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Standing on a Street Corner Doing Nothing is Power

By Peter Berg

Gregory Corso authored a prodigious legend of personal liberty. This is a small handful of remembrances sprinkled onto what will surely become a towering death mound.

His ultimate departure could have happened anytime after I met him, which was when he lived with Belle Carpenter at Lenore Kandel and Bill Fritsch's former flat in North Beach. Gregory was part of an influx of New Yorkers including Diane di Prima who had joined our late sixties cultural rebellion in San Francisco. He was living what he believed as though he was prepared to be killed for it.

It was easy to feel brotherly toward Gregory. I knew his Gasoline poems and some others, and was especially impressed by a one-act play titled Standing on a Street Corner. It exuded the spirit of a wise clown epitomized in the line, "Standing on a street corner doing nothing is power." I used the script in a weekly play study class in my Haight-Ashbury apartment for fellow San Francisco Mime Troupers. It helped inspire the concept of guerrilla theater that was incubating then for future pieces performed in Sproul Plaza during teach-ins, at a bus station, and on actual street corners.

If I ever told Gregory about this after I met him, he never acknowledged it in any way that I remember. He didn't usually relish any of the recognition he received from the sixties generation he helped to inspire. But he mourned relentlessly over his own heroes. Once he described to me how he had climbed into Kerouac's grave at the funeral, and he cried at the dedication of an alley beside City Lights Bookstore named for him. He raved furiously about the unfairness of Giordano Bruno's execution at the stake, as though it had just happened.

Gregory's most typical reaction to praise was to ignore the specifics and quickly ask for something. A ride somewhere, a place to stay, a bag of dope. It's neither an exaggeration nor disrespectful to state what anyone who knew him saw. It wasn't as mundane as a broken-down boxer cadging drinks from admirers at a bar. Gregory might launch a verbal flight that the boxer could no longer match physically. He was a remorseless junkie; his clothes were crumpled and soiled; his teeth were disappearing; a reporter called him "an uninstitutionalized man." Still, his spirit would shine and soar. Gregory might invoke tombs in Egypt, black-dressed old women in Greece, mathematical models for proving divinity or love, talents of imbeciles, weaknesses of warriors. He wasn't small in descriptions or shallow in comparisons. He didn't feel bad; he was mired in corporeal mud. He didn't feel good; he was a cloud piling up on a mountain top. I saw people leave a conversation with him truly humbled by the quantity and uniqueness of his mind.

One of those impressed was Frank Oppenheimer during the time he was conceiving what would become the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco. I turned Frank onto spontaneous audience participation at a Digger event titled "The End of the War" where audience members waved tree limbs or climbed cargo nets while Steve Miller's band played for a group of nude dancers and continuous film loops showed seeds sprouting, volcanoes exploding, and soldiers being shot. Frank was put off at first by the seeming lack of direction but later incorporated this kind of participative play in the museum, along with the suggestion to make it "an exploration." He asked to meet a philosophical literary person, so I brought Gregory to a small party at his apartment. The brother of the atomic bomb's creator and the most street-wise poet of the Beat Generation were an immediate conversational match, shifting mental gears at the same double-clutching speed and pushing each other to be clearer or more imaginative. I know that Gregory was an individualistic hedonist but stayed somehow innocent to the degree that anything he did could draw the attention of art. He was simultaneously wooed by cherubs and flayed by devils, while an opera of libraries streamed from his mouth.

Self-righteous judges, rich fatheads, power maddened politicians, pitiless critics, unimaginative academicians, sadistic policemen, ruinous generals: be careful not to celebrate too long. Gregory Corso showed us real power.

Peter Berg, Founder and Director of the Planet Drum Foundation (www.planetdrum.org), worked---with Judy Goldhaft---with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Diggers in the Haight Ashbury in the mid-sixties. Recognized as the first to use and define the term bioregion, Peter Berg is the author of Discovering Your Life-Place: Education in Action and Figures of Regulation: Guides for Re-Balancing Society with the Biosphere. He e-mailed this 'dispatch' from Ecuador, and Judy Goldhaft read it at the
New College memorial for Gregory Corso, January 24, 2001, in San Francisco.
 

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