In the opening chapter of the Rolling Stone Book of the BEATS (a comprehensive and insightful anthology), Brian Hassett writes:
Fire lights and smoking nights
And splashes of dripping paint;
Jazz explosions and constant commotions
LEAVE IT TO BEAVER this ain't!
He continues: It was the halftime show of the century: 1945-1955! Life was pretty uncertain after two world wars and two atomic bombs in too little time... Centuries old nations were tumbling by the month. Blackouts, rationing and depression were a way of life. The end was surely near. But leaning forward into this tension wind were some courageous artists transforming their media into gloriously honest expressions of the furthest and sometimes most beautiful reaches of our mind.
Through a door opened by Freud and into a room lit by Jung, Reich, Stanislavsky, Breton and others, the expression of the subconscious self - the center, the soul, the truth - became the new goal of artists all over the world... Jack Kerouac was blowing apart the novel and Allen Ginsberg the poem, Jackson Pollock was exploding canvases on Long Island, Charlie Parker was breaking the sound barrier on 52nd Street and Marlon Brando was ripping his chest open on Broadway.
As his essay, Abstract Expression: From Bird to Brando continues, Hasset makes all the right connections between the inward and outward journeys of artists, actors, dancers, musicians and painters in post WWII America who are searching for a way to live beyond the masks. I think the first two musicians who made this quest clear for me were Dylan and Zappa. I was intrigued by the poetry and politics of the early Dylan, but pushed deeper and lifted to some place beyond myself by songs like "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," "Gates of Eden," "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Rolling Stone," and "Ballad of a Thin Man."
Dylan fused the jazz experimentation of Beat poetry with the rock and soul blues of American roots music. He has written that he was going to chuck it all in 1963 given the rigid ideological posturing of his Leftist backers - and then while driving from Seattle to New Orleans he heard the Beatles. "God damn... I want to do that with American music." And he did - like Springsteen has often said: the world broke into a new and exciting tomorrow when Dylan began "Like a Rolling Stone" with that incredible opening snare drum crack!" Here was Ginsberg, Jesus and Paul Goodman rolled into Elvis and Muddy Waters. I know the heavens opened for me...
When I first heard Zappa, I was frightened. What do you want from an 8th grade suburban, white kid? I had no context: Edgar Varese? Freak-out? What did I know then? It is not a coincidence that the same jazz producer who worked with Dylan on his electric material (and later Simon and Garfunkel) also signed and produced the Mothers of Invention: Tom Wilson. He went on to work with another Beat-inspired favorites: the Velvet Underground from which hails St. Lou Reed and England's Soft Machine (inspired by William Burroughs's experimental novel of the same name.)
Zappa pushed the Beat critique of "plastic society" into clarity for this 14 year old boy. In addition to his do wop tunes, there was the Kafka-esque "Who Are the Brain Police?" as well as the wild ass, rambling "Help I'm a Rock" which my high school band used to do from time to time at various Jr. High School dances. It is part spoof, part jam, part social commentary and part verbal improv all in the spirit of pushing the edges
In so many ways, Zappa brought out the best of the Beats for me before I knew where to look for deeper insights. He once said, "Jazz isn't dead... it just smells funny." As well as: "Let's not be too rough on our own ignorance, it's what makes America great." With the rise of flower power - which he slammed as dangerous and naive - as well as the escalating war in Vietnam, it seemed that Zappa was on to something.
Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is THE BEST... The creation and destruction of harmonic and 'statistical' tensions is essential to the maintenance of compositional drama. Any composition (or improvisation) which remains consonant and 'regular' throughout is, for me, equivalent to watching a movie with only 'good guys' in it, or eating cottage cheese.
I think of Richard Brautigan - novels and poems - Richard and Mimi Farina's sweet music. I think of Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, the gentle beauty of Jefferson Airplane and the joyful embracing of all styles of music by the Dead. I think of Lenny Bruce and Bill Graham and the Fillmores on both Coasts and the great shows I saw in both. I think of walking with my baby, Jesse, through Golden Gate park and coming upon Paul Kanter at the carousel. I think of delivering my second baby, Michal, with midwives in a Haight/Ashbury apartment. I think of the first Bread and Roses Festival in Berkley. I think of City Lights Bookstore and Modern Times, too. I think of Country Joe and the Fish. I think of the Roxie Theater in the Mission. I think of Lawrence Ferllinghetti and Aldous Huxley. And I think of Grace Cathedral, the arts festival in North Beach and sipping wine at the edge of Chinatown. I think of Philip and Julie. And I think of walking forever with Dianne until our feet ached...
It will be interesting to see where this leads as Philip and I wander through some of contemporary San Francisco with a firm grasp on the Beat perspective, too.
A trout-colored wind blows
through my eyes, through my fingers,
and I remember how the trout
used to hide from the dinosaurs
when they came to drink at the river.
The trout hid in subways, castles,
and automobiles. They waited patiently for the dinosaurs to go away.