In the 1950s and 60s, the writers of the Beat Generation sought to spiritually and sexually liberate humanity, decriminalize drugs, and promote a counterculture lifestyle. The works of Beat authors Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs proved to be very influential on rising musicians of the day. Songwriters and bands latched on the Beat movement’s ideals, which a majority of the public considered unmoral, in the 1960s as rock and roll music grew across the globe.
I quickly found out that some of my favorite musicians had direct connections with the Beat Movement. Ginsberg was friends with Bob Dylan and had even met the Beatles, on multiple occasions. He even accompanied Dylan on his 1975 tour for “Blood on the Tracks,” which many fans consider to be his best album. There are short, but interesting videos of Ginsberg and Dylan visiting Kerouac’s grave and discussing other famous burial sites that they have both seen.
The influence of the Beats can be heard throughout Dylan’s music, both in his earlier, so-called “protest” songs, like “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and his later works, which often sounded more spontaneous and experimental; “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Ballad of a Thin Man” come to mind.
The members of the Grateful Dead were familiar with Neal Cassady, a hero of the Beat Generation, who also spent time with author Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, Driving around the Country in a psychedelic bus called “Furthur.” The Dead also hung out with that crowd, and so were graced with the stories of Cassady, which they later turned into songs of their own. In a 1968 song, “That’s it for the Other One,” Bob weir sings “Cowboy Neal at the wheel of the bus to never ever land.” Many of the Grateful Dead’s live shows were based in a spontaneity that members of the Beat generation would’ve approved of; they often became long jam sessions.
Other bands influenced by the Beats were The Doors and the Velvet Underground, were not as close to the main writers of the beat generation, but their music was still greatly influenced by their works. Ray Manzarek, the organ player of The Doors once said that, “if Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed.” Jim Morrison agreed with this statement, citing Kerouac as a major influence. His lyrics and poetry were often aimed at opening the minds of listeners to new experiences and ways of thinking.
I hadn’t listened to the Velvet Underground until about a year ago, but as soon as I listened to the band’s debut, “The Velvet Underground and Nico,” I could hear the influence of the Beats. The album was originally criticized for its harsh lyrical themes — use of illegal drugs, prostitution, and S & M. In 1967, it was unusual for songwriters to address these topics so blatantly. The Velvet Underground changed that with songs such as “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Heroin.” The band was interested in displaying the realities of life in the late 60s, something that would’ve appealed to the Beats.
These are just a few of the bands that took cues from the Beat Movement. The writers of that period greatly contributed to what would become the counterculture movement of the 60s, which would prove to be one of the most important musical periods in history.