An Interview with Tosh Berman
Tosh Berman can never be separated from his pedigree—that his father Wallace was an artist of such originality and aesthetic coolness he was on the album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—but his father passed in 1976, and Tosh is here now and doing great work. Tosh Berman manages his father’s artistic estate, and while that does require attention, his own work finds a wide range of expression. In 2013 Berman reached superfan status for the Los Angeles-based band, Sparks, by publishing a book called Sparks-Tastic: Twenty-One Nights with Sparks in London (Rare Bird Books). This slim but enthralling volume chronicled his history of appreciation for the band along with details of the twenty-one shows he witnessed in London in 2008, where the band performed its complete catalog of albums, one a night. That book was followed the next year by a book of poetry from Penny-Ante Press called The Plum in Mr. Blum’s Pudding. In 2019 City Lights published a long overdue memoir titled TOSH: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World, which serves as a family history and an amazing record of the bohemian subculture in (mostly) the Hollywood Hills and Topanga Canyon orbiting around Wallace Berman. Dennis Hopper, Toni Basil, Allen Ginsberg, Dean Stockwell, Eve Babitz, Brian Jones, Russ Tamblyn, and Andy Warhol are just some of the names and talents that shaped the upbringing of Tosh Berman and the great art awareness and appreciation he has. When I think of what Tosh Berman does these days—he works at a book store, co-hosts a podcast about books on music, maintains a small press, writes books and screenplays—it’s a wonder that he had time to answer questions for this interview.
As this is my first interview here at StatORec in the position of Books Editor, I’ve come to see my function through interviews as embracing the understanding I have of this publication’s name. I’ve asked Berman questions that will establish for now and the future a statement of record. Berman will grow and change, as we all do, and maybe the next time he’s interviewed he might answer similar questions differently, but here and now he is on the record.
Some of the greatest artists (of literature, music, visual arts) are also proud fans of those who came before and even contemporaries. I always think of how many tributes Bowie included on Hunky Dory. You wrote a whole book about seeing Sparks play twenty-one nights of shows in London in 2013. What role do you see between fandom and being an individual artist? And can you summarize what’s so special about this band?
Fandom is a tricky thing. One way of looking at it is the relationship between the artist and the fan. The artist delivers and the fan receives. For me, I try to learn something about the artists I admire. With Sparks (Ron and Russell Mael), what I learned is one can be excellent by just pushing oneself to another level. I’m intrigued by their work habits of them getting together every morning until evening, and only having Sundays off. I have been in their studio, and I’m surprised that they don’t have a time clock at the entrance to the house. On the other hand, their twenty-one nights in London, wherein each night they do one of their albums from the beginning to the very end, is almost an act of insanity. A lot of artists now do a concert where they feature their classic album in such a fashion. But what makes Sparks unique is that they, at the time, did all their albums in a row. The classic iconic albums as well as the records not a lot of people care about, including me. Still, they put the effort and energy into every performance. Not only that, but in a live context they stayed close to the sound of those recordings. Being there and witnessing all of this was both jaw-dropping and moving. I cried at some shows because the energy to do such a program is beyond being just excellent. It was almost on a spiritual level, as well.
What I find special about Sparks is that they are exceptional music makers. But still true to the songwriting craft of putting beautiful melodies together with brilliant lyrics. A lot of artists have done this, but Sparks is a duo that’s basically influenced by their own works; there’s not much interest in the outside world. Totally self-contained in their own home studio, they live in their world and pretty much ignore the forces outside of that planet. The fact that they had two films released this year (2021) that are both remarkable is something to marvel at again and again.
What was the impetus behind starting TamTam Books, and how has it been going? What are you most proud of with that venture?
Ever since the first grade, my favorite thing to do in front of a classroom is “Show & Tell,” where you bring something from home and show it to your fellow classmates. This feeling never went away with me, and it’s the sole reason why I went into publishing. In 1989/1990 I was living in Japan and writing these odd fictional pieces. My wife Lun*na told me that my writing reminded her of the works by Boris Vian. The name Vian was very obscure to me, and I immediately thought of him as a jazz musician. Boris is that, of course, but he’s also a novelist, noir writer, poet, songwriter, and part-time actor. In Japan, all of Vian’s novels are translated into Japanese. My wife took me to the Vian section in a big bookstore in Tokyo, and I was amazed that there’s this French writer who is totally unknown in the English-speaking world, but here in Japan, he has a following.
When I got back to the United States in 1990, I started to research Vian through various English language presses as well as in French, with a pocket French dictionary by my side. In the Los Angeles Downtown Library, I found a mass-market paperback by Vian titled I Spit on Your Graves. What intrigued me is that Vian wrote this novel under another name, Vernon Sullivan. In Vian’s biography of Sullivan, he was a Black American writer who couldn’t get his books published in the U.S. because they were ultra-violent and contained harsh sexuality. Vian presented this book as a work by Sullivan, translated by Vian. Only his publisher and he himself (of course) knew that Boris had written the novel and presented it as a banned work of literature from the South. Keep in mind that in France, a lot of American pop culture came through. Jazz of course, but also the works of William Faulkner as well as noir writers like Raymond Chandler and others. Speaking of which, Vian also translated one of Chandler’s novels into French. He was also the man at the gate who organized various American jazz artists to play in Paris—including Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington. So, I became fascinated with Vian and his world. And to be honest, he also reminded me of my dad a bit. They both share a sense of humor that was absurd, silly, but profound as well.
I Spit On Your Graves was released in France, and due to the censorship issues in that country, the book became a mega-bestseller. The courts decided to bring Vian, as the novel’s translator and publisher, to trial. It wasn’t until the last moment that Boris finally admitted that he wrote the book, that there was no Vernon Sullivan. He had to pay a fine, but it came close to jail time for him. The thing is, Vian also wrote these wonderful and exquisite surreal novels, such as Legume des jours (Foam of the Daze). But he’d already been typecast as the author of I Spit On Your Graves and had a hard time dismissing that part of his past. In fact, he died while watching a film version of his noir novel. He got up to complain about the dialog and then fell over dead from a heart attack.
I started TamTam Books because I wanted to publish all of his major works—the titles written under his name as well as the Vernon Sullivan novels. I didn’t care about the cost or time, I just wanted to put these books out. Also, I published a short novella by Serge Gainsbourg, as well as a biography on him by Gilles Verlant, because Serge was very much part of Vian’s social and artistic world. The other writers I’ve published are Guy Debord, the French gangster Jacques Mesrine, and a book by my wife, Lun*na, as well as the Selected Lyrics by Sparks. I stopped publishing because I felt I’d done everything I wanted to do as a publisher.
JR: You have a podcast about books on music. How did that come to be, and why do you find this project important?
TB: Actually, it was the co-host of our show BOOK MUSIK, Kimley Maretzo, that came up with the idea of doing a bi-weekly podcast focused on books about music. We’re both music nerds and we love to read about musicians, composers, and music history. Although we are focusing only on books that concern music, it is actually a large category and often high literature. We do some classic music literature, for example Nik Cohn or Charlie Mingus’s memoir, but most of the titles are or were new when we did the shows. For both of us, music is essential in its many forms. Not only aurally, but also visually, and there are such magnificent characters in that world as well.
JR: What have you come to learn about literature and how capable it is at expressing another medium like music?
TB: I’m still thinking about this. How does writing or literature comment on something like music? For me, I try to convey in words the mood of an album or song more than factual information. Music is very architectural to me. For instance, all the pieces have to fit together, but it’s also about how it does or doesn’t fit, as well. The possibility that I may be wrong about an artist and their music is not a problem for me. It’s the adventure or journey itself that’s important.
JR: Where do you most see now, in the contemporary world, the legacy of your father’s work and aesthetic vision?
TB: The easy answer is the Apple iPhone. The quiet answer is how individuals react to Wallace Berman’s art. It’s rare that one doesn’t feel a strong pull to his world and work. The person who connects with Wallace’s art is having a very deep and intense love affair with what they see in the art. I don’t think it was destiny that Wallace became one of the faces on The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album. He’s in good company, but he also and very clearly belongs to that special grouping.
JR: The Apple iPhone might be an easy answer for you, but can you explain for our readers the connections between your father’s work and the iPhone?
TB: Well, we know the iPhone. Not long ago, Apple put out an ad that looks very much like my dad’s artwork with respect to a hand holding a radio. Not sure if this was totally innocent on the part of Apple, but then again????
JR: Are there any connections (even in spirit) that you see in the contemporary LA art scene to that of your youth and your father’s world?
TB: I think the most influential thing Wallace did was to make SEMINA. The fact that it’s a journal, and was given out to friends and people of interest I think has a lasting influence on many artists and publishers. In some ways, Wallace was very elitist with regards to distribution and selling his work. When he was alive, and he sold you his art, that also meant he liked and respected you as well. He was never for the masses. He was for the few.
JR: Are there any books on your father and his scene that you’d recommend?
TB: On my father? I think the books that focus on him and his world. Semina Culture is a great introduction, that’s the catalog of a show put together by Kristine McKenna and Michael Duncan. Also American Aleph, put together by Claudia Bohn-Spector and Sam Mellon.
JR: How do you feel about the Book Works project from the early 2000s using the name Semina, originally the name of the mail art zine-like publication your father produced from 1955 to 1964?
TB: Stewart Home, who was the editor and brains behind the Book Works project, asked for my permission, which is very kind of him to do. My first reaction was why not make a new title or name for his series? But Stewart’s whole aesthetic and method is to take things from the past and re-comment on that work. Looking at it on that level, I thought this is another version of communicating, so why not? But I was happy that the books were proper books and not a zine or handmade object like my dad’s SEMINA. If Stewart wanted to do the exact design as my father, I would have said no.
JR: Who are your favorite contemporary/living writers, musicians, and visual artists?
TB: I was going to say that changes on a daily basis, but the truth is, it changes on an hourly basis as well. At this very moment, my favorite writers are Lydia Davis and I adore the new Dennis Cooper novel I Wished. For a long time now, I have really admired the writings (and humor) of Robert Benchley. The fact that he had to come up with something on a regular basis for his magazine work is an inspiration for me. And it seems he writes about things from his life, but on an absurd level. John Cheever’s short stories have become a new interest for me.
Music-wise it is always Sparks, David Bowie, Scott Walker, Joe Meek, Moondog, and lately this obscure British band from the 1960s, The Herd. It was Peter Frampton’s first real band! The new album and artist I find exceptional is an artist named Spelling, and her album The Turning Wheel. She reminds me a bit of classic Prince, but with the skills of arrangement from Van Dyke Parks to the classic psych-era of The Beatles.
Visual artists are many, but off the top of my head and for many reasons: Joe Goode, Marcel Duchamp, British painter Michael Andrews, Duncan Hannah, and I like the world of Gilbert and George. Once you enter their planet, it’s a totally different but realistic world. I also greatly admire Alexis Smith, and I’m a mega-fan of my wife’s art, Lun*na Menoh.
JR: Who are your all-time favorites?
TB: David Bowie, because he took a fantastic journey and as a listener and fan, I can go on that trip with him.
JR: What are the greatest artistic influences on your work and sense of aesthetics?
TB: The one book that inspired me while writing TOSH: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World is Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s childhood memoir Places of My Infancy: A Memory. I was impressed that he wrote a lot about the estate that he was raised on, and it was more about rooms and gardens than people. It is nothing like my book, but I do think placement and locations are important in literature. Sometimes, when I go to a bookstore, I wish there were categories like “Cities,” and if I want to, I can read a novel that’s based in Los Angeles, Paris, or Tokyo. So, in other words, a whole section in the bookshop just focusing on Tokyo and so forth.
JR: Which of your works or projects are you most proud of?
TB: Everything! Even the rotten stuff I’ve written has some worth to me. I can’t speak for the reader!
JR: What’s next? Are there any new projects on the horizon as of yet unannounced?
TB: At this moment I’m busy writing and editing for my Substack site. Every day I try to add a new or old, but updated narrative or essay. I’m also working on two screenplays, as well. That is very enjoyable and a nice challenge to write something that’s visual and in a different medium.
JR: I hate to be indelicate or morbid—and I hope you live forty more years—but what do you hope the legacy of your work to be?
TB: That my books will remain in print, and that no one will ever forget my magnificent hair.
JR: Hahaha, thank you, that seems like the perfect place to end. You do have magnificent hair!