Michael McClure’s poetry will never die, ever-centered on the page, ready to take flight. He himself did both (died/flied), May 5, 2020, in the midst of the COVID. Complications of a stroke. But to us now, death at the doorstep, cause of death barely matters. He is taken, another.
I last saw Michael and Amy a couple years ago in their magical Mews, high up in the Oakland hills. Quick walk to mountain peak, see both sides -- into the Valley, down to the Bay. Perfect sitting for our Great Mammal Poet, the roar of the lion, the ping of the whale. We strolled down memory lane to when Bob Carroll, the radical performance artist, brought me by Michael’s house on Ashbury Street the first time, trading poems at his pad, a home base for Beat social life.
This was just before Howl Happening’s “Beat and Beyond” gathering, where Michael starred, sang, bopped, cried, cracked and cooled. The convocation featured a live reenactment of the Six Gallery Reading. Michael didn’t want to replicate himself. Instead, he took the role of Kenneth Rexroth, hosting the event, dean of the scene. He and I talked often. He blurbed my recent book Life Poem, we said hello via video conferencing a year ago when HOWL and City Lights did a bicoastal centenary birthday party for Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He was true Beat, remarkable figure, loving man. He always spoke of humans as just one aspect of Mammal Life. This is one Mammal we will sorely miss.
10 Things for Michael McClure
- What do you do for an encore, when your first reading is the reading that changed the world? October 7, 1955, the Six Gallery, San Francisco, where Ginsberg performed “Howl” for the first time, Kerouac passed around a jug of red, shouting, “Go! Go!” and Michael McClure read publicly for the first time. You can read Kerouac’s pitch-perfect version in Dharma Bums.
- One of the poems Mike (he was Mike then) read at the Six Gallery was “For the Death of 100 Whales,” which many consider the Ur poem of eco-poetics. The earth and its ecosystems will be a theme in Michael’s poetry throughout his life. His final cellphone message: “white chrysanthemums/ripening persimmons.”
- [email protected] was his email handle. Grahhr is the signature word of McClure’s Beast language, a language of sounds which explodes in his remarkable City Lights book, Ghost Tantras. Check out #51, the one that he reads to the lions at the SF Zoo. They roared right back. You can find the old black and white footage on the Net.
- Michael would often begin his readings with the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, read in Middle English. Now that opened audiences’ ears. Expecting a screaming Beat, they’d receive a mellifluous “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,/The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,/And bathed every veyne in swich licóur/Of which vertú engendred is the flour.” You can hear him read it in Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, with the Band.
- Yes indeed, McClure wrote Janis Joplin’s hit, “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz?” and Bobby Neuwirth composed the music. It has been covered by everybody from Elton John to the Supremes to Pink, Mercedes-Benz used the song in several ad campaigns, including at the Super Bowl. Michael laughingly would say that the one song brought in more money than all his other poetry.
- His play, The Beard, a dialogue between Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid, takes place in a blue velvet Eternity. It sparked police raids and shut-downs for “obscenity” when it opened in 1965. Since then it’s been performed world-wide, including a version directed by Rip Torn, and won two Obies for its New York production. I directed it at Bard with 12 Jeans and 12 Billys. McClure wrote numerous other plays – Taylor Mead originated his Spider Rabbit in New York and performed it every few years, digging out the old bunny costume.
- Michael was friends with everybody from Freewheelin’ Frank, the leader of the San Francisco Hell’s Angels (they wrote a book together) to Jim Morrison of The Doors. He was influential in Morrison’s poetry writing, and performed with Ray Manzarek, The Doors’ keyboard player, for many years.
- In 2016, at the HOWL Happening-Bowery Poetry “Beats and Beyond,” Michael and his wife, Amy Evans, were royalty. Michael played Kenneth Rexroth at the Gallery Six reenactment also in the cast: Hettie Jones, Allen Ginsberg; Andy Clausen Philip Whalen; Ava Chin, Gary Snyder; Max Blagg, Philip Lamantia. Michael and Amy were working at the time on a series of prints, The Appaloosa Series, which was on view at HOWL, and included a deck of cards with images, the Appaloosa Deck. They were the inspiration for a live improved that Michael and I performed with Ginsberg and Burroughs, as painted by Mark Turgeon, part of a mural behind.
- Amy Evans, painter and sculptor, Michael’s wife, was with him when he died at home at the Mews. They were partners in art and life. Michael’s first wife, Joanna, is a terrific poet; Catching Light is the title of her Collected. Their daughter Jane has two children.
- Highly recommended is Scratchings on the Beat Surface, McClure’s personal history of the Beats, along with other essential poetry, ecology, and the universe. His book-length poem, Dark Brown, recently reissued, is a great read. Read The Beard with your partner in quarantine. Read Ghost Tantras aloud. Call in the lions.