Conversations With Dangerous Men

     |    Wednesday January 9th, 2013

Okay, I have a big week ahead of me, so I’m going to let you lazy bas…errr, dear readers do the heavy lifting this week. This week I ran into three articles about three people who’ve meant a lot to me in my life, and instead of merely linking to them and blithering on about the content, I’m going to provide a little background on each of them and then insist that you read the articles, because each of these guys (and yeah, they’re all guys, for no particular reason) not only has something to say, but might well improve your life if you investigate them further. Each is wildly politically incorrect on some level or another, and one of them I have yet to meet, but I highly recommend the stuff they make, and hope you’re broad-minded enough to enjoy it, too.


* * *

The first is Nick Tosches, whom I knew for many years, but have lost touch with.

I ran into Nick this week thanks to a Q&A posted on Esquire magazine’s website. According to the blurb, the interview covers “his new book, fear, Moby-Dick, opium, booze, and the weather,” although it doesn’t seem to cover either Melville’s classic or Nick’s new one, which may or may not be a classic. But there’s no way to find out, because Esquire, once one of the best magazines in the world and a paragon of good writing and accurate reportage, has neglected to mention the title of the book. Really. But because I care about you, my dear readers, I can tell you that it’s called Me and the Devil"", which some of you may realize is a Robert Johnson reference.

Oddly enough, the book seems to be about an aging writer named Nick who finds himself rejuvenated by a relationship with a younger woman. Naturally, the aging writer named Nick Tosches can’t let this be sweetness and light because it would be so unlike him, so Stuff Happens. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t tell you what that Stuff is, but the interview, such as it is, shows that the old Nick is still alive and kicking, although some of his bad habits seem to have waned.

I’ll tell you a story about the old Nick before you go off to read the Esquire piece (or the new book). Nick was part of a circle of friends of mine in New York in the 1970s who all met at a legendary bar called The Bells of Hell. The group is dispersed now, some of them are dead and the bar is long gone, but it was apparently a hell of a scene. (I was living on the West Coast at the time and only drank there once). Anyway, Nick had good connections with Penthouse magazine, and got them to put up money to send him to Vatican City, where he swore he had entrée to any number of louche scenes involving priests and cardinals and whatnot. The day before he left there was a party at The Bells, of course, and some people went off to the airport to see him off. Two days later, one of those people woke up and picked up the Times and saw that someone had shot the Pope. “My first reaction was…Nick!” he said. Which made perfect sense to everyone, although it was that Bulgarian guy, of course. Anyway, Nick Tosches, ladies and gentlemen.

* * *

The next dangerous guy I’ve also known for some time, and he’s far more obscure than Nick. Hudson Marquez was a sort of neighbor of mine when I lived in California, although he’d disappear from time to time and then resurface in really odd places. One day in what must have been 1971 he knocked at my door and asked if I had a television. I did, of course, and he said “good” and then ran back up the path, hollering “keep the door open.” Next thing I knew, he reappeared with a bunch of cables which he hooked to a box and then ran another cable to the back of my television, which he turned on and tuned to a channel that didn’t exist. He ran outside again, and the picture wobbled and suddenly there was the most amazing music I’d ever heard. He came back inside and we watched. “Who is this?” I asked. The camera was on a gazebo in a park, where a very odd-looking man was playing piano and another guitar. “That’s Professor Longhair and Snooks Eaglin,” he said. “I found ‘Fess. He wasn’t dead, he just had syphillis. I’m going to manage him.” That was pretty remarkable. So was the source of the video, which had been shot in New Orleans’ Lafayette Park at the second New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival: a fully-equipped video recording and editing facility in the back of a van, back in the days before video was something just anyone had. Hudson and the folks he was working for, a group called TVTV (Top Value Television), had been given it by Sony, which was interested to see what they’d do with it. They found out.

Hudson and Longhair eventually discovered that Fess couldn’t be “managed” per se, and Hudson moved on to other adventures, which included building the Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo with the Ant Farm, another group he worked with, and living and painting in Los Angeles, where he turned me on to Musso and Frank’s. Since he’s still living and still painting, he’s gotten himself a killer show of recent work that just opened at La Luz de Jesus gallery in L.A., which occasioned the first in-depth interview I’ve ever read with him, which is as much fun as a carnival ride but not nearly as expensive (I’ll hold off on how dangerous it might be: check the title). I’ve known Hudson going on 40 years, and I learned a lot from this. Like…he designed shoes for Bette Midler?

* * *

Finally, a guy I’ve never met, although I’ve appeared in magazines alongside his writing, most notably in Country Music magazine, also in the ’70s. I always considered Dave Hickey a polymath because he wrote real well, had published a book of short stories, and also co-wrote amazing songs with Bobby Bare, who was one of my heroes. Still is, come to think of it. Then I heard that back in his wilder days, Hickey and his then-wife ran an art gallery in Austin. How cool was that? So it didn’t exactly surprise me when, in some magazine or other, I read a real good piece about art that Hickey had written. I hadn’t started writing about art then, and as I read it, I started to wonder why this made so much more sense than anything else I’d read about art. Then a friend pointed me towards a book of essays, Air Guitar"", that was mostly about art. The clarity of the writing and thinking just blew me away. As did the fact that he taught at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, of all places.

As I said, Hickey and I have never met, but I was really impressed by an article about him this week which concentrated on something that someone who’d read more of his work more recently than I have would have picked up, something that’s incredibly important to me: he’s made himself real unpopular by insisting on the centrality of beauty to the artistic experience. Which, given the amount of time I spent in Berlin writing about the horrid crap that passed for art in that town, is like a revelation: somebody else cares. Actually, I went through some intense emotional experiences a couple of years ago and came out of them with the conviction that beauty is the most important thing of all, that a life without love and beauty is senseless, but we can’t order up love, and we can, to some extent, force ourselves into a confrontation with beauty, and that having both these elements present in our lives as much as possible is, most likely, a recipe for as much happiness as we can get on this earth.

So thanks, Dave. Even though we don’t actually know each other. The article says he’s got two books in the works, so I’ll be lining up for them. Meanwhile I have packing to do, so go off and read about these folks, and I’ll see you next week.