The Beat Generation

Here’s a YouTube video that does a great job explaining the start of the beatniks.  The author shows his philosophical roots in his screen name “Zarathustra’s Serpent”.

This is a story that has never been told. There are so many books about the sixties, and so many things that have been written about this period. And still, despite reading anything I could find on the subject, I have yet to encounter any attempt to show how it all makes sense when put together, any effort to fully document the spiritual journey that the protagonists of the story went through.

This series will endeavor to fill the gap, to tell the full story of psychedelic music, and the culture that emerged around it. To me, this is the focal point of the sixties, the thing around which most else revolves. The series will tell the story of how it emerged, what it was all about, how it fell apart, and what happened in the aftermath.

And through that, we are pretty much going to tell the story of pop culture and pop music in the second half of the twentieth century. So, open your minds, and let me take you on this magical journey out of the past. Now before we begin to talk about psychedelia, we must understand where it came from.

And you can’t understand psychedelia if you don’t first of all start by talking about Beat. Our story begins at the end of the 1930s. This is the period known as the swing era, the period in which the big bands took over the pop world. So big band swing became the new mainstream, and when this happens to a pop style, the original fans of the style always feel a split.

Suddenly, there are many artists out there who pretend to be part of the style, but the music they produce lacks the inner essence of it. The fans then make a distinction between music that they perceive as “real”, and music they perceive as a fake imitation. What swing fans called “real” swing was a rhythmic style, in which the entire band would create an enormous forward drive, compelling your body to break out in an ecstatic dance.

And the soloists, carried on the wings of this propulsion, would then improvise solos that would lift your spirit to the heavens. But among the general public, that didn’t get the essence of swing, the most popular records did not have that quality. They had formal similarities to swing, using the same instruments and melodies, but rather than being ruled by the swing feeling, the players would play in the traditional European way of following notes; or sometimes they would try to imitate the fervor of the “real” swing bands, but since they lacked the inner essence of it, the outcome was crass and tasteless.

Among swing fans and musicians, the prevailing feeling was that the music industry robbed their music and neutered it. In the beginning of the forties, a number of black musicians assembled in Harlem, and started to look for a new way. The way they saw it, the white industry robbed the blacks of Swing and of all the other black-made authentic jazz forms, so they needed to dive deeper into the logic of jazz and distill its essence.

Grouping in small bands of five or six members, they would begin playing a familiar pop song, but then ditch the melody in favor of improvisation, and set sail into the unknown. Leaving only the chord structure of the original song, the soloists would play with breathtaking speed and create a completely new tune.

Every time someone else would take the lead and the other musicians would follow, and then another soloist would take his ideas and develop them in his way, and the other band members would react to that. Thus, a kind of collective consciousness was formed, which would produce an original musical piece.

This music could no longer be experiences in the traditional way of listening to the melody. To enjoy it, you had to get into the music, to feel yourself regenerated at that moment along with it. This new style was termed bop, or bebop. Bebop created a space in which black consciousness could develop freely, without meddling from the white establishment, and the seeds that were sown in it would grow rebellious generations of African-Americans for decades to come.

But there were also some white people who connected to bebop, whites whose soul was welded in the furnace of jazz and could therefore understand the new musical experience. One of them was a young man named Jack Kerouac, who aspired to be a novelist and find a new form of literary expression. Kerouac, who lived near Harlem, had the chance to experience bebop in the years of its formation, and found in it a source of inspiration.

He regarded the bebop musicians as spiritual guides, artists who are paving a new spiritual way, and he wanted to bring their spirit into literature, to write in the way that they played. But Kerouac could not find the way to do so, at least not until 1944, the year he met two people with which he could form his own jam session.

William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were also young bohemians who were looking for another way, and the three realized that they have a spiritual connection, and decided that they represent the birth of a new consciousness. In their view, Western civilization became a heartless technocracy, an industrial-militaristic-capitalistic society, which subjugates the humane side of Man and enslaves it to the rational side, and therefore its logic is a cold and inhumane logic driven only by utilitarian motives.

Man thus became an unhappy creature, and to regain his happiness, we must liberate the human spirit from the shackles of this technocracy. Their goal was to find the way to freedom, and liberate humanity. William Burroughs, the elder of the bunch, became the mentor. Burroughs was born to a wealthy family and could have led a comfortable life, but instead he decided to dedicate his life to liberation from social conventions and lies, and find the truth about reality.

How can this be done? One way, believed Burroughs, was to drop out of conformed society, to live outside of the conventional mind. So he abandoned his bourgeois existence, and moved to the sphere populated by criminals, junkies, prostitutes and tramps. Another way is through the use of mind-altering drugs, and Burroughs tried every known substance and every possible drug cocktail to see what they can teach him about his mind.

He soon became a junky, but for him, it was all part of the purgatory you have to go through to see existence for what it is. In his dealings with underworld people, Burroughs learned the slang of their world, and in it he found the term which he used to signify the state of existence that he was after.

The word ‘Beat’, in this slang, meant a state of losing everything and lying in the gutter. It meant that you were beaten by life, but for Burroughs, being “beat” signified exactly what he wanted: to lose all the baggage that conformed society instilled in him, and become free. Burroughs imparted this idea to his new friends, and for Kerouac, who was a Catholic, the word ‘Beat’ immediately connected to the concept of Beatitude, and thus took on a meaning of holy blessedness.

And so, the term ‘Beat’ came to signify a state in which you beat your old identity and demolish it, and in this way become liberated from the lies that society implanted in you, and become pure and real. The word would become the center of the new consciousness, and the three friends would eventually call themselves The Beat Generation.

The existence that Kerouac espoused was based on the ideal of the bebop musicians: a purely spontaneous existence, in which you recreate your life in each and every moment, instead of following preexisting patterns. When a jazz instrumentalist gets carried on the wings of the music, it takes over him, and the musical ideas spring from his subconscious without thought.

Thought comes a little bit later, when he develops these ideas further, but they are initialized in a spontaneous way. This is how Kerouac wanted to live, and he intended to then record his existence autobiographically in print, and thus create literary bop. But his nature was that of an intellectual and a novelist, a man whose existence is mired in preexistent patterns, and hence he was in a bind: to experience the existence he wanted, and thus to create the literature he imagined, he had to first give up on his identity as a novelist, and so actually give up on his dream.

The only way out of the bind was to find spiritual guides who will drag him along with them. Ginsberg and Burroughs took him part of the way, but to get to where he wanted, he needed a different kind of guide. And fortunately, he met him shortly after. Neal Cassady was a truly unique individual. A hyperactive young man who couldn’t rest for one moment, and was driven by an insatiable lust to swallow as much life as he could, Cassady was always in motion, always talking, always randomly bringing up new ideas and taking his line of thought to strange places, always looking for new adventures, always hunting for new sexual conquests.

He seemed to be living on a different level from most people, a level that is more intense. He was the essence of the spontaneous existence that Kerouac championed, a perfect model to follow. He also loved stealing cars and going out on long trips along the long roads of America, and he dragged Kerouac along with him.

Between the years 1947 and 1951, Cassady and Kerouac crisscrossed America from top to bottom and from side to side, never staying in one place for more than a few weeks, living from temporary jobs, going to jazz performances whenever they had the chance, and experiencing all sorts of adventures. At the end of this period, Kerouac sat down to write a book that would document their travels.

This was one of the components of Kerouac’s new literary style: real life experiences precede the writing. Just like a bebop musician creates the music on the spot and doesn’t read it from the paper, so should the novelist first live the story, and only later write it down. Unlike writers of fiction who make up their stories, Kerouac’s books were always autobiographical.

There were novelists who preceded him in that, such as Marcel Proust who was one of his influences, but what exemplified Kerouac was that his writing style was also inspired by bop. To write the book, he bought a big roll of paper and stuck it in his typewriter so he wouldn’t need to stop and change pages, and over the course of a few weeks, so goes the legend, he poured everything on paper in the order that the words came into his mind, never stopping to think and never rewriting.

There are places in the book where you can see Kerouac riding an inspirational wave, and producing a long sentence in which the flowing stream of words flourishes and creates a kind of literary jazz. Here’s one of the segments that best represent his rhythmic and spontaneous style of writing, telling about the time when he introduced Allen Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, and how the two immediately clicked: They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “awww!” We learn a few interesting things from this paragraph.

First, the belief that the only true existence is a burning existence. In philosophy, this worldview is identified with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who claimed that fire is the foundation of all existence, and that there is nothing stable in existence, but everything is in flow. According to the worldview presented here by Kerouac, life that is lived on the basis of steady and established principles distances you from the real existence, and to be real you must burn in the fire of an existence that is regenerating at every moment.

Secondly, we are introduced to the idealization of madness, to the belief that mad people are people who burn, people who experience a more genuine existence than the people who are called “normative” and “sane” by society. Third, we see that Kerouac feels that he himself is not a burning man, but a writer shackled by words, and hence existing always a step behind real existence.

All he can do is follow the real people, try to capture them in his writing, in a hope that in this way his art will get as close as possible to portraying real existence. The central character of the novel, therefore, is Cassady, and the book tries to capture his flame. The book is called On the Road, and it was meant to represent the new consciousness.

But Kerouac couldn’t find anyone who would publish it. The other hero of the segment is Allen Ginsberg, who is also described as a burning madman. But Ginsberg, unlike Cassady, also had a normative side, that wanted to become part of society and be a respected academic and poet. Following an incident in which his involvement with Burroughs’ criminal friends got him in trouble with the law, Ginsberg decided to “go straight”, and committed himself to a psychiatric ward, to the very thing that symbolized everything Beat consciousness was against.

The psychiatric ward, in the 1950s, was a notorious manifestation of the technocratic society. Since the prevailing belief in those years was that rational thought can decipher everything in the world, the human mind was also perceived as something that can be completely outlined in mathematical means, and science, therefore, was seen as being able to understand and cure any mental illness.

Psychiatrists were regarded as almost all-knowing, and anyone who suffered from a mental problem, which in the fifties was a code word for anyone who deviated from the social norms, was sent to them to get fixed, in techniques such as electric shocks to the brain, or, in more severe cases, lobotomy.

Ginsberg willfully submitted himself to this institute, but it was there, in the belly of the beast, that he found his mentor, the man who helped him discover his artistic path. His name was Carl Solomon, and he too committed himself, but not because he wanted to become normative. Solomon was marked in early age as a very gifted person, but he believed he will never be able to realize his full potential as long as his rational side controls him.

Hence, he started acting like a madman, and when he was brought before the psychiatrists, he demanded to be lobotomized, believing this will finally free his spirit from the rational side of his mind. But the doctors did not oblige, and instead kept him in the ward and tried different methods. But in that, they put him just in the right place to influence the great poet of Beat, and consequently the course of history.

Ginsberg realized that Solomon is another manifestation of Beat consciousness, a man who aspires to liberate the irrational side of the human spirit, and thus a model that can direct him. Inspired by Solomon, he gave up on his plan to conform to society’s norms, and instead left the ward and moved to San Francisco, the capital state of non-conformity, to become part of the poet community in the place.

On October 7th, 1955, the poet Kenneth Rexroth organized a poetry reading in San Francisco, providing a stage for new poets to present their work before the local bohemia. Young poets such as Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Gary Snyder got up to read their poems, presenting a new sensibility that combined ecological consciousness, Zen Buddhist influences and other things.

But the show was stolen by Allen Ginsberg, whose poem Howl dazzled its listeners. The three part poem is dedicated to Carl Solomon, but stylistically it is inspired by Kerouac, and it articulates the philosophy of Beat. The first part opens with the assertion that he saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, and proceeds with a flowing, rhythmic and mesmerizing portrayal of everything that the owners if these minds did to themselves in the past decade, going through self-beating, hobo life, drug abuse, sexual perversion, crime, bop ecstasy, intentional insanity, electric shocks, mystical quests and more, and describing it as a desperate and heroic search for salvation.

The second part opens with the question what made them be like this, and replies: Moloch! Moloch, the old god, is used here to symbolize the industrial-capitalist-militarist system, and the poem describes how it controls our minds, crushes our spirit and twists our consciousness. The third part poses the model of Carl Solomon, as the man who found the way to take us to the other side and save our spirit.

The song is tremendously powerful, but again, the words themselves are not the entire story, but also the way in which the song was performed. Egged on by Kerouac who was sitting in the crowd, Ginsberg entered a seemingly trance state, melting into the flow of his words and washing over the crowd with wave after wave.

His electric performance so exhilarated the poet community that many of them decided to adopt Beat as the center of their art. The new consciousness was beginning to spread. So, let’s summarize Beat consciousness: the aspiration of the Beat generation was to liberate the spiritual side of Man, which they claimed is being repressed by a society ruled by a cold technocratic rationality.

This society constructs our minds and determines our identity, and to be free we must first of all smash everything that this society instilled in us. There are several ways to do so, such as vagrant life, which prevents you from being attached to one place; lawless life, outside of established society; exposure to electric shocks to the brain; and of course mind altering drugs.

In that way you become free, and being free means letting your subconscious spontaneously guide you, employing rational thought only as an aid. When everyone operates like that, they let their unique inner self express itself, and then they feed each other with ideas, just like in a bebop jam session.

This is the ideal that the San Francisco Beat community aspired to, and they would sit in coffee shops, smoke cannabis, listen to poets read their poetry to a jazz backup, and embroil themselves in philosophical contemplations of existence. By 1957, their influence was beginning to be felt. Kerouac’s book finally got published, and became a hit with the youngsters, a book that defined a generation.

Another thing that happened that year was a first newspaper article on the Beat scene of San Francisco, whose author decided to name its members Beatniks, basing it on the new Soviet satellite Sputnik, since he claimed that they were both equally far out. As a result of this fame, the scene was joined by many other youngsters, who lacked the inner understanding of Beat, but just imitated the way of life of sitting in coffee shops and rolling joints.

A typical Beatnik look emerged, kind of a hybrid of the looks of European Existentialist and African-American bebop artists: shoulder length hair, goatee, shabby clothing. In conformed society, “Beatnik” became a synonym for anyone who didn’t want to fit in the system, and they were seen as bums who are only into sex and drugs.

Those who did have inner understanding of Beat felt that the original spirit of the community died, and they dispersed all over the country and started to look for new paths. And on that, in the coming episodes.

Source Link: