GANG OF POETS
In keeping with Bohemian tradition, the poet and publisher, Larry Lake, my good friend and mentor, first published my poems illustrated by Michael Bergt as a broadside in 1979 entitled affirmations via his BOWERY PRESS. Likewise he published my first collection of poems, citysight, also with illustrations by Michael Bergt in 1981. He was a great compatriot (and at times enemy) who taught me to keep sacred the contract I had entered into with my muse. I also learned from Larry that writing is a lifetime’s commitment and that art is about serving one’s community, not one’s ego. Another Lake wisdom is that brother poets are brothers forever.
So when the filmmaker, Continental Catterson - whose only claim to fame was that he had produced a video documentary about an art opening at Larry Lake’s Bowery Gallery in the early 70s entitled The Bowery Gallery – when Continental Catterson shot Larry twice, I took it rather personally, as any victim’s brother would.
As far as the authorities and the Denver DA were concerned it was a coin toss when it came to the criminality of Catterson’s actions: it was either premeditated felonious assault or a Make My Day situation, for Catterson had shot Larry as Larry reentered Catterson’s home after an earlier argument about money and Catterson being eighty-sixed as the cinematographer in a film that Larry had written about a couple of home grown revolutionaries who intended to blow up Vail Colorado with a “minor” nuclear bomb that one of the revolutionaries had stolen from Lowery Air Force Base in Denver. I think the delusional Catterson might actually have believed that Lake actually possessed a bomb capable of wiping out Vail, that Catterson might some day be witness to an act of terrorism, because in preparing for his role as one of the film’s fictional anti-heroes, Larry used to whisper conspiratorially in an aside to friends and customers in his bookstore:
“Hey remember when John F Kennedy said that he was the only person who could push a button that would launch a nuclear bomb? Well, he was wrong. I have a tactical nuclear weapon that I stole when I was in the Air Force and I have hidden it up at Sam Pace’s cabin in Evergreen.”
Production of the film was currently in limbo as winters in Vail are hardly conducive to filmmaking and Michael Klein, Larry’s favorite lens guy, would not be available to replace Catterson as cameraman until sometime in March.
Now Catterson had been so rattled by his demotion from cameraman to go-fer and lackey that the day before the shooting, Thursday, February 12th, he had visited my wife, Marcia, at the studio where she worked and babbled to her his evolving concern that Larry was going to shoot him on the morrow, as Catterson owed Larry money for building and painting a backyard fence, and he would not have the money on Friday as promised. That Catterson shot Larry a day after asserting that Larry (who did not own a gun) would shoot him, put my opinion of the entire incident firmly on the side of premeditated attempted murder.
But for Larry there was a silver lining within the cloud of doubt surrounding his being shot, as Larry left Denver General with an open ended prescription for morphine to deal with the pain of the numerous surgeries that saved his life. Given his predilections for narcotic vision and pain relief, Larry much preferred morphine over the methadone he’d been using to assuage his cravings. And he was happy. Larry eventually confided in me that even though it was decidedly a premeditated assault, purposeful pay back of sorts for Larry “using” Catterson for his cameras rather than his cinematic skills and for Larry having slapped Catterson when Catterson claimed he had no money at present to pay Larry for a week’s labor building and painting the fence, Larry declined to press charges and opted not to pursue a civil suit as he did not want to put his friend and art circles with which he was involved under scrutiny, as the ripple effects of such investigation could reveal sundry heavy-duty Bohemian drug connections.
But this story is not so much about Larry Lake and Continental Catterson as it is about sloppy sloppy journalism.
At the time of Lake’s near death on Friday, February 13, 1981, WESTWORD was still in its infancy or, you might say, toddler-hood. The original founders, Patty Calhoun, Sandra Widener, and Rob (last name forgotten) were still hands-on and a little more than three years into their publication of Denver’s alternative arts weekly. Now weekly means tough, tight and rapid fire deadlines and when a young journalist name of Ken Freed showed up six hours before going to press with a story about the shooting of one of Denver’s more infamous and note-worthy beatniks, they cut and pasted Freed’s story into their layout on the spot without giving much thought to the content of what Freed had written. Sad to say it’s diligence be damned when a deadline demands.
Now Mr. Freed was a newly minted journalism graduate who had edited the Metro State student newspaper, and hence his credibility with WESTWORD. Unfortunately, he was a better student than he was a journalist. His source for his take on the shooting, a used book and liquid opium dealer named Bill Good, possessed no first or even second hand knowledge of the events surrounding the shooting. Mr. Liquid O Good knew nothing of tensions surrounding the making of the film about blowing up Vail, nada when it came to Catterson’s demotion in the film’s hierarchy, zip about the fence and the money owed. Good simply disliked Lake as Larry was, indeed, a gracious charm-ster when he wished, a favorite of the women, bigger than life, and a bad-ass Air-Force trained boxer to boot who had bad mouthed Mr. Good regarding his greed around the liquid O he sold. So when Freed – under the influence of Mr. Good – wrote that “Larry Lake deserved to be shot” because “Lake was an art bully,” and WESTWORD ran the story, more than journalism ethics were violated, and, in my Irish mind, some redress was in order.
Now at the time, I liked WESTWORD (and still do). Early on in May of 1979, WESTWORD had published a piece on Colorado poetics and had spoken of Allen Ginsburg and myself as being central figures in Colorado poetry, illustrating the story with Marcia’s photo of me reading at Café Nepenthes where I hosted readings. Still it was WESTWORD that had dropped the ball as far as I was concerned when it came to the fiasco of the Lake story. Freed and Good were petty, talent-less small minds, minor players in the debacle, but the professionals, Patty and Sandra and Rob, should have at least read and understood the slander they were printing. They should have known better.
Now at the time, Marcia was some eight months pregnant (as was Larry’s wife Barbara, who had introduced me and Marcia). Still, Marcia and I took it upon ourselves to visit the second story Larimer Street offices of WESTWORD to express our outrage and to demand both an apology and a rewrite of the story. In actuality I think Marcia feared what I might to if I went alone, that’s how worked up I was over the story.
We ascended the stairs and huffed and puffed our way into the one-room office shared by Patty, Rob and Sandra. I was so mad about the defamation of my pal Larry, so full of pent-up anger and hostility, my one hundred and sixty pounds upon my five-foot eight frame probably appeared more like two hundred pounds upon a six-foot frame. First I flung a dozen copies of the WESTWORD issue containing the story in the general directions of all three editors. A tornado it seemed had entered the room the way the pages of the paper vortex-ed and helicopter-ed in the air before landing on the desks, their laps and floor. And then, without so much as a howdy-do, I launched into a whirling dervish litany of accusations concerning Patty and Sandra and Rob’s professional shortcomings and failures as editors to fact check anything Freed had written (hell, he didn’t even have the location of Catterson’s house correct) and highlighted their utter insensitivity to the fact that a beloved artist and man and about-to-be-father, my best friend, and a publisher like themselves, had been shot. With a gun. In the liver. With real thirty-eight caliber bullets. By a man who had hidden the cocked and loaded revolver behind his back. Shot twice, the second time in the thigh as Larry lay bleeding on the floor; a third fired bullet had missed Larry’s genitals by inches. By a pathetic excuse of a man, a faux hipster sociopath who hid a loaded gun in every room of his house. A man who often expressed to those he thought he might impress at gatherings and screenings and openings that he looked forward to the day that some neighborhood kid, some teeny-bopper gangster wanna-be, might break into his Five-Points bungalow so that he, Continental Catterson, would have license to shoot and kill. And, I roared incredulously, WESTWORD’s justification for this attempted Make My Day murder is that “Lake was an art bully.”
Now I will admit I was a little over the top, dramatically speaking. I will also admit to maybe speaking with something other than a corporate inside office voice. Hell, I might have been speaking in tongues. I will also admit to pointing fingers and threatening two things: one, that I would contact every WESTWORD advertiser and badger them into advertising somewhere else – maybe in Boulder’s SOLDIER OF FORTUNE magazine - and two, that I would blab to everyone I knew that Rob was quietly giving up his interest in WESTWORD so they he could pursue his current passion of becoming “a fucking mercenary soldier in Africa,” something I bellowed in a most accusatory tone, a tidbit of info I had gleaned via the Denver art-world grapevine, something that I suspect that neither Patty or Sandra were aware of, given the flush, the beet red complexion that overtook Rob’s visage with my revelation of his intentions to become a trained killer. “Go ahead Rob, pick a side and feel free to murder people on the other side, and, please, take Catterson with you.”
I think Rob wished he had a gun as I stared him down. Both Patty and Sandra averted their eyes downward from Marcia’s and mine in a sheepish admission of their complicity and guilt. After my tirade there were more than a few moments of silence before Ms Calhoun broached an admission of WESTWORD’s mistakes. Marcia and I soon left feeling some what vindicated and satisfied, as Patty promised she’d publish a retraction or apology written by someone other than Mr. Freed. She attributed WESTWORD’s sloppy oversight to looming deadlines and hurried late night corner cutting.
And, to WESTWORD’s credit, they published an apology in the next issue, lampooning both themselves for their lack of oversight and Mr. Freed for the callousness and inaccuracies of his story.
And then in 1987, on the tenth anniversary of WESTWORD, Sandra Widener - who had left WESTWORD and was currently a staff writer at NEWSDAY in New York - submitted a piece for inclusion in the silver anniversary edition of WESTWORD. Basically Sandra admitted to being exceedingly scrupulous, indeed, obsessed with fact checking and that she intermittently suffered nightmares as a result of publishing the story of Larry Lake’s shooting. She said she would sometimes awake in the middle of the night worried that that “gang of poets” – her memory was that there were a half dozen or more angry poets - that the gang of poets that filled WESTWORD’s office that day in 1981 would storm into her New York City walkup in the middle of the night demanding redress for some failure on her part. Somehow I find it funny, rewarding and empowering that Sandra remembered me and my eight-month pregnant wife as a gang of a half a dozen poets.