Simon Warner is a journalist, lecturer and broadcaster who teaches Popular Music Studies at the University of Leeds in the UK. With his book Text and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture, out now, Warner maintains a particular interest in the relationship between the Beat Generation writers–Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and others–and rock culture.
You’re an academic with a journalist’s background. Describe how you got to where you are now.
Simon Warner: I’ve had two principal careers–the second half has been teaching in universities; the first half, I worked as journalist. I was a news journalist, then I covered culture, and became arts editor on a couple of evening papers during the 1980s. Eventually, I became a live rock reviewer with The Guardian. But in 1990, Liverpool University launched the world’s first MA in Popular Music Studies and I managed to join the first cohort. So, when I qualified a couple of years later, I suddenly had the chance to take my love and knowledge of popular music into the academy. I managed to get a lecturing post at the University of Leeds soon after and that’s been my life since. Popular music has gradually secured a foothold in UK universities over the last couple of decades–it’s slowly challenged the assumption that studying music just means orchestras and symphonies. Instead we can bring ideas about scenes and subcultures, gender and sexuality, class and ethnicity, into the classroom, and try and understand the musical evolutions set against the social and political changes during the post-Second World War period. I teach courses on the Beats, the 1960s, and punk, for example. And Leeds University is a great rock campus –home of the Who’s Live at Leeds and we count Mark Knopfler, Gang of Four, Corinne Bailey Rae and, maybe the hottest new British band of the moment, Alt-J, among our alumni.
“‘Howl’ is one of the great modernist statements, to rank with masterpieces by Picasso and Brecht, Beckett and Eliot.”
What got you interested in the Beats and Beat culture?
SW: I remember in my mid-teens a teacher at school introducing us to an edition of the Penguin Modern Poets. It featured three Beats–Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Corso–and the verse seemed to offer an original and engaging take on the everyday world. It was not dealing with lofty issues in obscure language and oblique form in the way that academic verse often appeared to. It was expressing serious ideas but in an accessible way. Then I read Ann Charters’ classic biography of Jack Kerouac and was hooked by the ideas about travel and freedom, seeking new experience and challenging convention, that the Beat circle promoted with such verve and energy. It made me want to have those adventures. And I read all the Kerouac I could find which fueled those dreams, those adolescent visions.
What is your favorite piece of Beat literature and why?
SW: Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, The Town and the City, and The Dharma Bums; hard to separate out which I liked best. And Ginsberg’s “Howl” has become a big favorite in more recent times. It has that intense power, that economy of expression, that jarring, jolting juxtaposition of word and image, that is quite thrilling–personal, political, polemical. Once you understand the powerful autobiographical thread in the Beats’ work, too, you better make sense of the fiction of their novels and their poetry.
The Beats are iconic American figures, especially amongst teenagers. How are they perceived in the UK?
SW: Generations of young readers, young artists, in the UK still seem to be drawn to Beat culture and its ideas. There seems to be a hip bohemian thread running through our cities, our art colleges, and our universities, which means that new gatherings of 20-year-olds keep linking to the art and style of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and company. The fact that they have been an inspiration to Dylan and the Beatles, David Bowie and Patti Smith, Joe Strummer and Kurt Cobain, even Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutie, helps to keep that older community of writers on the radar of younger listeners and music-makers, experimentalists and avant-gardists who want to test the boundaries. Certainly students who take my “Joined at the Hip: Rock, Jazz and the Beat Generation” class at Leeds seem quite entranced by the historical connections that join the literary rebels of the 1950s and contemporary artists who are shaking up the scene.
You have been working on this book for a long time. Describe the process of bringing it from idea to fruition.
SW: Books can take time to gestate; this one has been on my mind for many years. The first thing I did when I left university was earn enough cash–lugging bricks on a building site for year–to make an extended trip to the US and follow the trails of Kerouac and Cassady and their fellow travelers. I went to Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, met Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco, and had a summer of excitements that seemed to capture some of the thrilling spirit of the old Beat trail. But that was quite some while ago. Since then, I’ve written about music, continue to read widely, then became immersed in the world of academe. It took some while to work out how I might best tell the story of the enduring association of Beat and rock. It began as a narrative history and, while the book still carries some of that element, I decided eventually that to intersperse that story with interviews, obituaries, reviews and other relevant articles would help make the bigger tale more diverse and more digestible for the reader. Different voices contribute and I hope that effectively breaks up the tone, the register, of the book, and provides different angles and accounts.
What are your research interests outside of the Beats?
SW: Ever since my mother bought me “She Loves You” by the Beatles as a small child I have been something close to a popular music fanatic. Teaching Popular Music Studies is like the realization of a dream I could not have had as a teenager; no one ever thought rock and pop would be the subject of any serious consideration back in the 1950s and 1960s. But that changed with the rise of politically-charged movements like punk and hip hop; music transcended the teen ghetto and became more than just an entertainment choice. My interests lie in Anglo-American music in the post-war years–from the rise of rock ’n’ roll to the crisis facing the industry in the early 21st century. But I’m most interested when popular songs become entangled with social movements–when they aided the Civil Rights cause, attacked the Vietnam War, took on Apartheid or campaigned against world hunger. That’s when rock and its sister genres are most fascinating for me. Popular music has been a multi-billion dollar business but it has also had its utopian and progressive moments when it has helped to edge society towards reform.
Did any of the interviews for Text and Drugs surprise you? Why or why not?
SW: The interviews were all memorable in their way. Michael McClure invited me to his house in the hills above San Francisco and we ended up in lively debate. David Amram, at his upstate New York farmhouse, was staggeringly energetic. After he spoke to me for two hours, I helped him clear weeds from a large field, then he drove me into Manhattan where he was attending a premiere of a new version of The Manchurian Candidate, a film for which he had penned the original score in the 1960s. Close to Oakland, [photographer] Larry Keenan–whose image is on the cover of the book–was charming but beginning to suffer from a creeping illness that would eventually claim him. Steven Taylor met me at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado. Genesis P-Orridge talked in his Brooklyn house, almost 40 years after we had been boyhood neighbours in the English Midlands.
If you could have met any of the Beats while in their prime, who would you choose and what would you do with them?
SW: I’ve met and gotten to know a number of the players in this drama. Ferlinghetti I spoke to in 1978 and Burroughs I met in 1982. Since then, I’ve become friendly with the poet David Meltzer, conversed often with Anne Waldman, visited Carolyn Cassady’s home, met Ginsberg’s guitar player Steven Taylor a number of times. And meeting Michael McClure, David Amram and Larry Keenan as I prepared this book was also enriching for me and, I hope, the volume itself. If I’d been able to get to know Kerouac in the 1940s or early 1950s, I think that would have been an exciting thought, though his later decline made him a far less amenable prospect–cantankerous and irascible it seems. Ginsberg I was sorry to have missed. He would have been an intriguing contact at any point in his interesting life.
If you could teach an entire class on one piece of writing what would it be and why?
SW: “Howl” opens eyes wide in the classroom. At first Ginsberg’s poem seems like a dislocated explosion, a chaotic stream of consciousness. But when you start to unpack the details and debate the reasons why the poet uses such a fragmented form, its treasures are many. Its language is rich and raucous, surprising, sometimes shocking. “Howl” is one of the great modernist statements, to rank with masterpieces by Picasso and Brecht, Beckett and Eliot. Its truths lie in its dissonance, in its fragmented shards, in its huge rolling passion, its heartfelt gravity. When the poem’s 50th anniversary was commemorated at Leeds University in 2005, a student called George Hunt learnt verbatim every line of this amazing work and performed it. It was an utter tour de force, spell-binding.
You’ve also written about the Beatles, the New York music scene, and even Lady Gaga. How did this research and writing experience differ from your other projects? How was it similar?
SW: The Beatles, the punk and new wave of New York at CBGBs, and Lady Gaga have all been grist to the mill at various points in my writing life and all also have a greater or lesser part in Text and Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll, as it happens. But the Beat book has involved a good deal of first-hand research–many visits to the US, the throbbing heart of Beat, have fed into this study at various times and in various ways. So that is the principal distinction I would make between those other projects and the one investigating the Beat Generation’s impact and influence.
Text and Drugs and Rock ‘N’ Roll is available now at independent booksellers and from Bloomsbury.com.