A call from Allen Ginsberg

I was editor of the “underground” paper The Drummer twice back in the day, and it was unlimited fun, even on a weekly editorial budget of $125. A lot of people passed through The Drummer and went on to varying degrees of success and fame.

Allen Ginsberg: no time for metaphysical bullshit. (Photo by Michiel Hendryckx, via Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

Victor Bockris and Andrew Wylie were two of my favorites. Victor was a skinny little Brit, a Penn graduate, who's long been a fixture on the offbeat New York literary scene, and Andrew, cum laude at Harvard, became the enfant terrible of big-time literary agents — known tellingly as “the Jackal” — with clients who range from the late Elmore “Dutch” Leonard to Salman Rushdie. He started the Wylie Agency in 1980, and they don't get any bigger.

Strangely, I never met Andrew, who remained in the Big Apple while Victor schlepped down to provincial Philly to deliver their loopy joint interviews with the likes of Muhammad Ali, Salvador Dalí, and Allen Ginsberg. I think I paid them $10 or $15 a pop. They didn't care. They were making their bones.

One time when Victor was in town, our mutual friend, the late poet Otis Brown — O.B., his bad self — brought him over to my apartment at Third and Bainbridge. We smoked some fine weed and then my girlfriend said she had to go out and said good-bye to everybody and split. Trouble was, she locked the door from the outside and took the only key with her and the only way to unlock that door was with that key. There were no latches or anything on the inside, so we were effectively locked in.

Now Victor Bockris, unlike me and O.B., didn't smoke much, and the weed really got hold of him and he told me he had to go out and get some fresh air. Well, when I told him about us being locked in, he went pale and I thought he was going to swoon dead away. So we got him to a comfy chair and, him being a Brit, I got him a nice mug of tea and, luckily, my girlfriend wasn't gone long. I wonder if Victor remembers that?

Bockris-Wylie really had big balls. Muhammad Ali was at his zenith then, the most famous and popular figure in the world. He was up at his training camp in Deer Lake in the Pennsylvania Poconos, when up show Bockris-Wylie wanting to interview him, but not as a boxer — as a poet! And Ali went for it like it was an opportunity from Allah Himself. Here was the Greatest, the self-proclaimed King of the World, and here were these two twerps in Brooks Brothers suits and weird accents who thought it would be interesting to interview Ali as a serious-ass poet. Whooee! He kept them up there for about a week, rapping and joking and having serious poetry talks and everybody loved it.

Their criterion for interviews was that the subject be interesting. "Interesting" was their trademark. I even think Victor said that being locked into my apartment was "interesting," despite his near panic.

Old Salvador Dalí was very interesting. He used to have these weekly soirees at his crib in New York and Bockris-Wylie became a fixture for awhile, and Victor brought down some pretty cool interviews. I think he liked to physically hand in the copy in sort of a Dickensian way. What with the train fare, Bockris-Wylie actually lost money writing for The Drummer.

Then they did this big two-part interview with Allen Ginsberg, who was riding at his highest then. We gave it a big play and got a lot of good response, and I decided to write an editorial about the whole deal.

I was just typing Allen Ginsberg's name when the phone rang and it was Allen Ginsberg himself.

“Allen! Jesus! I was just typing your name! Honest!”

“Look,” he said, “I haven't got time for any metaphysical bullshit about cosmic coincidences. Bockris-Wylie had some mistakes in that story, and I want them corrected in the next issue so that literary scholars 50 years from now will have the right information.”

That made sense even though I had never thought of The Drummer as a scholarly source. So Allen gave me the corrections and we ran them along with a little riff I wrote on the cosmic coincidence of his phone call.

I'm still amazed by it, even if he wasn't.

Our readers respond

Ravdin Zimmerman

of Deering, NH on April 15, 2014

Bob is light hearted in his current story and makes me laugh and appreciate those days even more.

Tom Bissinger

of Pottstown, PA on April 15, 2014

I remember them coming down to Philly and hanging with Ira who was one of their local connectors. The third member of that triumvirate (at the time) was Adam Saroyan, son of W, a poet of very few words, Zen like constructions, he and Wylie both turned out a lot of chap books.

Article rings with Ingram's usual flowing, dancing round the ring, setting you up, punching out great lines.. Great ending, with AG. Lovely

Amy Small-McKinney

of Blue Bell, PA on April 16, 2014

Hey Bob! I remember when I brought you an article I wrote about The Troc when it was burlesque and you put it on the front page. I thought I had gone to heaven. I was a young writer and you were the cool guys. I loved The Drummer. You gave me chance to write. Amy

Ken Wachsberger

of Ann Arbor, MI on August 20, 2014

Bob, great story. I read another one of yours also. Equally great. I’m involved in a major project to digitize underground, alternative, and literary publications from the fifties through the eighties and would like to include Drummer/The Distant Drummer/Thursday's Drummer but I’ve been unable to find Jon Stern to request permission. Might you be able to help me find him or suggest someone else who could give permission? I also want to include Philadelphia Free Press and Plain Dealer. Can you give permission or direct me to whoever can? If you write to me at ken@azenphonypress.com I can send you more information on the project, which already includes over 100 feminist and lesbian papers, 200 military underground papers, over 100 literary publications, and over 150 campus, community, ethnic, gay, and other underground and alternative papers. And 4 papers published by the FBI to sow dissension in the Movement. Let’s talk.

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