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Beat Soundtrack #11: David S. Wills
In which prominent Beat figures, writers and critics, historians and academics, fans and followers, talk about the relationship between that literary community and music
David S. Wills is the editor of the literary journal Beatdom, founded in 2007, and the author of books on William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and, most recently, his biography of Hunter S. Thompson, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism, which has been attracting both critical acclaim and an impressive global audience. On March 12th, 2022, Beatdom issues its 22nd edition, a special dedicated to the centenary of Jack Kerouac, born on that date 100 years ago. Wills, originally from Scotland, has spent half of his life in Asia and currently resides in rural Cambodia.
What attracted you to the Beats? When did you first encounter them? Are you drawn to a particular text, novel or poetry?
Like many people, I first got into the Beats when I was in my late teens. A friend gave me a dog-eared copy of On the Road and it blew my mind. Clichéd, I know, but that’s how it happened. From Kerouac, I took the usual path onwards through Burroughs and Ginsberg to the lesser-known Beats and Beat-affiliated writers, with Bob Kaufman being a favourite and Corso another. I’ve always been a huge fan of the obvious works – On the Road, ‘Howl’, Naked Lunch – but perhaps more than any of their novels or poems, I’ve always been attracted to their lives, and so I think I enjoy their letters and journals more.
As is probably evident from my books and essays, I can be rather obsessive about going through Beat history and fixating on particular writers and their life. When I find a book or poem, I suppose I am more interested in how and why it was written than in actually appreciating it as the art that it is. With Burroughs, for example, I read his novels and, while they are hilarious, I think I get more out of finding the connections between them and his weird interests – Scientology, the Mayans, Reich, and so on.
What is the relationship between the Beat writers and music? How do you think that literary scene and musical sound connect(ed)?
Well, there are many connections, with the most obvious being Kerouac’s interest in creating a sort of written jazz form. You can view most of his work as an attempt at bringing this freeform style into prose. I think it can be jarring and confusing for most people to pick up, say, Visions of Cody or Dr Sax and encounter these absurdly long sentences and paragraphs, with made-up words and drawn-out lists and descriptions and digressions that appear to detract from the plot. Whereas On the Road was this relatively conventional narrative with defined characters and some sort of wandering plot, the more experimental books are pure literary jazz. I think you have to approach them in that way or else it is easy to overlook their value.
Another angle, of course, is how these writers influenced musicians. So much of the music that came about in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties owes a tremendous debt to the Beat writers. I enjoyed Casey Rae’s book about Burroughs and music because, while Burroughs appeared to have almost no interest in music, he somehow became hugely influential over generations of rock musicians. Ginsberg, too, worked with various artists on different projects, and the whole Beat movement I think gave a generation of musicians the idea that you could be different, challenging convention in life and in art, exploring inner and outer worlds whilst forging something revolutionary.
As a writer and publisher have you been shaped or influenced by Beat experiences?
I think so. I read Kerouac and the other Beats, then pretty quickly founded Beatdom and headed off for America, where I hitchhiked and bussed around the West, meeting people like Michael McClure and consciously seeking out places where the Beats lived and wrote, all the while working in the fields and writing poetry, etc., etc. After getting a ‘real’ job, I continued to write and edit and publish work about the Beats and of course travelled extensively, again mostly hitchhiking and bussing around. In the beginning, obviously, I was quite influenced by Kerouac.
I remember living in a barn in California, reading his work over and over, but then reading his biographies and thinking, ‘Jesus, this won’t end well.’ After that, I was probably more influenced by Ginsberg and Burroughs, who were more open to international travel and probably less self-destructive. I loved that Ginsberg particularly could just find himself in any location in the world and feel at home there, meeting people and surviving on his wits. I’ve always felt about the same and often when I go to a new country I just arrive with nowhere to stay and no plans, then figure it out. Spontaneous travel, I suppose. Ginsberg visited 66 countries (by my count) and I’m at 49, and if it weren’t for this damned pandemic I would be closer to having caught up…
Pictured above: The latest edition of David S. Wills’ Beatdom, to be published on March 12th, 2022, a centenary celebration
Which musical artists from whichever era appear to make links with the Beat Generation – and how?
Gosh, so much of the stuff that came later. Again, I’d point to Casey Rae’s book and how Burroughs influenced David Bowie and the Rolling Stones and possibly Bob Dylan, then of course all the bands named for ideas in his work, and all the outrageously experimental stuff. I think Burroughs was important for a lot of artists in different media in that he showed just how far you could experiment. If he could do what he did to literature, why not music? I think that was very important for a great many people who followed, even if the influence is not necessarily obvious.
Who are your own favourite singers, musicians and bands? Do they represent Beat ideas or attitudes in their lives and art?
First of all, Bob Dylan is someone I listen to more than anyone, and I think the links between him and Kerouac and Ginsberg are quite well documented, with the Burroughs connection a bit more speculative. I’m sure someone could write a vast book on the influence the Beats had on Dylan, particularly because his life and work were so cryptic. It’s not a stretch to say that ‘Desolation Row’ and ‘Visions of Johanna’, two of my all-time favourite songs, at least owe their titles to Kerouac, whilst of course Dylan and Ginsberg became friends and collaborators. Dylan I think also explored the cut-ups and may possibly have referred to Burroughs as ‘Brother Bill’ in ‘Tombstone Blues’. As for his life… well, the Beats were about complete openness and confessionalism, but Dylan was quite the opposite. But still I think it could be argued that he had more than a little of the Beat spirit in him.
Beyond that, I am a fan of heavy metal, grunge, and various other forms of rock, as well as some early hip hop, and I enjoy a great deal of the hippie and protest music of the sixties. You could definitely look at most of these and see some influence of Beat artists and, if not, then they are influenced by those who were influenced by the Beats. So it’s an indirect literary lineage.