The Daily Telegraph

Michael Mcclure

Beat poet whose song Mercedes Benz was a hit for Janis Joplin


MICHAEL MCCLURE, who has died aged 87, was a Beat poet whose work was once described by Allen Ginsberg as a “blob of protoplasm­ic energy”, and the author of The Beard, a play which the US authoritie­s tried to ban for obscenity.

Mcclure went on benders with Jim Morrison of the Doors; was buddies with Bob Dylan and Dennis Hopper; featured as characters in Jack Kerouak’s novels The Dharma Bums and Big Sur; was directed by Norman Mailer in two films; and wrote the satirical song Mercedes Benz, which became a hit for Janis Joplin.

Mcclure gave his first poetry reading at the Six Gallery event in San Francisco in 1955 when, to the accompanim­ent of Kerouac passing round jugs of wine and shouting “Go! Go! Go!”, Allen Ginsberg read his incantator­y epic Howl – a performanc­e Mcclure likened to “a human voice and body … hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies”.

Mcclure, as one critic put it, “always celebrated man’s primal instincts” – never more so than in The Beard, a play supposedly inspired by a vision of a boxing poster advertisin­g a fight between Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow.

First performed in December 1965 at a theatre in San Francisco, the play featured characters resembling the cowboy and the starlet debating, in increasing­ly explicit language, whether or not to have sex, before eventually succumbing.

The play ran for only four performanc­es before the vice squad intervened. After the fifth, in Berkeley, they arrested the actors and charged them with “obscenity”, “conspiracy to commit a felony” and “lewd and dissolute conduct in a public place”.

The cause was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union, though that did not prevent police intervenin­g on 14 successive nights of the play’s run in Los Angeles. Every night the actors got two ovations, one when the play ended and one when they were escorted from the premises in handcuffs.

It was a test case for a new obscenity law being considered by the California senate, which was eventually dropped on First Amendment grounds.

The play also caused a stir in London at the Royal Court in 1968. But by then the Lord Chamberlai­n had been abolished and there were no prosecutio­ns.

Michael Mcclure was born on October 20 1932 in Marysville, Kansas, and educated at the University of Arizona and San Francisco State College.

He met Allen Ginsberg in early 1955 at a party given in honour of WH Auden. “I guess Allen and I must have been invited for decor, because we were like wallflower­s at this very academic gathering.”

They started discussing the poetry of William Blake, about whom Mcclure had been having dreams, he recalled: “One of my dreams, that I told Allen, was that I was William Blake, and that I was living on the second floor of a cuckoo clock.”

His first book of poetry, Passage, was published in 1956. His other collection­s included Ghost Tantras (1964), Rebel Lions (1991) and Of Indigo and Saffron (2011).

During his days on the Beat scene, Mcclure read to a crowd of more than 20,000 at the Human Be-in in San Francisco in 1967, and even recited poems to the lions in San Francisco Zoo.

By the early 1970s he had had enough of partying and stopped drinking a week before the death of Jim Morrison in 1971: “My last message to him was a postcard, saying, ‘Hey Jim, time to quit drinking, I just did. It’s time to quit’.” It was too late.

In a documentar­y broadcast in 2006, Mcclure was asked whether he felt nostalgic for the 1960s. “No,” he replied. “I’m just glad I was there.” ”

Mcclure is survived by his wife Amy and by a daughter.

Michael Mcclure, born October 20 1932, died May 4 2020

 ??  ?? He ‘always celebrated man’s primal instincts,’ said one critic
He ‘always celebrated man’s primal instincts,’ said one critic

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