Tag Archives: “IT”

Authenticity is a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan Defines Hip for a Generation

9 May
1960s Bob Dylan Embodies Cool

“He has a visionary’s eyeball that could x-ray all that was corrupt and phony, and who knows what he sees when he looks at you.” -Dalton
Image from soundonsound.com


“He has to have the oldest, most authentic songs. He begins a rabid, quasi-spiritual quest for the obscure, the rare, the core sound.” -David Dalton

“This was the Beat ideal—a community of intellectual outsiders. But it was an ideal that the mass bohemianism of the ‘60s would blow up and wreck because, for one thing, it wasn’t going to be a secret too much longer, and it wasn’t the small elite group of insiders anymore. Two, three, years, it would all be gone. And Bob would be one of the major causes of its demise.” -David Dalton

If anyone embodied authenticity or the ephemeral concept of “IT” in the 1960s, it was Bob Dylan. David Dalton shines a light on Dylan’s hipster persona (among his many others) in Who is that Man? In Search of the Real Bob Dylan. He reveals Dylan as a vehicle for the pop-culturification of the Beat movement (frequently comparing him to Kerouac, both in literary style and lifestyle), and also exposes, yet again, the sheer unsustainability of Beat ideals. Continue reading

Bringing it All Back Home II: Mapping Cultural Waves

13 Apr

This post contains part XII (the final chapter!) of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

A protester tries out flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967. Image from wikipedia.com

A protester harnesses flower power at an anti-war protest at the Pentagon, 1967.
Image from wikipedia.com


There are lessons to be learned from the ultimate demise of the counterculture, precipitated by its constant push to extremity and its marginalization of moderate voices in favor of calls for radical social change. By constantly pushing boundaries in search of IT, those seeking an authentic, meaningful way of life fell victim to the same material excess they had tried to avoid. Although Kimball characterizes sex, drugs, and rock & roll as the counterculture’s “chief weapons against the obligations of traditional culture,” they were merely a symptom of a middle-class rebellion against its own limited existence (Kimball 7). Even by pushing social boundaries, counterculturalists found that they could not avoid the obligations of traditional culture for very long. When striving for social or political change, it is important to remember the value of diverse (even conflicting) opinions and of freedom tempered by moderation. The counterculture’s failure to achieve many of its political goals illustrates the dangers of polarizing rhetoric and extremity.

The American political climate is often compared to a pendulum, swinging left to right over time. The period after WWII represented a monumental swing to the left—in social attitudes more than the political establishment. The reasons for political failure are obvious; Suri notes the irony of the fact that “the political moderation that supported stability and prosperity came under attack for its very moderation” (Suri 53). As the counterculture movement migrated from Beat coffee shops to massive street demonstrations, violence became an increasingly frequent component of demands for domestic social change and peace abroad (case in point: the Weather Underground). Suri notes that countercultural groups in the early 1970s “treated violence as a means for proving cultural authenticity in an international environment filled with lies” (60). And yet it seems that moderation won out in the end; “countercultural disorder created a perceived ‘emergency’” to the point where citizens were easily galvanized to react against this disorder by any political party promising “law and order” (62). The militarization of the counterculture is an example of what happens when the political pendulum reaches the limits of its leftward shift, precipitating a rightward swing. The attempt at authentic experience that began with speed, grass, and jazz in the 1950s snowballed into overindulgent drug use and violent protests during the 1960s. This contributed to a loss of faith in the movement in the eyes of mainstream America—who had taken much culturally from this movement, only to betray its values ultimately in favor of its own security. Continue reading

The Acid Test: Failing to Control for Social Hierarchies

27 Mar

This post contains part VI of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

A Merry Pranksters album cover, 1966Image from lysergia.com

A Merry Pranksters album cover, 1966
Image from lysergia.com


In Electric Kool-Aid, Wolfe emphasizes the Pranksters’ fixation on “transcending the bullshit” and living “out front,” which means as Kesey puts it, “Everybody is going to be what they are, and whatever they are, there’s not going to be anything to apologize about” (Wolfe 20). LSD was a critical component to the Pranksters’ “out front” lifestyle because they believed it allowed them to live truly spontaneously, truly authentically, and truly outside of social norms. Their communal drug trips served to build a unifying group identity, though one that may have been more bullshit-heavy than Kesey originally envisioned.

The communality of these drug episodes was epitomized in the Prankster’s theory of “intersubjectivity” and the “side of the LSD experience—that feeling!—[that] tied in with Jung’s theory of synchronicity” (Wolfe 61, 140). One Prankster astutely noted, “We are all one brain out here and we are all on the bus, after all” (97). The idea of being “on the bus” took off in the growing psychedelic culture, many members of which claim to have been inspired by Kerouac’s On the Road to go out and search for “IT,” whether that meant hitch-hiking out to California for 1967’s “Summer of Love” or participating in a group LSD experience. Continue reading

Life as a Novel: New Journalism and an Emerging Mass Counterculture

25 Mar

This post contains part V of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Ken Kesey, the Pranksters, and FurtherImage from Huckmagazine.com

Ken Kesey, the Pranksters, and Furthur, 1969
Image from Huckmagazine.com


The free-wheeling, antiauthoritarian ideals of On the Road were taken to a literal extreme in 1964 when the Merry Pranksters took their infamous psychedelic road trip across America. Lending dubious cultural merit to their journey were “major literary celebrities” Neal Cassidy (Dean Moriarty himself, now known as Speed Limit, the driver) and Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion (dubbed The Chief) (P. Perry xxi). Cassady, who had once been “the mercury for Kerouac and the whole Beat Generation” was now “the mercury for Kesey and the whole—what?—something wilder and weirder out on the road” (Wolfe 102). Things had definitely changed since the days of bongos and coffee shops, and there was no love lost between the fractured remnants of the Beat movement and the emerging, electrified psychedelic movement.

Kesey had publicly given up writing after publishing his second novel, and he’d began to pursue ways of “living life as a novel” (P. Perry 15). He used his royalties to buy a 1939 International Harvester school bus and deck it out with thousands of dollars worth of sound and video equipment. After packing the bus with several weeks’ worth of food and acid, he and his Prankster crew hit the road. Tom Wolfe, on an assignment to write about the “Young Novelist Real-Life Fugitive,” put words to Kesey’s novelistic lifestyle in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Wolfe 5). In doing so, he managed to expose an entirely new generation to America’s latest iteration of the counterculture. Continue reading

First Thought, Best Thought: Beat Literature and the Authentic Ideal

21 Mar

This post contains part III of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

Kerouac and his scrollPhoto via bookforum.com

Kerouac and his scroll
Photo from bookforum.com


When Jack Kerouac wrote in On the Road about walking through “the Denver colored section, wishing [he was] a Negro,” he was rather naively expressing the Beat identification with the “happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negros of America” (Kerouac 180). Many aspects of Beat culture were appropriated from black culture, probably because they interpreted African Americans’ outsider status in an “inauthentic” American society as a kind of inborn authenticity.4 As Kerouac painted a vivid portrait of the Beat lifestyle in On the Road, he emphasized the Beat identification with black jazz culture, and in doing so, he brought a highly descriptive, free-flowing, sense-oriented writing style into the mainstream.  A characteristic example of this style occurs as Kerouac describes one of several jazz club scenes within the novel:

In back of the joint in a dark corridor […] scores of men and women stood against the wall drinking wine-spodiodi and spitting at the stars—wine and whiskey. The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from “EE-yah!” to a crazier “EE-de-lee-yah!” and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-scarred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn’t give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle-ti-boom, crash. (197)

This passage evokes not only the sights, but the sounds woven into the sensory tapestry that was a typical night at a 1950s San Francisco jazz club. Throughout the novel, Kerouac goes out of his way to convey the total synesthetic experience of Beat culture and lifestyle.

For Dean, the ultimate synesthetic experience—known enigmatically as “IT”—comes from listening to jazz played by black musicians who can “put down what’s on everybody’s mind” (207). Kerouac describes Dean as “listening to the American sounds and mastering them for his own […] use” (242). Kerouac, too, did exactly that; he listened to the wild bop phrases of black jazz musicians and attempted to imitate them using a free-association writing technique that he referred to as “spontaneous prose.” As evidenced above, this style relies heavily on extensive descriptions, slang terminology, onomatopoeia, and other poetic devices to give the text a fast-paced, distinctly jazz-like feel (Charters xxv). Because of the freshness of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose and his skill at ascribing written words to the frenzied excitement of the Beat lifestyle, On the Road effectively brought the ultimate Beat ideal to a mainstream audience: the jazz-inspired goal of spontaneous authenticity.

Continue reading

Getting Out On The Road: A Brief Guide

20 Mar

This post contains part II of my senior capstone paper, Speed Limits: The Formation, Dissemination, and Dissolution of the Counterculture in American Literature 1951-1972. Click here to view a full list of works cited. Click here to view all sections of the paper.

furthur1

Photo from SFgate.com


It will be worthwhile to give a brief overview of the books I will be analyzing: On the Road is a fictionalized narrative account of Jack Kerouac’s cross-country adventures with such notable literary figures as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in the years following WWII. The book features the frantic wanderings of Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and his newfound handsome outlaw friend Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) as they “dig” America in search of “kicks” and the ineffable concept of “IT,” recklessly roaming its newly-created highway system at top speed. On the Road, heralded as the ultimate expression of Beat literature, catapulted Kerouac and the Beat movement to instant popularity (Sax).[2]

Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters’ infamous 1964 drug-fueled, cross-country road trip in a psychedelic school bus named “Furthur” embodied Kerouac’s search for “IT” as well as the Beat energy and zest for life. With Neal Cassady at the wheel again and an epic meeting between Kesey and Kerouac in New York, many saw the Pranksters’ bus trip as a “passing of the torch” from the Beats to a new psychedelic generation (P. Perry 84).[3] Tom Wolfe gave voice to Kesey’s free-spirited philosophies as he cataloged the Pranksters and the formation of the acid culture throughout the sixties in his hugely popular book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Wolfe’s wildly subjective writing technique came to be known as New Journalism, a style further popularized by Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson.

Thompson’s own unique version of New Journalism, called Gonzo journalism, was epitomized in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. Fear and Loathing depicts the travels of Thompson (as his alter ego Raoul Duke) and his “Samoan” attorney (pseudonym Dr. Gonzo)—based on Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta—as they explore the city of Las Vegas in a three-day drug binge/crime spree. Thompson’s hyperbolic, savage tone and over-the-top criminal antics propelled him to counterculture stardom and gave voice to a growing sense of despair and disgust many Americans felt after the fractured idealism of the sixties. These three books represent a progression of popular literary styles and provide critical snapshots of the counterculture’s rise and fall in America. They also depict the idealization of the outlaw trope and illustrate how flaws inherent in the movement inadvertently fueled the corruption of the counterculture’s own ideals. Continue reading