From a fifties-era Pan Am ad.
There was a time when I didn’t know Gordon Bishop, but that time’s not worth talking about.
I met Gordon in his shop, Tropics, sometime in the early eighties. I’d been walking through Soho and noticed a store I hadn’t seen before. Inside was a jumble of Javanese antiques—carved doors; four-poster beds; objects that seemed decorative, ceremonial, and incomprehensible—along with fabrics and wall hangings and kites and sculptures. It looked like Santa’s workshop, if Santa had a penchant for priapic statues of half-dressed men with enormous erections and wicked smiles.
No one seemed to be working there, but I heard flute and gamelan music coming from the back room. There was a curtain separating me from the music, along with the sort of velvet rope commonly seen in discos, and a hand-painted sign fixed to the rope: DO NOT ENTER.
I climbed over the rope and peered through the curtain. There was a large, rumpled man sitting on a swivel chair, smoking a clove cigarette. He had dark curly hair and a dark beard, but no moustache, making him look a bit like a sleepy pirate. I leaned against the wall. He nodded to the sounds coming from a tape player.
“This music … ” I said.
“From Sunda,” he nodded.
“It reminds me of Astral Weeks.”
“Why wouldn’t it?” he asked.
That seemed to put an end to the conversation. He drifted off into a daydream.
Soon after, we were drinking tea and he was showing me pictures of himself walking in a garden somewhere, holding hands with a pair of monkeys.
“They yours?” I asked.
“No!” he said emphatically. And then he thought more seriously about the question: “Well, maybe.”
That, I think, is when I entered Gordon’s world.
That winter I would stop by the store at least once a week. I never bought anything, but I’d bring all my Christmas presents over. I had noticed that the women working there wrapped gifts with a style and a flair that was nearly incomprehensible, with a flurry of papers and ribbons and bows that could take your breath away. I must have brought over fifteen, twenty, twenty-five gifts to be wrapped with care and grace. No one seemed to mind.
I was in the studio at the time, working on a new single with my band. Our producer, Giorgio Gomelsky, who had been the original manager of the Rolling Stones, had thrown a fit while we were adding a guitar solo to a song called “Waiting for the Cavalry.” “What are you?” he said. “Kansas Fucking Eagles? Guitar, guitar, guitar! What this song needs is tree frogs! Why don’t you go out to New Jersey and record the sound of tree frogs? That would be a fucking killer solo!”
This, of course, was right up my alley, and I might have actually gone along with it—to my band’s horror—if I hadn’t discovered that the reason he wanted us in New Jersey was that he’d double booked the studio and wanted to slip another band in for a few hours that night. I locked him out and finished the tracks without him.
“New Jersey?” Gordon snorted. “The tree frogs you want are in Jogjakarta. Best session frogs in the world! The Booker T & The M.G.’s of frogs!”
He showed me a photo of the emperor of Java from 1908, seated, with his consort standing behind him, hand lovingly and warningly on his shoulder. Presumably protecting him from tree frogs. It was a beautiful image, and I immediately appropriated it for the cover. When it came out, Gordon put several dozen copies in the window.
My conversations with Gordon never seemed to have beginnings. I’d pick up the phone and an unmistakable voice would already be talking, as if he’d begun before he’d even dialed:
“Dylan! Did you hear that crap? Are you shitting me?” Or: “I’m never going to another Chinese restaurant! Ever!” Or: “Do you know what they called him in school? BUTCH! GEORGE BUTCH! GEORGE BUTCH, BARBARA BUTCH! Doesn’t that tell you everything!”
Back around 1969 or 1970, Gordon had a cycle of poems accepted somewhere, and he’d gotten a check for three hundred dollars. Three hundred dollars was real money then. He went off to celebrate. Somewhere in the East Village, maybe at the Electric Circus, he ran into a friend.
“Gordon!” he whispered. “The revolution’s coming.”
Gordon nodded. Change was in the air.
“We need some money. It’s urgent!”
“Bullets, man. We need bullets.”
“How much do you need?” The money was burning a hole in his pocket. If the revolution was calling, Gordon had to answer.
“Three hundred dollars.”
“That’s a lot of bullets, man. Can’t you just buy them as you need them?”
“We’re not going to buy bullets! We’ve got to be totally self-reliant. With three hundred dollars we can buy a machine to make our own bullets. You see?”
He saw. It made a certain sort of sense, like rolling your own cigarettes.
So he handed over the three hundred and headed home.
Only: home wasn’t there anymore. In the way that tides turned back then, everything suddenly went argy-bargy.
He went home to find he’d been evicted from his apartment. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but it was a shock. It might have been noise, it might have been something to do with rent, or the presence of a parrot, or the lack of a parrot. He was out. And his family wasn’t an option. He’d gotten into a fight with his parents, broken up with a girlfriend, lost his keys, gotten angry with his dog, pissed off his editors—except the ones who’d sent him three hundred—and worn out his welcome. When New York turns, it turns hard.
Gordon put some clothes and a few books into a bag and walked down to the West Side Highway with a sign he’d drawn in magic marker: HAWAII OR BUST.
He hitchhiked as far as Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, where the first person he ran into was his friend from the Electric Circus who wanted to make his own bullets. (When you pit planes against hitchhikers, planes win every time.)
“Man, am I happy to see you,” Gordon said. “Not that I’m not always happy to see you. But I’m especially happy to see you, as I’m totally broke.”
“Me too,” his friend nodded. But I’ve got something better than money. Come with me.” They walked to his apartment somewhere nearby and climbed up the stairs, went into the bedroom and there under the bed was a small valise. Inside there were seventy, eighty, maybe a hundred airplane tickets.
“My girlfriend works for Pan Am,” he explained. “She brings these home.”
“These,” he handed Gordon two tickets, “are good for getting you anywhere in the world. And back. You can go anywhere you want to go, but you have to keep going in the same direction. And—here’s the thing—you can’t stay anywhere more than two weeks. These tickets are … ” he waved his hand around in the universal gesture of fishiness and not-quite-rightness, and tilted his head as if to say, You’re a man of the world, you get my drift. ”You’re having fun, you lose track of time, a few weeks go by … you tear up the first ticket and next place you want to go, you use the second. Got it?”
Gordon took a plane to Mexico. Then to New York, London, Rome. It was summer. He grew a beard. He wrote postcards to everyone he knew, but he didn’t send them. No money.
Gordon would go to an airport bar. He wore a jacket, maybe a tie. Under his arm he carried copies of the International Herald Tribune and Le Monde. Maybe a book by Pablo Neruda or Fernando Pessoa. He’d tap his watch quizzically and ask for the time—in Spanish, and then in Italian. And then he’d ask for a glass of mineral water. In German. Someone would inevitably look his way.
“Boy, you sure speak a lot of languages,” they’d say. Gordon would shrug and keep reading. But if they made a joke or offered him a cigarette, he’d stop and fold up his paper and look over with a sigh and a tilt of the head that said, more or less, here we are between planes, you and I.
“Are you a professor of some sort?” they’d ask. And Gordon would shrug modestly. “It’s nothing, really. Just a little experiment I’m part of. Going pretty well, you know. But still in its early days. Where are you off to?”
“What sort of experiment?”
“I can’t really … ” and he’d look at his watch again and the arrival or departure of another flight would be announced over the loudspeaker, and he’d look in the direction of the customs line, and he’d shrug with the sense that time and distance and international datelines were all one to him.
0“Language pills,” he’d confess.
“Wait. For real?”
Gordon would fold the paper again. “It’s a test being conducted. By the CIA. I don’t work for them. I just volunteered.”
“Look,” Gordon would start to get impatient. “Have you read the Bible?”
“So you know we all came from the same people way back when. We all spoke the same language, right? And then … you remember the Tower of Babel? We tried to build a tower all the way up to heaven. God got annoyed, knocked down the tower, smashed it to bits, and just to be sure we couldn’t get organized again, He divided our tongues so we couldn’t understand each other. Right?”
“Well, something like that.”
“Something like that. Yes. Turns out it was exactly like that. Turns out that all those languages, all those words, all those tongues are encoded in our DNA. And scientists somewhere in Virginia have figured out a combination of chemicals that can unlock what’s already there in all of us. The roots of all of our languages. The key to all the words spoken all over the world. Pretty cool, huh?”
“For real. Early days yet. Doesn’t work with Russian. And Turkish is a bitch. But … it’s a miracle! Trust me, it’s the future.”
“And you just take a pill?”
“More or less. Sure.”
He’d start to get up from the bar. “Listen, great talking with you. My flight’s about … ”
“Wait. Wait. Where can I … ?
“Listen, I’m sorry, but you can’t. It’s a closed experiment. I shouldn’t have even mentioned it. You’ll hear about it, the reports will start to come out. First in Scientific American, then probably in the Times.”
“But don’t you—”
“Listen, my flight’s about to take off. Been really nice talking, but … ”
And yes, somehow it would turn out that, lo and behold, there was an extra bottle, Gordon just happened to have it there in his pocket, thirty tablets of ascorbic acid or some such, unmarked, harmless. A sum of money, two hundred, three hundred, would change hands, and life would go on. People will pay anything for a dream.
Gordon married a beautiful Indonesian dancer from a royal family; he worked with Salvador Dalí on a photo book documenting an obsessive German auto enthusiast who ate, over the course of a year, a Volkswagen; he created (there’s no proof, but who am I to doubt him?) a traveling transvestite circus in Singapore; he wrote reams of poetry that was as beautiful as it was incomprehensible; and he seemed to be friends with the most colorful, the most wonderful, and the most gullible people in the world.
He led a charmed life, until he didn’t. In 1993, there was a car crash in Indonesia; his wife was killed, and he broke every bone in his body. He was airlifted to Paris, then to New York, where he spent more than a year at Mount Sinai being rebuilt, piece by piece. Afterward, more and more housebound, he created a one-man Internet news service to combat the censorship and repression of the Suharto regime in Indonesia. And at all hours of the day and night he seemed to be on the phone with agitators, radicals, troublemakers, and poets.
His bones healed, but his body remained in a state of shock and chaos. Cancers spread like bedbugs, and he was overwhelmed by the strange and forbidding medications that filled his already full apartment.
“Gulabitis Nagwaczin. Tamatin Noodzcikoff. Petroxxie Remmaken,” he read from the labels. “Man. They sound like bad Turkish actors!”
He lost an eye, after which we had an outing to Glass Eyes for All Occasions, a shop near Penn Station where you could buy sensible prosthetic eyes as well as more unusual party favors: glass eyes made into cufflinks; eyes you could encase in ice cubes for drinks. (These last came in a party pack with HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU, KID emblazoned on the box.) He bought three packs of those.
But more and more he was a shadow of a shadow. A leg was removed. A breast. Bits of skin. Bits of bone. When he died, in the summer of 2007, there wasn’t much left but his voice and his beard and the smell of clove cigarettes. Up till then he’d been unstoppable.
“You know I’m still going to dance at your wedding,” he told me. I was engaged, yes, but I hadn’t set a date. He pointed to where his leg no longer was. “Oh, man! You know that it’ll be worth it, to see me dance!”
Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.
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