Friday, May 10, 2013

A Toast for Taylor Mead

It's a sad morning here at the Auto de Fey. I've just learned of the passing of one of the great characters of New York City, the very bohemian Taylor Mead.

If ever there was someone who sashayed to a different drummer, it was Taylor. He was born in Grosse Point, a child of wealthy parents. He referred to his private school education as "brainwashing for the bourgeoisie". Back in the day he lived in a tiny cramped apartment on Ludlow Street and was known in all the worst places. You might stumble upon him reading his poetry at some dive, or you might find him feeding cats in cemeteries. He was often described as the first underground movie star. He was involved in the San Francisco Beat Poet scene, when a filmmaker saw him shouting his poetry over a crowd of drunks in a bar. The filmmaker, Ron Rice, started following Taylor around, filming him with a hand held 16mm camera. The result was "The Flower Thief" (1960), in which Taylor played a befuddled and wide eyed mystic who wandered around San Francisco carrying his three most precious possessions - a teddy bear, a flag, and a stolen gardenia. In other words, he played himself.

He moved to New York City because he thought it would be easy to be anonymous there. But Taylor wasn't the kind of guy who could be anonymous for long (he tended to attract attention) and was soon asked to be in a play by poet Frank O'Hara. He won an Obie. As a regular on the fringes of the Lower East side arty scene, he became involved with Andy Warhol and the gang at the Factory. He played Tarzan in one of Warhol's first movies; as he climbed around in the trees his loincloth kept falling off, leading one critic to complain of the film's featuring two hours of Taylor's derriere. Warhol wrote a letter to the Village Voice noting that no such footage existed, but that he would try to rectify the situation - he made an hour long film called (ahem, my more gentle readers may wish to avert their eyes) "Taylor Mead's Ass".

Dennis Hooper and Taylor Mead in "Tarzan and Jane Regained... Sort Of"
a film by Andy Warhol (1963)
In the late 1970's and early 1980's, in a world before cable tv, the most outrageous program on the air was "The Anton Perich Show" which appeared well after midnights on NYC's own UHF channel 31. Perich was another of the Factory regulars, and his outré avant-garde show featured a number of the Lower East Side crowd like the punk rock country western singer Wayne County (before he was Jane County). The show was vulgar, crude, and absolutely hysterically funny. The funny part was usually Taylor being flamboyantly gay in an era when such things simply weren't done.

For the last several years, Taylor had been in a fight with realtors who were trying to force him out of his long time (and rent controlled) apartment so they could convert it to a high priced market rental. He'd just made a settlement with them and was visiting a niece in Colorado when he passed. He was 88. I want to write "Rest in Peace", but he wouldn't do that. If there is an afterlife, I suspect he'll be busy writing poetry and being very, very, deliciously naughty.

(Bill Rice and Taylor Mead in a scene from Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes".)

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

"You Can Buy a Dream or Two..."

Every now and again, the almanac information for a particular day contains something that makes me stop whatever I am doing (usually perusing the almanac listings) and leads me down paths of imagination or reverie. Needless to say, today's listing of the famous, the infamous, the worthy, the athletes, and the entertainers contained one name in particular which caught my attention and started me thinking of musical and other memories.

Maybe you had to have to have been a child in the 1950's, and remember music before Elvis, an era when the last of the big bands and the likes of the McGuire sisters, or doo wop anthems like "Sh-Boom" caught and/or created the public mood to really appreciate the name which caught my attention. Today is Ricky Nelson's birthday. I just called him Ricky, even though at age 21 he became Rick. I wonder if my calling him "Ricky" has to do with nostalgia or habit.

Rick Nelson was the son of big band leader Ozzie Nelson. His mother, Harriet Hilliard, had been the band's "girl singer", and gave up a potential career in the movies to continue with the band. (She'd sung "Get Thee Behind Me Satan" in the Fred Astaire - Ginger Rogers movie, "Follow the Fleet". The song had originally been intended for Rogers to sing in "Top Hat".) The band had been on tour in Los Angeles when they were signed as the house band for a radio show hosted by Red Skelton. When Skelton was drafted during WWII, Ozzie was given the chance to create his own show. The most popular radio program in the country at the time was "Fibber McGee and Molly", which had a recurring cast of characters who moved through Fibber and Molly's lives - it's regarded as the first situation comedy. Ozzie created a show about his family's life. His two sons were played by professional actors for several years before the boys were considered old enough to take on the roles themselves. After a successful movie version, Ozzie moved the show to tv, where it premiered in 1952. It must have been a trifle strange for the boys to go to work everyday pretending to be versions of themselves, working in a set that was a duplicate of their real life home. Ricky was often described as an odd little kid who suffered from asthma, and who encountered problems fitting in at his school. He got into trouble a lot. In 1957 when he was 16, he wanted to impress a girl who liked Elvis Presley. He bragged that he could make a record, too, and used his Dad's connections to do it. Ozzie was happy to see Ricky channel his energies, and wrote the song into the show. It was a Fats Domino's, "I'm Walking".

The episode aired in April of 1957. America changed a little bit that night.

Rock and Roll was still considered something wild and unruly. Preachers condemned it as an evil influence from their pulpits, and held public burnings of Elvis' records. Suddenly here was that nice Nelson boy, a kid who was growing up in front of America, a kid everyone liked, singing rock and roll. If Ricky Nelson liked it, if Ozzie and Harriet liked it, well then - it must be all right. Elvis, Bill Haley and the rest may have made rock and roll popular, but it was Ricky Nelson and his rock-a-billy infused style which made it acceptable. I was 6 years old at the time, and bought the 45 rpm record of "I'm Walkin" from the allowance I received for doing household chores.

Ricky didn't care for the musicians his dad had hired to back him so he put together his own band, starting with a kid around his own age, 18 year old James Burton, who became one of the great guitarists of rock and roll. Hit followed hit, with Ricky and his band preforming every couple of weeks on the show. During the 1958-1959 season (the year Elvis went into the army), Ricky Nelson had 12 big hits, one more than Elvis. Here's one of his biggest hits, "Hello Mary-Lou". Sadly, I  couldn't find a good copy on You Tube of the first version from the show, with Burton's electrifying guitar solo.

Ricky was a good looking kid, and there was something about him. There was a slight touch of a sneer that could turn into a smile, or which could hint at something slightly dangerous - but in a "nice" way. And, while he could really rock when his Dad would let him, he could also handle a ballad with style. For one big hit, Ozzie added a little bit of film imagery which some argue was a precursor of the first music videos.

The big hits, around 60 of them, continued until 1963, when the "British Invasion" moved rock and roll away from its rockabilly roots, girl groups, and doo-wop. Times were a'changing; the family tv show ended in 1966. Rick Nelson moved on to pioneer a blend of rock and country that paved the way for groups like The Eagles.

There would be one last big hit. In 1971, Rick was booked into a rock and roll revival show at Madison Square Garden. He made his entrance wearing long hair and bell bottoms, and launched into a couple of the old songs. For his third number, he performed a country tinged version of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman". The audience began booing. Some say the audience had expected young Ricky, but got Rick. Some say it was due to a police action against concert goers in the back of the auditorium. Whatever really happened,  the booing was loud and Rick left the stage. He wrote a song about it called "Garden Party" :

Over the next several years, Rick had his share of personal problems, including the very public break up of his marriage. He and his wife tried to reconcile, but neither were able to curtail the style of spending they had once enjoyed during his years at the top, which meant that he had to constantly tour to pay the bills, which further affected their marriage. When they finally divorced the financial settlement left him with no choice but to continue his life on the road, playing engagements in small clubs where he could still get bookings.  He acknowledged his predilection for marijuana (he used to bury his stash in his back yard), and publicly supported legalization (as did other 'smokers' like Bing Crosby). In interviews on tv he was always quiet, soft spoken, a little hesitant, often very funny, and quite modest. He usually made sure he gave credit to the people who performed with him or who wrote the songs he sang. On New Year's Eve in 1985, he was on his way to the last stop of a three concert tour when his rented plane crashed, killing everyone but the pilots. He was 45 years old.

While I've been putting this post together over several stops and starts, I can't help but notice that the little globe on my blog page shows my point of origin as "Nelson, NH"...

In all of his hits, both the rockers and the ballads, there is one song that I rediscovered as an adult that haunts me. I don't know why, maybe it's feelings of lost youth, or the passing of time, of an era when life was allegedly simpler. I grew up without a mom. My Aunt Lorraine filled that role for a few years. The tv shows I liked to watch had families with moms. I identified with two particular characters - the Beav, and Ricky. Both were younger brothers like I was. Maybe this song haunts me because it was one of the songs to which I first "slow danced", holding someone close. Maybe it's because I think the song catches something of the kid who didn't fit in, the real Ricky Nelson. Maybe it's the stirring of long lost feelings of another kid who didn't fit into his own small town in the southern part of New Jersey, who now finds himself writing from a place called "Nelson"...

So Happy Birthday, Rick Nelson. Thanks for the music, and the memories. Miss you.