MEMOIR #9: THE PUNK & THE LAMA
gaps in suffering
big as Mt. Fuji
the Buddhist nuns
Now I was a punk writer, age 35, living with a Tibetan lama, recovering from Hollywood
and alcoholism in a San Francisco late 80’s landscape of rock clubs, tattoos, piercings,
12-step meetings and personal ads.
I came back to my room after a visit to the nearby Haight. Christiane had shoved a note
under the door, another resident of the Center who was French, into Burroughs – really
sharp Buddhist student. Allen Ginsberg, was coming to town for a book signing! This
seemed incredibly auspicious, it was just two weeks since I was back in town and three
years since Allen had been in San Francisco. Made me feel confident in my move out of
Hollywood and my efforts to restore myself as poet, for Allen had helped get me
published in a few prestigious journals and had been a longtime champion and teacher. I
had nearly stopped writing poetry at all age 20 when I met him, frustrated with a college
scene that wasn’t particularly supportive of the shaggy aesthetic I was offering, directly
out of the tradition of writers like Jack Kerouac, but without the refinement that would
come with Allen Ginsberg’s tutelage.
And now Allen was coming into town, our sexual relationship over for 8 years, our
friendship intact. I had broken off sex when I moved in with Gretchen and never
resumed it in the horror of AIDS.
Above all, he had taught me Buddhist meditation, awareness of the outbreath dissolving
into space. We had sat together naked in his San Francisco room. It began my interest –
I was at the Meditation Center because of him. Bill Voigt was in 3 year retreat because
of him, though never slept with him, but studied poetry at Naropa, the Buddhist writing
college Ginsberg helped found in Boulder.
Ginsberg would be reading at the Jewish Community Center and I got Christiane the
French writer to accompany me. First thing I saw was author Michael McClure, who
looked remarkably fit after his last boozy appearance. Turned out he’d quit coke and had
either stopped the drinking or cut back considerably. McClure was amazingly handsome
– even James Dean might not have made such a stately appearance in his 50s if he’d
survived. “You look great,” I said, having met him a number of times. “So do you,”
meaning he liked my ninja flattop. I briefly talked to Ginsberg beforehand and he saw
that I got into the event free. As usually, people swarmed him. What a good feeling to
see his bald pate again, like an emanation of the writing muse come to reassure me – it’s
o.k. to be a poet – fuck Hollywood – we’ll work something out.
The reading was a strong one. I can remember my own tears rather than actual poems.
Much of the material I had heard – some I was familiar with as early as age 17 – all of it
resonating with association, with a guidance I had chosen to this very moment – with a
sense of the preciousness that I knew this man – great bard, teacher, social activist,
mystic, lion of dharma, peace heart…
Afterwards I hung out and met another young fellow poet, Andy Clausen, gravel-throated
construction worker and number one in Ginsberg’s up-and-coming, someone else
Ginsberg never even had sex with. As Clausen was rather paunchy and slightly ravaged
from drink, he was not precisely Allen’s type anyway. Above all, Clausen did deserve
the spot as lead on the list. There were a couple of others Allen promoted in interviews.
I tended to be on the B-list, getting a mention and a helping hand now and then. Of
course I yearned to be on that A list, but I really didn’t have the confidence in my work.
It wasn’t deserving of the A list and I knew it. I also met Chris Funkhouser, a young
mover-and-shaker poet from Santa Cruz. We had pictures taken with Ginsberg.
Amazingly, there was also an old high school poet friend, Jerome, hanging around by
coincidence – someone I knew from L.A. and who disappeared in a couple of mental
wards. His head was still not quite screwed on, which I could detect from a brief
conversation. I went off with Allen after the reading to a franchise coffee shop. I asked
Christiane to come with me but she was too shy. Jerome wanted to come, and I would’ve
welcomed him except he was just too crazy. I remember hanging out at a big table at the
coffee shop and Clausen drunkenly dominating the evening, though he was quite
amusing. McClure had brought his young girlfriend and seemed a little annoyed.
Ginsberg propositioned me in the bathroom when we both took a piss. “I thought I was
too old for you now, Allen.” “You’re still cute.” I would’ve slept with him but the fear
of AIDS was too great, more the fear of not being able to be honest with women I went
out with (“sure, I sleep with men – let’s fuck!”) – the question did come up – I had tested
HIV negative and just wanted to stay out of homosexual activity at least until this horrid
plague had come under some sort of control – “the Red Death held illimitable dominion
over all” – Allen shrugged it off – he still liked me sex or no – I wound up getting a
ridehome with a couple of women – one a cute artist/ Tibetan Buddhist practitioner in the
Nyingma tradition, Susan Rashkis, but still not a rail-thin punk vampira, to my folly. A
great evening though. I made arrangements to have breakfast with Allen in North Beach
I remember one last thing Clausen said as we were heading from the coffee shop. “Marc
Olmsted. You were such a promising poet 10 years ago. What happened?” What
happened was trying to write for Hollywood and never sending my poetry out anymore.
What happened was trying to be a rock’n’roll star. What happened was an alcoholic
habit that had bit to the bone. What happened was I didn’t know what happened.
I met Allen for breakfast in North Beach. My work assignment had come to an end and I
had the day free. It was Friday. Sitting in earnest brooding conversation with Allen was
Kush – someone who videotaped a lot of readings and had quite an archive – though
much of it was unwatchable. Kush had met me a number of times and ignored me. I was
apparently regarded as one of Allen’s boys and not worth acknowledging. Kush left.
Allen was going to get a ride from a journalist down to San Jose: “Why don’t you come
along?” I told him I’d have to get back that evening – “We’ll get a ride back for you.”
The journalist would be driving back.
So along comes Steve Silberman the journalist who strikingly resembled a young pudgy
Allen. With him was a photographer, Marc Geller, and another male friend. Everyone
turned out to be gay. I felt a little uncomfortable, a pretender. We all piled into the
photographer’s Citron station wagon and headed down the freeway to San Jose. Allen
put his hand on my thigh. Strange, it didn’t seem possessive or even have to lead to
anything. It felt good. I thought back to our sexual days. Some of them had been as
good as any heterosexual times. Others – I woke up and looked at the bald old man –
he’d shaved his famous beard at one point and then it was really a shocker to wake up
next him – he looked like an urologist. Funny, those days when I had trouble scoring
with women because I was so young – yet sought after hawk-like in the gay world – a lot
of pain in those memories.
The road spun on in front of us. We talked about Jesse Jackson. Allen felt he couldn’t
support his Presidential nomination because of Jackson’s heavy drug war stance. Allen
confided even the top aides within the White House were coming to him and saying
“What can we do? This is not working.” We discussed the possibility of total
legalization. I imagined the freeway if everyone had access to coke. Not a pretty picture
– a definite Death Race 2000. We talked about Allen’s long-time lover Peter Orlovsky
who was in and out of the loony bin from drink and shooting up street drugs in New
York. Sad, since he was a remarkably gentle poet himself when not blasted. We
discussed 12 Step programs, Allen himself had been going to Al-Anon. He had quite a
history of attracting drunks and drug addicts into his emotional arena and at 63, was
beginning to check out why. Marc the photographer held up his camera over his shoulder
and snapped photos into the back.
We arrived at Ginsberg’s motel, Best Western, decent enough but also utterly generic.
Ginsberg moved his room to get a better view, of what I’m not certain, maybe the tree in
the front yard, wasn’t much else to see. The place was also virtually deserted. The man
behind the counter checked in Allen cordially, also gay, and eyeing this entourage of
young men Allen had accumulated around him. I felt a fundamental pressure – glad to be
close to Allen but remembering something I’d said to him the first night we made it 14
years earlier: “Would you have me even if we didn’t sleep together?” What was that
feeling, as now the TV station host arrived to take us off for a taped interview. I got to
ride in the car with Allen – I had special treatment and it made me nervous – what was
that about? Of not being a colleague, of being a whore of some sort, even though this
didn’t seem to lead to sex – agh, hard to describe let me try again – the feeling I’m
getting as I write is a profound tension – a tightening in the face and neck – I wanted to
be accepted like Andy Clausen – remove the physical thing altogether – I want to
convince you Allen had me along as a friend and not as someone who might give in
sexually even though it had been 8 years – Jesus, I wasn’t that desirable and it wasn’t that
hard to get someone new – funny how Allen specialized in straight boys, they really
wanted it from him.
So what did Allen think? I had an opportunity to make amends to him privately, a 12
Step thing, I thought I’d caused him a lot of grief in my early years with a possessive
girlfriend and a conflicted brain – a real hot-and-cold kid like I was later paid back with
some of the women I dated. He smiled. “You don’t have anything to apologize for. You
were a gem, a real find.” Still, was that the answer I sought? I leave it to you – he
seemed to like me and enjoy my company, especially the Buddhist and poetic thoughts –
and I didn’t have to sleep with him anymore for it. Wow. What I just wrote.
O.K., we’re in the studio, and Steve Silberman is talking to me now, obviously
wondering about my connection with Allen – and we watch the talk show unfold, it’s
pretty funny, the TV host is goofy – Allen says what he wants. The thing wraps up and
Allen gets ready for the next item – arrival at a book store for a signing and impromptu
conversation with the populace.
There’s a chair and microphone on top of a stage – it throws Allen a little – he thought he
was just signing books, but shrugs, gives up – he’s famous – met all the Beatles, Jagger,
Dylan, Joe Strummer of the Clash, who’s new? People start to filter in, including some
blond kid, cute bookwormish boy who asks me how long I’ve known Allen. “14 years,”
I say. Is it possible? And of course the kid’s me, I’ve never grown up and yet I have –
blessings and rain of sorrow – ancient, even, I watch the event unfold – the room gets
packed – finally it gets started with the book store owner giving a little pitch – always
rather embarrassing “Allen Ginsberg meant this and that to me when I was blah blah
blah…” it gets old very fast – but what else are they going to say?
When asked as to what kind of Buddhism he practices, Allen teaches everyone how to sit
and breathe. One older guy tries to get a private conversation going with Allen and he
gets cranky: “Overcome your shyness instead of engaging in a solipsistic dialogue!” The
place gets too crowded people can’t get in, he berates those sitting in the aisles “Part of
being aware of the space around you is consideration of the other sentient beings in the
room!” He’s pretty cranky, aw, it’s o.k. – so was the Lama I lived with.
Time for signing books – there’s a big line, Allen is autographing but there are also
sunflower drawings, skulls, buddhas, flying saucers, big third eyes in triangles.
Everyone’s excited. I note a posturing James Dean type over in the corner, looks like he
wants to take his shirt off for attention. What does any of it mean, I want attention, too.
Allen had been asked who he reads: “…Clausen. Marc Olmsted, who’s with us today.”
Was it possible to ever get enough?
As I’ve repeatedly mentioned, the acceptance of Allen really eased my basic discomfort
of being a fucked up character, or a lousy Buddhist practitioner with easy irritability,
emotionally overwrought, although when we had briefly had a moment together walking
in San Jose. He was in therapy now.
Now it’s time to go on this big honorary dinner that is private and sort of yuppie art
community. Everyone’s dressed up. I have only a sleeveless t-shirt – Allen makes room
for me, adds a chair at the table, joking with those present: “This is my manager”. The
meal was kind of boring, I couldn’t drink the wine anyway.
Off to the reading on San Jose campus. How can one describe a poetry reading – I can’t
give you his books through this page – but you’ll recognize them if you’re familiar with
his work – he read that one about sleeping between a bride and bride-groom, giving them
kisses as he heads off in the dawn – & a poem on LSD written in 1959(!) when Ginsberg
was given the drug as part of a CIA research project – & the famous poem to America
asking for tenderness and nudity of physical meat and heart – finally a poem about a
Blakean sunflower found in the junkyard with Jack Kerouac – alas, if I could give up my
own shame as requested.
It is coming to an end – once more the book signing, cupid boys with shirts off address
the poet shaking their charms – one asks for his stomach to be autographed – was I so
bold? Naw. The photographer Mark will give me a ride back into the city. It’s over,
greatest day in a long time – I plan to see Allen Sunday in the city when he’ll be back –
now the streets are dark, it’s a 45 minute drive – I feel the fatigue hit me – the
photographer asks intimate questions and I answer – I confess I don’t make it with men
anymore and why – he doesn’t seem to think much of my answer and I’m embarrassed –
still, that’s what I do – too timid, perhaps now without drugs and booze to fortify my
courage – but also, I just like women more – it’s not worth sacrificing them, and I
doubted even the most sympathetic hearts would be able to stifle their own sex horror –
here’s the vampire boy of sodomy, look out! Forlorn, back to the Buddhist Center. Just
gimme a girl and I’ll keep quiet.
I went down to see Allen sign books at City Lights next day, early evening. It made me
remember 3 years earlier, when I’d done the same – set up a sort of test while I was at it.
I’d arranged a note to get to him through the bookstore when he had arrived those 3 years
ago – giving my new number – would he call me or would I have to look him up? – a
very indirect “adult child of an alcoholic” thing to do – he didn’t call – so I showed to the
signing and confronted him in a low key way – “You didn’t call,” the hurt look on my
own face too practiced, I’m sure. “Didn’t have time yet.” Would he have called?
Maybe, maybe not – the wasted speculations of a drunk, sober or otherwise. Too many
tests…but it established the way I would handle Allen from then on, I’d seek him out
when he got into town and not wait for that call, afraid he might not make it. Who would
he call? Old, old friends, new boyfriend – that’s it? – again I felt on the B-list, fearful I
might be a pest – but he never treated me that way. Later, when he visited San Francisco,
his call often came before mine.
So with this whirlpool of thoughts I approach City Lights and find it an absolute
nightmare, completely packed with people, an impossible scene.
I’d see Allen in a week and a half after he returned from Northern California. I rode the
bus home admiring the boots of an aging punk.
Ginsberg was now back into town – a benefit to “Save the Coral Reef” – I talked with
Steve Silberman on the phone and we made arrangements to go – friend Mitch Loch
would also come – and here I had a car and could collect my share of bodies – how often
I had been chauffeured in my drinking days, 11 years in San Francisco – now I was Dad.
Poet Kenward Elmslie was also reading in town, and Allen had been invited to the
reading. We went with Shig’s nephew, who was studying to be a doctor. – I drove the
leased Honda I had from L.A. Elmslie’s poetry was fun, surreal, I decided I wanted to
get a copy of his book Moving Right Along but hesitated, money tight. Shig’s nephew
picked up on this and bought it for me graciously.
The “Coral Reef” benefit included Allen, eco-poet legend Gary Snyder, Japanese wild
man Nanao Sakaki, McClure and Snyder’s old lover Joanne Kyger – a huge event with a
huge turnout at the Palace of Fine Arts. Steve was writing an article for the Sunday
paper, he asked me if I minded if I got included – no problem, said the ambition-hungry
poet – I saw the photos taken that fun day down to San Jose – one in particular showed
Ginsberg with his hand on my thigh though it was almost cropped out – Mitch caught it
immediately. I remember there being some attractive women in front of us – here I was
with all gay men – I could see the women trying to figure out our preference as so often
happened in this town. I yearned to be with those women – they listened with that
eavesdropping straight ahead stare to our stories of obvious interactions with Allen and
the other poets – I’d also met Gary a number of times though never with any real
connection – Steve and I slipped backstage and talked with Allen before the show –
McClure was friendly, I looked up and saw his girlfriend who was amazed that I
remembered her name, which obviously pleased her. There was to be a party afterwards
in the Aquarium at the park – that sounded like fun.
I will not attempt to describe yet another poetry reading – except for the energy of
inspiration that coursed through me – the sense that maybe this really was my lineage – I
beheld my teachers and knew.
On to the party.
We arrived early. Well-wishers had restrained the great writers back at the reading site.
The idea of a party in the Aquarium was certainly bizarre. I remembered, stoned in
bygone days, how I’d think mantras at the dolphins. Always felt badly for the dolphins in
particular. Eventually others drifted in. We wandered the corridors of the Aquarium in a
lonely dream, waiting for the “Event” to start.
Then they were here, and food was served, bottles of booze emptied by those who could
drink. Dinner was sushi, so positively ghoulish you’d think it a cannibal joke worthy of
novelist William Burroughs. Alas, it was just upscale insensitivity. Everyone ate
ravenously in front of the docile fish. The dolphins were at least downstairs. I glanced up
at a fairly attractive woman in a tux who poured me a Calistoga water. “Are you a poet?”
she asked. I nodded with some embarrassment. “You look like one. You look like you
have a lot on your mind.” Ah, the melancholy Dane, consuming sushi as the fish wiggled
in their blue-lit oblivion.
Allen talked to me for a while, attentive. We discussed the recent sheath of poems I’d
given. “They’re good. You still seem preoccupied with the same issues, though.
Somewhat more transparent from meditation practice, I think. Have you considered
therapy?” As you can imagine, that penetrated very deeply, the kind of remark that makes
you hold your breath to filter it. Seems the same stuff I was attached to 14 years ago was
still there on the page, if “more transparent” as Allen put it, meaning less solid iron habit.
It got me thinking. 12 Steps, it seemed, were going to keep me sober. Period. Tibetan
Buddhism was a way of stepping beyond personality, but didn’t particularly address the
problems of personality itself.
“Now’s the time to publish,” he went on, which meant put out my own book, or bombard
the magazines, but just get it out there. My poetry practice had become quite solitary,
masturbatory in fact – I had trouble justifying a lot of time sending to magazines because
rarely was there money in it – but it led to funny friendships with editors and poets I’d yet
to even met, like David Cope of Big Scream, or Jim Cohn of Napalm Health Spa, or Eliot
Katz who had a brief involvement with Long Shot. [Like Andy Clausen and a
homosexual mountain man who called himself Antler, these guys were all neo-Beats, the
real heartsons of Allen.]
I chatted with Amy, McClure’s girlfriend, but he came up from behind and grabbed her,
whispering into her ear, paranoid it seemed – not that I felt like any particular threat – but
the conversation abruptly ended. There was actor Peter Coyote, who’d graduated from
local plays to film – his girlfriend flirted with McClure rather openly in front of Amy –
there was Gary Snyder with his new Japanese wife – I didn’t go up to him because it
would’ve been the same interaction we’d had before – “You’re a great poet” “Thank
you.” “You’re really a great poet, a…a visionary.” “Thank you.” Next. The evening
wound down – I eyed various women – feeling like I was in one of those big water tanks
myself – behind glass – foolish, even – but for what, my desire? Yes, I felt foolish for
Time to go, I packed my rag-tag entourage and headed for the Honda in the final taxi
night, driving off in anti-climax.
Steve Silberman the journalist had told me that I was going to be included in the article
he was writing about Ginsberg. I was thrilled. He hurriedly brought it over to me when
he picked up an early edition of the Sunday paper. I was dumbfounded – he referred to
me once by name and then for the remainder of the article as Mr. Biceps – my sleeveless
shirt had made an impression obviously – but the article had a strange bite to it, a
jealousy it seemed – since I was getting preferential treatment from Ginsberg – I felt with
a creeping horror that I was coming off as some sort of poetry bimbo – a hanger-on like a
gangster’s moll. Steve seemed oblivious – I was even on the cover of the Sunday
supplement – ON TOUR WITH ALLEN GINSBERG – there the photo with Ginsberg’s
hand on my thigh, though not particularly obvious – just an unconscious hint – a further
damnation that I was not really a colleague but a kind of whore – or so I thought – I
thanked Silberman in a kind of numb horror – I was doing what I had done all the way
back to childhood – I didn’t say what I felt – I’d go away and figure it out later.
“…and the entourage splits into two for the trip to a KHTE-TV interview: Ginsberg and
Mr. Biceps in the front car, the press crew trailing behind” – ON TOUR WITH ALLEN
GINSBERG By Steve Silberman.
I was pretty upset – remember I’d just come back from Hollywood where literally the
only artistic recognition had been getting a copy of an ALLEN GINSBERG tribute I’d
been invited to write something for – I opened the contents and nearly everyone was
famous but me – other than that – rejection upon rejection except for being able to
scribble story analysis on scripts for studios – all these frustrated writers turn into script
readers with poison pens – much like critics – so here at last some recognition and then it
turns sour with my worst fear – I had been reading this book full of writing affirmations –
maybe I’d unconsciously summoned my own back-stabbing publicity with a kicked heart
that felt it was no good – so I shared about it in an 12 Step meeting – not mentioning
Ginsberg in particular – but enough that people knew it was in the paper and I actually
get a call from Silberman a day later – “I heard you felt like a poetry bimbo when you
read my article” -someone had heard me at the meeting and knew Steve and went and
told him! Definitely not anonymity my dears but in this case it actually worked to clear
the air – he himself genuinely sorry – he’d meant no conscious harm – very distraught –
you could almost see him yanking his hair on the other side of the phone line – we agreed
to have dinner.
Over Chinese food it came gushing out – he’d apprenticed for Ginsberg at Naropa
College – always wanting to sleep with him – but he was fat and felt unattractive – finally
having the nerve to ask Allen: “I get the feeling you don’t like me.” Allen said simply, “I
am not a guru, or a psychiatrist.” And left it at that. The portrait that developed for me
was one of Steve’s unconscious jealousy – not even totally acknowledged here in our
greasy spoon Chinese restaurant on the Haight – but there was something different in me
since I’d sobered – I knew he’d meant no conscious harm and I also knew such jealousy
in myself – it was possible to forget the whole thing – especially since no one else
reading it even gave a shit – only William Burroughs’s secretary later told me he thought
it was “pissy” – having had his own travails with the press. But I did admonish Steve
that Allen most certainly wouldn’t like his portrait of me.
But a letter from Allen came later congratulating Steve on the article and on my
“amusing” appearance in it.
Allen came into town and visited me at the Meditation Center. It caused a stir among
those who recognized him as I took him through the house – I couldn’t help but enjoy it.
Finally we returned to the shrine room and did Chenrezig practice with everyone the
household and visitors.
Libby, Lama’s consort, said “There are obviously things I don’t know about you.” I
kissed her cheek. “I have many secrets.”
Lama came home from lecturing elsewhere and Allen hoped to meet him. Libby
followed after Lama and quickly reported back that he was too tired. She then
disappeared behind the curtain to Lama’s quarters, where she told me later he said, “But
I’m not too tired for you.”
letters for my novel
coming on the
same day –
house I’d hoped
to be sympathetic –
The famous old
poet visits and
is a comfort –
he advises giving
up fame –
in heaven – prepare
on my shoulders
poet reassures –
we kissed and
hugged as his
taxi cab glowed
[This excerpt #9 from Marc Olmsted’s “Beat Memoir” is reprinted from the online journal Rusty Truck. See
Retrieved 10 May 2019. Olmsted’s “Beat Memoir” was published under the title Don’t Hesitate (Beatdom
Books, 2014). Reprinted by permission of the author.]