BEAT CITY 3 — Goofing at the Table

My favourite Beat diner image is an inspiring black & white shot, taken in a long lost Lower East Side diner.


In the photo, we can see Kerouac (left, front on) sat at a booth with poet friends Allen Ginsberg (glasses) and Gregory Corso (wearing hat), musician David Amram (tooth-picking), and actor Larry Rivers. Rivers seems to be the centre of attention, doing most of the talking, relating some yarn or another. Gripped, Kerouac and Ginsberg are grinning.

The quintet were taking a break from filming Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy, a twenty-six minute miracle scripted, with an ad-lib narration, by Kerouac himself. The 1959 film is an improvised alchemy that relives scenes from the ordinary madness of the life of Neal Cassady with his wife Carolyn. Frank said Pull My Daisy “was made by non-professionals in search of a freer vision.” Kerouac said of Frank, in his introduction to the Swiss photographer’s masterpiece, The Americans, from 1958, a roving series of black and white images of postwar America, “You got eyes.”

The impulse of Pull My Daisy, like so much Beat art, is a city of poets who are ordinary people and a city of ordinary people who are also poets. In grungy affordability, they mix the artistic—the late night parties, the jam sessions, the beautiful sociability of fellow-travellers, Ginsberg and Corso arguing about Apollinaire (as they do in Pull My Daisy)—with the everyday familio, in lofts and coffeehouses. The diner, of course, was one place where this commingling became most commonplace and epic. Poetics there tapped the taken-for-granted, expressed a vernacular as ordinary as the diner’s counter and grill in the photo, with its “BUTTERMILK” plaque on the sidewall mirror. For its literary hub, the Formica table, with stock items of the Beat trade: cups of coffee, salt and pepper pots, a Ketchup bottle, cigarette packets, scraps of paper. The overall impression of the image is earthy and youthful, happy and fraternal, full of promise for what lies ahead. But there’s a presence of the moment, too, a now, of being there and only there—spontaneously captured by photographer John Cohen’s lens. That’s what seems inspiring: unselfconscious being there.

I’ve never seen any caption for this photo. But if I were to give it one myself I’d call it Goofing at the Table. Webster’s Dictionary says “goofing” means “to spend time foolishly,” playing around, behaving sillily, goofing off school or work, killing time, idly avoiding one’s duties. Goofing here comes across as something pejorative, as dead time, as wasting one’s time, as being somehow unproductive. And yet, for the Beats, goofing signifies something else: a richness, a virtue, the poet’s muse, a moment when the senses are fully alert—when, as Allen Ginsberg says, “lightening strikes in the blue sky.”

“Goofing at the table” is actually a line from Mexico City Blues, Kerouac’s best-regarded set of poems, written in the Mexican capital between August and September 1955. He was shacked up then in a hut along Calle Orizaba, on the roof of a building where William Burroughs once had an apartment. (Burroughs had shot and accidentally killed his wife Joan there, in a drunken party stunt, playing William Tell with a water tumbler.) “I took a little dobe block up on Bill’s roof,” Kerouac said, “2 rooms, lots of sun and old Indian women doing the wash…perfect place to write, blast, think, fresh air, sun, moon, stars, the roof of the city.”

In “candlelight in a lonely room,” high on morphine and marijuana, Kerouac scribbled the 242 choruses (stanzas) of Mexico City Blues, riffing on memories of his late father and older brother Gerard (dead aged nine of rheumatic fever), on past New York kicks, on Nirvana and Buddhism, on Mexico and dope, climaxing with a lovely paean to bebop giant Charlie Parker, “the prefect musician,” who, “with lidded eyes,” “looked like Buddha.” Kerouac explained at the start of Mexico City Blues, “I want to be considered a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday.” [1]

Here, then, in that Sunday afternoon jam session, are Choruses 80-83, hooting a few glorious notes to the American diner:

[80th Chorus]

“GOOFING AT THE TABLE/‘You just dont know.’/‘What dont I know?’/‘How good this ham n eggs/is/‘If you had any idea/ whatsoever/How good this is/Then you would stop/writing poetry/And dig in.’‘It’s been so long/since I been hungry/it’s like a miracle’/Ah boy but them bacon/And them egg–’”


[81st Chorus]

“Dem eggs & dem dem/Dere bacons, baby/if you only lay that/ down on a trumpet/Lay that down/solid brother/’Bout all dem/bacon & eggs/Ya gotta be able/to lay it down/solid —/All that luney/& fruney”

[82nd Chorus]

“Fracons, acons, & beggs,/Lay, it, all that/be boppy/be buddy/I didnt took/I could think/So/bepo/beboppy/Luney & Juney/—if—/that’s the way/they get/kinda hysterical/Looney & Boony/Juner & Mooner/Moon, Spoon, and June.”

[83rd Chorus]

“Dont they call them/cat men/That lay it down/with the trumpet/…I call em/ them cat things/ ‘That’s really cute,/that un’/ William/ Carlos/ Williams.”

This last allusion is to Beat godfather poet, a reluctant kindred soul. Williams was of an older generation, a man of two personas: one half “square,” straight-laced professional; the other, his shadow self, a radical experimenter, a “hip” creator, the man who inspired the Beats. By day, it was Doc Williams, the family practitioner of native Rutherford, New Jersey, where he delivered 2000 babies and cared for countless patients in a medical career spanning 1910-1952. By night, and at spare moments, “Bill” Williams scribbled verse, became a major innovator in American poetry, a leading twentieth-century literary modernist, contemporary of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound; yet unlike them, not a wordsmith of the scholastic meter but a bard of the vernacular voice.

Williams’s masterwork is the long poem Paterson, after the New Jersey city, Allen Ginsberg’s birthplace. Paterson spans five books, written between 1946 and 1958; its refrains follow the flowing rhythm of the city’s Passaic River with its dramatic Great Falls. The Passaic and Paterson became for Williams what the Liffey and Dublin were for James Joyce, both a place and a person, a metaphor and medium through which the personal and public merged into one great epic universal. “A man in himself is a city,” said Williams, “beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody.”

Early on in Paterson, Williams offers advice to the would-be poet: “Say it! No ideas but in things.” Stick to the concrete; keep direct contact with the external phenomenal world; write it from actual experience, from events and objects; express how real people talk, how they sound. Kerouac and Ginsberg, especially, took heed, worked through Williams’s homily. In 1950, Ginsberg, then a young unknown of Paterson, wrote to the old maestro who’d just written a poem about Paterson. Williams was so knocked out that he replied, saying, “I’m going to put this letter in my book, do you mind?” “Gee,” Ginsberg said, “I’m going to be immortal because I thought he was immortal.”

Ginsberg’s letter, letting rip about himself and his New York writer pals (like Kerouac), made it into Book 4 of Paterson. Ginsberg also sent along a few of his own poems. “I do not know if you will like my poetry or not,” he wrote Williams, “that is, how far your own inventive persistence excludes less independent or youthful attempts to perfect, renew, transfigure, and make real an old style or lyric machinery.” As it happened, Williams didn’t much care for Ginsberg’s poems. But he saw the potential, and was typically gracious and encouraging. Six years on, with his epic Howl, Ginsberg learned Williams’ lesson. “The whole point,” he said, “is that from the subjective babble, meandering, thinking, and daydreaming you’ve got reality all of a sudden, shifting and becoming aware of the actuality outside, just like Williams was writing about actualities.”

This, too, is what Kerouac meant by “laying it down solid”: digging immediacy, finding the right note, blowing it, getting it down on the page, in ink, in pencil; a poet cat man, “sketching” honest feelings from actuality: the taste of dem eggs & dem dere bacons, the hunger, the joy of food, gobbling it all down greedily. “I made a pome out of it,” Kerouac says in “Goofing at the Table.” Indeed he did. No ideas only things; simple, ordinary stuff rendered artistic, made poetic, brought alive. Such is Kerouac’s poetics, like his prose: a depiction of sensations and experiences, the restless search to give ordinary life deeper meaning and freer expression. Sometimes he didn’t even know himself whether he wrote prose or poetry. Either way, he said, he wanted to be sincere.

The analogy with jazz is nowhere more evident than when you hear Kerouac reading his poems to musical accompaniment. His best poetry recording, which includes “Goofing at the Table,” along with other choruses of Mexico City Blues, is Poetry for the Beat Generation—Kerouac’s collaboration with pianist and TV talk show host Steve Allen, released again in that big Beat bluesy year of 1959.[2] The history of the recording harks back to December 1957, when Allen first heard Kerouac read at the Village Vanguard, Greenwich Village’s legendary jazz venue. Kerouac was on an up-curve then: the previous September, On the Road had received a rave review in the New York Times, and the novel was a bestseller, Kerouac a big star.

Vanguard’s owner, Max Gordon, thought Kerouac’s voice might click at his jazz club, so he engaged the beatster for seven evening shows. Drunk on opening Xmas night, Kerouac discovered he’d forgotten to bring On the Road. “He leafs through lots of little pads filled with the tiniest hand-lettered notes,” Village Voice reporter Tony Ortega recalls (“Jack Kerouac Live at the Village Vanguard,” The Village Voice, December 25, 1957). “When I write I print everything in pencil,” Kerouac tells Ortega. “Swigging from an always handy drink,” Jack is nervous, fidgety and sweaty that night, before a full house. About to go on stage he decides not to read to music, to go it alone, to read jazz without any jazz. “He slurs over the beautiful passages as if not expecting the crowd to dig them,” says Ortega, “even if he went slower.” But they do dig him, his whirlwind fifteen-minute stint. “The applause is like a thunderstorm on a hot July night.”

Steve Allen dug Kerouac, too, asking afterwards if he could accompany Kerouac at the piano for the second show. He did, and from that night’s performance came the idea for Poetry for the Beat Generation, as well as a guest appearance on Allen’s Plymouth Show, where Kerouac read with tremendous emotional depth the closing sequence of On the Road—“nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody beside the forlorn rags of growing old.”[3]


For the recording of Poetry for the Beat Generation, Jack remembers “going into the studio to meet Steve at 1P.M.” He came carrying a massive suitcase full of loose manuscripts. Allen asks Kerouac, “‘What’ll read?” “Anything you want,” Kerouac says. Allen begins stroking cords on the piano. “They were pretty,” Kerouac says. Reaching down into the suitcase, he digs up at random some typed sheets, shows them to Allen who says, “OK.” Allen starts to play, signals to the sound engineer, and they roll. Between cuts Kerouac takes a hit from his Thunderbird wine, passing it to Allen, “who drank with charitable gaiety.” “He was nice,” Kerouac says. “We finished the session in an hour. The engineers came out and said, ‘Great, that’s a great first take.’ I said, ‘It’s the only take.’ Steve said, ‘That’s right’, and we all packed up and went home’.” And here, for all to hear, is Kerouac and Allen’s spontaneously improvised GOOFING AT THE TABLE:

There’s a little coda to this tale, telling us a few things about Kerouac’s America and why the Beats were beat with it. Although Poetry for the Beat Generation was recorded in March 1958, it didn’t make vinyl until June 1959. Why the delay? The problem was Dot Records, who produced the recording and were scheduled to distribute the album. But after hearing the disk, company president Randy Wood decided to pull the project, turning prissy, saying he thought certain passages “in bad taste,” and that his company “would never distribute a product that’s not clean family entertainment.” Wood’s reaction struck many as bizarre. If clean family fun were record companies’ primary motivation, much of rock ’n’ roll history wouldn’t exist. Even Dot Records’ vice-president Bob Thiele was bemused. While Poetry for the Beat Generation clearly isn’t for kids, Thiele said, neither are Walt Whitman or e.e. Cummings. But should that invalidate their artistry or genius?

After his tiff with Wood, Thiele quit Dot, taking the master tape of Kerouac and Allen’s recording with him. A smart move. The rest, we might say, is music legend. With Steve Allen, Thiele founded the Hanover label, really a vehicle to give Poetry for the Beat Generation a public hearing, finally bringing to melodious life the goofy jazz cadences of Kerouac’s voice and poetics. Thiele would soon establish himself in jazz annals, heading up Impulse! records between 1961 and 1969, producing many stellars like Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and, perhaps above all, John Coltrane, most famously A Love Supreme. A year before he died in 1996, Thiele released a memoir whose title bore Louis Armstrong’s famous hit: What a Wonderful World.

IF KEROUAC’S VERSE SPEAKS a jazz register, we can hear the musicality of the city, too, the joys and melancholy of urban life, its camaraderie and loneliness, its blues. Often, like Williams’ Paterson, or Baudelaire’s Paris, the city itself became the subject of the poetry, Kerouac’s mindmatter muse. Mexico City Blues is one obvious example, yet so is San Francisco Blues and Washington D.C. Blues. Sometimes Kerouac narrowed it down even more, unique in his oeuvre in that he wrote poems about specific streets, such as Bowery Blues, MacDougal Street Blues and Orizaba 210 Blues (the latter about a single building, on whose roof he once lived). Along the way, he penciled “Tangier Poems,” “Haikus in Berkeley,” as well as “Pomes on Doctor Sax” from hometown Lowell. The city, as such, was Kerouac’s standard measure, its idiom his pitch. His was an aural as well as oral gift, a refined sense and sensibility for the street, and, as I’ll discuss next time, for its unrefined habitués.


[1] Grove Press published Mexico City Blues in November 1959, after Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights rejected it. Grove was a tireless supporter of Beat literature and owner Barney Rosset was close to both Kerouac and Ginsberg. He pumped much of his own family fortune into promoting literary experimentation and free expression, winning landmark court cases against the censorship of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (the latter also in 1959). Meanwhile, Rosset brought the European avant-garde to American audiences, notably Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco.

[2] Coincidence or not, it’s worth remembering that the other great American blues poem of the decade, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, likewise hailed from 1959.

[3] Other accounts report that Kerouac had a disastrous week at the Vanguard and his stint was prematurely terminated. It’s hard to know who to believe. Voice’s Tony Ortega implied that Kerouac went down really well—one bartender called Jack “a beautiful cat.” What seems clearer is that showbiz Steve Allen was sufficiently impressed to want to cut a record with Kerouac.

About Andy Merrifield

Writer, Urbanist, Marxist, Educator
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