Twenty years ago, in the fall of 1985, my college room-mate and I got bored and decided to greatly augment the posters and pictures I had decorating our dorm room. In no time we had the walls, doors, dresser drawers, and ceiling covered with photos, newspaper and magazine clippings, posters, photocopies, postcards, and other sorts of visual art.
My parents yanked me out of college for all of the following year, but I came back in 1987 and put up even more pictures. This collection endured in one form or other until 1992, when I moved into an apartment and most of the materials went into my files, and my décor changed.
But when this display was at its most layered and complex drunk or high buddies from my dorm would come knocking late at night and plop themselves on my floor, find an image to study, and lay there for hours sometimes, immersing themselves in another world. The images on the ceiling were especially chosen for their interesting, trippy qualities , and they were not all hung in one direction—you’d have to twist your neck and move around to see each individual picture the “right way.”
Many of the pictures, though, were of my heroes and role models. A friend, after examining the portrait gallery, once observed, “There is no true ‘B___.’ You’re just bits and pieces of all your heroes.”
Perhaps that was true once. I don’t know if it’s true now. At any rate, here’s some, but by no means all, of the people in my cool book—
Lee Marvin, Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin– These men made careers out of not giving a shit, and being cool doing it.
I think it’s interesting that though he was a big star, Lee Marvin regarded his time in the Marines in World War II as the chief experience of his life. He is in fact buried in Arlington, under a government-issue tombstone that lists him only as “LEE MARVIN – PFC –US MARINE CORPS.”
A decade ago I knew a fellow named Ralph Hall, who used to work in Hollywood as a sound and music editor. I asked him who the best and worst people were that he’d worked with, and he singled out Mitchum for his highest praise.
Mr. Hall worked with Mitchum on “Farewell, My Lovely.” According to the Mitchum biography, “Baby, I Don’t Care,” the actor did not get on well with that film’s director, Dick Richards. One evening they were filming near the Pacific Coast Highway and Richards became such a pain in the ass Mitchum grabbed him and dragged him out to the PCH, saying, “Well, let’s see if you can at least direct traffic!”
Frank Sinatra– “The Voice.” The man whose singing always puts me in a calm, dreamy place, no matter what my mood. And as the saying goes, “It’s Frank’s world. The rest of us just live in it.”
In that eventful fall of 1985 I actually got to see FS perform in Houston at the Summit sports arena (later known as Compaq Center, and still later, sadly, as the Reverend Joel Osteen’s Lakewood mega-church). I went with a friend’s suite-mate–Scott–a short, squat little guy with a fringe of whiskers and a penchant for wearing funny hats. He was one of the few people I’ve ever met upon whom I would without reservation hang the title of artistic genius, in that he was able to fart the bass line of the Beatles song “Taxman.”
The night of the concert, we were waiting at one of the entrances to the Summit, and I saw that most of the crowd consisted of middle-aged and old people, but I also noticed a New Wave kid of about 18 or 19, dressed in parachute pants, skinny tie, under-sized hat– now that I think about it he was dressed pretty much the way singer Pete Doherty does today, except that his hair was a little more Robert Smith. I figured this kid had just been dragged along by his grandmother and was only there to humor her.
My buddy and I had eaten an excellent dinner, and had stopped by the Dunhill store in Houston’s Galleria Mall, so we could have some nice cigars to smoke during the concert. (You could actually smoke inside back then.)
Sinatra was great–even his stage patter made me laugh out loud. He was 69 years old then (funny how that no longer seems ancient to me), and though his voice was no longer as perfect as it had been during his artistic zenith during his Capitol Records years (1954-1962), he used its weaknesses to successfully convey the feelings of world-weariness and loss prevalent in many of his songs.
But during one of Frank’s swinging, up-tempo tunes, Scott and I were puffing away, digging it, on top of the world, when I happened to glance over my right shoulder and notice a row or two back and maybe forty feet away, the New Waver and his grandmother, grooving away in their seats, laughing and smiling, having the time of their lives.
Jorge Luis Borges– My favorite writer. A bookish mama’s boy who described himself as a reader first and a writer second, he was obsessed with libraries, time, encyclopedias, labyrinths, legends, scholarly research, sleep, dreams, and the differences between reality and illusion.
Borges taught at UT Austin briefly in the early 60s, and every time I pass his UT office or his apartment building (which director Richard Linklater later called home), I make a slight bow in honor of his spirit.
When I was taking Spanish in college I would practice by copying out Borges poems and stories in the original Spanish, writing on graph paper, the way he did. I would then skip three lines, and attempt an English translation on the second line, and copy a more exact translation from one of my English editions on the third, and then compare the two translations. I should mention I took a year of Spanish in junior high and two years each in high school and college, but still can barely speak or read it. My high school Spanish teacher told my mother “He speaks Spanish like an old Chinese woman.”
Because my folks kept cutting me off financially whenever I did badly in school it took me 12 years to get my BA. When my dad became fatally ill he gave me enough money to finally finish. I completed my last ever undergraduate paper, written on Borges and in Spanish, for my Spanish IV class, in a hospital waiting room an hour before my dad died.
Now most of the people reading this are probably music fans. Imagine, then, what it would be like to have no one with whom you could carry on discussions about music. Well, that’s what it’s like for me in many of my areas of interest. I have, for example, had maybe four intelligent conversations about architecture in my entire life, and I have been fascinated with that subject for years.
So also with Borges. Naturally, then, about a decade ago, when I was in exile in culturally barren Bryan/College Station, I went into ecstatics when I learned a Borges conference had been scheduled for the week of my birthday.
This was the highlight of my year. I took off work, wore a coat and tie to both nights of the conference, met the visiting professors, including one who had been a Borges protege in Buenos Aires (I made a point of shaking his hand, in order to pick up the good mojo by osmosis), and asked lots of questions. One of the strangest things was that because I knew and loved Borges stuff so well, during every presentation I mentally anticipated each speaker’s words by about 30 seconds. I knew exactly what they were about to say and our minds were in perfect harmony.
I arrived early for the second night’s session. The room filled up quickly—it turns out students in lower level Spanish courses were getting extra credit for attending. Borges experts from all over the world gathered at the tables at the head of the room and began huddling together and talking. A couple looked up and pointed at me. Surely I was imagining things.
But after about ten minutes of this the MC of the conference, the head of the A&M Spanish Department, came over and leaned toward me. He spoke English with a very thick accent.
–Yes, Professor ________ is one of the lecturers tonight and he needs an English translation of a Borges poem…Como se dice?… “Poem of the Gifts?” Would you have an English translation of this?
–(Taken aback and flattered) Yes, it’s probably my favorite poem of his, but I don’t have it with me.
–Could you possibly get it before the conference starts?
–Well, I came here on a bicycle. I don’t know if I could get there and back fast enough.
–That’s okay. I’ll find someone to drive you.
–I have three different English translations. Which should I bring?
–All of them if you can, thanks.
All the students were now looking at me, wondering what was going on. Soon a graduate student approached and announced that she was to be my driver. I got up from my seat and as we walked out the students started murmuring, “Who is that guy?”
My driver and I headed outside and to the parking lot.
–So, Mr. B____, what university are you from?
–I’m not with a university.
–Well, what paper are you delivering tonight?
–I’m not delivering a paper. I’m a clerk in a used bookstore here in town. I’m just a fan of Borges.
Then as now my apartment was in no condition for me to allow visitors. I ran in, found the books, and we zipped back to campus. The conference had already started. My driver took the books to the professor who needed them. He examined them, frowned, then set them aside. I found out afterwards that he needed a translation not of “The Poem of the Gifts,” but of “The Other Gift.” The professor who’d approached me had bungled the titles.
I was invited to a party for the Spanish faculty, grad students, and guest speakers, where Argentine food and wine were to be served and gaucho songs sung, but it was at a house on the other side of town. I couldn’t bike that far in the dark in a jacket and tie, and I was too ashamed of my station to ask anyone for a ride.
Mark Twain– Road trip accounts have been a cornerstone of American literature at least from the time of Captain John Smith, and Twain certainly made his contributions in that area.
I remember working as a tour guide at the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in the early ’80’s, sitting in the Museum’s stone-lined rotunda, giving out with great nasal cackles while reading Twain’s “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”
Twain was an enormous influence on my style and voice. I’ve always loved how he cloaked arch and sarcastic observations in purple Victorian prose.
Jack London– Another great writer/adventurer. And he did it all in 40 years. When I think that I’m 42 and have accomplished comparatively nothing it makes me want to bury my head in the sand.
I’ve always been drawn to London’s credo (though I clearly don’t live it): “I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
Huey Long– The T. Harry Williams biography of Long is one of the best biographies of anyone I’ve ever read. It painted Long as not only a ruthless wielder of power, but also as someone who had great comic skills, and who did not let status and importance change his behavior and nature. He once almost caused an international incident by receiving a German ambassador while wearing pajamas, and earned a black eye in a night club men’s room for pissing on the man ahead of him in line at a urinal. My kinda guy.
Norman Mailer– Mailer is the only writer of the post-war Jewish-American renaissance I’ve ever been able to get into, and I confess I’ve only read his non-fiction. His mind fascinates me, even when I don’t agree with him.
Still, about 20 years ago he was asked in an interview in “Esquire” magazine about the nature of manhood, about what it means to be a man. He responded every man fears that he is not man enough, but that to be a man is to do just a little bit better than everyone expects of you. I found this comforting on one level, but disappointing on another, since people have always had such high expectations of me.
Jack Kerouac–Kerouac has influenced me on some levels I’ve barely begun to understand. He’s even influenced me theologically. My favorite book of his is “Lonesome Traveler.” While I like “On the Road,” the type in my copy is so small it took me several tries before I could get all the way through it. (I had the same problem with “The Catcher in the Rye,” until someone loaned me a large-type edition.)
Johnny Cash– Cash contained multitudes. He was a combination of an Old Testament patriarch and an American Founding Father, and was both Saturday sinner and Sunday saint. He was as comfortable in the company of Richard Nixon and Billy Graham as he was with Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson. The contradictions of the American character resolved themselves in him, and I’ll always regret I never got to see him perform live.
Frank Lloyd Wright–When I was a kid I wanted to be an architect, and Wright was, after all, the most colorful one to ever come down the pike. I was reading Wright’s books about the same time the other kids my age were reading, “Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret,” and his rather lyrical writing style and peculiar notions of capitalization warped and influenced me for years. I’ve long been fond of two quotations of his:
“Early in life, I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change.”
“Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities.”
Wright’s spending often got him in major trouble, and he never lived within his means. Once a sheriff came by Wright’s Chicago studio to collect a long-neglected debt. While Wright’s son John entertained the sheriff by showing him some drawings, Wright ran out the back way with a stack of Japanese prints.
As luck would have it, a major collector of Japanese prints was in town that day, so Wright sold the prints to the collector, went back home, paid the sheriff, then went with his son on a major spending spree, buying furniture, art works, and a couple grand pianos, topping off the day with a meal in an expensive restaurant, after which he was back living on his credit again. John wrote that for some reason his father seemed to thrive on the danger of living beyond his means, and I can definitely sympathize with that.
William S. Burroughs– The Beat I most identify with. Burroughs was always the sage, the elder the others always consulted. He had the darkest, most pessimistic vision of the world of all that bunch. And I can certainly understand what it must have been like for him to have spent an entire year staring at the toe of his shoe. (No, I’ve never been a junkie, but I have been that bored—many, many times.)
I’ve gone looking for Uncle Bill’s ghost several times. I hunted down his former home in Algiers, Louisiana the first time I went to New Orleans. And I’ve tried to locate his old marijuana plantation in New Waverly, Texas, which is halfway between Willis, where I went to high school, and Huntsville, where I went to college. Burroughs’s son was born in a hospital in Conroe that my architect/contractor grandfather worked on, and I’ve seen Burroughs “cut-ups” that included newspaper clippings from Point Blank, Texas, the hamlet where my father was born.
John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen– They set the bar for American masculinity at a level that’s impossible to reach, yet it’s fun to try.
For me the coolest scene in “Bullitt” is not the car chase, but when McQueen goes grocery shopping: He just lopes over to the frozen food case, sticks in both arms, and comes back with two stacks of TV dinners; it’s clear he doesn’t care which kind they are.
And Newman gave us the amoral role model Hud Bannon: “You don’t look out for yourself, the only helping hand you’ll ever get is when they lower the box.”
Yukio Mishima– A deeply complicated man, both a sensitive artist and near-cartoonish, self-promoting he-man. His very public act of seppuku was something, like Hemingway’s own suicide eight years earlier, he had been rehearsing in his life and art for years.
Henry Miller– For years Henry Miller was known only for the sexual content of his books, but that’s the element I’ve always cared least about. I’ve always loved his digressions and philosophical ruminations, as well as his Whitmanesque appetite for life. Read the interviews he gave when he was an old man–he was definitely centered, a modern sage. (“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.”)
Most people are introduced to Miller through “Tropic of Cancer,” but the first one I bought was “The Books in My Life.” I thought it was fascinating to find a writer who was willing to go beyond merely listing his favorite books and actually talking at length about them. But what cinched the sale was the essay, “Reading in the Toilet.”
Years ago a friend of mine took a date to see “Henry and June,” the first-ever NC-17 film, about the romance of Miller and Anais Nin. My friend was in the same boat as me and Miller–he was a downwardly mobile, out-of-shape writer–but the movie made Miller into a sex symbol, and it consequently got my friend laid that night.
Hunter S. Thompson– My liberator.
My friend Max (the Bob Sacamano to my Cosmo Kramer) always claimed, “I never pushed you over the edge. I could tell you were already at least half-nuts when I met you. I just alerted you to the presence of the edge and you jumped off on your own.”
One of the ways Max helped in this was in turning me on to Thompson. I was at Max’s house one night, and needed to spend some quality time in the bathroom and wanted something to read. Max suggested “The Great Shark Hunt,” the first volume of Thompson’s collected articles. And from then on I was hooked.
“Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” was to me what “The Catcher in the Rye” is to most young people. Thompson offered a different path, a way of living life that had nothing to do with suburbia, 9-to-5, Little League, and all that other soul-sucking, rule-obeying, middle-class American bullshit.
Thompson was also, after you stripped away his theatrical persona, a damned good reporter and a keen barometer of the nation’s ebbs and flows. He was a gateway drug as well, as true devotees of his work invariably seek out the works of his literary outlaw brethren–Henry Miller, Burroughs, Kerouac, Bukowski, et al.
Early on I came to understand the Thompsonian notion of “bad craziness.” One night in my first year of college, Max and I had gotten dressed up, with the intention of going out on the town in Houston. But Max had been invited to a party at the home of his friend, Larry Brantley, who still was in high school. We agreed we’d not stay long—just drop by, have a drink, then leave.
Larry was going through his own Hunter Thompson fixation at the time, and greeted us at his front door wearing a Hawaiian shirt, fishing hat, sunglasses, shorts, and canvas shoes, carrying a martini glass and a cigarette in a holder, while affecting an incomprehensible slur.
Most of the guests looked to be high school freshmen and sophomores. One kid tried to engage Max in conversation, announcing that he needed to get a new “such-and-such” wheel for his skateboard. Max replied, “Well, I need a lover that won’t drive me crazy.” I guffawed at that, but the kid was completely lost.
We went into the back yard to find the ice chests with the beer. Larry had neglected to tell us he was having a pool party. Max and I were very much over-dressed. About a dozen kids were cavorting in and around the above-ground pool. We tried to ignore them, and took a couple seats off to the side.
But naturally, some of these punks decided they’d impress the girls by making these two older, out-of-shape guys look foolish. Before we realized it, these kids jumped on us, and tried to pull us away from our beers and dunk us in the pool.
Now neither Max nor I wanted to spend the night driving around Houston in wet, squishy clothes. And we also didn’t want to have to go back to our homes and change again. I wore contact lenses at that time, and I wasn’t supposed to get them in water. And furthermore, I can’t swim. So we fought it.
Max is about the size of a linebacker, and he was twisting around to the left and right, like an amusement park octopus ride, slinging kids off his arms. I had several guys holding onto me from the front and back and I couldn’t push them off.
But my forearms were free.
I got rid of the guy in front by stubbing out my cigarette on his forehead. He ran off screaming. But if the guy who had me from behind now realized that I fought dirty, it didn’t deter him. He was locked on good and tight.
I moved forward to the edge of the patio and found a steel chair (not aluminum, not cast iron—steel). I picked it up, raised it over my head, and holding it behind me, began beating this guy in the head with it until he let go.
Needless to say, Max and I left the party soon afterwards. Larry, FYI, went on to minor fame on children’s TV as the voice of “Wishbone,” a dog with an interest in great literature.
Spalding Gray– Last year’s literary suicide. Gray, for good or ill, showed me what could be done with autobiographical material, although, yes, I realize how problematic that style can be when not properly handled.
Teddy Roosevelt– Another renaissance man with a colorful life. I was obsessed with him when I was in intermediate school, to a degree everyone found tiresome.
Katharine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn, and Diana Rigg (“Mrs. Emma Peel”)– Mix these women together and you’d have my idea of the perfect woman.
Diana Rigg in a black leather cat suit? Meow!
And if there’s a sweeter, more perfect romantic comedy than Audrey Hepburn’s “Roman Holiday,” I’d like to see it.
James Garner, Lorne Greene, Jack Lord, William Shatner, Patrick Macnee, Patrick McGoohan– Jim Rockford, Ben Cartwright, Steve McGarrett, Captain James T. Kirk, John Steed, and John Drake/Number Six respectively. Gods of the little talking box.
John Huston– Huston was fond of quoting his friend Gene Fowler’s line, “Money is for throwing off the back of trains.” He had life pretty well figured out. For years he lived in a manor house in Ireland, where he kept his friends, his guests, his mistresses, his wine cellar, and his art collection. A mile away, on the far side of his property, on the other side of a stream, in a small cottage, he kept his wife and children.
Winston Churchill– Another renaissance man. A great player who impatiently awaited his hour on the stage.
Jack Nicholson–A comedian once did a bit where he talked about exclusive night clubs. You want to be one of the cool people that gets in that club, so you beg and bribe and if you’re lucky, the bouncer will let you past the velvet rope and inside. But once there you learn there’s an even more exclusive VIP Room within the club, filled with even cooler people. You get in there and find that inside that is another VIP Room, and so on and so on.
And at the very center of these rooms is a VIP Room where Jack Nicholson sits by himself.
Look at it this way—at any given hour of the day or night, who is more likely to be having the best time, you or Jack?
And though “As Good As It Gets” was a popular hit with audiences, it was a cult hit with my friends, because in it Nicholson nails my personality and characteristics in so many particulars, even down to my supposed habit of clearing my throat obnoxiously when I answer the phone. I watch this movie when I want to laugh at myself.
Tom Waits (another hero of mine) appeared in the movie “Ironweed” with Nicholson, and he marveled at how well-rounded a guy Jack was. He said Jack was just as comfortable and at ease squatting in a train yard, eating out of a can, as he was attending high society dog shows. That to me is the definition of savoir-faire, and I am constantly working to attain that high state of development.
Willie Nelson– The Bodhisattva of the Pedernales. His movie, “Songwriter,” made me want to move to Austin and go into show business. Never mind what a train wreck that dream turned out being.
Ernest Hemingway– Okay, so maybe I’m no fan of blood sports, but I do admire Papa. And he’s another one of those people who have set an impossibly high bar, so that many of the writers since his time have classified themselves as failures for not living lives as adventurous as his.
I have never consciously tried to write like Hemingway, but his extensive thoughts on the writing process have influenced me enormously. He regarded writing, as I do, as a mystical, magical, and near-religious process that is more than the sum of its parts.
William Faulkner– Faulkner is one of those writers who is so great he makes us lesser writers into whimpering, scared little balls of goo. Sometimes his insights and observations, and his way of expressing same, have blown out the back of my skull with their brilliant power, and made me wonder if I should dare to submit my work to anything more important than a “Reader’s Digest” humor column.
Mick Jagger– Mick’s pretty much done everything he’s wanted all his life, and has lived the sort of life most people only dream of. And he’s got a head on his shoulders too–I knew what he was doing in 1990 when he “married” Jerry Hall in a Hindu ceremony in Bali. When Jerry tried to divorce him years later Mick’s lawyers insisted the marriage wasn’t valid in the first place…because neither bride nor groom was Hindu.
David Bowie– Another genius at re-invention, Bowie also has an interesting mind. He gives great interviews and unlike many celebs, talks about books a great deal. But whereas Sting reads big books and then writes songs about them so he can show off how smart he is, Bowie seems to read more because he has a wide-ranging fascination with the world.
And no one alive looks as cool in a suit as Bowie does.
Elvis Presley– Of course there’s his musical legacy, but as an overweight Southern man with mother issues, and a fondness for over-spending, staying up all night and sleeping all day, eating junk food, and gobbling prescription pills, I find Elvis the man a great standard-bearer.
Fred B______– This one has pared down life to Zen-like essentials, even for a dog. He has taught me that there is no problem that can’t be solved by either sleep or yodeling.
[NOTE: And how did I manage to leave out Serge Gainsbourg, Napoleon, and Charles Bukowski?…]