He was introduced as a man who was "born in a chicken coup in the Kansas dustbowl. A wild man spun out of the Wichita vortex movement, a road warrior in the Neal Cassady tradition…"
Charles Plymell, the man who spoke before an audience in the Campus Auditorium on Sept. 29, could have still fit this mystifying description. Although time had enfeebled him, his voice still had a resounding power that commanded and propelled his anecdotes and advice, with a weathered, grumbled cadence.
Plymell has been regarded as an exemplar of the "beat generation." He was there; he was an eyewitness to those who would become statesmen of a bracing new epoch that confounded those who didn’t get it. He was a friend to people such as Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs, the likes of which have written some of the most pivotal pieces of literature of the 20th century. Plymell, as well, is more of a trailblazer than an acolyte.
His talk consisted mostly of tales spun about his encounters with his friends of fame, as well as his own life’s journey, taking him from being a member of a counterculture that signified a new movement in literary art, to a professor at Johns Hopkins University, to being a close friend and confidant to those involved in the underground music scene of the ‘80s. He transitioned from era to era with ease, weaving a tapestry of time found, lost, and found again. As students scribbled notes on their notebooks and notepads, he held the audience in a profound captivation.
He read one of his poems about Neal Cassady, which was quite possibly the most sublime moment of the afternoon. His voice boomed and crackled as it was projected through the speakers; his inflection rose and fell like a rollercoaster as he delivered each stanza rhythmically. Later, when one student asked how he handled negative reviews of his work, Plymell answered, "Oh they dare not raise their voice against Charlie Plymell! They’re scared shitless!"
Most of the speech was delivered through closed eyes, as if Plymell was summoning these stories from deep within himself, or conjuring the spirits of his close friends to allow them to use him as a vessel. He provided a clear and vivid portrait of a time that seems too far out of reach; a time where culture, ingenuity, and uncompromised artistic sensibility bristled with life and vitality. He spoke as a wise sage from a bygone era; an era that has vestiges in all our contemporary artistic contributions.