Young Turk: Le Clair stares down the camera back in 1959.
Life Less Ordinary
Local counterculture icon Turk Le Clair tells his story
By Patrick Sullivan
WHERE HAVE all the bohemians gone? We’ve heard a lot of talk lately about the transformation of the radicals of the ’50s and ’60s into the social elite of the ’90s. Read enough books like David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise and you might start to believe that every last beatnik, hippie, and countercultural radical from days of yore has settled comfortably into the corporate groove of the information age.
But, as folks in Northern California well know, there are more than a few of the old-school bohos still out there, living the dream and looking for that undiscovered country that lies across the sea from the cappuccino-colored continent of our grave new world.
Chief among their disorderly ranks locally is the inimitable Turk Le Clair. You won’t, of course, find him next to Hugh Codding on official lists of the 50 most influential people in Sonoma County. But the artist, poet, and adventurer is something of a legend in Santa Rosa, where he has lived for two decades and where stories of his colorful exploits are common currency.
Now, at age 64 and in failing health, Le Clair is giving us his own version of his life in My Life in Art. This self-published autobiography (which can be ordered directly from Le Clair for $25 at P.O. Box 4583, Santa Rosa, CA 95402) takes readers on a rousing romp across the turbulent decades of Le Clair’s eccentric existence. It tracks his adventures from New York to San Francisco to the legendary Purple Onion Coffee House in Texas.
Some books have a dedication page. My Life in Art has a dedication chapter, which sports a six-page list of names, from Arthur Rimbaud to Shel Silverstein to “Teresa & Venissa who walked topless for freedom & to show the tattoos around their nipples.”
Written in longhand and festooned with examples of Le Clair’s paintings, drawings, and photography, My Life in Art begins with a warning of sorts. “I feel I must pass over much of my life,” Le Clair explains. “Some was glorious & some was too stupid for words.” Yet the book feels complete enough, offering more examples of painful honesty than most autobiographies.
Life for Le Clair began during a New York City winter. He had a rough childhood, caught between his father’s blue-collar expectations and his own profound interest in art and adventure. School felt like jail to the restless teenager: “I failed English, reading, spelling, math, gym & most of the rest of it; year after year,” Le Clair writes. “It was an early sign of my genius that the school could teach me nothing.”
It wasn’t long before Le Clair let slip the surly bonds of childhood to set out on a journey that has continued ever since. As a young man, he helped run a jazz club in New York City for a time, until police forced Le Clair and his collaborators out. Among the best stories in this book is the author’s account of disposing of the club’s piano. Unable to fit it onto a truck, surrounded by hostile neighbors, the group comes up with a novel solution: “We got our hammers, a crowbar, what have you, & we beat the piano into small pieces while the neighbors watched in horror at our energy & violence.”
Legendary names pop up on a regular basis in the author’s narrative. From William Morris to Allen Ginsberg to Shel Silverstein, Le Clair encountered most of the big names of the counterculture. He hung out with Andy Warhol, lived with Wavy Gravy, and helped block New York traffic by planting a tree in the middle of the street with Abbie Hoffman.
Throughout this sprawling narrative, Le Clair demonstrates all the strengths and weaknesses of his era. (When he refers to a female friend as a “women” you get the feeling the misspelling might be a Freudian slip.)
But who cares about spelling? Raw and vivid, this book offers an absorbing account of a life lived outside the high walls of convention. Left mute and in pain from cancer and a serious operation, Le Clair won’t be with us for much longer, as he explains: “Some day the Angel of Death will come for me. I struggle to finish this book; once it’s delivered into everyone’s hands, I’ll feel free.” Spirits lightened by Le Clair’s compelling autobiography, his readers may feel their own bonds loosen.
From the June 13-19, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.