Mel C. Thompson was born with radical facial defects, mastoid bone deformations, sinus canal irregularities and badly-formed eustachian tubes. His face was split open from a cleft palate and he was missing segments of jaw bone and lip. He also had bad dental problems and chronic gum disease. His first two mothers had rejected him and had disappeared by the time the boy was nine years old. He also inherited a mysterious muscle disorder and was prone to profound clinical depression, extreme anxiety disorder and acute insomnia.
In spite of, and/or because of, these difficulties, the artist had artistic yearnings throughout his early childhood, but could find no suitable outlet. He occasionally acted in school plays, and was very respected for his efforts , but his attention deficit disorder and memory lapses seemed to preclude an ongoing acting vocation. His first formal attempt at a consistent artistic practice came at eleven years of age when he attempted to join the band in junior high school as a trombonist. At that time he was unable to keep up with the other students. Also, due to his birth defects, he was unable to keep proper airflow into the instrument. Additionally, he was unable to comprehend the timing of the notes. There was no gift for counting dotted quarter notes, a theme that would haunt the musician for some time to come.
After leaving the junior high school band, the artist asked his father for classical guitar lessons, which were, at that time, quite expensive. However the artist's father saw that the boy simply needed this form of expression and funded the lessons for several months. Unfortunately, due to coordination problems and what later turned out to be a muscle disorder of some genetic kind, the boy could not keep pace with his very demanding teacher. Dejected, the child dropped out of formal training.
Unable to give up on his dream, the young child practiced on his own, where he could set the pace. He was not able to fully grasp dotted notes until his early thirties, so he remained contented playing songs whose melodies he had memorized or which had extremely simple notation. Later he was to learn folk guitar, which required only simple counting and the strumming of chords and finger picking patterns. He never excelled as a guitarist, and yet he had a knack for “faking it” on virtually any instrument, often playing primitive versions of every instrument on multi-track recordings.
His short months of classical music training helped him to end up in concert choir, although his voice tone was problematic, and his speech therapist said that cleft palates rarely sang well. His voice could alternately be very powerful and then suddenly weak, right in tune and then hopelessly out of tune. Furthermore, the artist also was congenitally prone to laryngitis caused by chronic allergies. Even so, he was called upon to sing regularly with many people disapproving of his voice and many others intently devoted to it. Due to air flow problems due to malformations of the jawbone and sinus passages, the voice was thin, high, nasally and somewhat grating, but it could also be an enthusiastic and loud voice filled with earnest rapture. There was never a consensus as to whether the voice was horrid or brilliant. That pattern of public uncertainty continued throughout much of the artists life and remains an unresolved issue to this day among listeners.
2. High School Experiences:
At the age of fourteen the artist, raised a Catholic, suddenly converted to Evangelical Christianity for about five years. He later renounced that faith and many of its political components after deciding to major in Philosophy at Fullerton Junior College. However, at the age of fourteen, the author also enrolled in his first creative writing class, and he still knows a few people from that same class. It was there the author was taught to write poetry and spoken word pieces. He also dabbled again in acting and wrote and performed in a few plays, but again, acting failed to stir his passion. (The artist was still recruited for acting jobs well into his forties, and did well in these short jobs, but each time he found the art form to be unfulfilling.)
One day, while still fourteen years old, the author sat down and said a simple prayer: “I would like to be a songwriter.” Miraculously, although the artist did not have proper mastery of scales, key structures, chord patterns, melody formation or harmony theory, he began to write songs. His first several songs were musically inferior and elicited complaints from listeners and fellow musicians due to their amateurish sound. But, as always, ardent fans believed otherwise, and hence these odd pop and gospel tunes kept finding venues and eager listeners. The gospel tunes were somewhat successful and were regularly sung at the artists church, and eventually he was asked to be the gospel song leader for many youth group meetings and some larger Sunday services, (at one point being paid to do this as a part of his youth ministry job).
In high school the artist was a member, leader and founder of many short-lived bands, duets, trios and quartets, all of whom were able to secure performance venues, performing for as few as ten people or as many as a thousand. The artist and his groups were often called on to sing at various churches, schools and other venues, secular and religious. He also kept up his work in concert choir, and from time to time would be a part of award-winning groupings that competed in state competitions. His choir teacher believed he was a good singer, though perhaps not an excellent singer, while still others regularly and blatantly disapproved of his voice.
Soon music overwhelmed Thompson's fledgling poetry hobby. Often he only wrote a few poems per year. Singing, songwriting, preaching and pounding out chords on piano and guitar seemed to consume most of his waking hours. The author also, for the sake of his multi-track recording experiments, gained semi-competency on mandolin, banjo, bass guitar, stand-up bass, flute, recorder and just about any instrument he could get his hands on. For some time he could “fake it” on piano well enough that he was primarily known as pianist/songwriter.
His pop songs came just to the edge of being commercially viable, but never were accepted by the recording industry, though some recording industry executives did go so far as to actually promise to release some of his music. Strangely, he was approached by record companies seeking demos when he was well into his late thirties. It was not unusual for the artist to appear on radio or for his songs to be played on air from time to time, although he was never able to earn sufficient royalties from this and eventually gave up his musical career.
3. The Artist In His College Days:
At nineteen he was in Hollywood recording demos and cutting 45rpm disks, but by then pop music had gravitated away from folk rock and the disco era was in full swing. There was virtually no chance for an artist of his eccentricity and dated style to make it in the commercial recording industry.
Adding to an already difficult scenario was his nearly-fatal motorcycle accident in which he nearly lost his leg and would have bled to death in the street, had not a battle-hardened field medic from the Vietnam War just happen to be driving by at that moment. The ex-soldier leapt from his vehicle and used Thompson's own belt as a tourniquet. He was so expert at this procedure that he was able to apply the tourniquet just tightly enough so that the bleeding would not be fatal, but not so tight that Thompson would lose his leg from lack of circulation. A motorcycle policeman weaved through the heavy rush hour traffic and advised the tourniquet be set more tightly to ensure the victim would survive. However, the field medic convinced the policeman he was right, and this saved both Thompson's leg and his life. For his part, the policeman was an expert at keeping shock victims awake so that they did not pass out and die. (People with shock and blood loss often do this.) The policeman's expertise in talking people into staying awake when they would really rather go to sleep and die, was also critical in saving Thompson's life. Unfortunately, all of this left him psychiatrically scarred and physically ravaged, and hence his judgment and skills were effected.
In his mid and late twenties, his sporadic attempts at poetry, painting and music were dwarfed by real world concerns. He was working full-time in corporate business jobs and constantly trying to save what was an extremely-stressful and often unrewarding romantic life. From time to time his poetic impulses would surface during peak experiences in nature or when he felt he was falling in love. His poetic forays were often inspired by experiences he was having as he experimented with many religions, philosophies and intoxicants. However, his output was inconsistent, and he did little to promote his efforts publicly. (He had believed he had done a lot of hard promotional work, until he was later educated in what real promotional efforts were.)
4. Failed Career Attempts And Failed Marriage:
After he graduated with his Philosophy degree, he gained and lost countless jobs in endless failed career attempts. He was never cut out, physically or psychologically for ordinary jobs, but he was culturally unable to accept this. When he did occasionally suspect his constitution was too delicate to handle real world working situations for extended periods of time, he would be called a fraud, a malingerer and get no support whatsoever from the backward, reactionary culture of the people of North Orange County in the 80s. In an absurd effort to fit into this culture, he got married to a woman everyone knew he was completely incompatible with. In four months they were divorced. Finally, he was wisely talked into moving out of Orange County where he'd spent most of his childhood.
5. Escape From Behind The Orange Curtain Into San Diego:
A friend, seeing how badly he had always fared in the tough-love/no-excuses, football-oriented, macho culture of Orange County, strongly advised he move to San Diego. It was here he became convinced, more than ever, that he must be an artist and a contemplative. It was also here that he would be subdued by his physical fate and begin the long road of being on and off disability and social services. Both of these aspects of his life were profound and revolutionary and seemingly permanent.
Thompson had fought against many injuries, diseases, infections, birth defects and other annoyances all of his life. And he also had to deal with the crippling effects of his motorcycle accident. But what began to turn the tide against his being a viable full-time worker was the onset of a genetic muscle syndrome that had been latent. It reared its head and finally took over. This made almost all forms of normal employment impossible. The artist continued to work odd part-time jobs and hide out at guard posts for a couple more decades, but he would never again be financially self-sufficient.
It was in San Diego that Thompson suddenly decided to become an abstract painter. He dedicated a few very feverish years to this passionate activity, but was unable to keep up with the hobby due to health problems more severe than he had ever imagined. He had become unable to paint due to a sudden episode of fibromyalgia, a disorder that was virtually unknown at the time.
When he became disabled, he soon found out how cold and hard his own culture was and also how cruel and bizarre his own government was toward the disabled. This radicalized Thompson, who, up till then had been a Conservative, a Reagan voter. He embraced Euro-Socialist-Capitalist-Fusion concepts of governing. This in turn lead to a sudden and prolific output of poetry.
After a few years in San Diego, Thompson moved back to Orange County and tried to resume his musical career, but the results were uninspiring. He began to have more sympathy again for the poetic lifestyle, but there were virtually no outlets for poets in Orange County at that time. (Laguna Beach had a well-noted, long-standing reading series, but Laguna Beach was always too progressive and artistic and geographically isolated to be considered a true part of Orange County.)
6. The Conversion To Poetry:
One day the author was reading the newspaper when he stumbled upon a large article in the arts section and read that his own North Orange County area had finally gotten a good spoken word reading series going with a very lively, almost Bay-Area-style open mic.
Thompson knew, at that moment, he was going to be a spoken word poet, and that poetry, not music, would be the guiding light of his artistic life. He found himself writing works that may not have been so brilliant “on the page,” but that appealed to him from a “spoken word” point of view. Within days he was signed up on the open mic list and doing quite well with the audience. The chemistry was clear, crisp and successful.
Unlike his very, very labored musical work, competency in writing and public speaking came easily. Instead of half of the people disliking his work, often audiences were overwhelmingly convinced of his viability as a writer-performer. If his writing was lacking a bit, he could usually make up for it by performing well. If he wasn't performing so well, often his writing might reach the crowd. In either case, this world felt far more natural and hospitable than the music industry.
Later, Thompson noticed that the scene in Southern California in the eighties was still a bit small and he yearned to live in an area with dozens of venues easily reachable by mass transit. (He had become too poor to sustain an automobile and was forced to take the then primitive OCTD buses everywhere.)
The same friend who urged him to move to San Diego pointed out that the mass transit facilities of the Bay Area were world class. Everyone knew the Bay Area poetry scene was a veritable holy land for poets. And so it was not long before he found himself flopped on the couch of that same friend who lived in Berkeley. In a matter of days he landed one of three substandard apartments he would use to spend about fifteen years living in the City of San Francisco itself.
7. Life In San Francisco:
After Thompson arrived in San Francisco, he was introduced to a young woman by a mutual friend and they shared a whirlwind romance. However, he was also working the graveyard shift, and the combination of the stresses of living in a new city, diving headlong into a romance with a woman he was considering marrying and working mixed shifts at all hours of the day and night drove him over the edge. He ended up in a San Francisco mental hospital and lost both his job and his relationship and became such an insomniac that he could barely function. The psychiatric hospital shoved him to the curb after determining he was incurable. (The diagnosis apparently still holds.) Left with nothing but his poetry, he wandered into poetry readings feeling frightened, alone, misunderstood and lost. He wrote blatantly confessional verse outlining the whole truth of his condition, insofar as he could be said to even understand his condition. His work met with tepid approval, and his sense of isolation made him inconsolable.
One day, at one of these readings, two of the poets, Maura O'Connor and David Lerner, who were a couple at that time, casually commented that they understood in detail, from personal experience, virtually all of the experiences Thompson was writing about. He revealed to them the entire truth of his psychiatric history, expecting them to be unsympathetic. However, the more he spoke with them, the more they treated his condition as an ordinary fact of life. In fact, such things were apparently common in this particular crowd. It was largely due to this sense of unconditional acceptance of his experiences that he really began to feel some small sense of healing.
Things moved very fast in the early 90s scene in San Francisco. Thompson begun to get published regularly in David Gollub's Bullhorn zine which mostly featured poets from the group called “The Babarians,” named after Café Babar, the venue they read at most often. Soon he was submitting work to any and all zines he could and a rather long publishing list began to form. Being a natural performer, he found he was getting many features, often one or two per week. At the height of his performing career, a few of these venues actually paid some token amounts, which is rare in the poetry world.
Around this time some relatives of Thompson had cashed in their investments in order to retire. They gave him a one-time gift of $5,000, which he used to start Cyborg Productions, Mel Thompson Publishing, Citi-Voice Magazine and Blue Beetle Press. Thompson's personal and straight-ahead publishing style caught on and some patrons lent further financial aid. Soon Mel Thompson Publishing, under one label or another, was arranging for the distribution of thousands of poetry books, pamphlets and broadsides, and, for a time, Citi-Voice had some solid national distribution in ten book stores in the largest poetry markets in the country. He published Michael McClure, Daniel Higgs, Bruce Isaacson, Eli Coppola, Julia Vinograd, Amy Kashiwabara, Whitman McGowan, Margery Snyder, Vampyre Mike Kassel, Alan Kaufman, Steve Arntson, Dominique Lowell and many others.
Unfortunately, in the long run, maintaining the press proved to be too much of a financial strain on the nearly-indigent poet. The enterprise slowly began to fade away, and by the late 90s it had largely ceased publishing activity. Thompson's own poetry career was waning by that time, and the economic pressures of the Bay Area had caused him to have to work full time, which impacted his already-tenuous health terribly and drove him further from the poetry scene. But before this slow fade-out, some sparks would fly.
One day Thompson went into one of his favorite open-mic venues, then called The Blue Monkey, in order to take part in the evening's proceedings. He was turned away. He was told that the reading series had been discontinued due a City ordinance that required an entertainment license for such events. The license was expensive and the owners of the café could not afford it at that time.
Thompson was infuriated that the City of Free Expression, The Home of The Beat Poets, The Poetry City on the West Coast of The United States, was telling poets they could not stand up in a business, with the owner's permission, and simply speak their minds in poetic form. Thompson wrote the San Francisco Chronicle. The story got passed on to Rob Morse who included it as a note in his column. Within days the item had become a worldwide news story and the phone rang of the hook for weeks. The author's name appeared in virtually every major newspaper in the country and many around the world. He was also interviewed by Canadian Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio in the US. The controversy went on for some weeks and events were held at City Hall to protest the ordinance.
The Blue Monkey controversy was eventually resolved when Angela Alioto called the author at home and voiced her support for proposed changes in the entertainment licensing laws in the City. At a rally, her father, the late Joe Alioto, an illustrious former mayor of San Francisco, got up and read a poem.
Around that same time another media storm erupted in Mel C. Thompson's life. It all started when he went to apply for an ordinary guard job, the kind he had been working for years. He had never had any problem being hired by any guard agency, and so he was shocked when he was not hired by this one. He soon realized this was because he did not pass a preemployment exam which delved deeply into the political beliefs of the applicant. It became clear that this test had the goal of screening out political liberals and anyone else who might have counter-cultural personal beliefs. Thompson believed state law prohibited discrimination in hiring based on political affiliation or cultural orientation. However, none of the attorneys Thompson visited were certain the current laws explicitly prohibited such discrimination.
The author, with the mentoring help of an attorney, was forced to become his own attorney and gather the evidence himself. He eventually badgered a State agency into doing some evidence gathering for him, and a smoking gun was found among the documents. After that, attorneys gladly joined the cause.
After six years and lots of interviews, depositions, television appearances and radio interviews, Thompson again prevailed in his interpretation of the law and the constitution. The class action suit eventually came to represent 8,000 plaintiffs and was settled for 2.1 million dollars, of which Thompson got about $30,000 for his six years of work.
8. The Marin Adventure:
A crime wave hit San Francisco and the author wanted out. He had decided he'd like to try living in Marin County. He needed to escape to a more nature-oriented surrounding where he could pursue a frankly more suburban way of life. A year later his partner, Amy Kashiwabara, joined him there and they lived together in Corte Madera for over three years. His relationship with her lasted five years and was by far the longest and happiest of his life. The rest of his love life had consisted of mostly short or unfulfilling relationships.
While in Marin, he one day decided to take up the visual arts again, but this time as a performance artist. His entire world was swept up in a frenzy of abstract costume making. His work was conceptual in nature. Anything that struck him as interesting and compelling, he turned into clothing. He was particularly interested in envelopes. One could find him, on any particular day, wandering the streets of Marin, sometimes under the close eye of local police, in full-body suits made of newspapers, maps, trash bags, aluminum foil and other odd items he became fixated on. This also led to a couple of massive installation art works. Most of these works ended up being publicized in local newspapers, and one costume was publicized internationally in a leading French magazine. He even got a short paid acting job out these performances. This phase, like his painting work, was only to last a couple of years, but many people who believe in Thompson's art still think this was his most original and important work.
During this period the artist became deeply involved in a type of Buddhism called Jodo Shinshu, a Japanese sect especially friendly to laymen. He had, in fact, been casually visiting Jodo Shinshu temples for years, but until his time in Marin, he had not been a consistent member of any Buddhist Church.
He grew especially close to the congregation in Mill Valley. Inspired by this particular group and their teachings, he began to compose Buddhist hymns. Much to his delight, the congregation immediately approved of these songs and began singing them nearly every week. Later, when he was forced to move back to San Francisco, the congregation there also adopted the songs readily. A couple of years ago the artist received a call from members of the Jodo Shinshu sect telling him that his songs are still sung in some temples some twelve years later.
9. San Francisco — Part 2:
Unfortunately the author's instabilities led to a breakup between him and his partner. Thompson was unable to afford to live in Marin by himself and was forced into a basement apartment in San Francisco. From there things would spiral downhill, but not before a few more unforeseen artistic and vocational adventures would add some strange and confusing colors to an already inconsistent and seemingly haphazard career story.
It so happened that one day the dispatcher at the guard agency sent the author to guard a radio station. Thompson was alarmed when he got there to find out that it was a hard-core rap station, KMEL. (The station has evolved into more of a mainstream music outlet since that time.) He was infuriated and indignant and called his boss at the guard agency and said something along the lines of, “Get me out of here. I hate rap music and I don't want to be around these people. This place is crazy and chaotic and dangerous.” The dispatcher understood and said, “Okay, we'll find you some place else to guard. But we're a little short on help right now and we can't find anyone else to fill the post just yet. Just give us a couple of weeks to pull it together and we'll get you a replacement.”
Thompson was generally a good sport and a negotiable person, and he thought, “Okay, I can survive this for a few weeks just to help my bosses out.” But then a strange thing happened on his way out of the proverbial door. Fate.
Over the first couple of weeks the author got to know the DJs and the local rap stars and their promoters pretty well. In fact, he found some of them to be charming, even if most of them were horrifying. And so he thought it would be fun to play a prank on them before he left for another post.
Being a composer of many types of music, Thompson easily created a fully-orchestrated rap instrumental, wrote some lyrics and performed the song on tape. What resulted was a song that was later to be called “The Officer Mushroom Theme Song.” It's main purpose was to mock the macho lyrics of rap by rapping with lyrics that were all contrary to the messages of most hip hop music. The words spoke of feckless weaklings who could neither earn a living properly nor make it with women. It spoke in whining terms about the concepts of failure and cowardice, extolling everything rap music appeared to be against.
The plan was to record this song and make it sound like a professional record, then wait till the on-air personalities came by the front desk. At that time Thompson would have the song playing in the background through the lobby stereo system. He would wait to see if the radio station workers would notice that something was “terribly wrong.”
The prank came off just as planned. One day a group of radio personalities were walking through the lobby together. (Thompson had seen through the closed-circuit cameras that they were on their way and he had the music playing by the time the elevator doors opened.) One of them seemed to sniff the air and say, “What's that? What is that crazy stuff playing on the stereo?” As the lyrics blasted over the speaker, making fun of the entire hip hop industry, one of the DJs stopped and said, “I like it? Is that you, Officer Mushroom?” (Officer Mushroom had become Thompson's nickname around the station.) Soon we were all laughing, and I confessed the entire sequence of events to them and what had been on my mind. To the artist's surprise, they took no offense to this mockery, but rather instantly decided that song, and almost any other song the author produced, would be put on the air.
Their instincts were good. Officer Mushroom turned into a valuable addition to the cast of odd characters that paraded through the morning shows on a regular basis. One thing led to another, and before Thompson knew it, he was on the air for a few minutes a day as Officer Mushroom, either telling jokes, appearing live to take calls or performing as a comedy rap artist. In the course of his time there he performed for a few moments on stage at the Shoreline Amphitheater, got to meet many of the biggest stars in the entertainment world, such as James Brown, Eminem, E-40, Lionel Ritchie, the Wu Tang Clan and countless others, and even ended up collecting a couple of hundred extra dollars per month for his part-time work on the radio. The guard job there lasted for a few years. He would have stayed longer, but there had been several changes in management and on-air personnel that were not favorable, and Thompson again came to find that his opposition to the messages of rap music began to bother him. The author left this job on good terms with the client after three happy years.
The cost of living in San Francisco, even in a basement unit with no bathroom, was rising astronomically. Thompson was forced to work full time and to become shift manager and later site manager. At that time, security guard jobs in San Francisco were becoming ever more demanding. In short, Thompson was forced by his industry, and by the economic climate, into working real jobs, which was the very thing his tenuous health could never really handle. He had just been holding on at easy guard jobs. Now he was forced into management, and this would take a horrifying turn. He would be forced to abandon, or so he thought, his artistic life and focus solely on working and survival. Things turned out a little differently.
The author was sent to work at McCann World Group, San Francisco, one of the most prestigious offices in all of the advertising world. He quickly ended up being the site supervisor and dealing with many problems, ranging from union disputes, state regulations, client regulations and security agency rules. Many of the guards that worked for him were totally crazy. It was stressful.
In the midst of all this, a few of the workers who were hip hop fans found out that their security guard was none other than Officer Mushroom of KMEL. At this point more and more workers in the building began asking for copies of Officer Mushroom songs, and many were insisting that new Officer Mushroom songs be made. And so, over the next few years Thompson produced a dozen new Officer Mushroom tunes, and his fans in the building were constantly introducing his songs to new people. Eventually it became known that he had been an entertainer, and thus did he find himself acting in a company video. The office, interconnected with many other offices and agencies and corporations, produced a free publicity boon for Thompson.
After a couple of years of this Thompson again tired of hip hop music and his output slowed. Furthermore, he'd not had the time or energy to attend poetry readings, nor to send works to zine publishers. Plus, the full-time swing-shift was leaving him socially isolated, and his depression and anxiety became unbearable.
At the same time, the gentle, older person who had lived above him moved out. Slowly the building around him filled with partying college students who carried on literally twenty-four hours a day. The combination of work stress and the insomnia caused by the constant noise began to push Thompson over the edge. Then, an adverse reaction to psychiatric drugs insured that he could no longer keep working through the power of pharmaceuticals. Now, only able to take weaker psychiatric medicines, his physical and mental health collapsed. At last the problems caused by his birth defects, (ear-nose-throat disorders), exacerbated by age and poor living conditions, drove him out of the workforce altogether. He was still struggling with Chronic Fatigue, fibromyalgia and Repetitive Motion Syndrome, and a crushed leg that had never been fully healed. It was all too much, and so he finally threw in the towel.
10. Current Status In Contra Costa County:
He landed at the home of a good friend and her husband who provided a safe, quiet environment for him to convalesce in. They also provided emotional support as he faced the daunting task of dealing with the Social Security Disability System. His friends' unwavering support allowed him to fight this battle with great success.
Within a few months he was already writing poetry again and going to poetry readings. The author has remained in Contra Costa County, (now living in downtown Lafayette), and ventures out to open-mics in Crockett, Livermore, Berkeley and San Francisco. He occasionally has featured performances and is frequently published in poetry publications around the world. He now makes small poetry pamphlets and has recently coauthored a chapbook published with Mark Sonnenfeld on Marymark Press of East Windsor, New Jersey. A few years ago he was published in the Poets from Hell Anthology of Bay Area underground poets and has recently appeared in the Beatitude Anthology.
Just recently, he has begun to market two books on Amazon. Sales have been lackluster, but the artist plans to add even more books, using Amazon as a kind of "active storage backup" for his work. Currently available for purchase are: "Living The Zine Life" and "The Secret Tome." Thompson has been further gratified to be included in The Golden Anniversary Edition of the Beatitude Anthology, 1959-2009. (Both the Poets From Hell anthology and the Beatitude anthology are also available on Amazon.)