On the beat
The John Natsoulas Gallery’s Beat Generation and Beyond conference continues to howl
Davis, CA 95616
Apparently, the beat does go on. And it has nothing to do with Sonny and Cher—or maybe it does. Why not investigate at the John Natsoulas Gallery’s fourth annual Beat Generation and Beyond conference in Davis? The free two-day event celebrates world-renowned poets, artists, filmmakers and performers of the beat generation— including poet Amiri Baraka, composer David Amram and assemblage artist George Herms.
Writer Jack Kerouac coined the tag “beat generation” in 1948 to describe the people he hung out with: poets, writers, artists, actors, dancers and musicians. Kerouac also referred to them as “upbeat,” “beatific” and being “on the musical beat.” His good friend Amram confirmed all that.
Amram, a spunky 75-year-old musician who wrote the musical score for the Frank Sinatra thriller The Manchurian Candidate, is a guest artist at this year’s conference. Fresh off a plane at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, having just returned from a performance at the Guinness Jazz Festival in Cork, Ireland, Amram spoke to SN&R on an extended cell-phone call. He had a lot to say about the beat generation but was quick to dispel any connection to beatniks.
Amram revealed that the term “beatnik” first fell off San Francisco columnist Herb Caen’s tongue. “It was just after the Russians launched the Sputnik, and Herb Caen wrote, ‘They have their Sputnik, and we have our beatniks.’ It rhymed with Sputnik. Three weeks after that, reporters were interviewing barflies wearing berets and painted-on beards in [New York’s] Washington Park,” Amram recalled, not without disdain.
“The beatniks, berets, padded bras and the hula hoop are all in the land fill of American junk culture,” he continued. “Kerouac’s books and my symphonies are not. Maynard G. Krebs in Dobie Gillis, as a humorous beatnik, portrayed the image as a loveable, moronic character, and that fit perfectly for those idiots who resented us for not having a Ph.D. in literature.”
Beats thrived in New York’s Greenwich Village and in Southern California’s Venice Beach. San Francisco’s North Beach area was a hot spot for the beats, too. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore served as one of the beats’ gathering spots there, and the Six Gallery hosted the first reading of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.”
So what’s so special about the beat generation that merits John Natsoulas’ annual extravaganza? And who comes to these conferences nowadays?
“The No. 1 group that comes is the artists,” Natsoulas said. “They are multitalented and know that when the beat poets read—whether it was Kerouac or Ginsberg—they would do it with music or noise and dancers and all that collaboration.” In fact, New Yorkers like Amram and Baraka think this conference is important enough to fly across the country to attend.
“Then there’s a new group of bohemians writing for all the beat arts and poetry blogs,” Natsoulas continued. “They go to these types of events regularly and report. This new intellectual bohemian has a tendency not to be so interested in being trendy,” he explained. “They don’t smoke cloves and wear black.”
The conference offers the community a rare opportunity to meet renowned beat performers from across the country. Nancy Resler, director of the Natsoulas Gallery, called the event “an opportunity to, at least for a day, experience the wild and exuberant mind of beat vision.” Both Natsoulas and Resler hope that all will leave with a better understanding of the important role the beat generation played in influencing Western culture.
“There was a courage and willingness [among the beats] to risk in their creative projects and in their lifestyles,” Resler said. “Their ‘liberation of the word from censorship,’ as Allen Ginsberg termed it, is enough in itself to make this an important historical and cultural revolution.”
This element of risk is still present in the conference today. “We commit ourselves to exhibiting not only successes, but the fumblings, too,” Natsoulas said. “By the way, I love the idea that these artists are about not being perfect and trying to take chances.”
Woodland native George Herms, whose art of recycled and found objects earned him a one-man show at the Crocker Art Museum last year, is on the conference roster but with a theater piece, Wonder Groove. Herms also will maintain artist-in-residence status at the gallery through November.
Herms, like other beat artists, revels in the faceted world of multi-disciplined art. “I see poetry as being a link to hip-hop. It’s for the young people that I do this,” he confessed. “I feel the lasting legacy is the essence of wonder in terms of the audience. When I look at the audience, they are a reflection. I’m like the audience. I come with a bag of tricks. It’s not making film or documentaries. It’s just for the people there that night, and we’re all the emphasis.”
“I’d been traveling on these beat adventures with Allen Ginsberg, to the Walker Gallery and the de Young [Museum] in San Francisco,” Herms reflected. “I traveled with them as a Jiminy Cricket, to keep them remembering, not to get into the sensationalism of bohemia, but to get it back to the music of Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk, which is more important than putting a man on the moon.”
“I still think of myself as being part of the audience,” Herms continued, “looking at the beat generation in that politically conservative time. That’s what draws the audience now, as we go through this politically conservative time.” (The beat era coincided with a time when the air in America was heavy with the “Red menace,” a fear of communism that precipitated the country’s political witch hunts.)
“Young performance artists are attending, but they’re not coming up with collaborating pieces, which is the glue of the beat generation,” Natsoulas observed of the conference audience. “We need to have dialogue. Our society has gone to computers and television. Our living room is no longer the galleries. All of the sudden, because of the political situation and anti-war events, there is a renaissance of being creative and talk of change.”
At the Natsoulas beat conferences, it’s not just the artists who collaborate with each other. There are no beefy security guards delineating the performers from the spectators. It’s almost as if the goal is to pull the audience into all the creative spontaneity.
Mary-Marcia Casoly, a 46-year-old librarian and poet from Palo Alto, was encouraged to attend last year’s conference when she heard Jack Foley talk about it in his Cover to Cover show on Berkeley radio station KPFA. In a letter she penned to the John Natsoulas Gallery after last year’s event, she exuberantly wrote, “My experience at the Beat Conference was such a wow! I came home exhausted but my mind was undulating with energy.”
She’s coming back again, and here’s why: “It’s fascinating. It’s rejuvenating. It gives you back energy. A lot of art these days is dark. This is not.” According to Natsoulas, by mid-October, the gallery had already received registration forms from all around Northern California, as well as Spokane, Wash.; Scottsdale, Ariz.; Washington, D.C.; Portland, Ore.; and North Carolina.
Bill Osebold, a returning attendee from Spokane, seems to think it’s well worth the trek south. After last year’s conference [Osebold referred to the conference as the “Forum”], he wrote the gallery, “It struck me very strongly that if it weren’t for the Forum, most of us in the workaday world would never have known of the existence of all these authentic, wonderful, self-sacrificing artists, filmmakers, musicians, dancers, and poets. They are not to be found in mainstream magazines or anywhere on the radio dial. It is as if there is a conspiracy to deprive society of real nourishment and the genuine article. … In all ways, you have provided an opportunity that is one of the major cultural experiences on the planet.”
As Amram further defined the beat culture, “Jack also meant the beat as the ancestral drum of every single person on Earth, all of whom come from a culture that originally was a drum culture. Now people schedule every move as a big career move and commit spiritual suicide trying everything, to look like something they’re not. In the process, many have lost their cultural roots, but everyone has their own heartbeat. When you tune in to that, you tune in to life.”
The beat generation may have been before their time, but it’s possible that Sonny and Cher really were tuned in when they sang, “The beat goes on. The beat goes on. Drums keep pounding a rhythm to the brain.”