The 27 Club

Robert Johnson, first member of The 27 Club

You don’t want to belong to The 27 Club. It’s very exclusive and its members are all dead. They all died at the age of 27, usually from unnatural causes, most from drug or alcohol abuse.

The club is much larger than the members mentioned in this article. However, these are arguably its most famous associates. Each was a master of his or her art, and each achieved a good measure of fame while alive. After death, fame became legend.

It’s something to think about if you’re not yet 27 and searching for those 15 minutes of fame. If you made it past 27, take a deep breath and be thankful.

Our short list is in date order, beginning in 1938, and just looks at musical artists.

Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938, a master of the blues guitar. He was poisoned. Johnson is generally considered the first member of The 27 Club.

Nat Jaffe, one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, died on August 5, 1945, from complications of high blood pressure. His was one of the few “natural deaths” in The 27 Club.

Jesse Belvin was an R&B vocalist, songwriter and pianist. He died on February 6, 1960, in an auto accident.

Rudy Lewis, vocalist for The Drifters, died on May 20, 1964, from a drug overdose.

Brian Jones, a founder of the Rolling Stones and guitarist, died from drowning on July 3, 1969. He had been pushed out of the band the previous month.

Alan Wilson was the lead singer and songwriter for Canned Heat. He died on September 3, 1970, of an overdose.

English: Jimi Hendrix at the amusement park Gr...

Jimi Hendrix, possibly the greatest guitarist in history, died on September 18, 1970. He succumbed to a combination of too much wine and sleeping pills.

Janis Joplin, one of the greatest blues singers of all time, died of heroin poisoning on October 4, 1970.

Jim Morrison was the lead singer and songwriter for The Doors. He died on July 3, 1971, from a heart attack, probably brought on by a lifetime of alcohol and drug use.

Pigpen McKernan, one of the founders of the Grateful Dead, died of complications from alcohol poisoning on March 8, 1973.

Dave Alexander was the bass player for The Stooges. He died on February 10, 1975, from complications after a lifetime of alcohol abuse.

Pete Ham played keyboards and guitar for Badfinger. He hung himself on April 24, 1975.

Chris Bell was the founder of Big Star and its chief songwriter. He died in an automobile crash on December 27, 1978.

D. Boon was a leader in the punk rock movement, singer, and guitarist for the Minutemen. He died in a car crash on December 22, 1985.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a cohort of Andy Warhol and the founder of Gray. He died of a heroin overdose on August 12, 1988.

Kurt Cobain (front) and Krist Novoselic (left)...

Kurt Cobain, singer and songwriter for Nirvana, died by an apparent suicide on April 5, 1994.

Kristen Pfaff was one of the few female bass players to achieve individual fame. She played with Hole and died from an overdose on June 16, 1994.

Richey Edwards, a founder of the Manic Street Preachers and songwriter, died on February 1, 1995. It was thought to be a suicide.

Bryan Ottoson was guitarist for American Head Charge. He died from an overdose on April 19, 2005.

Amy Winehouse, singer and songwriter, died on July 23, 2011, from alcohol poisoning.


Soul Letters: Jourdon Anderson

Jourdon AndersonWriters are renown for their ability to construct moving, passionate letters. It’s a natural byproduct of the craft, usually garnered after decades of toil and trials. However, they are not alone when it comes to creating a unique style of missive, the soul letter, that faithfully holds its creator up to a mirror.

Soul letters speak to more than the recipient, touch upon more than the topic at hand. They provide us with a personal, faithful glimpse of the writer. These letters hold nothing back, regardless of the writer’s intent. They lay it all bare for us to ponder, each sentence in a white hot light. Although they will never be considered great literary endeavors, they are superb unto themselves. They are written from the heart and lay bare the soul. They are honest.

Jourdon Anderson was born in 1825, in Tennessee. By the age of 8, he was sold into slavery to General Paulding Anderson in the same State. Anderson’s son, Patrick, “inherited” Jourdon after the General’s death. Patrick and Jourdon had been playmates when they were children. Now, he was Patrick’s chattel.

During his servitude, Jourdon married and eventually became the father of 11 children. In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, Jourdon and his family were freed by Union soldiers who had camped on the Anderson plantation. Jourdon packed up his family and moved to Ohio where he found work and was able to support himself financially. He lived there until 1907, when he died at the age of 81.

A few months after the end of the War, Jourdon received a letter from his former “owner” pleading with him to come back to the plantation. In response, Jourdon wrote this amazing reply, filled with satire and poignancy at the same time. It is a revealing look at a man who never lost his dignity or sense of humor, regardless of the hardships he faced throughout his life.

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.

Madeleine Hinkes, A Quiet Passion

Forensic AnthropologyMy favorite heroes/heroines are quiet, unassuming and passionate. A writer can’t help but come into contact with an amazing array of people, especially if the writing project deals with topics that impact us all. Many years ago, I was working on a project that dealt with forensic anthropology. It’s one of those fields that often goes overlooked by mainstream media. Yet, it is a vital, passionate kind of science. It’s a science that speaks for the dead.

During the course of the project, I came into contact with some extraordinary people. They were not simply scientists going about their work. These were dedicated, involved and determined individuals, who deeply cared about the meaning of their work.

One of the forensic anthropologists who moved me was Madeleine Hinkes. The depth of her commitment and her obvious passion impacted me at the time and has stayed with me over the years. Here’s a bit of background about this extraordinary woman, and a letter that she wrote to me in the 1990s.

Madeleine Hinkes holds a Diplomate in Forensic Anthropology from the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and has published dozens of important papers in her field. She has worked with the Office of the Medical Examiner in San Diego, Albany, Honolulu, Tucson, and Albuquerque, analyzing human remains and participating in a wide variety of forensic investigations. Hinkes has taught at both the graduate and undergraduate levels and has been involved in many criminal and mass disaster investigations throughout her career. In short, she brings first-rate credentials and decades of experience to her science. However, she also brings something rare and compelling to her work—a deep passion for what she does and an obvious commitment to its social significance. In this sense, Hinkes’ career is an expression of the human side of forensic anthropology—a style and approach that is shared by many of her colleagues.

Here is Dr. Hinkes’ letter. In it, she expressed what her career has meant to her from both a scientific and personal point of view. Despite the chaos and death that naturally surrounds her in her daily work, Hinkes discovered a deep, personal meaning to her science that is moving and inescapable:

You asked if I would tell you something of my career as a forensic anthropologist. Twenty-five years ago, I wanted to be an archaeologist—to dig up dinosaurs, in fact. However, in the Summer of 1973, I found myself in a field school and discovered my first human skeleton. It was 8,000 years old and perfectly preserved. That discovery made all the difference for me and I immediately switched my college major to physical anthropology. Ten years later I earned my Ph.D.

In graduate school, I worked with Walter Birkby, a nationally recognized expert in forensic anthropology. I had the opportunity to serve my apprenticeship with him and also work with the medical examiner in the Tucson, Arizona area. Those years of outstanding training gave me the knowledge and confidence to understand that I could handle any forensic situation that came my way. Since then, I have worked on medical examiner cases for more than twenty years. I’ve investigated homicides, airplane disasters, search and recovery operations, and much more.

Each forensic case is different in terms of the human remains to be investigated and what can be learned from them. These investigations are always fascinating, but sometimes also painful. I try to convey this to my students. I read somewhere that a student once described the human skeleton as bones with the people scraped off, so I try to use that definition in the classes I teach. I tell my students that the job of the forensic anthropologist is to put the people back on the bones. This is the concept of osteobiography—writing an individual’s life history through the skeletal remains. Most people take their skeletons for granted and are surprised at the amount of information contained in them, such as sex, age, race, stature, build, and even more specific characteristics like diseases, nutrition, trauma, occupation, socioeconomic status, and cause of death.

There is a tremendous range of human variation in the skeleton because each of us has a different life history in terms of health, disease, nutrition, exercise, lifestyle, trauma, and occupation. I often meet individuals whose skulls or skeletons I would love to study more closely because of their distinctive characteristics, and it is frustrating to me that the only way I can see my own skeleton is through an X-ray!

I have met many interesting people in my career, like pathologists, dentists, and investigators. I’ve also made some very close friends in strange places—like over an autopsy table. To my mind, the team approach to forensics is indispensable, and the best characteristic a forensic anthropologist can have is flexibility. Every situation is different and a forensic anthropologist can often find herself in some very primitive, difficult situations.

The sights and smells associated with forensic anthropology are distinct and often unpleasant. Much of my education didn’t prepare me for that, but I’ve learned to deal with it over the years. I have also learned much about people and the unspeakable things they can do to each other. It’s been quite an education in the real world, and I am much more conscious about my personal safety now.

I enjoy forensic anthropology because it allows me to give something back to society, to help families searching for loved ones, and to solve puzzles with a skill that few others possess (or may not even want to possess). When I first started in this science, there were few women in the field and I enjoyed that aspect of being different. Today, forensics is a very public arena and the expertise of the forensic anthropologist is constantly being tested. I am always learning something new and gaining a deeper appreciation for how different individuals are.

Testifying as an expert witness at trial can be daunting, but it is the ultimate end to a case—testifying to the trauma that led to death. Knowing that the accused murderer is in front of me in court is a sobering experience. As a scientist, I am supposed to be impartial and leave the arguing to the attorneys. However, the cruelty I often see in these cases—the inhuman treatment and indifference for another—should be punished.

I’ve investigated several mass disasters, like the 1985 crash of an Arrow Air DC8 in Gander, Newfoundland. In that crash, 256 lives were lost and I was instrumental in identifying 70 of the victims. In those kinds of situations, I routinely work at least a twelve-hour shift. The families are desperate to know what happened to their loved ones and the media is constantly pressuring the investigation team for information. In these situations, we cannot make any errors. A misidentification is the worst thing you can do to a family.

I’ve also worked on teams to identify the war dead, spending seven years at the Army’s MIA lab in Hawaii. I have met the sons of dead men who looked exactly like the photographs of their fathers on their military identification. It’s a strange and spooky feeling. Still, I found Vietnam to be a beautiful country filled with friendly people. They seemed very curious about a blonde, curly-haired American woman in their midst. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the Vietnam War when it was happening because I was too young. However, being there and talking to American former prisoners of war stirred me to learn all I could about the War. Each time we sent an identified soldier home to his family, there would be an official ceremony at Hickam Air Force Base. I would attend those ceremonies for the remains of the soldiers I had helped to identify. I don’t think my eyes were dry for a single ceremony. That’s the hardest part of the job—putting aside the clinical detachment and meeting the families and loved one of those men and women whose lives were cut short.

Today, I work on about twenty-five forensic cases a year. Some of them are routine homicides, but others can be quite strange. One of the strangest cases I investigated was the wreckage of a Boston Whaler boat and a gravesite discovered in 1988 on the uninhabited Taongi Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The boat turned out to be the Sarah Joe—a fishing boat that was lost off Maui in a storm nearly ten years previously with five men on board. When the grave was investigated, it contained the remains of a man. The questions that raced through my mind were incredible. What happened? How did this boat get to be 2,500 miles from home? Who found the bones and buried them? When? This case was featured on the television program Unsolved Mysteries because it certainly was an unsolved mystery! When I investigated the Sarah Joe, I had the adventure of sailing on a United States Coast Guard buoy tender through the Marshall Islands to Taongi. I was the only female on board for the four-day mission. The bad news is that I discovered that I get seasick and cannot swim to save my life!

Now, having said all this, I ask you: is there really any other career even worth considering?

Gregor Spanks the History Channel

GregorGregor is very upset with the History Channel. He thinks they deserve a good spanking.

Gregor understands the concept of “history.” He suffered through the subject many years ago in school, back in the days after the automobile was invented. Gregor knows that history is fraught with errors, like Columbus discovered America. He has always sought the truth behind history, the real meaning of things past. Sadly, the History Channel didn’t fill this need. In fact, it has made Gregor more frustrated than ever.

Gregor points to these gaping history holes never filled by the alleged History Channel.

Giorgio Tsoukalos Ancient Aliens

Ancient Aliens. Gregor knows all about aliens. He lived with one for many years. He’s been abducted, tested, sent through time, bred and otherwise maltreated by aliens. None of this is history. It’s current events. It belongs on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox News. Worse, Gregor objects to the belief that our ancestors were too stupid to build nice structures and beautiful temples. Gregor’s ancestors were not stupid. He isn’t stupid. If it wasn’t for his lobotomy, Gregor would certainly have been a noted historian. Gregor is not pleased that the History Channel makes his ancestors look like a bunch of Neanderthals.

Swamp People. What’s this obsession about people who live in swamps? Why pick on alligators all the time? Where’s the history in that? Gregor thinks this is not historical, and not even particularly interesting. He believes the History Channel is creating history, not imparting it. He knows that swamps have been around a long time. He understands that alligators are frightening. He even likes Cajun food. But Gregor believes this is a silly way to fill-in the blanks between commercials. He thinks one show would have been enough to cover the history of swamps and alligators. Gregor wants the History Channel to get out of the swamps.

The Bounty Hunter (K-9)

Big Bounty Hunters. OK, so there are bounty hunters running around. They show off their muscles and use all kinds of alleged tactical tactics to chase people all over the countryside. It’s the overused good-guy bad-guy thing regurgitated as history. Gregor has seen many Westerns in his time. He thinks the six-gun packing bounty hunters were a lot more fun. They didn’t need to show off their muscles or tactical prowess. They just shot the bad guys mano-a-mano. How are these new guys historical? Aren’t they just copycats? Gregor says once is enough. Cut down on the filler and get back to history.

American Pickers. So what if some guys can pick out good junk and make money doing it? How is that history? Shouldn’t this be on the Yard Sale Channel?

Life After People. Now, Gregor has to put up with history in reverse. History is supposed to look back, tell us about the good old days. But, no! This series looks ahead to a time when we’re all dust and history-less. Gregor liked the graphics, and he was very happy that all those animals survived our stupidity. But what has that got to do with history? It belongs on the Future Armageddon Channel.

Armageddon. Yep, they stole this one away from the Future Armageddon Channel. Gregor has seen the 4,354 ways we will all go to hell in a hand basket. The History Channel has made it clear that everything is doomed, destined for oblivion. OK, so how’s that history? By the time it happens there won’t be any history any more. That means the History Channel will also go away.

Gregor wishes the History Channel would just get down to business and do the right thing. These shows have nothing to do with history. They’re all over the map, showing Gregor all kinds of stuff that may or may not happen, that probably or likely did not occur, that titillate but not inform, that speculate but never hit the bottom line. Gregor believes the History Channel may be nothing more than a profit-oriented operation that has lost its historical roots. He worries that he will be co-opted and lose his links to the past.

Gregor will continue to spank the History Channel until it gets things right. In the meantime, he will try the Home Shopping Network, where real history is made.

Gregor lives here.

Beat Generation Rollover of 1965

Caffee Trieste BackIt’s one of the lesser cosmic mysteries but still an interesting one. When did the San Francisco Beat Generation disappear?

Beat G was going strong in 1963. That was self-evident. By 1967, the hippie counterculture movement was everywhere in the City and the Beats were gone.

So, when did this rollover really happen?

It wasn’t a light-switch deal. But it also wasn’t a slow morphing. The change was farily swift by usual social standards, and the Beats were forever scattered, absorbed, whatever. Many of us geezers who are still around like to think of 1965 as the year the world changed.

In fact, we can even pinpoint the month and the day. It was Friday, December 3, 1965. The event was Bob Dylan’s San Francisco press conference at the KQED studio just prior to his five concert tour of the Bay Area.

Well, maybe this is a bit too precise for anal-retentive historians. But many of my fellow geezers will tell you that Dylan’s press conference was an hour of transition that stood squarely between Beat G and hippie counterculture. The seasoned Beats sometimes look at that event with swampy eyes. Beat G was morphing very fast, even before Dylan’s arrival in the City. After his press conference, Beat G seemed to vanish, forever.

KQED Studio

KQED was the City’s educational channel. It started broadcasting in 1954 from an old truck warehouse on 4th Street. The station was a completely volunteer effort, down to the second-hand furnishings. It also grew up with the Beat Generation and was an early, progressive voice for the arts of the time. If you were City Beat G, you knew and loved KQED because it gave you a voice and a vision. By 1965, the station was well established in the City, although it still struggled financially. It had become locally legendary for innovation in broadcasting and spoke to the artsy side of life in San Francisco.

Dylan was the musical voice of Beat G prior to his City press conference. But he also had a keen eye toward a future counterculture. His words were clear enough to those who would listen carefully. It was all about change, the same message that Beat G loved to hear and express. But it was just a little askew. Dylan’s album, Highway 61 Revisited, had a massive impact on Beat G as well as the new, still-forming counterculture movement. He spoke both languages and was constantly re-defining himself quicker than the rest of us could keep up. It was his December 1965 press conference that laid it all out most clearly, in plain English and in the City.

Dylan Press Conference

Looking at Dylan during the press conference paints the picture of Beat G, but just a tiny bit twisted out of shape. His music and words went beyond the aging message. It was clear that he was looking farther than the established limits, signaling something that transcended our localized art message. Dylan seemed to be calling for a more dramatic, universal view of the world that we had never envisioned. He was different, in nearly every way. Yet, for the Beat G folks, his message was also familiar.

Dylan was the essence of enigmatic, even for Beat G. He left us dangling, uncertain, and he seemed to thrive on the process. Was he just pimping the press or was he carving out a new direction? In December 1965, we weren’t sure. Within a year, we were all certain about it. Looking back, it seems obvious.

Check out a few of the press conference exchanges:

Press: Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or poet?

Dylan: Oh, I think of myself as a song and dance man, ya’know.

Press: Why?

Dylan: Oh, I don’t think we have enough time to really go into that.

What! That was definitely not a traditional Beat G answer. Who was this guy who was not a poet yet wrote great poetry, was a lousy singer but created unforgettable music, and set himself up as a “song and dance man?” He was claiming a path that none of us expected, none of us could quite figure out.

Press: What poets do you dig?

Dylan Press Conference GleasonDylan: Rimbaud, I guess; W. C. Fields; The family, you know, the trapeze family in the circus; Smokey Robinson; Allen Ginsberg; Charlie Rich – he’s a good poet.

Wow! If you were Beat G, this came right out of left field. Who among us would have considered Smokey Robinsion and Allen Ginsberg in the same sentence? We were obviously hearing something very new here. We never gave much thought to the trapeze family, nor to W. C. Fields. In fact, we shunned the circus as much too square to be of consequence. W. C. Fields would never have been considered cool. That was pure heresy.

Press: If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest, which one would you choose?

Dylan: Ladies garments.

Press: Mr. Dylan, I know you dislike labels and probably rightfully so, but for those of us well over thirty, could you label yourself and perhaps tell us what your role is?

Dylan: Well, I’d sort of label myself as “well under thirty.” And my role is to just, ya’know, to just stay here as long as I can.

Dylan Press Conference PaperPress: Do you consider yourself a politician?

Dylan: Do I consider myself a politician? Oh, I guess so. I have my own party though.

Press: Does it have a name?

Dylan: No. There’s no presidents in the party – there’s no presidents, or vice presidents, or secretaries or anything like that, so it makes it kinda hard to get in.

Press: Is there any right wing or left wing in that party?

Dylan: No. It’s more or less in the center – kind of on the Uppity scale.

Uppity? My Lord of Beat! What is this guy trying to say here? Uppity is OK?

Press: Do you think your party could end the war with China?

Dylan: Uh – I don’t know. I don’t know if they would have any people over there that would be in the same kind of party, ya’know? It might be kind of hard to infiltrate. I don’t think my party would ever be approved by the White House or anything like that.

Press: Is there anyone else in your party?

Dylan: No. Most of us don’t even know each other, ya’know. It’s hard to tell who’s in it and who’s not in it.

Press: Would you recognize them if you see them?

Dylan: Oh, you can recognize the people when you see them.

Where is this guy heading? He’s a party of one! That’s about as anti-Beat G as you can get and still be a credible artist. Unheard of! So, the message is clear – art is about the individual, not the collective. Politics for one is good. Commercialsm has its place. Who needs Beat G anymore?

Press: Mr. Dylan, when would you know that it was time to get out of the music field into another field?

Dylan: When I get very dragged.

Press: When you stop making money?

Bob Dylan performing at St. Lawrence Universit...

Dylan: No. When my teeth get better – or God, when something makes a drastic – uh – when I start to itch, ya’know? When something just goes to a terrifying turn and I know it’s got nothing to do with anything and I know it’s time to leave.

OK, that’s the bottom line. There it is. You go your own way, on your own time, on your own dime. That’s a different message, for sure. No Beat G here, boss. It’s a world of one. Where have we been lurking all these years? Individualism was the word from this poet, and he had a loud voice.

By the time of this press conference, Dylan was already a prominent figure. He had influence, followers, Beat G’ers who gave him love. But he also embodied something that Beat G missed – unabashed, unashamed individuality. Dylan was going to go his own way, regardless. He was breaking new ground with each song, each appearance, each of his enigmatic one-liners. It was a zig-zag road trip, nothing familiar or comfortable. This was fresh stuff.

When Dylan spoke, it was with his own, unique voice. Willingly or not, he pointed out the fatal flaw with Beat G. We spoke mostly to ourselves, to our art, and not to the bigger world. For Dylan, it was all about finding his unique path and having no fear of playing it out in public throuh his art. He had walked away from the beloved folk music to folk-rock (although he denied it) and had a vision that could not be shared, or even understood at times.

By December 1965, it was clear enough that Beat G needed to move on, somehow. We each had to find our own path and could no longer live within the comfort of a small enclave, no matter how talented or ground-breaking its members.

Like Dylan, we had to change our game. There were no other options. Dylan finally broke our collective backs, probably without any awareness of the meaning. We had to be ourselves to be real, just like him.

Looking back, he did us a big favor. His legacy and his word-lessons were good.

You can read the entire Dylan press conference here, thanks to Rolling Stone. Thanks to Kripes ProBoards for the Dylan press conference images. Thanks to KQED for all they’ve done over the years, and for having the insight to bring Dylan to San Francisco.

A few other articles on San Francisco Beat G:

Soppy Writer Nostalgia and City Lights Books

The 1963 Novelist

Cool Beat G in 1963

The Small Soul of Beat G

Allen GinsbergHistorians regularly pump out alluring swamp gas that lacks even a feather of genuine worth. Opinions become facts, mole hills are made into mountains, important events are forgotten or overlooked, individuals are swept aside, everything gets depersonalized. Geez. I suppose the History Channel is here to stay, so why bother to delve deeper? Well, because there’s always another face to history, a human face.

Let’s take it a little deeper, down to a very personal level of American history.

I’m talking about the Beat Generation here. Gagging up a few words about how the historians got it all wrong, all the way down the line. How they forgot why Beat G came about in the first place. I’m thinking about the human side of past times, the heart of the story that may actually make sense to real people.

Remember, it’s an individualized tale, shared by a few but usually overlooked by the history spinners or media dancers.

The word art of the Beat Generation evolved from personal encounters with a small soul. From the San Francisco point of view, looking back, it wasn’t a movement at all. In fact, the essence of Beat G eschewed the very concept of a movement, in the formal sense. And it certainly wasn’t an entire generation, or anything close. It was a small collective, centered on two opposite coasts, whose members did a lot of traveling and made lots of noise. The essence of Beat G was tiny, a bare whisper yelling out from a crowded, faceless, enormous stadium.

To be Beat G back in the day was to search out your own small soul, to touch the only point of reality of which you could be relatively certain. It was never much more than a primal personal journey. But, for whatever reason, it left its footprint across our literature and social landscape. Beat G infiltrated the national consciousness, which was never intended or even seriously considered. A personal journey turned into a “movement” because history deemed it so. The historians made it happen but they missed the boat long after it had already left the dock.

City Lights BeatBeat G was very much a 1950s protest of the most personal kind. It was a re-invention of the timeless “dark night of the soul” that every serious word artist knew and eventually confronted. What made it more pressing, more critical, is that the entire world seemed to be teetering on the edge of that same dark night. What we felt on a deeply personal level was also threatening the entire planet, and doing so without good reason or common sense. That was our view. That was our shared pain.

The 1950s were ugly and frightening in so many ways. Materialism was rampant. The Cold War threatened the entire planet. Segregation kept us apart from each other. McCarthyism proved that fascism was alive in our own, historically free country. Censorship was everywhere, promoted and fostered by our own government. All the promises of renewal from the horrendous sacrifices of WWII were squandered. It seemed as though America was asleep in the 1950s, unaware of how far we had strayed from our traditions of individualism, personal freedom, and a willingness to reach out to those beyond our immediate family. As a society, we had closed ourselves off, become fearful and paranoid, unwilling to even hear an alternative point of view. No one wanted to rock the boat, unless it was to blow up the planet.

There were big issues, everywhere. Too many to confront, too complex to even understand. The only reasonable way to deal with them was on a deeply personal level. To find a way out by finding a way in. We would start with the basics. We would start with our own small souls. This was our home turf.

We were a fractured generation back then but generally insisted that all was going along according to some grand, undefined plan. It was a time when dissent was simply not allowed, not tolerated. Questions were not to be asked, especially if they challenged the prevailing opinions of the sea of sleepers of the 1950s. It was a time to keep your head down, figuratively and literally. If you didn’t, there was always some Joe McCarthy out there ready and willing to lop off your brow.

City Lights BookstoreWell, that just wasn’t the way we viewed our country, or ourselves. We saw America as having a long, honored tradition of pursuing individuality, exploring, exercising our right to free speech, experimenting, moving ahead and taking risks. This was our communal history and there was no reason to put it out to pasture in the interests of comfort and conformity. But, for many reasons, the 1950s shunned all of this, turned these courageous urges into something dark and threatening. We didn’t appreciate that point of view. In fact, we felt beaten down by it. That was the essence of Beat G, from a soul-deep point of view.

We wanted to re-evaluate the entire mess, to re-draw the borders through our own experience and knowledge. It made no sense to tow a party line that was poorly defined, depersonalized, dangerous, obviously not working for our country, and that clearly disregarded the primal concept of individual freedom. It was us, each as individuals, who had created our country. It was not America who created us. We needed to re-discover that truism and do it as unique individuals in search of our own souls.

Did we go too far? Yes. We pushed the limits all the time. Many of us killed ourselves in the process. We broke the law left, right, up and down. Some of it was justified, some was just silly. We were doing an inside-out search for ourselves. If it stirred in our soul, if it had any direction at all, we chased it in the real world. It wasn’t so much that we held a deep disdain for the social norms of the time. It wasn’t that simple. We just didn’t find any sense in putting artificial restrictions on a life that should be led as genuinely as possible. We wanted to know life and know it truly, not as defined for us by others.

The Beat Generation

It wasn’t that we hated all rules, just the rules that broke our backs. Just the rules that kept us separate from each other, unable to speak freely, and unaware of ourselves. Our leaders were not taking us down a healthy path. That was obvious. Mutually Assured Destruction was, from our point of view, complete insanity. Censorship by the federal government was taking a reasonable concept much too far. Turning in your neighbor as a suspected communist brought us right back to the Nazi Party atrocities of our parents’ generation. Our parents suffered and died to ensure this craziness could never again happen, anywhere. Little of America’s behavior made sense on either a personal or grand scale. Hadn’t we learned from the horrors of WWII? Why were we going down this dangerous, deadly road yet again? Looking around, we found the dominant society fearful, tired, bored, over-fed, segregated, isolated, complacent, sometimes dangerous and just plain comatose. We didn’t want any of that for ourselves.

No, Beat G was never a movement in the classic sense. It was a journey of discovery, a search for the little soul within. The big questions became personal issues of a frightening, painful kind. That was the only way they could be handled. We could never be free if we were incapable of dealing with how the problems of our day impacted our personal lives. And, if these issues were so personal, so critical, they must also be vital to the larger society. We could not accept being separated, manipulated, so often the target of politics and lies when the stakes were so high.

We didn’t plan to be renegades, upstarts, doo-doo disturbers, or anything of the kind. We just wanted to be in touch with our small souls and, in doing so, touch the large societal soul that seemed to be struggling with itself.

Did we go too far? Sure. We paid a heavy price.

Did we make some good art along the way? You bet we did.

Did we change the world? Of course not.

But we did make a dent in our own small souls.

Great Literary Bleemersnarks: Carlos and Don Juan

The Teachings of Don Juan

The recipe is simple but the preparation may take some time. Start with your favorite slices of fraud, hoax, scam or forgery. Mix well with several cups of greed. Garnish it with the essence of a failed self-lobotomy. Simmer until done. Serve while hot. That’s a literary bleemersnark.

Today’s favorite recipe: The entire body of work created by Carlos Cesar Salvador Arana Castaneda, better known to us as Carlos Castaneda. In total, a dozen books in the series. A unique smorgasbord of tasty fable-weaving, wrapped in obvious writing talent, with a likely daily diet of self-delusion. Ironically, this all worked well for nearly everyone involved, including Castaneda’s readers.

When and Where: The series began in California, in 1968, with the publication of The Teachings of Don Juan. Eleven more books would follow, including two published after Castaneda’s death.

The Bleemersnarkee: Not much damage here, unless you believe what publishers like Simon and Schuster tell you. Like Castaneda, the publishing house never failed to classify his work as “nonfiction” despite decades of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Consider this a case of mislabeling, perpetuated at the altar of corporate income. For Castaneda, it was a dream come true. Yes, even wizards can be surprised.

Carlos Castaneda

The Bleemersnarker: Castaneda was born in December 1925, in Peru. He died in April 1998, in Los Angeles. These are the facts, contrary to Castaneda’s changing stories about his birthplace, age, and a layer-cake of other goodies. He was a first-rate writer, as anyone who has read his books can attest. This is especially true of his first three novels.

The Plot: In a nutshell, Castaneda claimed to have received special training in native mysticism from a Yaqui “Man of Knowledge,” who went by the name of Don Juan Matus. His entire collection of books involves the practice and passing on of the sacred knowledge through a variety of characters. His first book, The Teachings of Don Juan, was allegedly the dissertation required for his doctoral candidacy in Anthropology at UCLA. This first book fooled them all, as did his next two. For a time, Castaneda was golden in both anthropological circles and literary ones. Several luminaries drank fully of the Castaneda cocktail, and life was so good.

After a few years, a small enclave of researchers began to look more closely at the body of Castaneda’s work. Their microscopes revealed some very nasty bugs.

The Fallout: In the 1970s, everything started to unravel. A number of articles critical of Castaneda’s work began to appear. Internal inconsistencies were many, time lines didn’t match up with movements, gaps in his work were appearing frequently. In fact, a close look at Castaneda’s first three books proved to unwind the myth that he had created with their publication. For example, when Carlos said he was out in the field dropping peyote and having mystical encounters, library slips showed him back at UCLA researching a wealth of related material. Woops.

Primary among his critics was Richard de Mille, who summarized his findings in Castaneda’s Journey: The Power and the Allegory. There were many other doubters, who also published scathing yet usually well-researched rebuttals. It soon became clear that Castaneda’s work was anything but nonfiction. Nonetheless, the author continued to insist on the authenticity of his work and the reality of his experiences. As criticism reached a crescendo, Castaneda disappeared from public view for long periods but would resurface at rare and convenient moments. He was a master at the dodge, only allowing a few individuals close access. In the last decades of his life, Castaneda had, of course, become a full-blown wizard, just like Don Juan before him. He was also somewhat of a cult leader.

However, all was not the pure pleasure of enlightenment for him or his closest associates. In fact, it all got pretty nasty near the end.

The Reveal: In April 2007, Salon published a lengthy article written by Robert Marshall, The Dark Legacy of Carlos Castaneda. It’s a fascinating, detailed look at Castaneda, his life, his devotees, his cult and, of course, the hoax. Marshall leaves no stone unturned and offers readers a penetrating investigation into the whole affair. The Castaneda story did not end well for some. At least five of his closest followers disappeared. Many others were left holding the bag. As Marshall points out in his article, Castaneda left a very dark legacy in his wake.

Yet, for those of us who read his books, especially the early ones, the fond memories remain. Call it hoax, fiction, or whatever you may, Castaneda could weave a heck of a tale. He created characters that last a lifetime for many readers. Perhaps a little honesty would have been better, but would it have killed any chance at publishing his first book? It’s one of the many enduring mysteries of Carlos Castaneda.