|by Johnny Strike|
Even as a child I had an obsessive love for the exotic. I wanted to be an Indian or at least a scout like Davy Crockett and live and explore the wild. I wanted to be a treasure hunter, sail foreign seas to unknown lands and dive for sunken treasure. As a youth though, in reality, I didn't get much further than playing bongos in an island theme school skit, stalking through nearby woods and cornfields, living a myriad of adventure fantasies in my over-active imagination. I started a secret snorkeling club: The Sea Devils, named after a comic book. I was a voracious reader. I quickly moved from boy's adventures, gothic fables, to crime, mysteries, the fantastic, and often searching out places like Cairo, Timbuktu and Tangier that lurked enticingly in the background. I picked up on the pulp writers; some of whom had traveled abroad to search out their own tall tales: Theodore Roscoe, Dan Cushman and Talbot Munday were some of those wonderful discoveries. William Burroughs became a fast favorite in Beat literature in whom I found a kindred spirit. Burroughs was drawn to Tangier by the books of Paul Bowles, and when I discovered that, I consumed his work as well. Tangier was tailor made for exotic mystery and I knew I'd get there eventually.
First, I spent a winter on the island of Koh Samui, Thailand, which at that time was still wild and strange. One could have a magic mushroom omelet at one of the beach cafés and watch Thai dancers in costume practice under the super moons prevalent that time of year. I rented a bungalow for ten dollars a day, and set to work. Life-changing for me would be an understatement. Now I knew I could do it. I was Lord Jim. I was Robinson Crusoe. I was Gauguin.
Back in San Francisco in a cheap office I rented (right out of Raymond Chandler) in the legendary Warfield Building (Al Jolson had performed there), on the edge of the Tenderloin, I turned my notes into fiction on a vintage manual Remington. Next I decided to explore Mexico like the Beats, Paul and Jane Bowles and B. Traven had. These seminal writers mapped out various locales, and all were tantalizing for me. I spent over a year with my "working vacations" in Oaxaca, Mexico City, San Blas and my favorite: Old Town Mazatlán. Ports of Hell was completed on a well-used electric typewriter in a dusty travel agency off a side street of Puerto Ángel.
I still hadn't gone to Morocco, but once back in San Francisco I was soon planning a trip to fulfill that boyhood dream, and to interview Paul Bowles who was approaching his final days. I checked into the crumbling yet still grand Hotel Continental, near the port. Out of my window ferries arrived and left again for Spain. In the other direction over the rooftops was the intriguing Medina that I was anxious to explore. A few weeks later I planned a train/bus trip that took me past curious towns and villages to Fez, and later to the little blue town, high in the mountains called Chefchaouen, "Chaouen" or sometimes with a wink, "the Amsterdam of Morocco." Day trips were eventful too: Asilah and Ksar-es-Seghir.
As for inspiring scenes in Tangier, the place was alive with them. One day having a mint tea with a friend at Café Central, a knife fight erupted across from us, in front of a seedy 'house of pleasure' broken up just before a man's throat was cut. Drinking Stork beer with the writer, composer and raconteur Phillip Ramey at the famous Dean's Bar, a whole scene popped into my head over something Phillip had mentioned. Just getting Paul Bowles' address was a challenge. "Go to the Itesa in the afternoon" was all that Mohamed Choukri told me after an evening of getting bombed at an English style pub in the Ville Nouvelle (the French–designed modern part of the city). A cab driver got me to the vicinity, but he didn't know the building, so I got out and walked around; eventually an elderly man wearing a striped djellaba pointed his staff across a vacant lot to a rather dull building. "Itesa," he said. "Paul Bowles, the American writer yes? Inshallah."
There was a small store on the first floor, some boys sitting around drinking sodas. When I spoke Paul's full name one took me by the hand, inside, and onto a creaky, cramped elevator that lurched, and where a bare bulb went off and on. No answer at the door. I tipped the boy and sat on the stairway to continue reading Let It Come Down. Later I was allowed entrance and found a frail, yet cordial Mr. Bowles in bed. He arranged himself into a sitting position. Although elderly and hard of hearing (I had to ask my questions into his ear), he still exuded a charisma and magnetism that could not be denied. I wished I'd come some years earlier, say when my friend Allen Hibbard had, and got to spend quality time with him; daily walks to the Fez Market must have been fascinating. But I also considered myself very lucky for the brief meeting. Allen, by hanging out with Bowles, even got the exciting assignment once of showing Patricia Highsmith around town.
Bowles had the reputation of a prolific writer but was he really? He wrote five novels, and a bushel full of short stories, some travel/non-fiction as well as his translations of Mrabet, Choukri, Larbi Layachi, etc. Those short, punchy, fantastic stories and novellas were spoken into a tape recorder for Bowles to translate. In a funny way, they reminded me of first wave punk. Crime writers sometimes knocked out as many page-turners as Bowles did in only a few short years. The Sheltering Sky still remains my favorite, although I think I understand why his last, Up Above the World, was his. So, if we include the translations, his music compositions, and his collected letters then we could surely use that term, prolific.
I usually find discussions of "writing technique" tedious. I speak here especially of "creative writing seminars" or workshops where the teacher pontificates about character development and other dubious ideas, but there are exceptions, like the cut-ups of Gysin/Burroughs, and other surrealist techniques that Bowles even used in one short book, but not entirely successful in my opinion. If one uses their imagination there are endless personal techniques to try and, like a Magician practicing Magick, some will work while others will not. For writing, using an alt-technique usually is best for a passage of a scene that isn't quite working out. Cutting it up offers other possibilities. I wrote one story using a dozen found photos. After a few shuffles they fell into place. Later in life Burroughs compared cut-ups to a powerful spice used while cooking, to be used sparingly and carefully, especially in writing novels although The Nova Trilogy is a good example that sometimes going overboard with the experimental creative impulse is necessary and, in that particular case, worked splendidly.
Bowles's smile brightened when I mentioned I would be traveling to Fez next by train. Every writer must find their own way and their own voice. For me, Bowles wrote in a fairly literary style and with such panache and psychological insight as to give it a fresh perspective and voice. Norman Mailer had written: "Paul Bowles opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square... the call of the orgy, the end of civilization."
I was having a beer on a hot day and thinking about where to eat lunch. I asked the bartender if he happened to know Mohamed Choukri. I told him I wanted to arrange an interview if possible. He picked up the phone and put in a call. After he hung up, he said Mohamed would meet me there the following night. And meet we did, he drinking whiskey and me drinking beer, and soon we went off into a long convoluted and mind-boggling discussion of literature. He didn't have many kind words for Bowles, but admitted he thought him to be a genius. I found my way back to the hotel, but not before arranging an interview at his favorite daytime café. Tangier is a heavy café society and everyone has his or her favorites. That interview was much different, sober, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in the light of day, and for me was only mildly successful, but provided a short bio of his life thus far.
In the cafés I heard that Mohammed Mrabet was dead, but others told me that he was very much alive. With my usual persistence I eventually came up with an address out in Souani, and the next day with my Moroccan friend Youssef, we headed there in a petit taxi. After some asking around by Youssef, we found the place and Mohammed greeted us and invited us in.
Both men got out their sebsis and kif leather pouches and Mrabet ordered a veiled woman to make mint tea. The afternoon was a haze of kif smoking, and occasionally one of them translating segments for me. Mrabet told a dubious story about how he'd slapped Brion Gysin around when I asked if he had any related stories about the man. A few times Mrabet jumped up and stealthily went to the window to peek out. When he retook his seat he said to me: "I must be very careful. Many dangerous people out there. Some assassins out to get me!" Another time he told me that he'd recently endured a surgery that had removed most of his stomach. He stood and announced dramatically "I no longer have a stomach!" As we began to wrap up the visit Mohammed left the room and came back with some silverware that he evidently had stolen from Paul. It had the name Bowles engraved. He wondered if I wanted to buy them. I didn't. He was certainly living up to the dodgy stories I'd heard about him. He claimed with a degree of arrogance that the silverware was rightly his and that Paul owed him a lot more.
On the way back, I asked Youssef his impression. He acknowledged Mrabet's reputation and work as a talented artist, but called him a con man and said he wouldn't trust him. I laughed. Youssef, to me was as solid as they get (what Burroughs would call a Johnson), totally trustworthy. He quickly became my best Moroccan friend. I counted myself lucky to have been introduced to him. We talked of taking a trip together to his hometown, Tafraoute, and Marrakech and Essaouira too, but before I knew it my time had run out and sadly, I was boarding a plane back to Spain.
"Every place is interesting if one uses their imagination," J. G. Ballard had said. So, place an artist already in tune with 'the other' into sojourning in places like Southeast Asia, Mexico, North Africa, and elsewhere; it can only enrich and explode the process. You are already living in the midst of the 'atmosphere' you wish to explore. Walking out of the hotel in the morning one is quickly blasted with ideas, and one feels that indeed they are living their own film versions of the work they are engaged in. This, combined with the belief that the books really write themselves, is bound to make the work come alive in new and exciting ways. Even an afternoon lounging in the posh garden of Allah pool area of El Minzah can bring on all kinds of thrilling mind adventures.
Bowles said something like: if the person believes it, then it's real. Who is to speak with certainty of alt-universes, parallel or otherwise? Having been a devotee of the wildest of fantasies as a child will never entirely leave truly obsessed artists, and creative thinkers who are in it for the long haul. A successful writer I know who occasionally writes paranormal, supernatural stories told me he thought it was all hogwash though, and at that moment I realized why I'd never found his work in that area believable, or even very likable. I prefer the magical writers of days gone past, like Arthur Machen, Crowley and Spare, who were obsessed, and lived and believed in their obsessions. I once asked a ranking member of a chaos magic group to explain to me exactly what they were all about. Other than some rather arcane rituals, it was very close to the philosophy that I've been practicing my entire life.
Is déjà vu a remembrance of an old life story scene? Or a dream? Watching a film you feel you've seen but you haven't. Was this piece already written in my mind? All is mystery, one of the surrealists claimed, and I agree. Bowles said he was simply the translator of his subconscious. I find this is true for me as well, although something usually sets it off, to enter that trance state where all the good material resides, and as even the stoned rocker Keith Richards suggested once: "Keep the antennae up and record your dreams." Are dreams all preordained? Probably not. Preparation for alt-worlds, more likely. A break through like time travel/trance states/out of body/making sense out of nonsense? The nagual? from Chaos Theory to Chaos Magick; the possibilities? As an aside, an interesting book from the seventies was The Dice Man; no decision was made without the roll of the dice. And all decisions made by the dice were carried through. Burroughs wrote a lot about breaking control. Can mektoub or fate be broken through? Let's cut it up and see. A young man visits a renowned fortune teller. He goes home and writes it all out, and then he cuts it up to see what she really had to say.
The past couple of years I haven't been up to much travel. Instead, I've turned my focus closer to home, re-exploring the nearby alleyways of Chinatown for The Exploding Memoir and working another manuscript that I've drawn from notes after a visit to Istanbul. My Tangier thriller, Name of the Stranger, was published in 2016 by Bold Venture Press, and the second one, Murder in the Medina, the following year. I'm glad that I've followed my instincts and travelled when I did, and assembled these books, kept field notes, snapshots and developed friendships with long-time residents of these cities that continue to this day.
Copyright © 2017, Johnny Strike
JOHNNY STRIKE is an American writer,
mostly known as a songwriter, guitarist and singer for the proto-punk
band Crime, based in San Francisco. Headpress published Strike's first
novel in 2004, Ports of Hell, with a blurb by William S.
Burroughs. Strike also interviewed Paul Bowles, Mohamed Choukri, Herbert Huncke and traveled, with extended stays in Morocco, Mexico and
Thailand, where he set his fiction. His writing has appeared in Ambit
magazine, Headpress Journal, Pulp Adventures and in 2008, with artist
Richard Sala providing illustrations, the short story collection: A
Loud Humming Came From Above, with Rudos and Rubes. Naked Beast is
his latest music endeavor (due out in 2017), with Guitars and Bongos.
Murder in the Medina, his latest novel, follows another Tangier
mystery: Name of the Stranger, both published by Bold Venture
Copyright © 2017, Johnny Strike
JOHNNY STRIKE is an American writer, mostly known as a songwriter, guitarist and singer for the proto-punk band Crime, based in San Francisco. Headpress published Strike's first novel in 2004, Ports of Hell, with a blurb by William S. Burroughs. Strike also interviewed Paul Bowles, Mohamed Choukri, Herbert Huncke and traveled, with extended stays in Morocco, Mexico and Thailand, where he set his fiction. His writing has appeared in Ambit magazine, Headpress Journal, Pulp Adventures and in 2008, with artist Richard Sala providing illustrations, the short story collection: A Loud Humming Came From Above, with Rudos and Rubes. Naked Beast is his latest music endeavor (due out in 2017), with Guitars and Bongos. Murder in the Medina, his latest novel, follows another Tangier mystery: Name of the Stranger, both published by Bold Venture Press.
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