”51” was a magazine that was based on the idea that New York City should be the fifty-first state of the US. This is article written by Debbie Harry, was taken from the bio Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie published by Da Capo Press. I chose to immortalise this article on the net since it’s almost impossible to get it from its original source and it really represents how things could be seen from the inside, by those who were part of this legendary era. It an honest, lucid look on how that particular scene was evolving coming from of an artist whose band Blondie was on its way to achieve international stardom. All the pictures were added by me. I hope they are helping setting the tone. -Tobe Damit
”51” Magazine, NYC, Late Summer of 1975
I walked into CBGB’s last Friday night at 2 a.m. The Bowery was thick with late night pollution and smog, a sea of sleeping winos, and broken glass.
Dee Dee Ramone spotted me through a Heineken Haze and slithered up wearing an electric purple pimp suit, a Jay’s T-shirt, ragged basketball sneakers and mirror shades.
Swaying slightly, he whispered in my ear, Oh Debbie, we just got signed; we’re supposed to be going on tour. I smiled. I wondered: Will Success Spoil… Dee Dee is bass player to The Ramones, consummate, awesome, punk rockers extraordinaire. The handsomest of the group, Dee Dee resembles Marcello Mastroianni or Steve Canyon, speaks German (born Berlin), was a highly paid hairdresser for a while, is very charming, handsome and childlike.
The Next day was ninety-seven degrees and I ran into Tommy Ramone, drummer and leader of the band, in front of Arthur Treacher’s on Sixth Avenue. Tommy, I heard you got signed, I quipped. He flashed me his disgusted look, Yeah, we got signed to the space program, three sets a night on the nest moon shot. I didn’t take it any further; it was very hot.
But for a few exceptions the NYC rock scene is built on dreams and fantasy. Dreams of love and power, of polite fascism and opulent anarchy: the have and have-nots; EEE, erotism, eccentricity, and eclecticism. It is more than fitting than that scene has filtered down to one tiny club on the Bowery. The expensive thoughts of all concerned could never have been contained in anything larger or more plush. (Except for Sunday evenings with the Miamis at Broadway Charlie’s, Miamis are not too tight with the manager of CBGB’s.)
The rock and roll sub-culture coexists easily with the wraith-like alkies; the angry young black men; with the emptiness and ruin of America’s attics, basements, and secret corners. Places where the out takes and out casts collect. Poverty Marches On… What the Hell: a bass player (now with the Heartbreakers) with so much sex appeal it could lead anyone, male of female into groupiedom, revolution be damned.
As I hinted at, an occasional glimpse of success is not uncommon here at CBGB’S house bar. Last Thursday played host to the magnificent men of Kiss, playing homage to their old friends the Harlots of 42nd Street, who were doing their best to entertain the natives. Other notable drop-ins were Mick Ronson (ohh) and Ian Hunter (ahhh) who surprised everyone no end, including the Fast who promptly set up and played a second hot set on an otherwise dead night at the rock palace.
A few of the Bowery denizen have succeeded in related fields. Fayette Hauser, Gorilla Rose and Tomata du Plenty, who are behind the scenes Hollywood writers for the new nationally broadcast Manhattan Transfer TV show. I do mean behind the scenes they’re still in NYC, but word has it that they’ll be getting some fresh OJ off their own tree within the month.
Just One More Thing . . . The great tower of power moloch Mainman is closing up shop. Mainman produced some fabulous shows like Wayne County at the Trucks, FAME, and Bowie, so much for EEE.
I just finished reading Debbie Harry’s biographyMaking Tacks/The Rise of Blondiewritten by herself, Chris Stein(photographs) and under the general supervision of Victor Bockriswho aided in the formation of the text and the selection of the photographs. It seemed the perfect time to read and review it since she just announced the release of Pollinator, Blondie’s 11th album, due for release on May 5, 2017 by BMG Rights Management. I was really looking forward to read this book since Blondie is a band whose music would be omnipresent on ”the soundtrack of my life’s movie”, if such a thing would indeed exist. Blondie has always managed to preserve their uniqueness and integrity throughout the years. Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie is a story of perseverance, hope and faith. Seeing how often everything could have just gone down the drain, this is the ultimate proof that you really have to give it all you’ve got to make it… Sometimes even giving it what you haven’t got…Yet!
The prologue (added in the 1998 Da Capo Edition) is in fact a very juicy conversation between Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Victor Bockris, recorded in 1980 when Blondie was at the top, during which it appears that Chris may hold the upper hand in their couple, a subject that is rather downplayed otherwise. It also sets the tone for the lavish story, the rocky early days and the forces at work behind the creation process since Chris and Debbie obviously are at the very core of Blondie. For the rest of the book, the story is told almost exclusively from Debbie’s point of view, constantly keeping us captivated with a very uplifting, spontaneous, straight forward and wittynarrative . She goes on and about everything and everyone meaningful in her life; ”I don’t know exactly where I came from because I don’t know who my natural parents are. Chris thinks I’m definitely an alien because I fit the description in a book he read of a race of females who were put on this planet from space”. Right in this first sentence, one can immediately sense the hurting and the wounds but also the way Debbie has learned to deal with it, and how Chris later came into play. Young Deborah knew what she was destined to be before the age of six and never wavered in her firm conviction; ”I always knew I was a singer. When I began singing with the radio I was struck by the fact that I knew the next note before it was played.”
Very early on, she was a trendsetter during her High School days, dying her hair every possible color starting as soon as 1959 and always dressed in black, not giving much thought to what would people might say. ”When I was a freshman I started to draw attention to myself, with the orange hair and mostly black clothes(…)I always dressed intuitively and emotionally”.
Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie gives a very moving image of how Debbie was trying to become an artist during the mid sixties, working small jobs, going to auditions and painting. She was already singing in a folk group called Wind in the Willows. It was hardbut at the same time we get to see how much that, from the sidelines, working as a waitress at Max’s Kansas Cityby the end of the sixties, she observed, watched and learned.”When I worked at Max’s I loved all the people from Andy Warhol Factory, like Eric Emerson, Viva, Ingrid, Taylor Mead, Ultra Violet, International Velvet, Candy Darling, and all the superstars. I was just a baby growing up in the middle of this whole incredible scene, watching Andy Warhol’s eight-hours movies and listening to all kinds of fantastic music very close up at the front.”
Now of course you also get to know, in parallel, what was up with Chris Stein, how his mother was a beatnik painter and his father died when he was only 15, how he also always was into music, painting and arts in general. He is responsible for most of the incredible amount of wonderful pictures that can be found throughout the book, giving a visual dimension for each period that Debbie takes us through. Chris and Debbie went to a lot of events and shows at the same time but it took awhile before they would bump into each other. They had very similar tastes and both enjoyed seeing live the Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane. Each of them were being influenced by both the NYC and the LA scene. Chris had his own isssues, he’d taken a lot of acid and was experiencing long periods of seeing everything as cosmic dust(!). He even received his draft notice at the beginning of ’69 while in an asylum, where he spent three months after completely flipping out. He was twenty at the time and this was a delayed reaction to his father’s death. He managed to insist he had all that was needed to be NOT eligible to join the war effort, got out of there with a 4F and rushed up to Woodstock. Debbie was there too, she had served Jefferson Airplane their dinner at Max’s the night before they left for Woodstock. They just didn’t know each other yet so they went separately, never bumping into each other.
Debbie had a lot of issues of her own, being so depressed that she couldn’t sing without bursting into tears. For a while she managed to keep it all together by using various drugs but 1969 was a very pivotal year for everyone. ”Paying for the drugs and doing them became a bigger drag than the problems I was trying to solve(…)It was a tremendously down period and we all had to shake off the freakouts that occurred in ’68 and ’69(…)All that sadness and tragedy just kept going through my head. I love the blues, but I didn’t want to sing them. I wanted to entertain people, have a good time, and be happy.”
So, she quits drugs and took a sabbatical from the whole scene for three years, during which time Chris, having been released from the asylum for good, went on welfare and, sponsored by the division of vocational rehabilitation, was studying photography at the School of Visual Arts, and making some of the connections that would eventually lead to the fatefull event of Debbie and Chris finally meeting.
Debbie gives us a very detailed description of what she was trying to accomplish musically with The Stillettoes who were Elda Gentile, Rosie Ross (later replaced by Amanda) and Debbie; ”a combination of the aggressive Shangri-La’s rock and the round solid vocals of an R&B girl group. The overall idea was to be entertaining and danceable. The original group included Tommy and Jimmy from the Miamis, Timothy Jackson and Youngblood. Tony Ingrassia was the choreographer and worked on giving them a cohesive look so that they each had a stage concept.”
Chris became involved with Eric Emerson and the Magic Tramps via the School of Visual Arts by becoming the Dolls’ opening act, and quickly became friends with all those people who hung out on the periphery of the Dolls, eventually becoming Eric’s roadie. He was invited to the second Stillettoes gig at the Boburn Tavern on 28th Street by Elda herself who was the mother of Eric’s children. ”The most striking thing about collaboration is that it often happens in dreams. A microsecond of dream will unfold an elaborate scene in a flash.It’s an amazing form of communication and it happened between Chris and me the first time we saw each other when I was singing and he was in the audience(…) I was very nervous so I delivered a lot of songs to him. We had a psychic connection right away, which struck me particularly because I’d previously only had such string psychic connections with girlfriends”. Chris joined the group on Elda’s request.
Now I gave you a very detailed insight of the early days but the book is even more exhaustive, leaving absolutely no stones unturned as the group slowly takes shape, requiring numerous musicians replacements, new musical directions, new looks and styles, the final result of all this evolution being the band worldy known today as Blondie -always having at it’s very core Debbie and Chris Stein. Reading it you really feel as if you are right there with them, reliving every moment and all aspects of what was to become a very unique band, not really punk, not really disco, Debbie insists on saying that Blondie was a pop band, nothing more, nothing less. Making Tracks/The Rise of Blondie is a very fascinating journey to the top with all its up and downs, the tours, the crazy people, the shady promoters, the providential roadies, the tragic and the funny anecdotes, and everything stardom life is about. Chris Stein and Debbie Harry being always the very core of Blondie, you get to see them on various pictures with all the punk and post punk icons as they go on tour around the world several times, living their success with an integrity as persons and artists that is rarely seen.
Starting on the Bowery’s very distinct selective CBGB’s club with The Ramones and all the other bands that have now become legends, Blondie was to later gain international success and go around the world more than once to become one of the most successful bands to have risen from NYC. Here are a few people that you can see with Debbie and/or members of the band on photos included in the book: Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Devo, H.R. Giger, Siouxie, Chrissie Hynde, Andy Warhol, The Screamers, David Bowie, Ray Manzarek, Suzie Quatro, Joan Jett, Cherie Curie, The Buzzcocks, The Screamers, The Ramones to name very few, thanks to Chris Stein who really did an amazing photography job!
You also have a very interesting insight on various projects she was involved with like Blank Generation, a seminal movie about Richard Hell, a remake of Godard’s movie Alphaville that sadly has never seen the day, a promotional clip involving HR Giger ‘‘I Know You Know”. I also happened to watcha cult sci-fi horrormovie from 1982: ”Videodrome”, directed by David Cronenberg. Deborah Harry plays the role of Nicki Brand, a sadomasochistic psychiatrist and radio host. I found Debbie’s performance more than satisfying and the movie to be very prophetic.
The book doesn’t contain the usual formal complete list of everything Blondie or its members have been involved with nor a complete discography but rather focuses on the narrative and it’s quite ok since it’s done in a way to sustain the readers interest in the story Debbie tells with a surprising gift for writing. Such a list would have been a cool addition but I’m pretty sure it’s not that hard to find on the internet.
Making Tracks is not only about The Rise of Blondie but also about how they all handled its success. It does not contain a complete discography nor every movie she has played in Every true Blondie fan should read this book since it contains everything you want to know delivered with Debbie’s very witty way of seeing things that always sustains your interest since it is written from a very intimate point of view; and as I mentioned the photos are a very important ingredient in making the reader ”part of the gang”. The whole story is very cohesive and never boring. I will leave you with this quote written by Debbie near the end of the Heart of Glass European Tour that I found very interesting as she compares the UK culture with the US:
”Politics is business-getting enough money to win, keeping enough to stay in power and make more as a politician. The politicization of art in the sixties was very hypocritical. It existed in the minds of the people who wanted it to exist, but the people who were in power were definitely not having anything to do with it.
I don’t think there’s too much difference between the Americans and British scenes, Everybody wants the same thing for themselves and their culture, but the methods have to be different because of the differences in the way the cultures operate. In America Iggy was a radical force without saying anything political. His presence and what he did was a radical phenomenon. If somebody can get on the subway and wipe out the minds of the people who see him, he’s having an effect on them and doesn’t need to say anything. I hope the kids in England realise that we all want the same things, we’re just going about it in different ways.”
The Ali-Warhol Photo Tapestry shown up above as the ”banner” for this article is 60 x 32 inches and comes in various forms ranging from The Ali-Warhol Boxed Set (on 24 separate canvases) to the popular vertical edition on one large print thirty by six four inches, three images across and eight down. It is a beautiful and historic work executed by the Bockris-Schmidlapp team. Copies still available.
In order to enjoy this interview as I hope you will it helps to know that I am talking about two slightly different Ali books. The first one called ”Ali: Fighter Poet Prophet” was published in October 1974 on the day after Ali defeated George Foreman and regained his World Heavyweight Champion Crown. It was authored by Bockris-Wylieand contained over sixty splendid photographs by Peter Simon. It was also the last book published by the notorious Maurice Girodias’ Freeway Press. Bockris-Wylie was a writing and interviewing team of myself and my early seventies collaborator Andrew Wylie. Girodias, a great friend of mine, was a legend for publishing in the nineteen fifties some of the best books of our times, from Nabakov’s ”Lolita” to William Burroughs’ ”Naked Lunch”. The second one called ”Muhammad Ali in Fighter’s Heaven” published in 1998 in the U.K. and 2000 in the U.S. by Victor Bockris consists of the original book without the photographs but with a new introduction and final chapter on Andy Warhol’s Ali portrait visit as well as over one hundred stills from Anton Perich’s Ali documentary, parts of which were filmed when Bockris-Wylie was visiting Ali in 1973. To snatch from flames the burning pages of those days were to twist words into breathing wires in my brain. Let this flog of memories attend you best. -Victor Bockris
LAN: In ”’Muhammad Ali in Fighter’s Heaven”, you explain the important role Gerard Malanga played in the birth of the whole project but I want to know why and when you got convinced that Ali was such an important player in the counterculture of the 60’s?
Victor Bockris: By November of 1972 I had established myself as a poet in Philadelphia by publication of two well reviewed books of poems and a documentary about me on local TV. I had included interviews in both books of poems when I found in them the poetry of human speech. I was now shifting my focus from writing poems to conducting a series of interviews with poets. In fact, in collaboration with Andrew Wylie I was about to embark on a collection of these interviews called ‘‘The Life of Poetry” . By 1972 poets had become more relevant than ever. We clung to the counterculture as the best thing to come out of the nineteen sixties, but in the early seventies it was constantly being attacked by the Nixon administration and poets were often our most articulate voices. The problem was it was virtually impossible to make money to help finance our work on ”The Life of Poetry” (unpublished) from interviewing poets. One afternoon Wylie and I asked ourselves, “Who is the most famous poet in the world?” The great British poet W.H. Auden, who was the Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in England, had just died. Some radical British students were suggesting that Muhammad Ali should be voted Oxford’s new professor of Poetry. When we read in the local newspapers that Ali had playfully replied he would be delighted to accept the position, we instantly knew we should do a big interview with Muhammad Ali the Poet. Since the Supreme Court had reversed the sentence he received in 1967 for refusing to be drafted, Ali had increasingly been marketed as the champion of the underdogs and anti-war protestors around the world. Furthermore, by becoming a Muslim in the sixties and staging his key fights of the seventies in third world countries he certified his credentials as one of the world’s best known anti-war voices. As far as we were concerned the fact that he used his fame to attract attention to the cause of World Peace made him one of us. I got the phone number of his training camp from a sports writer at a Philadelphia tabloid. It was ninety minutes north of us in Pennsylvania. Andrew was usually better at getting interview appointments than I was, but on his occasion since I had a strong British accent I made the call. Much to my surprise, Ali answered the phone on its second ring and when I asked him if we could do an interview about his poetry he gave us an appointment two days later. When we first met him that November morning at 10 a.m. Ali was stark naked. Was this his response to being asked about his poetry? Was he in fact in the tradition of Allen Ginsberg, who sometimes took his clothes off during a poetry reading, emphasising how naked his poetry was? I have to ask these questions because I am looking for comparisons between my people. You have to wonder otherwise why write at all? Ali was coming off two victorious fights that year and approaching the top of his post sixties game. He was full of energy, he looked terrific. I think he granted us the interview because talking to young people who liked him kept him alert. He was a masterful talker cum rapper and being asked about his poetry sent him into a great long, funny rap about the origins of his poems. As an indication of how in tune he was to our expectations, at the end of our first visit to Fighter’s Heaven Ali asked me to be his spokesman to, ”The white longhairs in the colleges”.
LAN: I use the term ”project” for this book because it feels to me that it gave birth to numerous side projects that all had roots in what you were doing. Could you please elaborate on who was doing what and what were the ending results and concrete repercussions of all those things taking place ”in the side lines”?
Victor Bockris: Your are right in this perception. Between September 1971 to June 1972 I worked with Andrew Wylie and Aram Saroyan on our proto punk poetry press, Telegraph Books. We published ten volumes including Patti Smith’s first book ”Seventh Heaven”, the Warhol Superstar Brigid Polk’s book ”Scars” as well as my”In America”. This work and my subsequent work received a lot of press attention in the Fall of 1972 leading up to the Ali interview. Outstanding amongst these works was an interview I did with Patti Smith and a poem I wrote called ”1972”, which consisted of a list of some three hundred names of the counterculture’s favorite stars. It began with the names of the Rolling Stones, who reached their zenith in 1972 with ”Exile On Main Street”. These two pieces, published together at a new friend Jeff Goldberg’s Red Room Books, marked the beginning of a new period. The first Ali interview, which became the base of the book ”Ali: Fighter Poet Prophet”, was published the same month it was conducted in Phildelphia’s underground weekly, The Drummer. It too was a transitional piece, taking us beyond poets to interviewing the One Hundred Most Intelligent People. Rock and Roll was central in my work, which has provided something of a bridge between the Sixties and the Seventies, leading up to Punk Rock/Art. That was another thing that tied Ali in with my favorite subjects: during the early years of the 1960s ”Andy Warhol”, Keith Richards and Muhammad Ali were all written off in the mainstream press as punks! Punk after all dates far back in time, for punk as I understand it describes a person who is fully committed to transforming themselves into who they want to be and equally committed to their calling. Above all they always do the very best they possibly can and never retreat or surrender. In its June 1974 issue Penthouse magazine featured our Ali interview, which made him happy because it was one of the few times when what he actually said was published instead of some phony rewrite by an editor.
LAN:The Deer Lake training camp obviously represented a lot more to Ali than just a place to train with these huge rocks painted by Cassius Clay Sr, each one of them bearing the name of a great boxer; What was the very first impression YOU got about the camp itself?
Victor Bockris: Ali’s training camp Fighter’s Heaven has not received the attention it deserves as one of Ali’s greatest achievements. It was his idea. He was tired of paying huge sums of money to house his entourage in hotels and train in other people’s gyms in Miami. Ali decided to build his own camp and he found a good place at the top of a hill leading off Highway 61 in Deer Lake Pennsylvania. When I first got there Ali only had the gym, the kitchen and his log cabin built. The boulders had not arrived yet, but he worked on the place every time he stayed there. It was his drive that got it done. Between 1972-1973 he surely turned it into a perfect place to get his head, body, spirit and fight together with his team. Ali treated everybody he employed well, he often gave guys without the money to develop their skills jobs as sparing partners, etc. Ali made it clear to me how much he gained from living there, fresh home-grown vegetables, fresh water, fresh air, endless space to run, great camaraderie among his men. The camp also had an inspiring view across many miles of open country. He had great visions for the camp and every time we visited him he was showing us new stuff. One day he introduced us to Mr Moyer, who was just beginning to deliver the huge boulders on which Ali’s father would paint the names of the greatest champions. Ali got the idea from Archie Moore, who had the same thing in his camp when Cassius Clay trained there in 1962. Ali was exultant about the whole thing. It always felt good to be there. In between 1972-1974, the greatest period the camp ever had, Ali was close with his wife and children I often saw them there. Everything and everyone was on his spot. Building organizing and running what became his superb camp was the most sustained and successful things he ever did outside the ring. The good vibes and solidarity of Ali’s camp had a lot to do with his victories in Zaire and Manilla. The camp still operates today. He could have made money renting it to fighters, but Ali chose to rent it free to organizations who ran summer camps for poor black kids from the ghettos.
LAN:Obviously this book was never meant to be about boxing per se. It seems that Ali was really proud about his poems and other aspects of his personalities. This must have been very thrilling. Would it be accurate to say that it was really important to Ali that people recognize him to be more than just an athlete at this point in time?
Victor Bockris: The main thrust of the Ali book was to make this transition in the popular conception of Ali. At this time he had in view defeating Frazier in their second fight and defeating Foreman to win back his crown. Many things interceded before he got there, but Ali made it clear to me in 1973 and 1974 that he soon planned to retire. Then it became retire after the third Frazier fight in Manilla in 1975. Ali had really enjoyed touring the colleges in the late sixties. Travelling was in his blood. He’d been led to believe Elijah Muhammad was going to give him an assignment to travel to mosques around the world. Ali dreamed of travelling around the world giving inspiring lectures seeking peace between East and West. It all made sense. After the Foreman and Frazier fights he would have enough money to support his family for the rest of their lives. It is quite possible he could have played a role in bringing east and west together via his Muslim religion. Unfortunately, none of this would ever happen. Ali’s business manager, one of Elijah Muhammad’s sons, took 50% of his income and the rest of Ali’s money after high taxes was so poorly handled he never had enough and was forced to keep fighting, like a cash cow for his handlers, until everything was used up. It was one of the most vicious examples of what can happen to a man of Ali’s calibre when he des not have control of his resources, but trusts others to take care of them. This is never a good idea.
LAN:I think it’s a correct assumption to say that Ali truly revealed his ”real self” to you. What aspect of Ali’s blazing personality was the most striking to you?
Victor Bockris: I don’t think Ali revealed his true self to me. I mean Ali was complex, holding in himself contradictory motivations which left him supreme in his profession but weak outside of it. He once told one of his daughters that he had never been able to feel anything. He had insecurities. I saw none of these things. Remember I had asked for an interview. What he gave me on that first day was eight hours of his time, from talking to riding in his bus to watching one of his fights on video while Ali sat behind me and flicked punches just past my ear. He was playful. He was joyful. Nearing the end of this marathon visit to Fighter’ Heaven he became a little more personal. Over the years I knew him he always recognized me but never knew my name.
LAN:The book contains an outstanding collection of his poetry; Ali read a lot of his raps and poetry to you. I know most people had heard his raps and rants (!) but was it the first time that he was reading complete poems he had written, commenting them and explaining the events and emotions involved. Do you think he was considering becoming a writer one day?
Victor Bockris: While Andrew and I were interviewing Ali between 1972-1974 our friend Anton Perich was shooting a documentary about Ali, which included the day Ali gave us a real poetry reading. Many years later I was sitting at a table in a nightclub in Copenhagen when I noticed a silent film of a man moving his head and body back and forth in a rocking motion projected slightly larger than life on a wall to my right. Loud disco music was blowing through the room that seemed so perfectly in time with the man in the film I was thinking they should put this music on the soundtrack of the film when I suddenly realised ”WHATTT!?!” I was looking at Anton’s film of the poetry reading Ali had delivering so hypnotically at us thirty years ago. That image sums up the power of Ali’s delivery. He undoubtedly had a love affair with language but he also communicated with the language of his body. We have to bear in mind that most of Ali’s poetry was copied from or translated from religious texts. This is no different from Bob Dylan taking songs from the past and making them his own. Ali’s voice was his greatest weapon outside the ring. Asking, “Can Muhammd Ali write?” is like asking, “Can David Bowie act?” In the verbal department Ali was the most impressive world athlete of all time. Ali mesmerized the world with the language that he used. Millions of Ali’s words in interviews have been published all over the world. His verbal pyrotechnics were not the product of a slow mind. The man was sharp. If he had travelled the world giving speeches those speeches would have turned into books. Can he write? The man had a Great Rap! His gift was in the delivery of the poems and in working them into his raps, his strength was in the performance of the words. He was a great communicator. He could have gone on to be a great orator. Except by the time they were through with him Ali no longer had a voice.
LAN:There is a very interesting chapter about Warhol’s visit to the camp. Warhol seemed a bit ambivalent towards the champ even if Andy still managed to produce Ali’s favorite portrait, it seems there was sort of some ”disconfort” in the air when they actually met for the shooting. What would be your take on it?
Victor Bockris: Andy Warhol’s visit to Fighter’s Heaven came three years after publication of ”Ali: Fighter Poet Prophet”. He had read the book and took me along as a buffer. I had also just published a profile of him which asked the question, ”Who Does Andy Warhol Remind You of Most? Answer: Muhammad Ali.” From the introductions onwards I was struck by how rude Ali was to Warhol. I’d never seen him behave like that. At the same time as we walked over to the gym to take the pictures he annealed himself to my side and talked nonstop. Ali acted this way because he knew Andy was gay. After he finished taking the pictures and got a perfect pose it seemed as if Andy had cracked the ice with Muhammad, who invited us on a tour of the camp. This delusion came crashing down when we got to his cabin and, after reading us a new poem he had written on the Concorde the previous night, Ali pulled a thick stack of index cards out of a big briefcase and proceeded for more than thirty minute to harangue Warhol about the gay influence on the nation. Suddenly I was astonished to see Muhammad abruptly break down in confusion saying he did not know what was happening but he could not talk anymore. When Andy told me afterwards he was so glad Ali kept staring into his eyes, I realised he had delivered the Warhol coup de grace, in which Andy would slice people up with his eyes, instantly discombobulating and dismissing them. Believe me I’ve been on the receiving end of it and it is extraordinarily effective. On that occasion, Andy Warhol was much stronger than Muhammad Ali.
LAN:Do you know what were Ali’s feelings towards ”The Greatest”?
Victor Bockris: One day Ali started complaining about how his publishers were treating the book. “Look at this,” he said handing me a cheap xerox invitation to its launch. The book might have given Ali an opportunity to sing his story, but his manager hired a well-known Black Muslim propagandist to write the book and it was not accurate. The way his managers marginalized or ignored Ali should have sent shock bells of warning ringing in his ears, but Ali’s fixation on his mission did not allow him to doubt his people. It was a dilemma he never overcame until his fourth wife, Lonnie Ali, took over his finances. So far as I know he never read the book, which is a sad conclusion to his only book contract. Thus is a boxer neutralized and boxed in. His lack of control over his book would soon become a lack of control over his life. You could say Ali got much more from the Muslims than they took from him. Elijah helped to transform Cassius Clay into Muhammad Ali which led to Ali becoming the most famous man in the world. He was also a strong father figure Ali really needed. But the Black Muslim’s did not just take the majority of his money they took way his voice not just once but twice. The first time was in his autobiography. Then by forcing him to fight his last five years of brutal fights (1976-1981) they took it away again. By the time they were through with him Ali was no longer able to give any speeches. Was this like some kind of mafia torture where they maximize the suffering? Ali won’t say a bad word against them, but people said he was frightened of the Muslims from the beginning. They destroyed and killed people with seeming immunity. No one was ever caught for killing Malcolm X in broad daylight. The bottom line was just like any crook they got the money, but they also neutralized the Champ. It’s a dark road between Ali and the Black Muslims. After Elijah’s death in 1975 Ali slowly changed his affiliation to the regular Muslims. I don’t want to go there because more than anything Ali was a huge Beacon of Light in a darkening world. When he came into it he was happy along with the Kennedy’s Best and Brightest men. Then as the evil came out of the land and started shooting down those other beacons so did the evil come to Ali. That he overcame that evil again and again, even prevailing over the broken years of the mid 1980s is his greatest achievement. It took a great man to rise above all the corruption, theft, greed and murder, but he did. That is why he remains to this day that bright Beacon of Light. Now Ali’s light will never go out because it has become a star. Those of us who look up at it from all over the world see different things. For me Ali will always stand for his artistic integrity as a very strong voice for world peace. That’s what he wanted his message to be. He wanted to be seen as a man of peace. That is what his message was. So let it go forth.
LAN:When Ali got your book, ”Muhammad Ali in Fighter’s Heaven” do you feel he genuinely loved the book and that it played an important part compared to all the book that have been written about the champ? If so, what makes it so special to him and/or to the public in general?
Victor Bockris: I first showed the book to Ali in the Spring of 1975 while we were walking down Central Park South in New York followed by a crowd of a hundred or more people. Bedlam surrounded him as he walked to a restaurant to have dinner. Cops shouted from horses, “Ali! Ali!” Cabs came to screeching halts, people yelled out of car windows, kids ran amongst our feet as he paged through the mass paperback book complaining about the clarity of the pictures on its cheap paper. He was also pissed because he had planned to use the photo he had given us which we used on the cover somewhere else! It was partially in humor. We had left a box of two hundred copies of the book in his suite at the Essex House hotel. We never told him that, just as the advance copies were starting to sell like hotcakes, the printer shredded the entire edition of 50,000 copies of the book because our publisher had not paid his bill. I always wondered what happened to those two hundred copies we gave Ali. Then in 1996 I got a copy of a book of Ali’s favorite photographs of himself called Muhammad Ali in Perspective by Thomas Hauser. It included a Howard Bingham photo of Muhammad holding the book up and reading it at a table sitting next to Lonnie. Both of them wear expressions of supreme satisfaction. I had never seen a photograph of Ali reading a book other than the Koran. Anyway I continued working on Ali projects like The ALI-WARHOL PHOTO TAPESTRY by Bockris-Schmidlapp (See top of the page). Then in 2000 my book ”Muhammad Ali in Fighter’s Heaven” was published in the U.S. and I sent Lonnie and Muhammad copies. They thanked me. Then In 2009 Lonnie sent me a letter saying that she was reading the book to Muhammad when he went to bed at night. It reminded him of a time in which he almost broke free from his violent profession to become the man of peace he wanted to be so now the book brought peace to him. What more perfect image can we end on?
LAN: Indeed!! Thank you so much for your time but most of all in this precise case, I’d say thank you for letting the whole world know that Ali was much more than just one of the greatest boxer in the world. Looking back, how do you feel about having accomplished that??
Victor Bockris: I always loved the Ali book. It was my first book of prose and I loved everything about it. It was beautifully designed, it contained the only collection of Ali’s poetry. It as alive with his voice. I knew it was good, we also received a positive quote from George Plimpton we used on the cover and postcards praising the book from our friends Ted Berrigan and Eartha Kitt. By the time it was published in 2000 I had a better perspective of the book as part of my Collected Works in fourteen volumes. Back in 1979 Andy Warhol wrote, “Victor Bockris only writes about three people, Muhammad Ali, William Burroughs and me.” It is the relationship between these names I see as my accomplishment. My achievement is that I was able, without planning, to write a connected series of books about outstanding artists of our times who shared in common an ability to communicate attitudes and take actions which combined to play a large role in creating an enlightened counterculture in this country and around the world. And that counterculture, based on its international population’s efforts to stop the war in Vietnam and its lasting influences on our lives today, should in turn be recognized as one of America’s greatest achievements.