I have written about the various times that I met Harlan Ellison. I wrote about the time I met him with my Mom at Dangerous Visions bookshop, for instance, which I was certain was the second time I met him. The first time, I was certain, was a lecture he gave at the Learning Tree in the Valley in 1995. It was my sister who called it to my attention.
However, I was wrong.
Recently, I wrote about the digital treasure I uncovered on an old server. I’ve had some time to go through what I found there, and among my writings is a detailed description for my group of friends on that Learning Tree lecture. It turns out the lecture was my second time meeting Harlan. The first was when I met him at Dangerous Visions, that day with my mom.
Today, I present to you a guest post. A writer from 27 years in the past–me–writing about my experience seeing Harlan Ellison lecture for the first time. Anyone who knows Harlan knows he doesn’t lecture. He is a kind of Robin Williams of the fantastic and what he did that day really made an impression on me, as you will see. What follow is what I wrote as Installment #34 of a series of pre-blog-era email messages to group of my friends from a Harlan Ellison lecture I attended on Friday, July 7, 1995.
WHERE YOUR MOST HUMBLED AUTHOR SAT IN BEWILDERED AWE FOR THREE HOURS AND FIFTEEN MINUTES AND LISTENED TO A LIVING GOD SPEAK
It’s really hard to describe in any other terms. It was like sitting down next to a movie star and chatting away. If you’re religious, it was akin to sitting down next to Jesus and shooting the shit.
Comes Friday last, an unusual Friday in that I actually had something to do that evening. Instead of threading my way through the 5 PM traffic to Studio City, instead of lining up behind a row of smog-chugging autos at the Carl’s Jr. drive thru, instead of dozing off on the couch until 9:30 PM and waking in a dark, dazed stupor, instead of all of that, I took a ride out to Northridge, to the Valley campus of Learning Tree University, to a small, empty parking lot, and into a small air conditioned lecture room. I took a seat in the front row, center, not more than two feet from the director’s chair and mike in front of me. And after a twenty-minute wait, he showed up with his wife, toting a couple of boxes of books and a wool blazer. The first thing he said was, “Don’t you people have anything better to do on a Friday night?”
The next thing he said, glancing at his watch and pulling off his blue-blockers was, “For those of you who were dragged here by loved ones and have no fucking clue as to who I am, my name is Harlan Ellison, and I’m a writer. I’ve written short stories, books, movies and television, and you’ll probably hate me fifteen minutes into the lecture.” He then asked a lady in the front row to spit our her gum please, and handed her a cup to do so.
“Media, Monsters, and Madness,” he said, peering over the flier that announced the lecture, “What the fuck is this, media, monsters and madness? Folks, I want you to know this isn’t my title. You’ll get plenty of the madness, but this ain’t my title.” He shook his head. “I didn’t want to put a title on this talk, because I’m just gonna be
talking for three hours about anything that comes to mind. Some of it may have to do with media, and monsters. Most of it will be madness.
“You know, they told me they needed a title though, so I said, ‘How about New Techniques for Masterbation.’ That’ll back ’em in. They put media monsters and madness.”
That’s how it started and it only got better as the three hours went by.
Ellison is a short man, and when he first came into the room, his hair was significantly more gray than in his pictures. But a strange phenomenon occurred as the night went on. His wife, Susan, was there the whole time, a younger woman (much younger, I gather) sitting by stacks of books and CD’s if anyone wanted to by.
I learned a lot about Ellison that night. He was a staunch liberal in the 1960s and now he thinks the liberals are just as bad as the conservatives. Well, almost. He marched on Montgomery. He was friends with Martin Luther King. He worked side-by-side with Caesar Chavez. He hung out with Lenny Bruce. Someone asked him what’s the one thing he’d like to do if he knew he was going to die in a month.
“I’d like to buy a gun, and take a leisurely drive across the country to North Carolina. Then I’d like to find Jesse Helms, the man who just said ‘let the faggots die because they gives AIDS to the world’ and put the gun between his eyes and say ‘die mother fucker’ and pull the trigger. I’d like to do this because, you ever notice that when someone takes a shot at good guys, a guys like Kennedy, they could be fifty-fucking million miles away, with a bee-bee gun, in high wind, and blind, yet the blow the guy’s brains through the back of his head. Meanwhile, when someone actually does try and shoot a jerk like Reagan, they get right up next him and MISS!”
Ellison had lots to say that evening. He talked about computers and how he hated them and how they were the downfall of society as we know it. Hey, he might be my idol, but I’m allowed my differences. He talked about television and the cultural illiteracy of America, and how there was somehow a connection. “We are fed stupid through television, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.” He talked about the trouble he’d caused at recent talks. In Ohio, one girl called him the Antichrist and then set her hair on fire. At a talk he was asked to give to the Advertising Executives of the Western United States, he caused a ruckus when he said, “You ever wonder why we have more automobile deaths than any other country? Could it be because every car commercial we see on tv shows cars zooming by at speeds you know we can’t drive? Every wonder why we have the biggest drug problem than any other country? Could it be
because every other commercial says, ‘have a cold, take a drug’, ‘can’t sleep, take a drug’, ‘back pain, take a drug’, ‘can’t shit, take a drug’.”
And the longer Harlan Ellison talked, the younger and younger he began to appear.
We took a short break about halfway through, and a couple of people (myself included) got up to talk to Ellison, and have him sign books for us. I got The Glass Teat signed, which makes four of his books, now. It was then, when I was up there talking to him, that it dawned on me (dawned, heck, pummeled me): this is the man. This is Ellison. This is the guy, who, as a kid of 17 joined a street gang in New York City (circa 1950) so that he could write a book about street gang life. This is the guy who wrote “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.” The guy who wrote, “‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, “The Whimpering of Whipped Dogs”, “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”, “All the Lies that are My Life”, “Count the Clock that Tells the Time”, “The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World”, Star Trek, episode #27, “The City on the Edge of Forever”, “A Boy and his Dog”, “Demon with a Glass Hand”, “Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”. This was the man who in 1967, changed the shape of science fiction (and perhaps literature in general) forever with Dangerous Visions, and in 1972 with Again, Dangerous Visions. This is the guy who, from 1954 until April of 1992, was best friends with Isaac Asimov. This was the man who led the West Coast struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. This was the man who showed people the poison they were being fed with his books The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. This was the man, the myth, the legend, the Second Coming of Borges. This was everything that I ever wanted to be. This was Harlan Ellison, and I was here, next to him, talking to him.
When the break was over he said, “Now, I brought a story, fresh of the typewriter (I still use Olympia manual typewriters, because I like nice dark black marks on my page and I can type 120 words per minutes with two fingers and no mistakes) and this story will be appearing in the next issue of Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor (finally! my own comic book!)
“You want me to read you guys the story?”
We did. Ellison promised us we wouldn’t be disappointed, that he was a good reader. I thought, “Okay.”
He does, so happen, to be the best reader I ever heard. In the half hour or so it took for him to read the story (titled something like, “Stroll Through the Museum of Imaginary Creatures1“) he made no mistakes. He read the lines with the actual accents that the characters had. Some of the characters were from North Carolina and he had a perfect southern accent. Better than most film actors. Some of the characters were from Sweden, and he did a perfect swedish accent. Not a single flaw, and it made the story a delight. When he finished the story, Ellison looked significantly younger. He told us, with a reminder from his wife, that it took him a day to write the story, and he read it to us (and is sending it to the publisher) exactly the way it came off the typewriter.
And this is the part that I remember most, this is the part that amazed me and astounded me and filled me with the sense of wonder that is science fiction. He said, “You’ve got to remember, though, I was kicked out of college and told that I’d never be a decent writer. Well, I can’t sing for shit, I can’t fix a car, I can’t play an intrument, (and Susan can’t tell a joke)–” and suddenly, he got a smile on his face, a twitch in his cheek, and twinkle in his eye, the gray came out of his hair, his eyes were alive and bluer than the sky, “–BUT I CAN WRITE! And it tickles the shit out of me.”
Back to the future
One thing that my fifty-year old self finds remarkable about this is my memory for what Harlan said. Back then, I didn’t carry around a notebook the way I do today. I didn’t have a phone to record the lecture. Harlan’s talk made such an impression on me that I just remembered it very well. I’m not sure I could do the same today without taking notes.
One thing I didn’t mention in this piece to my friends was a question Harlan posed to the audience. At some point, he referred to a line that either he or some else had written. The line referred to a person as having “the eyes of a Dachau guard.” He then asked if anyone in the audience knew what a Dachau guard was. And he was pretty pissed off that no one did. (I didn’t. All we’d ever been taught growing up was about the horror of concentration camps — never the names of the camps.)
This was my first time ever hearing an author read one of their own stories and I’m afraid it spoiled me for life. If you’ve ever heard Harlan read, if you’ve ever listened to one of his recordings, you know what I mean. I’ve never heard anyone who comes close. When I started to read my own stories at science fiction conventions, I tried not to think of Harlan’s readings. They were too intimidating.
Incidentally, the story that Harlan read that day, hot off his Olympia manual typewriter, was later published in the March 1996 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It is collected in Slippage, and there is an audiobook version read by Harlan as well, although I doubt it is as good as it was on that July evening 27 years ago.
Written on April 8 and 10, 2022.
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- Actually, “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral.” ↩
This was a treat. I’m looking forward to more of your rediscovered treasures.