Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
I distinctly remember seeing Richard Hell prowling around — not at the New York City Book Fair at the Armory on Park Avenue but at the satellite fair on 18th Street. If you are hitting the satellite, you have the fever. I was not really in awe of seeing a punk god in the flesh, but I was struck by how cool it was that the singer of “The Blank Generation” is a book dork. Patti Smith: another book dork and proud of it. Reading Victor Bockris‘ With William Burroughs, it was cool to realize that Chris Stein and Debbie Harry of Blondie are book dorks. Burroughs is considered the Godfather of Punk. The father of Punk, Lou Reed, is a book dork, a former student of Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse University.
Obviously, New York Punk of the mid-1970s was a revolution in music and a revelation in fashion. In a series of essays being published in various academic journals, Daniel Kane explores the relevance of literature to Big Apple Punk beginning with the two book dorks mentioned above: Richard Hell and Patti Smith. As author and editor of All Poets Welcome and Don’t Ever Get Famous, Kane navigates the city’s — particularly the Lower East Side’s — literature (as well as this literature’s geography, landmarks, and secret locations). Like the most savvy cab driver reads the mean streets of Alphabet City, Kane takes you to places you never knew existed or thought of exploring. At their best, Kane’s essays get your motor running and your mind thinking in new and exciting ways about all the topics he covers. This can be a topic that threatens to become clichéd in established histories, in memoir accounts, and in my own preconceptions. An example for me is that of his treatment of Fuck You Press in All Poets Welcome.
Richard Hell, Genesis: Grasp, and the Blank Generation: From Poetry to Punk in New York’s Lower East Side
> Download Daniel Kane’s Essay, “Richard Hell, Genesis: Grasp, and the Blank Generation”
In a recent issue of Contemporary Literature, Daniel Kane suggests that “Richard Hell is a particularly interesting figure to consider in light of both the poets’ and punks’ engagement with and interrogation of underground and mainstream economies and their attendant aesthetics” and proceeds to give his close attention to Hell’s little magazine Genesis: Grasp. I was completely unaware of just how wide-ranging Hell’s connections within the poetry community actually were. Kane’s reading of Hell’s correspondence with Clark Coolidge and Bruce Andrews was a revelation for me. As always, Kane packs his footnotes with great information. For example, I spent some time thinking about the reference to Creeley’s Pieces in terms of the structure of Hell’s poetics, to say nothing of Hell’s songwriting.
If anything, I feel that Kane is a bit conservative in his readings. Case in point, Kane expresses reservations about his take on Richard Hell’s hairstyle with its links to Rimbaud, Baudelaire’s “The Abyss,” Artaud, and Johnny Rotten. No need to worry; Kane’s reading was merely deeply thought-provoking. Kane’s trepidation stems from his position in academia and from the essay’s venue: Contemporary Literature. It must be tough for Kane to justify his interest in art and literature that sit on the fringes (if not totally outside) the canon to tenure boards. It is a shame that Kane has to look over his shoulder at certain points in his essays. In my opinion, Kane is at his best when he throws academic caution to the wind and lets his mind wander a bit.
Here is the drift of some of my thoughts as I meandered through Kane’s essay:
In the final issue of Genesis: Grasp, an image of Theresa Stern appears on the cover: “a person who, at first glance, appeared to be either a very rough-living, gaudy woman or a member of the New York Dolls. In fact, ‘Theresa’ was a composite shot of Tom Miller/Verlaine and Richard Meyers/Hell, with liberal doses of makeup.” The persona of Stern was a “breakthrough moment” in Hell’s transition from poetry to punk. Kane asks the question: “Who was this fictional Theresa Stern?” Kane makes some fascinating points in trying to answer that question but I think he misses a major reference point: Duchamp and Rrose Sélavy. Stern and Sélavy work in remarkably similar ways. Both emerged out of a series of photographs; both inspired playful speculations about their personal histories; both personas were used to authorize works of art and writing. Duchamp helped pioneer the idea of the artist as performer, as celebrity, which Hell draws on for his breakthrough moment from a little magazine to punk band. When you talk punk, the focus is on Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Artaud and other poètes maudits, but I think Duchamp is also a major figure of inspiration in terms of the connections between lifestyle and art.
Through his analysis, Kane provides some interesting food for thought regarding Hell’s grasp of the literary and the genesis of his engagement with punk. With Hell’s little magazine and his Dot Books project, I was struck that Hell obviously views those publications as physically beautiful objects. Yet the magazine Hell loves the most and sees as a guide, C: A Journal of Poetry, was actually sloppy and low-fi in terms of production. C: A Journal of Poetry, especially the later issues, barely holds together, since the magazine is too thick for the staples. The legal-size paper makes the magazine clumsy to store on bookshelves. Furthermore, its size lends itself to torn or bumped pages. The idea of mimeo as torn, ripped, stained goes back to a mag like Berrigan’s. C and other mimeo productions, like My Own Mag and Floating Bear, have more punk rock in their look and construction than Hell’s literary productions as I visualize them. There is something conservative underlying Hell’s literary enterprises, particularly in their appearance, which Hell sheds in favor of his punk rock persona of spiked hair, ripped shirts, etc. My Own Mag, C, and Floating Bear are ripped, torn, stapled, water-stained, mis-collated, cut, painted, etc. Later punk publications will be as well. But not Hell’s literary productions, like Dot, which will have “flashy glossy covers — blurbs, exclamation points, code numbers, pulpy paper inside. Hottest looking books that mimic drugstore paper backs.” This is POP art, not punk. Also if we take a mimeo publication as a stand-in for the physical body, as Hell, in fact, does in a letter to Bruce Andrews on 5th Collaboration, Hell proves reluctant to “Clip, Stamp, Fold,” to create something “Ripped and Torn,” or to “Slash,” as punks will do with both their publications and their bodies. Hell has a fetish towards print that places the little magazine and other publications on a pedestal and surrounds them with an aura. Hell is hesitant to destroy or desecrate his literary objects. Yet Hell’s poems do precisely that, particularly in literary acts of aggressive sexual fantasy. I think there is something interesting to be made of this, but it would take some thinking and more knowledge of Hell’s work than I have. Kane’s essay provides a great start to further academic work of this nature.
“Nor Did I Socialize with Their People”: Patti Smith, Rock Heroics, and the Poetics of Sociability
> Download Daniel Kane’s Essay, “‘Nor Did I Socialize with Their People’: Patti Smith, Rock Heroics, and the Poetics of Sociability”
Kane’s article on Patti Smith appeared in Volume 31/1 of the journal Popular Music earlier this year. Kane breaks it down as follows:
As I show, from her time as a young performance poet in New York in the late 1960s to her current position as punk rock’s éminence grise, Patti Smith foregrounded the image of the poet as privileged if dissident seer, and used this stance to inform her own projection and reception as rock’n’roll star. This, I will argue, was predicated on Smith’s initial attraction to, subsequent argument with, and ultimate rejection of an adamantly grass-roots poetry culture based in downtown New York, committed to a poetics of sociability — a term I will illustrate on subsequent pages. By reading Smith’s investment in poetry within the context of Smith’s activity in the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church, the pre-eminent public face of the Lower East Side poetry scene of the 1960s and 1970s, we can begin to see how Smith’s complex negotiations between poetry and music fed into the development of her own brand of proto-punk rock.
Yet another fascinating article by Kane. Kane chronicles Smith struggling within the New York art and poetry community to establish her voice and make her voice heard. Reading the essay again recently, I spent a couple late nights on YouTube watching various Patti Smith readings and concerts to get a sense of Smith’s “complex negotiations between poetry and music.” For years, I have been returning obsessively to Smith’s performance of “Hey Joe/Horses” in 1976 on the Old Grey Whistle Stop. The Patti Smith persona would be fully under her command by the time of “Because the Night” in 1978. All complex negotiations are established by this point.
This was not always the case. Searching yet again on YouTube for my coveted performance of “Hey Joe/Horses,” I came across a simple black and white short, filmed by photographer Bob Gruen, of Smith performing “Hey Joe” at Max’s of Kansas City in 1974. Max’s is a place in-between. Not just a restaurant, not just a bar, not just a concert space, not just a coffeehouse or gallery. It defied categories. Max’s was just Max’s: a one-of-a-kind spot that could only exist in the unique time and space of New York’s alternative art scene.
Like a Warhol screen test, Gruen’s camera never moves; there are no edits. Smith stands, simply dressed in a white T-shirt, in front of a tape deck, which plays the previously recorded instrumental track of “Hey Joe,” probably as performed by her band. Yet Smith is painfully alone here. This is a solo performance. In fact, it is a poetry reading. What we have in this footage by Gruen is the bridge from the readings of the Poetry Project to the “live” performances on television venues, such as the Old Grey Whistle Stop. As such, it perfectly captures Smith navigating between poetry and music and developing “her own brand of proto-punk rock.”
Immediately, I sent the footage to Kane, and he, like me, was blown away. It is no doubt rare footage, as neither of us had ever seen it before. But will we ever see it again? Almost as soon as I saw the video, it was pulled for copyright reasons. Possibly Gruen (or his estate or agent) objected to the posting. This is a real shame. I do not want to get all hot and bothered about the fact that information, like this video of “Hey Joe,” needs to be available for download where it can be free. I also do not want to get all indignant and start screaming about fair use, but clearly there is a scholarly need for videos like this to be available for study, as Kane’s article proves. Leaving aside academic use and its small audience, having Smith’s Max’s performance freely available, to my mind, only increases a deeper appreciation and understanding of the work of Smith (and Gruen). I would think that would be a good thing, including on a commercial level, for all involved.
Watching this video and reading Kane’s article got me thinking about Anne Waldman. Much is made of all the macho posturing and pissing matches among the men in the art and literary scene of the Lower East Side, but there was no doubt just as fierce competition between women. Anne Waldman and Patti Smith seem on point in this regard. Smith’s “initial attraction to, subsequent argument with” the Lower East Side community in large part relates to Waldman. If there were a king and a queen of the prom that was the Lower East Side poetry scene, Berrigan would be the king and Waldman would be the queen. In the late 1960s, Waldman’s apartment was the secret location for all manner of poets and artists. A clubhouse, a hangout. The Poetry Project, with Waldman running the show, was the public face of a more informal community. In this Breakfast Club of the Lower East Side scene, Smith is Ally Sheedy to Waldman’s Molly Ringwald.
Smith would eventually leave the Poetry Project behind but Smith left her mark there and on Waldman as well. Is there anything to the fact that Waldman writes and then publishes “Fast Speaking Woman,” a performance poem that makes full use of the shaman as poetess persona, around the time Smith is negotiating her version of the shaman through Rimbaud and Jim Morrison? Was it just in the air? Did Smith prepare Waldman to make the jump to reading in a concert setting in the Rolling Thunder Revue? Did Smith’s performance and reading style, such as that at Max’s “Hey Joe,” influence Waldman’s reading delivery? Listen to early Waldman doing “Fast Talking Woman” and then listen to her later readings. They definitely get more punk rock and theatrical. Again this was definitely in the air. Waldman could point to Jim Carroll, Allen Ginsberg (and the Clash), Bob Dylan, even Richard Hell as influences, but I would think Smith plays in here as well. What about Waldman’s and Smith’s sense of fashion? Did everybody wear vests, scarves and men’s shirts? Did everybody look like Annie Hall?
Yes, both Waldman and Smith did the poet as rock star thing, but clearly Waldman’s “Uh oh, Plutonium” of 1982 is miles away from Smith’s “Hey Joe” of 1974. So maybe I am forcing connections because they are both female poets, and there is a tendency (a prejudice) to compare within genders, races, sexualities. All white basketball stars are the next Larry Bird. But even the differences between Smith and Waldman are interesting and say a lot about each poet-performer and her aesthetic. And, I think, ultimately how Smith and Waldman influenced each other; even if in terms of something to react against or steer clear from. Okay, maybe “Hey Joe” and “Uh, Oh Plutonium” reveal more about my aesthetic. I much prefer Smith’s scalding, electric version of “Hey Joe,” which moves from the garage to the alleyways of the LSE to Waldman’s cause-rock drenched in the look of the early 80s. In the world of poet rock, I think Waldman is better served when she draws on the performance style of Smith, as in some renditions of “Fast Speaking Woman,” rather than leaning on Allen Ginsberg. “Don’t smoke” is a drag.
Wholly Communion, Literary Nationalism, and the Sorrows of the Counterculture
> Download Daniel Kane’s Essay, “Wholly Communion, Literary Nationalism, and the Sorrows of the Counterculture”
The essays on Smith and Hell provide the foundation to what should prove to be a fascinating and informative collection of essays along the lines of the Kane-edited Don’t Ever Get Famous, or, even more on point, Kane’s We Saw The Light: Conversations Between New American Cinema and Poetry. If the punk book ever does get published, he should consider including his recent essay on the Royal Albert Hall Reading of 1965 and Whitehead’s documentary Wholly Communion as a preface of sorts. Published in 2011 in Framework, Kane argues that
Wholly Communion is a film that is both deeply moving and markedly melancholic. It reveals the belated status of British poetry and poetics as it is manifested through its relationship to the American avant-garde. It shows not merely that American writers were “ahead” of their British counterparts, but, I would propose, makes larger (if perhaps unintended) claims about the difficulty in trying to forge a community-oriented, internationalist, hierarchy-free counterculture.
Where is the connection to punk? Well, the Royal Albert Hall reading was one of the first instances of poets taking on (or attempting to take on) the personas of rock stars and staging a poetry reading not as a jazz session but as a rock concert. It is in effect proto-punk in a similar manner as performances by The Velvet Underground, The MC5, or The Fugs.
The question I was left with after reading the essay is whether the Royal Albert Hall Reading and the atmosphere surrounding it really demonstrate the belated status of British poetry and how American poets felt about the British poetry scene. Whitehead’s film may express such a belief, but I have always been struck by just how behind American poets felt they were to their British counterparts. Of course, their peers were not really British poets, but British rock stars. In some respects, English pop culture was far more hip and progressive than Beat culture. In fact, the Beat writers (and poetry in general) with its Ginsbergian comb-over were old, out of fashion, and in danger of becoming irrelevant. Around this period, Ginsberg writes that Liverpool was the cultural center of the world, and it is clear that, if Ginsberg was not threatened by the Liverpool poets, he was terrified, fascinated, and envious of the Fab Four and their brethren. British writing might suck, but the scene across the pond was really hopping at this point in all other cultural respects from fashion to art to hairdressing. That is why the Warhol crew was in London at the time of the Royal Albert Hall reading. Warhol, like Ginsberg, was stalking the competition. New York’s status as the center of taste-making was being threatened by Swinging London.
With this in mind, the Albert Hall reading can be viewed as an attempt to reverse the British Invasion that Ginsberg witnessed in 1964 in the United States. Ginsberg was in New York City at the time of the Beatles landing, and would have seen the Ed Sullivan Show, the greeting of fans at the airport, and the hip interviews. In short order the Beatles wiped the top 10 pop charts clean of American music and American culture. The Beach Boys and Motown were no longer relevant. British culture seemed to be sweeping across the United States. Whitehead’s movie reveals not so much literary nationalism but, in fact, an act of literary imperialism.
For example at the Royal Albert Hall, Ferlinghetti did not so much attempt to build a global community as challenge the rest of the world to follow the American model. Cold War imperialism hovers over Ferlinghetti’s challenge to Voznesensky and Neruda, his scolding of Czechoslovakia, and his entire reading. I am thinking of the role of Abstract Expressionist art in the Cold War: The goal was to create an umbrella out of American creative freedom and culture under which all endangered nations could gather in protection from the oncoming Red Storm.
Similarly, Ginsberg came to Britain in order to bring its upstart culture under his control. Kane suggests a sexual relationship or attraction between Harry Fainlight and Ginsberg. In his written account, Whitehead writes of Fainlight’s reading, “But Harry knew. The mood had gone. Cut off in full thrust. Denied the orgasm. He was crying now with abject misery, frustration and rage. He’d lost his erection.” Ginsberg takes Fainlight into his lap after Fainlight’s reading with a refrain of “COME COME” echoing throughout the Hall. It is no doubt true that this episode demonstrates the virility of American poets and the impotence of British poetry. And yet it also reflects the anxiety of an American such as Ginsberg. Interestingly, Ginsberg replaces the spent British poet, Fainlight, with Barbara Rubin, who was Bob Dylan’s girlfriend for a time and a member of the Warhol circle. She was also a talented underground filmmaker in her own right. Ginsberg’s attraction to Rubin can be interpreted as a way of attempting to gain power over the much more relevant and vibrant mediums of rock music, Pop Art, and underground film.
It is telling that Kane compares Ginsberg’s reading at the Royal Albert Hall to music. For example, Kane refers to the presence of a dancing girl in Whitehead’s film. Kane also mentions the Grateful Dead in this context. Truly, rock music is crucial to understanding why Ginsberg arrived in London in 1965. The Beatles, like sirens, drew the wandering Ginsberg in from his travels throughout Europe and inspired him to organize a reading at the specific location of the Albert Hall. Ginsberg wanted to put on a rock concert. The melancholy of the movie may be due to the fact that Beat poetry as social force was in decline, and that a poetry reading may never again be an effective way to connect with the mass populace. Beat poetry will never be the center of a counterculture, as in the Age of the Romantics and of Shelley’s Legislator. The scenes of miscommunication among the poets and the audience not listening during the reading reflect the irrelevance of Beat poetry in the face of rock music. On June 11, 1965, the Beat poets perform their Last Waltz. By the following summer, the Beatles will take back Albert Hall and the role of poetry from Ginsberg and company. With Sgt. Pepper, rock music and rock musicians officially become poetry and poets. The popular audience will in turn lavish close readings on rock lyrics in a way that was once the privilege of poetry. In my eyes, there is a reference to the Royal Albert Reading in “A Day in the Life.” How many holes does it take to fill the Albert Hall? This represents the Beatles’ triumph over, and kiss off to, their Beat namesakes. The once powerful Beat poets and their audience are now merely assholes.
I highly recommend spending some time with Kane’s three most recent essays. They demonstrate that he continues to provide some fresh licks to the tired old song and dance of literary criticism. When you are a solo artist like Daniel Kane, working for a media corporation, like the University of Sussex, you have to put your material on vinyl, i.e., in a codex, preferably from a well-known academic label. I would prefer that he belt out his hits in a different venue, such as online. The Wholly Communion essay suggests a move in that direction. The potential audience seems much greater and the ease of access definitely is. This would truly be punk rock.