In this day and age certain truths are not always self evident, but the Unbearable beatniks of light are on a roll tonight. Truth is in sight, because tonight on the occasion of their return to New York City, on the occasion of their first meeting in over two years, they've unanimously agreed to give up the old ways, the old thoughts, the old attachments that held them prisoners for so long to a time and place that never really existed as anything other than a state of mind, despite media hype and career conspiracies to the contrary. We're talking about downtown, hipsters, as if you couldn't have guessed.
The Unbearables have been on the road for the last couple of years, choosing the apex of the scene to split for different parts unknown, unglued and yes, most of all, unhyped, hipsters. Like dust to the wind they got gone just before the bottom fell out of the East Village gallery and performance scene, riding their memories of hot times in the old Alphabet Town off into the existential sunset, leaving the Club scene floggers behind to celebrate for nothing more than the-glory-of-the-glory.
Yo! In the old-old good-old-days (remember those were the days, my friends, the days we thought would never end. . .), the Unbearables, who are not really beatniks, but a free-floating, in-your-face Temporary Autonomous Zone of black humorists, Immediatists, Neoists and Beer Mystics, used to meet every other Tuesday night in certain downtown watering holes and drown themselves in nostalgia for, what else, but the-good-old-days. Certainly a disease of the spirit, hipsters, which on reflection, everyone now agrees, comes out sounding like a cross between Dodge City Saturday Night and an unenforceable DMZ right in the heart of Junkieland. Ah, but we're starting to toss grenades before we even choose up sides. . .
First, their name - The Unbearable Beatniks of Light, which came to the original foursome courtesy of a spoonerism one sloshed night in the old Tin Pan Alley, while noting that for some unfathomable reason all the really groovy chicks were into Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. As individuals or a group, they were always caught somewhere in the middle - too young to be real beatniks, too old to be hippies, too late to be punks, but always hanging out on one cutting edge or another all their lives. They first started hanging with each other two years before it became obvious the end of the last new wave was the next old hat. And then realized nothing else could even be tried-on, much less embraced, until the corpse was buried. In previous incarnations they were all seemingly involved in what can now be generically classified as the downtown scene. Since the unbearable gaffe first occurred, and since at heart they are all democratic anarchists, they pick their beatnik code names (Jack, Neal, Allen, Bill, Gregory, Herbert, etc.) out of a hat every meeting, so last time if you were Jack this time you might be Neal or Allen or Bill, or Gregory, etc.
"What this does," tonight's Allen explains to me, "is it takes us out of ourselves, out of indulging in our own personal problems." Tonight's Allen has just spent the last two years living in suburbia, saving his marriage by helping his wife's brother open a shopping center outside of Youngstown, Ohio. "You know what I'm talking about," he says. "The wife flipped it, I didn't get the raise, the lease ran out and the scumbags are raising the rent from 289.50 to 14-hundred. At the same time, by changing names every week, none of us get trapped in any one persona."
"This way," tonight's Neal explains, "it stays sort of a healthy schizoid exercise as opposed to a real schizoid existence." Tonight's Neal, who used to be a well known SoHo bartender before he moved to Barcelona, originally came to the Lower East Side from England in '75, virtually penniless. He likes to remember little tidbits like when the subway and slice of pizza both cost 35 cents. "I thought it was the bloody law they had to cost the same thing!" he laughs.
Tonight's Allen, who used to manage a bookstore in what he calls "the heart of the beast," remembers fondly, "almost too fondly," the days when the Lower East Side was considered "no man's land. The Hell's Angels ran the neighborhood. Junkies and shooting parlours proliferated."
"And that doesn't even go back to the days of The Electric Circus." Tonight's Jack comes back to the table after he's finished reading from his novel in the back room. A well known DJ before he packed it in to move to Paris to write "The Great American Novel," he first came to the Lower East Side 21 years ago, from East Jesus, Nebraska, to freak out! But it was too late. The Fillmore was closed. The heads had all splattered then scattered, got gone back to the land and left the streets to the speed freaks.
"It's been a while since I've heard that word," muses tonight's Bill, a tall, elegant, anthropology professor who spends most of his time out of the city studying shamanism in remote corners of the world.
"What word?" tonight's Jack asks. "Freak?"
"No, speed." Tonight's Bill smiles. "Remember speed?"
"The real thing," tonight's Neal smiles. "I haven't heard the word in 10 years. What happened to speed? It just sort of disappeared."
"Cocaine," tonight's Allen wheezes. "The non addictive yuppie elixir. Thank God I'm allergic to it."
Suddenly a loud roar comes from the crowd as tonight's Gregory comes out of the back room and climbs up on top of the bar, to read an old favorite to the hungry mob.
"Not again!" Tonight's Bill puts his hands over his eyes."He's not going to do his-"
"HIGH! HIGH!" tonight's Gregory roars from the top of his tonsils. "HOW HIGH CAN YOU FLY BEFORE YOU DIE?" he sings out, then pounds his chest like he's Tarzan and has just spotted The Bitch Goddess Muse on the other side of the river. He lets loose a loud soul cleansing call to all the animas of the East and West Villages, then does a perfect swan dive off the bar, splattering head first on the concrete!
The Unbearables at the table turn back away from the human puddle on the floor, and one by one, lift their hands like diving judges - an eight from tonight's Neal, a nine from tonight's Allen, a six from tonight's Bill, a seven from tonight's Jack - and then get back to business as usual.
By the time tonight's Gregory has been scraped off the floor, loaded on a slab and carted away, everyone's reliving a different way to find their own separate reality, though it should be pointed out to all you undercover DEA agents out there, the Unbearables are drug free now, considering their tastes, bouts, marriages and indulgences with pharmacuticals & herbs as merely phases, rights of passage they had to undergo to get to the condition their condition is in now.
"We're just pawns in the detoxification of America," tonight's Bill insists. "These memories of the way things are are as bad as any addiction I've ever had."
"Worse than tobacco," tonight's Jack wheezes.
"Maudlin, sentimental, and politically incorrect," tonight's Allen moans.
"Which is exactly why I miss them!" tonight's Neal proclaims. "I like doing things for the bloody toss of it! That's why I moved here in the first place. Where's your bloody spirit, mates? Have we turned into a coven of wussies? Isn't there one bloody gesture among us?"
"Listen to Neal, he's got a wild hair tonight!" Tonight's Jack laughs. "But hey, there ain't no more America to bang-bang, much less a Neuvo York. Not that Paris is that much better now, but at least it looks good. And hey, nobody can say the Frogs don't give good 'tude. In reality they may be vapid, they may be shallow, they may be total blanks, but you've got to admit their shells are cool. Here everything and everyone is redundant. Nothing but the same ghouls and necrophiles on the club scene, takin' care of their egos, baby. Takin' care of their egos."
"A bit harsh, old boy. Some of my best friends are ghouls and necrophiles," tonight's Neal grimaces. "Matter of fact, I do believe it's my heritage as well."
The addiction kicks back in then. The good old days, before they realize it, are back. The glory of Darinka, The Shuttel, 8 BC, all sacrifices to gentrification, become a litany; Normandy, Anzio, just a regular Guadal Canal Diary, hipsters.
Before long the Unbearables are sloshing through the mindfields of memory: The Feast of Unbraining at The Theatre for the New City, Don Cherry blowing The Shuttel's lights out all night long, Karen Finley's first yam, Seymour Krim Making It for the last time at Darinka, the performances and readings and parties in the Rivington School's sculpture garden, the New Year's Day marathon at The Poetry Project, when tonight's Gregory was standing in a long line to get a urinal when the real Gregory himself stumbles in, takes one look at the line, then swaggers straight over to the sink, unzips and and lets fly as he goes into a 10 minute riff that freezes everyone's dorks in their fists, on why most guys find it impossible to piss when somebody's talking to them. . . And of course, what's his name's birthday party at The Palladium. "That was the beginning of the end," tonight's Allen ruefully sighs. "The Eye was flying high"
"Oh mi-oh-mi!" tonight's Jack sings.
"Literary night in the Mike Todd Room."
"MC'd by The King of the Yuppies."
"Bright Lights, Big Nostrils."
"That pissed a lot of people off."
"It's one thing to gentrify the bloody landscape, but the
bloody art should be sacred!"
"You're just jealous."
"Good first line."
"You're just jealous. It's not malicious," tonight's Jack mocks. "You've been invited to a party. Naturally there's a reading. You're not asked to participate. But there's an open bar and free food. You're immediately attracted to the suckling pigs. Just then the star comes on. You feel sorry for him. You feel envious of him. You feel sorry for him again. The crowd surges up against the stage. Drooling, flipping spit off the tips of their fingers at his head: He's an easy target. Like any icon, his head is huge. Almost as big as Richard Burton's was, and he hasn't even learned to move it yet. Just stands there and takes it, proudly pissed. Ready to Mailer the whole mob at once."
"So you want to be the bloody Man, do you?"
"You hyperventilate. Remember the curse of talent. Only the good die young. What if you were Rimbaud in a past life? Do you remember what fame was like? Or how the cliché tasted on your tongue?"
"Sweet and sour pork. Twins. Mirrors of rejection. You're looking at yourself looking at yourself looking at yourself; not a pretty picture, but They might buy it all the same. If your conceit is as good as his."
"You lift the pig off the table."
"Would you like to dance, my dear?"
"Would you like to dance, my dear?" There's an echo in the room.
The Unbearables are cooking now. Jamming on their own afflictions.
"You've already been famous for five minutes, now what, asshole?"
"Get a lime juice commercial!"
"Make a movie."
"Open a gallery."
"Start a band."
"Get a job -- Shoobie-do-do. . ."
As if on cue, they start singing: "Pull my daisy, tip my cup, all my doors are open. . . Cut my thoughts for coconuts, all my eggs are broken. . ."
I seem to have missed something in the translation. The dancing pig. Did tonight's Jack did, or did tonight's Jack didn't throw the pig?
"No way, man! I was just getting inside the story. Getting inside the cat's head who threw it. That's how things get twisted!"
"It was bloody unbelievable," tonight's Neal laughs. "Bright Lights wasn't even on stage when it happened. Some little guy reading something nobody's listening to. Just getting it on, and getting it over as fast as he can, when all of a sudden this pig's head - there was nothing left but the head - comes flying through the air, right in front of his bloody eyes."
The signal to split, on more than one level. It's time for the Unbearables to find that next whiskey bar. But not before making a vow, deciding to make one final gesture, as an ode to their glorious past.
Dressed head to toe in traditional hipster black, they trudge angst ridden through the light mist, as they debate what action to take as they bop east across Houston. What can they do? What one tiny gesture can they make to release themselves from the past, at the same time they honor it?
Perhaps liberate The New Yorker's po-et-ry from medi-oc-rity? Though that idea they concede is almost as mediocre as the poetry they would like to liberate. Perhaps put the beatniks, the real beatniks on trial? Turn The Crimes of the Beats into the Nuremberg of Bohemia: Call out Burroughs for copping W. C. Fields act, and Ginsberg for being the original Maynard G. Krebs in the gray flannel beret - always hyping, hyping, hyping the myth, then selling, selling, selling it as the only viable alternative to the polluted mainstream, and of course Jackie boy himself for claiming he wrote On The Road in one sitting; a fabrication that ruined three whole generations of novelists gobbling speed to duplicate the feat of the beat that never really went down in anything short of seven drafts, maybe. . .Or perhaps each one of the Unbearables themselves selling out by getting their own personal sponsors? Writing letters to Pepsi Cola, IBM, General Motors, Conde Naste, all over corporate America, and asking their worst ideological enemies for funding to fight the rise of corporate America. Then hold an annual Telethon on Cable, and call it The Night of a Thousand Sponsors.
But all these ideas are obviously down the road, not on it. For the moment, the now, on the next beat they decide, unanimously decide, to liberate St. Marks Place. From what, they're not sure. But it must be done, there's no doubt about that! Though the how of making a Revolutionary act in America at the end of the 90s is not that easy. Not that easy at all. Back in the late 60s the Yippies changed the name of the street from St. Marks to St. Marx, but the Marxists are free now, the Commies all want to be Cappies, so that McGuffin won't work anymore. It's as dead and gone as that defunct breed once known as "hip capitalists."
Swaying back and forth now, they stand on the corner of St. Marks and Second Avenue, in front of Gem Spa, invoking the ghost of poet Ted Berrigan simultaneously gobbling speed and sucking up an egg cream, as they stare incredulously across the street at something that looks like it was beamed down from a shopping mall in Paramus.
"That's it!" tonight's Jack snaps.
"Close The bloody Gap!" tonight's Neal roars.
"No more pastels!" tonight's Allen wails.
"Send them back to the burbs!" tonight's Bill bops.
"Blow them to smithereens!" tonight's Neal cackles.
"You mean actually bomb them?" tonight's Jack asks.
"Have you got a better idea?" tonight's Bill snarls.
"We could pool our money, and put a Banana Republic in across the street, to drive them out of business."
Tonight's beatnik turns to me and says, "Don't quote me on that."
The Unbearables look down at the sidewalk, down at the concrete. Then in mass, slowly, very slowly trudge west, back in the direction they came from.
In the middle of the block, they duck inside The Grassroots, for one last round.
Tonight's Allen turns to tonight's Jack and sighs, before they push through the doors: "Obviously, things aren't the same anymore."
Tonight's Jack laughs: "If they ever were."
"If they ever were," tonight's Bill echoes.
"If they ever were. . ."