The Beat Generation was mainly an urban phenomenon achieved in post-WWII Western cities. Ginsberg and Herbert Huncke worked out of New York. William Burroughs and Brion Gysin broke down the walls of convention in the Beat Hotel in Paris, the Chelsea Hotel in New York, and on chic Duke Street St. James in London. Kerouac was all over the place. San Francisco spawned a whole nest of fascinating Beat peripherals like Buddhist poet Gary Snyder, collage artist Wallace Berman, and City Lights, small press of choice to many a boho writer who wouldn't recognise a royalty statement if it jumped up and bit him.
Tangier was the only non-Western metropolis to host major Beat happenings. This louche Moroccan backwater became, arguably, the ultimate Beat city. Paul Bowles, Burroughs, and Gysin passed substantial parts of their lives there. They were joined sporadically in their drug and sex idyll by Kerouac, Ginsberg, the Stones, Jean Genet, Timothy Leary, and Gregory Corso. They didn't just create art and live life in the town - they variously nurtured a home-grown Beat scene dominated by Choukri, Mrabet (both writers), and Hamri, the Moroccan national painter.
Major new biographies of Brion Gysin and Paul Bowles have just been published and Tangier Diaries by John Hopkins, who knew the whole gang, in out in paperback. The veterans of the "Tangier Beat Generation Scene" are all dead now except for the unruly Mrabet and for John Hopkins who was an acute observer of, rather than a hairy participant in, the wild times that helped alter contemporary culture.
What are the major manifestations of this Tangier Beat Scene? Burroughs' Naked Lunch is the big Tangier novel in much the same way that James Joyce's Ulysses is the big book of Dublin. The Sheltering Sky, concerning prosperous Americans adrift in panoramic desert territory (real and metaphysical), is just one of the twenty-odd Moroccan books that Bowles had a hand in. Gysin's Dreamachine, a kinetic work of art which induces a trance-like condition in the observer, is merely an art version of Moroccan sunlight and shadow. Gysin also facilitated the rise of The Master Musicians of Joujouka, Hamri's major contribution to the Beat cause. Joujouka beguiled errant Rolling Stone Brian Jones whose album Brian Jones Presents The Pipes of Pan at Joujouka moved popular music on to new aural territory.
Why did Bowles, Gysin, and Hopkins end up in Tangier, the white city by the sea where the living is easy and the rent boys are easier still? These questions are neither comprehensively addressed nor answered in the new books I've been reading.
Virginia Spencer Carr's Paul Bowles - A Life is principally an attempt to reclaim Bowles for America. Trips back to the States reluctantly undertaken (to earn money or get medical care) are treated like pivotal crossroads in the author's life while whole decades passed hanging out in the Cafe de Paris, the Fes Market, or Madame Porte's Tea Rooms are treated like the merest biographical accidents.
Correspondences with American academic nonentities are gone into at length while his monumental work "translating" young Moroccan writers - he spent twenty years ghost writing almost twenty fictions regaled to him by handsome street corner savants he lured into his web - gets less attention than the months he spent recovering from an operation in the biographer's own home.
Mrabet and Choukri are the best known of these collaborators - though Choukri wrote his own books on a typewriter and Bowles really did just translate him. I know of at least one beautifully turned out work of Moroccan literature which I'm sure was written anonymously by Bowles. The "translation" is attributed to one of Bowles' American acquaintances who never displayed any gift for, or inclination towards, other writing.
No doubt, being an American academic, Carr regarded the cosmopolitan recollections (concerning music, writing, and dinner parties) of white university educated New Yorkers to be somehow more reliable than the rantings of exuberant, occasionally illiterate, Moroccan street urchins now grown old and wilder than ever.
If she interviewed Hamri (and she thanks him in her acknowledgements), he must have told her about the time that Bowles lured him up into the mountains with the intention of murdering him and how Hamri jumped on a donkey to escape. Hamri would have told her, as he told me, that as a boy of fourteen he was held captive and a naked prisoner in Bowles' home after being picked up by the middle aged writer in Tangier train station.
Hamri grabbed Bowles' wedding suit in order to escape. Bowles spent the rest of his life telling everybody what a thief Hamri was but didn't have a lot to say about how enjoyable it was to keep an adolescent boy, naked and terrified, prisoner. Unlike Mrabet, Hamri was not really the bug-eyed erratic type. I believed his account because Tangier is full of stories about the dark side of Paul Bowles - few of which made their way into Carr's correspondence-rich narrative.
There are as many tales about Bowles doing Moroccan writer out of their royalties as there are rumours about Michael Jackson fiddling with little boys. Carr deals with this by mentioning one such accusation, and quoting Bowles calm assurance that, "Of course I didn't cheat him."
There is nothing about the public controversy which ensued when Choukri levelled serious accusations against Bowles towards the end of his life, claiming that he stole Choukri's English-language royalties. At a Moroccan Government-sanctioned arts gathering Choukri denounced Bowles as being a thief, an exploiter, and a racist.
This was bad news - the Moroccan authorities were forever threatening to kick Bowles out of the country He said this was merely an attempt by corrupt local cops to squeeze him for bribes. In fact his sex habits - in his eighties he liked to have impoverished young Moroccan couples into his house so they could do double acts in front of him on the floor - outraged the Moroccans. This was the "exploitation" that Choukri was referring to.
I don't blame Carr. She's done a different sort of book, one which sticks to rules of biographical engagement I was thought myself; regard correspondence and published sources as your primary material - look upon taped interviews and third hand newspaper accounts as unreliable.
And Bowles was a plausible old charmer. I liked him immensely when I met him, found him scintillating and thrilling. Like all the other Tangier sex addicts, he was adept at dragging out the bone china and hiding the lube when genteel ladies came to visit from abroad.
Last time I was n Tangier I met people who'd picked up unpublished Bowles manuscripts in a flea market for a few dirhams. This would have pleased the existential man who chose, to his credit, to pass his days amongst the great unwashed.
Brion Gysin couldn't control his life or reputation with quite the same aplomb as Bowles. He said that the key to success in the arts was to pick one nail and to keep hammering away at it. He reckoned that he'd hammered on different nails like you're supposed to play the xylophone.
One of the most tragically underestimated painters of the last century, if he'd stuck to painting he'd have been a classic. Instead he involved himself (in a very serious way) with music, writing, inventing, marketing, restaurant management, film, magic, and collaborations which got him nowhere.
He invented the Cut Up Method of writing which allowed Burroughs to change the face of fiction. Burroughs said he was the only man he ever respected. Pally with Anita Pallenberg, Iggy Pop, Bowie, and Keith Haring, he was a founding father of sampling and performance art.
He was also, as John Geiger's biography amply illustrates, a bad human being - he used to say that Man is a bad animal. Snobby, always on the financial hustle, disloyal to his most loyal supporters, inclined to run after a trend just when the trend was passing, divisive, right wing, he was the very sort of mid-century fag that he despised.
Both Geiger and John Hopkins record the fact that, while in Tangier, he lived a truly Moroccan life surrounded by a retinue of Moroccan men. The most artistically significant of these was Hamri and the most personally significant was Targusti, a vigorous and wily presence whom I once met in the Cafe de Paris.
Unlike Bowles, Gysin eventually dragged himself away from Morocco, moving permanently to Paris in 1973. He continued to stir up shit and wage psychic war against some of those who cared for him the most until he died in 1986. During the last ten years of his life, Geiger points out, he was able to watch his old pal Burroughs become a counterculture superstar while he floundered around in a world of demented fags, sleazy acolytes like Genesis p-Orridge, and unacceptable Irish drug smugglers.
During those years he produced his only truly great book, Here To Go. Written in collaboration with English writer Terry Wilson, Here To Go is Gysin's valedictory statement, a book length interview covering every facet of the dying painter's very full life.
I met John Geiger when he was starting out on this biography and, despite the fact that his mother was one likeable and wild dame, I was sure that he wouldn't be able to do a good job. His previous books concerned Artic exploration and he came to Gysin as an agent of James Grauerholz, Burroughs' manager and consigliore. Grauerholz - a sub-Springsteen failed rock singer - was always hostile to Gysin's fundamentally experimental nature.
All things considered, Geiger has generally proven me wrong. True, he follows Grauerholz's party line on Joujouka, deliberately confusing a commercial crossover act signed to Island Records in the early 90s with the Master Musicians who live and work in the village of Joujouka, having trained under Hamri since the late 40s.
Geiger devotes way too much space to the unpublished correspondence and rejected manuscripts which poured out of Gysin - he excelled at painting, made fair efforts at music and inventing, but was the least appetising of writers, always filling his badly written pages with lies, exaggerations, wishful thinking, bullshit, misinformation, and stoned ramblings.
There is no bibliography, discography, or list of major exhibitions. Here To Go is amply quoted and referenced but never given the credit it deserves, probably because Terry Wilson is on the Grauerholz blacklist. He backed Hamri's Joujouka as opposed to the Grauerholz disco version.
Geiger had a difficult job to do, came up with some new stuff and wrote a book that a lot of people are going to want to read.
Both biographies make ample use of John Hopkins' beautifully written diaries which chart his arrival in Tangier in 1962, his getting to know Bowles and Hamri and Gysin and Burroughs, his involvement with Tangier's mysterious American School, and his eventual decision to quit town, married, when the tide had gone out on the local Beat scene.
Gysin and Bowles went o Tangier to be free. Why did Hopkins go there, and how did he pay for his frantic travelling all over the world? A discreet veil is drawn over the ins and outs of his personal affairs. Perhaps, as an old Tangier paedophile said to me one day, he worked for "the American government abroad." His diaries are rammed full of fine writing, warmly drawn recollections, and source material which will be used by historians so long as people want to read about the powerful confluence of cultures in collision which was Beat Tangier.
There remains in Tangier today a small coterie of bad, bad people, mainly English and American, who style themselves an expat community. They are predominantly elderly men and, almost without exception, they are sex addicts, as an hour sitting at a Cafe de Paris kerbside table will convince any lonesome traveller who happens to pass through the town known to the Moroccan Tourist board as "Tangier - Jewel of the North" but regarded by me as being Tangier - Sewer of the North.
Paul Bowles - A Life by Virginia Spencer Carr (Peter Owen)
Nothing is True; Everything is Permitted by John Geiger (disinformation)
The Tangier Diaries 1962-1979 by John Hopkins (Arcadia Books)
Here to Go by Brion Gysin and Terry Wilson (Creation Books)
Joe Ambrose wrote 14 books, including Chelsea Hotel Manhattan and The Fenian Reader. Joe sadly passed away in 2018. Visit Joe's website which was completed just before his passing, for more info: JoeAmbrose.co.uk.
about Joe Ambrose »»
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