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)
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.