Is David Woodard's Life His Art?
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."
"Yes. It sounds like a grandiose claim, but I did it as a favor to a friend."
"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."
"I controlled the weather in 1998."
"Oh, you said 1997."
"It was 1998."
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.
"When I got back to the office, I walked around yelling that I had just seen the weirdest shit, that it took the cake. I definitely felt like we got taken. I didn't want to give him any more space in the piece than I had to."
In her 10-inch story, Manzer mentioned Woodard just once. He would fix that. On his website (www.davidwoodard.com), Woodard posted a modified version of Manzer's story. In it, the reported 25 in attendance had grown to 250. Also, a flock of five or six pelicans that "seemed to know what the beach gathering was about" appeared, as did three additional references to Woodard, which included his hope that the suspect, on the loose at the time, would not be apprehended.
He also wrote and posted the 1,600-word "Why One Conducts a Pelican Requiem With Pliers," under the pseudonym of Mohammed Farouk. In it, he made clear that his interest in the pelican incident had little to do with the plight of the bird:
"In being a feathered animal (and in this sense superseding fowl), bird also refers to maiden, girl. In OE., we have brid, i.e., bride, and in ME. Burde—young woman, lady (probably embroideress). And hence birdbolt, the arrow for shooting birds, is a not so discreet reference to the penis. It would seem Torres was intent on stripping away and permanently removing that which feminizes from the feathered animal. Torres may have felt compelled by divine fiat to memorialize an otherwise fleeting epiphany, a perfectly clear understanding of the essential truth that woman is man's natural enemy. Rather than deploy his organic birdbolt in a euphemized and hopelessly self-disarming declaration of war on the inside of a passing brid, he more grandly and resourcefully opted for the task of disarming a bird from the outside, of genuinely turning a feathered animal into a bare truth, such as himself.
"But, moreover, what implement or weapon did Torres ultimately select for his execution of the operation, and why? Whether or not Torres as Longinus simply used whatever object happened to be on his person or otherwise convenient to him at the time, his fabled pliers could not have been surpassed as a 20th Century symbol of the will to extract Truth.
"What is a pair of pliers, and what does it do? It is a pincer with which one may ply—i.e., bend, fold, twist, turn and/or layer. Like complex, explicit and perplex, ply derives from the Latin plicare. The Scandinavian plai means plight or condition. Torres, who resided on nearby Falcon St. with a parrot-voiced young daughter, was plying, making explicit, that which lay beneath the feathers, as it were. Now 33, the age of Christ at crucifiction [sic], Torres was spiraling at galvanic speed through the great sexual-electric tunnel, journeying into the light and gravely determined to unveil for all to see for all eternity the absolute essence of man's ruin, regardless of immediate legal and societal consequences."
"Yeah, I remember this guy," said Manzer, looking at her story on Woodard's Web site, having just discovered it had been tampered with. "It's so obvious he wants to be famous. As what, I have no idea."
I knew nothing of the pelican performance when the phone calls started a few months later—one year ago now. Woodard said he needed some advice on how to contact the New York Yankees. He had written a requiem for Joe DiMaggio and wanted to perform it at home plate in Yankee Stadium on opening day.
It seemed a crazy idea, not just because of the idea itself or the daunting logistics or that Woodard was all but unknown as a performer, but because DiMaggio wasn't dead. Not yet. He was dying in a Florida hospital, his status reported daily. Woodard told me he was so anxious to perform the song that he had tried to get permission to play "Farewell to the Yankee Clipper" for DiMaggio in his hospital room, lugging his pump organ in himself.
We met a few weeks later over lunch at a Coco's. It was the first time I had met him, and he was everything I'd expected: a big, open face with wide eyes, mild bordering on timid. He wore a suit that, though he was thin, was a bit too tight and far too old for him. He wore a fedora.
He was nervous and never generous with eye contact. I asked questions, and when he answered, he looked down, tapping his finger on the table. He stuttered a bit and asked for clarifications of what I thought were simple questions: What did he do for a living? Where did he live? What did he want for lunch? What was his age? This last one stopped him cold, and he smiled sheepishly. He never told me.
I directed the conversation and affected a kindly tone, speaking to him as one would an adolescent.
"It's an interesting idea, David. I don't know if it's possible. But if you really want to try, major-league baseball teams all have public-relations departments. You can get their numbers by . . ."
It was obvious that he was not a baseball fan. His interest in DiMaggio sprang from the ubiquitous mention of DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. It wasn't the streak, Woodard said, that interested him—it was the number 56. Fifty-six was significant because of the men who died at that age—Oswald Spengler, Friedrich Nietzsche—and because 1856 was the year Robert Schumann died and that Wagner began composing Tristan and Isolde, which, as we all know, signaled the death of tonal music more than 100 years before the appearance of Alanis Morissette.
He added that the year 1947 was just as significant because not only did Aleister Crowley die that year, but it was the year UFOs were sighted at Roswell and David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Hillary Clinton were born. As was Burroughs' son, "who died at the age of 33, the age that Christ was when he died."
It was about this time that I started to get tired of him and questions began to gnaw at me: Exactly who is this guy, and exactly why does he do the things he does?
Weeks later, DiMaggio was dead, and Woodard had given up on the idea of playing "Farewell" before 50,000 fans in America's most hallowed sports stadium. He abandoned that idea so that he could perform at Long Beach's Blair Field before a Long Beach State-Sacramento State baseball game that would be lucky to draw 300.
Lunch rattled on. His answers were long and considered, but they never seemed to go anywhere. More than two hours after sitting down, I still had no idea what he did. I still couldn't get a straight answer about the point of his work. As he continued to talk, I found myself wavering between being pissed and feeling sorry for him.
He said: "At the time, before Mr. DiMaggio was dead, it was much more of a pre-quiem, so it might have been strange performing in his hospital room. You know, performing death music specifically written for that person might be unsettling."
"Yes," I said. "It might." Idiot.
He said it was probably all for the best that it hadn't come off since, in the early stages of the piece, there was a portion in which a woman sang "Ave Atque Vale" (Onward valiant soldier), and Woodard had envisioned the singer dressed to look like Marilyn Monroe.
"If it had happened back then, I might not have ever made it out of the hospital. It might have been that some of Mr. DiMaggio's Italian connections would have taken care of me."
"Yes," I said. "Yes, they might have." Poor, brainy, doe-eyed bastard.
He said he had a standing offer on his website to write and sell requiems to people who were either born in the year 1947 or die at the age of 56. DiMaggio was neither, but somehow his 56-game hitting streak qualified him.
Woodard said, "If a person born in 1947 dies at the age of 56—that would be either in the year 2002 or 2003—I have a standing offer that I would write two requiems for them. This is understanding that the dying person make the arrangements or a representative of the deceased with a notarized death certificate."
This was the first time I heard him speak of money—of earning it—and I was glad to hear it. It was the first time he said something that seemed tied to the real world. The first time he said something that seemed real.
So was that how he made money? Was that his job? Requiems?
Yes and no, he said.
He made most of his money by selling the dream machines, which he really didn't want to talk about. Then he told me about them. Dream machines are devices with light bulbs inside a cone cut with various archetypal shapes. The machine flickers light at a calibrated speed and induces hallucinations in those who put their heads near it, eyes tightly shut. But he didn't want to talk about it. He then told me that the machine was invented by Brion Gysin and written about by Burroughs. But he'd rather not speak about it. And he made it clear that he could not talk about the incident "up north." I had no idea what he was talking about. He said that he hoped I would understand—that he could not comment on the dream machine's role, if any, in the shotgun suicide, a few years back, of a very famous rock star in the Pacific Northwest. At this point, I was really getting tired and didn't care much about the dream machine. I told him I'd respect his wishes.
But his talk of money gave us common ground, made me think he had at least some clue about how to survive. As tired as I was by the end of our lunch, I wanted him to survive. I liked him, and I felt sorry for him. Another in that legion of really smart guys who haven't got a clue.
I arrived early the night of his Blair Field performance. Blair has a capacity of 3,000, and fans sit close to the field. On this night, a bitterly cold March one, there would be plenty of open seats.
People straggled in as "Centerfield" and "Boys of Summer" and "Fat Bottomed Girls" played over the PA. It wasn't hard to spot Woodard. He stood out in another of Daddy's suits among the hard-bitten baseball types who not only knew enough to bring blankets but also came with their own propane-powered heaters.
He sat with me. I told him I had looked up his website and was surprised at what I found, not the least of which was an image of Woodard and Burroughs, faces aglow, standing in front of a dream machine with DAVID WOODARD, SUPREME RULER OF THE UNIVERSE flashing above in red letters.
"Oh, that's done by a 13-year-old from Virginia I've never met," he said, adding that he was considering having the whole thing changed because "it now strikes me as being overly silly."
Yeah, I said, like something a 13-year-old would come up with. He laughed.
So, I said, the 13-year-old came up with the Supreme Ruler of the Universe?
"No," he said. "That comes from a 14-year-old I have met."
I was already feeling tired again, and I began to wish that he would go away and prepare for his performance. When the time came, he excused himself and began to set up his pump organ at home plate as two field workers held the giant number 56 he had constructed out of masking tape. Woodard sat before his beaten organ with the cheesy wood veneer as the announcer went through a list of promotions and announcements, the last of which was that beer sales would end in the seventh inning.
Then he announced Woodard, "director of the Long Beach Chamber Players." It was a title and organization that in our several conversations he had never mentioned. The players in both dugouts stood at attention. The people in the stands didn't, though it got very quiet except for a hushed, "Oh, I think it's nice that they're doing this."
Let me just say that I am not the kind of person who believes things in life suddenly come together in an instant of clarity. And I can't stand cheap dramatic devices that would lead you to believe they do by having characters say, "At that moment . . ."
But, at that moment, just before Woodard's fingers hit those keys—seemingly every key at once—I realized I had been taken. The phone and restaurant conversations; the Supreme Ruler of the Universe; the website list of marches and fanfares for sale that included "God Bring Ye Thy Fire Down Upon Thy Sheep" and "To Dominate and Devour the Universe" and "Plecidic Fanfare for the Blood Empire"; the very pale people dressed in what appeared to be wizard clothes and fake beards scurrying through the aisles.
Everything that was about to happen seemed inevitable, yet I hadn't seen it coming until now. Something about him had diverted me, and now I sat here with the rest of them and listened to what was, as the Press-Telegram reporter put it, music, if you can call it that. Woodard would later describe it as "ethereal dissonance." I would say merely dissonance.
"What is this?" someone asked audibly. People began to mutter. Not wanting to seem disrespectful or unsophisticated, they had waited for a minute or two to start asking: Was this art? Was this a kind of Special Olympics thing? Should we all just be happy that this mental case made the effort?
"Is it supposed to be smoking?"
Smoke began to pour from the pump organ as if we were at a Styx concert. As the music—the sounds—went on, so did the debate among the spectators.
"Does he know what he's doing?"
"Does he know how to play?"
"I think he's warming up."
Then the music suddenly segued into something melodic and recognizable: "Take Me out to the Ball Game." There came audible sighs of recognition, but just as suddenly, there grew an audible grouse as Woodard descended back into the previous clatter. The crowd now knew that he knew how to play the organ; the pass they were willing to give the mentally deficient they were not willing to extend to some artsy type who gets his kicks messing with Middle America.
"What the hell is this?" asked one man angrily.
"When is this going to be over?" whined a child.
When it did end, there were pockets of polite applause.
"Goodness," said the woman behind me.
"I smell peppermint schnapps," said the man next to her.
Woodard came up and sat with me again. He said that he was happy with the way things had gone. The version we heard was actually shortened.
"The real piece is more than seven minutes long, but I shortened this to five minutes. Well, actually, I shortened it between five and six minutes to get the 5-6 thing—you know, 56."
Right. I was not talking much.
We sat and watched the game. I asked him if he had ever played baseball.
"I was a second baseman, and I was out at my position," he replied. "I was 8. And a player hit a ball, and it hit me in the forehead and knocked me out. The ball came right for my head. To be honest, I couldn't see it, the ball, because it was coming so fast and right at me. It was like this dot that just kept getting bigger—there was no way I could get out of the way of it. All I remember is the moment before the ball hit me and then lying on the ground, being surrounded by my teammates, many of whom were laughing uncontrollably. They were 8-year-old boys, but still it strikes me as a strange circumstance to be laughing uncontrollably. They called my parents, and my mother treated me. My mother's an anesthesiologist, and she gave me a mild anesthetic. She knew how much I didn't like needles, so she let me insert the needle. It made me feel better, but it also produced mild hallucinations. So that was my first experience with hallucinations. It was quite a surprise."
I felt like crying. I was tumbling in deep water, clueless as to which way was up. Had he told me this last story to explain why he had just done what he did? Was it just another goof? Had the performance been a goof, or was there a deeper point I was missing? And what was the frigging point? Why? Did he get off on pissing off people? Was he his own fiction? Was he even he?
Drowning, I said goodbye, walked to my car and tried not to think about it.
Popular wisdom had it that I had been duped. That David Woodard—if that was his real name—got his kicks by messing with people. Andy Warhol's name came up. So did Andy Kaufman's. A friend said Woodard was an antimodernist. Another said he was a performance artist. Another said he didn't matter.
I nodded my head and tried not to think about it. I understood now what a friend of Woodard's had meant when he said it was exhausting to be involved with him. Nothing ever just was. There were always subtexts and intrigues and hidden agendas to everything.
"Sometimes I wonder how good a friend you can be with a person like David Woodard," Woodard's friend had said.
I hadn't talked to him in quite a while, but in that time, he continued to mail, fax and e-mail me stories written about him. Stories from the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle. Stories that appeared in German, Argentine and Portuguese ("David Woodard: Supreme Ruler of Dreams") magazines. They were almost always about his dream machines. The dream machines he told me he would not talk about. He talked about them. He talked about them in a KCOP-TV news story on him and his machine that relied heavily on the Kurt Cobain angle.
I knew that those reporters hadn't found him on their own, though I was sure he made it seem that way. He had hooked them by seeming uninterested; he'd hooked them with what is his lure: appearing to despise publicity for his connection to Cobain. On his own website, one of the stories dealing with the machine was accompanied by the Cobain death scene.
When I looked deeper into his site, I found heroic references to Mussolini, Hitler, Franco and Pinochet. He described a Metro train he took every morning to his downtown LA office as containing "junglebunnies in extremis."
Now when I talked to people about him, he was no longer the loony imp—he became everything that was wrong. He was irony run amok. He was wasted talent. He was celebrity culture. He was the little boy who wears his Superman costume every day after Halloween and goes from being cute to annoying to frightening.
By the time I went to his office in LA, I hated and feared him. His friend, Paul K., seemed surprised at my anger. He said he thought Woodard was brilliant, a genius, and that his real talent lay in writing.
But why get upset? he said. You know he's using Hitler just to get attention. You're getting all upset about what the point is. C'mon, you already know the point.
On a hunch, I asked him. Do you know if Woodard's mom is an anesthesiologist?
"Anesthesiologist? I was under the impression she was a Mennonite."
I placed a call to Mrs. Virginia Woodard of Ventura.
"No, I'm not an anesthesiologist. I didn't work," she said. "David's father was a disc jockey, and then he ran a public-relations firm. Now he's retired, but he's a storyteller."
And when I hung up, I began to wonder if that woman really was his mother; Woodard had given me the number. It could have been one of his people. Not that I'd ever seen him with any people. Though I could have sworn Paul K. had been the one running around in the Merlin getup that night at Blair Field. Was Paul in on it, too? When Paul said, "You can't tell anyone I told you this about David," was Woodard on the other line, a few feet away, giving K. the thumbs up?
I went to his LA office, the one with DAVID WOODARD, COMPOSER on the door. I looked at a couple of the dream machines there, which looked like something you'd get at Spencer Gifts. I looked at his wish machine, from another Burroughs story, which claims it will do the bidding of whoever places a wish on a piece of paper in it. This was how he controlled the weather in 1998.
When I told him he was hard to believe, hard to figure out where the act ended, if it ended at all, he seemed stunned. When I asked him what was the point of all the stunts and stories, he seemed genuinely hurt.
When I called him on the story about his mother helping him inject himself on the ball field, he spontaneously told me a story about being in a horrible bike accident and then explained that the Greek root of mother . . . His use of the word "junglebunnies" had something to do with feeling threatened, outnumbered.
But they were lame explanations, and I think he knew it was indefensible. As for Pinochet and Hitler and Mussolini, he told me that names in the newspaper were just that for him. These were not real people, he said, just characters you arrange and play with to get a reaction out of people. If "Pinochet" stirred some people's pots, so much the better. He meant nothing to Woodard except utility.
We talked for almost three hours. I don't know what I expected. A wink. A grin.
I got nothing.
If he was acting, then he never broke character. As evening came and the dream machines cast longer and longer shadows, I decided I had gotten all I was going to get, and the more I got to know David Woodard, the more I realized I couldn't trust anything he said, the more I liked him.
That's where we left it when we went to dinner. We pulled into a local restaurant and ate, and he told me that he was going to tell me something he had never told any other reporter. He said that he had been so affected by Cobain's suicide because his girlfriend had committed suicide when he was just 18 and that her parents had blamed him for the death.
He left it there. I did too. I had listened, and I had looked concerned. Whether it was true or not, I had no way of knowing. I thought about calling his mother and asking her to confirm the story but then thought, what was the point? I already knew the point.
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