Archives For herbert huncke

Beatdom #16 Now On Sale

The new issue of Beatdom is now on sale!!! You can buy it HERE.

The Burroughs Millions – David S. Wills
The Debt Collector – Neil Randall
Herbert Huncke Excerpt – Hilary Holladay
Finding Ferlinghetti – Calvin White
Ginsberg in the Underground: Whitman, Rimbaud and Visions of Blake – Delilah Gardner
Nothing is Perfect – Bob Pope
A Negative Score on the Happiness List: The Economics of Hustling in Bonnie Bremser’s For Love of Ray – Katie Stewart
The American Dreamer Goes the Way of the American Hobo – Gina Stritch
Telling All The Road – Max Bakke
Review: At the End of the Road
Beaten White – Alyssa Cokinis
The Surrealist – Brandon Lee
Review: The Whole Shot
Reconsidering Kerouac a Half-Century Later – Richard Kostelanetz

Cover by Waylon Bacon

The Beat Generation at War


From Beatdom #15 – Available now on Amazon as a print and Kindle publication:

Full page macroThe 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.

The Beats are never viewed as coming out of World War II. They are the next generation, the post-war generation. For them it was all supposedly history, or at the very least so far removed from their own existences that it may as well have happened on Mars. Never mind that the core of the Beat group – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – met during the war. Never mind that they all lived through it, that most of them had served to some extent in their nation’s military, that they had opinions and experiences, and that perhaps it was more important in their lives than they would admit. Unlike previous generations, the Beats never had a great war novel and never spoke passionately in favor of their country’s interests.

To be fair, they seldom addressed it in their literature. I asked Noah Cicero, author of The Human War, in an interview last year, what he thought defined the Beat Generation and, interestingly, he was quick to define them by their lack of interest in WWII:


All of my grandparents and their friends were born in the 1920s and what I noticed from personal experience is that …WW2 was very important in defining their mental attitudes about life. The war always seemed to define them – like their lives were pre- and post-war. You couldn’t talk about my neighbor without mentioning that he had shrapnel in him from WW2. Other writers from their generation all had famous war books: Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Joseph Heller, James Jones, Richard Yates, and even Kurt Vonnegut. Even John Rawls, who was the most influential philosopher of their generation, had fought in the war. But the Beats had not gone to war and they had not even considered it worth mentioning in their writing.

The Beats weren’t about the past; they wanted to define the future. To them the war was this dumb foolish thing humans had done to each other, and it had no real reason; maybe just some grumbling out of the darkness of our souls. But the future had come, the war was over, and it was time to look to the future. How do we make a world that doesn’t have giant wars and holocausts? That was their concern, making a new world.


The suggestion that the Beats had not gone to war isn’t actually true. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carl Solomon, Gary Snyder, Herbert Huncke, and Bob Kaufman all served in the Merchant Marine, which although is not a fighting unit, certainly made a massive and dangerous contribution to the war effort. Burroughs, who was older than the others, attempted to join the air force, obtained seaman’s papers, and eventually got stuck in the army. Later, Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s long-time partner) served in the Korean War. It’s true that they didn’t get shot at in the trenches of Europe or fight for an island in the Pacific, but they lived through the war, they served their country, and they decided, to paraphrase Cicero that “war sucks.”

Later, the Beats would become somewhat associated with the anti-war movement, but this was much further down the line, when it was even harder to define what exactly “Beat” meant. By the time the Vietnam War was being protested, it was twenty years since they were hanging around Columbia University, talking about the New Vision, and they were scattered around the world, involved in the murky business of literary fame, and associating with new movements. Ginsberg was leading the transformation of youth from beatnik to hippie, while Burroughs was fighting his own personal wars and trying to rile up the youth in order to fight the Control Systems. Meanwhile, Kerouac was busy drinking himself to death, muttering about the Vietnamese ploy to lure quality American jeeps into their otherwise impoverished country.

So while it is difficult to define the Beats satisfactorily, most definitions seem to remove war from the context, sidelining it as an interest of one or two people, like Ginsberg or Corso, who only became politically interested in the years after the Beats ceased to exist as a literary or cultural movement, when the predominate countercultural force of the day was a more political and activist movement to which they aligned themselves partly to stay relevant. But perhaps it is time to examine just how the war shaped their lives and influenced their craft.



Jack Kerouac

Wars don’t advance mankind except materially


In 1942 Jack Kerouac was twenty-two years old and feeling both the urge to serve his country and support his family. He enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and explained his feelings in a letter to a girlfriend:


For one thing, I wish to take part in the war, not because I want to kill anyone, but for a reason directly opposed to killing—the Brotherhood. To be with my American brother, for that matter, my Russian brothers; for their danger to be my danger; to speak to them quietly, perhaps at dawn, in Arctic mists; to know them, and for them to know myself. . .  I want to return to college with a feeling that I am a brother of the earth, to know that I am not snug and smug in my little universe.


However, Kerouac very quickly had a change of heart and decided, instead, to sign up for the Merchant Marine. He had recently met a Merchant Mariner called George Murray, who had given Kerouac a copy of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and explained the pay and benefits that came of traveling the dangerous Atlantic waters. Before Kerouac had even shipped out, the German Navy had launched a devastating campaign against the Merchant Marine and their Navy escorts, attempting to stop the Allied forces from getting support to Western Europe. In his Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, Paul Maher Jr. called Kerouac “either brave or naïve” for enlisting, as the statistics for Merchant Mariners were grim.

Rather, it seems Kerouac’s motivation stemmed from his literary ambitions. He saw life at sea, or in war, as valid material for future writing projects. After signing up for the SS Dorchester, he lay in bed pondering his place among “the ancients” (perhaps a reference to the Coleridge poem) and concluded that he would “write and write and write about the Merchant Marine.” He determined that the experience would make him “a great writer… That is why I think I shall come back.” Carl Solomon, when later asked about why so many of the Beats joined the Merchant Marine, offered the more prosaic explanation that it was because of movies like Action in the North Atlantic, which romanticized the experience.

The SS Dorchester’s task was to depart in late July for Greenland, where it would deploy almost six hundred construction workers to support building work in Allied bases. For Kerouac, the choice of crew on board the ship was perfect. Like Burroughs’ Tangiers, it was an assortment of misfits destined to be immortalized in literature. There were “drunks, Indians, Polocks, Guineas, Kikes, Micks, Puddlejumpers (Frogs, me), Svedes, Norvegians, Krauts and all the knuckleheads including Mongolian idiots and Moro sabermen and Filipinos and anything you want in a most fantastic crew.” Kerouac labored away at scrubbing pots and pans from the kitchen that fed the entire crew, and at night he filled his journals with notes about the bizarre people around him.

His stint in the Merchant Marine lasted three months. At the offset of his journey he noted in the eyes of his fellow sailors the “flowers of death,” and when he returned to Boston he decided to go back to college. The SS Dorchester sank on its next voyage. Of the 751 people on board, only 229 survived, and Kerouac counted several friends among the dead. As an incredibly empathetic person, particularly sensitive to the suffering of his fellow man, it is hard to imagine how devastating this must have been for Kerouac, and it certainly informed his views on war.

After only a month back at Columbia he decided to enlist in the US Naval Reserve. He signed up one year and then one day after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, for a four year stint. However, once again it was the romance of the experience that drew him; the potential literary material he would gain. In November, he wrote, “I believe I want to go back to sea… for the money, for the leisure and study, for the heart-rending romance, and for the pith of the moment.”

But, despite his apparent enthusiasm for the sea, prior to basic training Kerouac requested a transfer to the aviation department. He tested well in most regards, but was rejected as he didn’t appear to grasp the mechanics of flying, and ended up in basic training. In Vanity of Duluoz, he recalled the experience:


I entrain to Boston to the US Naval Air Force place and they roll me around in a chair and ask me if I’m dizzy. “I’m not daffy,” says I. But they catch me on the altitude measurement shot. “If you’re flying at eighteen thousand feet and the altitude level is on the so and such, what would you do?”
“How the screw should I know?”
So I’m washed out of my college education and assigned to have my hair shaved with the boots at Newport.


Kerouac’s military experience was to prove a tremendous failure. After only ten days in boot camp, he was assessed as so unfit for the environment that he was relocated to a military hospital for further examination. The last straw had been when he theatrically threw down his gun and refused to handle something explicitly designed to kill human beings. His files (which are extensive, at 150 pages) show that he was considered “abnormal,” and that a “neuropsychiatric examination disclosed auditory hallucinations, ideas of reference and suicide, and a rambling, grandiose, philosophical manner.” He was labeled as suffering from schizophrenia and further hospitalized.


In Vanity he described the experience:


Well, I didn’t mind the eighteen-year-old kids too much but I did mind the idea that I should be disciplined to death, not to smoke before breakfast, not to do this, that, or thatta . . . and this other business of the admiral and his Friggin Train walking around telling us that the deck should be so clean that we could fry an egg on it, if it was hot enough, just killed me.
[A]nd having to walk guard at night during phony air raids over Newport RI and with fussy lieutenants who were dentists telling you to shut up when you complained they were hurting your teeth. . . .
They came and got me with nets. . . . “You’re going to the nut house.” “Okay.” [S]o they ambulance me to the nut hatch.Jack Kerouac Merchant Marine Photo


On June 10th, 1943, the Navy told Kerouac that he was to be discharged “for reasons of unsuitability rather than physical or mental disability, and on the 30th his duty was officially terminated.

During this period, Kerouac managed to finally put his experiences at sea into writing, in a novel which was only published in 2011, called The Sea is my Brother. Unimpressed by his work, he called it “a crock as literature,” and didn’t bother trying to find a publisher for it. The manuscript was 158 pages, which makes it only slightly longer than his medical files from his time in the Navy.

Despite his experiences, Kerouac was eager to return to the sea, and in August, 1944, he boarded the SS George Weems bound for Liverpool, England. At sea he read a great deal, and in England he got drunk and wrote tirelessly. He returned to New York in October, marking the end of his career in the Merchant Marine. His involvement in the war had amounted to some construction work on the Pentagon and two trips at sea.

During WWII Kerouac had been torn between his mother’s pro-war sentiment and his father’s opposing views. In the end, despite the hold his mother had over him, Kerouac remained fairly anti-war for the duration of WWII, and lamented the senseless killing of men and women. This set him apart in a patriotic country determined to win the war, where pacifism was a dirty word. During the Korean War he was also uncertain:

“I believe in the people of America but I can’t get patriotic about fighting in Korea because I don’t see why we went there in the first place.” He later explained in a letter to Stella Sampas that he was steadfastly anti-war. Talking of her brother – and Kerouac’s close friend – he wrote:

“Ah I wish Sammy had lived – what a great man he would have been – Wars don’t advance mankind except materially – The loss of people like Sammy… makes the earth bleed…”

Yet Kerouac would not entirely maintain this pacifist stance. By the 1960s he was embittered and falling more under the influence of his mother. He was embarrassed by his association with “beatniks” and hippies, and also his friend, Allen Ginsberg, who was an icon of the anti-war movement. Kerouac said he was full of “pro-Castro bullshit,” meaning that Ginsberg was a Communist, which Kerouac now hated. He also despised the unpatriotic hippie “rabble.”

Kerouac is often described as being in support of the Vietnam War, but this is not necessarily true. While his political views and general outlook had soured and toughened, he was still at heart a sensitive soul, even if he was confused and angry on the surface. In the midst of the Cold War, despite having adopted his mother’s insidious conservatism, Kerouac saw on TV a newsreel of Nikita Khrushchev visiting the United States, and felt a great compassion for the Soviet leader. Khrushchev, as part of the childish Cold War mind games was forced to stand on a baking runway in the sweaty Washington, D.C. summer heat, and Kerouac wrote “I demand justice for this man Khrushchev.” As his friend, John Clellon Holmes, commented, Kerouac may have had his political views, but at heart he simply could not stand to see a human being suffer like that. By this stage he was again set apart – a patriot in a country sick of war – but while he supported the United States and despised the Communists, he was appalled by the killing of both Americans and Vietnamese.



“At Hiroshima all was lost.”


William S. Burroughs was born in February, 1914, making him the only member of the Beat Generation to have lived through both World Wars. He graduated from Harvard in 1936 and his parents paid for him to travel Europe, where he stayed for a period as he studied medicine in Vienna. Here he enjoyed the homosexual bohemianism that was soon to be crushed by the expansion of Nazi Germany. As Hitler pushed forward, Burroughs married a Jewish woman called Ilse Herzfeld Klapper in order to help her escape persecution. His time in Europe may well have informed his later distrust of governments and laws as, James Grauerholz describes, “he never forgot that everything Hitler had done was legal.” In fact, Burroughs’ uncle, Ivy Lee, was the publicist Hitler had hired to improve his image and this also informed Burroughs’ distrust of language itself, knowing all too well the difference between words and reality.

In 1940, Burroughs was lost, with his personal life an absolute mess, facing legal problems, and in therapy. World War II was raging in Europe, and only a year later the United States would join after the Pearl Harbor attack in December, 1941. Burroughs decided to enlist, as part of an attempt to straighten out his life. He obtained a pilot’s license and flew hundreds of hours of practice, but he was rejected by the Navy, the Glider Corp, and the American Field Service. He was turned down by all of them on account of poor eyesight, flat-footedness, and all-round poor health. After this, he attempted to sign up for the pre-cursor to the CIA, the OSS. Again, he was turned down. Throughout his life, Burroughs found it hard to fit in.

In wanting to be a pilot or a spy, Burroughs was ultimately seeking adventure. He wanted what he saw in the books of his childhood – daring missions over enemy lands and behind enemy lines. “I would have been into that whole espionage thing,” he later explained. He was not exactly enamored by war or particularly keen to fight for his country, however. When asked what he thought about the war in later years, he replied, “Nothing,” and when the interviewer pushed as to whether he was caught up in patriotic fervor, he said, “No…”

When America did enter the war, Burroughs was unexpectedly drafted into the infantry at Jefferson Barracks, near St. Louis. Like Kerouac, he found basic training to be intolerable. The reality of fighting hand-to-hand or living in the trenches was not as exciting as being a pilot or spy.  He felt that he belonged among the officers, and he asked his mother to intervene. Laura Lee Burroughs pulled a few strings and soon the army was aware of Burroughs’ colorful background and his mental health issues, and he was given an honorable discharge in September, 1942. He had been in the army since May.

In 1944, World War II came to an end as the United States dropped atomic bombs over Japanese cities, targeting civilians and threatening to continue along this route unless Japan surrendered. While the rest of the country celebrated victory, Burroughs was horrified by the loss of life. In his youth he had studied at Los Alamos in New Mexico, which was later taken over by the U.S. government and used in the development of the Manhattan Project. He also felt a connection by way of the Missouri-born president that had issued the order to drop the bombs. For Burroughs this act was about the most important moment in human history – a point of no return. He began to fantasize about the past, realizing that now he was living in an era dominated by nuclear hysteria. For Burroughs, nuclear weaponry was far worse than conventional bombs, and not just in terms of the number of potential dead. Allen Ginsberg paraphrases him:

the problem with the atom bomb is that its temperature is so high that it’s a “killer of souls.” So human beings have arrived at a situation where they can be the Killer of Souls.

However, Burroughs was not exactly known for his empathy. To him war was a matter of practicality, and he showed little emotion when discussing it. He had strong ideas and ideals, but he didn’t seem to equate the suffering of others to the immense internal suffering he felt from the tragedies and troubles in his own life. Even in his disdain for the atomic bomb he was frighteningly practical. In 1961, he told Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso:


In the event of atomic war there is a tremendous biological advantage in the so-called undeveloped areas that have a high birth rate and high death rate because, man, they can plow under those mutations. The country with a low birth rate and low death rate will be hardest hit — and so the poor may indeed inherit the earth, because they’re healthier.


The Cold War, to Burroughs, was not about America and the Soviet Union. They were allies, as far as he was concerned, in the fight against humanity. It is a “pretext,” he says, “to conceal and monopolize research confining knowledge to official agencies.” Burroughs began thinking about war on a greater scale – it was no longer a matter of simple territory or loss of life, but a war into the mind. As the fifties moved into the sixties and then the seventies, his preoccupation with fighting involved more abstract forces than simple armies and governments. In his Nova Trilogy we have intergalactic war. A consortium of insects from Venus is attacking Earth, and it’s not a battle with guns. The weapons included orgones, engrams, and lasers.


Weapons that change consciousness could call the war game in question. All games are hostile. Basically there is only one game and that game is war. It’s the old army game from here to eternity. Mr. Hubbard says that Scientology is a game where everybody wins. There are no games where everybody wins. That’s what games are all about, winning and losing . . . The Versailles Treaty . . . Hitler dances the Occupation Jig . . . War criminals hang at Nuremberg . . . It is a rule of this game that there can be no final victory since this would mean the end of the war game. Yet every player must believe in final victory and strive for it with all his power. Faced by the nightmare of final defeat he has no alternative. So all existing technologies with escalating efficiency produce more and more total weapons until we have the atom bomb which could end the game by destroying all players. Now mock up a miracle. The so stupid players decide to save the game. They sit down around a big table and draw up a plan for the immediate deactivation and eventual destruction of all atomic weapons. Why stop there? Conventional bombs are unnecessarily destructive if nobody else has them hein. Let’s turn the war clock back to 1917.


Burroughs was obsessed with war and it is a major theme throughout his books. Yet, unlike the other Beats, Burroughs struggled with empathy. The reality of it eluded him. For him it was an existential battle. When asked about America’s war on Vietnam, he replied that he couldn’t understand the stupidity of it – not because men were being sent over to kill people and be killed, but because it was an unwinnable war, which, he observed, had been clearly documented during the French occupation of Indochina. For him, as a self-professed “factualist,” it was ludicrous to start a war that was doomed to be lost. He went on, however, to confirm Kerouac’s suspicion that “Wars don’t advance mankind except materially,” and that governments need to stay at war in order to balance their economies. One gets the impression that this would be just fine with him, if only he didn’t have such a distrust of governments.

In 1968 he attended the Chicago Democratic Convention with Jean Genet, Norman Mailer, and Allen Ginsberg. By this point Burroughs’ enemies were becoming more abstract than simply government or alien invaders, and his preferred method of fighting back was the tape recorder. Utilizing his literary cut-up technique, he would run around with the tape recorder, going back and forth along the tape and cutting sounds in randomly. He would use this method against a coffee shop his disliked, and against the Scientology headquarters in London, after going to war with them. His theory was that he could disrupt the flow of time by cutting it up. In Chicago he was trying to incite riots by playing riot sounds in the crowd of anti-war protestors.

Later in life he would become more interested in traditional weaponry. Although he had always maintained a soft-spot for guns, they would increasingly fascinate him, and even in his final days he would shoot around his home in Kansas and subscribe to gun magazines. Burroughs was somewhat of a libertarian and his paranoia dictated that he keep guns around just case his government tried any funny business. He is famously quoted as saying, “After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.”

War and weaponry dominated his literary output, and in his final years he still maintained a fiery disposition, apparently viewing these things as an inevitable part of human – and even non-human – nature:

This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war and games. All games are basically hostile. Winners and losers. We see them all around us: the winners and the losers. The losers can oftentimes become winners, and the winners can very easily become losers.



Allen Ginsberg

“Go fuck yourself and your atom bomb”


When Pearl Harbor was bombed in late 1941, Allen Ginsberg was fifteen years old. However, raised in a household of intense political and philosophical debate, he was a frighteningly outspoken teenager, and wrote passionate letters about the war to the New York Times. The first, three weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, show us his perceptive nature as he details the events, from almost the end of the First World War, leading to what he considered America’s inevitable entry to the Second.

Our stupidity has reaped its harvest and we have a bumper crop, since we sowed the world’s biggest blunder. The death toll in this war has been at least four million… There is no preventable catastrophe in recorded history paralleling this.

He goes on to lay the blame at the feet of U.S. congressmen, who have demonstrated “mental impotence and political infirmity.” It is a remarkable, if short, letter that shows the biting and inquisitive intelligence of Ginsberg even at such a young age.

In 1943, Ginsberg was seventeen years old and eager to impress his older brother, Eugene, who was serving in the army. At home they had engaged in political and intellectual debate, and this continued through their letters. Allen noted that Eugene appeared unhappy about life in the army, and teased his brother quite harshly about his former opinions, as Eugene had evidently changed his mind about the draft:

I would suggest that if you favored the Draft Act in 1940; that you approved the 18-45 draft ages; that you were an “interventionist.” If, then, you find yourself in the unhappy predicament, of being drafted and rather roughly handled by the army, you may have cause for sorrow or pained resignation, but not at all for bitterness and disgust.

Allen then suggested that Eugene attempt to write some poetry, but that if it didn’t work, he should attempt to “end the war or at least have your head shot off trying.”

After this rather cruel jibe, Allen continues his philosophical debate with Eugene, showing a surprisingly Burroughsian coldness and factualism in his arguments. He neatly answers his brother point-for-point on a number of topics, but it seems that they both agree with a sentiment that is echoed throughout Ginsberg’s later life, and also appears to have been grasped by both Burroughs and Kerouac, that war is never in the interests of the people, but rather a tool of the government and the elite.


There was never any real cause for a war; no war was really ever justified. Wars come about when the opposing forces, either one side or the other, or both, were sincere but wrong… [or] acts unintelligently… This war: one side or the other is acting unintelligently. We are, certainly in America and Britain and Russia. Of course (no knowing smiles now) the other side is acting even more unintelligently than we, and so we are justified. Dear Eugene, if you can only persuade Hitler to act understandingly and rationally… without persecution and conquest and brutality, why, then we will have removed the synthetic, the false cause of war.


It appears, putting aside Allen’s teasing and humor, that the two brothers largely agree with one another and are both decidedly against the war because it has little to do with the will of people, and everything to do with the greed and prejudice of a few powerful men.

Despite his pacifism, Ginsberg followed his friends and joined the Merchant Marine in the summer of 1945 (coincidentally, although they had not yet met, this was the same time Carl Solomon, to whom he would dedicate his most famous poem, joined the Merchant Marine and sailed to France). However, he soon came down with pneumonia and was confined to the hospital, where he read War and Peace. A few weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s surrender, he wrote to his old professor, Lionel Trilling from the U.S. Maritime Service Training Station in Sheepshead Bay, New York. However, rather than the end of the war, Ginsberg was looking to discuss poetry, and to defend his recently acquired hero, Arthur Rimbaud, whom Trilling disliked. Ginsberg wrote a long letter defending Rimbaud, and connecting him to what he hoped would become a vibrant post-War poetry scene. Later, in early 1946, Ginsberg continued to write Trilling, sending him poems inspired by his time in the Times Square underground. Although he mentions voyages around seas of the United States, it seems Ginsberg is more interested in poetry than politics at this stage, and Bill Morgan, who edited his letters, notes that, like Kerouac, Ginsberg took advantage of his time at sea to read and write extensively. His observations, too, seem similar to Kerouac’s, as Ginsberg found the misfits on board his ship to be a source of literary inspiration.

Strangely, although his first stint in the Merchant Marine was short and is given relatively little consideration in any of the books about his life, Ginsberg seems to list it as an important point in his development as an artist. In an autobiographical note that accompanied “Howl” and featured on a “business card” he made in 1966, he listed it as one of a few events in his life that had led to his success: “High School in Patterson til 17, Columbia College, merchant marine, Texas and Denver, copyboy, Times Square…”

For Ginsberg, as for other young men, the sea promised money and adventure. Ginsberg makes reference to the desire to work on ships throughout his letters, and in 1956, he returned to the sea. Even after success as a writer, without any real money coming in, the sea allowed him the freedom to put pen to paper, the opportunity to explore the world, and of course the means to pay his bills.

For Ginsberg, war was always a more abstract concept than it was for Kerouac, and less practical than Burroughs seemed to consider it. He was raised in a household where the reality extended about as far as the discussion, and although he craved experience, his experiences were somewhat limited. Ginsberg would continue to become more stringent in his pacifism, and more vociferous in his attacks on what he perceived to be the real cause of war. He later articulated his belief that America had been carefully manipulated into a violent warmongering monster in the years following WWII, and perhaps during the war itself. He blamed anti-Communist purges and secret interventionism. His early perceptions of war were colored by the terms “isolationist” and “interventionist,” and while he didn’t use these later, perhaps that is because isolationism effectively ceased to exist as the U.S. became gripped by McCarthyism and a hawkish military industrial complex began manipulating global events in the interests of a few wealthy Americans.

As the era of the beatniks transformed into that of the hippies, Ginsberg made the switch and continued to be a figurehead of this next counterculture. It began with his usual role of spokesperson and literary agent for his friends, and as an advocate of individual freedoms, but by the mid-sixties he was synonymous with the new anti-war movement that had gripped the United States.

In November, 1965, Ginsberg wrote a leaflet called “How to Make a March/Spectacle” that suggested a new approach to demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Rather than attempt to display their anger, effectively fighting against fighting, Ginsberg thought that the anti-war movement should use love to counter hate. Rather than being anti-war, the formerly disruptive and violent protests should become pro-peace. This stemmed from Ginsberg’s Buddhist leanings, which he had adopted in the 1950s. Although Ginsberg didn’t use the term “flower power” on the leaflet, he spoke of using “masses of flowers” in protest, and later the term “flower power” became attributed to him.

In 1966, while travelling across the United States, Ginsberg recorded on an Uher tape recorder what would become known as one of the greatest anti-war poems, “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” In phrasing that hardly seems dated, given the bloodlust of western governments in the twenty-first century, he juxtaposes images of the American continent with fragmentary news reports, at first using terms like “tactical bombing” and “limited objectives” and then moving into a more irate state, talking about the “human meat market.” His careful switching of phrases like “operation” and “death toll” to descriptions of people being hit with “six or seven bullets before they fell” brings home a jarring truth about the nature of war and its manipulation in popular media. His poem, which is perhaps as ambitious and effective as “Howl” or “Kaddish,” continues as it mixes advertisements with imagery from radio and television reports. He succeeds in what was the primary aim of the anti-war movement at the time – making the inhuman nature of war tangible without desensitization, so as to appall people as they should be appalled by the horrors of war which are so easily and commonly glorified.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Ginsberg’s role in the anti-war movement. He has become a symbol of peace. It is almost ironic that Ginsberg was so famous for leading the anti-war movement, as he was always at war with something. But Ginsberg’s war was always one of peace, one without bloodshed.

But the success of the hippies and of “flower power” in the sixties, however, perhaps doomed pacifism, as even Ginsberg struggled to relate the realities of war and expose the manipulation of people in subsequent decades. He continued to present injustices perpetrated by his country’s government well into the 1990s, but by this stage it had become passé. A poem like “Wichita Vortex Sutra” would have little effect on a generation that was paradoxically so aware of violence that it was blind to it, so used to corruption that it seemed normal, and so familiar with the idea of protest that protest seemed futile. Ginsberg worked to demonstrate the insidious creeping influence of organizations like the CIA, and was often proven correct in his assertions, but after the 1960s there was nothing more that could shock, and the government had already ensured, post-Watergate, that there was no real accountability, and no lasting repercussions.

American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke


While the name Herbert Huncke may not be well-known among the general population, it is certainly familiar to readers of the Beat Generation. You simply cannot tell the life story of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, or Jack Kerouac without it, and he appears quite obviously in some of their most important works, including Junky, On the Road, and “Howl.” These three writers, among the most important in American literature, each befriended Huncke, learned from him, and came to be known by a label that was coined by him – “beat”.

What is amazing is that until now, Huncke’s own story has gone largely untold. Ask most Beat readers about him and they’ll tell you a few repeated phrases: “career criminal,” “hustler,” “drug addict.” He has become a perennial footnote in Beat history, despite having played such a significant role that one would expect his name to be on the tip of as many tongues as Neal Cassady’s. The two men appear to have played similar roles – as deviant muses, unexpected sources of literary material, and also seemingly morally-challenged nuisances.

Yet while Cassady has long been known as Dean Moriarty, the wildman with the motor-mouth, inspiration behind one of the great American novels, Huncke has been sidelined until now. American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired The Beat Generation[1] is the first biography of Huncke, who died in 1996. He managed to write an autobiography, which was posthumously published by friends with the 1997 Herbert Huncke Reader, but this is the first serious effort to examine his life, and as such is an important addition to the Beat literary canon.

From the start, it feels odd reading about Huncke as you would any other important figure in literature. He is so commonly presented as a device – the hip bad guy who turns the real writers onto his mischievous underground ways – it is strange to read about his family history, and his childhood. Indeed, imagining Huncke as a child with a mother and father is quite jarring. This effect is perhaps exaggerated thanks to the author’s choice of introducing the twelve-year old runaway Huncke first and foremost, in the Prologue. She tells the story of Huncke’s attempt at running away, giving someone a blowjob in exchange for money, and then finally being arrested and returned home. This is the tragic Huncke to whom we are to be introduced later.

We are presented with a short description of his childhood, during which time it seems that both Huncke and the writer are keen to get on the road, to get away from being tied down to parents and school. There is the sense that he is meant for the big city, be it Chicago or New York, and always the idea that he will later turn into the man who has been kindly described as a “career criminal” with his own questionable moral compassing. Of particular interest is a charming story of his obsession with a Native American legend that foreshadows his own hobo wanderings.

Altogether, American Hipster is a welcome addition to Beat studies. Well researched and written at a good pace, it really brings light to the life of a pivotal character in American literature.

[1] The book appears sometimes to be titled “the life of”, which sounds better, but this reviewer’s copy says “a life of”

Chelsea’s Ghosts Revisited

For literary types and students of Beat history who intend to invest a few cool million in real estate at the someday gentrified Chelsea Hotel, consider a few things. Yes, this was the home of Herbert Hunke and Gregory Corso, and Bill Burroughs and Ginsberg and Kerouac all stayed or passed through here and numerous writers and artists and near writers and near artists and every other type of, as Burroughs might say, “characters” from the world’s stage, and shall we say even those from under the world’s stage, some through windows and through walls, have passed through. The twelve-story hotel, built in 1883-1884, has a history of ghosts and is one of the most haunted buildings in New York City. It truly ranks as a Beat Hotel.
At times, many times, there have been strange and mighty strange occurrences taken place at this place, things of an unworldly nature, things of the occult, dark things, such as a resident evil spirit. There is a blog devoted to the ghosts of the Chelsea, with information on the ghost of Kerouac’s inspiration, long-term Chelsea resident, Thomas Wolfe. The blog also suggests that it is not too late to meet the old gentleman, Herbert Hunke, called “the junky ghost.” Hunke lived there toward the end of his life. As Hamlet quipped, “no traveler returns,” from the “undiscover’d country,” but at the Chelsea, perhaps some “travelers” never left.trespasser on stairs, chelsea hotel
Residents speak of a vortex of “bad energy” that toiled, toiled, boiled, and bubbled at the Chelsea, weird sisters, weird brothers, sometimes a mix of both, nothing was too strange and little was out of bounds. Physically, one never knew when a body might come crashing out a window or hurling down the stairwell. What might seem hyperbole isn’t. Murders, suicides, and fires were commonplace. If you’re considering property at the Chelsea, and if you’re a tidy housekeeper, you might rid your home of those unclean spirits with the help of an experienced exorciser, unless that is what draws you there in the first place. For those so inclined, have a look at “The Gray Man of the Chelsea” involving a young boy’s attraction to the staircase in Ed Hamilton’s book on the hotel.
On a recent visit to the Chelsea, we met longtime resident and choreographer Merle Lister. Ms. Lister has been living at the hotel since 1981 and has her own ghost. In her seventh-floor room she once felt the presence of a woman dressed in white who kindly removed a knot from her hair. “Dance of the Spirits” was created by Merle in 1983 honoring the Chelsea’s 100 year anniversary. In that dance appears a white-clad apparition.
The Chelsea is under construction, but the famed staircase decorated with wrought-iron balustrade that ascends to the twelfth floor remains intact. A skylight crowns the top of the stairwell.
Curiosity seekers are forbidden in the hallways and regarded as trespassers.
In The Town and the City the Lucien Carr character, Kenny Wood asks, “Have you ever been haunted by a spook? Did you ever wake up in the middle of the night and find one leaning over your bed, leering?” Boo.




To learn more about the history of the Beat Generation at the famous Chelsea Hotel, read James Lough’s wonderful and meticulously researched oral history, This Ain’t No Holiday Inn.

David S. Wills reviewed it for Beatdom #13:

Review: This Ain’t No Holiday Inn

This Ain’t No Holiday Inn: Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel 1980-1995

By James Lough


New York’s Chelsea Hotel has a special place in American culture. It has surely been a home, or a home-away-from-home, to more influential artists than any other building in the nation. To list the famous names in American art and literature that have stayed there would require more words than can be devoted to one book review, and would serve as an encyclopedia of the last hundred plus years of U.S. history.

While these names have included veritable superstars, the hotel did tend to attract the more Bohemian elements of the culture. As such, it has played home to numerous characters associated with the Beat Generation and subsequent counterculture movements. Jack Kerouac is rumored to have written part of On the Road there, and Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs also stayed at the Chelsea when visiting Manhattan in the fifties.

The focus of Lough’s book is not a general overview of the hotel’s colorful history; consequently, he passes over many of the famous names in favor of those who resided there in its final decades, and avoids recounting stories – such as the death of Nancy Spungen  – which have been told countless times before. Instead, after many years of painstaking research, Lough has managed to piece together a wonderful picture of the lives of some of the hotel’s famous latter-day guests. Of particular interest to the Beatdom reader will be the stories involving Herbert Huncke and Gregory Corso, parts of which were excerpted in issue eight of Beatdom. (For issue twelve, Beatdom contributor and author, Spencer Kansa, conducted an interview with Huncke at the Chelsea.)This Ain't No Holiday Inn

Throughout the book, Lough provides some wonderful descriptions of the building itself, which has come to mean so much to so many people. He refers to it as a “monstrous red brick eco-system of creativity.” The stories of artists sharing ideas and work with one another attest to this poetic phrasing. In these rooms, the exchange of songs was common, as poets and musicians drank and took copious amounts of illegal substances in one another’s “houses” (the rooms, Lough informs us, were more commonly referred to as “houses” despite their diminutive size).

Lough’s attitude towards the Chelsea’s owners – the Bard family – is somewhat negative, despite their fostering of artistic talent. Seemingly showing a phenomenal awareness of future trends, Stanley Bard famously accepted artwork in lieu of rent, yet Lough is quick to observe that much of what Bard accepted was worthless; and the hotel’s famous art-decked lobby is home to some truly awful pieces of work. He calls the collection “Awkwardian.”

In 2011, the Chelsea finally succumbed to the gentrification of New York and closed its doors to artists, gangsters, and Bohemian types, instead charging extortionate rates to more sophisticated clientele. Lough is scathing of this and appears to tie its demise to that of American Bohemia, and to a wider decline in creativity and culture throughout the Western world.

Despite this lament for the death of art, and the end of an important and productive era, Lough’s writing belies a true passion for this “beautiful old whore” of a building. His research is clearly a labor of love, and the book, while informative, is incredibly readable, thanks to his wit and a liberal dose of amusing stories that have otherwise been lost to history.


Buy the book: 


Summer Beat Reading

The summer of 2013 sees the release of yet more promising contributions to the field of Beat studies. In Beatdom #13 we will be reviewing each publication, but here is a little information for those of you who’re too eager to wait. Two of these books were written by Beat contributors, so we’re doubly excited about their release.


This Ain’t No Holiday Inn: Down and Out at the Chelsea Hotel 1980-1995

by James Lough

“During its heyday, the Chelsea Hotel in New York City was a home and safe haven for Bohemian artists, poets, and musicians such as Bob Dylan, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, and Dee Dee Ramone. This oral history of the famed hotel peers behind the iconic façade and delves into the mayhem, madness, and brilliance that stemmed from the hotel in the 1980s and 1990s. Providing a window into the late Bohemia of New York during that time, countless interviews and firsthand accounts adorn this social history of one of the most celebrated and culturally significant landmarks in New York City.”

Read our review:


Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture

by Simon Warner

“Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll explores the interaction between two of the most powerful socio-cultural movements in the post-war years – the literary forces of the Beat Generation and the musical energies of rock and its attendant culture.”


American Hipster: A Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement

by Hilary Holladay

“American Hipster: The Life of Herbert Huncke, The Times Square Hustler Who Inspired the Beat Movement tells the tale of a New York sex worker and heroin addict whose unrepentant deviance caught the imagination of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. Teetering between exhaustion and existential despair, Huncke (rhymes with “junky”) often said, “I’m beat, man.” His line gave Kerouac the label for a down-at-the-heels generation seeking spiritual sustenance as well as “kicks” in post-war America.”


Scientologist!: William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’

by David S. Wills

“Scientology is largely overlooked in major texts about the life and work of William S. Burroughs, author of some of the most notorious literature of the 20th century. Its importance in the creation of the Cut-up Method and Burroughs’ view of language as a virus is undermined by the omission of details regarding his interest in the religion over the course of a decade – certainly the most creatively fertile period of his life. Instead, biographers and critics tend to focus on his other obsessions in the realm of fringe science, and on the period during the early 1970s when Burroughs left the religion and began a public crusade against it.”


Herbert Huncke – Times Square Superstar

by Spencer Kansa.

 Spencer Kansa and Herbert Huncke London

I first met Herbert Huncke in the Spring of 1992, during a layover in New York, en route to visiting William Burroughs at his home in Lawrence, Kansas. Shortly after my Manhattan arrival, I received a phone call at my hotel from Burroughs’ consigliere, James Grauerholz, who graciously welcomed me to America. During our conversation, I joked how I’d been hanging around Times Square, looking for Huncke, figuring the guy was long gone by now, only for James to tip me off that, on the contrary, Huncke was very much alive and could be found playing poker most evenings at the Chelsea Hotel.

Naturally I was excited by the chance to meet this legendary catalyst to the Beats, and as I headed out from my Midtown hotel that evening, nightwalking the charged, narcotic streets, I felt high just from being on them. I was amazed by how deserted New York became at night, and the fact that you can walk entire blocks of the teeming metropolis – inhabited by over a million people – and not see a soul. The sidewalks fresh from a recent rain shower, glistening under the orange haze of street lights. The skyscrapers as broad and impressive as Robert Mitchum’s shoulders.


I eventually arrived at the Chelsea around ten, but when I asked after Huncke at the front desk I was told me that he hadn’t dropped by tonight, but I was free to wait for him in the front lobby on the chance that he would. I took a seat on the couch there and got talking to Nina, a spaced-out, Mogadon voiced broad who, I later learned, was one of the main drug connections in the place. Studying her puffy, heavily made-up face, I zeroed in on her staring eyes, which never once blinked as she ran through the gamut of famous names she’d met here.

Once Nina left, I passed the time surveying the art trophies on the wall and watching as the former Warhol actress Viva Superstar swanned out of the building, trailing domestic melodrama, before another Warhol acolyte, the dancer Victor Hugo, pirouetted in. I’d subsequently ask Huncke about Warhol, imagining he would’ve been an ideal candidate for the Pop artists’ rogues gallery of outsiders, but Herbert admitted that, when they met, he and Warhol hadn’t gotten along at all.

Over an hour passed and there was still no sign of Huncke but, eventually, a gambling gal pal of his, Linda Twigg, did show up and put me on the phone with him. My ears were soon greeted by a woebegone, Droopy Dog voice which, although mournful, had a strangely suggestive quality to it. After a pleasant back and to, we hooked it up to meet the next day.


At that time Huncke was living in a basement along a row of bombed-out brownstones on East 7th Street, in the furthermost wastelands of Alphabet City, a locale that got progressively more derelict the deeper you ventured into it. I tapped on the dusty window, as per instructions, and heard the man himself shuffling down the hallway. He was small and seemed pigeon-chested, and the hollow cheeks and drawn mouth of his gaunt face, billboarded a half-century heroin habit. But, it was true what they say, the smack really did seem to have suspended his ageing process. It wasn’t only his nice head of slicked back, chestnut brown hair that made you forget that this was man in his late70s. It was also his attire – blue jeans and a dark blue bomber jacket. In fact, he could’ve been Iggy Pop’s long lost father, something I would tease him about later. Herbert actually held out hopes of meeting the stage diving Stooge one day, but I don’t think anything ever come of it.

It was only my second day in New York, and I was already breaking bread with Herbert Huncke, a man who’s gritty autobiography read like a real life film noir. Celebrated by Beat historians as the vice-ridden Virgil who guided Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg through the nocturnal New York underworld of the 1940s: a demimonde of dark delights. The seasoned schmecker who administered Burroughs his first shot of morphine, whose plaintive expression of feeling beat – tired, exhausted and worn-out – was reinterpreted by Kerouac and transformed into the uplifting beatific spirit for their post-war generation.

The next seven hours spent in his company sped by in a cocaine-fuelled gabfest, as I lapped up the hard-won lore laid down by this wily, old street fox, who had spent the best part of sixty years doing whatever it took to survive. Huncke certainly lived up to his legend. I was treated to a personal reading and listened, enraptured, at his first-hand accounts of watching my heroine, Billie Holiday, crooning her heart out at Birdland. Or the yarns spun about his old partner in crime Phil White – AKA The Sailor in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch – and the trips they took abroad, including a memorable stopover in London just after the war.

Prompted by my name, Huncke recounted how he once had a black boyfriend called Spencer, who had worked for Gore Vidal and, on the subject of monikers, he reminisced how black pimps used to crack up when he told them his surname, because it sounded so similar to “honky.”

Unsurprisingly, given Huncke’s modus operandi, law and order was a recurring topic of conversation and, during our first encounter, he rapped about the Tompkins Square Park riots that broke out, four years earlier, when heavy-handed cops waded in to destroy the makeshift “tent city” that the homeless had established there. With vexation he described the sickening scenes of violence as cops cracked skulls with their billy clubs and made sure their badges were covered up so they couldn’t be identified and later prosecuted. Huncke then fished a handgun – a .45 – out of a trunk, which he kept as protection.

In the middle of our powwow, Huncke’s friend, Dimitri, showed up. He was also a musician, like myself, and came across as a soulful dude, with Andre Agassi eyes and gypsy features. Over more snorts, the newcomer brought up the controversy over the new Joe Camel advertisement campaign, and the two of them noted how the chain smoking camel’s cartoon face appeared redolent of both male and female genitalia, depending on how you looked at it.

I quizzed Herbert about his friendship with Burroughs and although suspicious of Burroughs’ sometimes waspish manner and caustic world view – “That’s just Bill being Bill”, he sniffed – whenever he spoke about his old confrère it was always in glowing terms. He considered Burroughs one of the worlds greatest writers and gave the impression that he felt both grateful and bemused to have been taken up, originally, as a streetwise fount of knowledge, by these budding literary lions. Before I left Huncke asked if I would pass on his new address to Bill when I met up with him, and I was happy to be used as a go-between,

In contrast to Burroughs’ mordant misanthropy, a bare-bones humanity poured out of Huncke’s own writing, and my favourite memories of him were when he’d read from one of his books, be it Huncke’s Journals, Guilty of Everything or The Evening Sun Turned Crimson. It was riveting listening to him recite his poignant, compassionate portraits of the often marginalised characters he had known in his life, such as the heart-rending story of Elsie John, a six and ½ foot tall hermaphrodite sideshow freak, who took the tenderfoot Huncke under her wing, and introduced him to the joys of junk. Huncke’s relationship with Elsie ended with her arrest and, on a chilling cliffhanger, the reader is left to imagine the fate worse than death that awaits the vulnerable androgyne, as she’s about to be thrown to the wolves in the prison bullpen.


Huncke wrote how, after taking a shot of heroin, he would close his eyes and his mind became absorbed with visions of people and places, past times and old faces. A vanishing world of vaudeville hotels leftover from the Wild West, and a sleazy backstreet bar in New Orleans, where a trick once paid him to watch as he balled a Negro whore. A compendium of folktales drawn from the underbelly of a lost America that was magically brought back to life in the pages of his memoirs, or passed on, via the oral tradition, at his private and public readings.

I especially enjoyed his descriptions of the opium dens he frequented in Chinatown back in the old days and, in common with all many users, Huncke could be a real sweetheart when he was smack sated, but the more he started jonesin’ for his next fix, the crankier he become. If left unassuaged, he could turn into a real crabby curmudgeon. But it all came with the territory. Huncke possessed an incredible metabolism. He remains the only guy I’ve ever met in my life who would do cocaine to get some sleep! Like Burroughs, he railed against the evil and idiocy of drug prohibition and the phoney war on drugs, and similarly blamed their demonisation on an ignorant and histrionic media. He had earned his insights.


Born in 1915, in Greenfield, Massachusetts, but raised in the middle class environs of Chicago, Huncke was barely in his teens when he fled his broken home and all the restrictions it placed upon him. He set out, like a depression era Huck Finn, armed only with a cigar box containing a toothbrush; a razor, a handkerchief and a clean pair of socks. Seeking peace of mind, and possessed with a wanderlust to explore the country, he hit the road, hitchhiking and riding the rails with hobos across all 48 American states.

Under the tutelage of Runyonesque reprobates, he engaged in prostitution and low level larceny – nefarious misadventures that provided him with two pivotal experiences in life – his first joint and his first blow job. Although he could enjoy such hedonistic pleasures while he was still honing his street wits, the outlaw life was a precarious business, and one disastrous nights stay in Los Angeles culminated in an arrest that left him with a lifelong loathing for The City of Angels.

New York, on the other hand, was a different matter, and it was there, in 1939. that Huncke’s wayfaring came to end. Nestled in the bohemian bosom of the Big Apple, he felt a true sense of belonging at last and, for the first time in his life, he could walk around 42nd Street and hold his head up high.

Living the hard knock life of a junkie and petty criminal extorted a terrible price though, and the consequences of his risky choices meant he had to endure the long drawn-out misery of serving time in such brutal hell holes as Sing Sing. It was while incarcerated that he learned that the difference between a faggot and a street hustler like himself was: “A faggot is everyone’s property.”


In the autumn of 1994, Huncke flew into London to undertake a short reading tour in promotion of his books and a new spoken word CD: From Dream to Dream. We hung out while he was in town and I visited him again in New York that Christmas. By then he was ensconced at the Chelsea Hotel, having moved there that summer following the tragic death of his ace boon buddy, Louis Cartwright, who was stabbed to death during a street fight in the East Village, reportedly over panhandled money.

Huncke was living in room 828, a tiny shoebox of a room with a single cot, a sink and a window view of neighbouring rooftops and apartments. His rent paid at the charitable behest of those psychedelic sons of beatniks, The Grateful Dead. Although he was, by then, the only interesting person left in this obscenely overpriced roach pit, Huncke confided that the hotel management didn’t like him, and when I enquired why he sighed, “I’m not good for business.”

The final time I visited Herbert at the Chelsea, he’d just returned from the Kerouac Festival in Lowell, where he had read alongside Patti Smith. A framed poster, picturing the two of them, hung proudly on his wall. Huncke was also basking in the latter-day glory being bestowed upon him by the Whitney Museum, who treated him as a VIP guest at their Beat Culture and The New America retrospective.

It was great to see Huncke getting some legitimate recognition at last. Herbert and Louis, a deeply affecting documentary, directed by Laki Vazakas, was already in the pipeline, and Huncke had recently been interviewed by the BBC for a TV documentary on the pioneering sexologist Doctor Alfred Kinsey, who, back in the mid-40s, had paid Huncke to solicit the colourful denizens of Times Square, (including Burroughs and Ginsberg), to be interviewed for his groundbreaking report into The Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male.

Typically, the book publishers waited until after Huncke’s death to release his collected works. A crying shame, as Huncke could have sorely used that moolah while alive, but, alas, the old adage about how the best work is worth most after the workman can’t be paid, followed him to the crematorium.


One of my lasting memories of Huncke dates from that period. It occurred the night before I flew home to London, and he begged me for a favour. Herbert had an appointment at the methadone clinic the next day and asked if I could supply a sample of my urine for him to take there, as his was bastardised with traces of smack, coke and God knows what else! I was clean at the time and more than happy to lend a, ahem, hand. In fact, it was a dubious honour.

Huncke always used the sink in his room to take a slash, but I passed on that and went to the john at the end of the landing. After I presented him with the beaker of pure piss, Huncke gave me a peck on the lips and promised to call me in the morning before I left for my flight. It was then, as I was descending the staircase, that the screwy thought hit me: God! I hope that is what he’s using it for. I sure hope he’s not guzzlin’ it!

Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg

Gina & Ginsberg

“Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg”
at the Grey Art Gallery New York University

January 15 – April 6, 2013, New York, NY
By GK Stritch

“Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg” at the Grey Art Gallery New York University are familiar to those acquainted with the Beats, iconic photos that have been seen by the world. However, to view them closely and inscribed in Ginsberg’s open, curious hand makes them personal: welcome to the Beat family photo album. The eighty or so framed black-and-white photos include Louis and Edith Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Carl Solomon, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Peter Orlovsky, Herbert E. Huncke, Gregory Corso, Bob Dylan, Wavy Gravy, and shopping cart street prophet. Oh, yes, and Madonna, Allen was on the world stage. The descriptions are a delight: “Neal Cassady with cigarette young & vigorous age 29 with salesman.” About Jack Kerouac: “He’s making a Dostoyevsky mad-face or Russian basso be-bop om…” “We used to wander dockside under Manhattan’s bridges & thru truck parking lots along East River singing rawbone blues, Leadbelly’s “Black Girl” or Eli, Eli…” And there’s the famous photo with Ferlinghetti and Beats in front of City Lights, and Neal with his “love of that year…” the year is 1955. The photos span the smiling, dark-haired young Allen on the Lower East Side, the years of travel from Tangier to the Sea of Japan to Moscow, and the elder Ginsberg. There are many happy photos of youth, but the saddest one is Jack’s last visit to 704 East Fifth Street.
The exhibit features four display cases of original letters, manuscript pages, and first-edition books.
Show runs from January 15 – April 6, 2013

Herbert Huncke at Cafe Nico

Another Huncke video! And why not. The man is a delight to listen to. Thanks to Laki Vazakas for the link.


The Beat Rap Sheet

Beat Generation Newspaper Clipps

But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality … woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls … woe in fact unto those who those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! … woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back. — Jack Kerouac

The core of the Beat Generation – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – have often been castigated as privileged kids who slummed it for kicks, essentially pretending to join a lower-class in order to gain something to complain about in their writing. Yet at the height of their fame, there were many who considered them a genuine threat to the morality of America’s youth.

It is certainly true that Burroughs came from a higher social class, and that all of them were superficially enthralled at times, with the criminal underworld; and each of them gained a criminal record in the course of creating a literary movement that was mired in murder and drug use. Most famously, they explored the seedy Times Square scene, celebrating people like career-criminal, Herbert Huncke. In their books, these people became the downtrodden heroes of the street. Petty crime was celebrated, and drugs venerated as an essential component of being hip and having a good time. As a consequence, the Beats became vilified in the press, and their image forever connected to the criminal.

But they were no angels, that’s for sure. Burroughs, the eldest and purportedly the wisest of the Beats, grew up with a sense of alienation and rejection that caused him to seek people with whom he shared something in common. For him, that was an attachment to the criminal underground that he gleaned through reading. Most notably, he took his inspiration from Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, which portrayed a strong set of ethics as existing among criminals, in stark contrast to the morally corrupt code followed by the law.

As a boy his parents had sent him off to the Los Alamos Ranch School, where the spoiled sons of America’s elite were toughened up and turned into real men. Burroughs, however, took the chance to experiment with chloral hydrate, a drug which nearly proved fatal, and landed him in hospital. This was also during Prohibition, and he was picked up by the police whilst drunk.Burroughs Kills Wife Newspaper

Burroughs’ psychiatrist, during his early days in New York, referred to his patient in journals as a “gangsterling,” due to the man’s seemingly infantile preoccupation with criminals. Burroughs was fantasizing about robbing Turkish baths and armored trucks, with ludicrously devised plans that would never come to pass.

His real entry to the world of crime came through the friend of a boyfriend, who had a gun he wanted to sell. This was also Burroughs’ first dabbling in hard drugs; along with the gun, came a large quantity of morphine. Burroughs relished the opportunity to sell these items and make shady acquaintances, although he never did sell the gun, and took most of the morphine himself.

The men to whom Burroughs attempted this first arms deal were Phil White and Herbert Huncke. They were experienced criminals and, as Burroughs had hoped, his entry to the underworld. Through these men, Burroughs also met Vickie Russell, “Little Jack” Melody, and Bill Garver, three more criminals who bore striking resemblances to the sort of characters Burroughs adored from You Can’t Win.

When Kerouac and Ginsberg met the man who would become their mentor and friend, he charmed and humbled them with gifts of classic literature. He expanded their minds with poetry and literature and philosophy, and he quoted Shakespeare at length. Yet Burroughs was presently more enamored with pulp crime novels. He was greatly taken by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose gritty depictions of urban violence meshed with his own observations.

Like Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg were looking for experiences that they would not find in their coursework at Columbia University. They wanted their minds opened, and in addition to the books Burroughs bestowed upon them, they soon found themselves sampling various illegal substances, and hanging around with criminal types like Huncke. They never delved as deeply as Burroughs, but nonetheless the experiences were formative.

Perhaps the biggest crime in Beat history, and certainly the best documented, was the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr. Carr was a precocious and obnoxious student. He had known Burroughs in Chicago and became friends with Ginsberg in New York. Kammerer, a much older man, whom Burroughs knew from St. Louis, had an infatuation for Carr that caused him to follow the young man around America. It all ended with Carr stabbing Kammerer in self-defense and rolling his body into the Hudson River.

Carr ran to Burroughs for help, and Burroughs told his friend to turn himself in with the support of a good lawyer. Carr then went to Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the remaining evidence. For their troubles, both Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Carr eventually followed Burroughs’ advice and turned himself in. Burroughs’ parents, in what was becoming quite a predictable pattern, came to bail him out, while Kerouac languished in jail, having a somewhat less wealthy and forgiving family.

Despite Carr’s protestations, the event was documented or at least referenced throughout Beat history. Most memorably, it was the subject of Kerouac and Burroughs’ chapter-by-chapter collaborative effort, And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks. In Burroughs’ chapters, the influence of his crime fiction reading is far more apparent than elsewhere in his oeuvre.

Kerouac mugshotBurroughs was spiraling into the criminal world. With Phil White he was robbing drunks on the subway who sometimes woke and turned violent. Eventually White was sent down for killing a man with Burroughs’ gun. Fortunately, as it turned out, Burroughs was picked up for forging a prescription, and the judge sent him home to St. Louis, where his parents attempted to keep him out of trouble.

With Burroughs’ departure, the group was falling apart. Critical female Beat, Joan Vollmer, broke down from amphetamine abuse and was taken to Bellevue Mental Hospital, Huncke was arrested for possession and went to prison, and Ginsberg escaped back to his father’s house. Then the arrival of another career criminal came, one who would take Huncke’s place as inspiration to the Beats: Neal Cassady. Besides, between stints in prison, Huncke’s selfish and compulsive criminality was wearing on the patience of everyone, including Ginsberg, whose things he stole and pawned.

Cassady grew up on the streets of Denver. The legends around him are myriad, thanks to Kerouac’s mythologizing, but he appears to have been a legendary car thief and womanizer, who knew how to have a good time. He was first picked up by the police at seven, stole his first car at fourteen, and did six stretches in prison for auto theft by the time he appeared on the Beat scene.

Back in St. Louis, Burroughs met his old friend, Kells Elvins, and together they moved to Texas as farmers. Burroughs attempted to grow opium and marijuana with limited success. He moved from South Texas to East Texas to Louisiana, always in search of the freedom of the frontier, but he never found it. Instead, he was arrested for fornicating by the side of the road, and picked up for riding in a car with a known junky. The police raided his home and found his letters to Ginsberg, containing numerous references to drugs. He was looking at several years in the notorious Angola Prison, so he skipped the border and settled in Mexico City, where the next big Beat crime would occur.

At this time, Ginsberg’s New York apartment was being used by Huncke and Vickie Russell to store stolen goods. Ginsberg became understandably paranoid that the police would raid his apartment, and wanted the goods out. Carr was also furious that his name was included in letters between Ginsberg and Burroughs, as he was now out of prison for the Kammerer murder, and eager to keep his name clean. These letters also contained incriminating references to homosexuality, and so Ginsberg wanted to be rid of them, too.

When Ginsberg enlisted the help of Russell’s boyfriend, Melody, to help move the stolen goods and letters from his apartment, Jack appeared in a stolen car. They loaded it up and headed out, but soon after they were pulled over for making an illegal turn and a high-speed chase occurred. Ginsberg escaped but his letters led the police right to his door, and he was locked up until his father bailed him out.

In Mexico City, Burroughs railed against the tyranny of the American government, and praised the freedom that came with living in Mexico, where the police would leave you alone, and if they did have cause to pick you up, they could easily be bribed. Here he wrote Junky, his first novel. It loosely fictionalized his life as a criminal, from his childhood obsession to his life as an addict.

It was there in 1951 he shot Joan Vollmer, now his common law wife, above the Bounty bar whilst attempting to sell a handgun. Although details have always been disputed, it appears they were playing a game of William Tell and the bullet flew too low.  Burroughs spent thirteen days in jail before his brother arrived and bailed him out. His lawyer managed to bribe the ballistics expert and the witnesses, friends of Burroughs, corroborated his story that it was an accidental discharge. Burroughs was sentenced to probation, which meant checking in at the police station once a week. Instead, he fled to Europe and ended up in Tangier, where he was once again on heroin, and thankful for the lack of police intervention in his life.

The year 1951 also saw the completion of Kerouac’s On the Road, a chronicle of his travels across America and into Mexico. The book was not published for another six years, when Viking Press released it in 1957, and the Beat Generation exploded into infamy.

Public sentiment towards those who now became known as “Beatniks” turned decidedly sour. Kerouac’s use of pseudonyms caused him a spot of trouble, but most of it fell on the head of Neal Cassady, whose sudden fame as Dean Moriarty resulted in his 1958 arrest for marijuana possession. He was sentenced to five years in San Quentin.

Neal Cassady mugshot

Two years earlier, Ginsberg had read his seminal poem, “Howl,” and electrified the poetry community. It was picked up in the same year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for City Lights Books,’ Pocket Poets Series. In 1957, the same year On the Road sparked a backlash against the Beat youth of America, Shigeyoshi Murao, legendary manager of City Lights, was arrested; more than five hundred copies of Howl and Other Poems were impounded on their way from London. An obscenity trial ensued, and the poem was judged “not obscene.”


Ginsberg shocked the literary community by abandoning San Francisco and moving to Paris, to take residence in what became known as the Beat Hotel. Soon he was living with Burroughs and Gregory Corso, and numerous other artists and writers. It was here that Burroughs’ classic, Naked Lunch, was edited and published, having been written mostly in Tangiers. Published in 1959, the book made its way to the United States slowly, relying on word of mouth. By 1962 it was banned, resulting in the second Beat obscenity trial. This time, however, it took significantly longer to convince the judge, and it was only in 1966 that Naked Lunch could legally be sold in the U.S.

By now the youthful exuberance of the Beats had waned as Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac mellowed with age. Ginsberg’s championing of various freedoms and support for protests throughout the sixties caused him to continually come face-to-face with the police in America and other countries. In 1965 he was deported from both Cuba and Czechoslovakia because of his homosexuality and perceived trouble-making. After the publication of On the Road, Kerouac became closer to his mother and spent much of his time at home, more or less out of trouble. Even Burroughs, the most criminally-inclined of the Beats, more or less kept out of trouble for his remaining years. He had always sought his own space in life away from the control of police and the government, and aside from continual searches at the airport, he was largely able to avoid the law.




This essay first appeared in Beatdom #12. You can purchase it on Kindle or in paperback.