Taylor Mead, Superstar

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06/08/2005 2:00 AM |

“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.