Simon Warner, author of Text and Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture, just published in paperback, discusses a fateful meeting which would shape not only the world of literature and but also influence the destiny of popular music.
SEVENTY years ago, the Western democracies were engaging in a critical campaign to secure their liberation from the forces of fascism. In northwest France, the Allies were plotting, then launching, D-Day, an audacious endgame that would finally dislodge Hitler’s occupying armies from mainland Europe.
In that same dramatic year of 1944, but on the other side of the Atlantic and in the heart of the isle of Manhattan, a smaller group was embarking on an odyssey to discover quite different forms of liberation. Two young men, and one not so young, would forge somewhat unlikely friendships that would last all of their life times.
In a shared, low rent New York apartment, these three individuals, brought together from different places and sharply contrasting backgrounds by coincidental connections, would conceive a ‘New Vision’, a response to uncertain times for sure but a recipe that would spawn an avalanche of poems and novels and a system of thinking that would radicalise the youth of the world.
Each of the trio was an isolate but in distinctive ways: William Burroughs, the patrician Midwesterner from a well-to-do, WASP family who had rejected the stifling air of Harvard graduation for the shadowy life of an urban drifter; Jack Kerouac, the working class, Catholic New Englander, with French antecedents, who had arrived in the city as a jazz hungry Ivy Leaguer; and the Jewish, second generation Russian immigrant Allen Ginsberg, born of staunchly leftist parents, who had joined the Columbia cohort with his homosexual secrets soon to leak.
All three then, for a range of reasons, felt separated from the US mainstream, the American Dream of tangible plenty, an America caught, at the time of their meeting, in the dual fangs of a European and a Pacific battle, a cataclysm that had penetrated the deeper consciousness of the nation only a short time after Depression had sabotaged its economic prosperity and undermined the natural optimisms of the New World.
So, while the Allied armies, 3,500 miles away, were struggling to secure particular political freedoms, what was the liberation these idiosyncratic outsiders were seeking? All students of the literary with ambitions to write, they were drawn not merely to the libraries of the academy, but also the lower strata of New York life: the neon streets, sex hustlers, gutter criminals, drug dealers, the sounds of jazz, and the dangerous glamours of Negro life. In these subterranean corners they sought an antidote to the numbing anaesthesia of middle class conformity.
Together, Burroughs, the elder statesman invigorated by the darker dreams of Spengler and Céline, Kerouac, Columbia football hopeful, thrilled by Wolfe and Shakespeare, and would-be politico lawyer Ginsberg, drawn to the mystic visions of Blake and the shadowy stanzas of Rimbaud, would conceive their novel escapes from the sterile prospects of normality.
It is hard to say what they would have achieved if they had remained solo players in their own intense psycho-dramas, but what would follow in its impulsive, erratic and often terrible glory – ecstasy, intoxication and nirvana, madness, violence and death – would lead this core group, and a spreading sheaf of friends, to publish novels and poetry that would capture global attention and, along the way, influence their readers to adopt utterly fresh takes on life and its possibilities.
Their experiments in writing and in friendship, in living and loving, in sexuality and spirituality, in narcotic use and abuse, in travel, would inspire a radical body of ideas, a revolutionary ideology indeed, a way of surviving, in a post-war world, scarred by the unimaginable terrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and tarnished by a quotidian claustrophobia: a surface material happiness set against a backdrop of Cold War, McCarthy, nuclear threat and racial tension.
When their key works, after long struggles to publish, arrived in a surge – Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems in 1956, Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957 and Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch in 1959 – there was a sense that what had been fermenting, for ten years and more, now distilled, in their pages, the hopes and fears of the Zeitgeist, at least for later teenagers and students in their early twenties, in the US and then quickly well beyond.
The poems and the novels – ground-breaking in style and content – were published at a moment of deep adolescent restlessness, a time to look forward and shake off the baggage, the heavy baggage, of the recent past. Energised teenagers danced to a music of miscegenation, rock’n’roll, a vivid symbol that the dyke of long-standing colour prejudice was about to burst.
“Their experiments in writing and in friendship, in living and loving, in sexuality and spirituality, in narcotic use and abuse, in travel, would inspire a radical body of ideas, a revolutionary ideology indeed, a way of surviving, in a post-war world, scarred by the unimaginable terrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and tarnished by a quotidian claustrophobia: a surface material happiness set against a backdrop of Cold War, McCarthy, nuclear threat and racial tension.”
And there were bigger, more organised swells in this choppy sea. The Civil Rights movement, the voices of folk protest and a rising dissatisfaction on university campuses, as more young white students had the opportunity to attend those institutions, converged in a boisterous alliance for change as the 1950s concluded.
The writings of those authors, by now dubbed members of the Beat Generation, would also help to foster this fresh spirit. The books became life-guides and manifestos for those who would come of age in the next, electric decade. In these loosely veiled autobiographical fictions, young men specifically found personal touchstones. They drank the verse, smoked the prose and hit the road, travelling west and travelling east, broadening minds and horizons.
By the time the 1960s arrived, demonstrations on the streets in the capital and on campuses nationwide, were galvanising this spirit of transformation with music – at first folk, gospel and jazz and then, by the mid-decade, a much smarter, worldly brand of rock – providing a dynamic soundtrack to this vibrant age.
Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and those following in their red-hot slipstreams, took popular music into astonishing new realms – topics such as politics and poetry, drugs and self-knowledge, sex and even revolution, transcended the teen romance concerns of the Top 40.
In my book Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture, just published in paperback by Bloomsbury, I have tried to capture some of that essence, some of the potency, of these remarkable times, when the voices of literary radicals came together with the sounds and songs of rock revolutionaries, as Ginsberg befriended Dylan, Burroughs brushed shoulders with McCartney, and Kerouac, for all his antagonism towards the hippy wave, was anointed a sire of the counterculture by those who had devoured his amazing tales.
Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll relates a story about the ways in which the messages of that earlier poetic circle were seized and alchemically re-cast by those who followed – notions of freedom through travel, ideas linked to the power of love and sexual expression, approaches triggered by the mind-expanding opportunities of drugs, thoughts about alternative lifestyles and religions, concepts of social reform from issues of race to matters of the environment.
The Vietnam conflict would, if anything, secure this relationship, as Ginsberg joined other Beats, like Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder, on anti-war platforms like the Human Be In in San Francisco in January 1967, when the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Country Joe & the Fish and Quicksilver Messenger Service shared the same Golden Gate Park stage, the great curtain-raiser to the Summer of Love.
It certainly appeared that the orchestrators of the great musical storm of that era – Dylan, Lennon, Jagger, Jim Morrison, Jerry Garcia, Grace Slick and others – had not only been affected by the socio-political times but also by the ideas that the Beat writers had expressed at the end of the previous decade. So many, in their lyrics, in their communalism, in their espousing of free love, in their drug escapades, in their personal political striving, in their challenging art, appeared to carry the concepts valorised by those earlier writers into a contemporary context.
Nor it seems has that context, connecting Beats and rock culture, faded, even as we enter a new millennium. The threads of psychedelia may be long frayed, but several musical families have succeeded – from glam and punk to new wave, indie to grunge and even rap – and kept the artistic flame alight, the cross-cultural, trans-generational kinesis humming.
From David Bowie to Patti Smith, the MC5 to Pere Ubu, the Clash to Sonic Youth, REM to U2, Chuck D to Kurt Cobain, all have all been adherents of that literary impulse: its prose, its poetry, its spoken word, its proselytising. And the enduring, grand-daddio of them all, Tom Waits, has spent four decades commemorating Kerouac’s timeless marriage to the highway, through his songs and on his tours.
The journey appears to have no end and the Beat, it seems, does indeed go on. When Elvis Costello released his collaborative work with The Roots, Wise Up Ghost, last year, he utilised the famed City Lights book cover – just like the one that accompanied Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ collection in 1956 – as its sleeve, and when Dylan released his new album, Another Self Portrait, around the same time, there were strong rumours that his painting which adorns the cover was actually a homage to a photograph of Kerouac.
In February 2014, as William Burroughs’ centenary was celebrated, Iggy Pop presented an hour-long tribute to the author on BBC Radio Four. In the same month, John Sinclair, noted pot agitator and original White Panther, not to mention poet and manager of the MC5, performed at the Neil Cassady Birthday Bash, a celebration of Kerouac’s old travelling buddy, in Denver Colorado. It seems that the rich and lengthy history that is at the heart of Text and Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll is plainly a continuing one.
Simon Warner is a journalist, lecturer and broadcaster who teaches Popular Music Studies at the University of Leeds in the UK. He has, over a number of years, written live reviews and counterculture obituaries for The Guardian and The Independent, and has a particular interest in the relationship between the Beat Generation writers–Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and others–and rock culture. His previous books include Rockspeak: The Language of Rock and Pop (1996) and Howl for Now: A Celebration of Allen Ginsberg’s epic protest poem (2005).