- Terry Southern with Burroughs
Obsessed with life's oddness
He smoked opium with Cocteau and worked on the cult films 'Dr Strangelove' and 'Easy Rider'. Michael Collins remembers Terry Southern, one of the pivotal figures of the underground -Saturday 17 May 1997
AMONG the many faces that grace the cover of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, there is one hidden by sunglasses. This is the writer Terry Southern, posted alongside his literary hero Edgar Allan Poe, and standing in the shadows at one of the pivotal pop moments of the decade. Throughout the Fifties beat period and the Sixties underground, Terry Southern was the Zelig of the Zeitgeist, often to be seen alongside the prime movers for whom he was a hipster, tipster and catalyst.
"Terry was still terminally hip when he died at 71," says his New York agent Jimmy Vines. "He was turning everyone on to Beavis and Butthead." Just before he died of cancer in 1995, Southern pulled off his oxygen mask, sat up in his hospital bed and asked his son Nile, "What's the delay?"
The obituaries may have been shorter and fewer than those that have followed in the wake of Allen Ginsberg's demise, but the credits that Southern clocked up provide the bigger clue to the counter-culture of the time. He was a screenwriter on Easy Rider, Barbarella, Dr Strangelove. His name is along the spine of the inspired satirical novels Candy, The Magic Christian and Blue Movie. The books have just been reissued by Bloomsbury, and an autumn release is scheduled for Give Me Your Hump, a CD featuring Terry Southern's work read by the author himself, Marianne Faithfull, Sandra Bernhard and, in his final recording, by Allen Ginsberg.
Gore Vidal described Terry Southern as "the wittiest writer of our generation". Candy, written with Mason Hoffenberg in 1958, paved the way for the parodic porn of Vidal's Myra Breckenridge and Philip Roth's onanist's handbook Portnoy's Complaint, a decade later. "The most important thing in writing," Southern once said, "is not the capacity to shock, but to astonish."
Both a satire of Candide and a triple-X-rated romp, Candy is a tale of a girl who can't say no. She embarks on a series of sexual adventures with mystics, analysts, doctors and a hunchback whose hump she puts to good use. The infamous Maurice Girodias, an art-house Larry Flynt who had previously published underground pornography, Lolita, and later the SCUM Manifesto, was the only publisher willing to take a risk on the book.
"Terry also showed Girodias the manuscript of The Naked Lunch," says Nile Southern, like his father a writer and satirist. "Girodias flicked through Burroughs' work but didn't think that it was porn. Terry pointed out the fellatio on page six. Suddenly there was a contract."
Candy became a best-seller in America and England, where it was banned until 1964, and Paris, home to Southern in the late Forties and early Fifties. Here, a long way from his roots as the son of a pharmacist in a small town in Texas, he studied at the Sorbonne, along with James Baldwin, and contributed to the Paris Literary Review. "He told me he used to meet Camus and Cocteau during his student days and smoke opium with them," recalls the novelist Darius James, a friend of Southern during his final years. "There was also the Bird story. When Charlie Parker died, the funeral home lost his corpse. Terry and his friends embarked on a night-long search for the sax great's missing cadaver."
In 1968 there was another French connection when Roger Vadim cast Jane Fonda as Barbarella, with Southern the perfect choice to adapt the adult cartoon strip for the big screen. Another girl, another planet. Here was a Candy for the space age: sex and sci-fi on Zorga. The film and its accompanying soundtrack are currently hot currency on the Easy Listening scene, but like a number of the films scripted by Southern, at the time it was merely assigned cult status. This short-changes the writer's wit and prescience, since the targets he chose to satirise are equally as resonant in the Nineties.
The commercialisation of death was covered in the updated adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's acerbic memento mori, The Loved One. The Magic Christian chronicles the jokes and schemes of a billionaire who believes that there is nothing so disgraceful or degrading that someone won't do it for money. Guy Grand's schemes include creating "Stealth", the deodorant that "cuts away body odour like a knife". It made for a shambolic movie, but Southern's book is regarded as his masterpiece.
Dennis Hopper described Guy Grand as "the 20th-century figure that has most inspired me". This became apparent long after he collaborated with Southern and Peter Fonda on Easy Rider. "Hopper and Fonda have always wanted to make that film entirely their own, even now," according to Nile Southern. "Fonda called my father a year before he died, offering him $30,000 to take his name off the credits."
Despite the success of his books, Southern was not a wealthy man, and the Hollywood screenwriting years, covered and carved up by him in the novel Blue Movie, were his most lucrative. He forked out for an option on the film rights to A Clockwork Orange, with a view to casting Mick Jagger in the role of Alex.
"The screenplay he wrote was too close to the bone for the time," says Nile Southern. "The Teddy Boy thing was happening, and the script was rejected by producers. It was seen to glamorise anarchism. He'd suggested the idea to Stanley Kubrick who thought that it would be impossible to film." Jonathan Miller believes that "a lot of the ideas that have been credited to Kubrick over the years came from Terry."
Miller befriended the writer in the early 1960s in New York. "Terry reminded me a lot of Lenny Bruce. The work appears to be that of a dissolute monster, but like Bruce, he was a sweet, anarchic, fairy-like character obsessed with the oddness of life."
It was Miller who introduced The Magic Christian to Peter Sellers. The actor bought several hundred copies to give as Christmas presents, and demanded to have Terry Southern as his scriptwriter on Dr Strangelove. During the production, Stanley Kubrick and Southern found themselves watching a porn film that had fallen into their hands. It provided the inspiration for Blue Movie, as Kubrick pondered over the idea of a porn film born of the hand and eye of an auteur, using beautiful people and state-of-the-art equipment.
"Pornography had a comic oddness about it that fascinated Terry," says Jonathan Miller. "I remember he showed me this shakily shot Cuban porn film - those grainy images of men and women in glasses and socks screwing each other in Havana in 1932."
Since the success of Candy, the FBI had put Southern under surveillance, believing, incorrectly, that he harboured a stash of porn films. "Congratulations, you've written the definitive blow-job," Kubrick told Southern after reading Blue Movie.
Published as the Seventies waved off the Sixties, the book could be Terry Southern's The Last Tycoon. Unlike Fitzgerald's unfinished novel, Blue Movie is a summary of the Hollywood and decadence not of the Thirties but of the Sixties, and perhaps a goodbye to all that, too. It's another example of how the best satire and parody succeed by sleight of hand rather than the heavy-handedness that now characterises these genres on page and screen. "Terry had the ability to maintain believability," says Nile, "but still go far with the most outrageous things."
A wittier and smarter take on Hollywood movies and mores than that of Ben Elton's omnipresent Popcorn three decades later, Blue Movie turns the spotlight on King B, an Oscar-winning director determined to shoot the most expensive and X-rated movie ever made. The director discusses the prospect of the nubile Princess Anne for a lesbian love scene.
It was Terry Southern's chance to kick against the pricks that he had encountered during his Hollywood stint. He rarely ate lunch in that town again.
In the last 20 years of his life, apart from a stint as staff writer on Saturday Night Live in the early Eighties, Southern returned full-time to journalism. "Many have said that in his last decades his talent caved into drink," says Darius James. "I knew otherwise. His archives show an outstanding output of work. He was the John Coltrane of American literature."
Southern's early writings, after returning to America from Paris, had featured in Esquire. Tom Wolfe cited him as a champion of the "new journalism" with which he himself was to become synonymous. Like that of Wolfe, Southern's work has survived long after the dust of the Sixties has settled, and blown away so many of those who believe that if you remember the Sixties you weren't there.
Thankfully, Terry Southern was there. He was the one at the back, in the shades.
Note: This article comes from the Electronic Telegraph - the Web presence of "The Daily Telegraph" - http://www.telegraph.co.uk/