The Cool School: Writing From America's Hip Underground
(The Library of America)
US: Oct 2013
Zeitgeist 2014: Name something you don’t like, then blame it on hipsters. These cats and chicks have become the scapegoats that hippies and yuppies and squares were in the past. To be ignorant of a great work of literature will get you this brand; to claim that an overlooked literary work of the past could use a good dusting off will result in cries of hipster revisionism; misspell a word for the world to see and you just might find yourself labeled a hipster moron––a double dig that can’t be dug.
Also: If you can’t change a tire but drink budget beer, smoke American Spirit cigarettes, wear your trousers rolled, have obscure tastes in music (And who doesn’t?), collect action figures, hold a degree in environmental studies or architecture, knit, sew, collect antiques or antique license plates, wear work boots as casual dress, drink organic coffee, use the word “organic” more than once in casual conversation, have a weird haircut, have a girlfriend with a usual first name, get married outside the confines of a church, call yourself a Buddhist/Taoist, enjoy sitcoms of the ‘70s, have a cat, or drive a car that was made before 1989, the term hipster could apply to you.
Hipsters caused the economic crisis from the end of the last decade, have led to crippling student loan debt, may be the reason we have childhood obesity, unwanted pregnancy, acne, arthritis, and menstrual cramps. Hipsters are synonymous with Brooklyn and so perhaps it should be the first of the five Burroughs to secede. These types show up at musical festivals for bands they’ve never heard of so a good remedy might be to switch to classic rock festivals but then that would only lead to more cries of hipster and an embargo on 180 gram vinyl releases.
It’s a new era we’ve long dreamed about: the revenge of the nerd. It’s cool to be a geek, wrong to be cool. And yet so right. There’s a kind of self-loathing that comes with this new hip: at least one article in recent memory suggested that no one hates hipsters more than hipsters themselves, an unenviable territory that needs defending? Well, sure. Even ghost towns have that crusty old guy who won’t leave for nothin’ and stands proud like an oracle of the oncoming apocalypse.
This book is loaded with the kind of jive turkeys who stand for all that is hip. And remind us why sometimes it’s better not to be cool because if being cool means being as unbearable as some of these hopheads, what’s the point? Jack Kerouac’s in these pages. He wrote On The Road, one of those books you don’t need to read but should keep a dog-eared copy of around just in case you need to impress someone.
Indeed, it’s hard to read Kerouac. His “Origins of the Beat Generation” is included here and reading it reminds us that Kerouac and many of his kind could be annoyingly self-referential. (And annoying and self-referential.) These are the people who rebelled by conforming, sought out others like themselves and then made themselves stand out more with their own language, their own dress, and a style of writing that, frankly, hasn’t aged well.
Some say it’s blasphemy to say that, but read Kerouac or Norman Mailer and you’ll quickly find yourself suffocating in linguistic effluvia. These are the new Dead White Males and it would be fun to tell them to shut up if only you could. They keep that jive rap up from the Great Beyond until it becomes like an E.A. Poe moment. You could call it “The Telltale Jive Talk” or something like that. Clean sentences don’t mean much to a lot of this set and there’s not much in the way of exhilarating stylistics. Oh, sure, William S. Burroughs did some neat stuff with chance and such by doing those cutups, but have you actually tried to read that stuff? I mean, read it and glean some sort of meaning from it that was universal and not just the kind of thing you pass off in casual conversation when you want to sound subversive or deep?
Burroughs did do some good things for America. He gave us that Naked Lunch book, offered us heavy metal as something outside the chemistry lab, and gave a dozen or so really good bands killer names, thanks to his writing. He inspired a lot of the best minds of subsequent generations and he did love his cats, so he wasn’t all bad. In fact, even Mailer could be kinda cool: He was more interesting to listen to than to read and more interesting to listen to when he was talking about someone besides himself. (And for those cats it was as important to infamous as it was to be read.)
Sure, these were not bad people, these Beats. And not all of them were bad writers. Any anthology has its criminal dreck and its criminally overlooked entries. And to be fair not everyone included here was a Beat, though some were inspired by that line of thinking, living, and writing. The best stuff defies easy classification or party lines: Ed Sanders remains funnier than hell and a better read and maybe better lay than Burroughs and his presence in these pages is remarkably welcome. Del Close offers up a special kind of dictionary that no one who’s worth a damn would want to miss. Terry Southern, one of the great minds of the last century appears in these pages with the brilliant “You’re Too Hip, Baby”; the inimitable Lenny Bruce and Eric Bogosian are spiritual brothers whose humor remains a rare an unbelievably intelligent kind. Miles Davis pokes his head in and says his bit; Henry Miller chimes in too. Robert Zimmerman’s here under the mask of Bob Dylan and there’s a lesser George Carlin bit to close things out.
The Cool School includes references to hippies and group sex and communes, white guilt, the white negro, white flight, White Out (probably), white light/white heat, white bread, white paper, and things whiter than white. There’s evidence that some of the most interesting writing of the ‘70s came from counterculture magazines (Remember those?!?) with the likes of Nick Tosches (an excerpt from Dino), Hunter S. Thompson (from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, natch), and Richard Meltzer (the outrageous “Luckies vs. Camels: Who Will Win?”). Lester Bangs remains the best of that lot, never wasting a word in his examination of Lou Reed circa Metal Machine Music (“How to Succeed in Torture Without Really Trying”).
Bangs is as good as he is not just because he uses only the right words at the right time but because he keeps you reading down to the last consonant, indeed, the last punctuation mark, making his full point only with that final breath. He’s like the best writers regardless of nationality in that regard and his abilities make his loss all the more profound. The world will never see another like him. And we’ll never see another of any of the many names that parade through these pages: Never another Warhol, another Brautigan, another Cookie Mueller, another Gary Indiana, never another Carlin or Amiri Baraka (or Leroi Jones, for that matter).
They’re gone and so is their unique brand and sense of cool. It’ll never thrive in the way it once did and that’s both good and bad. What comes now would only be cheap imitation, a running through of the rule book rather than the deeply felt hallucinogens, narcotics, or emotions. There’s a lot of waste among the talent listed in these pages: lives cut short from excess, careers curtailed by excess, sentences that could have been trimmed if only everyone would have taken just a little less speed. None of it’s for everyone and editor Glenn O’ Brien has to recognize that, though he’s certainly given us a great selection of prose and verse from which we can choose. You can’t fault him for that or for believing that we need more talk about these minds because—love or hate them, embrace or dismiss them—we do.