Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S Burroughs, Greenwich Village, North Beach…
What should be brought to mind from these words if not THE BEAT GENERATION?
For those who aren’t caught up on their post-WWII/ pre-Hippie literary history, let me explain via The Encyclopedia Britannica what “The Beat”s were:
“Beat movement, also called Beat Generation, American social and literary movement originating in the 1950s and centered in the bohemian artist communities of San Francisco’s North Beach, Los Angeles’ Venice West, and New York City’s Greenwich Village. Its adherents, self-styled as “beat” (originally meaning “weary,” but later also connoting a musical sense, a “beatific” spirituality, and other meanings) and derisively called “beatniks,” expressed their alienation from conventional, or “square,” society by adopting an almost uniform style of seedy dress, manners, and “hip” vocabulary borrowed from jazz musicians. Generally apolitical and indifferent to social problems, they advocated personal release, purification, and illumination through the heightened sensory awareness that might be induced by drugs, jazz, sex, or the disciplines of Zen Buddhism.”
Beat poets sought to liberate poetry from academic preciosity and bring it “back to the streets.” They read their poetry, sometimes to the accompaniment of progressive jazz, in such Beat strongholds as the Coexistence Bagel Shop and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. The verse was frequently chaotic and liberally sprinkled with obscenities but was sometimes, as in the case of Allen Ginsber’s Howl (1956), ruggedly powerful and moving. Ginsberg and other major figures of the movement, such as the novelist Jack Kerouac, advocated a kind of free, unstructured composition in which the writer put down his thoughts and feelings without plan or revision—to convey the immediacy of experience—an approach that led to the production of much undisciplined and incoherent verbiage on the part of their imitators.
And I am obsessed.
The first “Beat” novel I read was Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (1957)when I was nineteen years old, and I was immediately struck by the poetic ease of the verbiage, the intense characters, and the incredibly descriptive scenes that seem to sprawl out in front of the reader.
Read this excerpt and if you don’t see what I mean, there is no help for you:
“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
So, it was obvious to me that when I went to San Francisco I had to make an effort to soak in the rich Beat history that exists there. Follow me, will you? On a journey through time and space and San Francisco’s North Beach – erm, uh, sorry.
For your reading pleasure, here is a run-down of top Beatnik must-sees when you visit The City By The Bay:
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers
The iconic store was founded in 1953 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin. The store slowly grew in popularity and size before it made national headlines in 1956 after Ferlinghetti agreed to publish Allen Ginsberg’s classic poem Howl as part of City Lights’ Pocket Poet Series. Howl, due to it’s themes of homosexuality and drug use, was quick to generate controversy, and after multiple attempts to stop shipment by authorities, as well as arrests and fines, the matter was taken to court on the grounds of “obscenity”. The judge was quick to cite the First Amendment on the matter however, and declared that Howl was not obscene, but had “redeeming social importance”. As with all things “rebellious”, the obscenity trial popularized the book and the bookstore, and to date over 1 million copies of Howl have been sold (nice try, The Man).
In 2001, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors made City Lights an official Historic Landmark for “playing a seminal role in the literary and cultural development of San Francisco and the nation”. This means that the building and its immediate surroundings must be preserved. A solid ruling because, as you may know, a bunch of techy fuckers infiltrated SF a few years ago, thereby gentrifying San Fran and stripping it of the grit, grime, art, and culture that it became so beautifully known for. If you go to SF now, you’ll witness the “death rattle” and a lot of sad people wearing Apple watches.
Visit City Lights:
261 Columbus Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133
OPEN 10:00 AM – 12:00 AM
The Beat Museum
An ode to the Beats. If you are at all interested in the Beat Writers (which I assume you are if you’ve read this far into this article), then I highly recommend visiting this museum. Not only does it have a lot of memorbilia regarding the beats, it also clearly defines the history surrounding them which includes other notable figures such as Ken Kesey and Neal Cassady.
Note for the wise: If you go there and have a chat with the owner, don’t mention that you’ve never seen the 2012 On The Road film simply because you can’t stand Kristen Stewart – he will go in to a tirade about how she once came into the museum and then he went out for dinner with her to talk Jack Kerouac and she was a lovely person and you should probably stop having opinions.
According to the Beat Museum’s website:
The Beat Museum is dedicated to spreading the spirit of The Beat Generation, which we define as tolerance, compassion and having the courage to live your individual truth.
The Beat Museum is home to an extensive collection of Beat memorabilia, including original manuscripts and first editions, letters, personal effects and cultural ephemera. Located in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, we occupy the same ground that was once the epicenter for Beat activity during the 1950s.
The Beat Museum has been independently owned and operated since its inception in 2003. We are dedicated to carrying on the Beat’s legacy by exposing their work to new audiences, encouraging journeys—both interior and exterior—and being a resource on how one person’s perspective can have meaning to many.
540 BROADWAY, SAN FRANCISCO
OPEN DAILY 10AM-7PM
Photo Source: Virtual Tourist (Because Apparently I forgot to take a picture).
Vesuvio / Kerouac Alley:
Constructed in 1948, Vesuvio is a quaint little bar on Columbus Avenue that was once the stomping grounds of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, Bob Dylan, Frances Ford Coppola, and yours truly. There are a lot of bars in San Francisco, but no others housed me more than Vesuvio did over the course of a week – probably due to the fact that they had a house beverage named…. wait for it…. the “Jack Kerouac”. It’s so clever I can’t even. Yum.
For a great story about my time at Vesuvio, check out San Fran Man.
Between Vesuvio and the aforementioned City Lights Bookstore is an alley – aptly named Jack Kerouac Alley (San Franciscans sure do love him if you care to notice). The alley contains engravings of great Western and Chinese poems – including inscriptions from famed poets such as John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou and Jack Kerouac (gasp). The idea for the alley came from our very own Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He proposed to the city that the alleyway be closed off to automobiles and repaved – and Mr. Ferlinghetti gets what Mr. Ferlinghetti wants.
255 Columbus Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94133
OPEN 6:00 AM – 2:00 AM (So you get a solid four-hour break to sober up)
Caffe Trieste is an Italian-themed coffee house that was erected in 1956 by Italy’s own Giovanni Giotta in North Beach (It should be noted that at the time, North Beach was the Little Italy of San Francisco). Because of his entrepreneurial efforts, Papa Gionni Giotta is known as The Espresso Pioneer – having been credited as the man who brought Espresso to the West Coast.
Common patrons of this cafe included Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who you can still spot here), Jack Kerouac, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso. In addition to these staples, Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of the screenplay for The Godfather while soaking up the vibes in Caffe Trieste.
Of course, I had to grab an espresso at this cute little cafe, and while I was in line, this long-haired hippie type came over to me and gave me a flyer to a poetry reading he was hosting the next week. My only thought was that if I lived in San Francisco full time I absolutely would have been there. C’est la vie.
Visit Caffe Trieste:
601 Vallejo St.
San Francisco, CA
Fri-Sat 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Sun-Thu 6:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
Tel: (415) EXbrook 2-6739
Photo Source: endoedibles.com
Feel inspired but don’t know where to start reading?
Here’s a starter to-read list for ya:
On The Road (1957)
The Dharma Bums (1958)
Big Sur (1962)
Howl (And Other Poems) (1956)
William S. Burroughs:
Naked Lunch (1959)
A Coney Island Of The Mind (1958)
So there it is! Your quick snapshot of the Beats in San Francisco.
Have you visited any of these sites? What would you recommend?