Thursday, May 04, 2006

Harry Smith (1923-1991) OLD WEIRD AMERICA

Harry Smith was among the most interesting people I met while working for Allen Ginsberg, but a royal pain. Around 1986/87, Allen brought him out to Naropa in Boulder, Colorado to live where I was then working as a director of marketing and publications overseeing five departments. Previously, I had worked for the summer institute especially the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics that ran a 4-week program each summer. The college had just purchased a property adjacent to the school which had several small cottages subdivided into two apartments each. Harry was given one of these apartments for his residence. His health was already deteriorated due to many years of abuse. Somehow, I ended up as the official go between managing Harry's affairs and Allen who funded him from NY during the school year. Eventually Rani Singh, a Naropa student rose to the occasion, and took over, much to my relief. Later, Rani would develop the Harry Smith Archives and devote herself entirely to him for the last few years of his life. There was a period of overlap where we both were involved. I have one vivid memory of the two of us checking out Harry's freezer one day and finding some frozen underpants among other non-edible items ( I think they were Allen's, maybe Rani would remember). Rani had an infectious laugh, I can still hear.

Harry was rather difficult to maneuver for even the simplest activity such as getting him to doctors or helping him file for his ssi benefits and very very bad with money--often spending his last dime on some extravagant book purchase. The pose he's striking in this photo is typical of his stubborn 'dig-in-my-heels' streak. At the time, my job was very demanding while at the same time 1986-87 was the period my mother was dying so I made about 5 trips to New England when I couldn't be there for Harry. I lost my temper with him a few times over his more childish behaviors and eventually Allen had to read (write) him the riot act. I still have a copy of the long letter Allen sent to him from NY which in retrospect, reading it now, seems pretty funny and uncharacteristic of Allen--outlining all Harry's faults accompanied with a precise itemization of every penny he had spent on Harry. Harry, of course, was just another one of Allen's 'dependent' charges--the others being Corso, Huncke, and poet, James Schyler. Fortunately, Rani adored being around Harry. Bringing Harry out to Naropa was a great gesture and worked for a number of years as it allowed Harry to connect with lots of young people who paid him court and learned from him. Many of his lectures were recorded and are available online at in the Naropa collection.

When he was lucid, Harry had an incredible mind and was knowledgeable about many things. I tended toward his anthropological studies and vast knowledge of American folklore but he collected all sorts of amazing things nobody ever thought of--like the string art of little girls, paper airplanes, barn door keys. He was always making recordings that he donated to the Helen Keller Institute. Some of these recordings were around particular sound themes, such as a hammer, or the sound of different fans or some everyday activity to serve as educational tools for the blind. I haven't really read or heard what became of these recordings so that might be interesting research project. He was very curious about people and their ethnic backgrounds. There was one former Naropa student, Lee Ann Brown, later Steve Taylor's girlfriend, who had grown up in North Carolina. He used to ask her and her sister to sing traditional songs he recorded. Lee Ann went on to become a fine poet, publisher, and film maker. He tried to engage me hopelessly in complex conversations about Allester Cook but by that time I had already done many studies of gnostism and alchemy while a student at Smith and was more into the American Buddhist scene. His spirituality seemed intellectual rather than integrated in any practical way into his daily life. Still, considering what a rascal he could be, sometimes he was exceptionally compassionate and sensitive too. The day my mother died, I left a note on his cottage door saying that I couldn't pick him up for some appointment. Later, several times, he told me he had saved that note and cherished it.

Sometime in 1989 or 1990, Harry moved back to NYC. Rani was in NY too, so she resumed her caretaking of him.I'm not all that good with dates. The Harry Smith Archive probably has an accurate chronology. All during 1989, I lived on McDougal Street with Anne Waldman's dad, John Waldman, cooking his evening meal in exchange for a room in their brownstone (Anne's childhood room). I also started working for Allen around that time as Bob Rosenthal was immersed in a building renovation with his neighborhood association who were gutting an abandoned building and then restoring it. My working for Allen coincided with his first outside office on 14th Street where we rented a suite of rooms from Alene Lee, the inspiration for Kerouac's novel, "The Subterranians." Lots of people came and went through the 47 McDougal Street house then for dinner. Each week, John invited Bernadette Mayer and her family. Harry came lots of times. For Allen's 63 birthday, I made a big dinner at the house where Harry, Robert Frank and his wife June Leif whom I admired very much for their art, and some other younger people too came. I remember sitting around the table after dinner and everyone saying they were on some kind of meds except Allen and me. While I was still at 47 McDougal, Harry asked me out on several 'dates' to see his films at the Film Forum picking me up in a taxi and delivering me home--an unusual departure frm his previous neediness. In retrospect, I think he might have wanted to show me that out there in the world he was respected and not just the wreck I had experienced in doctor's offices or other intimate activities. It was amazing how he cleaned himself up for these excursions wearing a snazzy new trench coat. Gregory Corso also had that capacity--to transform himself to a respectable degree when called for.

It was a great moment when Harry received a grammy for his lifetime achievment award. Allen describes the scene. More to come...

Photo credit: Harry in the Naropa classroom tent July 16, 1988 by Allen GInsberg