It’s my Beat summer; I’m wading through Howl, On the Road, Junky, Naked Lunch, The Dharma Bums, I Celebrate Myself – The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg and Angel Headed Hipster, a Kerouac biography.
It all started from simple curiosity. I’d read about William Burroughs for almost thirty years. I had always been fascinated by how this product of the Ivy League, a son of money and privilege managed to attract scandal and notoriety to both himself and his literature. I had decided that it had come time to actually read William Burroughs. I put a reserve on Naked Lunch at the library and while I waited I started through a dogeared copy of a City Lights edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems I’d rediscovered on a shelf down in my basement.
I’m glad I started with Howl. To me, it is the hub of the wheel from which all the spokes radiate. I’m not much of a poetry reader, but I could catch the jazz feel of these goofy arrhythmic riffs shuffling and scatting like a Coltrane tenor sax solo riding on top of an Elvin Jones cool rumble. Since April, I’ve been through Howl about twelve times and I like the feel as much as I like the stream-of-consciousness ramble, its weird juxtapositions and its implied, ambiguous, murky interpretations.
The library called soon enough. Naked Lunch was a tough read for me. I couldn’t keep things straight from paragraph to paragraph, much less from page to page, much less from chapter to chapter. I found myself re-reading and then re-reading again to no effect. I was almost convinced that the emperor had no clothes until I remembered that Ginsberg had edited Naked Lunch. Then I started to recognize the juxtapositions and the stream-of-consciousness ramblings that I’d seen a few weeks earlier. I stopped trying to ‘understand it’ and started trying to just ‘get it’ and ‘feel it’. The surprise for me was how different Burroughs’s more-or-less traditionally structured Junky was from the wildly rambling and pointedly provocative and offensive Naked Lunch.
Ginsberg not only edited Naked Lunch, he tirelessly promoted the novel to any number of publishers for years. Despite Ginsberg’s carefully cultivated persona of an ethereal counter-culture free spirit, prior to writing and publishing full time he earned his living as a market researcher, an advertising copywriter and was a UPI stringer reporter for several years. He absolutely understood advertising, understood relentless self-promotion and understood how to exploit a news media hungry for scandal and lurid sensationalism. Ginsberg practically invented the the popular picture of the dirty, stoned, wine-soaked poetry spouting hipster beatnik and could always be counted upon to offer up wild stories of decadent “flaming youth” to any journalist willing to listen.
From the perspective of 65 years the Beats can look positively reactionary and even a bit, well, square. Kerouac was an honorably discharged veteran and Ginsberg served in the Merchant Marine. I never got a sense of the virulent anti-Americanism that metastasized a decade later in the writing of Abby Hoffman or Malcolm X and never a sense of the crazy-stoned psychotic acid ranting of Ken Kesey and the Pranksters. With the exception of Neil Cassidy’s serial pathological irresponsibility, On the Road centers on Kerouac’s travels to either find work or to deal with various requests to help family members. For me On the Road is a celebration of personal freedom and individuality placed inside a narrative framework built with railroads, long haul trucks, highways and jazz rhythms. I think that at its heart On the Road is a novel of great patriotism and profound love for America and beat (beatific) Americans.
Ginsberg encouraged the press to think of Kerouac as the “King of the Beatniks”. Kerouac never forgave him for that, and I can’t say I blame him. Kerouac was a scholar/athlete from Columbia University and the product of a solid middle-class Catholic family in Massachusetts. Kerouac thought of himself as a serious writer and a serious artist; he found the celebrity and notoriety from his association with the beats (a celebrity and notoriety relentlessly encouraged by Ginsberg) to be a great distraction to his work and and an insult to his privacy. It was disheartening to watch Kerouac as he aged changing from the Young Turk into an angry, bloated and ill-tempered middle-aged creep until the alcohol killed him at 47.
Heres a great story from I Celebrate Myself – The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg:
“During all this turmoil, Allen had managed to pick up another permanent house guest, Harry Smith. Harry was broke and alcoholic himself, and stayed with Allen because he had nowhere else to go. While lodging with Allen “for just a few days”, Harry had been hit by a car, fracturing his knee and relegating him to crutches. Asking the felled old man to leave would have been unkind, even though Harry was cantankerous and nearly impossible to live with. He was a genius when it came to anthropology, ethnographic music, and filmmaking, but also a true curmudgeon and as irritable as anyone Allen knew. He ensconced himself in the tine guest room next to the kitchen, where he made paintings with his own shit and saved his urine, a la Howard Hughes, in old milk containers that accumulated on the floor. Rosenthal’s job was becoming something more than the secretarial position he had signed on for almost a decade earlier; now he was the housemother and caretaker for group of increasingly eccentric people. The only way to accomplish any work and keep from going crazy himself was to move the office from Allen’s apartment, so Bob began looking for outside space.
“In late March, Dylan made a rare visit to Allen in the middle of the night. They discussed possible titles for Dylan’s next album, and Allen showed him some of the photographs he’d been taking, including photos of Harry Smith and nude pictures of a handsome young man, Patrick Warner. Dylan was curious to know if Patrick was Allen’s new boyfriend, but Allen sadly answered, “No, just a friend.” Dylan was impressed with Allen’s talent as a photographer and was anxious to meet Harry Smith, who had put together the influential Anthology of American Folk Music for Folkways in 1952, a seminal project that had sparked Dylan’s initial interest in folk music. Since Harry was in the next room, Allen asked him to come out and meet Dylan, but an unimpressed Smith slammed the door in his face.”
Bill Morgan, I Celebrate Myself – The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (New York: Viking Press, 2006), 586-587
…and here’s Bob, Allen Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth down in the basement mixin’ up the medicine…