photo by nacrowe
for anyone unfamiliar with the BEAT writers and their impact on modern culture, well beyond poetry, the graphic novel THE BEATS: A GRAPHIC HISTORY (HILL AND WANG, 2010) is an excellent starting point. while providing a fairly definitive, warts-and-all overview of the three main writers associated with the movement in JACK KEROUAC, ALLEN GINSBERG and WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS, it also deftly chooses to contextualize them within the greater SAN FRANCISCO POETRY RENAISSANCE scene that found them with writers like KENNETH REXROTH, MICHAEL MCCLURE, PHILIP WHALEN, WILLIAM EVERSON, GARY SNYDER, ROBERT DUNCAN, LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI and GREGORY CORSO as well as other important related figures like AMIRI BARAKA, CHARLES OLSON and ROBERT CREELEY. this breadth of scope results in a wider perspective about the greater influence of a movement that largely defined an era in art, poetry and literature that is still reverberating today.
i appreciate very much that the art and text both don't attempt to gloss over the fact that the three main figure (KEROUAC, GINSBERG and BURROUGHS) were involved in activities that put them at the edge of society. i understand back in the 1950s being openly homosexual was an issue and that our society has come a long way in accepting all forms of sexuality, but all three were confirmed pederasts which is still remains major taboo (for good reason). not that i am conflating the two. the all also engaged in petty crime and drug sales across state lines and in the case of BURROUGHS, manslaughter. some (KEROUAC and BURROUGHS) where petty, xenophobic, racist, solipsistic and in later life (ironically) bitterly homophobic. they were a collective that took sexuality, drugs, the written and by extension experiential consciousness to their polar extremes, which very much informed the breadth and potency of their work. the authors don't condone such, but merely present such in a straightforward manner in order to evoke a clarity of message and mission.
the choice in showcasing their exploits within a context of the greater literary and academic scene at the time and shortly thereafter provides necessary insight into how they were perceived at the time and why they are referred back to constantly today as touchstone influences.
in an era that demanded conformity during the rise of foreign fascism, their ability to wave their own freak flag of individuality provided an example of unadulterated freedom and personal liberty, for good or worse, down the line. hard to tell which.
text by HARVEY PEKAR, NANCY J. PETERS, PENELOPE ROSEMONT, JOYCE BRABNER, TRINA ROBBINS and TUL KUPFERBERG.
art by ED PISKOR, JAY KINNEY, NICK THORKELSON, SUMMER MCCLINTON, PETER KUPER, MARY FLEENER, JEROME NEUKIRCH, ANNE TIMMONS, GARY DUMM, LANCE TOOKS and JEFFREY LEWIS.
photo by nacrowe
JUST KIDS (ECCO, 2010) is the transcendently written, award-winning (2010 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR NONFICTION) debut memoir by the legendary PUNK ROCK writer/singer/poet PATTI SMITH. more importantly it is a touching coda to special relationship between SMITH and transgressive photographer and collaborator ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE. this book is very much a celebration of his life and legacy and the bond that saw both push forward with their respective transformative and epoch-defining creative output.
i have already written at length in a previous piece about my affection for her past and present work, so i invite readers to check such out as i will not go into such here but wanted to acknowledge such. in essence, like BOB DYLAN or LOU REED, she is one of those select few artists whose creative choices influenced what was possible for future artists to date. but upon her arrival in NYC in the 1960s after leaving a troubled past in central NEW JERSEY, she was just another insecure, sensitive, literate soul seeking connection in the big city. it really is amazing how resilient she was given her strict, isolating upbringing as a JEHOVAH'S WITNESS and having to deal with real-life issues like having an abortion in the context of such a conservative time with draconian ideals of femininity. to me she is the artist that showed the way that women could compete with men on their own terms. period.
in MAPPLETHORPE she found a fellow bohemian street urchin with an artist's visual eye. his work is both transgressive and beautiful as it depicts the underrepresented JOHN RECHY-like world of unbridled and proud homosexuality in a world that didn't recognize or appreciate such. his work is a beacon to both freedom and expression. when you consider that many of his photographs were created during the birth and later height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, you really get a sense of its courageousness and strident individuality.
their bond, both romantic and later artistic was a true collaboration. both created work that was direct and piercing and completely transgressed notions of gender and sexuality. to learn of their early struggles is both bittersweet and unflinchingly romantic in a nontraditional sense. their work was their children and his ultimate demise after succumbing to the effects of AIDS in the late 80s is truly tragic.
but what a beautifully written expression of their bond for posterity. lovingly crafted as only a poet can, this is likely the most superbly written memoir i have read to date.
i encourage anyone and everyone to seek it.