Tom Waits and the Beat GenerationContinue Reading...
Archives For jazz
On this day in 1925, Bob Kaufman was born.
From Beatdom Issue One:
Bob Kaufman: The Unsung Beat
It always baffles me to find Bob Kaufman omitted from a great many books and documentaries and websites and talk about the Beat Generation. For me, Kaufman is the embodiment of Beat. That is not to say that the more well known names and faces did not embody the spirit they are most widely credited with creating and fulfilling, but rather that Kaufman was as Beatnik as any of them, and people today forget that all too easily. Hell, many critics argue that it was Kaufman who actually coined the phrase “Beat”, and not Jack Kerouac.
What would Kerouac say? Kerouac and his well-known Beat Generation contemporaries respected Kaufman as much as anyone, but he has been downplayed by later critics and fans. In France, where his largest following existed, he was known as the ‘Black American Rimbaud”.
Maybe there is a simple explanation for this apparent amnesia… Kaufman only wrote his poetry down on paper when forced to, preferring instead to read it aloud in public, or to indulge in a little guerrilla poetry, posting notes on shop windows, criticising society and the police. He preferred to recite his works in coffee shops and on the streets, once reading to Ken Kesey before the two knew each other, and frightening the young Kesey with his mad appearance, but impressing him nonetheless. Consequently, little accurate biographical information is available for willing scholars, and Kaufman remains for most a mythical Beat figure.
“My ambition is to be completely forgotten,” he once told Raymond Foye, editor of his collection of poems, The Ancient Rain.
His poetry had many of the influences of the works of other Beats, primarily jazz and Buddhism. He also had drug problems and run-ins with the law. And his life consisted of stories the equal of those that made famous. For example, when John F Kennedy was assassinated, Kaufman took a vow of silence that he never broke until the end of the Vietnam war. When he spoke, he recited a poem he had written, entitled “All Those Ships that Never Sailed.” Although he did speak after this, he remained more or less in solitude until his death in 1986.
The following bio is drawn from an extremely wide selection of reading, containing a number of conflicting dates and stories. Although this is testament to the wonderfully elusive life and times of the poet, it also means: Take the info with a pinch of salt, friend.
Bob Kaufman was born in New Orleans in 1925, to a German Jewish father and a Martinican black Catholic mother. His grandmother was a practitioner of Voodoo, while he was active in both Catholic and Jewish traditions, and later he became a Buddhist. It could therefore be stated that he was influenced in one way or another by a variety of religions and had an unusual and diverse racial heritage.
To add to these experiences, Kaufman joined the Merchant Marines when only thirteen, survived four shipwrecks, and travelled the world, meeting Jack Kerouac. He read widely and studied literature at New York’s The New School, where he met William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. He led unions and spoke on the docks on both coast, and was friends with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk and Charles Mingus. In 1944 Kaufman married Ida Berrocal, in 1945 their daughter, Antoinette Victoria, was born, and in 1958, he married his second wife, Eileen Singe.
So when he moved to San Francisco in 1958, with Ginsberg and Burroughs, it would be fair to say that he had gained quite a bit of life experience. He met Ferlinghetti and Corso in San Francisco and helped develop the local literary Renaissance. Here he devoted himself to spontaneous oral poetry that flowed to the beat of jazz and bebop, the music that pulsed through the dives and haunts of the Beatnik North Beach area. He often took his son, Parker (named after Charlie Parker), into coffee houses and cafes, to “hold court”.
With Allen Ginsberg, John Kelly and William Margolis, Kaufman founded Beatitude magazine in North Beach, in 1959 (or ’65 or ’75 depending on the used resource). The magazine today exists in name and memory through Beatitude Broadside and Beatitude Press. Coupled with this accomplishment, and the creativity of his poetic performances, Kaufman read at Harvard and was nominated for the English Guinness Award.
However, as with so many Beats, Kaufman found himself addicted to drugs, in financial strife, and in frequent trouble with the law. Then when arrested in New York City for walking on the grass of Washington Square park, he was arrested and forced to undergo electro-shock therapy. So, with the assassination of JFK, Kaufman withdrew into silence. After the end of the war in ‘Nam, he regained some creativity, but soon went into a sort of retirement until his death in 1986.
He published three volumes of poetry, Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness, Golden Sardine, and Ancient Rain: Poems 1956-1978. He published Golden Sardines, as well as a number of chapbooks in the mid-sixties, through City Lights. He also founded Beatitude and a variety of ‘Abomunist’ texts, including theAbomunist Manifesto.
Kaufman’s poetry blends high English with street language, the structure and rhythm of African-American speech, surrealism, and the beat and improvisational qualities of jazz. He would recite his poetry aloud in the Coffee Gallery or in diners or during traffic jams, rarely writing them down, except perhaps in loose note form on napkins. Many listeners state that his best performances were done alongside a jazz musician.
Naturally, for a poet so obsessed with the orality of his poems, Kaufman’s work reflects speaking patterns – and not just through reciting his poems aloud. The words that make up his poems are everyday words, and the rhythms reflect everyday speech, in keeping with the style of Walt Whitman, although imbuing it with contemporary streetwise language.
He frequently features in volumes of African-American and avant-garde poetry, but seems forgotten in the predominantly white world of Beat history. But I guess that although he embodied Beat ideals and poetics, he was extremely unique within the bohemian world and was so occupied with new poetic ideas that he is of greater interest to more specific schools of thought than the often overarching generality of Beat literature studies. Of course, more likely than that is the fact that he preferred to not write down his poetry. Conflicting sources would have us believe that Kaufman’s wives wrote his poems down on his behalf, and also that they encouraged him to write them down himself. Either way, published collections of his work only reveal a small section of the full body.
However, although it is mostly true that he was averse to writing down his poetry, a handwritten manuscript was found by incredible fortune in the burning rubble of a hotel fire, from which Kaufman had narrowly escaped. Many of these poems went into The Ancient Rain.
But back to the poems… And Kaufman is frequently compared to twentieth century surrealist painters for his appreciation and use of strong and madly juxtaposed imagery. His use of symbolism is incredibly vivid and sensual. His Whitman-esque use of lists to build images imbued with sound, colour and feeling also draws upon Pound and W.C. Williams in its minimalist economy and effective conveyance. ‘Jazz Chick’ is a great example of such devices, and is easily available to read online.
Beatdom #7 will be music-themed issue, exploring the links between the Beats and jazz, and their influence on musicians in the late 20th century.
We’re looking forward to talking to musicians and poets, and exploring the link between Beat literature and the rhythm and lyrics of music.
For this issue we’re looking for essays relating to both the Beats and the magazine theme. As usual, submissions should be sent to editor [at] beatdom [dot] com.
by Christina Diamente
No girl had ever moved me with a story of spiritual suffering
And so beautifully her soul showing out radiant as an angel wandering in hell
And the hell the self-same streets I’d roamed in watching, watching for someone just like her
The Subterraneans, p.50
Jack Kerouac wrote the lines above about the main character in his book The Subterraneans—Mardou Fox. Mardou Fox was Jack Kerouac’s lost love in the novel, and in Kerouac’s real life Mardou was perhaps the only woman ever to walk away from him before he was done with her. Mardou was, until recently, the only literary persona whose true identity had not been revealed by any of his major or early biographers, or by any literary historians of that period. The real Mardou had remained anonymous, and was therefore one of the few ‘best kept secrets’ Kerouac’s books. The omission of Mardou’s real identity and her subsequent role in the literary history of that time, has left gaps in that history that are both revelatory and parallel to the views of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, and Corso on blacks and women. This absence of her presence is, in fact, partially a direct result of Mardou’s impact on the biographers and their books. No biographer would reveal her true identity, because, in her lifetime, she fiercely (and legally) demanded anonymity.
However, Mardou, on her deathbed, spoke these last words to me* and Maryanne Nowack (a now deceased New York City artist): “I want you to do whatever you can to help keep me alive.” These words, which one could construe as a simple wish to remain alive by any means possible, came during the predicted end-stage of a fast-growth terminal lung cancer, which Mardou had fought for the previous year and a half. The words became, for me, a directive to reinstate the speaker into the official literary history of that time.
Since Mardou knew that she was dying and had requested a Do Not Resuscitate order, it was clear that a fulfillment of this last request would have to be accomplished in a literary manner, since a literal fulfillment of that wish would have been impossible.
Nineteen years after her death, I can finally say that Mardou was my mother. Her real name was Alene Lee (ne Arlene Garris), a 5’2” African and Native American, and an American-bred beauty. She was so renowned for her beauty that men throughout New York City (particularly in the Village and in little Italy, where she was a living legend courtesy of The Subterraneans) pursued her well into her 40s. However, Alene was more than beautiful. She was, quite simply, one of the most brilliant of all the Beats that Kerouac knew in his days in the coffee shops and bars of 1950s New York City. Lucien Carr, one of Kerouac’s closest friends and a literary collaborator (whose persona he used frequently in his novels– Sam in The Subterraneans) said of Alene, “When I was given an IQ test, I scored 155, but I consider Alene to be smarter than I am. She is the most intelligent woman I know.” Allen Ginsberg, also a close friend of both Kerouac and Carr, said in a 1997 interview at the loft of Virginia Admiral, “Alene was a peer, and we [Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr] considered her an equal.”
Alene, however, because of her determination to remain unnamed as the real-life Mardou and perhaps as a result of her sometimes-hostile relations with the Kerouac biographers, came to be depicted by those same biographers as a somewhat peripheral character in Kerouac’s life and in the BeatGeneration. In one photographic history of the era Alene is insultingly described as a “groupie” admirer of Kerouac’s. Nothing could have been further from the truth, nor a more devastating description to Alene, for she was a fiercely independent woman, who had never even been a Beat fan, much less an ardent fan. Another writer, who contributed to the concept of Alene as “less than” the men of the time, was Anne Charters, who referred to Alene throughout her biography of Kerouac as simply “the black girl.” This description had infuriated Alene, since she considered it to be a racist devaluation of herself as a person, and a reduction of herself as a human being to a sex and race. Alene said years later that she felt it was Charters’ way of paying her back for her having demanded anonymity in her Kerouac biography.
As the first biographer Alene worked with, or to be more accurate the first that she refused to cooperate with, Charters suffered the wrath of a woman who was trying to both conceal her identity (because of painful experiences she had as a result of Kerouac’s book about her) and who was also trying to protect the great love of her life—Lucien Carr (who had many memories he was unwilling to reveal or discuss like his conviction for murdering a homosexual friend). Alene had never worked with a biographer before and to her it seemed inappropriate to discuss her love and sex life with a stranger—particularly since the biography subject—Kerouac—was dead. She didn’t feel it was honorable to reveal ‘truths’ about the dead Kerouac or about the then alive Lucien.Exposing her own and others’ private lives and subjecting them to pain, was not something she was willing to do. Unfortunately, Alene would pay a steep price for her reluctance to speak in her interviews with Kerouac biographer Ann Charters. She had to endure years of pain from being portrayed erroneously as a black girl groupie who hung out with junkies.
While subsequent biographers Barry Gifford, Lawrence Lee, and Gerald Nicosia were able to find a compromise pathway for Alene to express her views and experiences on Kerouac and the time of the Beats, Charters virtually eliminated her as a persona and as a figure of that time, potentially as a response to Alene’s demand for anonymity. Alene viewed Charters’ characterizations as deliberate attempts to dehumanize and humiliate her–creating an unsympathetic portrayal of her in the process. Biographers Gifford and Lee, who gave Alene the pseudonym “Irene May,” fared somewhat better, in Alene’s estimation, since they did not interpret or ‘spin’ her words in keeping with the aural tradition of direct quotes that they used in the book. Author Gerald Nicosia, in his biography Memory Babe, referred to her simply as “’Mardou,’ and he printed his interviews with her almost verbatim, to Alene’s satisfaction.
It was Alene’s negative experience with the biographer Charters that led her to demand strict confidentiality and anonymity agreements with all of the subsequent Kerouac biographers that interviewed her and Lucien Carr (with whom she was living throughout the years from 1962-1973). Both Gifford and Lee, who wrote Jack’s Book, and Gerald Nicosia, had to sign elaborate agreements which kept Alene anonymous and which protected, to the degree possible, Lucien Carr, who was understandably less than happy about the constant rehashing of his 1944 murder of David Kammarer.
Carr, in a 1992 phone interview, had actually requested that this work about Alene Lee not be written, admonishing me with his feeling that Alene “would not like it.” He subsequently cut off all communications with me refusing to speak to me or cooperate in any way. It was, in fact, a respectful consideration of that admonition that delayed the continuance and completion of this work for over 10 years.
Alene had loved Lucien Carr up to her death and she had insisted throughout the whole 11 years of her relationship with Carr that he was to be considered and treated by me as a ‘father figure.’ Despite the sense of an imperative to tell Alene’s story before all of the live sources disappeared, the need to respect Lucien Carr’s request weighed so heavily that only after ten years of wandering in the academic wilderness, and as many years of therapeutic purgings, and the study of African American and female writers, and a consideration of the feminist writings about women who never became writers—who were lost forever in time by history, only after the weight of considering all of these perspectives – could I decide to go forward with a history of Alene. To disobey one’s ‘father’ is not a step taken lightly, particularly when the price you will pay is the complete and total loss of that father’s consideration, if not love.
In light of such an active disapproval by Lucien Carr (who had been involved with Lee up to one month prior to her cancer diagnosis in 1989) and in view of a previous strongly stated desire for anonymity by Alene herself, the reader may wonder why then I reveal ‘Mardou’s’ identity, her thoughts, and her involvement with Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr? Is there big money in it? Will it arouse the interest of tabloids? Is it a vendetta and attempt to cast Alene in a “Mommy Dearest” light or Carr in a classic spoiled rich boy goes bad black hat? No. It is quite simply an attempt to put Alene back into the literary history of that time and to enhance the beat history that Kerouac himself had attempted to tell—to chronicle the times, and at least one more of the lively characters that lived in those times.
Alene was a part of the beat history, who, though she never claimed to be a great writer like Kerouac, deserves at least her footnote* in the literary records, if not more. In the spirit of Joyce Glassman Johnson’s Minor Characters, this is the attempt to fill in a blank spot that others have happily allowed to remain blank.
To put it bluntly, an intellectual black and indigenous woman actually existed and was formative in the creation of at least one of the works of what some may call a great American writer. Kerouac was not well known for his collegial or intellectual relations with women and minorities and his depiction of Alene, while it honored her intelligence, mostly portrayed Alene through his lens—that of a male sexual appetite. Not only Kerouac but Carr, Ginsberg, and Burroughswere men focused in large part on their own talents and worth, not the talents of what they called their “old ladies,” or whatever women they were then ‘involved’ with. The ‘old ladies’ were generally expected to “keep their mouth[s] shut” and to exude an ornamental aesthetic of beauty with which the men/writers could clothe themselves in public. A remarkable comment that Kerouac made to Allen Ginsberg exemplifies Jack’s deepest feelings about women. Kerouac said, “I only fuck girls and I learn from men.” (Barry Miles, p 131) Largely touted as a cultural rebel, Kerouac was in fact a member of an exclusive clique with distinctively male privilege.
One of this group was author William Burroughs – the eldest of the literary trio, an heir to the Burroughs fortune,and a Harvard graduate. Another, Lucien Carr, a privileged trust fund child and Columbia University student was the first of the three to formulate the idea of a ‘new vision’ literature that inspired Kerouac. Carr was a Rockefeller relative, and both he and Burroughs were the life-long recipients of trust funds and economic security. Burroughs, from the ivy walled towers of Harvard and Carr, Kerouac, and Ginsberg from the prestigious halls of Columbia University—these three were a male literary and social clique that accepted women as bit players but not as minds to be reckoned with. Kerouac and Ginsberg, though from working and middle class white families, ultimately became powerful literary and cultural icons (often credited with or blamed for, depending on perspective, the onset of the 60s hippie rejections of middle class mores and cultural status quo). And while both helped spawn the ‘revolutionary’ cultural conversion to ‘free sex’ and drug use as norms for the theoretical seeking of alternate/creative mind states in the 1950s and 60s, neither Kerouac or Ginsberg crossed the cultural race barriers that were being torn down by black civil rights activists in meaningful ways. They listened to black poet LeRoi Jones, now Amiri Baraka, and to black jazz musicians like Elvin Jones, and they slept with the occasional black woman, but they never had serious long term involvements or friendships with them. Kerouac, in particular, never intellectually collaborated with female or black writers, though he was an avid admirer of black bebop, jive, and jazz music. His relationships with women and minorities (infrequent) were mostly sexual. Women, blacks, and Native Americans were ancillary to the ‘great myths’ about himself and his friends that Kerouac felt he was destined to write. They were as unimportant to Kerouac as they have traditionally been to the literary academy and the annals of the Great Dead White Men.
But a black and Native American woman named Alene Lee did exist during that same time and place in the 1950s and 60s. She did influence Kerouac, Carr, and Ginsberg. She did write.And, finally, it may be said, she did die still in love with at least one of these men (Carr), and in friendship with another (Ginsberg—who was with her when she died at Lenox Hill Hospital in 1991). Without her person being reinserted into the Beat Generation, what is at stake is the commodification of that history, a portrait with no black or indigenous females in the picture. Without Alene’s perspective, Kerouac and Ginsberg remain more heroically palatable and more mythic literary figures than they actually were. Ignoring her perspective and writings or leaving them buried comes at the cost of ignoring certain harms that Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr and others inflicted on the lesser known members of their beat generation. Ignoring her also comes at the cost of deleting one of the few recorded recollections of the beats as men and artists written by a black and native American woman of that period.
This African and Native American woman lived, breathed, loved, lost, learned, interacted with, fought with, and wrote about Jack Kerouac and other ‘beats’ of that time as well. This is the beginning of an attempt to place that woman—Alene—back into the historical texts. It is the attempt to shed light on another perspective about Kerouac and his peers. It is the attempt to give voice to Alene Lee’s feelings and thoughts about having been immortalized as Mardou in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. And finally, it is the attempt of a daughter to fulfill her promise to a dying woman to help keep her alive.
by Harry Burrus
When Jack Kerouac died in 1969, only one of his 20+ books was in print. At the time, many critics announced the Beat Generation was irrelevant and had faded away. Others claimed the Beats were an insignificant force, addicted to sex and drugs, and therefore of little permanent influence, and only interested in the frivolity of having “kicks.” They contended the Beats’ writing would not hold up over time. However, objective evidence clearly establishes those critics were dead wrong.
The essential tenets of Beat philosophy still resonate strongly today. The Beats’ rants against excessive consumerism, government control and torture, censorship, the increasing power of the Pentagon, and the proliferation of American soldiers in foreign countries are cogent now. The Beats respected and valued the land and were advocates for a healthy world environment, all of which continue to be significant concerns. They promoted tolerance of ideological differences, which they saw as being subverted to a political sameness — the position if you aren’t in agreement with us, you’re against us. Sound familiar?
Recognizing the current impact of the Beats, William S. Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris notes,
They asked the relevant question themselves. It was one of the things that united the writers and adventurers we call Beat — and their answers looked both backwards (glancing conservatively, towards a ‘lost’ American past) and forwards, nostalgically (to face looming death, the rags of old age and the ruins of civilization) and heroically (to face the unknown, that which lies beyond the little bit of ourselves we know). So, perhaps they matter because, at their best, they inspire us to look back for what’s been lost and forward to what we need to lose.
In Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs revealed he did not share the rose-tinted view of most Americans in the post-WWII era. With microscopic detail, he peeled away the picturesque façade of modern society, exposing it for what it really was. He predicted the late 20th century AIDS crisis and the advent of the Internet with its viruses, worms, and spam. He forecasted the war on drugs and terrorists. Underscoring the continuing literary and social significance of William S. Burroughs, Harris has edited and authored a number of Burroughs books: The Letters of WSB, 1945-1959; Yage Letters Redux; Junky: the definitive text of Junk; William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination; and Everything Lost, the Latin American Notebook of WSB.
Similarly, in Why Kerouac Matters, John Leland extols the importance of Kerouac today. He focuses on the Jack Kerouac-based character Sal Paradise in On the Road instead of the one who usually attracts the most attention, Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady), who enthusiastically pursues sex, speed, and jazz in the novel. Leland analyzes Paradise’s impressions from his journeys with Moriarty. He explains that what Paradise learns about love, having a work ethic, valuing art and education, and being spiritual are life lessons that still echo today.
Another aspect of Kerouac’s work with current ramifications is his criticism of haiku. He was a major influence in bringing haiku to the West. His interpretation of haiku was experimental and innovative. His creation of “Western haiku” materially impacts current poets’ approach to creating haiku today.
City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco sells ten copies of On the Road daily. The Kerouac estate claims that over 100,000 copies of OTR are sold each year. The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado continues to attract students, encouraging them to link the past to the present and to apply a fresh approach to their writing. Stanford University bought Ginsberg’s archive and the New York Public Library recently purchased William S. Burroughs’ literary archive.
Time not only has substantiated the merit of the writing of the Beats, but has validated it as well. The Beat worldview embraced life and celebrated the human condition. On the Road’s raw energy encourages curiosity, the refusal to accept the status quo, and the need to investigate what lies over the horizon. It inspires self-pride and the drive to succeed, regardless of social status. The Beats’ criticism of America in the 1940s and 1950s is instructional because it applies to many of the conditions confronting the United States today. Current writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers cite the Beats as their beacons. New bios as well as scholarly books examining their writing, lives, and values continue to come out with great frequency. Beat magazines, paper and online, are widely read and popular. Their book sales are the highest ever. Universities have Beat literature as part of their curriculum. The significance of the Beat writers on current American literature continues to evolve because new work has only recently been discovered. The unpublished work is revealed in books and magazines and reviewed by international newspapers and scholars. The Beats are alive and well in these first few years of the 21stcentury and continue to pervade our lives today.
The 1960s are associated with what Frank calls ‘the big change, the birthplace of our own culture, the homeland of hip’, a period of various shifts that have shaped our current society. This hints at an underlying consensus that the 1960s were a time of high artistic endeavour, the centre of countercultural resistance, and some of the cultural ripples that are still being felt today. Continue Reading…
The 1960s are associated with what Frank calls ‘the big change, the birthplace of our own culture, the homeland of hip’, a period of various shifts that have shaped our current society. This hints at an underlying consensus that the 1960s were a time of high artistic endeavour, the centre of countercultural resistance, and some of the cultural ripples that are still being felt today.
by Jed Skinner
What factors influenced this period of time for this decade to be so prominent? The cluster of significant events that occurred in the late Sixties has led Gitlin to compare this time to ‘a cyclone in a wind tunnel’, and Rabinowitz argues that ‘the 1960s confound representation – or rather narrative – because words fail; image and sound […] are what remain’; events and figures that ‘stand out’ in these ways are those that are likely to receive the most attention. These two arguments enhance the point that, because there are many narratives of the Sixties, each one places emphasis on different aspects of the decade.
When one considers the notion of the Beat generation’s ideas of the Fifties contributing to aspects of the following decade’s culture, art and politics, it can be easy to focus solely on the prominent figures and events, and link them together. When this happens, an inevitable decision is being made: what is worthy of being called Beat, what is worthy of being called Sixties culture, and where such culture lies geographically as well as historically.
A linear narrative where there are, in Negus’ words, ‘distinct breaks involving beginnings and endings or births and deaths’ generates problems. This approach generally fails to acknowledge other perspectives, to account for the voices of people excluded from the narrative. A Vattimo argues, it is only from the ‘victors’ of history ‘that history is a unitary process in which there is consequentiality and rationality’ . What I would like to do in this essay is consider the notion put forward by Laibman, that ‘there was not one 1960s; there were many’. This is not to say that the Beats did not influence anything, and I do not wish to undermine or trivialise their work and its importance. It is also impossible to go into detail about every aspect of Beat culture. However, by looking generally at some of the areas where the Beats’ influence occurred, what it influenced, and to what extent, this will expose other voices and locations, which I hope will better inform the argument I wish to make.
It is important to consider the social contexts of the Fifties to be able to understand why the Beats’ work was considered to be so significant. One of the central themes in historical narratives of the Beats is a description of a prevailing climate of conformity in post-war America. Following the end of World War II, the ideas and ideologies that were driving factors during the conflict were seemingly discredited. Woods argues that, in America, intellectuals began to focus their attention onto ‘the roots of totalitarianism, dissecting evolving notions of democracy and republicanism’. What resulted from this was a more scientific, calculated approach of looking at how society should operate.
Herman argues that
planners and policy makers had been convinced by their experiences during World War II that human beings could act very irrationally, because of a teaming, raw, unpredictable emotionality. The chaos that lived at the base of human personality could infect social institutions to the point where society itself would become sick.
It was therefore perceived necessary for American society, if it wished to avoid a repeat of the horrors of the war, to be controlled and contained to some extent from the factors that could lead to such chaos. In the late Forties and early Fifties, the US Congress’ House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings that, as Holton describes, were ‘aimed at persecuting those who did not agree with a narrow definition of political reality’: the most famous instance resulted in scores of Hollywood actors, directors, producers and screenwriters being ‘blacklisted’ from employment for alleged ‘subversive’ activities. What emerges from this climate is what Marcuse describes as ‘a pattern of one-dimensional thought’, whereby ‘ideas, aspirations and objectives that […] transcend the established universe of discourse and action are either repelled or reduced to terms of this universe’. This manifests itself through the pressure on individuals to behave as part of larger groups, to avoid any particular ‘individuality’. Riesman et al’s 1950 publication The Lonely Crowd describes the rise of the ‘other-directed man’, a new figure, entirely the product of America’s rising managerial class and prosperous post-war economy; a replacement of ‘the traditional “inner-directed”, self made American’. The other-directed man ‘suppressed his individuality, spurned conflict, and sought guidance and approval from the environment around him’. This sort of figure was an ideal target for advertisers using the new medium of television, which contributed to a large shift in the way people bought goods. Towards the end of the 1950s, the US economy had shifted from a ‘production economy’, based around meeting basic human needs, to a market-orientated, consumer economy, which emphasised status over class. This was a phenomenon that inspired Bell to proclaim in 1960 that Western society had reached ‘the end of ideology’, that ‘ideology, which was once a road to action, has come to a dead end’.
Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem Howl made its debut at a poetry reading in 1955, and, Holton argues, ‘seemed to offer the means to break out of the cultural enclosure […] and into a dimension unrecognized in Marcuse’s analysis’. Much has been written about this long poem, but the general consensus has been that Howl expressed a vocal frustration at a stifling, corporate, conforming America, with unrestrained fury and anger. Gitlin argues that Howl was ‘the first time in the American twentieth century’ that ‘poetry read aloud became a public act that changed lives’. In 1957, a year after publication, the work was the focus of an obscenity trial. Debates about the alleged ‘obscenity’ of the text in court helped to bring the poem to wider prominence among those who were outside of Ginsberg’s literary circle. The same year, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published, and the two works ‘vaulted from anonymity’ a small group of bohemians who would become known as the Beat Generation.
Why so? Gitlin argues that ‘if the true-blue Fifties was affluence, the Beats’ counter-Fifties was voluntary poverty’. This mindset is best displayed in Norman Mailer’s influential 1959 essay ‘The White Negro’. Here, Mailer holds up a new kind of figure as a solution to the ‘bleak scene’ of society: ‘the American existentialist – the hipster’, who ‘exists in the present, in that enormous present which is without past or future, memory or planned intention, the life where a man must go until he is beat’. In this new world, there are only two options available: rebellion or conformity. ‘One is Hip or one is Square’, he argues, ‘one is a frontiersmen in the Wild West of American night life, or else a Square cell, trapped in the totalitarian tissues of American society’. If one is white (and one must be, to be able to have the choice), the appeal of being hip lies in its existentialist appeal, in its abandonment of a traditional family-centred lifestyle, and the adoption of social mores from a dangerous, excluded Other: ‘the Negro’. This, in Mailer’s view, is where the source of hip lies, in Negro music (‘jazz’), Negro life choices (‘a life of constant humility or ever-threatening danger’), and Negro philosophy (‘he kept for his survival the art of the primitive, he lived in the enormous present’). Therefore the hipster is ‘a white Negro’, having ‘absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro’.
Although grossly laden with racial stereotypes of a pre-Civil rights era America, Frank argues that ‘The White Negro’ ‘managed to predict the basic dialectic around which the cultural politics of the next thirty-five years would be structured’. However, there is a difference between two different kinds of ‘Beat’ sensibilities that have been established: the literary type epitomised by Ginsberg and Kerouac on one side, and the ‘hipster’/’beatnik’ on the other. This is not to say that the ‘literary’ Beats did not have any of the ‘hipster’ qualities – far from it. Rather, as Starr argues, contemporary critics tended to argue that ‘true’ Beats such as Ginsberg and Kerouac made ‘literary creativity a focal point of their lives’, whereas others, who would qualify as ‘hipsters’ or ‘Beatniks’, merely attended jazz clubs and visited coffeehouses, and were insignificant. Furthermore, the prominent Beat figures, with a few exceptions (such as Bob Kaufman and Amiri Baraka), were white, and were overwhelmingly from middle-class families.
Consequently, Beats have generally been portrayed as a minority of generally white, literary articulate intellectuals; scholars ‘understand the Beat Generation in terms of a literary avant-garde and evaluate its historical significance accordingly’. The others – the Beatniks – were from differing socio-cultural and racial backgrounds, and were considerably larger in number than the ‘literary’ Beats. As Beat poet Diane di Prima recalls, that around the time of Howl’s publication, ‘there were only a small handful of us’. The traditional argument described by Starr – that Beats were ‘a small group of cultural radicals’ – generates a situation where ‘the broader parameters of the Beat Generation’ become ignored.
When considering the notion of ‘Beat ideas’, it is important to consider the ideas of those from outside the pantheon of literary figures. Although Ginsberg, Kerouac and the like were obviously important to the Beatniks, which should not be underestimated, it is also the case that the Beatniks were equally important as the literary figures in connecting notions of Beat ideas with others from outside the scene. Starr notes that repeated police visits of coffeehouses in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles and allegations of police bribery against owners, had resulted in marches, pickets and sit-ins against police harassment during the late 1950s through to the early 1960s. As the Beats mobilized to defend themselves from police harassment, they ‘forged alliances with community leaders and civil liberties groups to defend their position within the urban landscape’ in the process. It could be argued that the ideas expressed in literary form by the Beat authors were in turn acted on by a wider circle of many groups, whose significance is crucial to the Beats’ continuing cultural standing. As these people gathered together in urban areas, ‘enclaves’ of Beat social networks began to be created, comprised of people with similar tastes and values.
The existence of a Beat enclave in North Beach, San Francisco, and a few years later, the large hippie community of Haight-Ashbury, can be constructed as a physical, direct line of influence from the Beats to the hippies – and therefore a demonstration of Beat influence on 1960s culture. I would argue that the Beats were influential in the culture of the Sixties, but their influence was predominantly on the construction of the ‘counterculture’. What the counterculture entails is complex: it is, in Marwick’s view, a term used ‘to refer to the many and varied activities and values which contrasted with, or were critical of, the conventional values and modes of established society’; however, ‘counterculture’ also means different things to different people, and as Marwick argues, ‘there was no unified, integrated counter-culture, totally and consistently in opposition to mainstream culture’. In addition, Marwick cites the first instance of the term in 1968 in the highbrow publication The Nation, whereas contemporary writer Thomas Albright uses ‘underground’ in a 1968 Rolling Stone article. What I mean by ‘counterculture’ is a rough amalgam of alternative ways of living, literary works, art, music and politics, but not a definable movement with a firm link to any ideology or political persuasion. Its origins lie in the Beat enclaves that were created by people moving to towns such as San Francisco and New York, where the Beat writers lived and worked. Certain areas, such as North Beach in San Francisco, Greenwich Village in New York, and Venice in Los Angeles, were home to an infrastructure of coffeehouses, theatres, bars and spaces founded and frequented by these people, who all resided there in pursuance of ‘alternative’ life choices, separated from the all-encompassing ‘mainstream’ culture.
The hippie scene, which began in San Francisco and is almost universally portrayed as the ‘image’ of the counterculture (if not the Sixties), can be considered to be heavily influenced by the Beats primarily for geographic reasons. As Puterbaugh notes, when Beatniks began to move to San Francisco, the housing of choice was the old Victorian mansions of the Haight-Ashbury area, which were available for low rent. The Beat poet Michael McClure notes that the geographic proximity of the Haight-Ashbury area to North Beach meant that there were ‘people overlapping each other from what had been a number of separate existences’, creating a ‘huge, fluid scene’ of people with similar tastes and interests. As Shank notes, such scenes can be an outlet for creativity to move beyond ‘locally significant cultural values’ towards ‘an interrogation of dominant structures of identification, and potential cultural transformation’, through the exploration of new identities and collective involvement. In this case, the large number of people moving to San Francisco in the 1960s made it possible for resident Beats, Beatniks and their values to mingle with those who were new to the counterculture scene and city. Albright argues that ‘certain major strands’ of Beat values became infused in the development of the new scene: the Beats’ self-conscious ethos of ‘dropping out’ of a perceived establishment lifestyle; the ‘intense and programmatic’ alienation of Beats from mainstream notions of society; a focus on Orientalism, Eastern mysticism and European existentialism; recreational drug use in pursuit of a ‘total experience’; a ‘worship of Art, in true romantic tradition’; and the elevation of music to an art form (jazz for the Beats, rock in the counterculture scene). These bohemian enclaves established by the Beats ensured that a sense of community was able to exist.
As Cohen notes, some of the factors which unite people in the ongoing development of a music scene are ‘age and gender, webs of interlinking social networks and a gossip grapevine’, all of which could be found in these enclaves. The San Francisco scene allowed musical developments such as acid rock to develop: a type of music spawned partly from Ken Kesey’s ‘Acid Tests’, where LSD-spiked Kool-Aid was freely distributed to people, often without their knowledge. (A direct beat connection lies in the fact that Kesey and his ‘Merry Pranksters’ travelled around the US on a ‘magic bus’, driven by Neal Cassady, the real life Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On the Road). Gitlin notes that ‘the Acid Tests evolved into Trips Festivals and scheduled concerts, with a new sound – spacy, unbounded whorls, not discrete songs: acid rock’. Acid rock bands that rose from this scene include the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service and others, all based in San Francisco. Fertile artistic grounds were also present in New York: three of the four Mamas and Papas met in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and Bob Dylan resided there. However, the problem with reading the counterculture as Sixties culture is that its prime geographical locations and most fertile grounds were in these enclaves, in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and others; in the United States, in the Western hemisphere. ‘Sixties culture’ has various connotations depending on where one looks. A cultural ‘revolution’ in America is something very different to the Cultural Revolution that took place in China during the 1960s, where millions of people died. Even if one only looks at America, there are large differences in the late 1960s between the various areas of the country. The Civil Rights movement, with its figurehead Martin Luther King, fought against corrupt politicians, police and racists in the struggle for racial equality. There were no Beat enclaves in the Southern states of America, with segregation existing until (and even beyond) the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed it. Instead, to pursue a freer lifestyle, people were to travel away from the South, to escape to these other places, else be excluded from having a choice. The consequence has been that the influence of the Beats upon wider areas of society in America is actually quite varied. In particular, the extent to which Beats were politically active is of interest.
In 1952, Beat poet John Clellon Holmes wrote of the hipster, ‘there is no desire to shatter the ‘square’ society in which he lives, only to elude it. To get on a soapbox or write a manifesto would seem to him absurd’. Later, however, some Beats became more radicalised. Starr notes how Chester Anderson, editor of the Beat magazines Beatitude and Underhound, addressed a rally against police maltreatment in North Beach in 1960, advising the crowd to ‘sue’ the police and to ‘fight back in every legal way’ if treated unfairly. John Haag, owner of the Venice West Café in Los Angeles, was heavily involved with the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s, including the Congress of Racial Equality, the American Civil Liberties Union, and organizations fighting police harassment. However, it seems that because the enclaves were to some extent ‘removed’ from what could be considered the ‘mainstream’ of society, not all Beats actively pursued political involvement. The actual extent to which Beat ideas were able to shape aspects of society through politics was very much dependent on the individuals involved, and whether or not these ideas were taken up by others.
In the 1960s, student-led political organizations, comprised of people including Beats, were formed. These included the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee, founded in 1960, and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). It is possible that as these organizations grew, those Beatniks that were most politically inclined became more involved with these and other such groups. As the Vietnam War escalated from the mid-1960s, the SDS attracted new members. Sale describes these people as
non‑Jewish, nonintellectual, nonurban, from a nonprofessional class, and often without any family tradition of political involvement, much less radicalism. They tended to be not only ignorant of the history of the left and its current half‑life in New York City, but downright uninterested.
I do not wish to argue that SDS was ineffectual or apathetic, but as Miller argues, ‘many recruits were drawn to SDS not by left-wing ideology but by their opposition to the war and the draft […] and their attraction to the counterculture’. This is interesting, because one of the criticisms of the counterculture, as Frank argues, is that it ‘is said to have worked a revolution through lifestyle rather than politics […] through pleasure rather than power’. An example of such an argument is Puterbaugh’s claim that the Grateful Dead were ‘largely responsible for the spread of the counterculture and its perpetuation over time’. Why? Because they were ‘primarily associated with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, having provided an acid-blues soundtrack as the house band for the anarchic Acid Tests’. It can be deduced that the counterculture was primarily an artistic outlet: a leisure-based lifestyle choice. This is queried by Harrington, who 1972 wonders if ‘the mass counterculture may not be a reflection of the very hyped and video-taped world it professes to despise’. The counterculture ultimately became a ready-made market for advertisers: the central countercultural notion of ‘hip’ was the capital most sought after in connection with a brand. Perhaps the most notorious example was Columbia Records’ advertisement in a 1968 edition of Rolling Stone: its slogan was ‘The Man Can’t Bust Our Music’: some distance away from the Beat venerations of existentialism, voluntary poverty, personal and spiritual release.
Miller notes that, by 1967, liberal-leaning politicians ‘were giving friendly speeches at antiwar rallies, defining moderate opposition as an acceptable part of the political spectrum’. When the new capitalist incarnation of ‘hip consumerism’, Harrington argues that ‘bohemia could not survive the passing of its polar opposite and precondition, middle class morality’. Once this had disappeared, ‘bohemia was deprived of the stifling atmosphere without which it could not breathe’.
However, what is important to consider is that the influence of Beat ideas, at the most basic level, offered an alternative way of living in American post-war conventionality, stemming from a time, Jameson argues, where ‘no society has ever been so standardized’. As Starr notes, the Beat communities, through the utilization of public space in urban, bohemian enclaves, had challenged racial segregation, homophobia and ‘created a vibrant counterculture which facilitated individual liberation and collective political action’. These achievements have been built upon by countless activists who have progressively challenged such discrimination from the Fifties, through the Sixties to the present. The Beats’ valuation of personal freedom through artistic expression resulted in the founding of enclaves and artistic scenes where this expression could be explored at a remove from the more ‘mainstream’ ways of living. This legacy has influenced not just the Sixties, but those wishing to pursue alternative ways of living through to the present day.
Word count: 4,123
Albright, Thomas, ‘Visuals: How the Beats Begat the Freaks’, originally published in
Rolling Stone, 9, April 27, 1968, in George-Warren, Holly (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.351-356.
Bell, Daniel, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000 ).
Bennett Woods, Randall, Quest for Identity: America Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge
University Press, 2005).
Clellon Holmes, John, ‘This is the Beat Generation’, New York Times Magazine, November
Cohen, Sarah, ‘Scenes’, in Horner, Bruce and Thomas Swiss (eds.), Key Terms in Popular
Music and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.239-250.
Columbia Records Ad: < http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/electronic-publications/stay-
free/archives/15/timeline2.html> [accessed 7th May 2009].
Frank, Thomas, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of
Hip Consumerism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997).
Freeman, Jo, ‘On the Origins of Social Movements’, in Freeman, Jo and Victoria Johnson
(eds.), Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman &
Littlefield, 1999), pp.7-24.
Gitlin, Todd, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York; London: Bantam, 1993).
Harrington, Michael, ‘We Few, We Happy Few, We Bohemians’, Esquire, August 1972.
Herman, Ellen, The Century of the Self (dir. Adam Curtis), episode 2, broadcast 30.4.2002, BBC4.
Holton, Robert, ‘Beat Culture and the Folds of Heterogeneity’, in Skerl, Jennie (ed.),
Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.11-26.
Jameson, Frederic, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).
Laibman, David, ‘Editorial Perspectives: An Intense and Many-Textured Movement’,
Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 3-4.
Mailer, Norman, ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’, in Mailer,
Norman (ed.), Advertisements for Myself (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1992) pp.337-359.
Marcuse, Herbert, One Dimensional Man (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1964).
Marwick, Arthur, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United
States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Miller, Frederick D., ‘SDS and Weatherman’, in Freeman, Jo and Victoria Johnson (eds.),
Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp.303-324.
Negus, Keith, Popular Music Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p.136-7.
Puterbaugh, Parke, ‘The Beats and the Birth of the Counterculture’, in George-Warren,
Holly (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.357-363.
Rabinowitz, Paula, ‘Medium Uncool: Women Shoot Back; Feminism, Film and 1968 – A
Curious Documentary’, Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 72-98.
Riesman, David, Nathan Glazer and Reul Denney, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950).
Sale, Kirkpatrick SDS (New York: Random House, 1973).
Shank, Barry, Dissonant Identities: The Rock’n’Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Hanover, NH:
Wesleyan University Press, 1994).
Starr, Clinton R., ‘“I Want to Be with My Own Kind”: Individual Resistance and Collective
Action in the Beat Counterculture’, in Skerl, Jennie (ed.), Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.41-54.
Vattimo, Gianni, ‘Dialettica, differenza, pensiero debole’, in Vattimo, G. and P. A. Rovatti
(eds), Il pensiero debole (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1983), in Iain Chambers, ‘Maps for the
Metropolis: A Possible Guide to the Present’, Cultural Studies 1(1) (1987), 1-21.
 Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997), p.1.
 Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York; London: Bantam, 1993), p.242.
 Paula Rabinowitz, ‘Medium Uncool: Women Shoot Back; Feminism, Film and 1968 – A Curious Documentary’, Science & Society, 65(1) (2001), 72-98, p.73.
 Keith Negus, Popular Music Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996), p.136-7.
 Gianni Vattimo, ‘Dialettica, differenza, pensiero debole’, in G. Vattimo and P. A. Rovatti (eds), Il pensiero debole (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1983), in Iain Chambers, ‘Maps for the Metropolis: A Possible Guide to the Present’, Cultural Studies 1(1) (1987), 1-21, p.19.
 David Laibman, ‘Editorial Perspectives: An Intense and Many-Textured Movement’, Science & Society, ibid., 3-4, p.3.
 Randall Bennett Woods, Quest for Identity: America Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p.151.
 Ellen Herman, in The Century of the Self (dir. Adam Curtis), episode 2, broadcast 30.4.2002, BBC4.
 Robert Holton, ‘Beat Culture and the Folds of Heterogeneity’, in Jennie Skerl (ed.), Reconstructing the Beats (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp.11-26, p.12.
 Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1964), p.12.
 David Riesman, Nathan Glazer and Reul Denney, The Lonely Crowd (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950), p.17.
 Woods, p.134.
 Ibid, p.127.
 Ibid., p.123.
 Ibid, p.151.
 Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000 ).
 Ibid, p.393.
 Holton, p.17.
 Gitlin, p.45.
 Holton, p.11.
 Gitlin, p.46.
 Norman Mailer, ‘The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster’, in Mailer (ed.), Advertisements for Myself (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992) pp.337-359, p.339.
 Ibid., p.341.
 Frank, p.246.
 Clinton R. Starr, ‘“I Want to Be with My Own Kind”: Individual Resistance and Collective Action in the Beat Counterculture’, in Reconstructing the Beats, pp.41-54, p.41.
 Ibid., p.47
 Ibid., p.43.
 Ibid., p.50.
 Arthur Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-c.1974 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.12.
 Ibid., p.11.
 Thomas Albright, ‘Visuals: How the Beats Begat the Freaks’, originally published in Rolling Stone, 9, April 27, 1968, in Holly George-Warren (ed.), The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), pp.351-356, p.351.
 Parke Puterbaugh, ‘The Beats and the Birth of the Counterculture’, in The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats, pp.357-363, p.357.
 Michael McClure, ref. in Puterbaugh, p.362.
 Barry Shank, Dissonant Identities: The Rock’n’Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), p.122.
 Albright, p.352-5.
 Sara Cohen, ‘Scenes’, in Bruce Horner and Thomas Swiss (eds.), Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999), pp.239-250, p.241.
 Gitlin, p.207.
 John Clellon Holmes, ‘This is the Beat Generation’, New York Times Magazine, November 16th, 1952, ref. in Gitlin, p.51.
 Ibid, p.51.
 Starr, p.52.
 Jo Freeman, ‘On the Origins of Social Movements’, in Jo Freeman and Victoria Johnson (eds.), Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), pp.7-24, p.8.
 Kirkpatrick Sale, SDS (New York: Random House, 1973), p.204-5.
 Frederick D. Miller, ‘SDS and Weatherman’, in Waves of Protest: Social Movements since the Sixties, pp.303-324, p.313.
 Frank, p.15.
 Puterbaugh, p.360.
 Michael Harrington, ‘We Few, We Happy Few, We Bohemians’, Esquire, August 1972, p.164.
 See < http://www.ibiblio.org/pub/electronic-publications/stay-free/archives/15/timeline2.html> [accessed 7th May 2009].
 Miller, p.312.
 Frank, p.26.
 Harrington, p.99.
 Frederic Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p.17.
 Starr, p.53.
In Issue One, David S Wills looked at the songwriter Pete Doherty as a modern day Beatnik, with the promise of finding another for Issue Two. He lied. There was no Modern Beats in Issue Two. But here, belatedly, he brings you the second instalment of the Modern Beats section… This time it’s Tom Waits, legendary pianist and Beat aficionado.
When I was in California, I met a man named Dale. He was an interesting character, who changed from day to day, influenced my life, and then left in a few weeks, leaving a trail of confusion and hurt feeling. What grabbed me when I first met him was his appearance – he looked absolutely, one hundred per cent the spitting image of Tom Waits. It was staggering. And boy could he talk. The man had spent his life on the road, wandering from odd job to odd job, all over America. He reminded me in character of Jack Kerouac, and not just for the good points. He seemed Byronic, mired in guilt and with a ferocious battle against alcoholism and abandonment issues. He was a womaniser and a smooth-talking environmental crusader.
He was my inspiration for this article, a link in my head between the Beats, whom I’d gone to California to chase, and Tom Waits, whose music was so often my own theme tune.
Tom Waits is often viewed as an heir to the Beat Generation, and indeed he acknowledges the strong influence the Bets, and in particular Burroughs and Kerouac, have had upon his work. It’s not hard to see in Waits’ work the musical influences of the bop artists held in such importance by the Beats, as well as the lyrical significance of urban, Cold War America, a central tenant of Beat literature.
Elvis Costello quipped that around the release of ‘Swordfishtrombones’ and ‘Raindogs’, Waits shed an image that was entirely built upon the legends of the Beat Generation, and partially on those who influenced the Beats. He called it “this hipster thing he’d taken from Kerouac and Bukowski, and the music was tied to some Beat/ Jazz thing.” Indeed, many remember meeting Waits or even seeing him perform, looking as though he’d just stepped off a freight train, after years of footloose wandering.
But it wasn’t just his appearance that smacked of a Beat influence. Michael Melvoin considered Waits’ lyrics to be high quality poetry. “I felt I was in the presence of one of the great Beat poets,” he said. Bones Howe said Waits performing was like “Allen Ginsberg with a really, really good band.”
“I guess everybody reads Kerouac at some point in their life. Even though I was growing up in Southern California, he made a tremendous impression on me. It was 1968. I started wearing dark glasses and got myself a subscription to Downbeat … I was a little late. Kerouac died in 1969 in St Petersburg, Florida, a bitter old man.
“I became curious about style more than anything else. I discovered Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti … Ginsberg still comes up with something every now and again.”
But perhaps his music wasn’t just inspired by reading too much Beat poetry. Perhaps it was more to do with a shared heritage and environment. Waits didn’t love jazz because the Beats loved jazz, and likewise he didn’t write about the city just because they wrote about the city. With the exception of Gary Snyder, the Beats were pretty much all city-dwellers, left disaffected by a cold and desolate world. At night there were no stars or owls in the distance; it was neon light, sirens, 24hr stores, and a world that refused to sleep. These things are evident anywhere in the annals of Beat literature, as in the lyrics of Tom Waits, who conjures up a world of hookers, waitresses and truckers after the fall of darkness.
A 1975 Melodymaker article says Waits had “a continuing fascination with the ephemeral ecstasies previously explored by such writers as Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti [and] Allen Ginsberg.”
The influence didn’t just stop with reading Kerouac or sharing the same heartless world, however, as Waits eyed the poetry readings that made Ginsberg famous. The Beats were always associated with jazz, but jazz wasn’t just their influence. Many Beat poets – Ginsberg being the most famous, of course – used jazz as the background to their readings. It didn’t distract from the words, but instead brings out the words in a special light. Likewise, Waits frequently performed alone or with a light jazz accompaniment.
The 1957 album, ‘Kerouac/Allen’ helped influence Waits, as it featured Kerouac telling stories with Steve Allen playing the piano. It’s not hard to listen to Waits and see the connection.
“The first time I heard any spoken word that I was really impressed with was an album called ‘Kerouac/Allen’ – Steve Allen & Jack Kerouac and he talked while Steve Allen played some stuff and he just talked over the top of it and it was real, real effective – I had never heard anything like it”
Waits is frequently asked about Kerouac, and he claims to have read everything of his, including all the articles hidden away in skin mags and other such publications. In 1979 he told New Music Express that he dreamed about Kerouac and that Kerouac was his hero, even years after discovering the author. Kerouac was obvious a massive influence on the art of Waits, but whenever ask, offers a glimpse of his literary predecessors, who include Corso, Ferlinghetti, Lord Buckley and Ken Nordine. But it always came back to Kerouac, and reading On the Road at eighteen: “It spoke to me. I couldn’t believe that somebody’d be making words that felt like music, that didn’t have any music in it, but had music all over it.”
But we shouldn’t get too carried away with the connections, no matter how obvious they are. We don’t want to get our asses kicked…
A lot of people when they talk to me, they talk about Kerouac, and get this impression that I’m trying to recreate the beat scene or some bullshit. Pure folly. I think it’s redundant, and I think it just shows their own stupidity.
Of course, one could claim any number of late twentieth century artists to be heirs of the Beat Generation, such was the impact upon the culture held by these writers, but Waits is unique in the extent of his collaboration, and of course the fact that he is still active today and still carrying the Beat torch.
Whereas Doherty, as explained in Issue One, maintains a Beat ethos and shares a similar style and line of literary and musical influence to the Beats, Waits’ connection is far more direct. In 1987, Waits was involved with William S Burroughs and Nick Cave in releasing ‘Smack my Crack’, a spoken word album, released through Giorno Poetry Systems.
A year later, theatre director Robert Wilson approached Waits with the idea of aligning with Burroughs to create The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets. The play showed at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, in 1990, and has since toured Europe and America. Burroughs wrote the story, based on a German folktale, while Waits wrote and performed the music and lyrics, released on a highly successful album of the same name.