Lewis MacAdams’ claim to coolness is that he’s a well known poet who followed beat poet Gregory Corso around and writes for Rolling Stone and others. In any event, he’s a fine journalist and in Birth of the Cool we get a sweeping history of cool. MacAdams covers Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; runs through Kerouac and Burroughs; visits Pollack and ends at Andy Warhol. The story moves along one name drop at a time, leaving a story unexpectedly at the mere mention of a new player. It’s the kind of book you memorize so you can be cooler than your cool name-dropping friends at parties.
Actually, though it was kind of cool and one does get a sense that what cool is, is the detachment from what seems important to everyone else mostly because nobody’s listening to you anyway. The book is a history of the not so distant past. Putting all the names of artists, poets, musicians and philosophers in their temporal place is a great way to understand and appreciate what’s cool. It’s worth knowing who’s who and when so we can appreciate them a bit better even if looking at their actions right now we might not think they’re so cool anymore.
I particularly enjoy the story of the first performance of John Cage’s 4′33″. That’s the piece where the peformer sits at a grand piano for four and a half minutes without hitting a key. We can only imagine how confused, amused, angry, interested the audience must have been for this piece the first time it was played. I’ve always enjoyed the idea, but in context of what Cage was thinking about, who he was hanging out with and from whom he was learning, the piece and works from other artists of the time take on a new dimension. It’s less of a wonder why these people are mostly still considered cool.
I was also impressed by how studies of Zen got woven into cool especially in context of the new atomic age and the ensuing cold war. (Cage came up with many pieces and even the length 4′33″ by flipping an I Ching coin.) Zen is cool again these days, maybe because of its unwillingness to be anything easily tracked down so perfectly imitates MacAdams description of cool’s “quicksilver nature.”
In the end, the personalities in the book really do seem pretty cool. Except for Miles Davis, man. Man, he was selling motor-scooters in the eighties. Not cool.