The Cool School: Writings from America's Hip Underground edited by Glenn O'Brien

The Cool School: Writing from America's Hip Underground edited by Glenn O'Brien. Library of America. Hardcover, 500 pages. $27.
The cover of The Cool School: Writing from America's Hip Underground

Walter Salles’s Kerouac biopic On the Road had an uneventful drive-by this year, along with Joyce Johnson’s The Voice Is All: the Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, a stab at critical biography by the author of several memoirs of the Beat writer, with whom she was romantically involved a half century ago. Lamenting these two weak offerings on the Kerouac aftermarket, Andrew O’Hagan opined recently how real life—not just Kerouac’s but seemingly everyone’s around him—has “spoiled the magic” of On the Road.” He spares neither the deadbeat dads and wife-pimping husbands of the Beat Generation (more on that later), nor its “bit part playing” women. He is rightly appalled by Johnson’s score settling. She “abuses” Carolyn Cassady, “splats” Ann Charters, and “kick’s” Patti Smith’s “butt.” In the biography business, it’s better not to sleep with your subject if you don’t want your book labeled a memoir.

Along comes The Cool School, Glenn O’Brien’s anthology of “writings from America’s hip underground,” to establish a more ecumenical tone among Beat women and others on the margins of literary society: beboppers, rockers, hippies, punks, standup comedians, and spoken-word and performance artists. (In O’Brien’s rainbow coalition, a performance artist is a tummler who went to art school.) O’Brien cuts such a broad swath that someone who wasn’t there might believe for a minute that Beatnik cats and chicks were on equal footing. To some extent he’s right. Forget that William Burroughs shot his wife to death playing William Tell, that Jack Kerouac made himself judgment-proof to avoid paying child support for his only child (who died destitute in a trailer park at 42), or that Alexander Trocchi turned out his wife to pay for his drug habit. By widening his net, O’Brien demonstrates that notwithstanding the Don Draperesque baggage of the marquee Beats, there was real creativity among their female counterparts.

Take Iris Owens. She put up with Trocchi, her sometime lover, to get a gig writing dirty books in Paris for the Olympia Press before returning to New York and writing the wonderful After Claude (reprinted by NYRB in 2010). O’Brien also gives us Annie Ross’s “Twisted” and Fran Landesman’s “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” (from the Beat musical The Nervous Set), anthems of, respectively, the overanalyzed and the gay underground. Ross had an affair with Lenny Bruce, the father of modern comedy, and a child with drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke, present at the creation of bebop. Landesman was married for 61 years to Jay Landesman of Neurotica fame. (Both husband and wife are sympathetically portrayed in The Cool School in “The Pop Imagination,”by John Clellon Holmes, whose 1952 novel Go was the first of many romans a clef featuring Kerouac et al.) O’Brien puts Bobby Louise Hawkins’s spoken-word routine “Frenchy and Cuban Pete” shoulder-to-shoulder with Mort Sahl’s “The Billy Graham Rally” and Bruce’s “Pills and Shit: the Drug Scene.” Hawkins was married to poet Robert Creeley and retired from teaching at the Naropa Instituteat the age of 80 (though apparently she still returns there intermittently as a guest lecturer). These women are not merely glorifying their men. Nor have they based a lifetime of cultural production on the unrequited love of a famous writer, as Johnson has.

O’Brien continues his deft balancing act into the ’80s and beyond. Lynne Tillman (“Madame Realism Asks: What’s Natural About Painting”) complements “The Velvet Wall,” artspiel by another art world tummler, Richard Prince. Emily XYZ’s spoken-word piece for two voices, “Sinatra Walks Out,” dovetails with Nick Tosches’s seminal psychobiography Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams. Finally, there’s Diane di Prima, whom O’Hagan acknowledges as the exception to the groupie memoir genre. I prefer to think of her as the pinnacle. O’Brien’s selection from Memoirs of a Beatnik captures her life-changing discovery of radical art as she describes the arrival on the scene of Howl just as her slum neighborhood gives way to Lincoln Center. The simple fact of its publication is, for Di Prima, a harbinger that it would become more difficult to “keep our cool”:

I was frightened, and a little sad. I already clung instinctively to the easy, unselfconscious Bohemianism we had maintained at the pad, our unspoken sense that we were alone in a strange world, a sense that kept us proud and bound to each other. But for the moment regret for what we might be losing was buried under a sweeping sense of exhilaration, of glee; someone was speaking for all of us, and the poem was good.

Ever a gentleman of the old school, O’Brien tips his hat to Ms. Johnson by including a selection from Minor Characters, her first memoir of the Beat period, though it is by far among the weakest elements of The Cool School. Ironically, Memoirs of a Beatnik and Minor Characters bracket a post-On the Road article for Playboy by Jack Kerouac, “The Origins of the Beat Generation,” which begins, “This article necessarily’ll have to be about myself.” Kerouac comes off as a self-absorbed jerk, and Johnson as a doormat.

The missing text, from both The Cool School and Andrew O’Hagan’s otherwise honorable attack, is a book by Bonnie Bremser (nee Frazer): Troia: Mexican Memoirs, reprinted in 2008 by Dalkey Archive. The fact that it was first published as For Love of Ray, Ray being Beat poet Ray Bremser, tells you something. Bremser turned her out to feed his drug habit, but her complicity is embraced, even celebrated, an act of free agency, not submission. Troia is a protofeminist riposte to Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues. Stylistically derivative of Kerouac (as is her husband’s poetry), it is far more groundbreaking.

On the theme of race, O’Brien is similarly inclusive. The Cool School lays down a lot of musical prose: Miles Davis, Mezz Mezzrow, Babs Gonzales, Art Pepper, King Pleasure, Bob Dylan, and Richard Hell among them. O’Brien embraces the musicality of hip while acknowledging the conundrum of Norman Mailer’s “white negro.” Tenor sax titan Lester Young, a famously illiterate and inarticulate jazz genius, has his way with his earnest French jazz critic Francois Positif. Positif: Do you play the same thing every day? Young: Not unless you want to get henpecked. Terry Southern’s “You’re Too Hip Baby,” set in Beat-era Paris, explores the fault lines of race through the stalking of a jazz musician by an underemployed and overeducated white expatriate. O’Brien includes both Mailer’s “The White Negro” and Anatole Broyard’s “Portrait of a Hipster” (1948), with its potent opening line: “As he was the illegitimate son of the Lost Generation, the hipster was really nowhere.” (Broyard, who was black but passed for white, was supposedly the inspiration for the character of Coleman Silk in Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, although Roth has denied this.)

There is no underground today, and O’Brien is not trying to sell us one. Youth subcultures are devoured stillborn by the culture industry. Even rappers with bona fide rap sheets are Donald Trump wannabees. In an embarrassing pas de deux, Jay Z and the contemporary art world validate each other as safely edgy. (Richard Prince once described this state of affairs as mainstream cult.) Where is today’s Hunter Thompson to take it apart? It is questionable whether the idea of a counterculture, first coined by Theodore Roszak in 1969, remains a valid sociological construct. When “nothing is true and everything is permitted” (O’Brien quoting Hassan I Sabbah in his introduction), what can one be against? “Hipster” is now a term of derision connoting tattooed Brooklyn lumberjacks with highly nuanced consumer radar.

Though he pays lip service to the green shoots of the Occupy movement, O’Brien is not putting down any serious markers on what might be emerging beyond that. He is man enough to admit it was Maynard G. Krebs’s bongos and goatee, notHowl, that drew him into the maelstrom of hip in the first place. Of course he was only, like, 12 years old, man, when Krebs—or was it Kerouac?—popularized “like” and “man” as metalinguistic units in our rhythms of speech.

Indeed, The Cool School is ultimately about language. “Cool” is necessarily opaque, a slang not understood by the mainstream. It is playful and instantly mutating, converting exclusion to exclusivity. Originally the province of blacks and Jews, gays and junkies, bootleggers, gamblers, and second-story men, its ironical vernacular became the medium of exchange among beatniks, hippies, yippies, Panthers, Diggers, Pranksters, and punks. Now, however, we have a black president, the hippies and yippies are running Silicon Valley, gays can marry, with benefits, and even dope—at least pot—is sort of legal. Beyond the identity politics, the words still enchant.

Robert Melvin Rubin is a cultural historian. In 2011, he curated Richard Prince: American Prayer at the Bibliothèque nationale de France.