Just Kids by Patti Smith

patti-and-robert

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” ― Lester Bangs

I have just finished reading ”Just Kids” for the second time and I can’t help feeling a bit of anguish as I’m about to express my perception of Patti’s first book of prose mainly, I suppose, due to the fact that it’s a best seller. Not that I disagree, Au contraire! All the praise about ”Just Kids’‘ is very well deserved, but so much has been said already that I forbade myself to read any of it so that everything I would say would  be 100% mine. Therefore I will simply pretend I’m the only bloody diamond geezer who was clever enough to read it, heartily hoping to bring something new to the table in the process. I chose this quote by Lester Bangs as an opener because these words seemed to be the very foundation of one of the most sincere and coolest relationship ever, one that’s been told through the pages of ”Just Kids”, a true story that would in itself become an inspiration for so many more to come. It’s a call to be who I really am no matter what, because by doing so, I might be able to bring something unique and new in this bankrupt world.

”There Will Always Be Us!”

first-edition-2

     In ”Just Kids”,  legendary, highly authentic American inspired singer-songwriter, poet, and visual artist Patti Smith, who  became an influential component of the New York City punk rock movement, offers a very unique, never-before-seen glimpse of her honest, enduring, sister-brother, Yin/Yang, boyfriend/girlfriend magical everlasting relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in the epochal days of New York City and the Chelsea Hotel in the late 60s and 70s.

The relation itself is the guiding light and the whole purpose of this book and if, at times, certain passages might seem trivial, well, they never were. This unconditional love they shared –  creative, sensitive, stimulating and artistically prolific – becomes a sincere and deeply moving story of youth, friendship and ultimately success. The best thing being that anyone can relate to it in a very intimate, personal way.  ”Just Kids” fully grasp the heartfelt passion and holds this very same unique, sensitive and lyrical quality that is written between each lines of her formidable body of work, from her influential 1975 album Horses to her visual art and poetry.

patricia-lee-smith
Photo©by Frank Stefanko scanned by Patricia Lee Smith 

No one else could have better described all the ins and outs of the unique, constantly evolving story she shared with Robert Mapplethorpe, and this means way more than just itemizing their body of work, for the whole represents way more than the sum of it and their relationship in itself was on its own an expression of art. It just couldn’t be contained in its entirety in little works nor in big works for all to see.  Parts have been laid in music, paintings, poems and photographs but even all these, as inspired and beautiful as they are, fail in giving us a complete picture. Even if it celebrates a friendship that left a permanent impact on almost every artistic aspect and style in America, it still had to be told in a book. It was essential and sacred. Patti had to share their journey under the blue star, a symbol of their undying love for each other, one last time.

Patti writes in a Last Note to the Reader:

”We were as Hansel and Gretel and we ventured out into the black forest of the world. There were temptations and witches and demons we never dreamed of and there was splendor we only partially imagined. No one could speak for these two young  people nor tell with any truth of their days and their nights together. Only Robert and I could tell it. Our Story, as he called it. And, having gone, he left the task to me to tell it to you. ” – Patti Smith, Just Kids, May 22, 2010

What makes this book so special is how Patti manages to express a magic that started almost immediately. Patti arrived in NYC with almost nothing but her wish to accomplish something no one has done before. Robert was already in NYC and struggling on an urban survival mode, but nevertheless they both had a deep sense that life had something very special in store for them and that it was written in the stars. They never thought it would be so hard, that they would have to struggle so much just to survive but nevertheless it didn’t take very long for them to be able to recognize the signs. We can feel that they saw in each other something true and very real, something which they felt they would later be able to rely on as persons and as artists. Of course there were moments of doubts but maybe it was these crucial moments that would prove them to be essential to one another. It never was a give and take type of relationship. The base for it might just be honesty, true faith in each other’s talent, the hope that there was a place for them as they were and that with a lot of work, perseverance and a little bit of luck, they would both find their niche as people and artists. Lots of spoken, unspoken pacts were made, very few ever broken.

Patti Smith by ©Andy Warhol , Ca. 1972

Despite a certain ”twinlike” aspect, their part in each other’s life could also definitely be seen as complementary. One could say that Robert was the eternal dreamer, on some aspects, even alien to practical knowledge and certain everyday life faculties and that Patti possessed a more down to Earth perspective on life but this is only a half truth since, when needed, on several occasions, they could trade roles and when the other one would be in dire need of a trait that would normally be the other one’s unsaid character/task assignment, they would put their egos aside and would manage to trade places if it would help the other to get through a rough patch.

”The premise was simply that one of us always had to be vigilant, the designated protector. If Robert took a drug, I needed to be present and conscious. If I was down, he needed to stay up. If one was sick, the other healthy. It was important that we were never self-indulgent on the same day.

In the beginning I faltered, and he was always there with an embrace or words of encouragement, coercing me to get out of myself and into my work. Yet he always knew that I would not fail  if he needed me to be the strong one”

The Chelsea Hotel

Patti Smith on the balcony of the Chelsea Hotel , 1971
Patti Smith on the balcony of the Chelsea Hotel , 1971

“I loved this place, its shabby elegance, and the history it held so possessively”

Back in those days, New York City was a very dangerous place. Some areas were filled with what is commonly regarded as the lowest forms of the human species likes thieves, pimps, rapists, thieves, hookers, murderers and so forth. Being young artists who strive to survive, of course they were bound to have to live in such areas. At one of their lowest points they were plainly told that they had to get out, that they wouldn’t make it if they stayed. Fortunately, there was a place that offered hope if you were an artist, a little island of optimism, gathering past, present and future generations of artists of all kinds where you didn’t even need to have money right away. Stanley Bard would keep your portfolio, or take a work of art until you could get it back and you were now part of a community that was very special, during the 60s and the 70s especially. The Chelsea played a huge part in the history of the new generation of artists of the 60s and the 70s.

”Gregory made lists of books for me to read, told me the best dictionary to own, encouraged me and challenged me. Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs were all my teachers, each one passing through the lobby of the Chelsea Hotel, my new University. ”

”The Moon Turned Blood Red”

robert mapplethorpe and patti smith in their chelsea hotel apartment, circa 1970, photo©Albert Scopin.
Robert and Patti Smith Chelsea Hotel, circa 1970, photo©Albert Scopin.

Yet they came to a point where one or both of them needed more space, more freedom. Some things are meant to be faced and dealt with on your own even if they knew the other one will still be there for me if need it be but never taking one another for granted and always being grateful of each other’s effort to play the right part when needed, never taking advantage of one another. In one word: Respect was of course the cement that sealed the ”deal”. Robert soon had to face his inner demons and question his sexuality again and again. Of course this was heart wrenching for both of them.

”He had been with a fellow and not for money. I was able to give him some measure of acceptance. My armor sill had its vulnerable points, and Robert, my knight, had pierced a few, though without desiring to do so.”

Their relationship morphed and this had major effects on their everyday lives. It is during theses major changes and adaptations that could have tore them apart that we see that love makes all the difference in the world and that instead of trying to exert control on each other’s lives, they simply went ahead with the flow and they grew stronger. I would say that we witness how something some would see as a humiliation becomes merely a chance to humble ourselves and let life take its natural course. Never stop to love and support those who are true soul mates. A bond stronger than marriage.

I will not spoil all the fun and tell you everything that happens. I already told you the big lines and a few little ones but Here is one last thing that I realised reading ”Just Kids”.

I so happened to notice that in general there can be two different kinds of artists. Some very callous, careless, aloof and undisciplined that are successful because of their God-given talent  and so much passion that they seem to evolve in a different space and time, going all the way with everything they’ve got, with all their worries and genius. They truly appear as some unstoppable forces of nature, pushed by some alien powers. Then there are others with which they share the same gift, also having a remarkable imagination, but very rooted in their reality, very lucid and conscious of the space they occupy in space and time as well as having a clear view on what is their place in society and what their relationships made of, how strong can they be.

Now certain artists are lucky enough to have just about the right proportion of each of these components within themselves, to be well supported by a team of people they trust and that have faith in their work. I think ”Just Kids” is about the encounter of 2 people who miraculously manage to complete each other perfectly as people and as artists.

Patti Smith and Sam Shepard in their play, Cowboy Mouth, in New York in 1971
Patti Smith and Sam Shepard in their play, Cowboy Mouth, in New York in 1971
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Dylan, Smith and Sam Shepard attended a party at Allen Ginsberg’s Greenwich Village house, where ©Ken Regan took several photos of Dylan and Smith in conversation on the stairs.

So?

”Where does it all lead?What will become of us? These were our young questions and young answers were revealed.

It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”

Fred "Sonic" Smith (September 14, 1949 – November 4, 1994) , was an American guitarist, best known as a member of the influential and political, Detroit rock band, the MC5. Later in life he married and raised a family with poet and fellow rock musician, Patti Smith. The couple collaborated musically, and raised two children together.
Fred “Sonic” Smith (September 14, 1949 – November 4, 1994) , was an American guitarist, best known as a member of the influential and political, Detroit rock band, the famous MC5. He married with poet and fellow rock musician, Patti Smith. The couple collaborated musically, and raised their two children together. 

Together the Smiths had a son, Jackson (born 1982) and a daughter, Jesse (born 1987). Jackson, a guitarist, was married to Meg White (formerly of indie band The White Stripes). Jesse is a pianist. Both have performed on stage with their mother along with other members of the Patti Smith Group.

Patti Smith never forgot Robert Mapplethorpe and wrote ”Just Kids” in 2012. She had made a promise to Robertthat she’d write a book about them and she did, Patti wrote this memoire of their friendship in her own unique personal, direct, sensitive and wholhearted style and we should be all damn happy she kept her promise!

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Just Kids won:

Also by Patti Smith  9781101910160

 

About Unfinished Poems…

gregory-corso
Gregory Corso, 1953 

Gregory loved Keats and Shelley and would stagger into the lobby with his trousers hanging low, eloquently spewing their verses. When I mourned my inability to finish any of my poems, he quoted Paul Valery to me: ”Poets don’t finish their poems, they abandon them”…  Patti Smith, Just Kids

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe by Norman Seeff, 1969
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe by Norman Seeff, 1969

Did Sid Really Kill Nancy?

Explosive New Evidence Suggests the Punk Rocker May Have Been Innocent

The murky half-light of a bleak New York winter’s morning had yet to penetrate the small rear bedroom of an airless apartment in the city’s bohemian Greenwich Village.

Stepping over empty bottles and half-eaten plates of spaghetti (the untidy remnants of the previous night’s party), two police officers from the tough 6th Precinct stood in the doorway and surveyed the scene.

Pushed up hard against the far wall was a bed. Lying amid the crumpled sheets, illuminated by the unforgiving glow of a single light bulb, was the naked dead body of a young man.

sid and nancy
Tragic love story: Sex Pistol Sid Vicious was accused of the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen (February 27, 1958 – October 12, 1978)

To Manhattan’s hardened policemen, it was hardly an unfamiliar scene. But the death of the 21-year-old in the messy ground-floor flat at 63 Bank Street did offer the New York Police Department a rather convenient solution to a potentially messy murder investigation.

Because the dead man, John Ritchie, who had taken his last breath just hours before, was better known as British punk rocker Sid Vicious  –  the prime suspect in the murder of his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.

Now, however, the Sex Pistols bass guitarist, who was on bail charged with stabbing Spungen to death at their Manhattan hotel four months earlier, was dead and the file could be closed with the minimum of fuss.

He killed Nancy, they assumed, then died of an overdose. End of story.

But many of those who knew the couple have always questioned this official version of events. sid-and-nancy

And on the 30th anniversary of his death, a new film is set for release which presents the fascinating theory that Vicious was innocent of murdering his blonde lover.

Its makers claim to have uncovered evidence which reveals that a series of police blunders and apathy by detectives led the authorities wrongly to pin the blame on the star.

In fact, the film contests, medical tests carried out on Vicious at the time of his arrest showed the musician would have been incapable of the attack, because he was out cold at the time after taking so much of a powerful sedative that it would have killed all but the most hard-bitten drug users.

Instead, the film Who Killed Nancy? asserts for the first time that 20-year-old Spungen, the daughter of a wealthy middle-class Philadelphia family, was killed by another resident at the hotel  –  a shadowy British man named Michael, who spent that last fatal night in the room with the couple.

As the murderer robbed and killed Spungen for the huge stash of cash they kept there, Vicious, it is claimed, slept through the attack, only waking to find his lover’s dead body in the morning.

The documentary’s British director, Alan G. Parker, who has spent 24 years investigating the life and death of the star and has written a series of well-received books on the subject, tracked down more than 180 witnesses and unearthed previously unseen police reports.

He also spoke to several witnesses who are adamant that Vicious was innocent. Crucially, Parker says police found the fingerprints of six people who had been in the couple’s room at New York’s rundown Chelsea Hotel in the early hours, but none was ever interviewed.

One witness, who subsequently became a priest, tried to tell detectives that he thought Vicious was not the murderer, but was given the brush-off by investigating officers.

Meanwhile others pointed the finger of suspicion at the man known only as ‘Michael’, who one friend of the couple swears remained alone in the room with them during those fateful final hours. He disappeared after the murder and police made no effort to track him.

sid and nancy
Troubled: Spungen and Vicious in London, 1978

‘I have followed this story for over 20 years,’ says Parker. ‘The more I researched and dug around, the more I became convinced that Sid was innocent. The police thought they had their man, and when he died the whole thing could be put away and forgotten about.’

But just how much of the film’s thesis stands up to scrutiny and how much is based on the plethora of wild conspiracy theories that have grown up about the deaths of Sid and Nancy over the past three decades?

Certainly, Spungen’s killing did seem, at first, to be a routine murder investigation. A rock groupie who had turned her back on her genteel Jewish upbringing and become a heroin addict, funding her habit at one time by working as a stripper and prostitute, Nancy was found dead in her underwear in the bathroom of Room 100 of the Chelsea Hotel.

The monolithic Chelsea had once been a Mecca for writers and artists. Dylan Thomas, Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan had all once lived there. But by the late 1970s, it was little more than a sprawling drugs den populated by a seedy coterie of Manhattan low-life.

Spungen, who had been dating Sid Vicious for a year, had been stabbed once in the stomach by a hunting knife that London-born Vicious had bought days earlier to protect himself when he ventured out into New York to buy drugs.

It was Vicious himself who phoned police to say he had found her dead body, and an hour later on the morning of October 12, 1978, in a holding cell at the Third Homicide Division, Vicious famously confessed: ‘I did it because I’m a dirty dog.’

The police, it seemed, had their man. With his taste for violence, animal torture and swastikas, Vicious was, after all, the repellent face of punk rock in all its snarling ugliness. sid-and-nancy-portrait

His band, the Sex Pistols, had shocked Britain with their foulmouthed rants on TV and their anti-monarchy hit, God Save The Queen.

He had killed his lover, it seemed, in the ultimate act of rock debauchery while out of his mind on drugs.

But Vicious was later to retract his confession, claiming he could not recall anything about the night Nancy  –  dubbed ‘Nauseating Nancy’ by the star’s own mother  –  had died.

Hardly surprising, perhaps, given that the police report obtained by Parker reveals Vicious was dosed up on powerful sedatives at the time of her murder. Indeed, witnesses who were at an impromptu party in their room the evening before her body was found claim he took up to 30 Tuinal tablets  –  a strong barbiturate.

Few could survive such a massive dose, claims Parker, and even those who could would be put into a deep coma for many hours.

Certainly, several witnesses who passed in and out of the couple’s first-floor room in the early hours say Vicious was out for the count. And at least two say the previously unknown Michael, who lived on the sixth floor of the hotel, was with Sid and Nancy as late as 5am  –  around the time she was stabbed.

So what could have been a possible motive for the killing? In a word: money. Vicious, who had quit the Sex Pistols nine months earlier after a bitter fall- out with the group’s lead singer Johnny Rotten, had gone on to have a Europe-wide solo hit with a tuneless version of the Frank Sinatra classic My Way.

Just days before Nancy’s death, he had received $25,000 in cash  –  royalty payments from Richard Branson’s Virgin Records.

Witnesses say that on the night before Spungen’s death, the room was awash with money. The following morning, however, the cash was gone, and Michael was later seen carrying a large wad of cash secured with one of Nancy’s purple hair ties.

So just who was the mysterious Michael? Details of the alleged killer are sketchy, but he was described by witnesses as a young, slim, blond man with a penchant for alligator shoes. He spoke with a British accent and had moved into the hotel recently, befriending Vicious and Miss Spungen.

Several of the couple’s friends remember seeing him with them in the days before Nancy’s death, and one, musician Neon Leon, who had been with the couple on the night of the killing, says he rang Nancy shortly before the time that she is estimated to have been stabbed. He says he could hear the man he knew as Michael talking in the background.

Another resident of the Chelsea, Victor Colicchio, also stopped at the couple’s door shortly before the stabbing and says Michael was inside.

But none of the witnesses knew Michael well, and his last name remains a mystery. Only one hand-drawn picture by the couple’s friend, singer Steve Dior, offers any evidence of what he looked like: slimly built, with shoulder-length hair.

sex pistols
Vicious on stage in San Francisco with fellow Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten in 1978

Dior is adamant that this is the man he believes killed Nancy and who disappeared soon after with the bundle of the couple’s cash.

Another resident at the sleazy Chelsea Hotel was a would-be actor called Rockets Redglare  –  who had been born ‘Michael Morra’. Interestingly, within days of Nancy’s murder he allegedly confessed to a friend that he was the real killer.

Redglare, who was raised in a tough district of Brooklyn, had been an unofficial minder and drugs dealer to the couple. He was a well-known figure on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and went on to star with Madonna in the Hollywood movie Desperately Seeking Susan and with Tom Hanks in Big. One English friend of the couple, Zoe Hansen, met Redglare after the killing and says he admitted to her he had been in the room that night and told her: ‘I did it.’

Redglare, himself an addict, died, aged 52, in May 2001 of a combination of kidney and liver failure caused by his years of drug use.

But despite his mysterious confession, witnesses insist that Redglare  –  who was American, dark-haired and 25 stone  –  was not the man they blame for Nancy’s murder. That Michael, it seems, vanished without a trace.

And so, with no other suspects to hand, the police charged Vicious with Nancy’s murder. He was remanded in custody, but his manager, the colourful Malcolm McLaren, hired a top New York lawyer called James Merberg to win him bail.

Within days, Vicious was free on a $50,000 licence which had been put up by his record label boss, Richard Branson. jason_adams_3

A little more than a month later, however, Sid was back inside the maximum security Riker’s Island jail after glassing a man in a fight in a New York club. He spent nearly two months behind bars in the prison’s detox wing before he was again released on bail.

By then, Vicious had a new girlfriend, a would-be actress called Michelle Robson. On the day of his release  –  February 1, 1979  –  Vicious, his mother Anne Beverley and a few friends went back to Robson’s apartment for a celebration meal.

After eating spaghetti bolognese, Vicious asked his mother  –  herself a hopeless addict  –  to find him some drugs. He complained that what she brought him was not strong enough, and another friend was dispatched to get some more.

But unknown to Vicious, this second batch of heroin was more than 95 per cent pure and nearly three times stronger than most of the heroin sold on the streets of New York. After taking it, Sid collapsed.

He was revived by his girlfriend and mother, but they decided not to call an ambulance because they feared he would be thrown back in jail for breaking his bail conditions. It was to prove a fatal mistake.

Later that night, alone in the bedroom, he injected more of the powerful heroin. The following morning, he was found dead. sid-vicious

A pathologist who examined his body said the star’s tolerance to the drug had been weakened by his period behind bars. That, and the potency of the heroin, had killed him.

Police quickly announced they were not looking for anyone else in connection with Spungen’s death.

Meanwhile, Anne Beverley discovered what appeared to be a suicide note in the pocket of her son’s jeans. Written some days earlier, Vicious told his mother he wanted to be reunited with ‘his’ Nancy.

The discovery of the letter led some friends to speculate that Nancy’s death had been a suicide pact that had gone wrong, and Spungen had administered the fatal knife wound herself.

In fact, ten days after her death, Vicious had attempted to slash his wrists, and just a few months earlier the couple had told a British music magazine of their plans to take their own lives.

After his death, the punk rocker’s mother requested he be laid to rest in the same plot where Nancy was buried, but her parents refused. The following week, Anne flew with her son’s ashes to the Philadelphia cemetery and secretly sprinkled them over Nancy’s gravestone.

His mother, who committed suicide in 1996, remained convinced of her son’s innocence until her dying day.

‘Before she died, Anne told me to clear her son’s name,’ says Parker. ‘Everything I have found out since makes me believe that Sid was innocent.’

It is unlikely we shall ever now know for sure. But could it be that the undeniably unpleasant and violent Vicious really was the victim of an injustice after all?

sid
”I maybe an outrageous person but I’m no murderer”-Sid Vicious, (May 10, 1957 – February 2, 1979)
2c47e650501af42d6b9327feebaebbeb
The police all treated this as ”who cares? Just another dead junky…”

Sad thing is that nobody seems, even to this day to care to know who killed Nancy Spungen. Even if they would would have found a way to accuse Sid and get him to court for that, which I’m pretty sure they would have, they would have had a real hard time convincing a jury that he was guilty. So if we take into consideration that the option that he was most probably not the killer than who is it?? I think some guy tried to steal their money and Nancy caught the guy and used Sid’s knife that was always planted in the wall in their room at the Chelsea to kill Spungen whom without the shadow of a doubt would not have let him take the money without doing anything. She wasn’t strong but she had been through some tuff shit in NYC, enough to be absolutely certain that she would have done everything in her power to try and stop that guy.  That evening everyone remembers that Sid was totally out of it and he just never heard anything, he must have felt aweful discovering his beloved soulmate dead on the floor under the bathroom sink, I bet it’s an image that followed him for the rather short remaining of his also very short life.  He died from an overdose after being bailed out for the second time for hitting Patti Smith’s brother with a beer bottle in a NYC bar. He was clean when he got out of jail and he was with his new girlfriend and his mother and some friends.  What a sad story.

What Makes Nancy So Great by Sid

aid johnny and hell

Spungen was so fucked up back then in New-York that a friend told fer she should move to the UK, that she would be able to relax there because unlike the US they were treating the drug addicts good there so she could have a ”normal” life. So when the New-York Dolls were called to tour with the Sex Pistols she decided to go mainly to try and get with Johnny or some guy from  the Dolls and by hanging out with the Dolls she met Sid who was like a ”fish fresh out of the water”. He was anything but Vicious. Everyone agrees on that one.

But then….

Sid-Vicious-Who-Killed-Nancy-481062
Click to watch UK 2009 documentary Who Killed Nancy by Alan G. Parker

 

This Ain’t No Holiday Inn

Down and Out of the Chelsea Hotel

A very unique insight of an era that defined so many movements to come. Even today we are still trying to measure the great impact of all that was done and thought during this savage era who would put in the Glamour anyone who had balls….

1981 BBC documentary on the Chelsea Hotel and its legendary inhabitants. This is good stuff. Includes footage of Quentin Crisp, Nico (backed up on guitar by my old friend Joe Bidewell), Warhol, Burroughs, Viva, Jobriath (2 years before he died of AIDS), Chelsea Hotel manager Stanley Bard and more.

 ”And then he was a she…”-Lou Reed

Chelsea Girls is a 1966 experimental underground film directed by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey. The film was Warhol’s first major commercial success after a long line of avant-garde art films (both feature length and short). It was shot at the Hotel Chelsea and other locations in New York City, and follows the lives of several of the young women who live there, and stars many of Warhol’s superstars. It is presented in a split screen, accompanied by alternating soundtracks attached to each scene and an alternation between black-and-white and color photography. The original cut runs at just over three hours long.

The title, Chelsea Girls, is a reference to the location in which the film takes place. It was the inspiration for star Nico’s 1967 debut album, Chelsea Girl. The album featured a ballad-like track titled “Chelsea Girls”, written about the hotel and its inhabitants who appear in the film. The girl in the poster is Clare Shenstone, at the age of 16, an aspiring artist who would later be influenced by Francis Bacon. Notably missing is a sequence Warhol shot with his most popular superstar Edie Sedgwick which, according to Morrissey, Warhol excised from the final film at the insistence of Sedgwick herself, who claimed she was under contract to Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman, at the time the film was made. Sedgwick’s footage has been used in another Warhol film “Afternoon.”

Chelsea Girls' Poster

Beat Punks

A Brief History of the Counterculture from William S. Burroughs to Kurt Cobain

Bull Will.

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.

Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy
Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy

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?

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Andy Warhol and Muhammad Ali. Photo by Victor Bockris 1978

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.

Sid Vicious going to court,1978 Adam Scull(CreditImage©GlobePhotos/ZUMAPRESS.com)
Sid Vicious going to court,1978 Adam Scull (CreditImage©GlobePhotos/ZUMAPRESS.com)

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.

Jack Kerouac. Photo by Allen Ginsberg. 1964.
Jack Kerouac. Photo by Allen Ginsberg. 1964.

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 JobThe Wild BoysThe Last Words of Dutch SchultzExterminator 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.

Lord Goodman
Lord Goodman

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.

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Jean Genet, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg march in Chicago 1968

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.

Burroughs’ “Time of the Assassins” column in Crawdaddy! magazine mid 70's.
Burroughs’ “Time of the Assassins” column in Crawdaddy! magazine mid 70’s.

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.

Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs. Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe.
Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs. Photo by Robert Mapplethorpe.

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.

William S. Burroughs and Joe Strummer from The Clash. Photo by Victor Bockris.1980.
William S. Burroughs and Joe Strummer from The Clash. Photo by Victor Bockris.1980.

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.

Timothy Leary, William S. Burroughs, Les Levine, Brion Gysin and Robert Anton Wilson at the Nova Convention. Photo by Marcia Resnick. 1978.
Timothy Leary, William S. Burroughs, Les Levine, Brion Gysin and Robert Anton Wilson at the Nova Convention. Photo by Marcia Resnick. 1978.

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.

Andy Warhol at the Factory.NYC mid 60's. Photo by Stephen Shore
Andy Warhol at the Factory.NYC mid 60’s. Photo by Stephen Shore

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.

Arthur Rimbaud at the time of his first communion.
Arthur Rimbaud at the time of his first communion.

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.

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Debbie Harry during a Polaroid shoot with Andy Warhol. Photo by Christopher Makos, 1980.

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 CandyDr. Strangelove and Red Dirt Marijuana), nearly to death.

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Terry Southern

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.

William S. Burroughs. Photo by Victor Bockris.
William S. Burroughs chez Blondie 1981. Photo by Victor Bockris.

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.

Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs and The Dream Machine
Brion Gysin, William S. Burroughs and The Dream Machine

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.

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Victor Bockris at the Chelsea Hotel, 2005. Photo by Phil Weaver

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.

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Kurt Cobain’s high school drawing of Ronald Reagan

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.

Kurt Cobain in 1991. Photo by Charles Peterson.
Kurt Cobain in 1991. Photo by Charles Peterson.

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.

Kurt Cobain and William S. Burroughs at WSB’s home in Lawrence, Kansas
Kurt Cobain and William S. Burroughs at WSB’s home in Lawrence, Kansas

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.

1975, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA --- Comedian John Belushi, in a bumble bee costume, skates at the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink for a skit on Saturday Night Live. --- Image by © Owen Franken/CORBIS
1975, Manhattan, New York, New York, USA — Comedian John Belushi, in a bumble bee costume, skates at the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink for a skit on Saturday Night Live. — Image by © Owen Franken/CORBIS

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.

Brian Jones
Brian Jones

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.

Victor Bockris and William S. Burroughs at WSB’s home in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo by James Grauerholz.
Victor Bockris and William S. Burroughs at WSB’s home in Lawrence, Kansas. Photo by James Grauerholz.

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.

Kurt Cobain
Kurt Cobain

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.

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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.

James Dean
James Dean

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?

cobain
Kurt Cobain

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.

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