Beat writing was and is oral and aural. It’s as essential to hear it as much as to read it, and it’s particularly rewarding to hear it read by someone with a good voice and a strong sense of performance. No one sounds as good reading Kerouac as Kerouac. Like a great musical performer he knew his stresses and cadences, his emphases and refrains (both in the sense of repeating and withholding). Beat writing is all about delivery, about manner of attack.
Same with rock music. How you hit the guitar, for example, is as important as what note you’re hitting. Yet while the reciprocal influences of jazz and Beat have been explored extensively, the Beat connection to rock music is a less charted territory.
Simon Warner’s Text And Drugs And Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture goes some way toward mapping this relationship. Through a series of chapters interspersed with—I am tempted to say interrupted by—interviews, “interludes”, “Q&A”’s, reviews and obituaries, Warner attempts to plot the links between the two cultural phenomena, Beat and rock, not only through music and lyrics, but personality, even clothing.
I say Warner goes some way in his mapping because the book, despite its hefty 500 or so pages, is not nearly systematic, rigorous or sustained enough. Many of the chapters are previously published essays or academic conference presentations refurbished for the book, and at times their disconnectedness or stand-alone quality shows. The book could’ve used more stringent editing on all fronts, from copy to body. Facts and backgrounds get repeated and rehashed—how many times do we need the backstory of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, for example, or the history of the Beat Generation itself?— as do Warner’s pet phrases, such as the “well and truly” copped from Kerouac. Streamlining these events and histories, and cutting out the cuteness, would’ve brought more cohesion to what often feels a kind of scattershot survey.
This sloppiness extends to the copy, with a chapter (essay? paper?) on women and Beat the most evident victim. For example, “Her self-belief in her art, in herself… ‘or’…she has also been consistently involved in music-making, too…[emphasis mine].”
Such distractingly simple fixes are marred further by Warner’s cursory comparisons and his tendency not to over-write, exactly, but certainly to over-parse. While I love a full fancy sentence as much as the next person (or not), cramming too much into one line, in a critical work especially, often results in a muddled diffusion of ideas. I’m not sure if Warner is attempting an academic approximation of Kerouac’s long breath, but, as in music, one may overdo a solo through sheer enthusiasm, sort of how the amateur singers on American Idol cannot resist pushing and pulling notes to their stressed limits:
“There are a number of responses we might offer to such questions and the aim of the heart of this account, the tentacles of which stretch from a time some way prior to Dylan’s regal pomp and on the subsequent eras when his crown would be tilted at by several waves of up and coming young pretenders, is to explore the reasons why this most dominating of late twentieth-century performers, as singer and composer, was so taken with the style and spirit of those boho writers and why others would join him to also warm themselves in the Beat slipstream.”
Too much glissando clutters a clean line.
To be sure, the Beat/rock subject is ripe for unpacking, and Warner poses a plethora of would-be-intriguing if not so ridiculously over-stated questions. For example, regarding Dylan, the clearest conduit at the crossroads:
“What could an older generation of writers, all close to, or well past, that age that baby-boomer rock ‘n’ rollers appeared to fear most—the onset of the dreaded 30—impart to this open-minded, loose-limbed, long-haired superstar who had caught the attention of a billion disciples? What could the crusty, curling leaves of a book of verse, the thumb-eased, dog-eared pages of a well-turned novel, teach this freewheeling, folk-strumming general at the head of much younger battalions raised on the television’s magic eye, the arrival of the space age and the mesmerising cacophony of a new music that promised dreams of love, of life, of liberty? How could the grey 1950s…?”
Or on Patti Smith, an obvious acolyte: “…how can we identify ways in which the Beat legacy impacted on a newly recognized talent, the young woman who had made her mark at her St. Mark’s reading?”
Unfortunately, any possible insights, let alone answers, to these questions are better gleaned from Warner’s sources than Warner himself. Because of this, rather than pulling quotes from the primary text, I find myself citing citations and interviewees.
Jazz artist and frequent Kerouac collaborator David Amram states: “Our whole era was based on mutual respect, open-ness, egalitarianism and warmth,” and “…by being spontaneous and being formal, that’s the magic of [Kerouac’s] work and that is why his work towers above everyone else of the so-called Beat Generation… he really had that ability to combine that jazz philosophy.”
Or even better, Amram laying out the invidious foundations of the music business in terms that sound reactionary but are actually dead-on accurate:
“When rock ‘n’ roll became an industrial phenomenon and was taken over by substance-abusing, criminal type people who were looking for some fast money, it changed the feeling of it because the people in charge, unlike in the world of jazz, were not the musicians and the fans who love them, but other people who were using the powers of corporate America to manipulate people into buying something they themselves didn’t appreciate and respect.”
Warner’s lack of rigor gets bested in a testy interview with poet Michael McClure:
“McClure: You do have a pretty weird opinion if you think that poets were competition, or if you think that poets weren’t political and music was. Those are the two places you are the most far out of anybody I’ve ever heard in my life.
Warner: OK, I mean this is a hypothesis…
McClure: Well your hypothesis is bizarre.”
Another poet, Anne Waldman, says more in one citation than Warner manages in the entire volume: “‘I agree that the Beat legacy… continued through the orality and performance of many women artists coming after, and, in some cases, overlapping. It was as if a kinetic energy had been let out of the bag… and the way for more assured women artists to ride it was through an expressive larger/grander poetics in forms that could be political, personal, improvisational, and also work alongside popular musical forms and structures—and instrumentation… [But] there’s a hopelessness now [in the so-called post-modern era] about being original.”
And lesser-known Beat poet and major historian David Meltzer summarizes the all too sad reality: “‘…it’s not the books that matter [now], it’s the looks. What essentially is being sold is not only the books but also a kitsch version of the Beats with the ubiquitous sunglasses, the berets, the goatees, the bongos, all of that.’”
To prove Meltzer’s point, Warner appends his volume with a totally pointless 20 page chart of nearly every song inspired by, name-checking, or titled after Jack Kerouac and/or Neal Cassady (“Dean Moriarty” of Kerouac’s On The Road).
The lesson here is clear: Stick to the sources. Go back on the road.