1. I think I’ve been to too many Beat events in large lecture halls and sterile auditoriums lately. Take, for instance, the case of jazz musician David Amram, who back in the old days used to jam with Jack Kerouac at poetry readings. I’d seen Amram perform at various tributes and memorials, but he never clicked with me; I didn’t like it that he dressed like an orthodontist (albeit with a variety of unusual-looking musical instruments around his neck), and I never liked his hammy, pull-out-the-stops
performance of the title song (which he wrote) for the film ‘Pull My Daisy.’
But then I caught his act at the Nuyorican Poetry Cafe, sharing a bill with Ron Whitehead, Brian Hassett and others, on a night that happened to be the night William S. Burroughs died (though nobody knew this at the time). He didn’t sing “Pull My Daisy” and I ended up loving every minute of his performance. I think the problem has been the bright lights, the uncomfortable chairs and the academic atmosphere of some of these earlier events. In a small dark smoky club way past midnight a vintage hip-cat like David Amram can finally show us who he is, and this night at the Nuyorican I understood for the first time why Jack Kerouac wanted him onstage while he read his poems. Amram’s passionate belief in the power of music is infectious.
At one point he had the entire crowd going in a two-part syncopated handclap — one half of the room providing one beat, the other half complementing it — that was, I realized, probably the most complicated musical arrangement I will personally ever participate in.
David Amram also has his own web page now, so I figure it’s about time I write about him in Literary Kicks.
2. This must be my month for coming to terms with people I didn’t appreciate before. A few weeks ago a young editor at William Morrow named Benjamin G. Schafer challenged me to read a book he’d just put together: the Herbert Huncke Reader, published by Morrow this month. I’ve always found Huncke an intriguing personality — a more street-wise original-junkie friend of the core New York beat writers in the 1940’s, he shows up as a colorful character in ‘Junky‘,’On The Road‘, ‘Howl‘ and many other Beat classics. He’s written books,
(for Hanuman, Cherry Valley Editions, etc.), but I’d personally
never read any of them, and I sort of casually dissed him as a writer in my Herbert Huncke biographical page here at LitKicks. Benjamin Schafer, who worked hard putting this book together, asked me to put aside my preconceptions and give Huncke a fair reading for the first time. He pointed out a few pieces for me to read, and I began with ‘The Magician,’ a haunting, honest tale of heroin addiction that reads like a Buddhist parable. I also tried, at his recommendation, ‘Beware of Fallen Angels’, ‘Faery Tale’ and ‘Easter’, and the long autobiographical novella ‘The Evening Sky Turned Crimson.’ And, okay, I admit it: Huncke is a talented writer, and obviously took the craft seriously. His picturesque slice-of-life tales express with honesty and humor the state of mind of the City Hobo: junk-sick, impoverished, stripped completely naked of his own morals. This theme reverberates in the writings of William S. Burroughs, as well as movies like ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and the songs of Glen Campbell (just kidding about the Glen Campbell part).
If you are interested in the roots of the Beat Generation — it was Huncke, by the way, who introduced Kerouac to the term ‘Beat’ — you don’t want to miss this book.
3. Speaking of Kerouac — he’s all over the place lately. This month is the 40th Anniversary of the publication of ‘On The Road,’ and a 40th anniversary edition of the book has been published, along with some other fanfare. More interestingly, Viking Penguin has finally published an unseen Kerouac work of major importance: ‘Some Of The Dharma.’ It’s a thick hardcover volume of Kerouac’s notes and musings about Buddhism, and stylistically it’s somewhere between a Joycean literary experiment and a personal journal about the tragicomic spiritual condition of mankind. It has no plot, almost no characters or dialogue, and the sentences are laid out like free verse. This book is not for everybody, but I’ve been skimming several of its hidden surfaces for a few weeks now, and I haven’t run out of interesting discoveries yet. Among other things, we know now the origin of the phrase “God Is Pooh Bear” from the last paragraph of ‘On The Road’: Cathy Cassady, the daughter of Neal and Carolyn Cassady, said it when she was a few years old.
Other Kerouac web news: there’s now an online version of Paul Maher’s Lowell-based Kerouac Quarterly, and there’s a new permanent web page to describe the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival which takes place this weekend. Still no news of the Francis Ford Coppola film of ‘On The Road’, and I’m figuring this film will never get made. One
film that will get made, though, and which I’m really looking forward to, is a Burroughs-related project, partly based on
the novels ‘Queer’ and ‘Junky,’ that will be directed by Steve Buscemi (I wrote about this in a previous Beat News entry, below, and have since gotten word that the project is still on and gathering steam).
4. Other new books: ‘A Far Rockaway of the Heart’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (whose City Lights bookstore finally has a web site!). ‘A Different Beat: Writings By Women of the Beat Generation’ is another spin on the theme begun by last year’s excellent “Women Of The Beat Generation” anthology published by Conari Press. This book is written by Richard Peabody and published by High Risk Books; I just bought it so I don’t know if it’s good or not, but it has writers like Carolyn Cassady, Elise Cowen, Diane Di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Lenore Kandel, Jan Kerouac, Janine Pommy Vega and Anne Waldman, so I’m pretty damn sure I’ll like it.
Finally, my wife and I have both become incredibly fascinated by the new edition of the Folkways’ Records ‘Anthology of American Folk Music‘, originally compiled by Beat outer-orbit personality, experimental filmmaker and all around strange-guy Harry Smith in 1952. This thing is wild. We see folk music in it’s rawest form: authentic jug bands, porchlight crooners, church choruses, and numerous other characters from the deep country, both white and black (you often can’t tell which), singing and talking in a mega-hick vernacular as compelling as it is strange. Many of these singers were the country-hobo equivalents of the city-hoboes presented by writers like Herbert Huncke (above). When these guys sing the blues, they sing the blues.
This record was one of the first collections of folk music available in public libraries, and as such played an important role in the developing sensibilities of future folk-rockers like Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia. You can read more about this historic re-release in Wired News and Furious Green Thoughts/Perfect Sound Forever.
5. Farewell — one last time — to Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and William S. Burroughs.