The Beats as we know them are a New York City phenomena and walk hand in hand with Abstract Expressionism as one of the great defining moments of art in the second half of the 20th century. Just like Jackson Pollock and William DeKooning were all about reinterpreting what painting meant, so the Beats were trying to redefine linguistics in a way that made poetry and prose contemporary, or at least brought it up to date from the days of the Lost Generation, who expatriated to Paris after World War I. The Beats were the fallout of the existential crisis brought on by the nuclear bomb, and a seminal Beat poem by Gregory Corso called “Bomb” appeared on the page in the form of a mushroom cloud. The Beats were interested in writing from their wits and believed the concept of “first thought was the best thought,” even though they may not have lived by this credo it was a defining trait of their aesthetic stance. It was similar to an Abstract Expressionist looking for a perfect stroke on the canvas that somehow said everything about an internally troubled excited knowable state, even if he/she worked on the painting for weeks, months, or years. The goal of both movements, along with Be-Bop, was to express a moment of feeling without being restricted in time, even if this took years of practice. It might seem a quaint idea from a 2015 perspective but art was very tied to rules when the Beats wrote to the rhythm of their breath, or to the sounds of Charlie Parker’s alto sax, and it was a revolutionary act that scared a lot of critics and aesthetes into thinking the Beats were turning back the clock on poetry and were like modern day Neanderthals rather than the greatest minds of their generation. Yet that’s an image they would’ve been proud of in their inner circle, just like the Abstract Expressionists wanted to get back to primal thinking. The Beats were audacious but demanded to be taken seriously, which is probably why they earned the moniker of angry young men. Continue Reading…
Archives For naked lunch
In Search of the Origin of Burroughs’ Mythical Trust Fund
From Beatdom #16
William S. Burroughs was always quick to observe that, thanks to the novels of Jack Kerouac, he had been saddled with the reputation of being a rather wealthy man. He once explained to an audience:
I have never been able to divest myself of the trust fund that [Kerouac] foisted upon me. I mean there isn’t any trust fund. There never was a trust fund. When I was not able to support myself… I was supported by an allowance from my family… my hard working parents who ran a gift and art shop in Palm Beach, Florida, called Cobblestone …
But you see Kerouac thought a trust fund was more interesting and more romantic. Let’s face it there was a very strong Sunday supplement streak in his mind. And he also saddled me with a Russian countess. Well, she was a bit easier to get rid of than the trust fund. And he nurtured the myth of the Burroughs millions. There are no Burroughs millions except in the company. And the family got nothing out of it… Continue Reading…
“When you look back over a year on the junk, it seems like no time at all”
— William Burroughs,
William Burroughs (1914-1997), the eccentric, the sardonic humoured, and the rebellious; he is a writer who took all traditional forms of literature and threw them into the garbage. Or rather, cut them into fragments, mixed them all around, and glued them back together in complete and utter random selections of prose. This is the technique in which he composed Naked Lunch, along with the help of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) in 1957, and published in 1959. Considered to be “literature of risk” (Charters 103), it tells the story of Burroughs’s alter ego, William Lee, as he narrates his narcotic-fueled life of chosen criminality. Street life and crime are common themes throughout these texts, along with other works ranging from novels, poems, and letters of correspondence that take the form of various mediums—novels, poems, audio lectures, short films, etc. These two correlative themes are represented through an array of eclectic personas. Judith Butler’s theory of performativity is useful in examining Burroughs’s work to underscore the performative acts that his characters, and himself, take on as a way of elucidating that identity is formed through bodily acts to suit the needs of a discursively constructed self. Continue Reading…
The American Dream is the unifying theme across the work of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac wrote wondrous love letters while William Burroughs explored its often nightmarish landscape. However, Hubert Selby Jr. was the only writer to identify its failure while also providing an antidote to correct it.
Hubert “Cubby” Selby Jr. was born in the dilapidated Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York in 1928. He spent his formative years surrounded by petty thieves and delinquents, frequenting the local pool halls. After finishing ninth grade, Selby became a Merchant Marine and traveled the world, eventually being exposed to bad meat while at sea and contracting a near-fatal case of tuberculosis.
Selby returned to the United States to be hospitalized. The doctors told him that he had less than a year to live and he subsequently spent four years in and out of hospitals. He was the only survivor in his tuberculosis ward, most likely because his mom bought him an experimental drug treatment from the black market. Selby endured excruciating surgeries; at one point ten ribs were removed from his back to get to his collapsed lung and he developed chronic pulmonary problems.
During Selby’s many surgeries, he was given morphine to curb his pain. He fell in love with the opiate rush, which mutated into a nasty five year spell of heroin and alcohol dependencies. It was in the hospital that Hubert Selby Jr. had a spiritual awakening and epiphany, realizing that he didn’t want to die as a man without accomplishments. His life-long dream was to become a composer but he lacked the resources to attain a formal education in composing so he decided to become a writer because he “knew the alphabet.”
Selby developed an avant-garde style that ignored the conventions of traditional prose. He showed irreverence towards punctuation and grammar and often replaced apostrophes with slashes. He relied upon hard-hitting dialogue and a stream-of-consciousness style that was already being employed in Beat literature by Jack Kerouac.
Hubert Selby Jr. got two of his short stories published in the early sixties: “The Queen is Dead” and “Tralala” which were about drug addicts, prostitutes, transvestites, and part of the seedy underbelly that Selby had been exposed to growing up in Brooklyn. “Tralala” was the story of a young prostitute that ended with a brutal gang rape. It was celebrated for its rawness and its unorthodox stylistic choices. However, many critics attacked the story for its brutality and the journal’s editor was arrested for selling pornographic material to a minor.
Selby assembled six of his stories and submitted them as a novel to Jack Kerouac’s agent Sterling Lord. In 1964 Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn was released by the infamous Grove Press, the same publishing house that had published William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch in 1959. Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg said, “Last Exit to Brooklyn should explode like a rusty hellish bombshell over America and still be eagerly read in a hundred years.
Last Exit to Brooklyn explored the great failure of the American Dream as it shriveled in the shadows of post-war Brooklyn. Like Selby’s first two stories, which were included in the novel, it dealt with subjects that were taboo in the American psyche of that time: rape, prostitution, homosexuality, violence, and sexual anguish. The stories were told with an objective and voyeuristic eye. Selby showed deplorable characters and examined their failures with compassion, whether the failures were monetary or emotional. He chose empathy as the device to fix where the American Dream had gone awry, suggesting that love could help us prevail no matter how cold or empty we had become.
Last Exit to Brooklyn became an international best seller and catapulted Hubert Selby Jr. to literary fame. He was still helplessly addicted to heroin so he decided to escape from the New York drug scene by moving to Los Angeles. He fell into his old habits out west and was quickly impoverished by his addiction, blowing all of his royalty earnings on drugs.
In 1967 Selby was busted for a possession of heroin in Los Angeles. He spent two months in the Los Angeles County Jail and ended up getting clean for good, eventually refusing morphine on his death bed despite his pain. It was during this time that Last Exit to Brooklyn was the subject of a high profile obscenity trial in Great Britain and banned in Italy, creating more notoriety for the book and helping to bump sales to over seven million.
Selby’s second novel, The Room, was published in 1971. The novel chronicled an insane man trapped in a prison cell as he fantasized about the revenge he would seek on the people that put him there. The Room examined the depths of the psyche and was Selby’s boldest statement on the human condition. The book received positive reviews and was commercially successful . Selby once stated that he could not read it for decades after writing it and that it was, “the most disturbing book ever written.”
The seventies were Selby’s most prolific writing period. In 1976 he published The Demon which examined the rise and fall of Harry White, a young and successful business man who had compulsive urges to sleep with married women. As his womanizing becomes blasé, Harry begins to delve into criminality and eventually murder to satisfy his relentless compulsion. This was yet another novel that explored the dark depths of the human psyche, while also latching onto themes of greed and obsession. The Demon received tepid success nationally earning greater appreciation abroad.
Requiem for a Dream was published in 1978 and is Selby’s most profound exemplification of the failure of the American Dream. Set in Brooklyn’s Coney Island, it is the paralleled stories of Sarah Goldfarb and her heroin addicted son Harry, as they enter ill-fated quests for better lives. Sarah is a lonely old woman whose ultimate dream is to lose weight so she can appear on a television game show. Harry, his girlfriend Marion, and best friend Tyrone want to circumvent responsibilities and achieve their dreams by selling drugs. Shortcuts in life soon become the antagonist, as Sarah becomes emaciated and delusional from amphetamine-laced diet pills and Harry suffers his own unspeakable horrors of addiction.
Requiem tells the universal story of seeking improvement in an upgraded and techno-colored life. It is about what happens when we choose to take more than we give: the failure of the American Dream. The consequences lie in the destructiveness of the soul, something that can happen to a group of friends planning to get an ounce of pure heroin or to a blameless old woman, nestled alone in her apartment, obsessing about her chance to get on television.
Selby succeeds in showing the downward trajectory of these four central characters by writing with an unwavering sense of compassion. Although they fail in achieving what they believe to be their tickets to better futures, he teaches us that love and empathy are the only way to save their souls, that there is a discernable difference between selfish materialism and the American Dream.
In 1986 Selby published a collection of short stories entitled Song of the Silent Snow. The collection included fifteen stories and covered over two decades of writing. The stories were crafted with typical Selby compassion, exploring the mundane failures of American culture.
Selby spent the next decade in literary silence. In 1989 a film adaptation of Last Exit to Brooklyn was made by German film maker Uli Edel. Selby made a cameo as a taxi driver in the film which stared Stephen Lang and Jennifer Jason Leigh. It was successful both critically and commercially and once again boosted Hubert Selby’s popularity as a transgressive writer, finding him a new and younger audience. It was during this time that the punk rock-luminary Henry Rollins linked up with Selby and expanded his readership by setting up recording sessions and booking readings and appearances all around the world.
In 1998 Selby came out with his acclaimed comeback novel, The Willow Tree. The Willow Tree is considered the gentlest work in Selby’s catalog, a story that is filled with hope and forgiveness. It is the unlikely tale of a bond between a vengeful African-American teen and an older Jewish man, who becomes his pathway toward redemption. The novel was attacked by critics for being too derivative and lacking the rawness of his previous works. Fans celebrated The Willow Tree for Selby’s willingness to give light to his idiosyncratic dark style.
Requiem for a Dream was adapted to a film in 2000 by filmmaker Darren Aronofsky. The film stared Jared Leto, Marlon Wayans, Jennifer Connelly, and Ellen Burstyn. Hubert Selby Jr. again had a cameo as a trash talking prison guard and Ellen Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress. It was during this time that Selby taught creative writing at the University of Southern California.
Waiting Period was Selby’s final novel and was published in 2002. It tells the story of a disgruntled war veteran who attempts to purchase a hand gun to commit suicide but is stopped due to a five day waiting period. In the time that it takes to get the gun he decides to go on a mass murder spree and kill people that finds despicable. The novel is laced with ambiguous voices that the protagonist hears that could be perceived as either God or the devil. Waiting Period was unsuccessful commercially and was brutally attacked by critics for lacking Selby’s signature naturalism.
Hubert Selby Jr. died from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on April 26, 2004. The American Dream was a major fixture in all of Selby’s books. He wrote about the loss of opportunity and the failures committed by disdainful characters. This was all written with a great sense of love and empathy, no matter how low a person was in his stories, there was always a sense of hope because he sketched them with compassion. This was his antidote for the failure of the American Dream: that we must transcend failure by loving those around us. The American Dream failed in his stories because of greed, lack of love, selfishness, and materialism. Selby’s greatest gift was teaching us that if we just follow our hearts, if we stop taking shortcuts, It/ll be better tomorrow.
Originally published in Beatdom #14, and excerpted from the forthcoming memoir/scrapbook, Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg ’72 Through ’92.
Allen Ginsberg invited me to see William S. Burroughs in January 1977, when I was visiting NYC. As you may know, Burroughs’ residence at 222 Bowery was nicknamed The Bunker. It was a converted YMCA, with literally no windows and a shiny steel door. The walls were painted white with tiny minimalist art, like that of his old colleague Brion Gysin’s.
I thought it was definitely a great space and safe shelter, then and now. Various young people were hanging out with Bill at a big table like you’d see in a conference room, like James Grauerholz, his longtime secretary and then-platonic companion. Burroughs was extremely gregarious in this environment – a few drinks in him and some weed, and he became a hilarious story teller.
I told Burroughs that I had a dream about him where his face was covered with tattoos like Quequeg in Moby Dick, and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt like Hunter S. Thompson, and also looked like Thompson, which was not a stretch. In the dream, he told me he was a master of Peruvian magic. Burroughs didn’t seem to like the Thompson part, scowling slightly as I told it, but then leaned forward and said, “I am a master of Peruvian magic, my dear.”
I told Burroughs about this great sci-fi movie called They Came From Within – released as Shivers in 1976 – that reminded me of his work, where man-made parasites (looking like a cross between a penis and a bloody shit) turned you into an insatiable sexual zombie. It was actually David Cronenberg’s first feature, made fifteen years prior to his Naked Lunch adaptation.
Burroughs presented me with a signed copy of a recent chapbook. As we began slowly gathering ourselves to leave, I had the idea to use Burroughs as the subject for a rephotography film experiment I was considering. I talked to James out of Bill’s earshot and asked what he thought. James went off to Bill and came back with a “yes.” We’d meet for breakfast at a diner the next day and shoot Bill walking around the neighborhood.
The next morning, accompanied by my old pal, Richard Modiano, I went to the diner armed with my Bauer Super 8 and a primitive cassette tape recorder. But when we met, Bill was considerably more reserved, stiff, and looked a little hungover. Still, he was friendly in an otherworldly sort of way. He was also most definitely a good sport.
I turned on the cassette player, thinking I’d use it for background to the film. Our discussion turned to film itself, and I made some mention of Godard’s maxim that every camera angle was a moral statement.
“To move the camera or not to move the camera,” said Bill. “Right,” I answered. It turned out to be the only remotely audible section of the entire tape, which was mostly a cacophony of restaurant background noise. I later used these two sentences as a loop for the film, though there were only a few mortals who could recognize the words. Basically, Bill then took a walk around the neighborhood and I filmed him.
Later, I intercut the then rephotographed footage with fragments shot off the TV from Monster Zero, From Russia with Love, and White Heat. I also shot some peep show gay porn right off its rear-projected screen where fellow film student Craig Baldwin worked. Some cruising cat wanted to join me in the booth. I declined.
The San Francisco State University Film Department had this device where you spooled the Super 8 through and it would show up as a TV image, a sort of pre-VCR device the industrial world used that would allow cheap screenings of Super 8 training films. I had been introduced to this device by Craig (he was later to make the great Tribulation ’99: Alien Anomalies Under America), because it allowed all kinds of crude rephotography off the TV screen, going in for close-ups on what was originally a full shot, and filming second and third generations of Super 8 footage. Craig was a big influence, cementing an interest in found footage and deconstruction of image. He lived in this big ramshackle house on Andover Street in the Mission. It would eventually be condemned, with problems like a giant broken hole in the bathroom floor into the apartment below, covered with a sheet of plywood.
Blue first Burroughs walk?
— found poem of my own scribbles: how to edit Burroughs on Bowery.
I finished the work print in my graduate film production class, having a terrible contest of wills with instructor-filmmaker Karen Holmes. She gave me a C in the class and a D in the unit lab, basically because I wouldn’t do what she said. I had been used to a great deal more freedom and empathy in my undergraduate years. They were the worst grades of my entire film school career.
I continued working on Burroughs on Bowery, finally finishingand screening it for students and faculty for the San Francisco State Film finals. In those days, they would post how everyone voted. Three-fourths of students and faculty voted against including it. I was devastated but took the print to Naropa University in the summer of 1978 when Allen invited me out.
Burroughs had this cool queer secretary at Naropa, not James Grauerholz but a new kid named Cabal, dressed in thrift store New Wave – literally the quintessence of “skinny tie band” as the disdainful punks of the era referred to this refined look. I had never seen it before. Extremely short fifties hair, top button of thrift store collar buttoned, black skinny tie, natch, and a small lapel button like a Vote Ike sort of political button, only it was just a solid color with no words of any kind – a no-slogan button. Wow! This guy was one cool motherfucker. Here I was with my Jackson Browne hair and this cat was the next thing, like an alien off a space ship or some warp into the future – the new X-Man, baby! He also wrote prose that closely resembled Burroughs’ cowboy porn, The Place of Dead Roads (as Burroughs would later jokingly refer to the dismal stretch of Highway 5 between Oakland and Los Angeles). Years later I heard he was a little tyrant at the Bunker, bringing friends home to fix while James tried to shoo them away. Our little tyrant apparently told James off – he was Burroughs’ lover now, not James – as recounted by my ex-junkie pal who’d shot up with Cabal.
A teaching assistant, as per Ginsberg’s request, arranged the 16mm projector I needed to show Burroughs on Bowery to Burroughs. Cabal slipped on some white cotton gloves he’d picked up from an editing bench (this was the audio-visual classroom), prompting Burroughs to say, “Interview with the Vampire, my dear.” I struggled a little getting it threaded. Outside Burroughs apparently asked Richard if he smoked. He wanted a cigarette although he’d quit and then Richard came back in to the room with the projector and said, “He’s getting restless.” Fortunately, I then had it and finally showed the movie to Burroughs, who chuckled enthusiastically throughout with his characteristic Renfield/Dwight Frye close-lipped “mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm.” They say that closed lips make for a sinister laugh. They’re right. “Great film, Marc,” said Bill. The truly great thing was that I’d always thought the movie was very funny myself, but this seemed lost on virtually everyone who saw it. I remember asking my older brother if he thought it was funny. “In a psychotic sort of way,” he had replied.
Anyway, better to please Burroughs than the entire S.F. State University Film Department, fuck those motherfuckers.
Burroughs invited me and Richard over to his apartment. He offered me a vodka tonic which I first turned down. He frowned so I took it. Gun magazines littered his place. We hung out, made small talk, and sipped our drinks. Cabal was there too and joined in the drinks and pot smoking. It was actually a pleasure to talk in a low key way with the old man. I was just glad it wasn’t awkward.
Costanzo Allione, Italian documentary filmmaker and future husband of meditation teacher Tsultrim (nee Joan Rousmaniere) Ewing, (They met here for the first time), was shooting what became a great film on ’78 Naropa – Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds. Beat translator Nanda Pivano came along. She was the connection between Allione and Ginsberg, and had set up this meeting in Ginsberg’s apartment. Allione was in Allen’s apartment with his crew catching the conversation of Burroughs, Timothy Leary, and of course Ginsberg himself. Part of the time, I was also running around with a Super 8 camera making what would become my short collage, American Mutant. Gregory came in with his 16mm camera and announced, “I’m gonna shoot everybody’s feet,” and proceeded to do so. The film crew caught me over Burroughs’ shoulder.
The New Wave hip look came up again when this interesting queer had wrangled his way into Allen’s kitchen to hang with Leary. The guy had a weird sort of glam look, not quite on the money with it – but he was clearly not a hippie even with Prince Valiant hair – maybe it was vague eye make-up or his clothes, but it was some different quality that was glitter queer like the New York Dolls (whom I didn’t even know about yet and were actually straight anyway).
“What do you think of Crowley’s Book of the Law?” he asked Leary. “Not much,” Leary replied. That was interesting, since he had said in his writing that he considered himself to be carrying on where Aleister Crowley left off, and the queer had just mentioned Crowley’s most important work. It was fairly clear Leary felt no need to be consistent about anything. Ginsberg made some reference to me being of the David Bowie generation, and Leary said, “He isn’t Bowie, this guy is Bowie,” pointing to the glam queer. Well, he had that sorta right, and I duly noted it, even if Bowie had moved on to his Thin White Duke persona already – which was more like Burroughs’ Naropa secretary. I wanted to be like Bowie or Burroughs’ secretary, if not this glam queer, but not some old hippie, definitely, not anymore.
As for Leary’s lack of consistency, Allen and I were talking with him and Allen made some reference to his claim that LSD could cure homosexuality. Leary said, “Oh that was Ram Dass, not me.” Apparently colleague Richard Alpert a.k.a. Ram Dass had once wall-papered a room with Playboy centerfolds and attempted to reprogram himself with a massive dose of LSD. Remembering how astounded I was by porn when on mescaline at age sixteen (vaginas like the mandibles of strange alien fauna); I could guess this hadn’t worked out. After Leary left, both Ginsberg and I recalled that Leary had made such pronouncements in the past, particularly in a Playboy interview. Ginsberg wondered if they’d done something to Leary’s brain at Folsom, since Eldridge Cleaver had also come out of there as a “Mooney,” a follower of Sun Myung-Moon, the self-proclaimed Korean Christian Second Coming; Cleaver later identified himself as a Republican. During Leary’s Folsom stay, Tim started talking extensively about outer space travel, and in particular about alien contact, but dropped the alien bit very rapidly – a wise move, to be sure. Dolphin scientist John Lily had completely discredited himself once he began about his alien chats on LSD. Tim’s new slogan was SMI2LE, “Space Migration/Intelligence Squared/Life Extension.” He was also saying “Stamp Out Death.” Burroughs was actually intrigued, since he saw little hope for the planet.
I think it was this same conversation with Leary about the Book of the Law and homosexuality that included one of his typical quips that if Buddha was back today he’d be a molecular scientist or one of the Bee Gees. He also referred to Ralph Nader as an ecological fascist, which really bugged Ginsberg. “Now stop that!” he actually shouted, adding, “What does that mean, anyway?” Leary quickly backed down and said it was his position to be provocateur, not necessarily believing what he said; just stirring things up. A good gig if you can get it.
Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.”
One morning, I got up and saw them both brushing their teeth in the bathroom mirror, both naked. Leary was tall with a basketball gut. He saw me and gave his characteristic conspiratorial wink. Tell me life isn’t a dream.
I finally started to really physically crash from the Ritalin and profound lack of sleep that everyone seemed to run on while partying at Naropa, with Allen at the head of the list. I was upstairs lying in bed when Allen came up and said, “Burroughs and Leary are downstairs!” “That’s ok, Allen. I’m tired.” “You’re missing all the good parties,” he said. “What’s the matter, you depressed?” I was depressed, and hated that he could see it. It was one of those depressions where you know that what’s going around you would be the envy of many, but it wasn’t working for you. I really just wanted a girl like in the movies. That’s why they call it samsara, or as my dad’s favorite reference, “the vale of tears.” Nobody gets what they want. Poet Amelie Frank later saw me brooding on a couch in a scene from Fried Shoes and said, “the little pouter.” Bingo. By the way, my traveling companion Richard Modiano is in the movie throughout, way more than me, and he’s probably one of the least ambitious people I know. More proof of Buddhism’s sensible irony in a brutal world. Cue that Buddhist monk with the tennis racket drum we kept hearing all over the place.
So in my American Mutant film, Leary was a CIA government official (when I asked him to be in the movie he was doubtful until I told him he’d be playing the head of the CIA), Allen some sort of Tibetan Mutant King, and Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.” When I tried to direct Burroughs a little more closely, he said “I am not an actor.” Apparently he changed his mind, given the number of roles he wound up playing on screen, though arguably they were just about as demanding as what he did for me. Leary was even harder to direct – he kept looking in the camera and grinning idiotically. “That was great, Tim, but ah… could you not look into the camera next time?” Tim announced he always looked into the camera and smiled. It was a rule of his. “Well, if it’s a rule…” I trailed off, obviously disgusted. “Oh fuck it,” he said, and did it my way. I think I may have spared the directors who later used him (as in Wes Craven’s Shocker, of all things – good movie, odd choice for Leary).
I tried to persuade Gregory Corso to take a part as a sci-fi gangster. I had a .45 replica BB gun for Gregory but when I talked to him he was very hungover, saying with disinterest “Guns are bad karma, man.” I shrugged and his toddler son Max escorted me to the door, slamming it behind me while shouting “Get out!”
Leary came back from a meeting with Allen’s Tibetan Lama, ChögyamTrungpa Rinpoche, expecting to be recognized as some sort of colleague, it seemed. Instead he was made to cool his heels in what he described as a dentist’s waiting room, and when he was finally allowed to see Trungpa, all that the Lama said was “stay out of trouble,” seemed good advice to me.
1959 was an important year in Beat Generation history. It was the year that William S. Burroughs published Naked Lunch from Paris’ Beat Hotel, that the Beats were first profiled in Life magazine, and the year the MGM released a sensationalist cinematic nightmare called The Beat Generation. In the previous three years, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac had shattered the notion that young people must conform to strict social codes, and paved the way for further decades of rebellion, growth, and acceptance. The Beat movement was in full-swing and these once literary wannabes were now idols to an entire generation. But they were not stuffy and unreachable; they were literary bad boys in the vein of Rimbaud.
In 1959 Ginsberg was looking forward with visions of a new American voice, Kerouac was awkwardly attempting to live his life in the startling media spotlight, and Burroughs was overseas, a decade into his long exile from the United States. Back home, and even in newspapers around the world, they were known derisively as the “beatniks.” At a time when calling someone a Communist was about the greatest insult that could be uttered, Herb Caen had added “-nik” to Kerouac’s “Beat,” and suddenly what started as a literary movement was now tabloid fodder. The Beats were vilified as detrimental to the morality of the nation’s youth, and as such they were used as subject matter for Hollywood’s spectacularly vapid output.
In the coming years, the image of the Beatnik as a finger-snapping poseur or a drug-addled maniac would persist, yet in the world of reality – located far from Hollywood on any map – the Beats continued to develop upon their own ideas and literature. They continued to write, to read their poems aloud, to explore new avenues in publishing and in creating art. They even dabbled – to varying degrees – in filmmaking. One such example was Pull My Daisy, a short film that aimed to incorporate the sort of spontaneous, free-form, jazz-inspired principals that governed the Beats’ written work. Directed by photographer, Robert Frank, and painter, Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy began filming began on 2nd January and it premiered 11th November.
The film was based upon the third act of Jack Kerouac’s play, The Beat Generation, and it was supposed to share the same name, with Kerouac having coined the term about a decade earlier. However, in true Hollywood style, MGM had capitalized on the movement and copyrighted the title, leaving the filmmakers to choose the title of a poem that was collaboratively written by Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady in 1949. It didn’t hurt that the phrase “pull my daisy” was loaded with sexual innuendo, either.
The poem from which the movie took its title was written in the “exquisite corpse” Surrealist tradition, wherein various artists would take turns to add to a piece of work – whether a poem or painting or anything else. This fit in rather well with the spontaneous prose method and best “first thought best thought” notion that influenced the Beats, and was most noticeably espoused by Kerouac. Part of the poem is included below:
Rob my locker
lick my rocks
leap my cock in school
Rack my lacks
lark my looks
jump right up my hole
Whore my door
beat my door
eat my snake of fool
Craze my hair
bare my poor
asshole shorn of wool
The purpose of this method of composition, later used by William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin in their Cut-up Method, as well as numerous other artists before and after the Beats, was to create a more accurate picture of reality by not over-thinking, and perhaps, as Burroughs often claimed, to cut to the truth that your mind would otherwise hide.
Indeed, the film is best known for being narrated by Kerouac, who again supposedly improvised his lines rather than reading from script or memory. Critics have compared his reading to that of someone in a “trance,” furthering his reputation as a mystical and near mythical artist, while others have noted that he sounded exhausted and that he had lost his youthful playfulness. The film, as mentioned above, was adapted from his play, The Beat Generation, and yet he seems to spontaneously riff the lines rather than reading his pre-written dialogue. There is no sound, and Kerouac speaks the lines for each character, regardless of gender, and narrates everything seemingly as it happens, in his inimitable scat-style.
Come on, Milo. Here comes sweet Milo, beautiful Milo.
Da da da da da.
And they’re going dada da da dada da da da… Let’s go. ‘sgo. ‘sgo.
Listening to him speak, it’s as though he was watching the movie for the first time, just saying the things that came into his head, even if just filler. There are very few periods of silence, and so Kerouac – who does not appear on screen at any stage – dominates the film simply through his voice. This is an attempt to continue Kerouac’s sketching style of writing, wherein he would attempt to note down everything that was going on around him. As such, the camera frequently pans back and forth, attempting to catch all the action as it transpires, rather than take it moment by moment, focusing on one character or one action.
For these reasons, Pull My Daisy, unlike The Beat Generation, was lauded by critics for many years. Like the poem from which it took its name, Pull My Daisy was considered a masterpiece of ad-libbed, off-the-cuff acting and narration. In the movie, key members of the Beat Generation including Ginsberg, Corso, and Peter Orlovsky, goof around, even smoking a joint at one stage. There are fewer hijinks than one might have imagined, and although the Beat characters’ antics result in comedy and farce, the action is toned down. Still, the legend goes that the actors simply did what they felt – being themselves, essentially – while Frank and Leslie recorded it all.
Yet Pull My Daisy, while certainly a Beat movie, and truer to the Beat ethos than the sensationalist attempts in 1959 and later years, was not as spontaneous as it was claimed to be. Nine years later, in 1968, Leslie revealed to the Village Voice that the movie was thoroughly scripted, with the implication being that the apparent improvisation was due to a lack of acting ability on the part of Ginsberg and the others. Later, both directors admitted that the movie had not – as was previously claimed – been shot in Leslie’s apartment, but had instead been filmed on a professional film set with a budget of $15,000. While not a large sum of money for a movie, it shows that the film was not quite what it appeared to be. Ultimately, while it had been implied that the film was just the poets goofing around as themselves, with hip artists filming and the hottest novelist around narrating, essentially gaining the best filmed record of the Beat Generation as it naturally existed, instead it was a carefully constructed piece of fiction. Many hours of film were shot and edited down into the twenty-eight minute film. Additionally, and most shockingly to fans of the movie, Kerouac’s lines had been recorded as many as four times as Amram tinkled on the piano and the movie played silently in front of him. While this is hardly a great crime, it certainly detracts from the movie’s reputation and Kerouac’s supposed adherence to spontaneous prose, and his depiction as the literary jazzman.
In the end, though, it is important to acknowledge that despite Kerouac’s advocacy of spontaneous prose – or even Burroughs’ automatic writing and routines, which are referenced in the film – the Beats were guilty of editing. Burroughs’ nearly unreadable texts were endlessly composed, Kerouac’s famous writing sessions that would end in a publishable book were often edited over many years, and Ginsberg, who tended to differ, only occasionally dabbled in unrevised poetry. It should be, therefore, no great surprise that Pull My Daisy – though it may appear to be entirely unrehearsed – was an answer to their critics. It was a deliberate attempt to perpetuate the notion of the Beats as unrestrained literary bad boys, and to hold their hands up and say that they are not ashamed, for this is their life and it how they wish to live. They considered themselves the Rimbauds of their age, and wanted the world to know. We should be thankful that it is this movie, and not the numerous Hollywood cash-ins, that is preserved, remembered, and freely disseminated online more than fifty years later.
 MGM would release The Beat Generation in 1959, the same year as Pull my Daisy. The movie was not based on any work by any Beat author, but rather was a sensationalist attempt to cash in on the Beat fad.
 The poem itself was set to music by legendary composer and Beat figure, David Amram. However, Ginsberg and Kerouac were reportedly displeased that when the lyrics were sung by Anita Ellis, certain words had been changed.
Love or hate him, venerate or revile him, the life and work of William Seward Burroughs continues to inspire and intrigue. In addition to “The Work,” since his death in 1997 we have seen further biographies, celebrations, collections of letters, and critical studies, as well as restored and even previously unpublished texts. There has been reassessment and re-examination of various aspects of the life and work, starting with Burroughs and Homosexuality in Jamie Russell’s Queer Burroughs, Burroughs and Literature in Michael Stevens’ The Road to Interpose (an encyclopaedic study of “reading Burroughs’ reading” that is surely essential to fan and scholar alike); and more recently, Mayfair Burroughs in the introduction to Graham Masterton’s Rules of Duel.
New discoveries, examinations and re-evaluations continue as we approach the centenary of his birth next year in 2014. Recently we have had “Graphic Novel” Burroughs in Malcolm Mc Neill’s candid memoir Observed While Falling and now Burroughs Occult & Cult in my own humble effort, The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs and David S. Wills’ masterful Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the “Weird Cult.” You could be forgiven for thinking that no turn had been left un-stoned, so to speak. That almost everybody who had ever known or even met William S. Burroughs had been interviewed, or else written about it. That there wasn’t much left to say about Uncle Bill that we didn’t know already.
Well, think again…
Keen-eyed Burroughs enthusiasts may well be aware of the proliferation of blurbs and endorsements from the Great Man for the work of others – usually friends whom he was expressing a genuine appreciation for. One of the most intriguing examples of this is the Introduction that Burroughs wrote in 1971 for the novel Williams Mix by C. J. Bradbury Robinson; a novel that Burroughs himself helped to place with Maurice Girodias and The Olympia Press, who had of course, brought Naked Lunch to print. A publisher’s proof of the book was prepared, and it was included in a press-release of forthcoming titles:
In an age of permissiveness few sexual acts retain the power to shock equal to assaults on children. And yet, in the hands of a writer as skilled as C. J. Bradbury Robinson, this subject takes on an entirely new perspective. With delicacy and sympathetic understanding, Robinson takes us into the minds of both assailant and victim. This is a novel that will stand as a significant social document that will take readers beyond their prejudices and force them to face up to a question that deserves serious consideration…
Even though it proceeds in glowing terms, placing Bradbury Robinson and his writing in the same exalted company as Beckett, Burroughs, Genet, Miller and Nabokov, and promises a “Hardbound. 1972 release” it was not to be: The Olympia Press was struggling under financial pressure and lawsuits brought by the Church of Scientology, and there was no money for new titles. A subsequent attempt to publish the book by Cecil Woolf also failed when a printer refused to produce the edition on moral grounds, and so Williams Mix was lost to literary limbo.
For a contemporary audience, perhaps the most troubling consideration is that the central concern of Williams Mix is an unabashed examination of paederasty. Named after the 1958 composition for pre-recorded magnetic tapes by John Cage (but also with a sly nod to Burroughs, of course) Williams Mix is superbly written, strange, poetic and philosophical by turn, obsessed with the music of language, mournful, lyrical, haunted, surprisingly funny in places, and I would even go as far as to say beautiful – but there is no getting away from the fact that this is a book whose literary engine is fuelled by the pleasures and pains of sexual desire for 10 to 12 year old boys, in much the same way that Burroughs’ own work is driven by an obsession with addiction and Control.
So who was C. J. Bradbury Robinson, and how had Burroughs’ support for this celebration of paederasty come about? The fact that he had helped to place the book with his own former publisher, the length of the text he wrote for the Introduction (in the region of 1,100 words, by far the longest such “endorsement”) – even that he later mentions his “English friend” Bradbury Robinson in The Retreat Diaries – show that this was personal; but for all Robinson’s experimentation with form and use of stream-of-consciousness, this was no Beat peer or fellow-champion of the Cut-Up Method.
In 1967 Christopher Bradbury Robinson was a young Cambridge graduate working as Head of the English Department at a Home Counties prep school. From there he submitted the first draft of his novel, Minor Incidents, to Calder & Boyars, on account of their reputation as champions of the avant-garde. The book so impressed C&B’s editor, Dulan Barber, that over the next eighteen months, in addition to occasional meetings, he sent Robinson several considered, perceptive letters entirely devoted to literary criticism, offering detailed advice as the author twice rewrote the novel, the third and final version being so convincing that Barber advised John Calder to “publish and be damned”. In due course, however, Calder & Boyars regretfully declined, as they felt publication of the book would take them straight back to court – an experience they were in no hurry to repeat after the recent cost to them of defending Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn. Robinson doubts any publisher today would read beyond the first sentence of the original Minor Incidents, and stresses that Dulan Barber, far from querying the novel’s theme, addressed himself solely to matters literary. This was just what Robinson wanted, as it counterpointed his many discussions with William S. Burroughs, which were also mostly concerned with the art of writing.
Feeling the book should be published, even if not by them, Calder & Boyars, with the author’s permission, sent it to Greenleaf Classics, purveyors of gay pulp in California. Robinson, meanwhile, as a way of staying in touch, offered to become a publisher’s reader for Calder & Boyars. Two quite unexpected outcomes emerged from these arrangements: Greenleaf accepted Minor Incidents, amusingly admitting that, the novel being a work of literature, it was unlike anything else on their list! They recognised too that their American readers wouldn’t see the pun artfully hidden in Minor Incidents and therefore recommended instead the title by which the novel has ever since been known: A Crocodile of Choirboys. This, they thought, had more of a ‘bite’ and would give the novel a better chance of selling. In addition, Greenleaf designed for the book its own unique cover, quite different to their customary format. Events proved them right as the title sold thousands of copies, taking everyone by surprise. This was perhaps just as well, for Robinson as a publisher’s reader, was paid by Calder & Boyars solely in books; he could take his pick of their new publications. Once a fortnight he would travel up to London from the school where he was teaching in order to deliver his reader’s reports and collect fresh typescripts. Eighteen months earlier however, as an aspiring author, Robinson had been invited to one of Calder’s parties.
Writing now, Bradbury Robinson says that he wouldn’t have gone at all if it wasn’t for the possibility that Burroughs might show up, which eventually he did:
Not a sign of him when I arrived – I talked for a while to Ann Quin and others – then a stir and there was WSB! I had a feeling he wouldn’t spend much time at this party and, sure enough, after twenty minutes he left. I followed him down the stairs; in the hall stopped him and asked him whether I could ask a question. Burroughs looked me up and down, asked if I’d had supper yet – I said No – he said Come and have dinner with me then – next I knew we were in a taxi and then sitting opposite one another over a dinner table in St James’s.
At the end of the meal, Robinson asked Burroughs for his phone number, and if they could meet again next time he came up to London – and so began a series of visits that lasted until Robinson moved to North Africa in 1971. Sometimes Burroughs would ring him at the school where he was teaching: “Occasionally the Headmaster would enter my classroom and say: There’s a call for you, Christopher. It’s William Burroughs… Or: William Burroughs on the line for you, Christopher… The boys would immediately sit up straight in their desks and, in awed voices tinged with irony, chorus: WIL-LIAM BUR-ROUGHS!”
Once or twice a month he would take the run up to town, call on Burroughs, and they would talk and drink and talk together, usually just the two of them, and often long into the night. Right from the very beginning, Robinson was struck by the combination of Burroughs’ courageous examination of everything, relentless questioning, and completely open-minded, non-judgemental consideration of whatever he turned his attention to. Though Burroughs had already read versions of Minor Incidents in typescript, indeed recommending the novel to Maurice Girodias at Olympia Press and Richard Seaver at Grove Press, nonetheless it was with some trepidation Robinson handed his friend the 1970 Phenix Publishers PR283,
Greenleaf Classics, A Crocodile of Choirboys. He remembers: “On my next visit I asked him what he thought of it. Unhesitatingly he replied You’re a writer! When I looked less than pleased, Burroughs said, Don’t be disappointed – those are the exact words Beckett said to me – You’re a writer!”
The two writers bonded over their shared love of literature, but they also enjoyed frank and far-ranging discussions about the many-and-various forms of sexuality expressing the full range of the human condition. Robinson recalls Burroughs looking at Piccolo and other “boy porn” magazines, openly on sale in London at that time (1969) – indeed, from shops in Brewer Street, the location of the offices of Calder & Boyars! Burroughs would comment on them as if he were reviewing an exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, discussing the photographs in terms of lighting, camera angles, the attractiveness of the models, all discussed purely aesthetically. This anecdote makes it clear Burroughs found nothing reprehensible about the photographs, and therefore nothing reprehensible about paederasty – quite the opposite, in fact. Robinson writes: “It’s obvious Burroughs was extremely interested in these magazines, as one would be if one were a student of human sexuality – which Burroughs was… Let’s not forget Burroughs respected Freud for his detached examination of sexuality, and agreed with Freud no wall divides the mad from the sane or the so-called normal from the so-called perverse…”
The vast majority of their conversations, however, were on the subject of writing, their favourite writers, and the avant-garde and writing techniques. They would return again and again to the alchemy of writing – its music, even: “Burroughs would pull from his typewriter the page he was currently working on (Dutch Schultz or Port of Saints), hand it to me and say, Musical enough for you, Brad? And we would examine the writing as a musical score.”
On the subject of how to turn “the base metal of prose into the gold of poetry” and comparing and contrasting favourite writers who had perhaps achieved something of this, Burroughs would bring up his beloved Denton Welch and Jean Genet, and Robinson would counter with Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Samuel Beckett. Although Robinson notes Burroughs’ obvious admiration for Beckett – an enthusiasm they both shared – he also comments on his doubt that Burroughs had actually read that much by him, and almost certainly had not seen a production of Waiting For Godot. He also observes: “Come to think of it, his flat was marked by an astonishing absence of books.” On the subject of Genet, Robinson adds:
WSB once said to me that ‘Genet does things with words you would not think could be done with words’… WSB at his best achieves the same astonishing aesthetic: there are lines – whole paragraphs even – which are so moving, so beautiful, one thinks an angel must have written them – not this dope fiend in suit and tie smiling at one across the table!
Speaking of the dope-fiend-in-suit-and-tie, Robinson is quite clear that because he personally had no interest in either drugs or The Beats, he believes Burroughs found his approach very refreshing, and that what appealed most to Burroughs was that Robinson was interested in him only as a writer. He is also clear about the fact that his friendship with Burroughs occurred at a time when the “glamorous myth” of the “icon of cool” had not yet completely taken over — a development which he agrees Burroughs colluded with, to the later detriment of his standing as a serious writer. Looking back now he marvels at the candid access he was fortunate enough to enjoy:
As we conversed about writing – about what one could do with words, about what words did to one – I gradually became aware how nervous Burroughs was about his own talent and about his literary reputation; in fact, how humble he was about his writing – which is perhaps why this Master (as I viewed him then) was so willing to help a Novice (as I viewed myself).
During their many hundreds of hours in conversation together, Bradbury Robinson found himself able to observe from close up the pursuit of that “frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork” and witness first hand as Burroughs brought that same unflinching honesty and scrutiny to bear on his own life and work:
Late one Saturday evening, after we’d drunk most of a bottle and as I was preparing to leave, Burroughs coiled his fingers tightly around my wrist, pulled me towards him and asked me this memorable question: I’m not a one-book writer, am I? I will be remembered for more than Naked Lunch, won’t I? I wouldn’t say he was near to tears, but he was certainly very upset. I told him what I thought then and still think now is the truth: You’ll be remembered for the trilogy: Naked Lunch / The Soft Machine / The Ticket That Exploded… And as you know I think The Soft Machine is the best of the three – and then I quoted a few lines to him from memory: ‘sad train whistles cross a distant sky blue magic of all movies’… Slowly his fingers around my wrist relaxed and he escorted me to the door, one arm around my shoulders.
Robinson also got to see a more human side to El Hombre Invisible:
He lived, if not an austere, at least a simple life – apart, that is, from his St James’s apartment (when I knew him) and his Savile Row suits and handmade shoes from Lobb in Jermyn Street. I always referred to him as the best-dressed man in London. Flawlessly courteous too – and kind. I remember walking down Piccadilly with him and being astonished when he dropped a five pound note into the hat of an unemployed man playing the violin. Burroughs must have guessed what I was thinking, for he commented: ‘No matter how poor one is, Brad, there are always others poorer…’
Most of Bradbury Robinson’s visits to Burroughs were undisturbed by even so much as a telephone call, but he never felt that the older writer was lacking for company:“He once said to me: I’m never alone, Brad – I have my characters… And one could sense they were there in the room…”
He did have occasion to meet some of his other friends and visitors, however. Apart from a rather fraught visit from Billy Jr. (clearly desperate for money), visits from Allen Ginsberg, and “toward the end, once or twice some ghastly rent boy from Piccadilly,” the other main encounter he remembers is with Brion Gysin. Initially Robinson knew only of Gysin as the artist responsible for the paintings hanging on the walls of Burroughs’ flat, and the painter himself was wary until Burroughs broke the ice with “Brad thinks your paintings are a meeting of East and West, specifically Japanese calligraphy and Paul Klee.” After this Gysin was friendly and civilized, and Robinson discussed his interest in visiting Switzerland to live with Benedictine Monks (mentioned in The Retreat Diaries – included in The Burroughs File anthology from City Lights. At the urging of Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs goes on one of the Retreats of Chögyam Trungpa. Considering Tibetan Buddhism and the tonal and nagual of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, he writes “I was thinking about Bradbury Robinson, an English friend who was then going in for Mystical Christianity” – and it is implied that he is one of the test-subjects that Burroughs will try to contact via astral projection, or at least visit in a dream.)
As an undergraduate at Cambridge, Robinson had been invited to visit the community at the Benedictine Abbey of Ampleforth in North Yorkshire, where he met Father Aelred Graham (England’s leading authority on Zen Buddhism, and author of Zen Catholicism) and the then Abbot, Basil Hume, later Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. Thinking Robinson might have a vocation, the Abbot suggested he might like to spend a while living with the monks of a Benedictine Abbey in the Swiss Alps, as he knew they were short of someone to teach English in their school. As Gysin had himself been taught by Benedictine Monks at Downside School in Somerset, he could understand Robinson’s interest.
Bradbury Robinson relates an amusing anecdote from this time which demonstrates both how aware Burroughs was of his younger friend’s spiritual interests, and yet at the same time at ease with the notion of paederasty:
Not long after meeting Gysin, when we were again on our own, Burroughs, knowing of my interest in the possible overlap between Christian Mysticism and Zen Buddhism, suggested I investigate Tibetan Buddhism, even visit a Tibetan monastery. Isn’t it rather cold in Tibet? I observed. Burroughs knew I didn’t much care for the cold. His lips twitched with delight, as if I had fallen into a hole he had carefully dug. Oh, you needn’t worry about the cold, Brad! Being a visitor from the West you’ll be taken good care of. At night the monastery will pack little boy novices all around and on top of you to keep you warm. A duvet of boys. You’ll be snug as a bug in a rug! Burroughs sipped his whisky and then we laughed simultaneously.
In spring 1971, Robinson wrote an essay on Samuel Beckett, which was published by The Cambridge Quarterly. He then wrote a follow-up, A Way With Words: The Theme of Silence in William S. Burroughs, in which he considered the work of his friend, with a particular emphasis on The Soft Machine, an examination of Silence in the work of both Burroughs and Beckett, and of course sexuality. The Cambridge Quarterly however refused to publish it, on the grounds that, “We don’t think William Burroughs matters very much” – but Robinson himself was under no illusions about the matter: “What they meant was they didn’t want any ‘porn’ fouling their pristine pages!” Regrettably, the essay has never yet been published – despite the fact that Burroughs himself gave it high praise, saying he preferred it over Eric Mottram’s The Algebra of Need (which he dismissed as “work typical of an academic”) and signing a copy of The Soft Machine with the dedication “For Bradbury Robinson, With all best wishes and appreciation for one of the very few intelligent critical essays on my writing, William S. Burroughs.”
A Way With Words… is indeed a fine piece of work and something of a lost gem where Burroughs Literary Criticism is concerned. Oliver Harris has written that it is: “…really interesting and insightful, a pleasure to read. Had it been published in, say, 1970, it would have had no rival other than Tony Tanner’s very good piece (in his book City of Words).”
Bradbury Robinson examines the trilogy of Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, and The Ticket That Exploded, wherein the problem of communication is central, and makes an intriguing comparison between William S. Burroughs and Samuel Beckett: “Mr Beckett’s purpose is to say again and again that there is nothing to say; Mr Burroughs’ purpose to speak words again and again until words lose their meaning, human beings their desire to talk.”
Referencing George Steiner’s 1967 essay Silence and the Poet, Robinson describes the possible limits of Poetry – as expressed in Rimbaud and Hölderlin – but refutes the notion that “the inhumanity of this century, the bestiality of Man, has undermined language to the point where the only decent response is silence” and goes on to consider Direct Action, Ionesco and the Zen Masters, before stating: “What is so striking about Mr. Beckett and Mr Burroughs, so new, is that the song they sing is of the silence. That is their difference and this the paradox.”
There follows a detailed consideration of Burroughs’ tape-recorder experiments, a comparison with Steve Reich’s “Come Out,” our understanding of Space & Time, Eliot’s Four Quartets and Paul Tillich on the Crucifixion; then a consideration of sex that ranges from Freud’s polymorphous perversity via Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, to the paederasty of Andre Gide, Michel Tournier, and Tony Duvert, with Robinson asserting:“Despite appearances to the contrary, sexuality is as taboo today as it ever was – hence the fascination.”
There follows a pretty shrewd criticism of the trilogy, comparing the avant-garde techniques to composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, pulling Burroughs up on a lot of what Robinson sees as self-indulgence and sloppiness, enthusing that his work would not be considered so “difficult” if:
…we recall certain writers whom he has always reminded me of – the verbal brilliance but ‘off the wall’ themes of Ezra Pound, for example, the Virginia Woolf of The Waves, the grotesqueries one meets in Dickens, the passion of Emily Brontë, the ‘madness’ of Christopher Smart, Jonathan Swift’s venom, even present in his gently humorous Directions to Servants, not forgetting, of course, Laurence Sterne…
And finally an appreciation of the “extraordinary fertility” of Burroughs’ imagination – how he “delights us with his wit” but also “distresses us with his stark despair” – but how, in the end, for Bradbury Robinson it is The Soft Machine that is most valuable:
…because it is, more or less, a continuous stream of poetry, which at times communicates moments of sadness (the emotion Mr Burroughs is best at evoking) so intense they make one ache with pain, grief-stricken, like the author, at remembered loss, and these moments are so intense, so sincere, so well-conveyed, they would alone convince me of the stature of Mr Burroughs.
Not surprisingly, Burroughs clearly appreciated the essay. When Robinson asked him to write an Introduction to his new novel, Williams Mix, even though he found the work difficult – even troubling in places – he was happy to oblige.
Williams Mix is a strange book – not least of all for its paederastic obsessions. Although shot through with some beautiful, quite poetic, descriptive passages – “The moon rose white, a circle of paper in the night sky, and hung there, riding the tendrils of the chaste and chasing clouds” – it mainly consists of repeating, overlapping, and intersecting narratives that the author describes as a “dish of voices” – disagreeing with Burroughs’ comparison of writing to film, insisting rather that it is more accurately like a radio play – with all the voices only really existing within the imagination of the narrator. A schoolboy, William, spins a yarn about a possible assault by an elderly tramp. The tramp too has a story to tell about his younger self as a patient of another William, Dr. Bearpark. That younger self too tells a story, principally about his relationship with his mother, and the different voices that the characters have internalised – from parents, teachers, and authority figures representing conformity and “normality” – all have their turn upon the stage, the various stories weaving in and out in a strange dance across Time and Memory, confirming and contradicting and sometimes even cancelling each other.
The narrator wants to Get Back to the prelapsarian state of the male child before the onset of puberty, a state depicted as both Silent and Timeless, before the damage that was done to him – the trauma of his Fall, which may-or-may-not have been sexual abuse by a paederast:
He had no desires, or none that he was aware of, and therefore nothing to assuage, appease, allay, alleviate, which is precisely what made him so desirable…
He had no desires, or none that he knew of, only the wish to be left alone, and, left alone, he would sit quietly, as he is now, doing nothing, and if only all people could be as enlightened as he is, sitting quietly, doing nothing, what a peaceful world it would be, paradise regained.
The terrible and cruel irony is that he can conceive of doing so only through sexual union with a boy of 10 or 11, an avatar of his own child Self, until he realises in the midst of an LSD-therapy session with the demonic and demented Dr. Bearpark (doing for psychiatry what Burroughs’ Dr. Benway did for the medical profession) that what he wants to do actually is go back in Time and possess his child Self so as, quite literally, to become him, again:
Time join me as a man to the schoolboy I loved time connect me as a boy to the man I wanted to love me then time splice in the voices of choristers photograph fulfilment fix it forever…
I tell you it does make sense: photographic past splice in with reality present gently slowly the years recede disappear vanish in an orgasm flash bulb of eternity now.
In his Introduction, Burroughs immediately singles out this notion of sex as a form of psychic time travel as key, a preoccupation that he was no stranger to himself:
If there is one thing you can say with computerized certainty about any sexual feeling it is this: it is a repetition of a previously experienced sexual feeling. Pleasure is the repetition of past pleasure. So someone who is attracted to small boys is simply attempting to travel back in time and re-experience his own past pleasure.
Although Burroughs’ own obsession was with an imaginary return to a heavily homoeroticised fantasy of adolescence, rather than the pre-pubescent boy, it is clear from his Introduction that the poetry of Robinson’s prose, with its mournful longing for lost youth, spoke to him:
Mr. Bradbury Robinson describes this as a book of voices. However the descriptive passages, that is, the pictorial passages give these voices life… ‘he looked at the grey clouds and thought of Summer when it was hot and the boys sat in cotton shorts and open necked shirts the heat seemed to make a sound like unseen wings and it was hard to stay awake… thoughts leapfrog through my mind searching the past…’ Searching for the boy left back there ‘playing marbles, flying aeroplanes, playing football, chasing each other…’
It isn’t hard to see how he would have also been fascinated with Robinson’s descriptions of the voices-in-our-heads – so close to his own preoccupations with Control, Language-as-Virus, and Possession – and his Introduction poses the question of just who exactly is talking to whom? “Mr Bradbury Robinson who is seemingly so rarefied and esoteric is actually saying something basic about the human condition… This book then is something for everybody to read not just those who may share Mr. Bradbury Robinson’s sexual interest in small boys. This book is the human impasse.”
After praising the descriptive powers of the writer, and what he sees as “the courage of desperation” in his work, Burroughs closes with an extraordinary consideration of what might actually happen if Bradbury Robinson’s Narrator could travel back in Time and meet his idealised 10-year-old Self: “What happens when they stand face to face? It looks like an old Western shoot down. The boy kills Bradbury Robinson so he can grow up. Or Bradbury Robinson kills the boy so he will never have to grow up.”
Burroughs himself clearly had a pronounced Romantic yearning for the idylls (real or imaginary) of his own lost adolescence, and undoubtedly this is behind much of the homo-eroticised “Boy’s Own” emphasis in his work (what Malcolm Mc Neill has described as “the tree-house” – a kind of liminal space of All Boys Together, where women are Not Welcome or even necessary.) Clearly a case can be made that his sexuality was to some extent stuck at the level of this pubescent boy, discovering his own body and the bodies of other boys, and thus the objects of his erotic engagement were youths: adolescents and young adults. This is more-or-less confirmed in a conversation Burroughs had with Andy Warhol and Andre Leon-Talley that was among those recorded by Victor Bockris for With William Burroughs: A Report From The Bunker:
Warhol: What kind of people do you like?
Burroughs: Young boys.
Leon-Talley: How young do you like them?
Burroughs: Oh, say from fourteen to twenty-five…
For the record, Bradbury Robinson insists that while Burroughs was most definitely not a paederast (Graham Caveney take note), he “delighted in challenging what we now call Political Correctness, especially with regard to sexual matters.”
In 1971 Robinson would go to live in North Africa, then after a year take up a teaching position in Saudi Arabia. Eventually he would make his way to Switzerland for two memorable years living the Benedictine life without actually becoming a monk. Burroughs himself returned definitively to the States in 1974, and although he later invited his friend “Brad” to go and stay with him at The Bunker, it was not to be. C. J. Bradbury Robinson would go on to become a practising Kleinian psychoanalyst, and Williams Mix would languish, while ironically his other novels would become sought-after collector’s items in the twilight world of literary erotica. In 2004 he began to revise the texts of his earlier works, eventually publishing at his own expense in a handsome edition substantial excerpts from A Crocodile of Choirboys (restored to Minor Incidents), the follow-up Young Thomas (about the love between a young Prep School English Teacher and the eponymous 11-year-old boy who is his favourite pupil) and Williams Mix, complete with its Introduction by William S. Burroughs. More than 40 years after they were originally written, they have at last seen “the dark of print” together, and are currently available from Out Now Press of London and Den Haag, or via www.amazon.co.uk.
In closing, I would like to say Thank You to Christopher Bradbury Robinson for his time, friendship, and the extensive correspondence in which he has challenged, inspired, provoked, and been so very generous with his memories regarding the man he calls his “friend and mentor” William S. Burroughs. I think the last word belongs to him:
My abiding impression of Burroughs is of an impeccably dressed wonderfully polite gentleman, a sort of Southern gentleman of the old school. He was also immensely generous with his time and very kind. His conversation was, by turns, witty, scathing, insightful, above all, funny. He was an original, a one-off, just as his prose is original. I have known quite a few eminent men, but no one quite like William Burroughs!
Author’s note: All quotations attributed to C. J. Bradbury Robinson in this article are taken either from correspondence or face-to-face interviews with the author, and are used with his express permission.
By Neil Reddy
Originally published in Beatdom #14
There are two questions that have to be asked about Beat movies. What do we want and why can’t they get it right?
If we’re looking for Beat movies as in expressions of the flow and rhythm of Beat poetry and Jazz Bebop, then you have to go to the source material: Pull My Daisy (1959), or The Flower Thief (1960), or Howl (2010). If you want to get derivative, try any college arts course or gifted YouTube contributor – if you can’t find them there, then get on your laptop and build your own. But, if you’re looking for fictional movies about the poets and the Beat Generation, then the latter question remains valid – why can’t they get it right?
It seemed to go wrong from the off with The Beat Generation (1959), which stole the title Kerouac had planned to use on Pull My Daisy. The Beat Generation is nothing more than a sleaze noir flick whose villain, a serial rapist no less, has Beat connections and “makes the scene” to find his victims. (It also includes a scuba diving chase scene which I’ve yet to discover any reference to in the Beat oeuvre.) The British contribution, Beat Girl (1960), was also sleaze-based, although more coffee bar centric and lacking any scuba scenes. It was just another moralistic tale, warning of the dangers of fast living and weird teenage kicks. Alas, the high pinnacle of these two masterpieces in bilge was not to be maintained. Since those heady days, the genre has repeatedly fallen flat on its face with badly scripted melodramas like Heart Beat (1980), or the incident led biopics Kill Your Darlings (2013) and Beat (2000), but, while being competent films, their Beat element is almost superfluous.
Some valiant efforts have been attempted. The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997), does well to catch the cultural context which many of the other films fail to do, and On the Road (2012), did well to get across the feel of its source material even though some of the alterations were difficult to understand – why is Sal mourning the death of his father when it’s the break-up of his marriage in the novel?
Naked Lunch (1991), like the novel, stands alone and must be respected for its sheer audacity to exist at all but, again, its focus is not in capturing the energy of the creative milieu that made the Beats what they were; and therein lies the problem and what should be the solution to the problem. The actual act of writing is not cinematic – although Henry & June (1990) and Quiet Days in Clichy (1990) prove there are always soft porn options. It’s the interactions between these young men and women that could be, must be, film-worthy. So why don’t they film that?
On the Road (2012) captures some of this spark but does a better job of portraying the grind of the road which unfortunately dissipates the energy, conflict, and humour that must have been evident when the Beats were gathered. The “far out” premise of Pull My Daisy (1959) shows this to be true.
The British comedy film The Rebel (America knows it as Call me a Genius (1961)) may be one of the best non-Beat, Beat films ever made, as it doesn’t take the subject too seriously and yet manages to mock the art establishment and satirise European intellectualism, whilst capturing the stifling status quo that the Beats were kicking against.
So what do we want from a Beat movie? We need the colour and tone of Bird (1988); the social bite of Up the Junction (1968); the grime of Barfly (1987); the wit of Factotum (2005); and the exuberance of… dare I say Animal House (1978)? Perhaps not but you can see the problem.
In the end, perhaps we are asking or expecting too much from a commercial film industry. Perhaps our best hopes do lie with the YouTube generation? Think about selling your Beat movie proposal: “We want you to give us money to make a movie about a bunch of kids in the late 1940s and 50s who live together and write poetry and books and the movie needs to be funny, energetic, sexy, character-centred, contemplative, introverted and dialogue rich whilst lacking explosions, machines guns, and ethno-centrically vague but identifiable terrorists.” Really, who are we trying to kid?
It’s said a movie is ruined three times: when you write it, when you talk about it, and when you make it… so let me give you the opening scene to my movie and you can ruin the rest for yourself.
Black screen – music Mingus – opening scene viewed from above – daylight, summer field – girl with long hair opens copy of On the Road – camera beads in on page – flash montage of cultural icons – Lady Gaga, Obama, Bowie, Dylan, Nixon, Chi Guevara, Lennon, Kennedy, Monroe, James Dean, Elvis, Brando, Miles Davis etc. – the montage moves faster and faster until it fades into a crowded room where the Beats are laughing, smoking and reading their poetry.
In 1957 Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky were in the midst of the obscenity trials in the US surrounding the publication of Ginsberg’s poem Howl. After being shunned by the clean-cut conservative American public, (who despised homosexuality and Ginsberg’s outspoken nature in the radicalised work) the pair went left to seek refuge in more liberal and artistic France. Eventually the couple sought exile with fellow Beat poet Gregory Corso in their very own sanctuary of creativity which happened to be a no-name, beaten-up hotel at 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur in the Latin quarter of Paris. The cheap and tacky hotel was later to be christened the Beat hotel by Corso.
The rent at the 42 roomed hotel cost as little as 10 francs a night with the cheapest rooms containing a single bed that had two sheets and a army blanket, radiator, cold-water tap, small table and chairs, and three hooks. The rooms and hallways were dimly lit and the bedrooms had a small window facing the stairwell. The other rooms that were slightly more pleasant then the cheaper ones included such commodities as a telephone and a gas cooker, but the hotel owner, Madame Rachou, was very particular about who stayed. She didn’t mind if they were gay or in interracial relationships and she particularly liked the open-minded creative sorts – she even allowed artists and writers to pay in the form of manuscripts and artwork and she would allow inventive artists to paint and decorate their rooms how ever so they wished.
Other people that also stayed at the 9 Rue Gît-Le-Coeur residence were the likes of prostitutes, erratic poets, oddball French folks, pimps and also policemen (certain police officers even had a secret mistress that stayed in the hotel).
Despite the owner’s well-wishes and good nature, the hotel was still known as a “Class 13” – meaning it was bottom of the heap, just a pure sight of decrepitude and disrepair. A minor bonus that the hotel did offer was the privilege of hot water which was offered on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as a bath in the only bathtub that was situated on the ground floor. The ground floor close to the lobby and near the bar was where the Beat writers spent most of their time drinking, smoking, eating, and conversing while Madame Rouche prepared sandwiches for the police and the officers in turn would pay no attention to the scent of hashish that drifted around the bar area.
Rue Gît-Le-Coeur on left bank in the 50s was a lively happening place that bustled with bohemian students, destitute winos, and ladies of the night as the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral, and Fontaine Saint-Michel provided a fine view in the backdrop. As the narrow streets housed the homeless sleeping wherever they could, the hotel accommodation that surrounded the pathways sheltered writers, musicians, artists, and models that came from the nearby school of fine arts known as the École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. It wasn’t only hotels in the district of Rue Gît-Le-Coeur. The tiny medieval region also had a vast array of dusty book shops, antiques shops, art galleries, avant-garde publishing houses and small presses, art cafes as well as drug dealers dealing in broad daylight in the cafes.
In 1956 William S. Burroughs attempted to cure his drug addiction with the help of London physician John Dent. After completion of the treatment he moved to the Beat Hotel to join his friends. Burroughs moved under the recommendation of Allen Ginsberg as Ginsberg thought it would help his friend escape the heroin scene. At the hotel Burroughs began writing patchy, disconnected, and hallucinatory manuscripts that would later become apart of his novel Naked Lunch. Although Burroughs had the help of Ginsberg and Kerouac to edit the novel it too fell to the same ill-fate of Ginsberg’s Howl as it was called upon by the US obscenity trials in the 60s.
He was also introduced to the Dada art technique of cut-up writing by English born artist, writer and sound poet Brion Gysin as Gysin stumbled upon the style by pure accident when the pair wrote together in room number fifteen in the spring of 1958. Burroughs took this method one step further and began cutting up photographs and artwork. This cut-up technique, which could be said to have been invented by Tristan Tzara in the late 1920s, involved cutting sections of writing out of newspaper then putting then them back together in new and creative ways. Whilst staying at the hotel from 1959 to 1963 Harold Norse also experimented with the cut-up style whilst he penned his 280 page novel called The Beat Hotel.
Brion Gysin moved to Paris in 1934 where he studied the open course La Civilisation Française at the Sorbonne University, an academy that wasn’t too far from the Beat Hotel. His most famous creation at the hotel was in the early 1960s with fellow creator Ian Somerville called the Dream Machine. The creation which was the only piece of art that can be viewed with your eyes closed and is meant to stimulate the brain’s alpha patterns with rhythmic strobing light effects thus producing a natural high. The device is a large piece of cardboard with slits down the side and spun on a gramophone turntable. In the middle a light bulb hangs down to the centre creating a flicker effect as the machine spins. The pair had calculated it to flicker at fifteen flickers per second resulting in a type of hypnotic trance-like state. The device seemed to take off as people began to take notice and the creators were due to market their work as a representative turned up at the hotel, but as luck would have it the rep ended up breaking his leg in the hallway which ended with the creation never seeing the light of day.
As the years passed the beats were beginning to be noticed on the international scene as word spread across the globe that the wonderful, tiny, wild, and heavily neglected hotel in France was the place to be and from the years 1957 to 1963 Ginsberg, Orlovsky, Burroughs, Corso, and Sommerville were joined by other imaginative creators from England and Europe. The Beat Generation had officially taken over the Latin Quarter of Paris, creating a symbolic freedom of mind, a simple atmosphere where they could escape the troubles of their homelands in a place that was much more tolerant of anything written or in the visual arts. France in that time was way ahead of up-tight countries like England and America. Although the Beats couldn’t actually speak a word of French they did have in their group the French artist, poet, publisher, and activist Jean-Jacques Lebel who they would use as their go-between. Label also introduced the group to the Partisan art community that included the likes of Marcel Duchamp and André Breton.
Great works of poetic art was also being produced at the hotel as Ginsberg started work on his second poem Kaddish and Gregory Corso created some of his most famous works whilst living in the hotel’s attic like his controversial piece called Bomb that was written in the shape of a mushroom cloud.
English photographer Harold Chapman spent a year living in the attic with Corso, documenting photo-by-photo the scene that was happening around him. According to Ginsberg Chapman didn’t speak to anyone for two years because he wanted to be invisible – transcribing the environment without him in it. Chapman came up with the idea of making a photographic book called My Paris whilst working as a waiter in Soho. After hitchhiking to Paris a friend told him that he must see this crazy hotel in the area and was later introduced to Ginsberg and Orlovsky, the rest was to be photographic history.
By the time the trial for Naked Lunch ended in the early 60s (resulting with the novel being made example of and prosecuted for being too obscene by the state of Massachusetts followed by other states in the US and the rest of the world) the Beat Hotel ceased to be as Madame Rachou retired in 1963. Harold Chapman was the last person to leave.
Nowadays the tramps that covered the streets of Rue Gît-Le-Coeur are gone, the prostitutes that hung around the wine bars have moved on, and those bohemian types have been replaced with camera-snapping American, English, and other Western world tourists that have now taken over the place. Rue Gît-Le-Coeur is now a tourist destination and the time of the beat generation has long since died a creative death. ‘Ci-Gît’ is an old expression found on French graves meaning ‘here lies’ and Rue Gît-Le-Coeur is said to signify ‘here lies the heart’, yet all that stands at once the heart of the beat movements Beat hotel (which this isn’t even the Beat hotel, the original Beat hotel has been closed for decades the one that it’s actually placed against use to be an apartment building) is a bronze plaque with the words: B. Gysin, N. Norse, G. Corso, A. Ginsberg, P. Orlovsky, I. Sommerville and W. Burroughs scrawled across it like some gravestone reminder of what was once a artistic environment.