Friday, May 11, 2007

 

In my note on Mark Mirsky’s memoir, Creeley, I wrote that “When someone who is important to a lot of people dies, the survivors stand around and tell stories.” That reminded me of a book I picked up when I was in California last, I think at Green Apple in San Francisco, to which I hadn’t as yet given a closer inspection. Hey Lew is about as hand-cobbled as a perfect-bound book can be: no publisher listed, no consistent typography (and what there is appears to have been done literally on a typewriter), more than a few pages slightly askew, odd numbers on the left, even on the right, the table of contents is actually an index. Hey Lew is, however, a volume lovingly produced & rich with content and the presence of Lew Welch, the “beat” poet who walked off into the woods near Nevada City, California, one May morning in 1971 with a gun, leaving behind this note:

I never could make anything work out right and now I'm betraying my friends. I can't make anything out of it - never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It's all gone. Don Allen is to be my literary executor- use MSS at Gary's and at Grove Press. I have $2,000 in Nevada City Bank of America - use it to cover my affairs and debts. I don't owe Allen G. anything yet nor my Mother. I went Southwest. Goodbye. Lew Welch.

Welch’s body was never found.

The outline of Welch’s life is fairly well known & Hey Lew dispenses with it quickly, printing literally on page one Levi Asher’s bio note, still available on the web via the Beat Museum, tho listed in Hey Lew as “Author Unknown – From the Internet.” One of the Reed Three – the others were Gary Snyder & Phil Whalen – Welch was intensely handsome &, based on the one time I ever saw him, immediately likeable, a tenor with a devastating Motown version of The Waste Land that Mr. Eliot’s heirs successfully prevented him ever from recording. And one of the finest poets of his generation. While most of his peers in the Beat & San Francisco scenes were getting world famous in the 1950s, Welch was either incapacitated by one of several nervous breakdowns, off on a binge, or else in Chicago writing marketing copy – he authored one of the classic tag lines of the era, “Raid Kills Bugs Dead,” whose one-syllable words with the vowel contained between consonants is itself a classic instance of Welch’s own aesthetic.

The book really begins on the next page, with the transcript of a recorded conversation between Hey Lew’s editor Magda Cregg, her son rocker Huey Lewis & actor Peter Coyote. Cregg was the last – and longest – of Welch’s relationships, Lewis functionally his stepson. (Lewis took Welch’s first name for his last when he joined the band Clover.) This is the first of many such reminiscences, transcriptions, poems, and photographs & drawings. Some of the reminiscences are harder to read than others – Lewis Mac Adams, for one – just because Welch was a guy clearly in trouble & his friends knew it without understanding what, if anything, they could do. The poetry, elegies for the most part, feels a little more reserved. The photos are a marvel. Lew as a 12-year-old along side his sister Gigs, Lew directing a full-moon mussel gathering in the tide pools of Muir Beach, some tremendous shots of Lew with others, from Jeff Cregg to Mary Norbert Korte, or sitting on a log by the beach with Margo Patterson Doss, Donald Allen, Joanne Kyger & Dr. Hippocrates (one of the first free medicine / alternative healing MDs to function as a newspaper columnist in the Bay Area). Marin County is a palpable presence here, tho mostly it is Bolinas & the Mesa, not actually the Marin City black ghetto where Lew & Magda mostly lived (and where Anne Lamott still does).

This book was put out in 1997, three dozen years after Lew disappeared. Ten years later, it’s still a great read. Some of its other contributors include Robert Creeley, Bill Deemer, Greatful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, Coyote’s Journal editor Jim Koller, Michael McClure, David Meltzer, Joanne Kyger, Albert Saijo, Grover Sales, Gary Snyder & even neocon gadfly Stephen Schwartz, plus at least as many others who may be a little less famous. Lawyer Richard Hughey’s five-page memoir of his time as a student of Lew’s and of the scene in San Francisco in the 1950s & ‘60s (contrasting, for example, Welch’s death with the other major literary suicide of that time & place, Weldon Kees) is worth the price of this book all on its own. The only serious omission is Phil Whalen.

Welch, like John Wieners, Jimmy Schuyler, Hannah Weiner, Robert Lowell & too many others, is a perfect example of how poetry is quite possibly the one profession in which mental illness is not a handicap. At the same time, the very real day-to-day issues of living in a society that at its best struggles with how to include these psychiatric Others into the community can be overwhelming. Certainly Welch found it so. We are lucky to have gotten so many wonderful poems out his relatively short time – just 45 years – among us.

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