Lethemless Berkeley and Lami@50


I circled or cruised Palo Alto’s Lytton Plaza this afternoon, not completely unlike Travis Bickle, because I wanted to hear on my car radio the completion of an interview on KPFA featuring the author Jonathan Lethem. I logged, therefore, an extra three miles or so on the aging dented import front-wheeler and jettisoned from time’s winged chariot about 20 more minutes of this Plastic Alto life.

Lethem has a new collection of essays out.


Lethem is based in New York –he is nearly synonymous with New York hip — but is out here in the Bay Area for at least two events; tonight he is at Book Passage in Marin; Tuesday he is part of a panel discussing Philip K. Dick  at Moe’s in Berkeley.

I read “Motherless Brooklyn” at the suggestion of a cafe owner on Smith Street, The Fall Cafe during my sabbatical in the winter of 2001. It was the best of times, and a pretty good read, like a soundtrack. A word-track.

I call this post “Lethemless Berkeley” because I was surprised to learn that the author had a Bay Area sojourn in the eighties. Apparently he was a clerk at Pegasus and Moe’s when I was a returns jock at Green Apple, or close enough for Plastic Alto. It’s not so much that Berkeley misses Lethem; we were damn glad to have him. He said his most recent book is a collection of essays that he wrote mostly on request. Like he was asked to write a cover story for a magazine that was to feature Drew Barrymore and instead he wrote a series of short fictional vignettes. I took a note — tapping the info into my cellphone as a draft outgoing text, contrary to California law — that there is something salient on page 437.

The show I caught is called “Cover to Cover with Denny Smithson” and is archived here (meaning you can check it out without imitating your favorite DeNiro weirdo, or my second favorite Deniro weirdo, after Rupert Pupkin; go ahead and imitate Pupkin by listening to this in your mother’s basement, while imagining your own answers to queries by Lethem or Smithson, or me; for bonus points imagine yourself on my defunct KZSU radio show “Fits The Format”, which was a show-within-a-show for Sarah Bellum and then Raya Zion’s “The Jewish Alternative”).

Maybe I could invite Jonathan Lethem (for even more bonus points) to write a few words about Alden Van Buskirk. Better, I could claim to be polling hipsters about their top ten Alden Van Buskirk poems. Too bad it is too late to contact Harvey Pekar.


I am producing a tribute to Alden Van Buskirk on Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at Books and Bookshelves, 99 Sanchez in San Francisco. The event will feature presentations by Jack Hirshmann, who taught or at least knew Van Buskirk at Dartmouth, and Matt Gonzalez, who studied literature at Columbia. And David Highsmith, poet, publisher, store owner, father of a painter named Alicia Highsmith, carpenter, promoter. I am calling the Van Buskirk event “Lami@50” in reference to the fact that his collection of poetry, “LAMI” — a pun on “to my friend” — was written 50 years ago, much of it in Oakland. It was a few hours into my prep on the event that someone pointed out that Van Buskirk died in 1961 — but I prefer to think of it as 50 years since his work was created. He died on a rare blood disease called PNH. A more focused pitch or preview is forthcoming, I am promising myself.

In the KPFA interview Lethem mentioned that one of the perks of his fame and acumen was that he got to interview his hero Bob Dylan; here he also gets to interview for about 54 minutes, Patti Smith.

edit to add: Fact-checking my post, I learn that The Fall Cafe is being replaced by a small plate tratoria. It is on 307 Smith, not Henry, as I wrote in previous draft. It is off the F, in the 718, Gowanus-Carroll Gardens although my very humble (read: fire-trap) temporary abode was actually over the BQE and more like Red Hook.

another edit to add, a few minutes later:

I guess these essay collections are like the literary version of a music singles compilation and rarities. But I found this essay on The Go-Betweens, on the Jonathan Lethem website. I guess you could save the twenty bucks or so by engrossing yourself to get your JL fix online for free unless this is atypical. I have to admit I never heard the Go-Betweens and only found them in the odd way in that I met former bandmember Robert Vickers at SXSW when I tried to pitch him my band or my client. He is a publicist, and worked for example with Palo Alto’s Corner Laughers a relationship I take some credit for. When I met Vickers I rang Allen Clapp my former client because he had the same name as Allen’s drummer. Allen alerted me to the fact that the man before me, there at a day-party might be the former indie rock star. Allen produced The Corner Laughers session and followed up on the news of Vickers’ doings to suggest the relationship. Anyhow, Lethem was into the Go-Betweens in their heyday. Which is another reason he is a hipster icon and I am not.

This excerpt, which you can read for free on Lethem’s website, I linked above, probably exceeds the standard for fair use:

In Berkeley I lived on Chestnut Street, three blocks from a homely rock club called Berkeley Square. Every poor, scraping-along act touring California would get stuck there for a night, and it was rarely a full house. For years of afternoons I’d sit at home writing with the radio tuned to KALX, the college radio station, and when they gave away tickets to shows at the Berkeley Square I’d call up and answer a trivia question and get my name on the list, then walk over a few hours later and see the show. I’m good at trivia. I saw the Proclaimers and the Violent Femmes and the Throwing Muses there, along with other bands whose names I’ve forgotten. I was once one of literally five people at Berkeley Square for a My Bloody Valentine show on a Tuesday – we stood at the lip of the stage and endured the harshest volume I’ve ever experienced. When the announcement came that the Go-Betweens – an Australian band, whose very existence seemed mythical – were coming to the Berkeley Square I don’t know whether I purchased or won my ticket, only that I wouldn’t have missed it, you know, for the world. They played to about twenty-five or thirty people, a loosely-packed herd of worshipers, but our worship couldn’t console the Go-Betweens, not this night. They were at the end of a tour that must have been some kind of disaster, and twenty-five bookstore clerks in Berkeley weren’t going to turn it around. The band had been arguing, I think, before the show even began, and Lindy, the drummer, the original Go-Between, had been drinking. Really drinking, so she was lurching and obvious and couldn’t keep time. By the fourth or fifth song Robert and Grant were both glaring at her in turn, and expressly showing her their hands on the guitars to try to dictate the tempo. The violinist, another woman, wouldn’t look at her. They were miserable. They made it through a song, argued again, and then Lindy stormed off, between the two singers, towards the bar. She weaved. At the bar she got something – another drink? Water? Carrying it she lurched back to the stage, and as she moved through the crowd she brushed me, a butt-against-lap-swipe, the kind which happens late at night at crazy parties, when intentions are blurry. I know this seems ridiculous, but it happened. She was taunting one or both of the men onstage by making physical contact with men in the audience, and in the small, loosely-populated room it was apparent that it was having an effect, though what sort I wouldn’t presume to say. The horrible intimacy, the unexpected access to the band’s unhappiness, was wrenching. It was also terribly sexy – I learned something that night about how vivid a smashed woman can be.

NB: Now that I actually read the thing, as opposed to merely cutting and pasting a chunk that seems topical, I can say Jonathan, I feel you. The exact same thing happened to me once when Jolie Holland butt-swiped me for unknown reasons at The Make-Out Room at a Danny Barnes show around 2006. Although I didn’t recognize her and it’s ambiguous whether she in fact remembered me from our meeting a few weeks earlier at Alabama Chicken; I had been sitting the entire time of our first encounter and didn’t realize, looking up at her, how short she is or was. It was 2003 or so; more of a hip check actually, but not sure what it was about. I recall that Danny thought her accent was a put-on, or at least he asked me if I knew where she was from.

edit to add, Monday, November 28: I was psyched to see Lethem’s new collection reviewed in the Times, next to the Vonnegut jump. Moreover,the Lethem piece was by Robert Christgau. I thought it odd, however, that Christgau used “Fortress” (2003) as his Lethem milestone and seemed to lump “Motherless Brooklyn” in with the author’s earlier work. He made reference to “90s novels”. Check it:

Jonathan LETHEM’S hefty and remarkable new miscellany, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” is his fifth book since his best-selling breakthrough of 2003, the hefty and remarkable bildungs­roman “Fortress of Solitude.” It follows the fanciful story collection “Men and Cartoons” (2004), the memoiristic criticism collection “The Disappointment Artist” (2005), the rock novel “You Don’t Love Me Yet” (2007), and the, well, hefty Manhattan novel “Chronic City” (2009). There have also been side projects, including “They Live,” a book-length critical essay about the John Carpenter film, and “Believeniks,” a pseudonymous collaboration about the 2005 Mets. And that’s not counting the five ’90s novels (and two story collections). The man writes a lot.

I also wrote this slightly-tongue-in-cheek request for Lethem to write something for my Alden Van Buskirk event and his assistant Lucy Benjamin at least ackowledged the request. actually she kinda lauded my letter.

Dear JL or JL’s assistant, perhaps named Lucy,

This probably sorts as fan letter rather than bona fide professional solicitation of service — ok I have maybe $100 to offer.


I heard JL being interviewed recently on KPFA and was inspired (or am inspired) in several corollary ways.


The cheekiest would be to ask:


Might JL, perhaps with a small inducement, write something, anything, no matter x>0 how brief, in honor of an event I am producing on Dec. 20, 2011 — three weeks from now — in San Francisco regarding the 50th anniversary of the previous writing of a collection of poems by a man named Alden Van Buskirk, more specific his one and only volume later collected and published (1965, actually, by David Rattray and Andrew Hoyem) as “LAMI”? 


Not sure how reading “Motherless Brooklyn” inBrooklyn– I was staying at30 Carroll Street, near Van Brunt — in 2001 influences all these other thousands of choices, and tens of thousands of word choices subsequently, but certainly it could not be completely deniable. I would fairly confidently say that the spectre sitting crosslegged in a zen center (in that book) and his weighing on me todavia might be comparable to what I am claiming to experience currently in the form of Van’s ghost or memory or legacy on my shoulder. I actually feel two such presences — one of Van as a robust 22 year old writing, skiing, thinking, drinking, wincing, et cetera and the second somewhat distinct essence would be an older man, in his twilight years — now 70 or so. The ghost of who Van would be if he hadn’t died so young, of if ghosts age the way their living peers did, and bifurcate or divide by mitosis, or like the dude from “Matrix.”(or maybe it’s sort of like Dorian Gray…or I’m over-reaching)


Here’s saluting JL if or if-not he reads this greeting, if or if-not he replies, or responds.


I also wrote this tribute or commentary or preview to his PKD thingy. Let me know if I’ve borrowed too liberally from the Go-Betweens post. I think I say in there that I work with bands and music, and have for 17 years, yet I gotta believe (like Tug McGraw, who begat Tim McGraw) that someone like JL knows worlds and worlds more about the subject than I ever could. I’m kind of a hack who merely studies or mimics or stalks the true aficionados. This is an aside request but: what if JL put all his energy into either making music, curating music, promoting music or managing musicians, and contributing to repertoire choices? Does he think he could survive at that, not about what kind of money he would make relative to writing but whether he would find it satisfying? Sort of like the Kiefer Sutherland film where he fantasizes about managing a band…I guess I am asking him to comment on the suggestion not actually quit the day job….


What I did already write:


Lethemless Berkeley and Lami@50

Verbatim pasting plus where I mention recently deceasedHarveypekar I add a dumb pun on Mediums: (or maybe that’s what is meant by “the medium is the message”)


Anyhow, you probably aren’t reading this far so no sense in posting or pasting any more of this, or the part about comparing bumping into me by Jolie Holland to what may or may not have been going on between JL and the female drummer of the Go-Betweens…

Thanks for inspiring this. I will try to pick up TEOI. (right after 1Q84 — I held up a small sign at a small Palo Alto Occupy event reading 1Q84 and someone asked if that meant that my I.Q. was 84. I said No, it’s a Japanese Orwellian novel that provides keen insight into Occupy).

Word. But hopefully not “word salad.”

Someone named Mark Weiss who worked at Green Apple around the time JL worked at Pegasus.

inPalo AltoCAin the 650 but fond memories of his time in the 718


nb: this is to JL but for AVB and “LAMI@50”

another footnote, still here on November 28: I learn that Alden Van Buskirk, born on July 3, 1938, shares a birthday with Franz Kafka and Tom Stoppard. Meanwhile Steinbeck dies exactly 43 years before our December 20 shindig, at 66. And Joel Chandler Harris of “Uncle Remus” fame has an overlap with Van — I am drawing a blank on it. I should also quote my source, my literary day book.  

About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player, and blogger; he also sang in local choir, fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32 Reads 'Howl' and owns a couple musical instruments he cannot play
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1 Response to Lethemless Berkeley and Lami@50

  1. markweiss says:

    Ted Gioia of Palo Alto posted and wrote this review of MB:

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