Poet, publisher, provocateur and people-connector, Charley Plymell is, like fellow Midwesterner Ed Sanders, a floater among contingents of kindred spirits, from the Beats to the hippies to the punks and back again. Publisher of William S. Burroughs and Herbert Huncke; facilitator of the first issue of R. Crumb’s Zap Comix; friends with Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, he opens up about his life to PKM’s Benito Vila.
Charming. Gritty. Flat-out. Excitable. Real. Those are words that describe poet Charley Plymell, a somewhat mythic creature who has always been resistant to labels or definition. He is said to have connected the Beats and the Hippies in his San Francisco apartment, although, even today, Plymell remains a rabble-rouser who pre-dates all that cultural branding and simply describes himself as a punk from Wichita. That said, there’s nothing simple about Plymell. He never finished high school yet he earned a graduate writing degree from Johns Hopkins. At age 13, he drove from his father’s house in South Dakota to his mother’s house in Kansas and kept on going, working jobs throughout the West. He later published William S. Burroughs, R. Crumb, Herbert Huncke and Janine Pommy Vega long before those names were ever said with the sort of reverence they get now.
At age 84, Plymell continues to write, publish and perform––“doing nuttin”, as he says––from his home in Cherry Valley, New York. His activities keep Plymell in steady correspondence with a crowd of like-minded hellions, including rockabilly’s Bloodshot Bill, Sonic Youth founders Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, bassist Mike Watt, filmmaker Mark Hanlon, guitarist Bill Nace, photographer Philip Scalia and musicologist Byron Coley. Plymell and his wife, Pam, first happened upon Cherry Valley in late 1969 in coming to visit Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky at their East Hill farm. Moving there for good in early 1970, the Plymells have set into adding to their immense creative legacy.
“Elvis, Kesey and Jerry Lee were all born the same year as me. The cosmos was shakin’. Chuck Berry, Marlon Brando, James Dean, all here at the same time. That was necessary.”
That legacy is hard to describe without considering the concept of fate. After all, how else could it be that Plymell would end up connecting to a crew of curious, charged-up hipsters in Wichita, Kansas? And go on to life-long friendships with artists Robert Branaman and Bruce Conner, poets Michael McClure and Alan Russo, and publisher Dave Haselwood? How else could it be that those Wichita connections would lead Plymell to the same Haight-Ashbury apartment where Ginsberg originally wrote “Howl”? And that Ginsberg would ask if he could move back in and bring Neal Cassady with him? How could it be that the girl Plymell picked up from a San Francisco bus stop––Ann Buchanan––would become one of the most talked about portraits of Andy Warhol and Gerard Malanga’s “Screen Test” series? And, that he and Malanga would become long-time collaborators?
Driven, wildly creative people are drawn to Plymell, and always have been. Both William S. Burroughs and cartoonist S. Clay Wilson wrote him asking that he consider publishing their work. Photographer Robert Frank caught a ride on the back of his motorcycle to the first screenings of Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ and Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures. And when French poet Claude Pélieu and his artist wife Mary Beach traveled to San Francisco in 1963 to discuss translating the work of City Light Books’ writers with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Plymell came to connect with them, and marry their daughter, to begin another many-decade-long collaboration.
Interviews of Plymell often start with his distinctly American beginnings: he was born in a chicken coop during a huge 1935 Kansas dust storm, and found himself part of a Western family full of stagecoach, cowboy and Cherokee history. Plymell is a lover of cars, a describer of the intense hub-bub of navigating cityscapes and an appreciator of the vast-sky epiphanies of long distance drives. He’s known to point out the East Coast marketing smarts of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and to express a preference for the company of Burroughs and Cassady and their middle-of-the-country openness. Plymell is also known to vehemently oppose the National Endowment for the Arts, which, despite his undeniable portfolio, has rejected his annual grant applications for over three straight decades. Our conversation included Pam, and led us to talk about Rebel Without A Cause, the Wichita Vortex and morphic resonance––the idea that evolutions of thought and behavior happen at the same time in multiple places without any connection between the people engaged in that changing.
As philosophical as that sounds, both Plymells kept coming back to the characters who have come to be part of their lives and who keep finding ways to kick against a boorish society created by rule-making pricks. After our call, two emails arrived that deserve a wider reading. First, Plymell had a job as a security guard at the Museum of Modern Art in 1969. I asked him what that experience was like and got back: “Had MoMA to myself. Put some more dots on Seurat & kissed the Modiglianies in the best places.” Later, a note from Bloodshot Bill came in, saying: “Charles Plymell is in town tonight for a reading, and I’ll be along singing a couple of his beat poems from ’55/’63. Expect plenty of nods to benzedrine, fast cars and a line––smiz zoke a jiz zoint of griz zass”––that predates Snoop Dogg by over 40 years.”
Here’s a bit more from “Rapid Ronnie Rap Back Jive––Kansas (1955)”, the Plymell poem Bloodshot Bill turned into a song:
Life on the high plains, borrowed on a pile of loans,
I drove; Ronnie handed me Pound’s Selected Poems.
Outside Zip’s Club we smoked and pissed
inside, Pack Rat picked his bass in bliss
his eyes rolled back, in closed fret,
scoo bop to do, de bip bip, from hep
to hip, to hop, be de bop… next set
like cat cartoon characters boing back.
Swiinnging man, on an astrological star
his nose inhalers packed behind the bar
candy-wrapper’s cosmos and Benzedrine
dragnet, luncheonette, make the scene,
play it straight, if fate…says best
really bad, half sad, oh fay, oh say,
shuffle on down slide away from the mass
wanna smiz zoke a jiz zoint of griz zass?
Rapid Robert Ronnie Rasmutin Rannamuck
Not sure what that’s all about? My conversation with Charley and Pam makes it really, really clear––mescaline clear.
Pam: Hi. Charley will be on in just a second.
PKM: Hi. I’m glad you’re on first. What attracted you to Charley?
Pam: Charley was a hunk. Also, my mother didn’t approve.
PKM: How did you meet? Charley mentioned something about a meth scene, a van and Allen Ginsberg.
Pam: [Laughs] That van story happened later. I was at a bus stop in North Beach when Charley first picked me up. I think we were both on foot. That first night, we went to the Haight and listened to music with Ginsberg and all.
“We looked different walking down the streets in Wichita. The term “punk” didn’t have any meaning whatsoever, except just saying “different”. Later they called us “hipsters”, and even that doesn’t mean the same thing any more.”
PKM: Who of that crowd made the biggest impression on you?
Pam: Glenn Todd, the writer. Not only did he accept everyone, he remembered everything. He was the person who had and kept the collective memory. He was 20 years older––I wasn’t quite 18 yet––but Glenn didn’t ignore me.
PKM: That’s funny––Charley said you got lots of attention. He also mentioned you got picked up hitchhiking by a young, pre-fame Jimi Hendrix.
Pam: I used to hitchhike to Sausalito. I always got interesting rides. He was one of them.
PKM: How do you see Charley’s work having the greatest influence?
Pam: Charley influences anyone who reads him.
Charley: [Picking up] Hello, Benito.
PKM: Hi. We were just talking about your first date.
Charley: [Laughs] I took Pam to Mike’s Pool Hall, across the street from City Lights Bookstore. Larry [Ferlinghetti] came with us and they never asked Pam’s age. It was an Italian beer joint, but they had great food––San Francisco sourdough bread and salami. The Salami Factory was next door. Old Italian men sat at tables that had red and white checkered tablecloths and watched the pool players. They put dimes in the jukebox to hear Enrico Caruso. We went out from there.
PKM: I appreciate all the notes you’ve sent along. There was great artwork in a magazine called Love Love. What is Love Love?
Charley: That’s a magazine Lisa Marie Järlborn is doing over in Paris. It’s only for sale at Shakespeare Books. She came over for a visit not long ago. She’s mixing together well-known writers and artists [including Plymell and his Beat and Factory contemporaries], mixing it with stuff she’s finding on the street in Paris. I took her up to Ginsberg’s old abandoned farmhouse. We had a sunny day and we were able to sit in front of the farmhouse. We went the back road and saw a big black bear cross the road.
Pam: Lisa Marie has her print magazine and a website.
Charley: The print magazine is bilingual.
PKM: Yes, I noticed on the back, it read, “Amour, Amour.” You’ve had a longtime French connection. Can you describe that?
Charley: That’s mainly through Pam. She grew up there. We went over in ’68. Everything was on strike. All the major capitals were in riot in that period. The trains into Paris were stopped and we got a bootleg bus in from Belgium. People picked bricks out the street and busted windows. And De Gaulle told the protesters they’d shit in the bed. [Laughs]
Charley: Yes. That’s it. I still don’t know how to say it, but I wrote a poem about it. The goal was to use the phrase the “shit in the bed”. What we really wanted to do was to get over to the Left Bank to find Claude and Mary. Eventually, we found them. [Backstory: In the midst of the 1968 Paris riots, De Gaulle chastised the student demonstrators, saying, “La réforme oui, la chie-en-lit non” meaning “Reform yes, but chaos, no”. In Parisian street slang, De Gaulle’s phrase meant: “Reform yes; shit in bed, no”]
PKM: Weren’t you in Chicago for the ’68 Democratic Convention, too? The Yippie riot?
Charley: We didn’t go inside in Chicago. I didn’t want to. I heard from someone that Burroughs was there and that [French novelist/activist] Jean Genet was there. I really wanted to meet Genet and nothing else. That was my reason for going, but then someone told us that one of the protesters had burned a flag. I said, “That’s no good. Those cops are probably World War II vets, and that’s not going to work. Let’s not go into that.” We drove around the outskirts. A kid flashed the victory sign at us.
We almost did get caught up in the People’s Park March [in Berkeley, CA on May 15, 1969]. Not many people know this about that day: the organizers had made a deal with the City of Berkeley. They set a protest route and the protestors had to stay on one certain street. I thought, “No. I’m not doing that under any flag. We’re sitting ducks,” which we were. The county sheriffs shot someone from top of a building. It took a while before that was ever reported. There was barbed wire and the National Guard all lining that one street. That wasn’t right, either. Pam was pregnant, so I told one of the guardsmen that my wife and I needed to leave the march. He wasn’t going to let us get out on a side street. He said we’d have to go all the way to the end of the route. I glared into his eyes and said, “Like hell. Get me your superior now.” I did one on him. We got off the street. I know instinctively what not to do sometimes. There was no way Pam and I were going to be like sheep down there.
Things are crazy as hell now, and there’s no way out. I was riding out on the prairie with my dad once and he said, “Whatever it is made this whole thing, it’s not going to allow a little thing like man to figure it out.”
PKM: Let’s go back to the beginning. What are your earliest memories?
Charley: Of? [Laughs]
PKM: Of your life.
Charley: Oddly, it’s that thing I wrote you about being in the L.A. basin. We took our International truck, which was our car, our van and our motorhome, all in one. It was the best thing you could have: a wheat truck out of Kansas. We put a tarp over the back end of it. My dad and mom drove, and me and my four sisters rode in the back, housekeeping. That’s when I recited my first poem; someone copied it down. I was how old then?
Charley: Pam knows dates better than I do [Laughs] That first poem was: vacha peecha vocha peecha/vocha peecha voo/hip hip hooray/the dogs are coming.
We went to my aunt’s place. My dad had rented a house there. It was beautiful. I remember the smell of the orange blossoms in my aunt’s orange grove, and navel oranges so ripe, they just dropped on the ground. People would come by and eat them. There was sparkling water in the creek behind her house, and the air, the light––it was like being on mescaline––everything was crystal clear. There are not many people left who experienced the L.A. basin when it was Paradise. Or how it was, later on, at Big Eric Nord’s coffee house in Venice, hanging with Taylor Mead, who had a grocery cart with a little transistor radio tied to it. That was technology then.
PKM: California would have been another world, coming from the dust storms.
Charley: Coming from everywhere it was another world, and people recognized that. It really was Paradise, especially the L.A. area. You could drink the water out of that creek. That was ’39. When you go back––the greatest movies, the greatest cars––the greatest everything are from ‘39.
PKM: Can you name a few of the songs, movies and cars from that year that make your eyes light up when you see or hear them?
Charley: Look up songs of 1939 and the movies of 1939. [A few songs: Judy Garland “Over the Rainbow”, Billie Holiday “Strange Fruit”, Coleman Hawkins “Body & Soul”, Larry Clinton “Deep Purple”, Glenn Miller “Moonlight Serenade”; a few films: Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Of Mice & Men, Gone With the Wind, Jesse James] The ‘39 Lincoln Zephyr is a work of art.
“It really was Paradise, especially the L.A. area. You could drink the water out of that creek. That was ’39. When you go back– the greatest movies, the greatest cars– the greatest everything are from ‘39.”
PKM: What were your first experiences of driving a car?
Charley: Let’s see. That would have been right after World War II. I was too young for the war, but I got a good view of it because of a B-17 that belly-landed near our house in Kansas. The GIs who guarded it let me crawl all through it. No one would do that now––let a kid get in everything like that. I got the smells of the plane: the leather jackets the bomber pilots wore, the stuff they cleaned the plane with, the metal, everything. The GIs told me all about the war, what was happening, how they enlisted and what they were doing before. One was a cab driver back somewhere in the East. I didn’t know anything about the cities then. Anyway, my dad had several cars that I drove back then. Me and my sister drove one on VE day [Victory in Europe Day: May 8, 1945].
PKM: Weren’t you about 10 then?
Charley: Something like that. My dad had a Buick, sort of a limousine; the window rolled up between the back seat and front seat. It had the big tire mounts on it. It had a stick shift and a straight 8. I used to drive it up to where my mother worked at a little place in Fraser, Colorado, which is exactly on the continental divide. I’d drive it up Pike’s Peak. It would climb right up. He also had a beautiful baby blue ’39 Packard, with a stick shift. I got that up to about 80 or 90 in Kansas driving when I was 10 years old. He had a ’41 Ford Coupe. I could get second gear rubber in that, peeling out in second gear. And he had a nice little ’41 Chevy. That’s the one my sister and I stole to drive down Main Street, honking after the war.
PKM: What kind of music were you listening to then?
Charley: My mother and sisters worked at The Bon Ton Café and they had Roy Acuff on the jukebox there. My mother played a lot of Jimmy Rogers and other country music. One of the popular songs I remember was “Soldier’s Last Letter”, a country song [by Ernest Tubb] about a letter written down in the trenches. That was on that jukebox. I kept up with all kinds of music in the ‘40s. I prided myself on knowing, even when nobody cared. The kids around me didn’t give a whit about it, but I kept track of everything.
In the 50s, my pill-head friend, Jimmy Mammy, who later went to the joint, he was over in what we called “Colored Town” then––across the tracks. He was in a record store playing a record and he said [Plymell dropping to cool hiss], “Hey, man. Like, listen, this is it. Like, this is it.” [Back to his regular voice] This is where “like” came from semantically: it came from the way we used it, as a pause, for emphasis. And now kids use it as an interjection every other word. Anyway, Jimmy Mammy put me on to Fats Domino’s early records: “Please Don’t Leave Me” and “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. It’s Cajun music. Later, we went down to the Mambo Club to see Fats. He had a ’49 Caddy and I had a ’49 Caddy. His was a coupe that had a bass tied on the top of it: a big stand-up bass on a Caddy with New Orleans plates. We went into the club. Sadly, there were only about half a dozen people there. At that time, it was a black club, but if you knew someone or had some bennies, everything was all right, no big deal. Fats played those two songs for me. He was a great guy and those were beautiful. That was way before “Blueberry Hill”.
PKM: How did you find bennies then?
Charley: Bennies were everywhere. Everyone had those. They were prescribed to keep women busy and slim. I remember going out to The Cowboy Inn and one of the guys in the opening band for, it was either Little Jimmy Dickens or Hank Williams, had a mason jar full of Dexedrine. Those were like Benzedrine only we called them “sweethearts”, because they were pink and shaped like a heart. He had a mason jar full of them. You could really go on them and everyone took them––Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis had them. Everyone did Benzedrine. There’s an old song “Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?” That’s what kept everyone up and going, except they found that it did something to babies––that when women took it when they were pregnant, it had an effect on the child––so they went off the market.
This is where “like” came from semantically: it came from the way we used it, as a pause, for emphasis. And now kids use it as an interjection every other word.
Right there in Wichita, at the criss-cross of the U.S., we had criss-cross bennies that came from Mexico. They were the best. A friend of mine was driving all the way from Wichita to Guadalajara. He was a square college kid and I asked, “Hey, man, you ever had any Benzedrine?” He said, “no” and I gave him a load of bennies. That was it: he got behind the wheel and talked almost the whole way. I just lay in the backseat. When we were in Mexico, he drove past some Federales with guns and I said, “Hey, you better stop. I think they want something.” It turns out they wanted what they called “some Merry Christmas”––they wanted some money. He said he was going to art school in Guadalajara and that we were broke and stuff. We got past them. Anyway, he got really stoned on those bennies and, later on, he hit the brakes because he thought he saw someone building an altar in the middle of the highway. I drove after that, but he kept right on talking until his jaws hurt. Wichita also had something peculiar at the Rexall Drug Store. We called it “Oxy-Biotic/makes you neurotic”. You drank this Oxy down with orange juice. It was way better even than what Neal [Cassady] gave me when he scored his amphetamines in San Francisco. It made your hair stand up straight and then kept you up for days and nights. We drank that stuff. It was more powerful than meth.
Pam: It was a nose inhaler.
Charley: Yes, Benzedrex inhalers. That was the stuff to do if you couldn’t get pills. You could always cut up those nose inhalers. Pack Rat, a stand-up bass player in Wichita, he’d eat so many nose inhalers that he’d smell like them. They were easily gotten until they went off the market. I always wondered about Billy Burroughs, but I never brought up the subject with William about his poor kid. Billy went through a lot of hell. His mother [William’s wife, Joan Vollmer] was always on bennies and took them when she was pregnant. The bennies take everything. Billy had a lot of difficulty with everything physical and everything psychological.
PKM: Why was your Wichita crew referred to as “punks”?
Charley: Because we were different and people saw us that way. We had ducktail haircuts and we wore sort of a faux zoot suit, like Cab Calloway. Nowadays, hipsters have their pants tight in the legs, but in those days, we kept them loose except right at the bottom. Our mothers would take them in right at the bottom. You can find pictures of Joe Williams, the jazz singer, with them.
Pam: Peg pants.
Charley: Yes, that’s it: peg pants. You could even buy them at the store sometimes. They came out of the East where they were popular for a minute. We wore shirts with the Mr. B. collar, named for [jazz singer] Billy Eckstine. He invented that collar. We wore those, the peg pants and then the one-button roll. It was a jacket, but it had one button instead of two and it buttoned lower. That was it. We looked different walking down the streets in Wichita. The term “punk” didn’t have any meaning whatsoever, except just saying “different”. Later they called us “hipsters”, and even that doesn’t mean the same thing any more.
PKM: What is the Wichita Vortex?
Charley: There are different stories about that. Michael McClure, Bruce Conner and Bob Branaman say it’s a force that pulls you back to Wichita. Like a tornado, it’s something we couldn’t quite escape. For me, the Wichita Vortex has nothing to do with that or with Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” [a 1966 anti-war poem]. It’s more metaphysical and gets into some the complicated mysticism I put into my Tent Shaker Vortex Voice book. The story came about because I decided to take my son out towards the Chalk Pyramids [a set of rock outcroppings outside of Oakley, Kansas] to teach him how to drive––on the prairie, through a herd of buffalo. We drove out to a place known as “The Space Needle”. We stood under it and we heard this voice and got chills. It was a neither-man-nor-beast voice. It was a voice out of nowhere because there was nothing around.
I never knew what the voice was all about, but it kept bugging me. Random House had given me $3,000 to write a book about Kansas. I told them about the Vortex and the voice and they thought I’d gone crazy. They let me keep the $3,000. Years later, I learned more about the voice through my mentor, Loren Eiseley, the paleontologist, who was from Flat River Country in Nebraska and taught at Penn. He was at an Explorer’s Club meeting outside of Philly, when a guy said to him, “You’ve never heard it, have you––the voice?” Loren Eiseley was one of the most knowledgeable paleontologists who ever lived. He was taken aback and said, “No. What do you mean?” The guy explained, “The voice of the Tent Shaker. It’s a game lord.” So, I finally learned what the voice was, and that led me to write my little book. It used to be a seabed there. All that area was under water. You can find shark teeth there and the rocks have life in them. If you throw them in a fire, they explode. The Space Needle is a meeting place, a geographical location for early people and the Indians tribes, and it’s been a cosmic meeting place throughout time. You can feel it. It’s a center point, a place where all these trails intersect and where there’s clearly something happening that you don’t know about. It was a weird experience. We said to each other, “Maybe we should saunter on out of here and think about what just happened.”
“Rebel Without a Cause came out when we were on the street in Wichita all night long, high on Benzedrine and pot, going to the White Castle for sliders at 3 or 4 am…. The movie detailed, to a point, what we were doing and the philosophical essence of what punk was about.”
PKM: Wow. [Pause] How were you able to drop out of high school, drive around the country and end up with a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins?
Charley: [Laughs] Oh, man, I don’t know. I went to military academy in San Antonio, Texas for my first year of high school. I can always remember that year distinctly because we cadets were gathered at the radio when Truman dismissed MacArthur. We were all gun-ho and pro-military, wondering out loud, “How can he let General MacArthur go?” Like we knew better. [Pause] When I got out of San Antonio that spring, my dad bought me a 1951 Chevrolet and I drove it back to Wichita. That fall, I was about to go back to the military academy, but then I woke up: I had a new car, gas was 15¢ a gallon. I could lie about my age, get a job anywhere and start doing anything I wanted. So, I left school in the rear-view mirror. I said, “Fuck this,” because there was nothing there, just a bunch of squares playing football. It was all pointless, stupid.
PKM: You eventually went back to school?
Charley: Yes, Bob Branaman convinced me to go back. He’s the artist I wrote a poem about that’s on that Bloodshot Bill record I sent you. Barbitol Bob, we called him. We’d stay out all night on bennies and everything.
Pam: You were in jail with him.
Charley: Yes, we were in the Wichita Jail together. Branaman and I were petty gangsters, staying up all night thinking we were hip and all. I got popped for writing a bad check, I think; he was pimping, but wanting to go straight. Anyway, Branaman found out we could go to the university on the GED thing and he wanted to go because there was good printmaking professor at Wichita U. It was a whole new experience: we both got in and I went for several years but never got a degree there. Then I went to San Francisco because a lot of friends I knew in Wichita were already out there. I moved into the Gough Street house in late ’61 or early ’62, and that put me a few blocks from Haight Street. We started seeing these kids: we called them “heads” because they were on something, either pot or hallucinogens or whatever else. They were different just like we were different back in Wichita. They were different: with long hair, dressed in cowboy clothes and thrift store stuff. Then, all of the sudden, I turned around and the whole of Haight Street is just a whole mass of them, everywhere. And then Ginsberg came back from India.
Pam: Your timeline of the ’60s is completely off! You were at Gough Street in ’63. That’s when Ginsberg came back from India. The hippies happened a lot later.
Charley: Oh, well. Neal always said I had a problem with time. [Laughs]
PKM: The Johns Hopkins degree happened well after San Francisco, right?
Charley: Yes, and I still don’t know if that was a good move or not. I had the best job in the world on the docks in San Francisco in the late ‘60s. It was a union job, with the best dentists, the best doctors; no co-pays, none of that shit. I didn’t have to work on my birthday and I got paid for it. I never had a good paying job, not like the one on the docks, and I’ve never had one since, either. We gave it all up to go to Johns Hopkins and there was nothing in Baltimore.
PKM: Hold up. Before we get into your Gough Street days, what effect did Rebel Without a Cause have on you?
Charley: Ah, Nicholas Ray [the film’s director and screenwriter]. His daughter, Nicca, just wrote a book about him and I’m reading it: Ray on Ray. It comes out in April. I never knew Nicholas Ray and if I had I would have introduced him to Burroughs. They were contemporaries in genius and in morphous. They were Herodotus––telling history as it happened. Rebel Without a Cause came out when we were on the street in Wichita all night long, high on Benzedrine and pot, going to the White Castle for sliders at 3 or 4 am. The first White Castle was in Wichita. The movie detailed, to a point, what we were doing and the philosophical essence of what punk was about. It showed the ducktail haircuts, the Billy Eckstine collars. Ray even got the cars right. James Dean drove a ’51 Mercury, chopped and channeled. We had a ’51 Mercury chopped and channeled: the same thing. And drag racing: we did the same thing. Everything was the same thing. That was the first time we saw what we were into on the big screen: it showed what our rebellion was against––the status quo of the ’50s––going to Thanksgiving dinner and getting a headache from being bored of ballgames, small talk. We didn’t want that and we rebelled every way we could and no one knew why. That movie lays out everything: the works. It depicted our lifestyle. No one quite knew “the why” until it came out. It isn’t like today, where there are concrete things to rebel against. Back then it was all vague. No one knew why we were acting different. That movie was the script of the day, you might say.
PKM: OK. Let’s go to San Francisco. You have a lot of great Gough Street stories in The Last of the Moccasins.
Charley: And Glenn Todd has them, too, in his book [The Book of Friends].
PKM: Can you describe the scene at Gough Street?
Charley: That particular flat had a history I didn’t know about when I moved in. It was where Ginsberg lived when he wrote “Howl”. I didn’t know that. There was a funny landlord there. No one knew him. You’d never see him. He and his wife were on the first floor. There were three floors. We were on the second floor and it was seven rooms for $100. It took a while to learn from Ginsberg that he had lived there. He liked to play games: like let people rattle on stupidly and then say, “Yes, you think”. Bob La Vigne had lived there, too, with Peter Orlovsky, and later Ginsberg stole away Peter from Bob. That was all in the 50s.
Anyway, the flat itself had been handed through a generation of Wichita people. There were some young meth heads at it there for a while, dopers of some sort. I moved in, after being in San Francisco for a year or so, even though the house was crawling with poltergeist and ghosts. The Wichita gang had a party there after I moved in. Everyone was out of their minds, on LSD and what have you. Ginsberg came that night with Ferlinghetti, McClure, Phil Whalen and Lew Welch. Everything got wild and Dave Moe flipped out, dancing crazy. Ginsberg introduced himself and invited me to see him where he was staying. That next day he showed me work he was doing and said he’d like to help Neal write a novel, but that they needed a place to live. I said I had this seven-room flat that we could share. Of course, after Ginsberg and Neal moved in, then people from everywhere came knocking on the door.
PKM: How long did Neal and Allen live with you?
Charley: To the next Thanksgiving, when Kennedy got shot and the scene broke up again.
PKM: Did you help Neal with the writing of The First Third? [The First Third is Cassady’s remembrance of his youth in Denver, and one of his few published pieces.]
Charley: No, but I gave my two cents worth. Ginsberg, being academic, wanted to make it into a novel. He would come over with Ferlinghetti and they’d set out the whole day for the purpose ostensibly of helping Neal write. Neal would get out his shoebox full of pot, get high and start to free associate. Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti tried to organize it, put it in some sort of order. I said, “Why didn’t you just record it, transcribe it and then print it?” They didn’t like that idea––it wasn’t proper.
Neal wanted to write. He was always bitching about how people thought him an errand boy for Kerouac. And he was always complaining that Kerouac couldn’t drive: he’s going to ruin my gear shift; he can’t drive a goddamn stick shift and all that. I never read all of On the Road but Neal read me the pieces about himself. [Laughs] I remember Neal moving in, sliding into the driveway in his ’39 Pontiac, jerking the emergency brake––his brakes were gone––and carrying Anne [Murphy] across the threshold, saying, “This is our new home.” He had a couple cardboard boxes with tapes and books falling out, one suitcase and that shoebox full of pot. He and Anne had the room next to us. You could hear them fighting and slapping each other. Ginsberg once asked, “Is he actually hitting her?” I said, “I don’t know. Let’s peek in the door.” So we peeked in the keyhole. [Chuckles] It was a crazy ritual they were into: Neal talking the whole time about male forces and female forces.
Neal wanted to write. He was always bitching about how people thought him an errand boy for Kerouac. And he was always complaining that Kerouac couldn’t drive: he’s going to ruin my gear shift; he can’t drive a goddamn stick shift and all that.
I was sitting in the front room at Gough Street when Neal burst through the front door followed by [underground newspaper publisher] John Bryan. “Turn on the TV, Charley, Kennedy’s been shot!” We watched the story unfold. Neal and I looked at each other and knew right away that Oswald was a patsy. We both knew how to read people. Neal learned that in San Quentin and, me, on the street. We both knew Oswald had been set up. The last time I saw Neal, he was driving Further, keeping the scene new that way. I was bored of it all by then; everything there peaked in ’63. Anyway, he introduced me to Tom Wolfe, who with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. They were setting out somewhere new and Neal was all for it.
PKM: How did you become a publisher?
PKM: Yes. Didn’t you publish Zap and Now from Gough Street?
Charley: I was a printer mainly. I learned to run a multi-lith in Wichita on a night job at Wesley Hospital, a job that tied in to my courses. They asked me if I knew how to run a press. I said, “Of course,” but I didn’t know shit about it. I asked, “Where’s the manual?” and started to learn how. I started printing little chapbooks and things there. A friend at the Wichita U literary magazine, Mikrokosmos, asked if I could help her print an issue of that magazine. I was a little criminal so I said, “Sure, I can print that for you, for $200,” So I ran that as a night shift job, but what I didn’t understand was in order to gatefold those pages and make a perfect binding, you had to run big sheets and do a whole other set of complicated things that that press wouldn’t do. I had run and cut small sheets and still needed to glue the spine and cover on. So I went and got some horsehide glue, heated it up, made a spine and slapped on a cover. That particular issue fell apart because the glue didn’t hold because it wasn’t done right. The professor said, “The contents are amazing but it falls apart.” I said, “Didn’t you know this was our Dada issue? It’s supposed to fall apart.” [Laughs] Anyway, in San Francisco, I had a job running a multilith and then I got my own to do odd jobs with it. I printed Zap and Now, and Now, Now, and Now, Now, Now on that.
[Content and context note. About Now: Whalen, Ginsberg and McClure poems appear in issue one; Burroughs’ cut up work is in issue two; Pélieu and Beach collages are part of issue three. About Zap: the first issue, labeled “Fair Warning: For Adult Intellectuals Only”, introduced R. Crumb’s Keep on Trucking and Mr. Natural characters; underground art/comix legends S. Clay Wilson, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams and Spain Rodriguez contributed to later issues.]
PKM: Let’s get off the timeline a bit. You published Herbert Huncke?
Charley: Yes, that was after we came here to the East Coast. We were on our way from California to visit Allen and we took him and Kerouac to the William F. Buckley show in the city, the one with Ed Sanders. That’s on video somewhere, but no one got the best part. When we walked out, I said, “There’s Truman Capote, with his door open, trolling.” Kerouac turns around, says, “Where is that little queer? I’ve been wanting to beat the shit out of him.” It didn’t amount to anything, but it was a moment.
Anyway, we came up here after stopping at Big Pink first. We saw a tall building for sale and bought it and we’ve stayed here ever since. We got a press in here and started running Cold Spring Journal. That’s when we published Herbert Huncke.
PKM: Did Huncke ever talk about The Kinsey Report? Or his role as a subject in that?
Charley: He mentioned it sometimes, but on further discussion he’d say, “That’s nowhere, man.” Burroughs called him “a ferret”. He knew everything happening around him. When we lived in Baltimore, he came to stay with us and we were driving through some dark, outback area, wanting to eat, and he said, “That’s the place!” It turned out the hamburgers and French fries were exactly right. He knew where to go to get what he needed.
Philosophically, we don’t know why we’re here. That might be part of the thing…They don’t know why they’re here. People are killing people over nothing every night. Why?
PKM: I found an interview that quoted you saying, “We have certainly become a more evil society because of the drug laws”. How have we become a more evil society because of those?
Charley: That’s pretty self-evident, but that sounds more like Burroughs than me.
PKM: What was your attraction to Burroughs? What brought you two together?
Charley: We were from middle of the country, and grew up Christians under the rule of greed, avarice and competitive sports that now, once again, has such a hold on the country. He wrote, “The public is going to take the place apart”. He was a prophet. He was like family to us: we called him “uncle” and he was very generous. He gave me paintings and manuscripts. Burroughs had magnetic attraction, you know. In the ‘50s, I found the book Instantaneous Personal Magnetism in an abandoned gold miner’s shack near the Superstitious Mountains in Arizona. Burroughs had copy of it, too, not that that meant anything to us. We already knew. “Already knew” was the attraction. He was always way ahead of the game. I miss him bad.
PKM: I found you used the phrases “hobohemian prose” and “thematic text montage” in describing your work.
Charley: I said that when I was doing Last of the Moccasins because that book was out of any normal genre of writing so I started calling it that. I really don’t know what those mean.
PKM: What made you describe The Black Panthers as the only legitimate radicals of the 1960s?
Charley: They’re the only ones that talked the talk and put their lives on the line, and had the guts to prove it. When they took their guns to the state house, when Reagan was governor, it was a pretty big deal. Nobody did that.
PKM: I found you wrote, “You can see the history of this country in the shit flushing down the toilet. I feel sorry for younger generations yearning to be free.”
Charley: [Laughs] When you piss, that makes a conversation, too. Sometimes, it sounds like the toilet’s talking. Things are crazy as hell now, and there’s no way out. I was riding out on the prairie with my dad once and he said, “Whatever it is made this whole thing, it’s not going to allow a little thing like man to figure it out.” Philosophically, we don’t know why we’re here. That might be part of the thing. That might be why people are killing each other. They don’t know why they’re here. People are killing people over nothing every night. Why?
PKM: That’s a good question.
Charley: I remember the first one: Charlie Starkweather. He came across Nebraska [in 1958] killing people with a gun. The sheriff that got him said, “You just can’t go out shooting people like rabbits.” That was a startling thing, mass-murder. No one had ever heard of that before. Since nobody knows why we’re here, it’s crazy to think that we can almost recreate ourselves now, like we’re seeing with robots. Maybe that’s the way out though: technology. Since we can’t answer the question, we’ll just reproduce ourselves to find out.
PKM: How do you describe the idea that the same things are happening at the same time in different places all over the world? Like, what was going on in Wichita, was going on in San Francisco, was going on in New York, was going on in places in between? Or, like the demonstrations in Paris, Chicago and Berkeley?
Charley: That’s called, “morphic resonance”: that’s a term that Rupert Sheldrake, the British philosopher, came up with. I know it because I’ve seen it happen: things rising up independently in various locations without being connected.
PKM: Do you see any examples of that happening now?
Charley: That’s hard to say, exactly. Everyone sees shifts and rises in things. Connections happen when they’re supposed to. The easy example for me is Burroughs and Claude each doing cut-ups before they knew each other. It was time for the cut-up. We needed new, faster associations of words for new, faster situations. It was time for that and they worked at, at the same time, in different places. It happens like that, in music, in art: everything rises at the time that it’s supposed to. It comes from another consciousness: morphic resonance. [Laughs] You know, Elvis, Kesey and Jerry Lee were all born the same year as me. The cosmos was shakin’. Chuck Berry, Marlon Brando, James Dean, all here at the same time. That was necessary.
PKM: No doubt.