Category Archives: Biography

Happy Birthday, Sylvia Mohr

December 25, 2016 — Christmas

Today is my mother’s 95th birthday. Although Sylvia Mohr has considerably weakened physically during the past six months, and is more and more confined to a wheelchair, she is still cognizant of her age and how few people live to be that old. My youngest brother, John, and my wife Linda gathered along with me at my mother’s bedside yesterday evening to sing “Happy Birthday.” Linda and I plan to return this morning to bring her presents and a small piece of cake to eat. We will then travel to Thousand Oaks to celebrate the holiday with Linda’s sister, Sharon, and their mother, Noreen, who is a decade younger than my mother, but also enduring the infirmities of age.

It’s possible that one of the readers of this blog will also have a parent or a sibling born on December 25, and if so, I hope that all goes well in giving that person sufficient attention on her or his natal anniversary. In addition to this birthday wish, I send out fond greetings to the sincere readers of this blog and thank you for bearing with the interludes between posts the past three and a half years. I have been surprised, by the way, at how the blog seems to be getting more attention now, so once again there is something to be said for just sticking to a project, regardless of its initial reception. Although the number of “hits” on a blog is a notoriously dubious means of gauging its impact, I have noticed that I am now averaging slightly more than a thousand hits a day, and will soon reach the cumulative total of a half-million hits. If I am still writing this blog in the summer of 2018, it will probably ascend to the million hit mark. Whether my mother or Linda’s mother will still be alive is harder to assess. For this day, at least, let us all give thanks that all of us can take a deep breath — a slow, deep breath — and release it with permeating gratitude.

Dead Solid Perfect: Gerald Locklin Verifies Bukowski’s Praise of John Thomas

Dead Solid Perfect: Gerald Locklin’s memoir poem about John Thomas and Charles Bukowski (or, From Beef Tongue to Tip of the Tongue: An Homage to Bukowski’s Friend, John Thomas, by Another of Bukowski’s Friends, Gerald Locklin)

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On the verge of turning 24 years old, in the early autumn of 1971, I was asked to become the first poetry editor of a magazine its founder and publisher, Ted Reidel, intended to call Bachy. The name was meant to be a diminutive of his bookstore, Papa Bach Paperbacks. He put an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times announcing his new magazine and submissions started arriving. He gave me a desk in the upstairs loft and I worked there in the evenings after finishing my shift as a blueprint machine operator. I myself was an unpublished poet, and cannot account for Ted’s decision to entrust me with this role other than he must have had a great deal of faith in his one of his employee’s opinions. I had gone into the store to buy some poetry books in the late summer and had struck up a conversation with William (“Koki”) Iwamoto, who was working behind the counter. He invited me to read at an upcoming open reading at Papa Bach, and it was in the week after this reading that Koki said that Ted wanted to talk with me. He said he couldn’t pay me to work as the poetry editor, but that he would be happy to offer me a job at the store. I was making twice as much money as a blueprint machine operator, however, and overtime was helping me accumulate some savings, and so I remained strictly a volunteer presence at the store. Koki left within six months to start his own store, Chatterton’s, on Vermont Avenue. He, too, offered me a job, but that would have meant moving to the other side of Los Angeles and made visiting the Beyond Baroque workshop a long trek.

One day, the pile of submissions included a fairly large number of poems from Charles Bukowski, whose poems I was not particularly enamored with. I did not own any books by Bukowski, but there were plenty of copies of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame for sale at Papa Bach, and since I had heard other older poets at Beyond Baroque talk about his poetry, I spent some time with the book in the Papa Bach loft. His use of enjambment seemed far too arbitrary to suit my preferences for Hart Crane and John Berryman. On the other hand, I had seen some of his poems in the early issues of INVISIBLE CITY, and liked those poems much more. I was both excited and nervous as I read Bukowski’s submission. I knew that if I did not like the poems, I would face my first big challenge in writing a rejection note.

Fortunately, I liked several of Bukowski’s poems much more than I anticipated and ended up including his poetry in the first issue of Bachy along with the work of several young poets I knew from San Diego State College as well as some young poets (David St. John and Roberta Spear) to whom Phil Levine had mentioned my magazine after I had visited him in his office at Fresno State. It was Bukowski’s close friend, John Thomas, however, who ended up having a more profound influence on my development as a poet and editor. His first eponymous collection of poems was a spiral-bound publication that I reviewed in the second issue of Bachy. It was the general consensus in the community that Thomas was one of the best poets living in Los Angeles. He had stopped writing, however. Whenever a poem showed up in a magazine back then, it was simply a reprint of an earlier poem. No one seemed to mind. His poems were always worth rereading, and the respectful enthusiasm that Lee Hickman and Paul Vangelisti accorded Thomas gave his maverick aura a palpable voltage.

Recently, Gerald Locklin sent me a poem that reminisces about spending some time with Thomas. As anyone knows who has studied Bukowski’s career at all, Locklin is one of the few poets Bukowski retained any respectful affection for over any significant stretch of reading. Locklin has often admitted that the secret of their friendship was to limit the amount of time they spent together, and especially the amount of time that they spent drinking together. Thomas was not anywhere near as interested in alcohol as Bukowski, nor was he inclined (or so he once said) to indulge in marijuana. He liked to read, and he claimed to abstain from anything that would impede that pleasure. As testified to by Locklin’s poem, Thomas obviously retained much of what he read.

Once Again Bukowski Was Right On

In a poem called “Beef Tongue,”
About his old drinking buddy and fellow poet,
John Thomas, Buk speaks of his enormous
Intelligence: how he knew just about everything,
Had read just about everything,
And could discuss just about everything.
I’d met Big John (a pseudonym) a few times
And had taken a liking to him,
But I’d never gotten to know him well enough
To tell whether he was really as smart as
Buk claimed he was, or that maybe he had once been,
But had washed some of it away with the beer,
A substance that we had all consumed in quantity,

Then I was in a room with John once
When a bunch of other pretty bright people
Were displaying their erudition,
So I sprang on them, “What language is Welsh
Closest to? (because I had spent a semester there
On a teaching exchange), and, after a brief silence,
John answered, correctly, “Breton,”
And a few minutes later, John said something about
Byron having had a terrible voice, and someone asked him,
How he could possibly know that, and John said,
“Only from Trelawny, and the Countess Guiccioli,”
And he also cited the title of Trelawny’s masterpiece,
Which, frankly, I don’t remember myself anymore,
Now that I’m retired from teaching Brit Lit Survey Courses,
And thus have even less reason to carry relatively
Arcane knowledge on the tip of that tongue that has
Floated to the back of my brain. But when I looked
It up the next morning, John Thomas had gotten it
Dead Solid Perfect. So Charles Bukowski may not
Have had an encyclopedic memory himself, but he
Could sure spot the rare autodidactic friend
Who did.

For those who are curious about one of the poems by Bukowski that I selected for the first issue of Bachy magazine, here’s a link:

“Music for Airports”: Brian Eno and 512 Hill Street, Ocean Park, CA

Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” and Ocean Park, California

Back in the mid-1970s, I was living in an apartment in Ocean Park, California on Hill Street. I had originally moved into the neighborhood in early 1973, and ended up living in that same apartment for 20 years. With my 70th birthday only 15 months away, it’s doubtful I’ll ever have such a long stretch of residential stability. I still have dreams of walking around in that apartment, and the dream-time is as real as this keyboard feels to my fingertips, typing these words. Indeed, more palpable. My life as the editor and publisher of Momentum Press took place entirely within my occupancy of that space, and there isn’t a memory of all that publishing that is not intertwined with its pair of upstairs bedrooms. Over the years, I had a number of roommates, the most famous of which was Nick DeNucci.

I got more than a frequently anthologized poem out of my co-habitation with Nick, however. After HIDDEN PROOFS came out, I got a phone call from a stranger one afternoon. “Are you Bill Mohr?” “Yes.” “Did you really know a fellow named Nick DeNucci?” When I admitted, somewhat reluctantly, that he had indeed been a real life roommate, and not just a character in a poem, the person calling me shared his experience of knowing Nick DeNucci. Nick had been a musician, and he had swooped in and out of number of other lives rather briefly. In the case of Brooks Roddan, the person calling me, the brief encounter did not even involve meeting him face to face. According to Brooks, Nick knew Brooks’s roommate, and had occasionally borrowed his roommate’s car to get to a gig. Unfortunately, on one particular night, that car was not available, but Brooks happened to have an extra car parked in front of their place, and the roommate lent DeNucci Brooks’s vehicle, which didn’t surface again for a couple of weeks, when it was found wrapped around a telephone pole on Vermont Avenue.

Instant commiseration! Brooks and I felt bonded immediately, and I am grateful to the auspicious fate that has kept us loyal, dear friends. I would think of him as a profound friend, in fact, even if we were never to spend any time in the same physical space again. I doubt that will happen, but I believe there is an intimacy each of us finds in our artistic solitude that is similar to the intimacy of our friendship.

The intimacy of this imaginative friendship also involves experiences that have no originating attribution. I have no recollection, for instance, of who encouraged me to buy Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports.” All I I remember is standing at the kitchen sink, doing the breakfast dishes, and listening to that album one or twice a week for about a month. It was as close to some profound communion with the Eternal Pulse of Being as I will ever come. A winter month, overcast, and there were many slightly damp mornings, and rainy nights. As I ran hot water over each clean plate and bowl, I could feel the cool grey from the Pacific Ocean just eight blocks away from back door.

I had not yet begun reading the poets associated with the Language movement., but in the middle of the next decade I would write a piece that was absolutely grounded in the poetics of “Music for Airports.” Thanks to Rod Bradley and the sculptor Mineko Grimmer, you can see a performance of the poem I wrote out of my meditations on Eno’s music.


An Inside-Out Outsider: Jack Grapes and the Cherished Nouns of Stand Up Haiku

Monday, August 10, 2016

The Phantom Dwelling of an Inside-Out Outsider: Jack Grapes and the Cherished Nouns of Stand Up Haiku

“So much ink wasted on verbs. / Stand still — cherished nouns.”

When Jack Grapes sent me a copy of WIDE ROAD to the edge of the world: 301 haiku and One Long Essay: “A Windswept Spirit” a month or so ago, I was surprised by both the size of the book and the print run. It’s an odd size, around three inches high and four inches wide, but at an inch thick, it’s enough of a block of paper to shoulder its way onto your bookshelf. Well over two-thirds of its 600 plus pages are devoted to a long essay on haiku, which specialists might read in its entirety, but I am going to pass on it. For one thing, the type is just too small; moreover, a spot check of randomly selected passages did not rev up my curiosity enough to want to start at the beginning and read it all the way through. I must be getting more impatient in my old age than I ever realized: an uninteresting look at WC Williams’s classic poem about a red wheelbarrow was in itself almost enough to deter any further perusal of this long treatise. Fortunately, I did keep browsing and encountered another section about a haiku club established by Grapes with a fellow fifth grade student back when the Brooklyn Dodgers won their only World Series. Inspired by one of Issa’s lesser known haiku, the elementary school haiku club ended up naming itself “The Bats.” Though I recollect a chapbook by C.K. Williams devoted to translations of Issa’s haiku, he is still not known as well as he should be in the United States, and you will probably find at least one of his poems in Grapes’s essay that you had not previously encountered.
Writing shit about new snow
for the rich
is not art.
Perhaps Grapes published the essay in a limited edition book out of a distrust of the permanence of the electronic library. The recent case of Dennis Cooper’s on-line material being completely jettisoned by corporate overlords is a cautionary tale about the internet, and so I’m happy that Grapes has chosen the road less traveled on these days to preserve his meandering essay. Nevertheless, having invested so much time on this project, he should post it in larger print on some website posthaste, and I do mean larger print. Obviously, the advantage of public distribution on a website is that there isn’t any limit to an essay’s length, but the scroll bar is actually a tougher adjudicator of a reader’s attention span. Not only does it not take long to let up on that descending pressure point, but nothing about the experience rewards one on a sensory level with anything comparable to the solace of paper’s caress of a fingertip. In the case of this essay, I would still cast my lot with a much shorter essay on paper.

For those who love short poems and who still prefer an experience of reading embedded in print culture, then I would recommend a magazine that I wish Grapes had sent some of his haiku to before he published this collection. If any periodical would have proved hospitable to Grapes’s renewed devotion to haiku, it would be none other than Hummingbird, which is currently edited by CX Dillhunt. The saddle-stitched magazine was founded over twenty years ago by Phyllis Walsh, and it almost folded after she died, but it’s a tribute to the inspiring quality of her editing that her admiring readership refused to let it expire. For those who read Grapes’s haiku and wish they could receive some regular infusion of short poems, then I urge you to subscribe to this magazine:
7129 Lindfield Road
Madison, Wisconsin 53719

Until your first issue of HUMMINGBIRD arrives, I offer you several of my favorite haiku in “Wide Road”:

Circumcision day.
Little brother in his crib.
The bloody diaper.

Why is it five seven five?
Seven five seven
works just fine, if you ask me.

Okay pal, hands up
Gimme all your money, punk,
and your heartache, too.

The dialectic’s
undeniable power:

Once I was a dog.
No one was afraid of me.
I licked people’s hands.

I would be with you
if I could not be alone.
But I can. I can.

Where are we going?
Body outside of body
Mind inside of mind

We’re fresh in the grave
when the grim minister speaks:
blah blah blah blah blah

This last one I’ve cited is Grapes’s response to one of the haiku by Issa that he cites in his essay. Like Issa, Grapes is by his own account “an inside-out outsider.” As uneven as this book is, it still remains worth tracking down, and any serious library will want to have a copy on its shelves.

Jack will be reading along with other contributors (Meg Eden and Mari Werner) to recent issues of RATTLE poetry magazine on Sunday, August 14, at the La Canada/Flintridge Bookstore and Coffee House,
1010 Foothill Blvd, at 5pm.

His featured poem in the most recent issue of RATTLE is “Any Style,” and you can find it at:

The Plasticity of Reenactment’s Homage

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Plasticity of Reenactment’s Homage

I first read John Rechy’s novels back in the late 1960s, when my roommate Tony Landmesser loaned me his copies of City of Night and Numbers. In many ways, Rechy’s forthright accounts of hustling on the streets of Los Angeles enabled me to have an immediate context for the poetry of Leland Hickman, when he sent me the first five sections of “Tiresias” to publish in Bachy magazine’s second issue. There is more of an echo of Rechy in Lee’s writing than he was ever willing to admit; the echo, however, is not so much an imitation as a complementary flowering of the compressed chaos that both Rechy and Hickman drew upon as the groundswell of their internal muses.
A pair of Rechy’s novels are the current project of Los Angeles artist Tim Youd, who has embarked on the close reading of typing up 100 novels. He finished his reiteration of City of Night about three weeks ago, and I would guess that he has almost finished – if not in fact finished – typing up Numbers. According to an article in the L.A. Times, he began working on Numbers at the Fern Dell entrance to Griffith Park on July 6. Given the heat wave of recent weeks, I wouldn’t blame him if his pace had slowed down a bit, and he were still working on this book.
For those who might be working as scholars on Rechy’s writing, I would recommend taking a look at the interview that Lee Hickman conducted with Rechy on February 7, 1980. It was published in issue number 17 of Bachy magazine. To read an interview with Tim Youd about his experience of typing up Rechy’s City of Night, see:

Recollections of the Distant Past: Ocean Park and Culver City

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Recollections of the Distant Past: Ocean Park (Bill Mohr) and Culver City (Larry Goldstein)

One of the first projects of the upcoming summer will be my interviews for the Oral History Project (OHP) at UCLA. I received an invitation to contribute to the OHP slightly over a year ago, but both Jane Collings, who will conduct the interviews, and I have been too involved in other tasks to sit down with a tape recorder. We almost got started this past January, but since the process entails a half-dozen sessions lasting an hour and a half each, we decided not to engage in intermittent recall. In a fortnight, however, this oral memoir will get at last get underway, and I am both grateful this opportunity and honored to be asked.

Jane has said that she will drive from UCLA to Long Beach to conduct the interviews, which will probably happen in the morning, since traffic on the 405 will flow best for her at that time. I wish somehow I could persuade her to conduct at least one interview in Ocean Park, where I lived for 20 years (1973-1993) and did the most important work of my life. I never visit that area but that I am seized with a pervasive, ambivalent nostalgia. As much as I would have enjoyed spending the rest of my life there, it would have left so many other tasks incomplete. I had to leave, though it broke my heart to do so.

In my sojourn of the past two decades, I was often uncertain of where I would be living in the near future. Moving to Long Island from San Diego certainly caught both Linda and me off-guard, as did the precise location of the return move to the West Coast. I never anticipated that I would end up teaching at Cal State Long Beach, a campus I first visited when Michael Horowitz, the British poet who edited Children of Albion, came and gave a reading back in 1973. I had met Michael when I spent a month in London in September, 1971. Ah! It strikes me that I ought to forestall this recoil of memory and let it unfold when the tape recorder is running. Once I write this out, the oral history will end up as a recitation rather than a rediscovery when Jane pushes the “on” button. Until the upcoming sessions are done, therefore, I think it will be best if I focus on the less personal in my blog posts.

In abruptly terminating these references to being a young poet, I find myself wanting to give the reader some recompense. By chance, one of my newest friends, Larry Goldstein, has just had an article published that delves back into his origins as a writer; the link to it can be found at the end of this post. The way that cinematic careers (in all their frequent brevity) and serious book reviewing blend in Larry’s article might surprise many people outside of Los Angeles, but even those who do not know of Robert Kirsch will savor this glimpse of a young man’s life emboldened by the spontaneous hunches of his on-the-spot mentors.

David Bowie and “Music for Airports”

Monday morning, January 11, 2016

Present tense entry:

I wake up (6:30 a.m.) and check my e-mail. Near the top is a subject line from the Huffington Post: “The Legacy of David Bowie.” A very slight unease seeps up, but I don’t fret as such. Two lines further down, the LA Times puts it bluntly: David Bowie has died. The hastily written Times article, unfortunately, is more of a list of his albums and collaborators than anything else. The bottom of the article lists several links, though, so I go to the NY Times article on Sunday, July 11, 1971. Section D, page 23, and I hit unexpected cultural treasure. No, it’s not the nostalgic prophecy of Bowie’s emergence from the music underground.

Instead, adjacent to the article, which takes up two and a half column inches total and is spread out over one full column and three half-columns, are two advertisements taking up the entire rest of the page, both ads featuring one of the following:
A) a used car dealership announcing its first clearance sale of 1970 models
B) a grocery stores chain with specials on fish and coffee
C) a record store and audio equipment outlet
D) a furniture store announcing 25% percent off sale on Lazy-Boy recliners

If you guessed “C,” then you astutely asked yourself who would most likely be supplying the money for the NY Times to write a check to the author of the article on Bowie and Marc Bolan that allows the Times to call itself something other than an advertising circular. (In case you didn’t know, a publication must feature a certain percentage of its page space as “news” or “public information” in order to qualify as a newspaper. The current LA Weekly is a fine example of a publication that strives to meet that minimum and print nothing else beyond that that might require someone be paid for it; in order words, maximize the ratio of advertisements to news articles in order to increase the profit of each sheet of paper.)

“The World’s Largest Record and Audio Dealer” is the claim for the Sam Goody ‘ad’ (the word is put in quote marks), which you must bring with you in order to take advantage of the following special:
6 Days Only
from July 12 through July 17
Every LP and Pre-Recorded Tape

(It should be noted that one band does receive some publicity in the advertisement: BLOOD, SWEAT, & TEARS runs in a vertical banner along the left hand side of the larger ad, accompanied by a smaller ad for audio equipment. Beneath the above promotional offer there is also the following announcement: “Now available on Angel Records” “The Musical Enchantment of the Year” – Peter Rabbit and Tales of Beatrix Potter.)

The prominence of labels in this advertisement rather than individual musical artists suggests that its target audience (the record-buying public, i.e., customers who might make use of an American Express, Master Card or Uni-Card credit line) is familiar with those labels enough to know that the music they want to get a bargain on is included in this sale. That labels are advertised in the sale rather than individual artists suggests something about the cultural work being done by the record companies that deserves more attention, in much the same way that book publishers need to be the through-line of surveys of literature.

* * *
In memory of David Bowie, I am not playing any of his songs as I finish this post and prepare to load it onto my blog. Instead, I have his collaborator Brian Eno’s Music for Airports playing. If one were to write about Bowie as an artist at any length and with any substantial appreciation, it would behoove those who do so to spend time addressing the projects of those he collaborated with instead of isolating Bowie in the obstreperous cocoon of pop music adulation.

“I am a DJ / I am what I play.”
Here’s what I’d play today after Eno, and then after this baker’s dozen of a set list, Eno again.

“Rebel, Rebel”
“Cracked Actor”
“Under Pressure”
“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”
“Panic in Detroit”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”
“Breaking Glass”
“The Jean Genie”
“Ashes to Ashes”
“Hang on to Yourself”

Post-script added 12 or so hours later:
Music as gestural poetry, and lyrics that gestured with music. All on a very intelligent, visceral level. He was a masterful accomplice of accessible astonishment.

Jack Grapes remembers Bob Flanagan, too

January 5, 2016 — The day after the 20th anniversary of the death of Bob Flanagan

In 1983, the Reader, Los Angeles’s Free Weekly (as it formally called itself) ran a long review of books by Jim Krusoe, Bob Flanagan, and myself. One common feature that linked us received very little notice in an otherwise very fine article; all three had had our first major collections of poetry published by Bombshelter Press, which was edited by Jack Grapes and Michael Andrews. Grapes and Andrews had met, if recollection serves me correctly, because one of my first poet friends, Dennis Ellman, mentioned at a Beyond Baroque workshop that he was going to be giving a reading at a place in Hermosa Beach called the Alley Cat. Jack Grapes decided to attend the reading, met Michael Andrews there, and the two launched a series of anthologies featuring the poets who read at the Alley Cat under the imprint of Bombshelter Press. In addition to publishing books, Grapes and Andrews also edited and published a magazine called ONTHEBUS that featured the work of poets who might be considered the progeny of The Outsider magazine in New Orleans back in the early 1960s.

Grapes grew up in New Orleans, where he had the good fortune to be a young poet when The Outsider was one of the few magazines with enough editorial vision to make the category suggested by its title a widely inclusive term instead of an elitist form of marginality. There were not many handsome literary magazines back then that regarded poets such as Langston Hughes, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, Russell Edson, and Marvin Bell as part of their roster. Grapes himself was one of the youngest – if not the youngest – poet to have a featured portfolio of his writing in The Outsider. In the late 1960s, Grapes moved to Los Angeles in pursuit of an acting career, but it turned out that the city and the region also served as a refuge for an enormously diverse assemblage of poets who did not easily fit into any of the schools or movements that got the most critical attention during the last three decades of the 20th century.

Grapes himself went on to become the literary equivalent of a multi-instrumentalist in music. He not only acted, he became a very accomplished playwright; his play, Circle of Will, pulled together more strands of contemporary theater than almost anything I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of Marat/Sade. He also worked as a poet-in-the-schools for many years, an experience he refers to in a letter he wrote me yesterday after reading my post about Bob Flanagan. I have secured Jack’s permission to reprint a portion of his letter as a way of giving readers another glimpse at aspects of Bob’s life that made him one of the most remarkable artists to have lived in Los Angeles.

Dear Bill:

This is a very readable account of a poet who deserves more critical attention. That his performance art and singer/songwriting and other artistic endeavors seemed to widen the focus on his art to people’s inability to appreciate the specifics of just one part of it — his poems — is a sad commentary on how we do the same to other artists. And that, of course, is a larger question, indeed, in how we WANT artists to follow in some kind of expected path (Brando, for instance), and when they don’t, we assume they’ve fizzled or wasted their talents. I saw Bob’s show at the Santa Monica museum, and I attended his “lecture” retrospective on it a year or so later, which included slides and video, as well as his commentary, and it’s one of the most amazing artistic experiences I have ever witnessed in my life. This is not hyperbole. In some ways, while the art installation, which lasted a month I believe (titled “Visiting Hours”), was extraordinary, Bob’s presentation a year later with slides, video, etc., was even more astonishing, because it included documentation of other’s experience as well, something I couldn’t have seen since I “visited” him in the “hospital/museum” only once, and didn’t get to see the effect the show had on others. If ever an artist’s poetry, singing/songwriting, and art were all conduits to one significant event, this was it. The question is, has anyone conflated the two and made a video documenting BOTH the month-long installation at the museum AND his “lecture/presentation” a year later, which was every bit as extraordinary as the installation.

Bob and I were great friends since we met at the Venice Poetry Workshop around 1972. He and I taught in Poetry in the Schools for several years (as did you), and he and I often taught together. I got to witness Bob in the classroom with kids, all ages. He was simply electrifying. His imagination and ability to ignite the same among his students was unequaled. The cherry on the cake of everything he ever did was an assignment he gave once in which students had to bring in an artistic representation (a painting, a sculpture, etc.) of their imagination. To give physical form to the abstraction of imagination — not something produced by one’s imagination, but a representation in abstract form OF one’s imagination — and then to see 35 kids all bringing in examples of that — to this day I shake my head in wonder at the amazement of it all. Bob was an artist, and while the body of his work may have been small compared to the larger output of others (such as Sharon Olds), Bob was an original. We shouldn’t take that word to lightly. Original. A Singularity.
— Jack Grapes

Paul Vangelisti – 70th Birthday Party

Nausikaa's Isle: a tribute to Paul Vangelisti

Nausikaa’s Isle: a tribute to Paul Vangelisti

Yesterday evening Linda and I attended a lovely backyard party at the same place where Paul Vangelisti celebrated his 60th birthday ten years ago. In 2005, Linda and I were living in Lynbrook, on Long Island, while I was working simultaneously at Rutger’s University in New Jersey, St. John’s University in Queens, and Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York. I spent a lot of time on trains and buses. Paul was still editing the “New Review of Literature,” to which I contributed several reviews and a chapter of my literary history of Los Angeles. Ten years later, he has yet another substantial magazine to his credit, “OR,” which put out 12 issues over six years. Many of the people who were steady contributors to both magazines were recruited by Dennis Phillips to pick out pieces of their writing that would pay homage in some way to his influence on their lives and writing. This collection of writing, “Nausikaa’s Isle,” has just been published by Postmedia Books.

Last night’s party, therefore, which probably had around 40 people by the time that “Happy Birthday” was sung, was more than an occasion to celebrate Paul’s birth; it was also a publication party for a gathering of poems, art work, and short prose pieces that bowed in Paul’s direction and said an emphatic thank you. Among the contributors who were at the party were Martha Ronk, Peter Gadol, Guy Bennett, Douglas Messerli, Barbara Maloutas, and myself. The majority of contributors, however, either live at some distance, or live only in our memories. As Phillips points out in his concise yet affectionate forward, the book opens with “Extracts” by four writers Adriano Spatola, Robert Crosson, and Amiri Baraka) who knew and worked with Vangelisti as collaborative equals when they were alive; the book then turns to those who are still on the journey as living companions.

So far I’ve only had a chance to read the work of Martha Ronk and Peter Gadol. The former invokes one of the classic literary voices of Los Angeles with intriguing excerpts from her ongoing project, “The Big Sleep.” Gadol’s “An Old Italian Saying” is one of the best pieces of short prose I’ve read in many years. A minor masterpiece. Next up in order of my plan of reading later this evening are two surprise entries by writers I’m lucky enough to call former students: a joint effort (as is all their work) by Natalija Gregorinic and Ognjen Raden, and Amy Allara.

Among those absent from the party were contributors such as Diane Ward and Lewis MacAdams, but perhaps they were ill. Paul mentioned that Rebecca Chamlee, the superb book designer who teaches at Otis, had called earlier in the day and said that she was down with the flu; Paul added that two others had subsequently left messages to say that they, too, were afflicted with some virus.
Helping to compensate for their absence were young poets such as Rachel Kaminer, and the ever steady and supportive Jacqueline Young, whose ability to keep the Graduate Writing program at Otis on an even keel for close to 20 years is a remarkable feat of dedication.

Those who live elsewhere, however, missed a splendid gathering of writers and artists, which included the photographer Don Suggs and still-life painter Gershom. Perhaps all of the absent contributors to “Nausikaa’s Isle” (including Standard Schaefer, Milli Graffi, Gilad Elbow, Norma Cole, Art Beck, Ray DiPalma, Gillian Conoley, Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum, Giulia Niccolai, George Albon, Nanni Cagnone, Luciano Mezzetta, Ersi Sotiropoulos, Polly Geller, Susi Pietri, Lucia Re, Dominic Stansberry, Sara Suzor, Avery Burns, Neeli Cherkovski, John R. Snyder, and Andrea Bursar) might still be able to gather ten years from now and celebrate Paul’s 80th birthday, though we may well have to travel to Italy to do so. The perfect excuse to make a trip there! I’m ready to buy my ticket.

Brian Jones and the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Last Time”

“night blossoms shooting color through the darkness”: Brian Jones and the Fiftieth Anniversary of “The Last Time”

In the spring of 1965, the Rolling Stones released a single featuring a pair of songs that would appear on their next U.S. album: “The Last Time” and “Play with Fire.” If their follow-up single, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” reverberated like the coming of a sonic messiah, then “The Last Time” was its Baptist. Indeed, “The Last Time” still remains a song that marks a collision point of old pop music poetics giving way to a new dimension of consciousness. While the lyrics focus on the all too familiar trope of a love tryst gone sour, the song’s pristine, mesmerizing riff is something else altogether: it is a clarion call of subversive affirmation, embodying the desire for each day to be first time. Each repetition of the riff cascades like a waterfall of renewal. It is water sweetened in some primeval aquifer, as if it had finally spurted from the depths in which it has waited since the first human being played a musical instrument.

The history of the Rolling Stones remains a subject fraught with partisanship and loyalties formed at a young age. Not just fans’ loyalties, but the members of the band themselves established their loyalties early on, and they have continued to play out in the past half century, especially in a pair of autobiographies, Bill Wyman’s Stone Alone and Keith Richards’s Life. Richards claims that he remembers everything, and his account possesses an insidious charm. There’s a tall tale quality to his carnivalesque grotesquerie, and quite a few people, including the judges for the Norman Mailer Prize, succumbed to its puckish blend of show business cynicism and addled turpitude. One finds oneself almost willing to excuse profoundly outrageous behavior, even by the standard of bohemian self-indulgence.

In remembering everything, it’s not surprising that one might still recall things that feel like scores to be settled, and there’s nothing like a sock puppet, of course, to give yourself license to vent; since Richards is the casting director, he trots out his favorite one: Brian Jones, the founding musician of the Rolling Stones. He would have been smarter to be more generous to a man that many have forgotten was even in the band; a more balanced assessment of Jones’s contributions to the earliest years of the Rolling Stones, including the music he wrote for their songs, might well have satisfied those who value giving credit where it’s due. Richards chose otherwise, however, and a recent biography of Brian Jones by Paul Trynka seems to have been motivated in part as a rebuttal of Richards’s virulent portrayal of Jones.

I suspect Trynka was just as irritated as I was about many of Richards’s claims. Of course, one might claim that no one is supposed to take seriously Richards’s mendacity when he claims that he remembers “everything.” On one hand, it could be said that we are expected as sophisticated readers (or even as relatively naïve ones) to regard such a claim as comically dubious, but artists in the raffish hero mold are often experts in converting ironic sincerity into autobiographical verisimilitude. In turn, these accounts transmogrify into facts that distort the lives and contributions of others to an important artistic legacy. Legends smudge themselves, and not just with self-legitimatings herbs.

Let us revisit Richards’s Life and see how he splices his memory. On page 173, about a third of the way through the book, Richards begins a three-sentence paragraph with a contextual comment about the band’s early glory days  “ ‘The Last Time’ was recorded during a magical period at the RCA Studios in Hollywood.” Ah, and pray tell, Keith, why was it “magical”? Rather than elaborate on the collaborative nature of their musical magic, Richards opts to undercut that assessment by sticking his petulant middle finger in the sock puppet’s face: “It was the period where everything – songwriting, recording, performing – stepped into a new league, and the time when Brian started going off the rails.” The implication of this statement is that “Mick and I stepped up our game and Brian began to be a drag.”

This is the only reference to Brian Jones in the paragraphs devoted to “The Last Time,” a song that has just celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. Let’s think about that increment of time and its impact on popular music: How many songs hold up after half a century? Paul Williams, whose lucid commentary in Rock n Roll: The 100 Best Singles remains required reading for anyone interested in the potential of this form of music to prove enduring, selected “The Last Time” as one of those 100 best songs. His praise for “a masterpiece” that “turned his life around in spring ’65”  includes that rarely acknowledged worker in the music industry, the sound engineer. In terms of the myths that accrue around artistic production, one cannot help but notice the subservient role that Jones’s musicianship is accorded in the parenthetical position of giving the engineer his due: “(Dave Hassinger) did his job in getting “Keith’s guitar (and Brian’s, too) to sound like that.”

The problem is that the wrong name went into the parenthesis, for the sound that Paul Williams found so alluring is misattributed; it was not Keith Richards who was the “riff master” that he claims to be in his memoir, but rather Brian Jones who came up with the riff that makes “The Last Time” one of the best singles released in the past half-century. Unfortunately, songwriting credits seem to have a great deal of influence on how credit is awarded, and I’m no different than millions of other people. I, too, always assumed that Richards came up with that mesmerizing riff for “The Last Time.” His name is listed as the co-writer of the song, and make no mistake about it: that riff is the meaning of the song. Without it, you have a fairly banal, country ditty that isn’t much more inspired than their previous single, “It’s All Over Now,” which anyone with halfway sensitive ears has to wonder how it charted at all. That Jagger-Richards cadged their main phrase for “The Last Time” from a Pointer Sisters’ recording of a traditional song to push together a haughty rejection song is well known. That Richards still refuses to give Jones credit for the only (but what an only!) piece of imagination musicianship in the song is nothing short of pathetic, disguised self-pity for his own inability in that instance to produce imaginative music.

Let’s mull over what the late Paul Williams has to say: “So let us consider the riff. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it. Keith plays the same figure over and over throughout every verse of the song ….  like a drone, a mantra, one of those Eastern devices that doesn’ t make a lot of sense to a western set of values….. the riff transforms the simple-minded drive of the song into something transcendent, point counterpoint, night blossoms shooting color through the darkness. A jumping-off point for many music’s to come, from heavy metal to punk to psychedelia. An unstoppable opener.” (Williams,  77-78). This poetic praise for Jones’s creative musicianship would seem to be the primary basis for Williams’s ranking of “The Last Time” as number 30 in this list of the Top 100; “Satisfaction,” which usually is regarded as their non plus ultra ranks as number 34. As a total performance of a song, “Satisfaction” is in fact far superior. Its lyrics are a thousand times better, but that was Jagger’s job, one he didn’t always do so well in the early period (1964-1967). If “The Last Time” surpasses that accomplishment, the distinction is owed to a musician that Led Zepplein’s Jimmy Page called “really gifted and innovative.”[i] Williams’s description of Jones’s riff as “night blossom shooting color through the darkness” accurately catches Jones the musician as perhaps the first gestural guitarist of rock and roll.

Richards surely must know that people give him credit for the music that makes “The Last Time” an enduring work of art. It will always be flawed by Jagger’s sophomoric lyrics, but Jones’s riff makes the verbal aspect almost an afterthought. (It must conceded, of course, that Jagger’s vocal is superbly on target, which helps compensate.) The sad consequence of being rich and famous is that you become inured to questions of integrity. If you know that other people admire you for being creative, but you didn’t do the work that you are admired for, a question of ethics would ordinarily come into play, but when you are one of a handful of legendary figures in popular music, you siphon off anything that does not fit your self-image. Perhaps you have been able to convince the less creative members of the band to go along with your songwriting scheme and they didn’t object when your childhood friend and you claim credit for work you didn’t do, but don’t compound the error in your memoir and expect that everyone will still continue to admire you.

The question of how a song is composed and how a record of that song is made is only of the more blurred categories in artistic production. Richards has said that Jones’s talent was closer to that of “an interpreter” of songs than a songwriter. Indeed, he can point to several dozen instances of such a contribution by Jones in the catalogue of songs written by Jagger and Richards. The role that Jones played would fall in these cases under the title of “arranger,” and from the start of their recording career, the Stones refused to let others arrange their songs. “Arranged by the Rolling Stones,” ran the credit on the back of the album sleeve. It was just part of the change in the music business. Not only did bands now expect themselves to write their own songs, but they eliminated that well paid role of “arranger” from the recording studio.

ln reinforcing the argument of a song, an arranger indeed interprets. But you must first have a song before you can interpret it. You can’t interpret something unless it’s finished. Joe Cocker did an interpretation of “With a Little Help from my Friends.” Elton John did a mediocre interpretation of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” When Brian Jones was in the studio with Jagger and Richards, the essential rhetorical gestures of “Under My Thumb” were nowhere to be heard until Jones had his moment of inspiration.

Let’s get this straight: a great song is rhetorical in its melodic intensity. It persuades you as effectively as anything written by Cicero or Samuel Johnson because it contains the “point, counterpoint” of some deep pulse of human apprehension. To limit Jones’s contribution to “Under My Thumb” to being an “arranger” is to pretend somehow that the main argument of the song is not vocalized by the marimba, which Jones wields like a master sushi chef, who has not only gone out on the ocean of his own inner demons and caught an elusive trophy of a fish, he has deftly carved it.  His bandmate, Bill Wyman, puts it bluntly, “Without it, you don’t really have a song, do you?”

The case for Jones deserving songwriting credit extends to songs that did not become hits, too. “Gomper,” which contains an extended musical composition that veers far away from the song’s initial melody, is one of the ten best things that the Stones did, at least in terms of harmonic complexity. It is my own personal favorite in terms of music. Jagger’s lyrics are dismally banal, unfortunately. The extended section ofmusic shows what Jones might have moved in the direction of had he not succumbed to drug addiction.

One of the songs in the RS canon that almost from its first airplay seemed to raise the question of songwriting credit was “Ruby Tuesday,” which Jagger has acknowledged as a song to which he made no contribution. Richards, of course, claims that he wrote it as a solo effort, and perhaps he did. Yet one wonders: is it not more than a little likely that Jones was in the studio and played a fragment of melody, which Richards then took and expanded upon? Such a scenario is very believable, especially when we have the testimony of Bill Wyman that the main driving riff of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” is his creation. It must be said that Wyman’s riff has its roots in Richards’ classic riff in “Satisfaction.” The opening two notes are virtually the same, but what Wyman did in the next several notes to provide the core of the song deserves acknowledgement in the songwriting credit. Wyman left much later than Taylor, and for different reasons, or so it was made out to be. That two survivors of the band both make claims about the lack of songwriting credit and point to specific songs as instances of creative work for which they deserve credit has to serve as a red flag that something is also probably amiss in regards to Jones’s songwriting credits.

Part of the problem with doubting the claims of Jagger-Richards that songwriting credit should not have been shared, in a half-dozen or so cases, with Jones is that there is a pattern of poaching on other’s people imaginative work. Perhaps the most telling evidence of the selfishness of the Jagger-Richards outfit is that Jones’s successor in the band had much the same experience, except that he lived to tell of it. Mick Taylor has specifically spoken of his expectations that he would get songwriting credit and his belief that he deserved the credit. In particular, he has cited such songs as “Sway” and “Moonlight Mile” as examples of his collaborative efforts. His choice of songs to claim credit for is also revealing for its modesty. Without his long, extraordinary guitar solo that glides with glossy, mouth-puckering swirls of precise delicacy, “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’?” would be one of the more forgettable songs in the Stones repertoire. It would get very few nominations as one of the top 100 songs. Backed by the plangent saxophone of Bobby Keys, Taylor takes the wheel in that song and shows Richards why he was the right choice to replace Jones, who indeed had fallen prey to drug and alcohol addiction at a very young age.

Taylor’s complaints about the unwillingness of Jagger and Richards to give him songwriting credit are nowhere mentioned in Trynka’s biography, which could have benefitted from footnotes. Perhaps the publisher would have felt that footnotes would have undermined the book’s sales potential. I can’t think, however, of anything that would substantiate the suspicion that Jagger and Richards behaved in an unethical manner in claiming sole songwriting credit for so many of their compositions. One  example of such annotation would be the experience of Marianne Faithful, who co-wrote a song called “Sister Morphine,” the first version was recorded with the Rolling Stones and contained her name as one of the authors of the song. How is it possible that the songwriting credit could be appropriated by Jagger and Richards when they recorded the song later and released it on “Sticky Fingers”?2

Finally, we need to consider the motive and it’s the one that impels all too many selfish agendas. In Life, it’s worth noting the passage about how Richards enjoys the physical presence of the money his songwriting has earned. I have no doubt it was a thrill — and who could quarrel with a young working-class man’s right to feel delighted and amazed that he could make his way through the world with tangible prosperity. But surely one can also read between the lines and see how temptation could prove overwhelming? Songwriting, and not touring, is the key to fortune and Richards and Jagger set to work accumulating as much of it as possible.

That Jagger and Richards have had enormously successful musical careers – and would have had these careers regardless of whether they had met Jones – is not the issue under debate. Paul Trynka’s book, however, reopens the question of artistic and ethical integrity. Until the surviving members of this indefatigable band acknowledge their errors in diminishing Jones’s contributions, this distant but lingering stain will always subtract from their accomplishments.

1[i]  Harvey Kubernik. “Brian Jones Revisited,” Record Collector (Burbank, CA: February-March, 2015, issue 45. 22. Kubernik’s interviews, conversations and e-mail exchanges with Bill Wyman, Jimmy Page, Andy Babiuk, Kim Fowley, and Danniel Weizmann supplement Trynka’s biography. Trynka himself, at the beginning of Kubernk’s article, is quoted as saying to Kubernik that “(Brian Jones) was a genius, and a car-crash, a beguiling, endlessly fascinating character…. He’s not a victim – he’s a visionary.” (11). My thanks to Dizzy, the owner of Dizzy Vinyl on 7th Street in Long Beach for providing me with a copy of this magazine, which I had missed at the time of its publication. The contrast between Trynka’s summary of Jones’s brief life and enduring musical legacy and the afterglow of Richards’s biography is exemplified in Michiko Kakutani’s review in the New York Times (October 25, 2010). The only reference to Jones in that adulatory article is Richards’s characterization of him as a “sort of freak, devouring celebs and fame and attention.” If Richards’s account had been more balanced, Kakutani might well have composed a comment with somewhat more equipoise, e.g, “success turned his once brilliant band mate, Brian Jones, into a sort of freak etc.” Richards set out to destroy the memory of Jones as anything other than a distasteful disaster, and Kakutani’s review would seem to confirm that Richards accomplished that with considerable aplomb.

2 The Rolling Stones (or the band with that name with three of the original five musicians) are currently on a 15 city tour of the United States to promote the re-release of Sticky Fingers, the album on which “Sister Morphine” appears. One Rolling Stones album that is virtually guaranteed never to receive re-release with a backing tour is Aftermath, on which Jomes’s contributions are so manifest that it will only once again raise the uncomfortable questions of creative credit for the music.

— Bill Mohr:

Associate Professor, Department of English, California State University, Long Beach 90840-2403