Michael McClure: Beat Poet and Playwright Helped Thaw Cold War American Culture

“I put mammalian consciousness into Beat literature. I expressed the biological aspect of humans. At the Six Gallery, I read about the slaughter of whales.”

– Michael McClure

Of the five American poets who performed their work at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955 only one of them—Gary Snyder—is still alive and he’s 90. Michael McClure, who was born in Kansas in 1932, died in Oakland, California on May 4, 2020. He was 87. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who attended the landmark cultural event at the Six, is still alive, at 100, but he didn’t read his work. While Ferlinghetti published the Beat Generation writers he wasn’t really a Beat, but a bohemian, an anarchist and in a way petty bourgeois, as the owner of City Lights Books.

McClure was genuinely Beat and part of the inner circle, though he also carved out his own style of poetry and theater. Henry David Thoreau’s quip “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” certainly applies to McClure.

An environmentalist and an ecologist, he wrote The Beard, a raunchy play about Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid. One obit writer noted that the piece has “a scene of simulated cunnilingus,” though when I saw it performed the oral sex was for real. McClure would have approved.

For years he played music with Ray Manzarek of The Doors. I heard him perform at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Marin County, though he spent so much time rehearsing that when it came time for him to face the audience he was largely played out. The rehearsal, which went on for hours proved to be more entertaining than the performance itself, though it was very cool, indeed, to see him and hear him on stage with the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir.

In many ways, McClure was a poet’s poet who never enjoyed the large global audience that Allen Ginsberg created and then nurtured for decades. McClure had a keen sense of politics, censorship and artistic freedom. Early on, he recognized the chilling effect of the Cold War and McCarthyism on American culture, creativity and moral values.

He helped to thaw the deep freeze that inhibited many, though not all writers, actors, publishers, moviemakers and more. McClure morphed from the Beat culture of the 1950s to the hippie culture of the 1960s. He kept going year after year, decade after decade. Like Ginsberg and Kerouac—who was in the audience at the Six Gallery, along with Neal Cassady and Natalie Jackson, the quintessential Beat woman—McClure was always experimenting with language and with form as one can see in his book, Ghost Tantras and elsewhere. Some of his admirers call him “an American Shelley.”

Married twice, to Joanna Kinnison and Amy Evans—both of them creative in their own right— he shared shyness with Kerouac. About Diane di Prima, the author of Loba and Memoirs of a Beatnik, he said, “She might be the greatest living American poet.”

When I interviewed McClure, I reminded him of the famous photo in which he appears along with Ginsberg and Bob Dylan. McClure said “Allen, Bob, and I hung out together in San Francisco, went to parties, and shared ideas. One day, Dylan said, ‘let’s take a picture of the three of us.’ Larry Kennan shot us behind City Lights; it’s Jack Kerouac Alley now.”

I also asked mcClure what he added to the Beat mix. He said “I put mammalian consciousness into Beat literature. I expressed the biological aspect of humans. At the 6 Gallery, I read about the slaughter of whales.”

McClure wrote the lyrics for “Mercedez Benz,” which Janis Joplin made famous. Before she performed the song she said, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, perhaps not: “I’d like to do a song of great social and political import.”

One of the verses goes like this:  “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz/My friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends/Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends/So Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz.” To commemorate McClure’s death we might now listen to Janis sing the song.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.