by Jon Kanis
(originally published in Schlock in 1994; it was subsequently reprinted in Subliminal Tattoos in 1995.)
“Things are symbols of themselves.” – Allen Ginsberg
“Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.” – Jack Kerouac
“Among other things you’ll find that you’re not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior. You’re by no means alone on that score, you’ll be excited and stimulated to know. Many, many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Happily, some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them, if you want to. Just as someday, if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you. It’s a beautiful reciprocal arrangement. And it isn’t education. It’s history. It’s poetry.” – J. D. Salinger
Life is a mysterious adventure, a treasure hunt so to speak, and making your way through the hunt can be tricky business. That is why maps were invented. Maps give you a glimpse of the terrain and the treasures that await at your “destination.” Awareness can be its own type of map and through the application of myth it can become much easier to chart a course for yourself and still allow for life’s mystery to unfold naturally. That might seem like a contradiction, but merrily, life is full of them.
Life is also about the reconciliation of seeming opposites. The Buddha taught that creating balance is crucial to your personal well-being if the Zen practitioner is to successfully integrate the spiritual with the material. Zen masters emphasize that the only moment that exists is the eternal Now. Allow me to tweak that just a little bit and suggest that just maybe the entire concept of history is a hype and that there really is no such thing when you are living in the here and Now. This might be difficult to concede, but try and suspend your prejudices, if only for a couple of minutes.
I’ve become aware only recently that in a reality based on symbol systems that the only meaning those symbols have is whatever I project upon them. I’m a little slow, I admit, but I’m beginning to wake up to the fact that most of what I believe life to be about is based largely upon what I’ve been told reality is, not what my direct personal experience has shown it to be. That shifted once I learned how to think with my heart and go with the flow of my feelings. No one really talked about feelings much when I was coming of age.
And that is why role models are so important. If human beings are to live consciously it helps to have mentors along the way that are capable of setting a positive example. Everyone is looking for clues in the mystery of life, it’s just that some people are better detectives than others. And ultimately, what you value will influence your adventure when the time comes to draft your own map.
Being in touch with your feelings is paramount if we are to live our lives as something more than a mere intellectualization. Bohemians throughout the ages have known this and that is what sets the artist apart from the rest of society. By the very willingness to go into the uncharted wilderness and by daring to feel and explore one’s own heart and psyche, the artist embarks on a personal treasure hunt and the gold that he comes back with is the artful discoveries that he shares with the rest of the universe. When an artist bares his soul, both he and the audience are blessed by the experience.
This is what writers and poets do and in the literature of the twentieth century no one has done it with as much honesty as the members of what is commonly referred to as the Beat Generation. Call them naïve, call them rebels, call them unwashed, call them whatever you like – the Beats are a tremendously important link to the post-modern world as we know it. A group of crazy and romantic idealists, the Beat Generation shared a vision. Their vision was a stance of believing in the freedom of the individual, of asking tough questions, of refusing to accept the status quo, of breaking down conventions, and spreading the beatitude of love; in short, a vision ripe for creating a social revolution across the planet. Theirs was a vision of unity, a vision that was somewhat ahead of its time.
But a worthwhile message never goes out of style. Are Christ and the Buddha fashionable? It doesn’t matter because history doesn’t exist remember? Certainly the America of 1955 doesn’t exist: the America of that period is now in the realm of myth and legend. It can be tough for me to find the perspective in all that “historical stuff” when it is just hearsay to my personal experience. I mean, I wasn’t even alive when Jack Kennedy was shot so how am I supposed to know what post-World War II America was about? History as a system of symbols is difficult for me to fathom. What I do know, however, is what lies on the printed page of Jack Kerouac’s mind through the books that he wrote and to bring that experience into the Now I don’t need a historical context to feel those tales of abandon and excess. The search for joy and freedom, the emotion of spiritual longing: these are timeless excursions into the human condition. For me, the Beats didn’t happen forty years ago, they’re happening right Now and all you need is a heart that feels and the eyes to see to share in the experience of this timeless eternal truth. There might be some who’ll scream about how times change and it’s just not the same anymore and you can’t hitchhike the way you used to and blah, blah, blah, blah, but it doesn’t matter. Those are the people that think history is something tangible. The Beat Generation is Now and it doesn’t matter what sort of label you stick on it. Being Beat is a state-of-mind and you can’t blot out that truth by tearing off a page on a calendar. It’s as eternal as your next breath or your first kiss. I mean, like dig what’s on the page. Listen with your eyes and feel.
Michael McClure: “I see two definitions of the Beats. I see Allen (Ginsberg), Gregory (Corso), (William) Burroughs and Jack (Kerouac). The Beats. That’s it. You can add a lot of people to that list. Then there’s the Beat movement. Beat consciousness…I literally see that Beat can be taken as romantic, classic, surreal. I think it can be taken as one of the larger frameworks of human statement.”
Jack Kerouac referred to the Beats as a “swinging group of new American men intent on joy” and Kerouac wrote as if he had stumbled upon the ancient Zen truths of the Buddha by recognizing that like it or not, we are all in this thing together. And that’s when the contradictions start. You can say “We’re all One.” You can even live that truth out from the depths of your heart. But when you choose to live from the strength of your convictions and break off from established conventions of whatever culture you’re presently a part of there are always going to be opposing factions who are heavily invested in maintaining the status quo. If you rock Caesar’s boat too hard, you run the risk of being tossed overboard. The status quo doesn’t like revolutionaries. And that is what the Beats helped stir to action: the freedom movements of the ‘60s and the cry for liberation throughout America. Once again, this is a message that never goes out of style. Art, love, politics, creation: to me, it’s all connected.
Allen Ginsberg suggests that in writing it is best to go with the flow of your feelings. His epigram remains: “First thought, best thought.” This is essentially the same idea that Andre Breton espoused with his theory of automatic writing. However, Ginsberg added to that by suggesting that in order to remove the illusory barriers between the Self and other beings that it would be useful to take off our clothes so that we might become psychologically naked. Through this act, the purity of our essence would simply, by default, ooze out. It would have to. Without the façade of clothing to hide behind, what could be left? Just your soul, bared for all to experience. That was the theory at least.
Like communism, that brand of nakedness has yet to really be tried, but Ginsberg and the Beats at least attempted to look their illusions in the eye and they tried time and again to get naked by pushing the envelope and speaking out against unjust social conventions. That sort of honesty and vulnerability is to be applauded, for if the artist is not honest and open with himself and his audience than he’s just jiving. We get enough jive from politicians and other segments of the world, we certainly don’t need it from the psychic explorers that are creating the myths and symbols of our current age. The Beats knew this and in the attempt to be honest with what they knew about themselves it further served to mirror the hypocrisies of a society that prefers to keep it head in the sand and maintain the status quo, no matter how harmful it is. It takes a lot of strength and love to create something of lasting benefit for humanity and the Beats tapped into this truth. And they had the courage to share that vision with the planet. The Beats chose to draw a different type of map, one of ideals that doesn’t shrink in the face of hostility or ignorance.
For me, the eternal question remains: as we draft our map in this present moment, what sort of vision do we choose to create? Do we choose to embrace a world that believes in divisions or a world that believes in solidarity? If you’re looking for maps to the land of self-fulfillment there are lots of them to choose from. Role models exist throughout the ages if you’re looking for a stance to cop, unless you’d like to try something really daring and invent your own identity. Now that would be really Beat.
THAT WAS ZEN, THIS IS TAO…
SEVEN KEYS TO THE BEAT KINGDOM (an auditory tour into the world of hip):
1. The Jack Kerouac Collection (Rhino Word Beat). Probably the finest single document of what Kerouac is all about, this three-CD set houses the three LPs that he recorded (all in 1959) along with several previously unreleased cuts. Kerouac’s reading of his essay Origins Of The Beat Generation might be the last word on the genre. Equally impressive are his readings from On The Road and Visions Of Cody(from The Steve Allen Show). Check out Richard Lerner’s 1985 documentary What Happened To Kerouac? for the visual accompaniment. If The Collection serves to merely whet your appetite, the enclosed booklet contains a fairly comprehensive bibliography of Jack’s published work. Absolutely essential.
2. Allen Ginsberg / Holy Soul Jelly Roll Poems And Songs (1949-1993) (Rhino Word Beat) . The recently released Holy Soul Jelly Roll is a staggering four CD collection that is the auditory equivalent to Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. The hardcore purists can argue over Ginsberg’s relevancy past the early ‘60s, but the truth of the matter is that Ginsberg continues to write mind-bending, soul-stirring verse and his position as the preeminent elder statesmen of American poetry is unchallenged on the contemporary scene. Ginsberg also serves as the literary link between the original Beats of the ‘50s and the subsequent counterculture that emerged in the ‘60s. But don’t take my word for it, listen to “After Lalon” and find out for yourself. “Allen Ginsberg warns you, don’t follow my path to extinction.”
3. Howls, Raps & Roars (Recordings From The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance) (Fantasy). In addition to housing Ginsberg’s classic 1959 LP Howl And Other Poems, Howls, Raps & Roars includes a full CD of unreleased poetry from the legendary Mad Mammoth Monster Poetry Readings. Although a full CD is unwisely used to present some of the weaker Lenny Bruce material that Fantasy owns, this collection has much to rave about. None of the material on Holy Soul is duplicated here, so if four CDs of Ginsberg’s work seems a little daunting, this might be the place to start and nowhere else will you find the recorded works of Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Perer Orlovsky, Philip Lamantia, Lew Welch, David Meltzer and Philip Whalen all housed under the same roof. This is literally the who’s who of the Beat poetry movement. The booklet alone is worth price of admission.
4. The Beat Generation (Rhino Word Beat). This collection deserves a big asterisk by it. If it wasn’t for Rhino’s Word Beat division there might not be a spoken word section at your local record store, and while Rhino usually does a stellar job with all of its reissues, this collection has so many misfires that it is hard to give it an enthusiastic recommendation. While there are several gems to be found on this three-disc box set (such as a previously unreleased interview with Kerouac and several wonderful radio documentary spots), a lot of space in this collection is dedicated to what might be termed as rip-off merchants trying to jump on the hip bandwagon. A question of aesthetics erupts when you hear Rod McKuen giving you his take on what the Beat scene is all about. Ditto when it comes to such fare as Edd Byrnes doing his Kookie schtick. Need I say more? The Beat Generation tries to cover so much ground over the slight space of three discs that it barely scratches the surface. You want to check out Charlie Parker or Lenny Bruce? There are better avenues to explore than this.
5. The Berkeley Concert / Lenny Bruce (Bizarre/Straight). Issued after Bruce’s death in 1966, The Berkeley Concert stands as the tribute to Lenny’s brilliance as a free form “word blower” and social commentator. This is the snapshot that speaks well over a thousand words. Bruce remains the central reference point of the Us vs. Them mentality in America as the ‘50s bled into the ‘60s and Lenny’s subsequent persecution by the powers-that-be perfectly illustrates the degree of paranoia that was laced within the existing power structure. Lenny dared to exercise his First Amendment rights and for this he paid quite a price. Paranoia strikes deep indeed. Check out The Midnight Concert as well.
6. Bop. Any discussion of the Beat ethic would be sadly incomplete without mentioning the jazz revolution that occurred in the early ‘50s. Poetry evolved side-by-side with jazz in the ‘50s and in the realm of the Beats, bop and poetry are almost inseparable. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie are usually credited as the midwives of this hybrid, but Thelonious Monk (and many others) deserve equal credit for helping to shape bop into a full blown movement. Be sure to check out Monk’s Blue Note recordings and the sides that Charlie Parker recorded for Dial and Savoy. Also check out Miles Davis’ Prestige sides and his early recordings for Columbia (Round About Midnight) if you really want to slip into the mood of the times. It’s as close to midtown Manhattan circa ’55 as you’re gonna get.
7. Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde / Bob Dylan (Columbia). If Allen Ginsberg had never written “Howl” would “Like A Rolling Stone” exist? I don’t know, but certainly with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” Dylan sent out the signal that he was no longer the folk troubadour whose answer was blowin’ in the wind. Dylan simultaneously plugged in his guitar and plugged into the surreal verse of the Beats as his musical vision shifted into mystical overdrive. With an obvious nod to Kerouac (The Subterraneans), Dylan is prying off the lid of existentialism with this phase of his career. This is the holy triumvirate of Beat poetry set to rock and roll. And the ads of the time say it all: “Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.”