Saturday, December 17, 2005

Blown Away by Lounge Act Beat Poet: The Strange World of John-Ivan Palmer, the Kerouac of the "Hypno Set"

A recent link over at Arts & Letters Daily to John-Ivan Palmer's review of Joe Nickell's Secrets of the Sideshows (originally posted at intrigued me, so I checked out a link to another of Palmer's NthPosition articles, the bizarrely titled General Semantics and the Chicken Suit Murders - The hypnotic realities of Dr Ronald Dante and Dr Michael Dean.

Several paragraphs in and I was hooked:

What is it like to have someone attach themselves to the essence of who you are, and feed off that essence for the rest of your life and beyond, like a vampire sucking your nourishment? And what if you became rich and famous and this vampire on your essence also became rich and famous, so that no one could ever remember you without remembering them?

Once upon a time in the west there was a stage hypnotist named Dr Michael Dean, who performed his show at a San Diego night club called The Gaslight Supper Club. Dr Dean always wanted you to know that he is the world’s only stage hypnotist to have a legitimate doctorate, all the other ‘Drs’ and ‘Professors’ and ‘PhDs’ that litter the trade are from diploma mills or non-accredited ‘certification’ organizations, or simply self-conferred. He has stated most vociferously that you must have a doctorate to even think about making someone bark like a dog.

He received his doctor of philosophy degree in 1958 from Northwestern University (outside Chicago). His dissertation, A Comparative Treatment of Fact, Inference and Causation in the Theory of Argumentation and of General Semantics was based in part on the writings of Count Alfred Habdank Korzybski, a charismatic Polish emigré, who gained short-term popularity with his 800-page tome of terminal obfuscation titled Science and Sanity (1933). Korzybski’s thesis, oxymoronically, was that we should communicate more clearly. Example from page 15: ‘The multiordinality of terms is the fundamental mechanism of the full conditionality of human semantic reactions; it eliminates an unbelievable number of the old animalistic blockages, and is fundamental for sanity.’

Although he never practiced it himself, Korzybski proposed eliminating the word ‘is’ in order to make a happier world free from wars and madness. He is purported to have influenced the greatest minds of his generation, and is often quoted as saying ‘you think as much with your big toe as with your brain.’ William S Burroughs attended Korzybski’s lectures in Chicago in the late 1930s. Ted Morgan, Burrough’s biographer, points out that the ‘Ordinary Men and Women’ chapter in Naked Lunch (1959), where “a man taught his asshole to talk”, can be traced directly to Korzybski’s philosophy of social engineering. Korzybski’s relevance is reflected in the eight-volume Encyclopedia of Philosophy, where he has distinguished himself by meriting one entire sentence.

Now comes Ronald Dante riding into town. He was also interested in higher education and attended the University of Wisconsin. Eight years younger than Dean, he quickly caught up with him by dropping out of college and legally changing his first name to ‘Doctor,’ being known thereafter as ‘Dr Dante.’ Like Dean, he claimed to be a professor of semantics. For 15 years he followed Michael Dean around, from Chicago to Hawaii, sitting in the audience, and, according to Dean, copying his act word for word.

While the bookish Dr Dean was wavering between teaching appointments and gigs as a hypnotist, the tall, perfectly tonsured Dr Dante rode around Hollywood on a motorcycle, and performed his stolen act at the Peppermint Lounge. One night the fake doctor of semantics strode, elegantly dressed, into a disco called The Candy Store and met a broken down actress coming off her sixth messy divorce and a failed TV series. Her name was Lana Turner. Succumbing to what she called Dante’s unorthodox courting style and his soothing voice (not to mention his semantic agilities), she married him on May 9th, 1969.

During this period Dante appeared in numerous photos with all the stars of the day: Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr, the rock band Cream. A close examination of these photos will show some of the celebrities looking up at Dante while he smiles at the camera, giving the initial impression they are admirers. But archivist Jennifer Sharpe has pointed out that Dante probably made a funny noise or maybe goosed them with his thumb, which accounts for their expressions more accurately described as querulously repulsive. During the six months the marriage lasted, Dante not only hobnobbed with the stars, but worked diligently to defraud the Hollywood beauty, known for her tight sweaters, out of $200,000 dollars in cash, $100,000 in jewelry, and concocted forged documents allowing him, among other things, unlimited use of her name. Semantics became his slave.

Dr Dean, meanwhile, realizing there was no money in teaching young people how to think properly through general semantics, moved to San Diego and secured an open-ended engagement at the Gaslight Supper Club. Like his rival, he found it more lucrative to manipulate people into absurd acts of delusion. He made public speaking engagements, where he told people how to be happy and succeed in business. You could purchase one of his more than 140 self-help tapes, where he spoke in a strange, electronically altered voice, supposedly to make him sound more commanding. (Example: ‘Become a phony for a week and soon it will become the real you.’) [1] His photo on the tape box showed him in a funny suit, sideburns, and a hair-do that looked like a wig, making him resemble a last place runner up in an Elvis impersonator contest. But for the kind of cash he was making, looks were not important.

Clearly, Palmer is a cat on a cartographic kick; mapping out contours of the mysterious multiverse so adventurously he makes Henry the Navigator seem like an agoraphobic.

Google threw up his website and the revelation that Palmer styled himself as "The World's Fastest and Funniest Hypnotist." A link to one one of his articles at Exquisite Corpse switched me on to the the possibilty that Palmer might just be the Kerouac of the "Hypno Set":

With my library and files on cognitive psychology and everything I never learned in class, I moved to Turk St. with Felicia Fantasy and her snake. I don't know if anyone's written the intellectual history of the Tenderloin, but there was one. The cheap hotels along Eddy, O'Farrell and Turk Streets were indeed filled with garden variety losers. But peppered among them were people like me, the rejects of formal education, who wouldn't follow the syllabus-bizarre bookworms, amphetamine-addicted students of metaphysical poetry, erotomaniacal biblical scholars, socially crippled botanists, perversion seeking poets. Ricki Hilliard was among them, run out of Chicago, according to rumor, by some scandal in the Shakespearean theater clique. All these seekers of odd flavors and fragrances were too non-conformist for the middle class hippies, so they ended up in the Tenderloin, which was no love-in. As my behaviorist professors would put it, positive and negative reinforcement in a maximum displacement from zero. Violence was always imminent. You saw it in the doors, most of which had been repaired numerous times from being kicked in by police or people going berserk. Tenderloin doors were always old, the locks were always new. You had to fight for your ecstasy. Kicking was the name of the game. Get yer kicks, kick the junk, kick yer ass, what a kick. People just stepped over the blood on the sidewalk. It had to be as disturbing to Hilliard as it was to me. All night the screams and the sirens made it difficult to sleep, and when you did sleep you had nightmares. X-rated ventriloquism was how Hilliard kicked his way out of hell.:
Sure enough, in another Corpse piece, Palmer describes his transition from aspiring poet to x-rated hypnotist

I don't care if people judge me. I was the poet John Pilcrow (pseudonym), even though your chances of recognizing me are about the same as waking up on a stage and finding yourself in a chicken suit. Maybe less. At the height of my publishing history I might have had as many as ten or--dare I dream?--twenty serious readers. Friends, mostly. Or at least I thought they were friends.

During the time I was publishing in Broken Streets, Fresh Air Magazine, Wisconsin Review and Jack of Triads, all the night club managers, pit drummers, exotic dancers and theatrical agents who knew me through my X-rated hypnotism show would never have guessed I was the author of Spit Clown Dies In Fire, Massage Parlor Honeymoon, and the 1973 Pushcart Prize selection, The Turtle. They didn't know me as a poet because they didn't want to know me as a poet. In fact, they didn't want to know me at all. It was more convenient for them to think of me as just another entertainer with a flashy suit and a big mouth.

Publishing poetry is hard enough, much less becoming a Rexroth or a Ginsberg. Obviously, total dedication is part of it, but it's by no means the single key. By comparison, if you think it's easy getting X-rated laughs on-stage, go down to your local comedy club on a Monday night and watch the amateurs give it a try. Tell me you can't feel the teeth of natural selection slowly biting down. Tell me you can't sense the indigestion and dry throat and the utter smell of fear as the young comic gulps in the groaning aftermath of that last dick joke.

Evolution happens a lot quicker on the stage than on the page. As a poet my struggle was against the lengthening Ice Age of silence and final extinction. As an entertainer, on the other hand, I lived under the hot metaphors of war. You kill em, you slay em, you knock em dead. One night you die, the next night you kill. The metaphors even run back in the other direction. A laughable tyrant. Theater of battle. A military engagement. A show trial. A kangaroo court. How many people have been hung in the name of humor? So if you're a stage hypnotist working the Frontier Room in Vancouver or the Fantasia Cabaret in Edmonton, you "pull out their gizzard," "rip out their ass." Because if you don't do it to them, they'll do it to you........

So judge me if you like. Condemn me for surviving at the expense of civilization itself. The last poem I published, "Chuckhole", appeared in Louise N. Johnson's poetry column and ended, "my last words / a crumbling billboard / torn apart by wind." When the news of her death finally caught up with me in Las Vegas, I drove all the way out the strip in the middle of the night, past the MGM, the Mirage, the Stratosphere and then past the "adult" motels and the old downtown, then further out, past block after block of smaller and seedier casinos claiming asymptotic payouts, until they gave way to alcoholic dives, last chance gas stations, salvage yards and finally the darkness of the desert itself under light-polluted stars. I stood at the edge of a pale yellow nimbus that radiated from a shack of wheel rims and hub caps and marked my transition from poet to cheap thrills hypnotist by letting the desert winds carry my remaining unwanted poems away to their final oblivion like the ashes of someone you couldn't live without.


Joss said...

Dear Mr Ionesco,

I have enjoyed your blodge thus far. And may I compliment you on your taste and interests? I particularly liked the trio 'iconoclasm, interior design, bacchanalia', but I think the order in which you engage in these activities is critical: the destruction of the icons no doubt happens naturally during the more rampant bacchanales...and the interior decoration is presumably a necessity afterwards?

Thank you for the education in properly erudite stage hypnotists...I'm always agog at anything remotely Vaudevillian in tone.

DO feel free to drop in to my London blog any time...where I shall have my signature gin sling ready for your arrival, 'tho you will probably be drinking a vodka martini, made 50:50, slightly dirty, two jalapeno stuffed olives?

ALL the best,


Miss Wendy Eileen said...

Does he live to see the light of day? A happy ever after, love lost but not forgotten.
That long straight road to threnody.
You are a brilliant writer and I enjoyed reading.

Do feel free to drop in on my London blog any time...where I shall not have my signature gin sling ready for your arrival, I do however always recommend water as I am still not old enough to recommend anything else. %)

eugene ionesco said...

Thanks Joss,

I'll certainly take you up on your kind offer: a vodka martini with jalapeno-stuffed olives sounds divine.