In Depth Interview with Victor Bockris, Author of ”Muhammad Ali in Fighter’s Heaven”
by Tobe Damit
Foreword by Victor Bockris:
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-Wylie and 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?
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”?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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”?
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?
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??
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.