A Brief History of the Counterculture from William S. Burroughs to Kurt Cobain
An interview with Victor Bockris on his book Beat Punks
by Phil Weaver
I’m a huge fan of Victor Bockris’ book Beat Punks, a collection of interviews and photographs documenting the relationship between the Beat generation and the punk movement in the 1970s downtown New York scene. The book does a great job of illustrating the cross-pollination of two generations (’50s Beats and ’70s punks) that resulted in one of the most extraordinary cultural flowerings of the 20th century. I recently talked to Bockris about some of the ideas behind the book, and I was pleased to hear he’s about to begin work on a follow up with interlinking prose. He didn’t want to give away too much about the forthcoming book, so I proposed a general interview on the history of the counterculture’s clashes with the establishment in the mid-to-late 20th century. Burroughs was the through-line in a cultural revolution that began in the ’50s with the Beats, blossomed in the psychedelic explosion of the late ’60s, peaked in the ’70s with the Beat-Punk fusion, burned out in the neoconservative revolution of the ’80s and was briefly revived by Kurt Cobain and the alternative wave of the early ’90s. Throughout this era many of the leading figures of the counterculture found themselves the targets of harassment and campaigns of repression, yet they still managed to produce some of their best work. I wanted to trace this multigenerational struggle for the liberation of the human spirit with the great author and raconteur Victor Bockris, biographer of William S. Burroughs, Andy Warhol and Keith Richards, and the man dubbed the “poet laureate of the underground.”
PHIL WEAVER: Describe the counterculture’s confrontation with LBJ.
VICTOR BOCKRIS: Key point: the counterculture changed dramatically in 1965. Before then it had been populated by a relatively small, international collection of avant-garde artists in every form, left-wing political activists, civil rights activists, academics and members of the clergy. With the appearance of the electric Dylan and semi-radical songs by the Beatles and the Stones (“Satisfaction”), an enormous new group became countercultural enthusiasts overnight: college students listening to Simon and Garfunkel, and high school long hairs known as folkies now folk rockers. Consequently, demonstrators grew in numbers of younger enthusiastic girls and boys. Johnson had been popular in 1964, even into ’65, but he was forced into supporting the Vietnam war to a ridiculous extent. The brutal, burning napalm dropped on the civilian population, and the well-oiled anti-war machine did a good job of dramatizing the suffering of women and children. Johnson was a far superior President than Kennedy, but his classically Stetson-hatted good old boy image was easy to turn into a bogeyman.
By 1966 the demonstrators rarely gave him any peace. Their “Hey hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” chant wafted into the White House from Lafayette Park across the street. Every time he left or came back they were always there. In his mind, they became the voice of the youth. He had been a rebellious youth himself, and it began to drive him nuts. This was greatly exacerbated by his fear that the country really wanted another Kennedy in the White House and the seething hatred of Robert Kennedy. The irony was that the arrogant Kennedy brothers were incapable of getting any bills passed, because they did not know how the Congress really operated, where Johnson was a master politician – probably the best we’ve ever had as President. Johnson tried to explain how the Senate worked, but Kennedy just didn’t want to hear anything from that “old galoot.” That kind of name calling might be funny in high school – not when you’re running the country (and too busy fucking badly to pay attention). Think of how successful the Kennedy administration could have been if they’d used Johnson like a cruise missile. This is a naive thing to say, but if memory serves this is one of the corners of history where the truth was of no importance – image took over. This initially benefited the counterculture. When Johnson refused to run for President in 1968, he later wrote that the hawks of war on his right and the anti-war demonstrators on his left gave him no room to further contribute to the well-being of the nation. It is shocking (does that word still exist?) to see only recently the outpouring of reverence for John Kennedy, despite everything written about him since his death, while Johnson fades in the nation’s memory. This embracing of huge lies is what allows us Americans to go on supporting just the kind of atrocities by our nation we fought so hard to erase in World War II. Bombs, genocide and unbelievable lies shower down upon us daily. It seems that we live in an increasingly immoral nation. Where is the peace movement? Where are the heroes who stood up against all the power of the United States to reveal the elements of control? People like William Burroughs and Andy Warhol. People like Muhammad Ali, who turned his back on many millions and almost destroyed his life by standing up against the war machine when everybody told him he was crazy?
That’s only to mention the world famous. But this is what happens, I believe, when the education system writes the counterculture out of existence. Does anyone remember that it was the first time in history that an international population of a non-military people, with no political or religious base, played an unquestionable role in changing the way we live by bringing down one American President and creating an atmosphere in which the next was driven from office? Also, please note the appropriation of many of the counterculture’s key practices, which have been manipulated into today’s mainstream. Any humanist interested in the well-being of our nation’s history could see the counterculture as one of the greatest, most imaginative, most nurturing contributions we have ever made to the world. The media always finds violence – often created by the media itself – to undercut the best things about this country. New York Punk was not a violent movement, it was very loving, but once one Yobo, (in persona of poor dumb manipulated Sid Vicious) believed he had murdered his murdered girlfriend, punk was all about violence.
Change is always dangerous for its agents, but anyone who watched the carefully managed police and FBI undercover riots in Chicago must find it hilarious to see the peace movement turned into Sodom and Gomorrah, when the shoe was really on the other foot. We still live with the extraordinary conflict of the Catholic Church threatening endless pain to those advocating the joys of love from behind a logo of a guy nailed to a piece of wood. My favorite example of robbing the beautiful truth from the population was, and still is maybe, the image of Jack Kerouac, who wrote the most loving, tender and exemplary celebrations of the beauty of America, being hounded to death by the establishment. America is a beautiful place, but it’s hard to see sometimes because of the waters of slaughter.
WEAVER: Can you talk a bit about William Burroughs’ clashes with the establishment in the 1970s?
BOCKRIS: Bill was very active in the early 1970s; he was still living in London. He published The Job, The Wild Boys, The Last Words of Dutch Schultz, Exterminator and Port of Saints. Of these books The Job is the most political. In terms of clashes with the establishment, everything he wrote and said in interviews continued his attempt to reveal their attempt to control the population. But to be specific, you have to look at the reaction to him in different countries. In England he was protected by his relationship with Lord Goodman, a powerful behind the scenes financial lawyer for many powerful government figures.
He did not have such connections in New York, but after trying to move back there in 1965, and again in 1972, he had been threatened by the police who were trying to set him up for a bust. By the time he did return, the fall of Nixon had turned him into a prophet, and he was embraced as a king returned from exile. So I think he avoided any particularly overt confrontation during the 1970s, due to his desire to find a new life and continue writing.
His clash with authority came in more subtle ways than marching in the streets as he had in Chicago in 1968. His “Time of the Assassins” columns in the rock mag Crawdaddy! would have been read by teenagers and college students, and his appearance at the many readings he gave across the country would have been very influential.
He was also interviewed by the still existing underground press. The name Burroughs was a clash with the establishment. When I knew him in the late seventies he was virulently critical of U.S. foreign policy, but I recall him definitely not wanting to draw attention to himself in public.
WEAVER: Describe the relationship between William Burroughs and the punks.
BOCKRIS: Burroughs’ relationship with the punks was, as I see it, a vital connection which drew attention to the vitality of his writing. This happened on two levels. First Patti Smith and Richard Hell were both Burroughs fans before he moved back here. She was the first to note his presence.
The Nova Convention was the big turning point in terms of his recognition, the first time he brought together several new subcultures based in the punk ethos. Then over 1977-1982 I introduced him to Lou Reed, Blondie and The Clash among others; they were thrilled to meet him. He appreciated their interest and enjoyed their company. They were his children.
However, there was a strange disconnect. Every beautiful punk girl I knew had a copy of Junkie on their table, but they were all taking heroin. It was like they had not understood the book, which was an indictment of being a junkie. It had nothing to do with Bill that a 24/7 heroin supermarket protected by the police suddenly emerged blocks from CBGB’s, but there were bags called Dr Nova. Heroin decimated the New York punks. When he made all those spoken word records, a number of punks contributed. Burroughs’ profile grew considerably during the 1970s. The support of punk, and his inclusion in the punk press, had a lot to do with it.
WEAVER: In what ways was the punk rock ethos inspired by the Beats?
BOCKRIS: The New York punks came out of the same ethos as the Beats. I can only speak for the New York punks. That is to say, there were three generations of American artists operating under the umbrella of a shared reaction to WWII (for civil rights against genocide and the bomb): the Beats (1950s); the artists of the ’60s personified by Warhol (including the Rolling Stones, Goddard and Truffaut, Antonioni etc); and the Punks of the 1970s, with the whole thing coalescing in the late seventies.
I mean, Elvis was punk; Lennon was punk; Richards, Dylan, Reed were all punks. Punk is Beat speeded up, like the Stones are Chuck Berry speeded up. Blondie, Patti Smith, Television, later Richard Hell, Iggy Pop and on and on were all influenced by Rimbaud and Celine and the surrealists and comic books – just like the Beats.
They were all influenced by Warhol. The difference between Lennon and Richards, and NY punk was the Warhol influence. My book Beat Punks should have been called Beat Warhol Punks, it just doesn’t read so well.
WEAVER: Describe some of the tactics the establishment used to repress the counterculture in the 1970s.
BOCKRIS: Nixon’s administration targeted the counterculture from both ends. They put the IRS on famous counterculture artists like Warhol, Mailer, etc. They hounded Terry Southern, a great writer (author of Candy, Dr. Strangelove and Red Dirt Marijuana), nearly to death.
Warhol was audited every year until his death. The IRS were vicious. Meanwhile the FBI infiltrated the yippies and hippies and caused riots at demonstrations by manufacturing violence. They also sowed rumors like Allen Ginsberg was an FBI snitch. The overall effect was to bring the counterculture to its knees by 1973. Groups like the Stones, Lennon and Dylan rose above the corruption and carried the flag. Burroughs’ return to New York in 1974 took on a larger importance just because he returned to take his rightful place as the King of the Counterculture on the fall of that great yahoo demon, “Tricky Dick” Nixon.
In fact, 1974 was a great year for the counterculture: Ginsberg won a National Book Award for The Fall of America (poems); Ali regained the World Heavyweight Crown he lost in 1967 after refusing to be drafted; Warhol won an MLA Award and moved to a new upscale Factory. In 1975 he published The Philosophy of Andy Warhol. If you pause to ask, who else could have used such a title and been taken seriously by the New York Times, you can gauge a sense of how far the counterculture had come. Don’t forget this was a worldwide movement, so these American artists were being given credence as the leaders of the new way of life that would find its terrible climax in 1983.
William Burroughs and Andy Warhol have chicken fried steak at the Chelsea Hotel as Victor Bockris narrates. Segment from BBC Arena documentary, Chelsea Hotel.
WEAVER: Describe WSB’s involvement with magick. Did he use it against the establishment?
BOCKRIS: Bill’s involvement with magic dates back to the time he spent in Paris with Brion Gysin. Read The Beat Hotel by my favorite writer Barry Miles, or pick up his brand new bio Call Me Burroughs. It’s great. In “The Electronic Revolution” (essay in The Job) Burroughs explains the ways he used the tape recorder to change reality. I remember one night he read from the Necronomicon in an attempt to call up Humwawa, but several people there were on verge of flipping out so he canceled it. They really thought Humwawa was gonna sweep them away! Bill believed in magic. He certainly practiced magic everyday. To him writing was a magic act.
WEAVER: What effect did the Reagan-era 1980s have on the counterculture?
BOCKRIS: The counterculture in New York was delivered a knockout blow by the combination of the heroin epidemic and AIDS in 1983-1985, which I consider to be the end of the counterculture as we had lived it.
Of course, Reagan was the great yahoo, but I think the counterculture was too exhausted to confront him, as they had President Johnson. There’s much more to that. Reagan oversaw the great theft of the rich that changed the way America operates. He was a murdering corpse, a kind of Edgar Allan Poe version of Howdy Doody. I remember Burroughs telling me in 1991 that we were looking at a very grim decade. He was always much more aware than most of us of what was really happening.
WEAVER: In what ways did Kurt Cobain revitalize the “Beat Punk” ethos?
BOCKRIS: Kurt Cobain’s image revitalized the Beat Punk Ethos:
1. Because his real being suffered as a result of the straight world, and his music and words like “Rape Me” were consequently a universal howl of rage, which captured the attention of teenagers around the world.
2. His awareness of Burroughs and desire to collaborate with him were similar to Patti Smith’s homage to Burroughs in 1974. Cobain became the agent of Beat Punk continuity who connected his generation to the Beats. Mind you, there were many other musicians, filmmakers, writers doing the same. By 1995 the U.S. literary establishment recognized the Beats far more widely and positively than ever before. There was a great revival of Kerouac in 1995. All his books are now in print and sell. College reading lists are not complete without at the least Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac. I think it’s pretty much established by now that the Beats began the whole cultural revolution of the late ’50s to early ’80s. Burroughs had his vision of a love generation in 1958.
Each decade seems to have a pivotal celebrity death which becomes a turning point and an international gathering place. I remember John Belushi’s death in 1982 was heard in New York, and around the world, as the shot that announced the beginning of the end of the counterculture.
I remember Kurt Cobain’s death a decade later was eerily similar, the difference was that there was no deep audience for it, there was no counterculture to pick it up. So the question is what happens then? When the young civil rights worker Medgar Evers got murdered in the 1960s, his death catalyzed the people to rise up. When Brian Jones was found dead in his badass swimming pool at midnight (a great fantasy) in 1969, it made the Rolling Stones the most pain-stained suffering band, at a time in America (early seventies) when the more pain you were in, the cooler you were.
I called Burroughs when Cobain died, and it turned out we were both in the middle of reading a short, recently published mass paperback bio of Kurt, which I still have. Bill chuckled in a Burroughsian manner and said he thought it was pretty good. Bill used to get really upset when certain special people he would meet in relation to his work died. He would recognize them.
Of course Kurt Cobain was a Beat Punk. I knew many people who had stopped following the latest music in 1991-1992, but they all had Nirvana’s first LP. And we all got it; you didn’t have to say anything about it it was totally accepted as part of us.
So Kurt Cobain broke through the surface with his music and his band, but he also spoke loudly with his songs. I’ll never forget hearing him sing “Rape Me” over and over again in the subway, in the streets, on the radio, in the deli, in the cab, “Rape Meeeeee, Raaape mee!” I thought it was so brave.
He backed those songs up with his body and his behavior. Cobain was one of those stars (like James Dean) who can almost play their way into your intuition.
Everything he did was a confrontation with the establishment.
Most rockstars do that from the comfort of protection. You felt Cobain was never protected. He was so drawn, he got to look like he was bleeding on the cross. That’s how far he got. Seems like Jesus Cobain crossed a line… oh Lord, where is this taking me?
Interject: Could the above description of Cobain be applied too William Burroughs? No. They each had their own trips. Cobain’s life was the most vivid line of connection to the beat punk movement at the time, but people did not make as much as they could out of it. Sid Vicious got a film and endless fucked up books celebrating his stupidity. There is also a beat punk connection between Sid and Kurt. They both received the same out pouring of pain from all those little girls chasing them in their black mini-skirts.