His father, Wallace Berman, was one of the best-known artists in America, featured on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Tosh had a front-row seat for countercultural history, and his new memoir offers a fresh perspective on how it all went down. He talks to PKM about his coming of age.
For a guy who wanted to be invisible, Wallace Berman—artist, filmmaker, mail- and assemblage-art pioneer, publisher and Beat provocateur—sure kept a high-profile circle of friends and associates. An Artist—with a capital “A”—Wallace played by his own rules, even when it came to parenting. The distance between his gregariousness and reclusiveness can be measured by one fact: he is featured on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s album.
Generally regarded as the father of assemblage art and a driving force in California’s new art revolutions of the 1950s and 1960s, Wallace Berman was more known about than really known, even to his son, Tosh Berman (yes, Tosh is his birth name). Tosh Berman has just published Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World (City Lights Publishing), an affectionate, honest, funny and at times sad memoir about what it felt like in the eyes, mind and heart of a sensitive only child caught in the middle of this artistic and countercultural whirlwind.
Among Wallace’s regular circle—and thus, the people around whom Tosh grew up—were artists George Herms, Jess, and Bruce Connor; movie folks Dean Stockwell, Toni Basil, Dennis Hopper, Russ Tamblyn (whose daughter Amber wrote the preface to this memoir); Beat writers William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Diane DiPrima, Michael McClure and Robert Duncan; musicians Brian Jones and Neil Young. A large cast of lesser-known but equally interesting people make startling appearances. These include eccentrics with darker edges, like Marjorie Cameron, Loree Foxx, Kenneth Anger, Anaïs Nin, Samson DeBrier and John Wieners.
It seems that Tosh, as a boy, was present at some of the seminal events in California hipster history: the T.A.M.I Show; Marcel Duchamp’s Los Angeles opening; the Doors/Them at the Whisky A-Go-Go; on the set of Easy Rider; in London at the peak of Beatlemania; wandering City Lights Books and North Beach as a tyke; living on a houseboat across the Bay in Larkspur. Tosh even had a part (as “Boy”) in Andy Warhol’s Tarzan & Jane Regained, Sort Of (1963).
Most of Tosh’s childhood was spent in and around Los Angeles, where he continues to live today. His family first resided in a home in Beverly Glen and then one in Topanga Canyon, purchased for them by Dean Stockwell after the Beverly Glen home was destroyed in a mudslide. For a brief period in the late 1950s, his family moved to San Francisco (where their neighbors included Robert Duncan, Jess and John Wieners), and then to a Larkspur houseboat when the Beatnik tourism craze began to crimp Wallace’s style. They were there long enough for Tosh, an only child driven by an unstoppable imagination and a fear of stairwells, to flunk kindergarten (twice!) and require a nascent form of public school “special education.”
The bulk of Tosh’s engaging, colorful memoir, however, takes place in Topanga Canyon, a locale in the 1960s that was particularly ripe and rife with characters, con men, druggies, and outcasts. For a good chunk of that time, the Berman house was central to the Los Angeles bohemian scene.
Though the book is about Tosh, it is also about his father, the enigmatic and influential Wallace Berman. Wallace never voted, was kicked out of nearly every school he entered, skirted the law as often as possible, and never had what could be construed as a job. Tosh’s mother, the superhumanly patient Shirley, was committed to the bohemian lifestyle too, though she’s the one who held down the paying jobs, made the meals, cleaned up messes and placated many of the more unpredictable and at times threatening houseguests.
Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World contains just the right amount of devotion and blunt honesty to keep it from becoming overly sentimental. It’s a tale of filial love and, at times, unintended dysfunction, as well as the survival after his father’s tragic death (on his 50th birthday) and transformation into a creative, well-adjusted, happily married (to artist Lun*na Menoh) adult.
I knew there was another world out there because I saw odd shows like My Three Sons, or Father Knows Best and realized that there was another planet that was very different from my world.
Tosh Berman kindly agreed to sit for the following wide-ranging conversation:
PKM: What is your earliest memory of your father as an artist? Or, perhaps, when you first realized what he did had some lasting importance?
Tosh Berman: When I was a child, Wallace didn’t have a studio separate from the household. So when we lived in Beverly Glen, when I was a baby, he would work in the front room of the house. Keep in mind that there was only a kitchen, the living room (where my parents slept, as well as my dad’s studio), a bedroom (for yours truly) and a bathroom. To go to the bathroom, one had to go through my bedroom. So, from the very beginning or when I became aware of my world, I would see my father working away in the living room making art. It wasn’t until the early 1960s that my father had a studio, and that was almost directly across from our home. Even when he moved his artwork and supplies into the studio space, I also went along and hung out with him while he was working on his artwork.
I recognized his ‘lasting importance’ when he became a face behind The Beatles on their Sgt. Pepper album cover. For me, it was the moment where I thought that my dad may be different from his other artist friends at the time.
PKM: What was an average day like in the Berman household in Topanga Canyon, when you were older?
Tosh Berman: An average day for me was school. I went to elementary school in the canyon, and then to junior high and high school in Woodland Hills, which is part of the San Fernando Valley. I took the school bus back and forth to school. Inside the house, my parents usually woke up around 8:30. My father would read the newspaper from front cover to the back, and then go to his studio. At the time, his studio was either in the garage or the structure he had built in a lot next to our property. He would spend the late morning to early evening in the studio but would go back and forth to the house. He would take breaks, such as going to see friends, such as the artist George Herms, or the artists/actors Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, and Billy Gray (who played “Bud” on Father Knows Best). His schedule was flexible, but his work habits consumed every day. He subscribed to the Village Voice and Interview magazine and would read those publications from front cover to the back as well. At the time of Topanga, my mother was very much focused on the home and rearing me up in my high school years. In the Beverly Glen era, it was mostly my dad who took care of me on a daily basis while my mother worked in boutiques and as a model for department store ads. At the time the family would watch TV together. I remember Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, a family favorite. In the 1970’s it had a cult following. Not that far off from something like Twin Peaks now. But in the Canyon, my father was both reclusive as well as social to his pals in the neighborhood.
PKM: To your parents, Topanga Canyon was like an isolated clubhouse filled with friends, but you didn’t always share that sense of it. You mention the pervasive sense of paranoia that you felt, even as a teenager. Where did that paranoia come from? Was it post-Manson freakout? End of the hippie pipedream?
Tosh Berman: My parents, by a fault of that era, were part of the Hippie/Beat, even though they never thought of themselves as being part of that group. On a social level, it was a private clubhouse that included my parents, Dean, Russ, Billy, George Herms, and others, but there was also a strong Neil Young contingent. Many of Neil’s employees lived and worked with the musician in the canyon, and even when he moved off to Northern California, they still worked for him in some manner. Looking back, I see the Neil world as being very much like a combination of Elvis and his Memphis guys, and Sinatra and his Rat Pack. I don’t think it’s a mistake that Neil was on Reprise [record label]. He’s very aware of the tradition. So, in the Canyon, there were a few social groups that were very tight. It was a strong, music-orientated world, including Neil, but also Canned Heat, Spirit, Flying Burrito Brothers, and so forth. The Topanga Corral was the club to go to, and the ‘only’ club/bar that was active in the music scene. Funnily, it’s not as famous as the Whisky or the Roxy on the Sunset Strip, but The Topanga Corral was sort of the CBGB of the hippie 60s/early 70s/ pre-punk era music club/bar. I border-line hated the place because I was into glam. I couldn’t stand the Neil Young music world, or that country-rock crap. Now, much older, I still hate that music! Except for Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again,” which I think is a masterpiece. Spirit is also good. But the Flying Burrito Brothers, not so hot to me. Although I have to say my dad loved The Flying Burrito Brothers. Often he would go see them at the Coral, and it would be him and the Rolling Stones in the audience, and no one else. On the other hand, every Sunday at the Corral they did have these afternoon jazz sessions that were pretty good if memory serves.
The issue of paranoia was very strong those years. It was the combination of narcotics in the Topanga world—pot, heroin, acid—and the undercover police activity in the canyon. There was consistent awareness that certain individuals may have been part of the police force or finks for the cops. Then, on top of that, there is the political upheaval of those years, with the issues of the Black Panthers, etc. The thing is, I think the only black person I knew in Topanga is Taj Mahal, the great blues singer, who lived in the canyon.
I think the nature of canyons, since they are usually separated by two areas—for instance, a beach and the valley—is that they become highways from one place to another. People who live in the canyon become suspicious of strangers stopping by. In general, individuals who move to a rural area are usually avoiding certain aspects of city life…they don’t really want to mingle with the enormous population, for various reasons. A typical Topanga citizen to me is a single mom with multiple children, their ‘old men’ or, as the guys would say, about their female partners, their ‘old lady,’ which can be considered a ‘charming’ phrase, but I find it sickening. The Manson killings for sure destroyed a specific aspect of the utopia feeling among Hippie communities in Los Angeles. For one, the murder took place in Topanga, and two, everyone knew someone from the Manson world. I don’t think all were aware of the danger from this grouping, but it did seem to be an end of an era. Manson not only got involved in the counterculture world but also in the showbiz planet as well. I always had the feeling that people knew who did the killings before Manson and others were accused but kept it to themselves. It was a creepy time in Topanga.
PKM: At some point in your early childhood, the family relocated to San Francisco, just in time for the Beat scene to become part of the tourist bus destinations. From a kid’s standpoint, why did you think Los Angeles was a better or more desirable place than San Francisco? You called the latter a “horror show”. And you say you flunked kindergarten?!
Tosh Berman: San Francisco on many levels was a total delight. What made it a ‘horror show’ for me was my feelings of vertigo in that city. Also, it was my first awareness of being in a large city. That, I liked. But the structures in San Francisco had a lot of steps and hills which by my nature, I couldn’t take or stand, due to vertigo. And yes, I flunked kindergarten twice. This was when we lived north of San Francisco, in Larkspur.
The Manson killings for sure destroyed a specific aspect of the utopia feeling among Hippie communities in Los Angeles. For one, the murder took place in Topanga, and two, everyone knew someone from the Manson world.
My father wanted to move to San Francisco, because he had friends there, and I think he was feeling bitter about his show at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles being closed by the police. So, I think at the time, he thought it would be a better life for him and the family to be in San Francisco, and then later in Larkspur. He hated the tourist industry being focused on the Beatnik or Beat thing. He just wanted to go get a cup of coffee in North Beach without being called out by tourists at the height of the Beatnik era.
PKM: Of all the Beat writers, you seemed most smitten with Michael McClure and Robert Duncan. Were there any that just scared you?
Tosh Berman: No, overall, I liked the artists/writers of that time and period. Michael was very glamorous to me, because he looked like the romantic poet. And Robert was gossipy, amusing, and nice to me as a kid. Him and Jess were incredible people.
Michael McClure reading at University of California:
PKM: What about John Wieners? He was a pretty strange and secretive cat, wasn’t he?
Tosh Berman: As an adult, I think John Wieners was (or is) a fantastic poet. My parents adored him. I remember as a child liking him as well. The problem with John, who we lived with, sort of—he lived upstairs on Scott Street—was picking up men who my dad suspected were undercover cops. And then bringing them back to the household. Paranoia even then was part of my dad’s emotional and mental make-up. I think John was into drugs and at that time, speed was the drug choice for many of the poets/artists in San Francisco.
PKM: The book is filled to the brim with strange, exotic characters one rung below fame. Some of your descriptions left me wanting to know more about people like Billy Batman and John Reed. Does any of Reed’s art still exist?
Tosh Berman: Looking back, all of them are fascinating. As a child, you don’t pick up thoughts like ‘wow he’s weird,’ or ‘gee, he or she’s dangerous.’ Because I knew no other world, except the world of my parents, and what I saw on TV. I knew there was another world out there because I saw odd shows like My Three Sons, or Father Knows Best and realized that there was another planet that was very different from my world. Once I went to public school, I kind of realized that my ‘Beat’-orientated world was not in the mainstream. Billy Batman is a fascinating character and significant to the Wallace world. It was Billy who gave my dad the Verifax machine, which in turn, my dad discovered how to do art with that wet-process copy machine, and also gave him free studio space in Beverly Glen. On top of that, Billy was into hard narcotics and had an incredible gun collection. He often showed me his guns when I visited their household, to see his children (they were around my age). Billy showed this one pistol that looked like it came out of a James Bond film. Sometimes he reminded me of “Q” in the Bond films. He would point out the design of the gun object and would lecture me that guns are not dangerous. In the end, he was stoned in Afghanistan and accidentally shot himself in the stomach. He died from the wound. John Reed was a long-term pal of my dad’s. As a child, he smelled like beer to me and he had this particular laugh that I can’t forget. More of a chuckle, and he chuckled a lot. Now, he sort of reminds me of a character out of a Howard Hawks film, like Walter Brennan. John did do art, but I don’t remember any of it. John was very close to [museum curator] Walter Hopps and lived in Walter’s house when Hopps was working in Texas. I don’t know what happened to his artwork. Sadly, John died in the bushes near a freeway entrance, somewhere in Pasadena.
PKM: Have you compared “notes” with other only children? Or only children of artists or famous people?
Tosh Berman: No, while I was writing my book, I didn’t communicate or talk to any children that I knew at that time. My memoir is really focused on my experience with my parents, and life in San Francisco, Larkspur, a bit of London, and, of course, Los Angeles. One book that caught my eye, but I never read is Martin Amis’ Experience, his own childhood memoir about living with his dad, the novelist Kingsley. At the last moment, I didn’t want to be influenced by his book. Beyond that, I did read a few books for inspiration, including Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s Places of My Infancy which is the author’s childhood memoir, but mostly not about people, but his stately home in Italy. What I got out of Lampedusa’s book is the importance of placement or location, and in that sense, I made San Francisco and Los Angeles into living characters. Or I saw both cities as characters in my book.
The other books that inspired me for my memoir are the English author (and composer) Lord Berners’ The Château de Résenlieu and First Childhood which also has a strong sense of place. I didn’t do any research on the Beat era, nor read books about that time. Still, my memory of my friends or classmates, especially in Topanga, didn’t strike me as a happy place. Many of them were raised by a single parent in sometimes hostile environments. I can’t count how many times I was stuck in Topanga due to mudslides, forest fires, earthquakes, and road repair work. Basically, it’s a two-lane road from the beach to the valley. One way to enter, and one way to exit.
Brian [Jones] was the nicest person. Very kid-friendly. Before I met him, I knew of him as being part of the Rolling Stones, and my first impression of him is that he looks exactly like the back cover of the Aftermath album cover. He was wearing a black turtleneck sweater, white jeans, and tan desert shoes.
PKM: Your father had a library’s worth of influences, both literary and artistic, but some endured throughout his life. Among these were Jean Cocteau. How did Cocteau shape the world of Wallace Berman? The eclecticism?
Tosh Berman: Wallace had a great admiration for Jean Cocteau. I think he appreciated the fact that Jean was a Jack-of-all-trades, or I should say Jacques-of-all-trades. He basically saw himself as a poet first, and everything he did came from that platform or discipline. Therefore, he made poet-cinema, poet-novels, poet-drawings, and so forth. Cocteau was one of the few artists who was consistent with his work in different media. Wallace appreciated that there was an artist who went beyond his particular talent. Being an artist was not only good at 1919—painting or drawing—but also in writing and making cinema. Cocteau was also a dandy, and he had a dandy attitude to his own world, but also the world outside his space. My dad had an incredible appreciation for what is now standard icons. In his early life, a lot of these figures were unknown, but Wallace loved Rimbaud, Mallarme, Baudelaire, and then the DADA and Surrealist poets. Literature was a great backbone to Wallace’s work. He admired Surrealist art by Max Ernst but really loved the poetry from that movement. And of course, like any 20th-century artist, he was a huge fan of Marcel Duchamp.
PKM: Your father’s assemblages and collages are renowned, but other aspects are less known. Such as his experimental filmmaking. Could you talk a bit about that? What was he trying to do with film? Emulate Cocteau’s Orpheus?
Tosh Berman: No, not at all. He loved Cocteau’s work, but I don’t think there is any connection between his artwork and Cocteau’s cinema, drawings, etc. With respect to his film Aleph, it’s very much part of his overall artwork. In a sense, it’s a film version of his photo and Verifax collages.
Wallace was an active film theatergoer. He would go see Hollywood mainstream films, but also spent a great deal of time watching artist’s films, or underground cinema, mostly by his friends Bruce Conner, Lawrence Jordan, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, and others. He learned technique by watching these films, and I suspect that he read Sergei Eisenstein’s Film Sense, his theory on film editing. My dad was naturally a great editor, both in film and in doing his collages. There is something cinematic about his grid pieces with the hands holding the transistor radio. He also had a great admiration for people like Buster Keaton and other artists of the silent era. And of course, admired the work of Surrealist and DADA filmmakers of the 1920s as well.
PKM: Toni Basil is worthy of a separate book. How did she influence the Beat scene of which Wallace and your mom were a part?
Tosh Berman: Toni didn’t influence the Beat scene, but she was very much a friend of both the visual artists of that era as well as the showbiz/dance/music world. She’s the bridge between the two worlds. Through Toni, my parents met Brian Jones, and they hit it off right away. Also, I’m pretty sure she also connected Bruce Conner to DEVO. And Bruce did the Breakaway film with Toni as well as “Mongoloid” with DEVO. And you are right, one needs to write a whole book on the importance of Toni. She also introduced my father to James Brown. Toni was a girlfriend to Dean Stockwell, and that is how Wallace and Shirley (my mom) met Toni. When she was working on the Conner film, she was also dancing on Shindig TV show as well as working on countless “Beach Blanket” rock n’ roll movies, and of course, her work in Five Easy Pieces, Easy Rider, and the best of all, The Monkees Head. In fact, she invited my dad and I to the set of Head. It was a remarkable afternoon. We met Mickey Dolenz!
From Head: Davy Jones and Toni Basil dance sequence
PKM: Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper were friends of your father’s. And they were also close friends with each other. You have nothing but kind words for Stockwell but Hopper, less so. Was Hopper one of those people you had to catch on the right day…?
Tosh Berman: Actually, I liked Dennis a lot. What I didn’t like was the scene at Taos, New Mexico. Dennis and his world invaded Taos, and I suspect the local residents of that town didn’t want his culture or him. We as a family visited him twice. The first time he wasn’t there. I believe he was dealing with his film The Last Movie, but we were taken care of by his employees and friends. They were OK, but the combination of the druggie hippie thing against the Mexican/Spanish Catholic culture wasn’t made in heaven. I remember we drove by a movie theater that Dennis owned, and it was full of gun holes. He would show Luis Bunuel films there, which in theory sounds like a great idea, but….The second time we went there, we stayed with Dennis and his new wife. I remember him wearing PJ’s at night…I think he was trying to arrange a more ‘straight’ life then what he had before. He made an effort! On this trip, we also visited the Robert Downey film set for Greaser’s Palace. Toni had a small role in the film, and we came with Dean on this specific trip. I almost got a role in Easy Rider, but I turned it down by not showing up at the day of the shooting. Dennis insisted that my mom and dad had to be in the film. He wouldn’t take a no for an answer. They are both in the hippie commune scene, with my dad in the background throwing seeds in the field. On that day, I was asked by Dennis if I will be in the film. At the time, I was very impressed with the catering, and thought, all I have to do was stand around, and for that, I could eat as much as I want from the catering table. I wasn’t starving at the time, but I found the catering table unique. I have never been to a work situation where one gets an endless amount of munchies. So, I said yes. He gave me a one-page script told me to remember my line, which was something like “Welcome Billy!” I took the one-page script he gave me, and I decided I couldn’t do this. I just didn’t feel it at the time. To be honest, I think I improved the film by not being in it.
I almost got a role in Easy Rider, but I turned it down by not showing up at the day of the shooting. Dennis insisted that my mom and dad had to be in the film. He wouldn’t take a no for an answer.
PKM: Stockwell and Hopper reunited for Blue Velvet. You mention that famous scene where Stockwell is lip synching Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” to Dennis Hopper. How did that echo back to your memories of the two men?
Tosh Berman: Dean had two best friends at the time. One is Wallace, and the other is Dennis. When Dennis and Dean get together, and they start drinking, it’s not going to end well. I remember an evening with the two of them over at Dean’s house. Beside me, there was Russ Tamblyn and Wallace. Dennis was on the phone trying to get a Topanga woman to come over to the house. He was begging her to come, and I think Dean got on the phone as well to try to convince her to come over.
Meanwhile, my dad found Toni’s microphone, which was attached to an amp, and he turned it on, and while Dean/Dennis was obsessed entirely on the phone with this girl, my dad started to tell Henry Youngman-type jokes, but with no punch lines. Russ and I were in hysterics. And Dennis and Dean totally ignored us, and we are just feet away from each other. As Wallace was handling the mike, he noticed the door was being opened, and he immediately threw the live mike to Russ who caught it. At that moment Toni saw Russ with her mike, and she just lost it. Wallace pretended to be reading something on the couch and acted like he wasn’t involved in any manner with Russ and his mike.
Meanwhile, Dean and Dennis just kept on being on the phone harassing some poor girl. When I saw Blue Velvet and that scene with Dean and Dennis, I thought the film became a documentary. Lynch captured the dynamic between those two. I know Lynch hung out with Dennis and Dean, and I’m sure that is what inspired him to come up with that scene.
PKM: Many people will be surprised to learn that your father and mother were friends with Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. How did that come about?
Tosh Berman: Brian was the nicest person. Very kid-friendly. Before I met him, I knew of him as being part of the Rolling Stones, and my first impression of him is that he looks exactly like the back cover of the Aftermath album cover. He was wearing a black turtleneck sweater, white jeans, and tan desert shoes. I have seen famous people at that time, and I notice that they have a pimple or odd hair, but Brian looked precisely like himself on an album cover. He had a soft voice that was sort of sing/songy. Very gentle. He loved my father. I could always tell when he was over the house because when I wake up there will be an empty wine bottle or two on the ground and all the records were on the floor as well. I remember them listening to jazz and Glen Gould’s recordings. In hindsight, I think Brian’s great strength is that he was sort of the lone ant who goes out to look for food/information, and then he brings back the news to the Queen ant (the Rolling Stones). He explored outside the music world to discover something new. I think he was very adventuresome in that sense. I suspect he was bored being in the Stones world, and I’m pretty sure that my parents never discussed Rolling Stones stuff, except once, Wallace asked him about the fuzz guitar effect on “Satisfaction,” and Brian told him it was a pedal that the guitar was attached to or something like that. The last time I saw Brian was in Topanga Canyon. He called from his limo and said he wanted to come over the house. He did so and had the chauffeur wait outside while he and Keith Richards visited the family. I recall that I was upstairs in my bedroom, and Brian came up to the room to say hello to me. He was very sweet to me. Wallace was concerned about their driver outside, but Brian told him not to worry, because that’s his job, etc. For Wallace, I think he found it awkward that there was someone outside just waiting for Keith/Brian. Both had matching velvet suits, but I think Keith was wearing purple velvet and Brian was wearing something brighter – it could have been pink-colored velvet suit. When they sat down on our couch, they immediately unloaded a series of various narcotics that were hidden on their clothing. Once everything is placed on the table, it sort of resembled a pharmacy. That night, they went off to the Topanga Coral with my dad. But my parents had spent time with Brian on the Sunset Strip. They told me that Brian got really upset with a guy who was bugging him, and I believe that person was Rodney Bingenheimer. Brian may have kicked him!
PKM: Another thing that will surprise many people is the fact that your father is featured, along with Terry Southern, W.C. Fields, et al, on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s. How did it get there?
Tosh Berman: I believe through Robert Fraser, who was an art dealer and had a gallery in London. Robert was vital for artists in Los Angeles at that time. New York was the place to be for art, or at least that is what New Yorkers felt at the time. There was a whole scene in Los Angeles, and Fraser was one of the first European or British art dealers to pay attention to artists here. Robert was a friend of my dad, as well as with Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell. Robert came to Los Angeles a lot during the mid-1960s. He also sold art to the Stones and the Beatles. When they put together the concept of Sgt. Pepper’s together, Robert offered to bring in individuals such as my dad, Larry Bell (still active and with us) and maybe Terry Southern? The Beatles brought in the hardcore British culture stuff on that cover, and I think Robert took care of the other people, perhaps like Burroughs, but then again Bill was in London at that time as well. Michael Cooper shot the photograph and when we went to London in the Summer of Love (1967) I remember seeing the cardboard cutouts, but not of my dad. I don’t know what happened to those cut-outs.
PKM: Did you know Terry Southern? I’ve been in touch with his son and am putting together something about Easy Rider. Do you have any recollection of the filming of that? How Hopper and Fonda treated each other and Southern?
Tosh Berman: We saw a lot of Dennis at this time, and he was consistently wearing his outfit that he wore in the film. In fact, I don’t think he changed his clothing at all during the shoot. And he very much acted like the character off the camera as well. For me at that time, there was no difference between Dennis and his character. I have no recollection of meeting Terry Southern, but I have to imagine that my dad knew him. For sure he would know who he was because he was famous for the Candy book as well as his work with Kubrick on Dr. Strangelove. When I was on the Easy Rider set, everything was really mellow. No tension whatsoever. In fact, when my parents came back without me and told Dennis that I wasn’t going to do the shoot, he just shrugged and threw that part of that script away.
It’s not as famous as the Whisky or the Roxy on the Sunset Strip, but The Topanga Corral was sort of the CBGB of the hippie 60s/early 70s/ pre-punk era music club/bar.
PKM: I laughed at your description of wooing girls in high school and being unable to hide your disgust with bad musical tastes. Two sisters on whom you doted both loved Queen, which ultimately soured you on the girls. Also, ELP and Led Zep. Who were the bands that most got you going? Sparks? Bowie?
Tosh Berman: What does one do when you lust after the sisters, and they love Queen?! As a child, I loved the British Invasion bands. I remember getting a paperback book that listed all the ‘important’ bands of that time – may be the year 1968? Nevertheless, I remember they listed groups like The Move, The Herd (Peter Frampton’s first band), The Doors and so forth. But I was curious to hear The Move because their description in the book sounded fascinating. They mentioned that they smashed TV sets on the stage. How can that not be great? It was five or six years later that I heard my first Move album and loved it. In 1968, it was hard to come upon British bands that never went to the U.S. at the time. As for the Herd, I finally heard their music in 2018, and I bought the U.S. edition of their album, as well as a compilation of their singles that was recently released. The Herd, by the way, are fantastic!
And yes, Sparks are important to me. I wrote a book about them of sorts called Sparks-Tastic. And Bowie is perfection. I also love The Kinks of the 1960s.
PKM: In a way you’ve come full circle to emulate your father’s eclectic approach to the arts—poetry, publishing, film series, talk show. Is that a fair assessment?
Tosh Berman: Without a doubt, my dad was the most significant influence in my life. So, to be honest, there is a strong connection between Wallace and me. For example, I was so freaked out about my father’s death that I couldn’t really deal with it. I wouldn’t be able to do interviews like I’m doing now. I was petrified talking about my dad, because one, I felt he never would want me to talk about him to the press. But two, I found another way of dealing with my father’s world by starting a press, called TamTam Books, and publishing almost the entire works by French author Boris Vian, who beside being an author was a songwriter, singer, jazz musician, A&R for French Philips and a good friend to a lot of American black jazz musicians. He died young because he knew he would die due to a heart problem he had throughout his short life. Wallace told people he will be dead by the age of 50. And he did die on his 50th birthday.Gradually, I realize that by publishing Vian, I was dealing with the memory of my father. Like Vian, my dad was dead center of an exciting culture, and he too loved jazz and literature. So, in a sense dealing with Vian, I was also remotely dealing with the memory of Wallace. In my opinion, the French Existentialists were very much under the shadow or at the same time as the Beat scene in America. If you look at the clothing, they were similar. So even when I’m publishing, in my mind it is also about Wallace and his world. I see parallels in both the U.S. and French world at the time.
And it’s important to note that when it comes to culture, Wallace was very aware of new things that were happening in the arts. He picked up every ‘ism’ out there, and he appreciated it, whether it was Fluxus, conceptual art, feminist art, and so forth. He was for all of it! The same goes for music. He brought into our household the first Velvet Underground album, The Fugs first album, and had an appreciation of the early beginnings of the punk movement. One album that I remember sharing with my dad was Syd Barrett’s first two (and only) solo albums. At the time, there was a release that put both albums together – a double album. My father took these albums, put the headphones on, and listened to the entire two albums in one sitting, and after it was through, he took the phones off his ears and said he was great. The same goes for Roxy Music. He loved “Bogus Man” on For Your Pleasure album. He would put on headphones for that song as well as blasting it really loud on our hi-fi set. He had decidedly advanced taste for a man in his late 40s.
Now, everything is the same. Young people like older music, older people like more youthful music, but in the 70s not that many people of my dad’s generation would listen to both albums by Syd in one setting.
PKM: Where is most of Wallace Berman’s art now?
Tosh Berman: Throughout the world. A lot of museums have his work in their collections. Also in Los Angeles, MOCA has probably the largest amount of his works, and LACMA has quite a few, including a major sculpture by Wallace called “Topanga Seed.”
PKM: Do you own any of your father’s art? If you could have, what artists (besides WB) would you have collected/bought? [I always loved Jess’s collages]
Tosh Berman: Jess is a good call! Amazing painter. Have you seen his portrait of the Beatles? Incredible painting. My favorite artists/painters are Margret Nielsen, Jim Shaw, Marcel Duchamp (of course), Picabia, Duncan Hannah, and although it sounds suspicious on my part, I genuinely love my wife’s art, and her name is Lun*na Menoh.
For more information on Tosh Berman’s new memoir at Citylights.com
PKM’s Gillian McCain will be interviewing Tosh Berman at McNally Jackson Booksellers in Brooklyn on Feb. 21 at 7 p.m.