Generations of disaffected youth have looked to the Beats, dysfunctional role models for the youth of today, yesterday and tomorrow. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs formed the nucleus of the movement, with less recognizable poets orbiting around them in a swirling pattern of friendships, love affairs, crime and tragedy. Kerouac died in 1969 at his mother's house in Florida, but the rest of the Beat Poets lived on, growing old while their writings gained a kind of immortality.
Sam Kashner's new memoir, When I Was Cool, brings these aging Beats to life as they mellowed their way through the late-'70s. While the nation wore polyester, disco danced and celebrated the country's bicentennial, Kashner became the first student at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, a poet's apprentice to Allen Ginsberg.
The Kerouac School, located in Boulder, Colo., was part of the Naropa Institute, the nation's first Buddhist University. Founded by the eccentric Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Naropa in the mid-'70s offered courses on dance, society, Buddhism and, of course, poetry.
Kashner's education, however, occurs outside these classes as he performs his duties as the poet's apprentice. Ginsberg charged him with keeping William Burroughs' son, Billy, a 20-something writer with an alcohol-damaged liver and sardonic wit, out of trouble. He also babysat Beat Poet Gregory Corso, a junky with a book to write and chronic money problems.
When I Was Cool chronicles Kashner's two years at the school in a roughly chronological order, but at times the book seems more like a collection of short memoirs. Any reading about the Beats should be a little disjointed-a surreal format for a surreal subject.
Much of the book's humor comes from Kashner's star-struck naiveté. His first task was to finish one of Ginsberg's poems.
""I want to know what happens," Ginsberg told him.
"He wasn't laughing. I had to finish Allen Ginsberg's poem about giving Neal Cassady a blowjob. I wasn't sure that I had ever had one myself, even from my girlfriend.... I would have remembered it. Where do I go for advice, for help, for inspiration? Maybe the Naropa librarian could help me?"
Kashner somehow prevails, and in the process comes to know his heroes. And the life of an aging Beat is not always glamorous. William Burroughs, still a heroin addict, has chronic constipation, amongst other rectal maladies. In one instance, Burroughs refuses to eat at a health food restaurant. "[The food] makes you shit, and I already have hell in my asshole," he says.
He watches Corso rage through a complicated home life (a wife, several children, ex-wives and girlfriends) and lurch from fix to fix on borrowed funds, at the same time churning out luminous poetry. And he sees Ginsberg, whose reputation lured a perpetual string of young lovers to him, still afraid of sleeping alone in a cold bed.
As far as the public knew, this lonely, cold bed never came to pass. Kashner's teachers are still the only American poets of the modern age to truly captivate the public, much like the poets of the past were the rock stars of their time. Ginsberg, Kerouac and the other Beats lived a life of madness, chaos and beauty.
They were poets; they taught Kashner, and in the end they called him, too, a poet.
And that matters. Because amongst all the lunacy-the midnight marijuana harvests, the guns, the booze, the drugs-these were the men that wrote works like "Howl," works that live in the hearts of disaffected, even though the poets have passed on. Kashner's tome brings these men into a sharper, less romantic focus. But this clarity doesn't destroy their works, only allows one to see a little deeper into their creation.