Rick Castro tells three intersecting stories about the legend of the Beat Hotel
Dear readers, I will attempt to tell you three intersecting stories.
William S. Burroughs was the enfant terrible of American literature. The author of cult-classic novels Junkie, Naked Lunch, and The Wild Boys, among many others. He shot his wife Joan Wollmer during a drunken game of William Tell, he was gay or bisexual, he was somewhat interested in the occult—drolly narrating Antony Balch’s Witchcraft Through the Ages, a 1968 remake of the 1922 film—and he was a proud life-long junkie.
Burroughs once wrote, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for the death of Joan, which brought me into contact with the invader, the ugly spirit, and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle in which I had no choice except to write my way out.”
As the story goes, William Burroughs and a host of poets, artists, and misfits took over a run-down hotel—nicknamed by poet Gregory Corso ‘the Beat Hotel’—in the Latin Quarter of Paris during the late ’50s. After numerous scandals, brawls, and ODs, the Beat Hotel closed in 1963.
Burroughs collaborator and poet Brion Gysin wrote, “Long after the beatniks themselves had suffered a sea-change, their run down old hotel in Paris, known as the Beat Hotel, became the last museum out in California… to be set down on the San Andreas Fault along with all the other treasures of the world. Lined up for the day when Southern Cal cracks open and slides into eternal oblivion. We had to pass through its mortal portal, and found seven rooms on each of the seven doors to be as full of monsters as the Tibetan bardo in their Book of the Dead.”
In 2000-ish I met a wonderful artist by the name of Steven Lowe. He was a ghostwriter for Burroughs, assisting on Cities of the Red Night, Junkie, and a few other titles. Steven also wrote pulp porn for Penguin Books. He was a man of many talents. When Burroughs passed in 1997, he bequeathed many treasures to Steven.
Taking Brion Gysin literally, Steven Lowe bought a 1950s mid-century motel in Desert Hot Springs, California, and moved his Burroughs collection of artworks, photographs, and memorabilia. Like an omen, the new Beat Hotel, with seven rooms, sat atop the San Andreas Fault in Southern California.
“Side effects from usage of the Dreamachine were convulsions, seizures (if you were epileptic), passing out, and/or suicide. It’s rumored Kurt Cobain used a dreamachine prior to his death.”
Steven spent a year restoring this minimal architectural treasure back to splendor. The lobby of the hotel featured Burroughs’s large-scale paintings with brush strokes and spray paint. Next to it were bullet hole-riddled paint cans. Next to them was the rubber mugwump in shackles, from the film Naked Lunch.
Each room had a Burroughs ten-key adding machine. Yes, Burroughs’s grandfather was the inventor.
Steven Lowe opened the re-imagined Beat Hotel in September 2000 with little fanfare. Originally created as a writers’ retreat, the location was so off the beaten path that the seven rooms remained empty.
I was invited to stay at the Beat Hotel while working on a documentary about swimming pools. The Beat had a great pool!
During my stay, Steven showed me the original creation by William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and Ian Sommerville—The Dreamachine. This was a crude stroboscopic device created using a cardboard cylinder with holes, attached to a record-player turntable. In the middle of it sits a 100-watt light bulb.
The idea was to watch the Dreamachine as it spun continuously flashing strobes of light into one’s eyes. This was supposed to create a trance-like stage similar to an acid trip or inward mind-altering experience. Side effects from usage of the Dreamachine were convulsions, seizures (if you were epileptic), passing out, and/or suicide. It’s rumored Kurt Cobain used a dreamachine prior to his death.
As one can imagine, the Dreamachine, like all of Burroughs’s creations, was rife with controversy.
Burroughs once said about the Dreamachine, “Subjects report dazzling lights and unearthly brilliance and color…. Elaborate geometric constructions of incredible intricacy build up from multidimensional mosaic into living fireballs.”
I used the Dreamachine under the supervision of Steven Lowe. I felt nothing. I did like that it looked like a home-made ’60s psychedelic relic.
I visited Steven Lowe a few times during the year, always having a unique time in his company. I presented him with a photo I took of a beautiful boy under the spell of the Dreamachine. Steven loved it and put it on display in his private room along with personalized images of William S. Burroughs.
Within a year the Beat Hotel became a destination, in part due to an article in Condé Nast Traveler. I’d like to think my photos for a gay magazine in the Netherlands also helped a little. Gays love obscure travel.
The last time I visited Steven Lowe the place was completely sold out for six months ahead. I thought he would be happy, but he only complained about being overworked. “I do everything!: Steven shouted while lighting up a blunt. “Nobody is here to help me! Nobody!”
Steven was very high-strung.
Later that year, I was told by a mutual friend that Steven was having extreme chest pains and shortness of breath. Rather than call the local paramedics, Steven drove himself to the Palm Springs hospital, approx 45 minutes away through the barren desert. Steven thought it would be more efficient. He died of a massive heart attack in the emergency room lobby.
I don’t know what became of the Burroughs art collection, nor of the Dreamachine. I drove back to Desert Hot Springs one day to see. I was depressed to find the Beat Hotel was now a private residence, looking shabby and white trash. There was nothing to distinguish this once magical homage to the late, great beat generation.
The following year, I went to the Last Remaining Seats presentation of the 1956 sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet. The screening was at the beautifully restored Orpheum Theatre on Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles.
The Orpheum was originally built in 1926 as a vaudeville stage, later adapted into a silent movie palace. The venue lay dormant for approx 40 years before she was reopened and brought back to life. She was magnificent. A true faded glory.
The palatial theater was massive—2,000 seats sold out. My good friend Kevin and I arrived early, and even so we were required to sit in the top tier. The place was filling up fast. From our seats we had the advantage, like prey birds looking down on the many ‘victims’ maneuvering to-and-fro in mad attempts to find the perfect seat.
“I watched in disbelief as he slithered up the banister ever so slowly, lurking, lumbering through the crowd.”
From my birds-view seat I noticed this… person?… on the ground floor. He stood out in the crowd. Tall and lanky, pale and hunched over. Like a modern-day somnambulist from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. He was so otherworldly as he moved to his own time, his own rhythm. Completely at odds with the norm.
I turned to Kevin and said, “Look… that guy down there. He’s so… unusual. Kevin nodded in agreement. “He looks like a ghost.” By the way—as a side-bar—Kevin is a Catholic priest.
Just at that moment, this zombie-like character arched its head up and made direct eye contact with me from three floors below. I watched in disbelief as he slithered up the banister ever so slowly, lurking, lumbering through the crowd. Now on the second floor, he maneuvered his way toward the aisle. He then walked up the steps at a Frankenstein pace… now on the third floor. After a while (the theater was big), he was standing over me. He lowered his skinny carcass down and sat in the seat directly to my right. The last remaining seat!
Now seated, he turned his head to me and stared directly into my eyes, unflinching. I turned to Father Kevin, whose eyes were now wide as saucers. He had the look of what the fuck? I turned back to my corpse-like neighbor. He was still staring—actually more like scrying (the act of looking through someone’s soul).
“On the way home Father Kevin again brought up the strange character. ‘Leave it to you, Ricky. You attract the most bizarre company.’”
“Hello,” he said. “Hi,” I replied. “Are you a fan of Forbidden Planet?” He was monotone. “Yes. I like Robby the Robot.” He then went into an elaborate critique of Forbidden Planet—the usage of Robby, the first robot to star in a film, and a plethora of information about the creation of the film and the history of science fiction in cinema.
We actually talked non-stop until the lights went down and the credits began. Father Kevin leaned over to me in a whisper. “Do you know each other?!” he asked. “No!” I responded, but he’s very eccentric.”
We watched the film in silence. Now and again I would glance over. He was stiff as a board. Not moving a muscle for the entire film. When the lights came up he politely said, “Good-bye,” and disappeared into the crowd. If I didn’t have Father Kevin as witness, I would think nobody really sat next to me. On the way home Father Kevin again brought up the strange character. “Leave it to you, Ricky. You attract the most bizarre company.”
About a month or so later I was walking on Hollywood Boulevard. I can’t remember where I was going, but I believe I was in the area of the Cahuenga newsstand. Suddenly the walking dead guy from Last Remaining Seats is standing next to me as if he was expecting to meet. “Oh hallo,” I said, “I remember you from the movie. What is your name?” “David Woodard,” he replied. “What do you do?” I asked. I was completely nosey. “I make dreamachines,” he replied glibly. “Dreamachines?!” I exclaimed. “Like William Burroughs?” “Yes,” said David. “I create them to exact specifications, using the same materials. I presented William S. Burroughs a replica for his 83rd birthday, as part of his retrospective Ports of Entry at LACMA.” I was now walking … David Woodard was following as if we were going somewhere together. After telling me all the intricacies of dreamachine-making (it turns out his work studio was right next to the Orpheum Theater) he pulls out some first-edition paperback books. Without saying anything he hands me titles Blackie and The N*gger Says No.
“Why do you have these?” I ask. “I think they’re amusing,” is his response. I also see what looks like a Mein Kampf-ish white supremacist booklet peeking out of his backpack. I start to feel uncomfortable in his presence like my essence is being sucked by his hollow shell. I go to turn the corner as if to leave. David turns the corner with me. I am sure he wasn’t planning on turning that corner and only did so to accompany me. I’m starting to feel lightheaded. The next corner is coming up. This is where my car is parked. I decide to throw David off and continue walking. He stops. “Why have you stopped?” I ask. “I don’t think you meant to walk that way,” he replies. How did he know this? Now we turn the corner, we walk another block together, and I’m completely in a haze. Being around David is like having time stand still. Suddenly David says to me, “Perhaps one day you can visit me at my studio.” Before I can reply he floats away like a ship in fog. How is it possible? David moves slow and fast at the same time.
It is now June 11, 2001—the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. I notice a lengthy article in the Los Angeles Times about a composer who wrote a pre-requiem called “Ave Atque Vale” (Latin for “Hail and Farewell”) for the occasion. To be performed live at St. Margaret Mary’s Catholic Church in Terre Haute, Indiana. Not far from the prison where the scheduled execution will begin.
The composer is articulate in his reasoning for creating something for someone who deserves nothing.
The composer says, “I cannot think of a precedent in history…. Of a man who without any direct psychological support for his ideas is able to withstand the duress of the death penalty or hopeless imprisonment, and seem completely satisfied that he did the right thing.”
The composer corresponded with Timothy McVeigh and purportedly received a response from death row: “You are the first person I’ve heard of that has figured me out.” The composer was David Woodard. The article mentions, “He also creates dreamachines.”