Bill Levy died the other day. April 22, to be exact. I’m pretty sure no one who reads this column ever knew him much less heard of him. Maybe I do you a disservice.
Bill was 79 when he died in the Netherlands — in Amsterdam to be more exact, a place where he lived, except for rare occasions after he left the United States for good in 1966. He was an editor, a writer, a publisher, a disc jockey. He was at the forefront of the sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll revolution when he left America and remained so until he died. If you’re of a mind to do so, you can look him up in Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Levy_(author).
We were roommates for a year while I was at the University of Maryland before I left after the 1959 fall semester. I never saw or talked to him after I left until we started exchanging very occasional emails 50 years later. And yet I still considered him to be a friend.
Bill played an important role in my life. It was Bill who introduced me to the world of the Beats. He insisted that we and another of our friends, Marty Miller, go to a reading given in Baltimore by Alan Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso. I had never heard of them, but I still clearly remember hearing “Howl” for the first time that night even if the rest of the evening has largely been forgotten. He introduced me to James Baldwin. Yesterday, when a friend called me and said he was reading Charles Olson’s poetry and asked if I’d ever heard of him, I could honestly say, “Yes,” and of the Black Mountain Press and Black Mountain College as well. That was because of Bill. And if I read Alexander Trocchi, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet and Albert Camus, not to mention Antonin Artaud and his “Theater of Cruelty,” that was because of Bill, too. Without ever seeing him, he has remained a part of my life.
The last time we exchanged emails was in February when our mutual friend, Marty Miller, now a Professor of History at Duke, sent us a picture he found. It was of a group of students that included Bill and me and the rest of the staff of the Maryland literary magazine, Old Line. We were gathered around a fire. Marty wanted to know what we were doing. Were we burning books? Marshmallows? Neither Bill nor I had any idea, but there we were, clear as day.
I may not remember much about the magazine, but I do remember the story I wrote for it, “Doors Only Open to Let You In.” A mediocre story, I think, but I’m not always the best judge of my work (don’t tell anyone I said that). Then, as now, I write better(?), more easily(?) if there is some sound behind me. In those long-ago days, it was Dodger baseball night games after they had recently deserted Brooklyn for LA. Today, as I’m writing this I’m listening to a collection of Simon & Garfunkel songs and I smile. Paul wrote, “I’m not the kind of man who tends to socialize/I seem to lean on old familiar ways.” That, at least, seems like me. Unlike Paul, I’m still a “fool for love songs that whisper in my ear.”
There we are, the three of us, at one time the closest of friends, even if for the briefest of times, who took very different paths to find our lives. Marty became an academic, a tenured Professor of History specializing in Russia. Bill became a provocateur, an agitator, a polemicist, a social revolutionary who felt he had to abandon America, if not the adored do-wop songs of his teenage years, in order to live an authentic life. I, on the other hand, stayed home in very profound ways. I became a TV news producer, primarily a creator of feature stories, of “think” pieces, someone who spent almost an entire career looking for America, in the words of another Paul Simon song. Three wildly different paths and yet I think we would all agree that we are/were inextricably linked together, influenced by one another.
Perhaps that’s the way we all are, every person we meet leaves bits and pieces, large or small, with us, as a part of us. I know it feels that way to me. I think of Katie Lee, a one-time well-known folk singer. She was popular during the time when folk music was very politicized. When the leftists of the folk music world and the hyper anti-Communist politicians in America refused to allow anyone in those worlds not to choose sides, Katie chose not to do so and so alienated both. Or Charles Edmunds, an uneducated worker in the dying Kansas City stockyards, who felt meaningfully connected to its history, to the history of the west, as a result of his long tenure. Or Jeff Cooper, much beloved by 2nd Amendment absolutists, who was charismatic, intense, charming, loquacious and racist all in one package. Or Onion Horton, who railed against racism while a columnist in East St. Louis. Or Frank Herbert, the writer of one of the greatest American science fiction novels, Dune, who taught me that power attracts the corruptible. Or the legendary New Orleans pianist, Professor Longhair, who was (literally) lost but was (literally) found again. Or Ron Whyte, a playwright, from whom I learned that courage and talent could come in many forms, even disagreeable ones. Or, even my boss, Robert MacNeil, who taught me what journalism was/should be by his example, if nothing else. All these people and more, many more, remain bound to me.
I think of them all, all the people I’ve met through my work and my life, of Marty and Bill and even Paul Simon. We may or may not be crazy, but we are, all of us, still connected after all these years.
And, no, I never did find America, but I’m still looking.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.