Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Dead Beats

By Leonard Gill

AUGUST 21, 2000: 

The Beat Hotel by Barry Miles (Grove Press); 294 pp.; $25

Nine, rue Git-le-Coeur is these days a fancy hotel on Paris' Left Bank, a hotel dressed to the nines: good fabrics, telephones with modems, marble counter tops, rooms with safes for valuables, bathrooms with bathrobes for convenience.

Security and comfort were not, however, high on the list of the hotel's previous owners, a certain Monsieur and Madame Rachou. From 1933 to 1963, their place was, in a word, a dump -- officially, a "class 13 hotel," meaning it met the minimum legal health and safety requirements established by French law. Its 42 rooms came with a whopping 40 watts of power apiece, enough for one sorry lightbulb and, at any one time, a radio or phonograph or hot plate. Floors gave. Air stank. (One toilet, Turkish-style, served each landing: a hole, basically, and newsprint for you know what.) For a slight surcharge, on the groundfloor on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, you got a bathtub and, with advance notice and luck, hot water. (Bedspreads cleaned gratis -- annually.)

Who settled for such? Neighborhood whores, jazz musicians, artists' models mostly, some painters, some writers. The Rachous didn't mind (Madame especially after the death of her husband). Didn't mind in 1956 when black writer Chester Himes, who'd already served time in the Ohio State Penitentiary for armed robbery, showed up with his German girlfriend. Didn't mind when a woolly Swiss artist, by the name of "Jesus Christ," used walls and floor in lieu of canvas. (The paint kept out the bugs.) And didn't mind in October 1957 when the first contingent of Beats -- Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso (who christened the establishment the Beat Hotel), and next year, El Hombre Invisible himself, William Burroughs -- arrived. (Jack Kerouac, sensitive to "primitive sanitary arrangements" in Mexico, recently grossed out by a stay in Tangier, did not.) Second-stringers and Englishmen Brion Gysin, inventor of the "Cut-up," and Ian Sommerville, co-inventor with Gysin of the "Dreamachine," followed on their heels.

Barry Miles, friend to these figures since the mid-'60s, writes in The Beat Hotel with three objectives in mind: to pay tribute to those friends, to publicize the Beat Generation's "international aspect," and to tell what he thinks is the undertold story of Gysin and Sommerville. This is a laudable aim if your aim is low and your aim is to set the record straight, less laudable if that record is spotty and conceivably not all it's cracked up to be. Miles seriously proposes that the spring of 1960 was a benchmark, "the beginning of the most explosive decade of cultural experimentation since the turn of the century." And by "experimentation" -- sex, drugs, but, according to this author, not rock-and-roll ("there was no rock 'n' roll yet" [!]) -- God knows, the century's on his side. Culturally? The jury's out because the results aren't in. The Beats shadow us still.

What then from Miles, in concrete terms, do we learn? That the "unintelligible ranting" of Antonin Artaud, which Allen Ginsberg gushed was "perhaps from inside the memory of all the human minds forever," was to Ginsberg's dismay actually a tape mistakenly played backward. That reel-to-reel recorders at the time were "operated by punching big buttons." That Gregory Corso's one and only novel, The American Express, was, in the words of its own author, "Syntactically and grammatically ... fucked up." That the "phenomenon of flicker," the optical and mind-bending basis for Gysin and Sommerville's Dreamachine, grew out of another researcher's experiments with "artificially induced epileptic seizures." That one such machine once graced the window of Helena Rubinstein's beauty salon in Paris, and that attempts to market it collapsed when an executive from Holland entered the Beat Hotel, "slipped on a dog turd in the hallway ... and left." That the tension inside 9, rue de Git-le-Coeur was so great one occupant (later institutionalized by his mother) "sometimes had to go outside and vomit." That Burroughs' "psychoanalysis combined with his heroin addiction had made him very introspective." And that sex between Burroughs and the "highly strung" Sommerville the latter once described as "creepy."

Facts these may be. Especially enlightening, no. And little good at explaining why "Kaddish" (passages initially composed inside the Beat Hotel) remains important, why Naked Lunch ("edited" inside the Beat Hotel) still stands as some kind of breakthrough, why Corso's "Bomb" (written and designed inside the Beat Hotel) made for an influential broadside from City Lights bookstore, and why today's TV commercials outdo as light-show the effects engineered by Gysin and Sommerville (inside the Beat Hotel).

Why, though, when I think spring 1960, sight and sound, culture and experiment, art not influence, do I still picture Antonioni and L'avventura? Barry Miles doesn't say. It isn't his beat.

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