Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Al Rosa , Parties and Poetry - Vancouver in the Early 1980s

Living at Al Rosa

This is from a rough draft of a longer work - if you appear here and I have made any factual errors, please let me know and I will correct them)

Juils Comeault and some of his friends bought a place near 17th and Main and formed a communal house called "Al Rosa". The name signified the combination of Alexander from Alexander Berkman and Rosa of Rosa Luxemburg - a synthesis of anarchism and libertarian Marxism. He had been wanting me to live there for a long time, and early in 1982 there was a vacant room and I moved in. This was one of the best moves I ever made.

There were four other people living there besides Juils. Mark and Teresa had an impish sense of humour and were great fun to talk to. Regina, usually called Reg, was gentle and kind to a fault. A musician, artist and country girl from Ft. St John, she had her feet solidly on the ground and didn't have much time for our intellectual goings-on. Her country musician boy friend, Rick, who spent a lot of time at the house, was quiet, droll, and totally practical, he could fix anything. Billy Little (aka Zonko) poet, zinester and collage artist was a fount of inspiration, eager and quick to help in any endeavor. Wild and zany, Billy could also be cantankerous at times, which sometimes upset the women. Juils, charismatic and full of life, kept it all together. Al Rosa was a house of laughter and music.

I wouldn't be exaggerating too much to say that our house was where the political, artistic, literary and musical sub-cultures met, partied and exchanged ideas. Sculptor and holographer Jerry Pethick, poets George Stanley and Peter Culley, all friends of Billy's, often stayed with us. Frequent vistors included writer and curator Scott Watson, poet Gerry Gilbert, curator Annette Hurtig, writer Dora Fitzgerald, artist Brownie Brown, Chris Haddock, (then a bass player, not a TV producer) vocalist Mike Jacobs, saxophonist Gordie Bertram, (all three in the Questionnaires), poets Kate Van Dusen and Dorothy Trujillo. On occasion, you might also find George Bowering, David McFadden or Stan Persky sitting at our kitchen table.

We also used to attend readings at the Western Front and Octopus Books East on Commercial Drive. Our friends would read, but also there would be a "headliner." This way I got to hear Micheal McLure, Victor Coleman, George Faludy, Susan Musgrave, Daphne Marlatt and Phyllis Webb. Allen Ginsburg visited Vancouver twice, filling a hall in Kitsilano. The readings were intense and Billy would sometimes heckle. This was long before poetry slams, but to me the readings often had the excitement of a punk gig.

Our parties were famous. Every room in the house would be full of people as well as out on the lawn. Juils and Billy took care of the music and an endless stream of R and B (mostly R and B!) new wave, African, blues and trad rock 'n roll would be blasting and most everyone dancing like crazy. Sometimes the party would start in the morning and end at six AM the following day. I remember one of these which began with Billy's champagne brunch ending with the police telling us to shut it down just as day light was appearing. In our mid-late thirties we were still young enough to party hard, but old enough not to act stupid.

There were always people sitting at our big round table in the kitchen passing joints and drinking brandy at these parties. Sometimes this was the party. There would be wide-ranging discussions and poets would read from their works or favorite authors. This was the way I had always imagined Bohemia to be. I would have given anything to have life in Al Rosa go on forever. But it couldn't, and didn't, much to my sorrow at the time those wonderful days ended.

There was also an Al Rosa "look", at least among the men and many of our visitors. The hippie-look had been long gone by then, thanks to New Wave and punk. Suits and ties were "in", but from the thrift store and had to be early 1960s or older. I dug out my old suit from high school days and wore it until the bum was shiny and the elbows coming out in the sleeves. One time Juils, Bob Mercer, John Shaver and myself were walking down the street together and we must have looked like the Blues Brothers passing by.

The Tuesday Night Group (Juils and I had a three year long study group that happened every Tuesday night) was not the only reading group. Billy organized a weekly reading around the kitchen table. Everyone took turns reading aloud. We started with several of Shakespeare's plays, then went on to Doblin's "Berlin Alexanderplatz" and Carlos Fuente's monumental "Terra Nostra", which we never completed.

We went to all the important demonstrations for peace and Latin American solidarity. Sometimes we went as a group. Juils encouraged me to volunteer at the Spartacus Book Coop, and I remained a member until leaving Vancouver in 1986. This was also the time of the Solidarnosc revolt in Poland. The rank and file workers predominated at this point and the movement had many affinities with syndicalism, demanding a worker-managed socialism. A support group was forming, so Juils and I got involved. I remained with the group until it dissolved some three years later. We published the Solidarnosc Newsletter that went out to the BC Fed trade unions and did other educational work. After Juils got too sick to participate, the group consisted of five people – two anarchists and three Trotskyists. We never had the slightest problem working together because we focused on the project and not divisive points of ideology.

Juils, Billy and I formed our own tiny group called "Workers Anonymous." This started off as a joke, but it made a good cover for the stream of leaflets, Situationist-type comics, buttons and stickers we churned out. The idea was to be an anonymous voice of the rank and file, in opposition to the party-building favoured by most of the left. I also got into zine making, zine making again, if you include my 1969 IWW efforts. Stories were always appearing in the main stream newspapers that inadvertently exposed just how insane the system was. But they would appear once in a while, usually buried in the back pages. My idea was to collect these news items and publish them in a zine devoted to doing just that. So was born "Muckfunnel – Fanzine of the Irrational" which lasted for seven issues – produced until I left Vancouver. Billy helped out with artwork and clippings. Soon friends were sending me crazy stuff to print. I discovered a capitive audience – people waiting for their washing in laundromats. I went around to all the laundromats on Broadway and the West End leaving copies of Muckfunnel to shake their faith in the authorities.

In the 1990s, the media claimed the KGB was responsible for spreading the rumour the CIA had created and spread the AIDS virus. I was a bit miffed, because it wasn't the KGB who first came out with this story, but myself, early in 1983 in the Muckfunnell. Of course, I don't think the CIA created AIDS, but there are people in the ruling class depraved enough to commit a crime of this magnitude, and this was the point I was trying to make with my satirical article. (Keep reading!)

I should say something about life generally at this time. No one had a house key, so the front door was locked, but the back door was always open. You might leave the house for an hour, come back and find someone's friend sitting in the living room. Al Rosa was never robbed. This was before the CIA let in all that cocaine and started the crack epidemic. Sure there were junkies, there had been junkies in Vancouver since the city was founded in 1886, but they were never that many of them, nothing like the hoardes of crack heads those Gringo assholes unleashed upon us. Hastings and Carrol was a place people still visited. Coop Radio was there, as well as a fine old fish restaurant from 1912 with pressed tin plate on the ceiling. There was Army and Navy, China Arts and Crafts and a couple of movie theatres. (I saw "The Harder They Come" at one of these in 1974) At night you went to the Smilin' Buddha for punk gigs. Nobody was scared of the winos tottering by.

In retrospect, you can see trouble coming. The BC government in its infinite wisdom and cost-cutting mania closed the insane asylums and put the inmates out on the street. One of these deluded wretches decided that Juils was his personal enemy. He used to harangue Juils in Octopus Books and later put hateful posters up about him. There wasn't much that could be done about the problem. No one wanted to go to the police. I think Juils died before the problem was resolved.

I don't recall any homeless, other than end-of-their rope alkies. Rents were going up, but the sociopathic level of greed which through speculation would destroy thousands of inexpensive dwellings and push real estate prices to astronomical heights, was still years away. Friends of mine bought a two story house with a basement suite near Cambie in 1982. They paid $100,000 and I was shocked at how expensive it was! No masses of druggies and homeless, no sky-high rents, Vancouver was an easy, laid-back place for poor folks like us in the 1970s and early 80s.

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