Ted Berrigan and America
James: Can you tell me about how you met Ted Berrigan?
Lorenz: When I arrived at Columbia University in 1960 I met a fella named Tom Veitch who was a year older than me. Tom was very interested in literature and he and his brothers loved comic books. They were very talented and they drew all these comic books, Tom wrote the stories. I got a bit involved in that, well, I didn’t do anything, but I knew what was going on. Hell, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do; I was probably more interested in history than literature, but I began to meet some of Tom’s friends and develop some of my own. On my floor was a young fella from Oklahoma named Ron Padgett, who was sort of a classic westerner, really tall, skinny and wore cowboy boots, with pressed jeans pulled down over the top of them. He was very fastidious. Soon we became friends, and some of his friends started coming up from Oklahoma. One time his mother came up, and she came with a pistol in her suitcase. She was a petite little brunette, very spirited middle-aged lady and a lot of fun to be around, but she packed a pistol, which in New York will get you twenty years, though back in Oklahoma it just goes in your purse with your make-up. The father was a bail bondsman and Ron never went home after nine o’clock because after then if anyone came into the house you shot em’ first and asked questions later…
Anyway, a fella named Dick Gallop, Ron had gone to high school with, came up and he was very interested in poetry and there was all this talk about a guy named Ted, who obviously had a great influence on them, pretty soon had me waiting in great anticipation for Ted to come up from Tulsa. Ted was an Irishman from Providence Nevada as they called it in the army; he served in Korea after the war, (well I guess there’s still American troops in Korea) and he wound up in Tulsa by some accident and American GI’s after serving could go to university for free if they wanted. So he studied English and had gone on to do his masters degree and was writing a thesis on John Bernard Shaw. So he decided to come to New York to finish his thesis. He had no money, but he had ambitions to be a poet.
When he finally did come to New York I realised he was older, I was a first year uni student about 18 and he was ten years older. He was very much the boss, very much in control and so all these other guys from Oklahoma looked up to him. In addition the painter Joe Brainard came up who had done the artwork for their high school literary magazine. So, this gang had shown up led by this mysterious Irishman. I remember having an argument with Ted not too long after I met him, and he just said he was older than me and he knew more about the world than me and I could either shape up or ship out. What he said was right and what I said was wrong, and I could either like it or leave. I remember that moment thinking, well I don’t have to argue with him and I’d learnt a lot from him already so I’ll shut-up even if I don’t agree with him. Ted was that forceful a personality, he would just tell someone flat-out that they didn’t know anything and he was the boss, that was it.
J: Would you say he was a man on a mission?
L: Absolutely! I mean if you’ve ever seen the Blues Brothers; that was almost a send-up of Ted Berrigan. He was internally motivated. The air would crackle around him. There was such a strong sense of trying to fulfil a destiny that had come to him. Given his family back-ground he should’ve gone back to Providence, got a job as a storeman and never heard of again, like ninety nine out of a hundred guys just like him.
Ted had even his own set of expressions that he had developed. There was a great deal of exaggeration; if he read something or heard a song that he thought was really good he would say ‘it was the greatest thing I’ve ever heard, it ripped me out of my mind!’ Really hyperbolic.
J: Were you escaping?
L: No, not at all. There were great things to be done, and that was poetry and art. That was the sense of mission, and it was worth sacrificing everything to that end. It was the highest good. That was just self evident to Ted, at some point his imagination had caught fire and it never really went out. By those kinds of exaggerations, by talking himself and everything up, and quite generously talking other people up, he wasn’t a selfish man. He had an ego that was too big for you to stand, except that he was generous. He was obnoxious but forgivable.
There wasn’t alienation, I think the kind of comfort in the world that the previous generation had, that Kerouac and Ginsberg had, they didn’t see themselves as set against things, they seemed to be coming out of the culture, filled with this huge energy and what they had to say. Since the Vietnam War, in America there has been a sense that artists somehow have a political role. Artists saw themselves as needing to have a certain kind of politics. I’ve noticed on the internet for instance that artist groups were demonstrating against Le Penn. We were very a-political; we would have been laughing at politicos all running around like chooks with their heads cut-off. Art was not outside of that, it was a whole different world, they were connected but it wasn’t our job to get involved in that. We didn’t have a political role to play.
J: You called yourselves the East-Side-Cowboys?
L: Ted had a particular set of hero’s in terms of poets he admired the most, who he shamelessly imitated and would drop everything if he had a chance to see or meet them. His hero’s were called the New York School of Poets; Ashbery, Koch and O’Hara.
J: Ginsberg was in there as well wasn’t he?
L: No. Ginsberg was all over the place and wild. They (NYSP) were very controlled; their art was very refined. I remember Ted had John Ashbery’s book ‘Some Trees’ and he had spent months if not over a year annotating the whole book, it was filled with little pencil marks talking about the references. It had a great deal to do with ancient Egypt, i.e. it was very rich in reference. Koch was constantly writing poems that were send-ups of other poems, he sent up Robert Frost particularly well. There’s a Robert Frost poem that says ‘something there is that doesn’t love a stonewall’ and Frost was absolutely right about that, but the Koch poem says ‘something there is that doesn’t hump a sump.’ He would go on in the cadences and the feeling of Frost writing this awful, ingenious dribble, but it was all very smart, sophisticated and controlled. Even O’Hara, I would say, was very controlled. They were very much in control of their art, and I think that was an aspect that the Ted admired, nothing against Ginsberg, just a different style. So the East-Side-Cowboys came from the fact that the bulk of us came from Oklahoma. The great joke was with the exception of Joe Brainard, we were all heterosexual. The degree of homosexuality in the New York art-world was so high, that like politics we were untroubled by anybodies sexuality, we weren’t interested, it wasn’t good nor bad, it just was. There was no sense of advocacy or political correctness or of being pro-gay because that was the right thing to do; the poets we happened to like were gay. The fact that we were country boys, and the fact that we were by and large heterosexual, was seen from the other side as sort of delightful and funny for its difference. There was no animosity over sexuality; I can remember Ted coming back from a meeting with O’Hara and Ashbery and them being very homosexual in his presence and talking about little boys that smelt of pee and how it drove them nuts and stuff like that. I think that ripped Ted out of his mind! Although none of that was for a moment going to get in the way of what was important which was the poetry. The encounters were full on. I can remember my wife and I were printing C Magazine (Teds mag) when our mimeograph broke in the back of a gay owned shop. My wife walked out to ask the owner of the shop a question and he was sucking off his friend. She turned around came back in and we solved the problem ourselves…
J: So there was this real inertia to go to the Big Apple to ‘make it’ at that time?
L: Yes. Any high school student in 1960 who was going to university in New York knew they were going to a special place. It was exciting and it was the place to be. And many people just like Dick Gallop and my wife quit school to go to New York to get a job. New York was full of young people for a variety of reasons, to work, to go to school, to paint, to write poetry, to be in the opera; they came to New York to establish themselves. No place else counted at that point other than New York.
J: Was there something about the spirit of the place?
L: Yes. New York is brash. It was the place to be. The theatre was there. The whole art world centred around it, if you wanted to be a painter you had to show at a York New gallery, this is no longer the case; you can show in Los Angeles and never go to New York in your life and do very well. That wasn’t true in 1960. People said that if you could make it in New York you could make it anywhere. It was a place full of possibilities, you could go out on an ordinary night and you might get mugged, but probably not, and much more likely stubble into a party where there was some great jazz musicians or something happening that was totally unexpected. You could be walking home at four in the morning having had an experience that at seven o’clock in the evening you had no more idea you were going to have, and that happening regularly. There were great jazz musicians all over the place, you know, you might go see a painter and go into this loft like a wonderland full of unbelievably good art. Just by being there you were inspired. I know the local photographer here Roger Garwood was in London half a generation later and we discussed the similarities of the spirit in London at the time of the Beatles to the spirit in New York when I was there. You might want to go have a chat to Roger about it, I think he’s still in Fremantle; he’s a very good photographer.
J: Did the geography of the city allow this creativity? If you consider it in contrast to the disparate nature of Perth despite its natural feel. It seems to me people were living and continue to live in New York simply to create.
L: There’s a vibe on the street in New York that is still there. You might have seen that on the television around S-11. There’s a funny collective spirit in New York, you see it on the subway, despite of all the alienation, as a mob New Yorkers have a certain cohesiveness and a certain sense of humour that binds people together in a funny way. It’s a different spirit to Perth. I mean each city has a different spirit. But Perth is much more spread out and new. New York has a strong European and Jewish influence. People in the rest of America don’t like New York because of that European feel. It’s so crowded and so busy that you put up with things you don’t normally put up with. So there is cohesion. But there is also the knowing that completely diverse things can be going on from one flat to the next from one person the next. So an artist is free to pursue their art. But because there are so many people doing so many different things that you are not considered odd or eccentric because all you do is paint or do what you do. You fit in and you’re accepted. In other places you might be put on a pedestal or seen negatively; but in New York, nobody notices.
J: So how is it that the New York School of Poets and the likes are recognised?
L: Sheer talent! If you’re slow, you loose. Every time I go to New York I buy lunch and I give the man a twenty-dollar bill. And they give you change for five dollars every time. Intelligence is highly valued in New York and great amount of talent is needed to rise above that.
J: In hindsight did you realise that Berrigan was onto it?
L: He was magnetic, in the sense that his commitment was so total. It was already fashionable for young people of my age to worry too much about psychology and psychological damage they might be carrying and things like that. Ted would have none of that, he said, if you make it you had good parents and if you didn’t, well, I guess you didn’t. I’m smart enough to see that people who sat around saying you know, I can’t concentrate because my father and my mother did this and so forth were losers. I was perfectly capable of going down that road and being a loser too. But I didn’t want to be a loser, and here was this guy who said, don’t fall for that nonsense. Ted could also be very abusive, but it for this reason that I put up with it. But it was worth it in the sense that he taught us things that weren’t available elsewhere.