Ginsberg’s flannel and other stories
All yesterday’s parties (and recording sessions, and be-ins, and dialectical conferences): Barry Miles was there, the Underground’s own Tara Palmer Fotherington-Thomas, and this slight, glittery, but involving memoir of naked poets, peacock Beatles, good times and bad behaviour gives the lie to the old saw that “anyone who remembers the Sixties wasn’t there”. That phrase always really meant that you couldn’t have been doing or taking what everyone else was doing or taking. Well, Barry Miles was doing what a lot of other people were doing; but he was also taking notes.
Miles does major “remembering”. He recently team-tagged Ginsberg, Burroughs and Corso in 2001’s The Beat Hotel; and has produced “just the facts, man” biographies of Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Paul McCartney. If McCartney seems anomalous in such wayward company, then no more so than Pooteresque Miles, down among the hairy beat men. At his bumptious worst – as in two-thirds of Beat Hotel – we do get his singularly Fotherington-Thomas strain of modern biography: “Hello syringe, hello broken veins, hello anal warts…”
The best material in Beat Hotel cannot disguise Miles’s congenital inability to distinguish between diurnal trivia and passing profundity. The good stuff is accessed only via detours of almost unendurable banality: how many ice-cream cones Ginsberg bought; the size of his new flannel; the contents of his stew pot. Here is an unleavened intimacy you would rush to judge as “faux”, were it not for the fact that Miles did meet, was there, did know. He has the records, and the receipts. He’s in receipt of the archives. He’s probably down in them right now, rolling around in an oodle of lovely grey facts.
If you itch to know Gregory Corso’s favourite chat-up lines (“Would you like to ball with me, baby?”), fine; just don’t expect to learn whether Corso’s published work is still worthy of our attention; or ever was; or is likely to remain so. Miles blows bubbles, not whistles, and In the Sixties is a strange little bubble of a book – flimsy, but surrounded with oily psychedelic flavour.
But under Miles’s amiable self-portrait of the archivist as loon-panted Zelig, there’s a ribbon of tensile steel: you sense that while other people were shooting up and freaking out, Miles had his head in some double-entry book keeping. In the 1970s other people ended up broke, bummed, boracic. At the end of the 1960s, Miles has a flat in Lord North Street, and a fat Rolodex of contacts. He networked before the fact.
On the credit side, Miles does manage to record some serious achievements (he imports important books, he opens breakthrough bookshops, he starts IT up, and keeps it going, when all around him are going off) without ever coming across as self-congratulatory.
The episodic plan of In the Sixties allows for more latitude (and less readerly lassitude) than The Beat Hotel. Here again are not only Ginsberg, Burroughs and McCartney… but also (and this is crucial) many of the “minor” players too: managers, supporters and patrons, paradigmatic dandies and pushy dealers.
Here is Robert Fraser, with a briefcase of Class As, and a cosmopolitan ease only old money can buy; here is Charles Bukowski, balls out, leonine, chugging… but so shy he can only record his own voice alone, bottle to hand; here is Harry Smith – the magus of the Chelsea Hotel – a genuine modern alchemist turning rich suckers’ handouts into deliriously kabbalistic art; here are Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, an ambisexual Huck and Tom, intertwined, pierced, pungent; here is Alexander Trocchi, whose shoplifting seems to have put nine out of 10 independent London bookshops out of business.
With such a varied cast, the reader isn’t so likely to become weary, and start asking impertinent questions about the actual work. It’s easy to argue of someone like Ginsberg that his importance was far more sociocultural than textual (that is, more people know about his good works than have ever read his printed work) and such figures are made for this diary approach. If Miles’s temporally circumscribed structure also fails to address the central questions, such as “where did it all go wrong?”, it’s also hard to entirely rebuff someone who so obviously loves the printed word. But you do wonder if there isn’t an In the Seventies to be written, in which Miles faces up to the sadder, later trajectory in which “his” beautiful cast go mad, drown in methadone, commit wretched “ideological” murders (Michael X); or wave goodbye to Berio and Cage and concrete poetry and give us – oh, the horror – the Frog Chorus and “Mull of Kintyre”.