A thin, curlicue of a man hobbles to the stage at the Bowery Poetry Club, his cane thumping quietly along the floor. He climbs onto the stage and arrives in his seat, at a small table topped with an even smaller stereo. He pulls the microphone toward his face, obscuring it almost entirely. A bright blue New York Rangers beanie hangs on to his head for dear life, his large glasses resting beneath his beady eyes. And then he talks and talks about nothing in particular.
“None of my affairs are secret. That’s why the Guggenheim won’t give me an award,” he says in a high-pitched but gravelly voice that gets choked every so often by a ball of saliva in his throat.
He is Taylor Mead, a downtown New York legend, an actor known for his performances in independent and experimental films from the 1960s (when the independent/experimental film movement as we know it today was just beginning) as well as in the films of Andy Warhol, where he was one of the famed Warhol Superstars. Mead is also a writer of things poetry and non-poetry, which is actually how he first made his mark on the 1950s/1960s counterculture. He and his work are considered to be an important link between the Beat Generation and the downtown New York art and theatre culture which arose around the same time. At 86 years old, Taylor Mead still performs at the Bowery Poetry Club every Monday night for exactly 30 minutes, courtesy of Bowery Arts and Sciences.
He reads poetry. “Now I’m going to read some Emily Dickinson for no reason at all except I can’t understand her….She’s so difficult she must be a genius.”
He talks about seeing Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway in the 1950s.
“His sweat dribbled down the walls of the theatre.”
He reads what he calls a “William Burroughs random choice,” from the back of an old, crumpled mimeographed flyer, the front of which reads ‘The Taylor Mead Show featuring Richard Hell,’ a famed New York musician who is said to have coined the term ‘punk’ in the 1970s.
He tells what he calls ‘a fairy tale,’ pressing play on the tiny stereo to release a fury of chaotic jazz into the microphone as he flips through a series of nonsensical and even primitive drawings in thick black ink, tossing the pages to the floor. He reads, “Nuns operate sex factory out of convent” and “Here’s a guy masturbating. It has nothing to do with the fairy tale.” I laugh out loud.
Unfortunately, very few people laugh with me. Seated behind long white plastic tables, they’re waiting for bingo to begin at 7pm, hosted by well-known drag personas Murray Hill and Linda Simpson. While Mead speaks, they’re talking, texting, eating sandwiches brought in from outside. They look at each other and raise their eyebrows, wondering who is this little old man telling dirty jokes onstage. I want to tell them to stop and listen, even just for a little while, to give him a chance instead of dismissing him entirely. I wouldn’t have known about him at all, either, if it wasn’t for Penny Arcade who said he was a genius and I should go see him. Before I get a chance to say anything, though, he opens his own mouth.
“THIS ISN’T BINGO SHMINGO. SHUT UP.” And they do.
He continues. “Is it time for my dirty poem yet?” he asks the man in the sound booth.
“Yes, I think it is,” the man says, his voice full of appreciation and good humor.
Mead begins to read, saying the poem was lovingly plagiarized by Allen Ginsberg. I am agog that he can even utter such a relationship in a sentence, but I try to listen anyway.
“A whispering rapist roundabout midnight…”
But before he finishes people begin talking again and he stops reading. “Oh fuck it, it’s too dirty,” he says. Shortly thereafter he hobbles offstage and sits in “his spot” at the edge of the bar. A beer is there waiting for him.
I go and sit with him. I don’t really know what I’m going to say when I first sit down, but then I ask about the poem he was going to read. “It’s my dirty poem,” he says. Sometimes the audience listens and sometimes they don’t, he says. Tonight, though, they weren’t worthy of his poem. He chuckles quietly. “Maybe it’s because of Christmas.”