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Huncke the Junkie: Godfather to Naked Lunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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William S. Burroughs Talks With Tennessee Williams

Orpheus Holds His Own: William Burroughs Talks with Tennessee Williams
May 16, 1977

Although they were both born in St. Louis within three years of each other, William Burroughs did not meet Tennessee Williams until 1960, when they were briefly introduced at a table in the Cafe de Paris in Tangiers, by Paul and Jane Bowles. Burroughs had read and admired Williams’s short stories, and later in the ’60s Tennessee was known to quote at length from Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. But despite their mutual acquaintances (including the Bowleses and the painter Brion Gysin), they were not to meet again until 1975, at a gathering of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Their first conversation of any length took place at a party after a Burroughs reading at Notre Dame University earlier this year, and there they talked and carried on like old friends.

Tennessee’s new play, Vieux Carre, opens tonight on Broadway. Burroughs and I attended a preview two Saturdays ago. The next day we visited him at the Hotel Elysee, where he has maintained a spacious flat on the 12th floor for some time. It was late afternoon, and as I arrived, a few minutes after Burroughs, they were already seated at the opposite ends of a sofa. Tennessee seemed chipper; he got up to show us a pastel gouache he had just completed on his terrace that morning. Two bottles of wine arrived, and Burroughs and Williams resumed their talk. — James Grauerholz

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Burroughs: When someone asks me to what extent my work is autobiographical, I say, “Every word is autobio­graphical, and every word is fiction.” Now what would your answer be on that question?

Williams: My answer is that every word is autobio­graphical and no word is autobiographical. You can’t do creative work and adhere to facts. For instance, in my new play there is a boy who is living in a house that I lived in, and undergoing some of the experiences that I underwent as a young writer. But his personality is totally different from mine. He talks quite differently from the way that I talk, so I say the play is not autobiographical. And yet the events in the house did actually take place.

All of them?

There are two characters in it, a boy and a girl, whom I knew later in another house, not in that one. But all the others were there at 722 Toulouse Street, in 1939.

What has happened to that building?

Still there, it’s vacant now. Just as the boy says at the end of the play: “This house is empty now… they’re disappearing — going…”

That’s a strange time-pocket, the French Quarter.

Yeah. I did go there first in 1939. I did have a lot of those experiences then, but I did not leave there with a wealthy old sponsor. [As The Young Writer does in Vieux Carre] I don’t know why I put that in, wishful thinking…  I lived there with a clarinet player, broke as I was. And I had to pick squabs for a living on the West Coast — but that’s another play.

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What about the character of the landlady?

She was like that. She wasn’t named Mrs. Wire, but she was very much like that. She poured the boiling water through the cracks in the roof, on a photographer down­stairs. I think he was a famous one, named Clarence Laughlin. He did give very rowdy parties, which outraged her — maybe because she wasn’t invited.

Well, she was certainly magnificent in the play — Sylvia Sidney.

She is magnificent. I think. she’s one of our great, great actresses.

One thing I would like to comment on, about the play, is the recreation of the past — nostalgia, if you will. It came through more there than it does in a film with all the devices of Hollywood. Of course, the stage sets were spectacular, but it interested me because at times I really felt the period. But then they try something like The Great Gatsby, and there’s not a whiff of the ’20s in it.

You remember the ’20s?

Oh heavens, yes.

I only ask because there are few people living who do… That’s the sad thing about growing old, isn’t it — you learn you are confronted with loneliness…

One of the many.

Yes, one of the many — that’s the worst, yes.

After all, if there wasn’t age, there wouldn’t be any youth, remember.

I’m never satisfied to look back on youth, though… not that I ever had much youth.

Writers don’t, as a rule… Would you say this play was an expansion of the short story, “The Angel in the Alcove”?

Oh yes. At first I thought it was a big mistake to transfer a story of mood — you know, mostly mood and nostalgia — to the stage; that it would seem insubstantial. But now we are running the two plays together, you know?

What is it, two and a half hours? I didn’t have the feeling that it was too long.

I have plays of mine that seem to go on forever… You know, actors are not well treated, unless they’re stars.

They lead a hard life. Hitchcock always had a very low opinion of actors.

I have a high opinion of actors — of their intelligence, I mean. I think they’re smarter than they’re reputed to be. Capote says they’re all fools — but I think they’re brighter than him… oh, he’s going to sue me again! [laugh] You know he sued me for $5 million; I’ve never been so flattered. [laughter] I merely expressed some disbelief that he would descend to such a literary level, as a last installment of Answered Prayers. I think these things are so silly… because who wants to spend all that time in a courtroom, or on court fees? It’s the lawyers who get the money, not the plaintiff or the defendant. But I’ll tell you, Truman’s a great self-publicist. He’s quite a theatrical personality, he is.

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He is indeed… Where did you write this play?

I wrote Vieux Carre on a ship called the Oronza. My agent booked me out, after a play called Out Cry — some people called it Out Rage; in its longest form it was rather an outrage, of tedium. So I happened to be going to California to see Faye Dunaway play Blanche DuBois opposite Jon Voight, so I said, “I want to get away. I want to get a long way away.” My agent booked me onto this Cherry Blossom Cruise — it turned out to be a geriatric cruise. Everybody on it was 80 or over, and they had huge stabilizers to keep the ship from rocking. You know? The great pleasure in ocean-travel is the rocking, the motion… The sea underneath you. Well, this ship was utterly motionless, and yet these old people were breaking hips right and left. The doctor’s office was always full of them. And three died before we hit Yokohama.

Any burials at sea?

I was told there were secret ones at midnight, yes. And when we arrived at Yokohama, the Japanese customs officials grinned; they said, “How many this time?” Meaning, how many had been collected by the Reaper? And we said, “Only three we know for sure.” He said, “Usually it’s double that many before they reach Yokoha­ma.” Heh heh heh. We jumped ship at Yokohama, although we were booked on a round-the-world pass. I doubt if there were any passengers left living by the time they completed their trip. There was nothing to do on the Oronza but play bridge or write. And I do love bridge, but I was kicked out of every bridge game, I was so incompetent. I learned how to play bridge in a psychiatric ward. My brother tried to teach me how to play chess, in the psychiatric ward, but I couldn’t learn.

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I notice you don’t drink hard liquor?

I allow myself one drink a day of hard liquor. While I’m working. Otherwise, I do drink wine. Because I really prefer wine, it’s not much of a deprivation.

That story of “The Angel in the Alcove” was written quite a while ago, wasn’t it?

Oh God, yes. Must have been the ’50s…

Paul Bowles had a first edition of that book of stories. I remember I borrowed his copy to read. I was on junk at the time and I dripped blood all over it, and Paul was furious. [laughter] It should be quite a collector’s item — first edition, and with my blood all over it.

Do you ever take drugs at all anymore?

No, not that kind. No, I don’t have a habit or anything like that.

I’ve always wanted to go on opium. I did try it in Bangkok. I was traveling with a professor friend of mine, and he had been in the habit of occasionally dissolving a bit of — you know, it comes in little long black sticks — dissolv­ing it in the tea, and drinking it. And he was angry at me, or confused mentally, I don’t know which — and so I called him one morning, as he’d gotten me this long black stick of opium, and I said, “Paul, what do I do with it?” And he said, “Just put it in the tea.” So I put the whole stick in the tea. I nearly died of an OD, of course. I was puking green as your jacket, you know? And sicker than 10 dogs all that day. I called in a Siamese doctor. He said “You should be dead.” I said, “I feel as though if I weren’t walking or stumbling about, I would be.” I’ve always said I wanted to write under the drug, you know, like Cocteau did — all of a sudden, my head seemed like a balloon and it seemed to go right up to the ceiling… Do you ever take goof balls?

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Ummm, I have, of course, yes. But, I’m not an aficionado. You know, De Quincey reports that Coleridge had to hire somebody to keep him out of drug stores, and then he fired him the next day when the man attempted to obey his instructions. He told him, “Do you know that men have been known to drop down dead for the timely want of opium?” Very funny indeed.

It’s all a big joke. Maybe a black joke, but its a big joke. And if they told me the play was closing tonight, I’d go “Ha haaa!”

Tennessee, have you written film scripts?

Yes, I’ve written one called One Arm, which has been floating around, I don’t know where it is. I wrote it one summer while I was taking Dr. Max Jacobson’s shots. I did some of my best writing while taking those shots. I had incredible vitality under them. And I got way ahead of myself as a writer, you know? And into another dimension. I never enjoyed writing like that. You’ve never written on any kind of speed, have you Bill?

Well no, I’m not a speed man at all.

I am a downer man.

I don’t like either one very much.

Speed is wonderful, while I was young enough to take it; but you don’t like either one, now? You don’t need any kind of artificial stimulant?

Ummm, well, you know… of course, cannabis in any form is—

Cannabis has the opposite effect on me. But I think Paul finds it very helpful — Paul Bowles. But I have tried it; nothing. Just stonewalled me.

Did you do any work on the screenplay of Suddenly Last Summer?

Thank God, no. In fact, when I first saw it I walked out on it, begging Mr. Vidal’s pardon. But, he did a wonderful workmanlike job, yes… The person who fucked it up, if you’ll excuse my language, was Joe Mankiewicz. I wrote the play, but you know — the play was an allegory, and consisted mainly of two monologues.

What did you feel about the film?

I walked out. Sam Speigel, the producer, gave a private showing of it at a big party, and I just got up and walked out. When you began to see Mrs. Venable, and it became so realistic, with the boys chasing up the hill — I thought it was a travesty. It was about how people devour each other in an allegorical sense. But that’s what a character says in one of my stories: “All art is an indiscretion, all life is a scandal.” [laughter] It’s possible to make it that. Taylor Mead succeeds, at least… I come close. [laughter] I hate politesse, don’t you, Bill? I don’t like people who play it too close to the vest — especially when there isn’t too much of it left. I intend to enjoy what little there is. We’re having a very literary discussion, aren’t we? [hearty laugh] I avoid talking about writing. Don’t you, Bill?

Yes, to some extent. But I don’t go as far as the English do. You know this English bit of never talking about anything that means anything to anybody… I remember Graham Greene saying, “Of course, Evelyn Waugh was a very good friend of mine, but we never talked about writ­ing!

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There’s something very private about writing, don’t you think? Somehow it’s better, talking about one’s most intimate sexual practices — you know — than talking about writing. And yet it’s what I think we writers, we live for: writing. It’s what we live for, and yet we can’t discuss it with any freedom. It’s very sad… Anyway, I’m leaving America, more or less for good. Going to England first.

For good or for bad.…

Well, when I get to Bangkok it may be for bad, I don’t know — [laughter] And after I get through with this play in London, I should go to Vienna. I love Vienna in the summer. I love sitting out in the wine gardens.

I was there in 1936. Remember the Romanische Baden?

The Roman Baths, I went to them… they’re lovely, too.

Right near where the Prater used to be.

I’ve ridden on that ferris wheel in the park.

Me, too.

The one that was used so beautifully in The Third Man. I first went to Vienna in, it must have been 1949 or ’50. I went alone… oh, but you can’t be lonely in Vienna, you know. Not in summer. [pause] I’m just coming out with a new book of poems, Androgyne, Mon Amour. They’re not as good as the first ones, naturally. But, there’s one, or two or three…

I did some I Ching with this poetry this afternoon.

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What is I Ching?

Well, you know — like the Book of Changes. You open it at random, pick a phrase out, write it down, then shift them around and hook them up.

Oh, I would love that! You might come up with something better, that way.

Yes, it is interesting.

Would you like to hear a poem about a junky?

Yes.

All right. This was during my depression period. [reading]:

I met an apparition, and so did she.
She was as lovely as ever and even more fragile then ever and her eyes
were blind-looking.
I found myself able to think and speak a little.
“What have you been doing lately?”
Indifferently she said: “When you take pills around the clock
what you do is try to get money to pay the drugstore…”

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This lady was the mistress of a famous man who threw her over; she died of liquor and pills.

Deadly combination. Because as you know, the alcohol potentiates the toxicity.

I think it’s most remarkable that you avoided any commitment to drugs, you know? Except cannabis. And you’re strong enough to control it. I’m strong enough to control anything I take…

Old Aleister Crowley, plagiarizing from Hassan i Sab­bah, said: “ ‘Do what thou wilt’ is the whole of the Law.”

Regarding drugs, you mean.

Regarding anything… And then Hassan i Sabbah’s last words were: “Nothing is true; everything is permitted.” In other words, everything is permitted because nothing is true. If you see everything as illusion, then everything is permitted. The last words of Hassan i Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain, the Master of the Assassins. And this was given a slightly different twist, but it’s the same statement as Aleister Crowley’s, “Do what you want to do is the whole of the Law.”

Provided you want to do the right thing, yes.

Ah, but if you really want to do it, then it’s the right thing. That’s the point.

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Isn’t that an amoralist point of view?

Completely… completely.

I don’t believe you’re an amoralist.

Oh yes.

You do believe it?

Well. I do what I can…

I don’t think it’s true.

We were both brought up in the Bible belt; but it’s obvious that what you want to do is, of course, eventually what you will do, anyway. Sooner or later.

I think we all die, sooner or later. I prefer to postpone the event.

Yes, there is that consideration.

I’m in no hurry. But one doesn’t choose it. I’ve always been terrified of death.

Well… why?

I’m not sure. I say that, and yet I’m not sure. How about you?

Well, as I say, I don’t know. Someone asked me about death, and I said. “How do you know you’re not dead al­ready?”

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1989-1990: Flying Into the Next Century

Strange Angels

I met William S. Burroughs 10 years ago when I was an MC at the Nova Convention — a “countercultural” ex­travaganza celebrating Burroughs’s contribution to American art and thought. There were panel discussions (Susan Sontag, Timothy Leary) and per­formances by lots of people including Patti Smith, Frank Zappa (who read the talking-asshole section of Naked Lunch) and, supposedly, Keith Richards.

A lot of kids had come to see Keith and as the evening of performances wore on they were getting pretty restless. I re­member this well because it was my job to go out onstage and “keep the ball roll­ing,” which got harder and harder. Actu­ally, Keith had cancelled a week before the event and the promoters had “announced” this by tacking up a minuscule piece of notebook paper in the lobby which said, in extremely light pencil: “Keith Richards will not be appearing tonight.” Apparently no one had seen this note and the crowd was starting to pound the floor and chant “KEITH! KEITH! KEITH!” completely drowning out Phil Glass’s piano solo.

Finally, Burroughs walked out onstage, wearing a porkpie hat and carrying an old briefcase. He sat at a big desk, taking his time. “Good evening…” There was something so familiar about that voice. He started talking about drugs and alien­ation and other things these kids thought they’d invented themselves. There was an eerie silence in the theater. That voice! There was something very “beyond” about that voice: half midwestern sales­man/half Egyptian mummy. It came from a strange world something like this one — but not quite.

“I was traveling with The Intolerable Kid on the Nova Lark…” I can hear him now. He was sly, dangerous, incisive. But most important of all, he was wildly funny — the kind of funny that features daredevil leaps of logic that turn the world inside out, the kind of funny that sets you free. The crowd went crazy: Granddad! Where had he been all our lives?

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BURROUGHS FIRST appeared in 1950s America like an old black-sheep uncle who shows up one day from nowhere and starts banging on the door, “It’s Uncle Bill! Let me in!” And the family scurries around, bolting the doors. “It’s Uncle Bill! What should we do? Pretend we’re not here!” This was in a country where people were primarily concerned with mowing their lawns, attending PTA meetings, and keeping a tight lid on things — a self-satisfied place that resem­bled the ’80s far more than the ’60s or ’70s.

It seems like every 10 years or so Bur­roughs rises up from his grave, says one thing, and drops back down again. And it’s always right. Perfectly cast as a junky/priest in Drugstore Cowboy, he in­tones the last word on the decade, mut­tering something like, “The right wingers are using drug dealers as scapegoats.” And you realize, “My God! He’s right again!”

I LIKE TO THINK of William Burroughs as Ronald Reagan’s evil twin. Both are mid­western con men/ham actors with a gift for gab. And while Burroughs was writing his cantankerous classic, Naked Lunch, Reagan was busy perfecting his “just folks” delivery in the service of General Electric.

Ron landed the big job, of course, be­cause of his voice. That voice! The way he leaned into the microphone and talked right to us. So personal. “Good evening everybody…” (conspiratorial little chuckle). And it was like the two tears of kitsch: the first tear says: Look at all you wonderful Americans. And the second tear says: And look how sensitive we all are for noticing.

A couple of months ago, Ronald Rea­gan delivered his official oil portrait to the White House. Apparently under the impression that he was still in office, he heartily thanked “Vice-President Bush” for the hospitality. Of course, Reagan was right. He is still the president.

“Greed,” agree most of my friends. “Greed sums up the decade.” I guess I’d add the things that flow out of greed­ — disease, hunger, and fear — because this is what Reaganomics looked like when it finally arrived in the real world. And I don’t even have to go out of my way to see it. I just walk out my door and there it is. Every night there are four men trying to sleep in 30-degree weather in the new loading dock dormitory — a dorm that wasn’t here last year. Old women are rifling through garbage bags hunting for scraps. Delivery boys ring all 10 doorbells at once, which was really irritating until one day I realized: they can’t read. So then how come there hasn’t been a major riot in this town? How come they don’t just burn the place down? Fran Liebowitz suggested going up to the South Bronx to find out. “On second thought, forget it,” she said. “I’ll tell you why. They’re too stoned to stand up. That’s why.”

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SO WHAT EXACTLY is going on here? I can’t pretend I know. When I think about the ’80s I don’t really think about trends. I think about the people I love and the people I miss.

I miss Robert Mapplethorpe. I loved his work because he was willing to look at taboos — big taboos — the kind that scare people, like: What do sexuality and reli­gion have in common?

So to me, one of the most grating voices of the decade belongs to Jesse Helms. I can hear him now, twanging away about Robert Mapplethorpe. “This Mapplethorpe fellow was an acknowl­edged homosexual. He’s dead now, but the homosexual theme goes on through­out his work.” (So when you die your themes disappear with you?) And on the B side, there’s the voice of Walter Annen­berg sniffing, “I’m sick of people express­ing their artistic attitudes in an unappe­tizing manner.”

I remember as a kid sitting in church and watching the minister point to pic­tures of Jesus Christ — a man who was wearing practically no clothes and bleed­ing profusely. “Love this man. Love his body. He loves you,” the minister was insisting. And all the men and boys were squirming. (This of course resulted in the invention of Sunday afternoon football.)

Sex, religion, death (AIDS) and money (the National Endowment for the Arts)­ — Helms wrapped them up in a terrifying package and waved it around Congress like a bomb in a suitcase. The conclu­sion? An obscenity law: We’re not going to look at this. And you’re not going to look at it either.

I suppose one of the positive things about this incessant, dramatic swing to the right is that it does tend to bring artists out of their holes. I loved being part of the crowd in front of Artists Space screaming about the First Amend­ment. (I do think it would help a lot, though, if American artists began calling themselves “dissidents” since the U.S. government seems to find it pretty easy, even sort of patriotic, to champion the rights of dissidents in other countries.)

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I MISS FASSBINDER, too. I love his films. I love that they don’t end. They just stop. Mid-sentence. And his charac­ters! Like huge pieces of stuffed furni­ture, they can hardly heave themselves around. They’re so clumsy, so inarticulate — so unbearably human. But most of all I love Fassbinder because he had em­pathy. I never would have expected it 10 years ago, but now I find that I value empathy over most other things (intelli­gence, looks, achievements, even creativ­ity). Unfortunately, empathy is the flip side of most American pop culture, that is, hero worship. Nothing wrong with hero worship really, except that the heroes are usually a bunch of dumb wise­guys.

One of my biggest hopes for the ’90s is the decline of the buddy film. OK OK. I know they get made because there’s a huge supply of buddy/screenwriters — a coupla guys in West Hollywood and they’re sittin’ around looking for ideas. “Say, why don’t we write a film about… hey! about… a coupla guys!” I wish there were films that women could relate to a little bit more because really if I see one more movie starring these guy-duos (rival cops, escaped cons, college roommates, etc.) I’m going to scream.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE films of the last 10 years was Wings of Desire because I like to imagine various utopias and because I love to fly. About three years ago I was at Kennedy on my way to Paris when a guy came up to me and said: “I really like your music.” I said, “Thanks,” and we talked for about an hour — a fascinating conversation that rambled through doz­ens of topics — things like Ruiz’s specula­tion “What if every heartbeat you ever had had a name?” — things like that. As we were leaving I said, “I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. What’s your name?” And he said, “Wim Wenders.” And I said, “Oh. Hmmm. I really like your films.” We became friends and spent some evenings in Berlin talking about angels — what they look like — what they talk like. Do they actually wear black raincoats and follow you to the library? And, most important, why were they invented? As some kind of control group?

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THE MOST HOPEFUL person I’ve come across in the last decade is Wubbo Ock­els, the Dutch astronaut. I met him in Germany when we were guests on a strange TV variety show, along with Tina Turner and Gidon Kremer, the Russian violinist. It was quite an evening. Wubbo was demonstrating various antigravity tricks involving tables but when I talked to him later at close range I was struck by his eyes. There were tiny hairline x’s in each eye. (His contact lenses were being monitored in a study of peripheral vi­sion.) I saw him again in Amsterdam a couple of weeks ago because he’s planning a big meeting in Groningen, Holland (July ’90) of all the astronauts and cos­monauts of the world. Wubbo said, “You’re interested in these other places. Why don’t you come and do something with us?”

The astronauts have just published a book, The Home Planet, with lots of pic­tures taken from outer space captioned with their personal descriptions of what it was like up there. The photographs are haunting and very unfamiliar-looking. The writing is sort of clumsy but full of awe. They wrote things like, “I never knew what round was until I saw the round, round earth turning in space. And why call it earth when it’s mostly water with just little bits of land where the animals and people are?”

But the thing that struck me most was that they seemed to agree that nobody is up there — nobody is peering down at us with high-powered binoculars. And more than that, we’re not the last survivors, the last fading fragments of life. Some­how they seem to think we’re the very first. And this belief has filled them with an overwhelming desire to convince themselves and others to try — above all — to be excellent ancestors. The ’80s? It’s too late. But trying to be excellent ances­tors seems like a pretty great way to head out toward 2000 A.D. ■

NEXT…

The Rise of Rockism
By Robert Christgau

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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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Autobiographical Doc Burroughs Paints William S. as an Elusive Persona

By respectfully minding the gap between Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs’s experimental fiction and his real-life passions and traumas, biographical documentary Burroughs — shot in 1983 with its subject’s participation — paints the artist as an elusive persona.

Director Howard Brookner defines Burroughs’s fiction by its autobiographical elements and elliptical prose style, and establishes Burroughs’s slippery character through his interview subjects’ impressionistic, off-the-cuff commentary. Fragmentary asides, like the scene where journalist Lucien Carr regales poet Allen Ginsberg with his impression of Burroughs as a womanizing college student — ” ‘There’s a thunder in my chest,’ he’d say, and all the women fell to the floor” — are given as much weight as sequences where Burroughs tentatively explains the philosophy behind his Dada-esque “cut-up” style.

Likewise, the major players and events in Burroughs’s life are not introduced or situated within a linear biographical narrative. In one scene, Burroughs matter-of-factly explains that he developed an interest in opium because he’d heard it gave users “strange dreams.” Soon after that, Burroughs and Ginsberg hazily speculate on the circumstances that led Burroughs to accidentally shoot his wife Joan Vollmer in a game of William Tell. Ginsberg speculates that it was an assisted suicide, while Burroughs grumbles unintelligibly about a “malevolent spirit” that haunted him.

Burroughs‘s free-associative style allows viewers to enjoy tantalizing interview footage — like the scenes where Burroughs rambles about Wittgenstein’s conception of human existence as a “pre-recording” — without necessarily understanding what he’s saying. Come for the bawdy anecdotes, stay for the defiantly soundbite-proof rambling.

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Chlorine: A Tiresome Dramatic Comedy Made With Cliches

Chlorine begins, perhaps a bit pompously, with a quote from William S. Burroughs — though the only affinity the film shares with the author of Naked Lunch is a haphazard approach to structure.

While the effect was probably not deliberate, Jay Alaimo’s tiresome dramatic comedy often seems as if it were assembled using the cut-up technique favored by Burroughs and his beat contemporaries, in which clichés are thrown together and arbitrarily rearranged.

The premise alone suggests the extent of the screenplay’s unoriginality: Roger Lent (Vincent D’Onofrio), an ineffectual banker long resigned to middle-class complacency, finds himself embroiled in an investment scam orchestrated by an unscrupulous colleague, who in fact conspires to fleece the community.

Well, the ubiquity of greed may be a timeless theme, but hasn’t the novelty of the Ponzi scheme been exhausted? Alaimo seems to have an unusually high tolerance for shopworn ideas, and Chlorine boasts no shortage of them: Roger’s frumpy teenage daughter endures her first period in the style of an after-school special; his wife aspires to fit in with high society and makes a desperate show of embellishing her status; and his fashionably angst-ridden son, channeling Paul Dano in Little Miss Sunshine, reads Sun Tzu as he cultivates a budding anarchism. They exhibit not a glimmer of imagination or original thought among them.

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UP ALL NIGHT

William S. Burroughs died in 1997 at the age of 83, but his brilliantly deranged spirit lives on at Munch Gallery during a 24-hour marathon reading of his Nova Trilogy by the artist Marshall Weber. Weber begins at midnight tonight and continues for 24 hours, presumably pausing for the occasional bathroom break and speedball. Weber has been performing similar feats since 1994, when he spent 33 hours reading Ulysses in San Francisco, and says the sleep-deprivation leads to a “hallucinatory trance state.” That suits these viscerally unnerving, avant-garde Burroughs tomes, derived from the same manuscripts as Naked Lunch, and described by Jack Kerouac as “all scatological homosexual super-violent madness.”

Wed., Feb. 5, 11:59 p.m., 2014

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Undernourished Kill Your Darlings Puts a Retro-Cool Sheen on Nothing Much

How is it that no one had yet made the Lucien Carr–David Kammerer murder story into a movie? It’s an irresistible tall tale from the Beat back catalogue—how, once upon a time in the mid-’40s, the finger-snapping legends-to-be (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs) all coalesced around the radiant rebel Carr while he was a Columbia undergrad and discovered hard partying and transcendental literary pretension, even as lovelorn chickenhawk Kammerer hounded the golden boy until Carr was forced to knife the older man and dump his body in the Hudson. Just picture it: wine, hash, jazz dives, pre-Beat manifestos, taboos sliced and diced, barely sublimated homosexual passion, all climaxing in a capital crime that scatters the group and sends Carr to prison.

Fascination with all things Beat and beautiful has fluctuated over the decades but may be cresting; besides Howl (2010), On the Road (2012), and the upcoming Big Sur (2013), director John Krokidas’s little ranting costume-drama take on the Carr Affair may’ve been inevitable. Of course, the movie, the filmmaker’s first, lurches from one biopic cliché to the next, each illustrative of the narrative predetermined by history: legendary meetings, famous pranks, visits to downtown bohemian hovels, confrontations between Kammerer (Michael C. Hall) and Carr (Dane DeHaan, who’s something of a spitting image), and pivotal moments in the dawning awareness of Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), through whose virginal eyes the whole hip tragedy unfolds.

Clearly, the stunt casting, the biopic’s main course, is what’s hot on the menu here. In Radcliffe’s tiny hands Ginsberg is a tousled, pubertal Harry Potter but without the temper or quick thinking. This Ginsberg is mostly a mousey observer, pining silently for Carr and pissing off his formalist lit prof with a scandalous “what about Walt Whitman?” The story is framed as Ginsberg’s coming of age, but, as in so many films based on true-life stories, the arc must be forced and then buttoned down with the inevitable paragraphs of life summary at movie’s end. Radcliffe’s take on an extroverted Newark Jew isn’t so un-Hogwartsy that Ginsberg himself ever comes to mind, but that would be distracting, wouldn’t it? The eventual initiation into cruising and sex actually feels more on the nose—it always seemed a matter of time, after much furtive wand-stroking, until ‘Arry decided he liked sailors.

DeHaan, for his part, has the impossible burden of impersonating a counterculture life force, jumping on library tables and yelling in public, but at least he’s not required to approximate the famous. (After prison, Carr stayed out of the limelight as an editor at United Press for 47 years.) Jack Huston’s Jack Kerouac is forgettable, but Ben Foster’s William S. Burroughs is a dead-on riff and the movie’s only reliable source of comic relief. Evoking Burroughs’s laconic manner and crispy muttering, Foster doesn’t quite attain the spacey weirdness of Peter Weller’s Burroughs in David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, but his wary, funereal presence is a gift, playing like the thoughtful hound dog in a room of troublesome kittens.

With so much talent on hand (including Jennifer Jason Leigh as Ginsberg’s deranged mother and Elizabeth Olsen as Kerouac’s soon-to-be-shotgun-wife, Edie Parker), Krokidas seems torn about actually attending to the plot, and Hall’s bearded menace appears only intermittently, out of mind when he’s not making a scene in front of a startled Ginsberg. When the face-off in the park finally arrives, it’s almost arbitrary, tricked out with suggestions of Carr’s conflicted sexuality and Kammerer’s suicidal intent, but remaining essentially something that just happened.

Did you know that Beat poet-pope Gregory Corso spent time in prison as a teenager with Lucky Luciano? That wouldn’t make a terrific movie, either. Retro-cool all-star pop history has a seductive way of suggesting a movie adaptation without providing even the slimmest scaffolding for narrative or thematic substance. Krokidas ends up dressing sets, quoting old literary fads (“Ah, Rimbaud!”), and letting his earnest cast fume and chain-smoke in period duds. Kill Your Darlings is an undernourished and over-emphatic film about a petty murder that involved a few writers (Kerouac and Burroughs were brought in for police questioning, scenes Krokidas inexplicably leaves out), and at best might’ve had life as a Beat-satiric Showtime series—Jack & Bill & Lu & Al at the White Horse, with Jason Schwartzman as Ginsberg. Or maybe not.

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The Beat Hotel

I have seen many passable minds of my generation fritter away their best creative years working on tributes to the creative minds of past generations, and still nothing seems to slow this parade of invariably awed, usually nostalgic, rarely insightful artist docs to the screen. Scaling new heights of inessentiality is The Beat Hotel, which chronicles the period, roughly 1958–63, when a low-rent, squalid residential hotel at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur, Paris, was home to expat poets and artists including Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William S. Burroughs. This fertile creative soil, from which bloomed Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Burroughs’s cut-up technique, was, per one interviewee, “bohemia working at its best”—but, these more famous boarders all being gone, it remains to their former neighbors to hit the usual talking points, perpetuate the legends, and generally Beat a dead horse: Here we have Brit photographer Harold Chapman, Scot painter Elliot Rudie, and Jean-Jacques Lebel, the French translator of Howl. Spicing up the proceedings with some amateurish re-enactments and animations, by now de rigueur in this sort of thing, veteran documentarian Alan Govenar ties things together with a scrubby crowd gathering for the unveiling of a commemorative plaque on the renovated four-star Hotel du Vieux Paris that now resides at 9 Rue Gît-le-Cœur. The Beat Hotel serves roughly the same uninspiring memorial purpose.

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Fairy Tale Ending: Downtown Filmmaker Sara Driver’s Lost Film, Found

The way that Sara Driver tells the story of the resurfacing of her 1981 debut film, You Are Not I, has a touch of the mystical about it—which isn’t strange coming from Driver, who confesses to a “love of fairy tales, the way things from them echo your own life.”

A 48-minute adaptation of a Paul Bowles short story, You Are Not I concerns an institutionalized woman (Suzanne Fletcher) who, escaping after witnessing a surreal auto accident, wanders to her sister’s suburban home where, in a psychogenic fugue, the women seem to swap identities. The lab elements for You Are Not I were destroyed in a flood in a New Jersey storage unit, and the film—once a cult item on the festival circuit—was thought lost until a copy that Driver had sent to Bowles, living in Tangier, was discovered among Bowles’s effects by librarian Francis Poole in 2008 in mint condition. “To be in that climate for 30 years and for there to have been no damage at all is really phenomenal,” Driver says. “The archivist thinks it’s because it had bug powder all over it”—the insecticide a touch out of a story by William S. Burroughs, Driver’s neighbor who’d given her Bowles’s address in the ’80s.

I met Driver at a café on the Bowery, geographically near but economically and psychologically far from the depopulated downtown where Burroughs, Driver, and her collaborators on You Are Not I lived—the photographer Nan Goldin and the author Luc Sante play small roles; the soundtrack is by Phil Kline, a noteworthy avant-garde musician; the cinematography is by Jim Jarmusch, Driver’s longtime partner and collaborator.

A native of New Jersey, Driver, now 56, studied classics before attending NYU film school with Jarmusch, with whom she made the scene. “We all knew each other; there wasn’t that big a population in the arts,” Driver says. “We all basically met at clubs around music and at the movies.” Still very much the classics student preoccupied with myths, Driver is today working with French producers on “an omnibus film of metamorphosis tales from all over the world,” which will have her directing alongside Emir Kusturica, Michel Gondry, Alfonso Cuarón, and Persepolis‘s Marjane Satrapi. In the meantime, one still-intact East Village institution, Anthology Film Archives, will be playing You Are Not I along with a program of Driver’s other films and a mirroring program, curated by the filmmaker, of formative influences. In evidence is Driver’s particular fondness for drive-in and pulp material—we spent a good quarter-hour discussing favorite grave-robbing movies—and her selections include Walter Hill’s Spider Baby and Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People.

Driver praises Cat People producer Val Lewton as a proto-independent, “using his limitations as strengths.” She should know: Graveyard shifts editing You Are Not I from 2 to 8 in the morning at the Film Center Building in Hell’s Kitchen provided Driver with the mood of nocturnal unease and material for her next film, 1986’s Sleepwalk, in which Fletcher stars as a downtown copy-shop employee (as was Driver, working with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon) whose life is invaded by sinister signs when she accepts a freelance translation job on some Chinese fables. “New York was such an emotional place at that time; you were very sensitive to stuff on the streets,” Driver says. “You had to be. It was a survival thing. I kept a journal of weird things that happened to me on the street, which I incorporated into Sleepwalk.”

The film’s conclusion, which has Fletcher searching a nearly abandoned city for her missing son, seems absurd today to Driver, though she remembers “at that time, you could’ve run through the streets of Tribeca looking for a child, yelling their name.” Driver recalls 1980s Manhattan as a city of great creative ferment and desolation. “We found all our furniture on Tuesday nights out on the streets. I remember seeing Louise Nevelson, the sculptor, on Mott Street. She was looking for pieces of wood in the garbage. She had these mink eyelashes on, and it was raining. One was drooping . . .”

That Old New York’s passing is memorialized in Driver’s 1994 short video The Bowery. “The homeless guys, every winter, they would cash their Social Security checks—like in Midnight Cowboy—and they’d go to Florida, and they’d come back in March or April, and that was the last summer I saw them coming back.” The last of the skid-row bars has closed, notes The Bowery‘s sort-of narrator, Sante. Driver says: “Now they’re all open again, for NYU students.”