FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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:

February 20, 2019
Anthony DiMaggio
Withdrawal Pains and Syrian Civil War: An Analysis of U.S. Media Discourse
Charles Pierson
When Saudi Arabia Gets the Bomb
Doug Johnson Hatlem
“Electability” is Real (Unless Married with the Junk Science of Ideological Spectrum Analysis)
Kenneth Surin
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline: Another Boondoggle in Virginia
John Feffer
The Psychology of the Wall
Dean Baker
Modern Monetary Theory and Taxing the Rich
Russell Mokhiber
Citizens Arrested Calling Out Manchin on Rockwool
George Ochenski
Unconstitutional Power Grabs
Michael T. Klare
War With China? It’s Already Under Way
Thomas Knapp
The Real Emergency Isn’t About the Wall, It’s About the Separation of Powers
Manuel García, Jr.
Two Worlds
Daniel Warner
The Martin Ennals and Victorian Prize Winners Contrast with Australia’s Policies against Human Dignity
Norman Solomon
What the Bernie Sanders 2020 Campaign Means for Progressives
Dan Corjescu
2020 Vision: A Strategy of Courage
Matthew Johnson
Why Protest Trump When We Can Impeach Him?
William A. Cohn
Something New and Something Old: a Story Still Being Told
Bill Martin
The Fourth Hypothesis: the Present Juncture of the Trump Clarification and the Watershed Moment on the Washington Mall
February 19, 2019
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Troublesome Possibilities: The Left and Tulsi Gabbard
Patrick Cockburn
She Didn’t Start the Fire: Why Attack the ISIS Bride?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Literature and Theater During War: Why Euripides Still Matters
Maximilian Werner
The Night of Terror: Wyoming Game and Fish’s Latest Attempt to Close the Book on the Mark Uptain Tragedy
Conn Hallinan
Erdogan is Destined for Another Rebuke in Turkey
Nyla Ali Khan
Politics of Jammu and Kashmir: The Only Viable Way is Forward
Mark Ashwill
On the Outside Looking In: an American in Vietnam
Joyce Nelson
Sir Richard Branson’s Venezuelan-Border PR Stunt
Ron Jacobs
Day of Remembrance and the Music of Anthony Brown        
Cesar Chelala
Women’s Critical Role in Saving the Environment
February 18, 2019
Paul Street
31 Actual National Emergencies
Robert Fisk
What Happened to the Remains of Khashoggi’s Predecessor?
David Mattson
When Grizzly Bears Go Bad: Constructions of Victimhood and Blame
Julian Vigo
USMCA’s Outsourcing of Free Speech to Big Tech
George Wuerthner
How the BLM Serves the West’s Welfare Ranchers
Christopher Fons
The Crimes of Elliot Abrams
Thomas Knapp
The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC
Mitchel Cohen
A Tale of Two Citations: Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and Michael Harrington’s “The Other America”
Jake Johnston
Haiti and the Collapse of a Political and Economic System
Dave Lindorff
It’s Not Just Trump and the Republicans
Laura Flanders
An End to Amazon’s Two-Bit Romance. No Low-Rent Rendezvous.
Patrick Walker
Venezuelan Coup Democrats Vomit on Green New Deal
Natalie Dowzicky
The Millennial Generation Will Tear Down Trump’s Wall
Nick Licata
Of Stress and Inequality
Joseph G. Ramsey
Waking Up on President’s Day During the Reign of Donald Trump
Elliot Sperber
Greater Than Food
Weekend Edition
February 15, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Matthew Hoh
Time for Peace in Afghanistan and an End to the Lies
Chris Floyd
Pence and the Benjamins: An Eternity of Anti-Semitism
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail