Bob Dylan's songwriting collaboration with Sam Shepard on his new album isn't the first time the singer has interacted with a playwright. Michael McClure, probably best known for his often-censored play "The Beard," says that Dylan set him on a musical course back in 1965.
"Allen Ginsberg introduced me to Bob," said McClure, who will be reading his poetry at McCabe's on Friday night, on a bill with local rock trio Firehose. "Bob gave Allen a tape recorder and he gave me an autoharp and told me what he thought I ought to do to play it. . . . "A Hell's Angel friend of mine and I got to be real good friends and we started playing music together, and then an electronic composer friend of mine joined us and we formed a group called Freewheelin' McClure Montana, and we actually even did a few gigs. And I wrote a bunch of songs, including that 'Mercedes Benz' song."
"That Mercedes Benz song" was popularized by another friend of McClure, Janis Joplin. That's just one more example of the the ongoing interplay between the writer and the rock culture. McClure, 53, moved to San Francisco from Seattle in 1954, and he's been a part of the city's celebrated bohemian scene from the beats through the hippies. And now he's keeping an eye on the punks.
Speaking by phone from his home in the Haight-Ashbury district, McClure said that the contact with rock was a major influence on his poetry. "It brought back a lot of rhyme that was beginning to disappear from my poetry, let the rhyme come back in fully," he said.
"And I talked to a lot of young people who were writing lyrics and showed them how to write lyrics. They didn't understand the traditional lyrics, and I was getting a lot out of what they were doing. So there was a big exchange going there.
"On the level of body, I'd never danced before I heard that music. I mean, suddenly we were going to things at the Longshoremen's Hall and the Fillmore and the Avalon and it was the Tribal Stomp and everybody out there was dressed like Billy the Kid or Wild Bill Hickock or Napoleon or Theda Bara and we were all dancing together at these big free-form dances and it was very, very good for me. I mean, I loved it."
In addition to writing his plays, poems, essays and novels, McClure read his own work at rock shows at the Fillmore and recited Chaucer at the Band's "Last Waltz" concert. He profiled Dylan in Rolling Stone and introduced him to Marshall McLuhan. And he's often described as a "role model" for the Doors' Jim Morrison.
"Yeah," McClure agreed. "I think--I don't know what role models are. In the sense that he was like a younger brother for me, yeah.
"We did a lot of things together and we had a lot of fun together and we did a lot of heavy drinking and what-not together. . . . We wrote a film script together based on a novel of mine, and he spent a lot of time here with us in San Francisco when he needed a place to hide out. A very funny play of mine is written about Jim and I one night when we took some crazy psychedelics.
"He was a very wonderful, ebullient, energetic spirit. . . . I was pretty shook when Jim died. Jim is one of my dead friends whom I miss the most.
"But I never ever thought Jim was gonna live very long. . . . I mean, Blake said 'Energy is eternal delight, and exuberance is beauty.' Here is a man who was--I hate to use self-destructive. I mean here was a man who was using himself up very rapidly and had no intention of doing anything else. It was wonderful. I mean, it doesn't bring tears to my eyes."
Unlike his colleague Ginsberg, who's collaborated with the Clash, McClure hasn't yet aligned himself with the latest counterculture. But the writer, who was interested in becoming "a naturalist or an archeologist or an anthropologist" before he settled on poetry, is an interested observer.
"I like the punks," he said. "I like who they are. I enjoy them for their self-experience. I feel a kinship. They remind me of aboriginal African people I've seen in north central Kenya.
"There's a tribe. . . . The men are like peacocks and drag queens--they're very, very macho, I don't mean they're gay, but they paint their faces bright red and they coif their hair into something that looks like a football helmet and they wear these red leather things and they walk around with their big spears.
"They're beautiful, and the best of the punks remind me of that sense of self. They're on the Grail quest of punk, whatever it may be for them. If it means that much to them it's OK with me."