Marching to the beat of freedom again

The figures of author Jack Kerouac (left) and Neal Cassady are painted on the wall of the Beat Museum in the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco. Kerouac and the Beat poets called the cafes and bars of the neighborhood home and many of their favorite haunts still exist
The figures of author Jack Kerouac (left) and Neal Cassady are painted on the wall of the Beat Museum in the North Beach neighborhood in San Francisco. Kerouac and the Beat poets called the cafes and bars of the neighborhood home and many of their favorite haunts still exist

It looks like cinematically at least, the Beats are back in favour and Jack Kerouac once again tops the A list of “cool”.

Today it is sobering to observe that we hear any number of catchphrases and musical refrains, once heavily freighted with youthful idealism, blowing through numberless television commercials and jingles.

Copyright doesn't so much protect one's rights as create market value. A lyric once seen as valued social comment now endorses a brand name and in so doing transforms whatever may have remained of honourable or ethical value into product.

Anyway, so the Beat Movement was born, and I suppose, like God (a real cool cat) beat means different things to different people - beatific/synaptic/syncopated or as defined by Kerouac in a television interview, "sympathetic".

Regardless of all the validity, huff and puffing against the "establishment" through drugs, particularly during this time, LSD, protest marches, and the whole freedom trip - such idealism inevitably opened the door to all manner of literary and artistic charlatans and shysters, no-talent opportunists, who would stake ego-fuelled claims on that very thing called “freedom” in the 1960s.

The American playwright Richard Greenberg has observed that "regardless of economic reality, everybody in America likes to think he's middle-class." Greenberg was echoing President Clinton's statement made in a speech during his first term, that he "wanted to be the president to the middle-classes". A statement, which he says shocked him at the time, until he realised that such a wish exists alongside every God-fearing citizen's democratic right to a share in the American Dream.

Such remarks are tied up with promises of the economic benefits bestowed equally on all; health care, education, housing, etc. The youth revolution and movements of the 1960s, tailing out into the 1970s, were at base a middle class phenomenon - though at a deeper level this was more a dream of absorption and predominating world culture. Freedom became Cultural Imperialism.

You can't imagine, for instance, peace, love and flowers being benignly celebrated in the ghettos - not unless it was in a Mel Brooks movie. Nevertheless, the “rights of privilege” came into play in the adult years of these youthful participants whose concerns were more to do with immediate gratification rather than anything long-term, orchestrated specifically for the benefit of human kind.

You could say it was more fashion than future planning. Inevitably, the middle-class mentality closed ranks around itself to preserve that privileged position, and so amongst the middle-aged, so called baby-boomers, you have the spectacle of endless power plays by any number of surviving pretenders - acting in a manner little different from the establishment they laid siege to a generation past claiming for themselves respectability by excluding anyone who confronts the fundamental lie and hypocrisy of these self-styled guardians and arbiters of all things culturally hip, a social privilege, they believe, granted to a very few.

But there again, every cultural genre was affected by the Beat Movement. There are legions of Beat poets and musicians who filled the coffee houses in Greenwich Village and San Francisco during those years.

Gerry Mulligan in 1952 with his baritone sax departed the brownstone canyons of NYC, hitched west to the California girls with eyes blue-bright as swimming pools, into the cool, west coast sounds of Pacific Jazz just waiting for Gerry to turn up and make it happen. And there he ran into Chet Baker, and they got into the big band jazz ensembles, played some smooth figures together, and the rest is recorded counterpoint and history.

Gerry made the baritone sax popular in the territory where alto and tenor sax had hitherto reigned supreme. And in his time, the jazz clubs gave birth to another legend, that of chic heroin, pimps and prostitutes; the cool of the 1950s, or at least, so it was in the jazz world, but that cool faded out with the close of the decade, and Gerry, whose heyday lay behind him, could never quite got a handle that whole 1960s thing anyhow. Everyone at some time gets to vote on happiness.

That great corridor through which the American Dream passes (in real time, Highway 61 has fallen into disrepair and exists as a tawdry tourist strip) is maneuvered anew with each generation. By now the mythical journey “to the land vaguely realising westward”, as Robert Frost laid down, as though in the aftermath of the dream, in his poem, The Gift Outright had re-routed northwest through conifer country and retreated into the last habitable wilderness (Alaska waits) up there in software city, Seattle - giving onto grizzly country. But back in the largest gay city in America with the 1970s cooling off, playground for most emerging and alternative lifestyles, the women of San Francisco had an expression, straight guys are at a premium.

I was straight. I was too late for the Beats but did spend seven months in San Francisco in 1979.

Stephen Oliver has published several volumes of poetry including Harmonic and more recently Apocrypha. He freelances as voice artist/writer. He resides in the north King Country.

Waikato Times