The Beats as we know them are a New York City phenomena and walk hand in hand with Abstract Expressionism as one of the great defining moments of art in the second half of the 20th century. Just like Jackson Pollock and William DeKooning were all about reinterpreting what painting meant, so the Beats were trying to redefine linguistics in a way that made poetry and prose contemporary, or at least brought it up to date from the days of the Lost Generation, who expatriated to Paris after World War I. The Beats were the fallout of the existential crisis brought on by the nuclear bomb, and a seminal Beat poem by Gregory Corso called “Bomb” appeared on the page in the form of a mushroom cloud. The Beats were interested in writing from their wits and believed the concept of “first thought was the best thought,” even though they may not have lived by this credo it was a defining trait of their aesthetic stance. It was similar to an Abstract Expressionist looking for a perfect stroke on the canvas that somehow said everything about an internally troubled excited knowable state, even if he/she worked on the painting for weeks, months, or years. The goal of both movements, along with Be-Bop, was to express a moment of feeling without being restricted in time, even if this took years of practice. It might seem a quaint idea from a 2015 perspective but art was very tied to rules when the Beats wrote to the rhythm of their breath, or to the sounds of Charlie Parker’s alto sax, and it was a revolutionary act that scared a lot of critics and aesthetes into thinking the Beats were turning back the clock on poetry and were like modern day Neanderthals rather than the greatest minds of their generation. Yet that’s an image they would’ve been proud of in their inner circle, just like the Abstract Expressionists wanted to get back to primal thinking. The Beats were audacious but demanded to be taken seriously, which is probably why they earned the moniker of angry young men.
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In Search of the Origin of Burroughs’ Mythical Trust Fund
From Beatdom #16
William S. Burroughs was always quick to observe that, thanks to the novels of Jack Kerouac, he had been saddled with the reputation of being a rather wealthy man. He once explained to an audience:
I have never been able to divest myself of the trust fund that [Kerouac] foisted upon me. I mean there isn’t any trust fund. There never was a trust fund. When I was not able to support myself… I was supported by an allowance from my family… my hard working parents who ran a gift and art shop in Palm Beach, Florida, called Cobblestone …
But you see Kerouac thought a trust fund was more interesting and more romantic. Let’s face it there was a very strong Sunday supplement streak in his mind. And he also saddled me with a Russian countess. Well, she was a bit easier to get rid of than the trust fund. And he nurtured the myth of the Burroughs millions. There are no Burroughs millions except in the company. And the family got nothing out of it… Continue Reading…
“If two things are two sides of the same coin, they are very closely related although they seem different”
– The Cambridge Dictionary
As one might guess, the name of the world’s most successful (Hotten) band in history – the Beatles – does not completely incidentally sound so similar to that of the influential group of writers that called themselves the Beat Generation. What one might not guess, however, is how manifold and deeply rooted their connections are.
It must be said from the outset that there are multiple stories surrounding the origin of the Beatles’ name. Stuart Sutcliffe, the so-called ‘fifth Beatle’, who was a study friend of John Lennon and only a part of the first beginnings of what would later become the Beatles, suggested they call themselves ‘the Beatals’ in January 1960, as a tribute to the then famous rock ‘n’ roll band Buddy Holly and the Crickets. In the months that followed this name changed to ‘the Silver Beetles’ (May), ‘the Silver Beatles’ (July), and eventually ‘the Beatles’ (August) (Lewisohn 18-22). John Lennon himself in 1961, before their enormous success came about, already rejected every notion of a ‘meaning’ behind the name:
Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’’. Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.
(qtd. in Coupe 131) Continue Reading…
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…
It’s been an exciting few years for fans of the Beat Generation. Since Beatdom was founded, we have seen the release of a number of high profile movie adaptations (including Howl and On the Road), the publication of previously unpublished Beat works like The Sea is My Brother, and various major anniversaries (including the fifty years that have passed since Howl and On the Road were published, as well as the centenary of the birth of William S. Burroughs). Perhaps as a result of these events we have witnessed a revival of interest in the Beats, and as such a plethora of new critical works on their lives and art. Beat studies is thriving and the Beats are gaining respect as an important part of literary and cultural history. Continue Reading…
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15 – the WAR issue.
For about ten years after World War II Britain was a grey place. When Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were gallivanting around the United States, the UK was recovering from Nazi bombing raids. Kids played in bomb craters and air-raid shelters. You could still find shell casings among the rubble and there were wrecked German Messershmitts in the fields. The big kids got the best bits.
It wasn’t until the end of the fifties that things started to change, and kids who’d been too young to die in the trenches came of age. TVs arrived in suburban homes, bringing American culture to the British youth. Brit pop music was pretty tame at first – Petula Clark, Frankie Vaughan – but it had potential. Then Bill Haley came over leaving a trail of smashed up cinemas, and Gene Vincent records appeared in the shops.
Proto-Beatniks were first spotted on the Aldermaston March. They were called Bohemians. There was a revival of traditional jazz among art students and a few bearded denizens of Soho pubs. Then Skiffle came along and whatever it was spread to the suburbs. Lonnie Donnegan got on TV with songs like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” (“John Henry” was on the B-side) and suddenly England had a whole new sub-culture.
The spillover from places like Ken Colyer’s Club and Eel Pie Island followed… scruffy, hairy young people with bedrolls would find their way down to Brighton either by hitchhiking or by the infamous Milk Train from Victoria. It usually happened at weekends. They’d sleep on the beach under the pier or in upturned fishing boats on the hard pebbles and meet up in the fish market to share bottles of stolen milk and Mars Bars. Some of the beatnik chicks were quite attractive in a Bohemian kind of way. French actress style. It wasn’t that difficult to entice them into your sleeping bag; one at a time, of course.
Drugs? There weren’t many around. You could get a buzz off Dr. Collis Browne’s Mixture but speed and pot were hard to find. Acid was still some way in the future.
Primitive music was played there on the pebbles. Some people, like Davy Graham and Martin Wyndham, Wizz Jones (shoulder-length curly hair and owlish glasses), Clive Palmer (quiet, gaunt, and haunted), would have banjos and guitars. Somebody might show up with a battered trumpet. Perhaps there would even be enough instruments to make an impromptu band! Bemused old folk and other passersby on the sea front above would gather to watch this curious cultural phenomenon. Teddy Boys – working class lads in pseudo-Edwardian suits – would shout rude things at the Beatniks. Things like “Do you ever wash?” or “Get a bleedin’ ’aircut!” and “Are you a boy or a girl?”
Teds wore drape jackets, drainpipe trousers, and suede shoes with big crepe soles. They liked Gene Vincent and Elvis. Then the Mods came along, a younger group, who liked the Kinks, Small Faces, The Who, and early Reggae. They showed up like a shoal of piranha fish in their Fred Perry Polo shirts and parkas, driving Lambrettas and noisy little Vespas covered with superfluous headlights. They got a lot of media attention which annoyed the Teds, who had somehow morphed into Rockers while nobody was watching. They traded in their suits for leather jackets, bought motorbikes and rode around shouting rude things at the Mods.
It may have been youthful high-spirits, or excess testosterone. Historians are still puzzling over it. Or maybe the various fashion styles and musical tastes just didn’t mix well. Anyway, fights broke out which quickly became running battles, and it wasn’t long before the Great British Press was all over it. Coppers got in some weekend overtime with their truncheons. Arrests were made. Newspapers were sold. The public was shocked.
The Beatniks, being peaceful folk for the most part, stayed out of it. Some simply went home to read their copies of On the Road. Some decided to hitchhike to India in search of spiritual enlightenment and cheap hash. They in turn evolved into Hippies. Most of these young people eventually got jobs, started families and settled down in front of the telly. Some have since joined the old folk on the seafront where they sit in Regency shelters, feeding sliced bread to gulls and discussing the youth of today.
The American Dream is the unifying theme across the work of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac wrote wondrous love letters while William Burroughs explored its often nightmarish landscape. However, Hubert Selby Jr. was the only writer to identify its failure while also providing an antidote to correct it. Continue Reading…
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue.
Most of the writers and artists to whom the label “Beat” was applied did not directly experience the horrors of war. Certainly, some of the older Beats of the original Columbia University circle had been in the firing line: Jack Kerouac, for one, shipped out in the merchant marines in the minefield of the Atlantic, and then joined the Navy before quickly being discharged after a diagnosis of a “schizoid personality with angel tendencies.” But the younger Beats, the so-called “second-generation,” which encompasses most of the recognized female writers, including Diane di Prima and Joyce Johnson, were at the same geographic dissociation as most other young people in the USA. However, war’s effects were experienced belatedly through the lasting trauma of family members, many of whom were of immigrant families with links to Europe, either active or hazily distant in the past as they strove for assimilation into American life. Continue Reading…
From Beatdom #15 – Available now on Amazon as a print and Kindle publication:
The Beat Generation is often viewed as apolitical, apathetic, selfish, and borne out of the post-WWII era of prosperity. They are viewed as rich kids who chose a bohemian lifestyle as a matter of fashion, as part of a teenage rebellion that went on too long, and inspired too many imitators, and eventually morphing into the beatniks and hippies of the fifties and sixties. Getting to the heart of the Beat ethos isn’t easy, as this is a literary grouping of rather different individuals, over a long period of time, with entirely different philosophies and styles relating to their art. That “post-WWII era” label, then, is important in defining them. If we must group them together, we can define them by opposition to the oppressive society in which they lived. They supported sexual freedom, opposed big government, and pondered to what extent madness was a path to genius. Continue Reading…
Here at Beatdom we have always had a fondness for Peter Orlovsky, and were surprised and delighted to hear about this brand new – and overdue – publication, Peter Orlovsky: a a Life in Words.
Orlovsky is known as “Allen Ginsberg’s lover” or his husband, friend, life-partner, or whatever relationship is attributed to them by whatever scholar or journalist. But what we forget is that, while certainly no Ginsberg, he was a poet in his own right. He was a character but he was also a writer. He was not just a background to the Beat Generation, but part of it. And that this is the first major book about him is rather sad. But, better late than never.
And, also, what a cover. Two penises on one literary textbook cover. You have to admire that!
From the publishers (Paradigm):
“The Peter Orlovsky you will meet in this book has only a slight resemblance to the wacky kid immortalized in Kerouac’s sunny pages as ‘the greatest man in San Francisco’ or the silent companion in Ginsberg’s tender poetry. Here, for the first time, Bill Morgan has used Peter’s words to take us behind his handsome face. Orlovsky’s journals, letters, and poems offer us glimpses of his mind with and without Ginsberg.”
—from the Foreword by Ann Charters, editor of The Portable Beat Reader
Until now, the poet Peter Orlovsky, who was Allen Ginsberg’s lover for more than forty years, has been the neglected member of the Beat Generation. Because he lived in Ginsberg’s shadow, his achievements were seldom noted and his contributions to literature have not been fully recognized.
Now, this first collection of Orlovsky’s writings traces his fascinating life in his own words. It also tells, for the first time, the intimate story of his relationship with Ginsberg.
Drawn from previously unpublished journals, correspondence, photographs, and poems, Peter Ovlovsky, a Life in Words, begins just as Orlovsky is discharged from the Army, having declared that it was “an army without love.” The book follows the young man through years of self-doubt and details his first meeting with Ginsberg in San Francisco from his own perspective. During that same year, Peter, always acting as the caregiver in his relationships, adopted his teenage mentally impaired brother, and tried to help him make a life for himself.
In never-before-heard detail, Orlovsky describes his travels around the world with Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Corso—whose writings so often benefited from knowing the highly creative and inspiring Orlovsky.
Orlovsky’s story is a refreshing departure from the established history of the Beats as depicted by his more famous companions. The reader will discover why Jack Kerouac described him as the saintly figure of Simon Darlovsky in Desolation Angels and why the elder poet William Carlos Williams praised his poetry as “pure American.” His was a complicated life, this book shows, filled with contradictions. Best known as Ginsberg’s lover, Orlovsky was heterosexual and always longed to be with women. Always humble, he became a teacher at a Buddhist college and taught a class that he entitled “Poetry for Dumb Students.” His spirit was prescient of the flower children of the sixties, especially his inclinations toward devotion and love. In the end Orlovsky’s use of drugs took its toll on his body and mind and he slipped into his own hell of addiction and mental illness, silencing one of the most original and inspiring voices of his generation.
- This is the “Orlovsky Reader” (which Ginsberg always wanted to publish) offering poetry, prose, and journal entries, created by the man who was the muse of the Beat generation.
- Reveals the nature of the Ginsberg and Orlovsky sexual relationship, which hasn’t been fully revealed before; Peter was never gay and didn’t find men sexually attractive.
- Exhibits Orlovsky’s distinct style of writing, which wasn’t derived from the other writers living around him.
- Includes many previously unpublished poems.