"Imagine a world without paintings and books and dance, without theater and all the arts. What a barren wasteland this world would be without all this beauty. This is the stuff of life."
Robert Yarra: Art is Essential to Life
Robert Yarra grew up on the Lower East Side of New York City. His mother, for whom the foundation is named, had a very important influence on him, one that remains a guiding lamp in all his endeavors. In his career as an immigration lawyer, Bobby spent much of his time in California, where he helped thousands of farm workers gain lawful status in the United States. All along he kept the great admiration for ‘outsiders’ that he developed growing up on the Lower East Side; a great love of poets, artists, musicians and eccentrics. (Bobby Yarra in Fresno, California. Photo by Naomi Wright)
Since being liberated from the legal profession, Bobby recently embarked this year on a lengthy trip that will begin with some months in India. While he is traveling, this site will serve as a virtual home for him, where he can be visited and host friends, and where he can share what he’s doing on his blog. Robert’s intention is to create here a virtual gallery, cinema and publishing venture, in order to present, celebrate and promote the work of a wide variety of creative individuals.
Robert knew firsthand how much Gregory loved Italy and how the love was reciprocated, as they had traveled together to Rome and Positano in 1986. When Gregory knew that he was dying, Robert conceived of the idea of having Gregory buried in Rome and asked if Gregory wanted to be buried there. The answer was an unequivocal "Yes!" It was Robert who set in motion the process of having Gregory buried in the famous Cementerio Acatolico in Rome, although it was his great friend in Rome, Hannelore Dellelis, who brought the burial to fruition, while overcoming great difficulties in the process. Robert also contributed and raised the money for the burial with the help of Patti Smith and others.
Copyright © Robert Yarra , Photos © by Robert Yarra, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
When was your first desire to become involved with the arts and who were your first heroes?
My heroes have always been literary. At the age of twelve, I had the good fortune to read “Look Homeward Angel,” by Thomas Wolfe. And, as I read the book, I realized innately that Thomas Wolfe was a great writer and that this was great literature.
In my teenage years and into my early twenties, I read and loved “Journey to the End of the Night” by Celine, almost all of the books of Henry Miller, “Notes from the Underground,” the Prince,” and “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky, “Paris Spleen” by Baudelaire, the “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience” by Blake, “Moby Dick” and the “Novellas” of Herman Melville. I idolized these writers.
At seventeen, I read “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, and, like thousands before me, I felt an immediate connection to Jack and his frenzied, poetic, mad quest for kicks, beauty, freedom and meaning in the void of this strange and straight America. I was an alienated kid who lived for girls and kicks, so Jack’s world made perfect sense to me. I recognized a kindred spirit who didn’t buy into the American Dream. I devoured all of Kerouac’s books, and, through the books, came to know of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, and a myriad of other strange, wonderful and fascinating characters. As soon as I started reading “On the Road," I felt changed in some fundamental way in both my head and in my heart. I remember rereading the book at nineteen, and, upon finishing the last page, sobbing uncontrollably all night, knowing how bleak and horrid Jack’s last years were. I devoured all of Kerouac’s novels, and, through the novels, came to know and love Kerouac’s galaxy of extraordinary friends: They became my heroes, and, to my young consciousness, achieved mythic qualities. After reading most of Kerouac’s books, I finally came upon “Desolation Angels,” which seemed the sweetest and the saddest of all of his novels, as, in my opinion, it was Jack’s last great book before he descended into the horror show of the last sodden years of his life. It was in “Desolation Angels” that I finally read about Raphael Urso, who, as we know, is Gregory Corso.
What is the most interesting period of your life and why?
It’s all such an amazing adventure from cradle to grave, isn’t it? As a kid of the tenements, I roamed the streets of the Lower East Side with my buddies and we had great adventures. My crazy teen years with my wild friends and first loves and sexual awakening were about as exciting as any. Girls! Wow! What could ever be better than that? The married years of making a living as a lawyer and having a family were a mostly sweet time for me, as I loved my wife, and children very much. But I wanted and needed more. Working as a lawyer was not fun, as I worked 10 or more hours a day, but I strove hard to win every legal case. My client’s were predominantly Mexican farm laborers, and, after often getting ripped off by both lawyers and notaries, they would come to me and I would try to get them legal status for a reasonable fee. It was rewarding work, helping the underdog, and one of the great joys of my life is that I helped thousands of good people make a better life for themselves and their families.
The life that I have now is the life that I am the most grateful for and is probably the most interesting. Now that I have stopped being a lawyer, I have time, which is the greatest luxury, as well as the ability to wander around the world. However, the period from 1983 until the early 2000’s was the most exciting, due to my friendship with Gregory and Allen and many others. Through Gregory, I was able to meet some of the most incredible and interesting people on the planet. Thank you, Gregory — You gave me the world.
From whom have you learned the most secrets about the arts . . . and life?
Vali Myers. Absolutely. From the day that Gregory introduced us in 1983 at The Hotel Chelsea, up until the time that she passed away in February of 2003, Vali and I were always in each other’s hearts. Vali kept a salon in Room 631 at the Hotel Chelsea, where the most extraordinary group of artists, musicians, carriage drivers, criminals, con-men, lost causes, and people from all walks of life hung out during those gin-drenched evenings that would often last until dawn.
My Foundation, The Golda Foundation, published “Vali Myers—A Memoir,” by Gianni Menichetti, who was Vali’s lover and willing slave for more than thirty years. I published this book as an homage to Vali. There have been at least five movies made Vali’s life, the best of which, in my opinion, is “Tightrope Dancer,” by the Australian filmmaker Ruth Cullen.
What I learned from Vali requires another interview or even a book. All I can say is that Vali was a beautiful, fierce spirit who roamed this earth and touched the lives and hearts of so many. To be blessed by Vali’s friendship was a most precious gift. You were never the same thereafter. There was never anyone’s company whom I sought as much as Vali’s, and I miss her still. I am now a trustee of the Vali Myers’ Trust, along with co-trustees Ruth Cullen and Nicole Karidis of Australia, and there will be a traveling exhibit of her drawings and diaries in Australia in 2013 and 2014. I have every confidence that it will be a huge success. Vali is deservedly becoming a national treasure in Australia. There is great momentum and interest in her, especially with young people. The Outré Gallery in Melbourne has recently published “Nightflower,” a book of some of Vali’s drawings, as well as excerpts from her magnificent diaries. You can order “Nightflower,” if you choose, by going to their website at outregallery.com. You can also order my book: “Vali Myers—A Memoir” on Amazon or through goldafoundation.org. Vali is well worth knowing.
What did you learn about yourself from the friendship with Gregory?
One thing I learned from Gregory is not to hold grudges. One evening in Positano, Gregory and I had the mother of all fights, although I can’t remember what it was about. He pushed me on the shoulder about five or six times, and screamed at me, “You’re niente!” while a crowd gathered. Although I am almost never violent, I finally couldn’t take it anymore. I cocked my fist and said, “Gregory, if you touch me one more time, I’m going to lay you out!” I really meant it. And Gregory knew that I really meant it. So he backed away and said with a snarl, “Ah, Roberto, now I know you’re alive.” I was furious and was absolutely determined never to see or speak to him again. I took a walk near the sea in order to calm down. As I was returning to town, I passed below the restaurant, La Cambusa, the best restaurant in Positano, and looked up and saw Gregory with two pretty Swedish ladies. Then I saw him put his penis on the table as he said to them, “Look at my cazzo. It’s not too big. It’s not too small. It’s just right. Don’t you think?” Seeing Gregory with his dick on the table while talking to the ladies made much of my anger dissipate, and I really had to smile thinking that this is the last memory I would ever have of Gregory. About five minutes later, I heard a pounding on my hotel room door. I opened it up and there was Gregory, who pleaded, “Bobby, Bobby, I got these two chicks, man. I can’t hold ‘em myself! Come downstairs and help me!” And, of course, I went with him. And, of course, I loved Gregory then. I learned that he never held grudges and didn’t even remember that we had even fought.
Which memory from Gregory makes you smile?
Gregory always enjoyed pushing things and situations way beyond normal limits. Once, during a crowded bus ride in Positano, I watched as Gregory slid his hand into the pants of an attractive lady standing in front of him, who also happened to be the wife of the mayor of the town. She didn’t flinch, but waited until we got off of the bus, at which time she turned to him and said, “I don’t care, Gregory, if you put your finger in my culo. But if my husband finds out about this, he will kill you.”
Another time we were in the backseat of a taxi in London with a lovely woman sitting between us. Without so much as asking, “Do you mind?” Gregory put his hand under her skirt and pushed his finger into her pussy. She was so astonished that she didn’t know what to do; but she wasn’t pleased. Gregory could often astonish.
Photo of Gregory Corso by Bobby Yarra. Rome, 1986
Are there any memories with Gregory Corso, which you’d like to share with us?
Oh, God, I have so many!
I had moved my immigration law practice to North Beach, San Francisco, in 1983. I was strolling one day in North Beach, when I spied Gregory for the first time. As I was too shy to approach him, I merely followed him. Then he went into Gino & Carlo’s Bar & Grill on Green Street. He thereafter emerged with these two big, burly guys and pointed at me and yelled, “That guy’s following me, man!” I immediately split. One day soon thereafter, I stopped at the Caffe Trieste for my morning coffee and was introduced to Gregory. I never made it to the office that day. We sat and talked about poetry, and then wandered the glorious San Francisco streets together. He told me so many amazing stories of his life. Becoming friends with Gregory was an answered prayer. We were tight.
Gregory told me about the horror that had been his childhood. He spoke of the unspeakable terror he had endured when he was locked up at age twelve in the infamous and brutal prison, the Tombs, in New York City. To escape the Tombs, he faked madness and was sent to the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital, where things got even worse. He told me about witnessing countless sexual liaisons and attacks, and seeing men peeing into each other’s mouths. He saw terrible things.
He told me that his mother had left him when he was an infant. His father gave him up to foster care. Gregory recounted horrific tales of being sent to many foster homes. In one foster home, he was locked in a dark room and food was tossed to him as if he were an animal. At another foster home, he had a sweet memory of lying in a bathtub next to a foster mother’s pussy and finally feeling safe. But then he was sent away again.
He told me that at seventeen, he was the youngest prisoner ever to enter Dannemora Prison. He met an older prisoner there who said to him, “Don’t serve time. Let time serve you.” Taking his advice, and with only a sixth grade education, Gregory read Webster’s “Unabridged Dictionary” and the Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as most of the books in the prison library. He was twenty-one when he was released from prison, after serving four years for robbery. He had started writing poems while he was locked up. After his release, he met Allen Ginsberg in a Greenwich Village bar and showed Allen his prison poems. Allen liked them. I’m sure that Allen also liked the handsome, young, spontaneous and wild Gregory too. Then Gregory told me that, in his profound innocence, he asked Allen if he would like to watch a man and a woman screw. Gregory told Allen that every day, at the same time and place, a man and a woman would have sex. Gregory would watch through the window and masturbate while they did it. Gregory suggested that Allen go with him so that Allen, too, could watch and masturbate. By some amazing synchronicity, Gregory was shocked to find out that it was indeed Allen and a woman whom he had watched each day having sex! Allen had been seeing a psychiatrist who had told him that he could be cured of his homosexuality by having regular heterosexual intercourse. So, by some unexplainable coincidence, Gregory first knew Allen through the window! At least this is what Gregory told me.
Sometime in the mid-1980’s, I decided it was time that Gregory should have a memoir, so George Scrivani, Gregory and I went down to Santa Cruz and checked into a great old hotel, the St. George, with ten days worth of dope for Gregory and my tape recorder. George Scrivani had been a student of Gregory at the University of Buffalo. George, and his best friend from childhood, Susan Dente, who had also been a student of Gregory, and who later became Gregory’s girlfriend, formed a strong friendship. After Gregory was fired from the university, Gregory, George, and Susan moved in together to a house in Staten Island across the street from a brothel. George made the dough and worked in Manhattan as a mailman. George is one of the smartest people on the planet and is a wonderful editor. For years he traveled with Gregory and tried to bring some order to Gregory’s chaotic life. George helped Gregory prepare for poetry readings by suggesting the poems he should read, and handled all of Gregory’s affairs. George always had a calming effect upon Gregory. He was Gregory’s trusted aide-de-camp. Anyway, the ten days of dope that we had brought to Santa Cruz vanished into Gregory’s veins after about a day-and-a-half of taping, at which time we had to head back to San Francisco. I should have known.
In 1986, I went to Positano on the Amalfi coast to visit Vali Myers, where she lived half the year with Gianni Menichetti and their tribe of animals. The other half of the year was spent at The Hotel Chelsea, where she sold her drawings in order to support herself and her tribe. When the taxi from Naples arrived in Positano, I saw Gregory standing on the beach looking like a movie star. He was bronzed and dressed all in white and wore a white headband. We were happy to see each other in this dreamiest of towns. Gregory and I hung out most mornings in Positano. In the afternoon, I would go up to Vali’s little pleasure palace and spend the days drinking and laughing and singing and talking with Vali and Gianni. Gregory couldn’t accompany me, as the terrain getting up to the valley was steep and could be dangerous. When Gregory had first arrived in Positano, he was feted as the great poet. Many of the townspeople would provide a place for him to sleep. But Gregory’s welcome soon wore off, and he was forced to sleep in the backseats of open cars. One time, as Gregory lay fast asleep, the driver got in, didn’t notice Gregory, and drove off. After about ten miles down the road, the driver was startled to see Gregory waking up in the backseat!
One night in Positano, Gregory read to me a letter from Allen, in which Allen asked for the return of an expensive Rolleiflex camera. Gregory denied to me that he had stolen it. I must have said something in Allen’s defense, because Gregory lit into me with a fury and we had a fierce argument. Fuming, I left and went to sit at another café with some friends. I was still upset, when a stranger walked up to me and said, “Your friend is in trouble.” I followed this man and saw Gregory surrounded by three Italians who were standing jaw to jaw with him and screaming. I didn’t realize at the time that Italians are often heated in their arguments, but that it rarely leads to violence. So, I thought to myself, “Should I intervene in what appears to be a very dangerous and potentially violent situation? I have a wife and two children. Is it worth risking my life to come to the aid of this impossible son-of-a- bitch?” After taking a few deep breaths, I walked over to Gregory and the Italians and somehow was able to defuse the situation. Instead of thanking me, Gregory glared at me in his inimitable way and snarled, “If George was here, man, none of this would have happened!” And I thought to myself, “Fuck,” and then I laughed, because nothing I said or did would ever compare to George.
Gregory Corso, Vali Myers, and Gianni Menichetti in Positano, 1986. Photos © by Robert Yarra
Gregory and I left Vali in Positano and made our way from Naples to Rome, a city where Gregory was loved, honored and respected. We got off the train, dropped off our bags at the hotel, and ran into the streets. Gregory wanted to show me everything! I ran with him to the Coliseum, then to Piazza Navona, then to Camp di Fiori to see the statue of Giordano Bruno, the brooding monk who was burned at the stake, and who was fascinating to Gregory. Then Gregory had to show me the old synagogue near the Tiber and near the old Jewish ghetto. He was so excited and delighted to be back in his beloved Rome! We ran towards the synagogue at about 5:00 a.m. and were immediately surrounded by police and soldiers pointing semi-automatic weapons at us. “E Hebraio! E Hebraio! He’s Jewish!” yelled Gregory while pointing at me. We hadn’t realized that it was Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish holidays, and the police were protecting the synagogue from possible terrorists.
Gregory was well known in Rome. He would be recognized on the streets and we would be invited to dinners at the homes of his admirers. Gregory showed me Rome through his eyes, and it was so great to share his enthusiasm. We saw the obelisks and Gregory described each of them to me. We spent hours at the Keats/Shelley Museum above the Spanish Steps, while he regaled me with stories of his beloved Shelley.
Gregory was in a manic phase during that trip in Rome, saying to strangers, “You don’t know who I am? Roberto, they don’t know who I am.” We were thrown out of several hotels due to Gregory’s wildness. It was wild and wonderful and terrible. Ah, Gregorio! Gregory and I spent over three weeks together in Italy, and it had been the wildest and most beautiful ride of my life. Gregory surely stirred things up wherever he went. He was electric.
In 1985, Gregory and I shared an apartment at Naropa in Boulder Colorado. The school is also called “The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.” One evening, as I lay in bed with a fever, Gregory came back to the apartment with a woman and yelled at me to “Get Out!” Even though I was clearly ill, I reluctantly complied. I went to visit Allen and Philip Whalen, who was then staying with Allen, and we passed several lovely hours together. Philip Whalen was such a sweet gentle man. Then I left Allen’s place and met a woman and we careened about the streets of Boulder in a blissful ecstasy all night. When she and I returned to the apartment the next morning, Gregory met us at the door, pointed at me, and moaned to the woman, “I was bad to my friend! I acted disgracefully. I was so wrong.” And he was absolutely sincere. I told him to “Forget it,” as I had had a most memorable evening. Gregory would often show remorse after he was unnecessarily cruel.
Gregory often told me, “Lady Poetry came to me in prison to save me.” Or he would strike a pose and rise to his full height, “Dig the ball game, kid. A poet’s fate is by choice. I’m the poet. I took the shot.” At other times he would laugh and say, “I’m only a footnote to the Beat Generation.”
Corso, Marty Matz, and Bobby Yarra at Royal Albert Hall, London. 1984 Photo © by Robert Yarra
In late 1984, Gregory asked me if I wanted to meet him in London for a poetry reading that was to be held at the Royal Albert Hall. Of course, I said yes. I arrived in London about a week before the reading and called the hotel where Gregory was supposed to be staying. Gregory hadn’t arrived, but the operator put me through to Allen Ginsberg, who told me to come directly to the hotel, check-in and to then see him. Allen invited me to travel with him to Liverpool, where he was to read poetry. I was thrilled. The week that I spent with Allen in London and traveling to and from Liverpool was intoxicating. Besides hanging out with my literary heroes in London, I also had something else on my mind. Marty Matz, my best friend at the time and a fine poet, was coming to London from Paris the night before the reading. I had pestered Allen relentlessly during our week together to have Marty read at the Royal Albert Hall. Allen continued to demure. Then, while Allen, Gregory and I were dining together the night before the reading, Allen looked at Gregory and said, “Bobby Yarra has been asking me all week to have this guy Marty Matz read poetry tomorrow. Is he a good poet?” Gregory said, “Yes, Marty is a good poet.” So Allen agreed and Marty was the first poet to read the next evening at the Royal Albert Hall. Marty ended the last few years of his life on a high note, poetry-wise, as he toured with the City Light’s Italia Poetry Bus and was amazingly success in Italy and thereafter in New York, where he passed in 2001.
During this time with Allen, one of the great memories I’ll cherish is of one late booze-filled night at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, when Allen and I started to recite spontaneously alternate verses from Blake’s Poem “London.” That was heaven.
Later that evening Allen came into my room at the Adelphi, dressed only in his skivvies, with something more than poetry on his mind. I had to think fast to fend off the amorous advances which I felt were coming. There had been a problem with Gregory’s airline ticket, and he was delayed in the States, so I quickly said to Allen, “Let’s call Gregory!” I called him from my hotel room, and Allen and Gregory spoke for about fifteen or twenty minutes. After the conversation, Allen looked at me innocently and said, “You must be rich!” Ah, Allen! I was thus able to divert his amorous intentions and thereafter gently marched him out the door.
Another funny story is that it fell to me to have junk ready for Gregory as soon as he got off of the plane in London. So, the night before Gregory was to arrive at some ungodly morning hour, I and a friend went from one burnt out junkie haven to another, trying to score some good dope for Gregory. We finally ended up copping at dawn from a dwarf in a junkie den in some housing project. What a trip! My friend and I then drove to the airport where we met Gregory. He looked at me and said, “Ya got it?” At which time I handed him the stuff. He strode quickly to the bathroom from whence he came out a very happy fellow.
There’s a funny story that Gregory once told me. He was at a gala party in Venice at Peggy Guggenheim’s mansion. During the party, someone had taken the penis off of the sculpture of Eros at the entrance to her palace. Peggy accused Gregory. He started screaming at her, “I didn’t take the dick! I didn’t take the dick!” Later on, the penis was recovered and, indeed, Gregory hadn’t stolen it. Photo of Gregory Corso in Rome by Bobby Yarra
There’s another penis story. Gregory and I used to hang out a lot at the Corner Bistro on West 4th Street, just a few blocks from the apartment where he lived with Roger and Irvyne Richards on Horatio Street. One day we met at the apartment and I suggested that we go to the Corner Bistro for a drink. Gregory replied sadly, “Bobby, Bobby, we can’t go there anymore. I’m 86’d. You know why? All because I strapped a plastic dick on my head when I walked into the bar. That ain’t right to kick me out just for that!”
Gregory was scheduled to read at the Museum of Modern Art in New York one evening. He had spent the day skipping down the midtown streets from bar to bar with my sister Diane, who tended bar in lots of joints in midtown. She had met Gregory earlier in the day. Well, Gregory got to MOMA well before the reading. I was at the MOMA with my beautiful sister-in-law, Barbara Ann. Gregory yelled “Gather round me!” to his friends. We complied and formed a circle around him in the museum lobby, whereupon he immediately grabbed his works and stabbed the needle into his arm and the blood spurted out. I think that he was doing this to impress or to shock Barbara Ann. It worked. She fainted. Luckily, I was able to grab her before she hit the ground.
I’ve seen Gregory spit into his hand and walk up to a pretty woman and say, “Oooh. Look what you made me do!” as if Gregory had come in his hand.
I remember meeting Gregory in the lobby of the Hotel Chelsea, and Gregory said to me in a reverential voice “Bob Kaufman died yesterday.” Bob Kaufman’s death really moved Gregory. Marty Matz, who had been best friends and had shared a room with Kaufman at the Swiss American Hotel upon Marty’s first arriving in North Beach, wrote a great poem for Bob after his death, “ I Know Where Rainbows go to Die.” I believe that this was the best poem that Marty has ever written.
In California, the poet, Tommy Thompson, who is a friend of mine and who was a close friend of Gregory, had rented an entire bed and breakfast in Guerneville, and had invited his friends to come there for the weekend. We had a blast. At about 4:00 a.m., as we were all sound asleep, we heard loud booming shouts of “Gregory’s up! Everybody up! Gregory’s up! Everybody up!” And we all got up at 4:00 that morning, blurry eyed and pissed and bemused at Gregory. You couldn’t stay angry with him for too long. He just knew how to disarm almost anyone when he turned on the charm.
How does the blues and jazz music come out of Gregory’s words?
I don’t believe that blues and jazz affected Gregory’s poetry at all. I never heard Gregory listen to it. He loved classical music. Gregory didn’t enjoy reading his poetry as Allen did. He would sometimes get nervous and agitated before and during his readings. Depending on his mood, he would often antagonize the audience, at times to a point where there would be angry shouts back and forth. But Gregory could often turn a hostile crowd into an adoring audience through humor. He had the ability to turn an audience around on a dime. He was so sharp and funny when he turned it on. It was magic. Gregory did love to perform with Francis Kuipers, a musician, singer, and songwriter extraordinaire. Gregory lived with Francis and Francis’ wife in Trestevere in Rome and they were the closest of friends. They performed gigs on the road, where Francis played guitar behind Gregory’s poetry. Francis and Gregory made a fantastic CD together, and anyone who knows Gregory could feel how comfortable he felt with Francis reading his poems to music. Gregory and Francis were just simpatico. I visited Francis in September 2012 at his home in Italy, and he showed me a book of Gregory’s poems inscribed to him, which said, “To the man I love most.” Gregory was often spontaneously generous when he had something beautiful or had some dough. He gave Francis a beautiful ring that Francis still wears today. Gregory gave me the his only copy of the book “Ah Allen,” one of only 202 copies, which is a homage to Allen and is a most magnificent book. Rosemary Manno, a poet and artist of North Beach, was also the recipient of Gregory’s generosity. When Rosemary told him that it was her birthday, Gregory took off another magnificent ring and gave it to her while saying “I don’t own anything this year that I owned last year.” That was classy!
Is there a part of Gregory’s poems that you like most?
There are so many of his poems that I love. I would have to include “For Homer,” “Birthplace Revisited,” “Poets Hitchhiking on the Highway,” “The Whole Mess . . . Almost,” “Bomb,” “Power,” “Army.” I could go on and on.
What motto of Gregory would you like to stay forever?
Gregory often liked to do a little jig and sing, “Hey diddly dee, an artist’s life for me.” I don’t know if that was his motto, but it seemed to work for him. He also would comment about the human condition by saying, “We’re all in the same leaky lifeboat.” This really sums it up, doesn’t it?
Describe how you did spend one typical day with Gregory
There was never a “typical day” spent with Gregory. Every day was an adventure and you never knew what would happen. That was why it was so exciting. Gregory and I would often go to dark bars in Chinatown in San Francisco where people wouldn’t recognize and bother him. If the weather permitted, we would always walk, as Gregory and I are both great walkers and could walk for hours. We would hang out at the Caffe Trieste, or at the St. Francis of Assisi church steps, across the street from the Trieste, where all our friends would congregate. We’d watch baseball and football games and Gregory would often speak mythically about the players in a way reminiscent of his wonderful poem about Ted Williams.
When Gregory was on methadone in New York, I would sometimes accompany him on the walk from Horatio St., where he lived for many years in the apartment of Roger and Irvyne Richards, to the methadone clinic in the East Village, which was a horror show. After the clinic, we’d stop at a Bowery bar where you went downstairs and there was sawdust on the floor, and have a drink. Sometimes we would play darts. I remember one time Gregory holding the dart and saying before his throw “This is for the family jewels! This is for all the tea in China!” Every day had its curves and vicissitudes and meanderings.
Each day followed it’s own careening, adventurous and exhilarating path. Being with Gregory was like being on a rollercoaster. The highs were both exhilarating and frightening. The lows were often the calm before the storm.
Gregory always had a desire to be buried in Rome? Was your initiative or had he asked you in person to be buried in Rome?
On my birthday on October 20, 1999, a bleak, sad and rainy day, I came to New York from California to help Roger Richards take Gregory to St. Vincent’s Hospital. I walked in the door of Roger and Irvyne’s apartment and saw Gregory on the couch in obvious distress. He said to me plaintively, “Bobby, Bobby, I love you, my Bobby. The machine has broken down and I’m in the maelstrom!” It was terrible to see him so ill. He couldn’t walk, and so I basically carried his dead weight down four flights of stairs. Roger Richards, bless him, that dearest of dear angels, tried to help, but Roger was probably about 130 pounds and not strong at all, so I had to move him alone down, and, later, back up the stairs. It was a chore and it was frightening. Once downstairs we got a taxi and drove to St. Vincent’s Hospital. I took Gregory into a series of examination rooms where I repeatedly had to unzip his zipper and pull down his pants and then pick up and zip up his pants again in order for him to be examined. Gregory was helpless. The doctors did all kinds of tests and found out later that he had advanced prostate cancer. After that he went progressively downhill. I later came to New York in July of 2000, at which time his daughter, Sherrie, a nurse, had come from Minnesota to take care of him. As I walked into the apartment, bringing caviar and other goodies that I knew that Gregory had always liked, I saw him lying on a mattress on the floor in the living room looking more dead than alive. He had the pallor of death. I thought to myself, “He’s not going to make it another week.” But then, miraculously, through the ministrations of Sherrie made with such love and care, Gregory miraculously came back to life! He lived another six months. Gregory was so sweet during this time. It almost didn’t seem that this could be the same Gregory! He had had a reprieve from death, and was so gentle and kind. He had a chance to say goodbye to his family, friends, and the people he loved.
After having spent time with Gregory in Rome and Positano, and after seeing how much he was loved and respected in Italy, I had the idea of Gregory having his ashes buried in Rome. I got word to him to see if he was interested. The answer was yes. Gregory wanted to be buried in Rome or Venice. I have an amazing friend in Rome, Hannelore Delellis, who gave me gracious hospitality at her palazzo on the outskirts of Rome during my many visits to that great city. Hannelore Delellis is a woman of stout resolve. I called her in Rome and asked her if she could help get Gregory buried in Rome at the Protestant Cemetery. The Protestant Cemetery is a famous cemetery where Keats and Shelley and many other notables are buried. There are also a multitude of fat happy cats running around the cemetery, which only adds to its beauty and charm. Hannelore told me that she would speak to the cemetery management and see if it could be done. We spoke later that week and she told me that she couldn’t arrange the burial. They wouldn’t let Gregory in. After listening to the bad news, I said with some urgency, “It really is so very important to have Gregory buried in the same cemetery as his beloved Shelley. Can you try again?” Hannelore then responded emphatically: “It can be done! It must be done! It will be done!” Through Hannelore’s great resolve, not only did Gregory’s ashes get buried in that cemetery, but also, somehow, she arranged for his ashes to be buried at the actual foot of Shelley’s grave!
After Gregory died, I enlisted the aid of George Scrivani to help me choose one of Gregory’s poems for the inscription on his gravestone. Even though Gregory had often said that when he died he wanted the inscription, “Oops. I died,” we decided on a stanza from the poem “Spirit.”
“Spirit . . .
It flows through the death of me,
Like a river unafraid of becoming the sea.”
My girlfriend at that time, Naomi Wright, bless her sweet heart, who also did all the transcription for my legal work, had neglected to put the second “i” in the word spirit, which error I hadn’t caught when I sent it to Hannelore. So on Gregory’s tombstone there is the word “spirt” instead of “spirit.” I didn’t think that Gregory would have minded. I was able to have an apostrophe added after the “r,” so the word is now written as “spir’t” on his gravestone. And so it remains.
I was in charge of raising the dough to have Gregory buried. I had to track down and badger many people to try and raise the money. Raising money is a horrible, despicable, thankless job, and I never want to do it again. But it had to be done, and many people helped. Patti Smith did a benefit at St. Mark’s Church and raised $3,600. After all of the contributions were in, we were still lacking about $1600, so I paid it.
Robert Yarra, Laki Vazakas, Marty Matz, and Gregory Corso at Marty's suite at the Hotel Chelsea for Bobby Yarra’s birthday party, 1991. Photo © by Robert Yarra
How would you spend a day with Gregory again?
Everyday was an adventure and had a life of it’s own. That was the beauty of it. I would just let the day unfold and see where it would go.
What was the tattoo in arm of Gregory, what depicted?
The tattoo is of the palate of Toth- The Scribe, an mighty Egyptian God.
How do you characterize Allen Ginsberg?
Allen Ginsberg was brilliant and courageous and exceptionally generous. He always said what was on his mind. He was very sweet and friendly with me, and we got along. I visited him in Boulder in 1986 at a time when Gregory wasn’t there. Allen and I hung out a lot. One night, at the Boulderado Hotel, he asked me if I was afraid of getting old. As I was thirty-two at the time, I told him that I never thought about it. He said that he’s thought about it, but he wasn’t afraid to get old because he was famous and people would take care of him. In Boulder, Allen always included me in whatever festivities were taking place. He even sent a car to pick me up to drive me to his 60th birthday party. I have only fond memories of him.
Here is just one example of Allen’s generosity. I was at dining with Allen and the promoter of the Albert Hall reading, whose name, unfortunately, I can’t recall. I watched as Allen advised the promoter as to what to do with Allen’s $3,000 fee. This was a very high fee, if you consider that the Royal Albert Hall Reunion reading tool place in 1984. The promoter was admonished to invite four other poets to read, and to divide the $3000 fee amongst them. The four poets were to be told that the money was being paid by the promoter and not by Allen. Of the $3,000, he gave $2,000 to Basil Bunting, who at that time, was an elderly and forgotten poet living in Northumberland. Allen gave the remaining $1000 to three other poets, also anonymously. Basil Bunting had been a very important poet. He was an elegantly dressed man who was most appreciative at being included in the poetry reading. There is a wonderful group photo of Basil Bunting and Allen and Gregory and Marty Matz taken at the Chelsea Arts Club, where everyone involved lunched the next day in celebration of the reading. Basil Bunting looked so happy. This was just one of the many instances of Allen’s great generosity. The thing that bugs me about so many poets whom I’ve known is their disparagement of Allen. It’s sad. I don’t particularly love some of Allen’s poems when he writes about “Oh, Jack, fuck me in the ass . . .” but Allen wrote some great poems. You can’t dismiss “Howl” and “Kaddish” and “A Supermarket in California” and many others. I think that a lot of the criticism comes from jealousy. Very few make money as a poet and Allen made plenty of dough and was internationally acclaimed. Without Allen, who knows if we would have had the Beat Generation. Of all the Beats, Allen was the one who was able to function best in the straight world. He carried shopping bags filled with Kerouac’s manuscripts to publishers. Allen tirelessly promoted Kerouac, Burroughs, Huncke, Gregory and many others. He is owed a lot by those who love Beat literature. It’s sad when all of these giants have passed on, one by one. But life goes on.
I have many wonderful memories of Allen. I introduced my handsome young son, Gabe, then about age sixteen, to Allen. Allen looked at Gabe and said, “You have your father’s eyes. You’re doomed.” What I also remember of Allen is that he never let anyone slide with the truth. Gregory was the same. No falsehood went unchallenged.
I remember when Allen and Gregory met in London in 1984. They touched foreheads while speaking, something that I saw them do often upon meeting, and Allen gently whispered to Gregory “Our friend, Trocchi, is gone.”
Do you remember anything funny or interesting with some others of the Beats?
Roger and Irvyne Richards, the people who opened their home to Gregory and took care of him for so many years, had a bookstore on Greenwich Avenue called The Rare Book Room. Usually, in the late afternoon, a bunch of poets and artists and their friends would start to congregate at this store. Many of them were high and/or drunk before they arrived, and if they weren’t, the problem was soon remedied. But part of the undoing of the store was that Roger loved artists and allowed them to congregate at the bookstore, where they would often sprawl about. It wasn’t good for business to have a bunch of disheveled poets stumbling about, reeling, retching, or passing out. Roger knew most of the interesting people in the Village for forty years or more, ever since he had left New Hampshire to attend Columbia University. You can learn more about Roger by reading an interview with him by Romy Ashby and which was printed in “Goodie” magazine, that wonderful little gem wherein Romy interviews some of the most interesting people you’ll ever find. I remember Peter Orlovsky on one of his speed jags, meticulously dusting each page of books in Roger’s store. Peter was a very handsome man, and, even at an older age, was still beautiful.
Herbert Huncke was always elegantly dressed and spoke in very polished tones. He would hang out at Marty Matz’s suite at the Chelsea Hotel after Marty’s wife came into a load of money. Marty was exceptionally free with his money and his drugs, so Herbert and he were “thick as thieves.” And thieves they surely were. Marty and Herbert used to swap prison stories, as Herbert had been in jail for over twelve years. Marty had done three-and-one-half years of terribly hard time in a notorious Mexican prison. Marty and Herbert were great friends.
I first met William Burroughs at CCNY in the early ‘70s, where he was teaching a course called “Literature and the Supernatural.” I believe that Allen had gotten him this gig for William when William returned to the States needing a job. During the lectures, Burroughs spoke nothing at all of the supernatural, but he regaled us with stories about the American gangster, Dutch Shultz. He would sit there pulling at a cigarette as if it were a joint using the hand that was missing a finger, and tell these magnificent stories in his wonderful nasally, twangy voice about Shultz, who was the subject of a book that he was writing at the time. All the freaks and whack jobs in New York would show up to his class. It was great fun. William and I then exchanged letters. In my letter, I asked him why he killed his wife. He replied that he doesn’t believe in accidents, so there was some part of him that must have wanted to kill her. In 1985, when I met him in Boulder, he still remembered me. I walked into a William’s apartment at Naropa with Gregory, and James Grauerholz, who was William’s manager and protector, jumped up and stood in front of William, I guess to protect him from Gregory. We had a similar reception on another occasion at “Elaine’s”, the fashionable restaurant on the upper-east -side. As soon as we walked through the door, Elaine rushed up to us, as fast as someone of her considerable girth could rush, and said, “We’re not having any trouble tonight, Gregory, are we?”
I would be remiss if I didn’t speak of Janine Pommy Vega, who left home in New Jersey at age sixteen after reading “On The Road.” She came to Manhattan and met Herbert Huncke, and, thus, came upon the scene. She was a wonderful poet and writer, and taught writing in the prisons in upstate New York for many years. I visited her at her home near Woodstock about six months before she died, where she lived with the poet Andy Claussen, who was a very close friend of Allen and Gregory. I was shocked to see how much Janine’s health had deteriorated in the two or three years since we last had met. But, even through her pain and suffering, she was still the same strong, brilliant, indomitable woman as always. I heard no self-pity or complaints, even though her hands and feet were twisted horribly as the result of Lyme’s disease and other maladies. I asked her what she missed most since being disabled. She thought about this for a moment, and replied: “When I see myself healthy again, I am wandering over hills and mountains and through jungles. It’s the freedom of movement that I miss so much.” Ah, Janine, dear heart, I’ll see you round the corner.
What is the thing you miss most from the Beat family?
I miss all of it. For whatever reason, I have always been closest to people who are about twenty years older than me. This certainly wasn’t a conscious decision. But then they started dying and it was so sad. I feel that I “walked with the Gods.” These people were the smartest around, and I miss the conversations and the wisdom and all the fun. I miss the camaraderie and the excitement and the electricity that always surrounded them. To hang with and to converse with them was simply intoxicating. Their deaths left a hole in the world. There are no replacements.
Is Beat a way of life and what does Beat mean to you?
I’ll leave it others to define the meaning of “Beat,” and, I daresay, there are many who have tried. I could define it by what it’s not. It’s not a square life, which often follows whatever society dictates. It’s an attitude. It’s ineffable.
Why do you think the Beat writers continue to generate such a devoted following?
First and foremost, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso were great writers. Their writings resonate with the shining lights of every generation; people who know that the workaday world and the hamster-wheel life is just a dream of others, and in essence, takes your soul. I know from whence I’m talking, as I lived in that world for more years than I wish to remember. But even when I lived in that world, I knew that it wasn’t my world. After I finished my responsibilities to my children, I was out. I think that these “Beat” writers gave hope to people; a hope that they too could move outside of the shackles of their straight lives and look for something else other than money, power and fame. Freedom is always admired by every generation.
You have a pretty interesting project – The Golda Foundation. Where did you get that idea?
The idea was actually thought of by my accountant and friend, Tom Collins. Because I was generous to my friends, Tom, who saw all the checks that I had been writing, proposed the idea of a foundation dedicated to helping and promoting artists. And he also reasoned that by creating and funding the Foundation, I would get a tax deduction as opposed to just giving the money away. This happened right after I had one of the best years financially of my life. Thus, the Foundation was born.
The foundation is named after my mother, Golda (Gertie) Yarra, whom I love and respect so much. My mother worked in the factories in New York for most of her life. She was a union organizer and fought for basic rights for the workers, such as allowing them to use the bathroom as well as to have a lunch break. My mother was beaten and threatened, but she never gave up her resolve. So this is how the Foundation got started.
How do you describe the motto “Art is Essential to Life?”
I love the arts and I love the artists. Imagine a world without art! Imagine a world without paintings and books and dance, without theater and all the arts. What a barren wasteland this world would be without all this beauty. This is the stuff of life.
Good artists and great artists need help from time to time. I’ve tried to provide this when I can. It’s something that seems so obvious to me. I am just trying to do my part.
Bobby Yarra and Gregory Corso at Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado.1985 Photo © by Allen Ginsberg
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