I was told that my great-grandmother walked on the Trail of Tears. My grandmother moved on westward to the Cherokee Strip. As a young girl, my mother lived a somewhat cruel, austere life with little but the buffalo grass and sunflowers to give her joy that a stepparent thwarted.
The earliest account of my father's ancestors was that they sailed from Ploermel, France, in the early 1700s. My grandfather was deeded 160 acres by President Cleveland in the Oklahoma Territory called "No Man's Land." My father was a wanderlust, a cowboy; he left his cup of coffee on the table in the sod house he built before going on a cattle drive to Galveston, Texas, where he signed on a ship to sail the world for the next two years. When he returned to No Man's Land, his coffee cup was in the spot where he had left it.
Still, nothing much happened there, nor the places he and my mother moved to raise my four sisters and me. Yes, I'm the only boy and the youngest, which always seems to evoke a recondite nod by all who are told. I have never understood why, but include it for the record. My family moved to the land of the wind people, which the Indians called "Kansa," where my grandfather had begun a stage line that ran from the Territory to nearby Dodge City, Kansas. A few miles to the southwest remains a settlement called Plymell where the stage headquarters were. It consists of the Plymell school and the Plymell Union Church. Later we lived on a farm near Ulysses, Kansas. Not much happened there either, except for what I felt as a raw and forceful cosmic energy that seemed to gather in space and etch itself on the landscape and everything in it.
The Plymell family had established itself in the community, and there were many published accounts of my grandfather's worthwhile deeds and attendance at social functions. One newspaper's account heralded him as one of the best ranchers in the territory because of his quick actions to protect the herd from a great blizzard. Another account was in a book about the Dalton Gang where he helped back down a gang of marauders. He died young, and a respectable dynasty of gas, oil, and cattle that would have rooted itself in that time and place was pulled up to drift like tumbleweed across the blowing topsoil, and never again to find conditions favorable for growth.
By 1935, my father had sold his part of the ranch and took his family to Holcomb, Kansas, where I was born in a converted chicken shed built to protect us from the black dust storms that had long covered the once thriving stage line a few miles away. My mother had to put wet rags over our faces so we could breath. When she wasn't busy with us, she was gathering cactus and shooting jackrabbits ("Hoover steaks") to feed us. In my poetry, I speak of the madness that this desperation could, in frailer women evoke, and of seeing in a Washington, D.C., gourmet market a half-century later the kind of cactus she had gathered.
As a baby, I was placed in a wooden box on the floor of the tractor my mother drove around the field. When I grew older, I sometimes sat in the cab of the truck and waited while the tractor and plow went around the section (640 acres) in a square. I listened to the wind's pitch that blew through the doors of the truck, and watched and heard the two-cylinder John Deere tractor ping into what seemed to be infinity and then come back around as its two cylinders popped louder. The lines the plow made around the field and the sound of the tractor left in me impressions of space, metaphysics, and physics.
Some of my early nightmares were of similar graphic dimensions with seemingly unending lines and planes converging until fear awoke me. This abstraction, with its diminished volume, would later feed my interest in such matters as Pythagorean versus Aristotelian geometry, and provide some allusions for my poetry as well a basis for reading Robert Lawlor's essays concerning sacred geometry.
My family was part of the migrations from the dust bowl that went from Kansas and Oklahoma to Southern California. Some of my earliest memories are of riding and living in the back of the International farm truck. My sisters made up crazy jingles to help me with my preschool activities. One that I remember is "Votcha peacha; Votcha peacha; Votcha peacha-voo. Hip, hip, hooray, the dogs are coming!" I can't, however, get my sisters to acknowledge the invention of these lines that made a lasting impression on me. None of my sisters, except perhaps the oldest, would ever appreciate the songs of Annie Ross or King Pleasure. My love for scat, bebop, and later rap, may have had its roots here. The more formal rhyme schemes of the Burma Shave road signs that were placed in verse distances along the seemingly endless miles helped to educate a generation of migrant children. "Solomon Grundy...born on Monday...fell in love on Tuesday...married on Wednesday...took ill on Thursday... saw the doctor on Friday... died on Saturday...was buried on Sunday...that was the end of Solomon Grundy. BURMA SHAVE."
We moved to Yucaipa (Indian for "green valley"), California, where my father rented a house, and my sisters set up my "official" preschool and named it "Yucaipa Valley Basement School." My memories of this place range from far-fetched tales of what might be hanging in those huge sacks in our landlord's basement window to the authenticity of whether or not it was indeed Bing Crosby's brother, Bob, who stopped his car and visited. This argument was resolved by the fact that his brother would not have worn a particular color of socks. Having tired of such intellectual problems, I would run and play in the washes. To this day, I feel slightly faint when I try to recall the still enthrallment and scent of the brush and the orange groves where the clear water trickled magically over the smooth, colorful rocks. Later we would be taken to the San Bernardino County Orange Festival, where I remember a world made from oranges. This would be as close to paradise as anything I have experienced since. That valley is now immersed in a deadly black smog while the Kansas sky is clear.
My father was trying to make a living "trucking" during the Depression and had left his family in California. He told of having hauled a truckload of apples to Chicago and having to dump them as worthless. Then, some men held a gun to him until he voted for their candidate. These stories probably had something to do with my regarding any political system as eventual folly. I never was a flag waver and thought jingoism reprehensible, though the thought of doing anything against my country was equally reprehensible. A line I later worked into one of my political poems that first appeared in Evergreen Review "Woodstock" recalled the words I had heard my father say when talking politics on the high seas, "The likes of you and me, sailor, are just ballast."
I am a drifter, a transient, the very thought of setting out for somewhere has always stirred me. My politics lean toward anarchism, and in general I am wary of government and authority. I do not vote, but I consider myself more politically informed than the average person. Philosophically, as well as politically, my thoughts eventually had to rest, albeit paradoxically, in an open-ended rather than a closed system. My wilder side could be attributed to family traits and a constantly changing environment; nevertheless, I liked having a little bit of the "outlaw" in me, tempered by the realism of a timeless lyric.
By 1940, we had returned from California to Kansas, and my first years of schooling were in a one-room schoolhouse where I was frequently stood in the corner and made to memorize poetry. I was in the same room with my sisters; my teacher taught all grade levels and also cooked the school hot lunch, baked beans. She was also a woman from the temperance movement, so our music class consisted of singing; "What's the matter with wine, sir? ALCOHOL. Alcohol is a drug you see, leaving a trail of misery." (Over and over we sang it.) My parents were busy working the farm, but not too busy to take the farm truck to gather scrap metal for the war effort. Their lunch, eaten on the tractor, was pork and beans, Vienna sausage or potted meat from the can, along with some white bread.
Woody Guthrie's ballads of hope had been tempered by the cry of other country-music singers who sang the songs of despair and aloneness, of death itself. Even the good gospel intentions of the Carter Family's "Everybody's got to walk that lonesome valley" left in me a spine-tingling portent, and in the old farmhouse, I remember the song "Twas on the Isle of Capri where I found her," and a full-color picture that my father brought from Italy that hung on the wall as the only decor. Real places far away sounded better than the abstract far-away one, and that might have had something to do with my own restlessness and unwillingness to concede to time.
We frequently took shelter in the cellar from the rolling cyclones. Someone would invariably make a last-ditch effort to retrieve my toys. My selfish thoughts of existence and childhood frights over the "big question" were interrupted by the newspaper headlines and radio which roared Pearl Harbor news of billowing smoke like the black tornados--then Roosevelt's voice. I remember the words and symbols when my mother, while talking to a friend, picked up a souvenir ashtray that had a picture of the Statue of Liberty in the bottom of it, and said, "And he'll be the right age for the next one." Something new to think about. I began to be puzzled about wars and more immediate fates.
When we moved into the small town of Ulysses, Kansas, World War II was at its peak. Added to the pathetic songs of the cowboy and the lonely prairie were the songs like "The Soldier's Last Letter" that played over and over on the jukebox at the Bon Ton Cafe, where my mother and sister "slung hash." A B17 from the base at Liberal, Kansas, crash-landed near our house and the crew had to stay on site. Since my sisters were of dating age, I was immediately filled with a cultural influx of talk from newly enlisted Yanks from the big cities; some had seen combat. My head was filled with stories, and my continuous errand was to go buy saltines and Velveeta cheese to serve with their beer. I immediately converted combines and other farm machinery in the yard into combat vehicles from which I gunned down the "enemy." My collection of insignias sewn to my jacket was unchallenged.
My oldest sister was the wildest in our family. She left the farm as soon as she learned to hitchhike, and never slowed down. She died on the streets of San Francisco in 1969 after having been evicted from Kaiser Hospital with casts still on both legs. She swore that the government agencies used experimental drugs on the bums they pulled in off the street. She always wanted to write. I still have her old Royal typewriter, on which I wrote my first prose book, The Last of the Moccasins, for which she was the inspiration. I am a romantic. My other sisters became Christians, conservative, conventional, and, as the expression goes, kept close to the willows.
By the late forties we had moved to Wichita. My father had sold the farm in western Kansas and soon thereafter had travelled to South America, and having remarried, had bought some land in South Dakota. My mother remained working in the aircraft plants. My father left my second to-the-oldest-sister in charge of the house in Wichita. I had finished the year at the private school and drove to Blythe, California, to live a while with my father and his new South American wife.
Farming was a "sure thing" in hobo lore and song. Expansion and growth, most of it subsidized, would make instant millionaires of those who stuck to the land, but my father was too restless to accumulate such a respectable fortune. After he left Dakota, he made trips to South America and Australia looking for that perfect cattle ranch and great space. I had been put in a private military school in San Antonio, Texas, for my first and only year of high school. By the time that year was over, my father had bought me a new 1951 Chevrolet in which I followed him to Yuma, Arizona, and Blythe, California, where he had bought some cotton land as well as some wild land on the Colorado River at Cibola, Arizona: population two, a brother and sister who lived in the same house, which had a dirt floor. There was a sod post office with a yellowed Wanted poster, one or two inoperable Model T Fords, and a pile of burro hooves from their usual meal of wild burro.
It was around 1948 when I was in junior high that I spent summers helping drive tractors and trucks, though my first experience at driving was in Kansas when I was six years old. My mother was on a tractor and plow, and my father was on a tractor and plow. This left me and the International truck, which had to be moved a few miles to a different field. My father put the truck in gear for me and jumped from the cab. I drove it in low gear, which was about the speed of the tractors, to the other field, where I brought it to a stop. There was nothing I could run into except the dirt of flat land, so it really wasn't that big a feat. My father later bought a big Reo truck and a smaller truck called a Reo "Speedwagon." He liked that name, which was chromed in script on both sides of the hood and recalled that when Reo first made vehicles, they were called "Speed Wagons." The name was used again by a rock group who apparently liked its double meaning. I am always sentimental about trucks, and even have dreams about those we owned.
Into the pathos of my environmental energies came historical words, symbols, and the logos of my deeds, which would mark the crude beginning of my creative expressions. It was no longer the childhood singing of a cowboy-song metaphor about herding the dark clouds out of the sky when I would stand in the middle of a field with no one or nothing as far as the eye could see and sing louder and louder... thinking that my voice was in the wind... could stay in time... or through time...a plaint of someone, like an imaginary Greek Islander who had sung to himself thousands of years ago to establish his own ethos, to say, in effect, I am here--but now, of the street in this life, the poetry became the idiom, the tempo, the time.
After following the rodeos for a while, and writing a poem about riding the bulls and broncs, I hot-rodded my new car and concerned myself with drag racing around Southern California. I wore my hair in a "ducktail" and adopted the L.A. look, which was a flower-patterned shirt with the collar turned up and new Levis that were never washed until they turned stiff and shiny black. I went cruising the streets of Los Angeles, Americana in the making. Central Avenue for the old bebop and tenor sax, Hollywood and Van Nuys Boulevards for the great drive-ins with would-be movie stars on roller skates serving the cars. My father watched both me and my car become more and more worthless. To his dismay, I traded it in on a new Buick Roadmaster and began working on the pipeline in Arizona.
Having grown up in the Bible Belt and seen an appreciable amount of powerful bible-thumping hypocrisies, I grew disdainful of dogmatism, both Eastern and Western, but not entirely disrespectful of canon. My mother was always "prayerful," but my father, usually while figuring out his land or cattle deals on his marathon car trips over the western half of the continent, would offer a philosophical aside that: "Whoever or whatever is behind this whole thing ain't gonna let a little thing like man figure it out, and you'll just go crazy if you try to." Instead of hearing declarations of Truth in church, I was rather struck with Truth itself and developed a strong dislike for what I perceived as dishonesty or phoniness in established culture. I eventually had to resolve whatever belief I held into a simple statement that I believe in Belief. In that respect I was a hippy. I saw them arrive and shared. But I was never a joiner or belonger.
My music appreciation was eclectic, and at the infamous and rowdy Cowboy Inn, a holdover from early Wichita when it was called "Cowtown," there were always barroom brawls to add to the excitement. But where else and when else could I have parked my Buick at the door of a honky-tonk and paid a dollar cover charge to drink and dance until daylight to Hank Williams' singing? All the greats played this famous dive, most of them now in "Cowboy Heaven." And of course there were the other "greats" in their own right who played the honky-tonk scene, did radio shows broadcasting over the endless waves to small lonely towns. Many performers had jars full of Benzedrine tablets in their guitar cases, like in the poem from the battlefield of World War II ("a .45 in one holster and bennies in the other"). Their audience was made up of truckers, housewives who needed to lose weight, veterans, all who added to the frenzy of postwar growth...and overdose, an amplified frenzy in the soul of country, Hank Williams, dying in the backseat being driven to the gig he never made in Canton, Ohio.
Crude or cool, my feelings were expressed in music. Near the converted chicken house where I was born was one of the biggest dance halls between Denver and Kansas City. Whole families would go there to dance. Kids would run around the floor, drunks would stagger outside to throw up; my sisters would jitterbug to the big-band sound that broke the silence of the vast plains. My eclecticism grew naturally, from the honky-tonks to the back-alley clubs with combo musicians who like split from Kansas City after the Norman Granz jazz scene dissipated, like its music emanated from the doorways of little clubs on the Kansas City streets, like bebop, blues, progressive--the soul of Bird. A great war spawned a great romantic period in America. Society was busy stabilizing itself, but the music kept on rocking.
I drifted around and lived with a sister in Santa Paula and then Ojai, California. At that time, these Gardens of Eden were
inhabited by working class generations from the Okie population of Bakersfield who mainly followed the oil fields. Later this
"world desirable" real estate was to be devoured by the wealthy. I worked on the pipeline, rode in rodeos, moved northward to
Oregon, and then returned to Wichita. My father had lost most of his dreams and money while looking for a "spread" of a bygone
era and rented some land in the Flint Hills, near Wichita, to run some cattle. I quoted him in a poem as saying, "The best cattle
country since Uruguay". He would leave no will, probably because of an aversion to such documentation.
THE FABULOUS FIFTIES FROM DUCKTAILS TO EGGHEADS
I recall my one year of high school as being not terribly interesting compared to the excitement of being wild and free while my biological and intellectual demands were radically out of sync. In those days there were drug problems too, but nothing like today. The drugs then, as now, were an integral part of the music, except for classical and opera, which demanded the performer's absolute control. But those were simpler times; although there were losses, there were fewer problems because the drugs belonged in the subculture. There seemed to be more fun to life, less hype. Even if one did not belong to the life-style of the rich and famous, one could rebel against the shallowness and conformity of creeping oppression, and have fun doing so, "without a cause." There seemed to be more hope and a great deal more to look forward to than just upward mobility. Instead of programs, we had friends, and one, Robert Branaman, would later encourage some of us to go to college, which seemed a very square thing to do. But slowly we integrated with some of the squares on the quads, though unlike the future generations, we were not eager to share our trappings from the subculture. Movies and popular songs helped provide the common appreciation and intercourse with the squares. Even the most eggheaded couldn't resist the voices from that generation which spoke to everyone...James Dean, Brando, Elvis, Johnny Ray... who came out of Ohio, Nebraska, Mississippi...
In the fifties, before the "secular-humanism scare," most universities retained strong philosophy departments that served not only as a foundation for the humanities, but also as an academic framework for those who were going into the ministry. These studies at Wichita University naturally appealed to me because they seemed to be an extension of the all-night-talkative Benzedrine discussions that took place in the nightclubs of Wichita and Kansas City when I was a hep-cat turning hip, in that particular age that changed the terminology. I continued my nonacademic life with friends in nightclubs listening to small combos during my "lounge-lizard period," and we always managed to find professional mentors who graciously shared their time; one such was the actor, Mickey Shaughnessy, who was particularly good at the stimulating conversations that took place after his "gigs", and ran to brunch the following day. That was the advantage of nightlife in Wichita, Kansas. In Hollywood or New York, time would be in demand. Here it was spent for the good of it, not for the duty of it.
I look back on it profoundly, as if I were a good citizen of an ancient culture; my sensibilities were being heightened by the work of the great hipster Lord Buckley as well as by Aristotle, in a blend that kept me from being too pretentious and pedantic -- undesirable traits I made a conscious effort to avoid. I studied semantics with Professor Walpole, who with heavy British accent and dry humor complained that the academic life was deteriorating with too much Aristotle and marijuana. Later, Patti McLaughlin, who saved me at a point of self-destruction and gave me a twelve-string guitar, was to help defray a mad argument between Professor Walpole and a banjo picker-fundamentalist barkeep who had violently different views on the use of the first obscene word learned by all cultures, according to the authority, Walpole, who had written a book on semantics. Such was the mixing of cultures that seemed to join the lay with the professional during my new experience of college. I became keen enough in metaphysics, that in my freshman year, I was asked by the department chair to tutor the class.
I would experience the secular side of this impressionistic-linguistic fervor again when I would share a flat in San Francisco with Neal Cassady, the protagonist in Kerouac's novels. And I would be ashamed years later to tell Patti, at her Gate Five, Sausalito, California houseboat party that I had hocked the twelve-string she had given me to accompany her beautiful folk songs on. Such were the reoccurring influences that were a constant weave in my life, which were to be learned as "Karma" in the language that Ginsberg was to bring from his stay in India when he shared the Gough Street flat in San Francisco with me and Neal. But the street culture wisdom of the fifties included feelings, close friendships, a versatility of word usage, and mental associations--the altruistic inquiries were not mere Benzedrine-stimulated loquacities or hemp euphorias; they became a part of traditional cultural, or subcultural, mores.
I was fairly naive as to what people thought about me. I always made friends, though I did not mix easily in polite company. I could not master small talk and hated introductions. I would never be a candidate for a fraternity, nor, as I was later to learn, a candidate for much else that was offered in a competitive, materialistic, success-oriented culture. A strange feeling of alienation from my time was within me. I would even go so far as to make up the story that introductions were not used in my culture (whatever that was) and that those who needed to know each other always found each other. Neal Cassady, the subject of many well-known seers who made tapes of his past lives, was himself sometimes the savant, and would say on occasions, in his multilevel talk, that I had a problem with time.
Long before I knew about academic degrees, I knew the longitudes and latitudes and had dragged the main streets in almost every town immortalized in song along the famous old Route 66. From Flagstaff, Arizona, I headed north to Oregon to live with my oldest sister who had quit the wild life long enough to marry a lumberman from New Jersey, who owned a mill in Prineville. He was an epicure of the finest houses of ill repute and gambling, and was prodigal when introducing his new brother-in-law to that historical remnant of the wide-open West. I worked construction during 1954 and lived on a small houseboat on the Columbia River while helping to build the Dalles Dam. Afterward, I bummed around with my sister and her new friend, Frank Lockhart, the son of a black madam and an Irish sheriff from an area around Deadwood, South Dakota, and picked up some jargon from the rounders before heading back to Wichita.
Race music began to surface in the early fifties. A phone call from one of my cronies alerted me to the songs of a "cat" whose early work sounded like zydeco. He was a rhythm-and-blues artist that we HAD to check out. He and his combo were playing at one of our hang-outs in "Colored Town" known as the Mambo Club. We knew the bartenders and musicians and there was no problem in our being the only whites in the clubs. We parked my Buick Roadmaster next to a '49 Caddy that still had the red dirt of Louisiana on its dented fenders; paid a dollar cover charge for the live music, and the bartender introduced us to Fats Domino, who joined us at intermission and between the sets. There weren't more than a dozen people in the club, and we danced and raved all night in Wichita of the fifties, across the tracks in the right place at the right time to dig the great artists and then go to Mrs. Dunbar's for the kind of barbecued ribs that I have never since found... even in New York.
But into this cool subculture rhapsody came a change. Bob Branaman had been working as a "bellhop" at a large downtown hotel. He had previously painted pictures and drawn cartoons during his stay in reform school, and, like the rest of us, had not finished high school; but by expounding on the virtues of a formal education, he persuaded--either because of his altruistic feelings or because he didn't want to make a new scene by himself--some of the more sensitive and reflective of us to enroll in the university. It was while goofing at one of our all-night, lounge lizard, pink and black plastic dives that he read to us some lines from the collected poems of the radical scholar himself, Ezra Pound.
I studied philosophy and art and gravitated toward English. There was at that time a strong contingent of women folk singers and professors, around whom I had spun Sapphic fantasies. This was fertile ground for sensitivity to happen. There were many very good professors who seemed genuinely interested in their own subject area, and one got the impression they liked to teach it. There were plenty of characters to add to the fun of those years. The folk singer Joanie O. Bryant taught English. After I had taken all her courses, she (undoubtedly with a great sigh of relief) hinted gently that she had nothing more to offer me. There was the semanticist Hugh Walpole, whose behavior finally made him a recluse. There was Professor Nelson, who lectured brilliantly on Hart Crane and the American expatriates of the Lost Generation and tolerated the campus "aesthetes." There was Professor LePell, the artist, who got everyone excited about painting as well as the other fine arts. It was at his parties that I began to acquire taste, if not a hunger for all the arts, for the plains were artistically austere compared to the coasts and one had to make an effort to generate art. He had what seemed to me every classical album available, and I listened to everything from the madrigals to the atonal moderns--intensely, and for hours. I was so enthralled that I spent all my time involved with the arts and ignored my classes except for metaphysics and, subsequently, flunked most of them one by one.
The students who wrote poetry and made art formed a special coterie; I can see how fortunate I was to be in such an environment. Like the eighties, society in the fifties was determined by a strong sense of conformity that implied its own sense of success and virtues. We were probably made fun of by the fraternity/sorority crowd, but for the most part, we were oblivious to it. Besides, there were allies forming among the more serious Phi Beta types, who were called "eggheads." Robert Branaman had been elected to an honors arts society, and due to his high grades in art, he was asked to pledge a Greek fraternity, but he stated in his reform-school idiom that..."Hey, man, them people have some very funny rules." We had our own crowd for whom the doors were open when we wanted to "cool it" in the clubs across the tracks, inaccessible and unknown to the college crowd, where Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, or some great seminal tenor saxophonist "wailed" all night long.
As I broadened my music appreciation to include classical music, I became friends with Crandal Waid and his wife, Mary Joan, who gave me much support and welcomed me to stay with them when Crandal was with the Santa Fe Opera, and later when they lived in a loft in the section of New York City that was to be known as SoHo. I had gotten a job operating an offset press on which I learned printing skills. At Wichita University Professor LePell conceived the university's literary magazine, to which I contributed. One semester I collected the money for the printing of an issue and used the printing press on my job to print it, but there was no binding equipment, so I perfect-bound it myself. I found some glue used for cloth binding and heated it in my cooking pot, but it didn't hold and the magazine came apart after a reading or two. It was a good issue, one professor said, "but it came apart after the first reading." "Haven't you ever heard of Dadaism," I rejoined. It wasn't funny to Mary Joan, who was on the magazine's board of directors.
Those of us who wrote poetry influenced each other, and we were irresponsible. We seldom went to classes, "partied" continuously, stayed out all night in the clubs across town, and took drugs. We had sent to Texas for a carton of peyote and had purchased a blender to help get the stuff ingested. We became mystic visionaries as we lay awake in profound madness for what seemed to be whole semesters, missing our courses. A brilliant poet, Alan Russo, with whom I was later to live in San Francisco, ventured outside one day and said he "heard it crack." He announced that it was spring and that he had heard the equinox.
We began having "creative energy" parties sitting around a fire on the riverbank, or dancing naked in the moonlight in the fields. There was usually music from flute or strings. Our parties took on a profound reverence, and we were not far from the Potawatomi, who still used peyote in their religion. I saw a shift in drugs and culture. Gone were the days of cutting up the amphetamine cotton strips from nose inhalers. I saw less of my friend who played bass and ingested so much cotton from nose inhalers that he began to smell like one. Peyote didn't seem to be the drug of jazz. While in my new life-style as a student, I invited an old saxophonist over from one of the clubs to show him a peyote cactus. He jumped back and grabbed a handkerchief from his vest pocket to touch it with.
I began to write more poetry and give artsy intellectual parties at my house located near the university. I probably had a poster of a bullfighter on the wall. Professor LePell lent me a copy of Howl. Alan Russo, whose father was a professor, translated from the Latin some poetry for Dr. Nelson and wrote a small sheaf of poetry that I published. Russo then left for San Francisco to join the artist Bruce Conner, the poet Michael McClure, and the publisher of Auerhahn Press, Dave Haselwood, who had left Wichita a generation earlier. I would be going to San Francisco to stay with Russo, who would introduce me to Philip Whalen and other Auerhahn Press poets who would witness the "Now" generation. Bruce Conner would paint "LOVE" on the pavement outside our Oak Street flat in the same block letters as Right or Left Turn.
I was told by my father to enlist in the air force when I was eighteen so I could retire at full pension after I became thirty-seven years old. That was good advice, but then thirty-seven years old seemed like a long time in the future; now of course it seems eons in the past. I was, though, able to keep out of the draft by attending college and joining the air force ROTC I kind of liked it because it reminded me of military school. I didn't believe I would have been a good candidate for the service, and just to be sure, I told the draft board that I didn't believe in killing. Just then a couple of friends, one carrying a white jacket, and the other a philosophy student, who preached part time, ran up to me waving the Bible acting as if they were trying to restrain me. They shouted to the clerk that I was a dangerous poet in trouble with the State, and then they pushed me out the door and "forced" me into a car. I don't know if that was effective, but with my school deferment added as good measure, my draft-card classification kept falling below conscription.
My creative work at that time was deplorable, barely as good as what I see nowadays proliferating from local arts councils throughout the country. Then, there was no financial support to speak of, and probably just as well. I was, though, developing, or perhaps dulling, my sensitivities, together with my capacity for a daily bottle of codeine cough syrup, while all the things I was expected to do to be a successful college graduate never seemed to transpire. I blamed a "genetic disposition" for my tendency for opiates, and modeled a destructive creative kinship with Coleridge. While the danger and potential for self-destruction from the use of drugs and alcohol increased in our society, the greater problems became the profit and criminality in them, rather than the chemistry. I simply outgrew them, but not without close calls. I have no way of knowing how drugs affected my creative work, but I reached the point where drugs did not interest me. It may have been that I became tired of hearing, for a half-century, about the drug problem. I remain an advocate for the decriminalization of drugs.
Having proved the future my mother saw in the ashtray wrong by not being the right age, or by obtaining deferments, I had missed the benefits of the G.I. Bill, but managed to put myself through college by working nights. I never had a goal and never really thought about what I wanted to do or to major in. It all sounded good to me, except for sports. Other than having a little fun playing football, basketball, and track, I never cared for sports. I never liked baseball, and the idea that a ball was being hurled at me made me nervous. Besides, I was never a team player. I don't know if my life has been filled with too many ironies, karmas, and anachronisms, but I now live near the Baseball Hall of Fame and witness a cross section of America in the ungainly form of a tourist, which invades this location every summer and stirs in me a pleasing feeling of justified nonconformity and mild unorthodoxy--a poem in making.
I followed politics and became more cynical while some of my friends in college became scholars; there was an interest in politics then on campuses that may have helped usher in the turmoil of the sixties. I got to see JFK when he came to speak in Nixon's conservative stronghold. I thought he was somewhat of an upper-class brat, but I became hooked on his mystique. Tears came to my eyes when I saw him and Jackie visit the poor Mexican households which exhibited his picture beside the crucifix and a saint or two on their mantels. Besides, the country was finally being led by a swinger.
I was busy dulling my senses and having an orgy of whatever I wanted. I found a book by Kenneth Patchen in the university
library that contained the axiom: "Hurrah for Anything!" I would stay in my room all day listening to classical albums and rarely
attending classes. When I did attend a geology class one day, I happened to be seated alphabetically next to Roxie Powell, who
was to become a lifelong friend. It was one of the rare times he attended class, too. His father had been a Methodist minister in
Ulysses, Kansas, and had known my father. Roxie was distinguished at that time for having more hours of "F" than anyone who
had ever attended the university. He was able to confound the administration just enough to keep himself enrolled, and though
he carried a heavy course load every semester, his immediate interests prevented him from attending classes. He could usually be
found on one of the library floors going through all the books on whatever subject he was into that day. When he wasn't on that
floor he could probably be seen helping Professor Walpole off of the floor at a local bar. His manic activities and verbal
hyperboles gave him a life-style that could hardly be matched by the movies. He wrote some of the most original poetry I had
ever read and I used it as a milestone to my own efforts. Roxie Powell was writing the poems for Dreams of Straw, which Dave
Haselwood and I later published in San Francisco.
THE SIXTIES AND PSYCHIC CATACLYSMS
I made many more trips back and forth from Kansas to California in the late fifties and by the early sixties had begun to acquaint myself with artists from Wichita who had gone to San Francisco: Bruce Conner, Michael McClure, and Dave Haselwood, who would later publish a fine edition of my first book of poems, Apocalypse Rose.
I had friends in Southern California as well, and liked Venice where I stayed with the artist Larry Albright, who introduced me to the Beat aficionado Eric Nord and the infamous degenerate poet Taylor Mead. I thought Taylor was one of the best poets of that generation, and I would see him again in the eighties when we read at a new bar in Baltimore. Larry was then working on some of his fantasy metal sculptures that incorporated electronics. He was later to be credited for the special effects in the movie Close Encounters of The Third Kind. I felt at home in the Los Angeles area, having lived in Southern California as a child and later in my teens. I had cruised Central Avenue in the early fifties picking up vibes from the great jazz spots. I had also cruised Van Nuys and Hollywood Boulevards during the "drive-in carhop era" when I owned a classic hot-rod, a chopped and channeled '34 Ford coupe which would be priced at over $20,000 today. During the fifties there was always work if one wanted it, and things didn't cost much, so there was usually enough money with gas at fifteen cents a gallon to go anywhere.
Before one of my many departures from Wichita, I hung around with a couple of friends who were in theater at the university. Brad Hammond's aunt was one of the English teachers I was in love with. I would go over to Brad's apartment to drink and talk. The decor was different. No bullfighting posters or art nouveau. It was all fishnets and Hollywood. His roommate, Dean Hargrove, who would become the writer and producer of television fame, was also getting ready to leave for Hollywood after graduation. Brad Hammond, his girlfriend and later his wife, Celeste (a folk singer), and I were to drive out later.
I settled in San Francisco about the time my oldest sister arrived to get off the road for a while. I found, through friends, a little room (pad) in a very nice and quaint Russian neighborhood on Ashbury Street off Haight Street; the neighborhood was later to be trashed. This was in the early sixties, and there seemed to be something stirring, but no one knew to what proportions it would grow. Sausalito intellectuals like Alan Watts and Hayakawa, who had tempered the earlier "San Francisco Renaissance" poetry scene would be caught by surprise. By the time they awakened, the sixties was in turmoil. I was at San Francisco State College during its unrest, when Hayakawa behaved irrationally, grabbed the microphone, and "fired" Kay Boyle. Reagan was watching Hayawkawa's debut into the conservative party.
By early 1963 we began to remark how there seemed to be more "heads" on the street, and each day they seemed to be a little more outrageous. We were dancing wildly to Ray Charles while those heads were blooming into "hippies." Good Mexican marijuana was as plentiful as beer and a lot more fun and less expensive. It seemed that I and my friends at various times lived in pads all over the city, but at this time we had concentrated on the "Haight." Alan Russo had kept in touch with Glenn Todd, whom I had last seen in Wichita when I went next door to his house as he was getting ready to go see an Elvis performance. Glenn Todd became the master party-goer and chronicler of the scene.
At his pad (which was later to be called "end pad") everyone was holding hands and beaming smiles, or looking at their faces in the mirror. I was asked if I wanted take a trip. There were two kinds of lysergic acid available: one was the Owsley acid on a bluish vitamin pill, and the other was in a glass vial and could be ordered from Sandoz Laboratories for experimental purposes. As my consciousness was being expanded beyond anything I had read about hallucinogens, I put on Haydn's "Ode to Saint Cecilia" and began making up words to it. I entered those worlds that had been described by researchers I had read. Fortunately, I was with people who saw these experiences as discoveries that would enhance our knowledge of reality; they didn't treat the experience lightly. Soon we added to our chemical cabinet pure mescaline from Light Laboratories in England. Some prominent doctors became interested in the creative and experimental atmosphere.
A psychiatrist had bought a famous avant-garde gallery on Fillmore Street named "Batman Gallery" by its founder, Billy Jharmark. It became a space for artists such as Bruce Conner, who had come from Mexico with a suitcase full of marbles to exhibit; poets Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, Robert Duncan, and their publisher, Auerhahn Press's Dave Haselwood. Glenn Todd was the seminal historian and later became a printer for Andrew Hoyem, who had disbanded Auerhahn, which specialized in fine editions of living poets and founded Grabhorn-Hoyem, which published expensive fine editions of dead poets.
I was working on collages and experimenting with images on emulsion screens that when laid over a photo created an hallucinogenic effect. I put together a show of my collages for the Batman Gallery. Most of them were sold, and the show was reviewed favorably in Art In America. Bruce Conner was working in film, and my friend from the early jazz-club days in Wichita, Bob Branaman, was also working in film and had discovered another filmmaker from Kansas, Stan Brakhage. I had been inspired by their films and made two films of my own which were shown at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. They were later archived at the New York Filmmaker's Co-op.
The San Francisco scene kept growing, and I kept trying to move away from it, but it was everywhere. I blended in sometimes, but being from an earlier generation, I was content to remain invisible. Though I attended concerts and parties that identified the hippies, I didn't take on the trappings. The earlier Bohemians and artists who had migrated to San Francisco were mostly educated, or at least had some basis of reference for history and culture. These newcomers seemed uneducated, innocent of worldly experience, and not aggressive enough for a competitive society "...whose action was no stronger than a flower" so they quickly became both prey and predator of the street. When their numbers increased rapidly, they created culture as instant as a chemical sprayed on a pill.
The Oracle was their newspaper. Having little culture of their own like many who embark anew, they sought religious orientation, especially Eastern mysticism, and were ripe for new cults and the many budding self-awareness organizations. Others were victimized, put in institutions, or disconnected entirely from the mainstream or even a subculture society. In front of City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, an established artist who had spent his years in the coffee houses playing chess and listening to the folk singers asked me, "Hey Man, which way is the Haight Ashbury?" I made use of some of the anachronisms and the new mysticism in my writing at the time.
There were a lot of things coming together by 1963. It was like some great cosmic charge opened and sent ripples through every level of changes; as if the I Ching had been shuffled. I rented a house with Glenn Todd and Justin Hein, a painter from Kansas. The house had been used as a meth factory, and before we had moved in, it was rented to a new wave of youths from Wichita who had by then immersed themselves somewhere in the Haight. I didn't know it at the time, but Ginsberg had lived at this address with the painter Robert LaVigne. Diane DiPrima had been there years before to gather material for her magazine The Floating Bear. She will visit the Gough Street flat again in the city of floating scenes.
During the summer of 1963, at the infamous 1403 Gough Street residence, a blast was in the works. It was an address well known to the Auerhahn regulars: Dave Haselwood, who would move his Auerhahn Press soirees to that address and entertain a steady stream of poets; Jonathan Williams and others from the Black Mountain school; McClure and the San Francisco Renaissance; Ed Sanders, another Kansan, who migrated to New York's Lower East Side and started the Fugs. He performed across the street at the Avalon Ballroom.
The Hollywood "alchemists," whose strong image collages and film montages mixed the word medium, also came to Gough
Street and contributed to the scene: the publisher Wallace Berman and the actor Dean Stockwell. Dennis Hopper and Dean
Stockwell sent collages and drawings to be included in an underground magazine I was printing at that time called NOW. Later,
when I lived in Hollywood with Brad and Celeste Hammond and had no money, Dean's hospitality allowed me to explore the
scene. There was some common ground in Hollywood, Barney's Beanery, where I wrote some "pop" poetry.
History in the making was the feeling at the Gough Street party in San Francisco that night. Parties were open affairs and strange people always showed up. It was like a cosmic gene pool, a Star Wars rehearsal, an archetypal convention with hidden messages and timeless meanings that manifested themselves with a look, a dance, a conversation; where everyone communicated on multiple levels, as if Carl Jung had met pop culture, where group consciousness was saturated with lysergic acid. It was as if enormous cosmic forces were coming together and the weave and warp of time was overlaying itself in a history that I suspect a keen Herodotus meditating on Mount Tamalpius (Marin County) might have enjoyed. Even the tile inlay on the stoop resembled a superimposed swastika over a Star of David. Or were things really that significant? When I answered the doorbell, a group was on the stairs. Allen Ginsberg, who had just returned from India, entered. Behind him: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and a host of other luminaries. The songs and dancing grew wilder, and a crazed poet, Dave Moe, started flipping out, dancing wildly, in a tantrum, for the famous guests.
After a while Ginsberg introduced himself and said to me something that sounded rather cryptic, like, "I guess you're the one I'm supposed to meet." And I said, "I guess you're the saint", and he said, "No, I don't want to be," or something to that effect. I tried to make small talk with Ferlinghetti and told him he reminded me of someone a master painted. He looked puzzled and never said much. Within a few days, Ginsberg took me to Ferlinghetti's house on Portero Hill. Ginsberg said he had come to San Francisco to help his old lover, Neal Cassady, write his novel and was looking for a place to stay. I said I had this seven-room flat for a hundred bucks a month that we could share.
I had met Neal once when he had dropped by Maureen Kegwin's flat in North Beach where I'd been staying. Allen said Neal would be bringing his things to move in. A '39 Pontiac pulled into the driveway and jerked to a halt. I learned later that a brake line was damaged and Neal drove it that way, gearing it down as far as possible, then pulling on the emergency brake. It was in that car we went on a white-knuckled ride down the coastal mountain road to Bolinas with Neal driving and pulling the emergency brake to slow down while physically fighting with his girlfriend, Ann. Allen and I were being tossed around in a backseat like a couple of Marx Brothers' extras.
At Gough Street, Neal unpacked three or four cardboard boxes with his belongings spilling out of them. He moved much faster than a normal person and left his girlfriend, Ann, standing in a daze. His last parcels were a grocery sack and a shoebox full of marijuana which he tucked under one arm while putting his other arm around Ann to carry her up the stairs. I later characterized them in a poem as Popeye and Olive Oyl and began making collages-notes of scenes that would go into my book, The Last of the Moccasins.
From then on there was a steady stream of writers, artists, and media people coming to Gough Street I got caught up in the excitement of history as the moment which seemed to follow Ginsberg. I saw how busy he kept himself and to what ends he would go to be as much a part of it as possible. He told me he had once worked as a market analyst, and I saw how those skills paid off. I tried to become as analytical and sensible about poetry and its audience as he was. He was not only a tireless promoter, he worked generously as an agent for those poets he liked. He showed Ferlinghetti a draft of my poem, "Apocalypse Rose" which he published in the next issue of City Lights Journal. I began to publish poems in Poetry, and Evergreen Review; the latter illustrated two of my longer poems and paid me over three hundred dollars each for them. The publishing of poetry was changing too. With the growth and funding becoming available for small publications, the event of being published was no longer as important, and payment for poetry was to become almost nonexistent.
Underground publications were becoming more concerned with political movements and new-age thought, even the poetry had common themes. The psychedelic generation in San Francisco was at full tilt by the time Timothy Leary showed up at Gough Street. For the first time I saw what too much acid could do to a person. People were flocking to hear him speak. I thought he was superficial and academic but quickly able to capitalize on slogans and strategies of the happenings. I began to see signs that consciousness expansion could also shrink people into their own idiocies and immobility, especially in the face of ordinary courtesies and civilities. I took more mescaline and LSD no matter how much it felt like I was being pulled through myself, and like the flower children, used weed as the daily mental food. The Grateful Dead were acting childish, walking down Ashbury Street scaring the aged Ukrainian immigrants. A couple of young entrepreneurs from Reno set up the first head shop on Haight Street. Things would never be the same. The rallying cry became "revolushun" and the hype was "underground" but the reality was more like a rash, an inflammation on the societal body, and the co-optive power of capitalistic enterprise would absorb it all. But these were heightened times. Oracular. A myth wafted again through the orbs of history to defray the mechanization of the soul. Where was Joseph Campbell? I saw it as:
The Great Goddess Moon, inviolate and pure, reflecting the untouched love for millenniums shown through the cold
November sky. The King of the most powerful land was preparing his reign of peace, justice, freedom and equality, but there
were problems. His armies were engaged in conflict they could not get out of and he was enamored by the spell of the sex
goddess. In order to give the people something to get their minds off the conflict, like the ancient Lydians who invented dice and
ball games to alleviate the misery of a national famine, playing and eating on alternate days (or to perhaps impress the sex
goddess); the young King had a plan. He promised her the Moon. There was a tremor through space and the Great Moon
Goddess put a curse on the sex goddess that she take her own life and that the King be assassinated and the event so obscured
that the truth can never be known by the sorrowful queen and her people.
` I was sitting in the front room at Gough Street when Neal Cassady burst through the front door followed by John Bryan from the Los Angeles Free Press. "Turn on the TV, Charley, Kennedy's been shot!" As we watched the story unfold, Neal and I looked at each other and said that Oswald was a patsy. Ginsberg wrote a poem about the assassination in his typical style of recording insignificant details that detailed a larger historical moment. He mentioned in that poem, "Charley's underwear strewn bedroom." Underwear could be an important detail in the lives of poets in that it might reflect the poet's rearing. His mother had probably trained him to pick up his clothes off the floor, but I had little training in such matters, so I reasoned that since I didn't have housekeeping utensils, I could use my soiled laundry to keep the floor dusted. I never liked the idea of my mattress on the floor anyway, and was concerned about dirt being tracked in. Ginsberg was the traditional and better housekeeper, though most of those chores were Peter Orlovsky's obsessions. If fifties swaggered, the sixties asked: "What is this, anyway?"
Frank Lockhart had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in some of the old buildings that were relics from the Barbary Coast. He was on the seniority list at the union and came to Gough Street until he got on his feet. Everybody loved and respected old Frank, who helped prepare the Thanksgiving dinner that November in 1963, which fed some of us mentioned in the poem Allen Ginsberg was writing about Kennedy: Glen Todd, Justin Hein, Maggie Harms, Robert LaVigne, Neal Cassady, Ann Murphy, and many more at Gough Street that Thanksgiving Day. And there was always an invitation to a stranger from off the street. I include them in my book The Last of the Moccasins.
Neal took me to his godfather's place in the Japanese section of town. Gavin Arthur was a "seer" who was Neal's mentor, guide, and the closest thing to a father Neal had known. The nation was recovering from that November; and Gavin, the grandnephew of President Chester Arthur, mentioned that Herb Caen had quoted him that morning in the Chronicle as saying, "...My friends were appalled when I had told them I had voted for Nixon, but I knew whoever was in office during this term was to be assassinated." The country was still shaky and President Johnson was keeping its attention on the Vietnam War. Neal was wanting to travel and said we should go to Wichita or somewhere, but Kesey suggested the famous Hell's Angel party in Palo Alto that resulted in a bust.
My collage exhibit at the Batman Gallery was on a night of the Goldwater convention. Neal had gone to the convention and showed up later at the gallery wearing a Goldwater (whom I thought he resembled) button, a little straw hat, and sporting a red, white, and blue cane. There was still plenty of excitement brewing. So much, I felt like Neal did about his writing duties. Who wanted to spend time on it? The more dutiful poets like Phil Whalen and Michael McClure would be gentle guides. I was reminded that if I wanted to be a poet, I had to write. Ginsberg was even more dutiful; while grabbing the moment, he recorded what I thought was the most insignificant detail. As we rode down to the Monterey Jazz Festival on the back of my motorcycle, he chanted all the way (probably out of fear). We began making verse out of the signs in shops, what we saw people doing, painting with the spontaneity of life as Kerouac had taught him. It was indeed a splendid trip, which I thought had roots in progressive jazz scat. Ginsberg talked about Howl and drugs with Thelonious Monk, who seemed to regard conversation as an anchor to his mind, the occasional word grounding the vast cosmic charge his mind seemed to produce. On the way back to San Francisco, Allen and I stopped by Kenneth Patchen's house, but he was too ill to see us.
Karen Wright, a friend from Wichita who was later to return to Lawrence when I moved there, came by Gough Street with a new album she said I must hear. I liked it. It reminded me of Woody Guthrie. It was Bob Dylan's first album, and I asked her if I could borrow it to play for Ginsberg when he came home; he didn't have anything to say about it. We never talked music, except for a reference or two about Bessie Smith and Lester Young. Later, when all I heard was slightly nostalgic adolescent whine turned cynical, Allen was raving nothing but Dylan. Poets of the fifties began to realize how much music was going to influence pop culture. The Beatles arrived and reacquainted a new generation of Americans with its music roots.
Peter Orlovsky had an old chartreuse Ford convertible, which we all packed in to go to an organized peace gathering at Joan Baez's ranch. I wrote a poem that included in it the actions of Peter's brother, Julius. We were introduced politely by Ginsberg, and Joan Baez was quick to label us as his "entourage," which annoyed me but was a useful cliché to precede "groupies." My father was a fan of hers, so I wanted a closer look. From then on, the meeting became a comedy of errors. Julius accidentally broke one of Baez's windows, for which Allen dutifully paid. I was drinking too much and had to vomit, but when I went to her sink of hammered copper, I felt ashamed and ran outdoors regurgitating. She had organized a walk, but I didn't go, saying I would get my shiny black boots dusty. She served sandwiches (at a charge of sixty-five cents), and then decreed that we all had to sit for thirty minutes without speaking. I asked her to move her Jaguar, which was blocking Orlovsky's Ford, so I could hop a bus to the Tenderloin. Peter drove me to the Greyhound station, where I began a poem. I learned a new phrase from her, "that's my bag"; I later wrote "my bag" all over a collage I made using a picture of a model with two hand grenades and a bayonet. It later appeared in some underground magazines in England and France. When I arrived at the Tenderloin, I sat with the crazies in the lobby waiting for Frank and Betty and wrote some poetry, "above the ghettoes of clamoring style."
At Lawrence Ferlinghetti's suggestion Mary Beach and Claude Pelieu, with Mary's daughter, Pamela, came to San Francisco. Mary was the distant cousin of Sylvia Beach, who had helped foster the American expatriates and writers of the Lost Generation. Mary and Claude had come to visit Allen Ginsberg at the Gough Street address, where I was introduced to them. Mary's daughter, Pamela, was underage at the time, but I took her to Mike's Pool Hall in North Beach, where Ferlinghetti and other Beats hung out and wrote poetry. At that time, it had not gone chichi, as everything thereafter was quick to do; it still had the best salami sandwich and minestrone available, served on tables covered with slightly soiled red and white checkered tablecloths. A dime in the jukebox would turn a 45 RPM record of Caruso singing arias while old Italian men would sit and study the billiard games.
After a time, the pictures on the television returned to the Vietnam carnage, and I wrote poetry and made collages that reflected the sadistic actions of forcing a will upon a people. I saw LBJ at a North Beach rally and believed he might have had more immediate reasons to keep the war going. It helped draw the people's attention away from the possible chaos that might result from the question of who killed Kennedy. The antiwar movement was growing. I would sometimes drop by the Peace and Freedom party and the Black Panther party headquarters to test my skills in rhetoric by picking out which leaflets were actually authored by CIA or FBI operatives.
I admired the Black Panthers, who were ready to lay down their lives at the State House in Sacramento. Watts was burning. I could no longer walk safely to the Batman Gallery on Fillmore Street. I was attacked while going to the Fillmore Ballroom to see Lenny Bruce. Not because of fear, but a general malaise, and so many things to attend, I did not make the effort to hear Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead though I had complimentary tickets. On another night, at Dave Haselwood's suggestion, I didn't walk to a nearby club to hear a new group called the Jefferson Airplane. Such was the malaise of EVERYTHING.
The art of this generation was psychedelic posters, and the music was psychedelic rock, which was beginning to use the mixed media to simulate a psychedelic world, and amplification to convey its vibratory message. I attended some of the multimedia concerts, but there were two performances I attended that were anachronistic. One was a Chuck Berry concert in the auditorium at Berkeley, which drew only a handful of people, the other was at the Avalon Ballroom, which usually had a full house. About thirty kids turned out to hear an "unknown" Bo Diddley, who began by saying something like, "Mercy...here I am now playing for you." He sounded as if he were slighted, and I felt too old for the crowd. I turned toward the avant of Burroughs and Pelieu.
"By 1964 a new generation had arrived in San Francisco and made
City Lights their rendezvous. Claude Pelieu, a young Frenchman with
a thorough understanding of surrealism, had arrived with Mary
Beach, the distant cousin of Joyce's publisher...and Charles
Plymell, a jazzy poet from Kansas, onetime editor of Now, who did
sadistic collages. The two Bulletins from Nothing and Grist from
Wichita give the prevailing mood....Funk in San Francisco, rather
different from Ed Sander's blithe scatology and the total sexual
gluttony of Tangier, has at least something to do with the tough
spirit that Kansas gave to the West Coast." (Jeff Nuttall, Bomb Culture [New York: Delacorte Press, 1968, p. 194.)
Dave Haselwood published my first book of poems, Apocalypse Rose. I was publishing magazines such as NOW and a newspaper tabloid called The Last Times, which, like the Oracle, was meant to make money by being hawked on the street. There were only two issues, and one contained some drawings of a new cartoonist, Robert Crumb. I remember Ginsberg's quip upon hearing for the first time about the "Haight-Ashbury" while recording his impressions on his new tape recorder that Dylan had given him. He said it might get back to John Ashbery in New York that a hate movement about him was starting on the West Coast.
The influential literary work of enough magnitude to penetrate the expanded mind of the intellectual or the fool, the doctor or the paranoid, as well as be able to reveal national and international madness and cosmic warp, was Naked Lunch. If this cosmic trip was too heavy, there were softer works that seemed to catch the cosmetic. I sat with Richard Brautigan in some of the new head shops and discussed the scene. He had a sense of what the new generation liked to hear. I took some of his poems to publish in an issue of NOW magazine. Burroughs had sent me a cut up of an article I had sent him which he used to illustrate his method.
Bored with the scene, I asked Ferlinghetti if he wanted to go see Neal on his bus, but he was content to stay at Mike's Pool Hall and write another poem about the Vietnam War. I was happy to visit Neal, who was driving his expressed bus, "Further," to keep the scene new. He introduced me to Tom Wolfe, who with Kesey and the Merry Pranksters was to set out on new adventures. That was the last time I saw Neal. I recall the lines from Burroughs: "The Frisco Kid, he never returned."
Ginsberg had purchased a van with a grant that would enable him to ride across America while Peter Orlovsky drove. We were leaving from City Lights Bookstore in North Beach when I saw Pamela and asked her to go with us. The Haight-Ashbury scene was growing larger in numbers, which, to me, was about the only thing left of interest about it. I had published three issues of NOW magazine that included drawings by Branaman, some cut-up prose by Burroughs, poetry by Ginsberg, McClure, Whalen, Russo, Richard White, etal. Richard White had been a pianist/poet in Wichita who came to San Francisco with yet another new wave of people who were making films, writing poetry, making the scene. In this contingent were friends of the Tulsa group who had migrated to the Lower East Side to start the poetry scene at Street Mark's Church. Maureen Owen, who published two of my chapbooks, Over the Stage of Kansas and Blue Orchid Numero Uno, while at Sant Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie, was part of this group that spent time in the Haight before going to the Lower East Side.
Pam and I travelled to Wichita. I broke my ankle on a skateboard and she continued on to New York. Ginsberg and Orlovsky wanted to visit the "vortex," and while in Wichita gave a reading that brought out the Wichita police. They had been called (of course) because of the obscene poetry. The reading was interrupted and turned into a grassroots happening. Some John Birch members were in the audience and, though disgusted with the filthy language, supported the poetry as the right of free speech. The cops didn't know quite what to do, so they "got on the two-way radio" to the chief of police. Allen asked to talk to him and began a rather involved dialogue as only Allen can--over the police radio. He mentioned that Barry Farrell from Life magazine was coming to do a story about him. Over the radio, the chief instructed the cops not to interfere, saying, "well, they're doing this all over the country."
I took Allen Ginsberg to meet my mother; we picked her up after work at the factory. We ate at a Chinese restaurant where the waitress asked him for his autograph, having seen his picture in the paper. He asked if there were any poets at the university, so we went to Bruce Cutler's house for a visit. He shut the door in our faces and said we'd have to make an appointment to see him during his office hours. The people in charge at the English department were reluctant to sponsor Ginsberg, even for free. The friend who had visited the draft board with me was now teaching philosophy, so he arranged a place for poetry to be read. We also read at Moody's Skid Row Beanery, a flophouse and beanery which was a personal Goodwill Industries complete with ice-cream wagons if you wanted to earn your beans. The proprietor, whom I suspect was an old Wobbly, became notorious in showing underground films that the police couldn't figure out. The only "art" movies they knew about were the porno flicks down the block. I showed Ginsberg and Orlovsky some of the seedy hotels and bars in the old part of Wichita. The photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank had flown out from New York to see Wichita. By dawn we were ready for great breakfasts at the ancient Hotel Eaton, where Robert filmed the giant portrait of Carry Nation. Wichita's skid row had a long history on the frontier, but compared to larger cities wasn't that bad. I've written many poems around it; one of my latest is a recollection of "Sam Shusterman, the shoe store man."
I went with Ginsberg and Orlovsky to Nebraska, where they read at the university and later visited Karl Shapiro, who remarked that he couldn't understand why Bruce Cutler (his student) had treated us so oddly. It was my first encounter with an academic poet. During the trip, Allen recorded on his tape machine the Kansas landscape of his "Vortex Sutra" poem. He had asked me earlier to edit his long "TV Baby" manuscript, from which I had thrown out whole pages. I wanted to know how his current impressions-turned-expressions could become important poetry. He sometimes asked me for localisms of the Kansas landscape. We then travelled to Kansas City, where Barry Farrell joined us to work on his Ginsberg article for Life magazine. I watched the power of publicity.
After Pam returned to Wichita, we went to Lawrence, Kansas, where we met the curator of the special collections archives at the University of Kansas, Terence Williams. I got a job at the Van Camp Pork and Bean factory in Lawrence, and later wrote about the experience in my book The Last of the Moccasins. I hung out at the Rock Chalk Cafe and, in the company of Ken Irby, edited and printed another issue of John Fowler's Grist magazine. Through Gary Brown, a friend of LePell's from his university days, I met S. Clay Wilson, the cartoonist, with whom he was sharing a house surrounded by "hogs" and various Harley-Davidson parts. S. Clay gave me some drawings for Grist as well as his earliest portfolios of the "Checkered Demon." While in Fowler's bookstore, I saw a lad browsing through the underground publications and asked him if he had read any of Burroughs' work. I gave him some publications I had printed, which contained some work Burroughs had sent, and said he might like them. He introduced himself as James Grauerholz, and, when he became old enough to leave home, he set out for New York and a new life-style which was highlighted in Burroughs' biography The Literary Outlaw. Many years later, he returned to Lawrence with Burroughs, where they currently reside. [Oddly, I also bought books in 1967 from the Abington Book Shop of Fowler's -- before becoming a teacher of James'. GL]
I had bought a '50 Plymouth in Hollywood and drove to Big Sur to stay at Branaman's place for a while before returning to San Francisco. While Pamela and I were baby-sitting Richard White's puppy, we decided to get married. We packed the car complete with the puppy and went to Reno, Nevada, and, leaving the roulette wheel for a few moments, stood in line to get married. When we returned to San Francisco, the flower children were doing their pseudopastoral, the beginnings of be-ins in Golden Gate Park. There was a party at Bolinas welcoming Gary Snyder's return from Japan. I felt put off by his piety and the tainted abalone that had been picked, and in the bathroom wrote a "serious parody" of an Oriental soul poem:
An ant climbing up
the toilet bowl
slipping all the way
I will give him a raft
An ant floating
on the tissue paper
The Bolinas party was to produce a haunting image for me. I saw for the first time a beautiful child, a girl with innocent blue eyes, who was reportedly mine. She lived with her mother, Maureen Kegwin, and was generously taken care of by Bobbie Creeley, Joanne Kyger, and other kind folk at Bolinas. Due to personal problems that evolved, I was to see her but one other time.
There was a strong international little-magazine scene going on then which had a boost from Claude Pelieu. Doug Blazek had moved to San Francisco, and through him I met Brown Miller and Seaborn Jones. Blazek was publishing poets Charles Bukowski, Harold Norse, Marcus J. Grapes, Opal L. Nations, and other names in the underground magazine scene. Carl Weissner was the German correspondent who was the force behind the magazine Klacto and translator of my work as well as Charles Bukowski's. This scene was to continue into the eighties when Jorg Fauser would write articles on us for Tipmagazine in Berlin, which did two articles on me. Carl Weissner translated my poetry into German for Pociao of Expanded Media Editions, publisher of one of my books, Panik in Dodge City, that appeared in Germany. The issues of Grist magazine I edited included many of the international figures in the underground movement.
In the People's Park March, I sensed that the leadership of the intellectual left not only lacked humor and wisdom, but their strategy was obviously naive. The route to the park had been approved and mapped out by the authorities; I took no chances, my country or not, and ran my own test just to see to what extent authority could go. At Berkeley, certain streets were lined with barbed wire, tanks, and armed personnel. Governor Reagan was taking no chances. When I saw the cross streets blocked off at the intersection, I knew that this was not a revolt because it was being played according to the other's rules, but it could very well be lambs to the slaughter.
When I told one of the guardsmen that my wife and I wanted to leave the march, he said we couldn't leave the designated route. I said that my wife was pregnant and we did not want to continue. He said we'd have to go all the way to the end of the route. I glared into his eyes and said the hell we would, and walked past him. That may or may not have been the best thing to do, but on more than one occasion, there were incidents where students were shot for no reason but power. As I write this, I think of the Chinese students. The books of William Reich that Patty had lent me years earlier when I first entered college were not entirely a study in paranoia, but had confirmed my unarticulated childhood observations of growing up in a violent land. Kent State was no surprise to me.
I felt like an outsider when I said what I thought of the organizer's strategy. Again, I felt alienated, too old, neither Left nor Right. I was fond of saying that, at my age, I had learned a couple of things. Neal and I liked to be didactic in a frontiersman kind of way, so I made a mental note that the next time I saw him I would discuss the virtues of knowing when to call someone's bluff, or when to play the fool. I wrote a poem treating these didactics which was published by a rare and beautiful press, Loujon Press, in Arizona, in its magazine, The Outsider. Hugh Fox, at the Department of American Language and Thought at the University of Michigan, was to write a critical analysis of my poetry and coin the words "Invisible Generation." It never became famous, and its name implied it should not have.
When we returned to San Francisco, Pam and I rented a flat near the Fillmore Ballroom. It was the time of nude parties and free love when women's bodies were painted on. The last time I saw Richard Brautigan was at such a nude party. There was a public nude beach south of San Francisco where many of us spent our time. I would write anecdotes of the time I watched a Mexican, who had walked up the coast from the border, awaken from his sleep of muscatel to rub his eyes in disbelief under the day's sun, which produced a game of volley ball above him, played by naked women.
Robert Crumb, whose comics I had printed in one of the underground publications, had arrived in San Francisco. His apartment was furnished from the street and contained some nice vintage radios. Don Donahue, who was about to become an underground comic entrepreneur, came by our apartment one day with a sheaf of Crumb's drawings. We had an old Multilith in our bedroom and we went over some of the technicalities for printing colors, which were explained to Crumb. I decided on a format which would fit the Multi, which later became the standard for many comics to follow. With much love and effort we printed the first Zap comics of Robert Crumb, which sold for twenty-five cents. I put my name on the back cover as printer. I forget how many copies we managed to get through the machine intact, but there was a gathering party at Crumb's afterwards. I don't think we delivered as many copies as we were supposed to, which made that first adventure in printing become all the more rare. Recently, S. Clay informed me that the "Plymell Zap" was listed by collectors in San Francisco at $400 a copy [2011 up to $6,000 at auction].
In 1968 Pam and I drove a new Mustang convertible from San Francisco to New York City for a fellow who wanted it put on the boat to Paris. Otis Redding on the radio. I began writing my Neon Poems as we left Frisco Bay. Past the wild rose of Utah. The Lower East Side and a flight to Paris which had to land in Belgium because France was under civil law. After a bootleg bus trip from Brussels we arrived in Paris, and I began writing poems about the revolts which seemed to be popping out in every major city in world. We visited Burroughs in London and of course I wrote a poem about it. Contrary to reports that his line was "don't drop in," he was very nice and cordial. He took us for a drink at a pub on Duke Street.
We returned to New York, where I got a job as a guard on the graveyard shift at MOMA. I guarded all the floors of the museum and a fellow from Jamaica covered the Rockefeller mansion. Actually, neither of us knew much about the job so we drank and played with the electronic surveillance machine. He didn't cover the mansion because he said there was a headless ghost in it. I took strange forays among the objets d'art, alone with them until Gotham's daybreak. I was later to write some "spoof" poetry designed to make the curators gasp about what I did with the paintings and sculptures. After a while, the long journey back to Wichita and San Francisco.
Frank, from Deadwood, South Dakota, had been living with my sister in various skid-row hotels and had begun working on the docks in San Francisco. He got me into the union, and I thought I pretty well had it made. I could earn in a few nights what the average worker earned in a week. I could call in when I didn't want to go to work, and then call in when I did. I thought it was the best job a poet could have, and with my recent publications, I began to consider myself a writer. I carried a longshoreman's hook in my back pocket and was able to live out the Brando movie "On The Waterfront" where there were Ph.D.'s who hated the academe, ex-cons and druggies, alcoholics, and even a philosopher, Eric Hoffer. Learning psychology, sociology, and politics on the job helped lend insights and emotions to my writing, which would eventually be labeled proletariat.
It was at that time an opportunity from the academe called again. Marc Mendel, a poet from Baltimore came to visit us and mentioned his mentor, Elliott Coleman. He made Baltimore sound like a place we should live. Afterwards, Nidra Poller, another student of Coleman's, came from Baltimore to help convince us to go there. She later wrote the introduction to my City Lights book.
We packed up cats and belonging and drove across country to Baltimore just in time for me to enroll in Mr. Coleman's class at the prestigious writing seminars. Mr. Coleman had awarded me a fellowship with a stipend. We lived on about two hundred dollars a month and rented an apartment that was home to our newborn daughter, Elizabeth. It proved to be a very exciting year at the seminars, so much so that, at times, Mr. Coleman seemed to pull out all stops to survive the rowdy class that fate had dealt him that year. He was from "the old school," but could rise to any occasion in such a way that no one doubted his credibility. He was always generous to the students and at Thanksgiving brought us a turkey, which we shared with Warren Fine and his family. P. J. O'Rourke added to the rowdiness of the classes, which tried to be as out of control as the parties that ensued. He lived down the block with his beer cans and motorcycle parts spread all over the sidewalk, no doubt gathering humor for his next adventure, The Harvard Lampoon.
Josh Norton, who was at the seminars that year, later became one of our publishing family and an inspiration for me to continue writing. We formed a special bond that we needed to help turn the tide of what we saw as an encroaching mediocrity in poetry and art. Though he was crippled since birth and had a tiny body, he had a great strength. When I thought something needed challenging, I would but hint to him, and he would bang his cane on the table until the points would be resolved. The seminars became so animated that we could sense when Mr. Coleman was in need of his evening cocktail and meal at the faculty club or a nearby restaurant, to which he would often invite students. At one seminar meeting, a student jumped on the table and began to dance wildly. Even such professional pranksters as P. J. O'Rourke became meek and docile under Mr. Coleman's mastery. In short, no one could get one up on him. He was a special person who enriched the lives of many of his students. I was especially pleased to have been able to introduce him to my lifelong friend Roxie Powell, who was able to help Mr. Coleman live out his greatness and rage against mediocrity, even meet death with repartee.
My father died in 1969, just before Christmas. We had planned to visit him with our new family. From his shrunken estate, the amount of $5,000 was finally filtered down to me, and by that time I wanted to settle down with my family. Again, my wife, a new daughter, and a cat or two, with our belongings and the cat box, were packed into an old Ford. We lived on the Lower East Side for a while. I remembered the countryside around Cherry Valley, New York, where we had stayed at Allen Ginsberg's place in the nearby hills after having attended Buckley's "Firing Line" television show in the city with him, Sanders, and Kerouac. There were two old stores for sale next to the post office in Cherry Valley that were used by the inventor Samuel Morse to develop his coding machines. I wrote a check for $3,500 and unloaded our belongings. We later sold the buildings to the jazz keyboard artist Paul Bley.
Josh Norton came to stay with us while we pursued Pam's vocation as a publisher. We began to publish many books and magazines under the Cherry Valley Editions imprint. We rented a Xerox machine and in two months produced four issues of The Coldspring Journal and seven chapbooks. The seventies were spent publishing, living a back-to-earth life-style, and squabbling for grant monies to publish literature. There seemed to be a general decline of exciting literature and a proliferation of what we thought of as unimportant art and poetry. Our publications reflected our thinking and consequently we were not popular among those who were connected with arts monies on the state and federal level. We finally quit applying for funding entirely, which curtailed our literary productions; we later sold the printing equipment and continued publishing on a small scale.
Writers who sold, like William Burroughs, helped the press. He came to Cherry Valley with John Giorno and James Grauerholz to stay a few days. Pam fixed Texas barbecued ribs for them. Giorno assembled my poems for Kulchur Foundation's publication of Trashing of America. He got the artist Les Levine to do the cover. I had a publication party at the Gotham Book Mart, and upon seeing the portraits of writers who had formerly occupied that space, felt honored.
Our son, Billy, was born in 1978 on my father's birthday. Financially, things had gotten worse during the recession, and Pam and I couldn't find jobs in what was essentially a rural area. I had parlayed the Samuel Morse building into a nice house and carriage barn on three acres of good land, but the mortgage was due. I had hopes of getting a writing fellowship to keep the house together but, as always, my application was turned down. I was particularly bitter about it, because it seemed all my friends as well as the combined household of Orlovsky and Ginsberg had gotten one. To me, $12,500 was a staggering sum. More than I could have saved in a lifetime. Just a fraction of it would have saved the day for us, but we had to sell and relocated in Washington, D.C., where we had heard jobs were available. I thought that I at least should sell to an artist who would appreciate the place, and my friend in the city, Crandal Waid, had a painter friend who wanted to get out of the city. We sold him our place for a nominal amount and used the money to pay the astronomical rent in Washington until we could get on our feet.
Before we left Cherry Valley, a representative from Europa Verlag who had just been to California, where he had signed up Christopher Isherwood, visited us, and I signed a contract for the Austrian publication of The Last of the Moccasins. He paid City Lights $1,000, which they split with me. I received two copies of a very attractive book, and that was it.
Washington worked out fairly well. My wife began working at The Wall Street Journal, and I began teaching part-time. We met many interesting people who could help me find a job. Through them I found all the work I wanted as a part-time English composition instructor, but I soon learned that I was in the wrong profession at the wrong time, at least for the tenure track. The old-boy network of aged caucasian males in English departments was being purged. I was able to teach in prisons and at some of the many campuses in the area. I had gone to a party at Michael Mooney's house, who had just quit his editorial job at Harper's and was writing a book about arts funding in which he quoted me on funding experiences. At his party was the enfant terrible poet of Washington, Eric Baizer, who had skills in writing about the unfairness of literary funding. The Washington papers did an article about it, and I was mentioned in the "Notes on People" section in the New York Times. Michael's friend had read that I was in Washington and told another friend, Reed Whittemore, that I was in town. Reed invited me to the University of Maryland president's house for the posthumous birthday party of Katherine Anne Porter. It turned out that I had met Katherine Anne Porter and was able to contribute an anecdote. Reed was on the committee to grant tenure to a program director who hired me to teach part-time upper-level composition courses, though my teaching poetry was out of the question.
Other poets didn't care for our public statements, nor did they like it when Joshua Norton and I staged a reading at a university at which Rod McKuen read my poem "In Memory of My Father." I learned how serious, political, and fragile poets are (especially those in the academe) when it comes to what might be considered a threat to their rank. I used the analogy of a type of rats in the city that squeal, shriek, and attack when a different clan invades their territory. Philosophically, I took the point of view that if my work can survive after I make an effort to offend the establishment and political sycophants, then it might have some substance.
Washington, D.C., became too expensive when the economy was getting better and we decided to return to Cherry Valley. Once again I was with family and cats in a U-Haul truck camped temporarily at Allen Ginsberg's farm. By this time our old solidarities were frayed, and he was concerned that I might not be the best guest for his "Committee on Poetry" farm. I was convinced that since he had supposedly landed a $100,000 for his book which mentioned me against my wishes, and since he has more than one domicile, he could have been more helpful. With the payout from Pam's retirement fund from her job in Washington we scratched together enough money to pay down on a house in Cherry Valley and were thus spared the realities of the homeless.
My demeanor, I sense, is as raw as a wind-whipped fence post. As a person from the plains, I have etched into my features what some mild Easterner might construe as violence. I am comfortable with "Zane Grey" talk and have not tried to affect a more sophisticated speech. I spent much time in my youth in a landscape with nothing but wind and space as far as I could see. I lived in extremes, felt the violent power of cyclones' charges next to the quiet of whisper. I became part of the natural etching, uprooted as the tumbleweed. Three of my favorite contemporary writers and mentors also came from the plains states: William Burroughs, Robert Peters, and Loren Eiseley.
Though I had little regard for the time that was ticking away on the white man's analog, I was naive, or not caring, about many other things and was late to learn that there were many people throughout my life who apparently had an aversion to me and my art. Aloof, cool, and mystic, I took on the persona of a gunslinger, riding in and out of towns. I found comfort in the words of Alan Lomax, who sang about the dark night, himself, and his pony ... a long way from home: "... If them people, they don't like me, they can leave me alone." [Charley Plymell sings]I never learned how to be a good sycophant, which, towards my eventual career, seemed an essential skill for obtaining rewards, or even a good job. I learned that there was no certainty in distinguishing what the serious writer should become, inside or outside the system, and poetry was surely not something in demand.
Out of step with the literati, uneasy with the regional parlor humor of the New Yorker's sophisticates, and at the age of fifty-five, I
am a white-bearded old man reading the want ads, seeking jobs, usually part-time, to help support my family, and still finding
very little time to write in not a very well-planned career. Even with the earnings of my wife contributing to the income, I still had a
lifelong conflict with what I did, opposed to what I should do to earn a good living. This lack of middle-class progress was many
times problematical and difficult for me to explain to my children. My life's work was the unemployment line, unskilled labor, or
part-time teaching. I would be thankful to my mentor, Elliott Coleman, for higher education even if I was unable to parlay that into
the security of position and title. I was, however, fortunate enough to meet people who influenced my life and my writing.
Tomorrow I have to go to the unemployment office.