The Beats Go On

How a kid from Boulder became an eyewitness to the passing of an era.

July 1985, Boulder

The party in the Varsity Townhouse apartment was dark and loud. Almost everyone was drinking heavily, shouting and laughing all at once. A haze of cigarette, cigar and marijuana smoke hung over the poker game that was the center of attention as the party's host, Gregory Corso, dealt cards and crudely propositioned the young women in attendance.

Seventeen-year-old Peter Hale had arrived at the apartment with his friend, 35-year-old photographer Steve Miles. They'd been invited by Allen Ginsberg after a poetry reading at the Naropa Institute -- where Hale was enrolled in the summer program -- and Miles had insisted they go.

Although Peter Hale wanted to talk with William Burroughs, he wound up becoming Ginsberg's assistant.
Steven Miles
Although Peter Hale wanted to talk with William Burroughs, he wound up becoming Ginsberg's assistant.
Ginsberg with his Peters: Hale and Orlovsky.
Steven Miles
Ginsberg with his Peters: Hale and Orlovsky.

Ginsberg was one of Miles's heroes. As he explained it to Hale, the poet was one of the founders of the Beat Generation of writers in the '50s, which had started the whole counterculture revolution of the '60s...not to mention that Ginsberg was gay and, like Miles, attracted to teenage boys.

Miles lived with his mother in a nice, older neighborhood above the University of Colorado campus. Over the years, their house had been a refuge for wayward kids from every era. Hippie kids. Punk-rock kids. Goth kids. Buddhist kids. Skateboarders and slackers. And Miles had photographed them all, many in the nude -- including Hale, who'd posed with his hands strategically placed over his genitals as light and shadows played across his chest and the classic features of his face.

Miles was in love with his young friend, whom he'd spotted outside the Boulder Mall record store where Hale worked. But Hale wasn't interested the same way. Although Hale thought Miles was interesting and empathetic, he didn't want to be some "old guy's boyfriend."

But he did want to go to the party, because he thought he might meet up with one of Ginsberg's Naropa colleagues, William S. Burroughs. Hale didn't know much about the Beats. He had first seen Ginsberg a few years earlier, when the poet had visited his alternative high school and read "Bomb," a poem by Corso, the man now leering at all the women; a schoolmate had told him that Ginsberg used to hang out with the Beatles.

Burroughs, however, was credited on the album jackets of avant-garde recordings that Hale had seen at the store. A fellow employee was a big Burroughs fan, and he'd pointed out that the writer had collaborated with musicians such as Laurie Anderson, Peter Gabriel, Debbie Harry, Philip Glass, Patti Smith and Lou Reed, as well as bands as diverse as Genesis and Throbbing Gristle. The previous Christmas, Hale had begged his parents for a copy of Burroughs's most famous book, Naked Lunch. He had skimmed through it, but he was mostly interested in the writer's music collaborations.

Hale was considering a career in music, perhaps as a jazz pianist, and he'd turned a school internship into a job at KGNU as a disc jockey in the midnight-to-3 a.m. slot, playing alternative music from punk to hip-hop to "trance electronic/experimental." So when he realized that Burroughs was teaching a class at Naropa that summer, he prepared a list of detailed questions regarding his musical work.

"Oh, they were fun...lots of explosions and wild experiments," Burroughs replied, after Hale worked up enough courage to ask his questions at that first class. But that was pretty much all Burroughs had to say on the subject. Nor did he say much more a week later, when Hale posed with Burroughs for a photograph at Miles's request. Hale thought the party might be his chance to finally get into a meaningful conversation with Burroughs.

Hale didn't see Burroughs at Corso's party, but then he heard that he was hosting another gathering in his own apartment downstairs. He left Miles chatting with Ginsberg and went below, where he saw a few people drinking and quietly talking. Burroughs was asleep, he was told, but Hale did get to meet Jerry Aronson, an independent filmmaker working on a documentary called The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, and James Grauerholz, Burroughs's personal secretary and manager. Many years earlier, Grauerholz said, he'd wanted to work for Ginsberg, but the poet hadn't needed his help. Instead, Ginsberg had set him up with Burroughs, who was just moving from London to New York City, and Grauerholz had been with him ever since.

When Grauerholz learned of Hale's interest in his boss, he said Burroughs was leaving the next day, but that Hale should stop by in the morning to chat. Hale promised he would, and then Miles arrived to drive him to KGNU for his radio program.

Hale overslept the next morning. By the time he realized his mistake and ran to the Varsity Townhouses, he'd missed Burroughs. The only one left in the apartment was Ginsberg, who was sweeping the floors when Hale knocked on the door. "You just missed them," the poet said, inviting Hale to sit down while he finished cleaning the apartment for his old friend.

Hale took a seat. He was nervous; he'd been warned about Ginsberg by some of the other teens who hung around Naropa, the first accredited Buddhist college in the Western Hemisphere. The college had been started in 1974 by a small, bespectacled Buddhist teacher, or "Rinpoche," named Chogyam Trungpa, who'd asked Ginsberg, one of his students, and Anne Waldman, who'd helped found the St. Mark's Poetry Project in New York City, to create a writing program in Boulder. The two poets called their project the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics and designed it with special summer programs featuring important literary figures, including some of Ginsberg's old New York cronies like Corso and Burroughs, both East Coast Beats, and also some of their West Coast counterparts, such as Gary Snyder, Robert Creeley, Michael McClure and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

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