I WAS A
JACK SMITH LOVE ZOMBIE
1970, I was fifteen and hitched to Eugene, Oregon to visit Captain
Beefheart and the Magic band at their secret practice location.
I was deep into ‘Trout Mask Replica’ and ‘Strictly Personal’,
and wanted to document this amazing artist by making a short
film as they prepared; ‘Lick My Decals Off, Baby’. My parents
were on a vacation and I could return undetected in a few weeks.
Early morning outside Eugene, camped on the highway, the thought
occurred that the Magic band could live without a young film-nut
invading their privacy. I then headed down to Santa Rosa, California
where some high school friends had begun a commune in the hills.
The police picked me up 5 minutes from my destination as I sat
by the roadside eating an apple. I was dumped into a prison
camp for high-risk runaways and delinquents. My birthday passed
in a solitary cell being spit at through a small sliding window
by a gang of grease-balls. With no way to locate my parents,
a few weeks that summer was spent in the lockup. My grandmother
was finally reached and I was escorted to my airline seat with
a one-way ticket home care of the Santa Rosa police.
I made 8mm movies in jr. high school— short films, collages
and animations that became increasingly surreal with my exposure
to modern art and music. I studied film via books and articles,
infatuated with the works of Andy Warhol, Ken Jacobs, Robert
Frank, Harry Smith, Ron Rice and Jack Smith; school of the New
York underground. Film was a teenage sanctuary, a space between
dreams and reality, a direct escape from suburbia. Attracted
into this world, I surrounded myself with the beatitude of what
Jonas Mekas (or ‘Uncle Fishhook’, as JS called him) coined the
Jack became the center of my film cosmos… portraits of him and
his actor friends were glued to my walls like teen idols. In
the Detroit Public Library I'd devour every issue of Film
Culture, the bible of the scene. Jack’s words and essays
were the perfect approximation of his films, which I had never
experienced. I only imagined what they were like. I always thought
the mylar-chamber photographs by Ira Cohen in Avant-Garde.
were stills from his fantastic movie sets.
Smith obsession led to a high school correspondence. I sent
mash letters and collages decorated with heavy gobs of glitter
and glass rhinestones.. I discussed films and my childhood fascination
with lobsters. I asked a lot of dumb questions.
The letters intrigued Jack. At last, he invited me to visit
and wrote, “I am very glad to be idolized and to have your film
“Elmo the Geek” dedicated to me. At risk of threatening this
idolization I must say I believe an artist should pull his ideas
out of himself- otherwise how can he change the world which
is in the mess it is in because of a collection of other people’s
bad ideas? Also because I’m trying to write a lobster script
myself (have been working on it for the past 5 yrs) I know the
lobster started the wars in Indo-China, but who is the Lobster?
Anyway I wish you best luck and would be delighted to see you
if you ever come to BIG APPLE….” later I made the trip and temporarily
shelved my plans for a lobster film.
I turned up at 235 E. 2nd Street one afternoon after a long
hitchhike from a commune in Washington DC. It was early summer
in 1973. Jack wasn’t at home so I waited by his door. Around
dinnertime he lumbered up the long stretch of stairs with a
friend. I introduced myself and Jack remembered the letters.
He took some out of a drawer, waving them under the light to
His apartment was a dark maze of clutter, trash and objects
piled to the ceiling. There was little room to move. It was
a hot day. “OY, I feel like I’m completely covered in CLAM JUICE,”
he would often repeat. The door had an arsenal of locks and
dead bolts running down its edge. A small black and white television
was tuned to a grainy Puerto-Rican station. A bare light bulb
hung down which he screwed in its socket to turn on. A disco-ball
scattered points of light. The refrigerator contained tons of
35mm slide film and a bottle of beer. I think he was loading
his own film cartridges. The bathtub was a sort of clothes closet/sofa
seat. The water in the bathroom wasn’t working. Colored light
bulbs were in the lamps. The kitchen sink served as an impromptu
toilet. A hash-pipe suddenly helped transform the overcrowded
apartment into a blurry fantasyland.
Cockroaches appeared everywhere—and Jack would go looking for
a club or can of poison aerosol… “O what if GOD is a cockroach?”
he chanted as he bashed away at the scattered bugs. He always
seemed to miss. “O GOD, O GOD, WHAT AM I DOING? IF I KILL GOD,
I’M GOING TO BURN IN HELL! THIS COCKROACH OVER HERE, THIS COULD
BE GOD! YOU COULD BE GOD!” He’d be screaming at the cockroach,
spraying and clubbing everywhere—it was ridiculous and fascinating.
He told me he wanted to marry a Chinese fat lady at the circus—someone
who weighed over 300 pounds, and could lift him over her head
with one arm. I thought she really existed, maybe it was someone
he knew from Coney Island....
a call and made arrangements for dinner. Almost every night
was spent in the company of an arty loft party filled with
intellectuals and wealthy bohemian patrons, honored to have
Jack as their special ‘celebrity guest’ for the night-- a sort
of sideshow entertainment. Susan Sontag’s nine-year-old review
of FLAMING CREATURES would inevitably be brought up.
“O the HORROR of it,” Jack would say, hanging his head
After entertaining our hosts, we’d go trash picking through
the streets- and end up in Chinatown, a favorite area for the
best in exotic garbage. Past midnight we’d leaf through cans
and bags in front of closed restaurants in search of some unusual
item or mystery package. He loved the designs and calligraphy
on the empty cans and wrappers. “Where is that can? Where is
IT?” he’d say. I think there was a kind of decorated food canister
he was searching for. Something he's seen in the past. He’d
lecture in a slow deadpan drawl, “Anarchism is really the perfect
government, its uh just that people don’t know uh what it really
means. Do you know? It just means uh NO GOVERNMENT at all.
Do you know that uh the true FLAG of anarchism is a completely
black flag.” I’d forget what we were looking for—but there was
something mysterious and exciting about the search. It seemed
epic and bigger than life, stranded on the edge of this set
of garbage, sleep-waking in a lagoon of bizarre remains. Life
always seemed more amazing around Jack Smith. The most boring,
mundane rituals were magnified and transformed—made elongated,
extreme, and beautiful.
Usually he’d announce what prop we needed to find; a barstool,
lampshade, wheelbarrow, screwdriver, or some other object. It
became a kind of mystical scavenger hunt to locate the item.
We’d always find this stuff and haul it back to the apartment
before dawn, usually abandoning it before he’d lug it up the
stairs. I’m not sure to what purpose this all held— but it felt
important, a necessary lesson in our throwaway society. I assumed
we might be collecting items for a film or photography project.
Maybe it was just a matter of moving something from one point
to the other or his way of touring the city.
Jack would dig out photos, albums and old news clippings stashed
in a large black chest. He showed me articles and old letters
he wrote in the Village Voice—a review he did about John Waters—he
felt his own comedic work was terribly misunderstood, but Waters
had gotten it right. He railed against the great “bull-dyke
conspiracy”. '"The lesbians are trying to control the world."
He showed me a copy of his own BEAUTIFUL BOOK—a collection
of film stills and portraits hand-tipped to the pages. It was
a beautiful thing to hold, the first real glimpse into his vision.
I would spend the next twenty years searching for a copy. Then
amazingly, in 1991 in a gesture of great generosity, Billy Name
mailed me his duplicate copy, kept safe for years inside a trunk
Warhol had stored for him.
Jack had yards of Kodak carousel slide boxes piled on a high
shelf. On a desk table was a deserted work area (maybe an editing
room) stacked high with teetering large metal film canisters.
He must’ve had a few original motion pictures there along with
his own works. We looked through carousel trays filled with
color slides, carefully passing each slide loaded into a small
handheld viewer. They were color images from film sets, others
formed parts of slide shows. He explained how expensive and
time consuming the films were (he never could finish them to
his liking) —slide shows were easy, portable, edited and changed
quickly. It was hard to imagine what these shows were like;
did he narrate along? I now had a new appreciation for my parents
long and boring slide show travelogues.
Jack would constantly re-arrange and decorate. It was a tight
dark space crowded floor to ceiling. Strands of silver tinsel
danced over a fan—it seemed like a windowless apartment, fabrics
draped over panes facing an alley and piles of boxes. He would
move in a fluid, comical languid ballet. He had a jar of ornate
costume jewelry pins and rings. Pillows were strewn on the floor
and mattress. The apartment took the appearance of an Arabian
Music was always playing on a small hi-fi turntable. Jack loved
MARTIN DENNY lounge exotica, and considered him the greatest
bandleader of all time. He admired the cover photography and
you could see the attraction. I soon came to also love Denny
and searched out his albums. We discussed Yma Sumac and her
albums. Jack’s turntable had a special feature, which could
repeat over and over a specific track. He would drag his hand
on the record to slow down the music, a technique used in his
films, and one I would also borrow. Jack showed me a curved
“jewel encrusted” Islamic dagger, a “scimitar” – it looked like
a cheap movie prop. He held up an early publicity photograph
taken with the scimitar to compare poses. “THIS IS A SCIMITAR.
A rare blade… The scimitar is curved and uh covered in uh very
expensive, rare and precious jewels, how do I look?” he’d say.
That photo still was clearly one of his favorites.
Blue and red lights and a bowl of hash helped transform the
space into a magical garden. A large fan hummed and blew colored
tinsel into motion… the apartment seemed like a desert tent,
billowing, sparkling, floating in space. Jack dug up old masks,
hand-made costumes with sequins and beads. Precious thrift store
finds. The apartment was a multi-layered mirage, a lower east-side
island, a collage that moved like a floating “Sunset Boulevard”.
He talked about his landlords and renting, bad teeth and failures.
I was awed and overwhelmed by the beauty of his vision in a
vivid summer's dream.
It was midsummer and the nights would get unbearably hot. Sometimes
we’d sleep out on top of the building—a sort of beautiful black
empty ‘tar beach’ where you could watch the city in quiet splendor.
We talked about favorite Hollywood films and actors; Marlene
Dietrich, Veronica Lake, Maria Montez, VON STROHEIM,
VON STERNBERG, monster films, anything about other worlds.
His paranoia would leak out whenever we’d talk about Warhol;
“that guy took everything out of me, EVERYTHING, he squeezed
me dry, his face was a death mask.” Jack claimed Warhol got
his first bolex movie camera from him, and stole his stable
of stars. He was the great genius vampire swindler. Beneath
his contempt he had an odd respect for Warhol-- for making success
on his own terms. I think he felt a film collaboration with
Warhol was a possibility... "if only he would listen."
I may have read somewhere that Warhol declared FLAMING CREATURES
his favorite all-time film . Warhol’s own first film was of
Jack Smith directing and making the film NORMAL LOVE—
he was a constant fixture on the set. Warhol would later
use MARIO MONTEZ and carbon-copy a similar stable of
‘superstar’ actors. Smith starred in a few early Warhol productions
that have sadly been unavailable, perhaps it was payback for
stealing his actors and methods. Warhol has always silent about
these missing reels. I never could confirm Jack’s claim about
Not long after I arrived Jack set up an exhibition of my films
at the MILLENIUM FILM SOCIETY—a co-op art-film space not far
from where he lived. We walked to the screening room through
blocks of parked motorcycles. The neighborhood was tough and
Jack wore a sort of modified turban/scarf, which made him look
like a tall, thin Arab pirate. I carried my films and tape recorder
in a paper bag. Jack instructed me to always walk with a paper
bag in your hand—then you’d be left alone, "no one will
bother you because they won't know what's inside the paper bag,
it will make you invisible."
We arrived at Millennium and he introduced me to a group of
students, filmmakers and a few street people. It was a small
audience but most of the seats were filled. They gave their
complete respect and attention. I brought ELMO THE GEEK and
SILVER COFFINS FROM VENUS —both films shot in my parents basement
during high school. When the lights went out, problems began.
Film footage unraveled, music went out of sync. It was a total
mess. Every time the lights went up, I’d re-splice film and
rewind the recorder. Jack would jump up telling stories; jokes,
fairytales, anything. The audience loved it. I thought it was
a disaster, my film sadly entangled on floor. In Jack’s mind
every film was a live performance, a moment for chance to take
His friends commented how unusual it was for Jack to trust anybody
(especially a complete stranger). It seemed he rarely had overnight
guests. I sensed the paranoia around him, but it was not unjustified.
His ideas came along and knocked you out—his imagination was
overflowing. He was one of the funniest and most dead-on perceptive
people I’ve ever met. His slogans and sayings were surprising,
but you'd keep hearing them long after he spoke. He complained
about his teeth endlessly. “Artists aren’t allowed to have teeth.
They just can’t AFFORD them.” He added magic to everyday life,
but was sadly beaten down, by himself and others.
At the apartment, I spent hours painting a few square feet of
wall space. Jack gave out detailed instructions on painting
his wall a certain blue color— in a certain pattern. He gave
me a tiny dime-store watercolor brush. You had to hold this
tiny brush just so. “Take your time, slowly, paint must go on
softly, and slowly, slowly, don’t drip, don’t put too much on
the brush …the wall must look like a creamy, blue sky, Spring
clouds… virgin clouds.” Hand scrawled notes, phone numbers and
drawings dotted the walls. He explained the wall was going to
be a backdrop and I could earn my keep by painting the wall.
After a couple days of over painting Jack told me to stop—“MY
GOD, What are you doing? It’s a terrible mess, A DISASTER! YOU
DON’T KNOW HOW TO PAINT! You’ve ruined my wall…you will never
understand how to paint he said. My set- painting days were
done. I think his small explosion was a way of telling me it
was time to leave. I had ruined his wall, and could not undo
Soon I was on my way to Buffalo, New York, to show films and
meet Stan Vanderbeek. I took a ride with some of Jack’s actor
friends. We talked about his films and the strange costumes
he put together. I decided to stop off in Binghamton, to visit
Ken Jacobs, a man who worked with Jack in the late fifties.
He wasn’t there but I left a note hoping he’d take a look at
my films sometime. I soon received a letter from Jacobs. It
began, “Dear Nut, I don’t know who you are and Jack Smith is
no friend of mine…whatever gave you the idea that I would be
here with time on my hands…”
visit was only two or three weeks but would leave an indelible
mark. The next couple years, I worked on films and set constructions
at a steady pace. I felt inclined to check out film schools,
but knew the futility of any school after the "Smith experience"--
college seemed weak and ineffectual. Moving to Ann Arbor in
1974, I began a midnight film and theater group --some of our
sketches were a reconstructed version of Smith’s “End of Civilization”
performances. My aesthetic was greatly influenced by my summer
in New York.
I built apocalyptic heaven and hell sets with day-glow paint
and chicken-wire and papier maché constructed monster and insect
masks based on mask-making techniques Jack had showed me. Large
painted backdrops, street signs, demolished shopping carts and
half-torn billboards accented the destruction decor. I’d mix
Martin Denny, Yma Sumac, classical music, folk and rock. Flyers
for these late-night happenings were handed out around town.
Shows began about midnight. I had a small group of actor friends,
many who enjoyed transgender makeup and dressing up. We would
spend hours doing makeup. It was the height of the glam rock
period. There were also elements Audience members would often
be recruited. Many of the shows were filmed and sometimes film
was projected over the theater piece. Some of this work appears
in the collection of films Grow Live Monsters.
Destroy All Monsters was formed late that summer, when
Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw visited space on Hill Street. They
were both art students at University of Michigan. Some of their
own theater happenings were documented in their Futuristic
Ballet performance – a small section appears in the video
Clear Day. Our collaboration and performances would include
many of the elements and tactics favored by Smith. Things always
broke apart or were violently shut down. As DAM we arranged
an atmosphere of industrial waste and florid psychedelic exotica.
There was a darkness and intensity evident in DAM but still
Smith's influence reached deep and still resounds. He was one
of the most original beings in life.
Recently I had a vivid dream directed by Jack. It took place
in an amazing set inside an outrageously large loft-- Jack was
filming various actors and creatures lounging and contorting
under fabrics and pillows, some dressed in middle-eastern costumes,
others looked like cast-offs from a horror film set. Jack was
filming the scene from on top a hill of pillows. He handed me
a beautiful hand-made mask-- it seemed like his death mask,
painted red and perfectly round. He asked me for fifty dollars,
which I gave it to him. I thought I had bought the mask, but
he took it away and rolled it like a bowling ball into a pile
of junk which covered a large battery operated toy car--we walked
over to the car and he put in dozens of batteries we got in
the miniature car and drove around the loft. “this is where
i live now,” he said. it was a large New York loft. I looked
down and noticed I was wearing army fatigues. How could you
let me in wearing this?-- "you’re a prisoner of war here,
all the living are prisoners", jack said. We drove to one
room where wealthy art collectors rummaged through trunks of
his stuff waving checks in their hands. Where’s the art dealer
we can buy this from? they asked. Jack doesn’t deal with dealers
I said. They tore up their checks and left.
LOVE by Jack Smith
LAST DAYS AND MOMENTS OF JACK SMITH by Penny Arcade