Friday, 14 June 2013

BEATS, BEATNIKS AND THE BEAULIEU JAZZ RIOT OF 1960

The People (1960)
If I were a young man on 7th August 1960 and not already a jazz loving beatnik, the Sunday paper The People would’ve had me scurrying to Dobell’s record shop for Mingus Ah Um and searching backstreet bookshops for an under-the-counter copy of The Naked Lunch quicker than one could say “Straight from the fridge, Dad”.

“Blame these 4 men for the Beatnik horror” exclaimed Peter Forbes, as shocked Britain learnt how a great unwashed army of beatniks had been driven to violence by a group of American writers and poets, culminating in a riot at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. Exciting stuff.

Organised by Lord Montagu and held on the lawns of his Palace House in the New Forest, the Beaulieu Jazz Festival was in its fifth year when it achieved notoriety due to the behaviour of fans from both ends of the jazz spectrum: the traditionalists rooted in sounds of 1920’s Dixieland and the modernists building on a bebop template. According to photographer David Redfern both sides complained not enough of “their” type of jazz was being performed before things came to a head when increasingly drunk youths pulled down lighting rigs, set fire to a building and destroyed the stage. The BBC, broadcasting the event live on television, abruptly ended their coverage ahead of schedule with a typically understated comment, “Things are getting quite out of hand”.

The People told its readers, “The outbreak of violence that wrecked Lord Montagu’s jazz festival at Beaulieu last week must be blamed on the cult of despair preached by four strange men”. Those four strange men identified like names on a wanted poster as Jack “The Hobos’ Prophet” Kerouac; Allen “The Hate Merchant” Ginsberg; William “The Ex-Drug Addict” Burroughs and Gregory “The Crank Poet” Corso.

“These four beatnik “prophets” do not themselves preach violence. But they do infect their followers with indifference or outright hostility to established codes of conduct. Nothing matters to the beatnik save the “kicks” or thrills to be enjoyed by throwing off inhibitions. If you feel any urge, no matter how outrageous, indulge in it. If the beat of jazz whips up violent emotions, why not give way to them?”

That was the strength of the Beat Generation Quartet’s link to Beaulieu but it gave the paper enough to feed into the moral panic surrounding the nation’s latest youth menace and expand upon their exposé from a fortnight earlier; a double-page spread “The Beatnik Horror” that warned how thousands of young Americans hooked on this beat craze became “drug addicts and peddlers, degenerates who specialize in obscene orgies… and outright thugs and hoodlums”.

To illustrate how this cult was manifesting itself on Britain’s streets they visited Gambier Terrace in Liverpool to show a group of residents sitting in “unbelievable squalor” with their friend who’d dropped by to “listen to some jazz”. The property shown was shared at the time by John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe, and the bearded chap in the photo was Allan Williams, owner of local coffee bar The Jacaranda and manager of the then Silver Beatles, just about to head to Hamburg for the first time.
Gambier Terrace, Liverpool (1960)
It’s doubtful any of the “prophets” saw the article in a British tabloid - I couldn’t find any reference in their correspondence or journals – but it’s interesting to speculate on their differing reactions. Kerouac – likely the only name some more enlightened readers may have vaguely been familiar with - the People conceded, was a talented writer who unfortunately “devoted his great gift to exalting the bums and jazz-maniacs of the New York jive cellars” but he would’ve been hurt and upset as he frequently was in the backlash following the success of On The Road when held up as the avatar of, in his words, “beatniks, beats, jazzniks, bopniks and bugniks”.

Kerouac copped much of the blame for the beatniks but they were a media creation - step forward Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle - which bastardised Kerouac’s experiences and vision of a spiritual beatific Beat Generation into a cartoonish band of beret wearing poets and jive talking bongo beaters. The American College Dictionary wrote to Jack in ’59 for his definition. He wrote: “Beat Generation: Members of the generation that came after World War II-Korean War who join in relaxation of social and sexual tensions and espouse anti-regimentation, mystic-disaffiliation and material-simplicity values, supposedly as a result of Cold War disillusionment. Coined by Jack Kerouac”.      

In 1958, only a year after On The Road’s publication, Jack already weary from the attention and trivialization of his writing wrote to Ginsberg, “I don’t want no more frantic nights, association with hepcats and queers and Village types, far less mad trips to unholy Frisco, I just wanta stay home and write”. Whilst rampaging youths at Beaulieu grabbed a microphone from the stage to demand “Free beer for the working man!” Jack was attempting to kick his alcoholism by detoxing in California. He failed but it did provide the material for one of his best books, Big Sur.

Ginsberg however tended to welcome any publicity for himself or his friends. He’d already seen his signature work Howl dragged screaming through the courts on obscenity charges yet Burroughs’s Naked Lunch still had that to come. In 1960 it had only recently been published in Paris by Olympia Press who were known to intrepid travellers and customs officials as purveyors of hard-core pornography and therefore all their titles were banned in the U.K. Copies were smuggled into the country down the shirts of returning visitors and placed in all the best bohemian pads where they were read aloud to fits of stoned laughter. Counterculture activist and beat chronicler Barry Miles, who acquired his copy that year, wrote in Naked Lunch@50,The Naked Lunch was the hippest, coolest book ever written, and for a seventeen-year-old art student, that was quite something to have on the shelf”. For all their sensationalism The People were reasonably quick off the mark in Britain’s mainstream press to give coverage to Burroughs and also Gregory Corso.
William Burroughs, The Beat Hotel, Paris by Duffy (1960)
Already ancient at 46, Burroughs was far from a crazy beatnik – none of the original beats, except maybe Ginsberg, much fitted the profile – but he had at least one important similarity as far as the People were concerned: they were all filthy soap dodgers. The paper relished partially quoting Burroughs on the effect his junk habit had on his personal hygiene. “I had not taken a bath in a year nor changed my clothes [or removed them] except to stick a needle [every hour] in the fibrous grey wooded flesh [of heroin addiction]”.

It was a recurring theme in the media regarding beatniks. The film Beat Girl in cinemas at that year followed coffee bar and jazz club dwelling Jenny; described as “the mad one” by a fellow St Martin’s art student for being a beatnik. When Jenny’s stepmother pressed the student to elaborate, she’s told, “It’s a craze from America. Hopeless and soapless”. Even the left-leaning Observer reported the rarefied grounds of Palace House were “packed solidly with unkempt humanity” and quoted a hotelkeeper as saying “I wouldn’t mind so much if they washed now and then”. The paper agreed, “Certainly one could see his point as the jazz fans turned up in their standard uniform of rumpled jeans and T-shirts, sandals and haircuts that must have wrung the hearts of the two former Irish Guards sergeants who were running the campsite behind the car park”.

On the same bank holiday weekend as Beaulieu (held in those days on the first Monday in August), Alan Whicker reported for the BBC’s Tonight programme. Councillors in Newquay had written to all shopkeepers, café owners and bar managers urging them not to serve beatniks visiting the Cornish town over the summer and for restaurateurs and hoteliers to refuse them jobs as washer-uppers. Their hair and beards were just about tolerated but their stink was more than the council could stand. “A man owes it to society to keep himself clean,” according to one pub landlord. Such claims were refuted by local long-hair Eric who told Whicker he washed at least every two days.
When Gregory Corso read his poem “Bomb” (the text cleverly arranged to form the shape of an atomic mushroom cloud) to New College, Oxford in 1958 members of CND present were not amused. Rather than an easy Ban The Bomb message, Corso’s poem humourlessly accepts of the inescapable presence of the bomb and that we’re all going to die anyway. Ginsberg attempted to explain his friend’s meaning and pacify the hecklers but that didn’t work so, after dodging shoes thrown at them, he summoned all his poetic powers and reportedly called them assholes before sheepishly leaving. It’s not too surprising the gathered campaigners had trouble comprehending the lengthy poem on first hearing but a little ironic two members of the Beat Generation faced such hostility a bunch of peaceniks. 

What the People didn’t make clear is which side of the trad/modern divide the rioting beatniks were on. Jack Kerouac’s writing style (and some of Ginsberg’s) was directly shaped in the 40s and 50s by the new rhythms of bebop, of Lester Young, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, of the modern jazz they were hearing as they discovered and created their own artistic voice. It would therefore follow British beatniks, like their American counterparts, would also adopt this music yet large swathes of them backed the wrong horse and used trad (and folk music) as their soundtrack. As the duffle-coated, sandal wearing, middle-class, beatnik brigade marched to Aldermaston in bowler hats with the CND symbol taped to the front in honour of Acker Bilk it was to the accompaniment of trad bands (in fairness, it was a far easier music to play whilst marching).
Beaulieu Jazz Riot by David Redfern (1960)
Bilk, whose set at Beaulieu was wrapped up in the ensuing chaos, thought, “They were phoney imitation beatniks. Real ones may be weird, untidy and excitable but they're not hooligans”. Duncan Heining’s book Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers: British Jazz 1960-1975 provides much fascinating sociological context and suggests although the division between jazz fans was real (worse trouble occurred along similar lines in Hackney’s Victoria Park that summer), some attendees claim the trouble was primarily the work of local Teddy Boy hooligans rather than an ideological riot over jazz (which is rather disappointing).

The unnamed narrator in Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners (1959) believed anyone over 20 didn’t “give a lump of cat’s shit for the bomb” and gives wonderful descriptions of his associates Dean Swift and the Misery Kid, who didn’t like to mix in public on account of Dean being “a sharp modern jazz creation” and the Kid having “horrible leanings to the trad thing”. The forward-thinking modernists, with their sharp European and Ivy League styling, were quick to pour scorn on Misery Kid for admiring backdated “groups that play what is supposed to be the authentic music of New Orleans, i.e. combos of booking-office clerks and quantity-surveyors’ assistants who’ve been handed their cards, and dedicated themselves to blowing what they believe to be the same note as the wonderful Creoles who invented the whole thing, when it all long ago began”.

To the likes of Barry Miles, the Beats and modern jazz went together. He wrote how The Naked Lunch was difficult to get hold of in the early 60s and “was a shorthand way of saying you were cool, which in those days meant you listened to Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and Thelonious Monk; you appreciated the work of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, and Mark Rothko; you smoked marijuana and hash when you could get it; you read Beat Generation writers”.

From here it’s only a short step from modernist to mod. In my profile on this page I’ve always described myself, slightly tongue-in-cheek, as a Beatnik Modernist. I did receive one testy response telling me it was a contradiction in terms but I’m not sure it is. I like this quote from an original mod, Steve Sparks, in Jonathan Green’s Days In The Life, “Mod has been much misunderstood… Mod before it was commercialized was essentially an extension of the beatniks. It comes from “modernist”, it was to do with modern jazz and to do with Sartre. It was to do with existentialism, the working-class reaction to existentialism”.

For a little evidence how some of Britain's sharpest Mod Faces of the mid-60s came from a beatnik background, take a close look at this CND badge wearing, guitar carrying, shaggy haired fella from North London making his way to the last Beaulieu Jazz Festival in 1961. I give you, Rod The Beatnik Mod. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wm_fswB3QrE

3 comments:

  1. Another fascinating article.A jazz riot in Vicky Park?The new residents wouldn't stand for it these days.

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  2. I'm a resident there and gutted I missed it!

    Couldn't find much more about it other than it was broken up with police dogs and Bilk was at the centre of it again.

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  3. Would love to see footage.Bilk seems a bit of a rabble rouser.

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