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The Beatles, The Beats & The Beard

August 31st, 2021 · 26 Comments · Kerouac and The Beats, Music

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The Rule of Three —

Comedians live by it.  Hockey players call it a hat trick.  Children learn about three blind mice, Goldilocks and the three bears, and how genies always grant three wishes.  The Constitution gave us the trio of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Christians talk of the Holy Trinity.  Confucius laid it down in “Analects” in 500 BC.  And it’s even found in early Latin texts — omne trium perfectum —  everything that comes in threes is perfect.

In preparation for fully enjoying Peter Jackson’s highly anticipated The Beatles: Get Back three night long documentary about  The Beatles’ final recording sessions set to air on Disney+ over three Thanksgiving nights — November 25, 26 & 27, 2021 — I decided to finally read the transcripts of the conversations between the band members from a rehearsal on the third day of January 1969, as printed in the The Beatles Get Back book published by Apple in 1969 and released in the original box set of the Let It Be album in the U.K. and Canada, but not in the U.S. (thanks to Rod Griffith for the backstory deets) — and imagine my jaw-dropped surprise seeing George quoting to Paul, Michael McClure’s play The Beard!

 

When I first saw the words “The Beard” I immediately thought of McClure’s (pretty obscure) play, but thought, “No way he’s talking about that.”  Then he goes on to describe the plot, the staging, and actually quotes from it!

In the 52 years this Beatles Get Back book has been in existence, I’ve never seen anybody pick up on this Beat–Beatles connection in all the hundreds of Beatle and Beat books I’ve read.

The Beard is McClure’s 90-minute one-act two-person fantasy play featuring Billy the Kid and Jean Harlow courting “in the blue velvet of eternity,” as the playwright describes it, and has some fairly graphic sexual content that prolly wouldn’t raise much of an eyebrow today, but the same hypocritical puritans who were going after Allen Ginsberg for Howl and Lenny Bruce for comedy routines figured plays like this had to be stamped out.  And their persecution of all three also led to each’s elevation, both contemporaneously and historically.

But what was perplexing was how and where George Harrison could possibly have seen the play.

There’s a detailed accounting of many of the mid-’60s productions on an Andy Warhol site here.  The Warhol people chronicle it because Andy made a film of a performance in New York that he put on in order to shoot it — but did so without the playwright’s permission.  When Andy flew to California to give some private screenings of it, McClure hated it, and hated it so much he had prominent counterculture lawyer Melvin Belli send Warhol an injunction preventing him from ever selling it or even screening it publicly.  According to IMDb, Warhol then gave the only print of the film to McClure.

But what remained a mystery was how the heck George Harrison ever saw a production?  Using a whole number of archival databases I was able to put together The Beard’s entire run up through the start of 1969 when George & Paul talk about it; then I began trying to match George’s whereabouts to the cities and dates, including using the long-established & credible Beatles Bible site.

The Beard   by Michael McClure
complete early production history

San Francisco / Bay Area:
— It was first brought to life as a staged reading at the Actor’s Workshop in San Francisco on Saturday, December 18, 1965, with Richard Bright as Billy the Kid and Billie Dixon as Jean Harlow.  The Actor’s Workshop were also the company to first stage Death of a Salesman and The Crucible on the West Coast, as well as the West Coast premieres of works by Beckett, Brecht, Jean Genet & Harold Pinter, and were basically the Western flagship for modern American theater.

— May 1966 Andy Warhol shot the film version in someone’s apartment in New York (having never seen a staging of it), starring Factory stalwarts Gerard Malanga and Mary Woronov.

— It was first staged for an audience of about 700 at the Fillmore Auditorium (where else?!) for one performance on Sunday, July 24, 1966.  They planned to do it again the next night but the police told event promoter Bill Graham if he did it again they would take away his recently acquired and much prized Dance Hall operator’s license.

As seen at the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame Grateful Dead exhibit in 2012

— It was next staged at The Committee Theater in North Beach (see rehearsal clip below) for three performances August 6–8, 1966.  The SFPD raided the place and arrested both Billie Dixon and Richard Bright.  They were initially charged with “obscenity,” then “conspiracy to commit a felony” and ultimately with “lewd or dissolute conduct in a public place.”  All charges were later thrown out — thanks to the ACLU.

— There was one performance at the Florence Schwimley Little Theatre in Berkeley on Saturday, August 20th, 1966.  That audience included more than a hundred ACLU-invited expert witnesses, including political activists, academics, writers and even members of the clergy.  Seven members of the Berkeley Police Department and the District Attorney’s office were also present.  The city of Berkeley brought their own charges of “lewd or dissolute conduct” against the play.  It became a theatrical cause célèbre and long legal struggle, until finally a judge ruled that while the play did contain material of a troublesome nature, it was not appropriate to prosecute it.  All the charges were dropped, and the subsequent appeal lost.

— Five nights at the California Hall in S.F., February 22-26, 1967, including a benefit for the ACLU on opening night.

— Three nights at the Wharf Theater in S.F., March 31 – April 2nd, 1967.

— Stanford University in Palo Alto put it on for one performance, Wednesday, April 19, 1967.

— UC Davis near Sacramento also staged one show, Thursday, May 4th, 1967.

Poster for both Stanford & UC Davis featuring Bright & Dixon

August 1st to 6th, 1967, George Harrison made his visit to Los Angeles to meet with Ravi Shankar, then made his more famous trip to San Francisco and Haight-Ashbury on August 7th, then flew back to England on the 9th.

There were one or more shows at the Encore Theater on Mason St. in S.F. on or around Sept. 1st, 1967, the day on which Billie Dixon was interviewed backstage for Pacifica Radio, which you can hear here.

— California State University, Fullerton, in Orange County L.A. staged three (unauthorized) graduate drama director productions on by on Wed. Nov. 15th, 1967 — only open to students, not the public or press — but got tons of bad press anyway, being in the most conservative part of L.A.

Yorba Linda Star, Nov. 17, 1967

 

Then the play got its big break

Barney Rosset, founder and owner of Grove Press, staged its most important production to date at a small Off-Broadway theater he’d bought at 53 East 11th St. near University Place and named it  The Evergreen Theatre (after his Evergreen Review which published Samuel Beckett, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso & scores of others).  The wild edge-dancing actor Rip Torn made his directorial debut, and it featured the two actors who had played in all of the authorized productions in California — Dixon & Bright.

Original publicity photo with Billie Dixon & Richard Bright

One other cool Beat connection:  Gerd Stern, the poet, author, painter and most importantly in reGerds to The Beard — a multimedia projection and light show creator — was enlisted to create a complete visual environment in the theater.  Gerd had been part of the avant-garde art scene around the Bay Area since 1948 and knew all the Beats including McClure, and he and his USCO group really went to town, projecting on the side walls as well as the stage, and using sound effects to enhance everything.  The only problem was, when Clive Barnes reviewed the show for the New York Times, he didn’t really get the play — “I am not at all sure how to write about it” he admits right out of the gate — and ends up saying “I enjoyed the media-mix by USCO better than the play,” which really didn’t go over so well with Michael and Rip.  🙂 

The play ran from October 24th 1967 through January 14th 1968 — a time when The Beatles were busy filming and recording Magical Mystery Tour in England in Oct. & Nov. ’67, and I couldn’t find any account of George ever flying to New York (or America) in Dec. or Jan.

Rip Torn went on to win the Obie (the Tony Award for Off-Broadway productions) for Distinguished Direction (as they call it), and Billie Dixon won the Obie for Best Actress — so she must’ve been pretty great.  Richard Bright went on to have a successful working-man’s acting career, usually playing minor roles, with 96 credits to his name including in all three Godfather movies, The Panic in Needle Park, The Getaway, Marathon Man, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (though he didn’t play Billy) with nearly 100 filmed acting credits to his name.

In the Live Every Day Like It Could Be Your Last Cuz You Could Get Hit By A Bus Tomorrow Dept.:
Bright was actually hit and tragically killed by a tourist tour bus on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2006 when he was 68.  R.I.P.

The success of the New York production led to the first L.A. run, opening on January 24th, 1968 and playing for two weeks — while George was in India and recording his debut solo album Wonderwall Music.

The L.A. run was disrupted (and made famous) by the arrest of both actors after the curtain came down at fourteen consecutive performances.  As McClure tells it — “The police would come in at the end of the play, walk backstage, arrest Jean Harlow and Billy the Kid after they’d had a standing ovation from the audience, lead them back out on stage again to the police car, and the audience gave them a second standing ovation before they went off overnight to the jail.”

Poster for the L.A. show designed by Wallace Berman

The L.A. production featured Dennis Hopper as Billy the Kid for the start of the run — until he became too belligerent with the producer and had to be replaced in a pinch by Richard Bright.  The role of Jean Harlow was played by Alexandra Hay.  Part of one of the L.A. performances (with Bright as The Kid, and Jim Morrison in the audience) can be seen in the Agnès Varda film Lions Love (… and Lies) released in 1969.

The January 1968 production in L.A., from Lions Love (… and Lies)

Although McClure & Jim Morrison first met by arrangement of McClure’s literary agent at a bar in Greenwich Village while McClure was in town for The Beard, it was during this L.A. run that they really first bonded.  Jim & Pamela came to the show, and an idea was hatched to make a film version of the play with Morrison as the Kid, but sadly that never came to fruition.

But I still hadn’t figured out how the heck George ever saw it.

He wasn’t in America when all these various productions were staged.  Warhol had given McClure the only print of the film, thus he couldn’t be privately screening it on one of his visits to England.  So how the hell is George Harrison quoting the words and describing the staging?!

Since I’d come to a dead end, I turned to a cool source I had — the Deep Beatles group on Facebook.  This ain’t a home for rookies, but rather for people deep deep deep into Beatles lore.  Literally a half-hour after I posted the inquiry, my new savior, Huw Thomas, came through with the info that a production of The Beard had been staged in London, opening November 4th, 1968!  And he even had the poster for it!

 

In July 1968, the 18th-century theater censorship laws in England were revoked  (transformational news!)  and the Royal Court Theater became one of the early pioneers of experimental and formerly-banned plays, staging The Beard just three months after the law changed.  Again with Rip Torn directing, and Bright & Dixon in the two roles, it ran for at least a couple of months.

Even with the censorship laws changed, the play was so sexually explicit (cunnilingus on stage in the climactic scene), performances didn’t start until 10:30 at night to make clear this wasn’t a family-hour production for tourists — and no one under 18 was admitted.  Records show Sir John Gielgud and Vanessa Redgrave attended the opening, as did the famous theater critic and National Theater Company Dramaturg Kenneth Tynan, who had led the charge to end the censorship of British theatre.  The evocative Mark Boyle’s Sensual Laboratory provided the music.

The Royal Court archives indicate another play started on Dec 11th, but their file for The Beard is dated through January 1969, so they may have run in repertory.  There was a large ad for The Beard in the December 13–31, 1968 issue of the International Times (the Village Voice of London).

That George is quoting the lines, and it’s so top-of-mind, indicates he must have just seen it.  Plus, he asks his London-based bandmate Paul, “Did you see that?”  There must have been a “that” for him to have seen.

Paul & Linda were known to have gone out to some events in disguise.  George and his wife, the much-photographed model Pattie Boyd, were surely one of the most recognizable couples in England in 1968.  I wonder how they pulled off things like going to the theater?

An ad for the play in the International Times
Apparently Newsweek saw the production in New York

The Beard ran in the newly opened 63-seat “black box” Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court, and not its main 465-seat proscenium arch theater.  A listing in the International Times newspaper from November 1968 has both McClure’s play and John Osborne’s landmark British play Look Back in Anger (which spawned the coining of the Angry Young Men genre) playing at the Royal Court.

A friend, Jim Pennington, actually caught The Beard at the Royal Court in ’68, and described it — “Upstairs at the Royal Court really did mean an almost claustrophobic under-the-eaves, up-in-the-gods theatre space, especially when coloured up and in with the light show.”

This upstairs theater is also where in 1973 The Rocky Horror Picture Show first appeared on a stage.

A paragraph about the play in an article titled
“Theatre of Change?” in the International Times, late Nov. 1968

A Beatle sharing a Beat with another Beatle

The printed exchange between George & Paul that has been misunderstood and misrepresented by some for 50 years is now set straight.  If it wasn’t obvious before, it perfectly clear now that George was quoting from a play and was in no way saying anything insulting to Paul.  They were just two brother artists jamming on contemporary cutting-edge art.

That’s not to say all the longtime bandmates were in perfect harmony during every minute this historic period — as seen by the world in that unfortunate momentary “Whatever it is that’ll please you, I’ll do it” exchange in the original Let It Be movie —  but in the main, as both Paul (“We were having fun and we respected each other“) and Ringo (“There was a lot of joy“) have shared in recent years, they still loved and enjoyed each other’s company during these final rehearsal and recording sessions.

George was so taken with McClure’s voice & vision, Michael became one of the poets slated to be recorded for Apple’s planned spoken-word offshoot label Zapple (headed up by Barry Miles) before it got scrapped by that ratfink of eternity Allen Klein.

THEN — I discovered a recent Beatles podcast where you can actually hear the recording of the expanded, full and unedited studio conversation between George & Paul about The Beard  (!)  —  on the excellent Winter of Discontent podcast, episode 17  (there’s that number again!) that aired August 26th, 2021.  A highly recommended listen.  😉   If you want to skip to it, you can just slide the playhead along the timeline to — 33:50.  It also includes a snippet of audio from The Beard.

Beat that!  🙂

When George says, “Trevelyan’s gone,” he’s referring to John Trevelyan, Britain’s Chief Censor during the 1960s, who was very unpopular with all artists and a wide swath of the public.  When the theatre censorship laws were lifted in July of ’68, George is name-checking that people like Trevelyan couldn’t censor plays anymore (although he could and still did movies).

And THEN — here’s an actual one-minute clip of Billie Dixon & Richard Bright rehearsing the play in February 1967 in San Francisco just before the California Hall shows, with playwright McClure on the stage with them!

 

So there ya have it! 

Another cool connection between the greatest band and the greatest band of writers!

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For tons more connections between the Beatles and the Beats — including how the name of one led to the name of the other — check out my book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac.

Or here’s where you can read How The Beats Begat The Pranksters.

And if you like the music of Bob Dylan, The Band, The Allman Brothers, The Neville Brothers, Traffic, Peter Gabriel, Joe Cocker, Sheryl Crow and like that — all with a heavy John Lennon subplot — check out Holy Cats!  Dream-catching at Woodstock about the spectacular 25th anniversary in 1994.

All those books are updated 2021 editions — and all are in both paperback and eBook form.

For another investigation into a single clue leading to a whole huge story — check out this piece about the recently uncovered (and only) photograph of Jack Kerouac writing at a typewriter.

Or here’s a rich & colorful investigation into one of the central locations in Beat history — Bill Cannastra’s loft in Chelsea.

=========================================

R.I.P.  —  Michael McClure  —  1932 – 2020

George Harrison  —  1943 – 2001

Michael McClure at Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, 2015

=========================================

by Brian Hassett

karmacoupon@gmail.com   —  BrianHassett.com

Or here’s my Facebook page if you wanna join in there —

https://www.facebook.com/Brian.Hassett.Canada

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26 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Marc Zegans // Aug 31, 2021 at 12:10 PM

    That’s some mighty fine Sleuthing, Brian. Great read!

  • 2 Simon Warner // Aug 31, 2021 at 1:29 PM

    Putting the Beats into the Fab Four one more time. Sherlock Holmes-like delving, my great Canadian mate. How could I not love this! Thanks, Brian

  • 3 Lori Peters // Aug 31, 2021 at 4:49 PM

    Fab article, Brian! Thanks for the insight!

  • 4 Spirit Mentalist // Aug 31, 2021 at 8:21 PM

    What would happen if the play was brought back to life?

  • 5 Brian // Aug 31, 2021 at 9:07 PM

    Well, it prolly could be. I’ve got Michael’s widow’s email addy. Was gonna get in touch with her this week to send this new piece. You’d make a great Jean Harlow. 🙂

  • 6 Gubba Topham // Aug 31, 2021 at 11:28 PM

    Good dogging and slogging. Nice connection. Much about that play and controversy I did not know… and a Jim Morrison connection… (almost)
    Circles in circles! Let’s tie in Ken Kesey and the bus and the Hell’s Angels. About half way through you mention George’s quick visit to SF in 67. It sprung to mind that this must have been when George met a few Hell’s Angels and invited them to visit Apple Records if they ever visited London. Angels told Kesey. Kesey (with financial help from Bill Graham) arranged to fly to London with a few Hell’ Angels and their hogs and show up at a Christmas party at Apple Records.
    This all became documented in “And Now They Know How Many Holes it Takes to Fill the Albert Hall”, first published in Rolling Stone, March 81 and eventually in “Demon Box”.

  • 7 Brian // Sep 1, 2021 at 1:14 AM

    Hey Gubba! According to the reliable well-curated Beatles Bible, George met the Angels in L.A. in Oct. & Nov. of ’68.

    https://www.beatlesbible.com/1968/12/04/george-harrison-invites-hells-angels-to-apple/

  • 8 Chris Buck // Sep 1, 2021 at 9:32 AM

    What a great read Brian! I love this stuff.
    Deep Beatles,
    Deep Beat.

  • 9 Howard Park // Sep 1, 2021 at 11:51 AM

    I remember Michael so vividly and fondly. He read with such passion and force. He was a friend of the earth way before it was cool. Michael will always be alive to me. He was so kind when we met at the Black Cat in Washington, DC.

  • 10 Fred Schrott // Sep 1, 2021 at 12:28 PM

    Hence, The “Beat”les.

  • 11 Brian // Sep 1, 2021 at 1:45 PM

    Yep.

    “It was when John’s band The Beetles backed up British Beat poet Royston Ellis in 1960 that they were prompted to change the spelling of the band’s name to reflect their mutual interest. As Royston remembers, “Since they liked the ‘Beat’ way of life, were ‘beat’ musicians, and would be backing me as a ‘Beat’ poet, I suggested to him why not spell the name with an ‘A’?””

    From . . .
    https://www.amazon.com/Hitchhikers-Guide-Jack-Kerouac-Conference/dp/0994726201/

  • 12 Howard Park // Sep 1, 2021 at 4:48 PM

    Ellis is not well known in the USA. He should be.

  • 13 Marci Sherell Zabell // Sep 1, 2021 at 9:41 PM

    Another Hassett original! Brian, you are awesome!

  • 14 Ken Morris // Sep 1, 2021 at 11:09 PM

    Really enjoyed this piebce & comments, Jester.

  • 15 Jim Pennington // Sep 5, 2021 at 2:43 PM

    Wonderful drilling down, Brian. I saw that very same Royal Court production in Sloane Square. ‘Upstairs’ at the Royal Court really did mean an almost claustrophobic under-the-eaves, up-in-the-gods theatre space which, when coloured up and in with the light show (or blob show as we called them), really did make you feel as if the play was giving you head. No small wonder it never moved onto the West End. In some ways, because the work was presented by the ‘establishment’ {and as far as I was concerned the Royal Court was the establishment} I do believe that’s why we didn’t see much of McClure after this. Anyway … the main memory I have from all the Boyle blobs and poshness of Sloane Square was that very same “pry secrets / real me” refrain that George repeats.

  • 16 Brian // Sep 5, 2021 at 4:58 PM

    Oh Wow! Spectacular! Thanks so much for the firsthand report! I will incorporate some of that into the story. 😉

  • 17 David Barrows // Sep 7, 2021 at 6:13 AM

    Very interesting. Just FYI my parents (Robert Guy Barrows and Judith Friedman Barrows) were the producers of the L.A. production of The Beard. There’s a reference on my late father’s website.
    https://robertguybarrows.com/

  • 18 Brian // Sep 7, 2021 at 8:03 AM

    Oh, fantastic! Thanks, David. I didn’t know the theater was burned. Geez! Did your parents talk about the play and the staging of it very often?

  • 19 David Barrows // Sep 7, 2021 at 4:36 PM

    It’s a long story! But yes, when I was a kid, my Dad took me to the theater. They had it staged such that Jean Harlowe would sit in the Hand of God, which was a big white hand that rotated in the middle of the stage, and I got to sit in it when my Dad took me there. My parents also got arrested every night so it wasn’t all fun and games. That went on for about 3 weeks I think. Apparently the police would turn up in force, watch the play, then arrest everybody afterwards.

  • 20 Glen Motil // Sep 7, 2021 at 8:18 PM

    Two great passions. Two great loves. Thank you for finding this connection between MM and GH.

  • 21 Matt Theado // Sep 7, 2021 at 10:18 PM

    Great stuff, Brian!

  • 22 Adrian Apollo // Sep 11, 2021 at 8:58 AM

    A topic of interest (regarding the Puritans vis-à-vis Puritan leaders)…

    https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/sexual-revolution-early-america

  • 23 Robby // Sep 11, 2021 at 4:12 PM

    the poem at the end of the KPIX clip seemed so familiar. Can anyone place it ? the name the author? is it Ginsburg?

  • 24 Brian // Sep 12, 2021 at 3:13 PM

    Hey Robby!
    I’m quite sure that is just Michael freeforming the outro, refraining lines and images he’d used in different poems, including his oft employed use of repetition.

  • 25 S.A. Griffin // Sep 13, 2021 at 10:41 PM

    You’ve certainly done your sleuthing and homework! Great job! Especially like all the flyers and the video clip. Nice!!

  • 26 Robert Burke Warren // Sep 18, 2021 at 6:07 PM

    What a fantastic trip this was. Thanks so much for all that excavating and detective work to get to the bottom of that quote, for wrangling it into an entertaining missive, and for hipping us to all of it. As fellow archivists and True Believers, H and I live for this kind of stuff, as you know. The story must be set straight, whenever possible. Especially as regards all things Beat and Beatles. And censorship and victories over same. All hail the ACLU.

    I particularly enjoyed learning more about the legendary upstairs at Royal Court Theatre. The mind reels at the thought of Rocky Horror in a cramped black box theatre. I have heard-tell that Bowie, et al, spent some time in the shadows there, “getting ideas.” (Though of course Ziggy predates RHS, so perhaps O’Brien spent some time “getting ideas” watching Bowie’s early 70s fitful rock costume dramas.)

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