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American Rimbaud: An interview with Steve Richmond

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“Jim Morrison’d still be alive if he had stuck to poetry.”

BP: And he also, attached to that his incredible interest in illegal substances, which really…

SR: You seem to go back to that topic.

BP: No, because…

SR: Well, because I became a heroin addict for 40 years.

BP: But an explorer. That’s the difference. Heroin addicts are a dime a dozen, they’re all over the place. None of them…wrote Gagaku.

SR: But I got it right…First, I was smoking grass, took a lot of LSD, but…you know, writing is the core. And, or course, if you are high, plus it was a social device, I remember, this girl picked me up, you know, at Beverly Glen park, two girls took us up, to Topanga Sunraid Acres, you know, but as soon as she found out I hadn’t taken LSD, she just…ice [laughing] as a matter-of-fact, I had to hitchhike back…so I thought, ‘I’ve got to take that drug.’ For five bucks I got a double dose. I didn’t know it was a double dose, he [the dealer] said take the whole thing. Did you ever take LSD?

OD: No, too risky for my day.

SR: Yeah, I mean I haven’t taken it for 30 to 40 years, too strong.

BP: Actually, Morrison was also a great fan of Steve’s poetry. Morrison became a minor poet, but he was a great admirer of Steve, I mean he showed Steve a number of his works.

SR: Oh, I don’t think he was a great fan of my poems.

BP: Yes he was. Why did he come back over and over again to see you?

SR: It was, you know, because it was, he was a poet. He’d still be alive if he had stuck to poetry.

BP: He was very interested in your work. Are you kidding? He knew you were blowing down walls that nobody had ever tried to get into.

SR: Well, if you can’t be original in your art, why do your art? Who wants to do something, somebody has done before?

BP: That’s true. If you are a painter, you might as well be painting walls then, you know, if you are not going to do anything original. If you are a poet, it’s the same thing.

SR: You’re a poet. I mean that’s how we…

BP: I’m just a scribbler; I wouldn’t use the word ‘poet.’ I wrote for the L.A. Times and, you know, all kinds of magazines. But I did get a chance to get out there, when nobody else was talking about this stuff and talk about it. I did and I’m very fortunate that I…

SR: You’re in up to your neck [laughing].

BP: But when you remember back to those early days, Steve lived in Santa Monica almost all of his life, had this little house on Hollister, you know where that is.

SR: My grandmother had all the properties in Santa Monica.

BP: Steve actually was the rent collector. He’d have to go around, and Bukowski loved this, he loved to rag him about that…

SR: Yeah, I had the Jewish guilt, I was raised in Hollywood, and before I knew it I was screaming at poor little ol’ drunks trying to live in their store front, and I was just, you know, hollering at them for their last dollar.

BP: But he lived in this really small, and beautiful little house, that he kept very very neat, by the way.

SR: It’s been torn down and turned into a piece of crap.

BP: While he was there, he did his work, did his art, his poetry, and he also did a number of drawings, paintings, and so on and so forth. I thought in a way, it was kinda like one of the great Chinese poets, like Han Shan or Li. Po. Steve Richmond was somebody who was like one block from the ocean. And Venice became a world for you. I mean he did a lot of very unusual things like ‘Steve’s Candle Shop.’

SR: There was this 5000 square foot vacant building, everything was vacant in the ‘60s—down there, you know, all the windows were broken. And I read that the buildings were $150/a month. I started, oh I had it twice: the first time I called it ‘The Earth Rose,’ I wanted it to be a gallery/bookstore, but people only bought zigzag papers [both laughing]. It became a psychedelic store.

BP: Now that you know about [both laughing]. And wasn’t there a woman who was doing bikinis or something?

SR: Well, that was the candle shop. I got out of there after a year, and then I got back in though, two years later, for the same price, I had a…I was on LSD one night at my little house, in my garage, I was making candles, I had a barrel of wax. Do you ever see people dip candles? I got this idea, maybe there was about 11 wicks hanging, and I had been dipping them in the wax, and they were about a half an inch thick, I got this idea, why don’t I weave them together. And then dip them, and then weave them together, and make three legs out of the wax, just form the bottom of the candle, and then when I’m through, tie off the wheel up here so that the candle is here and here is the barrel of wax. Put a cover over the barrel, heated wax, and form the three legs, lower the rope, so that the bicycle wheel comes out and the candle stands. I mean it’ll have to dry… let it dry over night, and snip the wicks off, and you got a freestanding woven together braided totally impractical [candle sculpture].

[all laughing]

OD: You mean these wicks are individually light-able [sic]?

SR: Yeah, you light them all. But the problem is, the wicks go all the way through the thing. Put out a lot of heat. Plus it just melts all over the place. And the flame is about this big, long, [laughing] totally lethal, you know. But the first person to see it, the one I made, was a big bull dyke named BJ, nice woman, “How much? How much?” And she wanted to buy it. And I say ‘Nine bucks, how’s that?’ And the cost, I figured it out, was about 11 cents worth of materials, things used to be cheap in those days…And from there…people saw the things and wanted to buy ‘em.

BP: They were beautiful, they were multicolored, they were just incredible. Nobody ever saw candles like that before. They were completely unique.

SR: But I couldn’t write. I ended up having the same store, I had ‘The Earth Rose’ there, I put the candle shop in there… there was a movie Mafisto’s Waltz, Jaqueline Bissette, and this guy, the director would come by and he had seen my candles in the shop and wanted them for his movie. But whatever I was putting in the candles, I couldn’t write any poetry. I mean I was a ‘poof’ [all laughing].

BP: What was that great Greek film? Steve had a real going-out-of-business sale, like you never seen in your life.

SR: Wow, Kathy King came by and some guy.

BP: Zorba, the Greek.

SR: …I was totally womanizing…all the women that came in the shop, that was half the reason…

BP: This was Venice, and the woman he was sharing the space with sold bikinis, so he had all these women coming in to get bikinis. So it was like the biggest pick-up place in the world. Right?

SR: Well, no, well for me it was…Fat candles, totally phallic, you know.

BP: Right, it was male and female—bikinis and candles.

SR: Bukowski visited the place. He’d stay and watch the girls come in and look at the candles and say, “God, it’s like they are hypnotized.” But I got this girl…Aphrodite figure, who happened to work in the Ethnomusicology department at UCLA.

BP: Kathy King.

SR: Kathy King, yeah. And she was, you know, I don’t know, the first time I saw her, I was playing chess in back, and all of a sudden this woman here, about 21, she wanted to buy a painting I had, a charcoal drawing I had of Adam’s torso from Michelangelo’s ‘Sistine Chapel’…and I said that’s not for sale, and as she walked out the front door, about 50 feet away, the sun was shining right through the front door, the silhouette, the silhouette of her figure, was just…

OD: All of a sudden, your painting was up for sale, eh?

SR: No, I was thrown aside, I was ‘God Damn’ you know, Aphrodite, who steals the wits and the wisdom of men, that’s what it was. I told the guy I was playing chess with, and he said, “She was studying you,” while I was studying my next move, he was watching her, she was studying me. And I said to him, I remember this, ‘She’ll be back.’ That’s how confident I was in my young days [laughing] and I had teeth. And she came back a week later, and I chased her on the beach, anyway, to make a long story short, you ever made love to a woman, you know, you’re moving you know, and then she puts her hands on your hips, and kind of beckons you to be still, and then she starts moving below you, and it’s just, and she starts singing like Circe, and it’s just, it’s otherworldly. It’s better than ‘Margot Fontaine’, the ballet. I mean it’s just, totally you know, metaphysical.

BP: I’ve had similar experiences, and you never forget them. It’s the ultimate communication.

SR: It’s too strong for us. And of course, I tried to get back, and made a fool of myself, fell on her doorstep once, drunk, and she walked over me with some guy, and you know, I… so anyway, and she got out of the ocean with some other guy and I’m sitting in front of my candle shop and you know, I put a little sign out in front that says ‘Free Candles’ and the whole neighborhood, just came in and grabbed these things, took ‘em away.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 6th, 2009.