This time David Bowie met the Beat Generation | Arts and culture
David Bowie beamed at the old American with a trilby on his head.
“May I take your hat off,” Bowie asked, his slender shoulders dropping timidly in a half-bow.
It was 1973 and Bowie had recently materialized as a multinational major force, with songs and performances that, five years after his death, continue to stimulate a multigenerational audience and topped the algorithmic charts of Google.
Still, Bowie didn’t need a search engine to know that the gentleman in the gray flannel suit we were having lunch with at the rock star’s London home that afternoon was truly cultural royalty. His name was William Seward Burroughs. The Glitter Mainman had finally come face to face with El Hombre Invisible, who along with Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac was one of the three oracles and contradictory architects of the Beat Generation.
Long ago, before the birth of the XYZ Generations, the tumult of social networks and the trolls of the culture of cancellation, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac managed to make peace between the unusual languages and the quarrelsome mores that have made today’s digital public square as welcoming as a skunk. at a picnic. No subject was taboo. But despite the good and bad fanfare, none of them knew if anyone was paying attention – not even their sidekick Bowie.
“I’m pretty sure the audience I have for my stuff isn’t listening to the lyrics,” Bowie said.
“Do they understand them? Burroughs wondered aloud. “I had spoken about it with Ginsberg and Kerouac. We do not know.
“It’s more of a media affair,” Bowie lamented. “It’s only if they sit down and bother to watch.”
If you’re one of those who hasn’t watched, know that Burroughs warned in 1959 that climate change would inexorably alter the human genome and in Naked Lunch warned, “Western man exteriorizes himself in gadgets. Kerouac’s bestselling 1957 novel On the Road concluded: “I had nothing to offer anyone except my own confusion.” The opening sentence of Ginsberg Howl’s 1956 epic poem grieved: “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”
At the time, the Silicon Valley superstars had not yet been pixelated. Neither does El Habib Louai. He is one of Morocco’s most famous English-speaking poets, born in 1985 as a member of Generation Y in the Berber village of Taroudant. There was no library or internet connection. Louai has spent the past 14 years translating Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg into classical Arabic and is now Professor of English Literature at Ibn Zohr University in Agadir.
“I teach the Beats,” Louai says. “They were Americans, but their resonance is universal for young people who feel like foreigners, victims of the environmental, economic and political instabilities of the 21st century. The only difference between my generation and the Beats, “he adds,” is that we have social media.
Now you might be wondering how a Moroccan millennial raised at the foot of the Atlas Mountains became the Beat Generation’s ambassador to the Arabic-speaking world and a recognized authority on how three long-dead beatniks parallel the fear and loathing of the world’s youth.
The Beats had four operational centers: San Francisco, New York, Paris and Tangier, where their keen interest in Moroccan music, poetry and culture played a significant role in shaping their ideas and characters. They also praised the food. Indeed, the Beats are today one of the main tourist attractions of Tangier, with regular museum exhibitions and literary conferences. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Hotel Emblem offers a weekend package that takes guests on an educational journey into the genesis of American Cool.
“Young people everywhere are striving to create societies that accept people who are linguistically, politically and sexually different from one another,” Louai says. “Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were close friends and three of the most different and difficult people you could meet.”
In addition to their profound divergence in predispositions, the three cultural lions shared much in common. They all liked to chat and, seizing an idea and energizing it with their individuality, always managed to find common ground. Just how and why is a mystery Louai hopes to unravel.
“They were completely opposite people, like what we see today in America and elsewhere,” adds Beat Generation historian David Holzer. “When Kerouac, an invariably drunk alcoholic, poured out his far-right politics, he trolled his lifelong liberal friend Ginsberg, whose ambition as a teenager was to become a labor lawyer, rather than stand up for whatever he really believed. “
Burroughs, who in 1951 killed his wife by accidentally shooting her in the head instead of the glass he placed on it for a drunken game of William Tell, was a member of the National Rifle Association. “I don’t like to talk and I don’t like talkative people,” Burroughs told us at a Thanksgiving dinner in London in 1973. “Like Ma Barker. Do you remember Ma Barker? Well, that’s what she always said. She just set there with her gun.
Ginsberg sang Buddhist mantras at the other end of the table. Bowie said he was 12 when he first read On the Road, which sells 65,000 copies each year and has been translated into 25 languages. A Chinese version of Naked Lunch is available in the underground book market in Shanghai. In Tehran, there are illegal copies of Howl in Farsi.
As Louai says, the beat continues, wherever you are.