S. Clay Wilson and the Wild, Weird, (Small) World

Story’s a bit tangled, but I’ll try to tell all the threads …

Started when I ran across my old copy of Leonard Gardner’s Fat City. Thought of selling it, but noticed it was a first edition and remembered how much I enjoyed both the book and the movie. Snooping online I noticed that the late George Kimball had praised it as the finest book-film combo ever done about boxing. I then remembered what a fine sports writer Kimball had been and how I just missed working at the same time he did at the Phoenix. Looking further, I discovered something I believe I had known only in the most distant sense, a long time ago: Kimball’s first published book was Only Skin Deep, a pornographic [inevitable word] romp about a wild girl from Kansas published by the Olympia Press in its US incarnation. Then I noticed the current available edition had a cover illustration by underground cartoonist S. Clay Wilson. Wha –? Then the connection became clear: Kimball and Wilson had been undergrounders in the late ’60s in Lawrence, Kansas and were both associated with the rebel publication Grist, which had fascinated me for decades, even though I have yet to see an actual copy.

The three clear winners of underground comics who changed my perceptions as the ’60s became the ’70s were Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and S. Clay Wilson. Wilson is permanently down for the count these days and you can get a mini-intro to him and his work in this place and this other place here (Kansas) and this spot as well (current situation).

So as a spin-off of all this I start to read Patrick Rosenkranz’s Pirates in the Heartland: the Mythology of S. Clay Wilson Vol. 1. I was particularly interested to see if the biography covered Wilson’s notorious foray to Missoula, Montana in 1975 where I met him and partied with him on and off for a couple days. Indeed, it did cover that time, and more about that in a moment.

The other WHOAH from Pirates in the Heartland relates to a quite obscure small comic called Pork (1974) which I happened to snag back then ’cause I collected all things Wilson. Now, much as I treasure Wilson’s work, gotta aver that he’s not much of a storyteller (though he’s literate as hell — was reading Gravity’s Rainbow in Missoula — and loves to hang around with crazy writers). He specializes in hellzapoppin’ single-panel scenes and his basic comic story simply strings a series of those scenes together. My favorite exception from those early days is “Puddocchio” in Pork, a pointed (so to speak) parody of Pinocchio in which heartless sex fiend Puddocchio’s organ grows ever-longer as he tells lies, with ultimately fatal consequences. The original intro panel included the note: “with a drop of the pants to Karin Green,” whatever that meant. I now know it meant that she came up with the story, that’s what. Turns out that not only is Karin Green the sister of Justin Green (creator of the landmark autobio-comic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary) she became Wilson’s inamorata for several years after putting together another landmark, the soundtrack for American Graffiti (which founded rock and roll “oldies” as much as Binky Brown founded autobio comics).

Anyway, Wilson was in Missoula to attend (and, really, disrupt) novelist Chuck Kinder’s wedding. I don’t remember ever meeting Kinder back then but can confirm his description of Wilson’s antics: “Basically they would hit a bar and Clay would run from one end of the bar to the other insulting people. Missoula, Montana was pretty rowdy in those days. It was just a hifalutin cowboy and Indian town and Clay fit right in.” Especially since he was snarfing “Crusader aspirins” (meth pills, named after the little cross marking on most of them) in between endless snorts of booze.

Thrilling and scary, alright. But I learned something I did not expect from the experience. I had never met rock stars back then, and Wilson was maybe the first pop-culture celeb I encountered after Hunter Thompson that I thought was a prisoner of their own persona. “S. Clay Wilson — Official Wildman.” Kinder describes the process perfectly: “As soon as he got up in the morning he was acting. It was a hard job, a hard role to be S. Clay Wilson. He was re-inventing himself; he was re-inventing a new story to inhabit every day.” The temptation to ride along or emulate was undeniable. But I decided it was a dangerous road, certain to leave lesser talents squashed flat in the middle.

The hottest whoop-de-doo days in Missoula were coming to a close. And, though nobody quite knew it at the time, in 1975 the party days for underground comix were also dwindling. Wilson was as big a star as he would be in his active career. I am, however, very glad he’s getting an almost-too-late reevaluation.