The first thing I wrote after finishing (completely, totally, and finally finishing) my book this summer was a review for the Los Angeles Review of Books of Loren Glass’s Counterculture Colophon: The Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde. Like my own book, it’s a study of the emergence of a postwar hip culture (I am tempted to call it the “hip turn” in intellectual and cultural history), but told from a particular point of view: the Grove Press and its mercurial publisher, Barney Rosset. You can read more about the Grove Press in my review (click here), but suffice it to say, Grove published inexpensive paperback editions of most of the books that you would expect to find in the library of any well-read hipster from the 1950s through the 1970s, or for that matter nowadays. Grove also published The Evergreen Review, that gazetteer of the hip world.
And Grove was not just providing the intellectual content of the emerging 1960s counterculture; it was helping create the look and feel of it as well. In my review I write, “Pick up a Grove paperback and turn it over in your hands, breathe in its age, gaze at its coolly modern cover design, and a moving, sounding picture of the Cold War past, a hologram completed in the imagination, springs into life.” The tactile pleasure that Grove books afforded their buyers is something akin to an experience that archival researchers sometimes have, of handling documents whose very presence, their “materiality” (to put it in a more academic way) speaks as eloquently as their actual words. It’s also a pleasure well known to those who haunt used book stores and go digging for vintage vinyl. It’s a pleasure we are more sensitive to now that it feels endangered, as books and records become reduced to their content and hypostatized as digital signals — no touch, no taste, no heft, no smell.
Thumbing through a stack of records, I find my copy of The Jazz Messengers at the Cafe Bohemia vol. 1, a 1955 Blue Note album pregnant with the same kind of sense-memory as comes packaged with an old copy of Evergreen Review. Cue the record and feel the needle bite into the delicate surface of the record, a little pulse of concentration effort expended in hitting the groove right, like a junkie finding a vein. Part the edges of the cardboard jacket and breath deep: library-stacks smell of old paper, plus something sweet and gassy (the vinyl, I guess). Read Leonard Feather musing on how the “advancement of jazz” finds its necessary complement in tradition—the liner notes steeped in a jazz modernism routine for the decade and quaint now. Flip the record jacket over and dig the iconic and unmissable Blue Note cover art, with its expanse of sans-serif typography asymmetrical to the tight grouping of black-and-white photos at the bottom, each one the cross-section of an existential jazz act. Now listen: Art Blakey’s spoken introduction invites me to cozy up in the nightclub ambiance, fifty years gone but reconstructed in the mental hologram I’m assembling now from the album’s multimedia inputs. For those of you who come in late, we are now having a little cooking session for Blue Note, right here on the scene. Puttin’ the pot on in here. And we’d like for you to join in with us and have a ball. And then the music—the old Benny Goodman number “Soft Winds,” gently kidded by the Messengers’ loping swing—starts to play. The record, the amalgam of cardboard and vinyl, words and photos and sounds, is a talisman that allows for me to invoke a lost time—bohemian New York in the fifties, a place and time I never lived and which I remember with nostalgia anyway.