Category Archives: Jack Kerouac

Hot Snowy Air

The Scoop

WFHB‘s Joe Crawford blew all the other local media out of the water with this one.

Firehouse Broadcasting’s Assistant News Director took on an ill-conceived Bloomington architectural preservation process that may lead to radical changes in some of our town’s neighborhoods. Crawford found that folks who for years lived in “conservation” districts suddenly do not.

Crawford

Newshound Joe Crawford, Being All Arty

The conservation district idea was an historic district-lite kind of thing. As Crawford explains it, “full-blown historic districts” allowed the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to review and pass on or deny property owners’ plans to alter their structures within those districts. The conservation districts only allowed the Commission to wag its finger at owners who wanted to alter or destroy properties within them.

It might not sound like much but finger-wagging from a public body means a lot in these parts. If conservation designation didn’t exactly legally bar property owners from building a soulless row of townhomes in a neighborhood of charming old brick homes, it made said owners think long and hard about their plans. Often, property owners would drop their plans in the face of such opposition.

Paris Dunning House

The Paris Dunning House In An Historic District

It turns out, according to Crawford, the conservation districts can be upgraded to historic preservation districts after a few years due to a technicality in state law, thereby hamstringing property owners from doing any remodeling at all without submitting to an onerous hearing process. Owners in a couple of conservation districts that have recently morphed into preservation districts in this way are livid.

The original municipal statute creating the two-tiered system was flawed, sure. But the City Council has not done much to rectify the sitch. Listen to Crawford’s report for yourself (or simply read it via the same link). Then stayed tuned to see how the City Council digs itself out of this mess.

And remember, this is the same City Council that gave us our universally beloved parking meters in downtown B-town last summer. Yeesh.

Love The Art; Hate The Artist?

Funny how the two-decade old Woody Allen child molestation scandal is back in the news just now, considering today is the 100-year anniversary of the birth of another artist whose personal life also was less than exemplary.

Far less than exemplary.

William S. Burroughs, who wrote Naked Lunch and a pile of other notable books, and who was a cohort of many of the Beats, shot and killed his common law wife in cold blood in Mexico City in 1951.

Burroughs

Burroughs, Later In Life

First, a caveat. I’ve long considered Woody Allen a brilliant comic, a terrific writer, and one of the greatest American film directors. Burroughs, on the other hand, I can take or leave. Truman Capote’s famous dismissal of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road — “That’s not writing; that’s typing.” — can be applied pretty much across the board to all the Beats’ and their pals’ works. And that includes Burroughs’ tortured, tortuous tomes.

But that’s just me. Many knowledgeable people in the literary world consider Burroughs a fab penman. I won’t argue with them. Perhaps they see something in his words I don’t. I only bring it up in the interest of full disclosure (and to spout the aforementioned opinion.)

Anyway, neither Burroughs nor Allen was punished for their respective alleged crimes. Only Burroughs’ crime really isn’t alleged. He was convicted in absentia in a Mexican court of homicide or manslaughter (the record is not entirely clear). See, he’d taken a powder before his trial was to begin. According to independent accounts, he traipsed around South America, looking to score a storied drug called yagé, while his part in the death of Joan Vollmer was being adjudicated.

The Beats and their ilk eschewed all the trappings of American conformity and the shackles of authoritarianism. So much so, apparently in Burroughs’ case, that he considered himself above the societal norm that kept the rest of the common clay from blowing the brains out of their spouses.

Burroughs apologists say he was drunk when he and Vollmer engaged in a game of “William Tell,” leading to her demise. Numerous times before, they say, she’d put an apple on her head and he’d take aim with his pistol and shoot it off the top of her coconut. They even like to elevate the reckless game to some sort of artistic allegory. Experimental writer Charles Talkoff has asked and answered his own question about the shooting:

After Burroughs shot Joan in the forehead and the apple fell to the ground, what did Burroughs do with the apple? I like to think he ate it.

Burroughs initially told Mexico City cops he’d tried to shoot a water pitcher off Vollmer’s head in a variation on their William Tell game. He missed, tragically, he told the police the first time they interviewed him. The next day he told the police he’d been trying to sell his pistol to a friend and, while handling it, the gun went off and — wouldn’t you know it? — Vollmer’s cranium happened to be in the path of the bullet.

Only much later was it revealed he’d been telling friends moments before the shot was fired that he was sick of Vollmer and the time had come to “do something about it.” Not only that, in the weeks before Vollmer’s death Burroughs had been chasing a young man with whom he’d become infatuated all over Central America.

According to independent accounts, money was passed out to various Mexican officials to ensure the original murder charge against Burroughs would be reduced. Burroughs, you see, came from a wealthy family. In fact, when he finally did go on trial — again, after he’d skipped the country — he was charged merely with a form of culpable homicide.

Headline

The Pistol Did It

It’s been said by people who know his work well that Burroughs’ writing changed profoundly after Vollmer’s death. You can read for yourself if that’s true or not. He’d written a self-described “not very distinguished work” entitled And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks with Jack Kerouac as well as Junkie and Queer on his own prior to the shooting. It was only after Vollmer’s death that he launched into the most productive and, as many would say, the most creative part of his writing life. He later wrote, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death….”

Some muse.

Vollmer

Joan Vollmer

The Woody Allen scandal is more notorious. He split up with Mia Farrow after beginning an affair with her adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn, whom he later married. Amid ensuing child custody hearings, Farrow accused Allen of sexually molesting Mia’s daughter Dylan, whom Allen had adopted. (He’d never adopted Soon Yi, by the way.) Denials and investigations followed, no charges were filed, and the thing went dormant until Dylan wrote an open letter published in the New York Times Saturday.

Dylan laid out a heart-rending tale of the act and its consequences. Now the interwebs are buzzing with opinionators taking one side or the other. Me? I won’t defend Allen, even though I viewed him as an idol when I was in my early 20s. I was so enamored with Allen and his movies that, for a while, I even gave thought to becoming a Jew. A very short while.

Dylan Farrow concluded her letter with a challenge:

So imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter.

Are you imagining that? Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?

I used to watch Allen’s movie, Manhattan, again and again, for the laughs, for the music, for the insular and seductive world of the intelligentsia it portrayed. The focus of Manhattan is the Allen character’s love affair with a young girl. He’s 42, IIRC, and she’s 17. Somehow, the weirdness of that coupling didn’t alarm me at the time. After the molestation charges became known, I found myself unable to watch it again. In fact, I haven’t seen Manhattan again in more than 20 years.

I feel soiled thinking about it.

Scene from "Manhattan"

Now It’s Creepy

Our cultural arbiters tell us we must separate the art from the artist. But it’s oh so hard. To this day, the playing of the music of notorious anti-Semite Richard Wagner in Israel arouses howls of protest. I’m not a Jew (despite my childish fantasy when I was 22) but I still feel itchy when Wagner comes on the radio. I can’t enjoy Manhattan anymore. And I’ll probably never again pick up a copy of one of Burroughs’ books. There are plenty of other artists who won’t make me feel so itchy.

The Pencil Today:

HotAirLogoFinal Thursday

THE QUOTE

“It seems that fighting is a game where everybody is the loser.” — Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston

DIGGERS

Stand by for another big book release from a Bloomington author in 2013.

Phil Ford, professor of music history at Indiana University, looks to August for the debut of his “Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture.”

Ford

Phil Ford

Ford’s got a publisher, Oxford University Press, and is now in the process of securing his last copyright permissions — “I had a ton to manage for the book” — and correcting the odd punctuation mistake.

Dig conceives hipness as a part of the intellectual and cultural history of the United States from the 1940s through the 1960s,” Ford says.

The hip aesthetic has structured art and thought here since the end of World War II, according to Ford. He says American intellectual life has been profoundly affected by the storied postwar alienation from society.

The beatniks and the cool jazz cats of 20-year period after 1945 saw themselves as outsiders who had nothing to do with you, yet now you act and think in ways they did more than you or they would have ever dreamed.

The larger, dominant culture, Ford explains, aims to “foreclose” on creativity, self-awareness, and self-expression.

“The hipster’s project is to imagine this system and define himself against it,” Ford says. Think Jack Kerouac or Timothy Leary. “While hipsters have always used clothing, hairstyle, gesture, and slang to mark their distance from the consensus culture, it is music that has always been the privileged means of cultural disaffiliation.”

Terkel & Beats

Studs Terkel With Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, & Peter Orlovsky

Ford tries to define the concept of hip in the book and then follows its path from what he deems its birth year, 1948. For instance, Ford has found rare recordings of Beat Poets singing along to jazz records in 1949. “You can hear them trying on the hipster persona like a new suit,” Ford says.

Ford enshrines Norman Mailer, author of the seminal “White Negro” essay in Dissent magazine, into the hipster pantheon. “He couldn’t carry a tune in a Hefty bag but he developed a notion of writing as existential challenge that remodels the act of writing to something more like the act of sounding, something like a musical performance,” Ford says.

Book Cover

The City Lights Book-Length Edition Of Mailer’s Essay

Ford has been published in the academic journals Representations, Journal of Musicology, Jazz Perspectives, Musical Quarterly, and others. Dig is his first book.

One of the jazz titans Ford covers in Dig is the late pianist, songwriter, arranger, composer, and Zelig-like figure, John Benson Brooks. He worked with everyone from Zoot Sims and Cannonball Adderley to Tommy Dorsey and Les Brown but remains unknown today. Ford feels Brooks’ life in New York City’s arts scene from the 1940s through the ’60s would serve as a great basis for a history of that capital of hipness. Ford just might start writing that book once he gets the final Dig manuscript out the door.

So, be cool until August and then dig Dig.

HAPPINESS IS A GUN

You know it had to happen.

A Bloomington High School South kid has been overhead saying he’d pull off a Sandy Hook-type incident at the school tomorrow. Bloomington cops have found a small arsenal at his house and the kid’s been suspended. The guns belonged to adults in the home but the BPD confiscated the artillery nonetheless.

Bloomington High School South

BHSS

And a kid at Batchelor Middle School has been suspended for bringing a BB gun to class.

Hard to know if the kids were just being, well, kids, or they were real threats to their classmates and teachers. Just this moment, though, no one’s taking any chances.

One observer has said that the BHSS kid needs immediate psychiatric treatment. Maybe.

Let me tell you a little story.

When I was 16 and 17, my circle of hippies and ne-er-do-wells that hung out day and night at Amundsen Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side faced a migration of gangbangers from the near West Side.

A Polish and Puerto Rican gang, the Almighty Jousters, started hanging around the park after they’d been rousted from their turf farther east by the cops and rival gangs. These guys were tough. They thought nothing of bloodying someone up for the slightest imagined insult. One of the Jousters, Little Willie, found himself in competition for an Amundsen Park girl with a guy from the neighborhood. Little Willie settled the dispute by breaking the guy’s jaw, ribs, and arm in an impromptu negotiating session held during the midnight showing of the movie “Gimme Shelter” at the Mercury Theater.

From "Gimme Shelter"

Backdrop For A Beating

The Jousters also liked to pack heat.

Even though I was a devoted peacenik, there was something about the Jousters’ hard coolness that attracted me. I became friendly with several of them. I even fantasized what I’d feel like carrying a pistol, as they did. In my fantasy, I’d feel important.

By and by, a consortium of neighborhood demi-gangs — the North & Nagle Boys, the Corner Boys, the Bank Boys, the Stompers, and others — agreed to join forces and try to evict the Jousters. The issue would be settled the old fashioned way, with a war. A date was set. It was a chilly Wednesday night in October. The park was packed with grim-looking teenagers from the area. The Jousters were due to arrive at about 8:00.

We had any number of guys in our midst who could handle their fists quite well. All told, we had about 50 guys ready to rumble. We smoked and chattered nervously, waiting for the Jousters.

At eight sharp, a couple of cars full of Jousters squealed up in the front of the park. “Let’s fuck these guys up,” someone said.

My pal Whitey and I had felt obligated to join the local army, even though neither of us was particularly noted for toughness. We glanced at each other, a wordless reminder that we’d previously agreed to run around the periphery of action and do our level best to avoid inflicting or suffering any kind of pain.

The Jousters exited their cars and stood gazing at our little army for a brief moment. We had them outnumbered five to one. “This is gonna be sweet,” another guy said.

At that moment, one of the Jousters named Crate — a guy even Little Willie gave a wide berth to — reached under his long coat and pointed a sawed-off shotgun at us. None of us budged — not because we were brave and tough, but because we were petrified. Whitey and I were on the verge of tears.

Sawed-off Shotgun

Respect

Like that, Crate squeezed off several blasts. The 50 of us local guys turned and ran like deer when we saw the first flash from Crate’s shotgun. I clearly remember hearing the pellets screeching and clattering past me across the pavement as we ran. Judging by subsequent audible pops, several other Jousters had outed pistols and began firing.

Only later did I realize I was concerned about soiling my pants for a hot minute.

The Jousters beat it as soon as they heard police sirens. The cops, who’d been miffed the gang had settled in our neighborhood but seemed to tolerate their presence to that point, now decided to get rid of them. None of us ever saw Little Willie, Crate, and the others again.

But for a while afterward, I remained enthralled by that image of the Jousters, standing before us, confident that they possessed the means to make us run.

At the time, I was working in a hot dog stand owned by a minor Outfit figure. Let’s call him Pat. I also served for a brief period as a driver for him and his “boss,” “Mr. Martin,” an Outfit member of slightly higher standing than Pat. Whenever Pat or Mr. Martin needed to do some business down on the West Side or in Little Sicily, they’d call for me to drive them there in their Cadillacs and wait for them outside. “Keep your eyes open,” they’d advice me as they got out of the car.

I never knew what I was supposed to be on the lookout for.

Pat carried himself with a Mob mien that “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos” aficionados today deem cool. Pat never raised his voice. When he was mad, he wore The Look — his jaw set, his lips a line, and his eyes staring. You couldn’t read any emotion on his face. That’s what was terrifying about The Look.

Harry Aleman

Fabled Hitman Harry Aleman With “The Look”

Pat kept a small pistol in an ankle holster in the backroom of the hot dog stand. Every now and again, he’d hold it lovingly and warn me to be careful. “Don’t touch this unless you gotta,” he’d say. He never elaborated on when that would be.

As Pat came to trust me, he left me alone at the hot dog stand more often. I started formulating a plan to wear the pistol home after closing the place at night.

I wanted to feel invincible.

For a period of about two months, I’d strap the holster to my ankle and walk around the hot dog stand toward closing time, just to get the feel of it. I wore bell-bottom pants so the bulge wasn’t noticeable. I learned to position the holster just so, so that I wouldn’t brush against it with my other ankle as I strode.

I practiced standing with my leg propped up on a carton of soft drink cups so that the bottom tip of the holstered gun would be visible just beneath my pants leg. After all, what’s the point of carrying a gun if other people don’t know about it?

I couldn’t wait to summon the courage to wear it home and, naturally, to Amundsen Park. Who knows? Maybe there’d be a moment during the course of a typical evening of hanging out when I’d have to pull the pistol out, just to make a point.

Pistol & Ankle Holster

Then I’d be invincible.

Somehow, some way, the three of us — Pat, Mr. Martin, and I — all got into hot water with the cops at the same time. Pat’s and Mr. Martin’s photos ran in newspaper accounts of their troubles. Mine was kid’s stuff.

In any case, the hot dog stand was closed and I was out of a job. I never got a chance to wear that holstered pistol home or to the park.

I was lucky.

That BHSS kid who bragged about planning to shoot up the place tomorrow was lucky as well. And that middle school kid was lucky he never fired his BB gun in the Batchelor hallways.

I don’t know if these kids need psychiatric help, any more than I might have needed help when I was 16 and 17, just for wanting to carry a gun

Guns are awfully seductive, and insecure teenagers are primed to be seduced by them.

Rather than worry about putting kids who dig guns on a psychiatrist’s couch, we ought to consider treating the adults who manufacture these things by the millions in this holy land.

The Pencil Today:

THE QUOTE

“That isn’t writing at all; it’s typing.” — Truman Capote on Jack Kerouac‘s work

ZOMBIE MORNING

A courtly hat-tip to the one of the demi-bosses over at Soma Coffee, Lindsay Taylor.

She turned me on last Sunday to the fabulous Zombies disc, “Odessey and Oracle” (sic). I immediately ordered it online and it came in the mail yesterday.

The Loved One and I listened to it in part on the way to my Sunday morning headquarters.

Do yourself a favor and get it. Trust me.

LOVE KILLS

I was re-reading a part of David Halberstam‘s indispensable history of the 1950s entitled, appropriately enough, “The Fifties.”

One of its chapters covers the Beats, natch. Halberstam tells the story of how Allen Ginsberg met a fellow named Lucien Carr in his dorm room at Columbia University. Ginsberg immediately fell in with other Columbia students and hangers-on like William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, and the rest. Carr was acknowledged as the untitled leader of the gang, then referred to as the Libertine Circle, that eventually became the Beats.

Burroughs, Carr, & Ginsberg (1953)

A dramatic episode in Carr’s life brings to mind one of the biggest news stories in Bloomington in years — the stabbing death of IU English professor Don Belton.

The Belton story broke a mere three months after T-Lo and I arrived in Bloomington. He may or may not have had sex with some kid who was a former Marine and had served in Iraq. The kid went to Belton’s house one morning, stabbed him repeatedly with his hunting knife, and allowed him to bleed to death on his kitchen floor.

The kid was convicted of murder in short order, despite claiming that he was driven to a murderous rage only after Belton had made sexual overtures to him.

Don Belton & Michael Griffin

When Lucien Carr was a teen, he was involved in a similar manner with a man who was 14 years older than he was.

This fellow, David Kammerer, was the leader of a youth group that Carr had belonged to isn St. Louis, where he was raised. Apparently, Kammerer fell head over heels for the tender teen. Carr’ mother moved him to a number of private prep schools in New England to get him away from Kammerer but the man followed the youngster to each new locale.

After high school, Carr enrolled at the University of Chicago and Kammerer again moved to be nearer him.

Carr attempted suicide by sticking his head in an oven while at Chicago. He told school officials it was an act of “art.” He told his mother he wanted to kill himself because Kammerer was driving him batty. Carr was committed to the psych ward at Cook County Hospital for a few weeks after the incident.

Carr’s mother transferred him to Columbia in New York City. Kammerer followed.

Carr swore up and down to his new Columbia chums that he’d never had sex with Kammerer but some historians suspect otherwise.

Jack Kerouac And Lucien Carr

In any case, Kammerer became a fringe member of the Libertine Circle. He and Carr often hung around together but, just as often, Carr would freeze the man out.

Anyway, one night in August, 1944, Carr and Jack Kerouac got drunk together in the Libertines’ hangout, The West End. Kerouac left the place and ran into Kammerer on the street. Kammerer asked where he could find Carr and Kerouac directed him to The West End.

Kammerer and Carr went for a walk and wound up in a park near 115th Street and the Hudson River. The two lolled there for a while and, according to Carr later, Kammerer came on to him. A scuffle ensued, Carr pulled his Boy Scout knife, and stabbed Kammerer to death.

Carr bound Kammerer’s body, weighted it with rocks, and dumped the corpse into the river. He buried Kammerer’s glasses in the park.

Carr immediately went to William Burroughs’ apartment and told him what had happened. Carr even brought a blood-soaked pack of Kammerer’s cigarettes as proof. Burroughs disposed of the pack and advised Carr to go to the police. Carr didn’t care much for that idea.

Instead, Carr went to Kerouac’s place the next morning and told him about the killing. Kerouac and he went out and dumped Carr’s Boy Scout knife down a subway grating. Then the two went to the movies and the Museum of Modern Art.

Finally, Carr went home and told his mother about the slaying. She brought him to the New York DA to confess. The cops fished Kammerer’s body out of the river and found the dead man’s glasses. Carr was charged with second degree murder.

Newspaper coverage at first tended to be hostile to the wealthy college boy killer. Then, his story of fighting off the advances of the older homosexual before resorting to homicidal violence touched the sympathies of a homophobic public. One newspaper termed the incident an “honor” killing.

Carr eventually copped to a manslaughter plea and served a mere two years in the juvenile section of the Elmira state prison.

A Monroe County jury last spring hung a murder conviction on Michael Griffin for the killing of Don Belton. Griffin is now serving a 45 to 65-year sentence in state prison.

Things change — or do they?

Men still kill men for the “sin” of homosexuality but at least we’re putting those killers away for a good long time now.

SKY KING

Hey, don’t forget about today’s solar eclipse. We may be able to see the moon’s disc cover a small part of the sun’s from our vantage point in South Central Indiana, although our sky won’t be darkened to any appreciable extent as it will be in the southwestern United States.

But you can follow its progress on a number of websites.

Sky & Telescope Viewing Map For Today’s Eclipse

This particular eclipse is classified as annular, meaning because of the particular points in their orbits at the moment of totality, the moon’s disc is smaller than the sun’s. Ergo, a dramatic circle of the brilliant sun’s orb will surround the moon.

How cool.

An Annular Eclipse

Oh, and don’t forget, the planet Venus will transit the sun’s disc in two and a half weeks. It’s another rare sky spectacular. I’ll remind you about it as we get nearer the date.

%d bloggers like this: