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The Last Beat

I first met Charley Plymell reading his poetry at an outdoor event in Baltimore almost 50 years ago. It was summertime in 1977. I was a slightly naïve wannabe poet hanging out with a bunch of older poets. Among those there were two of my mentors, Joe Cardarelli and David Franks. I took poetry workshops with them at the Maryland Institute of Art. At the time I didn’t realize it, but I couldn’t grasp why they were acting so standoffish and weird around Charley Plymell. It wasn’t until years later that I realized they were jealous of Charley, who had a certain cachet with the Beat Generation poets they envied. Which goes to show how petty poets can be.

Charley didn’t play that way. He was around before the Beat scene and still there when it was all over but the memories. Charley Plymell is hanging tough today. His new book, Over the Stage of Kansas, New & Selected Poems 1966 – 2023, edited by Gerard Malanga, and published by Bottle of Smoke Press, is available now and it’s hot commodity. I had the pleasure of talking with Charley recently. He’s a no-nonsense man.

Tom DiVenti: I don't know if you saw the article about Neal Cassady’s daughter Jami Cassidy auctioning off Neil's hammer, the one he used to flip up in the air and catch. I’m sure there was probably more than one, but they wanted a 10 grand starting bid for a hammer.

Charley Plymell: My wife Pam said something about that, she's in touch with her on social media.  I'm not on it, but she said something about that.  Jami had that hammer, I never met her. But that type of hammer is an old necessary tool for new wheels. I know from driving wheat trucks. Because you have to have a hammer to get to the inside wheel surface area. That’s why he had that hammer. Pam and I brought down some gloves for Neal when they had the first (Merry Pranksters) bus, it was about a 39 International. And I knew from wheat trucks that the wheels were made of carbon, not plastic. So, pretty soon had to rub off black on your hands, Carbon black. That’s why we brought Neal some real nice leather driving gloves. When they were going on their first trip to that Kool Aid Acid Trip business. Neal introduced Tom Wolfe to me, who was a good guy.  I have a picture of it somewhere.

TD: That famous photo of you sitting on the motorcycle with Neal Cassady standing there on the sidewalk. Was that in San Francisco or New York

CP: No, that's right in front of Gough St. in San Francisco. Neal, Ed and Ginsberg moved into my flat-on Gough Street, seven rooms for $100 a month.

TD: You were sitting on the bike, I guess you just rolled into town?

CP: No, I took Neal to work on that motorcycle. He worked at a tire-changing place down on Van Ness. Oh, it was hard, to take him on a motorcycle because he always wanted to drive. He always said, watch out Charley, there’s a pothole, watch out, there's a bottle, watch out, there's a railroad track. Lookout!!! That was the first Honda import that arrived in the States. So, you know, on a motorcycle, part of how you drive it, is leaning, so it was hard with Neal wanted to drive while sitting on the back.

TD: You did some rodeo riding too.

CP: Yeah, I rode Brahma bulls and bareback, in Gila Bend Arizona, I rode bareback, because I was afraid to get caught up in the stirrups, so I rode bareback and technically a horse won't try to kill you, but a Brahma bull will. They’ll spin and try to horn you.

TD: Did you ever enter any rodeo contests, or did you just do it for fun?

CP: I never got that good, it's a special thing, my dad and Casey Gibbs, all-around rodeo champ, did. My sister used to go out with Buddy Heaton, the great rodeo clown. He’s the one who brought a buffalo to JFK’s inauguration. He rode that buffalo down Washington Avenue. I was familiar with the rodeo, but finally gave it up. I didn't like the way the stock is treated, because they don’t have a good life.

TD: How was the New York gig for your new book?

CP: Oh, it was fantastic! People came from all around. One guy came from Maine, and then the guy, Robert Branaman’s grandson, was there, people from all over. But Robert, he died recently. He was over 90. He was my best friend in Wichita.

TD: You’re the last beatnik!

CP: I can’t live that down. I'm the avant-garde. My biographer knows that, I think, uh, but anyway! You know, if Ferlinghetti writes an introduction, for me, and Ginsberg writes an introduction, whatever they did, and Burroughs too, you can't help but being a beatnik. Burroughs came up here, he stayed with us when we had a house which is now a restaurant where Grant Hart and, uh, I guess, I might as well, I'm talking a lot, so I might as well be part of the interview, right? Okay, so, Grant Hart came and played there, and Mike Watt came and played for me a couple times. I just got an email; he's been on tour in Europe. But I was going to say Burroughs was staying in our house and Orlovsky came in, Burroughs was sitting there with his English cigarette, probably with a vodka. Anyway, Orlovsky came running in the house and said to Burroughs, I don't know if he heard about Trungpa you know, and then he started talking about his ill health. Burroughs said, “I don't give a shit if he lives or dies.”

TD: That was the Buddhist guy, Trungpa, started the Naropa Institute with Allen Ginsberg?

CP: Yeah, Allen and I remained cordial. But once he got his Buddha master, he was different, because he found his master. I didn't meet him. They invited me to Naropa, but I didn’t go. Ginsberg told me that he got a guy at the CIA to back Naropa, the whole works, and then I figured out between the lines, because I worked at universities, so I know when they come out for credentials, a letter for credentials to give out degrees. Everyone sort of gets in a little tither and wants to make sure everything's right, then here all of a sudden, here's a place called, disembodied poetry at Naropa, all of a sudden, they can give out degrees, you know, that ain't right.

TD: I used to call it the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Alcoholics!

CP: Yeah, so they had to be CIA, all that's CIA-run. That's from Ginsberg’s mouth to me, saying he got the CIA to back Naropa, to get Trungpa there. They backed the Iowa Workshop, they backed it all, but they didn't back the Hopkins Writing Seminars, because Elliot Colman would’ve left.

TD: Is that because they wanted to keep tabs on everybody?

CP: Yeah.

TD: Could you tell me how the Wichita Vortex evolved into that? Did the Vortex Sutra that Ginsberg recorded with Philip Glass, did that come out of that scene or was that just something he stole?

CP: No, I was with him when he wrote that. I have some pictures I took of Ginsberg and Orlovsky out in Kansas. We were in the bus going from Wichita to Lincoln, Nebraska when he wrote that. He recorded it on the thing Bobby Dylan gave him, a big-best technology tape recorder. They're on the bus he bought from Guggenheim money. I thought he was just talking, you know, but I never cared for the poem.

TD: With Philip Glass, I just saw that. I was wondering if this is taken from your experience of Wichita Vortex, except it had the Wichita Vortex Sutra, it was the same one he wrote when you guys were traveling?

CP: Oh yeah, then I had to tell him what the pumpers were on the oil fields, the oil things, pumped up and down. Man, I didn't like that poem at all, it was typical Ginsberg, it's kind of like what Trump would write if he was going to be a poet. I'm serious. I don't know how big a prick his Trungpa  guru was, you know, stupid things, then like Trump, he had his media savvy.

TP: How’s Ginsberg’s farm doing up there in Cherry Valley?

CP: His secretary inherited his farm up here; Allen bought that farm in 78.

TD: We went up there one day when we were at the 30-year anniversary reunion of the Beats at your place. I got to use the outhouse on Ginsberg’s farm. I felt privileged.

CP: They tore down the outhouse. Well, they tore down everything, not only that, but the new owner also built a new house over the graves, he tore the graveyard down, I was up there, when he was building new stuff, and I said, well, where's the old tombstones, where’s the old graves? And he said, well, I never knew of any graves, unless you know of them, and that's bullshit, because Allen would always show everyone the old tombstones all the time, so he must’ve run over them and worked all around them or something. I'm surprised that they didn't save those buildings on the Ginsberg farm.

TD: How about Burroughs’ place in Kansas? Is that still standing?

CP:  I'm sure James (Burroughs secretary) has taken care of it, that's a historical thing. I heard it's not open to the public, but you go by appointment, I guess.

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