Author Michael Schumacher talks the Beat movement, Allen Ginsberg, and the soundtrack of his life

"If given the choice, today’s youth would choose the Beats over Podhoretz by an overwhelming majority. The older following discovered the Beats in their youth and simply continued to enjoy their literature."

Michael Schumacher: Howlin' Lion Blues

Michael Schumacher’s first book, Reasons to Believe, a collection of profiles of such then-young writers as Jay McInerney, Jayne Anne Phillips, Lorrie Moore, Bret Easton Ellis, and Mona Simpson, was published in 1988. Prior to that, he had worked as a freelance writer, editor, newspaper and magazine columnist, and proofreader/reader for publishers. As a contributing editor to Writer’s Digest magazine, he interviewed, Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Joyce Carol Oates, Raymond Carver, and many others. He had wanted to be a writer since he was a young boy growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He won his first writing prize when he was in sixth grade, and he wrote a short novel (about a hockey player) by the end of his second year of high school. He wrote for his high school and college papers, and, in his early post-college days, he contributed to a number of alternative or underground papers that proliferated in the late-1960s and early 1970s. To this day, he considers his first big break to be the publication of his brief interview with Tom Waits in Playboy in 1980.

For the next few years, he wrote extensively for newspapers and magazines, contributing profiles and articles, as well as numerous book reviews, to different publications. After the publication of Reasons to Believe, he devoted most of his writing to books. He has written biographies of Allen Ginsberg, Francis Ford Coppola: A Filmmaker's life (1999), There but for Fortune: the Life of Phil Ochs (1996), Crossroads: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton (1995), George Mikan, Will Eisner, and Al Capp, as well as four books about Great Lakes shipwrecks. His association with Allen Ginsberg dates back to 1981, when he interviewed Ginsberg for a magazine. When he was researching Dharma Lion (1992), his biography of Ginsberg, he met almost all the central members of the Beat Generation, and he has written scores of articles, interviews, and reviews of their work. He edited Family Business, a selection of letters between Allen Ginsberg and his father Louis. Most recently, he edited The Essential Ginsberg—an anthology of Ginsberg’s best poetry, prose, songs, journal entries, interviews, letters and photographs—which will be published by HarperCollins in May. He lives in Wisconsin.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Michael Schumacher Archive / All Rights Reserved

What did you learn about yourself from the Beat movement and counterculture?

This is a difficult question to answer because I was part of the counterculture. I was aware of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the Beat Generation when I was very young, and their ideas fit in with my politician and social views. I actively opposed the Vietnam War, for instance, so Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra’ resonated with me, just as Phil Ochs’s “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” struck a chord with me musically. Their thoughts were very similar to my thoughts. I had been reading Beat Generation works long before I knew much about any of the poets and writers in this group. I guess what I’m saying is I knew myself before I read the Beats or countercultural writings. I didn’t learn from them as much as I welcomed their ideas.

What does “Beat” mean to you?

John Clellon Holmes, the novelist and essayist and close friend of Jack Kerouac, probably gave me the best definition of “beat” I’ve ever heard. “Beat,” he told me, “is when you’ve sunk so low that you’re willing to wager all of your resources on a single number.” This was what Kerouac meant when he first talked about a “Beat Generation” in a conversation he had with Holmes in 1948. Kerouac refined the definition to include “beatific”—angelic, in a way. Herbert Huncke, the Times Square hustler Kerouac and Company met and befriended, meant “beat” to mean thoroughly tired and wasted. To answer your question, I suppose “beat,” to me, means all of the above.

What started the thought of Dharma Lion?

This is a very strange but true story. In 1981, I wanted to write a newspaper or magazine article about Jack Kerouac and On the Road, since 1982 was the 25th anniversary of the publication of that book. I started contacting some of the Beat writers, Allen Ginsberg and John Clellon Holmes being the first. I read everything I could find and hadn’t already read about the Beats. Then, one night in the summer of 1981, I found myself in a local drive-in restaurant. I don’t know if you have those in your country. They usually sell sandwiches like hamburgers or hot dogs. You drive into a parking lot that surrounds the restaurant, park your car, and place your order with a waitress who comes out to your car. The food is brought out on a tray that hangs off the driver’s side window. I like to go to these places to read or even do a little writing.

       Anyway, I was sitting in my car at one of these drive-ins one evening. The weather was terrible: lots of heavy rain, thunder, and lightning. I brought my tray inside the car and rolled up my window. The weather got even worse. I didn’t have the heart to call the waitress out to the car to collect my tray, so I just sat there, thinking about Kerouac and the Beat Generation project I hoped to write. My mind turned to Ginsberg, and it occurred to me that I knew a lot about him—maybe enough to write a long article about him. I grabbed my notebook and began making notes about Ginsberg’s life, at least as I understood it at that time. I filled page after page with notes. These notes eventually became the outline for Dharma Lion.

 

How would you describe and characterize Allen’s philosophy?

Allen believed in the Self, in the Whitmanic sense. He embodied many voices. He felt that others shared even his most private thoughts. When he was attending Columbia University in New York and spending a lot of time with Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, he was please to discover that they shared some of these ideas—particularly Kerouac. They believed that their lives could be the basis of literature. That came through in the early works of the Beat Generation, in On the Road, “Howl,” John Clellon Holmes’s Go, and others.

What touched you emotionally in the life of Allen Ginsberg?

I was very moved by his relationship with his mother. It was a very complex relationship, and I’m not sure he ever resolved it. Naomi Ginsberg’s mental disorders gave Allen great empathy and compassion for others like her. When you read “Kaddish,” you’re reading an account of Allen’s youth, or the difficulties he and his family had in caring for a woman who created all types of difficulties. When I saw the original manuscript of “Kaddish,” I was touched: Ginsberg had used onion-skin typing paper, on which he wrote in ink. There were tear stains on the paper. When I looked at the letters his mother sent him from Pilgrim State Hospital, where she spent a lot of time in a mental disorders unit, I was taken by the voice in her letters. More often than not, she sounded reasonable. She was a mother begging her son to remove her from the hospital. In some letters, she made very little sense, but I was always struck by the humanity in her. I remember asking Allen about all this. He was very matter-of-fact in his answers (as was Allen’s older brother Eugene), as if it was perfect normal for a young teenage kid to be taking her mother to a rest home for help. I realized the horrible responsibility that had been laid on him. Then, some years later, after his parents had been divorced, Allen signed papers allowing doctors to perform a lobotomy on his mother. This weighed on him very heavily. In his poems, “White Shroud” and “Black Shroud,” he tries to resolve the guilt he felt in “killing” his mother’s mind. He never did. When I was reading those letters that I mentioned, I had to take a break and walk around outside, just to clear my head. It was heartbreaking.

"I had been reading Beat Generation works long before I knew much about any of the poets and writers in this group. I guess what I’m saying is I knew myself before I read the Beats or countercultural writings. I didn’t learn from them as much as I welcomed their ideas."

Why do you think the Beat movement and culture continues to generate such a devoted following?

Each new generation seems to discover the Beat Generation. There’s great appeal in the rebellious nature of the literature and lifestyle. It’s creative, it’s free; it’s a feeling of flight that one feels in youth. Critics have always accused the Beats and their followers of being nihilistic and negative, and it’s not that at all. Quite simply, the Beats didn’t want to become what their critics became. Norman Podhoretz, author of the hyper-critical essay, “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” never forgave Kerouac, Ginsberg, and others their freedom. Podhoretz turned into a stodgy, bitter old man—a conservative war-monger. If given the choice, today’s youth would choose the Beats over Podhoretz by an overwhelming majority. The older following discovered the Beats in their youth and simply continued to enjoy their literature.

       I just edited a book, The Essential Ginsberg, which contains the best of Ginsberg’s poetry, prose, interviews, letters, journal entries, and photographs. The book will be published in May. When I was making the selections for the book, I had my mind on all those who have never read any of Ginsberg’s work. I hoped this introduction would encourage these newcomers to go out and find his other work. I believe that the Beats will continue to be discovered by each new generation. Who knows where it will go from there?

 

How important was music in your life?

It is all-important. I always have music playing in my home OR in my car. My father taught music in the public schools, and there was always a lot of music being played around my house when I was growing up. I took twelve years of piano and actually played in a small (but not very good) rock band. I remember sitting in a little restaurant across the street from my local record store, waiting for the delivery truck to deliver the Beatles’ White Album. I drove 30 miles to an out-of-town record store, just to buy Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs. I had to have these records as soon as they were released, and I would go to great lengths to see that it happened. I’ve written hundreds of reviews of records and concerts. In my very first interview with Allen Ginsberg, we talked about nothing but his music.

How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

I like to play music, usually blues or jazz, when I’m working at my desk. Some years ago, my daughter asked me about it. I was listening to Miles Davis, and she asked me if that inspired me. It didn’t actually inspire me, I said; I found it energizing. Bob Dylan, on the other hand, inspires me, not because I’m trying to emulate him or his music, but because he has produced great music without compromising his vision. He’s one of our artistic geniuses..

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Well, given the amount of writing and editing I’ve done concerning Allen Ginsberg (photo) and his work, meeting Ginsberg would rank at or near the top of the list. I was thrilled to spend time with Kurt Vonnegut, who was always one of my favorite writers. I could make a list of well-known people, I guess. Some of my most important experiences, though, have been with unknown individuals. Let me give you one example. A few years ago, I wrote a book about an enormous limestone-carrying ship that split in half during a terrible storm on Lake Huron. All but two men onboard were lost. Twenty-eight of the lost sailors were from this tiny city—Rogers City, Michigan. I visited the city when it was commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the ship’s sinking. While I was there, I was asked if I would visit a senior citizens’ home, where a number of old sailors were living. Some of these men knew people who had perished in the shipwreck. We had a very good meeting, and at one point I asked some of these old men if they would like me to read a passage from the book to them. I chose a simple passage about life on the Great Lakes. During my reading, I looked up from the book and saw one old man in a wheelchair. Tears were running down his cheeks, and he kept whispering, “That’s just how it was, that’s just how it was.” That moment meant the world to me. I should ever get another review that meaningful. 

What is the best advice ever given you?

Well, if we’re talking about advice about writing, I think I got my best advice from Norman Mailer. I’d told him that I was working on a book. “Can you see an end to it?” he asked. I told him that I could. “Take your time,” he advised me. “Don’t rush it. Too many writers get excited about seeing the ending to their books. They’re in a hurry to finish and just push it. That’s never good.”

Are there any memories from Diane di Prima, Michael McClure and Antler which you’d like to share with us?

I don’t have any interesting memories of di Prima or McClure, other than to say that I’ve met them, interviewed them, and hung out with them a little. I moderated a Beat Generation panel with Ginsberg, di Prima, and McClure in San Jose, California in 1992. Antler, on the other hand, is a good friend of mine. I’ve known him about 25 years. He lives in Milwaukee, which is about 30 miles from my house, and we get together fairly often. His lifetime friend and partner, Jeff Poniewaz, died in December, and Antler had been off on his own, out of contact with a lot of friends since Jeff’s passing. Both knew Allen Ginsberg well, and they saw themselves as a continuation of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg loved Antler, and he even contributed some money to help get Antler’s Selected Poems published.

Which is the moment that changed your life the most?

The births of my three children and four grandchildren—without a doubt. They put everything in perspective. They literally gave me reason to live.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

For me personally? I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the future, so I’m not sure I can answer the question. Obviously, I would like to stay healthy, write more books, and see what happens in the world. But it’s not something I spent a lot of time thinking about. I’m far too busy with the present to dwell on the past of future.

What do you miss mostly nowadays from the Beat Generation?

Allen Ginsberg.

What is the legacy of the Beat Generation?

This is another tough question to answer. It’s safe to assume that some of the writings will survive. “Howl,” for example, never grows old or sounds dated. So that could be a legacy. As far as I’m concerned, the Beat legacy will be seen in the works of generations to come. Who knows what young artist might contribute? Bob Dylan, for instance, has always talked about the influence of the Beat Generation on his work. Now, thousands of songwriters have been influenced by Dylan. This is passed on from generation to generation until, at last, we might no longer see the Beat Generation as a specific influence. Legacies are almost impossible to measure or define. When Allen Ginsberg had his Blake “visions” in 1948, the biggest lesson he came away with was how a poet like William Blake could speak to him through the ages, as clearly and convincingly as if he was in the same room. Ginsberg tried—and failed—to imitate Blake’s work, but the lesson stayed with him and influenced him until the day he died.

If you could change one thing in the world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That’s an easy and obvious question to answer: I would want permanent peace among all people of the world—no more war, no more killing, no more hatred, no more terrorism. Could you imagine such a thing?

Let’s take a trip in a time machine. Where would you want to go for a day, and why?

I don’t know how to begin to answer this question. There are simply too many people I would want to meet, too many places I would like to visit, too much history to witness. This makes me think of that Steve Winwood song, “Low Spark of High Heeled Boys,” where someone is asked what he would ask for it he could be granted one final wish. The answer: another chance.

       Anyway, to address this hypothetical question: let’s assume or the sake of this discussion, that we are born and reborn many times over time, as some people believe. If that was the case, I would like to spend a day with a former self. That could be really strange! 

Photo: Michael and statue of Ken Kesey in the town square in Eugene, Oregon

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