I met William Burroughs once. It was during my magical year in Paris (sigh). I’d read in Libération that morning that the legendary icon of the Beats would be at the City of Light’s annual Salon du Livre at the Grand Palais. I thought ‘what the hell’, and went down to catch a glimpse of the famous man, who had been such a part of the Kerouac/Ginsberg Beat generation of writers. In On the Road, the book that changed my life, Burroughs appears as Old Bull Lee. An insatiable consumer of drugs, Burroughs fatally shot his wife during a crazed William Tell re-enactment in Mexico, hung out in Tangiers where the less said about his proclivity for underage boys the better, and found time to write such underground classics as Junkie and Naked Lunch, turned into a movie by the strange David Cronenberg. (My parents actually had a copy of Naked Lunch, which neither they nor I ever read…well, as a randy teenager, I did thumb through the book looking for naughty bits. I was disappointed.)
The more he aged and mellowed, however, the more Burroughs was celebrated. By the time the Salon du Livre rolled around, he was 76. Heading up the stairs of the Grand Palais, I spotted an old guy in a trench coat also heading for the entrance. He was alone. Could it be, I wondered. “Excuse me, are you William Burroughs, by any chance?” In a gentle voice, he politely replied that indeed he was. I said it was an honour to meet him and shook his hand. He was very nice about the whole thing. So I then asked: “Do you sign autographs?” Yes, he did. I had a small poster advertising the Salon du Livre. He took my pen and signed it. I knew I should have asked him about Kerouac, but heck, his appearance was so unexpected that I was just kind of awestruck. A bit later, I went by his book table, surrounded by a gaggle of gawkers. I didn’t join them. I’d already had my William Burroughs moment.
Of course, Mick Jagger once met him, too.
This memory came flooding back last weekend, as I took in the penultimate day of the remarkable collection of Allen Ginsberg photos on display at North Vancouver’s Presentation House. Starting in 1953 when Ginsberg bought a used Kodak for 13 bucks, his homespun photos provide a wonderfully intimate look at the Beats both before and after they were famous. Kerouac, Burroughs, their wild, tragic muse Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, and of course, Ginsberg, himself. There were many other photos from Ginsberg’s life after the heyday of the Beats, but for me, fascinated by this small group of literary earth-shakers for so long, they paled compared to what I really wanted to see.
As I wandered through the exhibition, I was reminded once again, of course, what unhappy fates so many of them had. Kerouac, bloated, alcoholic and railing at the hippies, left us at 47. Cassady, featured in On the Road as the unforgettable Dean Moriarty, died a sad death four days short of his 42nd birthday, passed out by some railway tracks in Mexico. Ginsberg was just 71 when he succumbed to liver cancer. Burroughs, who ingested more drugs of more variety than East German swimmers and Lance Armstrong combined, was the grand exception. The Keith Richard of the Beats, he survived to 83.
Here are some of the photos I particularly liked, re-snapped by my trusty iPhone.
I love this shot of a young, vibrant Neal Cassady, under a San Francisco movie marquee advertising The Wild One. He’s with his girlfriend at the time, the troubled Natalie Jackson. She later committed suicide.
Hard to top this photo of Jack Kerouac, in Tangiers, 1957. A good-looking fellow, wasn’t he?
And here he is just seven years later, the last time he visited Ginsberg’s New York apartment, “yawning with mortal horror,” as Ginsberg wrote in his caption.
There’s something of looming tragedy in this photo of a manic Neal Cassady, who famously drove the bus for Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters across Amerika, ingesting acid all the way, at the rural retreat of LSD guru/advocate Timothy Leary. That’s Leary, also grinning away.
And just for literary history buffs, this is the desk in his small San Francisco apartment, where Allen Ginsberg wrote his epic, transformative poem, Howl, in the summer of 1955 (the year “da Bums” finally won the World Series), while listening much of the time to Bach (on vinyl!).
There were also photos of Carl Solomon, the mental patient who inspired Howl, Ginsberg’s father in his final days, an impossibly hunky Neal Cassady, showing just why everyone, both the Beats and women, were perpetually in love with him, a dinner at the dacha of well-known Russian poet Yvgeny Yevtushenko, plus, of all people, Jello Biafra, leader and founder of the much-loved, outrageous punk group, Dead Kennedys. And on and on. A great show.
I further appreciated the exhibition’s recall of the fabled Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963, a month-long summer gathering at UBC, attended by Ginsberg and other tradition-shattering poets such as Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. Well-known locals Fred Wah, recently Canada’s poet laureate, and some baseball playing young fella named George Bowering were also there.
As l left North Vancouver for the overseas trip back to Vancouver, there was a jaunt to my step, privileged to have been transported, through these and many other evocative photographs, back to the world of the Beats, for all its sorrows and unhappy endings. They changed the world.