IBSA (ISKCON Bhaktivedanta Sadhana Asrama), Govardhana, India
8 February 2004

What you'll read today has almost nothing to do with Krsna consciousness. It's a copy of a newspaper article about the Beats, the American bohemian literature-poetry movement of the late 1940s to early 1960s. It was sent to me yesterday by my Godbrother HG Prabhupada dasa (look in In2-MeC of May '03 for more about him). I've written about the Beats before, trying to suggest that this movement represents a setting of the stage in American consciousness for the arrival of Srila Prabhupada. But after Srila Prabhupada established his mission in New York in 1965, the Beat leaders did not become devotees. At least Allen Ginsberg chanted Hare Krsna before his poetry readings. What happened to him and the others after Prabhupada can be seen by reading this:

Books of The Times
'When I Was Cool': The Twilight of the Beats
Through an Acolyte’s Eyes

February 5, 2004

Sam Kashner of Merrick, N.Y., quoted abundantly from the Ramones when he filled out his application for higher education (and seldom has that term been more accurate). This led to his acceptance at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colo., and to a postcard from one of his Beat idols. It read, in part: "I look forward to meeting you. I hope you can type. Sincerely yours, A. Ginsberg."

The typing would turn out to be crucial. By the time the 19-year-old Mr. Kashner arrived in the midst of the Beat pantheon in the spring of 1976, his heroes were "not quite ready for assisted living, but famous enough to need assistants." They included William S. Burroughs, nicknamed "the Ol' Poisoner" by Gregory Corso, who himself was fond of exclaiming "Penguin dust!," along with Ginsberg, who was more or less in charge.

"You're a sweet boy," Mr. Kashner recalls Ginsberg's telling him. "So unborn."

In this company he would not stay unborn for long. Mr. Kashner's well-named memoir, "When I Was Cool," recounts an uproarious string of character-building geriatric-Beat episodes that left their mark upon him. Burroughs, whose famous voice emerges irresistibly ("We should scram, Salmonella Sam"), contemplated a Martian invasion of the Midwest and taught a course about imaginary maps. He also enlisted Mr. Kashner to look out for Billy Burroughs, the great old reprobate's hard-drinking 30-ish son, whose diet leaned heavily on Lucky Charms cereal because the marshmallows were easy to chew.

Corso liked to threaten, extort and kidnap Mr. Kashner, although he is described here with the utmost affection. ("We're just old men," Mr. Kashner recalls him saying. "Soon to poof into the air.") As for Ginsberg, he apparently turned an interested eye upon this nice young helpmate he had recruited. "I spent a lot of time in front of the mirror before going over to Allen's," Mr. Kashner recalls, "because I noticed that the better looking you were, the more Allen liked your poems."

The Beat movement was born in the late 1940s in the shadow of the atom bomb. Its spiritual roots were a hazy, drug-influenced vision of Buddhism. Marijuana was nirvana and nirvana was marijuana. When Prabhupada came to America in 1965, Allen Ginsberg and some lesser Beats chanted and rendered service. After that they drifted further into eccentricity. Now they are dead.

However naïve he sounds here, Mr. Kashner knew then--and knows even better now--that he had stumbled into a chronicler's nirvana. The Kerouac School, a not-yet-accredited offshoot of the first Buddhist college in America, the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University), had recruited him as its very first student. Mr. Kashner's memory has now streamlined that situation and turned himself into virtually the only student, even though others apparently arrived during his two-year tenure. With the help of hindsight, and after countless larger-than-life accounts of Beat exploits, he reanimates the aging renegades and places himself at the center of their attention.

That may be self-serving, but it's understandable. And it's been a long time coming. In his post-Naropa life Mr. Kashner went into his father's window-shade business, lived in Colonial Williamsburg, published some poetry and became a writer about some of the darker, James Ellroyesque aspects of show business history. He published a novel, "Sinatraland," whose main character is a Hoboken window-shade salesman obsessed with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. In retrospect that book looks like a dry run for the candid, poignant, hilarious second-fiddle memoir that has finally emerged.

"When I Was Cool" can certainly be appreciated strictly for its wall-to-wall anecdotes. There was the time, for instance, that Ginsberg's Buddhist instructor required him to abandon vanity and shave off his beard, and Mr. Kashner, in his role as caretaker/typist/housekeeper, found the beard in a cigar box. There are the Beats' rivalrous dealings with rock stars. ("The g-dd-m Rolling Stones," Burroughs groused, adding "You could bring most of them home to Mother.")

And there are frequent, eye-opening insights of the young acolyte, who at one point realizes that some of the female poetry admirers in his midst are also call girls. "You must be here on one of those 'born yesterday' scholarships the Jack Kerouac School gives out," the younger Burroughs told him.

But "When I Was Cool" is much more captivating than the standard tales-told-out-of-school reminiscence. And if it does not fully establish Mr. Kashner as the eloquent writer that he wanted to be, it makes up in self-knowledge what it lacks in flair. Mr. Kashner now freely acknowledges trading on the kinds of unrequited crushes that made the Kerouac School go round.

He admits to feeling like a groupie at times, never more so than when Bob Dylan and the Rolling Thunder Revue came to town. And he acknowledges jealousy and resentment of Anne Waldman, a fellow poet and queen of the Kerouac roost, who disappeared with Mr. Dylan for a couple of days and refused to take off her Rolling Thunder whiteface makeup when she returned. "She's going to hate this book," Mr. Kashner writes frankly, "but then, come to think of it, she never liked my poetry, either."

Most memorably Mr. Kashner creates a touching, intimate evocation of the Beat twilight, with Kerouac and Neal Cassady only much-invoked memories and the group's rogue behavior beginning to wear thin. "They fell in front of a cracked mirror, Sam," he says that the younger Burroughs told him. "And they fell in love with that cracked image. They'll just stare at it until they die."

This book's principals had died by January 2001, when Mr. Kashner was at last ready to start writing about them. But he has brought forth a bright, resuscitating testament to their collective memory, for reasons best explained by Naropa's hard-partying, eventually scandal-plagued Buddhist leader, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

"He said the real reason I had come to the Jack Kerouac School," Mr. Kashner writes, "was to be released from my heroes--to find out the truth about them and be free of them, to be able to live my own life." But he is mindful of how much they enriched his life. "When I Was Cool" returns the favor.

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