(A reminiscence written in 1996.)
The life of Herbert Huncke, who died this year at the age of 81, was celebrated by his friends and admirers on a gray day in late November at the Friends Meeting House in Manhattan. Huncke was a writer, small-time thief and con man who was one of the prime movers of the Beat Generation, and his memorial service was the occasion for a reunion of some Beat survivors.
I didn’t know Huncke, although I’d met him at parties and read his books (The Evening Sun Turned Crimson, Guilty of Everything) and have friends who knew him well. On the Lower East Side in the 1960’s he was omnipresent. But I tried to avoid him. I already had another Beat Generation writer, Ray Bremser, using my bathroom to shoot up in.
John Wieners, portly and missing teeth, came from Boston with Charley Shively, publisher of Fag Rag. Wieners, the lyric poet of The Hotel Wentley Poems, whose selected poems are published by Black Sparrow, was scheduled to read a tribute to Huncke. Others on the long afternoon’s program were singers, actors reading Huncke’s prose, other poets, and Patti Smith.
One of the poets closest to Huncke was Janine Pommy Vega, who read a poem about seeing Huncke in a dream. Se was interrupted several times by Beat poet Gregory Corso, who came late and offered his spontaneous comments to several readers. Some of them were addressed to Allen Ginsberg, who sat across the room taking photographs. Perhaps in reference to Huncke’s life long drug use, Corso shouted, “I never hated Allen Ginsberg for his homosexuality, but oh how he damned me for using drugs.”
The drug issue came up again when California poet Clive Matson offered his tribute to Huncke. “Although I was in my twenties when I knew Huncke in the sixties, I was really an adolescent. Huncke was a better father to me than my own. He taught me how to sharpen a needle to mainline heroin. He was always honest.”
Matson’s stories about Huncke, told without notes, were interspersed with his chanting of “Om Mani Padme Hum.” His war stories about drugs aroused Corso to defend drug use once again. Matson, whose own tall, Gary Cooperesque good looks presented a picture of healthy survival, replied: “The message that the only thing you can do with your pain is medicate it, that sucks!”
When John Wieners got up in turn, he clutched newspapers and notebooks that he struggled to read, but since he wouldn’t speak into the microphone his rambling thoughts about the Lower East Side and Huncke were lost on the audience of 150 or so grizzled veterans and the black-clad young.
It was getting dark by the time Allen Ginsberg, looking professorial in suit and well trimmed beard, took the microphone to read a scholarly chapter from someone else’s work about the place of Huncke—and the Beats—in the literary scheme of things.
In the hall outside the meeting room, poets milled around talking about old times. Corso, paunchy and graying in red suspenders, told someone that he had given up doing readings. Peter Orlovsky smiled benignly.