Almost two years ago the world of Beat studies was rocked by the discovery of a seemingly lost piece of history: the fabled Joan Anderson Letter. Written by Neal Cassady and sent to Jack Kerouac, the letter played a pivotal role in American literary history, only to supposedly be lost overboard into the cold Pacific Ocean. Continue Reading…
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“He looks so old!” was my first thought as the hospital elevator doors parted, revealing my dad. I was aghast at the vision before me. He appeared to have aged twenty years since I’d seen him the year before. His skin was weathered and tanned, his clean-shaven face was wrinkled and worn, and his neatly combed hair was wispy and sparse. Despite the grin on Dad’s face, his faded blue eyes disclosed the harsh life he’d been leading. If I hadn’t known his age (41), I would’ve guessed he was at least 70 years old. Seeing him like that broke my heart.
Not many prose writers alive (Céline, Genet, a few others) would dare the freedom and intelligence to trust their own minds, remember they made that jump, not censor it but write it down and discover its beauty. That’s what I look for in K’s prose. He’s gone very far out in discovering (or remembering, or transcribing) the perfect patterns that his own mind makes, and trusting them, and seeing their importance – to rhythm, to imagery, to the very structure of the “novel.”
– Allen Ginsberg, Village Voice (1958) Continue Reading…
In 2013 I was asked to review a book called The Stray Bullet, about William S. Burroughs’ years in Mexico. I described it as “unreadable,” which made it rather surprising when, a year and a half later, the publishers asked me to review another book by the same author and translator – Jorge Garcia-Robles and Daniel C. Schechter – called At the End of the Road: Jack Kerouac in Mexico. Garcia-Robles styles himself as the “leading authority on the Beats in Mexico” and as with the first book, this concerns a major Beat figure in the author’s homeland.
Naturally, I found myself dreading this book, as reading the Burroughs one had been little more than a chore. When I opened the front cover and saw that they’d credited a photo to one “Allan Ginsberg” (sic), I was sure that I was about to slog through another entirely incomprehensible text. Continue Reading…
It’s been an exciting few years for fans of the Beat Generation. Since Beatdom was founded, we have seen the release of a number of high profile movie adaptations (including Howl and On the Road), the publication of previously unpublished Beat works like The Sea is My Brother, and various major anniversaries (including the fifty years that have passed since Howl and On the Road were published, as well as the centenary of the birth of William S. Burroughs). Perhaps as a result of these events we have witnessed a revival of interest in the Beats, and as such a plethora of new critical works on their lives and art. Beat studies is thriving and the Beats are gaining respect as an important part of literary and cultural history. Continue Reading…
“It was the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves.”
– Jack Kerouac
In 1950, Jack Kerouac read a 16,000 word letter written by his friend and muse, Neal Cassady, that was so revolutionary it caused him to abandon previous attempts at the project that would eventually become On the Road. His new style – later to be dubbed “bop spontaneous prose” – would radically alter literature and culture in the latter half of the twentieth century. Kerouac’s innovation – directly taken from Cassady’s letter – would make his novel, On the Road, one of the most important pieces of literature of the century, going on to influence writers, artists, film-makers, and musicians for decades.
According to Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg – to whom Kerouac loaned the letter – lent it to a friend, Gerd Stern, who dropped it in the ocean and it was lost forever. “It was my property, a letter to me, so Allen shouldn’t have been so careless with it, nor the guy [who dropped it],” a typically belligerent late-60s Kerouac told the Paris Review. Kerouac reportedly wanted the letter to published so that his friend would gain even more counterculture fame than he already had.
However, the disappearance of the letter would appear to have been Ginsberg’s attempt to publish it, rather than a careless mishandling by the sea. It was sent to the offices of Golden Goose Press, who also published Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Creeley, but this publishing company soon shut its doors and the contents of the business were boxed and forgotten. While the intention was to throw everything in the trash, many files were rescued by the operator of a music label who shared the building, and – according to his daughter, who found the letter – couldn’t fathom throwing away someone’s words.
It was a performance artist called Jean Spinosa who found the letter two years ago. It will go on sale December 17th, with most Beat fans hoping that the buyer will make it available to the public. It has become legend in the annals of Beat history and this event is for all Beat enthusiasts truly monumental.
For a great write-up, please visit The Beat Museum website.
Passionate Kerouac starts off, “I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD…”and then explains Dean as, “no dopey hot-rodder but a real intelligent (in fact, Jesuit) Irishman.” Come on, Mar, how can you resist? And Jack’s funny: “I’ll show you how Dean acts in real life.” Jack is going to show America’s best ever actor how to act, and he extends an invitation to visit Neal and the wife and kiddies. Far out, Jack, I wanna be there, too. And a bit of a PR man plugging The Subterraneans, his latest novel, which he notes can easily be turned into a play. And ambitious: “What I wanta do is re-do the theatre and the cinema in America.” Write on, Jack, give it “spontaneous dash.” He mentions Frank Sinatra and French cinema and all Jack’s ideas are dazzling, terrific, glorious ideas.
Jack—I love him forever for this—challenges the great Brando, the ex-boxer, “I coulda been a contender” Malloy. “Come on, Marlon, put up your dukes and write!” And what does Marlon do? Nothing. He never answers Jack’s letter.
Oh, MARLON, you coulda done it, you broke our hearts. Jack, we’re still feeling your pain.
Only one other person could have played Dean, and that would have been the wild, unorthodox, intelligent, rebellious, athletic, “frantic cat,” and Adonis of Denver, Neal Cassady. Art imitating life and life imitating art, and Neal just being Dean being Neal, an American original, as American as hot apple pie left on the windowsill to cool and snatched by a wayward cowboy.
One tiny be-it-too-late suggestion, Jack – you shoulda followed your letter with another letter from that public relations wiz, Master Ginsberg. Or better yet, sent Ambassador Ginsberg on a mission. How could Brando refuse?
On the set of the movie Heart Beat, the story of Carolyn Cassady’s relationship with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs dwelled on the thought of Jack’s obsession with writing: “Who had killed Neal Cassady?” Dean Moriarty killed Neal Cassady. “He had died of exposure. And who had killed Jack Kerouac? A spy in his body known as Jack Kerouac the writer.” Life and art.
*Image by Isaac Bonan
Big beautiful black
47 Cadillac limo to Chicago i
Dreamboat in the fast American night
Ball the jack all the whitewall way
Zooming steady 110
Car thief 500
Angel of Terror
Fender cracked . . . bender
“I can’t stand it any more, I can’t look.”
Down on the floor of racing horrors
Fears of crash
Hid in backseat
Time to get out — fast
i Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. (New York: Viking 2007),. p. 322-340.
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.
The summer, the fall, and the winter of discontent, shovel after shovel of snow that turns to filthy slush, as in slush pile (publishers’ slush piles) . . . the discontent of youth, the discontent of marriage, the discontent of writers, the discontent of New Yorkers, and the discontent that turns to temporary joy at the nightclub The Go Hole. “Go! Go!” and “gone.” The discontent of life right from the beginning, as whimsically stated by William Blake:
“My mother groan’d! my father weapt.
Into the dangerous world I leapt” i
Go the 1952 novel by John Clellon Holmes is a must for any serious Beat reader. It has none of the poetry of Kerouac, but provides an authentic background and clear insight into character, especially chilling are portraits of Bill Cannastra and Neal Cassady. Holmes delivers compelling studies of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and some more minor characters, such as a sympathetic one of Luanne Henderson.
Go was published five years before On the Road, “your book was accepted and mine rejected,” ii in an ironic, fascinating bit of publishing history. “What do I do now? . . . It’s been nothing but a dream all along. How can I earn money? What job can I do?” All those years of writing, gathering material, writing, writing, writing, and then, nothing, rejection, humiliation, a “numb bewilderment of these hapless thoughts.” iii
When reading the Beats, keep in mind that before the Beat Generation, this was the World War II Generation, as explained in this passage about The Go Hole:
“The Go Hole was where all the high schools, the swing bands, and the roadhouses of their lives had led these young people; and above all it was the result of their vision of a wartime America as a monstrous danceland, extending from coast to coast . . . In this modern jazz, they heard something rebel and nameless that spoke for them . . . It was more than a music; it became an attitude toward life . . . and these introverted kids . . . who had never belonged anywhere before, now felt somewhere at last.” iv
So the go in Go comes from the muse, Neal Cassady , called Hart, who makes no attempt to hide his excitement for the music in his “enormous nervous energy” as he grins and mumbles his approval: “Go! Go!” As Hart shouts “go!” at the musicians, the audience is yelling “go!” at Hart. Holmes, called Hobbes, sees through Hart’s con man ways, but Jack, called Pasternak, and Allen, called Stofsky, adore him. v
The rest is history, Beat history, and once again, in the words of Blake, which Stofsky takes to heart:
“Seek love in the pity of other’s woe,
In the gentle relief of another’s care,
In the darkness of night & the winter’s snow
In the naked and outcast, seek love there!” vi
i Holmes, John Clellon. Go. (Mamaroneck, New York: Paul P. Appel, Publisher, 1977). p. 70.
ii Ibid., p. 254.
iii Ibid., p. 250.
iv Ibid., p. 161.
v Ibid., p. 115-116.
vi Ibid., p. 276.