Is it something in the November air? Doubtful. Maybe it's the god of artistic collaborations wanting to set the record straight. Let's say it's strictly dumb coincidence.
Whatever the reason, this month provides a happy occasion for legions of Jack Kerouac fans, to say nothing of William S. Burroughs cultists, who always seem eager for new revelations about both writers' works and personalities. And if nothing else, it will add several strong threads to their already embroidered legends.
Now comes the lost art of Ah POOK IS HERE, opening Friday (Nov. 14) at the Salomon Arts Gallery in downtown Manhattan. It features Malcolm Mc Neill's collaboration with Burroughs a mere 38 years after the two of them teamed up for a word/image novel that they tried — and, sadly, failed — to get published.
Well, better late than never.
Mc Neill's "ah pook" artwork includes all sorts of fantastic sketches, drawings, and cartoons. Fantastic in the true meaning of the word. One vivid panorama is so large — "End of Days," measuring 25 feet x 24 inches — that the gallery display will have to be monumental.
In a riveting, unpublished memoir about their collaboration — Observed While Falling, which I've had the privilege of reading — Mc Neill writes that he was 22 years old and just out of art school in London when he began working with Burroughs, who was then 56 and famous — infamous might be the more apt description — as the author of Naked Lunch.
Oddly, Mc Neill had barely heard of him, let alone read any of his books. "The fact that I knew nothing about him before I met him was certainly my greatest asset," Mc Neill writes. "If I'd had any sense of his formidable intellect, or his intense personal history, I would have been intimidated to say the least." The memoir continues:
Apart from the age disparity and the unprecedented nature of his writing, he embodied an extreme persona for which I had no frame of reference at all: an avowed homosexual heroin addict, who'd shot and killed his wife, then essentially abandoned their only child. [This was] a scenario in which none of the elements were familiar, much less made sense. The need to try and make them so, however, was irresistible.
"I accepted him at face value," he notes, and Burroughs turned out to be "one of the sincerest, most unassuming normal people I'd ever met."
Although their seven-year project was left unfinished because they couldn't get it published — a text-only version eventually appeared — Mc Neill writes that the collaboration "changed my perception of many things, and now, many years later, continues to do so." He adds, "The one lesson above all that working with Bill Burroughs had taught me [is] that art is a magical process."
In other words, Mc Neill came to believe that art is not only prescient, but can actually make things happen. Which is not as weird as it sounds. Even Hemingway believed it. He put it this way: "The only writing that was any good was what you made up, what you imagined. That made everything come true. Like when he wrote 'My Old Man' he'd never seen a jockey killed and the next week Georges Parfrement was killed at that very jump and that was the way it looked." But I digress.
After starting out doing cartoons in the underground press, Mc Neill went on to a mainstream career as a high-tech artist/illustrator. His work has appeared in publications ranging from The New York Times and Rolling Stone to National Lampoon and Marvel Comics. Eventually he got into television as a "live action / effects director," winning an Emmy, in 1984, for "Outstanding Graphics and Title Design" of the opening credits sequence for "Saturday Night Live." Now that is weird.