Complex & Random

Beat Sound, Beat Vision: The Beat spirit and popular song,
Laurence Coupe (217pp, hbck, 45, Manchester University Press)

'I would suggest,' writes Laurence Coupe, in the penultimate chapter of this earnest, interesting, and sometimes apologetic journey from Kerouac through Dylan, Ginsberg though The Beatles (not you, Ringo!), and Gary Snyder through other rock alumni to whom we'll come in a minute - 'I would suggest that the Beatles' achievement in Sgt Pepper stands poised between that of Eliot and that of Ginsberg.' There is a terrible sense in which this study has been heading, like a wary freight train around a precipice of track, towards this whopper for a long time. For the lost souls in The Waste Land, read Billy Shears ('Would you stand up and walk out...'); the girl in 'She's Leaving Home'; the 'disaffected, churlish persona of "Good Morning Good Morning"'. Out of the alienation comes the Beat ('Beatific', Kerouac's key word) optimism of 'Within You, Without You' and 'a way that is affirmed by the closing chord of "A Day in the Life"'.

Well, as George said, It's All Too Much For Me To Take. But you can tell it's where we're going as early as the Introduction, when Coupe, who does a brilliant job of explaining the role of the Zen publicist, Alan Watts, and gives us an expert and pithy whip round all the major world religions except Islam, also gets into a etymological tangle about the relationship between 'Beat' and 'The Beatles'. As he knows, The Beatles were once The (Silver) Beetles, since The Crickets were The Crickets. Their change of name, he implies, is a nod to the Beat poets and philosophers, to the 'Dharma Bums' of Kerouac's 1959 novel ('bums', like 'beats', also meaning hobos). Not so. Still just out of their teens, the not-yet-moptops were playing 'beat music', that is, music with a beat, dance music (they were briefly credited as 'The Beat Brothers'), as publicised by the 'Merseybeat' music paper, whose poll they won in early 1962. 'Beatles' was a Goonish pun, and they got away with it for one reason: they were successful. 'Beatles' is from the same gene pool as 'Swingin'' (Blue Jeans) or 'Pace' (-makers). Hence later groups like The Beat Merchants, The Easybeats...  More obviously, The Beatles were indebted to Chuck Berry, whose 'Rock'n'roll Music' is on Beatles For Sale
, and includes the lines 'Just let me hear some of that rock'n'roll music/ Any old way you choose it/ It's got a backbeat, you can't lose it.'

Obviously I could go on and on here. My point is that Coupe nearly dislodges his project by attempting to prove that, as Kerouac is to Dylan, so Ginsberg is to The Beatles, and that Dylan and The Beatles represent a line of continuity from the founding fathers. One might equally argue that On The Road
was the dominant influence on Dylan because he recorded a song called 'On The Road Again' in 1965, a theory oddly not suggested here (although Coupe rightly reminds us that Dylan, ever the thief, stole lines from Kerouac's Desolation Angels at the same time). The argument would be true and untrue, because Kerouac's book had iconic status, but we would then have to account for the Beatness of The Lovin' Spoonful, Canned Heat, and Country Joe And The Fish, all of whom recorded quite different songs called 'On The Road Again' shortly after Dylan's. Once you start to divide and pronounce on pop or rock musicians, you are in a quag of your own making. A good motto for Coupe might be 'I ain't looking to analyse you, categorise you, finalise you' - but he just can't help it. He draws really interesting distinctions between Kerouac, Ginsberg and Snyder, and then traps himself by separating out their spheres of influence, and, in the process, sanctifying The Beatles in particular as artists of peculiar greatness. Yes, they were good. Yes, like everyone else in Western culture with an audience, they picked up scraps and themes and general ideas about Zen, or at any rate, Eastern-y religions. But to construct such secure cultural scaffolding as is attempted in this study is bound to collapse every edifice around you.

It ought to be remembered - and Ginsberg is quoted here saying it - that The Beatles appealed to the wily old writer of Howl
from the first time he heard them. And what he heard was the not-very-Beatific set of lyrics which went 'Oh please, say to me/ You'll let me be your man/ And please, say to me/ You'll let me hold your hand./Now let me hold your hand,/I want to hold your hand.' Ginsberg loved The Beatles and Dylan because he loved performance. As a writer, he had the name, stature and innocence (and track record with the authorities) which made him an easy member of any mutual admiration society teenage heroes wanted to establish. I bet he liked 'Octopus's Garden', too. Ringo is short-changed.

Something more complex and random happens when Coupe moves on to Snyder, the genuinely practising Buddhist of his trio of Beats. Coupe sets a cut-off point at 1970, and says he can only include writer-musicians (as part of his theory of Beat influences) working before then. Fine. So Snyder is said to be the real influence on, and have the true affinity with Cohen, Mitchell, Donovan, Nick Drake, The Incredible String Band, and the two Morrisons, Van and Jim. I'll pass on Drake and Donovan (space). Let's credit Cohen with being his own man, and see Mitchell's road-songs as her own, too, born of her own 'wanderlust'. 'Big Yellow Taxi' is not enough evidence to rope her in with the Zen culture adopted by Snyder or praised by Watts. As for Jim Morrison, well, there's that 'What have we done to the earth?' passage in 'When The Music's Over', which is duly quoted, but is there really any room for the man who wrote clunkers like 'Insanity's horse adorns the sky', and not-very-Zen songs like 'Love Me Two Times'? And Van The Man, who is cited of 'Cyprus Avenue' as having said that it is intended to send a listener into meditation? The voice or instruments, maybe, but the lyrics? 'Yonder comes my lady,/ Rainbow ribbons in her hair,/Six white horses and a carriage/ She's returning from the fair... Nobody, no, no, no, nobody stops me from loving you baby / So young and bold, fourteen years old.' I don't think so. And if Coupe really wants to make a case for Van ('No Guru...'etc), then he might notice that Van has interested himself in Sufism, which gets a brief dismissal in the Introduction since 'the songwriters who follow show [no] particular interest in it.'

 The ISB seems to have been swept in because Rowan Williams, no less, has spoken out about how he 'fell in love' with their 'very expansive imagination' - this in a preface to a book about the ISB, a book in which elsewhere Blake is 'referred to' several times. It is not hard to play the Blake card when discussing the Sixties. Mike Horovitz put Blake at the centre of the New Departures
and Poetry Olympics activity, and still does. But the trouble with trying to find a line through Sixties lyrics is that they are a mix of rockabilly and nicely-scented mysticism. It is possible to fit almost any lyricist of the time into a great Zen-Blake tradition. The songwriters, alas, were not listening, or indeed writing, with the kind of care Coupe assumes. There are people in the world with MAs on Jefferson Airplane, on 'Have You Seen The Saucers?' But Kantner of Jefferson Airplane was as much of a cut-and-paste writer as the rest - lifting, for instance, a passage from John Wyndham. The cut-and-pasters include Lennon, whose 'Come Together' is praised here as being in the Zen tradition, although no mention is made of the law-suit launched by Chuck Berry's managers when they heard Chuck's words not even adapted, just adopted.

Besides which: what about all the writers who have been left out? Paul Simon (plenty of theses there) - why isn't he in the Kerouac tradition, what with his 'all gone to look for America'? Randy Newman? Laura Nyro ('I'm not scared of dying and I don't really care./If it's peace you find in dying, well, then let the time be near.')? Was there in fact a halfway-decent song-writer of the time who couldn't be roped in to make up the numbers?

It's a pity, because Coupe obviously knows his Beats, that he got side-tracked into his record collection. This is a book with a huge amount of knowledge, a huge sense of distinction, but, as it progresses, almost no argument worth hanging on to. At least it made me angry. Any book that you feel like hurling at the wall must have something about it.

                Bill Greenwell 2008