Hey, Mr. Spaceman
Won't you please take me along?
I won't do anything wrong
Hey, Mr. Spaceman
Won't you please take me along for a ride?
Whether or not the classic 1960s rock tune by the Byrds really was about him — he said it was, but he said a lot of things — one thing is certain: Clinton Beverage Cary, better known as the Spaceman of O.B., took Ocean Beach residents and visitors on a 30-year ride as cosmic artist, agent of the planet Rillispore, and belligerent town drunk.
That ride came to a sad but not unexpected end at 2:30 in the afternoon of October 21, two months before what would have been his 85th Christmas, when his tired, crumpled body finally gave out in Sharp Cabrillo Hospital.
“He’d been bummed out the last few months,” says Dallas Perdue, an Ocean Beach house painter who had been a friend of the Spaceman since 1979. “When you’re old and blind around the holidays, you get depressed. He needs a lot of attention, and he wasn’t getting any. He lost the will to live. I’m glad he’s gone, because when you’re just sitting around, what’s the use of that?”
Cary had spent the last two years of his life in a wheelchair. His long white beard was scarred by burn marks, the result of failed attempts to light the cheap menthol cigarette stumps that were always dangling from his mouth. He was often situated on the corner of Newport Avenue and Bacon Street, looking like a frayed Q-tip, wearing dark wraparound sunglasses. He would babble at passersby about Rillisporian aliens and Elvis sightings, and try to sell them paintings that were really nothing more than blotches of paint haphazardly dropped on scraps of particle board.
“Three days before he died, he was down on Newport, sitting in his wheelchair, selling his pictures,” recalls Bob Oaks, a former cemetery plot salesman and professional jazz musician who had known Spaceman for more than 30 years. “Then, when we didn’t see him for a couple of days, we thought he couldn’t get out of bed, so we went to see him in his apartment by Dog Beach.”
Perdue, who lives with Oaks, continues: “When we got there, he couldn’t speak, and he was in a high-pitched voice, so I knew he was in bad shape. We got him over to Sharp Cabrillo and he was there three days before he quit breathing. We got there as the doctors were trying to revive him. It was an awful sight. I’ve got pictures — they wanted me to give them the film, but I wouldn’t. You know, the same day he died, there was an earthquake in northern Los Angeles, where he was from, and the screenwriter for Midnight Cowboy also died. That’s kind of appropriate, because Spaceman lived kind of a Midnight Cowboy life.”
“I remember Spaceman as a fantastic painter, and as one of the world’s greatest con men,” Oaks adds. “You had to sift through what he said, what was true and what were just stories, but even the lies and the stories were beautiful.”
Oaks is nearly 80 and suffers from Parkinson’s Disease. Perdue moved into his little cottage in the Surfside Court apartments at the foot of Niagara Avenue, overlooking the pier, “to be his bodyguard,” he says. It was Oaks who picked Spaceman up at the airport on April 15,1963, when he first came to San Diego at the invitation of a Big Band leader with whom he used to play trombone back in the 1930s. Spaceman got a place right next door to Oaks and the two remained friends ever since. Just this summer, at the Ocean Beach Street Fair, some O.B. locals set up a booth in which they displayed Spaceman like a sideshow freak, even hawking T-shirts with his likeness. In an adjacent tent, under black fluorescent lights, were more than a dozen paintings the Spaceman had done before he went blind, but not before he went crazy.
He had been a real painter once, a famous one. He was born in Maine in 1909 and, at the age of eight, moved with his parents to Los Angeles. He took up the saxophone while in high school and later joined a succession of traveling dance bands. One of his regular gigs was with the Dick Swink Orchestra, which was based in El Centro.
One day “an inner voice or awareness commanded him to give up musical work immediately and start painting,” according to an article in a 1958 issue of Chimes, a national art journal. He remained in Hollywood and by the mid-’30s had found work as a portrait painter, drawing the likenesses of Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, the Barrymores, and Errol Flynn.
By 1954, Cary had opened his own studio in Hollywood. The same year, the Hollywood Association of Artists was founded, and Cary was elected its first president. He appeared on television and radio shows, and his works were exhibited in such prestigious galleries as the Walter De Young Museum and the Palace Hotel, both in San Francisco.
His life changed dramatically in June 1957, when he had the first of two encounters with aliens from the planet Rillispore. He had set out to visit a friend who owned a ranch about ten miles outside of the high desert town of Joshua Tree. Finding the shack boarded up and deserted at 1:30 in the morning, Cary broke in, lit a fire in the wood stove, and fixed himself a cup of coffee. Then he moved out onto the porch and lit a cigarette.
All of a sudden, “a blinding flash of white light flooded the whole sky and miles of the surrounding desert,” he recounts in his autobiography. The Spaceman of Ocean Beach, which was published locally last year. “It was like viewing thousands of powerful klieg lights... Then I looked up in the sky and I could see this huge, round, dark object.... And then I recall three beings standing about ten feet directly in front of me...so fantastically beautiful that it almost knocked the breath right out of me.” Communicating through “thought projection,” Cary writes, the alien beings told him they were from a distant planet called Rillispore. They invited him to board the space ship and take a two-day trip to their planet. On the way there, they told a little bit about their planet. “The basis of Rillisporian philosophy is pure and unadulterated love,” Cary writes. “There is no such thing as crime there; therefore, there are no police. There are no accidents, sicknesses or disease; therefore, there are no hospitals or doctors.”
After he was returned to earth, Cary began to paint some of the glorious sights he had seen on Rillispore, primarily the birds. According to the Chimes magazine article, he switched to fluorescents and “his paintings [became] symbolical of ideas and concepts, rather than a picture of concrete objects.... ‘I became a cosmic painter,’ said the artist, ‘because of my inability to describe in words that which I could only visualize in color and form.’ ”
He began traveling again, alternately painting and playing trombone. In 1963 he arrived in Ocean Beach at the invitation of his former band leader, Dick Swink. “I picked him up at the airport,” Oaks recalls, “and while he wasn’t drunk, he wasn’t sober, either. He started telling me about going to another planet. I said, ‘Wait a minute, let me get my tape recorder,’ and he spent the next hour telling me about going to Rillispore. That’s how the whole thing started.”
Cary took a cottage adjacent to Oaks’s and began hanging around at the foot of Newport Avenue, telling anyone who would listen of his close encounters with the Rillisporians. He became known as Spaceman. He sold “Spaceman of Ocean Beach” bumper stickers. He began handing out free “space cards,” assuring their bearers passage to a new planet once the earth was “cleansed” of people in the year 2005.
For the better part of the 1960s, Cary was a prolific painter. His style was a forerunner of psychedelic black-light art. He painted many of the sights he had seen in Rillispore, including the Ola bird and the Mahala plant, which he describes in his book as a huge flowering plant that grows to a height of 1200 feet and blooms once every 600 years.
Cary’s house in the Surfside Court apartments became something of a mecca to the growing throng of hippies who moved into Ocean Beach during the 1960s. He put up a big blue-lettered “Spaceman of O.B.” flag and recalled, “My house became quite a show. Kids said they would take that LSD and look at those paintings for hours and hours.”
Eventually, drinking got the best of Cary. The times when he would lock himself into his cottage and paint for 15 hours at a stretch grew fewer and fewer; he spent more and more time on the beach, drinking cheap Gallo wine and whatever else he could get his hands on.
In 1970, Cary stopped drinking and for the next eight years did almost nothing but paint. He produced thousands of works, which he sold for as much as $300 apiece in various Ocean Beach shops. During that time, one of his works — the “Glorious Perception” — was one of 80 psychedelic paintings included in the art hook “Cosmic Art,” by R.F. Piper.
in 1978 Cary, in an attempt to get his work recognized in Europe, made a three-month trip to London and Paris in which he blew his entire life savings of $30,000. Despondent, he began drinking again. By 1983 he had become a pitiful sight. In a 1986 article, Cary recalled that his daily regimen, from that point on, consisted of drinking “two quarts of white port wine a day for two years straight.”
He lost his cottage and began sleeping at the homes of a rapidly dwindling number of friends — or underneath the Ocean Beach Pier. He squandered his monthly Social Security checks in a matter of days, renting a limousine and buying booze. Between checks, he would roam the streets of Ocean Beach with a shopping cart packed with his few remaining paintings, which he would hawk to passersby for as little as $5 apiece.
In 1985 Cary developed a cataract in his right eye, neglected to see a doctor, and went partially blind. In November of that year, county social workers moved him into the Orchards, a senior citizens’ apartment complex on West Point Loma Boulevard. Within days of his move, some transients he had befriended while living on the streets stole what little belongings he had left. It was one of those “new” friends who in the spring of 1986 kicked Cary in the left eye during a drunken brawl, blinding him completely.
That summer, Cary was moved into a South Bay intermediate care facility. Several months later, a friend who had met him on the beach 20 years before, signed Cary out of the facility and took him to the Black Mountains of South Dakota, where he managed a lodge. There, the Spaceman recuperated, although he began having “visitations” of a different kind: from Elvis Presley.
Upon his return to San Diego, Cary’s friend set him up in an apartment on Bacon Street, a few doors down from Poma’s Deli. Spaceman began calling local radio stations with his stories of Elvis sightings. KGB put him on the air. He made the local TV news. Longtime Ocean Beach residents who had purchased his paintings back in the 1960s began to look after him. And Cary even began painting again, although being blind, he relied on friends to bring him the materials and then simply splashed paint around on crudely cut-out squares of particle board.
Some friends say Cary finally gave up the booze two years ago; others say he never did. What did happen with certainty two years ago was that his legs gave out and he had to use a wheelchair. “He could still walk, but when you’re that old and don’t use your muscles, you get addicted to a wheelchair,” Perdue says.
Spaceman spent the final two years of his life in an apartment on West Point Loma Boulevard near Dog Beach. He lived there with his “aide” and another roommate, both in their middle 30s. He wrote a pair of “as told to” autobiographies that are still on sale in local book and magazine stores. During last year’s Ocean Beach Christmas Parade, Spaceman rode in the back of a convertible and waved to admirers, looking like a feeble, spindly Santa Claus. And last June, there was the exhibit of his paintings at the Ocean Beach Street Fair.
“They had to take him out of the hospital on that day,” Perdue recalls. “He had been in the hospital for three weeks for his gallstones. But he had on a nice white suit and he got a lot of attention, and attention always made him really happy.”