Exclusive Interview with Beat Generation Icon Herbert Huncke
By Johnny Strike
I first traveled to Boulder, Colorado in 1979 to attend a summer course at the Naropa Institute called “Creative Reading.” The teacher was none other than William S. Burroughs. It was a small class of maybe 15 students. Needless to say it was a flat out amazing experience. Years later Burroughs was kind enough to read, and favorably comment on some rough opening chapters from a manuscript that would eventually become my first novel.
I returned to Boulder in 1982 to attend the Jack Kerouac Conference. Again I was able to talk with Burroughs, and meet some other interesting people. There was another writer I especially wanted to meet: Herbert Huncke, and through him I met Edie Parker, Kerouac’s first wife. I’ve always found the legend of Herbert Huncke fascinating, and when I read his books I was even more impressed.
At Huncke’s workshop I introduced myself and asked him for a private interview. He agreed and gave me the address where he was staying. I arrived the following day and we chatted for a few minutes first. I shared that I’d given up a dope habit myself not too long ago, with the help of methadone. He gave me a concerned look and asked if I’d like some of his. This man was pure Johnson. I said thanks, but no, that I felt I was finally past it. I pulled out a fat joint, and asked if he’d like to smoke. He did.
Here is the interview that followed which has never been published in full before.
Strike: Is this a new thing for you, conducting writers’ workshops.
Huncke: Yes, a whole new thing. I had no idea what I was doing and nobody told me. I asked somebody, “What does one do at a workshop?” and received just a vague, casual answer. So I thought my best shot would be to just try it out myself, and I’m not disappointed with the results. There were a lot of people there, one or two were a little turned off, but it worked out all right.
Strike: Didn’t you do a reading tour in the mid- sixties.
Huncke: Well, see, I never really had a tour, although on my trip to San Francisco I did do a reading in Cleveland, because I had been promised a stipend so to speak, and we were trying to finance the trip as comfortably as possible. Harvey Brown, who had been very kind in that he’d published some of my stories at a time when they hadn’t been heard organized the reading. That was the first time I’d ever read in public.
I had a funny experience shortly after I arrived in San Francisco. I was supposed to read at the Diggers, but I was cut from the schedule. They didn’t want to hear it.
The reason, Huncke told me as I fiddled with my temperamental tape recorder, was that his stories of junkies and thieves and so on were not “politically correct” for that scene.
Strike: You said in your workshop that you greatly admire Of Mice and Men, Celine, Burroughs, and Paul and Jane Bowles. I wondered what filmmakers or playwrights have inspired you.
Huncke: Well, Fellini. I must admit I’m not a film buff, although I stated liking movies as a child, and the first time I saw Doctor Caligari’s Cabinet, sometime around 1929, that was the first great movie I had really seen. Otherwise they’d all been Hollywood productions. Now plays, let’s see. Well, everything by Genet, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. I saw Kadish which I liked very much; in fact I cried. And of course the Living Theater. I liked those people very much, met them, but didn’t know them intimately, but I knew some of the people who worked and traveled with them.
Strike: Neal Cassady, after Jack Kerouac wrote him into the character Dean Moriarty, supposedly had a problem with the-role-to-live-up-to thing. How about yourself and your portrayal in Junky as well as other beat literature.
Huncke: Well naturally, but that’s true of anyone. Yeah, it was uncomfortable at times: “Who is this gray character who has no business being in touch with all these intellectuals, and just what is the relationship?” …that sort of thing. But I think people today, even the so called bourgeois, have been forced into a position where they have to deal with things a little more openly, and honestly, than they did say, when I was growing up.
Strike: You seem fairly optimistic. I wonder how you envision the planet’s future.
Huncke: Well, I tell you, there are periods when I get very scared. I have a great deal of respect for science and what they’ve done, but you know, I don’t want to see the world blow up. I don’t like the talk of war. I don’t like the things I read about the Middle East. It’s very difficult to be optimistic, especially if you’re living in a place like New York, where there’s everything to indicate that it’s just a matter of time.
There was a knock on the door and Huncke got up and answered it. It was Edie Parker who said hello, and asked Herbert if he wanted her to pick him up anything for lunch. Huncke said no, and showed her an avocado sandwich, on wheat bread, wrapped in cellophane. Edie joked that he was becoming a health nut.
Strike: I’d like to get your thoughts on writing under the influence.
Huncke: Well, I’ve seen some good things come out of it. Much of the writing I’ve done has been at a time when I was high or stoned on everything from heroin to amphetamines.
Strike: How about writing in the late stages of withdrawal.
Huncke: No, I really didn’t, because usually I did my withdrawling in, well, once in the government hospital at KY. I couldn’t do any writing to speak of there, and yet the atmosphere was not bad. By that time they’d learned pretty much how to deal with the thing, and they were a little selective: they stipulated that if you went there for a cure, there would be no sleeping pills, no barbiturates, nothing like that. It wasn’t bad, they provided all the comforts. You’re observed, it was a little confining, but the surroundings were good. Walter Winchell of all people made a crack that it was like a country club for drug addicts. Otherwise I’d do these short two month bits, where I’d been caught unexpectedly by the police, then: “Alright, you’re a junky, let’s go.” Possession of a hypodermic needle or anything of that sort automatically called for some sort of punishment or penance. And in a way jail wasn’t too bad; of course there are much nicer ways of doing it.
Strike: William Burroughs has written in Early Routines, “Junk is a key, a prototype of life. If anyone can fully understand junk, he would have some of the secrets of life, the final answers…”
Huncke: Well, I share his viewpoint to a large extent. I always did. It’s difficult to speak of it in just that vein.
Huncke laughed his cigarette-congested laugh. Then he looked to be considering the topic more, and his classic frown emerged.
Huncke: Well, it’s a habit that changes your whole metabolic balance, and I don’t like to talk about myself from the standpoint of appearance and so on, but I don’t think I look any worse than any other sixty-eight year old man. A lot better than most. And you know, I feel that part of it is due to the periods of coming down off, then being off for a couple of months or whatever. Let’s see, what was the longest period? I guess now is the longest period of time since ’72 when I was in the East. I did a lot you know, up in Nepal. What you could buy! I used to get the equivalent to about half an ounce, a triangular packet of unbleached morphine, plus morphine syrettes or ampoules. It played havoc with me though. By the time I left I was really, really wasted, and it’s the closest I ever came to committing suicide. I actually made the effort to slash my wrists. I’m on a methadone program now.
The first time I heard the word opium was in a story about the China Seas, pirates, dens with long plush drapes and slinky characters everywhere. It was marvelous. I thought: “Well I really want to know about this.” And I was told, “This is not a good thing, not a good thing.” But I had already discovered that much of what my disciplinarians considered wrong, I found delightful.
Then one day a sidekick of mine named Johnny, who was a little older and experienced, called me on the phone. He said: “”Hey Herbie you gotta come down and join me. There’s some stuff called H here. I want you to try it.” So boy I didn’t waste a minute. Then after my first fix I went through the whole bit. I was ill and so on, but it didn’t bother me. I had tried alcohol which I found very unpleasant. I liked what it did for me, how it released me in some ways, but when I would be ill from too much of it, I was wrecked, completely wrecked. So I used heroin, which is supposed to be so destructive. I had no particular desire to go back to it the next day. I thought: “What is all this business of getting hooked?” Then the second time came along, and soon I discovered without even being aware of it, that I was addicted. I was a young boy and had to keep it under cover. Drugs were purer at the time, so I was fortunate that I didn’t have only heroin to kick, but some of the substances they use to cut it with today.
Strike: Did you ever consider the apomorphine cure given by Dr. Dent in England.
Huncke: Naturally. When I first heard of it I hadn’t considered it, but I was certainly interested in reading about it. It was presented to me with a lot of enthusiasm by Allen, and I listened with an open mind. Later I became more interested because I couldn’t make the rat race with the same gusto anymore. I didn’t want to be part of that life. I don’t mind coming in contact with it, and it would be stupid of me not to, because New York is alive with it, and I keep meeting people constantly. But, I didn’t want to be part of that scene. I don’t like what I hear about the so-called misfits, and rebels, and people today. I don’t like violence. I really don’t. I don’t mind energy. I don’t mind action. But I don’t like to read about people being pushed in front of subway trains, or having earrings ripped out of their ears, or snatching gold chains from kid’s necks — you know, cutting a person because you have a hardon, or because you’ve suffered.
Getting back to the apomorphine cure: Everything I’ve heard about it since leads me to believe that I wouldn’t like it. Anything that makes you violently ill with all that regurgitating; boy, your frame is in bad enough shape as it is, and then suddenly here’s a whole onslaught of things happening. It sounded too traumatic for my taste, and I don’t think I’d recommend it, but you’d have to ask Bill about that, because really, he’s the man who knows. He’s had the experience.
Strike: Would you tell me about Bill Garver, who has been written about by Burroughs and yourself.
Huncke: Sure, he was originally a friend of mine. To tell how I met him: I had just been arrested, one of these two-month, three-month bits. It was my first time in a New York jail with any kind of a sentence. Now I was going to make the jail scene. Prior to that I’d always wanted to see what the inside of a jail was like. But I had completely ignored the fact that there was a whole level of sociopath society. There are certain groups who don’t speak to other groups, and they gossip. A good looking man comes in, and without even knowing who the poor cat is, he’s a potential broad. And the first thing you know, the less pleasant types are using him, and he has no control. He becomes a jailhouse broad, to be used.
They assigned me to a dormitory rather than the main building at Rikers Island where people were doing felony time. It had previously been called Welfare Island and Rikers had been built on top of a garbage dump. There were still a few rats running around. No landscaping to speak of, and these big cold prison buildings, all built on fill. Out to one side were several long warehouse-type buildings which had been converted into dormitories. On the inside there were beds, little metal beds in a line; maybe a hundred on one side, and a hundred on the other. You’re all in the same place, and you’re separated by just a two foot space, and a metal cabinet in the center. You had a key for that, for your personal items.
So, first of all I had to find my bed. There was this man standing by his which was next to mine, holding his blanket; a very distinctive looking person. He was tall, gangly with a very high hairline and a thin face. He had expressive eyes and sort of a nice, not a big open smile, but a little twist at the corners of the mouth. I always thought of him as being somewhat Ichabodish, the Ichabod Crane type. At any rate, he said: “I’m Bill, whatcha name? You use drugs right?” He had not exactly a midwestern accent, but a type of accent that one picked up if they’d been around a little bit. It was soft, and obviously genteel by comparison to the many others around the place. So he said: “Well, I have a four-month bit.” I said: “I do too.” You get so many days off for good behavior, so it ends up that you do three months and nine days, or something like that.
Anyway we became friendly, and in a very nice, unassuming way he began to educate me a little. So I latched onto him in a manner of speaking, and he did me too. Now I had somebody I could talk to without being embarrassed or afraid I was getting into a jackpot. Anyway, that’s the story of how I met him. Then I ran into him on Times Square. Quite a lot of time had gone by, and I’d finally met Bill and Jack, and all those people. I was cutting down 47th Street from Broadway to 6th Avenue and passed a bar and somebody called my name, and there was Bill Garver. Well, we started to talk. He was living in a little room just off 8th Avenue. So I’d see him from time to time. One night I was on my way up to see Bill or Joan, or whoever happened to be at the apartment, and ran into him, and he had a clock; a really beautiful little clock that — whether he’d stolen it or what I didn’t know. No, I think it actually belonged to him, and he was looking to sell it because he needed money. I said: “I’m going up to see some people who are connected with Columbia.” He said: “Well man why dont’cha take me along.” He and Bill Burroughs became quite good friends. Turned out that he was the son of a banker who died, and left him a tidy sum which he just dissipated away, in Mexico. I didn’t see him after that. He died there.
Strike: Would you talk some more about Times Square.
Huncke: I made my living there, in a matter of speaking. I knew it was one place I could get by. You know it always struck me as funny that New Yorkers who are so aware today, they know now more about what’s happening, but not in those days. Well, here was a street that runs dead center through New York, and a whole level of activity and types of people pouring in constantly, and gravitating to 42nd Street. So it was fascinating. I couldn’t understand why the hell there wasn’t other people venturing down that way to find out. Of course there were: East Side queens would go down there and pick up rough trade. And some of the other people like myself, and Bill Garver, who was Bill Gains in Naked Lunch. There were all kinds of people, circus people, people with pet theories on how to extend longevity. A lot of interesting things came into there, and there’d be five or six good size tables just buzzing with conversation and activity. I’d meet Bill at one of the cafeterias. The place became a habit. We would wander around and talk, and meet some of the stranger habitués. It was very attractive in a way.
Strike: Are you superstitious at all.
Huncke: Yes. I have hundreds of superstitions. I knock wood. I used to wear amulets. I still have little pet things: I have an image at home, a really great piece that comes from Bali, and they tell me it was a mandrake knot, from the bottom of a tree, just before the joint of the root, and it’s been left pretty much in its natural state. There’s a face there, but you can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman. It’s very amorphous, maybe halfway between man and beast. So that I attach a great deal to, and I want it to be part of me, but sometimes I look at it and I’m not so sure.
Strike: Do you have a view from your apartment in Brooklyn.
Huncke: I live on the top floor of an old brownstone. Although I’m not on the edge of the water, I can look over the rooftops. I get an excellent view of the bay, the Statue of Liberty, the river traffic, a slight view of the docks, and the great sparkling lights of New York City; that skyline, and the tip of it where the Hudson feeds into the harbor. Sometimes I go down there and watch freight being loaded. Immediately behind me, if I look straight down, there are all of these gardens, just loaded with flowers.