Mastodon Original Beats: Gregory Corso and Herbert Huncke

Original Beats: Gregory Corso and Herbert Huncke

Often overshadowed by the Beat triumvurate of Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac, Herbert Huncke and Gregory Corso were nonetheless integral to the Beat family and, on a personal level at least, often the most interesting. Both had been in jail (the same jail though not at the same time), both, in contrast to the Big Three who were all Columbia Grads, were self taught.

I never read a lot of Corso because he mostly wrote poetry and I don’t read a lot of poetry. I still have my copy of Huncke’s ‘The Evening Sun Turned Crimson‘, which, despite a relative lack of artlessness, is direct, honest, even charming. Huncke details his early life hustling, plumbing the depths of drug addiction (I still recall, even years after I read the book, Huncke describing walking into Alphabet City with open sores on his face after scratching his skin raw shooting speed). This kind of thing has been done to death (literally), but Huncke was the firstest, even amongst the Beats, and his stories about the people he met along the way – drag queens, hustlers, junkies, and general people around the city – often have warmth, even tenderness, even when he described the most desperate characters.

Herbert Huncke and Allen Ginsberg 1960s

Corso I remember most from ‘The Beat Hotel’, a dive hotel in Paris where Corso lived and shared a bed with Ginsberg and Ginsberg’s love Peter Orlovsky. Not that Corso got into any kinky three way thing. Corso knew from his days in jail that he was into chicks, and chicks only – they shared a bed because they had no heat.

In contrast to the gaunt, priestlike (or creepy, depending on your point of view) Burroughs, who lived in his own room on an upper floor, the three younger men (and Corso was the youngest of all) run wild like especially Rabelesian college kids on a spree. Invited to meet the French surrealists, they arrive ecstatically drunk, crawl around on all fours barking like dogs in what they thought was an appropriately Surrealist action. Corso, I think it was, jumped on Breton’s lap and chewed on his tie. Breton and most of the other guests, good Parisian bourgeoisie despite their pretensions, were not amused by this behaviour. Duchamp, the exception, was charmed by their very American irreverence and energy.

These guys were still around when I first got to New York. I had a friend who knew Huncke through Robert Frank. Huncke used to come by his place on East 3rd, bum cigarettes and talk. He was a great talker apparently. I missed meeting him one afternoon by a few minutes apparently. I missed meeting Ginsberg as well, which I regret less, having been oggled by the Great Man in the East Village a couple of times. I don’t say this out of any vanity – if you were under 30 and male and in the East Village before 1995, you were likely oggled by Allen Ginsberg.

In this charming half-hour short by film-maker Francois Bernadi, which was shot in 1996 shortly before Herbert Huncke’s death, Corso and Huncke read at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project and are interviewed separately. Corso is irascible, brittle; Huncke is more amenable, sitting at a desk in his room in the Chelsea Hotel. We see the lobby of the Chelsea, and the 42nd that Huncke first discovered in the ’50s. Of this discovery, Huncke says:

“I liked the lights, I liked the way people moved. It was fresh . . . people seemed a lot freer in their actions than people did elsewhere.”

Corso, who also hustled on 42nd for a time, getting older men to take him out to dinner then running off, remembers the Deuce in less romantic terms:

“The most deplorable area to hang around – only the lowest of the low hang around there, if you’ve got nothing to offer society or even themselves . . . there was no class there.”

When I first moved to New York, the Beat tradition lived on, in places like the Tribes gallery, Nuyorican Cafe, in countless places now long gone, and amongst the Unbearables, Sensitive Skin Magazine, Red Tape. By the mid-’90s, the Beats were becoming a brand, more famous for their lives than their books, endlessly imitated in form if not in spirit. Some of these groups, or former members of these groups survive in rent-controlled apartments, in places they were lucky enough to buy when the real estate was still cheap. But no one would call the East Village bohemian now.

Gregory Corso in sunglasses

With thanks to Dangerous Minds where I found this video

–City of Strangers

Essays Video

2 thoughts on “Original Beats: Gregory Corso and Herbert Huncke

  1. Wonderful video and piece about Corso and Huncke. Though one cannot deny the influence of Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac (as an editor, I have seen my share of imitations), as a Canadian writer I’d say that Corso’s work was welcomed in 60s and 70s circa Canada and influenced many Canadian poets of that era. Myself, I have always been drawn to Huncke’s unique authenticity as a self-taught writer. I see his influence in the writings of the late NY artist/writer, David Wajnarowicz.

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