High Times Greats: Samuel R. Delany

Sex, drugs, and folk ‘n’ roll from the early ’60s. From the journals of a cult science-fiction favorite.
High Times Greats: Samuel R. Delany
Photo of Samuel R. Delany by Robert Morales.

Celebrated author Samuel R. Delany turns 79 on April 1. With this in mind, we’re republishing the following piece from his book, The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science-Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965, originally excerpted in the June, 1988 print issue of High Times.

Even within the weirdness-strained confines of the science-fiction subcontinent, Samuel Delany is an anomaly. I mean, how else would you characterize a middle-class private-schooled black dyslexic homosexual single-father and unabashed intellectual who happily writes visionary fiction for a market generally perceived to be populated exclusively by daydreaming arrested adolescents? Certainly not just one of the boys, eh? Delany’s been an alien among aliens since 1962, when he published his first novel. The Jewels of Aptor, at the tender age of 20. Since then he’s turned out a steady stream of startlingly imaginative works—novels like 1966’s Babel-17 (which posited language as a socio-military weapon), 1968’s Nova (a mind-twisting, tour-de-force space opera that many consider to be the cyberpunk prototype), 1975’s Dhalgren (a huge, densely-textured work that has inexplicably sold like a motherfucker, shattering conventional publishing wisdom that “difficult” books don’t sell), 1984’s Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (the first part of a science-fiction diptych), and the four-volume “Neveryon” fantasy series, which Delany describes as “a kind of ‘child’s garden of semiotics’—sword and sorcery with an interesting philosophical overload.” The most recent entry in this AIDS-subtexted mega-work is The Bridge of Lost Desire, published in hardcover last fall by Arbor House. Delany has also written some of the sharpest, most carefully thought-out criticism of science fiction and the specialized language it employs (most recently compiled in The Straits of Messina).

The following piece is an excerpt from the recently published non-fiction work, The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science-Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965, compiled from Delany’s prodigious journals of the time. The guy’s prolific on top of being brilliant. Doncha just hate ‘im?

(Clarifying note: The Marilyn referred to in the story is De-lany’s ex-wife, National Book Award-winning poet Marilyn Hacker.)
—Lou Stathis

Across from the trucks at the Christopher Street Pier, earlier that summer, a bar changed owners—though the old name; yes, Dirty Dick’s—persisted. The new owner was a brassy, gregarious woman in her early thirties who went by the name of Pat and who, several operations ago, rumor was, had been a man.

The new clientele was largely gay.

Now Marilyn and I went over one night. Catering to the late-teenaged dikes who would be sitting on the church steps as far east as Sixth Avenue, to colorful bevies of Puerto Rican drag queens, to a whole range of truck drivers from the yards around, to various guys who would have liked to have been mistaken for drivers, and to the odd tailored uptown businesswoman, the place was a kind of a haven—even more so for Marilyn than for me.

The bar was oval. There was a dance floor in the back. The story was that the straights stood on one side while the gays cruised the other, with everyone coming together to dance to the music. But such a cut-and-dried scheme hardly ever pertained in the place. It only suggested a categorization that reassured the newcomer—if he or she needed reassurance. The jukebox hit that season was “Walk Like a Man,” which produced a galaxy of parochial parodies on the dance floor from both the men and the women there.

Some folks we met there were people we already knew, like Carol, who, with her boy-short hair (in that time when women’s hair was always long and men’s always short), dressed in slacks and men’s shirts, and had managed the Elysee before Bill and Terry; before Marilyn had gone to Mexico, she’d booked in one of my ersatz folksinging groups, either some transient resurrection of the Harbor Singers, or the duo I’d briefly formed with a motorcycle-riding young husband from the Bronx (who was studying creative writing with Margarite Young, when he was not working or rehearsing with me) under the name of Waldo and Oversoul. On our first night together there, she stood us for drinks and introduced us both to half a dozen other friends.

When, at irregular intervals, a policeman stopped by to check the place out, a light would come on over the jukebox, the dancing couples—mostly male and male—would part, drift back to the walls, and take up their drinks. (Remember, it was five years to Stonewall.) The cop would joke with the bartender, maybe flirt with one of the queens, cast a contemptuous look toward another, then leave. The light would go off. The jukebox would come on. And the dancing would begin—for which Pat, or her backers, paid an outrageous protection.

One of Marilyn’s old boyfriends, a Puerto Rican graduate student at NYU, some years my senior, named Rick, dropped by with a wedding present for me: half a dozen dried peyote buttons. “You should try it, Chip. I really think you in particular would get something out of these. You’re an interesting kid.” I put them, in their small brown paper bag, in a glass dish at the side of one of the kitchen shelves, where they remained, untouched, more than a year.

“Those dried peyote buttons you have up in that paper bag in the corner of the kitchen cabinet…?” Sue said, one day.

“Yeah?” I said. “What about them?”

“Take them,” she said. “It breaks my heart to see them just sitting there, day after day.”

“What’ll happen if I do?” I asked. Sue had introduced pot into the house and was our resident expert on all matters concerning drugs, though much of her information came, I suspect, from a small volume that served a number of sixties types as a bible, Drugs and the Mind. “It’s similar to mescaline,” she explained. (I’d read Henri Michaux’s Miserable Miracle, the French poet’s account of his hallucinogenic experiments, some years ago.) “It tastes awful. I’ve had some very nice trips on it myself. You’ll have to take it real fast and wash it down with beer or something, and you might get an upset stomach anyway. But you’ll probably have some real hallucinations.”

“After all this time,” I asked, “you think they’re still good?”

“Very,” she said.

“What kind of hallucinations?”

“Well,” she explained, “you can be walking down the street and you might see an old tennis sneaker lying there—only, suddenly, it becomes a wholly cosmic tennis sneaker, vibrating and pulsing with truly universal significance…”

“Tennis sneaker?” I said. “World in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour—that sort of stuff?”

“You try it. Just get a bottle of beer, like I say. The beer will relax you too, so that the peyote proper comes on easier.”

That evening, toward sunset, I cut the hard brown buttons with their bitter, inner tufts into small pieces; for a moment I wondered if Rick’s “wedding present” might have been laced with cyanide. Then I swallowed them down with most of a quart bottle of beer. I told Marilyn not to get worried if I were gone for the night. She might catch me over at the bar later.

Then I went out for a walk.

There were no cosmic tennis sneakers, but the sun, lying late on the city, had a liquid solidity in its slant beam across the tenements’ crenellations that was different and pleasant. A little after blue smudged away the day’s terminal salmon and gold, I watched a glimmering scarlet fire engine, highlit with the streetlights’ change from red to green, screeching north on Hudson Street, become a galumphing dragon—though what was far more significant than the banal metamorphosis was that it was the saddest dragon in the world; and when she had passed, her wailing done, and the siren had reasserted itself on the autumn night, my lips were open, my breath was a quiet roar in my mouth’s cave, and the tears rolled down my cheeks.

At Dirty Dick’s I met Marilyn. She grinned at me. “How are you doing?”

“Fine.”

“You look like you’re having a wonderful time!”

I tried to smile benignly.

Later, the light came on above the jukebox. The policeman came in. The dancers drifted back against the wall. Then, the empty dance floor itself split in two. The halves rolled asunder, and, from the revealed darkness, an immense turtle, big as a double bed, crawled up from the fundament of the world, waddled down the aisle beside the bar stools, to the door, and—after the policeman—went out. Then the floor rolled together once more.

The jukebox resumed; and with infinite cool, the dancers moved out over the resealed boards to begin their gyrations, not deigning to comment on the depths I knew their steps now rhythmically covered.

The next morning I awoke in bed with a little redheaded fellow—we were in his apartment somewhere in New Rochelle, he told me. My memory is only of the night’s intense, almost Herculean sex. But all that morning, as he made me coffee, as we showered together, as he gave me the money to take the train back down to the city, he kept telling me, “You were describing the strangest things last night—when we were coming up here, I mean. You were really saying some weird stuff. Man, that was some of the strangest stuff I’d ever heard about. I didn’t understand most of it. But it sounded so…” (It was not getting high that was the sixties; rather it was this kind of reaction to it.) Fortunately—for you, for me—I don’t remember any of what I’d said.

I’d given Terry one of my six author’s copies of The Jewels of Aptor when it first appeared. (My mother got another. And the other four…?) Now I gave her a copy of Captives of the Flame. The next Wednesday evening I walked, with Marilyn, across Fourth Street to the narrow coffee shop on Third between Macdougal and Sixth Avenue, the Cafe Elysee, that Bill and Terry were now managing. We passed the Night Owl on the far corner, and started down the block. “What’s that?” I asked Marilyn.

She laughed. “I think Terry must have decided to do some advertising.”

On a four-foot black placard, set in front of the cafe and turned to face any tourists wandering from Macdougal, were attached Terry’s copies of The Jewels of Aptor and Captives of the Flame. Lettered above them in white was:

SINGING TONIGHT!
THE AUTHOR OF

followed by the two books, fixed to the plaque, with curly white lines around them, AND printed neatly between. Lettered below, boldly in white, was:

SAMUEL R. DELANY!

It all looked very incongruous—if not mindless. But as we stepped inside the narrow space, where the candles on the small tables had not yet been lit, Terry said, “Don’t say it. I know—but we have to make do with what we got. I figured it was just weird enough that it might get a couple of people to come inside.”

“It’s your place,” I said, and put my guitar down.

Billy was sitting at one table, laboriously writing something out with a ball-point on a folded piece of paper. When I glanced over his shoulder, he looked up. “A guy called Bob Dylan was in here earlier; he wanted to know if he could sing tonight. Since we don’t have someone for a second set, I said sure.” Billy got up and I went with him outside, while he squatted in front of the placard and, with two bits of Scotch tape, below my grandly lettered name, added the piece of paper on which, from maybe three feet away, you could just make out:

AND BOB DYLAN

I’d actually seen Dylan perform once in a small, group concert up at Riverside Church at which my friend Ana had also sung. His harmonica and guitar performance had been charming, energetic, and wholly and classically traditional. And among the audience of forty-five or fifty people that had turned out for the tiny auditorium space that held, perhaps, seventy-five, there were clearly about ten or twelve who were particularly enthusiastic about him, and had come specifically to hear him—among the dozen-odd performers that afternoon—and for whom he was clearly playing.

Billy and I went back inside. Billy stepped up to the performance area, with its single chair in the skew spotlight, and tapped the mike. There was a slight booming outside above the door, where the speaker projected the sound into the street to attract the warm-weather tourists.

When there were any.

As of yet there were no customers.

“You can go on and do a set, just to put some sounds in the street,” Billy said. “Don’t kill yourself. I just like to hear you play.”

“All right,” I said. “Lemme just get a glass of water,” and I stepped in back of the counter, at the small sink filled a cylindrical glass with water, handed it to Marilyn, expecting her to drink and hand it back to me so that I could take a drink. But instead, she just held it.

So I started to get another glass for myself.

Just then the door flew open, and a breathless young man, in a denim jacket and on the fleshy side, rushed in with his guitar case, plopped himself down in the performance chair, bent to open the case, and pulled out his guitar. Pushing on a couple of steel finger picks, he plucked two, five, half a dozen notes—

“Hey,” Billy said, “wait up there—”

I’d recognized the midwestern youth from the Riverside concert as Dylan.

“Now look,” Billy said, “I told you you could sing, but we got another performer who’s supposed to go on first.”

Dylan shook his head, stood up, and said something I couldn’t hear.

Terry stepped up beside Marilyn and me.

What altercation over later hours, further appointments that had to be kept, or requests for schedule changes went down I don’t know, because just then a passing fire engine set off a yowl of feedback in the microphone. Billy silenced it with a cupped palm.

Dylan picked up his guitar and, a moment later, they were again talking by the door.

“… well, then, don’t come back!” Billy said, at last, a little loudly, a little flustered.

And with his case, Dylan rushed out the door as breathlessly as he’d come in.

Shaking his head, Billy put his hands on his hips, looked at us, and really said, “Bob Dylan! Who does he think he is…?

Then he went outside, squatted before the placard. Through the glass door, I saw him tear off the taped-up paper strip.

In that age when popular music did not speak for its young people, folk music occupied a position hard to explain today. The people who went out into the mountains and forests of America (or, indeed, any other country) to collect it were scientists—anthropologists. The people who learned it and sang it, as close as possible to the traditional manner in which it had been sung by the people who made it up, were dedicated artists. (And the possibility that I might spend my life as a fine folk musician, performing in folk clubs, giving concerts, and making albums, was as exciting to me as the possibility of being a great writer or a physicist.) At the same time, you could write your own—about anything you wanted.

Two years later Dylan was to make a revolutionary crossover, when he decided that the American youngsters who bought millions of pop music records a month were just as much “folk” as the banjo-twanging miners of Appalachia, and electrified his music, not in an exploitative gesture to make folk music acceptable in suburbia (that had been done many times before), but rather to create a music that spoke for people who simply had been allowed no voice till now by a culture engine that drummed only banal love lyrics into the ear twenty-four hours a day. The result was that American music—folk and pop—would never be the same.

But the idea that the author of The Jewels of Aptor and Captives of the Flame once, as a singer, had his name in substantially larger letters above Bob Dylan’s—even for five minutes—has always made me smile.

I woke to sirens, rolled in the sweaty sheets of the persistent Indian summer—I remembered no scheduled test. Just then, outside the apartment, a jet snarled somewhere on the sky. Could that be the plane with the bomb, I thought, idly. Lying there, I got chills—and immediately tried to reason them away. This was the sort of coincidence, I thought (blinking at the dull window), that can ruin a good day.

Then the window filled with yellow light.

I leaped from the bed, taking the sheets with me. My throat cramped, my heart exploded in my chest, while I watched gold fire spill window to window down the tenement across the street.

The fireball!

The thought quivered beyond the pain in my body that, in each of its parts had gone, individually, into terror. The light’s here now, I thought. The shock and sound will arrive in four seconds, five seconds, and I will be dead…

Four seconds, five seconds, seven seconds, ten seconds later, I was still standing there, trying to think of some place to hide.

The clouds, in coincidence compounded, had simply pulled away from the sun. The plane was gone. The little electric clock on the bookshelf said noon. The siren—which, of course, went off at that time every day—lowered its pitch, softened its whine, and ceased.

That was the month, of course, of the Cuban missile crisis. Over the days of the event, newspaper and radio—we had no television—were filled with nothing else. History has remembered the event as one of Kennedy’s successes that somehow compensated for the embarrassment of the previous year’s Bay of Pigs invasion. But what the American public lived through was an anxious week when, yet again, World War III seemed momentarily imminent.

On the day of the special U.N. session, Marilyn and I were visiting at my mother’s where, indeed, we watched the special session, running on all channels, with most of New York City, with most of the country.

At the U.N., the United States would speak. Russia would speak. And Cuba—the country at the center of the dispute—would speak. All the major TV channels were covering the sunny afternoon’s proceedings at the same time—as, indeed, were most radio stations. Perhaps because we owned no television ourselves, when Marilyn and I came into my mother’s apartment to hear the coverage we turned on the radio out of habit.

A small educational station, Riverside Radio, was giving its report on the all-day goings-on at the United Nations.

“You know it’s on television too,” my mother said; so I turned on the TV in the corner. The sound coming from the radio and the TV speakers—the opening remarks by the Secretary General—was identical, so there was no reason to turn the radio off.

We settled down on the couch to watch and listen.

The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. made his statement. At the end there was a shuffling of papers; a few people coughed.

CBS switched, after a few moments, to a news analyst, who gave a minute or two of commentary on the U.S. statement, while on the radio behind us, the noise of coughing and shuffling continued in the Security Council Hall, until the Secretary General stepped to the podium to introduce Ambassador Valerian Zorin from the U.S.S.R.—and once more the sound from the TV speaker and the radio speaker became congruent.

The Soviet ambassador made his statement. The translator’s words came over the Russian, like a vague ghost, leading to the halting English version, through both the speaker behind us and speaker before us. The statement was greeted with a similar silence, similar shufflings, similar coughs. Once more CBS cut to a news analyst; and once more the radio simply overlaid it with shufflings and coughings and the sounds from any large meeting hall between activities. (On the radio, now, an announcer’s voice, with the timbre of adolescence, came on to identify the station, once more, as Riverside Radio.) When the Secretary General resumed the podium, a minute later, again the speakers’ sound became one. The Cuban ambassador was introduced. In Spanish, he began to talk.

In English, the translator followed him. There was a very different feel to the Cuban’s speech. It seemed far less peremptory. He spoke of U.S. atrocities committed regularly against his country. He spoke of his country’s unsettled position, geographically close to one great power, ideologically closer to a more distant one, and the huge experience of risk this created across his island. He spoke of the pain and death of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, to which the recent buildup of Soviet missiles in Cuba was (partially) a response.

The body of his speech over, he leaned back from the podium to take a breath—

And something happened I’ll never forget.

CBS, the major television channel on which we were watching the U.N. coverage, again cut to a live news analyst, who began to explain that the Cuban ambassador had just said more or less what was to be expected, full of emotion, but without content.

Meanwhile, on Riverside Radio, the ambassador, after his breath, clearly had leaned forward again, to continue speaking. The translator ended his pause and continued translating. The actual speech came to a close perhaps half a dozen sentences on. Beyond what the TV audience heard, it ran on another—oh, a minute and a half—possibly two. Confused, though, I’d already gotten up and begun switching TV channels, to see if any of the TV stations were staying with the U.N.—as the FM radio behind me was. On channel after channel I stared at, and listened to, the same analyst, talking calmly, as if, indeed, the Cuban ambassador’s speech had reached its conclusion just like the other two. All the networks shared the same picture.

Behind me, on the radio, the Cuban’s speech actually ended—and I heard a sound.

It was applause—the applause of the Security Council and the whole audience. Neither of the two other ambassadors had received any such ovation. It was applause that rose, over the first two or three seconds, to a volume to equal that of the traffic on the industrial avenues in the city just before noon. The applause came on and on. There were shouts of approbation in it. I have been in theaters and know the difference between the sound of an ordinary ovation and the sound of a standing ovation. And I will tell you, though I did not see it, in the Security Council of the United Nations, as they applauded, people stood.

On TV, on all channels available, the analyst went on (do I add, in memory, a vague sense of flusteredness to his words, as if he had not been prepared to start as early as he had, and had been still making notes, considering what he was to say, when he’d been directed to go on—now?); but what had happened was that someone, sensing what the reaction to the speech would be, had decided that the American people should not see the Security Council audience go wild with support for Cuba, and so had made a decision, given a direction, and the Cuban ambassador’s speech had been truncated before its end and the analyst had been purposely brought in to obliterate both the ending to the speech and the overwhelming reaction to it among the delegates from the rest of the world.

I suspect whoever did this still thinks of himself as a hero.

I suspect many who saw it or abetted it finally convinced themselves that it was, at best, an unimportant snafu, since the major information had, in fact, been given.

I suspect if it was ever questioned, excuses of time and programming were given, and, however absurd the excuses sounded, heads were shaken and the thing was more or less internalized, repressed, and forgotten.

But it remains one of the most direct and terrifying manipulations of the media I have ever seen.

© Samuel R. Delany

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