British writer Dr. Simon Warner talks about The Beats and Rock Culture - Text and Drugs and Rock n' Roll

"There are always new generations of young people – it used to be principally young men but it is increasingly, of course, young women, too – who want to shake off the shackles of convention and travel is a great way to physically and psychologically release yourself from those ties, discover unfamiliar cultures and even yourself."

Simon Warner: The Heartbeat of The Beats

Simon Warner is a lecturer, writer and broadcaster who has taught Popular Music at the University of Leeds in the UK since 1994. In the early 1990s, he was a live rock reviewer for The Guardian and, during the same period, successfully attained an MA in Popular Music Studies at Liverpool University, part of the first intake on the world's first such qualification, which had been launched at the start of the decade. He has taken a long-term interest in the relationship between rock culture and that of the Beat Generation writers, the ways in which Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs influenced several waves of major musicians and bands, from Dylan and the Beatles to the Grateful Dead and the Doors, Van Morrison and David Bowie to Tom Waits and Patti Smith, REM to U2, Sonic Youth to Nirvana, teaching courses on this intersection, publishing widely on this musico-literary relationship and staging related live events.  Photo by Neville Guilliano

In 2005, he was the producer of Howl for Now, a 50th anniversary celebration in Leeds of the first reading of Ginsberg's poem. A book of the same name, which he edited, was published at the same time. In 2008, he was the co-organiser of a conference entitled ‘Back on the Road’, a 50th anniversary commemoration of the first UK publication of Kerouac's signature text, at Birmingham University. In 2013, he published Text and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture, a survey of the association between Anglo-American singers and musicians and the literary legacy of the 1950s novelists and poets. In 2013 and 2014, he was co-curator of Louder Than Words, the Manchester-based festival of popular music writing, in its two inaugural years. In 2015, he was the co-curator of an event – Still Howling –  which celebrated the 60th anniversary of Ginsberg's poem staged in Manchester. He makes regular contributions to radio items on popular music topics and was a featured commentator in the recent BBC4 television documentary Rhymes, Rock and Revolution: The Story of Performance Poetry (2015).

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the Beat and rock’n’roll culture and what do the Beats mean to you?

I was born in Manchester in the mid-1950s, grew up in the regions, the North of England, also the Midlands, and, even though I knew there was a culture there – how could you not when the Beatles set the 1960s alight from their Liverpool base – I was also conscious of the restraints of a provincial life. I guess that the US became for me, and for many millions on this side of the Atlantic, a vision of possibility.

And it's hard not to feel that the Beatles themselves gave licence to non-metropolitans to believe they could move on and away and take some of the excitements that were brewing: that Anglo-American mixture of music, of film, of literature, represented by Dylan and Lennon & McCartney, by the cinematic representations forged by Easy Rider and by Woodstock, for instance, and this fertile interweaving of novels and poetry – the Angry Young Men, the Liverpool Poets and, of course, the Beats, too – with the turbulent politics of the day and the constant ferment of popular music which was transformed from mere entertainment into a form of vibrant and influential social commentary.

Not that I was making any complete sense of any of this at the time. It was just a feeling you had, even as a very young person – the Rolling Stones on Top of the Pops, the Who on Ready Steady Go, talk about Vietnam on television, ‘All You Need Is Love’ beamed around the world, the murder of Martin Luther King, the Prague Spring – that these were somehow significant times.

How important was music and literature in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?                                           Photo by Neville Guilliano

Hugely important, I would say, with music from my very earliest days a genuine passion. This might relate to notions of the Zeitgeist, but as a six-year-old I was standing in an old-style record store music booth with my terrific mother listening to the Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’ and then the Stones’ ‘Not Fade Away’ and trying to decide which single I would choose as a reward for being good about wearing my newly acquired spectacles.

Literature came later. When the British music magazines from the early 1970s, particularly New Musical Express, started mentioning intriguing figures like Kerouac and Burroughs and Kesey, as that pop weekly turned into more of an underground-conscious publication, I was drawn to find out who these people were. And in school, studying English in the sixth form, I recall a progressive teacher called Mr Steele introducing the group to that paperback in the Penguin Modern Poets series, No. 5 in fact, which featured Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. However, the first book with a Kerouac link I read was Ann Charters’ biography, the first such study to emerge, five years after the writer's death in 1969. After that, I tried to read all I could, beginning, a little surprisingly, with Kerouac's debut The Town and the City and his much later novel The Vanity of Duluoz.

I could quickly, as a middle to late teenager, grasp that there was a similar level of energy and excitement in his writing that I was finding in rock music at the time. I loved them both and was hungry to consume words on the page and music on the stage and on record. My first gig was the Who at Manchester Odeon In 1971. After that, I spent decades at hundreds, possibly tens of hundreds, of gigs, but had an ongoing passion for the Beat writing that Kerouac produced in, eventually, over 30 books.

By the time I'd seen several bands a week for three years during my History studies at Sheffield University, I was hungry to visit those mythic American cities, those wide-open landscapes, in which Kerouac's adventures had been played out. My parents were very generous – they let me live at home while I laboured on a building site in my year after graduation and then I headed out with a friend for a three or four month trip across the US, mainly by Greyhound. Looking back, it was quite an adventurous trip to make. It was sufficiently unusual then for my local newspaper, the Wilmslow Advertiser, to agree to publish a weekly report based around my travels. And that chance also opened up the idea that I might write about these things, and more, as a journalist in the years to come.

We travelled from New York City to Canada and San Francisco down to San Diego and into Mexico, then Texas and on to Florida and Nashville, all the way back to Manhattan. We visited Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, spent days in Boulder – not knowing this was where Ginsberg had created his amazing poetry college – met Ferlinghetti himself outside City Lights, generally had the kind of Beat experience we’d hoped for.

It was an amazing spring and summer, inspirational for a writer, inspirational for a music fan. We were the ingénues picked up by a gay Colombian in Times Square on our very first night in America; we caught Elvis Costello at Winterland supported by Mink DeVille; we chased friendly girls into the wilds of Montana; and we saw The Last Waltz as the only paying customers in a cinema in Mobile, Alabama. It felt to us, in that long warm season of 1978, like On the Road re-created!

How did the idea of books arise?

I returned from the US determined to make a living out of writing but, even then, at the height of print production, decades before the internet, with thousands of newspaper titles in the UK alone – nationals, mornings, evenings and weeklies – it was still hard to find a position. I wrote, literally hand-wrote, 70 individual letters seeking work. I got two replies – one a polite rejection, the other an interview on a well-established weekly paper in the north-west city of Chester, between Liverpool and Manchester. I got the job and spent the next 15 years as a reporter of various kinds, initially covering news and features, penning football reports, but quite soon writing about music and other cultural activities, theatre and cinema and art, as arts editor on regional evening titles in Wales then Yorkshire. I guess I hoped that eventually I might write books, too.

In the early 1990s, I pitched an idea for a book on rock music and its frequent and promiscuous appropriation of language – borrowing from novels and movies, poetry and television. Some of my earliest ideas about the influence of the Beats on bands and songwriters appeared in Rockspeak: The Language of Rock and Pop (1996). Not long after that, I started teaching classes, in the university Music department where I now worked, on literature and popular music – the course was initially called Rock and the Written Word – and, within a couple of years, more specifically on Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs. Other books, like Howl for Now, grew out of events I organised, but Text and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll was a long time germinating.

I gave a paper on the connection between the Beats and the hippies at the Experience Music Project conference in Seattle in 2003. A commissioning editor at a publisher called Continuum – his name was David Barker – got in touch to ask me if I felt there was potential for a book on this wider topic. There was – but it took around 10 years to complete and finally release under the Bloomsbury imprint, after that large publisher had taken over the smaller one in the interim. David's support and encouragement was vital.

"It would be great to take that trip to the Six Gallery, the San Francisco venue where Ginsberg first read ‘Howl’ on October 7th, 1955, the moment, it could be argued, when the Beat Generation emerged from its subterranean cellars in Greenwich Village and North Beach to become, quickly, a national and then international phenomenon."

How do you describe what you might characterize as the Beat and rock philosophy?

Steve Turner in his fine and accessible portrait of Kerouac, Angelheaded Hipster (1996), says that most of what characterised the emerging rock ideology from the mid-1960s had already been experienced by the Beats. Creative experiment, the use of drugs and alcohol to stimulate artistic invention, the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment often through the mysticism of the East, the quest for sexual novelty and the breaking of traditional taboos…all of these things that the most important and innovative popular music musicians pursued had been on the Beat checklist from the 1940s.

In fact, in the middle of that latter decade, the emerging community of New York writers, who would soon become identified as the Beat Generation, drew up a so-called ‘New Vision’, a kind of manifesto that would drive these novelists and poets forward as they searched for fresh ways of expressing their thoughts about life, religion, culture, sex and even politics.

Within this manifesto, the seeds of counterculture were sown and, if the shoots poked above the surface during the 1950s, by the 1960s they were in full bloom. The activists had different concerns: the literary Beats emerged in the shadow of the Cold War, with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) pursuing those of the left, with socialist or communist tendencies, with quite merciless rigour.

The Beat writers were driven by a range of motivations – a resistance to the paranoia and inhibition of post-war America, a rejection of a life driven principally by economic imperatives, a powerful desire to express new ideas about identity and sexuality and comment on the racial conditions of the day, with fresh forms of jazz encouraging a groundbreaking, cultural miscegenation of radical black art and white hipster attitudes. The bebop clubs of Harlem and later 52nd Street provided the soundtrack to a vast body of new writing, on both sides of the perceived race divide.

By the time the rock musicians of the next decade were propagating their own visions, the playing field had changed. The Civil Rights movement had moved the racial debate from the streets of the ghetto to the political mainstream; the war in Vietnam had shifted abstract anxieties about potential nuclear annihilation to actual conflict, literal slaughter, in the paddy fields of Southeast Asia.

And if the Beats had smoked marijuana to insulate their psyches from the machines of surveillance and map their own outsider lives, rock bands of the mid-1960s turned to psychedelic means to liberate minds and bodies and dream of communal utopias unfettered by the laws and lies of the military-industrial complex.

Some figures, of course, managed to inhabit both worlds – Ginsberg befriended Dylan and McCartney; Ken Kesey mingled with Beat icon Neal Cassady and the musicians who would become the Grateful Dead; the Fugs combined poetry, folk and rock in a subversive blend of anarchy and comedy. The International Poetry Incarnation at London's Albert Hall in 1965 was an early symbol of poetic energy and the new underground coming together, as was the Human Be-In in 1967, when Beat poets and acid rock acts shared an anti-war platform in San Francisco.                  (Photo by Neville Guilliano)

"The extraordinary thing is that three such different characters formed the key triumvirate in this writing community: Ginsberg, the secular Jew with mystic, Buddhist tendencies; Kerouac, the Canuck, Catholic visionary from blue-collar roots; and Burroughs, the deeply discontented WASP who railed against organised power of any kind, governmental or religious."

Was there something specific you experienced that made you first begin thinking about counterculture and Beat movement, or was it more of a compilation of experiences?

A number of things over a number of years, I think. My first US trip brought together those notions of travel and movement and the existential nature of the road – where do you go, who will you meet, when do you move on, which turn in the highway do you take? And these concepts, these questions and dilemmas had been long informing both the Beats, prolific travellers across continents, and rock musicians, with their peripatetic existences and nocturnal itineraries: that is, the road as a way of life, a sequence of excitements and disappointments with the attractions and consolations of the next town along the track.

But there were other things, too – seeing Burroughs read live in the Liverpool in 1983, coupled to the curious fact that my schoolboy next-door neighbour Genesis P-Orridge, of the bands Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, had been his collaborator, linked literature and music with countercultural resistance in my mind. And Dennis McNally's brilliant account of Kerouac and the wider American, socio-political background, Desolate Angel (1978). Also the ideas generated by the New York punk explosion – the fact that Patti Smith, Richard Hell and Tom Verlaine saw themselves as poets first before they masterminded a musical, even a social, revolution. Although there was something of a scorched earth strategy in their artistic style, they definitely didn't reject the Beats.

Why did you think that the Beat movement continues to generate such a devoted following?

There are always new generations of young people – it used to be principally young men but it is increasingly, of course, young women, too – who want to shake off the shackles of convention and travel is a great way to physically and psychologically release yourself from those ties, discover unfamiliar cultures and even yourself. The Beats and their writing still provide a template: Kerouac across North America, Ginsberg in South America and the Far East, Burroughs in Europe and North Africa. The hippy trails that came in their wake continued that pattern and remain highly influential on contemporary individuals.

Then there is the ubiquity of international dance culture from Ibiza to Rio and Goa. I think that the restless, roving, sometimes reckless, style of the Beats remains a spiritual pulse within that current community of travellers. Then we have, too, the extraordinary legacy of the black poetry that arose from the Beats – LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Bob Kaufman and Ted Joans – who affected the Last Poets and the Watts Prophets and Gil Scott Heron, who all helped to usher in the age of rap in the 1970s. No musical scene in the early twenty-first century is stronger than hip hop.

What do you miss most nowadays from the Beat movement of 50s & 60s?

To be honest, I am still too young to miss, in a genuine or direct sense, any of that time – I might have been around but born rather too late to experience any of its golden age firsthand. But, yes, I do regret that Ginsberg, who could have lived on well after 1997, has been lost to us and I never saw him perform, never met him; I would like to have done. Burroughs, who died the same year, was older and had led a somewhat debilitating life, yet the fact I did shake his hand on one occasion pleases me. Kerouac, dead in 1969, was still a young man who seemed to have something of an alcoholic’s death wish by his later years, completely distanced from the culture he had apparently help to create, critical of the hippies and, as he saw it, the traitorous nature of the anti-war movement, estranged from Ginsberg because he had become so involved in that countercultural initiative. I have had a chance to meet, even converse, with quite a few players in this drama – Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, David Amram, Carolyn Cassady, David Meltzer, Jack Hirschman, Steven Taylor, Larry Keenan, and their British counterparts, like Michael Horovitz, Adrian Henri, Pete Brown, Barry Miles, Adrian Mitchell – so I feel grateful that I have been able to absorb some of the detail, some of the atmosphere, of these periods in face-to-face encounters.

If you could change one thing in the Beat movement of past and it would become a reality, what would that be?

It's a simple thing really – in 1997, Allen Ginsberg was due to record one of the celebrated Unplugged slots for MTV and it would have been fantastic to see him play and perform with his musical heroes and alongside musicians who admired him and his poetry, not to mention his politics. Unfortunately, he fell ill not too long before that recording was to take place and he died not so long afterwards. I'm sorry that transmission never happened. It would no doubt have been a terrific transgenerational celebration and a perfect symbol of the Beat/rock symbiosis.

What were the reasons that made the Beats to start the spiritual, social and artistic researches and experiments?

It’s hard to pinpoint this in precise terms, but there is no doubt that the more senior influence of Burroughs was crucially important. Although he came from a wealthy Midwest family, from an early age he reacted strongly against that patrician and comfortably-off regime. An isolated, rather unhappy child and teenager he turned to the possibilities that drugs could offer him at an early stage. Even though he went to Harvard, he remained an outsider and it was in dystopian writing that he found intellectual sustenance – Spengler, Céline and others.

Ginsberg, although marginalised as a second-generation Russian immigrant Jew, would probably followed a conventional career in labour law – driven in part by his parents’ leftist tendencies – and probably achieved major status in that field, if he hadn't met Burroughs. Kerouac was on a prestigious football scholarship from Columbia when he met the older man and, even though it was a broken leg that ruined his sporting chances, it seems likely that without these life-changing encounters he would have followed a more predictable route, quite possibly as a writer but more in the mold of Thomas Wolfe rather than as the picaresque and experimental chronicler he became.

The extraordinary thing is that three such different characters formed the key triumvirate in this writing community: Ginsberg, the secular Jew with mystic, Buddhist tendencies; Kerouac, the Canuck, Catholic visionary from blue-collar roots; and Burroughs, the deeply discontented WASP who railed against organised power of any kind, governmental or religious. The contradictory cocktail this trio mixed up – a volatile brew of age, ethnicity, class and culture – proved intoxicating and stimulating to each of them. Here was an attraction of apparent opposites – and we haven't even mentioned their sexual predilections, with two homosexual men rubbing shoulders with a heterosexually-inclined Kerouac.

Together, through their reading, through their discussions, through their narcotic experiments, through their complicated romantic entanglements, they shaped a radical ideology that would leave no stone unturned in the quest for artistic achievement. It seems inconceivable that any of them would have become the writer they did, without the others’ influence and encouragement. Each gave permission to their fellow conspirator to be novelists or poets and, out of that self-belief, came the confidence to try out fresh ways of telling stories: committedly confessional, often autobiographical, frequently taboo-breaking.

What is the impact of Beats on music and the relationship to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

The Beats have had an impact in all of these areas. They were particularly drawn to the new jazz the 1940s and, while there was a media ready to write about it – young magazines like Down Beat (est. 1934), for instance – there is little doubt that the kind of literary celebrations which Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes in New York, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth in San Francisco, included in the novels or poetry they penned, the recordings they made, helped to spread the word to a wider audience about these radical black sounds. By the later 1950s, bebop and Beat seemed almost synonymous. Dizzy Gillespie called one of his compositions ‘Kerouac’; Kerouac wrote a valedictory poem to Charlie Parker. There are many other examples.

In terms of the Beats’ influence on later music, there is just no doubt that the kind of messages and attitudes, the artistry and lifestyles, that the literary community of the 1950s embraced and projected, massively shaped the rock culture that emerged from the mid-1960s: absolutely key figures like Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Jerry Garcia, Jim Morrison and David Bowie, and those who followed in their wake, Tom Waits, Patti Smith and Sonic Youth, REM and Kurt Cobain, could see the line of connection between those earlier writers and the kind of serious, visionary, challenging work they wanted to create. They name-checked Kerouac, befriended Ginsberg, McClure and Ferlinghetti, were intrigued by the creative experiments of Burroughs. The Beats approached their art in a way that encouraged the next generations to experiment and transcend the traditional limitations of the popular song format, lyrically, compositionally and technologically.

In terms of broader, societal effect, there is much evidence of that, too. There is no doubt that the candid frankness that Beat writing brought into the mainstream arena the debate about sexual non-conformity, for example, particularly the place of homosexual men in Western society. Ginsberg's work particularly spoke to this issue. But in a poem like ‘Howl’, the writer dealt with a whole raft questions about the kind of world he was striving for. He never stopped being political and the fact that the 1960s saw him on many soap boxes, speaking passionately, against the war, for civil rights on a general front, confirmed that his intentions went well beyond mere literary expression.

However, there are the ironies that others in the Beat circle were much less engaged with the battle lines of that period. As we have reported, Kerouac was a bitter critic of the counterculture and Burroughs had very little time for the peace and love ethos that the post-Beat hippies espoused. But let's not forget other writers linked to this brotherhood – like Ferlinghetti and his socialist allegiances, Michael McClure and his ecological agenda and Gary Snyder and his adherence to Buddhism – who added further ingredients to the socio-cultural mix.

More recently, too, women and their creative output of the period has been paid attention in a way that it was not time. Diane di Prima, Joyce Johnson, Elise Cowen, Carolyn Cassady and ruth weiss are just some of the names whose poetry, novels and memoirs have been recognised retrospectively, permitting their nascent feminism a place, a voice, in the history of late twentieth-century women's rights.

What has made you laugh from Jack’s “On The Road” and what touched (emotionally) you from the "Howl"?

On the Road, if we reasonably accept it as an autobiographical account, is full of paradoxes which can, in their way, be entertaining. Kerouac is the all college boy, one-time football star, now hitchhiking hobo. And the book soon reveals that Sal Paradise, his alter ego, isn't actually so good at that means of improvisational travel! He is a small town boy caught up in the big city; he's an inveterate traveller but not such a fan of driving, which is where Dean Moriarty, the hero of the book based on Neal Cassady, comes in, of course, as they tear cross-country and back; he's the devout Catholic who finds it difficult to stick to his religious convictions as his adventures test his moral code; and he's the apparently freewheeling itinerant, constantly drawn back to the home of his aunt, his real-life mother, and the comforts of the kitchen and the hearth.

As for ‘Howl’, that poem is a tumultuous roll call of Ginsberg's inner torments, as a sexual outsider, as an ethnic figure on the fringes of WASP America, as a social and political maverick, a powerful, and at times painful, exposé of the poet’s heartfelt fears. But it is also a fantastical, expressionist vision, infused with hope, personal and universal. It is an impassioned celebration of his friends, his travels, his experiences, enlightened by love and sex and mysticism, sometimes illuminated, sometimes distorted and dishevelled by drugs, real-life experiences played out against a cacophony of state-ordained terror, inner demons and the siren call of the asylum. The jagged shards of text that make up the work are in a broken, but also very beautiful, language. When I read the piece, I think of the paintings of Picasso in the 1930s, say ‘Guernica’, a smashed mirror with all its pieces intact but its reflection fractured and abstract, a kaleidoscope of disjointed but still complementary images.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

It would be great to take that trip to the Six Gallery, the San Francisco venue where Ginsberg first read ‘Howl’ on October 7th, 1955, the moment, it could be argued, when the Beat Generation emerged from its subterranean cellars in Greenwich Village and North Beach to become, quickly, a national and then international phenomenon.

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