Beat Memoir # 9: The Punk & The Lama By Marc Olmsted
gaps in suffering
big as Mt. Fuji
the Buddhist nuns
Now I was a punk writer, age 35, living with a Tibetan lama, recovering from Hollywood and alcoholism in a San Francisco late 80’s landscape of rock clubs, tattoos, piercings, 12-step meetings and personal ads.
I came back to my room after a visit to the nearby Haight. Christiane had shoved a note under the door, another resident of the Center who was French, into Burroughs – really sharp Buddhist student. Allen Ginsberg, was coming to town for a book signing! This seemed incredibly auspicious, it was just two weeks since I was back in town and three years since Allen had been in San Francisco. Made me feel confident in my move out of Hollywood and my efforts to restore myself as poet, for Allen had helped get me published in a few prestigious journals and had been a longtime champion and teacher. I had nearly stopped writing poetry at all age 20 when I met him, frustrated with a college scene that wasn’t particularly supportive of the shaggy aesthetic I was offering, directly out of the tradition of writers like Jack Kerouac, but without the refinement that would come with Allen Ginsberg’s tutelage.
And now Allen was coming into town, our sexual relationship over for 8 years, our friendship intact. I had broken off sex when I moved in with Gretchen and never resumed it in the horror of AIDS.
Above all, he had taught me Buddhist meditation, awareness of the outbreath dissolving into space. We had sat together naked in his San Francisco room. It began my interest – I was at the Meditation Center because of him. Bill Voigt was in 3 year retreat because of him, though never slept with him, but studied poetry at Naropa, the Buddhist writing college Ginsberg helped found in Boulder.
Ginsberg would be reading at the Jewish Community Center and I got Christiane the French writer to accompany me. First thing I saw was author Michael McClure, who looked remarkably fit after his last boozy appearance. Turned out he’d quit coke and had either stopped the drinking or cut back considerably. McClure was amazingly handsome – even James Dean might not have made such a stately appearance in his 50s if he’d survived. “You look great,” I said, having met him a number of times. “So do you,” meaning he liked my ninja flattop. I briefly talked to Ginsberg beforehand and he saw that I got into the event free. As usually, people swarmed him. What a good feeling to see his bald pate again, like an emanation of the writing muse come to reassure me – it’s o.k. to be a poet – fuck Hollywood – we’ll work something out.
The reading was a strong one. I can remember my own tears rather than actual poems. Much of the material I had heard – some I was familiar with as early as age 17 – all of it resonating with association, with a guidance I had chosen to this very moment – with a sense of the preciousness that I knew this man – great bard, teacher, social activist, mystic, lion of dharma, peace heart…
Afterwards I hung out and met another young fellow poet, Andy Clausen, gravel-throated construction worker and number one in Ginsberg’s up-and-coming, someone else Ginsberg never even had sex with. As Clausen was rather paunchy and slightly ravaged from drink, he was not precisely Allen’s type anyway. Above all, Clausen did deserve the spot as lead on the list. There were a couple of others Allen promoted in interviews. I tended to be on the B-list, getting a mention and a helping hand now and then. Of course I yearned to be on that A list, but I really didn’t have the confidence in my work. It wasn’t deserving of the A list and I knew it. I also met Chris Funkhouser, a young mover-and-shaker poet from Santa Cruz. We had pictures taken with Ginsberg. Amazingly, there was also an old high school poet friend, Jerome, hanging around by coincidence – someone I knew from L.A. and who disappeared in a couple of mental wards. His head was still not quite screwed on, which I could detect from a brief conversation. I went off with Allen after the reading to a franchise coffee shop. I asked Christiane to come with me but she was too shy. Jerome wanted to come, and I would’ve welcomed him except he was just too crazy. I remember hanging out at a big table at the coffee shop and Clausen drunkenly dominating the evening, though he was quite amusing. McClure had brought his young girlfriend and seemed a little annoyed. Ginsberg propositioned me in the bathroom when we both took a piss. “I thought I was too old for you now, Allen.” “You’re still cute.” I would’ve slept with him but the fear of AIDS was too great, more the fear of not being able to be honest with women I went out with (“sure, I sleep with men – let’s fuck!”) – the question did come up – I had tested HIV negative and just wanted to stay out of homosexual activity at least until this horrid plague had come under some sort of control – “the Red Death held illimitable dominion over all” – Allen shrugged it off – he still liked me sex or no – I wound up getting a ride home with a couple of women – one a cute artist/ Tibetan Buddhist practitioner in the Nyingma tradition, Susan Rashkis, but still not a rail-thin punk vampira, to my folly. A great evening though. I made arrangements to have breakfast with Allen in North Beach next morning.
I remember one last thing Clausen said as we were heading from the coffee shop. “Marc Olmsted. You were such a promising poet 10 years ago. What happened?” What happened was trying to write for Hollywood and never sending my poetry out anymore. What happened was trying to be a rock’n’roll star. What happened was an alcoholic habit that had bit to the bone. What happened was I didn’t know what happened.
I met Allen for breakfast in North Beach. My work assignment had come to an end and I had the day free. It was Friday. Sitting in earnest brooding conversation with Allen was Kush – someone who videotaped a lot of readings and had quite an archive – though much of it was unwatchable. Kush had met me a number of times and ignored me. I was apparently regarded as one of Allen’s boys and not worth acknowledging. Kush left. Allen was going to get a ride from a journalist down to San Jose: “Why don’t you come along?” I told him I’d have to get back that evening – “We’ll get a ride back for you.” The journalist would be driving back.
So along comes Steve Silberman the journalist who strikingly resembled a young pudgy Allen. With him was a photographer, Marc Geller, and another male friend. Everyone turned out to be gay. I felt a little uncomfortable, a pretender. We all piled into the photographer’s Citron station wagon and headed down the freeway to San Jose. Allen put his hand on my thigh. Strange, it didn’t seem possessive or even have to lead to anything. It felt good. I thought back to our sexual days. Some of them had been as good as any heterosexual times. Others – I woke up and looked at the bald old man – he’d shaved his famous beard at one point and then it was really a shocker to wake up next him – he looked like an urologist. Funny, those days when I had trouble scoring with women because I was so young – yet sought after hawk-like in the gay world – a lot of pain in those memories.
The road spun on in front of us. We talked about Jesse Jackson. Allen felt he couldn’t support his Presidential nomination because of Jackson’s heavy drug war stance. Allen confided even the top aides within the White House were coming to him and saying “What can we do? This is not working.” We discussed the possibility of total legalization. I imagined the freeway if everyone had access to coke. Not a pretty picture – a definite Death Race 2000. We talked about Allen’s long-time lover Peter Orlovsky who was in and out of the loony bin from drink and shooting up street drugs in New York. Sad, since he was a remarkably gentle poet himself when not blasted. We discussed 12 Step programs, Allen himself had been going to Al-Anon. He had quite a history of attracting drunks and drug addicts into his emotional arena and at 63, was beginning to check out why. Marc the photographer held up his camera over his shoulder and snapped photos into the back.
We arrived at Ginsberg’s motel, Best Western, decent enough but also utterly generic. Ginsberg moved his room to get a better view, of what I’m not certain, maybe the tree in the front yard, wasn’t much else to see. The place was also virtually deserted. The man behind the counter checked in Allen cordially, also gay, and eyeing this entourage of young men Allen had accumulated around him. I felt a fundamental pressure – glad to be close to Allen but remembering something I’d said to him the first night we made it 14 years earlier: “Would you have me even if we didn’t sleep together?” What was that feeling, as now the TV station host arrived to take us off for a taped interview. I got to ride in the car with Allen – I had special treatment and it made me nervous – what was that about? Of not being a colleague, of being a whore of some sort, even though this didn’t seem to lead to sex – agh, hard to describe let me try again – the feeling I’m getting as I write is a profound tension – a tightening in the face and neck – I wanted to be accepted like Andy Clausen – remove the physical thing altogether – I want to convince you Allen had me along as a friend and not as someone who might give in sexually even though it had been 8 years – Jesus, I wasn’t that desirable and it wasn’t that hard to get someone new – funny how Allen specialized in straight boys, they really wanted it from him.
So what did Allen think? I had an opportunity to make amends to him privately, a 12-Step thing, I thought I’d caused him a lot of grief in my early years with a possessive girlfriend and a conflicted brain – a real hot-and-cold kid like I was later paid back with some of the women I dated. He smiled. “You don’t have anything to apologize for. You were a gem, a real find.” Still, was that the answer I sought? I leave it to you – he seemed to like me and enjoy my company, especially the Buddhist and poetic thoughts – and I didn’t have to sleep with him anymore for it. Wow. What I just wrote.
O.K., we’re in the studio, and Steve Silberman is talking to me now, obviously wondering about my connection with Allen – and we watch the talk show unfold, it’s pretty funny, the TV host is goofy – Allen says what he wants. The thing wraps up and Allen gets ready for the next item – arrival at a book store for a signing and impromptu conversation with the populace.
There’s a chair and microphone on top of a stage – it throws Allen a little – he thought he was just signing books, but shrugs, gives up – he’s famous – met all the Beatles, Jagger, Dylan, Joe Strummer of the Clash, who’s new? People start to filter in, including some blond kid, cute bookwormish boy who asks me how long I’ve known Allen. “14 years,” I say. Is it possible? And of course the kid’s me, I’ve never grown up and yet I have – blessings and rain of sorrow – ancient, even, I watch the event unfold – the room gets packed – finally it gets started with the book store owner giving a little pitch – always rather embarrassing “Allen Ginsberg meant this and that to me when I was blah blah blah…” it gets old very fast – but what else are they going to say?
When asked as to what kind of Buddhism he practices, Allen teaches everyone how to sit and breathe. One older guy tries to get a private conversation going with Allen and he gets cranky: “Overcome your shyness instead of engaging in a solipsistic dialogue!” The place gets too crowded people can’t get in, he berates those sitting in the aisles “Part of being aware of the space around you is consideration of the other sentient beings in the room!” He’s pretty cranky, aw, it’s o.k. – so was the Lama I lived with.
Time for signing books – there’s a big line, Allen is autographing but there are also sunflower drawings, skulls, buddhas, flying saucers, big third eyes in triangles. Everyone’s excited. I note a posturing James Dean type over in the corner, looks like he wants to take his shirt off for attention. What does any of it mean, I want attention, too. Allen had been asked who he reads: “…Clausen. Marc Olmsted, who’s with us today.” Was it possible to ever get enough?
As I’ve repeatedly mentioned, the acceptance of Allen really eased my basic discomfort of being a fucked up character, or a lousy Buddhist practitioner with easy irritability, emotionally overwrought, although when we had briefly had a moment together walking in San Jose. He was in therapy now.
Now it’s time to go on this big honorary dinner that is private and sort of yuppie art community. Everyone’s dressed up. I have only a sleeveless t-shirt – Allen makes room for me, adds a chair at the table, joking with those present: “This is my manager”. The meal was kind of boring, I couldn’t drink the wine anyway.
Off to the reading on San Jose campus. How can one describe a poetry reading – I can’t give you his books through this page – but you’ll recognize them if you’re familiar with his work – he read that one about sleeping between a bride and bride-groom, giving them kisses as he heads off in the dawn – & a poem on LSD written in 1959(!) when Ginsberg was given the drug as part of a CIA research project – & the famous poem to America asking for tenderness and nudity of physical meat and heart – finally a poem about a Blakean sunflower found in the junkyard with Jack Kerouac – alas, if I could give up my own shame as requested.
It is coming to an end – once more the book signing, cupid boys with shirts off address the poet shaking their charms – one asks for his stomach to be autographed – was I so bold? Naw. The photographer Mark will give me a ride back into the city. It’s over, greatest day in a long time – I plan to see Allen Sunday in the city when he’ll be back – now the streets are dark, it’s a 45 minute drive – I feel the fatigue hit me – the photographer asks intimate questions and I answer – I confess I don’t make it with men anymore and why – he doesn’t seem to think much of my answer and I’m embarrassed – still, that’s what I do – too timid, perhaps now without drugs and booze to fortify my courage – but also, I just like women more – it’s not worth sacrificing them, and I doubted even the most sympathetic hearts would be able to stifle their own sex horror – here’s the vampire boy of sodomy, look out! Forlorn, back to the Buddhist Center. Just gimme a girl and I’ll keep quiet.
I went down to see Allen sign books at City Lights next day, early evening. It made me remember 3 years earlier, when I’d done the same – set up a sort of test while I was at it. I’d arranged a note to get to him through the bookstore when he had arrived those 3 years ago – giving my new number – would he call me or would I have to look him up? – a very indirect “adult child of an alcoholic” thing to do – he didn’t call – so I showed to the signing and confronted him in a low key way – “You didn’t call,” the hurt look on my own face too practiced, I’m sure. “Didn’t have time yet.” Would he have called? Maybe, maybe not – the wasted speculations of a drunk, sober or otherwise. Too many tests…but it established the way I would handle Allen from then on, I’d seek him out when he got into town and not wait for that call, afraid he might not make it. Who would he call? Old, old friends, new boyfriend – that’s it? – again I felt on the B-list, fearful I might be a pest – but he never treated me that way. Later, when he visited San Francisco, his call often came before mine.
So with this whirlpool of thoughts I approach City Lights and find it an absolute nightmare, completely packed with people, an impossible scene.
I’d see Allen in a week and a half after he returned from Northern California. I rode the bus home admiring the boots of an aging punk.
Ginsberg was now back into town – a benefit to “Save the Coral Reef” – I talked with Steve Silberman on the phone and we made arrangements to go – friend Mitch Loch would also come – and here I had a car and could collect my share of bodies – how often I had been chauffeured in my drinking days, 11 years in San Francisco – now I was Dad.
Poet Kenward Elmslie was also reading in town, and Allen had been invited to the reading. We went with Shig’s nephew, who was studying to be a doctor. – I drove the leased Honda I had from L.A. Elmslie’s poetry was fun, surreal, I decided I wanted to get a copy of his book Moving Right Along but hesitated, money tight. Shig’s nephew picked up on this and bought it for me graciously.
The “Coral Reef” benefit included Allen, eco-poet legend Gary Snyder, Japanese wild man Nanao Sakaki, McClure and Snyder’s old lover Joanne Kyger – a huge event with a huge turnout at the Palace of Fine Arts. Steve was writing an article for the Sunday paper, he asked me if I minded if I got included – no problem, said the ambition-hungry poet – I saw the photos taken that fun day down to San Jose – one in particular showed Ginsberg with his hand on my thigh though it was almost cropped out – Mitch caught it immediately. I remember there being some attractive women in front of us – here I was with all gay men – I could see the women trying to figure out our preference as so often happened in this town. I yearned to be with those women – they listened with that eavesdropping straight ahead stare to our stories of obvious interactions with Allen and the other poets – I’d also met Gary a number of times though never with any real connection – Steve and I slipped backstage and talked with Allen before the show – McClure was friendly, I looked up and saw his girlfriend who was amazed that I remembered her name, which obviously pleased her. There was to be a party afterwards in the Aquarium at the park – that sounded like fun.
I will not attempt to describe yet another poetry reading – except for the energy of inspiration that coursed through me – the sense that maybe this really was my lineage – I beheld my teachers and knew.
On to the party.
We arrived early. Well-wishers had restrained the great writers back at the reading site. The idea of a party in the Aquarium was certainly bizarre. I remembered, stoned in bygone days, how I’d think mantras at the dolphins. Always felt badly for the dolphins in particular. Eventually others drifted in. We wandered the corridors of the Aquarium in a lonely dream, waiting for the “Event” to start.
Then they were here, and food was served, bottles of booze emptied by those who could drink. Dinner was sushi, so positively ghoulish you’d think it a cannibal joke worthy of novelist William Burroughs. Alas, it was just upscale insensitivity. Everyone ate ravenously in front of the docile fish. The dolphins were at least downstairs. I glanced up at a fairly attractive woman in a tux who poured me a Calistoga water. “Are you a poet?” she asked. I nodded with some embarrassment. “You look like one. You look like you have a lot on your mind.” Ah, the melancholy Dane, consuming sushi as the fish wiggled in their blue-lit oblivion.
Allen talked to me for a while, attentive. We discussed the recent sheath of poems I’d given. “They’re good. You still seem preoccupied with the same issues, though. Somewhat more transparent from meditation practice, I think. Have you considered therapy?” As you can imagine, that penetrated very deeply, the kind of remark that makes you hold your breath to filter it. Seems the same stuff I was attached to 14 years ago was still there on the page, if “more transparent” as Allen put it, meaning less solid iron habit. It got me thinking. 12 Steps, it seemed, were going to keep me sober. Period. Tibetan Buddhism was a way of stepping beyond personality, but didn’t particularly address the problems of personality itself.
“Now’s the time to publish,” he went on, which meant put out my own book, or bombard the magazines, but just get it out there. My poetry practice had become quite solitary, masturbatory in fact – I had trouble justifying a lot of time sending to magazines because rarely was there money in it – but it led to funny friendships with editors and poets I’d yet to even met, like David Cope of Big Scream, or Jim Cohn of Napalm Health Spa, or Eliot Katz who had a brief involvement with Long Shot. [Like Andy Clausen and a homosexual mountain man who called himself Antler, these guys were all neo-Beats, the real heartsons of Allen.]
I chatted with Amy, McClure’s girlfriend, but he came up from behind and grabbed her, whispering into her ear, paranoid it seemed – not that I felt like any particular threat – but the conversation abruptly ended. There was actor Peter Coyote, who’d graduated from local plays to film – his girlfriend flirted with McClure rather openly in front of Amy – there was Gary Snyder with his new Japanese wife – I didn’t go up to him because it would’ve been the same interaction we’d had before – “You’re a great poet” “Thank you.” “You’re really a great poet, a…a visionary.” “Thank you.” Next. The evening wound down – I eyed various women – feeling like I was in one of those big water tanks myself – behind glass – foolish, even – but for what, my desire? Yes, I felt foolish for that.
Time to go, I packed my rag-tag entourage and headed for the Honda in the final taxi night, driving off in anti-climax.
Steve Silberman the journalist had told me that I was going to be included in the article he was writing about Ginsberg. I was thrilled. He hurriedly brought it over to me when he picked up an early edition of the Sunday paper. I was dumbfounded – he referred to me once by name and then for the remainder of the article as Mr. Biceps – my sleeveless shirt had made an impression obviously – but the article had a strange bite to it, a jealousy it seemed – since I was getting preferential treatment from Ginsberg – I felt with a creeping horror that I was coming off as some sort of poetry bimbo – a hanger-on like a gangster’s moll. Steve seemed oblivious – I was even on the cover of the Sunday supplement – ON TOUR WITH ALLEN GINSBERG – there the photo with Ginsberg’s hand on my thigh, though not particularly obvious – just an unconscious hint – a further damnation that I was not really a colleague but a kind of whore – or so I thought – I thanked Silberman in a kind of numb horror – I was doing what I had done all the way back to childhood – I didn’t say what I felt – I’d go away and figure it out later.
“…and the entourage splits into two for the trip to a KHTE-TV interview: Ginsberg and Mr. Biceps in the front car, the press crew trailing behind” – ON TOUR WITH ALLEN GINSBERG By Steve Silberman.
I was pretty upset – remember I’d just come back from Hollywood where literally the only artistic recognition had been getting a copy of an ALLEN GINSBERG tribute I’d been invited to write something for – I opened the contents and nearly everyone was famous but me – other than that – rejection upon rejection except for being able to scribble story analysis on scripts for studios – all these frustrated writers turn into script readers with poison pens – much like critics – so here at last some recognition and then it turns sour with my worst fear – I had been reading this book full of writing affirmations – maybe I’d unconsciously summoned my own back-stabbing publicity with a kicked heart that felt it was no good – so I shared about it in an 12 Step meeting – not mentioning Ginsberg in particular – but enough that people knew it was in the paper and I actually get a call from Silberman a day later – “I heard you felt like a poetry bimbo when you read my article” -someone had heard me at the meeting and knew Steve and went and told him! Definitely not anonymity my dears but in this case it actually worked to clear the air – he himself genuinely sorry – he’d meant no conscious harm – very distraught – you could almost see him yanking his hair on the other side of the phone line – we agreed to have dinner.
Over Chinese food it came gushing out – he’d apprenticed for Ginsberg at Naropa College – always wanting to sleep with him – but he was fat and felt unattractive – finally having the nerve to ask Allen: “I get the feeling you don’t like me.” Allen said simply, “I am not a guru, or a psychiatrist.” And left it at that. The portrait that developed for me was one of Steve’s unconscious jealousy – not even totally acknowledged here in our greasy spoon Chinese restaurant on the Haight – but there was something different in me since I’d sobered – I knew he’d meant no conscious harm and I also knew such jealousy in myself – it was possible to forget the whole thing – especially since no one else reading it even gave a shit – only William Burroughs’s secretary later told me he thought it was “pissy” – having had his own travails with the press. But I did admonish Steve that Allen most certainly wouldn’t like his portrait of me.
But a letter from Allen came later congratulating Steve on the article and on my “amusing” appearance in it.
Allen came into town and visited me at the Meditation Center. It caused a stir among those who recognized him as I took him through the house – I couldn’t help but enjoy it. Finally we returned to the shrine room and did Chenrezig practice with everyone the household and visitors.
Libby, Lama’s consort, said “There are obviously things I don’t know about you.” I kissed her cheek. “I have many secrets.”
Lama came home from lecturing elsewhere and Allen hoped to meet him. Libby followed after Lama and quickly reported back that he was too tired. She then disappeared behind the curtain to Lama’s quarters, where she told me later he said, “But I’m not too tired for you.”
letters for my novel
coming on the
same day –
house I’d hoped
to be sympathetic –
The famous old
poet visits and
is a comfort –
he advises giving
up fame –
in heaven – prepare
on my shoulders
poet reassures –
we kissed and
hugged as his
taxi cab glowed
–pictured above Steve Silberman, Allen Ginsberg and Marc Olmsted