The Beat Tapes: An Interview with Ace Backwords

Earlier in the year, I wrote an article discussing Jack Kerouac and Beat culture. The Beats were instrumental in the construction of counterculture and how American society in particular wandered away from normality in its championing of the alternative, of the personal and societal other.

I interviewed a number of different people all with associations to Beat culture and counterculture in order to develop a larger portrait of the Beat movement . Not just the spontaneous, romanticised side, but the part that is regularly brushed under the carpet; the part that Kerouac removed himself from completely as his unwanted legacy twisted into something gruesome. The questionable ethics of the ’60s muddied Kerouac’s organic visions of the ’50s. One individual I interviewed was Ace Backwords, cult underground cartoonist, publisher of the short-lived punk rock tabloid Twisted Image, and revered street icon in Berkeley, California. Backwords sees the residue of Beat culture lingering in the streets of Berkeley everyday but is more attached to the punk scene- a schism of ’50s/’60s counterculture. Backwords features heavily in my article and had some fascinating personal and impersonal views on Beat culture that offer an interesting perspective on its influence towards the end of the last century and the modern day.

What is it about Kerouac’s writing that resonates strongly with you?
I think Kerouac’s honesty is what resonated with me the most.  There’s very little bullshit to his approach.  He describes his world and his feelings pretty much exactly how he sees it.  This trait isn’t as common as you might think with people and writers in general.  And there’s a spiritual-seeker quality to Kerouac.  This yearning for the higher truths of existence.  That I think really gives Kerouac a universal appeal.

So you’re tied heavily to the Berkeley street scene. What is it that attracted you in the first place? Was it inspired at all by the adventure and revelatory nature of On The Road or counterculture in general?
Not really.  I was kind of a late-comer to Kerouac.  Didn’t get around to reading On The Road until I was 40.  And had been part of the street scene/counterculture for 2 decades already at that point.  But I could certainly relate personally to the milieu  in which Kerouac lived and wrote about.  Guys like Cassady and Burroughs are quintessential street people.

How has Kerouac and On The Road your view of the world and your lifestyle choices, especially in regards to your street scene association?
Even people who have never read Kerouac have been influenced by him in all sorts of ways.  The hippie and punk and raver scenes are definitely a part of the lineage that Kerouac founded, in a way.

With ‘off the grid’ lifestyles, a person’s decision to try and sever any ties to the world, how do you think Kerouac has influenced the development of this lifestyle? Do you think this lifestyle has changed in the 21st century, especially with the advancement of technology and the omniscience of the ‘Big Brother’ age?
There have always been little pockets of bohemia.  The underground.  Outlaws. Drug cultures. Gay subcultures.  Etc. What Kerouac did that was so remarkable, was that he presented these subcultures, these “alternative lifestyles,”  in a way that was very appealing and exciting to the mainstream culture. And transformed the mainstream culture in the process.  Virtually every major “Sixties” figure — from Lennon to Dylan to Kesey to R. Crumb to Jerry Garcia — sited Kerouac as a major influence.  And, like I said, even people who never read Kerouac were profoundly influenced by him through the second-hand affect of these “Sixties” figures.

Do you think that the yearning for adventure and ‘good times’ that are celebrated in On The Road have led a lot of people to search for their own adventure, and if so, do you think they’ve been disappointed by what they’ve found or failed to find?
That’s an interesting question.  Hard to answer. I can only really speak for myself.  I’m sure some people romanticized the lifestyle that Kerouac represented.  Compared to the 9-to-5 working stiff life-in-the-bland-suburbs lifestyle, Kerouac had a walk-on-the-wild side appeal.  But to his credit, Kerouac never idealized that lifestyle. Or tried to make it out to be more than what it was.  There’s as much pain in Kerouac’s accounts as there are  “good times.”

What negative effects do you think On The Road and the counterculture movements had on society and culture? Do you think, with the benefit of hindsight, it negatively affected you?
Another of the truly great things about Kerouac.  He was one of the first to be critical of the “negative effect” the Beatnik movement — and the Hippie movement that followed in its wake — might have on society.  He was searing in his criticism of people like Ken Kesey who claimed to be influenced by Kerouac, but whom Kerouac felt completely misrepresented what he stood for.  The Drug Epidemic and all the broken families that resulted from the “free love” movements were just some of the negative effects of the counterculture.  But it’s important to note, Kerouac was about personal experimentation. Not publishing manifestos for how people could live.

I read your piece about Kerouac on your blog. Do you think the rejection of his fellow beats changes the way we view On The Road? Or do you think it doesn’t change anything and Kerouac had just become disappointed by how his legacy had mutated?
I think it was very brave how Kerouac “rejected” his fellow Beats and the Hippies who followed in his wake.  He could have easily done what Ginsburg did.  Just jump on the bandwagon and milk it for all it’s worth.  In the late ’60s Kerouac could have easily played at being the great cultural guru, with millions of followers worshipping at his feet.  Instead he turned his back on the whole lot of them.  I think he rightly viewed the “anti-American” aspect of the 60s counterculture as the poisonous effect that it was.

What about Kerouac and his writing do you see in the Berkeley street scene and the street scene in general? Do you think his ideas and work are still highly influential and celebrated by the people of the streets?
Kerouac’s effect on the counterculture has been so profound.  I’m sure the street scene would look quite different today if not for Kerouac’s writing. 

I feel that On The Road contributed heavily to the advent of the teenager as well. As well as altering youth culture in the decades to come, how do you think youth culture has been shaped by Kerouac’s work in the 21st century? How do you think the youth of the 21st century, On The Road and the street scene have mingled together? Do you think the youth and the 21st century still take influence from Kerouac or do you think with time and change they’ve separated?
I think Kerouac’s writing will always have a universal appeal with teenagers.  He’s like the next logical step after The Catcher in the Rye.  There have always been kids who ran away from home and “joined the circus.”  in the post-Sixties world they ran away from home and joined the Grateful Dead tour.  Young people will always seek adventures, artistic expression and spiritual searching.  Traits that Kerouac embodied.

What do you think is the best part and or movement that has sprouted from Kerouac’s work and the Beat legacy? 
That this world, for all its pain and suffering and disappointments, is also a thing of great beauty and awe.  Worthy of studying and celebrating.  There’s a yearning quality to Kerouac that always touched me.  This yearning for something more.  And who knows.  Maybe we’ll find it just down the next road.

Street Royalty: Ace Backwords tabloid Twisted Image featured interviews with Charles Bukowski, Henry Rollins and Johnny Rotten.

Could you give me a summary of your day to day living? What you get up to, the challenges you face on the streets etc. What kind of challenges do you face that most people wouldn’t expect you to face? 
Usually wake up around 6 at my campsite just as it’s getting light.  My feral cats usually wake me up — they’re eager for breakfast and keep pestering me until I get out of my blanket.  After feeding the cats I’ll usually lay around for a couple hours listening to the radio on headphones (Armstrong & Getty show or sports talk).  Or, if I still have juice on my cellphone battery I’ll take a bunch of photos and check out my Facebook page (usually my first thought is:  “What drunken nonsense did I babble last night that I need to immediately delete?”) . . .   Then I’ll trudge down to civilization (so-called), get some coffee to shake off the cobwebs in my brain from the previous night . . .. Then down to the library.  Spend two hours on the computer working on my Acid Heroes web page or amusing myself in some other cyber-way . .. Around 6 in the evening I usually start drinking.  40 of Olde English if I’m drinking on the streets, or pitchers of Race  if I’m drinking in a sports bar (I’m addicted to the Golden State Warriors basketball team) . . . Usually I’ll spend the night hanging out in People’s Park at Hate Camp — Hate Man’s legendary street scene. . . Around midnight I’ll usually trudge back to my campsite in the Berkeley hills.  My cats are usually waiting for me at the foot of the trail . ..  I’ll feed them their dinner while fending off the raccoons who are trying to horn in on the cat food. . . Wake up around 6 and start the whole nonsense all over again.

In terms of “challenges” — life on the streets is a constant series of unexpected challenges.  Things can be rolling along uneventful, but rarely for long.  Like this morning, to give but one of countless examples. I wake up and notice a young homeless hippie-looking couple has decided to camp about 30 yards from my campsite. Which is completely unacceptable.  This is the only bit of privacy I have in the world and these two dumb-ass clunkers have decided to invade it.  I glared at them as I passed them as I walked down the trail.  Tonight or tomorrow morning I will have to figure out some way to deal with them.

Could you describe the negative, darker side of street living for me. I get the idea that a lot of people follow this lifestyle expecting an interesting and enriching experience but it often ends up surprising them. Would you say that is an accurate presentation of street life or is it something you enjoy encountering through and through? 
I have seen so many street people disintegrate right in front of me.  There are countless ways that they self-destruct.  Drugs and alcohol being two of the more popular modes.  Violence does many people in.  They get in so many fights their bodies break down. Or just the harshness of outdoor living — getting sick from the cold and rain.  Or getting locked into battles with the cops and dealing with the harshness of the prison system.. . . .Or, as a homeless friend of mine put it:  “The worst thing about being homeless is other homeless people.” . . .  But mostly its the sheer POINTLESSNESS of so much of the street life that ruins them.  “The devil makes use of idle hands.”

Some people hit the streets seeking adventures.  They usually find it. Often more than they bargained for.    But the fact is, a good portion of street life is mostly just boring.  Pointless bums hanging out endlessly socializing.

What consequences have there been for you in adopting the street scene as a lifestyle? What sacrifices have you had to make? Are there any you didn’t expect to have to make? Is there any kind of warning you could offer to people that were considering a street lifestyle?

It is difficult to accomplish ANYTHING when you’re living on the streets.  Everything is complicated by your situation.  A simple thing like doing your laundry can involve countless steps and complications.

For me the biggest sacrifice is that it limits the kind of art projects I can get involved in.  I used to embark on fairly complex year-long art projects.  Things like recording CDs and publishing books.  But it’s incredibly difficult to do while living outdoors.  My last book (Acid Heroes:  The Psychedelic 60s and its Aftermath) I wrote, edited and published a 300 page book while living out of a sleeping bag during the rainy season.  It just about killed me.  Just surviving on the streets alone can be a full-time job.

Another unintended consequence of the streets;  You can get ghetto-ized on the streets.  By that I mean, you can get completely cut off from mainstream society.   You can end up hanging out and living entirely amongst other street people.  Which can be a very limited lifestyle.

I generally warn anyone who’s on the verge of becoming homeless:   If at all possible, do whatever you can to keep a roof over your head.  It is very easy to end up on the streets.  But often very difficult to get off of them.

How do you think media has portrayed street living, off the grid living and nomadism as something 100% positive? Do you think that is something terrible on their part? Do you think we need more exposure to the dark side of street living, not just the glory of it?
The media generally portrays the streets in one of two modes:  a.) Pathetic homeless beggars and shopping cart people — the objects of pity or revulsion.  Or b.) a life of adventure, excitement and danger. The wildness of the streets.  Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll.  Romanticized versions like Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries . . .   When in truth the reality is mostly in between these two extremes.

In hindsight of Kerouac’s tragic and premature demise, do you feel that the pressure of this legacy that exploded out of On The Road was even too much for him to handle? Do you think that is a little indicative of the direction the legacy of Beat culture was going to follow?
Sure.  Fame, in general, can be hard to handle.  And the overwhelming — and virtually over-night — fame that hit Kerouac must have been mind-boggling to deal with.  To go from being a nobody, virtually invisible and quietly existing on the fringes of society.  To one of the great cultural icons of our times.

Also, too, Kerouac was a largely conflicted person to begin with.  And any faults and shortcomings you start out with are usually magnified greatly by the spotlight of fame.  I also think he was largely a repressed gay guy who couldn’t accept his gayness.  So to suddenly have something that he always hid from the world exposed in the glare of the media spotlight must have been deeply upsetting.  I’m sure that’s a big reason why he made such a public show of rejecting Allen Ginsberg.

Also, for all of this bohemia leanings. Kerouac never lost his identification as “the All-American football hero.”  He yearned to be normal just as much as he yearned to be this crazy street lunatic who burned and burned and burned.  Reconciling all the different conflicted sides of himself was probably impossible.  He was at war with himself in a way.

You can read more about Ace’s daily street lifestyle at https://acidheroes.wordpress.com/

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