in conversation: Taylor Meadby Sissi Tax
Taylor Mead is a legendary actor and poet who has appeared in over 100 films. He currently can be seen in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes.
Recently, Austrian writer and film theorist Sissi Tax, who is currently based in Berlin, sat down with Taylor Mead at the Rail’s headquarters.
Sissi Tax (Rail): As a witness of a certain time you have your own memory and then there is the history you remember. Could you talk a little about where you come from and your first memory of New York?
Taylor Mead: I’m coming from Detroit; my father was a Von Hindenburg, a Michigan political boss. My mother was high society with no money. They divorced before I was born. I went to boarding schools in Connecticut and grew up in the middle of the tracks as the expression goes. High society on one side and then a father from another background. My mother died when I was 13 and then my father took over. When I moved into downtown Detroit at the time I didn’t know what a great jazz city it was. I was used to a whole different life. I worked in a brokerage house and was fascinated by the stock market. I could have been a very good broker. But there was no nightlife and of course, I had to have nightlife. I had to have a love life. There was nothing. Detroit was a dead city as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t have a private life because my father was The Boss. So I just went away one day and began hitchhiking through the country, traveling through the whole United States and then the world, being thrown in jail and having tremendous experiences.
Rail: As I know from Warhol and Hackett’s Popism, you were influenced by Kerouac’s On the Road and by Ginsberg’s "Howl."
Mead: Who wasn’t? My first influence was from George Bernard Shaw. People kept talking about the movie Pygmalion and I missed seeing it. So I went to the library; I found a book with a preface by Bernard Shaw on parents and children. It talked about how bourgeoisie sent their children to boarding school to get rid of them. All the schizophrenia in the upper-class families just struck me and it opened up my mind. Then I came back to Detroit in time for World War II but I didn’t go into the army because my eye droops. I was very upset because I believed in WWII. I didn’t know it was from an accident at birth because my head is so big and brilliant that the forceps slipped. I didn’t know. The forceps just couldn’t get a grip.
Rail: It is a mark of your fate. A special sign.
Mead: I hitchhiked to California and in the mid-50s, when Allen was blossoming, reading "Howl." I forget when "Howl" came in but it was terribly important. Robert Frank came out with his film Pull my Daisy, which influenced all of us making our first films. I think I may have already visited New York then, coming down for Broadway shows in the 40s. I was afraid of New York. I wanted to go to Cape Cod and look for Tennessee Williams, but then I went through New York one hot summer day and I could see people sitting on their stoops in another world and minding their own business, and I knew that’s where I belonged.
Then came the 50s. In North Beach I knew there was a great excitement in the air and then the police kicked me out of San Francisco because they were doing a storm trooper kind of thing, eliminating non-desirables from the streets, because they knew there was this tremendous beat movement going on. No one gave a shit when we were protesting middle class America. Everyone knew the establishment was bullshit. Before he left office even Eisenhower warned against the military/ industrial complex, the power it had, and that was exactly where I’d come from. The police were down on everybody. They would go around with a big wagon and pick up people off of the street and threaten them and put them in jail. It was horrendous. Then the beat got cool and there was money around and they let up some. And that was 15, 20 years before the "Summer of Love." The same thing happened in here in the 80s, downtown after the 70s.
Rail: Money was around?
Mead: When Allen and Ferlinghetti won a freedom of speech thing with "Howl," it was terribly important for writers, for artists, for everybody. So I returned and went back to New York.
In the late 50s the coffeehouses were opening. Everyone read poetry. Larry Poons, who is a famous artist who does circles, had this house where poets would read with toilet seats around their necks; they would try to get rid of the audience. They saw me writing in a book all the time so they insisted I read. I was so shy I had to sit at a table to read. Everything I read people responded to tremendously. From then on I got up on stage and couldn’t be stopped. I couldn’t get rid of the audience, so they got rid of me. No, not really!
Rail: So you never had the idea of yourself as an actor?
Mead: I was always a star. I was B.A. (before Andy), because Andy discovered me long before I discovered him reading poetry. Woody Allen and Bill Cosby and Allen Ginsburg, Bob Dylan and Peter Orlovsky, we were all reading because the poetry in New York in the early 60s was becoming tremendous. So Andy knew about me.
Rail: You had a radio that you always carried with you on your shoulder in the 40s and 50s.
Mead: Then Henry Geldzahler used to see me with my radio. He was a curator for modern art at the Metropolitan and was walking through Central Park and so was I. We already knew each other from the poetry readings. He said to me "Do you want to meet Andy Warhol?" I said "Oh, yes," because I admired Andy from a literary point of view. I thought the Campbell soup can was a Voltaireian stroke against American commercial society. Of course, coming from a famous artist, a commercial artist, it was a brilliant stroke. So I said, "Of course." He took me over to Andy’s house and Andy gave me the royal treatment with cakes and things, Bacardi & Coke. His mother was there. They call it the royal treatment. A few weeks later he had a show in Los Angeles of Elvis Presley paintings. At the time he said that he wanted to see the country. That was 1963.
Rail: Warhol had the sensitivity to see people doing very idiosyncratic things and then take it over for himself.
Mead: He was making fashion; he was able to make fashion. Billy Name had his silver apartment with silver foil and Andy saw it and he took it to the factory and—poof, it’s fashion.
Rail: You wrote The Son of Andy Warhol—do you think of yourself as the son in familiar terms?
Mead: Son of Andy Warhol. He had a lot of power like my father and we, his children, were ignored. Once we were off the camera he was cheap in a way like my father. Parsimonious is a better word. He hated to spend money you had to beg him for money. He still owes me money.
Rail: You see the 60s as a very political time, what about the mixture of art and politics?
Mead: In the 50s we were protesting the middle class all together. We knew the middle class, the government was a shitty horrible thing and we were divorced from all of it. We weren’t protesting the war in Vietnam. We were writing wild poetry with four letter words. It was very rare that we talked about the Vietnam War. The establishment was just totally wrong. We were all spoiled. No, we were not spoiled, we were divorced from very wealthy people, like Bridget Berlin, myself, Viva.
Rail: What’s the most significant change you’ve experienced since the 60s?
Mead: I know exactly, Governor Rockefeller. The 60s ended in 1970 with a crash when Rockefeller and Nixon outlawed our drugs. We were all working on speed, and Andy himself was on a mild speed, which made you concentrate. Bridget graduated from Foxcroft, a very fancy school in Virginia. She said that she wouldn’t have gotten through without speed. It made her study. We were into detail.
Rail: Obetrol. Andy used Obetrol.
Mead: We used amphetamines, but the doctors would give you amphetamines and then the doctor would give you Tuinals, the over-the-counter drug so it would give you some control; then often vitamins. Nixon was shot with speed and vitamins to keep him going. Rockefeller, who was able to get drunk every night on Lafitte Rothschild, outlawed cheap drugs. The murder rate went from 100 or 200 a year in New York to 2,000 a year. Cocaine and expensive drugs came in, and fake drugs, too, where people would drop dead. It was horrendous. That was the end of the 60s. We all began separating, we became too high. But our last outpost was Max’s Kansas City. That only went on for a few more years and then that fell apart too.
Rail: Do you still have any good friends from the 60s time?
Mead: Oh yeah, at funerals. So many died by the time they were 50. There was Charles Henri-Ford, lover of the painter Tchelitchev, he was 94 I think. You find out more about the person you knew at a memorial. People will give wonderful anecdotes of a phase of the person that you didn’t know. Very, very interesting. The last funeral though was for Billy Kluver. We were having a memorial for him just the other week at No Name. A delightful, pseudo ill-tempered man.
Rail: Tell us about Warhol’s funeral.
Mead: It was a major event in New York—several thousand people. The people that read were outside the Warhol circle, generally. They had no wild readers, just everyone doing these ordinary things about how wonderful Andy was and how awful we were—those 60s people. Where would Andy be without his movies?
Rail: As Jonas Mekas puts it, "What would they have done out on the streets?" He describes Warhol as a psychiatrist who kept everyone together, but without them he wouldn’t have made his movies. He was like a vacuum. One of the lines, he said, "I glued myself together before going out." Do you know "like a moth to the light"—this beautiful song by Marlene Dietrich?
Mead: He was Marlene Dietrich. He knew what was au courant. He knew what the rich liked too. He was a conduit between the very rich and the people who bought paintings and gave him a great deal of money for his commercials. He was a conduit and he knew what was coming.
Rail: So he was a double agent in a way.
Mead: He was always photographing or recording. He was so easy to talk to. He was so demure. Oh yeah, he would talk. We had a big conversation on a plane from La Jolla, California where we made a movie called San Diego Surf. On the plane—I think it was ’68 or so—he outlined my career. 1968 was a very productive year for Andy after Chelsea Girls. We had done three or four movies that year and then I did The Secret Life. I was to be his biggest star with the use of all movie equipment, publishing my book, pushing my paintings, readings of my work. Unfortunately, two days later he was shot. I never brought up the matter of what he promised because he promised people everything anyway.
Rail: He changed after that.
Mead: The energy went out of him and he brought in the Countesses and the children of European aristocracy. He felt safer with them. We were sort of left out. We were all excluded. Then Paul and Andy were still close.
Rail: Paul Morrissey. Paul was another type.
Mead: Paul Morrissey. Well, I made my first movie with Paul. Before when I tried to introduce him to Andy, he didn’t want to meet Andy. It just happened a couple years later.
Rail: What movie was it?
Mead: Taylor Mead Sings and Dances Sort Of. I think it comes to 20 or 30 minutes or something like that, and I’m in a Rolls Royce throwing money out the window. Silly. I made a great film with Peter Beard, Jonas and Adolphas Mekas, Hallelujah The Hills, up in Vermont. It won at the Lacarno Film Festival.
Rail: So you traveled around Europe?
Mead: Yeah, my friend Jerome Hill had a villa in Cassis. Forty miles east of Marseilles on the Mediterranean and I was a guest there, along with Peter Beard who would work on putting trip books together. We all did trip books. Anyway then I went to stay in Rome for a year, and showed The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, by Ron Rice, who died at 28 or 29 years old. It is my favorite movie and it’s not by Andy Warhol. It’s B.A., before Andy. In fact it influenced Andy immensely. I showed it to Gallery Tataruga and Gallery Marlborough, to Antonioni, and Moravia wrote a big article. I was very famous in Italy for two weeks. Fifteen minutes plus two weeks.
Rail: Did you have the feeling that the Europeans were different from the Americans then?
Mead: A little more elegant. They were more elegant and they were extremely interested. At the cinemathéque in Paris they showed Chelsea Girls and I was with Jean-Jacques Lebel and all the young avant-garde French painters. They all walked out on Chelsea Girls. And I thought what am I doing in la dolce vita land? Chelsea Girls is for real.
Rail: What other projects have you been working on lately? You have a couple of films now?
Mead: Yes, there’s The Excavation of Taylor Mead—they didn’t realize that I was going to be excavated. All my things being thrown in the backyard, life is very parallel. All the movies I made came about close to the reality that we were living. These kids are doing a great job of editing. They have a hundred hours that they are editing down to two. Some big companies like Miramax and HBO have a lot of interest. We had a showing at the Angelika, my favorite movie house. And then there’s Curious White Boy by Wright Thomas, which we’ve been making for five years. It’s where I went to boarding school for 50 years because my family doesn’t know what to do with me. It’s been showing around, the most beautiful film you’ll never see. My brother says it is a biography. And there’s Jim Jarmusch’s Cigarettes and Coffee, or Coffee and Cigarettes I can’t remember which. It should be out in May. And then there’s another one made by Sebastiano Piras called Exposing Taylor Mead, or Taylor Mead Unleashed, which is a very charming film.
Rail: I find that in general, independent film has filtered into the mainstream Hollywood establishment. With all the different festivals here and there, it’s unlike the time you and Warhol and other people were doing it—when independent films was still made marginally.
Mead: We were sort of uncontrollable. We and Ron Rice were fascinated by the image of the film. His whole thing was picking people and locations and letting us loose and he’d send it to the lab and the moment it came back from the lab we would show it in a coffeehouse and get an immediate response. It was almost like being in a play. Now you work on a film and in a couple of years it comes out. I still love watching myself on screen, even when I’m not in there.
Rail: This is very interesting because the process now is much more immediate. We’re sitting here and taping you and can watch it as we are taping it.
Mead: But as a result you make 10 times more film and it takes a couple of years to edit it.
Rail: Warhol referred to Midnight Cowboy as the movie that took a lot of the Warhol aesthetics and transferred the power of it into big Hollywood.
Mead: I had a magnificent scene coming down a winding staircase in drag singing "I’m flying" from Peter Pan. Schlesinger said, "Do you want to rehearse it or wing it?" I said, "Just do it." At the bottom of the stairs, Viva is a movie newsperson who tries to interview me and asks, "How is show business?" I pull out my fake breasts and my wig and throw it at the camera and say, "Show business is easy, it’s when you reach the stage door that things get rough." The set exploded and the grips and everyone came up screaming, "Now we have a movie, now we have a movie!" And they didn’t invite me to the screening of it. The old queen Schlesinger cut me out. I hear he’s dying now. Well, good luck John! But I loved his pictures. I love Midnight Cowboy. When they restored the movie, I asked Jon Voight, "Is my scene back in?" and he said, "No, no." I think they couldn’t get the rights to the song as sung by me. It was too much and Schlesinger wrote some scenes that he hated to cut but they unbalanced the movie. The real Factory unbalanced their idea of the Factory. Andy was very upset about that—as much as he could be [snort]. He thought it was the only scene that reflected the Factory, when the Factory was trying to make a party scene.
Rail: What are you doing now?
Mead: I’m reading poetry every Friday from 6:30 to 7:00 at the Bowery Poetry Club on Bowery and 1st. Bob Holman, who built the place, he’s great. He must have spent hundreds of thousands on it. Plus there’s a section for filmmakers. I’ll have a drink on that.
Rail: Has the full manuscript of the Son of Andy Warhol been published?
Mead: Not yet. It’s in a Dante-esque limbo for the moment; maybe it’s more like hell though.
Rail: What is the state of that book now?
Mead: It’s in manuscript form now but I have to have new manuscripts printed up. I haven’t really pushed my book. Occasionally someone will offer me an agent’s name and will send it and get a nice letter. I know it’s a viable book; I have to be anapestic in order to be approved. But so much is missing. I haven’t found out what’s missing. I still have the manuscript Son of Andy Warhol, sequel to Son of Frankenstein. It’s like the book Edie. I deal with my family background.
Rail: It’s one of my favorite books, Edie, the biography by Jean Stein and George Plimpton.
Mead: I didn’t know I knew Edie until I read the book. In real life she made little or no impression on me; it’s only when I saw her in the films that I realized how beautiful she was. Apparently, I traveled on a train with her to Philadelphia. There’s a big anecdote. It’s in several books where we’re at Henry McIlhenny’s house, one of the pillars of Philadelphia. We’re all staying at his mansion on Rittenhouse Square. There’s a big dinner table, and there are Van Goghs on the wall, incredible. I think there’s even one there that Van Gogh had slashed the canvas. The butler comes around and says, "Is there anything you’d like before you retire in the morning?" And I said, "I want you."
Sissi Tax is an Austrian writer, primarily of prose.