“Everyone has to go to jail some time in his life,” remarked a fifteen year-old girl I met at Angel’s pad one afternoon. She was playing hooky from high school for the day and had just come back from visiting her boy friend in the County Jail. He had been busted for pot and they were also trying to hang a car-stealing rap on him. “They” were the heat and this was the bond that this chick felt with beatland. The beards puzzled her, and the poetry was so much baby talk to her. She had enough of that at school. One book was the same as any other to her. Pot was baby stuff, too. She had been on horse since she was thirteen.
What drew her to the beatniks was the way they understood her attitude toward her family and elders in general and the fact that they didn’t think she was a bad girl. The fuss that parents and older people made about sex seemed silly to her. Virginity? She and her girl friends at high school had a word for it. “Big issue about a little tissue.”
As a juvenile delinquent Myra Flores belonged to the cool cats who could be seen coming out of Venice High after school hours and piling into a car – integration was no problem here – white, Negro, Mexican. They didn’t hang around street corners; they drove fast cars in car pools that were also clubs of a sort. The Mexican girls were popular with these boys. Sometimes the blond girls dyed their hair to look like Mexican chicks. Their cars were not souped-up hot rods, that was for squares. Their clothes were sharp. Every penny they could beg, borrow or steal went into clothes. They drank wine and smoked marijuana. They didn’t talk much. They were physical in their relations, fondled each other a lot and watched television by the hour. Looking older than their years was very important to them. It meant that they could pass for twenty-one without an I.D. card in the taverns.
Rarely can a girl like Myra Flores make the beat scene except as a place of refuge or a drop-in lay, but a J.D. like Willie Frank can make it for quite a while on nothing but an ability to say little, listen much and play it close to his vest, which passes for cool as long as he doesn’t make any false moves. Willie fell into Venice West from a town in New Jersey where things had gotten too hot for him. He had smoked pot since he was fourteen, graduated to horse not long afterward, and served a term in jail back east.
The beat and the juvenile delinquent are only kissin’ cousins. They have the same enemies, which is the slender thread that sometimes unites them in temporary alliance. Both are outlaws, speak a private language and put down the squares, but in beat circles the J.D. is regarded as a square, a hip square in some things, but still a square.
He is a square because his values are the conventional American values: success, the worship of things, the obsession with speed and devil-take-the-hindmost attitudes in everything They are “sharpies” always looking for angles. They believe everything they read in the ads. The “kick” they are looking for when they “borrow” a car for a night is the kick of making “a majestic entrance” in front of a chick’s house. The juvenile delinquent wants a Ford in his future, but he wants his future right now. He can’t buy it so he steals it. “My old man waited,” one of them remarked to me, “and what did it get him? He’s fifty and he’s still driving a ’49 Chevy.”
The names they give their gangs are indicative of their hunger for social status. In Venice West it’s The Doges. Some of them pronounce it “dogs” but they know it means something like The Man of Distinction. (Wasn’t “putting on the dog” once a slang synonym for distinctive?) If one gang names itself The Counts, the gang in the next block goes it one better with The Dukes. Such pretensions are abhorrent to the beatnik.
Their “social protest,” which is a common theme in liberal magazines trying to “understand” the J.D., is so much double talk in the beatnik’s opinion. They are not victims of the society, they are its fruit and flower. The J.D. in a stolen car, dressed up in his sharp clothes, seated beside his chick and smoking the cigarette that is the choice of men who demand the best, is the ironic triumph of the adman’s dream. They are not likely to yield to the lures of communism. In fact, many of the J.D.’s of past generations are now among the society’s most successful businessmen. Their only protest is that it takes too long.
Messner, 1959. First edition.
328 pages, 31 photographs
6.2 x 9.3 x 1.2 inches
The vandalism of the juvenile delinquent is directed against symbols of authority, like the school. If he finds school too confining or oppres-sive, or too boring, the beatnik finds ways of “beating the system.” He cuts classes as often as he can but he keeps his scholastic average high enough to stay out of trouble. He doesn’t go back after school hours and wreck the classroom or waylay a teacher and slug him for giving him low marks. Any show of violence among the beat generation, when it does occur, is rare enough – and significant enough – to become legendary. Such a legend is the one you hear frequently about Carl Solomon. “It was at Brooklyn College,” says Allen Ginsberg. “Some square lecturer was giving a lecture on Dadaism, and Carl pelted him with potato salad.” Which is exactly what any Dadaist would have done. That Carl was expelled for it is only further proof that the lecturer was a square.
The violence of the delinquent is usually directed against older people. The beatnik would not commit such acts of violence. He would write a poem about it.
Only a newspaperman with his feet stuck in a slot at the rewrite desk could possibly mistake a J.D. for a beatnik. The newspaper stereo-typed vandal is a composite of “teenager,” “juvenile delinquent” and “beatnik,” a convenient composite since it simplifies headline writing and makes every youth crime story a rewrite of the familiar dope fiend, sex fiend, youth-on-the-rampage yarn. All the reporter has to do is change a few names and places. The J.D. doesn’t mind the publicity. It gives him status. The only thing Willie Frank objected to in the news stories about him and his gang when they were busted for drugs was that the papers misspelled his name and even mixed up names under the pictures. “DOPE RING SMASHED” was a little too grandiose a headline, Willie thought, for a twenty-dollar haul of pot, but it gave him a glow just the same.
This is a passage from Lawrence Lipton’s 1959 book The Holy Barbarians, published when Lipton was 61 years old. When he wrote the book Lipton lived in Venice West, a bohemian enclave of Los Angeles, tucked away in an area which by then was a ruin of its semi-glorious past: in the early 1900’s Venice had been a beach resort town with a faux-European veneer of sophistication, but had fallen into disrepair, so much that now it was not much more than a “slum by the sea.” This decay, in turn, had opened up living room for penniless poets, artists and other outcasts. Among these were the beats Lipton wrote about in The Holy Barbarians.
Lipton’s book hit the market in June of 1959 and was an instant success. A few months later Life magazine (September 21, 1959) featured a reportage – “Squaresville USA vs Beatsville” – about the same Venice West beat scene Lipton had portrayed. The Life article put “the far-out freedom” of the beats on intriguing display to an even wider range of readers. As a result, busloads of tourists soon flooded Venice in search of bohemian kicks and jazz and “like, poetry, man.” Those who had the wits, the angelheaded hipsters, picked up their bongos and moved on.
To be honest we usually find the more exploitative beat culture narratives far more entertaining than “the real thing” (whatever “the real thing” is), but in between rather conceited attempts at sociology-sounding theory, The Holy Barbarians does indeed offer some engaging ethnographic vignettes – raw records of the beats at the moment right before that high and beautiful wave they were riding finally broke and rolled back (as Hunter S. Thompson might very well have written … wait, he didn’t, did he?).
Here is one of those vignettes, picked from a chapter where Lipton writes about selected fringe elements of the beat scene: in order to clarify who he thinks the beats are, he describes who they’re not. We found this sequence extra interesting as it ever so briefly, but with eloquent insight, relates to the Car Customizing and Outlaw Aesthetics we’ve focused on earlier here at American Ethnography (for example here, here, here, and here).
A reprint of The Holy Barbarians was published in 2010 by Martino Fine Books.
Lawrence Lipton (1898 - 1975) was an American journalist, writer, and beat poet.