Beat Muhammad Ali

Afterthoughts on Bockris’ ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven”

By Tobe Damit

I was reading ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven’, one of a mutlivolumesque serie of very thorough biographies written by Victor Bockris, treating of everything that has to do with some specific thinkers and doers that were behind the 60’s counterculture and social revolution. Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven” was published the day after his victory over Foreman in 1974 and it was Ali’s favorite book about himself (and mine too!). If you check out the author’s bibliography you will find some of the most iconic figures of that revolution: All of which can be related in one way or another to Beat Punks. I’ve already reviewed in-depth his remarkable biographies about Andy Warhol and Lou Reed . By the way, I intend to review all of Bockris’ biographies in the near future here on LAN.

So, in the blue corner, you have all these writers, painters and musicians and then, in the red corner, there is a real boxer, an athlete so good that he left for sure a permanent mark in the boxing world. And you may ask yourselves ”How did he get there? How does Ali fit in with all these people who triggered a revolution in the 60’s?” Let me just say for starters that they all, in their own ways, shed some blood, sweat and tears. Muhammad Ali was much more than an athlete or an inspiring success story. Most people remember him from the early days of his celebrity for being a loud mouth. He sure was one. For each and every opponent he fought he would ”bust some rhymes”, taunting his opponents, predicting in how many they would go down, making fun of them any which way he could as well as giving names and meanings to his fights like Thrilla in Manila, (Ali-Frazier III in Manila, Philippines, October 1, 1975) and Rumble in the Jungle (Ali-Foreman in  Kinshasa, Zaire, October 30, 1974) that led to a documentary called ”When We Were Kings”.

Ali remembers the origins of his poetry: ”It was ’62, when I fought Archie Moore. Moore rhymed with four, so the publicity for that fight was:
Moore will
hit the floor
in round four

Then I fought Henry Cooper, I said:
This is no jive
Cooper will
leave in five

*This is a quote from Ali in Bockris’ ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven”.

Doesn’t that sound like rap to you?? It sure does to me. The very roots of rap were precisely a verbal fight between 2 opponents and organized as such in official contests and in my mind, those verbal assaults were the very first rap rhymes ever made. Some might deny him that but he did write poems. Now Ali also was a success story and a very good story-teller, you can’t deny him that. The very first ”big book” I read was Muhammad Ali very own striking autobiography ”The Greatest” that was later put into a mediocre movie in which Ali played his own character (of course!). Doesn’t it sound a lot like ”8 Mile’ to you?? (except for the fact 8 Mile is a good movie and Eminem a good actor). The irony is that ”The Greatest” was a fake bio written by a back muslim propagandist. Ali never read it and did not like it.  Bockris’ book about the champ was Ali’s favorite book. Victor gave it to him in 1975 and Ali had himself photographed with the book in the 1990s. His wife told me she was still reading the book to him in 2009! Because it is the most accurate account of his inner life and what he planned to do after he retired from boxing in 1975. The horror of the fights he was forced to fight from 1976-1981 made it especially appealing to the peace loving champion.

But first and foremost, Ali was an actor in his own life. He was an artist as a boxer, as a promoter, as a poet, as a spiritual figure, as a counterculture thinker, as a civil right champion, as a family man, as a life coach. Furthermore as you read Victor Bockris’ ”Muhammad Ali In Fighters Heaven” you are told that they were rocks painted by Ali’s father, Cassius Clay Sr., and transported by a guy named Harvey Moyer, huge rocks on the grounds of his training camp on which were painted the names of great adversaries, each of them representing a milestone in Ali’s life, installations that should be considered as conceptual art to be on the technical side of this but his skills were in every detail. These rocks meant a lot to Ali. What made Ali so inspiring is not so much what he did as how he did it and who he was, because who he was always transpired in the way he did things. Reading through ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven’‘,  you can very well imagine how everyone around him; his family, his supporters, trainers, organisers, doctors, lawyers, etc. were all devoted and loyal to him because they loved him as a person. He was running things with love and discipline, using one or the other along the way as required by the circumstances. Always true to himself and his beliefs, as a man, as a father, as a colored man and as a muslim.

One of the milestones on the training camp grounds. This one dedicated to Sonny Liston (obviously). This was taken during his training for the ”Rumble in the Jungle” fight.

Ali saw in his birth name Cassius Clay the mark of the slavery that was a burden to his colored brothers and that is the reason that he changed his name and his faith.

Muhammad Ali Remembered, by Those Who Knew Him as Cassius – The New York Times

On April 28, 1967, with the United States at war in Vietnam, Ali refused to be inducted into the armed forces, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong.” This guy did what many thousands people promoting peace never even dared to do. This ”Black Muslim guy”, who was mistreated for as long as he can remember in his own country precisely because of the fact that he was black, said to the face of his recruiting officer that he had no intentions whatsoever to go kill another human being at the other end of the world, whom he had never met and further more who had never caused him any harm. Now it may not seem such an act of bravery but don’t forget that this young fellow still officially and originally named Cassius Clay, born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, this Muslim Black Boxer who at age 18, won a gold medal in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and turned professional later that year, was arrested, found guilty of draft evasion charges, and stripped of his boxing titles.

He successfully appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned his conviction in 1971, by which time he had not fought for nearly four years and thereby lost a period of peak performance as a boxing athlete. Ali’s actions as a conscientious objector to the war had made him an icon for the larger counterculture generation but he definitely paid a very steep price. Those years were lost forever for him and for all of the world to see him boxing at his best even if he is still considered by many to be ”The Greatest”.

Andy Warhol-Muhammad Ali at Fighter’s Heaven, 1978©Photo by Victor Bockris

Of course the ultimate integration as a counterculture figure was Ali’s placid but unmovable resistance to go fight the Viet Nam war. And the unveiled interest Andy Warhol had towards him just confirmed the fact that Ali had become one of the greatest leading spirits of the 60’s and the 70’s.  The encounter of Andy Warhol to Ali’s training camp is detailed in Bockris’  ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven”. A man who’s dazzling virtuosity within the prize ring was matched only by his articulate and outrageous showmanship and integrity outside it.

I can see no better ending than to leave you with a poem written by Ali himself. This one of three poems that were exclusively published in ”Muhammad Ali in Fighter’s Heaven” for the first time… This one is a poem about…

FREEDOM

Better far from all I see
To die fighting to be free
What more fitting end could be?

Better surely than in some bed
Where in broken health I’m led
Lingering until I’m dead

Better than with prayers and pleas
Or in the clutch of some disease
Wasting slowly by degrees
Better than of heart attack
Or some dose of drug I lack
Let me die by being Black

Better far that I should go
Standing here against the foe
Is the sweeter death to know
Better than the bloody stain
On some highway where I’m lain
Torn by flying glass and pain

Better calling death to come
Than to die another dumb
Muted victim in the slum

Better than of this prison rot
If there’s any choice I’ve got
Kill me here on the spot

Better far my fight to wage
Now while my blood boils with rage
Lest it cool with ancient age

Better vowing for us to die
Than to Uncle Tom and try
Making peace just to live a lie

Better now that I say my sooth
I’m gonna die demanding truth
While I’m still akin to youth

Better now than later on
Now that fear of death is gone
Never mind another dawn.

– by Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016). ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven” contains an outstanding collection of his poetry, along with his commentary on how he wrote the poems.

”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven” also contains a complete utterly interesting chapter detailling the historic encounter that took place when Warhol went to Ali’s training camp to take pictures of the champ. Here’s a glimpse…

Andy Warhol was far from the only artist to depict Ali in his art, though Ali himself said Warhol’s piece was “by far the best painting I have ever had of myself.” The painting, he felt, successfully conveyed his “many moods.” In preparation for these prints, Warhol traveled to Deer Lake Pennsylvania where Ali was training for a match with Ernie Shavers. It was at the training camp that Ali and Warhol met, and where Warhol took the photographs that would eventually become Ali’s portrait. Initially, Warhol seemed unafraid of the larger-than-life boxer. After being teased about the excessive price the pictures would be sold for, Warhol asked “Could we, uh, do some, uh, pictures where you’re not, uh, talking?” According to Bockris is “Nobody had ever told the champ to shut his famous mouth in quite such a not-to-be-trifled with way.” By the end of the shoot, however, Ali managed to unnerve the artist. When Warhol was finished taking photos he reached to shake Ali’s hand and mumbled, “Thanks er, champ.” The boxer spun around and furiously demanded, “Did you say tramp?” Ali laughed, but not before Warhol lost his cool in a brief moment of panic. *Direct quote from the chapter recounting Warhol’s visit to the camp in Bockris’ ”Muhammad Ali In Fighter’s Heaven”. 

This post is dedicated to Ali’s children: Laila Ali, Maryum Ali, Rasheda Ali, Asaad Amin, Hana Ali, Khaliah Ali, Jamillah Ali, Mya Ali, Muhammad Ali Jr. It is dedicated as well to all the children victims of crimes against humanity or civil rights violation. 

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Warhol’s Bio/Recent Movie Deal

Warhol and Bockris by Marcia Resnick
Andy Warhol and Victor Bockris, New York Mudd Club, 1978. © Marcia Resnick

Interview with Victor Bockris   

By Tobe Damit
By Tobe Damit

Following my review of Andy Warhol’s biography by Victor Bockris, I was pleased to know that the author himself was kind enough to grant me an interview regarding the book itself as well as the recent deal that was made regarding the making of a biopic involving Jared Leto. The actor Jared Leto, the producer Michael De Luca and Terence Winter are teaming to tackle the life of Andy Warhol, the famed pop art artist whose blend of art and commerce made him a household name. Winter, the ”Boardwalk Empire” creator who wrote ”The Wolf of Wall Street”, will pen the screenplay, using the 1989 Victor Bockris book, ”Warhol: The Biography”, as a jumping-off point. Leto and De Luca jointly acquired the rights to the book, having had a desire to partner on a project for some time now and since it is now a done deal, I thought it was the perfect time for a little chat with the author of the well acclaimed biography which has been published in nine countries since 1989 and remains in print in several. 

LAN: Do you remember how, where, why and under what circumstances Andy Warhol caught your attention for the first time? 

Victor Bockris: Andy Warhol had a tongue in cheek “Retrospective” at the I.C.A. on the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia in October 1965. (Tongue in cheek because he had only started showing paintings in 1962 and it usually takes much longer than three years to get a retrospective!)I had moved from my British boarding school Rugby to Central High School in Philadelphia in February, a week before Malcolm X was assassinated in New York. My transition from the one school to the other was fraught with the most extreme culture shock I had ever experienced in a life of shocks. During my first two months at Central I had a nervous breakdown, which I kept confined to the afternoons at home so nobody else knew about it. The trauma faded as soon as I started making friends amongst the cool kids who were all folkies. They were mad about Bob Dylan and took me to  Convention Hall to see him on the early 65 tour he did with Joan Baez. My closet friend, Elliot Fratkin, invited me to go to the Warhol opening in early October.
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As we approached the I.C.A that night walking across the lawn at the center of the campus I started seeing people standing around in small groups hugging each other and crying or lying on the ground like the victims of a nuclear attack in Peter Watkins famous film The War Games, which I had seen in the same place the previous week. As we got closer I could see and smell the aftermath of some hideous event such as a lynching or a riot.

I was right about the riot. Apparently when Warhol swept into the gallery with Edie Sedgwick, Girl of the Year and star of eight films Andy shot in six months, Gerard Malanga, superstar stud of the Factory, and Henry Geldzahler, curator of modern art at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the ecstatic crowd of students packed like penguins in the small space and spontaneously exploded in a riot that reminded Geldzahler of a Beatles concert. People were screaming and crying “Andy and Edie! Andy and Edie!” This was the moment at which Andy crossed over from being a famous artist to something more akin to a rock star, somebody who has transformed themselves from a person into a magician. Of course I was not there, but Andy Warhol’s essence hung in the air like the acrid smell of machine guns and wild horses.   

 

LAN: What made you decide back then that Warhol was to be the subject of your next bio? Do you have similar reasons for the other biographies you wrote? Is there a link? How do you connect the dots (if any)?

Victor Bockris: I did not decide to write the Warhol biography. My agent, the young and ambitious Andrew Wylie just at the beginning of building his literary agency, suggested it in 1982.  I was spending the summer writing ‘Negative Girls into a book in Philadelphia. He called right after the girl who inspired the book phoned to tell me she was getting married, (to a rock star!) which drained all the desire and drive to finish Negative Girls out of my frenzied mind. We discussed the book for six weeks before I decided to take it on. There was much at stake, not in the least my friendship with Andy. I knew nothing about biography, which is a complex form one can only master by learning on the job like The Ramones did on stage. I decided to do it because Andy was the most mysterious figure in the vanguard of the American culture. Nobody knew anything about his childhood or the years before he became a pop artist. He was also a sitting duck for a writer who wanted to grab the attention of the country. Earlier that year Jean Stein had done just that with her bestselling book, “Edie” (Sedgwick). The most powerful part of that book was the long section about Edie’s relationship with Andy.  According to Stein He was a verrrry bad man. His nickname at the Factory, Drella, summed up the impression. He was a monster, half Cinderella half Dracula. He never slept, he never ate, he drank blood. He wanted to be machine, he did not believe in love, and that was the tip of  the iceberg. I had known Andy for almost ten years and I loved him the way you love a hero, like a comrade in a war. Believe me, stating your alliance to Andy Warhol could still ignite a bar fight in 1983 New York. He was still the most hated artist in America, but he was the most loved artist in France, Italy and Germany.  

Andy working on as portrait, second Factory 33 Union Square West, 1973 by Victor Bockris
Andy working on as portrait, second Factory 33 Union Square West, 1973 by Victor Bockris
There are several links between all my books: I never wrote about anyone unless I knew them well enough to see how they got through the day; everyone I wrote about was a  remarkable talker; everyone I wrote about played a role in the development of the Counterculture in New York in the 1970s. They were all living in William Burroughs Magic Universe.
As soon as I garnered good reviews for the Warhol biography I wanted to dash off and write my own biography. However my Dutch Uncle and mentor in biography, Albert Goldman, who published a masterpiece, ”Ladies and Gentlemen Lenny Bruce!” as well as first class biographies of Elvis and John Lennon, told me, “You’ve just mastered how to write a biography, don’t throw away what you’ve learned, do at least two more.” Keith Richards was a dream subject and ”Keith Richards: The Biography” was published right before the release of his first solo album. The book has been published in ten countries and stayed in print in the English language since it’s original publication in 1992. The third book in my trilogy of biographies, ”Transformer: The Lou Reed Story” was well received in the U.K. and U.S. in 1995 and did a lot to broaden his audience in the six countries in which it was published.
Burroughs-Warhol photo tapestry Chelsea Hotel 1980 by Bockris-Schmidlapp
Burroughs-Warhol photo tapestry Chelsea Hotel 1980 by Bockris-Schmidlapp
This biography obviously required an incredible amount of work. So many subjects, so many people! How did you manage to achieve such a complete story of his life without being drowned in archives of all sorts!? Did it require a different methodology than your other books??

Victor Bockris: It required a one hundred percent commitment for five years. At several stages I employed an editor to keep me on track. Writing a biography is quite different from writing the portraits I had previously published of Ali, Burroughs, Blondie and The Velvet Underground. Warhol was by far the hardest book I ever wrote, in fact it almost killed me. I have always been lucky with my timing.  My first seven books were perfectly timed. Andy died two and a half years before the book was released. It was the first and remains the only real biography of Warhol. I started it by going to Pittsburgh with Keith Haring and meeting Andy’s oldest brother Paul Warhola, who was a lovely man and became a good friend who helped me out until the very end. Andy did not want me to write the book but he never told anybody not to talk to me. I think he realized that somebody was going to do it and he was in safer hands with me than with some hack who did not know him and would mess it up.

There are by the way two distinctly different versions of my biography. When Andy died in February 1987 my British editor, Paul Sidey, at Hutchinson (Random House UK) got in touch and played a strong role in helping me complete the book. This climaxed with an all expenses paid six-week visit to London during which I was given a full-time editor and copy editor. By the time Sidey gave me the retyped 721 page manuscript of Warhol: The Biography’ I was in heaven, because it had come out much as I originally envisioned it. The British were planning to publish in May 1989. This euphoria was short-lived. A week after I delivered it to my agent, word came back, or so I was told, from Warner Books that the manuscript was “unpublishable.” I never found out if this was actually true, but the long and short was Warner wanted a re-edit. At this point I was exhausted. I had given it everything I had. Finally Hutchinson published their version ”Warhol: The Biography” in May 89. It received wonderful reviews and was published in paperback by Penguin. Warner  Books published their version, on which I worked for six weeks with an editor they had flown in from England, ”The Life and Death of Andy Warhol’, in October 1989. It was about one hundred pages shorter and much of the life had been cut out of it. 

Whereas the U.K. edition did well and remains in print twenty-seven years later, the Warner edition was a fiasco. Although it was well reviewed it suffered very disappointing sales for the advance they had paid me. Today, the British edition is in print in the U.S. (with DaCapo) and in France and Poland. With the movie coming out in 2017 we are looking forward to seeing it in print in several other countries.
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a: A Novel
LAN:How do you perceive Warhol’s contribution to the literary world? I know you feel pretty strongly about a: A Novel…?
Victor Bockris: I think it’s a disgrace that Andy Warhol’s books have not been released in uniform paperback editions or in a complete twelve volume set. Starting in 1967 and continuing until after his death Andy published a series of between nine and twelve books. They are as vital to an understanding of his oeuvre as his paintings and films. There is much more interest in his writing in Europe than America. Language is the basis of all Warhol’s work. In his college years his confrontation with the American language distressed him so much it became the root of his artistic drive to portray America as a land of Deaths and Disasters. He is a conceptual artist. His first works like the Campbell’s Soup Can paintings and his first film Sleep were seen by few people, but their names became part of our culture. He published at least three classic books: a: A Novel; The Philosophy of Andy Warhol and The Andy Warhol Diaries.” His collected literary works are ignored by the Warhol Foundation because they do not make enough money to warrant even an investment of time. They appear uninterested in developing his literary reputation and have done nothing with the unpublished books in his archives. There appears to be nobody taking care of Andy Warhol’s literary works and nobody to defend the books against people who claim they wrote them. Andy Warhol’s writing is pure Warhol. I hope one day somebody will wake up to the fact that there is actually a goldmine yet to be discovered in the many unpublished volumes in the files of the Warhol Museum. Somebody should write a book called ”Andy Warhol: The Writer, but they might have a problem getting permission to quote from his writing. There appears to be a determination to keep him down or out of print. I have published six essays about Andy’s writing in various sources, including the current DaCapo version of the Warhol biography.
da-capo-us
Warhol: The Biography DaCapo Press US
LAN: You were obviously close to Warhol. What were the most valuable things you learned from him or about him?

Victor Bockris: The most valuable things I learned from Warhol:  To grow my ambition higher; to realize works is the most important thing in my life; to simplify; to minimize and to recognize that most growth comes via connections to people who open doors to other people. To never let anybody take your work away from you. To collaborate.  To do interviews without questions, to just let them happen. To connect to the power in yourself.  To be a very tough businessman. To never lose your self-respect.  To treat people well. To not get hung up on your problems. To discipline yourself to not waste your life on alcohol or hard drugs. To believe that you can transform yourself.  

American author Victor Bockris, dressed as an MP, talks with Pop artist Andy Warhol at the Mudd Club's 'Combat Love' event, New York, New York, June 17, 1979. (Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images)
Meeting at The Mudd’s Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images 1979
LAN:Do you feel you have resolved the enigma of Andy Warhol’s persona through this book?

Victor Bockris: Jared Leto told me my book was the only one who made him feel that he got Andy, got to know him and understood him.  My original motivation for writing this book was to reveal Andy so that people could feel as if they knew him and liked him. So, yes I think I succeeded.   

LAN: Do you feel that part of the enigma of Warhol persona is whether he was a psychopath or simply an oversensitive person who simply just couldn’t afford to deal with a heartbreak, betrayal or negative feelings of any sort?
Victor Bockris: This question is difficult for me to understand. Andy was not a psychopath in any way. That sounds like the kind of word somebody desperate to write something new about Warhol might come up with, but I can’t imagine anybody who knew Andy saying that. He was, much like William Burroughs, the opposite of his image. Andy was a supersensitive romantic who found it harder as he got older to be alone. He certainly denied his emotional distress, but there is no question that he became increasingly lonely as he got older. At the same time he was turning out an extraordinary stream of great paintings.There is something almost too poignant for words about his final works, The Last Supper paintings which regained the vitality of the Car Crash paintings. And the fact that when he died he had so much work to do but perhaps nobody to look forward to seeing. Nobody he could give his love to. He checked into the hospital under the name Bob Robert. In his last phone call to Vincent Fremont, Vice President of Andy Warhol Enterprises, he was full of energy and humor. Some people called him Superman some called him the Angel of Death. He was an otherworldly figure who gave us everything he had. 
Victor on Warhol's Grave, Pittsburgh 1988 Picture by George Warhola
Victor on Warhol’s Grave, Pittsburgh 1988 Picture by George Warhola
LAN: Do you feel Warhol’s works and ideas are still relevant today?

Victor Bockris: Much has been written about the Legacy of Andy Warhol. I think he will be relevant forever in the sense that Shakespeare is still relevant. I wrote his biography and it would be hard for anybody to write a new one because most of the sources on the first thirty years of his life are dead. However, I don’t think anybody has yet put together an understanding of the impact of his collected work, not in the least because nobody has recognized the importance of his writing in his oeuvre. A writer who could show us the overall influence of Warhol’s contribution, without being over influenced by the prices of his art, but saw the art the films and the writing as the triangular base of his huge body of work would be doing us a great service. Andy Warhol may be the greatest artist of the twentieth century because he harnessed the century’s theme of death. But we will not know until somebody  emerges who isn’t frothing at the mouth about the money.

Paul Warhola by Victor Bockris Pittsburgh 1983
Paul Warhola by Victor Bockris Pittsburgh 1983
Andy’s brother Paul Warhola told me Andy never really changed. Sophisticated art dealers might scoff at that remark, but Paul is right. The Andy who drove his assistants mad by endlessly pushing them with his divine energy was the same Andy who as a child drove his brothers  wild in the same way with his insistent, “What are ya gonna do now?”
Jared Leto by Steven Taylor
Jared Leto by Steven Taylor
LAN: How do you feel about your book becoming a biopic next year and Jared Leto with his very talented friends being so enthusiastic about co-producing it and playing Warhol himself?

Victor Bockris: I have seen several opportunities to make the book into a film come and go, starting with Gus Van Saint in 1992.  I’m sure he would have made a good film, but I don’t think there was the large international audience for Warhol’s heroism back then. I hope we are going to see a film about a revolutionary culture hero who changed the world with his brilliance and his machine like drive. Something like ”Lawrence of Arabia” but with the desert being the streets of New York. Mind you this comes from a fevered brain in the middle of a hurricane. I am confident that Leto will be Warhol by the time he starts making the film and I imagine he will give us something we cannot even imagine until we see it. Something Magic.    

Andy pulling out a rabbit for Catherine Deneuve, Edie Sedgwick, and Zouzou 1966 by Jean-Jacques Bugat
Andy pulling out a rabbit for Catherine Deneuve, Edie Sedgwick, and Zouzou! Photo by Jean-Jacques Bugat 1966.
LAN: I wish you all the best!! I hope you will finally get all the credit you deserve for the quality of your books and that the world will remember your name and that the movie will be an incentive to check out the rest of  your work as well. You do have a very special place as the witness of an era, an author and as a very special friend, you most certainly had a huge influence on everything that went on since the 60’s. It seems it’s not about to stop…

Victor Bockris:  Thank you Tobe for the opportunity to talk about Andy. It went well because you asked stimulating questions and I enjoyed answering them.  I wish you all the best with Loud Alien Noize. And I look forward to contributing some of my favorite pieces to you in the future. I hope your readers enjoy with what we’ve come up with above.  

tlc-victor-bockris-2
Victor Bockris Self Portrait, New York, August 1972
I’m not even worried!! Thank YOU Victor!
All rights tobedamit.com 2016
All rights reserved tobedamit.com 2016