He didn’t talk until he was 6-years-old, wrote a short film inspired by Charlie Chaplin and spent his lifetime working a job that required him not to speak a single word.
But soon, the mime speaks.
Joe McCord, who worked as a pantomime in the 60s and 70s — performing with such musicians as the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix — says he is working with publisher Jorvik Press to tell his life story.
Jorvik Press reached out to McCord last year, asking him to write the story in his own words. The autobiography fittingly will be called “The Mime Speaks.”
“I have this incredible journey, this odyssey of my life – the twists and turns of a long strange trip, and I’ve been silent – no pun intended (because I’m a pantomime),” McCord said. “But now, I’m 71 years old and I want to share all these stories with the public.”
Janglin Souls first met McCord on the first day of Edward Sharpe’s four-day Big Top circus/festival in October 2013, at Los Angeles Historic Park. For the four days of Big Top, he transformed into Joe Daddy The Gypsy Fortune Teller, in full costume. We recently caught up with McCord, who shared some more amazing stories.
Q: Do you remember how Alex Ebert first met Orpheo back when Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros first came together?
A: Alex was at a park, walking down a path with Heath Ledger, and suddenly he turns to Alex and says, “Go down to that next trail down below.” Alex says, “Why?” Heath said, “Just do it.” … And he did, and that’s where Orpheo was walking down the path. That’s how they met. Heath just had a psychic premonition that Alex needed to go down to that next trail, and that’s where he met Orpheo. Isn’t that wild? It’s really wild. I know Alex misses Heath. They were pretty close. It’s a sore spot for Alex to talk about his relationship with Heath because they were really, really tight.
Q: Alex, Orpheo and Stewart all have parts in the short film you wrote, “The Butterfly, The Harp & The Timepiece.” The last we spoke you mentioned the film was close to being completed. What is the current status?
A: It’s kind of in limbo… The producer had made some changes to it, and is now having some award-winning film editor in New York work on the film.
Originally, he hired Mark Noseworthy, Orpheo, me and my close friend Kaisa Kurocyska to do the music score for the film. Alex originally gave me his song Dear Believer to be with my story (the producer eventually decided not to use it). The producer basically got stars in his eyes and changed the beginning of the film. He saw that we had Melissa Leo, an Academy-Award winning actress, in our film and decided to start the movie with her, which is not what I wrote.
The producer eventually decided – out of anger toward me – not to use all of our music … It’s unfortunate and a tragic story, and really a cliché story for Hollywood. Everyone has their own ego and their own motives. I thought this producer was on the same page with me, but as it turns out, he wasn’t.
Even though he changed it up, it’s still a pretty little 13-minute gem. The music was fantastic; Mark Noseworthy and Orpheo did beautiful jobs and Kaisa put some beautiful classical music to my pantozique that I do in the film. It’s really a nice little gem, but that’s not the movie I wrote, and that’s the unfortunate part.
Q: In your episode of “The Joe Daddy Show” with Alex Ebert, you talked about John Lennon’s Imagine being a “world anthem” – a song recognized by everybody in nearly every country. Home is obviously Edward Sharpe’s most popular song, but it’s not the not the song that you believe is ESMZ’s “world anthem, is it?”
A: I actually believe Dear Believer is and I’ll tell you why. It’s funny because it’s not all that popular… But one of the reasons why is because I helped him change a lyric in it. “Call me blind, call me fool … Call me wise, call me fool” in the middle bridge. Alex liked it, he does it to this day…. Let’s face it, when you become a celebrity and a living legend, some people out of jealously will say, “God you’re just a fool” and some say, “You’re a god,” – which is what I think Alex had a problem with. I think that’s why he shaved his beard. I see he is growing it back now. He said in the interview with me, “I’m always fighting Jesus.” Alex does have a strong Christian-like demeanor about him – and not just the way he looks, but where he’s coming from. One of the reasons why I think Dear Believer is a “world anthem” is because it’s like a love letter to humanity. It’s like saying, “All I want is for you to be thankful to the heavens.” It’s a beautiful, beautiful song in that way. And I wish it was more popular because I believe it’s on the same measure as Imagine is.
I told Alex, “You guys needs to get more political. You have such power with the young people – you’ve got to get them thinking about what’s wrong in the world and what’s right. It’s wonderful to talk about love and all that stuff, but it’s also important to expose the pit of vipers.”
Music has always been the pulse of what’s going on in society and in the world. If there’s anything missing in the new music it’s more political statements. I’m hoping they move in that direction – even though it will bring on a lot of fire and brimstone, as it always has. Look what happened to Lennon. Bob Dylan says, “I can’t write the songs I used to. I’m being scrutinized by some people I don’t want scrutinizing me.” He gets death threats – especially from some of the stuff he wrote in the early days.
Q: During Home at Edward Sharpe’s Big Top in 2013, you were handed the mic and told the fans, “I just wanted to tell you that’s it’s been a real long time since I’ve experienced a phenomenon like this band. Don’t you all feel like you’re in this band?” Talk about the ESMZ fans and how the band “breaks down the barriers?”
A: They make the people in the audience feel like they’re part of the band, and that’s very, very rare. … Their devout fans are the Sharpies, in my opinion, just like the Deadheads. At least that’s what I call them. When I was worked for the Grateful Dead, I met a lot of the Deadheads. They were out there selling their wares and selling blood to get tickets to get into the concert — that kind of dedication. They were so passionate about the Grateful Dead, and I consider the Sharpies to be the same way.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros is a magical band. I can’t put a label on them. People ask me, “What kind of music do they play?” I tell them, “Well, it’s feel-good music.” I can’t give it a title. It’s kind of rock and roll, it’s kind of soul music, it’s everything. It just makes you feel good.
Q: You worked as a pantomime for several Grateful Dead shows, and were close friends with Jerry Garcia. Are you planning to be at the Grateful Dead reunion shows coming up? Will there be a return of the pantomime?
A: No, no, I won’t be going… One of the things that is very important for people to know is that Jerry wanted to quit the Dead. He wanted to quit playing music professionally; he wanted to write his memoirs and paint and play with his friends in his living room. But the Grateful Dead, the rest of the band, wouldn’t let him go. They had him contractually over a barrel. The last thing he said to me about a year before he died was, “The only way I can leave the Grateful Dead is die.” A year later he was dead. Pretty controversial stuff. I guess his words came true. It was horrible. It was an ugly ending to their relationship.
Q: How were you able to build so many great friendships and relationships with so many great musicians?
A: One of the things I remember about Jimi Hendrix — aside from him calling me “The Musician in Silence” — was him saying to me, “Do you know why all these musicians open up to you Joe?” I said, “No, why do you think?” He said, “Because you’re no threat to us. You don’t play an instrument per se except for your body, so there’s no competition element between us, like another guitar player. Besides that, I think you have an understanding about music that is on the same level as me, so I know we can talk music together and collaborate. You are this everyman guy.” That was a very insightful thing for him to say because I think that’s one of the reasons that I tend to make people comfortable. Total strangers come up to me and tell me there life story – all the time!
Q: I am currently reading “Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test” by Tom Wolfe, which you are mentioned in – under the nickname “Merlin.” What was that time period like?
A: There are a few mentions of me in there. When Tom Wolfe came to Kesey’s to write the book, he never took acid with us. He always wore white suits the whole time. He was more like the journalistic voyeur. He never partook in the ceremonies as it were. So the book doesn’t really capture the real magic of that moment. But don’t get me wrong, Tom Wolfe is a great novelist. That would’ve been a difficult book to write. Like I told my biographer, “Everything that was happening in the renaissance that I call the 60s was a full 360. There was stuff happening simultaneously in all directions. How do you capture that in a novel or a film?”
Q: Do you have a favorite Neal Cassady story?
A: The day he and I met… I was working in La Honda at Ken Kesey’s house. I was working on a pantomime piece called “The Gardener.” I was really into it and all of a sudden, across the road I see this bright red hot rod coming over the bridge into Kesey’s property. He pulls in not far from where I was, and he is talking to himself and he doesn’t even notice me. What most people don’t know about Neal was that he never bought a car … he just “borrowed” them. Since he was a master mechanic, he tuned the cars up and would fix them up in better condition than before he took them. That was Neal.
Anyway, he is working on his car and has his hood up, and I’m just so fascinated by the fact that he doesn’t see me there. So I automatically switched to reflect him and what he was doing with his tools … Then he notices me. He looks over and asks, “Is that you Merlin? I knew you were coming. Is that you Merlin?” I look at him and said, “I guess so.” He says, “Do you want to go to the moon, Merlin?” I said, “Sure, let’s go!” We hopped into the car, and we took off.
That night, Neal and I had a shared hallucination. We were driving down a mountain from La Honda, CA, and there was a fog, and there was this weird purple light in the fog, and suddenly Neal stops and we both see a purple dragon. We were both on acid, but we had a shared hallucination. He said, “Do you see that?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Wow!” What color is it? I said, “Purple.” He said, “More like ultra violet.” And then he turns to me and says, “But we know there’s no such thing as purple dragons.” So we just drove through it and turned out to just be a fog bank that dissipated as we drove through it. That’s my favorite time with Neal.
What’s interesting about Neal was that he was a bit of a psychic. He’d have this long monologue, and if you were with Neal for more than an hour, you wanted to pull your hair out. As you’re thinking about something, he’d be on to something else. And when you finally got a word in and asked a question, and he’d answer the question before you even asked it. I was a pantomime, non-verbal and he was ultra verbal. So we were complementary in an odd sort of paradoxical way. That’s why he called me Merlin.
Q: So is it really true that you didn’t talk until you were 6 years old?
A: Yes, I didn’t talk at all until I was 6. There was a cartoon series in the 60s and the 70s called “Gerald McBoing-Boing.” It was based on a child who didn’t talk and intimated things that he encountered – both sounds and visuals. That was based on my childhood because that writer was my mother’s friend. So I was the inspiration for that cartoon series.
My mother and a few of her friends took me to “City Lights” with Charlie Chaplin, and she told me that when the movie went on, I was so fascinated and entranced by it that I walked up to the front of the movie theater, put my head on the stage and watched the movie in complete control. After the movie was over, they decided to go for a drink and I’m talking in volumes, and they’re going, “We thought you couldn’t talk? Why didn’t you talk?” I told them, “I had nothing to say.” A year later, I went to work for CBS doing live commercials. I was in a gang during the day and went to work at CBS at night. I was bringing home cash for rent. We didn’t have a television or radio. My mother and I were pretty poor. My father (Milton Harvey “Mac” McCord) was away at sea in the second World War. My mother, as crazy as she was, thought I was bringing money back from gang activity. She never realized I was on television… They had me going to schools for idiots and schools for geniuses. They didn’t know what my story was and why I wasn’t talking. I guess from an outsider’s perspective, this kid was pretty crazy — imitating tractors and people and animals. I didn’t even know the art form I was doing.
One of the reasons I believe in reincarnation is I believe I was a pantomime in another life and somehow got nipped in the bud, because it was a continuum. Why else did I start so young?
I also inherited my father’s perfect pitch. He could hear a whole piece of music and sit down and play it on the piano or sing it – on key. He couldn’t tell you where a C or D was on the piano, but he could play it. He was a brilliant, brilliant singer. He was an opera singer as well. He worked in the merchant Marines and was torpedoed on two different occasions by German U Boats and survived. So he learned to sing opera in five languages from his travels.
My father was a true swashbuckler. He would go into the tough port bars, with guys with peg legs and eye patches, and he would go up and he’d jump up on the bar and sing… Inevitably someone would be a little too drunk at that bar and he would jump off the bar — on beat — in the middle of the song, knock them out, and be back on the bar as if there was no interruption at all. That was my father. When he sang, windows would rattle and glasses would shake. He had an incredible voice.
The head of Julliard’s opera department heard of this tough guy who sang opera down in Hell’s Kitchen, and they went down to this tough bar and kind of hovered together waiting for my father to show up. When he finally did, he says, “Oh my God, we found a new (Enrico) Caruso. We’re going to groom him to be the next great opera singer in the world.” They gave us a home in Greenwich Village and a car in New York. They asked him to teach at Juilliard even though he never finished high school, and they were going to groom him to be the next great opera singer. Well, that was the year he died of Rheumatic heart. Rheumatic Fever is something you get when you’re poor as a child, and it damages your heart. Penicillin was a recognized medication but they didn’t realize it could treat Rheumatic heart unfortunately.
My father died that year. I was with him when he died. I was crying, and I had my hands over my eyes, and he said, “Son, what are you doing?” I said, “I’m crying, pop, because I know you’re going to die, and I don’t even know what that means, I just know that you’re not going to be here anymore.” And he said, “Well, if you’re going to be a real man and a whole human being, you must learn not to be ashamed of your sadness. Take your hands from your eyes.” And that’s the last thing he said to me.
I live on the boat that he always wanted to have. I’m living his dream, too. I miss him so much.
Q: How much of an influence did Charlie Chaplin have in your career, and describe what it was like meeting him.
A: I only met him four years before he died. I met him when he was an old man. Not many people don’t know this about Walter Matthau … in addition to being a great comedian and actor, Walter Matthau was also the most knowledgeable scholar in the history of pantomimes. He knew more about the history of pantomimes than anybody else, ever. And Charlie and Walter had a very close friendship.
Walter Matthau had come to see my play “Tarot.” (Jerry) Garcia played a couple of those gigs. A lot of visiting musicians — like the Winter brothers, Edgar and Johnny — would play during the show. I had a basic band… All the musicians were on risers, standing over the stage and playing music above the performers and out to the audience. “Tarot” was something I wrote and played the lead in and directed. It was about a fool’s journey to “enlightenment.” He’s taken on this journey by two reluctant magis — the light and dark magis — both vying for his favor as they take him along, therefore polarizing the fool.
Walter Matthau had come to see that show, but I didn’t know because he was whisked away right after because he had to do a movie in Paris and he was late. So he didn’t get a chance to come backstage and tell me how much he liked the play. A couple of years later, I’m back in Northern California visiting with my mother in Mill Valley, and there’s a film crew downtown and I recognized Walter Matthau — and he recognized me (even though I had white face on). He says, “I wanna talk to you about your play?” He said the play was a phenomenal, incredible play — way ahead of its time. He said, “How can I help you? How can I give you a boost?” I said, “Well. I sent a screenplay of ‘Tarot’ to Charlie Chaplin. I’ve sent two copies and have had no response. He said, “I’ll get him to respond. Better yet, I’ll get him to send for you.”And that’s exactly what happened.
(Charlie) got me a hotel suite in the classiest hotel in Geneva. The name of his home was “Maison De Ban,” which means “home of the band” in French. He was very bitter and angry about the fact that he was kicked out of America; that’s why he named his home that. I was supposed to spend an hour with Charlie Chaplin. I spent almost 12 hours with him. Charlie was not warm toward me when I first got there. In fact, he didn’t even say hello or shake my hand. He just pointed to me in this empty space in this big Gothic room that I was sitting and waiting for him, and said: “Perform!” I was shaking in my boots just being there, and now I have to show him what I do, too? … The piece I did for him was called “The Vegetarian and the Meateater.” He could see my skill but he didn’t see the humor of it … He wasn’t moved yet. The second piece I performed for him was called “Hero.” I played three characters in that: a Vietnam veteran morphine addict assassin who checks into his hotel room ; a lying politician, ala Richard Nixon, lying in a street below the hotel; and the cop who busts the hero for killing the politician. It was a very controversial piece, and he was really moved by that — moved to tears. Then I performed “Dog Shit,” which I never tell people the name of, but it’s a series of characters. It’s about this character that is being walked by his oversized dog, who shits on the sidewalks and about the various characters afterward that stood in it. Chaplin was like a little boy. He was clapping his hands and was like, “Oh wow! Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of that for The Tramp! That’s one of the few common denominators in the world. Everyone steps in dog shit.” Now he loves me and is very warm. He said, “My eyes aren’t good, so sit in this chair and bring it closer to mine … we have to talk.” That hour passed by pretty quickly. The secretary kept coming in and saying, “You have other appointments maestro.” He said, “Just leave us alone” … and finally she did. To her, I was just another nobody. To him, I wasn’t (just a nobody) anymore.
There are some things I’m not able to share with anyone because he swore to secrecy. But I can tell you that we talked a great deal about what he called the “ultimate film.” My movie (“The Butterfly, The Harp & The Timepiece”) is directly connected to that inspiration. I told him that I thought “Gold Rush” and some of his other movies were the “ultimate film.” He said, “Thank you, but the camera in my day was just a box with a lense. There was no technical stuff to enhance the film. He said, “I envy you for your generation because you have all this technical stuff. So I asked, “What do you mean by this ‘ultimate film?’” He said, ‘The ‘ultimate film’ has to be minimal dialogue, with a strong subtextual nature and consummate music. It has to be personal to everyone on the face of the earth – no matter what their age, culture, race, creed, color or religion. That’s what I call the ‘ultimate film.’”
That’s why my film has minimal dialogue, and needless to say, the music is wonderful. The visuals and the music move like a hand in a glove … it was just wonderful. Pantomime, when it is done well, is a universal language. When it’s done badly, there is nothing to worse to watch.