The rain had broken records.
A fallen tree had taken out two parking spaces and blocked the sidewalk. A dead horned owl lay on the lawn, no cause of death apparent but somehow connected. Everything connected.
One door in their house had jammed. The roof had held but window frames had not. Ruth had lain towels along the sills and wiped down the walls. He sometimes felt he was living encased in dry rot but he would take no greater action. They would either outlast the walls or, as they crumbled, withdraw further and further from the perimeter.
Let’s get the crabbiness out of the way, Goshkin thought.
He sat at the front of the café, a clear sight line through the Covid-necessitated open front-doors, his laptop before him, his books and “For Sale” sign. He wore PETA-defying anaconda boots – perhaps Berkeley’s only pair – a steel-and-gemstone bracelet, handmade by Austin, who sold from the parking lot. A black beret covered white hair, an Archie Moore t-shirt, surgical scars.
The object of his immediate attention, Dear Charlie (Water Row Books. 2021), collected correspondence from the esteemed – in some circles – cartoonist/artist S. Clay Wilson (1941-2021) to the esteemed – in smaller circles – poet/novelist Charles Plymell (1935–present). It went for $99, 68-pages of – maybe – quality paper but nothing-special cover, a real what-the-fuck. He could understand gussied-up, limited editions for the collectors’ market, but how about something for the man-in-the-street or – perhaps more suiting the consciousness involved – gutter? His copy came, numbered, with glued-in-place card of a (reproduced) drawing of Wilson’s iconic Checkered Demon chugging (“SCHLORK!”) a beer, and marginally value-enhanced by Plymell’s signature (and Wilson’s “facsimile”). Ordered several days after launch, it clocked in at #15 of 100, so product hadn’t exactly leapt off shelves. 1
What his Benjamin had brought were 17 letters, often on the rear of flyers promoting Wilson or others (Allen Ginsberg, a Fetish Ball); a half-dozen Wilson-decorated envelopes; 15 postcards, front and back, (several displaying nearly nude women, two from a series by poet/ hobo Daryl Rogers, one reproducing the lurid cover of the 1950s paperback Tough Kid From Brooklyn); 10 photographs of Wilson or others (Alfred Giacometti, Julie Newmar). The book had two introductions – or, more likely, one introduction with two titles (“The Electric Truth,” “Mad Times”), both seemingly written by Plymell, totaling 1750 words, of which 250 were printed twice, either due to editorial oversight or in conscious Dadaist juxtaposition. Plymell’s prose was lively, colorful – and – to Goshkin’s thinking – astutely on point (“(W)e are an insane species, hiding behind sex, politics, and religion...”) Plymell linked Wilson to Goya, Brueghel, Beardsley – and – more originally – through a shared, instantly recognizable “outrageousness,” Little Richard. (Not, Goshkin suspected, that Wilson spent much time bopping around his living room to “Tutti-Frutti.”) But Plymell’s prose and thought was impeded by typos – the icon/symbol “II” frequently affixed afore words as if in shamanic significance – and duplication – readers informed twice that Wilson decorated his envelopes to amuse postal workers.
Another thing. The letters and postcards were ordered as if plucked from a dumpster, blind-folded. I know, Goshkin thought. The unpredictability of the universe. The wonders of chance. But hasn’t that point been made? The oldest (October 13, 1990) sat across from the most recent (August 12, 1999), like time lay in simultaneous parallels; but the others scattered like frightened pigeons. And why weren’t there more? Wilson and Plymell had known each other since 1967, when Plymell, editing Grist, a beat/hipster mag in Lawrence, Kansas, became the first – or second, accounts differ – to publish Wilson. Then Plymell and John Fowler, Grist’s publisher, issued a portfolio of Wilson’s brawling, balling pirates, dykes, cowboys, gangsters, bikers, demons.
When Wilson split from Lawrence for San Francisco in early ‘68, he looked up Plymell, who had preceded him. Plymell was in the midst of printing Robert Crumb’s ZAP #1, the comic which launched the underground. Plymell introduced Wilson to Don Donohue, its publisher, and Donohue introduced him to Crumb, who took one look at Wilson’s portfolio and invited him to contribute. His penis-eating pirates changed the world.
You could do anything in a comic book, Wilson believed. His doing led The New York Times to call him at his passing, “the most scabrous and rollicking of the Underground Cartoonists.” The Comics Journal went further: “The most influential artist of his generation.”
A woman had been sleeping, wrapped in blankets, on the sidewalk for weeks, an over-loaded shopping cart watching over her like a guard dog. She seemed to exist on Winston-Salems and lime popsicles. She moved beneath the overhang of the shuttered bank in storms. If you gave her a dollar, she burnt it.
No one claimed her. No one rousted her. Her eyes glared, devil-red, encircled by candles, unlit.
Wilson deserved respect.
Yet, not only didn’t the book say a damn word about the correspondence gap – had some counter-culture Rosemary Woods been at work? – aside from what Wilson wrote Plymell, it didn’t say a damn thing. No footnote or endnote or inter-lineation filled a hole or solved a mystery or provided context. When Wilson apologized for “obnoxious” behavior, it did not provide a single voyeur-satisfying specific. When Wilson reported illustrating poems by “McCrary” – apparently with neither knowing what the other was doing, and both then simultaneously sending the other what they had done – it did not disclose who McCrary was – not to mention how that bollocks-waiting-to-happen worked out. (It also wouldn’t hurt to know, Goshkin thought, who were Nelson Lyon, Irv Tepper, Kell Robertson, Chip Duval, and a host of non-household names others – not his and Ruth’s anyway.) When he read that Michael “blew his head off at Burroughs dinner table,” the need for deep background practically shrieked. When Wilson instructed, “Get a magnifying glass to find bullet holes. The original target is wall size,” the craving for illumination burned, the target indisputably not being Michael’s noggin. When Wilson reported acquiring a methadone bottle full of grave dirt,” Goshkin was left wondering what he did with it.
Events of the ‘90s did not intrude into Dear Charlie. The Gulf War, the Soviet Union’s collapse, Bill Clinton’s impeachment, Rodney King and O.J. Simpson, Waco, Columbine, the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City, and Atlanta bombings went unmentioned. The recognizable names came from more arcane corners of America: Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Stan Brakhage, Ginsberg (“Ginzie”), Ken Kesey (with a “buncha dorks”). Television was not watched, nor movies attended. Readings were idiosyncratic: Gangs of New York; Great Gunfighters of Kansas Cow Towns; periodicals with life spans of mayflies (Atom Mind, The Goblin). Days began with a “coke/gin hangover,” a cuppa tea,” cum or sans a joint, radio tuned to Johnny Otis, “full-tilt gospel,” or “vapid Chicana twat reading her poetry” – and Wilson sitting down to write Plymell.
The creative process is not discussed, but left like air inhaled or food consumed, a given. Wilson’s focus – obsession -- was the business side. He scores a record album “gig.” He fails to land one for Beat t-shirts. He applies for – and is denied – a Guggenheim. He sells work at galleries and comic cons. One of his portfolios brings $1400 at auction, “but,” he notes, “I didn’t get 1 red cent.” He submits to Hustler, “an odious mag but good pay”($1500 for a cartoon, plus he could sell the original for $2000).. He does a book cover and is “fucked around” by its publisher. He does another, which is censored because he “showed pubic hair... and the Japs are printing the catalog and it’s forbidden over there.” He weighs jobs based on whether the sale of his originals is guaranteed. He signs on for a comic of doubtful merit, its authors being “two L.A. cats... a fat black Catholic (who lives with his mother...) and a process server.” He asks Plymell for money to buy a bank, in whose steel vault he can store art.
While orders for his work – from rock stars (Graham Nash), artists (H.R. Giger), and common folk (a Chicago bar owner) – leave him “busier than a crab in a cat house” – he is still “living month-to-month.” “It’s a drag,” he writes, “being old and broke.” He may never “have enough money to buy a fucking house.” He hopes he won’t “end up in a doorway reeking of piss.” His peers’ success rankles. Crumb has become “rich and famous.” Robert Williams, another ZAP artist, has people “waiting years to pay 30K for a painting.” Maybe, Wilson hopes, that’ll “break new ground (for) odd ball visionary cartoonists from flipped-out California...” “I hear stories constantly of various cartoonists getting tons of money. Ain’t happened to me... may never will.”
Y’gotta wonder, Goshkin thought – he hadda anyway – why some artists “succeed” and others don’t. If Van Meegren could create a painting that so duplicated a Vermeer that experts thought it was one, why shouldn’t a Van Meegren be valued as highly as a Vermeer, its feed from eyes to brain triggering identical responses? If a deranged-appearing, SRO-dwelling, schizophrenic like Harry Smith, whose anthologizing forgotten, out-of-the-mainstream recording artists, helped earn him posthumous honoring by a Los Angeles museum, why should a deranged-appearing, SRO-dwelling, schizophrenic like B.N. Duncan, whose publications of unrecognized, completely marginalized street-people leave no one desiring the contents of his storage locker?
That these considerations had come to him from the last two books he had read did not surprise Goshkin. Pieces of his thinking filtered into his writing as did pieces of his observations; and, no doubt, his writing influenced his observations and thinking as his observations and thinking influenced it. Why should one ex-comic book artist have people lined up to pay five figures for his evil clowns and naked women, while another have to hustle to have people pay four?
He sought Coltrane. “A Love Supreme,” live, in Seattle, piano and drums foregrounded, tenor lost in the back of the room. Do-do, Do-di, Do-do, Do-di. Ascend, descend; ascend, descend. Calming, meditative – a 20-minute “Ommmm.” He switched to “Ascension,” the Temple concert, 14 months later, eight before liver cancer killed him.
Jangled, edged, discordant, no Heaven – no haven – now.
Did Reader’s Digest still run Most Unforgettable Characters? Goshkin’s money rode on Wilson. They had spent less than 50 hours together he quick-counted, but he had been as memorable as Krakatoa must have at blast-off. He had been, on nearly every occasion, drunk or stoned or both and, though Wilson could be mean or nasty, he never had been – well, never in person, only on the phone – and though they’d never had a “real” conversation – a back-and-forth about topics of equal engagement – he was always bright and funny and uniquely nicely nuts; and Goshkin felt privileged to have known him and regretted he was gone.
Basically, Goshkin concluded, if Wilson was in it, you couldn’t have a bad book, and Dear Charlie was 100-percent him. Wilson treated each card or letter as a work of art. He filled space as he filled panels or canvas, subsuming the blankness to his self. He turned sentences upside down or sideways to ensure no portion of his message escaped expression. He printed with precision, all caps. He tripped on red ink. He varied calendar dates with, say, “D-Day” and “Yom Kippur.” He applied paste-ons and rubber stamps – hearts, bathing beauties, skulls-and-crossbones – to establish mini-collages. Even his postage stamps (Krazy Kat, Wolf Man) demonstrated thought.
For readers who come to correspondence primarily for a “literary” experience, Dear Charlie spun gold too. Wilson’s voice was newsy, chatty, humorous, profane, scurrilous, – never stodgy, never a bore. He was in as much control of it as he was his lettering. He polished the vernacular with the quirkiness of his mind, dropping a mocking “poetry/schmoetry,” a delight-in-the-language “heart-breaking cute young quiff named ‘Breath Cox,’” a “Yucafucking-stan Penisnsula.” He could reference his “ol’ hillbilly pa,” stifling sentiment while recognizing it, and toss off a cheeky “Is Bill Still Dead?”, mocking mourning but tipping a hat. Even when pissed at Plymell, he couldn’t help being funny: “You rude old rumpled satyr of an asshole.” Who else put “satyr” and “asshole” in the same sentence? Not T.S. Eliot.
Goshkin took another sip.
Okay, he was being facetious. He could explain – or offer to explain – as well as the next guy – so long as the next guy wasn’t a PhD in Art History or Economics – why some artists sold and others didn’t. But he couldn’t answer to his satisfaction why Wilson never managed to achieve real estate beyond his apartment. If one millionaire rock star would pay five-K for a painting, why wouldn’t he pay fifty – and if one would, why not two – and WHAM! BAM! – there was your down-payment. Did he need to stay priced within reach of his Lawrence pals?
An artist’s reach is not determined by talent or hours worked or originality so much as by audience. If your stock in trade is swollen phalluses and gaping vaginas, getting them hung in living rooms is a challenge. “Tastemakers” and “influencers” can only carry you so far. You need, like the 18-year-old quoted in the morning’s paper, to promote your brand. And that was a beast of a different color. Even Wikipedia had an eye on it:
In contrast to the many counterculture figures who modified their more extreme tendencies and successfully assimilated into the mainstream of commercial culture, Wilson’s work remained troubling to mainstream sensibilities and defiantly ill-mannered.
Why was that? Why didn’t he soften it, behave better? Choice or compulsion? Vision or victimization?
Forests burned. Rivers turned to sand. Polar bears were being driven south and grizzlies north. New species – unknown, unpredictable – would emerge..
“Everything is perfect.” So concluded Dr. Fleur, having heard him breath, taken his blood pressure, reviewed his echo- and blood work. Nearer to 80 than 79, hardware in his chest, valve still leaking, the world heading to Hell in a handbasket, it might have been difficult to embrace the evaluation.
But he managed.
- A less pricey, soft cover edition is now available. That’s the one to go for.