Given all the media hype and hand-wringing that’s attended the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and the upcoming posthumous appearance of Allen Ginsberg in Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan bio-fantasia I’m Not Here — in which the goaty poet, played by David Cross, pays awkward tribute to a limo-driven Dylan (Cate Blanchett) from a speeding golf cart – you’d think the rainbow spectrum of Beats had finally been winnowed down to the twin poles of James Dean-ish sexpotism and portly Zen-molestation.
Sure, there’s Grandpappy William Burroughs in there somewhere, and Neal Cassady, popping up like a scarecrow in a field of blurry mental imagery, but ask kids today who the Beats were and they’ll skip straight past the tilted berets and beaten tablas, the smoke-wreathed faculties of Naropa, and various Coney Islands of the mind, pausing only when they meet their own reflections in whatever Gap-like ad campaign features Jack and Al at the moment.
Which is precisely why photographer Christopher Felver’s handsome picture book Beat comes as a revelation. In the tradition of the Beats’ artistic intentions and pretensions, Felver’s collection of historical black-and-white photographs expands our mental perceptions, including among the pantheonic Beat coterie a plethora of artists and writers who were influenced by, accompanied, or descended stylistically from the well-packaged icons of the era. Scribbled haiku, scrawled excerpts from heartfelt letters, and other typographically authentic ephemera accentuate 187 pages of gorgeously immediate photographs of rapidly fading fellow travelers such as Gary Snyder, Ken Kesey, Richard Brautigan, Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, and Tom Clark — as well as more liberally categorized Beat types such as Kathy Acker, Lou Reed, Kurt Vonnegut, and composer Lou Harrison.
Sometimes this methodology of including every personality possessed of “creative spirit and joyous antics” (as the book’s dust jacket has it) who happened to cross Felver’s lens leads to a little stretching. I have a feeling Denise Levertov, Tatum O’Neal, and Hunter S. Thompson would raise half an eyebrow at their inclusion here. But the pictures are frank and fabulous, so it’s best just to go with the flow.
San Franciscans may be forever hovering at the edge of Beat burnout, but whatever the lasting cultural merits of these pranksters, posers, protesters, tireless Orientalists, and gangly graphomaniacs (Beat’s press materials suggest that these folks all shared “themes of spirituality, environmental awareness, and political dissidence”; one is tempted to add “unbridled onanism” to the list), they sure lived fast and left great-looking corpuses.
By Christopher Felver