On the Beat route
In the beginning, probably around the start of World War Two, there were hep-cats. They were hip. Then they weren’t, because hip became hip and hep-cats gave way to hipsters. There were hippies, too, except they were decidedly unhip. Until they became hip, of course, in the Summer of Love. Some decades later hipsters returned, albeit in a modified form, with matching (rather than weird) beards and craft beers. How soon before the hep-cats make a comeback?
So the queue for entry to the Centre Pompidou the other day was just too long, and I decided that I’d probably get another opportunity to see the “Beat Generation” exhibition before it closes on October 3. (I saw a really good show on the same theme — “Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965” — at the Whitney Museum in New York 20 years ago, its centrepiece the unbroken roll of paper on which Jack Kerouac typed the original unparagraphed On the Road.) I consoled myself for the disappointment in Paris by crossing the Seine to the excellent Gibert Joseph store on the Boulevard Saint-Michel and buying Beat Generation: Hep Cats, Hipsters and Beatniks 1936-1962, a three-CD anthology assembled to tie in with the exhibition and just released by Frémaux et Associés, the label responsible for many fine historical compilations.
It’s a real box of goodies, a useful reminder that the soundtrack to the beat life wasn’t just composed of the super-cool stylings of Miles Davis’s “Boplicity”, Gerry Mulligan’s “Soft Shoe” and Bobby Troup’s “Route 66” (all of which are included among the 72 tracks). It was also the sheer stomping mayhem of Roy Eldridge’s “Heckler’s Hop” and Cootie Williams’s “Gator Tail Pt 2”, which features a bar-walking tenor saxophone solo by Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson so extreme that, having scaled the heights of rampantly priapic wailing, it ends in a series of exhausted squeaks. Something like this:
“The tenor man jumped down from the platform and just stood in the crowd blowing around; his hat was over his eyes; somebody pushed it back for him. He just hauled back and stamped his foot and blew down a hoarse, laughing blast, and drew breath, and raised the horn and blew high wide and screaming in the air. Neal was directly in front of him with his face lowered to the bell of the horn, clapping his hands, pouring sweat on the man’s keys, and the man noticed and laughed in his horn a long quivering crazy laugh and everybody else laughed and they rocked and rocked; and finally the tenorman decided to blow his top and crouched down and held a note in high C for a long time as everything else crashed along and the cries increased and I thought the cops would come swarming from the nearest precinct.”
That’s how Kerouac recalled a Saturday night in a San Francisco jazz dive as he tapped out the original manuscript of On the Road, which also contains descriptions of performances by George Shearing, Slim Gaillard, Lester Young and Charlie Parker. With the exception of Shearing, all of those are represented in the anthology. There’s a lot of Kerouac, too, reciting his “American haikus” with Al Cohn’s tenor saxophone, reading from On the Road and Visions of Cody, and giving his lecture asking “Is There a Beat Generation?” to the students of Hunter College in 1958. There’s Allen Ginsberg reciting the complete “Howl” and “Kaddish”, and Lennie Bruce’s “Psychopathia Sexualis”, and authentic hipsters like Babs Gonzales and Oscar Brown Jr and hilariously bogus ones like Edd Byrnes (“Kookie’s Mad Pad”). And satire like Bob McFadden and Rod McKuen’s “The Beat Generation” (the inspiration for Richard Hell’s “The Blank Generation”), and fine music from Charlie Christian and Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker and Stan Getz and Les Double Six and Eddie Jefferson, with a wonderful vocal recasting of “So What”. A hint of hipsters/hippies to come appears in Dave Van Ronk’s “Winin’ Boy Blues” and Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ New York”, and there’s a curious coda with a reading of e.e. cummings’s anti-war poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big” in 1962 at the Avant Garde coffee house in Milwaukee by Roger Steffens, then a 21-year-old actor and today the owner of the world’s largest Bob Marley archive.
And, of course, the set would not be complete without the immortal Lord Buckley, giving his hipster interpretation of the New Testament’s Lazarus story in “The Nazz”:
“So the Nazz and his buddies was goofin’ off down the boulevard one day and they run into a little cat with a bent frame. So the Nazz look at this little cat with the bent frame and he say, ‘What’s a matter wit’choo, baby?’ And the little cat with the bent frame he say, ‘Well, my frame is bent, Nazz, it’s been bent from in front.’ So the Nazz look at the little cat with the bent frame and he put the golden eyes of love on this here little kitty and he looked right down into the windows of his soul and he said to the little cat, he said: ‘Straighten!’ The cat got up straighter’n an arrow and everybody jumpin’ up and down and say, ‘Look what the Nazz put on that boy!’ You dug him before, dig him now!”
I read in this month’s Uncut that a film about Buckley’s life is coming out this autumn. It’s called Too Hip for the Room. Now that’s hip.
* The illustration above is a detail from Len Deighton’s jacket design for the first UK edition of On the Road, published by André Deutsch in 1958.