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Joe Gould’s Secret Discovered in the Afterword of Hippos

“The usual assortment of stupid characters was assembled in Minetta’s. Joe Gould was sitting at a table.” And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, 2008, (102).
The Minetta is a Greenwich Village tavern that opened in 1937 and was patronized by Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Eugene O’Neill, Joe Gould, and Jack Kerouac, though oddly, the Minetta website omits Kerouac. The current Minetta Tavern Restaurant is now described as “Parisian steakhouse meets classic New York City tavern.” A Minetta Black Label burger is a tasty $26. The place is so old fashioned, it’s like stepping back in time. I asked the bartender and waiter if there was any Kerouac or Burroughs or Gould memorabilia in house, but none was to be had. There are plenty of photos on the walls of past owner Eddie Sieveri, a boxer. And don’t miss the famous and hilarious shot of Sophia Loren giving Jayne Mansfield the eye—right across from the bar. Who is the Minetta character Joe Gould that Will Dennison mentions in Chapter 9 and Mike Ryko mentions a few times in Chapter 12 of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks? If you read the afterword by James W. Grauerholz, he describes Joe Gould in two paragraphs (pages 209-210), and what a find it is.

Eccentric, Harvard-grad Joe Gould had been going around bohemian Greenwich Village, when it was bohemian, telling everyone about the great tome he was writing “An Oral History of Our Time,” the biggest unpublished book in the world. His (written) oral history was to contain all the stories he accumulated from all the people he met in New York living his outcast life. He’d been doing this for more than thirty-five years, everyone believed him, except it wasn’t true. He had no such book. He only carried around a portfolio stuffed with the same few short stories written over and over.
Gould broke with his family, one of the oldest in Massachusetts—the family had been in New England since 1635—and came to New York City in 1916. He lived a hand-to-mouth existence, not knowing where his next meal was coming from or his next quarter-a-night flophouse bed, if he was lucky enough to get one. He solicited money from people he knew and didn’t know. He called his panhandling the Joe Gould Fund and was both demanding and ungrateful about contributions received. Gould lived an anguished life filled with what he called “the three H’s”—homelessness, hunger, and hangovers.
Joseph Mitchell, a writer for The New Yorker, became interested in Gould and wrote a profile on him for the magazine in 1942. It was he who discovered Gould’s secret, there was no great book in the works. In 1964, some years after Gould’s death, Mitchell wrote another profile on him, and thus is the book Joe Gould’s Secret.
This book contains scraps of wisdom and has amusing things to say about radicals and bohemians and books and book publishing and writers, poets, and painters. Joe Gould was a big
enough “personality” to be mentioned by the unknown Kerouac in 1945, and big enough to be mentioned on the current Minetta website—where Kerouac is unmentioned.
Expect to be touched by Joe Gould’s Secret. As Kerouac writes in The Dharma Bums, “. . . I’d cried a little. After all a homeless man has reason to cry, everything in the world is pointed against him.”
Joe Gould’s Secret was made into a film by Stanley Tucci in 2000. The film was re-created in the same 1940s era as when And the Hippos was written.

The Lady is a Humble Thing: Elise Cowen

By Karen Baddeley

The Lady is a humble thing

Made of death and water

The fashion is to dress it plain

And use the mind for border

I remember watching the man I was supposed to marry through my peephole. He had just told me that he was going to marry someone else: a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers, a nice Irish Catholic girl. I am not a kindergarten teacher from Yonkers. He left and trotted down the hall and the stairs. I wondered how someone could just switch it off so easily, the love switch. It was supposed to be harder for him to let go. So when I found Elise Cowen, I understood.

She was born and raised in Washington Heights on Bennett Avenue, three blocks away from where I live now. She has often been described as coming from a wealthy family but this isn’t true. They were a typical middle-class, Jewish family; common in that part of Washington Heights. “They had a ‘nice’ apartment on Bennett Avenue in Washington Heights, on the seventh floor of a blonde brick house built just before the war,” (Johnson 54). The early part of her life was nothing spectacular, but there was tension in her home. Her father was a failed entertainer and now sold sheet music, her mother was a homemaker. “Elise was the focus point of their high-strung emotions, even of their battles with each other. She was the sore spot, the darkness in the household, depriving her parents of the middle-aged gaiety that should have been theirs,” (Johnson 54). She was their only child, an added pressure.

Her name really was “Elise Nada Cowen.” When I first read that, I thought this was some nom de plume she took on. But no, it really was Nada. “Literally it means Nothing – Nothing and Nothingness,” (54) Elise told her friend Joyce Johnson with pride. Johnson was obsessed by this odd choice for a middle name. “Humility – that was the Nada side of her,” (56) she said. Her father was likely the parent who chose this name for her. Even her first name conjured up odd imagery. “[Lucien Carr] took a fancy to Elise – her name seemed to give him endless amusement. Ellipse, he called her. Or Eclipse. ‘Well now, Eclipse, what’ll you have?’ he’d shout across the room, and his wife Cessa would redden and say ‘Oh Lucien!’” (Johnson 125). An eclipse: when one object moves into the shadow of another.

Elise was popular enough, had friends, and did well in school. When she was about 13 or 14 she was baking brownies for her friends. She opened the oven to check on them and the oven exploded in her face “singeing off quite a lot of her hair as well as her eyebrows. After this she always thought of herself as ugly,” (Johnson 54). She wasn’t the only one. After this accident her father quit calling her beautiful as well. On top of all this she was plagued by all the usual joys of adolescence: acne, breasts that were too large, and general awkwardness.

Her grades were good enough to get into Barnard, and that’s where her life changed. Writer Joyce Johnson, who remained Cowen’s best friend throughout her entire life, was initially opposed to getting to know Elise. “During that first weekend at Barnard I met a girl whom my instincts told me to avoid… She was standing in the corner of the Barnard gym, scowling downward as she was concentrated on something she was doing with her hands,” (Johnson 51-52). She was the girl in the corner. Johnson was majoring in music at the time in need of sheet music. Elise told her to quit buying it, that she could get it for her for free from her father. “There was an hour before our next classes, which we ended up cutting, unwilling to tear ourselves away from our conversation of such inexhaustible intimacy. Most of our conversations were like that during the ten years we knew each other, so that even now it’s sometimes a shock to remember that Elise is dead and I can’t pick up the phone and speak to her,” (Johnson 53).

Elise was an English major, focused on the works of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound whom she frequently quoted in conversation. “’Pull down thy vanity, I say, pull down…” It was she who first read me that line of Pound’s, triumphantly, one afternoon in the Barnard library,” (Johnson 56). But she struggled in school, uninterested in the coursework though she was interested in the subject matter. “She couldn’t reconcile her intellectual passions with the need to get by fulfilling requirements,” (Johnson 57). I understood. I had to drop out of my first attempt at college (a different women’s college in the Midwest) after I stopped going to classes. Cowen moved out and dropped out of Barnard, taking a room in a boarding house nearby.

Joyce Johnson was in awe of her friend’s bold decision to move out completely on her own. Women back then lived with their parents, husbands, or in schools, they never moved out on their own. Elise needed to be independent, something that Johnson related to and admired. “I envied the courage it represented,” (Johnson 63). Though Elise put on a brave front, she was also extremely depressed. While at the boarding house, she made her first attempt at suicide. “She said she’d slipped in someone’s bathroom and cut herself on some broken glass – it was really all quite stupid. They’d had to take stitches,” (Johnson 65). She was lonely and isolated since she left Barnard. Johnson wrote “recently Elise and I had discussed suicide and had agreed that there might be points in your life when it could present itself as one of the honorable alternatives,” (Johnson 66).

Around this time, she began dating her former philosophy professor Donald Cook. He dated many students from Barnard and Elise was nothing special to him. The difference between Elise and the other girls was that she acted as his assistant as well as his lover. She cared for his toddler son, cooked, and cleaned his apartment. She told Johnson (who dated Cook herself later on) that she didn’t mind doing these chores for him when he went out with other women. She felt that it was her duty to support Cook and make it easier for him to do his work.

It’s hard to say what Elise Cowen’s poems are “about” (if anything) because when they were discovered, they were bits and pieces and undated. But it doesn’t matter since history often repeated itself with Elise, particularly when it came to her romantic relationships. Just the title in her poem “Teacher – your body my Kabbalah” speaks volumes. Spirituality and religion are frequent ideas that Elise plays with in her poetry. “She embraces images of sacred power so that they may be reconceived, revising the language of prayer in favor of language that is both materialist and incantatory,” (Trigilio 128). Unsurprisingly, it was also where she chose to where she explored her relationships in ways that she did not express to her friends. She writes “Donald’s first bed wherein this fantasy/shame changing him to you…/Shame making body thought/a game.” She was self-aware despite her friends’ perceptions. She did feel pain in her relationship in ways that others did not expect of her. She continues:

Fear making guilt making shame

making fantasy & logic & game &

elegance of covering splendor

emptying memory of event

She was well aware, likely from her parents and analysts, on the complications of being a single, sexually active woman in the early sixties. She wasn’t a “nice” girl once she’d moved out and once she’d had sex with Cook, and in some way, this troubled her. She was also concerned and confused by the way Cook himself treated the relationship.

While at Barnard, things began to change for Elise, but there are no words to describe what happened when she met and dated Allen Ginsberg. On their first date she went downtown to meet him. “She takes the subway to the Village where he’s waiting, and they walk through those blocks that were the geography of my adolescent yearnings to the San Remo Bar, where an amazing number of people seem to know him,” (Johnson 73-74). Elise was in love from the first moment they met, she was in awe of him. Cowen was discouraged, however, as she observed the women at the San Remo. “The women here, Elise notices, are all beautiful and have such remarkable cool that they never, never say a word; they are presences merely. But she herself is tormented by speechlessness. Why can’t she say more?” (Johnson 74). The other women were the chicks, they were hangers-on. Elise wanted more.

She was sure it was love, she felt an intense connection to Allen as if they were siblings – they did resemble each other physically. They make love that first night, “an act his analyst would have approved of and hers might have viewed as quite negative, (Johnson 76). She frequently referred to Allen as her intercessor. “In Elise’s life, Allen was an eternity,” (Johnson 78). Unfortunately for Elise, this was also the time when Allen started to explore his desires for men. She was the last woman he ever dated.

Allen started dating Peter Orlovsky, Elise started dating a woman referred to as “Sheila” (her real name has never been revealed in any piece about Elise). Elise’s reasons for taking a female lover were still connected to Allen. “In loving Sheila, Elise is loving Allen too, reaching him in some place in her mind, living his life – loving Sheila as Allen loves men,” (Johnson 92). Elise and Allen would always remain close, at least in her mind. “Until the time she died, her world was Allen,” (Skir 155).

Elise replicated her relationship with Donald Cook in her relationship with Allen (although her relationship with Allen was ultimately not a sexual one). Allen and Peter moved into Elise’s apartment in Yorkville. “In the apartment in Yorkville, Elise waited, ironing, making soup, taking messages, lying down a mattress to smoke a cigarette and stare out at the vista of rooftops, where pigeons circled in the winter sky,” (Johnson 122). Allen’s book, Howl, had just been released in New York and “you could find the small, square, black and white books in only two places in the city – Elise’s kitchen and the Eighth Street Bookshop,” (Johnson 122). But in supporting Allen, she was losing herself, never attempting to have her own work published. In “Sitting” she writes:

Sitting with you in the kitchen

Talking of anything

Drinking tea

I love you

Oh I wish you body here

With or without the bearded poem (Knight 158)

She still had that dreamy-love feeling that she had when she first met Allen. For her, it was a happy life.

She typed Kaddish for Allen, no small undertaking. It was his “long poem about his mother Naomi… ‘You haven’t done with her yet?’ she asked. A question Allen recorded in his journal,” (Johnson 256). Johnson observes that there is a connection between Elise and Allen’s mother Naomi who, for years, struggled with an undiagnosed mental illness, finally passing away in an institution. He wrote in his journal years later that “I’ve always been attracted to intellectual madwomen,” (Johnson 76). He was not referring to Elise specifically in this statement. She was, in fact, only mentioned twice in his collected journals and letters.

Allen moved to San Francisco, Elise moved in with her parents who agreed she could live with them if she agreed to go into psychoanalysis. She got a job at NBC working overnight typing scripts, but by this time, she’d begun drinking heavily. She was fired from NBC and created a disturbance when she was not told why she was being fired. The police were called. They physically removed her from the NBC offices, breaking her glasses and punching her in the stomach. She was taken to the stationhouse and called her father who told her “This will kill your mother,” (Johnson 164). This is the moment it all starts chipping away and falling apart. It was sudden, but not shocking.

Elise moves to San Francisco and things kept falling apart. The original plan was that she would move there with Joyce Johnson, in fact it was Johnson’s idea (she wanted to be closer to her boyfriend Jack Kerouac). But she left by herself. “Elise, although she wouldn’t come out and say it, wanted to go to San Francisco for purposes of love,” (Johnson 118). Elise sent Johnson postcards, but they were vague and general. Johnson began to panic when the postcards stopped. She called the bar The Place and tried to get a hold of Elise, finally she did. Elise was broke, the scene was weird, and she was only eating one meal a day. She was alive, but not doing well and Johnson continued to worry. Then Connie Sublette was murdered. Connie’s ex-husband Al Sublette was a friend of Jack Kerouac. They were both part of the whole scene in San Francisco. She was out looking for Al when she met Frank Harris, a drug addicted sailor, who raped and killed Connie in an alley. “Her name was Connie, but I read Elise into her story,” (Johnson 201). It turned out that Elise actually did know Connie and gave her a cigarette on the day Connie was killed. “I knew Elise would have tried to look out for her,” (Johnson 200). It was a frightening brush with death, but only Johnson saw the connection.

She was living with an Irish artist, an alcoholic, when she became pregnant. In the days before Row her options weren’t good. She could come up with the few hundred dollars it took to get an illegal abortion, go to Mexico, or attempt to get a legal psychiatric abortion. Elise chose the latter. She had no money, so it was really the only viable choice she had. She finally got the abortion around January, the new year, but by now, several months had passed, she had to have a full hysterectomy. She only confided this in her friend Leo Skir, eventually, and he tells Joyce Johnson that “the fetus had grown too large for a simple D&C. She had to have a hysterectomy,” (Skir 153). It would have been the wrong decision for her to have had the baby considering her present state, but it had to have weighed heavily on her, especially since the fetus had developed so much. After the abortion, she moved back to New York and back with her parents in Washington Heights.

Elise was almost immediately placed in Bellevue Hospital for Hepatitis and a mental breakdown. She was doing drugs, she had fallen apart completely. “She was spinning downward very fast, experiments with drugs that stretched the mind until it came apart… Methadrine withered her,” (Johnson 257). Johnson had her first book, Come and Join the Dance, published and Elise featured prominently (though fictionally) in it. Her character was named “Kay” and Elise became obsessed by the connection between Johnson’s Kay and the “Kay” from Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group. In McCarthy’s novel, Kay falls (or jumps) from her hotel’s balcony while searching for enemy planes.

It was February when Elise jumped from her parent’s living room window. Jumped isn’t the right description. She threw herself through a closed and locked window and landed in the apartment’s courtyard. Her parents tried to destroy all of Elise’s journals, poems and writings. They mostly succeeded, but Leo Skir was able to rescue about 80 poems he took from Elise’s closet when he went to her parent’s home to pay his respects. Eventually, these were published in the Evergreen Review. It was the first time any of her work was published. The following is believed to be her last poem:

No love

No compassion

No intelligence

No beauty

No humility

Twenty-seven years is enough

Mother – too late – years of meanness – I’m sorry

Daddy – What happened?

Allen – I’m sorry

Peter – Holy Rose Youth

Betty – Such womanly bravery

Keith – Thank you

Joyce – So girl beautiful

Howard – Baby take care

Leo – Open the windows and Shalom

Carol – Let it happen

Let me out now please –

Please let me in (Knight 165)

“It was electric”: A conversation with Michael Sharp

By Noel Dávila

On Ginsberg’s anger & kindness, Kerouac’s “homo viator”, Burroughs’ excremental prose and a fateful evening in the American Midwest.

“What is it you want to talk about, in case I have nothing to say?” I received the above message on my phone from Michael Sharp, who I’d been trying to sit down with for nearly three months. As our anticipated encounter approached I wondered at the possibility of yet another setback. Two days before our repeatedly rescheduled talk, I was not pleased with his message. “The Beats”, I replied, “and your experience, interpretation and knowledge of them.” No surprises; simple as that.

However, I was pleasantly surprised at the unexpected outcome of my conversation with Sharp, a respected professor and published poet. His insight provides a clear path leading from the Romantics of the 19th century to the Beats, and then from the Beats to rock & roll. Having attended a reading from Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in the 80s, Sharp draws a parallel between these so-called readings and rock shows, hinting at the exhilaration of a performance few can claim to have witnessed.

Trained as a Romanticist and in the literature and ideas of the Nineteenth Century, Michael Sharp’s expertise also encompasses poetry and Victorian literature. I sat down with him at his office in the University of Puerto Rico to discuss why he thinks the Beats were American literature’s first rockers, Burroughs’ genius or lack thereof, and the momentous performance he witnessed at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s.

How did you first come in contact with the Beats?  Was it through their writing or through the live shows?

I think it must have been through reading them, but seeing some of them perform was great also. I saw Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso on stage at the University of Wisconsin about 25 years ago.

What year was this?

It would’ve been 1980 something… I forget when Ginsberg died – 1997, I think – but certainly all three of them were alive. Corso died in 2000; he’s buried in Rome, you know, next to the poet Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery. Quite close to Keats’ grave. It must have been about ’82 or ’83.

What can you tell me about the show, or the readings?

Well, it was electric. In one corner, Burroughs sat ominously behind a desk, and his fingers, which were very long, hung over the desk, very noticeably.  In fact, his fingers were more noticeable than he was. He wore a gray suit, but then he always wore a suit, and he never moved. I think he read from copies of Junky and Naked Lunch in front of him; that’s all he did, he never moved, and his hands remained like this (places hands on desk). Ginsberg had brought his squeeze box and there was a guitarist with him. Corso, who was “the fourth Beat,” after Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac, was hovering in the background with a bottle of whiskey – loaded, it seemed. It made for good theater and the nice thing about the reading was that while Ginsberg was doing mantras, he was making eyes at and seemed attracted to the guitarist. This intimate sideshow was part of the show which was periodically interrupted by this strange man here who never moved and Corso who flitted around upstage like a ruined dancer.

So they were all three together?

All three. They were on tour. The University of Wisconsin invited artists, mostly classical musicians and orchestras and Ginsberg & Co were part of the season’s offering. The Beat Show was very memorable and the place was packed.

You’d mentioned it was akin to a rock band playing live.

Oh yes, it certainly was. They were American literature’s first rockers. Well, you know they’re related in a way. Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty (On the Road) is a rapper of sorts. Burroughs later associated with Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, and The Clash, among others.

There is a line that leads from the Beats to many rock bands.

Bob Dylan was a great fan of Ginsberg, so was Kurt Cobain.

Kurt Cobain actually met William Burroughs and they spent some time together.

Yes. In Graham Caveney’s Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs, there’s a photograph of the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.. As for Cobain and Nirvana, well, you know, there’s something ‘grungy’ about William Burroughs.

He ventured into other things besides literature: film, acting, multimedia…

He was in a film with Matt Dillon (Drugstore Cowboy). He did a film with Warhol if I remember correctly. He sang as a guest vocalist on Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak. He painted, of course. When he moved to Kansas he started to paint, apparently giving up writing, if writing is the right word for what Burroughs did.

The cut up procedure.

Right.

Norman Mailer said that Burroughs “Is the only American novelist living today that may conceivably be possessed by genius.”  Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Yes, in a way. I read somewhere that Burroughs, in pushing the limit, found himself in the wilderness of what ‘limit’ sometimes might imply. I don’t know about genius. Burroughs is a dirty writer. I don’t mean that pejoratively. He’s visceral, he’s excremental, and he pushes the boundaries, I suppose. Like many French writers of the 19th century: Baudelaire, de Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. He reminds me of Michel Foucault, actually. Foucault pushed the boundaries to the point that he thought that if he went to every bath house in San Francisco, say, he might just cheat AIDS, circumvent it somehow. I don’t know if that makes sense, but there is an adventurism, a great daring in the way that Foucault crossed over in his writing, and I think, perhaps, Burroughs does the same too. Burroughs doesn’t strike me as being the great writer that Mailer claims for him. I think Burroughs did things that people didn’t dare do, or simply couldn’t/wouldn’t do. If that makes him a great writer, fine. Rimbaud, who must have influenced Burroughs, was equally strange, equally courageous, a poetic genius who gave things up to become an arms dealer, of all things. In a way, Burroughs was like Rimbaud; but he simply ‘gave up’ writing later than Rimbaud who quit writing poetry at nineteen.

What’s your take on Burroughs’ drug addiction?  What effect do you think it had on his work?

It seems to me to be part and parcel of what it was to be a Beat. You know if it wasn’t LSD, it was peyote. If it wasn’t peyote, it was marijuana. If it wasn’t marijuana, it was Benzedrine. I’m not tremendously sure what they took. Whatever Timothy Leary suggested, I guess!

But he was a life-long opiate addict.  Physically he resembled that; pale, skinny…

I suspect there are reasons why people do what they do.  Once again, I think Junky pushes the boundaries. It’s a book that hadn’t been written before. It makes de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater seem quite tame. The closest one is perhaps a book by the Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi whose Cain’s Book describes the life of an addict living on a barge in New York. I don’t have any take on Burroughs’ drug addiction at all. Rimbaud had deliberately dirty teeth. He and Verlaine misbehaved in public, at dinner parties. One of the things Baudelaire liked to do – though I think this may be apocryphal – was throwing flowers into the Paris pissoirs and watching them disintegrate in the urine. Burroughs watched himself in the mirror, presumably, disintegrating. But then he never seemed to. He lived until he was 80 something. He had criminal friends who presumably kept him supplied. He had money for drugs. Not as much money as everyone said he had, despite his family’s adding machine business. Coleridge was an opium addict. It eventually killed him, but in his last years he was cared for by a concerned doctor in London. I think over the years, Burroughs was in the care of lots of people, one of the people who cared for him was Ginsberg. Not physically, but cared for the phenomenon of William Burroughs. Ginsberg, who was a kindly man, arranged for Junky to be published, edited Naked Lunch, etc.

Ginsberg and Burroughs were both homosexuals.  Do you think being vocal and open about their sexuality opened doors to the current struggle for gay rights?

Yes, but it’s not as if homosexuality, being gay, hasn’t been around for a while. I mean they were open about homosexuality. Extending sexual boundaries was part of being a Beat as much as it was exploring the possibilities of drugs and spiritual belief. I think the Beats may have opened the doors for gay rights, but Zen Buddhism in some respects and the spiritual power of search were things that kept them going. As for the homosexuality, I don’t know how important it was. They spent a lot of time in Tangier; it’s still an open city. It’s a lovely city too. In Europe, the Beats, for example, are preceded by the 1890s French symbolists, by Oscar Wilde. Burroughs was apparently as much into paid sex as Wilde was. I don’t know if that’s liberating or even how open Burroughs was a homosexual. There’s a photograph here in Caveney’s book of his having his toes sucked by Brion Gysin, a British painter. Is it his toe? I can’t tell. I think he liked to be photographed. Whether or not his being gay enhances his art, I don’t know. I think there was a real bond between all the men from Cassady to Kerouac, from Ginsberg to Orlovsky, from McClure to Corso. Burroughs liked men – despite having been married – men’s company, simple as that.

What do think of Ginsberg’s “Howl”?

It’s Ginsberg’s masterpiece. It reworks the Biblical rhythms, the insistencies of William Blake’s great poetry against a devouring world. Ginsberg looks for a common humanity in a dehumanizing, consumer-driven post 1945 America. It’s very democratic like Whitman’s poetry. You can’t have a democracy unless you include all people in it. If you exclude gays, for example, then you don’t have a democracy. When Ralph Waldo Emerson was appalled by some of Whitman’s notions, he told him to clean up his act, and Whitman – I imagine – must have said something like “I can’t, because if we want a union, then that union includes people like me who fall in love with men on trams”.

Do you agree with the notion that Ginsberg was the Beat Generation’s leader?

Yes.  Howl is the seminal poem. To go back to Burroughs, if it wasn’t for Ginsberg we wouldn’t have Junky as it is, perhaps. It would have never been published. And Naked Lunch, which is the better book, if you can call it that, was edited by Ginsberg. Yes, he’s important. The thing about Ginsberg too was that he was nice to people, a nurse, a wound-dresser like the great Walt. He helped writers whom he believed had talent, rather like Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Kenneth Rexroth. This is one of the things I have always liked about him as a man. Ginsberg was nice despite the rage. Howl is a very angry poem. Ginsberg looked at America in 1950 understanding that he was a different kind of American. Compare them to the “greatest generation” which came back from Normandy and the Pacific and was venerated as the saviors of the new world. The Beats felt left out. The intelligentsia especially felt left out. This is why I think writers like Ginsberg congregated in places like Columbia University in New York City and the University of California- Berkeley in San Francisco.

They broke those old 50s patterns of thought and behavior. Instead they had hedonism, spontaneity, inconformity…

The Ur-Text for all them, it seems to me, whether it’s Corso or Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs is British Romantic poetry. The Romantic poets were rebels, mostly young men (with Mary Wollstonecraft) who felt that a millennial moment was at hand in 1789 with the revolution of France and its enormous social possibilities. Then there was the disappointment of the Terror in 1793 and the split between the younger and older Romantics. Wordsworth and Coleridge were on one side; Byron, Shelley and Keats on the other. Blake was much older, but a revolutionary all the same. All of them, at various stages of their poetic careers wanted to – as Ezra Pound said much latter – “make in new.” There was a common rebelliousness, a common belief in the possibilities of a new world order based on freedom and justice and equality and fraternity and sorority, at least in the western world. There was an enjoyment in the role of the outsider. Look at… Burroughs. There’s an outsider for you. William Burroughs, the man in the gray flannel suit who never moved, the man with long fingers, the man who wrote Naked Lunch, the man who’s a junky, the man who liked rent boys – I’m guessing – the man who knew and liked Jean Genet, Paris, its grime. He was fascinated by criminals, Times Square lowlifes whose circumstances I believe he empathized with. There’s a Shelleyan quality to almost all the men we’ve been talking about. Shelley was the arch-rebel. Shelley gave away his shoes to a beggar in Ireland. He didn’t ask for them back. Metaphorically, his poetry dares you to do the same. He was ‘sent down’ from Oxford for his atheistic views. When his body was cremated on an Italian beach, his heart refused to burn. That’s as good as you get!

The Beat Hotel in Paris.

What I think attracted the Beats to Paris was Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Perhaps it was the studied eccentricity of the poet Nerval and his pet lobster. I think the peeling splendor of Rue Git-Le-Coeur in the 6th arrondissement and its grungy ‘Class 13’ hotel also appealed to them.  I’m guessing that they found Tangier much more liberating. They could smoke hashish in the streets, they couldn’t get picked up for particular things, soliciting, say, and they could live relatively open as gays – those of them that were, that is. As for hard drugs, I don’t know. Tangier always strikes me as being the city of the Beats, with the exception of San Francisco and New York, not Paris.

I thought initially that Paris is where you’d seen them perform.

No, I saw them in the American Midwest. I mean, how perfectly junky. Remember Madison is halfway between Columbia and Berkeley!

Any thoughts on On the Road and its lasting influence?

It’s not a book that I’ve found easy to read. Why should it be? But, I do recognize its importance. Dean Moriarty appeals to me. You could say that he’s one of the sources of rap music. Recently a first edition sold for $12,500. Kerouac’s road novels aside, I think where the Beats excelled was the poetry. Corso – remember his “I Am 25”? – “with a love a madness for Shelley”- and Ginsberg were excellent poets.  On the Road has lasted, though. It’s a post-Romantic book. Homo viator, man on the road. It’s about two men traveling in Mexico, two men talking, getting into scrapes, falling out with each other. It’s a cool book.

Going back to the performance you saw.  When you think back, what sticks out?

I think the thing that made William Burroughs different was the fact that he sat still, oh, and his fingers. That might seem odd. I was totally struck by how somber, how sinister he looked. I thought that Burroughs might not be a man you’d want to find yourself in a room with alone. He struck me as threatening, but then I think that his writings are threatening. To go back to the question about whether he’s a genius or not, perhaps he is because the greatest literature should threaten you in some way: make you think, make you change, make you act. The best of Shelley’s poetry dares you to give away your shoes; if you don’t then you’ve failed the task. I don’t think Burroughs dares you to the needle or dares you into the underworld off Times Square, but there was something singularly odd and different about him, whether you understand it or not. Remember that photograph of him asleep fully clothed on a Tangier beach while Kerouac and Orlovsky beef-cake for the photographer? I’m not sure anything means in Burroughs – nothing has to mean, by the way – but he was a phenomenon and a presence. I think probably I thought he seemed rather evil. I’d just gotten back from Africa when I saw the tickets on sale so I went with my friends Ann, Mike, Marsha, Bob, Ina, and Berger. They’re all Beats still. Someone we knew was writing a doctoral dissertation on the Beats. It was a spectacle and good theater. Burroughs was good theater, it seems to me still. If you look at his face, there’s something quite frightening there. He looked so respectable too. Look at the socks, look at the shoes, the cuffs, the trousers, the hat, and the jacket – but underneath the jacket, of course, he’s wearing a Moroccan jilaba. I love that. Burroughs clearly influenced everybody from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain. Somebody once said that Burroughs is as American as the electric chair.

I think that’s a great quote.

Yes, I think it is too. I’m not quite sure what it means. In a way, I think that’s what strikes me about him.

Electrifying?

Oh yes, and dangerous. I mean his writings seem to steal fire. They don’t have the quiet Zen, the environmental concerns of Gary Snyder’s poetry, say. But, like Foucault, his notions in their own shockingly Promethean way are dangerous, challenging. Ginsberg, despite the epic rage in Howl, doesn’t strike me as dangerous as Burroughs. Ginsberg viewed his generation as misunderstood and misused just as Shelley understood the tyrannical England of 1819. Burroughs was a gentleman junky. Taken as a metaphor, ‘junkies’ are dangerous people. The best writers strike me as dangerous. Burroughs seems to convey an underworld most of us don’t want anything to do with. Some of the depths that Burroughs touched, or was involved with ultimately seem to have bogged him down in the unknown territory of “limit.” Foucault crossed over, and it killed him. Rimbaud crossed over and became ostensibly someone else, even, according to his sister, accepting Christ on his deathbed. When Kurt Cobain died, I wondered if Burroughs had had something to do with it.

Kurt Cobain was a heroin addict as well, but he didn’t even live to be thirty.

Burroughs died when he was 80 something. Perhaps moving to Kansas cured him. It might have. More so than Rimbaud, I guess, Jean Genet was a perfect model for Burroughs. The petty thief who wrote great books about incarceration, sex, a terrible upbringing – none of which Burroughs had. Genet who was raped in prison or reform school – I forget which – is venerated in France. One of the reasons that Burroughs is so famous in France is because the French like boundary jumpers. Foucault, to the Left, is a God, or was. Philosophers are venerated like rock stars in France. So is Jean Genet. Thieves, murderers, Genet, Burroughs, even the anti-Semitic Céline have a special place in French culture. In Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book – if my memory serves – there’s one sequence in which the hero Joe Necci makes love to woman on some rolling logs. One of the things that he enjoys most about it is that she’s an amputee. I don’t know if that’s supposed to shock you, it’s like punk hairdos or Sid Vicious on stage. Without reading the book, there’s something shocking about the cover of Junky especially when you remember that the man who wrote it looked so much like an accountant. (Points at book) This is a lost look, don’t you think?

Even the way he spoke was kind of strange.

Yes, sepulchral. Like a funeral director. On the other hand, Noel, in some respects I’ve often thought that it was all just a joke – a joke played by Burroughs on all of us. That we can venerate the excremental, the anal, dirt under the fingernails, people who we spend a lot of time avoiding in life because they’ll steal from you, or stab you in the back, transport you to Auschwitz, have you killed. I think Burroughs meant to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Like Bosch or Breugel. Perhaps, however, there is also a monumental empathy at work that ‘cares for the lost souls, for the shoeless of the earth.’ That’s Naked Lunch; chew on that one.

William Burroughs’ brother read “Naked Lunch” and said that it repelled him.

Samuel Beckett, by the way, had a brother who also disapproved of his writings. If Burroughs’ brother disapproved of him, then Beckett and he are in the same camp. Beckett often didn’t quite know how to say what he wanted to say so we are left with what he said – remember Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot ? – so if that’s the case with Burroughs, we are similarly left with what he had to say, what he felt. Is he great? Well, he’s different. In a way I think he is great, but I don’t know how, I’m not sure in what way. There was something so much more innocent if you were a Beat and you dressed in a beret and glasses and had a goatee and looked like Dizzy Gillespie, you know? I think Burroughs must have struck everyone in that auditorium as sinister, a touched old man with deep secrets, dark visions.

Last Thoughts on Ginsberg

by Michael Hendrick

I have not reached the point where I will pay for a ring tone on my cell. Just the words “ring,” “tone” and “cell” in the same phrase pisses me off.

Once somebody bought me a vanity license plate permit as a gift. I had a 1967 Mustang and she thought it a good idea for me to pick a name for the car as its registration. There are several problems with vanity plates. First you have to think of something clever in seven characters that nobody else has come up with, like when Kramer got the ‘ASSMAN’ plate on Seinfeld. Another, more annoying, aspect is that it makes your license easy to remember.

When somebody is filling out the police report, they will remember that ASSMAN was driving. Very obvious.

The plate was never purchased and I beat the Mustang into the ground.

So, when I was researching some facts about Allen Ginsberg and popular musicians and was offered a ‘Kaddish’ ring tone for my cell, I blinked! Maybe ‘Sunflower Sutra’ or a cover of ‘Pull My Daisy’… But ‘Kaddish’???

A vision of me trying to sneak out of someplace dangerous, unnoticed, perhaps behind the counter at the pharmacy,

‘‘Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets and eyes…,’’

in Allen’s voice as the white-shirt tablet-bull jerks his head towards me and pills fall to the floor… caught!

(Strange Musical Mental Interlude)

But this is about Ginsberg and where he stopped to wet his beak on the tunes of the times surrounding him. ‘Howl’ may be the first linear place where Beat meets beat, with several verses of the epic poem written in imitation of a chorus-on-chorus jazz progression in which the succession of verses creates rhapsody and ecstasy. The standard ‘Lady Be Good, in the particular styling of Lester Young, was an inspiration to both Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.

Ginsberg kneeled before Young in the kitchen of NYC jazz den The Five Spot after a show and recited a piece of poetry to him, to Young’s confusion. He also enjoyed Thelonius Monk there as often as he could, as well as taking in Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who he cited as an influence on his poem, ‘Witchita Vortex Sutra.

While ‘traditional’ jazz nosed its way into the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was at the Beat Hotel in Paris or traveling extensively in India with Peter Orlovsky. Things remain quiet, in that respect, until 1965 when Allen spent the summer in London, doing poetry readings, especially of note, the Poets Of Our World/Poets Of Our Time presentation of literary greats at the Royal Albert Hall.

During this time, enough ‘buzz’ was created to instill a new underground scene in London, centered on The UFO Club. Two influential rock groups formed over drinks at The UFO Club were Soft Machine and Pink Floyd. I am no longer surprised to find that Pink Floyd is a staple for many of today’s youth. It seems like it has become a generational rite of passage to listen to them.

Bob Dylan arrived to perform at the celebrated Isle Of Wight Festival, where he was famously booed and called “Judas” for playing electric instruments during parts of his act. He and Ginsberg were familiar with each other from the East Village and were mutual admirers. Dylan invited him to his suite at the Savoy Hotel to stuff towels under the doors and smoke pot with the Beatles.

Later that summer, a party was held to honour the celebrated poet’s birthday. The Fab Four were invited. Lennon, Harrison and their wives arrived to find him naked but for the underwear on his head and the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging from his penis.  Reportedly, Lennon balked when the others hesitated to stay, in fear of soiling reputations.

(The relationship between Ginsberg and Bob Dylan is discussed in depth by David Wills in Beatdom Issue Two. I will add two things I found interesting which were not in the article – He had recurring dreams of T S Eliot throughout his life. Later in life, he dreamed of Bob Dylan. They were good dreams… The other is that when the pair visited Kerouac’s grace, he handed Dylan a copy of Jack’s Mexico City Blues, Dylan remarked that the book was the first poetry he read which spoke to him in his own language.  Since his influence on singer/songwriters of the late 20th Century is indisputable, the effect of Kerouac deserves citing.)

The same year, Dylan released Subterranean Homesick Blues, which could be considered as the proto-rap song, were it not so directly descended from Chuck Berry’s rocking Too Much Monkey Business. The song was used as the opening for D.A. Pennebacker’s documentary, Don’t Look Back, with Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth haunting the background in the alley behind the Savoy.

Donovan, then billed as “the English Dylan,” helped paint those signs. Ginsberg’s visit with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, spiritual mentor to numerous 1960s cult figures and subject of Lennon’s Sexy Sadie, is noted in Donovan’s 1967 song, ‘Sunny South Kensington.’ By 1968, Ginsberg returned to the USA with roughly the same attitude Lennon had for the Maharishi but he continued to meditate and chant throughout the rest of his life and incorporated meditational breathing techniques into his poems.

Another popular 1967 song, ‘I Am The Walrus, featured  him as the “Elementary penguin.” Coincidentally, when Lennon first heard Ginsberg on radio, he thought he was listening to Dylan. That year, Ginsberg also made an unaccredited appearance on the Rolling Stone’s single, ‘We Love You,’ singing backup vocals with Lennon and McCartney. He also sat in on the Lennon/Jagger collaboration ‘Dandelion Fly Away,’ recorded at Abbey Road Studios.

Ginsberg admired Jagger for his version of shamanism and as the years passed it became more and more apparent that he looked more to modern song, as opposed to the works of his literary godfathers, for inspiration and as a more effective way to deliver the Word. He maintained this attitude until his death.

The fact that, on his only visit with poet Ezra Pound, Ginsberg played ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and ‘Blond On Blond’ for the famed scribe, speaks volumes.

1969 saw the famous ‘Bed In For Peace’ in Montreal, where he was present and vocal in the recording of ‘Give Peace A Chance’ in Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. During that session, a spirited version of ‘Goodnight Irene, Ginsberg provided the most solid vocal as well as punctuating the song with his finger-cymbals.

In the early 1970s he poured a lot of his energy into traveling to Calcutta to make poetic record of collateral damage visited on India via the Viet Nam War (on a trip funded by Keith Richards and using recording equipment courtesy of Dylan), while also putting together a group of songs for his first musical LP, First Blues. This appeared first in book form in 1975, the year he joined Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue but was not released for musical consumption until 1983, when it surfaced as a two-LP set. It was written simultaneously with his book, The Fall Of America.

The early-1970s were a petri dish for a plethora of musical styles but the decade ended with corporations co-opting artists and the dreaded disco music taking the industry while the spirit of rock and roll took to the streets in the garb, sound and attitude of punk. While vilified by many as a dirty, theatrical fad, punk rock had an underlying penchant for literacy, which can’t be disputed. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso and others embraced and were equally embraced by the movement, mostly owing to a closely shared set of sensibilities and distain for the norm.

In America, punk grew out of the Lower East Side of New York, spiritual home to Beats, Folkies and counter-culture icons like Lennon and David Peel and the Lower East Side, dropping it squarely into the laps of Ginsberg and Burroughs, who still clung to Gotham.

The seminal moment of creation of the genre seems to point to poet Patti Smith reading spoken word poems to a crowd assembled to see the wonder of The New York Dolls, a revolution in their own rite, at a NYC club in 1973. This was two years after she first performed her work at the St Mark’s Poetry Project.

The old Beats haunted CBGB, at Bleecker and Bowery, just steps away from the Burroughs ‘bunker.’ The punks engaged and celebrated these familiar visages, now cohorts in a new style of anarchy.

The first noticeable collaboration was Ginsberg’s contribution to a song on the Clash’s Combat Rock LP.

‘Ghetto Defendant’his unmistakable voice reading lines which serve to run like a bassline beneath the reggae beat and also in response to Joe Strummer’s plaintive cries. This partnership led to the Clash recording music for the poem ‘Capitol Air, which was released eventually on Ginsberg’s four-disc collection, 1994’s Holy Soul Jelly Roll, which also included the songs from First Blues.

In the bleak musical landscape of the 1980s, he was still on the scene, doing some minor work with the Hobo Blues Band and working with Philip Glass on an opera which was produced from ‘Witchita Vortex Sutra’, and performed at New York’s Schubert Theater in 1988.

He made an appearance in a 1993 TV special, put together by U2’s Bono, performing two pieces to an audience spanning Europe and the United States.

In 1995, while in London to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, he visited Paul McCartney and the pair discussed haiku. Ginsberg mentioned that he needed a guitarist to work with him at the Hall and McCartney offered to play on ‘The Ballad Of The Skeletons’ that evening. It was a unique enough pairing to end up on a 1996 MTV video which got a good amount of airtime.

Also, in 1995, he proved to be a valuable mentor. Patti Smith is the most visible and logical artist to capture the spirit and timbre of the Beats without it seeming like a nostalgia act. Her songs employ the same chorus-on-chorus succession of rhapsody that fueled the rhythm of ‘Howl’ and the chops of Lester Young. As recently as three months ago, she read from Walt Whitman to her audience and in the past year paid homage to him as she read his poetry to the music of Philip Glass on the anniversary of his death and also at a show in tribute to William Blake, who Ginsberg had tried to press on the Beatles.

At a time when the punk music movement, the safety-pinned sea on which her career floated, was growing stronger than ever, she fell from the stage during a performance in January 1977. She broke several neck vertebrae on a concrete floor and had to make lifestyle changes to recuperate and work through physical therapy. Two successful albums followed but Smith opted out of performing, in favor of family life.

Shortly after a series of personal losses (death of spouse, sibling and friend) befell her, she was scheduled to read poetry with her old friend, Ginsberg, in Ann Arbor, MI, in April 1995. He encouraged her to return to the stage after 17 years of semi-retirement. It is very likely that he was somewhere behind Dylan asking Smith to join him on tour later that year. He had asked her to join the Rolling Thunder Revue and she turned him down but this time – with Ginsberg and Michael Stipe of REM urging her, – she hit the road running and shows no signs of slowing down as she works through her 60s.

Ginsberg considered Smith to be “one of the pioneers of spoken poetry music, spoken poetry going into song… to the point where a lot of older folks like myself learned from her how to put the two together” and he gave her one of the highest of honours by comparing her to Rimbaud.

He died two years later. He still inspires and those he has influenced continue to inspire others.