What? Did I really hear that? Did a guy on the radio say, “far out?”
A moment or two later, he is at it again. He’s interviewing some geek who plays in a bluegrass band. A banjo player, methinks. And, if that’s not bad enough, the radio guy then says, “It’s so cool, man.”
The first problem, of course, is that nothing related to bluegrass music is remotely “cool.”
Second, is his use of the word “cool.” And of the phrase “far out.”
I listen and I realize that, if this guy is using them, the terms have lost their punch. They’ve become kin to nursing home slang, words uttered when the pudding arrives at the table at a 4 p.m. dinner hour.
Where once “cool” and “far out” had some oomph, they are now mere sounds, stripped of any muscle.
When I hear someone say “cool,” I am propelled back fifty-plus years, pulled by the engine of memory back to a time when “cool” was a relatively new, and subversive term.
When it meant something.
Back then, it was uttered by jazz musicians and Beatniks.
I was but a lad and my friends and I were thoroughly captivated by the Beatnik ethos. There was a legendary Beatnik hangout on east 17th Street in Denver, called The Green Spider. Beats from all over the country stopped in at the Spider on their Kerouac-like journeys across the U.S. All the biggies made it there and read their poetry, often to the accompaniment of meekly thumped bongos. They were the prototypes: berets, goatees, black clothes, dour expressions, rage, snapping fingers in place of applause, wired on a concoction they produced by dipping Benzedrine inhalers in coffee — oh, so existential. And they used terms like “cool, “cat,” “square” and “daddio.”
My pals and I ate it up. We were young teens, not yet able to get around on our own once the city bus stopped running at 8 p.m., and we needed Chas’ mom, Charlene, to drive us downtown to the Spider in her ’57 Chevrolet. She dutifully did so, then waited for us around the corner on Clarkson Street. What she did during the two or so hours we spent in Beatville is anyone’s guess. Charlene was an odd woman.
The black-clad doorman at the Spider reluctantly admitted us, warning us we were to sit at the back of the room, at a table in the corner. “Be cool,” he would say, glaring at us over the top of his dark glasses (dark glasses at night …wow!). Any juvenile nonsense and we were outta there. Any behavior that drew attention to the fact there were squares in the house would mean an automatic 86.
We loved to watch that doorman during performances. He would stand just inside the door and make extravagant, cobra-like gestures with his hands and arms, doing a spontaneous, interpretive routine to embellish the powerful ideas emanating from the stage.
We’d order a round of Snappy Toms and, when we felt extremely daring and were flush with a bit of cash, we would share an espresso or two, the coffee prepared in a huge, hissing, brass contraption with an eagle on the top. Imported from Italy, so they said.
We were awash in “cool,” listening to free-verse poetry and passionate “manifestos,” eavesdropping on pseudo-intellectual conversations about Sartre and Ginzberg, Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso, on the merits of Kline versus DeKooning, Bird versus Coltrane.
The bug bit us hard. We became Junior Beatniks — apprentice Beatniks, if you will. Chas set up a—“pad” in a vacant room in his basement, complete with a red light, Nescafé, and nudist magazines. I wrote long poems, most focusing on the image of dry reeds snapped by a powerful wind. I read Nietzsche and felt incredibly uber.
“Cool” then gave way to “far out.”
Of course, there was a transitional period. First, a brief phase I attribute to the influence of “Blackboard Jungle” and “West Side Story,” after which time a fixation on zip guns and gang fights had to be dissolved.
American Bandstand was broadcast from Philadelphia, so ducktails, beehives and poodle skirts came and went. Then, there was a batch of surfer lingo to be used and discarded, along with the madras shirts and white jeans.
Next, the English invaded American popular culture. The immediate glide path to “far out” was lit by “fab,” “gear,” “groovy” and other Carnaby Street nonsense.
Then, kablam! … “far out” arrived, arm in arm with “trip,” “bummer,” “heavy” “right on,” “mellow out,” “shades,” “freak out,” “crash,” “blow your mind,” “split,” “what’s your bag?,” “Bogart,” ”out of sight,” etc., et al.
The slang of two decades was washed clean by the hippie tsunami. All of a sudden, legions of goofballs traipsed around with long hair, colorful clothes and trust funds, flooding the slang market with new words or lingo they stole from inner city black folks. The peace and love crowd brought “cool” to an end and ushered “far out” to center stage.
It was only one of a number of crappy things they did.
Contrary to what many people say when they glorify the ’60s, I need to note that it was, instead, a fairly miserable time — an era inundated with weak-minded crap and insincerity.
How many hippies 60 years of age and older do you know?
“Far out” gave way to far right.
“Stick it to The Man,” became ask The Man for a job, a lot of money and healthcare benefits.
Once the Vietnam War was over, off came the long hair, the beards and long sideburns; off came the tie-dye T-shirts, and on went the suit and tie. Once the chance they might be drafted disappeared, most hippies turned the corner quickly. There was not much left to complain about; the self-indulgent core of the “movement” was laid bare for all to see.
I was not particularly thrilled with hippies. I was in the music business back then, in league with a bunch of somewhat rowdy characters whose only aim in life was to create mayhem. Peace had little to do with it. “Love” was a word you used when “Why not?” and “Ah, come on” didn’t do the trick. Hippies were far too fuzzy for us. We cast a big net for female hippies but, other than that, disdain was the name of the game. Our gigs more often ended in riotous activity resulting in police action than they did in a love-in.
Most hippies were frauds. As an acquaintance of mine (a Harlem resident and a member of a band called Baby Huey and the Babysitters) once noted: “The hippies talk a good line. They mouth off about the cops, about being brothers and sisters, about solidarity but, you gotta remember, all they need to do is cut their hair and they’re back at the country club. Me … I stay black and poor. I can’t just cut my hair, take a bath and fade back in.”
That’s what happened to “far out.” It eclipsed “cool,” had its fun, then cut its hair, took a bath and went to work at an investment bank where, nearly a half century later, it collected huge bonuses and threw the country’s economy over the cliff.
And now, a saccharine clod on public radio glorifies a bunch of middle-class white bozos who imitate the music of the rural poor, and “cool” and “far out” rise from the dead — linguistic zombies on the prowl for feeble brains.
Whatever power the terms once had is gone. Once upon a time, there was at least a tenuous connection between the language and the idea of rebellion, of otherness. Now … nothing.
Ah, but we all, like our language, grow and change and lose our power. For most of us who lived through the era of cool and far out, our juices are pretty much dried up, the mojo exhausted. Face it: even if we stayed somewhat far out, we’re now only a short hop from being a feeb.
It’s painfully obvious: all too often, far out has became far right. Buffoons who once draped themselves in Indian print bedspreads and lit incense now dress in cheesy revolutionary war gear and raise their quavering voices in opposition to everything but their entitlements.
I need to come up with a meal to celebrate this transition.
Lemon, in everything.
Lemon chicken, with capers — cutlets pounded out thin, floured, dipped in egg wash then in breadcrumbs, sautéed in a mix of olive oil and butter until golden brown. A sauce made by, first, cooking some diced shallot until soft in the leavings from the chicken, then deglazing the pan with a 50/50 mix of fresh lemon juice and white wine. A mess of rinsed capers, some chopped parsley, a touch of salt, freshly ground black pepper, reduce the liquid, add more butter, pour over chicken.
Serve it with pasta, cooked al dente, and drained. Add garlic compound butter, shaved Parmesan, salt, pepper and some fresh lemon juice.
Lemon butter on steamed broccoli.
Lemon cake for dessert.
Everything on the menu aimed at the pucker — the ultimate pucker achieved with some bluegrass music in the background.
It’ll be far out.
And oh so cool.