Wills, D., ‘Six Beat Tales’ in Wills, D. (ed.) Beatdom Vol. 1, (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2007)
The Beat Generation was famous for its literature, and much of that literature told stories from the lives of the Beats. But many other stories of events that happened to members of the Beat Generation were not written down, but still became the stuff of legends… And in either case, whether the stories were true or not is really not that important, so here are six of Beatdom’s favourite Beat based tales.
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[This story is told twice in this issue of Beatdom because it is my personal favourite Beat tale – D.W]
After numerous run-ins with the law, various drug problems, and time spent in a mental hospital, Bob Kaufman grew highly disaffected with the society around him. So in 1963, after witnessing the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the poet took a vow of silence that he never broke until the end of the Vietnam War.
Upon breaking his vow, he walked into a café and recited a poem called ‘All The Ships That Never Sailed’.
Now whether or not this story is entirely true… Well, it’s still a good story. My only problem with it is that Kaufman had three volumes of poetry published in the years between Kennedy’s assassination and the end of ‘Nam. Surely he must have said a few words or at least signed his name…
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William S. Burroughs’ drug problems were legendary. But when a series of letters between him and Allen Ginsberg were discovered by the police, he decided he’d had enough of American drug laws and skipped to Mexico to see out the crime’s statute of limitations.
Burroughs took with him his common law wife, Joan Vollmer, and their two children. In 1951 Burroughs and Vollmer put on a show at a party above a bar in Mexico City. The show was ‘William Tell’. It went wrong, and Burroughs shot Vollmer dead.
He spent thirteen days in jailed before trying to bribe witnesses for trial, and eventually skipped the border back to America.
Burroughs maintains that it was only after killing Joan Vollmer that he decided to become a writer.
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A 1965 protest against the Vietnam War went ahead in San Fransisco because of the courage of Allen Ginsberg and Ken Kesey. Earlier protests in the area had been violently disrupted by the Hell’s Angels, who loathed the anti-war sentiment and denounced the protestors as communists.
When Ginsberg and Kesey went to visit Sonny Barger, leader of the Hell’s Angels gang, they managed to impress the bikers so much that they agreed not to attack the protestors, and developed an extremely high opinion of the two writers.
Rumour has it that Ginsberg bribed the Hell’s Angels with vast quantities of LSD, but the truth of this idea is unknown…
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The story behind Jack Kerouac’s On The Road has him travel the country and live the wild life, before loading up on coffee and Benzedrine and embarking upon a three day marathon writing session, typing the manuscript in one burst of creative energy onto a one hundred and twenty foot scroll.
The book itself tells most of the tale, and the manuscript is flying around America on an On The Road tour, so the story seems pretty sound.
But it’s not that simple. Kerouac plotted out the novel on his travels through a series of journals and notebooks. And he spent a great deal of time and effort drafting and redrafting the text until it got published. But he did type onto a one hundred and twenty foot scroll of paper in only three weeks. That much is true.
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In 1965 Allen Ginsberg visited Cuba and was deported for voicing opposition to the country’s anti-cannabis laws and their persecution of homosexuals. He also insulted high-ranking officials by calling Che Guevara ‘cute’.
In the same year he was also deported from Czechoslovakia after being declared ‘King of May’. The government labelled him an ‘immoral menace’.
Upon returning to America, Ginsberg found himself the subject of an FBI investigation. Clearly, the anti-Communist administration didn’t care to recognise the lack of respect for Ginsberg in Communist governments.
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The Six Gallery reading was the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, where Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Philip Lamantia read to an audience of one hundred and fifty fans.
Jack Kerouac sat in the crowd, drunk, having whipped around for enough spare cash to by jugs of wine for everyone, and beat the bottom of a bottle like a drum and cheered on his friends.
Allen Ginsberg stole the show with the first part of ‘Howl’, only written a few weeks before. It was his first poetry reading, and had Kerouac in a mad frenzy and Rexroth in tears.
After the show, the group got drunk and went to bed. When they woke up, they were local celebrities.
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Neal Cassady never published a book in his life, but it was his enthusiasm and rapping that changed Kerouac’s writing from old to new. And Kerouac in turn taught Cassady to write fiction, and although not many appreciated it, Kerouac was in awe. The two embarked upon a cross country journey that would become On the Road, and their friendship would inspire most of Kerouac’s later books.
However, Kerouac got caught in the grips of alcoholism and grew old beyond his age, while Cassady hooked up with hip new counterculture icons in the making and again crossed America. The two had grown so far apart that they fell out during a reunion.
Cassady died 3rd February, 1968, after falling asleep, drunk, on railway tracks. Kerouac died 21st October, 1969, of an internal hemorrhage brought on be alcohol.