Do you have them? What’s it like when after the passage of time you go back and check? Are these guys still up to it? Do they thrill like they once did? Do they remain the ground breakers and the jet engined bodhisattvas you once imagined them to be? I’ve just got round to reading Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters. This is a book I sold for decades when it appeared as a British Picador but never got round to actually reading. Until now. Johnson was Kerouac’s girlfriend in the fifties and one of the few women who made any sort of impression as a Beat. Minor Characters is her memoir of the period. “A young woman’s coming-of-age in the beat orbit of Jack Kerouac.” It was published in 1983.
Johnson, Jewish Joyce Glassman at the time, emerges as a writer to be reckoned with. The book is half beat memoir and half the story of Johnson’s own struggle to make it as a female writer. This was a time when, despite all the rule breaking, the masculine ethos still ruled. Ginsberg is there, the intellectual centre, the master of turn and spin. Robert Frank, the photographer, is the quiet genius. John Cellon Holmes is the man you can talk to. Michael McClure and Gregory Corso are tolerable outsiders. Kerouac comes out as a misanthrope, a drunk, a bore, a writer who perpetually let his friends down and was inconstant as the wind. All the qualities, of course, which made his writing as exciting as it was. But as a hero this wasn’t the sort of description I wanted to find.
I chase down another hero. Michael McClure. The San Francisco poet appears as Pat McLear in Kerouac’s Big Sur. His beast language as exemplified by some of the work in his seminal 1964 City Lights title Ghost Tantras was a big influence on my early sound improvisations.
McClure’s version went something like:
Grahhhhr. Grahhhr. Gahar. Ghrahhr. Grahhr. Grahhr.
Ghrahhr. Grahhhr. Grahhr. Gratharrr! Grahhrr.
Ghrahrr. Ghraaaaaaahrr. Grhar. Ghhrarrr! Grahhhrr.
Ghrahrr. Gharr! Ghrahhhhr. Grahhrr. Ghraherrr.
A mix of guttural and laryngeal sound that brings together lion roars, a touch of detonated dada, and emotional truths. I set up my BBC B computer with a data pool derived from McClure’s beast outpourings and let the machine randomly rip. Finch the sound poet as beast master. For a time I’d be there on stage, roaring at startled audiences who’d never heard of McClure and wondered what I was on.
Penguin have now reissued two earlier McClure titles, The New Book/A Book of Torture and Star in one set as Huge Dreams – San Francisco and Beat Poems with an introduction by Robert Creeley. Irresistible. And never read by me. In it McClure pours forth spontaneously. “I was twenty-seven. Writing these poems, I imagined it as one long poem. That was as coherent as I could be…..I imagined I was Shelley, sometimes I imagined I was Antonin Artaud.” He would have done better if he’d imagined he was Allen Ginsberg.
But I’m probably being Unkind. Spontaneity can succeed, as McClure’s Ghost Tantras so well proved. As a performer McClure went on to work with Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek and to take the results out on the circuit. You can see him reciting Chaucer in Scorsese’s the Last Waltz.
Two down. Where next? At the British Library recently I bought a postcard of the late J G Ballard. Taken by Fay Godwin in 1976 at Ballard’s experimental height. It’s on my notice board now, behind me. I take down High Rise and Crash and, for good measure, The Drowned World and check, gingerly, to see if they still hold their original exotic and innovative power. I dip and read. I needn’t have worried. Unlike batteries left alone in a dark room for decades these books are still full of spark. Ballard was the hero I’d never invite as a guest to the Oriel Bookshop for fear that he might turn out to be ordinary and not the genius I’d expected. But I need not have worried.
Yet I can’t give up on Jack, can I? I reread a slice of Dharma Bums, his description of the void and his wine-fuelled search for enlightenment. Still speeds, still crackles, still works. Not all lost.
Kerouac had already begun to fade as the fifties turned into the sixties, the time I discovered him. As Johnson has it, Kerouac “who retreated farther and farther from the centre of the stage into the dusty wings, out to the back alley, tunnelling backwards through decades toward the Lowell of his earliest vision, and – finding it in a narrow place, the wonder gone from it – making the desolate effort to assume its prejudices, its bitter suspicions, ‘The pure products of America go crazy,’ Dr William Carlos Williams had written.” So it all went.
I put the books back. All of them. Turn round and face the future. This is 2012. Move on. There’s a hell of a lot still to happen.