Category Archives: Beatniks

The Pencil Today:

HotAirLogoFinal Thursday

THE QUOTE

“It seems that fighting is a game where everybody is the loser.” — Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston

DIGGERS

Stand by for another big book release from a Bloomington author in 2013.

Phil Ford, professor of music history at Indiana University, looks to August for the debut of his “Dig: Sound and Music in Hip Culture.”

Ford

Phil Ford

Ford’s got a publisher, Oxford University Press, and is now in the process of securing his last copyright permissions — “I had a ton to manage for the book” — and correcting the odd punctuation mistake.

Dig conceives hipness as a part of the intellectual and cultural history of the United States from the 1940s through the 1960s,” Ford says.

The hip aesthetic has structured art and thought here since the end of World War II, according to Ford. He says American intellectual life has been profoundly affected by the storied postwar alienation from society.

The beatniks and the cool jazz cats of 20-year period after 1945 saw themselves as outsiders who had nothing to do with you, yet now you act and think in ways they did more than you or they would have ever dreamed.

The larger, dominant culture, Ford explains, aims to “foreclose” on creativity, self-awareness, and self-expression.

“The hipster’s project is to imagine this system and define himself against it,” Ford says. Think Jack Kerouac or Timothy Leary. “While hipsters have always used clothing, hairstyle, gesture, and slang to mark their distance from the consensus culture, it is music that has always been the privileged means of cultural disaffiliation.”

Terkel & Beats

Studs Terkel With Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, & Peter Orlovsky

Ford tries to define the concept of hip in the book and then follows its path from what he deems its birth year, 1948. For instance, Ford has found rare recordings of Beat Poets singing along to jazz records in 1949. “You can hear them trying on the hipster persona like a new suit,” Ford says.

Ford enshrines Norman Mailer, author of the seminal “White Negro” essay in Dissent magazine, into the hipster pantheon. “He couldn’t carry a tune in a Hefty bag but he developed a notion of writing as existential challenge that remodels the act of writing to something more like the act of sounding, something like a musical performance,” Ford says.

Book Cover

The City Lights Book-Length Edition Of Mailer’s Essay

Ford has been published in the academic journals Representations, Journal of Musicology, Jazz Perspectives, Musical Quarterly, and others. Dig is his first book.

One of the jazz titans Ford covers in Dig is the late pianist, songwriter, arranger, composer, and Zelig-like figure, John Benson Brooks. He worked with everyone from Zoot Sims and Cannonball Adderley to Tommy Dorsey and Les Brown but remains unknown today. Ford feels Brooks’ life in New York City’s arts scene from the 1940s through the ’60s would serve as a great basis for a history of that capital of hipness. Ford just might start writing that book once he gets the final Dig manuscript out the door.

So, be cool until August and then dig Dig.

HAPPINESS IS A GUN

You know it had to happen.

A Bloomington High School South kid has been overhead saying he’d pull off a Sandy Hook-type incident at the school tomorrow. Bloomington cops have found a small arsenal at his house and the kid’s been suspended. The guns belonged to adults in the home but the BPD confiscated the artillery nonetheless.

Bloomington High School South

BHSS

And a kid at Batchelor Middle School has been suspended for bringing a BB gun to class.

Hard to know if the kids were just being, well, kids, or they were real threats to their classmates and teachers. Just this moment, though, no one’s taking any chances.

One observer has said that the BHSS kid needs immediate psychiatric treatment. Maybe.

Let me tell you a little story.

When I was 16 and 17, my circle of hippies and ne-er-do-wells that hung out day and night at Amundsen Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side faced a migration of gangbangers from the near West Side.

A Polish and Puerto Rican gang, the Almighty Jousters, started hanging around the park after they’d been rousted from their turf farther east by the cops and rival gangs. These guys were tough. They thought nothing of bloodying someone up for the slightest imagined insult. One of the Jousters, Little Willie, found himself in competition for an Amundsen Park girl with a guy from the neighborhood. Little Willie settled the dispute by breaking the guy’s jaw, ribs, and arm in an impromptu negotiating session held during the midnight showing of the movie “Gimme Shelter” at the Mercury Theater.

From "Gimme Shelter"

Backdrop For A Beating

The Jousters also liked to pack heat.

Even though I was a devoted peacenik, there was something about the Jousters’ hard coolness that attracted me. I became friendly with several of them. I even fantasized what I’d feel like carrying a pistol, as they did. In my fantasy, I’d feel important.

By and by, a consortium of neighborhood demi-gangs — the North & Nagle Boys, the Corner Boys, the Bank Boys, the Stompers, and others — agreed to join forces and try to evict the Jousters. The issue would be settled the old fashioned way, with a war. A date was set. It was a chilly Wednesday night in October. The park was packed with grim-looking teenagers from the area. The Jousters were due to arrive at about 8:00.

We had any number of guys in our midst who could handle their fists quite well. All told, we had about 50 guys ready to rumble. We smoked and chattered nervously, waiting for the Jousters.

At eight sharp, a couple of cars full of Jousters squealed up in the front of the park. “Let’s fuck these guys up,” someone said.

My pal Whitey and I had felt obligated to join the local army, even though neither of us was particularly noted for toughness. We glanced at each other, a wordless reminder that we’d previously agreed to run around the periphery of action and do our level best to avoid inflicting or suffering any kind of pain.

The Jousters exited their cars and stood gazing at our little army for a brief moment. We had them outnumbered five to one. “This is gonna be sweet,” another guy said.

At that moment, one of the Jousters named Crate — a guy even Little Willie gave a wide berth to — reached under his long coat and pointed a sawed-off shotgun at us. None of us budged — not because we were brave and tough, but because we were petrified. Whitey and I were on the verge of tears.

Sawed-off Shotgun

Respect

Like that, Crate squeezed off several blasts. The 50 of us local guys turned and ran like deer when we saw the first flash from Crate’s shotgun. I clearly remember hearing the pellets screeching and clattering past me across the pavement as we ran. Judging by subsequent audible pops, several other Jousters had outed pistols and began firing.

Only later did I realize I was concerned about soiling my pants for a hot minute.

The Jousters beat it as soon as they heard police sirens. The cops, who’d been miffed the gang had settled in our neighborhood but seemed to tolerate their presence to that point, now decided to get rid of them. None of us ever saw Little Willie, Crate, and the others again.

But for a while afterward, I remained enthralled by that image of the Jousters, standing before us, confident that they possessed the means to make us run.

At the time, I was working in a hot dog stand owned by a minor Outfit figure. Let’s call him Pat. I also served for a brief period as a driver for him and his “boss,” “Mr. Martin,” an Outfit member of slightly higher standing than Pat. Whenever Pat or Mr. Martin needed to do some business down on the West Side or in Little Sicily, they’d call for me to drive them there in their Cadillacs and wait for them outside. “Keep your eyes open,” they’d advice me as they got out of the car.

I never knew what I was supposed to be on the lookout for.

Pat carried himself with a Mob mien that “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos” aficionados today deem cool. Pat never raised his voice. When he was mad, he wore The Look — his jaw set, his lips a line, and his eyes staring. You couldn’t read any emotion on his face. That’s what was terrifying about The Look.

Harry Aleman

Fabled Hitman Harry Aleman With “The Look”

Pat kept a small pistol in an ankle holster in the backroom of the hot dog stand. Every now and again, he’d hold it lovingly and warn me to be careful. “Don’t touch this unless you gotta,” he’d say. He never elaborated on when that would be.

As Pat came to trust me, he left me alone at the hot dog stand more often. I started formulating a plan to wear the pistol home after closing the place at night.

I wanted to feel invincible.

For a period of about two months, I’d strap the holster to my ankle and walk around the hot dog stand toward closing time, just to get the feel of it. I wore bell-bottom pants so the bulge wasn’t noticeable. I learned to position the holster just so, so that I wouldn’t brush against it with my other ankle as I strode.

I practiced standing with my leg propped up on a carton of soft drink cups so that the bottom tip of the holstered gun would be visible just beneath my pants leg. After all, what’s the point of carrying a gun if other people don’t know about it?

I couldn’t wait to summon the courage to wear it home and, naturally, to Amundsen Park. Who knows? Maybe there’d be a moment during the course of a typical evening of hanging out when I’d have to pull the pistol out, just to make a point.

Pistol & Ankle Holster

Then I’d be invincible.

Somehow, some way, the three of us — Pat, Mr. Martin, and I — all got into hot water with the cops at the same time. Pat’s and Mr. Martin’s photos ran in newspaper accounts of their troubles. Mine was kid’s stuff.

In any case, the hot dog stand was closed and I was out of a job. I never got a chance to wear that holstered pistol home or to the park.

I was lucky.

That BHSS kid who bragged about planning to shoot up the place tomorrow was lucky as well. And that middle school kid was lucky he never fired his BB gun in the Batchelor hallways.

I don’t know if these kids need psychiatric help, any more than I might have needed help when I was 16 and 17, just for wanting to carry a gun

Guns are awfully seductive, and insecure teenagers are primed to be seduced by them.

Rather than worry about putting kids who dig guns on a psychiatrist’s couch, we ought to consider treating the adults who manufacture these things by the millions in this holy land.

Today: Tuesday, November 15, 2011

MY COFFEEHOUSE LIFE

Pardon me a moment while I take today’s first sip of coffee.

Ahhh.

That’s the ticket. The life-giving, eye-opening, brain-igniting legal substance without which I would most likely be a rotting corpse by 11:00am.

Guatemalan Coffee Cherries: The Seeds Inside Keep Me Alive

As faithful readers of this daily account are aware, I spend much of my time at Soma Coffee. I’ve been a coffeehouse habitué for at least the last twenty years, since coffeehouses came back into vogue.

Coffeehouses were the subterranean headquarters of the beatniks back in the late 1950s. There isn’t much at all about the ’50s that appeals to me — which is ironic considering one of this holy land’s most venerated presidents of all time, Saint Ronald Reagan, pretty much positioned that decade as something of a second Eden — but I’d have loved to have hung out in that era’s smoky, moody, finger-snapping, beret-required coffeehouses.

When beatniks went out of style, so did coffeehouses. Then, thanks to retro, Seattle grunge, and a phenomenon known as Starbuck’s, they started popping up here and there, mostly in those urban pioneer precincts that artists and hipsters gravitated toward.

I spent nearly ten years haunting Chicago’s premier, almost mythical, coffeehouse called Urbus Orbis. The place occupied the main floor of a four-story red-brick industrial building near the six-corners intersection of Milwaukee, North, and Damen avenues.

The locale was a tough spot in those days. Gang-bangers ran around grabbing their crotches and flashing signs at each other. Hard-drinkers tumbled out of the Borderline tavern just a half-block away. On any given Friday or Saturday night, stewed-to-the-gills drivers would slam into each other in the middle of that complicated intersection and physical altercations were sure to ensue. A good percentage of the time firearms were introduced into the proceedings.

Urbus Orbis itself was not immune to the horrors of the street. It wasn’t unusual to wait outside the single, locked bathroom, hopping on one leg then the other until finally banging on the door and getting no response. You’d tell the barista about it, she’d lower her shoulder and crash the door in, and the two of you would find some poet curled up in a ball on the piss-stained floor in a junk-induced reverie.

I loved the place.

There were anarchists, painters, actors, old punk-rockers, and countless hangers-on. On any given day I’d share a table with characters like Sidney T. Feldman, a former teen Frisbee champ who’d scraped-together his disc-tossing winnings to buy out his boss’s window washing business. Sidney loved to brag he was the laziest man in the city of Chicago. He worked a mere 45 minutes a week, he claimed, long enough only to schedule appointments with his North Shore clients and assign his crews. The first day I met him, he walked into the Urbus Orbis with a grey African parrot on his shoulder.

One winter night while stuck in traffic on the Kennedy Expressway, Sidney and I got the bright idea that we should become private detectives. We’d tail errant spouses and track down missing heirs. No joke. Sidney said it was a natural: I was used to bird-dogging and researching as a journalist and he knew how to run a business. He even knew a guy who could make a blinking eye neon sign to hang outside our office. But most of all it was perfect because we’d just bought snazzy new fedoras.

Out of the Past

I was to go down to the State of Illinois building the very next morning to get all the paperwork in order. Sadly, I learned a couple of chuckleheads need to be trained and sponsored before they can become private eyes. Even if they do have fedoras.

There was Michael Fisher, a twenty-something who wore a dashing brimmed hat like an Italian movie star and a long scarf which he threw over his shoulder with a dramatic flair even when the temperature hovered around 70. Michael’d spent his college years fencing and playing chess. He and Sidney — himself a highly-rated chess player — jockeyed for position to give me pointers on my game. Then they’d loom over me and kibbitz as I played another opponent, slapping their heads in dismay when I’d make a blunder. But if my opponent blundered, they’d shout, “Punish him!” in my ear.

There was Terry Broderick, a hulking, prematurely gray-haired man who relished being the outsider among us outsiders. He listened to a little known (at the time) radio ranter named Rush Limbaugh and would come into Urbus Orbis to tell us what treasonous things he’d learned Bill Clinton had done that morning. Terry wore many hats. He had a tiny red pick-up truck whose bed he packed with dry ice. He loaded it up with frozen meats and lobsters and would drive to northwest Indiana and ring doorbells to sell the stuff.

Terry also sold insurance door to door and ran his own moving company. He’d rent a truck, hire his Urbus acquaintances and the odd wino off the street, and move families from the Gold Coast to the North Shore. His business card claimed he was licensed and insured but we knew better. We knew he was running a pirate business because whenever he saw anybody he suspected was an inspector from the Illinois Commerce Commission snooping around, he’d flip the ramp back into the truck in a rush and peel away, leaving us and the family we were moving to stand there looking dumbfounded.

One day I confronted Terry. “Come on, man,” I said, “You and I both know you’re running a scam. Let me see your bonding papers. Where’s your business license?”

He looked over both shoulders and confessed, “I don’t have ’em.”

“So,” I said triumphantly, “you’re lying on your business card.”

“No I’m not!” he said, hurt. “I’m licensed! I’m insured! I’ve got a drivers license and I have auto insurance.” He was serious as a heart attack. Then he said, “Can you work tomorrow? I’ve got three jobs.” I said I could.

There was the Dark Prince. His given name was Bill. Years earlier, he’d been a silent fixture at the punk rock nightclubs La Mere Vipere, O’Banion’s, and Exit. He only ever wore black. Black pointy Beatle boots. Black stovepipe jeans. Black turtleneck sweater. Black eye liner. His spiky, pouffed-up hair was also shockingly black, which we all took to be a dye job considering he was about 40 years old. His mood was generally black and the cloud that hung over his head was, if not black, darkest gray.

The highlight of the Dark Prince’s resume was that he’d spent time on tour with Peter Murphy some years back. We though this odd since the Prince couldn’t play any musical instruments and he was vehemently opposed to the concept of labor, so we knew he couldn’t have been a roadie.

In any case, the Prince liked to sit alone, chain smoking and looking for all the world as if he was plotting to become the next Unabomber. One day the Prince walked into Urbus Orbis actually smiling — well, okay, the corner of his mouth was sort of upturned. He carried with him a dozen red roses. We all gaped at him.

He explained: A junkie street hooker he’d befriended was so touched that anyone would treat her like a human being that she’d decided to fall in love with him. She started out by leaving mash notes on his windshield. That day, she’d left the flowers.

“Whaddya gonna do with ’em?” we asked. The Dark Prince shrugged. “I dunno. Probably give ’em to my mother.” We though that sweet of him. He did, after all, live in his mother’s basement in the conservative suburb of Mount Prospect.

At least one Urbus regular went on to become a big hit in the bigger world. Adam Levin, a dreadlocked teenager, would sit with Sidney and me and tell us about his dream of becoming a writer. He carried a notebook with him everywhere he went. He wouldn’t stay too terribly long on any given day because, he said, he needed to write and he couldn’t do it with all the rest of us distracting him. His hard work paid off: Adam Levin’s novel “The Instructions” was published by the ultra-hip McSweeney’s people in 2010. Some critics likened his work to that of David Foster Wallace.

Urbus Orbis stood on the border between the Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods. By the late 90’s the yuppies had discovered the area. First the gangbangers, the drunks and the junkies were pushed out. Then the Puerto Ricans. We knew we were next.

Urbus Orbis closed down on New Year’s Eve 1997.

Not long after that, the owner of the building decided to rent it out to the production company that put on MTV’s “The Real World.” They moved in some precious, faux-edgy, aspiring actors and videotaped their every living moment.

One Friday night a crowd of several hundred freaks, revolutionaries, and painters massed in front of the building, shouting for the MTV people to go home. A rock or two may have been thrown. The cops came, clunked a few heads, and everybody dispersed, lamenting to each other as they ran what a sick corporate police state we’d become.

Wicker Park and Bucktown now boast some of the priciest townhomes in the city.

I’ve set my laptop down in any number of coffeehouses since the Urbus days. There were Kafein and the Unicorn near the Evanston campus of Northwestern University. Katerina’s on Chicago’s North Side and Bic’s Hardware Cafe on the South Side. Heine Brothers, and Matthew Lannan’s joint in Louisville. And now, Soma.

Soma’s a good place. I’ve met tons of fine folks here. Nobody on the order of the Dark Prince, though. Soma’s more serious. Loads of students reading textbooks and instructors grading papers. Adam Levin would have liked it here.

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