THE BEAT WENT ON….IN NORTH VANCOUVER

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.

Rolling Stones & Jagger, Mick & Burroughs, William S. & Warhol,

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.

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Hard to top this photo of Jack Kerouac, in Tangiers, 1957. A good-looking fellow, wasn’t he?

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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.

IMG_2570There’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.

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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!).

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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.

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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.

REMEMBERING PAUL ST. PIERRE

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Paul St. Pierre, B.C.’s superb chronicler of the beautiful Chilcotin and its all-too-human characters, passed away last July. But friends and family waited until Sunday, the weekend of Mexico’s Day of the Dead, to formally say goodbye to the former Vancouver Sun columnist, Liberal MP, gifted writer and, in the words of publisher Scott McIntyre, “accomplished shit-disturber.”

The timing was no accident, clearly a request from the man, himself, who considered Mexico a second home. He particularly relished that country’s Day of the Dead (Nov. 1), an annual holiday set aside for prayers, cemetery visits and celebration of the deceased, replete with ubiquitous, symbolic skulls. No doubt, it appealed to St. Pierre’s life-long love of the off-beat.

So Mexican snacks, a mariachi band and, yes, skulls, were prominent at the packed gathering inside the historic community hall in Fort Langley, where St. Pierre lived for many years. Even some of the goodies depicted those good old skulls, complete with gleaming eyes. It was a good, relaxed, shambling event, of a kind the guest of honour would certainly have enjoyed, if he happened to be peering in from the nearby cemetery, where his gravestone is inscribed: “This was not my idea.”

Since St. Pierre lived past the age of 90, few contemporaries were there to “tell lies” about their old friend, except for 95-10070812year old Ron Rose, who knew him well from their many years at the Vancouver Sun. The ageless “Ramblin’ Rose” brought the house down with his well-delivered tales of life in the outdoors with his irascible companion. After describing one long weekend of hunting and fishing misadventures at St. Pierre’s tumbledown Chilcotin cabin, with only whiskey and canned salmon for nourishment, Rose concluded: “We drove all night back to Vancouver. After a couple of hundred miles, I noticed he wasn’t talking. I asked if he was mad at me. ‘Shut up,’ he said. ‘Can’t you tell I’m writing my column?’”

On another occasion, St. Pierre, with his freshly-earned pilot’s licence, offered to fly Rose from Victoria to Vancouver in a little Cessna for Thanksgiving. The confident new pilot told Rose the flight was a snap. “Paul said it was all right to fly across the strait if you climbed until you reached the middle, so you could coast back either way if the engine quit.”

Said Rose: “We survived one scrape after another by dint of the indomitable cussedness that made  him unique. He was just what he seemed, and you couldn’t ask for a rougher diamond.”

We learned other things about Paul St. Pierre.

As he grew older, he took to calling libraries to see if they still stocked his books. When he phoned the library in his hometown of Halifax, he was pleased to find they did have a few Paul St. Pierre books on their shelves. He then asked what they knew about the author. “Oh, he’s dead,” the librarian replied.

He was never one to mince words. A Fort Langley writer recalled her first volume of verse being reviewed by the eminent St. Pierre in the local paper. “It was a scathing review, the worst I’ve ever had,” she said. Many years later, she hadn’t quite forgiven him, but she looked at things differently. “He made me realize writers need a tough skin. I learned something. So today, I thank him for that bad review.”

Mischief was no stranger to the great, man. We heard of a single mom with a couple of kids who was enamoured of his writing. A friend took her favourite book to St. Pierre and asked him to sign it. She explained how much her friend loved his books, and that she was a single mother. After asking her friend’s name, he wrote in the book: “Dear Mary Lou. Thank you for that beautiful weekend in Vegas. Paul St. Pierre.”

In his latter years, St. Pierre used a motorized scooter to get around. Notorious for driving as fast as he wanted, regardless of the speed limit, he asked a nephew to tinker with his scooter. “Make it go faster,” he ordered. He liked going to Wal-Mart and “accidentally” running into store displays, knocking them askew.

The same writer whose poetry St. Pierre had reviled also noted that a year or two before he died, he showed up at a public meeting in a wheelchair to oppose the three-storey Coulter Berry building proposed for Fort Langley’s historic downtown. “The character of Fort Langley will be gone,” he told the meeting. “We really need a three-storey store like we need a cholera outbreak.” Said the women: “He was an activist in his local community to the end.”

Then, as the rain pelted down outside, the band began to play. After that, the sombrero-topped Mariachi members led a damp, musical procession from the community hall to the cemetery a block away. Despite the rain, about 50 mourners/celebrants gathered around Paul St. Pierre’s grave in the deepening, late afternoon gloom. They placed candles, they remembered, they drank tequila, they went home. And It was good.

(if you want to learn more about this great writer from a long-ago era, read Tom Hawthorn’s fine Globe and Mail obit here)

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NEWSPAPERS STILL DELIVER, HOWEVER DIMINISHED….

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The trend is not good for newspapers. Ad revenue is down, circulation is down, the number of stories are down, employment is down. Newspapers are starting to look like vinyl did when shiny new CD’s showed up. So old-fashioned, a refuge only for fuddy-duddies and luddites.. Record buyers everywhere ditched their collections for the convenience and allegedly better sound of the compact disc. But, of course, vinyl is suddenly storming back in popularity. Having kept my hundreds of beloved vinyl discs, I suddenly find myself back in fashion. (My checked, polyester pants await a similar return…)

Now, it’s the turn of newspapers to be shunned as “oh, so yesterday’. As attention spans shorten and the seductive appeal of social media sucks increasingly more of us into abandoning “the daily rag”, they are struggling to maintain their long hold on public attention. While it’s often forgotten that newspapers still have millions of readers every day, there are fewer than there used to be. Even more worrisome, advertising revenue, which basically pays the bills, is on a steady decline.

Having worked on mainstream newspapers for 40 years, no one has to remind me of their faults. Yet, for all that, we will lose something valuable, should they cease to be. Access to good stories won’t disappear. The citizens of Kamloops can still go online and find great, wondrous tales from all over the world with the ease of a click. But who is there to tell them about goings on in Kamloops? Who is holding the local powers-that-be to account? Bloggers or websites with followers in the hundreds? I think not.

Your daily newspaper still provides news, information, good writing, analysis and opinion in a single, easily-digestible package. It’s far from perfect, but at its best, it tells you things you’re glad to know, with a fair and accurate context. I also like the fact that you don’t know what you’ll get when you turn the page. Sometimes drivel, but sometimes terrific stories on a subject you might ever have accessed online, where we tend to cherry-pick. Most days, I feel better informed about my community and my country after reading the Sun and the Globe, however much they are not what they used to be. In the rush to embrace “the new”, and I love the Internet, too, I think we sometimes forget there is still great value in “the old”.

Apologies, this is a day late. I’m still not good at operating without a deadline, hehe. But here are some stories and columns I’m glad I read in Thursday’s Sun and Globe. I hope they’re not blocked by the paywall. J (also note, these cover only the local news sections. There was also lots of good stuff in other sections, even the Business pages.)

1. This tragic story continues to haunt me. That poor woman. Please, somebody, do something to end the complete lack of accountability and secrecy of the all-powerful Canada Border Services Agency. http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Mexican+woman+lived+like+ghost+Vancouver+despondent+after+CBSA+arrest/9444735/story.html

2. A very powerful story by the Sun’s veteran sports writer, Mike Beamish. This is the first time the much-loved former Canuck Gino Odjick has opened up about the trauma he faced acting as the team’s enforcer. Haunting. http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Canucks+Algonquin+enforcer+Gino+Odjick+opens+about+post+career+concussion+related+struggles/9446707/story.html

3. A useful update on a continuing, positive story. (Also covered by the Globe’s Mark Hume, too). http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Conservation+groups+timber+companies+reach+deal+protect+more+Great+Bear+Rainforest/9445245/story.html

4. Interesting. http://www.vancouversun.com/travel/Canada+first+boutique+hotel+designed+with+Aboriginal+arts+open+Vancouver+this/9446454/story.html

5. Good information. http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/Arcade+Fire+Eminem+expanded+2014+Squamish+music+festival+lineup+with+video/9444790/story.html

6. Interesting update on a controversial project. http://www.vancouversun.com/business/rise+developments+eyed+Oakridge+Transit+Centre/9446412/story.html

7 An excellent column by the Sun’s treasured Vaughn Palmer. http://www.vancouversun.com/Vaughn+Palmer+education+time+Liberals+stepped+back+from+brink/9446678/story.html

8 An interesting opinion piece that argue that LNG is not the road to follow to reduce the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Opinion+favour/9445418/story.html

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And now the highly-esteemed B.C. section of the Globe and Mail, where I toiled in the vineyards until last July. I also note that the Globe is a national newspaper, so the B.C. section makes up only three pages of the entire newspaper.

9. Sunny Dhillon continues his vigorous investigation into some highly questionable activities of the B.C. Civil Forfeiture Office.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/its-easy-perhaps-too-easy-for-bc-authorities-to-seize-property-worth-less-than-75000/article16601751/#dashboard/follows/

10. Good story by Frances Bula on east side property speculation (referred to by Toronto headline writer as the “east end”).

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/developers-scooping-up-east-end-properties/article16600708/#dashboard/follows/

11. Strong column by Gary Mason on the absurdity of the province ordering the infamous transit referendum and then demanding the mayors come up with the question.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/on-transit-lower-mainland-mayors-cant-do-it-all-themselves/article16599761/#dashboard/follows/

And, of course, I’m not arguing one whit that the Internet isn’t the most marvellous of inventions. It is truly wonderful. But a better world, in my humble opinion, is the Internet, with newspapers, rather then the Internet, without newspapers. Long may they live!

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