Many who have read my pieces on San Francisco will have concluded that Haight-Ashbury is my spiritual home, and they are probably right, principally because of the music that exploded out of there in the mid-sixties. But it is the cultural movement that pre-dated the hippies by a decade and more that most plays to my sensibilities.
The Beats, with their emphasis on free expression in literature, poetry, music, theatre and lifestyle (sex and drugs), were, whether they knew it or not at the time, the major inspiration for those young people in London and other urban areas in Britain who flocked to coffee bars and folk clubs in the late fifties and early sixties, just at the time that I was becoming aware of wider societal issues. Moreover, many of the rock stars that, a decade later, I worshipped, for example Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead and Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane, learnt their trade in the coffee houses of the Bay Area, heavily influenced by the events a few miles away.
Although the Beat Generation originally emerged in New York with the early works of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, it was San Francisco’s North Beach, the “Little Italy” neighbourhood nestling beneath Telegraph Hill and rubbing shoulders with bustling Chinatown, where it arguably took root.
And, although North Beach may not quite be the Italian enclave it was half a century ago, the influence of the Beats remains to this day. Certain landmarks are place of pilgrimage for both my generation and anyone who believes in free expression and alternative perspectives on the issues of the day.
My walk begins at my favourite San Francisco watering hole, Vesuvio, interestingly still called a café rather than a bar, and not just because it is where Neal Casady, inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s classic Beat novel On The Road, first met the writer at a poetry reading in 1955.
A few groggy steps across Jack Kerouac Alley stands one of America’s most famous and important bookstores, City Lights, which celebrates its sixtieth birthday this year. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, now 94 and San Francisco’s unofficial poet laureate, and Peter D. Martin, first opened its doors at around the time of the coronation of the new Queen, Elizabeth II, across the Atlantic.
I never leave San Francisco without visiting the bookstore and coming away with at least one book. Many of the more interesting and challenging books on the city’s past, present and future are published by City Lights and they are not easy to get hold of elsewhere. Two and counting at present on this trip!
With the addition of The Beat Museum on Broadway in 2003, the devotees’ experience of the area has been enriched still further. Aside from the fascinating exhibit in the museum itself, the adjoining shop sells an amazing collection of books, DVDs, posters, t shirts and other Beat memorabilia. Whilst I managed, at least on my previous visit, to resist the blandishments of a signed book by Wavy Gravy at $45 (but there’s still another trip), I still bought another. If distance makes visiting the museum itself out of the question, they run an excellent online store too.
Although I am not qualified to say whether Broadway, which cuts across Columbus, has the same caché as it once had (though I think I do know the answer to that), there can be no question that the days of Lenny Bruce’s risqué comedy act at the hungry i and Carol Doda’s historic breast baring at the Condor are long past.
North Beach is still awash with coffee houses, many of which were haunts of unemployed writers and musicians in the heyday of the Beats. Café Trieste is perhaps the most prestigious with its live opera, oh so cool attitude and blisteringly strong espresso. Seats are hard to come by for all those reasons – well, at least inside!
I think it’s only fitting that we should finish back at Vesuvio – I hear that Bob Dylan has dropped in for an espresso.
And I’ll leave you with an image that describes the Beat’s relationship to polite society like no other.