Taylor Mead, the love child of Bette Davis and Peter Lorre, is one of the truly great comic geniuses of underground films, theater, poetry, cabaret, and cable TV of the Sixties and beyond. He was and is still quite hilarious, even if just stumbling down an East Village Street by himself, his traipse being a sort of Danse Macabre as envisioned by Pee Wee Herman.
An Andy Warhol Superstar, possibly best known for his hysterical “gunslinger” in Lonesome Cowboys, Mead’s brilliance never shined brighter than when he took on the title role in Michael McClure’s outrageous off-off-Broadway play, Spider Rabbit, in which he essayed a bunny who adored eating human brains.
But Taylor didn’t need a lead role to be unforgettable. In Rosa von Praunheim’s documentary Tally Brown New York, the constantly morphing star stole his scenes from Ms. Brown, who was no slouch herself when it came to commanding attention.
Acting aside, Taylor’s poetry is often wit to the nth degree -- or near-wit to the nth degree. His On Amphetamine and in Europe: Excerpts from the Anonymous Diary of a New York Youth (1968), includes such aphorisms as:
“Oh shit — I’m a mistake.”
“Let us take the horn by the bulls.”
“Morons -- right!? What have they got to give me?”
“he says to Jack Micheline -- how come I never heard of you.
Micheline said -- with the politics in this world, how you gonna hear of many beautiful people?”
“Your swish is my command.”
Then in his chapbook Son of Andy Warhol (1986), there’s:
“In my field I’m the best!
And I don’t know what that field is!! ??”
“The world is not made up of Taylor Meads!”
“I prefer to be a dilettante than successful.”
And so forth.
Now the relentlessly surprising cultural institution Anthology Film Archives is honoring this mad thespian/poet with two programs featuring the cable TV episodes he starred in in the 1970s along with such lionesses of hipness as Candy Darling, Tinkerbelle, and Nancy North (Sept. 19, 2012). All were directed rather loosely by Anton Perich, who’s avowed in the program notes, “At that time TV was still the last taboo of the good taste, artists didn’t touch it yet, so we introduced dirty language and dirty pictures into the American living rooms.”
I guess Mr. Perich got a headstart on Robin Byrd by a year or two.
The results of this artistic rambunctiousness, at least the ones I’ve viewed, are rambling, improvisational comedies that feature an unrestrained Mead flaunting his deranged gay sexuality while portraying a wide range of genders, ethnicities, and mental states that seem to have been permanently impaired by too many drugs and too much firewater.
In The Aging Rock Star (1973, 30 minutes, B&W), a gaggle of “ladies” and one highly cute gent all try to seduce Mead’s retired songster, who claims he only has $500,000 of the $6 million dollars he earned at the height of his career. Totally adlibbed, plot lines and facts keep getting confused as Candy Darling and others can’t remember if they’re one of Mead’s wives or daughters. But it doesn’t matter when Mead intones, “I’m thinking of going back on speed . . .” and Darling responds, “Don’t do that! It destroys all the vitamin C.”
Some time passes and Darling notes for no reason at all that she was “the only blonde in darkest Africa,” Mead, after sniffing a shoe, accuses her of murder, “You killed Wally Cox!”
Verbal mayhem ensues. For example, after being told he has varicose veins, Mead admits, “Drugs destroy your toenails.” Then the game cast that also includes Darsea D’Wilde and Nancy North all break into song.
Washington Rasputin (1976, 38 minutes, washed-out color) is like a home movie about a family that isn’t your family, and you’re ever so glad. Imagine these very kinfolk filming themselves staging a very bad play that runs ten times longer than it should, and just when you want to run out of the room to save your sanity, you discover you’re stuck to the sofa, you can’t shut your eyes, and your brain is seeping out of your ears. (Please note I’m only 18 minutes and two seconds into this feature so far.) The “plot” here revolves around Mead, who is still an aging rock star, one whose very wealthy relative, Washington Morgan Rasputin, has just died. Rasputin had changed his name to “Bobby Short” and apparently became a cult cabaret singer.
We first meet Mead and his gaggle of female cousins, including Tinkerbelle, as they are deciding how to break up the Rasputin fortune. In the midst of this chatter, our deranged Smurf keeps leaving the set and returning as various women in Rasputin’s life (e.g. Elsie, the black maid; Granny).
There are several moments that might come off as uncomfortably racist, but I suspect they are unintentional. When you were adlibbing in the 1970s and possibly imbibing drinks and drugs, you never knew what would be coming out of your mouth, other than an occasional vomit. Apparently, the brazen Mr. Perich doesn’t believe in either editing or much supervising. Just turn on the camera and let the “fun” begin. The resulting chatter includes Mead inheriting a rubber sheet that winds up in the hands of David Hockney, poppers are compared to little corncobs, and Sikhs are said to be very well-endowed. We also learn that in countries that become overpopulated, “dingdongs get smaller.” As Rasputin continues, we learn Picasso was the family gardener and Elvis was a cousin. Shortly, Moses, Citizen Kane, Barry Manilow, and Albert Schweitzer will get their due, too. Then the game cast all break into song, sometimes in German.
In The Great American Silent Movie (1971, 7 minutes, color), Mead plays a masturbating pervert who’s trying to get his head under Candy Darling’s dress as she dances about glamourously. Taylor eventually picks his nose and drools before square dancing with Darling while Tiger Morse runs about in a huge purple scarf, denim hot pants, and high boots. This silent film shot at Max’s Kansas City showcases Mead’s unique physical talents. Imagine Chaplin playing John Gacy.
The Monster Kit (1974, 15 minutes, B&W) is a hilarious romp for at least half of its running time. Hector of the New York Athletic Club is trying to get the pot-bellied, totally misshapen Mead into some sort of fine fettle for Playgirl Magazine. As Mead moans, “I need the centerfold because my career is going down hill.” Our star, bare-assed, starts off rolling back and forth across two pushed-together mattresses before the nicely biceped Hector walks on his back.
When Hector plays it straight as the muscular instructor, the laughs come quite naturally. But when the Latino stud starts overacting, there are one too many hams on the screen.
Then there’s the onerous, anti-establishment Nixon Cambodia (1973, 38 minutes, B&W), which might be quite bearable to watch if you haven’t watched the other offerings I’ve already denoted in one sitting. If you have, though, it’s quite unbearable. Mead here plays Nixon and the once notoriously out-of-her-mind Martha Mitchell. Surrounded by laid-back folks you no doubt had to be stoned to enjoy, Mead resigns the presidency with: “I’m tossing the good life goodbye, and I’m going to step out and do the tooty-tooty and the rooty-tooty-tooty.” This is followed by a fake Timex commercial, and then the game cast all break into song.
Ulysses and the Phantom (1973, 38 minutes, B&W) is a few baby steps more entertaining than the Nixon epic. Here Mead plays an insane ghost who sniffs shoes, plays with his navel, and warns the populace about “Jujubes flying down from Mars” and taking over the world. He’s apparently haunting a house with Tinkerbelle and the brunette Susan Blond while a heterosexual couple make out on a couch. A high point is when Mead does a pull up on a ladder rung. Then the game cast all break into song. - Brandon Judell
Mr. Judell is currently teaching "The Arts in New York City," "American Jewish Theater," and "Theater of the Sixties" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire.com, The New York Daily News, Soho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.