Triple Vintage Bohemia

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    It feels fitting to be exploring a few currently circulating documentations of post-World War II Bohemia early in 2013, just sixty years after the first performances of Samuel Beckett’s En Attendant Godot. The shifting tragi-comic mood music that links Beckett’s Chaplinesque tramps, the confounded bourgeois Pozzo and his desolated slave Lucky, seemed connected with several other sub- and counter-cultural key changes picked up and acted on around the same time by, for example, the (mainly) black American jazzers developing bebop, and the (mainly) white American Beat Generation writer-activists. One of the latter group’s loci classici, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, identified ‘the madman, bum and angel’ as guiding lights for its projected internationalist socio-pacifist-sexual revolution. My own now sixty adult years of memory lanes coincide more or less neatly with those six decades of London Sohoitis; with a similar vintage of New York City’s mellifluous improvisational havens; and with the equally jazz-lined and Whitmanesque open roads of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Ginsberg and their irrepressibly high-spirited comrades.

    In her massive de luxe tome, The Colony Room Club, 1948-2008: A History of Bohemian Soho, Sophie Parkin chronicles the comings, goings-on and reliques of an eyrie ‘at the top of one of Dean Street’s seamier stairwells, from which guests were disgorged into an unprepossessing small room. Like similar legendary meeting places such as Les Deux Magots, The Cedar Tavern in Abstract Expressionist New York, Dean’s Bar in Tangier, the Colony was a place where its guests felt more at home than home, where conversation and drinking were the main entertainments.’ Sophie (daughter of eighty-year-old writer-painter and hedonistic swinger extraordinaire Molly and veteran art dealer Michael Parkin) was given a membership by her mother for her eighteenth birthday in 1979, when Sophie was serving her Boho appprenticeship at St Martin’s School of Art. From frequenting the club throughout the years till its closure, as well as researching its evolutions in diligent depth, her lavishly illustrated doorstop is well worth its weight in wide-ranging revelations, whilst wearing its erudition with a decorously apt lightness of touch.

    There are seven sections headed: ‘The Vintage 40s, The Repressive 50s, The Swinging 60s, The Laidback 70s, The Excessive 80s, The Naughty 90s and The Final Years’. Painters, sculptors and artworld hangers-on made up the Colony’s most consistent clientele, from Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud to Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. But all manner of folk from diverse strata (Dylan Thomas, Colin MacInnes, Elizabeth Smart, Tom Driberg, Frank Norman, George Melly, Christine Keeler, Kate Moss, Suggs, Jude Law, Keira Knightley) came to relish its ‘private party for outsiders, whether you were black, gay, female, an artist or poet, or just liked them.’

    The official club photograph of 1973. Copyright of Lord Lichfield Studios

     

    There are seven sections headed: ‘The Vintage 40s, The Repressive 50s, The Swinging 60s, The Laidback 70s, The Excessive 80s, The Naughty 90s and The Final Years’. Painters, sculptors and artworld hangers-on made up the Colony’s most consistent clientele, from Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud to Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. But all manner of folk from diverse strata (Dylan Thomas, Colin MacInnes, Elizabeth Smart, Tom Driberg, Frank Norman, George Melly, Christine Keeler, Kate Moss, Suggs, Jude Law, Keira Knightley) came to relish its ‘private party for outsiders, whether you were black, gay, female, an artist or poet, or just liked them.’

    Francis Bacon gradually became uncontested King of the Colony castle, and his every bon (or mauvais) mot – such as ‘Champagne for my real friends, real pain for my sham friends’ – was clung onto and giggled over ad nauseam. I met and got chatting with Bacon there, and was amazed to find the artist whose relentlessly savage images had been terrifying me to the bone for years turned out to be this genial garrulous pisshead. He particularly relished exchanging reminiscences of our mutual buddy William Burroughs, whom I’d published and yakked and got stoned with in Paris, Oxford and London, and whom Bacon had befriended in Tangier.

    The plethora of quotations and dialogues attributed to Bacon endow the book with a sense of the potential frissons and sparkle which kept the club’s regulars happy to keep punting the umpteenth round. For poetry or profundity these were hardly up there in Elysium with Waiting For Godot’s runic stichomythia, but much of what the Colony’s surviving habitués told Sophie was evidently great fun at the time. Much else however, surely not; and least of all the kind of spiteful or vitriolic humours that stem from envy or unfulfilled ambitions, and can lead to wilful humiliation and violence. Club regulars delighted me when they waxed cordial and enthusiastic about their own and each other’s works and lives – and appalled me when they got Bacon and Lucian Freud on the pavement of Dean Street near the Colony Room’s stairwell entrance, mid-late 1960s William Burroughs photographed in early 1960s by Michael Horovitz on flat roof of 57 Greek Street where M H was then living, just round the corner from the Colony Room ill-pissed and the tedious grudges, claws and knives came out. Whereupon the place swiftly took on trappings of the Ninth Circle of Dante’s Hell.

    Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud on the pavement of Dean Street near The Colony Room’s stairwell entrance, mid-late 1960s, Copyright of Harry Diamond

    All in all, this glittering eye-friendly pageant of all manner of reproductions, photographs, facsimile documents and memorabilia conjures back the specific spirit and sensory detail of each of the Club’s decades brilliantly, reinforced further by telling literary quotations – as for instance from the prescient Cockney pub scene in T. S. Eliot’s post-WWI Waste Land:

    ‘Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart …He’s been in the army four years, he wants a good time,And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.’

    William Burroughs photographed in the early 1960s by Michael Horovitz on flat roof of 57 Greek Street where M H was then living, just around the corner from The Colony Room, Copyright of Michael Horovitz

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Though a nucleus of London musicians squeezed into the little green Colony Room, the only actual music – apart from sporadic bursts of mostly drunken solo or communal song – was provided by a series of charming in-house pianists including Todd Matshikiza, Mike McKenzie and Barney Bates. In The Baroness: The Search for Nica, The Rebellious Rothschild, Hannah Rothschild tells the story of how, on an impulsive trip to Manhattan in 1949 (soon after the Colony opened and the Beats started writing), her international high society-feted Aunt Pannonica (née) Rothschild, then thirty-six, experienced a life-changing epiphany. She told her brother’s friend and piano tutor Teddy Wilson that she’d never heard of his fellow jazz piano genius Thelonious Monk, whose first record had just come out. Wilson put ‘Round Midnight’ on his turntable and Nica, as quoted in The Baroness, ‘ … Couldn’t believe my ears. I’d never heard anything remotely like it. I must have played it twenty times in a row. Missed my plane. In fact I never went home.’ After a whirlwind romance she had married the affluent handsome French Baron Jules de Koenigswarter in 1935 and borne him five children. Fourteen years later she felt increasingly fenced in by domesticity and ‘all the bullshit of [her husband’s] diplomatic life’ and was escaping on more and more flying visits to New York from Mexico, where the family was then stationed.

    The writer and film-maker Hannah Rothschild had been told a lot about her multifarious elders in the mega-powerful Rothschild dynasty, including some wild eccentrics. But it was only in her early teens that Hannah elicited any traces of information at all about her Great Aunt Nica. That she had been decorated for bravery as a lieutenant in the French Resistance. That she had later abandoned her marriage to seek out Thelonious on the basis of ‘the call’ she felt from that first listenathon: ‘I got the message I belonged where that music was. I was supposed to be involved in some way.’ And the more every family member clammed up whenever Hannah inquired about Nica, with the briefest of dismissals such as ‘She’s vulgar’, ‘She lives with a black man’, and at best ‘A patron, the Peggy Guggenheim or Medici of jazz’, the more a questing spirit (parallel to that which inflamed her aunt’s determination to connect with Monk) was sparked in Hannah to meet up with her.

    The first half of The Baroness displays the Rothschilds’ emergence from the most wretched of origins in the plague-ridden squalor of the Frankfurt Jew’s Lane ghetto in the mid-1700s into an unrivalled transnational (though tightly inbred) banking network. It achieved world supremacy mainly by lending and speculating in government bonds. Nica’s renowned scientist sister Miriam explained, ‘What they did was to set up the first form of a European Union’. But Hannah’s book also includes harrowing accounts of Rothschilds battered to pulp by SS thugs, and hitherto unimaginably worse still in the Nazi death camps. The second half recalls in equally graphic terms the brutality with which various of Nica’s beloved modern jazz pioneers, including Bud Powell and Monk, were likewise battered by racist US prison guards, cops and state troopers.

    The book provides a bran-tub of fascinating details Hannah got from the Baroness herself, some extraordinary snapshots from the centuries of Rothschild family archives, and the ripe fruits of years of her dedicated footstepping of and interviews with Monk’s family, and a hundred or so more of his and Nica’s closest personal and musical associates. When Nica finally met Thelonious in 1954 she found him ‘the most beautiful man I had ever seen’, and from then until he died twenty-eight years later, devoted her life to him. Without her apparently limitless patronage and management, the brilliant corners and freeways of experimentation which go on inspiring jazz maestros today would be immeasurably diminished. Anyone interested in these continuities who has not already read this book, or seen Hannah’s film The Jazz Baroness (now available on DVD), is likely to rejoice and weep in equal measure when they do. As will anyone who responds to what quickly became Nica’s universal mantra: ‘Listen to the music; just listen to the music.’

    Nica de Koenigswarter and Thelonious Monk photographed together for the Time magazine article about Monk which was published on 29 February 1964. He was the fourth jazz musician, and one of the few black men, to have been featured by then on the cover of the best selling magazine.
    ©Ben Martin/Time & Life Images/Getty Images

     

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    The literary beginnings of the founding trinity of Beat Generation writers – Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac – took place when they met around Columbia University and nearby Harlem’s wildly euphoric all-night jazz joints, and were steeped in reverberations of blues and jazz across America. The advent of bebop round Manhattan from the early 1940s to mid-50s in particular coloured what were to become many of their most seminal writings.

    A Dizzy Gillespie recording was named after Kerouac, who was first turned on to pot by Lester Young at a 1944 Minton’s Playhouse session. Burroughs used music to help him kick junk, and once came off it listening to Louis Armstrong records. He also wove jazz strands into The Naked Lunch and his subsequent kaleidoscopic cut-up tapestries: ‘Panorama of the City of Interzone. Opening bars of East St. Louis Toodleoo … at times loud and clear then faint and intermittent like music down a windy street …’ Ginsberg declaimed in Howl: ‘Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse! Holy the jazzbands marijuana hipsters peace peyote pipes & drums!’ – and was later to jam with the likes of Elvin Jones, Bill Frisell, Stan Tracey and myself.

     

    This early photograph of Ginsberg and Kerouac accompanied a feature in Mademoiselle magazine provisionally titled ‘Flaming Cool Youth of San Francisco Poetry’. In ‘Angelheaded Hipster: A Life of Jack Kerouac’, Steve Turner wrote that Kerouac ‘posed for the photograph which later graced the paperback editions of his books throughout his life, and forever fixed the image of Jack Kerouac in the minds of a generation. Gregory Corso ruffled his hair for the shot, to make him look more Bohemian.’
    ©William Eichel/Mademoiselle Magazine, 1956

    In On The Road Kerouac sketched on-the-spot vignettes of Slim Gaillard, Lionel Hampton, George Shearing, Lester et al, and condensed the preceding half century’s continuities in spontaneous vocal rhythms: ‘Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety … sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world. Then had come Charlie Parker, a kid in his mother’s woodshed in Kansas City, blowing his taped-up alto among the logs, practising on rainy days, coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and Benny Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest – leaving home and coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonious Monk and Gillespie – Parker in his early days when he was flipped and walked around in a circle while playing.’

    The two editions of Kerouac’s best known book most widely circulating round Britain today are the Penguin paperback and the King Penguin ‘Original Scroll’ hardback. The latter’s initial unparagraphed synthesising with improvisations from numerous notebooks scrawled on the fly from 1947-51, predated that of the much revised version, which was the one first published six years later by Viking. In speed-typing the huge teletype scroll in just a couple of weeks on not a lot apart from benzedrine and coffee, Kerouac used the real names of the main protagonists – Neal and Carolyn Cassady; Neal’s sixteen year-old first wife Louanne; Bill and Joan Burroughs; Ginsberg etc, etc. The published version was conventionally paragraphed and considerably cleaned up, with only faint traces of the straight and homoerotic sextangles that pepper the scroll, and all the names changed (Neal to Dean Moriarty, Carolyn to Camille, Louanne to Marylou, Burroughs to Bull Lee, Ginsberg to Carlo Marx). There are signal alterations, from the novel’s very first sentence on. Where the scroll’s establishment shot recalls the recent death of Jack’s father, the 1957 and subsequent Penguin editions open: ‘I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.’

    Jack Kerouac the last time he visited my apartment 704 East 5th Street, N.Y.C., he looked by then like his late father, red-faced corpulent W. C. Fields shuddering with mortal horror, grimacing on D.M.T. I’d brought back from visiting Timothy Leary at Millbrook Psychedelic Community, Fall 1964.
    ©Photograph of Jack Kerouac, with caption in his own handwriting, by Allen Ginsberg, 1964 © Allen Ginsberg, 1964

    Brazilian Walter Salles’s self-styled film adaptation of On The Road (also now on DVD) retains the pseudonyms from the inhibited first publication, including that of Sal Paradise for narrator Kerouac himself, but has restored most of the original real-life detail from the scroll. The movie comes across more Hollywooden than some of Salles’s previous output, let alone both films loosely based on the other Beat Generation classics, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, and the recent Howl with its bravura impersonation of mid-fifties Ginsberg by James Franco.

    Salles’s On The Road is nevertheless worthwhile for the persuasive interplay of its neatly projected action portraits – of incorrigibly wayward anarch Neal/Dean as evoked by Garrett Hedlund; sensitive writerly introvert Jack/Sal by Sam Riley; cool/wild child sexpot Louanne/Marylou by Kristen Stewart; contrastingly genteel wifey-ma’am Carolyn/Camille by Kirsten Dunst; folksy wisecracking weirdo Burroughs/Bull Lee by Viggo Mortensen; and fanatical romantic raver Ginsberg/Marx by young Brit Tom Sturridge. Of all these it is only Dunst and Sturridge who, for me at least, at all patently resemble their originals either in real life, or in On The Road.

    Kerouac had in fact declared that Marlon Brando would be his first choice to play Neal/Dean. One of my abiding problems with the book – that the sexual magnetism supposedly prompting much of Kerouac’s, Ginsberg’s and others’ idolising of Cassady hardly comes through – remains just as iffy in Hedlund’s performance. This does, however, convey intimations of the precarious, vulnerable and ultimately manifest lost soul beating behind the superstud front. The Brando/Vivien Leigh of A Streetcar Named Desire would presumably have delivered a more authentic take on the ups and downs of Mr and Mrs Cassady – but probably not the pathos of our last sight of the grottily broken down (non-Dharma) bum Dean, rejected by Sal (in favour of a pre-booked Duke Ellington concert) at the close of both book and film.

    Socio-musical highspots of the movie include a superbly choreographed Big Apple Bohemia New Year’s party featuring an orgiastic instrumental, scat and dance sequence which ritually returns with ever-increasing volume and pizzazz to communal chants of Dizzy Gillespie’s Salt Peanuts refrain. Another evocation of a wailing San Francisco Club session with a superlative Slim Gaillard clone does righteous riff justice to Kerouac’s own sustained characterisation of just such a session in his original nonfiction novel.

    What neither Kerouac’s books nor Salles’s treatment portray is the sad demise of Jack Kerouac himself. For so long champion par excellence of unfettered youth, heartthrob-handsome and best-selling matinée idol, he had by his mid-thirties pretty well burned and written himself out. He became a more and more grotesquely bloated, Catholic mother-dominated and lonely pro-Vietnam War redneck, and died from eternities of booze-inflicted internal bleeding in 1969 aged forty-seven. Some have observed that this is what happens when sudden fame, wealth and notoriety are thrust upon an essentially reticent man. Then again, as his Beat buddy Gregory Corso put it: ‘Good nights of drunk/Make bad days of sorry.’

    For each wave of Bohemia that breaks, a fresh one rises. Despite its often only too real pains, sham brains, vanities, bitchings, hypocrisies and pratfalls, we would be a duller species without it. So despite the countless Bohemians who pissed much of their lives away (and often of their loved ones’ lives as well) and who now lie dead and largely forgotten – up to a point: Vive la Bohème!

    Michael Horovitz chanting mantras with Allen Ginsberg at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, then in Dover Street, Mayfair, W1, at the end of a spirited reading by Ginsberg a few evenings before A G headlined the First International Poetry Incarnation at Royal Albert Hall on 11 June 1965
    © Peter Whitehead, 1965

    The London Magazine readers can purchase a Limited Edition linen bound copy of Sophie Parkin’s The Colony Room Club, numbered with a specially commissioned print by a Colony artist lucky dip – Michael Woods of George Melly, Molly Parkin, Patrick Hughes, Chris Battye, Abigail Lane and Sarah Lucas for £250 (RRP £275) by emailing: info@thecolonyroom.com.

    www.thecolonyroom.com