Michael McClure and the Sixties


As a young poet Michael McClure had participated in the 1955 Six Gallery reading where Allen Ginsberg first performed Howl. In the 1960s he was active in the counterculture, forming friendships with Bob Dylan, who gave him an autoharp and encouraged him to perform; Jim Morrison of the Doors, who shared billing at a poetry reading with McClure; and the Hells Angel Freewheelin’ Frank, whose biography McClure wrote. McClure shares songwriting credit for one of Janis Joplin’s last songs, Mercedes Benz.

McClure’s 1965 play The Beard became notorious for its content and for the frequent arrests of its actors on obscenity and public lewdness charges. The play involves outlaw Billy the Kid and 1930s actress Jean Harlow and culminates with a sexual act between them. McClure envisioned the characters as opponents on a boxing poster, with a phonetic rendering of animalistic growls (which McClure called “Beast language”) replacing the text. He proceeded to have a boxing poster printer make the poster and accompanying tickets. Following raids in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, The Beard took on legendary status, playing in New York and London and becoming a favorite on college campuses.

Larry Keenan (American, 1943 – 2012)
McClure, Ginsberg, and Orlovsky, San Francisco [“reading a Zen sutra at Allen’s apartment”], 1965
gelatin silver print, signed by the three subjects
Robert A. Wilson Collection

Larry Keenan was a young art student living with his parents in 1965 when one of his professors, the poet and playwright Michael McClure, invited him to come to City Lights Books to photograph “some of his friends.” These friends turned out to be a group of renowned Beat poets along with the 24-year-old Bob Dylan, then in town and visiting Allen Ginsberg. Over the next two years Keenan photographed a wide range of Beats and young counterculture figures at close range, creating an unprecedented archive of that transitional era in San Francisco.

Michael McClure (American, 1932-2020)
Love Lion, Lioness, 1964
screen print on paper
Telegraph Press, Berkeley, California
Robert A. Wilson Collection

Frank Reynolds
Freewheelin Frank, Secretary of the Angels, 1968
Grove Press
This is the memoir of the Secretary of the San Francisco Hells Angels in the 1960s as told to Michael McClure.

Postcard announcement
“‘Freewheelin,’ McClure, Montana: Jabberwock,”
Photograph by Larry Keenan

Michael McClure
The Beard, 1965

Michael McClure
Poetry Is a Muscular Principle, 1964
Photograph by Wallace Berman. Makeup by Robert LaVigne

Michael McClure
The Beard, 1967
J. Koller, San Francisco, distributed by City Lights Books

Michael McClure
The Beard, 1967
Grove Press, New York

Five rare pieces of ephemera relating to McClure’s notorious and controversial play The Beard, including playbill, opening night ticket with “Beast language,” and flyer for Fillmore Auditorium performance
Robert A. Wilson Collection

“In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before—we had gone beyond a point of no return—and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void—to the land without poetry—to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.”

-Michael McClure, remembering the 1955 poetry reading “6 Poets at 6 Gallery”

Samuel Charters (American, 1929 – 2015)
Dorothy Hawley, illustrator
Looking for Michael McClure at the Corner of Haight and Ashbury, 1967
Portents, no. 8
limited edition offset lithograph with photo montage Samuel Charters, publisher