Saturday, August 06, 2016

In search of Emmett Grogan

"Mr Grogan writes so clearly that he almost convinces us the whole story could be true."
– The New Yorker

"This book is true."
–Emmett Grogan

"The best and only authentic book written on the sixties underground."
– Dennis Hopper

According to his autobiography, Ringolevio, A Life Played for Keeps, by the age of 21, Emmett Grogan (born Kenny Wisdom) had fought in a gang fight with the largest gang in New York (The Chaplains); spent time in jail; become a heroin addict, a burglar and a robber; watched as he and his mates kill a heroin addict with battery acid (it looks like heroin and leaves no trace); attended a posh prep school on Park Avenue, Manhattan, where he excels at basketball and goes to weekly parties with the rich kids and their parents for the sole reason to scope out the houses to rob them – which he does very successfully, waiting for the owners to go on vacation then looting them all of money and jewellery. Whilst doing this, he stays at a posh hotel and hangs out at Birdland listening to the likes of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie. But when local gangsters get wind of his selling the stolen jewellery he becomes a wanted man.

He flees the States with $40,000 in his pocket; first to Amsterdam (on the boat across has an affair with a model), then Paris, where the tensions between the Algerians and the French are high – a bomb explodes just outside his hotel room. Meeting two men in a cafe, he drives with them across the Alps into Geneva, Switzerland then Italy, where he climbs mountains, learns to speak fluent Italian and helps build a church. He spends eight months in Heidelberg partying and spends a large chunk of his money; goes to Italy, witnessing the funeral of "Lucky" Luciano; then Rome, where he gets set up by a dealer called Squint Laszlo and spends seven months in jail (he's 17 by now). He swears revenge on Laszlo, tracks him down to the States, watches his house for a month, kills him with a shotgun, expertly making it look like an accident (they'd been a lot of recent mishaps with local residents killing themselves whilst cleaning their guns).

Emmett goes back to Italy and in Rome he watches films and reads the beat writers. He meets a girl, attends film school and immerses himself in New Wave cinema, Pasolini, Fellini. Adapts TS Eliot's Wasteland into a screenplay. Makes and acts in a few films, one of which wins a prize at a film festival but then is expelled from film school when one of the judges recognises him from when he was arrested and tried in Rome previously. Reads Joyce – goes to Dublin. Gets a job at the Guinness brewery, hangs out with the IRA, blows up a few buildings. Goes to London; writes pornography books for a while until, again, gangsters are after him for muscling in on their turf (his partner in writing had just been hospitalised).

(When he's not doing these things, he's either beating the shit out of someone, drinking Cutty Sark, taking drugs, getting busted by the cops, having casual sex (most notably in the back seat of a limousine with four beautiful black chicks and a lot of cocaine, whilst being driven through the Newark riots of 1967) or reading Beat writers.)

At 21, Emmett Grogan returns to the States for good, where he immediately gets drafted into the Vietnam war. In army training, where, naturally, he excels, Grogan deliberately gets himself discharged by popping a load of pills and aiming a bazooka at his fellow soldiers, and subsequently spends time in the psychiatric ward before being set free.

Grogan finds himself in San Francisco in the mid-1960s and becomes immersed in the counter culture, founding the Diggers, the anti-establishment anarchist group who distributed free food, put on improvised street theatre and organised free concerts with the like of The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin. Entirely distrustful of the whole flower power movement, he becomes a kind of outlaw figure and legend, equally admired and despised. His reputation spreads, and Grogan gives talks in London, New York and San Francisco; he coins the phrase "Today is the first day of the rest of your life"; hangs out with The Black Panthers, Timothy Leary, The Hell's Angels, Michael X, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Bob Dylan; organises the Rolling Stones' Altamont free concert (whilst in police custody). He kidnaps Governor George Romney and his wife, Lenore, in a large truck in San Francisco, managing to lose the FBI and the police. One of the most moving sequences in the book occurs when he leaves San Francisco briefly to learn how to hunt deer with an American Indian in a forest in New Mexico.

This was all before he was thirty; by thirty-five he would be dead of a heroin overdose. Whether or not it's all true or not is a moot point; it's a terrific read. Whether or not there even existed a man called Emmett Grogan is also fairly moot (my boon companion think he's fictional, and in the book there are several allusions to Emmett Grogan being a myth – he shuns all publicity, refuses interviews, the photos that exist of him are not him but an actor. He basically works like a dog, stealing food and setting up 'free' shops to help the poor and needy (an about-turn for someone who used to beat the shit out of people, and murdered a few too). There's not that much information about him online.

The 500-page autobiography, written in crystal clear, detailed prose in the third person, where, confusingly, for the first half of the book he is Kenny Wisdom before changing his name to Emmett Grogan, is part polemic and part unbelievable adventure story. Why is there not a film made of this  man's life?

If writing an autobiography by the age of thirty seems a little vain, well, Kenneth Branagh, merely an actor, wrote his first one by the same age, and Jordan, a model, has so far ghostwritten* four, the first of which was the biggest selling autobiography sold at WH Smith** in a single week.

*I don't mind ghost-written autobiographies at all – unless they're a writer, there's no reason to suppose any celebrity should be able to write a book of their life. However, Jordan has also ghostwritten three novels, which is slightly beside the point for a novelist.

**I've been meaning to write a post about WH Smith for years, but it'll just consist of this: it's crap. It's always been crap. It's like jack of all trades, master of none. Its greetings cards are tacky, magazines and books bland and mainstream, chocolate overpriced, toys and stationary limited... Bring back Borders! Did I actually dream Borders? It was like my favourite shop ever, yet no one I mention it to have even heard of it.


Caspar said...

Having read various bits about Emmett Grogan online I think I'm gonna have to read this book, irrespective of however much of it is true. Sounds like most of it beggars belief, but what I found least believable of all is his claim to have seen Bobby Gillespie playing the jazz circuit years before that musician was even born. Dizzy Gillespie he might have seen, but Bobby - nah.
The idea that Emmett G may never have existed at all is a new one to me, and quite intriguing. Quite ironic if he managed to bullshit his way out of history while trying to perform the opposite trick.

Barnaby said...

I meant Dizzy. See what happens when you don't proofread the blog for years? It all goes to pot. Anyway, a good read, fiction or non-fiction. A real page turner, like a thriller. I couldn't find that much about him online so the idea he never existed is interesting. And would presumably make the book fiction. If not, he's a man who was a Zelig-type character without wanting to be.

Caspar said...

I know you meant Dizzy! Just me being a smartarse again. You're right about proofreading. If only you knew a brilliant copy editor who could do with some work.... Paid work, that is.
I've read a fair bit online about the Diggers in general rather than specifically about Emmett Grogan. The Diggers were a brilliant social project and a very interesting group of people, who deserve to be better known, methinks.