Beat is alive and well but beat nostalgia is trying to kill it. I’ve been wracking my brain to come up with a graphic analogy. Maybe beat nostalgia is a little as if all of humanity went around talking only about the good old days some 200,000 years ago when homo sapiens first emerged as a new species. It was really great then, wasn’t it! We’d been walking on our hind legs for some time already, of course, but now we were learning to swagger. Homo sapiens introduced that. Almost immediately, swaggering was commercialized - everybody started doing it. But, please, let’s not talk about what happened in the 200,000 years since we started swaggering – that’s repetitious, dull. Let’s talk about how we swaggered when we first learned to swagger as homo sapiens. Does that communicate?
It’s estimated that North Beach core beat bohemia from the mid 1950s into the 60s comprised some 350 people – a small number it would seem. Still, we can easily imagine that the first family of hominids identifiable as homo sapiens emerging in Africa was even smaller, say some 50 people or even fewer. Perhaps a cluster of several families eventually formed a clan of 350 of these freshly minted intelligent humans. The difference is that homo sapiens eventually took over the whole world. Beats did no such thing. The question is: Why not?
First I should point out the obvious - that the ascent of homo sapiens to world primacy has been a mixed blessing, to say the least. Indeed, after all these tens of thousands of years and all that tremendous quantitative proliferation, in this new century and millennium we appear to be launching a major push toward extinction. Not that we haven’t tried for this during the past century, failing mainly due to technological shortcomings, combined perhaps with inopportune conjunctions of global karma. But even as we teeter on the very brink of the final plunge into oblivion we can be proud of our track record as homo sapiens in one crucial department, the one accomplishment that is absolutely essential to the long-term survival of any species - the phenomenon evolutionary scientists refer to as reproductive success.
Of course, there are other species of mammals that have matched or surpassed our marvelous knack for constant, massive procreation, mice for instance. But mice don’t rule the planet, do they - at least not yet. Similarly, when beat and beatniks emerged in the fifties as a group that might evolve into a subspecies of homo sapiens they showed great potential for proliferating, for overtaking and eventually replacing our aging, weakening and possibly moribund species. Why, we looked and felt like a brand-new genus.
I mean we had everything! We had observed and understood most of the flaws, weaknesses and fallacies of homo sapiens. We understood the nuclear menace. We knew that waging war in the nuclear age was to walk the road to extinction. So we opted against that: we dropped out and created our own culture, its strength rooted in peacefulness, tolerance, modesty and a healthy dash of fiscal humility. We respected and encouraged creativity in others and in ourselves. We were essentially non-judgmental, and while we never quite managed to cast off all the discriminatory labels and attitudes men in those days applied to women, our women enjoyed the same basic freedoms men did, especially in sexual matters, flocking to the Beach from all over America. We were sexually as active, or more so, than the surrounding host population. Most important of all, we were smarter than homo sapiens – precisely because we understood and practiced all of the above. To sum up, we had what it took to take over. So what went wrong?
Well, for one thing, we felt no inclination to organize, which meant we had no leader or leaders. We lacked ambition, which meant we had few personal goals beyond enjoying the day, and no communal goals at all. We thoroughly lacked competitive spirit, which meant we couldn’t care less how well or badly anyone performed, let alone try to do better. Finally, perhaps most importantly, we were masters of casual survival with a minimum of effort, which meant we had moved far beyond the hunter-gatherer-farmer-worker-wage-slave stage of evolution in which our fellow homo sapiens still languished, which meant we felt no survival pressure. Simply put, we cultivated a lazy, self-indulgent lifestyle that did not lend itself to any sort of success beyond the reproductive kind. If ever the notion of setting out to conquer the world entered our grassified minds we’d get up and conquer the distance to the fridge to fetch a few more scoops of Rocky Road ice cream.
With 20/20 hindsight we know how it went from there – beat morphed into hippie. One day I was sitting in the Trieste on Grant and heard some kids talking about "the Haight", so I went over to Haight-Ashbury and checked it out. These were the pre-flower-power days but clearly something was going on there – a new tribe had emerged. Now if this had been 200,000 years ago we might have gone over there full of territorial piss and vinegar and pushed ‘em off our turf. You know that didn’t happen. Beat just morphed into hippie and hippie morphed into thin air. So why did I start this piece by saying beat is alive and well? Here’s why.
Last week, at Newark International Airport, eyewitnesses saw plainclothes agents - probably Homeland Security - arrest an ordinary looking kid in his twenties. The reason they saw this at all was because the kid resisted, there was a scuffle. At one point he yelled something like, "F… you, Homeland, come on, send me to Guantanamo, see if I care. You can beat me all you like, I ain’t gonna get beater than I already is."
As I read this online I began to feel like Saul on the road to Damascus – I was having an epiphany. Here I’d been struggling with the pathetic truths at the core of this piece, and got as far as writing the last sentence, which was … Yes, we had it all and lost it, but for a brief instant back there we were homo beat. Now, hearing that young man shout out his credo at Newark made my own words sound hollow, empty and sickeningly nostalgic. I’d written the same sort of tripe I set out to purge from the chronicles of beat! It would take me most of that night and all next morning to come up with an ending that did justice to what I’ve come to think of as The Newark Roar – so here goes …
Yes, we had it all and lost it, but for a brief instant back there we were homo beat. Clearly we were never meant to be more than simply beat, which is just as well. Because for homo beat to conquer the world we would have had to become beater than thou and that would have made us much too much like homo sapiens. So rejoice that beat is alive and well and beat nostalgia can’t hurt it!
© Peter Edler 2006