This is the third in a series of articles commemorating my friend Rico Rees, AKA Richard Rees.
March 1966. Menlo Park, California
About the time Rico and I became friends, the movie A Thousand Clowns starring Jason Robards, Martin Balsam, Barbara Harris, and Barry Gordon played at the Guild Theatre in Menlo Park. Rico and I both loved the movie, loved the drama of a funny creative person longing to be free in a society of copycats, and we conflated the movie with our existential favorite Waiting For Godot.
Martin Balsam, who reminded me of Rico’s father Robert, won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in A Thousand Clowns and the movie became an instant counterculture classic. At some point our Waiting For Godot nicknames, Didi and Gogo, gave way to nicknames derived from A Thousand Clowns: Murray and Irving. In the beginning we were interchangeably Murray and Irving, but over time I became Murray and Rico became Irving. In retrospect, I understand these nicknames allowed us to be Jewish with each other without overtly acknowledging our Jewishness.
I remained Murray to Rico for the rest of his life, and he was Irving to me for several years until one day I began a letter to him Dear Rico, and thereafter he signed his letters to me Rico and I never called him anything else.
When Rico and I became friends, I didn’t realize that my physical disability and Rico’s physical limitations were part of what made us comfortable with each other, nor was I aware that Rico being Jewish and my being Jewish (before I understood I was Jewish) also united us, but both things were true.
As far as I was aware at the time, we became best friends because we clicked emotionally and intellectually, which was a huge relief to me at a time when I knew almost no one who felt as I did about the world and our society. Rico was only fourteen at the outset of our friendship, but he was far more perceptive about human affairs than anyone I knew, adults included. He was, I came to realize, a wise old soul in a young person’s body.
Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, which roughly translates as bone development imperfect (also known in those days as brittle bones), Rico wore braces on his legs until he was twelve to keep his bones straight as they grew, and because he suffered many childhood fractures, he was often in casts. As an adult, he was short of stature and slight of build and he could not run. He loved to swim, which was the main physical activity of his childhood and teenage years, and he loved to go fishing with his father and brothers.
Rico was the middle child of three brothers, Steve the eldest, Kevin the youngest, neither afflicted with osteogenesis imperfecta, both of them robust and healthy. Rico’s mother Barbara was an artist and art collector, and Rico’s father Robert was a real estate investor. They lived in a beautiful one-story house in Atherton full of modern art by well-known contemporary artists. Originally from Chicago, Barbara and Bob were members of nearby Congregation Beth Am, a Reform Synagogue.
When I met Rico, he and I related to each other as aspiring beatniks intrigued by the hippy counterculture of the Bay Area of the 1960s. The most Jewish thing about our friendship was that Rico introduced me to the delights of Jewish deli, notably lox and bagels with cream cheese, pickled herring, and pastrami sandwiches with all the fixings, such goodies frequent lunch entrees at the Rees household.
The summer after my junior year of high school was momentous for many reasons. Not only was Rico now my good friend with whom I spent lots of time, but I had another new friend Dave Biasotti who subsequently became Rico’s friend, too. Dave was an excellent artist and a fine guitarist, and he was writing and producing musicals with another of my good friends Scott Oakley.
Dave and I started writing folk rock songs together that summer and formed a band called Joy Ride. We were enthralled with Jefferson Airplane, and by far the best concert I ever saw by a rock band was Jefferson Airplane at the Berkeley Folk Festival in July of 1966. This was before Grace Slick replaced the marvelous Signe Anderson, before Skip Spence left the band to form Moby Grape, and before drugs eroded much of the band’s talent.
With Signe as their female vocalist, Marty Balin’s voice yet to be compromised, Skip Spence superb on drums, and Jorma Kaukonen at the top of his guitar-playing game, their three and four-part vocal harmonies were heavenly, and the concert setting with a fantastic sound system, as opposed to the cavernous echoing Fillmore, was ideal for the interplay of their virtuoso playing and gorgeous vocals.
One night when Dave and I were writing a song for Joy Ride, he encouraged me to play the piano to accompany his guitar playing, and though I could only muster a few simple chords to begin with, ere long I added musician to writer and actor on the list of things I aspired to be.
In August of that summer, I went to Europe for the only time in my life, a three-week trip with my family to Ireland, Scotland, London, Paris, and Amsterdam, the excuse for the trip a psychiatric convention my father attended in Edinburgh. I was deeply smitten with Europe and hoped to return one day, but never did. The Beatles had just come out with Revolver, and I brought home with me the British LP of Revolver that had two songs not on the American LP. Was I hip or what?
The fall play of 1966, my senior year and Rico’s sophomore year, was On Borrowed Time. Rico was cast as Pud, another little boy part, this one a major role, and I was cast as Mr. Brink, the personification of Death.
The gist of the play is Mr. Brink comes to claim an old man, Gramps, played in our production by Joe Tiffany. Gramps is the guardian of Pud who recently lost his parents in a car accident. Not wanting to leave Pud without a loving parent, Gramps tricks Death into climbing into a magic apple tree from which Death cannot escape unless Gramps releases him. With Death trapped in the tree, nothing and no one can die.
To outwit Gramps, Death entices Pud to climb into the tree from where Pud falls and mortally injures himself; but the little boy cannot die and end his terrible suffering until Gramps allows Death to come down from the tree and take him and Pud to the hereafter. Your typical cheerful high school play.
What I remember most vividly about the production is the scene in which I entice Rico into the tree and mesmerize him so he loses his balance and begins to fall…Blackout! In early rehearsals, Rico and I played the scene as if we were Didi and Gogo in Waiting For Godot, imbuing our lines with the abstraction and bewilderment of those two lost souls. Our wonderful director George Ward allowed us to play the scene that way for a few rehearsals, enjoying our theatre-of-the-absurd interpretation, and then looked over the top of his glasses at us and said, “But seriously, folks,” and we got the message and thereafter played the scene in harmony with the rest of the play.
Shortly after On Borrowed Time, in November of 1966, Rico and I went with Bill Kane, Rico’s English teacher, to a poetry reading in San Francisco. Bill Kane was young and not yet tenured. He wore a suit and tie to work every day, kept his hair cut short, and did nothing to make the conservative administrators presiding over Woodside High think he was anything but an obedient servant of the cookie-cutter system of education.
What those administrators didn’t know and didn’t find out until Mr. Kane was granted tenure and showed up for a new year of teaching with long hair and wearing jeans and a tie-dyed T-shirt, was that he was a rebel with a cause, and his cause was to awaken his students to books and ideas that questioned the dominant ideology of sameness and conformity.
But before he got tenure and started rocking the boat, Bill Kane and his wife kept their counterculture leanings secret to all but a few people, and one of those people was Rico, and another, by association, was Todd.
And the poetry reading he took us to was not just any poetry reading, but one of the legendary poetry readings of the Sixties, a lineup of the great Bay Area Beats: Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and David Meltzer.
In 1996, thirty years after Rico and I attended that life-changing poetry reading, Bantam published my novel Ruby & Spear, the novel prefaced with a poem by Philip Whalen and including Lew Welch’s great poem I Saw Myself. A fictional account of that poetry reading figures prominently in the early pages of Ruby & Spear, complete with a cameo by Rico.
Here is that account.
And now I’m seventeen, just getting comfortable with my cane, climbing onto the train with my friend Rico, heading to San Francisco for a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch.
We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us. “It’s Robert Duncan himself,” Rico whispered reverently. “My god, my god.”
“Who is he?”
“My favorite poet,” said Rico, his eyes full of tears. “My numero uno hero.”
“What did he write?”
“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.’”
The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become now that I couldn’t play basketball? My parents wanted me to be a doctor, or failing that a lawyer. I was singing in a rock band from hell, my antidote to screaming pain, but I had no illusions about making my living from that. And what about college? Sex? Money?
Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight, looking like Errol Flynn, dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, “I’ve been hanging out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rrrrrr. Rahrr. Roar!” All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed.
And when the house lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.
I wanted to live in North Beach, to eat my meals at Mike’s Pool Hall, to take buses and wear a beret and hitchhike into the wilderness. I wanted to publish six astounding books, each containing seventy-seven truly great poems. I wanted lovers, lots of lovers. I wanted a Turkish lover and a Swedish lover and a Mexican lover and a young lover and an old lover and a black lover. I wanted a rich lover. I wanted a lover who worked in a bakery. I wanted a lover with long arms and a ring in her nose. I wanted to grow marijuana in my attic under a geodesic skylight from seeds sent to me by friends in Mexico and Lebanon and Thailand and Los Angeles. I wanted to drink red wine and read poetry until three in the morning in a pool hall on Broadway and have every word be so crisp, so clear and true that all my lovers would cry for joy, their tears laced with resin from my marijuana. And then I’d lick their wet faces and get stoned out of my mind and write a poem so charged with truth that all the poets who ever made love in San Francisco would be resurrected and given one more chance to write one last poem.