Michael Alan “Vampyre Mike” Kassel – writer and musician

by Whitman McGowan, :his friend, fellow poet, and coven mate

Vampyre Mike playing for friends at Rosewood Park 2004

Vampyre Mike playing for friends
at Ravenwood 2005
View original photos by Diana Paxson

Born December 3, 1953 in Boston to Milton ”Quinn” Kassel and Beatrice Kassel, brilliant underground poet and talented musician Vampyre Mike passed away after a long battle with hepatitis March 22, 2008 in his room at San Francisco’s Marina district Bridge Motel (one of the few San Francisco SRO Hotels not located south of Market). He resided at The Bridge for over twenty years. In high school in Boston his first band was Self Winding Onion and in 1973-1974 he was in Automatic Slim with Fred Pineau (who later gained success with The Atlantics). He moved to San Francisco in 1974 and earned his sobriquet when punk fans at the Mabuhay Gardens started calling for “Vampire Mike!” when he appeared there with his band The Hellhounds. In 1980 Mike sharpened his teeth on musical theater in San Francisco, putting on Bat Soup which ran for 86 performances at Hotel Utah and combined Dracula and the Marx Brothers. In 1982 he released the 45 single “Fortune Teller/Guru Massage” under the name Mike Kassel.

Holding down a day job as a market researcher, he was loveable curmudgeon and merciless tease who on occasion could be extremely kind and generous and he always told it like it was, with outlandish humor and an uncompromising stylishness. An adherent of the Norse pagan traditions and widely read and knowledgeable on many topics, he was made thyle, or bard, of the heathen group Freya’s Folk, and he partnered with one of their priestesses Pasha De Saix for many years. Together they were the folk rock duo The Familiars, a fixture at pagan gatherings in the greater Bay Area, recording original and traditional songs as “Pasha and the Pagans,” a collection engineered by Lemon De George of Genghis Blues fame. Other musical groups led by Vampyre Mike included The Fabulous Dumonts, The Bones of Kryptos, blues band The Welfare Cheats and an homage to 60’s garage bands, The Mysterious Ice Wyrms, which at one time featured drummer Donovan Bauer of 20 Mile.

A regular at many poetry open mics over the years, he was also known as Thor Bernstein and Elston Gunn, but it was as Vampyre Mike at Café Babar and Above Paradise in the late 80s and early 90’s that he really established himself as a poetic voice and a force to be reckoned with. His take on current events was eagerly awaited by the poets and his other fans. It seemed he always had something incisive to say about a big news item and it was usually a lot of fun to hear, as his poetry owed more to W.C. Fields than to W.H. Auden. Though he performed mostly in Northern California his career also included one wild European tour with David Lerner, Dominique Lowell and other San Francisco poets. “Vamps,” as he was affectionately known to some, was also a frequent collaborator, playing piano, percussion and guitar on other people’s projects and joining Joie Cook, Kathleen Wood and myself to perform the one-off show Naked Language Revue one unforgettable night in 1990 at the old Kafe Komotion in San Francisco. He also helped me cast the dancers for a video, putting me in touch with a bunch of pagans he said would like to get naked if I ever made a video of my piece “White Folks Was Wild Once, Too.”

Local publishers put out his books Going for the Low Blow (poems, Zeitgeist Press, 1989), I Want to Kill Everything (poems, Zeitgeist Press,1990), Just Say No to Despair (poems, Cyborg Productions, 1991), Graveyard Golf (stories, Manic D Press, 1991), Wild Kingdom (poetry and prose, Zeitgeist Press, 1992), the latter two featuring covers by renowned comic artist S. Clay Wilson, and The Worlds According to Loki (mythological novel, Valknot Publishing, 2001). His work was translated into German, Czech and Russian. He wrote numerous prose pieces for the Western Edition newspaper, the quarterly Yggdrasil and the Sunday magazine of the San Francisco Chronicle/Examiner, and was published in many poetry magazines and anthologies.

Vampyre’s satire was a finely tuned attack delivered in broad strokes. Witness well loved poem “Your Love Is Like a Red, Red Nose,” his Woody Guthrie parody; “This land is my land, that land is my land / That land over there, that’s my land too / This land belongs to me, not you...” or his poem “SHIT”: I was walking home from the bars the other night/And realized/I had to piss Now!/Before my bladder blew up/Across the street/At a construction site/I spotted a Port-O-San/I hobbled over/And yanked on the door/It was locked/I was dumbfounded/What did they think I was going to steal?/Welcome to America/Where they lock up the shit (from Just Say No To Despair! (A Cyborg Minibook, San Francisco 1991)

Here’s one of his typical “rants.”


I wanted to write something serious,
a page that would ignite when exposed to air.
I wanted to dive deep into my soul
and swim back to the surface
with some big bloody truth clenched between my teeth.
I wanted something that would burn in the mind
like a malarial fever
you could never quite put out.
Something that would inspire
lust and revulsion simultaneously.
Something so dangerous
that Bush would have to send an invasion force
deep into my head.
Something that would replace the Gideon Bible
in the hotel drawers of the world.
Something so big, so beautiful and so true
that the sun would immediately eclipse himself
because he knew we were onto him.
I wanted to write something more addictive than crack,
more debilitating than love,
and more destructive than religion.
I wanted to make the moon weep.
I wanted to build a mirror so cruelly true
that it would send all the yuppie lawyers
and investment bankers
howling into the bush to make honest livings
as highwaymen, headhunters and horse thieves.
I wanted to write something that Ringo would understand,
something God would not forgive,
something the Weekly World News would refuse to print
because it was in bad taste.
I wanted to write something that would make
Rimbaud and Baudelaire
grind their teeth in envy
and throw their pens at the moon.
I wanted to give Poe the willies.
I wanted to make nuns wet their pants.
I wanted to make dogs howl, highways tremble,
and hair grow on grandma’s bald head.
I wanted to write something
that would make everyone illiterate.
I wanted to write something so beautiful
that it would make every woman in the world
fall in love with me
so I could break their hearts simultaneously.
I wanted to write something that would make money chuckle.
I wanted to write something that would cure cancer
and then kill you anyways.
I wanted a poem
A real poem.
A Robert Graves spit in the eye
this is the way the Iliad goes
so early in the morning dance round the campfire
roses are red barnburner of a walloping good God
did he really say that
motherfucking mouthful of meat
bad ass bitch of a poem
Know what I mean?
just as I got the paper in the machine
Della switched on “The Flintstones”
And all that came out of the typewriter
Yabba dabba doo.
from Wild Kingdom

Vampyre Mike is survived by his sister Dr. Jane Kassel and his twin nephews (born on Halloween, his favorite holiday!) Bryce and Alexander Haver of Media, Pennsylvania. Interment was in Pennsylvania and memorial services were held there and April 13th in Sutro Park, San Francisco.

His new book just published by Ajax Press was celebrated with a posthumous book party at Café International, 508 Haight Street (near Haight & Fillmore) in SF, from 7-10 p.m. . Many poets were there to commemorate his life and work and Copies of Toxic Vaudeville were available at the event. For more info about the book see Ajax Press website www.ajaxpresssf.com .

---Whitman McGowan

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