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Vol. 18, No. 4, 2019
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

from punching to pirouetting




Former lead singer of the legendary 222s, arguably Montreal's first punk rock band, Chris is now a freelance writer based in Montreal. You can check out his writing at where he combines the sardonic humour of David Foster Wallace and the deliciously contrived irreverence of Anthony Bourdain.

It’s yet another gross, overcast Sunday afternoon in this miserable spring and I’m hanging with my man Milford Kemp in the almost impossibly tiny apartment of the Mile End rooming house he’s been calling home lately. The usually up-beat Milford is feeling slightly irritable today, pissed at the weather which has been keeping people away from the Tam Tams en masse this season, and by extension, compromising the few extra dollars he’s come to count on as a street performer of sorts.

His digs are Spartan to say the least. His furnishings include a cot and, well, that’s about it. I’ve found a shitty little practice amplifier to use as a chair and can’t help but noticing that while his apartment is certainly clean, there’s a strong odour coming from somewhere nearby, an odour I can only describe as smelling like cunt – and not in a good way either. More like a yeast infection. Every wall in the roughly 150 square foot room has clothes hanging from it, most being pretty nifty threads Milford designed and sewed himself. He tells me that he never leaves his house without changing his clothes, if he comes and goes five times from his apartment he’ll wind up wearing five different ensembles that day. “I dress to be rebellious,” he says.

If you get out much there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen Milford around. He’s certainly not hard to miss, given that he’s probably the only good-looking black guy for miles around who struts around town all done up as some kind of a fucked up middle-aged Jimi Hendrix look-a-like, on a good day with a bit of pimp attire thrown in for good measure, the feathered hat etc. “People always think I’m either a pimp or a drug dealer, the only things people in Quebec figure a black guy could ever be. And I am a pimp, but I pimp clothes, not ho’s,” he tells me, referring to his days as a textile/clothing designer back in the 80s, when, still living in his home town of Los Angeles, he started a clothing line that people like David Lee Roth, Grace Jones and Chad Smith from the Chilli Peppers all wore at one time or another. Consistent with the luck Milford has experienced throughout life to date, however, the Milford Kemp clothing/textile line was only in business a short while, folding after a series of mob-related crooks apparently ripped him off, stole his best ideas and left him broke and thoroughly disheartened in the process.

He tells me nothing would make him happier than to design clothes for people again, but his ideas are just too wild for the average Montrealer and nobody here takes him seriously anyway. I can’t help but wonder if these are people who’ve seen him doing his Jimi Hendrix street performance thing at the Tam Tams, where he can be found jumping around maniacally playing air guitar to a tape of “Are You Experienced.” I suspect they are. After all, even if 58-year-old Milford does -- once he’s slapped his wig on, at least -- bear an uncanny resemblance to Hendrix, well, the spectacle doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in the state of his mental health. “I only do my Jimi show because I’m a frustrated artist,” Milford reminds me. “It helps me blow off steam. Besides, before I started doing it people here wouldn’t even look at me, they were scared of me, this black man. Now at least some people go “Hey Jimi”, when they see me on the street -- when they’re not yelling “Nigger” at me from their cars, that is. But I hardly make any money from it. Some days I can’t afford to even eat, you know?”

While Milford’s Jimi act might have earned him a little local notoriety -- he did, after all, place seventh in the Mirror’s BOM Best Montreal Weirdo category in 2011 -- it might also help to explain why few people are apt to believe him when he relates his life story, which is sort of understandable. I mean, who would believe that this eccentric freak they see hopping around on the mountain every weekend was at one time a champion boxer who not only battled Leon Spinks and very nearly won the bout, but also created the aforementioned clothing line and arrived in Montreal by invitation of one Louise LeCavalier of LaLaLa Human Steps, the celebrated dancer who he’d spent time training back when he was teaching 'ballet boxing' and self-defence classes for women in Los Angeles. Oh, and let’s not forget his eight-year romantic relationship with a certain member of Jacques Parizeau’s extended family who apparently fast-tracked his Canadian immigration application, or the fact that he began his 20s as a very promising professional dancer/choreographer.

I mean, if those claims don’t sound like the self-aggrandizing lies of a street crazy I don’t know what does. Yet everything Milford says that can be verified has checked out. Hey, most of it is there for all to see in Milford’s self-produced, self-directed film American Trash, which can be experienced via Youtube or on a DVD Milford will happily sell you for a whopping two bucks. “Except nobody even wants to even pay me that much for it,” Milford complains. “I bring copies to the mountain every weekend but hardly ever sell one.” If you still doubt his credibility, go take a look at his Facebook page, where among the photos you’ll find of his genuinely impressive artwork you can get a glimpse of his life so far. “Hey, I won hundred bucks for somebody last week who bet another guy that I’d fought Spinks back in the 70s. The guy figured there was no way I’d done that, but after he went online, ha, ha, well, he was out $100.”

While Milford’s talent and numerous accomplishments over the years are definitely impressive, there’s little doubt the most remarkable claims coming from the man involve his boxing career.

“I was studying classical ballet under Eugene Loring in Irvine when Ali was vindicated by the Supreme Court. This guy was a hero to me and so many other black people that I really wanted to choreograph something on him. But to do it well I had to learn how to box first, which I did, and I turned out to be pretty good at it. Ten months later I’d had ten fights and qualified for the National Tournaments in Vegas, which is where I fought Spinks, in the finale. I was ranked fifth nationally in my weight division after boxing for less than a year. You see, when I was little my mother used to strip me naked and beat me so badly I’d developed an immunity to pain, and that helps a lot for a boxer.”

Except Milford was no ordinary pugilist. He perfected something he calls ballet boxing, a unique approach to the sport that had the effect of thoroughly confusing his opponents yet, at the same time, so crazily unorthodox that he drove his coaches insane. “Think of James Brown boxing, that’s what I did, and in a very dramatic way too. The thing is, I’m an artist and I just saw boxing as art, which is why my coaches never understood or got along with me. Later, when I was on the US Olympic team they wouldn’t even let me do ballet boxing. They all saw me as a clown, except I kept winning fights.”

“I fought Spinks like I’d fought everyone else to that point, pulling punches even when I had him cornered. He couldn’t understand it. He got so frustrated, like my pulling my punches was an insult to him, but I knew I didn’t need to hurt him to win points. And man, I was beating him, like, four punches to one, and it was a huge upset. I knew I’d won but the judges awarded him the decision. Leon also knew I’d beat him, he even came up to me afterward, his head hung in shame saying “I’m sorry, man.” The whole thing didn’t seem right to me but I figured the judges had their reasons for giving him the fight. It was only later when I really learned what happened from my Olympic team doctor, who told me that by whoopin’ Spinks I’d nearly blown a million dollar deal, that after he won the Olympics he had millions of dollars lined up, nobody was supposed to beat him, and then I come along and upset him in what was only my tenth fight. Me, this ballet boxing clown. Spinks was already supposed to be fighting Ali for big money then, so my beating him would have messed everything up. They figured it was a fluke, that maybe he’d just had a bad day. That’s when I understood boxing is all manufactured.”

Shortly after the Spinks fight, a disillusioned Milford decided to get out of the ring and go back to focusing on dance and his artwork, which eventually led to his developing his clothing/textile line. “You’ve got to understand, I grew up with Martin Luther King in the ‘60s and I’d come to feel that to beat up a man was to degrade a man. I saw boxing as art, but art is creative when boxing is destructive, so I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”

For the next 10 years Milford pursued only artistic endeavours, working his clothing line and creating visual art projects until his mother passed away. “After she died I realized I was finally free, and I was so disappointed by what had happened to my clothing business that I got back in to boxing and started fighting to hurt people. I didn’t care anymore, I’d lost total respect for boxing by then. So I fought until I was blind, until my retina was detached from my eye. And when they wouldn’t let me fight in the States because of it, I went down to Mexicali and fought there. I’d take dives if I felt like it. I was 32 years old then and my fee was $1000 a round. So if they told me they only had $2500 to pay me, I’d say “fine, but I’m either knocking someone out or going down half-way through the third round.” It didn’t matter to them but I felt disgusted, I was prostituting myself, I was no better than the whores of Mexicali, except they sold pleasure where I sold pain.”

Blind in one eye, sickened by his profession, too battered and old to be taken seriously by the boxing community, it wasn’t long before Milford abandoned boxing for good, this time opting to start up a self-defence/ballet boxing class primarily for female rape victims. “The stories these women told me made me ashamed to be a man. I had to do something, anything to help them feel better again.” Through one of his ballet boxing classes he was introduced to LaLaLa Human Steps dancer Louise LeCavalier, who, as impressed with Milford’s talents as he was with hers, recommended he come to Montreal where she’d hook him up with some of her contacts. Which he did, working on film and choreography projects for awhile, shacking up with his Parizeau gal and earning his Canadian permanent residence status. For awhile Milford was doing just fine here, but, as so often in his life, with time everything turned to shit, and once the lengthy romantic relationship he had with his wealthy, politically-connected benefactor had run it’s course, he says he had no choice but to live “in the bushes by the highway” for far too long, broke, broken, and very far away from home.

These days he survives on welfare and whatever change his crazy Jimi Hendrix act brings in. “Ain’t no ads looking to hire a 58 year old black man in the newspapers, you know what I’m sayin’?” He dreams of the day a patron might appear out of nowhere and offer him the money he needs to start painting again, or open a local ballet boxing studio, or help him realize his latest clothing designs, or give him something new to choreograph, or present him with pretty well any new creative vehicle he might be able to earn a couple bucks through. Until that glorious day arrives, however, chances are Milford will still be up on Mount Royal every Sunday doing his Jimi spectacle for a bunch of white kids who like to call him nigger and have zero clue that Montreal’s Seventh Best Weirdo is one of the most genuine dudes they’ll likely ever meet – looney tunes or not.

Also by Chris Barry:
Like Young
Loving Hard Times
Feed Your Head
Talking 12-Tone with Patti Smith
Beauty Pageants: The Golden Years
Swingers' Clubs as Safe Zones
Bust a Move
Trapeze - Swinging Ad Extremis
Hells in Paradise
The Cannabis Cup
Colonic Hydrotheraphy


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