Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture by Simon Warner (London: Bloomsbury, 2013). ISBN: 978-0-8264-1664-3
Bob Dylan seems to be ubiquitous at the moment, even when he isn’t actually around. The Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, very loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, has its eponymous aspiring folk musician struggling for success in an early sixties New York folk scene that comes to be ruled by Dylan. As Steve Chagollan’s review in Variety makes clear, Dylan haunts the movie throughout, even though he does not appear in it. Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens inhabits very similar territory: Tommy Gogan, a folk guitarist with limited fingerpicking skills, bitterly reflects on how it feels “to have every third remark be did you ever open for Dylan, did you ever meet Dylan, was Dylan there is Dylan coming was it like Dylan I think I saw Dylan he’s a second-rate Dylan he’s no Dylan at all and why don’t we just pull down the signs and rename all the streets here Dylan. The corner of Dylan and Dylan where I first saw Dylan but you never see him anymore, do you?” (Lethem, 2013: 191). And even Reggie Nadelson’s forthcoming Manhattan 62, a noirish detective thriller set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, displays a nostalgic affection for a Greenwich Village “where the sky was blue, and girls with long hair lay in the green grass and read poetry” (Nadelson, 2014: Chapter 1) and where kids waiting in line at Café Wha excitedly ask: “Did you hear that new guy, Dylan? You heard him?” (Nadelson, 2014: Chapter 3).
Given the wealth of documented evidence connecting Bob Dylan to the Beats, it is unsurprising that he is also the pivotal figure in Simon Warner’s impressively comprehensive and frequently fascinating Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll. And in a book that runs to more than 500 pages, Warner can afford to adduce a substantial amount of that evidence, starting on the cover, which is adorned with Larry Keenan’s famous photograph of Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Robbie Robertson and Michael McClure posing in an alley adjacent to City Lights book store during the so-called “Last Gathering of the Beats” in late 1965. Circumstantial evidence it may be, but when it is combined with the other examples Warner provides – the similarities between Beat literary styles and Dylan’s lyricism; the singer’s contributions to various Ginsberg recordings in the 1970s; the apparent references to Beat publications in Dylan song titles such as “Desolation Row” and “Visions of Joanna”; Ginsberg’s appearances in the promotional film that accompanies “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and in Don’t Look Back; Dylan and Ginsberg’s recorded experiments in improvised rock poetry; and, famously, the visit of poet and singer to Jack Kerouac’s grave during the Rolling Thunder Revue – it is clear that Warner is justified in viewing the 1965 City Lights gathering as representative of a “transfer of countercultural power from the Beat realm to its transgressive, if more carnivalesque, successor” (Warner, 2013: 2). In Dylan’s case, at least, the influence of the Beats on rock music is indisputable.
However, Warner’s book encompasses much more music than Bob Dylan, even if he is perhaps the most important beneficiary of Beat influence. In a panoramic sub-chapter called “Beat and Rock: a Survey of Association” Warner argues for a Beat connection to the following artists (presented in no particular order) and many more: The Beatles (of which more later in this review), They Might be Giants, Rage Against the Machine, Tom Waits, 10,000 Maniacs, Weezer, Sonic Youth, Joe Strummer, Soft Machine, The Mugwumps, David Bowie, Genesis P-Orridge, U2, The Grateful Dead, Nirvana, Patti Smith, Public Enemy, Leonard Cohen, and REM. To list them so baldly and so haphazardly is not to satirise Warner’s approach, only to indicate the eclecticism and ambition of his project in this volume. But it does also suggest a problem, which is that terms as notoriously difficult to quantify as “influence” and “association” come dangerously close to a total evacuation of meaning when spread so thinly across so many possible targets and with such varying degrees of substantiality. While a plausibly strong association may be revealed when artists including Steven Tyler and John Cale contribute to a tribute album like Kerouac: Kicks Joy Darkness (1997), in other cases the connection is merely a matter of name checking Beat figures or texts in songs. Likewise, it might be possible to ascertain a Burroughsian approach to artistic creation in hip-hop’s commitment to looping and sampling, but to accept Mark Kemp’s assertion that “hip-hop’s cut-and-paste interpretation of modern life can be directly traced to Burroughs” (Kemp, 1999: 417), as Warner does, is, to my mind, to place too much emphasis on one strand of possible influence and to underplay the more complex constellations of musical, technological and cultural factors that contributed to the genre’s development.
Part of the problem lies in the book’s central premise, that the primary attraction of the Beat movement to the rock and rollers was “in its taboo-breaking, its rule bending and its risk-taking” (Warner, 2013: 33). The Beats certainly did all these things, especially William Burroughs, but so did many others before them, a point which raises the age-old question surrounding influence and association: where does one begin and end? Warner’s main thesis statement is especially revealing and ideologically awkward: “I do believe that it was rather the power that the Beats granted to the individual that was most important to the flame of rock ‘n’ roll: that power to choose the course that was not mapped out, petrified even, by the oppressive certainties of power, class, race, gender and sex, those certainties that had ossified society and drained the freedom of choice for men and women to plot a route that was unconventional, unexpected or resistant to the norm” (Warner, 2013: 35). Such an emphasis on “a freeing of the imagination, a releasing of the spirit,” on “opportunity,” is deeply romantic (and thus, it cannot be denied, highly appropriate for rock and roll), but while Warner acknowledges its “impressionistic” aspects (Warner, 2013: 35), he does not pursue the political logic of individualism unlike, say, Ian Macdonald in Revolution in the Head: the Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. Macdonald sees the hippie counterculture as only “a marginal commentary” on “an endemic process of disintegration with its roots in scientific materialism,” a kind of “economic Darwinism” based on instantaneity, removal from the collective, and the aspiration to live comfortable lives (Macdonald, 1994: 36). Thus the Thatcherite and Reaganite rejection of supposed sixties “values” was at best naive, and at worst utterly cynical because it was “the political voices of materialistic individualism” that benefitted most from the social transformations of the sixties (Macdonald, 1994: 36).
With this in mind, and even leaving aside the rejection of family, jobs, and security espoused by many of the Beats and the rock and rollers, it is not hard to see the pursuit of individual, immediate gratification described by Warner as participating in American mythologies of freedom and self-reliance of equal importance to both countercultural revolutionaries and neoliberal conservatives. Ginsberg, at least, engaged enthusiastically in social and political activism; Kerouac’s rejection of the counterculture, his distaste at the anti-war movement, and his “ragingly conservative” pronouncements in the last few years of his life (Warner, 2013: 28) illustrate the point I am making. In drawing attention to these unpalatable truths about the writer of On the Road, and to the fact that rock musicians nonetheless continued to idolise and ape the style of the rucksack revolutionary Kerouac, the free-spirited wanderer of legend, Warner does at least recognise that many rock and rollers shared “an idealised view of what [the Beats] were and what they did” (Warner, 2013: 29).
Warner’s book is at its best at such moments, when it delves more deeply behind the legends and debunks certain myths about the Beats and the music that supposedly drew on them for inspiration. A fine example is the chapter called “Muse, Moll, Maid, Mistress? Beat Women and Their Rock Legacy,” which argues that the male Beat stars – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, the womanising Neal Cassady – “had scant regard for the part that women might actually contribute to this narrative of rebellion” (Warner, 2013: 150). Warner’s study of, among others, the poets Diane Di Prima and Lenore Kandel and the memoirists Joyce Johnson and Elizabeth Von Vogt attempts to redress the balance, before moving on to further speculations about the post-Beat credentials of musicians such as Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith, and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. Of these, it is Smith for whom the evidence – “her verses to Burroughs and Ginsberg, her recorded homage to ‘Howl’ on the latter’s death” (Warner, 2013: 163) – is the most persuasive. Rather less convincingly, Mitchell’s restless experimentation and her eclecticism in a career that has taken in folk, jazz and painting are taken as shorthand for a Beat sensibility. Overall, however, the chapter on Beat and post-Beat women represents an important contribution to the field.
Equally compelling is the essay on The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. Even in Ian Macdonald’s account, which questions the record’s musical significance in comparison to its predecessor Revolver, Sgt Pepper is celebrated as “an inclusive vision” which surpasses Revolver “in spirit” and achieves a “holistic” vision (Macdonald, 1994: 234). Inspired, perhaps, by Ginsberg’s assessment of the album, Macdonald calls it “a distillation of the spirit of 1967” (Macdonald, 1994: 250) and all that phrase evokes – “flower power,” LSD, hippie communality and the summer of love. Warner’s forensic analysis expertly contradicts this assessment. For him, it is characterised not by immersion in the present, but by nostalgia (evidenced by Lennon and McCartney’s original vision of a record inspired by their Liverpool childhoods), not by liberation but by an idiosyncratically English mood of sexual repression and provincial melancholia. Moreover, “personal revelation” (Warner, 2013: 277) is largely eschewed and preference given to character studies such as “Lovely Rita” and “When I’m 64.”
In focusing on these two essays, I hope to have shown both Warner’s perspicacity and his wide-ranging research in this volume. In fact, despite the caveats mentioned earlier in this review, Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll succeeds because its eclecticism and its boldness in bringing genres together – it includes not only scholarly essays, but also interviews, reviews and obituaries – is consistent with the qualities he identifies in the Beats’artistic productions and their links with popular culture, as well as his own desire to break free of “disciplinary rigidity” (Warner, 2013: xvi). And occasionally Warner’s diverse approach throws up wonderfully productive and enjoyable dissonances. In this regard, and by way of conclusion, special mention has to be made of Warner’s interview with the poet Michael McClure. When the interviewer attempts to outline a hypothesis clearly not his own – that the Beats were inclined toward disengagement, and that certain key Beat figures in San Francisco may have felt resentment toward the wave of musicians arriving in the area – McClure fulminates, dismissing the theory as “bizarre” (Warner, 2013: 139) and telling Warner “You’ve got it really twisted around” (Warner, 2013: 141). Whether McClure was simply having a bad day, or is actually as cantankerous as the printed words suggest, the suspicion and near antagonism that frames much of the interview makes for thrilling reading. More importantly, its inclusion is an act of bravery on Warner’s part because it risks challenging some of the assumptions upon which the book is based. Most of all, it demonstrates just how treasured, important, and thus contested the Beats continue to be.
Chagollan, Steve. “Inside Llewyn Davis Recalls Folk’s Age of Innocence.” Variety 26 August 2013. <http://variety.com/2013/music/features/inside-llewyn-davis-t-boneburnett-coen-bros-oscar-isaac-1200586851/>.
Coen, Ethan and Joel (dir.). Inside Llewyn Davis. ACE, 2013.
Kemp, Mark. “Beat Generation in the Generation of Beats.” The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: the Beat Generation and the Counterculture. Edited by Holly George-Warren. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
Lethem, Jonathan. Dissident Gardens. New York: Doubleday, 2013.
Macdonald, Ian. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties. London: Pimlico, 1994.
Nadelson, Reggie. Manhattan 62. London: Corvus, 2014. (Thanks to the author for sending me an advance copy.)
Warner, Simon. Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: the Beats and Rock Culture. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.