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Posts Tagged ‘Beatniks’


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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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! 

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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.

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Washington may have had its Art Buchwald, London its J.B. Morton (“Beachcomber”) and Dublin the mercurial Myles Na gCopaleen, but few cities can have been as fortunate as San Francisco in having a chronicler (no pun intended) as prolific, urbane and popular as Herb Caen who wrote in its daily newspapers about life in the city, for almost sixty years.  With more than 16,000 columns of over 1,000 words each, lifelong friend, author and restaurateur, Barnaby Conrad, estimated that if “laid end to end, his columns would stretch 5.6 miles, from the Ferry Building to the Golden Gate Bridge”.

Herbert Eugene Caen was born on 3rd April 1916 in Sacramento, though he claimed to have been conceived on the Marina in San Francisco during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition as his parents spent the summer there “complaining about the cold”.

He joined the Sacramento Union as a sports reporter in 1932 on graduating from high school.  Four years later he was hired to write a radio column for the San Francisco Chronicle, beginning an association that was to last for 50 of the next 61 years.

On the scrapping of the radio column he persuaded the editor, Paul Smith, that he could write a daily column on the city, and  It’s News to Me duly debuted on 5th July 1938, appearing thereafter for six days a week.

When the U.S. entered the Second World War in 1942 he joined the Air Force, assigned to communications, and reached the rank of captain.  Returning to his Chronicle column, he continued to record and comment upon the foibles of local government and personailities.

Caen often referred to San Francisco as Baghdad-by-the-Bay,  a term he coined to reflect the city’s exotic multiculturism.  A collection of his essays bearing the same title was published in 1949, going through seven printings.  In 1953 he published the book Don’t Call it Frisco after an Examiner news item of the same name on 3rd April 1918 when Judge Mogan, presiding in a divorce case, stated that “No one refers to San Francisco by that title except people from Los Angeles”.  Emperor Norton had previously raged against the use of the term and issued one of his imperial proclamations to that effect.

However, a year later, Caen left the Chronicle for higher paid work at the San Francisco Examiner, for which he worked until 1958 when he was persuaded to return to his former employer on the promise of a better salary.  His “homecoming” column was published on 15th January of that year.

In 1976 he published One Man’s San Francisco, a fine collection of some of the best writing from his columns.  In 1988, the fiftieth anniversary of the column was marked by a special edition of the Chronicle’s “Sunday Punch”.  At the age of 75 he decided to slow down by reducing his output from six to five days a week!

Caen was hugely popular and a highly influential figure in San Francisco society.  He was described by the Chronicle as a “major wit and unwavering liberal who could be charming, outspoken and, at times, disagreeable.”

He called his work “three-dot journalism”, in reference to the ellipses by which he separated his column’s short items, all composed on his “Loyal Royal” typewriter.

His writing was imbued with a gentle, dry wit and an intimate knowledge of the politics, society and culture of his adopted city and the wider Bay Area. Hardly a show, party or any other significant event in San Francisco was complete without Caen’s gregarious presence, and his clever, sometimes acerbic, comments on it the next morning in his column.  Conrad said that “he seemed to know everyone in the world; he somehow made them honorary San Franciscans and let us, his readers, have the privilege of knowing them, too”.

His witticisms and plays on words would fill another ten features, but here are a few:

  • “the trouble with born-again Christians is that they are an even bigger pain the second time around”;
  • “I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there”;
  • “cockroaches and socialites are the only things that can stay up all night and eat anything”; and
  • “the only thing wrong with immortality is that it tends to go on forever”.

The Bay Bridge was “the car-strangled spanner”, City Hall “Silly Hall” and Berkeley was “Berserkeley”.

Whilst many of his invented words have passed into history, others have become not only synonymous with San Francisco but entered the everyday language.  On 2nd April 1958, in a Pocketful of Notes, he reported on a party hosted by 50 “Beatniks” which spread to “over 250 bearded cats and kits”.  This is the first known use of the word.  And during the Summer of Love in 1967 he contributed more than anybody to popularising the term “hippie”.

In 1996 he was the recipient of a special award from the Pulitzer Prize Board which acclaimed his “extraordinary and continuing contribution as a voice and conscience of the city”.  On 14th June of the same year 75,000 people, including Walter Cronkite, Robin Williams, Willie Mays, Don  Johnson and Mayor Willie Brown who presided over the event, celebrated Herb Caen Day.

He espoused many liberal causes over his career, including a life long opposition to the death penalty.  He was also one of the first mainstream newspaper men to question the Vietnam War.  But it is to his beloved San Francisco that we return for one of his most passionate campaigns, namely to have the hideous and excessively busy Embarcadero Freeway, or “Dambarcadero” as he called it, demolished.  Success came, but from an unexpected source.  The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 damaged it so severely that the decision was taken to pull it all down.  A three mile sweep  of the Embarcadero is now named “Herb Caen Way” in his honour.  The wide promenade is the most eastern street in San Francisco, curving round its northeast corner, proceeding along the waterfront, and ending near AT & T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, the team Caen adored.

Despite a terminal lung-cancer diagnosis, Caen continued to write almost until his death on 1st February 1997, though his output understandably shrunk over time. His funeral six days later was held in the Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill, attended by 250 people with hundreds more outside listening to the hymns and eulogies over loudspeaker.

Caen had willed to the city a fireworks display which was given in Aquatic Park in front of Ghiradelli Square, concluding with a pyrotechnic image of a typewriter on the bay.  This tribute was attended by many of his friends and fans, who gathered on Herb Caen Way… on the Embarcadero, lit candles protected from the wind by dixie cups, and walked north along the waterfront to Aquatic Park.

And all this for a local hack!

John Steinbeck wrote that he “made a many-faceted character of the city of San Francisco….It is very probable that Herb’s city will be the one that is remembered”.

But the last fitting words should be left to Caen himself:

“One day if I go to heaven…I’ll look around and say ‘It ain’t bad, but it ain’t San Francisco'”.

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