Drunk! This Tibetan with the puzzled-pumpkin face has to be helped onto the stage by two bodyguards and poet Allen Ginsberg (who introduced him as "sometimes drunk") here at the University of Colorado. He is Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, head of the Naropa Institute, Tibetan Lama, dharma heir of the Crazy Wisdom tradition of Buddhism, and guru to 20,000 followers worldwide, a number of whom are now doing these deep gentle Buddhist bows after he has been helped into his chair.
Trungpa, as they call him, is to deliver the opening speech of this 25th-anniversary celebration of the publication of Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road"--a Whitmanesque breviary for what was called the Beat Generation, and inspiration to later hippies, yippies, hitchhikers, lonesome travelers and anyone else who went out on the road in search of the Great American Experience.
Drunk. Trungpa starts talking about beauty in this tenor husk that sounds like Muhammad Ali awakened in the middle of the night. Beauty and ugliness. "That is why we have Jack Kerouac's commemoration of REAL WORLD!" he shouts. "I am not one of those who believe that nuclear age won't happen. Because YOU won't happen."
Ginsberg, who is one of Trungpa's students, having been introduced to Buddhism with Kerouac back in the early '50s when the notions of Zen were first wafting to America, takes this opportunity to ask Trungpa: "Why?"
And Trungpa launches off into a ramble about knife-fighting, and he somehow concludes that "milk is the only way to solve their problems."
Were it not for Jack Kerouac and the rest of the Beat Generation, most of whom were reunited here in Boulder for this 10-day commemoration which ended yesterday, Trungpa still might well be in Tibet, and America might still see Buddhism as being quaintly heathen.
Poets Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Diane diPrima, Robert Creeley and Peter Orlovsky; novelists John Clellon Holmes and William Burroughs; filmmaker Robert Frank; musician David Amram; writer, dadaist and former mental patient Carl Solomon, ex-wife Frankie Edith Kerouac Parker, other woman in his life Carolyn Cassady, and writer and former Times Square hustler and junkie Herbert Huncke: All of these people who were there in the '40s and '50s to be christened with the name "beat" by Jack Kerouac who never seemed to define it the same way twice (i.e. "sympathetic" or "beatific" or "tired") have gathered here in Boulder. They have been joined by nonliterary incandescences such as LSD prophet Timothy Leary and activist Abbie Hoffman. The purpose is to celebrate and commemorate Kerouac, who died at 47 in 1969, author of 19 published books that changed the American psyche with their celebration of spontaneity, drugs, aimlessness, esoteric religion, jazz, blacks and a sort of sidewalk dadaism they called "goofing."
They are also here to commemorate the sort of America where even a drunken Tibetan refugee can sit in a chair looking corporately prosperous in gray suit and silk tie, and waving his hand with thumb and forefinger together in the "okay" sign for minutes on end. And be tolerated. Even respected. No need, it would seem, for the bodyguards who flank him, identical in their blue blazers and predatory stillness. "Everything is permitted, nothing is real," as William "Naked Lunch" Burroughs is fond of saying. The Kerouac legacy is one of "tender heart," Ginsberg will keep repeating during the conference, having already advised the 350-plus people who paid up to $260 apiece to attend they should "have fun . . . enjoy drinking, your psychedelics if you have any, your meditation . . . "
Things like this were not said to literary gatherings before the Beat Generation came together in the '40s, and won national fame starting in 1956 with the publication of Ginsberg's long poem "Howl" and then most spectacularly in 1957 with "On the Road."
"There was some concern to make a cultural breakthrough, to talk in public as we did in private," Ginsberg will say later.
They did and do.
Ginsberg will also quote Kerouac as saying, "Never get drunk outside your own house." It was a rule that Kerouac broke with spectacular frequency.
Trungpa talks on and on about table manners and compassion: "Shall we eat this, shall we SLASH THIS MEAT?" The audience is far more tolerant and tenderhearted toward him than the public was toward Kerouac.
Kerouac drank himself to death in St. Petersburg, Fla., having spent his last years living with his mother, watching television and painting pictures of weeping Christs. He wore a cross he favored after abandoning Buddhism and returning to the Catholicism of his Lowell, Mass. boyhood. He espoused the conservatism put forth in William Buckley's National Review. In his last piece of writing, he asked how he could have "spawned" rebels and counterculturists such as Ginsberg, Leary and Hoffman.
"I can't stand this, I'm going out for a cigarette," says Carolyn Cassady, and she leaves in the middle of Trungpa's speech.
She was an upper-middle-class Bennington girl married to reform-school graduate Neal Cassady. He appeared as the hero of "On the Road" under the name of Dean Moriarity, and in four other novels as "Cody Pomeray."
Before he was found dead and naked next to a Mexican railroad track in 1968, Cassady had been the archetype for what Kerouac described in "On the Road" in his most oft-quoted lines: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!' "
In a bar in downtown Boulder, Cassady's widow says: "In the beginning I couldn't have foreseen the self-destruction. Jack and Neal were so alive, so enthusiastic. Jack didn't drink all that much back then."
She is blond and thin, with a gliding ease about her, the kind of grace that comes from a lot of years of raising a family under fire of one kind or another.
"Fame wrecked Jack. What really destroyed him was the critics' attacks. That's what did it. He was too naive. He and Neal were terribly conventional."
"All of us wanted a house and kids. Home and family. Maybe they didn't live up to it, but their ideals were conventional. Neal worked 10 years for the railroad as a brakeman, don't forget. It was perfect for him. He could use his pass to take the train up to San Francisco from where we were living in Los Gatos, and see his girlfriends, then come back. But he was a wonderful father, too."
It's pointed out that they had unconventional friends. Ginsberg flaunted his homosexuality, and William Burroughs flaunted his addiction to heroin in his books "Junkie" and "Naked Lunch." Not to mention the 90-mile-an-hour cross-country runs that provide much of the action in "On the Road." And the drinking and carousing.
"Well, we weren't exactly stuffy," says Cassady.
After a stretch in San Quentin for possession of marijuana, Neal Cassady would end up in the 1960s driving the psychedelic bus of novelist Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.
"He was dead, he was already dead when he was with Kesey," Cassady says.
Fame: Possibly no literary coterie in history was so self-conscious as the beat generation.
Says poet Michael McClure, author of the play "The Beard," which was the subject of famous obscenity litigation, "Jack Kerouac was the only person I ever knew who was more self-conscious than I was, and I was the kind of kid who'd walk across the high school cafeteria, and I could hear my own neck bones creaking."
Kerouac wrote exclusively about himself and his literary friends, most of whom attended this conference, with the exception of poet and Zen Buddhist Gary Snyder, who appears as "Japhy Ryder" in "The Dharma Bums" and as "Jarry Wagner" in "Big Sur."
Ginsberg was Leon Levinsky in Kerouac's first novel, "The Town and the City," published in 1950. He was Adam Moorad in "The Subterraneans," Irwin Garden in "Vanity of Duluoz," "Desolation Angels" and "Big Sur," and Carlo Marx in "On the Road." Gregory Corso was Raphael Orso, William Burroughs was Old Bull Lee, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was Lorenzo Monsanto, and so on, in books which hewed so closely to fact that Kerouac fans hope that someday there will be a standard edition of his works with all the real names in them.
With a few exceptions, the central characters in the beat drama met each other in the '40s in New York City. Kerouac was a failed football star at Columbia, where Ginsberg was studying history. Corso was an Italian kid who had been sent to Dannemora prison at 17 for a theft. Burroughs, older than the others, was a Harvard graduate who dabbled in the underworld and lived, in part, on a trust fund from his family, which was the Burroughs of Burroughs Adding Machines, in St. Louis.
They corresponded, they bucketed around the country to visit each other, and they took endless snapshots of each other, which have been reproduced in book after book of beat memorabilia, many of them published by a press called "The Unspeakable Visions of the Individual," run by a college professor named Arthur Knight and his wife Kit in California, Pa.
After fame struck in the late '50s, they gave readings and interviews together--a scene Kerouac soon abandoned for life in Long Island and Florida with his mother.
They were some of the first new celebrities of the age of television. A popular television tape at the conference shows Kerouac on the Steve Allen show, a shy roughneck, a sort of disheveled but cleanshaven Clark Gable with a heavy Massachusetts mill-town accent stretching his mouth around his face as he reads the ending of "On the Road," about Neal Cassady.
Their first major publicity came in 1952. John Clellon Holmes had published his novel "Go," which featured a character based on the then-unknown Kerouac. The New York Times magazine asked him to write an article about this new generation.
He was the first to quote Kerouac's use of the word "beat" to describe them and he explained: "More than mere weariness it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself."
Holmes said that they had "instinctive individuality, needing no bohemianism or imposed eccentricity to express it."
But that was exactly what they acquired in the public mind in the late '50s. Bohemians in Greenwich Village and San Francisco's North Beach adopted the beats as heroes and totems. The beat generation became synonymous with bongo drums, sandals and dark glasses worn at night; with black sweaters and Levis and women with eyes kohl-rimmed until they looked like existential raccoons. Herb Caen, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, named them "beatniks." All the rococo exquisitries of Bohemia's self-consciousness became "beat." It became a fashion, overnight, for Yale boys on their summer vacations and for drifters on the make. Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books became a tourist stop in San Francisco, as did the Coexistence Bagel Shop. In Washington, the police obliged the young rebels by closing the Coffee and Confusion coffeehouse.
Now, sitting on an upstairs porch in Boulder, Holmes smokes one cigarette after another and says: "We weren't Greenwich Village, sitting around drinking week-old wine and talking about Kafka. We were Times Square."
By that he does not mean colorful horseplayers out of Damon Runyon. He means hustlers and junkies like Herbert Huncke, who appears in Kerouac's books as a spectral figure they always seem to be looking for in the streets of midtown Manhattan--Elmo Hassel in "On the Road."
No serapes or Navaho boots for Huncke or anybody else in that scene, which culminated with Ginsberg being sent to a mental hospital after a lot of stolen goods were found in his apartment.
"We wanted to get away from that literary gobbledygook," says Holmes. "We were, you'd have to know the state of American literature when the war ended. The literati then tended to look on American culture with condescension. It was very Europeanized. T.S. Eliot was the grand guru, and we were full of Melville and Whitman.
"The Times Square people like Huncke were street smart. Greenwich Village bohemians would have gotten devoured on Times Square. I was very intellectual, very Partisan Review, and I knew I had to get away from that. Huncke told me things about Dostoevski I never knew. He wasn't impressed with Dostoevski as literature, he talked about his characters as if they were real people. The people in 'The Possessed' or 'The Idiot' were real for him.
"Jack never had a beard, he always was cleanshaven and clean. He was unprepared for the notoriety. People were more interested in him than in 'On the Road.' For a year he was the only writer competing with Marlon Brando in the public eye."
By that time it was hard to remember the delight and ferocity with which the Beats had taken up a whole new set of influences: anarchism, dada, shamanism; the cult of visionary insanity ("I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," as Ginsberg began "Howl"); along with a romance of the workingman furthered by the stints that most of them did on merchant ships; the Three Stooges, according to Jay Landesman, who published the beats in a magazine called "Neurotica"; sex, drugs and other Saturnalian releases; jazz and blacks, with their street life putting them right up against the hardest facts of life; and the craving for what they would actually refer to as "supreme reality," according to a smiling confession by Ginsberg. They were interested in consciousness, not politics.
The linking of Bohemia to the Beat Generation also brought in other strains of traditional leftist intellectual life which had lain dormant since the anti-communist witch hunts began in the late 1940s. Pacifism, socialism, and the sort of populism that had prospered in the folk music of Pete Seeger and the Weavers revived, precursing the turmoils of the 1960s.
It's these politics that Abbie Hoffman will shout about with the fervor and nostalgia of any old veteran of a war that was won--his war being the anti-war movement. Timothy Leary keeps begging the young audience to "take over."
This leads poet Gregory Corso to attack both of them later, saying, "You want to create a new generation and then you want to run it and when you die you want to have a movement like this."
Says Frankie Edith Kerouac Parker, the first of Kerouac's three wives: "We didn't want to change America. We liked it just as it was."
At a panel discussion, William Burroughs takes some pains to separate Kerouac from politics. Now in his late sixties, Burroughs still carries the old Times Square aura. He wears a dingy snap-brim hat and a soupstained green sportscoat. He speaks in a nasal, ironic drawl that tends to make people sort of uneasy and gets them giggling.
"I don't remember Jack articulating a political sentence. He wasn't out to change the world at all. When I knew him, he was an old-fashioned, 19th-century Jack London atheist making vague, elliptical comments about communism, Freud and foreigners."
Burroughs doesn't deny that the beats inspired a generation. "The beat movement came at just the right time--the alienation, restlessness and dissatisfaction were already there. There is no doubt that we are living in a freer America because of the Beat Generation. Cultural revolution always brings about political change."
The problem at the conference is that people seem eager to talk politics, but there's little critical discussion of the literature. Part of the reason for this might be that the Whitmanesque, Huck Finn, bardic tradition has always been much harder to examine intellectually than the Europeanized work of Eliot or Henry James. It's difficult to dissect the great motor-drive rhythms of Kerouac and Ginsberg, that oracular effusion of words that led all of them to produce work that can be wonderfully good, or spectacularly bad.
In a writing workshop, Ginsberg reads Kerouac's workpoints for writers: "Scribble secret notebooks and wild typewritten pages." And "Submissive to everything." And "Being in love with your own life." And "Be crazy. Write what you want, bottomless from the bottom of the mind."
For the beats, rebelling against the analytical and Europeanized tradition, this urging to freedom made sense--especially given the fact that Kerouac had written a conventional, structured novel in "The Town and the City" and Ginsberg had grown up the son of a high school teacher who wrote rhymed and metric verse.
But it's difficult to understand what the crowd is seeking to be freed from--unless they're looking merely to have validated the theories they already have.
Says Diane Boomer, 22, who works in a pastry shop in San Francisco: "People here are listening to this and learning that one of the best subjects they could have as writers is themselves."
She came here with Todd Salovey, 22, a poet who works in a coffeehouse. He says: "There seems to have been a feeling back then for what everybody was going through. People our age have a hard time thinking with that vastness. When you read poetry in a coffeehouse now, you don't see the raw excitement. Maybe it's a flow of unattachment we're part of."
John Clellon Holmes, at 56, says: "What disturbs me is thinking that by following somebody else's way, they can write. I think the audience was puzzled by the panel on Kerouac as an artist. They don't think of him as an artist. They think of him as a personality."
Sure enough, there are Jack Kerouac T-shirts and posters for sale, and selling well. The cult that began in 1957 continues.
Talk to Herbert Huncke, Ginsberg keeps saying. "Huncke is the most genuine person here. Huncke was beater than anybody."
Huncke is 68 and on Methadone. He lives in Brooklyn Heights now, and from his room in an old Victorian boardinghouse which is part of the Chautauqua park which has been hosting cultural events for 80 years, he says, "Come on in. This guy's just hitting the back of my neck with a razor."
What he means is that a friend is tidying up his haircut. His hair is still black, and his face relatively unlined--though it has the look you think of when you read Burroughs' line about "the canceled flesh of junk."
Huncke sits on a bed and flares wild white hands and green eyes while talking in his near-elegant con-man's prose. He is the upper-middle class son of a family that broke up in the Depression. He had his first drug habit at 15. He was a male prostitute on Times Square. He has spent years in prison for burglary and drug use.
"It surprised them that I had a knowledge of Dostoevski. I have always read a lot," Huncke says. "I was an interesting specimen. I was something they hadn't been in contact with. I'd never even gone to high school. In the '30s I hitchhiked around the country. I was in a CCC Civilian Conservation Corps camp in 1934. I hit Times Square in 1939. Unfortunately it's turned into rather a vicious place now, very violent. It was tawdry, then--honky-tonk, with a lot of exploitation. People exploited you, you exploited them. I like people, number one, and I like people who have something to offer me. They found it interesting.
"I didn't really want to come to this thing, but Allen asked me, and I must say, I'm particularly charmed by the young people. There's an awareness I like. But I feel outside this, emotionally. I'm not so interested in the past. This is like a reunion for them."
Huncke lives on welfare now, and he reads from his writings, and sometimes, he says, "I sell a little something."
There's a nervous calm about him; he's the existential man, right up against the moment, the Now. The rest of the conference seems sentimental next to him. It's easy to imagine the outcome if you put him in an alley with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. While the rest of the conference argues about what to do next, politically and culturally, Huncke has no doubts: "Go back to New York, what else?"
Down on the porch in front of this building, John Clellon Holmes and poet Jack Micheline and publisher Jay Landesman are playing around with F. Scott Fitzgerald's line about there being no second acts in American lives. It's a very beat slip, probably, that they say "night" instead of lives, but Holmes makes his point when he looks around at these aging alumni, gathered here in a status and venerability they never would have imagined, and might have shunned if they did: "There are second acts in the American night," he says. "There are third acts!"