Driv­ing the Beat road

In a trip along the Cal­i­for­nia coast, five rem­nants of the lit­er­ary gen­er­a­tion — in their 80s and 90s — are found at work, ex­tend­ing their legacy

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY JEFF WEISS IN SAN FRANCISCO

If they’re starv­ing, the best minds of this gen­er­a­tion can or­der $19.50 lob­ster rolls at the for­mer site of the Six Gallery in San Francisco. To­day, it houses Tacko, where cus­tomers can pacify them­selves by lis­ten­ing to Phil Collins or gaz­ing at a wall map of Nantucket. Old framed copies of Yacht­ing Mag­a­zine hang from the new walls.

Slightly more than 60 years ago, the de­but public read­ing of Allen Gins­berg’s “Howl” con­se­crated this Ma­rina Dis­trict land­mark. Now, you’ll find a bronze com­mem­o­ra­tive in front of the nau­ti­cal-themed res­tau­rant that serves New Eng­land-meets-“Mex­i­can-street-style” fu­sion to bay­ing tech bros and yoga mom Yelpers.

In pre­vi­ous in­car­na­tions, it was an au­to­body shop, then an art gallery where any­where from 25 to 150 peo­ple (the num­bers fluc­tu­ate in ev­ery retelling) gath­ered on the night of Oct. 7, 1955, to hear po­ems read by Gary Sny­der, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Philip La­man­tia and Gins­berg.

Jack Ker­ouac was fa­mously present, wine-drunk on Burgundy. “Go! Go!” he kept shout­ing. The fol­low­ing morn­ing, City Lights pub­lisher and poet Lawrence Fer­linghetti ca­bled Gins­berg: “I greet you at the be­gin­ning of a great ca­reer. When do I get the man­u­script?” That even­ing’s fall­out led di­rectly to the full flow­er­ing of the San Francisco Po­etry Re­nais­sance, the cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion of the 1960s, mass lib­er­a­tions of sex­u­al­ity and lit­er­a­ture, and, even­tu­ally, a James Franco film.

Late last spring, I drove up the coast from Los An­ge­les in search of sur­viv­ing mem­bers of the Beat Gen­er­a­tion. In­ter­view times had been pro­cured with the po­ets Fer­linghetti (now 98), McClure (84), Sny­der (87), and Diane di Prima (82), as well as Beat-adjacent nov­el­ist Her­bert Gold (93). When I told peo­ple about my plan, the most com­mon re­sponse was, “They’re still alive?” Af­ter all, the loose col­lec­tive’s three most

fa­mous avatars are long gone. Wil­liam S. Bur­roughs and Gins­berg died within four months of each other in 1997. Af­ter chronic al­co­holism, Ker­ouac’s or­gans fi­nally burst in 1969.

Those three were the icons that later fig­ured in Gap ads and a Kurt Cobain col­lab­o­ra­tion. They of­fered equal in­spi­ra­tion to ge­niuses in­clud­ing Bob Dy­lan and David Bowie and ev­ery ar­ro­gant fool in your col­lege cre­ative-writ­ing sem­i­nar who ac­tu­ally be­lieved that “first thought, best thought” ap­plied to him. I was one of those fools.

More than a half cen­tury af­ter their emer­gence, the Beats still of­fer up wild style, a sense of free­dom and won­der for the nat­u­ral world al­most un­ri­valed in post­war lit­er­a­ture. But their work has per­haps been more mis­in­ter­preted than nearly any lit­er­ary group in his­tory — par­tially be­cause there was no con­sis­tent ide­ol­ogy bind­ing them. As Fer­linghetti put it suc­cinctly: “The Beat Gen­er­a­tion was just Allen Gins­berg’s friends.”

The stereo­type largely stems from the un­shaven ro­man­ti­cism of Ker­ouac’s “On the Road,” the manic alien­ation of “Howl” and sub­se­quent Time/Life car­i­ca­tures of Beat­niks — the hip­ster mil­len­nial scape­goats of their time. While re­port­ing in Oak­land, Calif., a girl with a side pony­tail be­rated me in a Mardi Gras-themed bar for glo­ri­fy­ing “worth­less straight white men of priv­i­lege.” Yet the truth is more com­plex and nu­anced than can be cap­tured in a drunken con­ver­sa­tion or two-hour adap­ta­tion star­ring Kristen Ste­wart.

Rad­i­cally di­verse and tol­er­ant for the Eisen­hower era, the Beat po­ets en­com­passed all races, gen­ders, re­li­gions, classes and sex­ual pref­er­ences. If Ker­ouac con­sumes the pop­u­lar myth, a more ac­cu­rate por­trayal in­cludes LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) and Bob Kauf­man, whom the French branded the black Amer­i­can Rim­baud. Some shared the re­gret­table misog­yny of the pe­riod, but the broader con­stel­la­tion pro­duced en­dur­ing writ­ing from di Prima, Anne Wald­man, Joyce John­son and Ruth Weiss (all still liv­ing), and Joanne Kyger, who died in March.

You can see their pro­gres­sive slant in con­tem­po­rary at­ti­tudes to­ward drug-and-en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy, same-sex mar­riage and cre­ative ex­pres­sion. Dur­ing the Atomic Era, they were con­sid­ered ec­centrics at best, pari­ahs at worst. Here in the iPhone age, they seem en­light­ened. The world they proph­e­sied only par­tially took root: The hip­pies they in­spired got rich; Steve Jobs swag­ger­jacked Ker­ouac for an Ap­ple com­mer­cial; the Bay Area that the Beats once elec­tri­fied has been ter­raformed into an an­thro­po­mor­phic app.

San Francisco isn’t merely un­der siege from gen­tri­fi­ca­tion; it’s been sacked. The me­dian one-bed­room apart­ment costs $3,500 a month. To quote Fer­linghetti again, the city once re­sem­bled an off­shore re­pub­lic in the Mediter­ranean. Now, it’s a Bo­hemian theme park. And the poet owns its lit­er­ary Dis­ney­land — City Lights, the North Beach na­tional trea­sure that orig­i­nally pub­lished “Howl.” (Fer­linghetti later stood trial on ob­scen­ity charges and won.) It re­mains a rite of pas­sage for ana­log pil­grims.

Many memento mori still adorn this one­time lo­cus of Beat life. There’s the Beat Mu­seum, the lone Amer­i­can shrine solely ded­i­cated to a lit­er­ary move­ment, hous­ing as­sorted ephemera, first edi­tions and the 1949 Hudson used in the 2012 “On the Road” film. There’s Ve­su­vio Cafe, the charm­ing 68-year old ex-artists bar where stained-glass lamps and yel­low­ing Beat col­lages dec­o­rate the walls. You can sip a “Jack Ker­ouac” (in­gre­di­ents: rum, tequila, cranberry juice, lime) and hear a wait­ress retell an old story about a visit from the bel­liger­ent and flir­ta­tious poet Gregory Corso, now more than a decade and a half in the grave.

But the jazz bars that once hosted po­etry read­ings and spon­ta­neous jams now are mostly strip clubs and tourist traps. No young writer with­out a trust fund can af­ford to live near the cross­roads known as “Po­ets Cor­ner.” But for at least a lit­tle while longer, a few flesh and mar­row leg­ends sur­vive. You just have to know their ad­dresses.

NAT FARBMAN/THE LIFE PIC­TURE COL­LEC­TION/GETTY IMAGES

ABOVE: Poet Lawrence Fer­linghetti reads from his first book, “Pic­tures of the Gone World,” in 1957 at the Cel­lar in San Francisco.

ALLEN GINS­BERG LLC/COR­BIS VIA GETTY IMAGES

ABOVE, FROM LEFT: Bob Don­lon, Neal Cas­sady, Allen Gins­berg, Robert LaVigne and Lawrence Fer­linghetti out­side Fer­linghetti’s City Lights book­store in San Francisco’s North Beach neigh­bor­hood in early 1956. Later that year, Gins­berg’s “Howl” would be in the win­dow, ig­nit­ing a con­tro­versy and a move­ment.

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