Lew Welch, 1926 - 1971
“Lew Welch moved with his mother to California following his parents' divorce. Following a stint in the Air Force, Welch attended Oregon’s, Reed College in 1948 where he met poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. His senior thesis was about American poet Gertrude Stein which greatly impressed William Carlos Williams who had visited the college and met the three poets. He admired Welch's early poems and tried to get his Stein thesis published. Welch later made a trek east to visit Williams at his home in New Jersey.
After a brief period of wandering, Welch was accepted into the University of Chicago and attempted to earn his Master’s degree. Welch hated Chicago. By 1951 he had a nervous breakdown. He went into analysis and psychotherapy. He married and worked as an advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward, where he came up with the famous Raid slogan "Raid Kills Bugs Dead." He was working here at the time of the famous poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.
His friends Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen were gaining prominence as Beat poets and Welch felt a renewed interest in writing again. His entry into the San Francisco poetry world coincided with the end of his marriage and loss of his white-collar day job. To support himself he drove a cab in San Francisco. His experiences behind the wheel would inspire the poems Taxi Suite. Lew Welch is included in many Beat Generation anthologies. His book of collected poems Ring of Bone was first published in 1973.
In 1959 Welch met Jack Kerouac and took to the road with Kerouac, also on this trip was friend Albert Saijo. They drove from San Francisco to New York. Welch would appear in Kerouac’s novel Big Sur as the "lean rangy red head" Dave Wain, always ready for a good time.
Like many creative individuals, Welch was troubled by the need to earn a living while keeping his mind and time free for creative expression. Welch published and performed widely during the 1960s, and taught a poetry workshop as part of the University of California Extension in San Francisco from 1965 to 1970. But the old inner demons were never far.
Despite his burgeoning success his bouts with depression and heavy drinking continued and after the break up of another relationship in 1971 Welch returned to the mountains. On May 23, 1971, Gary Snyder went up to Welch's campsite and found a suicide note in Welch's truck. Despite an extensive search Welch's body was never found. He left the following note, found by Snyder:
"I never could make anything work out right and now I'm betraying my friends. I can't make anything out of it - never could. I had great visions but never could bring them together with reality. I used it all up. It's all gone. Don Allen is to be my literary executor- use MSS at Gary's and at Grove Press. I have $2,000 in Nevada City Bank of America - use it to cover my affairs and debts. I don't owe Allen G. anything yet nor my Mother. I went Southwest. Goodbye. Lew Welch." [online sources]
♣ In fact nobody knows for certain what happened to Lew Welch. He simply disappeared.
The Chicago Poem
I lived here nearly 5 years before I could
meet the middle western day with anything approaching
dignity. It's a place that lets you
understand why the Bible is the way it is:
Proud people cannot live here.
The land's too flat. Ugly, sullent and big it
pounds men down past humbleness. They
stoop at 35 possibly cringing from the heavy and
terrible sky. In country like this there
can be no God but Jahweh.
In the mills and refineries of its south side Chicago
passes its natural gas in flames
bouncing like bunsens from stacks a hundred feet high.
The stench stabs at your eyeballs.
The whole sky green and yellow backdrop for the skeleton
steel of a bombed-out town.
Remember the movies in grammar school? The goggled men
doing strong things in
showers of steel-spark? The dark screen cracking light
and the furnace door opening with a
blast of orange like a sunset? Or an orange?
It was photographed by a fairy, thrilled as a girl, or
a Nazi who wished there were people
behind that door (hence the remote beauty), but Sievers,
whose old man spent most of his life in there,
remembers a "nigger in a red T-shirt pissing into black sand."
It was 5 years until I could afford to recognise the ferocity.
Friends helped me. Then I put some
love into my house. Finally I found some quiet lakes
and a farm where they let me shoot pheasant.
Standing in the boat one night I watched the lake go absolutely flat.
Smaller than raindrops, and only here and there,
the feeding rings of fish were visible 100 yards away -
and the Blue Gill caught that afternoon
lifted from its northern lake like a tropical! Jewel in its ear
belly gold so bright you'd swear he had a
light in there. His colour faded with his life. A small green fish...
All things considered, it's a gentle and undemanding
planet, even here. Far gentler
here than any of a dozen other places. The trouble is
always and only with what we build on top of it.
There's nobody else to blame. You can't fix it and you
can't make it go away. It does no good appealing
to some ill-invented Thunderer
brooding over some unimaginable crag.
It's ours. Right down to the last small hinge it
all depends for its existence
only and utterly upon our sufferance.
Driving back I saw Chicago rising in its gases and I
knew again that never will the
man be made to stand against this pitiless, unparallel
monstrosity. It snuffles on the beach of its Great Lake
like a blind, red, rhinoceros.
It's already running us down.
You can't fix it. You can't make it go away.
I don't know what you're going to do about it.
But I know what I'm going to do about it. I'm just
going to walk away from it. Maybe
a small part of it will die if I'm not around.
feeding it anymore.
1959 – Jack Kerouac & Lew Welch . . .
from Jack Karlos ‘Eternity Unzipped’1966, (unpublished manuscript).
“A couple of days after my ship docked at Brooklyn and I had squared away the work that had to be taken care of before I could get leave I took off for Manhattan and found Jack in the Cedar Tavern, he was with another guy he introduced as Lew Welch. The Cedar Tavern was in Greenwich Village and the main hang out for the abstract expressionist painters and to a lesser degree writers – like John Ashberry, Gregory Corso, Leroi Jones, and Frank O’Hara. The Cedar bar had no TV and no jukebox.
In ‘54 Jackson Pollock had been barred after one of his drunken violent rages, and around the same time so had Kerouac – for pulling his dick out and pissing in a jug of beer on the table of a well dressed party who were there ‘digging the scene’. There were lots of fist fights in this bar. It had a genuine undercurrent edge of violence and unpredictability to it. Later, after he became famous with the publication of On The Road, Jack was allowed back in the Cedar because of the amount of people that were drawn to him like a magnet, crowding the bar and spending up big.”
♣ An aside: 1957 - Jackson Pollock - from Jack Karlos, Journals 1957 – 1972]
‘Back in 1954 . . . Jack introduced me to the painter Jackson Pollock who I jokingly referred to as Bollocks. Pollock didn’t get it, maybe because he was a yank and bollocks was an English slang term. Thereafter Jack, with a straight face, would say bollocks instead of Pollock. He didn't know that Jack was taking the piss out of him. Jack really liked his paintings though, he reckoned they were saturated with Tathagata and that just by standing in front of one of Pollock’s paintings it was possible for a viewer to have an instant awakening. Whenever Jackson came in the door Jack would yell out “Hey – Bollocks ! over here man, come and have a drink.” and Jackson would come unsmiling towards Jack’s table, loaded with drinks and empty glasses. I heard later that Jackson eventually found out what ‘bollocks’ meant and one night drunk he confronted Jack out the front of the San Remo where he had been lurking. He threw a punch breaking Jack’s nose. Jack lost his cool and punched Pollock decking him and then sat on his chest and grabbing Pollock by both ears began bouncing his head off the footpath – two or three times – before Norman Mailer and William de Kooning dragged him off. Jack had been drinking heavily and on Benzedrine which might explain his explosive reaction. Gregory Corso was with Jack and he’d been drinking and on bennies too and he proceeded to ‘sink the slipper’ into Pollock’s ribs as Jack was bouncing the head.” Jack Karlos, Journals 1957 – 1972
“The three of us hung out together for a few days, then Lew wasn’t around anymore, but while he was it was him and Jack who did all the talking – (and most of the drinking). Talk of all kinds of things most of which went right over my head. But one theme that came up a lot with them and it stuck with me thereafter was – “HOW FUCKED EVERYTHING WAS” – how fucked America and the world in general was – and how fucked the ‘beat scene’ was becoming.
Jack was also disillusioned with Ginsberg’s predilection for public fame and acclaim, which they talked about – surprisingly both thought Ginsberg’s poetry was overrated. Jack said Allen was a ‘show pony’ prancing and dancing to his ego’s need for public love – his driving force rather than poetry. They said the only half decent thing he had ever written was Howl. They also talked about Ginsberg’s arrogant and ignorant dismissal of Buddhism as being something worth looking into. Buddhism came up a lot in their talks. I had no idea of what they were on about. But from then on I was curious and began to take an interest, and later got hold of a couple of books on Buddhism. These two guys were riveting to listen to when they were together.
Watching and listening to them was entrancing – at times the hair on the back of my neck literally stood on end. Once the drinking started though they went through the night till dawn before crashing. Like Jack, Lew Welch had depth about him. You felt a lot was happening under the surface. He had laughing eyes and he was quick to laugh, but there was an undercurrent of sadness about him too, just like Jack. He was a gentlemanly guy and very likable. Another thing that was talked about was personal powerlessness and hopelessness. When I asked about Lew a few days later Jack said he’d gone back to the west coast. He missed Lew, and went quiet for the remaining days that I was in town.
There were always a bunch of others around Jack wherever he went, guys and women. But every now and again he would suddenly just get up and leave, simply walk away without a word – when he wasn’t totally pissed and still had some control. Couple of times he grabbed me aside and told me to wait outside for him, then five minutes later he would come out and we would head off to an apartment he used as a sort of refuge in an old building on East 7th Street, Jack grabbing a bottle of wine on the way. He let himself in with a key that was stashed somewhere on the stairs or landing? Later I found out the flat was Allen Ginsberg’s. Jack said it was the perfect beat pad, that it was just what the Dr Sax had ordered.
When he didn’t want to be with anyone else but also not wanting to be alone he liked to have my company. Though he never told me why and I never asked. But once when he wasn’t drunk he said it felt good to have me around, but nothing about why. Maybe it was because we only saw one another in between long spells away. Or maybe it was because I was younger than he was and I took an interest in what he had to say – sort of getting educated by him. He had a way with words did Jack, his talk flowed off his tongue as smooth as a shot of Drambuie goes down your throat – and his insights hit your brain just like that shot of Drambuie does – with a sudden jolt of clarity and the feeling of being connected to the world soul – like a veil that you never even knew was there is suddenly lifted away from your eyes. He wasn’t hard to be around.
It was only when my ship was docked in America either on the East or the West coast that we got together for a few days. After that first time in Harlem in ’54 he told me if I was ever on the west coast, how to find him. Maybe another reason was the block of hash the size of a cigarette packet that I brought in whenever my ship in came via one of the ports where it was readily available – Karachi, Bombay, Aden, Port Said. The stuff from Karachi was the best because that came down from Afghanistan and was very pure and strong.
With Lew Welch and Jack, we roamed from bar to bar, jazz joint to jazz joint, beat café to beat cafe – that’s how he described these places - this beat hangout, this subterranean joint, this hipster joint – but it was the San Remo where he mostly hung out. The San Remo was on the corner of MacDougal and Bleeker Sts in the Village, it had wooden booths, a black and white tiled floor, and a pressed-tin ceiling. A lot of other writers hung out there too, some painters too - like Larry Rivers, and sometimes musicians. Some of these characters I met briefly or had a few drinks with, some I got to know better later, others I knew by sight and whose names I picked up listening to the talk while I was in Jacks company. Jack yelling out and waving his arm when someone came in the door “Hey - Gore [Vidal] – over here man, come over and drink with us.” Or John Clellon Holmes. Tennessee Williams was often there. Miles Davis would come in sometimes usually with a couple of other black guys and women. It was mostly only creative people there – writers, musicians, painters – but there was also those who weren’t artists themselves and like me loved being around the high energy of the creative crowd. There was a lot of talk about what each one was doing – what they were working on, plays, novels, poems, paintings, music.
Charley Parker and Miles Davis.
In New York I knew that I could always find Jack in the San Remo and if he wasn’t there I could find out where he was – everyone knew him, everyone liked him. There was an electricity about Jack that spilled off him even when he was quiet, it touched everyone who came anywhere near him. In his company you had the feeling that everyday life itself was an awesome thing, that just to be alive and on the street was a kind of miracle. But he was also a contradiction – he had a definite sense of naivety and simplicity about him and also he had deep insight into things – but he had darkness in him too. There were times when he came out with a lot very pessimistic stuff – like ‘how fucked it all was’. “Everything is fucked.” he would sometimes suddenly yell out of nowhere and anywhere, wherever he was at the time. Then he would simply get up and walk away without another word to anyone, leaving everyone behind – including me.” Jack Karlos – ‘Eternity Unzipped’ 1966, (unpublished manuscript).
Lew Welch . . . poems
Taxi Suite (excerpt: 1. After Anacreon)
When I drive cab
I am moved by strange whistles and wear a hat
When I drive cab
I am the hunter. My prey leaps out from where it
hid, beguiling me with gestures
When I drive cab
all may command me, yet I am in command of all who do
When I drive cab
I am guided by voices descending from the naked air
When I drive cab
A revelation of movement comes to me. They wake now.
Now they want to work or look around. Now they want
drunkenness and heavy food. Now they contrive to love.
When I drive cab
I bring the sailor home from the sea. In the back of
my car he fingers the pelt of his maiden
When I drive cab
I watch for stragglers in the urban order of things.
When I drive cab
I end the only lit and waitful things in miles of
Not Yet 40, My Beard Is Already White.
Not yet 40, my beard is already white.
Not yet awake, my eyes are puffy and red,
like a child who has cried too much.
What is more disagreeable
than last night's wine?
I'll stick my head in the cold spring and
look around at the pebbles.
Maybe I can eat a can of peaches.
Then I can finish the rest of the wine,
write poems 'til I'm drunk again,
and when the afternoon breeze comes up
I'll sleep until I see the moon
and the dark trees
and the nibbling deer
the quarrelling coons
The Image, As In A Hexagram.
The hermit locks his door against the blizzard.
He keeps the cabin warm.
All winter long he sorts out all he has.
What was well started shall be finished.
What was not, should be thrown away.
In spring he emerges with one garment
and a single book.
The cabin is very clean.
Except for that, you'd never guess
anyone lived there.
Thus shall you think of this fleeting world -
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
(End verse of The Diamond Sutra)
Lew Welch poems previously published at following sources:
The Lew Welch Papers – Online Archive of California
Lew Welch Poetry – Poemhunter.com
The Portable Beat Reader ed. Ann Charters, Viking Penguin, 1992
♣ ♣ ♣