[New York Peasant by Wilfrid: July 27, 2007]
Armed with a copy of Bill Morgan's 1997 The Beat Generation in New York, I spent two warm days walking the backstreets of Greenwich Village, chasing ghosts. Oh, I got a bite to eat too, but not at Chumley's.
This is the first part of attendant thoughts and opinions.
Published by City Lights, I actually picked up a copy of Bill Morgan's illustrated pocket book at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco earlier this year. It's sub-titled "A Walking Tour of Jack Kerouac's City", although there's no particular focus on Kerouac. The book offers guided tours of all the once Beat-ridden neighborhoods, from Greenwich and the East Village, through Times Square to the Columbia University neighborhood, and even Kerouac's mother's houses in Queens where 'ti Jean actually sat down and wrote. Although these notes are my own, the book is recommended.
A Kettle of Fish
The first part of the walk commenced in Sheridan Square. It did in the book, anyway; I found myself standing outside the Kettle, just between the Duplex and the Stonewall bar on Christopher. A Kettle, anyway. My first Kettle of Fish was over on West 3rd (and I'm not sure that was the original location either). Bar names do get passed around in the Village. This place on Christopher used to be the Lion's Head, legendary enough in its own right. The second time I set foot in the city, I waited out a long morning in the Lion's Head before I could check into the Washington Square Hotel (in those days, a cheap dump).
The European and American artistic and literary bohemias, or undergrounds, of the twentieth century share certain common factors. Bars and booze; often drugs. In almost every case a strong camp sensibility - in the serious sense of the term; with few exceptions, bohemias are - at least in part - gay. The inner city. Night, narrow streets and anonymity are the inevitable context for intoxication and sexual experimentation.
Also, often, a founding "crime". Perhaps not literally that - but a sacrifice. A death, a madness, an incarceration. Poètes maudits. Not everyone survives these milieus. As Guy Debord comments sardonically in one of his movies: "Really hard to drink more."
The Beat generation - a glib summary phrase - basks now in the reflected light of the hippies, LSD, Timothy Leary, the later Ginsberg festooned (no less) with beads and flowers, Eastern mysticism (some of the Dharma), the '60s. Didn't the beats invent long hair, dropping out and tuning in, and didn't they dance to be-bop like it was already Woodstock?
The truth of the "original" Beats - actually, a tightly knit group of writers and rogues, which came together mainly through the coincidence of attendance at Columbia - is different, darker and infinitely more interesting. The roots are not even in the '50s, but in the '40s; those few years of sudden survival after the war; years of short hair, heavy coats and fedoras, a pre-Eisenhower straight society, and a New York City almost unrecognizable today. Chandler Brossard's severe (and resolutely non-Beat) novel Who Walk in Darkness is a touchstone portrayal of those tense, violent downtown paths.
I heard Kerouac's biographer Ann Charters call this period "ur-Beat." Before the road, before San Francisco and Big Sur and Mexico, there was New York City. And drugs, and sexual anguish, and more than one death.
Much has changed even since the Morgan book was written. Jack Delaney's Steakhouse, an expensive treat for the young Beats, is a little redbrick on the short block of Grove which forms one side of the Square. You will never believe it is now a Starbucks. The Cafe Bohemia, a be-bop hang-out for Kerouac and others? That would be the Barrow Street Ale House, next door to One if By Land. The Circle in the Square theater, as far as I can tell (and some of these locations were harder to pinpoint than others) is an apartment building.
The Phoenix Bookshop, an experimental poetry haven which came into its own rather later ('60s, as best I can tell) ; well that now, to my surprise, is the Pearl Oyster Bar. But it's not time for lunch yet.
Another common element in artistic bohemias is the presence of individuals who act as catalysts. Not artists or writers themselves - or, at least, not notably such - these shadows from the street teach the real writers and artists (and musicians) how to walk and talk. From the first bohemia of mid-19th century Paris through to the punk stew of 1970s New York and London, new ways of moving, speaking, dressing were not so much created ex nihilo by the artistic underground, as forged from the living sculptures already demonstrating the new ways in the bars and in the streets. Master forgers: Baudelaire, Bacon, Warhol, McClaren. Jack Kerouac.
Neal Cassady, everyone knows, was Kerouac's great shadow. As the hero of On the Road, Cassady (Dean Moriarty) almost becomes Kerouac; Kerouac almost becomes Cassady. It is an erotic relationship, and self-effacing on the part of the author. But that's too far from our route. Before Casady there were others, of at least equal importance. Herbert Huncke, Ginsberg and Kerouac's junkie mentor, phantom of Times Square. Bill Cannastra, young attorney, the speeding alcoholic party-thrower, whose ghastly subway death is a fulcrum of John Clellon Holmes's ur-Beat novel Go, and inspired an awkward, painful elegy by Ginsberg. Seymour Krim called Cannastra "the death-tripper."
And then there were Lucien Carr and David Kammerer. Carr, Columbia contemporary, exemplified intellectual energy, made Kerouac feel slow and dumb. Kammerer, a friend of William Burroughs from St Louis, is a spook in contemporary photographs; tall, ungainly, lost.
In the 1950s, Carr and his family lived in a beautifully located apartment, overlooking the tiny park on Christopher near the Stonewall. The building is unchanged, down to the small, circular balconies from which Kerouac - who stayed there - enjoyed the night scene. It even had the external fire escape from which Kerouac fell - discreetly escaping for a night's drinking - having misjudged the final gap, landing on his head.
Carr had embarked on a career as an editor for a press agency. One thing I hadn't known before last week - Caleb Carr, of The Alienist fame, is Lucien's son.
Accessories After The Fact
This small group of friends could have been varsity boys who drank too hard, ran with a bad crowd, grew up settled down. They defined themselves as other than that in various ways, not least through crime. Burroughs, with a habit to support, was already selling stolen goods, rolling drunks on the subway. Ginsberg, surrounded in his apartment by evidence of Huncke's thefts, was arrested after a chase in a stolen carr.
In 1944, David Kammerer, lovelorn for Carr, the Rimbaud of the group, tried to force his attentions. Carr killed him, disposed of the body. He found Burroughs at 69 Bedford Street - still there, unchanged - and was advised to find a good lawyer. Carr hung with Kerouac for a day, drinking beer, before turning himself in. Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested as accessories after the fact; Carr was sentenced to twenty, served two.
On a quiet stretch of Morton, a glorious crescent of old brownstones: Kammerer lived at number 48. Chandler Brossard in the same building.
A later generation of Beats. Amiri Baraka called himself LeRoi Jones when he issued small magazines of poetry from this terraced house on Morton.
And then Chumley's. As everyone knows, it just recently fell down. Open since 1928, the former speakeasy's roof caved in. It is being shored up, but count me as a skeptic when it comes to the place re-opening.
No beer here. So over to Hudson and the White Horse Tavern. This is one of the few barrooms in town which actually has the feel of a British pub - thanks mainly, I'd say, to the big, clear windows which actually let some light in. For some reasons, Americans like to drink in the dark. Dylan Thomas would have found this space sympathetically similar to the Swiss on Old Compton Street. Beats ate here, as did other strands of Greenwich Village bohemia, especially a Catholic Worker radical crowd in the back room. Dan Wakefield's New York in the Fifties is the recommended reading here.
Just opposite the tavern, a little odd-shaped courtyard I'd never seen before. Kerouac's girlfriend, Helen Weaver, lived above. Over to the corner of Greenwich and West 12th, where the movie theater which graces the last pages of The Subterraneans is now an Equinox Fitness Center.
Okay, so much for the Beats, where are the eats? I have the impression that dinner out in the late forties was either a very cheap dish of pasta or a bar burger. Lupa was within their ambit (or the location was), but would have been out of their range. Is the Corner Bistro mentioned anywhere in Kerouac's work? It was there in the forties, and it has the right feel. But it's a sunny day, so I took a patty for a walk.
It's the balance, you see? The patty is loose, soft, and oozing grease. The bun, while it can support the meat, is also soft: you bite right through without the filling flying out and hitting a passing pigeon.
What Were the Beats For?
Are artistic bohemias important only for the art-works they create, be they paintings, books, poems, records? Or are new ways of responding to the world - not only to art, but to sex, work, dress, manners - themselves important? Artistic bohemias are channels for these new ways; through art, different ways of living are analysed, revised, presented, preserved. We do live differently now, because of the way Nerval and Baudelaire and Gautier dressed and acted in nineteenth century Paris; because of the way poets and painters talked and drank in the French House, the Colony Club and the Cedar Tavern; because of the things outsiders were willing to do in front of Warhol's cameras.
And because of the way Kerouac in his novels, Ginsberg in Howl And Other Poems, Burroughs in Junky, curated the strange lives, madnesses and deaths of 1940s New York.
More next week...