Monday, February 18, 2008

Saturday, January 16, 1960: Cult of Bop

That grand wild sound of bop floated
from beer parlors; it mixed medleys
with every kind of cowboy and
boogie-woogie in the American night.
--Jack Kerouac, On the Road

According to Barry Miles' The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso in Paris, 1957-1963 (Grove Press, 2001), on January 16, 1960 William Burroughs (pictured) had been a boarder at the “Beat Hotel” in Paris, a decaying Left Bank rooming house (closed 1963) at 9 rue Git-le-Coeur, for precisely two years, having moved there on January 16, 1958. Although it had circulated in various drafts prior to his arrival in Paris (from Tangier) two years before, his major work, Naked Lunch, was essentially finished. By January 1960, the novel had been in print just a few months, having been published in Paris by Olympia Press the late summer of 1959, by which time all the important texts written by the Beats were completed: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), and Gregory Corso’s Bomb (1958) were all in print prior to Naked Lunch, the last of the "Big Four" to see print. Yet unlike the other texts, Naked Lunch is an assemblage of “routines” (Burroughs’ term), meaning it reads more like a codex than a scroll (in contrast to, say, the poems by Ginsburg or Corso, or Kerouac’s On the Road, literally written on a scroll), which is to say Burroughs was open to the creative possibilities made possible through electronic media such as film (the “cut-up” method).

Hence the major works of the Beats were completed or drafted before the popularization of rock and roll (Elvis, 1956) in American culture. The Beats modeled themselves on the post-World World II beboppers or boppers—self-conscious modernists (for a discussion of beboppers as self-conscious modernists, see Chapter 5 of David W. Stowe’s Swing Changes: Big-Band Jazz in New Deal America, 1994). Like the expatriate Americans of the 1920s—“the Moderns”—the Beats settled, at least temporarily, in Paris. Since the Beats perceived themselves as representing everything that was modern (“hip”), Kerouac invoked “That grand wild sound of bop” in On the Road (written 1951). (As many scholars have observed, musical discourse has often provided the language for debating issues of American identity; as the above quotation from On the Road reveals, Kerouac uses a musical metaphor to capture the uniqueness of America.) In a sense, Kerouac had to endorse bop, to associate himself with it, in part to allow for the cultural acceptance of his work. As David Stowe explains:

A romance with the symbols of high culture and learning pervaded the bop subculture. . . . Whatever its utilitarian considerations, the bop dress code seemed lifted from the Parisian avant-garde. . . . [Some] learned Arabic in order to study the Koran. In addition to paying homage to avant-garde European composers, the jazz modernists gave their compositions quasi-academic titles like “Epistrophy” and “Ornithology.” Much was made of bop artists’ ability to converse about intellectual matters; one described [Dizzy] Gillespie as “deep,” and [Charlie] Parker as someone who “could converse on any level about anything.” Gillespie recalled lengthy discussions with Parker about philosophy, politics, “the social order,” “life-style,” Marcantonio, and Baudelaire.” (211-12)

Not surprisingly, given the reputation for drug use by highly visible jazz figures such as Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong (although Armstrong’s use of marijuana was hardly a true narcotic such as heroin, to which Parker admitted an addiction), early on bop was linked by the media with vice. Stowe cites a Time magazine article from March 1946 that designated as “’the bigwig of be-bop’ singer Harry ‘The Hipster’ Gibson, who with guitarist Slim Gaillard had recorded such reputed bop anthems as ‘Who Put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy’s Ovaltine?’ (which owed far more to Fats Waller than to bebop)” (207).

Slim Gaillard’s appeal to Beats such as Kerouac was in part due to his skills at verbal improvisation and word play (hence his appeal was much like Neal Cassady’s). His routines often employed nonsensical syllables during stream-of-consciousness rap sessions. Hence it is no wonder that there is an homage to one of Gaillard’s performances in On the Road.

Likewise, the neologisms and the distinctive argot of Naked Lunch owes as much to bop—that is, the post-war jazz subculture—as it does to the drug subculture (the more obvious candidate) that would have been familiar to Burroughs, although the language of the two subcultures overlapped to such an extent that it’s difficult to determine from which domain the words first emerged. Words such as “liquefactionist” and “factualist” as well as proper names such as “Mugwump” all ring of hipster culture. And while Burroughs referred to the various sections making up Naked Lunch as “routines,” he might just as well called them riffs, a musical term etymologically related to riffle, one of the meanings of which means to shuffle or rearrange a deck of cards. Care to cut (up) the deck?

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