Beat Better, Beat Worse

Meltzer sent this piece, written a couple years back, in response to First‘s Call for remembrances of Amiri Baraka. It ends with a reflection on Baraka’s music writing. You’ll find that excerpt in our Baraka tribute. But the rest of this piece is echt Meltzer as well so here’s the whole enchilada.

Since the release of Allen Ginsberg’s deluxe, oversized Photographs in 1991, there has been a steady flow of coffee table offerings by and about authors of the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac’s posthumous Some of the Dharma in ’97, The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats in ’99, Matt Theado’s The Beats: A Literary Reference in ’01, Fernanda Pivano’s Beat & Pieces in ’05, and Chris Felver’s Beat in ’07.

Given the proclivities of the marketplace, many more such whatsems are to be expected, a dicey outcome to say the least. From where I sit, Beat as literature and lore, text and tale—as simple a pleasure as watching rain fall, or a cat cleaning itself—is oddly served by packagings so lush, hightone, padded with surplus. Regardless of whatever “wider accord” might be sprinkled in the process on the Beat oeuvre, context is squandered, human scale is lost, and genuinely interesting real lives are pampered to the flashpoint of celebrity glitz.

And now, dig it: a coffee-tabler that attempts the above, fails, and pratfalls in the opposite direction, playing to a perennial cliche—that, far from elegant, things Beat are indeed SHABBY. The Beats: A Graphic History is as shabby as a Wal-Mart in Dubuque.

Written principally by Harvey Pekar, Mr. Graphic Splendor himself, and edited by some Ivy League academic, it contains more factual errors than any prior Beat book of comparable length. At the celebrated Six Gallery reading of 1955, for inst, Gary Snyder read “A Berry Feast,” not “The Berry Piece.” Kenneth Rexroth collaborated with Charles Mingus not during WW2, but in 1958. Amiri Baraka attended Howard, not Harvard, University. Philip Whalen returned to the U.S. in ’71, not the ’90s, was ordained as a Buddhist monk in the Bay Area, not Japan, and died in 2002—he certainly wasn’t alive (as alleged) at the time of publication. (Etcetera.) Doesn’t anyone fact-check anymore?

As if such hokum weren’t enough, the graphics really pile on the embarrassment. To artist Ed Piskor, the faces of three main players are variations on the same generic mug. Kerouac is a blandly handsome boyish male, something like Jimmy Connors. Ginsberg is more or less that plus glasses, and later a beard. (On page 38, it’s Jack, inexplicably, who has specs.) William Burroughs is a rougher version of same, with crow’s feet and fedora.

Joan Vollmer, Burroughs’ darkhaired wife, is changed to a blonde. Naomi Ginsberg, Allen’s mother, is Bette Midler with an Afro. The cover image of Michael McClure is basically that of guitarist Bob Weir. Robert Duncan, famously cross-eyed, is rendered un-crossed, a lookalike (by turns) for Jerry Brown, Keanu Reeves, and Andy Kaufman. John Clellon Holmes, the biggest square of the bunch, is pictured as a hepcat.

Even when copping direct from photos, you have to know what you’re doing, and Piskor is often clueless. Working from an iconic shot of Herbert Huncke, shirtless, on Burroughs’ Texas farm, he substitutes Burroughs’ face for Huncke’s. Summer McClintock, meanwhile, appropriating pics of Charlie Parker, seems oblivious to the fact that she’s placed the saxophonist alongside himself, a sideman in his own group. (What a cheesy, pointless book.)

For two decades-plus, from Kerouac’s death, in 1969, to that of his third wife Stella, a huge horde of Jack’s unpublished papers was withheld from publication. Owing to his widow’s contempt for the print media, it was not until ’92, with Pomes All Sizes appearing in City Lights’ Pocket Poets series, that the Kerouac estate, i.e., Stella’s profit-driven brother, began authorizing the release of Jack’s writings and ephemera. While some titles have been little more than deadman’s kitsch, others have been authentic treasures, literary grails minor to middling. Kerouac at Bat: Fantasy Sports and the King of the Beats is a bit of both.

Drawn from materials in the New York Public Library’s Kerouac archive, curated and critiqued by Isaac Gewirtz, this quirky tome documents Jack’s fascination with a fantasy baseball game he developed in his teens and continued to tinker with until the last years of his life. Imaginary players like Wino Love, Gus Texas, and Go-Go Golian were assigned to such teams as the Pittsburgh Plymouths and Washington Chryslers, who played 40-game seasons, the outcomes of which were determined by dice rolls, card stats, and whatnot—overseen by the strategic presence of Jack as skipper to all sides. Details were entered on scorecards, supplemented by post-game chatter: “PIE TIBBS, Pittsburgh’s mighty hitter, will get $55,000 next season, according to rumors from Senator-Colonel Nick Levitt Farr’s front office.”

There’s even an exchange of letters concerning a possible trade for Joe DiMaggio, in which Jack (as “manager” of the Detroit franchise) is rudely rebuffed: “I would not let go of DiMaggio for those stumblebums if you threw in the city hall, library, B&M carshop, and the Ford M.C. of Dt.”

Most of this stuff is terrific, enlivened by what Beat surrealist Philip Lamantia would call a sense of “the Marvelous,” and I find too many of Gewirtz’s speculations stodgy and inapt. “In 1958,” he writes, “Kerouac changed the names of his baseball teams from those of automobiles to colors, perhaps because the latter seemed less juvenile.” But Jack hardly made such distinctions. If there’s anything we should know by now, it’s that he never quite “rose above” the juvenile component of his essential innocence. At its most hopped-up, such juvenilia was if anything AT ONE with his beatific vision.

As fate would have it, I didn’t read On the Road as a teenager—didn’t read any Kerouac, in fact, till I was 35 or 36. The first writing I encountered by someone I would later recognize as Beat was a series of jazz pieces in Down Beat by LeRoi Jones, as Amiri Baraka was then known. In a mag serving mainly as a tepid trade sheet that routinely shilled for the likes of Stan Getz and Oscar Peterson, Jones’s bold, passionate support for firebreathers like John Coltrane and Cecil Taylor stood in high contrast. With diamond-eyed focus, he championed these musicians NOT as “iconoclastic” contenders, contentious blips on the mainstream jazz radar, but as full-fledged, fully-formed artists whose musical agendas were seminal and necessary. (At 17, I hadn’t read anything that so viscerally spoke to me, and surely it was Jones’s model that enabled me to truck in music-crit myself in the years that followed.)

In the half-century since then, as author of volumes spanning the genres of poetry, fiction, drama, and cultural criticism, Jones/Baraka has established himself as Beat’s only quadruple threat, and today he is probably the most important of the dozen or so Actual Beats still living. Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music, his fourth music book, is a collection of essays, profiles and reviews which have seen the light in the 22 years since the last one (The Music). Virtually everything here is as lively and compelling as his strongest work of the past, and a trio of takes on Albert Ayler (pages 241-260) are together, I would argue, the most incisive, definitive, magical, TRUE portrait of a jazzman and his music—of any era—ever writ. (Believe it.)

From February, 2014

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