Very few people get to make their living as poets, and fewer still have their lives captured in the fiction and biographies of other writers. Beat poet Michael McClure has done both, and in the process he met many 20th century cultural icons. One of these was Jim Morrison, to whom McClure was a highly influential friend and confidante. In particular, McClure was an early fan of Jim’s poetry, and it was McClure that convinced Morrison to publish his work in print rather than only using snippets from his notebooks as Doors lyrics.
Born on October 20, 1932, McClure came to public attention at age 23 as one of the poets at the famous Six Gallery performance in 1955. This event gave the Beats national recognition, mostly because of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” which was criticized as obscene. McClure was later fictionalized in two of Jack Kerouac’s novels, The Dharma Bums (as Ike O’Shay) and Big Sur (as Pat McLear), and in this author‘s own The Last Stage.
McClure’s first book of poems, Passage (1956), was published because of his Six Gallery appearance. He has continued to publish widely, with his poems extending into other literary realms for which he has courted both acclaim and controversy. His play The Beard garnered both a celebrity following and consistent attempts by law enforcement and the political system to close down the show with nightly arrests of the actors and finally with obscenity charges. These were later dismissed and an appeal was lost.
The Beats heavily influenced the 1960s, of course, and McClure was able to move from the Beat world of the 1950s into the ’60s counterculture. He traded poems with Bob Dylan, befriended The Band, Jim Morrison, and Ray Manzarek, and collaborated with Janis Joplin on her famous song “Mercedes Benz.”
McClure first met Morrison in New York when McClure was rehearsing The Beard. The two were introduced by McClure’s agent and initially disliked each other, but upon subsequent meetings they fostered a friendship around their mutual interests in poetry and theater and a shared belief that art should be provocative. McClure later met with Morrison in London after The Doors’ first (and only) European tour to discuss Morrison appearing in a filmed version of The Beard. McClure and Morrison also wrote a screenplay of McClure’s novel The Adept.
It was then that McClure first saw Morrison’s poetry and encouraged Morrison to publish his poems in print. As McClure said in a 2011 interview:
“When Jim and I were in London, in the late 1960s, working together on a screenplay from my novel The Adept, he showed me the manuscript of his first poems, The New Creatures. It is hard to believe that there was a better poet than Jim, at his age. The manuscript was perfectly edited by his wife, Pam. I urged Jim to publish it and when he demurred because of his concern that it would be read as rock-star poetry, I persuaded him to do a private publication, and helped him distribute it.”
With McClure’s encouragement, Morrison also read “An American Prayer” for the first time at Sacramento State College on May 1, 1969, at a reading that McClure headlined. The two did additional readings to support the arts and political causes, including the legal defense of Timothy Leary and the candidacy of Norman Mailer for Mayor of New York City.
In addition to supporting Morrison’s poetry, McClure may have sparked one of the most infamous events in Doors history. In February 1969, Morrison was staying with McClure and his family in San Francisco, where the pair attended several performances by the radical theater group The Living Theater. McClure may have encouraged Morrison to attend, or maybe it was Morrison’s idea, but either way the duo loved the confrontational shows and participated enthusiastically. Morrison later attended a run of Living Theater shows in Los Angeles, and Jim’s attempt at incorporating their approach into his own act led to the pivotal Doors show at Miami.
In an odd bit of trivia, it’s McClure on the phone in “HWY” when ‘The Killer’ (Morrison) casually mentions that he killed a guy out in the desert. McClure wasn’t expecting the call but shrugged it off as one of Morrison’s strange jokes.
After Morrison died in Paris, McClure wrote and spoke about his friend on numerous occasions, reiterating his belief that Morrison was a gifted poet and recalling Morrison’s intelligence and genuine enthusiasm for the arts. In the August 5, 1971 edition of Rolling Stone magazine, he wrote:
“It’s perfectly obvious in reading [The New Creatures] that Jim already had his own style and that he was already his own person. As to his potential for growth – well, he started out so good that I don’t know how much better he could’ve gotten. He started off like a heavyweight. I liked the man, you see. My wife liked him, and we both liked Pam. We all grew very close. I liked Jim’s complexity, his brilliance. I think he was one of the finest, clearest spirits of our times. His complexity – I mean, he could be a drunken sot, a kind of Keats, a rock and roll star who was so fucking famous it was unbelievable, and his private idol could be Fritz the Cat. Of course, if you’re going to be a really fine free spirit, as Jim was, you’re going to get busted.”
McClure has contributed additional insights about Jim Morrison over the years, including an interview in Frank Lisciandro’s Friends Gathered Together and in his own essay collection Lighting the Corners.
In later years McClure worked with Ray Manzarek on various projects. He appeared in the Manzarek-directed film “Love Her Madly,” and they also recorded albums such as “Love Lion,” “The Third Mind,” and most recently “The Piano Poems,” all of which combine Manzarek’s jazzy keyboards with McClure’s evocative, spoken-word poetry.
McClure’s literary output over the decades has been substantial as well, with titles in poetry such as Jaguar Skies, Dark Brown, Rebel Lions, Huge Dreams, and Rain Mirror, plays including The Beard and Josephine the Mouse Dancer, and the novels The Adept and The Mad Cub. He’s written for television with The Maze and September Blackberries, and he’s published articles in periodicals as varied as Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle. His most recent book is the poetry collection Persian Pony, available from Ekstasis Editions.
McClure continues to be a vital and prodigious writer and performer, and because of his Doors connections The Doors Examiner has published several articles about his work with Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek. Stay tuned! But for now, you can visit McClure’s official web site.
Originally published October 20, 2013.