That time David Bowie met the Beat Generation

In his column, veteran journalist A Craig Copetas revisits past interviews and examines their continued relevance. In this one, he asks what Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac, the three oracles and contradictory architects of the Beat Generation, could teach us in an age of social media and cancel culture.

David Bowie beamed at the elderly American with a trilby on his head.

“May I take your hat,” Bowie asked, his thin shoulders drooping shyly into a half bow.

The year was 1973 and Bowie had recently materialised as a multinational force majeure, with songs and performances that today, five years after his death, continue to stimulate multigenerational audiences and top Google’s algorithmic hit parade.

Yet Bowie did not need a search engine to know the gentleman in the grey flannel suit we were lunching with at the rock star’s London home that afternoon was genuine cultural royalty. His name was William Seward Burroughs. The Glitter Mainman had finally come face-to-face with El Hombre Invisible, who along with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac was one of the three oracles and contradictory architects of the Beat Generation.

Long ago, before the birth of Generations X-Y-Z, the uproars of social media and the trolls of cancel culture, Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac succeeded in making peace between the uncommon languages and bickering moralities that have made today’s digital public square as welcoming as a skunk at a picnic. No topic was taboo. But despite fanfare good and bad, none of them knew if anyone was paying attention – not even their acolyte Bowie.

“I’m quite certain that the audience that I’ve got for my stuff don’t listen to the lyrics,” Bowie said.

“Do they understand them?” Burroughs wondered aloud. “I’d talked about this with Ginsberg and Kerouac. We don’t know.”

“It comes over as more of a media thing,” Bowie lamented. “It’s only if they sit down and bother to look.”

If you are one of the folks who failed to look, please be advised Burroughs in 1959 warned that climate change would inexorably alter the human genome and in Naked Lunch cautioned, “Western man is externalising himself in gadgets.” Kerouac’s blockbuster 1957 novel On the Road concluded, “I had nothing to offer anybody, except my own confusion.” The first sentence of Ginsberg’s 1956 epic poem Howl grieved: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”

Sound familiar?

At the time, the superstars of Silicon Valley had yet to be pixelated. Neither was El Habib Louai. He is one of Morocco’s most celebrated English-language poets, born a member of Generation Y in the Berber village of Taroudant in 1985. There was neither a library nor an internet connection. Louai has spent the past 14 years translating Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg into classical Arabic and is now a professor of English literature at the University of Ibn Zohr in Agadir.

“I teach the Beats,” Louai says. “They were American, but their resonance is universal for young people who feel they’re aliens, casualties of the environmental, economic and political instabilities of the 21st century. The only difference between my generation and the Beats,” he adds, “is we have social media.”

Now you might well ask how a Moroccan Millennial raised at the foot of the Atlas Mountains became the Beat Generation’s ambassador to the Arab-speaking world and a recognised authority on how three beatniks long dead parallel the fear and loathing of global youth.

The Beats had four operational hubs: San Francisco, New York, Paris, and Tangier, where their keen interest in Moroccan music, poetry and culture played a significant role in shaping their ideas and characters. They also raved about the food. Indeed, the Beats are today one of Tangier’s chief tourist attractions, with regularly scheduled museum exhibitions and literary conferences. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the Hotel Emblem offers a weekend package that takes guests on an educational voyage into the genesis of American Cool.

“Young people everywhere are working to create societies that accept people who are linguistically, politically and sexually different from each other,” Louai says. “Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were close friends and three of the most different and difficult people you might ever meet.”

Apart from their profound divergence of predispositions, the three cultural lions shared a great deal in common. They all loved argument and, seizing an idea and energising it with their individuality, always managed to find common ground. Just how and why is a mystery Louai hopes to untangle.

“They were completely oppositional people, like what we see today in America and elsewhere,” Beat Generation historian David Holzer adds. “When Kerouac, an invariably drunk alcoholic, spouted his ultra-right-wing politics, he was trolling his lifelong liberal pal Ginsberg, whose ambition as a teenager was to become a labour lawyer, rather than championing anything he actually believed in.”

Burroughs, who in 1951 killed his wife when he accidentally fired a bullet into her head instead of the glass he had put on top of it for a drunken game of William Tell, was a member of the National Rifle Association. “I don’t like talk and I don’t like talkers,” Burroughs told us over Thanksgiving dinner in London in 1973. “Like Ma Barker. You remember Ma Barker? Well, that’s what she always said. She just sat there with her gun.”

Ginsberg chanted Buddhist mantras at the other end of the table. Bowie said he was 12 years old when he first read On the Road, which annually sells 65,000 copies and has been translated into 25 languages. A Chinese version of Naked Lunch is available on the underground book market in Shanghai. In Tehran, there are outlawed copies of Howl in Farsi.

As Louai tells it, the beat goes on, wherever you are.