Writing this post has, for me, been a long time coming. Twenty years to be exact. And I’m still not doing it justice.
But here goes anyway.
The other day, I was browsing around my friendly neighborhood Barnes & Noble and I came across a trade paperback copy of Homeboy by Seth Morgan. I was stunned, yet thrilled, to see it still in print.
I met Seth back around 1990, when we were both living in New Orleans. I was playing piano in a rock & roll piano bar and he was about to do his first signing session for Homeboy. Oddly, the signing took place at a store called the Abstract Book Shop, about as far from B&N-world as you can possibly get. It was a funky little spot way out of the way in a semi-bad part of town. You could go in there and find The Daily Worker right next to writings by Jesse Helms. Even more oddly, the place was owned and operated by a federal appellate judge!
Anyway, that’s where I met him and he signed my hardcover copy, and included a little inscription. I told him what I did for a living and that I was just getting into writing. I had completed my first novel and Seth was kind enough to look it over. He was very encouraging and what’s more, he liked the fact that a Bourbon Street musician would pick up the pen. We became friends.
And that’s when I learned of his dark side.
Turns out Seth was a ne’er-do-well as a youth. Raised in a wealthy New York family who expected him to toe the elitist line, he attended, and was expelled from, many of the best private schools on the East Coast and in Europe. He wound up in San Francisco, living off his trust fund. This was the swingin’ sixties, so…enter drugs. He eventually graduated from a ne’er-do-well to a real badass.
He acquired a serious jones which not even his trust fund could support, so he turned to crime. He confessed to me that he’d committed over 400 armed robberies to feed his insatiable habit. During this period, he fell in with Janis Joplin, becoming her “boyfriend”. Together, they marauded through the blazing world of Bay Area booze and drugs right on up to her death from an overdose in 1970.
Back on the armed robbery front, he finally got caught and was sentenced to hard time at Vacaville State Penitentiary in California. It was during this period that he took up writing.
In 1978, he won the PEN American Prisoners’ Writing Contest, jumpstarting his writing career. In the late 1980s, he came to New Orleans to write Homeboy, which consumed nearly two years of his life. New Orleans was his city of choice because he felt if he could resist the temptations of drugs and alcohol there, he could resist them anywhere. Once his novel was completed, he got himself an agent and before you could say, “Closed to submissions”, it was picked up by Random House.
His harsh, neon style of writing electrified the literary world at the time. Reviews uniformly gushed with praise. The publisher couldn’t take out enough ads. The New York Times loved him. He appeared on all the morning television shows. They were calling him the next Steinbeck. At 41, this former trust fund baby / drug addict / ex-con’s career was soaring.
The novel was released worldwide, so he went to Europe for signings. While in London, his father came to see him. For Seth, this was to be his long-awaited day of redemption, the day on which his dad puts a hand on his shoulder and says, “Good job, son.”
Instead, his father was cold and critical, crushing Seth’s hopes for ever pleasing him.
He returned to New Orleans and resumed his drug ways, snorting cocaine and consorting with lowlifes. I became the only friend he had in the straight world. He still came to hear me play, and we still talked about writing, but he was clearly more sullen than I’d ever known him to be.
Then one day, I went over to the Abstract Book Shop, where I’d become friends with the owner/federal appellate judge. He told me that Seth had been killed at around four o’clock that morning in a motorcycle accident. He had a girl with him who was also killed, and that cocaine had been found on both their bodies.
I immediately went to his house on Camp Street, an old-line New Orleans two-story job, right out of the early 20th century. My goal was to rescue whatever artifacts of his I could. But I learned I wasn’t the first one there.
The place had been ransacked. His scumbag drug buddies had beaten me to it. I looked around the house for something, anything meaningful that could be saved. I saw his desktop computer sitting out in the open. Grabbing it and a few 5 1/4″ floppies splayed around it, along with his passport, I headed home.
I slipped the disks into my computer and discovered the first few chapters of his second novel, Mambo Mephiste, which he had described to me as a “great big Mardi Gras novel”. In the last few weeks of his life, this book was his only source of excitement. He was clearly committed to turning out a masterpiece. It was written in the same riveting, acrobatic style as Homeboy, and I wept, knowing it would never be completed. This would be the book that would have marked him as the real deal, not just a one-hit wonder.
I drove back to the Abstract, where I turned over Seth’s computer and the disks to the judge. He said he would see that they got to Seth’s family.
I kept his passport.
Seth Morgan could have been a literary giant, as they all predicted. He had it in him. But his demons would not turn loose of his tortured soul.