Friday, October 7, 2011

In Search of the Beat Generation

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat
up smoking in the supernatural darkness of
cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities
contemplating jazz..."

Other than Jack Kerouac's death on October 21, 1969 no other date resonates as much in the Beat culture as October 7, 1955.

Allen Ginsberg famously read Howl in public for the first time on this day in 1955. The seminal poem from the seminal beat poet has been pilloried, parodied, patronized and piously revered...sometimes all at once...sometimes by the same person. The publication of Howl, the reading, the subsequent obscenity trial and the cosmic rise and fall of the beat generation can be synopsized in Ginsberg's tome for his friend Carl Solomon.

In some ways, Howl is the Coles Notes version of the Beat Generation, an abridged On the Road. The names, the places, the music, the pathos are all encapsulated in one of the most talked about poems of the 20th century. But to get it, you have to get it.

You have to put yourself in mid-20th century America, after the Depression, after World War II, after it all began. It began at 421 W118th St. in New York City. A stone's throw from Columbia University. This unassuming address in Morningside Heights is where Jack Kerouac lived with Edie Parker in the early 1940s. Here at 421 W118th where Kerouac was first introduced to Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. And the Beat went on from there.

Before the Beats headed downtown to Greenwich Village. The first awkward meetings took place in and around Columbia University. Columbia was what they all had in common. Kerouac there on a football scholarship, Ginsberg on a YMHA scholarship and Burroughs with post-graduate studies arrived before both of them. The common tragic thread of Lucien Carr.

Each drifted off into madness - only Ginsberg came back. Kerouac drank himself to death and Burroughs became a caricature of himself shooting off shotguns full of paint and calling it art.

Ginsberg survived his fame, learned to embrace his sexuality and continued to explore. His fame exceeded the notoriety of Howl. When the late 1960s came a calling Ginsberg stood up against the war in Viet Nam, stood up for freedoms sexual and religious and the use of hallucinogenics to broaden one's horizons. In later years in the East Village apartment he shared with Peter Orlovsky he became the revered elder statesman always creating, always searching until his death in 1997.

I have danced in the shadows of Ginsberg's generation. I write these words on the same block that the Holy Trinity of the Beat Generation first met. I've knelt down on the ground in Lowell, Massachusetts, touched Gregory Corso's etched words in Rome, stumbled in jazz clubs in Harlem, Chicago and San Francisco finding myself while searching their passions, their vices, their essence. I sought them out in Morocco but only encountered my fears and failings. I've been to Mexico but never shared Kerouac's blues. But it is here, in New York City, where I feel them most.

The distant train blows its whistle in the middle of the night, echoing over Harlem. The howl of the iron horse echoes today as it did sixty long years ago. Harlem from ten stories up looks unchanged for the most part - more beautiful than could be imagined at daybreak. Still mysterious but less menacing as the nighttime fades from the city.

The beats are fading from the city as well. The jazz falls silent on many corners, victims of gentrification. The surviving voices such as the Davids - Meltzer and Amram - make their final curtain calls answering questions, remembering the beat. They remember Ginsberg today, they'll remember Kerouac in Lowell this weekend and the beat will go on.

"...O skinny legions run outside O starry
spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is
here O victory forget your underwear we're free..."

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