Passing the Torch: The Beat Generation and Velvet Underground in Paris

As part of my role as “Foreign Desk” of the Museum of American Poetics, I was asked to review two exhibits in Paris, July 2016.

PASSING THE TORCH: The Beats and the Velvet Underground in Paris.

In July 2016, on opposite sides of the city, Paris hosted two exhibits that began with Allen Ginsberg. At the Centre Pompidou, there was “The Beat Generation: New York San Francisco Paris,” whose story begins with the meeting of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs in the area around Columbia University in 1943. Across town, at the Philharmonie de Paris–a classical concert hall and exhibition space–there was an exhibit on the late Sixties rock band the Velvet Underground. Waiting in line to buy tickets, you can’t escape the disembodied voice of Allen Ginsberg reciting his poem “America,” from 1956: “[America] Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.”

Why is an American literary movement the focus of an exhibition in a major modern art museum in France, and what does Allen Ginsberg have to do with a NYC rock band from the late Sixties? The answers to those questions are core to understanding the revolution in the arts that began in NYC in 1943.

The actual beginning of the Pompidou exhibit is a photograph visible on the outside of the building that was unfamiliar to me. It shows a broken-down bus in—it turns out—Mexico in 1966. It was taken by Bernard Plossu, a French photographer sent by the British government to document the people and culture and landscape of Chiapas when he was only 20 years old. From the mid-Fifties through the mid-Sixties, Plossu wandered through Mexico photographing a culture in flux.

What does this have to do with the Beat Generation, you may be thinking. In the introduction to Plossu’s first photography collection (Le Voyage Mexicain: L’integral, 1956-1966, published in 1979), Claude Nori explains that the response to Plossu’s photographs and lifestyle made him the French Jack Kerouac. His embrace of the vagabond lifestyle caused art critic Guillermo Samperio to describe Plossu as “a poet who travels.”

This idea of “a poet who travels” is integral to the exhibition as well as, paradoxically, the importance of place and community. Appropriately, you move through the exhibit pretty much from one location to another—not only San Francisco-New York-Paris, but Mexico, Tangier, Big Sur, India.

There is a particularly extensive documentation of the residence of many of the principles from 1957 through 1960 at the Hotel Rachou in rue Git-le-Coeur, now popularly known as the Beat Hotel. It is at the Hotel Rachou that Allen began “Kaddish,” and Gregory Corso finished Gasoline, to be published by City Lights. The Hotel Rachou is where Burroughs, Ginsberg and Sinclair Beiles assembled Naked Lunch in 1959. And it was in these small and inexpensive rooms that Brion Gysin and Burroughs began to experiment with the cut-up method, which would eventually supply Burroughs with material for his next two books, The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded. (All three of these books have a further connection to Paris, as they were all published by Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press, nearly across the street from the Hotel Rochau.) The exhibition has even recreated Burroughs’ room at the hotel, including a sagging bed and worn bedding, his pictures on the wall, and a Dream Machine–a piece of cardboard with slats and holes cut through it that revolves around a light bulb which the group used to inspire closed-eye visions.

But the exhibit expands well beyond the geography covered by the Beats. What becomes clear as you move through the extensive, sprawling exhibit (there are fifteen rooms) is that writing was only one aspect of their work. A century ago, the Dadaists—and later the Surrealists—encouraged poets to compose music, painters to write poems, musicians to paint. How better to connect to the unspoiled primitivism inside us celebrated by Kerouac and Plossu than by an unskilled hand creating art as fresh as a child’s?

Just so, almost everyone present is exhibited in more than one medium. For instance, as we enter the exhibit, we hear a loop of selections from Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” (1953). Later we come across his film “Early Abstractions” (1946-1957), several of his paintings, and his extraordinary “typewriter drawings,” which I had never seen. Allen Ginsberg’s photographs fill two walls of a gallery, and it was the most crowded part of the exhibit on my first visit, with crowds jostling to get close enough to read Allen’s copious handwritten notes locating and detailing the significance of each photo. I realized how wise Allen was to add these notes, controlling the narrative of the photos, knowing they would be exhibited long after his death. And there are many drawings by Burroughs and Corso, and paintings by Kerouac (not very good ones). Robert Frank is here not only with photographs from The Americans and From the Bus, but also via his film “Pull My Daisy.” Bruce Conner is represented not only by his monumental early films but also his bold and restless paintings.

And, as one would expect for a literary movement so influenced by jazz and the spoken word, you can hear the voices of just about every major writer represented. In fact, you can’t escape them as you wander through the rooms, as videos and recordings featuring Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs are playing throughout the exhibit. And there is also a wall of telephones where you can listen to selections from John Giorno’s Dial-a-Poem recordings of many of the other poets featured in the show.

What is made abundantly clear throughout is that the creativity of the period benefited from the sudden availability of a broad range of tools that fell into the hands of writers and artists, also on display—portable tape recorders, cheap motion-picture cameras, affordable printing techniques. Many of the often hand-made magazines, chapbooks, and broadsides are artworks in their own right.
But the written word itself is also prominently displayed, not only in contemporary printed works, but also by having representative poems by Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and others displayed in English on huge banners hung from the ceiling.

What’s also evident is that the “Beat Generation” was not something that was content to stay within the artistic and social boundaries they inherited. Cross-media connections were made and a community of artists spread in almost every direction, not only geographically and socially, but also in time. Quickly the torch was passed, perhaps nowhere as evident as in two video clips featuring Bob Dylan—the first a clip from D. A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” shot in a London alley in 1965 of Dylan (born in 1941) cradling select words from his song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” hand-printed on posterboard, with a non-chalant Allen Ginsberg standing behind him, chatting to someone out-of-frame. (Hammering home its connection to the Beats, the museum’s signage mentions the possibility of the song’s title being a sly reference to Kerouac’s The Subterraneans.) And the other explicit celebration of the passing of the torch is a video clip from Dylan’s own film—“Renaldo and Clara”—where Allen and Dylan visit Kerouac’s grave a decade later.

Much of what you want to see is here: Robert Frank’s film “Pull My Daisy” released in 1959, which becomes more and more delightful with every passing year. Enhancing the experience are behind-the-scenes photographs by John Cohen, whose extraordinary, documentary photographs appear throughout the exhibit. There is also Allen’s drunken performance at the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965 from Peter Whitehead’s “Wholly Communion,” Michael McClure reading to the lions from Richard Moore’s “USA Poetry” television series for PBS (1966), Antony Balch’s 85-second film “William [Burroughs] Buys a Parrot” and “Towers Open Fire” and their other cut-up films from 1963 (which I still find unwatchable), and even Stan Brakhage’s “Desistfilm” (1954).

When exhibiting the texts themselves, the focus is often on their non-literary qualities, such as the tactileness of the selections from The Third Mind—a collection of cut-ups by Gysin and Burroughs—or the collaged pages from Burroughs’ notebooks. There’s also the monolithic singularity of Kerouac’s On the Road scroll which stretches the length of the exhibit space, the original typescript of “Howl,” handwritten poems by Corso, elegant chapbooks from Lew Welch and Philip Whalen, Diane di Prima’s colorfully illustrated haiku, and Kerouac’s exquisite hand-drawn map of the U.S. in one of his notebooks from 1948 (diagramming, as he writes in the margin, “journeys Winter ’47-’48, hitchhiking trip July-October 1947 / And all the great territories…..”). Even some of Kerouac’s clothes and possessions are on display.

Many of my favorite pieces on exhibit were complete surprises to me: the size and formal elegance of Jess’s exquisite collages, a short film of Kerouac demonstrating his expertise at signaling with a railroad lineman’s lamp, a drawing by Brion Gysin featuring his imagined “Calligraphie,” Bruce Conner’s dense and powerful drawings and paintings, a photograph of Kerouac in Milan in 1966, the first few pages of Allen’s handwritten “Kaddish” (bought at a fundraiser by Ted Wilentz in 1971!).

Then, later in the week, I went across town to the National Philharmonie de Paris for the Velvet Underground exhibition. Like the Beat exhibit, it was an almost overwhelming mélange of sights and sounds. Following the voice of Allen Ginsberg into the exhibit proper, the exhibition begins with a closed-off foyer turned over to Allen’s poem “America.” As in the Pompidou, the poem has been printed on a banner (but in French this time) and hung from the ceiling. The only other thing in the room other than a photograph of Allen from the Fifties is a sign that reads:

“Welcome to America—After World War II, America’s consumer machine rebooted and ran like never before: an obedient, family-oriented standard of life, as picture-perfect as the images circulated in the booming media. Inflammatory intellectuals and artists, who rejected all the fake smiles, were rife. They condemned the rigidity of a supposedly liberal society in which all deviance was deemed to be dangerous. Initially marginalized, these unclassifiable individuals would use, invent and fuse all forms of creation. They defended radically different ways of life, took alternative paths, refused rules and taboos. All this was embodied in the indefatigable figurehead of the Beat Generation poets, Allen Ginsberg.”

The evidence of these efforts to “use, invent and fuse all forms of creation” is once again the first impression one gets in walking into the overstimulated and overstimulating exhibition. But instead of Blind Willie Johnson singing “John the Revelator,” you’re greeted by the sound of a different sort of apocalypse, the Velvets’ “Sister Ray.”

The Velvet Underground exhibition is being held on the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Velvets LP, “The Velvet Underground and Nico” (popularly known from its cover as “the banana album”). Its historical scope is much shorter—from 1965-1970—although the exhibition also includes a film that documents the separate paths that lead to the meeting in 1964 of John Cale and Lou Reed (born a week apart in 1942).

Cale’s journey was mostly geographical, as he began life in a small town in Wales, and spoke only Welsh until he was 7 years old. His father was a coal miner but his mother insisted he be given musical instruction. His aptitude for the violin and viola led him to London, where he began performing in Fluxus concerts, an avant garde art and music movement of the time. Subsequently, he received a musical scholarship to work with La Monte Young and John Cage, which brought him to New York City in 1963.

Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island (where his psychological problems began, according to his sister), Lou Reed’s journey was more internal, as he began to socially withdraw and disintegrate as a teen, and became nearly catatonic during his first year in college. His parents were called to collect him after a “breakdown” at Syracuse, which led to his hospitalization and electroshock therapy. He eventually dropped out of college and got a job writing songs for Pickwick Records.

Brought together to record a “dance craze” song written by Reed that Pickwick thought had “potential,” Cale enlisted his friend Angus MacLise on drums, and Reed brought in a rhythm guitarist and literature student he’d met while at Syracuse, Sterling Morrison. They called themselves the Primitives, and the unlikely band began to take shape around a song called “Do the Ostrich.” The band eventually included Maureen “Moe” Tucker on drums, the sister of a friend of Reed’s. When MacLise refused to appear to perform for money at their first professional gig, Moe was called to fill in at the last moment. Not only did she have her own drum kit but she also—more importantly for the band—owned a car, so now they could get to gigs without jostling their equipment through the subway.

Reed had studied literature with Delmore Schwartz at Syracuse and dreamed of writing songs that were more like short stories, and hoped to one day write the great American novel in the form of a rock album. When he met Cale, he already had some songs inspired by his studies with Schwartz, which he auditioned for him on acoustic guitar, including “Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin” (which Reed had been introduced to in Syracuse). Cale also had an interest in heroin, and an instant musical and substance-abuse friendship was sealed.

Although Reed’s lyrics owed a debt to the trailblazing experiments of the Beats and their embrace of the primitive, in at least one way the Velvets exceeded the Beats, and that was in the area of performance. Not only did the have electricity, guitars, and drums but, once they met Andy Warhol (through Barbara Rubin), their performances began to feature projected art and films, choreographed dances and musical improvisation.

As with the Beats, place is central to the art they created, as evidenced by the subtitle to the exhibition: “A New York Extravaganza.” Christian Fevret, primary curator of the exhibit, writes that “Without New York, the Velvets would not have existed. It was the only place where people as different as Lou Reed and John Cale would have been able to meet.”
But New York City did more than supply the opportunity for the musicians to meet, or the chance connection with Warhol and the Factory, or even the ready availability of cheap housing and drugs. It was, as they say, a New York state of mind—a sensibility—that they shared. It just so happened that this New York state of mind–dark and dangerous–was the antithesis of the love and peace generation that was rising all around them.
The band’s ill-fated forays outside of the City were mostly disasters. In 1966, they traveled to L.A. to headline The Trip from May 3rd through the 18th. A nascent Mothers of Invention were hired to open the shows, but the bands did not get along and there were plans to replace the Mothers with another unrecorded L.A. band, The Doors. But the sheriff’s department closed the venue down as a public nuisance after the third show. When Andy Warhol refused to tour with them as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable stage show in 1967, Reed never really forgave Warhol, and they remained estranged until Warhol’s death in 1987. And the steadily growing pile of physical and psychological victims they left in their wake eventually included members of the band themselves. And yet, for reasons I don’t really understand, a band that seems designed for NYC audiences refused to play in the city from 1967-1970.

The content of the exhibition is almost as broad and wide-ranging as the Beat Generation’s. It includes a staggering amount of documentary photographs, relics, audio recordings, contemporary videos, collaborations, magazines, and visual art in many different mediums. It also includes six films created especially for the exhibition, as well as contemporary films by Barbara Rubin, Jonas Mekas, and Andy Warhol.

Fred McDarrah moved from documenting the Beats to Warhol and the Velvets, and his photographs are also on exhibit here, as well as those of Lisa Law, Billy Name, Gerard Malanga, Nan Goldin, and Ira Cohen (although I was disappointed to discover that a exquisite blown-up reproduction of Ira’s mylar portrait of MacLise appears without credit).

Andy Warhol and others are often represented by work in a variety of mediums. The link to the multi-disciplinary explorations by the Beats is obvious. Everyone was doing everything. But what began as an experiment was now a demand: music, film, lyrics, photography, and visual art were now all about exploding any singular focus or style in order to let everything in. And if a visitor feels a bit overwhelmed by the high level of stimulation involved, there is an area with mattresses arranged on the floor so they take a break and watch and listen to videos of the band’s live performances projected on the ceiling.

The age range of the visitors stretched from young children to men and women in their seventies and eighties. I have rarely seen people enjoying a visit to a museum as much as I did at both of these exhibitions. Everyone was smiling as they stood with their arms crossed to watch the videos, or put on headphones to listen to numerous readings, interviews and performances. The joy all around me made it even more obvious that when I went to see a career retrospective of Paul Klee’s at the Pompidou—one of the most delightful artists in history—that no one around me was smiling at all.


The Beat Generation exhibition was curated by Philippe-Alain Michaud, with assistance from the poet Jean-Jacques Lebel and Rani Singh of the Getty Research Institute. It runs until October 3, 2016.

The Velvet Underground exhibit was curated by Christian Fevret and Carole Mirabello. It runs until August 21, 2016.

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