Writer, poet, and publisher, Tosh Berman talks about the Beats, music, and his new book “Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World”

"It’s hard for me to believe that one can’t live without culture - especially art - which to me is music, poetry, literature as well as the visual arts. I think without the appreciation of the arts, then one is lost within their culture. Art is just as important as food."

Tosh Berman:

Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World

Tosh Berman is a writer, poet, and publisher of TamTam Books. As a publisher, he focused on post-war French figures such as Boris Vian, Guy Debord, Serge Gainsbourg and French gangster Jacques Mesrine, as well as publishing Sparks (Ron Mael & Russell Mael) and Lun*na Menoh. His previous book Sparks-Tastic (2013) is a combination of travel journal and thoughts on the band Sparks. His book of poems The Plum in Mr. Blum’s Pudding (2014) came out through Penny-Ante Editions. He authored the introduction to Wallace Berman: American Aleph from the Michael Kohn Gallery in 2016. His new book “Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World” (City Lights, 2019).

Photo cover of book "Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World” / Tosh & Wallace Berman

TOSH is a memoir of growing up as the son of an enigmatic, much-admired, hermetic, and ruthlessly bohemian artist during the waning years of the Beat Generation and the heyday of hippie counterculture. A critical figure in the history of postwar American culture, Tosh Berman's father, Wallace Berman, was known as the "father of assemblage art," and was the creator of the legendary mail-art publication Semina. Wallace Berman and his wife, famed beauty and artist's muse Shirley Berman, raised Tosh between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and their home life was a heady atmosphere of art, music, and literature, with local and international luminaries regularly passing through. Tosh's unconventional childhood and peculiar journey to adulthood features an array of famous characters, from George Herms and Marcel Duchamp, to Michael McClure and William S. Burroughs, to Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, to the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and Toni Basil. TOSH takes an unflinching look at the triumphs and tragedies of his unusual upbringing by an artistic genius with all-too-human frailties, against a backdrop that includes The T.A.M.I. Show, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Easy Rider, and more. With a preface by actress/writer Amber Tamblyn (daughter of Wallace's friend, actor Russ Tamblyn), TOSH is a self-portrait taken at the crossroads of popular culture and the avant-garde. The index of names included represents a who's who of midcentury American—and international—culture.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Beat movement influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

The Beat Movement, in my opinion, is not a real movement, but one that was framed in such a manner by the media of the time. Various poets, painters, and prose writers were affected by the ‘straight’ world, in where one is treated as an outsider of that specific culture. I think the Beats were a group of individuals who chose not to follow mainstream American culture. I think the tension within American culture - both politically and culturally created this group of individuals to discover another lifestyle or approach to one’s life.

What were the reasons that you started the TamTam Books? What characterize "TamTam" philosophy and mission?

TamTam Books became a vehicle to explore the Post-war years of Paris, and key participants who were ignored by the English language press and publishers. My primary focus is the writer Boris Vian, who was a significant player in the world of Saint Germain des Prés - including the groupings of the Existentialists, American Jazz, and literature, as well the world of French cinema and so forth. From focusing on Vian, one is lead to Serge Gainsbourg, and Guy Debord, which in turn inspired me to publish French gangster Jacques Mesrine’s memoir. So TamTam Books is a tight circle, with an additional interest in the art of Lun*na Menoh, and the lyrics by the band Sparks (Ron Mael & Russell Mael). 

"I think it was more of a state-of-mind than a specific movement.  Surrealism was a movement, even an organized group. But the Beats are totally unorganized in that sense as a club or movement. We think of Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Keraoc as in one grouping, but the fact is, they were three separate individuals, and their work was nothing alike. Yet, all three share a sense of adventure and trying to find ‘value’ in American or world culture. But even with that, they didn’t even agree politically." (Photo: Tosh and Wallace Berman with Allen Ginsberg)

What was the hardest part of writing "Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World" book? How do you want it to affect people?

The book wasn’t hard to write, in fact, the entire process of writing the manuscript was a complete joy for me. About 10 or 12 years ago, Cary Loren, who was a member of “Destroy All Monsters” art collective approached me to write about my dad for an online magazine. I accepted it and wrote the piece. I got great feedback from readers, and then I decided to write something longer, in other words, a proper book.

What has been the relationship: music and poetry in your life and writing? How does music affect your inspiration?

Poetry I think is the foundation for literature.  Or, for me it is. I don’t write poetry that much anymore, but for sure I needed to write poetry to go on to write short stories, and therefore my memoir ‘TOSH.’ Music, on the other hand, is important to me as food or breathing air. But not only music as an aural experience, but also in a visual manner as well. The visual images that come out of music are significant to me. The album cover, the photos of the band/artist, even the fonts or design of the band/artist’s logo is essential to me.

What's the legacy of Wallace Berman? What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from him?

My dad showed me the importance of ‘show and tell.’ Like his Semina journal/zine, I also started a press to expose certain aspects of culture that I admire. And in a manner, writing TOSH is also an example of show and tell. I want to present the music, the artists, and characters to the world. I find them interesting, and therefore I feel I can make you the reader interested in my world.

If you could change one thing in the world/people of art, and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Oh, I can’t imagine changing anything.

"TamTam Books became a vehicle to explore the Post-war years of Paris, and key participants who were ignored by the English language press and publishers. My primary focus is the writer Boris Vian, who was a significant player in the world of Saint Germain des Prés - including the groupings of the Existentialists, American Jazz, and literature, as well the world of French cinema and so forth."

Do you consider the Beat Generation a specific literary and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I think it was more of a state-of-mind than a specific movement.  Surrealism was a movement, even an organized group. But the Beats are totally unorganized in that sense as a club or movement. We think of Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac as in one grouping, but the fact is, they were three separate individuals, and their work was nothing alike. Yet, all three share a sense of adventure and trying to find ‘value’ in American or world culture. But even with that, they didn’t even agree politically.

What is the impact of Art, Poetry, and Music to the spiritual, political, and socio-cultural implications?

It’s hard for me to believe that one can’t live without culture - especially art - which to me is music, poetry, literature as well as the visual arts. I think without the appreciation of the arts, then one is lost within their culture. Art is just as important as food.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

To be honest, I think the 21st century is fascinating. I like reading about eras before my life, but alas, we need to participate in the world of today.

 

TamTam                        Tosh Berman

 

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