HERBERT HUNCKE: Guilty of Everything

Book Features
HERBERT HUNCKE: Guilty of Everything
Oct 24, 2007, 21:44

© Ashley Holt


Short shrift hustler, petty thief, con artist, convicted felon, parasitic leech, life long junkie. The unsung hero of the literary underground was a mesmerizing storyteller whose collected memoirs, beautifully rendered, are infused with heartbreaking detours; detailing life lived to the extreme. A life spent endlessly searching for a freedom whose very essence is fleeting, a freedom whose song at first sting, sing of release, of liberation, of a fraudulent utopia which quickly fades as the stranglehold of addiction takes root.

Herbert Huncke was THE original Beat. He coined the damn phrase... which the Unholy Trio of Burroughs, Ginsberg & Kerouac would live to forever profit from. Employing aliases in their thinly disguised portraitures of him as “Junky.” from the book of the same name, “Elmo Hassel” from On the Road, and “Huck” in Visions of Cody. Even Howl used Hunke as a reference point.                                  Â

Born in 1915 in Greenfield, Massachusetts and raised in what would soon become Al Capone's Chicago, Huncke first hit the highway at the age of twelve, running away from a hysterical mother, doting granny and overbearing father. Got as far as Geneva, New York before his outsider status gave him away. Picked up and shipped back to mommy by a motorcycle cop, his first taste of freedom unleashed the beast within.

At fourteen, Huncke took his first, in what would be a series of numerous drug busts. He was then befriended by Elsie John, a hermaphrodite who worked the sideshow and peddled heroin to supplement kicks the circus' salary couldn't cover. They both got popped. Charges against Huncke were dropped. He was still a minor.

Began hustling down at the lakefront. Chump change. Which didn't go far once the Great Depression hit. Took off, this time out West. Caught his first freight train in Reno. Nickel-and-diming it. The next decade finds our hero, as hobo, zigzagging across the country. Wherever the Rails went. Hitchhiking when he got the itch. Walking if he had to. Back up to Chicago, down to New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Detroit. Living hand-to-mouth, hooked on the underbelly.                                                                                                                                   Â

In '39 he hit 42nd Street. He was 24. Did what ever it took to survive. Sold his sex to lecherous old men. Had a habit. Stole to provide for it. Started to get strung out. Sought comfort & companionship in the smoky Jazz clubs on 52nd Street. Hung out with Billie Holiday. Charlie Parker. Fellow hopheads. Shit, even committing a string of burglaries with Dexter Gordon, boosting fur coats for hookers up in Harlem and always taking notes. He was a gutter scribe, scribbling riffs in dog-eared journals.Â

Money burns a hole in your pocket. Especially when you don't have any. And you're milking a heroin habit. Luck runs out. There's no one left to mooch off.

Huncke needed a break and lured in by the song of the sirens shipped out to sea during World War II; a quick escape, which he learned to embrace whenever times got too tight. Or the street got too hot. Or he thought he needed to kick. And though he somehow always managed to score—Morphine, pot, pills, whatever—once a junkie, always a junkie.Â

The late 40's found him banging it back around in Times Square, being solicited by Dr. Alfred Kinsey, who paid Huncke a deuce a pop to pull in other hustlers whose horror stories would help to illustrate his ground breaking studies on American sexual behavior. Even Burroughs was roped in on that con.                         Â

Huncke was suspicious of Burroughs. He had reason to be. Too damn straight, over-educated, living on a trust fund, dressed like the F.B.I. They met at Huncke's when “Old Bill” tried to pawn a sawn-off shotgun and a gross of Morphine to his roommate. Drugs and the gun cemented a shaky relationship.

Burroughs used Huncke as intro to the underworld. Huncke gave Burroughs his first shot of dope after a lengthy discourse on the pros and cons of an altered reality versus screaming into the void while trying to kick at the invisible bitch of an addiction. Burroughs bought in. Soon following Huncke's lead. Took to small time pick pocketing. With Huncke's assist, passed scripts for Dilaudid, Morphine, Benzedrine, smoking, snorting, or shooting as much shit as they could get their hands on. Selling the scraps on the black market. Burroughs took the fall when the heat closed in. Managed to land a suspended sentence. Burroughs fled to an isolated farm outside of New Waverly, Texas, where he attempted to mastermind a small fortune in marijuana crops. Invited a junk sick Huncke down to kick, who had just been released from a stint in a Bronx jail. Supposed to bring a jar of seeds to cultivate. Huncke was so out of it, he forgot them.

Made it up to Burroughs by keeping the larder stocked with paregoric, Nembutals & Benzedrine pilfered from the local pharmacy. Tended the plants, but the crop was ruined when they forgot to cure it properly.

Not two years later and another bust for Huncke. Weaseled his way into Allen Ginsberg's life, who took pity on the delirious vagabond. Huncke was strung out, and stealing to support his habit. Using Ginsberg's pad as warehouse for stolen goods. Got busted for it.

Most of the 1950's found Huncke locked down in Sing Sing, Dannemora, Riker's Island. Almost ten years of hard time got him cut off from and ignored by his buddies on the outside. Burroughs & Ginsberg used Huncke's hard luck stories to help further illustrate their own degeneracy and were getting published in the interim. Huncke cleaned up, but he couldn't write in prison. And most of his journals were lost in late night scrambles from one crash pad to another. But even decades of drug use did nothing to dull Huncke's memory or attention to detail and with the help of Diane di Prima published his first book Huncke's Journal in 1965.                                     Â

Prison couldn't completely cure his criminal tendencies. Junk saw to that. But the last stint in The Big House taught him how to refine his hustle. Got by now more on his wits. Supported himself as master storyteller. Spinning glorious tales of decadent America, which spanned the last six decades. Drifting back and forth from couch to couch. Trading a poem, some prose, a journal entry for a place to sleep, something to eat, a shot, a fix, a decent conversation. Sometimes pausing just long enough to jot it all down, then on to the next gig. Managed to survive mainly on his notoriety. Genius.

Huncke died in 1996 at the age of 81. The Grateful Dead paid the rent for his last few years spent in glorious squalor at the Chelsea Hotel. Beautiful young men playing delivery boys kept the heroin, Valium and cocaine cocktails coming. He was still writing. Still reminiscing. Still vital. Remembering more than most of us will ever live to forget. I never met Huncke. But he still speaks to me in a voice of gentle desperation and compassionate understanding on the complexity & fragility of the human condition, generously revealing the stamina of his tortured soul, who in the face of all odds was still desperate to communicate, to write, to reach out. Godfather of Beat, patron saint of the wretched, bohemian gypsy, dear Herbert Huncke, I hope the ether you now inhabit is the ultimate heavenly high.

Lydia Lunch July 7, 1998

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