I know some of you younger folks ain’t gonna believe it…..
But there was a counter culture predating American involvement in the Vietnam War.
….including a very interesting movement during the roaring 20’s.
But, the one we’re gonna talk about today was later– in the 50’s.
They were called the ‘Beats’ — or the ‘Beat Generation’.
a member of the Beat generation wouldn’t have appreciated ya calling him a Beatnik….
Even though Jack Kerouac was one of the people who first wrote about the “Beat Generation”,
…. he vehemently rejected the whole ‘beatnik’ stereotype, and with good reason.
It was actually a term coined by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen as a derogatory way of inferring the “Un-American” nature of beat culture…..
—- the “NIK” being an illusion to the Russian satellite “Sputnik”.
But, being interested in free expression is about as ‘American’ as burned crust on an apple pie, as far as I’m concerned,
…… and the Beats were all about that.
…… but it actually meant something entirely different.
The term ” BEAT ” was shorthand for “Beaten Down”….
… and as a movement was always about the struggle between the establishment and nonconformity.
You don’t hear much about the Beats nowadays…..
But you had a lot going on…..
Many of the Beats were veterans of the World War who came home and suddenly realized they just didn’t fit in anymore.
The Eisenhower years was the height of the post-war economic boom, but also a period of strict socially enforced conformity.
The Beats were those who fought that uniformity, and thus, were mainly comprised of social outsiders, disenfranchised artists, poets, writers and other creative people.
They dressed agreeable to their outsider status—
— no poodle skirts and slicked back hair among the beats —–
…. and shaggy haircuts.
But beat culture wasn’t just about how you looked.
Kerouac’s own writings might give you some idea of what the movement represented…..
“The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way—
a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word “beat” spoken on street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America—
—beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction.
We’d even heard old 1910 Daddy Hipsters of the streets speak the word that way, with a melancholy sneer. It never meant juvenile delinquents, it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization… ”
— which is indeed what it came to mean in the popular jargon after the media co-opted the movement …..
Ann Charters, Kerouac biographer, explained what happened next:
“The term caught on because it could mean anything. It could even be exploited in the affluent wake of the decade’s extraordinary technological inventions. Almost immediately, for example, advertisements by “hip” record companies in New York used the idea of the Beat Generation to sell their new long playing vinyl records.”
Movies allegedly portraying ersatz beat culture were everywhere….
The real Beat Culture stressed personal experience of art , music, and life —
…….. a Beat was more at home in a coffee house than an opium den …….
Hollywood and the rest of the media made millions of dollars by trivializing it,
by describing sordid and rampant sex and drug orgies of all kinds.
Phrases like ‘ways like a mowing machine’ were soon used as proof the lifestyle was about nothing but sex and drugs —
and the experience of getting ‘Dixie Fried’ became the end all/be all to the lifestyle,
…. as far as the squares were concerned.
The back to basics minimialism of the beat view —-
—- was reduced by the media to an abject nihilism.
…………………….. to make money.
Sorry to sound so ‘off the cobb’,
— but you might as well ‘know your groceries’.
Much of what beat culture remained was absorbed…
…. into the later anti-war and Hippie counter cultures of the sixties…..
when, for instance,
Sonny and Cher released their first album “Look At Us”.
One should not under-estimate the effect the Beat had on the culture at large, music and literature in particular.
Many of today’s recording artists,
from Tom Waits, the Doors, Van Morrison,
to the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine,
have been directly influenced by the Beat Generation.
what survives of the Beat culture itself today, you might ask?
Well, every time you say “Cool!” and mean “Great!”…
— you’re speaking the lingo of the Beats.
You can add to that expressions like:
Want a more personal experience with the Beat?
( after all —
personal experience was what it really was all about.)
—— you could read a couple of the classics of the Beat genre —-
the works of Jack Kerouac ( “The Dharma Bums” )
Alan Watts ( “Beat Zen Square Zen and Zen” ) ,
William Burroughs ( “Naked Lunch” )
Allen Ginsburg ( “Howl” )
…. or you can read Carolyn Cassady’s
“Off the Road: Twenty Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg”
Or, you could rent the movie “Two for the Seesaw” (1962) —
…. to get a feel for what a Beat chick was like.
Or even better — discover the music of Blossom Dearie,
— and some of her cool tracks —
’cause she’s ‘everything plus’.
Well, I’m gonna blow this ‘popsicle stand’ fer now…………
……… I’m, like, ‘slated for crashville’,
so I’m ‘agitating the gravel’ .
I hope ya dig what I laid down.
I’ll leave you with this classic ‘patter platter’ from Bob Dorough.