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Son of a Genius:
Tosh Berman, A Life in Art

Review by Colin James Sanders

Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World
Tosh Berman
City Lights Books, 2019

Tosh Berman’s memoir of his father, artist Wallace Berman (1926-1976), his mother Shirley, a muse for many, and his parents’ circle of friends, represents a wonderful evocation of the memory and spirit of Wallace, and the history of an innovative period in the pre-real estate development phase of L.A.’s Topanga Canyon.

Wallace Berman, born on Staten Island, New York, in 1926, moved with his Russian Jewish mother to L.A. aged nine, not long after the death of his father. As a youngster, one of his closest friends was Sammy Davis Jr., and he attended the same high school as the infamous music producer, Phil Spector, now serving life in prison. Spector purchased Berman’s collage, titled, “You Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” (The Righteous Brothers/Phil Spector) from him in 1965.

In 1947, Berman, age 20, designed the album cover for Dial records’ Be-Bop Jazz, a two-album compilation which included Charlie Parker. Berman attended the recording session with Parker, which was also attended by Billie Holiday. Later, James Brown would become one of his favorite musicians, and his collage, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” is testament to his respect for Brown’s music. In his short life, Wallace became an iconic figure in West Coast art.
Tosh writes lovingly of his mother, Shirley, and his grandparents. Reading this book, it becomes clear that Shirley inspired and informed Wallace’s art, and her financial contributions to maintain their family allowed Wallace to produce his many artistic creations.

Tosh recalls his parents did not pressure him academically, saying “…I don’t believe Wallace ever had any vision of my future.” Acknowledging, “One remarkable thing I did have in my favor was parents who surrounded me with books; my curiosity engendered a lifelong reading habit in me.”

In the book Semina Culture: Wallace Berman and his Circle (2015), Berman’s friend, actor and film director (Easy Rider), Dennis Hopper, observed, “Wallace was always a mystery to me, and he was very glamorous…He was a quiet, gentle, humble person, and he had this strange aura about him that was removed, yet not hostile—he was a guy you couldn’t really reach. I don’t know anybody who didn’t respect him, and we all deferred to him because he had a very spiritual quality. He was the guy. Wallace was the guru.”

Berman would have disagreed with Hopper’s description of him as a “guru.” As remembered by his son, Berman was an unassuming, private, non-materialistic person who never voted, never owned anything in his own name, and the only piece of identification he possessed was a California driver’s license. Tosh recalls his father made their furniture, and “I never knew a time when Wallace was not an artist.”

Regarding literary history, between 1955-1964, Berman co-created nine issues of the journal, Semina, publishing friends like Diane di Prima, Allen Ginsberg, Alexander Trocchi, Bob Kaufman, Philip Lamantia, Robert Duncan, John Wieners, and art by George Herms, Jess, and others.

Remembering Robert Duncan and Jess, Tosh recalls, “Over the years, they gave me a lot of their Oz books.” Of Duncan: “He looked just like a poet to me…His humor came off clearly, even to a kid like me. He was gossipy, yes, but with a sharp intelligence to his commentary.”

Of Michael McClure: “…McClure was the prototype for the romantic poet. He would wear a chunky scarf as if it were naturally appended to his neck…Michael has a star-like quality.” Wallace designed the poster for McClure’s L.A. performance of his provocative play, The Beard.

Wallace hosted Andy Warhol, who filmed parts of his Tarzan and Jane Regained…Sort Of (1964) with Taylor Mead in the Berman home in Beverly Glen, Topanga Canyon. Tosh appears as “Boy” in the film. Dennis Hopper also appears in this Warhol film, and, in later years, Hopper himself gave Wallace and Shirley Berman a role (in the commune scene) in the film he directed and co-authored, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Easy Rider.

Tosh recalls his family being invited by Toni Basil, who would later collaborate with John Lennon, David Byrne, David Bowie and others, to the dress rehearsal for The T.A.M.I Show (Teen Age Music International), 1964, and being introduced to Mick Jagger: “Mick rubbed the top of my head and said, ‘Cute tyke.’” At the show, “My father also met Brian Jones, which was the start of a lasting friendship between them.” Tosh recalls, “Whenever the Stones were in Los Angeles, Brian would come to the house to listen to records and drink wine all night.” Tosh recalls hearing “Mostly jazz recordings, but also Glen Gould was part of the soundtrack for these late night meetings between Brian and my parents.”

Another close musician friend of Berman’s was Canadian Neil Young, then living in Topanga Canyon.“Without a doubt, Neil Young was the artist of Topanga…As a young teenager, I always thought Neil was the king and the canyon was his kingdom. Topanga, in other words, was Neil-Land.”

Tosh describes being invited by Young to his Topanga home to hear After the Goldrush (1970), which Young had originally written as a soundtrack for an unproduced film co-authored by Dean Stockwell and Herb Bermann, who had also written with Captain Beefheart, for his album, Safe as Milk, 1967.

Stockwell, in 1977, would design the album cover of Young’s American Stars N Bars, and collaborate with Young on his Human Highway film. Stockwell owned and played an old pedal organ which he gave to Neil Young, featured on many of Young’s songs.

The Beatles’ admired Berman, and a Stockwell photo of Berman appears on the collage cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) that was itself influenced by Wallace’s collage assemblages. Tosh observes, with irony. “Approximately 32 million people bought Sgt. Pepper’s, and I can’t fathom that many people looking at Wallace’s face. It’s paradoxical: he liked to be invisible in a crowd, and yet there was, totally unfamiliar to the masses who bought the album.”

In the summer of 1967, the Berman family visited London, England. Tosh recalls attending The Dialectics of Liberation conference with his parents, featuring speakers that included Thich Nhat Hanh, Allen Ginsberg, Emmet Grogan, William Burroughs, Stokely Carmichael, Gregory Bateson, R.D. Laing, and others.

This City Lights publication is a special one. With a Preface by actress and poet, Amber Tamblyn, who years ago raised money for medical treatment required by poet Diane di Prima, this is a book about relationships and inter-connections between Wallace Berman and so many creative others that moved within his orbit. Wallace Berman died young, hit by a drunk and stoned driver, a well-known Topanga Canyon drug dealer, whose lawyer was Robert Shapiro, later one of O.J Simpson’s lawyers. Berman succumbed to injuries, dying in the early hours of his 50th birthday. In a travesty of justice, the person convicted of his death was released following three months of a six month sentence.

Tosh Berman, under his imprint, Tam Tam Books, taken from the film, Princess Tam Tam (1935) starring Josephine Baker, has published writers as diverse as the founder of the Situationists, Guy Debord, and the infamous French gangster, Jacques Mesrine, amongst others.

In this intriguing, intelligent, heartfelt testimonial, Tosh gracefully, brings his father alive bearing witness to his father’s inimitable spirit.

Colin James Sanders is a foundational contributor to PRRB. He writes from Gibsons, B.C.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #25