“The Beats, The Bomb & The 1950s”: Remembering Robert Briggs

By on June 3, 2015

Beat Generation writer/artist/poet and storyteller Robert Briggs has died, just a few weeks before his 86th birthday, and so thought we’d share this short 12-minute film, directed by our friend Chel White, which shows Briggs talking about his incredible first hand experience, as a U.S. Army soldier, witnessing an atom bomb test in the Nevada desert. We asked Chel to tell us about his good friend (this 1999 interview is part of a longer film that is in-progress, and we apologize in advance for some of the audio issues).

Robert Briggs reads at The Cellar, circa 1958.

Chel White:

A friend once called Robert Briggs “the hippest guy you’ll ever meet,” and that’s really something when you realize he was describing someone already well into his 70’s. But Bob really was cool, and not in a pretentious or distant way. Bob was cool because he had a certain perspective and understood things; literature, art, politics, jazz, history, and wasn’t afraid to offer up his insights along with a little white wine. He was an active part of the Beat Generation and made a point of saying, “always the Beat never the beatnik,” clarifying the latter term as pop culture’s mockery of a movement of genuine artists who really were changing the course of history, whether they realized it or not. I had read Burroughs and Kerouac in college but Bob opened my eyes to how important the Beats really were, with their expressions of individuality and nonconformity.

I met Bob in the early ’90s. He had recently retired and moved to Portland from San Francisco with his wife Diana Saltoon—a writer in her own right. Bob had some amazing stories of his many life experiences but he didn’t flaunt them as conversation starters. In fact Bob’s most amazing story wasn’t related to me until after knowing him for a few years. My jaw dropped when he finally told me about the time he witnessed an atom bomb test in the Nevada desert back in the early 1950’s when he was in the US Army. It turned out he had even kept some of the printed handouts, propaganda really, that were given to the soldiers who would be positioned in trenches virtually underneath the detonation tower where the bomb was. Looking back, many regard those unwitting soldiers as Guinea pigs used in insane exercises carried out by the government. Altogether, the Army tested over a hundred of those atom bomb tests with soldiers in trenches. Years later, many of them got thyroid cancer but Bob didn’t and he had a theory why; it had to do with “covering his holes.” Once I finally heard his atom bomb story, I knew I had to get it on film. Bob agreed, so we set up a couple 16mm film cameras and let them roll. A little while later I cut together a 12-minute short. Within the next couple years I will revisit the project and make a longer film.

Up until a few years ago, Bob continued to read poetry with live jazz, like in his heyday, notably with Portland saxophonist Stuart Fessant and drummer Tim DuRoche. But I should emphasize his live performances in the last 20 years were more than poetry readings because what he did was weave his remarkable insights into an overall narrative about the soul of poetry and its profound place in the human experience. My favorite quote of Bob’s will always be, “Jazz is to music what poetry is to knowing.” He was the real deal, a great thinker, and like they say in show biz, “A class act all the way.” Rest in peace, my good friend.

Chel White,
Portland, Oregon

Robert Briggs and Chel White (photo courtesy of Chel White)

Robert Briggs was born in Omaha, Nebraska, and attended Auburn and Columbia Universities, and served in the Army during the Korean War. In the 1950s he was a bookseller in Greenwich Village, New York, and North Beach in San Francisco, and he became one of the original Beat Generation participants and counted among his contemporaries people like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Joanne Kyger, Hettie Jones, David Meltzer, Jack Kerouac and many more.

In 1972, he founded Robert Briggs Associates, a loose-knit group of West Coast publishing consultants to writers and small publishers. The association was involved in a variety of non-fiction which included Rolling Thunder: An Exploration into the Powers of an American Indian Medicine Man by Doug Boyd, Mind as Healer, Mind as Slayer, Kenneth Pelletier’s classic book on stress, as well as works by Joseph Campbell, Colin Wilson, and Theodore Roszak. Tea and Ceremony: Experiencing Tranquility and Briggs’ own book, Ruined Time: the 1950s and the Beat, a cultural autobiography of the Great Depression, World War II and the 1950s, were also represented.

In 1995, Robert Briggs Associates became involved in various multimedia projects including jazz and poetry CDs, readings by Robert Briggs accompanied on saxophone by Stuart Fessant. These include Poetry in the 1950s (1999), Someone Said No (2003), including Zen and the Kerouac Curse (2003), and My Own Atom (Indigo Grove Recording, Portland, OR, 2006). In 2008, the company launched Jazz and Poetry and Other Reasons, a project of four reads based on the book Ruined Time that are accompanied by local Portland jazz musicians.

A member of the Zen Community of Oregon, Briggs authored several books, including The American Emergency, A Search for Spiritual Renewal in an Age of Materialism (Berkeley, CA. Celestial Arts, 1989), The Power of Aging: Final Patterns (Work in Progress, 2001/unfinished), and Ruined Time, The 1950s and the Beat (Portland, OR. RBA, 2006).

His published stories include “How the Cat World Got Its Pagan” (San Francisco. Nexus September, 1963), and “Confessions of a San Francisco Snowman” (Menlo Park, CA, Ramparts, May 1962),

The Beats, The Bomb & The 1950’s is Directed and Produced by Chel White. Cinematography by Mark Eifert and Eric Patton. Editing by David Massachi. Time-lapse photography by Mark Eifert. Songs borrowed from Brian Eno and Miles Davis. ©1999/2013 Chel White films. Check out Chel’s other films on Night Flight, here, and here.

Photo by Tatiana Wills (2009)

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.