FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Coming of Age in Bohemia: the Tosh Berman Story

They were a self-referential lot. Allen Ginsberg wrote about himself, Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs in Howl. Kerouac wrote about Ginsberg, Cassady and Burroughs in On the Road. Their wives (Carolyn Cassady), lovers (Joyce Johnson) and children (Jan Kerouac) churned out books about the founding Beat fathers. The latest in this ever-expanding cottage industry is Tosh: Growing up in Wallace Berman’s World (City Lights; $16.95), a memoir by the son and the only child of bohemian and Beat Generation parents who were also secular Jews. Tosh’s father, Wallace, was an experimental filmmaker and an assemblage and collage artist who edited and published the magazine, Semina. The Beatles put his picture on the cover of “Sergeant Pepper.” Dennis Hopper gave him a walk-on part in Easy Rider.

Tosh Berman’s mother, Shirley, who is on the cusp of 84, was a dancer and a muse for Wallace (1926-1976) who was largely apolitical, though in true bohemian fashion he liked to shock the bourgeoisie. On one occasion, a bank commissioned him to make a work of art. On a document from the financial institution, Wallace superimposed an image of a woman performing fellatio and called it “Bank Statement.” In 1957, he was found guilty of displaying lewd and obscene material and fined $150.  Tosh himself is only a tad more political than his father. “I don’t think I could have taken Vietnam,” he writes. “If nothing else the humid weather would have destroyed me.”

Tosh describes the life and times of an eccentric young man, his eccentric parents and their friends, many of them misfits and non-conformists, though some, like Dennis Hopper, had careers in Hollywood. Tosh also tells the story of an ordinary American boy who read comic books, loved Disney, adored Brigitte Bardot and wallowed in teen anxiety. Soon after he graduated from high school, he bought his first car, a white Datsun, with money from his parents. “I needed a car,” he writes in the chapter titled “Driving.” He adds, “I lived in the middle of nowhere.” In his case, nowhere was Topanga Canyon—North and East of Malibu, West of Beverly Hills. In 1969, Tosh’s favorite rock star, Neil Young, recorded an album in Topanga called, “Everybody Knows This is Nowhere.”  On the single of the same name, Young sings, “I gotta get away/ From this day-to-day/Running around.” Tosh got away.

In his memoir, which covers the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, he offers a boy’s view of west coast bohemian and Beat Generation circles that gave him and young people like him a sense of belonging somewhere that wasn’t primarily abut making money and getting ahead. In the pages of his memoir, Tosh doesn’t grow up and doesn’t want to. Now 63, he says in an epilogue to his narrative, that he still feels “like the child in this book.”

Tosh is built on the back of simple declarative sentences. “My father Wallace Berman was an artist,” he writes at the start of his tale. “Or, should I say, he is an artist; though his body is not here anymore, his art is very much part of this world.” He gets older, but the sentences stay simple.

Tosh’s account of bohemia offers unique portraits of artists, writers, actors and filmmakers including Dennis Hopper, Dean Stockwell and Marcel Duchamp, one of the fathers of modern conceptual art. Tosh met Duchamp in 1963 in Pasadena, California, and, while he doesn’t provide new information about the artist, he describes his own feelings about the encounter. “It was my first lesson in how fame can affect other people,” he writes.

There would be many more lessons. All of them helped to educate Tosh about the nature of fame in the U.S. after World War II when men like Wallace Berman, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg could become legendary for their devotion to their art. Before Tosh reached his teens, he was a boy legend in bohemian circles. He was “Tosh” and didn’t need a last name.

He and his parents would have been at home in the first bohemia, which took shape in Paris in the 1840s and spread to New York and California. Henri Murger wrote about the first Bohemia in a series of articles for a literary journal in 1847 and 1848 that were later collected and published as Scenes of Bohemian Life. One of the bohemians that Burger portrays becomes a bourgeois success, one reason why Karl Marx found bohemians suspect.

Marx wrote about them with a mix of fear and loathing in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852) in which he also noted famously that the important events in world history occur twice: “the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” In Marx’s view, the Parisian bohemians tended to be “vagabonds,” “swindlers,” “tricksters” and “beggars.” Kerouac himself called Ginsberg and Cassady, “con-artists.” One-hundred-years before the publication of On the Road, a secret police agent got an invitation to the Marx household. He sent report to Prussia from London, England in which he described Marx as “the communist chief” who lives the life of “an intellectual Bohemian.” Marx’s apartment was “dirty and covered with dust,” the agent wrote. Kids toys were everywhere. Jenny Marx’s sewing was mixed in with Karl’s “manuscripts and newspapers.” The agent added that, “Intellectually spirited and agreeable conversation makes amends for the domestic deficiencies,” and “one even grows accustomed to the company.” For much of Tosh’s early years, the Bermans lived in circumstances not that different than those of the Marx family. “I remember being numb with cold because there was a broken window in my bedroom,” Tosh writes of a houseboat where he lived with his parents.

Tosh doesn’t condemn Wallace and Shirley and their friends, though some of them were drug addicts and petty criminals. Tosh says that his father was a shoplifter and at times “passive aggressive.” He also explains that his father “required a woman who would support his one-way route to art-life and not put restrictions on his time and his need for attention.”

I’m a generation older than Tosh, and, while I share some of his experiences, my parents, unlike his, were members of the Communist Party. The only famous people I met when I was a boy were lefties like Leon Bibb and Bella Abzug. When I was 22 and living with my 18-year-old-girfriend and our friends in an apartment in Manhattan, my father disapproved. “We’re not bohemians,” he said. “We’re Communists.” He identified with the John Reed who went to Russia and wrote Ten Days that Shook the World, not the John Reed who lived in bohemian Greenwich Village, nor the John Reed who followed Pancho Villa’s rebel army and wrote Insurgent Mexico.

In California in the 1970s, my parents became hippies. They’d enjoy Tosh’s story as well as the dozen photos of him in the book, nearly all of them by Wallace, who documented his son’s journey from boyhood to young adulthood. Tosh’s memoir might make his father more famous than he is. It will put Tosh on the map of the American counterculture that includes hipsters, beatniks, hippies and punks and who descended from Rimbaud, Verlaine and Heinrich Heine, the German Jewish bohemian, whose poems Marx published in his journal Forwards and helped spread his fame.

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
August 16, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Uncle Sam was Born Lethal
Jennifer Matsui
La Danse Mossad: Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein
Rob Urie
Neoliberalism and Environmental Calamity
Stuart A. Newman
The Biotech-Industrial Complex Gets Ready to Define What is Human
Nick Alexandrov
Prevention Through Deterrence: The Strategy Shared by the El Paso Shooter and the U.S. Border Patrol
Jeffrey St. Clair
The First Dambuster: a Coyote Tale
Eric Draitser
“Bernie is Trump” (and other Corporate Media Bullsh*t)
Nick Pemberton
Is White Supremacism a Mental Illness?
Jim Kavanagh
Dead Man’s Hand: The Impeachment Gambit
Andrew Levine
Have They No Decency?
David Yearsley
Kind of Blue at 60
Ramzy Baroud
Manifestos of Hate: What White Terrorists Have in Common
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The War on Nature
Martha Rosenberg
Catch and Hang Live Chickens for Slaughter: $11 an Hour Possible!
Yoav Litvin
Israel Fears a Visit by Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
Neve Gordon
It’s No Wonder the Military likes Violent Video Games, They Can Help Train Civilians to Become Warriors
Susan Miller
That Debacle at the Border is Genocide
Ralph Nader
With the Boeing 737 MAX Grounded, Top Boeing Bosses Must Testify Before Congress Now
Victor Grossman
Warnings, Ancient and Modern
Meena Miriam Yust - Arshad Khan
The Microplastic Threat
Kavitha Muralidharan
‘Today We Seek Those Fish in Discovery Channel’
Louis Proyect
The Vanity Cinema of Quentin Tarantino
Bob Scofield
Tit For Tat: Baltimore Takes Another Hit, This Time From Uruguay
Nozomi Hayase
The Prosecution of Julian Assange Affects Us All
Ron Jacobs
People’s Music for the Soul
John Feffer
Is America Crazy?
Jonathan Power
Russia and China are Growing Closer Again
John W. Whitehead
Who Inflicts the Most Gun Violence in America? The U.S. Government and Its Police Forces
Justin Vest
ICE: You’re Not Welcome in the South
Jill Richardson
Race is a Social Construct, But It Still Matters
Dean Baker
The NYT Gets the Story on Automation and Inequality Completely Wrong
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Retains Political Control After New US Coercive Measures
Gary Leupp
MSNBC and the Next Election: Racism is the Issue (and Don’t Talk about Socialism)
R. G. Davis
Paul Krassner: Investigative Satirist
Negin Owliaei
Red State Rip Off: Cutting Worker Pay by $1.5 Billion
Christopher Brauchli
The Side of Trump We Rarely See
Curtis Johnson
The Unbroken Line: From Slavery to the El Paso Shooting
Jesse Jackson
End Endless War and Bring Peace to Korea
Adolf Alzuphar
Diary: What About a New City Center?
Tracey L. Rogers
Candidates Need a Moral Vision
Nicky Reid
I Was a Red Flag Kid
John Kendall Hawkins
The Sixties Victory Lap in an Empty Arena
Stephen Cooper
Tony Chin’s Unstoppable, Historic Career in Music
Charles R. Larson
Review: Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime
Elizabeth Keyes
Haiku Fighting
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail