In his new book, Ambiguous Borderlands: Shadow Imagery in Cold War American Culture, Dr. Erik Mortenson looks at the “paradox” of mid-twentieth century life in the United States, where there were unprecedented levels of comfort for many citizens, and yet the impending threat of nuclear holocaust. Continue Reading…
Archives For Reviews
Reviews from Beatdom.
Federico Fellini’s La Strada (1954) is a road movie. The road is not so much an avenue for adventure as it is a means to earn a living, not much of a living, but a way to eat. Zampano, the brute protagonist, a “traveling artist,” and his sidekick, the simple-minded young woman, Gelsomina–he purchased from her poverty-stricken, barefoot-poor mother for 10,000 lire–are existing in war ravaged Italy. Before Gelsomina, Zampano was on the road with her sister Rosa, who died, apparently on the road–no explanation.
I work a solitary Burroughs-type job where I don’t do anything much but look out a window. I can’t read or write there, so the only thing I do is think, think about people, and pray, pray for another job. I think about the Beats because I read a great deal of Beat literature. I’ve read so much that I feel I know each personally. Being it was All Saints Day and then All Souls Day, and I had nothing else to do, I prayed for Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.
A professional filmmaker warned me against the Coen Brothers. (Why? I can’t remember.) A professional musician and nice guy warned against this movie. “Joyless,” he said. “Dark.” Our friends, a beautiful couple, charitable and she a pianist with three classically-trained musical daughters (one a violinist in a bluegrass band) didn’t finish watching it–they didn’t like it at all. I liked it. I liked it a great deal, and it’s the first movie I’ve seen in a while that didn’t insult my intelligence. Continue Reading…
Larry Beckett is generally best-known as a songwriter, yet probably better known to Beatdom readers as the author of Beat Poetry – the first book entirely devoted to the poetry of the Beat Generation. Yet he has devoted much of his life to writing poetry, and earlier this year he released an impressive book called Paul Bunyan through Smokestack Books in the UK.
Paul Bunyan is part of Beckett’s American Cycle series of “long poems” concerning junctures in American history. In an interview with Shindig! Magazine, he explained:
When I started reading American literature, I looked around for its great narrative epic poem, and didn’t find it. So American Cycle is a sequence of long poems out of the American past: US Rivers: Highway 1, Old California, Paul Bunyan, Chief Joseph, Wyatt Earp, PT Barnum, Amelia Earhart, Blue Ridge, US Rivers: Route 66. I’ve been working on it for 45 years; I’m now doing research for the last section, John Henry. Each section is written in a form appropriate to its subject. Its themes are love, local mythology, history, justice, memory, accomplishment, time.
In 2013 I was asked to review a book called The Stray Bullet, about William S. Burroughs’ years in Mexico. I described it as “unreadable,” which made it rather surprising when, a year and a half later, the publishers asked me to review another book by the same author and translator – Jorge Garcia-Robles and Daniel C. Schechter – called At the End of the Road: Jack Kerouac in Mexico. Garcia-Robles styles himself as the “leading authority on the Beats in Mexico” and as with the first book, this concerns a major Beat figure in the author’s homeland.
Naturally, I found myself dreading this book, as reading the Burroughs one had been little more than a chore. When I opened the front cover and saw that they’d credited a photo to one “Allan Ginsberg” (sic), I was sure that I was about to slog through another entirely incomprehensible text. Continue Reading…
“Basie’s stuff means something.” i Jack Kerouac, Horace Mann Record
Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie as told to Albert Murray (first edition 1985) is something like the Count’s music: it’s not only about the notes he plays, it’s also about the notes he leaves out. This is more a “tell some” rather than a “tell all,” and so be it. Basie plays it straight and simple, like his music, and the subject of the book is that: the music, jazz, and all those great jazz players. Count enjoyed a sixty-year career as pianist, band leader, composer, and arranger.
It’s a delight “listening” to William Basie tell his story. It couldn’t have been easy in those early years, but Count sheds a gracious light on events with gentleness, style, and humor, and some very funny stories that go back to the glory days of Kansas City and the early New York years with the likes of Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, and everybody in the jazz world. A good read for jazz enthusiasts who want to glean some insight in a world long gone.
Apparently, young William, newly arrived in New York City, was so green he (and Elmer Williams, sax player) got these remarks from Sonny Greer, Duke Ellington’s drummer from Long Branch, New Jersey, “Hey, where you two farmers think you going? . . . . Hey, what you two country boys doing up here in the big city?” ii Small town Red Bank being the farm, and, for the record, Long Branch being a few shore towns away.
Was Count called Count because the jazz world had a Duke, King, Earl, Baron? iii Or as Bennie Moten suggests was it more, “Aw, that guy ain’t no ‘count.” and “Where is that no ‘count rascal?”
“no ‘count, as the old expression goes.” iv
Count makes strides, develops, and has his own ideas, “I had been around long enough and gotten into enough to call myself a New York musician . . . I was not from Red Bank anymore. I was from New York.” v Count makes clear that Red Bank is in the past and he hightailed it out of there, fast.
He relates an amusing account about an Apollo Theatre backstage incident. “I’m standing there in the wings, this mean old bastard working back there starts signifying me . . . I’m standing there shaking already, and this son of a gun is . . . talking so loud so I can’t help hearing him.” The work man grumbles away, “Now here’s the great Count Basie back here. The great Count Basie! Well, I want to hear this. The great Count Basie. Now we’ll find out what he’s going to do in New York!” vi The man goes on and on, won’t give Basie a break, and it gets worse.
But Count finds himself and forges his identity, “Talking about jumping at the Woodside . . . it came to me that I really wasn’t William Basie or Bill Basie the piano player from Red Bank anymore. From now on and for better or worse I was Count Basie, the bandleader out of Kansas City, back in New York.” vii Small town boy does well, takes on the world as Count, and does so with a lot of good times and great jazz.
i Kerouac, Jack. Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings. (New York: Penguin) 2000. pp. 21-22.
ii Basie, William. Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie. (New York: Da Capo Press) 1995. p.51.
iii Ibid., pp. 146-147.
iv Ibid., pp. 146-147.
v Ibid., p. 84.
vi Ibid., p. 190.
vii Ibid., p. 196.
From Albion to Shangri-La consists of collected excerpts from Peter Doherty’s journals, circa 2008 to 2013, with an added selection from his tour diaries, all rounded off with a previously unpublished interview with editor, Nina Antonia – the rock journalist’s rock journalist, no stranger to the darker excesses of some of rock’s more elegantly wasted sons – whose sharp eye and clear ear have been called upon to assist in this literary distillation, as explained in her Introduction.
So, here is a brief download of life-behind-the-scenes with the selective concentration and short attention span of a pipe-fuelled fly-on-the-wall, flicker-finger on the fast forward of a secret video diary – cut-up surveillance footage to try and keep tabs on what the kaleidoscope of chemically accelerated and trance-translated selves have been up to. The dramatis personae included at the beginning tips the wink to the fact that this is the most fictional of literary creations of them all: True Life Confessional, the reportage of simple facts about a far from simple life – it’s all there, folks – only the names have been changed to protect the guilty, the innocent needing no such cover. (As Doherty sings on the latest album’s Fall From Grace : “If I had to tell the truth, I would be lying.”)
The tour diaries themselves are a confusion of times and places (“I think we are in Leeds”), blurred half-memories of shows well played, shows that deteriorate into random violence, and seemingly never-ending encounters with the young who are the loyal subjects of this uncrowned prince of all the rebels-without-a-clue, timely reminders of just what he means to them:
A 17 year old girl on the crush barrier, saw her briefly afterwards. She works in a jam factory. Left school at 14. Lives for music – says that Babyshambles, Libertines, me, lyrics, helped her through depression, boredom, through life. Her father died from a heroin overdose when she was born. Her mum hadn’t let him see the newborn baby. He went home. Banged up. Checked out . . .
It is because Doherty appears to speak to them, and for them, appears to be one of them – if only writ tabloid large, like them, only moreso – that “the kids” (of all ages) keep the faith. They feel that his successes are their successes, his failures are their failures, and that if he can come from little-or-nothing and succeed, and fail, and still survive and show the hope of succeeding again (even if only to fail again, then try again – try again), then maybe they can, too. It may not be Samuel Beckett, but it’s something. And something has got to be better than nothing. (“Nothing Comes To Nothing” the most recent single declares.)
From Albion to Shangri-La can proudly and rightfully take its place among all the other great works that fill that most singular of literary categories, the drug confessions of sensitive poet souls, along with William Burroughs, Jim Carroll, Jean Cocteau, Richard Hell and Alex Trocchi (to name just a few I can see on the shelf with a half-turn in my chair.) Not forgetting, of course, the grandaddy of them all, Thomas De Quincey: his Confessions of An English Opium Eater sets the basic blueprint, after all, and he and Mr. Doherty would find common-ground, agree over much familiar territory – although De Quincey might just wonder at all the references to Galton & Simpson, Edward G. Robinson and Colombo, or blowjobs from très chic French schoolgirl nymphets! All the reasons, justifications and excuses, the pleasures and pains, the inner-directed flight that almost inevitably ends with inertia – but also the jewels among the darkness, the moving heart-warming beautiful flashes of insight that illuminate this human condition we all share. “Spiritual Beings having a Human Experience” – which is really just a more palatable, New Age way of re-stating that age-old Gnostic dilemma: we are beautiful, pure spirits, mired in a fallen world of suffering, pain, and frightened, nagging flesh . . .
Speaking of which, one of the more striking – at times unsettling – aspects of such memoirs is the notion they project of Self-as-Object, the almost scientific detachment from the body shared by the religious ascetic and the hardcore drug-abuser. I’ll spare you the details, delicate reader, of the autopsy-in-progress, but I’m sure you can guess . . .
Indifference to discomfort and squalor. Intravenous self-mortification. Stigmata of the syringe. The body re-sculpted into a psychic launchpad, more fitting vehicle for the exploration of the endless interior. Outside is hostile, and to be defended against or escaped from. So much a cosmonaut of inner space that even their own bodies – never mind their actions, failings, feelings, or possible consequences – become distanced from them, a distance ever harder to bridge. Epiphanies of a Midnight Sun, too much in the moment, yet too much outside of time . . . The unthinkable becomes the everyday, and the everyday becomes unthinkable . . . Like a former prize-fighter or grizzled warrior, proud of their scars – each one read as a badge of honour, the sign of a scrape emerged from (just!) – the subliminal tattoos in which a whole hidden history can be read.
Here’s the rub: if Doherty turned up on time, clean and sober and freshly washed, didn’t misbehave, played well and spoke articulately, there wouldn’t be much of a scoop and one wonders how much interest there would still be? The sensation-hungry media, all surface and scandal, has no real interest in taking time over story or substance, especially where an all-too-predictable (they think) commodity like “Potty Pete” Doherty is concerned. The irony is, of course, he might just turn out to be an intelligent and sensitive poet, with something to say about the human condition worth hearing, over a well-crafted twin-guitar-based catchy song. But at the rate things have been going . . .
Irvine Welsh, himself no stranger to chemically-inspired creativity and attendant controversy, once dismissed fellow countryman, the infamous Beat junkie writer Alex Trocchi, as “The George Best of Scottish literature.” It’s a comparison that might Peter Doherty might appreciate, constellating as it does precocious talent, literary notoriety, junk and even football – but the greater concern at stake here, surely, is that he doesn’t follow the likes of Trocchi (or Best, for that matter) into a self-thwarting internal exile, or worse. Mercifully, however, Doherty has survived long enough to disperse the grinning vultures, those who just could not wait for him to join Brian, Janis, Jimi and Jim, Kurt and even his talented but tragic friend, Amy, in the infamous “27 Club” – without doubt the one Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall-of-Fame nobody in their right mind should aspire to.
(An all-too-grim reminder that this is a game played for keeps is to read the line written into Doherty’s open diary by one of his friends – “I solemnly swear I am not going to die” – and then do a double-take at the signature: Peaches Geldof.)
One can only hope that having survived this long, his obvious love of music, poetry, and love and life itself that have got him this far – with their combined powers to excite, inspire, intoxicate, soothe and sustain beyond anything that can be found in the chemist’s, or at the darker end of the street – will continue to matter enough. As Nina Antonia observes in her Introduction:
When I asked Peter why it was so hard to rest, he replied like a child on Christmas Eve . . . ‘Because there’s too much going on.’ The substance of the giddy tornado of his mind now romps across the pages that follow.
As a veteran of life with Johnny Thunders, the New York Dolls, and enigmatic narco-reclusive Peter Perrett of The Only Ones (whose Another Girl, Another Planet surely stands as one of the all-time invocations of the exhilarating confusion of the rush of love and love of the rush) – all of whom she has known intimately, and written about candidly and insightfully – as well as her near-decade of working in the field of substance misuse, Nina Antonia must know better than most that, in the end, there really is nothing much to be said and done.
In the interview with Antonia that closes the book, Doherty reflects:
Talking to kids now they just don’t feel confident taking off to a new city, getting a job behind a bar. Now it’s so much more difficult to get a cash-in-hand job, find a flat, find a squat, the world is so much more sterile.
This is precisely the reason why we need poets, songsmiths and writers like him, as an antidote to the bland conformity and soul-sucking sterility that is on the rise all around us. In May this year, interviewed by Barcelona TV for a launch of his paintings, Flags of the Old Regime, Doherty was asked what his art meant in his life, and he replied, characteristically playfully but also tellingly:
It is my life in the same way that, y’know, a baker smells of flour. It’s my life, I live inside songs and with crayons and y’know – I like the sea, and love – but, y’know . . . I spend my time . . . here [taps forehead] trying to devise a way out of reality, and . . . sooner or later, if you spend enough time inventing a world, you can convince yourself it exists.
Let’s hope that Peter Doherty never gives up on his dream of inventing a world that he can call home, and carries on inspiring others in the process. God Bless the Good Ship Albion in her continuing voyages in search of Arcady and Shangri-La!
(Photos courtesy of Nina Antonia)
Some videos from a recent book signing:
From Albion to Shangri-La is published by Thin Man Press and is now available on Kindle and in paperback from July 1st. Buy it here with a 30% special web discount.
In 1959, the painter, Brion Gysin, “accidentally” cut through a pile of newspapers with a Stanley Knife and changed the future of writing. William S. Burroughs, who would popularize this “cut-up method” would prefer to say that Gysin “cut into the future,” but regardless of semantics – “art is merely a three letter word, my dear” – that which was done could not be undone. Burroughs worked to hone the technique from purely haphazard to a careful, almost scientific, process wherein cut-ups acted as inspiration. Though it had, arguably, been done before by the founder of Dadaism, Tristan Tzara, the cut-up method became Burroughs’ obsession during the 1960s, spilling out of his prose and into the wider culture.
In 2014 Burroughs turned 100 years old, or at least he would’ve had he not moved off to another dimension, having discovered the meaning of life. (Spoiler: the answer is “love.”) This kicked off a year of celebrations called the Burroughs Centenary. Books, essays, articles, and inspiration have abounded. Burroughs was always influential, but this year has been a concentrated sludge of literary and non-literary brilliance. From this veritable Word Hoard have come some genuine fragments of genius, including This is NOT an Anthology, edited by Chris Kelso and featuring a collection surrealist stories, poetry, and artwork by artists living and dead.
Though This is NOT an Anthology is not explicitly linked to the Burroughs Centenary, and the contributions are not necessarily cut-ups, it is a decidedly Burroughsian read, with the birthday boy’s influence never far away. Burroughs and Gysin themselves even make posthumous contributions, and many of the contributors will be familiar to those with an interest in the Burroughs Universe or, for that matter, that of the Beat Generation. With its spliced together assortment of component parts (remember, this is NOT an anthology…) it cuts through the shit, cuts through time, cuts through the mask, and exposes the reality of the world, which, at the end of the day was what both Burroughs and Tzara intended.
Of particular interest to Beatdom readers is surely the section on Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach, featuring work by Charles Plymell, William S. Burroughs, and Brion Gysin, and photos of Beat Generation figures, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Pélieu and Beach had been attracted to the more surrealist elements of the Beat ethos and helped it evolve into the post-Beat and eventually hippie movements of the sixties, while translating their work for French audiences. This book serves as a reminder of the prevailing philosophy through all these movements, which could be said to function under the banner of postmodernism, which is the deconstruction and reinterpretation of the world.