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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


In the pivotal summer of my youth, I was hanging out at Expo 67 in Montreal, the “Sixties” were in full flower, and I was discovering, well, just about everything. It was a wonderful time to be young.

ImageAt some point, I read On the Road. It changed my life. Kerouac’s hypnotic, stream of consciousness saga about living without restraint, about embracing the whoop of going somewhere, anywhere, bore right into my sweet, embraceable soul. A week later, I was on the road, myself.

A buddy and I stuck out our thumbs, headed for my hometown of Newmarket, 500 kilometres distant. Innocents both, we had no idea that two guys hitch-hiking together is roadside death. It took 17 long hours, but I loved every minute of it. Our last ride, right to the door, came from a dope-smoking Yorkville denizen, who’d been driving around outside Toronto to avoid being stopped by the city cops. My mother, bless her, made us all breakfast at 5 a.m.

I was hooked. Next spring, I thumbed my way west to Vancouver and back, lugging a blue suitcase, sleeping in backyards and ditches, and managing not to get stuck in Wawa. After that, there were dozens of trips crisscrossing B.C., a memorable fall jaunt to the Maritimes, and a year travelling the roads of Europe. This lovely phrase from a John Newlove poem on the lure of hitch-hiking stuck with me: “Feeling safe with strangers in a moving car…”

Eventually, however, it wasn’t safe. Good rides were harder to come by. I was particularly spooked by the death of someone I knew from Newmarket. He died on the road in Northern Ontario, when a drunk driver who had picked him up drove off the highway. Sometime in the late 70’s, during a Prince George snowstorm, I hung up my thumb.

On the Road may have done in Jack Kerouac, too. The fame resulting from his best-selling book and the media’s insatiable thirst to focus on him as “king of the Beats” turned him inward. He became a reclusive alcoholic, his personal life a mess. I’ll never forget a picture of Kerouac published in Ramparts Magazine shortly before he died at the tragically early age of 47. Seated beside his mother, he looked old, ravaged by booze. I saw nothing of the man who set my boot heels wandering.

Still, even after Kerouac passed on, and before him Neal Cassady, the legendary but tortured “holy goof” who inspired them all, I retained my fascination with the Beats –Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Kerouac, Cassady, and the other beatific non-conformists who didn’t get the same prominence. It was life and words from the wild side. Their influence was profound, albeit outside the mainstream.


So whenever I’m in San Francisco, it’s off to North Beach on a personal pilgrimage to where the Beats hung out, anchored by the famous City Lights Bookstore, still thriving after all these years. (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the great survivor, is 94!)

And now, there’s an added attraction. Just across the way from City Lights is The Beat Museum, run by Jerry Cimino, an affable, talking encyclopedia of the Beats and what became of them. When I popped in recently, it was just a few days after the death of Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s wife, Jack’s lover and one of the last personal links to that wild and crazy time. She had visited the museum. Jerry was quoted in many of  her obits. “A great lady,” he told me.

The main floor contains a pretty good bookstore, with many Beat reprints and counter-culture originals. I was delighted to see Canada represented by a first edition of Voices From the Sixties, “collected, arranged, annotated and edited” by Pierre Berton. There is also Allen Ginsberg’s portable typewriter, plus a small theatre featuring a film stitched together with experts, those who were there and some vintage footage of Kerouac trying to explain the Beats to befuddled interviewers.

Up the backstairs on the second floor is the real museum. There’s not a ton of stuff to see – letters, first editions, blown up photos, movie posters, newspaper stories, artifacts, memorabilia, reminiscences, etc . Nevertheless, the museum does a good job of evoking the Beats and their cultural significance, even if I did come away with a renewed sadness that so few lived to a ripe old age. Worth the $8 admission. I was glad I went. Just don’t expect the Louvre.

“But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who attack the Beat Generation on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls … woe in fact unto those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation… woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back.”

Jack Kerouac


Jerry Cimino, manning the till at The Beat Museum in San Francisco’s North Beach.