Bill Brodecky Moore July 2003
One morning Paul Alexander showed up at George Stanley's and my apartment on upper Polk Street. He had not yet been to bed, as was his pattern. We sat in my studio and discussed the need for a gallery, which we had talked about previously. This time we decided to do something about it. Paul said he would go out looking for a space that very day. Paul always refers to history for guidance, and this was the case here. He went, presumably sleepless, to Japan Town where Ebbe Borregaard had had the Borregaard Museum some years previously, and rented one of the two-story Victorian flats in a building containing four set in a row, with Japanese shops and restaurants underneath, with long front and back porches on the second floor and tall bay windows on the third. Borregaard had had the first flat in the row, we rented the second, and Ernie Edwards and Bill McNeil rented the fourth, later renting out their lower floor to the astrologer Gavin Arthur (descendant of the president), who would be visited by streams of celebrities.
Something that people today don't realize or remember is that in the sixties the San Francisco painting scene was completely dominated, indeed monopolized, by the San Francisco Art Institute painters. If you were not among them, you did not exist and could never make a gallery connection. Further, there was no way to join that group unless you adopted their self-centered view, attended that school or, preferably, taught there. Most of our group weren't impressed with the Institute, which was expensive to attend and therefore attracted mainly people who could afford to go there, rather than the most talented. This was one of the main reasons for our starting Buzz: to have the one thing we would never have otherwise, a place to show.
There was another element involved in our existence as a group, one which I don't totally understand, or if I do, I cannot articulate as clearly as is required. And that is that we were essentially romantic painters with strong intellectual interests and a recognition of the importance of poetry to our vision. The poets were the main element of the San Francisco Renaissance, as our movement is now called, and we painters had a subsidiary, though essential, part in the drama. The important thing was that we recognized the magic that came from a symbiotic relationship with the poets. Duncan, Spicer, Blaser, Adam, Kyger, Stanley, Dull, Borregaard, Edwards, MacInnis, Todd, Kielty, Fabian, Ellingham, Fagin, all of them, had electric interactions with painting, and this is what we thrived on.
We asked Larry Fagin, who was wildly enthusiastic about painting, to join us as directors.
At our opening show Jess exhibited four of his new "Translation" series. They were impressive. We had them all together on one wall in the second room. Nemi Frost was going with Tom Wallace at the time, and she pulled him over to them and asked him what he thought of them, as if her opinion of them would depend on his (which was a tactic she often used with her men, one which the rest of us thought amusing because if there was ever a woman sure of her own opinion it was Nemi Frost). Seeing him hesitate (no one had ever seen anything like them before), she added firmly, "I'm not sure I like them." I was shocked that she would have the impertinence to question the quality of Jess Collins' work. I assumed this was her way of telling Tom Wallace that he was not to like them. Jess had made Nemi a pariah at their (Robert Duncan and Jess's) house for doing a painting of Duncan lying on a couch under a potted palm, his crossed eyes clearly visible, his pose reminiscent of Truman Capote. So she wasn't about to have her boyfriend liking Jess's paintings. (The best part of the Duncan painting was the palm, which revealed Nemi's convincing drawing when she wanted to get into it.)
The shoestring on which we started the gallery barely stretched to include paint for the walls, and therefore Robert Duncan enraged me at one of the openings by standing in the hall with one foot planted against the wall behind him, leaving a nice dark footprint on our new Pearl Gray.
Nemi had to have what we pretended was a photo session after we got her show hung. It was a glamour show, all right, and we did glamour poses for the camera. Nemi was the star and we gay men were the back-up boys. I thought at the time, Good Lord, so much egotistical fuss. And all these decorative paintings. But of course it's ten times as much fun as anyone else's.
Fran infuriated me by asking Robin to hang her show, revealing that she didn't trust Paul or me to do it. I acted bratty and pouty throughout the hanging, and later I called Robin to apologize, since it was only later that I realized why I was angry. "I guess you think I'm neurotic," I said. He replied with his usual diplomacy, "You 're complicated." Fran took the unusual step of having food at her opening. I thought, well, she's a woman. They always think of food. (But in fact neither Nemi Frost nor Lori Lawyer had food at their openings.)
I was proud of my large portrait of Lew Ellingham in one of the group shows. Stan Persky's review for Open Space (his poetry magazine), which I read recently as if for the first time, mentions the fact that I had two other paintings in that show, a large "Europa" (after Titian, a project Paul Alexander and I had undertaken), and a small one with moonlight of the same subject. I can barely remember these paintings.
Early on we had a Poets' Show, since the majority of our clique were poets (or "rime- slingers" according to Nemi, who called Bolinas "rime-slingers' Sun City"). The entire hallway and part of the stairway were given over to snapshots by Helen Adam. A few strangers wandered in, and those among them who were painters (aggressive young men accompanied by their thin, hanging-back Old Ladies), complained bitterly, "You'll never sell anything, with shit like this"). Not wishing to appear retaliatory, we did not disabuse them of the idea that they might be considered to exhibit there.
One day at work (Merchandising Mettlods), Ebbe Borregaard told me he had been to the gallery. "You 've got to do something about that cat-spray smell," he said. "It's overpowering." But there was very little we could do about it, since both the back and front porch were shared by all four flats and were stalked "24/7" (as people say now) by male cats of every type, the most startling of which was a Siamese kitten that, with tooth and claw, terrified all the heavy, lumbering tabbies and blacks that tried to approach and make use of the various spray-areas.
Larry Fagin made the fatal mistake of trying repeatedly to enlist painters we didn't know (such as Lori Lawyer, who had a show). Paul and I were appalled, since we felt that if we had wanted to have anything to do with Painters We Didn't Know, we would have done something about it a long time ago. We realized we would have to ask Larry to drop out, which we did as kindly as we knew how. Actually, I let Paul take care of the matter, since Larry was my oldest friend in San Francisco. Larry was hurt but also opposed to our in-groupish view.
Jack Spicer, who, though we didn't really realize it, was dying, boycotted Buzz and never appeared there at any of our shows or other events. He had long since laid down the law that North Beach never went west of Van Ness or south of California. No doubt he felt that Buzz was Duncan territory, and therefore more or less Mordor (Tolkien's evil city). That George Stanley was enthusiastic about Buzz reflected his having broken ideologically with Spicer, since not long previously he had been one of the mouthpieces of Spicer's geographic rules.
Leroi Jones (using his Muslim name, which I forget) read one night, accompanied by a small army of very large and black bodyguards wearing some kind of marker—a ribbon over one shoulder or something. It was all slightly frightening. The place was packed.
Richard Brautigan also packed the place with his reading of In Watermelon Sugar. I complimented him effusively afterward, even though I thought the book less good and more stylized than Trout Fishing in America, which I had thought dry and too deliberately droll when he read it in a Mission District former church (at which Spicer, who had been a close adviser, was present, proving that his geographic rules were spotty).
One night we had a reading of one of James Kielty's plays. Nemi and Joanne had parts, and when they arrived, Joanne (who was in black) calmly but avidly asked Nemi, "What are you wearing?" Nemi said, "You'll see." She disappeared upstairs and came down in a skin-tight floor-length gold lamé sheath. Joanne, who was prepared to be outdone, laughed in delight.
One time before one of our events started, Joanne said she had heard a pretty new song on the radio. "How does it go," I asked. She said, "Let me go up to the john and see if I can remember." She descended the stairs singing, perfectly on key, Something tells me I'm into something good. Later I heard that she had played the violin as a child, and realized this was why she had such a good sense of pitch.
Duncan and Joanne and Larry Fagin were there one afternoon and began an improvisation session. They urged me to join in, but I was frozen with shyness.
Duncan would occasionally come and spend a few hours with us, holding forth in the kitchen. The most brilliant of several brilliant afternoons was when he got started on the artists and thinkers who were "theosophists." I can't remember the list, but it included himself and Jung. I felt vindicated, since earlier George and Robin had been with me one evening in my room upstairs and George had laughed at Jung's term "participation mystique," which refers to the spiritual dangers of identifying with a group. I was shocked and disappointed by his attitude, since Jungian psychology had been one of the few intellectual structures (if not the only one!) that I felt I had actually understood. Robin, too, said he didn't like Jung because "he made it all sound like chemistry or something." (On the other hand it was perfectly palatable to me when, later, Larry Kearney said he didn't like Jung because he didn't like writers who "sound like what they mean," a criticism I agreed with.)
Once we had the rare honor of having Jess in the kitchen, but the afternoon soon became rancorous when Paul derided Moreau's big vase sculpture at the De Young and Jess defended Moreau with cold fury, clearly identifying with his aesthetic.
Paul hated my interest in psychology, and seemed to think it ran counter to art. Once he blew up at me in the breakfast room, and I was deeply shocked and felt that his true feelings had finally come out. But this was not the case. It was merely that Paul believes that art leads to revelation, whereas I believe that revelation produces art. (Something along those lines.)
Pauline Kael attended one of the shows, probably David Allen's since they were great friends. She wore a full skirt, below which her legs, wide apart in assertiveness, seemed awfully thin. "Where the hell do I know you from," she bellowed at me when I entered the room. I replied a bit coldly (or tried to, at least), saying that I doubted we had ever met, and if we had I didn't remember it.
One day Paul, while cooking, said, "Bill McNeill’s the most talented of all of us, if he weren't so silly!" This made a big impression on me, and I looked closely at McNeill’s work to see what Paul's words meant. When Fran Hemdon came over to plan the hanging of her show, the remains of the previous one, a group show, were up, including an acrylic on paper of an iris by McNeill. Fran said, staring at it, "How marvelous!" I was amazed, since North Beach had always despised everything McNeill did or represented.
Tom Field, who lived down the porch with Ernie Edwards and Bill McNeill on and off, was drunk one hundred percent of the time at this period. Once I emptied a jug of his red wine down the sink, thinking he would be too drunk to remember that he had one. Not true. I can't remember Tom's one-man show except Shell Oil on the biggest wall looking sort of like a natural cave artifact rather than a painting. It was a valiant and touching—although baffling and sort of mind-scrambling—excrescence. It was later lost, along with Paul's great yellow After Goya. Someone moved to Boston and left both of them there, never to be seen or heard of again.
Paul started a portrait of Stan Persky that was strong and beautiful, but he destroyed it when they had a falling-out.
Robert Duncan gave a triumphant reading to a large audience at the Berkeley Poetry Conference, and afterward somehow wound up at Buzz, probably merely because the person he got a ride back with went there. In any case, as far as I remember, it was unplanned. I allowed Duncan to seduce me, and we wound up in my bed. The next day I took his watch, which he had left on the bedside apple crate, with me to another Berkeley reading, perhaps one at which Duncan was the MC. I made a public spectacle of handing him his watch, and he was embarrassed. Then later I gossiped about the night at Robert Berg's (who was Robin's boss at the State College Library), with Robin present. I had no idea Robin would react the way he did, which was to stalk out. Robin had proposed to me on a couple of occasions, but though I hung on his every word I had no sexual feelings for him and, although terribly flattered, didn't take his approaches very seriously. Robin had been the victim on several occasions well known to our entire group of Duncan's competitive bitchiness, and the fact that I had gone to bed with Duncan was hurtful to him. Berg scolded me in disbelief that I could be so callous to Robin. I was shocked, confused, embarrassed and miserable, since I adored Robin and found Duncan unlikable, although a fantastic turn-on artistically. Robin then published a poem in Open Space containing the phrase "star-fuckers replete," and I knew he meant me. Some years later when I was telling this story at a dinner party, emphasizing my passive, naive, unthinking innocence in the matter, Nemi nailed me to the wall saying, "I've never understood why you can't just admit that you're proud of the fact that it was you that Duncan wanted to take to bed on his night of triumph."
In June of 1966 my college friends Sydney Jean Wade (to whom I had once proposed) and Vince Flynn, were married in San Francisco and had their reception at Ghirardelli Square. I had a new union job as a warehouseman at a beauty-supply wholesaler's and couldn't leave to attend the wedding, but I did make it right after work to the reception, where we all drank champagne. At that time I didn't know I was hypoglycemic, and the champagne on an empty stomach had a powerful effect. I staggered out to the bus stop in front of the Maritime Museum and passed out under a stone dolphin. The police picked me up, put me in a paddy wagon, and drove away. At Van Ness, in a rush to get to a summons, the paddy wagon turned over. I was alone in it, unconscious, and must have bounced around a fair amount against the steel benches. I was taken to the emergency room and treated like a malingerer by the doctor there, then sent on to jail. George Stanley and Stan Persky bailed me out. The overturned wagon was pictured on the front page of the Chronicle that morning. A few days later I went for more x-rays and was discovered to have what I have always enjoyed calling a broken neck: a fractured vertebra in the neck. I was put in a brace and lay on my bed at Buzz for weeks or months, taking codeine for the pain. Ernie Edwards loaned me his French beaux-arts bronze statue of Mercury for company, and Paul and Tom and McNeill were very kind with cooking and visiting. I sued the City and received $12,000, most of which I spent on Gestalt Therapy. But I also rented a relatively nice apartment on Nob Hill (rent something like $125 a month), one block up from Polk, where Jack Thibeau, who was a poet then and not yet the successful television and movie actor he later became, rang my doorbell every day at one o'clock in the afternoon.
Once I picked up a young black man in the neighborhood and took him to Buzz. He kept his hat on in bed.
Mrs. Brown, a wealthy Peninsula woman (the mother of Glenn Todd's friend Jeff Brown), arrived one morning before Paul was up and asked if she could commission one of us to do a large painting for her lawyer son's office. She and I spoke in the kitchen. I gave her to understand, kindly, that while we were miles above accepting "commissions" (especially for lawyers' offices), if she wanted to buy something we had already done, that might be possible. Paul, when I told him about the interview, was not altogether pleased.
Bill Wheeler was the handsomest man I ever met. When we were hanging his show he slept over at Buzz and got up in the middle of the night with anxiety attacks, screaming and banging through the flat. This pathos doubled his attractiveness. Later, he was less irresistible in his role as Lord of the Manor of Bodega Bay, where because of a well-conceived lack of sanitation some of the hippies who camped on his 80 acres came down with hepatitis or cholera, if I remember correctly.
Paul took Lew Brown to bed in his studio at Buzz (or Lew took him), and the following day Paul wailed his longing to spend the rest of his life with him. Lew and I tried it too, but we were unsuccessful. We knew each other too well. Lew had beautiful dark-blue, oceanic eyes, and he had learned that if he could get you to look into them, if your heart was not made of marble your knees would buckle, if only ever so slightly— and if you were a painter you were lost. One of Lew's later weddings was performed with all parties, including the minister, in the nude.
When Spicer died he came to me in the night in my room at Buzz and approached me as if to invade my body. I told him, no, he could not do that. Later I saw that he had been more successful with people like Tom Wallace, who adopted, with creepy accuracy, many of his mannerisms.