Cover Photo Tony & Gayle at Black Ace Books on Colfax – Marcia Ward
The artist, poet, bookstore proprietor and publisher of BLACK ACE BOOKS, not to mention famous beatnik, Tony Scibella, came into my life in the flesh in 1979 although the shadow of his stature as a major beat artist had preceded him. In photos I had seen, Tony’s look was half beatnik, half Hell’s Angel, intimidating and bigger than life; nonetheless, the first unexpected attribute he unveiled upon meeting him was his tenderness. Years later I’d call him Pope Tony for Christ-sake. If I badmouthed someone, he’d find a way to show me that I needed to be forgiving and inclusive and loving.
Because of my interest in poetry, especially Denver poetry, I was aware that Tony had authored poems and created art for Jimmy Morris’ 1968 & ’69 The Mile High Underground here in Denver, copies of which my first publisher, Larry Lake, had shared with me. Additionally, I’d read more than once Lawrence Lipton’s 1959 The Holy Barbarians, the first novel concerning the Venice Beach beatniks that fictionalized the life of Stuart Z Perkoff and his friends, Tony being one of them, Stuart’s best. I’d also read a number of Tony’s books published in Denver: ACE IS BLACK OF COURSE, BIG TREES, and TWO HUNDRED COPIES FOR MY FRIEND STUART all three of which reminded me that I was indeed, at best, an apprentice poet. Not only was Tony’s writing funny and charming and personal and truly in the vernacular, but it also demonstrated a personal action-painting, modern-day-text style spelling; I mean why write you when u should suffice. So I was expecting greatness when I scheduled Tony who would be visiting from LA to read at POEMS LIVE, the monthly literary event that Marcia and I hosted at Café Nepenthes on Market Street. And Tony delivered. The room was already packed with old guard bohemians when Tony walked in accompanied by a dozen friends (a surprise given that poets I knew were generally loners); among them “The Dope Queen of Beverly Hills,” Marsha Getzler, and artists Bill Dailey, Michelle and Saul White, and Gayle Davis, all of whom had road tripped with Tony from Los Angeles, and Denverites Linda and Steve Wilson, Larry Lake, Barbara Sokol, Joe Kinneavy, Lenny Chernila, Gypsy Davis (a minor character in On The Road) and Dave Lockman. I asked Tony how long his reading would be and he answered with a crisp, no nonsense “Forty-two minutes.” I had a cassette tape recorder that I had borrowed from an old girlfriend as I anticipated that Tony’s reading would be out of the ordinary. I popped a forty-five minute tape into the machine and affixed a microphone to the house microphone and wound up capturing in its entirety the first public reading of the first part of what would become Tony’s masterpiece THE KID IN AMERICA, which, surprise surprise was, indeed, forty-two minutes in length.
Over the course of the next dozen years Tony lived sometimes in Denver and sometimes in Los Angeles and we became fast friends with me publishing some of his poems and some of Gayle Davis’ (his second wife) art in my literary magazine, PASSION PRESS. I also serialized the middle portions of THE KID IN AMERICA in the art magazine that I edited POINT. In addition, I produced a number of readings for Tony during his Denver years and was always amazed and surprised that he never once repeated himself, producing fresh work for every show. “No restin’ on yr laurels, Matie!” was something he used to crack wise. Another of my favorite Tony sayings “Don’t tell no one” attested to his belief that art was created for oneself and one’s friends, not for the world at large, something I took to heart believing like Tony that anonymity is one of the keys to remaining true to yourself and true to your muse, with whom, as Tony liked to point out, you’d sign a contract when you first called yourself a poet, a contract that Tony would add was “for life.” Whenever I visited LA while Tony lived there, we’d usually cross paths at Marsha Getzler’s Beverly Hills house, as Tony and Saul White and Bill Dailey were the artisan artists who converted what had once been an outbuilding on the estate of a Katherine Hepburn – the “cabin” was used for illicit liaisons - in to what is currently The Temple of Man, a hillside home brimming with the written and visual art of California and Colorado greats. Tony painted the bathroom shower tile in his inimitable style; unfortunately, no one could shower in it for years because the waterproof fixative he used to set the paint never quite dried!
Whenever Tony came to Denver while living in LA, he was always full of surprises. In 1988 he came to read poetry at a Steve Wilson Exhibition Marcia and I produced at Gallery Bwanna on Blake Street. He had what appeared to be a small poem in his hand that turned into a twenty-page poem that unfolded Orihon-style, like a Chinese folding book. He had a one day art show at Jerry’s Records on East Colfax where the walls and the album covers on them were covered with white butcher block paper to which Tony pinned twenty-some artworks, all of which he gave away at the end of the day. When he officiated at the marriage of Barbara and Larry Lake, he conducted the shortest ceremony in the history of marriage, even shorter than a Las Vegas drive through ceremony: “Believing in the dance we do, done it is done, we are one.”
In the early nineties Tony returned again to Denver from LA, primarily to help Bill Dailey in his final months as Bill was dying from cancer. Tony moved in with Bill who lived in a mobile home situated on the Platte River in Littleton, a living situation that Tony’s first wife, Sam Scibella had arranged. After Bill died Tony stayed. At the time I was hosting the Friday night Poetry Readings at The Mercury Café and I eventually cajoled Tony into attending. He had balked at attending because they started at 10 PM, a little late for the early riser that Tony had become, but my suggestion that Tony “take a fuckin’ nap” worked. Tony so enjoyed the Friday Night readings that he eventually took over my roll as host in 2001 when I retired after ten years of weekly smoky late night adventures in the word trade.
Which leads me to two of the women in Tony’s life. Kate Makkai and Gayle Davis.
Tony met Kate at the first Friday night poetry reading at The Merc he attended. It was an open reading and when he arrived he asked if there was anyone he should be sure not to miss. Looking at my sign up sheet, I suggested that he be sure to hear Kate Makkai, as I was in the process of publishing her first book, Pink. In fact the first time I had heard Kate read I had told her, “You might not believe this, but I’m going to publish your first book” because she obviously had the gift. I remember checking Tony out as Kate read, trying to gauge his impression of the young writer who was some forty years Tony’s junior. The grin on Tony’s face assured me that I was not alone in my assessment of Kate’s talent. The following Monday I had reason to visit Tony and I drove to Meadowwood Village in Littleton. The crowded trailer park assigned two parking spaces to each trailer and I was surprised to find both of Tony’s spaces occupied. I wondered who would be visiting Tony at 9 AM on a Monday morning. The answer was a surprise: Kate Makkai. Her first visit would eventually evolve into her moving into the trailer within a month. The pedestal Tony put Kate on was so high she could see California! For the next year or two Tony would be Kate’s “mentor” and Kate would be Tony’s muse. Tony was so bemused by Kate that he asked me that first morning in the trailer to hold up publication of Kate’s book until he finished THE KID IN AMERICA, the poem he’d been working on since 1976. I must have asked Tony a dozen times when he was going to finish THE KID and he always said, “Hey, what’s the hurry.” Now he promised to wrap it up within the week so I could publish PINK and THE KID simultaneously, a feat Tony, in fact, accomplished by writing the final part, an apology/homage to the women of the Venice Beach beat era, something that Kate’s presence in his life had prompted. And I’m sure that Tony’s presence in Kate’s life prompted her to write “Pretty,” which, today, is the most viewed poem on U TUBE, which had, the last time I looked, over three million four hundred thousand views.
Tony’s second wife, Gayle Davis, is to this day one of my favorite artists and people. Gayle was and still is many things. For starters, she was the head cheerleader at Hollywood High. Ms Davis was a talented dancer who studied in Denver with the Martha Graham dancer, Jane Tannenbaum; Gayle had also been a notoriously famous naked go-go dancer in Los Angeles in the late 60s. She is a dance clothing designer and owns M Stevens Design in LA where she employs dozens of seamstresses and manufactures dance wear for people like Cher’s dance accompanists. A fabulous artist, I always looked forward to Gayle’s hand drawn Christmas cards. Believe it or not, she was one of the first Penthouse centerfolds; today the issue featuring Gayle is the most sought after issue. A leading lady in a number of B movies, she starred opposite among others, the great football star of the 60s, Jimmy Brown. And curiously, she was even Elvis Presley’s girlfriend, something I only found out after knowing Gayle for twenty some years, something I learned after Tony Scibella’s memorial when sitting around my motel room with Gayle and Tony’s children from his first marriage, Anna Scibella teased Gayle “Tell us about Elvis. Tell us about Elvis.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, and Gayle told the tale of how she became Elvis’ girlfriend and arm candy for his triumphant return to Vegas. Despite her flirtatious presence and star quality, Gayle is a shy person. She generally attached herself to men (Like Tony with his leather jacket, big beard biker looks) who were more her protectors than lovers, men who had excessive machismo, men who would make the Hollywood wolves think twice about approaching her. To escape the whirlwind that was her life in those days of moviemaking and Penthouse modeling, Gayle used to ride her bike out to the Santa Monica airport where her father had a hanger for his small plane. She’d lie on the grass out of sight behind the hanger, out of sight of the world. Just watching the clouds roll by and the planes come and go granted her a respite from the world that wanted so much from her. One afternoon as she lay there, the shadow of a man changed the light of the sky. Looking up at him, she had no idea who he was, but he chatted her up politely and sweetly and endearingly. After a few minutes she became intrigued with the kindness of his demeanor, and when he finally asked her about a date, she said “Yes.” “How about coming to Tahoe with me for the weekend with some friends?” She told the stranger first she have to take her bike home and inform her parents what was up and get some clothing for the weekend. With that Elvis Presley walked Gayle Davis to Frank Sinatra’s waiting limo and they plunked her bike into the trunk, drove to her parents house, and then left for a weekend that turned into much more as Gayle was with Elvis for his entire Vegas comeback tour. Keep in mind I knew Gayle twenty-five years when I first learned about her relationship with Elvis. A surprise it was that she never thought to mention it.
So there have always been surprises when it comes to the life and friends of Tony Scibella. A year or so after Tony’s death I’m researching all things beat on the internet and I come across a Walter Cronkite interview conducted in the late fifties. Walter is interviewing Stuart Perkoff, the proprietor of Café West, ground central for hip in 1959 LA and who had recently charmed America with his appearance on Groucho Marx’s YOU BET YOUR LIFE. The Pacific Ocean is the soundtrack for the interview and on occasion, Stuart’s unnamed friend answers a question or two. No surprise, it is the voice of Tony that is heard.
To this day, there are a dozens of young (OK, they’re now in their thirties) poets, men and women, who sport Black Ace tattoos on their forearms. I’ve encountered them in grocery stores and bars and art events. And when I ask about the tattoo, it turns out that many of them never even met Tony. Somehow the anonymity that Tony nurtured morphed, surprisingly, into an almost cult like following.