Mason Hoffenberg Gets in a Few Licks
by Sam MerrillFrom Playboy, November, 1973.
The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
Terry Southern and I wrote "Candy" for the money. Olympia Press, $500 flat. He was in Switzerland, I was in Paris. We did it in letters. But when it got to be a big deal in the States, everybody was taking it seriously. Do you remember what kind of shit people were saying? One guy wrote a review about how " Candy" was a satire on "Candide." So right away I went back and reread Voltaire to see if he was right. That's what happens to you. It's as if you vomit in the gutter and everybody starts saying it's the greatest new art form, so you go back to see it, and, by God, you have to agree
Mason Hoffenberg, subterranean-holyman-ex-junkie, is perhaps the most famous unknown author in America. His adult life began in New York in the early Fifties. Home from Olivet College, where he got a sheepskin but no wool, and the Army, Mason gravitated to Greenwich Village to study, become a writer, get laid. He shared an apartment with a fledgling black author named James Baldwin, fell in with Kerouac, Mailer and some others, became apprenticed to Stanley Gould, Holyman of the village. Then it was Paris during the underground-existential explosion. There our hero wrote poetry, married, hung out with Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, helped a newcomer named William Burroughs, met Terry Southern and wrote Candy. Scenes moved quickly after that: Berlin, Algeria, Israel, finally Woodstock and Albert Grossman's house. Dylan is gone now, back to MacDougal Street, but Mason remains in Woodstock, where he lives with Richard Manuel of The Band, several dogs and a houseful of shit. In August 1972, after two years on the Kingston, New York, methadone maintenance program, he kicked. He is now an alcoholic.
I located Hoffenberg through his dental records in Ulster County, New York, wrote to him, and said it might be interesting to do a piece about the co-author of Candy.
He answered promptly:
Then a card came:
Meet me at Deanie's, in Woodstock, at four p.m. on the 25th. You're buying.
A sign on the door of Deanie's says HOURS: FOUR P.M-TWO A.M.
Although the doors were locked at 3:45, several customers were being served at the bar. A blue-white mountain wind was bending tree trunks and rattling signs. I pounded on the door The bartender sauntered over, pointed to the hours on the sign, returned to the bar to serve another drink.
A very young blonde girl stood in the highway outside Deanie's, making no attempt to enter. She held the hand of a little boy. I turned up my collar, began walking with the wind toward Schneider's candy store. but at the moment I passed the girl, a blast of ice wind barreled down Route 212, broke against Deanie's, one of its eddies curling right up her short denim skirt. She seemed unaware of her situation, was preoccupied removing the little boy's fist from his eye, where a cinder had apparently lodged.
"Can I help you?" I asked her.
She seemed unaware of me, too.
I leafed through magazines, bought cheap cigars, watched the clock at Schneiders, was back at Deanie's at four. It was open. The girl and the little boy were still outside, turning blonder.
"Hey, are any of these guys Mason Hoffenberg?" I asked the bartender.
"Naw. You expecting him?"
"He said he'd be here?"
"I hope he shows."
"So you wanna see Mason?" a gigantic guy next to me asked.
"I'm supposed to meet him here."
The guy looked about 30, tall, strong and fat. Boxer shorts billowed out of his work pants and he had only a few rotted, pock-marked teeth in his grim. A fine little tweed cap sat rakishly, absurdly cocked on a wad of black, grease-knotted hair. "What are ya, buyin' cocaine?"
Then Mason arrived.
Mason is small, tough-guy barrel-chested (an unbuttoned shirt lent him a proud, Harry Belafonte slit-to-the-navel air--, graying-including his chest hair. We shook stiffly, took a table. I ordered a Scotch. Mason told the waitress he'd have his usual and she placed eight vodka martinis in single file across the white tablecloth.
"Everybody seems to know you here."
"Yeah. Everybody knows everybody. See that guy with the chick back there?"
"At the table?"
"Yeah. He used to be a highway patrolman on the Thruway. But he smashed into a stalled car at around a hundred miles an hour and killed a guy, so they made him a narc. He's a pisser. He's always in here drinking. He says things like, 'Well, I'll go out and give three stop-sign tickets, then come back and buy a round of drinks.' He's very popular for a narc."
"Who's that dude I was sitting next to at the bar when you walked in?"
"With his underwear hanging out?"
"Yeah. The big guy."
"That's the narc's brother. He's a big coke dealer up here. He's got this racket where he turns the competition over to his brother, then sells the guy's stash."
"That's pretty funny."
"It gets weird for me."
"Well, after all these years of being a dope fiend, here I am trying to tumble back into society and embrace all these straight people and while they're saying things like, 'That's very commendable,' I notice that their eyes are pinned. It's like a nightmare."
I asked him about Candy.
"It was a disaster. Everything went wrong with my life after Candy came out, as if it was a result of the book."
"Everything went right for Terry Southern. He was ejaculated to fame and screenplays."
"Yeah, it was my fault. I was lying in Paris, suffering because my family was breaking up. It's like you win the lottery and your life falls apart. I lost my kids, I had a big dope habit. I just didn't give a shit. And that's not the right way to handle it when you suddenly have a gold mine."
"You mean you didn't have yourself covered?"
"The publishers pulled some stuff you wouldn't believe. They feel it's fuck or be fucked. Maybe they're right. but Maurice Girodias [Olympia Press] is really terrible."
"He's the one who first published Candy."
"He published everything. He had this beautiful racket going in Paris. Paris was the only place you could print dirty books in English. All the tourists and soldiers bought them, and you got a lot of mail orders from Moscow and Tokyo. Most of the books were terrible."
"But some of the Olympia books of the Fifties were great."
"At the same time he was publishing the porno, stuff that was very good--but necessarily unpublishable elsewhere-fell into his lap. Lolita went the rounds of American publishers, but they were afraid of the theme. So it gravitated to Girodias, who had a reputation as a sharp finder of new talent. Somebody had to twist his arm to publish Beckett, and I'm the guy who first took him the manuscript of Naked Lunch. But he turned it down."
"Girodias rejected Naked Lunch?"
"Yeah, except it didn't have a title then. It was the best-looking manuscript you ever saw. He published it later only when Burroughs got some publicity as an underground writer. And Girodias even insisted on editing the thing."
"Didn't Burroughs bitch?"
"Burroughs had this hip kind of attitude of, 'You can do what you want with it, it's out of my hands.' And that title Kerouac finally gave it. Shit, it sounds like a Henry Miller title. You could pull a better title off of any page in the book. You know, J. P. Donleavy was in litigation for 17 years with Girodias, who had this thing where he didn't pay royalties. You had to take him to court. If you won, you got the royalties. That was it. American publishers would do the same thing if they could. But they have to be a little more orthodox. I'd do the same thing, I think. It's fuck or be fucked."
Then the blonde girl came in, still holding the little boy's hand. She approached our table. Mason ignored her, kept talking , paused only to take a hit from one of the martinis.
"Mason," she practically whispered.
"Yeah?" looking down at his hands.
"I need a ride to Kingston, you busy?"
"You can't get away for a while?"
"No. Look, I'm busy. Can't you hitch?"
She left. The kid was still rubbing his eye. Neither of us said anything for a while. Mason drank and I watched him.
The moment he has burst in the door of Deanie's, chest first head thrown back, saving me from the coke-dealer bar monster, I had noticed his eyes: jaundiced around the blue, pink and partly decomposed at the corners, burned out by the scag that raged through every capillary, bathed every cell for 15, maybe 20 years. But they weren't filmy, reptilian, like a lot of dope fiends' eyes. They still laughed.
"She got pregnant against my advice," he said suddenly. "Goddamn junkie."
"Have you written anything up here?"
"I came to the end of the Candy money a little while ago, which was a good thing, in a way, because I'd been telling myself I wasn't going to do any writing until I was broke. So now I'm forced to do something. But I'm still not doing anything, because I found out I really have friends up here."
"Yeah. I am absolutely broke now, penniless. but I'm living like a king. People buy me drinks and food." Mason paused, perhaps grinned at me, but I turned away. "And I've been staying at Richard's house. It's weird."
"So you're not writing anything?"
"I've been writing. but I don't like the attitude of the stuff. It's like bad cinema verite."
"It must have been a bitch to kick after all these years."
"It was, but I was ready to do it. You can't kick if you're not ready. They can throw a guy in jail for eight months and tell him 'You're gonna kick, baby, 'cause you're gonna be in this cell and you're not gonna get anything.' but the guy doesn't budge an inch in his mind and the minute he's back on the street, he's getting high. I was ready to kick. I had to be, considering it cost me twenty-four hundred dollars a year."
"Dig this: I was on welfare, getting two hundred a month. You automatically qualify for welfare if you're in the methadone program and you have no income. But I went through the whole number where I kicked, got sick, everything. And when I was done with it, the first thing they did was throw me off welfare. They don't even give you an extra month to get yourself together. It's weird. I was on methadone for two years and got paid enough money to live. But now that I've kicked, I'm broke. So without any desire to get back onto shit, that becomes the easiest way for the former dope fiend to avoid starving to death."
The waitress came over to see if Mason had finished his eight martinis. He hadn't finished any of them, was sipping all eight at once, keeping the levels even. Six were half finished, two were two thirds. I ordered a second Scotch.
"So you're living with Richard Manuel?"
"Yeah, we'll go back there later. He's really fucked up. I was in better shape before I moved in with him, and the idea was that I was supposed to help pull him out of the thing he's in."
"He can't do anything. He's drinking like I never saw anybody drink. And now I'm drinking a lot."
"And I never drank that much."
"He's not on shit, is he?"
"No, he stopped that and got into this drinking thing."
"What were you supposed to help him with?"
"I'm supposed to head off all the juvenile dope dealers up here who hang around rock stars. So I answer the phone and say Richard's not here. He's not allowed to answer the phone. And I go around privately and tell them to leave him alone because he's really going to kill himself. But if they actually come over to the house, he can't say no. He's brilliant, that guy. An incredible composer. But we just sit around watching The Dating Game, slurping down the juice, laughing our asses off, then having insomnia, waking up at dawn with every weird terror and anxiety you can imagine. The four other guys in The Band are serious about working and he's really hanging them up. They can't work without him and there's no way to get him off his ass. He feels bad about it, he's just strung out."
There was a rumor around Woodstock that Mason was writing a film for The Band. He said no, what he was working on was a funny book about dope. "I think the time is ripe for one. It's like the fucking horse races. Candy was the most popular dirty book in Europe at the time the Supreme Court said American protoplasm wouldn't rot on the bone if the work fuck got printed. So it became a big deal here. It was a dirty book that was funny, too. Americans were so naive they didn't know what to make of it, decided it must be a satirical masterpiece. If Candy came out today, I don't think Americans would consider it so satirical."
"What do you think about Candy now" Do you like it""
"I've changed the way I feel about the book three, four times. I kind of liked it when it was a manuscript. When it was a little fuckshit Olympia book, I thought it was dumb. Then, when it was a big deal in the States, I read it again and I thought, well, it is pretty cool, because everybody was taking it very seriously."
"How about now?"
"I can't take it seriously anymore. I can never take seriously books by guys I knew who got to be big-shot writers. I still can't read Jimmy Baldwin right. I guess because I knew him so well. I can't figure out if he's a great writer or just filling the slot."
"Filling the slot?"
"Yeah, there are slots that exist, you know, like for a blonde Hollywood actress, for example. Somebody always had to fill that slot as long as there was a Hollywood. It might have been a talented girl or some dame that didn't have any class at all. Whoever is closest when the vacuum is created gets sucked in. That's what happened to Baldwin. We have one slot in our society for a Negro novelist. Richard Wright was it for years. I don't think anybody can figure out if Richard Wright was any good, not that it matters. When I moved in with Baldwin, he was knocking his head against the wall, couldn't get anything published. As soon as Wright died, Baldwin took over. I think I finally figured out what Baldwin is doing. He's doing Bette Davis. Which is not the worst thing in the world to do."
"You have to admit that's a little bit unfair."
"It is, but even with Burroughs, and he knocks me out, just knowing him...I don't know. I just can't take him as seriously as I took guys like Kafka when I was in school. I know now that I was reading things into them. They weren't as great as I thought."
"But do you like Burroughs?"
"He's just a naturally great writer. Ever read that little conventional paperback he wrote called Junkie?"
"It's not any avant-garde bullshit. It's just good. Guys like Kerouac and Miller write one good page, then fall all over themselves for five pages. Burroughs just doesn't do that."
"Were his manuscripts clean?"
"The original manuscript of The Soft Machine had maybe a few corrections on it, that's all. I mean, he just wrote it, right off. And he's not considered a very important writer. In the Times this summer they had a thing about all the dope books and they didn't even mention Junkie. And that's the one cool book about dope. It's not corny. It's not a lot of scientific bullshit. It's just good."
"Were you a good student in college?"
"No. Id did the usual number where I signed up for all the best courses and turned into a complete nymphomaniac within a week."
"Did you get laid much?"
"No. Dig this: I was a virgin in college. Ass was incredibly tight in those days. Then I joined the Army and got laid about once."
"Then you went to the Village?"
"I signed up for the New School under the GI Bill and took this furnished room on MacDougal Street."
"Yeah. So anyway, I'm walking back from school to do my homework after the first night of classes, and I'm carrying my notebooks and all this bullshit. I decide to stop into Minetta's for a few drinks. There were only two bars in the Village, Minetta's and the San Remo. I'm drinking and talking to this spade and he says, 'Why don't you come live with me? I'm bisexual, but that don't apply to you.' And that was Jimmy Baldwin. So we lived together and it was just what I needed. A lot of people, a lot of women. There was a tremendous ferment going on in the Village, and Jimmy's place was one of the centers of it. Paris was like that, too."
"What was your relationship with Baldwin?"
"It was weird. Very Weird. There was him and me and this beautiful chick who was in love with him, whom I loved. We used to go to the movies together uptown, so Jimmy would get beat up. Guys would stomp the shit out of a spade who was seen with a gorgeous white chick in the Fifties, so she'd come on like she was with me, which was what I wanted."
"I was so in love with her, I finally decided to go into analysis. I figured if I was very, very good, maybe in about seven years I'd be able to smile again."
"Did analysis help?"
"What brought you out of it?"
"Dope. It was an instant cure. As you can see, I wasn't extremely mature at the time and one thing I did that I'm sorry about is I used to put down a lot of the people from the early Village Voice days because I was in the elite group and they were on the fringes. Like Ed Fancher who went to the New School with me and ended up owning the fucking Voice, and Kerouac and Mailer. I mean, that was as stupid as being impressed by them. I used to rap Mailer because he was about the last guy in the world to discover dope. But that was later. At Jimmy's, not getting the chick who was in love with him was like kicking a dope habit. I was so fucking grim, and the shrink was doing nothing, so when this cat said to me 'Hey, why don't you pick up?' which is what they said in those days, I figured, 'OK, I'm going to die anyway.' So he takes me up to this 'tea pad' and everybody was so nice I thought they were faggots. I remember saying to myself, 'Jesus, just when I'm so hung up on a chick I can't even piss right, I'm gonna get raped by eleven faggots.' But they were just nice, that's all. they were into putting down sex and money and seeing what happened in the space that remained. And I got the same effect immediately from dope that I was hoping to get from psychoanalysis over many years. I started laughing again, looking at other girls. But I can see now that it depended on this private thing."
"Is that the reason you stopped doing dope?"
"One of the reasons. Then, if you ran into another person who smoked tea, there was this rapport thing, us against them. But as soon as it started to get ridiculous, it didn't work anymore. That's why I think Allen Ginsberg is stupid with his thing about free marijuana, because if everybody had it, it wouldn't be any better than beer."
I was surprised to see that Mason had quietly lowered all eight martinis to the very stems of the stemware. The waitress was surprised he didn't ask for more. We ordered dinner. Mason ate like a king.
"Everybody knows you've always been a dope fiend. but when did you become a sex fiend?"
"I wasn't a dope fiend in New York. Not at all. I didn't pick up my habit until Paris, when my family was breaking up and I was losing my two kids. Have you ever been to Israel?"
"You ought to go. It's the greatest country in the world. Probably because of all the pressure they've got on them. They've got the Arabs on one side and the desert on the other. Families don't break up in Israel. The women need the men. It's the opposite of someplace like Paris or New York. I lived there for a while and it began to have an effect on me. I got more self-reliant, stronger. They've really got something going in Israel: female police and soldiers, nineteen-year-old air-force colonels. You read The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart?"
"You know much about Zionism? The theory of the galut?"
"The theory of what?"
"What are you, assimilated? Anyway, people are very strong in Israel and they can't understand why Jews went like sheep to the slaughter during the war. They can't understand that giving up was the most natural thing in the world for a pale, paunchy businessman whose wife didn't need him, whose family had been breaking up for the last fifteen years. But, to tell you the truth, if this Arab thing ever settles down, Israel will probably turn into a big Miami."
"When I went to the Village, you can't imagine how small the scene was. There were two Negroes, three dope fiends, like that. And this cat I was apprenticed to, Stanley Gould. Anatole Broyard, the big-shot book reviewer for the Times, did an article on Gould recently, called him the Holyman of the Village. This guy has done more dope, and women and men and things you can't even imagine, than anybody. And he's still alive. He walks around like a mummy, all covered with rags and dried shit. I became a sex fiend with Gould, which I believe led to my fight with Terry years later."
"I don't think I understand."
"See, me and Gould would get all these straight chicks from the Midwest who'd come to the Village to get away from their parents--"
"Yeah, and we'd have this superhip comedy routine going where we'd seduce them. But I'd never get laid. I'd sit there and feed him the straight lines all night, then he'd go trotting off to the sack with these gorgeous shiksas. I mean, once in a while I'd get a little overflow. but it was his act. So then I went to Paris and got into the same number with me in Gould's role and Terry as the square. He had the pad to take the chicks up to, and I got laid. I saw later that all these chicks, who weren't really knocking me out, were impressing Terry. So it was very important for him to feel he had to move ahead of me, like I felt I had to move ahead of Gould. See, we're so hung up on sex, we think it's the most important thing in the world. It's only when you happen to get a whole flock of pussy at once that you're able to put it in its proper perspective. I learned that after I left Gould, and Terry probably knows it now. Terry's a red-neck, like Levon Helm of The Band, except Levon is much greater than Terry. Levon is much more original.
"So Terry was your apprentice in Paris?"
"Until Candy. I'm the guy who turned him on to everything in Paris: I taught him hip talk and smoking grass and that gives you a certain ascendancy. To this day, Gould can tell me to shut up and I can't answer him."
"What was Terry like then?"
"Brash. He didn't give a shit about anything. I admired him for that. When he went to Paris, he knocked on Francoise Sagan's door and said, 'Hi, I'm Terry Southern, the Texas short-story writer. . .' and when she slammed the door in his face, he just went over to Albert Camus' house and did the same thing. I could never do that. If we met today, which is unlikely, we could probably get along. but I maybe should have punched him in the mouth after Candy was published in the States."
"I think he screwed me. Terry always said I was his best friend. But I always knew what most of my best friends were thinking. Terry had this thing about secrecy. I should have figured he'd hurt me."
"What did Terry actually do?"
"It sounds weird, but I'm not exactly sure. Dig a thing like this: I finally came to the States during the big promotion and I met this public-relations guy from Putnam's who was handling the book. We talked and he said public-relations shit like, 'Beautiful, baby. You can really go,' and he got me onto a TV show for that night. Then he took Terry out to lunch separately and suddenly everything went on like I had leprosy. I never got onto that TV show or any other one. And I never found out what Terry told that guy at lunch--or if he said anything at all. For some reason, I was just cut out of the whole scene."
"You said Terry isn't always original."
"Terry Southern is a good rewriter and he writes some funny shit himself, but he always grabs top billing. One guy did punch Terry in the mouth, you know."
"His name was Boris Grgurevich. He was the handsomest guy in the world, Bulgarian-American hanging around Paris in the Fifties. We all knew him. Later, Boris became the only non-Cuban to get in on the Bay of Pigs thing, and Terry taped an interview with him in New York. The article came out in Esquire and it was very big for Terry--the great cat telling about a wild, historic fiasco--except Boris' name was mentioned only once in the piece. Boris didn't take that too well."
"Who else did Terry rip off for ideas?"
"You ever hear of David Burnett?"
"Sure. Wasn't he in the Paris Review crowd?"
"Yeah, and he was a really good editor. His father was Whit Burnett, who edited this anthology of short stories in the thirties. A lot of the funny shit Terry wrote was just the ideas of David Burnett. Like, we'd be sitting around smoking hashish in a cafe or something, and David would come up with an idea for a quiz show called What's My Disease. Now that's in one of Terry's books."
"David Burnett died recently, didn't he?"
"I killed him."
"I don't go to New York much any more, but I went a couple of years ago to try to get some kind of writing job. I used to run into a lot of people I knew in New York; now it's like Hong Kong to me. So I'm wandering around with two bottles of methadone in a basket and some clean underwear, and suddenly I'm face to face with Burnett, who's one of the few people from the past I have nothing against. So we went into this bar, talked for a while, and I left. But I forgot my basket. So he very naturally went through it. He and another guy drank the methadone, and they both died."
All through dinner, Mason was saying he couldn't wait to take me over to meet his old friend Libby, who is now married to Levon Helm. "She's the greatest chick," he told me, borrowing two dimes to remind her twice that we were coming, then borrowing three bucks to buy her a bottle of Saint-Emilion. I suggested Thunderbird. "Naw, she's the greatest chick."
But Mason wanted to stay at Deanie's after dinner for a few more drinks.
"Did you meet The Band through Dylan?"
"How'd you meet Dylan?"
"My French wife had this cousin named Hugues Aufray, who was a small-time French guitar player. He'd been doing it forever, looking like an Italian pimp, getting nowhere. But he came over to the States for a while and heard Dylan before he got big, bought some blue jeans, went back and translated Dylan's songs into French and became a big-shot French star. He's still making it. So the first time Dylan did a London concert, he wanted to see Paris and he looked this guy up. Naturally, they came over to my house, because I was an American who smoked dope. And I didn't know who Dylan was. That was about the last point in his life when he could still meet people normally. And we had a ball. I liked him a lot. I actually thought he was a hillbilly. We went to Berlin together and picked up this German girl and Dylan asked her 'What 's your name?' and she said, 'Vas?' So later, Dylan says to her 'You know what time it is, Vas?' As if somebody Jewish wouldn't know what vas meant. He was beautiful. And he said if I ever got back to the States, to stay with him in Woodstock. Which I did when my family broke up."
"What was it like in Albert Grossman's house?"
"I thought I was going to have a ball, because Dylan was real famous then, with girls climbing all over him. but instead of fun, it was grim, like a museum. Grossman had this sign in the driveway that said, 'If you have not telephoned, you are trespassing.' And Dylan was very uptight."
"Because he's not really into balling groupies. Millions of girls were going berserk to get to him and he was doing things like hiding in the closet whenever the door opened."
"But Dylan got married then. How did that happen?"
"Well, while we were living in Grossman's house, Albert had this wife or concubine or something named Sally. And Sally had a friend living there, a nice Jewish girl being helpful, doing things like picking up Dylan's notebooks and putting them away. So he married her and they had four kids in the quickest possible time."
"Was that motorcycle accident a fake?"
"No. If you ride a motorcycle, you break your neck. Dylan was just that young and dumb. The same thing happened to Rick Danko. I've got to tell you how Libby married Levon. Libby was married to one of Helena Rubinstein's grandsons, but they split. Then she was staying with me and she told me she wanted to make it with somebody from The Band. So one night, Rick and Levon are coming over to my house to get her at about a hundred miles an hour and Rick had his big accident, broke his neck. so Levon got her. And Rick married the chick whose car he crashed into."
"I don't believe it."
I paid the bill.
"But when Dylan is cool, he's beautiful. And I can understand why he's so uptight now. It's something like Candy, except multiplied by a factor of about a thousand. Everybody wants to fuck him. Maybe not consciously, but you can't even talk to the guy without the fact that He Is Dylan practically overwhelming you. And it's tough for an artist to be that big, because people get programmed, they make up their minds up front about a song or a poem, even if it's bullshit, and Dylan certainly isn't bullshit. Nobody sees you anymore. Nobody notices the little mistakes you make that people would pick up if you were just some guy singing in a club. You get no feedback and it's hard to grow."
"But Dylan runs away from that. Most famous people wallow in it."
"Yeah, but the other side of it is that Dylan does wallow in it. Dig a thing like this: He once asked me if I'd write his biography. That's wallowing in the bullshit. Now somebody else did it, Anthony Scaduto, and it doesn't make it. I mean, it's all right, but there's nothing classy about it. Dylan deserved better, but he somehow authorized the thing. And I'm not saying Dylan isn't one of the most extraordinary people I ever met, just that it's impossible not to wallow in the bullshit to some extent. You can't hold your perspective."
"What about the Dylan touring film, Don't Look Back?"
"That's a perfect example. they had this terrific film team traveling with him, shooting miles of film during his tours. And a good film editor named Howard Alk was going to put it together. I've never been so sure about anything in my life. But every time they cut to Dylan, it was like a commercial, which is what Columbia Records wanted. It would have been a great film if they had laid back from Dylan, showed the scene around him, what it was like for him to tour. The guys in The Band were great, because the pressure wasn't on them and the English countryside was incredible. but they kept arbitrarily returning to Dylan, and he was uptight because he's not a movie actor. Dylan was the one person who could have said, 'fuck Columbia, stop leaning on me and just use the shots that are OK.' But he wasn't capable of seeing that they were going to end up with a big commercial, which is what happened. There was a great picture in those miles of film."
We were stumbling around in the parking lot. Mason couldn't find his car. "You want me to drive?" I asked him.
"Naw, I can drive OK. I just don't have a license right now."
"Why not?" It didn't seem as cold at night as it had been in the afternoon. It was probably colder.
"It started last Christmas Eve. I'm driving home and of course I'm drunk, right? This huge tree had fallen across Route 212 and there was a cop in front of it with a torch. I didn't hit the tree and I didn't hit the cop. But I had him pinned against the tree with my bumper by the time I stopped. So they gave me these tickets for not staying to the right when you see a tree and put me in jail for the night. So I'm telling myself, 'What's the big deal about jail? Probably meet some interesting guys, get breakfast served to you in the morning.' One night in the Kingston jail cured me of that idea. It was disgusting. Then right after that I had a real accident. I was driving along taking a little nap at the wheel, and I drove into a barbershop. So I got a whole flock of tickets for that. They have this point system, and they told me I had so many points I had to report to Kingston to have my sanity examined. I didn't go."
"So they revoked your license?"
"Yeah. And up here, you gotta drive. It's like in New York, if they told you you didn't have the right to use the subway anymore because you exhibited yourself or something."
I decided to drive.
"Richard's a really terrible driver. He cracked up six Hertz cars. They won't rent to him any more. He's a wild man at the wheel."
"He's lucky he's alive."
"Richard is lucky. Some of his accident stories are funny."
"As funny as driving into a barbershop?"
"Mason grinned. "I woke up as I was going through the window and I said to myself, 'Oh, shit. this didn't happen.' It was three o'clock in the morning, so I made a U turn around the barber chair and pulled out and started driving again. They nailed me within two minutes and there were like a hundred witnesses. And one of the cops asked me 'Have you been drinking?' So I said, 'I swear, officer, the only place I ever drive to is to the bar/' It seemed like an excuse at the time.'
Mason led me around some obscure turns on a mountain road that got narrower as we climbed. "That's Levon's house over there." I pulled up behind a small BMW. "Levon's from Helena, Arkansas. This real backwater town. I went home with him one time, wanted to see this country-music thing really happening. It was different. Levon's a pretty well-known guy. Most musicians think of him as being a great drummer. But down there, they never heard of him. They thought he was some kind of local boy trying to make good."
Libby answered the door. She was a very special-looking girl. Tall, classy; your basic knockout. We gave her the wine. A little kid led us into the living room, where Levon was lying flat on his back, not moving.
We talked for a while. Mason and Levon traded stories about great stash rip-offs. Then they got into a fairly grim story about accidentally hitting a deer at night, taking it to Levon's forest and watching Garth Hudson skin it in the car's headlights with a penknife.
"Garth is the Van Gogh of music," Mason said. Levon nodded. Libby smiled. I failed to see the connection.
Mason and I got into our theories of the John Kennedy assassination, spent most of the Saint-Emilion on that. Levon and Libby paid close attention.
Mason got off into Russian literature for a long time and we all listened. Somehow he worked his way to Burroughs. "Jesus, you're a genius," Libby told him.
"Cancer and dope and sex are very similar," Mason continued. Libby's jaw dropped perceptibly. "The cure for cancer is death. And what's the position you're in if you want to cure sex? The cure is death. And dope and sex are interchangeable in a lot of ways."
Did that make sense to me?
"If you want to make the argument for dope--which I don't--you have a lot of things going for you. It works. It's one of the few things in America that does work, and you don't have to advertise it."
"Along with banking, cigarettes and bombs, dope is one of the few thriving industries we have," Levon added.
"Another good industry is urine testing. They have these methadone maintenance programs like the one I was in all over the state now, and every day there're truckloads of piss rolling into New York City for analysis."
"Imagine getting killed by a truckload of piss," Libby suggested.
"And right next to one of the urine labs," Mason said, "there's a factory where hundreds of chicks are putting heroin into little bags."
"You think junk should be legal?" Libby asked.
"No..." Mason thought for a while. "but when a cop catches a guy with a bag of dope on him, he shouldn't throw him in jail for eight months. The guy ought to tell the cop 'OK, you caught me. I promise to be good for twelve minutes.' Like a hockey game. Why eight months? Why make his mother cry?"
Then Levon lost interest in the conversation, suddenly bolted to another room, began watching television.
"Anti-intellectual," Libby called after him. The kid followed Levon.
The conversation grew more subdued after that, included vast alcoholic silences and some light giggling and covered Vietnam, Mcgovern, rock 'n' roll. then Mason announced it was time to go back to Richard's.
At the screen door, I asked Libby what a bunch of rock-'n'-roll superstars saw in this brilliant, partly decomposed poet-ex-dope fiend.
"Mason?" she asked, perhaps wondering if I meant Robert Frost.
"Why...there's nobody like Mason."
"I've got to prepare you for Richard's house. It's incredible. You can't imagine what a mess that place is. Richard's wife left him about a month ago and I don't blame her. He's got this puppy dog chewing up everything and shitting on the floor. Be careful, it's cute. But if you start petting it it'll chew your sleeve off and shit in your lap."
We drove on in silence for a while, then I asked "When was the last time you saw Dylan?"
Mason began laughing. "He came up to visit a little while ago."
"How was he doing?"
"I don't know He opened the door and put his foot in a pile of dogshit. Then he took a couple of steps and put his other foot in another lump of turd. He just turned around and left. That was the last time I saw him."
Richard seemed genuinely happy to see us. He was in the middle of a late movie about a family that had been breaking up but got back together again when their private plane crashed in Baja California and the had to rely on each other to survive. The irony escaped me at the time.
We watched, cracked jokes, Richard was in such a good mood he ate a bowl of canned pineapple, said it was the first solid food he'd had in three days. He looked healthy enough.
Then, suddenly, an egg-shaped girl with a foreign accent that sounded German but she said was French walked in, accompanied by a small, dark girl who went to art school in Brooklyn. The foreigner, who seemed to know Richard, introduced him to the dark girl, ignored us. The three of them spoke briefly among themselves, then the girls left.
Richard shrugged at Mason. "I didn't think you were coming back."
"Did you answer the phone again?" Mason accused.
Richard gobbled pineapple in silence.
The next time I noticed Mason, he was doubled over on the couch, gasping, trying, of all things, to get a cigarette into his mouth.
"I guess he's having one of his attacks," Richard said calmly, chewing a chunk of pineapple.
"Jesus, maybe I better leave."
Mason struggled up gallantly, insisted on walking me to the car. I hopscotched between the piles of dogshit. Mason, staggering, plowed through them.
"You all right?"
"Fine." At that moment, Mason fell to his knees, gagged once, began rolling around on the ground, twitching uncontrollably. Then he regained his composure, got up.
"Incidentally," I said, "you're goink to make a pretty interesting story."
"You'll blow it."
"Yeah. but don't worry. I'll get you a job as a narc."