Released just a few days ago, The Complete Songs Of Innocence And Experience by Allen Ginsberg is a multi-CD (or download, if you prefer) album featuring eight previously unissued songs.
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In this essay, I use a Marxist lens to examine Allen Ginsberg’s controversial and groundbreaking 1956 poem, Howl. Ginsberg, I argue, was surprisingly sensitive to the politics of class in this poem, setting up a dual class system which divided those who were part of Moloch from the “angelheaded hipsters,” who I argue were analogous to Marx’s proletariat. Ginsberg imagined himself as a revolutionary leader for the class of people oppressed by Moloch, who, like Marx’s proletariat, were working together towards the goal of a political revolution. Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters were oppressed by Moloch, Ginsberg’s trope for the machinery of Capitalism, which I explore along two political axes: sexual conformity and psychiatry. Continue Reading…
The summer, the fall, and the winter of discontent, shovel after shovel of snow that turns to filthy slush, as in slush pile (publishers’ slush piles) . . . the discontent of youth, the discontent of marriage, the discontent of writers, the discontent of New Yorkers, and the discontent that turns to temporary joy at the nightclub The Go Hole. “Go! Go!” and “gone.” The discontent of life right from the beginning, as whimsically stated by William Blake:
“My mother groan’d! my father weapt.
Into the dangerous world I leapt” i
Go the 1952 novel by John Clellon Holmes is a must for any serious Beat reader. It has none of the poetry of Kerouac, but provides an authentic background and clear insight into character, especially chilling are portraits of Bill Cannastra and Neal Cassady. Holmes delivers compelling studies of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, and some more minor characters, such as a sympathetic one of Luanne Henderson.
Go was published five years before On the Road, “your book was accepted and mine rejected,” ii in an ironic, fascinating bit of publishing history. “What do I do now? . . . It’s been nothing but a dream all along. How can I earn money? What job can I do?” All those years of writing, gathering material, writing, writing, writing, and then, nothing, rejection, humiliation, a “numb bewilderment of these hapless thoughts.” iii
When reading the Beats, keep in mind that before the Beat Generation, this was the World War II Generation, as explained in this passage about The Go Hole:
“The Go Hole was where all the high schools, the swing bands, and the roadhouses of their lives had led these young people; and above all it was the result of their vision of a wartime America as a monstrous danceland, extending from coast to coast . . . In this modern jazz, they heard something rebel and nameless that spoke for them . . . It was more than a music; it became an attitude toward life . . . and these introverted kids . . . who had never belonged anywhere before, now felt somewhere at last.” iv
So the go in Go comes from the muse, Neal Cassady , called Hart, who makes no attempt to hide his excitement for the music in his “enormous nervous energy” as he grins and mumbles his approval: “Go! Go!” As Hart shouts “go!” at the musicians, the audience is yelling “go!” at Hart. Holmes, called Hobbes, sees through Hart’s con man ways, but Jack, called Pasternak, and Allen, called Stofsky, adore him. v
The rest is history, Beat history, and once again, in the words of Blake, which Stofsky takes to heart:
“Seek love in the pity of other’s woe,
In the gentle relief of another’s care,
In the darkness of night & the winter’s snow
In the naked and outcast, seek love there!” vi
i Holmes, John Clellon. Go. (Mamaroneck, New York: Paul P. Appel, Publisher, 1977). p. 70.
ii Ibid., p. 254.
iii Ibid., p. 250.
iv Ibid., p. 161.
v Ibid., p. 115-116.
vi Ibid., p. 276.
William Blake’s influence on the Beat Generation is arguably more significant than that of any other writer or artist. Most notably he was Ginsberg’s “guru” and the “catalyst” for his poetry, and even warranted a mention in “Howl”. Blake supposedly appeared to Ginsberg in 1945 and read “Ah Sun-flower”, and again in 1948 when Ginsberg was reading “The Sick Rose”. He explained,
I was never able to figure out whether I was having a religious vision, a hallucinatory experience, or what, but it was the deepest ‘spiritual’ experience I had in my life, and determined my karma as poet. That’s the-key pivotal turnabout of my own existence. That’s why I was hung up on setting Blake to music.
Visions were important to Blake, who claimed that his poetry was not necessarily a work that he created, but something channeled through him. He referred to himself as a “true Orator” and claimed that poetry came from a voice that he simply wrote down.
This isn’t too different from Williams S. Burroughs’ claim about the origins of his own weird prose:
I get these messages from other planets. I’m apparently some kind of agent from another planet but I haven’t got my orders clearly decoded yet.
It should also be noted that Burroughs was supposedly unable to recall writing any of the original material for Naked Lunch. However, Burroughs – who originally leant Ginsberg copies of Blake’s poetry when they first met, not long before Ginsberg’s famous vision – was dismissive of the mystical idea of visions, claiming that Blake simply saw things that others couldn’t see.
Blake’s method of transcribing words from the ether also seems to bear a strong resemblance to Kerouac’s fabled Spontaneous Prose, which shunned traditional ideas of composition and sought to grasp something holy from within. Although Kerouac named numerous influences on his style, just months before he died he wrote to Philip Whalen and told him that “Blake’s Jerusalem…is worth a fartune” (“fartune” being a Blakean spelling of “fortune”). Jerusalem was one of the poems Blake claimed to have dictated from a voice.
But perhaps even moreso than Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac, it was Michael McClure that took Blake has his greatest literary influence. Like Ginsberg, Blake also came to McClure in a vision, and the two men marveled over the difference in their perceptions of this visitor. McClure explained,
Allen has a Blake who is a Blake of prophecy, a Blake who speaks out against the dark Satanic Mills. My Blake is a Blake of body and of vision.
This short essay originally appeared in Beatdom #11.
We certainly hope that you like to look at pictures – because this is about as many as we think we can squeeze into a single post. ***in June, 2016, all photos were wiped from our website
The idea is to show that, while the ebook and kindle formats are handy, Beatdom is still fun to have your own personal copy of, like in the old days of the literary journal, when you stuck it in your pocket or bag and pulled it out to read while on the bus, at the doctor’s office or in a crowded movie theater while some delinquent threw JuJubes in your hair.
While we all know you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, anybody who is familiar with French poet Arthur Rimbaud and the poem, ‘After The Deluge,’ from his earth-shattering collection ‘Illuminations,’ will spot him right away, That is thanks to the keen handiwork of multi-faceted artist Waylon Bacon, who graced the front cover of this issue with his brilliant dexterity and use of color.
It is a treat to get to see him do something for us in deep rich tones, since he has had to restrain himself to using black and white ever since we changed the format to that of the classic, standard old-style 6×9-inch black and white format, used by most literary journals.
In the following story by Katy Gurin, ‘Grizzly Bear,’ you can see more of Waylon’s work, only in the b/w format. This is still another excellent short story by Katy, about what can happen when people commune a little too closely with nature. This tale showcases her usual splendid imagination and wonderful gift for detail. Stuck in between there, shown on the back cover, since most people look at the front and back before opening it, is the advertisement for the next fiction release from Beatdom Books, ‘Egypt Cemetery,’ a memoir by Editor Michael Hendrick, which will be available soon at the usual outlets.
It is also worth noting that Katy will be publishing a full volume of her short stories with Beatdom Books, later this year. That volume will be illustrated by Waylon, since the two of them make such a great team for two people who have never even met each other. As Katy’s story continues the partygoers dressed as bears start to act more like bears just for the drunken fun of it.
Waylon not only provided the fine images you see here – but also managed to include some of his favorite monsters, like Frankenstein’s monster, his Bride, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, and some weird looking what-cha-ma-callits, that only he sees when he closes his eyes at night.
Bears like to catch fish but fishtank owners are not always appreciative. As you can see, our half-drunk pseudo-bears wander out into the Halloween night and do all the things bears are wont to do, until they are confronted by a real bear. How Katy thinks this stuff up is a mystery to us but we have been lucky enough to have her writing such inventive stories with truly absorbing plots since she was kind enough to provide us with her very first and fabulous yarn, ‘Meat From Craigslist,’ back in Issue Number Nine.
Next we have a look at the life of William S. Burroughs during his days as a farmer, written by Editor David S. Wills. Burroughs didn’t do so well working the land but Mr. Wills has been farming up quite a bit of information on the pistol-happy author while lurking about the Burroughs Archives at the New York City Public Library lately. Watch for more!
Somehow, archaeologist, activist and Beatdom regular Robin Como managed to find time to write two more of her intoxicatingly exquisite poems for your pleasure and if she doesn’t run away, we hope to have her back with more in our next issue!
Michael Hendrick tracked down Shelton Hank Williams, aka Hank Williams III, aka Hank3, on Thanksgiving Day morning last year, forcing him to hold a copy of Beatdom Issue Nine and interviewing him on topics ranging from going to Hell, to how his grandfather wrote one of the first recorded rock songs before rock’n’roll was invented, to the Right to Bear Arms.
Taking time out from his extensive studies, returning writer Rory Feehan penned this account of still another famous sharp-shooter, Hunter S. Thompson and his ventures and misadventures while living a not so quiet existence at perhaps California’s favorite Beat retreat, Big Sur.
While everybody was awaiting the release of the film version of Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road,’ Mr. Wills tracked down the last remaining live male character depicted in the movie, Al Hinkle, who Kerouac called Ed Dunkel in the book. Mr. Hinkle is delighted to appear here.
Assistant Editor Kat Hollister, who labored intensively to help put this issue together marked her first appearance in Beatdom with the poem you see below; her efforts were rewarded by the dubious distinction of having it placed across from a poem by returning Beat literate Chuck Taylor, on the dodgy subject of his erection. Mr. Taylor dug up the old form of ‘doggerel’ to justify it, along with the fact that we are the only journal who would risk publishing it.
Where have you seen this face before? On the cover, it’s Arthur Rimbaud again, next to an essay by poet Larry Beckett, who takes apart the aforementioned poem, ‘After The Deluge.’ It is an insightful look at one of Rimbaud’s best know works, and also gives us a glimpse at the fantastic style of literary critique to be found in Mr. Beckett’s upcoming offering from Beatdom Books, ‘Beat Poetry.’
Matthew Levi Stevens is a new name to Beatdom readers and here he presents us with a review of the latest collection of letters written by William S. Burroughs when he was still living as an expatriate.
Kat Hollister, following the indignity of having her poem placed facing Mr. Taylor’s doggerel, was happy to find a spot next to this wonderful photograph, ‘wetlands in march no.2,’ by well-known nature photographer, g. thompson higgins.
Artist/Photographer/Musician and Writer, Zeena Schreck returned again this issue, with this touching and enlightening article. She writes of how she and multi-talented husband, Nikolas Schreck, stepped up and acted to save the lives of eighty wolves, diverting their carriage to safe habitat as they were being sent to an otherwise slow and cruel death.
Ann Charters, a name familiar to everybody in the world of Beat Literature and Literary History spoke with Mr. Hendrick, on working with Kerouac, the beginnings of Beat, her meeting with Alene Lee and the importance of John Clellon Holmes to the Beat Generation.
Internationally renowned poet Michael Shorb, a strong voice on environmental issues, was kind enough to grace our pages with this, his first appearance in Beatdom.
Reaching past Rimbaud to William Blake, Mr. Wills weighs in with a quick word on the literary influence of one of the most visionary of voices and his influence on the Beats.
When we think of Beat we think of the road and it is hard to think of a band who pounded the pavement harder than the Ramones. Richie Ramone, the fastest of the fast, spoke with Mr. Hendrick about life on the road, his forays into the Big Band sounds of the Drum Gods and his activism on behalf of pooches in peril in Los Angeles.
As usual, Waylon won’t go back into his cage until he gets one last bite on the hand the doesn’t feed him, so we leave you with him and his now traditional ‘last page, last word.’ This one, Waylon aptly titled ‘Sometimes Eye Gets Crazy!’
by Wayne Mullins
Many people ask what are the Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a Flaming Pie and said unto them ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an A’. ‘Thank you, Mister Man,’ they said, thanking him…
This colourful and creative reason for the name “The Beatles” is something you can immediately associate with John Lennon and his amazing ability to take a fairly mundane topic and give it an otherworldly slant. However, the real reason behind the name and spelling of The Beatles owes a lot more to the likes of Ginsberg and Kerouac than it does to mystic pie riders from the sky.
It was 1957, a time when the Beats were at the height of their powers: Allen Ginsberg was in Court defending his poem ‘Howl’ and On the Road had its first publishing and became an instant classic. At the same time, across the Atlantic, the Beatles (originally called The Quarry Men) formed in Liverpool, England. Several name changes occurred in the early life of the Beatles before John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe decided to honour the memory of Buddy Holly by changing the band name to the Beetles (as a play on Buddy Holly and the Crickets), but as John Lennon was a fan of clever word play he decided to change the spelling of The Beetles to Beatles as a way to suggest “beat” or “beat music”. As John Lennon said in a 1964 interview, “It was beat and beetles, and when you said it people thought of crawly things, and when you read it, it was beat music.”
The Beatles and the Beats shared much in common during these early years. The friendships, relationships and experiences formed by both groups during their early days were to go on and shape entire generations in the decades that followed.
Further evidence of the Beat influence on the Beatles came from the time John Lennon spent at Liverpool College of Art. The Beat culture in Liverpool was certainly one of many influences on him; he knew Adrian Henri, and many of the professors who taught John at Liverpool College of Art were ardent followers of the Beat Movement. His dear friend June Furlong had posed for quite a few Beat artists and John loved the free-form mode of expression that the Beat generation endorsed. However, John was not a “joiner.” He didn’t want to be linked to any one movement or any one philosophy. When the Beatles journeyed to Hamburg in the summer of 1960, Lennon’s best friend Stuart Sutcliffe became enamoured of the Existential Movement (“the Exi” as John referred to them), but John scoffed at it as silliness. Much later in life when John sang his long list of the things he didn’t believe in (in the song, “God”), he was not so much rejecting everything on that list as he was telling the world that he was not a part of any group. He was himself. And he felt that was enough.
While Lennon may never have been a follower in the tradition sense, it is clear nonetheless that the Beat movement did play an important part in the development of both his and the Beatles vision. While the Beats are famously associated with their love of Jazz, there were notable occasions when the world of Beat and sixties pop music crossed paths. Marianne Faithfull’s autobiography details an encounter between Allen Ginsberg and The Beatles in the mid sixties.
“Then Allen Ginsberg came in … He went over to the chair Dylan was sitting in and plonked himself down on the armrest … John Lennon broke the silence snarling:
“‘Why don’t you sit a bit closer then, dearie?’
“The insinuation – that Allen had a crush on Dylan – was intended to demolish Allen, but since it wasn’t far from the truth anyway, Allen took it very lightly. The joke was on them, really. He burst out laughing, fell off the arm and onto Lennon’s lap. Allen looked up at him and said, ‘Have you ever read William Blake, young man’
“And Lennon in his Liverpudlian deadpan said, ‘Never heard of the man.’
“Cynthia, who wasn’t going to let him get away with this even in jest, chided him: ‘Oh, John, stop lying.’”
That broke the ice.
The Beats are largely seen by the public (either rightly or wrongly) as the founders and spiritual leaders of both the Beat and Hippie movements. But this never sat particularly well with several members of both groups. Jack Kerouac in particular came to resent the perceived image the Beat followers had of him and claimed “It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.” But follow him they did, often forcing him to move around the country with his mother when his address became too public – allowing eager young Beatnik followers who saw him as some kind of prophet to show up at his door uninvited. Though they were often disappointed that he was not the man they imagined him to be, they would often drag the bloated, old man Kerouac had grown into out for an all night drinking session, just so they could say they partied with “Sal Paradise.”
John Lennon was a person who always strived to be an individual and not belong to any group. But some of the ideals that the Hippie movement cherished, John cherished. After all, his most famous message was “Love is all you need.”
During the mid-sixties the rapidly expanding Beat movement underwent another transformation. The jazz, sunglasses, dark clothing and goatee beards faded out of fashion to be replaced by up tempo rock and pop music, long hair, bright psychedelic clothing and a more high profile form of protest. Many of the original Beats were still active members of the Hippie movement, the most famous of these being Allen Ginsberg who became a permanent fixture of the anti-war movement during this time. While the Beats were largely apolitical, the Hippies were more active and goal-orientated in their protests; protests that started with the anti-war movement, leading onto civil rights and environmental protests. However, not all of the Beats were so quick to embrace the new counter culture movement. Kerouac in particular was strongly opposed to the Hippie movement and labelled it as “new excuses for spitefulness.”
Both Beatnik and Hippie movements were committed to mind-expanding drug experimentation, free love, anti war protests and living a life of personal and spiritual vision. The Beats pioneered the recreational use of marijuana and Benzedrine, paving the way for the generation that followed to experiment with LSD and other drugs. It’s easy to see how one movement morphed into the other. While the Beatniks may have started the counter culture, music, drugs and promiscuous sex movement, it was the Hippies that really popularised it through a combination of upbeat and catchy sixties pop music and its more inclusive nature.
Drugs played a big part in both movements and Kerouac was famous for his marathon Benzedrine writing sessions (sometimes lasting days). Lennon also experimented quite frequently with mind expanding drugs. His songs, “She Said, She Said,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver demonstrate the influence of the drug culture on John’s lyrics and music.
Famously both the Beats and The Beatles grew weary of the straight laced and conformist attitude of western religions and explored the East in a search for deeper meaning and answers. Both Kerouac (Christian) and Ginsberg (Jewish) had strong attachments to their religions in their youth, but during the early fifties Ginsberg started to become involved in Buddhism while living on the West Coast and Kerouac began to develop his Transcendentalism-based fascination with Buddhism while living on the East Coast. Eager to explore the new consciousness of their newfound Eastern teachings, the Beats revelled in the power of the new philosophy which placed the power of the individual at the spiritual centre of life. Many of the Beats took their new teachings very seriously, travelling to Japan to be closer to the original source and in Ginsberg’s case even going on to become a devoted Tibetan Buddhist after being tutored by his mentor, a monk called Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The Eastern influences can be seen throughout the writers’ work in pieces such as ‘Howl’ and The Dharma Bums.
When the Beatles started to experiment with their own ventures into the Eastern region it was to prove just as controversial as when the Beats had first began to explore the East a decade earlier. When the Beatles famously travelled to India to converse with the Maharishi during their exploration of Hinduism it was not to be without incident. John Lennon was extremely disillusioned with Eastern philosophy when he returned from the Beatles’ ashram with the Maharishi. In fact, John left in utter disgust and when the Maharishi asked John why he was leaving, John replied, “You’re the mystic. You tell me.”
At the end of John’s life, he was spending a great deal of money each week reading books on all sorts of faiths, including Judaism and Christianity. Having been raised in the Anglican Church John was toying with returning to his religious roots. If you study one of the last photographs of John (in his New York Shirt) before he was killed, he is wearing a crucifix. John believed that God could not be put into a tiny box of any faith. He looked to the East, the West and all points in between. And that after all, is where he believed God was.
Many critics were quick to label the Beat writers “armchair Buddhists” in the sense that they only picked the parts of the religion that was of use to them, abandoning the rest. The Beatles also faced similar accusations in relation to their “free love” and “peace” message of the Hippie era. John Lennon didn’t like materialism and yet he owned a large portion of The Dakota on New York’s West Side, a plethora of expensive guitars, a great deal of land and property on Long Island. John Lennon devoted his life to peace, but he wasn’t opposed to violence when his best friend was threatened by a group of thugs.
That being said, Lennon wasn’t a pacifist to the point of surrendering his values. He didn’t want “peace at any price.” He realized that peace was a cooperative agreement between two people, two cultures or two nations. If one party failed to honour that commitment, then the process was ineffective and other means of solving the problem would then be necessary. In his revision of the rock anthem “Revolution,” John says, “But when you talk about destruction… don’t you know that you can count me out/in.” Why “out/in”? John wasn’t nebulous in his stance on war and peace. He was being very clear in these lyrics: he was saying that he would like to be counted out of destruction, war and violence (just as the Hippies would have wanted), but in reality there were cases in which one must stand up and fight or stand up and protect/defend. John knew that life wasn’t a simple flower-powered love-in. Life had to be evaluated on a case by case basis.
By the end of both their lives, I feel it’s fair to say that both Jack Kerouac and John Lennon, the two people who probably best represent the movements of the Beats and Hippies, had both fallen out of love with their original message. John Lennon was not a person who wanted to be a leader or a follower; he was someone that I don’t think would want to be tagged as part of any movement. As he said in ‘God,’ “I was the Walrus, but now…now I’m John.” He wanted to be individual. What he gave to his era which influenced the Hippie culture as well as a very straight-laced mainstream group of people, he gave out of his need to express himself, to “sing his heart.” If it changed or influenced others, then fine. If it didn’t, then that was fine too. He sang because he had to sing, not because he wanted to lead change or direct a movement. Jack also appears to be a man who wanted to bring people together and teach the world all the new wonders he had found, but eventually his message became more important than its content, leading him to lose the spark of passion, a spark that he felt could change the world and make it a better place. He famously once said “Great things are not accomplished by those who yield to trends and fads and popular opinion.” This is the clearest message he could have given that he felt any kind of cultural movement was largely superficial and if you really wanted to make a difference and change the world, you would have to do it in your own way.
However, despite both movements being just memories now, they have left long and lasting legacies that continue to be as powerful today as they were 50 or 40 years ago. The message of peace and love is always “right on time.” It was brilliant when Jesus proclaimed it. It was powerful when Ghandi proclaimed it. It was courageous when Martin Luther King proclaimed it. It is never outdated. It is the only message; and as cynical as we may be about things as they are today, it is love upon which we focus when everything else around us is falling apart.
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.
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.
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.
Ginsberg and Dylan are frequently viewed as a Jewish father and son. Certainly, they were close, and Dylan has often cited Ginsberg as a massive influence on his life and work; however, they were only fifteen years apart by birth and five by seminal publication. Of course, this is merely an affront to the more literal connotations of the father-son description of their relationship, and does not take anything away from the momentous influence the Beat poet had on the legendary songwriter.
Dylan certainly viewed Ginsberg as a father figure, as evidenced in his film, Renaldo and Clara. Here, Ginsberg plays an advice-offering character known as The Father. He also appears, watching over Dylan, in the background of the singer’s Subterranean Homesick Blues.
However, if we are to force metaphors upon their relationship, then perhaps a more accurate one would as brothers, as although Ginsberg played the role of mentor, they were closer than such a closed view would suggest. They found in each other a shared genius, and collaborated on a few projects, praising each other over a long friendship.
Dylan would say, “I didn’t start writing poetry until I was out of high school. I was eighteen or so when I first discovered Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Frank O’Hara and those guys.” So clearly in the beginning it was a one way relationship, with Dylan inspired to write by the Beat Generation.
However, Ginsberg found in Dylan’s songs the same kind of spirit with which he infused his own poetry. The protest and mysticism he described in Dylan’s art as “chains of flashing images” are evident in the majority of Ginsberg’s volume of work.
Bob Dylan arrived in New York City in 1961, following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, and Allen Ginsberg returned there in December 1963. Through Al Aronowitz, the journalist and their shared acquaintance, the two poets met.
“I first met Bob at a party at the Eighth Street Book Shop, and he invited me to go on tour with him. I ended up not going, but, boy, if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have gone like a flash. He’d probably have put me onstage with him.” (New York, early 1960s)
“His image was undercurrent, underground, unconscious in people … something a little more mysterious, poetic, a little more Dada, more where people’s hearts and heads actually were rather than where they ‘should be’ according to some ideological angry theory.” (San Francisco, 1965)
Ginsberg praised Dylan’s work as returning poetry to the human body through the medium of music. As well as appearing in Renaldo and Clara and Subterranean Homesick Blues, he wrote three poems in praise of Dylan and wrote the sleevenotes of Desire: “Big discovery, these songs are the culmintation of Poetry-music as dreamt of in the 50s & early 60s.” And according to Mel Howard, “Allen saw Dylan rightly connected to the whole tradition of the Beat movement, and through that to earlier poets.”
And on the sleevenotes of Bringing it All Back Home, Dylan wrote, “why allen ginsberg was not chosen to read poetry at the inauguration boggles my mind.”
In November 1971, Ginsberg and Dylan collaborated on songs intended for an as yet unreleased album called Holy Soul Jelly Roll. The songs exist in bootleg form online, and most are available through the PennSound project. (Edit: They were released as First Blues in 1983 and released this year, 2016, as Last Word on First Blues.)
The songs, or album, consist of the jointly written ‘Vomit Express’, ‘September on Jessore Road’ and ‘Jimmy Berman’, as well as William Blake poems set to music and several poems written by Ginsberg himself.
Throughout, Ginsberg takes lead vocals with Dylan on guitar, harmonica and backing vocals. The songs were recorded at the Record Plant in New York.
The pair also performed five songs, including ‘September on Jessore Road’ and William Blakes’ ‘Nurse’s Song’ and ‘A Dream’, on PBS-TV, New York. The songs were recorded in the PBS-TV studios in October, and featured Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso on vocals, alongside David Amran and Happy Traum.
Such joint collaborations further blur the image of Ginsberg as Dylan’s father, and throws light on their mutual respect for one another.
However, another perspective of their relationship is that of Ginsberg doing as Cassady and Burroughs did and bridging the gap between the generations and movements of the latter half of the twentieth century. Whereas Cassady joined forces with the Merry Pranksters and the Psychedelic Generation, and Burroughs entered into experimentations with music and artists of later periods, Ginsberg moved from the Beat 50s into the Protest 60s, influencing and working alongside the epitome of protest culture and social change, Bob Dylan.
Indeed, after meeting Dylan, Ginsberg enter into a period of unrivalled social and political activism, joining forces with Norman Mailer to defend Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, testifying in support of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, supporting the movement for the legalisation of cannabis, demonstrating for freedom of sexuality and against capitalism. As Graham Caveney said, “If Dylan was beginning to provide the soundtrack for the counter-culture, Ginsberg gave it both a face and the networks which were essential in sustaining its momentum.”
Rolling Thunder Revue
In 1975 Dylan set out upon his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which he was to film and turn into Renaldo and Clara. The tour was one of small gigs, no more than three thousand people, blending theatre and music, and in between gigs the tour bus would see filming of scenes and actions that Dylan would later cut together. The whole film was intended to cut live concert footage with a story that was written by a scriptwriter, but diverged and took a life of its own. Originally it was a collection of images from Dylan’s life and dreams, told mystically and surrealistically, in the manor of his poetry.
According to organiser Lou Kemp, the original group of musicians “would go out at night and run into people, and we’d just invite them to come with us. We started out with a relatively small group of musicians and support people, and we ended up with a caravan.”
On stage, during the opening night, Ginsberg joined in singing ‘This Land is Your Land,’ and in subsequent shows he would act as both poet and harmonist. However, although Ginsberg accompanied the Rolling Thunder Revue for most of its run, many of his poetry readings were cut from the stage to keep the shows to reasonable lengths. One major exception was the performance in Clinton State Prison, where Rubin Carter, the boxer about whom ‘Hurricane’ was written, and whose defence case the tour was raising funds for, was incarcerated. During this show, Ginsberg’s poetry recitations were included.
Two of the film’s most well known scenes depict Ginsberg as mentor to Dylan – in Lowell, explaining the Catholic notion of the Stations of the Cross, and during their visit to Kerouac’s grave. These scenes explore Ginsberg’s religious views as a teacher, albeit a Catholic guide rather than as a Buddhist. And in other scenes Kerouac and Beat poetry are discussed, furthering the image of Ginsberg as a major influence upon Dylan.
So looking back upon the relationship between the two poets, it’s hard to stick to the conventional analysis of their relationship as that of a father-son, one-way influence. Rather they can be viewed as akin to brothers, or hell, why not just call them friends, as they in fact were? Sure, maybe Dylan learned more from Ginsberg, but they interacted and collaborated, and they respected one another. Dylan may have discovered the works of Ginsberg before Ginsberg discovered Dylan’s, but Beat poetry was far from his only influence, and Ginsberg learned much from Dylan, and together they helped bring the Beat spirit into the sixties and further a new generation of social activism and art.