Paul Burton, Editor, The Vile Plutocrat
Submitted by: Editor
Eight months ago, I received an article submission for The Vile Plutocrat from a man who lives in a peculiar, dusty, one-tavern town in the epicenter of outrageous wealth - the spectacular Roaring Fork Valley. Woody Creek lies a few miles from Aspen, CO, the site of one of my most memorable youthful “trips”.
It turned out that the article he had submitted was actually very well written (I’ve received a few doozies), had been previously published in the Aspen Times, and expressed a sentiment that caused me pause. This looked promising. Either you get it or you don't made it clear that this guy was someone who implicitly understood the purpose behind Vile. I sent him a grateful thank you and promised to publish his story immediately after getting permission from Andy Stone, novelist and former editor/publisher of the Aspen Times. A few email exchanges later, I was elated to have crowned Vile's Aspen Bureau Chief and wary that my inability to turn a profit from the site would eventually mean my new writer would be a temporary gift.
Michael Cleverly has lived in Aspen for over 40 years. Originally from Vermont, he tried his luck as a young Color Field painter in New York City before making the fateful decision to move out West. I'm fuzzy on the details how he managed to wind up in Aspen, but I have no doubt that he's been thankful every day since he first bellied up to the J-Bar at the historic Hotel Jerome.
I met Michael for the first time last week, on a lovely Saturday evening, outside the Livaspenart Gallery in downtown Aspen. I had walked past the gallery twice before noticing a stately man with a wild look in his eyes who was wearing a bright orange shirt and a raccoon skin hat. This character was waving at me like I was about to step in front of a 400-pound tourist at the mercy of inertia. Actually, he simply recognized me and called my name, but that’s not as interesting. He looked every bit the part of a sophisticated artist sans goofy animal skin hat. He was waiting for me with his friend George, a gallery owner himself (the Omnibus Gallery specializes in wildly expensive vintage posters). After a cordial introduction and a round of firm hand shakes, I was ushered into the invitation-only gallery opening. I'm fairly certain that I was grinning like a fool. I liked both of them immediately.
Months before, I had learned a few things about my new Vile compatriot. He was a Realist painter, a published author, journalist for the Aspen Times, former ski instructor, and member of one of the most unusual bands of underground misfits ever to hold court in this or any land. He was one of Hunter S. Thompson's closest friends. Needless to say, being an illustrator and painter, one of the first questions I asked him was, "do you know Ralph Steadman?" He responded, "I had dinner with him a couple weeks ago." I stuttered.
Standing amidst the glitterati of modern Aspen, Michael and I toasted our introduction with a shot of home-made, cucumber-and-watermelon-infused tequila that was being poured by the man who had created this potent yet smooth agave mixture. I never got the distiller's name. The tequila burned its merry way down to an empty pit and landed with a queasy thud. Within a short while, my hunger pangs were growing audible - no doubt due to the Mariachi band playing in my belly. I was also keenly aware that the artistically ignorant plastic milling about could smell the stench of pedestrian. These people didn’t give two shits about the mediocre contemporary art they were viewing. They were there to be viewed. It was only a matter of time before I was rooted out. My stomach eagerly agreed to step outside to discuss where to eat dinner. We bid George a very good night and walked a few dozen paces to a local restaurant called the Takah Sushi.
Michael is a well-known figure around town. At 64, he's been in Aspen long enough to know everyone rich and poor, famous and infamous, celebrities and nobodies. By his own humble admission, he's helped close down numerous galleries, but he is, perhaps, most prominently known for his rather pointed writing style. The articles he pens that appear in the Aspen Times describing the bilious underbelly of wealth infecting the Roaring Fork Valley have garnered him a reputation for being something of a curmudgeon (sounds familiar). I discovered at dinner that my own future as an enlightened white-hair with a gruff demeanor could mean that young ladies may, one day, swoon over me. The dude was smooth. "They like to humor me," he said with a Cheshire grin.
Whilst stuffing raw fish into our faces, we had a lively conversation punctuated periodically by a lovely waitress named Dasha or Sasha or Mildred. In the interest of propriety, I’ll just say that one of the names is correct. She was one of the girls who humored Michael. He'd painted her portrait along with her sister when she was younger at the behest of their parents (one parent is the owner of Taka Sushi and the other parent is the owner of the Omnibus Gallery). She was working in her mother's restaurant for the summer and was Michael's eyes and ears for learning the whereabouts of his crew of geriatric miscreants. We were told that two of the friends he wanted me to meet had been seen around town in various stages of sobriety and physical distress over the past couple days. Sadly, neither his coauthor Bob Braudis, former sheriff of Pitkin County, nor filmmaker Bob Rafelson, whose famous, prescient film Five Easy Pieces launched Jack Nicholson's career, were available to meet us out for dinner. Nevertheless, Mr. Cleverly holds a captivating court. It was the most fun I'd had in a long time.
I bid him an early goodnight and graciously accepted an invitation to stop by his cabin in Woody Creek on my way out of town the next morning.
My first stop after a very late alarm on Sunday morning was at Explore Booksellers on Main Street. I wanted to pick up a copy of The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson for Michael to sign. As I was checking out, the proprietor asked me if I had been at the store for a recent book signing by the authors. I said, "No, but I am actually driving down to Woody Creek to see Michael this morning." His response was part surprise and part disbelief. Just then, my mobile phone punctuated the disbelief, "Good morning Michael!" An unwarranted, self-important smile spread across the limited expanse of my camera-defyingly-narrow face.
"Look for totems and an old red Jeep in front of an old cabin." I rounded a hairpin turn just past the tavern in Woody Creek and followed the road past an immaculate horse farm, an alpaca farm, and a couple of luxurious homes beyond the fiscal reach of 99.999% of the population. I was in millionaire and billionaire country. Cowboys are a side show to these people. Most of the monstrous homes in Woody Creek and the Aspen valley are second, third, or sixth homes. These massive, single-family mansions, built with rare and expensive resources, sit dormant for much of the year. Plopped in the middle of this obscene money sits a cozy 160-year-old log cabin (worth nearly a million dollars) being rented by my new friend. He's literally the thorn in the lion's paw and he couldn't be more pleased. It's a gorgeous, secluded spot, and his landlord is a lovely old heiress who offers him rent for less than I pay per month for my mortgage.
I love visiting artist's studios. I love the clutter and the knick-knacks and the remembrances. But this time, I was truly transfixed. Original posters from Hunter's failed run at sheriff, pictures of the local gang of social dissidents, a signed drawing of Steadman's, a signed strip of Mother Goose and Grimm from Mike Peters (another local resident and friend of Michael's), original paintings, oddities, masks, books, movie memorabilia, and his two beautiful, scruffy cats. It was all a physical history of his life and his times, and it was absolutely fascinating.
We talked for an hour in the front of the house while watching a steady stream of spandex advertising ride past his place. He told me how he had once chased a cyclist down the road with an axe. Not his finest moment, perhaps, but no regrets. Again, the grin.
We talked for another hour or so on his back porch. He gave me the lay of the land and pointed out Senator Dianne Feinstein's multimillion dollar mountain top retreat and Barbie Benton’s odd, cascading home at the far end of the valley. I could have listened to stories about the “neighbors” for hours.
All around us, dozens, at least three dozen, pugnacious hummingbirds were dog-fighting for a spot at a single feeder. Eight or ten of the little buggers would be head-butting one another out of the way for a drink, while the others were perched a very short distance away on trees and bushes waiting impatiently for their turn to pounce. A few had figured out that the pretty flowers in pots surrounding the cabin were filled with nectar and were circling like F18's around an aircraft carrier. They were everywhere. Normally hearing a hummingbird chirp requires silence. Not so in this rare place. With so many little voices in such close proximity, the cacophony was impressive.
Any other person could be accused of name-dropping: but when your neighbors and friends include John Oats of Hall and Oats (the Alpaca farmer), Bob Beattie (former coach and legend of the US Ski Team), Actor Don Johnson, George Stranahan (a local Aspen legend who is brewer of Flying Dog Beer and maker of an award-winning whiskey), and Hunter S. Thompson among many, many other well known names … Well, there's no way you can say anything other than "Wow". These people are just part of the local community.
Michael's connections are vast and his circle of friends is impressive; and upon reading his book you understand just how intertwined he is with the local lore. I was crying with laughter while reading many of the insanely insane stories he and Bob Braudis describe in The Kitchen Readings. While there are plenty of stupidly uptight people who would judge their stories based on the abject depravity described within, it's hard not be envious. Fuck all, it's impossible not to be envious. No one has that much fun.
He has been fortunate to have been a fly on the wall in some of the most exhilarating and bizarre happenings in the Roaring Fork Valley and was lucky enough to be among the few people who were granted membership into the inner circle of, arguably, the most unusual mind to ever walk upright (half the time).
He has lived a life as rich as the wealthiest man and it didn’t require building a 40,000 square foot monstrosity in a delicate natural environment. “I’ve got all I need.”
The most talented people are often the ones who don't achieve the fame and fortune they rightly deserve. Michael's talents are vast and despite his purposeful surliness, he's one of the nicest, smartest, and most gracious people I've met in a long while. It just helps to have a similar outlook on life and a healthy distaste for the vile pomposity of wealth.
I didn't have any expectations when I created the Vile Plutocrat. I still have none. One day, perhaps, it will pay off financially. In the meantime, I'll keep plugging away on Vile come hell or a fine single malt. It's still a project that needs to be done, and I'm happy to have Michael on board for as long as he's willing to lend his sage words.
One thing is certain: I would never have had the opportunity to meet such an interesting man and familiar soul if I had ignored my instincts.
I look forward to visiting again, soon. Cheers, Sensei.