The Beat Goes On


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.

Actually, several….

….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’.

You know, as in BEATNIK.2

Of course,
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.

1A lot of folks think the term “Beat Generation” came from their love of bongos or downbeat, discordant jazz–

…… 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…..

….. maybe cause most people can’t see what anybody had to be counter-culture about during the Eisenhower years.abeatnik

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 —–

abobbleThey were fond of wearing pork pie hats, beards, sunglasses, and sandals…

…. 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…..

from the “Philosophy of the Beat Generation” :akerouac

“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… ”

abeatnikwantonKerouac mentions that the phrase never meant “juvenile delinquents”

— 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….

It became so much mainstream mulch. 4

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,

co-opting it,

3and sensationalizing 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.

You know….

…………………….. 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…..

5Some signs of it still were extant as late as 1965,

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:

“Have a Blast”,
“Don’t Bug Me”,
“I dig what you’re saying”, beret
“Make Out”,

“Don’t be a Square”……..

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.



18 thoughts on “The Beat Goes On

  1. You should be required reading – and listening – for all cultural history classes. Another great post, Chris.

  2. Paloma says:

    Yeah, I dig it! Great post —-!
    It’s amazing how mainstream culture hijacked the Beat movement.

  3. GREAT post, Chris!!!
    My daughter and I both love the beat poets and writers…Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, etc., and have been to the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco! 🙂
    It would have been cool to be a beatnik or even a hippie…but, alas, I came too late to the world to do either one.
    HUGS!!! 🙂

  4. GOODSTUFF says:

    “I got treated very badly in Texas. They don’t treat beatniks too good in Texas. Port Arthur people thought I was a beatnik, though they’d never seen one and neither had I.” – Janis Joplin

  5. The stories I could tell of the beat “Generation”. From age 13 thru high school my surrogate parents lived it. Surrounded by the books, art , bellie rubbing music, and blew many popsicle stands. Learned the dangers of conformity very early.
    Great piece, Chris! But I’m afraid the beat will never be fully understood.

  6. Karin says:

    Wow! Love this post MH, so much that I didn’t know. I’m amazed at how many of those phrases are in regular use in my own vocabulary!

  7. LaVagabonde says:

    Yeah, I dig it, Daddy Cool. Except for Ginsburg. I can’t stomach anything by him since I learned he was a member of the North American Man/Boy Love Association. Gross.

  8. GP Cox says:

    What a memory you have! Actually I have caught a few episodes of Dobie on METV channel – what a weird feeling to be transported back in time!

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