beat cover

Derek Pell

Christopher Felver’s beatific scrapbook glows, flows, glitters and howls. BEAT is packed with the author’s photographic portraits of Beat luminaries. This is truly the face of BEAT, as well as the heart and soul. It’s cool jazz, true minds, and word tantrums, wrapped in newspaper clippings, collaged with rare covers, manuscript pages, hand-written poems, post cards & scattered ephemera.

All the hip excitement on the streets of San Francisco and the Lower East Side comes alive here. You can fairly smell the incense, the grass, the black coffee. These were heady times when a poetry broadside published by City Lights had the power to send tremors from San Francisco to the East Village. My childhood heroes—poets all—are packed inside like crackerjack toys: Michael McClure, Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Tuli Kupferberg, Diane DiPrima, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Bob Kaufman, and many more. Sadly, the one angelic face absent from these pages is the great Kenneth Patchen. Be that as it may, thank Ra such a gifted photographer as Felver was on the scene to capture these creatures in public and private. Take a joyride down this raucous American highway… here are the best minds of a generation illuminated in black and white.



Beat is Christopher Felver’s newest book, and it’s a charm. It consists not merely of single-image pages, but “spreads.” Felver writes, “It’s my cinema vérité movie, only in stills…of an American cultural family.” His “movie” or scrapbook collage projects chronologically, mapping major portions of the last 28 years of his life by geographical location, filling his screen with extraordinary shots of the remarkable women and men he sought out and befriended along the way, sharing it with their artifacts, mementoes, holographs, ephemera. (Its mix of image and word reminds one of his earlier The Poet Exposed [1986], but Beat features much greater variety of material and layout.)

Introductions by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Amiri Baraka, David Amram; a handwritten prison letter from Neal Cassady to Carolyn Cassady; a fine piece by Felver on Allen Ginsberg’s address book; the first purple-inked pages from the 1956 “mimeo-ditto” (as Ginsberg has it) of Howl; and other prefatory material, precede the book’s first and longest major section, “San Francisco,” where Felver settled in 1979. (Each major section is introduced from an autobiographical standpoint by the author/photographer.) “Naropa” follows, then “New York” and “Celebration” (including some shots from Europe as well as America East and West). Beat closes with “Twilight,” which offers some of Felver’s last images of Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, Ginsberg, Jan Kerouac, Herbert Huncke, and Gregory Corso. (Handy and informative nutshell biographies of the 200 who’ve been pictured close the book.) The cover’s a striking, noirish close-up of William S. Burroughs bent over a book he inscribes with Bic ballpoint, fedora on head, shortened left pinkie resting on open page, Academy of Arts and Letters pin on lapel. Within, end papers consisting of the first and last pages of Jack Kerouac’s later On the Road typescript embrace the gang of souls (and then some) about whom Ginsberg once said “Jack has imagined us all.” The quality of reproductions, overall, is superb.

Beat’s mixed media format differs radically from Felver’s most recent large collection, The Importance of Being (2001), with its 400 full-page portraits, a single person to a page, no subject appearing more than once. Now, with half that number of subjects, certain individuals appear again and again (Ginsberg on 23 pages, Ferlinghetti on 19, Corso on l4); some (Richard Brautigan, Herb Gold, Jay DeFeo) appear but once. Almost all share their white space with other photos, words, musical notations, programmes, news articles. But is Felver’s formal innovation, in this, his seventh book, effective?

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