The beat goes on

Burroughs and Ginsberg may both be gone but, 40 years to the month since Kerouac first took us `On the Road', the legacy of the Beat Generation is as vital as ever. Hey, cool, big daddy-o.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
When William Burroughs died on 2 August, 1997, so soon after the sudden death of Allen Ginsberg, the Beat Generation was effectively extinct. But its legacy was still in motion. Kicks Joy Darkness, a tribute album to Jack Kerouac, the Beats' other king, is just one recent example. Including a long performance by Ginsberg and a growling contribution from Burroughs, the album is a remarkable Who's Who of alternative culture. Its contributors include Michael Stipe, Patti Smith, Joe Strummer and Eddie Vedder, Hunter S Thompson and Jim Carroll, Matt Dillon and Johnny Depp, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith - musicians, writers, actors, comedians reading letters, poems, articles and fiction by a man who died 28 years ago, vomiting blood over a toilet.

The album is part of a resurgence of interest in the Beat Generation, just as the Beats themselves are vanishing. Ginsberg's Mid-Fifties Journals were recently published, and in America sales on all Kerouac titles are up. On the Road's publication 40 years ago this month coincides with the release of a film (Mark Evans's House of America) and the issue of a book (Toby Litt's Beatniks, re-creating Kerouac's world in Britain), the republication of Steve Turner's Kerouac biography Angel-headed Hipster, and a new play, Kerouac Triangle. Lee Ranaldo is compiling an album by Kerouac himself, and last month a recording of a frail, wrapped-up Ginsberg, giving one last urgent performance in the New York cold in collaboration with his fans U2, could be seen on TV. As Burroughs is laid to rest, it begs the question of who exactly the Beats were, at their long-ago peak. And what impact they have had in the 50 years since.

The Beat Generation assembled in the Forties, a group of underground unknowns in New York city. Their core members were Kerouac, an ex-merchant seaman; Allen Ginsberg, whose mother was mentally unstable; William Burroughs, a Harvard graduate from a well-to-do family; and Neal Cassady, an open- hearted hustler whom the others adored. Gregory Corso, a teenage jail- bird and wild man, joined the group in 1950. They all experimented with drugs and sexuality. They all wanted to escape the stifling conformity which closed in on America after the Second World War. In 1951, Kerouac speed-typed On the Road in three weeks, though he wouldn't sell it for six more years, and Burroughs wrote Junkie. Ginsberg's poem Howl followed in 1955. All three works were autobiographical; each writer used their friends as characters. They were making an impact with their lives as well as their work: you couldn't prise the two apart. They were writing like pop stars. And when success came, it was like that as well. Howl began their celebrity. Accounts of its first reading, in a converted auto- repair shop to an audience of a hundred or so - many fellow poets - are like those of a rock concert in miniature: Kerouac roaring "Go!" from the sidelines, wine pouring down gaping throats, electricity in the air. An obscenity case, successfully defended, made Howl national news in 1957, the same year in which On the Road became a bestseller. Burroughs' Naked Lunch reached America in 1959, sparking fresh outcries.

Seized on by the media, dubbed the "generation", their rise and fall had pop speed, too. A San Fransisco columnist coined the sneering term "beatniks", conjuring a cliched distortion of the writers' lives - lazy, unwashed, "cool", daddy-o - still recognisable today. A few thousand Beats stoked the hype, in San Francisco, New York and LA, till the police and tourists broke them up. Reduced by the media to "a species of hip Amish", in John Clellon Holmes's term, most Beat writers were glad to see the back of the "generation" they had once promoted. Only Kerouac, too famous too soon, was unable to outrun the movement he'd started. He died a drunk in 1969, the Beat Generation's Cobain-like casualty.

That should have been that. A needed literary shot in the arm, and some good writers sent on their way. But the lifestyle that the Beats had promoted wasn't so easy to dismiss. As the Fifties became the Sixties, its relevance grew. Two men, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, did most to revive it. And both, almost inevitably, looked to the Beats themselves for help. Leary, a Harvard professor, had his life changed by magic mushrooms, and wanted to tell the world. Ginsberg, a notorious drug-user, visiting Leary for purposes of his own, agreed to help. The symbolic link between generations had been made. In 1961, Leary moved on to LSD. By 1964, Kesey, another acid evangelist, was developing what would soon become the hippie style, breaking down consciousness in an "acid test" he took on tour - in a bus driven by On the Road hero, the Beat supreme, Neal Cassady. The hippies, as Leary and others admitted, took much of their interest in drugs, rebellion and expansion of consciousness from their Fifties forebears. Ginsberg saw himself as their elected elder. But the Beats were no longer at the centre of events. The way the times had outraced them could be seen in Bob Dylan.

Dylan was "very much a product of the Beat Generation", according to one acquaintance. A socially conscious, apocalyptically inclined lyricist, he was everything the Beats had been. But he was also a pop singer. And his work sold in the millions. His appearance in San Francisco left the city's Beats shaking with envy. Ginsberg and Kerouac, whose influence Dylan admitted to, had less cause to worry. But the fact was, the hippie movement was not about writers. Where the Beats had used bebop as an adjunct to writing, the hippies used the Beats as figureheads for rock. The Beats had helped bring Dylan to being, and so changed pop utterly. Who cared?

The Seventies were ever more hostile to the Beats, as the Sixties "movement" faded away. It took pop to let them be heard at all and they cultivated the connection. Ginsberg was invited on to stage and vinyl by The Clash. William Burroughs arrived in New York in time to be proclaimed punk's "Godfather", the times actually moving his nightmarish, junk-fed way. Even now, some musicians still look to Kerouac and co. "I think most of the people involved in the punk scene of the Eighties and Nineties know of that work," insists Lee Ranaldo. "Those writers spearheaded a scepticism of the modern world. They were coming straight out of the atomic bomb blast and realising that it was time to go for broke right now, because there might not be a tomorrow. It's a very punk-like attitude." Kicks Joy Darkness proves that that generation is still grateful, if nothing else. Of the Beats who survived long enough to hear the album, Ginsberg had continued to write, and to push his generation's claims on posterity; Burroughs lived anonymously in Lawrence, Kansas, his work all but done; Corso lives on in poverty, as he always has. He could be seen a few years ago at an otherwise polite New York poetry festival telling the audience to "Fuck love", and reducing the woman who followed him to tears. He at least was still beat. But the force of each of them had been dulled. Even before Burroughs' death, for all the tributes, it seemed they were near the end.

But that does them a disservice. Because the Beats' influence can't be judged just on simple chronology. It's also a story of individual responses, sparks in each life they've inspired. It's Lenny Bruce, using Beat writing as the last necessary ingredient in his incendiary, poetic comedy - the most influential routines in stand-up history. It's Hunter S Thompson, using Kerouac's spontaneous prose in a deadline fever and inventing gonzo journalism; writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and giving On the Road the acid test. It's Easy Rider, a Kerouac road-trip gone bad, which transformed Hollywood. It's future Fug and peace activist Ed Sanders rolling on the floor and sobbing as a teenager when he read Howl then lunging for a new life; it's poet Diane diPrima reading Howl as she cooked a meal and realising she wasn't alone; Mark Sandman of Morphine reading On the Road as a teenager and hitching into America with a thousand others.

It's a spark dimmed for most of us when we flick through On the Road or Naked Lunch now, dulled and mediated by time, like early Elvis, or Sgt. Pepper. The shock has worn off. It isn't a unique spark, either, as Ginsberg once thought. Rock 'n' roll coincided with the Beats, and blew apart places poets couldn't touch. But something did happen, in those flights across America, those lives caught as speedily as the pen could move, with the energy needed to crack taboos when they mattered. The incontestable influence of the Beats today is that if you read their best work on a good day, you may feel a shiver of truth. Kicks Joy Darkness does that for Kerouac. It brings his words to life. In the end, that's all the influence any writer keeps

The CD `Kerouac - Kicks Joy Darkness' is on Rykodisc; the film `House of America' opens on 10 Oct; the biography `Angelheaded Hipster' is published in paperback by Bloomsbury at pounds 9.99