At some point in my teens I decided that I wanted to read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. That was the book, published in 1957, of which Truman Capote said: “That’s not writing; that’s typing.” For me, understanding little of ‘hip’ or its progenitors, I persevered and finished the book. Did I ‘get’ it? Not much of it, but at least I had completed the beatnik bible. That was important because I aspired to be one of them, as callow as I was at the time.
As an aside, and to go back to Capote’s bitchy crack, On the Road was typing. To produce the tome the archetypical human symbol of the Beat Generation, Kerouac got himself a roll of teletype paper, spooled it under the roller of his Remington and went to work typing and typing and typing the archetypical literary symbol of the movement.
As I grew out of my mid-teens I became increasingly enchanted with the beatniks and what they seemed to represent to me. I never was a beatnik, but I liked to think I had the bearing, somehow. Beatniks were cool. They were irreverent. They gave the finger to the older generation and seemed to have values that revolved around pacifism, smoking reefer, screwing indiscriminately, saying “like” a lot, snapping their fingers, listening to odd poetry, drinking cheap red wine out of wineskins only if you please, dropping names like Garcia Lorca, and being decked out in black turtle necks, goatees, shades and berets for males, and tit-emphasizing black turtlenecks for females, along with white lipstick, heavy eye makeup and Mary Travers-style ironed hair.
Well, I couldn’t grow a goatee yet, I looked stupid and risked bodily mayhem in the ‘hood had I dared to sport a beret, but I could do the black turtle neck and shades. I only knew of reefer by literary reference, but I was capable of puking on cheap red wine.
And, of course, all I knew about the beat world was what I perceived through my white kid uptown eyes, being resolutely unfamiliar with the New York streets of the immediate postwar years, the coolness of Parkeresque and Gillespian bebop, the racial undertones and the finger being waved in the face of those who would revere the stodgy and bourgeois Eisenhower years, or the evils of McCarthyism.
Beat was all about hip, and it was all about freedom, and all about experimentation with the extremes of life, denouncing what went before but, by design, experimenting with what was out there, and not necessarily suggesting alternatives. Life was to be lived in all its complexions and complexities. Yes, to say that I did not get it, other than to be charmed with the superficialities would be to state the case mildly.
Added to which Vancouver in the day, despite boasting a couple of really rather cool coffeehouses, like the Inquisition, was not ‘the’ westcoast place for beat. That had to be San Francisco. San Francisco, which always pushed out the jams on any movement, be it beat, be it hippie, be it gay. SF was the new Sodom in the eyes of so many, as the film Milk showed vividly. But, in my earlier days, if you couldn’t do New York (people were much less mobile then, and poorer), then the city on the Bay was within possibility.
In the early 1960s my parents took a trip down the coast – to actually visit relatives in San Jose – and we were to pass through, and hang out for a while in San Francisco. Even though I was with my parents, and my kid brothers were all there too in the old family Chevy, I was ecstatic. My particular goal was the visit the City Lights bookstore. City Lights, it was owned and operated by Ferlinghetti, buddy of Kerouac and Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and Ken Kesey and so forth. Beat heaven on the west coast. I may not have been hip, but I was astute enough to know my icons even at that tender age. My parents, however, had a schedule to keep and my old man simply stated “I’m not going to waste precious time looking for a %^$## bookstore run by *&%@$ beatniks and drug addicts.” Long story short, I never got there. I did years later, but a lot of the patina of the golden age had worn off by that time.
What happened to the beat movement? In my understanding it went in a couple of directions, though I may be wrong in my appraisal. First, and most unpalatably it went uptown. That was a killer. Middle class society glommed onto the superficial trappings and used them. It wasn’t all bad in itself. There were a couple of good TV shows that were definitely ‘beat’ inspired, those being Peter Gunn (great theme music), and the slightly less known but much cooler Johnny Staccato, starring John Cassavetes before he became an interesting and definitely beat inspired filmmaker.
And then, of course, there was Dobie Gillis. It was actually a very funny series and tried to offer a palatable beat character in Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver (Gilligan in a later characterization). Maynard was cliché hip but amusing and highly sanitized. No reefer around the Gillis household. Maynard was too sweet for that.
When beat really turned to crap was when the older generation (which was ironic in its way, since Kerouac was my parents generation and he was a merchant seaman in World War Two) grabbed on to what they saw as ‘fun’ but with no understanding of the meaning behind it all. My understanding (at that time) was scanty. My parents and others of their ilk had none at all. They knew from beat about the same way a Nebraska farmer of today would understand the motivations for hip-hop and what “all them goddamn dirty words” are really trying to express. A lot more than just a collection of dirty words, I might add.
The ultimate mortification for me was when my parents (when I was about 18) decided to have a beatnik theme party. That I regarded as an unspeakable violation and insult to have a bunch of middle-aged farts co-opting something about which they had less than zero understanding. To me they were poking fun, they were taunting, they were baiting. Fortunately I cooled down and now just regard it as a theme party they once held, with no malicious intent.
But, it also indicated to me that beat was dead
Eventually Kerouac drank himself to death in his mother’s parlor, Neal Cassady lost when he played matador with a freight train, and Kesey wrote a blockbuster novel that earned him tons of money.
Secondly, beat did not die entirely, it just went in other directions. After all, for beat to have died, iconoclasts would have had to have been written off the face of the planet. One realm only vaguely connected to the beat movement was the hippie realm. Not so, according to those who know. While it made sense at one level to think that beatniks morphed into hippies, there were actually conflicting values afoot.
Early Bob Dylan might be seen as having a connection with hippies, but in fact he was much more of a beatnik and allied himself with the earlier movement. In the wonderful and ancient video of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, the one in which he keeps dropping the placards, Ginsberg’s head keeps poking around the corner.
Richard Lester’s rendering of the Beatles frolics in Hard Days Night is hip, but not hippie.
And, the film Easy Rider is truly Kerouac’s On the Road on two wheels in lieu of four, with alcoholic Nicholson’s character representing the declining old order. If you want to consider the film’s view of hippiedom, witness Peter Fonda’s Captain America’s disdain for the hippies in the commune. He is happy to eat their food and smoke their dope and screw their girls, but he is also contemptuous of the naiveté of the values they propound.
Anyway, I got on a roll with this, so I am going to stop right now.