Jan Kerouac's two long out-of-print autobiographical novels, "Baby Driver" and "Trainsong," have just been republished in new paperback editions. These books are written very much in her father's style, and it's ironic that Jack Kerouac never got to enjoy hanging out with his only daughter, because they both obviously had similar ideas about how to live: like Roman candles, with big emphasis on the poignancy of the burn-out.
Diane DiPrima, on the other hand, has never been accused of poignancy. This poet sings out in a major key, brazen and proud as hell. Her autobiographical "Memoirs of a Beatnik", which has also just been republished in paperback, is not the wan, soft-toned, gently nostalgic memoir one would expect, but instead a ribald, sexually detailed accounting of her bedroom adventures with a series of Greenwich Village hipsters and Zen writers including, among them, the poignant Jack Kerouac. The book is great fun, even if it sometimes reads more like "Penthouse Forum" than like an autobiography.
It's more fun, anyway, than that inept attempt at soft-core porn known as "The Kenneth Starr Report". You know (if I may stray onto a different subject) I endorsed Bill Clinton for President in these pages back in 1996, not because I thought he was anything close to perfect, but mainly because I found him much more down-to-earth than the smarmy, patriarchal right-wing bores who preceded him. Remember George Bush, Bob Dole and Ronald Reagan? I went to college during the Reagan presidency, and I'll tell you, after eight years of Ron and Nancy on TV (followed by four of George and Barbara), Bill and Hillary Clinton arrived like a breath of fresh air. I liked it that they read books, and knew something about good music (not much, but something), and that Hillary seemed to have a brain of her own (like I said, I'd just spent four years watching George and Barbara on TV, and eight with Ron and Nancy. That shit was cornier than "Father Knows Best").
Now Bill and Hillary have run into rough times, and I just want to say from my humble little portal here that I support and respect them as much as ever. I refuse to pretend to be shocked at the discovery that Bill Clinton has a few human flaws. "She removed her blouse and he fondled her breasts." Yeah, yeah ... don't you Republicans have work to do?
I propose that Kenneth Starr, Henry Hyde and all their cronies be indicted for wasting ridiculous amounts of taxpayer's money composing bad porn. I mean, a cigar ... where do they get off publishing shit like this? Since when does America have Sex Police? And if we're all laying our cards on the table, I'd like to hear George Bush swear that he didn't have any extramarital affairs while he was President or Vice-President. Come on, George ... America is listening.
What you hear now is the sound of uncomfortable squirming from somewhere around Kennebunkport, Maine. End of editorial.
2. There's going to be a big Beat party at the site of a legendary hippie/beatnik commune in Cherry Valley this weekend. I'll be there, and I'm looking forward to meeting Charlie Plymell and a lot of other people. If you're there and you recognize me from my picture please say hello! The weekend is officially some kind of town Arts Festival but from what I hear it's going to be one big party.
3. The publishers of a new biography of Jack Kerouac, "Subterranean Kerouac" by Ellis Amburn, are indulging in a bit of sensationalism by trying to sell the book as a "tell-all" revealing Jack's alleged deep dark secret, which is that he was bisexual. I have a couple of points to make about this deep dark secret:
- Virtually every biography of Jack Kerouac, from Ann Charters' "Kerouac" in 1973 to Gerry Nicosia's "Memory Babe" and most of the others in between, mention that Jack had bisexual tendencies. So why all the publicity now? It's well documented, for instance, that a drunken Jack Kerouac once had a spontaneous fling with Gore Vidal (an openly gay writer) in a Manhattan hotel, and was later found in a crowded bar yelling "I blew Gore Vidal!". So a new book revealing the stunning secret that Kerouac was bisexual is about as necessary as a new book revealing the stunning secret that Bill Clinton fools around with White House interns.
- Here's what the evidence tells us about Kerouac's sexual inclination, if anybody cares. Unless he was lying to his readers, to the friends he wrote letters to, and even to himself in his journals, he mostly felt attracted to women. He fell in love with them often, married twice, and yearned for female companionship when he didn't have it. As he documents in autobiographical novels like Subterraneans and Big Sur, he wasn't the smoothest lover in the world, or the most secure. He seemed to have a hell of a lot of what my wife would call "issues", and especially seemed to resent the power women had over him because of his attraction to them. He also had at least some capacity for attraction to men, or at least an open-minded attitude about men as sexual partners. He hung out with a lot of literary and artistic types in Greenwich Village and San Francisco, and so was surrounded by gays and grew to feel comfortable experimenting with his own gay tendencies, whatever they were.
To twist these facts around and try to portray Kerouac as deeply repressed by a secret buried desire for men is disingenuous. Like I said, this is a man who once announced "I blew Gore Vidal!" in a crowded bar. Doesn't sound very repressed to me.
The worst thing about the depiction of Kerouac as tormented by a buried sexual desire is that it leads to a reinterpretation of his writing that trivializes some of his best work. I don't believe that On The Road was secretly about Sal Paradise's attraction to Dean Moriarty, and I also don't think this idea illuminates the book in any way. It's like the supposed "discovery", a few years ago, that Van Gogh used so much yellow in his paintings because he suffered from an obscure eye disease. I like to think Van Gogh used so much yellow because it meant something. If it was just an eye disease, then it's not art.
- There have been about sixty new books about Jack Kerouac in the last eight months, and I really, really just don't think the world needs any more new books about Jack Kerouac. Really. No, really.
Bringing a creative idea to completion is never easy. While I work myself to exhaustion finishing my little indie project, you can enjoy checking out Neal Amid, a wildly anarchic comic tribute to the Neal Cassady legend, created by Cat Simril, who actually *did* finish it and sent me a copy as proof. "Neal Amid" is a sound play on audiocassette, very much in the spirit of old Firesign Theatre or Monty Python comedy records, and the plot revolves around a 60's-era Neal figure whose spirit is somehow intersecting with that of the Grateful Dead during their 1978 visit to Egypt, where they played a series of concerts in front of the Pyramids. The cassette's wonderful cover photo illustrates the cosmic sense of this notion better than I can explain it. Order a copy -- you gotta love it.
And please come back August 4 ... see you then ...
But a couple -- not many, but a couple -- of these zines have a clue. Nerve, for instance, keeps itself fresh and interesting by focusing with narrow-minded intensity on a single taboo subject -- sex, in all it's creative, artistic and literary manifestations. This is a commercial website, finally, with a true reason to exist. And now Nerve has proven itself worthy of its name by publishing Steve Silberman's 'Allen's Boys', an honest, personal discussion of Allen Ginsberg's famous and much-criticized sexual habits, which included lots of questionable activities with handsome young men. The author of this article was not Ginsberg's lover but once could have been, and he blasts through a lot of taboos in laying down this soul-searching short memoir. Ginsberg took a lot of abuse for his beliefs about open sexuality, especially since he practiced what he preached, and I'm glad somebody finally wrote an intelligent, non-judgmental article about this difficult subject.
2. I've been holed up working on my secret project -- a CD-Rom movie based on a well-known Russian 19th Century novel -- for a long time now, and I'm finally almost finished. Please check back with me around July 23 for the big unveiling ...
I was in a skeptical mood, as usual, on April 18 when I dropped by the Knitting Factory, a fashionable downtown New York hangout, for an all-day reading to honor Jack Micheline. The room was packed, and I grouchily wondered if Micheline would have drawn such a large and adoring crowd if he were still alive and able to borrow money. But my defenses were broken immediately when Jack Micheline's son stepped up to make a speech. A clean-cut and polite adult who seemed to have suffered no scars from having an impoverished Beat poet for a father, he even cared enough to have created a new website, JackMicheline.com, in his father's honor. He held his young daughter in his arms and said she was what Jack Micheline had been proudest of at the end of his life. Okay, dammit, I was touched.
Then a young independent filmmaker named Laki Vazakas invited me to a screening of his new movie about the late Herbert Huncke's stormy relationship with a younger and more troubled companion, Louis Cartwright. Both Huncke and Louis were lifelong heroin addicts, occasionally switching to methadone maintanence or other substitutes, but in any case the routine of drug acquisition seemed to have ruled their lives completely. The film was shot with a handheld videocamera in their Chelsea Hotel apartment and other locales, without a plan or a script. Unlike the characters in MTV's "The Real World", though, Huncke and Louis were often too strung out and world-weary to play to the camera, and so the movie is filled with startlingly honest moments. Louis clowns happily in the early scenes, but then begins to slip into a drug burnout so devastating that even Huncke is forced to separate from him, and finally the camera catches Louis crying and alone, hiding in a dark apartment unwilling to face the beautiful weather outside. Finally he is murdered on a Lower East Side street, and we see the most startling image of all: a naked, aged, skeletal Huncke sobbing uncontrollably for his lost friend, groping for an understanding of what has happened. I hope "Huncke and Louis" finds its way to some kind of distribution deal; till then, if you're around New York City there'll be another screening on May 8 at the NYU Film Series, and hopefully more after that. Check the website about the film for more info.
The night of the "Huncke and Louis" screening, ironically, I wandered into an East Village bookshop and picked up the nastiest (and funniest) book ever written about the Beat Generation, "Crimes of the Beats," by the gang of lovably obnoxious New York City poets and storytellers who call themselves "The Unbearables." They've been published in book form before, and I've also written about their activities (such as their satirical protest against the 1995 NYU Beat Conference) earlier in these pages. Their new book is a collection of essays, poems and memoirs mercilessly trashing the legendary authors of the Beat Generation, as well as the hangers-on, wannabes and innocent wide-eyed believers they left in their wake. The pieces take turns savaging Allen Ginsberg for his marketing savvy, Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke for their weak claims to mythical status, Gary Snyder (the "Buddhist budget advisor") for his placid personality, and even, surprisingly, Gregory Corso (a saint of the modern-day Lower East Side literary underworld as far as I can tell) for his blatant arrogance and nastiness. But this book is not a self-indulgent rant -- it's clever as hell, with each pointed barb carefully sharpened to hurt. The pieces are even short, a true rarity in these content-glutted days.
This book should be on the bookshelf of every Beat reader, and it can be ordered directly their publisher, Autonomedia. I have only one gripe, though: these Unbearables, whom I know to be mostly a bunch of poverty-stricken, zonked-out, sloppily-dressed writers who gather in the East Village to applaud each other at poorly-attended poetry readings, claim not to be Beat themselves. Yeah, right, and Leonardo DiCaprio isn't a teen idol, and my Aunt Melinda isn't an alcoholic. Sometimes the truth hurts.
If Herbert Huncke and Jack Micheline represent the thesis of Beat legend and hype, and if the Unbearables represent the antithesis, who represents the inevitable synthesis? I dunno, but I do like the Louisville, Kentucky-based poet Ron Whitehead a lot. His writings are powerful (like those of the original Beats), but he's also fresh and unpredictable and unpretentious (like the Unbearables). I haven't yet seen his new book of poetry, published by Tilt-A-Whirl Press, but the guy who designed Tilt-A-Whirl's web page wrote me about it, and I discovered that this guy had done some other excellent websites as well, including one for the excellent small publisher Soft Skull. He also had some fun web pages of his own (click on his hair).
Yeah, the Beat fad is tired; I can't stand the hype myself anymore. But somehow, if we get beyond that four letter word that once was useful but isn't any longer ... still, hiding in corners out there, from the San Francisco BART to the Chelsea Hotel, from Louisville, Kentucky to the Lower East Side and even out on the web itself, there is genius waiting to be found. So I'm not giving up hope just yet. Though I'm close.
2. Why are literary mailing lists on the internet so conducive to flame wars? Not long ago a virulent flare-up on the PYNCHON-L, involving a few list members who'd personally known Thomas Pynchon fighting against each other and the rest of the list, was actually collected and published as a book called 'Lineland'. A couple of weeks ago, an epic flame war on the BEAT-L mailing list, which I enjoyed being a part of for the past three years, caused listowner Bill Gargan to finally throw up his hands in disgust and close the list down for good. You can read more about the whole mess here. I was very sorry to see this excellent (if sometimes ridiculous) list go away, and I was happy when list survivors Diane Carter and Luke Kelly (proprietor of the William S. Burroughs-oriented website Big Table) managed to create a new replacement list, SUBTERRANEANS, in record time. If you're interested in reading about or joining this list, here's a FAQ that explains everything. The good news is that flame wars are banned on this list; the bad news is that in order to post to it it is necessary to know how to spell "subterraneans".
3. There's going to be a big memorial bash for Allen Ginsberg on June 12 and 13, arranged by the irrepressible scene-maker/muck-raker Al Aronowitz. The first event is on June 12 at the Central Park Bandshell in New York City, and is expected to feature Amiri Baraka, Richie Havens, David Amram, Anne Waldman, Rick Danko and Pete Seeger. The second event is at the Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey (where Ginsberg was born) on June 13. This has been in the planning stages for a long time, and until recently nobody was sure if Aronowitz was actually going to pull the event off. At this point it's starting to generate some real buzz, and may even turn out to be something special. Another Ginsberg memorial event at the Cathedral of St. John The Divine in upper Manhattan on May 14 should also be good, and is guaranteed to bring out only the Beat faithful, since everybody else will be home watching the final episode of 'Seinfeld'.
Moving out onto a limb, Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Carolyn Cassady show up in bed together, or close to it, in 'Three In Love: Menages a Trois from Ancient to Modern Times,' a fascinating new book about notable three-way sexual encounters in Western history. Other intellectual notables who show up in this book include Nietzsche, Henry Miller and the Pre-Raphaelites. The three co-authors (a man and two women, hmm, I wonder ...) cover a lot of cultural territory in this book.
Moving further out into the realm of the thoroughly subjective, I've been corresponding via email with a Beat-inspired young poet from Singapore, Yong Shu Hoong. He sent me a copy of his first book of poetry, titled 'Isaac.' The truth is, I have lots of email friends who send me samples of their beat-inspired poetry, but too often when I read the poems they go in one ear and out the other -- the poems are probably excellent, I just don't understand them. But I browsed through 'Isaac' and it immediately clicked with me. I love imagining the Singapore poetry reading that must have inspired this poignant small poem, entitled: "THE BUTCHERING OF HOWL":
You must think that I was rude
but I have no disrespect for you,
knowing that you are a poet
more adept at toying with Chinese words.
But listening to you attempt a reading
of Allen Ginsberg's Howl
(and in thr process mispronounce
Arkansas) just weeks after his death,
I'm sorry I had to reach for the door.
I know you were doing it
out of the best intentions.
I know you were spurred on
by more than a little courage.
But I couldn't help feeling indignant
at the mutilation of
his words, his anger, his genius,
turning to leave before you could even
flip the first page. Heavy-hearted,
I was never so sorry for any dead poet.
2. I pledged in these pages, after poet Denise Levertov died at the end of last year, that there would be no more legendary Beat figures dying in 1998. Well, it's only February and God has already called my bluff. Jack Micheline, highly authentic American street poet who stayed untamed to the end, died on a San Francisco BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train on February 27. Jo Grant of Bookzen.com has prepared a beautiful tribute page.
3. Damn, I hate this sad stuff. John Cassady sent me and a few other people a really touching note on February 3rd, the 30th anniversary of the death of his father Neal. It got me thinking. Intrepid Trips (the really excellent new website by Ken Kesey, Ken Babbs and the rest of the Merry Pranksters up in Oregon, who also continue to run Key-Z.com) put the letter up as part of their growing Neal pages.
4. I used to always say official websites sucked, plain and simple. I still believe this in theory, but you'll notice I linked to two good official websites above (run by Ken Kesey and the Henry Miller Library.) I should mention one more: the really carefully-put-together and innovative BobDylan.com. The most amazing thing about the site is probably the RealAudio recordings of rare live songs, not little snippets of songs but full tracks previously available only on bootlegs. This is good stuff. My friend Dan Levy designed this site, and I helped with some technical parts myself, so I know how hard Dan worked to make this "official site" not suck. And it doesn't!
2. Speaking of Hunter S. Thompson, I wonder what's up with the movie version of his "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" which will supposedly star Johnny Depp as "Duke" himself? If anybody has any gossip on this, please pass it along ... No news, by the way, on the long-awaited Francis Ford Coppola film version of "On The Road". At this point nobody thinks this movie will ever get made.
3. RALPH -- that is Ralph Alphonso, creator of the excellent RALPH zine -- doesn't have David Amram's impressive credentials, but could also be described as a jazz musician and an ethnomusicologist (I love saying 'ethnomusicologist'). Ralph appears to be a humble, probably lonely adult male hipster living somewhere in Canada who creates an appealingly weird, beat-toned, retro-styled zine all by himself, using an old Gestetner mimeograph machine. He also tours with a band and creates music CD's of his poignant lounge songs, showing influences as diverse as Chet Baker, Ray Davies (yeah!) and the Peanuts comic strip (one of the bands he works with is called the Van Pelt Trio). I caught his live act in New York a while ago, and since then I've been a big RALPH fan. Water Row Books must like him too, because they just published a book collection of the zine's first 25 issues. They also sell his music CD's and other good stuff.
And while I'm on this subject: it always pissed me off that I never got picked to be Cool Site of the Day. Literary Kicks has been around a lot of days, over a thousand -- I think I was cool enough for one of them.
So the whole point of this aimless rant is ... thank you to the nice people at the Webby Awards who nominated me for for the Print/Zines award, and I'm looking forward to the ceremony on March 6.
The book 'Women of the Beat Generation' has some good material on her, especially an account of her confrontation with sexism in San Francisco's poetry crowd in 1957. Anyway ... when it rains it pours, but I'd like to mandate that no more legendary Beat or otherwise worthy counter-cultural figures shall die in the next couple of years. I plan to spend 1998 writing about lots of great new creative literary activities, and *not* looking back. Happy New Year everybody!