How I came to know her
“Hey, there goes Liza Williams!” a long-haired, Los Angeles street freak shouted from a corner of Ivar one block down from the Legendary Hollywood and Vine.
This was 1969. I had just talked my way out of the United States Army before Uncle Sam could send me to Vietnam.
I was still capable of being star struck.
I turned, glancing desperately around for a glimpse of what I thought was a Hollywood starlet
“Liza Minnelli? Where?” I asked.
“Lisa Williams, not Liza Minnelli, you shit,” the street freak said.
“Who the fuck is Liza Williams?” I asked, annoyed and more than a little embarrassed, new to Los Angeles and its hip ways, and more than a little scared after my scramble from one coast to the other by Trailways with imaginary police pursuing me through every state.
“You don’t know who Liza Williams is?” the freak said, looking me up and down from my military haircut to the military black shoes I still wore.
“No,” I admitted. “Who is she?”
The freak held up a copy of the Los Angeles Free Press, one from a bundle he’d been hawking at the corner where most people were tourists, more interested in getting in an the all you can eat deal at the Sir George’s Smorgasbord than in buying a paper from him or shopping in any of the dozen or more hippie shops that peppered the ten blocks stretch of Hollywood Boulevard from Highland to Vine – this city’s version of the more familiar St. Mark’s Place I knew from back East.
She writes for Freep,” the freak said. “Here, buy one. It’s only a quarter.”
I handed him a coin; he handed me a paper. But I didn’t look at it, but back at the crowd, trying to make out the person the freak had pointed to in the first place.
“Is that her?” I asked and pointed.
“That’s her,” the freak said.
I was stunned. All this excitement was over a thirty-something year old woman, who better resembled a middle class soccer mom from New Jersey than one of the hippest writers of our generation, a short, pudgy woman with short black hair. Sure, she was dressed hip enough – not in that tied-dyed hippie tripe so many wannabe hippies wore – but in a patterned shirt, slacks and sandals. She wore plenty of jewelry.
Years later, I was reminded of Liza every time I listened to Janis Joplin sing. Both seemed to exude an inner beauty that Mother Nature had denied their exterior. Both lived life hard with a determination not to let other people define them.
Hunted by the police for a burglary I had committed back east after my military discharge, I had taken refuge in Hollywood, and over time, I let my hair grow to blend end, and got to know many of the street people who made up “The Boulevard’s” population. I learned who to trust, who not to trust, where to go to buy good drugs, who never to buy drugs or records or pornography from. I learned not to mess with motorcycle gangs and that the local police could be just as dangerous. And I learned that my lifeline to sanity was often found contained in the pagers of Freep, which I picked up as soon as it came out on Thursday and read it from its radical cover to its salacious want ads.
But I always turned to Liza’s column first, perhaps because that first cry of the freak on the street had inspired a loyalty for her that I would only realize many years later when her writing came out in my writing, and it was far too late for me to think her as we had wandered into different realms – to at least I thought so until recently when I discovered that, as in LA, we often walked the same streets, talked to the same people, supported the same issues, but missed seeing each other.
At the time, of course, I had seen her work as somewhat “lightweight,” filled not so much with the stereotypical flower power stuff of so many other writers of that time, but frivolous fluff dealing with everyday life, and only occasionally delving into the heavy social issues of the day such as the war in Vietnam, pollution and police brutality.
But time has proven Liza’s vision more substantial than the so-called heavy writers of that day. Long after the shouted slogans and their echoes of other writers faded, Liza’s words remain, painting a picture of a place and its people better than any portrait she could have painted in those earlier days when she still hoped to make her way in the world as a fine artist.
During the year or so that I lived in Hollywood, I walked the same streets she described, ate many of the same meals she wrote about, even rode the same buses -- seeing fat men, any of whom could have been the same one she wrote about more than once.
Since I was not yet committed to write back then, I was destined for a much humbler role with the Free Press, collecting my bundles of papers each week to hawk on the streets – much in the way 18th Century boys used to back in the Bowery. I came to know intimately a man we called “Free Press Bob,” who ran the Free Press distribution office on Argyle between Hollywood and Sunset. For a time, I even became Bob’s friend, sharing meals of brown rise with him and sharing the pension for collecting music off the airwaves on cassette. While I tended to make collages, he systematically collected songs, labeling them in vast archives he hung in racks on the walls of his two room apartment.
I kept hoping that I might run into Liza at Bob’s office, but if she ever went to the Argyle location, I always missed her, although I thought I saw her once or twice again on the street, and once more in October or November of 1970 on the streets of New York, when I worked there as a messenger. For years, I shrugged this last off as my imagination until I later bought a copy of Up the City of Angels, a collection of Liza’s columns and discovered she had actually been there, covering the premier of Andy Warhol’s film, Trash.
The same age as my mother, Liza had the good or perhaps misfortune of being at the right place at the right time to associate with some of the most significant people of what would later be called “The Beat” and “Woodstock” generations.
While I would later get to meet some of these movers and shakers, this came later after their heyday. While I can brag about fending off the unwanted advances of a drunken Allen Ginsberg at the birthday party held for him in Paterson in the late 1970s and later confronting him in the mid-`980s about his selling out by changing to a major publishing house – the story of which appeared in my own underground newspaper at the time, Liza knew Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs and the other Beats during those days when they were still struggling to leave their mark on the world, and was present for some of the most historic moments of that group’s early history.
While I can boast to have known Abbie Hoffman and some members of the Weather Underground, working at one of Hoffman’s runaway centers in 1967, and later hiding out one of the survivors of the exploded East Village apartment, Liza rubbed shoulders with many of the West Coasts most significant radicals, and indeed, was the daughter of a communist whose job became victim to Senator McCarthy and his un-American hearings in the 1950s.
While I protested against Apartheid in the streets of Newark and other cities in the 1980s, Liza was in the thick of the battle in South Africa in the 1950s and early 1960s, and was even ejected from South Africa after authorities there found bomb-making materials in her car.
While I interviewed some of my rock star heroes, this came years after they had dropped from the covers of rock and roll magazines. I never met any of the Beatles or Stones, and only interviewed one of The Monkees when he came to do an oldies Rock & Roll show in Secaucus, New Jersey, in the late 1990s. Liza not only partied with The Monkees in the Hollywood home of Tommy Smothers, but met some of the most significant stars of that time – members of Crosby, Still, Nash and Young, Phil Oakes, Donovan, and even Janis Joplin – who she did an extensive interview with, was invited and attended the Hollywood premier of The Monkee movie, Head, and even interviewed Frank Zappa.
I came close to meeting Frank Zappa once in the late 1980s after my wife, then a DJ for WBIA, played all of his albums in protest to ongoing record censorship being proposed by Tipper Gore. We were invited to his birthday party, which was later cancelled to his ill health. He died a short time later.
I interviewed Donovan once over the telephone in advance of his appearance at a Festival for Beatles Fans.
Janis, I never met, but I did get to deliver some legal paperwork concerning death that dark Fall in 1970, a two week period that also took the life of Jimi Hendrix.
What makes Liza’s writing about musical stars different from most people of her time is her ability to draw out some aspect of their humanity, often unsuspected in them.
Sometimes, she even got embarrassed by her own gushing as when she met Joni Mitchell for the first time in 1969.
But like me, Liza had regrets, heroes she never got to meet such as Andy Warhol.
Worse, still, sometimes our lives get defined by our worst moments, and unfortunately for Liza, she is best known for becoming the three-month lover of a notorious woman-hating writer named Henry Charles Bukowski, and her real self got lost in the mockery he (as well as others) made of her when he depicted her as the character Dee Dee in his mean-spirited book, Women.
After this brief affair in the early 1970s, Liza seemed lost and eventually wandered back east to rove the streets of the East Village not far from where she’d grown up, sometimes working as a guardian angel for victims of AIDS, sometimes as someone apparently homeless.
I did meet her twice more, once on each coast – once in the main office of Free Press where I actually met her husband, Robert more than once, and again 3,000 miles to the east, at the New York offices of WBAI in 1980, where she and I waited in the reception area for Fred, the receptionist to let us in for broadcasts, she looking older than her rightful age of 52. We briefly spoke about her upbringing before fate took her into some interview, and out of my life. She apparently wandered the streets of the Lower East Side for the next couple of decades – perhaps fading into a limbo after her mother’s death in 1998 – her mother always her source of strength.
Since I wandered some of those same streets during that same period, I might have even passed her without knowing, having no street freak to yell, “Hey, there goes Liza Williams.”
If someone had, I might not even have recognized her anyway. But this time I would have known who she was and how important a role she played in my life and the life of my generation, and I would know just how big a dept I owned her for shaping me as a person, a radical and a writer.
This book is designed to replay that debt, by making it clear that she was much more than Charles Bukowski’s girlfriend.