Monte Rio is little more than a cluster of clapboard buildings, a supermarket, and a gloriously run-down watering hole called The Pink Elephant. The town movie theater is housed in a big Quonset hut painted with outdoorsy murals. There’s a Northern Exposure charm to the place that’s more Fairbanks than Bay Area.
There’s something eerie about the place as well. In winter it rains almost daily, and a haunted, shifting mist metastasizes and lingers like a specter at night. The redwoods form a dense green canopy. Moss covers ubiquitous “winding road” signs, and retaining walls frame vistas of battered old cars and wooden houses. The Russian River is more like a sheet of slow-moving silt. Everything seems stuck in suspended animation.
Monte Rio's welcome sign and the Rio Theater, 2007. (author's photo)
When Monte Rio’s logging days were over around the turn of the century, it morphed into a blue-collar getaway—a sort of Catskills for the NoCal set. But by the time Jeffrey and Codrescu arrived in the ’70s, San Francisco’s counterculture had gained a northern foothold here, and the weirdness was in full swing. The local kids paid for everything in food stamps, occasionally storming the town’s only grocery store for beers and fleeing across the river to crack them open under big, shady trees. The Hells Angels rumbled through town on weekend runs, juiced up on amphetamines. There were town drunks and lumberjacks, Quaalude pushers and oblivion-powder purveyors. And then there were the limousines of incognito bigwigs (and, not uncommonly, their hookers) on their way up to the Bohemian Grove—that infamous 2,700-acre compound where Bilderbergs, CEOs, and high-profile statesmen (Nixon, Reagan, and Kissinger among them) retreat for secret meetings in redwood encampments, don hooded robes, and gather for lakeside effigy-burning ceremonies around an enormous stone owl. On the other side of town, an heiress named Mary Hayssen ran a commune with drifters from the Angels of Light, San Francisco’s gay performing arts troupe. It was an unlikely and glorious assemblage of variegated freaks in a part of the world that freaks made famous—sparser than San Francisco, certainly, but also totally unplagued by the buzz-harsh urban realities that by then had ripped the daisy from the city’s hair.
And that didn’t even include the poets.
View more images of Jeffrey Miller.
If Bolinas, the coastal outpost 40 miles south of Monte Rio that Snyder and Kyger called home, could be thought of as the proverbial “Garden” of the West Coast literary scene, then Monte Rio was its dive bar. It was ragtag and gritty—a matter of pride for those who came to be known as the Russian River poets (a demarcation more of shared geography than of style). One of them was Hunce Voelker, a gay filmmaker and biographer of the poet Hart Crane, who had a three-story wooden A-frame on the north side of a redwood in nearby Rio Nido—replete with moat, drawbridge, and a pair of penis-shaped fountains that spurted water from their concrete tips. He’d relied on a steady stream of drifter labor to construct his creaky wonderland. A lone bull he’d named Ocean Peace (and who was also, he’d decided, gay) wandered the property.
Pat Nolan, a reticent Montreal transplant who edited a literary magazine called The End, lived there, too, with his poet wife, Gail King. Codrescu landed there in 1974, bringing his peculiar brand of Transylvanian surrealism and wry irreverence with him. His poetry collection License to Carry a Gun (1970) had won him a $5,000 NEA grant. He used it for a down payment on a little house up the hill from Main Street and set off to work on a memoir.
At 11 a.m. on a gray Monte Rio morning, Pat Nolan met me at my little riverside hotel, sporting a thick ponytail and a faded jean jacket, to take me on the Jeffrey Miller “death tour.” My fellow travelers included graduate students, people who’d come across Jeffrey’s barely available poetry and felt the weird gravity of his death the way I did, and a Romanian film crew who’d been sold on Codrescu’s myth about Jeffrey, thinking they were on the trail of the poetic equivalent of James Dean.
“It’s that Jimi Hendrix/Janis Joplin thing, I guess,” Nolan said. “Young guy with lots of promise bites the dust.” We got into my rented red Chevy subcompact and followed the river into town.
The big event in Monte Rio back in the ’70s was the mail. In the morning, Codrescu and Nolan would wander down to the concrete post office to retrieve it and then head over to a greasy spoon called the Knotty Room to go through their letters. One day an envelope of poems showed up in Nolan’s mailbox from someone named Jeffrey Miller, who’d written at the behest of one of his college professors back in Michigan. They’d never seen anything quite like them.
“His poems captured the kind of rock ’n’ roll fervor that infected everything in those days,” Nolan said. “Incredibly hip, witty, sardonic, surreal, and seized with savage energy.” They wrote Jeffrey back with an invitation to come to Monte Rio anytime.
The two are still in disagreement about the exact day the newest, youngest member of the Russian River scene showed up on their doorstep—“a flinty-eyed poet with spiky blond hair and a wicked smirk,” as Nolan remembers it. But they agree on one thing: there was something special about the 23-year-old Jeffrey who rolled into town alone in the summer of ’75—steeped in Iggy Pop and Ted Berrigan—with a few boxes of belongings, a couple packs of Marlboro reds, and, as Codrescu describes it, “this crazy idea we all had at the time that you could still make a living as a poet.” Before long he was part of the Knotty Room roundtable, bullshitting between drags about the nature of truth and beauty and, probably just as often, the relative merits of various rock bands and the acquisition of illicit substances. He and Codrescu were instant friends, taking long walks and lingering at the local dive bars, where they’d do their best to parlay their poetic condition into rounds of free drinks. My aunt showed up later that year.
“I guess we really did have a scene,” Codrescu said. “There was some kind of sharing and battle of egos—and poets being poets, you always wanted to be better than somebody else.” They held readings in winter at an old abandoned roadhouse along the river, where the poets recited by lantern light and the only entrance fee was a bundle of firewood, since the place had no electricity. On the weekends they’d make the drive to San Francisco to read at bookstores and coffee houses. Jeffrey’s first real gig there was at a cafe called 80 Langton Street.
“He spent the whole day preparing,” his friend Bruce Cheney recalled in The Heart Is a Quarter Pounder. “Not by practicing poems, but by pasting fake brick wallpaper on all his clothes so he’d blend in with the wall.”
Those days were an odd era of in-between-ness—sandwiched, as they were, between the fallout of the Love Generation and the sometimes directionless soul-searching that came after it. “The war in Southeast Asia had just ended, but the stream of casualties was still coming in,” Codrescu wrote in his memoir, An Involuntary Genius in America’s Shoes (Black Sparrow Press, 2001). “The tatters of the Love Utopia hung sadly from soon-to-be-ravaged AIDS bodies. Anger was building in every layer of America, looking for release.” The punk scene was just beginning to burn a hole in the San Francisco skyline—which was fine with the Russian River poets. That raw energy and acetylene irreverence were sensibilities they shared with their mohawked brethren. They even had some common enemies. The foundation laid by their heroes from the New York School—the Frank O’Haras and Ted Berrigans—was under attack, as they saw it, by an encroaching tidal wave of intolerable dullness: the Language Poets.
“These guys did their best to make everything boring really fast,” Codrescu said. “The stuff they did was just so sexless and not very alive. That pissed us all off. We discussed it to no end.” Lining up their defenses, they chose Jeffrey to head up the First International Punk Poetry Festival, though he’d die before he was able to play that role. It was an obvious choice: Jeffrey’s verse had the kind of humor and grotesquery that recalled Hunter S. Thompson at his best:
MY BOTTLE OPENER IS M I A
my bottle opener is M I A & I’m searching
the beer is lined up on the table & it’s not american
beer which can be opened with a soft american twist
no this is Mexican Beer in thick brown bottles
if a whore smashed a GI in the face with one of these
blood would splash out maybe his eye would hang
he could show his grandkids the scar & say get me a beer
if it was american beer the kid could open the bottle
but this is Mexican Beer & i’m in my kitchen, a jungle,
searching, because you need an opener for these babies
they’re like hand grenades without a pin to pull
& I’m no pacifist i’m just on my own side
But to anyone who knew him back then, poetry wasn’t Jeffrey’s only obsession.
* * *
HANDCUFFED TO THE ONE I LOVE
Which came first, the chicken
or The Shake & Bake? It’s a rough job
being a poet during these modern times, folderol
it’s a snap, Exhibit A: me. Each day, stepping
into nothing like it was my pants, I’m tickled
pink, a dog about to piss the length
of The Great Wall of China. We’re buddies,
me and the huge terrier. We boat calm as tourists along
the captured and monotonous ocean.
Like heroin down a motel toilet
Jeffrey and Michele lived in a wooden shack by the edge of Mary Hayssen’s commune land, at the top of a steep, muddy slope surrounded by redwoods of an unsettling scale. The hull of a massive ark—the abandoned project of some long-gone hippie—lay decaying at the bottom of the hill. Jeffrey christened it the SS Tutti Fruiti.
The shack itself was austere, with a big Plexiglas window and a woodstove in the kitchen next to a redwood burl table. It had a loft bed up top and a big, heavy door made out of 2x4s that led to the room where Jeffrey did his writing, perched above a drizzling creek. Outside, he’d planted a little patch of grass he called “Larry the Lawn,” a fruit tree he nicknamed “Paul Pear,” and a crop of marijuana that remained nameless but nevertheless essential to the relentless pursuit of poetry and recreation. Out-of-focus snapshots from back then show Jeffrey and Michele looking groggy and in love—leaning on the hulks of beater cars, drinking beer, lounging on balconies, and hanging out with friends in various stages of pre-, post-, and full-on party. In one picture, Jeffrey reposes, bleary-eyed, in ripped jeans and a pair of Converse All-Stars laced three eyes down from the top. His hair is strawlike. My aunt leans against his knee with her face half-hidden, giving the camera a look that’s at once drowsy and intense. Golden sunlight casts parallelograms on the wall.
“He would watch me sleep,” my aunt told me later. “No one will ever love me the way he did.”
They kept two Plymouth Valiants in the yard—one with a bad engine and a perfect exterior, the other with the perfect motor in a ravaged body. The organ transplant never quite materialized. “Jeffrey’s utopian mechanics were mainly in his head,” Codrescu wrote in his memoir. “But like most Americans he needed a piece of hardware to refer to, just in case.” Jeffrey worked odd jobs, painting houses and cutting down trees. The trees out west scared the hell out of him, Codrescu recalls, their branches alone wider than the trunks he sawed through in New England. Michele worked as a waitress at a restaurant 10 miles west of Monte Rio in Jenner-by-the-Sea, where the Russian River spilled out into the Pacific. At night, her pockets loaded with quarters, she’d drive through the fog back to the cabin, where Jeffrey would be waiting for her.
There were always parties—at Hunce’s penis-themed wonderland, at Mary’s commune with the drag queens and roving bands of truth-seeking San Francisco defectors, at Codrescu’s place, the local bars, or in the cabin over cheap wine and candlelight. There were dalliances on both sides.
There was also, as there had always been here, fighting. Jeffrey wasn’t all wit and charm. He had a confrontational side, too. Growing up in Grand Blanc, the upper-middle-class suburb of Flint, Michigan, where he had met my aunt in high school, he took his parents’ divorce pretty badly. When his schoolteacher mother remarried, Jeffrey apparently became so bitter and uncontrollable that he had to live with his grandmother until he finished high school. At times he went so far as to toss rocks at the windows of his mother’s house. Codrescu told me about at least one occasion when Jeffrey attacked Codrescu’s writing so viciously—so fundamentally—that it left him hurt and reeling for years. My mother remembers him picking fights over things as minor as the choice of radio station in the car—painting a portrait of him, three decades later, as someone as consumed with adopting the mantle of disaffected poet as with advancing the art itself. His mercurial tendencies, combined with my aunt’s general aimlessness and dependency on him back then, sometimes resulted in disaster. There are family allegations that one of their arguments ended with Jeffrey striking my aunt in my parents’ driveway—on my parents’ wedding day—and for a brief period, my uncle wanted Jeffrey’s head.
Jeffrey and Michele were one of those couples who were perpetually breaking up and getting back together. Michele recalls walking out on him more than a few times, making it all the way down the driveway and into the car, and slamming the thing into reverse—at which point Jeffrey would throw himself onto the hood to keep her from leaving. She’d turn on the windshield wipers to dislodge him. This was usually when things would end in laughter.
“I’d try to leave him all the time, the little fucker,” she told me later. “And he’d try to leave me, too. But there was just something about it—we couldn’t do it.” In the odd times that she made it farther than the driveway—in some cases all the way back home—there would be letters with paragraphs like this one:
The scar on Michele’s mouth is unbelievable. The rich & beautiful want to buy it from her, they’ll pay anything & maybe she has her price, it’s a mystery. The scar is a delicate surprise, like sitting alone by a quiet lake at midnight & having the mysterious women step into sight carrying a silver tray with a slice of heat lightning on it. . . .
“I don’t think I loved him that much,” my aunt told me when she showed me that letter recently.
In the syrupy swelter of late summer Florida twilights, my aunt talked a lot about the love between her and Jeffrey—addictive as it was dysfunctional, intense as it was infuriating. She’d always tried to draw comparisons between what she had and my own relationships. It was a nice thought. But the truth is I never felt as if I had a love like that. I still don’t. In some sense, it feels as though it’s too late. A love like that depends on the strange electrical passion of just being young.
I was coming to Monte Rio on the heels of another failed relationship—my last grab as a twentysomething at a completely ill-advised, intense, and impractical love. It didn’t end well. If coming to Monte Rio was a way of mourning what my aunt and Jeffrey had, it was also a way of mourning what I never did.
Writers talk a lot about authenticity—the need to get at some semblance of truth within the gorgeous mess of the human condition. This isn’t bullshit. I like to think it’s what stitches our whole tattered community together. To that end, Jeffrey’s life and work became a sort of superlative for me—the metaphorical stand-in for “what’s real.” And his early death only magnified it. Death is an incomplete circuit, an electric potential. It is the origin of fear and obsession. And whatever form it takes, it tends to be all-consuming. I had mine in Jeffrey. And Jeffrey, it turns out, had his in his brother, Kurt.
“Jeffrey was a little bit mad,” my aunt told me. “He really was. After his brother died, that really did him.”
* * *