Spirit Grooves Blogs
The Roots of the Sixties: The Beats

Published on February 12, 2014

Winter is cold this year and already too long, so I am editing various early areas of my life story, one of which is when I wanted to a beatnik, back in the late 1950s. Some of this was blogged before, but that was a while ago and these updates of that material

What is called "The Sixties" actually didn't start until the summer of 1965, which is like halfway through the decade, so what of those little-spoken of years from 1960 through the mid-1965? I don't know what they are officially called, but I call them the Post-Beat years, and they run from the late 1950s to, as mentioned, the summer of 1965, and they were crucial in helping to make the "1960s" what they were. For one, they represented the end of the Beat Movement, the remains of that day.

I was never a hippie, per se, but I was greatly influenced by the Beat Movement of the late 1950s, although I was a little too young for the full experience. That train had already left the station, but I still learned all that I could. And what was it that I learned from the Beats? What was that lifestyle actually like?

For one, I can start out by saying that the beats as I came to know them were very, very serious folk. Or was that just me? They had none of the wild dancing that came along with the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium in the mid-Sixties. They were in no way hippies. Slow dancing, sure. Light shows and strobes? No. And it was a different kind of drug scene as well.

Let's be clear; the Beats drank wine, not beer. Hard stuff, some, but it was not promoted. No, what we drank as Beats was wine, and wine with cigarettes or whatever else we might be smoking. And it was dark out too. The Beats did not celebrate the sunshine or the daytime as did the hippies when they finally arrived. The Beats were creatures of the night that only really came to life when it got dark out. Sure, we shuffled along the streets in the daytime wearing our old olive-drab army jackets and surplus clothing. I never wore a beret, but some of my friends actually did. I would have felt self-conscious in one. And remember, I was not a ‘Beat’, but only wanted to be. Alas, I was too young. I searched for the Beats everywhere, but they already were getting old. Even my naïve youth and enthusiasm for their existence could not revive them. It was like sand running through my fingers.

As mentioned, it was nighttime that was bohemian, and I mean all night or at least until the wee hours of the morning. I can remember when the album “My Favorite Things” by John Coltrane was released in March of 1961. I stayed up all night listening to it at Harvey Armstrong’s spacious second-floor apartment down on Packard Street. Armstrong not only had a grand place to live, but he had a beautiful girlfriend. I only had a single small room at the time and no girlfriend. I seem to remember I did have some Dexedrine (speed) that night, so sleep was not an option. It was coffee, cigarettes, and Coltrane, and the heartbeat was fast from the speed. What an album that was (and is). Next to the Miles Davis “Kind of Blue,” “My Favorite Things” was probably my most listened-to jazz album back then. And I particularly love the piano of McCoy Tyner on the title tune. It is just the best. If you have not heard it, really listened to it, by all means do yourself a favor! I had no idea at the time that in only a few short months I would be out on the road hitchhiking with Bob Dylan. Imagine that.

So what does the apprentice beatnik do? Well, I quickly established for myself that he or she is well read in literature and poetry. Ginsberg and Kerouac showed me that. Familiarity with the Existentialist philosophers like Sartre, Camus, and their kin is also suggested, and probably required. Kierkegaard? Yes, and Hegel too. Classical music (at least some of it) is mandatory, and the more the better, and jazz? The Beats were all about jazz. Blues was not big back then, at least in Beat circles, but folk music was fine.

My first home away from home was a tiny single room at 335 Packard Street in Ann Arbor, just across the street from Crazy Jim's, home of the Blimpy Burger, an Ann Arbor landmark that I am told recently has been torn down. This was around 1963 or so, before I moved out to Berkeley, California for a year early in 1964. There was a bed, a wooden chair, a side table which held a hotplate (which was not allowed, next to which was my jar of instant coffee), and a cheap record player, one of those kinds that had a hinged top that closed so you could carry the whole thing as a suitcase. For records I had Mozart and Bach. Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” was one of the few records I owned and the "Brandenburg Concertos" of Bach. I had “borrowed” a few of my parent’s records too, which ones I can’t remember, perhaps Art Tatum and Joe “Fingers” Carr. I might have had a few jazz records, because that was where I was headed. Needless to say I did not spend a lot of time at "home." I was almost always out, and usually in the M.U.G, Michigan Student Union Grill, where I sat for untold hours drinking coffee, smoking Camel straights, and doodling on napkins with my Rapidiograph pen.

And the 'good' beatnik was familiar with art, at least the French Impressionists. So there you have the general idea. I believe I mentioned that Beats only come out at night and stay up to (or near) dawn. Did I also mention how serious life was back then? I did. So, no sunshine, not too much laughing or day tripping, and a strict diet of Ingmar Bergman films and the darker European shtick, which was infinitely preferable back then to any of the more entertaining Hollywood flicks. Those American films were just uncool. It was all about the darkness and depression of Europe.

We would see these foreign films at the university-sponsored "Cinema Guild" in the old Art and Architecture building or at the "Campus Theater" down on South University Street, the only other theater that showed these films early on. In later years you could find them at the "Fifth Forum" downtown on 5th Avenue. As I look back on that time I can’t believe I bought into that dark, depressed, alcoholic and nicotine-stained world view. And I really tried to enjoy it. Back then I would not allow myself to be entertained. Humor was not a highlight in my life. We would take in a dark European film and then spend the rest of the night smoking, drinking coffee, and talking about it. Today those films seem more like horror films to me or just funny. I know… I have no taste. And those dark European films went out of style as the hippies came in.

And jazz. Forget about rock n’ roll; I didn’t listen to it much when I was a “beatnik.” Pop music was on the back burner. As mentioned earlier, it was mostly jazz that we listened to, in particular Miles, Coltrane, bop, and most of all the ‘cool’ jazz. Beats were, above all, cool. And it was kind of hard for me to be cool. I was excitable, too much of an enthusiast, and as I found out, simply ‘not cool'. And then there was the “just sitting around.”

We did a lot of sitting around with serious talking, and often I would find myself watching a friend shoot up heroin. I never went there, but I was familiar with all the dope paraphernalia, the little bent spoons, the tourniquet, the flame, the ‘works’, etc. I most remember my friend Frank Trun who was really steeped in the Beats and a kind of model beatnik for me. He had a little upstairs apartment way out on South State Street near Stadium Boulevard. I would hike down there very late at night hoping his light would still be on so I could dare go up and knock. It usually was and he was friendly to me. How wonderful that any older person could even see me! To myself, there was still nothing to see.

I am sure we talked (probably he talked) about all kinds of philosophy and deep-life matters, but mostly what I remember is Frank shooting up and me watching. Just watching him shoot up was an inoculation against my ever doing it. It was not pretty, but pretty scary. Sometimes I would have to just leave him there and go home. He was out. Later I heard that Tron was killed when his car ran off the road on the Pennsylvania Turnpike while driving back from New York City. I can only imagine his state of mind. Just like that, he was gone from my life - impermanence.

And the Beats lived ‘down’. As a rule, my Beat friends had no interest in working a straight job and tended to do just barely (or less) than enough to get by. And they were likely to live in the poorest parts of town where rents were cheap and no one cared how they looked or lived. Theirs was a life of the mind. For the most part, the Beats I knew were dedicated intellectuals and aesthetes.

In reality, much of the Beat movement for me amounted to my just trying to get in the door, to be accepted, and to be like them. Just to find real Beats was tough. Reality is seldom what we hope for or expect. My own dreams and imagination of the Beat movement were perhaps more interesting than the final reality. I never really became an insider because by 1960 that movement had already mostly dried up and grown old. There was no inside to ‘become’, but only the diminishing remains of what Kerouac and Ginsberg wrote of. Even though Ginsberg lived on and I would see him once in a while here or there, he was by then a celebrity and no longer just a beat. What I wanted was to have those inspired visions that the beat authors had, not the withered remains of where they had been. I was just a little too late.

Perhaps that was why all the Beats looked so old to me, because I was young. Finding the beat movement was like when the hourglass sand runs out. I tried to grasp it, but it was already gone, slipping through the fingers of time. There was only a taste left. I so wanted to become them.

With the Beats gone or going, soon there remained only a bunch of latecomers like me going through the motions, but that ‘Beat’ train had already left the station or was trying to turn commercial. But I did have some Kerouac-like times of my own. I actually left Ann Arbor and hitchhiked to places like Greenwich Village (late 1950s), Venice Beach (in Santa Monica), and North Beach in San Francisco. If you have the patience, I will tell some of those stories. In 1960 I hitchhiked across the country on Route 66 to Venice Beach in Santa Monica.

[My mother was a fine artist. Here is a batik mom did of me from around 1960. It gives you an idea of where I was at.]