Tag Archives: 1960s

That’s Cute that You Think You’re Subversive: How the CIA Promoted the Radical Arts During the Cold War

29 Jul

cia

 

 

During a recent writing workshop that I’m part of with two female writers, our conversation rambled along to the topic of how the CIA had advanced abstract expressionism. That weekend one of the writers asked if I’d pass along the article I had referred to. I did a quick search for it online, and realized I’d actually read several articles about how the CIA had been involved in promoting artistic and intellectual communities that many people tend to think of as nonconformist, liberal, and subversive.

Here’s a quick roundup of articles about the CIA promoting nonconformist art and literature:

  • The article I was thinking of was The Independent‘s “Modern art was CIA ‘weapon,’” about how the CIA used art to show how free-thinking the US was in comparison to Russia during the Cold War
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education published “How Iowa Flattened Literature,” which shows the CIA’s involvement with the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop
  • Work in Progress’George the Gentlemanly Ghost,” references the CIA being involved in The Paris Review.  It’s worth noting that Jack Kerouac’s first clip from On the Road was published in The Paris Review. (You can read more about that in my book Burning Furiously Beautiful.)
  • Encounter Magazine, the UK lit mag founded by poet Stephen Spender and journalist Irving Kristol in 1953, was funded by the CIA

I’m sure there are more, some we know of and some we don’t. Please add your stories and links in the comments section.

There’s a lot to be said here, but it raised a few questions for me:

  • Without the CIA’s help in funding and promoting modern arts, would these works have remained obscure?
  • Is modern art a scam, and traditionalists correct that it’s not real art?
  • Is the art and literature of the 1950s and ’60s a reaction to or a product of its times?
  • Can something be subversive even if it’s a political ploy?

Whole books could be written in answer to these questions. They’re important topics to consider and discuss, but I want to take a far less Big Brother approach and ask:

  • What are you trying to accomplish by being subversive?
  • Why do you want to be different?
  • Where do you get your information and how do you evaluate it?
  • Who is challenging you to think outside of your own box?

I’m all for dancing to the beat of your own drum. But is that what you’re really doing?

 

Which Decade Do I Actually Belong In??

30 Jan

quizimage via Buzzfeed

I’m kind of a sucker for personality quizzes, so naturally I took Buzzfeed’s “Which Decade Do You Actually Belong In?” quiz.

Anyone who knew me in high school would probably venture to say I should’ve been around in the ’60s. I became obsessed with The Beatles early on in high school, listening to all their greatest hits, watching their movies, learning how to play their songs on my guitar, and reading book after book about them. I wore bellbottoms and parted my hair down the middle. I thought Mary Quant was a genius. I hosted my own Woodstock party.

On top of my cultural tastes, I had what many East Coasters deemed to be a low-key, chill vibe that seemed to gel with the hippie mentality. I wouldn’t say I was all peace, love, and happiness. I was a teenager, after all, and my mother will gladly tell you I was moody. But, even so, if I was left alone I could easily just lay in the grass outside and ponder life.

But I didn’t get the 1960s; I got the 1950s.

I’d say maybe all reading and studying of Jack Kerouac rubbed off on me, but check out what Buzzfeed had to say about the person who belongs in the ’50s:

You yearn for a simpler time when people were polite, curt, and followed the rules. Maybe people say you’re a conformist, but you know you just like things to stay a certain way. Home is where the heart is.

Yep. That sounds about right. I’m a rule follower through and through and crave stability. Maybe that’s why I’ve always been so drawn to so-called counter-cultural movements and people who rebel against expectations. It’s escapism for me. I admire people who march to the beat of their own drum. I want to be like that. But I’m a cross your “t”s and dot your “i”s type of person. Literally. My career is founded upon anal-retentive attention to detail and to making texts conform to style.

But there is another part of me that does defy rules and expectations. I’ve always been sure of who I am and been true to myself in the greater scheme of life. Tell me I have to participate in class to get ahead, and I will stubbornly keep my mouth because I don’t want to play by society’s rules of social behavior. Expect me to be flaky in business matters because I’m an artist, and I’ll get all type A on you because I really care about my art and understand I have to treat it like a business.

We’re all like that deep down. Complex and individualistic. Not tethered to labels. The same goes for the so-called Beat Generation. Cultural critics argue that Beat writers eroded the pleasantries of the 1950s, but if you really look at the decade and if you really read their works you’ll see it was much more complex than that. The 1950s weren’t all separate twin beds for married couples and Leave It to Beaver childhoods. Jack Kerouac didn’t desire an aimless life on the road; he yearned for a ranch and family life.

Sorry. I didn’t mean to get all philosophical and literary over a Buzzfeed quiz! Anyway, I still think that if I could go back in time I’d want to go back to the 1960s.

What decade did you get? Which decade would you want to live in?

The British Are Coming!: The Beat Generation’s Influence on The Beatles

12 Nov

9781617804618_p0_v1_s260x420Check out the turtlenecks on the cover of Meet the Beatles

Yesterday, inspired by Olivia Cole’s article “Won over by the West: The irresistible allure of Americana for post-war Britons” for the November 2013 issue of British GQ, I kicked off a week-long series about the relationship between the Beat Generation and the British Invasion. I didn’t get too much into her article, but instead I wrote about the general history of each “group” (please take this term lightly; neither was an intended movement or formal group) and how and why they are connected. Today, I want to share a fun story with you about the two longest love affairs (Oh gosh, take that even lighter. People get so mad when I use hyperbole.) of my life: the Beatles and the Beats.

I was a HUGE Beatles fan back when I was in high school. I can’t quite remember how I got into the Beatles, but I know it’s not because of my parents. My dad didn’t listen to music. I was raised on smooth jazz, Prince, Lionel Ritchie, and Stevie Wonder, thanks to my mom. As I grew up and started discovering music on my own—Vanilla Ice, Boyz II Men, Snow, Positive K, Arrested Development, REM (should I go on? Ah, nostalgia)—she was the cool mom that listened to whatever I listened to on the radio. My mom was actually too young to be into the Beatles. In the craze of my own private Beatlemania, I pestered her for information, and she said she remembered her older sister getting a letter from their cousin in Sweden talking about this new band The Beatles and how popular they were.

One of the first exposures I had to Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation came through The Beatles. I owned a VHS — yes, I’m that old! — documentary about The Beatles. It was a pretty low-quality documentary that I think I picked up at the K-Mart at the Closter Plaza. I don’t remember the name of it, but I used to watch it over and over again after school. I remember it saying that John Lennon named The Beatles, in part, because he was influenced by the Beat Generation. I didn’t know what the Beat Generation was at the time, nor did I bother to look it up — again, I’m old, and this was before I’d ever even heard the word “Internet,” so looking things up required going to the Closter Public Library and rifling through the encyclopedias. Still, when you watch something on repeat enough times, it gets ingrained in your memory, and when you suddenly learn something new, the threads of your brain weave everything together.

Wayne Mullins explored this in his essay “Long John Silver and the Beats” for Beatdom:

Several name changes occurred in the early life of the Beatles before John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe decided to honour the memory of Buddy Holly by changing the band name to the Beetles (as a play on Buddy Holly and the Crickets), but as John Lennon was a fan of clever word play he decided to change the spelling of The Beetles to Beatles as a way to suggest “beat” or “beat music”. As John Lennon said in a 1964 interview, “It was beat and beetles, and when you said it people thought of crawly things, and when you read it, it was beat music.”

Mullins goes on to prove the Beat–Beatles by discussion John Lennon’s art school education and the exposure he had to instructors who were fans of the Beats and the meeting of Lennon and Allen Ginsberg. He also makes notable claims about the parallel paths the Beats and the Beatles took toward enlightenment, coming from religious upbringings, looking toward the East, and returning (or at least considering) the religions of their youth. The article also points out that Jack Kerouac and Lennon both rejected the associations people made with them, preferring to remain autonomous.

Steve Turner’s book Jack Kerouac: Angelheaded Hipster also speaks to Kerouac’s influence on Lennon:

[John Lennon’s] fellow student Bill Harry specifically remembers Lennon reading “On the Road” and the short story “The Time of the Geek”, which was published in an anthology called ‘Protest’ in 1960. “He loved the ideas of open roads and travelling,” says Harry. “We were always talking about this Beat Generation thing.”

Mullins’ story about Lennon’s meeting Ginsberg was just one incident. The Allen Ginsberg Project post “Sunday 9th – John Lennon” recalls when Ginsberg invited The Beatles to his birthday party and Lennon and George Harrison showed up with their wives.

When the Nixon administration wanted to deport Lennon and Yoko Ono, Beat poet Gregory Corso wrote a letter, as did a whole lot of other famous people, according to John Weiner’s article “How Bob Dylan, Gregory Corso, Joyce Carol Oates and Others Helped Stop Nixon From Deporting John Lennon and Yoko Ono” in the Los Angeles Times.

The Beatles also had an affinity for William S. Burroughs, who appeared on the cover art of their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Not only that, in the Dangerous Minds article “The William S. Burroughs/Beatles connection,” Richard Metzger writes:

Over the weekend, I noticed the following passage in the book With William Burroughs: A Report From the Bunker by Victor Bockris:

Burroughs: Ian met Paul McCartney and Paul put up the money for this flat which was at 34 Montagu Square… I saw Paul several times. The three of us talked about the possibilities of the tape recorder. He’d just come in and work on his “Eleanor Rigby.” Ian recorded his rehearsals. I saw the song taking shape. Once again, not knowing much about music, I could see that he knew what he was doing. He was very pleasant and very prepossessing. Nice-looking young man, hardworking.

He goes on to elucidate the obvious connection: Barry Miles, whom The Allen Ginsberg Project also points to. Miles deserves his own post, but in short the thing to know is that he owned a bookshop in London that was frequented by the Beats when they were there, and he wrote about The Beatles and 1960s London underground culture.

Tune in tomorrow when I finally get into the meat of Cole’s article by discussing her commentary on The Kinks’ frontman Ray Davies’ new memoir.

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

The British Are Coming!: The Beat Generation’s Influence on The British Invasion

11 Nov

In her fascinating article “Won over by the West: The irresistible allure of Americana for post-war Britons” for the November 2013 issue of British GQ, Olivia Cole posits that imported media of post-World War II America attracted the British to the United States—and specifically points to influence of the Beat Generation.

This week I’ll be talking about Cole’s thesis in greater depth, but I think it’s important to kick this off with the relevant background information. My reasoning for this isn’t just that a lot of people may not be familiar with pop culture history but rather that by stressing the history we may actually come to a stronger argument in support of her thesis.

First things first, a mini timeline:

  • 1922: Jack Kerouac was born
  • 1939-1945: World War II
  • 1947-1991: The Cold War
  • 1955: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl published
  • 1957: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road published
  • 1964: The British Invasion

World War II and the Beat Generation

Born in 1922, Jack Kerouac was college-aged during World War II. As Paul Maher Jr., my coauthor for the book Burning Furiously Beautiful, writes:

Jack Kerouac set sail for Greenland on July 18, 1942 aboard the S. S. Dorchester. He had enlisted in the Merchant Marines and, if we take the romantic view of things,  was looking for intense experiences that could possibly stimulate him as an emerging writer.

Kerouac served in the Merchant Marines and in the United States Navy and was honorably discharged. England and the US were allies. I specifically wanted to reference Greenland, though, because it reminds me of the famous Beatles quip when a reporter asked the Beatles how they’re enjoying their 1964 tour of the United States:

Reporter: How do you find America?

Ringo Starr: Turn left at Greenland.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Kerouac’s novel was indeed an overnight success and influenced the culture of the time period. However, many derided the Beat Generation as tearing at American values. In 1958, the derogatory term “beatnik” was coined by journalist Herb Caen. It was an amalgamation of the word “beat” and “Sputnik.” Sputnik was a Russian satellite. Remember: this was during the Cold War, and Russia was not our ally. I’m belaboring this point for a reason:

The United States was invaded—culturally—by its ally. We had a British Invasion—on our music.  We did not experience a feared political Russian invasion.

While Beatles record burnings would occur in the years to come, the Beatles—the forerunners of the British Invasion—arrived in the United States, wearing dapper suits and singing about wanting to hold hands. Our allied invaders appeared (though anyone who actually knows their Liverpool and Hamburg start will laugh at this) much more squeaky clean than our own author, Jack Kerouac, who was writing about drugs and s-e-x.

After all the patriotism surrounding World War II and the “beatnik” fad had played out by the sixties, America was primed to look elsewhere—as long as elsewhere was still “safe.”

The British Invasion

The British Invasion occurred less than a decade after Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel On the Road was published, but it was not an immediate reaction to the Beat Generation.

The year 1964 is the year The Beatles landed in America. This set off the British Invasion. The British Invasion refers to British bands such as The Beatles and The Kinks (who were formed in 1964) but also The Rolling Stones (who were formed in 1962) and The Who (who were formed in 1964), not to mention bands who may be less familiar today but still influential such as The Animals, Peter and Gordan, and Herman’s Hermits, who dominated the music scene and wildly impacted the culture of the United States in the mid-60s.

Cole’s article begins with The Kinks’ Ray Davies’ new memoir, mentions the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards’ memoir, and concludes with Iain Sinclair’s new memoir. A little background information to tie them together: Richards and Sinclair were born in 1943, Davies was born in 1944. Davies and Richards were born in the greater London area, and Sinclair in Wales. In other words, all were born in the UK within a year of each other. While Sinclair is writer and filmmaker and not technically part of the British Invasion, and while Cole herself does not use the phrase, it is central to her themes. Let me state the obvious: These Britons were not peers of Kerouac’s. In fact, they were about twelve or thirteen when On the Road came out.

It’s reasonable to conjecture that it takes a generation for ideas to create momentum and impact culture. Beatnik shtick around the height of the Beat Generation—itself a marketing tool—was gimmick.

The ideas presented by the so-called Beat Generation took hold perhaps in a more powerful way as it basted in young, impressionable minds, who were more willing to see things from a fresh vantage point and implement change. The new generation of creatives could actually impact culture in a much more meaningful way. This is how we see that the bands that rose to prominence during the sixties were more directly impacted by the Beat Generation than perhaps the Beat Generation’s own peers. This is evident in American music of the time as well: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, born in 1931, was influenced by Kerouac, and Bob Dylan, born in 1941, was encouraged by the Beats.

Now, whether they all truly understood the message behind the different Beat writers works is a different story—as is that hopefully not-too-subtle remark I just made that the writers associated with the Beat Generation can’t all be lumped into one category with one thought. They were individuals and did not always agree with one another’s politics.

The British may have been inspired by the Beat Generation and their work may have resonated with the American audience in the mid-1960s, but Jack Kerouac wanted no credit for the hippie movement that followed. He felt that they distorted his views. If You Walk in Your Sleep…’s “Collective Memory: Kerouac Hated Hippies” speaks to this.

The British are coming! The British are coming! Tune in tomorrow when I talk about the relationship between The Beatles and The Beat Generation.

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Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is now available as an ebook and paperback!

Review: Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder

14 Mar

ferlinghetti_splash

I caught the documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder (2009) at Anthology Film Archives this past weekend. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is one of my favorite poets, for his use of language and whimsy. I’ve long appreciate his commitment to freedom of speech, and this documentary made me more aware of how he used his position as a poet and bookseller for activist purposes. Quirky fact: he uses the windows of his office at City Lights as a “blog,” writing his political thoughts for all who pass by to see.

Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder is star-studded, including informative interviews and clips with everyone from Amiri Baraka, David Amram, Jack Hirschman, Michael McClure, Anne Waldman, and George Whitman to Giada Diano, Bill Morgan, Dave Eggers, and Lorenzo Ferlinghetti. It impresses upon the viewer just how important Ferlinghetti is by indicating his support of Bob Dylan, his place in American poetry, awards given to him, and the naming of a street after him.

The biographical background information is fascinating, particularly when we hear about Ferlinghetti’s rearing in France, how his mother’s ineptitude at caring for him led to his being raised by the daughter of the founder of Sarah Lawrence College, and his service in World War II (spoiler alert: he saw Nagasaki right after the bomb dropped). There’s even a scene in which Ferlinghetti searches for his roots in Italy, where he was arrested for trespassing when he tried to get a sneak peek at where his father grew up! This of course is all balanced with his founding of City Lights, the Howl trial, and the Human Be-In.

All of it is wonderful, but its broad scope and pacing left the film falling flat in terms of its aesthetics. As a biographer, I understand how director/producer Christopher Felver must have struggled with the editing process. How could he cut anything out when it’s all so important? No one wants to see significant and appealing research fall on the cutting room floor. As a viewer, though, I would have preferred a more limited scope or narrative approach. It would have been a stronger film if Felver, who worked on the documentary for ten years, ruthlessly edited his work to give it a story arc. This film is best suited for those interested in learning more about the free speech movement, poetry in America, the Beat Generation (though Ferlinghetti adamantly declares in one scene “Don’t call me a Beat! I never was a Beat!”), San Francisco, and the 1950s and ‘60s. I’d recommend Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder for high-school English classes as well as for writers in general, as it motivates one to consider poetry as subversive action.

How to Murder a Woman’s Sense of Worth

20 May

The other night I watched the 1965 film How to Murder Your Wife.  First of all, the dancing was outrageous!  I wish I could travel back in time and attend parties in the 1960s.  Okay, but second of all, the clincher of the movie is that a comic-strip writer is on trial for supposedly killing his wife and sets out to prove that she—and all wives—deserve to be murdered.  The all-male jury acquits him on those grounds!  A quick Internet search and I discovered it wasn’t until 1975 that the Supreme Court ruled that women could not be excluded from the jury pool.  (Marissa N. Batt wrote an enlightening article on this in 2004 for Ms.)

1975!  That’s not that long ago.

Close to five decades after How to Murder Your Wife, the comedy Bridesmaids has just come out.  I was talking to a guy I respect the other day about wanting to see it, and he verbally rolled his eyes about it being a chick flick.  I disagreed saying it’s supposed to be like The Hangover but with women as the leads.  I’m not so sure my argument won him over.

As much backlash as there has been over feminism and as much as people think women have obtained equal rights, it seems that that’s just not the case.  Women and girls will watch movies with men as the central character, but if a movie has a female lead it’s denounced a chick flick, unsuitable for guys.

According to a new study released this month, 31% of children’s books have a female central character.

Only 31%.

Are the VIDA findings so surprising then?