“Forever Young!” was the celebratory title I wrote on the occasion of the city of Berkeley’s official Al Young Day in 2013. I’m sticking to that headline, insisting on it, after Al’s death on April 17. You can review on your own his nearly endless CV, full of accolades, books, teaching and performing gigs, political activism and more, always more. He was a fellow writer, meaning that he made time for younger, less prolific ones and, best of all, was a friend, comrade, mentor. My family was lucky to spend a few hours with him annually, usually for breakfast at Saul’s. It was an occasion for celebration and congratulation. Of ourselves! We could not believe our good luck hanging out with Al, the kind of favor given like extra sour cream or a side of fries at the deli. We are SoCal rubes, easily impressed by San Francisco and Berkeley. So, a big deal to have a standing breakfast date with our own in-house ambassador to the bohemian, political, resistance-culture Berkeley, and to the world. We sat at our booth way too long and then stood outside talking before Al ambled, then trudged and then, in recent years, walkered his way back to his North Berkeley home of many decades.
I met Al Young at the Community of Writers creative writing conference held each summer in the Sierra and was reliably surprised by the end of his every story, sentence and joke no matter how it began. I wanted to be in earshot of Al, as did many. He completely owned the rhythms of humor and idiom and was, of course, a blues man, self-described. Community of Writers participants will recall the elegant wit and jolly subversion of the duet played and sung by Al and the late Jim Houston, his life-long pal and fellow Stegner fellow, with Houston on ukulele and, hilariously, Al on credit card. You cannot make this stuff up. But they did, together, in their gently class-conscious ditty “White Man’s Blues.”
As a storyteller and all-occasion raconteur, Al would pause and let you imagine his story was over — and then deliver one more beat, as if a haiku of his making could always contain one more syllable, Al’s own addition to the form. Early in our friendship, I badgered conference administrators into a panel ostensibly exploring the role or meaning of politics to writers. I was young and had something to prove, and panels like that are often boring or frightening, depending on one’s politics. Al and the late Alan Cheuse were on it, along with novelist Lynn Freed. The internet was new back then, many unfamiliar with what is now routine, even out of control. A singular trait I admired in Al is what I witnessed that afternoon 25 years ago, at an occasion which was going to be surprising, either way. At that moment I learned unshyness from Al Young, who used the time, stage, microphone and moment he was given. He took it. When it came time for Al to talk, presumably about craft or art or the writer’s role in society or, yes, the African American experience or civil rights or some predictable if important and expected insight, he instead told everybody assembled that they should read the daily posts at the World Socialist Website, wsws.org. Many in the crowd could not even parse the syntax of that URL and of course couldn’t imagine why a poet — soon poet laureate of the state of California — professor and blues man would go there. Naturally, I went!
Along with poet Brenda Hillman, Al Young taught me that everything, anything, is idiom, and available to a creative person or somebody who wants to be one, regardless, or full of regard. Al used, embraced whatever was there. I was once gently scolded by Hillman for teasing old Maud Gonne and W.B. Yeats for their Theosophy and mystical language, their weirdo spiritual politics, but soon came to understand that anything was a potential dream-way into language and ideas, to visions and politics and creativity, including the variety of creative resistance which both she and Al personified.
Al was that way about everything: musical genres, politics, civil rights, media and people. There was always a way in, and if you thought that, no, a conspiracy theory or a coincidence or anomaly or figure of speech or even individual was unredeemable or out of line or inappropriate or unworthy, he would bring it or them into line: into a line, metaphorically, imaginatively, never willing to let some possibility go.
Poets know a little about everything, you think, until you realize that they know a lot about everything. They must! Al was a poet, screenwriter, novelist, ethnomusicologist and a casually self-conscious old-school entertainer, too. At Saul’s one Saturday morning, he delighted my young child with the story of purchasing a remote-control device called, wonderfully, a TV-B-Gone, and then explaining how he’d carry it with him and, when annoyed by stupid Fox News (a favorite easy joke target, if still appropriate) in the airport or dentist’s office, discreetly perform his bit of guerrilla cultural work. I have no idea if Al really did this, but it pleased all of us — and should delight you — to believe that he did.
Of course, there are many stories, of life and not only the books, recordings, anthologies, performances; the travel and teaching in a long career as an all-around cultural worker and activist, the insistent revisionist history, the gossip and digressions and then, as if there could indeed be only more, Al singing unaccompanied, snapping his fingers and crooning right there in the restaurant, on the stage, on the sidewalk, on a panel, taking and making the moment.
He was generous and worked for what matters. We were Pacifica Radio pals, Al agreeing to let me feature him and his must-own collection Something About the Blues on the very first episode of the books program I hosted on KPFK in Los Angeles. Al served on the boards of KPFA and Pacifica and stayed involved in every arts, liberation and people’s struggle.
Laid low by a stroke, he seemed puzzled at why visitors insisted on reminding him of who they were and why they were visiting. He was in pain, and had trouble speaking, but that mind and his claim on life, on the life of the artist, and on the pleasures and responsibilities of those lives which he so fully embraced — and exhausted, finally, more than any human dynamo I will likely know — was impossible not to see and be awed by.
Andrew Tonkovich edits the West Coast literary magazine Santa Monica Review and is the author of the collection Keeping Tahoe Blue and Other Provocations.