Most of us have a seminal cultural artifact or event that represents a touchstone moment. For some it’s a sporting event: Carlton Fisk in ’75 smacking that ball against the Green Monster or Bucky Dent’s grand slam of ’78; Jordan’s infamous “air” slam dunk; Gretsky’s entire career. For others it’s a concert event: Woodstock, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead or the first Lollapalooza. Maybe it’s a piece of live theater: "Hair", "A Chorus Line", "Rent"; or a Gathering: Burning Man; or maybe a profound historical event: the fall of the Berlin Wall or living in Prague during the early ‘90s.
For me it was discovering City Lights Bookstore in North Beach while spending the summer of ‘88 in San Francisco. It’s there that I immersed myself in the writings of the Beatnik poets, aka the Beat Generation: Corso, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima and of course, the man himself, Jack Kerouac.
Now, French-Canadian Kerouac was just as puzzled by the adoration of those long-hairs of Haight Ashby (and Central Park back East) to his work as any other member of the World War II Generation. The cultural shifts that took place around ‘63 through the ’67 Summer of Love and leading all the way up to Watergate transformed the American cultural landscape forever. Gone were the days of World War warrior white men in business suits enjoying an afternoon glass of scotch served by subservient secretaries dressed like Mimi Eisenhower. These were the latter days of Kerouac and the Age of Camelot and in some nostalgic way – whether it’s the vintage clothing worn by tattooed hipsters on Melrose or at Viva Las Vegas, or the Rock-a-Billy/Swingers revival and Rat Pack retreads – in some way we’re clinging to an America that has long since faded away.
This is what brings me back to the summer of ’88 and those days spent at City Lights; this is where I discovered the photographs of Robert Frank’s “The Americans”. I don’t think any piece of art has left more of a lasting impression on my psyche. There’s something about those photos that shoots to the very core of my being and similar to the music of Coltrane, Miles Davis and Terence Blanchard – Robert Frank’s images stir something deeply profound within me. They cut so close to the vein because they represent what I think it means to be an American.
I was born in ’71, but those photos taken from 1955-1956 feel like a past that I swear I lived through. He captured the ordinary and somehow always seemed to elevate it to the profound. His any given day shots didn’t so much tell some story but rather captured the very Soul of America. Landscape shots and desolate highways, Harley bikers and waitresses staring vacantly, the outskirts of towns and the center of political rallies and “Coloreds” or “Negros” just moving along trying to get through the day – Frank observed it all with his old school photo lens and reproduced his images without the help of Photoshop or a Mac.
It’s purity at its finest. These ghostly images from the past present us with Americans that may still be living among us. The couple just married at a Reno courthouse always captured my imagination (as they do Anthony Lane in his New Yorker article Robert Frank’s The Americans review : The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/09/14/090914fa_fact_lane?currentPage=3).
A grinning Pompadour embraces his pretty new bride as he stands behind her wrapping his arms around her midsection. The image has movement and energy and captures a moment in time that begs me to wonder: “What happens next? Where’s this couple going? Who are they and what do they do out there in mid-50s Reno?”
As I revisit the image while reading Lane’s article, I begin to imagine what could have happened to that couple. Frozen in time, she’s a vision – a Western beauty dressed in her best and caught in the arms of her Elvis wannabe (with a touch of Johnny Cash) lover just fully absorbed in the significance of the moment. He couldn’t ask for a more attractive bride; sure, she’s not Marilyn, but she is, from the looks of her, definitely easy on the eyes and has that kind of look you want to wake up next to for the long haul. But as far as looks go, the long haul has a short life span. Pin-up beauties of the past do not always age gracefully; hard living, a few packs a day and afternoon lunches of bourbon and fatty food, those “hotties” from the ‘50s (your aunts, your grandma or your grandparents high school sweethearts) look at them now and sometimes all a guy can think is: “That’s what my girl’s gonna look like when she’s their age!” But you also hope he’ll think: “And God bless her! I love her all the more because she’s real and she’s reliable and she’s so much more than some frozen image from my past that I can’t let go of.”
Frank’s Reno couple actually lived American lives long after he returned to New York to publish their nuptial moment. Did they stay married, have a couple of kids and realize the American dream? Or did he drink too much and maybe smack her around a bit until she couldn’t take it anymore and ran off with some local cowboy? Did her drug problem get so out of control or his womanizing make him impossible to live with, or did they just settle into that groove that couples fall into where they just live together like roommates, growing fat and old and moderately happy and now own a condo in Arizona and their daily grind interrupted with random visitations from the grandkids for Thanksgiving or Christmas?
The American couple frozen in time at the exact moment when nothing else mattered except: “We just got hitched!!!” And it’s a beautiful thing! In all of its black and white splendor, Robert Frank’s "The Americans" is the quintessential Beat Generation poem – the perfect visual bookend to the magical and mystical wanderings of Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road". These two men captured the side of the American story not covered on television or by the Hollywood Studio machine of the era. The real America – the gritty, dirty, urban, rural, dark, drab and tired America with all of its backwater shacks, crosses and grave markings along lonely Western highways, dilapidated row houses and dead on their feet elevator girls just trying to get through another day.
As I flip through the pages of my copy of Frank’s masterpiece, I am transfixed and mesmerized. I swear I know these people. I may have – during my travels across this vast landscape – actually come across the older version of one of the subjects of Frank’s thousands of shots. They could have been at a train station or in a supermarket or at a hotel or sitting in coach. Now they probably use a laptop, send emails, text and maybe even use Facebook. They either voted for John McCain or Barack Obama, listen to Rush Limbaugh or watch Keith Olbermann. They may be titans of industry, or dying of cancer. But they’re here and they’re living their lives and they answer the question posed in every frame of Zurich born, American immigrant Robert Frank’s love letter to America: “So… what happens next?”
… And ain’t that America?