Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 3, 2014

Highway 80 revisited

Filed under: beatniks — louisproyect @ 1:40 pm

About a month ago I heard John Waters being interviewed on NPR about his new book “Carsick” that is a chronicle of hitchhiking from Baltimore to San Francisco. Since he is nearly as old as me and is a wealthy and successful filmmaker accustomed to a cushy lifestyle, I was impressed with his feat. There are three things I did when I was in my late teens and early 20s that I would not do today, one of them is take LSD, the second was to drive a motorcycle, and the last is hitchhiking from Dallas to Baltimore in the summer of 1965.

As it turns out, I was giving Waters perhaps a little bit more credit than he was due. The first two-thirds of the book is fiction apparently. He does claim to have hitched across America but I wonder why he didn’t just write about what happened. Did he have someone following behind him to make sure that everything went okay, like those survival experts on cable TV who can always rely on a camera crew to rescue them from a grizzly bear? Who knows?

In any case, the main point of the book was to remind readers that hitchhiking was once a very safe and a very romantic way to go distances far and near, as well as a way to meet some fascinating characters. In an interview with the NY Times’s David Itzkoff (the author of an article on the troubled estate of Harvey Pekar that was written just after his death that led to my oft-stated litanies), Waters made the case for a dying pastime:

But more crucially, he said this journey has taught him that it can sometimes be thrilling to not know where life is taking you.

“My life is so over-scheduled, what will happen if I give up control?” Mr. Waters said by phone from San Francisco, where he was safe, sound and still surging with adrenaline.

In doing so, he said he encountered a true cross-section of America: “Pot smokers, cops, I got everybody. And everybody was lovely.”

Having started hitchhiking at an early age, Mr. Waters said he had had only positive experiences in the past. “I never had a scary person, really,” he said. “When you’re young, people come on to you a lot more.”

When I was fourteen years old or so, I used to hitchhike back home from the movie theater in the next town, as did many kids my age. Our parents had no need to worry since nearly all the people driving past the Rialto theater in South Fallsburgh were locals and totally trustworthy. Back in 1959 nobody locked their doors in the small towns of Sullivan County, the heart of the Borscht Belt. People even left their car keys in the ignition. It was like a Jewish version of “The Andy Griffith Show”.

My next experience with hitchhiking was when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1970 and before I bought a car to get around. College students hitched everywhere and so did people in their early twenties like me. You stood out on Massachusetts Avenue that wended its way from Cambridge across the Charles River into Boston with your thumb stuck out and wait for the next VW Beetle with a peace sign on the rear fender to pick you up. Everything was groovy.

In my senior year at Bard College in 1965, the beat generation was still happening for us. This was before anybody had heard the word “hippie”. We only knew about hipsters, the characters in Jack Kerouac’s novels who were into Zen Buddhism, jazz, marijuana and hitchhiking.

I was 20 years old when I graduated and totally unsure about what I wanted to do with my life. I had just broken up with my girlfriend at Bard College and only knew that I needed a fresh start in a new location, preferably one where I could live out my fantasy as a latter-day beat poet.

With that in mind, I agreed to accompany Rick Smith, another Bard graduate, out to California in a car that we were to drive for free as part of one of those brokered deals where you transport a car on behalf of its owner. We took Route 66 out west. Rick, like me, was also living out a fantasy—in his case being a blues harmonica player and a poet as well. I just googled Rick Smith to see what he has been up to over the past 50 years and apparently his fantasy came true based on the “About the author” section from his book of poetry “Hard Landing” available from Amazon.com:

Rick Smith was raised in Manhattan, Paris, Toledo, Ohio and Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Rick Smith began writing under the guidance of Michael Casey at Solebury School in Pennsylvania. Close family friendships and Carl Sandburg and Lenore Marshall also made a lasting impact on Rick’s life choices. He went on to study with Anthony Hecht at Bard College, George Starbuck and Frank Polite at the University of Iowa and Sam Eisenstein at Los Angeles City College. He learned blues harmonica in the “basket houses” of Greenwich Village and in the roadhouses of Duchess County. Smith founded the City Lights on the Sunset Strip in 1965 and has played and recorded with the likes of Van Dyke Parks, Big Joe Williams, Bernie Perl, Clabe Hangan and Steve Mann. During the 70’s, he joined Dan Ilves to co-edit the literary journal, Stonecloud. In 1981, he and John Lyon wrote and recorded “Hand To Mouth” a well reviewed LP of originals. He went on to write and record with Mindless, Go Figure, The Hangan Brothers and The Mescal Sheiks. Smith continues to work with the Mescal Sheiks as well as with Music Formula….

After Rick and I got to Los Angeles and dropped off the car, we said goodbye. He was staying there to live with his girlfriend and I was headed up to San Francisco to find a place to stay and look for a job.

A week into my stay at a rented room in the Russian Hill neighborhood, the San Francisco Chronicle had a story splashed across the front page about a major increase in the number of men drafted to go fight in Vietnam. Uh-oh. That was the end of my poetry-writing, tail-end of the beat generation fantasies. I had to find a way to stay out of the military. My life depended on it.

With not even the slightest thought about how my ex-girlfriend would regard a proposal, I took a Greyhound bus to Dallas and dropped in unannounced. Her reaction was a mixture of happiness to see me and an exasperated “what the fuck are you doing here?” When I broached the subject of marriage, the second choice on the menu kicked in with a vengeance.

Seeing that I had no future with her, I asked her to drive me to the outskirts of Dallas where I could start hitching on Highway 80, a road that ran through the south. Although I was pretty apolitical at the time, I was looking forward to traveling on the same road that became famous (or infamous) for the Selma to Montgomery Freedom Marches that took place just three months earlier in March 1965.

I had no idea that hitching on a road that was also known as the Dixie Overland Highway would entail any risks. In my immature and deeply romantic mind, this was like sticking out my thumb on Mass. Avenue.

Unfortunately, I don’t remember all the people who picked me up or what I saw on Highway 80 but to this day, nearly 50 years later, I can remember in broad brushstrokes what I am about to tell you now.

In Arkansas I was picked up by a Black truck driver who was hauling logs, a primary commodity in the state. Since the Selma-Montgomery freedom marches were galvanizing Black consciousness across the Deep South, he had no trouble expressing himself as we drove across the state. He was also happy to talk to a New Yorker since he probably assumed that anybody from New York would be sympathetic to the civil rights struggle.

For the better part of six hours, he told me about his refusal to put up with racism. The South was changing and he was not going to put up with Jim Crow. Listening to him was like being in the company of the hero of “Nothing But a Man” that had come out a year earlier and that was a breakthrough film about a Black railroad worker who refuses to kowtow to white bosses.

Despite being fairly apolitical, I had a deep admiration for any Black who was defying racist injustice so much so that I went to hear Malcolm X speak at a Militant Labor Forum during winter break at Bard College. It was the event where he praised the Militant newspaper. Little did I suspect at the time that I would be hawking the paper only two years later.

In Mississippi his polar opposite, a white racist GI on leave, picked me up. He told me that he was headed toward Fort Myers, Florida. After I asked him about how big the base was, he explained that Fort Myers was the name of his hometown, not a military base. That was not my first gaffe. When we stopped at a roadside café, I ordered chicken fried steak. When the waitress brought something that looked like a breaded veal cutlet rather than a steak, I told the GI that she must have brought me the wrong order, even though it tasted good enough. He told me that this was indeed a chicken fried steak, which would have been more accurately called a breaded steak. Years later when I moved to Houston to work with the SWP branch, I had chicken fried steak once or twice a week. I guess that’s where the bad LDL comes from.

The GI was not very talkative but every chance he got, he railed about “the niggers”. I was not going to challenge him on this given my reliance on his transportation as well as a fear that it might lead to a confrontation that could have dire consequences. As was the case with many of the whites I worked with at Texas Commerce Bank a few years later, the guy was very decent on a personal level. I wonder to this day what could make them hate Blacks so much.

Highway 80 was a two-lane road that occasionally overlapped Interstate 20, a four-lane expressway that was under construction at the time. For much of its length, it was indistinguishable from any country road. I remember being let out on 80 just a mile or two before the next town, somewhere in Alabama. I walked toward it in the hope of finding a place to have lunch and to wash my hands and face.

As I walked along a turn in the road, I heard a strange sound from just around the bend—a kind of “flap-flap”. As the sound grew louder, it sounded even stranger since there were no other sounds except for the cars passing by and the crickets in the roadside grass. And then finally I saw the source: an intellectually disabled (what used to be called mentally retarded) man sitting on the sidewalk slapping his hands on the concrete with a huge grin on his face.

This was at a time when empathy for such a sad and solitary figure was far outweighed by my overactive literary imagination. The first thing that came to mind was William Faulkner’s “Sound and the Fury”, in which the opening pages are meant to reflect the thinking of an intellectually disabled 33-year-old man. Everything was converging on me as I walked past the man: Vietnam, my estrangement from my ex-girl friend, a realization that my bohemian days would soon be behind me, and a forlorn but exhilarated sense of being “on the road”.

Later that day I got picked up by a portly man in a white suit and a rosy complexion that I guessed was the result of drinking too much who was more than happy to drop me off at one of Montgomery’s best but eminently affordable hotels as he advised me. In keeping with his appearance and his general boosterly attitude about Alabama, it turned out that he was a minor official in the municipal government. He was not interested in talking about race, even though I was a Yankee. His main topic of conversation was “opportunities” in Montgomery.

The hotel itself was like something out of a Tennessee Williams play. A king-sized bed sat underneath a ceiling fan, while a neon sign blinked on and off outside my window. I was too tired to allow the sign to interfere with my sleep.

In North Carolina a guy picked me up in the middle of the night in his forties who seemed genial enough. I can’t remember what he looked like but in my mind’s eye, I see someone that might have had a pencil-line mustache, wore a seersucker suit, and had a Panama hat on his head.

Within an hour of being picked up, the guy turned the conversation to sex. He asked me about the “girls in New York” in an obvious effort to either figure out my sexual orientation or to see if I could be hustled. I played it cool and everything turned out okay as he left me off in Virginia.

In northern Virginia, a guy in a hot-rod picked me up. He was driving it to a race that he was entering. The car had no top and the engine was exposed. Even if he was in the mood to chat, neither of us could hear each other over the roar of the engine. As much as this sounds like bullshit, it really happened. I don’t know about John Waters but I much prefer fact to fiction. That is why my attempts to write a novel after leaving the SWP came to naught. The car looked something like this:

Screen shot 2014-12-03 at 8.29.50 AM

When I got to Baltimore, I decided that I had my fill of being “on the road” and took a Greyhound bus to New York and began trying to find a graduate school that would accept me for the fall 1965 term. That was the New School and my introduction to Trotskyist politics.

November 1, 2013

Hollywood and the Beat Generation

Filed under: beatniks,Film — louisproyect @ 2:08 pm
Counterpunch Weekend Edition November 1-3, 2013
Hollywood Does the Beat Generation

Beat These Films!

by LOUIS PROYECT

Over the past three years there have been no less than four narrative films about the beat generation, starting with “Howl” in September 2010. Walter Salles’s “On the Road” followed in 2012, and then just a month ago “Kill Your Darlings”, about Ginsberg and Kerouac at Columbia University, arrived. And now there is “Big Sur” that opens on November first at the Cinema Village in New York. All of these films reflect continued interest in the lives and work of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al, motivated in large part by a new generation of “hipsters” needing to understand what Ginsberg called “the Nightmare of Moloch”. This article will assess the four films as well as a BBC documentary featuring Russell Brand that traces Kerouac’s itinerary in “On the Road”, a film that says more about Brand than it does about Kerouac. It will conclude with some thoughts about the connections between the beats and the radical movement, something that deserves a book of its own.

“Howl” borders on mockumentary with a reenactment of the obscenity trial of 1957 that pitted Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights publishing company against the forces of law and order embodied by a district attorney played by Jeff Daniels (cast perhaps for his lead in “Dumb and Dumber”) who tells the court that “Howl” was not genuine literature because it imitated the form of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. When the defense attorney asks him whom Whitman imitated, he could not answer. James Franco, who is a mediocre actor and an even more mediocre writer, plays Allen Ginsberg. Thankfully, the film survives Franco mostly on the virtues of its faithfulness to the event, a trial that along with those involving “Tropic of Cancer” and “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” broke the chains of sexual censorship just as the free speech movement at Berkeley would break those on politics. The film is available as a DVD from Netflix and Amazon streaming.

full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/11/01/beat-these-films/

March 30, 2012

Three documentaries of note

Filed under: beatniks,Ecology,fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 6:13 pm

Reviewed below:

–“Beat Hotel”

–“God Save My Shoes”

–“Surviving Progress”

In catching up with AMC TV’s terrific “Mad Men” series (Season Five began last Sunday), I was watching an episode from Season Two the other night. Peter Campbell, a copywriter from a very Waspy family, went to a doctor with his wife to find out why they were having trouble procreating. Set in 1962, it was natural for the doctor to ask Campbell in his one-on-one discussion with him: “Do you really want to have a child?” Campbell replied vociferously, “How can you ask such a question? Everybody wants to have children.”

As part of its ongoing attempt to reflect different aspects of American society, the show depicts the burgeoning counter-culture—even including the bearded hipster copywriter named Paul Kinsey.

As I watched the exchange between the doctor and Peter Campbell, I could not help but think of the opening lines of one of my favorite poems from the early 60s, Gregory Corso’s “Marriage”:

Should I get married? Should I be good?
Astound the girl next door with my velvet suit and faustus hood?
Don’t take her to movies but to cemeteries
tell all about werewolf bathtubs and forked clarinets
then desire her and kiss her and all the preliminaries
and she going just so far and I understanding why
not getting angry saying You must feel! It’s beautiful to feel!
Instead take her in my arms lean against an old crooked tombstone
and woo her the entire night the constellations in the sky-

When she introduces me to her parents
back straightened, hair finally combed, strangled by a tie,
should I sit with my knees together on their 3rd degree sofa
and not ask Where’s the bathroom?
How else to feel other than I am,
often thinking Flash Gordon soap-
O how terrible it must be for a young man
seated before a family and the family thinking
We never saw him before! He wants our Mary Lou!
After tea and homemade cookies they ask What do you do for a living?

For countless numbers of young people, Corso’s poem symbolized an alternative path for living in America by one’s own rules. Instead of buying into the suburban utopia with its split-level houses and two-car garages, we would make life into an adventure—smoking dope, hanging out in Lower East Side tenements listening to Charlie Parker records, working as clerks in bookstores, and trying to finish a novel or that next poem.

Just two nights after watching the “Mad Men” episode I had the exquisite pleasure of watching what might just be the best documentary on the beat generation, a film titled “The Beat Hotel” that opens at the Cinema Village in NY this evening.

Like the Chelsea Hotel in NY in the 1960s and 70s, the fleabag, no-name hotel at 9 rue Git le Coeur in Paris became a beacon for cultural rebels during the 1950s. Three of its leading denizens were the aforementioned Gregory Corso, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg who shared his tiny room with Peter Orlovsky.

The film relies heavily on the photographs of Harold Chapman who lived there as well. Chapman also supplies invaluable recollections of what life was like in the hotel, including fascinating details about its seediness. There was only one bathroom on each floor, each featuring a “Turkish” (or squat) toilet that evoked those Gahan Wilson cartoons from an old New Yorker Magazine.

“Beat Hotel” also includes some absolutely fantastic animation based on the paintings of Elliot Rudie who also lived there. Like Chapman, Rudie has plenty of great anecdotes about hanging out with Burroughs and the gang.

The hotel was owned and run by Madam Rachou who was sympathetic to political as well as cultural rebels. During the Algerian war of independence, she provided a haven for leftists being pursued by the French cops.

In contrast to the opulent but spiritually bereft environment of “Mad Men”, “The Beat Hotel” was a fertile oasis that brought great pleasure to the men possessed by a vision of a better world, even if it was not based on any kind of economic or political program. Allen Ginsberg, who put in some time as a copywriter himself, put it this way in “Howl”:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality,

Now, 57 years later after this poem was written, young people not that different than me continue to look to the beat generation as an inspiration. They, and people of any other age, should go see “Beat Hotel” to get an idea of how it all got started.

Also opening tonight at the Quad Cinema in NY is “God Save My Shoes”, a fascinating examination of women’s high heels. For those who have read my posts on Sex and the City, both the television show and the universally despised part 2 movie (except for me and WBAI’s resident Marxist film critic Prairie Miller), this review should come as no great surprise. As Karl Marx once said—quoting Roman playwright Terrence—”Nothing human is alien to me”. The same goes for me, including high-heel shoes.

Despite the film’s nod to Sex and the City as having inspired the explosion of sales in high-heels over the past decade or so, it has as much in common with a Modern Language Association convention as it does with pop culture. It interviews Manolo Blahnik, the shoe designer whose beautiful but largely unwearable commodities were favored—if not fetishized—by lead character Carrie Bradshaw. Indeed, the documentary shows outtakes from several fashion shows as runway models trip over their own feet bedecked in 5 inch heel shoes. A similar scene takes place in Sex and the City when Carrie tries modeling as a PR stunt.

Shoe designers like Blahnik are artists in their own right, even if their work might have the effect of confining women just as feet-binding and corsets did in an earlier age, as observed by Valerie Steele, the curator of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s museum (a school where my wife has taught political science classes for over 5 years.) In addition to Steele, we hear from Elizabeth Semmelhack, the curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, whose grasp of the history, the esthetics, and psychological and social implications of high heels is just as penetrating.

The academic experts allow for the possibility that such shoes empower women insofar as they raise their wearers to the same height as men. At the same time they fret over the obvious health hazards and their sexual objectification of women. This contradiction, of course, is at the heart of the film’s message and makes it such compelling viewing.

In keeping with the “Mad Men”/”Beat Hotel” times-are-changing motif expressed above, it occurs to me that the high-heels fad among young women is related in some ways to the almost universal tendency for African-American women to straighten their hair using toxic chemicals as pointed out in Chris Rock’s fascinating “Good Hair”. If the 60s was all about being “natural”, the late 70s onwards is much more about appearance—a repeat of the awful fifties in many ways. Let’s hope that the financial crisis might have a useful side-effect just as the 1930s Great Depression did, namely an impulse toward reexamining what the “good life” is all about.

On April 6th, a week from tomorrow, “Surviving Progress” opens at the Cinema Village in NY, the same locale as “The Beat Hotel”. This documentary can best be described as a look at the same phenomenon covered in Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, the tendency of civilizations to destroy themselves over time through unwise economic and environmental practices—but without Diamond’s crappy politics. Probably the first and best overview of this tendency was stated by Frederick Engels in “The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man”:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries … Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.

Unlike Diamond, directors Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks make the link between the capitalist economic system (even though they refrain from using the term) and environmental despoliation. In answering the question why the Amazon rainforest keeps getting chopped down even as it threatens to undermine humanity’s future, they call on left economist Michael Hudson who explains that Brazil was simply acting on the suggestion made by the IMF to pay off debts through the rapid and extensive use of agricultural exports. The general thrust of the film is to put the blame on the international financial system for a possible extinction of life as we know it. What makes this all the more interesting is Martin Scorsese’s role as executive director. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that the great artist of personal crime is beginning to understand that the biggest problem is corporate crime.

“Surviving Progress” has a stellar cast of academics like Michael Hudson (Stephen Hawking among them) and people in the political arena charged with the duty of saving the planet from predatory financial interests. Among them is Marina Silva, a Brazilian senator who was formerly Minister of the Environment, who is shown in the Amazon at a logging factory and at the small towns that house the desperately poor loggers and farmers encroaching on the forest. They plead their case, stating that if the Amazon is the lungs of the north, it is also the heart of the Brazilian poor. Without an Amazon to exploit, there is no future for them.

While the film does not get into alternative ways of economic development, it is fairly obvious that the future of the planet can only be guaranteed through the elimination of private property and the profit motive. As Hollywood fictional films continue their sorry descent into the cesspool, we can at least be assuaged by the determination of courageous directors like Mattieu Roy and Harold Crooks to tell the truth without worrying about whether their film will be the next blockbuster. For intellectual and political stimulation, and as well as to respond positively to an imperative to make such documentaries worth making, I urge you to put “Surviving Progress” on your calendar.

January 1, 2011

Reflections of a baby boomer

Filed under: beatniks,popular culture — louisproyect @ 9:17 pm

Baby boomer Louis Proyect

Technically speaking, I am not a baby boomer but feel qualified to say a word or two about the article Boomers Hit New Self-Absorption Milestone: Age 65 that appears in today’s NY Times. It was written by Dan Barry, a character I had a run-in with back in 2006 when he wrote a stupid attack on “squeegee men”, the intrusive beggars that persuaded so many Manhattan liberals like Barry to vote for Giuliani.

The article defines baby boomers as those who turn 65 in January. Born on January 26, 1945 I have my 66th birthday to look forward to. When I was born, my father was over in Belgium dodging Nazi bullets in the Battle of the Bulge. When he returned, I was 6 months old and something of a challenge to him. They say that when a father is not around for a child’s birth, he is likely to feel more remote. Not having more than 15 minutes conversation with dad in my entire life, I imagine that this was true in our case.

The article is focused on how my generation is hitting the brick wall of old age:

This means that the 79 million baby boomers, about 26 percent of this country’s population, will be redefining what it means to be older, and placing greater demands on the social safety net. They are living longer, working longer and, researchers say, nursing some disappointment about how their lives have turned out. The self-aware, or self-absorbed, feel less self-fulfilled, and thus are racked with self-pity.

So, then, to those who once never trusted anyone over 30: Raise that bowl of high-fiber granola, antioxidant-rich blueberries and skim milk and give yourself a Happy Birthday toast.

The article cites Steven Gillon, the author of “Boomer Nation: The Largest and Richest Generation Ever and How It Changed America” as some kind of expert. Barry sums up Gillon’s analysis as follows:

Previous generations were raised to speak only when spoken to, and to endure in self-denying silence. But baby boomers were raised on the more nurturing, child-as-individual teachings of Dr. Benjamin Spock, and then placed under the spell of television, whose advertisers marketed their wares directly to children. Parents were cut out of the sale — except, of course, for the actual purchase of that coonskin cap or Barbie doll.

“It created a sense of entitlement that had not existed before,” Mr. Gillon said. “We became more concerned with our own emotional well-being, whereas to older generations that was considered soft and fluffy.”

The boomers may not have created rock ’n’ roll, but they certainly capitalized on its potential to revolt against parents. And they may not have led the civil rights movement, but they embraced it — at least, many of them did — and applied its principles to fighting for the rights of women and gay men and lesbians. They came to expect, even demand, freedom of choice; options in life.

Some of this makes sense but all in all I prefer an analysis that adheres much more closely to the ebb and flow of history. Furthermore, I would not even begin to try to do what Gillon did, namely summarize an entire generation that—after all—includes both George W. Bush and me. Instead I will put my own personal story into the context of what happened in America from my birth date until today in as few words as possible. I am after all writing a blog entry not a book.

When I was around 14 or so, I began to become aware of both class and physical differences between my classmates, most of whom were Jewish like me. Many had parents in the hotel business and could afford to go to Miami Beach in December. They returned with suntans that they wore proudly to school like Gucci bags. Now that I am in my old age, I too enjoy such a distinction! It also mattered a whole lot what kind of car you drove. My father, who owned a fruit and vegetable store, owned a Chevy Biscayne while the kids who went to Miami Beach had parents who drove around in a Cadillac or a Buick. Adding to my resentment was how many got cars as gifts for a sixteenth birthday. They would drive around in a Chevy Impala convertible while I burned in my pedestrian envy.

Even worse, I was cursed to be a shrimp. Too small and too uncoordinated to make the basketball or little league baseball team, I began to feel left out. Although I wanted nothing more than to be in with the in crowd, I began to think in terms of an alternative life-style even at the age of 14.

In 8th grade, we had a social studies class that was taught by Bob Rosenberg, a New Deal liberal whose sister Cissie was an open member of the CP. One day Bob was telling us about a new book called “The Status Seekers” by a guy named Vance Packard that described how America was a land where the pursuit of money and power led people to live empty lives in the suburbs. Indeed, this was the reality that the TV series “Madmen” hones in on. While listening to Bob, I had an epiphany. This was exactly the world that my classmates and their parents lived in and that excluded me, largely out of an accident of birth. Perhaps had I been 6 inches taller and owned a Chevy Impala in which to tool around, none of this would have entered my mind.

All across America, there were people just like Louis Proyect who were feeling like outsiders. Even some tall, wealthy, muscular white kids felt the same way. Not long after Bob had brought “The Status Seekers” to our attention, I came across an article about the Beat Generation in Time Magazine. It began:

In the smoke-filled cellar cafés and cold-water flats of San Francisco’s waterfront and Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, the word these days is “beat.” Patriarch and prophet of what he calls “the beat generation” is a 35-year-old writer named Jack Kerouac, whose recent novel On the Road (TIME, Sept. 16) chronicled the cross-country adventures in cars, bars and beds of a bunch of fancy-talking young bums. Last week, in newspaper interviews with TV’s Mike Wallace, Novelist Kerouac and equally beat Poet Philip Lamantia explained that beatness is really a religious movement.

Interrogator Wallace asked San Francisco Poet Lamantia to explain two of his lines: Come Holy Ghost, for we can rise/ Out of this Jazz . . .

Said Lamantia: “You have to be pure. You gotta get through this life without getting hung up. That’s the whole question—not to get hung up …”

W. What is getting “hung up”?

L. Freezing. Freezing from others, from yourself, from the Holy Spirit. If you’re hung up, you can’t love, or care for others.

W. Why are so many members of the Beat Generation bums and tramps?

L. Oh, you see, Christ says go out and find the bums . . .Find the blind and the cripples . . . Christ invites everyone, including the outcasts. So there’s no contradiction at all between Christ and a bebopper and a hipster . . .

It was only when I was in my fifties that I learned that Bob Rosenberg’s sister was a CP’er and that he probably had been some kind of fellow traveler until turning into a liberal and a cynic. As for Lamantia, he was a member in good standing of the Surrealist movement that received much of its impetus from artists with Trotskyist politics, including André Breton. The late Franklin Rosemont, a premature boomer like me who tried to revivify the movement just around the time I was being radicalized by the war in Vietnam drew upon Lamantia’s expertise, as I recounted in a 2002 article:

A few months ago I posted an article about “Surrealism, Freud and Trotsky” that relied heavily on Franklin Rosemont’s collection of Andre Breton’s writings titled “What is Surrealism.”

This Pathfinder book belongs on the shelf of anybody who is interested in the intersection between revolutionary politics and avant-garde art and literature. Now thanks to Autonomedia Press (and especially editor Jim Fleming–a Marxmail subscriber who sent me a review copy), we have a volume that belongs on the same shelf. I refer to “Surrealist Subversions: Rants, Writings and Images by the Surrealist Movement in the United States.” Edited and introduced by Ron Sakolsky, this volume contains articles that originally appeared in the journal of Rosemont’s Chicago Surrealist Group titled “Arsenal/Surrealist Subversion,” and kindred publications.

In my first article, I mentioned that surrealism had taken root in the USA in the 1940s largely through the auspices of a magazine titled VVV. Among the editors was Martinique poet and playwright Aimé Césaire who articulated a surrealist version of Black Nationalism that influenced many black intellectuals, including esteemed contemporary African-American historian Robin D.G. Kelley whose articles can be found in “Surrealist Subversions.”

Another editorial board member at VVV was Philip Lamantia, who was to become best known as a leading figure of the new poetry of the 1940s and 50s that included the beats and the San Francisco Renaissance writers. It would not be much of a stretch to argue that Lamantia represents a link in the chain between the counter-culture of the 1930s and that of the 1960s. He eventually hooked up with Arsenal, along with fellow beat poet and African-American Ted Joans.

It is also not too far of a stretch to see Rosemont’s journal as constituting a link between an important sector of the contemporary radicalization that began in the 1960s with earlier strands going back to the 1930s and earlier, with the left wing of the beat generation constituting an important bridge between the two epochs.

This is a point that can’t be stressed often enough. The values that Gillon described as characteristic of the baby boomers–freedom of choice; options in lifehave nothing to do with being born in 1946. Instead they are the values of the permanent underground in the USA that goes back to the post-Civil War era and that arose as a left-bohemian opposition to the dominant mammon-worshipping culture.

Immediately after WWII there was a rapid expansion of the economy and a fierce repression of left-wing intellectuals that led to a retreat of the left cultural opposition. But it managed to remain intact despite McCarthyism and looked for “fresh blood”. It found support in the folk music revival as well as the post-beat generation movement that had spread across America. By 1961 it was ready to listen to anti-capitalist views about the malaise that affected so many of us, even though it would take the Vietnam War to finally open my eyes.

In my own life, politics has taken priority over personal options. I never considered going to live in a commune in Vermont or seeking enlightenment through one or another religious discipline. However, I do accept that if I had not been radicalized by the war in Vietnam and by working in Harlem for the welfare department, I easily could have gone that route.

I am somewhat at a loss to understand how young people feel nowadays. While there are obvious attempts to defy convention through personal appearances from tattoos to piercing, I wonder how many teenagers feel as alienated from the mainstream culture as I did in 1958.

Perhaps the one advantage we had was coming of age when the country’s economy was running on all eight cylinders. If you graduated college in 1965, you never had to worry about finding a job. The NY Times had 10 pages of classified ads geared to college grads—no experience necessary. Mostly, we didn’t bother looking there because it was so easy to pick up a job as a clerk in a bookstore or a record shop that paid well enough to cover your rent in an East Village tenement. Nowadays, college students must fret over whether a business degree will get them an interview at some disgusting financial institution.

I hold out hopes that a new radicalization will serve as a battering ram against the very forces that Vance Packard wrote about in 1958. As member of a generation now entering wintertime and beyond, my fondest hope is to serve as Lamantia did for my own generation 50 years ago. And, in my fondest hopes there is the possibility that some day we will be in the majority and allow the worshipers of Mammon to fall into the minority where they belonged all along.

September 13, 2010

Allen Ginsberg’s photograph of William S. Burroughs

Filed under: beatniks — louisproyect @ 5:49 pm

From a slide show accompanying the article on Ginsberg’s photographs of his friends from the beat generation.

I don’t know much about Burroughs’s politics but this should persuade anybody that he was not a rightwinger.

September 8, 2010

Howl

Filed under: beatniks,literature — louisproyect @ 6:27 pm

Like François Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl mixes fact and fiction in a recreation of the 1957 obscenity trial against Allen Ginsberg’s poem. Starring James Franco as the young poet, it is an ambitious attempt to evoke the social and political climate of the country at a time when challenges to the Cold War mindset were being mounted by the leaders of the beat generation.

In a clever casting move, two actors who have played major roles in dramas set in this period have been cast as the prosecution and defense attorneys, but in a kind of reversal. The prosecutor Ralph McIntosh is played by David Strathairn, who was memorable as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, a film that celebrated resistance to McCarthyism. The defense attorney is played by Jon Hamm, the actor who plays the iconic advertising executive Don Draper on Mad Men, the celebrated television drama about the 1950s. Throughout the film, we see herds of white collar workers marching off to work accompanied to Ginsberg’s words from Howl:

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse & the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality

Ginsberg is played by James Franco, who was cast as Harvey Milk’s lover in Gus Van Sant’s movie. Franco is an exceptionally intelligent actor who will be entering the Yale PhD program in English literature this fall while simultaneously studying at the Rhode Island School of Design. Throughout the film, he is seen in a reenactment of Ginsberg reading “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955. Franco had hopes for a number of years to do a project involving the beats, so this role was a natural for him.

Among those in attendance that evening was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights bookstore and publishing who decided to publish the book that would land him on trial for obscenity charges in two years. Ferlinghetti is 91 years old and still going strong.

The movie dramatizes Ginsberg’s friendship and intimacy with both Jack Kerouac and Neil Cassidy, although largely without dialog. Except for the reenactment of the obscenity trial, Franco’s performance of Howl, and an interview with him that runs throughout the film using Ginsberg’s actual words from various sources, the film is mostly wordless. This works particularly well with the animation of images from Howl based on the work of Eric Drooker who illustrated a recent volume of Ginsberg’s poetry, including Howl. Drooker’s images are particularly powerful, reminiscent in some ways of William Blake’s engravings.

Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were obviously motivated to explore Ginsberg’s ideas about art, which challenged conventional expectations about art in the 1950s. The prosecution witnesses appear absolutely clueless, especially an utterly clueless English professor named David Kirk, played ably by Jeff Daniels (Dumb, Dumber and now Dumbest) who tells the court that Howl was not genuine literature because it imitated the form of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. When the defense attorney asks him who Whitman imitated, he could not answer.

But the most interesting aspect of Howl has to do with its treatment of Ginsberg’s sexuality. After Ginsberg got kicked out of Columbia University, he moved out to San Francisco and took a job in advertising just like Don Draper, still not sure whether he would live the life of a gay man or not. After going into psychotherapy with a remarkably open-minded shrink, he was asked what he really wanted to do with his life. He replied that he wanted to live with Peter Orlovsky, his lover, and write. “Well, go ahead and do that”, the psychiatrist said and the rest is history.

Howl now joins the documentary on high fashion designer Valentino as one of the few movies that depicts blissfully happy and professionally fulfilled homosexual men. As opposed to the weepy fiction films from Philadelphia to Brokeback Mountain, it is a testimony to the potential for a fully realized life, something that all gay people could enjoy if they didn’t have to put up with the insane repression that was deepest in the 1950s but persists today.

Howl will open September 24 in New York, and October 1 in San Francisco and Los Angeles, with a national roll-out to follow.

July 12, 2010

Tuli Kupferberg: another great loss

Filed under: beatniks — louisproyect @ 11:44 pm

http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/12/tuli-kupferberg-poet-and-singer-dies-at-86/

July 12, 2010, 4:01 PM Tuli Kupferberg, Poet and Singer, Dies at 86

By BEN SISARIO

Tuli Kupferberg, the poet, singer and professional bohemian who went from being a noted Beat to becoming, in his words, “the world’s oldest rock star” when he helped found the Fugs, the bawdy and politically pugnacious folk-rock group, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 86 and had been a longtime resident of Greenwich Village.

He had been in weak health after suffering two strokes last year, said Ed Sanders, his friend and fellow Fug.

Mr. Kupferberg was something of a Beatnik celebrity when he and Mr. Sanders started the Fugs in 1964. Already in his 40s, he was an anthologized poet and published a series of literary magazines with titles like Birth and Yeah. And to his chagrin and embarrassment, he had also found a kind of notoriety as the inspiration for one of the characters in Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” He was the one who “jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten.”

Between 1965 and 1970 the Fugs released six albums of music that could be puerile (“Boobs a Lot”), politically provocative (“Kill for Peace”) or gentle and even scholarly (“Ah, Sunflower, Weary of Time,” based on a poem by Blake). The band became “the U.S.O. of the left,” Mr. Kupferberg once said, playing innumerable antiwar rallies, including the “exorcism” of the Pentagon in 1967 that was chronicled by Norman Mailer in his book “The Armies of the Night.”

In the years since the Fugs, Mr. Kupferberg has been a regular sight in Lower Manhattan, selling his satirical cartoons on the street and serving as an grandfather for bohemian types of all ages. He embraced the bohemian designation, tracing the word back to its origins back to 12th-century Paris, where “the craziest students once came from Bohemia,” he once said in an interview with the music Web site Perfect Sound Forever. Among his books were “1,001 Ways to Live Without Working.”

Lately he has been posting his sometimes ribald “perverbs” — brief videos punning on well-known aphorisms — on YouTube.

His survivors include his wife, Sylvia Topp; and three children.

A full obituary will follow.

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,085 other followers