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  1. #1
    Amor de Cosmos's Avatar
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    Essential Reading — The 1960s

    I’ve wanted to read Emmett Grogan’s Ringolevio: A Life Played For Keeps for close to fifty years. Having now done so I can attest the wait was worth it, but not in the way I expected.

    Every UK teenager knew something was happening in San Francisco during those Mid-60s’ Summers, but it wasn’t exactly clear to us what it was. Drugs and music sure, but we had those ourselves. What we definitely didn’t have were hundreds of thousands of “flower children,” apparently descending on a single street corner. The arresting images the straight media provided only contributed more perplexity. In retrospect the underground press wasn’t much better. A litany of names, Be-ins, and drug busts meant little without context. Emmett Grogan’s was one of those names but never more than that hence, to me, especially fascinating.

    Grogan was, almost everyone present agrees, a key figure in that place at that time. He was also a consummate liar. By his own account, he’d been a heroin addict at 14, a convict at 15, then attended a prestigious prep-school, become a cat-burglar on NY’s West Side, climbed the Matterhorn, attended film school in Rome, and gone on bombing runs in Northern Ireland with the Provos. This covers the first half of the book and, while entertaining, clearly suggests a steaming pile of bullshit. But, as fellow Digger Peter Coyote, writes in his introduction: “Don’t believe everything you read, but don’t be too quick to doubt it either. Whether or not he actually did everything he claimed in exactly the way he claimed is immaterial. As Emmett disclaims in his Author’s Note, ‘This book is true.’ But that doesn’t mean it all actually happened. Which sounds like a cop out to me but, perhaps unintentionally, does perhaps get close to the heart of who Grogan was.

    The San Francisco Diggers were an obscure organisation at a time when every other radical group in town found it easy to get yards of copy. Referred to variously as street anarchists or a secular Salvation Army, they took it on themselves to feed, clothe, house and otherwise supply with essentials the innumerable kids who wandered into the Haight at that time. Based on the little I knew about them at the time, to me they appeared to embody what the hippie counter-culture was supposed to be about. It turns out I was wrong, the Diggers wanted no part of that at all. Says Grogan:

    “The Summer of Love was mainly the result of... a lie. The Haight Independent Proprietors’ Human Be-In lie and its result bore witness to what would be in store for a nation that allowed its children to be lied to by comical, fake-radical politicos whose masquerade they nurtured by giving them profitable access to mass media. The adventure of poverty by young white people in love ghettos throughout the country, like the Haight-Ashbury and the Lower East Side, was pleasant fakery for most of them. But in the same way that real poverty has always given birth to real revolution, this feigned poverty would breed a false bottomed, jerry-built revolution in which the the adventurers would continue their make-believe and be followed by the rock-concert lumpen, tired of their own voyeurism.”

    Grogan despised the counter culture political celebs even more than the hip entrepreneurs. The Learys, Hoffmans, Rubins and the coffee shop campus radicals were, he believed, building personal fame on the backs the poor. Anonymity was fundamental to the Diggers. In part this was pragmatic, much of what they redistributed was stolen or obtained otherwise illicitly. However fear of becoming media generated personality cult was an equal concern, particularly for Grogan. It’s clear he was an articulate and charismatic personality, and his struggle against visibility became simultaneously both a fear and obsession. Yet the more he struggled the more that role pursued him, to the extent that he became to be distrusted by the other Diggers. Ultimately his solution was to walk away.

    This book was published in 1972. Six years later Emmett Grogan was found dead of a heroin overdose in a subway train at Coney Island. His testament begs as many questions as it answers, yet it’s still the best subjective account of the period I’ve read. I expected an autobiography, what I got was not that. The first half of this book is mostly fabrication and the second a good part exaggeration. Yet in spite of that, on its own terms, it’s never less than honest.

  2. #2
    Benjm's Avatar
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    I wasn't really aware of Grogan before now but have just ordered a copy of Ringolevio. His only other published title seems to have been a hard boiled heist thriller.

  3. #3
    Amor de Cosmos's Avatar
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    Yes, I know nothing about that. I'll look forward to your impressions. BTW if, like me, you've ordered the NYRB edition, there are several photos almost all of which are uncaptioned. Which only adds to to the air of mystification.

  4. #4
    Benjm's Avatar
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    My copy of Ringolevio arrived today and I'll start on it after I've finished Johnny Marr's autobiography. The page count suggests that EG subscribed to the countercultural author's traditional disdain for the editorial hand.

    The edition I've got was published by UK outfit Rebel Inc., who our man may well have been deeply suspicious of for packaging and selling dissent.

    The other work that Amor's OP description, particularly the last paragraph, brings to my mind as having potential similarities is Errol Flynn's My Wicked, Wicked Ways.

  5. #5
    Amor de Cosmos's Avatar
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    Yes, it's not a short read but, I found, never boring. In a way it's really two books, the pre-San Francisco "Kenny Wisdom" years, then SF "Emmett Grogan" period. He changes from one identity to the other literally between paragraphs. Each is written in the third person which adds another layer of fictionality to the enterprise. According to some both are in fact pseudonyms.

    Does your edition include Peter Coyote's introduction? I found it helpful in nailing down the fact that someone calling himself Emmett Grogan did actually exist!

  6. #6
    imp's Avatar
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    An old flat-mate of mine loved this book and had read it several times. Eventually he persuaded me to read it, and I can remember all the preposterous claims - like how he learned to speak fluent Italian after two weeks in Italy, and the same in any other country he visited. It annoyed me from start to finish on every level.

  7. #7
    Amor de Cosmos's Avatar
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    I can see how it might. I found "Kenny" infuriating but his sheer preposterousness, while sometimes annoying intrigued me. Why was he writing this when it was so transparently fraudulent? I kept reading mainly because I wanted to go to San Francisco, where it began to make some kind of sense. There, Emmett's brand of bullshit, at least in his eyes, is less corrosive than the most of the counter-culture charlatans he describes. They exploit the truth with words, while his actions reveal an honest liar. There's a lot of Robin Hood-ishness in there. How much is only in his head though, I confess is still unclear to me.
    Last edited by Amor de Cosmos; 17-09-2017 at 23:38.

  8. #8
    Benjm's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by imp View Post
    ...I can remember all the preposterous claims...
    That's the I, Ludicrous earworm sorted for the duration of the book then. Preposterous tales in the life of Ken 'Wisdom' McKenzie.

    The introduction to my copy is by a Chris Sullivan, who I think it is fair to say is a bit of a fan:

    This book is like a latter-day new testament. Something to live your life by and nothing else.

  9. #9
    imp's Avatar
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    That's funny - the flatmate who raved about Ringolevio was also the first to play me 'Preposterous Tales in the Life of Ken McKenzie'. Maybe I've always associated him with the word 'preposterous'.

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    "Now Then, Now Then"

    Bob Dylan dedicated his Street Legal LP to Emmet Grogan. (Released just after his death) That at least is true.

  11. #11
    Amor de Cosmos's Avatar
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    This book is like a latter-day new testament. Something to live your life by and nothing else.

    Oh dear.

  12. #12
    Amor de Cosmos's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by wittoner View Post
    "Now Then, Now Then"

    Bob Dylan dedicated his Street Legal LP to Emmet Grogan. (Released just after his death) That at least is true.
    He hung out with the Bobster at Woodstock. I can see how they'd get on, both being partial to bullshit and self-mythology. The Band recorded a couple of his songs too, and he apparently organised the poetry readings for The Last Waltz.

  13. #13
    Nocturnal Submission's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Benjm View Post
    That's the I, Ludicrous earworm sorted for the duration of the book then. Preposterous tales in the life of Ken 'Wisdom' McKenzie.

    The introduction to my copy is by a Chris Sullivan, who I think it is fair to say is a bit of a fan:
    I have told everyone that I used to work with one half of I, Ludicrous (Will Hung) and indeed Ken McKenzie, haven't I?

    Yeh, thought so.

  14. #14
    imp's Avatar
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    I've missed that story. So Ken McKenzie was real? Aaaaaah, come on!

  15. #15
    Nocturnal Submission's Avatar
    Man's Gotta Know His Limitations
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    He is indeed and a lovely guy.

    I can't say that I ever heard him make the claims attributed to him in the song but according to another guy that we worked with (who went to be the Sunday Times's rock critic!) it was all absolutely true.

    I think Ken was just one of those people that things happened to. I remember him chasing down a mugger in London and then shortly afterwards helping people following a train derailment in Scotland.

    Thinking about it I'm not so sure that M. Night Shyamalan didn't base the character of Elijah Price in Unbreakable on him!

  16. #16
    imp's Avatar
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    Yeah, well next time you see him, you can tell him I once saw the Palace score six goals away from home. Preposterous? It's true, man, I swear it's true. And I have to ask - have you sampled his home brew?

  17. #17
    Nocturnal Submission's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by imp View Post
    Yeah, well next time you see him, you can tell him I once saw the Palace score six goals away from home. Preposterous? It's true, man, I swear it's true. And I have to ask - have you sampled his home brew?
    Heh - mercifully not.

    Here's the great man himself, BTW, peering into the middle distance for the next, unlikely, yarn:



  18. #18
    Benjm's Avatar
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    This is fantastic.

    Admittedly Emmett Grogan remains a shadowy and marginal figure but confirming the existence of Ken McKenzie, with first hand witness reports and photographic evidence, has to count as a significant contribution to the field of crypto-biography and an OTF highlight for the ages.

  19. #19
    imp's Avatar
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    The picture. "That's me at the top of Everest. Or was it the time I uprooted a fencing post to fight off a horde of Mongols? No, no, wait, it's me at the helm of a yacht I stole off Ted Heath before sailing it single-handedly around the world!"

  20. #20

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    Wow! It's not often I venture into 'Books' but it's probably the best thing I've done this week. Remarkable.

  21. #21
    imp's Avatar
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    You should stay. We always have tea and biscuits at around 4pm.

  22. #22
    Benjm's Avatar
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    Back on topic, I've started on Emmett Grogan's thriller, Final Score. So far (50 pages in) it is a decent page turner and strong in drawing in the back stories of the assorted criminal characters.

  23. #23
    Amor de Cosmos's Avatar
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    There must have been a time when I’d never heard of Joan Didion, all the same I managed to unintentionally avoid reading anything of hers until a couple of weeks ago. It was a grave omission. If, when in my teens, I’d read the following I’m pretty damn sure it would’ve changed my life:

    I tell what some would call lies. “That’s simply not true,” the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. “The party was not for you, the spider was not a black widow, it wasn’t that way at all.” Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.

    “Yeah!” I yell under my breath while punching the air. “I am so down with that!” There’s so much that’s excellent in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion’s collection of essays from the mid-60s. Good writing, honest thinking and — though who can tell — creative lying, including the best piece on Joan Baez I’ve come across. I bought it for the title essay which covers the same time and turf as Emmett Grogan’s memoir, that other inveterate liar, up-thread. Didion even talks to the Diggers, though, oddly, not Grogan himself, though how she could have missed him is hard to fathom. What’s more none of the names she did interview ring any bells. It’s possible they were using aliases. Which given their attitude toward the ‘straight’ press can’t be discounted. Didion identifies the same problems with the hippie counterculture as Grogan, but sees the Diggers as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, to use a contemporary trope. In spite of being in the vanguard of New Journalism, and being a born and bred California girl, she’s clearly an outsider in the Haight. She’s over thirty after all, so untrustworthy by definition.

    One caveat, for all her skill Didion is a profound pessimist. There aren’t too many light tones in any of these essays. When she writes about Los Angeles, for example, she chooses the negative effects of the Santa Ana winds, or late night phone-in radio ranters. It doesn’t make her humourless, but her wit, when it appears, tends towards the dark and oblique. Nevertheless I’m eager to read more. Recommendations appreciated.
    Last edited by Amor de Cosmos; 17-11-2017 at 20:47.

  24. #24
    Satchmo Distel's Avatar
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    On a later period: Political Fictions: https://www.amazon.com/Political-Fic.../dp/0375718907

    Her body of work can be read as threading how the 60s led the 80s which in turn led to now. The main theme of the 80s/90s political writing is the chasm between the legislature and the populus, and the disaffection with politics that allows charlatans to come to power.
    Last edited by Satchmo Distel; 17-11-2017 at 21:06.

  25. #25
    Lang Spoon's Avatar
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    “Ecstatic Truth”, as old Werner would say, before uttering some mellifluous bollocks about tramping from Bavaria to Paris before his mentor Lotte Eisner died (and prolonging her life by his walking). He probably got there via train, but that’s not really the point of the story.

    It’s a real shame he’s doing more Simpsons voiceovers and films where Bad Lieutenant isn’t even the worst, but his films maybe up to Fitzcarraldo, even when they are infuriating they are always engrossing. Watch The Enigma of Kasper Haiser tomorrow if you haven’t already.
    Last edited by Lang Spoon; 17-11-2017 at 21:18.

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