Wednesday, 14 July 2010


Not many could stand next to Bob Dylan in 1965 and equal his cool but Harley riding, Hell’s Angels associating, long haired, unfeasibly handsome, poet and playwright Michael McClure could - and did - as illustrated in Larry Keenan’s photograph. And his rock ‘n’ roll credentials didn’t end there.

McClure was in London last week to read from his new collection Mysteriosos. One of the last remaining lights of what we now call the Beat Generation, McClure’s first poetry reading was at the most famous – and influential – poetry reading of the 20th century: the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco during October 1955. Jack Kerouac, in the audience and too shy to read, acted as rebel rouser shouting drunken encouragement and later wrote of events in The Dharma Bums (and also wrote McClure as Pat McLear in Big Sur). Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” lit the fuse for a nationwide hoo hah but the event and contributions from McClure, Gary Synder, Philip Whalen and Philip Lamantia marked the arrival of the San Francisco Renaissance era of The Beats and gave it momentum to become a discernable movement.

At the Six Gallery McClure read “For The Death of 100 Whales” and his interest in nature, ecology, the environment, biology and science has infused his work ever since. He only read from Mysteriosos in London and answered a few (three to be precise) questions. I wanted to ask about his influence on his friend Jim Morrison (and vice versa) but only gingerly waved a limp wrist and the moment was lost. One questioner asked if he still saw the benefits of psychedelics as an aid to consciousness expanding. Not only did he unequivocally concur but he railed against those careerists who privately agree but publicly stay schtum.

Any mild disappointment in the absence of further questioning or readings were banished with the debut capital screening of Abstract Alchemist of Flesh, a new film about McClure by Colin Still. Still was there to introduce it and over 55 minutes blends archive footage with new interviews with McClure and some high profile names, notably Dennis Hopper and Ray Manzarek.

We see McClure reading to Manzarek’s unmistakable Doorsy “Riders on the Storm” keyboard. His texts can be difficult to absorb and comprehend on the page, yet performed in this way it gives them rhythm and you can naturally absorb parts without trying too hard to understand the meaning of each line. Both in the film and during the reading McClure is prone to reciting haikus then pulling an expression that says “Yeah? Think about it”, a tilt of the head, a raised eyebrow, a knowing look, “you get it right? Sure.” Nope. Sorry, haven’t a Scooby.

My planned question is partly answered by the Manzarek collaborations. There’s more than a touch of Morrison in these – or rather there was more than a touch of McClure in Morrison. There’s a great mid-60s clip of McClure roaring his poems to lions at San Francisco zoo. Those lions were no fans of performance poetry. The thousands of bare footed hippy flower wavers at the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park somewhat more appreciative.

Notoriety came a-knocking during 1966-68 with the production of his play The Beard. Charges of lewd conduct and obscenity dogged its performances, including a run of fourteen nights when the cast were arrested each time. Dennis Hopper tells how the pair were sitting in a bar when one disgruntled theatre goer - not keen on seeing Billy The Kid go down on Jean Harlow - punched McClure in the face. According to McClure, Hopper didn’t need much encouragement to jump off a table to practice his newly acquired karate skills before (in Hopper’s words) McClure “beat the shit out of him”. Peace and love man, peace and love.

In 1970 he wrote “Mercedes Benz” with Janis Joplin and Bob Neuwirth which Joplin recorded three days before she died. Michael continues to publish and perform.

Mysteriosos by Michael McClure is published by New Directions Press.
Abstract Alchemist of Flesh is released by Optic Nerve (

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