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The Rebel Café: Sex, Race and Politics in Cold War America's Nightclub Underground

The Rebel Café: Sex, Race and  Politics in Cold  War  America's Nightclub Underground
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The Rebel Café: Sex, Race and Politics in Cold War America's Nightclub Underground
Stephen R. Duncan
336 Pages
ISBN: # 1421426331
John Hopkins University Press
2018

Stephen R. Duncan's The Rebel Café is both a voyage of rediscovery and a forensic re-examination of an important period in American cultural history. In this masterly retelling, an alt-left account of the U.S.A. in the 1950s and early 1960s emerges that calls into question mainstream views of the period as being essentially quiescent, consensual and conservative. In this book, Professor Duncan journeys through the New York and San Francisco bohemian subcultures of those years, revealing as he goes the deep personal and political connections between the free spirits and free thinkers who made their homes in the cafés, bars, saloons and clubs of North Beach and Greenwich Village.

But his subjects here are not just the faces of the bohemian American avant-garde of 1950s/1960s but also the places and spaces they created for dialogue and thought. What emerges in these pages is nothing less than a comprehensive psycho-social geography of an underground counter-culture of black and white jazz musicians, leftists, poets, artists, beatniks, gays and lesbians and other people of the demi-monde. More than that, and geography is a key word in this context, Duncan is able to show how closely connected these bi-coastal Bohemias actually were and how aware the denizens of each were of the activities of the other.

North Beach bars such as The Black Cat and Tin Angel, and their Greenwich Village counterparts like the White Horse Tavern, the Village Vanguard and Café Society, were cathedrals of talk and ideas. However, they were also platforms of performativity where larger than life characters lived lives that were themselves the very expression of the personal, political and artistic ideals they espoused. At times, such tendencies could seem calculated and narcissistic—one thinks here of the behaviour of certain members of the Beat Generation. However, in the cases of bohemians such as African-American beat poet Bob Kaufman and artist and proprietor of the Tin Angel, Peggy Tolk-Watkins, there were, in practice, no gaps between their personality, their behaviour, their art and their beliefs. They were the living embodiment of another way of being.

As Duncan argues, both the proprietors and habitués of Rebel Cafés looked to European bohemia and venues such as Rodolphe Salis' Le Chat Noir in Paris, Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich and Überbrettl in Berlin for inspiration. This is hardly surprising given that many of those involved, such as Max Gordon (Village Vanguard), Barney Josephson (Café Society), Herbert Jacoby (Le Ruban Bleu) in New York, and Myer P. Cohen and John F. Crowley (The Black Cat) in San Francisco, were themselves first or second-generation European immigrants. That inspiration was perhaps encapsulated in Der blaue Engel, Josef von Sternberg's 1930 film with Marlene Dietrich, with Dietrich herself something of a role model for gay and lesbian bohemians in the two polar cities.

But why San Francisco and New York? That question is beyond the scope of The Rebel Café but clearly derives from the fact that the U.S.A. is, after all, a settler state, the conception of which is defined by the notion of manifest destiny and echoes in quotations like, "Go west, young man!" and "From sea to shining sea." What Duncan does make clear is the fact that the occupants of North Beach and Greenwich Village saw themselves and each other as representative of America's social and cultural avant-garde— socially in terms of racial, gender and sexual politics, and culturally in terms of art, literature and music.

The politics that distinguished the Rebel Cafés from mainstream society was more concerned with what we now call 'gender politics' than with issues of social and economic justice. That said, the question of civil rights and segregation loomed very large indeed and those who drank in the Greenwich Village's White Horse Tavern or hung out in the Cellar in San Francisco were far in advance of the vast majority of their fellow citizens in their thinking on race. Not that Duncan is in any sense naïve about the bohemians he portrays so insightfully. White bohemians, such as Jack Kerouac & Steve Allen and Allen Ginsberg, could be as patronising and colour blind as any white male thirty-something from 1950s Muskogee or Minnesota. The difference was they romanticised rather denigrated African-Americans. And, though many bohemians were themselves bi-sexual or gay, the use of terms such as 'faggot' and 'fruit' was just the tip of the bohemian, homophobic iceberg.

The philosophical gods of bohemia were Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, even if the ideas of the latter were refracted through a dose of American individualism and I.W.W. syndicalism. If the bohemians had little time for Soviet-style communism, many welcomed John F. Kennedy's election. In this respect, as in others, ideas, beliefs and values were mutable rather than fixed. But behind the doors of the White Horse Tavern, the Village Vanguard and the Tin Angel and Black Cat, the New Left of the 1960s was born.

For its first decade or more, the soundtrack for these artists and activists was jazz and blues. Professor Duncan writes with authority about Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and Billie Holiday both as musicians and anti-racists, while he describes and references clubs such as the Vanguard, Five Spot, The Cellar and The Hawk. Pony Poindexter—both a jazz modernist and political radical—is another lesser-known figure to whom, Professor Duncan draws justifiable attention. That is one of the other joys of The Rebel Café—the author is constantly opening the door to new and clearly important scenesters, forcing the reader to re-examine their own understanding of these years.

Though Duncan downplays the significance and cultural value of the poetry and jazz phenomenon, he does cover this. He pays more attention to the Beats love of jazz, often seemingly seeing and hearing the music through their eyes and ears. Poetry and jazz is and was an important practice, in particular amongst African-American musicians and poets, but the importance the author gives in respect to the significance of the Beats and, in particular, Kerouac and Ginsberg, is debatable. In many ways, Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Kaufman and Amiri Baraka—all Rebel Café insiders -have proven much weightier literary figures. As to Kerouac, with the exception of the exceptional Big Sur, it can be argued that he wrote (with editorial assistance) one great novel in On the Road but then rewrote it time and again. That said, there is no way that Duncan could avoid considering the Beats in a cultural history of the period and Ginsberg was a noteworthy counter-cultural figure in every respect.

The author also examines the emergence of the 'new comedy,' focusing on three of the new stand-ups—Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory. While a number of other comics built their careers in bohemia's night clubs, most notably Woody Allen, it was Sahl, Bruce and Gregory who have had the greatest long-term influence but, more importantly here, who reflect most clearly the world and politics of The Rebel Café.

Yet again, the author is alive to contradictions in their respective positions—Sahl spoke against segregation but ridiculed Dr. King's 1963 March on Washington and, while Bruce's comedy offered a trenchant social critique, he also avoided active engagement. Dick Gregory was by far the most radical and this was reflected in his direct political activism. One can trace a line from Bruce to later comedians such as George Carlin, Denis Leary and Bill Hicks and, from Gregory, a line to Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock. As for Sahl, any number of later stand-ups owe him a certain debt.

But what all three had in common was a conversational style of delivery borne of the direct performer-audience contact characteristic of the nightclub/Rebel Café. This, Duncan suggests, was a major reason why their acts translated less well to larger theatre audiences. Talk, dialogue and ideas were, as noted above, the currency of the Rebel Café and, their approach to performance offered a very different kind of show to that which pertained in larger venues. In small venues, the audience is party to the conversation and part of the performance. In larger theatres, the artist performs to or at the audience, while audience members witness the performance.

As Professor Duncan points out, it was in these spaces that so many major elements of later 1960s culture—from comedy, poetry, theatre, and music to politics and to struggles for equality on all fronts—were first articulated and even acted out. Duncan painstakingly maps the connections between groups and individuals who might in the past have seemed but distantly related. In fact, by focusing on the saloons, cafes, clubs and bars they inhabited, he achieves one of the most convincing explanations yet for the later emergence of the sixties counterculture in the USA and its stress upon the key relationship between personal, cultural and political revolution. As one of San Francisco's bohemians put it:

"The hated subject of politics begins to seem agonizingly important. Politics in the sense of social ethics and not organization...The sight of a nation leading the world into an ever-deepening hell of materialism and greed and unholiness, dwarfs personal problems. It presents itself finally as a 'cause'—anarchy."

The death knell for the Rebel Café came with the entry of its politics, ideas, values, literature and art into mainstream America in the sixties. As young people embraced causes such as anti-racism and pacifism and espoused free love and anarchy, they clasped counter-cultural figures such as Ginsberg, Paul Goodman and Living Theatre founder Judith Molina to their bosoms. Inevitably, the hard-earned radicalism of such figures was watered down in the process. And jazz, essentially then an acoustic music, would be replaced by amplified rock music. In turn, the convivial atmosphere of the Rebel Café and its emphasis on talk could no longer be sustained once the guitars plugged in. As the music got louder, venues got larger and talk became secondary to celebrations of shared identity expressed by and through rock music and its practitioners. The Rebel Café's time had come and gone but its influence persisted, for a while at least.

Books such as Duncan's are important because they allow us to see the present through the past of others and reflect upon what is valuable and what is ephemeral. There are books that tell you stuff and books that tell you stuff and make you think. The Rebel Café most definitely falls into the latter category. What is more, it is a cracking good read.

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