In light of the fact that the guys doing my old job at The New York Times dropped the ball on this one, I suppose I must accept that I wouldn’t have gotten much more out of any obit they published than this:
Ten years ago, two old icons of a bohemia no longer relevant to any but those who either lived or glimpsed it first-hand vied for a stool at the end of the winding wooden countertop that was the bar at Max Fish. As far as the logistics of a disordered timeline may be concerned, John Farris — cantankerous, honey-skinned, sharp-tongued font of literary wisdom I once dubbed the poet laureate of the Lower East Side not long before he started to introduce himself as “god” — probably set up shop there first. But Mr Farris never begrudged Taylor Mead — equally keen of wit, though far more pale of complexion, and over a decade Farris’s senior — that seat, prized as it apparently struck both these wearied, gentle men.
I met Farris first. In the early ’80s he hosted the open mike at Life Café, before its owners transcended the darkest days of their past for the uplifting light of yoga that now irradiates every mention of their names. From there, Farris moved the series to Neither/Nor Studio Store-Beatniks From Space on 6th Street between Avenues C & C, playing pie-eyed piper to a host of scribblers orbiting the computer printout zine called Between C & D (more an indication of the substances ingested by these writers than the location of their constantly changing addresses). Around this time, I earned some of my keep at LaMama ETC, the theater on East 4th Street that saw as many dramatic luminaries hail from its wings as Neither/Nor saw writers. There, I first encountered Mr. Mead, initially unaware of his Warholian upbringing, though others were quick to make his celebrity known to me.
Fame was nothing Taylor bragged about. When prodded by others to describe life at The Factory, he would oblige with half an anecdote begun somewhere in the middle and insist you draw your own conclusions. Celebrity clearly meant more to you than it did to him, evidenced by the fact that you were the one asking him about it, not the other way round. As my own biography came to include more encounters with underground luminaries that ranged from the happenstance to the painfully intimate, Mead’s attitude regarding the famous became easy to understand. (Just tonight, an infamous pal recalled my refusal to cop cocaine for a two-time Academy Award winner I met in the back of Max Fish because I didn’t recognize him — he could just as easily have been the law.)
As for Taylor Mead, I really only came to befriend him in the last years of his public presence. A decade ago, he hosted a weekly night at the Bowery Poetry Club, a location I’ve tended to avoid for most of its incarnation. I’m told the evening was invariably an antic event, and as quick as Taylor was with his incisive hectoring, I’ve no doubt these accounts rang true. But instead of this comedic crowd, I opted for the late night quiet of the bar where I knew Mr. Farris was to be found, nursing his vodkas with tonic. For some reason, Mr. Mead began to frequent this same corner of the curvaceous bar at around the same hour, and I often found the two gentlemen engaged in all manner of vodka-and-time-fueled discussions of epic proportion and import expounded in an abundance of terms retrieved equally from the maws of guttersnipes as from the vocalalia of seraphim. Often, the discussion turned around asses — whether that of a young lady (Mr. Farris) or a young man (Mr. Mead) or either of their best-known works (Taylor Mead’s Ass, by Warhol; The Ass’s Tale, a novel by John Farris) — both of them knew that, in the end, one’s own ass is all that one has.
I loved the way these guys — older infamous queer and old Malcolm X-era inconnu — sparred and made up, and avowed their love for each other based on the solidarity derived from the ignorant youth now besieging their every “been there, done that” transgression, clueless kids dogging these studied old-timers’ shared but proud lament that they’d seen better days. A couple of happy has-beens, grateful to have been able to slog through the same tactile milieu at a time when the electricity of their interactive lives had come charging out of their own fingerprints and tongue lashings; not the slippery slump of some touchy-feely screen, but an everyday aesthetic awareness of whether or not this bag or that — from one end of the scene to the other — really grabbed you, and whatever groove proved a drag you just dropped. This is the way we can never undo. Taylor Mead is dead. Long live Taylor Mead. And Mr Farris is still around, but not at Max Fish.
It’s all one can do to stop oneself from wondering what good derived from the bohemian. With but a handful left of this quaint, obsolete type, and certain that bronze can do them no justice, one seeks in vain an appropriate epitaph, preferably inscribed in Sanskrit — if you catch my drift.
R.I.P. Taylor Mead
31 December 1924 – 8 May 2013
— Norman Douglas, 10 may 2013