If you weren’t at the Unison Arts & Learning Center in New Paltz that night, you might not have noticed that Friday, November 19 was the end of an era. The occasion was billed as the final performance ever — at that venue, at least — by “wordshpritzer” Mikhail Horowitz and guitarist Gilles Malkine. The satirical duo have been performing their verbal and musical gymnastics at Unison since 1989, soon after they first teamed up, and invariably sell out the venue. Now both in their 70s, they’ve decided that they’re not up to the demands of a full-length performance anymore.
“I want to go out before I start embarrassing myself onstage,” Horowitz told the concert crowd, then gestured to Malkine. “Of course, he’d say it’s too late for that.” Indeed, this has always been a high-wire act, with no subject too risky or risqué, political or outré for a thorough skewering by these two deft and daring showmen. Their willingness to be edgy and outrageous, as much as their formidable talents for wordsmithery set to music, won them a devoted following who won’t be happy to face Thanksgiving 2022 without Unison’s traditional evening with Mik & Gilles.
“It was my decision; I take full responsibility,” says Mik at his Saugerties home a few days later. “Last year COVID killed all our gigs; at least 20 of them got canceled. And then I turned 70.” He’s quick to reassure his questioner that there’s no major health issue involved, but admits that the decision to cut back on performing is largely due to “a lot of minor physical things — the usual grievances that are attendant to aging. I simply don’t have the stamina to do a two-hour show. And my once-vaunted memory has developed some large lacunae.” When you’re the kind of performer who expects your audience to know words like “lacunae,” you don’t want to disappoint them by flubbing a line in a song parody, I suppose.
A Brooklyn native, Mik came to the Hudson Valley in the late ‘60s to attend SUNY New Paltz, but dropped out without completing his degree, by then deeply immersed in the local poetry and political scene. He first encountered Gilles “three cornfields away, a tiny speck onstage, never knowing that was my destiny” at the 1969 Woodstock Festival, where the latter was playing rhythm guitar in Tim Hardin’s band. The son of Surrealist painter Georges Malkine and Breton folksinger, hurdy-gurdy player and former French Resistance smuggler Sonia Malkine, Gilles was born in Paris but came to live in Woodstock with his family at the age of 4.
The two finally met when Mik was working as the “cultural czar” of the Woodstock Times and researching an article about an upcoming Georges Malkine retrospective at the Kleinert gallery. As it happened, he needed a guitar accompanist for an upcoming gig where he planned to perform some folksong parodies, and Gilles agreed to come along. The rest is history — or at least a fancifully embellished facsimile thereof.
Over the decades, Mik & Gilles have performed together more than 500 times at venues across the country, most frequently in the mid-Hudson Valley. It’s hard to know how much to believe of their wild claims to have gigged at “vegan rodeos, burials at sea, a Navajo bar mitzvah” and other such improbable convergences of the serious and the silly. But the “official” list includes the People’s Voice Café, St. Peter’s (the “Jazz Church”) and the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York City; the Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle; Robert Bly’s Great Mother Conference in Maine; Clearwater’s Great Hudson River Revival in Croton; and the annual convention of the United Auto Workers in Michigan. They nearly got tarred and feathered at the latter, Horowitz says, when they drove up in a Nissan without having fully considered the consequences.
Much preferring spontaneous interaction with live audiences, the duo never really got on board with the music video craze, although they did record several CDs together. But one of their “literary raps,” Rappin’ for Godot, was captured on film by Stephen Blauweiss in 2013; you can get a taste of their irreverent approach to the classics at www.youtube.com/watch?v=dV2NG95aICg. Mik recalls its screening at a film festival in New York City: “Afterwards, there was dead silence. The audience had never seen or read Waiting for Godot, apparently. They were mostly GenXers.”
Other icons of the Western literary canon that have received the Mik & Gilles hip-hop treatment over the years include rap versions of The Odyssey and Moby-Dick. They performed the latter live at Unison on the 19th along with a Beat version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (they also do a Dracula version), some Buddhist sea chanteys, a doo-wop rendition of Poe’s “Annabel Lee” and an epic mashup of Appalachian disaster ballads, “The Wreck of the Yankee Vanity,” among others. Charlie Kniceley played standup bass, and Mik’s cronies from the Actors & Writers Theater Company, David Smilow and Lori Wilner, stepped in for some skits.
But even with such support, being responsible for a full evening’s high-energy entertainment is no longer in the cards for these much-loved performance artists. Still, “We’re not broken up,” Gilles insists. “We still will perform together.” “Maybe some house concerts,” suggests Mik. “If some progressive candidate wanted us to do one or two numbers, we could do that.”
You hear that, local politicos? Throw a little work these guys’ way, and you’ve most likely got my vote. But even if you don’t, my bet is that it’ll take more than the creakiness of age to silence them altogether.
Slapstick Gravitas: Selected Spells, Centos, Lists and Other Poems
While Mikhail Horowitz was absent from the stage during the COVID crisis, he devoted some time to “engage in experimental writing and/or the wholesale pillaging of poetic forms,” culminating in the assembly of a new collection of his poetry and some short prose pieces. Slapstick Gravitas: Selected Spells, Centos, Lists and Other Poems has just been released by Station Hill Press. It’s available on Amazon, but everyone involved (except Jeff Bezos, and he doesn’t really need any more of your money) would prefer it if you ordered your copy directly from the publisher.
“The works here represent a wide selection of my writings by my various avatars, spanning a period from my juvenilia of the early 1970s to my juvenilia of last week,” Horowitz writes in the book’s preface. “They embrace a plethora of forms and approaches, ranging from formal sonnets to projective verse to appropriations from my betters to pieces written specifically for performance.”
The poems in the Spells section (which he dedicates to Gilles Malkine) are all literally alliterative, each line beginning with the same letter, and evoke the meditative rhythms of medieval litanies. The Homages include brief cryptic paragraphs celebrating various famous painters, as well as touching elegies on the deaths of Carolee Schneeman and Pauline Oliveros. “A Sound a Second for 273 Seconds” irreverently posits a flurry of words and noises to accompany John Cage’s iconic 4’ 33”.
On they go, playfully embracing, eschewing or manipulating traditional poetic form. His sonnets are a delight to the mind’s ear, and there’s a series of Centos — poems cobbled together entirely from lines by other poets — that could keep a voracious reader busy puzzling out sources for the better part of a long rainy afternoon. “The Second Coming of the New Colossus” gives us Emma Lazarus’ Statue of Liberty shining a beacon of hope in the shadow of Yeats’ rough beast and is worth the price of the book all by itself, though it’s “merely” a verbal collage of the two poems.
All in all, Slapstick Gravitas offers a fine peek into the relentlessly curious and inventive mind of one of our region’s modern literary luminaries. Someone you know would like this for an unusual holiday gift.
Slapstick Gravitas: Selected Spells, Centos, Lists and Other Poems
Station Hill Press, Barrytown