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The Unbeatable Generation

Words:

Edd Norval
July 2, 2018

The Beat Generation were defined by their defiant anti-establishment attitude that stood in the face of conventional American society. Their contribution to the arts is nearly incomparable. The spontaneous prose style that came to define them was their way of turning jazz music into words. That's not the only reason we should remember them though.

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Art has always been an instinctual practice. Although some practitioners are more scrupulous than others, few were as maniacal and dedicated to their form as The Beats. They were writers in the truest sense of the word, haunting bars and cafes in New York under neon glow, faces distorted by blue-grey cigarette smoke. Their chitter chatter was fuelled by coffee, alcohol and amphetamines. These drugs were enhancements to them, ways to become more fully involved.


Conversation would riff with the reckless speed of an automatic gun, meandering through rumours and ideas, exploring the deepest recesses of one another's minds and allowing themselves to become submerged in tangents, wherever they should lead. The main figures were Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Despite them being at the intellectual core, it was brilliant student-come-murderer Lucien Carr and fast-living jailbird Neal Cassady that acted as muses to be articulated and imitated by the others.


Their emergence in the 1950s was a shock to conservative America's system. Their eschewing of morals and values, unending spiritual quests and well-documented relationship with drugs flew in the face of everything their country had been trying to become. Their hedonistic behaviour endeared them to the public press, making them prototypes of the contemporary social media star artists. They courted controversy all the while doing their best to guide America to a greater sense of understanding and enlightenment-through-experience.

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Their nights turned into day in jazz bars around the country, checkpoints on the journey that best defined The Beats' existence - On The Road. In Kerouac's work, all the characters appear, although not by their real names, in the novel at some point. Throughout the journey Kerouac and Cassady lived a dichotomous life - occasional ascetic fortitude and occasional moments of excess. Although both sides were there, that doesn't mean there was a balance. It was always an extreme, always a way of pushing themselves to their farthest point.


Emblematic of the counterculture that was emerging at the time, the group were experts at creating an image of themselves as mystic bohemian figures, tortured souls, men looking to be more than men. Lucien Carr was a seminal figure in the group - his wildly intellectual take on contemporary life and the possibility of transcendence through creativity made him something of an unwitting pioneer to the group. After murdering an obsessive stalker, an open homosexual whose gaze Carr both flirted with and fled, gave him credence as a figurehead.


To them, Carr had experienced both life and death acutely, administering both - life through his actions and death in this incident. It was in opposition that they thrived, their indulgence in earthly pleasure made them seem like mad alchemists willing to administer their bodies and souls for the purpose of experiment. They were one of the most romanticised group of people on the planet. The reality was that they were young and having fun - openly.

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Throwing themselves into the deepest point of their endeavours with such abandon that they were naked and vulnerable, brave but unsure, paved the way for many artists to do the same. The way Kerouac's fingers darted across his typewriter, maniacally punching out the best words that his brain could conjure to describe his experiences isn't at all dissimilar to the method of Jackson Pollock. They were both there, deep in their work. Unlike Mark Rothko, a far more considered painter - Pollock ran on sheer instinct alone. Driven by a primal urge to create, they did so in a way no one had previously seen.


Then there was the 'cut-up' poems of William Burroughs. He'd write a poem and essentially destroy it, reconfiguring it in a way to tell a new story - a reflection of his innermost psyche. Although initially developed by the Dadaists, this technique was popularised by Burroughs, a literature icon even beyond Kerouac and often referred to as the 'Godfather of Punk'. It was through him that Bob Dylan, Kurt Cobain and David Bowie began using the same technique.


The movement as a whole ushered in the hippies of the 1960s. If it weren't for cigarettes and red wines at poetry readings, there'd be no 'free love' or The Grateful Dead, maybe not even a Jimi Hendrix as we knew him. The Beat Generation were trailblazers and the greatest proponents of being human, no matter your ethnicity, sexuality or gender. Through obscenity trials they fought for free speech, empowered America's gay community and tore down all preconceptions of what art was and could be.


Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest spent some time with them, riding around in a van whilst taking LSD. Aldous ("the doors of perception") Huxley greatly influenced this leg of their physical and literal trip, also becoming popularised by it - it was from his famous quote that we got The Doors. In doing what they wanted, what they were compelled by some inner calling to do, they managed to give others the will to follow their own dreams. Without their artistic bravery - who knows what we'd have to celebrate now.


How far-reaching they go is an insurmountable task to measure, but what is for sure is that a handful of college student, drunks and drug addicts became stars for doing what they loved. In turn, they changed the entire world. The Beat Generation and truly unbeatable.

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