Is David Woodard's Life His Art?

Or is his art his life?
Or is he just scamming us?

You perceive, now, that these are all impossible except in a dream. You perceive that they are pure and puerile insanities, the silly creations of an imagination that is not conscious of its freaks—in a word, that they are a dream. . . . The dream-marks are all present; you should have recognized them earlier.

Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger

"I controlled the weather in Los Angeles for a period of several months in 1997."

"Really?"

"Yes. It sounds like a grandiose claim, but I did it as a favor to a friend."

"Hmm."

"You may remember a period in 1997? The early part of that year? It was especially rainy and gloomy. But every Sunday was clear and pleasant. That was me."

"Hmm. Well, thanks for a nice 1997."

"Nineteen ninety-eight."

"What?"

"I controlled the weather in 1998."

"Oh, you said 1997."

"It was 1998."

"Oh."

David Woodard got my name from his friend, the artist Paul K., whom I'd written about years before. K.'s art dealt mostly with dead things, and he liked my piece in part because I did not mention that the stuffed and skeletal remains he'd arranged as statues and lamps were crammed inside his small Long Beach apartment—something of which his landlord was, and remains, unaware.

K. recommended that Woodard—whom he'd met when Woodard asked him about mummifying his cat—contact me. It was the fall of 1998, and Woodard wanted media coverage of a requiem he'd written for a murdered pelican.

Woodard would perform his "Farewell From Humankind" on the spot where a man had allegedly smothered the pelican in beach sand and used pliers to yank out its feathers. Over the next few weeks, newspaper clippings concerning the incident and the man alleged to have killed the bird—Alberto Ruiz Torres—streamed to me via mail and fax. So did information about Woodard. He described himself as a musician, a composer of fanfares and military marches—which sounded odd, like saying you were someone who worked with leeches. He said he designed dream machines, which I assumed were clock radios, and that he was a friend of William Burroughs. One correspondence contained a picture of Woodard and Burroughs dressed in circa-1930 suits, their arms around each other. Burroughs was very old and nearing death, while Woodard—wearing a fedora and a stern expression—was trying hard to hide the fact that he wasn't.

He was so affected by the pelican incident, he wrote, that he'd taken down a requiem he'd started for a cat and finished it with the pelican in mind. It all sounded very well-intentioned but a bit too precious—overwrought cat ladies and animalia-philes holding hands and blubbering about past pets and dolphins—and I passed on the invitation to attend.

A few days after the performance, the Long Beach Press-Telegram account of the affair came in the mail, courtesy David Woodard. Reporter Tracy Manzer's short piece dealt mostly with the strong emotions of local animal lovers.

"'If they would do that to an animal, what would they do to a person?' Dori Saxon asked."

It was as I expected. What I failed to read between the lines of Manzer's story—because I didn't yet know Woodard—and what I wouldn't know until a few weeks ago was that she had purposely skewed the story to minimize Woodard's role.

Manzer had certain expectations when she showed up that evening on the beach. She expected to find animal lovers, and she did. But she noticed they seemed wary, "sort of disoriented." Arranged around them was driftwood, and on the driftwood, Manzer said, were what appeared to be fetish items. In front of the composer/conductor, who wore glasses and carried pliers, was a large stuffed pelican, and around him swarmed a cadre of darkly dressed minions.

"It all had this real freaky Goth feel to it," Manzer recalls. "The kind of stuff that I thought was cool when I was 14, but these people were all knocking on 30. It was pathetic. Still, it scared the hell out of a lot of people, you know, the sane ones. They wanted to show support for the pelican, and they wanted to stay for the music, if you can call it that. It was sounds, I guess, is what you'd call it. There was sort of like singing, though not the true definition of singing. It was kind of a rambling prayer. A declaration, I guess.

"The people, the animal lovers, were stunned, deer in the headlights. I mean, they were terrified. The thing lasted about 40 minutes, and when it was over, they wandered away quickly. I've never seen so many old people move so fast over sand.

"My reaction to the whole thing at first was that it was utterly insane. But I will say that it was well-organized. There was a certain amount of intelligence that went into it; that was obvious. It was obvious that [Woodard] wanted publicity. The whole thing smacked of bullshit. You know, the song he performed he said he originally wrote for a cat because the cat had been a bird in a different life.

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