"Sexy, Scary, Funny: The World According to Whitman McGowan"
A comedian knows just what he is saying but he doesn’t mean it. A poet might not know what he is saying but he means every word.-- Whitman McGowan
Whitman McGowan is not going to put on his tuxedo and paint his face blue. He just made his way through the tie-dyed crowd and conga drummers to tell me so. “It’s too hot and the makeup takes too long to wash off. Besides, I’ve got a cold or something so I don’t even feel like performing. I feel like a dead seal.”
I’m in Big Sur, sitting next to Lawrence Ferlinghetti on the porch of painter Emil White’s house – now the Henry Miller Memorial Library. As we watch the goings-on, and because I know nothing about poetry, Ferlinghetti and I discuss the Hawaiian real estate market, a subject of interest to him and of which I have some special knowledge. The revelers on the big lawn before us eat and drink, shout poetry into a microphone attached to a scratchy sound system, dance wildly, reminisce, smooch, and play with children and bandanna-wearing dogs. It is such a perfect sampling of fringe culture one wonders if Tom Wolfe had something to do with drawing up the guest list. At center lawn, dancing with wanton abandon, we have the ‘60s throwback delegation. They’re draped in retina-stunning tie-dyed apparel – zap! pow! – their funky, furry bodies well basted with patchouli oil, and with beads, bells and feathers hanging from their hair, ears and noses. Then there’s the urban surf-punk hip-hop contingent, wearing high-top basketball shoes with untied laces, Oakley “Thermonuclear Protection” reflective shades, GOTCHA baggy knee-length fluorescent shorts, and, always, the Beastie Boys-style backward baseball cap. Off to one side is a coven of fey souls adorned with pale face makeup, scarlet lipstick, freshly dyed obsidian hair, and Dr. Marten’s clodhopper shoes, their pallbearer couture defining the Pennsylvania-Dutch-meets-the-Munsters look that has had a death grip on a certain disenchanted sector of youthful poseurs for the last few years. The crowd is rounded out by an ample proportion of graying, old-guard bohemians, split down the middle fashion-wise between the professorial, denim-shirted, chinos-with-desert-boots fraternity on one side and the ethnically decorated “I just got back from trekking in Nepal” tribe on the other.
It looks much like Big Sur gatherings of 25 years ago, I suppose, except there’s more food and everyone is wearing an expensive watch. We’re all gathered for the opening of the Miller Library, which is located a few hundred yards south of the famous Nepenthe restaurant on the coast highway. Miller settled in Big Sur in the 1940s, less than a decade after his brilliant, widely banned “Tropic of Cancer” revolutionized the art of the novel. White, Miller’s longtime pal and fellow Big Sur resident, died last September, specifying in his will that his small house and redwood-covered acreage be kept as a memorial to Miller and his works.
Whitman McGowan has journeyed to Big Sur by invitation and with the thought that he will perform some of his poetry, in particular one of his most recent pieces, “White Folks Was Wild Once, Too,” for which he usually wears a tuxedo and blue face makeup. McGowan has allowed me to tag along with the unspoken hope that I might learn something about poetry. “It’ll give your article a little more credibility if you know what you’re talking about,” he tells me with diplomatic subtlety.
After McGowan announces he’s not going to read, I look down at a sheaf of papers Ferlinghetti is holding. “Are you going to read today?” I ask.
“No, don’t think so,” he says, “I think I’ll leave it to these new beatniks.” My poetry education expedition is turning out nicely so far: McGowan’s not reading, Ferlinghetti’s not reading, and the sound system, coupled with the new beatniks’ tendency to shriek their verse, renders what poems are being read incomprehensible.
McGowan sniffs, rubs his eyes and nods his huge head toward a circle of nearby redwoods to indicate he’s going to go sit down.
“I’ll talk to you later, Lawrence,” I say as I rise to join McGowan. “Have a nice day.”
I’m standing with the sun behind me. Ferlinghetti looks up, squinting at me with his eyes the color of the waves at Garapata Beach. “See you later,” he says.
It’s appropriate that it is Whitman McGowan who has dragged me away from Ferlinghetti, for some feel that McGowan may be doing as much to breathe life into poetry in Northern California today as Ferlinghetti did 30 odd years ago with his publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” his own “A Coney Island of the Mind” and scores of other “beatnik” writings that are now classics. McGowan, however, is neither a publisher nor even exactly a poet. He’s a spoken word performer – a declaimer – whose influences range from Lord Buckley to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to the Wild Tchoupitoulas. At any given time he may be multi-channeling a blend of Dylan Thomas, Salvador Dalí, Brion Gysin, Yma Sumac, Bertolt Brecht, the Last Poets, and a thousand other exotic, seemingly unrelated personalities who have left their mark on him over the years. He sees costume, sound effects, props and physical movement as an integral part of his writing. He’s also the organizer of the monthly “Word Party” at Farley’s on Potrero Hill, the most likely place to catch his show.
On our way to sit down, we make a stop at the food tent. As we wait to fill our wine glasses we eat great mouthfuls of Doritos and guacamole, and I quiz the linebacker-size poet about his motives. “I write because I want to hear it, not because I want other poets to hear it. I deal primarily in comedic poetry.”
“Don’t you worry about not being taken seriously?”
“No, I don’t care about that. I hope I never am. On the other hand, I don’t think people take whimsy seriously enough. And that includes poets. Of course my stuff wouldn’t work if it didn’t also include tragedy. But the vast majority of poets think that a poem isn’t any good unless it is either a language experiment, a gut-wrenching manifesto or a diatribe against society. The poetry scene suffers from insular self-absorption; poets are afraid of popularization. And society at large tends to see poetry as either a boring academic exercise or as silliness, like nursery rhymes.”
“Then you don’t care about going down in history?”
“Being remembered is always nice, but I don’t really care what happens when I die. I want to have good fun while I’m alive. I’d like to see poetry on MTV. I’d jump at the opportunity to play a Las Vegas lounge or Harrah’s at Lake Tahoe. I want to be a legend in my own time, even if I have to write all the reviews of my books myself, like Walt Whitman did.”
A black man with a gray bird on his shoulder walks by. “What kind of bird is that?” McGowan asks me.
“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s big though.”
“To me birds look too much like lizards, if you look at them closely. They give me the creeps.”
“Hmm,” I respond. The conversation is drifting into zoological obscurity.
“Now take someone like me,” I say. “I dropped out of high school, I don’t have much formal education, I have no background in English literature or poetry, I haven’t even read much of it. I can’t really tell between the good and the bad. I mean what’s the difference between what you’re doing and, say, Rod McKuen’s verse?”
“McKuen’s problem is he’s a sanitized sentimentalist. He’s not controversial, or funny – pithless poems. I suppose he’s a good craftsman but he doesn’t affect me. He’s painfully sincere, a quality I find hard to take for more than a few seconds. To me life is sexy, scary, funny. That’s what interests me. If writing doesn’t have those ingredients, I don’t care about it.”
We walk across the lawn and sit on one of several shaded benches surrounded by enormous redwoods. Sitting with us in the small circle is a film director from L.A. named Jerome and the man with the bird. His name is Richard. The bird is named Captain Hook.
“Is that a parrot or a cockatoo?” I ask.
“It’s a parrot,” Richard replies.
“I’ve never seen a gray parrot,” McGowan says.
“It’s a parrot for sure,” Richard says firmly.
“Why did you name it Captain Hook?”
“I dunno. I always liked Peter Pan when I was a kid. I guess that’s why.”
“What kind of films do you direct?” I ask Jerome.
“Name some,” I say.
“Really? The one with Arnold Schwarzenegger?”
“That’s the one,” Jerome says.
The movie talk grabs McGowan’s attention. “I used to work as an extra in Hollywood,” he says.
“What films were you in?” Jerome asks.
McGowan thinks for a moment. “Let’s see, I was in ‘10’ and ‘The Onion Field.’ I had a small speaking part in Joan Rivers’ ‘Rabbit Test,’ but it got cut. That was the highlight of my movie career. Esquire said it was the worst movie in 1978. I was in Sam Fuller’s ‘Big Red One’ and the remake of ‘King Kong.’ I almost bumped right into Jessica Lange. She said ‘Hi’ to me and I fell in love. And I was in ‘Raid on Entebbe.’ I played an Israeli soldier in a scene with Charles Bronson. I also was in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ and Chuck Norris’ ‘Good Guys Wear Black.’”
None of us knows what to reply to this litany so we sit and sip our wine and look at the dancing, celebrating crowd. Jerome gets up and heads toward the food tent. Valentine Miller, Henry’s daughter, walks by and nods to Richard.
“How’s it goin’, Val?” he says. She smiles at him and continues walking.
McGowan is big, about 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, with an unkempt pompadour of thick, wiry blond hair covering his head. His eyes are small, ethereal. There’s something reassuring about being next to him, like standing by a Sequoia.
Sometimes, even when fighting a cold, even when he’s already said he wouldn’t, the muse seizes Whitman McGowan and he begins reciting one of his poems. He does so now from within an antihistamine haze, while looking at the twirling, polychrome dancers, with the cacophony of congas, flutes, barking dogs and the over-modulated poetry of the new beatniks serving as accompaniment. At first, because his tone of voice doesn’t change, I think he’s just continuing the conversation.
Yeah, [he growls] white folks was wild once, too
We’d get a wild tattoo and paint our faces blue
If we smelled some game we knew just what to do
And someone always dug where the medicine grew
We had our kind of music and our rituals, too
Yeah, white folks was wild once too.
Richard the parrot man is listening intently. “I know whatcha mean,” he says to McGowan. “It’s sort of like the last remnants of a once-flourishing civilization, ain’t it? This kind of thing’s a cultural anachronism nowadays. It’s too bad, I think. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than going to a 10K marathon or one of those lame art and wine festivals with all the crappy raku pottery and redwood burl clocks.”
“Yeah,” McGowan says, “but what I’m trying to get at is, though it may come off as whimsical, what I’m trying to get at is, uh … this particular bit of whimsy comes from decades of feeling like I wasn’t a native. I mean, when the Mayans were building their temples, and the Chinese had very advanced observatories, and the Africans had great kingdoms with complex social structures, my people, you know, white people, who were natives once too, were still running around hitting each other with sticks and painting their faces blue. And now we’re supposed to be the point men for civilization. We were the last to be civilized. Just about anybody is more qualified for the job than we are.”
Captain Hook starts talking but I can’t understand him. “What’s he saying?” I ask.
Richard translates for the bird. “He’s saying ‘Let me out.’”
“What’s that mean?”
“That’s what he says when he wants out of his cage or he just wants to move. He’s bored.”
“How can a creature with a brain the size of a grape be bored?” I ask. “You’d think it would take every brain cell he’s got just to keep his heart pumping.”
Richard scowls. “Go on, Whitman,” he says, “do some more of that poem.”
I think McGowan’s in a trance. He also must be psychic, since he immediately looks at me and responds to my observation without my having said anything. “I know,” he says. “It’s the combination of the place, the company and the cold medicine.” He chants:
Forget about the Mau-Mau, forget about the Sioux
We was homesteaders back when the glaciers withdrew
And where our chiefs lay buried, everybody knew
We had a feel for nature, a sense of what was true
Yeah, white folks was wild once too
We put up lots of big rocks framing up the moon
‘N pointing at the sun and the other stars, too
We did a whole damn lot of scary hoodoo
‘N voodoo ‘n mojo ‘n sacrifices, too.
Yeah, white folks was wild once too.
Richard interrupts before McGowan can begin the next stanza. “How’d you get started doin’ this?” he asks him. A lady walks past with a large snake draped over her shoulders.
“What is this?” I say. “A party or a petting zoo?”
McGowan chortles. Captain Hook sees the snake and seems a little nervous, flaps his wings. Richard strokes the bird’s head.
“I started performing in public about 1982. I was getting burned out on the movie business and I’d begun working part-time at a coffee house in Pasadena. The place lost its entertainment license and wasn’t able to continue having live music. So we put poetry on the menu. It said ‘Poetry ... $1.’ I’d always make a point of coming to work with a couple of poems in my pocket. And somebody would say, ‘Hey, what’s this?’ And we’d say, ‘It’s fun, why don’t you try it.’ It became pretty popular. I finally raised the price to $2 per serving. That’s how I started.”
Little needle-teethed fire ants are biting my bare feet. “Damn,” I say, tucking my feet under me. “Quick, let’s hear the rest.” McGowan slips back into his trance, continues his chant:
We took strange powders to improve our view
Before the Wright Brothers, I’m telling you we flew
Getting right with the Goddess was the mission of our crew
We danced around a fire chanting woo-woo-woo
Yeah, white folks was wild once, too.
Captain Hook picks up on the phrase “woo-woo-woo,” and screeches it several times. McGowan pays no attention to the bird.
Wacky doo, wacky doo, wacky doo, wacky doo
We used to like to drink & fight, used to like to ooh!
For all that I know, we still just maybe do
And we were really ready for the world to start anew
Yeah, white folks was wild once, too.
We had baskets to weave and a bone to chew
We got real funky on some homemade brew
We had a helluva time at a bar-be-que
If you saw us today you’d put us in a zoo
Yeah, white folks was wild once too.
McGowan sneezes. “That’s it,” he says.
“Is that the whole thing?” Richard asks.
“Yep,” McGowan answers and then looks at me. “Let’s take off. I’m worn out. And it’s a long drive back.”
“Sure,” I agree, feeling like the trip hasn’t really done much to advance my understanding of poetry.
Richard stands up and extends his hand. He gives me one of those complicated multi-position handshakes that white men like me are never very good at. “Great to meet you two. Keep up the good work, Whitman.”
We stand to leave. Jerome is leaning against the doorway of Emil White’s house, a doorway Henry Miller must have walked through hundreds of times on his way to another evening of wine, talk and food. I wave goodbye to Jerome and he waves back. Ferlinghetti is in the chair on the porch in which he began the afternoon. The new beatniks are still assaulting the forest and the rest of us through their wretched sound system.
Whitman McGowan and I walk up the road to the parking lot at Nepenthe where our car’s parked.
“Let’s go in and have one of those great hot cider and brandy drinks they make here,” McGowan suggests.
A well-tanned young waiter seats us on the patio. Our view is of the coastline as it extends south in an intoxicating tangle of cerulean ocean, oaks, redwoods and steep hillsides tightly wrapped with yellow-gold grass. The visual effect is amplified by the wind’s constant massaging of the foliage. McGowan and I stare. The waiter delivers our drinks.
“I can’t come to this place,” I say, “without thinking about that dopey movie from the ‘60s that they filmed here.”
“Which dopey movie?” McGowan asks.
“Oh God, what was it? You know the one. Richard Burton played a priest or headmaster or something, and Elizabeth Taylor was a bohemian painter. And whatshisname from ‘Raid on Entebbe’ was in the scene they filmed here at Nepenthe.”
“Charles Bronson played a beatnik?”
“Yeah, he played a bongo drum.”
“He played a bongo drum?”
“No, I mean he played a bongo drum in the scene. He didn’t play the part of a bongo drum.”
“I knew what you meant,” McGowan says.
“As I recall, the film’s director relied heavily on the bulky-knit Mexican sweaters and bongos to evoke the pre-hippie Big Sur counterculture. What was that movie called? It’s right on the tip of my tongue.” McGowan has stopped listening to my brandy-induced blathering. He’s gazing straight up at a red-tail hawk as it performs like a champion figure skater high over our heads. He’s also worrying about the present, the future, his career and poetry in Northern California.
“‘The Sandpiper’! ‘The Sandpiper,’ that was it!”
McGowan’s head is still tipped back, watching the hawk. “I hope I didn’t give you the wrong idea back there when we were talking with Richard,” he says. “I mean, I guess if I really wanted to play Vegas, I’d be doing something about it. What I am doing is performing in coffeehouses and bars. I like to read in crowded, noisy bars and see if I can get everybody to stop throwing darts, and shooting pool, and drinking, and listen to me create a scene and have a laugh over modern life. Like I said before, I think the world right now is a sexy, scary place.” He lets out an explosive sneeze, startling the people at the table next to ours.
“And you’ve appointed yourself the job of finding what’s funny about it?” I ask.
“Well,” McGowan replies, clearing his throat, “I suppose you could say that’s part of my job.”