The original underground superstar

Late last week Taylor Mead — the Lower East Side legend widely heralded (by himself and others) as the original underground film star — passed away in Colorado at age 88. From the Times obituary:

Mr. Mead was the quintessential Downtown figure. He read his poems in a Bowery bar, walked as many as 80 blocks a day and fed stray cats in a cemetery, usually after midnight. His last years were consumed by a classic Gotham battle against a landlord, which ended in his agreeing to leave his tenement apartment in return for money. At his death, he had been intending to return to New York after visiting a niece in Colorado.

Fans have been quick to assume he died of a broken heart.

His final film appearance came in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). Here’s the last scene:

In 2005 he was the subject of the documentary Excavating Taylor Mead:

He read his work regular at Bowery Poetry Club, which will hold a memorial tonight, and at the Poetry Project:

Mead is perhaps best known for his work in Warhol films in the 1960s, including Taylor Mead’s Ass (1964) and Nude Restaurant (1967-68). But Taylor always protested he was a superstar before he hooked up with Andy. He had begun his acting career in the 1960 Beat classic The Flower Thief, directed by Ron Rice. Again, from the Times obit:

Warhol explained how “The Flower Thief,” which he had nothing to do with, had happened. “Taylor was in San Francisco in ’56 when the Beat poetry scene got going,” he said. “One day he stood up on a bar and, over the noise all the drunks were making, started screaming some poems he’d written. Ron Rice saw that scene and began following him around, filming him with black-and-white war surplus film stock.”

Warhol became aware of Mr. Mead from his poetry readings in New York in the late 1950s, and they met in the early 1960s. In September 1963, Mr. Mead accompanied Warhol on a cross-country trip to Los Angeles. The entourage filmed scenes for what would become, in 1964, Mr. Mead’s first film for Warhol, “Tarzan and Jane Regained … Sort Of.”

Mr. Mead played Tarzan, edited the film and handled the sound. On screen, his sarong kept falling off while climbing trees, prompting a critic to say that he really did not want to see any more two-hour films of Mr. Mead’s derrière.

Warhol wrote a letter to The Village Voice saying that after searching “the vast Warhol archives,” he could find no two-hour film of Mr. Mead’s behind. “We are rectifying this undersight,” he said, and soon made what would become a little-seen cult classic, the title describing in three words precisely what the critic did not want to see (though the coarser Anglo-Saxon term was used instead of the French).

Taylor was a couple years older than Andy. He was also older than my grandmother. But he embodied something quintessentially modern, youthful, fuck-all, and whatever it was I hope they can’t evict that. May it moon film critics and landlords alike forever.

3 responses to “The original underground superstar”

  1. Bryan says:

    Bonus round: Just shy of 15 minutes, “Taylor Mead’s Final Fifteen Minutes” was designed to be watched after he was gone.

  2. Smearcase, Mr. says:

    For some reason I’m just not captivated by him the way I am by, you know, Edie or whoever. I guess all I know of him is some stuff I’ve read and the Jarmusch clip, which I find grating. Maybe I’ll watch some of the other stuff.

    p.s. I am following 177 people on Twitter now and am followed by 76. I got retweeted by someone I don’t know, which feels like some sort of accomplishment. I like it better than I did but still am conscious of that weird dynamic where it feels like I’m trying to get people’s attention but they’re all talking to cooler kids, perhaps in large part because I follow 100 people more than follow me.

  3. Bryan says:

    I think what I like about Taylor is the way he’s always just created his own reality, in which he was a star. He certainly turned out to be more durable than a lot of Warhol stars — maybe because he always insisted he was a star before he met Andy. Plus, the idea of him holing up on the LES all these years. He’s part of a vanishing tribe of old school weirdos.

    Why worry about what cool kids are doing on Twitter? Just follow nerds. And favorite their tweets every once in a while so they’ll know you’re there.