I knew Gregory Corso over a 24 year period, and have so many memories that sometimes I think I should write a book about him. In fact, Gregory was always mad that I had written Kerouac’s biography and not his. He used to say in his Greenwich Village bad boy’s voice: “I got one thing against you, man … you went for the dead one, man. You didn’t come for the living one”—meaning himself.
Gregory often pretended to be mean; and sometimes, drunk on vodka, he could truly be one of the meanest people you ever met. If you had a big nose, he could (drunk on vodka) spend an hour finding 5,000 brilliant poetic ways to make fun of your big nose. I have seen many people, men and women, leave a room in tears because they could not bear Gregory’s relentless, incisive jabbing at all their weak points. The more he saw you were hurting, the more he’d keep after you—till he got a response, the response he wanted. If you simply came back and said, “Aw Gregory, you’re just full of shit,” he’d probably smile and leave you alone for the rest of the night—depending on how much vodka he’d drunk. There were some nights when he simply wouldn’t quit, when a kind of animal anger in him just kept burning at white hot heat, and those nights it was better to leave him alone. The next morning he’d be all smiles, ask you to have coffee with him, and by the way, could you lend him twenty dollars?
But there was a big, real heart inside Gregory Corso. In the things that mattered, he did not fool around. I will never forget that when Jan Kerouac was banned from speaking at NYU in 1995, at a conference about her own father (Jack Kerouac), because the Sampases had cut a deal with Helen Kelly, the NYU programs director, almost all the Beats turned their backs on her. It was simple: Sampas had (still has) a major connection with Viking Penguin, where most of the Beats were or wanted to get published. A petition went round for Jan’s right to speak at the conference, but most of the Beats wouldn’t touch it, fearing to lose their upcoming Viking Penguin contract. Gregory Corso (along with Ed Sanders) was the only Beat who signed for her right to speak. Gregory said he didn’t give a fuck what John Sampas, Viking Penguin, or anybody else thought of his supporting Jan Kerouac. She was his friend’s daughter, and he wished to help her. After he’d signed the petition, he looked at me with an expression of sincere pain and said, “I wish I had done more for my own kids. That was where I fucked up the most in my life.”
There’s so much I could write, but I am just going to describe a night in November 1980, in San Francisco, when I had just turned 31 years old. I had only moved to the West Coast (from Chicago) a little over a year earlier, and I was still pretty much of a Midwestern greenhorn in the ways of the Beat world. One night in North Beach Gregory offered to educate me. He explained that the “tuition” was that I would have to pay for his food and drinks all night long (mercifully not for his drugs too, his favorite “Thai stick,” which he bought himself). When my money ran out, he warned, he would find new companionship. It sounded like a good deal. It was, and I got one of the fullest nights of “education” I will probably ever receive. Thankfully I was smart enough to go home afterward, stay up the rest of the night, and write down as much of it as I could remember in my journal.
Here are a few excerpts:
“Gregory Corso in front of the Café Puccini, in his grey pants, red suspenders, black ‘Oscar Wilde’s vest,’ brown khaki shirt, leather bomber jacket, which he says he got from his father, who’s still alive—his face is peeling—he’s smoking a joint of Thai stick—giving puffs of it along with golden tequila to a Yorkshire terrier tethered to a parking meter, ‘taking care of the dog, who was nervous,’ Gregory says—then he finds out it belongs to a beautiful woman in the Puccini in a red coat—he tries to make her, but her girl-friend comes in and ‘interrupts’ (as he complains) and they go out together … Gregory says he told her she was a bitch ‘because nobody does that to me … even if it’s a woman … manners are important.’ Inside, he says he wrote poetry for a while but now he’s stepped outside the role of the poet, he’s just living—he’s quoting all his poems to me, the new ones: ‘I’ll star throw no more—tomorrow I’ll close the door—like an act of Jesus.’ [author’s note: Gregory later worked this into one of his published poems, as he often did with lines that he tried out in cafes and bars.]
“Gregory says the hardest thing for him to accept was the coming death of his children—he read some poem about having thrown out God, love, religion, all other grand concepts, but death was hiding under the sink—so he threw out death and the sink too—he said, ‘My humor saved me.’
On the way to the Caffe Sport, he wanted me to buy him a dinner. I say, ‘I love you, Gregory!’ Him: ‘Love nothing.’ Me, yelling, ‘Come on, Gregory! You can’t say that!’ Him: ‘So feed me, then! What kind of love is this if you won’t feed me?’
“The Caffe Sport was too expensive. I ended up buying him dinner at Little Joe’s on Broadway. The waitress got pissed off that he kept drinking out of his bottle of tequila there. ‘What is that, Gregory?’ she asked petulantly when he pulled out the bottle again. He responded: ‘Ichor, the blood of the gods.’
On the street again he says, ‘Most of these people are dead—they’ll never wake up.’ Later he tells me he’s getting tired of people turning away from him—he’s ‘disappointed in human beings … I open the door and they don’t come in … they’re gonna die … I’m alive, I’m not gonna die … they’re dead already.’
“I said I wasn’t good enough to write one-line Blakean apocalyptic verses like him. He said, ‘You been writing since you were eight, you’ll get there’—he’d said he was all alone in his room and started writing at eight—I told him I’d done the same thing. ‘Now you’re waking up, but when I first met you, you were asleep,’ he said. ‘No, just dozing,’ I replied. ‘Dozing’s dangerous,’ he said. ‘I don’t doze … you gotta be awake all the time … you want to get married, raise a family, you gotta keep your eyes open all the time. People think I’m a dumb drunk … I take care my kids, I know what’s goin’ on all the time … I do everything delicato.’ He gestures with gentle turn of his wrist.
“At the Puccini he shows me clippings from the New York Times about his participation in the poetry Olympics in Westminster Abbey. He says the article says he won. Later I get a close look at it, and it actually says they ‘applauded enthusiastically.’ But it did give his picture, and he was the only poet they quoted … it said he was leaning against a statue of Shakespeare and they asked him whether the Olympics were necessary to revive poetry—he said, ‘I don’t know whether we really need to help poetry, you see, poetry’s been around for a long, long time.’ I ask, ‘Did they know you were putting them on?’ ‘You bet they did! They loved me!’
“He tells me that spirit is individualistic and that’s why it’s beautiful. ‘If you die thinking it’s all going to go on after you when you’re gone, you’re all wrong, you lose, but if you think that when you die everything else is gonna go too, and something entirely new is gonna be born, then you got it, then you’ll never die.’ He quotes: ‘We don’t bewail the dinosaurs, and that’s no joke!’ He said he starts with the sunset and proceeds to the sunrise—most people make the mistake of starting with the sunrise and following it to the sunset—that’s how they see life.’
“Gregory told the Italian bartender at Dante’s that he’d come back that night with a pistole, an Italian name brand—I think it was a Rosco. They said, ‘We got plenty of pistoli.’ He told me they were dumb, they thought he was talking about real guns and violence. He said he was talking about ‘the pistol of my mind … the hot lead inside me … I don’t believe in violence … I’m not gonna shed any blood … I got a Rosco!’”
You get the idea. The magic of Gregory was always in the wild, inventive things he never stopped saying, and in the way he made what would otherwise have been ordinary dead time into an enchanted kingdom of marvels that only he could see, and that he would let you see too, if you were willing to pay the price of his always demanding company. It was worth it, every dollar, every hurt feeling, every bother he ever created. Like a few thousand other people, I miss him terribly.
Pax vobiscum, you lost child and fallen angel. You are now a shining star in the heavens, as we always suspected.