That Whole Thing the Dead Come Out Of
Author: Jonathan Lerner
July 29, 2010
In the summer of 1970, at 22, I found myself in Montreal, a leftist political fugitive isolated and on the run. It was one year after Stonewall, a few weeks after Kent State. I was surviving through hustles and rip-offs and the delusional cinematic thrill of being underground, justifying every dubious action as being in aid of the revolution. (Revolutionaries always do that, which is why their promises always end up hollow.) Though at the time I was conflicted about being gay, I was using sex with men as one way to get by. I urgently needed some false ID, but couldn’t find any. And then I had an idea: pick up a guy whose description approximated my own, and steal his.
I met Jean Basile one evening in a downtown cruising spot. We locked eyes, had one of those quick coded exchanges and agreed to go to his place. Though he was older, we were alike enough in height, build and coloring for my purposes. The attraction was real, too. First we walked to a restaurant, where he bought me dinner. He quickly came to seem rather glamorous. He reviewed pop music for a newspaper, was interested in radical politics, too; Quebecois separatism was in the air, and we discussed that. Later we found his big Pontiac convertible and drove through the glittering city with the top down. Back in his flat in a classy old building, passing a joint, putting a record on, Jean asked my thoughts for a review he was writing. Though he does not appear in my novel Alex Underground, this scene does:
He lines up five l.p. record jackets on the coffee table. They are all the albums issued to date by the Grateful Dead. The first four covers are classic examples of psychedelic art: intricately drawn, whirling, convoluted mandalas. They vibrate with juxtaposed colors. The images are all illusory, their meanings most likely unknowable. The albums’ titles are equally impossible: “Aoxomoxoa,” for instance, and “Live/Dead.”
But the fifth album is called “Workingman’s Dead.” Its jacket has only what appears to be an antique sepia photograph of the band members, dressed in jeans and cowboy hats, milling about on what looks like the dusty street of a town in the frontier West — although there is a row of industrial smokestacks in the background.
“Hm,” says Alex, who doesn’t reveal that he hardly knows a thing about the Grateful Dead. The music rolls forth — joyful, simple on the surface like Appalachian folk tunes, but lush and seductive underneath. Alex clears his throat. “Well, there’s been a shift, you know, across the whole American youth culture.”
“People are realizing that drug culture, hippie culture — it’s fine, but it’s not enough. It’s not engaged.”
“With the gritty realities. Politics. There’s the war in Vietnam still, racism, the police attacks on the Black Panthers – all these very horrible things going on. And so, now there’s this coming together.” Alex, stoned out of his mind and suddenly put on the spot, is about to describe his own desire and vision, for a unified political culture — as if it is already the demonstrable, functioning truth. “The trick of psychedelic drugs is that they let you see how beautiful the world is, or can be, and how beautiful you are inside yourself — but all that can get in the way of seeing right in front of you, seeing what else is still there. Especially what’s ugly.”
“Yes, sure, but what is it that’s changing.”
“Well this division between the drug people, the youth culture people, the psychedelic scene, San Francisco, that whole thing the Dead come out of, ‘human be-ins,’ ‘peace and love,’ the amorphous, organic thing represented by this kind of art, on one side.” He does not volunteer that he has never been to San Francisco, or to a human be-in. “And then on the other, the radicals, the politicos, the communists, the revolutionaries, gritty realism — that whole big split is closing up now. They — we’re all coming together. The hippies are getting politics and the politicos are digging the culture. It’s really starting to be something more — enlightened.” He is just rattling on, enjoying the music of his own voice. “But we’re just going to have to make it all up as we go along,” says Alex, who is doing exactly that right this minute.
Jean and I proceeded to have sex – exhaustively satisfying sex, thrashing around on the living room rug to the music of Rare Earth – and I got him to invite me to stay. Hours later, when I was sure he was asleep, I got up as quietly as I could and went into the bathroom – swiping his wallet off the dresser on my way. It contained some cash, his national health card and some others, but nothing with a photo or even a description. The money was tempting but not what I was mainly after, so I put the wallet back where I found it, and rejoined him in bed.
In the morning Jean told me to stay put; he would make coffee. He returned with a tray. Pouring, he mused, as if idly, “Who is more clever, you or I?”
“What do you mean?”
“You took my wallet. But you stole nothing from it. The money is still there.”
“I was going to rip you off,” I half-lied, “but I like you too much. So I didn’t.” I did like him. Also I liked being flattered, and pampered – for my opinion on music, with coffee in bed. I saw Jean a few more times, but soon left Montreal. Years later when I began to write about that time I tried to find him, but without success. Recently I tried again. Thanks to the Internet, it worked.
His name was actually Jean Basile Bezroudnoff – he dropped the last for a pen name. He didn’t just review music for Le Devoir – calling himself “Penelope” – but for years had been editor of its Arts and Letters section. During the Sixties – before Stonewall – he had written a trilogy of novels that included gay characters and themes, among the first in Quebecois literature. Shortly after I knew him, he co-founded a counterculture monthly, Mainmise; it means “stranglehold.” The third issue called for establishing a gay liberation front in Montreal. Jean continued to write novels, essays and plays on queer themes as well as on topics like drug culture, the tarot, tantric sex; he also became a publisher. A gay literary warrior, Jean Basile Bezroudnoff died in 1992, aged 60.
I liked this man. We shared ideas as well as joints and body fluids. There were rough times later when I fantasized returning to him. But I was not then, obsessed as I was with hiding my identity, curious enough to inquire into his. Of course, I was the bold revolutionary, on the run, in hiding – with eyes wide shut – while to me he was merely useful, if nice; a bourgeois with a tasteful apartment and a Pontiac. Now that I’ve found him – found his imprint on the world – the mentor he might have been to me, or the lover, are painful to imagine. So who was more clever, he or I? Even dead, that would still be Jean. And who more revolutionary?