I come from a long line of people who drank rat poison. They got headaches every time because they thought the skull & crossbones over the instructions was just a cool logo.
Mike Golden [RIP], bless and rest his little heart, was from Tennessee, or I seem to remember him telling me he was. Son of a door-to-door salesman, I think, who he’d sometimes tag along with, selling encyclopedias, maybe vacuum cleaners, nostrums, and doohickeys.
As with most myths, the dates remain fuzzy, allegorical … when was I introduced to Mike Golden by social architect-author Ron Kolm, somewhere in those caving-in-worldview, early-Reagan 80s?
We became close, close enough for him to call me “Bartsie,” but not as close as I imagined close should be. But “Bartsie” sounded so endearing that I felt like its mere utterance created a deeper bond between us.
We three fledgling writers had been denied entry into an increasingly insular and puritanical mainstream and that was heroic. We held court at the legendary, heart-of-Broadway Socialist bar, Tin Pan Alley with Bertolt Brecht and the Butthole Surfers on the jukebox and a gaping hole in its ceiling. Mike knew what to name us – not the Three Stooges but The Unbearable Beatniks of Lite, [aka Unbearables], a writing group that bloated from 3, 6, 12, 20, 30, 50 to ∞ members in a short few years. He wrote our manifesto – we as basic counterfriction to the prevailing chattering classes – which later served as the introduction to our Autonomedia anthology Unbearables. But almost immediately he began distancing himself, disavowing the group, his self-described Frankenstein, as he was ever suspicious of all cultish behavior. Although he always maintained a solid affection for [a certain coterie] of humankind – those friends annointed with the disease of passion.
Mike was more heroic than us in the sense that he had used his advanced talents in chalking up many near misses – film scripts nearly purchased, deals done and gone, collaborations burning in ire, Hollywood agents barking their obscenity-laden repudiations over the phone. Heroic because he remained unreasonably optimistic even while wearing out several noses on the grindstone.
As is protocol in the Big City, we seldom spoke of family and cherry-picked our pasts to ensure hand-tinkered hagiographies of the self. We actually learned very little about what had built us. Many of us like it that way. We can reinvent ourselves, exchange places with our characters, walk right into a camera-ready shot. But sometimes there’s no way round it – we have indeed become precisely who we feared we’d become.
My stories of a difficult family soon sounded very Father Knows Best-ish next to his difficult family stories. “It wouldn’t be a family if it wasn’t difficult,” I seem to remember him saying. Followed by the punchline – always a punchline – “Not that I’m not difficult.” Having chosen a calling – or an affliction having chosen him, as he was wont to emphasize – guaranteed a kind of ostracism steeped in familial incredulity. The life of a writer like Mike Golden seems as natural or inevitable as it does counterintuitive.
In his case, difficult had its charm, its utility as in: oh, but you DO need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Wall Street has to turn into Kent State before things will change – and then that change still can’t be trusted as anything but appeasing propaganda. Control of the money will never be given up, it has to be taken away. Even if it’s worthless.
He was our not-always-reluctant weatherman with a bullshit detector more precisely unsettling than anything endoscopic, barometric, or seismographic. However, forecasting stormy weather and speaking truth to hypocrisy doesn’t get you invited to pool parties – or publication soirees.
Plants convert sunlight into sustenance – it’s called photosynthesis. Mike, meanwhile, converted hypocrisy in all its forms into bold, absurd fictions of higher truths – hypochrosynthesis. The mitigating redemption of Mike was, of course, biting humor, a gnawing, inclusionary sardonics, the softened blow of a double-entendred schtik, sawing your legs off while smirking, riffing, recreating a Mel Brooks gag or … at odd moments of great import, he’d re-create his Tennessee twang, a variant of Burroughs’ Kansas twang, to impart sinister knowledge, to drive home an acerbic critique of our culture gone whacked, usually punctuating it with a slap of some old schtik.
Take his 711-page irreverent, absurdist, pop-lit conspiracy thriller Been to the Mountaintop, Went Over the Edge: Who Killed JFK, MLK & RFK in 2013 that was “on it’s 5th title and 43rd rewrite.” Please. Imagine “Elvis meets a Yogi in the middle of a plot by J. Edgar Hoover to assassinate MLK, as the supposedly dead, but still living, Jack Ruby …”
The conclusion of his compelling, entertaining analyses of how the world is put together: deep collusion by nefarious forces ruling our lives, our [mis]fortunes – fictional fact, factional fiction. But he was no conspiracy nut, although several conspiracies did amplify his worldview.
Picture him, the well-read urban hick, self-named Dr. Dontlittle, on his throne, a wobbly stool, in Rudy’s on 9th Avenue, eternal reasonable bar for people with real faces, hot dogs on a spit twirling, pitchers of whatever beer was cheapest within easy reach, not but a shuffle in comfortable, foot-pain-easing slippers from his home.
Or in one of our other legendary haunts [Shandon Star (RIP), Life Cafe (RIP), Cedar Tavern (RIP)…], nursing a moderately-priced pint, amused by the stir he may have caused with his latest iconoclastic outburst, a grin resonating with a complex symphony of emotions and purpose – frustration, disenchantment, bemusement, ambition, hope, friendship – as we engaged in raucous, beer-soaked, enlightened multitentacled, feverish conversations, eventually solving any number of the world’s problems several times over. Had they only listened to us.
The reason I’m writing it down is to replace memory, babe, and keep my mojo moving.
Mike had patience – period. This proves he was indeed a counterfriction to the dominant ADHD-apping, speed-addicted zeitgeist. He taught me about the relationship between writer, writing “and the tangled umbrella it opens of a time that no longer exists,” the jones, the rhythms that lead to the subject matter.
And he actually read my work – period. His comments full of insight, although his practical strategies were less applicable because in the practical he was less a savant, never his own best agent to slog his fat back catalog of engaged fictions, scripts, start-ups, proposals, etc.
We’d meet up at his place where he’d inevitably be on the phone, hooked on the exhiliration of the near-deal, bickering with agents, producers, co-writers, negotiating, wrangling, riffing, schmoozing, finalizing the shooting of his novel/script starring – was it – Robert Downey Jr., tinkering and toying with a drawer full of projects with disembodied, unrecognizable voices from New York, Hollywood, elsewhere.
Eventually he’d hang up, tell the omigod story of the big fish that got away, sealed with a joke about maybe reconfiguring a bulky novel into a fleet of paper airplanes, and thereafter pay his undivivided attention to our hanging out.
Outside of the process itself, it’s all dust to the wind, whether it breaks through the constipation of the biz or not.
He became an advocate of my work, specifically my novel Beer Mystic. Its beer-enlightened anarchy and “this kind of thick jazz or, in this case, mostly rock-induced language” seemed to speak to him on a higher plane.
He brokered a deal with a new start-up upstart house. We met the well-meaning publisher in the Cedar Tavern, where the three of us signed the contract for publication of Beer Mystic, drinking a hopsy toast to this paradigm-shifting event … 6 months later, the publisher was already belly-up, offed by his own unrealistic ambitions.
Mike wrote a preface and turned to serializing Beer Mystic, one chapter at a time for some 36 months in the online version of Smoke Signals, while noting: “Though I don’t know how it’s done, the object of this site is to turn it into a hip Prairie Home Companion.”
The lasting mental picture I have of him is his grinning face revealing a youthful handsomeness, a stand-up Buddha riffing on black-humorist citations from Catch-22, smirkish, impish glint of eye as if it was all real and unreal at the same time, with his hand not-so-absent-mindedly rubbing his belly of peace in a counter-clockwise manner, imploring: “Beer Mystic is all about the motion of the spiral…” as he contemplated the absurd details of how the everyday overshadowed anything we might invent – Trump trumping even spiral-on-belly Ubu Roi.
He got slowed down by a botched medical procedure in 2009. He wrote: “Joe busted me out of hospital yesterday. But it’s a brave new world until I figure out how to function on this level.” The botching ultimately cost well over $60,000, but he spun it admirably: “It was a nightmare Kesey story. More like The Shining, actually. ‘Luckily’ I’m 65 and on Medicare.” Around that same time friend and Memphis musician, Jim Dickinson, died and he sent me his parting words: “I may be dead, but I’m not gone.”
In Mike’s last 10 years on this cluttered planet, his perambulations shrank down to a few blocks in any direction, no more treks to downtown events, which cut into his daily adventures, but were replaced by a desk-jockey triangulation of phone-internet-screen.
Like a true [transplanted] New Yorker, he’d given up on the give-and-take relationship with NY because NY was now mostly take to his give. It had betrayed him and other New Yorkers who’d pledged their loyalty to it. The NY of hope and imagination [nevermind livability] was rapidly disappearing – like the psychogeographer’s dream – into a fictional shopping plaza.
So we’d hang around his archive-bedroom-office-kitchen with its tower of 100+ take-out trays in the sink in a Grand Canyon formed by his tectonically sensitive bookshelves, ever-shifting, ever-exposing aspects of who he was, as we discussed the the flow and tempo of literature, the latest hypocrisies, conspiracies and hilarities.
After polishing off a 6-pak of too-fancy-for-him beer, we’d saunter gingerly to the elevator so I could treat him at his favorite Asian joint somewhere around 40th and 9th. And, although a chore in those later years, we’d maneuver across this asphalt vortex, through the sirens, hectic woosh of passing cabs, scurrying passersby dragging their rollybags, and notice he was still like that old Greek peripatetic philospher who debated so wonderfully on his feet. We shuffled along, barely making the light, he with his characteristic nihilistic optimism: “I’m just going on to the next unfinished project before it all turns to dust.”
At this forgotten-name restaurant, we’d launch into the conspiracies because they best encapsulated his worldview, especially MLK, who got “whacked” in his Memphis.
“The entire assassination was supposedly filmed from the roof of the rooming house by a Memphis Police Department film crew.” [Silence as the waiter drops by]
He always ordered the same thing and he didn’t even have to order because they already knew. Was this what his heaven had been reduced to? I don’t think so.
Afterwards, on the NW corner of 42nd and 9th, we hugged and bid each other adieu.
“Good to see, Bartsie. Keep on keepin’ on no matter what else goes down. It beats praying. As long as you have your health …”
“… and don’t feel sorry for yourself, you’ll think you’ve got a chance – even if you don’t.”
• Mike Golden: “The Unbearables Get Real,” Thin Ice Press
• Unbearables: “Barely Bearable Unbearables: Chronicle of an Irreverent or Irrelevant Wrtiers Group,” by bart platenga, Angry Old Man.
• Mike Golden: “The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle: The Art and Poetry of d.a. levy.”