“Some People Think He’s God”: Ken Smith Remembers Paul Bowles

Although he was a success as both composer and author, as a recluse Paul Bowles was a total failure. After fleeing New York for Morocco in 1947, he and his wife Jane continued to entertain a seemingly endless parade of visitors in his adopted country. Even in the 1990s, after Betolucci’s film of The Sheltering Sky had made him America’s most famous living expatriate, finding him was still as easy as picking up the Tangier telephone book.

I had discovered his work only in the mid-’80s, when within the course of a week I read an essay by Gore Vidal claiming Bowles’s stories as being “among the best ever written by an American” and an unrelated piece by Ned Rorem predicting that “if history remembers [Bowles] it will be for his musical gifts.” The two sides of Bowles’s creative life seem to occupy mutually distinct realms-the music existing to charm, the text trying to horrify-but it was the area in-between than I came to find the most intriguing.

As a regular music critic at the New York Herald-Tribune from 1942 to 1946, Bowles upheld the mantle of Virgil Thomson, and was Thomson’s own choice to replace him as chief critic when he left the paper in 1954. In retrospect, Bowles proved a subversive choice. Entrusted with documenting “serious” music in the city, he became the first critic to devote any serious space to jazz and what today we call “world music,” reserving special contempt for countries which subverted their own indigenous music to a colonial presence, as Cuba did with its African influences and Moroccan Arabs once did with the Berber tradition.

These writings make intriguing reading for a generation which finds world music trendy again. Just as his nihilistic fiction paved the way for the Beats and his musically repetitive non-development fills the missing gap between Colin McPhee and Steve Reich, the best of Bowles’s criticism reveal yet another of today’s interests that he explored first.

By the time I eventually met Mr. Bowles, on a 1998 trip to Morocco with NewMusicBox editor Frank J. Oteri, “going out” for him meant leaving his bed for the living room. His presence in Tangier, though, remained undiminished. The staff at the Hotel Continental, where portions of The Sheltering Sky were filmed, effortlessly steered us to the right neighborhood. Our driver, conversing with local teenagers in a pickup soccer game, found directions to “the American, Paul Bowles” (the only English words amid rapid-fire Arabic). And once on the right street, a stranger we approached got in our car to point out the right apartment building.

Even in ill-health Mr. Bowles (for no other salutation seemed appropriate) proved an amiable host, providing some occasionally mischievous answers to an afternoon’s worth of questions, perhaps a few willfully misheard…