BEAT UP: Repression, rebellion, apathy. Rinse and repeat. That's what the course of human history boils down to: three stages of evolution or devolution, with a bit of "status quo" sandwiched in between for distinguishing purposes. Or to take the popular aphorism, shit is prohibited from happening, so shit happens, and then so much shit has already happened, nobody gives a shit. Repression, rebellion, apathy.
...Thoughts last week in a darkened, empty theater, as we watched a young man bathed in red light clutch his body and project Allen Ginsberg's Howl into a microphone, his monotonous yelling swallowed up by row upon row of empty chairs. It was sad, really.
The occasion was Earworm, "a beat ritual performance work in three acts," created and directed by Sam Stone. The production purportedly opened to a packed crowd some months ago at the Theater Congress, and heralded its move to the much larger Rialto Theater as a celebratory performance "back by popular demand!"
Yes, well. A crowd of 25 turned out for the opening performance on Thursday, February 26, which would be quite a crowd in the intimate Theater Congress. But scattered as they were throughout the cavernous Rialto, it gave the appearance that there were maybe a handful of on-lookers. In fact, there were only a couple of people in attendance who looked like they could've even been born when Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Diane di Prima and William Burroughs--the authors whose works were being celebrated there on the stage--made their mark on the world. (That would've been the late '50s and early '60s.)
Not that age makes any difference, necessarily. But we mention it because everything about Earworm has to do with "getting it." See, it's cool, get it? And it's this crazy beat energy, this free-floating, free-wheeling, incredible celebration of individuality and experience and nihilism, dig? It's Kerouac, man; and Ginsberg, man; di Prima talking about putting her fingers into her cunt (that's a quote, censors); and William S.-Fucking Burroughs, that crazy cat who shot his wife in the head because he was such a great junkie marksman. And now we're remembering them, see?
Who? we ask. Who's remembering them? Who's being remembered? For all their enthusiasm and support (the list of sponsors for this thing is truly remarkable), the performance itself was a great big huh?
Not that it wasn't cool, mind you. Marco Rosano and The Six Shoes (a three-piece combo with upright bass, drums and alternating sax and keyboards) kicked in with a terrific set of spontaneous rhythms; and Stone's brief introductory scat-narration, while largely incomprehensible from where we were sitting, was smooth as Humboldt green.
And young "Jack" lit up there onstage in the non-smoking theater (we mention it because the glow of that hip little cancer stick was so alluring that a few of the few in the audience were moved to follow suit); and told us all about the first time he met Dean Moriarty. "And it isn't everyday you hear Howl read onstage," one audience member pointed out. Too true. The memorization sounded flawless, which is no small feat. Definitely cool. No doubt about it.
It was all just so utterly devoid of meaning.
See, when Ginsberg and Kerouac came out of nowhere in 1957 to shock an anesthetized generation of Americans with their respective Howl and On the Road, no one had seen the like. Or perhaps more accurately, they hadn't seen the like firsthand.
The handful of writers who became the core group of the Beat school were the new reactionaries, rejecting the conventions and repressive social values of what they saw as a contrived, consumerist cult of mediocrity in the post-World War II era. Enough of God and country; they wanted a life and writing based on individual experience. As Ginsberg put it in Howl (1957), "of God, sex, drugs and the absurd." They began as an intellectual elite; and they aimed to be outsiders...expatriates, addicts, you name it.
"This outsider lifestyle was taken over by the hippies in the '60s," states one of those simplistic desk encyclopedias in the definition for "beat generation." We imagine a future desk reference might say the same about the "Y generation" (we guess that's what they're called) co-opting the perceived hippie lifestyle: aimless teens and early twentysomethings characterized by Army surplus, dreadlocks and scruffy puppies on wallet chains, sparechanging along Fourth Avenue.
But they've missed the Beat.
The Beat writers were not a bunch of drop-out slackers from the get-go. Ginsberg (1926-1997) studied at Columbia University, as did novelist Kerouac (1922-1969). Both learned the rules long before breaking them: Kerouac was 35 when he published On the Road, seven years after his first (and conventional) novel, The Town and The City. And before Burroughs became the world's most infamous heroin addict, he was a Harvard-educated heir to his grandfather's adding-machine fortune.
These were privileged, educated men, aware and at times frustrated that they were largely a product of their times. What they were playing with was the proportion: How much was experience and how much was accident? How could they differentiate themselves from the many before them who'd rallied against the same relentless forces of social and political conformity? Modern audiences don't seem as cognizant of history as their heroes were.
What makes the experience of the Beat writers relevant is that it was their experience. Like the surrealists before them, this inner and outer psychedelic journey was an unbeaten path in the '50s and '60s. In 1998, the message of self over society is trite; this is territory exhaustively covered in three decades of sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, therapy and recovery.
It would've been cool if Earworm offered something of a commentary or dialog on the subject. As it is, there's no way to tell what the creator and performers intended, other than to be cool. The sad irony is that even if they have a message, few seem interested in hearing it. Or maybe the sparse attendance is a sign that potential audiences just don't understand the relevance of hipster dogma to their own lives.
Wish we could help.
Unfortunately, there's nothing new about standing on a stage spewing esoteric absurdism. Off the top of our heads, we can't remember further back than the Dadaists, led by poet Tristan Tzara, who stood on a Zurich stage in 1916, babbling nonsense and hurling vegetables at the audience. But that's a good start. Theirs was a reaction to what they considered the madness of Switzerland's neutrality amidst the violence and chaos in Europe during World War I. They influenced the later surrealists, who no doubt influenced the Beat writers, who influenced the pop-artists, who made co-opting absolutely anything a viable expression of self-expression. Repression, rebellion, apathy. Ho-hum.
But see Earworm for yourself before you decide. While the artistry of this production might be overrated, it's a respectable reading and an appropriate eulogy for souls departed. (Kerouac's life was cut short in 1969 at age 57; Ginsberg died at age 70 from complications due to liver cancer in April 1997; and against all odds, first-born Burroughs held on until August 1997, dying of a heart attack at age 83. Di Prima is still alive and well, with the first volume of her autobiography, Recollections of My Life as a Woman, slated for publication by Viking/Penguin in 1999.)
Earworm, as performed by Sam Stone and His Nasty Habits, continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, March 5 and 12, and Wednesday, March 11, at the Rialto Theatre, 318 E. Congress St. Admission is $7 in advance, $8 at the door. For tickets and information, call 740-0126.
CANNON BALL: You can get a second (or third, or fourth) serving of Red Meat with what will probably be the last Tucson booksigning for cartoonist Max Cannon's collection of comics from the secret files. Join the author from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, March 12, at the new Barnes and Noble Bookstore, 5130 E. Broadway. The trade-comic collection of more than 100 of the author's and friends' favorite Red Meat cartoons is in its second printing on St. Martin's Press. (That means they're selling lots and lots of them!) You can pick up your own limited-edition signed copy, along with new glow-in-the-dark t-shirts featuring Bug-Eyed Earl, at next week's signing. Call 512-1166 for more information.
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