Yeah, well, maybe, I guess. One of those headlines that today we call clickbait. Do we want to read about what happened? An uprising of the counterculture? The fringe fraying from the body politic of the established order? Perhaps.
We’ve been thinking and writing about the counterculture of the Sixties and Seventies, with a preamble that includes the resistance to the mainstream in the Fifties, those strange and marginal characters called Beatniks. Beats, as they called themselves. The Dharma Bums, or Subterraneans, as fabled writer Jack Kerouac more eloquently named them.
I had a close encounter with those folks when I was young and impressionable, and impress me they did. Why? Because they taught me about things no one else in my world at the time ever talked about. Things I was to learn that actually mattered. Far more than lowriders, radio, sports, school, television, church, all those things you were expected to do and believe in for no better reason than people said you should.
The Beats talked about things that stirred you, touched you, felt right, important in ways that your everyday life and upbringing never captured your attention. Art, music, theatre, literature, poetry, social consciousness, and, of course, what it was to be hip. Hip meant aware, conscious of the bigger picture, reading between the lines of the bullshit. They opened your eyes to the world right in front of you that nobody before then had bothered to show you, not in the way you suddenly saw it anew.
In 1959, I got a job washing dishes at a coffee house called Les Tarot. It was owned by Merlin and Taggart Dyke, theatre people from New York, it was said, who burned out on the Big Apple and settled in Denver for whatever reason, where they gathered a motley collection of actors, writers, artists, musicians and others who by nature wandered outside the mainstream of the button-down Fifties. It was a great place to be, especially when you’re fourteen years old and trying to find your way.
The centerpiece of the room where they gathered was a magnificent Venetian espresso machine with spigots and spouts and levers in stainless steel topped by a sculpted eagle in brass. At the little tables along both walls where chess was played, books were read, and interminable discussions about what exactly was hip were held, clusters of these folks in various combinations held forth each night, drinking copious amounts of coffee, smoking Gauloises, Camels, and Luckies, and downing a fair number of rich chocolate torts from the coolers back where I washed the dishes.
Unknown to most was the basement full of theatre props, masks, mannequins, costumes, posters and such, where Merlin and I spent a fevered evening one frosty night when snow fell, the wind howled, and she and I were the only ones in house. It was an unforgettable experience for a young boy in the spell of a well-practiced drama queen, a visit to a cellar never forgotten and fondly recalled.
There was a lot to learn there and people more than willing to teach you. Merlin was one of them. Another was a guy named Milton, a classic character dressed all in black, a beret, goatee, gleam in his eye. He was rather outspoken, too.
“How old are you?” he asked me one night.
“Seventeen,” I said.
“Say what?” he said with no shortage of skepticism.
“Nearly, huh? Nearly! Well, Nearly, at least we know you’re smart.”
“You found your way here. This is where you learn what you need to know.
“Commerce! Free enterprise! Business! All bullshit! This entire country is just a big machine, Nearly. That’s all it is. A very mean machine that eats its young. The almighty dollar. That’s all they care about out there. That’s the first thing you need to learn.
“Art, man. All the arts! That’s where you want to be! That’s where the real stuff is. You dig that? Talking music. Talk jazz. Miles, Coltrane, Bird and Dizzy, Billie Holliday. Strange fruit. You dig that? It’s the truth! Pollack, de Kooning, Louise Bourgeois. Those are some painters you need to know. And the writers. Jack, of course, Kerouac, Jack’s the man! Ginsberg, William Burroughs, all those cats. That’s what you need to know. Alan Watts. One hand clapping. Dig that.
“Rock & roll?” He said, looking back at you, shaking his head. “Kid’s stuff, kid. Elvis? He’s part of the machine. You know he steals those songs from the Negroes, right? That’s where he learned his stuff. ‘That’s All Right.’ Big Boy Crudup did it years ago. Got some credit from Mister Presley. No dollars, though. ‘Hound Dog?’ Big Mama Thornton did it first. Sold half a million copies on race stations. Elvis never gave her a nickel. No credit either.
“Hell, Ike Turner recorded ‘Rocket 88’ in 1950 at Sun Records, way before Elvis or Carl Perkins or Jerry Lee ever saw the inside of that little studio. Nobody said: wow! The first rock & roll song. Let’s pay tribute! No way. Just another black man making noise, you know? All that rock & roll is nothing but rhythm & blues. Been around forever. You just never heard it before the white boys started singing it.”
He finally stopped to take a breath.
“What about folk music?” you asked him.
“Ah!” He said, a slight smile crossing his face. He looked at you intently. “That’s the voice of the people.” He put his hands out to his side, palms up, like this thought was going to lift you. “All those working people, the ones those businessmen exploit, those plantation owners, you dig what I mean? All those capitalists who exploit them to make their money. Folk music is the working people talking back to them.”
Down the street from the Tarot was The Exodus, a club that was a featured stop on the folk music circuit. It was there and other places around town in the next few years you got to really know the roots of all that rock & roll you’d been listening to. Josh White, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Odetta, Judy Collins, Leon Bibb, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, the Weavers, Carolyn Hester and Judy Roderick, even a scruffy kid on open mic by the name of Bob Dylan, who was all over town in 1960 looking for his first paying gig.
They were singing about things that mattered. Southern blues, chain gang songs, old Wobblies union shouts, protest music from a long tradition of the struggle for civil rights. These were songs of a different sort than rock ‘n’ roll.
And of all the things you learned, one of the most important was when you saw a picture of the legendary Woody Guthrie and the sign pasted to his guitar: “This machine kills fascists.” It was my first glimmer of the true power of art.