Text and Drugs and Rock n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture by Simon Warner (Bloomsbury)
Reviewed by Des Cowley
With its playful variation on the tongue-in-cheek Ian Drury song, Simon Warner’s title was an instant tease for someone like myself. As a student at Sydney University in the seventies, it was almost de rigueur to be seen carrying around a copy of On the Road, regardless of whether you actually got around to reading it or not. Possessing a shelf of Beat literature, in fact, conferred upon oneself an equivalent cultural capital as showing off your collection of Hendrix bootlegs, preferably on coloured vinyl.
In attempting to combine two of his pet passions, the Beats and rock music, Warner has set himself a complex task. The classics of Beat literature were written pre-rock n’ roll; and its protagonists were more likely to be snapping their fingers to jazz and bebop, than swaying their hips to Chuck Berry or Elvis. Still, it’s Warner’s view that the radical freedom and oppositional politics practised by the Beats provided inspiration for the next generation of songwriters and musicians: Dylan, the Beatles, the Velvet Underground, the Grateful Dead, the Doors. This connection, he believes, can be further traced down the line to Tom Waits, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana. The difficulty for Warner, of course, is in determining whether these influences were profoundly genuine, or simply the product of artists name-checking hip cultural icons of the past.
Warner begins his book with an event that represents, for him, a literal passing of the torch from the Beats to the next generation of musicians. In 1965, at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, a gathering took place which is often dubbed ‘The Last of the Beats’. Aside from poets Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Richard Brautigan and others, the event was attended by the young Bob Dylan. In a nearby alley (since re-named Kerouac Street), photographer Larry Keenan snapped the iconic image reproduced on the cover of Warner’s book: a relaxed and smiling group comprising Ginsberg, McLure, Dylan and Robbie Robertson. Dylan intended to use this photo for the cover of his forthcoming album Blonde on Blonde, but in the end decided otherwise.
In tracing the link between the Beats and rock, Dylan is therefore the obvious candidate. While it’s relatively easy to argue that his long poetic lines and stream of consciousness style were initially derived from works such as Ginsberg’s Howl and Kerouac’s On the Road, it’s also the case that his genius soon outgrew what Harold Bloom has termed ‘the anxiety of influence’. Within a few short years, it seemed the tables had been turned, with Ginsberg hitching his wagon to Dylan’s rising star. Ginsberg is seen in the background of D.A. Pennebaker’s video of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’, and later travelled with the floating cast of the Rolling Thunder review, appearing in Dylan’s film Renaldo and Clara.
One of Warner’s best chapters concerns the counterculture scene in the UK in the sixties, which saw the Beatles rubbing shoulders with local poets Michael Horovitz and Pete Brown (lyricist for Cream), and international visitors such as Dylan, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs. The culminating event was the International Poetry Incarnation in 1965, which saw 7,000 punters pack out the Royal Albert Hall for a night of poetry. Paul McCartney, it turns out, was far more hip to this scene than a pre-Yoko Lennon; he was behind Zapple, an offshoot of Apple formed to record spoken word poetry, and later played guitar on Ginsberg’s album Ballad of the Skeletons.
Warner’s book proves to be an odd affair, a rag bag of interviews, obituaries, reviews, academic papers, and interludes. Rather than a coherent narrative, he is following threads, attempting to unravel connections. He talks to David Amram, composer of the soundtrack of the Beat film Pull My Daisy; and Jim Sampras, producer of the 1997 album Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness which included contributions by Patti Smith, Lee Renaldo, Thurston Moore, Jeff Buckley, Warren Zevon, Michael Stipe, Joe Strummer and others. He meets up with Genesis P Orridge, whose work with Throbbing Gristle was directly influenced by William Burroughs; and chats with Steven Taylor, who regularly toured with Ginsberg, adding his guitar to his poetry readings; and with Jay Farrar, who composed the music to accompany the documentary One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur.
At times, you get the sense that Warner is on shaky ground. The reality is that neither Kerouac, nor Burroughs, was much interested in rock music, though the latter’s experiments with cut-ups proved influential for various punk and experimental musicians. And though Ginsberg had most to do with the emergent rock sounds, there’s a sense he was as much drawn to the massive audience offered by rock music over poetry, as he was to the music itself.
Surprisingly, Warner misses a few opportunities. He interviews poet Michael McClure, but doesn’t address his friendship with Jim Morrison, or later musical collaborations with Ray Manzarek. He mentions Kurt Cobain’s 1992 recording with Burroughs, but doesn’t go on to explore this. His chapters on Tom Waits and Patti Smith rely largely on earlier biographical works by Victor Bockris and Barney Hoskyns. More tellingly, he’s incorporated a lot of academic apparatus that could have been culled with a good edit. At nearly 500 pages, the book could easily have been shorn in the interests of the reader. That said, I found plenty of interest in the complex network Warner’s impeccably researched book maps out between Beat literature and rock music. In a nutshell, his book is exhaustive and exhausting; but its also fair to say he’s opened up a rich seam that warrants further attention.