Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World: An interview with Tosh Berman

This is a guest post from Matthew O’Shannessy

Tosh Berman’s memoir Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World documents a childhood immersed in West Coast bohemia, from the Beat era of the 1950s through to the crumbling ruins of hippie idealism in the 1970s. Through his father, the cult artist Wallace Berman (who was tragically killed in a car accident in 1976), Tosh gained first-hand experience with an eclectic cross section of post-war culture growing up amongst many now-iconic poets, artists, actors, musicians, and counter-cultural figures.

Despite Wallace Berman’s celebrated connections (his face appears on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper’s LP), the artist has remained an enigmatic figure, little known outside the art world where he is venerated for his Verifax collages and assemblages that combine popular culture, Jewish mysticism, and pornography. His handmade journal, Semina, featured writing by Alexander Trocchi, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, and Jean Cocteau, and was purposely circulated mostly amongst friends.

Tosh presents an intimate view of the hermetic artist-father told as a non-linear coming-of-age story that stretches from the relative isolation of Topanga Canyon in Los Angeles to the bustling Beat scene of San Francisco’s North Beach. Everyday brushes with fame—drop ins by Brian Jones, a chance encounter with William Burroughs in the back of a London cab, getting caught up with notorious occultist Marjorie Cameron—are juxtaposed with the more mundane financial and logistical dramas of growing up with a father who rejected the straight world and all its trappings.

I spoke with Tosh at his home in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.

Matthew O’Shannessy: In the book, you mention that the TV Western “The Rifleman” was a reference point for your relationship with Wallace. Can you talk a little about that?

Tosh Berman: I always loved “The Rifleman” and during the repeats I would watch it over and over again. The story’s about a ranch widower and it’s just him and his son on the ranch. His son would have to help him out and they would go into town together. Like with me… you know, they can’t just go around the corner. He had to get on the horse and go into town and get everything. You know, eat dinner, have lunch, because it was too far to the ranch and back. Which is kind of like Topanga, away from civilization. So I started to identify with it, not only because of the relationship with my father but also the geography and the physical hardship of [living in a more] rural area.

I was with my dad consistently for my first 20 or 21 years. Except when I went to school or I visited friends, I never traveled alone. So I was always with my father. He was home all the time. I would hang out in the studio and help him make work. My mom was the one who did the actual work in the fifties and sixties. She’s the one who went out and made a salary. She’s the one who worked. My dad supported us when he sold art, which wasn’t that often, but he also made money by playing cards. He played with his friends and I remember once he played a game with Robert Blake who was a known actor that time. My mother hated him. She made him leave the house. She made my father take him somewhere else.

Topanga was very secluded at that time. It’s a canyon area of course, and people went to canyon areas at that time to get away from society, so not only did you get creative people and rich rock ‘n’ roll people, you also got the losers of all sorts, people who just can’t deal with the outside world or they’re paranoid. In the sixties, there was a lot of paranoia. Topanga became like a fort or fortress in this corruption of the sixties. It was totally a utopian thing. But I didn’t see as a utopian thing. It’s always been, to me, a depressing area. Very beautiful, but living there can be so difficult.

A portrait of Tosh Berman taken by his father. The woman in the photograph is Berman’s wife, Shirley.
One of the stories in the book that’s interesting to me is when Wallace takes you to the T.A.M.I. show. It’s the dress rehearsal and he has a film camera but he doesn’t film anything. Then later he watches the documentary of the concert and films the images of the bands off the screen. Do you think that says something about his artistic sensibility? 

He never talked about his artwork or his techniques or why he did stuff. Never, to anyone. Around 64, 63, 65, he would carry an eight millimeter camera with him all the time—one that you had to wind up. At the time you could take it anywhere, there were no copyright issues or security issues.

My dad had it with him at the dress rehearsal and there were people like the Beach Boys sound checking, rehearsing. And I remember them well. They were totally in uniform. They had striped shirts, white pants, and then the Supremes came on afterwards and they all were in hair curlers and bathrobes. The only people in the audience that were our friends were like Toni Basil and the members of the Rolling Stones. That’s where we first met Brian Jones and I met Mick Jagger that night. My dad did not shoot anything. It wasn’t until the movie came out, because this was a film concept that played in theatres, that he actually shot footage of James Brown and shot footage of Mick Jagger.

I think my father’s aesthetic is that he needed to be distant, he needed another process between him and subject… rather than be directly in front of that person. He liked that idea of shooting off a movie or shooting off another photograph.

Tosh Berman with Allen Ginsberg.
You talk about how meeting Brian Jones had a big impact on you because you were a fan. 

I met him when I was 10 or 11 years old and the last time I saw him was probably when I was 15 or 16, a teenager. I was a Rolling Stones fan. My father brought in rock ‘n’ roll records himself, but with allowance money I bought records as well. As he bought Rolling Stones records, I bought Rolling Stones singles. So, anyway, I was very aware of who Brian Jones was and his presence. When he came to our house in Beverly Glen, it was like he walked right off the Aftermath album cover, especially the back cover, always wearing a black turtleneck, white jeans, desert boots, like the classic Brian Jones look.

You say in the book that the first time you were really aware of fame is when you met Marcel Duchamp.

[Marcel Duchamp] was the first person I met where I went into to a room and I knew there was somebody important in that room. And everybody was focused on the importance of this one person, like a legendary iconic figure. And I knew he was an iconic figure and I knew this artwork actually because my dad always had a picture of his artwork on the wall in the studio. And I think mostly what I remember is the bicycle wheel. That appealed to me because the bicycle wheel, for a child, represents a bicycle. It’s very simple and very direct.

A lot of the chapters are named after significant people in your life, and a lot of them are now iconic. Was it strange writing about your own life that’s filled with encounters with people who have gone on to be mythologized?

That wasn’t strange to me. I realized that they were mythologized and iconic and when I was writing the book I didn’t feel that way because when I knew them, I knew them as a child. If I knew them when I was a grown up, I think it would be more like, “this is Dennis Hopper, the iconic actor”, but I was introduced to Dennis at a very young age, of course, and at the time it was before Easy Rider, so it was before “the iconic Dennis Hopper”. It was sort of “the local arts scene Dennis Hopper”. So while writing the book I didn’t really pick out iconic people. I didn’t try to think of people who would sell the book later or to make a blurb about it. I really sat down and wrote everything I can remember and it was just one long rambling manuscript. And then it was the suggestion of people who had read the manuscript to make it into smaller chapters. I started doing a chapter on Toni Basil or Dean Stockwell… Dennis Hopper.

As I wrote it I really wanted it to be multifaceted. I wanted the book to appeal to people who were interested in the arts aspect, the Beat Generation, Beat Era, as well as the coming-of-age / teenager-to-adult story as well. So from the beginning, I was aware that it was important to have these multi-levels coming through the book and hopefully one interest will expose the reader to another, maybe new interest.
Much more after the jump…

Posted by Richard Metzger
11:26 am
The Kerouac of Kitsch has died: Rod McKuen R.I.P.
07:46 am

Rod McKuen died Thursday. He was 81. Cause of death was pneumonia.

Rod McKuen was to Jack Kerouac what vending machine coffee is to espresso. He was a safe suburbanite version of a beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs with a slightly better work ethic. McKuen’s pasteurized prose was more suited to a Holiday Inn lounge than a North Beach jazz joint. And while McKuen wrote prolifically and read in a husky Chianti-stained voice that oozed consonants and vowels like candle wax no one would mistake his louche slackery for good poetry. But there was something soothing and pleasantly sunny in his style that evoked a certain Southern California grooviness easily mistaken for Zen wisdom. If you read a line slowly enough and pause periodically for dramatic effect almost anything can sound profound. McKuen mistook vagueness for mysticism and evoked the erotic with all of the sexuality of a stuffed chihuahua. Fifty shades of beige.

McKuen was syringed into that moment in the sixties when Timothy Leary’s acidity and Hugh Hefner’s cum-drenched Playboy philosophy refluxed into an uncomfortable mix of free love, drugs and very expensive architecture. If Malibu Beach had a poet laureate it would have been Rod. Imagine a love child born of the interspecial mating of Lee Hazlewood and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. With his windswept blonde hair and Jesus spats, McKuen was a lachrymose beach bum that Serge Gainsbourg would have gladly beaten to a suntanned pulp.

Bob McFadden & Dor “The Beat Generation” (composed and arranged by Rod McKuen, 1959)
McKuen possessed a weird kind of kitschy goodness, a Hallmark Greeting card version of hipness that was as heartwarming as one of Margaret Keane’s big-eyed orphans. He was too nice of a guy to get riled up about even when his bad poetry was selling millions of copies of books while a cat like Bukowski was working in a post office.

If Rod McKuen had been a rock song he would have been Friend And Lover’s “Reach Out Of The Darkness.” And that’s kind of a cool song - hard to hate, hard to get a bead on, just slipping under the threshold where things can turn from something innocuous into something that can drive a man to homicide.

Here’s Rod McKuen reading his poem “A Cat Named Sloopy” on The Mike Douglas Show in 1969.

Every night she’d sit in the window among the avocado plants waiting for me to come home (my arms full of canned liver and love).


Posted by Marc Campbell
07:46 am
‘The Burning Ghat’: Short film starring original Beat Herbert Huncke

The Burning Ghat is a strange, yet revealing short film that explores the relationship between original Beat Herbert Huncke, and his long-time companion and room-mate, Louis Cartwright.

Huncke was a petty crook and junkie, who hustled around Times Square in the 1940s, where he met William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. It was Huncke who originally introduced these three young writers to the “Beat Life”—a major inspiration on their writing.

Not long after their meeting, Ginsberg wrote in his journal:

Who is Herbert Huncke? When I first knew him I saw him in what I considered the ‘glamorous’ light of a petty criminal and Times Square hustler who was experienced in the ways, thoughts, and activities of an underground culture which is enormously extensive. The attempt to dismiss him because of his social irresponsibility is something that I was never able to conceive as truthful or productive. I saw him as a self-damned soul—but a soul nonetheless, aware of itself and others in a strangely perceptive and essentially human way. He has great charm. I see that he suffers, more than myself, more than anyone I know of perhaps; suffers like a saint of old in the making; and also has cosmic or supersensory perceptions of an extraordinary depth and openness.

Louis Cartwright was a photographer (he took the portrait of Huncke above), drug addict and alleged pimp. According to Huncke, he was also someone not to be trusted. In 1994, Cartwright was stabbed to death, and his murder still remains unsolved.

The Burning Ghat was directed by James Rasin (Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar) and Jerome Poynton, and was filmed in Huncke’s apartment on Henry Street, New York.

Allen Ginsberg wrote of the film, “O Rare Herbert Huncke, live on film! The Burning Ghat features late-in-lifetime old partners Huncke & Louis playing characters beyond themselves with restrained solid self-awareness, their brief masquerade of soul climaxing in an inspired moment’s paradox bittersweet as an O’Henry’s tale’s last twist”.

Harry Smith said of the film, “It should have been longer”.

The Burning Ghat was featured at the 53rd Venice Biennial, and included in the Whitney Museum’s “Beat Culture and the New America” show of 1996. It won the Gold Plaque Award for Best Short Film at the 1990 Chicago International Film Festival.

Made the same year Huncke published his autobiography Guilty of Everything, this was to be his only on-screen, acting performance.

Previously on Dangerous Minds

‘Original Beats’: A film on Herbert Hunke and Gregory Corso

Out-takes from ‘Original Beats’ featuring Herbert Huncke, after the jump…

Posted by Paul Gallagher
06:19 pm
William Burroughs on trial for corrupting Turkish morality?

Almost 14 years after his death, William S Burroughs is on trial for corrupting Turkish morality. The Istanbul Prosecutor’s Office has opened an investigation into Burroughs’ novel The Soft Machine, which was recently translated and published by Sel Publishing House in January. Tukey’s English Hurriyet Daily News and Economic Review reports:

The court referred to a report written by the Prime Ministry’s Council for Protecting Minors from Explicit Publications that accused the novel, The Soft Machine, of “incompliance with moral norms” and “hurting people’s moral feelings.” Sel Publishing issued a press release that included parts of their testimony in the court.

“It is impossible to understand the insistence in sending books written and published for adults to councils that specialize in minors. If we consider things from this perspective, then dozens of such reports could be written about TV channels, newscasts and thousands of books,” read the testimony given by the publishing house.

The testimony also argued that the Prime Ministry’s council had no credentials in literature, aesthetics or translation, thus causing what the representatives of the publishing house called a “freakish” decision by the council.

The council also accused the novel of “lacking unity in its subject matter,” “incompliance with narrative unity,” for “using slang and colloquial terms” and “the application of a fragmented narrative style,” while claiming that Burroughs’s book contained unrealistic interpretations that were neither personal nor objective by giving examples from the lifestyles of historical and mythological figures. None of the above, argued the publishing house, constitutes a criminal act.

The council went further and said, “The book does not constitute a literary piece of work in its current condition,” adding it would add nothing new to the reader’s reservoir of knowledge, and argued the book developed “attitudes that were permissive to crime by concentrating on the banal, vulgar and weak attributes of humanity.”

The representatives of the publishing house responded to these charges. “Just as no writer is under any special obligation to highlight humanity’s fair attributes under every circumstance, the measure of whether a book has any literary value or not, and the judge of what the book may add to the reader’s reservoir of knowledge, is not an official state institution, but the reader himself,” they said.

“Once again, societies comprised of modern, creative and inquisitive individuals are formed by reading and being exposed to literary texts and works of art that can be considered as the most extreme examples of their kind,” further asserted the defendants’ statement.

The testimony also invited members of the council to conduct “a simple Internet research” about the writer, and learn about the fact that Burroughs was one of the pioneers the “Beat Generation” that rebelled against the stagnant morality of the middle class in post-World War II America. The testimony also drew attention to the fact that the “cut-up” technique used in the book was once heralded as a great novelty among literary circles.

“Through this technique, Burroughs runs counter, not just to entrenched attitudes in people’s lifestyles but also in contradiction to [older] literary techniques. That being the case and since the aim of the book itself is to push boundaries, it is clearly absurd to search for criminal elements in the book by suggesting that the book does not conform with social norms,” further stated the press release.

“Moreover, it is also meaningless to expect William S. Burroughs, who was not raised in accordance with the National Education Law, or as an individual who ‘identifies with the national, moral, humanitarian, material and spiritual cultural values of Turkish society, and who always tries to exalt his family, country and nation,’ to have produced a text within this framework,” read the testimony. “It is clear and obvious that this case carries no weight nor any respectability outside of the borders of our country.”

“We demand an end to investigations that constrain our activities and the prosecution of books for any reason whatsoever,” concluded the statement.


Bonus: William Burroughs reads ‘Junky’ (abridged version)
With thanks to Steve Duffy

Posted by Paul Gallagher
05:26 pm
Face to Face with Allen Ginsberg

This is a fine interview with Allen Ginsberg taken from the BBC series Face to Face, in which Ginsberg opens up about his family, loves, identity, drugs and even sings.

The series, Face to Face originally started in 1959, and was hosted by John Freeman, whose skill and forthright questioning cut through the usual mindless chatter of such interview shows. Freeman, a former editor of the New Statesman was often considered brusque and rude, but his style of questioning fitted the form of the program, which was more akin to an interview between psychiatrist and patient. The original series included, now legendary, interviews with Martin Luther King, Tony Hancock, Professor Carl Jung, Evelyn Waugh and Gilbert Harding.

In 1989, the BBC revived the series, this time with the excellent Jeremy Isaacs as questioner, who interviewed Allen Ginsberg for this program, first broadcast on 9th January 1995.

Watching this now, makes me wonder what has happened to poetry? Where are our revolutionary poets? Where are our poets who speak out, demonstrate, make the front page, and tell it like it is? And why are our bookstores cluttered with the greeting card verse of 100 Great Love Poems, 101 Even Greater Love Poems, and Honest to God, These Are the Greatest Fucking Love Poems, You’ll Ever Fucking Read. O, for a Ginsebrg now.


Posted by Paul Gallagher
10:23 am