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American Mutants Spawned in the Bunker

Originally published in Beatdom #14, and excerpted from the forthcoming memoir/scrapbook, Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg ’72 Through ’92.

 

Allen Ginsberg invited me to see William S. Burroughs in January 1977, when I was visiting NYC. As you may know, Burroughs’ residence at 222 Bowery was nicknamed The Bunker. It was a converted YMCA, with literally no windows and a shiny steel door. The walls were painted white with tiny minimalist art, like that of his old colleague Brion Gysin’s.

I thought it was definitely a great space and safe shelter, then and now. Various young people were hanging out with Bill at a big table like you’d see in a conference room, like James Grauerholz, his longtime secretary and then-platonic companion. Burroughs was extremely gregarious in this environment – a few drinks in him and some weed, and he became a hilarious story teller.

I told Burroughs that I had a dream about him where his face was covered with tattoos like Quequeg in Moby Dick, and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt like Hunter S. Thompson, and also looked like Thompson, which was not a stretch. In the dream, he told me he was a master of Peruvian magic. Burroughs didn’t seem to like the Thompson part, scowling slightly as I told it, but then leaned forward and said, “I am a master of Peruvian magic, my dear.”Allen Ginsberg X-Ray

I told Burroughs about this great sci-fi movie called They Came From Within – released as Shivers in 1976 – that reminded me of his work, where man-made parasites (looking like a cross between a penis and a bloody shit) turned you into an insatiable sexual zombie. It was actually David Cronenberg’s first feature, made fifteen years prior to his Naked Lunch adaptation.

Burroughs presented me with a signed copy of a recent chapbook. As we began slowly gathering ourselves to leave, I had the idea to use Burroughs as the subject for a rephotography film experiment I was considering. I talked to James out of Bill’s earshot and asked what he thought. James went off to Bill and came back with a “yes.” We’d meet for breakfast at a diner the next day and shoot Bill walking around the neighborhood.

The next morning, accompanied by my old pal, Richard Modiano, I went to the diner armed with my Bauer Super 8 and a primitive cassette tape recorder. But when we met, Bill was considerably more reserved, stiff, and looked a little hungover. Still, he was friendly in an otherworldly sort of way. He was also most definitely a good sport.

I turned on the cassette player, thinking I’d use it for background to the film. Our discussion turned to film itself, and I made some mention of Godard’s maxim that every camera angle was a moral statement.

To move the camera or not to move the camera,” said Bill. “Right,” I answered. It turned out to be the only remotely audible section of the entire tape, which was mostly a cacophony of restaurant background noise. I later used these two sentences as a loop for the film, though there were only a few mortals who could recognize the words.  Basically, Bill then took a walk around the neighborhood and I filmed him.

Later, I intercut the then rephotographed footage with fragments shot off the TV from Monster Zero, From Russia with Love, and White Heat. I also shot some peep show gay porn right off its rear-projected screen where fellow film student Craig Baldwin worked. Some cruising cat wanted to join me in the booth. I declined.

The San Francisco State University Film Department had this device where you spooled the Super 8 through and it would show up as a TV image, a sort of pre-VCR device the industrial world used that would allow cheap screenings of Super 8 training films. I had been introduced to this device by Craig (he was later to make the great Tribulation ’99: Alien Anomalies Under America), because it allowed all kinds of crude rephotography off the TV screen, going in for close-ups on what was originally a full shot, and filming second and third generations of Super 8 footage. Craig was a big influence, cementing an interest in found footage and deconstruction of image. He lived in this big ramshackle house on Andover Street in the Mission. It would eventually be condemned, with problems like a giant broken hole in the bathroom floor into the apartment below, covered with a sheet of plywood.

 

Blue first Burroughs walk?

saucer-ray-crowd water

gun window

fence

saucer take-off

walk

flare

spider face-end

 

— found poem of my own scribbles: how to edit Burroughs on Bowery.

 

I finished the work print in my graduate film production class, having a terrible contest of wills with instructor-filmmaker Karen Holmes. She gave me a C in the class and a D in the unit lab, basically because I wouldn’t do what she said. I had been used to a great deal more freedom and empathy in my undergraduate years. They were the worst grades of my entire film school career.

I continued working on Burroughs on Bowery, finally finishingand screening it for students and faculty for the San Francisco State Film finals. In those days, they would post how everyone voted. Three-fourths of students and faculty voted against including it. I was devastated but took the print to Naropa University in the summer of 1978 when Allen invited me out.
Burroughs on BoweryBurroughs had this cool queer secretary at Naropa, not James Grauerholz but a new kid named Cabal, dressed in thrift store New Wave – literally the quintessence of “skinny tie band” as the disdainful punks of the era referred to this refined look. I had never seen it before. Extremely short fifties hair, top button of thrift store collar buttoned, black skinny tie, natch, and a small lapel button like a Vote Ike sort of political button, only it was just a solid color with no words of any kind – a no-slogan button. Wow! This guy was one cool motherfucker. Here I was with my Jackson Browne hair and this cat was the next thing, like an alien off a space ship or some warp into the future – the new X-Man, baby! He also wrote prose that closely resembled Burroughs’ cowboy porn, The Place of Dead Roads (as Burroughs would later jokingly refer to the dismal stretch of Highway 5 between Oakland and Los Angeles). Years later I heard he was a little tyrant at the Bunker, bringing friends home to fix while James tried to shoo them away. Our little tyrant apparently told James off – he was Burroughs’ lover now, not James – as recounted by my ex-junkie pal who’d shot up with Cabal.

A teaching assistant, as per Ginsberg’s request, arranged the 16mm projector I needed to show Burroughs on Bowery to Burroughs. Cabal slipped on some white cotton gloves he’d picked up from an editing bench (this was the audio-visual classroom), prompting Burroughs to say, “Interview with the Vampire, my dear.” I struggled a little getting it threaded. Outside Burroughs apparently asked Richard if he smoked. He wanted a cigarette although he’d quit and then Richard came back in to the room with the projector and said, “He’s getting restless.” Fortunately, I then had it and finally showed the movie to Burroughs, who chuckled enthusiastically throughout with his characteristic Renfield/Dwight Frye close-lipped “mmmmm, mmmmm, mmmmm.” They say that closed lips make for a sinister laugh. They’re right. “Great film, Marc,” said Bill. The truly great thing was that I’d always thought the movie was very funny myself, but this seemed lost on virtually everyone who saw it. I remember asking my older brother if he thought it was funny. “In a psychotic sort of way,” he had replied.

Anyway, better to please Burroughs than the entire S.F. State University Film Department, fuck those motherfuckers.

Burroughs invited me and Richard over to his apartment. He offered me a vodka tonic which I first turned down. He frowned so I took it. Gun magazines littered his place. We hung out, made small talk, and sipped our drinks. Cabal was there too and joined in the drinks and pot smoking. It was actually a pleasure to talk in a low key way with the old man. I was just glad it wasn’t awkward.

Costanzo Allione, Italian documentary filmmaker and future husband of meditation teacher Tsultrim (nee Joan Rousmaniere) Ewing, (They met here for the first time), was shooting what became a great film on ’78 Naropa – Fried Shoes, Cooked Diamonds. Beat translator Nanda Pivano came along. She was the connection between Allione and Ginsberg, and had set up this meeting in Ginsberg’s apartment. Allione was in Allen’s apartment with his crew catching the conversation of Burroughs, Timothy Leary, and of course Ginsberg himself. Part of the time, I was also running around with a Super 8 camera making what would become my short collage, American Mutant. Gregory came in with his 16mm camera and announced, “I’m gonna shoot everybody’s feet,” and proceeded to do so.  The film crew caught me over Burroughs’ shoulder.

The New Wave hip look came up again when this interesting queer had wrangled his way into Allen’s kitchen to hang with Leary. The guy had a weird sort of glam look, not quite on the money with it – but he was clearly not a hippie even with Prince Valiant hair – maybe it was vague eye make-up or his clothes, but it was some different quality that was glitter queer like the New York Dolls (whom I didn’t even know about yet and were actually straight anyway).

“What do you think of Crowley’s Book of the Law?” he asked Leary. “Not much,” Leary replied. That was interesting, since he had said in his writing that he considered himself to be carrying on where Aleister Crowley left off, and the queer had just mentioned Crowley’s most important work. It was fairly clear Leary felt no need to be consistent about anything. Ginsberg made some reference to me being of the David Bowie generation, and Leary said, “He isn’t Bowie, this guy is Bowie,” pointing to the glam queer. Well, he had that sorta right, and I duly noted it, even if Bowie had moved on to his Thin White Duke persona already – which was more like Burroughs’ Naropa secretary. I wanted to be like Bowie or Burroughs’ secretary, if not this glam queer, but not some old hippie, definitely, not anymore.


As for Leary’s lack of consistency, Allen and I were talking with him and Allen made some reference to his claim that LSD could cure homosexuality. Leary said, “Oh that was Ram Dass, not me.” Apparently colleague Richard Alpert a.k.a. Ram Dass had once wall-papered a room with Playboy centerfolds and attempted to reprogram himself with a massive dose of LSD. Remembering how astounded I was by porn when on mescaline at age sixteen (vaginas like the mandibles of strange alien fauna); I could guess this hadn’t worked out. After Leary left, both Ginsberg and I recalled that Leary had made such pronouncements in the past, particularly in a Playboy interview. Ginsberg wondered if they’d done something to Leary’s brain at Folsom, since Eldridge Cleaver had also come out of there as a “Mooney,” a follower of Sun Myung-Moon, the self-proclaimed Korean Christian Second Coming; Cleaver later identified himself as a Republican. During Leary’s Folsom stay, Tim started talking extensively about outer space travel, and in particular about alien contact, but dropped the alien bit very rapidly – a wise move, to be sure. Dolphin scientist John Lily had completely discredited himself once he began about his alien chats on LSD. Tim’s new slogan was SMI2LE, “Space Migration/Intelligence Squared/Life Extension.” He was also saying “Stamp Out Death.” Burroughs was actually intrigued, since he saw little hope for the planet.

I think it was this same conversation with Leary about the Book of the Law and homosexuality that included one of his typical quips that if Buddha was back today he’d be a molecular scientist or one of the Bee Gees. He also referred to Ralph Nader as an ecological fascist, which really bugged Ginsberg. “Now stop that!” he actually shouted, adding, “What does that mean, anyway?” Leary quickly backed down and said it was his position to be provocateur, not necessarily believing what he said; just stirring things up. A good gig if you can get it.

Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.”

One morning, I got up and saw them both brushing their teeth in the bathroom mirror, both naked. Leary was tall with a basketball gut. He saw me and gave his characteristic conspiratorial wink. Tell me life isn’t a dream.

I finally started to really physically crash from the Ritalin and profound lack of sleep that everyone seemed to run on while partying at Naropa, with Allen at the head of the list. I was upstairs lying in bed when Allen came up and said, “Burroughs and Leary are downstairs!” “That’s ok, Allen. I’m tired.” “You’re missing all the good parties,” he said.  “What’s the matter, you depressed?” I was depressed, and hated that he could see it. It was one of those depressions where you know that what’s going around you would be the envy of many, but it wasn’t working for you. I really just wanted a girl like in the movies. That’s why they call it samsara, or as my dad’s favorite reference, “the vale of tears.”  Nobody gets what they want. Poet Amelie Frank later saw me brooding on a couch in a scene from Fried Shoes and said, “the little pouter.” Bingo. By the way, my traveling companion Richard Modiano is in the movie throughout, way more than me, and he’s probably one of the least ambitious people I know. More proof of Buddhism’s sensible irony in a brutal world. Cue that Buddhist monk with the tennis racket drum we kept hearing all over the place.

So in my American Mutant film, Leary was a CIA government official (when I asked him to be in the movie he was doubtful until I told him he’d be playing the head of the CIA), Allen some sort of Tibetan Mutant King, and Burroughs had already shown the proper way to handle a .357 Magnum borrowed from student poet Richard Roth, drawing “the correct way, not the bullshit way they do it in James Bond.” When I tried to direct Burroughs a little more closely, he said “I am not an actor.” Apparently he changed his mind, given the number of roles he wound up playing on screen, though arguably they were just about as demanding as what he did for me. Leary was even harder to direct – he kept looking in the camera and grinning idiotically. “That was great, Tim, but ah… could you not look into the camera next time?” Tim announced he always looked into the camera and smiled. It was a rule of his. “Well, if it’s a rule…” I trailed off, obviously disgusted. “Oh fuck it,” he said, and did it my way. I think I may have spared the directors who later used him (as in Wes Craven’s Shocker, of all things – good movie, odd choice for Leary).

I tried to persuade Gregory Corso to take a part as a sci-fi gangster. I had a .45 replica BB gun for Gregory but when I talked to him he was very hungover, saying with disinterest “Guns are bad karma, man.” I shrugged and his toddler son Max escorted me to the door, slamming it behind me while shouting “Get out!”

Leary came back from a meeting with Allen’s Tibetan Lama, ChögyamTrungpa Rinpoche, expecting to be recognized as some sort of colleague, it seemed. Instead he was made to cool his heels in what he described as a dentist’s waiting room, and when he was finally allowed to see Trungpa, all that the Lama said was “stay out of trouble,” seemed good advice to me.

At the Holiday Inn

Words by Michael Hendrick; Illustration by Waylon Bacon

When considering the implications of the affects of drug use on the writing process, it is important to bear in mind that both William S. Burroughs and Timothy Leary opined that there is no affect achieved by the use of drugs which cannot also be altered without the use of drugs, by the mind itself.

When considering the affect on the artistic and creative processes, we should examine the process without or before the introduction of mind-altering substances.  The intent is not to be tricky or clever, rather to evoke specific feelings.  Words describing color, texture, scent, mood and motion pinpoint emotional ‘cues’ in the reader.  Linguistic genomes, these cues exist in a code which is ingrained onto vocabulary by history of usage.  A writer reads this genome in much the same way a chemist looks at the Periodic Table.

Here we touch on the philosophy of Alchemy.  The medieval belief and meaning of the word had to do with the transformation of base metals into gold. Carl Jung took this as a simile referring to human psychology and the transformation of self into a being of awareness, the transmogrified persona being the gold in the equation.  The Philosopher’s Stone became the symbol for this power to transform.  It is a Holy Grail of sorts.  (Bob Dylan took on the role of Alchemist in the unreleased 1978 film Renaldo and Clara.  The inherent alchemy in the music of Dylan led to a number of generational changes, some obviously, others with much more subtlety.)  To possess the Philosopher’s Stone is to possess the power of Art and a portal into the Universal Mind.  This is where the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom, as achived by Rimbaud and his ‘rational disordering of the senses’ through intoxicants.

If you buy the concept of writer/artist as alchemist, you can see that, in some cases, transferring emotions through images from one brain to another is the stuff of Art.  It is also the manipulation of the hypothalamus, the brain center through which words create an altered state, a personal and shared dimension.

This type of work divines the writer from the Poet, the scribbler from the Artist.  Some writers produce reams of words without a hint of emotional evocation.  Recounting events is an important function but is not a job which aims to touch the spirit.  They convey images but attempt no emotional connection.  There is always a place for good non-fiction.

With the organic capacity to create an altered state in place, the introduction of drugs to the process could be boon or bane depending on the drug.  Lenny Bruce famously shunned marijuana but used amphetamines extensively.  “The reason I don’t smoke pot is because it facilitates ideas and heightens sensations and I got enough shit flying through my head without smoking pot,” he once said.

We find it interesting to note that Ayn Rand shared Bruce’s proclivity for Dexedrine, which obviously helped her pump out such doorstopper-sized volumes as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. As diverse as they were, the ideas and feeling of both Bruce and Rand still serve as touchstones in today’s world of politics and entertainment media.

Often, scribbled hallucinatory revelations turn out to be more hallucination than revelation and cryptic notes found the day after become nothing more than humorous puzzles for the writer to try to unscramble.  There is no doubt that different drugs achieve various results on creative output.  Then there is the distinction between work which results as a byproduct of a euphoric experience and the way it is interpreted by one who is not familiar with altered states.  If the result of the creative work cannot be appreciated to the same extent by all savvy readers, it is useless puffery.

From personal experience, we relate the following and leave any judgement of merit with the reader…

In the Winter of 1980-81, a particular variation of LSD, called Vitamin Ohm, made the rounds in the Northeast United States.  It was potent and cheap.  At the time, I found myself employed by Holiday Inn.  It doesn’t matter where the hotel existed, since they are all generic – or were at the time.  As groundskeeper, my job only became busy after storms so I often helped the ‘convention set up crew’ move tables and chairs around in meeting rooms.  The knowledge required for the task was simple.

There were three types of tables; the round tables came in one size, the long tables were either six or eight feet in length.  We would receive a plan showing how many of each size table was needed, how many folding chairs went to each table and how they should be placed.  The plans were given to us by a short, balding Italian man, obviously of retirement age, named ‘Ned’.  Ned had a quirk.  He started all conversations the same way.        “Hey,” he would say, unerringly, “How you doing? I want to tell you something. Now listen to me…”  This preface was never skipped.

Fetching tables and chairs, a mindless task, allowed a lot of space for the mind to roam.  Most frequently the mind roamed to how much longer until it was until I could go home.  The work was easy but the days were long.  Nobody ever asked me any questions or gave me orders, except old Ned.  Long before the Holiday Inn, the benefits of using LSD to make workdays pass more quickly were not unknown to me.  Small doses, not enough to cause hilarity or deep intoxication, could make a day fly by.  It usually only took a quarter of a dose to make this happen.

One late morning in January, facing an extra-long day, I took a bit more than my usual workaday dosage.  About 45 minutes after ingestion, the acid hit my stomach, sending me to the men’s room to evacuate my bowels.  Forcing out a stool while peaking on a hallucinogen is one of the purest ways to know the quality of a substance.  Staring at the closed door of the toilet, little specks of color burst like a carnival of flashbulbs while the dead sound of the tiled walls led to the awareness that my breathing became the only noise heard…until the distinct sound of the door opening forced me to attention.

From the toilet, the stall door still did it’s rainbow tricks.  Sitting with a wad of tissue in my hand, the solitude of my humming brain suddenly was encroached upon by the appearance of a bald, head with grey hair and male pattern baldness as it oddly poked through the eighteen-inch space between the privy floor and the door to my stall.

“Hey! How you doing? I want to tell you something. Now listen to me,” he said.  This had never occurred in my life before.  No person had ever visited me while on the public toilet, although a few perverts had tried in other public pissoirs.  “I want you to go to Room 205 and help Larry set up. Stay with him today. Do you hear me?”  How could I ignore him? Of course I heard him.  It was just another of his rhetorical questions. “Sure, Ned,” I managed, “You bet!”

And like that he was gone to the sound of the door opening and closing. ‘Christ,” I said to myself, “was that a trip in itself or what?”

Larry, a meth-head who worked there for a long time before I did, also liked Vitamin Ohm and we would often trade meth for acid.  He watched my back and, as the new guy, I appreciated it.

Finding him chatting up a waitress near the kitchen entrance, I told him Ned had sent me.  “Okay,” Larry told me, “We have an easy day.  Take a break and wait for me in 306. I’ll be there in a while.”  The good thing about hotel jobs is that there are always some empty rooms to hide in and you are given a pass key to all rooms, as an employee.  We could disappear for hours and not even go anywhere, so I went to 306, which was a small room, used only for meetings of twenty people or less.  It was empty, with the exception of a long leather sofa, a round table and two chairs.  On the table were some complimentary pens and sheets of Holiday Inn stationary.

Glad to have a break, I sat on the sofa while the walls undulated around me.

Suddenly words started forcing themselves into my head.  They were coming from within…a poem!  Looking around,  the paper and pens presented themselves on the table so, taking a folding chair,  I grabbed a pen and wrote this, in its entirety:

What is true as a razor?

Taut as a wire?

What born in the embers, endures in the fire?

What is painful as lightning?

Or the thunder that drums?

What is soft as a lullabye, barely hummed?

What beating, what driving, what pounding, what pushing?

What sleeping, what dying, what whispering, purring?

What trembles with fissures and threatens to quake?

What slips with the fog on the cool of the lake?

What is it the baby finds in its lungs?

What leaps in the heart of a deer as it runs?

What do I crave in the red of the night?

What burst from within at the moment I write?

Somewhat astounded that the words on the hotel letterhead were there, I reread them and smiled.  Larry knocked twice (our signal) and opened the door.  “I’ll be back down in a few minutes, just take a longer break, “he said.  That was fine with me.  Once he left, though, the feeling of the LSD still coursed through me, making my fingers tremble.  My body felt strange.  I could feel my pores. Most of all, I felt the drug in my stomach.  A cigarette smoker at the time, I coughed to clear some phlegm from my throat.  It was not a healthy feeling.  It felt like there was a lunger, or a tumor on my lung.  It gave me the creeps.  Along with the creeps, more words came to me. I grabbed another piece of paper and sat down at the table and the words spilled out again, just like before, with no thought involved. I  wrote…

It’s a very subtle sickness

That comes tugging at my sleeve.

It’s a whistle and a dry cough

In the wind.

It’s a cold chill with a twictch

It’s a gnawing from within.

It’s an echo in the evening

Which resounds from under eaves.

It’s a cool and frosty taste,

A lifetime born to waste.

It’s a nervous kind of feeling

And a sinking sort of grief.

It’s a red dog on my heels.

That’s exactly how it feels.

It’s a ghostly cloud of quiet and it offers me no peace.

This had never happened to me…not like this.  I had written poems and songs that came to me all in one shot, the songs with melody intact, as I rode the bus or did some other activity which left my mind open to outside images.  I had no explanation for it but this was the first time it had resulted in two distinctly different poems.  One next to the other on the top of the table, I stared at them and wondered if they were any good or not.

Again, the door opened – this time without a knock.  It took me by surprise but it was only Kenny, one of the Holiday Inn maintenance crew.  “Hey, Larry said to tell you to wait here. He is on the way,” he said.  Kenny was alright but he was a loser.  He was saddled with a bunch of kids and a half-toothless wife but he still managed to have an attitude which annoyed me.  He always wore clothes which carried the Harley Davidson emblem, even though he did not own a motorcycle.  He had a wallet which attached to a chain that hung from his belt, like real bikers wore.  I knew real bikers and they didn’t even wear as much Harley gear as Kenny did.

“Okay, Kenny,” I offered as he was pulling the door closed, “Thanks.”

Then, it rushed over me again.  The motorcycle gear had sort of pissed me off.

Another sheet of paper, and the Muse slapped me again…

I wish I could say something

For your leather jacket clique

For the vomit in your greasy hair

And dangling chains that ‘clink’.

For the precious blood you love to see and your children born to hate

For the ignorance you brandish and your lusts which cannot wait.

If individuality

Were yours upon a pole,

You’d pluck it down and smash it in

Your sweating, grinning hole!

This made me laugh.  Just the last lines about ‘individuality’ made me laugh out loud.  Good or bad, that line had to be a good one…or was it?  Personally, I still kind of like it, upon last reading it.  Larry appeared at the door and looked sheepish.  I think he was fooling around with a waitress in a vacant room.  It was time to set up the conference room, he told me.

I took my three sheets of stationary, put them one on top of the other, folded them and stuck them in the buttoned pocket of my brown Dickeys uniform shirt.  Larry watched me but did not ask about the papers.  He could tell my condition by the size of my pupils and had seen the writing on the three sheets.  I had the impression he was surprised that I was able to spell my own name with such wide pupils.  We stepped into the hallway and the door to Room 306 closed behind us.  The next thing I remember was hearing, ‘Hey! Larry! How you doing? Come here. I want to tell you something. Now listen to me.”

Kerouac’s Bad Trip

In January, 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as President of the United States of America, whilst the much maligned “King of the Beats”, Jack Kerouac, was trying magic mushrooms for the first time, at 170 East Second Street in the East Village.[1]

It was Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary who were responsible. By this stage Jack Kerouac was soured on the Beats and the following countercultural movements, and had nothing but disdain for the hippies. Leary had turned Ginsberg onto psilocybin the previous year, and now the Harvard professor was recording its influence on creativity, and the pair of them had naturally come to Kerouac to record what influence the drug had upon his spontaneous prose.

The meeting, however, did not go well, and is known mostly for being Leary’s first “bad trip” and another example of Kerouac’s increasing distance from contemporary counterculture.

The scene perhaps wasn’t set for the best of trips. Kerouac was, as usual, drunk when Leary arrived at Ginsberg’s apartment. He had been drinking with Lucian Carr at a different address in the city, and turned up already drunk. According to Ginsberg, he mocked the pair of them by asking, “What are you up to Dr Leary, running around with this faggot communist Ginsberg and your bag of pills? Can your drugs absolve the mortal and venial sins, which our beloved savior Jesus Christ, the only son of God, came down and sacrificed his life upon the cross to wash away?”

Ginsberg replied simply: “Why don’t we find out?”

Kerouac continued to act like a drunken fool, screaming at Leary, “I’m king of the beatniks! I’m Francois Villon, vagabond poet-rogue of the open highway. Listen while I play you spiral hot-lick improvisations from my tenor typewriter.”

After taking the psilocybin pills, Kerouac mellowed and he and Leary began to get along better. After realizing that there was snow on the ground, they went outside to play football in the street with an oval-shaped loaf of rye bread.

Dan Wakefield was another witness of Kerouac’s psilocybin trip. He visited Ginsberg to interview him about marijuana (of which Ginsberg was a known public advocate) and found Leary and Kerouac present. Leary informed Wakefield that he was conducting a “scientific experiment” and requested the journalist stay and witness history in the making. Leary seemed to genuinely believe that literary history was being made… that Kerouac’s “bop prosody” would mix with the hallucinogen and result in a true epic poem of some kind, in spite of Kerouac’s obvious drunkenness.

Leary told Wakefield to talk to Kerouac, who was normally hostile to outsiders, because the drug was sure to make him “mellow”. However, Kerouac recalled Wakefield as the author of a mocking article about one of Kerouac’s drunken poetry readings, and “threatened to throw [him] out the window.”

Wakefield wished to leave after the threat, but Leary convinced him to stay. Kerouac was given a pencil and told to write. Everyone watched in anticipation of some new literary triumph, but Kerouac turned away and refused. In the end, he was bribed to produce something with the threat of being deprived of more drugs. The result was dozens of lines drawn haphazardly across the page. Not a word was written, but Leary laughed it off and claimed the creativity would come later.

At some point during the trip, after Ginsberg and Leary again attempted to explain the significance of mushrooms upon the mind, Kerouac looked out the window and famously said, “Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” Leary later explained:

Throughout the night Kerouac remained unmovably the Catholic carouser, an old-style bohemian without a hippie bone in his body. Jack Kerouac opened the neural doors to the future, looked ahead, and didn’t see his place in it. Not for him the utopian pluralist optimism of the sixties.

Kerouac continued to smoke and drink, shouting so rudely that it caused Leary to suffer his own bad trip – a first for the pioneer of hallucinogens. In fact, he later claimed that the experience caused him to think intensely about being abandoned by his father as a child. According to Ginsberg, Leary curled up in a fetal position in a dark room, while the poet talked him through the experience.

Kerouac’s bad trip did not end there. After taking the mushrooms, Kerouac at least responded to Leary enough to write him a poem postcard and a “stupid drunken letter”, detailing the experience he’d more or less refused to share at the time.

The letter is a little more of what Leary had wanted. It details the mental and physical impact of the drug on Kerouac:

Mainly I felt like a floating Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice. But that is the element of hallucination in this acid called mushrooms (Amanita?) The bad physical side-effects involved (for me) stiffening of elbow and knee joints, a swelling of the eyelid, shortness of breath or rather anxiety about breathing itself. No heart palpitations like in mescaline, however… Yet there were no evil side effects.

In the letter, Kerouac also claims to have talked to his mother for three days, realizing he loved her more than he thought. He also claims to have awoken one morning convinced that the neighbours thought him “Master of Trust in Heaven.” The world, he felt, was trustful and everyone around him was innocent.

He continued,

In sum, also, there is temporary addiction but no withdrawl symptoms whatever. The faculty of remembering names and what one has learned, is heightened so fantastically that we could develop the greatest scholars and scientists in the world with this stuff… There’s no harm in Sacred Mushrooms if taken in moderation as a rule and much good will come of it.

This letter, however, was not shared as Leary wished. When Leary requested that it be published as evidence of the trip, Kerouac refused. In his journey he wrote negatively of the experience: “The psychic clairvoyance lasted till early this morning – I’ve been sleeping it off (too much to live with, in fact too much for Samahdi peace).” Not long after that, he began comparing the hallucinogenic experience to communist brainwashing. Moreover, Kerouac later made the claim that psilocybin had caused irreparable damage to his mind. “I haven’t been right since,” he dubiously claimed.


[1] Sources are conflicted on the exact date: Maher claims it was January 12th, while Kerouac states in his letter to Leary that it was Friday the 13th and others claim it was the 20th. From Kerouac’s letter: “The mushroom high carried on for exactly till wednesday Jan. 18th (and remember I first chewed the first pills Friday night the 13th). I kept it alive by drinking Christian Brothers port on the rocks. Suddenly on Friday the 20th (day of Inauguration) it started all up again, on port, but very mushroomy, and that was a swinging day, yakking in bars, bookstores, homes around northport (which I never do).”

“It was electric”: A conversation with Michael Sharp

By Noel Dávila

On Ginsberg’s anger & kindness, Kerouac’s “homo viator”, Burroughs’ excremental prose and a fateful evening in the American Midwest.

“What is it you want to talk about, in case I have nothing to say?” I received the above message on my phone from Michael Sharp, who I’d been trying to sit down with for nearly three months. As our anticipated encounter approached I wondered at the possibility of yet another setback. Two days before our repeatedly rescheduled talk, I was not pleased with his message. “The Beats”, I replied, “and your experience, interpretation and knowledge of them.” No surprises; simple as that.

However, I was pleasantly surprised at the unexpected outcome of my conversation with Sharp, a respected professor and published poet. His insight provides a clear path leading from the Romantics of the 19th century to the Beats, and then from the Beats to rock & roll. Having attended a reading from Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in the 80s, Sharp draws a parallel between these so-called readings and rock shows, hinting at the exhilaration of a performance few can claim to have witnessed.

Trained as a Romanticist and in the literature and ideas of the Nineteenth Century, Michael Sharp’s expertise also encompasses poetry and Victorian literature. I sat down with him at his office in the University of Puerto Rico to discuss why he thinks the Beats were American literature’s first rockers, Burroughs’ genius or lack thereof, and the momentous performance he witnessed at the University of Wisconsin in the 1980s.

How did you first come in contact with the Beats?  Was it through their writing or through the live shows?

I think it must have been through reading them, but seeing some of them perform was great also. I saw Burroughs, Ginsberg and Corso on stage at the University of Wisconsin about 25 years ago.

What year was this?

It would’ve been 1980 something… I forget when Ginsberg died – 1997, I think – but certainly all three of them were alive. Corso died in 2000; he’s buried in Rome, you know, next to the poet Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery. Quite close to Keats’ grave. It must have been about ’82 or ’83.

What can you tell me about the show, or the readings?

Well, it was electric. In one corner, Burroughs sat ominously behind a desk, and his fingers, which were very long, hung over the desk, very noticeably.  In fact, his fingers were more noticeable than he was. He wore a gray suit, but then he always wore a suit, and he never moved. I think he read from copies of Junky and Naked Lunch in front of him; that’s all he did, he never moved, and his hands remained like this (places hands on desk). Ginsberg had brought his squeeze box and there was a guitarist with him. Corso, who was “the fourth Beat,” after Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac, was hovering in the background with a bottle of whiskey – loaded, it seemed. It made for good theater and the nice thing about the reading was that while Ginsberg was doing mantras, he was making eyes at and seemed attracted to the guitarist. This intimate sideshow was part of the show which was periodically interrupted by this strange man here who never moved and Corso who flitted around upstage like a ruined dancer.

So they were all three together?

All three. They were on tour. The University of Wisconsin invited artists, mostly classical musicians and orchestras and Ginsberg & Co were part of the season’s offering. The Beat Show was very memorable and the place was packed.

You’d mentioned it was akin to a rock band playing live.

Oh yes, it certainly was. They were American literature’s first rockers. Well, you know they’re related in a way. Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty (On the Road) is a rapper of sorts. Burroughs later associated with Lou Reed, Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, and The Clash, among others.

There is a line that leads from the Beats to many rock bands.

Bob Dylan was a great fan of Ginsberg, so was Kurt Cobain.

Kurt Cobain actually met William Burroughs and they spent some time together.

Yes. In Graham Caveney’s Gentleman Junkie: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs, there’s a photograph of the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper.. As for Cobain and Nirvana, well, you know, there’s something ‘grungy’ about William Burroughs.

He ventured into other things besides literature: film, acting, multimedia…

He was in a film with Matt Dillon (Drugstore Cowboy). He did a film with Warhol if I remember correctly. He sang as a guest vocalist on Laurie Anderson’s Mister Heartbreak. He painted, of course. When he moved to Kansas he started to paint, apparently giving up writing, if writing is the right word for what Burroughs did.

The cut up procedure.

Right.

Norman Mailer said that Burroughs “Is the only American novelist living today that may conceivably be possessed by genius.”  Do you think that’s a fair assessment?

Yes, in a way. I read somewhere that Burroughs, in pushing the limit, found himself in the wilderness of what ‘limit’ sometimes might imply. I don’t know about genius. Burroughs is a dirty writer. I don’t mean that pejoratively. He’s visceral, he’s excremental, and he pushes the boundaries, I suppose. Like many French writers of the 19th century: Baudelaire, de Lautréamont, Rimbaud, and Verlaine. He reminds me of Michel Foucault, actually. Foucault pushed the boundaries to the point that he thought that if he went to every bath house in San Francisco, say, he might just cheat AIDS, circumvent it somehow. I don’t know if that makes sense, but there is an adventurism, a great daring in the way that Foucault crossed over in his writing, and I think, perhaps, Burroughs does the same too. Burroughs doesn’t strike me as being the great writer that Mailer claims for him. I think Burroughs did things that people didn’t dare do, or simply couldn’t/wouldn’t do. If that makes him a great writer, fine. Rimbaud, who must have influenced Burroughs, was equally strange, equally courageous, a poetic genius who gave things up to become an arms dealer, of all things. In a way, Burroughs was like Rimbaud; but he simply ‘gave up’ writing later than Rimbaud who quit writing poetry at nineteen.

What’s your take on Burroughs’ drug addiction?  What effect do you think it had on his work?

It seems to me to be part and parcel of what it was to be a Beat. You know if it wasn’t LSD, it was peyote. If it wasn’t peyote, it was marijuana. If it wasn’t marijuana, it was Benzedrine. I’m not tremendously sure what they took. Whatever Timothy Leary suggested, I guess!

But he was a life-long opiate addict.  Physically he resembled that; pale, skinny…

I suspect there are reasons why people do what they do.  Once again, I think Junky pushes the boundaries. It’s a book that hadn’t been written before. It makes de Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium Eater seem quite tame. The closest one is perhaps a book by the Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi whose Cain’s Book describes the life of an addict living on a barge in New York. I don’t have any take on Burroughs’ drug addiction at all. Rimbaud had deliberately dirty teeth. He and Verlaine misbehaved in public, at dinner parties. One of the things Baudelaire liked to do – though I think this may be apocryphal – was throwing flowers into the Paris pissoirs and watching them disintegrate in the urine. Burroughs watched himself in the mirror, presumably, disintegrating. But then he never seemed to. He lived until he was 80 something. He had criminal friends who presumably kept him supplied. He had money for drugs. Not as much money as everyone said he had, despite his family’s adding machine business. Coleridge was an opium addict. It eventually killed him, but in his last years he was cared for by a concerned doctor in London. I think over the years, Burroughs was in the care of lots of people, one of the people who cared for him was Ginsberg. Not physically, but cared for the phenomenon of William Burroughs. Ginsberg, who was a kindly man, arranged for Junky to be published, edited Naked Lunch, etc.

Ginsberg and Burroughs were both homosexuals.  Do you think being vocal and open about their sexuality opened doors to the current struggle for gay rights?

Yes, but it’s not as if homosexuality, being gay, hasn’t been around for a while. I mean they were open about homosexuality. Extending sexual boundaries was part of being a Beat as much as it was exploring the possibilities of drugs and spiritual belief. I think the Beats may have opened the doors for gay rights, but Zen Buddhism in some respects and the spiritual power of search were things that kept them going. As for the homosexuality, I don’t know how important it was. They spent a lot of time in Tangier; it’s still an open city. It’s a lovely city too. In Europe, the Beats, for example, are preceded by the 1890s French symbolists, by Oscar Wilde. Burroughs was apparently as much into paid sex as Wilde was. I don’t know if that’s liberating or even how open Burroughs was a homosexual. There’s a photograph here in Caveney’s book of his having his toes sucked by Brion Gysin, a British painter. Is it his toe? I can’t tell. I think he liked to be photographed. Whether or not his being gay enhances his art, I don’t know. I think there was a real bond between all the men from Cassady to Kerouac, from Ginsberg to Orlovsky, from McClure to Corso. Burroughs liked men – despite having been married – men’s company, simple as that.

What do think of Ginsberg’s “Howl”?

It’s Ginsberg’s masterpiece. It reworks the Biblical rhythms, the insistencies of William Blake’s great poetry against a devouring world. Ginsberg looks for a common humanity in a dehumanizing, consumer-driven post 1945 America. It’s very democratic like Whitman’s poetry. You can’t have a democracy unless you include all people in it. If you exclude gays, for example, then you don’t have a democracy. When Ralph Waldo Emerson was appalled by some of Whitman’s notions, he told him to clean up his act, and Whitman – I imagine – must have said something like “I can’t, because if we want a union, then that union includes people like me who fall in love with men on trams”.

Do you agree with the notion that Ginsberg was the Beat Generation’s leader?

Yes.  Howl is the seminal poem. To go back to Burroughs, if it wasn’t for Ginsberg we wouldn’t have Junky as it is, perhaps. It would have never been published. And Naked Lunch, which is the better book, if you can call it that, was edited by Ginsberg. Yes, he’s important. The thing about Ginsberg too was that he was nice to people, a nurse, a wound-dresser like the great Walt. He helped writers whom he believed had talent, rather like Lawrence Ferlinghetti or Kenneth Rexroth. This is one of the things I have always liked about him as a man. Ginsberg was nice despite the rage. Howl is a very angry poem. Ginsberg looked at America in 1950 understanding that he was a different kind of American. Compare them to the “greatest generation” which came back from Normandy and the Pacific and was venerated as the saviors of the new world. The Beats felt left out. The intelligentsia especially felt left out. This is why I think writers like Ginsberg congregated in places like Columbia University in New York City and the University of California- Berkeley in San Francisco.

They broke those old 50s patterns of thought and behavior. Instead they had hedonism, spontaneity, inconformity…

The Ur-Text for all them, it seems to me, whether it’s Corso or Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs is British Romantic poetry. The Romantic poets were rebels, mostly young men (with Mary Wollstonecraft) who felt that a millennial moment was at hand in 1789 with the revolution of France and its enormous social possibilities. Then there was the disappointment of the Terror in 1793 and the split between the younger and older Romantics. Wordsworth and Coleridge were on one side; Byron, Shelley and Keats on the other. Blake was much older, but a revolutionary all the same. All of them, at various stages of their poetic careers wanted to – as Ezra Pound said much latter – “make in new.” There was a common rebelliousness, a common belief in the possibilities of a new world order based on freedom and justice and equality and fraternity and sorority, at least in the western world. There was an enjoyment in the role of the outsider. Look at… Burroughs. There’s an outsider for you. William Burroughs, the man in the gray flannel suit who never moved, the man with long fingers, the man who wrote Naked Lunch, the man who’s a junky, the man who liked rent boys – I’m guessing – the man who knew and liked Jean Genet, Paris, its grime. He was fascinated by criminals, Times Square lowlifes whose circumstances I believe he empathized with. There’s a Shelleyan quality to almost all the men we’ve been talking about. Shelley was the arch-rebel. Shelley gave away his shoes to a beggar in Ireland. He didn’t ask for them back. Metaphorically, his poetry dares you to do the same. He was ‘sent down’ from Oxford for his atheistic views. When his body was cremated on an Italian beach, his heart refused to burn. That’s as good as you get!

The Beat Hotel in Paris.

What I think attracted the Beats to Paris was Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Perhaps it was the studied eccentricity of the poet Nerval and his pet lobster. I think the peeling splendor of Rue Git-Le-Coeur in the 6th arrondissement and its grungy ‘Class 13’ hotel also appealed to them.  I’m guessing that they found Tangier much more liberating. They could smoke hashish in the streets, they couldn’t get picked up for particular things, soliciting, say, and they could live relatively open as gays – those of them that were, that is. As for hard drugs, I don’t know. Tangier always strikes me as being the city of the Beats, with the exception of San Francisco and New York, not Paris.

I thought initially that Paris is where you’d seen them perform.

No, I saw them in the American Midwest. I mean, how perfectly junky. Remember Madison is halfway between Columbia and Berkeley!

Any thoughts on On the Road and its lasting influence?

It’s not a book that I’ve found easy to read. Why should it be? But, I do recognize its importance. Dean Moriarty appeals to me. You could say that he’s one of the sources of rap music. Recently a first edition sold for $12,500. Kerouac’s road novels aside, I think where the Beats excelled was the poetry. Corso – remember his “I Am 25”? – “with a love a madness for Shelley”- and Ginsberg were excellent poets.  On the Road has lasted, though. It’s a post-Romantic book. Homo viator, man on the road. It’s about two men traveling in Mexico, two men talking, getting into scrapes, falling out with each other. It’s a cool book.

Going back to the performance you saw.  When you think back, what sticks out?

I think the thing that made William Burroughs different was the fact that he sat still, oh, and his fingers. That might seem odd. I was totally struck by how somber, how sinister he looked. I thought that Burroughs might not be a man you’d want to find yourself in a room with alone. He struck me as threatening, but then I think that his writings are threatening. To go back to the question about whether he’s a genius or not, perhaps he is because the greatest literature should threaten you in some way: make you think, make you change, make you act. The best of Shelley’s poetry dares you to give away your shoes; if you don’t then you’ve failed the task. I don’t think Burroughs dares you to the needle or dares you into the underworld off Times Square, but there was something singularly odd and different about him, whether you understand it or not. Remember that photograph of him asleep fully clothed on a Tangier beach while Kerouac and Orlovsky beef-cake for the photographer? I’m not sure anything means in Burroughs – nothing has to mean, by the way – but he was a phenomenon and a presence. I think probably I thought he seemed rather evil. I’d just gotten back from Africa when I saw the tickets on sale so I went with my friends Ann, Mike, Marsha, Bob, Ina, and Berger. They’re all Beats still. Someone we knew was writing a doctoral dissertation on the Beats. It was a spectacle and good theater. Burroughs was good theater, it seems to me still. If you look at his face, there’s something quite frightening there. He looked so respectable too. Look at the socks, look at the shoes, the cuffs, the trousers, the hat, and the jacket – but underneath the jacket, of course, he’s wearing a Moroccan jilaba. I love that. Burroughs clearly influenced everybody from Bob Dylan to Kurt Cobain. Somebody once said that Burroughs is as American as the electric chair.

I think that’s a great quote.

Yes, I think it is too. I’m not quite sure what it means. In a way, I think that’s what strikes me about him.

Electrifying?

Oh yes, and dangerous. I mean his writings seem to steal fire. They don’t have the quiet Zen, the environmental concerns of Gary Snyder’s poetry, say. But, like Foucault, his notions in their own shockingly Promethean way are dangerous, challenging. Ginsberg, despite the epic rage in Howl, doesn’t strike me as dangerous as Burroughs. Ginsberg viewed his generation as misunderstood and misused just as Shelley understood the tyrannical England of 1819. Burroughs was a gentleman junky. Taken as a metaphor, ‘junkies’ are dangerous people. The best writers strike me as dangerous. Burroughs seems to convey an underworld most of us don’t want anything to do with. Some of the depths that Burroughs touched, or was involved with ultimately seem to have bogged him down in the unknown territory of “limit.” Foucault crossed over, and it killed him. Rimbaud crossed over and became ostensibly someone else, even, according to his sister, accepting Christ on his deathbed. When Kurt Cobain died, I wondered if Burroughs had had something to do with it.

Kurt Cobain was a heroin addict as well, but he didn’t even live to be thirty.

Burroughs died when he was 80 something. Perhaps moving to Kansas cured him. It might have. More so than Rimbaud, I guess, Jean Genet was a perfect model for Burroughs. The petty thief who wrote great books about incarceration, sex, a terrible upbringing – none of which Burroughs had. Genet who was raped in prison or reform school – I forget which – is venerated in France. One of the reasons that Burroughs is so famous in France is because the French like boundary jumpers. Foucault, to the Left, is a God, or was. Philosophers are venerated like rock stars in France. So is Jean Genet. Thieves, murderers, Genet, Burroughs, even the anti-Semitic Céline have a special place in French culture. In Alexander Trocchi’s Cain’s Book – if my memory serves – there’s one sequence in which the hero Joe Necci makes love to woman on some rolling logs. One of the things that he enjoys most about it is that she’s an amputee. I don’t know if that’s supposed to shock you, it’s like punk hairdos or Sid Vicious on stage. Without reading the book, there’s something shocking about the cover of Junky especially when you remember that the man who wrote it looked so much like an accountant. (Points at book) This is a lost look, don’t you think?

Even the way he spoke was kind of strange.

Yes, sepulchral. Like a funeral director. On the other hand, Noel, in some respects I’ve often thought that it was all just a joke – a joke played by Burroughs on all of us. That we can venerate the excremental, the anal, dirt under the fingernails, people who we spend a lot of time avoiding in life because they’ll steal from you, or stab you in the back, transport you to Auschwitz, have you killed. I think Burroughs meant to leave a bad taste in your mouth. Like Bosch or Breugel. Perhaps, however, there is also a monumental empathy at work that ‘cares for the lost souls, for the shoeless of the earth.’ That’s Naked Lunch; chew on that one.

William Burroughs’ brother read “Naked Lunch” and said that it repelled him.

Samuel Beckett, by the way, had a brother who also disapproved of his writings. If Burroughs’ brother disapproved of him, then Beckett and he are in the same camp. Beckett often didn’t quite know how to say what he wanted to say so we are left with what he said – remember Lucky’s speech in Waiting for Godot ? – so if that’s the case with Burroughs, we are similarly left with what he had to say, what he felt. Is he great? Well, he’s different. In a way I think he is great, but I don’t know how, I’m not sure in what way. There was something so much more innocent if you were a Beat and you dressed in a beret and glasses and had a goatee and looked like Dizzy Gillespie, you know? I think Burroughs must have struck everyone in that auditorium as sinister, a touched old man with deep secrets, dark visions.

Ken Babbs Interview

An interview with Ken Babbs.

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