Beatnik Shindig June 26,27 & 28. 2015.
Graffiti in Connecticut Yankee’s men’s room: “THERE ARE 10,000 KEROUACS IN THIS CITY!”
Jerry Cimino has worked for over twenty years to preserve and spread the culture of the Beat Generation. He started with a bus that showed up at local events in the Bay Area. It was a big hit at the North Beach Fair and the anniversary of The Summer of Love. Photos and exhibits in the bus educated or reminded people about Beat history. The van toured much of the country and spread the word of the Beat Generation. Eventually the museum found a home on Broadway in North Beach, where it all happened. The Beat Museum is one of those hidden gems that is off the usual tourist track.
Cimino wanted to gather as many remaining Beats for a conference in San Francisco. A meeting had been held in Boulder in the early Eighties. North Beach would have been a great home for it, but there wasn’t a good venue for it in the neighborhood, so it was held in nearby Fort Mason. There had to be a sense of urgency to get it organized. The remaining Beats certainly weren’t getting any younger. Cimino organized an impressive gathering of surviving Beat artists and writers. There would be readings and the Beats could mingle with fans and friends during the conference. It would be the largest gathering of Beat artists in over twenty years.
There were over 36 sessions to choose from, and a Pre-Party the night before the conference opened. Many events were ticketed, but there were many free events. Sessions that covered local topics jumped out to me as “musts.”
The weather was great. It was another glorious Bay Area day. Fort Mason is right on the water. There are great, unique views of the Bay. It was a military base until the Sixtes. I was there a little early for one of my “musts,” “The San Francisco Beats 1955: Sex, Drugs, Art & Poetry. Jonah Raskin exhumes the lost bohemian world of San Francisco.” There had to be some good stories at this one. The event would be held in The Fire House, a small building tucked under the hill that leads to Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s one of my favorite unknown spots in the City.
The program tells us that Raskin is the author of “American Scream,” the first critical look at Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. He has taught for many years. He “was involved with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the Sixties,” and his wife became a fugitive from the law for her activities. The program is a great little piece of Beat ephemera.
Raskin certainly looked the part. He wore blue jeans, a sleeveless parka and a black baseball hat. He looked like a college professor, but then almost everyone at this event looked like a college professor. There was a short delay while we waited for an “adapter” for the Power Point presentation of Beat photos. People in the audience talked about traveling to come to the Shindig. There were people from South Dakota, Missouri and England. This was an old crowd, but everyone was friendly.
“I did meet Ginsberg at Gary Snyder’s sister’s house.” Raskin was teaching at Sonoma State. “Back then some of the lottery money actually went to the schools.” He was able to get Ginsberg to do a reading at Sonoma State in the early Eighties. Raskin has been able to read many of the Ginsberg papers that are at Stanford and the University of Texas.
“I learned about the Beats from the article in Life magazine.” It was 1955 and he was fifteen. He went into New York from Long Island and bought a copy of Howl. It was the start of his life in bohemian culture.
Raskin says that, “I’m still learning about the Beats.” One of the early characters he wants to talk about today is Natalie Jackson, The Muse of the Beats. She’s rarely mentioned now, but she had a big effect on Jack Kerouac. Raskin has written a pamphlet about her and her relationship to Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac titled “The Wild Ones.”
“Some say Beat was born in New York,” but Raskin believes it really began in San Francisco. It’s true that Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs met and hung out in New York, but Raskin considers this a “gestation period.” “Beat was really born in San Francisco in the Fifties.” There were bohemians and free thinkers in America before the Beatniks, but this was the real genesis of the modern counterculture. “San Francisco was more remote then.” Raskin says it was important for Ginsberg and the other Beats to get away from the “influences of friends and family” that would discourage the bohemian life style.
“San Francisco was more conservative back then.” The Catholic Church and the police department had much more power and tried to enforce their morality. “Cops liked to raid gay bars.” The authorities sought legal battles. They tried to suppress Ginsberg’s poem Howl and later busted Lenore Kandel.
“And there was sex!” There was group sex and orgies. Drugs were used, mostly marijuana, which was considered dangerous then. The leaders of the Beat movement used peyote, a mysterious, exotic drug. The second half of Howl has Ginsberg wandering San Francisco while tripping on peyote. The monstrous St. Francis Hotel was the symbol of all that was wrong with America.
There may have been wild sex scenes, but few of them made it into the literature of the Beats. Raskin tells us he reread “On The Road” looking for sex scenes. There were really only two or three. One of them is Cassady having wild sex with another man.
The Beats in San Francisco were “a confluence of energy. It was synergy.” The sum was greater than its parts. Raskin says that Robert LaVigne contributed more to the Beat scene than he’s given credit for.
Robert LaVigne’s early life wasn’t a proper preparation for a bohemian artist. He was Catholic and educated by the Jesuits. LaVigne couldn’t figure out how to be an artist in the modern world. It didn’t make sense in the Atomic Age. Why bother when everything was ending in nuclear annihilation anyway? LaVigne had a Victorian house on Gough Street and it became a hang out for many of the Beats. There were “Gough Street fun and games.”
Ginsberg met LaVigne at Foster’s Cafeteria, a hangout for many of those considered outcasts of society. In a letter Ginsberg mentions meeting Beats and “other bohemians.” This fascinates Raskin. Who were the other “bohemians” in Fifties San Francisco?
Raskin shows us a LaVigne sketch of Natalie Jackson. She’s nude and reading a book with the title, “A True Story.” “Her life story would be quite a story.” Raskin says that Jackson was an overlooked muse to the Beats. She was 5’6” and had a day job at Magnin’s. She led the dual straight/Beat life.
The slides on the screen show us some familiar, historic Beat photographs. There’s the shot of Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg in New York. Another is of a group of Beats in front of City Lights book store. The pictures show a Beat movement that is dominated by men. The women played a big role, but they were always in the background. Alan Ginsberg said that the perfect society would be a “boy gang.”
Nancy Peters was a long time employee at City Lights and later an author. Even into the Eighties women were not considered “able to sell books,” which meant they weren’t trusted at the cash register. In an interview, Peters said it’s hard to explain today what women’s roles were like in the Fifties.
Another photo of the boys shows them in front of a Market Street theater. Neal and Jack frolic in front of a marquee advertising a Western, “Tarzan the Ape Man” and Marlon Brando in “The Wild One.”
A slide shows Natalie’s steamy love note to Neal. She loves him. She loves his body. His wife found it in his jeans pocket when she was doing the laundry. Ruth Weiss told Raskin that you have to give Carolyn Cassady credit. She did not destroy the note. It’s the only writing of Jackson that we know of.
Raskin tells some other Beat stories. I’ve read so much about the Six Gallery’s poetry reading that unveiled Howl, that I feel like I was there. Raskin notes that, “The most important poetry reading in America in the last half of the Twentieth century,” was not recorded or filmed. He told the story of how Ginsberg fell in love with Peter Orlovsky by seeing a portrait LaVigne had done of him.
Ginsberg went to see a therapist. He told Dr. Philip Hicks that he was gay. Hicks responded with a “So?” This rare acceptance helped Ginsberg turn his life around. Ginsberg was able to handle his depression and get out of a writer’s block. Ginsberg was charged a dollar a session. Dr. Hicks would be making a presentation at The Beatnik Shindig!
A slide shows us an attractive, sexy, but somewhat androgynous looking female. She looks challenging. Raskin says Natalie Jackson was an important influence on the early Beats. She is the model for Rosie Buchanan in “The Dharma Bums.”
Neal was crazy. Natalie fell in love with Neal. They had a love nest together. He talked her into posing as his wife so he could raid a bank account he shared with the wife. They withdrew ten thousand dollars and headed to the Bay Meadows racetrack. They blew it all on the horses.
Kerouac said that Jackson was “a writer herself.” No writing by her has been found. Raskin wonders if some of her writing is sitting in a basement or attic somewhere.
Neal dreamed of a “rucksack revolution,” but Natalie predicted there would be a police revolution. She feared the cops were going to bust down the door any minute. It became an obsession for her. It was a sign of her mental problems, but most of the Beats were at least a little eccentric. She had attempted suicide before. Only Al Hinkle advised her to get help. Her friends and lovers shrugged off her paranoia.
We’re shown a clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle: “Woman Fights Off Rescue, Leaps 3 Stories to Death.” It’s from December 1, 1955.
Natalie had been particularly restless, but Neal had to go to work. He persuaded Jack Kerouac to come over and keep an eye on her. Natalie and Kerouac argued in the apartment. She went onto the roof nearly naked. She broke the glass on a skylight and slashed her wrists. People in the neighborhood could hear and see her and they called the police.
Natalie had gone back to the apartment. A cop came in and she kept backing away from him, towards a window. She was convinced the cops were there to get her. The cop tried to stop her by grabbing her bathrobe. He got an empty sleeve of the bathrobe, and Jackson fell backwards out the window!
She fell three floors and was dead on impact. She only had a tee shirt on and had no identification on her, so she was treated as a Jane Doe. They put an X on the sidewalk where she had landed.
Neal and Jack took off. They considered themselves outlaws, and they didn’t want to face a police interrogation. They had been dragged into the investigation of the murder of David Kammerer in New York. Raskin points out that Neal did have the courage to show up and sign the Coroner’s Register for Jackson. An autopsy found no drugs or alcohol in Jackson’s system.
Raskin tells us of his struggle to find documentation of the incident. His younger brother is a private detective. “You can get any information with money.” Raskin isn’t sure if his brother paid to get the documents, but he got them.
It was one of the first tragedies of the Beat Generation. Kerouac and Cassady were devastated and depressed. Jackson’s mother came from New Jersey and took the body home. Her Beat friends held a “Dirge” for her.
Raskin finishes with some slides of sketches of Natalie in bed with Peter Orlovsky and Ginsberg, “After Sex.” She looks mysterious and sexy. Ginsberg began a tribute poem to her, “Beat Muse,” but he was shaken when his mother died, and he wrote a poem to her instead. Raskin says Natalie’s death may have prepared him for this. The poem to Natalie was never finished.
Raskin thanks us for coming out. He says Natalie Jackson was a pivotal figure in the early Beat movement. “I fell in love with her!” We can read about her in “The Dharma Bums.”
Outside The Firehouse old vintage cars are being lined up for the Hudson Car Show. I’m not a big car guy myself, but these autos were impressive. The program explains that the Hudson was “the race car of choice” for race drivers and Neal Cassady.
The Fleet Room was the center of the conference. There was a stage and folding chairs were set out. The long room was ringed by vendors behind tables. Most of them sold books. It was quite a collection of Beat literature. Among those showing their wares were Last Gasp, City Lights, The Cassady Family Estate, the artist Momo, The Friends of the San Francisco Public Library and The Beat Museum.
People were open and friendly. I had expected a bunch of grumpy old people bitching about the state of the world, but the atmosphere was much different. Interest in the Beats was a bond.
The next event I went to was: “Spontaneous Combustion: Inside the chaotic making of ‘Pull My Daisy.’” David Amram was one of the original Beats. When I came in he was sitting at the edge of the stage and talking with a small group of conference attendees. He’s slim and has a great positive energy about him. His neck is ringed in necklaces. A woman says that, “Everyone is having fun!” People talk again about traveling to get to this event. One guy says he’s from Oklahoma. Amram talks about working with the Red Dirt Rangers and Leon Russell. He’s collaborated with many artists and has been a successful composer for a long time. He was personable and engaging, and obviously enjoyed talking to the small group standing near the stage.
An elderly gentleman sits in the row behind me. The old Beats are going to each other’s presentations. Someone greets him and I hear the name, Gerd. It’s Gerd Stern, the man accused of losing the Joan Andersen letter. It may have been the inspiration for “On the Road.” The letter has been a missing link in Beat history. Stern had been falsely accused of losing it for years.
Amram has already started the show with his friendly banter from the stage, but now he really starts. “The Beats were a bunch of no-goodniks.” It was all about avoiding responsibility and having a good time. These were strange ideas for the uptight, Eisenhower Fifties. The whole idea behind ‘Pull My Daisy’ was to have a good time. “It was a party for three weeks.”
They shot fifty hours of film and consumed much cheap Gallo wine and Thunderbird. The actors didn’t take filming seriously. Director Robert Frank acted as cameraman, and they trying to make him crack up and laugh. The goal was to get him to laugh so hard that the camera would shake and that would show up on the film.
Amram was a bit nervous about being in the film. He talked to Kerouac and said that he wasn’t an actor, “What should I do?” “Just be yourself,” Kerouac told him. Amram tells us that Kerouac improvised most of the narration. There is a second narration done by Kerouac.
Amram pulls out an iPhone. “You can make a film with this!” We should document our family, friends and neighborhood. “Create something. Put it on Youtube!” “This has been going on since Lascaux, and as far as I know, no one has asked for their money back.” Amram is still creating. There will be a documentary coming out soon: “David Amram: The First Eighty Years.” Amram is 84.
‘Pull My Daisy’ was a look at Fifties culture. Some critics said it was a look at the lack of culture. It’s a half hour long and most of it looks like old home movies. It’s silent, except for Kerouac’s manic Beat narration. There is horseplay and comedy. It has the look and feel of a movie made for a high school or college film class. Although Kerouac’s narration is cool, it’s frustrating to not hear what the Beat icons in the film are saying.
None of the cast had training in acting, except for Delphine Seyrig. She was the only professional. Her biggest role was in ‘Last Year at Marienbad.’ She was a bit leery of the others at first, but then she began enjoying the loose atmosphere and working with the “irresponsible nut cases.”
Larry Rivers played sax during filming. He had a real Beat attitude towards being a musician. Rivers believed that real Beat musicians didn’t bother with lessons or practice. Improvisation was the important thing. A professional musician was hired to play during Kerouac’s narration. A few years later Amram asked Rivers what he thought of his sax playing in the movie. “I never sounded better!” Rivers told him. Amram tells us it’s a great example of: “Don’t let good taste stand in the way of a good time!”
Amram goes to an electronic keyboard and plays an improvised version of the song ‘Pull My Daisy.’ He mentions Truman Capote, who slammed Kerouac’s writing as “typing.” More people read Kerouac now. He sings about the Supreme Court decision on marriage and the Gay Pride Parade that will be happening tomorrow. He praises The Beat Museum and Jerry Cimino for running the conference. It’s quite an improvisation.
Amram will field a few questions from the audience. There are only a couple of questions because Amram gives long enthusiastic answers. Kerouac was a devout Catholic, “He really believed that stuff,” but he studied Buddhism and knew it well.
What the heck did ‘Pull My Daisy’ mean? Amram isn’t sure, but he said that the phrase ‘Pull My Daisy’ was a code word for the Beats. The title was going to be, “The Beat Generation” but, “Someone named Zugsmith had already made a horrible movie with that title.”
Kerouac got a reputation for being a grouch in his last years, but Amram tells us about another side of him. Kerouac always encouraged artists and writers to pursue their art, whatever it was.
He went to see the film at Boulder years later. He got excited when he saw the title on the marquee. It made him think about how thrilled Allen and Jack would have been to see that. They had made the film for kicks. They never thought the film would be “that big of a deal.” When they showed the film that night in Boulder it burned up in the projector. It sounds like Amram saved the night by performing.
There are amazing things happening on Youtube, Amram tells us. “You can see Slim Galliard!” ‘Pull My Daisy’ had been posted on Youtube, but it was taken down.
“I come from comic book culture.” “I’m a Pennsylvania farm boy.” When he went to New York, he appreciated seeing culture. He majored in “hang-out-ology.” Amram still has a fresh, enthusiastic outlook. The spirit and energy of the Beats lives on in him.
Another must event for me was: “Mary Kerr. The Beach (North Beach in the 1950s) Movie Screening and Q&A with Film Maker.” Kerr introduced the film. “It’s pronounced ‘Car.’” She’s a petite woman that doesn’t appear to have had such a bohemian past.
“I came to San Francisco in 1960 from Cheyenne, Wyoming.” It was a romantic journey. Her plan was to find an artist and marry him. She says she was lucky to find The Jazz Cellar and an artist husband, Les Carr. She talks about The Black Cat in “The Monkey Block.” It’s now the site of the Transamerica Pyramid.
The documentary tells the history of the North Beach art scene with interviews of artists, musicians and poets. Bar and gallery owners from the neighborhood add some great stories. Kerr struggled to finish the film. It was shot on a “Super 8” Beta. Money was always a problem.
The film is a great look at North Beach. You could still find a cheap apartment in the neighborhood, and get a great family style dinner with wine for a few bucks. Beat culture was thriving. The film has shots of paintings from the era and short biographies of the artists. Grizzled veterans talk about the old days. There was Jazz, poetry, art and cheap wine.
It was fun to see familiar spots in North Beach in the film. Kerr interviews Charles Moldeke in the “Lady Psychiatrist’s Booth” in Vesuvio’s. He was the original bar tender in Vesuvio’s, quite a distinction. He tells about how it was bought from an old Italian couple. They decided not to rename the bar. Moldeke showed the art of some of the regulars in Vesuvio’s. They noticed the take at the bar increased after the art was hung. He talked other bars into displaying art.
Kerr says the documentary was more about the art scene than the literary scene. She got much of the Jazz soundtrack from a benefit concert held for Jimbo’s Bop City. It was held at the Grand Hyatt in 1994. Kim Novak was there!
Kerr talks about The Coffee Gallery. Pony Pondexter was among the Jazz greats that played there. Paul Newman would stop in, “A very nice guy.” Kerr remembers his beautiful, blue eyes.
This documentary captures the spirit of the time in North Beach.
I went back to the Fleet Room to see what was happening. Bob Booker read some cool Beat poetry while Luis “Lucho” played saxophone. The sax really gave the big room a coffeehouse atmosphere. Booker was in black and wearing a beret. His poetry was powerful.
There is always competition from other events on any weekend in San Francisco, but this was also the weekend of Gay Pride. The Supreme court had just announced their ruling that finally legalized marriage. The Parade would be a dramatic celebration, and it had to affect attendance at The Beatnik Shindig.
Jerry Cimino was everywhere. I saw him selling drink and snack tickets, running the Beat Museum table, helping set up the stage for readings, escorting guests and he did some readings himself.
I stopped at the Beat Museum table. Estelle Cimino asked me how the Beat Shindig was going for me and offered me a free ticket to the David Meltzer reading, so I hung out for that.
An elderly man came in on crutches. He had white hair and bright red cheeks. He looked confused, and Jerry Cimino greeted him and gave him the Beat VIP treatment. It was David Meltzer.
There’s a bit of a delay before they let us in the house. Other audience members are familiar faces by now. Jerry Cimino and Bob Booker are onstage getting things ready. The podium and microphones are being put in place. I can hear Bob Booker talking about how Ginsberg always made a meticulous check of the stage before a reading. “It was like a ritual.” Everything had to be in place. Meltzer says he certainly understands.
Meltzer looks weak and frail. He asks for a handkerchief, “I’ve got schmutz.” I have to wonder if he’s going to make it through a couple of poems. “I’m an old bard,” he says. It’s a small crowd, but I make sure to get an aisle seat. Gerd Stern is in the audience again. It was interesting to see the old Beats checking out each other’s readings.
Meltzer tells us he started writing poetry 67 years ago. When he was a kid he attempted to write a “four volume history of everything.” Each volume would be two hundred hand written pages long. He found writing prose too limiting. There were other problems. He used carbon paper to make extra copies. He got sick of dealing with the carbon paper.
Meltzer grew up in Brooklyn. “It’s a Brooklyn that’s gone now.” He says again that writing prose was too limiting for him. A teacher, Mrs. O’Callahan, suggested that he try free verse. Meltzer wisely nodded and then went home and asked his father, “What is free verse?” His father told him that, “It’s poetry that doesn’t rhyme.” Meltzer decided that he would “invent poetry for myself.” His first book was published on an old hand press in someone’s basement.
The first poem he wrote was about the subway, “Forms beyond the actual.” He seems shaky at first. His voice quavers. After the poem, he talks about the surge of popularity Beat had. There were weekend “Beatnik Kits” that squares could by so they could pass as a Beatnik on the weekends. “We called it ‘Beatmerch.’” The Beat movement may not have been the original bohemians, but they might be the first movement that was commodified.
Meltzer reads another poem, “The Idiot.” The next is “Vision.” After a slow start he really starts cranking them out: “Here’s another raga: ‘Revelation.’” He seems to gain strength with each poem.
“Night Before Morning.” Meltzer seems transformed. He’s still old, but he looks strong. His voice is steady. “It goes on and on... The poetry goes on and on.”
A loud cell phone goes off. The ring is loud, customized and obnoxious. It’s a guy in the row behind me. He scrambles out of the seat and stumbles a bit in the aisle. It has to be embarrassing. Meltzer takes it in stride. “Music,” he mutters. He reads “For Bela Lugosi.” “Luna Park.” “Sonic Fragments.” “Blackest Rose.”
“Lew Welch was a crazy mentor!” They both had work published in a magazine called Bread. He reads a poem with “utopian edge,” “Lamentations.”
Meltzer says he’s a city kid. “In Brooklyn, everything was concrete.” Their idea of nature was a box of dying plants on the roof. “It’s Simple.”
“North Beach was a Beat Disneyland.” Meltzer notes that Italian landlords were used to having artists and musicians as tenants. Maybe Meltzer senses his audience is fading. “If you’re tired you can get one of the Beat pillows and take a nap.” Just another stab at Beat merchandising.
My attention was riveted again when Meltzer talked about the Science Fiction Magazine, Astounding Stories. In one issue there was a story by John W. Campbell, “The Thing.” It was later made into one of my favorite movies. James Arness of Gunsmoke fame was the alien, “Crashing around the Arctic in a rubber suit.” Meltzer reads, “Beat Thing.”
Meltzer talks about the end of World War II. It seemed like it was the end of everything. The Atomic Age could mean nuclear annihilation. A couple got up to leave. They had to pass by him, and they were apologetic, “We have to leave.” “It’s OK. Cut and run.” It sounds cold, but Meltzer seemed amused. He reads the last poem: “When I Was a Poet.”
The four events I attended were only the tip of the iceberg. I didn’t attend any of the events at night, and I heard they were great. Among the presenters I missed were: Will Durst, Neeli Cherkovski, The Cassady Family Estate, Ron Turner of Last Gasp, V. Vale, the ubiquitous Jack Hirschman, Brenda Knight, Ruth Weiss and Al Hinkle, the last survivor from ‘On the Road.’
The Beat Museum e-mail news list said the conference lost ten to fifteen thousand dollars. The conference couldn’t have happened without generous sponsors that included: The Condor, The Hungry I, Last Gasp, Tony’s Pizza, Friends of the San Francisco Library, Vesuvio’s. Hotel Triton. Museo Italo Americano, The Mexican Museum and Uvaggio. Cimino hopes to have another conference next year. Be there or be square.