An interview with Bevin Richardson about his alternative The Dharma Bums book made from a seven 1.5 meter scroll painted in wine. Continue Reading…
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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…
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.
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.
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.
By Adrien Clerc
The story of the making of Taking Tiger Mountain is one of the strangest a movie-goer could possibly hear. It all started in the mid-seventies, when two friends, Kent Smith (director) and Bill Paxton (not-famous-yet actor) decided to make a film together, loosely based on the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty. They shot enough silent, black and white images in Tangier and Wales to make a full-length film, but hit a dead-end when it came to editing, and sold the footage to a friend, Tom Huckabee, who was still an aspiring filmmaker. Huckabee decided to leave the kidnapping story behind, and to think over the whole meaning of the images to make a conspiracy sci-fi movie. Huckabee’s Taking Tiger Mountain would be set in the apocalyptic world of Burroughs’ Blade Runner: a movie, and follow Billy, a young time-bomb assassin. Yes, it sounds crazy, and yes, it is.
In the following interview director Tom Huckabee goes back on the process that led to the making of the first feature with a Burroughs’ writing credit, and talks about feminism, LSD, Burroughs, and the future of sci-fi movies.
Hi Tom. Maybe we can start with the most simple intersection point… What interested you in Burroughs’ work?
The value of Burroughs to me was that he was on the fringe between acceptable and non-acceptable, that he was an explorer of dangerous worlds. There was a vicarious, transgressive thrill to his work in subject and form… the ideas were fun to think about because they expanded your mind, made the world larger, but just like acid, which was fun for eight hours, you didn’t want to stay there. My actual philosophy comfort zone is more with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Tim Leary, William Faulkner, Hermann Hesse. I was never into opiates or boys, or noir, for that matter.
The idea you had – not to make an adaptation, but a movie set in the world of a Burroughs’ novel – is very interesting. Did it come to your mind before you saw Smith’s footage, or afterwards?
I saw Smith’s footage first in 1975. I may have heard of Burroughs back then but hadn’t read anything. In ‘76 I enrolled at UT Austin and probably started reading Burroughs then. I got the footage in ‘79 and looked at everything and logged it. There was 10 hours of silent non-sync 35mm techniscope, and its corresponding anamorphic work print. I started building scenes using the script they had which was loosely based on the J. Paul Getty kidnapping. There was no sci-fi element, no assassination, no prostitution, no feminism, or brainwashing. It was a dream film about a young American waking up on a train – with amnesia, maybe – who wanders into a Welsh town, meets a lot of people, has adventures, bad dreams, and then gets killed on the beach, or does he?
Once I had assembled all their footage into what seemed like a narrative flow, I started thinking about what the story could be. I didn’t like their story much, it was too languid for me, disconnected, but mostly they had only shot half of it and I knew I couldn’t go back to Wales. I’d been reading Burroughs and a lot of other avant-garde, transgressive, and erotic literature. Story of the Eye was a big influence. I started reading The Job. I got the idea that he was an assassin… and maybe the idea to set it in the future.
Other people were putting in their two cents and this mysterious guy named Ray Layton, who behaved like a cult leader, but only had one follower, and I think he paid her, was hanging around doing avant-garde theatre. He had the idea to make it about feminist terrorists brainwashing Billy…. and the prostitution camps. I don’t know who came up with the idea that he was a draft dodger.
I discovered Blade Runner and realized it was exactly the right kind of world, happening in America, while our events were unfolding in Wales. I lucked into finding a backer who promised $30,000, and that’s when it got real. I remembered seeing another short film that Kent and Bill had made; a thinly veiled homoerotic portrait of Bill, called D’Artagnan. I thought it could be used to represent Billy’s brainwashing. By then I’d acquired the MKUltra transcripts and was heavily into The Job.
It took at least a year to write the script to conform to the footage, which by the way was 60 minutes. I knew I needed 75 min. minimum for it to be a feature. So I built five minutes of dream sequences out of outtakes, including one where I threw the film in the air and put it together as it came down – cheating a lot.
I should mention that I was fairly regularly during this time, maybe once every one or two months, on acid, mushrooms, and baby woodrose seeds… this, added with all the experimental film I was seeing, and avant-garde and erotic and left wing and feminist political literature I was reading, kept my mind open to outré thematic and formal tropes… so, say, if a scene wasn’t working I could always run it upside down and backwards… Also by then I was thoroughly versed in MKUltra brainwashing, psychic warfare, so in that respect I think I was getting a lot of that independently from Burroughs, maybe from the same source he was getting it.
Then I wrote the opening scene and shot it… and started dubbing in dialogue. I forgot to mention Woody Allen’s Tiger Lilly as an influence. First I hired a lip reader to tell me what the characters were saying and many of them were speaking Welsh.
And you found a way to get in touch with Burroughs?
In 1980, the bass player of my band, The Huns, had an out of town visitor, Adam Somebody, who said he knew Burroughs. By then I knew I wanted the material from Blade Runner and what I would do with it. Adam said he would ask him about it and that part of it went down super easy after James Grauerholz got involved.
How did you become aware of the making of Ridley Scott’s, Blade Runner?
I was the one who alerted Burroughs that Blade Runner was the official title of Scott’s film… I was killing time in a book store where Burroughs was signing books, looking at movie magazines, when I came across a big spread on Blade Runner in Cinemafantastique.
We had just an hour before we finished watching Taking Tiger Mountain on a Steenbeck flatbed [editor], fast-forwarding through most of it but slowing down for the sex scenes, signed contracts… I think I handed them a check for $100.00 and we walked across the street together to the signing…
They had made no mention that the same book I was adapting, Blade Runner, might be used in some way, if just the title, for the basis of a mega budget sci-fi by the genius who had brought us the most popular film among punk rockers like myself: Alien. My jaw dropped… I walked it over to James [Grauerholz] and his jaw dropped. It heralded to them that there might be hope for them in Hollywood, after all. James didn’t appear at all worried at being ripped off. There had been talk about them using the name, and a price already discussed: $5000.00, which at the time seemed like a good deal to them.
That’s an amazing story! I’m a big fan of Alien too – in fact it was one of the first movies that got me interested in cinema. It’s one of these films that make the screen it is using bigger, larger; it creates a new dimension of space. I saw Blade Runnera few years ago when it was reissued for the big screen, and some of it is amazing, but I was a bit disappointed – and still am – by the fact that the narrative is very, very conventional. What do you think of Blade Runner?
I totally agree about Blade Runner. Too bad it doesn’t have just 10 percent of Burroughs, and I don’t think Harrison Ford is that good in it. Sean Young and Daryl Hannah are fabulous – and Rutger Hauer, the evil ruler, and the toy maker… in fact all the supporting characters are great, but Ford is just Han Solo. It would have been fun to see Christopher Walken in that role.
I had dinner with Ridley Scott and Bill Paxton one night to pitch a story idea of mine… I can’t remember if we even mentioned Taking Tiger Mountain-Blade Runner, probably not, for fear it could have derailed the pitch, which he didn’t buy, although his girlfriend thought he should. I’ve recently submitted my most recent script, a four hour mini-series about Timothy Leary to his production company, we’ll see!
Fingers’ crossed! Do you know if Burroughs and Grauerholz knew Scott’s movie wouldn’t revolve at all around the topics of his book?
I think they knew the script was based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? I think James had even read the script. I never saw the director’s cut, is it better? That sounds better to me… as the problem, like you say, was the conventional nature of the plot, which probably wasn’t helped by the pedestrian narration.
Yes the director’s cut is way better than the original one. I wondered about something, watching Taking Tiger Mountain. Were you aware, at the time, of Burroughs’ work with Antony Balch, movies like Towers Open Fire or The Cut-Ups?
I haven’t heard of either of those films.
Ok. Were you influenced by any other movies or filmmakers then, or were you just trying to create your own path?
Influences were all over the place since I was working with acquired footage and making it tell a story that it was not designed to tell. Things that spring to mind are Alphaville by Godard, everything by Kenneth Anger, every post-apocalyptic film that had come out by then, El Topo, The Prisoner TV series…. Maya Deren. Stan Brakhage. Buster Keaton. Stanley Kubrick movies. DušanMakavejev, Twilight Zone…. the young David Lynch. Truffaut, Passolini, Antonioni, Roger Corman, In the Realm of the Senses…. Robert Altman… John Boorman, especially Zardoz… Bruce Conner! Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow! Persona!
And outside cinema? Your movie seems to be heavily influenced by music.
Oh, yes, my tastes were punk rock… Throbbing Gristle, Devo, Talking Heads, but also the poetry of Jim Morrison, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Cale, David Bowie and Brian Eno – in fact the film was already named Taking Tiger Mountain before I or Kent Smith had heard of Brian Eno.
The other influences were from books, arts and drugs, Burroughs’ complete oeuvre but especially The Job, LSD, Xerox art, Yoko Ono, psychological theory, Antonin Artaud’s, Theatre of Cruelty. Otto Muehl. Hunter Thompson. Minimalist art like Carl Andre, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Andy Warhol. Rimbaud, the Book of Revelations, Foucault… Jean Genet, Rothko… Man Ray and Duchamp… Cocteau! Eisenstein! Buñuel! Conspiracy Theory, Cattle Mutilations and The Anarchist Cookbook.
I was drawing on every avant-garde thing I’d ever known to try to make a horse race out of the footage Bill and Kent had shot in Wales… using every trick in the micro-budget, experimental, minimalist, transgressive handbook. It had its admirers back then, more now, but probably the best review I ever got was from Burroughs, saying, “I think ya got somethin’ there, kid.” That’s all he ever said about it that I know of.
I think he was right, you had something – the only problem was, I guess, that the “thing” it was. It’s not an easy-to-sell product. It’s interesting that you mention The Job. The makers of Decoderalso said it was Electronic Revolution that was the major inspiration behind their work, not the “fictions.” You were interested in the control theories that Burroughs developed; the power of the image and sound combination in mind-control?
Yes, of course, and Clockwork Orange was a big influence too, and the Kennedy assassination, Burroughs’ interest in Hassan-i Sabbah, which still interests me… sound frequencies that can make you vomit and whatnot.
Speaking of Hassan-i Sabbah, the way the woman’s group controls the mind of the character is directly taken from the old man of the mountain’s legend, isn’t it?
Well, actually, I think that’s a merger of Hassan-i Sabbah, the SCUM Manifesto, Manchurian Candidate, and MKUltra documents.
I love the idea of a cross-over between the SCUM manifesto and Hassan-i Sabbah! By the way, as you said you were influenced by The Job, were you interested in Burroughs’ views on women, the idea that they might came from another planet, that we should build two distinct societies, male and female…
I thought it was myopic and bigoted… stereotyping a whole gender, to me, was worse than stereotyping a race or religion. It stank of elitism, fascism… unenlightened… I saw it as a flaw in his character. So, maybe that’s something that is interesting about Taking Tiger Mountain, that it was equally influenced by Valerie Solanas, a militant man-hater, and also Burroughs, the polar opposite… something to offend everyone! I was pretty influenced by feminist thought, took a class in feminist art and literature, was sympathetic toward Valerie Solanas… About Burroughs, I was conflicted about the shooting of his wife, to say the least… I barely remember any female characters from his stories. When it comes to women, I’m much closer to Timothy Leary’s views than Burroughs’.
What about the homosexual undertones of the movie?
The homosexuality of Taking Tiger Mountain – in that it dovetails so nicely with the other Burroughsesque themes – was a happy accident courtesy of Kent. It dawns on me now how perfectly the feminist brainwashing group fits in with Burroughs’ views about women trying to control men. By then I was also thoroughly enmeshed in punk rock and its intellectual preoccupations. Genesis P. Orridge… situationism… ReSearch Magazine… The Clash…. turmoil in London, and all that went in the stew. It’s interesting to me that Orridge actually became a woman like Billy does at one point. The band that did my soundtrack, Radio Free Europe, was Texas’ answer to Throbbing Gristle.
You’ve said in your eulogy for William S. Burroughs that there will probably be Hollywood movies made from Junkie or The Wild Boys. Do you still think it’s a strong possibility?
Junkie, for sure….Wild Boys, yeah, it could happen. James Franco, the likely producer… he seems to be the patron of all things outré and literary at the moment.
Taking Tiger Mountainhasn’t been easy to see, to say the least, during all these years. Do you plan on releasing it?
I don’t know. There’s a young Turk in Dallas who says he’s going to pay to have a digital negative struck from the original techniscope which would mean that the film would look a lot better than it did on 35mm… He could use some encouragement, too, that he’s not the only one interested.
Joyce Johnson’s role in Beat history is too often viewed simply as that of Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend. There is surprise when one first learns that she was a novelist in her own right and at the disdain for her position as a scholar of the Beat Generation. She is derided as “milking” her brief relationship with Kerouac. The irony is that her book, Minor Characters, brought to light some of the experiences of the women of the Beat Generation, and the extent to which they have been marginalized.
But Johnson’s contribution to Beat studies have been tremendously important, and Minor Characters has become a classic. In her subsequent works, Doors Wide Open and Missing Men, Johnson continued to add to our understanding of the Beats and their literature through a decidedly personal approach, offering a rare insider’s guide to the Beat Generation and the life of Kerouac, whom she dated between 1957-58.
Thus there was the expectation that in her most recent book, The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, we would once again be treated to a subjective and personal account of the author, most likely focusing on the two years during which time they were romantically involved. But that was not the case. Johnson has taken advantage of the recent opening of the Jack Kerouac Archive at the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection in order to research a period of his life that ended six years prior to their meeting. She has chosen to study only a short period, and to examine it from an entirely different angle than that attempted by any of the countless previous biographers and critics.
Why focus on the period up until 1951?
I intended from the start to make the development of Jack’s writing – from his acquisition of English, which was a second language for him, through the discoveries that led him to his becoming exactly the writer he wanted to be – the central focus of my book. By the time I began writing about 1951, I felt that by following Jack through the series of breakthroughs after On the Road that resulted five months later in the writing of Visions of Cody, the book he considered his masterpiece, I had told not only a complete story, but the most important story about Jack, in a way that cast light upon the future years I did not cover.
What inspired you to examine the importance of his cultural and linguistic background, and to what extent did that inform his style of writing?
Curiously, although it is a well known fact that Jack was Franco-American, the implications of his cultural heritage were not explored in previous biographies. I first became aware of how important it might be in early 1980’s when I read Kerouac: A Chicken Essay by the French-Canadian poet, Victor Lévy-Beaulieu. That book captured something about Jack that I had felt intuitively when I knew him. When I decided to write the biography, this was another theme I wanted to explore, and I found a lot that related to it in Jack’s papers, since it was a constant preoccupation of his. There’s an extraordinary entry in a 1945 journal, for example, where he writes that although he can understand and appreciate “American richness,” it will never be his because he is only “half-American.” During the years when he was growing up, Franco-Americans were a despised minority (in New England they were called “white niggers”); in On the Road and in his journals, Jack refers to his “white ambitions” – language only someone who did not feel “white” would use.
Jack’s family spoke the French-Canadian dialect known as joual, and he did not learn his first words of English until he was six. Although he succeeded in mastering English, and in the process forgot some of his French, the joual seems to have been his interior language, and writing evidently involved a kind of process of translation. That process gave him an exceptional sensitivity to sound. After years of keeping the French out of his American voice, in 1951 he began to let it back in – first in On the Road, which was preceded in March of 1951 by a novella written in French, where I believe Jack found the voice he would use only a few weeks later for the narrator of the novel he had been unsuccessfully struggling to write for the past four years…It’s those French overtones that give Sal Paradise’s voice its special sound.
You’ve said you were less than satisfied with previous biographies of Jack. How does yours ‘set the record straight’?
It is only in the last few years that scholars have had access to the Kerouac Archive, which contains such a remarkable record of Jack’s life and creative development in journals, letters and manuscript. This is essential material for biography. Without it, past biographers had to rely largely on oral history, which was valuable but not necessarily reliable, and on what Jack wrote about his life in his novels, which could often be misleading, since his books are indeed works of fiction. Based largely on anecdotal material gathered from interviews, the books presented a picture of Kerouac in which the emphasis seemed to be upon his dysfunctionality and the extraordinarily dedicated artist that he actually was often got buried in a mass of sensational details.
The book is touted as a bit of an “insider’s guide” due to your relationship with Kerouac, but you first met him six years after the period your book examines. How did you go about researching the book?
My book is the product of fifty years of reflection on Jack, during which my understanding grew with everything new that I learned. Although the relationship I had with Jack when I was in my early twenties lasted less than a couple of years, it happens to be one of his longest relationships with a woman. During that period I saw him at his best and at his worst, and got to know the quiet, tender, extremely vulnerable person Jack was when he was sober; when I showed him portions of my first novel, I experienced personally his unfailing generosity to other writers. At seventy-seven, I am hardly sentimental about Jack, but I still feel deep sad affection for him, and my intimate knowledge of him definitely shaped my point of view when it came to writing The Voice Is All. But every biography is inescapably shaped by the writer’s point of view, which is why each biography of the same person will tell a different story.
I began working on The Voice Is All early in 2008 and for the next three years spent two days a week taking notes at the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, where I kept running into other Kerouac scholars…I went through Jack’s papers chronologically while my writing kept pace with my research, and became rather fanatical about establishing an exact chronology for the events in his life, which I felt was very badly needed…I read up on Franco-American life in the United States, and also read some of the writers who were most important to Jack – especially Saroyan, Thomas Wolfe, and Louis Ferdinand Céline.
Was it tough with the restrictions imposed by the Sampas family?
The restrictions upon how much I could quote seemed a challenge at first, but I have ended up feeling the book is all the better for them. I had to choose each quote very carefully and concentrate upon its meaning, which I think has given my book a certain clarity. The narrative, unbroken by long quotes, also has a unity of tone that I think is all to the good. I was very pleased when one reviewer compared my book to “a big Russian novel,” because that’s how it felt to me while I was living inside it and writing it.
This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #12:
Amiri Baraka is Beat.
He walked away from the scene in Greenwich Village, where he edited literary journals Yugen, Kulchur, and The Floating Bear from 1958-65. Working with Hettie Cohen, Michael John Fles, and Diane Di Prima, respectively, the journals brought new works by new names. Featured writers included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen, and Michael McClure. He co-founded Totem Press and was influential in the launching of Corinth Books. Yugen magazine was perhaps most significant as the platform for the “new” Beat writers, allowing their work to find a place in one of the first venues to give credulity to the movement.
A wise and controversially outspoken man, his views have kept him on the Outside, the Beat side. The U.S. Air Force discharged him after two years of service due to his belief in communism. In 1961 he was arrested for distributing obscenity after mailing copies of The Floating Bear, Issue Nine, to subscribers; and his presence at the 1967 riots in Newark, New Jersey, saw him arrested and severely beaten by police. It was also the year he changed his name from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka. The charges against him were eventually dropped and much of his support came from the Beat community.
From Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, his first book of poems in 1961, to his upcoming play, The Most Dangerous Man in America, he has stayed the course, worked and fought for his beliefs of an equitable society.
With the death of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., (who visited Baraka’s Newark home a week before his murder), he left the mostly-white Bohemian literary scene and the environs of the East Village to take up a more radical stance towards Black Nationalism. But despite his distancing himself from the Beats in the mid-sixties, Baraka read poetry and attended panel discussions at Beat-haven Naropa Institute through the 1980-90s, and remained friends with Ginsberg until Allen’s death in 1997.
More recently his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America,” brought an end to his New Jersey “Poet Laureate” post when Governor Jim McGreevey took umbrage to the poem’s questioning of the events surrounding the 9/11 destruction of the World Trade Centers. The “Who?’ of the exploding owl in the poem echoes the angst of Ginsberg’s voice in “Howl.” Having heard Ginsberg recite live from ten feet away, this writer finds both poems equally as exciting and important.
Baraka has been called “the triple-threat Beat.” His talent has brought him recognition and awards not just in poetry and prose but also in theater as an Obie Award winning playwright. A sampling of awards bestowed upon him include the PEN Open Book Award, the Langston Hughes Award, the Rockefeller Foundation Award for Drama, and National Endowment for the Arts and Guggenheim Foundation fellowships. Maybe one of the most bittersweet titles placed on him is that of the Poet Laureate of Newark Public Schools, which he received after Gov. McGreevey’s actions against him
Additionally, he is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and regarded as a respected academic, having taught at the state universities of New York at Stony Brook and Buffalo, Columbia University, and other institutions.
We started by asking why he walked away from the Beat Movement, which gave him a vehicle to establish himself as writer/thinker/activist to a wider audience.
Well, that whole thing [the Beat Movement], was very explosive, but remember that the whole Civil Rights Movement was intensifying. I got out of the service in 1957. The Montgomery bus boycott had gone on a couple years before. After they had successfully made them integrate those buses, they blew up Doctor King’s house. At that point, it really began to be clear this was the kind of struggle that was going on particularly in the south, at least for me, having been in the service for two years.
That was the point that it became clear… until they blew up King’s house and he says… you know, the black people showed up at his house with their rifles and said, “What should we do, what should we do, Doctor King?” and he said, “If any blood be shed, let it be ours.” So my whole generation reacted negatively to that and said, “No, it won’t be like that. If people are going to be shooting, they are going to be shooting back and forth.”
Malcolm X appeared at that scene with his whole idea about, you know, “You treat people like they treat you. They treat you with respect, you treat them with respect. They put their hands on you, send them to the cemetery.”
So a whole generation of black youth responded to that positively as a sign that Doctor King was indeed a normal man instead of some kind of a saintly non-violent kind of perseverant. During that period, the next years of 1958-1960… In 1959, Fidel Castro led that revolution in Cuba so I went down there the next year, 1960, to Cuba and met Fidel, Ché Guevara, and all those people. I also met the black activist from North Carolina, Robert Williams, who was in exile in Cuba because he had really been practicing a kind of a self-defense in North Carolina, a thing that actually ended up with him stopping the [Ku Klux] Klan – removing their hoods… and then he found out it was the State Police! Then they framed him for kidnapping a white couple and he went to Cuba to escape that kind of injustice, so I met him.
Anyway, that was the point – 1960 – when, while I had this kind of awareness of the Civil Rights Movement, I actually became much more directly involved in it. So, about 1965, when Malcolm X was murdered, I felt the best thing to do would be to get out of the Village and move to Harlem. I found that, for a lot of black people, that event made us take stock of ourselves and move out of Greenwich Village into Harlem. That was actually the point. I began the Black Arts Repertory Theater Company in 1965 at 130th Street and Lenox Avenue.
Who else was involved in the theater?
Larry Neal, poet, and Askia Touré, poet, those were two of the leading figures. Many people came to Harlem who were not already in Harlem, because they were attracted to the Black Arts Repertory School that we opened. We would send out trucks into the neighborhood every day… four trucks, one had graphic arts, the other had poetry, the other had music and the other had drama. We did this every day throughout the summer of 1965 so that created a kind of militant venue for Black Arts. They found that was desirable rather than having to submit to the continued racism of Greenwich Village.
The perception is that the Village was not so racist.
At that particular point, a lot of young black people felt it was better to move to Harlem to take an active kind of fighting stance against it, rather than to be isolated in Greenwich Village.
Taking action was better than writing about it or publishing work about it?
Right, absolutely… it was not only about the publishing; it was about actually being an activist in that community and on the street and actually making Black Arts relevant to the movement rather than simply commenting on it.
Do you feel that we are losing ground and giving back too much of what was gained then?
Absolutely! It is like one step forward, two steps back. The whole Obama campaign, the victory… on one hand has brought a kind of very sharp reaction. It is like after the Civil War – once the slaves were so-called “emancipated,” that’s when you get the Ku Klux Klan and the black “coons” and all of that strict re-segregation. Rather than ending slavery you got the whole segregation of the south and the whole dividing of the south into black and white even though they were theoretically free from slavery… but slaves were plunged into sharecropping and many times they couldn’t go anywhere. The white people in the south wouldn’t let them go until years after slavery was over. They started going north and west. You can read about that in a book called The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. She charts that whole immigration out of the south by my people.
It’s a stirring reaction to that election. Now we have the Tea Party. The Tea Party is correspondent to the Klan. They appear… the whole takeover of the Congress and the House of Representatives certainly existed because of these kinds of racist incidents – whether Trayvon Martin in the South [Martin was shot in February 2012] or shooting Amadou Diallo in the Bronx [police in February 1999] or the various kinds of murders out in California. It’s a sharp reaction and it shows the reaction is not just against black people but even young white people, like those taken up with the whole Occupy Movement across the country. There is just widespread dissatisfaction in society as it is.
How do you feel about the Occupy Movement?
I think it’s a good idea. It is uncertain and uneven but still a good idea and many times there are too many people completely lacking in the experience, in social struggle, or just anarchism, walking around who believe in no kind of government and no kind of organized response but certainly who are opposed to blacks in politics and it is a very ragged kind of result that comes out of that – but still the idea is a good idea and whatever kind of result you can get from that, even though it’s going to be much less than it would be if it were organized, you still have to support it.
Part of the reason is that it’s like the Sisyphus Syndrome. The only thing that’s happening now is that, between the Republican force pushing to the right, to restore the kind of Republican rule to go to back to Bush, which had been more extreme – what is underneath this is an attempt to erect a kind of corporate dictatorship. Coming out of all these Republicans’ mouths, especially the Tea Party, is the whole question that government is too big, that government is the enemy. The enemy is the lack of development. The fact that poverty still poxes this country and the development is, so far, uneven without a gap between the little six-tenths of one percent of the wealthy and the rest of the people. This has grown bigger and, actually, since Roosevelt and the New Deal we were talking about closing that gap. We talked about creating a much more equitable society. Now even the middle class is feeling the kind of strains that the working class is feeling. So the only thing the republicans have done…I mean, look at the surplus that Clinton had, billions of dollars in surplus, George Bush got rid of it…in the couple of terms that Bush had, he got rid of it a couple of times. He got rid of it.
How? The war, certainly… 9/11 was, to me, just a door opening to exploit the Middle East.
Like the 2.9 trillion dollars that Rumsfeld announced was missing on the day before 9/11? He claimed they didn’t know what they did with it…
Right! They didn’t know what they did with it… the people who got it know what they did with it… (laughs).
Can any government be righteous?
I’m a communist. I’m a Marxist. I believe that, ultimately, people will become sophisticated enough to understand that they themselves must rule – not just some little, small elitist group of exploiters. That is what the struggle is for – to see if this society itself becomes equitable. It is going to be hard because we are going to have to go through this period of intensified corporate domination, this last ditch struggle and the fact that it is now a global economy. You see that the struggles on Wall Street have affected the whole world and the only way that they feel they can gain any kind of superiority is war. That’s when they can hire more workers. That’s when they can fill their coffers and that’s exactly what they want to do… war… and that’s the only way capitalism can remain balanced on two feet, so to speak, but it will never be secure. That’s the problem that the people of the world face, that they have to finally overthrow these governments. They have to overthrow the monopoly of capitalism. That’s the task that faces humanity if it is ever to be truly civilized. You can’t be civilized with capitalism. It is too elitist. Most people are up against it. Most people cannot ever get a real education. Most of us still live in slums. It is something that is destined to be destroyed that will be very difficult to destroy it in its last days.
Are you serious about the guillotine?
Yes, it is a bill in legislature. They say they are running out of the drug to kill people with. You also have the Social Security Administration buying thousands of rounds of ammunition lately and you have to wonder what they need that for.
That’s the penalty for moving towards a corporate dictatorship because these people, the republicans and the Tea Party and these people, they’re not talking about the government. They’re talking about the government. They are talking about straight-out rule by the rich. It may be a terrifying scenario but that is what is in the works unless the people can find the wherewithal, the understanding, and the organization to resist it.
Even in its ragged state, I would rather have the Occupiers than nothing at all. The problem is that, too often, the people in power are opposed to the Occupiers. That’s the problem, most of the people who are in these posts, these small bureaucratic posts, they are even acting against their own interests, not to mention the police and those who are charged with keeping the order – an order that does not even serve them! It’s a tragic situation. But I don’t know what Social Security would be doing with all those guns. I don’t know that.
“Somebody Blew Up America.” You were censored by the New Jersey governor for publishing and performing this poem. The media depicts others who have questioned the events of 9/11 as crazy.
I understand it, yeah. That’s it. You got it. All you have to do is open your mouth, like they say you’ve got freedom of speech – as long as you don’t say anything. The minute you open your mouth, then that’s the end of that. Then they attack you. It has certainly happened to me. It happens to all kinds of people… even somebody like Bruce Springsteen, when he first sang that song about “fighting the yellow man for the white man.” They silenced him for a few years but he managed to come back. It’s that way, if you talk to say anything. There is a long history of that, particularly (for) Afro-Americans, but everybody else, too.
Like that attack on the film industry in the fifties, to remove any taint of the Left from the film industry, the blacklisting of the whole film industry. The whole McCarthyism thing and the fact that, during World War Two, the United States’ closest allies were Russia and China, but after World War Two our closest allies were suddenly the same people we were fighting, Germany and Japan… figure that out! Then China and Russia became our worst enemies. Why is that? It’s because they wanted to cut loose any kind of sign of supporting socialism. Since China and Russia were socialist countries our struggle with these socialist countries, then, was to make sure they were opposed to that (socialism). Finally, Russia succumbed and China has been riddled with imperialist advance. Finally, this corporate America is what dominates and wants to make sure that monopoly capitalism and imperialism outlast anything.
Why do you think people do not pay more attention to this?
The people who could make the most noise about it are afraid they are going to lose their whatever, their positions, afraid they are going to lose what they have. The problem with the great majority of people is that they are not organized and sometimes they don’t have the facts so they don’t know what is going on. It happens too often, even if you elect good people… like in Newark back in 1970, the first black mayor, the second black mayor. We haven’t had a white mayor in Newark since 1970… but then we get somebody like Cory Booker, the present mayor, who actually is sent here by corporate ventures to turn the whole advance, the drive to some kind of equitable city government, around. Now we are struggling against that. Now we have a situation where the mayor is trying to sell our water to private interests. It’s unbelievable. He is trying to sell the water plus about two thousand acres of land where we have the water.
Water is getting more expensive, like oil.
That’s what they want to do – jack the prices up and so this is an ongoing struggle. The largest corporation in Newark, which is Prudential Insurance, the largest insurance company in the world, they haven’t paid any taxes since 1970. One of their buildings is worth 300 million dollars a year in taxes. They were given a tax abatement in 1970. That was the “white-mail” they put on the new black city government, “Either give us a tax abatement or we are leaving.” That is not supposed to be eternal. I mean, you could give them a thirty-year abatement and it still would be over by 2000. We still have twelve years of twelve times 300 million dollars a year, we wouldn’t have a deficit… but they refuse to pay their taxes. They built an arena. They have the NCAA [basketball]; they have the Devils hockey team, which is an interesting idea for Newark. When they have all kinds of big events, they say we owe them money. They utilize our water. They utilize our police for security. We have to pay the police overtime any time they have an event and they say owe money.
Funny how all the venues are named after financial institutions these days, as opposed to names of great people.
That’s right. That’s just an indication of where everything is going. Everything is named after a bank or some other kind of corporation… even baseball stadiums. That’s absurd. Here everything is named after Prudential. (laughs)
Which medium do you find most useful in reaching people and motivating them?
The problem, again, is the control by the organizations. In the sixties, for instance, the whole emergence of abstraction and the corporations first fought against abstraction. That is the problem with the arts… it is like “freedom of the press”. You can have freedom of the press if you own a press otherwise you have to deal with a mimeograph machines and small distribution. That’s the way it is with all of the arts. That is the theater of grants. Somebody has to bestow that support upon the artist. Unless you really qualify, philosophically, to be in those venues, you are not going to be there.
I produced a play back in the sixties when I was perhaps unclear what I wanted to say, though they could deal with that to a limited degree. Back then it made it very, very difficult for me to get anything onstage. I have a play coming out in the spring about [W.E.B.] Dubois, called The Most Dangerous Man in America. That’s what the FBI called him. It’ll be a month run at a small theater on the Lower East Side.
You are accomplished and awarded in so many art forms… if you were to be remembered by one piece of work, what would you choose it to be?
I think the book on black music, Blues People, that I wrote… people still quote that and cite that. I think that is the most important one. People came out in 1963 and is the book of mine that is the most constantly-referenced. I think it was the most popular. I have had other works which had a great deal of (laughs) in the United States.
It’s about African-American music from Africa and how it developed in the United States. The seeds of that book came to me in a class I had with a man named Sterling Brown, a great poet who was my English teacher at Howard University. A friend of mine named A.B. Spellman who is also in the book, and who wrote a book called Four Lives in the Bebop Business, we had both finished class and he invited us to his house because we had some pretensions of knowing about the music. Once we were there, he showed us. He had this library with music, by genre, chronologically, by artist, and he told me, “That’s your history.”
In that kind of capsule statement what he was saying was that if you analyze the music, if you follow the music, you’ll also find out about the peoples’ history. So that’s what I did – tried to show how when the music changed it signified change in the status of the people and their condition. Everything about their lives has undergone some important change and the music is a result of the affect of the change. It goes to the earliest kind of music – the slave song, the early blues, the city blues, you know, the kinds of variations on that… like coming into the north and how it affected the music. It covers up to the 1960s.
You collaborated with The Roots about ten years ago… in hip-hop. Who are the most important artists or have been?
It changed a great deal from the early hip-hop of the 1970s, which was just a field called “rap.” Hip-hop is actually a kind of a category that includes different aspects of it all… the DJ, the rapping, graffiti, break dance. Rap, particularly, changed a great deal from the 1970s. The early rappers were much more conscious of making a social statement of protesting the kind of conditions they lived in and that black people lived in. It was really a kind of urban journal type thing, like Afrika Bambaataa from the South Bronx. Then, later on, people like Kurtis Blow and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.
RunDMC was a period of development of that was put together by the guy (named) Russell Simmons, who then became rap’s biggest entrepreneur.
Do you think people like Russell Simmons can be as well-accepted and still keep an edge?
People have to sort that out themselves and find out how those kinds of ties (either) support what they are doing or obstruct it. They might just change what they are doing or what they thought and come out with something that may not be as important as what they were doing before. It depends on how you deal with relationships with those institutions and organizations.
Can you tell more about your new play?
The play is about W.E.B. DuBois, when he was about 83 years old and was taking a very activist position against nuclear weapons and everything, including going to conferences in Europe to protest nuclear weapons. He was indicted as an “agent of foreign power,” being a “father” of books. He had just run for political office, he and a man named Vito Marcantonio, a lawyer who was really the last Italian communist in the U.S. Congress. Anyway, when DuBois was indicted because he was in a peace organization [he was chairman of the Peace Information Center, formed in 1950], they had the trial in Washington, DC, and Marcantonio defended him. He was the lawyer.
It was a drawn out trial but finally he won the case because it turned out that the chief witness against him was, in fact, the man who had invited DuBois to join the peace organization. So the thing was overthrown but DuBois was prescient enough to understand it. that he said, “Now the little children will no longer see my name.”
After that they took his passport and tried to keep him from traveling. Then in 1958, the Supreme Court overthrew that ruling and gave him back is passport so he was able to travel throughout the world… Europe, Russia, China. He had been invited to edit Encyclopedia Africana by Kwame Nkruman, who was the newly-elected Prime Minster of Ghana. He went there, declared his membership in the Communist Party and he died in Ghana on the day before the March on Washington, which was started by Reverend Martin Luther King, so it’s a real cycle.
That covers a lot of territory.
It is going to be mainly the drama of just before the indictment… and how they prepared for this trial. The main part of the play is the trial itself, and the rest focuses on his travels around the world, particularly Russia, China, and Ghana. That should be out in spring of next year.
Did you have a personal relationship with Malcolm X?
I met Malcolm one time, after he had his house in Long Island firebombed and he was moving around Manhattan. I saw him, actually, with a man named Mohamed Babu at the Waldorf Astoria, where Babu had a room. We met into the wee hours of the morning. That was the only time I actually talked to Malcolm.
You and Lenny Bruce were often mentioned in the same news stories and seem to have been crucified at the same time.
I didn’t know him. Like I said if you speak out and identify with any kind of activism you are going to get jumped. That’s it – and you can’t expect any other thing to happen.
Did you like his act? Were his racial routines funny to a black person?
Sure, at the time. What was relevant is that he was trying to be for real, to bring some reality to America and make a commentary on America and that was the point. Given the content, he was attacked for profanity and obscenity and all those things.
At that time, I was arrested for sending obscenity through the mail [for] publishing The Floating Bear. In one of them I had a play of mine in there or a short story… whatever, and an essay by William Burroughs. [The material deemed obscene consisted of “The Eighth Ditch” an excerpt from his novel, From the System of Dante’s Hell, and the Burroughs’ poem, “Roosevelt after Inauguration”].
This stuff that happened to Lenny Bruce was common, given that situation, because that is when that whole attack was common when you tried to do that – you were met with some kind of withering charges. I defended myself in court by reading the decision on [James] Joyce’s Ulysses and certainly that won the decision for me… (laughs).
The 1934 Supreme Court decision to lift the ban on Ulysses opened the doors for the publishing of many literary works besides those published by Baraka. Joyce’s book was used in the defense of novels Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Tropic of Cancer. The works of Amiri Baraka have, similarly, pushed open doors for new generations of creative minds to pass through.
Mr. Baraka was open and generous with his time. He still reads poetry in performance and we encourage you to see him if you ever have a chance. If you want Beat, he is more real than all the recent movies about the “usual suspects.” He is a living literary treasure and his work should be celebrated by all freedom-loving Americans and World Citizens.
Watch for his new play, The Most Dangerous Man in America, in spring and pick up a few of his books while you are waiting. He is the real deal and he speaks more sense than any other public figure that comes to mind.
Salute him and enjoy his work!
interview by Michael Hendrick
They say that I’m ill-mannered,
that I’m gonna self-destruct,
But if you know what I’m thinkin’
you’ll know that pop country really sucks.
Well, we’re losing all the outlaws
that had to stand their ground
and they’re being replaced by these kids
from a manufactured town
And they don’t have no idea
about sorrow and woe
‘Cause they’re all just too damn busy
kissin’ ass on Music Row.
Published by Hank Williams III, 2005, Bruc Records.
Well, I mean, you know, what I am doing to my voice. No other musician out there is doing what we deliver, as far as three and a half hours a night, four different genres, so it takes a toll on the vocal chords. It’s the never ending battle, fighting for my voice, trying to keep it. That’s the hardest part…the road…but that’s just one of those things.
What are you up to currently? In September, you released four new albums on the same day…you don’t see many artists do that.
We did a West Coast run and we just did an East Coast run. In my career, I have always toured just to tour. This is the first time I am touring around the releasing of the records but…that’s just my work ethic and that’s just what we do. The two year thing is…I wanting to get to a lot of places I never got to play before. Places like Italy, Romania, Spain, Norway, Japan, Australia… I’m wanting to start from scratch and get over there while I can. The last twenty years I’ve really just kept it in the United States and Canada. I’ve been to Japan and Europe just a couple of times but I’ve mostly kept it in the United States.
One thing you notice about a Hank3 show is how devoted the fans are; there is a lot of loyalty show to the artist.
I do talk to a lot of people from China on Facebook…all that shameless self-promotion on MySpace and Facebook…that’s a lot of the groundwork on my end, trying to put the word out over there in a different way. I’ve gotten a lot of work off of it. I meet a lot of creative people, artists giving me stuff or making trades…a lot of guitar techs…you meet a lot of people that if someone else was running it [his Facebook page], you would not have all those great opportunities of getting to connect with folks. You just wouldn’t have the opportunities to connect to all those people who are reaching out to you if you had somebody else scanning all your stuff. So, I’ve always been into trying to be as much ‘hands on’ as possible.
It seems to be working. We have been following you since around 2000, and it seems like more people know your name now than ever.
You got to keep in mind that I have toured this road for twenty years so I would hope that it is getting a little more common out there for at least some people to know who I am. I am sure outlaw country has helped out a good little bit on that since they support me and I would just say all the roadwork, the word of mouth, shaking all those hands, has helped a lot in getting me out there a bit. It has changed a little but there are still a few that don’t have any idea but that’s part of the beauty of it.
Also, I always strive to be grassroots-oriented. I mean that’s the main thing…not to get too big. If I had a number one song tomorrow, I would only be playing a small bar for two days in a row and stuff like that. That’s just a little bit of my mentality on that stuff…
On the subject of country outlaws, Johnny Cash gave you some help on how to write songs?
It was his advice to me…I’m not being selfish to my fans, but…the best song is, like, always just write a song for yourself. You don’t need to be writing a song for no company or sitting down on music row with an office. That’s not real. That’s not heartfelt. That’s fake and I have always lived by that. I do try to write songs and identify with my fans and make them feel connected on songs like “Six Pack of Beer” and “Drinkin’ Ain’t Hard To Do”…with the bad economy and stuff like that.
All in all, I have never tried to make a ‘number one song’ on the radio. I just put out what I do. If you get it, you get it; and if you don’t, you don’t. You definitely see that in my shows. If I wanted to be a rock star, I could just do the country stuff and walk off the stage and have a room full of people…all the girls and sex, drugs, and rock and roll would be available to me…but what do I do? I go the extra mile and I run everybody out the door and I play until the select few are left there standing with us. That has always been my approach, for now, while I got the energy to do that and take it to the next level.
If Lemmy [of Motorhead and Hawkwind] is still kicking ass at his age, the way I look at the future is – as long as I can deliver a good show then I will keep doing what I do but if I’m not able to deliver a good show like I want to, I might have to slow down and not tour as much. All in all, I’ll be touring until I’m fifty. I know that…full throttle until I am fifty. That’s the goal. It’s hard to say, I just don’t know how life is going to treat me…or health…or all that stuff and you just never can tell.
Billy Gibbons [of ZZ Top] is doing great. Hank Junior’s still out there to do his thing…Lemmy, Slayer…there are a lot of older guys who are still able to bring it to the table but I want to go out with my head up. I have seen some of my heroes, like Johnny Paycheck, on that stage barely being able to breathe with oxygen tanks hooked up to him. I have seen Waylon [Jennings] when he was shaking so bad that he couldn’t even hold a guitar pick. Me and David Allan Coe are standing over on the side of the stage. David is basically in tears because it is so hard to see him in that condition. That’s when I told myself, I want to have my head held high if I ever retire. Who knows what will happen?
A lot of it might go back to…I’m not the greatest businessman and who knows how my health will be or…I don’t see any of that Hank Williams money and none of this Hank Williams estate so, heck, I might have to tour just to have an oxygen mask…who knows, but it will be interesting to see what the future might hold for me besides music.
For all the talk of poor health, the interviewer witnessed Hank plough through a four-hour set and have time to meet fans. It is unique for anybody to put out such a show of sustained energy, both vocally and instrumentally. When the interviewer clapped Hank on the shoulder in departing, it was hard not to notice how muscular and hard Hank’s arm is.
The conversation turned to his songwriting process:
Alright, it is always a little different. First of all, writing is hard for me because of my learning disabilities, my ADHD, my dyslexia…writing has always been a challenge. Even reading has been hard for me. Sometimes I do write on the road, very rarely, but I will try to sit down with a pen and write some lyrics every now and then. Usually the pen gets in the way!
When I’m writing a country song, I usually hit ‘record’ and sing off the top of my head on what I feel and then I go back with a pen and try to make it a little more of a story or make a little more sense out of it. That’s always how I’ve just kind of done it. On some songs like “Crazed Country Rebel,” which was written on the road with Superjoint Ritual, I had a lot of downtime and I was just able to sit there and write the whole song out, then go back and put music to it later. Ninety percent of the time, it’s me singing with my acoustic guitar and kind of channeling or singing off the top of my head. I’m just singing what I feel and it just depends…because of my rhythm…I’ll either do something slow or I’ll do something fast or I’ll do something a little strange. That’s how it happens.
The rock and roll writing process is always the guitarist first, then I do the drums, then the vocals are last – because to me, in rock, you really don’t have to tell as much of a story. In country music the lyrics are a lot more important. People identify a lot more with the roots-oriented music.
It’s always been on me because most of my band is scattered. Not all of it…I have my drummer, Sonic Williams, he lives in Nashville…but most of my guys are out of town and since I play everything and I hear the rhythms and hear what it’s supposed to be, I just do it all myself and then give it to the other guys. It’s been like that because I enjoy playing drums. I enjoy playing guitar. I enjoy recording. It’s fun for me and it’s a thrill to hear the finished product and stuff like that. I never, in the country world or the rock world, have done that well trying to write with someone else…just because I am kind of shy and intimidated. In general, I am just kind of nervous around people so I just feel more at ease when writing by myself.
You get a lot of great guests, though, like Tom Waits on “Ghost to a Ghost/Guttertown,” (one of the four released in September 2011 on Hank 3 Records).
I just sent him the songs after they were created. I sent him a few songs to see which one he felt more comfortable with, so he definitely felt more comfortable with “Fadin’ Moon” because of the pushbox accordion. On the song, “Ghost to a Ghost,” he is just singing the last line but I was just going out there a little bit. It is not a country song. It is just a different sounding song but I was just trying to…in “Ghost to a Ghost” [the LP] and “Guttertown,” there are only about five or six country songs, in my opinion. There’s a lot of new stuff that is not really country at all. I am just letting people know I‘m a diverse musician and who knows what else you might be getting in the future…a little bit of everything.
Well, not to my knowledge. I mean, what I always approached was, my grandfather sang about the Light so it seems natural for me to sing about the Dark. That’s my big thing. I’ve had Satanism people try to recruit me and I’ve had all kinds of different people want to recruit me to try and be on their team. I do sing about the devil and stuff like that but I’m just gonna keep doing my thing and I’d rather just be an outsider and a rebel and an independent kind of guy.
So that is really hard to say. My grandfather had the woes – the sinning and the suffering because of some of the topics he might of put out there throughout his music but I’ve definitely taken that to more of an extreme level.
I do have a lot of guilt in me. I do my best to try to even out my karma… That’s why I do my best to try to be good to anybody I meet. I’m always down to earth and nice to them and try to put out the best positive energy that I can but I also know a lot of really dark people who practice that stuff and are really heavy into it but…I just…you know, that’s what they do and to each their own. It’s not my job to judge anybody…it’s whatever anyone feels comfortable with. I do have days where it is a lot harder than other days. So, you know, if I was an atheist, it sure would make things a lot more easier. I’m not necessarily on any team but I do believe in good light and dark energy and I have seen both of them work.
It’s just like the other night, when I played in Flint, MI, and somebody just said, “Well, you finally made it to hell!” So…whatever that means…and I am feeling it in my mind and in my heart. Sometimes I have those overwhelming feelings. Sometimes it goes back to, well, if I’ve made it all the way to hell, maybe I gotta just keep on fighting to get back out of it or who knows, it’s just one of those things you don’t know but I do sing a lot about the darker topics and I have felt a lot more comfortable in that world because it’s just been a natural rebellious thing for me, being raised in the Bible Belt. My mother burned all my music. I was forced to go to church four times a week and that’s back when the Satan Seminars were really big and I’m just always torn on that topic. I just never know where I really stand. I wish I did, so I could be like, “Okay, it’s said and done and this is where I’m at…” but it’s a forever, never ending fight.
“You find out after you die,” is what some say.
I know people who have and some say there is something and some say there is nothing…like my half-sister, Hillary, she basically got killed in a car wreck and got revived and she had a nice experience. Phil Anselmo, from Pantera, he’s been dead and he came back and he is one of those guys out there who says there’s nothing. We all don’t know until our time will come.
The ‘hellbilly’ sound…
Well, to me, I’m not tooting my own horn, but I think I am close to being the pioneer of that sound. I never heard the term until I started bringing it up. I don’t think. To me, hellbilly, back in the day, was playing rock and roll on country instruments. Back when I was doing the full-on hellbilly, roots-wise…the acoustic guitar was running through a distortion pedal, the steel guitar, the fiddle, the upright bass…that was the hillbilly sound. In my songs, I was always talking about…well, I always liked Webb Pierce and I’m working on a farm and I’m singing rock and roll in a country style and this is the hellbilly sound. For me, hellbilly was just like being the independent outlaw. If you look at some of the biker clubs, whether it the Outlaws or the Hells’ Angels, or whatever, it was my way of creating a little bit of an outsider, Reverend Horton Heat on steroids kind of sound. That’s just what it was and it goes back to doing something against the Bible Belt…trying to do something a little different.
You seem to have a love/hate relationship with the Grand Ole Opry.
I have always paid respect there. I never disrespected that stage. I never cussed on that stage. I’ve never smoked in their building or anything like that. They try to embrace certain outlaws and it is what it is. I am one of the last few outlaws doing it and, the Opry means it. If you look back in history, the Grand Ole Opry was always full of kids. It wasn’t full of old people when it was really thriving and I’m just…well, Johnny Cash was doing the same thing back in his day.
Looking back at your earlier appearance at the Opry, you almost seemed ‘clean cut’.
At first, I was doing a little bit of paying respects just to get into the game, just to get a little money to pay for all the back support I owed for my child and then I started standing on my own two feet, knowing my past and fighting for my fans, fighting to be different.
Hank Junior has done the same thing on that stage. Waylon, Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, there’s been a few on there that’s done what I’ve done. It’s just that it might not have been televised.
It’s a definite fact that Hank Williams was playing rock and roll before they knew what rock and roll was.
Your example is…[sings]:
“I came in last night, about half past ten,
that baby of mine, wouldn’t let me in,
move it on over…well…
Dada da da, Dada da da, dada da da da da da da,
We’re gonna rock around the clock tonight,
We’re gonna rock, rock, rock until broad daylight…”
It’s the same fucking thing!…Bill Haley and the Comets was not the first guy to play rock and roll. Hank Williams was – they just didn’t realize it at the time. Back then, he just wasn’t having an electric guitar in his hand. A couple times he did, but he held that acoustic guitar more and he was timeless and he was crossing over and doing everything, but all in all…that is why there is a picture of Hank Williams in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They are the true people that know that he was the founder of rock before rock and roll really happened, in a low key way. If you look at the structure, Hank Williams was playing the structure of rock and roll.
Your grandfather did so much in the 29 years he was alive. You put out a lot of energy, too. Are there any nights when you think, “Oh, this is what he felt like?”
There is a lot of differences between me and him. He did so much in so little time that it is still mind-boggling when you look back at the amount of work that was captured but as life goes on…or say it feels like I might be having a heart attack on stage or feeling like it might be my last day on earth, there are certain feelings because Hank told a couple folks that he kind of knew his end was near. I feel like that sometime. I definitely hope it’s not like that but the spirit of the outlaw energy, I feel it in the rooms a good bit and me and him have a lot of similarities but then, again, there are a lot of differences there. He was always an easygoing, kind of funny guy to be around, where I, on the other hand, am really not that much fun to be around. I’m kind of a downer. It’s just hard for me to laugh. I don’t know why, it’s just always been like that. He was real deep and felt at ease in his storytelling and for me, I don’t know why, but there is just a difference. I am kind of uptight. I have this nervous energy.
Maybe once in a while when I am singing I may feel him a little bit. If I have a real nasally voice, I might feel the spirit of him. There is also definitely a lot of differences. He was a very cocky individual at times, he would fight and get drunk and he would mouth off but, in general, he was good and he knew it. He was really sharp. Me, on the other hand, I have never been like that. I might be sharp but it’s not just arrogance. I’ve been real intent on making sure that people know that the ego is not out of control. I never wanted to be like my father, as far as cussing out the audiences or telling Yankees to go fuck themselves or all that stuff.
I’ve had my country heros and my rock heros dick me off and be assholes to me and I never wanted to be that guy to my fans, or my crew.
You mention Kid Rock and call him a ‘Yank’ and say he’s ‘no son of Hank’ in “Not Everybody Likes Us.” What is up with that?
He stuck his nose in the family business. He came in and tried to tell me how to act to my father. When you are going to do that, what do you expect? I’m gonna definitely put someone like that down…and that is coming from a guy says, “Well, you know I’m the next Elvis!” That’s the first thing he ever told me when I met him. So, I’ve never been like that and a lot of my fans are proud that I am not like that. They know that I put on my pants just like anybody else, work hard for what I do…nothing was ever really handed to me. I had to fight for my way in every little thing. I could have took the easy way out but I always stuck to the hard road and people ‘get’ that.
Since this is our nature issue, let’s touch on that…
I don’t hunt that much and if I do hunt, I’m mainly taking my son out, really. If I do hunt, I go through the whole process and clean it and eat it. I am not out there just to kill. I have never really been like that. I am very into animal rights, especially the shame with all the pit bulls and all the stuff that has been happening against them, especially in the South. It’s really hard to see. If you look back, the pit bull was the “Little Rascal’s” main dog…
How about the dog from the RCA Victor signs?
Yeah, that was “Petey” and there was about four or five different ones and that was the American icon, back in the day. People have made pit bulls worse, not the breed itself. It just goes to show how the corrupt people have damaged the reputation of that breed. I have always worked with no-kill shelters and animals rights activists.
This guy was trying to get back at his girlfriend so he hooked up her horse to the back of his truck and drug it for over four miles and left it at her front door…and he got a citation?! Shit like that…I would think he should have gotten six months in jail.
Animals have been so good to me and I care a lot about them. They have helped me through my hard times. It is my way of giving back. I also do “Homes for the Troops,” for the guys over there in the war who lose their legs, their arms…I do benefit shows for them, where they have to build special houses for them with ramps and stuff like that and raise money, even though the government should be paying that for the rest of their lives.
Those are the two main things I will take time out and try to raise money for.
Aren’t you active in the campaign to get you grandfather reinstated into the Grand Ole Opry?
There is a petition out on www.reinstatehank.com and all people can do is sign it. I just got a call from Nashville today that they ran a big story on it in The Tennessean…so things are starting to happen with it, even if we are just talking about it, but it seems like it is getting close.
I always said that the person who put it into perspective the best is Tom Waits because he called out the big corporate people and the average folks and really got them to see where the loophole is and he’s calling them out on the loophole. The 200th Edition of Mojo Magazine, has a story that he wrote and he really did a lot of homework and got in touch with the right people to call them out and let it be known. That’s what I always tell everyone to read because it calls out the big guys, the corporate people. He [Waits] is saying, “Well, why is he listed on your website as a member but in reality, he is not a member of the Grand Ole Opry?”…and just little things like that but it is a very interesting read. Find it if you can. He edited that whole edition.
But the petition has been around for a few years. Wasn’t somebody already trying?
No, I did a lot for that guy [an unnamed individual] out of respect but then he just started drifting a different way and not getting it and I had to pull the plug and shut it all down. If you not going to work with us and you’re going to think this is about you, well, guess what? It’s not about you, this is about Hank Williams…so we shut that down.
Bob Dylan just did the album, “The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.” You were great on the tribute album to your grandfather, “Timeless.” Why weren’t you doing a song on this project?
It doesn’t matter if it’s “Hank Junior’s Big 40th” or all that stuff – they never ask or invite me to do things like that. I don’t know what it is. All I can say is that I guess it is just those corporate people in Nashville that just don’t want much to do with someone like me.
I’m not putting Bob Dylan down, but he owns my grand-dad’s stuff but never once has he reached out or anything. I have known players who play with him and he has had plenty of opportunities to say stuff to me regarding my family history since he is so into it but he never has…There is a whole other aspect to whatever that is. I know it has to do with some lawyers and people like that.
It is what it is. An unfinished Hank Williams song, in my opinion, might be unfinished for a reason. So, who knows?
You have dubbed Nashville as “Trashville.” It seems like you fit in better with the country players from West Texas. Why there?
I basically used to hang out a lot with Wayne [The Train] Hancock. He was one of my best friends out there. He showed me a lot…and Dale Watson, too… So, I have spent a lot of time in Texas. I have never lived there and don’t think I ever will live there. I enjoy living in Tennessee and I am proud to be from Tennessee. Ray Price was good to me and I got to hang out with Ray a little bit. Ray Vincent has been good to me. Junior Brown…I have recorded him at my house before. He came in a couple months ago and we all recorded a song of his and two days later it was on the radio. I am not singing on it. I just pulled the session together and recorded it. I played drums on it; I called up Dave Roe, Johnny Cash’s old bass player and got him involved.
As Junior said, “Man, I really like the vibe of your studio and the way you did it is the way it should be done. You used one microphone to capture all the different sounds and I think that’s what Nashville has stopped a lot. He had a hell of a time and it was our first time actually being able to hang out. I gained a lot of respect from him. As far as outside of Texas, Waylon Jennings had always been good to me before he passed on. David Allan Coe is basically like my father. He is the only man out there who has ever said, “If you need advice, or anything, just call me. If you need anything, you call me.” Not many people, even in my own family have been like that. Kris Kristofferson has also been very embracive to me on my career, also, and for a little while George Jones was good. Little Jimmy Dickens was always respectful to me in all those things.
I have been so busy just having to fight for my own way that I haven’t been able to hang out with those people. I don’t ‘do lunch.’ I don’t make the rounds in Tennessee. I’m worried about getting my crew and band on the road and making it happen again. That is where a lot of my time goes.
All in all, David Allan Coe is the only man who stood with my through the years and he has become a very humble man in his older age. He has done it all – he has had the number one songs and been ripped off for every one of his hit songs, and he is the closest thing to a family member that I have, one of the living outlaw legends.
I’ll never sign another artist to my label because I would never want to do another musician wrong. It is hard enough just keeping up with what I do. I would never want to make a musician feel like he did not get the sound he deserved on a song or the press he deserved or any of that stuff. I’m not that much of a business guy.
You would make a good politician, the way you shake hands and work the crowd. Did we read a quote about you thinking of it?
I think that was a mis-quote. I don’t ever see myself in politics. Look at Ted Nugent. When he is not onstage, he is politically active and I have never been into politics, hardly ever. I take the David Lee Roth stance on it…there are some things in music that just don’t belong. We are here to make people forget about their problems, not make them feel worse. You see enough about politics on every news, radio, internet…it is shoved down your face 24/7 and I take the stance that I don’t really sing about it that much.
The only political thing I’ll say is, “Yeah, it’d be nice to see that war end.” When I see how many kids come and go and how many bodies get destroyed and how many minds are being ruined…I would say it is just about time for them to wrap it up. Or, if you look at the position that Hank Junior took not long ago, if you are a gun activist, or you care about your ammo or your shotgun, you will notice that the Rights to Bear Arms are being taken away more and more.
Kids are dying for our freedom while rights are being taken away more and more everyday over there and that is sad to see…but I stay away from politics because I don’t research it. I don’t follow it. My politics is my music. I play music. I hope my gun is my guitar and I’m out there trying to let people forget about their problems. I just have never been that involved in it, not until I have to and right now I am just touring the road and have never been that into politics.
Hank, er, Pop, made that comment (likening Obama to Hitler)…I say the only musician who should say anything about politics is Jello Biafra because when he’s not playing music, he is actively involved. He is doing the speeches. He is doing the research. He is doing all kinds of stuff to raise awareness on many different levels, whereas most punk rock bands are just saying, “Fuck the government, 1,2,3, fuck the police, blahblahbla”…and they are not really doing their homework. That is my stance on it because I don’t follow it. All I will say is that if people should vote, they should vote for the smaller people…the mayor, the governor…that is where the big change is gonna happen, in the smaller communities. Not the Big Kahuna…
The ‘occupy’ movement seems to have missed that logic.
I don’t even think that is the right one. That doesn’t seem like the right movement or the motivation. The only thing the occupy thing has really shown is how the police can get away with beating old people down. That’s about it. That’s about all that happened. They can shoot you with the rubber bullets, they can pepper-spray an 84-year-old man…do all these things…It is just not the right revolution. It just does not seem like the right one. Whenever the day comes when they try to take guns away from Americans, that will be the new Civil War and that is when the revolution will happen.
The scary thing for me is on the gun level…I hear it from the Vietnam vets. I hear it from the kids that are in the war right now and then someone like my father, so it is happening on all fronts.
He [father, Hank Junior] made massive headlines…he was saying basically that Obama was Hitler. See, that all goes back to the guns. The only reason he is saying that is that the Right to Bear Arms is being taken away… or the ban to ban a single barrel shotgun. As my father would say, one of his most prized possessions is an old single barrel shotgun that his great-grandfather used in World War I and he still has it and Obama wants to put a ban on it? As he would say, FUCK THAT!
That goes back to why the kids are fighting for freedom while the rights are being taken away more and more. Ted Nugent can go there and my dad is very dialed into that but since I live very day to day and by the skin of my teeth, in reality I’m not a very rich man so that probably has a lot to do with it. Most of these people that are really hardcore into politics, a lot of them have a good bit of money. I never have had that which is another reason why I am bliss to that world right now.
It might have been joking because Hank Junior said he was gonna run for governor and then Jello Biafra told me that, “You need to run against your father and I’ll be your political advisor and we’ll have a campaign and do that.” So I might have been joking on that. I would never see myself in that kind of a position.
Originally published in Beatdom #11.
As an MFA fiction student at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University (one of the longest, most consistently-made-fun-of school names ever), I was fortunate enough to be brought face-to-face with some of the most legendary members of the American cultural underground of the past 50 years. Since the Kerouac School was founded by Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman in 1974, we have operated in a lineage outside the cultural mainstream, inasmuch as the Beat Generation was somewhat welcomed into the fray with Kerouac’s On The Road, but is still consistently debated and misunderstood.
So you could say that we are still misunderstood as a school – from the infamous tales of Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs teaching some of the first classes, to today, when MFA programs are booming and we are still rarely mentioned in those lists. Merits of my education there aside, one of the most remarkable aspects of the program was getting to attend two summers of Naropa’s famous four-week Summer Writing Program, which Ginsberg had taught at nearly every year until his death and continues to feature some of the most cutting-edge writers and artists performing and teaching today, including legends such as Amiri Baraka and Joanne Kyger visiting, and Anne Waldman continuing to host the program every year.
My first year at the Summer Writing Program in 2011 coincided with the arrival of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore to our little campus in Boulder, Colorado. I became one of the lucky few to get into his coveted workshop in the last week of the program. As an editor of the Kerouac School’s literary journal Bombay Gin, I also decided to make it my mission to get an interview with him. I had been cautioned not to bother him or take up too much of his time, but he couldn’t have been more accommodating and down-to-earth, willing to brave the Boulder summer sunshine one morning and talk to me for three hours – large portions of which didn’t even fit into the interview below and will potentially be repurposed somewhere, someday.
The first day Thurston came in to teach our class, he looked like your (taller than) average punk rock kid – Converse sneakers, a backpack, and a guitar – not the 30-year veteran of the American underground, the legend who had “hung out” with everyone from Ginsberg and Burroughs to Kurt Cobain, Yoko Ono, and Patti Smith. He told the class stories and histories, of writers and rock stars – an inexhaustible library of knowledge on every poet, every small press, every punk band.
But Thurston was not there to be the famous guitarist and singer from Sonic Youth – although he did incorporate a few songs into his poetry reading, and worked with our class to create a sonic experiment of music, poetry, and screaming distortion. Thurston came to Boulder, a college town of relative anonymity, and he came to Naropa, where he could be taken seriously as a writer and member of not just the musical counterculture, but the literary underground as well. A place he has rightfully earned through his lyrics, poetry books, and collaborative associations.
Beyond the living archive that is Thurston’s memories and mind, his appreciation for the world of small presses and publishing led him to create what is one of the most interesting and important collections of underground (and sometimes above-ground) American literature from the second half of the twentieth century. He is a cousin of the Jack Kerouac School, related through the spirits of transgression and subversion that haunt our corridors, the same spirits that gave a tall redheaded kid growing up in suburban Connecticut a copy of Naked Lunch and the desire to run away to New York City to play guitar.
Thurston is the space between the words of poetry and the scream of a guitar, the punk rocker and the professor, the father and the rebellious teenager. His work as a writer and musician has explored the space where the subversive becomes the commercially successful, where success doesn’t mean selling out, where you can create your own world and get everyone else to live in it. Where poetry is noise – and noise is poetry.
The following interview originally appeared in the literary journal Bombay Gin (issue 38.1, Fall 2011), published by the Jack Kerouac School at Naropa University. Initially only available in the limited-run print release of that issue, it is now exclusively available here on Beatdom in its original form.
Katie Ingegneri: How did you first hear about Naropa?
Thurston Moore: It was through my interest in the world of underground poetry publishing and small presses – something I became fascinated by around the early 90s, and before then my interest in literature was more about the writer and less about the book, as far as poetry was concerned. But artifact collecting and the idea of a singular vision and an imprint was always interesting to me. I started getting more into collecting first-edition, first-printing books by certain authors that I felt were significant to my own interest. And it was a shared interest with a few other people that I knew, in my scene of being in a rock band in New York City. I always saw playing music for myself to have equal value to writing.
So book collecting became as significant to me as record collecting and documenting certain more arcane musical genres, like free jazz and avant-garde jazz and underground experimental rock and 20th century composer music that was really on the margins…and progressive British folk music…[laughs] A lot of my fascination with getting into rock n roll was about fantasizing, ever since I was a kid, about being in a rock band, but at the same time it seemed out of reach. I didn’t really know how to play guitar, and I wasn’t that proficient a technician as far as music was concerned, so I had more of a feeling I was going to be a writer. There was a lot of literature in our house, but it wasn’t very focused on poetry so much – it was more focused on philosophy. What resonated with me in the 70s as a teenager was certainly music coming from these people who had some connection to serious poetry and literature. People like Patti Smith, and Tom Verlaine, from Television, and Richard Hell, who had a band called the Voidoids, and I really was enamored by what these people were doing, for a lot of reasons. It was at a time when rock writers were in the same milieu as the performers, and it was kind of one of the last periods of when that existed, because it was completely pre-Internet, and it was all about the physical interaction between people. There was no real interest from high media on this activity.
So it was underground, and it was owned by the people. You know, Patti Smith’s whole thing, “we created it, let’s take it over,” about rock n roll music. That was a very powerful statement and everybody understood that…and that’s what drew me in. I knew that was the culture I wanted to be a part of, and it had a lot to do with the lineage of poetry that was under the hubris “beat literature” or whatever. For me, you would take it upon yourself to find these books by writers who these musicians were claiming to be their inspiration and influence in writing. Certainly Dylan did that in the 60s, but he was a little more obtuse about that – he was Dylan, he’s such an enigma as far as that’s concerned. But having not lived so much in the 60s, I didn’t have the sophistication or wherewithal to glean any sort of history of poetry or writing.
So as a teenager in the 70s, I really started responding to this information, of writers who inspired people like Lou Reed and Patti Smith, and it would certainly be William S. Burroughs, and it would be Allen Ginsberg – those two specifically. They were like the dynamic duo, and they were extremely interesting, once you saw these names in connection with rock n roll. How can this thin graying man with a fedora and a suit and tie, and smoking a cigarette, and looking very all to the world like he could shut it down with one glance – like who the hell is that? And then you’d go buy the book, and you’re sixteen years old, and you’d buy The Wild Boys or Naked Lunch, and Naked Lunch was so important cause it had the transcript of the trial with Allen Ginsberg and it was amazing to read, for me. And so of course one thing leads to another if you allow it to and you’re interested in it.
I figured out what that world was, and I knew right away that moving to New York and investigating it and working within it is all I really wanted to do. My romance with writing was that I’m going to move to New York, I’m going to be a writer. So when Anne Waldman introduced Eileen Myles the other night [at Naropa’s 2011 Summer Writing Program], one of the first things she said was that she moved to New York to be a poet. And when I heard that, it was so simple, and so beautiful, and it was both serious and romantic, and it just implied everything that was important emotionally for myself, that I immediately said, “if I ever have to write a memoir, that’s the title of my memoir: She Moved to New York to Be a Poet”! That was sort of how I felt growing up in a small town in Connecticut, was that I wanted to move to New York and I wanted to be a poet. I wanted to hang out with Patti Smith and I wanted to hang out with Richard Hell, and nobody in my high school knew anything about this stuff.
So all during this period it was all about my intention was to move to New York and be a writer, and I didn’t really have any kind of support for it. I didn’t know anything about St. Mark’s Poetry project, but I did know that Patti Smith did a very significant reading there, and I had a bootleg album of it. Throughout ‘76, going into New York a lot, to CBGB and Max’s and a couple of other places, I would see the [St. Mark’s] Church and I figured out where Gotham Book Mart was, up in midtown. I would go there and I would buy whatever was associated with her, and buy the books by Burroughs and Ginsberg, maybe buy a Gregory Corso book or something. It was discovering things completely outside the academy, you know, cause I wasn’t in school and I wasn’t doing any lit courses or anything like that. So my information, I was just gleaning it from connective tissues, in a way.
If somebody would do an introduction to a book, I would go out and buy the person who introduced that book. I would find out more about that person, and one thing would lead to another, and I would let that progress and I would expound on it – not overly academic or seriously. I moved to New York in very early ‘77, and I lived right near St. Mark’s Church. I would see activity going on there, but I was playing music with some people, and my whole thing was that. I was friends with some poets in my tenement building, who would read at certain places and I would go see them, and I would share my poetry with them, because I was writing poetry since high school, and I remember giving a sheaf of poems to these guys, who were like 10 years older than I was, and they were poets. Then they all came back to me with such enthusiasm, like they loved what I wrote. I mean, they said they loved what I wrote. When I look back at what I wrote then, it’s pretty teenage. But that was so encouraging, and I have one retrospective regret – not cultivating my writing by going to a poetry workshop at St. Mark’s. But I didn’t have so much awareness of it. I knew something was going on, but it didn’t really draw me in.
The activity I was involved in, playing music and getting gigs here and there, at CBGB or Tier 3, was very important, and just what was going on with the people in the No Wave movement, with Lydia Lunch, and James Chance and the Contortions. These were people who also had the same trajectory as I did. I mean Lydia Lunch, she was a writer, but she came from this scabrous background in upstate NY, and ran away to New York City as a 16-year-old girl. She had this very wild, wild existence in New York, as Lydia Lunch, and she was trying to get her poetry out to people, that’s how she started. And she would hand her poems to people like Lenny Kaye, the guitar player in Patti Smith’s band, like “I’m a poet, I’m a poet.” But she got a response when she put a guitar on, which she didn’t know how to play, and turned the amp up and started smashing on it, and then she started reciting her words. And that’s when people were like oh, who’s this. So that became the obvious standard, like put a guitar on, and turn the amp up, and THEN do your poetry, and that became the new poet, in a way – the electric guitar poet was like the new poet. So it was like that was what punk rock had as a real blueprint.
But I think a lot of people shared the same response I had, that the lyrics were so interesting and new and they had such a quality of poetry to them, but that’s just the basis for later on becoming interested in avant-garde music through record collecting. Which I could never do cause I never had any money – I mean, I was kind of doing it, but it was problematic. But as soon as Sonic Youth started having a little more income I really got seriously involved with collecting records that were from these genres that were really arcane and interesting to me. Especially coming out of punk rock where it was about establishing an independent means in the industry, that didn’t have to utilize the industry. So when I started seeing other record labels from the 60s that dealt with avant-garde jazz or whatever that were independent, I was like oh, we’re not the first ones, this isn’t something we created. Even though a lot of people who were joining punk rock were like we’re so cool, we created this kind of independent network, and it’s like no, there’s a history there. So I became really interested in that history, and when I found out that there was a lot – that it existed in the literary, publishing scene, I became really fascinated with that.
But when I started finding out about the communication between poets through self-published literature, that’s when I became really involved and interested in the history and all the people involved with it. And by the ability to tour across the United States with Sonic Youth, I could go to every college town, and go to the local bookstores – second-hand bookstores – and go into the dusty poetry section and go to the end of the alphabet where they would have the anthologies or whatever, and invariably there would be some boxes of stapled mimeos from the 60s. I began amassing this collection and finding out about the different imprints and different writers that were associated with them, and just seeing all this activity of writing and communication between poets from different regions of the United States.
I was really into learning through investigation, pure investigation. I knew a couple other people who were interested in this stuff, and we would powwow about it, but I didn’t know the writers. So I started going to the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s, when I could, even though I didn’t live in town anymore. And I missed everything – I missed all of Eileen Myles’ running the programs there, being the director there, I missed all of Bernadette Mayer’s era, it was like God, what a fool I was, for missing it. But I just really did not know any better – it’s just this nostalgia for something that I didn’t know existed. But I turned Bernadette Mayer, and Eileen Myles, and Clark Coolidge, and all these people – they became my rock n roll stars, in a way. And it was very private for me. [laughs] So I would go see these people, and I would go up to Clark Coolidge with some of his earlier stapled stuff and have him sign it or whatever, and they’d always look at me like – where’d you get this? Who are you? And I was like, this kid. And some would know who the band was, and they’re just like why is the guy from Sonic Youth asking me to sign this completely obscure publication.
When I came to the school this week, I brought a couple of documents, and one of them was the 1979 curriculum calendar of student/faculty events at Naropa. And I carried it around with me a little bit, and everybody’s just coming up to me like, can I hold that and look through it, and somebody made a copy of it, and it had such value as an object. I mean, you could talk about 1979 at Naropa, and everybody was like yeah that must’ve been so cool, but to actually see this piece that existed from then, and it exists in this kind of living state, in a way. You know, it’s kind of faded, it’s kind of sunburnt, it’s been handled a little bit, which gives it this sense of time, but it’s like there’s a certain sort of gleaning that comes from this actual document of paper, that comes from that period. So I found that really interesting, and I brought a production piece from the workshop here in 1974. It was a series of broadsides, one of which was Anne’s, in this die-cut folder that was stitched together, in an edition of 46 copies or something like that. All numbered, which I had found in some bookstore amongst a bunch of other papers, and it cost pennies. I brought that here too, and I showed it at the panel. But that’s all anybody wanted to talk about afterwards, like can I see that, can I hold it, can I touch it, can I see it. So for me, the importance of the life – devoting yourself to the life of being a poet, to me there is such an importance to the history of what that is, and with the actual production and documentation of work that existed…and I never knew what kind of value to put towards what I was doing as an archivist of this stuff. So it’s kind of wonderful, in a way.
KI: Now that you have this archive, do you think that will serve a purpose for future generations?
TM: I think it serves a purpose if it’s made accessible in a way that makes sense. I do want it to exist as an accessible library of sorts. I don’t want to let it out of my sight so much because it means a lot to me, but I have talked to a couple of other people who have similar archives and possibly talking to some kind of institution that might establish a library of sorts. But the fact that a lot of the material is so ephemeral, it almost becomes a thing like – do people have to put on white gloves to look at this stuff? I have some stapled mimeo stuff where the edges are crumbling a bit and you really wanna be careful looking at it. So what do you do about that? And there’s some talk about digitizing it all, so it’s all available as digital information, which kind of bores me a little bit. I like the idea cause it makes the work available to read and you can actually see what these pieces look like, but the physicality of the pieces is, to me, very important. So I’m not quite sure how to present it. In a way I feel like all this investigation I’ve done, and the archiving, has come to a really good point because I think a lot of the culture of poetry has become really dependent on the archive as a very real sense of vibrational history. Cause there is all this information, and historical information that’s available, through the Internet, and we can all share this knowledge – but the documentation of it, the actual documentation of it, and what that was physically, and what that meant, has just recently become something of import for a lot of young writers.
In the spring of 2010 I had a show at White Columns gallery [in New York City] where I exhibited a lot of the archive in vitrines and I kind of fetishized a lot of what I liked about it, the visual stimulus of it, and so I made huge posters of about 40 of the covers. And the whole gallery was postered with all these images. There was lots under glass, and I had readings once a week during the show. I had started editing and publishing a poetry journal myself from the year 2000 onwards, called Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal, cause I had a record label called Ecstatic Peace, and so the show was like a new edition of the poetry journal. And Ecstatic Peace Poetry Journal was certainly all about referencing and wanting to continue the lineage of the aesthetic of this kind of publishing. Which I enjoy doing, to this day. And the idea in my class this week is to actually create one of these journals.
But I don’t really know what to do at this point. I mean, I’m not too concerned about it. I think at some point we’ll figure it out. There’s certain institutions I think that have an awareness of my collection. I know that it’s sort of idiosyncratic, its focus is very personal, so that makes it something else than purely academic. Anne and I were talking about my archive the other night, and she looked at it like “From the Library of Thurston Moore,” that’s its focus, and I was like okay, I like that. I do have everything on file – I keep a FileMaker Pro document of all the poetry – I have to, cause I’ll go into places and find old poetry stuff, and I’ll see these pieces that look so amazing to have been found, and I’ll come home and I’ll look in my FileMaker Pro and see that I have like three other copies of it. [laughs] So I just really don’t know how I’ll utilize it beyond it just being in my house.
But to me it’s artwork, and it sits in my house to me as art, and I’ll figure it out someday. I was actually thinking about weeding it out a little bit and refining it to some degree, and selling off some of it. Which is what I do with records as well – just crystallizing my focus a little more. But I’m not there yet, with that. You know when I think of an archive like Naropa, which is a lot of paper, ephemeral writing, and there’s also this recorded audio, a lot of it on cassette, that needs to digitized or has been digitized. I had come here six years ago and played at a benefit for the school to raise money to allow that archiving to continue. You know, there’s been a lot of relevance attached to the concept of the archive, the archive becomes this really mystical concern or something – which is fine, but it really is just this sort of personalized library, and it brings in this sense of the political where it’s like you’re responsible for your own culture, and recognizing the value of that culture, and what it means in a humanitarian way, what it means in an educational way, what it means in a very emotional way too. So I am okay with it existing contemporaneously as this living archive, we’ll see where it goes.
KI: Even in the past 10 years, it’s been such a shift with the Internet. When I was growing up, I was really into music and I would go to record stores, I was always buying CDs and creating my own archive of albums and CD covers. But now all the music I listen to is all just in my iTunes, and I don’t know how the archive is going to exist as we go further and further into this digital age.
TM: Well I think it has to exist, digitally, because that makes it free, it makes it safe, but it’s also intangible. So I’ve been coming into this focus of distinction, what that relationship is between yourself and the artifact, and a lot of it has to do with the equality of value towards aspects of the artifact where content is just one aspect, so it does become very physical – what it looks like, what it feels like, what it smells like, what it tastes like, whatever, that all to me is like – there’s a certain shared value in all of that. And so the culture of the Internet allows one value, and that’s basically just content. I find it very limiting. But it certainly serves a certain purpose and one of those is just to be what I refer to as the “exploded library.” So I don’t know what to think about that, cause I do see a new culture of record stores and book stores that exist with really focused appreciation on objects and they’re smaller, more boutique, in a way, and that’s fine. I don’t think that sort of thing is ever going to disappear, disappear. But there’s something really political about it that I am interested in, the idea of working at something that you love as opposed to working for the sake of making money, and how it’s very rare that anybody can work at something they love and make enough money doing it. And then there’s this whole idea of this Protestant ethic of “you have to suffer” [laughs] and there’s a denigration towards people who work at things they love and are compensated for it. I don’t think anything’s going to disappear, to tell you the truth. I think there’s gonna be a certain exhaustion that comes with the formlessness of the Internet as a library, as a store, as whatever, and it’s going to create a more independent and factionalized world of commerce. We just opened up a little record store in Northampton, Massachusetts, with these two young people, and [rock writer] Byron Coley and I have been able to fill it with all these secondhand records we’ve collected over the last 30 years and go out and buy collections and stuff like that, and we have some performances in the back room of traveling independent experimental music people, and we’re able to pay the monthly rent, and we each get a check for a few hundred bucks once in a while, but that’s fine. It services the community, and you’re amidst the pleasure of what you really like, which is music, and film – we have lots of DVDs, but nobody’s getting rich off this stuff [laughs], that’s certainly not the idea.
KI: When you were starting out, did you start writing poetry before you became a musician?
TM: It was kinda concurrent – I mean, I had aspirations to play music but I had aspirations towards being a writer, and I couldn’t really articulate what that would entail. I guess my idea of writing, I equated it with journalism, like I was gonna be a journalist, or I was gonna go to journalism school. The one quarter of a semester that I went to college in fall of ‘76, which was at a state college in Connecticut, I remember signing up for whatever English classes they had, and journalism class, whatever that was, and that invariably had some connection to the school newspaper. I wrote about music in the college newspaper, and I wrote about the Ramones, I wrote about Patti Smith – I wrote about what I was interested in, and people started responding to it, like, man that was so cool what you wrote about but what the hell was it – like nobody knew about this stuff.
So I wrote about John Cale. I went to see John Cale play, and I filed it, and they printed it, and they took it upon themselves to correct what they thought was my misspelling of John Cage. They changed John Cale to John Cage. And so my John Cale piece became this review of a John Cage concert which never existed, as if it was John Cale, and I went up to the office and I was like why did you change John Cale to John Cage? And they were like it was about John Cage, wasn’t it, we just thought you spelled it wrong…at that moment I was just like – I hate school. I’d had it, and I moved to New York. I found a place to live and I started playing music with some people, and I was writing – I’d always sort of written poetry in my later teens, and continued to write some in New York – but my involvement with playing music became my primary interest. I always kept notebooks when I was playing music.
You know, lyric writing to me was predicated upon the art of the rhyme. I also knew that poetry, the way it appeared on the page as far as it being rhyming schemes had become so quaint, a fairly passé presentation of poetry. I didn’t really see anything wrong with that but as far as it being lyrical in song – rhyme still worked as something that was really permanent and substantive. I understood the relationship between the poem on the page and the poem as a sung lyric, where the art of the rhyme had a different nature. So that was kind of important to me, and a lot of times when I would write and I had ideas of writing, I would think about how it would exist as a song lyric, and I would write down lyrics that had certain intonation and a certain sense of rhyme, but I never really thought of presenting them as poems. I thought I wouldn’t want to have them read as poetry just because there was a certain kind of sing-songy aspect of it that, without the context of the music, it just read too quaint on the page. I understood that distinction.
But all through the 90s, I understood the correlation between writing and poetry and writing and songwriting, and I invariably would get lyrics either from notebooks, poetry writing, and I would sort of reshape them for the song, or I would go to a number of poems and take lines from different poems and create a unified piece that would work in a song. Sometimes I would do that, which was a semi-kind of cut-up method, or had some kind of correlation with cut-up, but I was kind of into wanting to have an identity as an poet that was separate from an identity as a musician, which I always found very difficult. I would actually do a book of writing or poetry, that I would do myself or somebody would publish, and whenever I would see it in a bookstore it would more than likely be in the music section, cause I was a musician making poetry, or something like that. Which really kind of bummed me out, because it inferred that poetry was a dalliance, and I didn’t want to be Jewel [laughs]. And Spin Magazine, when my first book Alabama Wildman came out, they actually did this page where it was these three books of writing that were out, and it was Dee Dee Ramone’s book, Jewel’s book, and my book, and they were like – Jewel’s was this flighty romantic poetry, and Dee Dee Ramone’s was like this memoir of madness of being in a punk rock band, but then “we can’t even decipher what Thurston Moore’s was about,” they didn’t know what was going on with this different poetic kind of thing, cause there was nothing in that book that was relative to anybody who thought poetry was basically what Jewel was writing. [laughs] So it was just like, I was weird – this is some fucking weird thing this guy did. Which I like. I was like great, at least I’m not the musician making the bad poetry book.
KI: We spoke a little bit about your association with William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. I was in a class this past semester on the history of the Beat Generation and we watched the recent documentary on William S. Burroughs, “A Man Within,” a project that you were involved with. I understand you and Sonic Youth collaborated with him on his album “Dead City Radio.” I also recently read that Sonic Youth celebrated Allen’s 60th birthday with him. How did you first meet these legendary writers (and Naropa teachers), and how did you come to collaborate with them?
TM: When I lived on East 13th Street between Avenues A + B in NYC in the late 70s I’d see Allen and Peter Orlovsky walking hand in hand around the neighborhood (and sometimes even on the L – very bold!) Allen’s place was on East 12th Street, same building where Kerouac lived, and where Richard Hell still lives I believe. Allen would appear at CBGB once in a while and play Buddhist harmonium chants on stage opening for Patti Smith, Television and other denizens of that stage. So he was a neighborhood figure. I didn’t really meet him until much later when Sonic Youth garnered a more prestigious profile. I seem to remember Lee [Ranaldo] and I going to a book publication party at The Poetry Project and talking with Allen and he had asked about working together. He called me up and we discussed possibilities. I said I thought it might be hip for SY to improvise music with Allen reading. He replied that that’s what Dylan also requested. Ha! I would run into Allen here and there and it was always cool. He came to hang out at the NYC stop of Lollapalooza 1995 and I have some pictures of him and myself with my baby daughter Coco. While I talked to him, Coco would be grabbing at his beard and mouth and while most people would flinch at such messiness, Allen allowed her to stick her fingers into his mouth and he sucked and bit at them. I was very impressed. We never did get around to collaborating beyond him sending me a package with a nice letter and a sheaf of poems to peruse.
Burroughs lived on the Bowery in a place called The Bunker, same place as John Giorno I believe. I remember having to call Giorno, as we were submitting a track to one of his Giorno Poetry System records, and Burroughs answering the phone. I can still hear that gravel tenor in my ear. After he located finally to Lawrence, Kansas we were invited to come to his house by his assistant James Grauerholz, who was a SY fan. We went a couple of times, once by ourselves and once when we were touring that area opening for REM. The first time I recall sitting in his living room and he had a number of Guns and Ammo magazines laying about and he was only very interested in talking about shooting and knifing. Not exactly a subject dear to me but it was amazing hanging out. And we went into his backyard where he had an actual orgone box built from the specifications of Wilhelm Reich, which I sat in, even though it was rife with spiderwebs. The recordings we did on the “Dead City Radio” LP were organized by Hal Willner, who had a personal and professional relationship with both these men as well as with SY.
KI: I’ve noticed a few Sonic Youth songs are dedicated to Beat writers like Gregory Corso. Were the Beats a big influence on you as a writer and/or musician – in terms of style, subjects, and/or their challenge to traditional, mainstream American culture?
TM: The Beat writers, even to this day, are still on the margins of American letters. Even though they are universally recognized as a significant development in modern and post-modern literature, they are still considered off-the-grid. In a way it was relative and resonant to the structure of American society and its professed standards in that they need to be defined as troublemakers, which is where I wanted to be. In that lineage. And, in music history, it was concurrent, where you had experimental and punk rock music on the margins of “popular” and acceptable. I came to Beat writing through music where music writers like Lester Bangs, Patti Smith, Richard Meltzer and others would point to Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso and others as compatriots of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Iggy & the Stooges and many others.
KI: How has working as a writer and editor impacted your musical career, or vice versa? Do you find you get different rewards from different creative practices?
TM: Writing and editing are a more singular passion for me, whereas music usually has a more collaborative practice. Lately I’ve been more interested in writing music alone and am seemingly becoming more focused thus.
KI: One of my Bombay Gin co-editors, Jade Lascelles, who was also in our class, had a question: When you returned to “Daydream Nation” 20 years later to perform it in concert, you said you had to return to the same kind of bodily space you had inhabited when you were first creating that album. Do you ever find you undergo similar experiences when revisiting old writing?
TM: I do, without a doubt. With writing though I find I can take the work and update it, sometimes. I find the more I study the work and history of poetry as a spiritual as well as academic vocation, the writing I’ve put to paper decade(s) past is very innocent and, in a way, I feel it best to choose to not update the work and keep it as a reminder of who and where I was.
KI: Do you think that there’s hope for a renewal of non-corporate creativity, in all forms, in the mainstream? Or will it all be underground?
TM: Well, that’s pre-supposing the mainstream as the more valuable environment. The underground is where all the foxes are.
[All photos copyright Katie Ingegneri, 2012.]
The name Al Hinkle should be familiar to most readers of Beatdom, and if it isn’t then they’ll most likely know him by one of the names Jack Kerouac gave him in his novels: Big Ed Dunkel, Slim Buckle, or Ed Buckle. Hinkle and his wife, Helen were good friends of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady, and feature frequently as characters in a number of Beat Generation texts, including many of Kerouac’s, and also John Clellon Holmes’ Go!
Hinkle is known as the “Last Man Standing”, a reference to his position as the only male character from On the Road who remains alive today. In that novel he was Ed Dunkel, and his wife, Helen, was Galatea. In the original scroll, Hinkle is one of the people to whom Kerouac refers as “they” in his most famous quote, which begins, “they danced down the street like dingledodies…” He was one of the people who Kerouac followed, who inspired Kerouac, who taught Kerouac, and therefore a primary influences on the creation of one of the most significant pieces of mid-twentieth century American literature.
The Hinkles remained friends with Kerouac and Cassady until their short lives ended in the late sixties. Today, Al Hinkle maintains a website (www.alhinkle.com) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Big.Ed.Dunkel), and speaks at events to help maintain the flow of information about the stories behind Kerouac’s classic novel.
He was kind enough to speak to Beatdom about his life, and also the forthcoming On the Road movie, with the assistance of his webmaster and biographer, Teri Davis.
How did you first meet Neal Cassady?
I first met Neal in 1939, when we were both 12. It was summertime, and I wanted to join the Denver YMCA. I didn’t have the money, but since hardly anyone did, they were pretty loose about membership. Both Neal and I spent a lot of time there, and we became good friends.
Neal and his father lived on Skid Row. Neal Sr. was an alcoholic, and spent a lot of time in the Denver jail as a trusty. The jailers would get his barber tools out of hock so he could give them, and the cons, free haircuts. Between Neal’s situation and my lousy home life, it was no wonder that we both wanted to be away from it as much as possible.
The Denver Y had a program come in called “Gym Circuses” that trained people to do circus acts. They chose Neal and me to participate, so we spent about 6 weeks practicing and tumbling. At age 12, I was almost 6 foot tall (I eventually ended up 6 foot 6), so I was the bottom man in the pyramids and the high wire act, and I was the catcher in the flying trapeze act. Neal was the flier; he would swing on the trapeze and do a somersault, and I would catch him. There was a net, but we hardly ever had to use it.
Life intruded after that summer, and we didn’t see each other again until a mutual friend reintroduced us when we were 19. Because of our shared experience, my little inside joke with Neal was that after all these years, I was still trying to keep him from falling!
An interesting side note: Recently Teri Davis, the woman helping me write my biography, was doing research on the Internet. She found a website – www.aerialartsfestdenver.com, which talked about the Denver Y’s trapeze and how it got there. Teri left a message on their site asking for more information and received this reply from Lynn Coleman, the founder of Aerial Fabric Acrobatics:
“My father was one of the trapeze flyers at the [Denver] YMCA when he was in college in the 1940’s. Our family learned circus skills and performed on the road as a result…
One reason that Kerouac came to Denver is that my Great Uncle Haldon Chase was from Denver. He is one of the characters in On the Road. He no longer is living…”
Isn’t that something? I never knew that our friend Hal Chase’s family got involved in those gym circuses too, and ended up becoming professionals. Small world, huh?
Tell us about Luanne Henderson.
Luanne! I fell in love with her the first time I met her. She was a beautiful, blonde 16 year old, outgoing and confident. She wasn’t forward with men, but she wasn’t shy, either. Luanne wasn’t a “quirky” girl; she was very down to earth and got along with everyone.
Neal had such complicated relationships. I remember us pulling in to the drive-in diner and being introduced to Neal’s beautiful little wife when she came out to take our order, then going to Pederson’s pool hall and meeting Jeanie, Neal’s girlfriend. It kinda shocked me.
I know Luanne was in love with Neal all her life. I could see that, even at 16, she felt that she was a married woman, not a child. She was the one that found the way to make all of Neal’s crazy plans work – she worked for money (or stole it), found rides, made sure she took care of her man. Even after he divorced her to marry Carolyn, Luanne made herself available to Neal whenever he asked, and I think she always felt that she was still his wife, even though they both remarried. When BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) first opened in the 70’s, I would take a ride from San Francisco to the last stop on the line – Daly City, and I would walk up this enormous hill to Luanne’s house and visit with her every week. I always had good feelings about her – she had earned her place in our gang and was fun to be with. I know she had gotten into heavy drug use later, in her 40’s, but she went to rehab in Colorado and came back to California clean and sober.
How did you first meet Jack Kerouac? What were your first impressions of him?
Jack was a friend of Neal’s, and one of the reasons for the “OTR” cross-country trip we took was to pick up Jack in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. That was not the first time I met him, though. Jack had come to Denver a couple of years before that – in 1946. That was right about the time that my father, his wife and my grandparents took a two-week vacation to California, and we partied hard in their house while they were gone. We didn’t have permission, of course!
When my father returned, he found out about us using the house. He’d done a little investigating and he’d talked to several people, and some of those girls we’d been partying with at his place were underage. I was in deep shit as far as he was concerned. He decided to get me out of town. He said, “You are not going to stay here in Denver and maybe get sent to jail. You’re going to go to California and get a job on the railroad with your uncle.”
Obviously, there was a lot going on with me at that time, and I really didn’t have a chance to talk to Jack very much.
After we picked him up in Rocky Mount, I finally got the opportunity to know Jack a little better. I thought he was a true intellectual. He had a great shyness and a quiet intensity about him, and I felt that primarily he observed and internally recorded everything he experienced, filtering all through his own unique lens. I felt that his friends were all intellectuals as well and, having dropped out of school in the 10th grade, that gave me the impetus to further my own education. We became lifelong friends, and I sure miss him.
How did you and Helen feel about her stay with the Burroughs family in New Orleans, 1949?
I think I’ve mentioned before that the Burroughses weren’t all too happy to have had Helen ‘dumped’ on them. As a matter of fact, when Helen first got there, Bill wasn’t happy and began writing letters to Allen (Ginsberg) in New York telling him to tell me to come and get her out of his house, it’s not a hotel! When we finally got to their house, which was actually in Algiers, LA (across the Mississippi River from New Orleans), Bill and Joan welcomed us. Helen had made herself indispensible in the three weeks she had been there, caring for both the Burroughs children (Joan’s three year old daughter Julie and William Jr., who was an infant at that time); she bathed them, fed them, and generally kept them out of their parents’ way. Bill and Joan actually asked Helen and I if we would stay with them – he had a room all ready to fix up for us! But Helen wanted out – she couldn’t believe how they lived, how little care they took of their children; never mind the house, which was dirty, with lizards running around everywhere.
Helen was appalled by Joan’s use of the Benzedrine inhalers – she would open them up and swallow the cotton. Joan would send Helen to buy an inhaler almost every day. Once Helen mentioned to Joan that the pharmacist told her he would happily sell her ten inhalers at a time because he knew she was not the type to abuse them, to which Joan replied, “So, where are they?” And Helen never figured out that Bill was using heroin – she just thought he was stoned on marijuana all the time (which he was, on top of the heroin). It was all just a little too crazy for Helen, and she was glad when we turned down their offer of a room and found ourselves a room in New Orleans, where we stayed for about six weeks. It was a low-budget adventure, but we did get our honeymoon and we enjoyed it immensely.
Those three weeks you spent in New York with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others: How accurately were they depicted in On the Road and Go!?
I would have to say that John’s account in GO! is probably the more accurate. Jack spent some of the time with us, but he also spent days at a time at his mother’s house in Queens, where he’d do all his heavy writing. Neal, Luanne and I went out every day and partied almost every night, and John was with us pretty much all of the time. We also spent a lot of time at John’s house, though we had to leave by 10PM because his wife, Maryanne, worked and needed to go to bed.
You know, Maryanne had worked and supported both of them while John went to college. She put up with a lot – John was out every night, or had people in the house all the time, partying and smoking marijuana – and I never saw her upset or complaining. But, once John got his $5,000 advance for GO!, Maryanne told him, “You have money now, you can stand on your own. I’m leaving.” And she filed for divorce. I guess all that partying got to her after all! Maryanne was the love of John’s life – he never remarried.
How did you feel when you first read On the Road?
My favorite book of Jack’s is On the Road. It was such a wonderful surprise to read! After reading The Town and the City, which was classic American literature, I read On the Road expecting more of the same, and instead it totally blew my mind. It was amazingly different, like nothing I had ever read before. It was brilliant.
Jack had just moved to Berkeley when On the Road came out in 1955. Neal, Luanne and I drove over to see him, and he had just received some advance copies of the book. He tried to hide them from us, but Neal grabbed a copy and started reading parts of the book aloud, whooping and jumping around with excitement. It was very exciting to read about our adventures, something written by our friend, something tangible that you could hold in your hand.
Jack was worried that we would be mad at his depictions of us, but we loved it. He was very relieved because, as he told us, “I have seven more books ready to go!”
In On the Road, Kerouac wrote, “and Al Hinkle would outlive us all telling stories to youngsters in front of the Silver Dollar.” How has your life played out since then?
I think that I have had an enjoyable life. I had a job that I loved, riding the rails; I would have done it for free. I achieved my goals, and despite being a high-school dropout, I graduated from San Francisco State with a Bachelor of Arts, and from Stanford with a Masters. I spent time as an Executive, and I worked for the Union as President of the San Francisco Region. I traveled to many places around this great world of ours, and I had 46 wonderful years with the love of my life…
I think the most important thing I’d like to let people know is that I’ve lived a grand and interesting life, full of good adventures, good times, good luck and wonderful people. I love having lived my life with liberty and freedom. I guess Jack was right; here I am today, 85 years old, the “last man standing” as they call me, only with my own Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Big.Ed.Dunkel) instead of a bench outside the Silver Dollar, telling my tales to a whole new generation of “youngsters” from all around the world who understand and respect what the Beats stood for. I am honored to be a part of it all.
What are your thoughts on the upcoming movie version of On the Road?
I think they stayed pretty true to the book and the message. I got to meet some of the young actors in San Francisco when they were shooting there, and later got to know them better at a party thrown for the cast. I fell in love with all of them! It was so satisfying to see how all of these young people took the story, which was written over half a century ago, to heart and showed it so much respect. They were all dedicated to doing the movie right. I just saw the trailer, and I’m really looking forward to the movie; I really think it’s got a shot at the Academy Award!
This interview originally appeared in Beatdom #11.
On May 15, Patti Smith told us about her new record, Banga, and some of the source for the title track’s inspiration, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. We have been listening to the new music a lot, enjoying it immensely, and looking forward to seeing Patti perform on tour with Neil Young this fall. On the recording, she does a very nice version of Young’s “After The Gold Rush.”
At interview time, we were told by Columbia/Sony Entertainment that Patti could only speak about the new release and we had come prepared to ask her some ‘Beat’ questions. As you can see in the following exchange, the second part of our interview with the poet/writer/entertainer, she was gracious and more than happy to stray from the subject of the new music, which we had not had time to fully digest at the time of the talk. This is the second section of the interview. In the third, Patti tells us what she has been reading lately, what she suggests for others’ reading lists and who she would meet if allowed to travel through time. The complete interview will be printed in Beatdom, Issue Twelve – The Crime Issue.
They told me I could only ask you about your new album.
You don’t have to do that…ask what you want.
Thanks! Well, speaking of the album, you wrote the song “Nine” for Johnny Depp and I read interviews where you tell how he helped you by recording the title track, “Banga.” He was close to Allen Ginsberg, so we wondered if you met him through Ginsberg?
No…I knew Allen since I was quite young. I met Johnny when he came to one of my concerts a few years ago. We talked and then started off on Allen. We both love books and we spent a lot of time talking about [Jack] Kerouac and Dylan Thomas. Johnny has letters of [Antonin] Artaud and Dylan Thomas. We spoke a lot about literature and music and became very good friends.
A lot of our friendship is book-based.
So, about your writing process…
I am always writing…always…and always have two or three projects going simultaneously because my mind is so active…like I’m writing poems and writing little songs and am working on my detective story and some other things. So, writing is part of my daily discipline, whether it’s for my website (www.pattismith.net) or anything else I do…it’s the one consistent discipline I’ve had since I was thirteen years old that I continue to exercise every day.
I write by hand in my notebooks and on the computer. I don’t write so much on the typewriter anymore. I always loved the typewriter, but it’s so complicated to get ribbons and things, so I switched over to transcribing on computer — but I initially write in my notebooks.
Do you have favorite pens?
I have a very nice pen collection. I have been given beautiful pens by my son and daughter…I have a very nice, small white Montblanc and I have very nice old fountain pens and sometime’s it’s just a Bic. There is always some pen in my pocket but I sometimes get sentimental towards certain pens. Sometimes I just use a little Uni-Ball. It depends what’s in my pocket but I have very nice pens at home. I like those little Montblanc Mozarts. I think they are called the “Mozart Series.” They’re small, they’re a ballpoint and they have a really nice weight and you can put them in your pocket. That’s sort of my upscale pen of choice. I write with whatever’s there, though, you know?
Sometimes…if I’m on computer…well, I like to write fast and then go back and edit. I don’t like to edit as I am writing and sometimes I can get in a groove at night. When I’m writing late at night sometimes I sit at my computer and, if I’m like writing more of a rap, like if I’m doing something for my website. I usually do my website right on the computer…a lot of times it’s just sort of like rappin’ and if I’m working on a poem or something like that, I always write by hand.
Listening to “Rock N Roll Nigger,” the structure seems reminiscent of “Howl.” Was that by design?
It’s just what we did. I always acknowledge the people who influence me or inspire me but I’m not really conscious of exactly how. I just know that I’ve learned from them but I don’t consciously do a piece of work to mirror another piece – if it does, it’s just because someone else will usually pick up on it, probably subconsciously.
We read that Allen had a lot of influence on you coming out of retirement some years ago…
Allen was more influential to me when I was younger. He was just so vocal. He was so successful at marshaling people, at gathering large troops of people to speak out against the government, to strike…so that was his major influence on me.
I often talk about Allen. When you do a hundred interviews, it all depends on how they are edited. I’ve talked about Allen many times – about how, of course, he was instrumental. He called me up; called my house and inspired me. He said that I should come and let the people help me with my grieving process and let my Loved One go on his journey. I’ve talked about that on the liner notes of my record…many, many times. I’m always doing something for Allen, reading his poems…paying tribute. There is only so much you can say in one little interview but I am always grateful to Allen.
How about the other Beats?
I was very attached to William [Burroughs]. I knew Gregory, Gregory Corso, very well…and Peter Orlovsky. I met Hubert Huncke.
I was very privileged to know these people and I had different relationships with them all. Gregory was very, very important to me in my learning process of how to deliver poems live…and in my reading list.
But William was the one I was most attached to. I just adored him. I had sort of a crush on him when I was younger and he was very good to me. He really liked my singing and encouraged me to sing. He used to come to CBGB to see us and, of course, his work inspired me. Horses, the opening of Horses, with Johnny’s confrontation in the locker room, was very inspired by William’s The Wild Boys. In The Wild Boys there is also a ‘Johnny.’ My ‘Johnny’ is a continuation of William’s ‘Johnny.’
William really taught me a lot about how to conduct myself as a human being, you know? Not to compromise and to do things my way. What William always said was, “The most precious thing you ever have is your name so don’t taint it. Build your name and everything else will come. Keep your name clean.” I learned a lot from William.
Listen to Patti’s newest album “Banga” on Columbia Records and for more fun, visit her website, www.pattismith.net!