Wulf Zendik

Zendik, n. Sanskrit: outlaw, heretic, one outside the established order.

Wulf Zendik (1920-1999), poet, novelist, philosopher, musician and underground icon, was born in El Paso, Texas and grew up in pre-WW II Los Angeles. His father was a printer, Golden Gloves boxer and opera singer. His mother, crippled by polio and in a wheelchair in her later years, ran a bookmaking operation in south Los Angeles. Zendik, too, would become a bookie, as well as a hotrod builder and racer, biplane pilot, jazz drummer and nightclub owner, by the time he had reached his early thirties. It was then, during the early 1950s, that Zendik, numb to the expectations of modern life and desperate to save his own sanity, first turned to writing. As he would later say, “Writing taught me to think.”

Influenced by Henry Miller, Zendik dropped out of his fast lane lifestyle and joined the Los Angeles coffeehouse art scene, which had begun to echo the newfound energy of the Beat Generation. He survived for awhile on the remnants of his bookmaking operation, writing poetry and laying the foundations for a major theme in his life’s work: understanding himself and the gap that had somehow erupted between him and the culture of his birth.

In 1957, Zendik followed a French ballerina to the Left Bank of Paris, home to newly famous Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Vali Myers, among others. Introduced to these artists by a poet-junkie friend (and lover), he spent time with them, drugged and argued with them (as recounted in his writings), but continued to follow his own critical vision. It was during this time (1957-58) that Zendik wrote his first full-length work, “a Quest Among the Bewildered,” an iconoclastic memoir of the people and places of this legendary era. Composed both in Hollywood and in Paris, “Quest” was Zendik’s personal manifesto of honesty and free thinking, told with sadness, rage and beauty.

Soon after writing “Quest,” Zendik took part in a salon for promising writers held by Anais Nin. At the encouragement of Nin and his then-literary agent, Reece Halsey (who also represented Aldous Huxley), he shelved “Quest” in order to write a novel, which was seen as more economically practical than an autobiography by an unknown author.

For the next nine years, laboring part of the time on the Spanish Mediterranean Coast, he worked on the 900-page text of “Zendik” (taking his own name from that of his fictional lead character). When the book was finished, Zendik discovered that its story of an artist’s unshakable will to greatness, while well-received on literary grounds, was considered too blunt and controversial for mainstream release. After potential publishers asked him to make changes in the novel that he found unacceptable, Zendik withdrew it from consideration and never attempted to publish it again.

By this time, Zendik, living once again in Los Angeles, had met Arol, an up-and-coming actress who was on her way to Europe to work with avant-garde filmmakers. Fascinated by each other’s intellect and energy, the two artists joined together almost immediately, forming a relationship, and a working partnership, that would last for nearly four decades. From their combined experiences, Wulf and Arol realized the impossibility of maintaining their integrity in a commercially-based culture, and in 1969 the two of them co-founded Zendik Farm, an artists’ collective that became the living embodiment of their belief in a more benevolent way of life.

In Zendik Farm’s experimental atmosphere, Wulf blossomed anew as an artist and as a man. Returning to music after a twenty year absence, he committed himself to a new, totally improvised form of vocal and instrumental art. Among a host of other instruments, he invented and built the Itar, an 8-string instrument combining the sounds of both the Eastern sitar and the Western guitar, and proceeded to record a series of genre-bending albums. He also continued writing, creating volumes of poetry, as well as the controversial story of a fictional eco-assassin (“Blackhawk: The Last American Warrior”) and “Don’t Go,” a slim, powerful anti-war hymn that earned international acclaim ( and the praise of one his earliest influences, Erich Maria Remarque, author of “All Quiet on the Western Front”).

Zendik also worked continually to expand the ideas that had originally led him to write “a Quest Among the Bewildered.” Convinced that his lifelong feelings of alienation were an accurate response to a fractured, dysfunctional culture, he began to develop a series of philosophic ideas based on a simple premise: to become fulfilled, human beings had to learn to tell the truth, about themselves and their society — their hopes and fears, desires and nightmares. This non-academic, hands-on approach, which encompassed all areas from the political to the personal (and which followed directly from his own vibrant, active, uncompromising life) is the evolving subject of hundreds of essays and recorded talks that Zendik would continue to compile and distribute until his death in the summer of 1999.

All told, Wulf Zendik’s work, captured in a vast print, film and audio archive, and circulated for more than 30 years in the American underground, has influenced two generations of iconoclasts and idealists (including Greenpeace/Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson and Pearl Jam‘s Eddie Vedder, who discovered Zendik while still a young, struggling musician in San Diego, California). Now being brought to greater prominence through the release of his unpublished writings (including “a Quest Among the Bewildered” and an in-progress edition of his “Collected Works”), Zendik is one of the last of the 20th century’s unheralded greats, with a scope and depth to match any of his more famous contemporaries.

One Response

  1. I loved this article. I appreciate all you had to say. I don’t know all the negative things he’s accused of doing, though you didn’t say any of them here and I appreciate it. Thanks for writing this article. I know you did it a long time back, but thanks again.

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