Way Off The Cobb


I had an interesting conversation
with my daughter the other day,
explaining the difference between the counter cultures of the mid 1950’s and that of the hippies of the mid 1960’s.

Yes, there certainly was a
counter culture predating
the unfortunate American
involvement in the Vietnam War.

Actually, several….2

….including a very interesting
movement during the roaring 20’s.

But, the one we’re gonna talk
about today were the “Beats”
— or the ‘Beat Generation’.

You know, as in BEATNIK.

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,abeatnik
and with good reason.

It was originally a
mean-spirited 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 allusion
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,

1…… and the Beats were
all about that.

A 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.

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 against that
rigid imposed uniformity,
and thus, were mainly
of social outsiders, disenfranchised
artists, poets, writers
and other
creative people.

They dressed agreeable
to their outsider status—abobble

— no poodle skirts and slicked
back hair among the beats —

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

…. and shaggy haircuts.

But beat culture wasn’t
just about how you looked.akerouac

Kerouac’s own writings might give
you some idea of what the movement really represented…..

from the “Philosophy of the Beat Generation” :

“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 portraying4
ersatz beat culture were everywhere….

It became so much
mainstream mulch.

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,

and 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 3
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…..

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

for instance,

Sonny and Cher released their
first album “Look At Us”.5

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 influencedakit
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”,
“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.)beret

—— 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 these classic
patter platters’ from Bob Dorough.


PS: My friend DistantShipSmoke added:

To really know Jack Kerouac and the “Beat Generation” instead of looking into the conservative 50’s and 60’s social conformity that actually got a firm hold of “beat” and bastardized it into Beatnik so “the man” would “own the issue” and define it to suit the “Establishment” . Beatnik or Hippie was very little “Beat” and perhaps never was. Jack lived to despise being at all associated with either. Hippies and beatniks unfortunately excepted not “beat” of J.K. but the stereotype created by their social conformist parents, specifically, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.
To know Kerouac’s “Beat down” generation influences look back to Woody Guthrie, Walt Whitman and the many service men and civilians that came back out of WWII and the Cold War fucked up and displaced trying to fit back into the artificial Conservative social straight jacket of the 40’s and 50’s grey suited “American dream”. There, in those misfits, you will find J. Kerouac and the beat generation.
Beatnik and hippie were a creation of American commercial and political capitalism, believe it or not. And the “Baby Boomers” fell for it.




Ellen Willis says:

willis” On one level the sixties
revolt was an impressive illustration of Lenin’s
remark that the capitalist
will sell you the rope
to hang him with. “