Tribute to Barney Rosset

David Amram

At a fancy literary party in the 1950s, Jean Genet asked Barney’s wife to take off her necklace so that he could examine it.

When she asked Genet to return it, he refused to give it back. Barney said a few choice words and Genet gave the necklace back. Genet’s noted oozing charm and skill as a con man was no match for Barney’s moral imperative. Barney showed all the guilt-ridden white liberal quality-lit types at the party that Genet was trying to con the wrong man!

In 1958, when I did music for Barney’s audio books of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, Beckett informed him before hearing a note that he didn’t want ONE SECOND of music in his play. Barney had no idea that this would happen, and was shocked to hear this in a letter he received from abroad, the same day that we had finished recording the whole score.

Barney was really a mensch about it all, and after paying all the musicians, he thanked them personally.

Then he somehow got Beckett to agree to allow the recording to have a few church bells fading out at the very end of the play, and insisted on crediting me as the composer of what turned out to be the least amount of music ever to be acknowledged as a composition, with the exception of John Cage’s Seven Minutes of Silence.

Barney always had respect not only for established writers, but for anyone who he felt had something to offer. But he never spared his friends from sharing his honest opinion with them.

When my first book, Vibration, was published in 1968, and to everyone’s amazement got a great review in the NY Times, Barney called me up.

“Congratulations David,” he said in a cheery voice. “What a fabulous review. I applaud your efforts as a storyteller but since you have so many friends who are accomplished writers and your classical compositions have such real sense of form, did you ever hear of punctuation and pacing when writing such a long book? The book is certainly colorful and fun, but the 465 pages of non-stop, over-the-top, run-on sentences are a bit much. It was exhausting. And essentially, it’s on a third grade reading level.”

“I know, Barney,” I told him. “But that’s my crowd.”

“Well, try to remember, for your next book, to practice what you tell us your philosophy of playing music with others is. As I recall, your mantra is ‘Less is More.’ And I remember years ago, at the Five Spot, you advised Larry Rivers when he sat in with your band and started playing what sounded like a different song, ‘When in doubt… leave it out!’ When you write, leave a little room for the reader to BREATHE!”

A few days after Kerouac died in the fall of 1969,  Barney called and said he was really sorry and asked me to write an obit about Jack for the Evergreen Review. He said that my sweetheart and I should both meet him at Casey’s for dinner and discuss what to write.

We got dressed up and went to Casey’s, about two blocks from the Lion’s Head, where I went almost every night, after dinner hour, whenever I was in town, to jam with whoever was working there.

The food was fantastic but I hardly ever ate there.

When we arrived, the waiter said Barney had left a message saying that he had an important meeting and would be late, so we should order something really good and start without him.

Since I was guaranteed the princely sum of $50 by Barney to write the obit for Jack, I decided to go all out and get us more than our customary hamburger and fries on one of our rare nights out.

The waiter kept bringing us extra wine, extra helpings of everything and insisting that we try samples of almost everything on the menu.

When we were done eating, a bottle of champagne was brought to our table.

I panicked, realizing that I would have to borrow the house pianist’s entire week’s salary just to pay for what had turned out to be our Roman feast.

Just as I was about to get up and see if I could make a loan from the pianist, Casey Li, the owner, came over to our table and told me that Barney had in fact been there all night, hiding out at another table, and told all the people at Casey’s in advance that he wanted to buy us a great meal as a surprise from him, a way of celebrating Jack’s life and the work he left behind for us all to share. And that Barney had told Casey to tell us that he hoped it would make me feel better about losing an old friend, and also cheer up the lovely woman I was with.

Barney also left a note in an envelope next to the champagne which I will never forget.

Years later, when I reminded him of that night,  he told me that he felt that the idea of an Irish wake was the only way to deal with a loved one’s death, because it became a celebration of that loved ones life, and reinforced the importance of friendship, extended family and caring for one another by having a party!

There are countless stories of unexpected kindness towards others that can be told about Barney, but he would never have told them himself. While he was unfailingly generous to so many people, he never wanted to be thanked or even credited for being that way. He just operated on doing what he felt was the right thing to do.

When he felt someone’s civil liberties or artistry was being trampled upon, or if someone didn’t live up to their word, he would let them (and everyone within earshot) know that he was there to speak out. Often, his reprimands were delivered  in a thunderous fashion when necessary, but he made it clear that even he were knocked down, he would never be knocked out.

He spent his life walking the talk he talked because he was unconditionally committed to doing what he felt was right.

And today, our society is a better place because of that.