Jasper Rees on Victor Bockris, whose biography of Muhammed Ali has just been re-issued
BIOGRAPHER Victor Bockris has been Britain's front-row observer of American celebrity for 25 years. Thanks, however, to a disastrous summit he once brokered between Muhammad Ali and Andy Warhol, he could easily have been turfed out of his seat before it was warm.

Bockris was a confidant of both icons. For four years, in the mid-1970s, he paid sporadic visits to Fighter's Heaven, the Pennsylvanian retreat where Ali trained, while in New York he worked for Warhol's Interview magazine. Never has the phrase "a foot in both camps" been more appropriate.

The artist and the pugilist met in August 1977 at Fighter's Heaven when Warhol was painting his series of portraits of America's 10 greatest athletes. He came to take some Polaroids to work from, but was required to sit through an impromptu 45-minute lecture on black Muslim philosophy. He stared with customary blankness at nothing in particular, while the ranting Ali kept his preacher's eyes locked on him.

In the middle sat a mortified Bockris, a thin, aquiline man who looks like a stick insect to Ali's buffalo in the few photographs of them together. In his book, Muhammad Ali In Fighter's Heaven, Bockris recalls "being hunched down by Ali's feet, feeling torn between my allegiance to Andy and my allegiance to Ali, trying not to look at anyone".

The book - more a glossy pamphlet - was his first, and from this distance it looks like a red herring, a more or less unmediated transcription of interviews on a subject for which the interviewee was not principally known. It came out in the imprintof Maurice Gerodias, the defiant publisher of Lolita and The Naked Lunch, but Gerodias promptly went broke and almost the entire print run was pulped. Hutchinson have now acquired the world rights, and in the wake of When We Were Kings, the film about the Rumble in the Jungle between Ali and George Foreman, have sensibly chosen to exhume it in a new British edition.

Publishing it here is appropriate if only because Bockris is British by birth and partly by education. He was born in Brighton in 1950 and spent two years at Rugby (at the same time as Salman Rushdie) before moving to New England at 15 and taking ona nasal mid-Atlantic drawl. If he still lived in Britain he would no doubt be a giant of Soho and a significant fixture on the literary cocktail-party circuit in London. But it was through doing the rounds of the New York equivalent that he got the gigs from which he made his name.

After taping and transcribing Ali for several years, he then did the same to William Burroughs. Apart from a successful detour into Keith Richards, he has ever since been working his way through the coterie of artists who orbited around Warhol. He has done personal portraits of Blondie and the Velvet Underground, biographies of Warhol and Lou Reed, and is now working on Patti Smith and John Cale.

Warhol's set was the Bloomsbury Group of 1960s New York, and Bockris its court scribe. You assume it's only a matter of time till he does Nico and Iggy Pop, before fanning out to David Bowie and Mick Jagger. This turns out to be something that worries him. "There is a whole tendency to want to go back and visit that land you've spent so much time covering. The Warhol book was quicksand for me in many ways. The dangers are of being trapped in a role that you don't want to play."

So, the re-issue of the Ali book is a useful reminder to publishers that Bockris has visited pastures beyond the druggy haze of Manhattan 1965 to 1975. The only common ground between Ali and Bockris was poetry. Ali, lest we forget, was once invited by some wags at Oxford to stand for election as visiting professor of poetry (previous occupant: WH Auden). Bockris was himself a poet in this period and, with Andrew Wylie (not yet dubbed "the Jackal"), briefly ran a press in Philadelphia which published Patti Smith's first work.

People were still quoting Bockris's early 1970s poems to him 10 years later, if only because they were memorably short American takes on the haiku. He wrote a series of poems about movie stars. "Tony Curtis/Hurt his/Penis." Or "Which way/Did Doris/Day go'?" "My favourite poem of all," he says, "was a three-line poem that went "In America/All we/Do is work". It has a double entendre, of course."

Of his Ali liaison, he explains he "was trying to popularise poetry. I thought the way to do it would be to find the most famous poet in the world and interview him a lot. He told me very clearly that he was fed up having to answer questions about boxing, and he was obviously very turned on by my pure interest in his poetry and his philosophy."

The interview technique used on Ali almost erases the writer. One review of With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker described Bockris as "an auditory paparazzo". When I quote this at him he is hurt. "I was a very close friend of Burroughs, who happened to have dinner with him three nights a week. He was rather a lonely figure who had returned to New York and I made a point of bringing people to him. I then took the opportunity to tape-record a lot of those meetings, with his co-operation,and make a book out of them that the most sensible reviews said was a wonderful view of Burroughs as he really is."

None of his subjects have taken exception to his essentially admiring accounts. Even Lou Reed, portrayed as a lonely sociopath who alienates all who cross his path, is apparently recommending Bockris' biography. "I heard he was saying that if they wanted to understand him they should read that book."

Bockris remains an enigma, especially in his own country. He still holds a British passport and does not rule out a prodigal return. "I've contemplated it on and off many times, largely because I've seen the best of New York. I'll never again work with Warhol and Burroughs and Blondie in the same day, five days a week." But what might draw him back? "I've always wanted to write my memoirs of Rugby." With Bockris' nose for celebrity, we can count on recollections of the young Rushdie - except he doesn't remember him.

'Muhammad Ali In Fighter's Heaven' by Victor Bockris, Hutchinson, pounds 10.

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