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.