Scott McLemee has been tearing it up at his new blog lately. Or at least he’s been posting a lot of stuff oddly congruent with my own obsessions. In the last week, he’s posted on Marshall McLuhan, Gershon Legman, and Robert Fripp and the League of Gentlemen (apparently I’m not the only guy for whom that was a favorite album of a nerdy youth). McLemee is always kind of a “go-to” blogger for me, in part because (a) he’s the kind of guy who will link to the family tree of American Maoism, and (b) knows enough about it to notice the mistakes.
McLemee’s recent Inside Higher Ed piece on Legman is especially worth reading. Legman, with Jay Landesman, was the founder/editor of the radical-Freudian hipster-intellectual little magazine Neurotica, which ran irregularly between 1948 and 1952 and which published an amazing amount of stuff by nobodies who would shortly become somebodies: McLuhan, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Bernstein, Anatole Broyard, and John Clellon Holmes.* Neurotica is the classic exemplar of a style of hip intellectualism peculiar to the early cold war, when young scenesters founded avant-garde little magazines in the way that the same sort of people would form rock bands twenty years later. In the Ginsberg archive at Stanford there’s an undated note** from Carl Solomon (the friend to whom Ginsberg dedicated Howl), which alludes to Ginsberg’s wanting to start a little magazine and suggests the name Effeminacy. (“Boy, how’d you like to walk into the [San] Remo [Bar]*** and hear people say, ‘That cat’s the editor of ‘Effeminacy’?’”)
One of the things I love about studying the history of the American countercultural left is noting the intricate connections between various nodal points on a far-flung, associational web of people, things, and events. I love the little coincidences. The pleasure of being a historian in this field (any field, really) is like the pleasure of living in a small town: you bump into the same people in different, surprising places, and can map your relations to others through various degrees of separation. Take Legman. Jay Landesman, co-editor of Neurotica, painted a somewhat unflattering picture of Legman in his autobiography, Rebel Without Applause: Legman comes off as an unpleasant, slightly unhinged sexual monomaniac. At some point in the 1950s, Landesman wrote the book for a musical called The Nervous Set, the original cast recording of which Columbia released in 1959, with a fetching cartoon by Jules Feiffer on the cover.
Feiffer at the time was best known for the “Sick, Sick, Sick” cartoon he did for the Village Voice, which was the “Peanuts” of the hip New York scene — which I guess makes Feiffer the hipster Charles M. Schultz. Actually, that’s a pretty good description of Feiffer by any reckoning.
Anyway, the play is about an intellectual young man on the hip scene who is trying to get his avant-garde little magazine (called Nerves) off the ground. Legman is lampooned as a louche beatnik sex guru named Yogi. His big number is “How Do You Like Your Love?” The songs (by Tommy Wolf) are actually pretty good — one, “All the Sad Young Men,” is a gorgeous ballad that’s become something of a jazz standard — and Landesman’s humor about the New York hip intellectual scene is dead-on. Any play with laugh lines about Partisan Review is worth a listen.
Interestingly, Legman’s avatar Yogi was played by a very young, new-to-New-York Del Close, who at about the same time made the legendary comedy record “How to Speak Hip,” a parody of language instruction records with Close as a beatnik named Geets Romo. Through his decades-long career with Second City, Close would single-handedly revolutionize American comedy. He came up with the idea for SCTV (which, of course, is the official sketch comedy show of Dial M) and mentored dozens of comedians who became famous through Saturday Night Live and elsewhere.
So there’s a line from Gershon Legman to SCTV, and thus to maybe the funniest musical parody ever: Rick Moranis as Mel Torme singing the national anthem. Small world.
*OK, Leonard Bernstein was already a somebody. But his presence in this group is a bit surprising — showing, perhaps, an early manifestation of Bernstein’s lifelong ambition to yoke the roles of maestro and Universal Intellectual that Tom Wolfe would cruelly mock in “Radical Chic.”
** box 5, folder 29; it begins with the line “Hatred of Alfred Kazin is the motive force of my life.”
*** famous hipster hangout in the early 1950s