The Beat Scene As You’ve Never Seen It Before
Imagine an entirely uncommercial underground scene defined by avant-garde poetry and novels, soundtracked by the greatest jazz musicians of all time, engaged with legendary painters and dressed in classic Americana. It sounds too good to be true, but The Beat Scene, a book of photographs by Mr Burt Glinn, proves it really happened.
The photographs in this illuminating book about the Beat Generation were taken between 1957 and 1960 in New York and San Francisco and include the first published colour images of the Beat scene in a book. The pictures depict a rarefied world of freedom and bohemia that’s hard to imagine these days, a place where the biggest stars were the poet Mr Allen Ginsberg, who’s known for writing Howl, and novelist Mr Jack Kerouac, whose best known work is On The Road. The photographs are populated by abstract expressionist painters such as Mr Willem de Kooning, gallery owners, musicians, models and philosophers, and there are even a couple of shots of the English Zen master Mr Alan Watts. It’s a largely nocturnal world of gallery openings, folk recitals, poetry readings, parties, painting sessions and jazz performances.
t’s also an insight into a world of men and women who seem to be focused on loftier things than the everyday. Rather than fixate on property ownership, status symbols, careers or lifestyle, the Beats seem genuinely devoted to their various creative endeavours. Of course, it helped that a bohemian life in those days allowed you to paint in a loft on Manhattan’s Lower East Side or live, like Mr Ginsberg, in an East Village apartment. Time seems to have been another commodity in surplus, and you sense life was an endless series of days spent in coffee shops and long nights spent in venues such as the Five Spot Café jazz club in the Bowery, New York, where music, according to the book, jumped “till four AM”, or the Seven Arts Coffee Gallery where poetry readings were held at 2.00am.
Another fascinating element is the clothing. The smartest guys in the book are the jazz musicians, men such as Mr David Amram who’s captured wearing a dark suit, white shirt and grey tie on stage. Other musicians are shot in white shirts and knit ties and there’s even a photograph of two bongo players in sober suits. The most desirable garment in the book might be the denim chore jacket worn by Mr de Kooning, who’s photographed in his studio, although the plaid hunting jacket worn by Mr Ginsberg in Washington Square Park is also rather enviable. That said, the man who’s best dressed overall is the writer Mr LeRoi Jones, who’s shot in a perfect blue chambray work shirt, dirty khakis and suede desert boots. It’s an outfit that could be easily worn today.
The Beat Generation pre-dated the hippies of the 1960s and were considerably cooler. They had arguably better music and undeniably better clothes. Life’s moved on, but the idea that youth culture was once dominated by an uncommercial scene that revolved around literature, art and music remains absolutely striking. This book is a fine record of that lost era.