'The Beats: A Graphic History,' 'Kerouac at Bat' and 'Digging'
by Richard Meltzer, Special to The Oregonian
Thursday July 23, 200
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 1997, "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, high tone, 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 instance, Gary Snyder
read "A Berry Feast," not "The Berry Piece." Kenneth Rexroth
collaborated with Charles Mingus not during World War II, but in
1958. Amiri Baraka attended Howard, not Harvard, University. Philip
Whalen returned to the U.S. in 1971, 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 (et
cetera). 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' dark-haired 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 uncrossed, 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 1992, 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, which 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.
He entered details on scorecards, supplemented by postgame 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," but 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' bold, passionate support for such fire-breathers as 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' model that enabled me to truck
in music-crit myself in the years that followed.)
In the half-century since, 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 that 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 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.)
THE BEATS: A GRAPHIC HISTORY
Harvey Pekar, Ed Piskor, Paul Buhle, et al.
Hill & Wang
$22, 199 pages
KEROUAC AT BAT
New York Public Library
$25, 76 pages
University of California Press
$26.95, 412 pages