I’ve been suffering from Beat literature burnout lately. I knew it was bad when Bravo ran two documentaries on Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac and I couldn’t work up enough interest to watch them.
I was in a skeptical mood, as usual, on April 18 when I dropped by the Knitting Factory, a fashionable downtown New York hangout, for an all-day reading to honor Jack Micheline. The room was packed, and I grouchily wondered if Micheline would have drawn such a large and adoring crowd if he were still alive and able to borrow money. But my defenses were broken immediately when Jack Micheline’s son stepped up to make a speech. A clean-cut and polite adult who seemed to have suffered no scars from having an impoverished Beat poet for a father, he even cared enough to have created a new website, JackMicheline.com, in his father’s honor. He held his young daughter in his arms and said she was what Jack Micheline had been proudest of at the end of his life. Okay, dammit, I was touched.
Then a young independent filmmaker named Laki Vazakas invited me to a screening of his new movie about the late Herbert Huncke’s stormy relationship with a younger and more troubled companion, Louis Cartwright. Both Huncke and Louis were lifelong heroin addicts, occasionally switching to methadone maintanence or other substitutes, but in any case the routine of drug acquisition seemed to have ruled their lives completely. The film was shot with a handheld videocamera in their Chelsea Hotel apartment and other locales, without a plan or a script. Unlike the characters in MTV’s “The Real World”, though, Huncke and Louis were often too strung out and world-weary to play to the camera, and so the movie is filled with startlingly honest moments. Louis clowns happily in the early scenes, but then begins to slip into a drug burnout so devastating that even Huncke is forced to separate from him, and finally the camera catches Louis crying and alone, hiding in a dark apartment unwilling to face the beautiful weather outside. Finally he is murdered on a Lower East Side street, and we see the most startling image of all: a naked, aged, skeletal Huncke sobbing uncontrollably for his lost friend, groping for an understanding of what has happened. I hope “Huncke and Louis” finds its way to some kind of distribution deal; till then, if you’re around New York City there’ll be another screening on May 8 at the NYU Film Series, and hopefully more after that. Check the website about the film for more info.
The night of the “Huncke and Louis” screening, ironically, I wandered into an East Village bookshop and picked up the nastiest (and funniest) book ever written about the Beat Generation, “Crimes of the Beats,” by the gang of lovably obnoxious New York City poets and storytellers who call themselves “The Unbearables.” They’ve been published in book form before, and I’ve also written about their activities (such as their satirical protest against the 1995 NYU Beat Conference) earlier in these pages. Their new book is a collection of essays, poems and memoirs mercilessly trashing the legendary authors of the Beat Generation, as well as the hangers-on, wannabes and innocent wide-eyed believers they left in their wake. The pieces take turns savaging Allen Ginsberg for his marketing savvy, Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke for their weak claims to mythical status, Gary Snyder (the “Buddhist budget advisor”) for his placid personality, and even, surprisingly, Gregory Corso (a saint of the modern-day Lower East Side literary underworld as far as I can tell) for his blatant arrogance and nastiness. But this book is not a self-indulgent rant — it’s clever as hell, with each pointed barb carefully sharpened to hurt. The pieces are even short, a true rarity in these content-glutted days.
This book should be on the bookshelf of every Beat reader, and it can be ordered directly their publisher, Autonomedia. I have only one gripe, though: these Unbearables, whom I know to be mostly a bunch of poverty-stricken, zonked-out, sloppily-dressed writers who gather in the East Village to applaud each other at poorly-attended poetry readings, claim not to be Beat themselves. Yeah, right, and Leonardo DiCaprio isn’t a teen idol, and my Aunt Melinda isn’t an alcoholic. Sometimes the truth hurts.
If Herbert Huncke and Jack Micheline represent the thesis of Beat legend and hype, and if the Unbearables represent the antithesis, who represents the inevitable synthesis? I dunno, but I do like the Louisville, Kentucky-based poet Ron Whitehead a lot. His writings are powerful (like those of the original Beats), but he’s also fresh and unpredictable and unpretentious (like the Unbearables). I haven’t yet seen his new book of poetry, published by Tilt-A-Whirl Press, but the guy who designed Tilt-A-Whirl’s web page wrote me about it, and I discovered that this guy had done some other excellent websites as well, including one for the excellent small publisher Soft Skull. He also had some fun web pages of his own (click on his hair).
Yeah, the Beat fad is tired; I can’t stand the hype myself anymore. But somehow, if we get beyond that four letter word that once was useful but isn’t any longer … still, hiding in corners out there, from the San Francisco BART to the Chelsea Hotel, from Louisville, Kentucky to the Lower East Side and even out on the web itself, there is genius waiting to be found. So I’m not giving up hope just yet. Though I’m close.