John Ross — beat-era poet and revolution-championing journalist — died this week in Mexico of liver cancer. He was 72 — or was it 73? The Associated Press says the former, Counterpunch’s Frank Bardacke, another veteran of the Bay Area left, says the latter. Whatever, the age matters less than the life lived, and Ross got the most out of whatever years he had.
He was mainly a West Coast phenomenon these past few decades, but Ross’s roots were here in the Village where he was a true child of the early beat era. But even if the name is new to you, John Ross’s passing is worth noting if only to confirm that these marvelous characters once walked the earth, and their kind is not likely to pass this way again.
For starters, there were Ross’s travels with Latin American revolutionaries, including the secretive Zapatistas of Chiapas province in Mexico whose story he told in “Rebellion From the Roots,” which won an American Book Award in 1995.
Then there’s his autobiography, “Murdered by Capitalism: A Memoir of 150 Years on the American Left,” Nation Books, 2004. Thomas Pynchon, whose praise is almost as hard to find as his picture, dubbed it “a rip-snorting and honorable account of an outlaw tradition in American politics which too seldom gets past the bouncers at the gates of our national narrative.”
In between there was poetry and politics, and lots of it. The poems were published in ten little chapbooks (Bomba! was his most recent), and read aloud alongside Lawrence Ferlinghetti, both in Mexico City and at City Lights in San Francisco.
That was his Village roots showing through. Ross did his first public poetry reading as a teenager from the stage of the Half-Note, after Charles Mingus had finished playing. Backstage at Town Hall, he sold a joint to Dizzy Gillespie. He helped Max Gordon book Jack Kerouac into a disastrous week-long gig at the Village Vanguard, and did promo for one of the Voice‘s first events – a Billie Holiday concert at the old Loew’s Sheraton on Seventh Avenue. Lady Day arrived hours late. Ross was thrilled because he got to hold her tiny dog.
As for the politics, it earned him a year in the federal can for refusing induction into the army in 1964,one of the first to take that ultimate stand. He later hooked up with the then pro-poet and pro-Maoist Progressive Labor Party and ran for election in 1967 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on its ticket. When police broke up a rally during that summer of love, Ross caught a nightstick in the face leaving him with an eye injury from which he never fully recovered. Years later, he caught another beating, this time from Israeli settlers when he tried to help Palestinian farmers pick olives from their own fields in Nablus.
He tried to put himself in harm’s way again in 2006, when he went to Iraq on the eve of the war where he tried to serve as a “human shield.” Saddam’s minders considered him a threat and booted him from the country. A year ago, as John Nichols writes in The Nation, where Ross was a contributor, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors – now loaded with sympathizers – tried to honor Ross. Nothing doing. He denounced them as toadies who were throwing poor people out of the Mission.
John Ross. Live like him.