It’s been an exciting few years for fans of the Beat Generation. Since Beatdom was founded, we have seen the release of a number of high profile movie adaptations (including Howl and On the Road), the publication of previously unpublished Beat works like The Sea is My Brother, and various major anniversaries (including the fifty years that have passed since Howl and On the Road were published, as well as the centenary of the birth of William S. Burroughs). Perhaps as a result of these events we have witnessed a revival of interest in the Beats, and as such a plethora of new critical works on their lives and art. Beat studies is thriving and the Beats are gaining respect as an important part of literary and cultural history. Continue Reading…
Archives For 2014
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15 – the WAR issue.
For about ten years after World War II Britain was a grey place. When Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were gallivanting around the United States, the UK was recovering from Nazi bombing raids. Kids played in bomb craters and air-raid shelters. You could still find shell casings among the rubble and there were wrecked German Messershmitts in the fields. The big kids got the best bits.
It wasn’t until the end of the fifties that things started to change, and kids who’d been too young to die in the trenches came of age. TVs arrived in suburban homes, bringing American culture to the British youth. Brit pop music was pretty tame at first – Petula Clark, Frankie Vaughan – but it had potential. Then Bill Haley came over leaving a trail of smashed up cinemas, and Gene Vincent records appeared in the shops.
Proto-Beatniks were first spotted on the Aldermaston March. They were called Bohemians. There was a revival of traditional jazz among art students and a few bearded denizens of Soho pubs. Then Skiffle came along and whatever it was spread to the suburbs. Lonnie Donnegan got on TV with songs like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” (“John Henry” was on the B-side) and suddenly England had a whole new sub-culture.
The spillover from places like Ken Colyer’s Club and Eel Pie Island followed… scruffy, hairy young people with bedrolls would find their way down to Brighton either by hitchhiking or by the infamous Milk Train from Victoria. It usually happened at weekends. They’d sleep on the beach under the pier or in upturned fishing boats on the hard pebbles and meet up in the fish market to share bottles of stolen milk and Mars Bars. Some of the beatnik chicks were quite attractive in a Bohemian kind of way. French actress style. It wasn’t that difficult to entice them into your sleeping bag; one at a time, of course.
Drugs? There weren’t many around. You could get a buzz off Dr. Collis Browne’s Mixture but speed and pot were hard to find. Acid was still some way in the future.
Primitive music was played there on the pebbles. Some people, like Davy Graham and Martin Wyndham, Wizz Jones (shoulder-length curly hair and owlish glasses), Clive Palmer (quiet, gaunt, and haunted), would have banjos and guitars. Somebody might show up with a battered trumpet. Perhaps there would even be enough instruments to make an impromptu band! Bemused old folk and other passersby on the sea front above would gather to watch this curious cultural phenomenon. Teddy Boys – working class lads in pseudo-Edwardian suits – would shout rude things at the Beatniks. Things like “Do you ever wash?” or “Get a bleedin’ ’aircut!” and “Are you a boy or a girl?”
Teds wore drape jackets, drainpipe trousers, and suede shoes with big crepe soles. They liked Gene Vincent and Elvis. Then the Mods came along, a younger group, who liked the Kinks, Small Faces, The Who, and early Reggae. They showed up like a shoal of piranha fish in their Fred Perry Polo shirts and parkas, driving Lambrettas and noisy little Vespas covered with superfluous headlights. They got a lot of media attention which annoyed the Teds, who had somehow morphed into Rockers while nobody was watching. They traded in their suits for leather jackets, bought motorbikes and rode around shouting rude things at the Mods.
It may have been youthful high-spirits, or excess testosterone. Historians are still puzzling over it. Or maybe the various fashion styles and musical tastes just didn’t mix well. Anyway, fights broke out which quickly became running battles, and it wasn’t long before the Great British Press was all over it. Coppers got in some weekend overtime with their truncheons. Arrests were made. Newspapers were sold. The public was shocked.
The Beatniks, being peaceful folk for the most part, stayed out of it. Some simply went home to read their copies of On the Road. Some decided to hitchhike to India in search of spiritual enlightenment and cheap hash. They in turn evolved into Hippies. Most of these young people eventually got jobs, started families and settled down in front of the telly. Some have since joined the old folk on the seafront where they sit in Regency shelters, feeding sliced bread to gulls and discussing the youth of today.
Our Year in Downtown Red
Yesterday’s sunshine and spectacular seventy degrees are replaced by rapidly plummeting temperatures and the forecast for Thanksgiving: a nor’easter that may include inches of snow. I hope that storm goes way out to sea, so travelers and families and friends can celebrate a happy holiday without worry about the weather and driving. Robert and I look forward to his lovely sister’s traditional Mayflower New England American hospitality in her warm and inviting home: a huge roast turkey with stuffing and gravy and mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes and dozens of side dishes and appetizers and a big dessert table with, of course, pumpkin pie and apple pie all served with love and cheer and thanksgiving. I’m about ready to burst into tears thinking about it, and what if the weather keeps me here alone in Active Town with our boxes of oatmeal and pasta and no family cheer and not much else, and that is a sad and terrible thought. Thanksgiving is the homiest holiday of the year, and I’m grateful that I’ve been welcome into the family fold since Robert and I met.
However, now after what seems only a foolish and expensive and unnecessary move, maybe they won’t like me anymore for disturbing the peace. This move bore fruit, thus far, of a few forced and bitter tears, days and nights of separation and loneliness and rejection, and a sour taste, but time will probably reveal something that I haven’t yet fully seen, perhaps, courage and conversion and a more grateful heart, a more loving human and humble heart, a heart that has become more discerning to the ways of the world. In my heart of hearts, I don’t think I’ll find a job here; I believe I have given up the search. We’ll see what unfolds. Robert and I plan on visiting the condo in Boring Town, and that boring town is beginning to seem more and more pleasant with its quiet town ways, away from the bustle and hustle of Active Town.
Now, with the update forecast, maybe it won’t be wise for Robert to travel home. Maybe it’ll be a tedious and hours long dangerous drive. Maybe he should stay up north, because there will be no place for him to park here—no room in the underground garage with Vincenzo’s three big outrageously expensive Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin . . . and maybe the ridiculous Hummer and The Boss’s Range Rover, and a “please don’t park here” for us.
The thought occurs to me that I am getting used to being alone. I’m getting used to years of unemployment, and I will survive, and I’ll survive the year without a Thanksgiving. Maybe I could show up at the community kitchen, yes, I might learn something there. I won’t go as a volunteer, I’ll go as a friendless and hungry and thirsty stranger, alone in America on the day Americans give thanks. I’ll go as one of the country’s unemployed citizens—one poor in spirit who has lost hope of ever getting a full-time job with benefits ever again. I’ll go naked, naked in aloneness, naked in crying for mercy, naked in mourning, naked in humility, naked in old age, naked into the great big homelessness of the unwanted manuscript—right into the slush pile of rejection. And when that’s all over, I’ll climb into my silver cloud and drive into my warm parking space in the heated underground garage . . . and call the wrap place across the street for a delivery of some turkey fire fingers, like I’m some big rock star. Then I’ll race down the street, spring into the bakery, jump over the counter, grab a big hunk of apple strudel, and distribute it to all the other friendless and hungry strangers.
“It was the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves.”
– Jack Kerouac
In 1950, Jack Kerouac read a 16,000 word letter written by his friend and muse, Neal Cassady, that was so revolutionary it caused him to abandon previous attempts at the project that would eventually become On the Road. His new style – later to be dubbed “bop spontaneous prose” – would radically alter literature and culture in the latter half of the twentieth century. Kerouac’s innovation – directly taken from Cassady’s letter – would make his novel, On the Road, one of the most important pieces of literature of the century, going on to influence writers, artists, film-makers, and musicians for decades.
According to Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg – to whom Kerouac loaned the letter – lent it to a friend, Gerd Stern, who dropped it in the ocean and it was lost forever. “It was my property, a letter to me, so Allen shouldn’t have been so careless with it, nor the guy [who dropped it],” a typically belligerent late-60s Kerouac told the Paris Review. Kerouac reportedly wanted the letter to published so that his friend would gain even more counterculture fame than he already had.
However, the disappearance of the letter would appear to have been Ginsberg’s attempt to publish it, rather than a careless mishandling by the sea. It was sent to the offices of Golden Goose Press, who also published Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Creeley, but this publishing company soon shut its doors and the contents of the business were boxed and forgotten. While the intention was to throw everything in the trash, many files were rescued by the operator of a music label who shared the building, and – according to his daughter, who found the letter – couldn’t fathom throwing away someone’s words.
It was a performance artist called Jean Spinosa who found the letter two years ago. It will go on sale December 17th, with most Beat fans hoping that the buyer will make it available to the public. It has become legend in the annals of Beat history and this event is for all Beat enthusiasts truly monumental.
For a great write-up, please visit The Beat Museum website.
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.
By Pat Thomas
“Black Power: Find out what they want and give it to them. All the signs that mean anything indicate that the blacks were the original inhabitants of this planet. So who has a better right to it?” William S. Burroughs Continue Reading…
The American Dream is the unifying theme across the work of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac wrote wondrous love letters while William Burroughs explored its often nightmarish landscape. However, Hubert Selby Jr. was the only writer to identify its failure while also providing an antidote to correct it. Continue Reading…
“Francis Thompson (!)” i
“My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.”
“The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson
First chastised by a chase
Through London laudanum haze and haste
Up and down and down and out
Stop to have another taste
Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide ii
On this side of the great divide
The hound and words chasing fast
Will this misery ever pass?
Affliction, affliction, affliction
In desolate dereliction
Money not for pen or paper
Hopes dashed and end in vapor
Beating feet and voices beat
Futile to try and retreat
Heart beating in the heat
Stop those endless running feet
Angels, visions, lighted tapers
Heaven chased hare through all capers
Hound that hound chased him down
Naked, stripped, youth took flight
Majestic poem he did write
Finally stopped he sought the light
i Kerouac, Jack and Ginsberg, Allen: The Letters. Ed. Bill Morgan and David Stanford. (New York: Viking) 2010.
ii “Nowhere to Run,” Songwriters: Holland, Edward, Jr., Dozier, James, Herbert Lamont, Holland, Brian, EMI Music
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.
Most of the writers and artists to whom the label “Beat” was applied did not directly experience the horrors of war. Certainly, some of the older Beats of the original Columbia University circle had been in the firing line: Jack Kerouac, for one, shipped out in the merchant marines in the minefield of the Atlantic, and then joined the Navy before quickly being discharged after a diagnosis of a “schizoid personality with angel tendencies.” But the younger Beats, the so-called “second-generation,” which encompasses most of the recognized female writers, including Diane di Prima and Joyce Johnson, were at the same geographic dissociation as most other young people in the USA. However, war’s effects were experienced belatedly through the lasting trauma of family members, many of whom were of immigrant families with links to Europe, either active or hazily distant in the past as they strove for assimilation into American life. Continue Reading…
“I love St. Francis of Assisi as well as anybody in the world.” Desolation Angels
Once a sybarite youth and reveler
Dreams and visions and change of heart
Lepers and beggars fevered new start
Francis set to restore his Father’s house
He threw and flung church gold away
Bernardone beat and locked he stayed
Francis turned from father’s ways
And stood there humble, pure, and bare
He wed himself to poverty and fast as fare
To gain heaven nay palace but by hut everlasting
He preached and lived non-violence and reconciliation
Mysticism, holy vows, chasten, tonsured, unshaven
A poor and meek monk and brother
Lover of creatures, creation, and creator
Sought spiritual experiences and lofty visions
Contemplation and stigmata and the Christ in crucifixion
Compassion and forgiveness
Francis was a man of action
And taught by his deeds and sanctification
“Basie’s stuff means something.” i Jack Kerouac, Horace Mann Record
Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as told to Albert Murray (first edition 1985) is something like the Count’s music: it’s not only about the notes he plays, it’s also about the notes he leaves out. This is more a “tell some” rather than a “tell all,” and so be it. Basie plays it straight and simple, like his music, and the subject of the book is that: the music, jazz, and all those great jazz players. Count enjoyed a sixty-year career as pianist, band leader, composer, and arranger.
It’s a delight “listening” to William Basie tell his story. It couldn’t have been easy in those early years, but Count sheds a gracious light on events with gentleness, style, and humor, and some very funny stories that go back to the glory days of Kansas City and the early New York years with the likes of Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and everybody in the jazz world. A good read for jazz enthusiasts who want to glean some insight in a world long gone.
Apparently, young William, newly arrived in New York City, was so green he (and Elmer Williams, sax player) got these remarks from Sonny Greer, Duke Ellington’s drummer from Long Branch, New Jersey, “Hey, where you two farmers think you going? . . . . Hey, what you two country boys doing up here in the big city?” ii Small town Red Bank being the farm, and, for the record, Long Branch being a few shore towns away.
Was Count called Count because the jazz world had a Duke, King, Earl, Baron? iii Or as Bennie Moten suggests was it more, “Aw, that guy ain’t no ‘count.” and “Where is that no ‘count rascal?”
“no ‘count, as the old expression goes.” iv
Count makes strides, develops, and has his own ideas, “I had been around long enough and gotten into enough to call myself a New York musician . . . I was not from Red Bank anymore. I was from New York.” v Count makes clear that Red Bank is in the past and he hightailed it out of there, fast.
He relates an amusing account about an Apollo Theatre backstage incident. “I’m standing there in the wings, this mean old bastard working back there starts signifying me . . . I’m standing there shaking already, and this son of a gun is . . . talking so loud so I can’t help hearing him.” The work man grumbles away, “Now here’s the great Count Basie back here. The great Count Basie! Well, I want to hear this. The great Count Basie. Now we’ll find out what he’s going to do in New York!” vi The man goes on and on, won’t give Basie a break, and it gets worse.
But Count finds himself and forges his identity, “Talking about jumping at the Woodside . . . it came to me that I really wasn’t William Basie or Bill Basie the piano player from Red Bank anymore. From now on and for better or worse I was Count Basie, the bandleader out of Kansas City, back in New York.” vii Small town boy does well, takes on the world as Count, and does so with a lot of good times and great jazz.
i Kerouac, Jack. Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings. (New York: Penguin) 2000. pp. 21-22.
ii Basie, William. Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie. (New York: Da Capo Press) 1995. p.51.
iii Ibid., pp. 146-147.
iv Ibid., pp. 146-147.
v Ibid., p. 84.
vi Ibid., p. 190.
vii Ibid., p. 196.