Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Talking to a Bag of Meat

An Interview with Michael McClure

By Steven Robert Allen

SEPTEMBER 20, 1999:  As one of the essential members of the Beat literary movement from its beginnings, Michael McClure has been around the block a few times. After coming to San Francisco as a young man in the mid 1950s, he quickly fell in with the right crowd. He took part in the legendary Sixth Gallery reading in 1955 (the first significant reading by Beat writers), and since then he's gotten chummy with everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Gary Snyder to Jim Morrisson. He's published countless books, including volumes of poetry, essays, interviews, novels and plays. He co-wrote Janice Joplin's "Mercedes Benz" and recited Chaucer in Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz. Norman Mailer immortalized him in Beyond the Law when he portrayed McClure as an outlaw motorcyclist. Bob Dylan once gave the man an autoharp.

What hasn't this guy done?

McClure's play The Beard has a long and colorful history stretching back to its debut in the mid 1960s when actors performing in The Beard were routinely busted by the authorities on obscenity charges. The play is also currently being featured in a new retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York focusing on significant cultural and artistic events of the 20th century.

Weekly Alibi recently had a chance to chat by phone with McClure about his work, the Beats, Bob Dylan and avocado burritos.

Weekly Alibi: As a youngster you were fascinated by nature and wildlife. Actually at one point you wanted to become a natural scientist. Tell me something about animals, the environment, biology. How have your ideas about these things affected your work?

Michael McClure: My play The Beard seemed to me on first writing to be a mammal conversation. It's a conversation that occurs between two strong natured beings of the same species. ... The Beard goes to that level. It's terrifically funny as well as terrifically serious. ...

Alibi: Is that what you mean in the play when Billy the Kid calls Jean Harlow "a bag of meat"? That she's an animal?

MM: You know in studying, in practicing Zen, by that I mean sitting cross-legged [laughs] and clearing your mind, or letting your mind be uncleared, as the case may be, you discover the level of yourself that is neither mind nor body. But at first glance it's the bag of meat that you live with. It's not at first glance that you get there, too. It's after some effort that you get there. But you discover that one level of that is certainly the actions of the hormones and the muscles and all of that, and that's quite different from the social level. The social level is a big training ground for what we're supposed to think and what we're supposed to feel. And there are many ways that people have discovered, individuals have discovered, groups have discovered, over our long history that are purposed in freeing ourselves from the social education, which is real endless. Maybe The Beard has something to do with mammal nature in the sense that it is intent in freeing us, as I see it, from social education.

Alibi: You've been involved in the environmental movement for a long time.

MM: One of the first poems I read at my first poetry reading was a poem for the death of 100 whales. I was very, very distressed. NATO Air Force men, being mostly American GI's, stationed in Iceland machine gunning a pod of 100 orcas, or killer whales, just for the hell of it because they had power guns and power bullets and were entertaining themselves. It was just very distressing to me as a kid. And in that first poetry reading that I gave, the other readers were Allen Ginsberg reading "Howl" for the first time and Gary Snyder who is now a noteworthy environmentalist poet, reading his nature poems, and Philip Whalen, the poet I just mentioned a moment ago, Zen nature poet, reading his poems coming out of his work for the Forest Service as well as Zen Buddhism. Master of Ceremonies was Kenneth Rexroth, great environmentalist, anarchist, philosopher, poet. And in the audience was Jack Kerouac. Jack heard this kind of nature poetry and went up and started fire-watching himself and ended up writing a book called Dharma Bums, and later another nature book, in which I'm a character, called Big Sur.

Alibi: All the Beat celebrities were in one place, huh?

MM: Well, nobody was a celebrity at that time, you've got to remember.

Alibi: Yeah, that's true. What effect did that have, moving to San Francisco as a young man in the 1950s, hanging out with all those soon-to-be Beat luminaries. How did that effect your development as a writer and artist?

MM: The scene that I was in was a community of artists, painters, poets, thinkers, composers, jazz musicians in a world that gave no heed to them and no support to them. So we supported and heeded one another and argued our thoughts out and stood up for each other.

Alibi: Was the environment in San Francisco pretty supportive of that?

MM: Not at all. It was not supportive anywhere in the United States. The '50s were ugly. Probably the most supportive place was in San Francisco. I mean there were areas of support, reservations, so to speak. Like North Beach, the Bohemian center, which was bordered by Chinatown and the Italian district. There was much more tolerance [there].

Alibi: Do you think San Francisco has become better in terms of that? Is it more supportive of artists? How has it changed?

MM: Well, it's not giving proper care to the homeless. It's not giving proper care to its own infrastructure. The spirit of the people living there is still vivid and enjoyable, but Seattle is a healthier town.

Alibi: You think?

MM: Yeah, I think Seattle went in a better direction than San Francisco did, and San Francisco had all the opportunities to do it.

Alibi: That's a shame.

MM: It's the way things are. That's why I live over here [across the Bay in Oakland]. I still like to go to San Francisco but I'd rather live where I can enjoy what I'm enjoying here.

Alibi: Tell me a little about the controversy surrounding your play The Beard.

MM: Well, it was arrested in San Francisco. When we performed it at the Fillmore Auditorium, which was the Rock & Roll palace at the time run by Bill Graham, Bill said I'm going to cancel the second performance you guys are scheduled to do here. We were doing it with a big light show and a rock band. It was terrific. It was beautiful. We were disappointed, and we said "Why?" He said, "Well, the police are going to bust me if I do it a second time. I had a warning." Rock & Roll was still outlaw in those days before it was owned by beer companies and companies that make tennis shoes and cologne and stuff. We didn't want to have the Rock & Roll hall closed up, so we said, "OK, we'll take it somewhere else." And the next place we took it Bill had been right. We were busted. [The actors] were very brave about it. When I say "we," the actors were the heroes in this, not me. Well, we all were, but I mean it was the actors who were on the front line in all this. This is a work of art, and there is a Korean War [sic] going on and this is a very ugly piece of censorship, not too far dissociated from the war itself and the condition of people's personal freedom. So they said, "No, we're not going to stop doing the play." So we formed a production company. And Richie's job, the guy playing the Kid's job, was to find a theater for the next performance.

Well, little did he or we or any of us know that the theater he rented was the Board of Education theater in Berkeley. So that just blew the police department, the sheriff's department and the district attorney completely out of the water. They sent us letters about how we couldn't do it. We went ahead and did it anyway. It was a long story but the actors and actresses were arrested the next day. They didn't arrest them that night because the audience wouldn't have let them. Now, how much of this do you want to hear? This just goes on forever, finally going to New York and getting two Obie Awards for Best Director and Best Actress, and then going to Los Angeles and being arrested 14 performances in a row where the actor and actress actually got two standing ovations, one at the end of the play and the second when the police hauled them out the door and into the waiting wagon and took them off to book them.

Alibi: Were those cases eventually dropped?

MM: We won all the cases. The ACLU helped with the first one and then there was a radicalized millionaire. He'd been radicalized by the first performance of the play; he'd been at the opening, luckily for us. And he put up the huge amount of bail bond that the police were throwing at the actor and actress every night. They were always saying they were going to arrest me, and we were really hoping they would, because it would become a First Amendment issue, and we would have had it dropped immediately. But they continued after the actor and actress.

Alibi: Has the play been produced frequently since then?

MM: Oh, yeah. After it won all the cases, it looked like it was going to replace The Importance of Being Earnest in the college curriculum. I mean it was everywhere. [laughs] It was a lot of fun. It was the '60s, and people loved that kind of thing. And it's still done.

Alibi: Has it been done recently?

MM: I have not been keeping track of it. Usually I don't get that interested in a production. In other words, I've seen it a lot, but I did get very interested in the Albuquerque production because I got to know Joe [Pesce from the Riverside Ensemble] and some of the people associated with the production, and I really got interested in that. And it's being done in New York a few weeks later at La Mama.

Alibi: You're taking an active part in that one as well, right?

MM: Well, I'm going to go see it, because I have some other things to do. As a matter of fact one of the things I'm doing is I'm going to an opening at the Whitney Museum.

Alibi: I was going to ask you about that. There's a retrospective there, right?

MM: Well, there's a show there called The American Century. They've collected what they consider to be the significant cultural and artistic events that they have photographs of in the 20th century, and what they asked me for was a photograph of the opening night of The Beard. So I'm going to be there for that. ...

Alibi: Do you know what other types of things they've included?

MM: Yes, I do. Flaming Creatures which was busted. Scorpio Rising which was busted. Those are both films. The "Howl" trial, and my play The Beard. So those are four of them I know that'll probably be on the same wall.

Alibi: Is the focus on the controversial?

MM: Obviously some of it is. I would say that isn't the purpose of the show, but the purpose of the show is to show significant cultural and artistic events. How much emphasis there is on the controversial, I don't know.

Alibi: In addition to being a key figure in The Beard, Billy the Kid is also the lead figure in your first play, The Blossum. Is there something about the historical figure of Billy the Kid that fascinates you?

MM: Yeah, there certainly is. I'm also fascinated by the historical background, and the Lincoln County Range War. ... Well, you know about that, you're in New Mexico. The whole thing of the mercantile ranch war that was going on between groups of people there. It's many aspects of America in miniature. Including the bloodthirstiness that appears later, although still at that time the bloodthirstiness has a kind of, not really, but a kind of edge of meaningfulness or loyalty to one another about it. ...

Alibi: Do you think Billy the Kid was a heroic figure? Do you see him that way?

MM: I think he was an intensely complex and still mysterious individual.

Alibi: I have to ask you about this for personal reasons. I hear Bob Dylan once gave you an autoharp.

MM: Yes, he did.

Alibi: I read this essay that you wrote about Dylan where you wrote that "Dylan has slipped into people's dream baskets." I thought that was a very nice sentence. Explain what you meant by that.

MM: I have to explain that to you? You know, I don't know how true that remains, that Dylan has slipped into people's dream baskets. This time he may have slipped so far into the culture that it goes beyond even being in the dream basket. It may be universally into the culture, because the revolutionary, not the revolutionary, the unique and brilliant thing that he brought to song became the model, or involved in the modeling, either pro or con, of almost everyone since. ... So that now he's becoming a dignified almost old American blues figure, almost like Leadbelly, by just going around and keeping on singing this stuff -- although becoming less popular. The last completely new album [Time Out of Mind] is a big hit, and there's a very obvious reason for it, but most people haven't noted the reason.

Alibi: What's the reason?

MM: It's a complete change from his other work. His work has been unique, devastatingly imaginative, almost post-surrealist, as well as political and deeply insightful into people's psychology. And then the new songs are comprised entirely of figures of speech. They're not at all like what he did before. The voice is the same. People don't notice that. And to get public attention again ... now everybody sounds like some aspect of Dylan. Everybody's got a little Dylan in them or reacting to Dylan whether it's Henry Rollins or Counting Crows. And now he's found a way to completely be Bob Dylan again. I was telling this to somebody the other day. They were saying, "What do you mean by 'figures of speech?'" And I said, "Recite a line for me." And they did. And they said, "Yeah, those are figures of speech."

Alibi: Were you disappointed?

MM: No, I like it. It's more interesting what he's done, than people realize. It's a true, big, deep, profound change again.

Alibi: You've written a book Scratching the Beat Surface which explores the output of your Beat contemporaries, Ginsberg, Snyder, Kerouac, all those guys. How do you feel the work of Beat writers has held up over time?

MM: Well, those people who were really Beats, that is, those people who were there in the '50s, knowing one another and working with one another, had phenomenal luck with their intentions, which were to brighten the American political scene. I'm talking of anti-war. Certainly, the scene is not really brighter, but we managed something with the anti-war part, to intensify consciousness of the environment, and to bring a kind of freedom of speech back into being which did not exist in the '50s, which would allow people to not only babble freely but also allow them to think more deeply. There was a mutual exchange between ourselves and the people of that period, and it's an ongoing exchange that continues, and in that ongoing exchange is the positiveness of what the Beats are doing and have done. There's not many of us left, I guess. ...

Alibi: So, plans for the immediate future.

MM: Well, I'm going to come to Albuquerque. [McClure was in Albuquerque for the opening of The Beard.]

Alibi: That's true. Are you looking forward to it?

MM: Yeah, I'm going to eat at El Patio.

Alibi: That place is great. Go for the avocado burritos.

MM: Oh, yeah?

Alibi: Yeah. They're excellent.

MM: All right. Maybe I will.

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