Generally speaking, counter-culture describes the values and norms of behavior of a cultural group or subculture in conflict with those of the cultural mainstream of the day, a visible phenomenon that reaches critical mass and persists for some time.
The Beat Generation was composed of a group of American poets and writers who first congregated in New York and later joined their West Coast brothers and sisters. The movement became prominent in the 1950s and 1960s. The Beats engaged in spontaneity, passionate dialogue, open sexuality, and experimentation with drugs. Their work reflected this and it began to infiltrate the established literary magazines. The influence of the Beats on postmodern literature is undeniable.
I grew up in the 1950s, in an era in which you were expected to be a logically thinking, level-headed individual whose purpose was to work hard, raise a family, and be patriotic to your country. It was a society of rules, order, and materialism. There was little if any room for individualistic behavior.
As the Fifties progressed, the Beat movement began to emerge. It had its roots in New York (Greenwich Village) and San Francisco (North Beach). The Beats openly challenged and defied the established order. They spoke out in opposition to what America represented, as they rebelled against everything the Establishment stood for: the repression of dissent in the name of militarism, racism, materialism, and conformity.
Bob Kaufman personifies the true meaning of the Beat spirit. He was one of the original Beat voices to come out of the Fifties and is rightfully considered by many to be the most influential black poet of his era, though his poetry transcends race identification. Like many of the Beats, he started out in New York and later found his way to San Francisco’s North Beach. While Allen Ginsberg was reading his poetry to large audiences, Kaufman chose another path, becoming the undisputed street poet, who frequented the Co-existence Bagel Shop, located on Grant and Green. His poetic technique resembles the surreal school of poets, ranging from a powerful, lyrical vision to the more prophetic tone found in his political poems. Kaufman considered himself a Buddhist. He believed a poet had a call to a higher order. He lived a life of spirituality. He denounced materialism.
People flocked to the Co-existence Bagel Shop in the hope of seeing him read. He delighted the audience by jumping up on one of the tables and reciting a newly written poem, or by reading poems from the master poets, such as Eliot, Pound, and Blake. When he read, there was total silence. The audience hung on his every word. His fate was sealed, however, the day he wrote on the walls of the Bagel Shop, “Adolph Hitler, growing tired of fooling around with Eva Braun, and burning Jews, moved to San Francisco and became a cop.” This was the beginning of his regularly being harassed by the police and frequently receiving beatings at the old Kearny Street Hall of Justice. By the late Sixties he had fallen victim to drugs and forced shock treatments at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and was but a shell of what he had been in the Fifties.
The Beats were among the first to fictionalize and embellish their lives to readers worldwide who thrived on the experiences of the authors. By the late Fifties they had cemented their role in the New American Counterculture but, much to their dismay, it was their “lifestyle,” rather than their art, that began to take center stage. What distinguished them from ordinary malcontents was their talent and inner conviction. They represented a large contingency of restless and disenchanted young people around the world. But it was also a time when the media began to mass-produce and market the “ideal” America. The media began its drum roll to destroy a culture revolution and turn it into a cultural fad. The word Beat began to lose its significance as part of an artistic sub-culture and became instead a label for anyone choosing to live simply and humbly as a Bohemian, or who acted rebelliously. In 1958, the word beatnik was coined by the poet Bob Kaufman to characterize the physical allure of the Beats, instead of their social and intellectual radicalism.
When I returned from Panama in 1958, the Beats were already beginning to move out of San Francisco’s North Beach, migrating to places like Mexico and Venice Beach, California. The term beatnik became the brunt of jokes, rather than representative of a serious revolution. The mass media depicted the only two things publishers and tycoons wanted to exploit about the Beats: their image and their lifestyle.
In order to comprehend the creative surge that took place in North Beach during this time, it is first necessary to understand the literary tradition of San Francisco. It was only natural that the Beat movement flourished there, where it blossomed and came to fruition. But the truth is a literary Bohemia existed in San Francisco long before Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and other Beat souls came to the city.
The North Beach creative hub took place in a six-block radius from lower to upper Grant Avenue, centered around a large number of bars, cafés and coffee houses, frequented by poets, artists, and jazz musicians. While Grant Avenue was the center stage of creativity, the bevy of Beat oriented cafés and bars actually extended from Broadway and Columbus, and all the way to the produce district, where the self-proclaimed king of the Beats, Big Daddy Nord, held court in a large warehouse. Eric’s Pad, as it was known, remained open at all hours. You could walk in any night of the week and see blacks and whites freely mingling and dancing to the music of bongo and conga drums. On the upstairs roof there was a string of mattresses, with couples fornicating in full view of onlookers, some quite agog, others blasé.
But two decades earlier, San Francisco was already thriving with creative energy, during what was known as the “San Francisco Renaissance,” a designation for a range of poetic activity centered throughout the city. Kenneth Rexroth, often referred to as the “Father of the Beats,” is also generally considered to be the founding father of the Renaissance. Rexroth was a prominent second-generation modernist poet who corresponded with Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. He came to the city from Chicago, where he had operated a jazz and poetry tea room known as the Green Mask, which housed an upstairs brothel, right in line with San Francisco’s bawdy history. Rexroth was not only a poet and writer but also a union organizer. He hung out on San Francisco’s Waterfront encouraging dockworkers to become union members.
Rexroth held regular readings in his apartment, located over a record store in the Fillmore District. Among the many poets who frequented the meetings was Philip Whalen, who later appeared in Kerouac’s novels as “Ben Fagin” and “Warren Coughlin.” The poets who attended the meetings represented a wide range of writing styles, from the ballads of Helen Adams to the bawdy rhymes of poet and filmmaker James Broughton. The readings were a haven for both young and old poets as well as visiting luminaries.
If Rexroth was the father of the Beats, then Madeline Gleason was the founding mother. During the 1940s, both Rexroth and Gleason befriended a group of younger Berkeley poets, including Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan.
In 1952, Dylan Thomas came to the city and captivated a standing-room audience, which came to see the Welshman drunkenly read his work. A year later, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin opened City Lights Bookstore, partly to finance City Lights Journal, which, at the time, was publishing the surreal poet Philip Lamantia.
When Ginsberg came to the city in the early Fifties it was only natural he would find his way to Rexroth’s weekly gatherings. In 1954, Ginsberg had not yet acknowledged his homosexuality, but this same year he met Peter Orlovsky, and the two became life partners. During this same time, Rexroth was reading his poetry to jazz accompaniment at a small cellar bar on Green and Columbus streets, while Jack Spicer presided over the famous “Blabbermouth Night” at a bar called “The Place” on upper Grant Avenue. It was around this time that Ginsberg began writing the first lines of his epic poem Howl. Encouraged by Kerouac, Ginsberg began searching for a place to showcase the poem. Rexroth organized a reading at the Six Gallery, located at Fillmore and Greenwich streets. The reading featured Ginsberg, Snyder, Whalen, Michael McClure, and Philip Lamantia, with Rexroth serving as master of ceremonies. Kerouac was not on the bill but did attend the event. The reading drew a large crowd, with Kerouac drunkenly passing large jugs of red wine through the audience. Ginsberg was the last poet to read and, urged on by Kerouac, gave a passionate reading, a reading which held the crowd spellbound and which launched him on his way to fame.
The most important accomplishment of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Cassady was to make rebellious young people throughout the land aware that there was others out there who felt the way they felt. This was expressed by Diane di Prima, who is quoted as saying that Howl encouraged her and others to step forward and make their voices heard. She was in effect heralding the cause of a new clan of poets who would become known as the Beat Generation.
The single most important event that helped the Beats gain notoriety occurred on March 25, 1957, when agents from the U.S. Customs Bureau seized the first shipment of Howl and declared the book obscene. Ferlinghetti and Shig Muro (the manager of the City Lights)) were charged with selling obscene literature. The American Civil Liberties Union intervened, providing free legal assistance. Writers and critics testified on behalf of City Lights, and Judge Clayton Horn set a precedent by ruling that if a book has “the slightest redeeming social importance, it is protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. and California Constitutions and therefore can not be declared obscene.” This legal precedent allowed D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer to be published by Grove Press.
It’s equally important to note the influence of jazz on the work of the Beats. Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus were among the many jazz musicians to whom the Beats were drawn. In the late Fifties and into the Sixties, Jazz was central to what was happening. Wes Montgomery and Cal Tjader were very much part of the scene. The Fillmore District, a largely black community, was known as “Bop City,” a hangout for musician such as Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
It was common to see New York jazz musicians visiting San Francisco’s Fillmore District, and it was here that musicians and lovers of jazz gathered in the early hours of the morning. The Beats and bebop were like twins. Carter Monroe points out, “When discussing the Bebop movement in terms of Beat Literature, you are talking about the freedom it represents.”
A great deal of Beat literature in terms of influence is all about content and challenging social mores. Bebop challenged the existing parameters of music. You can see this influence in the work of Jack Kerouac and perhaps even more so in the work of the poet Bob Kaufman. In North Beach, Kaufman was regarded as the Bebop poet, and much of his poetry is infused with jazz.
Today both literary critics and academics alike recognize the Beats as legitimate poets, writers, and artists, but the legitimacy did not come without a cost. As is often the case, success comes with a price tag, and so it came for some of the Beats. Many of the Beat poets were co-opted into the system. Ginsberg applied for and received not one but three NEA writing grants and he sold his archives to Stanford University for over a million dollars. William Burroughs made commercials and had a small role in a movie. Ferlinghetti’s once avant-garde bookstore can’t be distinguished today from other commercial bookstores, and he is second only to Ginsberg in marketing himself, commanding thousands of dollars for a reading. It was poets such as Jack Kerouac, Micheline, Kaufman, Corso and Ray Bremser who remained true to the Beat spirit right up until the time of their deaths. And while today’s youth remain intrigued by, if not directly influenced by, the Beat Generation, there hasn’t been a real counter-culture revolution in the U.S. since the hippie phenomenon, which was a youth movement that began in the U.S. during the early 1960s and, as was the case with the Beats, soon spread around the world.
The word hippie is said to have derived from the word “hipster” and was initially used to describe beatniks who had moved into San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. These people embraced the counter-culture values of the Beat Generation, forming their own communities, listening to Psychedelic Rock, embracing sexual revolution, and experimenting with drugs like LSD, grass, and peyote in order to explore alternate states of consciousness.
In 1967, a “human be-in” was held, leading to the legendary 1967 Summer of Love and two years later to the 1969 Woodstock Festival on the East Coast. Hippie fashions and values had a major effect on the broader culture, influencing popular music, film, literature, and the arts. The hippie legacy can be observed in contemporary culture in many forms…from health food to music festivals to today’s sexual mores.
I had the good fortune of experiencing the tail end of the Beat Generation, the Post-Beat Generation that followed and the birth and the death of the Hippie Generation.
POEM FOR GINSBERG
I saw the best minds of my generation
destroyed by greed, not so starving
hysterical, naked under their fashion designer clothes
driving themselves through congested city streets
looking for non-existent parking spaces
aging hormone-driven biological clock mothers
offering their purple-veined breasts to baby suckling
zombies, in and out of public
Whose stock market-driven and laser vision perception
sipped Starbuck’s coffee under protective awnings
while watching street cops shoo off the homeless
who chatted aimlessly on their cell phones
making reservations at trendy restaurants
while whining about the quality of the wine
who fucked only by appointment, dutifully expecting
a climax in sixty seconds or less
who shopped at organic food markets looking
for eternal youth while seeking cash rebates
with no idea what to do with them
who saw the Savior while vacationing in Palm Springs
and God on Turner TV
who taught their children how to use ATM machines
while devising clever tax-evasion schemes
who gave up writing to save a tree
and claimed it as a tax deduction
who drove their cars in the bicycle lane
hoping for some excitement
who pierced their nipples cocks and tongues
wanting to be among the hip and young
who pledged their allegiance to the Almighty Dollar
while writing protest letters to their daily newspaper
Holy is the sock. Holy is Swiss cheese.
Holy is the Bank of America. Holy is cable television.
Holy is the condom. Holy is the U.N.
Holy is pop culture.
Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching is the new
the holy of the unholy
the best minds of my generation
San Francisco, California
October 5, 2008