Happy birthday to the late, great Herbert Huncke (1915-1996). Here’s Steven Hager’s interview with the beat pioneer from the September, 1990 edition of High Times.
Back in the 1950s, when Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs or Neal Cassady returned to New York City after a trip on the road, the first person they looked up was Herbert Huncke, a streetwise hustler who could usually be found hanging out in Times Square. Huncke served as mentor and guide to the Beat Generation and, according to Kerouac, even invented the term “beat.” In 1990, Paragon House published Huncke’s autobiography, Guilty of Everything, an entertaining trip through the drug subculture, from Prohibition-era Chicago to New York in the ’60s. Huncke came to the offices of High Times to discuss the book. Although addicted to hard drugs for much of his life, he was surprisingly chipper, witty, and entertaining.
High Times: When and where were you born?
Herbert Huncke: In Greenfield, Massachusetts, on January 9th, 1915. My father was from Chicago. He had a conservative German-Jewish background but I didn’t find out he was Jewish until I was 15. He always denied it. My mother was of English and French descent and was from a fairly well-off family. Her father was a cattle baron.
HT: You started running away from home at an early age.
HH: I started when I was 12. I went off the see the world and got as far as Chicago.
HT: When did you first smoke pot? Do you remember the first experience?
HH: No, I can’t recall the first time. I do remember the feeling of hilarity I got from it. One image rather clear in my mind is the feeling that my face was frozen into a smile I couldn’t break. You could buy six sticks for a quarter on West Madison Street in Chicago. And it was good pot. Mostly from Mexico. It was mostly Mexicans who dealt it. A Prince Albert can filled with pot sold for $1.50.
HT: What was cannabis called back then?
HH: It was referred to as “tea.” A joint was called a “stick.” As in “I’ll take a stick of tea.”
HT: When did you first find out about other drugs?
HH: I first read about opium when I read The Little White Hag. Don’t ask me the author’s name. It was an adventure story about opium dens and it was very lushly described. Smuggling on the high seas with Chinese pirates. Good escape reading.
HT: How did you get involved with opiates?
HH: When I was 14 I developed a friendship with a boy a year older than me and his sister. The three of us discovered a lot of things together. John Phillips was his name. Johnny died while making a delivery to a prostitute in a hotel. As he handed a delivery over, an agent stepped out. Johnny started to run. The agent shot and killed him.
HT: What drugs had you tried at this point?
HH: At that point I’d tried cocaine a couple of times, but I didn’t cotton to it. It was expensive and the sensation didn’t last long. Morphine, heroin. Those were the two main ones. I had tried some barbiturates. We were shooting right from the beginning.
HT: How did you end up in New York?
HH: New York was always my dream. Every time I broke free. I’d head for New York.
HT: The story goes you introduced William Burroughs to hard drugs.
HH: That’s true. My friend Phil and I had just come back from a trip to sea with the merchant marine. This was 1945, or ’46. Burroughs was introduced as a young man who’d taken care of Phil’s apartment. He supposedly had a sawed-off shotgun and a gross or two of morphine syrettes for sale. Phil and I had been using syrettes on the ship. We’d gone to sea to kick a heroin habit and ended up getting addicted to morphine. Bill had one stipulation before he sold the syrettes. He wanted to find out what shooting morphine was like. So Phil and I obliged.
HT: How was it Burroughs and you ended up going to Texas to grow pot?
HH: Well, we didn’t go together. He went with Joan. This is a long story.
HT: That’s okay. I think our readers might be interested.
HH: Bill’s family had decided after a couple of his escapades with the law that he should stay outside of New York. So he and Joan decided to go to Texas. Joan wanted to go to Mexico. She had always been interested in the Mayas. They got to looking around and decided to settle on a little piece of property outside of a town called New Waverly, about 50 miles from Houston. A beautiful place surrounded by bayous with raven-infested pine woods and cedar clusters, with a tiny weatherbeaten cabin on it. They sent for me, which was kind of interesting. I was on my way to Shanghai, but went to Texas instead.
HT: How did you get the seeds?
HH: I scuffled around Houston and made contact with a shoeshine man. I built up a friendship with him. Got my shoes shined and rapped with him. I told him I wanted some reefer. Then I asked for seeds. He gave me a bag of seeds for $40.
HT: Who tended the plants?
HH: We both did. Bill and I turned the soil over. I liked the digging part.
HT: Did either of you have any experience growing?
HH: I can’t speak for Bill. I didn’t have much. I’d been around gardens as a child, but hadn’t grown anything myself.
HT: Did you know the difference between male and female plants?
HH: Later on. By the time the plants started to grow the information seeped in from somewhere. It was all guesswork. The plants grew to around five feet in three months and then we harvested. We cut them down close to the ground, turned them upside down and hung them in a shed.
HT: Did you smoke any of it?
HH: Yes, of course. I always had a stick of it hanging out of my mouth. Bill was a latecomer to pot. He didn’t care for it. Now I understand he likes it quite a bit. We put it in mason jars, stalks and all, before it was completely cured. Neal Cassady, myself and Burroughs filled a jeep with calfskin bags stuffed with it. There was just enough room for us to squeeze into the jeep. We drove back to New York. We gave some away, downed a few jars ourselves.
HT: I read somewhere that you sold the entire carload for $50 to a bellhop in Times Square.
HH: Oh, please. That sounds like a Ginsberg statement.
HT: Can you tell me some of the famous beat books you’re in, and what the name of your character is in each book?
HH: I was Elmo Hassle in Kerouac’s On the Road; Herman something in Burrough’s Junky; I don’t remember what I was called in Go [by John Clellon Holmes]. There are quite a few of them, but I can’t remember. I think I’m even in Kerouac’s first book, Town and the City.
HT: Who is your favorite writer from the period?
HH: I have so many. Ed Dorn. His books have a certain warmth. Bill [Burroughs] has always fascinated me. He’s incredibly facile as a writer, well informed and a good sense of wit. Genet, of course. Sartre. Colette. Paul Bowles, Malcolm Lowry.
HT: Can you give me your impressions of a few people? How about Jack Kerouac?
HH: Enthusiastic, energetic. Had an intense desire to be creative, to express himself. He had many personal things that hung him up.
HT: Were Cassady and Kerouac lovers?
HH: Not to my knowledge. I’d doubt it very much. I don’t know why I’m so sure. But I just am. I think the extent of Kerouac’s homosexual experiences would have been a fast blow job. Cassady made no bones about being bisexual. I think Cassady was basically heterosexual.
HT: Allen Ginsberg.
HH: This is going to be a little tough. I respect Allen and admire his works. I don’t always agree with his viewpoints. We disagree on almost everything. I always thought he was a bit deceptive in the way he presents himself. He can be evasive.
HT: Neal Cassady.
HH: Just the opposite. He was like a big baby, bright eyed and looking at the world with love and hope.
HT: How do you feel about the current war on drugs?
HH: I think they should legalize drugs. That might be a huge answer to the problem. It’s so riddled with politics, money and corruption. I don’t know how to talk about drugs anymore. Everything is based so much on falseness anyway. I don’t like what’s happening with drugs. I think Thailand must be ideal. Nice little hill villages with the poppies growing right outside. Easygoing lifestyle and close to nature.
HT: What drugs do you still like?
HH: I smoke pot, drink alcohol—but not a lot. I don’t particularly like methadone, but I have a lot of respect for it. It’s kept me from suffering in a lot of cases. It’s legal—that’s the biggest advantage. I don’t think it’s done any real harm. My major objection is that it’s synthetic. But it’s the best thing they’ve got going now. I’m a heavy smoker of cigarettes. Drink coffee, tea. I guess I would like to be free to just smoke opium. But [laughs] other than that. I’ll take anything I can get. I like hard drugs. I like cocaine, contrary to the way I started out. But I think it’s probably one of the most destructive drugs in a funny way. No mercy shown there.
HT: Did you ever consider yourself a beatnik?
HH: No. I didn’t like the name. Or “beats.”
HT: But a lot of people consider you a prototype for the beatniks.
HH: I guess they do. In a way, I think it’s more Ginsberg than me.
HT: What do you think of the different generations that have come and gone in New York?
HH: All these generations passed by and they were all about the same to me. The first time I became conscious of something different was when the yuppies first emerged. [Laughs.] First time I heard the word “yuppie” I didn’t want to tell the person I didn’t know what it meant. I kept looking for the type. All of a sudden I became aware that I was surrounded by them in every direction. The other day I met three guys from Princeton. They dressed alike, looked alike, spoke alike. And in three hours they didn’t say anything of any substance. It’s pretty scary to see a whole generation that’s almost identical. But there’s still a lot of individuality on the Lower East Side in New York.
I don’t know too much about today’s younger generation. I used to pride myself on being in touch with the young crowd. But now they are talking a language that I don’t savvy quite as thoroughly as I once did. We all know drugs are symptomatic of a badly-adjusted society. We’re going to have this problem as long as our society remains as it is. You cannot have corruption at the top of a country or at the head of a city and not expect that corruption to make its way down to the streets. You cannot have money as the only factor in life and expect anything but shit as a result.
What kind of a civilization are we heading toward, with thirteen-year-old drunkards? Today, liquor is the big problem. I don’t see anything clearly, except that I believe somehow underneath it all there’s something there that is good. I would like to see man find his niche in the scheme of things. Maybe he has found it—maybe this is the way it should be. Maybe all this confusion is necessary. Something good may come out of it, but I guess we won’t know about it. Perhaps this will all explode and enrich some other planet somewhere else. I don’t think anything is wasted, that much I do believe. But in the meantime, we try to get by the best way we can.