Tuesday, 16 October 2012

We may have found the Beat, but we haven’t found the groove

This is a repost. I initially wrote it about two years ago for The Spectator Arts Blog "Touching From a Distance" but since they seem to have gone AWOL and my post with it, I thought I'd repost it as I keep wanting to refer to it. It will also lead in to a discussion on the Beats and the current literary scene that seems to be coming back to a head. So I will post some additional thoughts later.

It's also somewhat apposite as the opening line is basically a tribute to how central my mum was to my writing life, and she died of cancer earlier this summer, which is the reason I have been absent. Anyway, I'm back now, and here are the Beats.

My mother was a Beatnik first time round. I remember as a child in the late 70s she’d talk about dances and late nights at the café where she worked talking and smoking with exotic itinerants, and how all of a sudden she’d burst out singing “hey, Mr Tambourine Man.” I’d ask her to tell me about her trip round Europe with a couple of female friends and a Morris Minor van, and the different men she’d got engaged to in each country. Of course, she’d never married any of them. “They all wanted to fence me in.” she said, “They didn’t understood I needed to be free.”

Now she and my dad are quite happy travelling the ten miles to the sea, taking a walk along the front and heading back to their garden and their books, and instead of thinking “Oh mother won’t you just shut up, you’re embarrassing me,” I spend my nights reading Ginsberg and writing pastiches of Corso and thinking damn, she was cool.

And with not one, but two major films due, one for each of the Twin Peaks of Beat, Kerouac and Ginsberg, and a major exhibition in DC dedicated to Ginsberg and Dylan, it’s clearly not just me. The whole world’s gone Beat overnight. Why? Is it just a bit like those unfortunate moments in the 90s? You know the ones, the moment when there were not one but two films about Wyatt Earp; the moment when there were not one but two Robin Hoods; the moment when people were still saying “how come Kevin Costner’s always in the one that’s not shit?”

No, it’s more than Kevin Costner. The Beat spirit taps into some things that are happening at a profound social and cultural level. It’s Ginsberg and Corso, Kerouac and Cassady we all want a piece of, but the Beat we’re all swinging to is part of a much older cycle that goes back not to the Road to San Fran or the existential desert of Big Sur, but to the actual deserts inhabited by medieval monks.

More later, but for now, talking of deserts, let’s head to a basement in Shoreditch. The Cellar is the (literally) underground venue where form time to time you will find Literary Death Match, brainchild of Todd Zuniga, and a cross between a book reading, a poetry slam, and that late night cartoon classic Celebrity Death Match. It’s one of a growing number of really rather hip literary nights bursting out of the basements, nights like Book Club Boutique, Bookslam, and To Hell With the Lighthouse, which offer bite-sized chunks of sex, sleaze and outsiderdom coated in music, poetry and pieces of stories. The figures behind these nights wear their Beat influences on their sleeve (a night I spent at The Literature Lounge was punctuated by charismatic MC Anjan Saha extemporising Bukowski.

In other words, the Beats are entering the consciousness of another generation of angel-headed hipsters, and it’s a movement swelling from deep underground. The new literary cool scene has its immediate roots in two places – the slam poetry movement that itself grew out of Hip Hop, and the nether regions of the internet where ezines like 3:am evolved in dark holes of experimentation far from the gaze of the establishment.
So why has this underground scene emerged now, carrying Howl to a new generation of freedom-hungry, suit-shredding acolytes desperate to hunker down in Rockland? 

As tends to be the way with these things, with the Beat spirit, something structurally inherent has locked like Velcro with a social need. Put simply, what the it offers are immediacy – freedom and ecstasy – to a society tired of the distance and referentialism of postmodernism, a society that feels besuited and trapped; and a sense of belonging to a whole generation that wants to see itself as “outsider”.

The deepest antecedents of Beat culture, are very different from the glossy shiny surface of celebrity culture, the lilting lyrical leanings of much contemporary literature, and the endless hall of referential mirrors of postmodernism. Each of these, in their own way, finds its way back to the courts of love, to the troubadours, to an age of confidence and conquest, layer and legend, decadence and dilettantism. Set against this we have the wild ecstatic utterances of Howl, piercing the surface of pretence from a pre-intellectual raw, roar, feel; and we have the ululating cry of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues and Kerouac’s On the Road, the noises of a soul yearning into the emptiness, calling out to the desert. Far from the Champagne Courts of Troyes, their cultural origin is with the desert monks, the ecstatic mystics and despairing millenialists (this desert-born apocalypticism is the real link between Ginsberg and Dylan – and there is an excellent piece on their actualrelationship by Sean Wilentz for the New Yorker – they different sides of that mystic coin, the different sound the spirit makes in the wilderness). They are the long dark night of a cultural soul howling to be saved from Moloch.

Into this cultural receptacle, the peg of our disillusioned, downturned society readily fits. As a society we have tried trickle down, and we’ve tried the new left and both have brought us, we are told, to the brink of apocalypse. We are a society that has no idea where its home might be, just that it is not here. We are ripe for the Beats, and now we are being roundly plucked.

And it’s exciting. Of course it’s exciting, because it’s new. And because the raucous epithets and mainlined truths of the Beats are a kick to the groin of a culture that has fatted itself out on beauty and polish and the trinkets of leisure and indulgence.

An article in Vanity Fair points out that we know little of the early Ginsberg, the thin Ginsberg, the Ginsberg who wasn’t a hippy guru, who was just angry and, frankly, cool, and welcomes the redress.

But. But but but. We’re back in the basement of Shoreditch looking out at the crowd in their skinnies and trilbies, loving it up, letting the wildness lap at their Vans, and something is wrong. These aren’t the penniless hipsters who bunked down at the Chelsea in return for a scribbled verse or a sketch or turning a trick and a blind eye. They’ve not come for the Beat. They’ve come for the cool. They’ve come for guru Ginsberg and a sprinkling of his angel-headed dust. Their whoops are from the lips, not the soul. The Beat is their prescription drug and they’re taking their dose, occasional day-patients or madhouse voyeurs in Rockland where Carl Solomon and Allen are far madder than they.

Unlike the Ginsberg of the movie Howl, this New Beat revolution is a spot that’s reached its head. And it’s not a terrible thing. No society will be the worse for listening to ecstatic poetry of a Thursday night. But letting the Beat wash over us won’t give us the answers to society’s gaping sores, it will just provide the aphorisms that make the questions seem less pressing. The answers will come from somewhere else, some dark junked-up corner no one’s noticed, somewhere rather like the places the Beats inhabited, somewhere like the bulletin boards where the likes of 3:am were born. And for the briefest of moments they will be cool. And we’ll see them, and they won’t be cool any more. And we’ll make films about them. And write scholarly articles. And hold retrospectives.

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