Herbert Huncke, born on this day in 1915, was a writer, hustler, petty criminal and lifelong addict idolised by the Beats. Like the poet Bob Kaufman, whose manic twitching and verbal riffs were born of a very real personality disorder but adopted as a pose by the Beatniks, Huncke served as a touchstone of authentic experience, a tribal elder for the counter-culture.
Huncke’s long journey through America’s underbelly began when he first ran away from home at the age of 12 to ride boxcars and sleep under the stars. In part he was fleeing tensions in the family including his father — “a German Jew who hated Jews” — who once told him, “you wouldn’t even make a good bum.”
He was wrong; Huncke made a great bum, moving to New York City and living with the feverish intensity that the Beats longed for and rhapsodised, hustling on Times Square rather than stroking his beard in a Greenwich Village café. While he associated with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, Huncke’s natural milieu was drug dealers and prostitutes with names like Japanese Rose, Louie the Lip and Crazy Ozzie. All of this provided material for his anecdotage, as in this footage from 1994, in which the dessicated voice and waxy agelessness of the long-time user are very much in evidence:
Huncke’s 1990 autobiography, Guilty of Everything, is above all a chronicle of his lifelong passion for getting way loaded. Such is the scope of his monomania that if you removed the parts involving the search for drugs, consumption of drugs, coming down from drugs, entangling with the law because of drugs, stealing drugs, stealing money for drugs, going to jail because of drugs, hustling for drugs, watching other people do drugs, suffering withdrawal of drugs, you would be left with something of the approximate extent and intrigue of Where’s Wally.
Here’s Huncke in 1994, two years before his death, reading his poem “Comments”: