The Dead GenerationBy Nicholas Belardes
November 18, 2008
I’m wondering if writers in my Generation X age group who contribute their talents to various sites and newspapers, and yet don’t feel like they’re a part of a literary movement, might feel a kinship to this particular piece that I have never shared publicly until now. The Dead Generation is an excerpt from Chapter Nine of ‘Citrus Girl’ (about a third of that chapter). It was written sometime between 1996 and 1998. Could all be drivel. It’s up to you to decide. Part of it was edited by literary historian John Arthur Maynard of CSU Bakersfield who wrote ‘Venice West: The Beat Generation In Southern California.’
It’s 1996 and I’m thinking about Malcolm Cowley, one of the ‘lost’. There he was back in America and in the early 1930s writing of ‘mansions in the air’ and ‘blue juniata’, you know, contemplating future generations. Because back in America he realized an entire lost generation would eventually come back home to the cities, hillsides, countrysides to where innocence escaped them, to where in America, “somewhere the turn of a dirt road or the unexpected crest of a hill reveals your own childhood.” Those literary enclaves—the lost generation—the beat generation—any generation, generations inspiring non-writers and non-literary minded to become just as lost, or just as beat. After a while someone probably said, “You don’t have to be a beat writer or bop musician, or to have known any of the famous beats to be one” —and soon a generation having already took root, expanded, appeared in pop culture, subculture, counterculture, mainstream culture until all they had to do was just look like a beatnik, act like what they thought was a beatnik…
And now today’s dead generation—lost, but never forever lost and never completely forgotten—where are their slacker rebel origins?
In Generation X literature? Do they create? Where were their childhoods? They were everywhere. Who writes about them? They aren’t so exciting. That’s me anyways. Where’ve the dead gone? —nowhere—yet somewhere, here in the cosmos. They creep out from behind their dark walls, don’t they? Like weeds as they reappear, return from where they’ve gone—to college, to travel, to their computers, to odd jobs, or no jobs, to corn-like cobs of rock bands, or just hidden deep within cities: isolationists. Find me—I say—reincarnated—enlightened—non-business-like—poets, writers and literary-minded young fools—where are you? Still gone? No. Rexroth once wrote: our murdered youth? Murdered: doing nothing and yet, they’re poor and exhausted—that’s their crime. I see them leaning or squatting against walls and smoking their dry cigarettes and contemplating themselves in reality and non-reality. I see them like me, in solitude—I am no Fresno poet—I scream from Southern Central California alone—I have yet to meet any poet. I am dead and alone in my valley… And I am part of it, and part of my generation. They come back you know, the intellectuals, the non-intellectuals and crawl back out of the big blue holes of life they’ve fallen into; even if they are gone, were gone, in all of their imperfectness, their wonderful imperfections of dress and crude sex, computers, drugs and malaise, to someplace I call, here, in the downtown city.
It could be any city…
And Cowley, he wrote that maybe the young writers of his age weren’t young or foolish enough. He wrote that they would “settle down too safely to earning a sensible living.” And how I agree with him—prophetic him—and live a life of poverty and deadness years later. He was a critic and a prophet. And Steve Delani—dead generation case study for the 1990s who wrote, but never enough, and never anything that left the confines of his smelly bedroom into the world, until he wrote his most devastating song. He picked up and motivated himself after years of living in trash heaps of homes and survived a wrecked marriage to finally go back to college, to become one of the intellectuals in my group of friends that had intellectuals, nothings, and pseudo-nothings in it. Then after a year of law school in Malibu, he said: “All I know now, is that after I get outta here I better be making shitloads of money…” And Steve Delani—not really a writer—never would be as he hung out with other dead generation guys, and those girls: slacks hanging from their hips in bar-haze glee and tattoos marking them Christ-like down to their feet. The dead are pretentious. They sit around and listen to music. They are intelligent and corny, and only go for the ones who don’t really want them—oh so romantic and American, why? Because that’s what we often do—and most often are poor and crude, and eventually, hopefully wallow up through the mud of life bursting with all the anxiety and push of a maelstrom to self-murderously throw ourselves into the world. Where are the dead? Cowley was talking about ex-patriates, the writers, and then the next generation of literary laborers. And Steve, he was never a writer though he was and is like me, a part of something and nothing, with no one to tell him that he is among the dead generation who should have stood around and said: “Look how dead we are. We don’t do a damn thing.” We should have united and had a vision of our dead selves but never could because of our lazy nature.
In the first half of the 1990s, Steve was in a constant state of: “I’ve gotta divorce my crack-smoking wife.” She was one of the ‘nothings,’ the white and trashy kind people around here that some stereotype as “north of the river,” “north of the tracks,” or, “Dalians,” —any of the uncouth, un-intellectuals, the brash and overly dramatic; out of style and unkempt; violent and screaming about money, their husbands and everyone else they don’t like. Those Dalians who could never find the spiritual, meaningful, or intellectual in anything literary. He was married to her while I studied history and toiled away in those same 1990s at something peculiarly American in my mind.
He finished divorcing his wife a year after he met a girl I like to think of as Cholera at a downtown bar. It was a similar meeting to how he met his soon-to-be former wife at one of the constant parties raging at a house party somewhere in Bakersfield. “So, you want to go do it, or what?” he said. She did and two kids later—he had two girls nearly the same age as my two boys—he found himself living with her noose around his neck, and her smoking crack, then hooked on pot, and both of them getting fat off biscuits and gravy and greasy burgers and each filling out at a whopping three-hundred pounds. And him wearing the same tie-dyed shirt and cut-off sweats everyday, even when he started school, and even when transferring out to the University many here call “Dartmouth of the Dust.”
While married he was bored. While separated he was a depressed dead soul. He played guitar in his bedroom, spent countless hours programming his synthesizer, making songs so complex you couldn’t make them even five years before, let alone in a tiny bedroom in Bakersfield without having had lots and lots of cash—and here was Steve doing nothing with them. We had gone to watch the increasingly popular band, Korn, at the local Casa Royale, an old Basque restaurant dive on Union Avenue—that hardened artery of now dead motels and restaurants of old Highway 99, where Frank Sinatra, the Three Stooges, and anyone who was anyone in the 1950s came to gorge on the food of old Basque sheepherders, or to sing and play to a Bakersfield crowd. Casa Royale had a banquet room where high schools had proms and bands came to play. There were two bars, a big floor and a balcony. It was a good venue. The stage had been set high off the floor for everyone to see. On it, an effigy of a cop hung broken and bent in the darkness under the brightening stage lights. It was the BPD, the notorious Bakersfield Police Department who never let a bank robber come to town without escorting such a low life back out of city limits in a long narrow box. The police effigy hung while bagpipes played to a moshing crowd that seethed as if about to digest the effigy. The crowd moved in rhythm and flung themselves at one another. Those were the days of Jonathan Davis returning to his begotten youth.
I wandered to the balcony listening to a voice from the stage scream, “Fuck this! Fuck you!” and walked to where friends of the band hung out. They hung over the railings and drank beer and watched and drank more beer. I could see others down below—people who all wanted to know that something in Bakersfield was going somewhere, that some part of it was being exported rather than imported like that old Okie migration. People wanted to know that something went out to the world from here other than fruits and vegetables, cotton and oil. Here was the dark side of Bakersfield-influenced music, moving outward, having just toured Europe, having radiated somewhere distant, with funky hard-driving beats that now pounded into Steve that he might go somewhere too, that he was a part of something expanding from his own backyard. Steve lost himself in the crowd, while Pedro, wearing his usual backpack, came wandering over and smiled. Drumsticks poked from his backpack. “We were going to open for them. But it just didn’t work out. I need a beer!” Pedro yelled. I didn’t know if he was lying to me or not. Like Steve, Pedro always wanted to be a rock star.
The music poured into the large room. Women and men, girls and boys—they all moved against each other in the crowd beneath the stage. Voiced ripped and fragmented the air in angry seething moments, musical moments, despairing rises of rhythm bass jams that pulled stalking drum beats into line, and then cast them off over the crowd like a net, pulling them together, making them more maniacal, desperate, and frenzied as everyone in the room began to feel their little city rupture and spill into popular music myth.
In Steve’s spare time he practiced basketball. During our Friday night games at the park we all stood amazed when he contorted his huge pot-bellied frame into performing his amazing spinorama finger-roll lay-up. We played every week for several years until he wrenched one of his knees one rainy basketball evening. That ended his park-B-ball stardom. He was a basketball addict, and ravenously ate up Lakers games and drove to LA—whenever he had a car—so he could watch Magic Johnson “Do his thing!” He wouldn’t work much. A job here or there popped his way. He worked at the local prison, then sold real estate for a few months, got money from his work-a-holic mother. He moved from apartment to apartment, even once into a house just off Oleander Street—one of the mid-city streets with big houses, gas lamps on street corners, tall trees, and a big park where summer concerts attracted families who would go and sprawl blankets and sip sparkling cider, sodas, wine and cold tea as they listened to the sweating orchestras of the hundred-degree Bakersfield summers.
His house at that time was a run-down pad along a park on Palm Street. It had hardwood floors and needed work done on it that he wouldn’t do because when he was home he ate lots of food, had sex, laid on the couch and watched TV or played with his kids. I was married at the time and my wife hated him. “That guy’s just a do-nothing and he hates me.” She thought everyone hated her and I would go to his house anyway and tell him to “write some music. Just create, man. You’ve got a symphony in your head waiting to come out. You want it to come out don’t you?” or I’d tell him to go back to school because at one time he attended college but flunked out for not going, like my friend Ska T Boy, a self-declared physics major. Ska T was ten years older than the students, but got so bored with what he calls “simple physics and chemistry classes” that he inevitably flunked out and ended up on probation. “I never did homework in high school,” he said. “So I refuse to do it in college.”
During the long eighteen-week semesters, Steve would sleep in, fiddle on his computer or hang out with friends. It’s a cycle of the dead. But not one that is always and forever unbroken. For this, I always held hope for Steve and Ska T because I knew they might get a vision of the world that we dead can sometimes glimpse outside of physical and cultural boundaries of Bakersfield. Weltanschauung—a dead generation intellectual can exist for many years like Steve, not alive, and without world vision or worldview—without a glimpse toward the world outside of Bakersfield. There was no World War to do that for them. The world did its monotonous spinning under Steve Delani. And he just sat upon it until he was twenty-seven, waiting to be explored, feared, loathed. He in front of his television, next to his nagging crack-head wife, and watching Magic “Do his thing,” and Beavis and Butthead do theirs.
The dead and Steve Delani. I like to explain them as this: a postmodern culture of Bohemians, the evolving counterculture of the Eighties and Nineties, akin somehow to the Hippies, Beats and Lost Exiles who were so literary, creative, rebellious and mad. This dead generation of slackers that blossom so late, never having had a war to experience, to unify their generation, never having experienced what it is to see the world, what it is to see death, what it is to fall in love in strange lands with women overseas to conquer and lose—to drift the world. Unlike Hemingway, or E.E. Cummings, or Malcolm Cowley, or even Kerouac, we never learned the extravagance of life, or fatalism, virtues of life and war, and so we never learned to “fear boredom more than death.” Boredom and the resulting malaise became our sanctity. Like Cowley said for his fellow lost: “all the divergent forces that would direct the history of our generation were already in action…We were reading, dancing, preparing for college entrance exams, and, in our spare time, arguing about ourselves, ourselves and life, ourselves as artists, as lovers, the sublimation of sex and what we could possibly write about that was new.”
And what do we write about that is new? What are the historical forces directing our dead generation? Our MTV-sucked rebellious youth. We learned to not pay attention to anything. The lust for boredom was sanctimonious—us seeking holiness, our claim to malaise: Just know your town, your city, your street, your mall, your MTV, your video games, where you have your favorite bowl of rice, your favorite bed, and where you experience life by ‘doing’ life. It was not like being a spender—one of the plastic plunderers who storm inside a mall, never breaking ranks—just spend and move on to the next holiday. It was all a holiday to us.
But sometimes we are or become mobile. Some of us glimpse a greater world around us and have become disgusted with things. James Jones: one of the previous generation of disgusted. He returned from war, a disgusted military man and writer—an exile from his hometown and returned as a writer seeking in the very same spot where his childhood vomited him into adulthood. We never returned from war. We returned from the world in ourselves and some of us came out with visions. Self-exiles. Kerouac—even he went crazy in the Merchant Marines, or pretended to, returned a self-exile, saw the world was beat, dead in the little towns really, or really alive with it. Are we more beat than him? Cummings, Cowley, Hemingway, Jones… They were seeking and they had cash. Kerouac had the GI Bill. We aren’t motivated to work, to join anything. But eventually some of us have our visions. The dead can do that—even though boredom is sanctity, harmonious, lustrous. We have yet to rebel, yet we do rebel, by not paying attention to people, to government, to action—our generation skipped a rebellion, skipped war, skipped over being called the ‘uprooted’ angry youth. We were just a slacker subculture—angry about love and music—our techno-music gadgets and headphones that we used to escape the world—and life in general, and never exiled, just self-exiled, unmotivated—never lost, and—never alive to the world—just unmotivated. Weltanschauung. I found the virtues of life in Lipton’s “poverty as a virtue” and through firsthand experience of starvation. ‘War’: the looking-glass for other generations, the uprooting generation-tearing centrifuge of history that we missed. People want to capture something; writers want to capture something new, with a new lens, a new angle. And how so? Maybe through the simple love story that unwinds in the relative comfort of a hometown. Think of a modern day movie—see it??—a downtown, groups of slackers, all guys, or all girls talking about love, a few neon-lit blue-smoke hazy bars, an apartment, a loud talk at dinner, and drugs and drinking and tragedy, and someone dies, and stars in everyone’s eyes because they don’t care. They don’t dare care. And many don’t. It’s all a love story. It’s mad. It’s mad and terrifying but simple: Get money. Get lazy. Go to the convenience store. Meet girls. Meet boys. Get drugs. Go to fast food joints. Play Sega. And eventually, somehow, find love if you can.
Steve Delani found love in a bar. He hadn’t found a more sanitary practice of picking up women since the days of courting his wife with offers of mutual hedonism on the vinyl backseat of a bug. It’s where he always looked; wandering downtown, in the one alley you could always find him in or near—the alley cat alley—where the same young crowds still flocked every Friday and Saturday night: girls in their tight clothes passing like cats themselves beneath the blinking neon cat whose tail darts side-to-side in green-and-yellow flashes; past the ghost of Steve; the deep blue Steve who once leaned against the wall outside the bar like an ocean had run him up against it; him having downed four or five beers, eyes black in his sharp head and eager to meet any young girl who would talk to him so he could forget about depression, about suicide, about loneliness and his haggard wife. For a time you could find him there any weekend. In the musty dust-filled summer months, when sweat dripped from his sloping forehead. Those heat waves of August made him look like a nervous, sick man. In Autumn he slumped against the wall with a cool night breeze on his face. And in winter he slumped further, with his hands in his empty pockets, still sweating in the frigid Tule air. The drifting fog of dead winter seeped into the alleyway and under his skin, with the neon above his weary body looking like a yellow-lit bright blinking sun…
There used to be 100 or so comments here. I really need to import them. 😀
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