New York. He brought to America his mother--my grandmother--whom I missed a lot. About the same time, my father decided to remarry, and I was deposited in Luxembourg with his new mother-in-law. We left the Saar because of all the political upheaval, and we were waiting for visas and permission
Immigration to the U.S.Stern
We arrived in New York on April Fools' Day in 1936, and I was hurried off the ship to the home of my uncle, the doctor, because I was in extreme pain. I didn't even get to see the Statue of Liberty. I wound up having an appendicitis operation my first week in America. My first literary experience in English occurred when one of my nurses read Little Black Sambo to me. She gave me the book when I left the hospital. I remember the tiger [turning to butter] running around the tree. I had been used to German children's stories, which are rather horrible: the kid who won't have his hair cut, the kid who grows his nails and won't cut them, the Suppen Caspar; I mean, they were all punitive, exemplary, disciplinary tales. Grimm is grim, right?
Very Grimm. [laughter]
So we arrived, and first we settled in the Bronx, and then eventually we moved to Washington Heights, which was later referred to as Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson. It was a neighborhood for refugee German Jews.
Family Cheese BusinessByerly
This is in New York City?
Yes, upper Manhattan. And my father continued the family tradition in the cheese importing business. He had taken over my mother's father's--my grandfather's--business in the Saar after my grandfather had died some years before. My father had been in a different business but he took over the business and rescued it, and then transported some of the representations to the United States. Those connections became dormant because of the war, but he became one of the first importers of cheese from Denmark, Holland, and Switzerland into the United States. Switzerland was his major importation at that time.
I went to New York City public schools, then on to high school. During all those years I had an extremely difficult time with my stepmother--understandable later, but not at the time by a small boy. I was probably not a very nice child. I wore thick glasses, and I was dressed in a European fashion, which was always a problem to me because the other kids wore knickers while I was wearing shorts. I was an object of derision. And when they wore long pants, I had graduated to knickers. [chuckles]
Father and Stepmother's ParentingStern
My father was a strong disciplinarian. I was shuttled back and forth between my grandmother and her son the doctor and my aunt--my father's youngest sister--they were the two youngest of ten. My stepmother and I didn't get along at all. My father took a strong hand, and I was always encouraged by my aunt and my uncle to spill all the beans of my horror stories, and of course that didn't help anything. In fact, they were a negative influence. Although it was in the guise of being my confidants and friends, my "rebellions" emanated from those circumstances.
I was an avid reader; I started going to the local library very early when people didn't even think I could read the books that I borrowed. I struck up a friendship with the librarian, and she allowed me to take out books which were beyond a child's permission: The Three Musketeers, Victor Hugo, [Leo] Tolstoy, [Fyodor] Dostoevsky, I read quite early.
I was somewhat an enforced loner. Eventually, before I left public school, I found a couple of other outcast members of the class, and we spent a lot of time together. My weekends were always in the Bronx with my uncle and aunt, and with my cousin who was a little younger than me. He and I were very close, but then he was somewhat manipulative, and I was somewhat naïve. Anyway, about the time I was at the Bronx High School of Science I became involved--through my English teacher, Dr. Gordon--at the Museum of Natural History in New York where her brother, Dr. Myron Gordon, was a research ichthyologist. In the meantime, I had become very enamored of tropical fish, and although my father wouldn't allow much of an involvement at home, I had friends who bred them and who collected them and whose parents were much more supportive. So I joined the Aquarium Club at school and at the Museum of Natural History.
Somehow through that connection I met people in the Astronomy Club at the Hayden Planetarium which was in the museum,
We spent gobs and gobs of time together, and I started ignoring my studies at Bronx Science. Eventually, in order to get finished with high school in a hurry, I transferred to a much easier school where my Bronx Science credits helped me, and I was able to get out early. Now, that wasn't really early because I had started late in public school due to my arrival in the U.S. at the age of seven. I was a year behind. Of course, I didn't know English the first couple of years too well, although I wound up being one of the more literate students by the time I left that school.
I wasn't quite sure what my connection was to all this creative ferment among my new friends, and I was having more and more trouble at home because I would stay out what now would not be considered late, but at the time, I would stay out late, which meant after six o'clock. When my nineteen-year-old gets home at three in the morning, I think that's normal. [laughter] Anyway, six o'clock; that was difficult.
College and Leaving HomeStern
I was also working. My father took me down to the local grocer when I was about nine, and I started lugging packages for a nickel a shtikel, five cents per delivery. Later, I worked as a temporary at the post office. I did that for some time; it paid much better than anything else in those days. It was hard work, but it was fairly easy to do, and the people were nice to work with--most of them.
Anyway, I left home when my stepbrother was born. There was a lot of excitement around that, and I just kind of slipped out. With my earnings from the post office, I rented a furnished room just a few blocks away but in a poorer neighborhood than where my parents lived. My leaving was accepted because the apartment was too small for all of us anyway, and I had been sleeping out in the hall, which was not something I enjoyed as a teenager. I had a half-sister and now a baby half-brother.
How old were you?
Probably sixteen, seventeen. That was much younger those days than it is now. I don't have a good idea of timeline and I don't remember the years. I couldn't tell you what year I graduated high school or exactly when all this went on.
But my next step was I needed to get a better job. I started my freshman year at the City College of New York, although I wanted to go to Cornell and study zoology, particularly ichthyology.
Anyway, I didn't like CCNY; I couldn't stand it. On the day that my English instructor asked us to write a composition on "Our Summer Vacation," I decided to leave. I mean, I had already been through all that, and that wasn't what I thought the university was going to be like. And the other thing was the buildings at CCNY were connected by underground passages; I felt like I was in a totally Kafkaesque environment, having recently read [Franz] Kafka--it had quite a powerful influence on me.
Anyhow, CCNY was not a long period; it was a few weeks. I then somehow gravitated downtown toward Greenwich Village, and I got a job through the newspaper classifieds at a place called Almay Cosmetics, which, I believe, still exists. At that time, it was owned by a liquor company, Schiefflin. They called me an assistant chemist, and I was in charge of this little ball mill by which I ground up various things to make custom anti-allergic cosmetics.
The East Village and New FriendsStern
The important part of that story is that it brought me downtown to what's now the East Village (although it was at that time not considered the Village, but very close--just a few blocks away). And I wandered around with some of my friends from Music and Art whom I had met through Elsie Peterson, the young woman I had met at the museum and who kind of got me into the whole music and art crowd. She was working for a jeweler, Henry Lobell, in the Village by that time. I visited her there, and I went to this pottery shop next door and met a guy who was working there, Stanley Gould, and he introduced me to some people. Before I knew it, I was sharing an apartment with somebody who turned out to be a junkie, but I didn't know a junkie from a hole in the ground, I was so naïve back then.
It was really a very intense period; the energy of my youth and the dive into a world so different from the world I had grown up in. My first apartment in the Village was with a guy named Dick Winard, whose real name was Winanski, and he was a junkie. We were basically sleeping in the same bed. And I didn't understand what he was up to. He was taking injections, but I thought maybe he had an illness. [laughter] That just gives you an idea of where my head was at.
And the second night I was there, all of a sudden there was a woman in bed with us. She said her name was Rose Gorgeous. This was really before I had had any sexual experience. I didn't get involved with them, but that was unexpected. I wasn't horrified or terrified then; but I was later when I finally understood what was going on with the drug-taking. There were policemen, and when there were not enough drugs there were physical symptoms of trying to kick the habit. This was a few weeks now, this wasn't months. Around that time, I had my first smoke of marijuana from a guy named Jimmy the Greek. I remember I also went to the party of a guy who was a translator at the United Nations, and he was gay, and I didn't understand what that was all about.
In the meantime, I had moved to the east side, near the Bowery, to a little apartment on Stanton Street. And I was still involved with people from Music and Art, and one of the painters had fallen in love with me. She insisted that we had to go to bed together; that was my first experience, in my apartment, this little bedroom which I had painted dark brown. Not exactly an illuminating color. [chuckles] I later added one wall in orange. It's not a palette that I have any love for. Anyway, here I was living near the Bowery among bums, and my father came down, and you can imagine the explosion.
Right next to me, on Stanton Street, right off the Bowery, was a family named the Sauers. Augie and Hattie Sauer took an interest in me. He was in the window display business and the building of exhibits and floats, and, eventually, hired me as an assistant. He was in charge of the May Day parade for the radical unions. [begins singing] "The Furmakers Union is a very fine union." And we built these floats of Bilbo and Rankin; they were two federal legislators who were the bane of the liberal and radical establishments at the time. They were horrible, gross, huge, three-dimensional caricatures which opened their mouths and tipped their hats. Those were a lot of fun to work on; I had never done anything with my hands. I remember one time when I changed the electric plug on a lamp in the house, my father took it down to the local hardware store to have them redo it because he didn't think that any son of his could handle anything like
I couldn't get the support from my father to go to Cornell Agriculture, I didn't get a scholarship, and I was somewhat depressed about that until I discovered that poetry was my call. In a sense, throughout my life, I had a strange feeling about not having gone to a university, which was balanced out later on when I became an associate in education at Harvard, and I taught at [UC] Santa Cruz. People are always wondering how, without a college education, I got into that, but we'll go into it later.
Ellis Kramer, the gentleman whom I referred to as a translator at the United Nations, lived in the Village. I met him at a cafeteria where everyone hung out and where Jimmy the Greek sold toothpicks of pot, which had precious little dope in them, [laughter] but we managed to enjoy them. And he--the translator--invited me to a party at his house. I stayed overnight. I remember I was in his bed with him, and he tried to make an approach to me, and I just didn't understand, so I rejected him.
The next night at the party, I met Elaine Goldman who basically dragged me back to her apartment and raped me. [chuckles] And I lived with her for months. Elaine came from Boston. She was working in a publishing company. She wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do. She later married another poet, and I lost track of them.
Now somewhere during that time in the Village, I met a group of people who were around a man named Michael Fraenkel, the author of a book called Bastard Death. He also had a series of correspondences which were in several published volumes with Henry Miller. Through that group I met Michael and Henry. That became the connection to Israel.
Jewish Background and EducationStern
My Jewish background is rather odd because my father, like so many German Jews, was not a religious Jew. Although he had grown up in a religious setting, not in this family necessarily, but in the community, and gone to a Jewish school, which--characteristic of Germany at that time--had a Catholic priest who was a Hebrew scholar as principal. My family only went to synagogue on high holidays. But I went to Hebrew school, and I was Bar Mitzvahed. And that was about it. And I was taught rote Hebrew; I was not taught the meanings of anything, and when I did my Bar Mitzvah, my teacher was very happy because I had learned the cantillations perfectly and gave a great performance--but without meaning.
Bookstores and Village AuthorsStern
Then when the whole political situation in Israel surfaced, one of Michael's followers, Harry Hershkowitz, who was the editor of Death magazine--they had poison rings to keep them conscious of death at all times--well, Harry was the one who introduced me to this whole circle of people who were raising money to buy the boat, which was an ancient freighter. I met, through Harry, the leader of this group, Nick Kisburg. He and his family lived in the Village. All these people became very critical to my life; we spent a lot of time together, we ate together, we drank cheap wine together, we got high together, we listened to music and went to art exhibits. They took my poetry seriously, and I took their work seriously. When I decided to go to California, it was kind of a break in sequence. I had become somewhat isolated in any case because of the relationship with Elaine; before that I had been really circulating all the time in a fairly nervous manner. I was heavily into jazz, also.
Friends in the literary scene, through another involvement with the Four Seasons Bookshop which was owned by a lady named Toshka Goldman, was the Partisan Review crowd that hung around there. This crowd included Delmore Schwartz and Lionel Trilling and a lot of highly intellectual literary types. I worked next door to the Four Seasons in a place called the Jabberwocky Shop where we made lamps out of vases and bottles and anything that anybody brought in. There was pottery and jewelry and really craftsy stuff. It was run by a sculptor named David Raucher. He was crippled, and he was bearded, and he always wore a beret. A real Village character. Having the Four Seasons next door, I
Black Mountain College and PoetryStern
We had interesting customers. I remember delivering a set of lamps to Eleanor Roosevelt and her giving me cookies and tea. She lived in the Village on Washington Square. But among the people I met through the bookstore and Ginny Miller, Paul Goodman's first wife, was Isaac Rosenfeld. Isaac was a literary guru of that time, and he was very kind to me. He had an academic bent, and he really felt that my lack of formal education would be a problem to me in the future. Yet he understood my radical kind of leanings. He had taught during the summer at Black Mountain College, and he persuaded them to give me an interview for a scholarship. I hitchhiked down there at his behest, and I loved it. It was really the perfect place. There was this idyllic oasis in the mountains with a lake and modern studio building--something paradisiacal.
M.C. Richards, who was teaching poetry there at the time, was exactly who I wanted to study with. And they gave me a scholarship! Wow! I hitchhiked back down and I arrived there in the middle of absolute chaos. The management or the administration and the teachers were all fighting with each other on philosophical and financial grounds. M.C.'s husband at the time was Bill Levy, the dean, and he left, taking M.C. with him. I was desolate because the guy who then took charge of the school was Hans Albers, a painter. Albers was out of the same mold as my father: the Germanic disciplinarian. I couldn't take it, so I split. Probably a major piece of misthinking on my part, but I was young and carefree.
I met a lot of interesting people in the two weeks that I was down there who later on became influential in my life: M.C., John Cage, the Williams--Paul and Vera--on and on.
II Late 1940s: California and the West Coast Alternative
Elaine Goldman and San FranciscoStern
Eventually, I met Elaine Goldman, and I moved in with her. She had gone to UC [University of California] Berkeley, and some time later her roommate--a woman whom she had an affair with during her time at UC--came to visit, and Elaine was the one who persuaded me that I was a poet. "Bard" [Barbara] Norville, who was the friend who came to stay, and Elaine decided that I really should be going to UC, and Bard invited me to stay with her and her husband when I got to San Francisco. I persuaded my father to give me air fare, which at that time was very low, and I got on this plane that landed four or five times before it got to California because that was how things were in those days.
My father had agreed to send me twenty dollars a week, which he reneged on because of another tale. I was followed out to the west coast by a young lady whom I had gotten involved with at summer camp where I was a garden and nature counselor. My father and her father got together, because she had told her father we were going to get married. We never had even talked about marriage, but my father was very upset so he didn't send me any more money. So I was kind of at a loss in San Francisco.
Poetry and California LifeStern
In the meantime, mostly because of Elaine's encouragement, I had accepted my role as a poet, and I was writing poetry. At first blush, I was totally innocent, and I was starting to read poets through people I met and who had libraries. Soon after I arrived in California I went to a poetry reading at the San Francisco Museum of Art which is now in a different building than it was then. I met Bill Everson, who later became Brother Antoninus. I
Big Sur and Jaime D'AnguloStern
I arrived in California, and I stayed with Bard and Mac [George McCarthy, Jr.]. They [Bard and Mac] were breaking up at the time. Mac left to get a divorce, and he went up to Virginia City, Nevada, in his 1928 Model A Ford with a rumble seat.
I'm skipping a lot of stuff because--there was the poetry reading--actually, that wasn't the first day. The first day they picked me up in the Model A, and they took me down to Big Sur, to Partington Ridge, where we stayed with one of their good, close friends, Jaime D'Angulo. And Jaime and I, through later years, became very close, and actually I was the one who got his Indian Tales published through Carl Solomon, who was working for his uncle A.A. Wynn at Ace Books and I was their west coast rep. It was very informal.
Quite an experience for a New York boy. They pick me up at the airport and it was the weekend, so we're heading for Big Sur. I'm sitting in the rumble seat coming down the California coast, and we're going to the ranch. You can imagine what a New York refugee thought a ranch was going to be like after having seen "Abbott and Costello in the West" or Bob Hope or Shirley Temple movies. Anyway, first we stopped at an auto wrecking yard just before Monterey in Seaside. And there's this character right out of John Steinbeck who runs the yard and then there's this big guy who's a fishing boat engineer called Sandy Justice. There's mucho alcohol. I ride with Sandy to the ranch in a dump truck, and then we go up this winding, dirt road, and it's late at night, and we go up the mountain and go over the edge. We have to shovel, and it's madness, and I think it was about six o'clock in the morning, and at dawn we wind up on the top of the ridge and here's Jaime de Angulo dressed in basically nothing and with hair coming down to his whatever, and his beard, and he's burnt by the sun, and he's obviously drunk. And he looks at me and he says, "Shalom!" [laughter] I'm with Bard and her husband, whom I've just met, and a drunken Sandy--I had never been driven anywhere by somebody who was drunk. Then Jaime recognizes my accent and says, "You must have come from somewhere in Germany near the French border, but you've grown up probably in New York City; not in Brooklyn, for sure--." [laughter] Then we go into his house, and he has a fireplace in the middle of the room, and he's made a big hole in his roof for the smoke to go out of. I'm sleeping on basically a
Jane and Wally HillStern
Jane lived right across the alley on Telegraph Hill from Bard, so that's where I met Jane and her husband Wally [Hill], and I believe at the time--I can't remember whether their third daughter had been born by then or not. But there were definitely two little girls and maybe three little girls. They very soon thereafter moved over to the Berkeley Flats. But at that time they were on Telegraph Hill.
Anyway, they invited me for dinner, and I regaled them with tales, none of which were true, about my supposed political experiences. I had been involved with the Sternist movement to send a boat to Israel, which was principally financed by Ben Hecht and Harpo Marx. My involvement with that had been peripheral, but I blew it out of proportion into some romantic tale worthy of a third-rate movie, [laughter] and they believed me.
Jane was fascinated. But Jane was a person who at that time was ready to change her life already and had been involved with a lot of other people--
Developing a Poetic Style
In the meantime, I had been writing poems. I think I started out in a very abstract manner language-wise, and I've never departed from it. It's a style which has never somehow been conjunctive to any of the other movements or schisms or literary coteries. It's isolated me, which is still true. And I don't understand in the least how I developed this particular verbal style; I imagine it must have its roots maybe in the fact that I started out being a German speaker and translated then to English. The relationships that I've had in the literary and artistic world have all been kind of social and intellectual rather than connections between my work and the work of other people.
Virginia City MinesStern
I started looking for a job. At that time, if you were resident in California for six months you could go to UC free of charge. That was my plan but I got waylaid. I was living with Bard after Mac left. I didn't have any money, and I didn't know what was going to happen. I was kind of looking for a job, and I couldn't find one, and Mac called up from Virginia City, Nevada and said, "Hey, Gerd, why don't you come up here? This is great up here. I'm working in a gold and silver mine; you can work here too."
So I hitchhiked up to Virginia City, Nevada, and I worked in the gold and silver mines for Consolidated Chollar, Gould, and Savage [Conchollar]. And that was [laughter] quite an experience.
In Virginia City, it was incredible how much snow there was. It was the blizzard of '48. The blizzard was so bad that you couldn't drive. I had just learned how to drive, although I didn't have a license yet. I had learned to drive in Mac's 1928 Model A Ford. We went down the grade to Reno and had a good time. Mac liked to gamble. He was from Charlotte, North Carolina. Anyway, we were renting a house for ten bucks a month, a former whorehouse in Virginia City. It had a lot of bedrooms. [chuckle] It was a great old house.
There was practically nobody in Virginia City in those days. It was like a ghost town. There were about ten saloons. It was before it become gentrified and before Lucius Beebe and those people who I later knew in San Francisco moved up there. We worked on the other side from Reno in a little place called Gold Hill at the Consolidated Chollar, Gould, and Savage Mining Company. Actually, first Mac worked at another little mine--at Conchollar. I didn't work in the mine, I worked in the refinery.
There was no water: we had to get water from a truck that came up once a week. Finally, Mac had had it; he was working in a smaller mine which shut down. It was bizarre. We went to dinner one night at his boss' house, and he and his wife had rigged up a chair for their German shepherd--a huge, huge dog called Sonny--and he ate at the table. And they treated him just like their son. At the mine, the dog could carry a four-foot piece of two-by-four in its mouth. It was a big, big dog.
This was a small old mine, and it was quite an experience--you went down in a bucket. I don't mean an elevator, I mean a bucket. It was the same bucket that came back up later with the ore. You went down and then along these little sideways shafts, and you had a little carbide lamp on your head, and you spent the
My job in the refinery was the crusher man's assistant. I was called "Whiskers." This was somewhere between a Charlie Chaplin movie where he gets caught on the little cogwheels, and a nightmare. It was an enormous refinery, and you couldn't see for more than a few feet because the air was full of dust; clouds of dust. All the people who worked there had silicosis. They used to compare the size of the spots on their lungs on their x-rays, and when there was a certain amount of square inches then they had to stop working.
The trucks would bring this ore with a lot of big rocks, and they would dump them on what's called the grizzle. The grizzle was a bunch of metal railroad rails laid a certain width apart. If the rocks were too big they would take a charge of dynamite called "salami" because it was shaped like a big roll of salami, and they would place it on the rocks and blow them up until they would fall through the grizzle. When they fell through the grizzle, they fell into our crusher, which was these two huge jaws that went [makes crushing noises], and they crushed the rock into slightly smaller sizes. Once in a while, at least four or five times a day, a rock would get caught in the jaws just right so that the jaws couldn't close. There was a metal bar over this crusher, and the way you handle the situation, as Ike demonstrated to me--Ike was the crusher man and my boss--the first day I worked with him it was you would grab on to this bar, jump into the crusher and try to move the rock with your boots. [chuckle] You push on these big rocks until they adjusted themselves. The crusher would go boom, boom, and as soon as you adjusted it you had better get your damn feet out of the way because otherwise it would crush you too.
They had tales of losing people. Actually, we lost one guy while I was working there. You had to clean out these many story-high tanks, and they were full of fine ore, and if you slip when you were in there, you could really get hurt even though you had a safety belt on. When we had to change parts on the fine crushers,
Then one day it was really cold; we were working in a completely unheated environment in the dead of winter. Each little work station had a fifty-five gallon drum which served as a stove. We would throw scraps of wood into it and sit around it for lunch. One day, we were sitting around--three or four guys--and we were talking about religion and going to church. They looked at me and said, "What religion are you, Whiskers?" I said, "I'm Jewish." They laughed like hell. I was offended and I said, "Hey, what's so funny about that?" They said, "Oh. You weren't kidding?" [laughter] They had never met a Jew. It was okay. I just didn't understand. It was quite an experience. Turned out they had also never met a black person.
Anyway, it got so cold, we had no water, and Mac had lost his job, so he decided he didn't want to come work for Con Chollar. Mac wanted to drive to his home in Charlotte, North Carolina. The problem was getting out of Virginia City; all the roads were blocked. We decided not to drive to Reno or through Carson City, but to go down the middle of the canyon. The Model A was so light that it could run on top of the snow. The problem was if you ever got stopped, it was hard to start again because the wheels would sink into the snow. So we had shovels and everything. Within half an hour of leaving, we got stuck behind a bunch of cows that were running down the canyon. There was nothing for them to eat. Around there there was a lot of cattle left in the fields to graze. Fortunately, the cattle had tromped down the snow so we were able to get started. We had lots of experiences. We had two cocker spaniel puppies in the rumble seat that we had acquired somehow in Virginia City. At one point--I mean, it was the big blizzard, and the Joshua trees were covered with snow. Later, when we were on Highway 66, we were out of the snow, but everything was wet where the snow had melted. There were these signs that read "Dip". I was driving, and I had never seen a "Dip" sign, so I didn't know what it was. Well, we got into this dip, and there was like about two feet of water in it. So here is the Model A Ford stuck in the middle of this dip.
Mac gets out to take the distributor apart and dry out the points and the spark plugs. He was mechanically oriented. He taught me a lot. However, he put the distributor cap on one part of the engine, and when this truck came running through the dip
We finally got to Charlotte, and we stayed at his parents' house. His father owned a chemical plant of some kind. His parents were really southern types. I had been to Black Mountain, but Black Mountain was really not the South. Charlotte, North Carolina, is the south. It's different. His father had just been to Cuba and had brought back a case of banana liquor which Mac proceeded to drink. We were on the way to have dinner with two gay friends of his; one of them was a veterinarian. I hadn't met them, but on the way there Mac ran into the back of a Greyhound bus, and he smashed our Model A Ford, never to be seen again. I got cut right here on my chin; there's still kind of a scar there. The veterinarian lived in a trailer, and they had prepared this really wonderful meal for us. But first, the veterinarian sewed up my little cut.
Back to New YorkStern
Anyway, now we were without a car. We were on the way to New York, and Mac's father was really upset with his son's drunkenness and his weird Jewish friend from New York with a beard, etcetera. Still, he bought us a burnt-out Willys. A Willys was practically like a Volkswagen bug but a little bigger. It had had an interior fire, and it was all black, but it drove fine.
We went up to New York, and Mac only stayed a couple of days. He couldn't take the city. So I wound up with this car, and I was living in it on the streets of New York.
There was a bar at that time that we all went to--the San Remo on Bleeker and MacDougal streets--and who should show up at the San Remo a few days later but John Hoffman, a poet from San Francisco whom I had met there with Philip Lamantia at a bar right across the street--12 Adler Place--from the City Lights. Anyway, the bouncer, Trent, was a guy I had known in New York through Fran Deitch.
So I'm in New York, and the two of us are living in the car. For about two weeks, this folk singer lent us his apartment. We didn't have anything to eat, and there were about twenty-five pounds of oatmeal, and there were a bunch of spices. So we had a lot of oatmeal with curry powder and with oregano and with everything else--even soy sauce. When he came back he was very angry that we had eaten up his oatmeal so he threw us out. And there we were back in the car again.
We decided to go to P'town [Provincetown, Massachusetts]. In New York, they used to deliver bagels about five o'clock in the morning. They would leave them in front of the storefronts, and they would also leave milk. We would kind of cruise around and pick one bagel and one quart of milk from one store and another bagel and a quart from another--it worked pretty good; we never got caught, and that's how we had bagels and milk. We got up to Provincetown, and we barely had enough money for gas. We were sleeping in the dunes, and we didn't have anything to eat there either. We decided to go into Provincetown and try the same trick. Well, we picked up a few things outside of a store, and all of a sudden we see this truck driver coming after us. He was parked down the street, and he obviously saw us take the stuff which he had just delivered. We got in the car, and we sped down the highway away from Provincetown. We could see behind us this big truck chasing us, and we were scared, really scared. Finally, we turned into a sand road--the side roads are all sand--and we get stuck in the sand. The truck just keeps on going. [chuckle] We were relieved, but it took us a couple of hours to dig out.
We finally drove to Providence, Rhode Island, and on the way back to New York we didn't have enough money for gas. So I called the local rabbi. That was a stupid idea. He just told me to get lost. I finally had to call my father, and he Western Unioned us some money. But he was angry. He was very angry, and he said, "You better come and see me as soon as you get back in New York."
III 1950s: Poetry and the Beat Aesthetic
In the Psychiatric Institute: Carl Solomon and Allen GinsbergStern
So I came and saw him, and he dragged me to my uncle the doctor. My uncle supposedly discovered I had some kind of a problem with my kidneys. They put me into the hospital. After the hospital, they made me go see a psychiatrist who was a friend of my uncle. The psychiatrist says to me, "Look, I can't help you because your father can't afford to pay me, and besides, I think what's wrong with you is that you're malnourished, you don't have a place to live, you're wearing dirty clothes, etcetera. I've got an idea; listen to me carefully, and I never told you this. There's a place called the Psychiatric Institute at the Presbyterian Hospital. You call them up; here's the number. You tell them that you are a young poet and that you just tried to commit suicide and that you need help. They're looking for interesting people."
So I do it. I get an appointment, and they ask me, "What happened?" So I said I'm driving my burnt-out Willys down the Henry Hudson Parkway, and I have this terrible impulse to drive over the railing and into the Hudson River--which was totally untrue. They accept me; now I'm in this ward with a bunch of really funny people. Nobody violent, but interesting. And I'm getting fed three times a day, and I have a doctor who sees me twice a week--a Doctor Hambidge, one smart guy, and, over time, he listened to me, and finally told me, "Look. This is not difficult at all; this is very simple. You've gotta decide whether you're going to live your life or you're going to live the life that your father wants you to live. You can't manage both of them; they are not compatible. You're not going to make your father happy if you decide to do what you want to do, and I don't know if you can be happy doing what your father wants you to do. I can't help you any further than that." It was amazing. At the time I think it would not have been seen as a psychiatric solution; I mean, that was still a very Freudian period.
Anyway, at the same time, one day there walks into the ward a guy dressed in a dark blue shirt and dark blue trousers and blue suede shoes with huge stacks of books under both arms. He looks around kind of dazed, he's got this wild hair, and he's got a big face and big glasses. So I walk up to him, being a new patient, you know, and I say, "Hello, my name is Gerd Stern." And he drops all his books on the floor, and he sticks out his hand, and he says, "Define your terms!" That was Carl Solomon.
Carl had gotten into the Psychiatric Institute because, at a lecture by a proto-anarchist named Wallace Markfield at NYU [New York University], he had gotten up and thrown potato salad into Markfield's face. [chuckle] Carl was bizarre. He and I had a great time for a while. He had just come back as a merchant seaman from Paris. There he had acquired a lot of really fascinating books. He had Jean Genêt, whom I had never heard of. I had read [Marcel] Proust, [André] Gide, and I was fascinated by Gide's journals particularly, because, in a sense, they persuaded me that it was possible to be self-conscious, and that was like a positive practice, and somehow I think I had grown up thinking that was a negative practice being self-conscious. But Genêt and Celine were something else entirely.
Carl and I were there together for some time, then one day Allen Ginsberg showed up. Now there we were, three weirdos out of the literary world. Carl had Christopher Smart--that was a great little library that he had brought with him--and [Louis-Ferdinand] Céline. The problem was that at P.I. they thought Carl was really, totally crazy, insane; they gave him first insulin shock and then electric shock, which took him pretty far out of it.
Allen came because he had been acting weird at Columbia [University]. Mark Van Doren and Trilling and all those people decided--there was some kind of problem--I can't remember what happened. I think there was a trial of some sort involved, too. Anyway, we wound up at P.I. together and we had a number of adventures. We drove one of the aides crazy. One of the aides had to be taken away in a straightjacket!
Carl was very mischievous. We used to play ping-pong with this aide, and if he was losing, we always changed the score to where he was winning. When he was winning, we changed it so that he was losing. He wasn't very balanced; I mean, we were patients, you know? He should have understood, but he never did. [chuckle] What finally drove him over the brink--it was Easter, and they had put these papier-mâché bunnies up on the tables where we ate. Carl went into the bathroom and masturbated into the inside of this rabbit, and then put it back on the table and it drooled out this little pool of cum. The aide came and said, "What is that?"
Later on, I was at the San Remo with Carl, and a blind man came in and asked the way to the men's room. Carl took him, and when he came back to the bar, I said, "Carl, that was really unlike you." He said, "No, it wasn't; I took him to the ladies' room." [laughter]
So there we were. We misbehaved badly and consciously. We were in an asylum, and we acted out, and of course they think we were crazy. Anyway, eventually, I got out for the weekends because nobody thought that I was dangerous. But Carl and Allen couldn't get out for the weekends because they were under observation. Carl was having shock and Allen supposedly had violent episodes. So they asked me if I would bring some grass in when I came back. I did, and then they turned me in to the authorities. They were acting out--Genêt did that with his confederates--and they felt that was something they wanted to experience. Of course, both Allen and Carl were gay, and I was not. Anyway, I was ready to leave by that time.
John Hoffman and the Norwegian M.S. BowhillStern
John Hoffman was still in New York, and he and I wanted a change of scene. So we decided we were going to go to sea. Actually, I think I got inspired for that by what Carl had told me about his time as a merchant seaman. We couldn't get American seaman's papers; it was really a catch-22 at that time. We would go to the union, we would ask for union papers, and they would say, "Well, you have to get a job first." You'd go to a shipping company, and they would say, "We can't hire anybody who's not union." They would send you back and forth, and it was hopeless.
We heard that there was a hiring hall for Scandinavian seamen in Brooklyn. We finally found the address, and we went there, and they hired us on the spot. We left later that day on the M.S. Bowhill from Bergen [Norway]--a Norwegian ship--for South America.
We had two jobs that were offered to us: one was galley boy, and the other was the officers' mess boy. John was a space cadet, I mean, before the term was invented. He was blond, tall, and very skinny, and he came from the peninsula south of San Francisco. He was really good-looking, but he had this vacant kind of look in his eyes. And he was a really good poet. So he
Finally, we got to Rio [de Janeiro, Brazil], and John had to clean the cabins. Part of his job was cleaning the cabins. He had devised this method of cleaning the cabins by taking a pail of soapy water and throwing it on the floor, and he would lay on the officer's bunk and read with the door locked until the motion of the sea had drained all the water, then run the mop a little over the deck and leave a couple of soapy streaks. The officers expected him to scrub the cabin deck on his hands and knees every day.
So we get into port and we get leave off the ship, and John thinks he's a smart guy, and he goes through each of the cabins and throws a bucket of water on the floor and then closes up the cabins. Of course, the ship was laying at the dock, and it wasn't moving [laughter] so the officers all found water on the floors in their cabins. Then they understood what had been happening. It didn't go over too well.
I had a good time in the galley. I got to peel potatoes and wash pots, and I got to drink a lot of beer because the cook was a twenty-one-year-old Dane. He was fantastic. Seamen are very particular because food is about the only thing that they really get. They don't get paid very much, and it's hard work. He was fabulous; he was one of those people who could cut a turkey, slice the whole thing and then put it back together, and you wouldn't see that it had been cut up. So I had a good life; I ate well, I drank well, and the work wasn't that bad. John had it worse.
We had taken all kinds of books of poetry, and one of the books we took was a surrealist work Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont who happened to be born in Montevideo [Uruguay], which was one of the ports that we were going to. It was a coincidence that John happened to have the book. We felt that it was very poignant. So we read the poems to each other. We would lie out on the hatch under the moonlight. It was a good trip.
Poetry and Trouble in Brazil
In Rio, we were looking for suspicious-looking characters, and we would go up to them and say, "Marijuana?" One of them started screaming and yelling, "Calaboso, Calaboso" which means "jail". We ran down the street fast, because he was calling for the police to grab us. We never did manage to score.
I nearly got killed in Santos [Brazil], which is a heavy-duty Brazilian port--we got into the nightclub and bar scene. I wound up spending a few nights with a little seventeen-year-old girl, Huda, who was quite precious. We went to Argentina, to Uruguay, and when we came back, we went to the bar again, and she wasn't there. There were some other young girls that were having some drinks with us. I was very friendly with an Australian who was an engineer on board--and John had done something wrong, I remember, and they didn't give him leave that time--but the original girl came, and she and the new one that was sitting at the table got into a big fight clawing each other up, and before you knew it the whole bar was fighting. Somebody hit me on the head with a bottle, and the Australian dragged me out and got me back to the ship. Two days later I came down with gonorrhea, and the first mate had heard about this whole ruckus and he was very stern and so Scandinavian that he could barely speak English. "See what that kind of behavior does to you?" And he takes this syringe like it was a knife, and he sticks it into my rump. [chuckle] I got cured very fast anyway, so that wasn't too bad.
John and I were writing poetry like mad on that trip. I don't know whatever happened to a lot of it. I have a lot of his poems; in fact, the famous reading--you remember at the Beat Conference they were saying who had read, and they said Philip read that night but he didn't read his poems.
That was John's poems that he read that night. John, by that time, died very, very young. He was found on the beach at Zihuatanejo in Mexico dead. What probably happened is he had an overdose and lay down to sleep in the sun, and the drug and the sun killed him.
He was an abuser, you know? The abusive personalities are so different--I've always enjoyed and appreciated getting high. I've been smoking grass ever since I was seventeen years old. I can still get high on two or three tokes. I don't need to smoke any more than that. I've never been into hard drugs; I've done a lot of acid and peyote, but not for many years, and I don't need
John and I got back from South America, and, ever since I had my appendicitis operation, I had a hernia which kind of popped out. The Europeans had very different ways of treating things; all through my childhood I wore this belt which had a thing on it to keep the hernia in place. Ridiculous. It was terrible--I mean, when you're in gym and had to wear a thing like that. So I decided since now I had the protection of the Veterans Administration because--even as a foreign seaman, if you have an American passport you qualified--so I went to the V.A. Hospital to have my hernia fixed. But it was another Kafkaesque institution, and I couldn't hack it so I managed to get my clothes and spirit myself out of there after two days. There were all these old men with really serious diseases. I was on this big ward--whew--it was not conducive. So it was years before I finally got that condition operated on.
Hitchhiking to CaliforniaStern
I was living with my friends the Kisburgs, and I got this letter from California, from Jane. It was very enticing. As you have noted, she wrote well. It was like a clear invitation of some sort. I didn't know what it was, but I responded. I got on the road, and hitchhiked out to California. By that time, they were living in Berkeley, on the flats. Wally, her husband, was a sheet metal worker. I wouldn't say he was conservative, but he was a working man; he worked every day, and he had a working-class life, and he was satisfied with it. But she wanted more, more, more, more, more, and more. So she was always extending herself out of that family life in many directions.
Hitchhiking with Jane to New YorkStern
When I came to stay with them--she was a big potsmoker, too--after a day or so, we immediately fell into bed. She wanted to know what I wanted to do, and I didn't have any idea what I wanted to do. I mean, I was just hanging out and scuffling my way through life. I had come out there basically because I received a letter, and because I had liked California the first time. Within days
Off we go, and first we went to stay with some of her friends near Los Gatos on a mountain near a town (Alma) which is now at the bottom of a reservoir--Jack and Shirley Shore. He was a jazz musician, and Shirley was a singer. I think they only had one child at the time.
Jack was a pacifist. We had mutual friends like Paul Goodman and Bill Everson and so forth. But Jack was violent; pacifism is often one face of people who have very intense emotions. It was true of Frank Triest; he was a pacifist, but he also had these violent tendencies, right? I saw Jack Shore the pacifist, who had been a conscientious objector both in jail and camps, tear a telephone out of the wall and throw it at his wife. It kind of upset me. It kept on happening in my life--I mean, Lew Hill, who was not only a conscientious objector but who started KPFA and with whom I worked closely, committed suicide. Self-violence. A very odd kind of matching emotions.
So we visited Jack and his wife for a few days, and this was all really bohemian, a lot of pot, poetry, music and having a great time.
Then we hitchhiked up to Eureka [California], where Jane came from. I met her mother. I met her father, which was not a very nice experience. Later in life, he used to refer to me as his refugee kike son-in-law. He was really some piece of work. A dentist, an American Legionnaire, and a Mason. We stayed with a good friend of hers that she had grown up with--a man named Wallace Look, who was a librarian at Arcata, at the CSU [California State University] campus there. A gay guy, very civilized. We were very friendly in later years. Later, he spent some years in a monastery.
Arrival in New York and Odd JobsStern
And then we hitchhiked back to New York, which was quite an experience. We went to a cowboy barbecue in New Mexico; we were
Violet, Jane's friend, was working as a taxi dancer at a ten-cents-a-dance place down on Fourteenth Street, and over my strenuous objections, Jane went to work there. She enjoyed it; she really enjoyed it. She met a lot of strange people there, among them Ross Russell--he was a record producer. He produced a lot of Charlie Parker's music, a lot of interesting jazz.
In the meantime, we had found a nice railroad flat up on 101st Street on the West Side. And I was painting it and decorating it. I got a bunch of odd jobs, I remember. I got a job in a factory where I was supposedly putting plastic insulation onto copper wire, you know, electrical wire. The machines were very old, but I still couldn't keep up with them. I was the only non-Puerto Rican working in the factory, and at the time I didn't know any Spanish. It was another disaster in my employment record.
Oh, I forgot that when I was out here I did have a little job--that was a bizarre job, too. It was loading tin cans into railroad cars. John, I think, had the job, and he got it for me. You had this kind of a fork with a lot of pegs on it, and the cans came down a belt, and you stuck this fork into them--I can't remember if it was ten or twelve cans--and you ran from this belt, up a little ramp and into the railroad car, and you would stack these cans. Now if you weren't in total sync with the other person who was doing this same thing, and you didn't get back to the belt on time, the cans all erupted into madness and chaos and rolled all over the place. I didn't last on that one either.
So here was Jane working as a taxi dancer and having several affairs on the side with people that she had met there, which also didn't please her employers. She was supposed to be making money for the house. And Violet had--I don't know--a protector who was some kind of a criminally involved person. She had a little daughter also--who had she been married to? She was a friend of Shirley Triest also. I think she was married to--Radha [Stern, Gerd's daughter] will remember--to the diver?
There was some kind of a mixed relationship there. Anyway, I think she had been long gone from that marriage.
New Paltz, New YorkStern
We decided to go back to California to visit. Jane was getting letters from her grandmother who was ailing. Her grandmother always finished her letters by saying, "And I don't know how anybody could leave God's country." Eureka being God's country. Have you been to Eureka? Eureka's quite a place. There's a graveyard on the seashore between Eureka and Arcata, and there's a redwood tombstone there. I guess it's still there. It says--I can't remember the guy's name--it says, "Murdered by capitalism." He was a Wobbly.
So we got an ancient car--I think it was an old Pontiac--for very little money. We started out in the rain from New York, and we got onto the Pulaski Skyway; it still exists. In the rain a car hit us from behind, and we hit the car in front; our car was demolished. So we had to regroup. So we hitchhiked back out.
We spent some time here--we kept actually going back and forth quite a lot. When we got back to New York, I had been doing babysitting and some odd jobs for a family, the Habermans. He had a mother who lived on an old farm in New Paltz, New York. The name was Thorborg Ellison. She was a bohemian from the early part of the century, and she knew all of the figures of that era. They were all her friends, and she had signed paintings and books, and she was married at the time to a really mad Yugoslavian. She had her farm with a lot of buildings that she wanted to have renovated so she could get some rental income. The idea was that she would give Jane and I a place to live, and I would work, and she would feed us. That was like heaven sent. So we moved into an old granary; it was a little larger than this room, and it had a loft. It was attached to the barn, and that's the first thing we did, we made it into a livable space; it was lovely. We ate with them in the big house, and I worked, and I wrote. Jane did little artsy-craftsy things, and she helped Thorborg with the kitchen. Jane was a very good cook.
We weren't married yet. There were other places to stay--we had visitors. Carl Solomon--at this time, Carl was out of the Psychiatric Institute, and he had married a very nice lady, Olive, and--I forgot to mention a girl at the time named Fran Deitsch,
Thorborg--we got along. She was a really odd bird. She gave me a piece of land which I later had to give back. We got kind of involved in the community. At that time, New Paltz was only a teachers' college; now it's a rather substantial campus. Other artists lived around. Right above the farm, huge properties belonged to the Smileys--a Quaker family that owned Mohonk resort --they were kind of despotic patrons. A lot of the locals there were their tenant farmers.
There was an incident where a farmer down the road who was an old radical had painted his barn orange because he had gotten some cheap paint. The Smileys didn't like it because when they looked down from the mountain there was this orange spot. His wife was a teacher, and the Smileys came down and they said, "Look. We want you to repaint your barn, and we'll give you the paint because it's just an eyesore." And he said, "No way." A few weeks later his wife was called into the principal's office and was told, "Your husband is making problems in the community, and it is going to reflect on your position in the schools. Now the Smileys have offered the paint for him to repaint his barn, and I think it would be a good idea if you persuaded him to repaint the barn if you're really interested in keeping your job." I'm just telling you this story because it's indicative of that period. And the guy repainted his barn--these people, you know, the Smileys--Quakers, pacifists, people who you would have thought were of liberal bent, but that was the way they behaved in the community. And they kept the local farmers in a position of servitude. I mean, you wouldn't have thought it existed in the twentieth century, but it did. They got some food, they got free firewood which they could cut on the land. They were basically kept in bondage. And those properties still exist, but now of course there are no more tenant farmers. It's now a very fabulous resort. You can't drive there; you park, and then they have carriages with horses.
New Paltz was an experience. I renovated a large chicken coop, and a Juilliard composer named Marga Richter, who I wrote an oratorio with, moved in with her Steinway piano, and unfortunately she left her kerosene stove on--the whole thing burned down. This
Marriage to Jane HillStern
In the meantime, Jane had gotten pregnant, and we were married by a justice of the peace who was watching television over our heads. And this was by a justice of the peace. We decided on getting married in Austerlitz because it was the town where Edna St. Vincent Millay had lived.
We decided when all of these bad vibes happened at the farm that we would go back to California. Coincidentally, this musician whom we had known in California--Keith, his strange wife, Barbara--we all drove out together here. It was some trip. I think we went through the national park--saw Old Faithful--we had a high time driving out. And Jane was quite pregnant.
Jane had an old friend, a doctor, Marion Wagner, who lived at that time in San Jose [California], and we spent some time with her. We had actually stayed with her on a previous trip. She was gay, and she came from a fairly well-known California family. She was a very generous and intelligent woman.
We're about at the point where our son Adam was born, which was in San Jose, and he was delivered by Dr. Wagner whom I was just talking about.
I did leave out the publication--or the printing--of my first book of poems, First Poems and Others. One of the jobs I had in New York--one of the times when I was doing odd jobs--I worked for Clarence, a friend who had a photo offset shop where they did mailing and folding and all that stuff. I was kind of good at organizing that stuff. I got him to agree to help me put out my first book of poems. It was in the [Greenwich] Village so we called it the Village Press. It's a handmade book, really, called First Poems and Others, and my friend Ivan Majdrakoff did the illustrations, and Julia Pearl, his first wife, did the calligraphy, the hand lettering of the poems, which I think are quite good. And I've loved Ivan's work ever since we've known each other. And I still do. There's a painting of his right here in the next room; in fact, several of his works are, including the one hanging right there [points] which is an early piece, about
I would really rather do a CD--a spoken version CD, maybe with some music, because I agree with what was brought up at the Beat Conference at the UC, at The Bancroft Library by Lawrence Ferlinghetti--that we managed to re-oralize the poetic tradition, which had gotten to the point where it had become just words on a printed page. During much of my life, I've written poetry in print, but also written in visual print; in artwork rather than just in books. A lot of my audiovisual experiments have been done with poetry.
When we came back out here [California], Adam was born, and we stayed here. We lived for a time in Berkeley, also down on the flats near the bay. We had a very active literary and social life. I'm just trying to think, and it isn't coming back too quickly, about the following sequence of events.
What was that literary life like?
Well, Kenneth Rexroth was kind of the major glue of the literary life in the San Francisco world. And he had a weekly salon--I can't remember offhand whether it was Friday nights or Saturday nights--but everyone was welcome. Whether we were totally friends with Kenneth was beside the point; practically everyone went to his soirées. Sometimes there were periods during which, for instance, Robert Duncan wouldn't be there or other people would stay away. But in general, everyone kind of circulated through--anybody who came to town in that world would wind up there. And it was an opportunity to meet and to exchange information and to listen to people's work. Later, I actually took a workshop from Kenneth; the only poetry workshop I was ever involved with except for a couple I've given myself.
Is this at the Scott Street apartment?
Yes, I believe so.
So you and Jane--
No, not necessarily; sometimes. Jane and I, I, alone, and later on Ann and I would go.
Was Jane into the literary scene?
No, not so much. I think Jane didn't like the company of well-known people, actually.
Well, you may not take this well. Jane liked to be the center of attention. She was not comfortable in situations where she was not the center of attention. In a salon like Kenneth's, she would have been outnumbered, outranked, and outspoken--not in that sense of the word, but you know, there was no opportunity for anyone. Kenneth would rap ad infinitum, and you could not get a word in edgewise. Some people would scream and yell to get a word in edgewise. There was a lot of disagreement with Kenneth because Kenneth had opinions about just everything, and they were not ordinary opinions or the common opinions either. A lot of them weren't even his opinions; they were just provocations. He was a very provocative guy. He would do anything to get a rise out of people, especially out of somebody whom he found on the other side of radical politics, and I don't necessarily mean conservatives, but I mean in those days the schisms were--Kenneth was a prototypical Chicago product, and there's a certain--Nelson Algren, Kenneth Rexroth, Paul Goodman--there's a certain sensibility that comes out of that midwestern capital which is very different than what you get from New York or from the West Coast, or even from other midwestern cities like where Michael McClure and some of that whole gang comes from.
I guess, one of the principal connections for Kenneth was labor. The labor movement was very important to him. He was about as far from labor's proletariat as you could get. [chuckle] But, he identified with workers, he wore the clothes, he had the street talk. I don't know how much taped archive there is of Kenneth; I imagine there would be some, but if you ever listen to it, he had great rhythm. And you know, he was unafraid of any endeavor. I mean, the man translated from languages which he didn't know, which he only knew through the dictionary, and fearlessly, and a lot of them are really great translations. He was an exceptional being. What I learned from him was one thing: I had written a poem with the word "bird" in it. He got very upset. "Aw, come on, Gerd, what the fuck kind of a bird is that? It's gotta be a bird, not just bird." Precise images are what we were looking for. Well, I disagreed with him about the bird, but he's right; you need the precise image. Sometimes it can be the generic bird; it doesn't have to be a particular bird. I got into
We used to go out in Leon Adams' little boat. And Hayakawa, who was not really Oriental in the sense of having been born there--he was from Canada, but he was a sashimi addict, and he had these sharp knives, and we would catch a striped bass, and without further ado we would be eating it within five minutes. Now that's really an experience to eat fish right out of the water. Very different. Anyway, that's much later than what I'm talking about now.
I don't know whether we should just jump or not. Should we jump? Don't jump. Jump, brother! Jump with care, jump in the presence punch it is--Mark Twain. Punch, brother! Punch with care, punch in the presence of the passenger. It's a rhyme that he wrote when he was riding on a train, and he couldn't get it out of his mind--it was part of a short story of Mark Twain's. It's the conductor's punching of the ticket.
Where were we? We were with Jane. All right, so we're in Berkeley and we're--I don't know--
How old was Jane at this time?
I don't know. The age thing and the years thing we're going to have to think about.
How much older was she than you?
Oh, more than a decade. Nearly two.
Almost twenty years older.
Fifteen, maybe. She wound up being over twenty years younger than her next husband, but they were never married. They might just as well have been.
She was never married to Bill Buck?
She has his name.
That's what I said: they might as well have been. You can check with Radha, but I'm 99 percent sure they never married.
We got involved in the jazz scene also. I used to spend a lot of time listening to jazz.
In San Francisco?
Yes, in San Francisco?
What was that like?
What was it like? It was super duper. I first got into jazz on the East Coast. The time, for instance, when I was talking about that girl who followed me to San Francisco, Lorraine Oyl--I met her when I was the garden counselor at this camp from the Arbeiterskreis, a part of the Jewish Workers' Circle, a radical Jewish organization. A lot of the people you are working with, bohemians and radicals from California, came out of that movement, actually.
I know they used the Workmen's Center; is that it? Was it a Jewish Workmen's Center?
The Workmen's Circle, it was called. David and Belle. All those people came out of that movement. A lot of people who were in that movement came from New York.
They had a summer camp called Unser Camp, which means Our Camp [in German]. The children's camp was called Camp Kinderwelt. You know, Children's World. And I was a counselor there. That was the year that Dizzy Gillespie's Manteca came out. I remember hitchhiking down to New York to buy it. We had a band at the camp that played at night at what was called the casino. Lorraine's father was the concessionaire.
I had originally gotten the job because I went to public school with a kid named Sheldon Secunda, and his father was Sholom Secunda, who wrote [sings], "Bei Mir Bist du Schoen." You know that song? That's a famous Jewish popular song. It was a big hit, and he sold it for thirty-five bucks, and other people made fortunes on that song. He was the musical director at Unser Camp. I got this job as the garden counselor, and that was also the year that that tune [sings], "There was a boy, da da da da da," which was called Nature Boy. That's what they called me. I had my beard already. I was called Nature Boy, and they would hum that tune every time they saw me. Drove me nuts. [laughter]
That summer I really got heavily into the new jazz. I had been listening to Dixieland and Chicago music, but the first sound of Bop really grabbed my ears. It was like what I felt my poetry was about. And that's in a sense what I had in common with a lot of the people that we were talking about yesterday at the conference. I mean, I didn't like Jack Kerouac for various reasons. But he had a great ear for jazz. He understood the rhythms. So did a lot of other people like David Meltzer, who read yesterday. He's got a fantastic connection to jazz rhythms. Mine are more of the broken rhythms like Bird. I knew Bird, I knew most of those people in that music world. In later years, I spent practically every night of the week at the Black Hawk [Club].
Here in San Francisco?
Yes, it was run by a family named Noga.
We wound up moving to Mill Valley, to Throckmorton Street, with some friends that we had met through the jazz world: a couple named Pam and Bill Loughborough and a single guy named David Wheat. But nobody called him by that name; everybody knew him as Buckwheat. He was a jazz bass player and guitar player. Bill was an electronic engineer working for the government, and they were both big heads. That was a time at which pot smoking was a big deal.
Actually we didn't move directly to Mill Valley. We moved to San Francisco first. We moved to San Francisco and then to Mill Valley. We got involved in a kind of a crafts business. It kind of developed slowly. Buckwheat was working on a--there's so many threads to this, I don't know which one to tell first.
Meanwhile, KPFA had been organized by poets, basically--by Lew Hill. Lew was--I mentioned him in terms of the conscientious objector--Lew was from a very wealthy family down in Oklahoma. His theory was that what America was lacking was a practice of real communication--of cultural communication. And he was determined to give that to the nation, and he was determined to be president of the United States. I've never met anyone else in my life who was determined that he was going to be president of these United States. And he was serious about it. In a sense, I think it killed him. He managed to persuade the Ford Foundation, which was under the leadership of--you know, as I get older my name memory bank somehow disappears--but you know, the famous youthful president of the University of Chicago--Robert Hutchins--who then became the head of the Ford Foundation. We'll recover it; it's an easy recovery. He believed Lew's concept; he believed in it, and he funded the beginnings of KPFA which was not an easy thing to
The other poet who was seminal at KPFA--Pacifica Foundation was the parent organization--was Dick Moore, Richard Moore, who then later went to KQED. I don't know whatever happened to Richard in poetry; I admired his work very much. But he kind of got sidetracked into broadcasting. I'm not sure whether he kept on writing.
Lew lived up in Duncans Mills, very close to Shirley and Frank, and they knew each other. And I became the public relations director of KPFA. My basic job was to persuade people to subscribe to the station, but there wasn't much point in subscribing to the station unless they could listen to it.
I was lucky enough to somehow get involved with a company called Granco, which I believe was Japanese. The Japanese made these little FM receivers which you could plug into your amplifier and your speakers. They were cute little things, and they were not very expensive. What we did was we devised a system by which you could buy one of these as part of your subscription, and then we would send in a crew to install an antenna--you had to buy the antenna. And we went all the way down into the valley--into Stockton and Bakersfield and down through the Monterey Peninsula and up north. We got hundreds of new subscribers. It wasn't that that could support the whole budget of the station, but it brought credibility to the funders--like the Ford Foundation--that we actually had a viable, intellectual, cultural audience in California. It was a very satisfying practice.
The problem was that Lew's ambition was so much greater and his weakness was that he was so into diversity of opinion that he hired people who could not work together. It was a continuous battle on intellectual and conceptual grounds at KPFA, and it obstructed the working. We did some incredible programs that I was involved with. We did a series on poetry--it was his idea--and he got it funded by Ford. Wallace Stevens, you know, various voices reading the poems and then explicating them. We produced Alan Watts and Grace Clements, whom I talked to you about the other day.
It was the first time that I had really gotten seriously near tape recorders. I had a wire recorder, which was a very difficult technology, but it preceded tape. I was always interested in sound and the preserving of sound. At KPFA, at this point, I was also working with Harry Partch--Harry, you know, was
I was really impressed by Harry as a person. Jaime de Angulo was the first person whom I felt was a creative genius and totally out of the ordinary. I had met Henry Miller, but Henry was kind of--I mean, you could sit around with Henry, and he was like people. There are some figures that transcend that; Jaime was like that, and Harry Partch was even more so. There was only one of him.
I met Philip Lamantia, and I remained close to him for years, until the last couple of decades. Philip was a very young protégé of some of the French surrealists. He was in San Francisco, and he came from an Italian family here. His father was a produce merchant.
One day Philip and I went to visit the Onslow-Fords, who lived up here on the mountain in Mill Valley, in a large Victorian mansion. Jacqueline was a San Francisco heiress who married an English baronet who was a painter and also part of the surrealist group in Paris in the early days. He then became kind of an Orientalist who was a patron of Suzuki Roshi's and Alan Watts'--that whole group of people. Gordon owned the ferryboat--the Vallejo--which lay outside of Gate Five in the shipyards and belonged to a Portuguese Sausalitan man, Donlon Arques. The Vallejo was on one side of Gordon's studio, and, on the other side, it was the studio of Jean Varda. Do you know who he was?
I've heard the name.
Yes. Well, Jean also came out of that Parisian world. He was Greek, though. He was a fabulous painter and a social animal of the first degree. I mean, he had parties, and he had a marvelous boat with a lateen rig that we sailed around the bay on. You could fill it up with everyone in the art world in the San Francisco Bay Area.
We met Harry at this soirée of the Onslow-Fords, and he was carrying on about his musical theories, and I was enthralled. Then I heard his music, and I was further enthralled. He needed someone to manage his ensemble; he didn't have a penny to squeeze together, and I volunteered. And I was with Harry with some years. We never had any money, but we had absolutely incredible
Harry was the child of American missionaries in China. He was born in China, but he was 199 percent American-grade person. He had been a hobo, he was in the Southwest and California, he traveled all over the country on the rails, and one of his works was called U.S. Highball, which was the story of his hobo days and the whole hobo life. I still think it's one of the greatest works in American music.
At the time, he had his studio in one of the old shipyard buildings down there. We were by this time living on Throckmorton in Mill Valley. One day after I spent so many months working with Harry, Gordon invited me to lunch on the Vallejo. Gordon stuttered--I don't imagine he's still alive. He was a wonderful, kind of comical figure. He was so British, and his paintings were unique. They were kind of hard to take seriously because they were so--what should I say?--they were formula paintings. He had ideas--he had this, like, spirals, for instance, which he used as an element in many of his paintings in this period that I'm talking about. I'm not speaking badly about his paintings; I really enjoyed his paintings but they were more of an idea than actual--. He was so wrapped up in calligraphy and Zen and that world. And that's a world of ideas.
At this lunch he said to me, "G-G-G-Gerd, Jacqueline and I," she wasn't there--she was a beautiful, beautiful woman, and she had one of those high voices, and she always wore flowing robes and scarves that were transparent. Jacqueline was too much. Anyhow, Gordon says, "Jacqueline and I are so appreciative of what you've done for Harry. I want to give you something, Gerd." I was ready to be given something, you know? [laughter] I think maybe dollar signs were dancing in my head, because they were rich. He had a lot of trouble bringing it out. He says, "Y-Y-You know I own this land here on the waterfront." He had a little piece there which was right in the middle of the Arques shipyards. "What I would like to offer you is a berth for a barge." There was a lot of stuttering which I'm not going to try to imitate. I was dumbfounded. It was like, you know, what kind of an offer is that? A berth for a barge? I didn't have a barge. I didn't have much money to eat, much less buy a barge, you know? But I was nice, I said, "Thank you very much. It is a great gesture," and
About two weeks later, I was having a drink at the Tin Angel, which was owned by Peggy Tolk-Watkins. Peggy was a Black Mountain product, and although we hadn't been at Black Mountain at the same time, it was--anybody who had ever been at Black Mountain had a bond with anybody else. Peggy was a fantastic character. Do you know something about her?
Peggy. What's her last name?
And it was a barge? The Tin Angel?
The Tin Angel was not a barge, it was built on stilts. It was right on the water in Sausalito, right on the middle of the causeway. Peggy was a raging dyke. I mean, she was something else--not a violent person, but an intense, strong, raging personality. One of her good friends was a sculptress named Blanche Sherwood. We were talking at the bar and drinking, and she was muttering on about, "Blanche has a fucking problem, blah blah blah." I said, "What's the big problem?" She says, "Well, there's this barge, and it's stuck on the mud in Don's shipyard, and it's costing a fucking fortune, and what are we going to do? We should burn the bloody thing." I said, "Barge?" She says, "Yeah, it's this big old navy laundry barge, 135 feet long, 30 feet wide, and Blanche had no business buying it. She should just get rid of it." I said, "I'll take it."
So within a week I owned a barge. A huge barge. And it was stuck on the mud. And I went to Arques, whom I didn't know--great guy, a really great guy. Big heavy belly, and he drove tugboats around Sausalito. A very ethnic Portuguese, although I think he was born here. His father had started the shipyard, and I guess it had been a big deal during the war. You know, those were all Kaiser yards down there. What were they called? Liberty Ships--Kaiser's specials, which were not great boats but they served the purpose during the war. I went to Don--everybody called him Don; it was Donlon [spells], which I guess is a Portuguese first name.
So he said, "You can do it; I'll help you get that barge off the damn mud." He didn't like the two ladies--in quotes, "ladies". I said, "Hey, tell me what to do." He says, "Well, you've got to get some guys to help you, and it's--" No, no, I'm sorry; I got this mixed up. I got this completely mixed up. This happens much later.
Okay, now we're back at the Tin Angel; we're going to cut this whole little part out. I get the barge. The barge is sitting in his shipyard, and we get it up--that's right; she didn't have anyplace to put it. That was it, she didn't have any place to put it. She couldn't live on the barge because you're not allowed to live in the shipyard. And the barge was about to sink because it had a lot of holes in it. So I went to Don, and he knew exactly where Gordon's place was because it was in the middle of his shipyard, and he says, "I'm sure we can get it out there." So we get it out next to the Vallejo, and Buckwheat and Bill and Pam and I and Jane and Adam move on it. And we're living on the barge.
Pam? Did you say Pam?
Yeah, Pamela Loughborough.
She was married to Old Bill. Bill Loughborough, the electronic engineer I told you about.
Boobam Bamboo CompanyStern
Now there was another guy involved with us named Jak Simpson. We had founded a little business, and the business was called the BooBam Bamboo Drum Company. What we did was we made drums out of bamboo. Buckwheat was working on the President Lines as a bass player, going to the Orient.
On what lines?
President Lines. The ship line that used to take passengers and freight. In the Philippines, which was one of their stops, he would buy this large diameter giant bamboo and bring back a number of sticks of it on the ship. This really came out of the Harry Partch world. I had enlisted Bill and Buckwheat into helping build instruments for Harry. We had built a marimba which delivered tones down to about sixteen cycles, which is barely audible. And in order to build something like that and to get the coupling of the bar which you hit with a big soft mallet over the chamber which resonates--when you can't hear so well, you've got to figure out a way to measure vibration. Now Bill had instruments that he borrowed from the Navy Yard which could do
We had two kinds of drums. We had the drums that had two nodes on the end, and we carved an H out of them and tuned them to the size of the resonating chamber. You could play them either with your fingers or with mallets. And then we took the ones in between which were open at both ends, and we put skin caps on them like bongos, except we tuned them in half-steps so that if you had, like, one-two-three, or you had one-two-three-four-five-six, you could play an actual scale on them. A lot of the jazz groups and a lot of people generally were fascinated and added them to their percussion sections.
We went to the big music conventions; Jak Simpson and I drove there in a Volkswagen Bus filled with drums, and we played them and showed them, and we got more orders than we could imagine, but we could never fill them. There wasn't enough bamboo, and we weren't into making money. The prototype of this to me was when I really understood what business was about and what--. Many years later I was in Venezuela, and I was into cigars, and I found an incredible cigar through--I'll tell that story some other time. But I went to the guy and said, "I would like to import them to the United States." He said, "You're a friend of friends. I'm going to explain to you that I make enough cigars for my country. If I wanted to, I could sell cigars all over the world. But I just have a few people working with me; they've worked with me for years. I have small fields. I have enough money to live here the way I like to live. I don't want to be bigger; I just want to be what I am. Do you understand?" And I understood. I thought back to the BooBam Bamboo Drum days, and I said, "Hey, we didn't have a ghost." If we had just continued making them for friends and for jazz musicians, and making them by hand--but, you know, right away we went to the music convention and we were drowned in a world which was beyond us.
Here we were, and Jane gets pregnant again. We're living on the barge.
Did you build a house on the barge?
No, it had a house on it. It was a laundry barge, and it had a house on it. Blanche had done some work on it. There was a beautiful fireplace with a copper hood.
Is that the picture of it? [points]
Yeah, that's the picture, but many years later. This was long afterward.
A fabulous place to live. At that time, it was in fairly good repair. Anyway, we were attached to the electricity. We had electricity, and we had water. What we didn't have was sewage; the sewage just went into the bay. Later on--well, that's a later story.
Pam had lost a baby. She was pregnant again, and she had to spend all of her time in bed. We were heavily into the jazz scene, and all of the famous jazz musicians came to the barge. I was still working at KPFA for a very meager salary.
We were all big potheads, right? And we believed we should be able to smoke them legally instead of illegally, so we did this secret program at KPFA. There were like five people talking about pot, and it was broadcast, and the authorities were, I mean, it was headlined in the papers. People were really upset, and they were looking for us. They didn't know who produced the program in the station; most people in the station didn't know. Several people who did, refused to talk--acted like they didn't know. So they never found out who produced it. I think it was like the first act of actual media aggression against the authorities on that level. Even to this day, I don't think anybody knows who produced that program [laughter]: yours truly. It didn't improve my position at the station, by the way, among the several people who knew it.
Lew Hill--we were extremely, extremely close. We would spend weekends up at his place up in Duncans Mills, and he had a little printing press there on which I printed one of my poems, and he printed his poems. And he accused me of being a typical Jewish anarchist, and I wasn't an anarchist by any means. But he felt that I was chaotic, and that I wasn't organized, and that I didn't understand the agenda which was necessary. His next step was to have a--first of all, he was trying to replicate KPFA in other cities, and then he wanted a chain of newspapers, and once he had a chain of newspapers he could get elected president, you see, and he needed me and a few other people to be his henchmen. And we didn't share his ambitions. [laughter] We enjoyed the concept but we didn't want to do the work; I wanted to write poetry, and
Now Lew was a terrible womanizer. I mean terrible in the sense that it was destructive to him. He had a marriage to a childhood sweetheart, he had two children, but he had a long-term affair with Richard's wife, Eleanor, which was destructive to his marriage. It was kind of a triangle which everybody thought was all right, but nobody really prospered under it. And then I had a lady who was working as my assistant in public relations. They started having an affair, Lew and she, and it got terrifying--she had a husband too, and blah blah blah.
One day Lew was discovered in his garage. He had connected the gas pipe to a tube and committed suicide. I was so angry. I don't get angry much, but I felt, like, betrayed and disillusioned, you know? Here was this exceptionally intelligent, wealthy, talented, organized person, and he had let what I considered just a stupid emotional bind that he had gotten into to lead him to the point of killing himself? I found it inconceivable. Just totally inconceivable. I have never really gotten over it. I don't--after all these decades later--understand how that was prompted in him. I understand that he and his wife--but a man of his capabilities--. Anyway, that was devastating.
More of Life on the BargeStern
In the meantime, we were on the barge, and Harry Partch--we had thirty to forty people involved in an orchestra and a dramatic performance with singers. We had finished doing Plectra and Percussion dances, and we were on to his Oedipus. A very complex piece of work. Harry's main righteous remark on how one led one's life was, "If you want it done right, do it yourself." That was completely counter to writing a work which involved thirty to forty people. And the conflict was enormous; he was an irascible, strange dude, you know? He was basically gay but he was in the closet for most of his life because of the times. He was a--what do you call people who really are not in tune with women? I can't think of the name.
Yeah, men. You know what I mean; there's a word.
Yes, he was a misogynist. He had women friends, but he was always critical of them. Jacqueline was so good to him. There were many women in his life who supported him and were his patrons, who really understood what he wanted to do. I don't think he had an idea of why he had this strange relationship, but he really liked young boys. Eventually, [chuckle] he got into it, which was good. He was also an alcoholic, and he didn't use drugs at all. He was kind of terrified and against them.
I was lucky; I managed to interest a lot of people in his work. Carl Haverlin, who was the head of BMI [Broadcast Rights Incorporated], and who gave him money from then on for the rest of his life. BMI is a rights association like ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers]. You know, every time something is played on the radio or television, the composer has the right to collect money and do it through these two organizations. Carl really appreciated him. He's been dead for many years.
We did Oedipus on the waterfront in Sausalito for a number of days with great critical acclaim. A lot of our band I had recruited from the Presidio military band. There were a lot of jazz musicians who were part of that band because they got into the army and, what do you do? You're a musician? Oh, we need--. Well, these guys were great musicians, and they loved being in Harry's band. They learned the instruments, they learned the non-tempered scale, they were super duper musicians.
Then one day one of them brought this gangly--in Yiddish you call him nebbish--I mean, a guy who just doesn't somehow fit in, you know? And I felt sorry for him. Bill Buck. He was in the army, and he was hanging around the band. He wanted somehow to be involved with Partch, and Harry didn't want any part of him. I finally talked to Harry and said, "Let him turn the pages on the harmonium," which was this reed organ that Harry had converted to a non-tempered scale. Bill started hanging around the barge, and we turned him on and kind of changed his life. He was wearing like old clothes when he wasn't in uniform, and he drove a ratty old Ford.
He did not appear to be from any wealth, or any fine family; he looked like something that the cat had dragged in. He would sleep on the couch, and you have some idea of what Jane was like. He was introduced into Oriental philosophy and art and all kinds of
But in the meantime, we found out that Bill Buck was a millionaire. He had just turned twenty-one, and he inherited the first part of his fortune. He bought her a Mercedes, which at that time was not something that you saw every day. And they had my children! They were not friendly; they were unfriendly. I wasn't the nicest person in the world; I'm not saying that I was a virtuous husband or anything like that, but on the other hand I wasn't expecting this at all. I was not pleased. I was hurt. I was particularly hurt because I was the guy who had brought Bill into our group--the other guys, Buckwheat and Old Bill, had thought that Bill Buck was the FBI. I said, "You've got to be kidding. This nebbish kid couldn't be the FBI." I was right about that, [laughter] but he turned out to be even worse in a sense. Now it's all turned around kind of strangely.
There was this sequence of bizarre events. I know I've used that word a number of times. One day, I came back to the barge and Old Bill and Pam and Buckwheat are gone. They've moved everything out while I was somewhere, you know. And now it turns out that they--Bill--has formed a company and financed them to build drums out of redwood in the same pattern that we were building them out of bamboo, but square instead of round. They now have capital and a company, and they've left me.
The next thing that happens is all of sudden there's this book of poetry. The poetry is Jane's and Bill's and Look's. I'm beginning to think that I'm being co-opted, and I'm right.
The next thing I get is an anonymous offer to buy the barge. I was a little slow, but it didn't take me very many days to think about who was making the anonymous offer to buy, and it turned out it was Bill Buck.
In the meantime, Jak Simpson and I had remained fast buddies. He had been a good friend of Old Bill's and Buckwheat's the same as me, but when they left, he was quite offended. He stuck with me. Jack was from Kansas City, he was a friend of Bird's, of Charlie Parker's, and a lot of people. He knew a lot of people, and among them was a Greek guy named Tosh Angelous. Tosh had been married to Maya. They had a breakup, and Jack remained a friend of Maya's, and he introduced me to Maya. Maya at the time was between jobs. She was trying to get into the Purple Onion [Club], and she had been on the road. She just came back from the road; she was the primary dancer in the Porgy and Bess company that toured Europe.
One of my neighbors was John Drew. He lived on the waterfront, and he was a real queen. Wonderful guy--from the Barrymore family. He was the manager and impresario of the Purple Onion. I became Maya's manager, and we got her into the Onion. She was an instant star there.
What was the Purple Onion?
Well, there were two hip clubs in North Beach. One was the Hungry I, and the other was the Purple Onion. Enrico Banducci was at the I. That was before your time, huh? You know, Mort Sahl, the Kingston Trio, Phyllis Diller. Phyllis and Maya and the Kingston Trio was the bill. Great bill.
And Maya danced?
She sang and moved. [Sings] "Don't let the sun catch you crying."
Anyway, we lived together, and we had a great time.
She moved into the barge?
Yes. With her son, Clyde. Clyde was, I don't know, eleven or twelve at the time.
She came from a very difficult family. I never knew her father, but I knew her mother. Her mother was basically lesbian. And Maya was very bisexual herself. Her mother ran a kind of a coffeeshop in the Fillmore with her lover. They were really tough dykes, man, oh boy. One day a guy came in and held her up, she pulled a gun from under the counter and shot him dead. Boom. No problem, right?
So Maya and I, you know, we--. She got in the Purple Onion because she was a great talent. She still is a great talent. She was a performer. She could magnetize an audience; wonderful, wonderful onstage personality, and a good repertoire of songs. She moved, and she wore these very simple strap gowns with nothing under them. She was over six foot tall and skinny, and when she moved people just gasped. She had studied originally with Pearl Primus, New York, who was the black modern dancer.
We were together for some time. Maya is not an easy temperament; she's a difficult woman. She used to introduce me to men as, "This is Gerd Stern, my manager, and my man." But if it was a woman, it would be, "This is Gerd Stern, my man, and my manager." It was very clear, right? [laughter]
It was a difficult life. We lived at night. In those days we had to live in the black world. Not in Sausalito, but like in Los Angeles. We couldn't stay at a hotel; we had to stay at a hotel in the ghetto. Well, not ghetto, but in the black section; it was a nice hotel. I'm not saying it was a dump or anything. It was difficult for me being accepted in that world--even though, for instance, in New York, I had had black friends.
Just about that time, problems started developing. Percy Heath of the Modern Jazz Quartet was--you know, he and I had even slept in the same bed together, not sex--and then it got to the point where John Lewis, who also was a friend of mine, was saying to Percy, "Look, Percy." Pussy, they called him. "You've got to think of the race. I mean, all these white friends and all this pot smoking, you know? You're not thinking of the race." There was a lot of ambivalence toward white people. It was very painful. Like in Chicago. In New York there's no problem, no line at the hotels. I mean, there were hotels where you couldn't stay at, but one knew which ones. But in Chicago and in the South and in other places, in Los Angeles, hey, if you're a mixed couple you had to stay in a black hotel, and you got a lot of bad vibes even there.
We were very friendly with people. She had a lot of fans. You know, the famous black singer, Lena Horne. Lena loved Maya's work. Lena played the Fairmont, and we were very friendly. Her husband was still alive then. He was a fabulous arranger and pianist. He was white.
So one time we came home--we had had some difficulties. Her son was not easy to deal with, and school, and so forth, and so on, and living that life and not having anybody to take care of him. Her brother was in jail for murder, etcetera. One morning about six or seven o'clock in the morning she woke me up and said,
IV 1960s: Playboy Magazine and San Francisco High Society
Marriage to Ann LondonStern
Anyway, that was right after Jane. In the meantime, I had left KPFA. I mean, after Lew, and after--. The guy who had succeeded me was a guy named Henry--Sandy Jacobs. He had become public relations director. And he then became a partner of my partners who were--you know, Old Bill and Buckwheat. Henry, whom I had known because of KPFA, was going out with a lady--well, there were other friends that came out of this group. They were from Chicago. One was a sociologist, Howie Becker, and his wife, Nan, and his sister-in-law who was part of the Second City troupe, you know, the comedian. Anyway, Henry--or Sandy--was going out with Ann London, and that's how I met Ann. Sometime after Maya left, I ran into Ann somewhere, and--you know, she was a poet also--we got to talking, we went out together. Before we knew it, she was living on the barge with me.
We were very much in love, and we had many similar interests, although she was a lot more classical and academic than I was. And we knew a lot of the same people in the literary circles.
Carl and I had kept in touch all this time, and he was working for his uncle, the publisher of Ace Books. I had some bad trips in New York after the hospital--with Allen and Jack and the gang and people around him. At one point I had been in an apartment, and we had all gotten high--I think I was the first guy to actually turn him on. They held me down and tried to get this guy to fuck me in the ass because they decided that what was really wrong with me was that I didn't understand homosexuality. But the guy couldn't get it up. So I was saved that experience. [laughter] It didn't endear them to me. I never did like Jack; Jack was a fucking voyeur. He was a dirty alcoholic; he just really liked to get drunk, and he wasn't nice to women. He treated women badly. I'm not attached to any feminist causes, but
In what way?
Well, women have been very important in my life as confidants and as romantic and intellectual peers. Elaine, whom I talked to you about, was the foundation of my self-confidence as a writer. Jane, I learned an incredible amount of cultural knowledge from Jane--like I told you, she was a dilettante; she knew a little bit about everything, whether it was archaeology or anthropology, Buddhism, etcetera. It wasn't deep but it was enough to get you started in practically any direction. Maya was a fantastic experience for me; I must say I don't regret any piece of any relationship that I've had. I think Maya's the only person, the only relationship that I would have voluntarily broken up.
I guess I have a very deep-seated fear of violence. I will not--strange thing about my grandson's murder--I can't stand to have guns around, and I never have been able to since I was very young. I don't know where it came from. I won't tolerate physical violence. And it isn't like I haven't been bad about it once or twice in my life. I used to be very hysterical. I had absolute fits during my relationship with Jane, all the way up until much later in this tale when I took acid. I haven't had a hysterical episode since my first acid trip, which is somewhat different from other people's experience.
Ann and I were a very successful couple for some time. We lived together for quite a while. Ann was the West Coast editor for McGraw-Hill at the time, a job which her father had gotten her. When I met Ann, and even when we started living together, I didn't have a ghost about who her father was. I mean, I knew what his name was. His name was Dan London. I wasn't into San Francisco society; I didn't know, you know? Ann had all these fabulous connections; she knew everyone. She never believed until the moment that she died that I didn't know who her father was, that I didn't understand what I was getting myself into. But I had no knowledge of it. And the fact that she didn't believe me, which didn't come out for a long time, was somewhat devastating to me because why would I? A refugee boy from New York. [laughter] Sure, I was involved in the San Francisco kind of poetic scene, but I never read the Chronicle. Once I was with Ann we had the Chronicle every day so I started reading it. I had no idea who Herb Caen was, who later became a very close friend of mine. I'm really pleased as punch that he got the Pulitzer.
Herb Caen was her father?
No. Herb Caen was just somebody she knew. Dan London was her father. Dan London was the manager of the St. Francis Hotel, he was the Commodore of the Golden Fleet, he was a director of the Golden Gate Bridge, he was a personal friend of the Shah and of President [Dwight] Eisenhower, and etcetera. He was a bigshot, a big deal. It wasn't my world, and I didn't understand the world. Later on, when I got to know him, we got along fine. He was unfortunately another alcoholic, and the whole family was alcoholic, and it was very sad. But he was all right. He was only happy when he was piloting or driving his seventy-some-odd-foot cruiser, the Adventuress, which was the leading boat of San Francisco's Chamber of Commerce Golden Fleet. You could invite fifteen people to sit at the table on this boat and have dinner while you were cruising around Alcatraz [Island]. Wow. We used to do that; we used to have literary dinners on this boat. [laughter]
It was a whole new world for me. But Ann was convinced that part of my original motivation was that she was a rich girl and a society girl, and it couldn't have been further from the truth. I didn't have any idea. The family had come from Seattle [Washington]; she had gone to the University of Washington. And Ted Roethke, who was her teacher, was a friend of mine; he was a poet. Remember I told you about Ruth Witt-Diamant at the San Francisco Poetry Center? When Ted was here reading, I was the guy who drove him around and took him to the right bars and etcetera. And he was one of the few poets who appreciated my work. She was his student, so that was the major connection.
The London family lived in the St. Francis Hotel. They had a floor basically--or half a floor there. Of course, it wasn't until somewhat later on that I met her mother and father, and I had met the sister, Mimi, who was a fashion model, younger than Ann.
But Ann was rebelling from her family at the time, so she wasn't very attached to them. Well, all of a sudden, some reporter at the Chronicle realized that here Dan London's daughter was living on a barge in Sausalito, and I can't remember, but they came and took pictures, and they published this big story with a picture of Ann. I can't remember--I think I was in it also. And it was very embarrassing to the Londons because here was their daughter living with somebody. So Ann was called in and read the Riot Act. She had been married before to a composer in Seattle. The marriage had broken up--without children. Ann pleaded with me that we had to get married immediately and that actually it should be thought of that it was retroactive, et cetera. Hey, big deal.
So we went out to Inverness [California] with my friend Ivan, who at the time was married to his first wife Julia Pearl, another painter. Ivan and Julia were the witnesses, and a justice of the peace married us, and that was the time he was watching television over our heads, and we just thought it was the funniest thing in the world. We got back to the barge, and I cooked--I was a very good cook--I remember I cooked oxtail soup. That was our wedding feast. So we were married.
Now all of a sudden I understood. They didn't come to the wedding. But now I got to meet Dan and Claire and have dinner at their apartment. Now I got some idea of the world that she had come out of. I mean it was a world which was like Madeline's--that book about the little girl who lives in a hotel.
That's how Ann grew up. She grew up with room service and had practically never seen her parents. And she had this awful ambivalent relationship with her father. He had abandoned her, and he hadn't spent any time with her, and he demanded that she be this kind of person, and she wasn't, and he was basically an anti-intellectual, and she was a highbrow. He was a dead-conservative Republican, and she was a liberal Democrat; he was for the death penalty, she wasn't, and so on.
Ann and I were each deeply involved with poetry. We decided early in the relationship to publish something in the nature of single broadsheets of poems. It was called Poems in Folio. It was a monthly subscription where people who subscribed got one poem per month. Each one was printed by an artisan printer, most of them here in California--the Grabhorn Press was the first one--they did William Carlos Williams' Sappho version or translation. A very beautiful poem. We did it for a year; there were twelve poems.
As usual, Ann and I were on kind of opposite sides of the coin. She was a fairly strong-willed woman, and she won the day. What that involved was that I felt that we should publish young, unknown poets such as myself at the time, and Ann felt that the only way that this would be successful is if we had important poets who would get people to subscribe and who would give the whole thing a cachet. I understood that that was a reasonable point of view. It didn't match my feelings about what I wanted to do in terms of my poetry or others of my peers and contemporaries. But that's how the thing went.
Ann had had an affair with a very well-known older poet who also--I think she had attended one or two of his workshops when she was still up at Seattle--Stanley Kunitz. Stanley was one of
At more or less the same time, Ann and I were involved in a small group of poets. We gave readings and published a little--I can't remember whether it was mimeographed or photo offset--it was called Seven Stray Cats. There were seven of us. It was our own poetry. It brought us together, and we discussed a lot of the issues involved in our poems. One of the people--probably the one who has gotten most well-known--was Jack Gilbert.
Jack and I wrote a satirical puppet play which was done at the San Francisco--I can't remember exactly what it was called--Art Fair. It was kind of an open-air thing. There was a group--I can't remember the name--but Helga Williamson was the puppeteer. And it was called "Don't Flee the Scene Salty," after a tune by Lionel Hampton.
We did this in the studio; we recorded it with music in the studio of Richard Wirtz Emerson. Dick recorded a vast array of Bay Area poets. He was one of the first people to have the technology; he worked for a big company (Shell) during the day, and this was his passion in the evenings and on the weekends. He lived in Sausalito, and he was really a big help to a lot of poets in terms of not only appreciating their work--. There were a lot of interesting people around that time: Bern Porter, who had been involved in the Manhattan Project and was somehow assuaging his guilt by publishing in the arts. The "Don't Flee the Scene Salty" music, the tune, is by Lionel Hampton, and the play was a satire on friends like Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Rexroth, and the music was Charlie Parker and Hampton, etcetera, etcetera. It was very well accepted at the time. The strange thing is that it's a lost piece of work. I don't know what happened to Richard; I lost touch with him. I'm sure that it exists on tape, but I've never been able to recover a copy of it. It's definitely a very interesting typical kind of take on that time. It would be a good addition to this archive if we can figure out how to find--I don't
Who were the other "seven stray cats"?
Oh, you would ask me that.
You and Ann--
And Jack. I'll get it for you. In fact, I will send you a copy of the Seven Stray Cats; I think I have three or four of them left. I'll make a note of that. Laura--well, let's just go on.
At that time I hadn't been working. We needed money, and as I think I said on an earlier tape, Ann was extremely well-connected in the Bay Area, and one of her friends was Herb Caen. Herb at that time was married to Sally Caen, several wives ago at this point. It turned out that Sally and I had quite a lot of mutual acquaintances in the past, in the Village: Mason Hoffenberg and Stanley Gould and other people that we knew in common. She came from a much wilder side of the world than Herb did, certainly, but Herb and I wound up with a very close friendship. The four of us saw a lot of each other. He helped me to get work. I had never written really any prose, and he hooked me up with August C. Spectorsky at Playboy.
Augie Spectorsky was another incredible human being. He was a fantastic writer, and he had been enticed out of New York by [Hugh] Hefner's money very early on to become the associate publisher of Playboy, and he was the one who injected the intellect and the appreciation for both fiction and articles of socially positive content into that magazine. He took it from a kind of medium success to its peak. Unfortunately, he passed on very early. He was ultra-sophisticated. His book, The Exurbanites, was a best-seller. It was about people who lived outside of New York City and commuted in. When Hef found him, he was the major writer on the Arlene Francis Home Show. He kept saying no, and finally the money got to be so much, and the perks got so much that he and his wife moved to Chicago and took over the leadership of Playboy. She was the personnel director and he was the associate publisher.
Spec had conceived of a series called "Playboy On the Town" done on certain cities, and he had asked Herb to write the San Francisco "On the Town." And Herb's policy was that he only wrote things with a byline. I mean, he was already very well-known, and there was no reason for him to write something which would be house-written. He said to me, "Gerd, you write it. I'll introduce you to Spectorsky, and you write it." I said, "I've never done anything like that." You know, write about restaurants and nightclubs. He said, "Look, it's easy. Believe me. I'll introduce you to three or four PR people here; they'll take you around, and you write about it. And I'll look at it."
Sure enough, it was a ball; I had a marvelous time writing it. Spectorsky and I hit it off immediately. They sent me a ticket to come back to Chicago to meet with them. And here all of a sudden I was writing for a major national magazine, totally courtesy of Herb's rep. Then I met all these flacks: one of the principal ones was a guy named Frank di Marco. He was Ernie's PR guy and a number of other places. We became friendly while he was taking me around to all these restaurants and introducing me to the owners and getting my story down for me. It was a little coterie of people in that world, like any other coterie. All of a sudden I was in this little world. Then Frank said to me, "What are you going to do when you finish this story?" I said, "I don't know; I've never done this before." He said, "I've got an idea for you. I have a friend who owns a restaurant, and I can't represent him because he is in competition with Ernie's--or at least Ernie's thinks he is. I don't think he is, and Ernie's doesn't want me to represent him. So I'll take you there, and you write about them in Playboy, and you take the public relations post. You'll get a good fee every month. And from there on, Herb will help you."
Now all of a sudden I was in the public relations business. I represented the guy who was Alexis Merabishvilli of Alexis' Tangier, which was, basically, as far as I was concerned, by the time I got to know it, the premier restaurant in San Francisco at the time. And Alexis was some character. He was born in Tbilisi, in Georgia. He had been a movie actor. He worked with Pudovkin and [Sergei] Eisenstein--I mean, these people were to me heroes of the avant-garde; I found it rather unbelievable when he first told me the story. I don't think I really believed him but it turned out to be true. He also taught me most of what I know about wines.
At the same time, I had become friendly with Leon Adams, who was the head of the California Wine Institute. They represented all the small wineries. I knew his son, Jerry, who was a reporter. Leon would invite me--we were still living on the barge
Spec was also an old friend of Hayakawa's--now this was long before Hayakawa was either at the university or in politics. Hayakawa's wife's brother was Frank Lloyd Wright's principal associate. They lived in Mill Valley, in a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house. When Spectorsky and his wife Theo came out here we had dinner together, and I got to know Hayakawa, and that's how, as I mentioned--I don't remember; was that on the tape?--he published some of my poems, and we got into this stupid argument about the washed idol.
Yes. Anyway, Hayakawa used to come out with us too on the boat--with Leon Adams. It was a very "ferment" time in Sausalito. We got into a lot of political fights because there were people trying to kick out the barges because of sewage problems and because of land values. We managed to win most of those battles at that time, and eventually we did connect to the sewers. Most of the boats--at least the ones that were close to the land like ours--.
The Sausalito HouseboatStern
I've now skipped--before Ann. Somewhere in there, you know, after Gordon Onslow Ford's ultra-generous offer to me of a berth for my barge, he went ahead and sold the land [chuckles] that my barge was on, and I had to move. By this time, the barge had a lot of holes in it because there's a marine worm here in the bay called the torridos. They're really ferocious little critters. The torridos had eaten a lot of the timbers. I had to go back to Arques and say, "What am I going to do? Can I save the barge?" He says, "Ah, don't worry about it. I'll give you a place up on my land. We'll move it." I said, "How are we going to do that?" He says, "What you gotta do is you gotta get a bunch of old mattresses, and you go down below, and you stuff all the holes up with mattresses, and you cement them in," and he went through that. "Then, at high tide, we put the pumps on board, and we pump the rest of the water out, and we move the barge up."
I spent a month with a few friends who volunteered to help me. It was a filthy, dirty job in the mud. It was dark down below and not quite headroom, you know, so you bent over, and we did all this work and stuffed mattresses and hammered boards behind them and with cement and all kinds of stuff. The time came, and we put the pumps on board, we pumped out, the tide rose, the barge stayed where it was. No way was it going to move.
I was ready to give up. At the No Name Bar in Sausalito this became a cause célèbre. People were betting on whether the barge could be moved or not. Don Arques kept telling me, "You can do it, you can do it!" With one more month, right? Okay. So now I got about twelve people from the No Name Bar who are all betting on me, so they're helping me stuff mattresses. Of course, you can only do it at low tide. So another month goes by, and the pumps get going on board, and I'm below fixing last-minute leaks, and the tide rises, and all of a sudden there is this thunderous crack. I mean, it was like the world had ended, from where I was down below. Everybody thought I had had it, you know? The barge popped up, and the tugboat towed it to the new site. Nobody could figure out what this noise had been. I mean, it was really earth-shaking.
The next morning at low tide we went to the site where the barge had been and what had happened is the bottom planking of the barge was left in the mud with the nails sticking out of it. It had been so stuck to the mud that the barge, with its main timbers, lifted up. But the bottom planking just stayed in the mud. The guys who bet on me won. That was quite something.
Anyway, the barge was there for many years--long after I left it. That's another story.
Public Relations WorkStern
I represented quite a few clients, and I worked very hard at it, at this public relations business. It was a lot of fun. One of the accounts I worked for was a guy named Angelo Sabella. The family was one of the original Sicilian fisherman families on Fisherman's Wharf. Angelo was one of the side sons--not the main family that's on the wharf. He had just opened, right by Richardson Bridge, Sabella's of Marin. He was dying for lack of business. It was this big round restaurant, and it was empty. He asked Herb--Herb was kind of the guru of all restaurateurs and night club operators--"What can I do?" Herb sent me over, and I worked for Angelo for a number of years. He was a wonderful,
I devised a lot of really silly, stupid stuff to promote that restaurant. First, we had a grand opening, and I brought in waters from the seven seas of the world. And we got the volunteer fire department with hoses to baptize the building with all these waters from different places. We got pictures in the papers. Then we entered a frog in the--they served frog legs in the restaurant--Calaveras County jumping frog contest. We got tremendous space--the Independent Journal here was a great help, and the Chronicle. In those days you could do things, and people just responded. There wasn't a whole bunch of problems to relate. These days, you try and get a reporter to take a free meal, and it's iffy. I'm not in that world anymore, but I know it for a fact--in those days, you would invite people, and they would come. You could get twenty or thirty journalists to Sabella's of Marin, and it wasn't exactly a gourmet's hangout--but it was before the whole culinary movement took over in the United States and the food was fresh, well prepared.
One of my very good friends--he and his wife, Ann--was Fred Lyon, who was a nationally prominent magazine photographer. Leon Adams introduced me to a wonderful couple, Mary and Jack Taylor of Mayacamas Vineyards, which was on the slopes of an extinct volcano, Mount Veeder. And Jack had spent his life being a refinery designer for Shell Oil. He was an Englishman. And Mary had been a student of Gurdjieff, whose work I was familiar with--"All and Everything". There were such wonderful people around. I mean, there still are wonderful people, but all of a sudden in this little period I was meeting all these great characters. Mary was a superb cook, and she had a line of spices which [actually?] still exists in the marketplace. She sold the company.
But Jack had bought this vineyard. His lifelong ambition was to be a winemaker. He had personally, with very little help, terraced the side of the volcano in very Italian fashion, and planted vines there. And Mayacamas was--according to him--an Indian word, meaning "the cry of the mountain lion." He used to--when he would tell you that, he would howl it out; I won't try to imitate it. It was a beautiful old stone winery up there. They made remarkable wine very early on. I devised a concept--because they were having trouble selling this little bit of wine--that people would buy shares--
--shares. And the privilege for shareholders was to buy a certain amount of this limited-edition wine. It worked well. The reason it worked well is because I brought Fred Lyon up, and he made some incredible photographs of the terrace and the Taylors. It was published in the Chronicle's Sunday magazine. Well, [snaps fingers] the shares were sold out very quickly. I went from an unknown poet to a successful public relations man practically overnight. It was very amusing to me. I, however, didn't let it go to head. For instance, when Vic Bergeron from Trader Vic's offered me a job, I refused it. I refused it really because I thought he was an awful man.
Who was this?
Vic Bergeron was Trader Vic. Trader Vic's was the place where San Francisco society went. First the original one in Oakland, and then the one in the alley downtown in San Francisco. I don't know what it was that drew them to him. I don't think it was the excellence of the food because it wasn't really--it was kind of tricky dicky Polynesian food. Of course, society here in San Francisco was to a great extent based on alcohol. That may have been it because alcohol consumption at Trader Vic's was prodigious. But you see, now you've got kind of a line between the St. Francis Hotel and Trader Vic's and maybe the Fairmont, and you have this little world. Here I am kind of bouncing back between the Beat poets and San Francisco society. My wife was usually driving around not in our old beat-up car, but in her father's black Cadillac with the Golden Gate Bridge Director's badge on the back so that no matter how fast she goes, she doesn't get stopped by the police. Kind of a bizarre little world that we were living in. You know, famous poets coming in from the east--Robert Lowell--. And we're giving a dinner party on the Adventuress, and Robert Lowell is groping my wife, and I go after him, and nearly threw him overboard. [laughter]
It was kind of heady. And I was writing a lot of poetry. It was at that time that Allen Ginsberg showed up in San Francisco. Of course, I was still in touch with Carl Solomon, and we were in the publishing world because Ann was the West Coast editor for McGraw-Hill. It was a job her father had gotten her because he was a friend of the chairman of the board's. Allen worked for a short time for an ad agency here, and then he got a job on a ship--I think he was an assistant purser or something. Then came the Howl period and the reading at the gallery--I wasn't one of the people who read that night. Philip read John Hoffman's poems. That was in '55. By the way, we had a date there--you asked yesterday about when Adam was born. And Radha says he was born in '51; we were thinking more like late forties but it was later than that.
Jane and Bill Buck had come back from Nevada. You remember I mentioned that one of my friends who stuck by me was Jak Simpson. He was married by this time and living somewhere in the East Bay. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Jane and Bill went off to Thailand, an Asia trip, and they left Adam and Radha under the care of Jak Simpson and his wife at their house. And while they were gone, Adam and Radha contracted polio, which in Adam's case later on developed into muscular dystrophy. He died when he was about, I don't know, fourteen or so, I think. As you've discovered by now, I'm not very good with dates. We'll have to check that. Radha was--first she had to wear, I think, a brace, but her polio disappeared after a couple of years, completely. She did have some after effects which are no longer evident. Adam was crippled badly; he had to be in a wheelchair with braces. They eventually came back; it was hard to contact them at the time in Thailand. There was some bad feelings involved, whether the Simpsons understood what was going on, et cetera. But Jak and I remained friends. I used to take the kids on the barge on the weekend. There are a lot of pictures of them with Ann and I. We established that much of a re-relationship with Jane although Bill would never be seen--I mean, he would not physically be in the same space with me, and I kind of understood it although I realized that there was a guilt trip going on which had some legitimate rationale to it because from one day of being basically my friend--boom! He absconded and tried to take over much of my life.
The reason I'm concentrating on this is because as you know already, this whole thing has turned around with his son who appeared on the scene slightly after the time we're talking about, and who at this point is an important and positive part in all our lives.
By this time, I was going off every few months to write another Playboy story in some town. Acapulco I think was next. Hotel people throughout the world are, you know, kind of related, and they all comp each other. I was in Acapulco with a photographer and models and the whole big deal, and we were hosted by a lot of the important people--Miguelito Aleman, the president of Mexico's son on his yacht, et cetera. We were staying in this hotel which had Chagalls in the elevator. My wife, Ann, wanted to join us so she got, through her father, a suite in the hotel that was made available to us free of charge. She arrived in about two days and I got a telegram from Hef at Playboy saying, "Playboy writers are not married." [laughter] I called up Chicago, and I said, "What do you mean they're not married? I'm married; you knew I'm married." "Not when you're on assignment!" I didn't pay any attention.
I had a couple of run-ins with Hef. He's a funny guy. He was at that time young and very unsophisticated, and he came to San Francisco for the first time. I introduced him to Herb, and we had dinner and so forth and so on. He had this friend who owned a big nightclub in Chicago. I remember running around the streets with them and them pulling out hundred-dollar bills and waving them at people--I mean, and that was not San Francisco style.
I took them to Ann's 440, a night club where Lenny Bruce was working. I already told you I was quite involved with the jazz scene, and I didn't really cover that so much when I was talking about Buckwheat and Old Bill and on the barge, but we knew all those people, and they would all come to the barge, and they would go to Harry's studio to see the Partch instruments. I told you we were all big pot smokers; in fact, on the barge--this is before; this is still when I was living there with Jane and Bill and Pam--we had a bathtub, and we had rigged up the whole bathtub as a water pipe. It was absolutely too much for most people.
How would that work?
Well, we had a bowl which probably held about a half ounce to an ounce of grass, and we bubbled it through the bathtub full of water in kind of a glass distillation tube, so it was cooled, you know? When it came out, you could barely get any throat burn on it, so it didn't taste like it was very much that you were doing, but actually one was overpowered. I remember one time we took--Old Bill had an ancient Cadillac limousine, I mean really ancient. Kind of square. We took Count Basie back to his gig on Grant Avenue--I can't remember the name of the big club there. As he got out of the limousine he shook his head at us, and said, "I don't know whether to love you or to hate you." [laughter] Actually, I used that line in a poem somewhere along the way.
Two of the jazz musicians I'd gotten to know were a couple named Lorraine and Herb Geller. They lived down in L.A.. One time when I went to L.A., they were playing out in the Valley in a strip club. Jazz musicians really had a very hard time making enough money to get by, and they were excellent musicians; they had, as I remember, classical backgrounds, and here they were playing a strip club in the Valley. Not just a strip club but a freak's strip club--a midget, a lady who probably weighed about three hundred and some-odd pounds, a bearded lady. And Lenny Bruce was the M.C., and his mother was the cocktail waitress, and Herb and Lorraine were the band, the orchestra. They played the strip music, not their usual jazz, but with a touch of their music. But they thought it was kind of a kick to take me out
At the time, Lenny wasn't really interested in being a stand-up comedian. His ambition was to write movie scripts, and he had written quite a lot of them, and none of them were bought. He was married at the time. Later, I was able to help him get a job up here in San Francisco.
Sausalito Houseboat Revisited and Maya AngelouStern
During the time I was with Maya--and now we're going back again; you don't mind going back and forth--this semi-mobster came to see us, and he owned one of those stripclubs on the Barbary Coast. You know, that one-block thing which was like an unbelievable little microcosm of--the closest thing that San Francisco still had to a red-light district. The D.A. [district attorney] was closing up the stripclubs because of the bar girls and the whole tourist thing. He came to see us when we were working at the Purple Onion. Maya was on the bill with Phyllis Diller and the Kingston Trio, and it was a great time. They were all friends. He said to us, "I got this problem. I gotta shut down--I don't want to shut down; you guys know what you're doing. Look, you got the 'I' over here and the Onion here; I want to do the same thing. It'll be three or four months and then everything will die down, and we can go back to the girls." He had his wife and his sister-in-law--a ménage-...-trois. The two of them were really "B girls", but they were his family. It was a bizarre scene. I keep using that word; it's embarrassing. I named it the Hollow Egg. We sent out these invitations in hollow eggs--you know, those Chinese eggs--to everybody for the opening.
Helen Noga from the Black Hawk at that time had said to me, "Gerd, you gotta help the boy--I found this fantastic boy. He's still in high school but he's such an incredible voice, you wouldn't believe it. Johnny Mathis." [laughter] So the bill was Johnny Mathis, Maya--there was a female lesbian comic who was a protégé of Edgar Bergen's. And Edgar Bergen was supposed to come up for the opening, which is how I met his daughter who--later on we became fairly good friends--Candice. We had a little orchestra, and sure enough--the I and the Onion were really kind of comfortable little clubs, but the Hollow Egg was a stripclub, and it had these tables which were just very narrow tables with seats behind them that the Johns watched the girls from. Well, he didn't want to change the seating or anything, so here we were in this reconverted stripclub, which had been slightly decorated to
There were fabulous entertainers. The guy who made Ann's 440, a female impersonator named T.C. Jones--he later was on Broadway; he and his wife owned Persian cats. This man did a fabulous show. Oh, I remember how I had gotten into it: because of Hef. So I took Hef to Ann's 440 club, and his nightclub friend, and Lenny totally bowled them over; they couldn't believe Lenny. Lenny was unbelievable. When he did his--drive the car he drives or--the genie comes out the bottle, and he was going to grant any wish, and the guy doesn't believe him, and he says, "Make me a malted." He says, "You're a malted." [laughter] The obscenity and the humor. So they hired him immediately for Chicago, and that was the beginning of Lenny's big fame and downfall. It was a very disillusioning experience for me as the guy who had made the intros. I had a few of those. Another one was when I introduced McLuhan to Gossage.
Ann got more and more involved in political consciousness and organizations. At the time I met her, she--like most everybody we knew--was smoking grass. At one time, we went to a party, and they had pot brownies, and I think Ann didn't realize how strong they were, and she ate too much, and she got into a really paranoid scene, and after that she turned into a real prude, and she didn't want anything. It was difficult for me. Also at the same time, she got pregnant. By this time--I told you the story about how we got married because of the Chronicle. It got to the point where I couldn't have any grass in the house, I couldn't smoke in front of her.
It really bothered me because I've always kind of used pot to change my head. In other words, like--now I'm in the food business. In order to get my head out of the food business and into my poet self--if I would take two or three tokes--boom! It's like a transformation, you know? I've always used it that way--not as some people to "get out of it." I don't want to get out of it; I want to get high, and I want to get on it. And I do, and as I said before, I'm still at the point where I can take two or three or four tokes, and I get very, very high, very stimulated and inspired. Now I don't know whether that's actually the drug or my kind of acquired behavior. But whatever it is, it works. If it works, it doesn't need fixing, right?
It was a complicated situation. Ann was getting less and less into me and more and more into other things and other people. It got kind of very mixed up. There was a group around the No
So now I went off to New Orleans to do another "Playboy on the Town." There was a strange little story, and maybe I shouldn't tell it, but I think I will. I had an apartment over Brennan's restaurant that was given to me as the Playboy writer--and I had twenty-four hour room service from the restaurant, and I met a young painter there, and she stayed with me through the four or five days. When I got back to Sausalito, I discovered again that I had gonorrhea. I went to our wonderful doctor, Doctor Mackenzie. "What are you going to do about Ann?" I said, "I'm going to tell her. What do you mean what am I going to do about Ann?" He said, "You're serious?" I said, "Sure, I'm serious." I said, "Now I'm going to have to tell Georgia too." [laughter] He says, "Oh, I see. Well, I'll tell you something, Gerd. This isn't the first time that I've heard this situation; this is the first time I've ever met somebody who I didn't have to talk into telling people that they're sleeping with." I said, "What are you going do? Are you going to try to hide it and take really big risks?" So I come back for a second shot, and here in the office is Calvin Kentfield. I say, "Hey, Calvin, what's up?" He says, [mutters inaudibly]. He said, "What are you here for?" I said, "I'm here to get a second shot for the clap." He says, "Yeah?" So I look at him, and I say, "Who are you sleeping with? With my wife or with Georgia?" [laughter] Anyway, kind of a funny story. But that was typical of that time. I don't think it's very typical of this time that we're living in.
Next thing that happens--we have this friend, Les, who was kind of an architect. He was living in Muir Beach. He was my connection. I can't smoke at my house anymore, and who wants to go all the way to Muir Beach. In the meantime, I'm having a
--I get down there, and he says, "Let me play a tape for you, Gerd." They had a tape under the table at the restaurant, and they had taped me buying from Les. Sheriff Mountanos said, "Gerd, how could you do that? This is terrible; I don't want to book you, but I don't have any choice." So he takes me up to San Rafael, to the jail, I get a cause célèbre--headlines in the Chronicle about being Dan London's son-in-law. What can you do? We had another friend, because Ann had worked on the publication of his book Never Plead Guilty--Jake Ehrlich. We go to see Jake. Jake says, "Son of a bitch. Don't you believe what you read?" I said, "What do you mean?" He says, "What the hell is the name of my book?!" I said, "Never Plead Guilty." He says, "So what did you do?" I said, [sheepishly] "I pled guilty." He says, "That was the stupidest thing you ever did in your life; I could have gotten you off no problem. That was an illegal tape."
So it cost us some money, and I got probation, and I had to go to a psychiatrist. The judge was the head of the law office, and a former partner represented me. My father-in-law forgave me eventually, although he couldn't believe that people use drugs--after all, he was an alcoholic.
It kind of worked out. Now I'm going to this psychiatrist who also happened to be in Tiburon [California]. His name is Doctor Richard Prest. I called him D. Prest. [laughter] He was a very interesting guy. He grew little miniature trees. He didn't like them to be called bonsais because they were American trees. Every week he had a different little tree in his office, and they were beautiful. Sometimes he had a row of aspens. But he was a lot better at doing that than he was at psychiatry, as far as I was concerned. So I tell him the story, and I said, "Look. I think it's time for me to break up this marriage because it just isn't working anymore for me. We're both playing around, and we have a son, but she doesn't like the way I relate to kids, she doesn't like me anymore. I mean, I know what happened: she was rebelling, and she met me, and she had been married before, and then we had to get married because she felt embarrassed to be living with me, and it just isn't working." He says to me, "No
It gets worse and worse, and we're barely talking to each other now. All this time that I've been with her she's been taking Dexedrine to keep her skinny. She thinks she's heavy; I think she's great. This woman was a beauty. She was a beautiful, beautiful woman, and she had a great figure. She danced well. Marvelous and intelligent, but fucked up from family and from wanting to be a super duper intellectual. She [wound up being? wanted to be?] a professor of Anglo-Saxon. And she screwed up her next marriage too. Then, you know, cancer. She smoked like a chimney also. She could drink me under the table easily.
Finally he says to me, "I think what would be wise would be for me to have a session with Ann and see what's going on there." So he has a session with Ann, and he advises her that she should see a psychiatrist--after all, marketing. Not only does he advise that, but he says, "I have a colleague right across the hall." Same office, very convenient, right?
Okay, so we decide she's going to go see this guy. The second session he tells her, "The only solution for you is to divorce." So the next time I go in and see Doctor Prest I say to him, "You know, I think your conduct is miserably unethical." "What do you mean?" I say, "When I tell you that I want to get divorced you tell me that I'm supposed to stay with this marriage. You then see my wife, then you send her to your damn colleague across the hall, he tells her to get a divorce when you tell me I gotta stay married. What kind of shit is this?" He says to me, "You surely don't think, Mr. Stern, that I have any influence over my colleague's policy?" It was just too much for me. I said, "D. Prest, this is it. Goodbye." And I walked out. I explained the situation to my probation officer, and my probation officer understood. Very nice. I was nearly through with probation by that time.
We were in this kind of unsteady relationship now. Now from years and years and years ago when I was living with Jane in New Paltz--I was redoing the house from the fire; you remember the whole story there?
All of a sudden we get a call from this guy, Joe Kerrigan. Joe was married to the farmer's daughter next door--Mort DePew's daughter. He was the dairy farmer where we used to get our milk.
Single Life after Ann on the BargeStern
Now I'm living on the barge alone. I'm tired of public relations, and the Playboy thing is kind of wound down. I started working odd jobs. I had kind of learned to be a carpenter when number one, I was fixing up New Paltz and Jane's mother's house, and also originally when I did that work on the floats with Augie Sauer on the display for the Labor Day parades. I worked in a display shop too at that time, which I haven't mentioned. Actually, I was doing spot welding. Then I get a job at the Bay Model in Sausalito. The U.S. Engineers--as a carpenter; it lasted about four days because they asked me to hang doors. I was a failure at hanging doors. They were ancient doors which had been ripped off, and the frames--this was not the kind of thing that you give a new employee to do but they were putting me on. So I've been put on.
But I wound up doing odd jobs, and I did a lot from an old lady who lived right near here, actually. Right down the road from here. She got to the point where she was so sick and so alcoholic that she couldn't drive anymore; she gave me her car. I drove her around, and it was in my name. An old Austin.
I was living on the barge. I went to a party. A composer--Steve Reich--I didn't know him at the time, but it was his wife who I took to the party, and I met there a lady named Barbara McCallum. She was out from the East Coast, and we had a good time, and we got pretty high, and she came back to the barge with me. We had a nice fire in the fireplace, and we made love, and at breakfast the next morning she looked at me, she said, "Boy, that was the best fuck I've had in weeks," which I didn't expect [inaudible--laughter]. But you know, she was a California girl, raised in southern California, and it was very--her remark really got to me; I thought it was so genuine.
She was there for a few more days, and I kind of told her what had happened to me through the years. She says to me, "Hey, why don't you come back east? You're from the east; what are you doing out here?" Then she started telling me about where she lived, and she lived right across the road from a community of people who had left Black Mountain.
Black Mountain fell apart. There was a guy named Paul Williams, and Paul's father had made a lot of money, and Paul was a student at Black Mountain. He was an architect, a designer. He bought Black Mountain; they were in a lot of financial difficulties. Despite the fact that he solved a lot of the difficulties, there were always tensions in the faculty, and they just couldn't make the thing work anymore. They decided to close down, so Paul sold the property to a seminary, and he bought this fairly large property up in Rockland County in New York. The people who were living there were M.C. Richards--the woman whom I had wanted to study with, and who I kind of kept in contact with--John Cage, David Tudor, and Karen Carns, La Noue Davenport--who was an ancient music instrumentalist, formerly a jazz musician--there were a lot of interesting people. She kind of whetted my appetite, and I was beginning to get a bad taste in my mouth from having lived on this barge with three different women, and nothing ever working out. And I kind of blamed myself, but on the other hand, you know--.
Move Back EastStern
So I decided okay, I'll move back east. I rented the barge to a transvestite, it turned out. I didn't know he/she was a transvestite until later on. He was very convincing. He didn't speak English too well; he was Scandinavian. But it turned out later he was a she. So I rented the barge, and I took off in my car with my little tape recorder, and a good stash, and I drove across the country making poetry on the tape recorder as I went along, singing.
I arrived, and I had called Barbara to tell her I was coming, and I moved in with Barbara. Actually, I didn't go directly to Barbara's; I went to some friends of hers, and it turned out that the woman, Ethel Hultberg, was somebody I had known in the Village, on the East Side, years before when John Hoffman and I were banging around before we went on the boat. There was an interesting group around at that time of anarchist poets, like Bob Stock, who also had been here in California. Jackson McLow. A lot of people who made an impression on that world over time.
Before John Cage became so famous, he had a lot of influence because of his work with random ideas and his knowledge of technological theories. Now I arrive here, and I meet people that I met at Black Mountain years ago--also Paul and Vera Williams--and M.C. welcomes me with open arms. It was like coming back to a
I got into kind of two modes. I started doing visual poem collages. There were a lot of painters and sculptors around, and I saw that they had a world of exhibitions and performances and all kinds of ferment was going on. A lot of them were successful. John Chamberlain--
So I was surrounded by a lot of people who were more into the visual aspect of things than I had been. I had always been very involved in going to museums and galleries ever since I first got my friendships with the whole Music and Art crowd. They really turned me on to painting and sculpture, and I had a lot of connections to painters and sculptors in those days, and now here I was kind of coming back to that scene.
M.C. Richards had been given by John Cage--they lived just across the road from us--a report to the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, the NAEB--I knew what the NAEB was all about because of KPFA and KQED--by Marshall McLuhan, which later became the verbatim manuscript for the book Understanding Media. Now when M.C. got that manuscript, she immediately thought of me. She gave it to me to read. She said, "John, I need it for a few more weeks."
I read it, and it was a revelation; I understood immediately that his perceptions were seminal for my development. Particularly things like his statement that what you need to do is pay attention to the effect rather than the content. But there were a whole slew of insights which just kind of got me turned on
I then started developing a concept called the Verbal American Landscape. I was cutting up words out of magazines and posters and anywhere I could find them, and then I kind of expanded that into road signs and advertising messages, and I was really beginning to collage my mind and physically, and a landscape of words which were not necessarily linear. I mean, the whole McLuhan perception from Gutenberg type to electronic media was [snaps fingers] hitting on me, and it was also very somehow compatible to the "high" state of mind in which you tend to associate more than to just build from grammatical sentence structure. My poetry, even though a page had become less and less linear--before this, it just was like a fantastic mish-mash of these ideas with where I was heading.
"The Land" Artistic CommunityStern
Among the people I didn't know and met at that time, was a painter named Steve Durkee and his wife Barbara. They were living downtown on the lower East Side, and his gallery owner helped him to buy an old church which was very close to Gatehill Co-op, which was where we were in Rockland County. the co-op was known as "The Land," this little artistic community of Black Mountain people. And people had been added. We became friendly immediately. Steve was a skinny, red-headed giant--I loved his paintings and I still do. He was a great painter, and he's given up painting now but I had a lot of work, which was left behind to me. He was, and I assume still is, a very difficult personality, but brilliant--both visual and conceptual ideas. We got on famously, and we wanted to work together. He was very taken with my ideas. Steve's wife was a San Franciscan. The patron of this whole group was Paul Williams because he had inherited money, and he designed people's houses, and he helped people buy land and things. He funded The Living Theater, and he was a primary funder at that time of radical causes and artwork. And he was a very modest and hardworking guy.
Barbara's house was old and needed a lot of work. I did a lot of work on it for her while we were living together. And then Steve and I decided he would help me to rebuild the bathroom. We built a really wild little bathroom with trees growing through it and a mandala stone floor. Barbara and I had a very good relationship but she was one of those people who always wanted more. And after we got through with the bathroom she wanted me to redo the kitchen.
In the meantime, I was very busy working on what I considered my new three-dimensional poems. I had designed some ideas for sculptural poems which I was so enthusiastic about, and I talked to Steve, and I talked to a lot of people. I talked to Paul Williams, and it got to be, conceptually, an idée fixe. Paul offered to build them for me; he said, "We could do that." And Steve's gallery was a very prestigious gallery, the Alan Stone Gallery in New York. The gallery owner said that if we built them, he would show them. Here I was in seventh heaven.
In the meantime, I was near my parents again. We had a rocky relationship which had been somewhat repaired during my marriage to Ann, because--wow--she represented real middle-class splendor beyond any--. We went back for my brother's bar mitzvah, and I was called up to the Torah for an aliyah. I had a nice bass voice.
After years of basically not talking to my father and my stepmother--there's really kind of a disconnected scene going down. But now I was divorced from my nice society wife, and I was living up in a bohemian scene in Rockland County, and it started coming apart again. Barbara and I had had a big fight because I refused to get involved in this kitchen remodeling, and I stopped talking. I would not talk, and various people around there would come around and tell me, "I know you're not talking, but I won't tell anybody; you can talk to me." Things like that. I just wouldn't open my mouth. I was on strike. I would go to Paul's shop, and we would work on the pieces. There were some really exciting things we were making.
Then it was the high holidays, and Ethel [Hultberg] offered to take me to the synagogue. I went, but I still wouldn't open my mouth even to say the Shmah or anything. I was in total withdrawal but I was working full time. People would feed me, etcetera.
This went on for weeks. They wanted me to go see a psychiatrist, and I wouldn't do that. Once in a while I would
New York. Woodstock was where she lived.
She took you to her house?
So now I had left Barbara. But I had to keep going back and forth from Woodstock to Rockland County because we were building all these pieces. Some of which were fascinating: there was a garbage lid on a restaurant table pedestal with a little mechanism there where the word "enough"--except it was spelled "enuf" [spells]--you know those letters they used to use on postboxes on the road that had little things that caught the light, little reflectors on them? The garbage can lid was filled with crankcase oil. About every minute or so, the word "enuf" would rise out of the oil, dripping oil, and after about fifteen seconds or so it would fall back into the oil. [laughter] It was a great piece, it really was. And Paul--the idea was simple, but to build these things was complex. I helped him, but basically he designed the things. He didn't want his name used when they were shown. That piece unfortunately--I wasn't there when it happened, but it was standing in the foyer of the gallery on a plush red rug, and a delivery man came in with a delivery book, and he needed to put it down. He threw it in the oil. He thought it was a table because it looked like--it reflected light; it was when the "enuf" was submerged. He threw the book; the book got wet but it splattered oil all over the red carpet, and Alan was furious. I mean, this was a very expensive red carpet.
I was so devastated by the--the other thing that happened was the day the show opened there was a newspaper strike in New York. So there was no possibility of reviews. And this was a big day in my life, my first show. It was a group show; there
In the meantime, Steve had moved into the church, and I had helped him with building walls and things. We had gotten very, very close. I mean, Steve was the guy who arranged the show for me. Our mutual appreciation of each other's work was a very, very powerful bond.
As a fascinating side story to this, Judi and Steve had lived together, and Barbara had come to visit them with two Mexican friends of hers. She was on her way, I think, from Europe back home to California, and she had decided that Steve was going to be hers. And she invited him to California--she comes from a wealthy family, related to the Mellons. And Steve bit; he left Judi, whereupon Judi allied herself with David Weinrib, who was a sculptor and who had been married to Karen Carns. He was one of the founders of the community at The Land. That had been just kind of breaking up when I met Judi that night.
All three of us are Libras--Steve, David, and I. Now there was obviously some not-so-great feelings both between Steve and Judi and between Barbara and Judi. David and Steve were also friends, but the bond between Steve and I, and, ergo, Barbara, was so strong that it overcame that. In the meantime, during the time I was living with the other Barbara, a lot of people had come through--I mean, this little community was a central focus--Michael McClure and Allen Ginsberg and all kinds of people from my past and from other people's pasts. A lot of black activists and anarchists, Igal Rudenko and Bayard Rustin and David Koren, for instance.
Say that again.
Rudenko was a printer who was an anarchist and a very close friend of David and Belle's, for instance. And Vera Williams did all the covers for Resistance, which was the anarchist publication. And what was his name now--a big figure in the black movement, a gay guy-- Anyway, Ethel and Paul, in the meantime, had lived at The Land, but they had had a lot of philosophical differences, and they had been kind of pushed out, but they were around. There were a lot of strong inputs and outputs.
Back to CaliforniaStern
And Judi and I went to California carrying all my collage materials and things with me. I was designing new works on the
I was really turned on to audio-visual, electronic use of words in media. I had made a lot of kind of excerpts out of the McLuhan thing which I took along. We didn't have copy machines in those days, at least available to us. But I had written it out by hand. Eventually, Understanding Media came out. I don't remember when that was in this context.
I got to California, and by that time we were able to move back onto the barge. The transvestite had absconded. I had evolved on the way a concept for a piece called "Contact is the Only Love." I built a paper mock-up of it; it was a seven-foot octagon with flashing lights and audio components. It was a sculpture, kind of a pop kinetic sculpture. Some of it was somewhat derivative, to tell you the truth. I had met Bob Indiana through Steve, and I was extremely taken with his work which--I love words--was another kind of very strong pop image. It was different from what I wound up doing but it had given me a very strong hint that it was possible to do things in a completely different manner that I had conceived of before.
I started building pieces, and I related to Ivan Majdrakoff --again, after years of not seeing him, we got very close--he was living here in Mill Valley. We started working on a film together, the first film that he had ever made.
I'm getting confused again about the timeline. There was a certain problem about this piece; it was a very ambitious piece, this big one. In the meantime, I was doing collage works. I got back together with Herb Caen, and he was still married at the time to Sally. Herb helped get Judi--I referred to Judi as my nurse; by this time she was no longer the Angel of Death although that was in the background of my mind, but people here thought of her as my nurse, that's what I told them she was, and Herb got her a job working in David's delicatessen as a waitress.
I needed several thousand dollars to start buying the equipment to put into this piece. One of the people I had known well through Sally Caen was René di Rosa. René is the major collector of California art. He has a place called Winery Lake. He was another element of San Francisco society whom I knew when I was married to Ann. I was just writing poetry then. In fact, there was another guy who lived in that same section, Frank Granat from Granat Brothers Jewelry. He wanted to be a songwriter, and Ann and I wrote some lyrics together with him. Now René, when he
The connections started developing. I went to see, at the time, George Culler, who was the director of the San Francisco Museum of Art, and I went to him cold. I showed him this thing--and this was this roll of paper, which was a seven-foot octagon, red and blue and yellow; it was a little like a highway sign. I have a film of it, and I have photographs of it, etcetera. He really got turned on by the idea, but he didn't have any money to fund it.
So he told me that the museum would accept contributed funds; that would be a tax incentive. We started meeting every few weeks, and he was wonderful. I mean, he didn't know me from Adam. Then I was having difficulty raising the money, so he suggested, "Well, you're a poet; why don't you do a poetry reading at the opening of your show. We'll charge money for it. It'll help you defray the cost."
In the meantime, I got to know some other people. There was a gallery owner who was the heir to the Piggly-Wiggly grocery fortune--I can't remember his name now, but it'll come back. Hal Babitt, who was one of Henry Kaiser's assistants and had been with Kaiser forever, got interested in the project and gave it some personal money and some Kaiser money. And a number of other people contributed hundreds of dollars, and we got enough money together, and we built the piece right here on Mount Tamalpais. An old friend of mine who's a wild constructor/designer/architect/ carpenter/guru named Roger Somers--he's still there. He was a fantastic craftsperson; he could make wood do anything. He's particularly good with routers and making curved edges and things. A little too much for me; I needed some hard edges, and we made some compromises.
I needed audio help. I got an introduction to Morton Subotnik who at the time was with Ramón Sender, the co-director of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which later moved to Mills College, but at that time it was on Divisadero Street. There was a young guy there about sixteen years old named Michael Callahan. By this time, I decided, Poetry reading? Who wants to do a poetry reading? I mean, that was old stuff, right? I started working on plans for a multimedia experience--multimedia, mind you, wasn't a word that was known in those days--called "Who are You and What's
It was in the auditorium of the museum. We had transparent isolation booths onstage in which each of them--there were four people all together--you know, Herb Caen, Allen Ginsberg, et cetera, et cetera--we were able to broadcast and switch the signals from the various booths onto a series of speakers. In the meantime, we were projecting a series of slides which came from the Verbal American Landscape. Those had been chosen by me--I didn't do the photography; Ivan and Stewart Brand did the photography. We borrowed some closed-circuit television equipment, so there were television images. We were able to switch the whole thing. There were people in costume--it was a very elaborate affair.
The technology was not by any means perfect. We had telephones and microphones, and there was a lot of feedback. There was absolute chaos. In the meantime--a little antecedent to this--we had started getting into the psychedelic period, and I had had my first acid trip at Roger Somers' in kind of an orgiastic setting.
Roger was close to Alan Watts and Elsa Gidlow. Alan and Elsa both lived on the same property down here on the flank of Mt. Tamalpais. There was a picture of Elsa in this week's Chronicle, and the books that they were reviewing.
The acid had kind of given me an even more precise idea of the kind of mixture that I wanted to create. Mixed media. Between that and McLuhan and et cetera.
We did this for two nights. Alfred Frankenstein was at that time the San Francisco Chronicle arts and music critic, a nationally or even internationally known critic. I found out later on he had wanted to go to some [Béla] Bartók quartets that were playing that night, but his city editor had gotten the release of this thing at the museum, and it had really sparked his interest so he insisted that Alfred go to this affair. Well, the next day on the second page of the Chronicle there was the
Well, the second night was even more chaotic than the first night, and I was on acid during the performance. At one point, some guy--there was a piano on stage which had just been left there from something else--some guy jumped up on the stage and started playing terrible chords. It was very disruptive. Michael McClure and I jumped up on stage--it was the period when he was doing his "Beast" poems, and we started roaring, "Ahrg, Grahrr!" at each other. It was really a very exciting piece of work.
Judi and I were living on Hayes Street at the time; we had a big apartment, and I had huge collage tables. The show was about fifteen different pieces by this time. With part of the money I gathered, I had the pieces from the show in New York sent out, and I had made a few more things. I'd had a little show at the Art Institute which had been arranged by friends of mine before that. Anyway, things were really rocking and rolling. The soundtracks we had made were with FDR [Franklin Delano Roosevelt], Billie Holiday, Alice B. Toklas, etcetera and Michael and I had spent night after night collaging sound in a way that hadn't been done until that time--although now it's old hat. He and I just became co-workers; it has been an amazing collaboration.
One of the people who had been there--it was part of the material that came out of McLuhan--was Alvin Balkind, the director of the University of Vancouver's art museum. He just happened to be in town. He called me up about a week later; he had gotten my number from the museum--
Taking the USCO Show on the Road: Vancouver, Seattle, The Psychedelic Theater and the Timothy Leary Lecture, MIT, New York, Riverside Museum, The LSD Conference, Harvard
I was telling you about the director of the gallery up at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, who had called me and who had been at the performance at the San Francisco Museum.
I persuaded Ramón and Morton to let Michael come up with us, and Michael, Judi, and I got in a little Volkswagen bug--I don't quite understand how we managed that. I think we had a roof rack, and we tied all these collages and pieces, they promised to give us whatever equipment we needed up there, and we took all of the software--you know, the slides and the films and the tapes--and off we went.
It was really quite a great experience because originally the idea of doing this multimedia performance was simply to raise money to support the making of "Contact is the Only Love" because I still owed quite a bit of money for the parts and the electronics and so forth. Most of it was not exactly electronic; it was like electromechanical because we were using the kind of equipment that's made for display signs and neon and so forth and cam-operated switches. It was before the days of fully electronic switching capability.
Of course, we couldn't take "Contact is the Only Love"; that weighed--I can't remember how much it weighed, but it took four people to lift it, so you can imagine. The base of it was a tire filled with concrete, and the little pedestal that the octagon rested on itself weighed hundreds of pounds. Anyway, the notion of "Who Are You and What's Happening?"--as it was titled--or "The Verbal American Landscape" as being portable was not something that I had anticipated. I was communicating back and forth with the East Coast; they were fascinated by what was happening--Steve Durkee and the rest of people I had been working with there.
Now we met Marshall, and we recorded him. He was somewhat taken aback by the performance because he was kind of a Victorian gentleman, despite his very forward ideas about media transforming twentieth-century consciousness. We got along well. I remember he said he was the kind of person who didn't even like pop-up toasters; he liked the kind of toaster where you have the two sides, and you open them up, and you turn them around, and you would close it again. That was his kind of technology, even though he was writing about the most forward kind of media experiences. His expertise came out of studying the Middle Ages and medieval manuscripts originally and then on to Gutenberg and forward.
He had an extraordinary way of expressing himself. He would field an idea, and he would talk a few phrases about it, and all of a sudden he would be switching, and he would be on some other track immediately. And that just kept happening. To me, it was a very dynamic and engaging experience listening to him; I had never heard anybody express themselves that way. To some people it was ultimately confusing. Since I've never been into totally linear-type expression, it suited me to a T. He followed the presentation, the multimedia piece, and he spoke about it--not entirely appreciative, because it was a very noisy little piece. He did have some remarkable insights into it, and we continued relating from that time on for many years both up in Toronto where he was headquartered and in New York when he came down to take a year-long position at Fordham University--a controversial appointment at the time because it used government money, and the question was if it was right to bring someone in from Canada, and also he was not exactly accepted as an establishment figure.
From Vancouver, we packed up the little show--they paid us what to us was an interesting amount of money to come up there. It was really just expenses, but it certainly kept us going. Then we went on to Seattle, and we stayed there with a friendly collector and his wife--the Bagley Wrights. It turned out that--I knew that Ted Roethke had died, but I hadn't realized that he had died in Bagley's swimming pool. It was kind of a--here we were.
Bagley owned the restaurant on top of the Space Needle in Seattle, which was one of the first restaurants that turned around, and you could view the whole city. I stayed in touch with him for a few years. He was very generous to us. He bought one of my pieces. Then we went back to San Francisco.
Sometime not too long thereafter, Steve and Barbara came out. Steve and I created several pieces together which were shown in a San Francisco gallery. Things were going on at quite a hectic pace. After Steve and Barbara went back to the East Coast, Judi and I decided it was time for us to reassemble there with them. We did a number of other performances at various campuses around the Bay Area, and Steve had attended one of them, and he wanted to get involved in making more materials for the performances. They were developing: we were getting more images and more sound material, and Michael had become very strongly a part of what we were doing. Our initial technical difficulties were being solved, so there was a lot less feedback and a lot more supposed clarity.
My intentions in these works were to extend concepts of poetry into more elaborate modes of expression. I felt that it
Somewhere along the line I wrote a sentence, an explication of some of it which went "in a world of simultaneous operations, you don't have to be first to be on top." As I said, Ivan, my old friend--I call him Ivan [stress on long i, not e], but the really preferred pronunciation is Ivan [long e, not i]-he and I had made our first film together. It was used as part of some performances, and it also won an award at the Los Angeles Experimental Film Festival. It was titled "Y", just the letter Y out of a highway sign. It was a physically cut montage of highway signs and the center line on the highway and a nude female figure, very close up and panned over as if it were a highway. It had orgasmic breathing sounds and traffic noises also mixed. It's quite a powerful film.
There was kind of a complex thing going on here with the Northwest Review which was up in Eugene, Oregon. I had somehow gotten them--I think it was through M.C. Richards, a translation that she had done of Antonin Artaud, a poet maudit from France--in fact, I had become acquainted with his work through Carl Solomon; you remember how I had told you about how he had brought all the books to the Psychiatric Institute. Artaud also had written about a Mexican journey he had made trying shamanic, psychedelic mushrooms; it was a very interesting piece. I can't remember what magazine it was published in--maybe Transformation. It really grabbed a lot of us; it was extremely intense poetic imagery, as was all his work. They published that, and then they found out about what I was doing.
We had a friend who lived on Lake Siltkoos in Oregon, in a log cabin. He was a former professor of Latin and a friend of Martha Graham's, and he had been dismissed because he had had an affair with one of his male students many years before. He
We didn't do a whole performance in Eugene, but I showed this film. A couple of days later I went back to a presentation at the university, from Lake Siltkoos. Another filmmaker and critic whom I knew from San Francisco was lecturing and showing some avant-garde films of the time--I think, Bruce Conner and Stan Brakhage. After the films, he got up to talk, and he was saying, "Well, I hope what had happened to one of my friend filmmakers a few days ago here doesn't happen to me. I understand the police are still looking for him." I kind of listened to this; at first I didn't quite understand what was happening. Then I realized he was talking about me. [Laughter] So I quietly snuck out of the auditorium and fled back to Lake Siltkoos. And I then called the people at the Northwest Review who had sponsored me there. It had really hit the fan the day after my showing. A twenty-year-old student had complained to her mother that she had terrible aftereffects from seeing this movie because of the orgasmic breathing, it was obscene--and I can't remember all the details, but the Regents of the university got involved, and the editors of the Northwest Review lost their positions, and the Regents even threatened to dismiss the head of the university. It was like a ridiculous cause célèbre. And I disappeared quickly. For sure the police would have arrested me.
After that we decided to go back to the East Coast, and several people arranged--Ivan and other people--arranged stops along the way with performances. One of them was in Salt Lake City, Utah, and when the first nude images--this was in the art school, mind you, at the university--hit the screen, they stopped the projector, they gave me my film back, and they ushered me quickly out the door. At that time, you were not even allowed in that art school to draw from the nude. Mormon edicts.
We went on, and we did four or five little performances on the way. Michael was not with us; it was just Judi and myself in the Volkswagen bug. We then arrived back in Woodstock at Judi's little house in what was called "The Maverick"; we thought it was a very appropriate place to live. There was no running water, there was an outhouse, but it was a lovely little place. Very quiet and very conducive to doing creative work.
We started spending quite a bit of time at the church in Garnerville [New York], which was a little over an hour away, and which belonged at that time to Steve. I think I mentioned that his gallery owner, who also was showing my work--Alan Stone--had helped him buy this church. It was $5,000 for an old church. Not too bad, huh? Even in those days when money was worth more.
I forgot--after the show in San Francisco, there were a number of galleries that became very interested in my work, including the David Stewart Gallery in Los Angeles. We also had a show down there, and a lot of the movie and art people were fascinated. David also showed Dennis Hopper, who at the time was doing visual arts--it was before he was really in the movies, although he was married to the daughter of a well-known movie star--and I met him, and we became quite friendly. And by that time, John Chamberlain, whom I had known on the East Coast, had moved out to Southern California--there was a lot of great associations with people who were working hard and who were either not known or well-known in the arts. A lot of the people who were at the Beat show at the Whitney, which is coming out here--Wally Hedrick, etcetera, were living in the canyons there. We had some friends who were involved in the popular music business. You know, those crowds at that time were very kind of mixed up and hung out together. We stayed with Barry Maguire for several weeks--the guy who did "Eve of Destruction".
My first psychedelic experience--my first LSD [lysergic acid diethylamide] experience, rather, because I had taken peyote both with the Indians and with Philip Lamantia. Philip and I had gone down to the de Angulo ranch. It was my first peyote experience. There was a little cabin on that property called Gloria. We had an amazing night together eating peyote with very anthropomorphic and mandalic imagery. At the time I was working with Grace Clements--this goes back to the time when I was around KPFA--we had an idea for a rather elaborate work called "The Symbology," of taking international and interreligious symbols and doing kind of a comparative analysis and exposition and imagery both from a philosophic/psychological standpoint from her side, and from my poetic standpoint. We, through her connections, applied for a number of grants to realize that project but none of them ever came through, so it just remained a proposal. I might actually have a copy of it somewhere. It never occurred to me until this moment that that Symbology project--and later the "Transformer" project, which had some conceptual relationship, not on a subject [form?] but the idea of synthesis, bringing together elements in that kind of a locus--anyway, where am I? That's always a good question, huh?
Now we're already on our way to the East Coast after that, doing performances along the way. When we got back--as I said, we were spending more and more time at the church, and both Michael
I had turned on Steve to grass, and it kind of changed his life. It somehow made him a lot less neurotic. He also then had LSD experiences--he and I, it seems to me, are the only people I know who instead of getting more out of it, got less out of it. Timothy Leary and his group always resented the fact that I felt that I had gotten more rational on--
--the LSD experiences rather than further out of it as had happened to them. Most of the people involved in the psychedelic movement were very straight people before acid, and they were looking to get out of their straitjackets. I was kind of a hysterical--I wasn't straitjacketed because I didn't allow myself to be, but when I got hysterical the only way to calm me down was either to put me in a hot tub or to fuck me or do something that would break the pattern. It was only after Michael and I had worked a long time together that I understood the nature of feedback loops. Actually, he started explaining them to me after the experience at the San Francisco Museum.
A feedback loop is the relation between a transmitter and a receiver, and once they start interacting--unless you somehow break the loop--they just keep accelerating, and they don't stop. It's called positive feedback. There's no way to stop it except when the mechanism or organism breaks down or if you are able-- yourself or somebody else--to separate the elements. It's a nice metaphor for hysterical behavior. I think once I understood it from the theoretical and electrical or acoustic point of view, and also the chemical point of view from psychedelics, I was able to handle it myself instead of needing somebody outside of myself to handle it.
We kept on developing these multimedia performances, and Steve got incredibly involved in making super-eight millimeter movies and developing image banks with us. We did electronic music, mostly meditational in nature, and before long we stopped doing the performances as individuals. Without our names, we decided to call ourselves "USCO", the company of Us, because we were anonymous artists.
Now this actually came out of something I had learned from my time with Grace Clements. Grace had introduced me to the work of Ananda Coomeraswami, who was curator of fine arts at the Boston Museum, and who had written a lot of work on the artist in traditional society. The artist in traditional society was incorporated in the society; it wasn't a ego trip: he didn't sign his work. He made objects and images that were used by the community, and he was no different, supposedly, than the other craftsmen or the other people who produced food and clothing and shelter and whatever. It seemed to me at the time that that was a much saner and compatible role, at least for me personally. Steve, who has always had trouble in terms of his ego, was entranced by this idea, and now we became USCO, the company of Us.
We were always looking for more material and more people. By this time we had gathered another five or six people who were working together with us, some of them living at the church and some of them not. I had met in Woodstock--because we were neighbors--an artist named Bob Dacey. He did tie-dye work, and he did work in which he collaged a lot of things and then burned them using glue that he set on fire.
We all got involved in everything, and Dace had a friend named Jud Yalkut, who was working as a stockboy at a big record store in New York, Sam Goody's, but his ambition was to be a filmmaker. At the time, I had gotten very involved in the Woodstock Artists' Association; I was the vice-chairman, and Dace was on the board, and a lot of our other friends--and there was quite a conflict developing between the old traditional artists who felt that they were the artists and that we were not. But we had the backing of the most powerful conservative person who had been one of the founders and one of the chairmen, Arnold Blanche, and he taught at the Art Students' League, and he was a fairly well-known painter. He backed us 100 percent against a lot of his colleagues.
In any case, there was a woman there whose son had died in an automobile accident, and she happened to have a movie camera that he had used, and she gave it to us. And I gave it to Jud. We had another friend, Jonathan Ayers, who had a remarkable motorcycle; it was called "The Ghost." I was fascinated by the concept of real time and time as it was represented by the number of frames per second in film and how you can really manipulate time on film by simply--somehow, either mechanically or electrically or electronically slowing it down and speeding it up. We conceived this piece of film work, which we used in our performances--it was filmed simply by Judd sitting behind Jonathan on the motorcycle running down roads around Woodstock--fairly woody roads. What we did was we printed three of these films
That was the trend.
It was the trend, and there weren't many people at that time doing multimedia work; we were pioneers according to Life magazine. We performed this in various places: the University of Rochester, where we had some friends who were professors; MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology]--.
I haven't talked about Santa Cruz. Paul Lee, see, we were starting to get very involved with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner. We were at the church which is in Garnerville. Garnerville is in Rockland County on the west side of the Hudson--you know, New Jersey starts opposite New York and then goes back into New York. Millbrook--at that time it was called the Castalia Foundation, after something in one of [Hermann] Hesse's novels. I had met the people up in Boston sometime before, but I didn't really know them. My psychedelic experiences and their psychedelic experiences had not been connected to this time, but we were invited to come up to Millbrook.
Millbrook was an incredible estate which was owned by the two Hitchcock brothers and their sister. They were very wealthy socialites who became patrons of Timothy's, and of the psychedelic movement. There was a house which probably had forty or fifty bedrooms which they turned over. They lived also on the property but in other houses; it was quite an estate. There was even a bowling alley.
This was the Hitchcocks?
Hitchcocks. Billy, Tommy, and Peggy. Billy, I think, at the time was working as an investment banker with Lehman Brothers. I mean, there were private planes; on the other hand, there were indigents, hangers-on, living there. Sometimes you'd come up there, and there would be a hundred people. Can't remember that famous movie--was it Marienbad? The estate reminded one of this kind of setting.
We somehow became involved. They thought that our multimedia performances were kind of simulations of psychedelic experiences. One of the people who had been one of Timothy Leary's early subjects with LSD was a guy named Paul Lee, a professor of philosophy and religion at MIT and Paul Tillich's assistant. We became very friendly with Paul, and Paul invited us to do a performance first--well, I'm getting ahead of myself here. He was first [the protestant chaplain?] at Brandeis [University], and then he moved back to MIT. We did performances at both universities. By the time we got to MIT--there's an incredible auditorium there; it's kind of like a diaper shape, designed by Saarinen. We had started building strobes. Strobe lights. Among the audience when we did this-- We had done a series of performances in New York City for-- Jonas Mekas and his brother Adolphus were the leading figures in the avant-garde film movement on the East Coast. Jonas had decided that he was going to do a festival, "Expanded Cinema." I've got all the materials for this; my problem is I've got an attic full of stuff in dreadful chaos which needs to be organized, and a lot of the stuff you should have access to.
At the same time, Jonas had arranged to go to Europe. I believe he was Latvian, and he was going back home. So he turned over the Expanded Cinema festival to a guy named John Brockman. John contacted me, and we arranged to do performances--and we also put him in touch with a lot of the other people who were working in the media by that time--both using theatre media and performance pieces. We added at that time to our performance in New York an artist named Carolee Schneemann. Carolee is a dancer, a performance artist, and a filmmaker. She and her dancers would get up during one portion of the performance on stage where we had this white photographic background paper, very large, and as the slides and images were projected, they would take paintbrushes and paint portions of the images with dance motions. They were dressed up as painters in white overalls, which also of course caught the images, and each of them had a white ladder. Then when they finished painting those, they would rip down the pieces of paper, and there would be more paper behind it.
After a while, we were kind of getting out of overload, and we felt that we had freaked out too many people. We were changing the name of the performance, and we finally changed it to "We Are All One." Now what we did is we would build up to overload, then from overload we would come down to a meditational transformation and just [hums] "ommmmmmmmmm." There would be these hundreds of images just multiplying and overloading and sounds. Eventually the only image there would be on a big display--a CRT [cathode-ray tube] monitor--an oscilloscope sine wave which looks like the infinity sign or a Moebius loop just dancing for fifteen minutes
By the time we got to MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], you know, here was the motorcycle film--Kresge Auditorium, I think it is. I think it's Saarinen who was the architect. Woodstock is near Poughkeepsie, which is where IBM's research and development and some of its manufacturing facilities were centralized. There was a place there called P&D Surplus, where you could go and buy incredible electronic devices and parts and things which weren't ordinarily available. This was Michael's world; he knew what everything was. We would go--whatever we had; a few dollars in our pocket--and Michael would save thousands of dollars. His technique was "Wow! We could buy this for forty dollars! This cost somebody $6,450!" [Laughter] We weren't saving anything; we were spending everything we had, you know? But we got some incredible things--like this big CRT. Now this [points] is considered a large screen, this television, right? Well, this thing was twice as big. It couldn't show television programs, but Michael was able to build the circuitry so we could show very elaborate wave forms that were taken off one or two oscilloscope inputs into this display tube, and it was the central piece on stage. After a while, we had somebody sitting in the Zen meditation position on top of this piece of equipment. We flashed images on him, and that guy had to stay totally still during the whole performance [laughter]. It was a kind of obsessional madness intended to get across our "We Are All One" message.
With the strobes and the overload with the three motorcycles going, after our performance at MIT, we got a phone call from this professor who first developed the strobe and who worked with [Jacques] Cousteau and who was head of the department at MIT. His name was Harold Edgerton. He's an extremely famous and brilliant guy. You probably have seen some of his strobe photographs of the milk drop which looks like a corona. He wanted to talk to Michael and me. He said, "This strobe you have is puny. Next time you have a performance, I'll lend you a real strobe," and he took us into his laboratory, and he showed us these enormous strobes, and he gave Michael some circuitry. It was a very, very generous gesture. He said, "I didn't really enjoy the performance, but I understand what you're trying to do. If you want to use a strobe, at least get a powerful strobe."
He explained to us that his reputation and his career had been made on the strobe light. He had arrived at it simply because his original field was motors, and to measure the rpm, revolutions per minute, of a motor was very difficult. It used to
Now we had met John Brockman because of the Expanded Cinema festival. John, who came from Boston where his father was the Carnation King of New England, had gone to business school at Columbia and had become a china buyer at Bloomingdale's but he wanted to be in the arts.
Here we were: this group of poets, engineers, and painters living in an old church in Rockland County. You saw one of the pictures of the church, I think, in that thing I sent you, the USCO retrospective brochure?
Right, okay. That was all of us at the church.
John decided that we were something that he wanted to represent, and he got involved with a guy named Michael Meyerberg. Michael Meyerberg was a theatrical producer; he had brought "Fantasia" to Walt Disney, and he was the first one to produce "Waiting for Godot," and he was by this time very old and very frail. He had leased the airplane hangar from which [Charles] Lindbergh had taken off at Roosevelt Field, and he wanted to put in a major kind of a nightclub, youth center, entertainment complex. His original concept had been to put a movie studio there, but he couldn't get somehow the use permissions, and there were things that stood in his way. He was looking for people to put this thing together. Somehow John met him--and John organized a bus, and all of us and Andy Warhol's group and Ken Dewey's group and a lot of arts people got on this bus and went out to the airplane hangar, and we were supposed to make proposals on how to turn it into this kind of avant-garde rock music palace.
Steve and I and Michael got our heads together, and we wrote this proposal. I don't know if it was because we were cheap or whether it was because we were more adventurous and mind-blowing, but we got the contract to do it.
We tried to negotiate a cooperation of collaboration with Andy because we really felt badly that he had been passed by for this fairly ambitious project, but he was involved in the Electric Circus, and he decided he didn't want to work together, which was also typical of Andy.
We went on with the project. We had, I think, around the whole hangar about thirty slide screens, and we also had one of the first video projectors. It was black and white, and it was an Idofor, a Swiss machine; it could deliver an image which was, I think, about twenty-five feet across, and we had three cameras that could take--for instance, the jiggling behind of a young girl on the dance floor, blow it up across that whole screen, or back off and take practically the whole dance floor.
The place was at first called "Murray the K's World." Murray the K was a well-known macho disc jockey out of New York, and he was a very powerful personality, and he didn't get along too well with Mr. Meyerberg so "Murray the K's World" became "The World."
It was a great scene for us because, number one, it allowed us to work with some technologies and programming that we hadn't worked with before. Michael was able to build a very large-scale programmer for all of these thirty slide machines. They were in pairs because they dissolved, and we had to make them match with the music, so there were all kinds of little effects that we could do with them. We actually programmed the slides to go with certain tunes. I remember one of the popular tunes of that time was Nancy Sinatra's "Boots are Made for Walking"; we had these great boot shots all over the screens, and when they dissolved into each other it looked like they were walkin'.
There were fairly well-known groups that played there: The Rascals, the Isley Brothers, and so forth and so on. I mean, not the top level--not The Beatles, you know--but the levels just below that. The groups alternated with the recorded music, and the recorded music is what we had programmed the slides to, because we had decided ahead of time what music would be played.
Michael actually had the job as an employee to run the shows. I think it was three a nights a week--Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. It made the cover of Life and the inside of Life. We had two Life stories within that year. The reason we were so excited about making the money from "The World", which was not something we were particularly into--making money--was because we had been offered a very large space at the Riverside Museum in New York to do a show of our work, an installation of environmentally installed pieces.
It was somewhat ambitious for us; they didn't have any money. It was a very interesting museum. They had two sides: one was probably the best collection of Tibetan tonkas and other Tibetan objects in the country that had been collected by the founder, Nicholas Roerich--and the other side was devoted to contemporary work. At the time, we were living up in Woodstock, and there was this sculptor: a lady named Lily Ente who was very friendly to our work, and she was the one who recommended us to the museum, and Steve was in seventh heaven because Tibetan philosophy and Tibetan art was one of his passions. Somehow drugs and Eastern mysticism seem to go very well together.
This was a huge space. We had, I think, six rooms. By that time, we had a lot of associates of various kinds--members of USCO, including just about anybody who wanted to get involved, practically, as long as they were marginally compatible. We had a lot of conflicts because Steve was an irascible and difficult person. I mean, one time he went so far as to chop a hole in the wall to prove to us that he wasn't going to compromise. On the other hand, he was one of the most intensely creative and generous and hardworking artists I've ever met in my life. Brilliant insights into visual and conceptual possibilities. I think he still inhabits that kind of persona. Later on, he became a Sufi, a mosque designer, and a Muslim. He has just recently moved from Alexandria, Egypt, back to Virginia with his present wife who was his ex-wife's sister-in-law--a development which started while we worked together.
The Riverside Museum was probably the peak experience of our USCO time. Paul Williams, whom I talked about when he constructed my ideas into visual poetry and didn't want his name mentioned, by this time was making works of his own and was using his own name and had left "The Land" and had moved to a studio in the city. He had severed his marital relationship and had gone off with Betsy Epstein, who was David Weinrib's sister and who had been married to Arnold Epstein. We were all living on or near "The Land." Paul contributed one whole room of a light garden--fabulous work. Dacey had a tie-dye meditation environment, and we had everything from the old "Contact is the Only Love", which had been shipped from San Francisco, to a what we called "The Tabernacle," which was later installed at the church. "The Tabernacle" was a series of paintings hung inside a hexagon, and in the middle of the hexagon was kind of a lingam made of metal with light internal to it and turning, and a fountain, and speakers on each side with multichannel capability. It was a big draw. We had oscilloscopes set up where people could do their own sine wave adjustments. Rooms full of exciting, kinetic, audiovisual artistic experiences.
Dion Wright had done a painting of the evolution of life --a huge, huge painting. He had come to Woodstock sometime previously; it was an incredible piece of work later printed as a poster. We filled all the rooms, and it was the far-out art event of that year. They had to extend the weeks of time that it was supposed to be shown, and there were crowds, I mean, there were lines standing in the streets. Life magazine came out, and we were interviewed on television. It was a big deal. Too big a deal, really, for us. It put us in the limelight, and it exposed us to a lot of publicity and scrutiny, and we attracted hundreds of young students and hippie wannabes, and wannabeats who then congregated around the church and made life a little difficult for us.
At that time we also incorporated the church as a free church under the laws of the state of New York--the Church of the Living God, believe it or not. After the Riverside we had set up "The Tabernacle," and we opened it to the public every weekend. The town of Garnerville was overrun--this was after the show closed--by people who--the local blue-collar citizens really didn't think we're what the town was all about. We had a lot of police action. We cooled it all out, but it was difficult. It caused a lot of strain inside the community, inside USCO, and it was a great idea to put "The Tabernacle" there but it destroyed a large part of our workspace. We were all living there; by this time, there were quite a lot of people living in this church.
Barbara was working as a teacher, and Barbara and Judi were doing silk-screened psychedelic posters which we were selling to head shops in various parts of the country and selling at our performances. We had quite a busy scene going.
We were also getting a lot of critics from all over the world. You know, art critics who had heard about it and who came and wrote or needed material. We were trying to sell copies of the paintings in "The Tabernacle." The paintings in "The Tabernacle" also had lights embedded in them; they were meditation images, some of them of Shiva Shakti, others simply of geometric images that seemed to move with the strobes and the pulsing lights and the various audio inputs that were in there. We had a little isolation room behind "The Tabernacle" where if you were on a bad trip or you needed some help, you could stay for a week at a time, and we would take care of you. It was an odd period.
Across the river, our friends--I mean, an hour or so away by car--at the [Castalia?] Foundation who were having a hard time keeping their scene together asked us for help. We really didn't know how to help them, but finally everybody got together. There was a theater that we were able to--I can't remember if it was entirely contributed, but it was fairly little money, and it was
The Timothy Leary LectureStern
We did a multimedia show which we had programmed particularly for this theater event, and Timothy lectured about psychedelics. Timothy, you know, had been a brilliant psychologist at Kaiser. He developed various instruments for analyzing personalities. Nobody doubted his professional ability. His wife committed suicide--first wife, I guess. He came to Harvard to teach at more or less the same time as Richard Alpert, a young psychologist.
Richard was the son of the head of a big railroad. He had grown up with fairly immense wealth, flew his own airplane. He became totally involved at Harvard, and they were all protégés of a motivation psychologist named David McClelland, who was the head of the Social Relations department at Harvard. He didn't really quite know what he was getting into. David was a Quaker who had followed Murray's work in motivation being divided into three areas: achievement motivation, affiliation motivation, and power motivation. This is what people's behavior was divided into. This was a way of looking at the behavioral world. Richard was probably the most magnetic and the most successful lecturer in psychology ever to teach at Harvard. Psychology 1, or whatever it was that he taught, always needed the largest auditorium, and there was never even standing room available. The guy is a snake-oil salesman of the first order. I mean, he can go on any subject and persuade you that this is absolutely it. Wonderful ability, but also a frightening and destructive--because you can lead people very easily down the garden path and he did.
Here we were at the "Psychedelic Theater," and Timothy was really and always has been an alcoholic. I don't mean this as an ethnic slur, but what's called a "black Irish" personality. Just subject to a lot of drink. He allowed the drug world to become an additional layer on this alcoholism; he never gave up the alcohol, by the way. Alcohol and drugs are not the greatest mix in the world; they're destructive physiologically. Especially together, and when they're taken in large quantities. He's one of the several people that I've known that have really burned themselves to a crisp. Anyway, at that time he was an extremely popular but also under attack--he had been thrown out of Harvard as had Richard under very painful circumstances. They had turned on students, and that was absolutely a no-no, and they had kind of destroyed their relationship with the powers that be. On the
The "Psychedelic Theater" showed up a lot of schisms between our group and their group. Timothy started lecturing, and he wasn't Richard Alpert; Timothy was kind of a dry, boring lecturer in those days. He got more lively as time went on. But we were appalled; it was the middle of this really turned-on show, and here was this professor standing up in the front going on and on. We happened to have a tape of Artaud screaming on a radio program while--he was incarcerated in an asylum, but he had been allowed to do this radio program. Michael McClure had given me a copy of the tape, which I don't know how he got. In the middle of Timothy's lecture, we played Artaud screaming. It stopped everything; people didn't know what was going on. Then we stopped, and Timothy went on as if nothing had happened, you know? Then about eight minutes later he was still going, and we played another little gob of Artaud screaming. Ralph Metzner came running up to where our media control booth was and said to us, "You've broken your contract!" [Laughter] We just thought that was so terribly amusing.
It was a great success. The auditorium was always full; everybody paid except Harry Smith. Harry Smith was someone who was a spectacular creative being who died recently. I first met Harry--I think the first time I came to San Francisco he was working as a photographer for the Examiner, and he was living in a black hotel--he was pale white--in the Fillmore. He had done these way-ahead-of-their-time murals at Jimbo's Bop City--which was just like it sounded--in the Fillmore in return for food. I think it was Philip Lamantia who introduced me to Harry, and we sat there eating Harry's favorite food which was casaba melons--on the house; they kept them there just for him. Then he took us to see some of his visuals at his hotel. But when we reached the lobby we had to take our shoes off, and we had to not say a word between the time we got in and the time we left. We then crept up the stairs, and he whispered that there was a whore living in the next room, and she was in the pay of the FBI or some government agency to keep an eye on him. It was a paranoid, delusional complex that he had going. He took us into his room, and it was totally dark. He turned on a flashlight which had a cardboard tube attached to it. He put these works on the floor, and he illuminated them slowly so that we could see them, and in total silence we crept out holding our shoes and went down the steps and put our shoes on. That was Harry Smith.
Harry came to one of the "Psychedelic Theater" pieces, and he started screaming about how he was whatever he was, that he
I keep talking about alcoholics, but there happened to have been a lot of them, and there are still a lot of them. Harry was one. Most of these people in this world mixed the alcohol with drugs, so there were episodes of total insanity.
Anyway, the "Psychedelic Theater" went on very well, and Timothy came to me at the end and says, "Gerd, this was incredible. It's a little chaotic, though. The next thing I want to do with you is the life of the Buddha. And we're gonna start at the time he was born, and we're going to wind up at the end. We're going to have logical progression." I used that famous Lone Ranger line of "What do you do mean 'we', Kemosabe?" [Laughter] I wasn't about to do the life of the Buddha starting from the beginning. But he found some other media artists to do it.
The other thing at the "Psychedelic Theater" is we had left openings, and we had invited any other media artists or any kind of artists who wanted to participate, and they came out of the woodwork. There were some incredible people who had projection things and various instruments and very much in the psychedelic main--Richard Aldcroft, Jackie Cassen, Rudy Stern, Isaac Abrams. It opened up a lot of new relationships. Part of our interest was not to just do it ourselves but to include others.
It kind of got us off on a track which turned out to put a lot of conflict into the system. About that time in Woodstock, there were a group of people who were adherents or followers of an Indian guru named Meher Baba. I was very impressed by Baba, and, as a matter of fact, at our shows we sold posters that we made of Baba's face. The idea that somebody in a world where he lived in in India, which was a world of poverty and illness and really desperate distress, could say "Don't worry, be happy" as kind of his major contribution really got to me. His other thing of "I am God, and you're God; the only difference is I know I am" was also something which appealed to my religious sensibilities. Then the fact that he hadn't spoken for all those years and only communicated with an alphabet board, was somehow an attractive behavior.
Baba had this group of Woodstock people who were very strong--maybe believers isn't the right word. A number of them were very talented artists. A lot of beautiful paintings about the circumstances of Baba's life came out of the group. They related to a group that was in New York City, and they related to a colony of Baba followers who were in Myrtle Beach in the Carolinas, and we knew them all. When we had done our performance at Brandeis University--we were already having these images of Baba on the screen; they were part of "We Are All One." Baba fit into "We Are All One" like hand to glove.
There was a guy named Bob Dreyfus who was into the drug scene heavily and who got totally turned on by the Baba thing. We sold Baba posters and used to carry around little brochures about Baba and little pictures--Baba loved to give out pictures of himself. And Bob bought a poster at the first Brandeis show and got heavily into Baba. He decided to go to India to meet him. He did; he hitchhiked through Turkey, and it was a very difficult journey, but he arrived there. He told Baba about all of us and all of him and what we were all doing. And Baba sent this very strong message that drugs were destructive and that we all had to stop using them. Dreyfus came back to the church and said, "You guys were the people who got me into this, now I want to tell you that--" of course, Baba didn't speak; he wrote this out, and he communicated through his brother-in-law. His sister's husband, maybe. Anyway, it was his principal assistant. Bob got the message loud and clear, and he went all over the country to all of the groups that were involved in drugs, and he told them that they had to stop using.
Now some of us, like Steve, really got the message, and it was very hard for him to stop. And he didn't stop for very long, by the way. Other people were totally offended: "How can somebody [Baba] who never tried it tell you to stop doing it? He doesn't understand what he's talking about." This was Richard Alpert.
At the time, we had--you remember I told you about Robert Indiana and how I had been somewhat influenced by his paintings and the way he used words in the paintings. Among that group that used to hang around there was Richard Baker. In the meantime, Richard had settled in San Francisco, was working as an event coordinator for the University of California, and was also the principal disciple of Suzuki Roshi, the first Zen master to settle in San Francisco. Richard and his wife, Virginia, and the whole family were good friends, and we used to stay with them.
One of the events that Richard put together was called--I can't remember now--the LSD Conference. It was a conference with speakers, and we were the featured show. This was at the campus
Anyway, that's way ahead of the story. Now we had enormous conflict not only in our group but in this little world of people who were into drugs and Eastern religious philosophy and painters and everybody took sides. Steve and I were on opposite sides of the issue. I said I'm not going to advise anybody how to behave in this way. I was getting to the point where I had had enough LSD trips, and I didn't want any more acid. But I was and still am a confirmed pot smoker. I wasn't going to stop for anybody whether I got a divorce as with Ann--of course, I don't have a habit, you understand [laughter]; it's just something I like to do, and I've been doing it for fifty years. What I mean realistically, aside from joking, is that I don't have a habit--a habit means you've got to increase your dose. That's one of the things which hasn't seemed necessary. And it also means that when you don't have it that you're physiologically deprived, which I'm not. Sometimes I don't get a high for weeks or months or even longer, maybe because I'm too busy or maybe because I don't have a source of supply, or whatever. I've never experienced any discomfort from either stopping or starting.
The schism became very strong. On top of it, we were still experiencing huge crowds at the church, and it was becoming a hassle. Everybody needed this and needed that and wanted to be fed, and it just wasn't what we were into. We were an artist and engineer group trying to do creative work; we weren't a charity service organization.
We decided that--and Steve was kind of at the helm of this--what we needed was the high-energy charge of the church in Rockland County, but we needed was a low-energy center somewhere else where we could go and cool out and meditate somewhere in nature. Steve and Barbara went off to look for the place in their
They went off, and they basically started out in California where Richard Alpert was living at the time. Richard had a huge house down on the peninsula. He was always wealthy. They lived with him, and there was another lady, Jane, who was also living with them. Dick was basically homosexual, but he has always had a feeling--he may not now--but he was always trying to pass as at least a bisexual if not a heterosexual. He doesn't have the--he's neither an auntie nor a real faggot in terms of being flagrant, but he does prefer young men.
Jane and I met for the first time, and we were attracted to each other. No big passion or anything. She had a little girl who was the daughter of the later fairly well-known novelist Bob Stone.
Richard and Steve were lecturing throughout the country and doing very well at it. They were being paid fairly well, and the subject of the lecture was "LSD: Illusion or Reality?" What Steve didn't know at the time was that Richard, after the lectures, was selling acid in large quantities to big dealers--not just a few hits at a time, you know? This was after periods where Timothy and Richard and the whole group--before Millbrook [they had been?] down in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, where they were tossed out because they were running an acid experience center. The Mexican authorities had been pointed out by the U.S. authorities that they were doing bad things. One of the funny stories was that Richard had at the last minute packed a suitcase with a liter of vodka which was full of acid, and he had wrapped it in his white linen suit, and he put it on the plane, and it broke. For months they were eating little pieces of his white linen suit because it was all embedded with LSD [laughter]. It was a wild period.
Later on, Steve was quite disillusioned because Richard hadn't explained to him what was going on. Richard and I did not get on, and the reason that Richard and I did not get on was because Steve and I were very close, and Richard was in love with Steve. Richard and I both had organizational ability. He was the organizing principle for the whole movement with Timothy, and I was the organizing principle of USCO. He felt there was only room for one. I was not about to take USCO into their orbit because I didn't feel that their orbit was our orbit, you know? As simple as that.
Now we've got all of that background, and we're here on the peninsula, and I'm ready to go back to the church but I came out to see my kids, really. And I stayed with Dick and Jane and Steve
Now I got me and Jane and her baby, and we're flying back to the church where Judi and Michael and my scene are. Now this is a very difficult entrance, right? Very difficult entrance. And I take a lot of shit for a few days. But it turns out that Michael and Jane get along very well [laughter], so the whole thing turns around, and now we just have a few more people living at the church.
We always had lots of people coming in and out of the church. People would stay for days and weeks and months and years. We had little bedrooms all over the place and lofts and mattresses, and it was free and easy. The only thing that wasn't free and easy was the kitchen.
"The World" went on for a long time. It finally collapsed and died, and Meyerberg wanted to move it down to Florida, and they kind of did, but it never worked out. Michael went down there. We did lots of other shows in the meantime. Some of them were just installations--projection environments, like in Boston.
About this time, along comes--Zalman, my son, is born. Barbara and Steve had a daughter at the church, and when Barbara was working, Steve not only was painting but he was also taking care of Dakota, his little girl. Steve tended to stay up all night painting, and then he wouldn't wake up in the morning, and Dakota was always awake and trying to get her father to feed her or something. One time she went to the extreme length of laying a turd right on his face [laughter]. After that things were a little more timely.
Who was Zalman's mother?
Judi. Also about that time, Radha came to live with us for a little over a year. Actually, a little before this time. "The Land" had at--some distance away near the church, there was a
Right. Patterned after Summerhill. And Radha went there with all the kids from "The Land," and other hip kids from around. That was when Paul Williams had a place on the Cape, at Wallfleet, an A-frame that he had built. It was, and is, a really nice little house. Lots of us used to go up there for kind of a refuge.
Radha knew that everybody was taking acid and smoking pot and things. She was thirteen years old, and a lot of the kids at the school had decided to do it, and had done it. She wanted to try it, and I didn't want her to try it with the kids because you never knew--. So I took her up to the Cape, and I took her on a trip, and it was a beautiful trip she had. Of course, I didn't take any acid; I was there to guide her through. A lot of people were bummed out that I would do that. I thought it was absolutely the correct move for a parent, and fortunately Jane agreed with me.
By that time, Bill had committed suicide. We don't know if he committed suicide. Radha? [Radha enters room.] How old were you when Bill committed suicide or O.D'd or whatever he did?
I was young. I was probably like twelve.
It was just before you came to the church.
No? I thought you were thirteen when you were at the church.
I'll have to think about this.
All right, we'll think about it.
It's in that--I think my sisters took it, but it's in that--I want to say it was '67.
I don't know. Anyway, it's just one more artifact date that we're going to have to figure out, and as I said, I'm hopeless about dates. But at some time, Radha and Jane were out camping; it was long after--Bill had gone from being a recluse to being pretty out of it, let's put it. Jane and his mother had put him into an institution. When he came out, he didn't go back to Jane; in fact, he had another relationship. I don't remember whether he actually got married or not. Then one day they were out camping,
I see. Jane and Radha discovered him.
Yes. When they came back from their camping trip. At least that's how I was told the story. You never knew with Jane. Jane could make hay out of sunshine.
[Laughter] Jane was a trip.
Yes, she was a trip. It wasn't always a positive trip for people. It was not a positive trip for Bill Buck.
I mean, he thought he was the beneficiary, and he was taken on a big ride for part of his life. It's nice for a young man to have an older woman to guide him through a certain amount of passage or vice versa, but then the young man wants to be his own person, and that didn't suit Jane's needs.
I don't know if you know that when Bill was living in Bolinas, California with Jane, he translated two esoteric works. We are conscious of the fact that the University of California library was financed by family money to publish those books. How Bill, who had no formal education in Sanskrit or any other Asian language, was able to translate those books is another question. It's one thing for Rexroth, who was an extremely well-educated person with a high poetic sensibility to translate haiku and other poetry from foreign languages by the use of a dictionary and by the use of this experience and understanding. It's another thing for a kid who had basically no background but a kind of a desire--or in German we call it Sehnsucht, which is a much broader word; a strong emotion that you want to do something--that he was able to carry those off. I have the books; they're very well done. I don't know the originals obviously, but they seem beautifully done. Whether he had help, I don't know. Who knows? It's an amazing story.
Now Radha lived with us, then she went back to California. In the meantime, we had been visited--actually, it was through
So I went to Andre's. Andre was at the time at the business school. He was about to graduate, and he was writing his thesis, and he was also doing case studies for the school, and he was very psychedelically oriented and also a pot smoker of the highest persuasion; we had a great time together. He was a great cook, and he spoke German. He had a lot of girlfriends, and we grooved together. Andre started coming down to the church and working with us and helping us schlep our--I mean, part of the real problem that we had at USCO was that everything we did was very heavy. We would travel with a Volkswagen bus and trailers and thousands of pounds of equipment. Schlepping. In fact, I once wrote a piece for one of the art magazines called "The Artist as Schlepper." The cheese business is just as bad, by the way. Cheese is also heavy.
Andre was very interested in the media possibilities that we pioneered, and he talked to his professor, George Litwin, and the powers that be at the business school that they should be exploring the use of these forms of media to do case studies and to do various presentations as part of the business school's activities. George Litwin happened to be another one of the group that had originally been around Tim Leary. We didn't know him. He was a short guy, kind of a Napoleon type, and he immediately went to David McClelland, who had been Richard and Timothy's sponsor. He talked David into the fact that in the school of education and in Social Relations where David was operative--he was still department head at the time, I think--that this was a wonderful idea to apply these techniques. David agreed, and he got me an appointment on the faculty--you know, a legitimate appointment from the fellows of Harvard University as an Associate in Education.
So I'm flattered because here I am, not a college product, a few weeks in the underground halls of CCNY and a few weeks at Black Mountain College, and an aborted attempt to go to UC Berkeley, and all of a sudden I'm an associate in education with a faculty appointment at Harvard University. And I'm flattered, which is a big mistake. Don't get flattered in this world.
I'm coming up there, and I'm meeting David McClelland, and I'm not even telling him that I'm a friend of Timothy and Richard's because [laughter] I know there would have been some bad vibes in there for him. The university wasn't very happy with him. But he managed; he's a very well-known person. His book, The Achieving Society, was a bestseller in sociology, although for years he has been under great attack because he worked a lot in the Third World developing countries, and the accusation was that all this achievement training was simply making capitalists out of people who had no business being capitalists. But he was a Quaker, and he believed in social good, and he believed he was on the right side of whatever. An incredible man.
Intermedia Systems CorporationStern
George Litwin, who is the guy who has gotten me the appointment, and Andre Ruedi said, "We didn't just bring you up here to do this thing at Harvard. What we want to do is we want to form a company, and we're going to do multimedia productions, and we're going to make multimedia equipment." Michael Callahan and I and these two guys and later on other people formed a corporation, Intermedia Systems Corporation, and we rent a space with an office, a media production facility, and an electronics shop.
Michael's moved up from the church, and I've moved up from the church. But Judy doesn't like Boston. She's not going to move. She and Zalman, the baby, are back in the church, and she's going to stay there. Now we're commuting. And I'm pissed. I really am. "What do you mean you don't like Boston? What's the matter with Cambridge? It's a nice place to be." No, she's adamant. And I'm getting kind of tired of her trip anyway. And she's getting tired of mine.
In the meantime, we're doing various things. One of the things we're doing--Michael McClure is an old friend, and he's written this play which was produced in San Francisco, The Beard, and he wants to produce it in New York. Rip Torn agrees to direct it, and we agree to do the media background, and it's at a new theater called the Evergreen Theater put up by Grove Press. Our media ideas get very elaborate: we project the whole theater, the side walls, and the stage with projections and sound. It's pretty super duper. The play is wonderful; I love this play. I'm not trying to upstage the play; I'm trying to enhance it, you know? I think it's a brilliant mise en scène.
My accountant, who was the artists' accountant in New York--he's Rauschenberg's and Martha Graham's is Rubin Gorewitz. He happens to have as one of his other clients and as a friend of his the theater and sometimes arts critic of the New York Times. The guy comes to see the opening, and he writes a long review, and
We also did an elaborate piece of kinetic sculpture for a play of Norman Mailer's. Norman and I had known each other through various other connections. The Deer Park--a play about Las Vegas, which Rip--in fact, that came before. Rip was the principal actor in that. That's really how I got to know Rip.
We were very busy doing all kinds of things. We were doing another very elaborate projection environment for a stage presentation about Lenny Bruce which was done by Alan Douglas, a record producer. He had an office in New York, and we did record covers for him. Kelly was a psychedelic artist who worked for us at that time at Intermedia although he was really a Californian. Kelly Mouse studios. They did a lot of the Grateful Dead covers and Big Brother and the Holding Company--you know, that whole period.
Light shows were a big thing; we were into light shows. But we never did wet shows, liquid shows, which was a kind of a different form.
This guy comes to visit us in Boston. He grew up in Boston, and he takes us to a Russian schvitz, a steam bath. We knew him as Douglas, and we get into this schvitz, and there was a bunch of old guys sitting around there, and they look at him and say, "Hey! Rubenstein!" I look at him and say, "Rubenstein?" He says, "Yeah. Did you think I was born Douglas?" [laughter].
The same with Bob Dylan. There was another scene, a really bad scene I had with Bob. Bob admired our work, and when we were in Woodstock he came to our performances at the Maverick Gallery which was a communal gallery we had, and at the Woodstock Artists' Association. He was always asking us questions how it was done. One day we were at a party at somebody's house, and there's this big picture window, and my wife and a bunch of other people are standing inside, and a lot of people are standing outside on the wall smoking dope and outside on the grass and various things. Al Grossman, who was Bob's manager, and Bob and a bunch of other people--somebody had a rifle, they had just bought a rifle. He showed it to Bob, and Bob picks it up--now he didn't know anything more about guns than me. I've always had a phobia against guns.
How did I get on that? I got on that through Boston, through Rubenstein. What was his name? Douglas--he changed his name from Rubenstein to Douglas. And Dylan from Zimmerman.
Intermedia Systems Corporation was now making hardware of a fairly advanced sort, which hadn't been put forth by others yet, to control audiovisual programming, and we were doing multimedia. We were working for David McClelland. We had a little room about 20' by 20' where we could project all over the walls, and the projectors were in boxes and movies and four channels of sound. We had a little sound studio behind this wall. He would bring his classes in, and there were categories of mood which involved colors and certain images, and we would see if we could change people's moods. Then we did simulations of climates of organizations for Harvard using the students to do the filming and photography and recording. We would do the climate in an insurance office which had a twenty- or thirty-year-old office with everybody sitting at desks one after the other in rows, and then we would do a modern insurance office where everybody had a little cubicle with rugged walls. The difference in the mood and the climate of those organizations--we recorded the employees and the kind of tensions that happened. We did classroom climates, where we would go into different classrooms with different teachers, and then we would project all the way around. You would hear the students' voices and the teachers' voices. It was an opportunity for teachers who were in training to analyze the climates of those classrooms and to judge how they felt and what worked and what didn't. It was an instrument.
I didn't enjoy Harvard. There was a lot of politics. I didn't have a degree, and I was attached to the school of education which is very degree-oriented, and everybody realized that I was just kind of an adjunct of McClelland's who was a big deal, but they weren't going to bring me into the fold. Even Ted Sizer, who was the head of the school of education and a brilliant and interesting man--you know how academics are.
Then a little later I was taken up by another professor, a philosopher named Nelson Goodman who wrote Languages of Art. He got me on the board of the summer arts institute--they had a program where they trained arts administrators. For many years now, I had been on three or four proposal evaluation panels of the New York State Council on the Arts: the literary panel, the television panel, the media panel. And even after I moved up to Boston, they paid me to come down. I mean, those were the days when federal money for the arts was really flowing. It was fascinating; we considered all the grants in our areas, and of course I knew most of the people who applied, and it's an important kind of function. People like Erica Jong and Toni Morrison--you know, before they were well-known--were on those panels--Ed Emshwiller [sp?], the avant garde filmmaker. It was a great experience.
I was also involved very strongly with the National Endowment [for the Arts], and I was on the board of Planning Corporation for the Arts. Kenneth Dewey, who was a descendant of the admiral's, was a performance artist and an arts philosopher, and he worked for the New York State Council. I mean, he was employed by them, and he started this national Planning Corporation for the Arts to advocate the long-term agendas on what the meaning of arts were to minorities and what the meaning of big cultural institutions were. Being associated with the other people on that board was a very inspiring and important role that I occupied. Eventually, we also worked with Ken on four of five commercial and artistic projects.
One day Ken--he did come also from wealthy people, which is true of a lot of people in that world because you can't support yourself, you know? So either you have money or you have some other kind of occupation to supplement what you can do in your profession. One day he got in his little plane and he flew, and he crashed and died. It was another of those experiences which I told you about like with Lew Hill. I mean, for me Ken was at the height of his powers; he was a great influence in the international and national art world and at the New York State Council. His work was admired by a lot of people, and all of a sudden, bang--he's gone. Why? And I think again, like Lew Hill, it has to do with his romantic and emotional life rather than his work life. Both those cases. But I'm not sure. How can you be sure? We did a huge memorial for him at his parents' estate in New Jersey. We floated hundreds of balloons in large masses which floated away. A few artists and I spent hours blowing up these balloons and tethering them and then letting them go all at once, and a lot of people--I'm not even sure if Yvonne didn't do a piece that day. I think he did. I know Yvonne knew Ken.
We had a gallery at that time for our kinetic works, a fairly uptown gallery, Howard Wise, on Fifty-seventh Street. There was a show--I can't remember the name of it--of kinetic pieces. They were all pictured, the principal pieces including ours, in color on several pages of Newsweek. One day I got a call from Howard, and he said, "Your piece has been bought." I said, "Oh, yeah? Who bought it?" He said, "Well, Malcolm Forbes bought everything that was pictured in Newsweek without ever seeing the pieces except in photos." I said, "Oh?" He said, "Well, you're gonna have to put it in really top shape, and you're gonna have to deliver to his place in New Jersey." All right. It was a few thousand bucks--I mean, wow.
We fixed it up, and we took it down--it was seven diffraction grating hexes rotating with strobes. A fairly complicated piece. We had a wonderful relationship with Rem Wood, the man who developed diffraction gratings. Do you know what they are? Those little rainbow jewels? He gave us lots of the material, and he also commissioned a piece from us. Actually, this piece that Forbes bought was a development out of that first piece that we made for The Diffraction Company of Riderwood, Maryland. We came to the grounds of the Forbes estate, and the butler let us in, and he took us down to this other building, and this was a heavy piece, and Michael and I were schlepping it. We had to go down some stairs; it was like a bunker. Turned out it was Malcolm Forbes' air-raid shelter, which he had turned into an art gallery. They were dismounting a show of op-art which he had donated to Princeton [University] in toto; it had hung up for about a year. Now he had this show of kinetic art which he bought--in another year he donated that to Princeton. I wasn't particularly struck by this, and we were introduced to Malcolm Forbes, and he gave us a drink. He showed us what he said was his favorite piece of art, which was a bronze casting of his Marine boots from the war. We were not thrilled by this experience. But it's not untypical of the experiences that artists have with collectors. It was not a relationship that I enjoyed.
Not long thereafter we got out of making pieces for museums and galleries because I found that the social demands of being a fiscally successful artist were worse than being in business, and that museums--I mean, we had museums not only in the U.S, all over the country, but in Europe asking for pieces. But everybody wanted something new; hardly anybody wanted to show something you already had. To make the kind of pieces that we or I were conceiving was extremely expensive, and nobody had any money. They would always say to you, "Well, you know, we'll extend to you our not-for-profit; I'm sure that you have a patron that would be happy." Most of the collectors--the pieces that we wanted to do were much too ambitious to put in anybody's house.
The next piece we made, which was one of the last big pieces which Michael and I and others were involved with--including Jonathan Ayers--was called the "Fanflashtic." It was a transparent gazebo which was raised up from the floor with a metal subway grating under which there were rather powerful fans. There were four strobes mounted in the gazebo. It had a roof. It was filled with balloons, and the fans blew the balloons up, and the strobes picked out the balloons, and people got inside it, and there was sound. We toured it throughout New York State for the New York State Council on the Arts. At one point in Rochester, it was filled with nuns in habits. Incredible. There was a photograph in Horizon, a kind of a book magazine, and they sent up a very well-known photographer. He took a picture of it; it's in one of those Horizons [points]. It's in other books, too. It's really the last big piece we made. It was also before Ken's death, because Ken was part of that tour also with a piece of his. And so was Carolee Schneemann.
The tour was very successful and very satisfying. That was at the time when Ann London, my ex-wife, was a professor of Anglo-Saxon studies at SUNY [State University of New York] Buffalo, and I wanted to see my son, Jared. She didn't want me to see him. She and her father had used detectives--it was a bad trip. The funny thing is later on after he died, and she died, her mother and I grew very close trying to take care of Jared who very early on turned into a terrible abuser stealing his mother's diet pills. But anyway, I wanted to see my son, and she was a professor at the university, and I was touring for the New York State Council, and she said no, so I called up the head of the New York State Council on the Arts, and he called the governor, and the governor called the chancellor of the university. The chancellor called Ann and said, "We have a visiting artist here, and he happens to be your ex-husband. I understand he wants to see his son. I think it would be a good idea, Professor London, to make that possible." So I got to see Jared. [laughter]
Years later Ann and I got back into a reasonable relationship, when she realized that Jared had become an addict, and she didn't know what to do nor did her present husband, so she wanted my help. It was too late. There were years when she wasn't even conscious of the fact that her supply of Dexedrine was being raided day by day. How could you not be conscious of that?
Here we were still working somewhat with John Brockman, who was our agent on commercial things. Another job we did at Christmas time was Bendel's department store, a collection of fashion boutiques on Fifty-seventh Street in New York. Geri was the manager, and she wanted something psychedelic, so we created a black light environment made out of stretch fabric that we
We've been kind of playing with details and dates which are not necessarily in sequence. Some of the things that I just talked about were before Harvard, and some of them were during Harvard. As we were progressing with the days at Harvard, Intermedia was growing very rapidly. Early on, we were up in Porter Square--remember where that is?
Then we ran out of the capital from the people from the business school who had started this company with me. It was a very interesting conjunction. It was a conjunction of my naïveté and their hubris. George Litwin, who was a professor at the business school, thought he was a businessman because he taught at the business school. The truth was he was a psychologist. They had done a lot of training work and various kinds of work for business organizations, but they were no more business people than I was. They were involved in the subject of business on an academic level--no idea about numbers or how to run a business, profit and loss statements, balance sheets. Theoretically yes, but practically no.
We needed money, and we needed investment. The original policy and the original way that this business was set up was they said to me, "We'll take care of the business end and the marketing and the sales. You, all you have to do is be creative." Oh, was that a lot of bull. Now we're dead broke, and we have these hardware lines that we're developing--Michael needs money for the parts and for the subcontractors and for the techies that have to do the work. And for the software we need equipment, and we've got a little sound studio going; we need more equipment for that.
They don't know where to come up with the money so I call my accountant and friend Rubin Gorewitz, and he comes up [to Boston]. No problem. He introduces us to an investment banker in New York, Larry Teicher, and the investment banker introduces us to a little guy on Wall Street named Jesse Krieger who's a one-man share flogger. And we go public. What do I know from going public? I've never even heard of it. What stock market? I mean, I knew about the stock market from the New York Times.
Now, all of a sudden, I have 100,000 shares, and we're selling shares to the public, and we get $600,000. My good friends from the business school--the president of Intermedia Systems Corporation, Dr. Litwin, goes crazy. I told you he come out of the whole Timothy Leary group, and he drives a Corvette, and he's a high liver in ways I never experienced, really--even in the days of the Londons. That was civilized compared to this shit that's going down. All of a sudden George buys--he's also into scuba--50 percent of the Underwater Explorers' Club in the Bahamas. We had no business--we were going to do a surround media experience there, and we're all involved. That's not the only thing he invested our money in--his money, he's the president, so he spends it, you know?
At the end of the day, we've moved to Central Square--two floors in a big old building. I don't know if you remember it with the arched windows; beautiful old building. Later on there was an Indian store that we rented the bottom floor of, but at first we installed big environmental projection installations, and now we're in bigger business.
Then some dreamer has built a sound studio on Newbury Street, and he copied the Deutsche Grammophon studios in Germany, and it was going to be for classical music for groups out of the Boston Symphony. Two or three weeks or a month after he's got it together, he goes broke. We take over the sound studio, and now we have the first sixteen-track studio in the country, with the first Ampex sixteen-track machine, and we're Intermedia Sound. Another of the psychologist/dopester/psychedelic group, Dr. Gunther Weil, who we've known for a long time and who was a buddy,
We're going great guns, but basically we're heading into deep debt. We have a board of directors including David McClellan. We're prestigious, and we do a lot of interesting work. We're bouncing around, we're working for corporations, we're working for the U.S. Information Agency, we're working for the Commerce Department. By the time we get up to speed, we've got maybe somewhere between thirty and forty employees. I'm the creative director, and I've got a big office overlooking Central Square.
Walter Gundy is at this point no longer roadie for The Lovin' Spoonful but he's now with The Incredible String Band, and when they come through Boston there's a lovely high party and I wind up talking to one of their friends, Peter Beren. A couple of days later he calls and tells me he wants to interview me for a piece in the Boston Phoenix and he winds up titling it "Intermedia Systems: Cinderella Sweeping Up on Desolation Row," and writes things about me and USCO and ends with, "Intermedia Systems, then, is a new type of corporation, a living contradiction in our present vocabulary. A corporation born in art, aiming at expanding horizons in business and education."
Anyway, throughout the years, Peter winds up being a close friend, and he's one of the few people who keeps touching base to find out what's happening with me and us and I do the same with him. Now he's publications director for Sierra Club and also acts as literary agent for on or close to the edge writers about spiritual, musical, health, and literary topics. We have an uncanny way of sensing when one another is down and giving in person or by phone support for each other in words and feelings. That mutuality helps. And I've always had a problem with one-way type relationships--you know what I mean, people with whom you need to do all the initiating, the "Contact Is the Only Love" transmissions and if you don't do that, they're out of touch. Now, when that happens, after a while I give up on them. But Peter and many other friends through the years are a two-way street. And, now, with email, the flow increases.
Marriage to Sally ShawStern
In the meantime, Judi has kept on her path of "I'm not moving up to Boston." So I'm commuting back and forth. Then Judi, with another friend of hers--they want to go away somewhere. So I
I'm still spending a lot of time with Andre Ruedi. Andre's now a partner in Intermedia Systems. We're really buddy-buddy, and he had a girlfriend, Sunny, who's going to Simmons College. A really well-endowed and hip young lady. One day he takes me over to her apartment, and her college roommate Sally from New Hampshire is sitting there. It's in the middle of the summer, nobody's wearing very many clothes, and we're sitting around the floor getting high, and we're practically naked. We're listening to music loud, and we're having a great time. After a couple of hours or so there's a big noise from above, and some guy comes practically falling down out of the skylight. Apparently this is Sally's boyfriend, and he's been calling, and he's been ringing the doorbell, and nobody had answered, and nobody has remembered that he's supposed to be arriving. We leave, but in the meantime I've gotten a fixation on this young lady whose name is Sally Shaw. In the next four or five hours, which is probably between two a.m. and seven a.m. in the morning, I call her four or five times. In the meantime, she's with her boyfriend. But I don't give a damn.
The next weekend we drive up to New Hampshire--Andre and Sunny and me, and we go to her house, and from then on Sally and I are a thing. This is a young lady going to Simmons, and she's from a real Yankee New Hampshire family, with both sides of Scottish ancestry--been here since the 1600s on king's grant land. Peterboro, right? You being from New England will get the picture. I'm not exactly welcome. In fact, I'm not that much younger than her father. He's a doctor, and he was at that time the doctor at St. Paul's School. They're living at the school, in a house on campus. I eventually get invited to dinner--by Sally, not exactly by her parents. I get there, and I'm there all evening, and this man doesn't talk to me. We sit at dinner together, and really nobody talks to me except Sally, so I'm feeling like--.
Doesn't matter. We get together, and I'm really enamored. I'm so enamored that I'm not very long thereafter asking her to marry me, and she says no. But by this time we're living together.
In the meantime, of course, Judi is getting vibes that something else is going on. Eventually I go down to Mexico, and I have a very bad experience there. I get sick with "Montezuma's Revenge", and I'm also not being very happy about the
I'm determined to make something better out of the relationship with Sally who is now in 1996 still my wife. It takes many years for us to get married. In the meantime, she graduates from Simmons, and she goes to work for an architect. Eventually, she comes to work for us at Intermedia. I teach her the elements of sound editing, which I'm very good at and she gets even better. These days sound editing has developed into a completely different technology, but Michael and I come from the days where you actually cut the tape and spliced it. We teach this to Sally, and Sally gets very good at it. She edited Huey, and she edited Rabbi Zalman Schachter, and she did a lot of great work on our audiovisual pieces.
V 1970s: Art and Psychedelics
Michael Callahan and Intermedia Systems Corp.Stern
Now Michael Callahan--he and I are the closest of friends, and we work together. We were partners in Intermedia--he was not quite a shareholder on my level, but he's a director and an integral part. The problem with Michael is that he's drinking, and he's drinking more and more. His father, who left his mother when he was just a baby, was an alcoholic. This was surfacing, and it was surfacing in a fairly destructive manner. I mean, Michael is not above taking a few tokes but he's basically into alcohol.
It's a very, very hectic kind of atmosphere because we've got things all over the place. In the meantime, Steve and Barbara have continued to explore for a place to buy for a low-energy center. There's a guy who came into our little world when we were still at the church named Jonathan Altman. Jonathan is the son of a wealthy Jewish family, the family that bought the Dead Sea Scrolls for Israel. His stepfather is the architect for the shrine of the Scroll, and Jonathan is really into what we're doing. He has promised to put up the money to buy the land for our low-energy center.
One day--and this is probably before what I'm talking about, again. I keep remembering that I'm not catching up certain parts of it to the other parts. You know how that is: it's like you're swimming in a school, and you don't stay in place; you swim a little faster than the last guy or a little slower, and you get caught up in some kind of a time lapse. One day they call up, and they say, "Gerd, you've got to get your butt out here because
Now I've got to go back further, on a completely different strand. I'm brought up obviously Jewish. I told you I learned Hebrew by rote. When I was still in New York, in the days when I was living in New York with Jane, I spent a good portion of time studying the mystic Jewish tradition, which is Qabbalah--particularly a little book called Sefer Yetzira--The Book of Light. It's been very influential on my poetry and on my way of thinking. Another mystical strand, one of my favorite poets in the world, was Yeats. Through Yeats, I get into McGregor Mathers and into that whole mystical world. Then later, when I come to California, this gets kind of vermischt with Grace's syncratic impressions that she's got me reading all of Jung. I had read a little bit before. And I'm also into Robert Graves.
So the whole thing makes sense, right? In terms of Judaism, I'm not observing but I'm connected to the tradition--more so than my family. One day, when we're still at the church, Ralph Metzner calls me up. Ralph was one of the original psychedelic trio of Tim, Richard, and Ralph. They did the Tibetan Book of the Dead together--I mean, there was also Tibetan tradition that comes into it. He called me up and says, "Gerd, I know you're into this Jewish thing," he's a Jewish refugee too, but he's not into it at all. He says, "You've got to meet this guy. I took this wild rabbi from Canada on his first acid trip last week here at Millbrook. He's something else, and you've got to meet him."
Rabbi Zalman Schachter and Other Eastern Spiritual InfluencesStern
So next time Zalman Schachter comes down from Winnipeg, where he's the head of the department of Judaic studies at the University of Manitoba, Ralph calls me, and we meet on Second Avenue at Rappaport's. And we fall in love. I mean, this man is a wondrous human being and an incredibly learned Judaic scholar. I take him up to the church, and he stays overnight, and I stick him in the "Tabernacle." He doesn't believe that this exists in the world. We had really locked right in to each other.
It's now '96, and so it's thirty or forty years later, and Zalman and I are still very, very close. He's gone through a lot of different stages. We see each other whenever he comes down, and the next time Judy and I travel across the country, we don't go straight across; we drive up through Canada, and we go to Winnipeg. We stop and see and stay with Zalman and his then-wife.
And so did we--Swami Satchinanda used to come up to the church, and the head of the Hare Krishna movement came up to the church. Suzuki Roshi, when he came east, came up to the church; that was great. Barbara and Judi didn't know what to cook for Suzuki Roshi, so they went out and got just the finest vegetables that they could, and they made a clear soup with little things floating around in it. He liked the soup, and he says [imitates Japanese accent], "Ah, what you call this soup?" I'm not good at imitating the accent, but it was a very strong accent. They said, you know, a little bit of this kind of vegetable and a little kind of that vegetable and some broth. And he said [again with accent], "Oh, we used to make that in the monastery. We call it garbage soup." [Laughter] I very much liked Suzuki Roshi.
We knew him through Richard Baker, who later on became Suzuki Roshi's dharma heir and became the head of the Zen Center here and was later scandalously dismissed. Richard and I were very close; he and his wife Ginny and their daughter and the rest of their extended family. I've lost touch with him regrettably in the last few years, but we hear about each other.
When we were living in Cambridge, Sally and I were living on Broadway in Cambridge. Richard came and stayed with us for some months because one of the major contributors to the Zen Center was a Boston banker whose wife was one of the leading exponents of the tea ceremony. The banker suggested to Richard that he come and spend some time in the investment bank learning about finances because he was running a fairly major enterprise by this time: the Zen Center in San Francisco, with Tassajara down in the Carmel Valley, and they had just managed to acquire the Green Gulch Ranch here on Mount Tamalpais.
When we visited Reb Zalman in Winnipeg, he had established in his basement--in his little study--an array of psychedelic lights and toys. He had a little strobe light and lava lamps and black light and tie-dyes, and he had surrounded himself. This whole interest level of his eventually estranged his conservatively Orthodox wife and his children because this wasn't the Orthodox way. He was developing ideas in writing and extensions of Judaism, and he understood that the gender approach in Orthodox Judaism was intolerable in terms of the twentieth century. If a woman couldn't, for instance, read from the Torah
Zalman came from a similar background, Germanic Jews. He was born in Vienna, which is a little different--Austrian rather than the German/French border. But we both spoke German. He was a little older than I am by just a couple of years. We forged quite a close relationship which has lasted over the years. When I talked about the apartment on Broadway, that was an apartment that we took over from Reb Zalman because he had been at Brandeis for his sabbatical year, which wasn't his first experience in New England. He had had a congregation in Fall River earlier.
Zalman came out of Lubavitch, the main Hasidic sect--he was a shliach, a "messenger", which is what the word means in English for the rabbi of the sect. He traveled through the Caribbean gathering funds. He slowly rose out of that Orthodox mindset into a very twentieth-century renewal tradition. If a religion doesn't renew itself in every century, it doesn't work that well. He has been the principal renewal agent in contemporary Judaism. And he was friendly with all of the elements that we've been talking about, like Ginsberg, and he now has a chair at the Naropa Institute in Boulder [Colorado].
I'm getting ahead of myself again, but when his marriage to his Orthodox wife broke up because he was expanding his consciousness in ways which were intolerable to the Orthodox set of mind, he had converted his secretary at the university, who was a very Protestant young lady. He had then married her. It was his second marriage. When he was in Cambridge, they were there together, and they had a child. He had children who were in their late teens by that time from his first marriage--three of them.
We saw a lot of each other when he was in Cambridge. There was an old Orthodox synagogue which had gotten kind of conservative. He did the high holidays there, and we went there every year, Sally and myself. Of course, Judy had known Zalman also, so there was a back and forth. In fact, when Judy's and my son was born, I called up Zalman, and I told him we're going to name him Zalman. Zalman said to me, "You know that's not in our tradition. We don't name people after people that are still alive." I said, "Zalman, you break rules every day, and now you're telling me that this is something that shouldn't be done; besides, I'm naming our son after somebody else whose name was Zalman." He laughed, and it was fine.
Zalie Yanovsky from the Loving Spoonful calls me up. We had done their very psychedelic program book, which their manager--after paying us some thousands of dollars to do and having to print it for many more thousands of dollars--had destroyed because he didn't like the psychedelic image for the group. A real macho Italian mafia type. I suppose that's an unfair characterization.
So Zalie Yanovsky calls me up, and he says, "Gerd, wow, you named your son after me?" [Laughter] I said, "Well, not exactly, Zalie; I named him after Rabbi Zalman Schachter." And he didn't like it because, you know, he was still alive. But it's everybody's name who's named Zalman. So about a year later, Zalie calls me up, and he says, "Hey, we just had a baby! Guess what we're going to name him?" I said, "What are you going to name him?" He says, "Gerd. After a friend of ours who runs a kosher deli in Nashville." [Laughter] It wasn't true at all.
One of the people who lived at the church, Walter Gundy, was the road manager for the Loving Spoonful, which is how we had gotten this whole thing going with the Spoonful. There were a lot of involvements of various kinds with music, with architects, with collectors, with scientists.
Anyway, now we're back in Boston. Where were we?
You were living on Broadway, on Central Square, with Intermedia.
I was talking about Richard Baker. Roshi Baker. And now, Sally and I, after years of living together, I finally persuade her that we should get married. You might well ask me why, but I'm pro-marriage. Like I said, I don't think--except for the circumstances--that I would have gotten unmarried, even from the relationship where we hadn't had a formal marriage with Judy. But I wanted to be married. For a long time, Sally thought that something different, maybe something better was going to come along. I was a lot older than she was, and she wasn't quite sure what she wanted to do with her life. I kept hitting on her, and finally she decided okay, we're going to do it, because we wanted a baby.
Neither of us wanted our parents involved for reasons which I think are fairly obvious the way I've talked about mine. Her parents were very staid. It just seemed like we wouldn't do that. So I asked Roshi Baker, who by this time had gotten Green Gulch going, and we had been there and visited, whether he would do the marriage, and he agreed. Then I called up Reb Zalman because I knew he was going to be in California more or less at the same time because his daughter from his first marriage was getting married in Los Angeles. I said, "Zalman, would you come up and be
It was a great wedding. It was at Green Gulch, and it was in the Zendo. When we first went into the Zendo, Richard said we were going to do the marriage here, and we're going to have these big candles. I had brought these--oh, I haven't even talked about Venezuela--I had brought these enormous candles from the Venezuelan Andes, and everything was set, and I said to Richard, "Couldn't we do it outside under the redwoods?" He said, "We do all our marriages here in the Zendo." I said, "I know, but--." He asked, "What's wrong?" Well, there was this enormous Buddha, like fifteen or twenty feet high standing there, and I said, "Richard, one of the Ten Commandments--graven images." He looked at me and said, "Oh. I'll tell you what. You walk over to the Buddha and invite him to be a guest at your wedding, and everything will be okay." [Laughter]
Now, by this time, Reb Zalman had agreed to come up because he understood that he couldn't perform the marriage. So when he came I told him I'd invited the Buddha to be our guest, and it was fine with him. And during the ceremony he gave us a great blessing, which he is able to do. On top of this--Paul Lee--I was teaching at Santa Cruz at the time--who is a Protestant minister and a philosophy professor--I told you about him; he was the guy who sponsored us at Brandeis and MIT and then got me the job at Santa Cruz--is in the wedding. He's not supposed to do anything except maybe say a few words. But he gets up, and he goes through the whole damn marriage service. And Sally is stunned; she doesn't want any of this "to honor and to obey" and all the crap that we had managed to do without. We were somewhat upset, but he was an old friend, and there was nothing we could do. He just started it, and then he went through it. [laughter]
We had Bagavandas play the Indian instruments and chanted, and it was a great wedding. We had my favorite cheese--I come from a cheese family, and I'm now in the cheese business, but I've always loved cheese. One of my favorite cheeses in the world was
John Brockman and USCOStern
When I had been working with John Brockman in New York, we got a lot of publicity--The New York Times magazine--and there was national and international interest in our work. People would call up and ask us things. One time we got a call from Hollywood, from Bert Schneider and Bob Rafelson, asking us if we would be interested in consulting with them about a project that they were doing at the time. Bert is the son of the former head of Columbia pictures, Abe Schneider. A very substantial force in the industry. They met us in New York, and they explained to us that they were doing this film with the Monkees, and it was a very far-out film. They were both big heads. Mucho smoke, in quantities that were impossible for me to even conceive of. The Monkees were not exactly what we thought of as our kind of culture, but they brought us out and paid us royally. John got the lion's share: he wound up with a yellow Jaguar sports car out of this gig. This is still during the days of USCO at the church, what we're talking about, more or less. It was winding down; I think it was after Barbara and Steve had left for the coast.
We weren't quite sure of how to handle this scene, but it was interesting; it was a very odd movie, the way it was shaping up. It had a lot of surrealistic aspects to it. The problem that they had was how to promote and how to name it and just kind of--we were communications experts, right? We were friends with and worked with McLuhan, and all these things and they were hip. I decided a great name for the picture would be "Head." Don't ask me why. It seemed like a name that people would really grab on to--and they loved it. Then I said, "The poster has to be somebody's head. It's gotta be a really wild poster." I decided that it should be Rafelson's head; Rafelson was the director. We set up in Hollywood a photography appointment, and we were all sitting there--John doesn't touch drugs at all; he's a real straight guy. And Rafe and Bert and I were kind of out of our minds, and Rafe says, "It's gonna be John's head!" I said, "Come on, that's ridiculous; it's not going to be John's head. You're the director, you're the head. That's the idea. The head." He says, "No way--it's going to be John. We're paying you; you're
It winds up being John's head. John's head gets transformed by Judi. We do this color poster on mirrored mylar--which is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art--and it's an incredible poster. But to me it's totally meaningless because it's the wrong head. John doesn't want to have his photograph; he's really reluctant. But what can you do? I mean, there's the yellow Jaguar to pay for, right? [Laughter]
We compromise. Besides, Judi's really anxious to do this poster. It's a great poster: it's just a head in psychedelic colors and underneath it says, "Head." The problem was how to conceptually connect it with the picture. The picture didn't do well, and it's a very funny, very great picture, I think. But, it became an underground fad success in the years that followed, and it's done quite well. It's played on college campuses all the time and so forth. It worked out after a while.
In the meantime, while we were in L.A. for a few times running, we met a lot of people. One of the people who was associated at BBS, which was Burt's and Rafelson's and their partners' company, was Jack Nicholson. My old friend from the gallery, Dennis Hopper, was at the time making a movie with Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. Bert was putting up the bread, and I was asked to do the sound for that picture. But I was too busy. You know, the motorcycle picture.
"Easy Rider." Right. From then on, Jack and Bert and Rafe and I and John stayed pretty friendly. Bert was married to his childhood sweetheart from Mt. Vernon, New York, and had two children. And he had never sown his wild oats. All of a sudden he ran off and bought another magnificent house in the hills and lived with Candice Bergen for a number of years. And it was through Bert, who was the major financial supporter of the [Black] Panthers and a lot of other radical groups, that I met Huey [Newton].
I was drawn to Huey Newton because he was an intellectual of great depth who had read practically everything that there is to read and who liked to talk about it. He needed people to throw his
So Huey and I became very friendly. When I was at Santa Cruz, I introduced Huey to Paul Lee, and we managed to get Huey accepted as a student there, and he actually got a degree there. That was quite an accomplishment.
University of California, Santa CruzStern
It was kind of a strange scene at Santa Cruz because Paul was very interested in our multimedia work, and he had decided that Plato's Myth of Er was an incredible thing to do in multimedia. And he was right. And he's still right. I'm sure he's around; we've lost touch with each other. Paul and I had first met in Boston--I had told you about how he introduced me to Andre Ruedi when he sponsored us at Brandeis and then MIT, and we had visited him in his summer home in Wisconsin several times with a woodburning sauna which you then ran into the cold lake. Oooh, oooh. I can still feel the cold. We were great friends. He got me the job in Santa Cruz, first at College Five. He wanted me to produce the myth with my students, but it was a very difficult piece of work, and there were no funds. He didn't have the time to get involved, and I just couldn't bring it off. I was teaching a course in the History of Consciousness program which I had conceived of as a communications course about the history of technology, which is what they wanted, and which I wanted to call, "Turning Tools into Toys." I was thinking about McLuhan's ideas of tools as extensions. I was really into trying to get these doctoral students to understand the successive impacts that various technologies have had on human activity. I mean, the plow, the stirrup, electricity, capacitors, resistors--these are all concepts that are mechanical, they're electric, they're electronic, they're philosophical, and trying to bridge all of these different levels that are contained in the technological universe.
The course appeared in the catalogue as something like, "The Role of Technology in the History of Consciousness." They wanted a much more doctrinaire kind of an approach than I was taking.
Talking about video--I'm going way back--
The Venezuela Project
The potential of using video for other than broadcast television started out when Sony first put its first half-inch portable on the market with a small camera, and we got the set practically immediately. We were involved--as I mentioned, I had been on the video panel and was still on the video panel at NYSCA--and we were friends with Charlotte Moorman and Nam June Paik and the Video Freaks, Global Village, the Vasulkas, and all of the groups that were involved in producing--video, documentation, and in the arts. In fact, I wrote a chapter in a book which was eventually published by the MIT Press regarding the funding of experimental television, which is an interesting history. I did some experimental videotapes at WGBH in Boston at their workshop. I also did a little work in New York: public television workshop.
One day when I was sitting in my office at Intermedia in Cambridge, I got a call--it was obviously a long distance away--and this guy in a very accented voice said to me, "Are you the Stern whose work is in this magazine that I'm reading?" It was an audiovisual magazine. "Is this Intermedia?" I said, "Yes, this is me." He said, "Well, this is José Ignacio Cadavieco from Caracas. Are you going to be in your office tomorrow morning?" I said, "Yes." He said, "Please save some time tomorrow morning
The next morning, these two characters are waiting for me when I come in to the office early in the morning. They're from Venezuela. One of them is José Ignacio, and he is the director of public relations for the Ministry of Public Works in Venezuela, and he brought along this painter and sculptor, Fernando Irrazabal, who is a kind of a jolly, chunky guy, and José Ignacio is a skinny--it's real Latino Mutt and Jeff country. They tell me this story about how they have to do this multimedia audiovisual for the World Bank about a project called "Col de Sur," which is the opening of part of the Amazonian jungle at the intersection of Venezuela and two other countries--Brazil and--. They've never done multimedia like this before, and they want to buy equipment from us like they saw in the magazine, and they want us to teach them how to use it. And they want to buy the equipment that day and leave back for Venezuela. They have about three weeks to do this show, and I tell them, "Forget it." I couldn't do it. "Don't worry, don't worry, we have a lot of people, and--" blah blah blah. I said, "But I can't sell you equipment. We make this equipment to people on order; we don't have it standing." "Well, tell me what you have and--" blah blah. They talked me into it. Three or four hours later they bring out this huge package of hundred-dollar bills and off they go, and the last thing they tell me is, "As soon as we get this finished we're going to invite you down so you can see it, and we want a seminar so that from now on we understand how to make multimedia. The minister will be in touch with you."
I figure, you know, we got thousands of dollars in cash, and we have no equipment. All right, Michael will make more equipment, right? We all can't believe this. A few weeks later, sure enough, I get a telex--this was before fax--and phone calls from the Minister of Public Works, and he invites us down to do a seminar on audiovisual in Caracas, and we get tickets for three of us--me and Sally and one of our photographer technicians, Nick McClelland, David's son--we fly down there, and we give a seminar, and we meet artists and photographers, and people from all the government ministries, and we have a wonderful time. At the end of the seminar we get fed well and put up at a great hotel--I don't know any Spanish at this point, but we have translators--and we get taken to the museums. They have incredible modern art. We meet poets, and a lot of them speak English.
At the end of the seminar, José Ignacio comes to me, and he says, "The minister says we can either pay you or if you would like a week to see our country, we will instead give you a tour of the entire country with a guide--" Fernando the sculptor, who did
I didn't even know what the tour would entail, you know? The next morning we get a limousine not to the international airport but to a little airport in the middle of Caracas, and we have a military jet with two military pilots, and the three of us plus Fernando get in the plane, and we take off. We fly up to the Andes, and we land, and we see the whole scene there, and then we go to the hotel, and the next morning we take off for Maracaibo. I keep saying at each place, "Wait a minute; I'm not ready to leave," because you don't have enough time to--. All of these places are really super wonderful in various ways. We go to Maracaibo, which is where the oil fields are, and we go to the Amazonas, and we see Angel Falls, and we go to the gold and the iron Mines. It was just too much. And then we get on the plane and go home to Boston.
But it's not over. Now we're into the Venezuelan scene, and the next thing they ask us is--there's this famous Czechoslovakian group which did multimedia, and they had done an installation at the battlefield of Carabobo, which was the last battlefield on which Bolívar won independence for a lot of South America, including Venezuela. They asked me if I would consider producing a second production for the battlefield because the Czechs didn't really do much of a job on the software. The monument is incredible; a contemporary architect did it. We met the architect, but the production is kind of lame. This is a major production. "No problem; money's not a problem." All right, so money's not a problem.
We get an apartment that the government gives us at the Anauco Hilton right in the center of Caracas. Now I'm introduced to historians, and I start researching Simón Bolívar. Now Simón Bolívar was an incredible figure; a Venezuelan but studied in France at the time of all of the revolutionary thought. He wore a medal of Washington and Jefferson. He spent some time more or less exiled in Jamaica. He came from the upper class and by no means had any financial problems, but he was a philosophical democrat, and he wanted independence from tyranny. Without any resources to speak of, with military expertise learned along the way, and with help from Irishmen and all kinds of odd people from around the world, he managed to assemble to peasant army and drive the Spanish out. Unbelievable story! And then, because of political infighting, this hero dies penniless under a bridge in Colombia. And it's all true.
We managed to put together quite an audiovisual, and we installed it, and this took well over a year, and we had a few other projects going in Venezuela. So now I was commuting between Intermedia and Harvard and Venezuela, and we had some staff members down there, and we got very involved with the art world in Venezuela. I became very friendly with the director, Sofia Imber Rangel, of the Museo de Arte Contemporanio. I was able to bring down for an additional seminar video artists Woody and Steina Vasulka. We did a show of video art at the museum with Charlotte Moorman and a lot of the American and South American artists who were working in video. It was creative ferment. We made a lot of good friends down there in the art world, and project after project developed.
Our major source of influence--this was in the days of President Caldera, who was a sociology professor and is now the president again except he has gotten really old, and he's more of a puppet than the president that he was the first time around. I became friends with the former president who really took Venezuela out of tyranny and then to democracy, Don Rómulo Betancourt. He was a sophisticated, generous, and wise politician. Our principal source of influence, who was originally the Minister of Tourism, was a man named Diego Arria. Diego had been with the World Bank. He was an internationally known figure, and he persuaded me that I could really be of great help in bringing liberal ideas and communications and American expertise to Venezuela. I brought people, consultants, from all walks of communication and political consultants, like Pat Cadell, to Venezuela. We were involved in a lot of work there.
There was the art level which was no problem because it was art. I was beginning to understand what we were doing not only for companies like Armco Steel in the United States--we did their seventy-fifth anniversary media spectacular in a geodesic dome which traveled all over the country to Armco plants. And they persuaded me that they were a people-oriented company. A beautiful show, but there were conceptual cracks in the propaganda. Now we're doing things in Venezuela, and now we're putting a huge geodesic dome in the Plaza Bolívar, and we have this program called "Caracas Para Todos"--Caracas for Everyone. By this time, Diego was the governor of the Caracas Distrito Federal, and I'm beginning to realize this is also all propaganda. I'm playing idealist and doing good by going into the barrios and photographing people who are helping to rebuild their own houses, and Diego being stopped by a woman whose heart--what do you call those things?
Her pacer has run out of batteries, and he snaps his fingers--"Go get this woman a battery immediately," and all these great things are happening, but it turns out to be all kind of surface stuff.
Eventually--and I'm skipping a lot, a lot of high cultural points--Diego decides he wants to run for president, and we're all telling him he can't do it, he shouldn't do it. But he's determined to do it, and he announces, and the next day we are persona non grata because we're on Diego's trip. And as I say, I'm leaving out a tremendous amount of relationships and things. In the meantime, Diego has got to leave the country. He's married to, by this time, not to the lady he was married to when we first met him, but Tikki D'Asencio, whose family is one of the heavy-duty oil families in the country. Diego and Tikki have mucho money, a huge house in the country club section of Caracas, and an important art collection.
I go to dinner with the president; not Caldera by this time, but Carlos Andres. Carlos Andres is at dinner with his ministers, but he's not with his wife; he's with his mistress. He's a policeman, really; he started out as a policeman. He's stupid. I could tell you some very funny jokes that--the Venezuelans are very jokey people. We're having a marvelous dinner, and all of a sudden we have this wine which has been sent by Hans Neumann, who is an industrialist who was a refugee from Europe and now owns a chateau in Spain as well as an enormous industrial empire in Venezuela and is a director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, married to a ballerina. I take a sip of the wine, and the wine has turned to vinegar. I say to the Tiki, the hostess, "Psst--[mumbles]" and the butler with the white gloves comes and takes all the glasses away. Carlos Andres says, "Hey! Give me back my glass!" I mean, this is all in Spanish. He says, "That's one of the best wines I've had for years." Believe me, it's pure vinegar.
Now not only are we out of it, and we go home, but we are owed a lot of money by Venezuela which is uncollectible. When you're through, you're through. Politics is very strong. And it basically puts Intermedia into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Intermedia Goes KaputStern
We had another couple of disasters at Intermedia, and Intermedia is kaput. So we fold our tents, and we move into a little office, and we go Chapter 11--we probably should have gone totally bankrupt, but I'm trying to save; we owe a lot of money, and I
In the meantime, Sally and I were married, and we decided we were going to have a child. But we were going to live part of the time in Venezuela until that whole thing broke up, and we named our son Abram [spells] because, number one, I was working on Abraham Lincoln--I liked it. And in Spanish, Abram sounds kind of Spanish, too. In fact, one of Diego's bodyguards was named Abram. And then when we had the baby we told this big guy with the muscles, "We heard your name, and we named our baby that: Abram." He said, "That's just my nickname; my name is Abraham." Of course, Abram was the name of Abraham before he became the father, you know, in the Bible.
Now we have a baby, and we've moved back to Porter Square. Not to the same place, but to the same area. We've given up our great offices and we've sold our sound studio, and we're really three people instead of thirty to forty people.
We more or less satisfied all the Intermedia needs, and in the meantime my brother, Raymond, gets in touch with me. This is my half-brother who's about eighteen years younger than I am. And my father's getting much older. I think my father's by this time eighty--it was his eightieth birthday. Raymond says to me, "I know you have difficulties in Boston. I really need to have somebody whom I can trust to work with me; Father can't do it much longer." Ray's been in the business for a few years by this time. He says, "Why don't you come down and talk to me and see if you're interested?"
Well, I was offered a job at WGBH in experimental television, and there were a couple of other possibilities, but I was a bit burnt out. I was also strapped. I talked to my father, and my father said, "It has nothing to do with me; this is you and your brother. I wanted you to come into the business years ago. If you want to do it--I don't want to influence you." I don't think he really thought it was a good idea at the time. Raymond
VI 1980s: Food and Politics
Entering the Family's Cheese Import BusinessStern
So I was closing up Intermedia on one hand and starting to learn the cheese import business on the other hand. And through all this I'm writing poetry. Actually, Intermedia was a fairly low-production period for me because I was so busy creating, writing, producing. Sometimes we had three crews going. What I mean by crews is people doing photography, film, sound, and then having to put it all together--and design, visual, and actual presentation architecture.
While I was commuting, I was staying in the Soho loft of a good friend of mine, an experimental filmmaker and professor named Phill Niblock. He had done some work for us on the Lincoln piece, and he had done some work for us in Venezuela. I had first met him when I was on the New York State Council panels because he was one of the artists who had made a grant application, and we went to his studio to see his work, to evaluate whether we were going to give him a grant or not. I was one of the first people who really pushed for public support for his work. He's a first-class creative--not only filmmaker but also composer--and he's now quite well-known throughout the world of international avant-garde.
It was kind of odd because on the one hand there was all these arts endeavors, and on the other hand I was getting into the cheese business. Of course, I grew up hearing about cheese, and my father would take me down to the office, and I would go to the warehouses. It wasn't like I had never understood what the business was all about. And I have always loved cheese, which is different because for most of the people in the cheese business--it's just something that they sell.
One of the first pieces of advice my father gave me--which was, by the way, a very good piece of advice--was he watched me starting to get involved with cheese, and he said, "Gerd, we're
My father was a very interesting, a very special person, but he wasn't nice. Ninety-five years old the man was when he died. Not once in my life of like over sixty years with my father did he tell me he loved me. When I said this to my stepmother sometime after he died, she said, "How many years do you think it was since he told me he loved me?" He was incapable of that kind of expression. You couldn't please the man. I had spent so many years estranged from him that the last years of his life I felt like, "Hey, he's my father, and I'm going to do anything that he needs me to do, and I'm not going to tell him he's full of shit, and I'm not going to argue with him. If he needs me to drive him someplace, sure." You drive him someplace, and you either go too fast or too slow. If he knew where we were going, which he usually did, you never took the right road. You couldn't do anything right for the man. And he was a cheapskate; he had plenty of money but he was a fucking cheapskate. He fought in the German army during the First World War on the Russian front as a cavalryman and he got frostbitten feet. They gave him up for dead. He was about eighteen, and at ninety-five he is still going and he's driving a Mercedes Benz in New Jersey.
I was commuting. And these commute experiences--I've had a number of them: I commuted between Cambridge and Santa Cruz when I was teaching there; I commuted between Cambridge and Venezuela; and now I'm commuting between Cambridge and New York. What this does is--you're in two different places, and you have different things going on in the different places, and somehow you manage to both separate and integrate those two lives. Coming back to my family--re-relating to my father, to my stepmother, to my half-brother and my half-sister-- was an experience, and I felt very positive about it because I was trying to understand and to empathize and to use the wisdom or emotional stability that I had gained over the years to try and deal with a situation which had always been on my mind as negative relationships and now make them functional and positive for everyone involved.
However, there were attendant difficulties. Number one, I was the dependent. When I started out working with my family, they paid me in a sparse manner, and they put me on short shrift.
I came into a situation where the dynamics of the company, to me, were difficult and disorganized: the potential profit of the company was not being realized, and there was a personality conflict between my father and my brother which was not in the open. My brother was very busy. He was very occupied, but he wasn't working very hard, and he didn't put his mind or his energies--as far as I was concerned--to the benefit of the business. We had a secretary or a clerical person working in the office who spent most of the time on the phone talking to her friends and who was involved with a guy next door who was also in the same business and who was pumping her for information and giving her money on the side and using our company to make money for himself. That suited my brother because the guy was doing the work and my brother wasn't, so he had a lot of extra time on his hands to play.
My father was by this time in his eighties but he was totally compos mentis and had business principles which went back to the beginning of the century. He disliked the things that were going on, but in a sense he was afraid of my younger brother because he was my stepmother's darling, and my brother had attained some kind of ascendancy over my father which was very odd to me. When my brother first went into the business, they had their office in downtown New York where the cheesemongers were all congregated. They had a very small office with one telephone, and during the first week my brother said to my father that they should get another telephone. My father's answer to that was, "Can't you wait to call until I'm finished?" My brother waited a while, and he finally just ordered a second telephone. He found that that was the only way to cope with my father--to do instead of ask. By the time I was there it had gotten out of hand.
My brother, quite a few years back, had eloped with a Mormon while my parents were traveling--my father and my stepmother. And when they came back, this was a fait accompli. They were dumbstruck; they couldn't believe that, number one, he would elope, and number two, that he had married a Mormon--outside of the religion--had converted to Mormonism. So there was a hiatus when they didn't even speak. His first wife became pregnant very soon, and the family got themselves back together. The history goes further back. The only way really to cope with my parents
Anyway, to start with, he was not working for my father, and he didn't want to go into the family business. He was working for another company in the office products business. My father wanted him in the worst way, and when Ray and his wife Dixie Lee were about to have a baby and were living in a small apartment, my father said, "Look, if you come to work for me, I'll buy you a house." Quid pro quo. Sure enough, Raymond decided "Hey, yeah, I'm going to have a house."
He started running the business on his principles rather than on my father's principles. He got my father to move out of downtown New York into New Jersey with the business. He incorporated, which my father had never done--some of these moves were very positive moves and smart moves. Some of them were totally against my father's style of life. He adjusted because, like I said, he was kind of afraid of my brother. Here I came into this equation, and I saw the problems, and I saw that I had to establish a role for myself which had nothing to do with that dynamic. Instead of just following instructions, I started branching out. I built new pieces of business and new customers--some of them things that both my father and brother thought were not possible to do or not wise to do or wouldn't work. And most of them did work in the end, and I also developed new cheese types which I thought would have some reason to fit into the market, which was not the kind of thing that they did. I used the kind of dynamic and kind of metabolism that I had used in the arts and then the media business, and transferred them to the cheese business. Basically, it worked.
In the meantime, the government regulations and other elements in the business were changing. My father was coming in every day, but he was tired--a lot of his buddies had retired or had died, and he was kind of out of the daily grind of things, but he was very critical of everything that was going on.
My brother had divorced his wife after starting an affair with the daughter of one of our suppliers. My father was very disturbed by this because this was a man he had known for many
Things started getting out of hand, and we had an employee who managed all these matters and who was privy to all the tricks that developed. Eventually one day--I am getting ahead of myself and leaving a lot out--five guys stormed into our office with flak jackets with "Police" on them. They were U.S. Customs agents, and they took 150 boxes of papers and arrested us and took my father's private papers, and there was hell to pay. Actually, I'm still suffering from what happened. My brother was absolutely stupid because he had not kept the papers from all those tricky transactions separate from anything else, and the proof was all there of what had taken place. Since we were both officers of the company, we had to plead guilty, and we were heavily fined, and I was put on probation which just ended last month. I still have six years more to pay the government. On top of it, I decided to leave the company at that point. I had wanted to leave the company a couple of years earlier. Things had gotten out of hand, and the employee I was talking about left because she couldn't take it anymore. My brother was becoming more and more outrageous because as he saw that nothing happened to him, he felt that everything was going swimmingly. What he didn't realize was that some of his escapades in Europe involved him with people who didn't give a damn about him and who had no problem turning him in. He felt he was out of harm's way.
I was figuring that my father, who was by this time ninety, wouldn't be around for much longer. I didn't really want to leave the company while he was still around, but finally after the police and everything, and after my brother lied his way through the next series of events--I had a very good friend who is a criminal attorney here in San Francisco. We knew him through the Caens and through Beth. He came and defended us and made a deal with the government. The other attorney that my brother had originally gotten for us had told us simply to plead guilty and go to jail and serve time. My friend George Walker really broke that pattern and got us out with money penalties and probation.
I left. I tried to tell my father the truth, and among other things, to tell my father how my brother and his wife talked about him, my father. My father didn't believe me. He told me that I was abandoning my brother, and he didn't approve of it, but
I wanted in the worst way to go back to the art world and the more civilized pursuits. I considered the options; I looked around to see whether I would be offered anything. There were no real opportunities in that world. I decided--when both our English supplier and our Israeli supplier wanted me, not the family company, to represent them--to open our own business.
I persuaded my wife, who had not been working but had been involved in some not-for-profit education in the child abuse arena and had been thinking about going back to school to get a degree--that she should help me in the business, at least to get it started. We worked out of our house, and it was heartening because here there had been all this bad publicity. I had the mindset that my brother had led us into this dark passage. On the other hand, I wasn't entirely ignorant and innocent. I could have left at any time, but as I explained, I didn't want to leave because my father was elderly, and I felt that I was so connected to him and that it would be painful to him. On the other hand, I knew that there was a lot that was wrong and that I was abetting it and sometimes even helping my brother. This is not really our central issue about my life but it's part of it.
At one point, my brother had made a deal with a guy, and he then made the same deal with somebody else. The first guy was an Italian, a Sicilian, an older man--practically seventy. He came into the office one day, and he said to my brother in very Italianate speech, "Hey, you made a deal with me, then you went back on it." Then he grabbed him by the crotch, and he said, "Your wife likes you that way?" Raymond says, "Yeah, uh-huh." He says, "Your wife likes you that way. You want to stay that way, you had better fix this deal." And he left. Our employee and I were there, and Raymond kind of laughed, "Ha, ha--he didn't really mean that, did he?" I said, "Damn straight he meant it." He said, "The old man is going to what?" I said, "The old man isn't going to do anything. He's going to pay somebody a couple of hundred bucks. What's the matter with you? Don't you go to the movies or read the papers? You know where he comes from?" [Laughter]
He managed somehow, with my help, to reconstitute the deal, but that was how he behaved. Our employee just shook her head,
We were fortunate, myself and my wife slowly started getting involved in the business together. She had never had anything to do with this type of work, particularly in the sales area. She's developed a lot of expertise, and we now have two little companies which manage to support us not in very luxurious style, but it's never easy, in my experience, to earn a living. Despite the fact that there was maybe a blot on my reputation, I became president of the American Cheese Society. My brother has kind of dropped by the wayside in terms of the industry; he's still around, but very few people want to do business with him.
The next step was--one of the things when I left the business my brother had promised to take care of the bank situation where he and I had both signed personal guarantees. He reneged on that situation, and hung up the bank for a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and of course eventually the bank went against both of us. I have a garnishee on my wages, and as a result of this and the total situation, my brother and I are not talking to each other.
My father died at the age of ninety-five, and the business problems weighed heavily on his psyche: First of all, the business had his name, Otto Stern and Sons, and it had gone down--he had a really high-level reputation all over the world in that trade. He took it very hard. He blamed me: "You're the older brother." My brother owned 100 percent of the company most of the time, because my father gave it to him, but that didn't make any nevermind to my father. I had come in late after everything had been organized, but to him the fact that I was older, I should have had influence over my brother which my father never had or never exercised. So that's what I mean--the man couldn't talk to him. Reb Zalman, whom I had always talked to about all kinds of situations whenever I had a problem, had advised me that somehow I should manage to make peace with my father. But I was never able to do it; I tried, but my father, number one, wouldn't listen. Number two, he didn't believe me. Although I helped him in all kinds of ways, it just didn't work. It didn't work.
Our practice when somebody dies--a parent, a close relative --is you say kaddish, which is a prayer. It's a blessing to Ha-Shem. We don't really mourn, because we celebrate life; we don't celebrate death. I said kaddish for my father for eleven months. Nobody else did. [chuckles] What gets into these strange relationships between parents and children. What really pleases me incredibly is that my children and I have a loving relationship--all of them. Even Jared the abuser. I can see that
I think that that's not just something about me; our generation was able to achieve that with its children--those of us who had children. Tragically, a lot of the people who we've been talking about in terms of the world of the arts and the worlds of the bohemians and radicals--a lot of them had broken marriages, a lot of them did not have children. It's a really wonderful experience to be able to have that relationship between the generations which works. I guess a significant demonstration of it is why we're here. It is such a touching experience to me that Paul, the progeny of my ex-wife's running away with his father, should have had the idea and suggested that we do this oral history which he has supported. It's the kind of turnaround which one could never conceive of. It's a generosity and an openness of spirit which I think is typical of the next generation--I don't mean mine, but I mean his. And it's not just that he has the money, it's the kind of mindset that is capable of it. I think what it tells me is that history, as badly as we see that progress is not maybe--
...Sometimes we think that civilization is not necessarily progressive, that sometimes it's retrograde. Particularly in the Jewish context, a lot of people think for instance that the Holocaust is an indication that barbarism down through the ages--there has been no improvement, there is no progress in civilization. I don't think that's true. I think both from a viewpoint of ethics and a viewpoint of technology that our communication as human beings has been progressive and that people are in general--not in specifics, but in general--kinder and more conscious of each other than they have ever been before in history. It's maybe not a popular point of view, but I hope it's true.
In any case, during the time that I was involved in the business and when the business was really doing well, we were making more money than I had ever made before. I was actually able to take vacations, which I don't think I had ever done before in my life. I mean, I had gone places but there had always been some kind of a reason.
When I talked about Reb Zalman, I neglected to mention that when we had the sound studio we had produced a double album, "Tales of Reb Nachmann." Reb Nachmann was a major figure in Hasidic Jewry, and he wrote--or he actually said, and they were written down by a scribe--stories. They were tales that could be seen as moralistic. Not in the narrow sense of the word--spiritually moralistic. A lot of the Hasidic tales have the same kind of quality that Zen Koan's do. Reb Zalman translated these, and he told them, chanted them, and they were accompanied by music and by sound. There were two brothers, the Siegel Brothers, who were young rabbis--twins--and they did some accompanying music in the studio to it, and I got to know them, and I then produced an album of their songs titled, "Hallel." Hallel means "praise" in Hebrew. One of them is actually a niggun, a kind of a chant without words that the Hasids sing. One of them is called "Reb Gerd's Niggun" because I kind of improvised it.
The Siegels did yearly trips to Negril on the island of Jamaica, and they talked so much about Jamaica to me and to Sally that we got intrigued. For years, we had not had a chance to go down there, and--we had actually had reservations to go somewhere else, St. Martens, but there was a hurricane and the beaches were wiped out. We just decided on the spur of the moment to get on a plane to Jamaica.
It was a wonderful experience. I had missed the black world a lot. I grew up and went to school in New York, and I had a few black friends, and they were just friends. The distinctions had not arisen. In the jazz world, I had a lot of friends. I won't say that Bird, Charlie Parker, was my friend, but I knew him. Percy Heath was a close friend. Other musicians and artists and poets that I knew--what had happened is that there had been a lot of noise in the system between blacks and whites. Then I was with Maya, and there were tensions and conflicts. Originally not between us but with the rest of the world. I can't remember whether I had talked about--we had to stay in black hotels, and it was difficult for me; I was the odd man out, right? Very odd man out.
Here now we were in Jamaica, a totally black world except for the tourists and the remnants of British colonialism. I made some very close friends there, and I understood that we represented for them a source of information, of food, of money--on the other hand, it wasn't like in Mexico where everybody's poor
We had been looking in Negril, and it was actually my wife's birthday, and she didn't want to go, so I went up. It was a piece of land right on the Caribbean in a cove and right on a coral reef--not on a beach. She had told me to bring snorkeling gear. I went snorkeling--I love snorkeling. I love to be in a world where somehow nothing is conscious of you but everybody allows you to be there with them. It was like paradise. I thought to myself, Is it really possible that a piece of this could be mine?
She had told me that the land belonged to a Mr. Farmer and that she thought he lived in Toronto. She gave me a couple of phone numbers. It took me about six months. I thought I was looking for a Jamaican named Farmer, but what I really found was a Hindu named Varma whose family had been in Jamaica and moved back to Canada during the days when Jamaica had, in Manley's first administration, gone toward the Cuban Communists. And a lot of the people who had built some kind of wealth had left.
Indeed, I flew up to Toronto, he picked me up, we went to his house, he excused himself to meditate and pray in his little shrine room. I thought, "Hey, this is an okay kind of guy." And indeed, we made a deal for the land. It turned out that it wasn't just a little piece of a few acres, but it was eleven acres right on the seafront. It was really cheap, and I thought to myself, "How can one possibly own this?" In most places in the world, you can't even own seafront land. It's a narrow piece, but a very beautiful little cove. We built a house there, and the property is called Poetreef. It's been my place to write and to lie in a hammock on the veranda and look out at the sea and to understand how one can be in more than one place in more than one time in one's life. Slowly and slowly I've gotten to the point where I go there four or five or six times a year for a week at a time, and I'm able to separate from my business self. Until last month we didn't have a phone and a fax there because there weren't any lines. Now we've just gotten that, which will change things considerably. A lot of our friends have gone there to stay.
It would be wrong of me not to mention that the grass, the marijuana, in Jamaica is maybe not the best in the world but I would say the equal of anything anyone can get anywhere. It's fresh, which means that you get the feeling that you have something organic and unaged and unpreserved--and it's a somewhat different feeling than when you get something that's been lying around for a few months or even a year. Although it's illegal, it's fairly open as long as you don't try to commercialize, and I have no interest at all in being a dope dealer, and I never have had--and it's not expensive. So that makes for a very pleasant kind of environment.
Our associate and caretaker is a Rastafarian, which is a very odd religion or sect with mostly no organizational or institutional structure. Most Rastas are just single Rastas; they don't attend any kind of a community, but the principles and the practices are the same. They don't eat any flesh, they don't use salt, they don't use alcohol, they don't drink coffee--now various of them have different levels of orthodoxy, and they speak a slightly different language. The food is called Ital. "I" is very important, but it's not an ego "I"; it's always "I and I", not just "I." It's a very poetic involvement; the music and the lyrics are extremely socially conscious. The people all the way from Bob Marley down to the latest DJs are--most of them very un- or even anti-commercial. The sense of justice and ethics and moral practice are very high.
Jamaican Food ImportsStern
We've also gotten into business with a line of Jamaican food imports, mostly condiments, with some people who are exceptionally civilized and artistic people. That's been a wonderful kind of extra added attraction in the last ten years. A lot of the poetry that I've written has either been written there or finished, transformed, there. I have a series of eight poems that are poems with silkscreens by an artist friend of ours, David Weinrib, whom I mentioned, and who long ago had been Judi's lover between Steve and myself.
The big mistake I made is--there are always these temptations in life, and Negril is a beach town which has been in the last decade urbanized and touristicized. Where there were little places, now there are large resorts, and I didn't want this to happen to the community where our house is, Cousins' Cove. Across the road from us, more or less, there was a parcel of thirty-eight acres which also belonged to my--by this time--friend, Ashoka Varma and his family. I was negotiating with him somehow to buy it all, although by this time I no longer had the kind of money that was needed. Some years ago, Ashoka fell down; no one knows whether he fell down because he had a stroke or he had a stroke which caused him to fall down, but his speech disappeared and his liberty of motion, and he has been in very bad shape.
I visited him a number of times, and then I spoke to his sons, and I said to them, "Look, there's this piece of land that I was negotiating for. Why don't you give it to me, and I will raise money, and we'll have a foundation in your father's name, and we will do things that are for the good of the local people. They need a medical clinic. I'd like to bring artists and scientists to live there and to learn and to teach at the same time, and I think it could work out." They thought about it, and they said to me, "We have a problem because we don't really own just thirty-eight acres but within a few miles of there we own about 400 acres. We're not interested in keeping it. We would like to sell it. What we'll do is we'll sell it to you at a price where you think you're getting the thirty-eight acres for free, but figure out how to buy the whole thing."
And I went to some people I know in Woodstock, the Wapners, and we got involved with old friends, an attorney whose wife is a sculptress, and they were very interested. We made a deal, and we paid a down payment, and then my friend the attorney had a heart problem and a triple bypass. On top of it, there were about a hundred squatters living on the land. What I did was I wound up with an enormous headache. [laughter] I was still involved in trying to get this not-for-profit foundation, the Global Village, together and to try to deal with the fact that I am now the white colonialist owner of land to the inhabitants who think that I'm trying to take advantage of them when I'm not. And I feel very compromised and ambivalent about being involved with it. I feel that what I should have done is kept my Poetreef acreage and not had been tempted by this ambitious project. That's life. One does these things, and then one has to deal with them.
VII 1990s: Reflections
Writing Poetry and Memories of the Reality ClubStern
My poetry has been--I've been writing more and more every year, which has surprised me. There were periods in my life when I wrote precious little. I sometimes have a hard time breaking out of the business set of mind. However, when I'm driving or basically when I'm alone or when I'm with somebody who really sets me off, I've gotten to the point where there are very few situations where I'm unwilling to take out a piece of paper and pencil and write. I don't care whether it's business or love or what it is, but it's a necessity for me because I know that a phrase is there only for a moment. Memory is unreliable. Even if you remember the sense, you often change a word here and a word there, and it's not to the good. If you have it down and you want to change it later, that's one thing, but that feeling of it not being the way you thought it or spoke it is a strange experience.
This takes me back to John Brockman. At some point along the way, John Brockman, with a few other people, including myself--I wasn't one of the conceivers of this; it was really John's concept--formed "The Reality Club." We met mostly in New York, and we met to hear one another or some remarkable person in any field of endeavor talk about his present work and get the response of supposedly his peers. Multidisciplinary, not necessarily in his or her field. It was a tremendously inspiring thing to go to these meetings which were held sometimes in John's house and sometimes at the Rockefeller Institute and various other venues. Anything from six to twenty-five people would attend. Soon, the only way that you could become a member would be to ask to address or be asked to address the group and do a presentation. I was one
It was even more of a gas--the piece just before my poem in the journal was a piece by Heinz titled "To Know and to Let Know," and I think it's an incredibly perspicacious and on-the-dot examination of knowledge and the psychology of how to think about what you know and what you want to know. It was an address that he originally gave to a librarian congress. Certainly the Bancroft probably has it, but I will give you another copy of it because it's kind of a manifesto for librarianship.
The Reality Club, unfortunately--John and I had been contracted to write a book together for a publishing company about media. We went up to the Cape--this was years and years ago--to start writing it. At the time, I was just starting to see Sally, and I invited her to come up to the Cape and stay in the motel in P.Town [Provincetown, Cape Cod, Massachusetts] on the sea where we were staying. We got involved in long hours of lovemaking, and John was a bit perturbed by that. We weren't doing the work he was expecting that we would do together. We never wrote the book, but during the many hours where he was next door in his room by himself, he started writing, and he published a book called "By the Late John Brockman." It was a series of aphorisms and
John was looking for a way to use his talents, and he became a literary agent. Later he allied himself with a very talented and beautiful woman named Katinka Matson, who was the daughter of one of the grandmasters of literary agents. They have developed their agency, John Brockman and Associates, into probably the leading literary agency in the country, and have become wealthy, very wealthy. Unfortunately, we've kind of lost touch with each other, which is a pity. The Reality Club, at first not only fed his intellectual curiosity but also fed his client base, kind of moldered and is no longer active. Its president, who was a physicist--
Heinz Pagels--I said physicist; he was really a cosmologist--was the director of the Rockefeller Institute, and he was an odd, somewhat perverse person. He was married to Elaine Pagels, a MacArthur Fellow who wrote the book on the Dead Sea Scrolls. A very impressive lady and thinker and representative of the kind of persona that were involved in the Reality Club. Heinz fell off a mountain near Aspen, Colorado, some years ago to his death. I don't think he really had any business being there; I don't think he was in physical condition for such a climb. It was a somewhat strange way to go.
We had various odd scenes at the Reality Club. It started out with some very interesting people who were unrecognized. I think that would include myself. It wound up with fairly prestigious and established figures, which was kind of a progression not necessarily to my personal preference but certainly fascinating. For instance, one of the later people was Hugh Downs. Now Hugh Downs happens to be an extremely articulate and intelligent person but he wasn't representative of the people like Paul Ryan, the video philosopher that I've referred to early on, or even in the middle, people like Dennis Hopper. Dennis was a disaster; I had to take him out of the room. He was cursing and screaming and being the bad boy, which is an image that he cultivated in a certain period of his life. I've lost track of him, although I was very fond of him during the first years we knew each other when he was doing visual arts rather than acting or engaging in the Hollywood world.
One thing I've kind of skipped over which was brought back to mind by my talking about the session of the Reality Club in San Francisco was Stewart Brand. Stewart came into our life at the time I first met Steve Durkee. He was in the army--he had become an army photographer and, although starting out as an enlisted man, they had switched him over to a lieutenant because he was taking pictures of generals and command people, and they couldn't have enlisted men associating there closely with officers. So they made him an officer. He was very fond of heights and parachutes. When we started renovating the church and when we did USCO and even before that when I was in San Francisco, he became involved with our multimedia efforts. He had been in New York, but he wanted to move out to the Bay Area. I rented him the barge.
And as I say, he liked heights. There was one time we were all on a psychedelic trip at the church, and we went outside, and there was Stewart climbing a high-voltage tower which was outside. I mean, this was a really tall tower. A number of people kind of freaked, and we couldn't figure out quite what to do; it wasn't like we wanted to let anybody know what we were up to--or up on [laughter]. I finally said that we had better go inside and if we're lucky he'll just go up and come down, which turned out to be true--he just came down, and nobody noticed.
In fact, the first time I came back to the barge in Sausalito when we arrived from the east, we went in, and I couldn't find Stewart. I finally saw him sitting up in the rafters.
Stewart was an excellent photographer, and he had a companion--wife, eventually: Lois Brand--who came from an Indian tribe, and Stewart branched out from our multimedia shows and put together one of his own which we also used parts of for a poster in our work. It was called "America Needs Indians." Again, we had a mylar poster which was done at the church by Barbara and Judi. A really spectacular poster.
Barbara had studied silkscreening, and as I said before, she was teaching art at the time we were at the church, but she had studied silkscreening at a nearby convent with an artist named Sister Adele Meyers. Adele became very involved with us later on, and in fact she left the sisterhood with a number of her fellow sisters, but they stayed living in the convent as lay people for many years. She ran the Intermedia Gallery which was part of our foundation that came out of the church and which still exists. It's a 501(c)(3) and it's not as active as it was at one time,
Stewart, of course, went on to do the Whole Earth catalog. It started out with him wondering why we don't have a picture of the whole earth. He made little buttons, and eventually this became a kind of a cause célèbre with him, and he did the whole catalog, which was an incredible success, progressively, to the point where I think it commanded one of the highest advance figures in the history of publishing. And guess who was the agent, and guess who introduced who to who? Stewart Brand and John Brockman introduced by me.
At the Reality Club here in San Francisco, Stewart attended --he was very interested in a lot of these ideas, and he was there for Rollo May, and he came up to me afterwards. I was to go on right after Rollo, and he came to me and said, "Gerd, I know poetry is important, but I think I'll get a better deal going out and lying in the sun on the beach, so see you." Kind of typical of Stewart. Passive-aggressive type behavior, right? It was interesting because I had talked before about the kind of attitudes that Richard Alpert had had about Steve. It was mirrored by Stewart's attitude. I mean, Steve was--and I assume still is--that kind of charismatic character that people want to glom on to. I've never been competitive about people's affections and relationships--I certainly value them, but who is who's best friend is hardly the way I go into relationships. [chuckles]
Stewart then put together a foundation with some of the money that he had earned. The relations--although I felt that we had been extremely supportive and got Stewart going, he had other fields to plow. Although Lois had been very influential in all his enterprises and had worked fingers to the bone, so to speak, with the beginnings of the catalog and so forth, when Stewart began to be rich and famous and a friend of Governor Jerry's then Lois was left by the wayside for younger and sweeter fillies, if you don't mind the expression. [laughter] I felt slightly amused by that kind of behavior from someone who supposedly is in the front ranks of the ethical environmental movement, right?
Israel: Karl Katz and "The House of the Diaspora"Stern
I've left out a few things. One project which came through Karl Katz--Karl Katz had been the director of the Jewish Museum in New York during the time of our heyday at USCO. One of the rather elaborate multimedia shows we did had to do with the Lower East Side, an exhibition which showed the past and present of the Jewish neighborhood which had turned into a black and Latino community in New York. We did this with our usual techniques of multi-screens and multichannel sound, and I think it was one of our best efforts.
We got to know Karl. I worked well with him during that show, and he then asked me to become involved in a project in Israel: Beth Hateputsoth, "The House of the Diaspora." It's a museum in the middle of Tel Aviv University which deals with the 2,000 years of Jewish wanderings. The process at that time was just beginning, and they wanted me to come to Israel. There's some kind of a custom that you're supposed to, when you come to Israel as a Jew for the first time, you're supposed to do it on your own volition and your own support. I was in no position to finance a journey to Israel, and I also felt that since they were seeking my professional consultation and design and concepts in this project, it was inappropriate for me to do it on my few pennies. The gentleman, Nahum Goldman, whose project this basically was happened to be a very important personality who had actually negotiated the exit of the Jewish population from where I was born--in the Saar--at the time of the plebiscite when Hitler took over. In a sense, he probably saved me and my family, so it was a very interesting meeting in New York when Karl took me to meet him. He asked me what was going on, and I explained to him that I was very interested in working on this project, and he said, "No problem. I will personally pay for your stay." So I felt a little justified in my attitude, and Karl was pleased.
When we arrived in Israel--this was my first trip there--I met the two people who were the Israelis in charge from their side. One of them was a well-known poet named Abba Kovner, now deceased. He had been the leader of the resistance movement in his own country, and he had been effective in the wars for independence in Israel. He was a real hero figure. The other fellow, Shakje Weinberg, was the managing director of the principal theater in Tel Aviv.
The odd thing about this project was that the building had already been built--I mean, before the design and the concept of what would be in it; that's unusual in a museum that's built for a specific purpose. The Israeli government, during the period just
Abba and I, at the first instance with a number of other people both from America and from Israel, were responsible for developing the concept. The basic ideas that we forwarded were to divide the museum into a series of Sharim gates. The concept of a gate or an opening to experience is very central to Judaism. That is how eventually the concept was developed.
I also decided that--my area of expertise was audiovisual design--we should collapse the 2,000 years of the Diaspora into a six-minute presentation which would be in a planetarium-type dome as a projection environment. The historians who were involved in the project were supposed to deliver to me a précis of the events and the structure what this six-minute experience would contain.
Well, the research just kept going on forever. In the meantime, there was also a need for a fairly sophisticated computer component in the museum for genealogy and for storage of information. This was some decades ago, and it was not as sophisticated technology as it is now, but Eric Teichholz, who was at the school of design at Harvard--remember, I was connected to Harvard at the time--I involved him in the project, and he designed the original computer infrastructure technology hardware and software.
The name in Hebrew is Beth Hatefutsoth, which translates to "House of the Diaspora." Historians just never came up with the research, and time was passing, and I got very frustrated, so I had the chutzpah--this is a Yiddish word which means "nerve"--to construct and submit a script. It isn't like I'm a historian, but I did know Jewish history, and I did have books to do the research, and we had done for another museum in New York a series of presentations on Jewish history which went along with models of synagogues throughout the ages that were constructed by craftsmen. And Beth Hatefutsoth had commissioned another set of these same models.
I apparently offended the professional acumen of these historians who were bigshots in Israel, and I got a telex back telling me that this was very embarrassing; how could I, someone
To me, this was the kind of compromise which people who don't understand what you concentrate on in McLuhan's terms is the effect, not the content of what you're doing. They don't understand it. That's got to be a basic design principle when you're designing communications. Why are you doing it? Not to achieve an aesthetic sense of, you know, "Wow," look what this person was able to do with space or with time. What you're looking for is the impression that you're able to make on people with the information that you want to communicate. The concept of 2,000 years of wandering of the Jewish people is not easy information to deliver--where, why, when, who, how--but it can be done. It didn't work, so I was again somewhat disillusioned by that realization.
An interesting Israel reverberation: I spent some time with Abba on his kibbutz. As you may remember, I had been involved with that kind of fundraising where I never got to go--by the way, that boat that we bought at the time to bring refugees from after the war from Europe to Israel, the Ben Hecht--I told you it was funded by Ben Hecht and Harpo Marx. Harpo didn't want his name on the boat because his brother Groucho didn't approve of the whole enterprise. [laughter] So it was named the Ben Hecht. He was a screenwriter and a famous Jewish persona. He was gung-ho. But that boat was seized by the British, and all of my friends including Harry Herchkowitz, the editor of Death magazine, were imprisoned in Acre prison. So I was really lucky that when we drew lots, I wasn't one of the crew. I guess I was lucky; I don't think it's an experience that I needed, to tell you the truth, although I'm sure it would have changed my life.
Here in the cheese business, we were approached through other associates to buy cheese from Israel. My father, in his particular class of wisdom, told me to forget it: "You can't make any money, and they're impossible people to deal with. They came to see me before; they think they're always right, they don't
--managed to grow it from a business of importing from Israel maybe forty tons of cheese a year to a business of about a thousand and more tons of cheese a year. Now that it's there, there are other people who would like to have had a piece of it, but since so far we've been able to maintain our privilege of representation without too much competition. Business is a whole different world than art, but it has its own principles and satisfactions. I must say, I've gotten a lot of satisfaction out of doing business in Israel and making it work. And also I've gotten to go to Israel several times a year, and that has been influential in my poetry and my thought processes.
I tend, as I said before, to be interested more in the mystical and spiritual parts of Judaism than in the ritual and observances. Although I deal on a daily basis with kosher products, I don't keep kosher myself. Through Rabbi Zalman Schachter, I was in touch with the most liberal elements of Jewish observance. His congregations--women read from the Torah. But for instance, I can't take reformed Judaism because what happens there is that they do all the work for you; the spirit of Judaism as far as I'm concerned is that the prayer comes from the people and not from the stage. In the reform movement--at least the kind of traditional American reform movement--the rabbi and the cantor perform, and the congregation sits and listens. It's not conducive, I feel, to partaking of a spiritual experience. The saying out loud and the chanting of the words are what carries you into the significance and the meaning of the relationship with whatever binds the community, and the community to the Godhead or however you prefer to refer to it. The sound of Hebrew, the sonorities, are something which I think come out of the same place that my poetry comes out of.
So at home I attend a small Orthodox Labavitch congregation which happily appeared very close to home within the last year and a half or so, and it's made my life much easier in terms of being able to participate in some kind of formal practice. Before that,
Returning to PoetryStern
So I'm not quite sure where we are in terms of timeline. I think we're fairly close to the present. During the past years, from a time when I really only engaged in my visual and kinetic and audiovisual poetry, I've come back slowly to the point where I mostly only write poems on paper and say them as breath. The return has been quite satisfying.
It's not satisfying in the public mode, but I've never really experienced a measure of success in the public mode as a poet who writes poems. When we were doing our audiovisual and multimedia and artworld thing, there was a lot of success but it had fairly negative side effects. It tended to emphasize ego gratification which for some reason doesn't settle well with me. It also has to do with pushing your work out into the world in a fairly aggressive and competitive manner which also doesn't suit my personality. I will admit that I have certain resentments and feelings of not being appreciated as a poet, both from my family and friends and from the world at large. But in the balance those don't come very often, and they're not very important compared to the fact that I know that my poetry is me, and that it satisfies my standards of excellence and my standards of communication. It happens that I'm quite aware that my poetry is particularly obscure, and it's significantly experimental. The major reaction is that people don't understand it, and I keep telling them it's not necessary to understand; it's just necessary to listen and to take whatever there is, and there are things to take.
What I mean by, for instance, "resentment": at one period of my life, I really felt that the homosexual clique in poetry was rejecting me and not allowing me to have the kind of exposure that would otherwise have been possible. I certainly was aware that the academic portion of the poetry world had no use for what I was doing. During the time I was married to Ann, she at first couldn't even understand how people like Ted Roethke and Stanley Kunitz, and I had known Dylan Thomas, and how these people could actually take me seriously as a poet; after all, I didn't have a degree, I hadn't studied poetry, I didn't know the difference between a villanelle and a sonnet. It happens that I do know the difference between a villanelle and a sonnet, but you know, that kind of attitude; she was not only a graduate but a post-graduate, and there's a kind of elitism. Of course, the fact that she had
What I feel is that throughout my life, my drive toward sexual gratification and satisfaction has been both a compulsion and a direction, and it has been a very positive influence in terms of imagery and motivation and intention, and also a rather negative effect on limiting my ability to understand the limitations of relationships and to achieve some kind of rapport devoid of desire and need and emotions which aren't necessarily--in the end--positive. They seem positive, and I have a feeling that it must--I grew up in an era where Freudian ideas floated around, and I haven't even talked about the period when I was leaving home and being exposed to a lot of ideas which I had never heard of whether they were political--Marxism--or Freudianism in both the sociological, psychological, and even political terms in which they were seen in those days.
My mother's death at a very early age--I really can't tell you how that affected me. I was protected from it by my maternal grandmother. I had a rather strange experience of my father withdrawing his presence and being taken care of first by my grandmother and then--when she left for America--by my stepmother's mother and sister when I really didn't even know my stepmother much less understand who her mother was--and I didn't understand the relationship. And then the journey to get the visa, which was a kind of a terrifying experience--away from home and not like going to Switzerland for vacation and swimming in the Vierwaldstätter See on top of a St. Bernard dog with a bridle with my grandmother, but being, as I remember it, in a single bedroom with my stepmother who was a very attractive woman but who was neurotic in the extreme and a lot of tension with my father going to get papers. I had no understanding, and then getting on the boat and winding up here and getting off as an invalid and getting into the hospital.
My stepmother was a very attractive woman, and I was a young boy, and she would expose herself when I was around. I didn't have my own bedroom because my sister had been born and took my bedroom. My father, as always, was this very strict disciplinarian, and I often had to eat in the kitchen because I ate too slowly and I didn't eat correctly. I was wearing shorts
But it worked because by that time I didn't have a lot of negative energy going on the relationship anymore or resentment. I resented the fact very much for many years that he was not willing to cough up the money to send me to college. He hadn't gone to college, but I understood afterwards; I mean, here's a man who was born in the 1800s, who grew up before telephones and electricity, really. What can you expect? Sometimes what our children expect of us is a whole different level of what I would consider a real luxury. Our children take it for granted. I didn't take it for granted; I didn't get a watch until I could buy one of my own, and I got one for a Bar Mitzvah but I was only allowed to wear it on special occasions, not on a daily basis--it was an object of value, so weekends maybe.
When I was in high school, my male cousin and I were obsessed with masturbation and with young girls. But I had heavy glasses, I was a sissy, I didn't know how to make friends and influence people, and I just couldn't get it together. Finally, when I met all the people from the High School of Music and Art, and I started making friends and spending time with them listening to classical music and jazz and folk music, joining a square dance group--here was this refugee boy dancing American square dances with the Margo Mayo group on the ice rink in Rockefeller Center for the United Nations. Looking back on it, it's pretty out of it, but it didn't seem strange at the time. What seemed strange to me is that when I was doing that, and I came home late at night, that my father acted like I was some kind of criminal and all I had been doing was square dancing or looking at the stars in Central Park with the Junior Astronomy Club from the museum.
I remember my first experience on the roof of Julia Pearl's apartment when Naomi Sternberg stuck her tongue into my mouth. I mean, it like was a revelation, right?
Ginny. Ginny was much older than I was, and she was a tiny little lady, very pixie Irish--her hair floated around her, and it was like being with the Faerie Queene. I met her through this homosexual United Nations guy, Ellis, and she was Paul Goodman's first wife; they had been apart for a long time. She took me home, and as a favor, really, she took me to bed. It was a
But from then on, I was confirmed--I wanted it, I really wanted it very badly. I looked for relationships, and I found them. They were always, I felt, in the first few years, more serious to me than they were for the women. I was wrong about that. I was scuffling through life: I was working at something where there was never enough to pay the rent and to do everything. Most of the young ladies, girls, artists that I knew and went to bed with, came from well-to-do families, and here I was living in the Village, basically on a level which I equated with the romanticism of things like Dead Souls--I was into Russian novels.
I had been involved with an acting group when I was in high school and all my friends from Music and Art were involved in it; we did Ibsen, and we did Chekhov and Pirandello at little library theaters in New York public libraries and also down at the Cherry Lane Theater in the Village, which was a historic little old falling-apart theater where Eugene O'Neill had produced some of his plays. And we re-did one of his plays there.
I was envious of other people's sexual relationships. When I finally kind of fell into Jane's arms, I didn't think of it as being a maternal relationship. But the whole idea of consummating relationships and oral and coital sex were much more than physical experiences; they seemed to me--and of course I was familiar with literature, but at that time the whole idea of sex and literature was very different than it is today. I was also familiar with the mystical literature which alluded to sex as a spiritual experience. I've never been faithful in my life. I've lied about it. And I've never had a serious relationship in which the woman was faithful in my life--up to the present time. I don't know whether I believe even the possibility of such a relationship. As a result, my level of trust is not very strong. I tend to feel that I am a trusting person, and I trust people until they become untrustworthy whether it's in business or other relationships. I learned that this was an area, the area of sex and physical sexual relationships where you can't trust people. That doesn't seem to matter to me anymore. It did; I was very jealous when I was with Jane. I mean, I couldn't do much about it because she was in charge, and I was hysterically jealous thereafter. I now can experience the emotion but it doesn't have the intensity for me, and I can shrug it off. But I don't trust my wife; I know she lies to me about that and about other things. I feel that that was true with all the other women that I've related to in my life, that they lied to me. I don't know what that means; I don't generally feel that I can extend my experience to everyone's experience. I believe that there may be people who were very
Sexual Thesis in Poetry
I would say that--and you'll see it when you read my poems--that a lot of my poems either touch on or are centrally about this topic. It's not that I want to expose all the relationships that I've had, but I've had affairs which have lasted fifteen or twenty years through various marriages on either side, which were very intense affairs and which changed my thinking about life. For instance, when I was here in San Francisco with Judi, my nurse, and I was preparing to do the performance at the San Francisco Museum and to mount the show, I needed help. Two long-term friends of mine--a wonderful, wonderful painter and poet, Bob Rheem, and Liam O'Gallagher, who had lived together for many years and were friends of people like Huxley and Jimmy Merrill--lovely people--they introduced me to a young extraordinarily beautiful--I don't know what to say anymore; whether to say girl or woman--in any case, another angel named Judith McBean.
She was interested in the arts, and she was looking for something to do. She helped me organize the show and this performance. The attraction was extremely magnetic, and it took a while, and it really wasn't consummated by a sexual relationship until much later, but it was so intense that she asked me to go away with her to Greece. I was strongly tempted, but I had been involved already with a society marriage which had failed, and I had been involved with someone who had grown up with a lot of money; it had been a destructive influence in our relationship. I couldn't do it. But on the way to Greece--by this time I was back in Woodstock--she came through New York, and I took her up to Paul Williams' place on the Cape, and we made love. It was a transcendent experience, at least for me. I had very mixed feelings about my decision. We wrote, and we stayed in touch, and she then married a friend of ours--another socialite here in San Francisco--and our relationship was just kind of touch-and-go. Then she had a child, her marriage broke up, she went into a horrible period of drugs and alcohol and self-destruction, and she called on me for help. I tried but she was too far gone. It's taken like twenty-five years for her to get herself physically rehabilitated and psychologically rehabilitated. She bought one of my big kinetic pieces years before and donated it to the Oakland Museum. Now she's remarried to a cowboy; she's a horse woman. We haven't seen each other for a number of years, but the tug of that relationship and the thread of it has persisted throughout my life for decades.
I couldn't really say that it's a question of regret, but my image of Judith--it's odd; I've been with a number of Judiths in my life. My wife whom I was never married to was Judith. Judith is Judith. My present wife's name is Sara Judith. [laughter] To a poet, the sound of names is a sonority which has significance. Judith is also resonant to "Jew." The fact that none of them were Jewish [inaudible; laughter].
There's my other friend who is also from San Francisco society and with whom I actually--while I was married to Ann, we had a little secret retreat in North Beach at which we would meet for lunch and engage in hours of acrobatic sex together. Through her three marriages and my--well, the first one had been over already when we met and our friends in the artistic and social circles in San Francisco we keep meeting and remeeting and keeping the relations going, although no longer maintaining the sexual union. She's been like a mother to my daughter.
Now we haven't had a physical relationship for ten or fifteen years, but the reality of the physical relationship that we had is still very much part of our relationship. It's a bond, and it's not a cause for suffering; it's a cause for joy. And the
These things that go two ways are fascinating to me. I wear a ring which I was given first by Rabbi Zalman Schachter--a little silver signet ring that he had gotten in Israel saying "Gam Zeh Yavor"], which means "This too shall pass." The incredible thing about that phrase is that if something is really painful and disturbing and destructive, "this too shall pass" is an effective mantra. If you are in the midst of a--whether it's sensual, sexual, emotional, artistic--experience of bliss, "this too shall pass" is also a very interesting piece of information.
For many years, I was conscious of Goethe's last words which were "Mehr Licht" ["More light"]. Now I've always been involved with light as a medium, as a source of illumination--lux. "Mehr Licht," in my early years of thought, meant that he was asking for more light as he was going out into darkness. I was sitting at Millbrook years ago with a lady named Susan Firestone, and we were talking about this, and she said, "Gerd, he was seeing the light." He said "Mehr Licht" because he saw the light; it was an out-of-body experience. You can read about it all over the place. I mean, read the Tibetan Book of the Dead. You don't understand it? He saw the light, and God knows which one it was or whether it was either, but both those possibilities are there.
One of my favorite expressions, a mantra which I wrote during the USCO days which kind of came out of this ring--funny thing is, this ring, I was snorkeling on the reef at [Negril?], and my little silver ring--which was fairly tight on my finger--just fell off, and fell into the coral reef. I couldn't recover it. That ring had passed through many hands because my custom with that ring was if I saw somebody who was in trouble or somebody died or somebody was sick, I would take it off my finger and slip it on theirs and say, "Wear this for a while." It always came back to me. But within recent years I had these made for myself and my
We built the first one on a commission for Sister Mary Corita and Magdalene Mary who at the time were involved in the Convent of the Immaculate Heart in Los Angeles; these were two artist nuns, and they had incredible energy and an incredible collection of art, a lot of it kinetic, and they taught--and I did some workshops for them. I was introduced to them by a German professor of art who lived down there and who had worked with the Bauhaus crowd, a friend of Ivan Majdrakoff's, Paul LaPorte. You know, the networked friendships in my life have been, I think, in a sense the most important sort of intellectual and artistic influences.
The opportunity to do this oral history is kind of an endgame product of this network--by endgame I don't mean to suggest finality, but I'm feeling now that I'm recouping and regenerating materials and experiences that have been influential and effective--effective in terms I was talking about "never mind the content; look at the effect." In all of the multimedia work that we did, that was the principle that I had taken out of McLuhan and that I was trying to put into practice.
One of the performances that I conceived of--which happened in San Francisco in those same years as the first museum show at an old movie theater in North Beach--was called "The Destruction." You will see in that brochure I gave you a copy of the announcement for it. The idea there was to have people come and bring objects which were meaningful in their life, but which no longer were necessary to them. We would destroy them on stage in a symbolic act that would perhaps free them of whatever possession that that object had of them or whatever necessity that it represented. It was a period when the world was conferring about destroying weaponry. The question was what reverberant effect mounting such a performance in a tiny little place with a small group of people would have on the world at large. We got network television coverage, we got print coverage on the wire services, and we got local coverage, aside from the effect on the hundred or so people who were in the theater and who paid admission to come.
We had a crew on stage; every object that was presented was destroyed in a different fashion. It was an exciting evening. What I wanted to illustrate was the content of that evening was not the important solution; the attempt to influence was the reverberant effect that it had on both the people who participated--the audience--and the millions of people who were exposed to it through the media. It probably cost--aside from the rental of the theater which was fifty or sixty bucks or something like that--I don't think we spent $150 on doing it. The media probably spent fifteen, twenty, thirty thousand dollars on pushing this thing out. That was the kind of idea I was experimenting with in the same sense as when I was talking about the three simultaneous movies of the motorcycle, we were trying to basically fuck around with people's sense of time and to impress them with the effect that distorting time perception had on their personals. What is really real? Is it the motorcycle on the center screen which is ninety or a hundred frames ahead of the one on the left, or maybe the left and the right sides which are in total sync. What's in sync in your life in terms of time? What's happening out there? What's happening in here? Talking about it is one thing; putting it into the form of art is a completely other thing.
Disillusions, Obscenities, CorruptionsStern
Working in the media was very exciting, and it was very engaging. Over time, I lost it. Didn't want to do it no more, no more, no more, no more. Why? Partially, I and the other people who were working together started it experimentally and on a pure level of dealing with consciousness and artistic forms. I'm not saying that I wasn't personally responsible for it, but over time these ideas and these ways of dealing with each other--you know, using strobe techniques, cutting up film into tiny little segments, dealing with multiple channels--got out into the world. We used it, other people used it, in ways which had to do with buying things, selling things, dealing with material which I find obscene and unsavory--mostly violence. [chuckle] That's about the only thing that I really feel is obscene and unsavory. Like I told you about Venezuela, I got disillusioned. Here we were, "Caracas Para Todos," and we had this 360 degree projection environment, and we had this little boy playing an old tire hoop as if it were like a toy hoop, and you could see him going straight around you on the screen, and there was a beautiful song that was written by a folklorical Venezuelan, Fredy Reina. A gem of a genius of a man. A cuatro player--a four-stringed little folk guitar.
Yet, at the end it was propaganda for a regime that was repressive, unconscious of real democratic intention and motivation and I, we had been used to promote their agenda, and here I was showing the president of Venezuela and his retinue what we had done. I was already conscious of the corrupt nature of what had happened to our original experimental impulses. So now to be co-opted as propagandists for something which I had felt was for the people--"Caracas Para Todos," "Caracas for Everyone."--became painful. It wasn't really Caracas for everybody; it was Caracas to make the president and his ministers rich and enable them to be bigshots. That wasn't the only experience of that kind that I had. And I kind of withdrew; I kind of decided that writing poetry in the stillness of myself and dealing with cheese which, despite what nutritionists say, I think is a healthy thing to eat and is not harmful to other human beings, was a better way to go than to stick your head out into the world and deal with art collectors and museums and other patrons who want to use your work toward their purposes rather than your own.
We have two words in Hebrew; one of them is "dayenu"--used in Passover--which means "it would have been enough." It's like if he had parted the Red Sea and drowned all the Egyptians, it would have been enough. In that way, I've always asked at each Passover Seder my friends to say what would have been dayenu in their own life. I used to say to my father, "If you had brought me to the United States out of Germany, and you hadn't done anything else for me in your life, it would have been enough." And he would say, "Oh, what did you think I was? Stupid? Of course we had to leave." But I didn't feel that way.
And the other thing that you say is "omain," which is like "om" and "amen." That's how I feel right now, like "dayenu" and "amen."
Poetry. I'm going to read from First Poems and Others, a book which was copyrighted in 1952 and which I haven't looked at in years. The frontispiece and the drawings for the poems were done by Ivan Madjdrakoff and the actual lettering of the poems by Julia Pearl, who at the time was his wife. It says, "Reproduced in direct image multilith, Clarence Roth, New York." This is a private limited edition, and the one that I'm looking at is my daughter's. I think it's 207 of 280. I must have still had some copies when she was born some years later, although the time this book was put together was when I was living with Jane. I think it was before we were married or about the time we were married, but I'm going to have to look that up.
We were living in New Paltz, and our very close friend, Herbert Vogel--he came from Europe, and his father was in the business of cashing checks in New York City after he arrived as a refugee--a philosopher and a small man with an intense stare through heavy glasses and an accent, and a person with whom I spent countless hours discoursing about various philosophical and aesthetic theories and ideas and constructs. A circle of people I hadn't really mentioned around an early love of my life named Doris Adelberg from Vienna, whose parents were middle-class but relatively cultivated, and whose older daughter, Lotte, was--and still--an outstanding painter coming out of the Expressionist school--Eric Marder, a practically violent presenter of Nietzschean ideas; Henry Loeblowitz Lennard, a Columbia and University of California psychologist, with later bonds to the media--a documentation of family situations at UC; he had a lab with video cameras. It kind of fascinated me that our multimedia ideas--that was really--oh, I knew him, the great theoretician who
Anyway, I think I will start reading Herbert's introduction so you can get somewhat of the mindset of the time.
All art is an expression of spiritual freedom. It is a unique transmutation of the universe through the artist's representations, but since all Beings partake of this universal fountain and bring forth the fruit of interaction with their natural surroundings, they all contain aesthetic truths. Wherein, then, is the artist exceptional in his comprehension of the universe, in enveloping in his breath the latent meanings of life? Is it in his possession of a scope whereby the manifold nuances of nature may be encompassed and thus provide a beacon for the endless manifestations which life affords; or is this ultimate truth, to be founded upon renunciation, a liberation of the soul from the circumstantial determinations of life, that is, that the latter are to serve as points of reference, as vectors of life, without being life itself. Those who see an inexorable psychogenic nexus in our Being will find in these verses a proclamation of freedom, perhaps illusory, perhaps mad: for them, I reserve the words of Santayana: "Had we not license to be mad, we should not be our own masters, but the ignoble product of other things; and to be mad is simply, in spite of Gods and men, to be indomitably free." For others who find in these works an elevation above temporal reality, there will be revealed an asymptotic movement from the conditional to the unconditional, from the finite to the infinite. Our situation is only the initiation of universal truth within us, but in conceiving of it in its circumstantial arbitrariness, in experiencing the fact of experience; rather than in participating with it directly--the tie toward life and its determinants becomes increasingly tenuous until in its perfection it remains wholly aloof and an end to itself. This emancipation must remain ideal, because, however remote to life, the thought remains incarnated within
― 159 ―the protagonist. Nevertheless it is that to which he aspires--to depict life in its eternal truth. Thus the artist becomes a mirror of humanity: as he encompasses the world in the sanity--no, no--in the vanity, in the unity of his Being. He is as plastic and malleable, almost chimerical in his catalyses, as the creations of the universe.
September 1952, Herbert Vogel.
"The Poet's Premise"Stern
My own preamble, titled "The Poet's Premise"--you understand, I haven't seen or read this for many years. I'm as amazed at Herbert's ideas as I was in 1952, particularly as applied to early poems. "The Poet's Premise":
|Poetry, as any art, is necessarily perfect, therefore inviolate. The Poet, contradistinctly, remains subject to unlimited question and criticism. His definition provides delimitation, an afterthought attempting that measure of analysis which would approach full knowledge of the (poetic) experience itself.|
|As Poet I demand meaning, the universal relating terms of existence. I intend my poetry attain the effect of reception, be impression, neither description nor imperfect facsimile. I posit that impression as meaning; define 'content' as active manifestation of meaning. 'Form' becomes inherent, being discretely the temporal definition 'content' assumes.|
|Belief I extend to knowledge, dogma, tradition. These products of analyses bear their beauty in structure. Dead, they exist staticly; existing, enhance function.|
|Faith I place in my senses. Impressions actual, fantastic, contrived, are intensely alive beyond subject. Then create my poetry in their excess . . . . .|
And it's dated New Paltz, 1952.
"Reflection, A Fragment"Stern
The first poem in the book is a poem that I wrote that I deemed as publishable. It was not the first poem, and I don't have any idea what happened before this. It's gone, I'm sure. It is not only called "Reflection," but it is part of a series through the years of reflections which are not titled "Reflections" but which have some type of mirror image content. But this is called "Reflection, A Fragment."
|I fist the mirror.|
|Crashing, it spreads the crackèd lines|
|Doubling and redoubling|
|The he's to she's, and him's to her's,|
|The I's to them, those me's that were.|
I see in this poem--of course, I've been aware of its existence but I haven't even looked at its physical reality for many years, but I have known that this poem and the poem I wrote about ten days ago in Buenos Aires, which is the last poem that I have in typed form--I have probably since then a hundred scribbled pages of notes for poems that I'm still working on--is a direct descendant of this "Reflection, A Fragment," and the experience and the handling of sounds and words--which are sounds--from then to now is, as Herbert put it, inexorable [laughter]. Inexorable.
The next poem in the book is called "PEAK Song." Interesting; this is long before "The Peak Experience" from--what was his name? We'll have to get that. This is an interesting story. When Reb Zalman was doing his year of sabbatical from his post at the University of Manitoba at Winnipeg, he was living on Broadway in Cambridge in the apartment we later took over. This psychologist came over, and I happened to be there at the time, and said to Zalman, "I'm Jewish, but I don't know very much about being Jewish. What happened to me is a story which I will tell you: I had a fairly ordinary academic career, and I wasn't getting very much of any place when I had this idea. The idea became a compulsion with me, and I said to my wife, 'If I follow this idea out and publish, everyone will probably think that I'm mad and
Now Zalman and I were, as usual, somewhat out of our heads. After our distinguished peer had departed, we laughed like hell. Why did we laugh like hell? Because we felt that this man had taken the first steps on a spiritual path, and if we do the reading list, it wasn't going to do him a damn bit of good. But it was in his world a necessary key to a door which he doesn't understand what it would unlock.
Then I realized sometime later that the "Peak Experience"--I had written this poem called "PEAK Song":
|slower and faster and Faster|
|firster and laster my Faster|
|firster then laster my Faster|
|slower then faster then Faster|
Elaine Goldman & "Harvest 1"Stern
Actually, I'm wrong about what I said about that being the first poem. The first poem is this poem; it's earlier than "I Fist the Mirror," and it's dedicated to E.G.--Elaine Goldman--who was the first leading-to-mature relationship that I had with a woman. She was a great lover. She was very motherly. She was a large, well-endowed woman who was educated in literature beyond anyone that I had ever met to that point and who opened a lot of doors for me. I'm sorry that somehow she disappeared out of the mainstream of my existence. It's called "Harvest 1."
|In my spring; when yellow fruits hung with green leaves waiting,|
― 162 ―
|I saw brown fruits fall, the brown leaves wither.|
|Brown in my season was that love's red colour,|
|as she, mine, lay on our dead bed.|
|Dead bed of our loves, red bed of our dreams...|
|I awoke in fall, walking the streets.|
|My pockets were full of viscous fluids.|
|Kissing the passerby; I became assassinated.|
I guess you can tell the poem fell into place when our relationship was over. The drawings in this book--by Ivan, with whom I had dinner last night and acquired another one of his paintings for my collection of his works through the years because--I immediately knew, and I wrote eight or nine lines about his new paintings last night, I immediately knew when I looked at his new paintings such a stream of pleasure and recognition and understanding of the path that as an artist he has taken and the reverberations of images through the years and of objects. It was a transcendent experience. We are almost of an age--he's a bit older than I am, and we've been together a long, long time. Last night he thanked me for putting him into touch with people and situations throughout his life which have been transformational for him and which had actually effected his creative doings strongly. I was very touched, although I have not had that feeling that I had really done anything for him. The process of working on a film together with him was one of the finest collaborative temporalities that I've experienced. The other one was working with Michael Callahan--particularly early on, and then later too, when we were able to assemble tapes. The extraordinary tape of that period, which was a tape that we used at "Who Are You and What's Happening?" and which still exists, is called "Billie Master." It's named after Billie Holiday, who appears on it along with Franklin Roosevelt and Alice B. Toklas and others too numerous to cite. It's a tape which must be placed in the archive.
Let me ask a question about the drawings. Are they representative of the early fifties?
Representative in what way?
Well, I've looked at a couple of journals--The Circle, The Ark-- and what struck me right off was the drawings they reminded me of, the drawings in this particular--.
Yeah, well, you see the one on the wall right up there. Ivan came out of the High School of Music and Art, a very sophisticated institution--of course, we didn't realize at the time what we were in--and he later attended Cranbook in Michigan, which is a leading modern art school--he and Julia Pearl both, and others of our friends. I visited there while they were going there, I think twice. It's outside of Detroit in Bloomfield Hills. Actually, there's "Harvest II," too, but I'm not going to read it, and there's a bunch of poet songs. This poem, "He," is interesting because I refer to Hashem, and there's always been that vein with God in one form or another in my poems. I think that when I was younger, I thought I might be an atheist. But it didn't work. I think I have an excessive faith; too excessive to become either an atheist or an agnostic for sure--even at an early age. It goes:
|Drew fish from that belaboured sea|
|and snared birds from one illicit heaven|
|Murdered the Carnivores|
|after his own fashioned|
|Became again from this punished limb|
|and feared shades from an open door|
|Doubted the Deity|
|after his own fashioned|
|Caught breath from his burning throat|
|and swallowed liquid from a barren vine|
|Assassinated the Chosen|
|after his own fashioned|
I remember this "Yin Chant" as a poem that I fell in love with while and after it was written. Again, I see it being the ancestor of a concept of construction that I have worked on over the years and which--there have been a lot of modalities but they all lead in the same direction. It always amazes me--not only to go back but to go on. "Yin Chant":
|Penning scrawl to lie with mine|
|Cover down this blackened sheet|
|Name these letters a word to dye.|
|Give way we dozened lie with yours|
|Cry me in whose mouth you trap|
|Believe her bereaved, prick nether be whether.|
|Thinging together to childe will ball|
|Foundered on merry griffins roc|
|Flew on or stippled ocean bloc|
|Name these letters three words to dye.|
|Bespoken a token we married|
|He broken asked for a glass|
|his pain to wipe|
There are touches in these poems which need both sound and vision because "roc", for instance, without a k. And "dye" is d-y-e. [spells]
This poem I wrote for Antonin Artaud. It doesn't mention his name, but it's called "L'Autre":
|Je suis enchanté|
|Suis que je suis|
|Suis un pauvreté infini|
|J'ai l'argent d'aujourd'hui|
|Et l'odeur d'ici|
|Suis que je suis|
It's very odd; I wrote these two poems in French, and I don't know French. Remember, though, where I got the French.
This is "L'Autre 2":
|'Je suis' et abolie|
― 165 ―
|"le rat et cheval est aussi animaux"|
|Le tigre et le negre|
|le poete et l'autre joue|
|par le visage de Dieu|
|Sur son lit secret|
|un démon crie "Ci gît".|
|et tout le monde repondit "oui"|
We were living on 101st Street and Columbus Avenue in a railroad flat, and for a long time we had someone living with us whose name was Sami Rubinstein--no relation to that other Rubinstein. Sami was from Belgium, and he was the son of a world-famous chess player named Akiva Rubinstein. He also was a chess player. He didn't have any money, but he would go down to the Marshall Chess Club and play and come home with a few dollars all the time. He was not his father's equal, but he was tops.
He was an artist; he drew like Rembrandt--and I don't mean to put them on an equal level. By "like Rembrandt," I mean that he drew in that style. He knew all Rembrandt's work, particularly the drawings. He would draw portraits of you in that style, and they were fantastic.
He was a crazy guy. He got hung up on the white queen, and he went mad.
The white queen?
On the chessboard. It reverberated through his mind. His father had gone mad. What had driven his father mad is that he was on his way to Russia to play the chief player of the world. I can't remember if that was Capoblanco or Alekhine. I'm not even sure I'm pronouncing them right. And the war broke out when he was on his way, and he couldn't go. He went mad.
Marga Richter and "Relations (One)"Stern
Some of these poems are very sad. Here there's a cantata libretto which I wrote with Marga Richter. Marga was at Juilliard; she was a composer. I think I mentioned early on that she had moved up to New Paltz into one of my reconverted--I don't mean mine; they belonged to Thorberg but I had reconverted them--chicken coops. And then it burned down, along with her grand piano. This was previous to this. Marga and I also had an affair; short-lived, but lived nonetheless. It [the cantata libretto] was later played both at Juilliard and by a small symphony orchestra in New York--performed, that is. A lot of it is based on mystical or kabbalistic texts but transformed to a different level of my own. It was called Relations, and in parentheses it says One to Infinity, but it's not the word infinity; it's the symbol. There are quite a few parts to it: one to four are called "The Concepts of Realities"; five to eight, "A Relational Progression"; nine, "The Catalyst"; zero, "The Destruction," and then infinite, "Operating Function."
"Relations (One)" goes--of course, this is with lots of music, somewhat atonal music--and chorus:
|One Is enough|
|(All Is only everything (Is))|
|One and All • Is • One and All|
|Am I It Is|
|I Am Is Am It Is|
|Be ings (End and Beginning)|
|All Is and enough|
|All Is enough|
Yesterday I was driving to the East Bay, and on the radio station I was listening to a partial broadcast of Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in however many acts. Three, I believe. But there are more than four saints and more than three acts. It's a great work, I think. It's a lovely work. This has nothing to do with that work, although people have wondered whether I had used it as a kind of a model, but to tell the truth, in 1952 I had never heard Four Saints in Three Acts. Sadly.
The last part of it, "Relations ()" is:
|Universe • id est • relation • id est • Universe and being relation is|
|Universe and I am|
It keeps on doing it in slightly different ways. There's a little poem called "Dicotomie":
|was only Is being Chaos|
|Still no-thing moved|
|forbicause d'it done Divided|
|up to down with plus fro minus|
|Yes and No|
I used to even get some laughs when I read these poems.
|How too and wherever was when|
|toward always possibly|
|perhaps returning then|
|forever without end|
This one I really thought I was--it took me a long time to write this one, and I kept changing it until it finally took this form not long before the book came out. I think I was really conscious of the fact that we were working on the book, and I was finishing it. I was really pleased with this poem. It was the longest poem--except for the cantata--that I had written at the time. That seemed significant to me at the time, although it doesn't any longer. I mean, I write short poems and longer poems --I prefer short poems, really, maybe because it's nice when something completes itself. I have a lot of incomplete poems and a lot of fragments. I have what I call a line bank. Whenever I start a piece of paper, and I have a few lines, I write "line bank" and the date on it. None of those lines usually ever get employed; it's hard to find jobs for words in this world, right?
I've had a hell of a time to find jobs for lines that don't fit into poems [laughter]. Then you try and make a poem out of it, and it doesn't work. It never works. I get very frustrated when I look back on some of those sheets, which I usually don't. They are push-down storage; the worst kind of storage. I'm talking about archivism, and that's what I've got: boxes of push-down storage. The problem with push-down storage is that you can't retrieve what's on the bottom without going through the top.
That's tape. I wonder about tape. It's much harder to deal with than paper even, because retrieving something on tape--unless you've got some kind of digital control over the analog process--is mind numbing.
For video they have SMPTE code. It's an acronym for Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. You can take a piece of equipment, and you don't have to do it when you're recording the image, and you can subtract it out of the image; it isn't inevitably there. You put a frame code so that time and identity are established basically for each scan, for each raster image. You can stop it, you can cut, you can edit, you can order the editing equipment to make a fade or a dissolve or whatever you prefer. And if you have the right equipment computer-wise, you can just give that number after you've jotted it down because you saw it go by and you needed it. It will recover it for you fairly quickly. The further move now is that it's now all on computer rather than on a video tape, or it's on CD-ROM and the retrieval of it is getting speedier all the time. Retrieval time is history, right? Terrible. I mean, the more retrieval time you get, the less reality is in whatever you're redoing, re-collecting. Why are we re-collecting when we could be collecting?
That was a long answer.
Oh, it was?
Well, we have time.
That could have been the response to expound on the philosophy of history.
"Day after Year"Stern
Could it? Okay, well, this is about that. It's called "Day after Year":
|Hear on this sing song day|
― 169 ―
|Here he me lay down|
|Sound on a sound at|
|of or if too|
|Why for to can with those will|
|there could do full as that no|
|nor way finding down done|
|found some did think these not gone|
|How if than piece did fair best|
|losing all more from last try|
|sure now been then and see too|
|lost you are lest when was so|
|Sex of a one and eleven|
|Pair quadrupled breaks seven|
|Numbers out letter is same|
|When would better be least|
|ever stay under cry which|
|whether near neither while none|
|being but always brought each|
|Where may since become still|
|might hardly sometimes just seem|
|could every either yet pray|
|rightly should pass leaving by|
|Sex of a pair in eleven|
|One quadrupled makes seven|
|Letter out numbers are same|
|What withal fallen together|
|chosen about beside nearly|
|dropped came apart through believing|
|fell without moving the matter|
|Ask any almost makes even|
|true taken next on the changing|
|gave a first bit until finished|
|wait itself end never really|
|Here on this sing song day|
|Heard he me lay down|
|Sound on a sound (at|
|of or if too)|
"The Idea of Order at Key West"Stern
One of my very favorite poems--if we have some time, maybe I'll read it to you because it also reverberates through my life--is called "The Idea of Order at Key West" by Wallace Stevens. I didn't know that poem at the time, but the whole "sound on a sound, sing-song day," I now realize reverberates for me in that poem. That poem was one of the poems that we worked on for the Ford Foundation at KPFA to illustrate listening to poetry and thinking about poetry--Lew Hill's project, which I worked on with him.
"Fragment; after W. B. Yeats"Stern
At the time, my favorite poet was W.B. Yeats. He still definitely is in my top ten of all time. This was called "Fragment; after W.B. Yeats," and it was dedicated to Herbert Vogel:
|Red Rose, new Rose, this Rose of all my days!|
|Come free me, as I find these finite ways:|
|Remembrance hoarding every loss to hide|
|The Past, lay full-knowing, ready-tried;|
|So seems false Future gone, and Present bold;|
|And your same Beauty, bearing blood grows old|
|While reaching Time; where Passion always free|
|Flees Search in Love of our Reality.|
I finished with this poem which seems a little tough line to go out on at this point:
|Know that you as the forever sun|
|light brightly through my emptied shell|
|the ineffable breath of decayed virtue|
|and Find in this one consolate word|
|a memory of now and is|
|which lingering knew me as I am|
Somewhat odd. There were a number of poems published in other venues, but that was the book--until Afterimage was published.
But Afterimage was printed and first published in England by Villiers Publications, Ltd., London, N.W.5, for Maverick Books, Woodstock, New York. This is when Judi and I and Michael were living in Woodstock. The Maverick Press didn't exist. We had these books printed and bound; there were two editions. One was paperback and the other was hardcover. I had started, in the last few years before that, in doing collages, and we had one of the collages which I particularly did for the cover--printed black and white. It doesn't have the textural quality of--. But these collages are not just meant to look at or just pick out words from, but you can read them if you have a mind to.
"Zum Gedächtnis" is a German phrase for "to think"--no, this is more like "memory," something you have or will have in memory. [reading from collage]
|Promise to you|
|In our tough|
|On the spot.|
Then there's "Stern Airlines." That was a throwaway, obviously. It goes:
|Hey, grow up|
― 172 ―
|One of a kind|
|Body's squeezed in|
|All the way in|
I mean, these are just--these last are all in a row, but usually I don't do all in a row; I skip from one part of the collage to the other as I'm gluing. First I do rough cuts, and then in order to fit things in I do fine cuts. The question is whether there really is sense--as I see here this little phrase: "Contact is made." Contact, keep it cool--it's not "keep it cool," it's "keep in cool."
It's fascinating; it's more fascinating, I think, to do it than to experience it. I really got off on it because these words would bounce around in my head, and they got down on paper and people bought them, what's more. Which is more than you can say about written poems, usually.
Afterimage, the hardback edition, was meant as a limited subscription edition, and I did get a number of subscriptions which covered the printing costs, and then of course I had books left over. I still have a few but not very many.
How many were printed?
It should say, but I'm not sure that it does. No, it doesn't say. I think there were 150 of the hardbacks and 500 of the--. I'm not sure. The dedicatory phrase in the book is from "The Last Sun" by Theodore Roethke: "Snail, snail, glister me forward." It's a lovely poem. He was a great poet.
The first poem, as the first poem is in First Poems and Others, is a mirror image poem. In fact, it's somehow very close even though it's a completely different poem. And it's the title poem of the book, Afterimage:
|When I struck down|
|or my soft mummy mate|
|was laid in the mimic twitch of tick|
|and knock by all who would|
― 173 ―
|who didn't find me wandering|
|when the stranger curves inside|
|were margins for my sibling pain|
|By last and always swore|
|when I struck down|
|to find by vein, the pool in rock,|
|the core; a cry, cry|
|for next and last again|
|when is a time|
|and where a place I can't go on|
|to find by name|
|is nothing but this same, dumb,|
|easy source of faith in glass|
|When I struck down my image|
|then the roots took fire|
|my years grew scattered|
|few and inbetween|
|I took the fast and hollow slide|
|down was it where I am|
|and count the broken glass|
|I know the mirror's fist|
|that struck me down.|
And when was this written?
Well, I don't think I know. It certainly was written late fifties, early sixties.
Do you know what part of your life the poem was written about?
"Bad to Believe"
My first book is very clear in terms of timing. It was published, or it was made--that's a more correct expression--at the time I was with Jane in New York, and the poems were all from then and before then. From then on, you have the whole period of Jane and I in California, then the Maya period, the Ann period, and now here I am with Judi in Woodstock after having been with Barbara. You see how I mark my periods. I don't really mean that to be ironic; it sounds ironic, I guess. A lot of these poems past--in the first book and this book--are about those relationships. Talk about relationships; this next poem is called "Bad to Believe":
|Not as man in woman|
|tests against the rest|
|his tail of woe and prime|
|My ring in the box wife|
|goes breech tonight|
|High cards, sly laugh,|
|quick stakes for chance-a-beast|
|Ass, snake, owl|
|Toll round-eye home|
|Swing noose to knell|
|Peals layered back from back|
|Heart pipe is glut|
|with father's right|
|by child spent rage|
|A man he never was|
|splits limb and root|
The next one is called "Grounds":
|that chick so far out|
|she got to fake|
|witch doctor route|
|along one track|
|when the real thing|
|comes go now|
|back she splits|
|here and where|
|her balling pawns|
|on broken wind|
|flushing my chain|
|take the ride|
|or bump your log|
|in a hole bottom|
|of the sea|
You know that song, don't you? [sings] "There's a hole in the bottom of the sea." We used to sing it at camp. "A bump on the log in the hole on the bottom of the sea." And that's where that image came from. These images kind of fly in or they rocket in; they just jump right out of your past into poems all the time. I love them.
We used to sing this other song. When I was a counselor--you know, you had a bunk, and you all sat at the same table together. Our group used to sing, "There are no flies on us, there are no flies on us; we brush them off. There may be just a few great big black flies on you. There are no flies on us; we brush them off."
Did that show up in any of your poems?
I don't know. Undoubtedly, but not as itself. This one is like the other one.
Eppes is Yiddish for "something." "Eppes Epic":
|for the father, Old Sol|
|and that other member|
|of the triple dick litany|
|who was no Jew|
|Man can you get strung out|
|on the cross begat|
|a holy spike of grace|
|His eye is on|
|don't get high|
|they can't look down|
|nailed not screwed|
|Who needs it|
― 176 ―
|and all that jazz|
|like stained glass|
|is an Almighty cope"|
"Reflections Before Rising"Stern
And this one is definitely when I was married to Ann, as a lot of them are. It's called "Reflections before Rising," and it's a dialogue:
|She flipped the lid at him.|
|Man you got any want,|
|An overcoming desire like?|
|Baby don't wriggle me,|
|Can't we slip without touching?|
|I'm done in, screwed; Stop!|
|The grotesque advantage you take;|
|Gimmeup, Cave, you hear, we don't want no struggle.|
|What kinda nadir every morning?|
|Quel bring down, Riiiing, Raaangng, Ho Ilac!|
|Brother Murican attention l'addition.|
|Itchygoo, fire up dolink,|
|Break fast in a hurry cause it's a short day's biz|
|and someone's coming up fast.|
|Who's manic in their company?|
|That's le bull vraiment.|
|Friends there are few of us,|
|If you're under thirty,|
|This warm bit of everyday is for you.|
|So what arya gonna do with the little ones?|
|Why succor muthamia? She's gone daddy,|
|and you too could find yourself empty one of these.|
|Make it. Go to it already.|
|Believe me baby I'm with you|
|and so long it's nothing he wanted,|
|the least you could say is:|
These poems reflect what we were talking about yesterday. I'm not going to read a lot more of them, but this one was also written with Ann on the barge, and it's called "Mirage":
|All horrid noises in my throat|
|as life becomes this burning boat|
|where voices probe beneath my mind|
|to seek the me they dare to find|
|and leave the self pronounced by rote|
|with these same noises in my throat|
|Who cannot sense the low or high|
|of drift or wrack which passes by|
|and leaves your spindrift bottled note|
|in time to set these lines afloat|
|Be with me mine by burning boat|
|Her ashes over stern I reached to haul|
|there seemed no bottom rise or fall|
|of tide laid heavy by the moon|
|I wrote at night with friends|
|beside my burning boat|
|a heart of rime sick in my throat|
|For love and labor could not float|
|this foundered berthed and burning boat|
That's too much; I shouldn't let myself get away with this one--
You remember my tale about moving the barge. [laughter] This was all about moving the barge and about Ann. "Her ashes over stern I reached to haul"--that's too--[laughter] I really hadn't remembered that. That's funny.
I'm not going to read this poem. This is a strange poem called "Mea Culpa," and I think I mentioned it previously. There was a magazine published in Sausalito called Contact by Bill Ryan and Herb Beckman. There was an issue that they were doing on prisoners and justice and crime. I had obtained some of the content for them, and I was supposed to be co-editor of that issue. And if you ask me with whom, I won't be able to tell you. I don't think it was with Philip. Anyway, I wrote this poem for the issue specifically; they wouldn't publish it because it was too abstract.
I wrote some things which at first I really thought were prose poems. This is a very long harvest tale, but the first strophe or stanza goes--and it's called "Plow":
|A probability of the sentence demanded paradox,|
|which eliminates any purpose that could dilute the possible sequence of events,|
|or resolve these following improbabilities:|
|And it goes on from there. It has a lot of sexual images. The next part is called "Furrow":|
|They had achieved this fusion in the past,|
|but now, with the maturity that follows success,|
|celebrated marriage as a matter of course,|
|and became inseparable.|
The next portion is called "Seed". If I had had the choice today, I probably wouldn't have published it.
Oh, I don't know. It's lame. It's all right, but it's kind of lame. I love a lot of the poems in this book very much. "After":
|The color I give things|
|is mine remembered|
|shared when the familiar past|
|comes between us|
|To give you my joy|
|I wake you|
|Disturb and pain you|
|Take you by words and patience|
|stiff with the memory of laughter|
|and the young girls|
|ran after purple grapes|
|Was your dream only tonight|
|Or did wings burn|
|when I touched your name|
|and sang our breath|
|into my quick shadow|
|left by the turning light|
|I stand behind myself to see the same|
|To find this other world|
|where there could be|
|another me that was tomorrow|
|Today the difference never being new|
|You are myself|
|for I have found|
|the nothing that there is to do|
This is "Oh You":
|a word like interesting|
― 180 ―
|leaving your dirty panties|
|smelling of someone's sperm|
|near the telephone|
I was requested to leave that poem out of the book. Not by Ann, but by--it was real. It was real that I wanted to keep it. Was it real? I don't know whether it was real or not.
It's how you were feeling, right?
Yeah, and that's what my image of it was. Were there really a pair of panties by the telephone? I say there were. She's dead. Who knows? Do I really know?
This is just a four-liner:
[laughter] Same period.
And the other one I read to you the other day:
|a brief enthusiasm is hardly the thing to be|
|of someone else's|
|it's roses in the snow and of that genre|
|not quite so much of a surprise|
|but really shocking|
|if one's in love|
I don't know if you can manage this story, but let's try it. There was a madam and grand whore in San Francisco at the time named Sidonie. Sidonie was a complete g sse. She was
She did not come from some elevated station; she came from Bakersfield, the Valley. But she was fashionable. Her musical and artistic tastes were high level. Still she could get right down to it without any trouble at all, right? Many years later I was having dinner in a restaurant in New York, and I met there a friend of mine--an artist and photographer who also came from San Francisco--and he was having dinner with a lady friend named Carolyn Zacca. We started talking, and I began to realize who the lady friend was. I said to her, "You know, I shared a mistress with your grandfather." She started crying. She said to me, "You know, that's the nicest thing I ever heard about Grandpa."
I love that. I felt so good, because it had come out unbehested. I wasn't sure that I had said something that would embarrass her about her grandfather. But she was a real swinger, in any case. Her grandfather was one of the major powers-that-be in the City by the Bay.
"'Difficulties in the Beginning'"Stern
All these poems now sound to me that they're about the same thing, you know? I'm not sure whether I'm getting the right take on it. This is called "Difficulties in the Beginning":
|Right out of King Arthur|
|and his Arabian Knights|
|No eyes for the cross|
|No ears for the magic fart|
|Lots of reward|
|In the I Ching|
|there is "No Blame"|
― 182 ―
|when there's hate|
|why not love|
|when we're together|
|empty your head|
|The practice of each word is its constraint|
|A line's four corners and the place|
|Where tension was a form|
|That held space round us|
|Now and then we stuck to fact|
|Tracing the pattern with a lack of method|
|Up to date in copied records|
|and the act of love|
"That Y Am Matt . . ."Stern
And this one, the title and the last line are from the Sixty-first Ballade of Charles D'Orleans. The line is: "That y am matt." That's from the ballad; it's a chess poem. That one line is not mine. It's not mine.
|To have no body for the one you love . . .|
|Only two voices touching through the wire strung night|
|seeking the tightness of each other's clasp|
|Asking themselves what substance lasts|
|when the opposing click chants dark|
|Ravens we are sparks of image|
|thinned by reluctance on our own stages.|
― 183 ―
|Draw me no pittance bargain|
|waged in the fire of my middle days|
|O sweet musician must I pay your scale|
|that I prevent myself from rut or sale|
|"without so be y make a lady newe".|
And that last line, "Without so be I make a lady new," is also from Charles D'Orleans. Of course, it refers to getting a new queen by taking the pawn all the way to the other side of the board. This was long after Sami Rubinstein and going mad and being taken away because of his hangup with the white queen. Talking about reverberations.
|I'm driven not driving|
|All I'm allowed is to shift the gear|
|Or blow my horn|
|Where will they take me|
|Who's turning the key|
You understand that these poems which I was writing, and other poems which are not published, I felt that I was somewhere in the--whatever you want to call it--the hierarchy or the world of poetry and that it made sense. But I couldn't find very often, practically never, could I find other poets to whom they made sense to--in the sense that they felt about each other often. For many years that disturbed me a lot.
Hugh Hefner and "Hip Hip for Hef"Stern
This is when I was really frustrated with Hugh Hefner at Playboy. I wasn't really working closely with Hef because I was working with Spectorsky, but Hef kept getting in my way. I think this was when I offered to write a major story on marijuana, and I was about ten years early or five years early, and Hef really blasted me--how could I think of doing such a thing? Of course, later on they got right into it. But I was by that time out of it. Not out of pot but out of touch. Spectorsky had died, but he would have done it. Hef was a prude, believe it or not. "Hip Hip for Hef." It's a little thing from Wittgenstein which says, "It is a
|Are the indefinite they?|
|Ennui is wee-wee with boredom,|
|On the rocks, or straight.|
|Who needs questions?|
|I go along with you--|
|We are not making Our life.|
This fits right into that jazz line which a lot of people were writing. This one's called "Baby Blues":
|Far out people|
|Whoever they are|
|Break me up|
|Like dig the cat|
|Blowing his ass off|
|Or the chick|
|Turning herself on|
"Prejudiced or Something"Stern
|if the Son was a Jew|
|you know Jesus the carpenter|
|the Father must have been one too|
|Some of my best friends|
|are Holy Ghosts|
"Strength of Inaccurate Convictions"Stern
And here's one I told you about--Dr. D. Prest, the psychiatrist:
|cock on a leash|
|walking the dog|
― 185 ―
|Only time is kept|
|Who will for us|
|Put it away|
|Keepers never finders were|
|Plain clothed keepers|
|Out of our mind|
I like that one.
"My Joint is Out of Time"Stern
There was a guy in the Village named Hube the Cube. What was his name? Hubert? He wrote things, and he had a tattoo. The subtitle for this is his tattoo, which was "Blessed blessed oblivion--Hube the Cube's tattoo." And the name of the poem is "My Joint is Out of Time":
|Old Golds are straights already|
|Soon bread will be so scarce|
|they'll be selling grass on the streets|
|I used to be a swinging head|
|now under stone|
|I'm rolling my own shit|
|like a syllogism|
This thing I did on television with a famous bongo player named, I think, Jack Costanza, on one of those, like, magazine shows that they had at that time in San Francisco. It was written
|Them that wants|
|and those what get|
|if they're not the same|
|who's to blame|
|money is funny|
|when you don't have any|
|even things are fine|
|one at a time|
|many to go|
|bet the winner|
|much too slow|
|is not success|
|with a capital|
|to fit the crime|
|Them that wants|
|and those what get|
|if they're not the same|
|who's to blame|
|thrown on water|
|count it like bread|
|two heads are better|
|than one for what|
|Them that wants|
|and those what get|
|if they're not the same|
|who's to blame|
― 187 ―
|sell for more buy for less|
|close your eyes take the rest|
|put it in a bank|
|laughing at the kill|
|if you can't count it|
|Them that wants|
|and those what get|
|if they're not the same|
|who's to blame|
|you know what I mean|
|straight with the scene|
|if you have no eyes|
|don't want any|
|odds on a penny|
|are just as good|
|to try your luck|
|Them that wants|
|and those what get|
|if they're not the same|
|who's to blame|
"The Cock Horse"Stern
There are different sections to this book. This is called "The Cock Horse":
|What are you|
|I need a precise image|
|to look through|
|Who got into my merry-go-round|
|Was it a broomstick horse|
|or your toy soldier|
|Is it my glister on the trail|
|Hold me down Moses|
|Dig me back Pharaoh|
― 188 ―
|Hands in their laps|
|they fly again|
|from a silver yoke|
|on doubled chains|
The precise image is from Kenneth Rexroth. In a workshop--I think I mentioned this before--when I wrote "bird" he fulminated and exposited and said, "'Bird' is never enough. It's gotta be a precise image; it's gotta be that bird, not just any bird."
This was in Life magazine, actually, with a dancer, a wonderful black male dancer who I worked with. It's called "Enjoy Gravity," and it says, "This poem is an interlude for dancer and voice."
|moving with air|
|as you are|
|the child within|
|breaks the ground|
|Move the world|
|with pushing air|
|swinging the wind|
|The wind flies|
|where when it moves|
|does the air|
|Held from above|
|with each swing|
|the earth's pull|
|brings us down|
― 189 ―
|Sparrows and apples|
|the harvest weight|
|takes us down|
|Our moon turns the sea|
|one swinging star|
|is light for the world|
|Come down where you are|
|the sky is swinging|
|your body in time|
|moving with air|
|as you are|
We performed it quite a few times around San Francisco.
|No peeking around corners|
|to see what is there|
|No looking behind|
|it just isn't fair|
|Lots could be said|
|for looking ahead|
|to find yourself|
|riding a tiger|
"The Priestess Gagged"Stern
She was really a Leo. Philip was living with a lady named Gogo Nesbit. Gogo is still around; a very fine poet, as a matter of fact. She had a line which was "The priestess gagged." I really got into that. The name of this poem is "The Priestess Gagged":
|Night is curtains|
|woven by a friend in New York|
|falling three times|
|the Tarot pasted on glass|
|hides her dishes from the room|
|She gave herself one at a time|
|to the black and strong|
|She had it coming when she went|
|further out of the continent|
|Take your journey to the East|
|with Leo from Morbio Inferiore|
|back to the Seilergraben|
|They say he's stolen the original manuscript|
|Doesn't dig the sacred document|
"Poetry at the Paraclete"Stern
The journey to the East, and Leo, that's from Hesse. This is called "Poetry at the Paraclete." "The Paraclete, a New York bookstore specializing in Catholic materials presents poets reading from their own work." And I won't say who the poet was. She will know because the line is from her poem--the title is "Poetry at the Paraclete":
|"The poem ascends," she finishes|
|with her broken smile.|
|In the front row|
|a black frocked father nods agreeably.|
|His svelte blonde consort|
|The poem ascends . . .|
|weightless I wonder,|
|flies or floats gossamer,|
|exercising some mystic form?|
|The poem ascends . . .|
|out of reach,|
|one with the universe?|
― 191 ―
|The poem ascends . . .|
|by virtue of named nature,|
|assuming familiar shapes,|
|down to earth?|
"One of Many"Stern
Here's the one I told you about that Hayakawa objected to.
|stone of god|
|easily laughed at|
|who needs an object|
|to know love|
|with my power|
|to keep you on the shelf|
|or throw you out|
"The Bomb Syndrome"Stern
In New York I did a lot of demonstrating and meetings and thinking of dramatic street theater and performance art type of public actions. Some of these poems came out of that. "The Bomb Syndrome":
|Poets are what|
|poetry is all about|
|ideographs and history|
|Making it is no|
|cure for constipation|
|Hair in the bath|
|keep me quick|
|zipped from Africa|
|where they kill like lovers|
― 192 ―
|(If you don't catch them|
|the words are gone|
|like money or an erection|
|mountains cut by dozers|
|Blown pine don't drop|
|needle green sky frame|
|crissed lights dusty through|
|recollection of stretched sound:|
|Screaming like peacocks|
|You under me)|
|where they throw, shoot, push|
|hard like fuckers|
|into blood, shit, sperm|
|tear people for good|
|with their own screwing|
|quick on the point|
|of coming death|
|No person-to-person kill flash|
|for you mother suckers:|
|Truman, Ike, JFK and big red K.|
|Testing your hard ons: cream us|
|by panic button megatonmania|
|down-home ass-hole buddy style|
|a Nero capping sensational act|
|of total destruction and anonymity|
This sound of one hand clapping has always been something which has gotten me into a silly frame of mind. It's taken a lot of manifestations. This poem is called "Now":
|driving is important|
|a way to get there|
|nails through the savior|
|one into another|
― 193 ―
|if now is true|
|was something else|
|what will be|
|touching is important|
|through the always space|
|between hands words circles|
|you me they|
|if now is true|
|was something else|
|what will be|
|believing is important|
|only made like tree|
|flood miracle with fish|
|two by two to bombs|
|if now is true|
|was something else|
|what will be|
|nothing is important|
|when you know|
|the sound of one hand clapping|
This is a strange poem because it was written in a car, a VW bus driven by the sculptor John Chamberlain, and it was written in a car when I was going to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I was going through a block, and I couldn't go because cars were stopped ahead of me. Over my head there was a crane--not too many feet higher, but high enough to be extremely dangerous--this big steel beam. It was turning, and I could just see it out of the windshield, and it's called "Public Hanging":
|Sweet hanging steel|
|Bigger than thou|
|Smashed in blacktop|
|Like an Indian head|
|Before a crossing|
|Because a red light|
|This very now|
|Was here too|
|And stopped us dead|
"A Dirty Story"Stern
This is one of those poems I was talking about regarding walking on those endless resistance demonstrations of that time. It's called "A Dirty Story" and the subscript is "...nothing to fear but fear itself," from FDR.
|Told by three wise guys|
|to two far out strangers|
|you and me at the bar|
|had a few bucks in common|
|a degree and a couple of broads|
|living it up and down the hatch|
|sorry about not being safe|
|without faith to move molehills|
|scared of the bomb|
|the nothing to fear there is|
|one had jokes about new cereals|
|kikes wops niggers bitches|
|in case of fallout put it in again|
|civil war military logistics|
|prepared him for emergencies|
|said love was a cloud|
|to wipe his trembling blood|
|Him with you and all of us|
|living up wild high|
|down the hatch ma pa|
|afraid of the nothing bomb|
|the nothing to fear but fear|
|the other sat superior|
|peeling a sodden onion|
|free of skin seed roots|
|as if stripping cells|
|would get him to the bottom|
|not of this being|
|said love was a cloud|
|mushroom to his music|
|He with you and all of us|
|living up kicks crazy|
|down the hatch to shelter womb|
|afraid of the nothing bomb|
|the nothing to fear but fear|
― 195 ―
|took her kids to picket for peace|
|believing we would drop it or they could|
|unless you and I and all|
|find a way without end|
|the way of peace|
|said love was a cloud|
|her miracle of fish|
|She with you and all of us|
|living up nervous on|
|down the hatch to cave grave|
|afraid of the nothing bomb|
|the nothing to fear but fear|
|we puts arms around each other|
|you me brother|
|first time touching|
|not a bad get together|
|making up for lost time|
|live it up and down the hatch|
|afraid of the nothing|
"Necessity is a Mother"Stern
I read an essay by--I'm sure it was Hannah Arendt, and she said, "Love, according to Augustine, was 'I want you to be.'" I used it in a poem, couldn't find the quote out of Augustine, wrote her a letter, didn't hear from her for a long time. Didn't know her, by the way. Finally got a note saying, Sorry, couldn't remember where she had picked it up, but it wasn't necessarily somebody else. I read a book recently by one of the new California novelists, Jim Dodge; he used the line. Now I wanted to write to him, and I haven't; I will, I hope, if I get around to it. I don't get around to everything. Do you? I want to ask him if he read the essay by Hannah, if he took out of my poem--he's a friend of Kesey, so Kesey would have had the book--or did he actually get it out of St. Augustine, right? [Laughter] The poem is called "Necessity is a Mother":
|I'm going to tell you|
|I want you to be|
|love according to Augustine|
― 196 ―
|we sat too close not to touch|
|I tried to fly|
|your brush got stuck|
|the bell was going to ring|
|I'd had enough|
|break your neck|
|under the ice|
|my boot made a hole|
|kissed old luck|
|I want you to be|
|about the subway Priscilla|
|we didn't do it together|
|I'm going to remind you|
|there about here/now about then|
|because that's who I am|
"If You Can't Count Don't Blow"Stern
"If you can't count don't blow." It's a quote from a musician named LaNoue Davenport--originally a jazz musician who was in the Pro Musica Antiqua. Playing baroque music, medieval music. But the poem is "If You Can't Count Don't Blow":
|it's the same fear|
|of falling from heights|
|when under me|
|you hold on|
|Eat Eat Eat|
|flash on a coming beat|
|but won't explode|
|losing my poke|
|not spit, balm|
|always the receptacle|
|does a centipede|
|move every other leg|
― 197 ―
|if you count|
|you don't let go|
|believing is not knowing|
|like Jake said|
|does she dig or complain|
|if you count to make sure|
|of only what was|
|record and possess|
|how many fractions|
|of whose law|
"Take Five Jungle"Stern
This one has something to do with writing a sonnet. It was written--it doesn't say that, but I know it was written for Bird, for Charlie Parker, listening to his music. I ignored Kenneth's axiom about precise images as far as "bird" was concerned, because it goes:
|if only some unbelievable turd|
|that falls keeping his eye|
|makes out to happen bird's|
|sound turn on out mothered sky|
|riffs blue flash given skin|
|wheels straight stone swinging night|
|blow bombed kicks too much in|
|nowhere scene screwed spade tight|
|like beard is mask a map for trap|
|counted down out of your head|
|split burn take loaded crap|
|score bang dig ball through bed|
|jump heavy hard push under sick|
|lay flip come crack up stick|
"You Think You're So What"Stern
This one is written for John Chamberlain, a close friend of many years; haven't seen him for a long time. He's the sculptor who sculpted mashed car parts. He had an incredible understanding of polychrome, color, and form. Wild man, a terrible, terrible wild
|show me the top of the world|
|where everything is|
|you can be there|
|where we are|
|put her on upside down|
|below BOMBED sand and white|
|stenciling LIKE above|
|in Slomon's glue|
|can you see|
|o say show me|
|by early light|
|you said what?|
|two of them in a row|
|one a spade two a jew|
|were only trying to tell me|
|my left blinker was flashing|
|WORK AREA AHEAD|
|'s got to go faster|
|than the man on his tail|
|got to make it coming|
|like a hill turning|
|morning all day|
|once was two bit broke|
|now am ten buck flat|
|The Museum of Natural History|
|driving my black Singer|
|I read incised in stone|
|I think the face is Caslon|
|TRUTH VISION KNOWLEDGE|
"Shock Strike Toggle"Stern
Then here's a poem which has as the subscript "Goethe dying: Mehr Licht."
|switch gone on|
|the way coming|
|high through free safe|
|who knows you|
|time after time|
|going the distance|
|x and y|
|one hundred eighty degrees|
|not going anywhere|
|why know x|
|when one's vertical|
|the other's horizontal|
|input any ow|
|out of now|
|yours and mine|
|turns on the light|
|and i am here|
|turns off the light|
|and i am there|
Other Poetry; Michael CallahanStern
And that's really the last poem in this book. These last poems, we were already living in Woodstock, and Michael Callahan had come to join us to do the engineering, the design of the equipment, all the technical work, the sound editing, also visual editing. I was beginning to get very metaphorically language-involved in the names of the various electronic and electromechanical parts like "double-throw single-pole switch." I was using a lot of that kind of language in some poems.
Then there are the poems since then. There are various kinds, and some of them are quite long. I'm not going to read them in sequence. I want to read this one which is called "Poppa Wopper". It was written for Radha. Was it? No, for Abram! Is this the one? Well, I would like to read it anyway. It's December '94; not that long ago. "Poppa Wopper":
for Abram the avid Aphid at eighteen
|quest like do she care|
|if there nothing to lose|
|attention but what itself|
|except perhaps to come|
|Lenny's favorite preposition cum verb|
|humming sotto voce lonely as cloud|
|scored for and by itself|
|connection bridging ampersands|
|out of our limbo and into de light|
|Count signified, "don't know|
|whether to love you or hate you"|
|"I do," said, gave head|
|way to indian given go|
|window of blue-note oportunology|
|recognition over frequency modulated air|
|Bird's mantic lick rising|
― 201 ―
|how rare to be right; left mostly behind|
|whatever eight-ball fancied her cue|
|that/then I and I introduced as|
|"manager and man" or "man and manager"|
|depending who you, heshemale, was to|
|badmouthering Maya, "no ofay mothafuckah|
|gonna call me bitch"|
|all in the crossing, pass ahead|
|drives Dylan said, "my green age"|
|spun off impasto diffracted rainbows|
|heady pools of polychromatosoming compositions|
|Ted's dead line glistering us forward|
|featherweight birdbrain airhead|
|what did you think this was|
|an elegiac jeremiad on madness at St. Elizabeth|
|Ezraversity's unwobbling imagiste fascishtick|
|Rex Kenneth prescribing precise images|
|rules what and how many times when|
|to get every littlething accomplishcated|
|bedstead atilt on underlying bargain piles|
|when image makers/takers turn|
|turn, turning time for every season|
|evoke Electro's, "I Inc. representing USCO"|
|it; whatever will be over soon|
|used to cut ice off Rockland Lake|
|to melt, cool, lower, change,|
|has-beens, would have-nots, tryers,|
|leftover unmarrieds without duration|
|can't even make love to each other's|
|Paul suggests Kaddish cheese for funerals|
|plastic shopped holidays' branches lit|
|pedesterasting crosstown scambams|
|"and on her hat that awful quill"|
|be lilly, tiptoe through tulips, try, try|
|again sweet hard home, soft core poem spin|
|anachronisting motionless type icons|
|Marshall's wit focussed for me equation|
|effect over content relation|
|controversial blackmailed scripscraps remembered|
|clambering up to not jump off PI's anchor fenced|
|pushshove ping-pong score to wronged winner|
|leaking easter bunny's sperm|
― 202 ―
|freaking nursekeepers into angerspace|
|genetwise turning me on, in, then out|
|poetknown eachself inbeat time|
|Allen corresponded, "I'll pay 10% for any good ideas"|
|twirling tongue bemused|
|rhymes with schmoozed|
|the night astray; what says the phrase|
|flew past forgotten|
|tripping through the pull|
|my love me, love me not daisies|
|out of Tim's faith, "you can be|
|anyone this time around"|
|pointillism behind the eyeballs|
|"dot's wot" short shrift Pissaro et al|
|blowing bone lows harder than highs|
|are all animals really sad afterwards|
|Michael roared, "GHRAAAAAAAAR"|
|if you're right, I'm wrong|
|ambivalently verbalistic conundrums|
|why not take two how now|
|while noone's looklistening, picking|
|preset(mush)rooms in his honor at Mount Fuji|
|Uncle John bespeakspoke, "Silence"|
|hip-hop, hip enough|
|to get away calling the dog|
|a "great cat" meaning no harm|
|losing no sleep over facing the music|
|Lord Buckley riffratified, "people|
|are the true flowers of life|
|and it has been my pleasure|
|to walk in the garden"|
This is not the poem I thought I was going to read. This was not the poem that was written for Radha. In a sense, this was more written as a kind of mini-memoire for my now nineteen-year-old Abram about some of the things that had happened to me in my life.
"No Man Like to Dead"Stern
This comes out of Jamaica. The title, I was having a conversation with a man who at the time was approaching his [seventies?]--
--Mr. Clark is the father of Jah Morris, an associate of mine in Jamaica. Morris is a Rasta who lives on the land we have there. He is a great carver and a very fine chef and a good friend. But he comes from such a completely different culture that sometimes needs a lot of adjustment to understand where he's coming from. What his father said to me when we were talking about somebody was, "No Man Like to Dead."
|when any might be last|
|time, trip, tango, come again|
|my brethren searching for de light|
|dead said died for us ahead|
|now alive alive orgasmic|
|last could be least most|
|be more den more|
|already down drain against|
|the grain against all odds|
|again raise gain|
|imamountcountmeasurable waves of currentcy|
|phasebeat overunder sinusoidal|
|scancrossed powers of zenthenten|
|infinitrying, immutable, glowriffied|
|in your namegame time after time domain|
"Me without You"Stern
This is also somewhat Jamaica-referential. It's called "Me without You." I was trying to write a message which never got through--which I think is true of a lot of the poems I've read today. They're messages that were either too late, or not properly in time or not properly in space delivered, or question mark.
|Taken at hearsay my passed time|
|told second person past presence|
|particulating straight out of|
|beliefsys's mamemoried persistence|
|one on one after each other's|
― 204 ―
|idea of order reified.....|
|ital bonnet peppa hit mouthquick|
|no too weak no too strong|
|pray stay each ev'ry sweethot bite|
|time worthiest vegasensational|
|right in your face|
|ing the music riffrapped|
|beyond bonding is bond age|
|retentious inward bound rearview|
|who else on the cutting table|
|but this begoner loner boner|
|keeping wrung hands off|
"Caribella Poems for Sally"Stern
Well, whatever. This is an intensely long poem called "Caribella Poems for Sally." Many, many years ago when we were first going to Jamaica--I think I had better read it. And I've got to read "Poemthink," and then there are the two most recent poems, one for my murdered grandson and the Buenos Aires poem. So maybe we'll--
"Caribella Poems for Sally." Caribella was the place where we stayed--some cottages on the beach before we built our house.
|to lose a little|
|the holy must throws away|
|asks for more|
― 205 ―
|wave by form|
|mold; that is to cast|
|sea surface: slight motion|
|"Made constant cry," of...|
|of light net|
|or light scales; fish|
|could it abin HASHEM|
|had a thing about shells|
|blue sky says clouds|
|white wisps say sky|
|black clouds give rain|
|quicker, louder than|
|some seed however)|
|later is at last next|
|and at most never|
|when they say later|
|they mean next year|
|dick toke; take the digital|
|twofer convert analog|
|noisy, diverting, jiggling|
|fuzzing the NE-ON beam|
|is on or off|
|black or white man|
|sun figure on shadow ground|
|im drei-viertel takt|
― 206 ―
|applying then to here|
|there to now|
|take a word image|
|just before you|
|MT your mind|
|and put it up there|
|on the screen|
|for the whole set|
|when they say later|
|they mean when|
|tick bites clock|
|in the heart|
|of how many jewels|
|lies a crystal harp|
|like Hertz said|
|"the consequence of the image|
|is the image of the consequence"|
|or could it habeen|
|by one figure|
|plus or minus|
|do you want|
|on the head|
|of a chip|
|you light it|
|passing the Chalice|
|challenge and honor|
|aliyah mit mishabaiachs|
|und auch Gut Yontev|
― 207 ―
|einz, tick, zwei, zwo, tock,|
|drei, vier, fünf, sechs, sieben|
|in der schule wird geschrieben|
|in der schule wird gelacht|
|bis der Lehrer pitsch-patsch macht|
|tick pitsch, toke patsch,|
|Burlean war ihm zu gross|
|da scheist er in die hos|
|The Capital? No: the principle!|
|It was too big, so HE shit in HIS pants|
|Under the corner post|
|Keep the blessing|
|on the house|
|du bist ausgespielt|
|makes more sense|
|than when later was|
|of a circle|
|infinite in size|
|is a straight line"|
|ie: perscriptive description|
|it's all downhill|
|the effective zenith noise temp|
|proving big bang cosmology|
|Pagelsaid or like shticknick's|
|"to is a preposition, come is a verb"|
|plus or minus one click tock|
|over charged threshold capacity|
|tail to mouth|
|what does (all) that mean|
― 208 ―
|have sheet music|
|but can't read|
|"if you can't count|
|don't blow" tach|
|on the autobahn|
|von OSSIstrasse Köln|
|zum Düsseldorf Flughaft|
|the 230E sprung de speedreader|
|as we spritzed to the double line of trees|
|snow on the tube|
|project the net|
|x wind, z tide|
|and y sky|
|by Yah's way|
|within the rain's bow|
|as in the beginning|
|tops toke to tick|
|GAM ZEH YAVOR|
|too shall pass: tock|
|fighting the waves|
|easier to ride|
|in the going direction|
― 209 ―
|"trot trot to Boston|
|trot trot to Lynn|
|trot trot to Salem|
|and home home agin"|
|gibt auch heimweh|
|out of focus|
|only one day right|
|the day before too early|
|the day after too late|
|the song of Reblochon|
|according to Entremont|
|64K: just a little memory|
|to hold a few transactions|
|in hard copy|
|magnetic memory only|
|to the stretch|
|peg after peg|
|cog, bit, byte|
|yet not line or dot|
|pattern or particle|
|BORUCH SHAIM KVOD|
|MALCHUSO L'OLOM VOED|
|"He who dig the pit|
|gonna fall into it"|
|such hard work pit-diggin|
|too toke to tick|
|the same words|
― 210 ―
|one boss enuf|
|between rat n'pack|
|"what laid the golden egg|
|don't kill the goose"|
|who wants to think so fast|
|that it moves|
|take it down|
|by half-step at a time|
|easier than riding the gains|
|tryin' to be good|
|plus or minus really|
|sick of tick already|
|you don't even know|
|how to make the corners|
|share a bed|
|ONE TICK, TWO TOCK|
|in your bowl|
|salty nip n'thrust|
|come to ocean bed|
|under the sea grape|
|over the fallen dreadnoughts|
|The Philosopher King|
|& The Rasta Dreadlocks|
|yook a yut|
|seed is for the next|
― 211 ―
|Lovebird, Lilly, Pipe|
|"Never break the chain--|
|pick up the pieces and go home--|
|BORACHU ES ADONAI HAMVORACH|
|on the going|
|to come stroke|
|where would you be|
|from either end,|
|excuse me please|
|Are you The Happy Apple?|
|"cat fur to make|
|Esther, the Eureka|
|I found it|
|dark roots of|
|out of the way|
|they really push|
|play by play|
|cheers and whistles|
|let highgones be|
|I feel up|
|to recongnizing it|
|but not investing, transforming|
― 212 ―
|"makes me feel|
|a non-illuminating source|
|gated to the power of quarg|
|"your love is lifting me|
|when you can't fly|
|substitute don't satisfy|
|Mucho mejor con salsa|
|with hot chops|
|sticks and gums|
|Condado Lotus Flower|
|insert fortune cookie|
|"it is better to know|
|nothing than to know|
|what isn't so"|
|over to 756|
|cross the plastic bridge|
|where the Great Wallenda|
|fell off the wire|
|licking the knotless Corona|
|the morning net|
|scurrying, oscillating, rebeating|
|and this only|
|the surface to penetrate|
|soreness after lust|
― 213 ―
|too deep to glimpse bottom|
|sun spliffed down|
|by Kaiser's: snapper, king or conch|
|"is the hat part of your worship"|
|the whole thing|
|good for the structure|
|I & HIGH|
|the days blow away|
|lots of shit|
|after Good Hope,|
|after Mount Airy,|
|after Orange Hill,|
|JAH said way|
|up to all levels|
|Many are called but few are|
|(I thought these were|
|to pass around)|
|chosen to be|
|or to act|
|und auch meer licht|
|bei mir bist du|
|Goethe's last look|
|when it falls|
|into your head|
|you gotta catch it|
|das meer ist blau NOW|
― 214 ―
|earth rain and sunshine|
|hits pain frame|
|Alice Dee Tokeless|
|almost a square|
|as a rollin' stone|
|wider tick easy|
|to get there|
|NOT ENUF TOCK|
|the pulse toke|
|MORE OR NO MORE|
|pollu tref solution|
|I & I saw a number|
|nor beast nor bird|
|"between ten and one|
|but not nine, eight, seven, six, five etc."|
|or like Ezekiel's|
|wheel in the middle|
|of the air|
|dump who and what|
|I & I & I THREE|
|a company of us|
|indefinite; no count|
|auf die weite welt hinein|
|ELOHAINU, VAILOHAI, AVOSAINU|
― 215 ―
|Down is just a point|
|of view along the beam|
|mit message intact|
|when MESHIACH shoots his load|
|web keeper of secrets|
|where is falling|
|off my horse|
|in the Koran|
|I hear you|
|it's all there|
|you are only responsible|
|for what you understand|
|can be forgiven|
|for what you have|
|AL HAIT SCHECHOTONU L'PHONECHU|
|"rolling your own shit|
|like a syllogism"|
|when both have one|
|they don't do it|
|drop it, blow it,|
|speak in the language|
|how could you know|
|what I discovered|
|a broken reflection|
|I & I am G-D|
|and you are G-D|
|the difference being|
|I KNOW I AM|
So Jamaica inspired your German or Hebrew?
Oh, I don't know. The whole nine yards. That was a long time ago; that was over ten years ago. It grew, grew, grew, and it didn't all get written at once. One doesn't even necessarily remember all the poems. I love this title "Hy(and dry)perbole." [Laughter] I'm not going to read it.
I'm looking for one which I'm not sure is in here. I talked about "Poemthink" during the tape--. As I said, it's a poem that I thought of when I was in bed one day, and I thought about not writing down poetry, but then I wrote it down. I delivered it as my contribution to the Reality Club. It was published in the issue of Cybernetics which I gave you a copy of. It's still meant as an idea of not writing things down. I do still think that's an interesting practice.
"Conspire": A Poem for RadhaStern
Oh, here's the poem for Radha, which was from '83, wow. It's called "Conspire," which means "breathing together," right?
|to the present|
|but stuck in the middle|
|right here now|
|stuck is always|
|in the middle|
|not before before|
|like before first|
|or in the beginning|
|to breathe with|
|the great unstuck|
|nuthin to worry about|
|waiting, not breathing stress|
― 217 ―
|double time or whatever|
|next week, ninety days, always...|
|blow out your drum|
|take it down deep|
|to eight-sided dying|
|is not exactly STOP|
|out; one two three|
There's a lot of poems here, but I just am not going to read them all. There is one that I wanted to read, but I can't find it. So I will get myself on to "Poemthink":
|is a process|
|I can describe|
|but not demonstrate|
|for you: describe|
|but not demonstrate|
|first about think|
|do you know much|
|how you think?|
|how other people|
|thank, thunked, thoughted|
|how conscious thought?|
|can you hear yourself|
|thinking? you can?|
|one way of thinking?|
|an only way?|
― 218 ―
|if you can hear it|
|is it in words thinking|
|I don't know|
|if I think|
|that most thinking|
|is in words|
|or can be heard|
|but the think|
|is in words|
|and when I poemthink|
|I can hear it|
|inside hear it|
|if that's hearing|
|I even catch myself|
|moving my mouth|
|though I'm not speaking|
|out; not out loud speaking|
|there's not a large literature|
|on the mechanics of think|
|as something to learn|
|there's lots on thought|
|of all kinds|
|but how to think|
|to use the generators,|
|pardon the metaphors,|
|just how to think|
|have you conversation,|
|on think process?|
|the next jump|
|in the presence..)|
|in re: collection|
|ever since before thenwhen|
|it's been necessary|
|for me to write (down?)|
|words, phrases, poemparts, wholes|
― 219 ―
|once up on that time|
|I thought, felt, heard|
|near that threshold|
|where there's just so much|
|you can remember|
|and you write|
|to not let it spill|
|as I in bed lying|
|about to get up and grab|
|paper and lead|
|overstood that this moment|
|with these words|
|moment with words all mine|
|around the positive|
|amplifying looped feedback|
|contact was and is|
|contact is the only|
|in bed then|
|with my unnamed|
|flashing imagination scan|
|follow or not to be|
|motion enormous scale|
|off the balancing act|
|between now and then|
|sometimes you can keep it|
|one to three forever|
|this time around|
|more or less|
|alone time: frinstance|
|driving, waiting, being|
|and a lot of time|
― 220 ―
|not with them|
|enuf moment inertia|
|with your head|
|for poemthink mindware|
|you: programmer, artificer,|
|you can fit, squeeze, allow|
|in this/that moment|
|of poemthink consciousness|
|along a thread|
|through your maze head|
|on stretched, condensed line|
|for each point|
|nude, of speech, geometric|
|when it falls|
|into your head|
|wrap or trap it and gofer it|
|reach high over|
|one follows another|
|in the presence|
|of a word care|
|center as in potwheel|
|you a muthahword grabber|
|only if you do|
|poemthink poem think|
|stuck on a noun|
|in your deck|
|a little tight-assed|
|like the Troppian cow|
|by the stream|
|plop it go|
|or chop 'em into alpha bet|
― 221 ―
|any foreign language|
|especially those you|
|don't know well|
|a poemthink fountain|
|if you don't like it|
|you don't have to do it|
|not like drugs|
|something you can|
|make up your mind about|
|a totally different head|
|than poemwrite, speak, read|
|others have tried it|
|liked it and not|
|changed, added, used|
|there's that how many question|
|of holding like a bowl|
|how many letters, words, lines|
|can you maintain, juggle|
|transform and back out of|
|momentum to loop|
|the moebius strip, klein bottle,|
|ryan tube topology|
|are you coming along|
|are you in poemthink|
|let's take 5|
|first poem thinks|
Then I waited a few minutes. Then I went on:
|take whatever you had|
|weigh it as experience|
|could this become something|
|truly meaningful in your life|
|get into it|
― 222 ―
|off on it|
|not a blanket or a towel|
|'tell the truth|
|there's no weight|
|when you're carrying|
|because the only rule|
|is let go|
|when you're through|
|don't hold, write, store|
|memory is both a virtue|
|and a vice|
|as the Roshi bakes|
|and the Rebbe comes|
|years ago I quoted|
|"if you can't count don't blow"|
|for poemthinking mindware|
|counting is slowing|
|bubbles is more like|
|the kind of blowing it is|
|in your mouth like pebbles|
|in your head like|
|a few rattling|
|W O R D esses|
|but there's a limit|
|poemthink no regrets|
|for lost nuggets, shards|
|a word for each eye|
|behind the retina|
|with fists against closed eyeballs|
|phosphoring in the Rodinpose|
|the Poemthinker at it|
|if you're remembering|
|you're doing it|
|--you're not doing it|
|if you remember|
|you can do it|
― 223 ―
|jump cut or fast fade|
|why not try a hexagram|
|barnstorming was also|
|a popular pastime|
|still on your first poemthink|
|have another quickie|
|on the house N O W|
|take the no out of now/NOW|
(I had another space in there, and then:)
|"Do words and thoughts|
|follow normal rules or do they not"|
|Is poemthink that question?|
|or maybe according to Hofstadter|
|poemthink is an "isomorphism"|
|"an information preserving transformation"|
|more likely Ovidian metamorphosis|
|now tell me the difference|
|which is one of the connections|
|its not the poemthinking words|
|that really get to you|
|give you the juicy joy|
|of insight breathing together|
|but the web; connective tissue|
|intervals, silences, voids|
|poemthink: how to|
|just keep it going inside|
|for your my self|
|not really enuf play|
|to get your bearings|
|not enuf happening|
|for the spirit in media res|
|according to William James|
|"much of our thinking|
|consists of trains of images|
|suggested one by another|
|of a sort of spontaneous revery...|
― 224 ―
|(which) leads nevertheless to|
|rational conclusions both practical and theoretical."|
|Jung has thinking divided:|
|"active; an act of will...|
|passive; a mere occurrence..."|
|and writes, "thinking...|
|brings the content of ideation|
|into conceptual connection...|
|linking up ideas...|
|to an act of judgment...|
|whether intentional or not..."|
|he quotes Baldwin,|
|"The individual must use his old thoughts|
|his established knowledge|
|his grounded judgments|
|for the embodiment|
|of his new inventive constructions.|
|He erects his thought...|
|in logical terms, problematically,|
|--projecting into the world|
|an opinion still personal...|
|Thus all discovery proceeds..."|
|"a further important consequence|
|of the interaction of sound and hearing|
|is that many words come to lose|
|their original concrete significance|
|altogether and turn into signs|
|for general ideas...|
|In this way abstract thought develops..."|
|and Anatole France|
|"What is thinking|
|we think with words...|
|the perfected cries of monkeys and dogs...|
|onomatopoeic cries of hunger, fear and love...|
|to which have become attached|
|meanings that are believed to be abstract..."|
|drawing away from: abstract|
|coasting between the edges|
|out of formation words fly|
― 225 ―
|as re-creation, sport, pursuit|
|of words, stepping-stones|
|poem think way|
|time-passing, concentrating climatic|
|aware magnetic practice|
|words to and from|
|edutain, elevate con|
|blessed aha syndrome|
|down and out with it|
|take full count|
|no end of wordtences|
|on the going to come|
|description not demonstration|
|aren't you ecstatic|
|you have the rest of your life|
|no iwouldn't call it|
|a kind of meditation|
|true i do think|
|just about anyone can do it|
|maybe it is something like|
|whateverthename's ideas about|
|yes open to questions, advice,|
|insight, love, peace|
|it is possible|
|that it is possible|
|it is possible|
|that it is possible|
|it is possible|
|that it is poemthink|
So that was a lot of fun at the time, and it was well received--which in a sense was surprising to me, but welcome nevertheless.
"Checkin' the Set"Stern
This is a poem which was written in March of '96 for my grandson, Christopher, who was murdered that week. It's titled "Checkin' the Set." The kids around here go up to Bolinas Ridge on Mount Tamalpais to check out the sunset. "Checkin' the Set." For Christopher:
|there was nothing to forgive|
|then murder impossible to forget|
|drove your express spirit beyond|
|this back beat of no time|
|like no-ow-now presence gone|
|remembering your cramped tears|
|homesick ready for return|
|stone buddy cool dude games|
|Gofer Topher an' Rasta Grandpa twogather|
|inhaled our drug o'choice|
|voicing synched to Stop The Violence|
|snorkeling over Poetreef coral heads|
|life's thick if it's not|
|where is it there you're gone|
|to be scattered ashes|
|on Tamalpaian peak|
|highbeam grin turned to us|
|from twenty one years of photolit|
|token keepsake images portending|
|immediate fatal finality|
|that shot too unexpected|
|to be so true|
I read it last night to Ivan and his wife, Ruth, but I broke down in the middle of it. But I managed it this time. It's still, I guess, very recent. He and I were quite close, but simply in an emotional bond. He and I were very far apart in what our intentions and motivations in going through life were. I was hoping [chuckles] that we would get closer on those points, too. Cut off in a horrible way.
"Against the Main Gain Game"Stern
This is the last poem I put into type. I always carry my little portable Canon Typestar number 10 typewriter with me, either on batteries--. It's the most wondrous little extension--as Marshall referred to tools--that I've ever found because I need to see things in print. I write in longhand to start with, but it isn't until I see it in print that I know how the meter of the words really works against the meaning and against the sound or for the sound. That's a heaven-sent instrument to me, to be able to have something--everybody says, "Why don't you have a laptop?" Then I have to bring a printer, right? Or I have to go find one. But this little thing, for a little over a hundred bucks, I get hardcopy, and I can retype, and it has a little bit of seventeen-letter memory, and I find it the most useful thing for me. This poem which I did in Buenos Aires a couple of weeks ago--right after the death, actually, but nothing to do with that, I don't think. It's called "Against the Main Gain Game."
|out of whose mind are you|
|when you're out of your mind|
|hard to find original audiofactotem|
|sound bit by byte gebissen|
|made 'em up as you go along did ya|
|astral travelers already waiting for whatever|
|comes and goes against their gain scale|
|sounds of many hands; one being all or more|
|as clapstick cuts take in and out to fin|