LAST OF THE BEAT GENERATION

Bill Thoms was a customer at Brisbane’s very hip Primitif Coffee Lounge when I first met him, in about 1965. He was one of those people who seemed to be able to live without money, without being a bum. A nice guy to talk to, he was well-liked by most of the crew we hung about with.

Bill was obsessive about music, and carried an armful of records around wherever he went. He seemed to fit the mould of Beatnik very well. I was a little too young to be a Beatnik, though I loved that era, and used to practice the hip-talk with my teenage friends. Dark glasses, hair combed forward, black shirts, listening to cool jazz… crazy, man. There was something very comfortable about it.

The American Beat era of the 1950s was drawing to a close as The Hippies rose to prominence in the mid-1960s. The Beats were admirers of progressive artists and poets, and dug the music of modern jazz artists such as Jerry Mulligan, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. Alan Ginsberg’s ‘beat’ poetry was most influential, in particular his poem “Howl”.  Writer Jack Kerouac (“On The Road”, “The Dharma Bums”) also had a major influence on the movement, which was concerned with personal liberty and spiritual enlightenment. Greenwich Village in York was the centre of the Beat scene.

Australians have always had a knack of picking up American trends, such as the Hippie movement and communal living in the 1960s, the spread of subway graffiti, experimentation with various drugs, rap music, etc. The Beatnik era, seen in retropect, was a time of hope for a better society.

Bill lived just around the corner from our flat in West End. Early one morning, he was walking past our place with his customary collection of records. I was moved to shoot this single frame of him as he told me that his one and only prized possession, his flute, had been stolen overnight. He was fighting back tears as he told me the story. The poor guy was distraught, and couldn’t believe how anybody could stoop so low.