Mag­i­cal mys­tery tour and moral­ity tale

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

h, Lon­don in the Six­ties, that fa­bled place and time of free­wheel­ing ex­is­tences and all man­ner of ex­trav­a­gant ex­pe­ri­ences where, so the say­ing goes, “if you were ac­tu­ally there, you won’t re­mem­ber it.” Tommy We­ber and Su­san “Puss” Co­riat, the cou­ple at the heart of this ex­traor­di­nary story, part mag­i­cal mys­tery tour and part moral­ity tale, are un­sur­pris­ingly no longer alive, but chances are, given the ac­tiv­i­ties they in­dulged in chron­i­cled here, their re­call would prob­a­bly be spotty at best.

For­tu­nately for us, Robert Green­field, the au­thor of “A Day in the Life”, has done a mar­velous job of re-cre­at­ing the wild ride of Tommy and Puss with a splen­did im­me­di­acy, al­low­ing the reader to fol­low closely their manic ac­tiv­i­ties. As ren­dered here any­way, they are in them­selves fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ters, oddly com­pelling and at­trac­tive de­spite their glar­ing flaws, but their story in­ter­sects with (and sheds light on) many iconic Six­ties fig­ures far bet­ter known than them, in­clud­ing Keith Richards, Ge­orge Har­ri­son and Char­lotte Ram­pling (for a time Tommy’s com­pan­ion). Read­ing this book is a lit­tle bit like get­ting on a roller­coaster, a lit­tle gid­dy­ing but never dull. Au­thor of two books on the Rolling Stones as well as bi­ogra­phies of rock pro­moter Bill Gra­ham, Grate­ful Dead lead gui­tarist Jerry Gar­cia, and LSD guru Ti­mothy Leary, Green­field is a su­perb guide through the tur­bu­lent world where this odd cou­ple led their fren­zied lives. He has had the ben­e­fit of know­ing Tommy and of hear­ing the re­mark­ably acute and in­sight­ful rem­i­nis­cences of the We­bers’ two sons, one of whom is the well­known ac­tor Jake We­ber. While Green­field is never heavy­handed in his mor­al­iz­ing, he has none­the­less writ­ten one of the most pow­er­ful cau­tion­ary tales about the heady Six­ties that I have ever read.

Tommy and Puss both came from priv­i­leged back­grounds, and each used them to but­tress their free­wheel­ing frol­ics. Nei­ther was quite what it seemed: he was in fact half-Dan­ish and her real fa­ther was not her heiress mother’s ti­tled hus­band, Vis­count Cur­zon, but Harold Isaac “Camel” Co­riat, a Sephardic Jew from Morocco. He had a good English Pub­lic (aka priv­i­leged pri­vate) School ed­u­ca­tion where he shone on the play­ing field and ac­quired the tough­ness and self­as­sur­ance, to say noth­ing of the con­tacts, that al­lowed him to launch him­self on the Lon­don scene. Thanks to her great­grand­fa­ther Sir John Maple, whose Lon­don fur­ni­ture em­po­rium was a fa­vorite with Europe’s royal houses as well as count­less English cus­tomers, Puss in­her­ited enor­mous wealth. Ex­trav­a­gance was hard-wired in their genes: Priscilla’s mother and grand­mother man­aged to spend 1.2 mil­lion pounds or about six mil­lion dol­lars at mid 20th-cen­tury English prices be­fore fi­nally end­ing up in bank­ruptcy pro­ceed­ings.

Still, thanks to her an­ces­tor, there was plenty of money for Puss in a trust fund. It is strik­ing just how cheap good liv­ing was in 50s and 60s Lon­don: Tommy was able to buy his first apart­ment in fash­ion­able Pont street ( it dou­bled as an il­licit gam­bling club) for a cou­ple of thou­sand pounds (about $6000). Later he was able to pur­chase a for­mer am­bas­sado­rial man­sion in grand Ch­ester Square for a mere 8,000 pounds ($20,000). Forty years later, it would be worth $36 mil­lion! But of course, they way they lived, money flowed out as fast or faster than it came in and Tommy be­came a world-class and world­wide drug dealer. The story of how he used his two young sons to smug­gle in a kilo (!) of co­caine for one Rolling Stone to give to an­other as a wed­ding present (it never got passed along; the first one con­sumed it all him­self) makes for hair-rais­ing read­ing. It’s not sur­pris­ing that later, Tommy would call the no­to­ri­ous prison Worm­wood Scrubs rather than Ch­ester Square his Lon­don home.

Puss com­mit­ted sui­cide in a seedy Lon­don ho­tel room in 1971 aged 27. By then, heavy use of drugs in­clud­ing heroin and LSD had in­duced schizophre­nia. Amaz­ingly enough, Tommy man­aged, de­spite his own drug tak­ing and life­style which would seem to have made him a poor can­di­date for se­nior cit­i­zen­ship, to make it near the end of his six­ties be­fore suc­cumb­ing to an ab­scessed liver tu­mor. Still, as Green­field makes clear, even at the very end, there was a high price to pay for a life­time of drug abuse now that he needed the stuff for its true med­i­cal pur­pose:

“Be­cause Tommy’s level of drug tol­er­ance was off the charts, the mor­phine he was given did lit­tle to help ease his pain. [. . . ] With all the veins in his arms hav­ing long since col­lapsed from in­tra­venous drug use, the drug had to be in­jected into his groin and through the soles of his feet.”

Green­field sums up Tommy We­ber’s life pithily, ren­der­ing a grim but de­served judg­ment:

“To the very end, he had re­mained true to him­self. Not for Tommy the path of re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion or the kind of mod­er­a­tion that passed for so­cially ac­cept­able be­hav­ior. Like so many of his gen­er­a­tion who de­fied all the rules, his great­est fault had also been the foun­da­tion of his char­ac­ter. De­spite how stoned he had been through­out his life, Tommy had lived it fully and on the only terms he had ever un­der­stood — his own.”

Sin­gling out this solip­sism as the ba­sis for Tommy’s anti-so­cial be­hav­ior hits the nail on the head. In his case, char­ac­ter was in­deed des­tiny.

Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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