Nostalgia is like salt. Use too much and it spoils the meal. But remembering has its place, especially when those memories continue to influence our lives, or an entire generation.
I’m talking about City Lights Books in San Francisco. I’m remembering the final days of the Beat Generation. I’m thinking about some fantastic word artists, poets and writers who influenced more than a generation.
Perhaps you’ve heard about those days. Recognize the names Allen Ginsberg or Lawrence Ferlinghetti? Has the term “Beat Generation” crossed your path? Ever read Howl? If you get to San Francisco, just ask any cab driver. In fact, ask anyone on the street and you’ll probably get a finger-point in the right direction. What happened back then changed the way we write, how we think, the direction of our art.
In 1953, still in the early years of the Beat Generation, Ferlinghetti and a friend founded City Lights Books. Like most things Beat, it was an experiment in artistic freedom, a way to express the movement in a three-dimensional way. At the time, it was a major shot in the dark that turned out to be an epic success. No one could have foreseen its impact on a generation of poets and writers. It was, and remains, a labor of love.
I can’t remember precisely when I first sat in on a poetry reading at City Lights. It was in the early 1960s. At the time, poets were street people, they had faces we all recognized, they were familiar and fascinating. They would read and write, we would meet at a local Italian coffee shop and talk.
But the Beat Generation was dying, transforming itself into the hippie counterculture movement to come. As I recall, everything was changing, including how we wrote about the world. These artists were the vanguard. But, at the time, they were seen as rebellious miscreants by much of the larger society. We had a different perspective. What we could sense was the inescapable rush of fresh art, and its home base was City Lights.
Everyone wanted to be a poet back then. Me, too. I just didn’t have the talent. But the allure of the movement, the intense creativity that it spawned, was irresistible. Those were heady times. Art was exploding into unexpected forms, experimentation was everywhere. Poets and writers were pushing limits, inventing original genres. It was impossible to stand apart from the energy, to not be sucked up into the tsunami of talent and artistry. It was a high time, in every way.
Mostly, it was all about change. The poets and writers of those times were dissatisfied with the blandness, boredom and hypocrisy of the 1950s. Songwriters were creating hot counter-visions at a furious pace. Writers were breaking all the rules. It was this crunchy re-imaging of the world that caught my attention and kept it. We all felt the itch to move ahead, make some kind of change, be legitimate. We were searching for our own voices and City Lights was at the heart of this new heartbeat. It was a place of intensity and passion, always.
City Lights Books was a cauldron of transformation, a focal point for creative energy and emerging talent. It’s hard to imagine getting excited about hanging around a bookstore. But that’s what happened. Although it was a bookstore on the outside, it was our temple, our secret place. Within its walls, it was a storehouse of unexpected beginnings, experimentation and evolution. It was facile, comfortable, avant-garde in every way.
OK, perhaps that’s a bit too much nostalgia. There was a dark side. Let’s take a small step backward.
Everyone drank too much. It was considered essential fuel for the creative soul. Doing weed was, at first, considered to be a monumental act of defiance against an insensitive society. There was lots of new stuff to try. But the Beat Generation quickly became an unwilling springboard to more dangerous drug experimentation. We began to lean on the crutch, to use it too much. Some of us lost our creative souls and had to start the journey all over again.
The scene outside the storefront could get ugly, sometimes very brutal. Anger ran too deep for many of us. Change became challenge, challenge became defiance, defiance became violence. None of this was good for us, the City, or the Country. I suppose it was the inevitable warping evolution of transformation. But it was sometimes outrageous and grotesque. There was the dark side. There’s always that ying-yang thing at work. We could have looked the other way.
Still, back at City Lights, the art went on, uninterpreted. The bookstore became a haven for the poet and writer, a place of solidarity where the word still reigned over politics, even when the two clashed. It was an island, always. A place where art was given birth and always nurtured. It stood fast even when the streets were riotous and uncertain. There was always City Lights. The place thrived, became a center of social consciousness, a publishing house, a patron of the written word, everything that an embryonic idea could ever hope to achieve.
City Lights continues, even today. It’s an amazing exception to the flood of failed bookstores. It still publishes, still sells books, still draws the attention of those who want to follow the written word. City Lights is one amazing place, and it’s unforgettable. All the changes, all the challenges and it still rocks on, doing what it was meant to do back in the early 1950s. The basement of City Lights is still that safe and powerful sanctuary. It’s not nostalgia alone. It’s legacy.
Going to San Francisco?