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