Author Charles Plymell talks travel, books, and listening to Handel on LSD


  • Photo courtesy of the author

Writer Charles Plymell may not be as well-known as his former San Franciso roommates Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, but the 78-year-old poet and author's influence is astonishing. In 1968, his printing press was responsible for the first run of R. Crumb's iconic Zap Comix. He has performed and toured extensively with Minuteman co-founder Mike Watt. The list goes on.

This October, Plymell's early works Last of the Moccasins and Apocalypse Rose were reprinted by Norton Records' literary imprint Kicks Books as Benzedrine Highway. The book is a train-of-thought, cyclical bit of conversation, observation and memoir that pushes along like a hot rod with the pedal to the floor.

Plymell spoke with us by phone from his home in Cherry Valley, New York, about his influences and leaving his hometown of Holcomb, Kansas, to go west.

The Pitch: You grew up in Kansas, but how long was it before you lit out for good?

Plymell: Well, there was no "good" about it. I mean, I traveled all over the West. I was on the go since I was about 16 and had my own car - a brand-new 1951 Chevrolet, and before that, I had hot rods and stuff, so I didn't go to school. It wasn't a jump from place to place. I always say, Route 66 was Kerouac's epiphany, but my commute. The western states were my states.

What was the appeal of the West?

For me, y'know, I just liked the freedom and the openness. People are generally more friendly. I didn't adjust to the East until I went to Hopkins and then Baltimore, which is one of the biggest real cities left in the U.S. And then, we came up here to the boonies in upstate New York. And, man - it's real ignorant up here. Jesus Christ - you wouldn't believe it. Intellectual, pretentious, stupid as hell. But if you sit at a table here or out in Kansas, it's just different - different talk, different consciousness.

Music is a big part of Benzedrine Highway, even in the introduction. How influential was music on your writing?

Well, it was always there in the background, everywhere I went, even in Baltimore. I remember Dizzy Gillespie signed my notebook at the Famous Ballroom. It was the same thing in Kansas. In Wichita, across the tracks, in the '50s, we could go hear the greats before they were famous, and it cost nothing, as long as you knew a musician or had some bennies or boo or something to trade.

Was there anybody who was particularly influential?

Well, they're pretty much across the board. From listening to Handel's "Ode to St. Cecilia" in San Francisco on LSD to listening to Schubert's "Quintet in C" - the most beautiful fuckin' piece of music ever written. Bob Branaman from Wichita gave me that record. He was on junk. The only time I shot up, we shot up in San Francisco. He was a junkie for a while, and I still have his album - all paint-splattered, the cover of it.

But Schubert's "Quintet in C Major" - there are two cellos in it, and it's unique in that, but it's beautiful. Handel's "Ode to St. Cecilia" - I couldn't understand the words, so I'd make up my own: "Joyous supernal what sits on a weed." An ode to a dandelion or something, but I mimicked the sound of whatever language they were singing in.

So it runs the gamut of music. And, of course, the rhythm and blues and the race music had its own poetry. Chuck Berry was my poet, as Dylan is to the newer generation.

It's then pretty fitting that Kicks Books, who's put out this reprint, is attached to Norton Records.

Yeah - they go back to the R&B beat. It's a jump and shout beat. There was a particular kind of music, where there's a particular beat to it, in the R&B days before rock and roll - generic rock and roll.

How much of Last of the Moccasins is pure memoir?

Most all of it is. I call it a collage novel because I stick a lot of things in there, and it has nothing in there that is to the genre of a novel much, so I call it a collage novel. The nearest is Burroughs' first novel, Jack Black, and Waiting for Nothing by Thomas Kromer.

It seems like it cycles back to the beginning by the time it reaches the end.

Yeah, I'd say it's written in hobohemian style. So, it's mainly about situations, travelin', people, and everything like that. Mostly autobiographical. Turned it in for my master's thesis at Hopkins.

You can find Charles Plymell's
Benzedrine Highway at Kicks Books here.

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