Saturday, July 15, 2006


Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…

Most people remember the poem Howl by the opening line:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…

But Rob Brezhny’s FreeWill Astrology advises me to focus on what I want to create, rather than what I oppose. Or, to put it his way,

“When you obsess on your adversaries, you risk becoming like them. The more you shape your life through your responses to things you don't like, you invite them to define your destiny. You'll have to be on guard against falling prey to this mistake in the coming weeks... and devote your time to creating what you love.”

So I'm starting with the second line. With angelheaded hipsters. Burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. God I love that line. Allen Ginsberg created it in San Francisco, 1955 -1956.

It was “the poem that changed America,” according to Naropa University’s celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Howl, in Boulder, Colorado on Sunday, June 25, 2006.

“Allen Ginsberg was a burning bush,” said Randy Roarke, one of his apprentices. “When he died, sparks went out and set ground fires all around.”

Sparks also went out and set fires in 1956, and kept on burning. I didn’t know what hit me in 1963. But something called me to the coffee houses in Boston to sit on my solitary barstool drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes at age 18 while visiting my mother on my way to college. I was drawn to the energy of the place, the dangerous excitement of prowling nighttime cobblestone streets, dodging drunken sailors, resonating to words like “Orpheus”. I didn’t understand a word of it. But I was pulled into it. Pulled by a cord connected at the solar plexus, setting fires along my spine, fireworks in my brain.

I would never see my mother again. She died suddenly over the weekend, as the saying goes, while my father drove me to Boulder and dropped me off in all my freshman freshness. It was almost a week before I found out about my mother and I managed to suppress the emotions until November 22, when I saw the best mind of my generation blown to pieces on the backseat of a Dallas convertible.

I’ve been trying to get my medication right ever since. I did my time in the negro streets; my angry fix was sex and suicide. I died a hundred million times. And the flame wouldn’t go out. I was mad. Mad to talk. Mad to be saved. Mad to make it to San Francisco and prowl the North Beach streets searching for the ghost of Jack Kerouac. Dragging myself inexorably toward what I love.

Love and redemption. Transcendance. Forgiveness.


Three hundred people reading Howl at the top of their voices. Three hundred beatified souls gathered to celebrate the poem that changed America, when sparks fell to earth like roman candles in the night and fires burned across the land.

I saw the burning bush with my very own eyes. At the Chicago stockyards in 1968. I was on the floor of the Democratic National Convention working for Hubert H. Humphrey, part of the outfit that engineered his nomination for President of the United States. Suddenly way up in the rafters there came a commotion. We all looked up. Delegates. Handlers. Media. Thousands of disturbed eyes saw him, surrounded by a motley bearded crew. He must have had a bull horn and through it came the words,

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…

I was horrified. A fire had broken out in a crowded theater. A burning bush, quickly extinguished by Mayor Daly’s fixers while outside his storm troopers savagely beat the best minds of my generation with truncheons and dragged them bloody through the angry Chicago streets. I was torn in two. My people were Out There. I was inside with the handlers and the fixers.

For a blinding moment the smoke and whiskey haze cleared and I saw where I was - alienated from my people bleeding in the streets of Chicago for our brothers bleeding in the rice paddies of Vietnam.

But I was easily distracted by shiny objects and the kleig lights were pointing in another direction. We were the winners. We had wrestled the presidential nomination to the ground, delegate by delegate, using any means necessary, and we had won. Oh, the glory. The power and the glory.

My boss and his regional coordinators all wore green eyeshades and gamblers’ garters on their shirtsleeves. Scotch was flowing freely, the thrill of the kill sharp in our nostrils. The vision of the burning bush quickly receded to the farthest reaches of my mind while images of the maelstrom in the streets became shrouded in cigar smoke. It would be many years before the burning bush reappeared.


Blogger Cynthia Johnston said...

This was first published on June 29, 2006 in Rider's Gonzo Journal.

10:27 AM  
Blogger Sally Swift said...

JEEZUS, Cindy Lou, this just sizzles with power.

Thank you for the reminders of who we were or could have been or should have been and for the glimpses into an all too familiar ragged and torn heart.

I believe this: if you're from the 60's, you're either stronger for the experience or you're Keith Richards.

Write about your mother. Set her ghost free. When you can.

Loving friends are all around.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Cynthia Johnston said...

Can't I just be Keith Richards?

4:33 PM  

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