Tosh: growing up in wallace berman’s world

In 2007, New York University’s Grey Art Gallery held the exhibition, Semina Culture: Wallace Berman & His Circle, which I reviewed for The Brooklyn Rail. Half a century earlier, in 1957, Berman had his one and only exhibition at the legendary Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Two weeks after the show opened, the LAPD Vice Squad shut it down because Berman included a copy of his magazine, Semina (1955–1962), in one of his sculptures. The magazine was deemed “lewd” and Berman was fined the considerable sum of $150. While he continued publishing Semina and writing in the magazine under the pseudonym Pantale Xantos, he never exhibited his work publicly again. In 1976, less than 20 years later, a drunk driver killed him on his 50th birthday near his home in Topanga Canyon.

By all accounts, Berman was a force of nature. He loved art, jazz, and poetry. He designed the original logo for Dial Records and his drawing appeared on their compilation, Be-Bop Jazz (1947) — the first pressing of Charlie Parker. He disdained commercial success and the straight world, and seems to have never had a job. His circle included poets, artists, dancers, small-time criminals, and Hollywood figures, such as John Altoon, Toni Basil, Joan Brown, Cameron, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Llyn Foulkes, Loree Foxx, George Herms, Jack Hirschman, Dennis Hopper, Jess, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Dean Stockwell, and Russ Tamblyn, who played the role of the knife-wielding Riff in the musical film, West Side Story (1961).

If you have any interest in the wild array of people who defined the West Coast beat/bohemian world, and the various ways it overlapped other worlds, including Hollywood and rock ‘n’ roll, then you must read Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World by Tosh Berman (City Lights Books, 2019). The preface by the actress and poet Amber Tamblyn is a poignant reminiscence of growing up in a social milieu in which “Berman was a mentor to an entire world in which my father and other artists like him lived.” Although she never met Berman, she talks about the large influence he cast on many lives, including her own.

Tosh Berman, who was born in 1954, grew up in a family where he met just about everybody his father knew or even briefly hung out with. And the list of those who made an impression upon him is impressive by any measure. Being a child and young adult in this world, Berman could have easily romanticized it — as so many people have — but he does not. This is one reason why the book is important.

The other reason is that he was both a firsthand witness and a participant in so many different situations and social exchanges, which he writes about with a welcome and unexpected critical clarity. The book consists of 50 short chapters, one for each year of his father’s life. Each episodic chapter focuses on a memory Berman has of a place, historical event, or person. One chapter is titled “707 Scott Street,” the address of the Bermans’ home in San Francisco. The poet John Weiners was a neighbor and the actress Leslie Caron babysat Tosh. Another chapter is titled “JFK”; assassinations and death were also part of the world the author grew up in.

Tosh Berman (photo by Lun*na Menoh)

What makes this book doubly special is that Berman refuses to perpetuate certain myths about this bohemian/beat culture. Early on, he writes that his father “was very much an American male of that era.” This meant, “He required a woman who would support his one-way route to art-life and not put restrictions on his time and his need for attention.” He writes of his mother, Shirley Berman, “If I’d been her, I wouldn’t have married him, which might seem to be an odd thing for the offspring of that relationship to say. But the women of that era had a bad deal in terms of gender equality.” Wallace’s charisma does not blind Tosh to the former’s faults and even, in retrospect, disappointments.

There are so many memorable chapters, moments, and observations in this jam-packed book, all written in a relaxed conversational voice, I had a hard time picking out one to be representative of all the others, which is a good thing. Yet some incidents stand out more than others — for instance, that Mick Jagger “rubbed the top of my head and said, ‘Cute tyke.’” More importantly, we find out that Brian Jones, the founder and original leader of the Rolling Stones, became a friend of the family.

There is a chapter on Toni Basil, who introduced Jones to the Bermans, and “who made introductions and secured us invitations to the other world that co-existed alongside Wallace’s social set.” Basil, who came from “ a very particular background,” had “one foot planted in the rock ‘n’ roll and movie business and the other planted in the bohemian/beat scene.” She worked with Elvis Presley, John Lennon, David Bowie, and with Bruce Conner on his groundbreaking film, Breakaway (1966), and later introduced him to members of the band Devo. I knew from Conner that Basil was an important figure in the Berman circle, as he spoke glowingly about her a number of times during our friendship, but, until I read Chapter 21, I knew little else about this fascinating individual.

Until I read this book I did not know that Andy Warhol and Tosh Berman crossed paths. Warhol shot some of the scenes of his first full-length film, Tarzan and Jane Regained . . . Sort of (1964) at the Berman house, “and I totally recall my role as Boy, the son of Taylor Mead’s Tarzan.”  I won’t spoil it by telling more, but the whole chapter is interesting to read on many levels — not just for its anecdotal history.

The book is a mixture of memory and astute commentary. Some of the memories clearly came from the author’s mother, Shirley. Photographs are scattered throughout, nearly all of them taken by Wallace Berman. At some point you might wonder if there was anyone in the world of rock ‘n’ roll and Hollywood that the author did not meet. Jasper Johns, Jim Morrison, Neil Young, and Judy Chicago make appearances. By this time, you should be tantalized enough to buy this book.

Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World by Tosh Berman (2019) is published by City Lights Books and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...