BEAT MEMOIR # 10 – MEETING LAMA THARCHIN AND GINSBERG’S HEART CONDITION By Marc Olmsted
The Maitri Benefit was for the San Francisco Zen Center’s new hospice (maitri is Sanskrit for compassion), and included Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Ginsberg, trumpeter Don Cherry and others. Libby came, too. She worked at the hospice and, with the encouragement of the Lama at our Center, we were now romantically involved. It led to us moving out.
Most hilariously, Don Cherry kept noodling on his horn as if warming up with a seeming acid casualty glee during some of the other lesser poets. It was clear that Don knew pretty well what he was doing, but he acted like he didn’t so there was no calling him on it and certainly no controlling it. It had a Corso-esque prankster element that really showed the true selves of the various posturing poets who attempted to read with his merciless punctuations of blat and bleep. Cherry was mainly there to read with Ginsberg, and he behaved himself then. Afterward, McClure asked Philip, Allen and me to sign his poster, which I appreciated. I saw a young man preparing to squire Allen away, and he had that self-important look that I knew was difficult to avoid.
Libby and I had a tumultuous affair that eventually resolved into a lasting friendship. She’d heard about this interesting teacher, Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, and took me to an empowerment of his in Berkeley. I came into the small apartment where it was being given, and Lama Tharchin looked up from his preparations and directly into my eyes. His expression seemed to say, “Oh, it’s you.” For me it was an immediate connection that remains to this day. And Libby wound up his consort after our affair had burned out. One might say our romance was her slumming between lamas.
A month later, Allen read with Andy Clausen at Cody’s in Berkeley, the place was absolutely packed. Allen saved me a seat, thankfully – the scene extended far beyond the ability to view him. As per usual, he was gracious and mentioned to the audience how nice it was to be in the company of old poet friends, and I was listed. I have always loved Clausen’s work, an enormously under appreciated poet and great reader of his own stuff – a real American voice, gravely, bear-like, voice of the blue collar with strange baroque Whitmanic expansiveness, the poetic equivalent of Orson Welles but with a down home intelligence, like the wisdom of a hobo. We wound up over at Clausen’s in Oakland afterward, and I sat next to Wavy Gravy, charming old doper who remembered everyone from the Merry Prankster Electric Kool-Aid ‘60’s – mentioning that a lot of people had died trying to imitate Neal Cassady.
The next day we walked around the Haight, looking into the used bookstores. With Allen, a new boyfriend that must’ve been my age when we first met. I’ve forgotten his name, but Allen showed good taste. Sweet, gentle bespectacled intellectual kid – I had one of those amazing moments where one readjusts one’s own sense of age, for this boy’s face was completely without lines, as if newborn, or even still of the womb. It was similar to the way college freshman just look younger and younger as time progresses and the carcass grows tired. We chatted a little – he knew I was an old boyfriend, he was a little shy, perhaps thought I’d try to make him like I had been hounded at his age. Allen bought me a couple of finds, including a copy of Antler’s poetry that had been signed by Antler as well to some ingrate who’d sold it. We ate in a place called Hell’s Kitchen that didn’t last long – the service was so terrible everyone had to be on drugs.
I drove Allen and his new boy around in my ’64 Plymouth Valiant which the previous owner had painted black with house paint. Photographer Chris Felver was along for the ride. I remember driving up Market Street past the Cinema Theater, and somehow getting into an extended explanation as to how it mainly pitched out-of-town porn stars with gigantic tits – and I mean behemoth – their main act was that they’d altered their tits to near-beach ball size. Allen asked me if I’d ever gone and I said no. I only knew about it from ads. Funny, I later wound up in 3-year-retreat with a lesbian woman who lap danced there, but she, like all the local strippers there, were not of this huge tit mutated variety.
We visited a venerable queer hippie commune in the Mission that had been around since the ‘60’s. Irving Rosenthal’s place, the “Kaliflower” commune, who also once edited Big Table (a Chicago Review splinter mag named by Kerouac) with some of the initial publishings of Beat authors . Allen somehow managed to get Felver to wait in the car (at least for a while) just to get a break from the camera and not agitate the soft-spoken Rosenthal. Felver eventually grew restless and knocked on the door, video camera under his t-shit like a strange bionic growth. Needless to say, Rosenthal wasn’t fooled. We talked about the Gulf War, how everyone he knew was against it except for Burroughs, who said, “Those Arabs, give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile.” Ginsberg laughed, repeating it. Of course, Allen knew all the political history that had led up to it, the incredible meddling we’d done in the mid-East that kept backfiring, even the father of the then-current General Schwarzkopf helping the newly enthroned Shah of Iran develop his dreaded secret police.
In a photo, Felver caught the new boyfriend with me & Ginsey in the Booksmith on Haight St. Allen signed books at the Booksmith, so I stepped outside for some air. I ran into McClure who was very nice to me, also waiting for Allen. Diamond Dave, an acid fry of the good old days, came up and began holding forth on Allen like I had no idea who Allen was. McClure smiled and said, “You may not know who you’re talking to.” Dave looked at McClure and said, “After 40 you get your real face.” It was a compliment for McClure, of course. Less so for Diamond Dave, who looked like a cheery derelict, only shorted out with electricity rather than alcohol.
I went to a week of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche’s summer retreat in the Santa Cruz mountains, his new property that he’d christened Pema Osel Ling, Land of Lotus Light. The practice was Vajrakilaya, a wrathful blue-black Buddha clutching his consort in ritual union.
The experience of Vajrakilaya was like an internal explosion of a subconscious A-bomb – I was completely roto-rootered. I’d never practiced anything so wrathful before – and the wrath meant no prisoners were taken in the pathetic kingdom of my obscurations. By the end of the retreat, I sobbed convulsively. When this subsided, I stumbled up to Lama Tharchin and said “Will you formerly accept me as your student?” “Absolutely,” he said, and then eyeing my obvious terror that I had just married him in a psychic shotgun wedding, he softened it with “I will help however I can.”
I was so enthusiastic, I wrote Allen if he would do a benefit for Tharchin Rinpoche to help pay off the retreat land. I misspelled my new lama’s name, and this misspelling would find its way into Allen’s poem, “Death and Fame.” Lama Tharchin Rinpoche remembered meeting Allen in Spokane, Washington some years back. “A nice guy.” Allen, like meeting Trungpa in India, had no memory of it. Still, Allen agreed to the benefit. Allen would be here again in December anyway. Everything went very well in the planning stages, including booking local club DNA Lounge, until he called me the day before the event, short of breath. He had “mild congestive heart failure,” he said, “not life-threatening,” but he “had fluid around the lungs” and had checked himself into a hospital.
Of course, relatively speaking, all Hell broke loose. A reporter called me, and I had my first experience of how an extremely low-key conversation, “off the record,” literally became national news. I told the reporter what Allen said to me. I was quoted again and again across the country.
Bob Rosenthal, Ginsberg’s longtime secretary, gave me a lot of shit about leaking this to the press without Allen’s direct authorization (a statement for Lucien Carr to release had been in the works), saying, “You won’t get famous that way, Marc.” But Allen later said that it was a “tasteful and accurate” response.
–photos copyright Chris Felver