Thursday, May 9, 2013


Taylor Mead was an icon of what at various times in his life was called Bohemia or the underground, alternative or downtown scene. A writer, actor, artist and performance artist so unique, there really wasn't a category for him. You could say in some ways he was kind of the poor man's Quentin Crisp. That is, a person so true to his own nature and personality that he never ever could be mistaken for anyone else, nor was he ever anything but "out" as a gay man, long before almost anyone else.

I first learned of him when I saw him in what now would be called an indie movie but in 1963 was called an "underground film"—HALLELUJAH THE HILLS.  His screen presence was so unique I never forgot it, so that when we finally met several years later I could have picked him out of any crowd. I also knew him as the author of a book I no longer have, because someone robbed it from one of my apartments sometime in the past, but I remember as THE AMPHETAMINE DIARIES. Though I couldn't find that title when I googled it.

When that book came out, the title seemed like a jab at the composer Ned Rorem's PARIS DIARIES. Taylor was excellent at popping anyone's ballooning ego, including mine. As he got older he sometimes came across like a mildly disabled, flamboyantly outrageous, elfin, drag-queen-not-in-drag, boyish-voiced, elder authority on all things.

We were in a production of John Ashbery's THE HEROES in a downtown theater that didn't last long (on Van Dam Street) around 1980 and walking back from a show one night with a few others in the cast, all younger than me, I was arguing with them about William Burroughs who I felt got too many accolades from young people on the downtown and alternative scenes as opposed to his contemporary Kerouac who was often dismissed by those types. I objected to Burroughs' misogyny as well as other things but wasn't articulating it too well when Taylor interrupted as if he'd just realized who we were talking about and fairly screamed in his high pitched voice: "Oh that paranoid queen!" and went on to succinctly debunk Burroughs mystique as some sort of benevolent wise old seer of the future, as I had been trying to do unsuccessfully, pointing out that Burroughs lived in "A BUNKER!" (actually the men's locker room from an old downtown YMCA, or so I remember it being explained to me when I was invited to visit him there) and went around with a gun everywhere even though Burroughs was the one who'd shot and killed someone (his wife at the time, in a famous attempt to shoot a cocktail glass off her head a la William Tell but he missed), etc. When Taylor was done there was no more defending of Burroughs from the young cast members.

To this day I regret that no one ever took a cast photo, as it was a great group and I'd love to have a photograph of me with Taylor. The last time I saw him I missed that opportunity as well, deliberately, out of some attempt at humility I now regret. I was at a fancy dinner thrown by the art foundation DIA in a downtown location used for big expensive dinners and parties, everyone dressed in finery that probably cost as much as half a year's rent on my apartment (or a year or more on Taylor's, whose wealthy landlord had been trying to get him out of his rent controlled apartment for decades) and trying to not feel anxious, since this was after my brain operation so the crowd was hard to take.

I found a spot to sit and lean back against a pillar with a small space in front of me so there wasn't too much stimuli, when I spied Taylor coming through the door. People were making a fuss over him but he headed my way and I got up and helped him sit beside me. I'm not sure he recognized me, but I reminded him who I was and we talked for quite a while while we waited to be called to our assigned tables for the dinner (we were both there as "artists" who had been invited to perform at DIA sponsored events).

Everytime someone came up to pay their respects to Taylor, after they left he'd comment on them, their looks or outfits, or say something about having no idea who they were, in which case I tried to fill him in if I had any idea. When they asked to take a photo of him or them with him, I would move out of the frame in, like I said, an attempt at humility I guess, though I now regret I didn't get someone to take a photo of us together for me to keep.

At any rate, Taylor's body had deteriorated since the last time I'd seen him, which hadn't been that long ago. I think he told me he'd had a stroke, but I may be remembering that incorrectly (we shared health stories old man style, though he didn't let me get away with that, pointing out how I still looked good to him, only in much more graphic and salacious terms), but his mind was sharper than my post-op one as he archly commented on everyone who passed by until it was time to go to our tables.

He leaned on my arm as I helped him walk unsteadily with his cane to his table and he kissed me as a thank you for that. I went to my table with a bunch of older (like me) wealthy (unlike me) but pleasant strangers and one bright and delightful young woman who had known my older kids in college. Another young woman, the daughter of an artist friend back in my Soho days, found me after dinner and some other old friends from 1970s downtown, so I didn't talk to Taylor again except to say goodbye when I'd had enough and left to catch a cab to Penn Station and the train back to Jersey.

I'm so happy I got to spend that time reconnecting with Taylor before he left us all. He will be remembered by many for many years to come. Too bad he didn't outlive his greedy landlord.
[PS For those who sometimes object to my personalizing not just obits but most of my posts, that's the point. There are plenty of tributes to Taylor and obituary notices to read and more "official" takes on him and his passing, this is about where my history intertwined with his in ways that had an impact on me and continues to.]


Jamie Rose said...

What a great post Lals. Sharing.

Larry-bob said...

Thanks for your memories. The book title you were trying to remember is "On Amphetamine and in Euope."

Lally said...

Yeah Larry-bob, that's what I found on Google, but I still remember it as The Amphetamine Diaries, wish I still had it.