Caught by the River

Seth Morgan

Mathew Clayton | 2nd March 2008

The piece below, by Mathew Clayton, is a killer. When “Homeboy” was released, some 18, 20 years ago, it was news. The underground were all over it – Nick Cave, Lydia Lunch, Thurston Moore – something brand new and hip for the Wiseblood / Bukowski boys. I remember buying it from Compendium in Camden Town (now sadly, one of the great counter culture bookstores in the sky). It was that kind of book, though it wasn’t long before word began to spread and it started to cross over. Seth Morgan was suddenly the great white hope. As Mathew explains below, that never happened. Sad thing is you don’t even hear talk of Homeboy anymore. That’s why this is really special. (JB)

PS I know you’re supposed to tell people not to print things these days, but this one is worth reading properly…

Seth Morgan was the author of Homeboy a tightly plotted, beautifully written crime novel set in San Francisco’s underworld that was first published in 1989. Seth had a colourful background; a former boyfriend of Janis Joplin, he had served jail time for armed robbery and like the book’s hero, Joe Speaker, had been a junkie and worked as strip club barker.

Homeboy is primarily, though, a love story rather than a crime story. A doomed tragic love story, the best most captivating kind. Seth died a year after the book’s publication in a motor cycle accident, and Homeboy is now largely forgotten.

In the years since I first read Homeboy I often wondered what Seth was really like. He is mentioned in pretty unflattering terms in the Janis Joplin biography “Pearl” (and a couple of other places) but the truth is always more complicated. At the end of last year i decided to find out. I tracked down Seth’s younger brother George (who goes by the name of Jeff) who was kind enough to answer some questions.

If you haven’t read Homeboy you can buy it second hand on amazon.

I did write some follow-up questions to Jeff but for whatever reason never heard back.


From: Mathew Clayton
To: George Morgan

Jeff – thanks for taking the trouble to reply. Underneath are some questions. I guess fundamentally they all could be simplified into one – what was your brother like? Please forgive me if any of the questions appear insensitive.

He went from Berkeley student to strip club barker. What made him drop out into a new very different life?

After Janis Joplin’s death, until he went to prison, there was a five year period where I presume he was living still in San Francisco. Was his life sliding downhill and prison inevitable as he was living the life of a junkie or were his looks and charm intact and he simply lived larger than most people?

When did he start writing? And how did the discipline of writing a novel co-exist with what seems to be an very undisciplined life. I read that he wrote in prison did he come out with the intention of writing a novel?

Why the move to New Orleans?

The story about Susan Schilling visiting his house in 1990 describes some pretty depraved behavior, does this sound typical of Seth’s life?

How much of his second novel was written at the time of his death? Have you read it?

I look forward to hearing your replies. Homeboy is a truly great novel, great characters, ambitious plot but above all a turn of phrase that is unequalled by anyone else writing hard boiled prose.


From: Mathew Clayton
To: George Morgan

Hi Mathew,

Don’t worry about insensitive, somehow with Seth, it’s difficult to apply.
What was he like? Well, there was a lot of sensational garbage written just after his death which was distorted and inaccurate in many areas, and some of which was created by Seth himself. Let me answer your questions first, and then that will possibly open up other areas of questioning.

Seth didn’t go from Berkeley to strip club barker, actually he did a few other things in between. In 1971, he opened up the Magnolia (present day Lark) Cinema in Larkspur, Marin County, CA with two partners, having built it from an old clothing store. The cinema showed classic films, but they would close it on Sundays for private parties where porn films would be shown with the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers blasting through the cinema’s sound system. The audience for these shows tended to be an eclectic sampling of the counterculture, drag queens, outlaw bikers, drug dealers and prosititutes. I was sharing a house with him in Sausalito at the time and spent quite some time with him and his partners and various friends, doing the scene even though I was 4 years younger at the ripe old age of 18. It was a pretty mad summer of partying, drugs, motorcycles and illicit activities some of which foreshadowed what would later happen to him. There was always cocaine around and always plenty of people who would drop in to share it. In the evenings we would go to the Trident Bar on the Sausalito waterfront and rub elbows with porno stars and rock musicians.

There were several incidents which stuck in my mind about that time in my life, one was staying up all night with a gallon of scotch and several ounces of cocaine and the taking off for home on the back of Seth’s Harley at 110 mph down the morning rush hour traffic on Route 101 in Marin County.
It was a petrifying experience and fortunately for me, Seth’s coordination was intact that day. He had had a serious accident about a year earlier when he missed the corner on the main drag in Sausalito and had gone through the wall of Jack London’s old residence with a girl on the back. She was seriously hurt and sued him, winning of course, but as with many things in Seth’s life, the lesson was never learned. In a second incident, I saw him for the first time stoned on heroin when he picked up a hooker and drove her home in his partner’s VW bug with me in the backseat. He kept trying to get it on with her while he was driving with the car swerving all over the road which wound up a mountain with a rock face on one side and a precipice on the other. Despite both her and I telling him to knock it off and drive, he persisted in this behavior talling us both to shut up. Finally luck ran out and at 40 mph he sideswiped a parked car riping the bugs fender partly off but there was no stopping as he accelerated and got us to our house just as the police cruisers went tearing up the street to investigate the hit and run.

Although Seth wanted me to stay in California and live with him, I returned east that fall and although we stayed in touch by phone, I didn’t see him again except for brief visits, until late summer in 1974 when I moved to Sonoma County with a girlfriend. Seth and his wife(?) came up to visit and it was apparent to both me and my girlfriend that they were heavily into the drug scene. I had met this woman previously with Seth at the Trident Bar in 1971 and he had told me she was a hooker. Whether they were ever really married or not is debateable as he also told me that they had come east and Laura had changed her name simply to con some money out of my grandmother which they succeeded in doing. I believe it was at this time that he started working as a barker.
Shortly afterward I broke up with my girlfriend a
nd moved to Austin, Texas to get involved in the music scene there and lost
track of Seth until a letter arrived one day with the return address of the State Penitentiary at Vaccaville, CA. He told me that he had gone to jail for armed robbery and that “it was better there than on the slab at the undertakers.” With good behavior he expected to be released early and hoped I was well.

Seth started writing seriously in prison, winning an essay contest there and having the ability to concentrate with a minimum of distractions. The disciplined life you speak of that all writers must undergo, was in my brothers case intermittent with his other activities. He described it to me once as imposing upon himself a facsist regime of workouts, sobriety and solitude when he needed to write. When the pressure was off, or if one of his regimens went off kilter, that was it and he was off to the races. It took Seth about five years or so to write the novel Homeboy, and several copies were lost in transit between the east and west coast during drunken sprees.

I think Seth wanted to finish the novel before he reunited with my Dad in New York. He ended up in New Orleans after being busted in Georgia for drunk driving and there he pulled his act together and got a final manuscript ready for publishing. He used to joke about how long it had taken him and how the several first manuscripts that he lost were probably worth some money. In 1985 he called me drunk from New Orleans intears about his life which he was beginning to realize was slipping way beyond his control. He flew up to Newark Airport and I went to pick him up. In his drunken condition he couldn’t remember which terminal he was in and which airline he had flown, and when I didn’t find him and there was no response to pages over the terminal intercom, I drove the 2 hours back home thinking he had missed the flight. When I arrived, my wife at the time told me he had called again and given a different terminal from the one I had been in, so we both got into the car and drove to Newark again. This time we were successful in retrieving him and he was a sight. Drunk and disheveled, with a burst blood
vessel in one eye as the result of a brawl he had been in several days before. He was in a deep depression, crying and telling me how much he loved me. For my part, I told him he needed to get straight and O took him straight to a local hospital near my home where they kept him for the required three days. He then rented a room at a local inn and started going to AA meetings with me and was able to get about a month of continuous sobriety together before he went out and started drinking again. Another trip to the hospital, and a new apartment and we had about another month or so of him being straight during which time we were able to share some fun times together. Then one day I got a phone call that he and a hooker friend from San Francisco named Michelle had busted up a local bar that friends of ours owned. While Seth was about as close as family to these two friends, they still called and told me he was never to set foot in the place again and they described how he had assaulted several people and it ha dtaken seven police to put a stop to it. The next call I got was from his landlord asking who was going to pay for the damage to the apartment, several thousand dollars worth. Upon asking where my brother was, I was told that he and his friend Michelle had left in a cab. They later surfaced in New Orleans and she claimed to have had his child following his death.

I’m not sure about what Susan Schilling’s story was or indeed how much she was involved in his final plunge. I know that he loved her deeply as letters that he wrote to her were still on his computer at the time of his death, he had purchased a new automobile for her. I met her in New Orleans when I went down following his death, and she told me some pretty sick stories about his behavior, I don’t think them to be out of the realm of reality and while there was certainly this element to his life, I wouldn’t say that it was a foregone conclusion that this was his “lifestyle.” Certainly he had a dark side, a very dark side, but he also had a good ideal of the person he wanted to be, and that side of him was almost completely forgotten in the chaos
surrounding his death.

It’s been stated by many that he had a death wish, but I know that to be false. From his earliest years, Seth had a most chilling inability to assess risk either to himself or others. It wasn’t that he didn’t care, he hadn’t a clue either sober or drunk that he was doing things in his life that put himself and others into great danger. When Seth was a small child, he went on a vacation with my father and the three other older children. Driving to the the southwestern states in an old DeSoto, they went to Indian
Reservations, the Grand Canyon and many of the popular tourist sites. One morning when every one else was asleep, Seth, who was five or six years old at the time, stole money out of my Dad’s wallet, snuck out of the motel where they were staying and proceed to walk about three or four miles up the road to a diner where he started buying ice cream sodas. When my father and the police finally found him four hours later, he had spent the better part of ten dollars and was on his seventh ice cream soda.

As for his second novel, there were only two chapters written and not even enough on the characters to build a skeletal outline for how the plot may have run. It was well written, invoking voodoo and crime, but there wasn’t enough. I’ve read it. Seth’s literary agent is the Firm of Watkins and Loomis in New York, the movie rights on Homeboy are out on option, and have been owned by various different entities since the book’s publication.

Let me know what else you might need, we’ve only scratched the surface.