Sunday, June 22, 2008

Beat Primer

Shortly before midnight on September 4th 1957 Jack Kerouac and his partner Joyce Johnson were waiting on a street corner for delivery of the following day’s New York Times. In it was a review of Jack’s second published book On The Road, which hailed its publication as “an historic occasion”.

Kerouac’s life was changed forever by the review. He’d go to sleep that night and wake up famous. Yet, as Johnson noted in her autobiography Minor Characters, “he couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t happier than he was”.

Part of the reason was the six-year gap between the novel’s genesis and its eventual publication, during which it was edited down from its original 120-foot long manuscript. He came to regret compromising his vision for publication.

But Kerouac and the Beats have touched virtually all modern culture. Seriously. Some immediate examples:

Pop music: prime Bob Dylan, stream of consciousness lyrics with long breath lines or David Bowie’s persistent sci-fi fascination and adoption of Beat language (listen to Ziggy Stardust... and think Beat Generation). Literature: JG Ballard, William Gibson, The Liverpool Poets, Irvine Walsh, Charles Bukowski, Douglas Coupland, Hunter S Thompson to name but a few.

Method: cut and paste, recontextualising old material, dead phrases, to create something new. Add nihilism and/or anarchism a la Burroughs, what do you get? Punk. The terms “rap” and “riff”, central to popular culture today, were crucially developed by the Beats. Before the Beat Generation the riff was the obligatory part of a song. After the Beats it meant to improvise and generally build on a foundation. The Beats would meet and “rap” long, improvised, semi-poetic monologues. A fine, recorded example is Jack Kerouac’s narration to the film Pull My Daisy or Lenny Bruce’s stand up (virtually all stand up comedy comes from Bruce).

Random names and references: The Soft Machine, Steely Dan, The Subterraneans, Interzone, The Subliminal Kid, Exterminator (XTRMNTR), Howl of the Unappreciated by Lisa Simpson (the line "I saw the best minds of my generation..." has been recycled so many times), The Dharma Bums, Pretty Girls Make Graves, and, never forget, The BEATles.

I could go on.

Of the principle Beat writers Kerouac had the longest pedigree, claiming to have written his first novel aged eleven. There is still a large portion of unpublished writing from his early days. However, Kerouac didn’t make his breakthrough until he abandoned proper fiction for “spontaneous prose”. He was an excellent typist and would write continuously, sometimes for days on end, allowing his thoughts to flow directly onto the page.

Kerouac would justify this approach in mystical terms. Born into a Catholic family and spent many years exploring the grey-area between Christianity and Buddhism. He saw a link between the beatific (hence “beat”) vision and the Buddhist concept of revelation, or satori. To him writing was holy.

Mysticism was the root of Jack’s later conservatism. He saw self-emancipation as an inner journey (perhaps also a habit borne from living under the military/industrial project). When later generations took up the Beat credo of free expression, giving it a political twist, he reacted and headed rightward.

But was it that the kids were picking up on? Why did J Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, list the three main threats to the American way of life as “communists, eggheads and beatniks”? It was what Kerouac wrote about.

On The Road is about a studious young man called Sal Paradise and his adventures in America’s underground, a self-sustaining network of junkies and jazz fanatics, homosexuals and career criminals… people pushed to the margins.

The hero of the novel is Dean Moriarty, a bisexual car thief. Like many an angelheaded hipster he’s not exactly reliable, but he’s full of life, a zest he transmits to everyone around him. Moriarty was based on Neal Cassady, an icon of two generations of counterculture, who drove Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in bus around America, handing out free LSD and performing “acid tests”. Cassady was also the inspiration behind One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest hero McMurphy.

Before On The Road polite America only heard about this world through pulp fiction and films like Reefer Madness (Burroughs’ first book, Junky, was first sold as a pulp novel, called “Confessions of an Unredeemed Junkie”). Not only were these people not deluded or depraved, to Kerouac they were modern-day saints. For a country still to go through the shock therapy of the sixties, when McCarthyism was a fresh memory, this was strong stuff.

It’s worth dwelling on McCarthyism and the Cold War in general. There is a wonderful, short passage about an encounter between Sal’s “battered boat” and a military parade headed through Washington DC. “There were B-29s, PT boats, artillery, all kinds of war material that looked murderous in the snowy grass…” The contrast is almost comic. The powerful, sleek hardware of death parading past a tiny group of raggedy, sarcastic youngsters. We see the inhuman, invulnerable machine up against fragile humanity. Luckily, humanity wins out. Last in line of the parade is a pitiful little boat. That must be Harry (Truman’s) boat, says Dean.

The end of World War Two saw the rise of two military superpowers. Despite the hope of 1945, civil society had lapsed under the military/industrial complex. As Jack and his friends were whizzing around America in cars a dying George Orwell was writing 1984, where repressive power was so overwhelming it bent truth to its will (2+2=5). Liberals (in the broadest sense) feared secrecy and repression. But, with repression for some, there was repressive tolerance for others.

The post war boom meant stabilisation, a decline in the bloody purges of the CPSU as well as the paramilitary class war in America. Social movements were quelled. The triumphant momentum of 1945 subsided. There was no longer an urgent need to exile or murder rebels. They could be picked off. Individuals who refused or were unable to find a place within the system, accept the prevailing ideology, could be safely pushed to the margins (with a degree of psychologising and pathologising). In the case of Russia, dissidents were often sectioned as insane.

In America the common caricature of the Beat was the Beatnik (a portmanteau of Beat and Sputnik). The Beatnik was a workshy coward, unfit for the factory, office or army. Nothing could have been more opposed to the average Beat. For example, the three main Beats: both Ginsberg and Kerouac served in numerous manual jobs (Kerouac once listed them in the intro to the Lonesome Traveller collection, he also served in the Merchant Navy during WW2). Although Burroughs had a trust fund he was also, at one point, a farmer.

That’s all good, but why care about On The Road, Kerouac and the Beats today? Although secrecy and surveillance dog our society we also face a contradictory but connected problem. Orwell thought we’d be suppressed by a distortion of truth and lack of information. In his Brave New World, Aldous Huxley thought we’d be swamped with information, desensitised and unable to sort trivia from significance. Revolutions in culture, technology and communication have greatly accelerated our society, bringing Huxley’s vision partway to life. One place where these two ideas meet is in political management, in spin (“it’s a good day to bury bad news”).

Society has never been more ‘democratic’ or ‘meritocratic’. We have never had greater access to information, government or power. However, the connection between people and their rulers is more carefully controlled than ever before.

We read On The Road with a different eye and ear to Kerouac’s contemporaries. On The Road is a defining moment in the birth of modern youth culture, as well as the end of literary culture. We read it for great historical flavour, as part of why we are who we are.