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[whitespace] Michael McClure

No Fake

Never mind the boomer bullshit--the real spirit of the Beats lives on in poet Michael McClure

By John Sakowitz

ONCE UPON A TIME, Michael McClure was the first hippie. But that was many years ago. That was then and this is now. And now, he's just plain burnt out. Mind you, Michael McClure never had a lot in common with those kids who called themselves hippies way back then. Because they weren't real hippies. Not ever.

And mind you, Michael McClure is not some grandfather figure to those grown-up kids now. Again, because they were never real hippies. Not then. And not now.

Who are "those kids"? You know who they are . . . . they're us. They're baby boomers. They're yuppies. They called themselves hippies because that's what everyone called themselves back then.

And they grew up to be the namby-pamby, candy-assed, whiny, self-satisfied, rarely self-critical, high-end natural-fiber clothing-wearing, SUV-driving, 401-K fretting, Viagra-pill-popping, estrogen-pill-popping, anti-aging-cream-smearing, aging baby boomer type that now populates the American cultural scene. They think they're hip but they're not. They think they're spiritual but they're not. They think they're socially conscious but they're not. They think they're political but they're not. They think they're environmentalists but they're not. They think they're altruistic but they're not. They think they can dance but they can't. They listen to Emmylou Harris, for God's sake. And they tell their own college-age kids to turn down Radiohead playing on the stereo when their kids come home from college.

One aging baby boomer I know--let's call her "Liz"--used to experiment with alternative rock now and then . . . maybe listen to Nirvana or Pearl Jam. But she listened with a sort of straightforward politeness and lowered her gaze when another adult walked in the room.

It didn't last long. Liz gave up alternative rock and took up mountain biking. Riding in the nude at night, I was told. During every full moon during the summer months, I was also told, with some other self-proclaimed middle-age "witches." Their husbands, meanwhile, were back at home on their computers having anonymous love affairs with teenagers in chat rooms. O, the messy lives of baby boomers!

Baby boomers weren't real hippies. Not ever. They're only kidding themselves. Sure, they went with the flow years ago, but so what? Anyone can go with the flow. They're still going with the flow.

Michael McClure must seem like Billy the Kid to these aging baby boomers--like some outlaw--if they even know who Michael McClure is.

No, Michael McClure has nothing in common with his age-group peers. He's straight out of the Janis Joplin-Jimi Hendrix-Jim Morrison tradition--which is to say, a self-destructive genius way ahead of his time. He's an icon. He's the sole survivor. And he's lucky just to be alive.

And I may be wrong, but I don't think Michael McClure has an SUV or a 401-K plan.

And I'll tell you something else. I'll tell you a few things that drive Michael McClure nuts. (I talked to him last week at a memorial for John Lennon . . . 20 years ago Lennon was shot to death.) He can't stand baby boomers who have spent a lifetime in psychotherapy instead of trusting their own intuitive grasp of things. Nor can he relate to boomers who talk all the time about "all the craziness in the world today" and "chaos" and who morally disapprove of almost everything--the New Puritanism--and who celebrate almost nothing . . . not even romance.

NO. NO. NO. Michael McClure is a connoisseur of chaos. And he is our generation's greatest romantic. Bar none. None. His sexuality, his ardor, his spiritual longing, his heart's desires, and even his confusion about love are not the usual pretty gossamer decorations.

No, Michael McClure's poetry is wildly emoting. Wildly. When he falls in love, he is crazy in love. He loves and cherishes "beyond reason" (his words). He is in favor of excess. He is in favor of sleaze. In favor of psychedelics. In favor of aphrodisiacs. In favor of tantric sex . . . He believes that sex gets you closer to God.

Michael McClure is a throwback to the late '60s, early '70s. Even his poetry readings today are lively anachronistic performances. They are "happenings." Remember happenings? Truly, they are.

I am a baby boomer myself, and I hate my generation's love poetry. Or what passes for love poetry. One brand of it is a low-key, with-it sort of psychobabble that forces a pseudo-sensitivity and a pseudo-lovingkindness on the reader. The emphasis is on commercially successful, formulaic writing à la John Gray and Deepak Chopra. If you're going to be a poet, why not be a popular poet?

Another brand of love poetry is a sort of memoir, a chronology of the making and unmaking of the poet's marriages and relationships, But who cares? We've all got our own history of bad marriages, unfriendly divorces, and forgettable one-night stands.

A third brand of my generation's love poetry is what I call "bedraggled fatigue." You know, ennui: "I've been everywhere, done everything, and dated everybody, and now I'm bored. I've lived on a commune in Northern California and then on a houseboat in Marin County and lately in a tree house in Belize. My love life is a montage of wildflowers, beautiful images, and various slow contemplative landscapes, but, essentially, everyplace I've been has been a groovy sort of emptiness."

Emmylou Harris? You bet. With a little Joni Mitchell thrown in. And Jackson Browne. And all the rest of those "artists" caught in the spiral of their own neuroses. Ugh. It makes me want to puke.

Michael McClure is blackberry brandy to their Amstel Light. Those other guys taste like dishwater.

All this begs the question, "Where is the love poetry of our generation?"

I REMEMBER first meeting Michael McClure at a party about a million years ago. The party was at the infamous Wheeler Ranch near Bodega Bay.

At about that time, I think Michael McClure had been part of Peter Coyote's scene, which, of course, took over Ken Kesey's scene (an evolutionary thing . . . don't ask).

Michael had just come back from Hawaii, I think I remember him saying at the party. He had been living in a one-room hermitage with windows shaped like crescent moons and stars. I think I also remember him saying that his little hermitage was next to a Tibetan Buddhist stupa. The hermitage was in the middle of a rainforest in Maui

"Maui is where some of the best marijuana in the whole world grows, like corn grows in Iowa," I think I remember Michael saying at the time.

I remember Alicia Bay Laurel was at that same party.

Alicia Bay Laurel, in my opinion, is the world's sexiest woman. Equal parts hippie- chick, geisha, and earth goddess--a total babe.

It was a great party.

At the party at Wheeler Ranch, I remember Michael was talking about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or something like that. Michael was tripping his brains out on some Clear Light Acid. He was like a god to the group of admirers that had gathered around him. All those admirers were beautiful women. And all of them were very young. Michael was in his element.

The sexual tension in the room was palpable. I was getting off on it.

"Is this the Michael McClure," asked one beautiful young woman to another beautiful young woman.

"The Michael McClure?" she repeated. "The Beat poet? He doesn't look that old."

I gave the woman credit for knowing her Beat poets, because Michael was by far the least known among the Bay Area Beat crowd, the '60s crowd before the Summer of Love. That crowd included Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Philip Whalen, Peter Orlovsky . . . and Michael McClure.

All those other guys were pretty serious academics compared to Michael McClure. He was the hedonist. He was serious too, but serious about getting high and getting laid and getting to the next party, festival, or concert. Besides, Michael McClure was far better looking than those other guys. Drop-dead gorgeous. And a lot funnier too, and just plain a lot more fun. Really he was.

And whatever else Michael McClure may have had going for him, he had IT . . . whatever IT is--charisma, sex appeal, inner light, good karma--whatever. Michael McClure had IT. He had "the glands," as a friend of mine, Russ Shapiro, an indie rocker, likes to say.

Michael McClure was the James Dean of the Beat poets. And later, he was the Jim Morrison of the hippie poets. Michael McClure bridged those two generations of poets.

Also, Michael's poetry had flashes of IT. His books of poetry were wide-ranging explorations of spiritual discovery and political protest. His poetry played with--yes, played with--logos and eros. He loved wordplay. He loved play. He focused a lot on nature and the environment, but he also threw in anti-war statements, individual anarchism, Zen Buddhism, jazz, and a sort of Romantic mystical philosophy that was somewhere between Lord Byron and Richard Brautigan.

But like his good friend Richard Brautigan and his other good buddy, Jack Keroauc, Michael McClure struggled with the twin diseases of depression and alcoholism. He got arrested numerous times in a censorship battle with the San Francisco Police Department, and that got him down a lot. There were some other issues I don't want to talk about.

Along the way, however, Michael McClure won numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Obie Award for Best Play (1968), and an NEA grant and a Rockefeller grant. And, as of last year, Michael McClure had published 14 books of poetry, two novels, eight plays, and four music videos or CDs.

Michael even collaborated on writing the hit song "Mercedes Benz" with Janis Joplin, to say nothing about ghostwriting a book about the Hell's Angels for Frank Reynolds (secretary of the Hell's Angels). Michael McClure did it all. He was no slacker.

Last year, the National Poetry Association honored Michael McClure with a lifetime achievement award.

Still, depression and alcoholism catch up with a person. A little while back--in 1998--Michael narrowly missed getting killed in an airplane crash, and immediately after that and for some inexplicable reason, he plunged into a clinical depression so severe he had to be hospitalized. This Beat generation hero and very hip hipster was down for the count. He almost took his own life. Who knows why.

Michael McClure's most recent book of poetry, Rain Mirror, was published last year by New Directions. The book, which is divided into two parts, tells of this dark night of the soul, and later, of his recovery from depression (equally inexplicable). Rain Mirror is a lovely book written by a lovely man, a truly loving and lovable man.

One quick footnote: A "rain mirror," of course, is a metaphor for a rain puddle. I think the metaphor is revealing. We humans are stuck--as the I-Ching says we are--between heaven and earth. In a rain puddle, however, we can see the reflection of heaven, a glimpse of what may be, a glimpse of our own divine nature. It's all right there in the mirror of a rain puddle . . . if we just look.

One final thing: There is something disturbing about Rain Mirror.


Yes, disturbing . . . and very weird and very beautiful. It's hard to put my finger on, but it's about the narrative voice.

The narrative voice in Rain Mirror reminds me of an actor who is off-camera in a Martin Scorsese movie reciting Chaucer, and that's one more thing you can add to Michael McClure's résumé. He recited Chaucer in a Martin Scorsese movie. Really he did. He's done it all.

I'll let you guess which Martin Scorsese movie.

Editor's Note: In 1997, John Sakowitz won an award from PEN USA West for his writing about the AIDS epidemic. He lives in Woodland Park, Colo., and Talmage, Calif.

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From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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