Of verse and verses

Along the way, while he cre­ated his own po­etic id­iom full of meat and ‘beast lan­guage,’ some of the Beat in Michael Mc­Clure ended up in­side iconic mu­sic


Shortly af­ter Michael Mc­Clure in­vites me into his aerie in the East Oak­land Hills, he turns on the stereo and plays a melodic in­dict­ment of Amer­i­can bru­tal­ity set to the psy­che­delic key­board stabs of the Doors’ Ray Man­zarek and the oc­ca­sional flute trill.

“Let me be raw . . . . I’m sick of this mon­key-eyed id­iot deca­dence, this mil­i­tary me­chan­i­cal and ma­ni­a­cal greedy drool­ing,” Mc­Clure roars on “Me Raw,” from “The Pi­ano Po­ems: Live From San Fran­cisco,” a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Man­zarek recorded shortly be­fore the key­boardist’s death in 2013.

“I wanted to keep alive the un­der­stand­ing of the en­vi­ron­ment, con­scious­ness and in­spi­ra­tion that started with our bio-ro­man­tic early po­ems at the Six Gallery read­ing,” Mc­Clure elab­o­rates on his col­lab­o­ra­tions with Man­zarek, which spanned nearly 20 years. Af­ter this poem ends, he re­places it with an­other one from his ful­l­length col­lab­o­ra­tion with the leg­endary avant­garde min­i­mal­ist com­poser Terry Ri­ley.

Mc­Clure doesn’t do ca­sual con­ver­sa­tion. It’s ter­res­trial night­mares and tran­scend­ing con­scious­ness or noth­ing. The 84-year-old poet, play­wright, nov­el­ist and es­say­ist speaks with a Bud­dha’s bari­tone — a Zen tim­bre that could make a gro­cery list sound like the Lanka­vatara Su­tra. In “Big Sur,” Ker­ouac de­scribed him as “the young poet who’s just writ­ten the most fan­tas­tic poem in Amer­ica, called ‘Dark Brown,’ which is ev­ery de­tail of his and his wife’s body de­scribed in ec­static union.”

He also called him the “most hand­some man he’d ever seen . . . enough to play Billy the Kid in the movies.” No ex­ag­ger­a­tion. Do an im­age search of Mc­Clure and you’ll find a sepia trip­tych of him, Bob Dy­lan and Gins­berg in 1965. Some­how, the Wi­chita- and Seat­tle-bred poet is the most stylish, look­ing like a young Or­lando Bloom in a Percy Shel­ley biopic — a man cool enough to pull off own­ing a pet hawk for most of the 1960s with­out seem­ing pre­pos­ter­ous.

In his 80s, a debonair charm re­mains un­mis­tak­able. A blue jacket and black jeans loosely drape his lanky frame, a plaid scarf rak­ishly wrapped around his neck. His hair is a rich shock of sil­ver. But the ero­sion of eight decades has left some wear. A tremor palsies one hand and he’s blind in his right eye. A few weeks be­fore this in­ter­view, Mc­Clure slipped while hik­ing among the red­woods. Doc­tors im­planted a ti­ta­nium plate in his hip, and he now must use a cane to get around his home. While con­va­lesc­ing in a nearby hos­pi­tal, po­ems came surg­ing out.

“Cool breeze on brown tulips, fat black and yel­low beef feasts, life and lemon lol­lipops . . . Steel tower home squeeze,” Mc­Clure de­claims af­ter pick­ing up a note­book next to him. “I am a lion and you are a lioness. Our hide­out is in the midst of over­cast. Will we roar and stretch in the sun . . . . Star­dust. Star. Sand. Now I claw your sign. As­pire. In­spire to touch your light hand.”

The mo­tifs aren’t much dif­fer­ent from those ex­plored by the 22-year old Mc­Clure, who read the eco­log­i­cal re­quiem “For the Death of 100 Whales” that fated night in 1955 at the Six Gallery. In fact, Mc­Clure was first tasked with or­ga­niz­ing the gath­er­ing, but in the wake of im­pend­ing fa­ther­hood, he be­queathed the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties to Gins­berg.

“They’re all po­ems I stand by, as much now as ever. They were the be­gin­ning of ideas, Do­ge­nesque ideas,” Mc­Clure says, ref­er­enc­ing the 13th-cen­tury Ja­panese poet-philoso­pher.

Ar­riv­ing in 1954 to study ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist art at the Cal­i­for­nia School of Fine Arts (now the San Fran­cisco Art In­sti­tute), Mc­Clure quickly trans­ferred to San Fran­cisco State to learn from Robert Dun­can, a ma­jor in­flu­ence on the area’s po­etry re­nais­sance. Af­ter the Six Gallery read­ing, he as­cended into a rar­efied stra­tum.

“What the Six Gallery re­ally did was show us that there was an au­di­ence out there that re­ally wanted to hear po­etry off the page,” Mc­Clure con­tin­ues, sur­rounded by over­stuffed book­shelves and clay kiln-fired stat­ues of spirit guides made by his wife, sculp­tor Amy Evans Mc­Clure. The decor re­flects Mc­Clure’s own ob­ses­sions with Asian, Na­tive Amer­i­can and ab­stract art. “That night at the Six Gallery greatly in­spired us to go ahead.”

Flu­idly glid­ing through worlds, Mc­Clure bridged the gap be­tween Beats, hip­pies and Hell’s Angels. He in­vented his own “beast lan­guage” and growled those po­ems to the lions at the San Fran­cisco Zoo. It’s right there to watch on YouTube. His early psy­che­delic ex­per­i­ments and sub­se­quent “Pey­ote Poem” blew the mind of Fran­cis Crick, who would soon co-dis­cover the struc­ture of our DNA. Among other songs, Mc­Clure co-wrote “Mercedes Benz,” which was soon turned into a hit by his close friend Ja­nis Jo­plin.

Fame and in­famy ar­rived in 1965 with his play “The Beard.” Chron­i­cling the in­ter­play be­tween Billy the Kid and Jean Har­low in a “blue vel­vet eter­nity,” it ended with the Western out­law per­form­ing oral sex on the sil­ver-screen in­génue as she bent over a chair bel­low­ing, “star . . . star.” Need­less to say, the cen­sors didn’t ap­prove.

Zeal­ous to rem­edy their fail­ures in pros­e­cut­ing Fer­linghetti and co­me­dian Lenny Bruce, the San Fran­cisco po­lice ar­rested the play’s lead ac­tors for “lewd or dis­so­lute con­duct in a pub­lic place.” More hand­cuffs fol­lowed in Berke­ley and Los An­ge­les. The lat­ter per­for­mance found an out­raged the­ater­goer sucker-punch­ing Mc­Clure af­ter the show, which set off a counter-thrash­ing by the poet and an­other close friend of his, ac­tor Den­nis Hop­per.

The con­tro­versy and art­ful re­bel­lion at­tracted Doors vo­cal­ist Jim Mor­ri­son, who quickly be-

came Mc­Clure’s drink­ing buddy and part­ner in adapt­ing Mc­Clure’s novel, “The Adept.”

“I hated him at first. I thought, ‘Who is this guy with leather pants and long hair?’ ” Mc­Clure says and laughs. “But we even­tu­ally started talk­ing about po­etry and drink­ing. I don’t think there was a bet­ter poet in Amer­ica at Jim’s age.”

Mc­Clure helped crys­tal­lize the modern Rim­baud mys­tic archetype that Mor­ri­son ran with. If there’s a hint of the fa­mil­iar in him, it’s be­cause he’s been so fre­quently em­u­lated. Ev­ery freak-folk ac­ci­den­tal shaman in Topanga Canyon and ab­stract Earth poet owes some cre­ative debt to the for­mer English pro­fes­sor at Oak­land’s Cal­i­for­nia Col­lege of the Arts.

His po­ems are less ob­sessed with re­al­ity than with the mal­leable forms and shapes that re­al­ity can take. They re­verse-en­gi­neer art back into the el­e­men­tal build­ing blocks it comes from: an ar­chi­pel­ago of syl­la­bles, stark images, clumps of flesh and leo­nine wild­ness. He looks to erad­i­cate the bar­ri­ers be­tween bi­ol­ogy and po­etry, be­bop and ab­stract can­vases. It’s both com­i­cally se­ri­ous and play­fully child­like.

Like most of his peers, Mc­Clure is gravely con­cerned about the fu­ture. He’s haunted by the prophetic ideas of Her­bert Mar­cuse, whose the­ory of one-di­men­sion­al­ity warned that late Western cap­i­tal­ism cre­ated a pli­ant con­sumerist class whose re­bel­lious streak would be crushed by false needs and ba­nal dis­trac­tions.

“I know that young peo­ple are striv­ing for change, but it seems like they don’t know how to rebel or what to rebel against. The ones I know don’t have the fire in them that makes them dis­like things. Ev­ery­one is amenable,” Mc­Clure says. “We’re liv­ing in an elec­tronic world of com­mu­ni­ca­tions that on­to­log­i­cally doesn’t ex­ist, where we’re all one-di­men­sional. They’d be hap­pier if they found their in­ner life, but they can’t. This is a flash­ing world of pas­sion, which can be a beau­ti­ful thing and a ter­ri­ble one.”

But at his core, he’s an op­ti­mist, one who be­lieves that rebels still ex­ist in hid­ing, wait­ing to cre­ate a world that ex­ists off­line and un­tram­meled by ob­scene wealth and poi­sonous noise. He’s aware that it’s a grim time, but is quick to in­voke Al­fred North White­head’s maxim: “It is the busi­ness of the fu­ture to be dan­ger­ous.”

It’s this stereo­scopic vi­sion that makes it feel like you’re go­ing to a shaman for ad­vice. Not some spirit-hood­ied Burn­ing Man ca­su­alty, but some­one who has seen it all, wide-frame — from whom Mor­ri­son and Ker­ouac ab­sorbed style — whose ideas aren’t be­holden to con­tem­po­rary mores but ripped out of some pri­mor­dial ver­sion of what Carl Jung called the col­lec­tive un­con­scious. So I ask him the only ques­tion left to ask: What are we sup­posed to do?

“Turn off the tele­vi­sion set and turn off the dis­trac­tions. Turn to your most in­tel­li­gent friends, and be­gin to imag­ine what’s re­ally go­ing on,” Mc­Clure says with­out paus­ing. It’s an epiphany long re­al­ized.

“We live in a state of free in­for­ma­tion, but that’s some­how ab­so­lutely muz­zled. If we can elim­i­nate th­ese dis­trac­tions and start to feel and think to­gether again, and let our imag­i­na­tions and in­spi­ra­tions let go . . . that will bring more change than any­thing.”



TOP: Michael Mc­Clure, Bob Dy­lan and Allen Gins­berg hang out at a party in 1965 af­ter Dy­lan’s con­cert at the Berke­ley Com­mu­nity The­ater in Cal­i­for­nia. ABOVE: Mc­Clure reads his po­etry in 1957.



TOP: In one of their many col­lab­o­ra­tions, Michael Mc­Clure per­forms with Doors key­boardist Ray Man­zarek in 1988 in San Fran­cisco. ABOVE: From left, Allen Gins­berg, Mc­Clure and artist Bruce Con­ner chant mantras in 1965 in San Fran­cisco. Mc­Clure’s con­nec­tions to mu­sic are deep and long.

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