Let art continue to be entertaining, escapist, stunning, naturalistic and glamorous - but let it also be loaded with information worked into the vapid plots of movies, for instance. Each one would be a more or less complete exposition of one subject or another. Thus you would have Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh busily making yogurt: Humphrey Bogart struggling to introduce a basic civil rights law course into Public schools: infants being given to the old in homes for the aged by Ginger Rogers: donut shaped dwellings with sunlight pouring into central patios for all, designed by Gary Cooper. Soft clear plastic bubble cars with hooks that attach to monorails built by Charlton Heston that pass over the free paradise of abandoned objects in the center of the city near where the community movie sets would also be: and where Maria Montez and Johnny Weismuller would labour to dissolve all national boundaries and release the prisoners of Uranus. But the stairway to socialism is blocked up by the Yvonne de Carlo Tabernacle Choir waiving bloody palm branches and waiting to sing the "Hymn To The Sun" by Irving Berlin. This is the rented moment of exotic landlordism of Crab Lagoon!
For Death of a Penguin we dragged Jack's mirrored table from his kitchen to Millennium. At 5pm the script for Marisa the actress was being xeroxed. At 7pm the set was being built. Jack abandoned his normal languor for electric energy, rapidly making the projection screen, yelling we didn't know what drapery was, and placing the incense. At 8pm, with hundreds of people waiting, he decided to clean the slides. Somehow the show got started and after a short while I realized Marisa, Michael and Jack had gone beyond the script, and were improvising. As Jack said, "Some people like to rehearse. But if you think about the show, you can improvise." At one point I found the gel Jack wanted, but didn't bring it out. He later criticized me for this act, saying "It would have added to the show, and what difference would another ladder on stage have made."
About an hour and a half into the show the projectionist said, "I'm going home. I've been here a half-hour longer than I've been paid for, and who knows how long this will last. You can run the slides if you want." So I ran the projector, having no idea what slides to show. Later I passed the projector on to another of lack's friends.About two hours into the show, Jack was backstage enjoying a joint.Someone said, "But, Jack, there are people out there waiting for you.Your have to go back out." Jack said slowly, "Well, alright", and returned to the stage. The show eventually ended in a stunning ovation.
The shows were equally chaotic. At a night at Limbo Lounge when he was to receive an award, his film was projected backward. He seemed to take this in stride, calmly deciding in the darkness which one of his dog-eared records to play. He chose a Hawaiian war chant.
The performances that never occurred were also interesting. For another show at Millennium there was to be a giant brassiere hanging from the ceiling which functioned as a giant swing, and an 18th century ship's prow coming from backstage. "The most fantastic effects", Jack explained, "require the most ordinary means." Howard was going to place the money for each performance on stage, probably in piles of silver dollars. I asked Jack if he was sorry people would be disappointed that the show was cancelled after seeing the ad. He said, "Even a crumb of perfection can keep people going for weeks."
But most of all I just remember being with him. In his crowded kitchen, with glowing Christmas tree lights along the window sill, he would make exotic drinks with his blender. Dates, peanut butter, honey, lemon, it was the most fragrant food I have ever eaten. When I asked him what the drink was called, he said, "Sarong Squeezings … of the Gas Station of Outer Space?", his voice rising to a question. Later I realized that just as he made up the drink on minute, he made up the name the next. In the bathroom plastic vines cascaded from the ceiling half hiding a stuffed silver fish. If there were lights in that bathroom, I never found them. Like much of his house, the tub and lagoon in the front room appeared in his films. One exception was the tangled mass of extension cords. "I've been fighting this octopus for years," he said.
In the middle morning room was a mustard fresco of a veiled lady with a mono-breast, and writings on the wall like "Paint with furniture." I spent hours on my hands and knees staining the floor with a mixture of beet juice and cordovan shoe polish. We used our fingertips to rub the color in because Jack said the warmth would make the color go in deeper. Then the floor would be Baghdadian.
Other times we would endlessly remake lamps, using his collection of smashed-up parts. After hours of somehow fitting these parts together, he would take them apart and start all over again. Once he spoke of opening a lamp repair shop.
On our walks he would point out unusual red-brown colors in irises, and watch a swarm of bees, which had escaped from a hive, adding his own delirious description of the mating dance of the queen bee. On another occasion we walked to the Police Building, and he talked about clouds. "Clouds must always be adventurous".
Once we did a shoot outside the hospital where years later he would die. He bent himself into contorted positions asking, "Is this glamorous?" After an hour of this intense work, we realized I had misloaded his camera, and none of these shots had been recorded.
Rather than becoming angry, he went back and bought new film, and then lurched into the street to check the sunlight. Then we did it all over again.
On the first night I met him with his friend Michele, he said, "Do you know how to use a camera?" I said, "No". He said, "Good. Let's go up to the roof" and then taught me how to take pictures. "First you tweak this knob in the direction of Mecca. Then talk to the subject. Whatever you say, you must keep talking to the subject."
His phone calls were equally luxurious. He would call at 1am and talk to 3am. Just as I was bout to fall asleep, he would fire out a closing line like, "What do you expect from a country like America that is an aluminium spray paint democracy?"
Jack often praised the glories of movie palaces, European craftsmanship, and Baroque Art. And he spoke of opening the AAA, American Afflatus Association. "Do you know what afflatus is?", he would ask. 'It means divine inspiration." He liked people to be honest. "You should be more salty", he said.
But there was also a darker side. He railed at the evils of Meatcrustism, the Art Schools, and Cultural Vampires. After a half-hour speech on a street corner, he concluded by saying, "That's what vampires are like, and so are you, Charles", spun on his heels, and walked away. Deeply hurt, I was torn between protesting the injustice of his remark, and applauding the theatricality of his insult.
Jack once said, "If you make perfect art you will be admired, but if you make imperfect art you will be loved."
And he was.