To the Max
Edgy artist Max Schwartz brings poetry to Melbourne
By Billy Cox
Exuding a candor that is neither glib nor pretentious, the globetrotting raconteur without so much as an anthology to show for his life's work -- photos, poetry or anything else -- says he struggles with the demons of mental depression. In fact, at age 62, Max Schwartz says they have debilitated him, to the point where only Social Security income keeps him afloat.
"I don't have the power to get on top of my creations," Schwartz says by phone from Sacramento, Calif., explaining his inability to market himself. "I'm saddened by that, because they have outdistanced me by thousands of miles."
Yet, there have been audiences for his readings, big ones, from New York to Basra, from San Quentin prison to communist Yugoslavia. And through his camera lenses, Schwartz has turned the spotlight on that world, the mundane and the shocking and the splendiferous, the homeless, nobodies and icons alike, Allen Ginsberg, Miles Davis, Jerry Garcia.
Next weekend, the Up Front Gallery in downtown Melbourne is gambling that Schwartz's scarred genius will be able to deliver yet another audience for a grand opening at its new location on 532 E. New Haven Ave. Midway through Saturday's 5 to 8 p.m. reception, the man who says he "improvise(s) from the same place as John Coltrane's tenor saxophone" will read his unpublished poetry and discuss life on the road.
And at 1 p.m. Dec. 7, the Gallery will host a showing of a short experimental film Schwartz starred in -- directed by a then-unknown UCLA film student named Jim Morrison.
The show is being staged by Gallery owner Mark Ozz, who began chatting with Schwartz more than a year ago. Ozz was researching new material for a book on Morrison, the Melbourne-born songwriter/crooner who transformed The Doors into one of rock music's most innovative and unpredictable bands. For two months in the mid-1960s, before The Doors formed, Schwartz and Morrison were roommates.
Far from being an asterisk in another Morrison biography, however, Schwartz went on to establish himself as what Bill Gainer describes as "one of the mad poets of San Francisco -- definitely not one of the Beats, and not a hippie, either. I think you could say Max probably contributed to the environment that eventually led to poetry slams, and even hip-hop."
A member of the board of directors of the Nevada County (Calif.) Poetry Society, Gainer says Schwartz is motivated by a "relentless concern for humanity," and wonders if maybe this Brooklyn native has more fans in Iraq than the United States.
In the late 1980s, when dictator Saddam Hussein was waging a U.S.-supported war against Iran, Schwartz attended several international poetry festivals held in Baghdad, where his poems celebrating humanity's common dreams were translated into Arabic and received with great fanfare.
"Max can be very enchanting and very affronting. And a lot of times, he does it all at once," Gainer says. "Somebody wanted to publish a selection of his poems, and Max's answer was, 'You publish them all or none at all!' That's the reality a lot of writers like Max are coming from.
"Max is a performance artist, and performance artists tend not to be published because their material on the printed page can be tough to read. These stage guys are in a whole different world. Max is very animated, so you can expect a dynamic experience from him."
But it wasn't the stage act that impressed the Gallery's Ozz. It was the photos, taken from America's backstreets to remotest Africa. Among the most shocking is Schwartz's closeup of a Haitian shaman, a serpent slithering down his head and gliding across his open mouth.
"He puts real spirit into his work," says Ozz. "You feel as if you can step through his photography -- and his poetry -- and into right into your own experience."
WFIT-FM disc jockey Fred Migliore, whose taped interview with Schwartz will air today on 89.5 during FM Odyssey's 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. segment, had to do a crash course to prepare for their telephone encounter. The exchange was relatively brief, but an eye-opener nonetheless.
"The Jim Morrison thing reels you in, but there's so much more to (Schwartz) than that," Migliore says. "I think he's probably keyed into a higher power, like Jesus. Not in the sense of being a savior or a prophet, but in the way he improvises and shares this range of experience and builds a following through word of mouth."
Schwartz, an expansive talker who mingles freely among the street people near his residence in Sacramento, says he attempts to evoke spirituality in his work, but adds, "I threw religion out the window as a child." As with his boundary-puncturing poetry, a conversation with Schwartz reveals a fierce immersion into contradictions. "Think about it," he says. "I was born a Jew and never went to Israel. I went to Israel's enemy instead."
Schwartz will perform in Melbourne a few blocks away from Morrison's first home on Vernon Place, and just two days shy of what would've been the singer's 60th birthday. Among Schwartz's prolific writings is a poem called "Compassion," which he wrote for Mary Frances Werbelow, the girlfriend Morrison brought to California with him after leaving Florida State University.
In fact, the pacifist Schwartz says Morrison was a catalyst in "the only fight I ever had."
The two met in at UCLA in 1963 through Schwartz's girlfriend Liz, who was in Morrison's film class. Morrison introduced Liz to one of his male friends, who proceeded to move in on Liz. Eager to duke it out, Schwartz barged in on Morrison, demanded to know where his rival was, and punched out Liz's new boyfriend.
"After it was over, I went back to Jim and asked, 'Why did you give me his address?' " Schwartz recalls. "He said, 'I had no choice, Max. You were the avenging angel of death.' "
By the time Morrison asked Schwartz and Liz to participate in a 15-minute class-project film, the two were breaking up. But they consented, and the untitled cut was completed in a single afternoon. Schwartz had the film authenticated by Ray Manzarek, the Doors keyboardist who hooked up with Morrison in college. It premiered this year under the ironic title "First Love: Jim's Film," at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival.
"Jim was a walking time bomb. He wanted to shock the world," Schwartz says. "I remember him reading gruesome passages from (William S.) Burroughs' (temporarily banned novel) 'Naked Lunch' out loud. He would do these unexpected things.
"I remember once we were walking down Westwood Boulevard and he picked up this big stone and threw it through the window of a party, and we both had to run to get out of there. I said, 'Why'd you do that, man?' and he said, 'I felt like it.' But that wasn't what Jim was all about. He was also a very gentle, very loyal guy. He just had this streak."
The last time the two saw each other, Morrison was a superstar playing Fillmore East in 1968; Schwartz was a social worker in Harlem. Schwartz was in Greece on a hot summer day in 1971 when a friend's postcard caught up with him and broke the news of Morrison's demise -- most likely from a heroin overdose -- in Paris. Coming less than a year after the self-destruction of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, the revelation left Schwartz deflated.
"Jim always felt like he could do anything with impunity, that he was even beyond being touched by death," Schwartz says. "So nothing Jim did could've surprised me. But when I got the news, I went out on a long walk and wound up in this tiny white church overlooking a bay. I couldn't even feel sad, I just felt angry. I thought, this is wrong, it's not supposed to be like this."
Describing himself as "broke and poor" and "without the capacity to travel" these days, Schwartz retains a soft spot for the people of Iraq. But he says sometimes the mountain comes to Mohammed. Earlier this month, Iraqi scholars Amal Al-Khedairy and Nermin Al-Mufti -- on tour in the United States to call attention to that battered nation's humanitarian needs -- visited Sacramento. Schwartz met them with cameras loaded.
"I come out of mental depressions by fasting, and I'll stay sane for about two or three months before going back into it," he says. "So I have a very strange life. But I always try to get enough film so I can keep taking pictures, and I'm constantly writing poems and contributing in that way."
Medication would offer a way out of the cycle. But Schwartz doesn't trust it.
"I don't want a drug that will tamper with my soul," he says. "My soul and my heart give me the power of my photography. I don't want to turn into a zombie. I'm not suicidal. I never have been, because I don't blame life for my depression. Life is a gift. Life is a privilege."
If you go
What: Poetry readings by Max Schwartz Where: Up Front Gallery, 532 E. New Haven Ave., Melbourne When: 7 p.m. Saturday Admission: Free More information: 757-9890
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