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Cash, Class and Cool

Early last spring, to my great surprise, I found myself at a party thrown by something called Bean.com. It was an expensive affair in a downtown San Francisco hotel ballroom, packed to the fire doors with smiling, schmoozing 20- and 30-somethings, all looking thrilled to be alive in such glorious times, when anyone with fingers and a college degree could get a plum position in a promising dot-com, a fat salary and the chance to live among many great coffee shops in the cutest city in America. Everyone was well-dressed, but no one extravagantly so. Top-shelf liquor flowed freely. Food was everywhere, all bean-themed (red beans and rice, chili, three-bean salad). Entertainers dressed as giant beans bounced around the dance floor while a DJ spun the hits of the ’80s. There were fortuneteller booths and, if I recall correctly, there were free bean bags. It occurred to me more than once that, whatever they might have going for them, the folks at Bean.com had no idea how to spend their money.

This is apparently a common problem these days. It‘s enough to make one nostalgic for the crass decadence of the early yuppie era, when hotshot bond traders at least knew that money could be directly exchanged for pleasure, if only the crude sorts afforded by cocaine, single-malt and the perfect drape of an Armani blazer. But those days are long gone, and though G.W. Bush seems to know exactly what to do with extra cash (give it to your friends), some people are still in the dark. Among them is David Brancaccio, host of Public Radio International’s Marketplace, who devotes an entire book, titled Squandering Aimlessly, to wondering how to spend a surplus. This question is at best puzzling, at worst deeply irritating, to those who could answer it in a flash, but never get the chance.

Brancaccio claims not to ”intuitively have the knack“ for knowing what to do with his money, and so sets off on ”a personal finance pilgrimage,“ traveling the country and exploring the options. He goes to the Mall of America (”which is to consumption what the Statue of Liberty is to another cherished national ideal, freedom“) and to a socially responsible investors conference ”to confront a dark suspicion that this strategy was a sop to folks who feel guilty about selling out after starting out in the world decrying materialism.“ He considers starting a business. He goes to Las Vegas -- ”a place scientifically designed to ease us of the burden of our surpluses“ -- to Wall Street and to Levittown to investigate gambling on slots, stocks and home ownership, respectively. He goes to Seattle to look into ”voluntary simplicity,“ and to an upscale old folks‘ home in Arizona to consider retirement savings.

Perhaps most tellingly, to examine the benefits of philanthropy, he goes to the poor desert town of Hawthorne, Nevada. The residents’ only hope of attracting jobs to Hawthorne is to compete for the title ”All-America City“ by being more giving and community-oriented than any place else. They don‘t win. ”Charity,“ Brancaccio writes, ”it makes you feel so wonderful inside.“ He resolves to add charity to all his family’s ”tax-planning, portfolio and personal-finance discussions.“ What never strikes him as odd is the notion of visiting a dirt-broke bumfuck town, whose residents have only their time and energy to give each other, to learn about the financial benefits of giving. He barely pauses to consider why Hawthorne has been excluded from the economic good times of the late ‘90s, the boom years that are the basis, and the only possible justification, for his curious mission.

Brancaccio is a good storyteller and introduces interesting characters throughout his travels. He is funny in a lighthearted, NPR-in-the-afternoon kind of way. Squandering Aimlessly is thus rarely boring, but it’s hard to get past the slenderness, the obnoxiousness even, of its premise. Alas, not once does he consider the merits of blowing it all on transitory pleasures like a sailor on shore leave, of burning through it in a weekend, punishing one‘s body with fleeting delights. These are sober times.

So laments poet and patron saint of the Los Angeles River Lewis MacAdams -- implicitly at least -- in Birth of the Cool: Beat, Bebop, and the American Avant-Garde, his affectionate memorial to the coolest cats of the 1950s and ’60s. MacAdams‘ title is somewhat misleading: Birth of the Cool is neither a a heady sociocultural analysis of cool, a la Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool, nor the comprehensive history of hip musicians and artists that its subtitle suggests. It is pure hagiography, its pages almost palpitating with the heartfelt awe of the teenage kid from the Dallas suburbs that MacAdams (an occasional Weekly contributor) once was, ”imagin[ing] how cool it would be to be in New York,“ to wander its coffeehouses and clubs and corners, to be reborn.

Listed among the initiates of MacAdams‘ personal ”cool hall of fame“ are many of the usual suspects: Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs. There are also some surprises. There’s Chano Pozo, the street-fighting conguero who left Havana to play with Dizzy Gillespie‘s band. There are Judith Malina and Julian Beck, founders of the Living Theater. There’s Dorothy Day, who started the Catholic Worker movement. (Malina and Day are the only women ordained herein. Otherwise, it seems, you gotta be a guy to be cool.) And there is, bizarrely, D.T. Suzuki, the Japanese scholar who brought Zen Buddhism to the U.S. But all of their stories, familiar or not, are lovingly and vividly told. If only as a lengthy ode to one man‘s heroes, Birth of the Cool makes for consistently good reading.

MacAdams is at times a bit too smooth, touching time and again on intriguing points, only to glide right by them. He writes of cool’s roots in black culture (”A survival mechanism that had been passed down from the days of slavery, cool in the form of studied indifference was the only way in which a hip African-American could stifle rage at the same time that he or she was expressing it“), but then leaps into its appropriation by the Beats without further comment. He quotes Kerouac, wandering the Denver ghettos wishing he were black, and Norman Mailer‘s embarrassing essay ”The White Negro,“ but does not pause to ask what such homegrown colonialism might imply.

If Birth of the Cool often feels dated, it’s partly by intent. MacAdams concludes his account with Bob Dylan‘s legendary performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. ”On the wings of the lyrics to ’Like a Rolling Stone,‘ cool entered the mainstream and merged with its values.“ MacAdams bewails the fate of cool in the years since, its current omnipresence, its emptiness. ”By the mid-1990s,“ he writes mockingly, ”there were, like, cool malls.“ He suggests that the commodification of cool of which Tom Frank writes was a late phase in its development, a tragic if inevitable sellout. His book is thus an attempt to unearth, if not to resurrect, the values out of which cool flowed when it was still more or less pure. So though he cites it, MacAdams never tackles Frank’s argument that cool was always ”just a stage in the development of the values of the American middle class.“ But he clearly appreciates something that Frank too haughtily misses -- that cool is, or can be, more than just a pose, that cool offers generations of variously alienated kids (not, I would hazard, ending in 1965) something akin to deliverance.

Anyone looking for some background to the upcoming film-industry labor disputes would do well to check out Gerald Horne‘s Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930--1950. Horne focuses primarily on the 1945 strike by, and the 1946 lockout of, the Conference of Studio Unions (CSU), a federation of film-industry crafts unions. He describes a very different time, the brief window before the Cold War when the World War II alliance with the Soviets was still warm and American progressives were hopeful. Very quickly, though, anti-communist hysteria, abetted by anti-Semitism, took over, and a budding postwar labor movement was crushed.

The battles were not your average labor-management disputes. The studios had mob-hired muscle and the police at their disposal. Brutal fights between picketers and scabs were a daily occurrence, culminating in an October 1945 riot in front of the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, which began when ”strikebreakers, goons and county police . . . armed with chains, bolts, hammers, 6-inch pipes, brass knuckles, wooden mallets and battery cables“ as well as guns and tear-gas grenades, charged the picket line. Dozens were injured.

Horne argues convincingly that the Red Scare, deeply felt in Hollywood, was more about crippling domestic unionism than any real threat from abroad. Its first rumbles were felt in the CSU strike, during which centrist union leaders were consistently redbaited (and physically attacked). The defeat of CSU after the lockout thus ”erased progressive trade unionism for generations to come“ in Hollywood and set the stage for the blacklist and decades of conservative Cold War politics. If his narrative is often a bit unfocused, Horne does a fine job of examining the tensions that defined an era through the lens of one localized dispute. In the meantime, screenwriters might want to begin cutting 6-inch lengths of pipe in preparation for upcoming negotiations.

Lewis MacAdams will read from Birth of the Cool at Skylight Books on Friday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m., as well as at Pink’s (709 N. La Brea Ave.) on Thursday, April 19, at 7 p.m., for a Sweet Relief benefit sponsored by Book Soup. For information, call (310) 659-3110. Gerald Horne will speak during ”The Hidden History of Hollywood: Class, Race and Gender,“ a benefit program for the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, at the Writers Guild Theater on Friday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m., following a 6 p.m. reception. Tickets $60. For information, call (323) 759-6063.