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High Flying, Space Traveling Futuristic Hipsters

Mike Golden

When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School
By Sam Kashner

Perhaps we all lose our true companions," Sam Kashner ponders towards the end of When I Was Cool, his sometimes-sad, sometimes-funny, sometimes-too-cute-for-its-own-good, but still emotionally-honest, almost everything-(except one thing)-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-the-Beats memoir.

Back in 1976, right after he graduated from Merrick L.I. High School, Kashner talked his parents into allowing him to enroll as a poetry student at the Naropa Institute's brand new Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado, instead of going to a "normal" college like everyone else he knew. To his surprise, but with a major boost to his under-esteemed yet gargantuan teenage poet's ego, he turned out to be not only the first poetry student at the new Beatnik division of the then not-yet-accredited only Buddhist University in America, but the only student, period. Thus, by extension, he became the real life sorcerer's apprentice and Buddhish-primie to almost every beatnik of note–Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs, Waldman–outside the poor disembodied Kerouac and legendary Neal Cassady, though he wasn't lucky enough to escape Dean Ginzy's romantic obsession with Cassady's long gone schlong, since the first assignment he was given upon arriving was to finish Allen's poem for him about blowing Neal.

Though the author's voice is too loosely compared in the book's blurbs to "the youthful intensity of Holden Caulfield", forgetting perhaps that that "youthful intensity" was responsible for assassinating John Lennon, Kashner doesn't assassinate the Beats, though alternately his love and fear of them does provide plenty of dish and dis alike.

While all Dean Ginz seemingly wanted to do (other than nourish his, the school's and the Beats' fame) was get Kashner (and any other pretty boy student) in bed with him, Gregory Corso took it upon himself to become Kashner's real teacher, by continually scaring the shit out of all the middle class bourgeois fears lodged in his programming.

Corso couldn't get over how respectable the Beats had become, particularly Ginsberg's success; the acceptance of Allen's work by the academy was a source of wonder and irritation to him. When Kashner asked why he couldn't just sit down and think of writing poems as his job, the way Allen did, Corso told him, "because Allen writes a lot of bad poems. . .When I am good — I am great. Allen writes because he's afraid to die. I don't write because I want to live."

Kashner thought that only Corso, of all the Beats, didn't care about wanting to be a rock star." While Ginsberg and Ann Waldman were gaga about Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, Corso loved opera. Burroughs, as usual, had his own take. "The goddamn Rolling Stones," he snarled one afternoon at a faculty garden party. "Mick Jagger pretends to be sinister. . .You could bring most of (the Stones) home to mother." When asked if that included Keith Richards, Uncle Bill explained, "Keith Richards made one mistake about heroin. It doesn't make you immortal, it makes you improbable." Kashner noted that this was "the first time I ever heard Burroughs say something about heroin that didn't sound like a travel brochure to some exotic island." But even Burroughs was said to be impressed that Donald Fagan had named his band Steely Dan after the dildo in Naked Lunch.

While Kashner saw Ginsberg, in spite of his adoption of Buddhism and all his European influences, as purely "an American poet, a JAP: a Jewish American Poet," and even lovingly referred to him as "a whiner who howled," it was the Trustifarrian Burroughs, despite publicly coming across like a mutant W.C. Fields obsessed by cowboys, aliens, gangsters and the CIA, who culturally and heritage-wise was the most All-American of all the Beats (including the working and lower class Jack and Neal). His heroin use, unlike Corso's proclivity for self-demolition, comes across more like an eccentric old Aunt's fascination with macramé than drug abuse. Only when dealing, or being unable to deal with his son Bill Junior's addictions and problems, is the failure of his genius blatantly illuminated, for as much as Senior wanted to have a father-son relationship with the chronically depressed toxed-out Junior, he was incapable of emotionally generating the one thing his son needed most in order for his sweet-funny-brilliant soul to fund a will to live. For instance, instead, of simply taking him to a doctor when the junior was obviously physically sick, senior blindly took him to a psychic healer in Denver whom he'd heard about through underground channels. This almost did young Billy in before his (very short) time was up. Like some cosmic general unable to see the map in front of him was not the territory, Burroughs fed the reigning paranoia both he and his son shared about the topography of the world. And while that point of view may not have been very good for either one of them, there's no denying the genius of Uncle Bill's antenna; he was absolutely certain there was a mole at Naropa spying on the Beats, and even enlisted young Kashner to go undercover and report anything suspicious back to him. At one point he even theorized the culprit might be Ginz himself who was unconsciously doing them in with his gluttonous hunger for unfettered publicity. But indeed there was a real scandal and cover-up brewing at Naropa, almost as far-fetching and close-to-the-bone at the same time as a prophecy script written by Burroughs' alter ego Dr. W.S. Benway.

Allen's teacher, the partially paralyzed Tibetan lama playboy founder of Naropa, Trungpa Rinpoche, was a man who liked the juice and action from the opposite sex as perks to go along with his meditative teachings and love of poetry. He was constantly on top of Dean Ginz, for instance, to reign in his monster ego, and at one point even coerced him into shaving off his (security blanket) beard. One night, at his lodge high in the mountains above Boulder, the juiced lama pressured the respected (non-beat) poet W.S. Merwin and his girlfriend into stripping naked against their wills in front of a group of faculty and friends. Poet Tom Clarke got wind of the humiliating circumstances and reported the scandal in The Boulder Monthly, a local alternative rag he was the Editor of at the time (and later in his book The Great Naropa Poetry Wars). From that point on there was a great fear moving throughout Naropa that if what supposedly happened to Merwin proved true it could prevent the college from becoming accredited. Since it obviously did happen, the only defense was for the college itself to investigate it. This strategy brought co-founding Fug Ed Sanders (riding the fumes of his Charlie Manson Best Seller The Family) out to Naropa to teach a course in Investigative Poetics that would serve as not only an internal investigation of the scandal, and a book of the same name published along with the class' findings (The Party / A Chronological Perspective On A Confrontation At A Buddhist Seminary), that became a primer for the investigative form Sanders would continue to develop (with his America in-verse series) into the next century. Though Kashner was in the class, Sanders, like Waldman, scared him, so while this investigation could be considered the book's "inciting incident," as the screenwriting gu-gus would label it, it becomes very secondary background to Kashner's personal relationships with Ginsberg, Corso and Burroughs.

Being their only student, all three utilized him, as well as his father Seymour's Diner's Club card, at will, for almost anything that came into their minds. He was even accorded the rare honor of being invited to sit-in on a Ginsberg-Burroughs weekly dream lunch (where the twosome exchanged and interpreted their dreams for each other). In the one dream Kashner remembered from that day, Allen filled a steamer trunk with all Jack's books, then carted them down to the harbor and threw them in. When he got back home, Kerouac was waiting for him, and asked, "Why did you do that? I thought you loved me. That was my life's work." Ginz told him, "But now that you're dead you don't need to make any dust. Books just gather dust." "A Freudian to the last," Burroughs said to Ginsberg as he analyzed his dream, "Maybe you just needed to get Jack's work out of the way to make room on the shelf for you."

Starting in 1957 with the high voltage literary trial validation of Howl as a major work of art, the spotlight fell almost immediately on the publication of On the Road. But Kerouac was never able to handle fame anywhere near the way Ginsberg utilized it, and gradually sunk deeper and deeper into himself. By the time Grove's publication and victorious legal battle in support of Naked Lunch officially added Burroughs to the public's hipster Trifecta, Kerouac was in an active retreat that, by the end of his alcohol addled life, had him repudiating almost everything in the Beat mythology that Ginsberg had created around him.

Ironically, the strongest pull the Beats had on Kashner (and almost everyone else who was influenced by them) was not the individual work of the three super novas, but the mythos of their so-called group ethos. By the time Kashner decided "I wanted to burn like a roman candle," some of the Beats had known each other for almost 30 years, even if they weren't exactly on the best of terms. Corso, for instance, was always broke, but even while he used it to his full advantage, he resented being financially dependent on Ginzy and the Beat brand to cover his nut in the crunch. While Kashner's memoir doesn't ignore the in-bred jealousies that festered among them, like most wannabeats, who in reality wanted, as he says, the "Naked Brunch" version of the life as opposed to the real thing, he, without saying it, remained steadfastly attached to the idea that the rootless bohemian aesthetics of a small group of powerless young poets & writers bonding together could challenge the existing LCD dogma of the ruling mainstream Moloch's toxic mediocrity, and actually change the world into a cooler, if not a better place. It was the romantic belief in that false impression of togetherness that had a resounding pull on not just Kashner, but on the most creative young people of their generations, throughout the 60s-70s-80s and 90s, right up to the present time, in spite of the fact that the only real alternative to the Beat proclaimed "Queer-Junkie" alternative to the mainstream buy-sell shuck & jive has been the clichéd, but much cooler image created by the Hollywood-Mad Avenue version. Call it "the Brando-Dean bad boy in ripped Levis on a Harley syndrome," which is not about rocking the smug boat of conformism, but about selling brands with a recognizable faux antihero style in order to eradicate any genuine substantive resistance which might challenge the status quo.

As Kerouac used to say, "nobody believes there's nothing to believe in," so obviously everybody believes in and ignobles whatever gets them off to the point of testimonial, as evidenced when Johnny Depp reputedly paid $50,000 for Kerouac's raincoat.  Ginsberg, the original anti-establishment hipster in the gray flannel beret, obviously couldn't stand being left out of the commercial loop after Max Blagg (http://poetry.miningco.com/library/weekly/aa030700a.htm) broke the hipster barrier in the early 90s, reading his poetry in a televised Gap commercial, and had to do a series of print testimonials for khakis, of all prepster threads, proffering the question to many of his admirers, Which came first, The Ginz or Maynard G. Krebs? Not that Ginz was alone in selling out his image; even Uncle Bill became an IBM huckster, though when he did it, it looked like–just from the fact of them acknowledging him–they were selling out their corporate image, instead of the other way around.

For awhile it seemed like Bukowski would do beer commercials next. It was a fair assumption to make, though Buk couldn't stand the Beats, and usually became outraged when he was lumped in with them in collections. Though he certainly ran with more than his share of dogs, Bukowski didn't need a pack to build his legend. Though it's conjecture at this point, in the long run his writing may have more influence world wide than the whole Beat cannon, and certainly, if like Jack, you subtract your gosh-gee-in-America-when-the-sun-goes-down innocence from that Beat equation.

Outside of The First Third, there's little of Neal Cassady's writing available, though he was probably the most influential of all the Beats, because just like scissors cuts paper, rock breaks scissors and paper covers rock, action trumps intellect in almost every manifestation moving through time. Though Neal might have been the most profound thinker of all the Beats, he was recognized more as the model for, among others, On the Road's Dean Moriarity, and in real life as the bridge between the beats and the hippies because he drove the bus for Kesey's Merry Pranksters. Though in fact, it was the writing style in Cassady's letters that Kerouac copped to get his own voice out from under the stagnant cloud of Thomas Wolfe's influence and find the zeitgeist of the times he lived in before they actually exploded into the counterculture he died denouncing. Without much doubt, it's Cassady, not Kerouac, Ginz, Gregory or Uncle Bill, who'll live on between fiction and faction in the Paul Bunyon, Babe Ruth, Pecos Bill, Jack London pantheon of gods, because when all is said and done, his foot-to-the-pedal, baddest-cat-of-'em-all legend, permanently stamps him as the one-and-only Godfather of "the Brando-Dean bad boy in ripped Levis on a Harley syndrome", whether he actually used the brands himself.

Though even the original Memory Babe probably would've agreed Kashner's reconstructed memories of Naropa seem impeccable, outside of sentimentality for his own spent youth, Kashner never seems to grok the overall impact the work of the Beats had on him anymore than he got the difference between Spaceman Bill Lee and comix guru Stan Lee (the only factual mistake I spotted in the book). While the writing of the individuals lumped under the Beat umbrella barely had anything in common with each other, other than, like Jack's writing, they used each other as characters, Kashner was so caught up in the individuals, he never really explores the influence of the group aesthetic (Not too long ago, a copy of Dharma Bums autographed by all the characters with both their fictional and real names, was sold on the collectors' market for $10,000).

Once Kashner left Beatnik U., outside of a few visits over the years with Ginz, he barely looked back, and not only couldn't, but ultimately didn't want to live up (or down) to these dirty old hipsters' standards. By the end of the memoir he tells us he's even given up his dream of becoming a poet, in order to make a real living writing. Perhaps the correct meditation here is, We all rail against what we want but don't think we can get, until everyone realizes our koan has been crying wolf all along. But since Kashner marries a poet, he never really turns his back on his first love. Or on his heroes either, for that matter. At least not emotionally, as he takes us through how he feels about each of them as one after another finally passes from the scene.


Which brings us back to the one thing we always wanted to know about the Beats that is patently missing from When I Was Cool; the reason no other alternative to mainstream culture other than the Beats ever captured and held the public imagination long enough to become two different sides to the same universal cliché; one side, half full, the other, half empty. . . Burroughs naturally found both sides of the conceit distasteful. As Kashner observed, Bill "thought it bad manners to complain about society. Stoicism was a vestige of his patrician upbringing." His philosophy, very simply, was, "You don't fight City Hall, you just approach it on all fours, lift your leg, and pee on it. And when it doubt, book passage on a transatlantic ocean liner."

As for those alternatives that came closest to emulating the staying power of the Beats, neither of the most recent attempts lasted much longer than a decade in the spotlight, even in the minds of those who got caught up in the put-on and started taking the very thing they were making fun of, seriously. Like (and unlike) the Beats (but even more like the so-called black humorists), both groups came out of a putting-on-the-squares essence. The first, The Church of the Subgenius, was an early '80s phenomenon that was right down Neal Cassady's reincarnation alley, and incorporated a conceit that was true comic genius, tapping into and twisting the so-called New Age hidden knowledge of the Adepts, whose secret order, no matter what name it was known by - The Illuminati, The Great White Brotherhood - supposedly rules the world on a much higher (etheric) level than the aristocratic low level Shill & Bones money grubbers of the material world. Snatched right out of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's Illuminatus trilogy and Wilson's follow-up non-fiction Cosmic Trigger, presumably by the Dealy Lama, in the opium dens and romper rooms of Dallas, their leader was a fictional pipe smoking Father Knows Best super salesman, comic book caricature named J.R. Bob Dobbs. Bob eventually became so all powerful, the inner hierarchy of The Church decided he had to be rubbed out, and staged a live faux assassination, eerily reminiscent in performance art impact of that terrible 63-68 trifecta that all of us who lived through it still carry around as appendages to our souls. Splinter groups all over the country broke away from the Church after that, accusing the founding father Reverend Ivan Stang, of doing away with their beloved (nonexistent) leader. I haven't followed the Subgenies since the early 90s, but obviously the hoax took on a life form of its own, since the Church and their magazine The Stark Fist of Removal are still active today (http://www.subgenius.com). The second group, The Unbearables, was much more connected to the literary world in general and the Beats in particular. Originally dubbed The Unbearables (http://www.thinicepress.com/mikegolden1.html) in a satirical story read in front of the then un-group at a reading in the East Village at The Life Café, the moniker was quickly adopted, and in just over a decade, this un-group grew from the original four malcontents hanging out together in the old midtown radical bar Tin Pan Alley, to over a hundred different writers and artists, who barely knew each other, much less knew each other's work, but were all drawn together by the idea of being part of something bigger than themselves. Unfortunately, the creation of a fictional founder (Rollo Whitehead) as the original Beat was such a blatant ripoff of the Subgenies it became the first straw that busted the hump of the core un, even before it fully became a fully realized ungroup. In an almost self-conscious desire to create the kind of group history the Beats had built for themselves over half a century, without ever experiencing any of it as a group themselves, they staged a series of (more successful than anyone had the right to expect) publicity generating media events that went right for the comic jugular. The most notable two of those were strokes of pure comic genius on par with anything the Subgenies had pulled off; first picketing and storming the respectable gates of the New Yorker over the magazine's lifelong crime of publishing mediocre poetry, and continuing to do so until the august weekly agreed to accept and publish poems from Sparrow, the most righteously un of all the Unbearables. The second went right after the source of their own creation, as they picketed a week-long Beat celebration being held downtown at NYU to honor the Beats, that culminated with readings at Town Hall. Outside the Hall, a couple hundred protesters (including Jack's estranged daughter, the late Jan Kerouac) were chanting and marching, brandishing placards and signs that read "NO NOBLE PRIZE FOR GINSBERG!" "STOP KEROUACGATE NOW!" and "GINSBERG IS THE REAL MAYNARD G. KREBS!" A story in the New York Times the next day reported the protest, and showed a picture of the master hypester who materialized the transcendental Beat illusion to the world, stretched out on a couch in the dressing room of Town Hall, with his hands on his forehead, moaning (into the indelible comic book bubble above his head), "Who the hell is Maynard G. Krebs?"

If you said, "A code name for a watered down version of cool," you're ready to go on Jeopardy. A game show reality which one day may pose the answer to the question that poached in young Kashner's mind the day he was invited to observe the Ginz-Burroughs dream lunch, when he looked at the two hipster icons and wondered, If they thought they had won a victory against the squares? Or was this a war they had lost, that the squares had in fact won?

In all likelihood, the legend of the Beats will live long after the majority of the old world of 20th century culture has evaporated from memory into the ether. Until some other group of high flying, space traveling, futuristic hipsters decides to imprint the legend of their brand into the record of their times. But perhaps Burroughs summed it up best, when he wrote, "Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million Levis. . .(but) Kerouac and I are not real at all. The only real thing about a writer is what he's written, and not his life. We will all die and the stars will go out one after another. . ." Rightfully bringing the material world back to the transcendental, where the stars never really die, just go to sleep until it's time for them to come out and play again.

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