by RIP RENSE
|THE GREAT WANNBERG
son? Chi son? Son un poeta. Che cosa faccio? Scrivo! E come
vivo? Vivo!” (“What am I? What am I?
I’m a poet. What do I write?I write! And how do I live? I live!”)
---from “La Boheme,” by Giacomo Puccini.
the general alarm. SOS. Lower the masts to half-flag.
Call your mom and tell her you love her.
that you don’t. The moon has retired, the sun says it was only
kidding, songbirds can’t carry a tune. The thumb slipped out of
the dike, the soufflé imploded, the zeppelin crashed. Oh, the
The Great Wannberg is dead.
Long live the
He went to
take a little nap, apparently, but the nap took him. Or did he
depart with deliberate grace? After all, he got up, dressed
neatly, and then lay down on his bed and de-existed. Or had he
dressed in order to go to the hospital because of dire symptoms,
only to be waylaid by the Greatest Waylayer?
matters. He had been in "poor health," as the cliche goes, for
some time. Directly antithetical to his mental health, which is
the way irony likes it. Or certainly that part of his mental
health that was designed for creative thinking, analytical
thinking, compassion, love, and poetry.
Scott Wannberg long before he was Scott Wannberg
The Poet. To me, he was always just Wannberg, the wacky
kid I knew in
high school. Or that’s probably wrong. Maybe he was always Scott Wannberg The Poet. Even when we first became pals,
on the Venice High School Oarsman back in 1969, he was
declaiming in stream-of-consciousness, free-verse (and
hilarious) fashion about
various students, teachers, dogs, character actors, directors. .
“There’s Bud Rotman (our
advisor)! Bud Rotman, starring in ‘I Ate a Living Pumpkin,’ with
Jeff Hillary, Lyndon Johnson, The Singer Midgets, and Rip Rense
as Ygor! In this episode, dogs ride cosmic surfboards to Reseda,
where they meet L.Q. Jones as Kemosabe, and organize mutants
from Arcturus to rob liquor stores, directed by Sam Peckinpah. .
Or something like that
(only better.) It was routine to hear Wannberg running his
mouth, rapid-fire, low-toned, like a radio sports guy, at the
desk right behind me, kids around him periodically falling apart, laughing. Or in
some cases, squirming uncomfortably. There he was every day,
generally in a striped T-shirt, a little bit too small, “regular
boys’ haircut” mussed up, leaning forward, arms folded in front
of him. Kind of a mutant Beaver Cleaver.
Meets the Wolfman, in which Maria Ouspenskaya takes Rip Rense to
Tito's Tacos. . ."
Who was this madman, we
wondered? Was he funny, or a little nuts, or funny and a little
nuts? Certainly we had never encountered anything like him
And never would again.
Wannberg, as I pretty
much have always addressed him, became the film critic of
the Oarsman. Not that there was any competition. Come to
think of it, I don’t believe the job existed there before him.
(And as I flog my arthritic old memory, I hazily remember
having something to do with him getting the position.) Even
then, the guy seemed to have massive, if not
encyclopedic---almost savant---knowledge of films, their casts,
their directors, their histories. Authors, as well. He went
through books like Godzilla through fake Tokyo. . .
Thumbing through my old
Oarsman compendium from '69-'70, I see that Scott the
critic reviewed things
like "The Adventurers," "Medium Cool," "Planet of the Apes,"
whatever was new and big. And, in one case, what was old and
big: a special screening of the original "King Kong," whom
Wannberg wonderfully pronounced "the greatest actor that ever lived." Of
particular note is the fact that he critiqued a film that would
impact him and his work throughout life, "The Wild Bunch." Here
is part of 17-year-old Scott's appraisal, and by the way, it is doubtful
that there were many other high school newspapers reviewing a
film given an X-rating (mature adults) for violence:
"The Wild Bunch" is one
of the most violent films ever made, but don't let that stop you
from going to see it. The violence must be there. If it wasn't,
it would be like pie a la mode without the ice cream on top. .
.'The Wild Bunch,' you see, is an allegory on the subject of
violence. . .All the killing in the film is done in slow motion,
which in my opinion, gives it a most creative appearance. The
bodies fall like ballet dancers.
Apparently his run as a
critic ended badly, though, when his "Adventurers" review was
killed to make way for a tuxedo ad (well, it was graduation
time.) Scott quit in a huff, and I interviewed him about it in the paper
under the W.C. Fields pseudonym, Augustus Winterbottom. I think
I slipped the article, "NOTED REVIEWER RESIGNS," into the paper
without the editor knowing. Declared Scott: "They cut stories to
put tuxedo ads in, they think more of the ads than the stories.
To hell with the ads."
Spoken like a man
destined to function outside commercial considerations!
course, I took to Scott
immediately, though I couldn’t have explained why at the time. I
was quiet, depressed over "family" matters, and here was this madcap monologue a
couple of feet behind me. Maybe he did it partly to cheer me up,
I don't know, but it was like having Monty Python in
the back of your head, translating the world. Thinking back, I
realize that there was something about Scott’s presence that
just defied all bullshit. I am here, this is what I am, I’m
not making a point of it, I just can’t help it---and I don’t
mind. I was not aware that we both came from screwed-up homes, which was perhaps a subliminal bond
between us. I considered myself a weirdo, an outsider, and recognized
"my own kind."
I mean, look. Any kid who
would write full satirical scripts of westerns and slasher movies that
starred all his high school friends---as his pal Curt Gibbs
remembered in a note to me recently---and then read them aloud during
“Nutrition,” well, that was okay by me.
But I must also point out
that Scott was---then and always---an affable, grounded,
empathetic person to whom anyone could talk about anything. The
"wild man" aspect was a persona, a performance, and eventually
an art. Our mutual friend, Bernie Beck, put it this way: "Scott
and I had a pretty uncomplicated relationship via e-mail. No
wild declamations, just pleasant exchanges, one decent chap to
another. So the Scott I knew was a quiet, sensitive, sweet guy,
though utterly perceptive about the world and people."
We spent a year together,
all told, on the Oarsman---I was news editor and Scott a
reporter---and then he graduated. I never expected to see him
again. We had been friends, colleagues, maybe some kind of
kindred spirits, but nothing that would indicate a future of
becoming lifelong chums.
“Rip Rense! Rip Rense!”
It was a good five
years before I next saw him. I had wandered, rather
Martindale’s Books on the Santa Monica mall, one day-off from my
job as a reporter on The Valley News. Feeling kind of
lonely, disassociated, at loose ends. And. . .whoah. Wannberg! There he was, behind the
counter. He’d changed. He was bigger, louder, more. . .Wannbergian.
Seemed about eight feet tall. And was that English? And were
those antennae with pinwheel eyeballs coming out of his head? Naturally,
old Scott was talking at a crazy-fast clip to some customer, and I noted that his quick, darting
eyes had acquired intensity that I didn’t remember from the
Oarsman days. Yikes---he's freaked out! I sort of
cautiously went up to say hello, and, of course, that elicited
the explosive, “Rip Rense! Rip Rense,” followed by about a
twenty minute conversation outside, on his break.
He was smoking a
cigarette, and I’ll never forget how he held the thing at arm’s
length, between the first two fingers, pointed downward. Like it
was radioactive. Then, every so often, in the
middle of a compound sentence or unpunctuated paragraph, the arm
would come sweeping around in a big elliptical motion, like a
move out of Tai Chi, or a lazy octopus limb, and the
cigarette would collide with his mouth---sssssssssst!----then
go back to arm’s length. Never interrupting a syllable of his
stacatto---Scott-tatto---word parade. Well, it seemed that he gone to San
Francisco State and majored in creative writing. Huh? You can
major in creative writing? Why would you do that? Oh, to write
poetry. Hmm. Ah, he’s a poet, eh? Hmm. Major in poetry, minor in
cigarettes, beer, pot, acid?
Poet? No wonder he was working nine to five in a bookstore.
Well, it was good to see
him, and I think he said something about getting together for a
flick sometime as I left. Me, I was not real sociable, never
expected to run into him again (again), and figured the invitation had
been courtesy. Chalked the encounter up to a pleasant accident, chance
meeting with an old friend, something to lift my spirits on a
lonely day off. But the fates, the Norns, the
pixies, the gods of caprice and prank, had other things in mind.
Over the next couple of years, I just kept running into
Wannberg. All over the place. Really. Now, how often do you run
into someone you know in Los Angeles? Once in a great while,
maybe. But repeatedly? Almost regularly? The odds of running
into the same person over and over in different parts of this
so-called city are as great as Americans breaking out in
humility and grace. But. . .
There I was in
Westwood one night, when thundering from behind, about 30
yards away, “Rip Rense! Hey, there’s Rip Rense! Star of ‘Son of
I Married a Sun Demon,’ with Oliver Hardy and Marjorie Main!”
Huh? I turned around. Wannberg, with a batch of pals. Headed for
a movie, of course.
Hey, Wannberg, good to
see you. . .
Six months later, at a
Beatlefest at the Bonaventure Hotel:
“Rip Rense! Rip Rense!
Cosmic boogiemeister of the great unknown!”
Hi, Wannberg, how the
hell are you. . .
Six months later, in the
Nuart Theater (or was it a UCLA screening? Or both?):
“Rip Rense, frogman of
Uh. . .Scott, I keep
running into you, don’t I. . .How’ve you been? What are you
doing? Another bookstore, huh?
Another six months, or
maybe a year:
“Rip Rense! Star of ‘The
Last Lonely Rider.’”
And I swear this is true.
I was at a Grateful Dead concert at Pauley Pavilion. At
intermission, my somewhat exaggerated brain and I stood up, a
bit, oh, overwhelmed by the atmosphere. How could there be so
many deeply joyful people gathered in one place? And what,
exactly, were they so deeply joyful about? I turned around, surveying
the scene, and there across about seven rows of empty
seats, blazing like a lighthouse, drenched in sweat, T-shirt
stretched down around his knees. . .
“Rip Rense! Drawn into
the irresistible Garcia night!”
Some things are
coincidences you ignore. Like the woman you briefly dated who
keeps showing up on aisle 13 at Ralphs. Some things are
coincidences you don’t ignore, like your hair falling out when
you eat wheat, and some are coincidences you can’t ignore. Like
Scott Wannberg appearing over your shoulder ever six months.
Well, I thought to myself, I guess I'm supposed to stay
in touch with this guy. Okay, I get the point.
How patronizing and
wrong I turned out to be. This ebullient human had been
obviously and compassionately sent to me by the saints of
circumstance to help cure my woes and save my id from slings and
arrows of outrageous humans. Or try.
Wannberg! Court Jester
from Betelgeuse! Socrates of Sunnybrook Farm!
So we not only stayed in
touch, we hung out a bit. I don’t even remember how. Probably a
lunch here and there, or certainly dropping by whatever
bookstore employed him, to shoot the breeze on a break.
Naturally, Scott scribbled out poems and handed them to me, as
he did to countless others (masses of unpublished Wannberg poems
out there, somewhere), and I found this mostly just amusing. Sure, I
enjoyed the poems, respected his muse, but tended to chalk it
all up to idiosyncratic, if always entertaining, Wannbergian
élan.. I mean, this wasn’t Robinson Jeffers or A.E. Housman or
We also wrote letters
back and forth, and getting a single-spaced typed (mechanical
Olympic) Wannberg report was a welcome relief from the pressure
cooker that was the L.A. Herald-Examiner in the early
‘80’s. It was sort of like having that Monty Python narration
again, skewering and burlesquing absurdity and inanity, as he had done when we were in high school. (Yes, I
still have all the letters.) Then I had an idea. An inspiration,
really. Although Scott only published chapbooks at the time,
most courtesy of his great friend and champion, the poet S.A. Griffin,
I managed to convince my editor at the Her-Ex that
he was some kind of undiscovered L.A. poet genius worthy
of a feature article.
Which I promptly wrote.
I felt nicely subversive
in getting the boy into mainstream media print, much as I did
whenever I managed to get Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart, or
someone like the great street musician, Bonggo Beane, into
print. But the joke was mostly on me. Turned out I was
unwittingly prescient and ahead of the curve in shining a light
on Scott’s greatness.
Sooner or later the music in your wounded heart
will work its way through the bones of ongoing hope
where the rivers run and the heat finds you in time
to prevent freezing.
The front door of my eyes open wide
and seeing can be believing.
The painted sky is a bit chipped
but latitude and longitude can still
tell time. Sooner or later the
dance in your wounded head will
find its rhythm where those rivers run
and all is vulnerable with love.
I saw him fairly often
during the ‘80s and after. There was a legendary (in my mind)
trip to San Francisco for a run of Grateful Dead New Year’s Eve
shows in ’83, which also included about a half-dozen other old
associates, including fellow Her-Exer and distinguished reporter
Andy Furillo, who has never forgotten the experience of meeting
Scott on the plane ride. (Who could?) The little sojourn was
a sort of mini psychedelic version of "Animal House." First of all, there were about
six guys sleeping in a single apartment inside an old Berkeley
house borrowed from a friend, sacked out on floor and couches
and wherever. The snoring was nuclear, notably by a guy named
Mike Farkash (may he rest in peace), who had no business sharing
a room with anyone outside of a wildebeest with a deviated
septum. I can still hear Wannberg’s low, erupting laughter
in the darkness as I yelled “Farkash! Stop snoring!”
eventually taking to throwing shoes and books at him until he
got up and went to a motel. Then came the New Year’s Eve show at
the SF Civic Auditorium, an all-night affair (with The Band
opening for the Dead) that found a certain reporter pal
distributing little bits of funny paper with the explanation,
“It’s really mild.” Right, we said, chewing it up. By the way,
where’d you get it?
“Some old hippie with no
Mild? Let me tell you
my one indelible memory of Wannberg that evening. First, you
must understand that when Scott danced his man-mountain physique
around, it was a primal, free, full-body exposition that had
nothing obviously to do with rhythm, or anything resembling
conventional “moves.” It was a physical manifestation of the
emotional and intellectual processes piqued by sight and sound
before him. You probably know the Deadhead stereotype of hippie-dippie
girlies “finger dancing,” doing rather comical little digital
descriptions in air, as a sort of “vibe translation.” Well, that
ain’t nothin’. Scott’s whole being was a finger-dance. Capped
off by his pointing indexes, fastest digits in the west,
shooting invisible Wannberg energy at lucky recipients, from up
around the eyeballs. Lyrical,
chirpy Garcia notes and eccentric Lesh bass runs algorithmed
into his rhythm. Not one note escaped unused, not one note
failed to inspire action. Wannberg was a living physical
interpretation of sound, shimmying, waving, whirling Dervishing,
his hands doing referee signals for a game
of Moogoodoogoo on the planet Zunch.
So I was at one point
glancing down on the roil of throbbing, percolating Deadhead
ecstasy on the floor from my
upstairs, when I noticed something peculiar. Yes,
“peculiar” in this context might not carry much weight. But it
was something out of the ordinary, given that the ordinary was
A clear spot.
Right toward the rear of
the floor, on the right side, in the thick of the impossibly
happy exaltation of human larks, a clear spot.
The crowd had
automatically, instinctively, respectfully, and possibly a
little fearfully, given the man room. There was a radius of
fifteen empty feet all around Wannberg. The Deadheads had
cleared it out, as if in the presence of royalty. I picked up my
binoculars. Yes, many were watching Scott in a kind of frozen
awe. Others were going about their own stylized maneuvers, aware
of him without directly looking. Exchanging ectoplasmic
electricities. They knew, either despite or because of their
various chemical enhancements, that there was a holy man in
dance as if you
country full of water
some hard to hear lingo
some shaky evidence of humanity
coming soon to your front door
dance it as if you mean it
they'll be asking for you at intermission
when all will be revealed,
the invasion is getting a bit painful and gray
the monkeys are going over the exit strategy
a broken hemisphere just showed up for tea
i'd like to oblige everyone, but i forgot my number
could someone afford anything a la carte
some anointed asylum where the inmates
roll naked with God on an hourly basis
they never told me which God though
as the restless wages fell through the
holes in my pocket.
dance it as if you believe it
believe it as if you could dance to it.
Later that night,
Scott magically appeared in the seat next to me, chuckling
at the enormous rainbow moustache painted
across my face, ear to ear. He was carrying on in sopping-sweat
runaway train-of-consciousness reportage, and to my considerable
shock, I realized that I was suddenly able to recognize the
track on which the train ran, and read clearly the signs at
every stop. Gadzooks. My brain had been rewired to speak
Wannberg! I was so stunned at this, so dazzled by his discourse,
his cosmic Chick Hearn commentary, so astonished by the the
that Wannberg was speaking in deliberate, meaningful metaphor
and keen analysis, that I began fumbling around with my wallet,
looking for something to write on. I'm a reporter. . .got to
write this down. . .important. This took no longer than
several ages of man, as my hands were about the size of dump
trucks. I mean, it was as if I could suddenly understand
Japanese, with no instruction! At last, I managed to pull a
business card from my wallet, and a pen from my pocket, and
carefully printed one teency snippet of Ongoing Wannberg.
Here it is:
“A veritable sea of
inevitable museums bobbing around down there.”
Some people write poetry,
for better or worse (usually worse.) Wannberg spoke it as a
second language. Or a first. As one person observed after his
passing, he had “no interior voice.” Because it was exterior. He
blurted things like that museum line automatically,
journalistically. He saw things for what they were, in cosmic
context, and interpreted them wildly, pithily, heartfully. Usually with a kind of wry
wink, implied or stated, if not uproarious flight of
free-associative fancy. Even in his saddest and most sober
utterances, there are amusing references and striking amalgams
of words. The wit and amusement of those high school monologues
never left him.
But back to that New
Year’s Eve. I suppose some might say that LSD and Wannberg was a
redundancy. I’d say it was more like a shot of espresso. It
stoked his id, fired up the metaphor blender something fierce.
Problem was, it didn't quit. While my nerves required a few days
of quiet after that New Year's Eve, Scott was rolling, rapping pretty non-stop---the
flights were still fancy---a couple days afterward. I recall
wandering around Berkeley with my cronies, Wannberg kind of
trailing a few feet behind, rat-a-tatting congenially, crazily, Wannbergially. My brain was divided between amusement at one
friend’s extreme irritation with Scott’s inability to remain
quiet, and delighting in. . .Scott’s inability to remain quiet.
Plus I was still easily parsing his verbal Jackson Pollacking,
his whirligig word wiggling. In the end, though, I scrapped
plans to spend six hours with him on I-5, and bought him a plane
ticket home. Not sure, even now, that this was the right
time to be scared because everything is just weird riff
the maitre'd turns into Sandra Dee
and the airport is full of frogs with fine English accents
must of been something i partook in
must be the way things roll now
Doctor of some specialized part of the so called body
comes through my window
has a secret plan to save everyone
i can't read it very well, it's written in some kind of
mystery that nobody has published a way to solve
Tonto and the Lone Ranger are waiting for me to finish this poem
they want me to ride out with them to Love Corral
their hearts are tired of doing good deeds
their hearts are breaking slow
I take them to the jazz river
the one you sang to me just now
i take them hopscotching
across a gin martini ocean
Every day here is Jack Elam
Could you hum a few bars right alongside me
The laser beam keeps missing us
Could be the house rules
Can't find the keys to climb back through
Take us all then to jazz river
the one that sings to me somehow
No Time to be Scared
weird judges make eerie jurisprudence
no jail can smoke me
i'd go down raspy with promise
blood in the mouthpiece of the horn he's tootin
blood and human
rolling in the dust
by the quiet crying water
by the everloving everlasting
no time to be scared
put your thin hand in mine
put your thin dime in time
don't bother betting
let your heart do the pumping
by the lack of a vocation water
by the altogether whatever
no time to be scared
here comes rain maybe
walk with me
i ain't bullet proof
but i will always try to give you a good time
Well, there would be
parties in my Sherman Oaks apartment, where Scott happily
chowed down on my then-wife’s great Chinese banquet cooking, and
where he once did the Wannberg finger-pointing
conducting/Intergalactic referee hand-signal thing in the
direction of a spectacularly top-heavy belly dancer spinning
around my tiny living room in celebration of the 70th birthday
of old journalism colleague Carter Barber. I was a bit worried
that the dancer might not take Scott’s gestures in the intended
spirit, but no worries. He always radiated good will, despite the
"conducting." And oh my, how to describe it? Leopold Stokowski as
animated by Tex Avery. Scott’s eyes went Lugosi, or maybe Renfield, and his hair went stringy with rivulets of sweat, and
he pointed and jabbed and waved and whooshed his arms, as if
manipulating giant invisible marionette strings, hands and
fingers seeming to extend right from his forehead. Wannberg
String Theory. He always did this when there was music. He
connected with it, inhabited it, became molecularly involved
with it. If you didn’t know him, yes, this could be a bit, oh,
alarming. If you did know him, it was a beautiful, manic
pantomime. He should have been a character in Alice in Wonderland.
Scott also used to come
around---I guess I drove him, as he never drove a car in his
life, far as I know---when my dear friend,
Joe Shinn, took out
his electric guitar and was kind enough to pretend that I knew
how to play drums. We jammed countless times in Joe’s Granada
Hills house or garage through the years, usually with the
redoubtable keyboard improvisations of our third perpetual
member, the venerable music critic Richard Ginell. Scott would read his poems,
or launch a verbal improv, and we would jam. I tell you, those
collaborations should have been witnessed outside of those
confines. Ginell recalls a snapshot: “I’ll never forget it.
Reagan had said there is no hunger in America. Scott was at the
microphone, while we played, holy-rolling ‘No hunger in America!
No hunger in America! Then why is this guy biting my leg!’”
Joe Shinn, I should
explain, is another singular “old soul” (there really should be
a better term for these people) who in his way was as incandescent as
Scott. I was curious as to how the two might get along, or if
they would get along, what if any rapport there would be---a
curiosity that was satisfied the very second that Scott entered
Joe’s home for the first time. Consider: I’d once seen Joe,
without warning, approach a woman at a party in his house and
say, “I want you to leave my home. Now.” (She did.) He just
simply objected to her presence inside his sanctuary. But Joe’s understanding of Wannberg was
instant, and total. I discerned merely by the courtliness of
Joe’s body language, as he stepped aside to welcome Scott, that
he had understood himself to be in the presence of unique light.
joe shinn said go
out and sing
joe shinn he kissed the world
and his kiss made the world somehow human
joe shinn said go out and let the world sing you
joe joe joe shinn
father of the moment
creation's own only child
joe shinn's fingertips
how the Earth tapdances on them
your heart is a language
your heart is where wounded birds land
and rebuild their
And there was more to
the Wannbergian aspect of my musical "career." I was in a
band for a few months with a kind woman named Joanne Nilan
(rest in peace), and woe to us all that she passed away not long
afterward from leukemia, for aside from her generous heart,
Joanne adroitly adapted Scott’s poems as melodic, original, even
(dare I say it) catchy songs. Really. Imagine Wannberg
with melody. A potent notion! Well the band was The Cassettes, a
name I would have changed at least to something like “Night
Train to Yo Mama,” and I played in only one performance: at
BeBop Records in beautiful downtown Reseda on a Saturday night.
I’m convinced that these pop tune adaptations of Wannberg would
have been critically acclaimed, had anyone with half a
reputation ever managed to record them. “War is Our Only Bank"
and a dozen other tunes would have made one hell of an album.
Might have out-Oingoed Boingo. And yes, Scott sang and ranted
on a “Scott’s Blues” jam that night. For me, it was glorious. To
help musically embellish parts of the Great Wannberg Poem---what
a prank! I got so caught up in the night that I threw the
straight-laced guitarist and bass player for a loop (they never
understood Scott, or the songs) with a minor solo, and, to my
considerable surprise (and theirs), I finished the raucous,
high-speed encore right on the money. . .
|. . .reach now into
your shoulder holster of some mighty fine times
and make me a bullet that will last
down on the corner of Good Luck and I Mean It. . .
---Scott, from "Mighty Fine
A few years later, in the
early ‘90’s, I wrote yet another piece on Scott The Poet, this
one for the L.A. Times, and once again felt that I had
done something subversive. Editors, you see, were often
suspicious of my story ideas, often felt I had an ulterior
motive (which I sometimes did.) Yes, I did the “full disclosure”
of telling my sagacious, learned Times editor (cough) that Scott
was a friend, gambling that the self-serious Times would not
regard this as “conflict of interest.” I suspect the story was
approved only because by that time, Scott had become a sort of
legendary fixture at the great reader’s bookstore, Dutton’s, in
Brentwood, recommending literature to everyone from Randy Newman
to T.C. Boyle to Patrick McGoohan. (He always said goodbye to
McGoohan with the wry farewell from “The Prisoner,” “Be seeing
you.” McGoohan provided the appropriate rejoinder, “And you.”)
Translation: even my editor had heard of the weird big guy who
knows every book in the store. He’s an L.A. character.
I had hoped the
article---which I made as lively as I thought I could get away with in the
Times---might prompt more articles, interviews, profiles, mainstream media that
would lead to breakout recognition of Scott and his work, but no. That didn’t
happen until he died, of course.
During the late 90’s and
up until two years ago, I picked up Scott every year, shortly
after the New Year, and drove out to KPFK in Studio City, where
we and S. A. Griffin joined the redoubtable Barry “Mister”
Smolin’s “The Music Never Stops” program for what Barry came to
call the “annual freakfest.” There were poems for the new year
from all of us, or at least from Scott, S.A., and the mysterious
Raj Bavnani, who always showed up late but redeemed himself
with some very affecting recitation (greatly amusing Scott and
S.A., and even me.) Mostly, it was just an excuse for all of us
to have something that I vaguely remember, something that used
to happen often on radio, something that is fading now as I age
and lose more and more friends to the Reaper, something that I
believe used to be called. . .uh. . .oh yeah---
Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, circa 2004, prior to annual
appearance on Barry Smolin's "The Music Never Stops" on KPFK. Rense,
Smolin, and the man.
photo by Annie Chuck
after year, Scott parked his bulk behind a KPFK mike, a merry-eyed Kong with the
ever-ready giggle of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the explosive
guffaw of Ed McMahon, throwing in his instant-script inventions
of psychedelic science-fiction cowboy musicals, reading stirring
paeans to love and sanity, denouncing
the martinets of the moment. It’s a funny thing---and this might say more about
Scott than it says about me---but every time I looked at the
guy, it was always the same Rip & Scott from Venice High. It was
never Scott the Poet or Scott the L.A. character and Rip the journalist/writer. I could
shoot him looks and manage to squeeze a quick reference to
Dwight Frye or Max Baer Jr. into the deranged, super-speed
give-and-take between he and S.A. at the studio, and Scott would just crack
up. Exactly as he did in high school. Which, of course, made me
crack up. . .
Wannberg (left) and Rense at KPFK, circa 2007.
day, I happened to look at Scott's senior photo from the Venice High annual, posted
on Facebook by his loving older brother, Bob. It was a shock.
There was the young proto-Scott, fresh-faced, bright-eyed, burning with
intelligence, expectation---a Scott that I had forgotten. It made
me cry. I couldn’t help but compare it to the Wannberg of recent
years, massive, hulking, oxygen tubes in his nose, shuffling,
borderline crippled. How to reconcile the two images? Then it
hit me. No need. When Wannberg spoke, whether at 58 or 16, it
“Rip Rense! Rip Rense!
The kettles are singing elixirs of ecstasy, tomorrow found its
middle name, and meercats and mere dogs are flying! Rip Rense!”
Or something like that
You see, when Wannberg
met you, he celebrated you. It was no put-on, it was delight. He
delighted in you, and let me tell you, there aren’t too many
people who delight in me. But Scott did, as he did most
everyone, leaving most everyone feeling somewhere between
worthwhile and embarrassed. Was it a de facto compensation for a
life spent unmarried, without a solid female relationship? He
didn't love just one, so he loved all? Perhaps in part. However he
came to terms with that sorrow, he came to terms with it. He
loved all, by his very nature. Hell, maybe that prevented him
from settling on just one.
As to how or why Scott
delighted in people, delighted in books, delighted in movies,
delighted in dogs and cats, delighted in butterflies, delighted
in delight, speaks to the heroic essence of his being. Yes,
heroic. For it must be noted that Scott was fooled by no one and
nothing, nada, no way. He had detailed
knowledge of history (his reading tastes were those of a
Renaissance man), prodigious powers of analysis, and was
anything but blind to the chicanery and evil of human beings.You
could sit and discuss World War II or the Civil War with him and
never imagine that Scott the Poet existed. If
anything, man's inhumanity to man hit him very hard, and drove
him to drink---I mean, think. But the point about heroic
is that Scott carried his
share, or more, of heartbreak, pain, anguish. Perhaps he would
not agree, as he was not given to bemoaning his fate, but
that’s how I see it. He had a great ride, yes, but the road was
pitted, mined, with dangerous curves and unmarked detours.
I know nothing about
his childhood. There was a divorce, and he
wound up spending decades living in a small one-bedroom
apartment in Mar Vista with his gentle one-time engineer father,
Ernie, who did the cooking, crossword, and slept on the crummy living
room couch. Eventually, Scott nursed his pop through a long and
wretched period of terminal cancer, at home, with all the grim
and grotesque duties that could entail. When Ernie died, it
was Scott’s devoted friend, Doug Dutton of Dutton’s books, who
helped him to manage a small inheritance well enough to
facilitate purchase of a clean well-lighted converted-apartment condo in West
Los Angeles. But Scott’s mother also died during the same
period, and his beloved de facto cat, Bob, was run over by a
car. It all proved overwhelming, a devastating time that left
friends worried for Scott’s emotional recovery. It ultimately
took a "ritual shower" to cleanse his spirit---arranged by S.A.
and others (really)---to bring the man out of his grief.
Oh, about Bob the Cat.
The orange tabby had years before adopted Scott and Ernie,
spending most of his time with them while his official and
understanding owner lived upstairs. Whenever I would drop by, it was
common to see Scott sitting on the porch, or stairs, talking to
Bob in a way that indicated respect for Bob's being. And I
swear that Bob seemed to understand this. Well, Scott agonized about
whether to take
Bob to his new condo digs because he felt it would be unfair to make
him into an indoor creature. When Bob was killed shortly
afterward, Scott felt terrible guilt, convinced that the cat had gone looking for him when he
was run over. Of course, he wrote a poem about it.
|i would talk to you as if you
understood what i said
perhaps you did,maybe not all of it,but some of it. . .
it will hurt my ears that lack of a meow
but i know you are singing wherever you are
now. . .
from "For Bob The Cat, My Friend."
is as good a time as any to say that no dog or cat has had a
more sympathetic friend than Scott Wannberg. As with “Doc” in
Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, I swear the dogs smiled at him.
As has now become lore, Scott kept a box of dog biscuits behind
the counter at Dutton’s for any canines who accompanied bookworm
humans into the joint. Think he could have gotten away with that
at Borders? I see him now, in the Dutton's courtyard, bent
at the waist, talking gently to golden retrievers and mutts,
In time, one Dixie the
elderly cat was left in Scott's permanent care, and while he was
happy about this, and
finally happy to have his very own poster-and-photo-plastered
pad (which was about a mile away from my place), things were not
destined to stay that way.
I think it was no more
than two years into his new life that a viral infection
robbed him of his ability to sleep. Pfft. Gone.
mechanism was broken, Sandman assassinated. Month after month,
he managed only the most fitful, light naps in an easy chair,
and it made him nothing less than wing-ding, dithering, ringaroundtherosy.
. .crazy. Doctors who knew nothing of the beat
Falstaff Wannberg personality took one look at the guy, raised
eyebrows patronizingly, and sent him right to shrinks, who, knowing
nothing of the beat Falstaff Wannberg personality, took one look
at him, raised eyebrows patronizingly, and put him right on drugs.
Five drugs, at
one point, for sleep, anxiety, depression, psychosis, and
possibly dandruff. Depressed? Wouldn’t you be if you couldn’t
sleep? Psychotic? A Nurse Ratchet diagnosis. The drugs vied for
control of the alternating stupor and raving chaos suddenly
competing in his brilliant head. The “mad genius,” at this time,
went mad. As Griffin said, “We thought we’d lost him.”
It culminated with a
catastrophic episode of Ambien-induced sleepwalking, in which
Scott woke up one morning with a badly broken foot, and no
recollection of how it happened. A doctor recommended surgery,
and Scott generally did whatever doctors told him to do, so the
appointment was made---despite friends, notably Griffin,
counseling against it. Surgery to implant pins led to a
pernicious staph infection, which led to the devil, Inactivity,
which redoubled all the anxiety and chaos, which manifested in
monstrous compulsive eating, which added over 100 pounds to his already
heavy, six-feet-three-inch frame. And somewhere in all this,
there were repeated (probably unnecessary) prostate biopsies and
some quack who told him he had “a little cancer,” but that it was
nothing to worry about. Huh? I’ll leave out the parts about
“friends” who took advantage of Scott’s generosity and crashed
in his home for weeks, months. . .
The leave of absence from
Scott's beloved Dutton’s stretched on endlessly, financial
worries became obsessive, insurance struggles went unresolved,
and the staph and mega-antibiotics wouldn’t quit. One day he found himself sentenced
to a Santa Monica “convalescent hospital” (one of the greatest
of oxymorons) among roommates who were mostly babbling, raving,
drooling animated corpses. I try to avoid the desiccated word, “incredible,” but this really was.
Worst of all, for the
only time that I know of in his life, Scott's poetry died.
the lyricism, metaphor, wild rapids of free-association, quips,
word-plays, impish rhymes, coded commentary, weighty insights, and in their place,
a sort of leaden, prosaic recitation of his ills. He stopped
writing entirely for a while, or when encouraged to try, could
only manage more uninspired stuff about his ailments, organized
to resemble free verse.
Again, friends sighed
that he was lost.
differently. To me, Scott was an intrinsically strong,
pragmatic guy, behind the poetry, behind the performer. I always regarded him
this way, eccentricities or not. He went to college, he held
down jobs, he had a world of friends, he thought clearly, he
diligently paid his bills. He was
nothing if not totally plugged into current events, in depth, at
all times. I thought his "recitation of ills" passing for poetry
was an attempt to deal with reality. I
figured the guy was doing what he needed to do, somehow, and would
eventually sort out all the trouble, get off the stupid drugs
(as S.A. and I incessantly implored), etc. Hell, you’d go to
visit him at the House of Drool, and it was still, “Rip
Rense! Rip Rense!” The ever-celebrative greeting. He’d be in a
wheelchair, with his damn bandaged foot refusing to heal, devouring an
old episode of “The Rifleman,” noting importantly that it
was directed by Peckinpah, while in the next room, the barely
recognizable remains of an old fat woman raged and roared
profanities in a Satanic death-metal baritone as she thrashed
from side to side, naked, strapped to her bed. (In an
incident somewhere between the Marx Brothers and David Lynch, this
same creature stole and began wearing one of Scott's Grateful
Dead T-shirts, which annoyed the hell out of him.)
I’ll never, never forget
the time I found him in the dining room of that urine-stinking
fluorescent-light Bedlam, surrounded by ashen, staring,
slack-jawed Alzheimer’s cases. There he was, smack in the middle
of them at a long table, like some great Norse giant, knife and
fork in hand, waiting expectantly for dinner to be served, while
the TV was showing “The Golden Girls” or some rot. The poor guy
looked happy---because somebody was cooking for him! I would
have cried had it not been so damn funny. Scott’s grip on the
whole matter was realistic. He spoke of healing and going home
and going back to work, in between laughing about how his
paraplegic Iranian roommate used to sneak out the window at
night to visit hookers.
|we're just the mud of a spoiled
hanging out in the playpen,
making up rules,stories,and visions
we're just the sacred mud of love
listening for the rain
---Scott, "Listen to the Rain."
If these sad things that
went on in Scott’s life arouse pity, I think they should. But
the point I am getting to here is that they never aroused
self-pity in Scott, at least not that I ever witnessed. No, the
Wannberg psyche was too worthy a contraption, fundamentally a
of joy, to paraphrase Ray Bradbury, an improbable Rube Goldberg
amalgam of brain-junctions and neurons that always eventually filtered out
hardship, ugliness, tragedy, the misdeeds and foibles of
humans, and personal suffering. It’s in his poems, which are
nothing if not resolute in their campaign for people to “smell
the nice coffee breeze going by in that unilateral moment of
music that we are all made of." Somehow, in the end, Scott was
buoyant, mirthful, optimistic, or trying to be. No monkey
wrenches ever fouled those works. He came back from all these
health horrors and lived to write his rocket fuel poetry another
day. That's right, the muse came back, in full force and more,
yielding what I think was greater work than ever (still maturing
right up to the end.)
And The Great Wannberg at last returned to
|How you get up in the early
tells me a lot about your dancing ability.
They claim the highway has no best friend.
Someone bailed it out of jail, though, last night.
We sat and drank beer and watched the meteors fall.
I got an earful of sun and had to wash my ears out afterward.
Maybe the resurrection will show up as promised and give us
something to sing about.
Maybe it won't.
I intend to sing anyway.
When you finish reciting all the pain,
when the dog finally digs up his last bone,
come on over and put the bulletproof vest down.
Everybody says they want to be loved.
They say it over and over and over.
As soon as they finish hitting me over the head,
I will get up and love them.
---Scott, from one of his late poems, "Earful of Sun."
But he’d changed. There
was a limp and a dragged leg added to his Frankensteinian shuffle, a protean gut that wouldn’t leave, and
a lifetime of smoking that was beginning to catch up in a very
nasty way. He was diagnosed with that generalized acronym, CPOD, chronic
pulmonary obstructive disorder, which essentially boils down to
emphysema. Still, Scott was indeed back at Dutton’s, back from the
convalescent hospital, back from five drugs he didn’t need, back
from sleeplessness (who knows why), back from madness. Part-time
at first, breathing heavily, but in time Wannberging around as
always, essentially telling people what books they needed to
read, whether they asked or not (and as most attested after Scott’s passing, with uncanny
insight.) And more than ever, his devoted, important, cherished
friends, casual or otherwise, continued to come through: Dutton,
with very liberal accommodating of Scott’s health difficulties.
. .Griffin, with another chapbook or tour with the
the now famed
cadre of poets who fishtailed around the country in an Griffin's old
Caddy, reading in coffeehouse after coffeehouse. . .Actor Viggo
Mortensen, another great champion of Scott’s, with Scott's first
real honest-to-dog hardback volume of Scott poems, Strange
Movie Full of Death (and a brand new one, the fatefully
Tomorrow is Another Song, due Sept. 30) . .Actor Ed
Harris, with a genuine fat role as a bartender in a western he
was producing and directing. . .
Yes, Wannberg the
actor! He’d had a bit part that wound up in the extra
features of “I (heart) Huckabee’s), but now he would join the
ranks of his long-admired L.Q. Jones and
(whom he had once spent an afternoon with, while in high school)
and become a genuine. . .character actor. A bonafide inhabitant of movies,
things that he had vigorously, if metaphorically, inhabited
all his life. It must have been like going through the looking
glass for him, the idea of being on screen instead of watching
one, yet he was up for it big-time, with total aplomb. He
learned his bartender lines and headed off to Arizona for the
shoot, and I figured it was just a matter of months before Wannberg became wildly in-demand in Hollywood. Seriously.
Well, timing is
While at the shoot,
Scott’s lungs gave out and he was carted away in an ambulance.
Those who knew him, who
obits a few years later, who listened to or read his
own running reports of his life, know the rest. As the United
States continued its ritual purge of intelligence,
individuality, integrity, in favor
of any-damn-mediocre-stinking thing-that-will-turn-a-profit,
Dutton’s died. Some creepy billionaire is planning to tear down
three or four buildings and put up another “mixed use”
greed-palace---just what L.A. needs.
And Wannberg? Well, he was a butterfly with its wings pulled
No more bookstores? Might as well have said no more
newspapers. Oh, right, that’s practically happened, as well. But
what would a guy like Scott do, a guy who had supported himself
for a lifetime by making himself indispensible to readers? A guy
for whom books were churches? He
couldn’t very well prowl the aisles and stock the stacks at Amazon.com. No McGoohan there, no Peter Case, no precocious,
reserved high school kid wondering what to read. What to do? I
can’t imagine how he must have felt, and our conversations on
the subject were sort of resigned and perfunctory.
combined efforts of S.A., Dutton, and Scott’s uncle, Ken
Wannberg (the famed film music editor)---it was arranged for the
Scott the by-popular-acclaim L.A. Poet Laureate to become an
anonymous strange person in the tiny town of Florence, Oregon,
where he would. . .do exactly what? Oregon? Where was that?
What was that? Wannberg breathed in
L.A., and breathed out poetry. L.A. was the northwest corner of Wannberg
and Existence. Movie Central! Scott
without movie theaters and bookstores and freeways was like Bob
the Cat without. . .Scott.
It was Griffin who
eased his worries and literally packed him up and drove him
north. I had a bad back, and a bad brain that didn’t want to
witness Scott having to leave town, so I stayed away. I wasn’t the
greatest friend, that way. Then came the regular Scott phone calls and
e-mail, with considerable talk of how down he was, and wondering
what to do with all those trees and blue skies and rain.
Everyone encouraged him, of course. Invaluable to Scott, as he told me,
were lengthy daily phone conversations with his brother, Bob, in
Nevada. Seems they discussed a lot of “family stuff,” which
seemed to hearten and comfort both brothers. I chipped in with
undoubtedly impotent and obnoxious and lengthy pep talks about how great it
would be to live close to nature, for a change, and the health
benefits of. . .air. . .on his tar-pit lungs. As opposed to the
particulate McDonald’s-encrusted gas we inhale in Southern
“Whaddya mean, ‘walk!’”
“Get out and walk,
I exhorted him regularly
to move his bones, to pick up his oxygen tank and get around.
Walk a quarter mile, work up to a half, work up to a mile, and
so on. Walk, walk, walk.
“Where? Where? Oregon!”
I no longer can keep the
chronology straight. I just know that over the months, years,
he made a---here comes that word, heroic, again---effort to
lose weight, and the pounds dropped off. Well, some of them.
“I’m up to 50 laps now. .
“Laps? Around what?”
“The parking lot across
“You’ve got the forests
and meadows of Oregon around you, and you’re walking in a
goddamn parking lot?”
“Yeah, well, it’s good
Now that’s some kind of
determination. Walking dreary laps around a dreary parking lot
towing or carrying a dreary oxygen tank every dreary damn day.
But he did it, did Scott. Rain and shine. And he stuck with it.
I think he wound up
dropping about 70 pounds.
Maybe it bought him a
little time, but really, it was too late. His lungs were
semi-retired, not much interested in breathing even as a hobby.
There would be a couple of hospitalizations, one in which
copious amounts of black gunk were somehow pumped and sucked out. (Don't smoke, kiddies!) Everyone knew his goose
was cooked. The only question was how long before it had to be
taken out of the oven. I hoped he
might make it into his early or mid-60's.
Which brings me to
Facebook, or as I prefer, Farcebook. I despise the thing. I
think it preys, feasts, gorges itself on loneliness and
alienation, and is a circus of misunderstanding and
misinterpretation. It pretends to conversation, when typed
conversation is neither writing nor speaking, and lacks
intonation, raised eyebrows, sniffs, grunts. What’s more, I don’t think we were ever meant
to be in touch with every person we have ever known everywhere
in our entire lives at all times. Know what I mean? On my
“friends” list are people I knew 40 years ago, and people I
don’t know at all. It’s nuts, and it has made a feral little
twit into a billionaire. Worst of all, I’m addicted to it. It
offers the illusion of company, which is a balm for those of us
who work at home. Or work with cats. Still, I curse it and wish
I could quit. Except for one thing. . .
Wannberg. Farcebook saved
him. It’s that simple. Scott loved to write, and to type, and
talk, and suddenly he could write, type, and talk to. . .tons of
people. All. The. Time. Three a.m., three p.m., three to get
ready, four to go. If you are thinking this is akin to giving a
lifetime supply of Dilaudid to William Burroughs, a mirror to
Oprah Winfrey, an iPhone to a 12-year-old girl, you’d be about
right. Except in this case, it was good for him. Before long, Scott
had thousands of “friends” and ultimately became, as his
longtime friend and fellow poet, David Smith, put
it, sort of the “John Lennon of Facebook.” He posted, and
posted, and when he wasn’t posting, he posted some more.
Articles, comments, gibberish, fake movie casts and plots,
poems, poems, poems, advice, comfort, care, instruction,
inspiration. The fake names he came up with for characters in
imaginary movies had me daily guffawing into my computer screen.
Intestinal Fortescue. And it seems he was not only
writing to, but as Griffin revealed, guiding (the popular term
is “mentoring”) hundreds of poets all over the world, mostly
young and aspiring. As well as comforting people he’d never met through
the deaths of friends, pets, parents, offering counsel and advice to some
who had lost jobs, wives, self-esteem, ambition, hope.
Scott who never had a
wife and family suddenly became Papa Wannberg the Sage of
Happiness returned, and
after a couple of years of prowling around and indoctrinating
locals with Wannbergism, Scott also, not surprisingly, became the toast of the beat
intelligentsia and regular folks in Florence, Oregon. Of course
He'd have made friends in solitary confinement. He
came to be known and loved in local diners, at the local cinema,
at various coffee houses where he resumed giving readings, his
mildly elevated and excited recitation voice intact despite the
oxygen tubes in his nostrils. Florencians realized, to their
credit, that they
had a poet laureate in their midst, or maybe a lorried poeat. Those who didn’t know what to make
of his marauding intelligence and intense presence were soon
beguiled by the innate innocence and kindness that he gave off
the way Krishna gave off a blue glow. I think back to the
Deadheads at that New Year’s Eve show, giving him wide berth.
They realized there was a holy man in their midst.
Best of all, as far as
I’m concerned, his poetry got even better, deeper, more refined.
|One Day Summer Rented a Room
Hard laughter in a can, a bright can, aisle 56,
endurable can, endurable bright hard laughing can.
Can I, would I, should we, hard hard hard laughter in the land,
cool front moving in on
cool front moving
sad coffee hallelujah.
Man stumbles up alongside me.
Man says can I sing him some everlasting everloving?
Says me, yeah I can, and commence to let it all fly.
Cool cool front hanging in the back,
easy sorrow in a can, a bright can, aisle 58
endurable can, endurable easy sorrow can.
One day summer rented a room.
I fit into it.
And I’m going to leave
off here with that happy aspect of his late life, except to say
that his ending was apparently merciful. Scott the ancient
teenager seems to have laid down on his bed and gone to sleep,
followed not long afterward by his overtaxed old heart. He was,
it seems important to say, afforded one of the “Three Things are
Needed” that he once expressed in this 1982 poem:
three things are
a space big enough to die
someone's phone number
other than my own
the feeling that no
matter how many muscles i make
When I think of Wannberg
now, it is with an oppressive sadness. Yes, he left a lot of
himself behind, and with so many---the inevitable museum
realized. The tributes, obituaries in major newspapers and
recognition of his greatness, and broken-heartedness of his
friends---Facebook or life-long---have amazed to all who
knew him. Scott would have loved it, sure as Bob the Cat
loved to have his chin scratched. I can imagine him sitting
back, arms folded across his chest, eyes half-closed, nodding,
letting out a contented, “Mmmm.” Hell, perhaps there will be a
Wannberg Exhibition, a Wannberg biography, a Wannberg movie, a
Wannberg Happiness Festival.
ambling bulk will never again show up behind me on a street in
Westwood, or leave a raucous, rambling message on my answering
machine, and I will never again hear his Walter Winchell-esque
bark celebrating my presence with an outburst of “Rip Rense! Rip
Rense! Friend of the Lost Dogs of Neptune!” As I think about old Scott,
I am reminded of my wife's old cat, B.C. (whom Scott knew.) And
how when B.C. died at age 19, I realized that all those years
that I thought I had been taking care of him, it really was the
other way around. He had been taking care of me.
I think this is true of
the great Scott David Wannberg of Los Angeles, Florence, and The
Nice Coffee Breeze Going By In That Unilateral Moment of Music, and all who were lucky
enough to know his garrulous, giving, joyous, hulking,
riffing, analyzing, dancing, singing, celebrating, delighting, scribbling, typing,
declaiming ongoing self.
cache of poems written exclusively for The Rip Post may be found
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