Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
I often talk about little magazines in the context of a literary or artistic community. I am filled with nostalgia for the literary circles from 1945-1970, but there are loads of vibrant networks active right this minute. I have been lucky enough to get in touch with a group of artists and creative adventurers joined together by a common love of the literature of the Beat Generation. One of the most fulfilling conversations of my life occurred in a kitchen at the Grand Midway Hotel in Windber, PA at the 2004 Kerouac Fest at 4 am. For roughly an hour, I talked with David Amram and Baird Bryant about a range of topics from Samuel Beckett to the Beat Hotel to Jack Kerouac to William Burroughs.
Those familiar with the Beats have probably heard of David Amram. He is a highly respected jazz and world musician. Kerouac and Amram performed some of the first jazz poetry readings in the late 1950s. Amram appeared in Pull My Daisy as Mezz McGillicuddy along with Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, and Larry Rivers. Delphine Seyrig played Larry River’s wife. Jack Kerouac provided the narration in one take of course while playing with bums and slugging wine.
Baird Bryant is less well known, but he is one of the most fascinating individuals that I have had the pleasure of knowing, even if I only see him once a year. Throughout the 1950s, Baird immersed himself in the literary and artistic scene of Paris. Like many Americans, he arrived there looking for the adventure promised by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, and others. Everybody hears about Paris in the 1920s with the Lost Generation and the down and out Paris of the 1930s immortalized by the novels of Henry Miller, the diaries of Anais Nin, and the photographs of Brassai, but I have a soft spot for Paris in the 1950s.
Baird and his then wife Denny quickly fell in with a group of writers, including Richard Seaver, Alexander Trocchi, Austryn Wainhouse, Jane Lougee, and others. Funded by Lougee, this group founded Merlin magazine. Merlin almost singlehandedly rediscovered the novels and short stories of Samuel Beckett. Merlin with the help of the Olympia Press published Beckett’s Watt in 1953 under the Collection Merlin imprint.
The connection with Olympia Press led members of the Merlin Group to try their hand at writing Dirty Books for a quick profit. Baird was no exception. He provided the first translation of The Story of O. The translation was far from perfect and Austryn Wainhouse re-translated it soon after (as The Wisdom of the Lash, 1957). As Willie Baron, Baird wrote one of the most successful and most pirated editions in the Olympia Press Library: Play This Love With Me (No. 5 of the famous Traveller’s Companion Series. Naked Lunch was No. 76.). Full of erotic sculpture, Satanic Black Masses, drugs and sex, Play This Love is a riot. Hearing the 80+ year old Bryant read his battered copy of Play This Love to an enthusiastic audience was one of the highpoints of 2006.
In the late 1950s, Baird hung around the Beat Hotel meeting many of the characters living there, including William Burroughs. Baird has written a screenplay based on those adventures that is currently circulating around Hollywood. You can get the gist of the screenplay and a sense of the Beat Hotel from Baird’s Souvenirs from the Beat Hotel. This is a fantastic snapshot of the infamous Hotel and the depiction of Burroughs is priceless. Please take the time to read it.
In 1962, Baird explored film serving as cinematographer on The Seducers. The Seducers won an award on the European Film circuit, and Baird was off and running in the world of underground film. Over time, Baird would become one of the pioneers of the modern documentary. He worked as a cinematographer on Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World that depicted African American teens growing up in Harlem. Baird was also instrumental in the filming or editing of Celebration at Big Sur, Jimi Plays Berkeley, Gimme Shelter, and Easy Rider. Hearing Baird speak on what it was like to film Meredith Hunter’s murder at Altamont (from the top of a bus on the side of the stage. Baird had no idea he actually captured the murder until reviewing the footage later. It happened too fast.) or recount the graveyard LSD scene in Easy Rider is quite an experience (Baird’s stories of a crazed Dennis Hopper attempting to film road signs in New Orleans, for example).
Baird continued to work and to write into the 21st century. His work on Heart of Tibet, an Intimate Portrait of the 14th Dalai Lama was highly regarded. Baird will tell you that meeting the Dalai Lama was one of the great moments of his life.
This is all a long way of saying read “Souvenirs of the Beat Hotel.” Burroughs fans will not be disappointed. It is a great piece of work by a great and generous man. Maybe we will see it on the big screen someday.