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CULTURE ARCHIVES FRINGE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

Abbie Hoffman: God-fool of Conscience

On behalf of political poet Abbie Hoffman reported ar­rested with friends and a group of Government men over three pounds of cocaine, I wish to share my thoughts:

First I bear witness to his special experience in the hon­orable cause of Peace Protest in the face of violent denial of human civil rights to citizens in America and out of it, especially during course of In­dochinese War activity foisted on this nation by Government. Abbie Hoffman has already been jailed many times for seeking, with peaceful fire and good humored street theatre and astonishing public drama, redress of grievances for the bad luck of the Vietnam War.

Reviled and insulted at first for articulating a now commonly held opinion of that war, he defended himself and others against defeated Gov­ernment accusations of con­spiracy, illegal speech, ges­ture, and public assembly in urging the War end. In this sit­uation he became a hero in a nation engulfed with moral catastrophe, and no man of any generation in right mind can be but grateful for Abbie Hoffman’s inventive national communication of the War’s madness and folly. I remain gratetul for his righteous indignation over the Vietnam War, the moral power of his deeply felt resistance to the injustice of it, and his demon­stration of free Imagination against mass complacency at the mass murder in which we were all involved.

Abbie Hoffman was one of the first souls in the nation to make consciousness sensitive to the Eichmann-like nature of our public War-guilt. Thus any legal case in which he is involved is a matter of deep political consideration, requiring special attention, straight heart judgment, and exquisite moral care that public resentment against him as god-fool of Conscience not crush him in present legal difficulty.

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We are now in midst of national scandal of Government misbehavior called Water­gate. High politicians preaching law and order were themselves habitually breaking Bill-of-Rights laws in the interests of the creation of some sort of police state. Patriotism was as usual the refuge of these scoundrels, who wrapped themselves in the language of the flag, in order to trash the Constitu­tion. This is an age-old pattern. Unauthorized wiretap­ping, spying, use of agents­-provocateurs and double agents, spooks, burglaries, police set-ups, official perju­ry, in-government conspiracy to deprive citizens of protection against excess government snooping and illegal infra-war activity, domestic surveillance of political en­emies — this pattern of Watergate crooked-heartedness was precisely the government pat­tern denounced prophetically by Abbie Hoffman.

Some of these same Watergate actors defamed and prosecuted Abbie Hoffman precisely for his vocal and theatrical resistance to their war machine. He too wrapped himself in the flag, threw free money off the balconies of the stock market, wrote forbidden words on his brow, woke the young to national disaster, and practiced exorcism of a black magic operating in the highest reaches of respectable government — illusory statistics, lying, public decep­tion, conspiracy mania even assassination in Vietnam, Operation Phoenix, confessed in public before Congress. Constriction by Government on his own liberty, such as wiretapping, has I believe been proven in court in the course of numerous trials by which the government tried to knock Abbie Hoffman and his peace friends out of action against War and growth of police state.

So I bear witness that Abbie Hoffman is not an ordinary citizen, member of a silent majority of Citizens compli­ant with 1984-style Bureau­cracy and acquiescent to remote-control war. Hoffman is a patriot who has fought the Good Fight to waken his fellow Americans to the cor­ruption of their own tradi­tional ideals. Like Tom Paine, he is a classic example of philosophic and poetic drama­tist of public Ideals, a pamph­leteer and book man, seeking liberty for his country and sanity on its government. His just causes were questions illegal war and police stale, not touched deeply by the courts, till late — they were touched deeply by Abbie Hoffman.

Thus his social position as a leader or theorist of new sur­vival society credits him with deliberation and reason. His present involvement with agents of Drug Bureaucracy over cocaine sale may be questionable, but so may be their involvement with Abbie Hoffman.

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In time of communal Apathy synchronous with Abbie Hoffman’s recent disil­lusioned withdrawal to pri­vate life (after crises of his public efforts to confound Government police bureau­cracy and war led him to be attacked left and right), Hoffman is now to be congrat­ulated on an arrest which by its very surprise, its simulta­neous whimsicality and seriousness, re-unites many of his fellow workers once again to resist the steamroller of police state Power crushing another live citizen’s body.

Hoffman’s arrest for co­caine dealing does not bear toward resolution of the real “hard drug” problem in America, in any way shape or form.

Government’s visioned sen­tence of life for Abbie Hoffman resolves no whit the real tormenting drug problem in America, but only adds more pain and hysteria to the scene.

What is the actual “hard drug” mess in America? Poli­ticians, police, drug bureau­crats, and criminal syn­dicates run wild over the public, and over sick junkies, against professional medical­-scientific advisement — greed and money is their addiction and violence and hypocrisy their works.

The real drug problem in America is that government narcotics bureaucracies and organized crime have had a status quo working relationship for decades. This ar­rangement denies legitimate opiate addicts reasonable access to their specific medi­cines. The black market for opiates consequently created serves to increase the number of addicts, not decrease it, serves only to increase the social disorientation of addiction, not cure it, serves to discredit helpless sick citizens, not minister to them. This arrangement increases the pain of addiction.

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This ar­rangement profits only Nar­cotics Control Agencies and Organized Crime Networks. Both depend on continued criminalization of addicts to maintain their comple­mentary parasitic existences. Both groups have grown with the growth of the black market they have created. In this situation the medically sick junkie is a victim, treated like a Jew under Hitler driv­en mad in the streets to seek relief from unendurable pain and social degradation im­posed on him by police bu­reaucracy and organized crime.

This moral and political running sore, uncured by self-­righteous anger at heroin addicts, further infected with hysteria by current draconian law, is opened afresh in an operation in which agents of the drug bureaucracy reveal themselves dramatically buying pounds of old Bohemi­an cocaine from Abbie Hoffman and friends. Cocaine in my experience is a drug neither hard nor soft, offering too short a flash for common use, too expensive for psy­chological habit generally, traditionally the sport of self­-indulgent millionaires more recently gaga rock stars.

The seriousness of punish­ment promised by vengeful prosecutors — one of whom characterized Abbie Hoffman’s hapless dabbling in cocaine as “insidious and treacherous as homicide”­ — opens up the great Drug Question — not so much of Hoffman’s legal or moral guilt, which notion is consider­able whimsical in fact. His ar­rest raises the publicly sup­pressed Drug Question: how can we endure longer the total insanity sadism incoherence and incomprehensibility of past and fresh present narcot­ics law politics? Hoffman’s arrest, by its own built-in heaviness of consequence, raises challenge to the entire fabric of law that confuses foolish sensational cocaine or serious philosophic psyche­delics as “hard drugs”, with the strong-habit-forming opiates and over-plentiful brain-cooking amphetamines. How dare Government bu­reaucracy impose penalties on use and sale of hard drugs for the last half-century without providing (as do other countries successfully) reasonably satisfactory easily ac­cessible medical services for the majority of addicts who now outnumber and for 150,000 reasons don’t fit into recent but limited scope of monolithic police-­bureaucracy-supervised methadone maintenance services?

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Beyond this colossal inflic­tion of pain on heroin-addicted citizens, present law perpetu­ates discomforting sanctions against marijuana use, contrary to the best counsel of reason and science codified into innumerable public re­ports, and contrary to vast community experience. By what unconstitutional pro­scription of liberty and pur­suit of happiness must the Drug Bureaucracy maintain its heavy criminal penalties for securing gardening and distributing sociable noncommercial quantities of help weed? What state violence is used to suppress herbal cigarette smokes? The soft drug situation remains undefined except by official presumption and violence, confused and complicated by law and crime where it might be simply free of law and crime but regulated as in other societies by common sense of situation.

This ken on Abbie Hoffman’s arrest doesn’t propose encouragement of co­caine spread — it does propose shock dismay and mental re­jection of the idea that life imprisonment for cocaine sale (with no eligibility for parole for 15 to 25 years, depending on pronouncement of the judge) to police is a sane response to the fact of cocaine and its elitist use in USA. Mandatory life for cocaine is neurotic, irrational, a hys­terical swipe at people’s souls, a Polyphemus body crusher punishment, a killer idea — it is not sober social response to cocaine usage and special problems, it is no help to old ladies in the street mugged by ignorant junkies conditioned to depravation violence and pain with police bureaucracy and mafia fattening on the illegality of addiction.

Life in Jail for anti-War Hero Abbie Hoffman and friends is National Folly. Threat of life behind bars for Hoffman over cocaine sale is not an image of Law and Order, it is an image of bu­reaucratic dictatorship and confusion, it is misrule and chaos, National Folly.

I pray with body speech and mind OM AH HUM for courts and government and public to recognize the strange delica­cy and historical charm of the situation in which they are placed together with peace poet Abbie Hoffman. ❖

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FRINGE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Remarks on Timothy Leary’s Politics of Ecstasy

‘Christmas in Earth’

By the late ’40s of this memory Century the people I knew best and loved the most had already broken through the crust of old Reason & were dowsing for some Supreme Reality, Christmas on Earth Rimbaud said, Second Religiousness according to Spengler’s outline of civilization declining through proliferation of non-human therefore boring technology; Blake had called “O Earth O Earth return!” centuries before, echoing the ancient gnostic prophecy that Whitman spelled out for America specifically demanding that the Steam-engine “be confronted and met by at least equally subtle and tremendous force-infusion for purposes of spiritualization, for the pure conscience, for genuine aesthetics, and for absolute and primal manliness and womanliness —” Ezra Pound’s mind jumped to diagnose the dimming of the world’s third Eye: “With Usura the line grows thick.”

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One scholar who transmitted Blake’s kabbalah, S. Foster Damon, can remember his sudden vision of tiny flowers carpeting Harvard Yard violet before World War One, an image that lingers over 60 years in mind since his fellow student Virgil Thomson gave him the cactus Peyote to eat. Damon concludes that rare beings like Blake are born with physiologic gift of such vision, continuous or intermittent. William James, whose pragmatic magic probably called the Peyote God to Harvard in the first place, had included shamanistic chemical visions among the many authentic “Varieties of Religious Experience.” His student Gertrude Stein experimented in alteration of consciousness through mindfulness of language, an extremely effective Yoga since mechanical reproduction of language by XX Century had made language the dominant vehicle of civilized consciousness; her companion Alice B. Toklas contributed a cookbook recipe for Hashish Brownies to enlighten those persons over-talkative in drawing rooms unaware that “the medium is the message.”

This synchronism is exquisite: William S. Burroughs also once of Harvard shared Miss Stein’s mindfulness of the hypnotic drug-like power of language, and collaborated on cut-up rearrangement of stereotyped language forms with friend Brion Gysin, who had originally given Miss Toklas the recipe for her famous Brownies. Burroughs among others had begun experiments with drug-shamanism after World War Two — for the author of “Naked Lunch” it was a pragmatic extension of his Cambridge interest in linguistic Anthropology. That same gnostic impulse broke through to clear consciousness simultaneously in many American cities: Gary Snyder realized the entire universe was alive one daybreak 1948 in Poland when a flight birds rose out of the tree stillness in a gully by the city river, a natural vision — The masters of the Berkeley Renaissance read Gertrude Stein aloud and practiced Poetic kabbalah (charming synchronism that psychologist Timothy Leary met poets Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan in that same 1948 student scene) — Neal Cassady drove Jack Kerouac to Mexico in a prophetic automobile to see the physical body of America, the same Denver Cassady that one decade later drove Ken Kesey’s Kosmos-patterned schoolbus on a Kafka-circus tour over the roads of the awakening nation — And the wakening began, some say, with the first saxophone cry of the new mode of black music which shook the walls of white city mind when Charles Parker lifted his birdflightnoted horn & announced a new rhythm of thinking, and extended breathing of the body in music and speech, a new consciousness. For as Plato had said, “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”

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The new consciousness born in these States can be traced back through old gnostic texts, visions, artists & shamans; it is the consciousness of our ground nature suppressed & desecrated. It was always the secret tale of the tribe in America, this great scandal of the closing of the doors of perception of the Naked Human Form Divine. It began with the white murder of Indian inhabitants of the ground, the theft and later usurious exploitation of their land, it continued with an assault on all races and species of Mother Nature herself and concludes today with total disruption of the ecology of the entire planet. No wonder black slaves kept for non-human use into this century in tear-gassed ghettos of megalopolis were the first Aliens to sound the horn of Change, first Strangers to Call the Great Call through Basilides’ many Heavens. Amazing synchronism again, that Mr. Frank Takes Gun, Native American Church amerindian Peyote Chief, invited the brilliantly talkative silver-haired psychiatrist who directed a Saskatchewan mental hospital in the early ’40s to participate in a Peyote ritual, and that the same Dr. Humphrey Osmond having recognized a wonder of consciousness thus experienced passed on the catalyst in Mescaline synthetic form to Aldous Huxley; and that Huxley’s 1945 essay on the chemical opening of the Doors of Perception found its way to the tables of Bickford’s Cafeteria Times Square New York & the couches of Reed College and Berkeley, where artist persons, having heard the Great Call of the Negroes, already initiated themselves en masse to subtle gradations of their own consciousness experienced while smoking the same Afric hemp smoked by Charles Parker Thelonius Monk & Dizzy Gillespie.

Dr. Timothy Leary takes up his part of the tale of the tribe in a Mexican hut and brings his discovery to Harvard harmoniously — and there begins the political battle, black and white magic become public visible for a generation. Dr. Leary is a hero of American consciousness. He began as a sophisticated academician, he encountered discoveries in his field which confounded him and his own technology, he pursued his studies where attention commanded, he arrived beyond the boundaries of public knowledge. One might hesitate to say, like Socrates, like Galileo? — poor Dr. Leary, poor Earth! Yet here we are in Science Fiction History, in the age of Hydrogen Bomb Apocalypse, the very Kali Yuga wherein man’s stupidity so overwhelms the planet that ecological catastrophe begins to rehearse old tribe-tales of Karmaic retribution, Fire & Flood & Armageddon impending.

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It would be natural (in fact deja vu) that the very technology stereotyping our consciousness & desensitizing our perceptions should throw up its own antidote, an antidote synthetic such as LSD synchronous with mythic tribal Soma & Peyote. Given such historic Comedy, who could emerge from Harvard technology but one and only Dr. Leary, a respectable human being, a worldly man faced with the task of a Messiah. Inevitable! Not merely because the whole field of mental psychology as a “science” had arrived at biochemistry anyway. It was inevitable because the whole professional civilized world, like Dr. Leary, was already faced with Messianic task of accelerated evolution (i.e. psychosocial Revolution) including an alteration of human consciousness leading to the immediate mutation of social & economic forms. This staggering realization, psychedelic, i.e., consciousness expanding & mind-manifesting in itself, without the use of chemical catalysts, is now forced on all of us by images of our own unconscious rising from the streets of Chicago, where teargas was dumped on Christ’s very Cross in Lincoln Park AD 1968. The drains are backing up in the cities, smog noise and physiologic poison in food turn us to insect acts, overpopulation crazes the planet, our lakes corrupt, old riverways become dank fens, tanks enter Prague and Chicago streets simultaneous, Police State arrives in every major city, starvation wastes African provinces, Chinese genocide in Vietnam, Alarm! Alarm! howls deep as any Biblic prophecy.

Ourselves caught in the giant machine are conditioned to its terms, only holy vision or technological catastrophe or revolution break “the mind forg’d manacles.” Given one by-product of the technology that might, as it were by feed-back, correct the berserk machine and liberate the invertor’s mind from captivity by hypnotic robots, Dr. Leary had in LSD an invaluable civilized elixir. For, as Dr. Jiri Roubichek observed early in Prague (“Artificial Psychosis,” 1958), “LSD inhibits conditioned reflexes.” And this single phrase, for rational men, might be the key to the whole gnostic mystery of LSD and Dr. Leary’s role as unique, alas solitary, courageous, humane & frank Democratic Boddhisatva-teacher of the uses of LSD in America. For he took on himself the noble task of announcing the evidence of his senses despite the scary contumely of fellow academicians, the dispraising timorous irony of scientific “professionals,” the stupidity meanness self-serving cowardice and hollow vanity of bureaucratic personnel from Harvard Yard to Mexico City to Washington, from the ignorant Sheriff’s office in Dutchess County NY to the inner greedy sanctums of the US Treasury Department in D. C., our whole “establishment” of civilization that defends us from knowledge of our own unconscious by means of policeman’s clubs, and would resist the liberation of our minds and bodies by any brutish means available including teargas, napalm & the Hydrogen Bomb.

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Dr. Leary conducted himself fairly & equitably, given the extremity of his knowledge; it took an innocent courage to explore his own unconditioned consciousness, to take LSD and other chemicals often enough to be well balanced in praxis as well as explanation, and to attempt to wed the enormity of his experience to Reason. An heroic attempt to communicate clearly and openly through civilized technologic media to his fellow citizens, despite centuries of identity brainwash accelerated now to mass paranoia and Cold War Apocalypse, required Dr. Leary the proverbial wisdom of serpent & harmlessness of dove.

Timothy Leary tells the tale of his tribe in book aptly titled “The Politics of Ecstasy,” & events enlarged since he wrote his book and chose its title charge the author’s handiwork with prophetic enormity. The battle of generations that erupted this year simultaneously in Prague, Chicago, Mexico City, Paris, New York (and Moscow underground) — everywhere the State’s electronic consciousness is interlinked — transcends antique battles of Cold War and Race. We witness planetary confrontation wherein controlling Elders trapped in a suicidal mechanical consciousness deploy their destructive technology against their own children in the streets of their own cities. ‘Tis Blake’s Urizen tormenting tender Los in Eternity! New generations have risen spontaneously with new consciousness and a mutant politics of flower power that is rooted in the ground of human consciousness itself: an acceptance of human identity as one with living nature on a living planet where all creatures are living God. The public philosophies and technologies of all civilized Governments at present are are at war with this God, and the planet itself is within decades of destruction. No wonder there is sudden appearance of Adamic hair. Eve walks naked in the streets; ancient body rhythm beat out thru the airwaves in eclectic mantric Rock from Bratislava to San Francisco, & youths ingest shamanic elixirs to recover consciousness of planetary Archetypes. Hare Krishna!

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One politic synchronism that concerns this text should be gossiped forth contextual. Timothy Leary quit public life to write a book in Mexico some years ago, but he was searched by Agents of Government as he went to cross borders, arrested for possession of some herb, and thus forced to interrupt his writing, return to public action, and defend his person from attack by the State. So he traveled to academies and lectured to the young, & thus he paid large legal fees required by the State & thus maintained an Ashram of fellow seekers well known in Millbrook. Agents of Government raided and repeatedly abused the utopia, whereupon Dr. Leary was obliged to be Dr. Leary and lecture more to raise money for his family of imprisoned friends. Agents of Government concluded this phase of prosecution with a piece of Socratic irony so blatantly echoing an old Greek injustice that the vulgar rhetoric of a Tyrannous State would need only be quoted to be recognized, were it not for the fact that these States are by now so plagued with Tyrannously inspired chaos and public communication so flooded with images of State Atrocity from the alleys of Saigon to the parks of Chicago that official public conscience here now, as memorably in Russia and Germany, is shocked, dumbed & amnesiac. I quote from the Spring 1968 State Document in any case for the delectation of gnostic Cognoscenti, that is to say myriads of the present young:

“To Hon. Edw. W. Wadsworth
Clerk, U.S. Court of Appeals
for the Fifth Circuit
Room 408 — 400 Royal Street
New Orleans, LA. 70130
“Re: No 23570
Timothy Leary vs United States of America

“… We are applying for an order from the District Court requiring the Defendant to surrender to the United States Marshal…

“The appellant continues his publicized activities involving the advocacy of the use of psychedelic drugs by students and others of immature judgment and tender years and is regarded as a menace to the community so long as he is at large …

Very truly yours,
Morton L. Sussman,
United States Attorney.

By: James R. Gough,
Asst. U.S. ATTY.
Chief, Appeals Research Division”

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Thus requesting revocation of Dr. Leary’s bail’d liberty while his political-religious defense for possession of an herb approached Supreme Court, Agents of Government checked further conversation with the young. The Millbrook Ashram having been simultaneously dispersed by Agents of Government his immediate financial responsibilities lightened, Timothy Leary retired back home to Berkeley with his mate and completed his description of “the Politics of Ecstasy.” ❖

1968 Village Voice article by Allen Ginsberg on Timothy Leary's Politics of Ecstasy

1968 Village Voice article by Allen Ginsberg on Timothy Leary's Politics of Ecstasy

1968 Village Voice article by Allen Ginsberg on Timothy Leary's Politics of Ecstasy

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES

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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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES

The Beats: Mailer Vs. Kerouac

Books: The Beats

The idea that Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer are mutually excludable from each other’s Beat Generation is, of course, one that is engendered by and subject to many doubts. Now, however, Seymour Krim dispels the idea entirely. At least, he finds both Kerouac and Mailer mutually includable in his Beat Generation, which he defines in broad proportions in his new anthology, “The Beats.” But actually Kerouac and Mailer have long been literary brothers, even if under each other’s skin. Which one founded the Beat Generation and which one merely found it is just a matter of semantics. Kerouac named it Beat and Mailer calls it Hip, but both have been equally perceptive and outspoken in their presagement, reporting, and defense of it, if not equally maligned.

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Mountains of Abuse

One has only to read the reviews of Kerouac’s works to see the mountain of abuse heaped on him. But one also has only to read his works to see the capability his soul has for suffering such abuse. “Kerouac is beautiful! Don’t you see that?” asks Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac’s close friend. “… I mean he has a real quality of soulful magician and artful kindness, a willingness to be talked to and communicate, even drunk, knowing the lie of fate — he comes through anyway — ” And it’s true. Despite a sensitivity of criticism which is painfully manifest, Kerouac continues to stand, unhidden, as he really is, in his writing and in his person, the butt of derision which comes from deep and rigid misunderstanding. Even in the face of the most hopeless and intransigent laughter, he presents his own true face, inviting more.

Mailer, although his own suffering is no less apparent, has the lingering reputation of a more traditional success to buffer him. Not that he is any less outspoken.

A Trend

In any event, Kerouac went on the road to discover that the Beatness he had encountered in New York has what the less ethereally inclined would call a trend. He found it everywhere that his thumb and various other vehicles would take him, and the distances he traveled are well documented. Kerouac’s discovery of the Beat Generation was at a grass-roots level, a term that seems strangely compatible with trend.

As for Mailer, although his research probably was no less empirical, it seems to have been at other levels. Perhaps it might be concluded that, in one way, Mailer found in his own mind what Kerouac found throughout America.

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First Wind

This does not detract from the value of either Kerouac’s “On the Road” or Mailer’s “The White Negro,” both of which were the first wind of a second revolution in this century, moving not forward toward action and more rational equitable distribution, but backward toward being and the secrets of human energy,” to borrow a phrase from Mailer. With due consideration given to John Clellon Holmes’ novel, “Go,” and his subsequent article, “This is the Beat Generation,” printed in the New York Times as long ago as 1952, it was these two works, “On the Road” and “The White Negro,” which were the first cogent explanations of the strange new Hip mysticism of the Beat Generation of any length and of any significant audience, (Ginsberg’s “Howl,” more of a manifesto, was something else again.) So close, in fact, were Kerouac and Mailer in their thinking that Kerouac, until he learned “The White Negro” was published prior to “On the Road,” considered Mailer’s work a precis of his own. But then Kerouac has had good reason for his anxiety over the proprietorship of his ideas. One of his most bitter complaints is that not only has his meaning of Beat been corrupted but his authorship of the term has even been challenged.

Kerouac and Mailer, of course, have been between the same sheets before. They appeared together in another anthology, “The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men,” edited by Gene Fledman and Max Gartenberg, which included “The White Negro” and selections from “On the Road.” Unhappily, but probably necessarily, “The Beats” doesn’t include “The White Negro.” Instead it includes a piece from “The Deer Park,” which is somewhat less than Beat in its message and much less in its style, but which is from a body of writing upon which Mailer is willing to stake his reputation with prosperity. (This seems to be a good point to note that “On the Road,” if it hasn’t already been recognized as a literary landmark, soon will. It is the turning point of the 1960’s.)

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The chief complaint against the Feldman and Gartenberg anthology was from the Beats themselves, who insisted that the selections were not entirely representative of them and, in some cases, misrepresentative. The same criticism might apply to Krim’s anthology. But then, one of the selections under attack is “The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Man” was that of Mailer.

The difficulty is that there are many who claim that they are Beat and many who claim they are not with equal emptiness. And then there are those like Chandler Brossard and Anatole Broyard who are neither Beat nor claim to be and who were included first in Feldman’s and Gartenberg’s book and who now are included in Krim’s. Brossard may have, as Krim says he has, “a cool eye.” Broyard may be, as Krim says, “a white-collar Beat.” They may both even be Hip. Certainly their writing make them see so. But the same might be said for J.D. Salinger and he’s printed in the New Yorker. 

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Best and Worst

Otherwise Krim presents some of the Beat writing such as selections from Kerouac’s “Visions of Cody,” and some of the worst, such as Dan Propper’s “The Fable of the Final Hour.” It is “Visions of Cody” alone that might make the book worth its 35 cents, although “Cody” will soon be out in its entirety, as all of Kerouac eventually will. “Visions of Cody” is his greatest book, according to his own opinion, and its music is testimony to the verbal inventiveness and virtuosity of Kerouac, which all too few among Kerouac’s all too many readers seem willing to acknowledge. In the circles of reviewmanship, Kerouac is continually compared to hashed Wolfe or reheated Faulkner, and yet the range and variation of style within his remarkably growing bookshelf is just as remarkable. (It would seem that the differences among, say, “On the Road,” and “The Subterraneans,” “Dr. Sax,” and now “Visions of Cody” are even more obvious than the similarities.) Not only that, but there is a grace, a majesty, and a tenderness to his language, even in Hip talk, that is abjectly lacking among many of the younger Beat emulators, such as Propper. Kerouac is not along in his command of words; Ginsberg and Corso are similarly commanding. Even Burroughs, with his unredeemed style, is, too. It makes no difference that both the inspiration and the content of this literature is of an intuitive, emotional, and mystical nature. For these who love language, it is still literature.

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There are other portions of “The Beats” which in themselves are well worth the book’s 35 cents. (My God! For 35 cents, how could you go wrong!) Ginsberg, Corso, Holmes, Lamantia, Bremser, Snyder would be more than worth the price even without covers. And Diane Di Prima’s contribution is especially overwhelming. (The selections from Burroughs and Ferlinghetti, however, seem somewhat random.) And Krim provides a new eye. There has been some comment about his own comments, offered at the beginning of each selection. But those are short notes written by a man who says that Beatness has liberated him from himself, or at least from his psychoanalysts, and he proves this freedom with his language. Why should he be denied his own vision? ■

1960 Village Voice article about the Beat writers

1960 Village Voice article about the Beat writers

Categories
From The Archives From The Archives Protest Archives THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Chicago 1968: Blood, Sweat, & Tears

A Visit to Chicago: Blood, Sweat, & Tears
September 5, 1968

CHICAGO — At half past midnight last Tuesday, the occupants of Lincoln Park were stormed by the Chicago police. It was not the first day, nor was it to be the last, that the Old City­ — the Lincoln Park area — had come under attack. During the previous two nights the Mayor’s ordinance to clear the park by 11 p.m. had been vigorously enforced with nightsticks and tear gas.

Around midnight on Tuesday, some 400 clergy, con­cerned local citizens, and other respectable gentry joined the Yippies, members of Students for a Democratic Society, and the National Mobilization Committee to fight for the privilege of remaining in the park. Sporting armbands decorated with a black cross and chanting pacifist hymns, the men of God exhorted their radical congregation to lay down their bricks and join in a non-violent vigil.

Having foreseen that they could only wage a symbolic war with “little caesar Daley,” several enterprising clergymen brought with them an enormous wooden cross, which they erected in the midst of the demonstrators under a street lamp. Three of them assumed heroic poses around the cross, more reminiscent of the Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima than any Christ-like tableau they may have had in mind.

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During the half-hour interlude between the arrival of the clergy and the police attack, a fascinating debate over the relative merits of strict non-violence versus armed self-defense raged between the clergy and the militants. While the clergy was reminded that their members were “over 30, the opiate of the people, and totally irrelevant,” the younger generation was warned that “by calling the police ‘pigs’ and fighting with them you become as bad as they are.” Although the conflict was never resolved, everyone more or less decided to do his own thing. By then the demonstrators, some 800 strong, began to feel the phalanx of police which encircled the park moving in, even the most militant forgot his quibbles with “the liberal-religious sell-out” and began to huddle together around the cross.

When the police announced that the demonstrators had five minutes to move out before the park was cleared, everyone went into his individual kind of panic. One boy sitting near me unwrapped a cheese sandwich and began to stuff it into his face with­out bothering to chew. A girl standing at the periphery of the circle who had been alone all evening walked up to a helmeted boy with a mustache and ground herself into him. People all over the park were shyly introducing themselves to each other as if they didn’t want to die alone: “My name is Mike Stevenson from Detroit; what got you into this?” I heard someone asking behind me. Others became in­creasingly involved in the details of survival: rubbing Vaseline on their face to keep the Mace from burning their skin, buttoning their jackets, wetting their handkerchief and tying it over their nose and mouth. “If it’s gas, remember, breathe through your mouth, don’t run, don’t pant, and for Christsake don’t rub your eyes,” someone thoughtfully an­nounced over the speaker. A boy in the center of the circle got up, stepped over his seated friends, and made his way to­ward the woods. “Don’t leave now,” several voices called in a panic. The boy explained in embarrassed tone that he was just going to take a leak.

Sitting in a cluster near the main circle, Allen Ginsberg, Jean Genet, William Burroughs, and Terry Southern were taking in the scene. Ginsberg was in his element. As during all moments of tension during the week, he was chanting OM in a hoarse whisper, occasionally punctuat­ing the ritual with a tinkle from his finger cymbals. Burroughs, wearing a felt hat, stared va­cantly at the cross, his thin lips twitching in a half smile. Genet, small, stocky, bald-headed, with the mug of a saintly convict, rubbed his nose on the sleeve of his leather jacket. I asked him if he was afraid. “No. I know what this is,” he replied. But doesn’t knowing make you more afraid, I asked. He shook his head and started to speak when the sky fell on us.

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It happened all in an instant. The night which had been filled with darkness and whispers ex­ploded in a fiery scream. Huge tear gas canisters came crashing through the branches, snap­ping them and bursting in the center of the gathering. From where I lay, groveling in the grass, I could see ministers re­treating with the cross, carrying it like a fallen comrade. Another volley shook me to my feet. Gas was everywhere. People were running, screaming, tearing, through the trees. Something hit the tree next to me, I was on the ground again, someone was pulling me to my feet, two boys were lifting a big branch off a girl who lay squirming hyster­ically. I couldn’t see. Someone grabbed onto me and asked me to lead them out of the park. We walked along, hands out­stretched, bumping into people and trees, tears streaming from our eyes and mucus smeared a­cross our face. I flashed First World War doughboys caught in no man’s land during a mustard gas attack. I couldn’t breathe. I felt sure I was going to die. I heard others choking around me. And then everything cleared.

Standing on the sidewalk at the edge of the park I looked back at a dozen little fires which lit up the woods, still fogged with gas. The police were advancing in a picket line, swatting at the stragglers and crumpled figures; huge trucks, usually used for cleaning the streets, swept to­ward us spraying more gas. Kids began ripping up the pavement and hurling snowball-size chunks at the truck windows. Then they flooded out into the streets, blocking traffic, fighting with plainclothesmen who awaited our exodus from the park, and bom­barding hapless patrol cars which sped through the crowds.

The ragged army split up into a series of mobs which roamed through the streets breaking win­dows, setting trash cans on fire, and demolishing at least a dozen patrol cars which happened to cruise down the wrong street at the wrong time. Smoke billowed from a house several blocks from me and the fire engines began arriving. A policeman ran from an angry brick-throwing mob, lost his cap, hesitated, and ran away without it. At the inter­section of Clark and Division, four cop cars arrived simultan­eously and policemen leapt out shooting in the air. From all four sides the demonstrators let them have it; most of the missiles were overthrown and hit their com­rades or store windows on the other side of the street. Diving down into the subway, I found a large group of refugees who had escaped the same way. The tunnel looked like a busy bomb shelter; upstairs the shooting continued.

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***

Everyone knew that Wednesday was going to be the big one. Rumors circulated among the police that a cop had been killed in Tuesday’s “white-riot.” The demonstrators had their own beef: not only had they been gassed and beaten, not only had one of their leaders, Tom Hayden, been arrested twice on tramped-up charges of inciting to riot, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and letting the air out of the tires of a police vehicle, but the police had also broken into their community centers up near Lincoln Park.

Finally, the demonstrators were also set on marching to the Amphitheatre where what they called the Convention of Death was going through the motions of nominating Hubert. Crossing the bridge from the park in front of the Hilton to the bandshell in the middle of Grant Park, dem­onstrators filed into their seats listening to the prophetic words of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changing.” The police had already surrounded the park, the National Guard held all the bridges leading across the railroad tracks to Chicago’s downtown Loop area, and helicopters filled the skies like hungry mosquitoes.

The Mayor had been good enough to circulate the announcement telling the demonstrators that they were wel­come to stay at the bandshell all day and enjoy themselves, but that no march on the convention would be tolerated. His instructions, however, were apparently too subtle for his henchmen who saw the demonstrators as the enemy and couldn’t wrestle the idea of a truce into their image. Accordingly, when a demonstrator replaced the American flag with revolutionary red, the police became incensed at the unpatriotic slur and moved in to restore decency and the American way of life. (Jerry Rubin, accused of “soliciting to mob action” and out of jail on $25,000, says that one of the demonstrators who claims to have taken part in the lowering of the American flag was his personal bodyguard, assigned to him by the Mobilization. The same young man later turned out to be an under cover agent who had been keeping Rubin under surveillance.)

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In the police charge which was ostensibly aimed at lowering the red banner, the police went con­siderably out of their way to crack the skull of Rennie Davis, spokesman and leader of the Mobe, along with four or five others who had been sitting on their benches in the open air au­ditorium listening to anti-war speeches by Vietnam veterans and the ever present Phil Ochs. Medics scrambled over broken benches (later used as ammuni­tion against the police) in a display of greater enthusiasm than efficiency. Within minutes the program continued as if nothing extraordinary had occurred.

“The merchants of death are try­ing to make themselves present in the delivery room of our movement,” Carl Oglesby, once chairman of SDS, screamed over the microphones as the police withdrew to the periphery of the crowd. Hayden, furious at the indifference with which people learned that Davis was “stretch­ed out,” exhorted the People’s Army to break up into small groups and invade the streets of the Loop, “to do what they have to do.” Some of the hard heads followed him, but the vast ma­jority of the demonstrators stay­ed with Ginsberg who was or­ganizing a non-violent march to the Amphitheatre.

Rennie Davis and Tom Hayden, trailed by Hayden’s “bodyguard”

While Genet, Burroughs, and Southern chose to stay with the marchers, Norman Mailer pro­vided brief comic relief when he made his excuses, saying that he would not march because he was writing a long piece about the convention and demonstration, and that he couldn’t write it from jail. “But you’ll all know what I’m full of if I don’t show up on the next one,” Mailer said with his characteristic hurumph for emphasis after the last word in the key sentence. Mailer ended by comparing the Chicago demonstrators favorably with those he had written about at the Pen­tagon march last October.

Once outside the bandshell and onto the sidewalk of a highway which runs through the park, the marchers were immediately halted by a line of Guardsmen who blocked the route. Seeing a confrontation emerging, hundreds of newsmen rushed to the front of the line to be in on the action. Instead they formed a protective barrier between the troops and the demonstrators, a pattern which was to be repeated frequently during the next two days. After hours of frustrating negotia­tions which led nowhere, the demonstrators moved in a block toward one of the bridges which lead back to the Hilton. It too was barricaded with troops as were the next four bridges, where tear gas was used to keep the demonstrators from try­ing to break through.

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Most of us got across the fifth bridge and joined the mule-drawn covered wagons of the Poor People’s Campaign which were headed for the Hilton. Michigan Avenue, for the first time in anyone’s memory, clearly belonged to the people. There was a sense of victory and momentum as the mob of some 8,000 to 10,000 people converged on the Hilton. Everyone was still sneezing and spitting from the gas, but they felt high at having out-foxed the police who had clearly meant to isolate them in the park or split them up before they got to the Hilton.

A police line across Michigan Avenue on the doorstep of the hotel finally halted the march and people began to mill around, undecided on the best strategy.

Finally the police solved the problem by taking the initiative. To put it neatly, they decided to clear the street. In the pro­cess of allowing for the circula­tion of vehicular traffic they sent some 300 demonstrators to the hospital with split skulls and broken banes. When the charge came there was a stampede toward the sidelines. People piled into each other, humped over each other’s bodies like coupling dogs. To fall down in the crush was just as terrifying as facing the police. Suddenly I realized my feet weren’t touching the ground as the crowd pushed up onto the sidewalk. I was grabbing at the army jacket of the boy in front of me; the girl behind had a strangle-hold on my neck and was screaming incoherently in my ear.

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Across the street, the other half of the crowd was being squashed against the walls of the Hilton. The pressure was so great that a plate glass window shattered. Terrified demon­strators were pulled through the window by a Life correspon­dent and a sympathetic waitress who gave them instructions as to where they could hide. Within minutes police piled into the hotel to protect the clientele by beating the protesters senseless in the plush conidors of the Hilton.

Outside, demonstrators were being peeled off the wall one at a time, sprayed with mace, beaten, and occasionally arrested. More forays by the police into the park across from the hotel sent people headlong into trees. During one of these maneuvers I watched a medic throw himself over the bloody head of a demonstrator — like a GI clutching a live grenade to his gut. When I saw him emerge from the fracas, the medic’s head was in a worse state than the patient’s.

By 10 p.m. the National Guard had pinned one group in the park in front of the Hilton and pushed the other two groups north and south down Michigan Avenue. A paddy wagon was caught in one of the mobs and demonstrators started rocking it back and forth in an attempt to overturn it. A busload of police got to them before they succeeded.

Down the side streets groups of 50 to 100 demonstrators broke off from the main action to disrupt the town. They moved quickly, leaving a trail of overturned garbage and shattered glass in their wake. Chased by police, they would split up and reform with other groups. One contingent, calling itself the Flower Cong, was particularly well organized and effective. I was following them up State Street when I caught sight of a blonde girl, a member of the Resistance, whom I’d talked to earlier in the day. I caught up with her just as the street filled up with cops. We turned to run in opposite directions and I lost sight of her until it was all over. Having seen that the police had blocked both ends of the street, I took refuge in a drugstore with several others. When I came out she was trying to sit up in the street, blood soaking through her hair, running down her chin and neck, and collecting in her collar. A car stopped and offered to take her to the hospital, so I carried her over and laid her out in the back seat. The car owner wanted to put news­paper under her head so she wouldn’t stain the seats.

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My hotel was nearby so I decided to go up and get rid of my shirt which was covered with her blood. At the main entrance I was stopped by a security guard who wouldn’t let me in. I showed him my key but he still refused. After two similar rebuttals I was finally allowed to sneak in the back entrance and up the service elevator. “We don’t want you walking around the lobby like that,” one of the hotel police­men advised me. Up in my room I turned on the tube just as Daley was being asked by an interviewer if there was any evidence of brutality. Outside my window I could hear screams. I opened the shades and leaned out as the police pinned a bunch of demonstrators against the wall of the hotel. From the window above me someone heaved a roll of toilet paper and screamed “Pigs.” When the street cleared, four bodies were lying in the gutter. Daley’s voice droned on about how he had received no indication of police brutality.

Later that evening the McCar­thy delegates, having lost the football game, as one Flower Cong put it, joined the demonstrators in a dramatic candle-light procession. It was irrational but I hated them. I hated them for having come to the blood fest late. I hated them as I hated every necktie in the Hilton. I hated them not because they had tried to win the football game, but because their very presence among the real demonstrators co­opted and made respectable the blood and snot that speckled the streets of Chicago. The earlier crowd, the scruffy-hippie-commie-beatnick-agitators, were the ones who had exposed the military backbone of the liberal system. It took blood to prove to the prime time viewers that Civil Rights, the right to dissent, the right to assemble, the right to pass freely in the streets, the right to be tried before being clubbed, were all okay as long as you didn’t actually try to use them.

The delegates were received with mixed feelings. Outwardly almost everyone welcomed them, even those who earlier had shout­ed “McCarthy is not enough.” They represented a kind of vin­dication of the demonstration. In addition they lent respectability and a certain amount of protec­tion to protestors who had been kicked around for five long days. But in spite of this there was a feeling among most of those who had been initiated by violence that the support of the delegates would only be tolerated as long as the movement in the streets remained the property of those who had grown and suffered with it.

***

Wednesday was the bloody catharsis, Thursday was farce. There is a certain credible na­ture about a policeman’s nightstick which inspires a kind of de­fiant respect. But a tank is hard to take seriously. I know a lot of people who cracked up when they saw the tank sitting in the middle of the street pawing at the pavement like a lost rhinoc­eros who has wandered out of the jungle into the city by mistake. Mortars, flame throwers, machine guns, and bazookas, who are they kidding?

Standing in line, waiting to be arrested in Thursday’s march to Dick Gregory’s house, I happen­ed to end up next to a very stoned young couple groping at each other and taunting the troops with their sexual freedom. “Fuck don’t fight,” the young man pleaded with the troops as he fondled his woman. A black army medic finally responded with a smile, “Is it true that all you people run around with­out any clothes on up in Lin­coln Park?” Then the jokes were over and they turned on the gas. Four times in all until they had pushed us back to the Hil­ton. Then another three times in front of the Hilton just in case the TV crews had missed any­ thing.

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The absurdity of the police and military over-reaction to the demonstrators had been driven home to me earlier in the day when I was stopped by five po­licemen under the tramway on Wabash Avenue. One of them grabbed me and looked at my press credentials, making some wise-assed remark about the hip­pie underground press from New York. His buddies laughed and I thought I was going to be let go. ”Let’s see your underarms, kid,” my interrogator said. Earlier in the week I had heard some Yips complaining about a similar request, but I never had figured out why anyone wanted to check their pits. Taking my jacket off I held my hands over my head thinking that maybe this was the new slang for “reach for the sky.” But that wasn’t it. They wanted me to take off my shirt, and when I refused they ripped it under both arms and by God they checked my armpits. Satisfied, I guess, that I wasn’t carrying either concealed weapons or drugs, they chased me away with a warning. After that nothing sounded too absurd.

Walking past a group of Guardsmen who were resting up for their next stint of duty, Ab­bie Hoffman, a Yip leader, was being razzed about his appear­ance. Finally, without a blink, Hoffman walked up to one of them and said, “Hey listen, I’ll lay a nickel bag that you guys could whip the cops any day of the week.” A pensive look came across the trooper’s face.

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Jack Kerouac’s Long and Winding Road

Jack
April 1995

“Yes boy got your big letter and in the midst of big wild mad events too so that I haven’t had time to answer it as immediate­ly as I’d might want to (sic)… a good great raving letter full of snowballs snowbells flowers, boles of flowers, love, life, Charley Parker, you’re alright.”
— To John Clellon Holmes, October 1955

And so strange it is to finally be reading these letters, even attempting to write about them, almost four decades after I first tried imitating them without even hav­ing read them, inspired wholly by that first reception of On the Road 1957. Reading Kerouac it’s easy to imagine you’re in the writing chair. In that racing Road book there are these guys writing long letters full of detail to their friends in the night (“fam­ous of self,” as Kerouac once said). Up late to cop the scoop on what just happened, was still to happen, jumping through all the embroiled participants. Made sense to me. I was hooked on the mutual jazz connection. Little did I know what kind of new being I was becoming, exactly how he was hatching me as a writer. And sometime later a bass player friend would always say before the gig, “Let’s go into that Great American Bop Night!” and howl with maniacal glee. Yes.

Kerouac’s books are so close to letter form anyway, even if not usually expressed in the I-to-you mode of Vanity of Duluoz. The first person seems already a form of address, the I needing a you, if only imagi­nary, to tell it all out to, complete the ener­gy jump. Letters, novels, poems, all of a piece in the fairly seamless pattern, a pro­cessing of the daily jot. In a letter to John Clellon Holmes (1952) he says, “don’t you ever dare think I would ‘put off’ writing to you when what I actually do is practice… my letters to you.” We now know that he kept carbons of many of his letters, use­ful later as memory banks for his writings.

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Kerouac’s is not a style. It is a practice. So it has to do with, and must be discussed in terms of, the momentary. Fleets of the passing, speed and its velocities, Thelonious Monk’s “I laid it down, you got to pick it up,” the use of peripheries and the parenthetical in its leaps. He made me realize how fully temporal the act of writing must be. Kerouac is a go-for-it writer, not a puz­zle-paster. He’s from the wrong class, too working-folk to be smoothly admitted to the elites of academy and prize, no careerist of any planned or practical sort. He doesn’t fit and he never will. Here (U.S.A.) he’s thought of, if at all, as a sort of naive con­fessor or sociological curiosity, elsewhere (say, France) he’s not even taken seriously as an artist (a sort of latter-day “Red Indi­an”). To me, he contains or at least suggests everything I would ever want of, or think to do in, a book. For, isn’t it all about freedom finally anyway?

Over 600 pages one has the pleasure of stretching out through all the broodings, reactions, angers, and glees of those years, the embodied meditations and exaspera­tions of bared spirit, mind-flashes there’s no time to say any other way. Book access at such length now places Kerouac in the company of those writers whose volumes of letters may be read straight through with profit as complete works in themselves. Flaubert, Rilke, Beckett (as will no doubt be shown when his letters to Thomas McGreevey are published at last), H.P. Lovecraft, and most recently William Burroughs come easily to mind.

The bulk of the letters in this first of two volumes comes from the period: late ’40s to mid ’50s, his most intense writing years, about three-fourths of his major books com­posed then. The main correspondents here being Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Carolyn Cassady, his edi­tor Malcolm Cowley and literary agent Ster­ling Lord. Unfortunately missing are the let­ters to Ed White, his Denver architect friend (only one, previously published, is includ­ed), a correspondence starting in the late ’40s and continuing to the end of Kerouac’s life. I recall White saying, at the On the Road Conference in Boulder, 1982, that he had a big book of letters from Jack all ready to go but so far couldn’t get the nod from Jack’s widow to proceed (a 50-page selec­tion of these letters has just appeared in the current issue of The Missouri Review).

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Here he is in some of the earliest letters (1941) arguing his serious youngman self of idealism and plan, his steadfast lifelong holding to youthful dreams (later, in 1955, to Ginsberg, “Don’t you remember your babyhood concerns any more?”). “I’m hitch­hiking home Thursday (6th) casually and poetically” with “no trees to sing for me.” And in 1943, “I have devised new plans for my life” (so many plans throughout these writings). And already, “I have grown to hate rhetoric — or attempts at it — why don’t men devise new ways of communication?”

In the summer of 1949 (after finishing his Wolfean investigations of The Town and the City) he writes from Denver the full­-blown letter to Holmes which ranges from reports on how cowboy families view all the class-C westerns and “in their conversations they continually make allusions to ‘Roy’ and ‘Dale Evans’… just as we make allusions to Dostoevsky and Whittaker Chambers,” to his belief in the “Rattling Trucks, where I don’t have to explain any­thing, and where nothing is explained, only real, REAL REAL, see?,” eventually com­ing to the buddyhood Lowell staging of a kiddie boxing match where a voice imitation (B-a-a-a-a-a!) of the preround buzzer proves the complete irrationality of every­thing from Shakespeare and Celine to “all my serious passages in On the Road.” This is essential text time here! In fact there’s a Melvillean elaboration of On the Road (one of his many Road versions) quoted in a letter to his New School professor Elbert Lenrow, same year, full of lines like “of course men in bed do grow tender and full of wonder, some child-comprehension steals their hammered iron wits,” “quiver­ing with the quivering motion of the earth they could feel spite of steel and shelved suspension” (the men are in jail). And all throughout the late red afternoon light “al­ways a symbol to me of my childhood soli­tariness” and of his very birth, which even­tuates into the red neons of saturday citynight source of mystery and maturity, so central to his visions.

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From November 1950 to January 1951 there’s a run of letters to Neal Cassady which comprise almost a whole 60-page no­vella wherein you see him rehearsing out of childhood memory in Lowell time, and of course with extensions to the present religious and sexual, so much of the writing to come. The book is worthwhile just for the ur-workings of these.

Through all these letters he’s battling out just what is “Fiction” and what it might be simply to “tell,” and how much of all that is dream or is it reality-remembered? His breakthroughs in memory-writing will eventually lead to the use of a line so tensile it can react at speed to the slightest varia­tion in the memory-chords he’s blowing his present-time melodies over. He’ll develop an instinct for just which words sink into the furthest backgrounds and which ones bring the writing right up to the surface present. “Like Proust,” but American, so quicker, “more instant and interesting.” And overall the writing has a “real-time” feel I sometimes think only the gonzo writ­ers (R. Meltzer at his Gulcher peak, Hunter Thompson on the Nixon trail) really picked up on. The sense too that you could write about anything, doesn’t matter what, with the expansiveness of Kerouac’s unceasing line. Something all poets speeding across time’s drop-offs well know.

The angry rant letter to Ginsberg, but really to everybody in Kerouac’s writing arena at the time (October 8, 1952), has to be one of the exemplary outbursts of writ­er’s pain in the literature. He is so like the Céline he loved here. No matter the disturbance of mental surface, his spirit remains bright. The explosion happens, then clears. It had been, as Holmes says, “an expression of localized pain,” and “there was no mean­ness in him.” A month later he is writing to Allen, “you are very nice to understand my writings. I felt honored.” And, speaking of John Holmes, there’s a special feeling in Jack’s letters to him, of a tender eloquence, shared jazz and bookly concern, and writ­ing-buddy regard. From the letter (sadly not included in this collection) to Holmes (June 1952) which moves from musings on the mysteries of the Doctor Sax universe through exigency woes of the writer’s life and concludes paralleling his with Wilhelm Reich’s fate (“he will die in disgrace, pover­ty and loneliness. It will happen to me.”) to a later letter where he concludes “John­ — Please stay my friend thru life, it’ll be long and dark,” you feel the strong emotion of comradely stability (also found in his friendship with Ed White in the West).

In January of 1953 he announces to Neal Cassady, “In Mexico, after you left, I in 5 days wrote, in French, a novel about me and you when we was kids in 1935” — “it’s the solution to the On the Road plots, all of em.” I must have this book! Occasionally in these letters Kerouac will reveal the name of a previously unknown work (like “The Long Night of Life,” The Imbecile’s Christmas, or Hold Your Horn High), making you wonder and wait. Did these remain separate works, completed or no, or were they sub­sumed into the later books that we know? I wish Charters had annotated some of these mysterious but practical matters.

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Shakespeare arrives as well, he lurks in the Kerouac line over the time of his books anyhow, a quality little noticed by critics of the nod. A 1956 letter to poet Philip Wha­len, “in Shakespeare’s time they didnt know what autobiographical naturalism was, and well for us, we dont know what spontaneous writing is… How else can you spit forth yr. intelligence? In meats, in par­cels of meats? In wrappings? in hesitations, in bean-pots, in hooks and hams and ahems and holes of thought? in hems and haws?” Here he’s been reading the Bard while writ­ing Visions of Gerard, an influence particu­larly noticeable there. Was it especially Henry V? In an earlier letter to Ginsberg he had quoted from the play, “[w]hose blood is fet from fathers of war-/proof!” and then commented, “wottaline!” His great essay, “Shakespeare and the Outsider” (included in Good Blonde & Others), makes plain their kinship in lines like “wrote in an in­spired hurry what he immediately heard sound-wise while his steeltrap brain kept shutting down on the exigencies of plot and character in that sea of ravening English that came out of him.” Eloquence. And, to Ginsberg re Howl, “the first spout is the only spout, the rest is time’s tired faucet.”

It becomes sorely apparent as these let­ters progress through the many stages of On the Road revision that this book became in many hard-born ways his cross to bear. Forced, either by his own lights or the pres­suring of his book-mill editors, to rewrite it so many times, he had to create Visions of Cody (using much of the same material) to get some of his own back, to get back into his own stream of developing writing safe­ly away from the cookie cutters of the indus­try. All through the early ’50s you see them pestering him to tangle his perfect books together and make up a “seller” he rightly rejects (“I dont care”). To Sterling Lord, January 1955, “publishing to me (the big kind like Town & City) is like a threat over my head.” April 15, 1955, to Neal Cassady, “for the rest of my life, I’m dedicating my­self to enormous artistic labors, for better or worse, I dont give a fuck whether it brings me riches or nothin… it’s the work itself, I want, want to see the ordered sen­tences typed up neat on perfect pages under a soft lamp, wild prose describing the world as it raced through my brain and cock once…” But they keep pressing and prodding, making him rush around gath­ering permission signatures from all the persons in Road, even though he’d long since changed all their names (was libel so much easier to prove in those years?). Then in a letter to Sterling Lord (October 1956) re a request that he make “minor changes throughout” (what a hideous threat phrase!), this time in The Subterraneans, he says, “I only want to stress, however, that… we do not dare touch the rhythm of that prose and those sentences; I assume they want to remove objectionable words, I will replace them with words of similar sonic rhythm. I don’t want a repetition of, as in the case of ‘The Town and The City,’ letting an editor change a good big book into a mediocre shorter book.” “Tell Don Allen ‘Doctor Sax’ is a master-piece as it stands, and ‘Visions of Gerard’ suits me as it stands. As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.” “I’ve been through every conceivable disgrace now and no rejection or acceptance by pub­lishers can alter that awful final feeling of death — of-life-which-is-death.” How like a stab to the heart then his final comment of that letter: “Dear Sterling, excuse me my convictions.”

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But he was so aware of his abilities and accomplishments always. Even as his clos­est friends quibbled over his every advance: “A lot of people say I don’t know what I’m doing, but of course, I do.” Every time he comes up with a new book “they revert & start in, re-saying, ‘He doesn’t know,’ but then it will be proven all over again with disastrous boring regularity, of course I know what I’m doing.” It’s painful to realize that as Jack hung out through the early ’50s in the literary bars of New York City with writers who regularly abused him for non-­accomplishment, maybe half a dozen people had so far read the beauties he’d already written but not yet published, and so were able to see him in his true light. To Philip Whalen, March 1956, “I’m amazed you dont seem to realize that I’ve already writ­ten so much I’m afraid to go on for fear of being a windbag” — “a huge lifework already accomplished” — “so that I’m really a weary old writer now and I’m amazed that nobody knows it, except possibly Allen and Will Lee and Cowley and Giroux.” And the same year to Sterling Lord, “I just keep turning out manuscripts like a machine/ and they just keep flying away into the void…/what other writer can keep this up and not go crazy/like I’m about to do?/It’s been going on such a long time/it doesn’t seem like/accidental neglect anymore.” How terrible that he knew this.

The collection ends on the hinge of 1957, the year of On the Road’s publication and submission to America’s most mad commercial judgments, making me ponder the eve of its first review when, as Joyce John­son so perfectly and terrifyingly puts it in Minor Characters, “Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life. The ringing phone woke him the next morning and he was famous.” The next volume of Kerouac letters will show how he went on, neverthe­less, into the shock and the blear.

There are some problems with this edi­tion that I have to mention, many having to do with just what Ann Charters chose to remove from these letters. There are, by my count, 171 deletions over 600 pages of text, and as these gaps mounted up over my reading through the book, I began to wish that Charters had given the reader some indication as to the nature of her pruning. In fact I think she owes the reader such an explanation. As several of the letters have appeared previously, apparently in their en­tirety (or at least more completely), I was able to compare the texts and could see the little consistency or reason in her deletions. Sometimes what she might have considered a gratuitous insult to a perhaps still living person has been removed, while another such remark has been left to stand, some­times later on in the same letter and even referring to the same person (!). Then there are senselessly annoying gaps, as in the let­ter to Ginsberg concerning a visit to poet Philip Lamantia, “but I was disappointed in Neal that night for not at least digging (…).” Much less frustrating if she had left the whole passage out? She has torn great rents in the “Rattling Trucks” letter to Holmes, leaving out the whole marvelous “America is an Egyptian land” section, and others including his great comment about how “the dividing line between seriousness and unseriousness is almost unknown, and is where our best knowledges take flower.” In the big Buddhist instructional letter to Ginsberg, a passage of several pages of great interest regarding Kerouac’s juggling of Christianity and Buddhism is missing, a removal seemingly with an eye to little more than space limitations. This sort of surgery (combined with notational errors like Charters’s misplacement of his “Satur­day Night Red Neons Making Me Think of Chocolate Candy Boxes in Drugstores” in the early cafeteria-sketches section of Vi­sions of Cody rather than where it belongs in the later “Neon Heart of Saturday Night” section, one of the wellsprings of his work), all this, as I say, becomes even more troubling in light of rumors that the Sam­pas family has dictated considerable cen­sorship of the letters prior to publication. Whether this be true or not, the book as it stands betrays shoddy treatment of a man who believed in hiding nothing, and whose statement “What a man most wishes to hide, revise, and un-say, is precisely what Literature is waiting and bleeding for” graces the jacket copy of this very volume.

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Viking Portables… My image is of Frank Sinatra just off the bus home from the war in Some Came Running; he takes them out of his duffel bag and in his fur­nished room and places them in a line on the dresser top, Hemingway Faulkner Dos Passos Wolfe, he’s going to be a big novelist and show everybody. So it is some justice that Jack Kerouac is finally being included in such company, only sad that this didn’t happen in his lifetime, a chance to external­ize his pride. Charters has chosen perhaps the more popular of the two obvious schemes for organizing such a reader, a chronological series of excerpts from his life story as fictionalized in the books. While this may go easier on the reader, I don’t think it serves Kerouac’s work as well as a trip through the changes in his writing life, the lifeline of a writer thus showing forth as the history of a mind. The late John Clellon Holmes, to whom this volume is dedicated and who gets the credit for originating the idea of a Kerouac reader (with Jack’s ap­proval), seems to have leaned toward this second organizational method. At the On the Road Conference in 1982, he said: “If you read the books in the sequence in which they were written, then you are watching the evolution of the writer’s consciousness as it changes in real time.” It seems to me (maybe my bias as a writer?) that there is a richer focus provided in looking at the life detail through a succession of writing acts, the movements of a delving consciousness, rather than by the opposite method of see­ing the writing always in terms of the more “reader-friendly” life-story approach. It’s as if Charters has tried to tweak Kerouac into at last becoming the plot-driven writer that the critics of his time disparaged him for not being, to the detriment of the more complex and strange Jack Kerouac visible in the orders of his writing life. Plot, after all, was not central to his purpose, but memories of character and place and thing were. It’s entirely too simple to conclude, as Charters does, that “he considered him­self an old-fashioned storyteller.” See the 1954 letter to his editor Robert Giroux: “I’m now going to endeavor to write pure narrative… but new narrative, unplanned, ored up from the bottom of the mind, orgas­mically rushing from the center out.” That ellipsis is not only his own but it strongly illustrates (in real time) how his mind’s complexities would never let him settle for “story.”

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An alternative arrangement according to the order of writing would also avoid the awkward back-of-the-bus sections here labeled “On Buddhism,” “On Bop and the Beat Generation,” or “Poetry.” (Come on! His whole project was poetry.) How much more magnificent an architecture might ap­pear, starting with a section from his earli­est novel, The Sea Is My Brother (does the manuscript still exist?), and moving through some of his vast Wolfean sound­ings of the Martin family, then on to a selection from the early On the Road manu­scripts (why are unpublished sources not brought to bear here? Would not the estate permit?). A succession of Road changes might have shown some considerable writ­ing differences: the Melvillean version cited above, etc. (In fact a collection of all the On the Road manuscripts in the order of their writing would make a useful study volume à la The Waste Land or Howl.) Then on into Visions of Cody and Doctor Sax practically simultaneously (the red sun of his birth memories leading seamlessly to the red neon heart of his adult adventures), “The Railroad Earth” in its entirety, and on through the third-person framings of the Maggie book, the Dostoyevskian explora­tions of The Subterraneans, and the begin­ning of the “Blues” sequences (“San Fran­cisco Blues,” Mexico City Blues, and beyond). Why not include also parts of Some of the Dharma in illustration of his serious Buddhist interests? Then some chapters from Visions of Gerard placed next to his “Shakespeare and the Outsider” essay, to show Shakespearean language ef­fect on the writing of Gerard. Then how about some of “Berkeley Blues” standing next to the Berkeley section of Desolation Angels featuring Jack’s mother and Philip Whalen? Plus Old Angel Midnight next to “The Scripture of the Golden Eternity” (both written in the same notebook). Then perhaps the full Pull My Daisy narration, followed by some “Big Trip to Europe” sad­nesses leading into the crack-up writing of Big Sur, the later genealogical concerns of Satori in Paris and “Among the Iroquois,” and concluding in the “nothing ever came of it” darknesses of Vanity of Duluoz. All with the pertinent letters, shorter poems, and notebook entries interspersed. Not too spare an alternative design?

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Again, there are enough sloppy errors throughout her commentary to raise severe doubts as to the degree of Charters’s commitment to a full realization of Kerouac’s genius. But what really got to me was a passage in the “Editor’s Introduction” where­in she manages somehow to casually insult both Kerouac and his readers. Here’s what I mean: “Perhaps it is poetic justice that few of Kerouac’s readers can claim to have finished all the books making up his Duluoz Legend.” (She’s previously cited Philip Whalen as saying that Jack never finished reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but how can she possibly know or claim such a failure on the part of Kerou­ac’s readers?) “As with Proust, there are just too many words” (in Joyce too, right? And didn’t Coltrane play those overly long solos? etc., etc., etc.). “Who has the time to sit down and plow through [my emphasis] the dozen books comprising Kerouac’s saga?” Who, you have to ask? Only those of us who couldn’t wait upon reading On the Road to go on and read all of his work (and each book many times) and still can’t wait for the unpublished rest of it all to be re­leased to us, who will always treasure our fascination with all facets Kerouac, whose lives and senses and works have been trans­formed by his brilliance and so don’t need it reduced by explication or framed in disin­terest, who read anyway to attain the direct ecstatic connection and not to occupy some backseat of abstraction, who love and re­vere him with no reservation, no need to meddle or to judge, and who take him seri­ously entire, as the magnificent artist that he will remain.

“Ah me, John, but, but, but — it will all end in love I promise you. Another letter follows. Because I am thoroughly exhaust­ed. Sweet John. Soon. Wait for my next letter… Write. Forgive — give — cry­ — wait — Jack.” ■

JACK KEROUAC: SELECTED LETTERS 1940–1956
Edited by Ann Charters

Viking, $29.95

THE PORTABLE JACK KEROUAC
Edited by Ann Charters

Viking, $27.95

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Jack Kerouac: ‘The Night and What It Does to You’

Jack Kerouac: ‘The Night And What It Does to You’

October 30, 1969

LOWELL, Massachusetts­ — Jack Kerouac, the man who unwillingly named a generational sensibility and wrote an American classic, died on Tuesday, October 21. He was buried here on Friday, October 24, and I went up with mingled feelings (warmth, regret, a patronizing curiosity, an obscure kind of longing to pay homage) to witness his funeral.

I traveled by plane to Boston, and then by a commuters’ train the 26 miles to the small manufacturing town of Lowell where Kerouac grew up, and from which he continually, repeatedly bolted for the whole of his life. I decided to walk the mile or so from the station to the Church of St. Jean-Baptiste where Kerouac was to be buried. I wanted to look the town over and think a bit about what he might have seen on these streets.

It was a brilliant, very cold, very clear day, and the four and five-story buildings of brick or stone that lined Lowell’s narrow streets looked cut out against the cloudless blue sky; the sun danced, the air sparkled, the distant trees tossed their yellow and red and brown leaves and it seemed especially indecent that Jack Kerouac lay dead 10 or 20 blocks from where I now walked. What I found most remarkable in the town was the friendliness of the people. The garbage man said “Good morning, dear” and didn’t ogle me; a grocery delivery man said: “Oh, it’s a day for your mittens, dearie!” and laughed in the sun; a waitress in a diner gave me coffee and we talked for 10 minutes about how we were both getting colds, the weather was changing so suddenly; the counterman strained to give me exact directions to the church and in the end offered to take me over there himself.

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The church, on Merrimack Street, one of the large arterial streets of the town, was enormous, a testament to the position and prosperity of the French Canadian Catholics of Lowell, among whom Kerouac came of age: massive gray stone, lots of stained glass, statues in carved draperies, steep steps. I was early, the church was locked; but the rectory next door was open and I was made welcome there by Father Armand Morissette, the priest who would later deliver the eulogizing mass. He offered me coffee and proceeded to talk briskly and smilingly about Kerouac.

“Yes, Jack grew up in this church; he always came back here, always. He called me Father Spike; he said one day he would write a book named ‘Father Spike.’ But he never did. You know he used to come here often for comfort and for consolation and yes, we had many, many fine talks, Jack and I. You know, he had a real spirit, Jack did. He had such a zest for life; he understood that the universe belongs to each of us, not all of us, but each of us. And after all, that’s what Jesus Christ was all about, wasn’t He? Yes, Jack and I had lots of talks, lots of talks. Right here in this room.” I listened silently to the good father and noticed, curiously, that he wore a toupee.

In the rectory hall stood a man with a red face, a bulbous nose, a raincoat, a pad of lined paper, and a pencil. I introduced myself and he said he was from the Boston Globe. “Say, kid, what the hell is this all about? I mean, you know who any of these famous writers are who are supposed to show up? Can you point them out to me? I mean, I’m strictly a cops-and-robbers reporter myself.” I said sure, I’d point them out to him, and he agreed to drive me over to the funeral home where Kerouac’s body was laid out, and where the mourners were now all gathered.

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The funeral home was named Archambault and the street was Pawtucket. It was interesting and, of course, ironic that Kerouac had written of this street often; it had been the center of the distant and wealthy “town” he had had no part of and had resented so heartily and so complexly; now the street’s aloof mansions had been turned into French-Canadian and Irish funeral parlors and he was being buried out of one of them. I walked under a canopy extending from the curb to the door, up wooden steps, and onto silent, heavily carpeted floors filled with standing wreaths and standing mourners. At the end of the double room in which we all stood the open casket containing Kerouac’s body was placed, with two carpeted steps for kneeling in front of it. Couches and chairs were scattered, with people sitting on them, and others milling all around before them. The crowd was almost entirely composed of family and friends from Lowell. I realized there were two distinctive kinds of faces there: sharp-featured Northern faces, and sallow, drooping-eyed faces; I remembered then that Kerouac’s last wife was a Greek woman from Lowell, and realized that many of these people must be her relatives, as well as Kerouac’s. What was most interesting, however, was the resemblances rather than the differences among the people present. Nearly everyone there looked so well-fed. They generated the atmosphere of neat, decent, fairly prosperous burghers who have worked hard and steadily for what they have and whose lives are now in order. I was reminded, irresistibly, of the democratic and impersonal friendliness I had found in the town’s streets; I felt it everywhere in this room. It was hard to imagine, with all this composure, that these people had really known Kerouac; but then I remembered the funerals of my own family and I realized, resignedly, that of course they were probably all intimate relations.

Only one person in that room had upon her face that terrible, unmistakable confusion that deep and genuine grief causes. She was a middle-aged woman sitting on a couch in the seat nearest the casket. Her face, utterly void of makeup, was worn and sallow; behind rimless glasses her eyes were terribly anxious; her hair was short and gray, her dress black and long; she sat sort of hunched forward, responding distractedly to the procession of faces that bent, one after another, over her. At first I thought it was Kerouac’s mother, but quickly changed my mind; his mother was supposed to be really old. (I learned later that hie mother was hopelessly bedridden in St. Petersburg, Florida. It had been utterly out of the question, her coming up to Lowell to help bury her devoted son.) Was this woman a relative of his wife? Which one was his wife, anyway? Well, whoever she was, there was no doubt that she had loved Kerouac, and felt his loss keenly.

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On the other side of the room, and at the other end of the casket, were two chairs together, separated from the rest. On them sat Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, hands folded quietly on their laps, gazing intently at the casket. They looked calm and good, as though their emotions were in order, and they at peace; I had been told by Father Morissette that the night before they had placed a wreath of flowers upon Kerouac’s body, and that they had knelt and wept. Ginsberg’s long hair and beard were pressed neatly down; he wore a pair of chinos and a navy blue nylon parka and clasped a worn-looking woven Greek bag. Neither he nor Orlovsky appeared to have aged much in the last 10 years.

And then there was the casket. And in the casket Jack Kerouac. I walked across the room, took a deep breath, and stood beside the open box. Kerouac lay there, hands folded, eyes closed, dressed in a white shirt, a little bow tie, a hound’s-tooth jacket. His black hair was cut short and neatly combed aside. His face was a waxen cosmetic mask that bore no resemblance whatever to the appearance of a human face; in fact, it looked as though beneath the makeup and the rouged lips and cheeks there was surely some plastic composition, such as a mannequin in a window display might be made of. What can I say? He was hideous to look upon. He had been stripped of all his ravaging joy. They had turned him into what they probably thought he should have been all along: a decent, properly dead Lowell businessman.

I retreated into the open hallway and stood looking at the big guest book propped on a lectern; a man beside me began to talk to me; he was Joe Chaput, a proofreader for the Lowell Courier and an old, old friend of Kerouac’s; in fact, it was Chaput who had driven Kerouac and his wife and mother down to St. Petersburg the year before.

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“That was some trip,” Chaput said, “I drove all the way; Jack used to say there was only one driver in the world better than me, and that was Neal Cassady. We spread mattresses across the back of this station wagon and Jack’s mother and his wife spread out on them; and me and Jack in front. He talked and drank all the way down. Talked and drank. Never stopped. God, he was great.”

Chaput turned and introduced me to a large crowd of neat Northern faces over big bellies inside tweed overcoats; they were all Kerouac cousins; they shook my hand vigorously and smiled warmly. And then, suddenly, there was John Clellon Holmes in the crowd. Holmes had known Kerouac for more than 20 years.

“Were you shocked by Kerouac’s death?” I asked him.

“God, yes,” he said.

“Surprised?”

“No. Not really. The man drank so damn much. He’d get lonely. He was always living where nothing was happening, no one to talk to. But then, he seemed to want to be alone … ”

Gregory Corso appeared, in a long black coat and a black Indian headband around his black black hair, and threaded his way through the relatives, his eye pressed to one end of a big black camera with a snout a foot long. He moved in and out, he knelt, he hovered, he leaped back and forth, getting old Jack’s funeral responsibly on film.

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After a while, Ginsberg was sitting alone. I went over to him, introduced myself, and sat down next to him. He said to me:

“Have you talked to Mrs. Kerouac?”

“No. I don’t even know who she is.” He pointed to the grieving middle-aged lady I’d been watching. “That’s her,” he said.

“Oh!” I said. “Oh, no. I couldn’t go over to her.”

“Why not?” he eyed me coolly. “You’re a reporter, aren’t you? Well, that’s your job. Go over to her. Ask her about him, ask her what he’d been thinking about in the last month, what he’d been talking about. Other­wise you’ll have nothing but your own subjective impressions.”

I felt a sudden astonishing warmth toward him. I wanted to put my hand on his shoulder and feel his blue nylon back cupped within my arm, so firmly, so neutrally, so decently, did I feel him to be instructing me. But I did neither: I did not embrace Ginsberg and I did not disturb Mrs. Kerouac, although I did say hello to her. But when I looked into her miseried eyes I thought: O God, what could she possibly tell me? What correcting truth could she bestow on me?

And then suddenly everyone was leaving; it was time to bear the body to the church and begin the high Catholic mass celebrating the salvation of Jack Kerouac’s eternal soul. Ginsberg, one of the pallbearers, remained behind. Outside, I looked around for a ride, and entered one of the black limousines when the driver beckoned me forward. It turned out to be the family limousine, and I was wedged in between the driver and Mrs. Kerouac’s brother, while in back of us sat Mrs. Kerouac, her sister-in-law, and three Kerouac cousins. Mrs. Kerouac’s brother spoke dolefully and sincerely of Kerouac all the way to the church; he spoke of how Kerouac had been Lowell’s true biographer, of how every street in the town had had meaning for him, of how Kerouac’s life crossed the three main cultural strands of Lowell: he had been French-Canadian himself and had loved Irish Maggie Cassidy as a young man and then had married Greek Stella Sampas, this man’s sister. Behind us, his wife kept nodding eagerly at nearly every sentence; she was a well-endowed brunette in her middle 40s with a black pillbox on her head and a mink collar on her coat. She spoke smilingly of how crowded the town had become and how she had written something about it, and then one of the Kerouac cousins said: “You write too, don’t you?” and very quickly she said: “Yes, I do.”

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I heard her speaking for a few furiously fast seconds to Mrs. Kerouac, saying something like: “She’s going to write it … ,” then silence. I didn’t know what to make of it or what to do. Finally, I twisted around in my seat and said miserably: “Mrs. Kerouac, is there something you’d like to say to me?”

She looked so startled, the wretched woman. “No,” she said softly, bitterly. “There’s nothing I want to say.” And she stared relentlessly at the floor of the car until we pulled up to the church.

Inside, the 200 or so of us were scattered throughout the cavernous church. I sat down between the two Boston reporters there, and noticed Jimmy Breslin, looking burly and penitent, sitting directly in front of me. The priest began his mass. He read from St. John the Blessed in the Book of the Apocalypse: “They shall rest from their labors for they shall take their works with them.” And the mass went on and on; and they shook incense out of ornamental gold shakers; and then the lovely aching sound of Catholic voices raised in the sweetness of pure lament; and then the priest spoke again, this time in English; and then, again, the healing singing. And suddenly in the midst of the whole thing I had the unmistakable feeling that Kerouac was hovering somewhere, in the air above our heads looking down on all of us, sort of embarrassed, sort of bewildered, and saying: Jeezus, what’s all this got to do with  me? And I thought: God, yes! Where are you, Kerouac, in all this? What are you doing here among middle-class businessmen and pontificating priests and Jewish gurus and patronizing intellectuals and cops-and-robbers reporters? Where are you, you poor dislocated bastard, in this elaborate appropriation of Jack Kerouac: the Man and the Myth?

And Kerouac answered me sadly: Oh, I’m a little here. That’s the whole trouble. I’m a little here.

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* * *

In “On the Road” Kerouac’s narrator, Sal, explains why an affair he’s having is bound to end: “Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer except my own confusion.”

Sitting there in that church I remembered the passage and I felt then that that was what Kerouac was all about until the last day of his 47 years. And that, also, was why he was a “little here,” and why all these people could claim him in death as they had claimed him in life, and why he stood still and smiled, and let everyone pick at him for a while, and he even feebly picked back, because it gets so lonely, so damn lonely out there with the falling stars and the confusion, and a man needs to feel a part of things; but ah, then it would be no good at all, and he’d get off by himself and go leaping across the continent and get roaring drunk and those fabulous yellow Roman candles would burst again and then he’d come back, always back. And that compulsive lusting after life went restlessly on and on and on, and when he lost the will or the strength or the taste for it, he lost everything, because Kerouac was one of those men in whom the proportions are mixed just a bit differently than in the rest of us. In him that youthful lunging after sensation was wider, deeper, fuller than in most men; it filled him up and left no room for aging and for moderation; as a result, his youngmanhood was a metaphor for the entire adolescent sharpness of response; all that he had in the way of courage and conviction and sweetness and clarity and ripping urgency and glorious lunging was dumped onto that narrow ribbon of road, and on the pages of his books there is captured, for all of us, those amazing rhythms that sing in the blood and wash through the head and gratify the belly when one lives through the senses. At his best, Kerouac is a man strapped to the globe, first on his back and then on his belly, gulping and hugging, gulping and hugging.

Kerouac was a true American original, in the direct line of men like Jack London and Thomas Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser and Norman Mailer; men not of exquisite European sensibility or tragic Russian depths but of enormous American appetite; men who understood appetite in their brains and in their balls and in their inflamed nerve endings; in their wet dreams and egalitarian surroundings, and in their amazing grasp of the raw sweep of this country; men who not only understood appetite, but also that appetite was what America was all about, and that America, like most of them, would die forever young.

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Kerouac, like all the rest before him, was powerfully dislocated by his appetite, and bewildered by what it brought him. He was bewildered by his fame, bewildered by being told he was a founder of the Beat Generation, bewildered, I am willing to bet, as much by the New York poets and intellectuals as he was, ultimately, by the good folk from Lowell whom he increasingly could not return to. For what he had, he had full strength, and to have anything full strength (especially something which outlives itself) is to insure increasing isolation; and isolation is an outrage to the emotions and a bewilderment to the soul. Lonely is hardly the word for what the inside of Jack Kerouac’s later life must have been like …

I took my place in the procession to a charming cemetery filled with sunlight and crunching leaves and tossing colored trees and we gathered around that meaningless box once more and listened to some more mumbo-jumbo for a while and then we all went away, and Kerouac was left alone to transcend it all, and I hoped that he could know that at any minute now another one, just like him, was getting ready to surface into American life.

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Beat Streets: The War Between the Prophets and the Profs

Kerouac & Friends assembles Fred McDarrah’s famous hipster photographs with 30 prose pieces of the time by various beats, journalists, and critics. It’s a splendid memoir-montage, not so much about Kerouac as about the Village beat milieu. Ker­ouac had a strong New York presence even when he wasn’t in town; one of the most evocative essays here, “The Roaming Beat­niks,” is his ramble through beat Manhat­tan after dark, an ode to simple postwar urban pleasures. But he wasn’t an integral part of everyday New York beat life, at least after On the Road was finally pub­lished in 1957. Young McDarrah, a self-­confessed beatnik groupie, mainly recorded that late-’50s Village scene — drinks at the Cedar, openings at the Hansa Gallery and the Living Theater, quiet times in Allen Ginsberg’s kitchen.

The book offers some long glimpses at Kerouac; the most striking appear in How­ard Smith’s and Dan Wakefield’s separate accounts of Christmas, 1957, at the Village Vanguard, with a sweaty, juiced-up Kerou­ac reading to the jazz buffs and his faithful flock. But these snippets reveal little that isn’t familiar from Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters or from McDarrah’s contribu­tions to The Beat Scene (1960; edited by my father, Eli Wilentz of 8th Street Book­shop fame). The real treat is getting to rub elbows with an enormous cavalcade of oth­ers, some long gone, some now well-estab­lished (William Styron!), and some, like McDarrah himself, who still figure mightily at places like The Voice (my favorite: Joel Oppenheimer looking dapper in his 1959 crewcut).

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The only disappointment is the uneven quality of the photo reproductions. McDar­rah was a beginner in the late 1950s, shoot­ing with an old Rolleicord and a beat-up Nikon. His pictures had none of the sharp­-edged contrasts and meticulous composi­tion of his present work. Still, despite the occasional gaffe, he took some wonderful photographs, and Morrow doesn’t do them justice. Some of the best — a beat party un­der a scrawled graffito, “Le Sang des Poetes”; Tuli Kupferberg grinning outside the Gaslight — look muddy and overexposed compared to other versions I’ve seen. One picture, of Ginsberg and Corso at the Art­ist’s Club, looks murky enough to have been shot in a mine shaft. McDarrah deserves better; luckily, enough of the pictures are clear, and enough of McDarrah’s style shows through, that the clinkers are at worst an annoyance.

The book’s mood is nostalgic in the proper sense, a longing for home, for a Vil­lage half-remembered and half-invented. Its sense of place is rhapsodic, recalling the lost landmarks of youthful fantasy, the San Remo (sigh!), the 8th Street Deli (ditto!), the original 8th Street Bookshop on Mac­Dougal Street (mixed feelings, personally, about that one). Even more touching is the human congeries, the writers, artists, and hangers-on, populating a world where cheap rents, greasy spoons, and literary enterprise brought people together, to bohemia. It’s remarkable how many of McDarrah’s pho­tographs are of crowds — in cafés and bars, in galleries, in Washington Square on weekend. “The night people,” Jean Shepherd used to call them, those who forswore the 9 to 5 grind, spent afternoons and evenings in palatable jobs or solitary artistic work, and then came out at night for barroom conviviality and incessant party-going. Manhattan still has crowds; pockets of bohemia survive here and there. But nothing quite like the beat demimonde exists anymore, not with the same literary élan, the same desperate vitality. Being a poor New York writer or painter has become too expensive — or too crushing — to permit such animated congregation.

And animated it was. Long before anyone thought up a happening or a be-in, the beats mastered public showmanship, blur­ring the lines between art and the everyday, playing tricks with their own personae and the mythic “beatnik” invented by Time. Some beats called their hijinks a way to get attention and make some bread: Ted Joans, the Afro-surrealist painter, poet, and impresario, once remarked of his show-off stunts, “Well hell, that’s just part of the job of making a living.” But the beats’ irreverent aesthetic made even their wildest ploys more than a job. Joans himself took part in one caper, the Rent-a-Beatnik business that McDarrah started in 1959. Time had just publicized the Village scene as an abomina­tion, a titillating but unholy world of beard­ed sex perverts in berets and their emaciat­ed chicks. McDarrah, seizing on the stereotype, decided to give the suburban public the real thing. In the first beatnik rental, Joans, replete with beret and torn sweater, traveled to a Scarsdale party, McDarrah in tow, and mingled with the gentry. The photograph from that party is hilarious. Joans is earnest; his audience, decked out in its own weird idea of beat garb, looks just as well-meaning. The host had a great time (“People in Westchester are still talking about it,” he later enthused to a reporter); we can imagine Joans and McDarrah’s rollicking trip home.

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The scene flourished only a short time, from about 1957 to about 1961 (the year some leading Village lights met at director Robert Cordier’s flat to contemplate the beat generation’s funeral). Kerouac & Friends offers several explanations why — ­the publicity was too much, one critic writes; the folk song crowd pushed the beats aside, another suggests. But even if the beats had stuck it out, beatdom could never have survived the politics of the ’60s. A personal recollection brings that home. Ex­actly 20 years ago, my family moved the bookshop across the street from its old spot on MacDougal. Some of the remaining beats in town helped with the lifting and unpacking (I especially remember Peter Or­lovsky, with his mottled tam o’shanter, and how he was so physically strong for one so skinny). When it was done, there was a grand party, a gathering of old friends, writ­ers, and beats. All went swimmingly until midday, when news arrived from Harlem that Malcolm X had just been murdered. Bewilderment, then tension, hit the room. My clearest memory is of LeRoi Jones im­mediately leaving the proceedings. I sensed that the Village would never be the same. The next time I saw Jones in the shop, his name was Baraka.

Despite its evanescence, the beat scene marked an important cultural and literary break, one that still affects those who passed through it and those of us born a bit too late. A great deal has been written about the beats’ long-term cultural signifi­cance; much of it has focused on their sexu­al style, on what Barbara Ehrenreich appre­ciates as their pre-feminist flight from gray-flanneled manhood and what Norman Podhoretz despises as their portentous re­nunciation of middle-class norms. Kerouac & Friends touches on these matters, with opinions from all sides, Podhoretz included. But its photos and reviews also place the New York beats more exactly in their liter­ary context. The beats’ disaffiliation from ’50s mainstream America was in large mea­sure a revolt against the prevailing arbiters of literary taste and manners — specifically, the New York intellectuals of Partisan Re­view and Commentary and their provincial admirers and imitators. From the start, the beats took the intellectuals — those Kenneth Rexroth called “the general staff of the En­emy” — as their chief objects of negative ref­erence. Thereafter, the passionate, ambivalent argument between Beat and Intellectual helped sharpen their respective identities, in creative and destructive ways. American literary culture hasn’t been the same since.

It began at Columbia in the late ’40s­ — years before anyone talked of a beat genera­tion — when Allen Ginsberg sought out his literature professors, especially Lionel Trill­ing. “In the early years, I tried to be open with him,” Ginsberg tells Al Aronowitz in a 1960 piece included here, “and laid on him my understanding of Burroughs and Jack­ — stories about them, hoping he would be in­terested or see some freshness or light, but all he or the others at Columbia could see was me searching for a father or pushing myself or bucking for an instructorship, or whatever they have been conditioned to think in terms of.” Diana Trilling’s notori­ous, motherly “The Other Night at Colum­bia” (also in the book) shows that this was exactly what the Morningside Lions thought then and continued to think later: she recalls that when pressed about why he didn’t correct his young pupil, Lionel Trill­ing would exclaim, “I’m not his father.” From these testy, stumbling encounters came the first clues that Ginsberg’s struggle with his teacher-critics ran far deeper than literary disagreement; the young trouble­maker and his oddball friends had hit a nerve in some of the most Olympian New York critics, and vice versa. Once the New York beats expanded their number, hooked up with the San Francisco Renaissance, and took to mocking the uptown eminences, the wrangling began to turn nasty.

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The antagonism was mutually reinforc­ing, establishing Intellectual and Beat as opposites in their own minds. There were, to be sure, a few powerful critics — very few — who greeted the beats with bemused curiosity. William Phillips recalls in his memoirs how he listened to Ginsberg hold forth persuasively one day at the Partisan Review office; poetry by Ginsberg and Corso actually made it into PR. Far more typical was the response of Phillips’s coedi­tor, Philip Rahv: “I have looked over the stuff and it seems pretty vacuous to me.” To be an intellectual, especially on the Up­per West Side, meant cultivating a world-­weary, epigrammatic civility, even (espe­cially?) when cutting your rivals to ribbons. To be a beat meant finding sweetness, freshness, and light in elegiac, angelic bar­barism. The intellectuals, most of them products of the radical ’30s, had for the most part retreated from serious criticism of American capitalism, but they still saw literature politically, as the proving ground of the liberal imagination. The beats, chil­dren of the ’40s and Cold War stalemate, abhorred capitalism and communism, and retained at least some sense of political commitment — “America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” Ginsberg declared — but their poetry always vaunted the personal, the existential, the religious above politics. The intellectuals were al­most exclusively critics and essayists who devoted the better part of every day to tak­ing positions. The beats wrote poems and novels and very little criticism; they thought position-taking was absurd. The in­tellectuals cherished complexity, ambiguity, and Niebuhrian paradox. The beats sought simplicity, ecstasy, and Blakean transcen­dence. And yet, irreconcilable as they were, Intellectual and Beat shared an ambiva­lence about each other, born of an often unacknowledged awareness that they had each other’s number.

The beats’ ambivalence concerned fame: though they rejected the intellectuals, they still wanted to be known as the great artists of their time, the best minds of their gener­ation — laurels the intellectuals weren’t about to bestow. Ginsberg’s touching “Ego Confession” speaks to the beats’ anxiety about literary success; so, in a sadder, more destructive sense, does an anecdote Podhoretz tells in Al Aronowitz’s piece about Gins­berg, about an occasion McDarrah must have kicked himself for missing. One night, Podhoretz (then a Trilling protégé and pre­eminent aspiring New York Intellectual) got a phone call from his old Columbia ac­quaintance, Ginsberg, inviting him to a downtown party. Podhoretz went, only to discover that the party consisted of Gins­berg, Kerouac, and Peter Orlovsky, sitting in wait. Kerouac’s fury at Podhoretz crept through his charming wisecracks: “Why is it,” he fumed, “that all the biggest young critics… Why are you against us? Why aren’t you for the best talent of your generation?” Podhoretz replied that he didn’t think them the best talent; Kerouac became indignant. The indignation grew over the coming years — the years when Podhoretz really “made it” — as Kerouac fell apart and wound up an embittered paranoid, holed up in St. Petersburg (Florida), knocking back the boilermakers that finally killed him. At the very end, he declaimed against the Communists and the Jews, and especially against the Jewish literary mafia he swore had done him in.

The intellectuals’ ambivalence had to do with a nagging sense of vacancy about their own decorous, well-heeled academic lives. This was the nerve the beats hit. In characteristic form, the intellectuals responded by taking a position, but this time some of them lost their cool; Kerouac & Friends, with its reprints of reviews of the beats, invites us to contrast beat realities with the critics’ caricatures and see just how over­heated some of the intellectuals became. The beats, here, look genial enough — ­scruffy by ’50s standards, certainly frivo­lous, at times wild-eyed, but hardly menac­ing. They speak plainly of their basically religious faith, well summarized by Ted Joans: “We’re the richest people in the world and yet we don’t have truth and love. It’s not what’s up front that counts, it’s what’s in your heart and brain. There’s nothing wrong with material possessions. But you should use them and not let them use you.”

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Yet to the intellectuals — many of them immigrant offspring who had won the re­spect of the goyim — the beat scene was both a cultural blasphemy and a kind of personal affront, an abandonment of cultur­al obligations and the hard-won refine­ments of Claremont Avenue, a regression to a confused and dangerous state of self-in­dulgent juvenile delinquency. The beats­ — bright students many of them — had refused the only world that mattered. With their rumpled clothes and zany non sequiturs, they challenged the intellectuals’ victory as a sellout. Worse than that, they got atten­tion with their ravings about transcen­dence; they had followers (“so many young girls, so few of them pretty,” Diana Trilling harrumphed about the audience at a Co­lumbia beat poetry reading). No problem taking a position on these miscreants.

Kerouac & Friends provides a survey of the critics’ escalating rage. Thus Trilling, commenting on the Columbia reading: “Maybe Ginsberg says he doesn’t bathe or shave… But for this occasion, at any rate, Ginsberg, Corso, and Orlovsky were all beautifully clean and shaven… Certainly there’s nothing dirty about a checked shirt or a lumberjacket and blue jeans; they’re standard uniform in the best nursery schools. Ginsberg has his price, as do his friends, however much they may dissem­ble.” Thus Podhoretz: “Isn’t the beat gener­ation a conspiracy to overthrow civilization (which is created by men, not boys) and to replace it not by the State of Nature where we can all romp around in a free-and-easy nakedness, but by the world of the adoles­cent street gang?” Thus Boston’s John Ciardi in the Saturday Review: “I hope the next time the young go out for an intellectu­al rebellion, they will think to try the li­brary. It’s still the most subversive building in town, and it’s still human headquarters. And even rebels can find it useful to know something, if only to learn to sit still with a book in hand.”

Beneath all this bluster, rumbling like a runaway Broadway local below ground, was the intellectuals’ suspicion that maybe the mannered academia of the age of anxiety wasn’t all they cracked it up to be. For the older heads, there was the creeping sensa­tion that they had lost something valuable in their adaptation, that their well-wrought existence demanded they suppress the unorthodoxy and high spirits of the rip-roar­ing ’30s: nights of debate and spritzing in Stewart’s Cafeteria, days in the left-wing alcoves and meeting halls, singing their lungs out, “A SOCialist union is a NO good union, is a COM-pan-y union of the bosses.” For the young men, like Podhoretz, there was an eerie feeling that they had grown prematurely stodgy and safe, apolo­gists for caution.

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Not that the intellectuals were entirely wrong about the beats, their criticisms mere angry projection. When it came to self-­promotion — making it — there was method to the beats’ craziness; the intellectuals knew it. With their memories of Hitler and Stalin, they were entitled to be nervous about those beats who dipped into Céline and Gide and Hesse and celebrated the cult of experience. And there’s no denying that some of the prose and poetry written in the spontaneous bop mode was quite simply godawful.

But what made the beats so compelling — ­and, in retrospect, makes them even more so — was that they had their antagonists figured out so well, and so early on. A decade and more before the intellectuals suffered through the late ’60s and early ’70s, the beats smelled the staleness of an existence consecrated entirely to criticism, urbanity, and infighting, without much hope of transcendence, personal or political. A glance through the recent spate of New York Intellectuals’ memoirs exposes, with gloomy regularity, the phenomenon of lives unlived (or at least unremembered) outside the suffocating trenches of intellectual combat. These were lives of scholarship — ideally among the highest forms of spiritual endeavor — blighted by an unending search for correctness, a corrupting form of liberal anticommunism, and the conventions of a West Side literary career. Their self-importance bred a profound sadness and a paranoia as crippling in its way as Kerouac’s. The great crack-up really hit about ’67 or ’68. The CIA-Congress for Cultural Freedom exposé and the Columbia upheaval were especially upsetting episodes; the intellectuals’ imagination was slow to grasp that the liberal academy had shamelessly debased its honor and then lied about it. But the first shock was the sight of the beats chucking Matthew Arnold and lighting out for North Beach and the Village when they should have been knotting their ties, getting on with their dissertations, and earning their instructorships.

Nowadays the beats, with their wild dreams and ecstatic chatter, seem part of a distant pre-’60s past. Most of them made it through the storm and live on; Ginsberg, for one, having tamed his anguish in Buddha, is regarded in some circles as our national poet. But the beat scene itself is dead, its leaders scattered, its supposed armies of legatees lost to law school, the academy, the day-people’s world. Many of the surviving intellectuals, meanwhile, have grown smug­ger, plumper than ever with success. Since lurching into neoconservatism in the 1970s, they’ve banished any doubts they might have had about the wholesomeness of middle-class stolidity, and are now in the pro­cess of regaining their authority. Though they hold little political power — Jeane Kirkpatrick aside, the Reaganites couldn’t care less for the Commentary crowd — they are in charge of some important cultural precincts all down the line. And from their squad rooms they are doing their best to police American arts and letters and revive their own sort of intellectual as culture hero.

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All of which makes Kerouac & Friends — ­and more generally the literary history of the beats and the ’50s — enormously instructive. The neocons certainly haven’t forgotten the beat scene. In their revisions of history, the beats were the advance guard of the 1960s cultural vandals; accordingly, the police actions of the 1980s are an at­tempt to restore all that was good and true about American culture before Ginsberg, Kerouac, and friends unleashed their beast­ly barrage. It’s a dreary moment indeed these neocons are sponsoring, less a reprise of their earlier anti-bohemian outbursts than a desecration of history — their own included — to justify their subsequent odys­sey and their current project. Bad enough they should have to repeat their by-now ritualistic slandering of the beats, with so little self-examination or reflection. Even worse that they do so under the pretext of bringing back the good old days. Whatever their mistakes and tragedies, the most thoughtful of the ’50s intellectuals would have recoiled in disgust at the notion that 30 years later some of their associates would flirt with the Radical Right while mouthing euphemisms about cultural excellence: imagine Lionel Trilling sharing anything with Jerry Falwell, much less a common discourse. Yet such are the lessons and bur­dens of history, as some of our angrier ex­-liberals see it.

If the neocons’ ascendancy marks their betrayal of liberalism, it also helps us un­derstand the ’50s in a very different way. In this version, the beats appear not as vandals but as something closer to prophets. Long before anyone else, they saw it all coming. They sensed the deadliness of obsessive ci­vility, of irony as a creed and manly liberal criticism as a way of life — and they sensed where it could lead. They understood that somewhere in the Intellectual’s soul — in the part closed to transcendence — stirred the spirit of what Ginsberg called Moloch. In these flat, discouraging neocon times, the beats’ prophecies ring true enough. And their protests sound as urgent as ever. ❖

KEROUAC & FRIENDS: A Beat Generation Album by Fred W. McDarrah Morrow, $17.95

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Ken Kesey: One Who Wigged Out

“Ken ‘Cuckoo Nest’ Kesey: One Who Wigged Out”
May 12, 1966

SAN FRANCISCO — Where is novelist Ken Kesey? It has been months and still no word on him. Not since O. Henry, 70 years ago, has an American lit­erary figure taken it on the lam after getting into trouble with the law. O. Henry was accused of embezzling bank funds. Kesey has been convicted of possessing marijuana and sentenced to six months in jail. Then, while his case was under appeal, he was picked up again, for marijuana and also for resisting arrest lo­cally, when he was taken one night from a Telegraph Hill roof­top with Mountain Girl, 19 years old. The neighbors had complained, as they have been doing ever since Kesey hit California.

O. Henry skipped because the idea of prison frightened him. Kesey ran because the “com­bine” was going to deny him justice and instead make an example of him. This is the way his followers, who reach from Portland, Oregon, down to Los Angeles, look at it. Others, not so fond of him, including novel­ist Robin White, say he ran be­cause, despite the bull neck and the big biceps and the big talk, Kesey is a coward.

This is part of the Kesey fascination: he doesn’t add up. Mark Schorer, who has had two polite conversations with him, regards him as “a very retiring fellow, nothing aggressive about him and rather shy.” Herbert Gold, who knows Kesey from various places, said first about him, “He’s a warm-hearted per­son.” Robin White (Elephant HillAll in Favor Say No) becomes incensed at the mention of Kesey: “He talks about him­self as though he were Christ. If Kesey was in isolation, he’d disintegrate. He’s got to have buttressing, weak individuals he can exploit.”

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Kesey, whose high domed head is nearly bald, is 30 years old. He regards himself as fiercely independent, no doubt as the McMurphy of his own novel, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There are no limits. His buddies are LSD cultists, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, peace marchers, Allen Ginsberg (off and on), Jack Kerouac hangers-on, a bookshop owner, a helicopter pilot wounded in Vietnam, and people who prefer anonymity, like Mountain Girl, and the man she says she is going to marry. She is seven months pregnant.

Independence has a price. Kesey is convinced that the gutty individual is only doomed to failure and oblivion (like McMurphy). “Ken has as elaborate mystique about the system and retaliation,” a friend who knew him from the Palo Alto days said. In a weird record album made by Kesey and his LSD “trip” buddies, just before he skipped, voices, including Kesey’s, say in one segment:

“Oh my God, what does it mean? . . . Electrical impulses through all this statical feedback clicks . . . You do achieve a clarity that passes you one step over the be-good fence . . . He thinks I am dangerous. America doesn’t need these kind of impudent young snots . . . We are at war. ‘This is Franklin Delano Roosevelt speaking. The only thing you have to fear is fear itself.’ The only salvation is to be good. Be good.”

Kesey had no care for community sensibilities. He was the watcher of the scene, “having fun all the time,” and wherever he went, he dragged a camera and a tape-recorder. He explained his drug habit. “You don’t sit on a toilet and strain and come up with a new idea. To discover something new, you have to put yourself in a position where an accident can happen to you. It can’t be pre-determined.”

He had come down to Palo Alto from Oregon lumber country, where he was reared, in 1960, to work in a mental hospital and to attend creative writing classes at Stanford taught by Wallace Stegner and later by Malcom Cowley. The mentally ill had a powerful hold on Kesey and he had “lightning ways” of looking at things, including his relationship with patients. He organized hell-raising parties. He loaned his car to them for a “night out.” He protected them. When co-worker wouldn’t stop bullying a pitiful catatonic patient, Kesey, who had been a champion wrestler at the University of Oregon, lifted the attendant off the floor and heaved him through the shower room door — even as McMurphy did in the novel. He was fired a few months later — “Not interested in patient welfare,” the official discharge said.

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Kesey lived on Perry Lane, Palo Alto (later celebrated in the work of Gwen Davis). Robin White had arranged it. “At the time,” he recalled, “Perry Lane was made up of nonconformists. After Kesey came on, it became conformist. There had to be sex parties, marijuana smoking, and you had to dress and speak in a certain way. Kesey became the master of ceremonies. He has a real capacity to perform which quite exceeds his ability to write.” Many nights Kesey lay wake in bed staring at the ceiling, scenes from the hospital burning themselves into his memory.

It was through Malcolm Cowley that Viking Press published. Kesey’s first novel in 1962. One Flew Over was well received. Critics found the plight of a ward of mental patients a par­able of the whole human condi­tion. The book sold some 14,000 copies in hard cover and was produced on Broadway with Kirk Douglas in the starring role. It was a dismal flop. Critically panned, it closed after 82 per­formances.

With money from the play, Kesey bought a 1939 bus, painted it in swirls of pink, green, and lavender, packed up his wife and three children, and headed cross-­country in the summer of 1964 to film people “just having fun.” The bus driver was Neil Cas­sidy, the Dean Moriarty of Kero­uac’s On the Road. Kesey told a newspaperman that he was through writing fiction. “I don’t think the novel has any place to go,” he said.

Sometimes a Great Notion, published in that summer of 1964, was the work of a robust talent, but it was not an entirely successful novel. Critics said Kesey was too windy, too detailed — un­able, Julian Moynahan wrote in the New York Review of Books, “to imagine a whole word where whole men . . . can get together and make a whole life.” News­week called it “a barrel-chested counterfeit of life.”

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Kesey shot 60,000 feet of film on his travels. He proposed to produce a documentary movie. His redwood house in the drowsy resort village of La Honda, California, south of here, was trans­formed into a vast pleasure pad, where his buddies made out and freaked out in the woods all around it. No one was kept away. Inside was the promise of bed­lam: statues and metal pieces everywhere, pictures and furni­ture without names, incredible designs on the ceilings, the bath­tub and toilet bowl splashed with paint. Kesey took a title for him­self, The Navigator.

People complained. They h­arassed Kesey on the phone and cursed him from their cars. Kes­ey’s bright orange mailbox was picked with bullet holes. High on LSD, he and the gang went off and gave “shows” — one to an au­dience of 5000 in San Francisco’s Longshoremen’s Hall, Harry Bridges’s shrine.

Early last year, Federal and state narcotics agents started staking out Kesey’s pad. He con­sidered it a monumental joke. He was clean, he said. But on April 23, 1965, agents raided the place and arrested Kesey and 13 guests. The agents said Kesey was in his bathroom trying to flush away the evidence. He said it had been planted. They won. Two days after his conviction, Kesey and Mountain Girl decid­ed on a Telegraph Hill rooftop as the place to make a “big acci­dent” happen. Residents of the apartment house called the po­lice.

“They was coming on like gangbusters in the first row of the downtown Orpheus Theatre . . . I mean to say, watch them go. Their hooves was three feet above the ground and never touching down . . . ”

An officer discovered marijuana. Kesey told the cop to go to hell and wrestled him right to the edge of the roof: He was nailed there. He posted bond and took off.

His 1939 bus was found on January 31 of this year, aban­doned on a desolate stretch of the California coast. The note Kesey left was beautiful: “Ocean, ocean, I’ll beat you in the end. I’ll break you this time. I’ll go through with my heels at your hungry ribs.” Suicide note or the put-on? While au­thorities were puzzling, the cult make a tactical error. It leaked word through one of its principal spokesmen that Kesey was in Mexico, when he wasn’t. The anticipated result was supposed to be: Now they’ll call off the dogs. Who’d chase all the way to Mexico for a guy who smokes pot?

The FBI. It filed a fugitive warrant and promptly joined the search. The United States At­torney’s office here says that the trail is cold now, though tipsters keep calling and the FBI never gives up. A close friend says he recently heard from Kesey. Pe­ter Demma, who runs a book­shop in merry Santa Cruz, Cali­fornia, said Kesey “wants a con­frontation with world society” and is touring.

Two weeks before he disap­peared, Kesey, lugging a coffee can with over $3000 in it from a “show,” and his buddies cut a record, “The Acid Test,” dur­ing a 14-hour “trip” at Sound City here. The album sells for $5.95 and is moving at better than 100 copies a day. Sound City’s owner, Jim Safford, explained, “Anytime Ken Kesey wants to belch, there are at least 20 people around who want to hear it.”

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Bob Dylan’s on Fire, Rolling Down the Road

Bob Dylan’s on Fire, Rolling Down the Road
November 10, 1975

Perhaps it’s happening because nothing was happening. Maybe it means more because the lines of our interdependence are so strained, so fragile — yet overgrown, layered, and incestuous. Maybe because we’re so vulnerable now; especially in this impacted city, either hoofing it in the chorus line or hopscotching in the spotlight. But for whatever reason that you might need Dylan, and for whatever need he has of you, he’s back.

It’s like the first page of a book of miracles, Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, when the magic gypsy returned to Macondo, the city in the jungle bearing the first magnet ever seen there. The pots and knives flew from their shelves, the nails creaked from the beams, and the gypsy, an honest man, proclaimed, “Things have a life of their own. It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.” And so it is that Dylan, and Joan Baez, Allen Ginsberg, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bobby Neuwirth, and friends are out on the road, in a bus named Phydeaux (a black-humored greyhound), waking up souls in what, along with Woodstock (and Altamont if you have a taste for that side of things), is probably the most meaningful musical energy nexus of our time. The man has actually gone out and done it, and in the process discovered himself at the height of his powers.

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***

In early July Dylan was dragging around New York like an out-of-work folksinger, living in a borrowed loft on Houston Street. His marriage had (reportedly) busted up and he had come back to the Village from Malibu for solace, for a transfusion, or simply to be home to visit. In any event it was obviously “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog” time. He would show up almost every night at the Other End, usually alone, occasionally with director Jacques Levy and boulevardier Bob Neuwirth.

At a show during the July 4 folkie-smorgasbord, Neuwirth coaxed a reluctant Dylan onstage to sing harmony. Neuwirth, the high potentate of Max’s backroom, high living storyteller, song-writer, catalyst, and nonstop dancing partner to rock and roll royalty, prepared to do a week long Other End engagement. Rob (Rockin’ Rob Rothstein) Stoner on bass, guitarists Steve Soles and T-Bone Burnette and fiddler David Mansfield all were pressed into service, with Soles flying in from California, and T-Bone from Texas. Ramblin’ Jack stopped in; English rockers Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson fell by. The show itself was splotchy and shapeless. But it seemed to spark something in Dylan, and one night the Other End’s bar suddenly turned into Johnny Cash’s living room, as Dylan & Company held forth till almost 6 a.m. with a bunch of new songs, including the wild-eyed “Joey,” about Gallo the mobster in prison reading Wilhelm Reich. At one point Dylan leaned over to Ramblin’ Jack and suggested that they all do a tour together. I don’t think that anyone who heard it took the suggestion seriously. That week Dylan went into the studio to work on his new album. He then left New York for California and Minnesota.

In October, he returned to New York having definitely decided to tour. It was to be essentially a folk-oriented assemblage, an almost literal extension of the jamming at the Other End. Everybody gets to play and sing, trying to bring some music back down to livable scale and into an accessible intimacy. He needed professional help and he brought in longtime aid and childhood friend Louie Kemp from Duluth, ex-Bill Graham associate and Santana manager Barry Imhoff, ubiquitous tour-lady Chris O’Dell, and Boston promoter Don Law. Joan Baez was called and asked to come along. They set up shop at the Gramercy Park Hotel and booked a midtown rehearsal studio. But if the tour arrangements were in safe hands, the band was not.

Dylan doesn’t have the musical chops to lead or create the kind of band he’d like to have. That task fell to Rob Stoner. He’d been knocking around New York for years, falling in with Neuwirth and eventually Dylan in July. Stoner’s an amazing rock and roll mutant, a sort of a cross between Jerry Lee Lewis and Fabian. Fabian? But he literally put the touring band together, with the help and stage direction of Jacques Levy. The musicians, to a man, all credit Stoner with “taking a diverse and formless group, who’d never really played together in a context that demanded any precision, and whipping ’em into shape. He brought in his old friends Howie Wyeth, who does unlikely double duty on drums and piano, and percussionist Luther Rix. Violinist Scarlet Rivera, who’d been playing with Dylan since June, also signed on. Surprisingly, things fell into place, institutionalizing the loopy informality of the late night jam sessions.

On Wednesday, October 29, Dylan, Neuwirth, and a few others arrived for David Blue’s closing set at the Other End. Ronee Blakley showed up as did Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Denise Mercedes of the glitter group Stutz. After the club closed, Dylan and Ronee Blakley shared the piano and crooned, Roger McGuinn played guitars, and Ginsberg sang. “Allen, you’re the king,” said Dylan repeatedly. “You’re the king but you don’t know your kingdom.” That night Ginsberg was invited to join the tour, followed two days later by invitations to Denise and the always helpful Orlovsky, who was sort of given a job as a baggage handler.

At 3 a.m. Eric Andersen phoned from Woodstock. He spoke to T-Bone Burnette, asked if he should come down (one-and-a-half hour drive). “Well,” T-Bone replied, “it’s really happening.” “Has it peaked yet?” Eric asked. “It won’t peak for another month,” came the answer.

The next night (Thursday) they played Mike Porco’s birthday party at Folk City. They rehearsed Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. On Monday at 1 p.m. they left the Gramercy Park with the band on board the $125,000 Phydeaux and Dylan in a red Cadillac El Dorado convertible. The tour was to be unadvertised, playing mostly small halls, $7.50 top, with only five days notice given by handbills in each town. The secrecy was such that even the musicians didn’t know where they were headed.

Meanwhile, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, home of the Rock and Pilgrim fame, the biggest thing in 355 years was about to happen. Advance men Jerry Seltzer and Jabez Van Cleef walked into the town hardware store. They had booked the Plymouth Memorial Auditorium earlier for a Joan Baez concert. The town fathers asked that Joan not make any overtly political statements on stage. The hall was rented, 1800 seats, for $250 dollars per night (two nights), $100 over the regular rental price after assuring the house manager that, yes, they could fill the second balcony. In the hardware, store they gave a Rolling Thunder Revue handbill to two young guys buying spackle. The first guy screamed, “Get out, I don’t believe it.” He was reassured. “You’d better be right or I’ll rip this town apart.” “It’s your town,” Van Cleef replied. The second guy turned and said, calmly, “Look man, there are some things in life that’re real. This isn’t one of them.” He was wrong, and he was right.

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***

The Sea Crest Hotel in North Falmouth, Massachusetts, (“on captivating Cape Cod”) is right on the beach. It has 200 rooms and is magnificently secluded. The tour arrived there Monday afternoon. On Tuesday I called for a reserva­tion and was asked if I wanted an ocean-front room. “Something close to the Dylan party,” I re­plied. The clerk lied telling me that the only large group in the hotel was a Mah-Jongg convention. That evening, Dylan, introduced by the Borscht Belt MC as “a dynamite entertainer,” sang in the dining room, Ginsberg recited “Kaddish” and danced a pas de deux with Ronee Blakley. Thursday evening I flew into Boston. The next morn­ing I headed for the Sea Crest.

I met Peter Orlovsky in the lobby. He said I shouldn’t be there, security was very tight. No press, no girl friends, no business like show business. He suggested I talk to Louie Kemp. Kemp was amazed that I’d found them. I’d have to leave. I said I’d register. We struck a bargain. They’d give me a room and send people up to talk. They’d send up lunch and two security guards, one to run errands for me, the other to make certain I didn’t leave the room and to ac­company me if I did. Like Camp David, or Los Alamos. Fair enough. So, under virtual house arrest, I enjoyed my first visitor, Steve Soles, who told me that “Everyone cares about everyone else here, we’re all feelin’ good, no tension. It’s really run by pros and it’s a grown-up tour. Nobody’s on a bad trip or fucked up with drugs. And it’s all spontaneous. We don’t know where we’re goin’, neither does Dylan. We just walk out, tune up, and fall into the song.” Soles is half-N.Y., half L.A., but all of it came together in N.Y. “L.A. doesn’t breed this kind of en­ergy.”

The tour represents an enor­mous financial investment for Dylan. There are no super banks of amplifiers or special lighting, but it still involves at least 50 people. It’s been a dream of the collective rock consciousness to do a tour like this. Small halls, no advertising — “the real magical mystery tour,” as Neuwirth says. And whether or not Dylan makes a profit — there will be a film, of course — he’s still doing something admirable. But it’s like the old J.P. Morgan riposte: “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.” If you’re a big enough star to warrant a secret tour you a) don’t need the money, b) reap compensatory free publicity, c) stoke up your own emotional capital, and d) what the hell else would you be d0ing — sitting around the pool with Ali McGraw and occasionally switching your drink from hand to hand?

Meanwhile, outside on the beach, Jack Elliott, looking like a lawyer in Miami, is chasing Joan Baez, incredibly beautiful in just a towel. The cormorants are diving for fish and the Mah-Jongg ladies are walking around with their hands behind their backs.

Howard Alk and Mel Howard are there making a movie with Sam Shepard feeding them images; Jack Elliott talking to the wax pilgrims in the Mayflower museum; Rob Stoner as Gene Vincent and T-Bone Burnette as Buddy Holly in rock and roll heaven with Joan Baez as a red-afroed hooker and Paul Colby as a nightclub owner. Or, a scene in a local diner with Ginsberg as “the emperor” and Dylan as “the alchemist.” Allen: “Are you the alchemist? I’m the emperor, here’s my card”; he hands Dylan an orange maple-leaf. Dylan: “Your kingdom is bankrupt after all the wars, after sending off to Indochina for a shipload of tears you still haven’t paid your karmic debt.” Allen: “What’s the alchemical secret that’ll help?” Instantaneously (all improvised), Dylan smiles: “Invention.” And he proceeds to mix up a bowl of remedy, going behind the counter for Ritz crackers, honey, pepper, milk, Tabasco sauce. “Your using ordinary materials,” cries Ginsberg. “That’s the point,” says Dylan.

But like all rock and roll tours this operation is functionally schizophrenic. It’s understandably bizarre, this institutionalized intimacy, this paramilitary folkyness. Dylan’s aides are there to protect him, and like any other zealots, they overdo things. My incarcera­tion was probably just a mistake, but a mistake very much in keeping with the tone of the tour. Kemp put a sign “Quarantine — Lepers Quarters” on my door.

So I threaten to sue, to call the police, the FBI (kidnapping is a federal crime), etc. And suddenly they’re very nice to me. McGuinn, Neuwirth, T-Bone, and Rockin’ Rob arrive. Room service comes in with a tuna salad and some wine. I insist McGuinn taste the wine first. I turn down some ha­shish because smoking makes me paranoid.

Mick Ronson, wearing just a towel, wanders in. He’s one of those English guys who, if rock ‘n roll hadn’t intruded, would’ve been a hairdresser. He’s a gen­uinely sweet man, and totally blown out by the whole idea. “I can’t believe it, this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me,” like a Child of God or a Hari­-Krishnoid, “the rest of my life, before this, was all bullshit.”

McGuinn, one of the world’s great gadget freaks, brings out a Polaroid and waits for a gull to fly past the sun. Neuwirth, looking calmer and softer than ever, starts talking about the 10 years of talk­ing that preceded the tour. “It’s gonna be a new living room every night. This is the first existential tour, it’s a movie, a closed set, it’s rock and roll heaven and it’s his­torical, no, hysterical. No, spell it h-y-s-t-o-r… “and never finishes the word. “It’s been Ramblin’ Jack’s dream for a long time, he’s the one who taught us all and the dream’s coming true.” And then, “Aw, shit, let’s just watch the sunset over the Atlantic.”

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***

Nowadays the residents of Ply­mouth eat grinders and drive around rotaries. It’s like any other medium-sized New England town filled with nice clean-looking kids, a lot of ’em still wearing their Army field jackets because the working class fought the last war. Even $7.50 is a steep ticket in Ply­mouth.

The Memorial Auditorium seats about 1800, including 400 folding chairs on the floor, ordinarily a basketball court. With the chairs set up it’s just like your high school auditorium, if you went to a small old high school. It was Halloween, but with the exception of a human toothpaste tube the Plymouthians were all dressed up as Bostonians. And the local police frisk you for wine at the door, but two New Yorkers, singer Garland Jeffreys and guitarist Alan Friedman, out­smarted them with bottles of Soave Bolla and Southern Com­fort, respectively.

At 8:20 the show started. The band came out in Lone Ranger masks, with Steve Soles, who looks like John Astin, made up in whiteface. Neuwirth was wear­ing a khaki flak vest and served as MC. Throughout the show a guy behind me kept referring to him as “‘Nam,” saying, “He’s all right, see that vest, he’s been to ’Nam.”

Everyone on the show is in another band or plays solo, so the first half-hour was taken up by their solo spots. Rockin’ Rob Stoner did “The Moment’s Too Good to Be Wasted, But I’m Too Wasted to Be Any Good,” assisted by Quacky Duck’s David Mansfield on fiddle. David, only 19, looks like a Tintoretto angel and continually amazes everyone with his virtuosity. Neuwirth waltzed across the stage in those sliding glide steps you used on polished stages when you were a kid, he sounded great as a singer, too. T-Bone, who sounds like Roy Orbison singing underwater, came next followed bizarrely by Ronson’s Bowie-ish “Is There Life on Mars?” Then Ronee Blakley as Betty Boop with a mustache, the only real stiff on the bill. In toto, though, they’d taken all the dumb random jam session energy and drew it into focus. Then Neuwirth sang Kristofferson’s song to Jack El­liott, while Jack wandered out looking loony as ever in a Hawaiian shirt, knickers, and ever-present Brooklyn-Cowboy hat. El­liott’s one of the threads that ties the whole thing together. Ginsberg first met him in 1950 when they dated the same girl. She fell for Jack, sez Ginsberg, and Allen turned homosexual. Anyway, Jack’s the real thing, an authentic beatnik weirdo and he got tremen­dous applause, like they recog­nized a real freak. He sang, howlin’ and happy, getting down on his haunches or pointing his guitar like Lou Costello with a bayonet. At that point the show really took off.

Now, I want to say this now, before I get into telling about Dylan. Despite all this horseshit, like starting in Plymouth (“How Bicentennial of him,” says my friend David Schwartz), and all the too obvious loops of symbolic meanings and great chain of po­etry, i.e., Blake to Whitman to Ginsberg to Dylan, it’s just a show. I’ve seen a lot of shows. And this one is the greatest show I’ve ever seen. Better than the Russian Circus when the troika disap­peared. Better than Fiddler on the Roof.

Dylan comes out in a mask, like a Clockwork Orange droog, in his black leather coat, long scarf, and that old porkpie sombrero of his festooned with flowers. He and Neuwirth start “When I Paint My Masterpiece” together and that’s the only metaphorical teat to suck on. This tour is Dylan’s master­piece. With a tiny little Gibson sunburst guitar, it was old “Alias” again, weird like a Goya, in the land of Coca-Cola.

You see him and you hear him and you say No Way. You can’t believe it. He’s tight like a mata­dor and he turns slowly into a dark, bloody version of “It Ain’t Me, Babe.” He sounds more natural than ever before, so that his vocal affectations work better. Ronson drops a letter perfect solo and Dylan slowly takes up a harmonica and lifts it to his mouth. But he can’t play it because he’s still got the mask on. He turns around, takes it off, faces the audience, the place goes crazy like a Saint Vitus’s dance or Saint Elmo’s fire. Dylan responds with virtual Clapton on the harp, hips thrust forward, electric on the balls of his feet. Suddenly it’s over, and Neuwirth says only one word — “Dylan.”

He plays “Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” next, reciting the overlong verses, the words rolling faster and faster and Ronson takes another solo, with his guitar low on one knee, right foot forward. And I think, “Yes, if he lives to be 100 this is the best thing Ronson’ll ever do.” Dylan takes it all in, strutting, sauntering around the stage, abso­lutely 100 Per Cent All There.

He does the new “Durango” and “Isis,” both coauthored by Jacques Levy. During a guitar solo someone tosses a rose on stage. Dylan turns on left heel, throws scarf over shoulder, and in one motion, like a shortstop, picks up the rose and tosses it back. And throughout the rest of the song he rocks on his heels, hands hanging in fists, tossing his head from side to side. You gotta see Dylan dance.

That’s only half of the show. When the curtain comes up again there are four legs showing and two of ’em are Joan Baez’s, on the left. Together they sing ”The Times They Are A-Changing,” “Baby, You Been on My Mind,” and a new Dylan song that sounds like “For Sentimental Reasons,” with Joan and Dylan trucking in and out of the mike like Sam and Dave.

Then Baez solo: her Dylan song, “Diamonds and Rust,” an exces­sive a cappella “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” a Lily Tomlin imitation, and three more numbers. Next McGuinn, who’d been playing banjo, does “Chestnut Mare,” another Jacques Levy tune, and Joan returns for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Garland Jeffreys, sitting next to me, seems to explode with happiness.

Dylan comes back alone, harmonica holder on his neck, for a syncopated, faster version of “I Don’t Believe You.” Even his guitar playing is getting better. Followed by his new single, a topical song, “Hurricane,” about Reuben Carter in prison. The lyric is long and chilling, accentuated by Scarlet Rivera’s playing. Followed by two more new Mexi-Gothic love songs. Then, yet another love song. Amazing: “Sarah, loving you is the one thing I’ll never regret, Say-­rah, Sweet love of my life.” And how could it be, how could his personal life, the part that counts, come to so much pain as he segues into “Just Like a Woman”? Final­ly Ginsberg comes out all in white, (inexplicably he doesn’t do much on stage; he should open the show) and Joan, in a Bozo-the-Clown mask for, inevitably, “This Land Is Your Land” with Ramblin’ Jack singing the verses nobody else knows, cause Jack knew Woody Guthrie and Guthrie knew William Blake.

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***

“It’s Dylan’s mudra,” said Gins­berg, holding up three fingers to make a sign like a Bombay Boy Scout (which he is). “It’s his ges­ture, his act of significance. It’s the actualization of his best fanta­sies. His lesser, aggressive fanta­sies have been exhausted.” From one Jewish Gemini to another, Planet News to Planet Waves, 10-4.

Dylan’s survived, grown up. He’s not burnt out; his best work might even be ahead of him. He’s a giant, like Chaplin or Picasso. Like Brando or Muhammed Ali. He’s always got a plan. This one works on every level — body, head, intel­lect, heart. Nobody else even comes close — Jagger, Springsteen, Paul Simon.

The radio, next day, seemed to play only Dylan and Baez. It was some sort of reassurance that the miracles had actually taken place. Or were about to take place, because Dylan was on fire and the Rolling Thunder Revue was filling the sky.

“Aw, shit,” said Neuwirth, “let’s go watch the sunset.”

 

The back page of the November 3, 1975, Voice gave a preview of Dylan’s tour