Tuesday, March 20, 2007

They were demanding jazz and rock and roll

"There is no doubt that On the Road was the seminal book of my coming of age. What I didn't know then is that it had turned millions of others around the world on to Whitman's America. During the Cold War it was not the so-called Voice of America, Treasury-hemorrhaging military expenditures, Foggy Bottom's diplomatic cunning, CIA cloak-and-dagger derring-do, or even democracy American-style that fueled the young intellectual radicals and freedom fighters of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The voice of America they heard was Walt Whitman's - the voice of the Mississippi Delta blues, spontaneous jazz, reckless rock and roll, Bob Dylan protest songs, Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and Jack Kerouac's (photo above) On the Road supplemented with images from Hollywood and later from MTV.

From the Molotov cocktail-throwers of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, to the underground legions of young radicals avoiding jazz police during the Prague Spring of 1968, to East German John Henrys swinging their sledgehammers for freedom in 1989 as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in our CNN living rooms, the Eastern European youth movement against totalitarianism was not seeking democracy per se: They were demanding jazz, rock and roll, Hollywood, and Beat poetry, and Jack Kerouac's On the Road was an important catalyst. "Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million Levi's to both sexes," William Burroughs has said: "Woodstock rises from his pages." So does the Velvet Revolution. Indeed, as columnist George Will has commented, it was John Lennon - a student of American pop and culture - and not Vladimir Lenin whom these young people emulated.

I find it incredible that the CIA was caught by surprise when the Berlin wall was struck down in August 1989, for that June in New York's alternative East Village music clubs, such as
CBGB's and the Continental Divide, young underground poets and rockers were matter-of-factly discussing the August teardown over beer, wondering if they had enough cash to lend a hand. What Bob Dylan (right) sang in 1965 applied in 1989: "Something is happening and you don't know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?" Even the teenage tank resisters of Tiananmen Square had traded in Mao's Red Book for smuggled copies of Ginsberg's poetry and recordings of Thelonius Monk's Mysterioso and Charlie Parker's Ornithology:" - from Douglas Brinkley's 1993 book The Majic Bus.
The Majic Bus recounts the maiden voyage of Hofstra University's travelling course, "An American Odyssey: Art and Culture Across America." At the prompting of his students, Professor Douglas Brinkley arranged to teach a six-week experimental course aboard a fully equipped sleeper bus. The curriculum would call on them to visit thirty states and ten national parks and read twelve books by great american writers. They attended a Bob Dylan concert in Seattle, gambled at a Las Vegas casino, danced to Borbon Street jazz in New Orleans, paid homage to Elvis Presley at Graceland, experienced a Californian earthquake, and Brinkley was mugged at gunpoint in Georgetown.

They also visited Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, Abraham Lincoln's Springfield, Harry Truman's Independence, and Theodore Roosevelt's North Kakota Badlands. And they had the unforgettable experience of meeting some of their cultural heroes including William S. Burroughs and Ken Kesey, with the latter taking the class for a spin in his own psychedelic bus. In more than five hundred pages Majic Bus never ceases to inform and entertain, and serves as a timely reminder of the rich history and culture of the US which is so overshadowed today by the humanitarian disasters of Iraq and elsewhere. Above all this remarkable travelogue is a dazzling reminder of how education really should work.

Now listen to Allen Ginsberg live via streamed audio
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1 comment:

Peter said...

Perhap another American voice was also heard? Wikipedia notes:

On June 12, 1987 U.S. President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech ("Tear down this wall") to the people of West Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate, yet it was also audible on the East Berlin side of the Wall.

Dare I suggest that Reagan had a greater positive influence on the course of history than Ginsberg?