Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jailbait Street (1947-1963)


“Lord, no!” he snorted. “That motorcycle is going to follow me around until I’m 80 years old. I can just see it when I’m an old man and they’ll say to me” -- here his voice becomes creaky -- “So you’re Marlon Brando, huh? Well where’s your leather jacket and raccoon?” -- Note to Beatniks: Marlon Brando isn't one of You, By Bob Thomas, Jan 29 1959.

“He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots, and a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back.” -- The Cheers, song lyric, 1959.

One late September night in 1959 I was out after dark with three other kids, we had just left a TYRO Club meeting at the Knox United Church and had set up a game of tag-team wrestling around the downtown cenotaph. There was a rumbling, and then a hood on a three wheeled Indian came around the corner. The rider was a scowling tough looking character; he wore a Brando cap, his leather jacket was weighted down with metal studs, and he had a beard. He stopped and asked us the way to Rosie’s, a café/candy store up the Gulch. He said, “Get on,” and we all piled wide-eyed on the back and rode under the stars to Rosie’s, where my last glimpse of him was through the plate-glass window having coffee and conversation with the large female proprietor.

The juvenile delinquent was popularized in 1947 when Doubleday released Irving Shulman’s “The Amboy Dukes,” the story of a Brooklyn Gang set in World War II, which sold more than 4 million paperback copies. Tony Curtis starred in the movie entitled “City across the River.” The originals of the juvenile delinquents were the zoot-suiters who originated in Los Angeles during WWII. These Latino gangs tore up the streets fighting police and military personnel. On July 31 1944 approximately 1000 civilians, merchant seamen and zoot-suiters staged a brawl at a downtown Vancouver, B.C. intersection. Five squad cars of police and all available military and naval police were called out to quell the riot.

A gang in Vancouver, B.C. called themselves the “Alma Dukes” in emulation of Shulman's book, and in 1951, in retaliation for a previous dust-up at a YMCA dance, 100 of the zoot-suiters (as they were still called) had a rumble in Victoria, B.C. with an estimated 300 servicemen. It was the third battle between the groups that year. The hoods dressed flashily in drape suits and peg-topped pants. Winnipeg, Manitoba’s street gangs went back to 1947, and JD's flourished from coast to coast, even in the small towns.

In 1948 two boys in Dawson Creek, eleven and thirteen, covered their faces with handkerchiefs and hid in a ditch by the Alaska Highway with a stolen 30-30. When a car approached they leaped out and fired in the air, when the driver did not stop they shot again killing a 62 year old named Watson. The senseless murder drew attention to the proliferating trade in crime comics and paperbacks which were the favorite reading of adolescents, punks, and servicemen.

Paperback books began selling on newsstands about 1941, at first mostly reprints of bestselling hardcover books and of classics. By 1953 paperback sales in the United States were around 250 million, almost 90 per cent of those sold were crime, mystery, western and other genre-fiction.

In British Columbia between 1947 and 1959 girlie magazines, pocketbooks, and comic books were sold at hotel newsstands run by the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Small-town tobacconist/newsstands were redolent with the smell of cigar smoke and human sweat. Switchblades were for sale on open display in newsstand windows. Secondhand paperbacks and comics were sold at Greyhound Bus stations and taxi-stands.

Crime comics had been banned in Canada in 1947 but legislators were unable to obtain convictions, the result was that crime and horror comics were still being sold openly on newsstands in 1953. The Catholic Women's League campaigned in Toronto against newsstand smut in 1956 and the Winnipeg, Manitoba Kiwanis Club was determined to remove "obscene and sadistic literature" from its newsstands in 1957. The Wild One was banned from showing in Canada, and Saskatchewan banned the American film of The Beat Generation in August 1959, claiming that the film was a “disgusting and degrading picture… The story concerns a rapist who uses the Beatniks as a cover-up for his activities.”


Films like Marlon Brando’s The Wild One in 1953 and, Rebel without a Cause and The Blackboard Jungle in 1955, helped spread the gospel of the gang through the whole world. Manila had the Apaches and Blackhawks, London had Teddy Boys with names like the Paddington Leopards, the Elephant Mob and the Angel Gang, the Sanseikai and Three Cherry Club roamed Tokyo, Japan. In Germany they were known as “halbstarken,” (half mature) most famous was the Zorro Gang housed in Stuttgart in 1953. Gangs terrorized Australia, Buenos Aires, Italy (“vittelonis”) Holland (“nozem”) Denmark (“unterumper”) Sweden (“skunna folke”) South Africa (“tsotsis”) Poland (“hooligans”) Yugoslavia (“dillingers”) and Russia (“stillagus”). The only countries spared the switchblade and fish-hook hordes were Muslim countries.

Paris in 1959 was home to 60 or 70 ‘Blouson Noir’ (Black Jacket) gangs, some with a reported membership of 200 persons. In place of the games of hot-rod chicken common in America the Parisians’ stood upright on the roofs of elevators, “and if they don’t crouch in time they’ll be crushed against the ceiling.” In London the gangs fought each other on the streets, around dance halls, and aboard trains to Brighton. They sowed fish-hooks into the jacket sleeves near the cuff and used a variety of other weapons; metal bars, wooden cudgels, flick knives, knuckle dusters, razors, broken bottles, bike chains and blackjacks.

A report titled “Delinquent Behaviour: Culture and the Individual” was published on May 12 1959. The report was compiled by a panel of six experts in the fields of psychology, sociology, pediatrics, cultural anthropology, and criminology. They found that adult “movie producers, publishers, authors, and comic book artists” were exploiting juvenile delinquents for monetary gain. They were “hardly insensitive to the great sales value of such an image on the consumer market. Therefore titles and cover illustrations are lurid and titillating, and the image of the juvenile delinquent as the epitome of evil is being sold for all it is worth.”

The delinquent “is black jacketed and long haired. He runs around on a bright and noisy motorcycle or in souped up hot rod. He is brutal. He is cruel. He is restless. He is dangerously free and uninhibited sexually. He is aggressive. He travels with the pack. He is heartless…”

“This powerful stereotype of the inhuman adolescent is vividly portrayed in Hunter’s ‘Blackboard Jungle’; in Hal Ellison’s many paperbacks whose blurb announce ‘even their dreams were dirty,’ and in the celluloid extravaganzas … which reached new depths in the recent movie ‘High School Confidential.’”

Harlan Ellison was the 26 year old author of “Rumble” and “Deadly Streets.” Hal Ellson was the author of “Jailbait Street” and “Tomboy.” In 1960 a Winnipeg beatnik told a reporter his favorite writers were James Joyce, Jack Kerouac, Lewis Carroll and Harlan Ellison. He was currently working on a novel to be called “The Nothing Ones,” about his generation. In 1963 it was reported that Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon were to star in "Rumble," the film of the Harlan Ellison book.

The authors of “Delinquent Behavior” were not wrong, Hollywood marketed tons of sex and sadism movies for the drive-ins, favorite gathering places of youth. Among the saucy titles were Juvenile Jungle, Teenage Rebel, Hot Rod Girl, I was a Teenage Juvenile Delinquent, Young and Wild, Girls on the Loose, Beat Girl, Running Wild, So Young so Bad, Girls Town, My Teenage Bad Girl, and Teenage Crime Wave. Hollywood, comic books and the JD paperbacks riding the youthful gravy train had to bear some responsibility for the increase in youth gangs and narcotic use all over the world. There were numerous documentary style books by sociologists that also played up the sensational sex and violence aspects of the subject. Harrison Salisbury’s 1958 book “The Shook Up Generation” had shocking descriptions of circle-jerks, gang rapes and chicken-races.

The generation that grew up during the war was under scrutiny and another author, the “Boswell of Beatniks;” Jack Kerouac, rode the paperback revolution to notoriety with his invention of the Beat Generation. Kerouac had issued “The Town and the City” in hardcover in 1950 but he reached a huge audience through paperback issues of his next three novels; “On the Road” (1957), and “The Subterraneans” and “Dharma Bums” in 1958.

“On the Road” was described as the “bible” of the Beat Generation, and Kerouac was its prophet, its spokesman, its apostle. He was the “High Priest of the Beat Cult,” who, as Robert Ruark wrote on April 4 1958, “wrote a book called “On the Road,” which was not much more than a candid admission that he had been on the bum for six years.” A New York reviewer described his writing as “the romanticism of bumhood.” Worse, in the public eye Beats were identified with criminals, homosexuals, and juvenile delinquents. Kenneth Rexroth called Kerouac’s books “switchblade novels,” and claimed “the Beat thing” was a publicity gimmick created by Madison Avenue and would “die away like Davy Crockett.”

Fred Danzig described the prevailing view of the Beats in 1958: “Occasionally the “Beat” boys and girls get carried away with their search for “kicks,” or new emotional delights, and they get into sensational scrapes involving narcotics, sex parties, stealing cars, riding the rods, bigamy, or just plain bedeviling the “squares.”

JD’s and beatniks had a lot in common; both found their “kicks” in the form of drugs, sex and criminality. Bop-talk and gangland slang shared near identical phrases drawn from the black jazz musicians of the forties. Gangs called a joy-ride in a stolen car an “experience” and Kerouac and his friends used the same word to describe their mad lives. Slang dictionaries were always a part of the Anglo-Saxon underworld, in 1820’s England Stranger’s Guides to London warned the “flats” (country boys) against the “sharps” (city thieves) strangely enough this found its modern echo in “hip” vs. “square,” and “heads” vs. “greasers.” The London Stranger’s Guides, like the fifties newspapers, comic books and paperbacks, also included slang dictionaries for the uninitiated. The JD’s were more enamored of violence than the Beats, one 16 year old in New York was quoted as saying “It’s fun to hit somebody. It’s fun to shoot somebody.”

“Now college kids have started to use the words ‘hung up,’… I’m hung up, you know -- words I first heard on Times Square in the 40’s. Being Beat goes back to my ancestors, to the rebellious, the hungry, the weird, and the mad. To Laurel and Hardy, to Popeye, to Wimpy looking wild-eyed over hamburgers, the size of which they make no more; to Lamont Cranston, the Shadow, with his mad heh-heh-heh knowing laugh.” Kerouac’s public utterances were ripe for parody and in comic strips, comic books, films and television the Beatnik was a figure of scorn. In one comic book illustrated by Jack Davis the beatnik walked everywhere in a cloud of flies, eyes half-closed and puffing on some weird tobacco.

Narcotic Cops in New York raid Harlem, Brooklyn, and Greenwich Village on November 9 1959 netting over a million dollars worth of pure heroin, marijuana, and cocaine. Bill Bailey, brother of Pearl Bailey, begged to be allowed to return home to his 3 children. “Bill Bailey, you won’t go home,” the magistrate said, “Five hundred dollars bail.”

The undercover officers grew goatees, studied beatnik lingo, and stopped bathing for 4 weeks. They then entered into the haunts of the beatniks and joined in the “pseudo-philosophical discussions, playing the bongo drums…” One detective became so immersed in his role that “he composed a poem entitled “Junkie’s Wee,” which was read in a coffee shop by a beatnik poet.”

Even among his followers the “King of the Beats” had his detractors. One bearded college student said in 1958 that “The Beats have had it. Kerouac’s long gone. He’s hooked on installments. There are only a few of us left who can claim to be hip.” A Winnipeg teenager decided in 1960 that he would be “a ‘one-man generation,’ the founder, self-appointed leader and only follower of His own particular brand of sickness.” Kerouac, meanwhile, became a victim of the tabloid press.

In 1962 the CBC produced a drama excerpted from “On the Road,” with Bruno Gerussi as Sal Paradise and Philippine born actress Pilar Seurat as his Mexican pick-up. Paradise meets a “beautiful young Mexican girl at a bus depot. She too has problems -- husband who beats her, a young son she has deposited with her family. When she meets Sal, she is on her way to Los Angeles, getting away from it all. Eventually poverty and despair come between them. He heads for New York. She promises, without too much conviction, to follow him.”

The Beat Generation and the JD's were winding down, the Beatles, who had a number one hit with “Love Me Do” in Canada in 1963, were about to break into the American charts, tour the United States, and usher in the era of hippies and Hell's Angels. Jack Kerouac was forty years old. On October 21 1969 news came over the radio that the “King of the Beats” was dead of an abdominal hemorrhage in St. Petersburg, Florida.


1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. Keep it up! Greetings from Spain.

    ReplyDelete