Archives For July 2014

Setting Kerouac to Music: An Interview with Kubilay Uner

This article originally appeared in Beatdom #14 – the MOVIE issue.

 

Kubilay Uner is the composer for the 2013 movie, Big Sur, based on the Jack Kerouac novel of the same name. He has worked with Michael and Mark Polish – the brothers behind the movie – on various projects, as well as performing live scores in concert halls. I spoke to him about setting Kerouac to music for the big screen. Continue Reading…

From Albion to Shangri-La

From Albion to Shangri-La consists of collected excerpts from Peter Doherty’s journals, circa 2008 to 2013, with an added selection from his tour diaries, all rounded off with a previously unpublished interview with editor, Nina Antonia – the rock journalist’s rock journalist, no stranger to the darker excesses of some of rock’s more elegantly wasted sons – whose sharp eye and clear ear have been called upon to assist in this literary distillation, as explained in her Introduction. Continue Reading…

“To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” i

The title of the William Butler Yeats poem “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing” makes me cringe. Is it kind to encourage a friend whose talent may be nonexistent, or is it kinder to speak plainly, in other words, tell the truth? Friend, it’s my unfortunate obligation to say you have no talent in this area and must give this up, the sooner the better, because you‘re wasting everyone’s time and making yourself crazy and are playing the fool on the world’s stage.
Then, there is the other friend who may be the most talented man at the open mic, and this poor soul just can’t catch a break. He’s got looks, lyrics, musicality, but he’s a shy boy and doesn’t know how to promote himself. He spends years writing elegant, intelligent songs that go way over everyone’s head, but those few who hear these songs recognize his heartbreaking talent, unknown, as Yeats writes, that comes “to nothing.” Shy boy knows the world’s great poets. He actually reads Wallace Stevens and can recite Yeats and deeply loves Robert Frost and all those dusty, bearded New Englanders. He stays home year after year in the quiet of his lonely room and writes notebooks worth of lyrics and records songs on a little recording device and spends long evenings with his acoustic guitar in hand. I say perhaps Yeats is being a bit harsh? Maybe shy boy encourages others, maybe just one or two others, and from those two, perhaps good will come from what seems barren. And, hope upon hope, maybe someday shy boy will crack the glass ceiling and rise in “Triumph.”

Perhaps I’m more optimistic than Yeats. Yes, the writer, the musician, the artist, the creator, desires recognition, desires to leave something of herself behind, as a memento of a life lived. “Now all the truth is out,” whose truth, Yeats, the world’s truth, the money men’s truth, the truth and inner depths of the artist? “Be secret and take defeat,” go in the corner and quietly lick those wounds; take it like an adult. “How can you compete,” yes, you unknown writer, how can you compete with, say, a television personality who writes one book after another and then gets to promote it every night on HIS television program, quite brazenly and without any shame at all? Or that rock star sitting in the corner at the party listening to his own records, how can you compete? Yes, “turn away,” turn away from the things of this passing world, and let the creation of your own work bring you inner joy, ah, easier said than done. Yes, it’s difficult to labor away, year after year in oblivion, but what else is there to do? Who can decide: should you keep this up or give it up? Only the one, you. Be joyful in the creation of your good work.
This is a true story, and I don’t want to give hope to the hopelessly untalented. I had a cousin in Cape Cod who was married to a musician for years and years. I imagine she thought he was hopeless; she was frustrated, resentful, discouraged. They got divorced. Musician moved to Australia . . . and became a big time recording artist. Cousin is all alone and sad, reminiscing of younger musical days.
Yeats, methinks your poem is sweetly supportive. The artist is brave, whether successful or not. He stands naked in front of the world and must accept the world’s rejection, silence, indifference, scorn, jealousy, mockery, criticism, harsh and ill-formed opinions for everyone to read on Internet reviews. But
the great thing, the brave thing, is that he gets up there and does his art, and does it again, and again. What say you Professor Mark Van Doren so many years ago at Columbia University with your own mad “hot blood of youth” students of English literature “Out naked on the roads” ii who turned the world upside down and faced rejection, scorn, and trials, too?

 
i Yeats, William Butler. “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing.”
ii Yeats, William Butler. “The Cold Heaven.”

Carousel Gone

“I hitch-hiked to Asbury Park . . . when I got there, I was exhausted—” i

Carousel gone
“No plans, lady, just making the building stable.
Keep away from the machine.”
Enable me, construction man, to see beyond coarse gritty sand
Mermaid vamp and debauch
Rests upon a tarnished couch
Where goest dream place childhood?
Face the ocean where once we stood
Soggy foggy July morn
Hung over and still forlorn
Parking deck hangs undone
In the midst gray cold no sun
Hope rises with the waves
Knocked down by greedy knaves
And the power of those in power
Ebbs and flows

i Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Cody. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).

Goetleib and the Path of Least Pleasure

Goetleib, the undisputed arbiter of taste and opinion, was sitting cross-legged in his armchair with a book clamped open in his left hand. He licked at his elongated snout with the thin whip of his tongue. His brow wrinkled suddenly, severely, and he mused out loud

– Gah! I wish Mancuso hadn’t used dashes instead of quotation marks, no, oh my, no, no, no, no…

He turned another page in the book with a flick of his foreclaw and turned to type up what he just said aloud – ‘I WISH MANCUSO HADN’T USED DASHES INSTEAD OF QUOTATION MARKS…’

Very soon (20 pages in, in fact) he became bored of Mancuso’s book, distracted by more of his own puerile thoughts, thoughts about tearing open termite mounds and feasting on the juicy worker bugs inside – and then he remembered he wasn’t allowed to eat insects anymore and the mudhook of sadness sunk itself deep within him.

He sniffed his hose-nose hungrily and braced the book shut before tossing it on the crackling hearth. Goetleib then went about justifying himself to the empty room.

– Poorly copy edited, too much supernaturalism, yes, no unity of effect, no sense of the swelling, impending terror or suspense I’ve come to expect, and then there’s the dashes instead of proper punctuation, no, no, no Mancuso! But the main problem with this book, yes I’d say its main fault, above all else, is that it isn’t written the way I wanted it to be written…

He gave a leonine stretch and was left amused and content by his own corrosive tone – after all, his career was over before it had even begun and he had nothing to lose.

Goetleib had an urge to interfere with himself but remembered that he wasn’t allowed to masturbate anymore either. He suffered from a retrograde disorder that meant when he ejaculated his bladder-sphincter would contract and release semen through his urethra, the path of least pleasure. Goetleib’s dry orgasms were frustrating and made him irritable and rather irrational. This went some way in explaining his scathing condemnations of almost everything he was asked to review.

There was a colony of ants obstructing his ejaculatory duct. They’d survived digestion and set up camp in various pockets of Goetleib’s lower abdomen. The irony was not lost on him, the near-constant pelvic distress serving as casual reminder.

It seemed poor Goetleib wasn’t allowed to do any of the things he enjoyed most, apart from ruining the reputations of writers and musicians that is! He was left cooped up in his deciduous forest home. It was a tragic life in a way.

He often felt the insects milling around inside him and when he thought about the amorphous domes and the supercolony of undigested ants, the desire to masturbate subsided.

He strolled around the grasslands of his estate still very pleased with how he’d dismantled Mancuso’s book so clinically. The anticipation of seeing his critique published gave Goetleib a strange rattle of joy in his testicles. He went up to an easel where he’d been painting non-descript images with his own smeared faeces and took in a smug lungful. His eyes were bathed in tears. Goetleib knew he was a genius.

 

****

 

Around mid-day, his frustration would intensify. It would become too great to ignore, Goetleib decided he would go about committing suicide. Killing himself at this stage of his career would set him in good stead for the future. People might even come to the conclusion that Mancuso’s book had driven him to self-eradication. Goetleib hoped that this would be the case.

He hurried to the drawer in his kitchen and pulled out a long wire extension. He lassoed one of the overhead beams and yanked on the chord until it went taut. Goetleib then mounted his chair and placed the wire over his head. It drooped loosely around his neck. He tightened the ligature and kicked away the chair.

Old Goetleib hung for around 20 seconds, swinging back and forth like an insane ant-eater shaped chandelier, but his hardwood neck refused to break. He felt his penis hard and was suddenly very aware of just how hard it had gotten, before the weak slipknot in the wire unfastened and sent the desperate critic crashing to the floor.

He nursed his garrotted throat for a moment then felt something happening between his legs. Goetleib felt lactescent sperm rise in him, through a different tunnel, a different path – a path of pleasure! – and he collapsed again as it gushed forth in an ridiculous cascade. The ants had been dislodged from his ejaculatory duct and were now parachuting from the widened and raw japseye. Goetleib looked at the puddles of screaming ants in their milky pools of DNA. He leaned over a tiny troupe of disorientated insects and sucked them up through his hose-nose. He sat on his rump and savoured the taste of the ants and cherished his voided testicles. Goetleib found that now he couldn’t stop thinking about Mancuso’s book…

My War

It wasn’t the heat that was getting to me. It wasn’t the seasickness, the overcrowded boat, getting jabbed in the ribs by the butts and muzzles of guns, or even the fact my right knee felt primed to explode.

We had been on the boat for seven hours, just drifting around the Gulf of Thailand, the temperature well above a hundred degrees, and us soldiers wearing itchy woolen shirts and trousers, oversized water-filled boots, and backpacks and guns. The only thing we didn’t have were helmets, which might have helped keep the sun off our heads. Continue Reading…

The is NOT an Anthology

In 1959, the painter, Brion Gysin, “accidentally” cut through a pile of newspapers with a Stanley Knife and changed the future of writing. William S. Burroughs, who would popularize this “cut-up method” would prefer to say that Gysin “cut into the future,” but regardless of semantics – “art is merely a three letter word, my dear” – that which was done could not be undone. Burroughs worked to hone the technique from purely haphazard to a careful, almost scientific, process wherein cut-ups acted as inspiration. Though it had, arguably, been done before by the founder of Dadaism, Tristan Tzara, the cut-up method became Burroughs’ obsession during the 1960s, spilling out of his prose and into the wider culture. Continue Reading…

Joyce Johnson’s Novels Available From Open Road Media

Joyce Johnson is best-known for her 1983 memoir, Minor Characters, which focuses on the years 1957-58, and concerns the role of the marginalized woman in the Beat sphere. It is ironic, then, that she is often written off as Kerouac’s girlfriend and the woman who wrote about being Kerouac’s girlfriend. Indeed, Johnson is an accomplished novelist in her own right, and an important figure in Beat studies beyond being merely one of the “minor characters.” Her most recent book, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, is proof of that.

In 1962, Johnson published her first novel, Come and Join the Dance. She began writing the book a year before meeting Kerouac, and it is considered the first Beat novel written by a woman. Set in 1955, it details the life of a young college graduate in whom Johnson instills the sort of values people thought only the Beat men possessed – a wanderlust, yearning for freedom, sex, and adventure. She said:

“I wanted to write the real way that the girls I knew were living. And it was at a time that there was all this incredible anxiety about having sex, that was the great breakthrough and adventure for a girl – if you could dare to have sex outside your marriage. And so it was about a girl who was in her last week in college and feels that nothing real has ever happened to her, and she decides to lose her virginity. In the 1950s, young women did not write those books.”

Even readers of the Beat Generation may be slightly shocked and surprised, as they are more accustomed to reading about the female participants of the movement as being more reserved in the eyes of their male counterparts. But Johnson’s contributions to Beat studies and, as evidenced in her novels, to the Beat movement itself, have demonstrated that these people were no mere “minor characters,” and were instead sidelined by the history books. Perhaps most recognizable to the Beat enthusiast will be the character Kay, who is based upon the tragic figure of Elise Cowen.

Johnson’s next two novels, Bad Connections (1978) and In the Night Café (1987), are set in the bohemian culture of the 1960s and, like Come and Join the Dance, are located in her native New York City. Written in a crisp, fast-paced prose that exhibits the sort of liberating exuberance that Beat writing was known for, her novels are also tinged with a sadness that is more palpable even than in Kerouac’s or Ginsberg’s writing. Her characters face greater obstacles in their lives and as such are even more beat than their male counterparts, and certainly lack the optimism and hope that existed for the men.

Although these are all fine works of fiction, Johnson has come to be known for her work in non-fiction, and particularly her work in the Beat field. Additionally, her first novel was released only in a run of 1,000 copies. As such, they have previously been hard to come by. Fortunately, Open Road Media has obtained and released these three novels in digital format, with a view to doing “a small paper edition” of Come and Join the Dance. These books are wonderful examples of Beat writing that Beatdom highly recommends. See www.openroadmedia.com for more information.

Burroughs: The Movie Interview

Film director Aaron Brookner discusses the restoration of classic documentary Burroughs: The Movie, made by his late uncle, Howard Brookner. The project coincides with the William S. Burroughs Centennial in 2014. Interview by Tom Cottey.

Originally published in Beatdom #14 – the MOVIE issue. Buy it here:

 

 

What is your personal connection to Burroughs: The Movie?

 

I grew up seeing the Burroughs: The Movie poster on the wall of my grandmother’s house. All I knew was Burroughs’ face from the beginning, before I knew who he was. Then before I had read anything by Burroughs I had seen Howard’s movie. I probably watched that film hundreds of times on VHS, from like ages ten to twenty, and then started reading Burroughs beginning with Howard’s copy of Junkie. It wasn’t until years later, seeing clips on YouTube, that I wondered where the actual film was. That led to this long search to find out where it was.

 

What was the restoration process like?

 

I started looking for a negative at first and it seemed like it was just gone, disappeared. Then it came to “can I get a print of the film?” It seemed like the only print was in Australia. They brought it out and it had all these tears in it and was really beat up. It had been Howard’s festival print. Then I found one in Berlin, but that had German subtitles burned into it and was also pretty tattered. Then finally, kind of in the back yard, it turned out that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York had a print donated shortly after Howard died by Brad Gooch, who was Howard’s long-time partner. It had been there more than twenty years, which goes to show the state of shock that Brad was in, as he didn’t have any recollection of it.

With MoMA began an interesting debate, an ongoing one with archives, which is: when you’re an archive your job is to preserve the film and it’s risky to let it out. MoMA being an archive, and I don’t fault them for this, didn’t want to let the print out of their vault. So then I was presenting the other side to the story, which is if no one knows about the film what good is having it preserved? It’s a bit of a “if a tree falls, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound,” scenario. Eventually we came to an agreement to get the print out one time and do a good remastering of it, and make a digital master of the film.

That’s when we turned to the Kickstarter campaign which was super encouraging to find out how many people all over the world (including the U.S., Europe, Russia, Far East, Japan, South America, Argentina, Brazil, you name it), were interested in Burroughs: The Movie.

 

What feeling did you get about Burroughs having watched the film before reading the books?

 

In my grandmother’s house we have pictures of our dogs, my great grandmother, pictures of us swimming on the lake, cousins, uncles, aunts – normal stuff up on the walls – and a giant poster of William Burroughs. That was the context in which Burroughs was for me andwhen you watch the film I think he feels like family; you’re just sitting there with him. Later on I heard Stew Meyer describe him in a way that clicked for me. He said: “Burroughs was the grandfather who wouldn’t judge you,” and I think that’s great. That’s exactly how I felt about having this creepy, weird, yet also familiar and comfortable character in my family up on the wall forever… it was really comfortable andcool. And yes, he wasn’t going to judge you for the weird stuff you couldn’t tell your other family that you were into.

 

What was Howard’s relationship with Burroughs like?

 

I know that Howard found him really funny and I think that definitely comes across in the film. A lot of people approach Burroughs as this serious, epically dark, epically intelligent Beat icon, you know in these big terms. And of course he is all those things, butHoward also approached him like “Uncle Bill who was really funny.” And what comes across is the sense of humour from the very first shot of him fading in from nothing into his chair, “Little did I know what it was like to be a writer.” And the way that he shot the whole film is like a very classic, public television portrait of a classic American writer, only it’s William Burroughs. It is totally perfect because of course he is in a three-piece suit; he’s American aristocracy – even though he’s really not! But the suit that he wears is the form that Howard takes to approaching the style of his film, and the substance that comes out is wild and brilliant, and fun-loving Uncle Bill. To have a structure that fit the character so well, he clearly knew his subject.

Howard was an excellent person at relating to other people. He would look you very intensely in the eyes and make you feel like you were the only person in the room.  He could get that connection with people and I think he probably got that with Burroughs. In this case, it was that kind of framing; it was that kind of style because that was the Burroughs world. If he went at it and tried to make some crazy, cut-up thing it would be a different film. That would be like an interpretation of Burroughs’ creative work. This was not that. This was, “I am going to take you into Burroughs’ world as it actually is.”

 

How did Howard fit into that particular world?

 

At the time, you had the “Beat” guys living in the same place as people in their twenties. A lot of people from outside, the Midwest and other places in the country, they would come to New York because it was cheap and you could be an artist there. You could live openly gay if you wanted, you could do drugs; they found their comfort there. So Howard was one of those characters. The family lived in the suburbs, and he was gay, and had gotten an Ivy League degree in political science. He was going to be a lawyer and then all of a sudden went to film school.

Howard could have a punk aesthetic, and went to punk clubs to hear music, and had friends in bands, and was into heroin, but Howard was also very literary. He was an excellent writer and had excellent grammar. And, he knew the same spectrum maybe, obviously in a smaller way because he wasn’t a sixty-eight year old writer like Burroughs, but he was very smart, very well educated, all those elements. I think he could see the spectrum of Burroughs from the literary background to the drugs on the Bowery. Clearly Burroughs trusted him an awful lot to be the person to tell his story.

The thing that’s taken for granted, now that Burroughs is a more well-known, established figure, is that at the time he had basically been in exile from the U.S. until shortly before this movie was made. He was known as a junky and the guy who killed his wife, and maybe because he was gay – there were lots of misconceptions about him.

 

How does Howard deal with Burroughs’ killing of his wife Joan Vollmer?

 

It’s the only time I’ve ever heard a very simple straightforward account of that story by Burroughs. When I hear Burroughs convey that story through that movie I don’t see any big myth about it, I see a story as it actually happened and I do see that it really affected him. And then I think it’s great that Howard also juxtaposes it with [Allen] Ginsberg’s point of view, because Burroughs was the person who lived it. It’s a more visceral story that Burroughs is telling, but Ginsberg offers more analysis from the other side. Burroughs is elegant enough not to really talk about Joan’s role in the incident, he keeps it to himself, but Ginsberg analyses what was going on with Joan and expresses his theory that Joan was very miserable and egged him on to get her out of this world.

 Burroughs the Movie

Who was involved in making the film?

 

Well it started as a twenty minute film for Howard’s master’s thesis at film school. Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo were two of Howard’s best friends from New York University (NYU). They each worked on each other’s student films, and guys like Jimmy Lebovitz. A lot of the people for example who worked on Permanent Vacationalso worked on Burroughs. That was the thing; it was just a student film in the beginning. Spike Lee and Sara Driver (who were two years younger and working in the equipment room), were checking out cameras and sound kits to Howard, Jim, and Tom to go film with William Burroughs. Then Howard realised he was really on to something there and kept going and did it “professionally” after school – which involved the hard truth reality of having to raise money. It took him five years to finish.

 

And what do you think Jarmusch and DiCillo got out of making the film in terms of experience?

 

I think what is interesting about that whole group of filmmakers that whole time is that they incorporated a very documentary aesthetic. Now of course, Jarmusch films don’t look like a documentary, but the attention to natural detail, the pleasure of what’s actually going on in the street for example, he captures beautifully in Stranger than Paradise or Down By Law, or Mystery Train or Night on Earth, all his films really – it’s these beautiful details, often moments of gritty city life – and it’s the same aesthetic as Howard’s using, as an almost fiction backdrop in Burroughs: The Movie.

You’ve got this amazing set of the Bowery with all these crazy characters, with Burroughs in a three-piece suit, with a sword in his cane walking down the street. You could say that’s as awesome as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins playing the manager of a motel in Memphis in Mystery Train. And the same thing with Tom, certainly in his early movies Johnny Suedeand Living In Oblivion, it’s these crazy characters in this crazy place of downtown New York that you can’t make up, so they’re all drawing on this same real environment that they’re around; same thing with Spike Lee by the way. He took it to such a degree that he said “I’m going to tell you about the characters, I’m going to tell you about New York, I’m also going to tell you about the weather.” Y’know – Do The Right Thing is great because it’s about the heat; it’s about how fucking hot it gets in New York.

 

What perspective do you think the audience will have now on the film, thirty years after it was made?

 

Probably how incredibly ahead of its time the subject matter was, or how incredibly relevant the subject matter is today. I mean Burroughs is talking about a lot of things like creating a gay state to “protect ourselves.” He was dealing with the Briggs Initiative, Proposition 6 in 1978, when they were trying to outlaw all homosexuals from becoming teachers basically; same thing as is going on in Russia with not wanting to spread homosexual propaganda, whatever that means. So how incredibly timely it is.

I also think that the way that the film was made is very refreshing to watch. There are a lot of documentaries made now where we’re kind of used to a certain form. I mean there are all kinds of different documentaries made, but we’re used to the sort of Oscar contender documentaries which are: talking head, archive, talking head, archive, kinda thing – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, like a pop song. By comparison, Burroughs: The Movie is so raw and pure, the story is just unfolding, it’s happening right before your eyes, and you’re also aware of how very complex it is. He’s incredibly complex subject matter to tackle.

And it’s funny to think that here was a film, made for four years, by filmmakers who started out as students in very raw, gritty circumstances that BBC Arena then broadcast twice, and it had a theatrical run. And another interesting thing is that it was self-distributed by Howard and Burroughs. They took the film around to all these art house cinemas in Europe and in the U.S.  Burroughs would give a reading and then they’d play the film. They’d both be around to talk and sign things afterwards.

 

When and where can audiences expect to see Burroughs: The Movie?

 

2014 is the Burroughs centennial and I’m hoping to have the film available before that year is over. Hopefully we will make a very special edition DVD and Blu-ray, maybe even a remastered release with some super exciting new material. But I also hope we can take the film back to where it came from starting with a theatrical release and showing it at a festival like the New York Film Festival. Many Burroughs events will happen next year for the Burroughs centennial and we hope we can show the film at many of them after the re-launch.

 

What can you tell us about Howard Brookner’s other works? Will we see those too and where and when can we find out more about him?

 

I think I became a filmmaker because of Howard. Looking up these old films of Howard and Burroughs: The Movie triggered this realisation that he had other works and other films out there that are also really fascinating, like a feature documentary on Robert Wilson… Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars. I also found the original 16mm material surrounding that, along with a lot of items that tell his whole story. I have been wanting to tell Howard’s story for a long time and this was the perfect material to include in my film on him: Smash The Control Machine: Howard Brookner and the Western Lands. Jim Jarmusch is executive producing it. I hope it will be finished by 2015. It will put Howard’s life in context and Burroughs: The Movie in a greater context of his work as a filmmaker, as an artist. I think it will be a film that will look at his life and his times from today’s perspective, while also recovering a lot of his long lost art.