BEAT MEMOIR #8: WHALEN SHOCKS ME SOBER, SELBY JR. HELPS ME KEEP IT By Marc Olmsted
I went to see Allen Ginsberg read in Marin in 1985 with a French girl I was sure I was going to screw, especially when Allen called me to come up on stage to help him with his harmonium. “I’m too loaded!” I yelled out. It was true. “Come up here,” he demanded, so I did. He showed me where to put my fingers on the keys while I pumped the bellows with the other hand. He held a wooden clave, clacking it with the other clave. He was singing “Put Down Your Cigarette Rag.” The girl was impressed, but not enough to sleep with me.
It also happened that the last time I saw Gregory Corso (in a dapper suit, no less) was that same night at the after-reading party for Allen. I was astounded to see how put together Gregory was, in fact I reflected how many times I’d seem him rise phoenix-like out of the depths of the most harrowing binges over the years, chasms that many, even most, did not return from. “I think Gregory is too aware of his own genius,” I overheard Allen say. On another occasion, Allen said, “Gregory Corso has a lot of prajna but very little skillful means.” Prajna is a Buddhist Sanskrit term that translates as “Transcendent Knowing.” “Skillful means”: the ability to apply it. Gregory pinged off life like a blind pinball. It had cost him fame and position. Sometimes he seemed to care.
Apparently unlike Gregory Corso, drinking was scaring me shitless. The fear of what would happen from drinking’s result would soon eclipse the terror of quitting. The black-outs were the worst part – walking and talking with the id in charge, the light on but nobody home. This is how barroom murders happen.
I was now trying to control it. Richard had suggested I get my liver routinely checked. It turned out to be already swollen at age 31. “Drink a lot? Cut your drinking in half,” said the doctor. This was even before moving out of Gretchen’s. My effort at cutting my drinking in half was to drink only on the weekend, but the binge would then be so severe Gretchen had actually asked me to go back to drinking every day.
Some days I just didn’t bother. I was invited along to lunch when Allen was again in town, which included legendary anthologist Don Allen (New American Poetry) and great Zen poet Philip Whalen, now a sensei. I drank a half-liter of wine and ate nothing. Being 5’6” and still looking barely in my 20’s, Don Allen was somewhat astonished and wondered if I wanted any coffee before we left. Coffee, I thought, fuck no! I’ve worked for this buzz. But my tolerance was a great deal more than Don could’ve guessed. Only Philip actually reached me while talking of a friend’s illness, turning to me at one point and looking pointedly in my eyes, “Like cirrhosis of the liver, it is a very painful death.”
We went out to Whalen’s in the Mission, where a second satellite Zen Center practice space was then being maintained. On the wall in the kitchen, I was thunderstruck to see a pencil portrait of Whalen by Jack (“…a very painful death”) Kerouac. The ears were colored in with red pencil, and the portrait was titled “Buddha Red Ears”. As friend Steve Silberman noted in his journal about Whalen (in Beat Scene #68), Whalen’s ears were still red. Ginsey asked if I had any grass. Of course, Allen. Whalen wanted us to smoke in the backyard, which we did, though I don’t remember Philip joining us.
I still remembered Whalen vividly from the first time I met him – that time we’d all gone to see Allen read with Gary Snyder. Once on an acid trip with actor friend John Pratt (again prior this outer Mission Zendo visit), I saw Whalen going into Golden Gate Park with Issan Dorsey and wanted to run up to him, get some blessing, something. I thought better of it at the time – which showed some sense, probably. Given Whalen’s somewhat cranky sarcasm, I might have been in for a Zen pig roast.
Not long after this particular visit at the satellite Zen Center, I showed up again and was literally the only one to sit there with Whalen, besides a giant life-sized golden statue of Bodhisattva Manjushri, hefting his sword of transcendental knowledge. (Given the lack of attendance, it was little wonder this Zen satellite was destined to be shut down soon after.) After sitting, I asked him if he remembered me. “Yeah, you’ve got that band, right? Punko Acido or something.” He pronounced it “Ass-EE-do, ” i.e. The Job.
Like any alcoholic who decides to control his drinking, I went through the usual routines. Drink two beers a day, count the number of beers, don’t drink at all on certain days etc. One time I visited Allen at a book signing at City Lights, sober for the day. Even when we went out with Michael McClure and his then-wife Joanna, I didn’t drink. We were all trying to be good, it seemed. Michael and Joanna barely disguised their annoyance that they couldn’t have Allen to themselves. McClure asked Allen to write the intro for Rebel Lions and Allen rather crankily answered he was too busy (Dennis Hopper wound up doing those honors for McClure). Joanna took Allen’s camera and shot a photo of the three of us, a rose in Michael’s teeth from the tabletop of the North Beach café we sat in. I never knew what happened to that picture.
I helped write and acted in in a 45-minute video that fellow film grad Mitch Loch was making, Bardo of Dreams. I was drinking on the set and, since the character was a drunk, this was only a problem between takes. Mitch was not happy. The acting coach was not happy. In particular, the coach saw me light a real joint for a scene where I was smoking a joint. “Look man,” I told him, “I’m of the Dennis Hopper School of Acting.” Never mind that Brando wouldn’t appear in the same shot with him in Apocalypse Now. I might have added that I considered myself of the Monty Clift School as well. For those of you who may not know Clift’s work, much of his later period was quite under the influence – and much of it was fucking great. In fact, my Reichian therapist had added fuel to this fire by saying “What is it about you that makes me think of Montgomery Clift?” Uh, because I thought I WAS Montgomery Clift? I had even asked the Reichian if he thought that a 12-step group was inevitable for me. “No, they’re too dumb, too redneck. Not unless you fell in with someone really smart. I think we just need to work with your screwed-up orality.” Whatever the fuck that meant.
On Monday, I woke up and called in sick at work. I went down to the liquor store and bought a single tall beer. Today’s method of control, I thought, would be buying beers one at a time. No doubt that would slow me down. Down the apartment stairs and around the corner for a single beer. Back up the stairs to drink it. So I had my single tall beer, smoked a joint and read the paper. A day of rest, recovery and contemplation.
Done with the initial buzz, I went to take a shower. As I was showering, there was a sensation in my heart like a hammer to a mirror. At the same time, the thought: “You’re an alcoholic, and you need to get to a meeting NOW!”
I didn’t want to go to a 12-step meeting loaded (in case you wonder why I keep being vague about which 12-step meeting, those are the rules, buddy – however ignored by current celebrity) and I almost talked myself into waiting until I was sober. However, I had more than once talked myself out of going (usually in the depths of hangover) and when I felt better, I didn’t go. So whatever force was impelling me won out this time. I marched myself into a noon meeting within walking distance of my pad.
When I only had a week clean and sober, I flicked on the TV to see my stoner actor-director hero, Dennis Hopper, proclaiming his own sobriety. It was the first I’d heard of this and I literally wept. (Later he became a Republican, another reason to weep.)
I finally saw some Bardo footage three weeks after being sober. It was good I hadn’t seen it earlier. Contrary to Mitch’s fears, I was fine on camera. In one shot, I opened a champagne bottle with a flourish and perfect timing. And of course, I was supposed to be drunk. So it all proved to be usable. But at three weeks sobriety, there was no way I wanted to go back to drinking.
After nearly a year sober, I decided to try a safari to L.A. with two screenplays I wrote under arm. Big “reveal”: there would be no luck.
L.A.: Vajrayana monastery, an expiation of sins, a joke shop, a brothel of mannequins, Satan’s desert, Buddha’s wild kingdom.
Allen never visited L.A. in the two years I was there. Virtually nothing happened that was connected to him.
The only real highlight of my two year stay in L.A. was a ten-day retreat with Kalu Rinpoche in Big Bear. At one point, a student from some previous retreat asked Rinpoche if he intended to make it snow again.
The last night: after a Vajrasattva initiation, flashes of lighting, geese over the lake crying out in supernatural tongues, I stood on the balcony, snow coming down.
Ken McLeod, Kalu Rinpoche’s appointed teacher to L.A., told me he ran into Allen at a conference out of state, and Allen, hearing my name when Ken mentioned it, said I was “a good poet.” Ken decided I should have a poetry column in his newsletter.
in the middle
jewel in the
lotus w/ grey
LUBE & OIL
There never was a second column.
Mitch Loch came to visit, and we went over to Christopher Isherwood’s old place in the Santa Monica foothills, where his widowed lover Don Bacardy now lived. I’ve forgotten how Mitch connected with Don, a great portrait artist, but I think that Mitch had met him wanting to write a script out of Isherwood’s My Guru and His Disciple. I never fully understood what Mitch thought he’d do with this book, since his understanding of its core, the Hindu philosophy Advaita Vedanta, was limited at best. But Mitch liked Isherwood’s struggle with incorporating sexuality with spirituality.
Isherwood’s old place was a dream-like god realm in L.A. From its magnificent view of the ocean, it seemed some alternate universe to the horrid smogville I knew. The walls were filled with amazing paintings and photos, like the one of a painfully teenage Bacardy in tuxedo running around with Marilyn Monroe. Don announced one alcove as “Hockney Hall,” which was a mini-museum collection of David Hockney paintings. The collected value of this hall alone, let alone the quality of the work, was dazzling. Bacardy praised Mitch as “very photogenic” in Bardo of Dreams (he would later paint Mitch), and asked me if Bardo was “my first time acting.” Swell.
Meanwhile, I had one more failed romance. They were all hetero now – AIDS had scared me straight, my dear. As a drunk and drug addict, my relationships had lasted years. Now they sometimes lasted days.
In all this grimness, I did have the pleasure of connecting with Hubert Selby, Jr., “Cubby” as his friends called him. Selby is best known for having written Last Exit to Brooklyn and Requiem for a Dream. I met him in a 12 Step context and would call him for wisdom, since he had a strange saintly vibe like an old junkie, sorta like I imagined young Mickey Rourke’s dad might be, whispering in this flickering pilot light voice. He once told me as I stood mentally crucified in a phone booth calling him in desperation, “Buddha said, “There is no why.’” Now I think you’d probably have some trouble tracking down that particular scriptural reference, but he was right just the same. Some of Cubby’s spiritual ideas were quite bizarre, like his dead father “telling” him that he was going to 12-Step meetings in Heaven. I couldn’t ask Cubby’s advice very easily after that.
I attended Ken’s last class on Bodhichitta (the current of Buddha mind whose cultivation of attitude led to enlightenment – at some point, at least). He was headed off for India and I wanted him to ask Kalu Rinpoche for a Mo. This was a divination, and my question was whether I would be successful in show business in the next few years. That seemed to cover screenwriting, acting, story development, whatever. In short, if there was no show business career waiting for me soon, I would leave this godforsaken town. The impact would be heavy, indeed, and perhaps the reader questions why I had faith in the divination. I did, that’s all.
The results of the Mo – Ken was due back from Bodh Gaya so I called his girlfriend – Ken was delayed, but had sent on a letter. The girlfriend knew the Mo’s answer to my Hollywood fate.
“Didn’t Sam tell you?” Sam the Tibetan Center secretary had not. “Well, it’s negative. I guess you wondered why you were so successful.” She never liked me much. The loud traffic outside shrank to a whisper, to a high-pitched ringing in my ears. Just like in the movies. I stood with the phone, frozen. The street sounds slowly returned.
I had the sense that my return to San Francisco would be easy as my departure.
“Frisco, that’s really a gasser,” said Cubby over the phone.