by Jon Kanis
(feature article for Schlock magazine . Subsequently reprinted in 1995 for Subliminal Tattoos magazine.)
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 you might say, and making your way through it can be tricky business. That is why maps were invented. Maps give you a glimpse of the terrain and the potential treasures that await at your “destination.” Awareness (intuitive, cognitive) can be its own type of map, and through the application of myths it becomes much easier to chart a course for yourself and still allow for life’s mysteries to unfold naturally. That might appear to be a contradiction, but merrily, life is full of them.
Life is also about the reconciliation of seeming opposites. 2,500 years ago, the Buddha taught that creating and maintaning balance is crucial to your personal sense of well-being, if the Zen practitioner is to successfully integrate the material realm with the spiritual. Zen masters perpetually emphasize that the only moment that truly exists is the eternal Now. I’d even go as far as suggesting that the entire construct of “history” is a hype and that there really is no such thing if you are living in the here and Now. It’s an idea that runs parallel to the relative truth within René Descartes’ 17th century maxim “I think, therefore I am.”
I’ve only recently become aware of the fact that in a reality based on symbol systems that the only meaning those symbols have is whatever I choose to project upon them. Words, pictures, objects—they’re all symbols of a sort. And I may be a bit slow on the uptake, but I’m waking up to the fact that many of the beliefs that I’ve formed are based upon what I’ve been told reality is, rather than what my direct personal experience has shown it to be. That perspective shifted profoundly as I learned how to navigate through life with my heart and to go with the flow of my feelings. No one within my direct sphere of influence talked much about feelings or intuition as I was coming of age.
And that is one of the many reasons why role models and mentors are of such vital importance. If human beings are to live in a conscious manner than it is crucial to have mentors along the way who 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. Ultimately, how you perceive reality and what you choose to value will dictate the course of your own adventure.
Being in touch with your feelings and knowing how to maturely act upon those impulses is paramount if we are to live our lives beyond mere intellectualization. Bohemians throughout the ages have understood this and that is one of the qualities that sets the artist apart from the remainder of society. By being able to go into the uncharted wilderness (intellectually, emotionally, spiritually) and explore one’s heart and psyche to the fullest, the artist embarks on a personal treasure hunt. And the “gold” that he or she returns with are the transcendent, artful discoveries that they share with the rest of the universe. When an artist is capable of baring their soul, both they and the audience are enriched by the experience.
This is what writers and poets do and in the literature of the twentieth century few have done it with as much profound candor and vulnerability as the members of the Beat Generation. Call them naïve rebels in need of a bath and a haircut—in fact, hurl whatever insulting epithet you like—the Beats are a tremendously important link to the post-modern world as we know it. As a group of “crazy” and romantic idealists, the Beat Generation shared a vision. It is a vision that perpetuates the stance that nothing is more important than the liberty of every living thing—or more to the point, that everything is sacred. Being Beat is to transform conventions and refuse to accept the status quo. It is about teaching awareness and practicing the beatitude of love. It is a vision of unity, to create a social and spiritual revolution across the planet—a vision that is perpetually ripe in this eternal Now.
For better or ill it’s a worthwhile message that’s never gone out of style, or persisted to the point of becoming a foregone conclusion. Are Christ and the Buddha fashionable? To a Zen practitioner it doesn’t matter, because history doesn’t exist remember? Certainly the United States of America of 1955 doesn’t exist; the “America” of that space-time continuum is now within the realm of myth and legend. How can I really gain an objective perspective on “history” when most of it is just relative hearsay to my direct personal experience? I wasn’t even conceived when Jack Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, so how can I truly understand what post-World War II America is all about? History as a system of symbols can be difficult to fathom. One of the things I do know, however, is what lies on the printed page of Jack Kerouac’s mind through the books that he authored. To bring that experience into the eternal Now I don’t require an historical context to feel those emotive tales of abandon and excess. The search for joy and freedom, the longing for spiritual connection—these are but a few of the timeless excursions into the human condition. For me, the Beats didn’t happen sixty years ago, they’re happening right Now. And all that is necessary to share in the experience of these eternal truths is a heart that feels and the vision to perceive. Of course, there will always be those who’ll insist that the times have changed and you can’t hitchhike the way you used to and blah, blah, blah—but it doesn’t matter. That is the kind of mindset that believes history is something static and tangible. The Beat Generation is Now and it refuses to conform to any conceptual pigeonhole. Being Beat is a state-of-mind and you can’t blot out that truth by tearing out a page from a calendar. It’s as eternal as your next breath or your first kiss. Dig what’s on the page, baby. 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 famously referred to the Beats as a “swinging group of new American men intent on joy” and wrote as if he had integrated the spiritual epiphanies of the Buddha, by understanding that we are all in this thing together. This thing called Life. And that’s where the inherent contradictions of duality creep in. Because you can proclaim that “We’re all One” and express that truth from the depths of your soul, but when you choose to live out those convictions and break away from the established conventions of society there will always be opposing factions who are heavily invested in keeping things just the way they are. If you rock Caesar’s boat too hard, you run the risk of being dumped overboard. The status quo has little (or no) use for authentic revolutionaries and that is precisely what the Beats helped stir into action with the freedom movements of the 1960s, by mirroring what true liberation could possibly look like. Again, it’s a message that never goes out of style regarding love, art, and the politics of conscious co-creation. To my way of thinking they are all interconnected.
Allen Ginsberg believed it imperative that all writers go with the flow of their feelings. His primary epigram remains: “First thought, best thought.” This is a similar idea that André Breton espoused with his theory of automatic writing. However, Ginsberg appended that idea by suggesting that in order to remove the illusory barriers between the Self and other beings, it would be useful to take off our clothing so that we might become psychologically naked. Through this act, the purity of our essence would, by default, ooze out. It would have to. Without the façade of clothing to hide behind, what else could be left? Why, merely your body and soul, bared for all to perceive and experience.
Like pure communism, that form of psychic openness has yet to be created on a global scale. But Ginsberg and other members of the Beat movement did their utmost as human beings to push that particular envelope—to look their illusions squarely in the eye and speak out and act against unjust social circumstances. That quality of courage and a system of mores based upon compassionate values is to be applauded, for if the artist is not honest and open with himself and his audience, then he’s just jiving. And we are on the receiving end of enough jive from politicians and other segments of society—we certainly don’t need it from the psychic explorers who are creating the myths and symbols of our current age. The Beats understood this and their level of awareness boldly serves to mirror the hypocrisies within a so-called democratic society. It takes a prodigious amount of strength and love to create something of lasting benefit. The Beats tapped into that truth and they had the courage to share that vision with the planet. The Beats chose to draw a different type of map, a map of spiritual ideals that does not shrink in the face of hostility, fear or ignorance.
For me, the perpetual question remains: as we draft our map in this present moment, what sort of vision will we choose to perpetuate? I hereby nominate a world that celebrates diversity, supports solidarity and performs every deed in the name of unconditional love. And should you seek the quickest route to the land of self-realization there are an infinite array of resources to draw upon. Role models exist throughout the ages if you’re looking for a stance to cop—unless you’d care to do something really radical and invent your own identity. Now that would really be Beat.
THAT WAS ZEN, THIS IS TAO
SEVEN KEYS TO THE KINGDOM
(an auditory tour through the world of being Beat)
1. The Jack Kerouac Collection / Jack Kerouac (Rhino Word Beat). Possibly the finest single document of what Kerouac is all about, this trio of compact discs houses all three of the LPs that he recorded in 1959, along with several previously unreleased gems. Kerouac’s reading of his “Origins of the Beat Generation” essay might well be the last word on the subject. Equally impressive are his readings from On The Road and Visions Of Cody from The Steve Allen Show. For a visual accompaniment, screen the documentaries What Happened To Kerouac? and Kerouac, The Movie. And if The Jack Kerouac Collection merely serves to whet your appetite, the enclosed booklet contains a comprehensive bibliography of Jack’s published work. Absolutely essential.
2. Holy Soul Jelly Roll Poems And Songs (1949-1993) /Allen Ginsberg (Rhino Word Beat). Holy Soul Jelly Roll is a staggering four-CD collection by master archivist/producer Hal Willner that is the auditory equivalent to Walt Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass. The hardcore purists might argue about Ginsberg’s relevancy past the 1960s, but the real truth of the matter is that up until his untimely death in 1997, Ginsberg continued to write mind-bending, soul-stirring verse. Ginsberg was a man of letters and a man of action, linking arms with all peoples of the world. He also serves as the literary link between the original Beats of the 1950s and the subsequent counterculture that emerged in the 1960s. But hey, 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) / Various Artists (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. And even though a full disc is unwisely parcelled out 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 Jelly Roll is duplicated here, so if four CDs of Ginsberg’s work seems a bit daunting, this is an excellent place to start. And nowhere else will you find the recorded work of Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Peter 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 the price of admission.
4. The Beat Generation / Various Artists (Rhino Word Beat). This collection deserves a big asterisk by it. If it weren’t for Rhino’s Word Beat division, there might not be a spoken word section at your local record store. Rhino usually does a stellar job with all of its reissues, but this collection has so many misfires that it is impossible to give it an enthusiastic recommendation. Yes, there are a number of gems to be found in this three-CD box set, such as a previously unreleased interview with Jack Kerouac and several wonderful radio documentary segments. But a lot of space in this collection is dedicated to kitschy, rip-off merchants, lamely attempting 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 Edd Byrnes doing his Kookie schtick. Need I go on? The Beat Generation tries to cover so much ground over its constricted air space that it barely manages to scratch the surface. If you’re interested in learning about the timeless genius of Charlie Parker or Lenny Bruce, there are much better places to hang out and spend your bread.
5. The Berkeley Concert / Lenny Bruce (Bizarre/Straight).Produced by Frank Zappa and issued five years after Bruce’s tragic expiration 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 a central reference point to the Us vs. Them mentality in America as the 1950s bled into the ‘60s, and his subsequent persecution by the powers-that-were perfectly illustrates the degree of corruption laced within the existing power structure. Lenny Bruce had the cojones to exercise his First Amendment rights, and it ended up costing him his life. Paranoia strikes deep indeed. Check out The Midnight Concert and Let The Buyer Beware as well.
6. Bop. Any discussion of the Beat aesthetic would be sorely remiss without mentioning the jazz revolution that occurred in the middle ‘40s through the early ‘50s. In fact, they’re nearly inseperable, with poetry evolving stride for stride with bebop in the realm of the Beats. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie are rightfully credited as the midwives of this genre-bending hybrid, but Thelonious Monk deserves equal credit for shaping bop into a full blown movement. Be sure to check out Monk’s The Complete Blue Note Recordings and ALL of the sides that Parker recorded for Dial and Savoy. Gillespie protégé Miles Davis’ Prestige recordings and his earliest sessions for Columbia (i.e. Round About Midnight) are also essential if you care to slip into the mood of the times. It’s as close to hanging out at Birdland circa ‘54 as you’re likely going to get without a time machine.
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? Who knows, but with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” Dylan sent out a clear message that he was no longer the folk troubadour whose answers were blowin’ in the wind. Dylan simultaneously plugged in his guitar and into the surreal verse of the Beats as his musical vision shifted into mystical overdrive. With an obvious nod to Kerouac (The Subterraneans), Woody Guthrie’s greatest disciple is caught prying off the lid of existentialism in this holy triumvirate of Beat poetry set to rock and roll. And the ads of the time said it all: “Nobody sings Dylan like Dylan.”
Schlock, #14, 1994
(reprinted in Subliminal Tattoos, 1995)