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…”

Final Thoughts On The Summer Of Love/San Francisco 1967

I have devoted my last 3 blogs to San Francisco, the city I still live in, from when I first moved here in April, in the spring of 1967 with my wife…. We arrived, by fate or coincidence, i have never been sure which, right before the Summer of Love in 1967, ensuring us first row, ground zero seats to the most incredible gathering of idealistic young people in one place at one time the world has ever witnessed…
The outpouring of good vibes, youthful optimism and limitless possibilities seemed to stretch beyond the horizon, we felt like there was no task too insurmountable, no problems were unsolvable, no way we could not change the world and make it a better place…
I have devoted a lot of time to these blogs because they evoked a definite twinge, or maybe a better word would be surge, of nostalgia in me for those heady times, one I am sure all my baby boomer generation have felt with and dealt with in one way or the other over the years…
Nostalgia, as defined by my Google sources is: “A sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.” That for me was definitely the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967, sometimes referred to as “the gathering of the tribes”….
We watched in awe and wonder from our fortuitously timed arrival in the spring as the city swelled and grew daily with an incredible influx of young people from all over the country as the months progressed, from all over the world, more and more every day…..
And when school let out in the summertime, it was like the original Gold Rush was back on! Newcomers poured in from every college, high school and every corner of the globe….We were on the cover of major media magazines like “Life” and “Time” which no longer even exist today, but both were very popular mainstream magazines that were both well read and influential in those days….
These magazines had the unenviable problem of describing the new youth movement and the mass migration of at least 100,000 young people into one former working class neighborhood in San Francisco, the Haight Ashbury, from the outside in, as it were…They were not privy to the feelings of being on the “inside”, as we were, and their bland, dismissive, generally negative stories did little to explain the unprecedented social phenomenon which was going on right under their noses…
They were not a part of what we all felt, because being on the outside looking in, as through a glass darkly, they were unable to grasp the ramifications and implications of the sheer mass of bright, talented, idealistic young people all gathered together in one place at one time…
I have described in my last blog how the sidewalks were always crowded, from the shops to the curb by hippies every day, but this was the most peaceful mob of young people imaginable….The air was full of good vibes, and the inescapable aroma of patchouli oil from the women (or chicks, as they were invariably referred to back then) combined with the marijuana fumes that both the dudes and the chicks smoked incessantly and casually, right out on the street, permeated the atmosphere…
If you were just walking the several blocks from Masonic and the Drogstore cafe to the top of the Haight at Stanyan street, to see and be seen, to look for old friends or make new ones, maybe to find a party or a place to stay for the night, to become a part of an impromptu “happening,” an unscheduled spontaneous event, you were constantly assailed by the whispered offers….
An oft repeated litany, almost a mantra on every block as you made your way through the crowded sidewalks “Lids, acid, speed” from the drug dealers who lived on the streets….Walking down Haight street that summer was truly a “magical mystery tour.”
In those innocent days, an ounce of potent Mexican marijuana cost as little as $7-$10 dollars, the acid, or LSD was mind boggling potent and cheap, from $3-$5 a hit, and we had sadly not yet learned the lesson that “speed kills.” It was sold in $5-$10 plastic stamp envelopes that you took home, dumped out and chopped up on a mirror into “lines,” and snorted up your nose to get a momentary lift, or buzz…..
It was like a giant open air drug bazaar, and the police were helpless to stop it, they were hopelessly outnumbered, so they mostly just threw their hands up in the air and tolerated it, and they usually mostly contented themselves to containing it to the street itself except for the most flagrant cases…
I remember that Gray Line Tours actually ran tour buses up and down the street, so the tourists could photograph and see for themselves what this new mind blowing youth movement that the media was shamelessly exploiting every day was all about…
The assembled hippies invariable booed the buses, we felt like we were being put on display like circus freaks, or exhibited like animals in the zoo….Many of the tour bus participants, especially the younger ones who were eventually able to escape from their parents, later returned and joined the movement….
They too became part of the ever shifting kaleidoscopic street scenes that were always developing, merging and coalescing and then falling back upon themselves that happened not only on a daily basis, but also changed in fluid continuity from minute to minute…
There was always drama, pathos, romance and excitement on the street at any given moment, on any given day…. Having joined, they were then able to jeer in turn at the gawkers on the tour buses they had once been a part of…
There was always an electricity in the air too, when you walked down Haight street in those days, for whatever reason, there was a feeling that great things were happening or were about to happen at any minute….It was sort of like that Bob Dylan song, “Tangled Up in Blue”: “There was music in the cafes at night, and revolution in the air”….
It was like that all the time on Haight street during the Summer of Love in 1967, every day and every night; life seemed like one big street party, a festival of life and peace and love, and it seemed to us in our youthful exuberance and cloaked by our aura of invincible immortality we all shared  that it would never end…
Of course all good things must come to an end, and as the summer turned to fall, the vast majority of the young people who had assembled there for the Summer of Love went back to their colleges and high schools and homes back east and around the world and resumed their lives, but they would never be the same again….The scene on Haight street inevitably collapsed, mostly because of the drugs, but to say it was ultimately a failed social experiment is to completely miss the point….
The life that we lived, the love that we made, the friendships that we formed, the alliances that we forged, the ideas like world peace and brotherhood that were all conceived and formulated during the Summer of Love all went back across the country with the returning hippies….
These ambassadors of peace and love went back home and spread the new seeds of tolerance, understanding and a new way of thinking throughout the entire country, permeating and changing our old society into something new, different and exciting…
What else can I say, you really had to be there to fully grasp the myriad things that went down on a daily basis! It was a constantly revolving door of evolving new concepts and ideas and beliefs, and it changed daily if not hourly….
But even if you were unable to be there, the permutations and combinations and implications of all that youthful optimism gathered together in one place at one time, the Summer of Love in San Francisco in 1967, has reverberated throughout the decades and left an indelible mark for the better on the world of today…..