Why the Beats Still Matter

By J.C. Shakespeare

Allen Ginsberg photo I'm standing on a stage in NYU's Loeb Auditorium, sharing a spotlight with the greatest living American poet, Allen Ginsberg. A band led by legendary jazzman David Amram, who played in the earliest Beat poetry jams, provides music. Ginsberg beats time with two rhythm sticks. I'm holding a copy of his book, Cosmopolitan Greetings, before him as he performs the "Put Down Yr Cigarette Rag." This bald, diminutive, dapper man exhorts the appreciative crowd to "smoke clit smoke tit smoke cock," smoke anything except tobacco. As I turn the pages for Ginsberg, I can feel the ghosts of countless evenings when these men on stage joined Neal Cassady and a host of other legends to bring the spontaneous exuberance of the Beat Generation to a staid and stodgy America. The subject of college classes, icons of American mythology and the focus of this symposium, these men who made their mark as brash young rebels are now revered as ancient sages.

Ginsberg calls this Beat Generation: Legacy and Celebration; conference an "intergenerational symposium ... a transmission of information [from] an older generation to a younger, just as my own generation ... learned from William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein." The ideals transmitted involve "candor, spontaneity, suspicion of hierarchical authority, a multicultural sophistication ... and a sacramental dedication to a bloodless revolution, a world revolution."

It's the middle of the 90s and the beat goes on.

The opening of the symposium's Beat film festival features an eerie, disorienting, black-and-white film by Jonas Mekas, Guns of the Trees, which tells a fragmented tale of disaffected youth in a bleak Cold War world. Mekas arrived in the United States from Eastern Europe in the 50s, virtually penniless. He slept on floors and ate when he could as he scraped together the resources to make his movie. Mekas remarks that the Beats never knew they were a movement, they just knew they had a lot of friends who were artists. They shared their work and the excitement of their flourishing creativity.

A panel discussion ensues, including Ginsberg, Amram and Gregory Corso. Amram talks about the significance of the Beat spirit today. "Young people who have a dream of living the creative life need to know that they can do that. I urge you to see past the 'Burger Kingization' of spiritual and artistic truthfulness that's going on today and find that truth for yourselves."

Outside, I meet Amram, who invites me to join his fellow legends for dinner. Surprised by his warmth and openness, I walk with him to a restaurant around the corner.

At the table Amram tells stories about Kerouac and what the Village was like in the old days -- artists supporting each other, turning out for readings and performances, drinking and celebrating together. They drew strength from a sense of community. "Jack would pick out the most insecure, shyest person at a party and make a point of talking to that person," says Amram. "He had that kind of compassion, that interest in every person he met." I feel that same spirit in Amram.

"Most younger people have that view that we're going down the drain," says Ginsberg. "Anything we can do to ease the massive suffering, whether we're going to flourish or going to our graves -- either way, the necessary care, tenderness and effort to ease other people's pain is always worthwhile as a compass in any situation."

John Tytell, author of Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation, talks about the political and cultural climate when the Beats first emerged -- the time of McCarthyism. Americans were dragged in front of courts and questioned about their political beliefs and loyalties. Secret decisions were made behind closed doors, as "Notions of personal responsibility were subsumed by the values of an unprecedentedly sophisticated technology and corporate enlargement." Quoting Hannah Arendt, Tytell says, "The post-war era was launched by the insidious emergence of faceless power, which she called 'rule by nobody.'"

Enter the Beats. Both Ginsberg and Kerouac railed against the industrial oligarchy and its bureaucracy. Tytell quotes Burroughs' Naked Lunch: "Control can never be a means to any practical end; it can never be a means to anything but more control -- like junk." So, Tytell says, "Beat begins with a sense of cultural displacement and disaffiliation, a distrust of efficient truth, and an awareness that things are often not what they seem to be."

Substitute the term "Generation X" for "Beat" right there, and you would accurately describe the current spirit of the times. Countless articles have been written about my generation's cultural displacement and disaffiliation -- "Why won't these kids grow up and fit in?" Our earliest memories -- the Vietnam War, Watergate, business and religious leaders' falls from grace -- have instilled in us a very keen awareness that things are often not what they seem.

Newt Gingrich may not be a Joseph McCarthy, but don't think he wouldn't like to be. We often assume our personal liberty is perpetually secure, but powerful people are actively and aggressively pursuing political means to abolish many of the freedoms we take for granted. The Beat Generation brought America a message that's still crucially relevant; somebody's trying to take our freedom away, and you'd better pay attention.

The Beats put on a sold-out performance at Town Hall in Manhattan's theater district. The dressy, well-heeled crowd gives the show, billed as a "Gala Evening of Poetry and Music," an ironic air of sophistication. After the David Amram Quartet opens with an outstanding jazz set, Ed Sanders (founder of 60s freak band the Fugs) appears and says he has to make an important phone call. He dials a number and an ancient voice answers; it's William S. Burroughs speaking live from his living room in Lawrence, KS. The crowd cheers wildly. At 80 years old Burroughs remains the Beat Generation's mystery man; his mind is still razor sharp and his wit bites like a Doberman. A bit of advice from Uncle Bill: "If, after spending time with a person, you feel as though you've lost a quart of plasma, avoid that person in the future!"

Burroughs speaks for several minutes and says that writers create their own universes so that such universes become possible. The Beats seemed the lunatic fringe in the America of the 50s, but today their ideas are pervasive. All the heavyweights performing on this evening -- Ginsberg, Corso, Lawre nce Ferlinghetti, Anne Waldman and Michael McClure (accompanied by the piano wizardry of Ray Manzarek) -- are a living testament to the power of artistic vision to transform society.

On our last day, the panel on the "Beat Legacy" turns into a crowd watching Hunter S. Thompson swill Crown Royal, smoke dope, and mumble his rambling, half-baked memories of the 60s. I ask him where he sees Generation X heading in the future. Thompson smirks and says, "There's another generation coming along behind you called Generation Z, and I tell you, they really don't have any hope for the future! You're last year's model, pal!" Ed Sanders says that he sees the future as prison. The United States incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other leading industrial nation. "Wake the fuck up!" says Ed. Bob Guccione Jr., editor of Spin, says his best advice for our generation is to resist the media manipulation which would have us believe we're all a bunch of whining slackers doomed to live low-budget, mindless, entertainment-filled lives. "Don't buy into it!" he says.

According to Hegelian philosophy, all historical change results from dialectics. Everything takes place in what Hegel called geist, a collective spirit or consciousness. The prevailing spirit of a time is called a thesis. As we move through time, the thesis is confronted by something new and different, called an antithesis. As these two currents clash and mingle, the result is synthesis, something still newer which emerges from the conflict. Synthesis is the cutting edge of history, where past meets future and growth occurs; synthesis moves the geist through time.

After World War II, life in America was dull and static. Dad went off to work, mom minded the house and it seemed like everyone would have a job, security and happiness. Visionaries at the time, however, saw that this idyllic prosperity was artificial and temporary; they wanted life now, not at age 65. They went on the road, hung out in jazz bars, drank and read poetry and howled at the moon. They created an antithesis called the Beat Generation. This wild new strain of life coursed through the geist and took hold. The 60s brought such cultural changes as expanded consciousness, rock & roll, civil rights and strengthened democracy.

The generation coming of age in the 90s has the potential to bring a new vision to society. We know that LSD is not going to revolutionize the world, bringing love and peace to everyone. But we also know that a stable 40-year career with a fat pension waiting in the golden years is an equally ridiculous pipe dream. The Beats thumbed their noses at the corporate world and made commitments to art that involved risk and sacrifice. Many were ruined and died, but the survivors will tell you that the trip was a glorious and noble effort. There is now something in the air, in the zeitgeist of the present, undefined but indubitably stirring. The restless Beat spirit is moving again. People are traveling and searching, meeting in coffeehouses to read their poetry together. Traces of that old, freedom-demanding anarchy are popping up in the music scene as well. This is a dangerous and exciting time to be alive; we may go up in flames or we may change the world. Anyone who has felt the call to be an artist must make a commitment to answering that call if we are to move toward the latter option. Let's get to work.

Visit Literary Kicks, the comprehensive Beat Generation archive on the Web.

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