Archives For six gallery

Gary Snyder: Heart-Beat – A Diptych

“From a certain point onward there is no turning back.  This is the point that must be reached.”

Kafka

 

 

The Six Gallery Reading

 

They came from the streets: from Fillmore and Broadway, from Columbus and East 7th, from Amsterdam and Morningside Drive.  From Lower Burnside.  Cross-country.  Cross-town.  There was talk of a renaissance.

On this first Friday of October, 1955, a waning gibbous moon was rising in the east.  It had been hot that day, eighty-two and windless.  The sun means nothing in San Francisco.  It’s all about the wind.  It would not be a cold night, the fog, mercifully, offshore, but it would be cool.  It would be very cool. Continue Reading…

The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg

To celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Six Gallery reading – at which Allen Ginsberg first read from his poem, “Howl” – Beatdom Books is delighted to announce the latest in its series of Beat Generation studies, The Poetry and Politics of Allen Ginsberg, by Eliot Katz. Continue Reading…

Sixty Years After the Six Gallery Reading

October 7th, 1955, was arguably one of the most important dates in American literature. On that date, in a “run down second rate experimental art gallery” (a former auto repair shop) in San Francisco, in a room crowded with a hundred young men and women, Allen Ginsberg read for the first time an early draft of his poem, “Howl.” Among the bohemian audience was the poem’s future publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who immediately recognized its potential, and requested the manuscript. “Howl” would go on to become the most important poem of the late-twentieth century and, alongside T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” perhaps the most important of the entire century. It would challenge America’s censorship laws, inspire unprecedented cultural and social change, and give the country its most recognizable and influential poet since Walt Whitman. Continue Reading…

The Beat Generation and Travel

More so than any other literary movement, the Beats have influenced the world of travel and have helped shape our perceptions of the world around us. From obvious influences on hitch-hiking to more serious questions relating to the environment, Beat Generation literature and history has played a major role influencing people over the past fifty years.

We often look to Jack Kerouac as the great backpacker, whose On the Road is credited with sending thousands of readers literally on the road… but he certainly wasn’t the perpetual traveller many think, and the other members of the Beat Generation – whom are less well known for their journeys – travelled far more.

It is strange that when one thinks about the Beat Generation one invariably thinks of New York or San Francisco, because between there lay thousands of miles that they all travelled, and beyond them lay a near infinite abyss that many sought to explore. But these were mere catchments for the meeting of minds; where the young writers and artists of their day met and exchanged knowledge – knowledge that lead them on the road, and was informed by their own personal adventures.

 

Jack Kerouac

Hitch hiked a thousand miles and brought you wine.

JK, Book of Haikus

Kerouac is the logical starting point for an essay about the Beat Generation and travel. On the Road is undoubtedly the most famous Beat text, and concerned – as the title suggests – travelling. The book detailed Kerouac’s journeys across North America, and inspired subsequent generations of readers, writers and artists to take to the road for spiritual (or non-spiritual) journeys of their own.

Interestingly, Kerouac was not always fond of hitchhiking, although he has had a huge impact upon hitchhikers. He didn’t really do as much travelling as people seem to think, either. Kerouac grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts and stayed there until he went to Horace Mann Prep School in New York at seventeen years old. A year later he went to Columbia University on a football scholarship, but broke his leg and eventually signed up for the merchant marines during World War II. He sailed on the S.S. Dorchester to Greenland.

At twenty-five, Kerouac took his first cross-country road trip, and a year later he took his first trip with Neal Cassady. These journeys took Kerouac from one end of America to another, and eventually found their way into the American road classic, On the Road.

On the Road is one book that has changed America. Whether you’ve read it or not, it has had some impact upon your life. Kerouac’s masterpiece has inspired people ever since, and is still as relevant as ever.

“The road is life,” is one oft-quoted phrase from On the Road. It is one that resonates in American society – a country of immigrants, whose classics include Mark Twain, Jack London, Jack Kerouac and Bob Dylan. The road has always meant something to America; their histories are irrevocably linked.

The idea of the wilderness and self-reliance has been entangled in American literary history since the beginning, and was most notably explored in the works of Emerson and Thoreau. Kerouac also believed that it was important, saying in Lonesome Traveler:

No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.

But mostly it was the idea of non-conformity that appealed to people fifty years ago, and which has inspired readers ever since. Kerouac’s call to “mad” people came at a time when people needed to rebel, and his wild kicks on the roads of America were a wake-up call for millions. The idea of rebelling then became tied to that of travelling – of gaining freedom and independence through running away and exploring the world, and to hell with society’s expectations.

Kerouac explained in The Dharma Bums:

Colleges [are] nothing but grooming schools for the middleclass non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness.

In both Japhy Ryder and Dean Moriarty Kerouac portrayed an attractive outsider that stood against everything society demanded. He presented romantic depictions of these footloose individuals that etched in the consciousness of his readers a desire to be that free soul.

Japhy Ryder was based on Zen poet Gary Snyder, whom Kerouac met in San Francisco, after travelling across America with a backpack full of manuscripts. His Buddhist wisdom inspired Kerouac to attempt communing with nature, as depicted in The Dharma Bums.

Perhaps his Book of Sketches is a better example of Kerouac’s travel-writing. He details a nearly three thousand mile hitch-hiking journey from 1952, as he travelled from North Carolina to California, by way of Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. In the book he describes every town he visits and every ride he took in travelling across America.

In 1957 Kerouac travelled to Tangier, Morocco, with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. He didn’t enjoy his time there, but helped Burroughs with the concept and title of what would later become Naked Lunch. This journey was recorded in Desolation Angels – which also details his musings on life as he wanders across North America and Europe. The chapter titles in this book include: “Passing Through Mexico,” “Passing Through New York,” “Passing Through Tangiers, France and London” and “Passing Through America Again.”

Later, suffering from his inability to deal with fame and his disappointment at not being taken seriously by critics (as they viewed the Beats as a mere fad), Kerouac attempted to heal himself by escaping to Big Sur, as described in the novel of the same name.

After Big Sur, Kerouac returned to his mother in Long Island and didn’t stray far from her for the rest of his life. They moved together first to Lowell, Massachusetts, and then to St. Petersburg, Florida.

William S. Burroughs

 

Burroughs doesn’t exactly strike the same image in the minds of travellers as Kerouac, but certainly travelled more than the author of On the Road. His books are hardly odes to nature or travel, but in his life Burroughs moved frequently, and saw much of the world.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Burroughs went to school in New Mexico, and then studied at Harvard. With a healthy allowance from his parents, Burroughs travelled frequently from New York to Boston, and travelled around Europe after studying in Vienna. He returned and enlisted in the army, but was soon discharged and moved to Chicago, where he met Lucian Carr.

Carr took Burroughs to New York, where he met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Whilst in New York he and Joan Vollmer Adams had a child. The family soon moved to Texas, and then New Orleans. Some of this was described in On the Road.

After being arrested on account of incriminating letters between him and Ginsberg, Burroughs was forced to flee to Mexico, where he famously shot and killed his wife in a game of William Tell.

In January 1953 Burroughs travelled to South America, maintaining a constant stream of correspondence with Allen Ginsberg that would later become The Yage Letters. “Yage” was the name of a drug with supposed telekinetic properties for which Burroughs was searching.

In Lima, Peru, he typed up his travel notes and then returned to Mexico, where he sent the final instalment of his journey to Ginsberg. This later became the ending of Queer.

In 2007, Ohio State University Press published Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs. The book details Burroughs’ journey through Ecuador, Columbia and Peru, and gives insight into his personal troubles.

When Burroughs’ legal problems made it impossible for him to live in the cities of his choice he moved to Palm Springs with his parents, and then New York to stay with Ginsberg. After Ginsberg reject his advances, Burroughs travelled to Rome to see Alan Ansen, and then to Tangier, Morocco, to meet Paul Bowles.

Over the next few years Burroughs stayed in Tangiers, working on something that would eventually become Naked Lunch. He was visited by Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957, and they helped him with his writing.

In 1959, when looking for a publisher for Naked Lunch, Burroughs went to Paris to meet Ginsberg and talk to Olympia Press. Amid surrounding legal problems, the novel was published. In the months before and after the book’s publication, Burroughs stayed with Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Peter Orlovsky in the “Beat Hotel.” Ginsberg composed some of “Kaddish” there, while Corso composed “Bomb.

After Paris, Burroughs spent six years in London, where he originally travelled for treatment for his heroin addiction. He returned to the US several times – including to cover the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago – before moving to New York in 1974. He took a teaching position and moved into the “Bunker,” a rent-controlled former YMCA gym.

Burroughs travelled around America from time to time, before moving to Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent his final years.

Clearly Burroughs possessed more of an instinct to travel the world than Kerouac. However, his writing rarely glorifies the act of travelling, unlike his friend, who celebrated the road.

In an unpublished essay that can be found in the New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, Burroughs writes,

As a young child I wanted to be a writer because writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow ponge silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle. …

 

This isn’t exactly the sort of image that invokes pleasant thoughts for most readers, but it shows that Burroughs considered exotic locations and global travel as extremely important. He set these things as a goal for himself, even from a young age.

In his work one could argue Burroughs was more interested in the notion of time-travel than of terrestrial journeying. From actual references to time-travel to the cut-up techniques that carried readers across space and time, Burroughs seemed very interested in having everything in a constant state of flux.

In his essay, “Civilian Defence,” from the collection, The Adding Machine, Burroughs argues for space travel as the future of mankind. He seems to be suggesting that to change is to survive, that we need to move to develop.

Man is an artifact designed for space travel. He is not designed to remain in his present biologic state any more than a tadpole is designed to remain a tadpole.

 


Allen Ginsberg


 

From the Allen Ginsberg Trust:

 

Ginsberg might have been an American by birth, but through his extensive travel he developed a global consciousness that greatly affected his writings and viewpoint. He spent extended periods of time in Mexico, South America, Europe and India. He visited every continent in the world and every state in the United States and some of his finest work came about as a result of these travels.

Ginsberg spent his tumultuous youth in Paterson, New Jersey, before moving to Columbia University and meeting Kerouac and Burroughs. He met Neal Cassady there and took trips across America – to Denver and San Francisco. In 1947 he sailed to Dakar, Senegal, and wrote “Dakar Doldrums.”

Ginsberg returned to New York and attempted to “go straight,” but moved to San Francisco and became heavily involved in its poetry scene. In 1951 he took a trip to Mexico to meet Burroughs, but Burroughs had already left for Ecuador. In 1953 Ginsberg returned to explore ancient ruins and experiment with drugs, and in 1956 he visited Kerouac in Mexico City.

In 1955 he read “Howl” at the Six Gallery and became a Beat Generation icon. When Howl and Other Poems was published, City Lights Bookstore was charged with publishing indecent literature, and the trial helped made Ginsberg a celebrity.

During the trial Ginsberg moved to Paris with his partner, Peter Orlovsky. From there they travelled to Tangier to help Burroughs compose Naked Lunch. They returned through Spain to stay in the “Beat Hotel” and help Burroughs sell the book to Olympia Press. In a Parisian café, Ginsberg began writing “Kaddish.”

In 1960 Ginsberg travelled to Chile with Lawrence Ferlinghetti for a communist literary conference. He travelled through Bolivia to Lima, Peru, where he tried yage for the first time.

In 1961 Ginsberg and Orlovsky sailed on the SS America for Europe. They looked for Burroughs in Paris. From Paris he travelled through Greece to Israel, meeting Orlovsky, who’d taken a different route.

Together, Ginsberg and Orlovsky travelled down to East Africa, attending a rally in Nairobi. From Africa they travelled to India, first to Bombay and then Delhi, where they met Gary Snyder and Joanne Kryger. Ginsberg and Snyder travelled throughout India for fifteen months, consulting as many wise men as they could find.

After India, Ginsberg travelled on his own through Bangkok, Saigon and Cambodia, and then spent five weeks in Japan with Snyder and Kryger. He wrote “The Change” on a train from Kyoto to Tokyo.

In 1965 Ginsberg travelled to Cuba through Mexico, but was kicked out of the country for allegedly calling Raul Castro “gay” and Che Guevara “cute.” The authorities put him on a flight to Czechoslovakia. In Prague Ginsberg discovered his work had become very popular and used his royalties there to travel to Moscow. He travelled back through Warsaw and Auschwitz.

Back in Prague Ginsberg was elected “King of May” by the students of the city, and spent the following few days “running around with groups of students, acting in a spontaneous, improvised manner – making love.”

Eventually he was put on a flight to London after the authorities found his notebook – containing graphically sexual poems and politically charged statements. In London he partied with Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and organised a big poetry reading.

On his return to the US Ginsberg learned that his previously deactivated FBI file has been updated with the warning, “these persons are reported to be engaged in smuggling narcotics.” This was not helpful to someone as passionate about travel as Allen Ginsberg, and for two years he travelled around the US.

In 1967 he flew to Italy and was arrested for “use of certain words” in his poetry. He then travelled back to London and on to Wales, before returning to Italy to meet Ezra Pound.

In1971 a plane ticket to India and West Bengal was anonymously donated, and Ginsberg travelled to the flood and famine ravaged area.

Back in America, Ginsberg was always travelling – seeking wisdom and change. He moved around the country, participating in demonstrations and rallies. He trained with Buddhists, founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa, in Boulder, Colorado, and toured with Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review.

Ginsberg toured Europe again in 1979 – visiting Cambridge, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Paris, Genoa, Rome and Tubingen, among other places. He was accompanied by Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky.

In the early eighties Ginsberg settled in Boulder, to play a more active role at Naropa, following a series of problems that had troubled the school. During this time he travelled to Nicaragua to work with other poets on stopping American interference in the politics of other nations. (He returned to Nicaragua for a poetry festival in 1986.)

He spent eight weeks in China following a 1984 poetry conference with Gary Snyder, and in 1985 travelled in the USSR for another poetry conference. In August and September of 1986 he travelled throughout Eastern Europe – performing in Budapest, Warsaw, Belgrade and Skopje. In January of 1988 he travelled to Israel to help bring peace to the Middle East. Later that year he returned to Japan to help protest nuclear weapons and airport developments.

After twenty five years, Ginsberg was re-crowned King of May upon his return to Prague in 1990. A few months later he travelled to Seoul, South Korea, to represent America in the 12th World Congress of Poets.

Continuing to travel right up until 1994, Ginsberg went to France in ’91 and ’92, and then toured Europe in ’93. His four month tour took him around most of Europe, including a ten day teaching job with Anne Waldman.

After selling his personal letters to Stanford University, Ginsberg bought a loft in New York, where he largely remained until his death in 1997.

READ MORE ABOUT ALLEN GINSBERG’S TRAVELS HERE

 

 

Neal Cassady

 

Neal is, of course, the very soul of the voyage into pure, abstract meaningless motion. He is The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.

William Burroughs, on Neal Cassady

His name may not be as famous as that of Kerouac, but Cassady is well known to any Beat enthusiast. He was portrayed as Dean Moriarty in On the Road: the man Sal Paradise followed on his cross-country trips.

Whilst he may remain most well known for inspiring Kerouac, Cassady influenced many people to enjoy their lives, and to break free of convention. John Clellon Holmes talked about him in Go, Ginsberg referenced him in “Howl” and Hunter S. Thompson mentioned him (unnamed) in Hell’s Angels. He was not only a hero of the Beats, but of many during the following psychedelic era.

It could be said that Cassady lived and died on the road. He was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and raised by his alcoholic father in Denver, Colorado. He was a criminal from an early age, always in trouble with the law. He was frequently arrested for car theft, and known as an exhilarating driver.

After meeting Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York City, Kerouac and Cassady travelled across America and into Mexico. Kerouac was inspired by Cassady’s life and his letter-writing style, whilst the latter sought advice about novel-writing from Kerouac, who’d already published The Town and the City, a novel featuring a far more conventional style of writing than that for which Kerouac later became known.

Both the subject and style of On the Road owe their existence to Neal Cassady. His impact upon Kerouac cannot be understated.

Cassady settled with his wife, Carolyn, in San Jose, and worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He kept in touch with the rest of the Beats, although they all drifted apart philosophically.

In the sixties Kerouac withdrew into alcoholism and what seems like an early onset of middle-age, whilst Cassady took to the road again with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. In a bus called “Furthur” Cassady took the wheel and drove the Pranksters across America. It was a trip well documented in Tom Wolf’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Cassady travelled to Mexico many times, and in 1968 he died on a railroad track, attempting to walk fifteen miles to the next town. Shortly before his death he told a friend, “Twenty years of fast living – there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”

In his short life, Neal Cassady travelled back and forth across North America. His wild antics, footloose life and driving skills inspired many who met him to follow him where he went. He was immortalised in art and literature, and continues to be an inspiration today in sending people on the road.

 

Gary Snyder

 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti commented that if Allen Ginsberg was the Walt Whitman of the Beat Generation, then Gary Snyder was its Henry David Thoreau. Through his rugged individualism and Zen peacefulness the young poet made quite an impact upon his contemporaries, introducing the culture of Asia to the West Coast poetry scene.

Snyder was both interested in the teachings of Asian culture and the tough landscape of North America, and his relationship with both is most famously recounted in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Snyder quickly learned the importance of place. He spoke of a Salishan man who “knew better than anyone else I had ever met where I was.” The mountains and forests of his part of the world were dangerous and beautiful places, and respect and awareness of them were key to his development. Knowing himself inside and out was essential for Snyder’s growth and survival.

From a young age Snyder was fascinated with Asia. He grew up on the West Coast of the United States, revelling in the diversity of the cities.

The geographical significance of East Asia to the West coast was palpable, as I was growing up. Seattle had a Chinatown, the Seattle Art Museum had a big East Asian collection, one of my playmates was a Japanese boy whose father was a farmer, we all knew that the Indians were racially related to the East Asians and that they had got there via Alaska… There [was]… a constant sense of exchange.

 

After years of studying Asian culture and teaching himself to meditate, Snyder was offered a scholarship to study in Japan. His application for a passport was initially turned down after the State Department announced there had been allegations he was a communist. (This was shortly after the 1955 Six Gallery Reading, at which Snyder read “A Berry Feast.”)

Snyder studied and travelled in Japan, and eventually became a disciple of Miura Isshu. He mastered Japanese, worked on translations, learned about forestry and formally became a Buddhist.

His return to North America in 1958 took him through the Persian Gulf, Turkey and various Pacific Islands, whilst he worked as a crewman on an oil freighter.

Snyder returned to Japan in 1959 with Joanne Kyger, whom he married in February 1960. Over the next thirteen years he travelled back and forth between Japan and America, occasionally living as a monk, although without formally becoming a priest.

As mentioned in the “Allen Ginsberg” section of this essay, Snyder and Ginsberg travelled together throughout India, seeking advice from holy men.

Between 1967 and 1968 Snyder spent time living with “the Tribe” on a small island in the East China Sea, practicing back-to-the-land living. Shortly after, Snyder moved back to America and settled with his second wife – Masa Uehara – in the Sierra Nevada mountains, in Northern California. He maintained a strong interest in back-to-the-land living after returning.

Gary Snyder’s poetry often reflects his relationship with the natural world. Throughout his life he worked close to the land, and in his poems we see intimate portraits of the world around him. Issues of forestry and geomorphology are frequently addressed in his poems, as well as in his essays and interviews.

In 1974 Snyder’s Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. “Turtle Island” is a Native American name for the North American continent, and Snyder believed that by referring to it as such, it was possible to change contemporary perceptions of the land to a more holistic, balanced viewpoint.

Mountains and Rivers Without End was published in 1996, and celebrates the inhabitation of certain places on our planet.

Today there is an incredible volume of work concerning the poetry of Gary Snyder, and it largely divides its focus between his interest in Asian culture and the environment. It is pretty much agreed, however, that the natural world and a strong sense of community have pervaded his works throughout his entire career.

Gregory Corso

The only member of the Beat Generation to have actually been born in Greenwich Village was Gregory Corso. He was the youngest of the Beats, and had an extremely tough childhood, growing up on the streets of New York without a mother and did time in both the Tombs and Clinton Correctional Facility.

He met Ginsberg in a lesbian bar in New York and was soon introduced to the rest of the Beats. In 1954 he moved to Boston and educated himself. His first book of poetry was released with the help of Harvard students.

Corso worked various jobs across America, and stayed for a while in San Francisco, performing with Kerouac and becoming a well known member of the Beats.

Between 1957 and 1958 Corso lived in Paris, where he wrote many of the poems that would make up Gasoline, which was published by City Lights. In October of 1958 he went to Rome to visit Percy Byssthe Shelley’s tomb. He travelled briefly to Tangier to meet Ginsberg and Orlovsky, and brought them back to Paris to live in the Beat Hotel. In 1961 he briefly visited Greece. In February 1963 he travelled to London.

It seems that Corso came to consider Europe his home, in spite of having been born in New York. His travels there inspired him, and he spent many years living in Paris. During a return to New York he said: “It dawns upon me that my maturing years were had in Europe – and lo, Europe seems my home and [New York], a strange land.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Ferlinghetti claimed to have been a bohemian from another era, rather than a Beat. Indeed, he isn’t often viewed in the same light. He was the publisher of the Beats, more than a Beat Generation writer, and he lived a more stable life. While Ginsberg, Kerouac and co. were on the road, gaining inspiration and living their footloose lives, Ferlinghetti was mostly settled in San Francisco.

He travelled a little – going to Japan during World War II and studying in Paris after attending Columbia University. He lived in France between 1947 and 1951.

Politics and social justice were always important to Ferlinghetti, and he was active with Ginsberg in protesting and demonstrating for change. He read poetry across America, Europe and Latin America, and much of the inspiration for his work came from his travels through France, Italy, the Czech Republic, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, Chile and Nicaragua.

His poems are often political and social, but also celebrate the natural world.

Michael McClure

McClure has never been renowned for his travelling or travel writing, but rather for his depictions of nature and animal consciousness. His poems are organised organically in line with his appreciation of the purity of nature. They carry the listener (as McClure’s delivery of his poems is fantastic, and often accompanied by music) to totally different place.

He first read his poetry aloud at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, and has since read at the Fillmore Ballroom, San Francisco’s Human Be-in, Airlift Africa, Yale University, the Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress. He even read to an audience of lions at San Francisco Zoo. He has read all around the world, including Rome, Paris, Tokyo, London and in a Mexico City bull ring.

His travels have carried him around North America, South America, Africa and much of Asia.

Bob Kaufman

Kaufman was one of thirteen children, and at age thirteen he ran away from the chaos of his New Orleans home. He joined the Merchant Marine and spent twenty years travelling the world. It is said that in this time he circled the globe nine times.

He met Jack Kerouac and travelled to San Francisco to become a part of the poetry renaissance. He rarely wrote his poems down, preferring to read them aloud in coffee shops.

Kaufman was always more popular in France than in America, and consequently the bulk of his papers can be found in the Sorbonne, Paris. Today his written work is hard to find.

Harold Norse

Norse was born in Brooklyn and attended New York University. After graduating in 1951 Norse spent the next fifteen years travelling around Europe and North Africa.

Between 1954 and 1959 he lived and wrote in Italy. He worked on translations and used street hustlers to decode the local dialects.

In 1960 Norse moved into the Beat Hotel in Paris, with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Whilst in Paris he wrote the experimental cut-up novel Beat Hotel.

Like many of the Beats, Norse travelled to Tangier after reading the work of Paul Bowles. He returned to America in 1968 to live in Los Angeles, befriending Charles Bukowski, before spending the rest of his life in San Francisco.

Beatdom in San Francisco

Wills, D., ‘Beatdom in San Francisco’ in Wills, D., Beatdom Vol. 2 (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2008)

I woke up about six and lay and waited for the sun to rise to signal the arrival of seven, when breakfast was available. It was my first night in the Adelaide, my first night in the city. I felt ok, despite not remembering going to bed, or even checking in. I had arrived in San Francisco at about half three the previous afternoon, and had gotten off the bus at Pier 39. Here, I had strolled about the gaudy and awful tourist trap for maybe twenty minutes, before seeking out the innards of the city – the real San Francisco. I wanted to see North Beach, Little Italy, Chinatown, the Haight… I wanted to experience San Francisco for real, and more importantly, I wanted to step in the footsteps of the Beats and hit the beaten streets with hip steps. Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Ferlinghetti! All the great poets of the city had wandered back and forth along the North Beach and Haight areas and gained inspiration and dug the whole air of San Fran, and I wanted to follow them and learn. And so I got away from Fisherman’s Wharf and the Piers and headed straight and unguided into the residential heart of the city, walking through the privileged streets with no maps, using their straight block formations as reference, knowing I wanted to find Union Square, South, from where I would head two blocks West to Isadora Duncan.

I found Bob Kaufman street near Telegraph Hill and dug them both and took innumerable photos with my digital camera – Coit Tower, the Golden Gate, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, the sign that simply read ‘Bob Kaufman’. I walked about and hit dead ends and steep hills and felt safe and happy to be in the sun in a welcoming city, seeing sights left, right and centre, and climbing to every peak to look around and see every thing, and I did. I dug it all so fucking much it made my heart leap into my throat and choke me.

I found Washington Square and sat staring stupidly at the cathedral – Peter and Paul, people praying outside. I turned and faced that which I worshiped – chicks playing football (soccer) in little shorts and tight tops, coffee shops by the park, bars full of Italians and tourists drinking European beers, and I dug it all. I walked on, hungry and looking for a San Fran eatery. I thought maybe something Italian, or at least sold in an Italian place, and I found a café and bought an iced coffee and a bagel, and sat and ate them at the window, watching the chicks cut by in their mini skirts and little denim shorts. I looked around at all the pizzerias and delis and olde Italian businesses.

Then I continued on down towards the centre, hoping like hell to find the North Beach crossing that housed the Beat Museum, City Lights, Vesuvios, Toscas, Kerouac Alley… all the famous Beat locations. I passed through the streets and streets of Chinese restaurants and grocery stores and every sign and word was uttered and written in Chinese, not in English, like Asian places back in Britain. No, everything was owned and operated and marketed at the Chinese people living in the part of the city that was respectfully theirs. I walked on Southwards to that junction I sought, the meeting place of Little Italy and Chinatown and the Beats. It was somewhere around Broadway and Columbus, I recalled. So I did what I’d realised was a sensible thing to do in American cities and just head in one direction, because the streets just went East-to-West, North-to-South, and I’d cross either Columbus or Broadway somewhere. And I did. I found Broadway and turned left, sticking to Chinatown, and then found the red-and-black front of the Beat Museum and decided I’d see that on Sunday, it being Friday this now. Saturday would be spent in the Haight area of town, seeing the Kerouac Discussion at the Booksmith and digging all the West side had to offer. I turned right and crossed the big junction and found City Lights. City Lights- the haven of the Beat fan, where Ferlinghetti published the seminal works of the Generation and where all Beat books could now be found; a shop I had wanted to visit for years, and was now almost scared to go inside. But I did. I checked my backpack at the door and wandered on in, past all the first floor stuff you’d find in any decent bookstore and up the stairs to the poetry/ Beat section: a small room with two guys discussing Keats in a corner, and chairs littering the floor with signs inviting the customers to sit and read. The shelves were all old and second-hand-looking bookcases full of On the Road’s and Howl’s and Junky’s and collections of all great poets at the other side of the room, and there were posters and postcards of the Beat Generation figures I worshipped as gods, and photos of these legends for sale, but all priced too high for me to consider purchasing.

But I was frantically trying to see the city and keep to some kind of schedule. Part of me fell into my old philosophy of not needing to see everything, because anything is better than nothing, and part of me was captured in the thrills of being a lone traveller in a new city, on some mission to see the sights I deemed necessary to see, and write them up for my little magazine, Beatdom. I cared not for the usual tourist traps, but didn’t rule them out altogether. I wanted to see as much as possible and to move on, getting back to the organic farm, on which I was working, on Monday. Friday was for exploring and checking in, Saturday for seeing the Haight-Ashbury district and the West, and Sunday for thoroughly exploring North Beach – seeking out the Beats’ houses and haunts and living their life for a whole day in some little way.

So I looked around City Lights for half an hour and then skipped outside to Kerouac Alley and took a few photos of the store, and of Vesuvios and Toscas and the poetry and art in the alleyway, on the ground and on the walls, the works of Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and a city ready eventually to embrace its cultural past like so few others. Then I went into Vesuvios and ordered a double rum, showed my Scottish driver’s licence as ID, and took the drink upstairs to sit by the windows and look out at the street I’d long wished to visit. I sat and drank and looked at the tourists being lectured of the significance of City Lights on literary history, and at the uncaring Asians that wandered by with some contempt for the tourist idiots, and then in at the bar and at the mini model of a sign saying, “Kerouac Alley-><-Columbus” and had a little nodding-head Beatnik beside it, and posters on the was of Burroughs and his guns, Ginsberg naked with Corso, Kerouac looking handsome… All of it was old and Beatnik, and there was baseball on the TV and the subtitles giving away the muted words of the commentators told me of the departure from the Giants of the only baseball played I knew – Barry Bonds. Down below, at the bar, the barman and bargirl were discussing Bonds’ departure and the end of a sporting era that I tried to comprehend but couldn’t, so I went back to sipping my rum and watching the streets. I explored the painting on the side of the City Lights building, connected to some kind of restaurant, which had been painted by a number of people, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Twenty-somethings kept coming along and taking photos in pairs and couples, and I watched as it became evident that in each pair or couple, only one of them would know about the Beats and the other would be totally ignorant, and I listened as one would explain to the other with glaring errors and omissions, the significance of City Lights. None got the significance of Vesuvios, such as it was.

The bargirl, blonde and skinny and tall and pretty, came by to pick up the glasses from the empty tables and asked me if I wanted a drink, and I said a Guinness, and I got it, paying five dollars and tipping her one dollar. I sipped the Guinness and tried to follow the baseball, and sat watching, not understanding for maybe an hour, until the jazz joint across the way opened and I sat and watched the folks arrive to go there, and I considered crossing the street and listening to the jazz. But nowadays jazz was the music of the middle-aged, and no longer the sound of youth and rebellion. Yes, it still was something one could dance vigorously to, but instead it was the cats that listened to it, but now were too old and mature and sensible to dance like crazed, sweaty beasts, and so sat in their sharp suits, sipping whiskey and wine at tables, and talking city banter and listening to the background music of black sax players and pianists, only really tapping their fingers, or if the sound really got going they might nod their heads and reference the music in conversation before moving on to the next suburban topic.

So I stayed in Vesuvios and tried to dig it. It probably never was a Beat haven, but rather an average bar frequented by the Beats and immortalised in Beat history by the scrawlings in the wall, long since painted over, that declared Kerouac and Cassady banned since having been thrown out for drunkenness. The owners had capitalised on Beat popularity by naming a drink after Kerouac and by covering the walls in Beat art and ads and references. And back in the day, they had hired people to dress in black, wear berets and play bongos in the window. It really was a cool little place, though. A few groups of middle-aged folks came and sat down at tables and I just sat there on my own, ordering another Guinness and watching the crowds, inside and out.

After an hour, I wandered downstairs to the bathroom, and then when I came out I sat at the bar to drink, trying to get more of a feel for the Vesuvios customers. I ordered another Guinness and drank it quickly, and then had a Jack Kerouac – a shot of tequila, a shot of rum and a dash of orange and cranberry. It tasted harsh with the first sip, but then sweet with the second, and after that it barely tasted of anything. I fired it away and had another. Then some old cat came and sat next to me – about sixty years old with a grey moustache and a face that was drawn and tired and experienced beyond any understanding of fairness. I bought him a Guinness and the old guy bought me another when I’d finished my own drink. We both were quickly drunk and talking about Vietnam and America and politics and family.

“I’m fifty-nine years old and I’ll never stop working,” he said. “I can’t. I can’t afford to. This country… I served in a war for this country, and worked from coast to coast, and at my age I know I’m going to have to keep on working ‘til I drop, for no one’ll take care of me. My daughter can’t afford to, though she’d try. The government won’t. They don’t treat their veterans well.”

“A third of all America’s homeless are war veterans,” I said, quoting an appeal advertisement I’d read in San Luis Obispo.

We kept on talking about the injustices and flaws of the American government, about the bullshit of the Christian religion for luring folks into this sense of hope that was utterly useless and no more than a method of social control, about the man’s family, who were all great kids but helpless in the face of a cruel world, about his working all over America… I could remember almost none of what was said the next day, except perhaps saying, “I’m going to have to go, I don’t have any money,” and the old guy replying, “Don’t worry, I’ll get your drinks.” I couldn’t remember leaving the bar or walking to the hostel, but the next morning I woke up where I’d intended to go.

I spent the day in Haight-Ashbury, terribly depressed from the booze and wandering confused through the Buena Vista and Golden Gate Parks, back and forth along the Haight and trying to figure what to do until the Jack Kerouac Conference at seven. It had been about seven in the morning that I’d left my hostel, and I tried and succeeded in killing almost twelve hours with wandering. But eventually I had to stop off at the Booksmith and buy a signed copy of Anita Thompson’s The Gonzo Way, just so I had something to sit and do. I also hit a half dozen coffee shops along the Haight, and got bored of the overwhelming procession of sixties throwback shops, retailing everything at extortionate prices.

Twenty past six came and I walked the five minute walk from Buena Vista Park to the All Saints Church, certain that the place would be closed, but that people connected to the event would be waiting, and so I’d be able to at least talk to someone, if only briefly, because when it came to Kerouac and literature, I often came out of my shell and faced the world, making friends and acquaintances. So I wandered along and found the place open and a few people inside, mostly setting up a stall selling books by Barry Gifford, Michael McClure, Edie Parker and Jack Kerouac. I spoke to the guy at the door who was there to meet and greet, and told him my name, and the guy went and found another, less timid, guy, who took me to one of three reserved seats right up front.

“You’re from Scotland,” the guy, who had presumably been the owner of the Booksmith, with whom I had spoken via e-mail weeks earlier, said.

“That’s right. I’m here on press duties. From Beatdom Magazine.” I tried my best to sound like Hunter S Thompson, but the owner just smiled, said “yes”, and walked back to his little social group by the book stall.

Now I was happy. Ok, so I’d been happy at times during the day, but now I could hardly wipe the smugness from my fact as I looked around the room, which was large and old and slowly filling up with folks who did not have reserved seats and were not sitting in the front row, and who did not own their own magazine, and were not with the press, and did not know the ins and outs of Jack Kerouac’s life and I did. I was sitting here in the church, early and awaiting the even, like I’d wanted to do since I first heard of the idea, months earlier, and I had arranged to find my way to an unexplored city, battled hellish depression, and managed to make here. I had my camera, too, and intended to take a few shots for the next issue and for the website. I sat and looked around, watching the crowd pour in, scanning the faces for any recognisable ones – Ferlinghetti, McClure, Gifford, even Russell Brand, who was reportedly in town, shooting a documentary about On the Road. But I recognised no one, so I just sat and held my head high, the journalist at the front, no one knowing how tough my day had been or how far into the gory depths of madness I’d fallen only a few hours earlier.

After a while Gifford and McClure appeared, alongside some girl called Suzanne, from City Lights, and the author of the new Kerouac biography, John Leland. They stood about and talked, the two old men, the new kid on the block, and the girl from the shop who’d been picked by her bosses, co-sponsors, to read from a book they had published, by the deceased Edie Parker. Suzanne sat with a crowd of artists and poets and new modern bohemian wannabe suburbanites, who sat behind me. They talked as though they knew what they were saying, but they made little or no sense, and were clearly just digging being there and didn’t really know shit all about Jack Kerouac or literature. Suzanne seemed nice, though, and very humble in spite of her privileged position as spokesperson for the women of the Beats, a group of chicks written out by history, but who were held in great regard by the Beat artists themselves back, back in the day… Leland sat on his own, an intelligent and well read fellow, awkward and shy and set apart from the more experienced old guard of Gifford and McClure, who both sat uncomfortably on the edge of the little stage, as a crowded hall of people leered at them and took photos, probably trying to figure out which one was which, or maybe not caring. They looked like the old traditional grandfathers – the grumpy old coot and the sweet old ditherer. McClure had the whiter hair, the constant smile, the twinkling blue eyes, the nervous shakes at the presence of a great crowd of young Beatnik devotees, spurred to attention by the half-century anniversary of a piece of literature of his contemporary. Gifford had the darker hair, slightly younger, looking older more likely because of frowning too much, with piercing dark eyes and a “don’t you dare fuck with me!” kind of stance, though he seemed to enjoy sharing a laugh with McClure.

The man I had talked to, the owner of the Booksmith, took the mike and introduced the speakers, who took their seats. McClure, the oldest, didn’t bother with stairs, but instead rolled on up the side of the stage and stumbled to his feet and sat down in the middle. Leland acted as moderator, and invited McClure to offer a presentation as a starting point, to which McClure responded by joking with the audience about having not known of such an arrangement, and consequently went rambling into some grandfather-like “Jack and me” type story, which had the folks in the crowd laughing, and brought a great grin to Gifford’s face. The whole time, however, McClure shook, and it appeared to me that the shakes came from nervousness and not some disease or illness. The three men then took it in turns to hammer out ideas about Kerouac and On the Road and reassessed ideas of searching for kicks and trips, instead suggesting that perhaps Kerouac and Cassady sought father figures, stability, experience, adulthood and responsibility. McClure kept cracking subtle jokes and Gifford kept name-dropping Hollywood and literary figures with whom he was friends and acquaintances, and Leland kept quoting himself and heaping praise upon his elders. Then Suzanne took her time to stutter her way through a passage, or rather, a series of oddly selected passages, from Edie Parker’s new book about her life with Jack. She kept hitting obvious references and then crowbarring laughter from sections of the audience by shrugging or winking or emphasising things like the notoriety of Burroughs killing Vollmer or Edie’s sexual attraction to Jack. And then she went on about stepping into the shoes of the great women who had been whitewashed over by history and literary critics, even though she was just a lucky random from City Lights picked to read ill-chosen and non-representative passages from what appeared to be a distinctively mediocre text. Gifford sat a grimaced and shook his head, and McClure politely stared into space. All the while, some student-jock type asshole kept whooping in the background, possibly emulating Kerouac himself, who’d get over-enthused at literary gatherings and “yes yes yes” along in the background.

Then came question time. The whooping asshole from the back, who turned out to be black, started jive-talking some typically ineloquently, barely comprehensive, sub-par English version of a half-question, getting at “Did Kerouac kill himself because of the Vietnam war?” to which Gifford practically spat on the table and coldly stated, “No! Next question!” and it looked as though he was ready to leave the whole damn place. A bunch of other inarticulate, border on idiotic, questions were asked, that McClure did his best to address. He basically just told stories about his experiences with Kerouac, weaving these magic old man tales of youth, using his beautiful and quiet old voice to spin a tale like a pro. The audience would shout out corrections regarding dates and times, to which Gifford sneered and McClure laughed, and told about how Kerouac would listen to the sea and write its voice, and then read its voice, for he had the most beautiful sounding voice imaginable and an unparalleled understanding of expression. Gifford name-dropped Francis Ford Copolla, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp, and thoroughly drew a map of Beat studies with himself at the centre. Fuck it, I thought, that may not be true, and it may be downright egotistical, but the guy was an intelligent man and had certainly made great contributions to the world of Beatdom.

After getting my copy of Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography signed by Gifford, and thanking him for doing an interview for Beatdom, to which Gifford suddenly smiled and stood up and shook my hand vigorously and said, “I remember that!” I left and went back out onto the streets of San Francisco, the time by then approaching ten. I walked out on to the street, smiling from ear to ear, having spoken briefly to each of the four speakers, even if only to say “Thanks for speaking… And oh, by the way, if you want to check out a magazine called Beatdom…” and then leaving. On my way out of the building I slyly grabbed one of the promotional posters as a souvenir. I had done what I’d come to do and I was happy. Saturday had been a hellish rough day, but it was now almost over. Time for bed, and then maybe I’d get a bus home on Sunday instead, or just kill the day away.

I braved the angry streets home to the hostel, standing out terrifyingly as the book-carrying white guy in the waistcoat, wading through the ghetto scum and bracing the shouts and screams.

Sunday morning I woke up and watched the Man Utd v Chelsea game on TV with another Scottish guy and a fat Brazilian dude. I didn’t really want to go out. My feet hurt from walking the city north to south and east to west, all alone and carrying my life on my back. I wanted to get a bus out of the city immediately. I wanted to be back on the farm, with people I knew.

But I had a job to do. I had to tour the Beat-hell out of San Fran before I could leave. I’d done a few things, and I knew I’d never do it all on foot with no money, but I could still see a little more…

I walked out and along Geary, onto Market and up Montgomery. First thing’s first, I thought: before the Beat Museum I would seek out a less easy to find piece of Beat history. I didn’t even know where to start in seeking Russell Street, where Kerouac and Cassady lived, and where On the Road was written. But I could see Montgomery on a map, and knew that I would be able to walk the length of it, which went on up to North Beach anyway, where the Beat Museum was located, and find number 1010, the apartment in which Ginsberg wrote part of Howl. So I walked all the way up, passing the Church of Scientology building, and damn near laughing my head off at a sign inviting randoms to walk inside and take the tour, and getting personality tests while doing so… And I continued up ‘til I crossed Broadway and found the inconspicuous property. There was nothing much to see – no plaque, nothing. So I took a photo of the door and walked back around the corner, onto Broadway, and along to the Beat Museum.

The Beat Museum is in the heart of the adult industry sector, opposite and beside sex shops, porno theatres and other such places that were probably there back when Kerouac and co. walked the streets. The front is a shop, and the museum upstairs, and it’s easy to see the place in spite of the trees outside, for there is a great black and red advertisement on the outside wall, with that famous photo of Kerouac and Cassady, arms around one another. I went inside and looked around the shop, which doubled as a kind of art gallery for paintings and photos of Beat and counterculture figures. Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead seemed to take prominence, but from the conversations I overheard between staff and proprietors, it sounded as though the walls frequently changed their décor. There were hundreds of books and posters and movies that opened my eyes to the world of Beat studies of which I knew I should have been aware. Things existed and were sold openly that I had never heard of in spite of my studies into every facet of Beat culture. I looked around for a long time, waiting for the staff to stop discussing the positioning of a Bob Dylan print, and then approached the counter when the youngest guy left the two older ones and returned to his station.

“Hey, how’re you doing? Can I get a ticket for the museum, please?” I asked.

“Yeah, are you a student?”

“Not anymore, unfortunately. Just graduated.”

“Oh yeah? From where?”

“Dundee, Scotland. I’m over here doing the Beat tour for a magazine I own and edit: Beatdom.”

“Cool, cool. You know Russell Brand? He was in here the other night, doing some recording for this documentary about On the Road.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard he’s touring San Francisco. One step ahead of me, by the sound of it.”

“We went over the road for a drink after he did his recording.”

“Vesuvios?”

“Yeah.”

“Hey, if you want, we’ve got a bunch of DVD documentaries and stuff, and a TV through the back. I’ll put something on for you, if you want?”

“Yeah, cool. Now or after?”

“Whenever.”

“Now?”

“No problem, let’s go.”

The guy led me through to a room in the back, next to the stairway leading up to the museum. The room was small and smacked of disused boiler-room, but had a few comfortable-looking chairs and a widescreen TV with DVD player.

“How about The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg?” he asked.

“Sounds great,” I replied. And it was. I sat and watched the film for ninety minutes until it ended, at which point I walked upstairs to check out the museum proper.

The stairs took me up and past the usual posters of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, plus a sign taken from Kerouac Alley, over the road. There was also a sign saying that the use of photography was allowed, which surprised and delighted me, as I was usually too shy to take photos indoors, in case someone told me I wasn’t meant to and I’d get all embarrassed. I walked through to the large room, which was the museum. It was basically just one room about the size of my parents’ living room, which bookcases, displays and a few partitions, which seemed to hide more displays under the guise of being separate rooms. To my left as I entered was a bookcase, protected by glass, of numerous Beat books, mostly first editions. To my right was a display case full of bits and pieces from and about Kerouac’s life – cheques made out to liquor stores, licence plates reading “KEROUAC”, guides to Lowell, newspaper cuttings announcing his death, a typewriter like the one he used… The walls were covered in blown up photos of him and Cassady, him and his parents, him and Carolyn. Around the corner there was a Bukowski section, comprising of photos and poems on the wall, and prints of the newspaper “Fuck Hate”. Around from that there was the Dharma Bums display, made up of Kerouac and Snyder stuff, photos of mountains, and a golden Buddha. In the corner was one of the more impressive exhibits – Allen Ginsberg’s organ. It was the one he used to write the awful album he made as a tribute to William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. There was also a section devoted to the women of the Beat Generation, whom the men largely considered their equals, but to whom history has not been so kind. There was a little alcove next to that that seemed to house ‘the rest’ section, comprising of Kaufman, Corso, Ferlinghetti, McClure and all the great poets who were missing from the Kerouac dominated landscape of the Beat Museum’s primary displays. In a raised section of the room next to this was what appeared mostly to be the Ginsberg area: with a telling of the Six Gallery reading, the history of the publication of Howl! and photos of him, Orlovsky and Corso butt naked.

I left the Beat Museum and went for dinner in some coffee shop of little note. I was done with Frisco now and ready to leave. There was a bus out at six the next morning, and so I went back to the hostel and crashed ‘til then, not knowing that the next day would see me struggle with Bay Area transport systems for over seven hours before getting back into San Luis Obispo.