A few recollections of John Farris

Steve and Phoebe at Farris event
Steve and Phoebe at Farris event

"Steve decided to write something about John, and since he's blind he asked me to read it for him. Steve says, the first time he ever remembers meeting John was in Tompkins Sq Park. This must have been in the 80’s and it might have been at Neither Nor, but he doesn't remember exactly. This was in the days when John loved to dance, had a quick wit, a sharp eye, a damn good ear, and would fight at the drop of a hat. "Ass whole you think he can play saxophone? He ain't no Charlie Parker! And now you talkin bout Trane!? He ain't no Trane neither!” " Ok man, well, who you like?" "You need a new set of ears man. And don't be trying to tell me bout no David Murray.” "You cats down here still ain't got past Trane or Bird.” "Ass whole… ill kick yo ass!” John tells Steve he used to play the Trumpet. Steve said he had to laugh at that because he knew damn well that John was definitely no Miles Davis or Clifford Brown. And don't even bring up the name Louis Armstrong. What Steve and John had in common was that they both loved music, art, and literature, though not necessarily in that order. They could spend hours together just talkin about who was kickin ass in jazz. Miles, Trane, Sun RA. And God help you if they got into poetry. Thy would also exchange books and turn eachother on to who they should be reading. It was Darrius James, Norman Douglas, and Emily Carter who were closer to John than Steve was at that time. But both John and Steve had grown up listening to Bee Bop and shared a taste in music, and they were older. Steve tells me, John was the kind of guy-you would see him walking down the street or sitting in Tompkins Sq Park or in a bar or wherever, and he would pull a piece of paper out his pocket and start reading his latest poem to you- whether you wanted to hear it or not. This was in the days before John started limping around the neighborhood. At that time, if memory serves Steve right, John was living in the Alchemical Theatre. That's when John and Raymond Taylor became buddies. They weren't that close but they knew eachother. They shared that space. It was a squat. And for the hell of it, John decided to write a series of prose pieces based on the activities of Raymond Taylor. He called it Raymundo del Mundo. And whenever Steve bumped into him, Steve said John would read him a section. Sometimes in Tompkins Sq Park, Steve said he'd be sitting on a bench w John and Jr. and Raymond Taylor, and John would read a piece of Raymundo, and Raymond didn't even have enough sense to realize it was about him. It was at Neither Nor and at Alchemical theatre where John started to present his own work and the work of his favorite poets on the scene like Quincy Troop, in addition to Darrius and Emily. Sometimes John would even invite Steve to read but most of the time Steve would sit in the audience and heckle. "Read the fuckin poem!” Steve said said he was there basically to listen and learn. To admire Johns courage and reflect on his taste. Not only his work but his taste in music. At Neither Nor, Jemeel Moondoc held down the fort on Monday nights. The tune Steve remembers them playing w John in the middle of floor dancing was In Walked Bud. Over the next several years when Steve started Tribes and stopped teaching because of the loss of his eye sight, he and John became closer. Closer because Steve and Bob Holman had started a poetry workshop on the top floor of the building he owned on east 3rd st. Which was where Norman lived for a while. And every Friday a bunch of poets who read at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe would gather to workshop their poems. John didn't necessarily participate in the workshop but he certainly let everyone know what he thought about their work. If he thought it was a piece of crap he didn't bite his tongue. Bonny Finberg told Steve a classic John story that took place at a reading for the Charlie Parker festival in the garden at Tribes. Before Bonny got up to read her poem, John have her a hit on a joint, and Bonny doesn't usually doesn't smoke reefer before she reads her poetry, unlike John. And just as her named was called to get up and read, John says to her “you know Bonny, you’d be a great poet if you stopped writing that shit". And he said it so loud that the whole audience could hear. When John died, everybody that John and Steve knew called Steve and had a negative story to tell about that guy. In fact when Andrew called and told Steve that John had disappeared off the planet earth, the first words out of Steve’s mouth were “good! that SOB stole $3,000 from me.” Against Steve’s better judgement he had published Johns first and only book of poetry, It's not about Time, set him up with a book release party and reading at Medgar Evers College in BK, made sure he got paid to do the reading and that the students were required to buy his book of poetry, and so on. Because the check wasn't ready immediately after the reading, John cussed out the professor in front of his students. "Ass whole, where the fuck is the money!? ” He was notorious for lettin people know how he felt and couldn't care less what they thought. But that did not take away from his talent. The older he got, the more contrary he became. In fact, Andrew nicknamed him "Cranky Franky”. Then to top it off Miguel Algarin, who was teaching at Rutgers University also set up a reading for John to do at Rutgers, for which he would get paid and students would buy his book. Come to find out John had stolen all the books, and had been selling them at the bar 2A for drinks. When Steve found out and asked John why, John said "it was my book and it was just sittin there, so I have a right to sell it!" Despite the fact that Steve paid for it. Mingus had a tune called The Fabels of Fabus. Well this is The Fabels of John. Aside from bein a poet and a damn good one at that, John was also a playwright and an essayist. He did a brilliant interview with Sun-RA for Spin magazine. He was so excited about the results, he came and read the whole thing, line by line to Steve and wanted to know what Steve thought. Unfortunately Steve brushed it off by saying "so what? I don't hear anything new.” John said "Steve, fuck you asshole. This is the definitive interview with Sun-RA and it's the best one you'll ever hear. I had Ra talkin about his days in Alabama and how he was influenced by the orchestrations of Fletcher Henderson and his big band. This was before RA took off and went into outer space.” And John also wrote 2 great plays that Steve knows about. One was about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki from the point of view of the pilot that flew over this cities. Steve was at a reading of the play on the top floor of Neither Nor at Dennis’s apartment. To Steve’s knowledge it was never produced but should have been. The other play he heard John read, at The Living Theatre, was Hughie Louie and Newie. To Steve it sounded like The Three Stooges. The fact is, John even put his hand into directing one of Steve’s plays, Top of the World. Steve never knew he had that talent, but he was good at it. "Fuck you! Say that line again. You gotta make it musical. Put some rhythm in that line! You Johnson stand over there. And Angela...stop smiling.” I guess you could say Steve was one of the few people who knew the pleasant side of John. He was not always mean. I'll tell you one thing. He loved his reefer. Isn't that right Steve? Morning, noon, and night. And music was his religion. Especially jazz. He even wrote a novel about James Moody. It too, as far as Steve knows, was never published. He eventually published one novel, The Ass’s Tale, which Ishmael Reed gave him a PEN award for. Of course it was a satire, filled with puns. And over and above all that, John was a damn good teacher. People that he and Steve knew who were starting to be serious about their writing, especially poets, John would mentor them. He made suggestions about their writing and gave recommendations of who they should read. He would share his taste with them. And not just Afro-American writers. John believed serious writers should be reading everything, from all cultural perspectives. A couple of years before Steve lost the building on East 3rd st, John slowly hobbled up to the 2nd floor apartment, threw open the door, and announced to Steve that he had started sketching. Not that he had given up writing but that he was spending more time drawing. He did a portrait of Steve. Since John was constantly broke, Steve gave John a $100 for the portrait and put it on the wall at Tribes. When people would come over to Tribes, Steve would proudly point to John’s portrait of him on the wall "See that drawing of me on the wall by John!?” "Yeah what about it?" “Look!" "Shit Steve, that doesn't look like you, it looks like John.” Last Steve heard of John, he had his drawings scattered all over his apartment, the same with his writings. Plastered all over the place. Steve remembers one particular morning that he went over to Tompkins Sq Park and saw Cecil Taylor sitting on a bench. Steve goes over to Cecil who says “Hey Steve, I’ve been up all night and I gotta go get on an airplane and go to Scotland to play a concert opposite Glen Gould.” Meanwhile, there were these two drunks in front of Cecil and Steve, arguing about when Duke Ellington died! They couldn't agree to save their souls. So one drunk says to the other "ask Cecil! He's a musician, he'll know when Duke died.” "Hey Cecil, when did Duke die?” Cecil absorbed the question, took a good moment to answer, and then responded "Duke died?? Duke didn't die. He went inside.” And Steve would like to say the same thing about John. John didn't die, he's still alive, inside. So as John Farris might say it-Asshole, thank you."

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