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Huncke the Junkie: Godfather to Naked Lunch

My phone rang on a hot morning in July a year ago and it as Allen Ginsberg.

“Do you know Herbert Huncke?” Ginsberg asked. “Have you ever met Huncke?” I said that I hadn’t.

“He’s the oldest living junkie in New York,” Ginsberg said, “and an old sidekick of Burroughs and Kerouac. He turned Burroughs on to junk and he’s waiting in line at Manhattan General to get in so he can cut down on his habit. He’s been waiting for four days and he thinks he can get in in about 20 minutes, and he needs his suitcase which is in his hotel room, so can you go up to the hospital and get his key, and go to the hotel and get his suitcase and take it to him? He’s wearing a white sweater. Hurry!”

I threw on some clothes and rushed to the subway, and in maybe 19 minutes was running down 21st Street to the back door of Manhattan General where the junkies wait in line to save their lives. Huncke met me in the middle of the block. His white cardigan sweater was unmistakable, but so was his face, which was fragile testimony to 30 years on heroin.

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Huncke had decided to save Manhattan General for another day, but he insisted on showing me the junkie’s lobby. The floor behind the door was strewn with cigarette butts, and the air was a dense fog. They leaned against the wall — men, women, white, Puerto Rican, black — and sat on the benches. All the openings, the sign-in windows and such, were caged. It was as hard to get in as it was to get out.

And then as we walked over to Ginsberg’s, Huncke began to rap. Huncke raps beautifully, the sound of his magnificent voice — all that seems intact in his devastated body — as tantalizing as the content. He has so much to rap about, the days with Burroughs, the trials and woes of Ginsberg, the gilded gossip about the beats a decade ago and last week. It is all that he has, his memories and a talent for recalling them. It is not quite enough, but he gets by.

When he arrived, Ginsberg took me aside. “Whatever you do,” he said sternly, “don’t give him money! I’m not kidding. Be careful. He’s very persuasive.”

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And then he took Huncke aside, and asked him to spare me his touch. “He’s just a kid,” he said, “and he doesn’t have very much money.” And then Huncke hit Ginsberg for ten bucks.

Huncke is a master of the touch. It’s his livelihood, and as I walked with him back to the West Side I braced myself to follow Ginsberg’s orders and resist the inevitable climax of the conversation. It never came. Huncke spared me the first time — it would be the last — waved good-bye, and promised to stop by and visit.

And he did stop by, roughly once a week at a punctual nine o’clock in the morning, at an old loft I had on Prince Street that summer. I would try to wake up and make some coffee and we would sit and talk for three hours or so, the same glorious rap, and then he would hit me for $5 or so, always, he said, for a hotel or some other non-narcotic necessity of life. And I would give it to him, because he had earned it.

Toward the end of summer he passed a bad check on me and disappeared. I was sad that he never came back, and, in lieu of an autograph, pasted the check, which he had endorsed in various styles of script, on the title page of his “Journals,” a rambling collection of recollections that had been published by the Poet’s Press. A little while later I heard he was in jail.

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After he had finished six months in jail, he drove to San Francisco with a friend. I suspected that he was intrigued by the talk about a “Love Community” in Haight-Ashbury and the Diggers’ free money.

He liked the city, but was disappointed by the people, and a few weeks ago he was back in New York, but he didn’t get much of a homecoming. Ginsberg was in Italy and Panna Grady, a long-time patron, was in London and Peter Orlovsky was in a surly mood. He had spent the money Ginsberg had left to get him to London, and again, the line at Manhattan General proved to be too long for his patience. He stooped to selling salt pills as Owsley acid. And all the people he supposedly burned were rumored to be waiting for his upcoming reading at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie. It seemed that, for once, the audience would be taking the collection. But, deft as ever, Huncke survived the reading and went off to rap with Neal Cassady.

The other day he came by to visit again, and we sat in a bar on Seventh Avenue and talked. Huncke had a coke — he is repulsed by liquor — and I asked him to recall again how he came to meet William Burroughs.

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“I met Bill in 1944,” he said. “I had just come back from a trip to South America. Bill had met a friend of mine from Cleveland, a guy like something from a Humphrey Bogart movie, with padded shoulders, a felt hat and a flashy tie. He had a job as a soda jerk around Columbia. I think his intention was to case the neighborhood. And Burroughs approached him and asked if he could get rid of a sawed-off shotgun. Burroughs always had a sort of interest in the underworld. So this friend brought Burroughs down to my apartment, with the gun and several gross of morphine Syrettes. When I first saw Burroughs I thought he was a Treasury agent.

“He thought he’d like to try the morphine just once. We turned him on. He was a natural. The next thing we knew he joined forces with us.”

Burroughs was then at Columbia where he had, Huncke recalled, “a coterie which included Kerouac and Allen, who idolized him, and myself. I was sort of introduced as an oddity that should be observed.

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“At this same time, the Kinsey report was taking shape. I had met Dr. Kinsey in Times Square, and I introduced him to Allen and others. We used to get together in the Angler Bar, which was off 42nd Street. We’d sit there and talk and eat and drink. Bill was interested in karate. One of the most interesting things I ever witnessed was Bill trying to give a knockout blow with three fingers to break up a fight. He had gathered his coat around him elegantly, with all the dignity and reserved demeanor he had, and he was trying to reach over the heads in the brawl to hit the guy.”

In 1947, Huncke and Burroughs went to Texas. “It was a beautiful year,” Huncke said. “Just Bill, myself, his wife, and young Bill was born in July. We lived in a little weatherbeaten cabin on the edge of the bayou, and we raised a crop of pot. We were going to try to raise oriental poppies in a hothouse.

“Bill had his pistols and did target practice. He used to stand out there and draw with his pistols strapped to his side and shoot at the barn. Then Neal Cassady and Allen drove down from San Francisco. Neal and Bill and I drove back to New York in a jeep with the pot, and Allen took the train.

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“I didn’t see too much of Burroughs after that. Then Bill went to Tangiers, and I just hung around, hooked all the time, using junk, junk, junk. I’ve been using junk for more than 30 years. I can’t write without it. I can’t live without it.”

He can’t live without it. Herbert Huncke, apostle of junk, immortalized in more than one Kerouac novel, eulogized in Ginsberg’s ravings, godfather to “Naked Lunch.” As he fumbled for a match in the bar on Seventh Avenue, I could see that it was time for him to go again in search of that small bag that holds his bones together.

I gave him the money to buy it, and I hoped that he would find it. ❖

1967 Village Voice article by Don McNeill about the writer and New York Times denizen Huncke the Junkie

1967 Village Voice article by Don McNeill about the writer and New York Times denizen Huncke the Junkie

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Vladimir Nabokov, the Professor of Desire

“I want you to copy this down exactly as I draw it on the blackboard,” Vladimir Nabokov instructed us, after explaining that he was going to diagram the themes of Bleak House. He turned to the blackboard, picked up a piece of chalk, and scrawled “the theme of inheritances” in a weird arching loop. “The theme of generations” dipped and rose and dipped in an undulating line. “The theme of social consciousness” wiggled crazily toward the other lines, then veered sharply away.

Nabokov turned from the blackboard and peered over the rims of his glasses, parodying a professorial twinkle. “I want you to be sure to copy this as I draw it.”

After consulting a sheet of paper on the lectern, he turned back to the blackboard and scrawled “the theme of economic conditions” in a nearly vertical line. “The theme of poverty,” “the theme of political (the chalk snapped under the pressure, he picked up another piece and continued) protest,” “the theme of social environment” — all leaping and dipping wildly across the blackboard. Some people simply can’t draw a straight line.

Again he peered at us, over his shoulder and over his glasses, in silent reminder to copy this “exactly.”

And finally he scrawled the last “theme” in a neat dipping curve, a half-moon on its side, “the theme of art” — and we suddenly realized he had drawn a cat’s face, the last line its wry smile, and for the rest of the term that cat smiled out of our notebooks in mockery of the didactic approach to literature.

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I think of that incident whenever I read a critical analysis of Nabokov’s novels — all those “thematic lines,” darting wildly over the pages, up and down and criss-crossing, explaining everything, every­thing (to borrow a Nabokovian inflection), but lacking that final neat line, that Nabokovian smile, that “theme of art.”

But the most Nabokovian aspect of the anecdote is that I’m not at all sure it really happened. I “remember” it as clearly as any number of anecdotes from his course (“By the way,” he explained in casual audacity, seeming to exaggerate his Russian accent to heighten the effect, “Joyce made only one error in English in Ulysses, the use of the word ‘supine’ when it should have been ‘prone'”), but it may very well be one of those sharp, bright, crystalline “memories,” lifted from a dream, imposed by imagination, of something that never happened.

Nabokov’s reputation as a novelist, scholar, translator, and lepidop­terist is unassailable, but not many people know that he was also a great teacher (on the other hand, those of us who took his courses in the early ’50s didn’t have the vaguest notion he’d written a single word of fiction). Of course, everyone has had a “great teacher” usually that kindly, white-haired gentleman whose orderly affection for our favorite subject gave intellectual justification to our incoherent raptures, so in jotting down some of my memories of Nabokov as a teacher, I’ve tried to exclude the merely eccentric and personal, leaving only those reminiscences which might illuminate his novels — or perhaps even provide a footnote for that 21st-century scholar who will write a book on the four great novelists of the 20th century: Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, and Fulmerford.

“Great novels are above all great fairy tales,” he would begin, or rather he begins, memory being present tense and already, only a sentence in, and a decade and a half late, I realize that foggy memory and sketchy notes are going to make any kind of systematic development or accurate quotation impossible.

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“Literature does not tell the truth but makes it up. The first literature was the boy crying wolf … ‘Wolf!’ ‘Wolf!'” Nabokov would cry out, then pause. “But no wolf. Something between the nonexistent wolf and the boy … the dream about the wolf … the shadow of the invented wolf … Literature.”

“Art is useful only when it is futile,” we would read (but he was such a superb actor, one of the basic requirements of a “great teacher,” that no one knew he wrote out his lectures word for word, down to the wryest “asides”). “The artist is a sublime liar … Art is not ‘about’ something but is the thing itself … Art is not a simple arithmetic but a delicate calculus … In art, the roundabout hits the center … Life is the least realistic of all fictions.”

And then, in a gambit he was to use as many as three or four times a term, he would refer to “the passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist,” pause for a moment as if he hadn’t heard himself quite right, then ask in a mock-baffled tone: “Have I made a mistake? Don’t I mean ‘the passion of the artist and the precision of the scientist’?” Another pausc, peering gleefully over the rims of his lasses, as if awaiting our answer, then, “No! The passion of the scientist and the precision of the artist!” — a phrase which could well stand as an epigraph (if one were allowed half a dozen) for his own work.

“Great writers invent their own world,” but “minor writers merely ornament the commonplace” — and he would also refer to “minor readers,” particularly those who (a unique Nabokovan mixture of delight and scorn would come into his voice) “identify with the characters.”

(One should always hear this special tone of voice in the mind’s ear when reading his sarcastic remarks about philistines, for he seemed even more amused by than disdainful of bourgeois vulgarity, and remarks that seem devastatingly snide in cold print seemed almost affectionate in his warm lectures. He particularly enjoyed reading bad literature aloud — “I can’t stop quoting!” he would chortle in glee as he read from the masterpieces of socialist realism.)

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“There are two million words in this course,” Nabokov would say, explaining that the novels added up to a million words but that we were to read them — “every single one of them” — twice, the first time merely to get such trivial concerns as “plot suspense” out of the way. I seem to recall a comparison to painting — one should approach a novel as one approaches a painting, not going from left to right but taking in the whole, a simultaneous totality of experience. But just to make sure, he made a point of giving away the plots in the first lecture so that the poshlosts among us …

Poshlost? He would look up, mimicking surprise that we didn’t know the word, then explain that it was a peculiarly Russian word (as untranslatable as “corny,” with as many specific instances and as little specific “meaning” as “camp”), a kind of subtle vulgarity, not crude or coarse, but verging on sensitivity, sensitivity with a slight tinge of mold — Olivier’s Hamlet for instance, with its “Freudian staircase,” or “the great ideas,” or the novels of Thomas Mann. (We quickly learned that he was the master of the parenthetical put-down, the seeming “aside” which is all the more devastating because the parentheses give it an invulnerable position in the sentence. Everyone is familiar with his description of Lawrence as “a pornographer,” his disdain for Dos­toevsky (“memoirs from a mouseholed”), but his wittiest assassination was reserved for Hemingway: “I read a novel of his in 1940 … I can’t remember the title … Bulls? Bells? Balls?”)

But to return to the way to read novels: What makes a good reader? he would ask rhetorically, giving us a list of ten to choose from, beginning with “belongs to a book club” or “has seen the movie,” and ending with “likes to browse in the dictionary.” The proper answers, of course, were imagination and memory and the dictionary. And since this list was itself verging on the poshlost (he flirted with philistinism not because he wanted to possess it but simply because he liked to see it having a good time) he would suddenly vocally raise a forefinger utter one of those aphorisms which seemed so eccentric at the time (the weird juxtaposition of words caused, no doubt, by the fact that “he probably doesn’t know English well”) but which linger in the memory precisely because of their odd flair: “Let us worship the spine … the upper spine … the vertebrate tipped at the head with a divine flame!”

(In retrospect, it seems that Nabokov was telling us how we should someday read his own novels, and telling us in a steady stream of aphorisms at that, but of course these are the two spurs to my memory.)

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After the initial lecture on good literature and good readers (the course was taught in Goldwin-Smith Hall, by the way, a fact which might be of interest to anyone doing research into the sources of the names in Pale Fire), we were told to be sure to bring our copies of the novel to the next class, for the first lecture on each novel consisted largely of a long list of corrections of the wretched translation.

“Turn to page 15, line eight — cross out ‘violet’ and write in ‘purple.’ ‘Violet,'” he would blurt out in a kind of disdainful glee. “Imagine, violet,” he would almost quiver in delight at the exquisite vulgarity of the translator’s word-choice.

“Page 18, third line from the bottom — change ‘umbrella’ to ‘parasol.’ ” He would hold up the book like something damp and greenish found under the sink: “This wingless Penguin … ”

I almost remember the translation corrections better than the novels. In Madame Bovary, for instance, “steward” became “butler,” “fluttered” became “rippled,” “pavement” became “sidewalk” — but was Rudolf Emma’s first or second lover? Never mind. The course was about Emma’s eyes, Emma’s hair (“smooth,” to “sleek,” “curved” to “dipped,” “head” to “skull”).

“Caress the details,” Nabokov would utter, rolling the R, his voice the rough caress of a cat’s tongue. “The divine details!” (“General ideas” were anathema to him — because he knew too much about the differences between things to generalize about anything; because, as he wrote in The Gift, the word “cosmic” is always in danger of losing its S.)

And so, studying for exams (which is what college was in the fifties, certainly not “getting an education”), we would simply memorize the colors, telling each other that last year he had asked: “What color was the bottle containing the arsenic with which Emma poisoned herself?” (brown?).

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(And speaking of exams, the mock-horror with which — no, not mock horror, for though “the horrified professor” was one of his many roles, roles always played with a subtly gleeful irony, this time he was genuinely aghast — the horror with which he returned our papers one day, for nearly half of the class, baffled by his accent, had referred to somebody’s “epidramatic,” rather than “epigrammatic” style, a willing­ness to parrot what one doesn’t understand that is still my private, if trivial symbol —along with the fact that his course was called, ap­pallingly, “dirty lit” (Anna Karenina! Madame Bovary!) — for the under-25 generation of the Eisenhower years.)

Vera Nabokov was as legendary as her husband, a breathtakingly beautiful, regal, and dignified (I still think of her hair whenever I hear the phrase “White Russian”), attending all his lectures, always seated in the front row — presumably in order to rush to his side with some sort of pills in the event of a heart attack (recalling, or foreshadowing, in this least autobiographical of authors, the attacks suffered behind a lectern by Timofey Pnin and John Shade). Or at least that was the rumor, and rumor, as someone has written, is “the poetry of truth.”

But “the enchanted eyes of nostalgia” (Nabokov on Gogol) are carrying me far from that pledge to write down only those memories which might illuminate his novels (I wish I could work in that day when a bee flew in the window and the entomologist gently rebuked the fears of his students — “just a humble bumblebee.” But it won’t fit) (And speaking of entomology, it turns out that Gregor Samsa wasn’t transformed into a cockroach after all, as most people, especially New Yorkers, assume, but into a beetle, a domed beetle, a winged beetle, in fact; and Nabokov told us something neither Gregor nor Kafka knew — ­if he’d wanted to escape, all Gregor had to do was fly out the window.)

In summation, then, Nabokov was a great teacher not because he taught the subject well but because he exemplified, and stimulated in his students, a profound and loving attitude toward it. Of course his eccentric personality intrigued us (as a matter of fact, he was considered a kind of Pnin-figure), but his vivid enthusiasms entranced us, and we emerged from the course not so much “educated” as transfigured. Nabokov didn’t “teach” novels, in short, he gazed at them with such joyful and tender devotion that they became for us what they already were for him — “shimmering prisms.”

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***

Now it seems there was one more thing … Oh yes, Andrew Field.

Skimming through his book, the way it came in the mail, knowing already that it was going to be more or less a pre-text: first of all, the resonance of his ardent enthusiasm (there have been eight masterpieces in the 20th century, he writes, and only Nabokov has written two); then it’s quickly clear that he’s as confident, as audacious as his subject (“Nabokov, I have mastered your themes,” he announces, probably in an intentional echo of a passage in The Gift), that he has nothing but scorn for the pedants and puzzle solvers, that a kind of gossipy nonchalance is not beneath him, and that even his index has a Nabokovian fla­vor (knowing, knowing he would have jokes in his index, I made a point of reading it, and sure enough, “schools of writing, trends and influences” bang and clatter in self-contained isolation from the body of the book, refer­ring to nothing but themselves).  Field even takes up the pronunciation of Nabokov (the accent, please, on the second syllable).  Fine. Fine. This is clearly the book on Nabokov we’ve been waiting for.

After reading it, I realized that Field had written the book I’d long dreamed of writing — and now that it was written, I realized I couldn’t have done it — and now that it was written, I wondered if I necessarily wanted it done in the first place. As in a hand­book on magic, the magic is missing, and after all his acts are explained, Nabokov merely points his finger at the explain­er, goes “poof,” and the explainer disappears in a cloud of smoke.

This is blatantly unfair “false expectations” criticism, of course (expecting, if not a book by Nabokov, at least one vibrating to his tuning fork), but I say that “this is the best book ever written about Nabokov” in a listless, let-down voice.

Field claims two “unusual aspects” for his book: first, it con­siders Nabokov’s entire work (Field reads Russian), and sec­ond, it has an “innovatory na­ture as a work of criticism.” I have no quarrel with the first — in fact, it sums up the book’s primary and considerable value. As for the second, Field writes of his book: ”it is formed (italicized), that is, it is structured in a way roughly corresponding to that of (sic) the narrative in fic­tion … I have treated Nabokov’s novels, poems, stories, plays, and essays as characters in a novel, and each has its role and place carefully prefigured and integrated into the whole.” This is all called “narrative cri­ticism,” and “questions” (the jacket informs us) “the most basic assumptions and practices of literary criticism.”

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Frankly, I wouldn’t have guessed it he hadn’t told me, and even after reading the book one and a half times I’ll still have to take his word for it. I wonder just what “basic assumptions and practices” he’s radically reject­ing — unformed? carelessly unfig­ured? scattered chaotically in fragments? I’m afraid Field has to share some of the blame for “false expectations.”

But with the exception of a few other quibbles (the most impor­tant: Field measures the “truly startling distance” between “art” and “life” by pointing to the astonishing fact that the author of Lolita has actually been married to “the same woman” since 1925!! — who wants Lolita “defended” by this kind of banal argument, by a critic who has this vision of “art” and “life”?, and isn’t it far more likely, even it we accept these terms, that the tenderness and devotion revealed in the novel would make any other kind of au­thor highly unlikely?; the most trivial: if Field is going to illustrate the intellectual vacuity of a character by pointing out that he even misspells “Finnegans Wake,” he’d better learn how to spell it himself) — with the exception of a few quibbles, then, this book seems to me so thorough in its analysis, so balanced in its as­sessments, so “correct” in its conclusions that I’d rather save apace for other things and simply recommend it (but only, and I think Field is a devoted enough reader to agree, after one has read nearly every word Nabokov has written.)

It seems so self-evident that the major themes of Nabokov’s fiction (smile when you say that) are art, death, madness, memory, time, illusion, love, consciousness, and the relationship between the artist and his creation (Field on Pale Fire: “In the relationship between John Shade and Charles Kinbote, Nabokov has given us the best and truest allegorical portrait of ‘the literary process’ that we have or are likely ever to get”), that one wonders why it needs saying. But the misunder­standing of Nabokov’s fiction is so widespread that the self-evi­dent doesn’t merely need saying, it needs insisting upon.

At a recent writer’s conference, a Canadian writer whose verse (he likes to call it “poetry”), though intended to be inflamma­tory, has an unfortunate lulling effect, argued that all great writ­ers were “socially conscious.” When Nabokov’s name was men­tioned, the Canadian denied that he was a great writer (because he wasn’t “socially conscious,” the other half-circle in his argument), whereupon another participant insisted that he was a great writer precisely because he wasn’t “socially conscious” — “ex­cept for all those cute tricks,” he added apologetically, “he does too much of that” (One would like to suggest that these gentle­men stick to fiction; then one realizes the suggestion is un­necessary).

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Now there are hundreds of ways to approach Nabokov: “mi­rage and reality merge in love,” ecstatic nostalgia, the negation of time in art, the choice of pat­tern over meaning, the prefer­ence for the white crayon (precisely because its lines are invisible and one can imagine anything one likes) — but the one way not to approach him, and the one way most readers do, and the one aspect of his work I want to discuss this time around, is as a trickster, a conjuror, a gay deceiver. All those clues, those ana­grams, those “false trails,” those chess games — it’s nothing but verbal adventurism — it’s all a  great pointless joke, with the reader the butt. (The matter is not helped by those admirers who speak only of “keys,” as if his novels were boxes to be un­locked, and inside, another locked box, this one full of puzzles.) All this makes readers uneasy, even “clever” readers — for no matter how clever they are, they suspect, they know, that Nabokov is cleverer. Even the meta­phor game (e. g., the delicate angling of mirrors to capture, if only in fragments, if only in re­flection, glimpses of an unattainable paradise), the second most frequent approach, is less offensive — it’s just as baffled, but at least its ardent.

It can be said flatly: there are no pointless jokes or tricks in Nabokov’s books. In his autobio­graphy, just to give one example, Nabokov writes of himself as a boy of 10 or 12, still in Russia, pursuing a particularly rare and beautiful butterfly; the pursuit continues through marshes and bogs, up hillsides, down into val­leys — until finally he catches the butterfly — near Longs Peak. Na­turalists probably recognized the strange flora and fauna of this pursuit; my own recognition was geographic — Longs Peak is in Colorado! So he started after that butterfly in Russia and finally captured it in Colorado, a third of a century later. The “clever” reader has caught the “joke.”

But the next paragraph begins: “I confess I do not believe in time,” and the “joke” not only has a point, but a profound and moving one —for in emotional value, that pursuit from Russia to Colorado was a single experi­ence; but more than that, it was one of those “immaculate mo­ments” of the simultaneity of experience, the superimposition of memory upon the present, time folding in on itself, timelessness in time — and articulated in such a way that the reader does not grin at Nabokov’s “joke” but shares in his ecstasy.

And when the “clever” reader suddenly realizes the identity of the supposedly uninvolved narra­tor of “Pnin,” he is not rewarded with the lusterless joy of solving a puzzle, but with a glorious arch, lifting back over the book, sur­f using it with the radiant glow of a passionate tenderness.

“It is a pity to disrupt the en­chantment with a hollow excla­mation of ecstasy,” with those spiritual throes and vague raptures and sentimental enthusi­asms Nabokov deplored to his students (“chitchat”) — but it’s a risk I’m willing to take in at­tempting to express what en­chants me in Nabokov’s writing.

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Although he’s generally regard­ed as a “comic” writer, I value his art for its bright, rejoicing tenderness (just as I value Chap­lin’s movies not because they’re funny, but because, even in their funniest scenes, they’re extraordinarily beautiful), because he is matched only by Dickens and Tolstoy in his ability to articu­late joy and happiness, because he shapes and transmits emotions in his prose with such tactility that his books are a physical pleasure to read. As John Updike has said, Nabokov writes prose the way it should be written — ­ ecstatically; and in reading his prose one experiences a kind of sensuality of the mind.

It is currently fashionable to deplore language, to say that words are merely the shadows of ideas, which are themselves merely the shadows of sensations, and so on. “The often repeated complaints of poets (one can hear the affectionate laughter in his voice as one reads his novels) ‘that, alas, no words are available, that words are pale corpses, I that words are incapable of expressing our thingummy-bob feelings … seemed to him just as senseless as the staid conviction of the eldest inhabitant of a mountain hamlet that yonder mountain has never been climbed by anyone and never will be; one fine, cold morning a long lean Englishman appears — and cheer­fully scrambles up to the top.”

“Good-bye, my book!” the writer cries out, at the end of The Gift, and losing a beat of the heart, simultaneously sorrow­ing and laughing (for the lovers have forgotten their keys, and will not be able to get into the house), all the reader’s emotions are equalized, as in the supremest art, as in all of Nabokov’s art, in a burst of radiance — suffering and joy, grief and plea­sure, tears and laughter, all transfigured into the sustained, immortal ecstasy of aesthetic bliss. ❖

NABOKOV: HIS LIFE IN ART
A Book by Andrew Field, Little, Brown, $8.95

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Bob Dylan: Brecht of the Juke Box, Poet of the Electric Guitar

Norman Morrison burned himself to death to protest the Viet­nam war, and when reporters visited his spare room they saw quotes from Bob Dylan scrawled on the peeling walls. Students at the University of California have organized a non-credit seminar on Dylan’s poetry. Esquire Magazine quotes Stokely Carmich­ael singing to himself — not an Otis Redding blues — but Dylan. In a recent peace demonstration a teenybopper marched with a home-made placard that bore the crayoned motto, “The hypnotic splattered mist is slowly lifting,” a line from Dylan’s “The Chimes or Freedom.”

W. H. Auden, Howard Nemerov, and Norman Podhoretz say they have never heard of Dylan. Critic and poet John Ciardi says Dylan knows nothing about poetry. Even Norman Mailer, existentialist fight manager and white hope of the over-30 generation, says, “If Dylan is a poet, so is Cassius Clay.”

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But 25-year-old Dylan, the Brecht of the juke box, has already won this generation of rebels, just as Kerouac and Camus have won earlier generations. Dylan’s words, values, imagery, even his eccentric life-style, are grooved into more under-30 brains than any other writer’s. And the miracle of it is that almost nobody over 30 in the literary and intellectual establishments even pays attention to his electronic guitar-coated nightmare visions of America as Times Square arcade at 2 a. m., where:

Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory.
Where the heart attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the cas­tles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row.*

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Two cultural traditions have grown up in America, one en­shrined in respectability and the other quarantined by its illegiti­macy. One is the university and the fashionable periodicals and it runs from T. S. Eliot to Edmund Wilson to Saul Bellow. But for a century now there has been an angry subterranean brook cutting away the bedrock beneath the arid soil of the New Yorker. This bastard tradition goes back to Whitman and Poe, and include Charlie Parker, Lenny Bruce, William Burroughs, and now Bob Dylan. It’s energy comes from slums, alleys and jails, instead of libraries, classrooms, and editorial office.

At the most obvious level of his impact, Dylan has “exploded” popular music the way critic Leslie Fiedler says William Burroughs has “exploded” the traditional form of the novel with is cut-outs and syntactical innovations. When Dylan landed on the scene in 1961 like some manic sparrow, pop music was rotting under the moon-June hegemony of Dick Clark, and folk music was still living off the legacy of Leadbelly and Guthrie. Then Dylan poured his symbolic alienation into songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “A Hard Rain is Gonna Fall,” and broke the suffocating two minute and 50 second box of top 40 music. “Hard Rain,” recorded in 1962, was almost six minutes. “Desolation Row” is 11 minutes and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is 17 minutes. This exploding of both form and content opened up folk and pop music to new plateaus for poetic, content-conscious songwriters. Dylan, as seminal innovator, has made Lennon and McCartney, Phil Ochs, and the Byrds possible, just as Lenny Bruce made Woody Allen possible. In so mass a media as juke boxes and records, Dylan’s effect is already deeper and more durable than Sinatra’s, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, and Presley’s. Dylan Thomas put song back into poetry, and Bob Dylan has put poetry into song.

***

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Some artists develop vertical­ly, digging even deeper into the fi­ber of their own obsession. Hem­ingway, James Baldwin, and John Osborne fit this category. Other artists, more restless, ma­ture horizontally, changing passions and styles like seasons; Pi­casso, Norman Mailer, and Dylan among them.

The protean Dylan has written furious polilical protest like “Masters of War” (“when the death count gets higher/you hide in your mansion”). He has writ­ten a stunning group of anti-love songs like “It Ain’t Me Babe” (“go melt back into the night Babe/everything inside is made of stone/there’s nothing in here moving/and anyway I’m not alone”).

He has written mean put-down songs like “Positively Fomth Street” (“Yes I wish that for just one time/you could stand inside my shoes/you’d know what a drag it is/to see you”). And he has written lyric love songs like “Visions of Johanna” (“the ghost of electricity/howls in the bones of her face”).

On the wages of sexual repres­sion he writes “Doctor filth he keeps his world/inside of a lea­ther cup/but all his sexless pa­tients/they’re trying to blow it up,” and in the same song, “her sin is her lifelessness.”

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On his recurring theme of an­ti-intellectualism Dylan writes in the “Tombstone Blues,” “The National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul/to the old folks home and the college.” And in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” he mocks journalistic non-partici­pants with:

You walk into the room
with your pencil in your hand
you see somebody naked and you say,
who is that man?
something is happening here
you don’t know what it is
do you, Mister Jones?*

On his passion for freedom from all arbitrary authority Dylan writes in his masterwork, “Gates of Eden”:

Relationships of ownership
they whisper in the wings
to those condemned to act accordingly
and wait for succeeding kings
and I try to harmonize with songs
the lonesome sparrow sings.*

And in his folk-rock hit “Maggie’s Well, Farm,” Dylan wrote:

Well, I try my best 
to be just like I am
but everybody wants you
to be just like them.
they sing while you slave
and I just get bored
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s
Farm no more*

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But beneath all these generational values lies Dylan’s transcendent vision that life is absurd and the only way to endure in this mad and routinized society is to see everything as a meaningless game juggling reality and illusion constantly.

In his current composition “Memphis Blues Again” Dylan reworks T. S. Eliot’s classic lines, “Between the idea/and the reality/between the motion/and the act/falls the shadow.” He writes:

Now the bricks lay on Grand Street
where the neon madmen climb
they all fall there so perfectly
it all seems so well-timed
and I sit here so patiently
waiting to find out what price you have to pay
to get out of going through all these things twice
Oh, mama can this really be the end
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis Blues again.

Dylan, the clown juggler of fact and fantasy, the bastard child of Chaplin, Celine, and Hart Crane, reaches the zenith of his black absurdity in “Gates of Eden”:

The kingdoms of experience
in the precious winds they rot
while paupers change possessions
each one wishing for what the other has got
and the princess and the prince
discuss what’s real and what is not …

the foreign sun it squints upon
a bed that is never mine
as friends and other strangers
from their fates try to resign
leaving men holy totally free
to do anything they wish to do but die
and there are no trials inside
the Gates of Eden.

***

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Dylan is 25. His writing is very uneven and undisciplined. He is capable of such silly lines as “walk a rugged mile” and “I’m weary as hell.” Too often his compulsion to rhyme diminishes his imagery and music. He is hardly yet the equal of Lowell, Ginsberg, or John Ashbery.

But he has single-handedly revolutionized pop music and folk music. To a whole generation he has become the nations number one public writer.

And he is a poet. If Whitman were alive today, he too would be playing an electric guitar.

*All lyrics copyright M. Witmark and Sons

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Autumn in the Haight: Where Has Love Gone?

Autumn in the Haight: Where Has Love Gone?

November 30, 1967

San Francisco — The season changed, and the moon thrusts of the Autumn Equinox preoc­cupied the many people in Haight-Ashbury who chart by planetary movement. Others par­ticipated in the Equinox celebra­tion, a pleasant event which has become a tradition here in the past few seasons. This celebration was of special note, because two traditional American Indian medicine men decided at the last minute to attend. The medicine men, Rolling Thunder and Shay­mu, came to the Straight Thea­tre on Haight Street and helpers hurried to the street with hand­bills reading “QUICK INDIANS WANT TO SEE YOU.” The na­tives came, and, in front of the Straight, Rolling Thunder met Shaymu, and Shaymu said, “Let us adopt these people, who are called hippies, as our children. They have been disowned.” Roll­ing Thunder agreed, and the In­dians and many of their new children went to the country to dance all night around a fire on a beach.

The vast majority of the younger residents of Haight-Ash­bury just hung around the street, aware of neither the Equinox nor of their new family. Most were unaware because they didn’t care. They had more pressing problems: to find some bread to get home, to find a place bread to crash for the night, or to find some speed so they could forget about the night. Haight Street was lined with people with prob­lems. Behind the scenes, there were only more problems.

Most of the tourists were gone, and with them their funny mon­ey, which really didn’t matter because they only clogged the streets and not much of the mon­ey filtered back into the com­munity anyway. But the community was certainly short of bread. The Haight-Ashbury Medical Clin­ic, which had given free medical treatment to 13,000 people since June without any financial or moral support from government or foundation sources, finally closed its doors, defeated and depleted, on September 22. The Digger Free Store was in debt and the proprietor threatened to split to New York unless the $750 in back rent materialized. The Switchboard, which main­tained a volunteer legal staff of 30 lawyers and had found crash pads for up to 300 pilgrims a night, was doing fine until it received some contributions. They spent the money before the checks bounced, and needed $1000 to survive. Most of the communes in the country still depended on outside support, and even the free food in the Panhandle, which began to resemble ­a bread line, threatened to fold without any more funds.

Haight-Ashbury had survived the Summer of Love, but it seemed mortally wounded.

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Relatively Calm

It could have been worse. Estimates in the spring had doubled the estimated 50,000 saints and freeloaders who came to the Haight seeking the love and free life that the papers had promised. The subdivided flats in the bay-windowed houses-the rule to Haight-Ashbury as tenement apartments are to the East Side  stretched to accommodate guests. There were no hunger riots, and the now defunct free medical clinic kept the threat­ened plague and pestilence in check. The pilgrims were fed and housed — with occasional free music and drugs thrown in and the panhandlers on Haight Street were still asking for quarters in October.

As I arrived, there were kids on many corners with packs on their backs and thumbs stuck out trying to leave. The people I met, many of whom had been here before the Human Be-In and the Summer of Love (some of whom had coined the words), were exhausted and dejected, rather like a bartender counting unbroken glasses after an all­-night brawl. Yet they were count­ing broken spirits and their new veteran friends who had not yet split for the sanctum of an un-­publicized commune in the country. They were the hosts of the Summer of Love and now, after the Autumn Equinox, it was time to clean up.

***

There’s not much reason now to go to Haight Street unless it’s to cop. The street itself has a layer of grease and dirt which is common on busy sidewalks in New York but rare in San Fran­cisco, a film that comes from bits of lunch garbage and spilled coke ground into the cement by the heels of Haight Street strollers. It is not a plea­sant place to sit, yet hundreds do, huddled in doorways or stretched out on the sidewalk, in torn blankets and bare feet, bor­ed voices begging tor spare change, selling two-bit psyche­delic newspapers that were cur­rent in the spring, and dealing, dealing, dealing. The dealing is  my strongest impression of Haight Street. The housewives with their brownie cameras miss the best part of the show.

It’s not hard to cop in the Haight. It you look remotely hip and walk down the street, a do­zen anxious peddlers should approach you to offer their goods. It is something that may happen once a day on St. Mark’s Place. Here I am asked several times on each block whether I want to buy, or occasionally sell, grass, acid, meth, kilos, lids, matchboxes or, in the case of one ambitious (and, I think, mad) merchant, “Owsley tabs, mescaline, psilocybin coated grass, or anything, anything you want.” The merchant was young, fat, owlish-looking, perspiring and unshaven. He had an entourage of several pre-adolescent kids swathed in Army blankets. “I know the stuff is good,” he said. “I try it all myself.”

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The Dealers

The pace of dealing picks up at night, when the dark provides some protection. Walking down Haight Street at night, the offers are whispers in the shadows or in the crowds. Mostly its acid. But the street acid is usually a combination of a taste of acid fortified with anything from methedrine to strychnine. There have been a lot of bad trips here lately, because there has been a lot of bad acid.

Even in October some new stores are opening, latecomers for the leftovers of the poster and bead market, but it should be a rough winter for the bead game with no assurance that next summer the circus will come to town again. Enlightened natives have spread out all over  town from Haight-Ashbury. Anyone curious about hippies can pick up a hitchhiker or find some on his own block. Unlike Greenwich Village, the shops are not an attraction in themselves. The same goods are sold in more attractive shops all over town.

I did find one merchant who wanted nothing to do with the psychedelic market. I needed some matches so I went into a liquor store on Haight Street off Clayton and, rather than hassle the thin, white-haired man at the counter, I bought a pack of cigarettes, which he gave me with a pack of matches. Then I asked for an extra pack of matches.

He eyed me severely.

“You got matches, right here,” he said, tapping the pack of matches with the nail of his index finger.

“I’d like an extra pack” I said. “I’ll pay you for them”

He shook his head. “No,” he said, “you got matches right here. One pack is all you need. One pack of cigarettes. One pack of matches. What do you need more for?”

I pulled out my other pack of cigarettes. “For these,” I said. “That’s what I came here for.”

“What happened to the matches you got with those?” he shouted, triumphant with the evidence, finding me guilty of all the dope fiend-marijuana-puffing sins that the mind of a liquor store keeper could imagine. Even after the hoards, he was holding his hill. He was doing his bit.

Lonely Trips

The street is the heart of the Haight. It is where everyone first realized that they had company on their trip. It is reality — a hard fact to stomach when you’re 15 and strung out on meth and it’s midnight and you’ve got no place to crash except a doorway. Without the coffee houses and bars of the beats, the street is the scene, a hell of a scene, with tourists and runaways and dealers and burners and the holy Angels with their bikes and the gaudy stores as a backdrop.

A schism exists between the street and the elite in Haight-Ashbury. The same is true in New York. The elite of the Haight-Ashbury scene are more aware of it, and they have occasionally tried to bridge the gap, without much success. Chester Anderson began the Communication Company over a year ago, hoping to keep the street in touch and control with an “instant newspaper” of enticing handbills. The handbills fascinated the fringes but bored the masses. Anderson was finally purged and split several months ago for Florida. The Diggers tried harder, attacking the needs of the neighborhood with free food and free stores and free theatre and free thought. They convinced Jay and Ron Thelin, pioneer proprietors of the Psychedelic Shop, to fore­sake free enterprise and just be free. The shop became a lounge for the street and finally died October 6 with the proprietors in debt, in love, and enlightened. On that day, the elders decided to put an end to it all.

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Burying Hip

The idea was kindled at a meeting earlier in the week at Happening House, a beautiful Victorian mansion just off the Panhandle on Clayton Street, which opened at the end of the summer to serve as a community center. The idea was to have a three day funeral for the death of hip — or the death of the Haight — and most of the meet­ing was spent trying to determine just what had died. But all agreed that a funeral was a good idea. “The idea of a few people going down Haight Street,” sigh­ed Oracle editor Allen Cohen. “The idea, the symbol goes through walls, through windows, through air, through mountains. Through the media, it will hit millions of people.” The media giveth and the media taketh away.

“I’m going to be driving the truck all day,” a Digger said, “and I’m going to be talking to people.”

“What are you going tell them to do?” someone asked.

“I’m gonna tell them that everything’s out of control. That they’re free.”

And then someone read the surrender speech of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and the meeting was adjourned.

After the meeting I walked with several of the talkers to the house of the Grateful Dead, where Rolling Thunder, the Shoshone medicine man, was staying while he visited Haight-Ashbury. It is a four-story Victorian townhouse glowing with stained glass windows, which clings to the hill on Ashbury Street and houses the Dead, their entourage, and the offices of the Haight-Ashbury Legal Organization. Rolling Thunder was sitting in the parlor.

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Candid Prophet

Had it not been for his turquoise headband and heavy necklaces, which he said were given to him since he arrived in Haight-Ashbury, Rolling Thunder would hardly have looked like an Indian, let alone medicine man. His skin is light and his face bears the hard lines of the harsh weather in the country of the Western Shoshone, which is Eastern Nevada. His hair is short and combed back and he wore the simple clothes of a rancher. He is soft-spoken, with a slight Western drawl, and loves to talk, making him the most candid prophet one could ever hope to meet.

Rolling Thunder, who is chairman of the traditional Tribal Council of the Western Shoshone Nation, came to San Francisco to join 32 traditional Indians who were about to embark on a caravan to circle the country to protest a bill pending in Congress which will allow Indians to bor­row money on their lands. He believes that the bill is a trick to deprive the Indians of their remaining land.

But the real threat of the bill before Congress, Rolling Thunder explained, is that it endangers the lands of the Hopi, which have always remained intact. “The Hopi are the keepers of our religion,” he said. “As soon as we found out that the white man was taking everything, our sacred tablets were hidden with the Hopi.

“I was praying for my people,” he recalled, “and I had a dream. I was in a Kiva. I saw a fire — blue and green — in the dark at the far side. I knew it was a pre­sence. I know it was the supreme being. He was covered with eagle feathers. He had a beak like an eagle and a body like a man. He said and to saw look to the left. I looked and saw stone tablets with pictographs. He said, look there and you’ll find an answer.

“A few days later I was in Hopi land, and they brought out the stone tablets, and I read them.

“They said, in the last days, ­the Hopi would be the last to go. That’s happening now, so we know the time is close.”

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The caravan is intended to ful­fill the prophecy which speaks of two stars in the sky. “For hundreds of years,” Rolling Thunder said, “the large star followed the small star across the sky. And the Great Spirit said, when the stars reverse, the time is right. That happened two months ago. He also said that we should go out and meet people, to see who is true and who is not true. And that is what we are doing.”

The prophecy also speaks of  destruction, that after the stars reverse a “gourd of ashes” will fall from the sky, destroying the people who are not true. “It’s written on the rocks,” Rolling Thunder said, “and when that comes people will come to the wilderness to seek refuge with the Indians and they’ll try to buy their way in, but their money­ will be of no value. We will know who is true and who is not true.”

Thelin explained the idea of the funeral. “We’re really trying to sabotage the word hippie,” he said. “It’s really fucking us up. It’s not our word. It has nothing to do with us. We’d like to substitute ‘free American’ in its place.”

Rolling Thunder smiled and nodded. “That free American term sounds a lot better,” he said. “I’ve asked several people what they call themselves, and they couldn’t give me an an­swer. Now maybe they can give me an answer.”

The medicine man sat on a large desk, and a dozen people sat around him on the floor. “I saw this before it ever happened,” he said. “This is a direct prophecy from myself. I wonder­ed it the white man could ever live in this country and eat the food and still remain a hashed­-over European. And I saw these people with the long hair. These people will be the future Americans.

“What you people are going through is the same thing that we’ve gone through. You’re just getting your training. We’ll help you in any way we can.”

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Hidden Medicine Men

“There will also be people among you who will be medicine men. He will know protection. He will know what areas will be safe. There’s one among you already. He doesn’t know it. I’ve talked to him and he will be coming to my country to learn. But, until you have your own, you can borrow one once in a while.

“It’s going to be rough,” he warned. “It’s going to be violent, especially in the cities. The spirit told me tostay away from that violence. I think that might be good advice for you people. Violence is not the way. There’s something more powerful than that.”

“In the last days, they will throw everything at you to de­stroy you, and that’s what’s happening  now. And now the medicine men are coming back. When those stars reversed — that is when the power of good took over from the power of evil. Many young people are becoming me­dicine men. So now your people, who are living like Indians, you see what you’ve let yourselves into.

“They may prosecute and jail people. They may do everything, because they are fearful. But they won’t succeed.”

Someone asked about the Shoshone way of facing death.

“Death?” the medicine man asked. “There is no death. But if you kill yourself, you displease the Great Spirit, and you may be reincarnated as a worm.”

Rolling Thunder’s daughter, who was with him, said that she was walking down to Haight Street, and asked if there was anything she could do for him.

“I’ll tell you one thing you can do,” he said. “You can go down to the Psychedelic shop and get some of those ‘”We Shall Overcome’ buttons. Those will be very popular in our country. Can you get them wholesale?”

“They might for you,” some­one said. “They should know you.”

“Then I guess I’d better walk down myself.”

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***

The next day was a day of preparation and press conferences. I walked into the Psychedelic Shop in the late afternoon to find CBS News waiting in line behind a local television station to interview Ron Thelin in his tiny office at the back of the shop. A tiny enameled American flag hung from Thelin’s freshly pierced ear.

The funeral notices had been printed. They were small stiff cards, bordered in black, reading “HIPPIE. In the Haight Ashbury district of this city, Hippie, de­voted son of Mass Media. Friends are invited to attend services beginning at sunrise,  October 6, 1967, at Buena Vista Park.”

And there was a handbill, which read in part, “MEDIA CREATED THE HIPPIE WITH YOUR HUNGRY CONSENT. BE SOMEBODY. CAREERS ARE TO BE HAD FOR THE ENTER­PRISING HIPPIE. DEATH OF HIPPIE END. FINISHED HIP­PYEE GONE GOODBYE HEH PPEEE DEATH DEATH HHIP­PEE. EXORCISE HAIGHT ASHBURY. CIRCLE THE ASHBURY.  FREE THE BOUNDARIES.  OPEN EXORCISE. YOU ARE FREE. WE ARE FREE. DO NOT BE RECREATED. BE­LIEVE ONLY IN YOUR OWN INCARNATE SPIRIT. BIRTH OF FREE MAN. FREE SAN FRANCISCO. INDEPENDENCE. FREE AMERICANS. BIRTH. DO NOT BE BOUGHT WITH A PIC­TURE, A PHRASE. DO NOT BE CAPTURED IN WORDS. THE CITY IS OURS. YOU ARE ARE ARE. TAKE WHAT IS YOURS. THE BOUNDARIES ARE DOWN. SAN FRANCISCO lS FREE NOW FREE THE TRUTH IS OUT OUT OUT.” And, at the bottom, according to the prophe­cy of October 6, 1966, the day the California LSD laws came into effect, the Declaration of Inde­pendence was re-declared.

Saturday morning the little windows in the parking meters up and down Haight Street were all painted white, and the faithful gathered before dawn at the top of the hill in Buena Vista Park to greet the sun. The sun rose on time, and they rang bells and breathed deeply and ex­haled OM, the first sound in the Universe. Then the pallbear­ers lifted the 15-foot coffin, to be  filled with the artifacts of hip, and bore it down the long hill to the street. They paused to kneel at the crossroads of Haight and Ashbury and brough the coffin to rest for the moment in front of the Psychedelic Shop, which had a huge sign reading “BE FREE” in place of its famous mandala. Then the elated mourners swept the street in preparation for the procession at noon.

At noon a huge banner was stretched across the street. It read “DEATH OF HIPPIE, FREEBIE, BIRTH OF THE FREE MAN.” (The Chronicle had dubbed the reincarnated hippie a “freebie” in a story on Friday, but later apologized). The coffin was carried to the Panhandle, where more news­papers, beads, fruit, cookies, posters, flowers, and buttons were added to the remains. A banner was held up reading “The Brotherhood of Free Men is Born.” And, as the proeession began, the crowd sang Hare Krishna, but slowly, as a dirge.

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The Procession

The procession moved slowly down the Panhandle towards Golden Gate Park. First came a legion of photographers, walking backwards, and then the coffin, over ten struggling pallbearers, and then a hippie laid out on a stretcher, holding a flower to his chest, and then about 200 mourn­ers, some in elaborate costume, some shaking tambourines, some carrying babies, some dodging cameras. When it reached the park the procession turned left, now with a police escort, whose job seemed to be to keep the procession jammed onto the side­walk. Six blocks later they turn­ed left again, hauling the coffin up the steep hill on Fredrick Street, and at the top of the hill, they turned again on Ma­sonic Street, which goes steeply down hill, to complete the circle of the Haight. The coffin picked up speed as it moved downhill, the photographers jumped to get out of the way, and dead hippie squirmed to stay on the stretcher. And then halfway down the steep Masonic Street sidewalk, their path was blocked.

A Cadillac had been left parked in a driveway.

The funeral procession came to a crushing halt, and the police escort — a lone cop — sauntered over and began to write out a parking ticket.

“Move the car.” someone yell­ed. The owner wa1ked out of the house and began to argue with the cop.

“Hassle him later,” they yell­ed. “Move the car!”

The cop gave the man a tic­ket, and the owner returned to his house. The Cadillac remained in the driveway, and the pallbearers were groaning.

At which point the cop consent­ed to let the procession bypass the car in the street.

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The End of the Line

The procession ended where it began, in the Panhandle. The hippie on the stretcher rose from the dead, looking punchy, and the banners, were used to kindle a fire under the huge coffin. The flames took to it quickly and rose ten feet in the air as the crowd cheered. They danced in a circle around the burning coffin and the cameramen and, and as the fire died down, free men began to leap over the flames. Then the crowd gasped with horror as they saw the fire engines approach.

“The remains!” someone yelled. “Don’t let them put it out!” The crowd blocked the firemen and spokesmen argued with the   chief as his men readied their hoses. When the hoses were ready, the crowd parted, and the coffin disappeared in a monster cloud of spray and black smoke. The fire was out in seconds, and the firemen moved in with shovels to break apart the smouldering remains. A few diehards were still arguing with the chief, but the mourners had already begun to wander off.

Saturday, the Chronicle reverently reported that the Hippie was dead, but by Monday they were back in business again, with their daily quota of copy from the Haight. The banner re­mained strung across Haight Street for a week, as a reminder, and the Psychedelic Shop was closed and boarded up, and the parking meters were cleaned of the white paint. But the kids still panhandled and sold news­papers and lounged in the door­ways, and the occasional tourist still gawked from behind the locked doors of his car. Nothing bad changed. It was all the same.

But an exorcism is a subtle thing, and some of the dejection that plagued the Haight in the wake of the Summer of Love did appear to be gone. When a phalanx of 14 cops swept down Haight Street Tuesday in a daylight raid to net runaways, the community responded with vigor and outrage and, despite threats by Police Chief Cahill, the raids were not repeated. The heat was on and the Haight kept cool.

Within a few weeks, the Switchboard was out of debt and danger, and a series of well-attended benefits brought a generous reserve of funds into  the coffers of the clinic, which reopened in late October. The Straight Theatre, which was denied a dance permit by an ever-harassing city, held huge “Dance Classes” (for which permits are not needed) to the accompaniment of the Grateful Dead. And the Diggers were delivering free meat to communes and distribut­ing 5000 copies of a 20-page free magazine called “Free City.”

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The Free City

The elders now harbor hopes that San Francisco will indeed become a “free city.” If any city can, it can, but it must be born, not made. The hippie was made but the community called Haight-Ashbury was born, and it was a virgin birth — an evolution­ary experiment and experience. It was beautiful, I am told, in the golden age before the Human Be-In which awoke the media to the precious copy lying untapped on the south side of Golden Gate Park. “Were you here a year ago?” people ask. If you were, then you know.

But then the seekers came en masse, enticed by the media. “They came to the Haight,” a handbill relates, “with a great need and great hunger for a loving community. Many, wanting to belong, identified with the superficial aspects of what ‘hip­pie’ was. They didn’t drop out but rather changed roles.

“As a result the tone of Haight-­Ashbury changed. With many people coming in expecting to be fed and housed, the older com­munity tried to fulfill their needs. Rather than asking them to do their thing, the community tried te give them what they came for. The community tried to be some­thing it wasn’t.

“The early members tried to save the community and as a re­sult it began to die. It began to die because in the effort to save it the individuals lost themselves. Without individual selves the community started to become a shell with little within; to maintain the community feeling, meetings replaced relationships and organization replaced com­munity.

“By the end of the summer we were forming organizations to save something that no longer existed. Community is a creative thing and saving is only a hold­ing action. By desperate clinging, we lost.”

They lost, but they learned.

 

Categories
Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Martin Luther King on Anti-Semitism

Martin Luther King on Anti-Semitism
September 28, 1967

Mr. Morris B. Abram, President
American Jewish Committee
165 East 56th Street
New York, New York

Dear Mr. Abram:

I am in receipt of your letter making inquiry of SCLC’s position on anti-Semitism. First, let me apologize for being rather tardy in my reply. Absence from the city and the accumulation of a huge volume of mail account for the delay.

Serious distortions by the press have created an impression that SCLC was part of a group at the Chicago Conference of New Politics which introduced a resolu­tion condemning Israel and unqualifiedly endorsing all the policies of the Arab powers. The facts are as follows:

1. The staff members of SCLC who attended the conference (not as official delegates) were the most vigorous and articulate opponents of the simplistic resolution on the Middle East question. As a result of this opposition, the Black caucus modified its stand and the convention voted to eliminate references to Zionism and referred to the executive board the matter of final wording. This change was the direct result of the spirited opposition on the floor by Hosea Williams, Director of Voter Registration and Political Education of SCLC. Incidentally, I only attended the conference to make the opening speech and left immediately after. I had no part in planning the structure or policy of the conference, nor was I a delegate. If I had been at the conference during the discussion of the resolutions, I would have made it crystal clear that I could not have supported any resolu­tion calling for Black separatism or calling for a condem­nation of Israel and an unqualified endorsement of the policy of the Arab powers. I later made this clear to the press, but a disclaimer seldom gets the attention that an original sensational attack receives.

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2. SCLC has repeatedly stated that the Middle East problem embodies the related questions of security and development. Israel’s right to exist as a state in security is incontestable. At the same time the great powers have the obligation to recognize that the Arab world is in a state of imposed poverty and backwardness that must threaten peace and harmony. Until a concerted and democratic program of assistance is affected, tensions cannot be relieved. Neither Israel nor its neighbors can live in peace without an underlying basis of economic and social development.

At the heart of the problem are oil interests. As the American Jewish Congress has stated, “American policies in the Middle East have been motivated in no small measure by the desire to protect the $2,500,000,000 stake which U.S. oil companies have invested in the area.” Some Arab feudal rulers are no less concerned for oil wealth and neglect the plight of their own peoples. The solution will have to be found in statesmanship by Israel and progressive Arab forces who, in concert with the great powers, recognize that fair and peaceful solutions are the concern of all humanity and must be found.

Neither military measures nor a stubborn effort to reverse history can provide a permanent solution for peoples who need and deserve both development and security.

3. SCLC has expressly, frequently and vigorously denounced anti-Semitism, and will continue to do so. It is not only that anti-Semitism is immoral — though that alone is enough. It is used to divide Negro and Jew, who have effectively collaborated in the struggle for justice. It injures Negroes because it upholds the doctrine of racism which they have the greatest stake in destroying. The individual Jew or gentile who may be an exploiter acts out of his greed as an individual, not his religious precepts. Just as a criminal, Negro or white — is expressing his anti-social tendencies — not the ethical values of his race.

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On the general question of anti-Semitism, I would like to quote a few paragraphs from my recent book Where Do We Go From Here:

“One fact is decisive for perspective and balance: the amount of anti-Semitism found among Negroes is no greater than is found among white groups of the same economic strata. Two polls cited by Professor Thomas Pettegrew and a very recent study in depth conducted by Dr. Oscar Lewis arrived at this same conclusion. These revelations should allay the alarm that has arisen from exploitation and exaggeration of the issue by some white and Negro publicists whose appetite for attention exceeds their attachment to truth and responsibility.

“The question that troubles many Jews and other concerned Americans is why oppressed Negroes should harbor any anti-Semitism at all. Prejudice and dis­crimination can only harm them; therefore it would appear that they should be virtually immune to their sinister appeal.

“The limited degree of Negro anti-Semitism is substantially a Northern ghetto phenomenon; it virtually does not exist in the South. The urban Negro has a special and unique relationship to Jews. On the one hand, he is associated with Jews as some of his most committed and generous partners in the civil rights struggle. On the other hand, he meets them daily as some of his most direct exploiters in the ghetto as slum landlords and gouging shopkeepers. Jews have identified with Negroes voluntarily in the freedom movement, motivated by their religious and cultural commitment to justice. The other Jews who are engaged in commerce in the ghettos are remnants of older communities. A great number of Negro ghettos were formerly Jewish neighborhoods; some storekeepers and landlords remained as population changes occurred. They operate with the ethics of marginal business entrepreneurs, not Jewish ethics, but the distinction is lost on some Negroes who are maltreated by them. Such Negroes, caught in frustration and irrational anger, parrot racial epithets. They foolishly add to the social poison that injures themselves and their own people.

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“It would be a tragic and immoral mistake to identify the mass of Negroes with the very small number that succumb to cheap and dishonest slogans, just as it would be a serious error to identify all Jews with the few who exploit Negroes under their economic sway.

“Negroes cannot rationally expect honorable Jews to curb the few who are rapacious; they have no means of disciplining or suppressing them. We can only expect them to share our disgust and disdain. Negroes cannot be expected to curb and eliminate the few who are anti­-Semitic, because they are subject to no controls we can exercise. We can, however, oppose them and have, in concrete ways. There has never been an instance of articulated Negro anti-Semitism that was not swiftly condemned by virtually all Negro leaders with the support of the overwhelming majority. I have myself directly attacked it within the Negro community, be­cause it is wrong. I will continue to oppose it, because it is immoral and self-destructive.”

Let me thank you for writing, and also for your consistent support. I realize that this letter is long, but I hope it will shed some light on what can be an unfortunate misunderstanding.

Sincerely,
Martin Luther King Jr.

Categories
Equality From The Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES

When Love Comes to Town: Martin Luther King in Harlem

The Coming of a King: A Charismatic Moment
June 22, 1967

Everyone was waiting for the Lord.

Martin Luther was coming to the meeting and nobody was about to miss him. A Negro wo­man who looked like she spent her life getting stuck behind the fried chicken platter at the church so­cial and doing the dirty work for the block party was having none of that nonsense Wednesday. The red rose on her crocheted hat vi­brated with her determination. She informed the person beckoning her to sit at the card table and check names that she had come to hear Reverend King, and then walked on by.

She passed through a door de­corated with leaning men. The huge man who was acting as bouncer-in-reverse had been unsuccessful in getting the men to come in and sit down. Despite his frantic signaling that seats were available, none of them wanted to give up the chance to be the first to see the coming of the Lord.

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On the wooden chairs set up around the room, women in $2 house dresses and beads were turned at a 30-degree angle to watch the door. Using programs folded accordion style instead of pastel fans with pictures of Christ, they managed to turn the chandelier ballroom of the Hotel Roosevelt into a Baptist Church.

Not all the faces were black, some were Puerto Rican. Few were white. Emptying bedpans is not a high-priority white job. And all the people in the room were hospital workers.

The official reason for the gathering of the 800 was a meeting of delegates of Local 1199 of the Drug and National Employees Union. In between taking turns checking the hall to see if the Reverend had arrived, they busi­ed themselves with union business and watched a documentary in which they starred.

The film was greeted with the jokes and applause of a home movie. Only home in this case was Harlem. Mrs. Cameron, the movie queen for the day, strolled past bars on 127th Street, past roach-crawling rat-infested tenements, past gutters filled with garbage and vomit, and explain­ed how the union had improved her life.

Mrs. Cameron wasn’t the only star. A black Santa and Robert Kennedy were greeted with great enthusiasm both in the film and by the audience. Santa won his supporters by being black and by giving out presents. Kennedy, as usual, didn’t have to do anything to wrap up the vote.

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The Lord appeared for the first time — on film. There was a great burst of applause. The applause was just as loud, but accompani­ed by laughter, when Malcolm-in-shades flashed onto the screen.

The difference was not in af­fection, but in conception. King is the father you depend on and try to live up to. Malcolm is the brother you pound on the back and take to a crap game around the corner.

At a point between flashes of union members singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and shots of their demonstrating with the Sou­thern Leadership Conference, the men standing in the doorway made a dash for the outer corri­dor. He was there. The image had been made flesh.

By the time the men reached the corridor, the reporters who had been perching like vultures on the mezzanine railing had already begun to circle the Reve­rend Martin Luther King with their microphones. They were hard at work doing the job they do best — playing one black group off against another.

“How come, Dr. King,” one of the newsmen asked, “the black nationalists weren’t invited to the unity meeting that set Cleveland up as the target city for the summer?”

“The meeting was for civil rights organizations,” Dr. King said. Then, healing the situation, he added, “That does not mean we won’t work with the national­ists and the Muslims in Cleve­land. We have already met with them and have a fine relation­ship.”

“Muhammed didn’t come to the mountain?” the newsman ask­ed, still trying to bait him. “No, not this time,” King re­plied. Not even bad jokes ruffled his calm.

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At this point, King’s disciples began hustling him toward a pri­vate room. He was almost in­visible in the center of the group. People seeing him for the first time standing among others were surprised that the Lord was such a little man.

Once word was out that he had reached the hall, no one even pretended to watch the film. There was a sense of great excitement, but muted. And when the door opened, and he came through, a great rush of people jumped to their feet clapping away. The “Hallelujah Chorus” would have been appro­priate to the mood of the moment as would “Lord, Hold My Hand While I Run This Race.”

He made his way with imposing solemnity to the center of the stage. The deep voice rolled out over the assembly. Its familiar cadence soared — evoking the shared experiences of his people, giv­ing them a sense of identity, restoring for awhile a feeling of wholeness. This was the commu­nion he supplied and they sought.

What he said was not important. It was the man who lent weight to the words. It was his presence felt, his integrity sensed. Such a man could make the telephone book seem like the gospel.

Still, what he said wasn’t un­important. He spoke of the nation’s problems of race and pov­erty, problems that are gigantic in scale and chaotic in detail. He noted that the friends who were with the Negroes in Selma are with them no longer. He defined black power as the ability to make General Motors and Washington say “yes” when they want to say “no.” He spoke of the war in the Mideast. He defended Is­rael’s right to exist and he pro­posed a Marshall Plan for the Arabs to ease the tension among the have-nots.

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Then, moving to the heart of his speech, he spoke of Vietnam — of the unjust war:

“Who appointed this country divine agent to the world?” he asked. “Who gave it the ar­rogance to try to fix up another country when it hasn’t put its own house in order? How can it expect its black soldiers to fight in brutal solidarity with whites in Vietnam and then come home and not be able to live on the same block with them?… Come home to Alabama and not even be able to be buried in the same ceme­tery with them?”

After every question, the audience responded. It was not just the church ladies: It was the young blacks standing along the aisles. It was the tough young kids who are one step from the street corners of Harlem — the kids who he had been least able to reach. They were the ones who were ap­plauding the loudest and shouting “Yes, Sir! Yes, Sir!” when he asked, “How come this country only worries about Vietnam? How come it doesn’t use its pow­er against South Africa or Rho­desia?” And they shouted again when he asked, “How come this mainly white country doesn’t stop bombing colored people?”

He stopped the questions. He started to unravel the thread of continuity of his convictions:

“There has been a whole lot of applauding in this country. People and the newspapers ap­plauded me in Montgomery when Negroes were killed and I urged people to be non-violent. They applauded me in Birmingham when Negroes were gassed and I urged people to be non-violent against Bull Connor. They ap­plauded me in Philadelphia after the bodies of the three were found and I urged people to be non-violent against Sheriff Rainey. Yet they damn me now when I urge people to be non-violent against little children in Vietnam.

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“Even tonight, a man came up to me and said that my talking against the war had hurt my leadership. He urged me to pull back from my position.

“My answer to him was: ‘Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I don’t determine my position by polls nor by what is safe or politic or popular, but by what is right. As for hurting civil rights by my position, the war has already done more to hurt civil rights than I could ever do by talking against Vietnam.’

“Despite the dismal picture both in and out of the country, the Lord has not been beaten down,” he assured them. “I have not lost faith. We have survived slavery. No war and no backlash is going to turn us around.”

And the people said, “Amen.”

“We shall overcome. No lie can live forever.”

And the people said, “Amen.”

“We shall overcome. This faith I have hewn out of our mountain of despair. We shall overcome.”

And, as he spoke, you knew he did believe. And so did the people. If he had asked them to walk on water, they would have. When he finished, they rushed forward to touch him, to shake his hand, to grab hold of a piece of his faith that would last them at least until they got back to 127th Street.