“It isn’t life. It’s being recorded!” — Jack Smith
It’s the summer of 1962. Jack Smith is sprawled languidly among the thread-worn pillows in his low-rent apartment at 56 Ludlow Street in Manhattan, entertaining his friends Tony Conrad and Mario Montez. Another year will pass before Smith, an eccentric photographer, actor, and downtown personality, will achieve international notoriety as the director of the avant-garde film Flaming Creatures. Transvestite model Montez will gain underground “Superstar” status in his/her role as a mysterious flamenco dancer in the film, before graduating to greater fame later in the decade as a member of Andy Warhol’s Factory entourage. The twenty-two-year-old Conrad (having recently graduated from Harvard, and a couple of years shy of his celebrated collaborations with La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela, Angus MacLise, John Cale, and Terry Riley in the minimalist drone ensemble the Theater of Eternal Music) will assemble the multi-genre soundtrack for Flaming Creatures.
On this particular day, Smith is regaling his friends about the mysteries of life and death. In the background, a scratchy old 78-rpm recording of classical Arabic raga repeats the same mournful phrase, with Conrad occasionally whistling accompaniment on a dime-store recorder.
“To be dead,” drones Smith hypnotically, in his distinctive near-falsetto drawl. “To be truly dead.”
“But you want to be alive, Jack,” teases Montez between bursts of exaggerated laughter, “even though you say you want to be truly dead.”
“It isn’t life,” Smith snaps back at once. “It isn’t life. It’s being recorded!”
Briefly regaining his composure, Smith segues into a story about an addict who unwittingly replaces his cocaine with ammonia, his hideously inflated head eventually exploding “like a melon” after his sister accidentally bumps him off the toilet with the bathroom door. As Conrad and Montez convulse with laughter, Smith screams hysterically, “Turn off the tape recorder! Tony, turn the fucking thing off!”
It’s a bizarre, unsettling, and (at least to my ears) irresistible scene, the type of mad, belligerent, fantasy-filled interaction that (if the two volumes of recordings on which it is included are any indication) was a regular occurrence among Smith and the ragtag troupe of actors, composers, visual artists, transvestites, and assorted misfits with whom he shared his life and his Lower East Side apartment during the early 1960s. Smith’s spirited disclaimer to the contrary, the fifteen recordings on Les Evening Gowns Damnées and Silent Shadows on Cinemaroc Island are full of the life and liveliness that made Smith such an inimitable treasure (and occasionally such a raging pain in the ass) for his friends, followers, collaborators, and critical champions, from his first appearances in the New York underground during the mid-1950s until his death from AIDS in 1989 at the age of fifty-six.
Like everything else associated with Smith, the recordings are simultaneously morbid and hilarious, childlike and obscene, artistically inventive and recklessly self-indulgent. Captured on tape between 1962 and 1964 by his then-roommate Conrad, Smith reads excerpts from his bizarre short fiction, stages elaborate theatrical improvisations with his friends, and, when all else fails, simply makes things up as the tapes roll.
The majority of the pieces represent true collaborations between Smith (as featured vocalist) and Conrad (as arranger and musician), along with an occasional contribution by the young composers’ buddies John Cale and Angus MacLise. Conrad’s eclectic record collages and odd-toned improvisations sometimes unobtrusively frame Smith’s madcap performances, readings, and improvisations, and sometimes roar to the surface, stirring Smith to fits of gasping, screaming, and maniacal laughter.
Both discs begin with a brief selection from Conrad’s eclectic secondhand soundtrack to Flaming Creatures. The first disc features the disturbing sound effects from the infamous Earthquake Orgy scene, a four-minute barrage of howls, shrieks, and screams (provided by Smith, Montez, Arnold Rockwood, and Kate and Piero Heliczer) over a steady metallic hum. The second disc features Conrad’s mix for the Carnival of Ecstasy scene near the end of the film, a cacophonous layering of boleros, ballads, arias, and action-adventure soundtracks that, wrested from its role as accompaniment to the delirious dance of the film’s central characters, emerges as a surprisingly coherent and listenable musical assemblage.
Another piece on which Conrad plays an important role is “Mario and the Flickering Jewel.” “Mario came over one evening and was in drag,” Conrad explained in a 2002 interview, “and Jack…dimmed the lights and put on some funky, or should I say moldy, records, and in a frantic and desperate effort to put Mario on the silver screen, grabbed an antiquated projector, a 16-mm projector which he had found somewhere, and pointed the pathetic instrument at Mario.”
Smith rummaged through a drawer, pulled out an opaque fragment of green costume jewelry, and dangled it in front of the lens. Remembering what he had learned about optical effects and frequency modulation at Harvard, Conrad began to fiddle with the control knob, turning the frame rate to its lowest setting. Suddenly the sputtering light from the projector began to refract erratically from the green jewel, flickering violently across the room and showering Montez with what Conrad would later describe as “an unearthly ambience.”
“Can you see the endlessly flickering light?” Smith cries to Conrad on the recording, the rickety film spool sputtering in the background. “It’s hallucinating! A scene of barbaric splendor! Oh, my head!”
Three years later, the experience would inspire Conrad to make his groundbreaking experimental film, Flicker, which generated neurological responses in viewers (including epileptic seizures for a few unlucky audience members) by controlling the pulse rates of alternating black and white frames.
On “Silent Shadows,” Smith launches into a rapturous elegy for the late Maria Montez (the 1940s B-movie queen who served as his personal muse and the inspiration for Mario’s “Superstar” persona). Smith’s reflections grow darker as the piece progresses, urged on by Conrad’s brooding musical accompaniment. An oscillating blur of quivering percussion and eerie harmonic effects, the roaring minimalist drone beneath “Silent Shadows” comes as close as any of the selections to the sounds that Conrad would later achieve in his collaborations with the Theater of Eternal Music and the Krautrock band Faust. Eventually, Conrad’s musical accompaniment and Smith’s ecstatic ramblings reach such a ridiculous level of intensity (“shimmering cascades of mouse milk disappearing over the waterfalls of yearning”) that both men briefly burst into laughter before taking up their dark theme again.
My favorite selections are the ones in which Conrad simply lets the tape spin while Smith leans into the mike and does his thing, either performing theatrical improvisation with his friends or reading aloud from his absurdist short fiction. On the seventeen-minute theatrical piece “Love Is Strange,” Smith (as the character jealous Mavis) openly plots the death of the exotically beautiful transvestite Francis Francine. When her attempt to poison her glamorous rival fails, Mavis performs an erotic dance that “over-stimulates” her precious caged mongoloids into a masturbating frenzy, followed by a lustful attack on the beautiful Francine. As in most of the theatrical pieces, Smith alternates among the roles of dispassionate narrator, tactless stage director (“I’m using my ring with the secret compartment to pour poison into your drink”), and passionate participant, frequently punctuating his dialogue with shrieks, screams, and howls of delight that rattle the speakers.
Another highlight is “The Horrors of Agony,” in which Smith attempts a “straight” reading of his own short story, “Pfeffernus Flavored Aspirin.” A rapid-fire, Burroughs-style verbal montage of deformity, decay, and destruction, the story catalogues the spectacularly horrifying after-effects of an off-brand pain medication on the babies of the pregnant mothers who used the product. The mutant children are strawberry-sized at birth, but quickly grow heads the size of watermelons. Their hideous, bristled tendrils sprout insulting greeting cards, and their ten-story headdresses become entangled in high-voltage telephone wires.
As the story progresses, Smith’s reading is increasingly interrupted by his own laughter. “Often nice old ladies would peer into the baby carriages”—he snorts and giggles his way through the lines so loudly that he can barely be understood—“to tweak their cheeks, and would instead vomit into the carriage, adding another knife into a mother’s heart, as she pushed the brimming carriage all the way across town in a raging hail storm.”
Smith’s audience for the reading, Jerry Joffen and Joel Markman, beg him to get a grip on himself and concentrate on reading the story. Still snickering, he pleads for patience and understanding. “I’m sorry, but it cracks me up. It really is funny!”
And that, dear readers, is Jack Smith in a nutshell. For Burroughs and most of Smith’s other contemporaries in transgressive art, the preference for grotesque imagery and violent, disjointed narrative represents an angry indictment of the cruelty, hypocrisy, and restrictiveness of established society. Smith’s narratives and dramatic tableaus, by contrast, are playful, funny, and willfully obtuse toward the false, “pasty,” authoritarian world beyond. “Flaming Creatures,” wrote Susan Sontag, in one of the earlier and more perceptive assessments of Smith’s work, “is that rare modern work of art: It is about joy and innocence.”
In his published writings, Smith was surprisingly articulate in defending his radical politics and aesthetic values, and he would occasionally use his personal and social nemeses as outrageously malevolent characters in his films, writings, and plays. The works themselves, however, were ultimately acts of joyful creation—not angry critique—sweeping even the darkest impulses and the most despicable of villains into a wild, orgasmic, life-affirming crescendo. If there was no room for Smith’s vision of how the world should be in Hollywood studios or midtown galleries or even the avant-garde establishments of downtown Manhattan, then he would simply create that world for himself—in his photographs, his writings, his performance pieces, and his increasingly fragmented films. All he needed was a pencil and paper, a camera and a pile of junk, or a microphone and a small group of friends to witness the epiphany.
“Whatever new thoughts you can think of that the world needs,” Smith once explained to interviewer Sylvère Lotringer, “will be automatically clothed in the most radiant language imaginable.”
Near the end of Mary Jordan’s 2007 documentary film Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis, John Zorn relates a story about one of Smith’s home-staged theatrical pieces from the 1970s. Most of Smith’s shows started extremely late and at no specific time, and he would typically begin his performance for a meager audience, with a steady stream of stragglers gradually appearing as the evening progressed. On this particular occasion, however, no one showed up, either for the opening monologue or for the rest of the night, and Smith performed the entire piece to an empty house.
It’s a great story and an apt metaphor for Smith’s entire life and career. For those stragglers among us who do want to know what the man was all about, the easiest Smith-related artifacts to find these days are the Jordan documentary (which was recently released on DVD); a collection of Smith’s writings, Wait for Me at the Bottom of the Pool (edited by J. Hoberman), along with Hoberman’s fascinating study, On Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures; and, last but certainly not least, these strange, wonderful CDs of Smith’s recordings from the early 1960s. Belated thanks to both Tony Conrad and Table of the Elements for bringing Smith’s remarkable voice back to life.
David Shirley and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.