Charles Plymell: The Benzedrine Highway Interview (Revised)Tags: Charles Plymell, Interview
Interview by Paul Hawkins
Writer Charles Plymell is a legendary figure. He was involved with a loose gang of experimental writers and outsider artists centered around Wichita, Kansas in post-war 1950s America. Plymell and the Wichita Punks had road-tested speed, dropped LSD, held peyote rituals and experimented with art and other creative forms. Were they Beat before the term had risen, been marketed and branded out of the San Francisco joss-stick hippie scene?
The chronological order is important in understanding his work, as Charley makes clear in this interview. He has seen a lot since his birth on the Kansas high plains in 1935 and the early memories of the sound of the wind in the cab of a Reo Speedwagon truck. His father was a cowboy, his mother once a stunt car driver. He printed Robert Crumb’s first edition of Zap Comix in 1968. As part of the hip Wichita scene of the 1950s he is also a contemporary of and, either a friend, collaborator or publisher of, some of the coolest and influential underground writers and artists to come out of the USA. He already had two volumes of poetry, Neon Poems and Apocalypse Rose out when in 1971 City Lights published his seminal novel, Last of The Moccasins. This novel grips, gleams and glistens with his hobohemian prose-style; spinning tales of his life in and around Wichita, his road trips to and from the West Coast along the Rt. 66 Benzedrine Highway and beyond, his crazy Hipster years and the boho life of his elder sister Betty.
Plymell has continued to walk his walk and talk his talk ever since. His writing has always displayed a vibrant and astute engagement with life and a heady, intoxicatingly descriptive allure. He condemned the National Endowment for the Arts and his sharp and intelligent analysis appeared in the NY Times and other print outlets. Because of this critique he was blacklisted and has never been awarded any funding, grant or financial support from any federal, state or academic agency in the USA. He and his wife Pam run their own publishing house, CV Editions, which is a good place to start looking for more information on his novels, poetry and other writing.
What are you up to these days?
I like nittin’…. next to nittin’… nuttin’.
What do you remember about growing up in Kansas?
Rattlesnakes, rattlesnakes winding in the dust while south winds sculpted fields of wheat, the hum of truck tires on warm asphalt back and forth to L.A. on RT66. Yucaipa (Green Valley) California to Plymell and Santana (Kiowa Chief) where my Grandfather ran a stagecoach down to Indian Territory (No Man’s Land) now Oklahoma where President Cleveland deeded land to him. I remember sitting in the truck, an REO Speedwagon. I loved that truck. My Mom and Dad plowed the field into the space horizon. The wind in the cab played a hollow tune and I sang my favorite song from Hank Williams’ radio show we listened to at home. “I’m just a happy rovin’ cowboy / herding the dark clouds out of the sky / deep in the heavens blue.”
That is simply beautiful Charley, what else?
We had to run from the farmhouse to the cellar many times when tornados came. I saw them rolling across the prairie. My folks always knew their vector. No warnings, just nature’s ozone smells. We didn’t have electricity, so I was not exposed to circuitry, only earth’s magnetic source that isn’t enclosed. My mother cooked on the coal range, the beef my father cut from the herd. We had a battery radio for the news where I heard Roosevelt’s voice announcing WWII. We rode horses everywhere. I still have my pony blanket and cinch my mother made. That was in the early years on the Great Plains. Later we moved into town. My dad had bought a ’39 Buick Century in Chicago that had tire mounts on each fender and a roll-up window between backseat and front with a big straight eight motor and gearshift on the floor. He also had a baby blue ’40 pre-war Packard Clipper. I could easily go a hundred mph in them. For running around he had a ’41 Ford V8 coupe that could burn rubber in second gear and go over a hundred as well as a ’42 Chevy coupe that my sister and I would steal and go spinning around.
When you dropped out from school, what were the choices for you at that time?
High School was not worth it for me. I went to Military School in San Antonio in my first year of high school and my father bought me a brand new 1952 Chevy coupe to get back to Wichita. I enrolled in North High there on the Arkansas River, an Indian Motif beautiful building. I soon realized that high school then and especially now are stupid unless one needs that structure. I didn’t so I peeled out and got on the road and never looked back. Gasoline was only 15 cents a gallon. Why not go?
I can see you have a big thing about cars, the freedom and speed of traveling. You are filmed driving by Laki in his short film as well……
I had a ’34 Ford hot rod too to go to drive-inns and pick up chicks. That was one of the hottest Fords ever. That and a ’32 were classic hot rods. I had both with V8 and gearshift on the floor. (Just the other day I was responding to HANK III’s invite to do 4×4 mud rally and I emailed him a lyric: I don’t need no 4by4 / All I need is shift on the floor).
What impression did the music of that era have on you?
I could get radio stations that played race music on my Chevy radio. I remember driving to Joplin, MO with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters singing Work With Me, Annie. Ike Turner was on the radio selling appliances. Real Deal then. Of course I had been steeped in Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and honky-tonk blues as a kid and then Rhythm & Blues came from race music and it wasn’t long before we went across the tracks for all our music. We knew musicians who played in combos in clubs that came out of Kansas City and were left from Stan Kenton’s guys from Wichita. Fats Domino drove up from New Orleans in his ’49 Caddy with bass tied on top to play the Mambo Club across the tracks to a handful of people who could talk and smoke with him. Hard times for him, but good for us. Maybe a dollar cover or two drink minimum. We were underage, but who’s gonna come over the tracks?
Charley, who else was around over the tracks?
Bo Diddley, Chuck Willis and other big names in Texas & Kansas City Blues. In the other part of town we’d go out to the Cowboy Inn where Little Jimmy Dickens or someone would be opening for Roy Acuff and whatever band would have mason jars full of Dexedrine or bennies that would keep us awake days and all night long, maybe then to my friend’s club with a jazz combo where Mickey Shaughnessy would m.c. and after the gig with the band, Mickey would tell jokes and talk all night and into the next day. We’d drive around on bennies and park on Main still talking philosophy or the latest about Howard Hughes. We waited outside the forum after Elvis played and picked up all the chicks who would get into the car with their panties still wet. We’d walk down Broadway and see Count Basie at coffee getting ready to play at the Orpheum and say “hey man” to greet him and go into the drug store and get special nose drops that only we knew about that would make your head feel prickly and stay high for days. School? School was for squares!
In your novel, The Last of The Moccasins, first published by City Lights in 1971, you wrote a lot about the 50s Wichita Hipster years. When was it apparent to you that a Beat Scene existed?
My hipster years were mainly through the 1950s up to I’d say 1962, the beginning of my psychedelic years, when I met Neal Cassady in North Beach at my girlfriend’s pad and she told me he was the On The Road guy. I had heard of the beats a little before then, but I didn’t get into them. I have never read On The Road, but Neal read me, in his high drama, the parts he was in, so I’ve listened to a lot of it and seen excerpts of it in journals. I was unaware of the Beats during my Hipster years and then I worked several jobs before I landed in San Francisco where my sister and aunt lived, though they didn’t see each other.
I guess you could say that you along with Roxie Powell, James H. Jammy, Barbitol Bob Branaman, Bruce, Spoley Oley, Fast Car, Richard Rodent, that whole crew of Kansas hipster punks were the originals and preceded the Beats. When you hit San Francisco and your psychedelic years how did you connect with that scene?
I became aware of the Beats just before Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky came back from India in 1963 and met some of them when they came to my party with Ferlinghetti, McClure and Whalen, et al. Dave Haselwood who published my first book, Apocalypse Rose, had introduced me to other poets and their work he had published prior to my meeting those beats. He had published Lamantia, McClure and Conners who he went to school with in Wichita, and Whalen, maybe Duncan, and a book I really liked: The Hotel Wentley Poems by John Weiners. He took me to all the spots, including the Hotel Wentley, which was in “Polk Gulch,” Polk Street above Foster’s Cafeteria aka Foster Fuds. Dave wanted to go back to Wichita, where he was from, so we did and then back to San Francisco. I thought the Beats were pretty square at the time. I hadn’t met Burroughs and Kerouac yet. Pam and I met Burroughs at his Duke St. pad in London in 1968 and the same year Kerouac at the William Buckley TV show. I liked Neal and Burroughs immensely and thought Kerouac had a great ear for jazz. Though to me he remained a somewhat square Republican as far as I got to know him, not that the two are coupled. Later the Beats’ French translator, Claude Pélieu said my Last of the Moccasins was better than Kerouac’s Doctor Sax, and others immediately took issue, so I had to read that book.
And what did you make of Kerouac’s Dr Sax?
There was a literary difference. His book obeyed literary devices such as epiphany, alliteration, character development, etc. All the things one learns in an English department. He had a good ear for language, great jazz prosody in his poetry, I thought he was the best at reading to jazz, something a lot of others tried. I thought his prose imagery in that book sometimes tumbled into bathos. That’s the only book of his I read. My book was quite different in that I had to invent the style: Hobohemian Prose, as well as the genre: Thematic Text Montage, to justify my writing.
Hand on the Doorknob was your latest anthology of writing I think? It was published a short while back now. Charley tell me about your work in that book….
Yes, Water Row published it. And involves a section of dining and drinking with the Beats. Turns out it was the last time Ginsberg saw Kerouac and the last time Burroughs saw Ginsberg. There is some poetry in it from my other books, mainly Forever Wider and the elegy for my father that Allen said was one of the greatest elegies ever written. Turns out I wrote a poem to my father when I had a dream and he wrote one to his mother when he had a dream the same night. We discussed them after his reading at American University and the National Library where I introduced him. The other parts of the book are essays on printing the first Zap and some stories.
Charley, tell me some more again about Ginsberg…..
The most famous, the one who masterminded the Beat Generation. I knew him for several years in many different places. His ads still find their way to MySpace! I met him up on Potrero Hill, San Francisco and he immediately tried to court me as if we were in a 1920s literary soirée. It was a bit odd. He asked me about my sexual experiences as if it were from a textbook. It reminded me of what Huncke must have gone through with Dr. Kinsey. I treated it with humor and felt like he was the inexperienced one but didn’t tell him that. We walked up to Ferlinghetti’s house and Larry was in bed, so we drank some wine in his bedroom while he and Allen talked literary business. After we left, Allen told me that he thought Ferlinghetti wasn’t a very good poet. Then he came to the party that Glenn Todd has written about in detail. Soon after he and Neal and Anne moved into the Gough St. flat and there began a lot of traffic. During that time on Gough St I met Mary Beach and Claude Pélieu and her children, Pam and Jeffrey. They had come from France at Ferlinghetti’s invitation and were interested in my collage and translated many of the Beats. Huncke came to visit us in California with the introduction of Allen who was in Italy at the time. Back in New York years later through Allen I met Kerouac and Pam and I drank and ate with them the last time they saw each other. At Allen’s farm I met Corso and others involved in the Beats.
You became good friends with Neal Cassady in San Francisco, didn’t you?
Neal and Allen moved into my flat on Gough Street ostensibly to prepare Neal’s book, The First Third, for publication. When Ferlinghetti and Allen sat down with him, Neal was hopelessly Neal… I called him The Fastest Word in the West… and he rolled a cigar-shaped Panama Red and began free association, so I said to them, “why don’t you just tape him and transcribe it?”, but they were steeped in a more academic approach. Neal told me he was always slighted by the famous writers as a kind of errand boy or driver and wasn’t taken seriously, but I thought his words were as what I had seen of Kerouac. Of course it’s a matter of taste and I’m probably biased, Neal and I came from similar region and background, not one of ward-head mentalities.
What else do you recall of that time in San Francisco?
The time was ripe for Ginsberg to re-enter the city that launched him to fame in the 50s over the word “fuck.” The backdrop for the Hippies was Eastern religion of the new age. I remember going with Allen to explore various cults and sitting outside for a designated time until we were permitted to go in and join a rage. I left, of course. One of them was Scientology, which had tin cans attached to wires to transfer crude vibes. Eastern religions had been something that intellectuals and artist sought out since the twenties and before, so I was unimpressed, but the droves of youngsters rebelling against their lifestyles were fresh blood for the Frisco vamps. They were more ignorant than the Beats in that few had formal education, certainly no street smarts, so their fates were predictable. Allen told me than when he got out of college he got a job as a market researcher, and I could see how that benefited him in his ongoing career and his desire to be a leader.
In recent years the arts have become more and more inundated with polluted funding streams from big business, as they slap their branding iron on the ass of writers, musicians and artists. Avenues of public funding have always been available to apply for as well. Charley, you had a bad connection some time ago with the National Endowment for the Arts, didn’t you?
The NEA has been a terrible thing in my life. I took Ginsberg to their offices when we lived in D.C. when he came to visit. He wooed them and they put someone with friends of Lower East Side poets in power, many who had been here to Cherry Valley to see me. But they handed it ($$) to their other friends and couples like Allen & Peter netted about 40 grand. This when we had to sell our house here and move to D.C. to find jobs. When we were financially able to return here, I got a part-time job in a university as a tutor and saw a full professor and his wife who were millionaires groveling and slobbering in front of state grants people to the extent I never recovered from the scene. The NEA became safe academic types who are not poets, but they have to con kids into thinking they are so it continues in a vicious scam of departments to keep the fraud and Sallie Mae (student loans) going. I still receive books from poets inscribed to me as their great teacher and they list several grants and it’s pretty easy to see who their friends were who gave it to them. I just wanted a fairer system about 30 years ago, but jealous poets, opportunists and arts systems and organizations invaded all federal, state and local programs to the extent it bred more like a pyramid scheme or Scientology, etc. They changed the cultural landscape forever just like everything else in this country. They are they same ones who rant at Bush while they do the same thing and are comfortable in their ignorance and greed that brought down culture and a country.
Money always changes people, sometimes to the extent that they can’t recognise themselves or the smell of their own shit…
I could get into several examples over the years, but it would take a book and it’s not worth my time. In short, the state is right as always. I applied every year for 30 years and watched the generations receive money I had never dreamt of. I’d be lucky to see a thousand dollars after I quit working on the S.F. docks. Someone like Burroughs gave me things out of his generosity. Now, I just want to pay for my burial out in Indian country next to my mother, so I won’t have to burden my wife and kids. After my union job, I made the wrong career choices. Even those who howled against the system enjoyed its fruits. I separated myself from it long ago. Elite professions provide little fellowship for mixed blood white trash, daring to call themselves poets. Some bust the game, like a Bukowski or a Jackson Pollock, but for every one of those case studies, there are thousands for the greed, avarice and status quo of the state that it supports. While toilets flush to the sound of tapping toes, the misery of the poor contributes to the phonies and liars. Or Rimbaud said it better: while public funds evaporate in feasts of fraternity, a bell of rosy fire rings in the clouds. Proof is easy. Maya Angelou, the hallmark verse queen and self-acclaimed ex-whore used her talents when she saw suckers to become a multi-millionaire on the cover of Forbes magazine. She rode the system for all she’s worth and like Cheney and Bush and Bubba Bill, her John ghost benefactors, she’s well insulated against the truth. Clinton had her read for his inauguration! You can see the history of this country in the shit flushing down the toilet. I feel sorry for younger generations yearning to be free. Nothing like that great open slate of the Western Lands.
Going back to early 1960s and Gough Street San Francisco, were you working then?
Neal and I had regular jobs. I worked as a printer and Neal a tire changer. We had fun in the new age that swept the city, but we were older. Little things like dancing was something I didn’t get into much. When Allen took the stage in Golden Gate Park, the well-documented be-in, dancing in a kind of Shiva contortion, I and those with me quickly blended in the crowd. Neal was also in Berkeley taunting the leaders of the famous free speech rally until someone asked who is that nut and Allen said he was just a crazy Zen Buddhist.
And what about the marches and demonstrations, you must have been on some of them?
Pam and I joined the march to People’s Park. She was pregnant and I assessed the scene quickly and wanted to take her over to someone’s house instead of demonstrating. The troops had lined up on both sides of the designated parade route and wouldn’t let anyone go down a side street. I had to call the bluff of the young guardsman who quickly got my message and called his superior and let us go down a side street. The troops had lined the designated route with barbed wire, tanks and fixed bayonets. The Berkeley “radicals” had made a deal prior to stay on certain streets. Neal was just out of San Quentin, and I had enough common sense from drifting about the country to know that the protesters were sitting ducks and it wasn’t a good move under any flag, another example of intellectual ignorance that could have gotten themselves killed, and did at Kent State. I knew better and had been down to the Peace and Freedom Party headquarters in San Francisco, which was across the hall from the Black Panther Party. I used to help them read propaganda pamphlets to sort out which ones were written by agents. I saw the Black Panthers as legitimate radicals willing to lay down their lives and demonstrated that by marching on the Reagan governor’s mansion armed with bullets draped over their backs. I returned to the parade and went down to ground zero where Gary Snyder (who reminded me of a boy scout) and other poets and the radical organizers were doing their theatrics. Of course they lost. My thoughts were re-enforced again when Pam and I were near the Chicago convention and decided not to go to ground zero.
What happened on that particular one?
Sure enough a young radical tore down the flag and all hell broke loose culminating in getting us Nixon in the White House. I don’t suppose the kid had the sense to detect that some of the older cops in the riot squad, or their superiors, may have been veterans of Omaha Beach, or Iwo Jima. Not a very sensitive tactic for the organizers either, who became stockbrokers in the new Republican era. Neal was real. We were from that geography and time between St. Louis to Denver where one could tap into a real person.
The real people can be hard to find……..
After the end of flower power, I took Neal a new pair of driver’s gloves. He was on the Further Bus with Kesey, whom I had met before when Neal brought him to parties, and with Tom Wolfe, who seemed a nice guy. Neal was to prove himself again when inevitably the cops stopped the bus down south. Neal talked to the cops in such a way as they ended up liking him. It was kind of reminiscent of Boone Co. and the sheriffs and Hasil Adkins. It was more the culture of the ’50s where speed and a line of talk saved the day.
That’s a great way of putting it Charley. What was turning your ears at the time on the west coast?
During that period in San Francisco and L.A., a lot was happening. New music was born e.g. The Doors and Janis Joplin. When we were printing Zap, someone we knew came running in saying there was a new group in town he was managing that he wanted us to meet. They had a strange name… Pink Floyd.
Oh yeah….. Did they throw any bricks at the wall back then I wonder?
Janis and Big Brother were playing the new hall on Fillmore and two complimentary tickets were left for us at City Lights. We were too stoned and involved in so much partying, we didn’t make it a few blocks over to the Fillmore.
And I know you have always been into real honky tonk country music and that you grew up with Woody Guthrie, what about other stuff?
The Beatles, Beach Boys, Bobby Dylan…. Cash. As an old cowpoke would say: “Makes my ass wanna dip snuff!” So I listen to all music, but I’m very selective in what I like, and I admit that sometimes I miss a generation as I confessed in my “We Jam Econo” tribute I wrote on Mike Watt’s Hoot Page.
That is a great piece on the film about Watt’s old band, The Minutemen. I have seen some photos of you with some other musicians that came out of that SST hardcore scene too Charley…..
I met Grant Hart at Burroughs’ funeral in Lawrence and was supposed to give him a ride to St. Louis for the Burial and Patti Smith’s goodbye, but my friend overslept. Later we saw Grant again when he took us to Patti Smith’s concert at the Bowery Ballroom in which he performed. It was in sight of the old Bowery loft we used to live in. Ferlinghetti came to read at a nearby university when Grant Hart and I went to the party afterwards and Grant sniffed his ass. Larry and the English professor were shocked as Grant said that dogs make friends that way. The kid at the university told me that Ferlinghetti said for him not to introduce him as a Beat, but as Doctor Ferlinghetti. Now that’s worth getting a PhD for if nothing else! Thurston Moore asked me to read at a performance he was involved with in Montreal and then later in Northampton and again, recently with Grant Hart and Mike Watt. Recently, Thurston gave my son and me passes to Sonic Youth and Flaming Lips gigs. Then Grant Hart and I were invited to the festival in Northampton where Grant introduced me to Mike Watt. And so I went back to make up for what I missed in the 80s. Other than that, Kathleen Haskard, who I found in time / space.
You have also published work from some seminal authors from Huncke to WS Burroughs, tell me about the publishing Charley….
We published a couple of Charles Henri Ford’s books and he then wrote a diary which is a most interesting account of those he knew closing out the days of Surrealism pre-WWII. We saw him again at Huncke’s memorial at St. Mark’s and I went to his collage opening as well as Gerard Malanga. He had stayed with us in Cherry Valley at a house in town which is now a restaurant. Burroughs also stayed with us there as well as Carl Solomon, Victor Bockris and others. During that time Huncke and Louis came up because we were publishing Huncke’s first book. Allen insisted on contributing 600 bucks or so for his advance, which helped greatly because we thought Huncke was of great stature. Huncke visited us in Baltimore and Washington where we read together with Ray Bremser whom we also published. I had deep affection for Burroughs, who was always entertaining and receptive when we visited and he gave us his loft in NYC while he and James were abroad; to say nothing of his paintings and manuscripts he gave us. He was always generous and said he didn’t consider himself a Beat. Unfortunately we had to sell his treasures as fast as he gave them, but he was like that with money himself.
How did you first come into contact with Burroughs?
I vaguely remember getting some mail from him… Duke St., London… During that time we exchanged some cut-up. Maybe in one of those mags, his “Afterbirth of Dream Now…” I lifted some too, here and there. I think I found those lines of his I printed in color.
How did his work find its way into NOW and Last Times?
He may have sent the one in The Last Times or gave it for a reprint. Obviously the moment was Now, and the happening factor was prominent. I guess we don’t have that now. Mail was heavier then. The literary little mags were the news as well. Things were ‘a changing. I don’t feel that today.
Can you talk a bit about the differences between the three issues of NOW – were the changes in content and format a planned thing on your part or did it just happen?
It just happened. Limited only by my imagination, the machinery, the circumstances, and the raw material lying around the press. That continued, more or less, into Coldspring Journal, which was out to gather what was happening in the mail that I received from active parties.
What was the word on the street in SF on Burroughs in the mid-1960s?
What’s the word? Thunderbird! What’s the price? Nickle twice! Whoops an earlier decade. I’ve been around along time. San Francisco was where it was happening early on and Burroughs was the subliminal text. We went around spouting Burroughs amorphisms all over a city awash in mind-altering drugs, and “Wouldn’t you?” It was the hip ticket. If you couldn’t recite from Naked Lunch, you were a bore!
At that point what Burroughs had you read?
I read Naked Lunch and anything that came in the underground press. My friend, the late Alan Russo, said it would be a while before they could assimilate that work. I don’t know how popular he was in other cities. I can’t speak for the rest of the country, you know… once a Californian…. the other part of the country doesn’t exist.
What did you think of him and his work?
He was the genius old man of a generation or so. In San Francisco he was pontifica hip nefarious… He was anointed spirit literati by everyone in San Francisco who does that kind of thing better than anywhere. I hadn’t met him at that time.
Your work with Claude Pélieu and Mary Beach is very interesting. What is your take on the cut-up as a literary technique?
When they arrived in San Francisco, I had the larger press down on the Mission. Claude was impressed by my large collages and couldn’t wait to make the Beeg American collage. The cut-up technique could be seen as a collage cutter, too I suppose. Image/symbol. It was the abbreviated days of Jackson Pollack, Chaos Theory, Monk, the Moon, and Charley Parker. Sheldrake posited the notion of Morphic Resonance that new things happen at the same time in places over the globe by the same species without any known geographical contact. Pélieu claimed he did the cut-up before he read Burroughs. It was timely. That’s what it is essentially, a short cut in the language, permitting more automatic symbolic association. Associations were the uptake pump of Language, and it needed to go faster.
And did you hang out at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan at all?
Yeah, my mother-in-law, Mary Beach and her husband Claude Pélieu lived there. We were put up there for a couple of nights for the reading at The Bitter End. John Cassady, Neal’s son, rehearsed there before the gig at the Bitter End. I used to drive a milk truck into the city and deliver cash to Herbert Huncke there from his foreign publishers.
How has the cut-up influenced your work as a writer, artist and publisher?
At the time of NOW, the S. F. Chronicle ran a story about having to set the official clock, Big Ben, a fraction ahead. Physicists were meeting to set the clock forward. I remember saying, “Hell, I could have told them that.” The cut-up was timely in history. Otherwise people would write like James Fenimore Cooper! They still do around these parts.
What is the legacy of the cut-up?
I haven’t kept up with cut-up per se other than look at some of the publications of the day that were Claude and Mary’s. I think Burroughs took the philosophy further into the shotgun effect, blasting the word, finally! I’m not very scholarly in cut-up. It seemed a logical language progression, especially considering the time and Quantum Theory. Cut-up was around during my printing activity (several tables full). Pélieu said “Can you hear the sound of the breaker sliding under the collage guy’s cutter? Time is the only LAW.” T. S. Eliot said “Hurry up please, it’s time.”
Can you compare your work with Cherry Valley Editions today with your publishing in the 1960s (Last Times, NOW, ZAP, Bulletin from Nothing etc)?
We haven’t published much recently. We got started with funds from grants and stopped those in the ’70s or ’80s. Famous people would help here and there. Burroughs was very generous. The only thing we’ve done is one of mine, Some Mother’s Sons, which my daughter published. She found a very inexpensive place that prints books on order. They are cheaply produced, and of good enough quality. Most publishing now has turned to specialty printings, or novelty. We’re not that active. I can certainly see the effects of public monies through arts organizations. They finally got it where they wanted it. Outreach arts bringing it to your neighborhood… the book is more the artifact, for sale like a T shirt for famous people. Alternative to what?
How did the alternative publishing scene differ from the 1960s into the 1970s and beyond?
S. Clay Wilson called the other day to report a Crumb drawing in a Playboy lot bringing $101,575. I tried to get Grove to publish him. Those who are in the business are sometimes the last ones to know. That part is the same. Electronics might equal everything out. That’s probably the reason for novelty and printing/publishing fine art. It can always be presented differently.
Is the mimeo revolution still alive?
Technically, I was bad offset-printing not mimeo, but it had the same audience. Thurston Moore and Byron Coley are using the classic mimeo format with their Esctatic Peace label. That’s specialty too, kind of bringing back or producing the mimeo aesthetic. We did a run of very artistic Xerox magazines on kraft-like paper that was written about in communication and literary journals.
What are your thoughts of small independent publishing in the digital age?
The labels of publishing designations don’t mean much. It takes as much or more effort to produce artfully historically correct mimeos as it did when that was the most adaptive thing available. But now you get the historical artifact, too.
What is DIY publishing’s future?
You can do it yourself as long as the terrorists don’t shut down the electric. Then it’s back to smoke signals.
You mentioned Claude Pélieu having a great interest in your collages. What was the climate back then for the visual arts?
Experimental Film was the rage. I remember taking Robert Frank on my motorcycle down to the S.F. premier of (Fellini’s) 8 1/2. Flaming Creatures was playing in North Beach and there was a party for its opening. Someone sent a limo for Lew Welch and me. As a cab driver, he dug the ride. Stan Brackage, another kid from Kansas, came by the print shop. I did two 8mm movies that were in Ann Arbor Film Festival, and Jonas Mekas at the New York Film co-op showed them until they wore out and notified me through Harry Smith that I had some money they earned! I didn’t expect such attention and care! I made some collages and had a show at the Batman, a notorious gallery where Bruce Connor had shown after he came back from Mexico. Neal was at the Goldwater convention at the Cow Palace that night and came by my opening with straw hat and cane. It was a costume opening anyway.
How did the Batman show go?
I sold all my collages except a couple. The show was mentioned in Art in America. Billy Jharmark, the owner of Batman Gallery gave Pam and me his classic 1950 MGTD. We were leaving for Europe and sold it on the street for $250! A book was later written about the Batman. I don’t think it mentioned my show. There was a story about Billy Jharmark giving Michael McClure a wristwatch!
Nothing about that MG he gave you and Pam?
These are but a few examples of my poor marketing skills. I began to think my marketing skills weren’t up to par. It seemed to end when Neal came running into the Gough St. flat yelling, “Charley turn on the TV! Kennedy’s been shot!” That Thanksgiving was gray. We had a big dinner and invited a stranger off the street. My sister and her husband Frank were there. Later he helped get me a job on the docks. Ginsberg’s poem talks about me and some of my friends from Kansas who lived in the pad above that one called “The End Pad.” It was a sign of the times for me. Certainly that fling with youth had ended.
Postscript by Glenn Todd
This is Charley, swinging. The time is spring-summer, the year, 1963. The place, Wichita, Kansas, where the golden wheat has just been harvested and the trees are bursting greenery touching tips over the center of the streets. Charley stands in a combination teenage twist and gay bar done up in coral walls lined with gilded store window manikins. He stands at the front of the dance floor before a jukebox that has a waterfall behind it and light flowing down its sides, so that he appears to be coming from a neon grotto. His hair is falling over his forehead in a mass of curls, he is wearing dark glasses, a blue-and-silver sport shirt, a metallic gold tie, black tight pants slung low on his hips, and black-and-white saddle oxfords. One hip is slung outward. Up go the hands in the air.
“TWIST!” shouts Charley.
Up his back runs a ripple like a snake moving, fast. His hips are inscribing a frenzied half-circle in the air. His head bounces and bobbles with jazz-drummer ecstasy. His arms flail, he’s almost flying but his feet are planted in the floor, sucking up great electrical currents of earth vibrations.
“It’s the vortex!” He shouts. “Can’t you feel the forces! Pulling you in! It’s twisting in twister land!”
Across the floor toward him dances his blonde college-girl goddess, and she’s out of her mad gold pony-tailed head. She’s all Charley could dream of exploding into, she’s Miss Freeswinging Kansas, Caucasian aflame, descendant of hot-blooded fairy-tale princesses, she moves with classic American grace, she’s poised and pure and fashion-hip, she has round arms of love, ready to grab, she won’t be brought down, and above the rock and roll, sweet cello strings play for all eternity in that gold head of hers.
They’re back at the table where a crowd of us are sitting. They’re arm in arm, together again, and I turn on to their beauty aglow with sex.
“This is where it all comes from!” shouts Charley. “Can’t you feel the vibrations? Man, there is so much energy here that you just get near it and flooom! It’s got you and swinging you someplace else.”
This is Charley’s hometown, the land that produced him, and he’s back to turn everyone on and get recharged. Everywhere he goes crowds of youth follow him, turning him on. Now the brown-limbed teenagers in cutoff jeans and bouffant hair have taken the floor. Their bodies are strong, sunbeautied, and swimming-pool clean, they’re eager-high on beer. They are dancing dances they all know, no one touching, boys with girls, girls with girls, boys with boys. All the steps are perfect and harmonious. They are all oh God so beautiful and I know we cannot lose, beyond all certitude of mind mankind will take the stars and crush time with these golden kids, born of our bodies and spirit.
Here Charley is big, here with youth. He is vibrant with sex that knows no separation from love, and hope for and beware of the day its dancing force is turned on you, my friend. Crowds follow him, he is alive with scheme and dream, and he will make it happen now. Are you ready? He will, like the morning glory but more aware, unfold himself in the sunburst of today.
Crowds follow him, turned on. He’s having a show of his collages at a weird place, the New Mission Care, in the skidrow-trainstation section of Wichita. Charley aggrandizing making bright the legend. Is it a game? How much is glory and how much is morning glory? (He quotes Cocteau: “All art is a card trick.”) He has made the Wichita scene happen: bright-eyed campus beauties, long-haired students, careful college professors, waiting-in-limbo artists, shimmy-shake drag queens, long ago pillhead buddies, strange inhabitants of the outposts of Beatsville–all come to soak up Charley energy, to be angered, to be inspired, to lift him up or put him down, but always to be stirred.
This interview was put together whilst I was traveling in the States and knocked into shape over some of the days of April and May ’08. I had the good fortune to be able to spend time with Charley’s longtime friend, the artist and filmmaker Robert Branaman, when I was in LA. Thanks go out to Charley and Pam, Barbital Bob and RealityStudio.
Charles Plymell is still kicking against the pricks, writing and performing at spoken word gigs with musician and artist Grant Hart, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and the legendary Minutemen bassist Mike Watt. He will be reading at the Sprachsalz Literary Festival Innsbruck, Austria on 12-14 Sept 2008 and will be making further spoken word appearances, some with either one, some or all of the three men aforementioned in the USA later on this year.
The postcript was written by Glenn Todd, artist and writer who was deeply embedded in the Wichita Scene along with Charley Plymell, Robert Branaman, Bruce Connor, Michael McClure, Dave Haselwood and many more. The Wichita Vortex website is a good reference point.
Apocalypse Rose, Dave Haselwood Books, San Francisco, CA, 1967.
Neon Poems, Atom Mind Publications, Syracuse, NY, 1970.
The Last of the Moccasins, City Lights Books, San Francisco, CA, 1971; Mother Road Publications, 1996.
Moccasins Ein Beat-Kaleidoskop, Europaverlag, Vienna, Austria, 1980.
Over the Stage of Kansas, Telephone Books, NYC, 1973.
The Trashing of America, Kulchur Foundation, NYC, 1975.
Blue Orchid Numero Uno, Telephone Books, 1977.
Panik in Dodge City, Expanded Media Editions, Bonn, W. Germany, 1981.
Forever Wider, 1954-1984, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, NJ, 1985.
Was Poe Afraid?, Bogg Publications, Arlington, VA, 1990.
Hand on the Doorknob, Water Row Books, Sudbury, MA, 2000
Mark in Time, New Glide Publications, San Francisco, CA, 1971.
And The Roses Race Around Her Name, Stonehill, NYC, 1975.
Turpentin on the Rocks, Maro Verlag, Augsburg, W. Germany, 1978.
A Quoi Bon, Le Soleil Noir, Paris, France, 1978.
Planet Detroit, Anthology of Urban Poetry, Detroit, MI, 1983.
Second Coming Anthology, Second Coming Press, San Francisco, CA, 1984.
The World, Crown Publishers, 1991.
Editors’ Choice III, The Spirit That Moves Us, New York, 1992.
The Age of Koestler, The Spirit of the Wind Press, Kalamazoo, MI, 1995.