Herbert Huncke, Beat Hipster Sans Pareil
From Jan Herman's post at 'Straight Up Herman'.
One morning there was a knock on the door of my room in the Tenderloin. It was Huncke coming to say good-bye. This was during the late-’60s. He said he was leaving town and could use a loan for the road. If I could spare 25 bucks, he’d be grateful. I didn’t know him well, but he was always cordial, and I was pleased that we were friendly. We sometimes spent a couple of hours gabbing in Janine Pommy Vegas’s tiny North Beach pad, where the two of them lived for a while not far from my job at City Lights. I never expected repayment, of course. Hell, I considered it an honor that he put the touch on me.
Many years later — it must have been in the mid-’70s — I saw Huncke again in New York at Books & Co., the Madison Avenue brainchild of Burt Britton on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He was with his compadre Louis Cartwright, who was taking photos, as I recall. Huncke must have sent me some of them, because not long afterward I got a note from him saying, “Long time no see. Let’s remedy the situation but soon. Louis hopes the photos are satisfactory. Sorry, there isn’t one of you single-o. Call soon — yes.”
Regrettably, we never did get together. But in 1990, six years before Huncke died, I was asked to review his autobiography, Guilty of Everything, for The New York Times Book Review. I don’t know whether he ever read what I wrote. Hope so.
Jan Herman's NYTimes 1990 review of 'Guilty of Everything':
THE BEATNICK'S BEATNICK
GUILTY OF EVERYTHING
The Autobiography of Herbert Huncke.
Foreword by William S. Burroughs.
Illustrated. 210 pp. New York:
Paragon House. $19.95.
Given Herbert Huncke's multitude of crimes, ''Guilty of Everything'' is an appropriate title with a faintly sardonic ring to it. As a triple threat - narcotics addict, gay hustler and petty thief - at times Mr. Huncke became a pariah even to friends who were outcasts themselves. During a stretch in Dannemora State Prison in New York, he recalls, ''not one person in a period of about five years so much as sent me a penny postcard.'' For all that - or precisely because of it - Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac declared him innocent of something. They placed him at the heart of the Beat mythology (though Neal Cassady made by far the greater legend). Kerouac claimed to have borrowed the very term ''beat'' from Mr. Huncke, while Mr. Ginsberg regarded him as the prototypical hipster, a seminal figure of alienation and suffering, more sinned against than sinning.
Unlike Harold Norse's recent ''Memoirs of a Bastard Angel,'' which covers some of the same subterranean territory, Mr. Huncke's autobiography does not breathe literary gossip on every page. Nor does it possess anything resembling Mr. Norse's graceful prose or fastidiousness. It reads like an oral history of urban survival and offers an uncommon tale of the streets from which the 75-year-old author is lucky to have emerged.
Herbert Huncke arrived in New York at the beginning of the 1940's, already an addict who had been hooked on heroin for the first time at the age of 15 in Chicago. He headed straight for Times Square and, when not in jail over the next decade or so, made 42d Street his headquarters. A sparrowlike man of astonishing endurance, Mr. Huncke became a ubiquitous figure in the midtown tenderloin, darting through its hidden alleys and hanging out with such colorfully nicknamed grifters as Russian Blackie and Detroit Redhead.
In 1946 he met William S. Burroughs, who turned up hoping to sell a shotgun and some morphine. Although Mr. Huncke initially distrusted the future author of ''Naked Lunch,'' suspecting him of being an F.B.I. agent, they were soon injecting morphine together. ''I gave Burroughs his first shot,'' Mr. Huncke writes. Through Mr. Burroughs, he met the other future luminaries of the Beat Generation and became, in the words of Mr. Burroughs's biographer, Ted Morgan, ''a sort of Virgilian guide to the lower depths.''
During the good times - to stretch a phrase - Mr. Huncke dealt drugs to support his habit, forged prescriptions, broke into cars, burgled apartments and turned tricks. He also shipped out briefly as a merchant seaman in what seems to have been his only legitimate occupation besides recruiting interview subjects for Dr. Alfred Kinsey, the sex researcher. During the bad times, he wandered the snowbound streets of Manhattan with ''shoes full of blood,'' as Mr. Ginsberg subsequently described him in ''Howl,'' a harbinger of today's homeless legions.
Recalling the harsh winter of 1948, Mr. Huncke writes: ''I lived in cafeterias and slept in all-night movie theaters, trying to stay away from the cops on their beats. . . . I'd walk the underground tunnels down around Penn Station, into the station restrooms, nodding on toilet seats. . . . Sometimes I'd roll a stray drunk, maybe steal a suitcase . . . anything so I could make it till morning. . . . I only wanted a place to live or die in out of the cold; not to be found a corpse crouched in a doorway.''
It is a mind-bending irony that he now longs for the old days, lamenting the increased sordidness of the current drug scene like any New Yorker complaining about a decline in the quality of life. He not only recalls when a dapper addict ''used to be a role model'' - an ethos that apparently has gone to hell - but he wonders, ''What's become of the enthusiasm, the interest in doing new things, in trying to further mankind?''
For the record, ''Guilty of Everything'' is largely a rewrite of ''The Evening Sun Turned Crimson,'' Mr. Huncke's collection of autobiographical vignettes published a decade ago by a small press. Some of the stories about his Chicago childhood, his Times Square experiences and the counterculture poets of the 60's have been streamlined or eliminated, while new narrative material has been added to create a memoir with more drive and cohesion.
Although too many details of Mr. Huncke's life remain maddeningly vague, this is an honest book, as Mr. Burroughs notes in the foreword, and ''never more entertaining than when recounting some horrific misadventure.'' There is no lack of those.
THE PRAYERS OF A PRISONER
Early in 1964 I was picked up for possession of drugs and ended up doing a six-month bit at Riker's. I wasn't out a month when I was picked up again. . . . Jail in the beginning was an experience and then gradually it became a way of living for me which took up long periods of time. I adjusted to it and accepted it as part of my routine. . . . I established a daily pattern for existence while laying up in the cell awaiting my trial date. . . . I developed a prayer system wherein I kept asking for God's help and, at one point, requested a miracle. . . . What happened was exactly this. My lawyer advised me, because I told him I was compiling my writings presently into a journal to be published the following year, to make a statement to the effect that the purpose of my book was to have it act as a warning against using drugs. . . . I made the statement and apparently delivered the goods since the judge passed sentence of six months - suspended the sentence - and I walked out of the courtroom.
From ''Guilty of Everything.''
Jan Herman has written on arts and culture as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Daily News, and the Chicago Sun-Times, and for MSNBC.com, where he was a senior editor. He is also the author of A Talent for Trouble, the biography of Hollywood director William Wyler, out in paperback from Da Capo Press; the co-author of Cut Up or Shut Up; and the editor of Brion Gysin Let the Mice In, among other books. His correspondence with Beat, post-Beat and Fluxus writers and artists is in the cleverly named Jan Herman archive at Northwestern University Library. His blog, Straight Up, is posted at artsjournal.com.
From The Jan Herman Archive @ Northwestern University Library Collections:
Jan Herman (Jan. 2, 1942), editor, publisher, author and journalist, founded NOVA Broadcast Press as well as the journal San Francisco Earthquake (1967-1971.) He published Beat, post-Beat and Fluxus writers and artists such as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Dick Higgins, Wolf Vostell, Norman Mustill, Claude Pelieu, Mary Beach, Liam O'Gallagher and Nanos Valaoritis. He worked with Higgins at Something Else Press, becoming the editor (1972-1974). He co-wrote Cut Up or Shut Up, with Carl Weissner and Jurgen Ploog, and published other experimental fiction. He is also the author of A Talent for Trouble, the biography of the director William Wyler.
As a journalist, he was a reporter and columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Daily News and the Los Angeles Times (1981-1998), a National Arts Journalism fellow at Columbia University (1998-1999), and a senior editor at MSNBC.com (1999-2003).
The Jan Herman Archive consists of the files of the NOVA Broadcast Press which published San Francisco Earthquake (1967 1969), a little magazine featuring avant-garde writers and concrete and beat generation poets of the 1960s. Many of them were connected with Fluxus.
Included are correspondence, manuscripts, graphics, and photocollages by such authors as Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Henri Chopin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Walter Lowenfels, Claude Pelieu, Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, and Carl Weissner, as well as a significant amount of Herman's own work.