Catching up on our rock reading: The Beats and Rock Culture

‘Text and Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll,’ plus new books on the Fugs and Yo La Tengo

May 23, 2013

Most people at this time of year are compiling their stack of books to bring to the beach, so what say we music fans catch up on our reading and take a look at some of the best recent rock-related tomes?

Topping this list is Text and Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture (Bloomsbury) by U.K. journalist and University of Leeds lecturer Simon Warner. The goal is a noble one: to explore the historical intersections between poets and novelists Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and the rest of the Beat gang of the ’40s and ’50s with the rockers of the ’60s and later eras, as well as the influence of the Beats’ prose on the rockers’ lyrics. And with an academic thoroughness that doesn’t hamper the flow of his own pen, Prof. Warner does make dozens of illuminating connections between the two worlds, some obvious (Dylan and Kerouac; Ginsberg and his various brushes with the Beatles; later-day Beat rockers Patti Smith and Jim Carroll) but many much less so (we also get a discussion of Cream lyricist Pete Brown, a consideration of Kerouac, Tom Waits, and the song “On the Road,” and a look at Burroughs in the work of Genesis P-Orridge).

Unfortunately, for such a heavy read (it checks in at more than 500 pages in hardcover), Warner slights some Beat/rock connections that deserve a lot more discussion, including the admitted influence of Beat writers on pioneering rock critics Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer; the way that Burroughs’ cut-and-paste methodology was adapted by Kurt Cobain (who pops up only very briefly), and the enduring allure of On the Road as a sacred text and a way of life for three generations of young musicians who’ve climbed in the van to cross America on indie-rock tours and/or indulge in the never-ending “quest for kicks.”

As you might expect, Warner does spend quite a few pages on the Fugs, including a moving tribute to Tuli Kupferberg. I’ve expressed admiration for these legendary ’60s weirdoes in this space before, as well as for bandleader Ed Sanders’ must-read tomes Tales of Beatnik Glory and The Family (the best book on the Manson clan). Now comes Sanders’ first-hand history and celebration of his group, Fug You: An Informal History of the Peace Eye Bookstore, the F*ck You Press, the Fugs, and the Counterculture in the Lower East Side (Da Capo).

Sanders’ recounting of the early ’60s through 1970 is episodic but always charming and engaging. “In this book of remembrances I decided not to drain to its dregs the urn of bitter memory, to paraphrase Shelley’s famous line,” he writes. Instead, “I have chosen to accentuate the energy, the wild fun, the joyful creativity, and the schemes of Better World derring-do and to consign as much bitterness and bad memories as possible to the halls of darkness.”

Fair enough, and, really, how scholarly, encyclopedic, or “objective” would we want the auteur who helped bring us “Group Grope” and “Boobs-a-Lot” to be? The lingering buzz of what we do get is more valuable: A deeper appreciation, sans Baby Boomer/Sixties clichés, of a period of anything-goes, no-rules creativity, and the feeling that, damn, it must have been a lot of fun to be there.

I actually was there for a different happening in a different era some years later: the burgeoning indie-rock scene across the Hudson River from the Lower East Side in the Hoboken of the early and mid-’80s. Recalling those particulars, as well as the broader nationwide underground they typified (and which would in turn nurture the alternative-rock scene of the ’90s) is one reason to revel in the pages of Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock (Gotham) by Brooklyn-based music journalist, DJ, and musician Jesse Jarnow.

The other reason is, of course, to chart the history of the long-running band led by guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley. Having seen their first shows at Maxwell’s in 1985, I for one would never have thought that I’d be looking forward to seeing them again for the umpteenth time 28 years later at this summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival, let alone that they’d have given us 13 wonderfully consistent albums in that stretch (including the latest, Fade).

Regardless of one’s familiarity with the band in its many incarnations, there’s plenty to learn in these pages. Not that these musicians are especially forthcoming: Kaplan and Hubley never have been big talkers, and they’re never more reticent than when chatting about themselves. Yet Jarnow knew that in some ways, they’d be the least interesting part of their own biography, and a more colorful, less Everyman band might only have distracted from the bigger story of indie-rock as it morphed and developed for better or worse from the nascent days of post-punk fanzines and college radio stations to Pitchfork, podcasts, and corporations looking for cool tracks to pilfer for hip TV commercials.

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