FOR SETH MORGAN, A FELLOW TOILER IN THE VINEYARD

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.

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39 Responses to FOR SETH MORGAN, A FELLOW TOILER IN THE VINEYARD

  1. Carol

    Small question but important to me. Would you happen to know if Seth was a Scorpio?

  2. Mike Dennis

    Carol–
    I don’t know offhand. I have his passport tucked away, which of course contains his DOB, but I can’t put my hand on it at the moment. When I do, I’ll post it here.

  3. Betsy

    I am almost positive that he wasn’t. I knew Seth; he was my neighbor in NOLA in 1986 – 1987. He lived at 1232 St. Andrew St. back then. I’m Scorpio and I know we talked about astrology together a few times. If memory serves me correctly, he was an Aries.

    Mike – I always wondered what happened to his dog, Hunkydory, after he died. When I knew him, he had a bulldog that trotted around town with him. He was sober when we were neighbors also. Very sad end to a promising life . . .

  4. Mike Dennis

    Betsy–
    To the best of my memory, he didn’t have his dog when he moved over to Camp Street. I met him around 1989 or so and I don’t believe he had a dog then.

  5. nola lady

    i’ve read alot about him………. mostly on the darker side, what was he like?

  6. Mike Dennis

    Nola lady–
    Seth was a good friend to me. He had a dark side, no doubt about it, but around me, he tried to be “straight”. No drugs, no alcohol, nothing. He was an author around me, a world-class author who had a glittering future in front of him. But he screwed it all up. His addictions got the better of him, and it cost him his life.

  7. shelby stone

    I just bought my own copy of Homeboy today off Ebay. I read a copy back around ’95. The novel has stuck with me! I had never heard of Seth until the paper had an article about his death on the motorcycle.

  8. Keep that copy, Shelby. It’s a literary treasure.

  9. Carl

    I wonder if his Major Demon was that he carried the Death of Janis on his hands ?

  10. Mike Dennis

    He spoke of her death very matter-of-factly, Carl. It didn’t seem to have bothered him at all. What really got to him was the fact that no matter how much success he achieved after serving years in prison, his father never warmed up to him.

  11. Betsy

    Seth had a very strange relationship with women. He liked to surround himself with junkies and strippers and treat them very badly. I agree that he was not troubled by Joplin’s untimely death, at least not back in the late ’80s. At 1st, I didn’t believe him when he told me they were an item, and then I read her biography, Pearl, and realized it was true. When I knew Seth, I was an undergrad English major and he actually paid me to edit parts of Homeboy, but he would give it to me out of order so I couldn’t get the gist of the story. His habit of conjoining words into new ones and ignoring normal punctuation made that a hard task at times.

    It’s sad that Seth never got that kind word from his dad before he died. His story might have ended quite differently if he’d ever felt that love he sought.

  12. Mike Dennis

    Betsy, there’s no question his story would’ve ended differently if he’d gotten that love he needed so desperately. In fact, it may not have ended yet. He might well be with us today, turning out literary masterpieces. He had it in him, for sure.

  13. Robert Mosher

    Do you think the crash was an accident?

  14. Let’s just say that if it were an accident, I don’t think Seth minded.

  15. randy ralston

    Seth was wild & crazy. He never lost that East Coast snootiness – which was kinda funny justaposed too his purse snatching ways. Seth RIP, you were a baddawg, and a great writer.

  16. Lina

    randy ralston! – you went out with Pam Courson. I live down the street from her old place on stanley.

  17. I first met Seth when I was about 6 – his stepmother was good friends with my mother. But we didn’t become friends until we met in prep school in 1963. In 1970 I lived with him in Berkeley, just about when he took up with Janis. He had major demons before her, for sure. At Berkeley he paid me to take a course for him so he could graduate – this was the beginning of a career as a mercenary scholar. At one point he asked me if I wanted to go the Sorbonne and get a PhD in his name. He said he’d rent me a flat, buy me a car, etc. etc. I said “what do you want a PhD in?” He said: “It doesn’t matter!”.

    After Homeboy came out, we hung out in New York a bit – I went to a Jason Epstein party celebrating the publishing of the book – and we went to AA meetings together. That obviously didn’t last with him. I had a ticket to go visit him in New Orleans, and 5 days before I was going to go he called and asked me to come down”right away”. “I’m fucking up”, he said. I couldn’t come right away. Two days later he was dead.

    Very charismatic guy, someone I loved. I always thought of him like Steerforth to my David Copperfield.

  18. Mike Dennis

    Great story, Michael. Seth was a tragic figure, all right.

  19. Adam D. Morris

    I recently discovered I now live very close to where Seth Morgan did (that St. Andrew address in the comments above is a block away from me), and I have become interested in “Mambo Mephiste”, which I am sure would have been a masterpiece. I have read the chapters included in a back issue of Conjunctions magazine which I found — are you aware of this? I wondered if it was the same you had seen on his computer, or if there was more still out there that had been written by him.

    Any help would be greatly appreciated!

    -adm

  20. Adam–
    Those chapters you read are the very chapters I saved from his house. That was all there was.

    I don’t know how they found their way to the Internet all these years later.

  21. Tom

    So did you ever find that passport?

  22. I did. His DOB was 4-4-49.

  23. vernon

    what was the name of the bridge??

  24. The Greater New Orleans Bridge

  25. Michele

    Hi Mike,

    When did Seth’s parents pass away? Much appreciated.

  26. Mike Dennis

    I don’t know when they passed away.

  27. Hey Mike, thanks for this great article and the subsequent replies/information. I just finished Homeboy and absolutely adored it – the prose astonishingly original and brilliant. It’s a crime that it gets so little attention – although as a fan I’m sort of glad to be able to have it all to myself!

    Did Seth seem to enjoy life? Were the drugs simply part of a ‘live fast, die young’ 60s/70s rock n roll way of life, or did he take them instead to escape from himself and the depressing way he saw the world?

  28. Michael–Seth did enjoy life and he enjoyed doing drugs. He had a rebel seed planted deep inside him that was evident from his youth and it grew and grew, pushing him into a life of crime and showing itself in his writing, until it eventually consumed him.

  29. daniel faust

    hi mike dennis ,iam the owner of a custom van seth purchased from mark conlin in new orleans area mark worked on seth’s cars and owns a corvette of seths now ,i just got ahold of mark and he is in the proses of helpin me with the history of chevam2 the show van he sold to seth and within 24hrs seth wrecked the van ,and a day or so aftr that he or wrecked his motercycle on the bridge do you remember how he wrecked the van ?? iam putting all the history together on chevam 2 a show van and seth owning it ,mark conlin is sending me all he knows ,and i am researchin seth and how he ties in with my van ,i show this van and have saved it and always wondered its history for the last 16yrs i have owned it working on it keepin its memory alive and now i can tie seth ‘s part into it ,plan to read his book and display it with my van so any info is welcome thank you very much ….

  30. Cleo Snyder

    The bridge Seth was killed on wasn’t the Greater New Orleans, it was the Saint Claude Ave. bridge. I remember the night he died quite vividly. The bridge is a draw bridge and his bike slid on the grate and he lost control. A friend of mine was one of the cops who investigated the accident.

  31. Ginger Lynn Allday

    Intriguing and his name seems quite familiar.

  32. Tim Malloy

    Interesting story. No offence intended, but this man sounds as if he was an awful, awful person. No-one on this page mentions a single redeeming character trait. And there are plenty of dreadful ones mentioned, violence, treatment of women etc.

  33. Rob van Schaijk

    In 2001 I was travveling through Australia and picked up a couple of books in a second hand bookstore in Melbourne .They where :William Burroughs :naked lunch Charles Bukowski’s postoffice and Seth Morgan’s Homeboy which i absolutely loved ! last week i started reading it again and can appreciate it even more now maybe also because i went through my own dark years of heroin addiction and getting out alive now livvin happily with my girl and 3 year old son . I truely think a great author is lost when Seth Morgan died .holland juli the 7th
    2014

  34. Dave Slater

    “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.”

    So, you were just another looter. Well done you.

  35. Michael B

    Has anyone seen the experts from Mambo Mephiste anywhere? It is no where on the internets (to be found). I read Homeboy and am trying to read anything and everything Seth Morgan wrote. Apparently he has another book, “About time: an anthology of California prison writing” he was published in.

  36. Charles Kessler

    I met Seth in 1972 when I lived in Sausalito. He and I became friends and later business partners as we opened the 1st independent movie theatre in Larkspur, in Marin County. I was called the Magnolia Cinema and we showed foreign films, film noir and old classics. A long long time ago.

  37. Deborah

    Charles Kessler- I spent some of my teenage years in Marin County and remember that movie theater fondly. It had a great roster. Of I remember correctly, the original movie adaption of La Cage Au Faux played there for a very long run . I saw it 4 times- taking various friends to view it . That theatre was beautiful.

    And Dennis- Are you acquainted with some of the other old school buskers in NOLA? I resides there in the 90s thru 2005 – and befriended quite a few of the buskers on Royal Street

  38. Dave–If you read the post you saw that I DID rescue artifacts of his and I made sure his family got them. You think I’m a looter? Go fuck yourself, asshole.

  39. Lannwtte

    Sounds like you were one of this only true friends and thank you for saving some of his items and getting them to his family. I am a big Janis fan and I had not heard of Seth before. Two talented people so sad drugs destroyed them. Thank you for all this info

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