A Wild History

An Interview with Mary Kerr : Video documentarian.
With S.A. Griffin in Los Angeles

S.A. Griffin is the co-editor of The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (Thunder's Mouth Press). His most recent book of poetry, Unborn Again is available from Phony Lid Books. He has received various awards for his work as an actor, poet, performer and editor. He is a Viet Nam era vet and a crash vampire living in Los Angeles

I first met Mary a few years back via the Venice Beat scene and my main man Venice Beat poet/artist Tony Scibella who, bad for me, good for him, relocated a few years ago to mile high Denver to be closer to his grandchildren and ultimately set up a studio with prolific artist/poet Steve Wilson behind the present residence of former Venice denizen and artist Michelle White. Since moving back to Colorado, he has done much to help help energize the poetry and art community in the real west of Neal Cassady's Denver where you will find to this day that the beat still goes on.

A few years back, Tony had shared with me some raw video footage that Mary had shot at Venice Beach on the roof of the L.A. Louver Gallery. Interviews with Venice Beats Tony Scibella, Frank T. Rios, John Thomas, Philomene Long and Saul White close by where the action was at The Venice West Caf» (now The Sponto Gallery). That raw footage has evolved over the past few years as Mary has put together the time and money to not only shoot her film, but to do all the post on the piece as well. It has come along very nicely. SWINGING IN THE SHADOWS is a two-part documentary - "Venice West and the L.A. Scene" and "San Francisco Groove" Ů each segment to be approximately one hour long. Her first video feature-documentary, THE BEACH, dealt primarily with the beat art world of the San Francisco North Beach area, often touching upon the symbiosis between the artists and the poets of the period. I very highly recommend everyone get their hands on a copy of this and check it out. Well worth your time.

I spoke with her on the telephone the day George Harrison passed away here in Los Angeles at Cedar Sinai Hospital. During the course of this interview, I talked with her for about two hours. She is a very warm, open person, and a hard working and dedicated filmmaker. Shortly after a "beat"epiphany one day while driving to work in Cheyenne, Wyoming, Mary, a housewife and young mother of two, split from her husband, got a quick divorce and went to San Francisco where she felt her future life was waiting for her. There she met her second husband, artist Les Kerr at The Cellar in January of 1961. The rest, as they say, is history. A wild history.

Mary: Hello?

SA: Hey Mary!

Mary: Hi S.A.

SA: (still fumbling around with the recording device) I think I finally got this damned thing figured out.

Mary: Oh really?

SA: I'm just a technological idiot, that's all there is to it.

Mary: Well, it's very complicated - there's no doubt.

SA: Yeah. I went and bought the doohickey that I needed to do this, but I think the problem was my son's boom box. There was no way to record voice on it.

Mary: Oh, right -

SA: I mean it does everything but that. So I ended up going to a friend of mine who's a sound engineer and getting his little piece from him, and then sat around here and toyed with it for the past few minutes and finally figured out that the playback has to come thru the headphones. It's all good. Anyway, we went looking for George Harrison's star on The Hollywood Walk of Fame, which we couldn't find, Žcause he passed away this morning.

Mary: I know, I heard that this morning. Yeah, he was 58.

SA: Yeah, yeah - relatively young in these times. But I guess he smoked up until a coupla years ago, quite heavily.

Mary: Yeah, it was lung cancer then it spread.

SA: Happens to the best and worst of us. You can count on it.

Mary: Happens to us all.

SA: Something to look forward to. Well, it'll relieve my depression anyway.

Mary: Hopefully later than sooner.

SA: Anyway, I guess we'll get to this thing here - I guess where we should start is maybe talking about your little epiphany where you kinda entered this whole game. I guess you didn't start out life as a young, crazy, beatnik chick or anything like that.

Mary: No way.

SA: You started out pretty straight.

Mary: Yes. I grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Led a very straight life. Then I heard rhythm and blues, and that changed my life. That was the real epiphany. I had been listening to the radio and they had like, Bill Haley and The Comets doing "Shake, Rattle & RollÓ. That was it, quite familiar to us. For some reason, I really don't know how it got on the radio, or how I heard it, but I heard Joe Turner sing, "Shake, Rattle & RollÓ. It may have been that I heard it from - I remember that these guys were Airmen, young guys in the Air Force stationed outside of Cheyenne, and they came over to a friend of mine's house, and they brought some of their records.

SA: So when was this? About '55?

Mary: Yeah. '54, '55 - I'd say '54. They brought records from maybe even '53. And they would have what they called their "race recordsÓ.

SA: Do you remember the label?

Mary: I have some of them! They left them with me because I loved them so much - and we would dance and everything. I just loved it! There were a few blacks in Cheyenne, I found a record store and you could listen to the records and they sold these. Atlantic records, most were Atlantic.

SA: That's when you got the bug, huh?

Mary: That's right. And then I'd take them, and I would play them on my record player, close the door and play Žem in my room.

SA: So you literally go the beat and heard the music.

Mary: Yeah.

SA: Wow. Now didn't you tell me you read On The Road before your big epiphany?

Mary: To tell you the truth, I don't really remember. But I knew about the beat scene in San Francisco. It was in the newspapers and the magazines. So I knew a bit. Altho I'm sure it was hyped up and everything. I got married in '55. A year later my daughter was born.

SA: You were pretty young, weren't you?

Mary: I was very young. Just 18.

SA: A sweet young thing.

Mary: We'd only known each other six weeks. It was bizarre. Impulsive. Then we moved to Brooklyn where he was from.

SA: Well, my Mom and Dad knew each other only three weeks. I was born almost exactly nine months to the day after they were married.

Mary: No kidding!

SA: Yeah. Sounds like true love, huh? So anyway, your story here -

Mary: So anyway, I ended up in Brooklyn for awhile and then we decided to come back to Cheyenne.

SA: So did you hook up with any of the beat thing in The Village there?

Mary: No. Didn't know anything about it. I kind of liked culture tho. I dragged my husband to the museums and stuff like that. It diverged a little from the interests he had. He liked to gamble. But, we came back to Cheyenne and of course there still wasn't much going on. My second child was born. Then, we decided to go our separate ways. I couldn't take the gambling thing anymore, frankly.

SA: You were into other gambles.

Mary: So I got divorced and started hanging out in some of the little clubs just to have some fun and one guy I met was a drummer. He was in a sort of little jazz, fun, dancing group. Somehow I decided at that point when that sort of broke up that I was going to go to San Francisco.

SA: But, you were going to San Francisco with a purpose, right?

Mary: My husband's step-brother was there.

SA: Didn't you tell me you were going to San Francisco because you believed you were going to meet an artist?

Mary: Well, that was the other thing. I had a job. I was supporting the kids. My mother took care of the kids (while I worked). Driving to work at 7:30 every morning - and the winter was very tough. It was at the Air Force base again. And one morning it just hit me that I was gonna go to San Francisco. And then it just flashed in my mind, "I'm gonna meet an artist."Which as I said, it truly did hit me. It seemed a very strange thing to come up with, because I knew very little about artists. Knew very little about art, and no interest in doing it myself. I wanted to be a writer.

SA: So you didn't even have any interest in filmmaking at that point.

Mary: No. I didn't even consider that. That was sort of out of the question. I did like music. And I very quickly fell into the jazz scene when I got to San Francisco in North Beach. ŽCause that was where it seemed interesting to me.

SA: Now, did you bring the kids with you when you moved to San Francisco?

Mary: Oh yeah.

SA: So now here you are, a young woman with two children in tow. Just all of a sudden this revelation hits you, you're going to San Francisco and you're gonna hook up with an artist.

Mary: I never really thought about it afterwards, all the moving. With trying to get a job, just didn't hit me till later when Les and I got married. Then it hit me, "My God, it came true!"

SA: So when you hit the North Beach scene, what year was it?

Mary: That was 1960. I came with a hundred dollars. The Coffee Gallery was opened. Good jazz was happening. And of course, The Cellar was opened. That was where I met Les in 1961.

SA: Well, The Batman Gallery was open then, right?

Mary: I saw The Batman after Les and I got married and I moved up to Fillmore St. You know, in that artist's building. It was just a block up from The Batman. And I saw Bruce Conner's show with Black Dahlia. The best place to have seen his work. The Batman didn't stay open too long. We left in '64. We were in New York from '64-'69, and came back in '69. The whole scene had changed. The artists were all kicked out while we were gone.

SA: And all the beats had grown their hair and become hippies.

Mary: Yeah.

SA: So what led you to actually start making movies?

Mary: Well, that's a kinda strange story too.

SA: Oh good. We love strange stories.

Mary: I guess everybody has a strange story.

SA: Yeah, really. I'm alive. Doesn't get much stranger than that.

Mary: We're all strange stories. Just looking back, I guess it hits me that way. So anyway, I was always interested in photography. While I was in New York, I took lessons from a really good photographer and learned how to use a 35mm. Did my own printing, black and white. That interest in taking pictures kind of transformed into the video thing. Mainly because after I came back here, black and white didn't satisfy me anymore and I didn't wanna print, because printing was too expensive; not only that, but I liked taking color photos better after coming back to California from New York City. Later, when I picked up a video camera and found out what could done with that format Ů loved using it even more.

SA: So jumping ahead, what inspired you to go into The Beach? Which is your first major project, right?

Mary: Yes. It was the first one I ever did with any seriousness.

SA: So this is your first project that dealt with anything really beat?

Mary: Yes, exactly. I started it in '93, and finished it actually by the end of '95.

SA: It's a great piece too. A very fine piece. As I had discussed with you earlier, one of the things that really impressed me about it so much was that it was primarily about the art scene in North Beach, and it's very rare that you see anything beat that deals with anything more than just that there were poets and musicians and a few artists almost on the periphery. So I thought it was really cool to see this wonderful documentary that dealt primarily with the art scene.

Mary: A lot of people had made that comment too. Of course, that was the reason I did it, because I knew the story about the poets and all that, over and over. Why would wanna do that? I thought, well, why don't I do a story about something I know. I had actually thought of doing a video in a much simpler way. What I was gonna do was get some old photographs, go and videotape the places there - I didn't have any idea more than the ghosts of North Beach. So I had been there videotaping. Then Les died and it hit me that a person doesn't have all the time in the world to do what they want to do and if you have a desire to do something, you'd better get on the ball and do it now. It happened so quickly, and it hit me awfully hard. I thought, ya know, I'm gonna expand this. I'm gonna do what I really wanna do. Tell a little bit about what I had experienced and the feeling that was there in North Beach and a little bit about whatever happened in the art scene in North Beach. It was never done before. I wanted to tell that story. I knew Jim Newman, he had the gallery there, I knew Bob Alexander had come up and help put that together. So I knew there was a story there. Writers write what they have seen written before, and often write it over and over and get it regurgitated, but you often don't get into anything new.

SA: Well writers tend to give people what they want. They write what's popular.

Mary: Well, that's true. That how they often get published.

SA: Now when you started making the film, and you started getting into it, did the gallery owners and the people and the artists, did they all take you seriously?

Mary: Yes they did. And that was what in some ways, was amazing. When I first started, a good analogy was that the emperor had no clothes, because I didn't really, know how to do it. I had never put together a documentary, almost grandiose in a way. I didn't have that background. Pretty cheeky of me to decide to do this, interviewing people like Jim Newman. He did it mostly as a favor, a favor to Les. I wasn't "professional." And I screwed the sound a little bit, and then I learned. I learned everything sort of by doing. It all worked out. I had to spend a lot of money to fix the sound. So it all worked out. I began to really love the whole process of putting this together. Ya know, it's funny, when do decide to commit to something, new connections come. It just happens. Because you're thinking about it, you're constantly concentrating and focusing. And somehow, other things that you wouldn't have dreamed, develop.

SA: It's very mythical, it's very classic, that once you set off on the adventure for the fleece, then you encounter everything else along the way.

Mary: That's right.

SA: And the story unfolds.

Mary: Exactly.

SA: The story would be pretty boring if all you did was you went and got a fleece.

Mary: Right - I learned so much. I could go on and on - how much I learned. I love hearing about Ginsberg. I love reading about Kerouac. But that wasn't what I wanted to do. It didn't seem necessary. The other story, to me, was necessary.

SA: Did the work of Conner or Brackhage have any impact on you? Did you see yourself as a beat filmmaker?

Mary: I saw the underground films, and I enjoyed them a lot. The only one that really influenced me was Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising. The reason it hit me was that I felt that he really caught an essence there of how it was to be a gay guy in this motorcycle, strange, sadist, masochistic world. I could feel it almost. I thought, that's really a powerful thing to be able to do. That's what film can do. It's almost the first music video in a way. Beautiful, beautiful shots. Absolutely wonderful. That, I was quite inspired by.

SA: Do you see yourself then as fundamentally a beat filmmaker?

Mary: No. I didn't really start doing this until the '90's.

SA: But you were a part of it all over the years. Certainly you've been impacted by your own experience.

Mary: Well, I was. Also, I knew the aesthetics. I knew most who had talked about the beat era, and they didn't always get the aesthetics right. I had gotten it first from Les and being around it. It's not so strong in The Beach, but in Swinging In The Shadows, that's the whole thing.

SA: It's very evident. One of the things I really like about Swinging In The Shadows which is a radically great departure from The Beach - actually, it's quite an ambitious project, because you're putting together a complete overview of what the hell was going on down here. What's wonderful about it is that as a filmmaker, and as a storyteller, you're reflecting the real symbiosis. Because for most of us that weren't there; that's what we feel might have happened. There were all these creative people that came together and did something. You prove that with Swinging In The Shadows.

Mary: What I've mainly concentrated on, and you'll see this as you see more of it, the Southern California Venice thing, has more from the poet's view. That conversation between the five guys, I mean, I just couldn't believe it that day.

SA: See, that was my first experience. I went over to Tony's (Scibella) one day and he goes, "Heeeyyy - this woman" and he kinda almost talked about you like you were 19. (Mary laughs very pleasantly as if she were 19) I'm not lying either. He goes, "Oh well, this woman came by and she shot some video of us. She wants to do a documentary." And so he gave it to me to take home. It was literally the first raw footage that you shot of all of them sitting around on Venice Beach talking to each other. And I looked at it and I go, "This isn't a damned documentary, what the hell is this? This is an interview." So I go, well thats cool. That's really nice. Tony's feeling good 'cause somebody's paying attention and that's fuckin' great. Then I met you and I figured out what the hell was going on. Again, the process, being what it is, it started taking form. It's been wonderful for me as kind of a, how would you say, not just an observer, but as a student of what you're doing, to see you put this together. And it's been really great because every time you'll give us something, you'll say, "Well, here's the latest version." And you almost talk about it with contempt. Like, "It's really not worth a shit, but here, just look at it." And it's been really wonderful! It started out with poets talking on the beach, and now it's Wallace Berman, it's Wally Berman going to jail, and Dean Stockwell bailing him out, the cops coming in and busting 'em. And the music - the piece opens up with Ben Perkoff's band King backing Saul White's poetry. I love that piece Saul does too. He's reading with the band and everything and it breaks off and Tony's reading over the beach thing and you've just done a wonderful job of pulling this all together. Showing how these people were all in the same place at the same time. What's really cool about your doing something about The Venice Beach scene, in terms of beat culture and folklore, it's almost like the lost ark. Something nobody ever thought even existed. You're opening up this kind of Pandora's Box of information and characters and beauty that now people can really share and understand.

Mary: I thought too as I was doing this initial interview, I didn't know any of these people. Susan Landauer gave me their names. I started contacting them, and luckily they were willing. I couldn't believe how lucky I was. I called up Charles Brittin, because I knew he had the photographs and he was just absolutely wonderful. He said come on over.

SA: Were you familiar with Charles Brittin's work back in the day?

Mary: No, not back in the day. It was later that I saw his work. I did see his work, but I didn't pay attention to who he was and the work then. Charles is a great photographer. He just got all those people at that time. He knew the artist's story. Charles Brittin knew the artists in the L.A. scene around the early Ferus Gallery and before that Ů Syndell Studio. He lived in Venice on Speedway during the time he took most of the photographs that I'm using (late 50s). Bob Alexander stayed with him there for a short period of time. Brittin didn't have the opportunity to meet many of the artists in San Francisco altho some did show at Syndell Studio and the early Ferus so he may have had a casual meeting with a couple of them. You see, I'm not covering anything later. After '66, The Ferus closed and it changed quite a bit. Became a different kind of a scene altogether. So I decided to focus on the early period when the aesthetic was really strong and they have that feeling of doing it just for the fun of doing it. Not to make money. When the money got involved, things start to change. After the publication of The Holy Barbarians by Lawrence Lipton, the tourists came and that changed the whole scene.

SA: Are you gonna touch on that at all in your film?

Mary: Yeah. In fact, Tony and Frankie mention that a coupla times.

SA: Are you gonna contact James Lipton and talk to him?

Mary: People have told me that I should.

SA: You should!

Mary: I use a lot of marvelous photographs from the Lawrence Lipton collection at USC. That's where I got photos of The Venice West Caf», The Gashouse.

SA: A lot of the people from L.A. migrated back and forth from San Francisco, right? Like Wally Berman, Stuart Perkoff and David Meltzer - a whole bunch of Žem.

Mary: Exactly, and I have brought that out several times because that was an important aspect.

SA: What do you think then, would be the defining characteristics between Venice and San Francisco? The major differences?

Mary: Well, to me, I look at it a little bit differently. I know Venice had a lot of things happening later, but there was something as far as the art world was concerned. It happened earlier in Southern California in a strange sort of way. There was stuff going on at the Art Institute, that sort of influence with the poets. That influence from Wally Berman and Stuart Perkoff. It really influenced a lot of young artists, even at UCLA where my husband was. Craig Kaufman and Ed Moses, so many guys. George Hermes. They got together in that little gallery at The Syndell Studio. Artie Richer was there. There was a connection between these guys that were going to UCLA, taking art in that kind of a context, and these guys like Wally. Which was another world. They intersected and they influenced one another. Up here (San Francisco), of course The Art Institute, they have these great teachers that came from back east. Abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still that was happening early on in the '50's. Then the artists started hanging out in North Beach. I think the difference might have been that North Beach was more impacted by eastern culture whereas Venice was more of a "homegrown" sort of a scene. And another thing that happened, and this is an interesting thing, Wally Hendrick or Hedrick, as I should say, (We always pronounced it Hendrick, I don't know why, it's spelled Hedrick), he is not by any means, much influenced by poetry. He was influenced by the car culture down in Southern California because that's where he grew up. He was also an artist influenced by a variety of sources - from individuals schooled in the best traditions and techniques to those who were entirely self-taught but had the talent to produce unique, innovative work. So he comes up to San Francisco, goes to The Art Institute, immediately starts hanging out in North Beach and sort of gets in the beat scene and he becomes a real focal point. He marries Jay de Feo. Can you imagine such an odd couple? She was going to UC Berkeley, and had this incredible art education, and all this talent. She meets Wally, who is really raw. But they meshed. And the reason was, Wally had this other quality, that influence of Von Dutch Holland and these guys who just went out there and did what they wanted to do and to hell with everybody else. And they did it in such a strange sort of way with no academic background. The creative process was so important to them that it 'took over. They didn't care about money; they didn;t care about anything.

SA: But that's indicative of the whole beat thing.

Mary: Exactly. I found that was a real fascinating part of that whole thing. A whole lot of guys were like Wally, but he was the strongest of them up here, and he came from L.A.

SA: Why do you think nobody seems to know that there was a whole separate beat movement that happened here in Southern California?

Mary: Because people didn't write about it.

SA: You think it's that simple? Because even here in L.A., people don't know about it. That's what's really fascinating.

Mary: The average, person I guess, wasn't really all that interested.

SA: I mean well, Herb Caen didn't live in L.A.

Mary: That's right. (she laughs)

SA: A much smaller movement down here, that's for sure.

Mary: And there was hardly any interest at all. Up here there was more. I think mainly, the media that they had during the period, the newspapers and those kinda things, were mostly eastern.

SA: You mentioned earlier that you thought the poets down here probably were more critical to what happened, respectively. Especially Stuart Perkoff. How do you think he really fits into all of this? He and Wally Berman were kinda the cornerstone of everything that took place.

Mary: They were very strong influences. They inspired many of the people who decided to follow the path. I think that they still have that influence.

SA: I know when I talk to Tony and Frankie and John and Philomene; and even Marsha Getzler: and I know she's been a great help to you!

Mary: Oh yes, she has.

SA: They defer to Stuart quite often. It's almost like he's still alive.

Mary: Yeah, it is. It is another thing that's in the background of Swinging In The Shadows, is the influence of those that are gone. It has been very strong with me, so I understand that kind of thing with Philomene and John and Frankie and Tony. It's hard for me to verbalize, hard for me to put into proper words! that feeling, that inspiration, the strength you get from such an incredible mind and ability to perceive becomes so strong in you, that it just lives on in you. I guess it's that connection from one generation to the next, which you hope you can keep and carry on. That to me is not just the aesthetic, but the underlying impetus to do this.

SA: Just to kind of embody that spirit somewhat?

Mary: Somehow, ya know? And I'm not expressing it very well.

SA: It's all right. I mean, the gig is your film, not talkin' to me.

(We both laugh loud and hearty)

Mary: It's certainly there!

SA: Oh it's definitely there. Especially the two people that really come out the strongest: Wallace Berman and Stuart Z. Perkoff. Not just as creative entities, but truly, as spiritual leaders.

Mary: It helps them (the surviving Venice Beats) define what they believe in.

SA: Interestingly what's starting to happen is, especially with John and Philomene, they are getting a lot of attention. A part of it probably because they are still living "the life" out there at the beach. They're vital writers, they're very talented people. Why do you think it is that so far up the road, they are finally getting some attention?

Mary: I think as time goes by, people start looking to the past. They're being discovered by people, like me and you, and even the younger people. I've been surprised by a lot of the younger people who find out about the name Jack Kerouac and want to know more. It has made a lot of the younger people feel that there was something there that happened, something important. That they've gotten so far away from whatever it was because of commercialization and such. I guess in some circles, some people have been able to rediscover it. In ancient China, they had two different names for history: One was a name that described the official history, that that was actually written up in books. Usually written after the fact by the winners. The other was called a "wild history." Those were the first hand accounts and anecdotes from the people that had actually lived it and had been a part of the history. And they were usually, quite different. Swinging In The Shadows is a wild history, a history from the horse's mouth. That's why I am doing it the way that I am. I don't want any narration; I don't want a voice coming on explaining, which most documentaries have. I feel that when you have that, you lose the "feeling," the atmosphere. You lose a sense of what it was really like.

SA: You lose the energy.

Mary: You lose the energy. You only can get that from these personalities. All that adds such a great deal. You get more of an understanding.

SA: You get the flavor of everything, as you said, the aesthetic. The single reason why I don't think there's ever been a fictional account of what happened that has been successful as a commercial film, and why On The Road will never, ever be a successful film. Ever. You can't possibly take that spirit and translate it into cinema.

Mary: There's too many different layers that come in between.

SA: That really is spirit.

Mary: Absolutely.

SA: Being liberated to feel, as opposed to think.

Mary: Yeah. Somehow, that's what got me into this. Fun. It was like you say, the energy. That's important to me anyway.

SA: Well hell yeah! Why shouldn't you have fun being alive.

Mary: Exactly. It was freedom.

SA: Yes! Thanks for talking to me Mary. I really look forward to viewing the finished product.

Mary: Hopefully, next year.