By Neal Pollack
Thax Douglas was going to sign a contract for his first book of poetry, and he envisioned a spectacular celebration. The signing, he decided, would occur on the night of July 3, during the city’s Independence Day fireworks show. It would happen at the Signature Lounge, on the 96th floor of the Hancock Building.
“It’s a spot of glamour,” Thax said. “I thought it would be appropriate.”
On the afternoon of the signing, I called Thax and asked where I should meet his party. From his response it was apparent that his best-laid plans were going awry.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I hope someone has reserved a table. Because there are fireworks it might be kind of crowded.”
I arrived at the Hancock around 8 PM. Thax showed up about an hour later, accompanied by four friends and his publisher, Ralph Syverson. The fireworks were to begin soon, and all the seats in the Signature Lounge that overlooked the water had long been filled. Further, there was a line of nearly 75 people waiting to occupy any floor space that might accommodate a view.
Thax and his friends took a table in an empty room that beheld the vast vista of the west side. Thax introduced Syverson to everyone and passed around a rough draft of his book, Tragic Faggot Syndrome. The title refers to the many publicly gay artists whose lives ended in some sort of histrionic tragedy–Oscar Wilde, Yukio Mishima, Robert Mapplethorpe, Mikhail Kuzmin. It is meant to be taken ironically. Thax doesn’t consider his being gay especially tragic, or even that important.
“In high school there were these two guys,” he says. “They had sort of like blow-dried Beatles haircuts, big plastic hoop earrings, platform shoes with a lot of cork in them. They would blow kisses at me and wave and stuff like that. They thought it was hilarious. They wrote in my yearbook, ‘Thax, it’s nice to know a faggot of your caliber.’ I had no idea what a faggot was. I said, ‘What’s a faggot?’ They didn’t say anything. It wasn’t until years later that I realized they were gay.”
Tragic Faggot Syndrome was completed in 1996. Thax’s publisher was supposed to be the poet Daniel X. O’Neill, who asked him for $3,000 up front to cover costs. But Thax didn’t have the money, and he says he wouldn’t have given it to O’Neill if he had.
Thax met Ralph Syverson through their mutual friends Brett and Rennie Sparks, who play music together as the Handsome Family. Syverson makes his own marionettes and performs with them around town; his most recent gig was a marionette version of the first scene from Barbarella. He’s never published a book before, but he says he’s starting an imprint called MOC, which stands for Mail Order Catalog. He originally intended for his company to sell independent books, small-label music, and art over the Internet, but he became so involved in Thax’s project that he has yet to create MOC’s Web site.
This March Syverson told Thax that he’d be interested in publishing the book, and Thax believed he was serious. “He’s not the kind of person to bring something up and not do it,” Thax says.
“I thought the book would be a big seller,” Syverson says. “Thax is pretty popular around town.”
At the Signature Lounge, Thax’s friends ordered drinks they couldn’t afford.
“I was going to bring a huge novelty pencil so Thax could sign with that, but it didn’t work out,” Syverson said.
“Maybe we should pass the contract around and have everyone sign it, like the Declaration of Independence,” said Thax.
Thax said he’d once been in Cincinnati during the world’s largest fireworks show. The fireworks had gone on and on like multiple orgasms and the show was so good it was almost frightening.
When the fireworks started everyone went into the other room to watch, leaving the contract in Syverson’s bag, unsigned.
Thax is a familiar sight at every rock club, performance art venue, and poetry dive in town. People always refer to him by his first name.
“Thax? Everybody knows Thax,” says everybody who knows Thax.
Thax is unmistakable in a crowd, yet so easygoing that he often blends in anyway. He usually stands with his shoulders hunched forward as though he’s perched waiting for something interesting to occur. Thick eyeglasses cover half his face. In the winter, Thax is usually seen in wild, multicolored sweaters. He often wears a thrift-store baseball cap bearing some random slogan. He’s 41 and has lost a good deal of his hair. He grows a beard when he feels like looking older and shaves it off when he feels like looking younger.
One friend says of his speaking style, “He sounds just like Droopy.” Another friend says, “It’s sort of like if you combined Eeyore and Ed Sullivan, but on a happy day.”
Thax goes out nearly every night. A typical evening may involve an early movie at the Music Box or Facets, a poetry reading at a coffeehouse or barroom, and a rock show at the Empty Bottle or, preferably, Lounge Ax, where he gets in free. Thax prefers to attend entire bills of music, as he often finds opening bands more interesting than headline acts and also likes to chat with musicians when they finish their sets. Thax sometimes seems omnipresent.
One Saturday afternoon in the spring of 1998, Thax appeared in the studios of Northwestern’s WNUR radio, where the Handsome Family were scheduled to perform live on Airplay, a weekly showcase for local acts. The hosts thought Thax was a new member of the band, but in fact he’d just shown up to watch. Later, host Eric St. Clair discovered Thax’s identity and vaguely recognized his name from somewhere. He had some airtime to kill, so he asked Thax to the microphone.
St. Clair: “You’re someone who I’ve heard about, long before I knew what you did.”
Thax: “Thanks. I’m very funny and witty.”
“Why don’t you explain who you are and what you do.”
“I don’t do anything. I just do shows.”
“What’s the overriding theme or idea behind these shows? Who plays at them?”
“Usually a bunch of bands or spoken-word artists. Every now and then there’s something else.”
“Fix your mike so you’re talking into it.”
“It feels like a cigar.”
At this point St. Clair’s frustration shone through.
“If you sound like you don’t give a [bleeped] about it,” he told Thax, “the audience won’t either. So with a little bit of enthusiasm, explain the idea behind your shows.”
Thax couldn’t. The interview deteriorated further. St. Clair told himself he would never put Thax on the air again.
A few weeks later, Thax called Airplay during the show and read his poetry over the phone. Now he regularly calls the station in the morning to find out who’s on the show in the afternoon. If it’s a band he likes he comes over to hear them, particularly if they’re his friends. Sometimes he reads a poem as well. Several times he’s read for a half hour or more, and his involvement with the show continues to deepen.
“He’s hooked us up with a half dozen bands or so,” St. Clair says. “Most of them were pretty good. In some cases they were people we were planning to invite on anyway. In other cases they were people he had introduced us to. It’s unclear if it’s a truly symbiotic relationship, if he’s doing us a favor, or if we’re doing him a favor. With Thax you never know. It’s probably none of the above.”
In 1989 Thax decided to host a show. This was to be held at Club Lower Links, the legendary performance art space in Lakeview now shuttered. The show was to be about baseball, for reasons obscured by time.
“You have to understand that this was the 80s,” Thax says. “I got interested in the idea that sports was the only truly socially acceptable aesthetic outlet. Things are a lot different now.”
He called it the “Ultimate Sports Show,” and it was a success so he had another one. “The first couple of nights were really crowded because people thought it was going to be a show about sports,” Thax says. “As soon as they found out it wasn’t, they stopped coming.”
John Connors was in the first “Ultimate Sports Show,” where he sang a song about Ebbets Field. At the time he’d just begun to develop his act, which was both a parody of and homage to lounge crooning. Connors’s first encounter with Thax was uncomfortable; for a time he went to Lower Links every week to see the band Maestro Subgum and the Whole, and before the show there was a poetry open mike. One week Thax read “Masturbation Video,” a poem with a character in it who expresses satisfaction that his ex-lover has died of AIDS. Connors mistook the piece for autobiography. “I thought, ‘Who is this nutcase?'” he says.
Thax and Connors soon became fast friends. Connors suggested to Thax that the name “Ultimate Sports Show” wasn’t working. Connors suggested “Thax After Dark,” as a tribute to the 70s TV program Playboy After Dark.
The first “Thax After Dark” played at Lower Links in September of 1991. The general aura of a Thax show had by now developed, through a combination of Thax’s lack of talent for self-promotion and his deep love for the truly bad. His shows could draw a dozen audience members, or even fewer. The acts were often lousy beyond belief.
“Those shows were notorious,” says Connors. “Thax did a number of shows that were endless. He had no clue when to tell people to get off the stage. I remember someone did 40 minutes of a performance piece that somehow blended the life of Malcolm Forbes with I Dream of Jeannie by using an overhead projector. The show was packed, and by the end of the piece there was just a riot. I left at a quarter to one in the morning, but it went on until like 2:30.”
Thax ran the last show ever at Club Lower Links, on January 31, 1993. It was a tribute to Franz Schubert’s birthday, and he closed it with a gay porn film while Schubert’s First Piano Trio played in the background. “Thax After Dark” subsequently shifted venues to Lounge Ax. “I sort of snuck in by saying that I was going to do a show of rock people doing spoken word,” Thax says. “It was a little bit dishonest because there was only one person like that in the show.”
“Thax After Dark” continues at Lounge Ax once a month or more often or less, depending on whether the club has an unbooked night on its schedule and whether the owners feel like handing it over to Thax. He has hosted a number of musical acts that later became somewhat famous, such as the Aluminum Group and Pulsars, along with performance artists like Paula Killen and poets like Lisa Buscani. He has sponsored specialty nights dedicated to flute music and Native American drumming and shows dedicated entirely to Allen Ginsberg and Rod McKuen. Twice a year he hosts an all-bass night.
Says Julia Adams, co-owner of Lounge Ax: “When Thax first started out he was doing more poetry, which I found interesting, fun, and different, and we were hoping that more people would also find it interesting, fun, and different. For reasons I don’t understand, it gradually turned into a rock show. I like “Thax After Dark,” because it’s not what we normally do here. But it never became as popular as we wanted it to be. I don’t know why.”
Thax gladly admits that he puts on “Thax After Dark” for his own pleasure. “Early on in my shows, I was kind of an asshole,” he says. “When people reacted to performers in the show in a way that I didn’t like, I would get really angry at them, because I liked the performers and that was all that was important. There are all kinds of people who come up to me and say, ‘You’re really great. You encourage me when no one else ever does.'”
Those inspired by Thax include poets, performance artists, rock musicians, and any number of other people who otherwise wouldn’t have had an opportunity to perform. Says his friend Greg Gillam, a poet, “Thax’s world is a world of artists who are not necessarily doing it just for art’s sake. But the fact is they don’t do the marketing, they don’t publish, either because they don’t believe in publishing or they don’t know how or they never get around to it. They’re getting up and reading poetry, they’re doing performance art. It’s an expression, but the first reason they’re doing it is to have fun, meet people, and hang out with people who also read. They’re doing it for Thax and for the scene. Even though some of the people have great delusions of grandeur and really want to be famous, it’s much more important to have fun. There are these groups that come and go that are full of really good art. You see some stuff that’s really terrible, and some stuff that’s wonderful, and you think, ‘Why isn’t this in a collection anywhere?’ Thax is at the center of all that.”
According to Thax’s friend Weasel Walter, a founder of the experimental rock group the Flying Luttenbachers and a musician in many ephemeral projects around town, “Thax is a connoisseur of the obscure and the unlikable, which is a martyrlike position. He’s a champion of the unloved, the unappreciated, and the unwanted. He has sponsored some of the worst bands of all time. The demand for these bands is so low that they’re self-annihilating, or their concept is so tight that they can be disposed of in two weeks. There was one band called Chicago Sound, which was sort of like Half Japanese mixed with Foreigner. They didn’t last long.”
Many people believe Thax is from Canada, which is false. This rumor stems from a prank he pulled in September 1993, when he told people he’d won the Winnipeg lottery while visiting his parents.
“Winnipeg is midwestern, so it has this familiar aspect,” he says. “But it’s in Canada, so it also has this exotic aspect. I could just have easily said Shangri-la. It’s not like anyone was going to check.”
The prank went as follows: With his Winnipeg lottery winnings, Thax had decided to start his own CD label, called Lottery Records. He held a three-night showcase at the Czar Bar for the numerous bands he’d already “signed.” Greg Gillam played a lawyer who was prepared to hand out big-label contracts to the highest bidder. “I feel I deserve compensation for building these bands’ careers,” Thax said at the time. “It’s sad to see them go but it’s the nature of the game.” When the bands “sold out,” a gesture that was prewritten into the evening, they glued their contracts to the wall of the bar. Of the ten bands Thax featured in the show, Pistolwhipped and the Handsome Family are the only ones still in existence. Other acts, like Chugwater, Swollen Spleens, and Larry Cash Jr., are faded memories, like the prank itself.
But for some reason the Winnipeg label stuck to Thax. He finally visited the city in 1996. “I just went there and hung out. Unfortunately, it was 30 below zero, so I didn’t do much. I just went to a few bookstores. Went to a rock show. I like Winnipeg a lot. I’d go there again,” he says.
Thax actually was born on the south side, but he grew up in Woodridge, a suburb near Downers Grove. His full name is Thaxter Elliott Douglas III; Thaxter and Elliott were the names of two rich relatives. “In those days you did that a lot,” he says. As a kid he was known as Ted; a grandfather he never knew had called himself Thax, which prompted Thax to change his name later on.
Thax has no brothers or sisters, and as a child he was very sad and lonely. His father is a retired draftsman who tried for years to tell Thax that he “designed things.” But Thax didn’t think so. “My parents were pretty shadowy about the past,” he says. “One story they told me was that they both worked for the CIA and that’s how they met.”
His mother is half Jewish, from Germany. Her life story, Thax says, is especially strange. “She’s told a lot of different stories about what happened to her, but as far as I can tell her stepfather was a member of the Nazi Party, and that’s what saved her. She grew up in a suburb next to Dachau called Lerchenau. Dachau was a suburb of Munich and the camp was named after the suburb. She worked at a BMW plant and had a friend who denounced her. She may or may not have been in Dachau, and somehow her stepfather got her out.”
Around age ten, Thax fell seriously ill. First he suffered from ulcers. Then he says he began to develop an especially virulent brand of allergies, known as cerebral allergies, that caused his body to react violently to most of the foods he ate. He was already a sensitive child, but his illnesses isolated him even farther from society.
“I had a bunch of singles, 45s, and I gave them away. I didn’t listen to any popular music. I listened to classical music for like seven years. Shortly before my 17th birthday I had a really serious suicide attempt. My mother had all these pills. I just took all of them, but before I passed out I turned on all the water in the bathroom. My parents were watching Mary Tyler Moore and I guess my mother heard the water, so I went to the hospital. I was in a coma for three days but I woke up. Once I realized that I was going to be alive I just sort of accepted that.”
Thax was able to finish high school, but in an absolute haze. He had a few friends, including future comedian Emo Philips, but his most constant companions were various members of the football team. “After the suicide attempt I had shock treatment, so I remember next to nothing about my senior year. Because shock treatments do that to you–they’re supposed to eliminate your bad memories. Anyway, I used to hang out with the football team on Mondays at Shakey’s Pizza. I don’t remember any of the details. I went to my ten-year high school reunion in ’84. Some of those people were there. They said, ‘Do you remember the song you wrote about us?’ They sang this song that had these weird lyrics. Because I’ve been writing the same way since high school, this sort of stream-of-consciousness stuff. These lyrics are really weird, and I totally do not remember writing the song. But it really happened. I just have to get the lyrics to this song down someday. I only heard it once so I was thinking, ‘Did I dream this or something?’ But it could have happened, because I know that me and this other guy used to write limericks all the time, and they were really weird too.”
From age 17 to 20, Thax was a physical and mental invalid. He only left the house to have lunch with his mother. Not surprisingly, these were miserable years. “My mother would yell at me when I’d get sick,” he says. “I had weird symptoms where my back would give out and I’d have to crawl to the bathroom. When you’re in a bad environment like that, it’s hard to leave. I was scared to move out on my own. But you know how it is. You’re in a bad situation but you have the idea that it’s going to be even worse when you get out.”
Thax was 30 years old in 1988, when his parents sold the house and moved to Wisconsin. At that point he’d been reading at the Green Mill for a while and had started to carve out a life for himself. Even before then he’d begun to gradually enter the world. For several years he was a member of the Christadelphians, a fundamentalist sect based in Canada. “These were pretty decent, normal people,” he says. “They were fundamentalists but they weren’t bad Christians. It was really good for me. I just got out because I finished the Bible. Once I read the Bible, I was like, ‘Well, I’ve read the Bible,’ and I dropped away from it all.”
Thax currently lives with two musicians on the top floor of Berry Methodist Church at the corner of Lawrence and Leavitt, in a four-bedroom apartment that used to be the pastor’s residence. He has a small room just off the entrance. Clothes are piled everywhere. There are a couple of suitcases. He has a phone, an automatic coffeemaker, a fan, a few videotapes, and a cardboard shelf for books. The room is decorated with one poster. “Sears Salutes Black History 365 Days a Year,” it says. “I had 500 books and I kept selling them,” Thax says. “I got in the habit of buying books I thought I’d want to read. The ones you see in my room are like the core collection of books I want to read.” These include A Confederacy of Dunces; The Improved Binoculars by the Canadian poet Irving Layton; Aircom: Canada’s Air Force; The Idol and the Octopus by Norman Mailer; The Square Deal (Car Warriors, No 1); a collection of Irish short stories; In Stalin’s Time: Middleclass Values in Soviet Fiction; and several high school sports novels. “They’re relaxing to read,” Thax says. “They’re written for high school audiences. Some people like mysteries. Some people like whatever. They’re just nice and relaxing.”
He has had two jobs in his life. For nine years he worked as an intake clerk for welfare patients at the University of Illinois at Chicago hospital, and for six years he compiled television logs for a company called Video Monitoring Services. For the last 21 months he’s been out of a job. Most days he sleeps until 11 or later.
Since he prefers to write his poetry when he’s out at night, he spends much of the day doing nothing. He is running low on cash; of late, he’s been selling his plasma for $40 a week to pay bills. If Tragic Faggot Syndrome doesn’t take off, he says, it could be time to find another job.
“Thax is probably one of the last vestiges of people dropping out of society and living day to day and not worrying about it,” says John Connors. “He’s the only person I know of who does it who’s not a hustler or an alcoholic or has some debilitating disease. I don’t ask Thax a lot about how he gets along. When he lost his last job, six months later he still wasn’t looking for one. I said, ‘I’m really worried about you. When are you going to look for a job?’ He said, ‘At the last possible moment.’ I think the only job for Thax is one where he can do the same thing every day, because he’s great with monotony. You know how a cat gets up, eats, and then lays in the window all day? At some point it knocks around the string. Thax is like that.”
Because of his allergies, Thax doesn’t drink or use drugs. When he can afford to, he likes to eat in places like the Le Sabre at Montrose and Damen or the Golden Nugget on Lawrence. His allergies have gotten better but he still has a limited diet. Two common Thax meals are steak with a side order of noodles and an egg on top, and a sliced banana with a cup of black coffee. Years ago, before restaurants became sensitive to people with food allergies, Thax frequently got into fights with waitresses over his meals. “He’s a vegetarian’s nightmare to eat with,” says his friend Heather McAdams, the cartoonist. “He always has specific things he wants to eat and always has to order something that’s not on the menu. He’s got to ask the waitress for something strange.”
All of Thax’s friends can describe at least one difficult encounter. Says performance artist Cheryl Trykv: “There was one time where I needed to get booked right away because someone was coming in from LA. Thax was doing a “Thax After Dark” at Lounge Ax, and I asked, ‘Could you squeeze me in?’ He said sure. But I was working a job at a law office, like 40-50 hours a week, and on the day of the show I was absolutely fried. I just couldn’t do it. I called Lounge Ax to tell Thax. He said, ‘That’s a drag.’ A couple of days later he called to say that he could never work with someone as neurotic as me ever again. He was just screaming at me, something about those neurotic performance types. He said that he thought we were friends and that I had betrayed him. I think he said he could never bear to look at me again. I saw him a couple of weeks later at the Empty Bottle. He gave me a kiss. I gave him a big hug. We bought each other drinks.”
Says John Connors: “If the party isn’t going well, you want to be sitting next to Thax. But he’s not exactly the life of the party. In fact, I’ve been at a couple of parties that he’s thrown and they weren’t very good. He doesn’t exactly know what to do. I throw pretty good parties, so he asked me, ‘Should I buy food?’ I was like, yeah, you have to buy food. He bought these little wrapped weenies and nobody ate them. I felt pretty bad.”
Considering how isolated Thax’s life was up until the late 80s, it’s amazing that he has a social life at all, much less the all-encompassing one he leads. He had friends growing up, he wrote to me in a recent E-mail, but they were “other lost souls who occasionally hung out by default. A good deal of petty abuse went on, much like a flock of wounded geese snapping at each other. In grade school I had a false best friend who lived across the street and actually belittled and undermined me whenever he could–and also tried to get the other kids in the neighborhood to avoid me–all with the approval of his mother.
“This so poisoned the idea of friendship that it wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I realized friends were desirable assets that one could actively seek out. Until then I thought it was simply people you were stuck with who tortured you. I have to admit when I saw two male friends together just hanging out and obviously enjoying each other’s company, I used to feel wistful and hopeful like a puppy. Now I just feel ugly and poisoned, and I have to look the other way. For a long while the strongest emotional theme in my life was a fetishistic longing for this best friend that never materialized.”
He offers the following anecdotal evidence of how far he’s come:
“Marc Smith, who started the Green Mill poetry slam, was really nice to me considering I had emotional problems at the time. I had my first feature at the Mill in May of ’89. For some reason I was expecting to get paid $50 for it–I don’t know why. I sort of badgered Marc to give me $50. He gave me $10. And instead of being grateful for being featured in the first place, which I should have been, I got really, really mad. The next week when I went up onstage I held up a butter knife, waved it around threateningly, and yelled about how stupid Marc was. Instead of being banned from the Green Mill, which he would have done for anyone else, Marc let me come back. That was pretty fucked-up. I’m much better now.”
On the evening of July 9, during an opening-act performance at the Empty Bottle, the lead guitarist for the Country Melvins broke a string.
The moment this occurred, Thax bounded onto the stage. He was wearing baggy striped suit pants, an oxford shirt, and a black baseball cap bearing the image of a jet fighter and the words “Keeping Peace.”
The Country Melvins and Thax are friends. That night they’d agreed that Thax would introduce them with a poem he’d written in their honor. But they started their set late and forgot about him. The broken string gave Thax an opportunity.
The poem went like this:
It’s a wonder
why some crystals don’t grow forever,
or some rocks aren’t so big
There’s no end to them–
they’re small enough so
you can see they’re rocks–
you can take the
different sizes of different rocks
or the growth rate of different crystals or
and form a grid of those
differences and play them like a harp–
I guess any set of differences
can be made into a system–
a system assumes
each crystal has grown as far as it
has because it can grow not for them
and the system is based
on this presumed absoluteness–
and oh the pain produced
in the system when one of the
crystals takes it upon itself to
grow just a little bit.
The crowd listened patiently and applauded when Thax was done.
“They were really very polite,” he said later.
Thax sat at a table in the back of the bar with his friend Rick Osborn, who writes poems and sometimes reads them in Thax’s shows. He holds Thax in high esteem.
“There are certainly a lot of poets in Chicago,” he said. “While many of them are interesting to listen to, most of them aren’t very good. Thax happens to be good.”
Before the show, Thax and Osborn had been to Facets to see Wednesday, a Russian movie where the filmmaker interviews everyone he can find in Saint Petersburg who was born on his birthday. Thax said he’d enjoyed the movie pretty well. He looked around the club.
“I seem to know a lot of people here tonight,” he said, and wandered off.
“You go to a place like this and he’ll be gone for hours and hours,” Osborn said. “Just talking to different people. We can walk out of Myopic Books and head over to the Rainbo, and he’ll stop ten different times in two blocks. It seems to happen in whatever part of town we go.”
Later, Bob from the Country Melvins approached Thax between sets.
“I forgot all about you,” Bob said.
“It worked out well,” said Thax.
“Right on time,” said Bob. “I loved the poem.”
“Yeah,” Thax said. “I can’t wait to read it on your CD.”
Thax began writing seriously in 1987, when his friend Carl Watson began taking him to the poetry slam at the Green Mill, then in its early days. His work is mostly surreal and abstract but full of specific detail. This phrase is from his piece “Official Winnipeg Fallout Shelter Erotic Love Poem 1952”: “My head is an old oil-vinyl record of Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony melted down to a tar lightbulb shining black.” The poems, he says, are “about language. Which is what somebody like John Ashbery or Joseph Brodsky would say about their work.” They come in two basic varieties. The first, which is mostly poems written before 1991, consists of warped, winding, highly coded personal histories that refer often to sex and Thax’s childhood.
The second type of poem began to appear in 1989. Thax calls these his “poetry portraits.” He tends to polish them off in a few minutes, maybe an hour. He does them wherever the inspiration strikes, in the apartment of the subject, at coffeehouses and restaurants, during dead time at poetry readings. He also writes “band poems,” which are poetry portraits about bands. “In a way they’re just an excuse to write a poem,” Thax says. “On the other hand, when I do a portrait I usually look at the person, get a sort of abstract image, and then go on from there. You’re dealing with a lot of subtle chemical things that are in the air. It’s not that different from photography in a way. I started doing this when I went through my Andy Warhol phase. I became interested in Warhol back in ’89, just when all the retrospective stuff was happening. He did his portraits and I would do poetry portraits. I thought it would be a Warhol-esque thing to do. They’re a good excuse to write a poem without dealing with my emotions too much. Because my emotions get boring.”
In 1992 and ’93 Thax hosted weekly shows devoted to the spoken word. These happened late on Tuesday nights at a grungy old bar on North Avenue called Estelle’s. Many people, Thax included, believe that the readings at Estelle’s were his finest hour as a host. Says Greg Gillam: “When I met Thax he said, ‘You know, I host this poetry reading at Estelle’s, and you should come and read your stuff.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not a poet.’ Because at the time I wasn’t. He said, ‘Do you write?’ I said, ‘Yes, but I don’t usually finish stuff.’ ‘Well,’ he said, ‘come down to the poetry reading and maybe you’ll get up and read.’ It’s like some people have gaydar, but Thax has po-dar, or something. If someone’s a poet, even if they aren’t aware of it, he knows.
“I went to Estelle’s, and Paula Killen was there with the Disgraces, this group of female performance artists. They all got up and sang in this trailer-trash girl-group style. The group also included the women from Betty’s Mouth, and these other local lights. I thought, I can do that. So I went home, wrote a poem, got up the next week and performed it. People were really nice to me afterward….It was a really happening scene. There was a cigar-chomping guy who used to run folk music venues in Old Town. People from the Guild Complex. Just all sorts of people, all different ages, and Thax was the ringmaster.”
Says Thax of his days at Estelle’s: “It was the sort of thing that just wore down after a year and a half. It was kind of frustrating because of the low quality of the clientele there. The bar had its dive aspects, and then you had people there for the poetry. There were people who just wanted to play pool, and they were really angry because you had to turn the pool table off. We were always fighting with them. I have this little dream of owning a poetry nightclub, and I almost thought I would turn Estelle’s into a poetry nightclub one night a week. It didn’t exactly happen that way.”
Thax mostly avoids the current poetry scene, which he thinks has grown annoying and superficial. He’s completely skipping the tenth-anniversary finals of the National Poetry Slam in Chicago this week. One of the organizers asked Thax to host a night of annoying poetry during the festivities. He declined as nicely as he could. “It’s just another dumb slam event,” he says. “There’s an all-male slam, an all-female slam, all-sex, all-sports. The sports one is supposed to be hosted by some slam poet who sells peanuts at the Cubs games. Sounds dreadful.”
In particular, Thax is critical of Marc Smith, who he thinks has let the slam become an ego-driven cult. “The slam promised to build a ladder, but it built a cage instead. No one’s really gotten outside of it. There was a promise that it would be a beat explosion, that these poets were going to become big, become famous. It could have happened, but for some reason it all centered around Marc. He was kind of an anti-Ginsberg and he said no. I’m not exactly sure why it all depended on Marc, but it did.
“The scene as a whole is just dumbed down because of the slam. There was kind of a monolithic domination of poetry by academics, and the slam has been a good antidote to that. I’m always comparing the slam to the Russian Revolution, with Marc as Stalin, which is completely histrionic. But Stalin did some good things too. When you leave the degree of importance out of it, obviously, there are a lot of similarities. The slam revolution had to happen. Then it became something horrible.
“Slam poets crave attention. They want to be stars just like everyone else. I mean, anyone who performs on a regular basis wants to be a star or a legend. They can deny it all they want, but everybody wants to be Kurt Cobain, or Bukowski, or something. So the slam offers the illusion at least that that might happen. People will go to the slam, and there’s always a crowd. People want that crowd. They want it badly enough that they’ll say whatever they have to say. It’s like you’ll do whatever you have to do, like if you were living in China during the Cultural Revolution. If you’re a certain sort of person you’ll say whatever you have to say. It’s kind of sad. I haven’t gone to poetry open mikes in seven or eight months. I go through a period where I don’t go because I get sick of it. But then, it’s like the Russians feel about their homeland. I feel like I have to go no matter how horrible it is. Then I go until I can’t stomach it anymore, and then I stop going.”
Lately, as a palliative, Thax has been curating “Salon de Thax,” a Sunday-night poetry-reading series in the basement of Myopic Books in Wicker Park. The readings are an opportunity for Thax to spend some intimate time with poets whose work he likes. Thax doesn’t advertise the readings, other than by having them listed in the Reader. If the poets don’t invite their friends, there’s usually not much of an audience. Sometimes it’s just the poet and Thax, reading to each other.
On a recent Sunday, “Salon de Thax” starred Reginald Shepherd, a poet who has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. Thax came across Shepherd’s work in a collection of African-American poetry, found out he lived in Chicago, and went to Hyde Park to hear him read.
“I think he’s great,” Thax says of Shepherd. “I think he’s tremendous. I think he’s up there with the great poets of this century. I’ve told him that so he doesn’t think I’m an idiot.”
Thax discovered that Shepherd was leaving Chicago to take an appointment in the English department at Cornell. Since no one else had offered to throw him a farewell reading, Shepherd agreed to let Thax do it.
The reading was attended by several people: Thax, Rick Osborn, three friends Shepherd had brought, and myself.
“Where’s the audience?” Shepherd asked.
“Are you expecting anybody?” asked Thax.
“I try to go through life with as few expectations as possible,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd said he felt uncomfortable. The word “silly” was used. He nonetheless read several poems. Thax then read his favorite Shepherd poem, followed by a poetry portrait he’d written of Shepherd 45 minutes earlier.
“I think pretty well of my poetry,” Thax said to Shepherd when it was all over, “and you’re the only poet who makes me feel I’m not so great. But you know, that’s great to know a poet who I think is better than me.”
Shepherd said he was flattered. He and Thax went upstairs and talked about poetry for a while. Shepherd was amazed. He’d ended up enjoying himself.
At another recent “Salon de Thax,” a group of writers read in a rotation curated by the poet Effie Mihopoulos. She had planned an elaborately choreographed affair with the performers marching all over the bookstore’s basement. But because Myopic was in the process of moving to a new location on Milwaukee there were no lights in the stage area and she was forced to simplify. In fact, clerks had been sending people away all evening, telling them the reading wasn’t going on.
“Salon de Thax” was supposed to start at eight, but at 8:20 Thax wasn’t present. The guys upstairs selling books had asked him to go to Wendy’s and get them something to eat.
The reading commenced upon Thax’s appearance. Thax read his Country Melvins poem. A poet named Dan Cleary sang “I Fall in Love Too Easily.” He was followed by Lisa Hemminger, who recited her poem “Ultrafuck.” Ken Morris played the guitar. Thax enjoyed the show very much.
“I’m probably going to feature a lot of these people someday,” he said.
After the reading, Thax and I walked a mile or so south, over to the Matchbox bar. Thax had recently met the Sunday night bartender, Eric Palm, thought he had a great bass voice, and wanted to feature him in “Thax After Dark.”
It was a pleasant evening and Thax was feeling pensive.
“I like doing the classic walking thing,” he said. “I like looking in shop windows. That’s actually one of my favorite genres of books. They’re usually about London or Paris or New York, but Chicago’s like that too. It’s full of obscure little shops. If I were feeling really generous I’d write a book about them. If you took the bus you might miss the little shops on the side streets.”
“I spend my life going into those shops,” I said.
“Well, I usually don’t leave the house until after they close,” he said. “But if I drove I’d never get to at least look in the windows. When I take vacations I like to go to cities and look in shop windows. That’s wherever I go, whether it’s Winnipeg or Boise.”
We walked awhile, stopped at a highway overpass, and looked down at the traffic.
“I don’t consider myself particularly eccentric,” he said, “but if people want to consider me eccentric, I have the good grace to accept that. It’s a waste of time to spend psychic energy convincing people otherwise. I’d rather put on shows and write poetry. That’s why I hate what Achy Obejas wrote about me years ago in her column in the Tribune. She said I have a carefully constructed persona. She called me a grandiose nerd. I just hated that. If I was going to carefully construct a persona, I would, like many people do, construct a persona of seemingly effortless anonymity and normalness. All things considered, I’m pretty normal.”
He paused to admire the lights and noise of the cars speeding below.
“Of course,” he said, “some people have a very broad definition of what normal is.”
Tragic Faggot Syndrome will be released soon. Thax has two parties scheduled. The first, on August 25 at Lounge Ax, will feature the bands the Marvel Kind and Sterling and a rapper who calls himself Richie Hustle. For the second, September 13 at the Empty Bottle, Thax has booked TRS-80, the Dethholz, Emerse, and Mark Shippy from U.S. Maple. The parties were originally supposed to be August 14 and 15, but Ralph Syverson needed extra time to construct a map of all the different places Thax has written poems around town.
Thax has dedicated Tragic Faggot Syndrome to his friend Brian Potrafka, a stand-up comedian he met in 1992 when Potrafka came into Estelle’s to read a piece called “Jacking Off With Ramen Noodles.” Potrafka has since published several small books that Thax likes. The dedication reads:
“For Brian Potrafka, author of Fables, Into the Hamper, Small and Wrong, etc. These books are published in Heaven. For the Heaven nearest you, dial 1-900-WZUP-GOD.”
After the July 3 fireworks, Thax showed Potrafka the dedication.
“You’re really doing that?” Potrafka said. “Wow! Thanks.”
“Brian is my only close friend who’s a poet,” Thax said. “We’ve known each other for seven years. He’s one of the few poets I can stand. I have trouble talking to most poets. I look at them and don’t understand what they’re saying. Poets give me Philip K. Dick thoughts like, ‘Am I talking to a slightly defective replicant? What are you talking about?’ That’s why I hang out in the rock world even though I’m an outsider there, because at least those people are smart. They know what they’re about. You can talk to them without wincing.”
“He just told me about this dedication the other day,” Potrafka said. “I thought he was kidding. Then when I saw it it was exactly like he’d described it.”
But Thax was rolling now, and he continued his monologue.
“How about if I go over to that railing over there and read poetry to the people down in the restaurant?” Thax said. “All of you can go through the crowd and say, ‘Shh. There’s poetry going on.’ I can do what the Funky Wordsmyths did at Kerouac Jack’s. ‘While you eat your fancy dinners, the children in the ghetto are starving’–or something like that.”
Ralph Syverson produced the contract. He’d copied it from a book and crossed out the stuff that didn’t apply. He and Thax discussed royalties. Thax would receive 12 percent of sales, plus 100 free copies that he could sell for himself.
Syverson told Thax that he retained foreign-language publishing rights to Tragic Faggot Syndrome, as well as movie rights.
“I say just sign the thing,” said one of Thax’s friends, “because we can’t afford any more drinks here.”
Thax picked up the contract, rubbed his chin, and posed for a picture. He handed the paper to Syverson, who signed it.
“You missed the clause about how I get your soul,” Syverson said.
“Ralph, you don’t know something about me,” said Thax. “I have no soul.”
Ralph then said that if Thax died his heirs would get all proceeds from the book.
“Well, Ralph,” said Thax, as he finally inked the deal, “I must discuss this with my heirs.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.