Sunday, October 6, 2013

91. Taylor Mead, Icon and Almost Innocent

      Way back in 1959, when I left my spacious Morningside Heights apartment and moved into a shabby little room on West 14th Street, so I could be near the Beatnik scene on McDougal Street, I first encountered him, a thirtyish poet name Taylor Mead who could be seen roaming about the streets clutching a shaggy manuscript to his chest.  He was skinny, cleanshaven, and dark-haired, with a long, narrow face and a high forehead, but what most caught my eye was the depraved look he had about him.  What do I mean by “depraved”?  Over the hill, past the point of no return, lost, lost, lost.  When I heard him read at the Gaslight Café, his stuff was mostly unmemorable, but he was not.  If he was heckled or interrupted or otherwise annoyed, he screamed at the offender, which settled the matter, since Taylor Mead could outscream anyone. Which encouraged me to keep my distance.

Taylor Mead (right) with Andy Warhol. 

     Fast forward a few months to 1960, when I had followed the Beatnik scene and my own restlessness out to San Francisco and settled into a small room in an SRO on Broadway, conveniently near to Chinatown for cheap meals, and to North Beach and the Beatniks.  Attending a poetry reading with my newfound friend Floyd at the Mission, a welcoming place on Grant Street run by a young minister who served a free meal once a week and otherwise catered to the Beats, I saw Taylor Mead again, the same lost look, the same shaggy manuscript pressed tight to his chest. 

     “I know that guy,” I told Floyd, meaning of course that I knew of him.  “I heard him read in New York.”

     When Taylor Mead plunked himself down on a chair right behind us, Floyd, with a sly grin, turned to him and said,  “Hi there!  My friend here heard you read in New York.  He loves your stuff.”

     Taylor Mead flashed instantly the warmest smile.  “Why, thank you.  My poetry isn’t just surface.  It has real meaning, it has depth.”

     To date, I hadn’t sensed much depth in his poems, just a lot of ragged surface.  But this was a different Taylor Mead: relaxed, not defensive, even charming. 

     I don’t recall if Taylor Mead read at that reading, but soon afterward I heard him read at the Co-existence Bagel Shop, the chief Beatnik hangout of the time, where Beats and tourists mingled cheerily, or not so cheerily.  Taylor’s first line was memorable: “I was a cocksucker in Arcady…”  What followed I barely recall; that first line was hard to top.  Mostly I remember a passing reference to his wealthy father, against whom he was obviously in vehement revolt.  But I also recall the comments of those around me.

     Two well-dressed men of middle years, obviously out of their element.  “He’s not that good,” one said, softly.  “I’ve heard homosexuals of real talent read.”  His friend concurred.

     “Give him a chance,” said a black man.  “He’s doing his best.”

     Overhearing them, a woman remarked, “In this place I keep my opinions to myself.”

     The next I knew of Taylor Mead was once again at the Mission, where a fragment of a film in progress was shown, with pleas for contributions so the fund-strapped project could be finished.  It was an amateurish effort in black and white, though not without charm, featuring Taylor wandering haphazardly through the city.  The high point came when, at one point, his pants dropped, exposing his bare bottom; the audience roared.  I don’t recall if I was inspired to donate; I rather doubt it.

     That summer I went to Mexico and, returning to San Francisco, I found that most of the Beats had decamped.  By then I had tasted of their scene sufficiently to know that it wasn’t for me; I’m too neat, too practical, too work-oriented.  But from them I had learned both positive and negative lessons, one being, in the words of a knowledgeable friend who had also tasted of bohemia, “Get to know these people a little, learn from them, but don’t let them into your life.  They can destroy you!”

     The unexpected offer of a teaching job brought me back to New York and I saw Taylor Mead no more.  So what was my final impression of him at that time?  An aging adolescent given to temper tantrums but also capable of charm.  He needed attention, craved it, was irate if he didn’t get it.  A lost soul, almost an innocent, but a calculating innocent, if such a thing can be.  And certainly a free spirit, but paying a price for it.  I assumed he was on some kind of drug, didn’t think he’d last to enjoy a ripe old age.

     Fast forward fifty-three years to today.  Imagine my surprise when, researching my recent post on the Bowery, I went to the website of the Bowery Poetry Club and encountered the name of Taylor Mead, who had often read his poetry there.  Clicking on a link, I learned that, a longtime resident of the Lower East Side, at age 88 he had died in May of this year during a visit to a niece in Denver and had received obits in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and numerous blogs that hailed him as a poet, actor, exuberant bohemian, and star of underground films.  “An elfin figure with kewpie-doll eyes,” said the L.A. Times.  (Elfin perhaps, but I never noticed the kewpie-doll eyes.)  Imagine too my shock on seeing recent photos of him: the skinny young poet with a depraved look had turned into a little old man, wrinkled and bent, who walked with a cane, an old man capable of smiles but who, far from exposing his anatomy, was well bundled up even in mild weather.  So he had survived into old age and was even older than me!  I then went on to learn more about him so as to update and correct my earlier impression; what I learned follows here.

     Taylor Mead was born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, a Detroit suburb that, as a Midwesterner, I know to be an enclave of the rich and privileged.  His father was a wealthy businessman and influential figure in the Democratic Party in Michigan, and his mother a socialite; they divorced before he was born.  He endured a private high school (“brainwashing for the bourgeoisie,” he later termed it), and, through his father’s influence, got a job with Merrill Lynch in Detroit, but soon found that he had no inclination for finance.  Taylor Mead at Merrill Lynch -- the very idea boggles the mind!  He soon left, and left Detroit as well, needing to put space – a lot of it – between himself and his family.  Knowing from the age of 12 that he was gay probably had a lot to do with it.

      I won’t recount every phase and detail of his life; that can be left to a future biographer.  Having read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and, inspired by it, hitchhiked across the country more than once, he came to New York to be anonymous, to have a private life.  By this, I think he meant to live freely, as he could not do back in Michigan.  Which reminds me how Quentin Crisp, author of The Naked Civil Servant, came here decades later to live more freely than he felt he could in his native England.  (A future post will “do” Quentin Crisp.)  But Taylor Mead wanted only a degree of anonymity.  His whole life and career were fueled by a desperate desire for attention; he took to notoriety as a wasp takes to jam.

     When I first encountered him in New York in 1959, he was reading his poetry in bars and coffee houses, but he had yet to achieve real fame.  When I encountered him again in North Beach, San Francisco, in 1960, his career as an underground film performer was beginning.  The fragment of film I saw him in was obviously the first segment of The Flower Thief, an experimental low-budget black-and-white film using war surplus film stock and a hand-held camera, and directed by Ron Rice.  Taylor says of Rice that he was stealing his girlfriends’ support checks, running off with theater receipts, and chasing people down the street trying to film them, but that everybody loved him.  In the film Taylor, a bedraggled Chaplinesque innocent, wanders  around the city with three precious possessions: a stolen gardenia, an American flag, and a teddy bear.  Hardly acting, he is playing himself.  Film historian P. Adams Sitney called the film “the purest expression of the Beat sensibility in cinema.”  According to Taylor, he and Rice were to split the proceeds of the film 50/50, but Rice eloped with all the money.

     After that Andy Warhol “discovered” him and, back in New York, he began starring in Warhol’s underground films.  In the first one, Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort Of (1964), Taylor played – unbelievably – the heroic Tarzan, whose sarong kept falling off as Tarzan was climbing trees, prompting one critic to state that he did not care to see any more two-hour films of Taylor Mead’s behind.  The star and Warhol then searched the Warhol archives and, finding no such film, decided to rectify the matter.  The result was Taylor Mead’s Ass (1964), an hour-long silent epic of the star performing just with that part of his anatomy.  I haven’t seen it, but it should now be obvious why underground films stay underground.  (Taylor himself later remarked, “Only a sicko would watch the whole thing.”)  During the 1960s he made eleven films with Warhol, their collaboration ending in 1968, when a radical feminist writer who had grievances against Warhol shot and seriously wounded him.   

1963 Tarzan and Jane Regained (Dennis Hopper and Taylor Mead) 01
Taylor on the Tarzan set with Dennis Hopper.  Taylor was a very winsome Tarzan.

     In 1966, while living in Europe (how financed? one wonders), Taylor heckled a Living Theatre performance in Southern France that he found “communal to the point of sameness.”  Irritated by actor and cofounder Julian Beck’s repetition of “End the war in Vietnam,” Taylor began shouting “A bas les intellectuels!” and “Vive la guerre de Vietnam!”  (A future post will “do” the Living Theatre as well.)

     Subsequently Taylor made numerous other underground films, some of them so spontaneous that they involved only one take.  Always he was playing himself, since his art was his life, and his life was his art.

     Note on me and Andy:  I saw several Warhol films back in the 1960s, though none with Taylor Mead.  They were unstructured, haphazard, a series of improvisations.  There were some charming and humorous moments, but in general they violated the Supreme Commandment of Performing Arts:  Thou shalt not bore.

     The obits and online sources are curiously silent about the next thirty years, so that a big middle chunk is missing from the arc of Taylor’s life.  In addition, one wonders about how he supported himself (even a legend has to pay rent), and about his sex life.  Fame was what Warhol offered him, not cash.  He evidently got a little income from his father’s estate – just enough to survive on -- and as for sex, he probably reaped it haphazardly, being too much in love with himself to sustain a long-term relationship.  In the 1970s Gary Weiss made some short films of him talking to his cat in the kitchen of his Ludlow Street apartment; one of the films, in which he expatiated on the virtues of constant television watching, was later aired on Saturday Night Live. 

     Certainly Taylor Mead became a beloved icon of the Lower East Side, where he lived for years in a rent-stabilized fifth-floor apartment at 163 Ludlow Street.  He read his poetry in various venues, took up painting and got his work shown in various galleries, and fed stray cats in a Second Avenue cemetery and elsewhere during his nocturnal prowls.  The snippets of his poetry that I’ve seen online are prosy and rambling, and rich in non sequiturs and four-letter words – in other words, just what you’d expect.  As for his paintings, they seem to have been bold and splotchy.

     Though a nonsmoker and vegetarian, he did drugs like the opiate Vicodin, but seems to have kept free of the heavy stuff so prevalent in the Warhol entourage.  Having a great propensity for booze, he hung out in bars where he sometimes got free drinks.  His block was full of drug dealers, but the dealers in and around his building looked out for him when he came home drunk at 4 a.m., or when he went out in the early morning hours to feed the cats.  Some minor strokes finally limited his walking, so he had to give up feeding felines, turning the task over to an elderly lady.  But he loved his neighborhood, drugs and all; when he went out, people always recognized him and said hello, and young people helped him out of cabs and up the stairs.  When the Bowery Poetry Club opened in 2002, he read there regularly, amusing audiences with his vivid comments on sex, death, genius, and himself.

     He was also, it would seem, a clutterbug.  William Kirkley’s 2005 documentary Excavating Taylor Mead shows him trying to clean up his apartment, crammed with the ephemera of his colorful life, including thousands of loose manuscript pages and his vivid paintings, so as to avoid eviction by the city authorities, who had probably condemned it as a firetrap.  In the same year his volume of poetry A Simple Country Girl was published, with the memorable line, “I am a national treasure / If there were such a thing.” 

     Not everyone who encountered him hailed him as a beloved icon or a treasure.  When someone pointed him out to a friend of mine at a gathering circa 1970, my friend’s reaction was, What is that?  And novelist and poet Eamon Loingsigh has told of entering a dark Lower East Side bar one afternoon a few years ago and finding “an old, creepy looking man leaning on the bar, crouching like a frail spider among a few smarmy-dressed women.”  The spider screeched at times, sipped his beer, flirted with the newcomer, and called for champagne, but the bartender merely smiled.  The spider was obviously the center of attention, his wit and spontaneity eliciting cackles from the fiftyish ladies.  The visitor thought the old man’s face looked familiar, but he couldn’t quite place him.  Loingsigh left the bar after an hour and only later, seeing some Warhol films, did he recognize the screeching spider as a young man and realize that he was Taylor Mead.

Photos by Clayton Patterson Taylor Mead has returned to his Ludlow St. top-floor apartment after a hospital visit, but he has difficulty going up and down the stairs.
Taylor in his Ludlow Street apartment, March 2013, minus heat.
Clayton Patterson

     Taylor’s last months in New York were consumed by a battle with his new landlord, who was converting all the other apartments in the building to market-rate rentals.  Taylor clung to his home of thirty-four years, where he paid only $380 a month, while workers hammered outside his door from 7 a.m. until evening, and plaster fell from the walls, roaches crawled up his legs, and the kitchen sink didn’t work.  Finally, no longer able to navigate the stairs, he agreed to move out in return for a financial settlement.  He then went to stay with a niece in Denver, but was planning a trip to New Orleans and ultimately a return to New York when he succumbed to a stroke.

     So where do I end up?  I don’t think my initial take on Taylor was wrong, except for doubt that he would make it to a ripe old age.  He was an exhibitionist and narcissist for sure, a free spirit and perhaps a lost soul, but in the losing he found himself, he became Taylor Mead.  An almost innocent of considerable charm who both took himself very seriously and chuckled at his own quirks and pretensions.  Said Susan Sontag in Partisan Review, “The source of his art is the deepest and purest of all: he just gives himself, wholly and without reserve, to some bizarre autistic fantasy.  Nothing is more attractive in a person, but it is extremely rare after the age of 4.”  Yes, Taylor Mead gave himself and in so doing became the one and only thing that mattered to him, his chief object in life and supreme accomplishment: Taylor Mead.  I too mourn his loss.

     Unless, of course, a biographer comes along, peels away the legend, and reveals some raw, hard truths.

     Coming soon:  Rediscovering New York: West 12th Street and Columbus Circle; and Brooke Astor, Aristocrat of the People.  In the works: Quentin Crisp, the Living Theatre; personal anecdotes or impressions concerning either are welcome.

     ©  2013  Clifford Browder