To understand the sixties, you have to understand the fifties—both the mainstream against which the following generation revolted and the counterculture out of which the sixties sprang full grown except for a splash of color here, a chemical or stray transistor there.
And to understand the fifties, you must begin with World War II, for that is where the mental set of the fifties began (and ended). Our ride to the Armageddon of 1969 begins with Hitler’s blitz of Poland three decades earlier.
The most important thing to grasp about World War II is that it was not fundamentally good for America. Even if we did win handily—or perhaps precisely because we won.
First, it’s never healthy having millions and millions of husbands and daddies—an entire generation, in fact—processed by the war machine, hair cut, bodies standardized into pressed and polished uniforms, minds standardized into drill field rows and blocks, eyes straight ahead, chin in, chest out, salute and return salute, all part of a finely tuned machine that goes when it’s told to go, holds when told to hold, and fetches on command. Even after all due allowances for the usual discrepancies between image and reality, concentrated doses of the military mind tend to kill off victors along with vanquished. Second, when you win as cleanly as we did, without devastating our own backyard, without fully comprehending that war is—really is—hell, then a lot of things happen to your head.
For one, the khaki vision is bound to rub off. No matter how screwed up A Bridge Too Far may appear at the moment, when you step back and take an overview, to balance out as it were, and you find yourself face to face with the blond goddess Victory, you catch yourself thinking,
Well, it did work after all, and in the back of your mind you may believe in the chain of command, and the organization, and the subordination of man to country, and everybody doing his part cheerfully and obediently.
For another thing, war appears a little too easy, a little too glorious, and—the Second World War having been a righteous war and therefore palpably different from the standard land grab—a little too justifiable. Especially when it pulled us out of a nasty depression. So war, you begin to think, has its advantages, especially if it can be promoted as a holy war, with God on your side. The unthinkable becomes an acceptable tool of foreign policy (Korea, Vietnam), economic policy (a price war), social policy (a war on poverty), or everyday life. Let’s make war on racism, bigotry, the Biggees, hippies, fags, niggers, our own kids. Your thinking as well as your vocabulary gets screwed around. Norman Mailer explained this mindset in Why Are We in Vietnam?
To a degree we all succumbed, but mostly the veterans themselves, our fathers and teachers. Not only did they accustom themselves too easily to military aggressiveness, but they developed other bad habits, all more or less directly attributable to World War II. Like a certain contempt for alternatives (European, Russian, Oriental) and unthinking devotion to the ideals for which and the methodologies by which they had fought and won. Or a dangerous overconfidence. Or the habit of seeing things in black and white and from lofty heights.
The war filled America’s pants with lead, set the moss growing, raised up a generation that wanted nothing more than to marry the little honey it hadn’t seen in thirty months, buy a house, and fill her and it with kids. To protect her and them and General Motors from godless communism, godless socialism, and godless fascism; to take a bath, settle in, hunker down back home in Kalamazoo, forget the Nips and the Krauts, bite into that old, capitalistic apple pie, and just do things right and easy under Ike and Nixon (America was never too sure about Nixon, but if Ike thought he was okay, then he was okay); and to relive the power and the glory with John Wayne as battalion leader.
Our fathers came home from the war and married their pen-pal sweethearts. They went to college on the GI bill, where they obeyed their teachers the way they had obeyed their drill sergeants (
the most dedicated, disciplined, hardworking students we’ve ever had, the college people will tell you,
although not necessarily the brightest). They went to church, arrived at work promptly at 8:00, bought homes and cars and life insurance, warmed to I Remember Mama, laughed at the wholesome Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, preferred Ed Sullivan’s vaudeville two to one over Steve Allen’s social satire, and generally got on with the kind of democracy they had made the world safe for.
Having seen Europe once, they had no wish to return or even to trouble their heads with French existentialism or German reunification. Having traveled, they put down their roots. Having sown wild oats across three continents and a thousand isles, they settled comfortably into marital celibacy. Weary of war’s confusion and alarm, they sought stability and security. Discouraged by training from philosophical subtleties and intellectual complexities, they left the thinking to the eggheads, elected Ike, brought up their kids right. When threatened, they shot first. Never did they ask questions. After all, a generation that endured the Depression, the war, and the postwar economic readjustment was entitled to peace, quiet, and some of the good life.
I don’t wish to be severe. I mean only to explain the remarkable cultural and intellectual vacuity, the social rigidity, the pervasive conservatism of mainstream, postwar American life, and thereby both the counterculture that developed far below ground during the fifties and the eruption of the sixties.
Who, seriously, is going to freak out over long hair—except a generation that mandated the military crew cut for all decent American males, despite the obvious and painful fact that it makes men look like bald eagles? And, conversely, where’s the rebellion in dancing the twist or the jitterbug or the cool jerk—unless you’ve been indoctrinated with the basic box and the Arthur Murray rumba? Why should it be so radical to protest the executing of car thieves or the relegating of one-fifth the population to separate johns, restaurants, bus seats, and baseball leagues . . . unless the moral sensibilities have been reduced to cowboy-Indian simplicities by something like World War II?
What the golden fifties were really about was the unnatural prolongation of World War II heroism and mindset, both of them narrow and atavistically barbarian during the war years, both of them narrow and anachronistically barbarian in the fifties. It is no wonder that the young were complaining by 1958, rebelling openly in 1963, triumphing so easily—if temporarily—in 1968.
So let us have some fragments, some reminders of the fifties establishment, some evidence from a variety of sources.
Time magazine cover, October 5, 1953:
Procter and Gamble’s McElroy: He Duz the Dishes with a Tide of Joy. Inside, the heartwarming story of
Anne Spada, 29, who reached the finals of the Mrs. America beauty contest but withdrew to be with nine children and a plant-foreman husband. Mrs. Spada is photographed enjoying the
reward of unselfishness, a Florida vacation for self, husband, and all nine kids.
November 1954 Life magazine cover story:
Gina Lollobrigida—A Star’s Wardrobe. Inside, a series of two-page spreads introducing the 1955 line of Chrysler automobiles.
November 25, 1954: on the front page of the New York Times, Ike and Mamie and Montgomery smile for reporters below the caption
President’s New Plane Christened, and Is Off for Augusta. The accompanying article elaborates:
The President planned to remain here until Monday, with a minimum of work and a maximum amount of time for golf. The weather forecaster promised mild weather. Monty, his back injured shortly after the war, would follow the presidential foursome but would not play. He would, however, certainly join Ike and Mamie for bridge during the evening.
December 1954: Flatiron, a humor magazine at the University of Colorado, is busted for publishing pinups of coeds. The University Publications Board suspends the magazine after three issues, decrying
emphasis on sex and alcohol.
May 30, 1955, Time magazine again:
The people of the U.S. had never been so prosperous (see Business). Never before had the breadwinner taken home so much money; in March and April, after-tax pay of the average factory worker with three dependents was around $70 a week. Not since the first delirious, mistaken weeks after V-J day had there been so much expectancy—with caution, this time—for peace. The fishing was good, too. In the gulf, off the coast of Louisiana, speckled trout were swarming in the bays and bayous, and tarpon appeared a full month earlier than usual. Said Bill Tugman, editor of the weekly Reedsport (Ore.) Port Umpqua Courier:
The salmon are running and the trout and striped bass, and they even say the shad feel like taking a fly this year. So let Moscow do its worst.
May 5, 1958: Five young soldiers are killed when unpredicted winds drag men of the 101st Airborne Division across the ground behind parachutes that will not collapse. One dies of head injuries, the others are strangled.
Sure it was sad, commented a sergeant,
but it’s what we volunteered for. The division’s commander, one Major General William Westmoreland, also jumped and was dragged two hundred yards by the gusts.
It was part of our business, he explained.
(Westmoreland believed what he said in 1958, just as he believed it a decade later in Vietnam. It was characteristic of the fifties that the general should not for a moment have questioned that dying absurdly and pointlessly should be his job. In 1958 this was understandable because the United States was still frozen in the Second World War mentality. In the sixties, the lights had changed in America.)
Neck deep in the Big Muddy, and the big fool says to push on.
The fifties were a quiet, peaceful time to live—disciplined, ordered, aware enough of the Bomb to buy a bomb shelter but not politicized enough to object to the notion of bombs for every city, bombers for every bomb. An era content to let blacks into white baseball—grudgingly—but not into white schools. (Even when the great awakening came in 1957, Ike persisted in turning the matter of segregation out of a moral issue and into the technical question of Orval Faubus v. the Law of the Land.)
The fifties were a good time to be under twelve, to be riding a bicycle or playing baseball in a vacant lot or investigating the decaying house on the edge of town. They were good years for working your way up the corporate ladder, for collecting dividends, for everything that relied on a stable system, on fixity, on 2.75% annual interest.
But once you passed puberty, began to think or ask questions, you were in trouble. Behind the smiles and the callow nonchalance lay a great vacuum and a terrible repression, with much guilt and a lot of nervous tension, most of which was visited upon the innocent young.
Two scenes especially stick out in my mind, each in its way representative of the true temper of the times.
It is May 1956. Junior assembly. For eight evenings, once each month during the school year, an Arthur Murray instructor has drubbed into our uninterested, eighth-grade heads the standard ballroom dance steps: step STEP close, step STEP close, step STEP close, step STEP close; one, two, cha-cha-cha, one, two, step-step-step. The boys have done it, then the girls have done it, then lined up facing each other they have done it, then randomly paired they have done it, breaking for cookies and punch, in lines again and in pairs again. Backs straight, boy’s hand held firmly in the middle of his partner’s back, none of that cheek-to-cheek, head-to-head stuff (
mixing dandruff, he used to call it, which was certainly enough to discourage me–straight, professional, Mr. Clean dancing that our parents had been convinced by the school board or the dance instructor or somebody who ought to have known better would develop grace and social skills and allow a cool, sanctioned familiarity with the opposite sex.
Now it is a real live dance with a real live band and suits and pastel formals. The gymnasium has been decorated with pink and white crepe paper and little café tables around which couples may sit and sip Coca-Cola or study the engraved dance programs in whose blanks have been presumably written all the young men with whom one’s date will dance the evening away. (Mine are mostly empty, of course, so she dances with me or with a last minute swap.
Do you have any dances open?
Well, yes, do you?
Well, only a couple.
How about number twelve?
What a coincidence!)
There is clumsy grown-up talk, or attempts at grown-up talk—anything other than the school chitchat that would easily fill a less contrived situation.
“The place sure looks nice.”
“It must have taken them a long time to decorate it.”
“You’d never think you were in a gym.”
“Doesn’t even smell.”
“That looks like Ken over there.”
“I think it is.”
“We could talk to them.”
“Would you like another Coke?”
“Well, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“I’ll go get it.”
“The place sure looks nice. . . .”
There are spot dances (
The couple under the light, right there at the top of the foul lane, wins a silver dollar each; come on up, kids, and get your prize). And door prizes. The whole ten yards. None of which is enough. By the band’s first break, the entire artifice has disintegrated. Boys congregate with boys in the hallways, by the refreshment table, in the can. Their dates are abandoned to girl friends or themselves. Couples must be conned onto the floor with increasing numbers of prize dances, and even then there are few takers. Girls dance with girls. A few try jitterbugging to slow numbers off in a corner, but the band cannot, will not, or is not permitted to play anything but step STEP close and one, two, step-step-step. Rumor has it that Tommy Egan and Candy Moore are in a car in the parking lot making out. (Rumor also has it that Tommy has actually screwed her—a word that I’d not even heard half a year before although the matter now interests me greatly—but no nevermind, he’s a young punk most certainly destined to be a car mechanic, and the people at church have been talking to her.) In tight knots in the hallway the guys twitter nervously, but nobody will go outside to look. At 10:00 we are directed to dance one last slow number with our dates (spines straight, hands firmly in the middle of the girl’s back) before our mommies and daddies come to pick us up.
October 5, 1957. I am shelving books in the Springfield Public Library, at 85 cents an hour, one of the more tangible rewards of being president of the Junior High School Library Club. I’m in the nonfiction section, near 335 books on communism and 527 books on space travel, which in this International Geophysical Year are pretty popular. I have a copy of Willy Ley’s Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel somewhere on the truck, or Wernher von Braun’s Exploration of Mars, along with Daphne du Maurier’s Scapegoat and James Cozzens’s By Love Possessed for the fiction shelves.
There is a stir by the door—it’s the kind of stir you don’t hear in the Springfield Public Library, and I know something’s up. Mr. Huddleston, a Saturday morning regular, retired watchman for Westinghouse, who reads a dozen mysteries in a week, has brought a newspaper, over which he and Mr. Hall, the librarian, and somebody else are conferring. Consternation clouds his normally placid face, and even Mr. Hall—wife, two kids, working his way steadily up the comfortable ladder of the Springfield High School administration—frowns darkly.
The Russians have launched a satellite, called a sputnik. The headline reads:
Soviet Fires Earth Satellite into Space; It Is Circling the Globe at 18,000 M.P.H.; Sphere Tracked in Crossing over U.S.
Our thoughts are all the same, although we talk around them.
They are there, ahead of us. The evil ones. Five times heavier than us. Photographing, snooping, doing God knows what. We’ve been caught off guard. Our team has lost. What will happen to us now?
The World Series, even at a game apiece for Milwaukee and the Yanks; our chess game; the election of Jimmy Hoffa to the presidency of the Teamsters—are suddenly trivial. This is, and each of us senses it, the end of fishing and golf in fifties America.
My brains will bleed for these Russian sins over the next four years, as the American generals, their egos bruised and their nerves jangled by this greatest of international upsets, filled to their ears with Dulles-inspired angst, thrash my ass in a mad race to bury the Ruskies beneath dollars, programs, and cerebrums, to make sure the United States does not become a second-class power. Overnight the schools are offering special programs of accelerated learning (mostly in the hard sciences, with emphasis also on foreign languages and math) for heretofore unchallenged, undervalued, and mostly ignored eggheads. I do not ask why, I merely study frenetically. Rock-‘n’-roll, hot rods, girls are now not only sinful but unpatriotic as well. By 1959, Time’s cover concern will be
U.S. Public Schools: Can They Produce Quality and Quantity?
I will live a decade in sputnik’s long shadow.
(In the fifties social problems were always internalized and personalized. If you didn’t make it, it was your fault, never the fault of a bad system. You had not taken advantage of an opportunity somewhere. If your team lost, that was also your fault—you had not worked hard enough, had not done enough to stop the other team. In the short run, this internalization generated guilt; in the long run it generated anger. In the sixties, the anger turned to rage.)
At best, then, the ordinary lives of ordinary people were during the fifties dull, duller, dullest. Often they were painful. Very restrictive. Straight. We have forgotten this in the golden glow of The Way We Were and American Graffiti and Happy Days. A Columbia Records LP called the 50’s Greatest Hits includes Johnny Mathis doing Wonderful! Wonderful! Patti Page singing Tennessee Waltz, Frankie Laine with I Believe, Joan Webber with Let Me Go, Lover, Johnnie Ray singing The Little White Cloud That Cried, Doris Day doing Secret Love, and a dozen other Your Hit Parade specials. How sticky, how gushy, how totally unreal! Of the lot, only Rosemary Clooney’s Come On-a My House (I’m gonna give you candy) sounds vaguely interesting today.
Let us leave mainstream 1945-1960 thinking with a look at the 1945 version of State Fair (or even the 1962 remake, with Pat Boone and Ann-Margret, a movie offered as something wholesome and then some that the by then embattled forces of decency could hurl against their rock-‘n’-rolling, guitar-toting kids; I prefer the original myself—it’s purer). Everything is bow ties, formal gowns, carnations, teenagers who look twenty-seven, crew cuts, lush makeup, Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, posed and stylized motions, virginal women. Mother wins a special award at the fair for her pickles; dad wins a blue ribbon for his hog. Daughter loves and nearly loses Mr. Wonderful when he rushes off without warning (to take a job as a Chicago columnist, it turns out—but he comes back). Son falls for a carnival singer only to discover that she’s already (unhappily) married. Off he goes to get mildly drunk and consoled by the barker:
Nobody’s perfect. Show folks is just like you folks. Is everybody in your home town perfect? The kid decides that no, by golly, everybody’s not perfect (they’re allowed to be unhappily married and maybe even to get divorced). So he has her and she has him, everybody wins a big prize, and, presumably, they all live happily ever after in the green hills of Ioway.
(I think I saw that movie half a dozen times in high school assembly. That one and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which, until John Kennedy went down, I also half believed.)
To a very considerable extent the anger of the sixties arose directly from the realization that the system, not the individual, might be at fault when affairs get botched, that only in movies does everybody win big prizes, and that America pays largely in paper money. Naturally we were plenty pissed when those small rewards we’d been given turned out to be counterfeit—but we were also liberated, freed from the illusion that work on Maggie’s Farm really pays off. And in liberty comes strength.
(Basically all you got for your twenty years of schooling was a job on the day shift.)
Grown-up smart people of the fifties could have exposed these fictions, but with few exceptions they did not. Mostly they had been bought off by the establishment and just dished out the party bullshit, thereby becoming accessories to the fact. I hold no grudges now: they’re sorry, I’m sorry, we’ve all learned. Maybe I wouldn’t have listened anyway. Besides, there were pressures on them, too. On the one hand were the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the blacklist, the one official and the other quasi-official, either of which could sink even a tenured professor quicker than Ike could sink a putt. On the other hand were the aid and comfort of working your way up the administrative ladder and the security of much more than $70 a week for intellectuals who got themselves absorbed via a federal appointment into the military-industrial-educational complex. And who, really, could blame them? After all, intellectuals and artists also had hungered during the Depression and the war.
But HUAC and the war do not explain the failure of intellectual nerve in America after 1945. Nor, for all its glowering terror, was it the Bomb that totally unnerved everybody. The sellout of intellectuals and artists was more complicated than economics, technology run haywire, or Cold War politics. It had been developing over the better part of the twentieth century.
To distill a lot of baroque and very New Left analysis, the failure of intellectual critique stemmed from four processes. All were well under way by 1945 and would probably have brought America to something closely resembling its fifties zero with or without the war.
The first was the failure, somewhere around World War I, of the socialist alternative, which, beginning in the late nineteenth century, had offered a fairly comprehensive blueprint for thorough reform of American society. At the outset of the First World War, it is comforting to remember, the country was crawling with populist-socialist-Marxist visionaries: 79 socialist mayors in 24 states, 1,200 socialist officeholders in 340 American cities, the poet Carl Sandburg, and the politician Eugene V. Debs, who in 1912 polled 6% of the popular vote in the presidential election. These fellows had a plan to fix this here country: nationalize the railroads and telegraphs, tax the hell out of land speculation profits (would you believe, America, 100%?), form labor and farm cooperatives, build unions, enfranchise women and blacks and poor. The program was zapped by the old left-right of factionalism within and wartime prosecution without. When it went down in the early twenties, it took with it the whole left wing of the American political spectrum, except for Haywood’s International Workers of the World, which flourished more as an idea than as a political force.
During the Dies, McCarthy and Feinberg Law investigations, Paul Goodman wrote,
our professors shivered in their boots and our ‘radicals’ hid like roaches.
The second reason for the lack of intellectual criticism was the rise under Franklin Roosevelt of classic work-for-reform-from-within-the-system liberalism. Although it looked good at the time, liberalism did not work out well. Not only did it distract intellectuals who might have offered valuable critiques of the status quo, but it effectively buried their modest visions under a mountain of federal machinery as well. And the further it went, the bigger it grew and the less effective it became. By the fifties, liberalism was absorbing most of the nation’s brainpower and, tangled up in its own systems, producing almost no effective reform.
A third important factor was the neutering of the humanities. Literature turned its attention from truth, morality, and even beauty to morally neutral (but pseudoscientific) technique, literary history, and textual and linguistic analysis. Political scientists and sociologists turned the world into tables of yes, no, often, sometimes, and maybe, on which laws of statistical predictability and correct footnote form counted far more than whatever the numbers and the footnotes measured. Psychologists abandoned their study of man—or, rather, they sold out to the establishment. Half of them studied man to find new ways of selling General Foods cereals, General Motors cars, and General Eisenhower Republicanism to people who wanted none of the above. The other half busied themselves refining the tools of psychoanalysis so that the dissident few could be worn out against the passivity of the analyst and the neurotic many could be reconciled to their unhappiness.
Therapy, as Marcuse said in 1955,
is a course in resignation.
The dominant school of philosophical thought was, by the end of the Second World War, existentialism, which reduced the world to a highly intellectualized nothing before laughing at it and then irresponsibly but heroically committing suicide. Finally, the artists—who might have spoken over, under, around, and through this cotton filter—found themselves virtually without audience.
Some were cut off, absorbed, or patently misrepresented by slick systems of distribution manned by the hired guns of the mainstream and intent only on profits and preserving the status quo. Others despaired, cut themselves off from the distributors and the masses, and produced art for artists. Either way, serious art disappeared from the lives of those Americans who needed it most. The old values and the old virtues (humanism, truth, morality, ethics) interested no one. Pure and morally neutral technique interested everyone. But that was part of the problem.
So where, I ask, was the leadership in all of this?
Yet underneath the cotton candy was developing a counterculture as international as the American plasticity it opposed, formulating for itself very different axioms, and poo-pooed by every voice of the establishment as cheap, then, decadent, trivial, vacuous, immoral, mindless, juvenile, unhealthy, undisciplined, uncivilized, unfit for human consumption, and generally un-American.
I feel the hints, the clues, the whisper of a new time coming. There is a universal rebellion in the air, and the power of the two colossal superstates may be, yes, may just be ebbing, may be failing in energy even more rapidly than we are failing in energy, and if that is so, then the destructive, the liberating, the creative nihilism of the Hip, the frantic search for potent Change may break into the open with all its violence, its confusion, its ugliness and horror.
And those voices were right. For the counterculture of the fifties, often in schizophrenic fashion, attempted to be everything that mainstream America was not. The establishment offered institutionalized Christianity and the traditional Western values of rationalism, technology, organization, control, temperance, deferred gratification (especially sexual), and liberalism; the counterculture answered with Eastern mysticism, studied disorganization, self-indulgence, immediate and conspicuous gratification (especially sexual), and—when it came to politics—either flaming radicalism or strict abstention.
Whereas the mainstream had intellectualized itself to abstraction and absurdity, countercultural heads were frankly, actively, flagrantly (although not purely) non-cerebral. What the mainstream tried to conceal, the counterculture flaunted. What the mainstream tried to ignore, refine away, and otherwise purge from human experience, the counterculture explored openly, delightedly, and tauntingly: noise, homosexuality, speed, sex, psychopathy, ugliness, excrement, death.
This was no
persuasive program for social reconstruction, thought up by many minds, corrected by endless criticism, made practical by much political activity, as Paul Goodman once described the socialist alternative, but it was an alternative, alive and real and rambunctious.
At first it was a buried alternative, rumored in the alleyways, fathered by legendary figures who drifted from New York to San Francisco, to Denver, to Mexico, to Paris, to Algiers, more elusive even than the black subculture on which it patterned itself. It might have been intuited, perhaps, from some of the realistic fiction being written—Mailer’s Naked and the Dead—but not until the middle fifties did it really escape the closet in the guise of rock-‘n’-roll music, the cult of James Dean, the movie Rebel without a Cause, Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, William Whyte’s Organization Man, and the essays of Paul Goodman that would become Growing Up Absurd.
(This delayed process of discovery and the subterranean quality of fifties counterculture, especially in contrast to that of the sixties, is an important measure of the Eisenhower chill. Whereas in 1965 the news media devoured anything that was new and moved, the attitude of the fifties was such as to repress motion, minimize alternatives, screen out the unusual. In 1955 you had to go looking for novelty; a decade later you could not escape it.)
The year 1955 saw the publication of Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization, an insufferably Germanic analysis but an important early warning against an age that had become, with assistance from neo-Freudian analysis,
totalitarian where it has not produced totalitarian states. In Marcuse’s view, civilization, almost of necessity, demands that aggression and sex be sublimated into Protestant work. In fact, Marcuse saw the complete annihilation and alienation of individual expression by efficiently functioning systems. There are alternatives, however. Marcuse reflected on
alternative reality principles that might reduce
the social demands upon instinctual energy to be spent in alienated labor. What the West needs, he argued, is a change of goal and a change of myth, something that could accept the material goodies generated by a repressive
performance principle and use them as a basis for a
qualitatively different, nonrepressive reality principle that might loosen up the controls on fantasy and sex.
In this case, the quantum of instinctual energy still to be diverted into necessary labor (in turn completely mechanized and rationalized) would be so small that a large area of repressive constraints and modifications, no longer sustained by external forces, would collapse. Consequently, the antagonistic relation between pleasure principle and reality principle would be altered in favor of the former. Eros, the life instincts, would be released to an unprecedented degree.
Translated this means, approximately, let’s let the machines do the work, and let’s get loaded, sing, dance, and screw.
Pleasure principle, life instincts, the collapse of external forces—within Marcuse’s awkward academese one recognizes the germ of the liberated sixties, their slogans, their metaphysics, their world. Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man would become a mainstay of sixties New Left analysis; Eros and Civilization described the hippie ethic ten years before that group’s emergence:
The Orphic Eros transforms being: he masters cruelty and death through liberation. His language is song, and his work is play. (The italics are Marcuse’s.)
Other fifties critics came at the problem from different directions. William H. Whyte’s Organization Man is a less mythological-philosophical-psychological, more commonsense analysis of Marcuse’s repressive performance principle in action. In a tone that wavers between sympathy and contempt, Whyte followed a young modern bureaucrat through the many phases of his developing relationship with the organization: his training for and election to successively higher levels of authority (and absorption), his adjustment to phony “belongingness” and “togetherness” and “well-roundedness.” Organization, system, bureaucracy: in Whyte’s view they are dangerous, counterproductive, necessary, useful, tyrannical, but most of all inescapable. They are everywhere: in clubs and churches and work places and schools and sports arenas. In a casual evening spent with friends. In dining out and in making love.
Whyte’s conclusions are guarded:
This book is not a plea for nonconformity. Such pleas have an occasional therapeutic value, but as an abstraction, nonconformity is an empty goal, and rebellion against prevailing opinion merely because it is prevailing should no more be praised than acquiescence to it. . . . I am going to argue that he [the organization man] should fight the organization. But not self-destructively. He may tell the boss to go to hell, but he is going to have another boss. Whyte is a liberal, then:
Organization has been made by man; it can be changed by man.
If Marcuse’s Eros represents one-half of the sixties, Whyte himself is the other: the crusader and the demonstrator, the worker through the system, or the worker to replace The System with another system that works better, but always an individual conscious of organization and the way it might be used to affect the behavior of whole populations.
Whyte’s unthinkingly acquiescent organization man is the prototype for a favorite sixties caricature—the Beatles’ Nowhere Man, Ray Stevens’s Mr. Businessman, Bob Dylan’s Mr. Jones, who all live in little boxes made of ticky-tacky.
And the people in the houses
All went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same,
And there’s doctors and lawyers,
And business executives,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.
The third major rationalist critique of life in the fifties was Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd (1959). Goodman neither apologized for nor attempted to hide his attitude toward his subject,
the disgrace of the Organized System of semi-monopolies, government, advertisers, etc., and the disaffection of the growing generation. In magnificent, rolling prose, Goodman unloaded both guns:
For it can be shown—I intend to show—that with all the harmonious belonging and all the tidying up of background conditions that you please, our abundant society is at present simply deficient in many of the most elementary objective opportunities and worth-while goals that could make growing up possible. It is lacking in enough man’s work. It is lacking in honest public speech, and people are not taken seriously. It is lacking in the opportunity to be useful. It thwarts aptitude and creates stupidity. It corrupts ingenuous patriotism. It corrupts the fine arts. It shackles science. It dampens animal ardor. It discourages the religious convictions of Justification and Vocation and it dims the sense that there is a Creation. It has no Honor. It has no Community.
(Times have changed but in none of the respects mentioned.)
What interested Goodman most was youth’s reaction—and in 1959 he saw, or thought he saw, signs everywhere of the gathering storm: resignation in the good little boys, anger in the juvenile delinquents, confusion at all levels. Goodman admitted that youth’s excesses and gauntlets are a constant in human history, so in one sense the rebellion was nothing new. But he also had the good sense to point out that the burden of guilt lies with the society critiqued not with the beatnik or the delinquent. And he had the further good sense to perceive the direction from which meaningful revisions of American life would come: the young, the alienated, society’s washouts and delinquents. He even perceived that Eros, when he arrived, would come dressed in rags and feathers radically different from those worn by himself, Marcuse, Whyte, all the aging forties and fifties liberals, all the Mr. Joneses of straight fifties culture.
(Eros came, in fact, dressed as Thoreau. In the tenth grade Walden rocked me and a lot of my friends to sleep each night with weird visions of mystic transcendence and revolt:
Lying, flattering, voting, contracting yourself into a nutshell of civility, or dilating into an atmosphere of thin and vaporous generosity, that you may persuade your neighbor to let you make his shoes, or his hat, or his coat, or his carriage, or import his groceries for him; making yourselves sick, that you may lay up something against a sick day, something to be tucked away in an old chest, or in a stocking behind the plastering, or, more safely, in the brick bank; no matter where, no matter how much or how little. Here was the voice of the sixties and the wellspring of Goodman’s critique and of all the critiques of the fifties fathers.)
There is a strong distrust of intellectualism in each of these books. One of the many paradoxes of the sixties is that its best artists opposed the idea of art, its best musicians consciously avoided professionalism of music, its thinkers even in thinking opposed pure thought. Seeds of this paradox can be seen in Goodman, Whyte, and Marcuse. Eros comes playing and singing, not studying and analyzing and reorganizing. Goodman invariably finds in the system a perverse logic, so that logic itself becomes suspect. When he weighs the relative values of, say, camps for thousands of potential delinquents and
one of the Park Commissioner’s new highways to West Chester, he does so not with the rational, long-term, cost-value accounting we might have gotten from Robert McNamara but with a call for decency and humanism. Reason provides no real solution.
Yet logical analysis remained the major tool of these fifties critiques. It is ultimately this rationalism that separates Marcuse, Whyte, and Goodman from the sixties, no matter how much they may have been revered in that decade. Variegated as it was, the rebirth could not travel two paths concurrently. Either play had to be intellectualized (something along the line of Marcuse’s reasoning—we dance and sing because of our awareness of its therapeutic value, because we can thereby reverse the effects of excessive organization and psychoanalysis, counter the influence of Orpheus and Narcissus, and reveal a new reality principle), or thinking had to become play, act, game, a suspect truth at best, a truth without the exclusive, sacrosanct status it had attained in the post-Hellenistic world.
The sixties took the latter route. Analysis became a game—a fun game to be played with dedication and boundless energy, but a game just the same. A truth but no special truth. The real fathers of 1968 were not thinkers but doers—legends, howlers, fakirs, high priests, kings of cool and bop with no pattern, no organization, no morals, no language, no literature. Characteristically they despised the printed page, although some found themselves tangled in its net as Marcuse and Goodman were backed almost reluctantly into an antirationalist corner.
The great-great-grandfathers of the counterculture, unintellectual and inarticulate Cro-Magnons, were the juvenile delinquents of the postwar years, the greasers, the hoodlums, the teenage gang members, and in England, to an extent, the Teddy Boys . . . and their descendants the rockers. Goodman and Robert Lindner (author of Rebel without a Cause) saw them as rebels without a cause, indictments of society, indications that all was not well beneath the Eisenhower tranquility of the fifties. James T. Farrell saw them as
children without goals, confused, unwanted, desperate to be men and women instead of big boys and big girls, acting out mixed-up concepts of maturity.
They were the American dream gone berserk: violence, sadism, sex, meaningless consumption, irreverence, flagrant disregard for the person and property of anyone but the self. Robbery, murder, vandalism, hanging out and looking tough. The systematic destruction of a storefront. The murder of a randomly selected victim just to prove yourself
tough enough to wear the jacket of the Rebels. Razors in the toes of your shoes, gang bangs in the style of A Clockwork Orange. Aggression. Inarticulateness. The male of the frontier deposited absurdly in the heart of a twentieth-century city, carrying on his anachronistic war not against dehumanized Indians but against dehumanized organization men, their children, their institutions (the chickens have come home to roost), riding about not on a white (or a black) stallion but on a Harley-Davidson, leather jacket studded with steel, emblazoned with skull and crossed bones, looking for an excuse to shoot it out with the sheriff either to kill or to be killed, to carve another notch on the belt. Tough, Mindless. Frightening. England’s Teds modified the image by donning ridiculously archaic Edwardian clothing, but the difference was only cloth deep. They were mean blokes and could purportedly slash cinema seats, beat up old ladies, and knock off a random teenager on Clapham Common in July 1953. As English social critic George Melly observed,
They broke up the youth-clubs, bullied or beat up harmless intruders in their territories, and fucked anything that moved. The hard-core Teds were frightening and horrible, the dinosaurs of pop.
It is a thoroughly unoriginal contention of the writer that modern society provides amply for those conditions which make for traumatization of the personality along the specific lines which lead to the evolution of the psychopathic type. These conditions flourish, for the most part, in cities or densely populated areas resembling cities where personal and familial privacy (among other factors) are absent.
Delinquents came in several strains, some more virulent than others, so they could be “understood,” “reformed,” or tossed in the slammer, depending. (In September 1955 Science Digest suggested treatment with the drug chlorpromazine, which had
already won praise for its ability to quiet greatly disturbed mental patients so that they can be given helpful psychiatric treatment.) But mostly delinquents were avoided: locked out of bars, run out of town, hassled on the slightest excuse by police acting on the request of a straight society intent on taking care of business. Thus the delinquents’ fears and suspicions were reinforced, and they indeed became a persecuted minority as well as a symbol to critics of the system and to white middle-class youth who understood their rebellion.
(One occasion for constant harassment was the rock-‘n’-roll concert, for on both sides of the Atlantic young rebels recognized this music as their own. Teds lionized the embarrassingly straight Bill Haley, destroying theaters in honor of Rock around the Clock. Rockers throughout the sixties took their music loud, straight, and seriously.)
Rock also recognized its own and aided considerably in the transmogrification of Cro-Magnons into—well, ultimately—lovable moptops. (Leader of the Pack. He’s a Rebel. Lieber and Stoller’s He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots, 1955, remember?) But rock-‘n’-roll had help, not only in the sociological and psychological treatises of Lindner and Goodman, not only in the romanticized West Side Story, but in early fifties movies as well, in the cults of Marlon Brando and James Dean.
In many respects Dean was a typical Hollywood actor: born in Marion, Indiana, of Middle American stock, a few years at UCLA, hunger as an unemployed Hollywood hanger-on, the Actors’ Studio, Broadway theater, plus all the many nondramatic ways aspiring actors and dancers pay their pipers. A country boy who was a little confused, but made it on the coasts, and would return in off moments to the farm to help his cousin glue together a model car.
But Dean was also an image, the image of the lost generation of the postwar years. He came to embody the aimlessness, the restlessness, the old fuck-the-system-even-though-it-will-take-care-of-you rebellion. Kicks for the sake of kicks, alienation, angst, a suicidal antagonism toward authority.
The Brando sneer, greased hair, sunglasses, and a cigarette. Yet underneath the tough exterior, a vulnerability that made all the little girls and the big boys and even the mommies and the daddies want to take care of this mixed-up but basically decent kid whom the system had so abused.
Inarticulate, juvenile, an anti-hero, Dean (or the roles he played in Rebel without a Cause and East of Eden) was Goodman’s youth trying to be a man in a world in which there was no honorable man’s work. He was the leader of the pack, the rebel who’s not a rebel to me, the high school hero in black denim trousers and motorcycle boots. He was the misunderstood, rejected, delinquent Christ eulogized by Phil Ochs in James Dean of Indiana:
His mother died when he was born.
His father was a stranger.
Marcus Winslow took him in;
Nobody seemed to want him. . . .
He never seemed to find a place
With the flatlands and the farmers,
So he had to leave one day,
He said to be an actor.
Lies, all lies and myth. But who cared?
So James Dean died. All the good legends had to die. Is that not, when we get right down to it, the root of our ambivalence about Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles—that they did not at the height of their powers self-destruct in a shower of sparks? Ought not every myth, really, to drink itself silly, blow its brains out with a shotgun, overdose in London or Paris, or drive a Porsche off a cliff or into a telephone pole just to remain true, to play the role out to its logical conclusion? That James Dean merely struck a Ford sedan driving in the wrong lane, that his final words were not an Easy Rider
Up yours but a panicked cry—
This guy’s got to stop!—is irrelevant. The man was his myth. Dean was one of the true fathers, and with his death the generation of the sixties had its first martyr and an important myth. The cloak was there, lying on the ground for Bob Dylan to pick up half a decade later.
(Dylan was well aware of his heritage. On a bootleg album he exulted,
Hey, man, you oughta see some pictures of me. I’m not kiddin’. Umm, I look like Marlon Brando, James Dean or somebody. You really oughta see me.)
The cloak was lying around for others to don, too. Somewhere between Paul Goodman and James Dean, but heir to the whole romanticized juvenile delinquent mystique, Caryl Chessman emerged in fifties consciousness. The Chessman case forked a lot of lightning at the close of the fifties and was partly responsible for the (temporary) abolition of the death penalty across these United States.
Arrested on January 23, 1948, for stealing a car and assaulting two women (with intent to commit fellatio, not rape or murder), consigned without public protest on July 3 of that same year to San Quentin’s death row, Chessman wrote his way into being with his prison autobiography, Cell 2455, Death Row. The book, and other writing that grew out of his long struggle to avoid the gas chamber, set students rioting in Lisbon and attracted the attention of Albert Schweitzer, Dean Pike, Marlon Brando, Steve Allen, the Pope, and the American public.
(At the other end of the decade, George Jackson’s prison writings—Soledad Brother—similarly converted Jean Genet to his cause:
When we read these letters from a young black in Soledad Prison . . . they perfectly articulate the road traveled by their author—first the rather clumsy letters to his mother and his brother, then letters to his lawyer which become something extraordinary, half-poem, half-essay, and then the last letters, of an extreme delicacy, to an unknown recipient. . . . George Jackson is a poet, then. But he faces the death penalty.)
Chessman’s opponents, mostly middle-class Republicans, outraged by his candor and energy, demanded that he be dispatched posthaste, crying that the law is, after all, the law. His advocates, largely intellectuals and youth, saw in Chessman an existential anti-hero, not much different from James Dean, the nihilistic rebel without a cause, the punk, the hoodlum with the golden heart whose delinquency was more an indictment of society than a sign of depravity. Chessman’s prolonged agony brought bubbling to the surface all those liberal clichés about good-hearted criminals and misunderstood kids and all the counterculture’s vague deification of near psychopaths.
Chessman’s schemes, his plans, his hopes, all expressed in the vigorous distortions of his own personality, were of a degree of vitality and daring beyond anything the parents could call upon, enthused Elizabeth Hardwick in the Partisan Review, 1960. His fondness for pilfered cars expressed
freedom, power, exhilaration, madness. He purposely rolled and crashed them, and he purposely got himself caught. The senseless determination of prison officials to prevent Chessman from writing—and thereby from self-discovery—became proof positive that jails do not encourage or even tolerate rehabilitation, which in turn was proof positive that society—not Chessman—was sick. And Chessman was executed not only for his crime but for his sexual predilections and for his stubborn, cocky, pugnacious, clever, I-will-not-kiss-your-ass fight for life.
(Cf. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
(Cf. Cool Hand Luke)
For twelve long years he stood his ground.
And he stood it like a man,
I am innocent of this crime.
My life is in your hands.
Oh, go down you murderers, go down.
His last appeal, it was turned down.
I’ll never forget that day.
In the spring of nineteen-sixty.
They stole his life away.
Oh, go down you murderers, go down. . . .
Chessman might have been Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty, hero of On the Road, whose specialty was stealing cars and gunning for high school girls. On the Road—that great mine of sixties consciousness, that ultimate statement of, by, and for the fifties counterculture, that great heroic and sweet book of the late forties, not to see the light of day until 1957, a statement against the postwar status quo and against every status quo that ever was.
On the road—the mystique is overpowering. It has been overpowering since time immemorial. Kerouac’s invitation to adventure was nothing new, nothing peculiar to the time or the nation or even the man. Woody Guthrie had been on the road. Joyce’s Ulysses had been on the road. Tom Jones was on the road. Chaucer’s pilgrims were on the road six hundred years ago, and Homer’s Ulysses a few thousand before them.
Daddies of the fifties, however, were not on the road. They were hunkered down in their Levittown bungalows keeping a sharp eye on their kids and a sharper eye on the commies. So when Dean Moriarty (in true life Neal Cassady, who would in the sixties take to the road again with Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in a school bus named “Furthur”—see Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) charged through bungalowville, soul strings resonated everywhere. And when the adventures of Dean and Jack hit the bookstores eight years later, it was hard times indeed keeping them down on the farm.
Kerouac’s world was newly discovered and mud-luscious, the adventures were heroic, the country was great and groovy as only this great and groovy America was made to be great and groovy: cars (need not be a Porsche—in fact, a flatbed truck driven by two farmboys from Minnesota is quite as valuable as a genuine Cadillac, powered by Dean Moriarty himself, hauling ass through the Iowa night at 110 MPH); broads, usually blonde, always delicious and willing; booze and drugs (soft); music (jazz, Charlie Parker style); laughs, insanity, hot dogs, warm populist people of all ages, even the straights, apple pie with gobs of vanilla ice cream, youth, a genuine tenderness toward children and animals, a genuine distrust of cops, breadth, scope, good times,
trouble, ecstasy, and speed as ever.
On the Road has little plot. It is one eternal moment of being (or, more properly, of becoming). Paul Goodman took a count:
In three hundred pages these fellows cross America eight times. The total is as irrelevant as reducing the novel to seven (count ‘em)
sociologically relevant propositions, or complaining about the lack of writing, or observing that in the food consumed by Sal Paradise and his crowd
there is a lot of sugar for animal energy, but not much solid food to grow on. But Goodman and Kerouac spoke different languages, and after a few years’ standoff, Kerouac’s came to prevail.
Kerouac’s were the metaphysics of energy, exploding in all directions at once. Even contemplation (sixty-three days on a fire lookout in part one of Desolation Angels, contemplating
Hozomeen, Hozomeen, most beautiful mountain I ever seen) becomes a mode of action. There was some Buddhism in Kerouac (as well as in the sixties), both in his rejection of materialism and in his understanding of experience as a path to wisdom. To know more, one must do more. The essence of Buddhism, decides one of Kerouac’s minor characters in Desolation Angels, is
knowing as many different people as you can.
It was the old romantic longing for new experience;
as long as there is one street I have not walked, one pub I’ve not drunk in, one woman I’ve not slept beside. It’s the natural reaction against system, analysis, paralysis, authority, niches, and laundered decency. The old James Dean rebellion:
Then the old man’d get bored with that and say,Goddammit, I wanta go to Maine!And he’d get into his car and drive off a hundred miles an hour—great showers of chicken feathers followed his track for hundreds of miles. He’d stop his car in the middle of a Texas town just to get out and buy some whisky. Traffic would honk all around him and he’d come rushing out of the store, yelling.Thet your goddam noith, you bunth of bathats!He lisped.
Kerouac lived his myth, storming across the nation, the continent, the world, meeting people, getting bored and running off, knitting together a transcontinental community that included, among others, William Burroughs (Naked Lunch), Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Robert Duncan, and Peter Orlovsky.
Kerouac was also a musician, blowing out on his typewriter what Allen Ginsberg called
a spontaneous bop prosody, banging out On the Road in the space of several weeks, mostly on bennies,
an extraordinary project designed to
discover the rhythm of the mind at work at high speed in prose.
What Kerouac was trying in prose, other Beats were trying in poetry. The new style involved on the one hand the pumping out of a whole new pool of imagery. The style reintroduced sound into poetry, an acknowledgment of the Whitman I-hear-America-singing roots and a development of the William Carlos Williams
common speech rhythms. Above all else, the new style was a rejection of old forms of control. As Ginsberg said,
Analytically, ex post facto, it all begins with fucking around and intuition and without any idea of what you’re doing, I think. Later, I have a tendency to explain it, . . . but anyway, what it boils down to is this, it’s my movement.
Howl is Ginsberg’s major monument, a poetic statement on the Beat generation comparable to Kerouac’s prose chronicles, written in the same spontaneous way suggested by Kerouac:
He sat me down with a typewriter and said, ‘Just write a poem.’ And so Howl was
typed out madly in one afternoon, a tragic custard-pie comedy of wild phrasings, meaningless images for the beauty of abstract poetry of the mind running along making awkward combinations like Charlie Chaplin’s walk, long saxophone-like chorus lines I knew Kerouac would hear sound of—Taking off from his own inspired prose line really a new poetry.
Howl combines rhapsody, comedy, sympathy, and anger: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, / angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night . . . Ginsberg raged, sustained by Blakean prophesy, humor, jazz rhythms, and a sordid vision that distressed poetical purists and conservative intellectuals both. Like Bob Dylan, his pupil and friend, Ginsberg seemed to the media-haunted public less a poet than a figure, a myth, a prophetic spokesman.
(Although he never expected Howl to be published, Ginsberg beat On the Road into print. The poem, appearing in fall of 1956, created an instant outcry and a web of legal scenes that culminated in an obscenity trial that found Howl not without redemptive social value, and therefore not obscene, and therefore okay to sell . . . and read.)
With Neal Cassady (but without Kerouac, who dropped out of the scene early in the sixties) Ginsberg became not only a father but also a part of the great decade. He continued to attack inequities and make poems and constitute a presence throughout the whirlwind decade: War Profit Litany, Grant Park: August 28, 1968, Rising Over Night-Blackened Detroit Streets, D. C. Mobilization, London’s first psychedelic poetry reading in June 1965 at the Albert Hall (
Cosmic Poetry Visitation Accidentally Happening Carnally), visits to Ken Kesey and his acidhead Pranksters, the Human Be-In of January 1967.
Though certainly the most visible Beats, Ginsberg and Kerouac were antedated by the older William Burroughs (Naked Lunch, 1959, also busted for obscenity), a shadowy father figure who had lived in Europe during the thirties and—the romantic myth passed along by Kerouac went—had sneaked a Hungarian countess off the continent by marrying her. Burroughs spent most of the fifties outside the United States, hating Truman, Dulles, materialism, bureaucracy, and all the establishment ravens. He was a writer, a thinker, a quester after understanding and alternatives, first in characters and travel, then in drugs, ultimately in electronic super-technology, which, he believed, might render the old cons—man, nature, speech—unnecessary. Ginsberg, looking back, described Burroughs as
a precise scientist investigating regions of consciousness forbidden to common understanding by the Control agencies. By 1960 Burroughs had become, in Jeff Nuttall’s words,
the god of the underground, looming obscure and fabulous behind his high priests, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti. Also according to Nuttall, Burroughs attempted regularly to demythologize himself as the guru to his flock:
And now I have something to say to all you angle boys of the cosmos who thought you had an in with The Big Operator—‘Suckers! Cunts! Marks!—I hate you all—And I never intended to cut you in or pay you off with anything but horse shit.’
Of all the Beats, Gregory Corso’s rejection of the square world seems to be most understandable: he had led the life to which the others pretended. Corso’s Italian immigrant mother returned to Milan shortly after his birth; he was orphaned at age one in Greenwich Village, spent time in a boys’ home, three months in the Tombs, three years in the cooler (age seventeen, theft), at home with a remarried father and away from home in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Mexico, Europe, South America, Africa, months in the Village sleeping on rooftops, years at Harvard talking and reading and publishing in 1955 the gentle Vestal Lady on Brattle:
Full-bodied and randomly young she clings, peers down;
hovers over a wine-filled vat and with outstretched arms
like wings revels in the forming image of child below.
Other Beat poets included Gary Snyder of San Francisco, protagonist of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums (all the Beats sooner or later wound up in one of Kerouac’s novels)—
a Buddhist monk Kenneth Rexroth called him—Rexroth himself, who claimed to have invented the Beat synthesis of jazz and poetry; and Ginsberg’s companion, Peter Orlovsky. But we slide inexorably from individuals into the Beat movement itself.
It seemed the protest songs were a natural development from Beat poetry, which was very self-analytical.
Kerouac identified two kinds of Beats:
COOL: bearded, sitting without moving in cafes, with their unfriendly girls dressed in black, who say nothing; and HOT: crazy, talkative, mad shining eyes, running from bar to bar only to be ignored by the cool subterraneans. In the popular imagination, the former stole the crown. But maybe the distinction is too nice: seen from the inside, the COOLS and the HOTS had more in common than either had with the STRAIGHTS. Beatdom was very much a community.
This sense of close community, built on principles of male friendship, more than anything else, differentiated the Beats from other forms of fifties counterculture and anticipated an important element in the sixties mix: the impulse toward tribalism. The voices of Salinger, Mailer, and—way to the rear—Hemingway were individual voices. The central concern of social critics like Goodman and Whyte was the liberation of the individual from society’s annihilating homogenization. The Beat shared the straight critic’s concern for defending the individual against the collectivizing pressures of the system and he, too, glorified the individual in his quest for new experiences. But the Beat sought in a mystical fashion to communicate those experiences beyond words, to share them, to feel them with outsiders, to transcend experiences into Experience. So the outsiders with whom he shared became insiders, an in-group, a subclass, an elect. And you “made the scene” communally. The ethics of the Beat subculture were ethics of the tribe.
(And the ethics of the sixties, as in hippie tribes, the “participatory democracy” promoted by SDS, the feeling of community in a protest demonstration, a sit-in, a love-in, a be-in, a bed-in, a folk festival, a rock concert, a festival of life, even—ultimately—the shared experience of underground press and FM radio.)
The most media-visible elements of Beat counterculture, however, were not its metaphysics but the accoutrements of the tribe: a copy of Howl, a sax or bongo drums, a cigarette dangling from the lips, in later phases a beret (borrowed from the French existentialists), a goatee and a black turtleneck. Also highly visible as characteristic Beat behavior: free love and sexual experimentation, often homosexual or interracial; liberal use of drugs, both hard and soft (Burroughs, most famously, described in writing his experiments and addictions, but also Michael McClure, Corso, and Ginsberg, intelligently and extensively); a leave-me-alone-go-away aversion to squares and an affinity with tramps, winos, hustlers, prostitutes, jazz musicians, and ethnic minorities; and hip vocabulary, which outsiders found unintelligible or thin and which thereby proved most effective in doing what it was supposed to do: keeping squares OUT and hipsters IN, until it got absorbed via Madison Avenue and pop music into mainstream speech: man, go, make it, cool, swinging, mad, bug, with it, geek, beat, creep, dig, crazy, later, greatest, far out, gone! (Much of the language, like jazz and the Beat’s ability to hang on while hanging out, was borrowed directly from blacks. The western home of Beat was San Francisco; the eastern home was New York’s Greenwich Village. Beat communities could also be found in Boston, Philadelphia, Berkeley, New Orleans, and Denver—if you went looking. Most people did not, including the news media, so despite the furor of underground countercultural activity, the plastic surface of the fifties was plenty smooth. Mostly Beats wanted privacy. When attention came, it always meant trouble (the hassle over Howl) or uptight, straight tourists. Both were a drag, uncool, not hip. The Beat lacked the messianic impulse of his sixties counterpart: not only did he not understand how to use media for maximum exposure, but he did not want either exposure or air time.
So looking at things from the top down, as it were, you couldn’t see much. A ripple over Howl or On the Road or Naked Lunch, Mailer’s piece in the Voice on the White Negro, the magazine essays of Goodman, a few light waves over juvenile delinquency, Caryl Chessman, Rebel without a Cause—but nothing, really nothing, to undermine domestic tranquility. Yet there were rumblings. First, and most seismic, there was rock-‘n’-roll, a real threat to sobriety, virginity, wholesomeness, structure, Republicanism; second, there was civil rights, the Little Rock confrontation, the beginnings of the great crusade.
The system had ways of dealing with rock-‘n’-roll and civil rights that could make them seem unreal. The one was labeled another teenage fad; the other was relegated to the South. Neither touched the heart and soul and home of white, middle-class, working straights, so neither appeared to threaten the status quo, at least not until, as Malcolm X put it, the chickens came home to roost somewhere after 1960. Chessman was psychopathic, juvenile delinquents were losers, and Beats were queer. The mainstream remained unshaken, even untouched.
Two minor components of late fifties culture, however, did touch the minds of middle-class whites, maybe giving them some cause for pause, maybe a moment’s doubt.
The first was comedy, the kind of satire that bubbled occasionally out of the television set. Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life. And Sid Caesar (
the funniest man in America, claimed Esquire, and for a change it was right). And the crew Caesar gathered around him on Your Show of Shows and Caesar’s Hour: Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Imogene Coca, Howie Morris, Woody Allen, Neil Simon. And the crew from the old Tonight show: Steve Allen (the intellectual who wrote pop songs and articles in the Village Voice), Tom Poston, Louie Nye and Don Knotts. And Red Skelton, and Bob and Ray, and Ernie Kovacs, and Phil Silvers, and Stan Freberg. And later on Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart, and Lenny Bruce. In them American comedy thrived during the fifties. In retrospect, that decade seems a golden age of parody and satire.
In the satire of Kovacs and Caesar and Steve Allen, the white middle class heard the only consistently audible voice of a counterculture, the only suggestion that there were alternatives, that perhaps something might be rotten in the republic. Here was something to balance the bland situation comedies that invariably outlasted and outearned the more innovative satirical programs. No matter that the safe and the sorry won the ratings bouts and—in the long run—knocked guys like Caesar and Allen off the air; new and stronger satirists took their place. Throughout the decade they kept the public exposed to a more or less steady stream of criticism mingled with laughter.
Satire functions best in a mildly repressive society with very strong ideas of what is and is not respectable—precisely the society of mainstream fifties America. Too much of the boot’s hard heel, and you scare off both audience and satirist. Too free a society, and you open the door to high-minded reformers, who almost always lack a sense of humor. So the times were ripe for Sid Caesar.
Neil Simon remembers Your Show of Shows:
Other television shows would present situations with farcical characters; we would put real-life people into identifiable situations. Like Caesar playing Eddie Redneck in a parody of This Is Your Life. And Caesar and Coca in scenes out of From Here to Obscurity, Strange, and Galapacci, played not as they had been in romantic movies in which mom and dad and son and daughter all win the brass ring but as they invariably work out for normal, gummed up people. The waters of the Pacific splash over the lovers, as she calls him her knight in armor and he wonders whether she’s brought a towel. Or the mechanical town clock in Munich, Germany, runs amuck—the mechanical blacksmith and helpers hammer each other on the head and douse each other with buckets of water. Or a domestic scene turns a tube of toothpaste into grounds for divorce. A constant, outrageous, funny, serious commentary on all the illusion and pretense that was the fifties, something to reassure you when your toothpaste tube didn’t work and your marriage didn’t either, when your life seemed somehow not to vibrate to the heartwarming television ideals of Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and I Remember Mama.
Caesar’s show was canceled in 1957, after a run of seven years. Steve Allen survived two years on late-night television, then did a much publicized stint going nose to nose against Ed Sullivan in a highly promoted ratings war, offering much of the same, crazy, serious, satirical, loose Sid Caesar stuff: man-in-the-street interviews with nervous Don Knotts and spacey Tom Poston and Louie
Hi, I’m Gordon Hathaway, and I live in the Bronx; hi ho, Stevarino Nye. Television cameras would pan the streets of New York, seeing what the people were up to. Or Allen might do a satire of the Senate hearings on Jimmy Hoffa’s union. Head stuff. Allen had the guts to cut the McCarthyites publicly and to suggest that maybe Stephen Decatur was on questionable moral ground when he sloganized
My country, right or wrong. Allen suggested that the proposition
God answers prayer should be put to an empirical test. He once remarked,
All human history seems to show that man has expended vastly more energy combating progress than in furthering it. Even when a light has occasionally glowed . . . it has shone more brightly partly because the rest of our planet was in darkness. The important questions to Allen were not whether he drank or smoked, or did he worry about Maverick’s ratings and Jayne’s birthday, but what is the rating of individual men? He was an early supporter of civil rights, hung out with Norman Mailer, and even had the good sixties sense to regret that Brooks Brothers air of intellectualized liberalism that seemed to surround himself and other satirists of the fifties.
So the system gunned him down, too. But along came Mort Sahl as the fifties turned to the sixties, with more bite than Caesar and Allen and Kovacs put together (although not as funny).
Will Rogers with fangs, Time called him. You didn’t see much of Sahl on television (his best material, even Allen had to admit, made him too controversial for the tube), but he had lots of records and, late in the decade, attracted media attention.
You know, Kennedy had to have Lyndon Johnson on the ticket with him, because he can’t get into Washington without an adult.
I’m for capital punishment—you’ve got to execute people. How else are they going to learn?
I says to my girl, ‘I don’t think birth control is a very important issue,’ and she says, ‘None of you do.’
I like Orval Faubus, but I wouldn’t want him to marry my sister.
But with Sahl, the sixties were here. As the social and political criticism became more and more pointed, the humor began to drain.
I like fun, he told an audience in 1960,
but we don’t have time for jokes. We have to overthrow the government. Out went the humor, in came the high seriousness. Out went the repression, in came the reformers.
(Lenny Bruce, the ultimate extension of the Caesar-Allen-Sahl line, was pure sixties. After his death in 1966 he achieved an immortality he had not sought in life. His art was extreme, highly moral, self-conscious, peppered with obscenities (many in Yiddish), and incisive. No matter, Bruce, too, went down. The ultimate irony is that “tits and ass,” for which Lenny was crucified, became in the seventies the title of a very catchy song in Chorus Line, a smash Broadway musical.)
The humorists pierced the crust during the fifties, especially late in the decade. Another thing that tended to grab white Americans was the protest against the Bomb. The protesters were adult whites, some of them establishment culture heroes; even Ike himself sounded a warning that, to the American apocalyptic vision, was sobering. Here was something worth thinking about—if only for a moment or two.
As Time magazine sourly observed, Ban the Bomb demonstrators crawled predictably out of their holes, regular as clockwork, before each series of announced U.S. nuclear tests—but never before, during, or after Soviet tests (perhaps because the Russians announced their dirty business either after the fact or not at all). Always someone was threatening to atomize himself by sitting on ground zero, chaining himself to the bomb tower, or sailing his ketch over whatever atoll was to be vaporized. These crazies would be hauled peacefully away by the police, the army, or the navy, to be noted in the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor and forgotten until the next round of fireballs.
(The appeals to conscience from Albert Schweitzer in Saturday Review on May 18, 1957, and from American nuclear scientists in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 1957, were more embarrassing. They came from prominent establishment figures. But they could also be forgotten or ignored.)
Gradually the humanists and the intellectuals gathered themselves together and concocted by 1958 the grandfather of the Mobe (National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam), a motley bunch that packaged and repackaged themselves as occasion demanded: the Fight against Atomic Death in Germany; the Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Japan; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; the Sane Nuclear Policy Committee; and the Non-Violent Action against Nuclear Weapons Committee in the United States. (The French, characteristically ignoring all the ruckus and a U.N. resolution, exploded their own bomb in the Sahara and entered the prestigious Nuke Club in early 1960.) The anti-bomb groups tried to increase the pressure by techniques now all too familiar: petitions, Gandhian civil disobedience, hunger strikes, legal suits (scientist Linus Pauling, socialist Norman Thomas, philosopher Bertrand Russell, and some Japanese fishermen versus the United States of America), and mass protest marches or rallies.
The marches were most effective, especially when the marchers were elderly Britons carrying pet kittens (
a symbol of the animals who have no voice in such matters) or a hundred East Side mothers with their kids.
The English, clustering around writer Philip Toynbee and philosopher Russell, were paradoxically the most radical and the most successful of the lot although, as we know only too well, nobody won anything of significance in this battle. Russell was willing, if pushed, to
surrender to the Russians in order to
avert nuclear extermination—a choice he was not likely to have confronted then, although nobody understood Soviet policy at the time.
Without people, he reasoned,
you have neither freedom nor the hope of freedom. I believe in both. Thousands of British subjects thought Russell was right and marched fifty-seven miles each Easter from 1958 to 1963 between the nuclear research center at Aldermaston and Trafalgar Square in London, demanding unilateral British disarmament or, at the very least, a moratorium on atmospheric testing.
Don’t you hear the H-bomb’s thunder
Echo like the crack of doom?
While they rend the skies asunder
Fall-out makes the earth a tomb. . . .
Men and women, stand together
Do not heed the men of war
Make your minds up now or never
Ban the bomb forevermore.
Year after year the numbers increased: 3,000 in 1958; 25,000 in 1959; 75,000 in 1960, making the march a voice of all Britain and
certainly giving Harold Macmillan something to think about that election year. The Labour Party promised to lay off the nukes
if the superpowers would cease producing them, a non-promise if ever there was one, but token recognition unmatched in America.
In the United States, protest zeroed in on the tests themselves. For example, before the Eniwetok atoll tests of 1958, Sane advertised in the New York Times urging readers to write President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon, to write their congressmen, and to organize community action groups. This approach was interesting but ineffective: Norman Cousins had seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington once too often and had begun to believe it.
(You can easily distinguish children of the fifties, sixties, and seventies by the way they deal with an obstacle. The child of the seventies will shrug his shoulders and put up with it. The child of the fifties will write his congressman or his better business bureau. The child of the sixties will demonstrate against it or blow it up.)
But by 1960 the men of Sane—Norman Cousins, Linus Pauling, Steve Allen, Paul Tillich, David Reisman, Martin Luther King, Jr.—could turn out Mrs. Roosevelt for a speech, and Adlai Stevenson II for a message, and seventeen thousand just plain folks for a rally in New York City.
Ban the Bomb was a cause both ahead of and behind the times. The crusade against Vietnam generated broad support not because it was more compelling than Ban the Bomb, or because de-escalation of the arms race was less attractive than de-escalation in Nam, and not because the techniques used in the two campaigns were in any way different (Ban the Bomb gave the sixties both its strategies and its peace symbol), but because 1967 was simply more receptive to such ideas than 1957. The anti-bomb campaign was a decade too late as well as a decade too early: it was a lost game from square one. Not even the President of the United States could, had he been so inclined, stop the atomic express. Not that anyone cared, or even knew. Ban the Bomb advocates saw themselves as humanity’s last stand against a government entirely out of control, against insanity, against ultimate annihilation.
(They may yet prove to be right.)
But they lost, overwhelmingly though not unheroically. Quixotic, ragtag, predominately WASP, the Ban the Bomb people were, even more than the civil rights crusaders, the true fathers of the quixotic, rag-tag, protesters of the sixties.
Every fifties countercultural rebellion was expressed in or allied with music of one type or another. Music was not the quintessence of rebellion that it became in the sixties, but it was more important to the champions of change than to the establishment. Not that there was less music to the latter, but the coarse, yellow-grained discs of the underground were more vital than the Tin Pan Alley tunes of Jaye P. Morgan, Peggy Lee, Andy Williams, Dean Martin, and old Blue Eyes himself. More alive. Truer.
The worst thing was that it all dragged on so long without changing. Most dance eras last a few years, a decade at most, but the war froze everything as it was, gave the big bands a second life; by the early fifties, the scene had come to a standstill. It was all show business, and, in the fifties, mostly showbiz survived on habit.
Wherever the counterculture spread, music was there, an expression and a clue, if not a key. (
Don’t you understand the enormity of your mistake, Mailer railed at Kennedy after the Cuban invasion of 1961;
you invade a country without understanding its music?) On the road between Aldermaston and London for the first Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament march:
Some young Cockneys in bowler hats rocked and rolled enthusiastically in front of the Albert Memorial when the march halted for a picnic lunch; they were there as fans of the jazz band [rock-‘n’-roll was considered a mutant form of jazz even as late as 1960] that played the march through West London. Replay from one more sympathetic participant—Jeff Nuttall, in Bomb Culture:
We thumb a lift ahead of the march. We file into the cheap cafe and we park the instruments and we order egg and chips and sit round the gas fire trying to dry out. I take off a shoe and a sock. Before I can take off the other a marshal comes in and says the march is approaching and they need some music in weather like this. So Dave Aspinwall picks up his trombone and I get my cornet and Mick Wright gets his banjo and we go and stand at the curb in the pissing rain. We play Didn’t He Ramble and we play it again and again and the blood is trickling down Dave’s lip and the girls bring out the egg and chips on plates and put them on the pavement by my one bare foot and the rain makes bubble patterns in the grease and we play Didn’t He Ramble and the column disappears and what with the rain on the chips and one shoe off and one shoe on and the beautiful girls carrying food and Dave and Mick and me playing Didn’t He Ramble, well, that was one of the good times, one of the really good moments if you know what I mean.
Music again on the road from McGuire Air Force Base to the United Nations, where Agnes Friedan concluded,
You can’t really march without singing.
On the steps around Trafalgar Square, singing The H-Bomb’s Thunder and Hey, Little Man and The Family of Man and We’re Marching to Trafalgar Square and Alex Comfort’s First Things First:
Don’t stand there kicking that ball.
If some bloody mutton should sit on the button
There’ll be no more soccer at all.
And Brother, Won’t You Roll Down the Line and Strontium 90.
On the back roads of the South, in Mississippi and Alabama and Arkansas, spirituals were secularized and an old hymn once used by CIO organizers to unionize food and tobacco workers in Monteagle, Tennessee, was remade into We Shall Overcome. By the summer of 1960 Guy Carawan, a young folksinger with a master’s degree in sociology from UCLA who had actually sung at the Moscow World Youth Festival in 1957, could recount his adventures of being jailed, threatened, used, and abused while singing at more than a hundred sit-ins, rallies, prayer vigils, and organizational meetings throughout the South:
They adapt everything. Blues, rock-and-roll songs, gospels, pop ballads, hillbilly songs, and spirituals were all used and freely adapted. I Shall Not Be Moved. This Little Light of Mine. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize, Hold On.
Music on the back roads of America and in the Beat corners of dark cities late at night, crossed and recrossed by Kerouac and the Holy Goof driving naked across Texas or racing Mad Buick to old Chi:
The girls came down and we started out on our big night, once more pushing the car down the street.Wheeoo!! let’s go!cried Dean, and we jumped in the back seat and clanked to the little Harlem on Folsom Street.
Out we jumped in the warm, mad night, hearing a wild tenorman bawling horn across the way, goingEE-YAH! EE-YAH! EE-YAH!and hands clapping to the beat and folks yellingGo, go, go!Dean was already racing across the street with his thumb in the air, yellingBlow, man, blow!A bunch of colored men in Saturday-night suits were whooping it up in front. It was a sawdust saloon with a small bandstand on which the fellows huddled with their hats on, blowing over people’s heads, a crazy place; crazy floppy women wandered around sometimes in their bathrobes, bottles clanked in alleys. In back of the joint in a dark corridor beyond the splattered toilets scores of men and women stood against the wall drinking wine-spodiodi and spitting at the stars—wine and whisky. The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went fromEE-yah!to a crazierEE-de-lee-yah!and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-scarred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn’t give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle-ti-boom, crash. Uproars of music and the tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it. Dean was clutching his head in the crowd, and it was a mad crowd. They were all urging that tenorman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes, and he was raising himself from a crouch and going down again with his horn, looping it up in a clear cry above the furor. A six-foot skinny Negro woman was rolling her bones at the man’s hornbell, and he just jabbed at her,Ee! ee! ee!
Everybody was rocking and roaring.
Music was in the movies as well . . . in the ones we remember at least. And here is an interesting point: of the fistful of cinematic social critiques made during the fifties (The Wild One, 1953; East of Eden, Rebel without a Cause, and Blackboard Jungle, 1955) the one that sticks in my mind is decidedly the worst. The Wild One has terrific dialogue straight out of Paul Goodman:
What are you rebelling against, Johnny?
What’ve ya got? East of Eden builds on a Steinbeck novel, and Rebel without a Cause stars James Dean. All three boast good actors turning in good performances.
Blackboard Jungle is grade B all the way. A young, idealistic teacher, warned never to turn his back on his class and, above all, not to be a hero (the educational equivalent of Waterfront dockworker advice not to question or to answer questions) gets himself beaten up by a gang of school toughs after interrupting the rape of a female teacher. A nice piece of work but clichéd even in 1955. And no James Dean, his eyes
as empty as an animal’s. So what made Blackboard Jungle stick in our heads? The song, of course, Rock around the Clock, the song that sold fifteen million records, the song that in a movie titled after it would set audiences in America and Europe to rioting and to vandalism. The New York Times told us:
Teddy Boys rampaged through the South London streets for several hours, leaving a trail of broken windows and overturned cars.
37 youths held for new riots after Rock Around the Clock showing; Police eject 100 from Lewisham theater.
Again, what saved the inferior movie was its music. Hollywood caught on to this, of course, and soon every youth-oriented counterculture movie came heavily orchestrated. We were bombarded with Elvis Presley beach movies, and the counterculture was no longer counter. In between, in 1956 and 1957, came movies about rock-‘n’-roll: Rock around the Clock, Jailhouse Rock, Don’t Knock the Rock, The Girl Can’t Help It.
(I remember The Girl Can’t Help It more vividly than any other picture I saw in the fifties because I saw it, along with I Was A Teenage Werewolf, one Saturday morning when I was supposed to be having my braces checked. It is an atrocious flick, which Time, Newsweek, and Films in Review all bombed, claiming it was designed to show off Jayne Mansfield’s body. In fact, Films in Review spent most of its time in a [smirk] point by point comparison of Marilyn Monroe’s and Jayne Mansfield’s figures—not, however, without pummeling the movie first:
This film merits the attention of Films in Review even though it is a showcase for leading purveyors of the jungle caterwauling known as rock-‘n’-roll, and is thereby a cultural debilitator our descendants won’t forgive us for [let us hope]. Funny thing, I do not recall the body at all. All I know is that my friends and I sneaked off to see The Girl Can’t Help It because it featured Little Richard, Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Platters, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, and a bunch of other far-out rock-‘n’-rollers.)
And there was music in the Village, music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air. First there was jazz, for Beats and for much of the straight population as well. The Voice commented religiously each week on jazz recordings (as well as on classical releases and FM radio programming but not on rock-‘n’-roll), and in its pages you could read Ginsberg enthusing over Kerouac’s bop prosody or Kenneth Rexroth extolling the virtues of poetry and jazz combined:
Jazz Poetry gets poetry out of the classroom and into contact with the large audience. Jazz gives to poetry, too, the rhythms of itself, so expressive of the world we live in, and it gives it the inspiration of the jazz world, with its hard simple morality and its direct honesty—especially its erotic honesty. Fish or cut bait. Poetry gives jazz a verbal content infinitely superior to the silly fantasies of the typical Tin Pan Alley lyric.
In San Francisco Ferlinghetti explained his Oral Messages (bound with A Coney Island of the Mind, 1958):
These seven poems were conceived specifically for jazz accompaniment and as such should be considered as spontaneously spoken ‘oral messages’ rather than as poems written for the printed page. As a result of continued experimental reading with jazz, they are still in a state of change. Autobiography and Junkman’s Obbligato are available on the Fantasy LP recording No. 7002. (The poetry-music synthesis of the Beats never materialized. It was by rubbing against folk music, especially protest music, that pop would, in the words of Ralph Gleason, take song lyrics out of the hands of hacks and give them to poets. But Beat poetry affected such rock poets as Phil Ochs, Donovan Leitch, and Bob Dylan. Donovan recalled in 1968,
At school I wrote long poems full of sex frustration. Then I read about the American Beats. I wrote long things that sounded beat. I just liked the idea of moving.)
The other music of the Village, the slighted sister, was folk, a tradition of long standing by virtue of its early affiliation with socialism, communism, unionism, and radicalism. Folksingers had been giving unlicensed Sunday afternoon concerts for years in New York’s Washington Square when Park Commissioner Morris tried to shut them down. There had been hassles as early as 1956 with the city administration but never anything like this. It was
the unsavory appearance of the singers, the commissioner said, which provoked a “riot” of three thousand hipsters, thereby causing Mayor Wagner to change Morris’s mind.
And there was also Izzy Young’s Folklore Center on MacDougal Street, and there was Sing Out!, the
folk song magazine edited by Irwin Silber, a steady quarterly or bimonthly throughout the fifties. Sing Out! attracted the talent of Pete Seeger (a regular columnist); kept in touch with Alan Lomax, Woody Guthrie, and Aunt Molly Jackson; and had an international following. It took a typically Village intellectual approach toward folk music. Many of the contributors—not Seeger, who knew better, or Silber—argued endlessly over whether folk authenticity requires oral transmission, anonymous or communal authorship, and a setting somewhere outside of twentieth-century urban centers.
Sing Out! published new or newly discovered or traditionally popular folk songs, reviewed new releases (few indeed) from Folkways Records, chronicled the singing engagements and appearances before the House Un-American Activities Committee of staff members and friends. It recorded in short, simply written essays the infusion of folk music into the ban the Bomb and civil rights movements and, in the early sixties, into mainstream musical consciousness. Like folk concerts in Washington Square, Sing Out! was there in the fifties, nice to have around but not really central to what was happening, something of an atavistic expression of the postwar socialist left.
When folk music began to eclipse jazz somewhere around 1961 (by the time major record companies started signing up poets and jazz groups for LP records called Boat Scene, you knew that both poetry and the Beat movement were dead), many Village residents raised the
neighborhood is going to hell banner.
We’re starting to ruin the coffee houses with too much music, poetry, and the like, the owner of Manzini explained in the Village Voice.
They’re losing their European atmosphere, he complained. The owners’ solution was a slight cover charge to
keep the riff-raff element out. Beats were bad enough, but the scruffy, second generation, guitar-totin’ Beat-folkies were clearly the end of civilization as the Village had known it: a nineteen to six majority of the informal Village Board voted on April 20, 1961, to support the Morris ban on folksinging, complaining of
indecency and disorderliness.
(Bob Dylan’s long poem on the jacket of Peter, Paul, and Mary’s In the Wind recalls the “old Village” as a place of blessed and honest poverty, people huddled together for warmth and each other in the snows that lay on MacDougal Street, nightly busts, everybody including the cook defending the Gaslight against cops and the bullies with chairs and brooms and swords that hung on the wall, but now Peter’s grown some, and Paul and Mary and all of us and the Village, too—and the neighborhood is gone to hell. The answer to Dylan and his romantic reminiscence is to be found in Stephen Stills’ Old Times Good Times: New York City was so damned cold / Had to get out of that town before I got old. And in Dylan’s own Talkin’ New York and Hard Times in New York Town.)
Still, the music was there, and as Leonard Cohen noted,
The music on Clinton Street always came through. Despite the Village’s provinciality and conservatism, the emigrant hordes, itinerant Beats, and roving entertainers kept the scene reasonably current. It is doubtful, however, whether anyone took to heart the advice of Jean Shepherd, writing in the Voice, to give ear to that other great (musical) America out there:
Some night when the espresso tastes flat and you tire of hearing third rate poets shout above fourth rate jazz groups, and you happen to be near a radio, I would suggest that you dig a few sounds that are truly closer to the pulse of America than anything today. . . . Move radio away from N.Y.C. and to Tennessee, the Carolinas, Michigan, and Minnesota. Everywhere. I listened for three hours one night to a station in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and after a while I had the feeling that I was truly eavesdropping on something I shouldn’t have heard. Man, dig the folk.
New Yorkers never tune their radios away from the Big Apple. But people in other parts of the country do. (Bob Dylan in Minnesota was tuning his radio to places far away from his home town of Hibbing.) And what they’d been hearing brought to the counterculture rock-‘n’-roll, its most characteristic—although its most unrecognized—expression.
Got a gal, named Daisy,
She almost drive me crazy.
She knows how to love me, yes, indeed.
Boy you don’ know what cha doin’ to me.
Tutti Frutti o rutti,
The story is now familiar, but it’s worth retelling just to make a point. How Alan Freed, a run-of-the-mill disc jockey in Cleveland, happened to be in the record shop of his friend Leo Mintz in the spring of 1951; and how Mintz happened to remark to Freed on the curious phenomenon of white teenagers buying black (“race” or “sepia,” soon to become “rhythm and blues”) records at his store; and how Freed got himself a late-night radio program on WJW (Cleveland), the Moondog Show, in July 1951, which he devoted exclusively to r&b; and how on March 22, 1952, some twenty-five thousand fans, mostly white, showed up at the Arena (capacity ten thousand) for the Moondog Coronation Ball, a dance featuring live performances by Freed’s r&b artists; and how there was a riot and Freed was famous and rock-‘n’-roll was born. And how Freed moved to WINS in New York and then to WABC, bringing rock-‘n’-roll with him, promoting his artists up and down the East Coast with the same results he’d gotten in Cleveland and the same shows, even acting in rock-‘n’-roll movies, making a lot of money and a lot of enemies, spreading the gospel, driving the establishment to ban his shows and issue warrants for his arrest (on charges of inciting to riot, Boston, May 1958).
The point is that the audience was there before Freed, before Rock around the Clock, before Elvis. The audience was that as yet undefined mass of disaffected youth who would become angry young men, Beats, Teds, greasers, juvenile delinquents, “early resigned” and “early disaffected,” rebels without a cause, all the various counters of the fifties. They were looking everywhere for something different, for something moving, and—having poked around French existentialism, jazz, Zen, poetry, Hemingway macho, the road—they were bound sooner or later to poke around the places something different was to be found: those two subcultures most suppressed from white middle-class consciousness, the black and the poor southern. Maybe books led them there. Maybe movies. Maybe idle twirling of radio dials. Anyway, they had short-circuited the literary transmitters and gone directly to GO: those faraway stations that, usually late at night or early in the A.M., filled the American air waves with wild, weird, and wonderful sounds, the sounds of black and backwoods.
Alan Freed bent over and picked them up. And they made him rich and famous.
Rock-‘n’-roll was, by genetic inheritance, completely outside of, and somehow threatening to, mainstream American culture. That simple fact explains, I suspect, why most discussion of fifties rock-‘n’-roll is sociological, whereas most discussion of sixties rock is paraliterary. It explains the almost pathological, often contradictory responses from all elements of the establishment, which took time off from their mutual antagonisms to unite against this virus from outside. And it may explain why such critics as Paul Goodman, Village intellectuals, and aging socialists, standing with their left foot forward and their right foot behind, simply could not come to grips with bopping at the hop. Here was a whole new world that transcended liberalism and radicalism, argument and dialectic, even reason itself—naturally, without trying.
(It is interesting that postwar socialists, who spoke and wrote endlessly about proletarian music as the logical vehicle for proletarian propaganda and devoted their lives to resurrecting the dead horse of prewar unionist folk music, failed completely to recognize rock-‘n’-roll, which was precisely the music they were looking for.)
We tend to forget the Puritan fervor with which the forces of decency attacked the new music. A few hours spent browsing through old newspapers and magazines can be instructive.
Psychologist Francis Braceland called rock-‘n’-roll a
cannibalistic and tribalistic music,
another sign of adolescent rebellion along the order of ducktail haircuts and zoot suits. (The younger generation would have agreed on all points but disliked Braceland’s tone.) Psychiatrists compared rock-‘n’-roll to medieval types of spontaneous lunacy and St. Vitus’s dance and urged a comprehensive, federally funded study of this phenomenon.
Asa Carter, executive secretary of the North Alabama White Citizen Council, charged that the NAACP was “infiltrating” white youth with rock-‘n’-roll music and announced that he would ask jukebox operators to throw out “immoral” records. (Operators claimed that that meant most of their hits.) The NAACP issued a statement shrugging off the charge; what they did not say was that blacks, used to seeing rhythm and blues hits covered by white singers (that is, bowdlerized and toned down—play Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti back to back with Pat Boone’s Tutti Frutti to grasp what “cover” really means) and to seeing the white versions sell millions and the black versions get no air play, were beginning to think rock-‘n’-roll was a rip-off. (Which it was.)
Jersey City and Newport banned Bill Haley and the Comets, and—following rioting in the streets—Birmingham, England, banned Bill Haley’s movie Rock around the Clock, as did Iraq, Cuba, Iran, and Spain. (In Indonesia, students kidnapped the film censor to warn her against taking such harsh and discriminatory action.)
Moscow claimed that American capitalists reaped huge profits from rock-‘n’-roll and called for
better jazz from Eastern Europe to combat rock-‘n’-roll. British teachers of ballroom dancing complained that Princess Margaret’s endorsement of rock-‘n’-roll hurt their business.
St. Louis radio station KWK promised in January 1958 to destroy all its rock-‘n’-roll records. Billy Graham, who admitted to never having met Elvis and not knowing much about him, said,
From what I’ve heard. I’m not so sure I’d want my children to see him. Harold Stassen, perennial Republican presidential hopeful, pointed out that rock-‘n’-roll riots were overwhelmingly counterbalanced by constructive youth activities.
If the establishment knew what today’s popular music really is saying, not what the words are saying, but what the music itself is saying, then they wouldn’t just turn thumbs down on it. They’d ban it, they’d smash all the records and they’d arrest anyone who tried to play it.
The American reaction to rock-‘n’-roll in 1958 was precisely the reaction of Rumania to the music of Blood, Sweat, and Tears in 1970:
We must play more jazz—‘jazz meter.’ We must play less rhythm. In their minds the rhythm, the strong, heavy rhythm, was inciting kids to riot. Not the fact that they’d been repressed for so long that when they saw a glimpse of anything free, they just busted loose. It was also the reaction of the twenties to jazz (Bolshevik-inspired, lewd, licentious, capable of causing death, disease, insanity, and loss of virginity)—right down to a congressional investigation into the correlation between rock-‘n’-roll and juvenile delinquency. And the forces of decency tended to get their targets: Chuck Berry was busted under the Mann Act, Alan Freed was busted for payola; Elvis was drafted; Jerry Lee Lewis was drummed out of the big time for marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin (
Hell, we all knowed about her, one of the locals announced.
And besides, she was only twelve). More subtly, they drowned rock-‘n’-roll in a flood of drippy music that Charlie Gillett labeled
stupid rock: Neal Sedaka, Gene Pitney, Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Paul Anka, Connie Stevens, Connie Francis, Brenda Lee, Dion, Ricky Nelson, Brian Hyland, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Vee, Tommy Sands.
The process was not helped by auctioning off talent discovered and nurtured by independent producers to the very record companies (the majors) responsible for the fifties shlock against which rock-‘n’-roll (and the independents themselves) had revolted; by the eagerness of the independents to exploit quickly a new talent or a new sound; and by the tendency of rock-‘n’-rollers to die young (Chuck Willis, the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran) or to get religion (Little Richard threw his jewelry into the river at Sydney, Australia, and enrolled in Oakwood Bible College) or to go back to the less controversial r&b or c&w music whence they had strayed into rock-‘n’-roll (Carl Perkins, Marty Robbins, Jerry Lee Lewis).
The question, of course, is what was this rock-‘n’-roll, about which everyone got so punched out of shape?
Charlie Gillett, in The Sound of the City, took a classification and division approach. For what it’s worth, he came up with this list:
- western swing (Bob Willis)
- northern band rock-‘n’-roll (Bill Haley and the Comets)
- New Orleans dance blues (Little Richard, Fats Domino)
- Memphis country rock (Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins)
- gospel style harmony groups (the Dominoes)
- late ballad blues (Ray Charles)
- Chicago r&b (Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley)
- Louisiana country rock (Jerry Lee Lewis)
- frantic combo rock (Little Richard)
- frantic country rock (Gene Vincent)
- intense gospel style (Hank Ballard)
- Arkansas western rock (Johnny Cash)
- up-tempo c&w (Marty Robbins)
- twist (Chubby Checker)
There were others. And Gillett did not categorize British forms such as skiffl (remember On the Bedpost over Night and Lonnie Donegan?). You can also work toward definition from a list of fifties rock-‘n’-roll classics:
- Love Me Tender, Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock (Elvis Presley)
- Blueberry Hill (Fats Domino)
- The Great Pretender (Platters)
- Blue Suede Shoes (Carl Perkins)
- Why Do Fools Fall in Love? (Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers)
- See You Later, Alligator (Bill Haley and the Comets)
- Be-Bop-a-Lula (Gene Vincent)
- Long Tall Sally (Little Richard)
- Searchin’ (Coasters)
- Bye Bye, Love (Everly Brothers)
- Party Doll (Buddy Knox)
- Rock and Roll Music (Chuck Berry)
- C. C. Rider (Chuck Willis)
(During these same years, Dean Martin released Memories Are Made of This, Perry Como released Hot Diggity, Debbie Reynolds released ’tammy, Jimmy Dorsey released So Rare, and Gogi Grant released The Wayward Wind, all of which ranked higher on pop charts than any rock-‘n’-roll songs except Presley tunes. Which is a good indication of where America’s head was at.)
So what separates rock-‘n’-roll from pop shlock? And how is it possible to determine, as everyone has, that by 1958 rock-‘n’-roll was soft in the head and by 1961 virtually dead?
The easy response is that you know it when you hear it, when your feet move of their own volition and you bounce right out of the chair and are compelled to dance or to pound your fists into the wall, and when it’s done you yell,
Jezuz, they don’t make songs like that any more! And you play the record again and again and again. What happens with the Crystals’ Phil Spector-produced Then He Kissed Me that does not happen with the Kiss version thereof, what happened to the kids in London and Boston and New York and Fayetteville and Glasgow who left windows smashed, cars overturned, seats ripped, and in Boston one sailor stabbed and a dozen other people roughed up. What happened to Kerouac when the big tenorman blew his horn? A physical reaction, some foot stompin’. St. Vitus’s dance, spontaneous lunacy, maybe even cannibalism.
No wonderin’ man or guest
No need to take a rest
Listen to the junky beat
Shake your head and stomp your feet
Foot stompin’ foot stompin’
All the time.
Even just the other day
Taught it to my sister May
At last Mr. Blue
Can do the foot stompin’ too. . . .
Foot stompin’ foot stompin’
All the time.
Any number of things distinguish rock-‘n’-roll from commercial shlock. Most obviously, it is rougher, simpler, more homemade, less professional. In a lot of cases, it’s just plain off-key. Listen to the Shirelles’ backup work or the “da-ooo” behind Bobby Day on Over and Over. Folk music had this same sound in the forties and early fifties and then again in the early sixties. In each case it provided welcome relief from big-time, slick, formulaic, produced, and generally bogus music. Roughness is the quality of music slightly out of control, eager, impatient, urgent, setting out, young. What Presley had in 1955 that he had to press for in 1958 and had lost by 1960.
(It is difficult to find a simpler, thinner, less professional piece than Love Me Tender, Elvis’s first number-one ballad: lean, acoustic guitar accompaniment, tenth-grade barbershop harmony, voice coming at you as through a long tunnel, delivery accentuating the jog trot meter of pure doggerel: Love me tender, love me true, / Never let me go. / You have made my life complete, / And I love you so. A complete embarrassment; next to Aura Lee, from which it stole its tune, an abomination. It is the perfect example of rock-‘n’-roll’s rejection of prettiness, over-refinement, academic orchestration and lyrics, smoothness, even subtlety. And for that reason, very big in 1956.)
Rock-‘n’-roll sounded homemade because in most cases it was. The majors had their stables full of big names and salaried songwriters, but rock-‘n’-roll came from the independents: the legendary Sun Records in Memphis, King in Cincinnati, Chess in Chicago, Specialty in Los Angeles. Also Ace, Aladdin, Imperial, Gee, Atco, Argo, Roulette, Josie, Brunswick, and, my own favorite, the S.P.Q.R. label, which recorded Jimmy Soul’s If You Want to Be Happy. Many of the independents—need it be said?—were as short-lived as the “artists” whose hits flashed like shooting stars across the late fifties skies. And the more independent the studio, the more primitive the facilities and the more homemade the sound.
Furthermore, the standard rock-‘n’-roll musician was not the studio dropout who his sixties counterpart often was (although let it not be forgotten that Arthur Rubenstein in 1956 singled out Neil Sedaka as New York City’s best high school pianist and sent him off to Julliard on a scholarship, which may explain why Sedaka sounds so un-rock-‘n’-rollish). Rock-‘n’-rollers had no formal training. Some even lacked the background in gospel, ballroom, or barroom singing that did serve as musical education for so many r&r people. Some really were picked up on a street corner.
You used to go down to Jefferson High on 49th & Broadway and could get sixteen groups, recalled Phil Spector in 1969. Or maybe they’d just wander into Sun studio to cut a demo and get famous. Such casualness was not conducive to subtle harmony or complex arrangement; what it did foster was a strong feeling of regionalism, an airing of local accents homogenized by voice instructors and actually encouraged because of the independent company’s sense of the local market. Hearing rock-‘n’-roll was like overhearing a part of America you’d never quite picked up on before.
(Frankie Lymon, thirteen, has been dumped by his girl and is despondent. He mopes around a few days trying to talk himself out of love, and a phrase keeps recycling through his brain: Why do Fools Fall in Love? Little Frankie turns that phrase into a song.
Scene two finds Frankie and the gang rehearsing this little ditty in front of the local soda shop, when along comes Richard Barrett, lead singer for the Valentines.
Scene three finds Frankie and pals in the Gee Records recording studio, and scene four finds Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers with a smash hit, rich and famous.
Scene five, a decade later, finds Frankie dead of an overdose.)
Also characteristically, rock-‘n’-roll was loud. There were ballads, but they were not really characteristic. Rock-‘n’-rollers grasped very early the therapeutic value of noise, and r&r was neither offended nor embarrassed by
da-doo-run-run-run, da-doo-run-run. Voices were more expressive than they were in shlock music: Little Richard and Elvis Presley emoted circles around Johnnie Ray and Frank Sinatra, the big weepers and feelers of the big time.
When rock-‘n’-roll lost its roughness and its regionalism, when arrangements became smoothed and complicated by production people at the majors (as would inevitably happen), when songs were written for instead of by artists, when—in short—rock-‘n’-roll became mass-produced, it lost its energy and its uniqueness and ceased to be a driving social force. We shall examine later the process of absorption, at which Western technological society is so terrifyingly adept; the point for now is that as this inevitable process occurred, the rock-‘n’-roll artist had three choices. He could allow himself to be buoyed up by the bucks, the mansions, the women, and the golden Cadillacs–in which case he most certainly knew he’d become the central figure in technology’s almost painless rite of castration. He could throw himself against the machine, staying visible and potent–in which case he either killed himself or got himself “removed.” Or he could take his winnings and go home, back to the smaller stakes and the friendlier audiences and companies of either r&b or c&w, allowing himself to be replaced on the pop charts by South Philly lads more responsive to the pressures of the big-time music biz and the genial Dick Clark.
(Chuck Berry and Dick Clark crossed at least once in the fifties, when Berry objected to the lip-synch thing on American Bandstand. Berry expected Leonard Chess to back him up, but Leonard didn’t.
There are some things you gotta do in this business that you don’t want to do, he told Berry.
He had a lot of power, Chuck adds of Clark,
and, of course, he also had a lot of money.)
The same process of absorption enervated rock-‘n’-roll lyrics. It is a commonplace of rock-‘n’-roll that when it came to words there weren’t any—they didn’t mean anything, who cared, only the music counted. That is a fiction perpetrated by the poetry professionals on the one hand (who found rock-‘n’-roll’s lyrics painfully banal and its adolescent subjects too narrow by 90%) and the good-beat-you-can-dance-to-it boys on the other (who figured—correctly—that the rock-‘n’-roll revolution was in its sound and therefore non-intellective and assumed that words must therefore be irrelevant). One tended to come at rock-‘n’-roll from the adult mainstream, the cultural heritage of two millennia of Western civilization, which was bound to overwhelm everything, including twentieth-century establishment culture. The other tended to come from swing, blues, or r&b backgrounds, which was bound to make the revolution of rock-‘n’-roll seem tame indeed. White kids of the fifties were coming from neither direction. They had little exposure to Western Civilization except high school English literature textbooks that dry-cleaned Shakespeare, Chaucer, and the Greek dramatists. And they had only the bits and snatches of r&b and c&w they may have picked up on late-night radio. When Blue Suede Shoes broke upon them it sounded just as poetically compelling as Poe’s Raven or Sandburg’s Fog and as musically and sociologically revolutionary as Bo Diddley’s gutty, suggestive, bump-and-grind.
Rock-‘n’-roll presents a fairly succinct and radical critique of fifties life, along with an equally coherent alternative. Rock around the Clock was a potent song in 1955, although it seems innocuous now. It is saying that we’re gonna rock-‘n’-roll. And we’re gonna do it all night long. And we’re gonna drive this thing right out front of us because we’re in charge now and we’re gonna have fun (the one thing money can’t buy). So what if dancing is a cheap revolution; so what if all the standard r&b sexual overtones of rock are underplayed if not submerged entirely? To a middle-class teenager stuck inside the fifties, Rock around the Clock was a declaration of independence, in words as well as in music.
Take sex. Now the grown-ups obviously had been screwing around for a lot of years: they had kids, they had us. It was not, however, part of young middle-class experience that men and women make love. Inside or outside marriage. I mean, you did not see it on television. You did not see it in the movies. You didn’t see it in your parents, you had no Playboy magazine to help you along with it, and nobody talked much about it. Memories, Dean Martin sang, were made of one girl, one boy, some grief, some joy, a blessing from above, and a kiss.
The conspiracy of silence was unbroken.
In this kind of world it was a revolution to be able to say with Elvis in a very tame ballad, I want you, I need you, I love you with all my heart. It was even more revolutionary to realize not so much that there is a way of making it without the formalities, but that there is a way of making it, period. That guys could and did cut in on other folks’ girls, and “Speedo” was a nickname you could wear with pride on account of havin’ made a lot of pretty women change their minds. That people held each other in the still of the night (the Five Satins). That people rock-‘n’-rolled sixty minutes (the Dominoes) or all night long and then boasted about it. That you could look at Young Blood with fire in your eyes and lust in your heart (What crazy stuff, she looked so tough I had to follow her all the way home). Or Chantilly Lace, with the Big Bopper moaning Oh, baby, that’s what I like! That you could sing, Come along and be my party doll and I’ll make love to you. That you were allowed to just walk out of a bad situation warning cockily,
You’re gonna miss the best man you ever had, you’re gonna miss me early in the morning one of these days.
Little Richard was a revelation in this respect, what with the gal named Sue who knew just what to do (Knows how to love me, yessireee, sang the boy from Macon in Tutti Frutti, a cleaned up version of a piece of scurrility he’d launched into in the studio one day), and Good Golly, Miss Molly (sure like to ball), and Long Tall Sally:
Gonna tell Aunt Mary
‘bout Uncle John.
Claims he has the mis’ry
but he’s havin’ lot of fun. . . .
Well, long tall Sally
She’s built for speed
She got everything that
Uncle John need. . . .
There were even references, for those sharp enough to catch them, to the taboo subject of VD: You’ll be scratchin’ like a hound the minute you start to mess around with Poison Ivy. And a piece of infidelity in But I’ve got news for you: I was untrue! I found another love, be on your way.
And to hear a female voice sing,
I’m available and willing, or
Oh, Johnny, how you can love, or
and when I sleep I always dream of Bill. Or maybe,
I feel so good when you’re home (the answer to which is,
Come on, baby, rock me all night long). Not quite as revolutionary as the earlier and more direct r&b Work with Me Annie from Hank Ballard and the Midnighters (
Please don’t cheat, give me all my meat—plus the sequels Annie Had a Baby and Roll with Me Henry and Annie’s Answer and Annie Pulled a Humbug and Annie’s Aunt Fannie), but still a revolution by middle-class standards.
How much of this revolution struck home is a moot question. I was always more comfortable with the bespectacled Buddy Holly than with the sex symbol Elvis Presley, and not until college could I really deal with the nitty-gritty grind of hard-core rhythm and blues. Most often I felt more in the camp of Travis and Bob, plaintively, hopefully, fearfully, desperately praying, Tell him no-oh-a-oh-oh, tell him no-oh-a-oh-oh, /If he offers his ring tell him no.
But rock-‘n’-roll spoke out on matters other than sex. Like school. It lined up directly behind Paul Goodman: school was the agent of repression or at least of resignation to the social straightjacket, complete boredom and futility.
Scarcely, as the Who would put it in the jacket notes to Quadrophenia,
worth mentioning. When it was mentioned, school was a drag.
School is out at last, rejoiced Gary (U.S.) Bonds, and I’m so glad I passed and no books and studying in the summer and let’s celebrate. Celebration amounted to
doin’ the things I want to do, which in turn meant rootin’ for the Yankees from the bleachers, stayin’ out late with the guys (Rock around the Clock), takin’ the girl out for a night with Daddy G. This was 1961. The scene was virtually unchanged from 1959, when the Coasters had cased the joint in Charlie Brown and thrown in their lot with the protobeatnik, spitball-throwing, goofballing Charlie, who shoots craps in the gym, writes on walls, smokes in the auditorium (Lawdy, Miss Clawdy, did they freak out whenever they smelled smoke during assembly!), and refers to the English teacher as Daddy-O. That is alienation.
And the scene was unchanged from 1957-1958, when Chuck Berry had surveyed it in Anthony Boy and School Days:
Soon as three o’clock rolls around
You finally lay your burden down
Close up your books and get out of your seat
Down the halls and into the street.
And right down to the juke joint, where you purge your head with some good, hard rock-‘n’-roll.
The feeling is there, body and soul. This alienation, naturally, has been lost on the Fonz who becomes a grade school mascot in the seventies. (And it was lost in 1963, when, with rock-‘n’-roll gone soft in the head, Brian Wilson wrote Be True to Your School.)
Students in good health are expected to be in homeroom before the tardy bell rings in the morning. Most students arrive about 8:00 o’clock to allow time for locker use. If a student is absent, the school will attempt to reach the home by phone. In the event that this is impossible, a note is required before the student may attend classes when he returns. Illegal absence from school results in a three-day suspension and a loss of 9 points on all subject grades for the report period.
Rock-‘n’-roll did criticize social institutions. You have been told that Maybellene is a car-woman, sex-and-driving song. Read it another way: Maybellene off with some hot, new lover in a big-assed Cadillac, po’ boy Chuck lights out after them in his working-class, overheated Ford V-8. And doesn’t the jalopy bust on past the thievin’ Coupe de Ville like it was standin’ still and catch the two-timin’ Maybellene at the top of the hill. Class conflict. And, while we’re at it, Chuck Berry’s other great car song, Jaguar and the Thunderbird, is not so much about drag racing as about beating the sheriff to the county line.
Or take the Coasters, complaining in Along Came Jones about the same old television melodrama one channel to the next and parodying the whole business with smooth talkin’, cool walkin’ Jones.
Or Tobacco Road, 1960: gonna split this place, get a job, pile up the dollars. And then take all that dough and come back here with dynamite and a crane and level this slum.
Or the rose in Spanish Harlem, with her black and soulful eyes and the fire burning out of control. Or the Duke of Earl, an almost pathetic sublimation of suffering into dreams and aspirations that singer, writer, listener, and everybody knows can never be realized.
Or Chuck Berry’s distillation of fifties Beat alienation into the angry pointlessness of No Particular Place to Go.
Or the fondness of rock-‘n’-roll for anti-heroes. It’s a simplistic, romantic view of prisons indeed that emerges from a song like Jailhouse Rock and a simpering sentimentalism that underlies He’s a Rebel and Leader of the Pack, but all three reflect a very genuine affection in rock-‘n’-roll for the other side of the tracks (the old stomping ground, as it were). And none of it is a more outrageous misrepresentation of reality than what the folks at Partisan Review did for/to Caryl Chessman. Alley-Oop, a novelty record, gives a good clue to the emerging type of the anti-hero: The cats don’t bug him, ‘cause they know better; he’s a mean motorscooter and a bad go-getter. With Jerry Lee Lewis’s version of Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee the connections are much more real and presentation less bogus. Such also is the case with Sam Cooke’s presentation of the men working on the chain gang!
You hear them moaning their lives away. Basically, rock-‘n’-roll was incurably hoodlum; it died when it was plucked from Long Tall Sally’s alley, scrubbed up, and decked out in clean clothes.
The most general and profound criticism of the American mainstream is to be found in two classic rock-‘n’-roll singles and the collected works of r&r’s greatest singer-composer, Chuck Berry. Get a Job could have been lifted directly from any of the prose critiques of meaningless or nonexistent employment in the promised land. Yakety-Yak is about a lot more than paying your dues so you can get out of the house on a Friday night; it’s about the unproductive or trivial work a society invents (
Bring in the dog and put out the cat) to make sure that people do not do what they feel like doing—in this case rocking and rolling and going for a ride with
your hoodlum friend outside. (Anybody you didn’t like or understand in the fifties was either a communist or a hoodlum. Hoodlum was the more middle-class of the two epithets, and my mother used it a lot.)
If I was 23 years old and you was 22
I bet nobody try to run our lives the way they do.
Chuck Berry was a very sharp thinker and perhaps the only real poet among fifties rock-‘n’-rollers. He returned again and again to the theme of meaninglessness in his songs. In Too Much Monkey Business, the great grandfather of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, Berry catalogued middle-class blandishments
Runnin’ to and fro
Hard workin’ at the mill,
Never fail in the mail
Here come a rotten bill.
Too much monkey business.
For me to be involved in.
Salesman talkin’ to me.
Try an’ run me up a creek,
You can buy it,
Go ahead and try it.
You can pay me next week.
Ah, too much monkey business. . . .
Blonde hair, good lookin’,
Try an’ get me hooked,
Want me to marry, get a home.
Settle down and write a book.
Ah, too much monkey business
For me to be involved in.
The same sterility reappears in No Particular Place to Go, with Chuck cruisin’ through town, listenin’ to his radio, doin’ nothin’ (there bein’ nothin’ worth doin’); and in School Days, where the only option is to wait it all out and then escape; in Come On (Some stupid jerk tryin’ to reach another number); and in Almost Grown, which presents the most universal of Berry’s heroes. More common in real life than the hot-rodders in their V-8s, the brown eyed handsome men, and the Johnny B. Goodes, were the guys who, never really daring to cut the rope, played it cool and waited. And waited and waited, until their youth evaporated and they were left frustrated, having played by the rules, and feeling angry and cheated.
Yeah, I’m doing all right in school,
They ain’t said I’ve broke no rule,
I ain’t never been in Dutch,
I don’t browse around too much;
Don’t bother me, leave me alone.
Anyway I’m almost grown.
Against this ruin, Berry offers all the consolations of the counterculture: speed, youth, sex, music:
Anything you want, we got it in the U.S.A. His heroes take what they can get as fast and as greedily as they can and eat the ice cream before it melts. Sweet Little Sixteen dances her tight little ass off before she turns into a pumpkin again come Monday in the classroom. Johnny B. Goode hits the marquees and the Hollywood films. The Brown Eyed Handsome Man rocks and reels through the wives of doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs and is off before you can catch him. In No Money Down, Chuck trades in that old, broken-down, ragged Ford for a big, shiny Cadillac with every option he can think of, including a telephone to call his baby on. Everybody boogies. You gotta grab it before you’re too pooped to pop, too old to stroll. You gotta light out for the promised land, call the folks back home, and tell them you’ve made it, before it’s time to leave. The Promised Land is, in fact, Berry’s affirmation of life in America, a flurry of dust and chicken feathers as the po’ boy hauls it off to California, Greyhound, midnight flier, and finally first-class air ticket, his silk suit and luggage acquired along the way. The greatness is in the going and the getting there, in the action.
Kerouac would have understood:
Hey, M.F., I’m out here in fucking California, baby!
Hey, baby, far out! What you gonna do now?
I’m gonna go to fuckin’ New York.
Children of the sixties will understand perfectly.