“Do you have any Quaaludes?” was the first thing Taylor Mead ever said to me, in a phlegmatic tenor. “I’ll give you a handjob for some Quaaludes.” Alas, I had none, which was good, as I do not know how to gracefully turn down a handjob. No one is more quotable than this hound-faced bespectacled old man, who can kick your ass with wit or indifference and still put away his share of whiskey. He looks oddly at home among the swells of fresh-skinned hipsters at Max Fish and other neighborhood bars where it is widely understood that he drinks for free. Taylor’s lived in the same studio on Ludlow Street for almost 20 years, and has been a beloved icon of the downtown New York art scene since the 60s.
He was one of the first Warhol superstars, making his Factory debut in 1963 with Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort Of. “But I was B.A. — Before Andy,” he says. His real break came with the starring role in the big bang of avant-garde film, Ron Rice’s 1962 The Flower Thief, originally shown at the Charles Theater on Avenue B at 12th St. (yes, a theater on Avenue B!), and called by film theorist P. Adams Sitney “the purest expression of the Beat sensibility in cinema.” Mead won an Obie for his role in Frank O’Hara’s The General Returns From One Place to Another, and has been in over a hundred films by his count, almost all of them experimental, including Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. (He says he was slightly stoned for that scene.) And most recently, he was the subject of William Kirkley’s documentary, Excavating Taylor Mead, nominated for Best New York Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival.
At 80, Taylor straddles fame and obscurity. He still performs weekly at the Bowery Poetry Club, and has recently published another book of poetry, A Simple Country Girl. He can also be seen out most nights at 2 or 3am, feeding stray cats at the 2nd Street cemetery and parking lots around the Lower East Side.
I asked him why he always refers to himself as an actor instead of a writer, to which he said, “I don’t do anything. I just spontaneously happen into strange situations,” a bit, it seemed, perturbed by the question. “I’m a renaissance person,” he laughs at himself with a “Ppuh.” Then trailing off with distaste, “In New York, where everyone should have to get a goal… Must work hard, all that — it’s bullshit,” he surges out. “Do NOT work hard… have a decent day-to-day life…” He then adds, like a true Beat poet, “But I just write hit-and-miss. And I don’t change a word.”
Filmmaker Ron Rice found him at a reading in San Francisco, and in 1963 cast him in Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, which Taylor calls his greatest movie. Scenes include Taylor — with lanky Roberto Benigni-like body, question mark posture, and balloonish head — indecipherably fussing over a large, matronly black woman who appears naked for much of the movie; in a bear suit playing piano; spreading butter on a football. Some scenes are haunting and romantic, like the Queen on the bow of a boat at night, cruising languidly along the industrial waterfront. Others are pure slapstick, with Taylor slinking around lonely commercial districts like a Charlie Chaplin on barbiturates (although he was more of an amphetamine guy, as were most of his crowd), stopping occasionally to mug up against various objects like someone having a controlled seizure, eyes googling and tongue wagging like a pinball machine hitting the all-time high score.
Critics nowadays would call this film, and others like it, amateurish, although the media then was struggling to stay hip, using turns like “intellectual hellzapoppin’” and “cubistic comedy of the new world cinema,” to describe them. They were trying too hard. It was plain to see, beyond the occasional and obvious symbolism, that these people were playing. Taylor says, “We just ran around in a cab going to interesting places in the city. The movie was two hours long and it took us two hours and 15 minutes to film it.”
This was a new thing for young people, this ethos — have fun! Do what you want and call it art! Art on a whim! The poetry, the films, the paintings — art was a precipitate of living artistically, with the experience being the attraction more than the final product. Some had the cleverness, namely Andy Warhol, to extract disposable income from this kind of life. It was Andy who sought out Taylor, also known around town for standing on bars to yell out his poetry when everyone was too loud and drunk to pay attention. He was one of the Factory’s longer-wearing parts, but Warhol, to whom people were as disposable as his income, told him, “Taylor, I don’t need to give you money, I gave you fame.” Which is all he has now, barely, but for a little survival income from his father’s estate.
So when Mead was almost evicted from his rent-controlled apartment on Ludlow Street, ostensibly because of a vermin problem, it was to mean the end of life in the neighborhood that was his life. I asked him about a scene in the documentary, where he rifles through mountains of roach-covered trash to get to the fridge, and says, “My only addictions... chocolate milk and regret.” He was incredulous. “What? Did I say that? It’s impossible to have regrets. I only regret all the stray cats I took in, and the guys I should’ve talked to but didn’t because I was so shy. And I’m worried about the building going up outside my window, that’s gonna wake me up every morning.”
The eviction was averted, and his vigor is undiminished. I’m asking something about his time in Paris, when Taylor looks out the door at a tan, curly-haired twenty-something and mutters luridly, “Oh my god, cute guys.” I look outside, and then he says, “Oh but he smokes. So awful. Plus if you blow somebody you can taste the fucking tobacco. Tobacco is dangerous, it goes right into your semen.” The NY Post’s Page Six, in mentioning the documentary, couldn’t seem to mention anything other than Taylor’s filthy, roach-infested apartment. He says they should’ve heard more of his poetry if they wanted filth. What would the headline have been after seeing him squirm in pain for effect at his weekly show, describing rough sex in Dirty Poem: “…it gradually finds my buttocks, into them plunges slippery slipping gradually, artistically, lubricatingly, ecstatically slowly plunges into my hot hole lips… Ugh, augh!”
Taylor says he’s an open book, but Bill Kirkley told me that over the course of making the film it was very hard to observe his star’s true feelings, except on one occasion. Bill got a call late one night, with news from Taylor that his favorite cat had died, and did he want to come to the funeral. Solemnly they walked to the river under the Brooklyn Bridge, and while nonchalantly talking about the breed and how long he’d had him, Taylor pulls the dead, stiff cat from a paper bag, and chucks it unceremoniously into the East River. There, floating among the other detritus in the murky water was one of the most beloved members of his family. That was the one time he really saw Taylor’s quiet heartache.
It is impossible to tell if he sees any of his life as a set of symbolic polarities — art vs. business, the creative life vs. secure life, fame vs. recognition. He remains declaratively undeclared, saying “I’m a natural whatever-I-do,” perhaps to avoid the limitations of such definitions, perhaps offended by any attempt to box up the complexity of a truly bohemian life. Appreciate Mead’s “throwaway genius,” as Gary Indiana calls it in the introduction to Simple Country Girl, but don’t hold him to any of it. As the poem reads near the end of the book: I don’t need assholes/to tell me who/Taylor Mead is.