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A Poetic Blessing by Thax Douglas

Aug. 8, 2023 at 3:13PM

“So, what kind of music do you guys play?”

If that question hadn’t come from the two drunkest people in the bar, it might not have bothered me so much. But there they were—two extremely intoxicated, middle-aged white women who couldn’t resist peppering the long-haired, tattooed folk with small talk. 

Not daring to overcomplicate things and draw the conversation out any longer, I tell them, “It’s loud, sad rock-and-roll.”

The bartender interjects. “It’s emo,” she says with a matter-of-fact inflection, as if this means anything to the duo. 

I shrug and nod. A less tired version of myself might have disputed the nuances of what is and isn’t technically “emo.” Regardless, our indifference to their interest still convinces these two to spend $5 to see us perform upstairs, where my bandmates and I would play our last set of a five-day tour around the Midwest. It was a Monday night in Madison, and our big finale felt a little weird. 

As we were setting up gear upstairs, we were approached by a very tall older man whom we did not recognize. Despite his plain outfit, he stood out to me—when I first noticed him in the room, I thought that, like the two women from earlier, he must’ve also randomly stumbled into this DIY show. 

“Could I read a poem before your set?”

The question caught us off guard. At this point, we were open to anything. How could the night get any weirder? We agreed to let him do it.  

He wrote the poem on the spot and then joined us on stage before we started playing. He began reading the poem—his cadence an almost disinterested, monotone delivery.

“The sparrow has one note only that lasts for the whole springtime before it hibernates in a nest of cover sparrows, saving up for winter when it can really sing.”

We applauded the man and launched into our first song. Our morale was infinitely higher than when we arrived at the venue—even after the two drunk women from earlier left after our second or third song. Afterward, we took a photo with the man and thanked him for the memorable moment. He let us keep the crumpled piece of paper that he wrote the poem on. Not a single word was crossed out—he had effortlessly and speedily created a spontaneous, beautiful work of art. We asked him about the poem, and he told us that he had listened to our song “(in)sincere,” and a sole note from the vocals in that song inspired the poem. We felt honored. 

I posted a photo of the poem to my Instagram Stories, explaining how a random person was inspired by our music enough to write and read a poem at our show. A friend reached out to me, saying, “Dude, y'all got blessed by THAX DOUGLAS!”

I had never heard the name before, but a quick Google search revealed that the unassuming man who joined us on stage was Chicago poetry legend Thax Douglas. According to Wikipedia, he had made a name for himself reading poems for bands like Cap’n Jazz and The Meat Puppets—the type of groups my bandmates and I listened to growing up.

Douglas had recently made his way to Wisconsin to move in with family and was making his rounds reading poetry in Madison’s music scene. His story fascinated me, or at least what little of it I could find on the internet. I wanted to learn more about him, so I reached out to him via social media. He was open to letting me interview him, and we got to talking about upcoming shows that he was interested in seeing. I asked how he came across our show. 

“The way I always do it: I try to find out what’s going on in the city,” Douglas says. 

But it wasn’t always this way for him. Douglas, who is now 65 years old, didn’t start going to live shows until he was in his 30s—a late bloomer considering most people start becoming interested in indie music during their early 20s. For many years, the only live rock show he had ever been to was a Frank Zappa gig. So, where did this love of live performance and the desire to connect with it through poetry begin?

Thaxter Elliott Douglas III was born on Halloween in 1957 and grew up in Woodridge, Illinois. He was an only child with a strong interest in the arts and a love for listening to Classical music. He recalls begging his parents to bring him to a James Rosenquist exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Early on in his education, he skipped two grades and began elementary school in the third grade. Because of this, Douglas felt like he was socially two years behind all his classmates.

Around the age of 10, Douglas’ physical health began to deteriorate. It began with ulcers, and he was eventually diagnosed with cerebral allergies, resulting in his adopting a strict diet. Later in his life, Douglas would be known to eat strange hodge-podge meals—such as a steak with a side of noodles with an egg on top—and request items that restaurants did not list on their menus. 

Douglas graduated high school at 16, but his mental health continued to decline. Shortly before his 17th birthday, Douglas’ parents noticed that the water in the bathroom had been running a concerning amount of time. When they opened the door, they found Douglas unconscious. He had eaten a bunch of pills taken from his mother’s prescriptions and turned on the faucets—hoping that by the time somebody found him, it would’ve been too late. 

Douglas was in a coma for three days. When he awoke, he underwent electroconvulsive therapy—more commonly known as “shock therapy”—to cure his severe depression. He claims that the treatment wiped out some memories from this part of his life. 

Douglas dreamed that after graduating high school, he would move to New York and immerse himself into the art scene there, but his mental and physical health issues prevented the move.

“I was just too fucked up to do it,” Douglas says. “Those were the worst years of my life.”

Douglas started taking classes at the University of Illinois-Chicago but never obtained a degree. 

“I was just screwing around,” Douglas says. “It was the sort of thing where I don’t know how I managed to get three years' worth of credits—I don’t remember going to classes very much.” 

Instead, Douglas was much more interested in going out and dancing with friends. He recalls a night at Exit, a legendary punk club that closed in 2021 for “dangerous and hazardous” conditions. He and his friends became pissed off when the club turned off the music they were dancing to so that a live band could play. The band was The Effigies, a legendary Chicago punk group that Douglas would go on to read poetry for 20 years later. 

“While they played, we went to the front of the venue and played the jukebox and waited until it was over so that we could go back and dance,” Douglas says.

By the time the ‘80s were coming to a close, Douglas had lost interest in dance music. Techno and house were becoming the norm, and Douglas thought that, while these new genres were interesting to listen to, they weren’t quite as fun to dance to. Douglas longed for a change of pace. He began attending poetry slams at The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, a venue known for jazz and poetry in Uptown, Chicago. This, in turn, would be partially responsible for Douglas writing and performing his first poem after he turned 30 in 1987.   

“It was the classic thing where it was my 30th birthday, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I need to do something with my life,’” Douglas says. “So, the next day, I wrote this poem, which is basically the first poem I ever wrote.”

Douglas began reading regularly at The Green Mill. His early poetry took on a confessional style, often dealing with jarring sexual themes and coded explorations of Douglas’ childhood. Douglas’ early style of poetry can be heard on the album Produced by Steve Albini. The album is 11 tracks long, all recorded by Electrical Audio’s Steve Albini—the acclaimed engineer behind Nirvana’s In Utero. A prime example of Douglas’ early poetry is the first track, “Masterbation Video,” which kicks off with the line, “Yes, I’m an insane, violent macho leather heavy-metal redneck, but I’ll turn down my rowdiness for you,” before describing how he fantasizes about an ex-partner dying from AIDS.

“It’s a lot different than what I do now—it’s angry, it’s hateful, and it's gay-self-hating stuff,” Douglas says. “It definitely fit the vibe of the time, but it burned itself out, and I didn’t know what to do.”

In 1989, Douglas began writing “poetry portraits”—abstract lyrical paintings of a person or place. Douglas’ band poems, like the one he shared at my band’s show, are an extension of this poetry form.

“I had ideas about poetry, a certain kind of poetry that was based on appreciation of the outside world,” says Douglas. “I wasn’t sure how to go about it, so I tried doing poetry portraits of people.”

This was also the year that Douglas attended his first indie rock show at a now-defunct Chicago venue Tuts. He saw a band called Fake Fish. There was a low turnout for the show—Douglas recalls being one of the only people there. But he fell in love with the energy of the live performance.

“It was new to me, and I was really into it,” Douglas says. 

A live recording that night made it onto a cassette, with the liner notes reading, “This was in front of three people and a guy named Thax who was really into us.” 

It wouldn’t be until 1994 that Thax combined his new love of poetry and live music. The first band poem, which Douglas describes as a “novelty” in an interview with Glorious Noise, was for a band called Stamen. In 1997, Douglas began hosting a variety show at Lounge Ax called “Thax After Dark.” Douglas invited performers of all mediums to the stage, often resulting in nonsense shows with low attendance—something that seemingly never bothered the Lounge Ax owners. When bands started performing for the show, Douglas began to read poems before their sets.

“It’s a work of art appreciating another work of art,” says Douglas. “It’s almost a kind of heaven in a way. I was very happy that it suited my needs, so I just sort of kept doing that.”

Douglas originally thought that maybe one in every 20 bands that he approached would let him write and perform a poem at their show, but it ended up being the opposite—bands were surprisingly receptive to this random man approaching them at their show. Douglas began writing and performing around 20 poems a month. A collection of some of these poems, titled Tragic Faggot Syndrome, was released in 2000. Copies of the book are no longer easy to find—your best bet is to look for used copies on Amazon or eBay.  

In 2006, after 20 years of involvement in the Chicago music scene and establishing himself as an indie-rock mascot, Douglas pursued his dream of moving to New York. Douglas had grown frustrated with Chicago’s poetry scene and had high hopes for making a living in a new city. 

In New York, Douglas recorded an album under the name Chicken and the Chick Flicks. The group was a duo consisting of Douglas on vocals and Matthew Mehlan of Skeletons and the Girl-Faced Boys on keyboard and guitar. The album is mostly Douglas singing over keyboard parts, utilizing quarter tones—pitches that are halfway between the usual notes of a chromatic scale, thus sounding out of tune to those accustomed to mainstream radio pop music.

Douglas quickly realized that staying in New York with no income was unfeasible and returned to Chicago after only two months. He picked back up where he left off and started reading before shows again. 

In 2009, a friend of Douglas opened a gallery in Austin, Texas, called Birdhouse Gallery. They offered Douglas the chance to live there, rent-free, as long as he took care of the daily maintenance. 

“They would have shows there about once a month, so I just had to sweep the place up,” Douglas says. 

Douglas was able to start reading before bands immediately after moving to Austin—citing that Austin’s art scene was much more positive than Chicago’s. But his stay in Austin only lasted for 14 months. Birdhouse Gallery closed, and Douglas decided to spend some time in Wisconsin—where his parents had moved after selling their house in 1988—and then move back to Austin. But he never came back.

“I decided to stay,” Douglas says. “I realized I needed a break more than I had realized.” 

Douglas says that for the next three years, all he did was watch Turner Classic Movies after moving back in with his father in Broadhead, Wisconsin. His mother passed away in 2011. He didn’t perform any poetry. After receiving insurance through the Affordable Care Act, Douglas decided it was time to take care of some medical bills. And when he went to a therapist, they diagnosed him as autistic. 

“I had people suggest it, but when I was young, autism meant you were a vegetable,” Douglas says. “I’ve always had the feeling that something was not quite right.”

He decided to go to a second therapist just to make sure. The diagnosis was the same. 

“It was kind of a shock—I had panic attacks for a month or two after the diagnosis,” Douglas says. “But it answered a lot of questions that I’ve had my whole life. There were so many things in my life that I thought weren’t connected, but it turned out these are all from autism.”

After the shock of his diagnosis, Douglas was able to collect disability and found himself with the means to travel again. Douglas went on a two-month tour of the country riding Greyhound buses. He used Facebook to look up where his friends were living and reached out to get together for dinner. He visited cities he had never been to but would have thrived in—like Portland and Seattle. He read poetry for The Lemonheads in New Orleans.

Afterward, he stayed with a friend in London for six weeks. There, he read for bands like The High Llamas and Pete Doherty. Every night, Douglas would use Songkick to find shows near him and would try to write and perform poetry. 

After his return to Wisconsin, Douglas considered himself semi-retired and wasn’t performing as much. In 2022, his father passed away at the age of 93. Douglas, now alone, found himself with more time to attend shows and perform poetry, which is how our paths crossed.

Learning about Douglas’ life initially left me shocked that more people don’t immediately recognize who this person is. As I mentioned earlier, his presence isn’t subtle—he is a large man often dressed in ragged clothing and has a very distinct manner of speaking. If you were aware of his reputation, you would immediately recognize him.

It made me feel a little sorry for Douglas. He lived most of his life with an undiagnosed disability. He tried to escape the Midwest, where he had built a name for himself, but he always felt a pull to return. He has read poetry on stage for bands like The Flaming Lips, yet he can walk into a bar, and not a single person will know who he is.

But then I started to think about how despite his ever-changing and often unfortunate living situations and lack of funds, Douglas never quit making art and never stopped being true to himself. And he was always lifting others, whether through his “Thax After Dark” performance art shows or by reading poetry before a band’s set. Douglas might be one of the most punk-rock people I’ve ever met—and I’m not sure he can even play an instrument. 

I ask Douglas what his plans for the future are. He says maybe someday he’ll sell his father’s house and move back to New York. But for now, he seems content brushing elbows in the Wisconsin music scene and reading poetry at shows. 

“I get bored very easily, and I’m still not bored about it,” Douglas says. “I still like it—bands like it.”

And they do like it. Now and then, I’ll come across an Instagram post of another band who, like my band and the many bands before us, have been blessed by THE Thax Douglas. 

“I’m 65; I’m going to be doing this until the end because it’s still a pleasure,” Douglas says.

About the author

Mike Holloway

Mike Holloway was the music editor for The Wisconsin Gazette until it ceased publication in Sept. He currently writes for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, Milwaukee Record and Urban Milwaukee.