Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Tosh: Through a Glass Lightly

"Hey, that's Wallace Berman," I said to my friend Steve. We were standing in line at our usual Saturday midnight screening at the Cinema Theatre on Western. It must have been  the autumn of 1964.  I'd been hearing Berman's name and had been catching glimpses of his collages and Verifax images in various places. I'm pretty sure I'd first  heard about him the previous summer while taking a class at Cal State taught by Hugh Bonar, at the time known to be the hippest professor at what was then a fairly conservative institution. Bonar was known for his wide-ranging readings lists, weekly film screenings, sun glasses that he wore even at night, and a laugh that would bellow out at odd places during film screenings, as if he were sharing a joke that only he and the film-maker understood. Bonar had brought John Fles, the curator of those Cinema screenings, to talk to the class. And Fles, in turn, had extolled the artistic virtues of Berman, then read from Michael McClure's newly published Ghost Tantras, the cover of which was a photograph of McClure taken by his friend Wallace Berman. 

It really was  Berman standing there in the lobby of the Cinema next to Bonar, in pretty much the same place where Timothy Carey had stood a few weeks before, a pet python wrapped around his neck,  prior to the premier of his movie The World's Greatest Sinner. I was nineteen and was suitably impressed by Berman's presence. I felt like I was, for the first time, rubbing shoulders with a real artist.  No doubt it was also from  Bonar or Fles that I heard about  Berman's  arrest a few years earlier at the Ferus Gallery for exhibiting obscene works of art (in fact, a piece not by Berman but the self-proclaimed witch, Cameron).  I'd  also somehow seen copies of his Semina magazine, and remember, in particular, the issue with a photograph of his wife on the cover. And  I had in my possession a poster he designed  advertising the Cinema Theatre's  2nd Annual L.A. Film-Makers Festival, consisting of his trademark images embedded in a series of  transistor radios. Fifty years later I still have that  poster which now hangs on  my living room wall. Then, a few years later, Berman appeared on  the Peter Blake/Jann Haworth cover of the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper,  like a  confirmation that his art meant something to the wider world, even if I had no inkling at the time that it was about to be commodified beyond anyone's expectations.

Fast forward to the late 1990s. Serpent's Tail had just published my book, Pulp Culture. I was in L.A. to do some readings and signings, including one at Beyond Baroque. Before the reading I was killing some time by browsing in their bookstore and happened to come  across a book Wallace Berman: Support the Revolution. The guy behind the counter seemed interested that I was interested in that particular book. I said Wallace Berman was one of my favourite artists. He said he was Wallace Berman's son. And that is how I met Tosh Berman.

So, of course, I was eagerly  awaiting Tosh's book on his dad and those years. And I was not to be disappointed. Tosh is not only an evocative depiction of Wallace Berman, and growing in the Berman household, it's also a perceptive portrait of a particular period in Los Angeles cultural history. Back then, L.A., at least for someone like myself, growing up there, seemed like a small town with what appeared to be a small town mentality. Then, at some point in the early 1960s, everything- from those midnight screenings at the Cinema Theatre to Walter Hopps-curated exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum, from jazz at Shelly's Manne Hole to  blues and bluegrass discoveries at the Ash Grove- was there, available, fresh and filled with meaning, as if the world was suddenly opening up to reveal itself as a playground of possibilities. 

Tosh Berman's Tosh (pub. date: Jan., 2019, City Lights) evokes those years, up to and just after the fatal 1976 car accident that killed Tosh's dad. Tosh, the author, relates all of this with a disarming honesty, charm, and self-deprecating humour. No doubt about it, Tosh will resonate with anyone who grew up in Los Angeles during those years, And Tosh will make those who weren't around feel like they've been thrown back into that particular time and place. A time when art in a variety of forms seemed to be bubbling up from the pavement, and it became apparent that L.A. wasn't the cultural desert I, and perhaps others, had thought. Tosh recalls all of that. Not only Wallace Berman's work and life as an artist, but what it was like to grow up with him and those who surrounded  him, from family members to comrades-in-art like George Hermes and Dean Stockwell. I hardly needed an excuse to go back and look at whatever Wallace Berman artifacts I could find, including the film, Aleph, to which, after Berman's death, Stan Brakhage would put the finishing touches. Tosh can't help but have that effect on any serious reader. For me, Tosh works as a historical document, a testimony to a time when the culture was moving from the last vestiges of bohemia into the more commercial world of hippiedom. Likewise, Tosh is also a personal coming of age book. Heartfelt, touching and honest, there's a lot of Tosh here, and I don't mean that in the British sense of the term. It seeps right through the book, down to its final two sentences in which, reiterating the depth  of his sincerity, Tosh signs off by saying, "I honestly believe that it is a blessing to be a writer or artist in our age now. It's an honor to be in the presence of those we love, and equally fascinating to be with those we despise as well."

And if you haven't seen Aleph, here it is:


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