THE BLOG
11/06/2013 07:40 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Original Hipsters

There were always hipsters, going back to Socrates and Diogenes at least, but the modern hipster became solidified as a social archetype after the war, the big one, ended, and everybody started to pick out their own clothes and catch up on liberal arts and jazz. A hipster was a hipster because he had to be. She had to be. They had no choice. Their circumstances, energy and consciousness made them behave in ways strange to John Q. Public. They were forced into a corner and they decided that corner would be cool. Later, volunteers would join the congenital hipsters who had the beat gene.

The thing about cats like the Mezz, ie. Mezz Mezzrow, the white jazz musician from Chicago who helped bring a new sound to New York, whose name was once synonymous with "good shit" (as in marijuana) and who claimed African ancestry to get put in the black wing of Rikers Island with his amigos, is that they weren't faking it. "The Cool School," [Library of America, $27.95] an anthology of writing from "America's hip underground" that I edited for The Library of America, opens with a chapter from Mezzrow's 1946 memoir Really the Blues, co-authored by Bernard Wolfe. It recounts the life of a jazzman in an era when Prohibition made all jazz musicians employees of bootleggers: "our whole jazz music was, in a way, practically the theme song of the underworld because thanks to prohibition, about the only places we could play like we wanted were illegal dives. The gangsters had their dirty grabbers on our music too, just like they kept a death grip on everything else in this boobyhatch of a country."

Mezzrow's hipster lingo makes his story come alive: "The nation was committing mass suicide--it was like a slimy snake blowing its top, writhing and wriggling with the fits, beginning to chew up its own tail. Sure I was surrounded by a race of gangsters running amuck, a hundred million blowtops, born with ice cubes for hearts and the appetites of a cannibal. 'They devour one another, and cannot even digest themselves.' Nietzsche said that."

Mezz's life was making him sick. Every night he had barbequed ribs and swilled "terrible rotgut by the barrel." He had the fear. He had become terrified of cutthroat gangsters, especially after Joe E. Lewis a star singer had his throat slit after being warned by a club owner Machine Gun McGurn not to take a higher paying gig at a rival club. (Lewis survived, rather miraculously, becoming a popular comedian. See Sinatra get his throat slit as Lewis in "The Joker Is Wild.")

So the Mezz did what he had to do and got on a boat to Europe. In 1920s Paris, this middle class Jewish boy from Chicago reinvented history yet again, in the company of Czarist emigres, tango-dancing gigolos, streetwise prostitutes, and virtuoso gypsy musicians.

Today being a hipster is an option. It looks cool and desirable. The stance still connotes intellect, sexuality, and street smarts. But for the original paleo-hipsters like Mezz Mezzrow hipsterism wasn't fashion statement. They weren't playing. They were wild things who became hip because their inner Darwin told them it was the only way to survive, physically and mentally, and thus they created a lifestyle and a language that lives on today. Dig?