Taylor Mead: I'm extraordinarily shy - but I'm also shy from experience - from being stabbed and going through horrible experiences - but still I am normally shy.
(KPFA radio, 16 December 1968)
Taylor Mead reciting his poetry in 2010
Taylor Mead died on 8 May 2013 in Colorado while recovering from a stroke. Prior to his Colorado trip he continued to write and perform his poetry in New York, appearing regularly at the Bowery Poetry Club. His last major film role was in Coffee and Cigarettes directed by Jim Jarmusch. He was also the subject of the documentary, Excavating Taylor Mead, in 2005.
The first film that Warhol made with Mead was Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort of... filmed during a trip that Warhol, Mead and others made to Los Angeles for the opening of Warhol's second show at the Ferus Gallery. Mead made a number of films prior to appearing in Warhol films: a full length b-movie directed by Raymond Phelan, Too Young, Too Immoral; two films by Ron Rice: The Flower Thief and Senseless; two films by Vernon Zimmerman: Lemon Hearts and To L.A... With Lust; two 8 mm shorts by Robert Chatterton: Passion in a Seaside Slum and The Hobo and the Circus; Hellalulah the Hills by Jonas Mekas' brother Adolfas; and another film by Ron Rice: Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man.
Although the films have been attributed to a variety of dates, depending on the source, they were probably filmed in the above order. Film scholar Marc Siegel writes in Artforum that "Mead's first role - filmed in 1959 - was as a deaf-mute pusher in Raymond Phelan's sexploitation flick Too Young, Too Immoral (1962)." According to the same article, The Flower Thief was Mead's second film. Mead confirms this during an interview with cult film expert, Jack Sargeant. Mead is asked whether The Flower Thief "was the first film that you had been in?" and Mead responds "Oh no. In New York I was in a film called Too Young, Too Immoral by Ray Phelan." (NL81)
In a blurb written by Siegel for an Anthology Film Archives screening of Passion in a Seaside Slum in 2012, he confirmed that Passion was made after The Flower Thief and Lemon Hearts: "After his tour-de-force performances in THE FLOWER THIEF (1960) and LEMON HEARTS (1960), both made in San Francisco, the great underground performer and poet moved to Los Angeles and lived and worked in the Venice Beach Beat community for a number of months. It was in this context that Mead collaborated with film society director and amateur filmmaker Robert Wade Chatterton on the silent color 8 mm film, PASSION IN A SEASIDE SLUM. Mead plays 'the faggot' who persistently cruises a butch guy intent only on fishing in one of the canals."("Taylor Mead 1924-2013," Artforum, October 2013)
Passion in a Seaside Slum, has been attributed to three different years - 1960, 1961 and 1962 - by three different sources. Film scholar, J. Hoberman, attributes it to 1960; the National Film Preservation Foundation to 1961; and the Film Foundation to 1962. (NL81)(JHT)(NFP)(FFP) (http://film-makerscoop.com/rentals-sales/search-results?fmc_filmid=2844)
The dates attributed to The Flower Thief are even more confusing. Many sources, including the Film-Makers' Coop, attribute the film to 1960 but the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive attributes it to 1961 and the British Film Institute to 1962.
The earliest announcement I have found for the screening of The Flower Thief is in the "Program Announcement: Fall 1961/Spring 1962" for Amos Vogel's film club, Cinema 16. On 25 April 1962 the film was included in a screening titled "The Beats and the Outs: Two Views." (The other film or "view" shown was Peter Weiss' The Mirage.) (CS395)
However, Jonas Mekas mentions The Flower Thief earlier, in his 14 September 1961 column in the Village Voice, in which he announces "This year Cinema 16 is coming in with another series of new and old films that you can't see anywhere else... several programs will be devoted, as every year, to the new American directors." One of the films mentioned by Mekas is "Ron Rice's 'THE FLOWER THIEF,' the craziest film ever made, a peak of spontaneous cinema and one of the five landmarks of the new American cinema..." (Mekas, "Movie Journal," Village Voice, 14 Sep. 1961, p. 13)
The Cinema 16 series to which Mekas referred must have been the Fall 1961/Spring 1962 series. Although his column was written in 1961 he was referring to the 25 April 1962 showing of the film. His comments imply that by 14 September 1961 (the date of his column), he had already seen the film. When The Flower Thief was shown at the Charles Theater in July 1962 - several months after the April screening - it was advertised as the "World Premiere" of the film:
The "World Premiere" of The Flower Thief
Village Voice ad, 12 July 1962
As Mekas was involved with screenings at the Charles at the time (see "Jonas Mekas and the Film-makers' Cinematheque"), it's likely that he had something to do with this screening. In his 12 July 1962 column for the Village Voice (p. 5) he notes that "Ron Rice was chosen as the Most Promising Filmmaker the the Filmmakers Festival at the Charles Theatre." He continues by mentioning both The Flower Thief and Senseless: "I don't want to repeat myself, I have already praised him enough: its almost time for me to start beating him on the head a little bit. I intend to do it soon. Meanwhile, I still think that 'The Flower Thief' is one of the most important modern films, a beautiful absurd poem. And so is his new film, 'Senseless' (like 'Breathless'). 'Senseless' is a lesser film, less ambitious and less wild in its poetry, but it is still terribly beautiful when it is really senseless. The bullfight in negative is a fantastic shot; and so is the sequence with the beatniks on the Acapulco beach; or the train robbery episode; of the shot of the Virgin of Guadalupe surrounded by light; or the oil wells at night. It is beautiful and wild."
In regard to Lemon Hearts, the IMDB attributes it to 1962; the Film-Makers' Coop to 1960 and Film Culture magazine to 1961. According to film scholar Jack Sargeant, "Vernon Zimmerman assisted Ron Rice during the production of The Flower Thief, and his film Lemon Hearts (1962) was shot with Taylor Mead in San Francisco following the completion of The Flower Thief. " (NL88fn26)(PA101) (http://film-makerscoop.com/rentals-sales/search-results?fmc_filmid=3584)
Zimmerman was one of two of the winners of a 1962 Rosenthal Award of $1,000 for Lemon Hearts for the "best film made by an American under twenty-five years of age." The money was awarded at a meeting of the Society of Cinematologists on 17 April 1962 which took place at MoMA:
Press release for award given to Lemon Hearts
As far as the documentary evidence is concerned, we can say that, regardless of the year that the film was made, the screening of The Flower Thief advertised as the "World Premiere"took place in 1962 (although there was a Cinema 16 screening of the film prior to that) and that Lemon Hearts won the Rosenthal award the same year.
In regard to Mead's other pre-Warhol films, we know that filming started on Queen of Sheba prior to Warhol's Tarzan and Jane film because it is mentioned in the summer 1963 issue of Film Culture magazine. In an article titled "Smith Myth" in Film Culture magazine no. 29, Summer 1963 Ken Kelman criticizes Sheba for being "perhaps too Taylor-Made," and comments that the film "tried to be, but does not seem, very fresh or spontaneous, because the incidents are poorly invented..." He also indicates that the film is unfinished, writing, "when (if) it is completed, it will be no Flower Thief." (PA280) (I am assuming that the summer issue of the magazine was actually published in the summer i.e. before September 1963 when Warhol and Mead made their trip to L.A. where Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort Of... was shot.)
In regard to Hallelujah the Hills, we know that Adolfas Mekas was filming it as early as October 1962 because Jonas Mekas wrote his 1 November 1962 Village Voice column from Vermont during his fourth week assisting on the filming of the film. (See "Jonas Mekas and the Film-Makers' Cinematheque.") He doesn't mention Taylor Mead, however, and it's not known when the Taylor Mead footage was shot. The film was shown at the First New York Film Festival on 14 September 1963 so the Mead footage must have been shot before he went to L.A. with Warhol.
Aldolfas Mekas discusses Hallelujah the Hills with Joseph Losey, Amos Vogel and Richard Roud
after it was screened at the first New York Film Festival - includes clips from the film
Taylor Mead has spoken about his pre-Warhol films films in various interviews. In the above-referenced interview with Jack Sargeant, he refers to his first film as a "real grade B piece of shit."
In New York I was in a film called Too Young, Too Immoral by Ray Phelan. I played a deaf mute drug pusher. And at one point I get pushed off of the subway platform onto the tracks, fortunately his [Phelan's] uncle was on the transit board or something. And one time on the street somebody came up to me and said "I thought you were dead, I saw you pushed in front of the subway." And I thought "wow! This is the great American public, they are so naive they will believe anything!" It's so easy. It's beautiful. In a way it can be dangerous too. But I thought "how beautiful." The I walked by - it played for months on Times Square, at a place on the corner of Seventh and Forty-Second Street at a place called the Rivoli - and one day I was walking by the Rivoli and the manager of the theatre dame out and said [slowly] "do... you... want...," and mute gestures, "do...you...want...to...see...the...film?" And I wasn't even thinking about that, "Oh I've seen it many times!" And he practically fell off into the traffic, off the curb. So I thought "Gee! I got it" you know? So then... it made a lot of money, but by being at the theatre practically everyday counting the house he managed to make a great deal more than the movie cost him.
Then my cousin was a famous Broadway musical star, Richard Kiley, married to my first cousin, he offered me his lawyer to get some money out of this guy. The lawyer said "I'll call him up and talk to him," and I said "well, well, oh, er, well he's promised me another movie" you know, the whole chicken out thing. So I got sort of stung financially. But it was still wonderful the way the public reacted, even though the picture was a real grade B piece of shit. (NL81-2)
During the same interview, he also explains how he met Ron Rice which led to his appearance in The Flower Thief. According to Mead both Rice and Warhol were aware of him before they met through poetry readings in the Village in the late '50s.
Well I was reading poetry in the Village since the late '50s, so both he [Rice] and Andy - oh, there's that name again - a lot of people picked up on me reading poetry. And he, especially, saw me in San Francisco as I guess I arrived there in 1960, which was, I guess, after the height of Allen Ginsberg's Howl reading and Kerouac's... But I had been there in the mid-'50s hitchhiking across the United States. But they threw me out of North Beach, this awful cop went around in this big black Mariah booking up people. Just a round up of people who did not look like they belonged, or looked like they might be Beatniks or something... And it's like he's going to throw me in jail... it scared me. Because I can't stand jail, even though I have been in twelve times. The big city jails are so claustrophobic I just can't take it for more than a few hours. So he split me out of the scene at its ultimate, its poetic height.
So when I went back in the '60s, it was still going on but they sort of resented any new poets coming in. And so I got up on a bar, at the Bagel Shop in North Beach, and all these drunks [adopts slurred voice] "arwww, shud-up" and I gave them my dirtiest poem, I was like "cocksucker, fucked by queer policemen with big..." Just hit it out at them, and they accepted me, if I hadn't really attacked them, you know.... And from then on it was... Well Ron had someone else chosen for The Flower Thief but the person disappeared." (NL81)
According to Jack Sergeant, "Following the success of The Flower Thief, Ron Rice travelled to Mexico, and produced Senseless (1962). Senseless was shot throughout Rice's travels in and around Mexico, and the 'cast' is made up of the group of travelling friends and companions... When Senseless was screened at the Charles Theatre Filmmakers Festival in July 1962, it won the festival award. (NL77) This is, presumably, the same award ceremony referred to by Mekas above at which Ron Rice was awarded "Most Promising Filmmaker." (For information on the Charles Theatre Filmmakers Festival in July, see http://www.warholstars.org/filmmakers-cinematheque-1-1961-62.html).
Although Mead is not mentioned as being in Senseless in the Film-Maker's Co-op catalogue, he refers to being in it in a radio interview in 1963. In a KPFK radio interview of Warhol and Taylor Mead by Ruth Hirschman, the following exchange takes place:
Ruth Hirschman.: I might just mention here for the sake of the audience, I think three of Taylor's earliest films were made in Venice, California. Am I right?
Taylor Mead: Well, no, two were made in 'Frisco and two or three were made here in L.A. Senseless, To L.A. With Lust, and Passion of the Seaside Slums [sic].
RH: What is Senseless?
TM: Senseless is floating a raft - it's in New York, I guess.
RH: I think the film which has been, which has shown most in Los Angeles, and it's been available if you care to see it, and it probably will be available again, is Flower Thief.
T.M: Yes, The Flower Thief is available and Lemon Hearts. There are both many prints of them from the Film-Makers' Cooperative in New York City. (KG40)
In a 2004 interview he described how he met Warhol. He was introduced to the artist by Henry Geldzahler.
I was always a star. I was B.A. (before Andy), because Andy discovered me long before I discovered him, reading poetry. Woody Allen and Bill Cosby and Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan and Peter Orlovsky, we were all reading because the poetry in New York in the early 60s was becoming tremendous. So Andy knew about me... Henry Geldzahler used to see me with my radio. He was a curator for modern art at the Metropolitan and was walking through Central Park and so was I. We already knew each other from the poetry readings. He said to me "Do you want to meet Andy Warhol?" I said "Oh, yes," because I admired Andy from a literary point of view. I thought the Campbell soup can was a Voltaireian stroke against American commercial society. Of course, coming from a famous artist, a commercial artist, it was a brilliant stroke. So I said, "Of course." He took me over to Andy’s house and Andy gave me the royal treatment with cakes and things, Bacardi & Coke. His mother was there. They call it the royal treatment. A few weeks later he had a show in Los Angeles of Elvis Presley paintings. At the time he said that he wanted to see the country. That was 1963. (STT)
As noted earlier, Mead was part of Warhol's group that drove to Los Angeles in September 1963 for the opening of the L.A. show. Earlier in the month he had participated in a "jail poets" reading in New York:
Village Voice, 5 September 1963, p. 8
It was during the trip to L.A. with Warhol later that month that Warhol shot Mead for Tarzan and Jane Regained, Sort Of...
to September 1963