The Beatniks And North Beach

Since my daughter and granddaughter are in town, we are continuingCity Lights Bookstore1 City Lights Bookstore Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg

our sight seeing, tripping around the city, and yesterday we went to the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco….We did the obligatory trip down Lombard street, the “crookedest street in the world” and visited Coit Tower, but our main emphasis was North Beach…. This an Italian neighborhood, primarily, and boasts many fine Italian restaurants, but is perhaps best well known as the original home of the Beatniks….

The Beatniks were the fore runners of and set the moral and intellectual groundwork for the hippie movement, so much so that you can say they almost morphed into the hippie movement…When I first visited San Francisco, way back in the fall of 1966, I was steeped in Beatnik culture and had read and reread the classic Jack Kerouac novel, “On the Road” many times, it was like my bible….

I stayed in a cheap residential hotel on Broadway, which is sort of the dividing line between North Beach and Chinatown…I drank extremely strong espresso coffee in tiny white mugs in little dive coffee shops and hung out at all the North Beach haunts that I had read about in “On the Road,” like Mike’s Pool Hall and the very famous and still in existence City Lights bookstore on Columbus Avenue, right off of Broadway in the heart of North Beach …..The Beatniks philosophy was best expressed by Kerouac himself:

In “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation” Kerouac criticized what he saw as a distortion of his visionary, spiritual ideas:

“The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way—a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word “beat” spoken on street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America—beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction.

We’d even heard old 1910 Daddy Hipsters of the streets speak the word that way, with a melancholy sneer. It never meant juvenile delinquents, it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization…”

In 1995, film scholar Ray Carney wrote about the authentic beat attitude as differentiated from stereotypical portrayals of the beatnik in the media:

“Much of Beat culture represented a negative stance rather than a positive one. It was animated more by a vague feeling of cultural and emotional displacement, dissatisfaction, and yearning, than by a specific purpose or program… It was many different, conflicting, shifting states of mind.”

“Since 1958, the terms Beat Generation and Beat have been used to describe the anti materialistic literary movement that began with Kerouac in the 1940s, stretching on into the 1960s. The Beat philosophy of anti materialism and soul searching influenced 1960s musicians such as Bob Dylan, the early Pink Floyd and The Beatles….

However, the soundtrack of the beat movement was the modern jazz pioneered by saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie that the media dubbed Bebop. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg spent much of their time in New York jazz clubs, shooting the breeze and digging the music. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis rapidly became what Ginsberg dubbed “Secret Heroes” to this group of aesthetes.

The Beat authors borrowed much from the jazz/hipster slang of the ’40s, peppering their works with words such as “square,” “cats,” “cool,” and “dig.” But jazz meant much more than just a vocabulary to the Beat writers. To them, jazz was a way of life, a completely different & improvisational way to approach the creative process.”

The Beatniks were the spiritual and inspirational bridge to the hippie generation, and no visit to North Beach would be complete without a visit to the shrine of the Beats, City Lights Bookstore, so of course we stopped in there… It was founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Both the store and the owners became widely known following the obscenity trial of Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s influential collection “Howl and Other Poems” (City Lights, 1956).

Even when I first visited the famous North Beach hangouts of my idols, the Beatniks, in the fall of 1966, there was already the beginning of the migration to the Haight Ashbury…When I returned for good to San Francisco in the following spring, April of 1967, the Haight Ashbury was locked and loaded, primed for the famous Summer of Love, so I was lucky enough to have bridged two major generational movements in my lifetime…All through dumb luck and good timing…I was a product of my generation…

I was at ground zero for the cultural/social/musical revolution of the Haight Ashbury in the Summer of Love in 1967, I was a wannabe Beatnik and an original, at the time, now retired hippie, and I wouldn’t trade a moment of it…

You really had to be there…and luckily I was! As Marilyn Hopkins sang in her famous 1968 song:

“Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
La la la la…”

12 thoughts on “The Beatniks And North Beach

  1. Great song! 🙂 I’d love to visit the City Lights Bookstore one day. I’ve just started reading some ‘beat’ literature and it wasn’t until you pointed out the relationship, that I even stopping to think how Jazz had influenced people’s attitudes/writing. Great post!


    1. Thanks for your comment, Annette! I have always loved that song, by Marilyn Hopkins “Those were the days” too, it really encapsulates an era and an attitude….And it’s true that the jazz influenced the beatniks heavily, and that the beatniks influenced the hippies heavily, and that the hippies impacted the society as a whole in so many profound and long lasting ways….I guess it’s all part of the interconnected chain of life….


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