Martin Torgoff’s Bop Apocalypse (not to be confused with the similarly titled The Bop Apocalypse, by John Lardas) attempts to bring together the stories of drugs, jazz, racial identity, and Beat literature. It is a bold and fascinating book, which mostly succeeds in its aim. Continue Reading…
Archives For jazz
The Beat Generation found itself mystified by the black culture of the time. This mystification granted them agency in manifesting their deepest desires of free-flowing sexuality in what they observed from the black people with which they surrounded themselves. Associating themselves with black people allowed them to further their performance as “The Hipster” or the “White Negro.” The very idea of being “beat” implies a white desire to be black and participate in black cultural norms, such as a wider acceptance of sexuality and jazz, instead of those set by white society, which was more mainstream. Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road romanticizes black culture in this regard. However, Hettie Jones’ 1990 memoir How I Became Hettie Jones emphasizes different aspects of black life through her interracial relationship, which shows a new vision on the Beats’ desire to be black. How I Became Hettie Jones reinterprets Kerouac’s On the Road by demystifying the romanticization of his white desire to be “Negro.” Continue Reading…
“If two things are two sides of the same coin, they are very closely related although they seem different”
– The Cambridge Dictionary
As one might guess, the name of the world’s most successful (Hotten) band in history – the Beatles – does not completely incidentally sound so similar to that of the influential group of writers that called themselves the Beat Generation. What one might not guess, however, is how manifold and deeply rooted their connections are.
It must be said from the outset that there are multiple stories surrounding the origin of the Beatles’ name. Stuart Sutcliffe, the so-called ‘fifth Beatle’, who was a study friend of John Lennon and only a part of the first beginnings of what would later become the Beatles, suggested they call themselves ‘the Beatals’ in January 1960, as a tribute to the then famous rock ‘n’ roll band Buddy Holly and the Crickets. In the months that followed this name changed to ‘the Silver Beetles’ (May), ‘the Silver Beatles’ (July), and eventually ‘the Beatles’ (August) (Lewisohn 18-22). John Lennon himself in 1961, before their enormous success came about, already rejected every notion of a ‘meaning’ behind the name:
Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’’. Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.
(qtd. in Coupe 131) Continue Reading…
“I want to be considered a jazz poet . . .” i
Don’t miss Mark Murphy’s 1981 recording “Bop for Kerouac.”ii
Jack loved jazz and wanted to be known as a jazz poet. Highly-acclaimed American jazz vocalist Mark Murphy will take you for a luxurious spin with this beautiful recording, a rich tribute to Kerouac and the music he adored. It’s gorgeous jazz—silky smooth and pure as a pure jazz singer or a pure man jazz poet—and Murphy puts Jack’s writings to splendid use with his eloquent vocals. All you need to do is listen, and he’ll do the rest with his vocalese. If you enjoy good music, and classic Kerouac, you will enjoy this sophisticated recording. As Duke Ellington said, “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”
The record has eight tracks and features Murphy reading from The Subterraneans “ . . . we went to the Red Drum to hear the jazz which that night was Charlie Parker . . . the king and founder of the bop generation . . . ” and On the Road “Dean, ragged in a moth-eaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone . . . ,” which are incorporated into tracks three and eight. The track titles might tempt you to indulge: “Be-Bop Lives (Boplicity),” “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” “Parker’s Mood,” “You Better Go Now,” “You’ve Proven Your Point (Bongo Beep),” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Down St. Thomas Way,” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.”
Read the linear notes that relate great Beat moments, especially publisher Jay Landesman’s recollection of an encounter Jack had with bandleader Artie Shaw at Birdland while listening to Lester Young. Jack wanted to do his clarinet imitation for Shaw, but Shaw wanted to talk about literature. Did the sad young men have fun? Sure they did.
i Kerouac, Jack. Mexico City Blues. (New York: Grove Press, 1994).
ii Mark Murphy with Richie Cole, “Bop for Kerouac,”1981. CD.
By Kurt Kline
In the poetry of Bob Kaufman, the poet is the healer, journeying down into the underworld of the American psyche in order to heal the wounds of racism, capitalist exploitation, and war. If Kaufman is, as many critics have suggested, a shaman, it is perhaps most properly in the tradition of Hoodoo, which employs music as a mode of otherworldly transport or to facilitate trance states. If Kaufman recuperates the bizarre dreamscape and linguistic paradox of the ancient shaman’s song, however, these elements have now been transplanted to alien, perhaps even hostile, Western cultural climes. I examine George Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead to demonstrate more clearly Kaufman’s position as mispositioned shaman-healer of the postmodern age.
Although there is no single moment when modernism ended and postmodernism began, the period around WWII can be seen as a time of great transformation. The European avant-garde movement dispersed not only bodily to the far corners of the globe, but spiritually, as a functional vehicle of liberation. But after the war another generation arose. Allen Ginsberg seems to bridge the gaping chasm torn by the war in the middle of twentieth century American and European literature when he gives Ezra Pound a ritual spanking at St. Elizabeth’s hospital. The Beats represented a new way of configuring self, art, and world. The postmodern artist was no longer a priest of culture, but an actual enemy of the state. Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Lenny Bruce were brought to trial on obscenity charges; Carl Solomon was locked in a madhouse; Bob Kaufman was repeatedly jailed. Beat writers were fighting on the side of the imagination in a war that threatened to strip America of her soul. “The war that matters is the war against the imagination,” Diane Di Prima declares in her poem “Rant”: “All other wars are subsumed by it.” The artist became not a high priest but a culture worker, working within the mythos of the American legend to undermine its insistence on collective conformity, on homogenization of spiritual experience.
The Beats accomplish this in their poetry through the juxtaposition of elements of American mainstream popular culture (its film stars and political figures, its movies, popular myths, and songs) with elements which threatened to revolutionize and perhaps fundamentally undermine it: jazz, blues, Eastern and Western mysticism, Zen, and psychedelic drugs. When Bob Kaufman used the word Beat to describe the poetics that he and his friends were engaged in inventing, it may well have been in reference to the beat of the shaman’s drum, which propels its listeners into the Otherworld. Certainly the Beat poetics seems to recapitulate, within the changing landscape of American popular culture after WWII, the liminal poetics originating from the shaman’s song. Ginsberg writes of the madness and schizophrenia of the artist and of his country. Michael McClure’s Ghost Tantra poems GRRRR and GRRRARH their way through a secret language of the animals, filling up the dadaspace of emptiness with new possibilities of meaning. In Bob Kaufman’s art, the poet is the healer, journeying down into the underworld of the American psyche in order to discover the source of and cure to the homicidal madness that Poe, the father of American culture, had intuited as somehow an inherent part of our national consciousness.
Jewish and Black, sane and insane, Kaufman inhabits liminal space in many ways. In the eyes of mainstream 1950’s culture he is criminal, schizophrenic, the rebel, the outsider. But from the point of view of the poets, the musicians, the artists of North Beach and Paris, Kaufman is unbelievably inside, inside inside, showing the workings of the creative mind as it contorts to adapt itself to the restraints imposed by consensus consciousness. Taking into account the ancient poetics of the shaman’s song we are in an excellent position to understand the precise relationship between the poetry of this “screamer on lonely poet corners” and modern culture.
There is in the first place an inherent connection between the shaman’s song and jazz. Jazz grows out of a cultural aesthetic which places a different valuation on shamanic experience than does the European model. The African slaves brought to the new world were only recently and perhaps dubiously converted to Christianity. They preserved their old gods and shamanic customs in folktales, music and art, and, as blues musician and author, Julio Finn observes, “the Priest or Medicine Man was the chief surviving institution that the African slaves brought with them.” Elements of the Yoruba religion survived in Hoodoo and Voodoo on the bayou and elsewhere as the African witch doctor became the Root Doctor, Obi, Vodun, Wangaleur, the Hootchie-Cootchie Man or Woman. Although Kaufman did not, to the best of my knowledge, receive formal shamanic initiation at the crossroads, as perhaps was the case, as Finn demonstrates, with blues great Robert Johnson, the poet would nevertheless have been quite aware of the Hoodoo tradition, being raised in Louisiana and the environs of New Orleans. In the Hoodoo tradition, music is a key element of spirituality, and opens a channel of communication between man and loa. Kaufman writes about, as I fancy, his younger days in New Orleans, and some of the music that he heard there in the following terms:
Orleans… New Orleans… the bend in the river cleaves to the sky…
…the flowers are still up there on that wall, stem, petal, all,
Their roots playing the silences, between
Feeding pongee petals to soft breezes, flying in darting wonder.
Olatunji Babatunde is the Nigerian drummer whose 1960 album Drums of Passion was so influential on John Coltrane. “Babatunde’s drumbeats” are in clear reference to the African tribal tradition in which rhythm is the soul of life, the source of all human and universal action. Kaufman’s poetry grows out of be-bop, which is integrally linked to this intuition as well as to the struggle of African-Americans for individual and political liberation and the recovery of authentic spiritual experience. Kaufman’s improvisatory, spontaneous, oral poetics, like be-bop, is rooted in spiritual insights deriving from African tribal traditions.
…I DREAMED I DREAMED AN AFRICAN DREAM, MY HEAD WAS A
BONY GUITAR, STRUNG WITH TONGUES, & PLUCKED BY GOLD
FEATHERED WINGLESS MOONDRIPPED RITUALS UNDER A MIDNIGHT SUN, DRUMMING HUMAN BEATS FROM THE HEART OF AN EBONY GODDESS, HUMMING THE MELODIES OF BEING FROM STONE TO BONE AND FROM SAND ETERNAL…
Kaufman’s jazz rhythms set to words hurl the listener into the Otherworld even as does the shaman’s drum. His poetry is truly “Beat” in the sense that it is concerned with and expressive of the shaman’s primal rhythm.
In Kaufman’s poetry will be recognized features of the shaman’s song. The poet’s surrealistic juxtapositions of imagery call to mind the illogical, unnatural images of the shaman, expressive of the bizarre dreamscape of the shamanic Otherworld, a realm of impossible existences, of linguistic paradoxes. To express the liminal reality of the Otherworld the shaman employs a secret animal or nonsense language. Kaufman expresses the inexpressible through linguistic paradox and through the secret language of jazz. Kaufman’s poet moves across “AN UNIMAGINARY LANDSCAPE THAT EXISTS IN A REAL, UNREAL WORLD,” populated by strange “UNBEINGS.” The location of this liminal reality is somewhere, as Kaufman has written,
…BETWEEN BETWEEN, BEHIND BEHIND, IN FRONT OF FRONT, BELOW BELOW, ABOVE ABOVE, INSIDE INSIDE, OUTSIDE OUTSIDE, CLOSE TO CLOSE, FAR FROM FAR, MUCH FARTHER THAN FAR, MUCH CLOSER THAN CLOSE, ANOTHER SIDE OF AN OTHER SIDE…
The shaman’s otherworldly journey is recapitulated by Kaufman both in terms of the underworld descent in “THE POET” and a flight into “crackling blueness” in “Ancient Rain.” Such shamanic visitations are common in Kaufman’s oeuvre. “I have walked on my walls each night/Through strange landscapes inside my head,” he writes in “Would You Wear My Eyes?” In “Slight Alterations” he writes:
I climb a red thread
To an unseen existence,
Broken free, somewhere,
Beyond the belts
The purpose of these otherworldly travels is always for Kaufman to redeem suffering through love. In “Plea” he enjoins the “Voyager, wanderer of the heart” to “Seek and find Hiroshima’s children/ Send them back, send them back.” The poet must retrieve the lost and mangled souls of the new atomic age. The poet is the shaman of the culture, who must remember the truth of the nearness of death to us all, and how interconnected our lives are with all the other beings on this planet.
Finally, Kaufman’s poetics conforms to that of the shaman’s song in situating itself as an instrument of healing. Kaufman sings the “song of the broken giraffe,” the “nail in the foot song,” to bring back as if from some quagmire of Hell America’s very soul, ripped from it by greed and warfare and held in thrall by a vast brainwashing apparatus. In “The Ancient Rain” Kaufman writes:
At the illusion world that has come into existence of world that exists secretly, as meanwhile the humorous Nazis on television will not be as laughable, but be replaced by silent and blank TV screens.
The poet exposes the hypocrisy around him and dispels the illusion that has been foisted on the populace, the false myth which asserts there is a single, unitary and unchanging truth. The Ancient Rain is coming to remind everyone of the necessity of change. “The Ancient Rain splits nations that have died in the Ancient Rain…so that they can see the culture of the living dead they have become.” But if everything falls apart it also comes back together again in the Ancient Rain. It falls like balm from the sky, and brings retribution.
The Ancient Rain wets my face and I am freed from hatreds of me that disguise themselves with racist bouquets. The Ancient Rain has moved me to another world, where the people stand still and the streets moved me to destination. I look down on the earth and I see myself wandering in the Ancient Rain, ecstatic, aware that the death I see around me is in the hands of the Ancient Rain and those who plan death for me and dreams are known to the Ancient Rain…silent, humming raindrops of the Ancient Rain.
Kaufman is a visionary in the sense implied by Jonathan Swift when he writes, “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” But if Kaufman has a faith in his vision’s veracity and sagacity that rivals Blake’s, he nevertheless experiences vision in every bit the problematic manner of tortured Sioux shaman Black Elk. There is a burden to seeing for Kaufman, even as there was for the Sioux visionary. “I see the death some cannot see, because I am a poet, spread-eagled on the bone of the world.” In “African Dream” he experiences as a sort of racial memory the pain of seeing the slave ships that ripped Africans from their homes. As he sees it, he lives through the horror of it: “Green screams enfold my night.” The source of the poet’s purity, his legacy, is his suffering. He sees more deeply because he has to. Suffering is transmuted through the magic of poetry into a medicine or sacred herb. In this, Kaufman closely follows Rimbaud’s seer in seeking alchemical refinement of the soul and distillation of a universal balm such as that sought by the Rosicrucians. Kaufman hails Rimbaud as “brilliant maniac,” and “desert turtle” – in an apparent reference to the hexagonal patterned tortoise backs upon which the I Ching is based – and describes the two writers – himself and the French seer-poet –as
Remnants of neo-classical witch doctors
hurling jagged missives of flame-sheeted bone,
affecting space cures, on curved people…
Implicit in seeing for Kaufman is a deeply rooted social conscience. The grim tattoo of the beat-walker’s nightstick on Kaufman’s body becomes a watchword for seekers of life’s mystery everywhere.
Perhaps the most comprehensive, touching and absurd rendering of Kaufman’s poetic is his “Abomunist Manifesto.” In his Abomunist writings, Kaufman launches a humorous but at the same time radical critique of the mainstream American culture. Distorted scenes of American life as filtered through the media weave through Kaufman’s “Abomnewscast…On the Hour…”
America collides with iceberg piloted by Lindbergh baby… Aimee Semple Macpherson, former dictator of California, discovered in voodoo nunnery disguised as Moby Dick… New hit sweeping the country, the Leopold & Loeb Cha-cha-cha…
This is the real news, “sponsored by your friendly neighborhood Abomunist,” a collaging of media items which reveals the absurdity and yet the morbidity of American life. “Remember your national emergency signal, when you see one small mushroom cloud and three large ones, it is not a drill, turn the TV set off and get under it,” Kaufman’s Abomnewscaster advises us, juxtaposing the traditional healing, transformative, shamanic symbol of the mushroom with the destructive mushroom cloud of the atomic bomb. Standing counter to the Puritan work ethic, the beatnik poet cultivates a Zen-inspired uselessness. “In times of national peril, Abomunists, as reality Americans, stand ready to drink themselves to death for their country,” Kaufman declares, only half-jokingly. In other words, the Abomunist opts out. “The only office Abomunists run for is the unemployment office.” They will have nothing to do with the system. “Abomunists vote against everyone by not voting for anyone.” The Abomunist philosophy is essentially rejectionary. “Abomunists reject everything except snowmen,” Kaufman writes, meaning presumably that the Beats reject a puritanical mindset that subjugates everything to the degree to which it can be exploited. The Abomunist refuses to grow up, to conform to societal expectations, and privileges a child’s sense of play which is painfully at odds with the suffering he sees around him. The Abomunist is further linked by pun to the Abominable Snowman, a dubious creature inhabiting precisely the liminal region between known and unknown, between the possible and the impossible. The fusing of wonder and horror, miracle and sham, are perfectly captured in the monster Yeti. The Abomunist suggests the possibility of seeing the sham and stepping away from the brainwashing machine at the same time as staying attuned to the miraculous. But here is the difficulty. The poet has seen too much of the world’s suffering. “Long forgotten Indian tribes fight battles” on his chest. As reportedly did the Buddha when he attained enlightenment, the poet feels the cut earthworm’s pain as his own. Like the shaman, the poet has journeyed to the source of the pain in order to affect a cure. But will he make it back in one piece?
In “Still Further Notes Dis- & Re- Garding Abomunism” Kaufman presents us with a curious document, supposedly a translation of the Live Sea Scrolls, “one of the oldest Abomunist documents yet discovered.” Kaufman’s story of a beatnik Jesus is perhaps, as Damon suggests, inspired by the Lord Buckley routine “The Naz.” For all its humor, however, its characterization of Jesus seems analogous to the Jesus in Gnostic workings of the Jesus myth found in Nag Hammadi Library. In “The Dialogue of the Savior,” for instance, Jesus says:
Already the time has come, brothers, for us to abandon our labor and stand at rest. For whoever stands at rest will rest forever. And I say to you be always above…time…
Like Kaufman’s Abomunist poet, Jesus is telling his disciples to opt out of the system. The Gnostic Jesus is more rebellious and more paradoxical than the Jesus presented in the canonized gospels. He’s more the rogue and scoundrel of Bruno’s estimation. Kaufman’s Jesus reports:
Nazareth getting too hot, fuzz broke up two of my poetry readings last night. Beat vagrancy charge by carrying my toolbox to court–carpenters O.K. Splitting to Jeru. as soon as I get wheels.
Kaufman’s satire of the last few days of Christ’s life imagines Christ as a poet at odds with the conventions of society. In identifying the poet with Christ, Kaufman demonstrates the shamanic impulse in the postmodern era. Christ is the archetypal symbol of the shaman, the healer of physical and spiritual pain, the mediator between worlds. Although Christ’s image is valorized, however, the actual point of his message is often lost, and many who claim to believe in him would still consider his philosophy and actions impractical. But the Abomunist is the very master of impracticality. The drag of the thing is if one wants to be Jesus, one sooner or later must get crucified. And so our beatnik poet does – but it’s out of the pain of this crucifixion that a beatification of the poetry occurs.
Kaufman continues the lineage of shaman-Gnostic visionaries we have been tracing. Gnostic philosophy is embedded in his work. The poet is nailed to the bone of the world – imprisoned in matter. He “HIDES IN A JUNGLE OF WRECKED CLOCKS” and asks, “What time is it going to be?” He rejects time altogether and lives instead among “days and weeks/ That cannot be found on any calendar” and “hours and minutes unknown to the clock.” The Gnostic call for freedom from the Demiurge and his minions becomes in Kaufman’s oeuvre a call for liberation for all sentient beings from the retrogressive spiritual, mental and political forces that bind them.
A significant feature of postmodernism, as Marjorie Perloff has observed, is its pastiche of and commentary upon the mediated world – the texts and sounds and pictures that make up the mythological life of our culture. But although Kaufman joins the offices of poet/culture worker with that of entertainer à la Lord Buckley or Lenny Bruce, his attitude toward film has less the zaniness of John Ashbery’s “Daffy Duck in Hollywood,” or the celebratory irony of Frank O’Hara’s “To the Film Industry in Crisis,” but more of a problem that comes out of Kaufman’s understanding of the role of seeing for the poet. Although many of his poems make mention of movie stars and filmic characters, ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Shirley Temple to the Wizard of Oz, Kaufman salutes Hollywood as the “artistic cancer of the universe” and holds the movie industry culpable for the brainwashing of America, to whom war is made a possibility and all record of genocide erased. On the other hand, he uses cinematic motifs and structures to re-write the brainwashing script, to reveal, by exaggerating the lie, the truth that lies behind it..
Kaufman’s filmic genre of preference seems to be the horror movie. He writes humorously of Dracula star Bela Lugosi and describes his Carl Chessman film script as “a horror movie to be shot with eyes.” That the horror movie has played such a pre-eminent role in defining the American cultural landscape says a lot about a tension that is held between us and the natural realm, especially as this is accessed through shamanic praxis. The lycanthropy and vampirism that are mainstays of horror cinema can be looked at as remnants – twisted recuperations – of the transformation into animals undergone by shamans in the séance setting. Dr. Frankenstein employs the theories of Mesmer –themselves thinly disguised recuperations of shamanic wisdom – to reanimate the dead. Poe invented American culture when he invented the horror story, the horror-madness of guilt over having gotten away with it. We got away with it. We slaughtered the American Indians. We enslaved Africans. We decimated Hiroshima. We conquered Afghanistan and Iraq. And we’ve wreaked evo-havoc on the Black Lagoon in which, in sunnier days, that strange amphibious creature used to play – before a seemingly oblivious John Agar poisoned him, set him on fire, shot at, speared, and caged him before blowing up his lagoon entirely. But now we have the dues to pay, and we’re afraid, very, very afraid. What is the horror movie if not this primal fear – the fear of some lurking remnant of ourselves, still unresolved, that might intrude itself in all its hideousness upon our pleasantly numbed state? The murdered dead don’t stay buried, but have a way of turning into zombies, or ghosts, or ghouls.
In “THE POET” Kaufman describes his underworld journey as a passage through “THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING/DEAD” – an ironic reference both to the dark night of the soul of St. John of the Cross, as Damon suggests, but also to the 1968 George Romero horror film in which a hapless band of humans battle a horde of flesh eating ghouls. Romero’s lampoon of racism and conventionality is quite an appropriate allusion for Kaufman to employ. The poet too, is holding out against hordes of mindless zombies, agents of lifelessness, shambling shades inhabiting this particular version of Hell.
In Romero’s film, the protagonist, Ben, is a young black man and this single fact ironically seems both his power and his curse. Like Kaufman, Ben comes from a culture more connected to tribal shamanic praxis than that of the white folks with whom he is unhappily marooned. Only he knows how to fight the ghouls, which he does, in fact, with the conventional tool of the shaman, fire. With fire he puts the ghouls to rout before taking a fortified position in a house, which now becomes a sort of shamanic tree, an axis between worlds, between the basement and attic, between the living and the dead. He prepares a safe retreat into the underworld of the cellar, but only withdraws there when there is absolutely no hope that any of his fellow humans will be able to extricate themselves.
In the final scene of the film, the zombies have been defeated by sheriff’s deputies armed with flame throwers and shotguns. Ben emerges cautiously from his subterranean retreat, and carefully climbs the stairs of the house, only to be shot in an upstairs window by a white deputy sheriff who mistakes him for one of the remaining walking dead. Who doesn’t see him. Who renders him invisible in order to kill him. Romero makes a sly comment here – reflected in the films stark black-and-white coloration – on the culture’s condemnation of shamanic praxis and its linkage to the blindness of racism.
Kaufman’s “THE POET” shows us the Hell that is imposed on us by our own symbology. The poem is “about” how this hell is created, and what role the poet plays in its creation. The poet is the master of the process of creation. He creates the poem, the world, life itself, albeit in a strangely mutated form. The poet and the poem are each described as “A FISH WITH FROG’S/ EYES.” This forms a haunting refrain:
A FISH WITH FROG’S
CREATION IS PERFECT.
The poet appears here as half-fish, half-amphibian. A frog is a more complex organism than a fish. It is a sort of super-fish able to do everything a fish does but much more. A fish can only see within its underwater domain, but an amphibian is master of water and surface realms. A fish sees what falls into the pond but no more. The fish has no communication with or effect upon the surface world. From its lily pad, the frog can observe and interact with what from the fish’s viewpoint are the sensible and super-sensible realms. A fish with frog’s eyes has a sort of super-vision that allows it to see what other fish would dismiss as beyond the spectrum of their finny experience.
Kaufman’s “FISH WITH FROG’S/EYES” is very much an image of the atomic age. Kaufman felt the Hiroshima bombing as a terrible psychic rift. This horrible power and the war machine which produced it were sanitized by the popular media, but Kaufman sees the glimmer of murder in the cold eye of conformity. He writes with fierce sarcasm:
Silence the drums, that we may hear the burning
Of Japanese in atomic colorcinemascope,
And remember the stereophonic screaming
He wants America to realize what it has done. But meanwhile the Hollywood propaganda machine tries to make a killing at the box office with heroic portraits of men in uniform and their plucky women waiting at home. Even radioactivity was valorized in a special way.
The possibilities of mutation due to exposure to radioactivity were romanticized in science-fiction movies and comic books of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. A strange radioactive mist causes the Incredible Shrinking Man (in the film of the same title) to shrink down into the very microcosm of the atom. In Romero’s Night of the Living Dead it’s a “mysterious high-level radiation” causing a mutation that reactivates the corpses’ brains. A fish with frog’s eyes, an atomic mutant, is the perfect symbol for the poet’s alchemical transformation of the stuff of the post-atomic world.
Kaufman’s poet must write what he sees. He must “WRITE THE TRUTH/EVEN IF HE IS/KILLED FOR IT,” and then he will be killed for it. The poem is that which cannot be denied and which cannot be explained. The poem is life. When death removes its cape from him, the poet understands what he has lived through, and he has no regrets. Although he has been “NAILED TO THE/BONE OF THE WORLD” the poet has at least lived. Like Rimbaud’s seer he will at least have seen. His poem, like Lorca’s, is “WOVEN INTO THE DEEPS/ OF LIFE.” Suffering is the poet’s legacy, but it is a suffering that has been transformed, redeemed. Meanwhile,
THE POET LIVES IN THE
MIDST OF DEATH
AND SEEKS THE MYSTERY OF
It is significant that the poet seeks not the answer to life’s mystery, but the mystery itself. The mystery is the enigma, the incertitude, the paradox, that is creation, that is the poem, that is “PERFECT.”
Damon, Maria. “‘Unmeaning Jargon’/Uncanonized Beatitude: Bob Kaufman, Poet.
”An Anthology of New Poetics. Ed. Christopher Beach. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1998. Print.
Di Prima, Diane. Pieces of a Song. San Francisco: City Lights, 1990. Print.
Finn, Julio. The Bluesman. London: Quarter Books, 1986. Print.
Kaufman, Bob. The Ancient Rain. New York: New Directions, 1981. Print.
—Golden Sardine. 1967. San Francisco: City Lights, 1976. Print.
—Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness. New York: New Directions, 1965. Print.
Romero, George, Dir. Night of the Living Dead. 1968. DVD.
“All you need is one person in your whole life to really be listening.” i
Young Charlie Parker
Lester Young, Charlie Parker
Chu Berry, berry, young Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker from Kansas City
The swingiest, stompingest this land’s city
Shoot’em up cowboy city
And they once laughed him off the bandstand
And that broke his heart
But he hoboed out
In the last years of the Great Depression
Chicago to the Apple
And made it to the home of happy feet
The hopping Savoy
Put the pots on
And then some ii
i The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture. Ed. Holly George-Warren. (New
York: Hyperion, 1999), “This Song’s for You, Jack: Collaborating with Kerouac” by David Amram. p. 123.
ii Crouch, Stanley. Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. (New York: Harper Collins, 2013).
On this day in 1925, Bob Kaufman was born.
From Beatdom Issue One:
Bob Kaufman: The Unsung Beat
It always baffles me to find Bob Kaufman omitted from a great many books and documentaries and websites and talk about the Beat Generation. For me, Kaufman is the embodiment of Beat. That is not to say that the more well known names and faces did not embody the spirit they are most widely credited with creating and fulfilling, but rather that Kaufman was as Beatnik as any of them, and people today forget that all too easily. Hell, many critics argue that it was Kaufman who actually coined the phrase “Beat”, and not Jack Kerouac.
What would Kerouac say? Kerouac and his well-known Beat Generation contemporaries respected Kaufman as much as anyone, but he has been downplayed by later critics and fans. In France, where his largest following existed, he was known as the ‘Black American Rimbaud”.
Maybe there is a simple explanation for this apparent amnesia… Kaufman only wrote his poetry down on paper when forced to, preferring instead to read it aloud in public, or to indulge in a little guerrilla poetry, posting notes on shop windows, criticising society and the police. He preferred to recite his works in coffee shops and on the streets, once reading to Ken Kesey before the two knew each other, and frightening the young Kesey with his mad appearance, but impressing him nonetheless. Consequently, little accurate biographical information is available for willing scholars, and Kaufman remains for most a mythical Beat figure.
“My ambition is to be completely forgotten,” he once told Raymond Foye, editor of his collection of poems, The Ancient Rain.
His poetry had many of the influences of the works of other Beats, primarily jazz and Buddhism. He also had drug problems and run-ins with the law. And his life consisted of stories the equal of those that made famous. For example, when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Kaufman took a vow of silence that he never broke until the end of the Vietnam war. When he spoke, he recited a poem he had written, entitled “All Those Ships that Never Sailed.” Although he did speak after this, he remained more or less in solitude until his death in 1986.
The following bio is drawn from an extremely wide selection of reading, containing a number of conflicting dates and stories. Although this is testament to the wonderfully elusive life and times of the poet, it also means: Take the info with a pinch of salt, friend.
Bob Kaufman was born in New Orleans in 1925, to a German Jewish father and a Martinican black Catholic mother. His grandmother was a practitioner of Voodoo, while he was active in both Catholic and Jewish traditions, and later he became a Buddhist. It could therefore be stated that he was influenced in one way or another by a variety of religions and had an unusual and diverse racial heritage.
To add to these experiences, Kaufman joined the Merchant Marines when only thirteen, survived four shipwrecks, and travelled the world, meeting Jack Kerouac. He read widely and studied literature at New York’s The New School, where he met William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. He led unions and spoke on the docks on both coast, and was friends with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus. In 1944 Kaufman married Ida Berrocal, in 1945 their daughter, Antoinette Victoria, was born, and in 1958, he married his second wife, Eileen Singe.
So when he moved to San Francisco in 1958, with Ginsberg and Burroughs, it would be fair to say that he had gained quite a bit of life experience. He met Ferlinghetti and Corso in San Francisco and helped develop the local literary Renaissance. Here he devoted himself to spontaneous oral poetry that flowed to the beat of jazz and bebop, the music that pulsed through the dives and haunts of the Beatnik North Beach area. He often took his son, Parker (named after Charlie Parker), into coffee houses and cafes, to “hold court”.
With Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly and William Margolis, Kaufman founded Beatitude magazine in North Beach, in 1959 (or ’65 or ’75 depending on the used resource). The magazine today exists in name and memory through Beatitude Broadside and Beatitude Press. Coupled with this accomplishment, and the creativity of his poetic performances, Kaufman read at Harvard and was nominated for the English Guinness Award.
However, as with so many Beats, Kaufman found himself addicted to drugs, in financial strife, and in frequent trouble with the law. Then when arrested in New York City for walking on the grass of Washington Square park, he was arrested and forced to undergo electro-shock therapy. So, with the assassination of JFK, Kaufman withdrew into silence. After the end of the war in ‘Nam, he regained some creativity, but soon went into a sort of retirement until his death in 1986.
He published three volumes of poetry, Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness, Golden Sardine, and Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978. He published Golden Sardines, as well as a number of chapbooks in the mid-sixties, through City Lights. He also founded Beatitude and a variety of ‘Abomunist’ texts, including theAbomunist Manifesto.
Kaufman’s poetry blends high English with street language, the structure and rhythm of African-American speech, surrealism, and the beat and improvisational qualities of jazz. He would recite his poetry aloud in the Coffee Gallery or in diners or during traffic jams, rarely writing them down, except perhaps in loose note form on napkins. Many listeners state that his best performances were done alongside a jazz musician.
Naturally, for a poet so obsessed with the orality of his poems, Kaufman’s work reflects speaking patterns – and not just through reciting his poems aloud. The words that make up his poems are everyday words, and the rhythms reflect everyday speech, in keeping with the style of Walt Whitman, although imbuing it with contemporary streetwise language.
He frequently features in volumes of African-American and avant-garde poetry, but seems forgotten in the predominantly white world of Beat history. But I guess that although he embodied Beat ideals and poetics, he was extremely unique within the bohemian world and was so occupied with new poetic ideas that he is of greater interest to more specific schools of thought than the often overarching generality of Beat literature studies. Of course, more likely than that is the fact that he preferred to not write down his poetry. Conflicting sources would have us believe that Kaufman’s wives wrote his poems down on his behalf, and also that they encouraged him to write them down himself. Either way, published collections of his work only reveal a small section of the full body.
However, although it is mostly true that he was averse to writing down his poetry, a handwritten manuscript was found by incredible fortune in the burning rubble of a hotel fire, from which Kaufman had narrowly escaped. Many of these poems went into The Ancient Rain.
But back to the poems… And Kaufman is frequently compared to twentieth century surrealist painters for his appreciation and use of strong and madly juxtaposed imagery. His use of symbolism is incredibly vivid and sensual. His Whitman-esque use of lists to build images imbued with sound, colour and feeling also draws upon Pound and W.C. Williams in its minimalist economy and effective conveyance. ‘Jazz Chick’ is a great example of such devices, and is easily available to read online.
By Spencer Kansa
In 1951, Jack Kerouac began work on a roman a clef whose breathless prose would help define an era and seduce generations to come, On the Road. Based on his road trip adventures from the previous decade, Kerouac drew upon his battered notebooks and unique recall to get it all down. Typing on a continuous roll of teletype paper, his stream of consciousness spilled out in one long inspired flow and soon a soulful vision of America arose from its pages.
Reflecting a romantic flipside of American society, its story is told through the impassioned narration of Kerouac’s alter-ego, Sal Paradise, who embarks on a spiritual quest across America, searching for the divine and finding it in the places he haunts, jazz music he eulogises, and people he touches souls with. A post-War gathering of malcontents lusting for life, mystical illumination, love and meaning amidst the crass materialism, sterile conformity and atom bombs.
Feted on its release six years later, the book’s success created a literary legend out of Kerouac, and immortalised his best boon buddy Neal Cassady, the dynamic inspiration behind the novels freewheeling hero, Dean Moriarty.
In 1990, Cassady’s widow Carolyn set down her own inside take on the Kerouac and Cassady mythos in her highly acclaimed autobiography Off the Road. In her role as a defender of their legacy, she has railed for years against what she sees as the inaccurate and shoddy mistreatment of Kerouac and Cassady’s lives by unscrupulous Hollywood filmmakers and screenwriters, whom she charges have too often reduced them to little more than glorified juvenile delinquents.
Excerpted from a series of interviews that were conducted at her apartment in Belsize Park, London, between February and May of 1998, the following segment focuses on Carolyn’s romances with the two charismatic soul brothers, and lifts the veil on their complex sexual psyches.
So let me get this straight, you weren’t physically attracted to Neal but you were to Jack. You loved them both but you weren’t in love romantically is that right?
Well there were times with Jack that I was, but I knew there was no point because there was Neal but yes. I don’t know what was going on with Jack ha ha. Neal could be romantic when it suited him but it wasn’t much for me except when he was trying to get back into my good graces ha ha then he could turn it on ha ha ha. That’s what got all the other girls.
But it seems incomprehensible that you and Neal got married and yet you weren’t physically attracted.
No, but as I said the reason I thought he was the one, aside from the karmic thing, was because he didn’t make passes. He was the only man I’d run into who didn’t have one thing in mind. So I thought this must be serious ha ha. That and he acknowledged that I had a mind. Course he knew what he was doing, he’d psyched me out immediately. He knew that wasn’t the way to come on.
You wouldn’t have had any truck with that.
No, he could tell I must have gone through that and so he made a different approach and it worked ha ha, and then he was sorry ha ha ha. It worked too well ha ha. Whereas Jack would make passes at you and he wouldn’t mean to actually, the chemistry was there but there wasn’t any chemistry with Neal.
Well you seduced Jack the first time didn’t you?
Not really, I just let it happen that’s all. We avoided each other like crazy because we had felt it in Denver and he said ‘too bad’ and it was discouraged because we were principled and nothing more was done about it. In those days we didn’t carry on. Now its ‘go ahead and seduce her’ ha ha, ‘why bother stopping it?’ But in those days we had principles so nothing was done. So eventually, what with the scene with Neal, I just thought ‘might as well let it happen.’
That’s quite a delicious feeling anyway isn’t it, having that sexual frisson in the air and not acting upon it?
Oh well yeah it’s nice to be admired and wanted sort of, but I’d rather not ha ha ha. You can’t go on with it, you can’t do anything about it, but it did make us closer. I think I said in the book in those days the man had to make the first move and I also knew that Neal would get over it ha ha ha. But had it been anyone but Neal we wouldn’t have resisted. But the things Neal wrote in those letters about what I did with Jack aren’t true, they’re from jealousy. Yet the whole world’s gonna think they are. It’s one of those things you have to put up with. It’s difficult to read those letters. In some ways it’s my word against his.
You particularly weren’t happy with the way the director John Byrum depicted the love triangle between you Neal and Jack in the film Heartbeat were you?
No, and I told him ‘you’ve ruined my life, all you seem to do is let me hang around and watch you make a movie and tape my mouth shut’ and I did except for one time, and he did this three times in three scenes, where Jack and I are canoodling and Neal is out playing ball with the kids or something. Three times this scene. So after the first one Sissy Spacek and I were at the station wagon going to the next location and I said to her ‘y’know I promised not to say anything, but that was the hardest scene I have had to watch y’know, Jack and I loved Neal, we would never have done anything like that in front of him. The lack of humanity, as well as the showing off’ and she said ‘oh my God’ and burst into tears, and she had to do it two more times and it was that kind of thing, ‘whose turn is it tonight fellas?’ Because we didn’t admit it to ourselves much less anybody else, we were ashamed of it. So Jack and I never looked at each other when Neal was in the house because we cared for him. But the consciousness of people today is ’well it was a three-way…’
A ménage a trios!
Which it was! But it was certainly not acknowledged or discussed at all.
No, it wasn’t like a Jules et Jim scenario.
Of course not ha ha. Actually Byrum had just seen Jules et Jim actually and this was what he wanted to do, in fact they almost made the T-shirts ‘Jules and Jim go to North Beach’ ha ha ha. I said ‘look it’s been done and it’s been done well, you can’t possibly do that, why not do my book?’
Speaking of movies, I always thought the person who should’ve played Neal years ago was Paul Newman – whenever I watch him playing Fast Eddie in The Hustler I always think of Neal.
Yeah, I think that’s more like Neal than anybody else. Newman’s handsomer but it’s the right blue eyes and the smile that would have been nice back then.
But also in Visions of Cody, that Denver pool scene always reminds me of that film.
Well I think they had thought of it as well ha ha, so I hear.
There’s a picture in your book where Neal’s tossing the hammer, and in profile he really looks like Paul Newman.
Yeah, well of course he had this broken nose but he had those bright blue eyes, that’s what’s so accurate. And Jack too had bright blue eyes.
But that rarely comes across because most of the photographs of him are in black and white. To have blue eyes with black hair, that’s a great combination.
Oh my, a fatal combination ha ha ha. In fact there are few actors that have that combination. But Jack was swarthier and more handsome, more like a Clark Gable, he was fleshier is what I mean, had those fleshier cheeks. And he was a little ruddier than Neal who was quite pale.
Jack and Neal look very contemporary looking don’t they, in the way that James Dean still does?
Well they never grew their hair ha ha ha. The one thing they did is have their hair cut, which is contemporary now. Now that men have started cutting their hair again and pulling their pony tails back. But the most popular picture of Jack is the one where he’s just come out of the shower, where his hair’s all messed up and that’s the one they used over and over. After that of course he just got drunker and drunker, but when I knew him he never had a hair out of place. He always had a comb. Boy he was always so finicky about his hair ha ha ha.
Well it was his crowning glory.
Right. It’s a shame because I like long hair and beards but Neal abhorred them. I’ve got a picture of him where he shaved his head. He came back from New York and got stoned and shaved it all off. I know about the beards because he had very sensitive skin and wouldn’t shave. Jack would be unshaven of course if he was drinking or they were working on the railroads. But I don’t think Jack ever grew a beard or a moustache or anything, he wasn’t very vain really. But it was an awfully quiet period for men in terms of being colourful. It was still very muscle-bound. Jack was more sort of agile but his muscle had turned to flab by the time I knew him. He wasn’t doing any exercise ha ha.
Jack is also often accused of suffering from a Madonna/Whore complex.
Mmm.. that turns out to assess him ha ha. Well I saw a lot of examples of that in Tristessa, because she’s a whore. But the thing that seriously impressed me reading it over was how vividly he describes his surroundings, no matter how miserable he is, every puddle, every crummy everything he gets down. It just makes such a vivid impression on his mind so you’re drawn into that horrible, creepy place but he doesn’t judge either his surroundings or these dreadful people that’s he’s involved with. Absolutely no judgment at all. But you see that he has loved this woman and he respected all women because of the Madonna thing. Also I was thinking about the tenderness, he was such a sensitive, tender hearted person and the compassion he felt for her is amazing, and he never says anything that isn’t admiring. He gives you clues that she must’ve been ghastly, but to him she’s the Madonna thing. Course they never did sleep together but his attitude towards whores was – and I think that’s why the only time he enjoyed sex – if at all – may have been because he rationalised the fact that they wanted it and they were asking for it and they were earning a living.
So he was helping them ha ha ha.
Justifying it yes. So he was just doing them a favour ha ha. So that way I think he could probably relax more.
Maybe because he figured that they were bad girls and so he could do bad things with a bad girl.
Well something like that, although I don’t think he ever thought anyone was bad. Even though he tells you about these men’s lives and things, he never judges or condemns them. Of course all the time I’m reading it and he describes this rooftop room I’m thinking ‘my God that’s where he wanted me to come!’ I mean he was trying to persuade me to join him. Oh I’m glad I didn’t go ha ha. But as Luanne (Henderson, Neal’s first wife) said ‘you never felt as though Jack was completely participating in the (sex) act’ ha ha. Part of that was he was always the observer no matter where he was, even when he was involved he wasn’t ever totally involved, he never surrendered. He couldn’t because he was just totally wrapped up in himself and in writing, that’s all he did. And in one letter he wrote to me he said “no woman owns me – not even you who should” and I always knew that of course. There was no way that he could ever be a husband, and I had to let him be completely free. I mean he lived in his head all the time. Yet he always wanted a home and a family. It was still a dream that he never lost, but it was all in his head!
There is a difference between loving somebody and being in love isn’t there?
Yes I certainly know and with Neal I loved him but I wasn’t in love.
But the way you describe him, he is physically attractive.
Yes, but see I was a sexual cripple in that department too so that made a difference, but the chemistry wasn’t there with Neal, but I admired him artistically and aesthetically.
Like you would in an art class.
Right. I’m really sensitive to physical things but there’s been chemistry without that, it has nothing to do with aesthetics, there’s some sort of strange attraction we can’t explain and we call it chemistry.
But with Jack you were in love?
Yeah he knew and I knew. I loved him lots and lots. But that didn’t diminish my love for Neal, he knew I loved Neal, as he did, and that was important for him. That’s why he felt so safe too and why he could be more himself with me and Neal cos for one thing we weren’t asking him for anything. He knew I was safe and wasn’t gonna make demands or ask to marry him or anything. So that the best thing you could do was listen to him and that was fun. I loved hearing him talk and figure things out, and of course we exchanged ideas, but he didn’t have to approve of my opinion. But I don’t think he could ever surrender which is what you sort of have to do if you’re going to mate with someone. So we were very close and compatible, but I always felt that he was a separate entity, that I’d always be an outsider, an appendage. But also Jack talked about sex a lot and wanted Neal to write him about sex and he puts a lot in his books and I’m sure he thought about it a lot, but actually it probably was that sin thing at the back of his mind that he couldn’t really enjoy it or participate in it.
That’s what I meant about being with the prostitutes, it’s easier for him because for these women – sin is their business.
Yes, it’s easier, right. He could rationalise that, whereas with respectable women, I don’t know how he did it ha ha ha. But it wasn’t on his mind all the time either as it was with Neal. I think Jack mentioned sex so much because it was such a problem, such a dilemma and a guilt thing. He was always asking God “why did you create us just to die” ha ha ha. Y’know that was his problem. His God was not a loving father but the horrible judge.
The fire and brimstone type.
Yes. That you were born a miserable rotten worm and were never gonna get any better.
So that’s why he embraced Buddhism.
Yes, but see that is a snare, a delusion, because of course he wasn’t a Buddhist. I’m sure that he loved all the imagery and what not, but the thing that caught him was that all this was nothing ha ha ha. So all his sensory stimulus, that he was so guilty of, the Buddhists said ‘it’s empty, it’s nothing’ so that became his reassurance. ‘It doesn’t even matter anyway and then were all gonna die’ but he never got that quite together because Buddha doesn’t believe in death so that for a Catholic was strange. But it gave him this out. This ‘oh well it doesn’t matter.’ Of course he didn’t follow anything else in the Buddhist tradition but that load of old escapism was very appealing to him. He certainly wouldn’t say he was a Buddhist at all, but he and Ginsberg were good at pronouncing all the names and getting the concepts ha ha.
They read the books ha ha.
Yes, ha ha. They read the books but didn’t quite get the message.
Spencer Kansa has written for a variety of publications including Hustler, Mojo, Erotic Review, and The NME. His interviews with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Bowles and Herbert Huncke feature in Joe Ambrose’s book Chelsea Hotel, Manhattan (Headpress). He is the author of Wormwood Star, a biography of the American artist and occult icon, Marjorie Cameron (Mandrake of Oxford). His novel, Zoning, was published by Beatdom Books. For more info: www.spencerkansa.com
(c)Illustration Isaac Bonan
From Beatdom #7.
by David S. Wills
Music has always been a matter of Energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people will call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel.
Music is a theme that crops up throughout the entirety of Hunter S. Thompson’s bibliography. It was an incredibly important aspect of his life, and he always took the time to listen to what he wanted. Those who know about Thompson know that Bob Dylan was one of his heroes, and it is often claimed his favourite song of all time was “Mr. Tambourine Man.” But, of course, there was more. Thompson’s interests were diverse. As a teenager he loved Bing Crosby, whose “Galway Bay” was once his favourite song. He tended to gravitate towards music that reflected the world around him – from Kentucky bluegrass to San Francisco rock ‘n’ roll.
Thompson’s times were wild ones. He lived through the 1960s and 70s, fully immersed in the counterculture of the era. He lived in the Haight-Ashbury during the Summer of Love and watched the musicians of his generation artfully reflect their environment, like he was doing with his writing.
Indeed, Thompson respected their work as much as that of any contemporary writer. He once said, “I’ve been arguing for years now that music is the New Literature, that Dylan is the 1960s’ answer to Hemingway.”
Music was fuel for him, too. Not only did he respect these artists as fellow documenters of the world, but they meant something to him. Good music drove him onwards. It helped him write. And he loved those bands and did what he could to push their careers forward.
As Douglas Brinkley puts it,
He would do anything for the music he liked – people like Warren Zevon, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker; old Kentucky bluegrass masters like the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, and Lester Flatt; and some blues people like Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dizon. Those were gods to him, and a lot of them were friends. He would do anything to promote their CDs, to go to their concerts, to talk them up. But his interest in rock music was not as deep as people think. Because he wrote for Rolling Stone, people sometimes think he was a big music guy. Hunter was not up on current music and didn’t really care to be. He knew what he liked: some Bruce Springsteen; Van Morrison could really get him writing. He knew Leonard Cohen songs by heart. But it was Dylan first and foremost. Any of the Dylan live bootlegs he thought was the greatest thing of all time.”
The above note is telling, but far from complete. Thompson’s favourites spanned decades and genres. He loved folk and bluegrass, but also the various forms of rock music. He was discerning, too. In Jann Wenner and Corey Seymour’s Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, Brinkley also talks about Thompson refusing to sell quotes from his writing to bands that he didn’t like. In his later years musicians would approach him and what mattered was whether or not he liked their style – not how much they were willing to pay. That is telling for a man whose life was spent chasing paycheques and fighting expenses.
In 1970, Thompson took the time to compose a list of his favourite music of the 1960s (which he posed as “Raoul Duke’s” favourite music) in a letter to his editors at Rolling Stone. The list might be surprising for readers of his work. (It should also be noted that two of these albums weren’t even released during the 1960s!)
1) Herbie Mann’s 1969 Memphis Underground
2) Bob Dylan’s 1965 Bringing It All Back Home (especially noted as “Mr. Tambourine Man” in his letter)
3) Dylan’s 1965 Highway 61 Revisited
4) The Grateful Dead’s 1970 Workingman’s Dead
5) The Rolling Stones’ 1969 Let it Bleed
6) Buffalo Springfield’s 1967 Buffalo Springfield
7) Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 Surrealistic Pillow
8) Roland Kirk’s “various albums”
9) Miles Davis’s 1959 Sketches of Spain
10) Sandy Bull’s 1965 Inventions
With that list in mind, it should prove useful to explore a few names in depth – to look closely at the relationship between Hunter S. Thompson and the music he loved.
Dylan is a goddamn phenomenon, pure gold, and as mean as a snake.
That quote says it all, really. One could open nearly any Hunter S. Thompson book and find a glowing reference to Dylan. Dylan was there throughout much of Thompson’s life, singing about the changing times and documenting the turmoil of an unjust world. Thompson loved Dylan’s work, and viewed Dylan as one of his personal heroes. In interviews with Playboy and SPIN magazine he has even gone as far as to compare himself favourably with Dylan. He viewed both of them as artists against the world; leaders of the underground.
He told Harold Conrad that Dylan was one of the three most important men alive (alongside Muhammad Ali and Fidel Castro) and went on to say,
Bobby Dylan is the purest, most intelligent voice of our time. Nobody else has a body of work over twenty years as clear and intelligent. He always speaks for the time.
Let’s see. I just got the new Bob Dylan box set from the Rolling Thunder tour from 1975. It’s kind of a big package with a book and several CDs in there. It’s maybe the best rock and roll album I’ve ever heard.
In spite of the above list, one could argue pretty vigorously that Thompson’s favourite song of all time was “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Numerous sources testify to the fact that he would listen to this song before writing, and that it was a constant force throughout much of his life. He first heard it whilst living in San Francisco – surrounded by the musical forces of his day – and would play it over his custom-made 100 watt speakers from his home in the Rocky Mountains. When his most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was published, Thompson dedicated it “to Bob Dylan, for Mister Tambourine Man.” Then, after his death – as decided decades earlier – it was the song that played as his ashes were fired from a giant Gonzo Fist at Owl Farm.
The story of an artist chasing his muse, it spoke to Thompson like no other song.
As a struggling journalist Thompson constantly wrote to his friends and family, and frequently advised them to listen to Dylan. He kept promising to send Paul Semonin – a friend in Africa – some Bob Dylan records, but of course, he kept running into financial issues. It is clear, however, that he felt Dylan’s work was important enough to spread around. When he first met the Hell’s Angels, in a story that is well known to Gonzo fans, Thompson brought the biker gang back to his apartment, while his wife and child cowered in another room. The group partied all night, with The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan providing the soundtrack to this important meeting.
In 1968, Thompson wrote a long piece about hippy music in 1967, that appears at the very start of Fear and Loathing in America. In it, Thompson first describes Bob Dylan and “Mr. Tambourine Man.” He portrays Dylan as “the original hippy,” and his song as “both an epitaph and a swan-song for the… ‘hippy phenomenon.’”
Later in his career, Thompson found himself drawn to presidential candidate Jimmy Carter. This was largely due to Carter’s famous Law Day Address, from May 4 1974. For Thompson, justice meant the world. He was obsessed with right and wrong, and about the corruption and greed that he saw controlling his country. Carter’s speech meant a lot to him, and did so partly because Carter referred to Thompson’s favourite artist:
The other source of my understanding about what’s right and wrong in this society is from a friend of mine, a poet named Bob Dylan. After listening to his records about “The Ballad of Hattie Carol” and “Like a Rolling Stone” and “The Times, They Are a-Changing,” I’ve learned to appreciate the dynamism of change in a modern society.
Thompson recorded this speech and would play it back for friends, comparing it to General MacArthur’s “old soldiers never die” address.
This is perhaps a key to why Dylan meant so much to Thompson – a man whose work is characterised by an unrelenting attack on hypocrisy and injustice. Thompson saw in both Carter and Dylan an awareness of what was truly right. Dylan was a magnificent poet, but his work – like Thompson’s – sought to frame the guilty for their crimes, to expose the rank side of modern life and explore the possibility of change.
Although Jefferson Airplane only arrives at number six on Thompson’s list of his favourite albums of the sixties, a reading of his writing from and about that particular decade would suggest that he thought about the band, and in particular their singer, Grace Slick, a whole lot more than anyone except Bob Dylan.
His sixties-era writing is packed with references to his time in San Francisco, living in the Haight-Ashbury, and frequenting the Matrix. One night he witnessed the debut of a band called the Jefferson Airplane, and immediately began telling people about them. He seems to labour this point in his letters… He sent numerous notes to people to let them know that he “discovered” the Jefferson Airplane, and that he played some role in their rise to success.
He supposedly phoned Ralph Gleason and told him about the new band. Gleason became known for championing the Jefferson Airplane and helping them reach a greater audience.
The Matrix played a large part in Thompson’s life for a short period of time. Whilst writing Hell’s Angels, he used to ride through North Beach on his motorcycle, seemingly, just to watch Grace Slick in action. He said that she “made even the worst Matrix nights worth sitting through.”
After writing the book, whilst on his gruelling publicity tour, Surrealistic Pillow was released. Thompson demanded time out from his schedule, just to listen to the record. He could barely contain his excitement.
Upon hearing the first note I smiled. This was the triumph of the San Francisco people. We were all making it, riding a magical wave which we didn’t think would break.
His favourite Airplane song was, of course, “White Rabbit,” which he listened to for years after he left San Francisco. He claimed that its sound not only captured a vibe or a feeling, but a whole generation. It was the song of the sixties, in his eyes. When asked what he was trying to convey in his own work, Thompson once played Surrealistic Pillow for his publicist and said that was it. He said, “I could’ve written these lyrics myself. Today is my time.”
In his opus magnum, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Matrix appears in a brief flashback scene to what came before the fall of the sixties. It is viewed as an example of that wave that Thompson mentioned above, as well as in a more famous segment of his book. The song “White Rabbit” also appears in the novel. In one of the book’s more memorable moments, Dr. Gonzo demands that Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego) play “White Rabbit” for him:
“Let it roll!” he screamed. “Just as high as the fucker can go! and when it comes to that fantastic bit where the rabbit bites its own head off, I want you to throw that fuckin radio into the tub with me.”
When Thompson left San Francisco and moved to Woody Creek, he found himself a home away from the madness. It was a place he could come to escape the world, and to give him some sense of security.
He needed his music, though. Away from the action, he had a custom-made 100watt amp that he used to blast inspiring music out over the mountains. These songs were fuel for his writing.
He once said,
I like to load up on mescaline and turn my amplifier up to 110 decibels for a taste of ‘White Rabbit’ while the sun comes up on the snow-peaks along the Continental Divide.
The Grateful Dead
Thompson’s love for the Grateful Dead is well known. He frequently makes reference to owning at least one Grateful Dead t-shirt, and the band’s name pops up throughout his body of work. Thompson even shared the same literary agent as the band.
As mentioned his list of favourite albums of the sixties, Thompson had a particular fondness for Workingman’s Dead. He said, in a letter found in his Fear and Loathing in America collection: “I think Workingman’s Dead is the heaviest thing since Highway 61 or ‘Mr. Tambourine Man.’”
His favourite song from this album – which it should be mentioned once again was released in 1970 and is thus not really a sixties album… – was “New Speedway Boogie.” This song was written in 1969 about the death of Meredith Hunter at Altamont, by a gang of Hell’s Angels who were hired as security. It was written by Dead lyricist Robert Hunter.
Thompson once said: “…at the moment my writing room is full of ‘New Speedway Boogie’ by the Grateful Dead. It says more than anything I’ve read in five years.”
Aside from the three “Hunter’s” involved, and the familiarity of the violence of the Hell’s Angels, Thompson was probably drawn to this song as an epitaph of sorts for the sixties. Thompson’s most famous work – and the most famous passage in that work – concerns the death of the idealism of the 1960s: “the high-water mark – that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
After the advent of Gonzo Journalism, Thompson was taken by a burst of inspiration. He had – with Ralph Steadman – taken on the Kentucky Derby in his masterful short, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” He began tossing about the idea of taking Gonzo to all of America’s grand institutions. One such idea involved the America’s Cup. Thompson wrote numerous letters that announced his plan to commandeer a sort of Freak Press yacht and sail into the midst of the race with the Grateful Dead playing on deck.
Later, during George McGovern’s run for presidency in 1972 – which Thompson documented in his classic Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 – the author tried to bring the Grateful Dead on board the democratic nominee’s campaign. In the end, Warren Beatty successfully organised a fundraising concert that included the Dead, while Thompson merely suggested that McGovern go out in public while wearing “my Grateful Dead T-shirt.”