Tuesday, July 26, 2005
The Last Gathering of the Beats
LAWRENCE, Kansas, December 19, 1995—As a reunion it was a sad and happy occasion. It was happy in that all the surviving Beats got to see each other. It was sad in that most likely this would also be the last time they got to see each other.
Longtime Beat poet Gregory Corso shook his head. "Yeah, pretty soon we'll be dropping like... " He paused, scratching his head as he searched his mind for the proper simile. "...flies... that's it. Like flies."
Ravaged by old age, senility, and death, the Beats had gathered not just for the purpose of reliving old times, but also to admit some new blood into their ranks—and to appoint a new leader. It was with this in mind that, during a brief ceremony in Lawrence, Kansas, Beat novelist William Burroughs officially "passed the baton" to Henry Rollins.
"He's a strapping young lad," remarked Burroughs as he winked and gave the thumbs up sign to Rollins. "He'll take the legacy of the beats and carry it far into the 21st Century."
When asked what he thought best qualified Rollins to be the leader for the Beats, Burroughs responded quickly.
"Tattoos. That's it tattoos. Frankly, Henry's writing is a lot of bullshit, and Henry knows that. But what Henry also knows is that writing isn't what it's all about anymore. It's about style, ambiance. And that's what Henry knows best."
Until this moment Rollins was, like many before him, simply another dilettante. Moving from music then on to writing and acting—and hoping desperately to find some craft he had a talent for—Rollins had managed to bring home the bacon all these years by playing the part of role model for disaffected youth.
"I was worried for a while when Kurt Cobain hit it big," Rollins commented, still clutching the ceremonial Beatnik baton to his chest. "I thought I was about to be replaced. But then Kurt showed his true colors and killed himself like the true punk I always knew him to be. Me, I was never a true punk. Punk was just my nine to five gig, something for me to do until I found my true calling."
Indeed, it seems quite natural that the now thirtysomething Rollins has found that true calling in the company of the Beats.
"Me, I've always been a Beat," Rollins continued. "And the Beat way isn't `die young, stay pretty', `better to burn out than fade away' or any of that crapola. The beat way, the true beat way, is to grow old, grow lame... to fade away—and the chicks and dudes will worship you anyway. Golly, look at Allen Ginsberg here, and Ferlinghetti and Corso. A nerdier bunch of hodads you'll never see. Heck, even my pop is cooler than any of them. And as for their poems... well, hey, gag me! Even my poems are better than the ones they're writing now, and my poems suck!"
Having heard his name mentioned, Allen Ginsberg joined in on the conversation. "Getting back to the subject of style," Ginsberg interjected, "let me just say that Henry will look good with facial hair. Why last night I was helping him try on berets and he looked good in them too. Damn good. You know, Jack Kerouac used to say, `Home is wear you hang your beret.' And he also used to say... Excuse me."
Ginsberg took out a handkerchief and, after coughing up a huge glob of bright green phlegm, plopped himself down on the nearest chair and took a few deep breaths. On seeing this, Corso rushed over, ripping a few pages out of Ginsberg's Collected Poems on the way and using them to fan the fatigued poet.
"He's not doing so well," Corso said, shaking his head. "Frankly, I think Allen will be the first to... ah... go."
Meanwhile, across the room, an argument had broken out between poets Michael McClure and Gary Snyder.
"You're lame," Snyder declared.
"No, you're lame!" snapped McClure.
"No YOU'RE lame!" countered Snyder.
McClure blinked nervously, then puffed up his chest. "Grah GOOOOOR! Ghahh! GRAAARR!" he intoned, "NAH! NOH! NOH! HRAHHHHHH! Look at that, Snyder, I'm improvising with sound poems. Now tell me who's really lame!"
Taking in the commotion Burroughs wearily shook his head. "Those two. They never quite understood what we were all about."
By now it was six in the evening and everyone was tired. Everyone except Rollins.
"Yeah, I'm replacing them pronto!" shouted Rollins. "Hey, Bill, don't you think Lydia Lunch and Exene Cervenka will make nice replacements for them."
"By God, Henry, you're right on the money like always!" Burroughs declared.
"Yeah, and then I'm gonna talk to Harold Bloom, and lobby him to accept Naked Lunch into his Twentieth Century Canon of essential reading."
Burroughs shot Rollins a puzzled look, then broke out in a grin. "Whatever you say, Henry, whatever you say," he nodded, patting Rollins on the back. "Just do it!"
Originally published in Big Fish, 1995.