PRINT October 1997

Gary Indiana

I saw a lot of Jack Smith during a period when I was basically a speed freak. Speed gives you fantastic obsessive energy but also enables a junklike stasis, the ability to sit in the same place for five or ten hours listening to scratched 45s and looking at photos of Maria Montez. Jack lived in an apartment on First Avenue full of colorful garbage. He could spend hours readjusting some peripheral aspect of a pile of debris, puncturing long silences only with occasional cryptic non sequiturs about penguins or a startling piece of extremely bad nutritional advice. If one could sum up Jack’s personality in a single word, it would have to be insistent.

There was some kind of mesmerizing genius behind his obstinate eccentricity. The world he lived in had great appeal, and it also had a terrifying lack of boundaries. Within his hermetic realm Jack was utterly logical and everything he did made perfect sense. Outside that magic kingdom he was quite mad, and though his madness was essentially benign it could wear you out. How far you would let Jack take you into his world was the same sort of scary challenge that drugs presented. In those days I was always testing how far I would go with drugs, with sex, and with certain uniquely controlling figures like Jack. His friendship required complicity with his madness; the closer you got, the more complicity was demanded. I vaguely perceived from the time I met Jack that somewhere in the middle future, travel between the real world and Jack’s world would become too difficult and punishing to sustain the friendship. The first strong confirmation of this came one night when Jack physically prevented me from attending the closing of Squat Theater’s production of The Three Sisters (he’d been dropped from the cast, or quit; I’ll leave it to Jack’s historians to sort out the details) by dragging me into the park at Twenty-third Street and Madison Avenue, claiming some urgent business between us that had to be settled on the spot. I no longer remember what business that was, only that Jack literally pulled me into the park by my arm and wouldn’t let go until The Three Sisters was a thing of other people’s recollection.

A random memory: at a loft performance of a band called the Del Byzantines, which featured James Nares and Jim Jarmusch, Jack and I accompany the band onstage, masturbating the metal neck stump of a decapitated store dummy with the mannequin’s severed arms. This activity fit perfectly with the music, folding the moment into the realm of Jack’s theater, which traveled with him everywhere he went. In those days, the late ’70s, early ’80s, we were all flat broke—in the sense of Max Blagg’s poem, “When you say you have no money you mean you have no money whatsoever.” On Thanksgivings we clanned together in the little theater-loft in the back of Rafik’s film-supply shop on Broadway: Rene Ricard, Bette Gordon, Scott and Beth B, Becky Johnston, Eric Mitchell, Jarmusch, Sarah Driver, lots of people you could find any other night at the Mudd Club—and Jack, who would bring a huge aluminum tub of some homemade cranberry mush, which he’d heap on your plate with maternal imperiousness.

I think it was 1980 when Jack rehearsed the role of Inspector Bidet in my play Curse of the Dog People. We were supposed to perform it at Theater for the New City, which had given us an impossibly small auditorium. The space was just awful, and was being used on weekends by a theater group whose set consisted of garbage—real garbage like crushed take-out cups and cigarette butts, the kind of garbage that theater rehearsals generate by the ton. If our garbage got mixed up with their garbage, or we accidentally put their garbage in a trash can, there was hell to pay. At any rate, we rehearsed for several weeks with Jack, who gave wonderful line readings but often took twenty minutes or a half hour to make his entrance, and sometimes another ten minutes to deliver his line. This was terribly frustrating for the other actors, who saw themselves being co-opted into a Jack Smith performance. Midway through rehearsals, this frustration got sort of deflected from Jack onto the space, and the play. I think we were all too intimidated to consider firing Jack. Instead Cookie Mueller suggested we do “something bigger”—Dog People is a chamber piece—and right there we hit on the idea of a play about Roman Polanski, an epic stretching from his early childhood to the then-present day. Later the same night, Cookie and I stumbled upon John Heys in Danceteria and offered him the role of Polanski, assuring him that the play was already written. Still later the same night I took a big hit of crystal meth and wrote almost the whole piece in six hours.

At first, Jack liked the idea of playing Charles Manson in this new play. We thought he could perform it in a giant lobster costume. But after three rehearsals Jack announced that he liked the other play better and told me I was “ruining my talent with sensationalism.” He quit, and after that I didn’t see much of him, though I don’t think Jack demonized me the way he had so many other ex-associates like Jonas Mekas.

After Jack’s death, Ron Vawter asked me to write a one-act play to accompany a re-creation he’d developed of one of Jack’s college lectures. The two plays were spliced together as Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, a logical marriage in the sense that both were about gay men warped by their outsider status who died of AIDS. However, merging them with that slash also ensured that neither Jack nor I got our names above the titles of our own work. Ron’s picture as Jack ran with the Times review—the closest Jack ever came to the notice of the theater establishment—but neither Jack nor I received much credit for supplying the contents of the piece. I know that some of Jack’s followers were disturbed by Ron getting more attention for impersonating Jack than Jack ever got for impersonating himself, but Ron’s admiration was quite genuine, and the truth is that both Ron and Jack were brilliant performers who never got their due.

Maybe Jack’s destiny is that anachronism of the artist whose genius is only fully recognized after his death. It is a romantic notion that Jack probably would have embraced in his bittersweet way, because he was, in the end, a surrealist romantic, a figure of impermeable integrity enslaved by his visions and quite incapable of betraying them to petty commerce. What sort of recognition will Jack’s retrospective bring? Perhaps the wan recognition that most people sell out to survive and the few who don’t end up dying in obscurity, without a bean, the way Jack did. I suspect that an artist like Jack is incomprehensible to most young people today—who starves for art anymore? Still, at some juncture in the middle future, it may become apparent to people living in a culture of nonstop Mickey Mouse that money isn’t everything. If and when that time arrives, Jack Smith will come into his own.

Gary Indiana is a regular contributor to Artforum. His most recent book, Resentment, was recently published by Doubleday.