When I Burn My Masterpiece
The Lure of the Unfinished, the Lost, and even the Lowly Doodle
by Mike McGonigal
Reading time 25 Minutes
When one looks up Andy Milligan’s films online
When one looks up Andy Milligan’s films online, a few familiar words crop up repeatedly. Wikipedia cites 1967’s Compass Rose as “unfinished, unreleased, lost.” 1968’s Gutter Trash is simply lost, along with a handful of others, including Tricks of the Trade and Dragula. 1968’s The Bitch is listed as “unreleased, lost”; ditto 1969’s The Weirdo. 1973’s Supercool is “unfinished, unreleased, lost,” while the film at hand, 1979’s House of Seven Belles, is “unfinished, lost.” (That obviously needs a quick revision, so please alert the authorities, thanks.) I don’t know about you, but I want to see these “lost” works more than I can properly state – and I am especially curious about Gutter Trash; aren’t you? What if it’s like an early John Waters or Kuchar brothers Super 8 film? If a piece of writing, film, art, or music is unfinished, it could be anything. In fact, it has the potential to be the Great Lost Whateverthefuck.
One of the appealing aspects of lost works is there is a finite number of them, even when one includes everything lost in the great Alexandria library fire in 48 BC. Because they don’t exist except sometimes in fragments, we can hang whatever faults, follies, or broad strokes of genius we want onto them. What about the drum-and-bass-inflected music the Irish rock band My Bloody Valentine allegedly spent years laboring over in the mid 1990s, in a house with its own recording studio inside of if which Island Records bought for them? One journalist was played a portion of it over the phone. All of it was later erased. Could that music ever have been as amazing as their 1992 album Loveless, which itself nearly bankrupted their label Creation as it took so long to complete, having been recorded in no less than nineteen separate studios? Might it have been even more influential in bridging rock, experimental, and dance-based sounds?
The lure of unfinished items is not confined to the fanpersons who write up Wikipedia pages. Dozens and dozens of completed films and books concern themselves with artists struggling to complete their masterpieces. Nabokov’s metafictional Pale Fire, on the surface about an incomplete 999-line poem and its author, might be the best-known example. And House of Wax, that Vincent Wright classic where a fire destroys a whole lot of “art” might be considered in this vein, if one is macabre. The field of lost masterpiece metafiction is littered with fiery ends; our narrator gets a glimpse of a masterpiece no one else has seen before it is destroyed. This happens in James Robert Baker's novel Fuel Injected Dreams (about a rock god who destroys his music) and Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions (about a film one who destroys his).
A few things to know about me before we go further: This subject is personal. I am a grand procrastinator and flake and I take my dreaming and scheming seriously. I’m a lazy person until I get obsessed with something and then lose all sense of time. I was that kid in elementary school who sat on the swings for recess; I wasn’t kicking any soccer balls about. Today, I myself have more uncompleted projects than I do band t-shirts. I own a lot of band t-shirts. I love to start projects and plan every nook and cranny and then on to the next thing. I might plan a huge trip, perhaps even buy one of the airplane tickets or a block of airbnb dates. But the follow-through? Not my cup of. When I finally read Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” in my forties and saw those wonderful words from the protagonist when asked to perform any task: “I would prefer not to”? Oh lord, such an ideal philosophy. I would have fallen to my knees upon seeing those words, if I weren’t already in bed.
In a parallel vein to the subject of metafiction concerning art that never existed, we encounter the largely-forgotten 1980s cultural critic Guy Davenport. He essentially penned charming fanfiction for literary grad students, at times concerning creators of unseeable stories. Davenport frequently wrote short speculative stories about two cultural figures who are known to have been in the same place at the same time, imagining what they said about the flat beer at this Venice cafe, or on the nature of death, in collections like Tatlin! and Twelve Stories. That’s, like, my porn. The strange Swiss miniaturist writer Robert Walser and the monumental outsider artist Adolf Wölfli were both interned at the same mental asylum in Walsau, Switzerland, at the same time, in 1929. And while I forget if knowledge of this came from Davenport, I do wonder almost-daily about them bumping into each other while queueing for pancakes.
Wölfli composed dozens of musical scores but, as he used idiosyncratic notation, no one really knows what any of it’s meant to sound like. Walser has his own unrealized works, plus dozens of short works written in such tiny microscript that for years they were thought to be only scribbles. One of my favorite Walser stories is about a truly powerful magician – a magician so great that he not only never deigns to perform any mere run-of-the-mill magic tricks; he never does anything. He could if he wanted to; he could turn the entire world inside out. He never does anything; the knowledge that he could is enough for him. Might that magician simply have been some kind of Instagram influencer today? Neither of those tasks would require much more effort, after all – though the latter reeks of the dark arts. The extent to which one may enjoy the sheer magic of creativity for its own sake is a crucial concept here, and one need not be a dandy to ponder such stuff.
We won’t go into the realm of missing or lost visual art here, because then we’d get entirely lost in tales of art theft (when it comes to visual art that’s not around anymore one easily muses on all the grand paintings and sculptures piled up in mafioso banks or under the floorboards of dead Nazis’ grandkids). And those naturally overshadow any other narrative; what’s better than a great art heist movie? You can still get lost yourself in what remains of the Tate Museum’s Gallery of Lost Art site, by googling galleryoflostart.com.
What do we even mean with these terms, anyway – “unfinished, unreleased, lost”? Well, I propose that we adopt five categories here: the items that never got past the doodles or sketch phase; the unfinished works; the stuff that someone else went ahead and finished; the stuff that is finished but the artist decided that no one can see; and the works that are truly lost, as far as we know.
ONE: THE DOODLE
It might seem like there isn’t much to pieces that don’t travel far beyond the concept stage – the undone, the never really started – but then again, this is where most screenplays ever written reside. Because it’s highly collaborative, and because the industry is built upon often shaky financing deals and overseen by conmen, crooks, and sociopaths, the movie industry is littered with thousands of fascinating projects which never got off the ground. In recent years, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1974 unfilmed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune has risen to prominence, thanks to Frank Pavich’s delightful 2013 documentary on the subject.
It’s possible that the documentary on Jodorowsky’s Dune – peppered with French artist Moebius’ storyboards, set and character sketches – is itself more entertaining than that film could have been, especially as many of the talking heads in the movie assume that Jodorowsky’s film would have been better than Star Wars, and appeared before it, so naturally Jodorowsky would today, I don’t know, oversee a billion-dollar empire and the world would be so much weirder and better and we would be enlightened and Trump wouldn’t be the president.
Sketches and doodles are of course architecture’s chief realm. Architectural studies and models, however, are often bold and endlessly fascinating, and they surely qualify as a “doodle,” even if some models might be over thirty feet high. That’s how tall the models for Vladimir Tatlin’s 1920 Monument to the Third International were. It was meant to be a Constructivist sculpture dedicated to the Bolshevik Revolution, and looked like a rolled-up roller coaster crossed with the Eiffel Tower, as bent and twisted as a street in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (which is also from 1920). Tatlin’s utopian monument was to be 1,300 feet tall, a full third higher than the Eiffel Tower. It was to be the tallest structure in the world at the time, but steel shortages meant it was never built.
TWO: THE UNFINISHED
One of my favorite books stops mid-sentence; its young, sickly author died before the text could be completed. René Daumal was too mystically-inclined to be a proper Surrealist, so he and a few ether-huffing pals started their own crew, Le Grand Jeu (“The Grand Game”). Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing is a charming adventure novel about a haphazard crew attempting to locate an island which seems to shift position at will – kind of like the island in Lost. Daumal died of TB in 1944 at the age of 36. The island in Mount Analogueserves as a bridge between earth and the heavens and the novel served as one of Jodorowsky’s main inspirations for his 1973 film Holy Mountain. The book, which literally ends mid-thought, nonetheless is engaging and amenable to regular re-readings.
The list of works cut short by illness and death could fill its own encyclopedia. It includes William Carlos Williams’s celebrated essay-poem Paterson, as well as almost everyone’s ninth symphony. When I interviewed American composer Moondog in 1997, he spoke of a mammoth final work, “Overtone Tree.” Though only 40 minutes in length, Moondog said that it was so complex that in order to be properly performed, four conductors would be needed. To my knowledge, it was never completed, and was not performed or recorded before his death two years later.
Recently it was reported in the Guardian that Anthony Burgess, who died in 1993, had begun a sequel to Clockwork Orange. If you actually read the article, though, it’s revealed that what exists are primarily notes, thoughts, and not much more. Whether The Clockwork Condition is ever published, we are often simply left with the idea of an unfinished work. Many artists themselves would prefer this fate for their abandoned pieces, but they don’t get much of a say in death.
For some reason I’m drawn to a comedy directed by Jeremiah S. Chechik, co-written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue and starring John Cusack and Willem Dafoe. Arrive Alive was, well, put to sleep after 18 days when the film’s producers felt the laughs on the pages weren’t translating. And poof, that’s it – we will never know more of the “house detective in a seedy Florida hotel who gets involved in investigating the death of a former champion boxer.” This film might not have been as remotely interesting as Glazer’s 1988 Scrooged. But when you see the actors involved it’s hard to not wonder; what if a magic chemistry were to develop between leads Cusack and Dafoe, one that would change the course of history by thrusting Dafoe forward as a comedic foil/genius? Are there dailies for Arrive Alive? Maybe they can be salvaged, and a terrific documentary pieced together for it.
THREE: THE RENOVATED
The whole concept of artworks completed after the fact by others is naturally contentious and littered with mistakes. Family members finish their deceased breadwinners’ art for them. Films are finally spliced together, experts brought in to complete the property in order to put it up for sale. A series of unfinished Marvin Gaye songs from 1972 was completed by contemporary musicians and released as an album in April of this year. You probably don’t need to hear it, even if you’re a fan.
An example that’s less about finances and more in the well-meaning fanperson zone is Charles Dickens’ 1870 The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This book was serialized and published in chapter form, and when he died in 1870 only six of the proposed twelve installments had been issued. Multiple writers have taken it upon themselves to finalize Dickens’ story in the spirit of love for it. The craziest example is a medium from Brattleboro, Vermont, named Thomas Power James, who in top 1873 fashion claimed that Dickens’ dictated his version from the grave. None other than fellow spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle gave the thumbs-up to James’ novel, ensuring his Americanized Drood the success of multiple reprintings.
Nat King Cole never gave his permission for daughter Natalie to sing along with an old recording of his. But her 1991 album of deathly duets, which was actually called Unforgettable… With Love, moved seven million units. In the wake of the rise of karaoke/Idol culture, not to mention decades of sample-based sound, this necrotic effort just looks quaint today – and it’s not like those songs weren’t fully realized to begin with. Orson Welles’ final film, The Other Side of the Wind, was begun in 1970 and finished and released posthumously by Netflix in 2018. Strangely, Morgan Neville’s 2018 documentary about its undertaking, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, is a better watch, focusing as it does on the relationship between Peter Bogdanovich and Welles. We should all know better, by now, than to finish what’s been left undone.
FOUR: THE UNSEEABLE
These are completed works currently are under strict lock and key. This is not much of a category, in that most of the art in this list would have to consist primarily of heretical volumes in Vatican libraries none of us even know about; cultural output deemed too sensitive to national security to be released; skin flicks of the rich and famous; etc. This is the realm of absolute conspiracy and bullshit and thick Dan Brown paperbacks. (Note: I’d never disparage the conspiracy genre for its own sake, and Brown is capable at serving up the ridiculous. But he writes like a crackhead with only three ideas in his head who assumes the reader only has one.)
We speak here of finished works, though, known to exist, which it’s next-to-impossible to see. There have been periodic exclusive showings of Robert Frank’s 1972 film Cocksucker Blues, shot on the Rolling Stones’ North American tour that year. It was never officially released, however, due to concerns of the band’s management. Many artists wish they could control and erase their juvenilia. Octavia Butler hated her first published novel, Patternmaster; ditto for Paul Auster (Squeezeplay, written as Paul Benjamin). Thomas Pynchon’s short story collection Slow Learner omits several pieces he couldn’t bear the look of. But those books are out there; they are in the world, and any sleuth with a bit of extra cash can find them.
There is a fabled book of which one copy of the manuscript exists. In the spirit of the Rolling Stones’ “Cocksucker Blues” – not the obscene film, but the obscene song it took its name from, recorded in an attempt to get out of their record contract – American crime writer Charles Willeford completed a book wherein his beloved detective protagonist Hoke Moseley brutally murders his two teenage girls. It’s called Grimhaven, and was written precisely to break a contract, as at the time Willeford did not want to explore a series starring this detective. He later changed his mind, and later Hoke is not a psychopath.
If you want to read Grimhaven, you have to make an appointment with the Broward County Library in Florida and spend time with it in their special collections room. Under orders from Willeford’s widow Betsy, they will not copy it, or allow you to do so. A photocopy was made at one point of course, which then has floated around as a free PDF online if you are so inclined. It’s a brutal book, though. As a fan of Willeford myself, and as the kind of fanboy who eagerly bought Led Zeppelin bootlegs at the age of 13 and who now owns DVDs of Cocksucker Blues and Eat the Document, I urge you to look away.
It seems that no amount of money or sleuthing in the world can lead one to an actual viewing of Jerry Lewis’ 1972 film The Day the Clown Cried. Or who knows – maybe all billionaires gather every month to screen it at a heliopad in Davos? A shooting script of the barely-believable Holocaust comedy exists, of course; when the alt-comedy thing was still new, Patton Oswalt regularly hosted readings of it with a coterie of pals. How close was the script to the final edit? As we all know, only Harry Shearer might give an answer, for he claims to have actually seen the film, along with a handful of French people. That’s a bit like being the only person who knows what’s inside the glowing suitcase. The Library of Congress is said to have a print of The Day the Clown Cried, donated under the stipulation the film not be seen until June, 2024. I assume we all have booked screening rooms already, ahead of time to watch it – maybe on July 4, to be certain it’s ready to go, and because Patriotism?
FIVE: THE ERASED
What has been truly lost? Do we begin with the Tower of Babel, or is that too glib? Of the three paintings of mankind’s great folly by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, two survive. I’ve seen the one in Amsterdam, and though far smaller than you might expect it to be, it alone is worth a visit to that strange place. If we want to, we can fuck with all that good lost stuff, with da Vinci's “Medusa Shield,” with the Colossus of Rhodes itself, with the Beatles’ final Verses album, and those Rivera murals that got painted over. But if we spend too much time wallowing about in these waters, it’s as if every single comic book were one of those strange What If? titles. It’s like eating only candy for dinner.
The lost cultural artifact that haunts the most in recent times is a recording of sanctified blues made for the notoriously rare Paramount label. The unknown songs were only ever recorded as an acetate in 1934, and never issued. Son House, Charley Patton and Willie Brown recorded a series of Christian songs, billing themselves as The Locust Ridge Saints, at H.C. Speir’s store in Jackson, Mississippi. It’s been reported that they were somehow doing this as a goof and for that reason had disguised themselves, which really makes no sense. Both Patton and House had written and recorded amazing religious material; why would they do so ironically? In all likelihood this acetate has long ceased to exist. 78s themselves are notoriously fragile; acetates are brittle as frozen flowers. But I have a visceral need to hear this recording; it might be in a box in someone’s attic somewhere. Maybe the bugs didn’t get it?
The notoriously cranky abstract film-maker, archivist and self-described “ethnopharmacologist” Harry Smith rolled at least one of his films down a Manhattan street in the rain one day, around 1965. Few of his works were spared some element of self-sabotage. Intricate hand-painted films he spent years toiling on, fabulous mandalas, priceless research: all lost. Or, as the bio on the Harry Smith Archives site states, “due to Smith’s irascible nature and his total disregard for the world of commerce with the exception of a highly subjective system of bartering, most of his paintings and design work have been lost, stolen and traded on the drug market.”
In 1992, I was given a remarkable, five-to-eight page illustrated Kenneth Patchen-like poem which I was told Patti Smith had made and then presented to Harry, called “Alchemical Roll Call.” It was amazing, and I wanted to print it in a ‘zine I did then, but I lost my copy. I was told that the original had been ripped into squares and abandoned, by Harry; a mutual friend rescued the scraps and Xeroxed the thing. Years later, Patti herself described the poem in her 2010 memoir Just Kids, and she recalls giving it to him in the early 1970s, only to watch it disappear “into the immense labyrinth of his archive,” which then caused me to contact the friend who I’d gotten it from. He had no idea what I was talking about, which made me very sad. I seem to have lost it for the second time! Now, no archivists anywhere are going to invite me to their cool archivist parties.
Mike McGonigal is a writer, editor, and music reissue producer based in Detroit, Michigan. His radio program 'Buked and Scorned: The Gospel Radio Hour airs every Sunday on XRAY FM in Portland, OR and on CJAM in Windsor/Detroit. McGonigal's hairy, seven year-old rescue mutt Clayton ensures that he leaves the house at least a few times a day.