“Don’t fret cat, it’s all bells. We got no bread baby, but that’s not our bag anyway. So dig the crazy scene and don’t be such a drag”.
The beats checked out of the idyllic life promised by 1950’s suburbia, making their home in the smoky jazz clubs of the urban utopia. They were the true rebels of conformity and bourgeois beliefs, rejecting the conventional lifestyle of middle-America for the hip, beaten down way of life.
They talked different, looked different, and were strange cats compared to everybody else.
Rock & Roll rebellion was one thing, but this far-out scene was unlike anything Mum and Dad had seen before.
Most beats were not military material, neither were they conformists ready to seek out the corporate world. They were free-thinkers like founders Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, all friends and writers.
Beats submerged themselves in life, philosophy, poetry, art, music, politics and the road. Beat godfather Jack Kerouac wrote about their wanderings in the quintessential beat bible On the Road (1957), and jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie contributed bebop slang as well as his trademark dark shades and beret.
Allen Ginsberg dismissed the term ‘beatnik’, saying; “it seems a word of insult usually applied to people interested in the arts.”
Beatniks gravitated towards coffee houses (they were largely to blame for the espresso and cappuccino craze) or folk or jazz clubs, where they could share their thoughts, verses and music.
They rejected the greaser style of T-shirt and jeans, as well as the square style of poodle skirts and saddle shoes. Instead, the boys wore sweatshirts and baggy chinos with leather huarache sandals, while the ladies wore black leotards and straight skirts with sandals or ballet slippers.
Men let their hair grow longer while women cut theirs short in the gamine or urchin cut. Berets topped everyone’s crown, and silver jewellery from the Native American culture proved their sympathy for social causes.
The beats’ dark fashions echoed the burdened psychological state they lived in. Black became synonymous with chic, and angst was the best accessory.
The beat look was a non-conformist trend (how’s that for an oxymoron?), but that didn’t stop TV and movies from homing in on the style. Maynard G. Krebs’ beatnik style from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was beat-ish, featuring worn-in sweatshirt, sloppy chinos, and goatee, while Audrey Hepburn’s hepcat hipness in Funny Face (1957) was unforgettable: gamine haircut, black leotard and Capri leggings with ballerina flats.
Ernest Hemingway had dubbed post-WWI ‘the Lost Generation’, while this new league of literary loners of post-WWII became known as the Beat Generation.
While they were beat, they certainly were not lost, and their riff foreshadowed the hippie promise of universal acceptance and brotherly love to come in the 60s. They jived to the sound of the bongos, and it was heavy, man. Dig.
By the early 60s, beatniks had largely become figures of fun, stereotyped in the press and in movies as black-clothed, drug-taking weird-beards mouthing poor poetry and patting bongo drums.
British comedian Tony Hancock’s 1961 movie The Rebel (titled Call Me Genius in the US) had him lampooning the avant-garde artistic beatnik set (one of whom is incongruously played by a very young Oliver Reed).
Then in January 1962 came what must have been the final nail in the beatnik coffin, when an article in the New Musical Express was headed ‘They Plan To Make Pat Boone A Beatnik’.
By the mid-60s beatniks had been replaced in the mainstream public’s disaffection by hippies – who carried the torch by adopting Allen Ginsberg as counter-cultural guru for their own generation.