THE BEAT

The Memoir

(This is chapter nine of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

I spent a few weekends during the late winter and early spring of 1995 running around the borough of Queens, New York taking pictures, most often with my three kids in tow. Daniel and Elizabeth loved to go on random car adventures, little Abigail got strapped into the car seat and had no choice, and we usually ended up some place cool like the Lemon Ice King of Corona or the famous "Coming To America" Wendy's on Queens Boulevard by the end of the night. I didn't know exactly what I was taking pictures for, but I had some vague idea about exploring the concept of the Internet as a virtual city by writing online about my real city, figuring this would somehow make sense to readers. Or else I just enjoyed driving aimlessly around Queens with my kids and getting lemon ices. I'm not sure exactly which it was.

I originally planned to call my second project "Queensboro Haikus", but it didn't come together until I decided to arrange the work as a 1960s folk-rock record album, with a Side One and a Side Two, five prose pieces on each side complementing and segueing into each other, and to call it "Queensboro Ballads". I scanned some commercial art from an old Bob Dylan album and asked my father and stepmother (the best photographer I knew at the time) to take a picture of me playing guitar in front of the Globe in Flushing Meadows Park. I then spent about twenty hours working on this graphic until I finally got it right.

In April 1995, while I was job-hunting and trying to figure out where my career was going, I ran across a MacUser article about the web that urged readers to "grab your bongos and check out Literary Kicks, a tribute to Whitman's spiritual heirs, the Beats". It was my first mention in a magazine, and (very naively, I now realize) I was surprised that nobody at the magazine had notified me about this. Nothing I'd done before in my life had never been written about, and I grappled with the existential meaning of this new development. And what if I hadn't glanced at the magazine, I wondered?

So I now began regularly scanning general interest and computer magazines at newsstands, checking for articles about the web that might mention Literary Kicks, which seems like a ridiculous thing to do, except that I kept scoring. The web was hot, hot, hot in early 1995 -- entire new magazines like Michael Wolff's NetGuide and the UK-based .Net Magazine were launching at a rapid pace -- and there must not have been many interesting sites to write about, because Literary Kicks got lots of attention. I almost fell over, for instance, when PC Computing listed the 101 Best Sites on the Internet and named LitKicks as #1. The site appeared in an April 1995 Chicago Tribune Magazine article about "Cyber Punks" ("Yesterday's geeks are today's gurus. Meet the high priests of the new world"), which made my life sound more exciting than it actually was.

Since I had abandoned my frustrating attempt to publish a novel with the help of a literary agent about four years before, I was particularly pleased to show up in a Calvin Reid column in Publishers Weekly on May 15 1995:

... Levi Asher, a writer and webmaster when he isn't working as a consultant on Wall Street, has erected a web site dedicated to his own enduring fascination with Beat Generation writers.

This made me feel like I was sneaking into the publishing biz through a back door (and with a different name). I wasn't happy, though, to be described as having an enduring fascination with Beat writers. Actually, my enduring fascination was with the web format, and the Beat writers were just the first topic I chose to write about. I hoped my upcoming "Queensboro Ballads" project would help shake the bongo drums off my "image" (in fact, it didn't, and still today, fourteen years later, I find myself often referred to as the web's "Beat Generation" guy).

What I didn't know was that the Beat Generation itself, dormant all these years, was about to have an improbable renaissance. It's impossible to identify exactly when this began, but the well-publicized announcement in October 1994 that the great film director Francis Ford Coppola was going to film Jack Kerouac's On The Road was probably one of the main catalysts. As a Godfather fan (though not a big fan of much anything Coppola had done since Apocalypse Now) I was ambivalent but excited, and I covered the developing news on a new section of Literary Kicks called "Beat News" (the name, admittedly, didn't help my identity problem, but it was a popular page).

Over a decade later, I jokingly referred to "Beat News" as the very first literary blog. In fact, it wasn't, because even though I got a few things right -- the always snarky tone, the dated entries scrolling down the page -- I missed two major characteristics of the blog form. First, I didn't put the updates on the site's front page. Second, I only updated it about once a month. It never occurred to me that anybody would ever run a literary site and post updates every single day. What could they possibly find to say? Sometimes I am a very forward-thinking guy -- other times, I miss things by a mile.

In early 1995 I spotted a surprising announcement in New York Magazine:

On February 4, some 3,000 lanky, scowling, smoking would-be Sal Paradises and Dean Moriartys will be hanging around Columbus Circle. No, they won't be there for a Beat-poetry convention, but for an open casting call at Saint Paul the Apostle Auditorium. Francis Ford Coppola, who's owned the movie rights to Jack Kerouac's 1955 classic "On The Road" for nearly twenty years, has decided to move the project ahead ...

On The Road was published in 1957, not 1955, but I decided to audition for the part of Sal Paradise anyway. I roped my Beat-fan sister Sharon into joining me and ended up writing a very fun LitKicks article about the experience. (I didn't get the part, though I did get to shake Coppola's big hand.)

As the year went on I began to notice more and more retro "Beat" references popping up around me. Kerouac appeared in a Gap ad, and in early June New York University ran a Beat Generation conference featuring Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Diane DiPrima, Anne Waldman and many, many others.

I was not pleased about this. The conference took place just as I was winding down my job at Sybase and getting ready to start at Time Warner, and I really wanted to use my two-weeks notice to spend time with the family, read some books (not Beat books) and hang around at home. I also didn't like the idea of an academic Beat conference, and I didn't see anything Beat about a $140 "registration fee" . I decided to boycott the conference and keep my money.

I was then very happy when Rob Hardin, claiming to be a member of an East Village literary prankster group called the Unbearables, emailed to tell me that the Unbearables were going to protest the Beat conference on the streets of Greenwich Village. They apparently felt the same way I did about it, and put on an evening of great anti-Beat-hype entertainment at a Tribeca bookstore called Biblio's. There were at least forty Unbearables there, led by a guy named Ron Kolm who dressed up as Mama Kerouac for some very funny skits. I sat at a table with my favorite Kerouac biographer Ann Charters and her husband, an important figure in the early Delta Blues music recording scene named Sam Charters, and enjoyed chatting with them both.

There was a second bit of street theater going on at the same time as the Unbearables show. Jack Kerouac's daughter Jan and the family of the late Stella (Sampas) Kerouac were embroiled in an ugly public battle over the ownership of the Kerouac estate, and Gerald Nicosia, author of the recent "scholarly" Jack Kerouac biography Memory Babe, had taken Jan Kerouac's side against the Sampas family. He and Jan were busy staging their own anti-Beat establishment protest throughout this conference, but Gerald Nicosia was never as funny (or as dada) as Ron Kolm's Unbearables, and his blunt rhetoric about the evils of the Sampas family didn't make a very good impression on me. He was right that the Sampas family was treating Jan Kerouac unjustly, but he would have helped her more with a conciliatory approach, and I had a feeling he was more interested in Gerald Nicosia than in Jan Kerouac.

I tried to hang out with the Unbearables after the conference ended and all the scholarly Beatniks went back home to their big houses, but the chemistry was never as good after that first meeting, and I was very disappointed when I tried to get to know Ron Kolm -- clearly a very smart and talented literary raconteur, and also the manager of a great bookstore on 57th Street called Coliseum Books -- and found him copping an "attitude" with me because I was part of the whole Web fad that he seemed to consider as bad as the Beat fad. Or maybe he thought Literary Kicks was part of the Beat establishment, though certainly nobody in the Beat establishment had ever told me the secret handshake.

The Unbearables were right about the annoying Commercial Beat Renaissance, though. It would just go on getting more and more ridiculous, and I knew a line had been crossed when Literary Kicks got a mention in the October 1995 issue of Vogue Magazine. The cover blurb read "Berets and Bongos: The Beats Are Back".

I've pondered many dreams and schemes in my life, and I've imagined all kinds of exciting turns of fate for myself, but I never once guessed that I would ever appear in Vogue Magazine. I didn't even strike a pose.

This article is part of the series The Memoir. The next post in the series is THE SUMMER OF THE WEB. The previous post in the series is JOB-HUNTING: HOTWIRED, DELPHI AND PATHFINDER.
31 Responses to "THE BEAT"

by plump comfort on

Ha!
If I'm not mistaken, Joan Didion has a history as a writer or even an editor at Vogue...?
I doubt even she could convince me as to why anyone should believe Demi Moore is worth 12mil per film, er, I mean movie
Too funny! (too PINK)

by Duncan Brown on

Dry as bone coat on the wilder side
Really must be the brighter lights
Writing it all up an laying it down
Thats how to get your name in the papers
Now that Mac the User is back in town.

You met Sam Charters? What was he like?

by Levi Asher on

Michael, I love it that you have actually heard of Sam Charters. You and I must have a lot in common ... not many people follow the ethnomusicologist scene these days. I presume you're up on your Harry Smith and Alan Lomax too.

Sam, who is apparently turning 80 this year, was a genial, quiet elderly man, robust-figured and gray-haired. When I found myself sitting next to him and Ann Charters, I first talked for a while to Ann about her Kerouac biography, told her how much I'd enjoyed it, etc. I then turned to him and said "I read your 'Country Blues' and enjoyed that too". He looked quite surprised to hear that, smiled politely, and that was about it. I've gotten better at talking to people since then ...

by John on

Levi Asher,
Up until the time that Jan Kerouac launched her spurious lawsuit against the Sampas Family, which was instigated by Gerald Nicosia and one Weinberg, name one factual instance in which the Sampas Family did not treat Jan Kerouac justly and with consideration and respect.Is it your habit to go around libeling people about situations you know nothing about,are you planning to teach your children to do the same. K

by Levi Asher on

John -- I thought I was being pretty even-handed here.

All I know is what I heard directly from Jan Kerouac. As I understand it, she had no position within the ownership or management of Jack Kerouac's estate. Since she was his daughter, that does seem unjust to me. Jan is no longer with us now, so I think (and hope) that this ugly controversy no longer matters. I respect the Sampas family, I understand that there are two sides to the story, and I have no desire to rehash this any further.

by sidewayys on

Great read Levi. I had no clue you were so famous, smh at Vogue being 60 years late on that whole shtick. I tend to think Jack, Allen, and the bunch are probably enjoying eternity more than these late-to-the-table and quite scary folks are enjoying their money.

by jaimef on

Let me just mention the cool green jacket on the first pic. Very DEVO!
Great article also.

by John on

Although Jack Kerouac disinherited Jan Kerouac
she owned 50% to 100% of all his published titles. Sidewayys eat your heart out.

by Levi Asher on

John, not sure what you're trying to say (what you describe is not what Jan Kerouac told me). Anyway, this is a *memoir*, and I'm discussing the great Kerouac estate battle of the 1990s in the *past tense*. The last thing I want to do is bring that agony back now.

Picture Comments

Daniel strikes a cool and casual pose in the first photo. He knows his Dad is "the man."

I look at the bricks, windows, and air conditioner above the Lemon Ice King of Corona and get a romantic idea that the owners live up above their establishment and I can picture them all upstairs, sitting around the dinner table like John Travolta's family in "Saturday Night Fever." But that's just me.

Who is that on the cover of the Chicago Tribune Magazine? A famous cyber punk or a poser?

It was months before I realized Queensboro Ballads was not an actual LP record.

Oh, that's Coppola! I thought at first it was Allen Ginsberg.

I've been scanning the internet in search of mid-1990s Vogue articles relating to Vogue's "Dark Victory in Burma." Of course, there is no end to the reports of turmoil in Burma, right up through 2009, but I did find one interesting story that has a Vogue flavor to it, although I doubt this is what the blurb on the cover refers to:

"1995 - The Burma democracy movement has had its most notable impact in persuading apparel companies to stop buying clothing made in Burma.

In 1992, Levi Strauss & Co. became the first firm to announce that it would cease buying apparel made in Burma after the company found that the factories that it bought from were substantially owned by the Burmese military junta.

In the November 1994 Investing For a Better World, we detailed how Liz Claiborne had also come to the same decision and conclusion. Company Chairman Jerome Chazen stated: 'we cannot support the activities of this country's current government.'

Since then, both Eddie Bauer (a subsidiary of Spiegel) and Macy's (a subsidiary of Federated Department Stores) have followed suit. Starting in the summer of 1994, Eddie Bauer's stores had been the target of demonstrations in several cities across North America.

On February 1, 1995 Eddie Bauer announced their withdrawal in a press release that attributed its decision to 'the political climate and growing opposition to trade in Burma.'" - from Burma Issues Newsletter, Volume 5, Number 9, September 1995

by Tim Barrus on

I am fascinated by the inclusion of the visuals. My favorite is the three children and the guy behind them with the coffee. During the course of fatherhood, coffee is definitely required. I like the soft landing feel to all of this. There's a strength behind it. Then there will be an observation -- sometimes quite cutting -- where the eyebrows of the reader raise, and just as often, a smile will form. Reader thinking: Yep, I get that. This morning I left some outrage on the Daily Beast about publishing (in case you haven't heard, they're all poor little muffins, totally broke) paying seven million for the Bush book. And then I come here and find one worth the read. Silver spoons are one thing. Actual insight is another. -- Tim Barrus, Amsterdam http:le-too.blogspot.com

by Levi Asher on

Thanks again for the encouraging feedback, Tim (and Bill too!). Just for the record, I am the guy with the cup of coffee (I am often found with a cup of coffee in my hand) but I am not the poser on the cover of the Chicago Tribune Magazine, nor am I Demi Moore.

I do hope this book will turn out better than Bush's book.

Tim, you know all those Rush Limbaugh fans will buy the George Bush book even if they don't read it. Or can't read.

by dlt on

Ellis Ambern's biography of Kerouac seems projection-based, an attempted vindication. Ann Charter's biography is better.

by TKG on

Hi John and Levi,

I don't think it is necessary or fair or true to say Levi is libeling you. That's overly strong stating an opinion isn't libel. He could say he's being libeled by being called a libeler and it could go on forever ad nauseum like unpleasant events of the last millenium. Levi's opinion may be misinformed and wrong (or not) but it isn't libel. And people in the public eye, as the Estate of a major US literary figure is, criticisms (unfounded or apt) comes with the territory and one ought to have a thicker skin in such a position.

As for Nicosia, I think he's a passionate emotional fellow and he was sincere. He got so much vitriolic vituperative vicious ad hominum thrown at him I can see why he got so worked up. I couldn't believe the immediate and ferocious nasty personal smears that were thrown at him. He responded with what he is good at -- writing. His rhetoric was powerful and sharp.

John, I appreciate what you've been doing with the archive. I really am glad to have had the chance to finally after all these years actually read the Hippos. I'm glad Sea is my Brother is going to be published. I think it was great to see the scroll in print. I am glad these things are being made available to the public and not left unpublished only for a small elite of academics who might be able to get permission to read them.

Levi, you've been a bit blasee about these new publications but, whereas I no longer have my youthful enthusiasm for Kerouac works, I still am quite interested in them and think they are important and worthwhile, not pure fodder to be put out to make a buck.

For example, you've been having some posts on Cheever and Updike. I think that Hippos will be read well longer than anything by Cheever or Updike. Not purely as a Kerouac-Burroughs curiosity but because it is a cool document about various aspects of life in the 1940's New York during the war. The parts about the ins and outs of the merchant marine internal politics was in itself worth it. It was quite well done and funny as well.

by Levi Asher on

Fair comments, TKG. Thanks for playing umpire.

Yes, I have been a bit blase about the new Kerouac archive publications, and it does mean something to me that you think "Hippos" has real value. Well, you know, I did have some words of praise for "Wake Up".

by TKG on

Actually, yes. In my thanks to John I also meant to mention Wake Up as something I'm appreciative of. Even the Dharma Bums 50th was worth it because of the great Henry Miller piece to introduce it. And going way back, Some of the Dharma was a grand publication I'm glad I have.

I'd love to read the text of all of those articles that mention you. Barring that, how about your article about auditioning for Coppola?

by Levi Asher on

I'm glad you asked, Eric! Here's my article about my On The Road audition and Coppola encounter:

http://www.litkicks.com/CattleCall/

By the way, I'm making it a point not to add links to these memoir pieces, because I think they interrupt the book-like flow I'm trying to establish here, and because it's so easy for anyone interested to find the original articles via Google. Everything I've ever published on LitKicks is still there -- I've never taken a single page down. For instance, all the Beat News pages from 1994 to 2001 (when I stopped doing it) can be found here:

http://www.litkicks.com/category/Beat+News/

You're not adding links? You are aware this is the world wide web, right?

by Levi Asher on

Eric, I decided as an experiment to completely avoid links within these memoir installments. I wanted to achieve a sort of "flat" or book-like feel. Think of it as retro.

by Duncan Brown on

Speaking of retro, is that the Twin Towers in background of top pic.

by Levi Asher on

Yes, those are the twin towers, Duncan. Call it premonition of a chapter to come ...

The photo was taken from the roof of a Toys R Us parking lot in Maspeth, Queens.

by Jonny on

You auditioned for Sal Paradise eh? Well, I am an actor, and I look like you. Very much. If this memoir is ever adapted for any kinda screen, drop me a line before it gets to the stage of thousands of would-be Ashers milling around Columbus Circle.

by xian on

I look a lot like Jonny, so I'd like to play him in the Burroughs-esque meta-movie about the making of the film of the blog memoir of the life of the greatest bongo player who ever lived on the Web!

also, there seem to be links in some of the later installments

by mike on

it flows better without the links, good decision

I had no idea you were so famous either

of course you're not who we think you are

you're not from where we think you're from

do you have a ghost writer too ?

great job, if this is your way of giving back it works, i'm tryin to get caught up I have a relevant question.

by mike on

ps is that one of those flasher jackets ?

by ron kolm on

hi levi -- jeez, i sure don't remember copping an attitude towards you, and i'm sure sorry if i did -- if we talked in the store (coliseum books) i might have been dealing with customers -- great that you were at our beat protest -- we actually did three days of actions, and jan kerouac joined us during most of it -- we continued to do stuff after that; we protested the shitty poetry that the new yorker publishes, we read erotic poetry to business folks as they walked home from work every sept. 13th for years -- we only stopped after the world trade attack -- we always tried to debunk literary father figures (kill off daddy) -- we continue to put out books -- our latest anthology is entitled the worst book i ever read, and it has a great article in it by jerry nicosia detailing some of the sampas family hijinks -- the sampas family lost the court case in florida (you can google it) -- the signature on the last will (kerouac's mother's) is clearly a forgery -- i'll send you a copy of the book if you send me yr snail mail address.

by Levi on

Hey Ron Kolm -- thanks for responding! So, the "attitude" incident did happen at Coliseum Books, when I asked you if I could hang a poster for a reading of web writers (this was in February 1996) and you were like "take that crap outside". Something like that. Yeah, you probably were being harassed by customers at the time! No worries at all -- looking forward to checking out the latest by the Unbearables ...

by ron kolm on

wow, if i told you the store wouldn't put up a poster, it's cuz they never put up posters for anyone -- coliseum was totally whitebread -- when i was at new morning, or st. mark's books, i would take anything -- i'm not knocking coliseum; it got me through raising two kids, etc -- anyway, if you send yr snail mail address to my email; komrank@verizon.net, i'll send you some books.

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