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The Underground Surrealist Chronicles

(or) The History Of The Fire Of Prometheus

©1990 by Mick Cusimano

It was the best of times. It was the best of times. It never occurred to me that I would ever move to Boston, the land of beans. I had been manager of a title company in Buffalo, N.Y. with two lady lawyers working for me, anticipating marrying the girl next door. My future seemed set. But my company left town and the girl ran off with a married guy. Hopping around the country, from Rochester, N.Y. to Houston, Texas, I ended up in Boston in 1984 by a flip of a coin. A real estate appraisal company put me up in a Cape Cod hotel for the winter. It was like working in a ghost town. On weekends I headed up to Boston to visit museums and movies. With nothing with me during the week but a sketch pad and a book about surrealism I drew some off-the-wall cartoons to kill time. Little did I know where it would lead me. One Saturday I noticed, in the Boston Phoenix, a poetry reading in Boston at the Honey Lounge (now the Pour House). It was run by a group called Mamaís Dada. I stopped in to see what was going on. A little old man with long silver hair took to the floor. He jumped up and recited outrageous visionary poetry, dancing around like a mad dervish. "A cockatoo of rare design perched on an awning over a bazaar....daylight mourners in the sun hotel.....dance on a bathtubís broken rim....flower trumpets sing oblivion grass to an empty sky......" The words didnít make any logical sense but the impressions of a powerful authentic vision were unmistakable. The poetís name was Billy Barnum. I was hooked! Something was going on here. I mentioned how great he was to a fellow standing next to me who said his name was Danzr Von Thai. He asked me if I were a poet. I told him that no I was a cartoonist and showed him a drawing called "Screwhead." He thought it was great and invited me to join him and the other fellow with him for Chinese dinner. First I saw a mad gray-haired sage. Now I was having Chinese dinner with two poets with southern accents. Could it get more surreal than this? Danzr said he was in town to promote the poetry career of the person next to him. I asked him this person's name. He replied R.U. Outavit. "No, I am quite fine," I said, asking him his name again. "R.U. Outavit" he kept repeating. Where these two guys pulling my leg?, I thought. "R.U. Outavit" he repeated. That was his name. "Oh! Now I get it. This guy is a poet and his name is R.U. Outavit." For a second I considered how fast it would take me to escape out the door. R.U. had moved to town because he read that Boston had the only all poetry bookstore in America. This, he claimed, was his first trip to the deep North. When he came to town he found the poetry bookstore. At the moment of his arrival they shut the door in his face and closed up for the weekend. Nearly penniless, he struggled around for a few weeks. He had an upcoming poetry reading and nothing else was more important to him. We drove around for a while and got lost trying to find some address. We exchanged life stories and they asked me if I would draw a cartoon poster for R.U.ís next reading. I agreed, not having much else to do for the next five days in Cape Cod. The following weekend I returned with a poster that starts out with "Look Again" to interest people in taking a second look at the world of poetry. I dropped it off and returned to Boston the next night. When I walked into the room in their rooming house I was not prepared for what I saw. There were boxes and shopping bags filled with thousands of copies of my poster. Ten thousand copies according to R.U. Evidently he worked at night at a place that afforded him unlimited Xeroxing capabilities. It was unreal, maybe a bit surreal. Now what to do with them all? We decided to ride the subways distributing them until they were all gone. And so we did for hours on end giving posters out to every subway passenger who would accept them. The next week I did a new poster for another reading. Again we distributed thousands of copies on the subways every Friday and Saturday night. Since we didn't know anyone else in Boston this was our only social life. Pretty pathetic in a way. Some people start at the bottom. We started 30 feet under the sidewalk in those underground conduits of mass motation. This routine went on every weekend for months and we called ourselves the Underground Surrealists.

One thing lead to another. We all began performing poetry. Joined by Billy Barnum and a woman named Kasara we took to the streets and did a poetry and comedy performance show called " Fire of Prometheus" We performed in Harvard Square and were an immediate flop.

This was the golden age of the television fried yuppies and the last thing they wanted anything to do with was poetry. We did gather a small following eventually, were adopted by Street Magazine for their events later and even did 17 half hour T.V. shows for Brookline Cable. Things were not always easy. R.U. got kicked out of the Blacksmith House poetry reading in Cambridge for cracking a 12-foot bullwhip on stage. The lady who ran the venue freaked out and called the cops and R.U. was thrown out into a snow bank. Undaunted, we came up above ground and plastered our posters on construction sites in Cambridge rather than on the subways. Java- Jel, a guitarist, joined us for a while, as did a poet, David, who dropped out of medical school, and also Becky Bang the Janis Joplin of poetry.

One poet who came around was also a classical guitar player. It is assumed that in America that everyone wants to be wealthy and successful, but that is not always the case with poets. There are many people who live in poverty through no fault of their own. But some people like being poor. They get a euphoric kick from being down and out begging for scraps of bread or sympathy. When I mentioned the possibility of making some money passing the hat the guitar player glared at me, simmering to a boil. When I made the mistake of mentioning that dirty word success, he really snapped like a rubber band and went for my throat. For some poets their goal in life is not to be famous, not to be published, not even to write poetry. I didn't believe it until I saw it up close, but for some poets the driving ambition in their life is to lose at all costs. Heaven help the person who stands in the way of their failure.

Every year we celebrated R.U. Outavit Day. This was a holiday, humbly created by its namesake, to celebrate surviving another 365 days without a nuclear holocaust. In 1985 we invited many musicians and poets to an all day show on the Boston Common. We found one woman performing next to us in a Harvard Square doorway and invited her. Tracy Chapman was her name and she did several songs to a polite crowd. Following her was a lanky young lad from England dressed from head to toe in red. His name was Manhar and he said he usually drank tea this time of day. He did a poem called, "Sex." "Sex in London, sex in Boston. Sex on a bicycle, sex in a car, sex, sex, sex, wherever you are." He was an instant hit, stealing the show. He soon assembled some British musicians and formed a band called Beyond Frank. They all dressed in red pajamas and were followers of the Oregon-based guru, the Bagwan Shree Rajneesh. Unlike traditional religions which emphasized denial and suffering, their religion encouraged lots of sex as being healthy for the spirit. Not surprisingly there were no shortage of young willing devotees to this Far Eastern avatar who owned 60 Rolls Royces.

About that time I had moved into town into the same boarding house as R.U. and Danzr. It was a three story house in Brookline and we lived on the top floor. Getting to the third floor, however, one had to travail an obstacle course of pure dementia. On the first floor a brain-damaged old man appointed himself doorkeeper. He erupted into violent (sometimes physical) attacks on anyone coming in the front door. If you survived him you made it to the second floor where you were greeted by an exhibitionist who paraded around the house with his multi-colored bikini underwear. Another woman would run out of her room in orgiastic excitement any time a fire engine drove by. Her eyes would dilate and she would get all excited. "A fire, a fire. Where is the fire?" she asked, drooling in anticipation.

If you survived to make it to the third floor there was just one more obstacle to contend with before getting to the poet's den. Sonny, a burned out hippie, and Bathsheba his girlfriend, lived in the corner room. Sonny was mellow, but his girlfriend Bathsheba was another matter. She usually screamed and attacked anyone that got near her with beer cans until she passed out. R.U., Kasara, and Danzr shared one room with their Doberman dog Panzr. I had my own room. There was one change coming on that floor. One of the downstairs tenants was moving out. He was a young ex-Marine. He came up and told us to shut our doors because there was bound to be some noise. Suddenly we heard a karate yell and the splintering of the door of the divinity student's room in the corner. This guy ripped the door off and destroyed everything he could in the room. Then he apologized and walked out the front door never to return. The divinity student came home, freaked out and moved out the next day. At that time Egg-Al and Karen who were planning to start Street Magazine moved into this abandoned room. The stage was set. The third floor became a hotbed of madness and creativity. Poets like Rea Grey, David Schuster, and Raffy Woolf came over at all hours of the night and day to read their work. But here were no normal people in the house. Danzr, Egg , and all of us fought and argued constantly. The constant rubbing together of divergent personalities in close quarters coupled with the aforementioned inhabitants of the house created an epidemic. Not an epidemic of the flu or cholera but rampant unchecked insanity. Out of this cauldron came a surprising amount of creativity. Danzr, R.U., myself and Kasara wrote tons of poetry. Egg-Al put together the first issue of Street Magazine: The Iconoclast. I did many more cartoon posters which we distributed in Harvard Square.

During that period I was unemployed. One night I stayed up until 5:00 a.m. drawing a surreal cartoon poster. The next night I was up until 2:00 but could not get to sleep, so I stayed up until dawn again. I didnít even try to sleep any more. I just drew every waking hour until I passed out. I kept this up for 30 days straight creating my most surreal work. All I did in my waking hours was draw nonstop, with a brief dash down the street to T-Anthonys to get a cheeseburger. I felt like I was plugged into a wall socket of pure energy for a whole month. I could not stop drawing, nor did I want to. It was like being in a surreal cartoon dream . Never before or since in my life had I ever done anything so frenzied for such a sustained period of time. Picasso had his Blue Period. This was my Cheeseburger Period.

Soon, we were all evicted from the house by the new owners. For a time we became real live Underground Surrealists. We spent a week living on the subways. We rode the subways all day and rendezvoused every night at T-Anthony's Restaurant. One of our friends let us sleep at night on one of the Green Line cars. The throngs of early morning commuters heading to work on the trains were our alarm clock. We wrote lots of poetry and Egg-Al even assembled parts of Street Magazine on the trains, which accounts for some of the raw look of the first edition. This underground life soon lost much of its romantic appeal and we got apartments in real houses without crazed doormen or deranged passengers.

A fellow named Buddah saw theFire of Prometheus at R.U. Outavit Day and offered to be the managager for the fire. and Manharís band, Beyond Frank. He got us a gig at Usen Castle at Brandeis University and we did a show there highlighted by Billy Barnum doing Poeís Raven. In 1985 Egg Al got Street Magazine going putting out as many as 20,000 copies each issue. Besides being an outlet for artists and writers it was a voice for the underclass. There were articles about the emerging homeless issue, shelters, and social concerns. Street expanded to its own storefront on Essex Street in Central Square, Cambridge. It served as a magazine office, a coffeehouse, and a meeting place for the Small Press Alliance: a group of 15 small press publishers who pooled their efforts to promote struggling magazines. This is where Underground Surrealist Magazine was born.

Once upon a time Street Magazine got an eviction notice to vacate their building. They were being thrown out so the building could be demolished on April Fool's Day. On top of that indignity the landlord refused to refund their security deposit. The Egg would not take this lying down. Scrambling into action, Egg distributed hundreds of posters to every punk rocker he could find in Cambridge. The poster read, "Street Magazineís Eve of Destruction Party." Join us on the eve of April Fools Day in a building slated for demolition by a wrecking ball....Free beer!" The party started out with the early arrival of Small Press Alliance members. They were berating Tom Bellicose, then editor of Street about an article he had changed. Tom later gave up Street and is now a reporter for the Washington Post. People sprayed graffiti all over the walls "Eve of Destruction" "Let's lynch the landlord now!" and such things. One crazed cartoonist, Sloth Friendburg, drew a picture of a tenant shooting the man with the eviction notice in the head. With four kegs of beer and the arrival of 600 punk rockers the Eve of Destruction really was at hand. The kids kicked holes in the wall, tore off doors, and generally ripped the building to smithereens. The cops showed up, dodging chairs and bottles flying from the second floor. As they stormed in, Egg nonchalantly whistled a happy tune and waltzed out the front door. The infamous night went down in history along with the house.

Soon afterwards, as part of the Small Press Alliance, I started up Underground Surrealist Magazine as a forum for unknown cartoonists from the U.S., Finland, and even the Ukraine. The Small Press Alliance broke up when one drunken writer punched an editor and bit another in a drunken frenzy. Some of the publishers belonged to a group known as the Church of the Subgenius. They invited us to their annual convention known as the Boston Bobalon. Their goal was slack. Their deity Bob is a drawing of a guy with a crewcut, smiling, smoking a pipe from 50ís era advertisements. Ranters from all over America came to spout incomprehensible evangelistic type rhetoric. The disciples applauded enthusiastically and knowingly chanted "Praise Bob!" Behind them was a giant poster with Bobís grinning face and a 40-foot pipe hanging from the ceiling. The M.C., Dr. Ahmed Fishmonger, shaved his head and wore a fez and handlebar mustache especially for this important event. People lined up to be served what looked like Jim Jones style kool-aid out of trash cans. Bob never showed up despite the many faithful calling his name, but it was definitely an unforgettable event, especially for those who would like to forget it. Out of this whirlpool of activity came The Desolate Angel and Naked City Coffeehouses, but that is a story for another time. R.U. & Kasara moved to New Hampshire in 1991. Billy still performs in Boston. Mick performs in Boston with The Zone poets. Becky Bang moved to the swamps of Florida. 1984 was a hell of a year.

  • Fire of Prometheus

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