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.
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.
But then I caught his act at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe, sharing a bill with Ron Whitehead, Brian Hassett and others, on a night that happened to be the night William S. Burroughs died (though nobody knew this at the time). He didn't sing "Pull My Daisy" and I ended up loving every minute of his performance. I think the problem has been the bright lights, the uncomfortable chairs and the academic atmosphere of some of these earlier events. In a small dark smoky club way past midnight a vintage hip-cat like David Amram can finally show us who he is, and this night at the Nuyorican I understood for the first time why Jack Kerouac wanted him onstage while he read his poems. Amram's passionate belief in the power of music is infectious. At one point he had the entire crowd going in a two-part syncopated handclap -- one half of the room providing one beat, the other half complementing it -- that was, I realized, probably the most complicated musical arrangement I will personally ever participate in.
David Amram also has his own web page now, so I figure it's about time I write about him in Literary Kicks.
2. This must be my month for coming to terms with people I didn't appreciate before. A few weeks ago a young editor at William Morrow named Benjamin G. Schafer challenged me to read a book he'd just put together: the Herbert Huncke Reader, published by Morrow this month. I've always found Huncke an intriguing personality -- a more street-wise original-junkie friend of the core New York beat writers in the 1940's, he shows up as a colorful character in 'Junky','On The Road', 'Howl' and many other Beat classics. He's written books, (for Hanuman, Cherry Valley Editions, etc.), but I'd personally never read any of them, and I sort of casually dissed him as a writer in my Herbert Huncke biographical page here at LitKicks. Benjamin Schafer, who worked hard putting this book together, asked me to put aside my preconceptions and give Huncke a fair reading for the first time. He pointed out a few pieces for me to read, and I began with 'The Magician,' a haunting, honest tale of heroin addiction that reads like a Buddhist parable. I also tried, at his recommendation, 'Beware of Fallen Angels', 'Faery Tale' and 'Easter', and the long autobiographical novella 'The Evening Sky Turned Crimson.' And, okay, I admit it: Huncke is a talented writer, and obviously took the craft seriously. His picturesque slice-of-life tales express with honesty and humor the state of mind of the City Hobo: junk-sick, impoverished, stripped completely naked of his own morals. This theme reverberates in the writings of William S. Burroughs, as well as movies like 'Midnight Cowboy' and the songs of Glen Campbell (just kidding about the Glen Campbell part).
If you are interested in the roots of the Beat Generation -- it was Huncke, by the way, who introduced Kerouac to the term 'Beat' -- you don't want to miss this book.
3. Speaking of Kerouac -- he's all over the place lately. This month is the 40th Anniversary of the publication of 'On The Road,' and a 40th anniversary edition of the book has been published, along with some other fanfare. More interestingly, Viking Penguin has finally published an unseen Kerouac work of major importance: 'Some Of The Dharma.' It's a thick hardcover volume of Kerouac's notes and musings about Buddhism, and stylistically it's somewhere between a Joycean literary experiment and a personal journal about the tragicomic spiritual condition of mankind. It has no plot, almost no characters or dialogue, and the sentences are laid out like free verse. This book is not for everybody, but I've been skimming several of its hidden surfaces for a few weeks now, and I haven't run out of interesting discoveries yet. Among other things, we know now the origin of the phrase "God Is Pooh Bear" from the last paragraph of 'On The Road': Cathy Cassady, the daughter of Neal and Carolyn Cassady, said it when she was a few years old.
Other Kerouac web news: there's now an online version of Paul Maher's Lowell-based Kerouac Quarterly, and there's a new permanent web page to describe the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival which takes place this weekend. Still no news of the Francis Ford Coppola film of 'On The Road', and I'm figuring this film will never get made. One film that will get made, though, and which I'm really looking forward to, is a Burroughs-related project, partly based on the novels 'Queer' and 'Junky,' that will be directed by Steve Buscemi (I wrote about this in a previous Beat News entry, below, and have since gotten word that the project is still on and gathering steam).
4. Other new books: 'A Far Rockaway of the Heart' by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (whose City Lights bookstore finally has a web site!). 'A Different Beat: Writings By Women of the Beat Generation' is another spin on the theme begun by last year's excellent "Women Of The Beat Generation" anthology published by Conari Press. This book is written by Richard Peabody and published by High Risk Books; I just bought it so I don't know if it's good or not, but it has writers like Carolyn Cassady, Elise Cowen, Diane Di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Lenore Kandel, Jan Kerouac, Janine Pommy Vega and Anne Waldman, so I'm pretty damn sure I'll like it.
Finally, my wife and I have both become incredibly fascinated by the new edition of the Folkways' Records 'Anthology of American Folk Music', originally compiled by Beat outer-orbit personality, experimental filmmaker and all around strange-guy Harry Smith in 1952. This thing is wild. We see folk music in it's rawest form: authentic jug bands, porchlight crooners, church choruses, and numerous other characters from the deep country, both white and black (you often can't tell which), singing and talking in a mega-hick vernacular as compelling as it is strange. Many of these singers were the country-hobo equivalents of the city-hoboes presented by writers like Herbert Huncke (above). When these guys sing the blues, they sing the blues.
This record was one of the first collections of folk music available in public libraries, and as such played an important role in the developing sensibilities of future folk-rockers like Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia. You can read more about this historic re-release in Wired News and Furious Green Thoughts/Perfect Sound Forever.
5. Farewell -- one last time -- to Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and William S. Burroughs.
August 3, 1997
I just heard the news that Burroughs died. I was about to start creating a page with all the pertinent details and facts, but then I realized that news sites like CNN are already doing this, as well as a number of excellent independently maintained sites, like Malcolm's, Luke's and Critter's.
So rather than rehash the news, I'd rather say something personal about the man who just died. But I feel somehow at a loss for words. William S. Burroughs was a porcupine-skinned writer, not always easy to like. Sometimes l liked him a lot, sometimes I didn't. Ultimately, though, I believe there was more kindness and compassion inside this complicated writer's soul than he ever let show through.
If I had to pick a favorite thing he ever wrote, it might be this exquisitely executed excerpt from 'Naked Lunch'. But actually I think it'd be an essay I found reprinted in his book 'The Adding Machine,' called 'My Own Business,' in which he explains the principles he lived by. Here's the beginning of the essay. I admire these words like crazy.
From My Own Business By William S. Burroughs
Brion Gysin, Stewart Gordon, and I were sitting in front of a little Spanish cafe in Tangier when this middle-aged Spaniard walked by, and we all gasped: 'My God, that's a harmless-looking person!' I'd noticed him around town, and spotted him as a real M.O.B.ist: which is nothing special, just minds his own business of staying alive and thinks that what other people do is other people's business.
The old hop-smoking rod-riding underworld has a name for it: 'a member of the Johnson family.' Wouldn't rush to the law if he smelled hop in the hall, doesn't care what fags in the back room are doing, stands by his word. Good man to do business with. They are found in all walks of life. The cop who slipped me a joint in a New Orleans jail, for instance. Or when I was pushing junk in New York back in 1948, the hotel clerk who stopped me in the lobby: 'I don't know how to say this, but there is something wrong about the people who come to your room.' (Something wrong is putting it softly; ratty junkies with no socks, dressed in three boosted suits puffing out, carrying radios torn from the living car, trailing wires like entrails. 'This isn't a hock shop!' I scream. 'Get this shit out of here!' Regaining my composure I say severely, 'You are lowering the entire tone of my establishment.) 'So I just wanted to warn you to be careful and tell those people to watch what they say over the phone ... if someone else had been at the switchboard ...'
And a hotel clerk in Tunis; I handed him some money to put in the safe. He put the money away and looked at me: 'You do not need a receipt Monsieur.' I looked at him and saw that he was a Johnson, and knew that I didn't need a receipt.
Yes, this world would be a pretty easy and pleasant place to live in if everybody could just mind his own business and let others do the same. But a wise old black faggot said to me years ago: 'Some people are shits, darling.' I was never able to forget it.
Mexican druggist throwing a script back at me: 'We do not serve dope fiends.' It's like Mr. Anslinger said: 'The laws must express society's disapproval of the addict.'
Most of the trouble in this world has been caused by folks who can't mind their own business, because they have no business of their own to mind, any more than a smallpox virus has ...
Place of death: Lawrence, Kansas
Time of death: 6:50 pm, August 2, 1997
Cause of death: Heart attack, approximately one day before his death
My Burroughs Page
Ron Whitehead's Interview With Burroughs
Malcolm Humes' InterNetWebZone
Luke Kelly's Burroughs Site
WSB at Chris Ritter's Bohemian Ink
R.U. Sirius's article at Wired
Steve Silberman's article at Wired
WSB at The Mining Company
2. I hear the new book of letters by Hunter S. Thompson is very good. There seem to be a lot of good websites about Hunter too, like this one. Further along on the trail of 60's post-Beat legends, you may want to check out the new edition of Perfect Sound Forever, a musical outgrowth of the zine Furious Green Thoughts, for a great double interview with Tuli Kupferberg and Ed Sanders of the Fugs.
3. Am I allowed to plug my own book here? It's called "Coffeehouse: Writings From The Web," and it contains 47 pieces of fiction and poetry my co-author (Christian Crumlish of Enterzone) and I selected from literary sites all over the web. Christian and I worked really hard putting this book together, and we think we've come up with something very good. And our publisher is taking a big chance in working with us on this totally unproven concept, and we'd like to prove to him that we knew what we were doing all along by making sure we sell a lot of copies! So, if you know anybody who's interested in the topic of hypertext fiction or the zine scene or any other aspect of the whole growing, thriving, multi-faceted world of the literary web, please tell them about this book, and tell your bookstore to order lots of copies! The book should be out by late July. Okay, I'm done plugging ...
1. I haven't reminded you recently to check out Ken Kesey's site. You really should, because Kesey is a vibrant and original thinker with a great sense of humor, and he's also got a good official site, run by his son Zane Kesey. And you especially should visit now, because Ken and Zane and Neal Cassady's son John Cassady and a bunch of others just drove "the bus" (or some reasonable facsimile thereof) to Cleveland for a ceremony at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. John and his girlfriend Pat and her brother Dan tell me they had an amazing time, and I'm really jealous because I should've gone but I just stayed at home. Oh well ... we can all enjoy it vicariously.
2. Check out Mouth Almighty, an experimental record company, created in conjunction with Mercury Records, and dedicated to the art of spoken word poetry. This is partly the work of Bob Holman, who may be downtown New York's most important poetry cheerleader now that Allen Ginsberg is dead. But the poetry spirit is still alive like crazy around New York -- there's the Nuyoricans and Tribes and the St. Mark's Poetry Project, and over in Brooklyn is McLean Greaves' gorgeous Cafe Los Negroes. Speaking of Brooklyn (and speaking of Ginsberg), I was at Brooklyn College last week for a memorial to Ginsberg, who was a professor there until the time of his death. Here's what I read.
3. I've recently exchanged a few emails with a fascinating survivor of the Beat and post-Beat 1960's and 70's, Charles Plymell. His 1971 book "The Last of the Mocassins" has just been republished, and you can also experience his honest and fresh voice at the site above, along with many photos and interesting asides.
4. The New Yorker wrote a really nice review of the Literary Kicks Neal's Denver section in the May 19th issue. But do they publish my short stories? Fuck no. Speaking of short stories ... some of my more somber friends consider this beneath contempt, but I've been listening to Phish a lot lately. A real lot. What this has to do with short stories is that their bassist Mike Gordon just published a book of his own stories, which he'd been writing for the Phish zine Doniac Schvice. And the stories are excellent! Just to give you an idea what Mike Gordon's strange prose sounds like, here's the first paragraph of the first story in the book: "As far as tykes go, Johnald was a wee bit irregular. For one thing, he had an amrope coming out of his head. You may be wondering, 'What is an amrope?' I won't piss on you for wondering that. Actually it's like an antenna, but it's got some mold on it. It's not something you buy at a store; maybe you do buy it in a store."
Weird. Kind of like ... like Richard Brautigan meets Tickle-me-Elmo. It works for me.
April 5, 1997
I spent today with my 70-year-old stepfather, a person who's been a really positive force in my life and a good friend as well as a parental figure. He's having a hard time lately, having just been diagnosed with a serious case of bone cancer. My mind was buzzing with some news I'd heard last night, that Allen Ginsberg -- who'd also just been diagnosed with a severe case of cancer -- had "taken a turn for the worse." It was kind of a "dark cloud over my head" day.
I came home about 8:30 and heard that a friend had called. Since this friend was a friend of Ginsberg and hardly ever called me, I knew what this meant. I checked my email, and there it was, in a hundred subject headers.
Ahh, Allen Ginsberg.
According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he'd be sailing around the first Bardo (or something like that) by now. This is a really amazing book, if you've never read it. It's an instruction manual for how to die, and it describes in detail the cosmic journey your soul takes as your body begins to accept your death and your mind begins to break free and float away. It describes what you will see and feel as you make this journey:
"From the heart of Amitabha, the transparent, bright red light-path of the Discriminating Wisdom, upon which are orbs of the same nature, -- leaving neither the centre nor the borders of the red light-path unglorified with orbs and smaller satellite orbs,-- will come to shine ..."
And it warns you what to avoid, what demons will try to distract you:
"Be not fond of the dull white light of the devas. Be not attached to it; be not weak ..."
And warns you not to succumb to the sin of self-pity, or to cling to what is now lost:
"Thou wilt beget a fear for the dazzling yellow light and wilt wish to flee from it. Thou wilt be fondly attracted towards the dull bluish-yellow light from the human world. Do not fear that bright, dazzling yellow light, but know it to be wisdom ..."
The book also describes in precise detail what odd or disorienting sensations will occur, so as to allow particularly sensitive people to "prepare" for the journey into death. There are pages and pages like:
"At the moment of death the empiric consciousness, or consciousness of objects, is lost. This is what is popularly called a 'swoon,' which is, however, the corollary of super-consciousness itself, or the Clear Light of the Void ..."
So I figure ... if what the Tibetan Book of the Dead says is true, Old Ginzy ought to be having himself a swinging time up in the First Bardo right now. I bet he's already gathered a crowd around him.
Let's hope what the book says is true.
Place of death: East Village, New York City
Time of death: 2:39 in the morning, April 5, 1997
Cause of death: Heart attack in combination with severe liver cancer.
I'll put links in here tomorrow morning -- but it's saturday night, I'm tired, and I haven't seen my wife all day. Here's my Ginsberg page, Mongo Bear's Ginsberg Site, here's Corduroy's and here's Colin Pringle's Beat Archives. Bill Philibin's Memorial Page is also good, and the unique Cosmic Baseball Association's is too.
Here are some more memorial pages:
Thanks to Michael Stutz for the photo.