Confessions of a Lapsed Bohemian

Finding inner peace and fulfillment in a Beat universe

Lapsed Bohemian Manifesto

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Gypsy-BillI suppose I’ve always been a Bohemian at heart, even at a very early age.  As a pre-schooler in Pittsburgh, music and art were as important to me as Howdy Doody and Cheerios- my toy piano and my well-worn record collection (featuring stellar recordings of sophisticated tunes such as “Teddy Bear’s Picnic”) were prized possessions; these and my drawing pad, crayons and pencils, were my main fix to satisfy a precocious creativity Jones.  Early on I also grappled with the absurd rationale of my existence and the twisted logic of religion, as explained by our local Methodist minister, Dr. Manny (and got nowhere, I might add).  My family’s move to semi-rural North Carolina when I was barely six gave me plenty of solitude to ponder the ironies of life and a longing for the urban sophistication we had left behind.  Between the time I received my first guitar at the age of eight, and my beloved bongo drums when I was in the fifth grade, I had developed a love of music and a thirst for the freedom of expression and uninhibited thought horizons that the world’s loosely-connected artistic/philosophical/literary community seemed to offer beyond the dank, red silted banks of the Neuse River.

I didn’t know the term ‘Bohemian’ then, just as many don’t really know it now, but I knew what I liked and, more importantly, what I didn’t like.  What I liked: jazz, folk music, painting, theater and beatniks, who I thought were the coolest.  What I didn’t like: team sports, at which I sucked, ignorance, violence, intolerance and any form of authority.  The Beats, led by poets and writers such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg and populated by folkies, painters, jazz musicians and Ban-the-Bomb radicals, seemed to be kindred spirits and soon became my role models.  By the age of twelve I was working backstage as a grip at the Raleigh Little Theater, playing Tom Paxton, Woody Guthrie and Dylan tunes on the guitar at post-rehearsal cast parties and rubbing shoulders with local college lefties.  This was a magical time for me, the hootenanny heyday of Camelot and coffee houses, with Baez and Brubeck blaring from the HiFi.  To this budding hipster, Beat culture was compelling and romantic: sweatshirts and shades, chinos and desert boots, bongos and gut-string guitars, bitter, nasty espresso served by angry black-clad waitresses in rustic, dark, smoke-filled coffee houses… a lone spotlight on a platform stage, where itinerant poets, folk singers or jazz cats would spill their guts.  What’s not to like?

While I probably never met a true Beatnik until years later (I suppose David Amram fits the description), AmramGinsburgKerouacthe varsity variety of left-wing radicals, folk singers and poets hanging around State College (which later became NCSU), Duke and UNC behaved as if they were offering a bold, revolutionary new vision.  They weren’t of course; they were simply part of a movement that had repackaged Bohemianism for the post-war atomic age; by the late nineteen fifties the beat culture had caught fire on college campuses around the world and was instrumental in the American civil rights and anti-war movements of the sixties.  However, the beginnings of the Bohemian movement can actually be traced back to the early 1800s, as artists, musicians, poets, philosophers and political radicals began to congregate in major European cities, the byproduct and catalyst of a rapidly changing social order in the western world. While artists, musicians, writers and philosophers have been with us since the dawn of civilization and have been a part of every culture, the Bohemian movement didn’t emerge until the final stages of colonialism in the nineteenth century and the ensuing rebellion against the arrogance of Eurocentric diffusionism and its class structure.  Ever since, the rejection of traditional social values and aesthetics has been endemic to subsequent incarnations of Bohemianism.

The brand name “Bohemian” originated in France, referring to the community of Romany people (Gypsies) erroneously presumed to have arrived from Bohemia.  yarosh_gypsyIn time it came to represent any free-traveling, free-spirited or Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_-_Summertimeartistic soul living in poverty, or those embracing nonconformity, radical left-wing politics or avant-garde culture.    By the mid-1800s Bohemian sensibilities had hit the United States, as writers like Bret Harte and Gelett Burgess chronicled the free wheeling lifestyles of their European counterparts.  The “Belle Epoch” era saw the emergence of the impressionists- painters such as Manet, Renoir and Monet shocked the art world and Debussy shook music’s foundation with “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun.”

HuchetteThroughout the twentieth century, Bohemians have been living among us in various incarnations.  The Cellist OriginalModigFrom the “Génération du Feu” (Generation of Fire) in pre-WWI France, the “Lost Generation” of the post WWI era and the “Beat Generation” of the post-WWII era to the sixties radical counterculture or “Woodstock Nation” of the Vietnam War era, Bohemians have resurfaced time after time, to shock and stir up the status quo in counterpoint to periods of establishment excesses and mass conformity.  Bohemia has become more of a state of mind, rather than a geographic location or even a specific cultural movement.

Gelett_Burgess_-_Map_of_Bohemia_1896

Ironically, the Bohemian brand had become a bit tarnished after being embraced by a group of people with a completely different agenda.  The Bohemian Club, founded in 1872 by San Francisco artists, poets and writers, was soon taken over by wealthy businessmen and capitalists, who turned it into an all-male secret society of sorts, an enclave of the rich and powerful, an Old Boys network which included honorary members Richard Nixon and William Randolph Hearst, along with leading industrialists and military contractors- an ironic perversion of the core values of bohemianism.  Their rationale: though thoroughly establishment to the core, these movers and shakers considered themselves bon vivants, supporters of the arts and “free thinkers,” so they could call themselves Bohemians.  To flex their bon vie muscles, once a year they cavort at an exclusive retreat called “Bohemian Grove,” a secluded wilderness camp where the rich and powerful get to caper about like goofy adolescents for a few days. Bohemian Grove LuminariesHowever, the poet George Sterling (also a BC member) had disputed their Bohemian ties, asserting there were two criteria for a true Bohemian: a passion for one or more of the seven arts and a lifestyle of poverty- the “starving artist” concept, which has become de rigueur in establishing proper Bohemian credentials.

For much of my life, I have met the criteria- at least for those periods in which I struggled to live off my musical career, when I wasn’t raising a family and working day gigs.  As romantic as this may seem, it takes a certain amount of determination to stay true to your inner voice.  In general, most of us trying to eke out an existence in the arts are not consciously living “the bohemian lifestyle;” it’s forced on us by economic necessity.  The often quoted line from Omar Kayyam’s Rubiyat celebrating “a jug of wine, a loaf of bread and Thou, beside me, singing in the wilderness” sounds romantic, especially in the candlelight.  But, believe me, when the jug of wine is empty and the loaf of bread is down to the crumbs, “Thou” will not long linger in the wilderness, romantic candlelight notwithstanding.  There are times in my life when I’ve paid a bitter, lonely price for artistic integrity.

Bill on gig

Most ‘normal’ folks really don’t understand the mind of a true Bohemian.  The apparent lack of conventional values, rejection of materialism, disdain of conservative government and irreverence toward organized religion cause a great deal of discomfort for those comfortably entrenched within the establishment.  There’s a deep-rooted (and often well-justified) suspicion of anyone who disregards accepted rules of conduct in favor of more intangible, evolving philosophical principles.  When the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments meet Joseph Fletcher’s Situation Ethics, guess which value system gets the most votes?  There’s also the inescapable stigma of poverty in a society that equates material wealth and ownership of property with personal worth.  To a true Bohemian, property is a burden; money is merely a tool, a means to an end.  To society as a whole, money and property are measures of human life value.  In the material world, the starving artist is frequently regarded merely as an indigent loser, a social parasite to be either shunned or endured.Beatniks Movie Poster_01

Throughout my life I have been torn between the staid world of materialism, consumerism and fiscal responsibility and the Spartan frugality of Bohemian artistic and intellectual freedom.  Like a bumper car, I have been alternately attracted and repelled by both worlds: the crass consumerism, insensitivity, competitiveness and corruption of mainstream society versus the messy, chaotic anarchy of counterculture aesthetics.  Every choice is a trade-off and there is a certain implied obligation of conformity and an unfortunate element of hypocrisy on either side.  Both sides have their share of imposters and posers: the corporate exec shedding his Dockers to slum with his musician buddies on weekends or the ‘trust fund hipster’ who indulges in shameless, expensive hedonism while flaunting the trappings of artistic integrity.  The dilemma of the Bohemian without independent means is that you frequently have to work to meet family responsibilities or fund an artistic project; as a result, never really fit in either society and are frequently misunderstood by both- ergo, Lapsed Bohemian.

I will never completely abandon either world- whether hunched over a computer in my office cubical or navigating the modes on my D’Angelico archtop at a local café, I’m still the same person.  And that person will always cherish the vision of a more open, egalitarian world, one in which the artist, musician, poet or philosopher is considered at least as important as the hedge fund manager, industrialist or football hero.

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Written by Bill Barnes

September 26, 2009 at 11:30 am

6 Responses

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  1. Bill’s Beloved Bongo’s ~ yeah! Now there’s an item for the Smithsonian, or at least the jazz version of the Smithsonian, the Johnsonsonian.

    I get a feeling of empathy, connection, and affirmation when I read your writing. We’re cut from the same Bohemian cloth, yet you always come up with a new and pleasing motif.

    Compose on!

    notepoet

    September 26, 2009 at 10:29 pm

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this, Bill! I was completely absorbed reading it. I had a kind of “moment” (not to be confused with “movement”!) towards the end of the piece. It was/is a moment of understanding. Understanding You! Bill Barnes, whom I 1000% adore on so many levels, beginning with your kind spirit, your immense musical talent, your supreme sense of humor(!) and of course your very talented writings. But whom I also fail to understand, (very infrequently) regarding certain topics! I feel much more at ease now that I have this small insight. As always Bill, you have easily managed to put a big smile not only on my face, but in my heart. HUGS! XO

    Bev Getz

    September 18, 2011 at 9:48 am

  3. Wonderful piece, Bill. My inner Bohemian and my inner bourgeoisie are locked in a constant battle for my soul.

    Ann Delaney

    September 19, 2011 at 10:56 am

  4. Thank You Bill! I was ‘led’ to your writing here via Mr. Resculptor–his ‘share’ stating the comfort in knowing we are not alone…Alas the ‘Gypsy’ in me can carry On in the Bohemian and with ‘Vision’and ‘company’….thank YOU, for this beautifully written Prize!~Mary-(hallowell,me.)

    Mary Baird Leighton

    September 13, 2012 at 8:03 am

  5. One of the best and most entertaining pieces I’ve read in a long time. The bar is high indeed for my upcoming blog. I hope I can be even one tenth as cool with it as Senor Barnes is here. Cheers.

    naturalone87

    February 25, 2013 at 12:40 pm


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