Poet, Pianist Combine Talents on 'Love Lion'
by John Aiello

Poetry is a muscular principle and it comes from the body it is the voice's athletic action on the page and in the world. - Michael McClure

Music is the purist artform. It deals only with vibrations, existing only for the moment that it's played. And then it's gone. - Ray Manzarek

MICHAEL MCCLURE arrived on the scene of American poetry in October 1955 when, at age 23, he was among the handful of poets to read at The Six Gallery, a converted auto-repair shop in San Francisco's Marina District.

That night, along with Gary Snyder, Phillip Lamantia, Phillip Whalen, Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg, McClure helped usher in the "beat movement" - the last time a group of writers joined together to share a common vision and express the sorrows of a restless generation.

Thirty-six years later, McClure is still making roads for American poets - 'this time with "Love Lion," a 70-minute performance video of his poems backed by the piano of Ray Manzarek who, with Jim Morrison, founded the rock band The Doors.

"Love Lion," issued by Mystic Fire Video in conjunction with Island Visual Arts, was recorded in May of this year at the Bottom Line rock club in Greenwich Village. Mystic Fire opened its doors in 1985 to provide an outlet for alternative videos. The company currently boasts a catalog of more than 120 cassettes, many of which confront social and cultural issues.

"Love Lion" was produced and directed by Mystic Fire president Sheldon Rochlin (with Maxine Harris). Rochlin had seen a performance by McClure and Manzarek in Canada and was struck by the passion and energy of their show. A short time later the duo agreed to let Rochlin film a performance, and "Love Lion" was born.

"With our two names up there, some people might come to a reading thinking they'll see Jim Morrison reincarnated," McClure says, "but a lot more are just as anxious to see what we sound like - to see exactly what we're doing."

The association between McClure and Manzarek dates back to the late 1960s, when The Doors were beginning to gain popularity. Although McClure initially was attracted to the dark, brooding poetics of Doors lead singer/songwriter Morrison (he eventually would help Morrison publish his first book of poems, "The Lords and the New Creatures" in 1967). the poet quickly established a bond with Manzarek, based on a mutual kinship to jazz, art and history. Their friendship has grown deeper over the years, culminating in their first performance in 1987.

The spoken-word "concerts" that "Love Lion" immortalizes are probably best defined as a union between language and sound. Although each number is rehearsed, much of the outcome is left to improvisation. "It resembles jazz," McClure says, "like what Jack Kerouac was doing with Steve Allen in the '50s; there's a lot of finesse to it. And Ray's a one-man band: Sometimes his playing sounds to me like Russian pianist Alexander Scriabin. Other times he's rock, boogiewoogie, blues, Bach."

After McClure has finished a poem, he sends a draft and a taped reading to Manzarek (still living in Los Angeles), who puts it to music, weaving a melody around the words. Manzarek says, "When I first get something in the mail from Michael I look for key words and phrases that can put me in the place where the poem lives. And then I attempt to create music from that place. What I do is a combination of jazz, classical and technical piano playing - 50 percent is planned out and the other half is pure spur-of-the-moment, wherever the mood takes me. Actually, from that standpoint, it's a very easy collaboration."

Onstage, McClure sometimes paces like a wounded cat - he looks pensive, almost shy - while Manzarek is buoyant, swaying, guided by the hooves of his piano. But when the camera retreats and catches them in a single frame, we see both men with the same mission - to meld their mediums into one so the words are no longer separate from the music, but instead, built into the rhythms and supple layers of sound.

Manzarek's playing is truly eclectic, covering everything from bop to blues. Many times on "Love Lion" you almost expect to see blood splash across the piano keys as his fingers bounce and fly, improvising in the grand tradition of Charlie "Bird" Parker, driving the audience until they're out of breath.

"There's a correlation to the ancient Greeks in what we're doing," Manzarek says. "What we're doing is ancient: a poet reading and somebody playing a lute or beating on a drum. It's someone pounding on a log while someone else recites invocations."

"Love Lion" is a simple video - no gimmicks, no hype; the visual images are secondary to the words and music. As the two melt together - the soft fibers of McClure's voice into the subtle strains of Manzarek's piano - the poems come to life. (Texts to several of the pieces are printed in "Rebel Lions," McClure's 14th book of poetry, issued by New Directions last spring).

A myriad of themes Intersect the selections that comprise the video: "Maybe Mama Lion" focuses on man's separation from his primal nature; "Czechoslovakia" is about spiritual wars that lead to conflicts between people and countries; "Rose Rain" details the splendor of love in only 16 lines; "Indian" examines man's loss of identity amid the evolution of a world turned plastic.

Throughout every number, McClure and Manzarek command a social consciousness - demanding that we become aware of our decaying world, reclaim our savage instincts and save our souls. Unlike most popular songs, the audience is forced to participate - not through physical action (dance), but with their minds.

"Poetry is the way we extend our inner lives," McClure says. "We stand on poetry - like a steppingstone in a torrent - and are more free."

First published in The San Francisco Chronicle

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