The Beats were, in many ways, an international literary movement. Although in defining the Beat Generation, we tend to look at a core of three writers, expanding out to include others like Gregory Corso and “second generation Beats” like Diane di Prima, and they are all American. Sure, there were British artists inspired by the Beats, and India’s Hungry Generation, and all across the world youths writing poetry like Ginsberg… but in the end, the Beat Generation was an American movement. Only it wasn’t purely American: it was a bunch of Americans inspired by the outside world. Continue Reading…
Archives For paris
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…
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. Continue Reading…
When I get old
I want to be
Blue haired Madame G. K. Rachou
La Patronne de la Bohème Latin Quarter
With curtains of lace
And a charming French face
Singing like Mimì
There lies the heart
On rue Git-le-Coeur
And thus the start
With red roses from poets
And champagne with Lee
Cut ups and tea and Old Gold
And sun and shine from the last White Imperial Russian
And chocolates from everyone
Raspberry jam on the Left Bank at 9
Paintings of water lilies
Life will be merry and gay
In Paris fog and gray
But even so
Life will never be boring or dull
As in leafy plum suburbs
Down the road from bard physician of Rutherford
And me in the house
Like Emily Dickinson mouse
Shouting liberté, égalité, fraternité
To no one
Miles, Barry. The Beat Hotel. (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2000).
Paris in search of a name
Meaning house in the field
Love Suffer and Work is thy motto
The loneliest man in Paris
Visited Bibliothèque Nationale
on rue de Richelieu
(but the best library in the west
is the New York Public Library)
Literature is companionship, quoth John
(because a Merchant Marine can’t call himself Jean)
Perfumed les femmes and French kisses
Crackling bread fresh from the baker
Creamy Breton butter in little clay butter bucket
(favorite last meal saith Jacques Pépin)
Raincoats and rain at foggy midnight
The lost suitcase weighed a ton
Homesick on the Côtes du Nord of the Atlantic
Inn on the sea in Finistère
Waving wine bottles by the sea, sea, sea
Cognac and Alsatian beer
Wild and powerful Gitane gypsy smokes
Hot strong coffee
He walked in the wet night
Where are the gendarmes?
He missed the three minute train
O, Anna Karenina, and the train, train, train
He drank in Brest Brittany 3:00 am bars
Kerouac, Jack. Satori in Paris. (New York: Grove Press, 1966).
“Scientology was useful to me until it became a religion, and I have no use for religion. It’s just another one of those control-addict trips and we can all do without those.”
It’s hard for us today to separate the Church of Scientology from some of its ideas, or to look back and view it as it could have been viewed in the fifties and sixties, separated from lawsuits, spaceships and ‘Celebrity Centers’.
Yet once upon a time it didn’t look quite so crazy. Before it became such a joke, Scientology must have appealed to many free spirits in the Beat and Hippie realm. Some of the ideas posited by the movement’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, really didn’t seem so ludicrous then. Jim Morrison, the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, and Tennessee Williams are all alleged to have dabbled in Scientology back in its early days.
It is unclear where and when exactly William S. Burroughs first came upon Scientology. Some sources claim that it happened in Tangier, at the 1001 Nights Restaurant, owned by Brion Gysin. The story goes that John and Mary Cooke – two oddly dressed, proto-hippy mystics who later came to be the main financial backers of the restaurant, and who were important figures in the founding of the Church of Scientology – came to snare Gysin for the fledgling religion, which Cooke reportedly described as “a billion buck scam”. They may have come on the advice on a Ouija board, or this may be mere conjecture. Gysin is said to have been skeptical of the movement from the get-go, but Burroughs – always infatuated by the weird and wonderful – dove head-first in. He supposedly described this meeting as “portentous”. He said the Cookes were “like holograms”.
However, although this story appears to be pretty widely accepted, it doesn’t seem to sit very well with other accounts. For one thing, Burroughs was living in Paris during most of 1959, at the Beat Hotel. For another, Gysin’s restaurant was shut down by the Cooke’s a year or more before, and Gysin was also living at the Beat Hotel during much of 1959. This would suggest that Gysin and Burroughs had met the Cookes much earlier – perhaps in 1956 or 1957 – however, in his October 1959 letters to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs is excited about Scientology, suggesting that it was a relatively recent discovery.
One may well hypothesize that Burroughs learned about Scientology from Gysin, who learned about it from the Cookes (as the relationship between Gysin and the Cookes seems fairly well documented), and that Burroughs had seen or met them himself much earlier, thus explaining the “portentous holograms” quote.
Indeed, in the introduction to The Letters of William S. Burroughs Vol 1: 1945-1959, Oliver Harris states, “Burroughs’ letters show that Gysin was responsible not only for the aesthetic means of his new method [the cut-up technique] but also for its therapeutic ends. At its inceptions, the cut-up principle was directly related to L. Ron Hubbard’s ‘science of natural health’ known as Scientology.” So it seems that Harris also believed Burroughs had been introduced to Scientology by Gysin, who, on October 1st, 1959, told Burroughs about his first foray into cut-ups, which he had discovered by accidently slicing up sheets of newspaper.
It may seem odd to suggest that Scientology played a big role in the development of the cut-up technique, but the evidence certainly seems to point that way. For Burroughs, the cut-up technique and Scientology were not so far removed from one another. The Church’s teachings, he believed, could help him to resist social control through the removal of ‘engrams’ – negative feelings stored in the ‘reactive mind’. Burroughs was concerned about the use of language, and in particular the idea of words as a form of virus. In Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader, he explains, “The word itself may be a virus that has achieved a permanent status within the host,” after detailing various forms of viruses. He then moves quickly into an explanation of how this relates to Scientology.
Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, says that certain words and word combinations can produce serious illnesses and mental disturbances… Mr. Hubbard bases the power he attributes to words on his theory of engrams. An engram is defined as a word, sound, image recorded by the subject in a period of pain and unconsciousness… Any part of this recording played back to the subject later will reactivate operation pain, or he may actually develop a headache and feel depressed, anxious, or tense.
Burroughs believed that it was possible for people to manipulate the reactive mind by placing words and images in popular media that would deliberately trigger engrams. He called these “commands” and said that they were often found in advertisements. This form of mind control, he said, aimed to stifle “positive action.”
It’s hardly surprising that Burroughs would be so drawn to the notion of engrams. After all, he had previously been fascinated by the idea of psychotherapy, and a number of other philosophies (including Korzybski’s General Semantics, which informed his preoccupation with the power of words), drugs and theories that aimed to eliminate suffering. Scientology differs from psychoanalysis in that it doesn’t interpret or evaluate, it only acknowledges, and Burroughs found this greatly appealing: “Scientology can do more in ten hours than psychoanalysis can do in ten years.” Burroughs was troubled by at least two major traumatic incidents in his past: something unnamed that happened as a child, which he speculated may have been sexual abuse, and, of course, the death of Joan Vollmer. Of Scientology he once claimed, “It feels marvelous! Things you’ve had all your life, things you think nothing can be done about – suddenly they’re not there anymore.”
Further evidence of the relationship between Scientology and the cut-ups comes in a pair of letters he wrote to Allen Ginsberg in October, 1959. These letters show Burroughs’ excitement at these wild new ideas, their impact upon his life and work, and also lend credence to the theory that Burroughs learned about Scientology when living in Paris, at the Beat Hotel.
The method of directed recall is the method of Scientology. You will recall I wrote urging you to join your local chapter and find an auditor. They do the job without hypnosis or drugs, simply run the tape back and forth until the trauma is wiped off. It works. I have turned the method, partially responsible for recent change in assignment, and policy…As for my visions, we don’t talk about that. They go into the work. General advise on visions: “Cool it or use it.”
I have a new method of writing and do not want to publish anything that has not been inspected and processed. I cannot explain this method to you until you have necessary training. So once again and most urgently (believe me there is not much time) – tell you: “Find a Scientology Auditor and have yourself run.”
The second letter, in particular, shows that Burroughs viewed Scientology as essential to Ginsberg’s understanding of this “new method of writing”. Whilst at the Beat Hotel, Burroughs collaborated with Gysin and Gregory Corso on a cut-up project that became Minutes to Go, published in 1960. In this pamphlet, Burroughs made an odd plea to his readers: “Do it yourself.” Clearly, he viewed the cut-up technique not just as some oddball literary device to amuse and inform his readers, but something to spread throughout humanity to defeat the “word virus” of which he was so afraid.
In 1961, Burroughs and Gysin collaborated with Anthony Balch on the short film, Towers Open Fire. This weird movie aimed to highlight the process of control systems decaying the human mind, and bizarrely featured lines taken from an old Scientology pamphlet. That same year Burroughs wrote The Soft Machine, the primary theme of which was that the human body (a soft machine) is fed by tapes controlled by some kind of authority. The only way to regain control is to battle the machine by cutting up reality. In the Appendix, Burroughs listed Scientology among the arsenal of weapons necessary to resist the controlling machines.
The following year, Burroughs wrote about Scientology in his novel, The Ticket That Exploded, calling the group, ‘The Logos’. Burroughs makes no real effort to alter the realty of the group, and explains one key process, that for Burroughs was Hubbard’s great contribution to mankind:
[They have] a system of therapy they call ‘clearing’. You ‘run’ traumatic material which they call ‘engrams’ until it loses emotional connotation through repetitions and is then refilled as neutral memory’. When all the ‘engrams’ have been run and deactivated the subject becomes a ‘clear.’
This process of becoming ‘Clear’ was important to Burroughs, who eventually became Scientology’s Clear No. 1163. Even in his later years, as a harsh critic of the movement, Burroughs maintained that the process of ‘clearing’ was a tremendous invention that Hubbard had given to mankind. It involved the use of something called ‘the E-Meter.’ Burroughs called it “a sort of sloppy form of electrical brain stimulation… a lie-detector and a mind-reading machine… Not the content, only the reactions.” He believed that it could help evade control systems (such as the mind control he associated with Mayan calendars), and as a “device for deconditioning.” Later, in his review of Robert Kaufman’s expose, Inside Scientology, Burroughs wrote, “The E-meter is, among other things, a reliable lie detector in expert hands. The CIA also uses lie detectors… With this simple device any organization can become a God from whom no thought or action can be hidden.”
In 1964, Burroughs wrote Nova Express, which dealt with Scientology without bothering to change names. It also continued to spread his message of the value of ‘clearing’ the importance of recognizing and dealing with ‘engrams’.
The Scientologists believe sir that words recorded during a period of unconsciousness… store pain and that this pain store can be lugged in with key words represented as an alternate mathematical formulae indicating number of exposures to the key words and reaction index… they call these words recorded during unconsciousness engrams sir… The pain that overwhelms that person is basic basic sir and when basic basic is wiped off the tape… then that person becomes what they call clear sir.
In 1968, Burroughs took his interest in Scientology even further and enrolled in a ‘clearing’ course at Saint Hill Manor in the UK, lasting from January to April. It was during this course that Burroughs was declared a ‘clear’, although he later admitted to repressing negative feelings towards L. Ron Hubbard’s “big fat face”. One account states that when the E-Meter picked up on his nerves, he said, he resented Hubbard’s “perfection”. Here, Burroughs was audited and took part in auditing others, something he claimed was very therapeutic. He obsessively made notes about the process, and even used these notes in his personal cut-up projects. The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection at the New York Public Library has many of Burroughs’ notes and notebooks from this period.
Burroughs lived and worked in London for around six years, from the late sixties until the early seventies, during a difficult time in his life. Many of his friends died during this period, and Burroughs’ mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly. According to Barry Miles, who owned a bookshop that Burroughs often visited, Burroughs was “very much with Scientology” and claimed that his strong beliefs “cut him off from a lot of people.” Evidently, Burroughs would post notes around the bookshop, telling people that he would gladly audit them, even leaving his phone number. During this period, Burroughs was living with Ian Sommerville, who detested his lover’s “Operating Thetan glare”. (Operating Thetan, in Scientology terminology, is a step above Clear.)
By 1970, Burroughs was no longer affiliated with Scientology. He had always had his disagreements (in particular with L. Ron Hubbard and the Church’s “fascist” control policies) but things became ugly when he was declared to be in a “Condition of Treason” by the Church. The exact circumstances surrounding his departure and listing as an enemy of the religion are unclear, although it was likely related to his open disdain for the controversial “Sec Checks” that the Church performed to maintain security.
One of Burroughs’ long-held beliefs was that magic and curses held real power, and that he could use them to improve his life and smite his enemies. Indeed, in Paris he once cursed an old woman who ended up in hospital shortly after. He believed that recording images and sounds was a means to destroying that which was recorded, and so he launched an attack on the Scientology Centre at 37 Fitzroy Street by taking photos and tape recordings. Indeed, the centre closed shortly after, but only so that they could move to a better location that Burroughs unable to “destroy”.
Burroughs published a series of angry letters in Mayfair magazine, culminating in the wonderfully titled, ‘I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard’. This article was reprinted in the Los Angeles Free Press on March 6th, 1970, and is currently available online. It begins by briefly mentioning his respect for the E-Meter and Scientology’s “precise and efficient” therapy methods, but quickly descends into an attack on the “weird cult” and its refusal to share information, as well as “Mr. Hubbard’s overtly fascist utterances.”
Some of the techniques are highly valuable and warrant further study and experimentation. The E Meter is a useful device … (many variations of this instrument are possible). On the other hand I am in flat disagreement with the organizational policy. No body of knowledge needs an organizational policy.
The following year, Burroughs wrote the short story, ‘Ali’s Smile’, which was published by Unicorn Press as a limited edition of 99 copies. It begins with the protagonist, Clinch Smith, being described by a Scientologist friend as a “suppressive person”. Clinch then goes on an odd and violent killing spree, murdering some members of the religion. The story was reprinted in his collection of short stories, Exterminator!, in 1973. In 1985 it was released as Ali’s Smile: Naked Scientology, along with a number of essays, articles and letters on the subject of Scientology. Included were:
- ‘Burroughs on Scientology’ (the disappointingly retitled version of ‘I, William Burroughs, Challenge You, L. Ron Hubbard’) which had appeared in Mayfair and the LA Free Press.
- ‘Open Letter to Mr. Garden Mustain’ – Originally published in the East Village Other on July 7th, 1970, this is a reply to a letter in the LA Free Press. Burroughs asks what Scientologists think regarding marijuana and the Vietnam War.
- ‘Review of Inside Scientology’ – As detailed below, Burroughs reviews the popular book for Rolling Stone magazine.
- ‘Letter to Rolling Stone’ – This letter was written by R. Sorrell on behalf of the Church of Scientology, and said that “Mr. Burroughs may be a writer but cannot always be trusted to be an accurate one.”
- ‘Answer to R. Sorrell’s Letter’ – On December 5th, 1972, Burroughs replied to R. Sorrell with attacks on various points, including Security Checks and financial misdeeds.
Burroughs’ war against Scientology continued on the pages of Rolling Stone magazine on October 27th, 1972, when he reviewed Robert Kaufman’s expose, Inside Scientology. His language is particularly brutal:
Scientology is model control system, a state in fact with its own courts, police, rewards and penalties. It is based on a tight in-group like the CIA… Inside are the Rights with the Truth. Outside are the Commies… the Suppressives.
Oddly enough, that same year Burroughs and Anthony Balch collaborated once again on a film, Bill and Tony. In the movie, Burroughs’ disembodied head floats around, describing the process of a Scientology auditing session.
Even in his final days, Burroughs dreamed about Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard. In his Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs, he talks of dreams where Hubbard appears to him, and refers to Scientology as – if nothing else – a part of his education; something not to be forgotten. Clearly he learned a lot and valued certain lessons. Perhaps Scientology did truly help him, as it seems to have given him peace and to have acted – at least temporarily – as a coping mechanism in dealing with traumas from his past. Brion Gysin once quipped that Burroughs was probably the only man to ever make more money from Scientology than it made from him. Indeed, as this essay has demonstrated, his experiences with the “weird cult” have made their way into numerous essays, articles, journals, letters, short stories, novels and even his forays into film. Scientology was integral to the development of his most important literary method – the cut-up, and helped him to keep his name in the spotlight long after becoming famous as a “Beatnik”.
Baker, Phil, William S. Burroughs: Critical Lives
Bockris, Victor, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker
Burroughs, William S., Ali’s Smile: Naked Scientology
Burroughs, William S. The Adding Machine: Selected Essays
Grauerholz, James (ed.), Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs
Grauerholz, James (ed.), Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader
Harris, Oliver (ed.), The Letters of William S. Burroughs Vol. 1 (1945-1959)
Hibbard, Allen (ed.), Conversations with William S. Burroughs
Lardas, John, The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs
Miles, Barry, William Burroughs: el hombre invisible
Urban, Hugh B., The Church of Scientology A History of a New Religion
From Beatdom #10.
by Michael Hendrick
I have not reached the point where I will pay for a ring tone on my cell. Just the words “ring,” “tone” and “cell” in the same phrase pisses me off.
Once somebody bought me a vanity license plate permit as a gift. I had a 1967 Mustang and she thought it a good idea for me to pick a name for the car as its registration. There are several problems with vanity plates. First you have to think of something clever in seven characters that nobody else has come up with, like when Kramer got the ‘ASSMAN’ plate on Seinfeld. Another, more annoying, aspect is that it makes your license easy to remember.
When somebody is filling out the police report, they will remember that ASSMAN was driving. Very obvious.
The plate was never purchased and I beat the Mustang into the ground.
So, when I was researching some facts about Allen Ginsberg and popular musicians and was offered a ‘Kaddish’ ring tone for my cell, I blinked! Maybe ‘Sunflower Sutra’ or a cover of ‘Pull My Daisy’… But ‘Kaddish’???
A vision of me trying to sneak out of someplace dangerous, unnoticed, perhaps behind the counter at the pharmacy,
‘‘Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets and eyes…,’’
in Allen’s voice as the white-shirt tablet-bull jerks his head towards me and pills fall to the floor… caught!
(Strange Musical Mental Interlude)
But this is about Ginsberg and where he stopped to wet his beak on the tunes of the times surrounding him. ‘Howl’ may be the first linear place where Beat meets beat, with several verses of the epic poem written in imitation of a chorus-on-chorus jazz progression in which the succession of verses creates rhapsody and ecstasy. The standard ‘Lady Be Good,’ in the particular styling of Lester Young, was an inspiration to both Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
Ginsberg kneeled before Young in the kitchen of NYC jazz den The Five Spot after a show and recited a piece of poetry to him, to Young’s confusion. He also enjoyed Thelonius Monk there as often as he could, as well as taking in Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who he cited as an influence on his poem, ‘Witchita Vortex Sutra.’
While ‘traditional’ jazz nosed its way into the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was at the Beat Hotel in Paris or traveling extensively in India with Peter Orlovsky. Things remain quiet, in that respect, until 1965 when Allen spent the summer in London, doing poetry readings, especially of note, the Poets Of Our World/Poets Of Our Time presentation of literary greats at the Royal Albert Hall.
During this time, enough ‘buzz’ was created to instill a new underground scene in London, centered on The UFO Club. Two influential rock groups formed over drinks at The UFO Club were Soft Machine and Pink Floyd. I am no longer surprised to find that Pink Floyd is a staple for many of today’s youth. It seems like it has become a generational rite of passage to listen to them.
Bob Dylan arrived to perform at the celebrated Isle Of Wight Festival, where he was famously booed and called “Judas” for playing electric instruments during parts of his act. He and Ginsberg were familiar with each other from the East Village and were mutual admirers. Dylan invited him to his suite at the Savoy Hotel to stuff towels under the doors and smoke pot with the Beatles.
Later that summer, a party was held to honour the celebrated poet’s birthday. The Fab Four were invited. Lennon, Harrison and their wives arrived to find him naked but for the underwear on his head and the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging from his penis. Reportedly, Lennon balked when the others hesitated to stay, in fear of soiling reputations.
(The relationship between Ginsberg and Bob Dylan is discussed in depth by David Wills in Beatdom Issue Two. I will add two things I found interesting which were not in the article – He had recurring dreams of T S Eliot throughout his life. Later in life, he dreamed of Bob Dylan. They were good dreams… The other is that when the pair visited Kerouac’s grace, he handed Dylan a copy of Jack’s Mexico City Blues, Dylan remarked that the book was the first poetry he read which spoke to him in his own language. Since his influence on singer/songwriters of the late 20th Century is indisputable, the effect of Kerouac deserves citing.)
The same year, Dylan released Subterranean Homesick Blues, which could be considered as the proto-rap song, were it not so directly descended from Chuck Berry’s rocking Too Much Monkey Business. The song was used as the opening for D.A. Pennebacker’s documentary, Don’t Look Back, with Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth haunting the background in the alley behind the Savoy.
Donovan, then billed as “the English Dylan,” helped paint those signs. Ginsberg’s visit with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, spiritual mentor to numerous 1960s cult figures and subject of Lennon’s Sexy Sadie, is noted in Donovan’s 1967 song, ‘Sunny South Kensington.’ By 1968, Ginsberg returned to the USA with roughly the same attitude Lennon had for the Maharishi but he continued to meditate and chant throughout the rest of his life and incorporated meditational breathing techniques into his poems.
Another popular 1967 song, ‘I Am The Walrus,’ featured him as the “Elementary penguin.” Coincidentally, when Lennon first heard Ginsberg on radio, he thought he was listening to Dylan. That year, Ginsberg also made an unaccredited appearance on the Rolling Stone’s single, ‘We Love You,’ singing backup vocals with Lennon and McCartney. He also sat in on the Lennon/Jagger collaboration ‘Dandelion Fly Away,’ recorded at Abbey Road Studios.
Ginsberg admired Jagger for his version of shamanism and as the years passed it became more and more apparent that he looked more to modern song, as opposed to the works of his literary godfathers, for inspiration and as a more effective way to deliver the Word. He maintained this attitude until his death.
The fact that, on his only visit with poet Ezra Pound, Ginsberg played ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and ‘Blond On Blond’ for the famed scribe, speaks volumes.
1969 saw the famous ‘Bed In For Peace’ in Montreal, where he was present and vocal in the recording of ‘Give Peace A Chance’ in Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. During that session, a spirited version of ‘Goodnight Irene,’ Ginsberg provided the most solid vocal as well as punctuating the song with his finger-cymbals.
In the early 1970s he poured a lot of his energy into traveling to Calcutta to make poetic record of collateral damage visited on India via the Viet Nam War (on a trip funded by Keith Richards and using recording equipment courtesy of Dylan), while also putting together a group of songs for his first musical LP, First Blues. This appeared first in book form in 1975, the year he joined Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue but was not released for musical consumption until 1983, when it surfaced as a two-LP set. It was written simultaneously with his book, The Fall Of America.
The early-1970s were a petri dish for a plethora of musical styles but the decade ended with corporations co-opting artists and the dreaded disco music taking the industry while the spirit of rock and roll took to the streets in the garb, sound and attitude of punk. While vilified by many as a dirty, theatrical fad, punk rock had an underlying penchant for literacy, which can’t be disputed. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso and others embraced and were equally embraced by the movement, mostly owing to a closely shared set of sensibilities and distain for the norm.
In America, punk grew out of the Lower East Side of New York, spiritual home to Beats, Folkies and counter-culture icons like Lennon and David Peel and the Lower East Side, dropping it squarely into the laps of Ginsberg and Burroughs, who still clung to Gotham.
The seminal moment of creation of the genre seems to point to poet Patti Smith reading spoken word poems to a crowd assembled to see the wonder of The New York Dolls, a revolution in their own rite, at a NYC club in 1973. This was two years after she first performed her work at the St Mark’s Poetry Project.
The old Beats haunted CBGB, at Bleecker and Bowery, just steps away from the Burroughs ‘bunker.’ The punks engaged and celebrated these familiar visages, now cohorts in a new style of anarchy.
The first noticeable collaboration was Ginsberg’s contribution to a song on the Clash’s Combat Rock LP.
‘Ghetto Defendant’ – his unmistakable voice reading lines which serve to run like a bassline beneath the reggae beat and also in response to Joe Strummer’s plaintive cries. This partnership led to the Clash recording music for the poem ‘Capitol Air,’ which was released eventually on Ginsberg’s four-disc collection, 1994’s Holy Soul Jelly Roll, which also included the songs from First Blues.
In the bleak musical landscape of the 1980s, he was still on the scene, doing some minor work with the Hobo Blues Band and working with Philip Glass on an opera which was produced from ‘Witchita Vortex Sutra’, and performed at New York’s Schubert Theater in 1988.
He made an appearance in a 1993 TV special, put together by U2’s Bono, performing two pieces to an audience spanning Europe and the United States.
In 1995, while in London to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, he visited Paul McCartney and the pair discussed haiku. Ginsberg mentioned that he needed a guitarist to work with him at the Hall and McCartney offered to play on ‘The Ballad Of The Skeletons’ that evening. It was a unique enough pairing to end up on a 1996 MTV video which got a good amount of airtime.
Also, in 1995, he proved to be a valuable mentor. Patti Smith is the most visible and logical artist to capture the spirit and timbre of the Beats without it seeming like a nostalgia act. Her songs employ the same chorus-on-chorus succession of rhapsody that fueled the rhythm of ‘Howl’ and the chops of Lester Young. As recently as three months ago, she read from Walt Whitman to her audience and in the past year paid homage to him as she read his poetry to the music of Philip Glass on the anniversary of his death and also at a show in tribute to William Blake, who Ginsberg had tried to press on the Beatles.
At a time when the punk music movement, the safety-pinned sea on which her career floated, was growing stronger than ever, she fell from the stage during a performance in January 1977. She broke several neck vertebrae on a concrete floor and had to make lifestyle changes to recuperate and work through physical therapy. Two successful albums followed but Smith opted out of performing, in favor of family life.
Shortly after a series of personal losses (death of spouse, sibling and friend) befell her, she was scheduled to read poetry with her old friend, Ginsberg, in Ann Arbor, MI, in April 1995. He encouraged her to return to the stage after 17 years of semi-retirement. It is very likely that he was somewhere behind Dylan asking Smith to join him on tour later that year. He had asked her to join the Rolling Thunder Revue and she turned him down but this time – with Ginsberg and Michael Stipe of REM urging her, – she hit the road running and shows no signs of slowing down as she works through her 60s.
Ginsberg considered Smith to be “one of the pioneers of spoken poetry music, spoken poetry going into song… to the point where a lot of older folks like myself learned from her how to put the two together” and he gave her one of the highest of honours by comparing her to Rimbaud.
He died two years later. He still inspires and those he has influenced continue to inspire others.
If you’re in or around London this coming month you’d be foolish to miss Proud Chelsea’s “The Beat Hotel” exhibition, which runs from 29th July to 29th August.
The Beat Hotel, of course, was the building at 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur in Paris. It’s called “the Beat Hotel” because during the mid-20th century it was temporary home to some of the most important names in Beat Generation history. Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Harold Norse all lived there, among others. Continue Reading…