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Holy Barbarians

June 29, 2009 |  8:11 am

Lawrence Lipton, Holy Barbarians
Above, the dust jacket of Lawrence Lipton's "Holy Barbarians" that's in pretty good shape. Obviously owned by a square.

June 29, 1958, Lawrence Lipton

June 28, 1959: Lawrence Lipton uses a review of "The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men," by Gene Feldman and Max Gartenberg to explore bohemian life of the 1950s.

The reading list at the Daily Mirror HQ is long and quirky: "Never So Few" and "Go Naked Into the World" by Tom T. Chamales, "Muscatel at Noon" by Matt Weinstock and EBay's latest contribution to my shelf of books by W.W. Robinson. Then there's the desiderata, like "The Bridal Night of Ronald and Thusnelda."

What jumped to the top of the list is Lawrence Lipton's "Holy Barbarians," a 1959 chronicle of the Beats in Venice, which I encountered somewhere in the clips, possibly a Weinstock column, although I can't find it now.

The book showed up in the mail a few days ago courtesy of EBay, so I've been playing Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and some Coltrane all weekend to create the right mood while I read it. To do the job right,  I suppose I should have a set of bongo drums somewhere, hang netting and sea shells on the walls and fill the place with stale marijuana smoke, but I'm not that much of a stickler for authenticity.

The former husband of mystery novelist Craig Rice, Lipton was born in 1898, so he was about 60 when he wrote the book, roughly the twice the age of the beatniks who considered him an elder statesman of their disaffiliated generation.

Lipton was the Boswell of these Beats, capturing their lives in exquisite and often excruciating detail. It's fair to say that the book wasn't written as much as it was tape-recorded. Many conversations, some of them quite long, are merely transcribed from tapes Lipton made of his friends.

Behold, actual hipster talk (Page 102):

"It isn't art or intellectualism, it isn't genius that's got me hooked. It's the life. Do you have any idea what it's like out there? Sure, it isn't Main Street any more. Sinclair Lewis' Gopher Prairie is a thing of the past. So is Zenith City, for that matter.Squareville is modern now. It's got network television and Life magazine culture. You can tune in the Metropolitan opera on the radio. You can stay out late and come home drunk once in a while without being hounded out of town. You can play around a little, if you're discreet about it, without too much talk. The drugstores carry paperback editions of Plato and Lin Yutang.

"But the tension! Wages go up three cents and coffee goes up ten. So they pipe sweet Muzak into the supermarkets and you go around in a daze loading up that cute little chromium-plated cart without looking at the price tags. And let most of it rot in the refrigerator before you get to it. Last year's car is out of style before you finish paying for the tail fins. It's a rat race. Who's got time to laze around in the sand for an hour, or take a quiet walk by the ocean in the evening, or watch a sunset?

"Here I can get away from it for a while, at least evenings and weekends. I can do without things. God! do you know what a relief that is? Not to have to keep up with anybody. Nobody to show off for. The people at the office, they don't even know where I live. I tell them I  live in Santa Monica. That's close enough, and it sounds respectable. It's got the same telephone exchange as Venice, so nobody suspects anything.

"This is the one place I've ever lived where you can take your skin off and sit around in your bare bones, if you want to. Only the rich, surrounded by acres of land and iron fences, can enjoy anything like that kind of privacy. That's what I mean by being hip. And staying cool."

Barbara Lane is part time square and part time hipster, but her heart is in Venice West. "In town, at the office, I work. Here I live," she will tell you. "It's like having one foot on each side of the tracks. But that's the only way I can make it."

Notice that there isn't a single "daddy-o." In fact, there isn't one in the entire book. If you think James Ellroy's novels are written in authentic hipster talk, you'll be shocked that their speech is so ordinary -- though they do ramble.

I have more to say about "Holy Barbarians," but I'm only halfway through it. You might want to read along. The book is available for free from in pdf and plain text format.

Is it worth reading? Consider these gems:

Page 20: By which I meant, I suppose, pretty much the same thing that [Kenneth] Rexroth meant when he wrote, apropos of Bird and Dylan, "Against the ruin of the world, there is only one defense -- the creative act."

Page 103: Like Jack Kerouac says in On the Road, "Mexico is a whole nation of hipsters!"

Comments? Send them along.