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February 13, 2019

Tosh Berman's Playlist for His Memoir "Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World"


In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Tosh Berman's memoir Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World offers fascinating insight into the life of the author's artist father and the Beat and hippie art scenes of Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s.

Hyperallergic wrote of the book:

"Tosh's book is fascinating, fleshing out details on how Wallace morphed from West Coast Beat generation raja into hippie headmaster of LA, centered in the Beverly Glen and Topanga Canyon areas, and, for a time, of San Francisco. . . . His book is filled with wild, with-it insights, buttressed by bounteous black and white photos, yet it is based in a rather ordinary, mid-20th century American upbringing, with extraordinary moments."

In his own words, here is Tosh Berman's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World:

"Lush Head Woman” - Jimmy Witherspoon

My father Wallace Berman, as a young man, befriended a lot of Jazz musicians including the great Blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon. As far as I know, my Dad only wrote one song as a lyricist, and that is with Jimmy called “Lush Head Woman.” A song about a woman who drinks all day and all night. A classic subject matter, and perhaps Wallace’s first step and last, into making music. Although if you are going to do one work in music, “Lush Head Woman” is a pretty significant achievement. I believe the song was only available on a 78 rpm disc and was issued on a French compilation of early Witherspoon music.

2) “Relaxin’ at Camarillo” - Charlie Parker

My dad was in the generation that greatly admired Charlie Parker in real time. Meaning, that he could see Parker play in various clubs in Los Angeles in the post-war years. I think some musicians or artists opened up the dialogue that is out there. For my generation, it was The Beatles, and the previous era it was Elvis - but for those who wanted something new in their lives, Charlie Parker was very much the ‘it’ artist of that era. Parker had mental and addiction problems, and therefore he ended up in Camarillo Hospital. The title is hysterical, and at least it shows Parker had a sense of humor. Wallace did an album cover for Dial Records “Be-bop Jazz” which was on a 78 rpm disc, and a compilation of various artists, including Charlie Parker. I believe this was the first time Parker appeared on disc. And my dad did the cover when he was a teenager.

3) “The Chase” Wardell Gray

I remember Wallace playing this recording really loud on his high-fi, which was a tube amp, with one colossal speaker cabinet. A classic in the be-bop mode, the classic jam piece that I’m sure Wallace heard live in the South Central Jazz club/setting.

4) “Alabama Song” Lotte Lenya

My first memory of a recording is Lotte Lenya’s version of her husband Kurt Weill and the poet/lyricist Bertolt Brecht’s “Alabama Song.” Not only did my parents own the album Lotte Lenya Sings Berlin Theater Songs of Kurt Weill, but so did my grandmother, who came from Hamburg. She would play this album for me as well. So I had no escape from Lotte Lenya. Also, my dad took me to see the second James Bond film From Russia With Love which Lotte played the villain/assassin. In that sense, Lotte was my first recording and early film star for yours truly. The presence of this song never left me also due to the Doors doing a version, and then much later, David Bowie.

5) “Intégrales” Edgard Varèse

Without a doubt, the first avant-garde record I heard as a child. It got my attention due to the sirens that are part of the music, and this is a recording that Wallace played a lot in both San Francisco and Los Angeles homes. Also, as a child, I picked up something that was quite dark in its textures. I could never articulate this piece, especially at a young age, but it was also a scary listening experience.

6) “Ahmeilou" - Maallem Ahmed (from Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959)

Just due to being in the same room as the hi-fi set, I was introduced to a lot of odd or scary sounding music. Paul Bowles in the 1950s went around Morocco to record the regional music of specific areas of that country or culture. This, being sort of the companion piece to Varèse’s musique concrete sounds, this was something that sounded like it came from another planet, a world that I knew nothing about. Equally intense and scary as well. My dad played this recording over and over again, and a very loud manner as he worked on his art pieces.

7) “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag” - James Brown

Not only the title of a significant work by my dad but also (of course) an incredible song by James Brown. Wallace had the 45 rpm single, in fact, that was his favorite format for vinyl. The perfect song, the chosen piece, and released to focus only on that song. I know my dad thought of using his varifax college also as the medium to find the perfect image for inside the transistor radio. When he used more images, then it becomes an album, but sometimes that one image in the transistor radio is “it.” It’s possible for a sonic artist to have that one song that is essential “it.” As memory has it, Wallace had only one album by Brown, and that was “Live at the Apollo” which was played a lot in the household as well. Wallace through the good graces of Toni Basil arranged a meeting between my dad and Brown. If one could be a fly on the wall for that meeting.

8) “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” - The Righteous Brothers (Phil Spector)

Wallace rarely gave titles to his artworks, except for the Brown song above, and this piece of wax magic “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” The artwork is a portrait of Phil Spector, who produced the recording, and it’s a masterpiece between subject matter and artist. Happily, Phil purchased the piece, but sadly where it is now, is a mystery. Nevertheless, Wallace played this record numerous times in the studio while working.

(9) “Baby It’s You” - Barbara Lewis

A classic pop/soul record that Wallace liked a lot. Sometimes a song that hasn’t any meaning, but just a pleasurable way of spending time. Some music that my dad played in the studio meant a lot to him, other time it could be a form of white noise, just a sound out there to silence the silence. “Baby, It’s You” is a very sophisticated song, in that it conveys love as something warm. I recently purchased a used 45 rpm single of this song, and it makes the room feel warm and pleasant.

10) “Who’ll Be the Next in Line” - The Kinks

This record, like the others, was played over and over again in Wallace’s studio. We’re talking about 20 times in a row if not more. My job as a kid is to pick up the needle at the end of the song and place it at the beginning of the record. This one is different from the others because this was (and is) a favorite song of mine. I liked the other pop songs my dad played, but The Kinks struck me as something more of my identity, and I can literally hear this song over and over again with no problem. I Identify with the ‘hurt’ or jealousy of the singer, even though I was way too young to be in a romance or in a sexual affair of any sort. Yet, the emotion I totally got it. Perhaps it’s the fear of rejection that I think many children feel - either within the family or in a school setting. It’s a universal song.

11) “The Crystal Ship” - The Doors

For a short period of time, like maybe a month, The Whisky a Go-Go on the Sunset Strip had an all-ages show that takes place at 2pm, and Wallace took me to see Van Morrison’s Them, because I love the song “Gloria,” and the opening act was a local Los Angeles band The Doors. We never heard of The Doors, but both of us were impressed with the band and its lead singer Jim Morrison. Who was wearing black leather pants, and for me, it was the first time I have ever witnessed black leather pants on a singer. Or on anyone for that matter of fact. Still, I was impressed that they sang a song from my childhood Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Alabama Song.” That, and “The Crystal Ship” stayed in my mind as well. Their debut album came out shortly after that show, and of course made a significant impression on me, but also a huge hit. It was the first time I witnessed a band before they made it huge, and that struck me as a particular moment to see a group.

12) “Satisfaction” - The Rolling Stones

Toni Basil introduced Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones to my dad, and they became very close. Brian spent countless hours drinking wine, smoking pot and listening to records over at our house. I can tell Brian was over the house the night before, while I was asleep, by seeing all the albums on the floor, and maybe a wine bottle or two. As far as I know, Wallace and Brian never discussed The Stones, except once, when my dad asked Brian how they got that guitar sound on “Satisfaction.”

13) “Subterranean Homesick Blues” - Bob Dylan

My parents bypassed the early Dylan ‘folk’ albums, and his Bringing it All Back Home was the first album to hit our living room in Beverly Glen. Again, the image of Lotte Lenya made a re-appearance in my (our) lives, due that her Sings Berlin Theater Songs of Kurt Weill is one of the objects on the front cover. For a photograph, that image of Dylan with a very sophisticated woman (his manager’s wife) and various objects around him, struck me as both iconic and as well as mysterious. It doesn’t look like Dylan’s home in the Village, in fact, he’s transported into another world, and the music on this album conveys the changes in Dylan’s approaches and merging into pop songwriting, but still traces of the folk sound. A bridge between the younger Dylan and the contemporary Dylan. Wallace played this album a lot, and I remember “Subterranean Homesick Blues” getting the repeated listenings.

14) “I’m Waiting for the Man” - The Velvet Underground

My father brought in all the weird albums to the house. He loved The Fugs, Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica and of course, the first Velvet Underground album. As a teenager I couldn’t understand the song “Heroin” or “Venus in Furs,” this was clearly an album of adult songs. In fact, come to think of it, this was the first adult rock album. It wasn’t until I discovered Bowie, that I rediscovered this Velvets album. But even then, the one song I could relate to in such a manner was “I’m Waiting for the Man.” I wasn’t sure if it was a song about gay prostitution or drug exchange. Still, even I sort of ignored this album in my dad’s collection, it stood out, including the seductive banana peel-off cover.

15) “Savor” - Santana (from their first album Santana)

I didn’t dislike Santana, but I never got their importance, except that Wallace played the song “Savor” on high volume when working on his art, or in his car while driving the windy streets of Topanga Canyon. Since I was often with him on almost a 12 hours a day, 7 days a week basis (when I’m not in the school of course), I had to share his music due to my placement in the room with him. For him, it was Amphetamine driven music, he thought for sure there was a chemical aspect to their playing, and it is intense music. Compared to the other San Francisco bands (not including Sly and the Family Stone) their musicianship and tightness were machine-like in its power and nothing flower-power about its approach to life or a sense of discipline in its manner. Wallace liked Be-bop music because each musician in the combo has to be strong in relation with the other players, and Santana in that sense fits the bill.

16) “Down by the River” - Neil Young & Crazy Horse

For us Topanga citizens, Neil Young was the cultural king of the area, and his band, Crazy Horse was his knights around the table. My dad was friendly with Neil, but his close friends Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn, and George Herms were very close to the musician, and it was a regular event to see Neil and Crazy Horse either playing at the local bar, ‘The Topanga Corral’ or at a venue in greater Los Angeles. When I hear this song, I picture Topanga creek more than an actual river. I have to presume Neil was writing ‘river’ as a literary enchanted area or even rural gothic surrounding, but me, I always thought of the creek in Topanga.

17) “Bitches Brew” - Miles Davis

“What is the hell is that noise?” As a teenager, I couldn’t get into this type of music, and I found it annoying. Wallace, on the other hand, embraced it like it was oxygen and played this top volume in his truck. 8-track version with the interruption in the middle of the song, but nevertheless, I found it to an odd soundtrack to Topanga life, which was mostly Neil Young, JoJo Gunne, Spirit, Canned Heat and so forth. This was music from another planet, and I just didn’t get it. Like The Fugs, Velvets, Beefheart, I learned to embrace “Bitches Brew” and its greatness. Once again, Wallace had an exceptional taste in music that was ‘out there.’

18) “The Bogus Man” - Roxy Music (from their album For Your Pleasure)

Wallace would put on records and listen to that piece with headphones. One that he repeatedly did over and over again is Roxy Music’s “The Bogus Man,” by far, his favorite recording in the year 1973. Often I would see him with his eyes closed, laying on the floor, with the headphones on, and having a blissed-out face expression, and it’s always “Bogus Man.”

19) Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs & Barrett

Or to be exact, the compilation that came out in 1974 called Syd Barrett. It was a double album set released in the United States, and it consisted of the two Barrett solo albums. At the time, I became obsessed with Syd’s music and narrative of his madness. Wallace, out of curiosity, played both discs consistently in one sitting, with the headphones on. 80 or so many minutes later he took the phones off his ears and said “Pretty good.”

20) Villa-Lobos’ "Bachianas Brasileiras" The piece is from "Bachianas Brasileiras no. 5 l.Aria (Cantilena) sung by Victoria De Los Angeles

I remember this recording played by my parents throughout the years. Wallace would also work with this particular piece in the background as he did his artwork. A haunting melody with a sad melancholy that puts the entire room into a mood of reflection.

Tosh Berman and Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman's World links:

the author's blog
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book
excerpt from the book

Hyperallergic review

Dangerous Minds interview with the author
Publishers Weekly profile of the author
The Secret Library Podcast interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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