Transgressive Hypnotic Redemptive
He would declaim Artaud and Blake.
There were few things Gabriel Bish scorned more than those who adored him.
Art groupies, he called them. “All seeking a little sliver of me—like a relic, a piece of the true cross! ” he declared, after the Berkeley incident “Trying to keep themselves from feeling…what?…empty, dull, whatever it is they want to escape. Via me. Little pieces of me.”
Deriding them, however, did not stop him from avidly collecting them. At every college symposium, theater conference, or performance festival he visited, he would hold court. He would sit on the stage, or in the center of the room. He would declaim Artaud and Blake. He would spin out the endlessly in-progress scenario for his masterpiece, The Buddha Train, waving hands like an orchestra conductor; he would question the assembled students and hangers-on, as if for a profile he was writing. By the end of the evening at least one or two had been added to the collection.
This was, of course, how I had been added to the collection—a chance encounter, a performance in Albany, both his and my hometown. “But you’re not like them, Neddo,” Gabriel often assured me. “You understand. You see. The others just want want want.”
What did they want? To sleep with him, or to give him their manuscripts to read, their hearts to toss away, to gulp down a little of his essence, snatch a few sparks from his electric energy. Usually, they would disappear after they succeeded (or did not succeed) in obtaining what they wanted. But a few stuck around or snuck back eventually, becoming permanent members of The Buddha Train entourage.
And now and then, someone utterly unlikely would also be swept up into his coterie, someone who did not seem to want anything, someone who was merely riveted by the force field that he was back then. Like Cheops Liptoffen.
Liptoffen must have been about 60 at the time Gabriel acquired him, though he looked a good 20 years younger, small and wiry, built like the acrobat he had been in childhood (his family had been British Music Hall folk). In 1979, he was the acting chair of the new Performance Studies program at UC Berkeley, and the acclaimed author of Theater of Fools (Dolorous Press, 1978), a biting harangue about the follies of modern American theater.
“What do you think of this, Neddo?” Gabriel trumpeted into my dorm room phone. I had not heard from him in several weeks, did not even know where he was. “Most theater makes us feel cold when it should set us on fire. Only a few angels of performance can haunt our dreams. Such a one is Gabriel Bish, whose magnificent work-in-progress The Buddha Train may yet engulf American Theater in the flame of true experience.”
It was early March. I was trying to study for a chem quiz but found myself (as I did many nights) day-dreaming about my erstwhile girlfriend Elizabeth, wondering when she would visit again, wondering when our fumbling sex life would begin to live up to its exquisite promise.
“I’m an angel, did you know that, Neddo? This guy has the makings of my greatest groupie, wouldn’t you say? I’m at JFK right now, on my way out to Cal. This Liptoffen has me booked for five workshops. When is your spring break, Neddo? Need you to come out, be my sidekick again, help make the work run more smoothly.”
I hedged, said I might come if he really wanted me to come—in truth, I would have gone anywhere he asked at that time—but after a moment of rambling maybes, I realized he had already hung up. This was typical of Gabriel, who never said either hello or goodbye, as if conversation with him was forever ongoing.
I immediately called Elizabeth, always adept at persuading me to do what I already wanted to do. But the Laughlin’s line was busy busy busy. When I finally did get through, the phone rang and rang, and no one answered. I imagined the whole hard-drinking clan lying on their manicured lawn in a stupor. A few days later, her mother brusquely informed me that Elizabeth had once again dropped out of school, that no one knew where she was, that she blamed me for this. You and that con man Bish, she added.
I hoped Elizabeth would show up at Morningside Heights, as she occasionally had during the past year, but she did not. Where she went when she vanished from Albany (at least 7 times between 1977 and 1980) was one of the many subjects we did not discuss.
A few days later, I received an American Airlines ticket to San Francisco, with the words, Need You Now Neddo scribbled across the front of the envelope. I packed an overnight bag with books and shaving stuff and shirts and underwear, and headed to the airport.
Why did I go?
My pre-med courses filled me with nothing but a sense of unease, like I was wearing clothes that did not quite fit me. I did well in my classes. I always did well in everything I didn’t care about. But I only felt that thump thump of the excited heart when I saw Elizabeth, or when I hung out with Gabriel.
I did not really know why. I did not really care.
Gabriel was staying at the Berkeley Faculty Club, a strange, white, vaguely Greek building, way up in the green hills, above the campus. The white-jacketed attendant who showed me to Gabriel’s room gave me a look of mild distaste, as if silently saying, Another one?
The thick wooden door was cracked open and the cedar-paneled room resembled a slightly upscale dormitory. It was so full of Gabriel’s typical detritus (books, notebooks, sketch pads, empty glasses, empty bottles, both men and women’s clothes flung everywhere) that at first I was not sure if anyone was actually there.
“Neddo!” he shouted. He sprang up from beneath a pile of jeans and skirts on one of the beds. He looked, as he usually did, as if he had not remembered to shave or comb his mass of black curls for several days. “Where have you been? Workshop started an hour ago, for God’s sake!”
The studio theater was in the back of the Dwinelle Annex, an old wooden building, which looked as if it had been erected temporarily many years before, and then forgotten. About 15 young men and women—it was always mostly women—were lying on the floor, some in yoga positions, some splayed out as if they were being drawn and quartered, chanting, vocalizing, singing. An older man, with immaculately close-cropped hair and wire-rimmed glasses, was sitting in a director’s chair, sipping from a tall glass of what smelled like gin. He sprang up, saluted Gabriel, grabbed my arm.
“You must be Neddy,” he said. “Liptoffen. Heard so much about you from this man and…others.”
“Ned,” I managed. “He calls me Neddo, I have no idea why.”
“Because he does as he pleases, isn’t that it?” He laughed. “And I do so enjoy his performance. When he actually shows up, hmmm? One is rarely bored by this man, eh, Neddy? Rather like watching a tiger, you know he can be dangerous, you know he could claw you apart, yet he’s entrancing to watch, pacing about, roaring. Yes. Well, children, the maestro is here, do let’s get started.”
Gabriel tossed a paper bag to me; inside were 20 digital thermometers. He sat down in the director’s chair that Liptoffen had abandoned. After a moment, he glanced over at me, shrugged.
He used to say that I knew what he wanted me to do before he knew it himself but that day—jetlag, sensory overload—I had no idea. “Give those out to the kiddies, Neddo. The prologue…”
For the past few months, he had been working and re-working the opening images of his theater epic, The Buddha Train. Sometimes, this prologue centered on a tableau of temptations—sensual cravings which would all be carted off when the Buddha Train arrived. Other times, he demanded slow motion versions of mundane activities. Earlier in the week, I heard, he had commanded the performers to sit at a kitchen table and eat a small bowl of cereal for two hours
“The fever,” he began. “Let me see it. Show it to me.” He was not looking at anyone, he was staring up at the ancient beams of the wooden ceiling but all the other eyes in the room were on him. “The fever of this world, the illness of everyday life, the sickness, the sickness, that’s what we’re after today. Get out there on the stage. Suffer for me. What does Artaud say? We must be as victims burning at the stake, signaling to each other through the flames… You ache, my friends, you are burning up, you are shaking, cold then hot, pain, pain. So, signal to me, my friends, do it!”
With that, the ragtag ensemble spread out all across the stage, sweating and shivering like some band of flu patients. “Now!” he shouted, after this went on for a very long time. “Now, insert those thermometers into your sick little mouths, writhe, good, listen…” Suddenly, across the stage came a wave of digital sound…dididit dididit dididit. “There,” he said. “That’s it, that’s what I was looking for, the sound of our sick souls…”
“Lovely!” Liptoffen murmured.
“Get me a drink, would you, Neddo? This sick soul is thirsty.”
After a workshop, Gabriel always answered questions. Often, they were the same questions (How long have you been working on this piece? Is it true that all your ideas come from dreams? Are you a Buddhist?) but his responses were almost never the same, so it was hard to tell which of the answers was actually true.
“Why a train?” asked the doe-eyed girl in the clingy blue dress, who had been unable to lift her gaze from Gabriel for the past several hours. “What’s your connection to trains?”
Gabriel smiled, as if he had never been asked this question. He had an electrifying smile, as narcissists so often do. “My father. Loved model trains. Had a whole electric train set down in the basement. Little shops, little people, little trees. The train circling through them, over and over, to nowhere. Hated the trains myself, couldn’t stand it when he went down there, stayed down there, away from me. Crept down the stairs once, there he was wearing a railroad conductor’s hat, watching the trains snake through the little town, Round and round, he whispered, See it all go round and round. So now, sometimes when I’m working on this piece, I see his face, I hear myself whisper just like him, round and round, see it all go round and round.”
Everyone was staring at him, entranced. The girl in the blue dress had tears in her eyes and she was running her tongue across her lips in an absent, indiscreet way.
“He is a very skillful con man, is he not?” Liptoffen whispered in my ear.
After the workshop, Gabriel vanished, as did the girl in the blue dress. All I really wanted to do was find a soft pile of something in Gabriel’s room and sleep, but instead Liptoffen dragged me to an Ethiopian restaurant on Telegraph Avenue, where we drank mead from silvery goblets and ate what appeared to be fiery dog food, so spicy it burned my lips.
Like Gabriel, Liptoffen’s conversation took the form of a monologue occasionally punctuated by rhetorical questions.
“There are so few out there whose work thrills me like your friend’s.” I watched as he gulped down glass after glass of the sickly sweet wine. I tried to keep up but found my head swimming, words and movements slowing down. “Formless form,” he intoned. “Shadow and substance…the lie which shows us the truth…transgressive hypnotic redemptive…”
At one point, he stopped, looked at me quizzically, as if only just noticing I was there. “But I hear you are not truly part of that world,” he said. “Can this be true? That you will be a doctor? Your…your girlfriend said so.”
“E…Elizabeth?” I stammered. “She was…here?”
“Yes, yes, charming and so devoted to our Gabriel, so devoted…like you really.”
“Yes. Like me.”
I may have drunk too much of the mead; I recall weaving through the fog and drizzle on Telegraph, dodging an angry brigade of motorized wheelchairs. Somehow, I ended up by myself in Cody’s Bookstore, thumbing through a copy of Theater of Fools, looking for references to Gabriel (there were three).
“Thank God, Neddo,” Gabriel said, bounding up the circular stairway. “Afraid I’d misplaced you somewhere. Come on, come on, we need to sketch out the last workshop. I’ve been thinking we could have them simulate fucking…that might be useful…did you ever see that Antonioni film, Zabriskie Point, where all the people are fucking in Death Valley? Awful film but that scene…like something out of Bosch…eerie…The Buddha Train could use a little of that energy…”
As we lurched out of Cody’s onto Telegraph, I stopped. “Was Elizabeth…?” I stammered. He stopped. “Was she…here?”
He leaned toward me, gestured, “Jesus, Neddo, look…”
And as he said it, I saw the girl in the blue dress, swaying on the sidewalk outside the store. She had something in her hand, something small, gleaming, a pen knife, and suddenly it was raised above Gabriel’s neck, she was plunging it toward his throat. I lifted my hand to stop her but I was drunk, distracted, I stumbled forward, fell against her. The knife flew into the street; she dropped to the sidewalk, weeping.
Liptoffen materialized in Cody’s doorway. He bent down toward her, reached out his hand. “Now, now,” he clucked, “it will be all right, Elaine, it will be all right…”
She stood up, shakily. She turned toward Gabriel. “Liar!” she hissed, then ran off toward the campus. Gabriel’s face was utterly blank, like he could not quite conjure up the appropriate emotion. I had never seen that look on his face.
“Gabriel, Gabriel, Gabriel,” Liptoffen sighed. “When you tell people to be as victims signaling through the flames, sometimes, my boy, sometimes they’re going to believe you.”
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