Okay, here is the genesis of this little commentary. Rather a “tempest in a teapot”, I think, in the grand scheme of things and in the same category as White House flak, Robert Gibbs, and his inane blathering about “professional leftists” and their alleged carping on the short-comings of his boss, Barack Obama. But at least it gives me a lead for today’s commentary. Unfortunately it will come at the expense of a comrade, someone I care about and whose opinion I value, unlike Robert Gibbs (or his boss, for that matter). Here are the details.
I have recently been taken to task by this fellow member of the local anti-imperialist, anti-war ad hoc committee that I have belonged to for the past several years (and that I have written about previously in this space) who is miffed (I am being polite) at me for my constant use of the term, or variations of the term, “the great American night”, especially when dealing with the 1950s “beat” generation writers (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and the usual suspects). Now this is one of the comrades, a younger one, that I go back to the days of ancient memory Bush post-9/11 Afghan October war, bombing-them-back-them-to-the-stone-age, with, and who helped us, in all manner of ways, to get through those tough days when opposition to that war on the streets of Boston, and elsewhere in America, was an extremely dicey thing. So under normal circumstances I would be all ears when he had some comment or criticism. But here he is just “cannon fodder” for my commentary.
As readers may know this ad hoc committee is made up of various political types and is, most importantly, not bound by Leninist democratic centralist principles (nor could it be, as a patched together, if coherent, propaganda bloc composed of , well, I’ll be nice, characters ) and therefore I am not telling “tales out of school” by replying publicly here. Moreover, although Leninist organizations adhere to a single political line, publicly, and expect their members to maintain discipline on general questions those questions that fall outside of politics, like the subject of one’s attitude toward the “beats”, the use, or overuse of the term, “great American night”, or your favorite forms of music are matters of personal preference, as a rule. So I am firing away.
But there is more gnawing at me than making a public point at his expense. Go back to that young comrade’s point. We all come to leftist politics, young or old, in our own ways, and in our own good time. I have always been somewhat amazed at the variety of such experiences that, by now, almost defy categorization. We also come to out personal predilections in much the same way. Jazz, be-bop, bop-bop, techno-hop, hip-hop, poetry slam, folk jam, and so on. For a fact though he knows not, and I have drilled him on this, of ancient dreams of blue-pink great American West night dreaming old men, passed down from older men (mostly). Know or not know though, here is his answer.
There is no question that over the past year or so I have been deep in remembrances of the influences, great and small, of the 1950s “beats” on my own sorry teen-aged alienation and teen-aged angst (sometimes they were separate anguishes, sometimes tied together like inseparable twins, mostly the later) and the struggle to find my place in the sun, to write in bright lights my own beat plainsong. Of course, that "beat" influence was blown over me second-hand as I was just a little too young, or a little too wide-world unconscious, to be there at the creation, on those first roads west, those first fitfully car-driven, gas-fuelled, thumb hanging-out, sore-footed, free exploration west roads, in body and mind. And of that first great rush of the adrenal in trying to discover, eternally discover as it has turned out, the search for the meaning of the great blue-pink American West night. Ah, pioneer-boys, thanks.
I just got a whiff, a passing whiff of that electric-charged air, the sweet “be-bop”, bop-bop, real gone daddy, cooled-out, pipe-filled with whatever, jazz-sexed, high white note blown, howling in the wind plainsong afterglow. Moreover, somewhat tarnished, a little sullen and withdrawn, and media-used up by my time. More than one faux black chino-wearing, black beret’d, stringy-bearded, nightshade sun-glassed, pseudo-poetic-pounding, television-derived fakir crossed my path in Harvard Square in those high stakes early 1960s high school days. And a few real ones, as well. (A couple, whom I still pass occasionally, giving a quick nod to, have never given up the ghost and still haunt the old square looking for the long-gone, storied Hayes-Bickford, a place where the serious and the fakirs gathered in the late night before dawn hour to pour out their souls, via mouth or on paper. Good luck, men.). More to the point, I came too late to be able to settle comfortably into that anti-political world that the “beats” thrived in. Great political and social events were unfolding and I wanted in, feverishly wanted in, with both hands (and,maybe,feet too).
You know some of the beat leaders, the real ones, don’t you? Remembered, seemingly profusely remembered now, by every passing acquaintance with some rough-hewn writing specimen or faded photograph to present. Now merely photo-plastered, book wrote, college english department deconstruction’d , academic journal-debated, but then in full glory plaid shirt, white shirt, tee shirt, dungarees, chinos, sturdy foot-sore cosmic traveler shoes, visuals of heaven’s own angel bums, if there was a heaven and there were angels and if that locale needed bums.
Jack, million hungry word man-child sanctified, Lowell mills-etched and trapped and mother-fed, Jack Kerouac. Allen, om-om-om, bop, bop, mantra-man, mad Paterson-trapped, modern plainsong-poet-in-chief, Allen Ginsberg. William, sweet opium dream (or, maybe, not so sweet when the supply ran out), needle-driven, sardonic, ironic, chronic, Tangiers-trapped, Harvard man (finally, a useful one, oops, sorry), Williams S. Burroughs. Neal, wild word, wild gesture, out of ashcan all-America dream man, tire-kicking, oil-checking, gas-filling, zen master wheelman gluing the enterprise together, Neal Cassady. And a whirling crowd of others, including mad, street-wise, saint-gunsel, Gregory Corso. I am a little fuzzy these days on the genesis of my relationship to this crowd (although a reading of Ginsberg’s Howl was probably first in those frantic, high school, Harvard Square-hopping, poetry-pounding, guitar-strummed, existential word space, coffee, no sugar, I’ll have a refill, please, fugitive dream’d, coffeehouse-anchored days). This I know. I qualified, in triplicate, teen angst, teen alienation, teen luddite as a card-carrying member in those days.
More recently that old time angst, that old time alienation and a smidgen of that old time luddite has casted its spell on me. I have been held hostage to, been hypnotized by, been ocean-sized swept away by, been word ping-pong bounced off of and collided into by, head over heels language-loved by, word-curled around and caressed by the ancient black night into the drowsy dawn 1950s child view vision Kerouac/Ginsberg/Burroughs/Corso-led “beats” homage to the great American West night. (Beat: life beat-up, fellaheen beat-down, beat around, be-bop jazz beat, beatified church beat, howl poem beat, beat okay, anyway you can get a handle on it, beat.). The great American West “beat” breakout from the day weary, boxed-in, shoulder-to-the-wheel, eyes forward, hands to the keyboard, work-a-day-world, dream-fleshed-out night. Of leaving behind on the slow-fast, two-lane, no passing, broken-lined old Route 6, or 66, or 666, or whatever route, whatever dream route, whatever dream hitchhike gas station/diner highway beyond the Eastern shores night, of the get away from the machine, the machine making machines, the “little boxes” machine night, and also of the reckless breakout of mannered, cramped, parlor-fit language night. Whoa!
This Kerouacian wordplay on-the-road’d, dharma-bummed, big sur’d, desolation angel’d night, this Ginsberg-ite trumpet howl, cry-out to the high heavens against the death machine night, this Burroughs-ish languid, sweet opium-dreamed, laid-back night, this Neal Cassady-driven, foot-clutched, brake-pedaled, wagon-master of the to and fro of the post-World War II American West night, was not my night but close enough so that I could touch it, and have it touch me even half a century later. So blame Jack and the gang, okay and I will give you his current Lowell, Massachusetts home address upon request so that you can direct your inquiries there.
Blame Jack, as well, for the busting out beyond the factory lakes, corn-fed plains, get the hell out of Kansas flats, on up into the rockiesmountainhigh (or is it just high) and then straight, no time for dinosaur lament Ogden or tumbleweed Winnemucca, to the coast, come hell or high water. Ya, busting out and free. Kid dream great American West night, car-driven (hell, old pick-up truck-driven, English racer bicycle-driven, hitchhike thumbed, flat-bed train-ridden, sore-footed, shoe-beaten walked, if need be), two dollar tank-filled, oil-checked, tires kicked, money pocket’d, surf’s up, surf’s crashing up against the high shoulder ancient seawalls, cruising down the coast highway, the endlessly twisting jalopy-driven pin-turned coast highway, down by the shore, sand swirling, bingo, bango, bongo with your baby everything’s alright, go some place after, some great American West drive-in place. Can you blame me?
So as for that comrade, that well-respected young comrade, what would he know, really, of the great blue-pink American West night that I, and not I alone, was searching for back in those halcyon days of my youth in the early 1960s. What would he know, for example, except in story book or oral tradition from parents or, oh no, maybe, grandparents, of the old time parched, dusty, shoe-leather-beating, foot-sore, sore-shouldered, backpacked, bed-rolled, going-my-way?, watch out for the cops over there (especially in Connecticut and Arizona), hitchhike white-lined road. The thirsty, blistered, backpacked, bed-rolled, thumb-stuck-out, eternally thumb-stuck-out, waiting for some great savior kindred-laden Volkswagen home/collective/ magical mystery tour bus or the commandeered rainbow-marked, life-marked, soul-marked yellow school bus, yellow brick road school bus. Hell, even of old farmer-going-to-market, fruit and vegetable-laden Ford truck, benny-popping, eyes-wide, metal-to-the-petal, transcontinental teamster-driving goods to some westward market or kid Saturday love nest, buddy-racing cool jalopy road. Ya, what would he know of that.
Of the road out, out anywhere, anywhere west, from the stuffy confines of worn-out, hard-scrabble, uptight, ocean-at-you-back, close-quartered, neighbor on top of neighbor, keep your private business private, used-up New England granite-grey death-chanting night. Of the struggle, really, for color, to change the contour of the natural palette to other colors brighter than the New England leafy greens and browns of the trees and the blues, or better blue-greens, or even better yet of white-flecked, white foamed, blue-greens of the Eastern oceans. (Ya, I know, I know, before you even start on me about it, all about the million tree flaming yellow-red-orange autumn leaf minute and the thousand icicle-dropped, road strewn dead tree branch, white winter snow drift eternity, on land or ocean but those don’t count, at least here, and not now)
Or of the infinite oil-stained, gas-fumed, rag-wiped, overall’d, gas-jockey, Esso, Texaco, Mobil, Shell stations named, the rest lost too lost in time to name, two dollar fill-up-check-the-oil, please, the-water-as-well, inflate the tires, hit the murky, fetid, lava soap-smelled bathrooms, maybe grab a Coke, hey, no Hires Root Beer on this road. This Route 66, or Route 50 or Route you-name-the route, route west, exit east dream route, rolling red barn-dotted (needing paints to this jaded eye), rocky field-plowed (crooked plowed to boot), occasionally cow-mooed, same for horses, sheep, some scrawny chickens, and children as well, scrawny too. The leavings of the westward trek, when the westward trek meant eternal fields, golden fields, and to hell with damned rocks, and silts, and worn-out soils absent-mindedly left behind for those who would have to, have to I tell you, stay put in the cabin'd hollows and lazily watered-creeks. On the endlessly sulky blues-greens, the sullen smoky grey-black of mist-foamed rolling hills that echo the slight sound of the mountain wind tunnel, of the creakily-fiddled wind-song Appalachian night.
Or of diner stops, little narrow-aisled, pop-up-stool’d, formica counter-topped, red (mostly) imitation leather booth, smoked-filled cabooses of diners. Of now anchored, abandoned train porter-serviced, off-silver, off-green, off-red, off any faded color “greasy spoon” diners. Of daily house special meat loaf, gravy-slurp, steam-soggy carrots, and buttered mashed potato-fill up, Saturday night pot roast special, turkey club sandwich potato chips on the side, breakfast all day, coffee-fill-up, free refill, please, diners. Granddaddies to today’s more spacious back road highway locales, styled family-friendly but that still reek of meat loaf-steamed carrots- creamed mashed tater-fill. Spots then that spoke of rarely employed, hungry men, of shifty-eyed, expense account-weary traveling men, of high-benny, eyes-wide, mortgaged to the hilt, wife ran off with boyfriend, kids hardly know him, teamsters hauling American product to and fro and of other men not at ease in more eloquent, table-mannered, women-touched places. Those landscape old state and county side of the highway diners, complete with authentic surly, know-it-all-been-through-it-all, pencil-eared, steam-sweated uniform, maybe, cigarette-hanging from tired ruby red lips, heavily made-up waitress along the endless slag-heap, rusting railroad bed, sulphur-aired, grey-black smoke-belching , fiery furnace-blasting, headache metal-pounding, steel-eyed, coal dust-breathe, hog-butcher to the world, sinewy-muscled green-grey, moonless, Great Lakes night.
Or of two-bit road intersection stops, some rutted, pot-holed country road intersecting some mud-spattered, creviced backwater farm road, practically dirt roads barely removed from old time prairie pioneer day times, west-crazy pioneer times, ghost-crazy-pioneer days. Of fields, vast slightly rolling, actually very slightly rolling, endless yellow, yellow–glazed, yellow-tinged, yellow until you get sick of the sight of yellow, sick of the word yellow even, acres under cultivation to feed hungry cities, as if corn, or soy, or wheat, or manna itself could fill that empty-bellied feeling that is ablaze in the land. But we will deal with one hunger at a time. And dotted every so often with silos and barns and grain elevators for all to know the crops are in and ready to serve that physical hunger. Of half-sleep, half hungry-eye, city boy hungry eyes, unused to the dark, dangerous, sullen, unknown shadows, bed roll-unrolled, knapsack pillowed, sleep by the side of the wheat, soy, corn road ravine, and every once in a blue moon midnight car passings, snaggly blanket-covered, knap-sack head rested, cold-frozed, out in the great day corn yellow field beneath the blue black, beyond city sky black, starless Iowa night.
Or of the hard-hilled climb, and climb and climb, breathe taken away magic climb, crevice-etched, rock-interface, sore-footed magic mountain that no Thomas Mann can capture. Half-walked-half-driven, bouncing back seat, back seat of over-filled truck-driven, still rising up, no passing on the left, facing sheer-cliff’d, famous free-fall spots, still rising, rising colder, rising frozen colder, fearful of the sudden summer squalls, white out summer squalls. Shocking, I confess, beyond shocking to New England-hardened winter boy, then sudden sunshine floral bursts and jacket against the cold comes tumbling off. And I confess again, majestic, did I say majestic and beats visions of old Atlantic ocean swells at dawn crashing against harmless seawalls. Old pioneer-trekked, old pioneer-feared, old rutted wheeled, two-hearted remembrances, two-hearted but no returning back (it would be too painful to do again) remembrances as you slide out of Denver into the icy-white black rockymountainhigh night.
Of foot-swollen pleasures in some arid back canyon arroyo, etched in time told by reading its face, layer after layer, red, red-mucked, beige, beige-mucked, copper, copper-mucked, like some Georgia O'Keeffe dream painting out in the red, beige, copper black-devouring desert night. Sounds, primal sounds, of old dinosaur laments and one hundred generations of shamanic Native American pounding crying out for vengeance against the desecrations of the land. Against the cowboy badlands takeover, against the white rampages of the sacred soil. And of canyon-shadowed, flame-shadowed, wind swept, canteen stews simmering and smokey from the jet blue, orange flickering campfire. Of quiet, desert quiet, high desert quiet, of tumbleweed running dreams out in the pure sandstone-edged, grey-black Nevada night.
And then... .
the great Western shore, surf’s up, white, white wave-flecked, lapis-lazuli blue-flecked ocean, rust golden-gated, no return, no boat out, lands end, this is it coast highway, heading down or up now, heading up or down gas stationed, named and unnamed, side road diners, still caboose’d, ravine-edged sleep and beach sleeped, blue-pink American West night.
Yes, but there is more. No child vision but now of full blossom American West night, the San Francisco great American West night, of the be-bop, bop-bop, narrow-stepped, downstairs overflowed music cellar, shared in my time, the time of my time, by “beat” jazz, “hippie’d folk”, and howled poem, but at this minute jazz, high white note-blown, sexed sax-playing godman, unnamed, but like Lester Young’s own child jazz. Smoke-filled, blended meshed smokes of ganja and tobacco (and, maybe, of meshed pipe smokes of hashish and tobacco), ordered whisky-straight up, soon be-sotted, cheap, face-reddened wines, clanking coffee cups that speak of not tonight promise. High sexual intensity under wraps, tightly under wraps, swirls inside it own mad desire, black-dressed she (black dress, black sweater, black stockings, black shoes, black bag, black beret, black sunglasses, ah, sweet color scheme against white Madonna, white, secular Madonna alabaster skin. What do you want to bet black undergarments too, ah, but I am the soul of discretion, your imagination will have to do), promising shades of heat-glanced night. And later, later than night just before the darkest hour dawn, of poems poet’d, of freedom songs free-verse’d, of that sax-charged high white note following out the door, out into the street, out the eternity lights of the great golden-gated night. I say, can you blame me?
Of later roads, the north Oregon hitchhike roads, the Redwood-strewn road not a trace of black-dressed she, she now of blue serge denim pants, of brown plaid flannel long-sleeved shirt, of some golfer’s dream floppy-brimmed hat, and of sturdy, thick-heeled work boots (undergarments again left to your imagination) against the hazards of summer snow squall Crater Lake. And now of slightly sun-burned face against the ravages of the road, against the parched sun-devil road that no ointments can relieve. And beyond later to goose-down bundled, hunter-hatted, thick work glove-clad, snowshoe-shod against the tremors of the great big eternal bump of the great Alaska highway. Can she blame me? Guess.
Ya, put it that way and what does that young comrade, a dreamer of his own dreams, and rightly too, know of an old man’s fiercely-held, fiercely-defended, fiercely-dreamed beyond dreaming blue-pink dreams. Or of ancient blue-pink sorrows, sadnesses, angers, joys, longings and lovings, either.