My spiritual mentor was the novelist Hubert Selby Jr. I met him through Ralph Bakshi, the guy who made the cartoon features of the 1970s that the Museum of Modern Art considered good enough and important enough to showcase and collect at the time. It was 1982 and I had just arrived in L. A., or environs, with my second wife.
We were sitting in the house we were renting in Santa Monica, eating dinner with another couple (was it George and Lucy Mattingly, the publishers of my first real perfect-bound book, a collection of poetry called ROCKY DIES YELLOW?) (The title came from the headline on the newspaper the Bowery Boys are reading at the end of the flick ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, after James Cagney as "Rocky Sullivan" goes to "the chair" as a mewling coward, either because his character is truly frightened of dying in it, or because he is faking fear to destroy his rep with the little gang so they don't follow in his footsteps. The title was an inside joke I was having with myself, because at the time I was "pretending" to be "gay" and part of the fight for "gay rights" in order to make the world more tolerant of diversity and make room for all of us, as well as discourage my own kids and others coming up behind me from following my macho-angry-sometimes-violent-young-straight-man example.)
The phone rang, and I answered it to hear a voice say: "I was born in Brooklyn in 1943, who discovered rock'n'roll first, you or me?" I said, "Who the fuck is this?" and the voice said, "My name's Ralph Bakshi, I make movies, but I've been out here in Hollywood for ten years and feel like I lost my soul. I just read your book and think you can help me get it back. I want you to write a movie for me."
He was talking about a collection of poetry that had come out the year before, my biggest to date, published by the then young L. A. poet and fiction writer Dennis Cooper. It was called HOLLYWOOD MAGIC, not because I wrote it after I moved there, or had anything to do with my new "career" as a movie & TV actor, but because I wrote it all BEFORE I had anything to do with "Hollywood" other than truly believing that I, and people like me, influenced what "Hollywood" put into movies, or even what movies they made. Some people took that as arrogance. I just thought I was testifying to the inter-connectedness of all life. And at the time, in fact since I was a kid, I always believed that everything's alive.
And of course it is. Even that rock I threw through a window, or the bottle that got shot out of my hand at a wild party in Spokane in 1964 weren't as solid as they appeared, but in fact, consisted of tons of little energized worlds whirring around like mad inside their very beings.
Anyways, after having read the TAO TE CHING as a young guy, because I liked the cover of the paperback book it was in (a 1944 translation by Witter Bynner, the best "recent" translation is Stephen Mitchell's) and discovered that it confirmed my own longheld beliefs, by then I preferred the term "spirituality" over "religion" because, despite the good pious Irish Catholics I had known growing up, including many in my family, starting with my grandmothers on both sides, but especially my father's immigrant-peasant-Irish mother, I could see that throughout history a lot of bad shit happened to people because of organized "religion", like Inquisitions and Crusades and burnings-at-the-stake (from which one theory bandied about in the early years of the "gay rights movement", 1969-70-etc., was the "historical fact" that the reason gay men were called "faggots" was because homosexuals were added to the wood of the fires that burned heretics at the stake to make the fire more fierce and kill a few "faggots" while they were at it, which now sounds like dubious "history" but I took for fact at the time, because I believed anyone who I thought was on the side of "right" which to me has always meant love, the basic tenet of Jesus that made him so revolutionary at the time, or in my youthful interpretation of that story).
So, when I go to meet Bakshi at the Paramount lot in Hollywood, there's this frail-old-super-straight-looking white cat sitting in a chair there who he introduces to me as Hubert Selby Jr.
Now I'm not only all coked up, which was my way of being in tune with the times in 1982, and had been for a decade previous, and in the process of being hustled by "Hollywood" characters left and right who are gonna make me a big movie star or director or writer of the first Oscar-winning-movie-about-a-mixed-race-love-that-conquers-all, etc. and this little pipsqueek of an old guy with a cackle for a laugh and a high grating voice like a subway train grinding the rails as it makes a turn in a twisting tunnel, doesn't impress me at all. In fact, I feel sorry for the cat, being old and frail and all, and me being at the peak of my powers at forty-one, about to become a super star and all, so I condescend to be nice to him as Bakshi tells us he wanted us to meet because we're his two favorite writers, and then I realize, "Oh, he's the mammyjammer who wrote that depressing book I couldn't finish when it first came out in 1964 or thereabouts", and I'm a print junkie who always finished everything I start to read throughout my life until I picked up LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN and was just too bummed out because it reminded me of everything I had been living for a while then myself. Bad enough to live through it, let alone have to re-experience it through reading a fucking book! (I've since read it, and realize what a writer who comes out of Selby's back pocket said about it is true, that one of the great things about it is how he gets readers to love characters that initially seemed unlovable.)
So I didn't see Selby again for a while. But Bakshi and me hung out. It turned out his and my favorite film was an adaptation of a popular novel around 1960-62 by a writer named Warren Miller called COOL WORLD. The director of that flick was a young white woman named Shirley Clark, who shot the movie with a handheld camera in natural light, even at night, in Harlem and Coney Island with a cast made up mostly of real Harlem street kids she discovered since there weren't enough young professional black actors then to make up the gang the movie is about.
For whatever reasons of self-delusion plus reality, I identified with that movie as a young man more than anything I had ever seen. The reason I wrote poetry and prose and wanted to make movies or take part in making them was because I had always felt, since I was a baby, that books and movies got life wrong as I was experiencing it, and seeing it lived all around me. But when I saw Shirley Clark's COOL WORLD I thought, shit, she got it right.
Now, I hadn't seen that flick in twenty years when I met Bakshi, and this was before VCRs and videos and all that were commonly available, and even so it wouldn't have been available (and still isn't I think) but because he had a deal with Paramount to make a movie, Bakshi had the power to set up a private screening just for him and me of our favorite movie! It was the first time I had experienced that. Sitting in one of those plush little screening rooms on the lot, with big ass velvety chairs that leaned back and telephones on stands beside them so you can call the projectionist in the booth behind you or even call someone outside like your agent or other Hollywood types etc.
I enjoyed the hell out of that. So did Bakshi, leaning back in his chair smoking a cigar if I remember right. That same day he asked me if I had any ideas for movies and I borrowed a typewriter from his secretary while he and she went to lunch and used that hour to write a thirty page "treatment" for a movie about the gangs of my youth in New Jersey, the three-hundred-strong mostly Irish-American Jersey City gang THE LOAFERS (a term already in use in Walt Whitman's time, the time of Scorcese's noble but failed attempt to capture it in GANGS OF NEW YORK, for Irish-American street boyos then) or the equally large Italian-American Newark gang THE ROMANS. One of many films I envisioned and wrote that never got made but passed around Hollywood for years and bits of which I saw show up in the films of others, nothing new but the way of businesses everywhere throughout time, but I thought then was particularly aimed at me due to my brilliant originality etc.
Anyways, as they say on DEADWOOD, and other David Milch shows, like NYPD BLUE, "anyways", the live-action film I ended up writing for Bakshi never got made. He eventually got his wish to direct a live-action film, or partly live action, written by him and somebody else. He called it COOL WORLD too. Or as it officially became known, RALPH BAKSHI'S COOL WORLD, which was as far from Shirley Clark's as a guy could get, though there was a sort-of-black cartoon creation called "Sparks" who in the film is "Holly Wood's" (Kim Bassinger's cartoon character) boyfriend. I did the voice for "Sparks" and thought maybe Ralph got the idea for him from me, or the way I sometimes saw myself and thought I projected myself, a darkshaded, bebopping, scatting, cool street dude with a shock of white hair. But it probably had nothing to do with me and I just ended up doing his voice because Bakshi had made a lot of promises about us making films together and when they all fell through probably felt guilty and threw me the bone of a voice-over job. Or not.
The main point being:
(yeah what man?)
that through Bakshi I met Selby and we eventually became best friends, as I suspect he was with many others, and spent a lot of time hanging out talking about New York and the characters we knew there, some in common, and jazz and old movies and radio shows when I was a little boy and he was a teenager and like that. He loved to pull my chain about all my Irish-Catholic superstitions, and obsessions at the time with getting recognition for what I thought of as my artistic contributions to the world. He had long ago accepted his own situation, which when I met him was working as a clerk in the office of a guy with a little production company. When I'd mention the name Hubert Selby Jr. to friends and people I ran into, they'd say, "I thought he was dead."
He told me no one had ever even asked him to read in public since he'd first moved to L. A. in the 1960s and then moved back in the '70s and had been there ever since. So when I got asked to read at Beyond Baroque, the poetry venue in Venice beach, I asked them if Selby could read with me, and he was so unknown to some folks there they put him on the poster as "Herbert" Selby.
I always felt very gratified that I had got him out before the public like that, the first time in L. A. But when with the poet-and-general-all-around-Hollywood-dynamo (though originally from the Bronx and New York) Eve Brandstein and I organized a celebration for Selby's 75th birthday party, so he could experience what his memorial would be like BEFORE he passed, he thanked his friend Henry Rollins for getting him his first reading in L. A. and I swallowed my pride and certainty it had been me and accepted that Henry's readings with Selby had certainly done more to revive Selby's reputation, especially among a younger generation, than anything I had done.
But the reason I started writing this endless blog entry, was to say that Selby taught me a lot of what I know about spirituality and the ways I practice it in my life. And he always did it with unconditional love. I remember when those nuns got killed in El Salvador by the rightwing militarists oppressing the people the nuns were trying to help, I was so upset, that when the scene of the crime popped up in the 1986 movie Oliver Stone made about it, called SALVADOR—the film that started his career, as well as solidified James Woods position as best young character actor worthy of stardom—when that scene of the nuns' murder came up in that flick I was sitting in a packed movie theater in Westwood where they were then holding a lot of premieres since Hollywood had become so sleazy, and I heard someone let out a cry of such deep anguish I wondered for a moment if they'd have to stop the movie and take care of them, and then I realized it had come from ME!
I hated the scum that had done that to those nuns. But not long after I met Selby in 1983 and got him that reading, and he began to get other readings either through me or Rollins and then others, he started reading a story he had written that was more like an essay about how he imagined one of the torturers and murderers and defilers of those well-intentioned-young-American-women-nuns going home to his family afterwards and settling down with a beer in his favorite chair with his kids playing around him and his wife cooking dinner etc. He turned the guy into an average Joe, or Jose, and then in the course of the story gave him forgiveness for his all-too-human actions.
The first time I heard him read it I argued with him for hours afterward. I told him I'd never forgive those motherfuckers, and to do so was to accept the evil in the world instead of fighting it. But Selby stayed calm, as he almost always did with me, with a few exceptions, and explained, as he had in the story, that if he hated these guys, then he was like them and would become them. That the answer to their hate and cruelty and evil wasn't more of the same, but the opposite, forgiveness and love. This from a wise-ass-Brooklyn-junior-high-drop-out-ex-junkie-punk-of-an-"old-man" I had denigrated only a few years before as too old and unhip and uncool for my steamroller path to Hollywood stardom!
It was like Jesus had come back in the body of a punk Don Knotts.
But the son-of-a-sailor got me thinking. As he always did.
One of the things he got me thinking about, in terms of the argument over that El Salavador atrocity, was what he always used to say I needed to learn to accept, or maybe he didn't say it as imperative as that but more as a suggestion or maybe even just as his example. He'd explain that there is no left without right, up without down, pleasure without pain, good without evil, happiness without sadness. That the very concepts contained their opposites. So if I was going to seek happiness, I had to expect sadness too. Or if I wanted pleasure, I had to expect pain with it. Obvious. But something I still had seemed to manage to ignore most of my life.
Once I was bitching to him about being caught up in a vicious circle and he said, "Then dig the circle Michael".
Another time I was complaining about how I couldn't "get a handle" on some problem or issue or situation and he said,
"Michael, there is no handle."
When I complained about all my financial problems, thirty-thousand in debt in mid-1980s money, two teenagers I was raising on my own, no car after the engine in my Dodge Colt blew up when a friend I loaned it to while I was out of town didn't put oil in the thing. No car in L. A.! Trying to get to auditions and screenwriting meetings or interviews for boiler rooms or car sales lots or whatever to get a job to pay the rent and feed my kids and Selby tells me when I get a check in the mail for a hundred bucks to thank god for the blessing but also when I get a bill in the mail for a hundred bucks to thank god for the blessing and I'm thinking and saying "WHAT THE FUCK HAS THAT GOT TO DO WITH FEEDING MY KIDS!!!"
But by then I was so impressed with his own calmness in the face of his own problems, mostly physical since he'd had a lung and part of the other, along with nine ribs, cut out of him as a young Merchant Marine with TB back in WWII (see the interview I did with him in the one-shot mag Eve Brandstein and I put out in the late 1980s, an attempt to riff on The Paris Review, ours was called THE HOLLYWOOD REVIEW, or another interview with Bill Langenheim in the magazine ENCLICTIC).
Not that he couldn't rant himself. He was often telling me how he had spit at God just a few minutes before I dropped by his Hollywood apartment to hang out, because of all his own problems and the problems of so many others in this world. But he somehow always transcended his rage, something I desperately wanted to do, so I followed his suggestions and for instance started thanking god for bills as well as checks and after quite a while, like several years of doing that, I slowly came to accept the bills with the checks as part of life and even eventually came to see how they were often blessings for me and mine and I too became much calmer in the face of life's travails.
And still am, even though Selby is no longer around to give me the right word when I need it as he always had.
Just one example, or maybe two. When the "Rodney King riots" (or "rebellion") started in L. A. my older son was in that area dropping off the drummer from a band he was playing in at the time. My son had dreads then, but otherwise was a very white teenage boy. So when I heard and then saw on the news scenes of white men being dragged from their cars and trucks and four-wheel-drives to be beaten or smashed in the head with bricks by rampaging thugs, I got crazy and started screaming in my Santa Monica rental and called Selby and ranted into the phone about getting me a gun and going down there and so on. This was before cellphones so I had no idea about the safety of my precious boy.
But Selby didn't own a TV and wasn't listening to the news on NPR as he often did, but classical music instead, so he had no idea and made me slow down and calm down and tell him what was going on. When I did, he started chuckling in that inimitable cackle he had and said something like, "Man I sure have wanted to smash somebody's head in with a brick sometimes" or words to that effect which years before would have had me ranting about blowing HIS fucking head off too, but instead, because I'd learned so much from him, it worked the opposite way, like a pin pricking the balloon of my self-righteous justified rage, making me realize in that moment, that I too had felt like that many many times, and in fact had jumped up on the hood of the cars of white boys and men I suspected were racists or acted like them in the face of my love for a black girl when I was a teenager and young man and I'd kick in their windshields or headlights or taillights before they peeled out to escape the madman and lucky they didn't get out and bash MY head in! Who was I to get all self-righteous about these thugs. Did they deserve punishment for their actions. yes. But was I so much better than them, or were we all human on a spectrum from very evil to very good with shades in between that most of us touch on at some point in life.
Anyways, you get the idea. The man was profound.
Check out one of the last novels he wrote, a book cut down from a manuscript four times the size that went on to unfold a story I hope gets published someday in its entirety, a manuscript I brought with me on a job in Europe and sent back to him with notes a little at a time as I read through it, notes he asked for by the way, I wouldn't presume to be so presumptuous, though I often had before I met him, and sometime still can be (see THE DEPARTED entry).
It's called THE WILLOW TREE. And like most of his books, once you accept and get into the rhythm and shape of the language his characters use and he uses to describe them and their actions, you will be exposed to the most profound treatise on forgiveness you've probably ever read.
The other example was when I found out I had cancer several years ago and hadn't yet had the tests that showed it hadn't spread and could be removed and I might live which, thank god, they did and I have, but in that moment, or several days, before we knew if it was a death sentence or not, I called to tell Selby about it and his response was to say there was nothing he could say in the face of that. And that's exactly what I needed to hear, not others' fear or answers or even support, though all that might be useful in some way, but to have someone say, "Michael, there's nothing I can say" and know that was the truth. We just sat on the phone in silence for a while, and then he told me he loved me, which I believed and still do.
After he passed, the love of his life, Suzanne, told me that after that phone conversation when I told him about my cancer, he went over to her place and cried. I never knew that. And almost feel embarrassed that I didn't die and haven't still but he did. But he would have blown that self-centered notion out of my mind in a second. He would always say in the face of my more blatant transgressions, "You're just a people Michael". But he always seemed so much more than that to me.