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For Real

BIRTH OF THE COOL Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde By Lewis MacAdams; The Free Press: 288 pp., $27.50

COOL RULES Anatomy of an Attitude By Dick Pountain and David Robins; Reaktion Books: 192 pp., $19.95

February 11, 2001|HERBERT GOLD | Herbert Gold is the author, most recently, of "Daughter Mine" and "Bohemia."

"Slow and strange," said Count Basie about the music of Miles Davis. "But good. Real good." For Lewis MacAdams, a poet, filmmaker and journalist, this was the blessing upon the spirit which gave birth to The Cool. Cool Music and the life that comes with it rapidly became hot. It was the life MacAdams, a generous and enraptured chronicler, wanted to lead. He found his way from Texas to Los Angeles in order to do so. Legionnaires from everywhere sought this crossover life--black and white, passionate and rigorous, charmed by excess, pride and the self-display. James Dean looking away from the camera. Why on Earth shouldn't it take over a roiling world? So it did.

The meeting of Cool and Hot came along with the conjunctions of Beat and Frantic at the end of the Eisenhower-era somnolence. It was a ticket to ride. It was the territory ahead that tempted Tom Sawyer to follow Huck Finn. It was as American as apple pie with a side order of hash brownies, as American as the blond actress I knew at the Actor's Studio whose two ambitions were to play Cordelia in "'King Lear" and have an affair with Miles Davis in a back room at the Five Spot. Guess at which one she succeeded.

MacAdams traces the word "cool" back to African Americans in Florida, circa 1935, but it seemed to lie dormant until the times up north needed it. He offers occasional garlands of explication: "[C]ool took place in the shadows, among marginal characters, in cold-water flats and furnished basement rooms. . . . Cool wasn't drafted and cool didn't serve. Cool was too young, too weird, too queer, too black, too strung out, too alien. . . ." The rhapsody underwent variations, grew tentacles.

Cool also embraces--besides race, jazz, drugs, sex and the ferocious integrity of the young--the lost and the jittery, Zen Buddhism and blue suede shoes. Well, MacAdams is writing a book and wants to be inclusive. In truth, Cool is a most hospitable American creation. It contains multitudes. As Walt Whitman said about the bird perched on his finger in a portrait: "All the critters come to me." (The bird turned out to be paper.) All the critters come to Cool, even some no more substantial than paper birds.

May I please report here, in uncool emphasis, that MacAdams is both a dogged reporter and a generous guide. His book, reflecting the jazz which may be its chief inspiration, is a series of riffs, confessions and McLuhanesque probes. He's OK with not pressing explanation too hard, even in his conclusion, which some might find related to the claims of advertising: "To use the word 'cool' well is to partake of a central ritual of global culture as profound and as universal as a handshake." The result is a savory, smokey text full of gossip (social history) and sparing us hindsight prophecy in the form of judgment. That's cool with me. As he quotes Charlie Parker meeting Jean-Paul Sartre: "I like your playing," evidently judging existentialism as a form of jazz. He doesn't cite the response of the Big Bopper from St.-Germain-des-Pres.

Sometimes in both literature and in real life, serendipity happens. This book arrived on the same day as a phone call from the archivist of cool and Beat icon Allen Ginsberg. He wanted help in locating cool and Beat sites for a book on the poet's wanderings. When I wrote an essay about the novelties of Hip, Cool, Beat and Frantic more than 40 years ago, I couldn't have imagined that I would be consulted by scholars and archivists, memorialists and philosophers of Cool. The culprit is either destiny or a long life.

With MacAdams' book, and the similar but primer-like English "Cool Rules" by Dick Pountain and David Robins, it's evident that the study of Cool has become a branch of archeology. When the children of the children of the first Coolsters use the word to describe the "diarrhea crotch"-style jeans worn low, parallel with the knees--we have to give thanks for one of God's gifts to humankind, an ability to wallow in nostalgia.

Besides music and literature, MacAdams explores painting, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky and the hard-drinking and hard-suiciding boys--they were mostly boys--including Willem de Kooning, who painted well into his decline while critics argued (no kidding) about whether Alzheimer's hurt the work. The photographs in this section are especially strong, showing Pollock dropping color (and resembling actor Ed Harris), gloomy-eyed Gorky, Peggy Guggenheim with toy dogs practically yipping money and de Kooning as handsome as James Dean.

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