July 7-13, 2005
Up From the Underground
Photo By: Michael koehler
Warhol superstar Taylor Mead comes back from being "Buried Alive."
"No paparazzi!" yells Taylor Mead. "Manager! The paparazzi are killing me!" In fact, there's only one photographer snapping pictures, and by now the staff of the Pink Pony, a Ludlow Street watering hole mere yards from Mead's apartment on Manhattan's Lower East Side, are well used to him bellying up to the bar in the company of some scribbling reporter. In the right neighborhood, Taylor Mead is a movie star.
Before last year, when he turned up as a daydreaming janitor in Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes, Mead hadn't made a widely seen movie in decades. Although he puts his career total above 130 "three or four every year since 1960" the trail starts to go cold around 1970, when the bicoastal underground film scene in which he thrived began to dissolve (and when, Mead adds, "that asshole Nelson Rockefeller" made it impossible to get cheap prescription drugs). But over the course of the 1960s, Mead took a leading role in movies that permanently altered the relationship between actor, film and audience, and in the process made himself the first star of the American underground.
As Mead recalls in Excavating Taylor Mead, the documentary on his life which screens as part of the Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, he was born in 1924 to a wealthy but unstable Detroit family. His father was a Democratic political boss; his mother, Mead says, "wanted to abort me." Early on, Mead realized a talent for performance; even in junior high, his nickname was "star." He remembers bringing down the house in seventh grade, embellishing his role as an African chief with an impromptu dance. "They weren't there," he says of his parents. "My mother was at a party."
Two years at boarding school ("brainwashing for the bourgeoisie"), a variety of colleges and a brief stint at Merrill Lynch (arranged by his father) did nothing to convince Mead of the virtues of an ordinary life, so, in the language of a later generation, he dropped out, and spent several years hitchhiking his way across the country and back. Mead likes to say he was inspired by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg's Howl, but as author Steven Watson points out, this was years before Kerouac and Ginsberg were published.
Eventually, Mead gravitated towards San Francisco's North Beach, which was where he and Ron Rice saw Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's Pull My Daisy in 1958. Featuring Beat poets Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky, as well as narration by Kerouac, Daisy used a trumped-up plot as pretext for the beats to restage their daily interactions for the cameras, creating a sort of improvised, impressionistic quasi-documentary. Rice and Mead were instantly struck and vowed to make their own Pull My Daisy, with Rice following Mead around San Francisco with his camera.
The result was 1960's The Flower Thief, which historian P. Adams Sitney called "the purest expression of the Beat sensibility in cinema." Appearing first as a shadow flitting along San Francisco's sidewalks, Mead's character is a sort of silent-comedy sprite, a Chaplinesque wanderer who filches a blossom from a street vendor and engages in spontaneous (if somewhat cryptic) collective action with a group of like-minded souls in an abandoned firehouse. "There was no plot, no planning," Mead recalls. "It was immediate extremely spontaneous, and all of us were just crazy anyway."
Some of The Flower Thief's forced naivete has worn thin over the years, although Rice's sound-collage score still sounds innovative. But if it's easy to see Mead's character as a guileless Candide, there's a striking sequence near the end of the film that injects him with a note of worldliness: He enters an arcade, plays a little skee-ball and unmistakably cruises a young man in a leather jacket.
In 1960, such matter-of-fact depictions of homosexuality were unheard-of in American movies, but Mead shrugs at the notion that the scene was in any way remarkable. "I was out by the time I was 12," he says, "so I didn't think twice about it. Plus I was reading my wildest poetry then." Much to their author's chagrin, Mead's books are out of print, but a choice sample opens Excavating Taylor Mead; in a torrent of flowery verse, Mead ecstatically reflects on his rape by another man, "inundating my loins at midnight near Brooklyn in a deserted section near desperation, and I rolled over to receive all of you Such a rapist! A whispering rapist!"
Rice and Mead followed with The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, a frenetic, inscrutable allegory that Rice died before completing. (Mead, who had already cashed in his life insurance to finance the film, finished the editing himself.) By 1963, Mead was living in New York, reading poetry in East Village clubs alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, when he met Andy Warhol. At the time, Mead's appearances in The Flower Thief, Vernon Zimmerman's Lemon Hearts and Ed Emshwiller and Adolfas Mekas' Hallelujah the Hills had made Mead something of a downtown celebrity, while Warhol was just beginning to attract attention. As with most who fell into Warhol's orbit, Mead's association with Warhol has come to define him in many people's minds, but he likes to remind people that he's "B.A. Before Andy."
Regardless of who came first, Mead is best remembered as a Warhol superstar, especially as the nelly counterpart to the acid-tongued Viva in Nude Restaurant (1967) and Lonesome Cowboys (1969). Although Mead made his first film for Warhol, Tarzan and Jane Regained Sort Of, in 1964, he was never part of the Factory scene, preferring to wait for a phone call rather than pester Warhol for another role. A self-described loner, Mead is unique even among Warhol's cast of characters. Amid the drag queens and the bisexual bohunks, there's Taylor, grandly swishy but unfeminized. "I tried pretending to be a sissy once," Mead recalls, "but the guy I was cruising got so turned off, I said, "I've got to stop that.'"
Although Mead has never been circumspect about his drug use at 80, he's still mixing red wine and Vicodin it's also possible the hard-drugs atmosphere of the Factory kept Mead away. In Excavating, he dismisses the cast of Warhol's Chelsea Girls as "a bunch of syringe people," while Queen of Sheba opens with an undercranked skit in which Mead's character, grinning like a fiend, sticks his head in a large bucket marked "HEROIN" and promptly overdoses.
Of the movies he made with Warhol, Mead's favorites are Lonesome Cowboys, Nude Restaurant and Imitation of Christ, all made between 1967 and 1969, although Queen of Sheba, which he spent two years showing in Europe in the mid-'60s, remains his favorite overall. Perhaps Mead's most famous, or at least infamous, film is one he doesn't think too highly of. Filmed in response to a filmmaker's complaint that Tarzan was nothing more than two hours of Mead's rear end, Taylor Mead's Ass features just that: an unvarying shot of Mead's nether regions that doubles as a conceptual prank and gluteal puppet show. For a few minutes, Mead says, it's amusing enough, but "I don't know what kind of sicko would watch the whole thing."
Unfortunately, it's a debate in which few can engage, since Warhol's films have largely been withdrawn from circulation and Rice's languish on museum shelves. (Music clearances and other rights make video releases unlikely.) "I'm the biggest star in the world, but I'm buried alive in museum cinematheques and foundations," Mead says, a well-practiced lament.
By Mead's account, almost every director he's worked with has "ripped me off," and Excavating Taylor Mead documents exactly how little he lives on these days. With no revenue from his films and his books out of print, Mead subsists largely on a subsidy from his father's estate, barely enough to cover a crumbling rent-controlled studio, even if he does drink for free most places he goes. In 2002, his landlord tried to evict him, citing a health hazard to other, more profitable, tenants, and only the prompt action of friends (plus a well-timed Village Voice article) got him out of the woods. "It's a crime what's happening to this neighborhood," he says, pointing to the restaurant next door, where his manifesto on the evils of gentrification hangs on the wall, Martin Luther-style.
In Excavating, poet Ira Cohen calls Mead a "life artist," meaning someone who has made his mark in different media without ever focusing on one. Mead has a simpler explanation. "I'm lazy," he says. "I only drift into doing anything. I'm not a pusher, an entrepreneur. My mother brought me up never to make a phone call. Do not push yourself forward. That's high society."
Perhaps pushing would have put Mead back in the spotlight sooner, but he could hardly have asked for a better comeback vehicle than Coffee and Cigarettes. Although he and fellow underground veteran Bill Rice are on screen for only a few minutes, their scene closes the scattershot movie on an unexpectedly poignant note, as the dreamy-eyed Mead asks the skeptical Rice to pretend their greasy-spoon coffee is fine champagne. Mead begged for his dialogue to be written on "idiot cards," but Jarmusch said he liked the look in Mead's eyes when he forgot his lines; even now, a childlike vulnerability shines through.
Mead admits that Coffee and Cigarettes has raised his profile, but without allowing that it ever sank. "I walk 30 or 40 or blocks every day, so I know how many people are stopping me," he says. "It's gone from about four or five to 10 or 20. I've always been famous, but it's another step up."
Excavating Taylor Mead screens Sun., July 10, 9:45 p.m. and Wed., July 13, 5 p.m., at the Black Box at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. See p. 22 for ticket information. Mead will attend both screenings.