Birth of the Cool

Posted in Reviews at 17:00 by RjZ

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.


  1. Penelope said,

    November 29, 2005 at 14:35

    What? Does the book suggest some way in which Zen (a Japanese philosopy) and the I Ching (a completely different, Chinese philosophy) have anything to do with each other? Maybe it does, but beyond the fact that they’re both Asian philosophies, I don’t know how they relate. I’m confused.

    In any case, the book sounds very interesting, and I refuse to read it, based on my understanding of what it is to be truly cool. I fear that to read a name-dropper’s direct study of what was once cool in the past would be to give up all hope of ever being truly cool, myself.

    You’ve sparked many thoughts on this subject, complete with examples of genuinely cool folks (as opposed to the merely hopeful, like me) and of poor souls who have suffered in misguided attempts to consciously become cool, but as I started to write them down, I could picture Ron reading my post and saying, “This is beyond community discussion! This is a whole essay! You have your own blog, you know!”

    Yes, I do, and I’m way behind on posting to it. Right now, inspired by Ron’s review, I promise to post again. If any of you are interested in my thoughts on what’s cool (not me, of course. Not just yet, anyway.), click on my name, above, to be taken to my blog. I’ll have my coolness post up by noon on Wednesday, I promise!

  2. RjZ said,

    November 29, 2005 at 14:48

    They are linked because Teitaro Suzuki was a popular Zen teacher at the time who inspired quite a bit of the American Avant Garde. Meanwhile John Cage enrolled at the New School for Social Research in New York where he learned about the I Ching from a student. Teitaro Suzuki taught at Columbia and the New School was founded by a Columbia University history professor. The whole book is like that. Bouncing from one place to another. It’s hard to keep track, but it doesn’t matter much.

    Meanwhile, that’s a shameless plug for your blog! (which you’re welcome to do…)

  3. Penelope said,

    November 29, 2005 at 23:17

    Ah! Cool!

    No pun consciously intended. It’s just difficult not to say that. Too bad I’m afraid to read the book.

    Thanks for letting me put in the plug. I need the plug, plus the announced-to-others deadline because, unlike fine regular bloggers like yourself, I have failed to update my blog for over a month, and I’m sure that all three of my loyal readers have given up on me! I apologize to all of you, and promise to get back on my blogging (high) horse again.

  4. Aaron said,

    November 30, 2005 at 0:40

    I recently read a book about Chinese Hermits (coincidently written in a manner name dropping cool indiviuals like Lao Tzu) where many of the hermits the author interviewed practiced Zen…in China. Zen is just the Japanese name for the Ch’an branch of Mahayana Buddhism. The Japanese flavor gets more play in the west. Same old zazen, same old enlightenment. Surely knowledge of the Book of Changes would have been well known by practitioners of Ch’an before its exportation to Japan.

    Even if Mr. Zimmerman or the “cool” inapproriately compared two asian philosophies it can’t be any worse than the typical casting choices in MASH.

    (I mean seriously, Pat Morita is so not Korean)

    I acknowledge the pointlessness of comparing the comparison to the casting on MASH. I just wanted to make one last Pat Morita reference.

    Sayonara Miyagi-San

  5. Penelope said,

    November 30, 2005 at 18:55

    Ah, yes. May Pat rest in peace. All who wax on must someday wax off.

    I had heard briefly of early Chinese Ch’an practitioners during my time at Sounds True. We were proofreading the package for a re-release of a boxed set of audio lectures about the history of Zen. It mentioned early Japanese and Chinese masters, so we called the copy cheif and said, “Chinese? Is this a mistake?” He explained that the precursors to Zen came out of China. Real Zen is all-Japanese, but like humans and chimpanzees, Zen and some Chinese philosophies have a close common ancestor. You’ve explained it even better than our copy cheif did. Thanks.

    One more plug, because I’m so grateful that Ron let me use his blog to create and enforce a deadline for myself: My blog has finally been updated. I now promise to update it by Wednesday evening, every Wednesday, for, um, quite a while or so. Thanks for your help, and your inspiration!

  6. Al (Ron's librarian for 'Cool') said,

    December 7, 2005 at 11:43

    RE: The Birth of the Cool and commentary:
    * I Ching and Zen are 2 things Cage and many others in the Greenwich Villiage were into – the book does not compare philosophies, but examines (as Ron mentions) their influence on this generation of people.

    * Miles was so cool he could afford to sell motorscooters!

    * IMHO, though perhaps ‘It’s the kind of book you memorize so you can be cooler than your cool name-dropping friends at parties’, if that is all that was imparted then the point of this pop culture study was missed. It’s not about people, it’s about the aesthetic of cool…The people are only practitioners or conduits. Cool was “the ultimate revenge of the powerless. Cool was the one thing that the white slaveowner couldn’t own. Cool was the one thing money couldn’t buy. At its core, cool is about defiance.” In the postmodern age cool has an entirely different meaning…

  7. She Who Might Be Cool « The Nomad said,

    January 4, 2009 at 0:56

    [...] his blog, Traveling Hypothesis, my friend R.J. Zimmerman has posted an intriguing review of Lewis MacAdams’ book Birth of the [...]

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