A talented Beat poet who was a travel companion to Jack Kerouac, Zen buddy to Gary Snyder and Michael McClure and stepfather to Huey Lewis, Lew Welch walked southwest one day in May and never returned
The marquee players of the Beat Generation (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder, and Ferlinghetti) have all gotten their due. But the Beat Generation tent was much wider and more diverse than these writers, throwing shade over hundreds of other, lesser-known poets, writers, artists, dramatists, filmmakers and even stand-up comics (think: Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, Del Close) who are worthy of attention.
Among these were Lew Welch, one of the great enigmas of the Beat Generation.
He was part of what I call the “Oregon Connection,” having attended Reed College in Portland, where he roomed with Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, the latter two being one-third of the readers at the legendary Six Gallery reading that unleashed Allen Ginsberg’s Howl on the world and simultaneously launched the Beat Generation in 1956. Upon graduation from Reed, Welch was primed for an interesting literary career, his final thesis on Gertrude Stein having caught the attention and praise of William Carlos Williams (with whom he corresponded for years).
However, Welch’s attempt to further his literary studies, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, led to a nervous breakdown, forcing him out of academia and into the workplace. He found work writing copy for a Chicago ad agency, his most famous campaign being for a bug exterminating spray (“Raid Kills Bugs Dead,” a phrase you can still see emblazoned on every can of the stuff, was Welch’s haiku-like slogan).
Sickened by such work, however, Welch drifted to San Francisco in 1959, where he found work driving a cab and continuing to write poetry. But not before waving goodbye to the Windy City in one of his most often anthologized poems, “Chicago Poem,” which puts the final touches on his five troubled years living there. The poem ends:
You can’t fix it. You can’t make it go away.
I don’t know what you’re going to do about it.
But I know what I’m going to do about it. I’m just
Going to walk away from it, Maybe
A small part of it will die if I’m not around
feeding it anymore.
He also wrote one of his most quoted poems, “The Basic Con,” during this period. In it, Welch uses two perfect sentences to summarize the world of 2018.
“The Basic Con”:
Around this time, Welch met Jack Kerouac in San Francisco only days after the now-world-famous writer had appeared on The Steve Allen Show in Hollywood. Along with Welch, Kerouac also befriended Albert Saijo, a friend of Gary Snyder’s who was studying Buddhism with the hope of becoming a Zen monk. Kerouac, at that point a drunken wreck, was offered the use of a cabin in Big Sur by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the latter hoping the haven would provide some space for him to dry out away from the temptations of the big city. Welch drove Kerouac to that cabin and, later, came back to pick him up.
Jack was anything but dry, however. In fact, he was suffering from what must have been the DT’s and was completely crazed most of the time. All of these experiences ended up in Kerouac’s tormented “novel” Big Sur, with the character “Dave Wain” standing in for Lew Welch.
At the end of his nightmarish retreat, Kerouac longed to get back home to Long Island, where his mother lived. Welch offered to drive him cross country in his Jeep, and Albert Saijo tagged along for the ride. While on the road, the three of them wrote poetry together, later compiled in a small book called Trip Trap (1973). Saijo spent almost the entire trip in the backseat in the lotus position trying to meditate.
Kerouac later credited this trip—Welch at the wheel the entire 3,500-mile journey—with restoring his sanity. He felt that he’d found a more benign Neal Cassady in Welch, a manic ball of energy that, unlike Cassady, was not playing mind games or manipulating him. (Welch even looked a bit like Cassady).
After his road adventures with Kerouac, Welch found stability in the Bay Area in his marriage to Magda Cregg and their quiet life in Marin County. Cregg’s son from a previous marriage, Huey Lewis, would later become a famous rock musician, but he fondly recalled the time spent with his stepfather. Here is Lewis talking about Welch, and how his stepdad’s friends, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, would come over to the house and read their poetry. At the end of this clip, Huey sings one of Lew’s poems. It’s worth the wait:
Despite the obvious love with which Welch was surrounded, he harbored a dark side, which comes out in his poetry. It can also be seen in his relentless drinking, which he tried mightily to stop, even resorting to Antabuse, a drug that made it physically intolerable to drink alcohol.
He and Magda Cregg separated in January 1971, after which Welch began living in his van, and then on a plot of land near Snyder in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He disappeared one day in late May 1971. That is, he took his rifle and backpack and walked into the wilderness…and was never seen again. He was 44. After his disappearance, Snyder organized a search party, which spent five days combing the Sierra Nevada wilderness looking for Welch…or his body. They gave up the search because, as Aram Saroyan wrote in his touching, if brief, memoir, Genesis Angels: The Saga of Lew Welch & The Beat Generation (1979), “It seemed obscene to search for a man who was so obviously determined not to be found.”
That’s not the full enigmatic part, though. Unlike many of the poets affiliated with the Beats, Welch was writing the best work of his life at the time of his disappearance. Among these was a poem that he called “Song of the Turkey Buzzard,” generally seen as the last thing he wrote. Its final lines are:
NOT THE BRONZE CASKET BUT THE BRAZEN WING
SOARING FOREVER ABOVE THEE O PERFECT
O SWEATEST WATER O GLORIOUS
Since Welch’s body was never found, there is a slim possibility that he is still out there, traipsing through the Sierra Nevada underbrush like an ancient grizzly, continuing to “walk away from it”, avoiding the basic con and living the life of a Zen contemplative.
The final entry in a notebook, found among Welch’s last effects, dated May 22, 1971, ends with this message: “I went Southwest. Goodbye. Lew Welch.”
Here’s Peter Coyote talking about his old friend Lew Welch: