He is an Actor. He is a Poet. He is a Man.
He is . . . Michael Madsen. And right now, he is standing tall on the sumptuous outdoor lounge of the Loggia at the Highlands, five stories above the sweaty Sunday throngs on Hollywood Boulevard. This roughly hewn multitalent wears green lizard-skin cowboy boots, a gray suit with black shirt open at the neck — a strangling tie around the throat of Madsen? I think not, amigo — and as always, he squints.
Not just the eyes. The forehead, the eyebrows, the nose and mouth; the entire face embodies the squint. Whether into the sun or into the moon or into a cocktail framed by the smoke of the perpetual cigarette that dangles from his lips, he squints. One imagines he squints in his sleep.
He is surrounded by a few hundred friends and family, all here to herald the publication of The Complete Poetic Works of Michael Madsen, Vol. I 1995–2005. There will be an eight-course gourmet meal served, small portions of delicious, exotic foods. Poetry in and of themselves. And there will be wines, the sacred juices borne from the grapes of the gods, the spirit-freeing fluids that have sparked so many masters of verse.
Madsen likes his booze. His writings are drenched with mentions of it and the questionable behavior and inevitable hangovers the stuff engenders. It’s all part of the ride, motherfucker. He writes of women, of fistfights, of loneliness and joy and his children (five, with one in the oven of his lovely wife, DeAnna), of movie stars and friends and his own part in all of the above.
“The stuff I write isn’t for everybody, let’s face it,” offers the actor best known for his sadistic torture-ballet with a bound, broken cop in Reservoir Dogs. The scene’s coup de grâce consists of slicing off the man’s ear before dousing him with gasoline. “And I didn’t write a book because I intended on being some sort of remembered poet.” Madsen pauses, spitting a flick of something from his mouth, then sucking on his American Spirit Light. Squinting, he continues. “I’m always surprised that people like anything I write, and I guess I write about the common man and common feelings and emotions. I stopped for a while, and I said, ‘This is bullshit, and I’m not going to do it anymore.’ But I kept getting the notion to do it, so maybe there’s something there for everyone.”
Tonight, “everyone” includes his sari-clad mother, his famous sister Virginia, his wife and various notorious Hollywood pals: Peter Coyote, Harry Dean Stanton, Kill Bill co-star David Carradine. A waiter claims Liza Minnelli is in attendance, but he is wrong.
“I met him 10 or 12 years ago,” recalls a dapper, affable Coyote of the poet. “I’d written a screenplay for him that neither of us had the juice to get off the ground. Turned out that we were both writers, both ex-dopers, both kind of reformed carousers. I saw that sensitive side of him then, and I’m glad he’s making it public.”
Here now a taste of the sensitive Madsen, from The Crooked Prince:
“I’m making Free Willy II, but ‘the Glenness’/has slipped away forever, I think./The lamp over the table made a light/on the ceiling last night that looked like a full moon,/And I met a woman who has a son named Aaron/with cerebral palsy and I call him the ‘crooked prince.’/I guess we both are: Him in body./and Me in mind — he is more alive than me . . . in more ways than I care to think about/but I always do . . .”
Mitchum tough mixed with McKuen tender? Madsen scoffs at such equations.
“I’m just trying to pick up on an idea here and there, and we’re not going to be here forever, and it’s nice to leave something behind.”
Naught but good memories will be left behind tonight. Madsen embraces and is embraced by various folk who clearly feel strongly about the Work, about the Man. He reads a handful of poems, chuckling at his own raw, Bukowski-esque words. Madsen ends his reflective performance with a take-charge statement:
But one fellow is not eating. At the bar stands the great Harry Dean Stanton, just turned 79, looking like a man who just might know everything important and funny and wise there is to know. He’s a dear friend of the Madsen family — mother, daughter, son. Known them for years. He’s gesturing delicately with his cigarette, making certain the bartender knows how to concoct a proper Manhattan.
“I love poetry,” Stanton states. “I like Basho. He’s a 15th-century Chinese poet, I think. Something like that.” Damned close. Ancient scribe Basho was a Japanese haiku master who lived from 1644–1694, years prior to the dawn of the Manhattan. “He wrote my favorite poem. Do you want to hear it? It’s very short.” Stanton clears his throat.
“Old pond/Frog jumps in/Splash.”
Stanton takes his drink and sips, standing quietly, weaving a tad, satisfied.
Did he ever write any poetry? Stanton replies with the shortest poem of all: