Character Development, Italian Style

AmarcordGreat character development isn’t the sole domain of novel writers. It also belongs to screenwriters and movie directors. I experienced the pinnacle of character development on the big screen, not in a novel, back in 1973. It rocked my world as a budding writer and defined the basis for my own way of developing characters.

The movie is Amarcord, conceived, written and directed by the legendary Federico Fellini. For me, this movie, its script, and its visual presentation epitomized the art of character development. I have yet to find anything on the screen or in a novel that compares.

The movie itself is simple in scope. It is a somewhat biographical account of Fellini’s youth in a small Italian town during the 1930s. This is a time when Fascism was the rage in Italy, a number of years before the outbreak of World War II. However, Amarcord is far from the “coming of age” theme that is so prevalent these days. Rather, Fellini takes us through an intricate array of characters, each more unique and captivating than the previous. It is the cast of characters that tell his story.

This scene presents most of the cast at a wedding ceremony near the end of Fellini’s story. Below it are members of the central family in the movie.

Amarcord Wedding SceneAmarcordThe entire movie is laced with smart, fascinating characters and tight, captivating dialogue. The detail of character development is what grabs and keeps our attention. No character is left undefined. No character is unimportant, even if that character makes only a cameo appearance in the movie. Each has dimension.

Early in the movie we are introduced to Fellini’s young friends gathered for the annual school photo.

Amarcord School Photo SceneFellini wanted to offer us a taste of his time in this town and he did it by relying solely on the characters he created. The town could be anywhere in Italy, or elsewhere. The plot is common enough. But, the characters take us through his memories with impact and lots of humor. This movie moves quickly and is a complete hoot, seasoned with just enough dramatic moments to keep us guessing.

One of Fellini’s narrators is this captivating gentleman. Below is an hilarious love scene between one of the key characters and a visiting dignitary.

AmarcordAmarcordThis movie, more than anything else, taught me how to create characters for my later writing. The attention to detail, the care and love he showed to each character, make it an unforgettable mosaic of beautifully handcrafted persona development.

The women in Fellini’s small town followed by the owner of the cigarette shop.

AmarcordAmarcordIf you get the chance, I couldn’t think of a better way to learn about character development than Fellini’s Amarcord. To this day, it remains my favorite movie for the captivating and unforgettable characters it offers. I have never tired of experiencing Fellini’s younger years through these unique individuals. Amarcord will remain a masterpiece for writers and screenwriters, for anyone who thrives on the human side of weaving a story.

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Treat Yourself Write: Visit Ned Hickson

Ned Hickson, JurnalistThis is an image of Ned Hickson. I secretly ripped it off from Ned’s Blog because I didn’t want to give him any warning about this article.

For those of you who are enrolled in the Thought Police or Copyright Commitatas, you should go right over to Ned’s place and tell him about my unprovoked, illicit actions. He’s a professional writer, so he’ll know just what to do about it.

Go ahead, if you feel the need. I’ll wait.

Now, a brief word about Ned. Yes, I stole this also. It’s from his About page:

Ned Hickson is an editor and humor columnist for the Siuslaw News, a small Oregon newspaper where the motto is: Your dependable source for local news. Twice weekly. Unless we lose count.

There’s a lot more on that page about Ned. Really interesting reading, and funny. It should be your first stop. Ready?

Go ahead. I’ll keep waiting for you.

Now, let’s begin. First, the full disclosure.

No, I’m not Ned’s publicist. I’m not his agent, editor, confessor, grandfather or anything else. In fact, I’ve never met Ned. I only know him through his words. But, I consider him a friend. Whenever he’s in the mood to dwaddle with the old farts of writing, he’s welcome at my place. He’s certainly earned his spot at the table.

Why?

Because he’s a great writer, in my opinion. Although we’re from two very different generations – my ancient Beat Generation swamp gas upbringing versus his modern, journalistic approach – we share a common love of word art. He qualifies as a real pro, in my view. That’s pretty rare in these parts.

Since this blog is for and about writers, I thought it was time to stick my finger outside the box and point at one of them who has earned my respect, and my loyal readership. Ned came to mind, right away.

Why?

Why do you keep asking that? Don’t you want to just take my word for it?

OK, let’s diddle out a few reasons, personal but important to this old geezer.

Funny bone. Ned has a protruding funny bone. It fact, you can see it from a block away. Now, without humor, life dries up at some point. To keep sunny, you need your daily dose of chuckles. It’s important to have a well-developed sense of humor. It’s rare when you can share it with others and make it work. Lots of alleged humor columnists I’ve read, and they have been legend, just aren’t funny. Maybe because they try too hard. Maybe they just don’t have what it takes. Maybe Ned is trying too. But, I don’t feel him trying too hard. I just know that he makes it work. The guy is a hoot and it seems effortless. That’s the mark of a seasoned, skillful writer. Ned doesn’t make you work. He lets you sit back and enjoy the ride.

Ned SleepingWoops, here’s another image I stole from Ned. Go ahead, rat me out. I’ll wait.

Too serious? Ned doesn’t take himself seriously. Therefore, I do. I have no room for barf-bag writer-dictators who writhe heavy-handed through my reading life. I want someone who slips into the background to make their point, even when they’re writing about themselves. Ned does just that. When he uses the dreaded “I” word, I still feel like I’m a part of the story. He is me, I am him, and we’re just having a good time together. Love it. That’s not something you learn in Writing 101. That comes from talent and practice. Lots of practice. Lots of work.

Tricks of the trade. If you’ve been writing for a living for a while, you get to know the tricks of the trade. There are many. Some are complex. Lots of them work well when used by a craftsman. These are not secret society rituals. They are just things that good writers do to make their words work. Other writers know them and appreciate them. Readers may not ferret them out, but they wouldn’t be happy without those tricks. Ned has mastered them. That’s called “professionalism.”

The voice. Strong, seasoned writers have their own, unique voices. After you’ve read their stuff for a while, you don’t need to glance at the byline. The style is familiar, the voice is well-known. Ned has it. You’ll find it over at his blog, in everything he writes.

Is he popular? I have no idea. I suspect he has a good following. Guess what? I don’t care. He’s very popular with me and I’m a very fussy reader. I don’t do newspapers because they’ve outlived their usefulness with the Internet. I can get most of my books digitally these days. What I won’t give up is the sheer pleasure in reading the word art of folks like Ned.

Is this a commercial? No. You silly reader. Go on over there and have some fun. See how a seasoned, professional writer goes about his business. If you’re still early on in your writing-road journey, I think you’ll pick up some good tips and learn how a hard-working journalist goes about his business.

If you don’t go over there and do some reading, I may just give you a good spanking.

It’s Ned’s Blog. Humor at the speed of life. Spend some time there and learn how to have fun reading.

Reading, Writing the Perfect Book

reading

Like most writers, I enjoy reading. I’m always in search of that perfect book, that unique piece of work that finds a special place in my heart and mind. 

I’m looking for the book I will never give away, never leave behind, never forget. It can be fiction or nonfiction. It’s obviously a subjective search, changeable for every reader. There’s no predictable way to measure the perfect read, to agree on greatness. In fact, it’s hard to even define all the flavors that come together to blend the ultimate brew.

Let’s try anyway.

Legs. I don’t care about the hot genre of the day. They come and go. I want the book that has legs, that keeps its meaning over the years and decades. It has something to say that transcends the time in which it was created. What was important to the writer back then must still be important to me today. It just keeps on going, stays relevant and holds tightly onto its meaning. If the zombie apocalypse makes the tsunami of today, I’ll pass unless your zombie has something really special in store for me.

Easy read. I don’t want to trip over flowery sentences and over-polish. Sure, I enjoy a beautifully constructed phrase or a finely-tuned paragraph. But I’m not interested in only that part of the experience. I want to be able to get through the book without too much work. I want it to flow, to carry me along the story line and not distract me with glitz and fizz. Seasoned writers know this. First-time authors often get caught up in a love affair with their own words. I don’t want that love affair in my face. Keep me on the right track, move me along easily, grab me with the motion and pacing of the story line. Force nothing.

Break the Rules!

Breaking rules. Call me a miscreant, but I like writers who break the rules, so long as they don’t overload me with a manufactured style. Words and sentences are musical phrases to me. Punctuation is a way of making those phrases work well. So, go ahead and push a rule here or there. It won’t bother me at all, as long as its not fabricated or made the center of your style. Make up a word or two. That’s fine. I enjoy the uniqueness of style so long as it doesn’t distract me from the main thrust of the reading journey.

No phonies. I’ve been reading and writing all my life. I can spot a phony from thirty miles. If you’re not a sincere writer, making your art for unselfish reasons, I’ll sniff it out. Most readers will do the same. Don’t make me look at you too hard. If you’re a great writer, I will discover you for myself in your work. I must believe you’re a sincere writer to keep on reading. So, either be sincere or be such a good doo-doo slinger that I can’t tell the difference. Just remember that I’m no reader-pushover.

Move me. I want to feel that emotional side of your story, fiction or nonfiction. If I want a common, dry read, I’ll stick to cereal boxes and bug-chaser labels. If you can’t move me, I stop reading and never return. On the other hand, don’t try too hard. For me, a writer who is moved by his or her story line will also move me. It’s an automatic, transparent process. If you are moved when you write, it will shine through and move me also. If you try to force the issue, I’ll know it.

Make me wonder. I want to take something away from your words. I want to wonder about your story line, to become a part of that journey. Make me think as well as feel. When I put the book down for the night, I want to play with your words in my mind, walk along your story line in my own way, become a part of what is happening in your world. If you can do that, you’re my friend forever.

Surprise

Leave me different. You can make me happy, sad, angry, whatever. Just don’t leave me the same old reader you first found. Change me in some way, even something very small and insignificant. Reshape my views, rearrange my thoughts, tweak my emotions, take me on a little ride with your words. Somehow, leave your footprint on my heart and in my mind. But don’t try too hard. If you’re going to force the issue, I’ll know right away. However, if your word journey left you changed, I’ll likely follow suit.

Make me a better writer. Show me something fresh and unique. The best of the best show me a sincere and inescapable style that I cannot ignore. These works tell me I have more to learn, more to experience. They make me a better writer because I see opportunities and alternatives. In your words, I find a new path on my own journey. Teach me, if you can, but never try to do so. Lead me by your example and unique perspective.

Be honest. Even when you’re lying to me, convince me of your honesty. Can you do that? Great writers do it all the time.

Stay behind the scenes. Hide away behind your words and never let me catch you peeking out. I don’t want you to tell me you’re back there, just waiting to grab my attention. Let your story do the talking. If you’re a good writer, I’ll find you on my own. Don’t sell me, ever.

Don’t define yourself. I don’t want you to tell me about you. I want a little mystery behind my favorite writer. Be changeable. Surprise me. You’re a big part of my reading journey, so make it fun for both of us. Even if you’re the hottest swamp gas in the literary world, stay just far enough away from my doorstep that I wonder. Let me fill in your details. Make me work, just a little bit.

I suppose this list could go on indefinitely. Time to take a breath.

These are just a few highlights and they’re obviously personal. Your goodie list will certainly be different in many ways. Great writing is ultimately indefinable. Forget the sages of word theory and the alleged experts of prose. If it moves you, if you want to keep that book forever, the writer has done his or her job.

The big take-away is ridiculously simple. Keep it real.

Gregor Takes Revenge on Fed Drones

UFO ??

Gregor was sitting drowsily on his porch when this unidentified gizmo zipped noiselessly overhead. Ya-coozer! Invasion!

Gregor instantly knew it was a Fed drone, spying on him for no reason at all. He keeps up with current events and understands that Fed drones are the next big thing. He worried about this possibility for some time, so Gregor wasn’t too surprised. Now, it was here!

Gregor will not tolerate drones in his backyard, period. He believes there is some Amendment that should protect him from Fed drones. He did not take this incident lightly. He believes it’s just un-American to go flying these brutes all over our common airspace. He wants the Feds out of his life, now and forever.

Gregor made several telephone calls. He is not shy when it comes to protecting his privacy. But none of this mattered to the Feds. They just denied all knowledge of drones, spying, and Gregor himself. It was right out of the X-Files. Gregor is not Mulder. He’s not Scully. He can’t penetrate the inner workings of the Feds, at any level. He needed help, some powerful friends.

So Gregor decided to pull out the big guns.

Buford

Gregor did the very best thing that came to mind. He got his love child and spokesman to take on the Feds. Here’s a picture. Imposing, isn’t he? His name is Buford. That should tell you everything you need to know. But looks aren’t everything, are they? Buford is a renowned mathematician and field guide who lives in Orlando. His services are always available, for the right price. Of course, Gregor had that special love-child relationship that got Buford’s immediate attention.

Buford got right on the case, just like Mulder and Scully would have done. He was going to get to the bottom of the drone doo-doo, no matter what the Feds said. Denials meant nothing to Buford. No swamp gas would work on this puppy. He had those Feds scrambling for cover, right away.

To Gregor’s endless delight, the Feds paid strict attention to Buford. His loquacity must have been compelling. He also must have had some serious contacts with the Feds. Gregor had never known the Feds to cooperate with anyone, anytime, for anything. What a wollopy-bang pleasure!

Well, there was that rumor of a few Fed helper monkeys who ran afoul of Buford and vanished. Gregor dismissed this as the usual Fed whining and moaning. Someone hushed it all up. Some Fed, probably.

Alien

It wasn’t long before the Feds sent a representative to Gregor’s house to set things right. He was a nice emissary, Gregor thought. The little guy was carrying a letter of apology from a high-ranking Fed Helper Monkey, just to make sure all relations were properly restored. Here’s what the emissary looked like on the day he arrived.

Unfortunately, Buford didn’t see things the same way as the Feds. Despite Gregor’s protestations and pleadings, Buford ate the Fed representative, right there in front of Gregor and his curious neighbors. There was nothing left to salvage. Not a bone remained. He was all gone! Vanished as quick as a drone.

Gregor was embarrassed. Buford was not. He was smiling the whole time, just like Hannibal Lecter.

Well, the story has a happy ending. Gregor has not seen a drone since that day. Not even one. No one made a stink about the missing helper monkeys. Everything became very calm, just like it used to be before the Feds started snooping.

GregorGregor thanks Buford’s insight and tenacity for making this situation go away, hopefully forever. It’s obvious that no one, including the Feds or their drone people, will ever mess with Buford. Gregor is still a bit sad about the eaten emissary, but he’s improving every day.

Gregor will remember to call on his love child again someday, the very next time the Feds come messing around his place.

Buford is salivating.

Gregor lives here.

Gregor Channels Nixon, Achieves Enlightenment

Nixon

While Gregor was recovering from his failed self-lobotomy, he was under the care of Dr. Blighton Orme. Early in his recovery, Dr. Orme observed Gregor in a swoon state, mumbling to himself and gesturing wildly. This proved to be the discovery of what would soon be known to the medical community as RNPPS, Richard Nixon Personality Possession Syndrome.

Here are a few selections from Dr. Orme’s original notes about that stunning discovery. Orme was able to track down each of Nixon’s responses and found they were genuine, thus proving that RNPPS had actually occurred. Although Gregor had the order of responses a bit whacky due to his lobotomy, the truth was undeniable. Gregor had, indeed, successfully channeled the spirit of Richard Nixon.

Gregor: Dick . . . Dick . . . Is that you, Dick? Please, talk to me!

Nixon announces the release of edited transcri...

Nixon: I am not a crook!

Gregor: I understand, Dick. I understand. But did you do it?

Nixon: I played by the rules of politics as I found them. People react to fear, not love; they don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true. If an individual wants to be a leader and isn’t controversial, that means he never stood for anything.

Gregor: Weren’t you worried about getting busted, Dick? I would be worried.

Nixon: When the President does it, that means that it’s not illegal.There are some people, you know, they think the way to be a big man is to shout and stomp and raise hell – and then nothing ever really happens. I’m not like that. I never shoot blanks. Politics would be a helluva good business if it weren’t for the goddamned people.

Gregor: Dick, Dick . . . I’m so sad. You promised us good stuff! Why?

Nixon: Never say “no” when a client asks for something, even if it is the moon. You can always try, and anyhow there is plenty of time afterwards to explain that it was not possible. Voters quickly forget what a man says. 

Well, I screwed it up real good, didn’t I?

Gregor: I used to want to be a politician, Dick, just like you. No more!

Nixon: I wish I could give you a lot of advice, based on my experience of winning political debates. But I don’t have that experience. My only experience is at losing them. Finishing second in the Olympics gets you silver. Finishing second in politics gets you oblivion.

Gregor: It was the press, wasn’t it, Dick? They did it to you, right?

English: Elvis Presley meeting Richard Nixon. ...

Nixon: The press is the enemy. I gave ’em a sword. And they stuck it in, and they twisted it with relish. And I guess if I had been in their position, I’d have done the same thing. I’ve never canceled a subscription to a newspaper because of bad cartoons or editorials. If that were the case, I wouldn’t have any newspapers or magazines to read.

Gregor: What about all your successes? There were many, eh?

Nixon: The presidency has many problems, but boredom is the least of them. If you think the United States has stood still, who built the largest shopping center in the world? When I retire I’m going to spend my evenings by the fireplace going through those boxes. There are things in there that ought to be burned.

Gregor: Dick . . . Dick . . . Watergate . . . (Gregor swoons)

Nixon: I don’t give a sh** what happens. I want you all to stonewall it, let them plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up or anything else, if it’ll save it, save this plan. That’s the whole point. We’re going to protect our people if we can.

I can see clearly now… that I was wrong in not acting more decisively and more forthrightly in dealing with Watergate.

There will be no whitewash in the White House. You must pursue this investigation of Watergate even if it leads to the President. I’m innocent. You’ve got to believe I’m innocent. If you don’t, take my job.

Under the doctrine of separation of powers, the manner in which the President personally exercises his assigned executive powers is not subject to questioning by another branch of government.

Gregor: Dick . . . Oh, my God! What about the world? It’s more than Watergate!

Nixon: Castro couldn’t even go to the bathroom unless the Soviet Union put the nickel in the toilet. I’m glad I’m not Brezhnev. Being the Russian leader in the Kremlin. You never know if someone’s tape recording what you say. It is necessary for me to establish a winner image. Therefore, I have to beat somebody.

Haldeman

(At this point, Nixon seems to be addressing the spirit of Bob Haldeman, a stunning example of double-channeling by Gregor.)

I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll just slip the word to them that, for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry — and he has his hand on the nuclear button — and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

Gregor: What about us, Dick? What about us! What about your family?

Nixon: Any lady who is First Lady likes being First Lady. I don’t care what they say, they like it. President Johnson and I have a lot in common. We were both born in small towns and we’re both fortunate in the fact that we think we married above ourselves. I’m not for women, frankly, in any job. I don’t want any of them around. Thank God we don’t have any in the Cabinet.

Gregor: Oh, Dick . . . Please leave me with something! (swoons again)

Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the U...

Nixon: I reject the cynical view that politics is a dirty business. I let the American people down. I brought myself down.

I impeached myself by resigning.

(Gregor is now semi-conscious. Unexpectedly, a Native American spirit warrior appears in the room, flashing a peace symbol and shouting, “Remember Wounded Knee! Remember 1973!”)

Nixon: I think we ought to move tanks, the whole goddamned thing. Put a division in there, if necessary, It’s time for action on it. If some Indians get shot, that’s too goddamned bad. If some Americans get shot, that’s too bad, too.

Fearing for his deteriorating state of mind, Dr. Orme injects Gregor with a powerful sedative, closing the channel. Gregor went on to nearly recover. Nixon did not.

Gregor lives here.  

The Small Soul of Beat G

Allen GinsbergHistorians regularly pump out alluring swamp gas that lacks even a feather of genuine worth. Opinions become facts, mole hills are made into mountains, important events are forgotten or overlooked, individuals are swept aside, everything gets depersonalized. Geez. I suppose the History Channel is here to stay, so why bother to delve deeper? Well, because there’s always another face to history, a human face.

Let’s take it a little deeper, down to a very personal level of American history.

I’m talking about the Beat Generation here. Gagging up a few words about how the historians got it all wrong, all the way down the line. How they forgot why Beat G came about in the first place. I’m thinking about the human side of past times, the heart of the story that may actually make sense to real people.

Remember, it’s an individualized tale, shared by a few but usually overlooked by the history spinners or media dancers.

The word art of the Beat Generation evolved from personal encounters with a small soul. From the San Francisco point of view, looking back, it wasn’t a movement at all. In fact, the essence of Beat G eschewed the very concept of a movement, in the formal sense. And it certainly wasn’t an entire generation, or anything close. It was a small collective, centered on two opposite coasts, whose members did a lot of traveling and made lots of noise. The essence of Beat G was tiny, a bare whisper yelling out from a crowded, faceless, enormous stadium.

To be Beat G back in the day was to search out your own small soul, to touch the only point of reality of which you could be relatively certain. It was never much more than a primal personal journey. But, for whatever reason, it left its footprint across our literature and social landscape. Beat G infiltrated the national consciousness, which was never intended or even seriously considered. A personal journey turned into a “movement” because history deemed it so. The historians made it happen but they missed the boat long after it had already left the dock.

City Lights BeatBeat G was very much a 1950s protest of the most personal kind. It was a re-invention of the timeless “dark night of the soul” that every serious word artist knew and eventually confronted. What made it more pressing, more critical, is that the entire world seemed to be teetering on the edge of that same dark night. What we felt on a deeply personal level was also threatening the entire planet, and doing so without good reason or common sense. That was our view. That was our shared pain.

The 1950s were ugly and frightening in so many ways. Materialism was rampant. The Cold War threatened the entire planet. Segregation kept us apart from each other. McCarthyism proved that fascism was alive in our own, historically free country. Censorship was everywhere, promoted and fostered by our own government. All the promises of renewal from the horrendous sacrifices of WWII were squandered. It seemed as though America was asleep in the 1950s, unaware of how far we had strayed from our traditions of individualism, personal freedom, and a willingness to reach out to those beyond our immediate family. As a society, we had closed ourselves off, become fearful and paranoid, unwilling to even hear an alternative point of view. No one wanted to rock the boat, unless it was to blow up the planet.

There were big issues, everywhere. Too many to confront, too complex to even understand. The only reasonable way to deal with them was on a deeply personal level. To find a way out by finding a way in. We would start with the basics. We would start with our own small souls. This was our home turf.

We were a fractured generation back then but generally insisted that all was going along according to some grand, undefined plan. It was a time when dissent was simply not allowed, not tolerated. Questions were not to be asked, especially if they challenged the prevailing opinions of the sea of sleepers of the 1950s. It was a time to keep your head down, figuratively and literally. If you didn’t, there was always some Joe McCarthy out there ready and willing to lop off your brow.

City Lights BookstoreWell, that just wasn’t the way we viewed our country, or ourselves. We saw America as having a long, honored tradition of pursuing individuality, exploring, exercising our right to free speech, experimenting, moving ahead and taking risks. This was our communal history and there was no reason to put it out to pasture in the interests of comfort and conformity. But, for many reasons, the 1950s shunned all of this, turned these courageous urges into something dark and threatening. We didn’t appreciate that point of view. In fact, we felt beaten down by it. That was the essence of Beat G, from a soul-deep point of view.

We wanted to re-evaluate the entire mess, to re-draw the borders through our own experience and knowledge. It made no sense to tow a party line that was poorly defined, depersonalized, dangerous, obviously not working for our country, and that clearly disregarded the primal concept of individual freedom. It was us, each as individuals, who had created our country. It was not America who created us. We needed to re-discover that truism and do it as unique individuals in search of our own souls.

Did we go too far? Yes. We pushed the limits all the time. Many of us killed ourselves in the process. We broke the law left, right, up and down. Some of it was justified, some was just silly. We were doing an inside-out search for ourselves. If it stirred in our soul, if it had any direction at all, we chased it in the real world. It wasn’t so much that we held a deep disdain for the social norms of the time. It wasn’t that simple. We just didn’t find any sense in putting artificial restrictions on a life that should be led as genuinely as possible. We wanted to know life and know it truly, not as defined for us by others.

The Beat Generation

It wasn’t that we hated all rules, just the rules that broke our backs. Just the rules that kept us separate from each other, unable to speak freely, and unaware of ourselves. Our leaders were not taking us down a healthy path. That was obvious. Mutually Assured Destruction was, from our point of view, complete insanity. Censorship by the federal government was taking a reasonable concept much too far. Turning in your neighbor as a suspected communist brought us right back to the Nazi Party atrocities of our parents’ generation. Our parents suffered and died to ensure this craziness could never again happen, anywhere. Little of America’s behavior made sense on either a personal or grand scale. Hadn’t we learned from the horrors of WWII? Why were we going down this dangerous, deadly road yet again? Looking around, we found the dominant society fearful, tired, bored, over-fed, segregated, isolated, complacent, sometimes dangerous and just plain comatose. We didn’t want any of that for ourselves.

No, Beat G was never a movement in the classic sense. It was a journey of discovery, a search for the little soul within. The big questions became personal issues of a frightening, painful kind. That was the only way they could be handled. We could never be free if we were incapable of dealing with how the problems of our day impacted our personal lives. And, if these issues were so personal, so critical, they must also be vital to the larger society. We could not accept being separated, manipulated, so often the target of politics and lies when the stakes were so high.

We didn’t plan to be renegades, upstarts, doo-doo disturbers, or anything of the kind. We just wanted to be in touch with our small souls and, in doing so, touch the large societal soul that seemed to be struggling with itself.

Did we go too far? Sure. We paid a heavy price.

Did we make some good art along the way? You bet we did.

Did we change the world? Of course not.

But we did make a dent in our own small souls.

Cool Beat G in 1963

Beat MuseumBuckle up. We’re going back to the San Francisco Beat Generation again. We’ve walked through City Lights Books and learned how to be a great Beat novelist. Now it’s time to revisit “cool.”

This post is for the visually inclined. You know what they say about pictures.

Back then, only two kinds of folk lived in the City. You were either a “square,” parked lifelessly and mindlessly in the remnants of the 1950s, or you were “cool” and ready to re-shape the Universe. There was no third choice. The squares were vast in number, the cools were the future. We were Beat. We had our secret places.

Vespa 1963My friend had this jewel for our transportation needs. Nope, it’s not your Mama’s Bradley Fighting Machine. It’s a 1963 Vespa. It was created in Pontedera, Italy, and somehow found its way across the pond. The thing was not a speedy beast but it was cheap to run. It could get us across town, over to North Beach, so long as we avoided the City’s steeper hills.

Parking was not a problem. We never got a single speeding ticket. The Vespa was too slow for that kind of inconvenience.

This thing was crotchety but it seemed very cool at the time, probably because it was Italian. Looking back, we must have presented a bizarre sight to the squares: two guys with guitars strapped across their backs, hunched over against the cold, putting across the asphalt town.

My friend went on to do films, I went with the word. I have no idea what happened to the Vespa. It could be a museum piece by now, or junk, probably worth more than back in the day. We should have given it a name but we never thought that far ahead.

Anyway, we looked really good on the Vespa, very Beat. That was critical.

Beat Gathering by Larry KeenanTake a peek at this old photo. It’s one of the last Beat gatherings at City Lights Books, taken by Larry Keenan. Check out those cool, very Beat clothing styles.

Jean jackets were popular. So were pull-over sweaters and pea coats for those cold San Francisco nights. My coat was navy blue with big buttons up the front and a huge collar. I added a flashy neck scarf for pure style.

Sure, there were still a few ties around. They were very skinny and weird looking, dangly things. If you were Beat you could dress up just about anyway you chose, so long as it wasn’t like anyone else. It was vital to never become confused with a square. See any squares in this scene? I don’t.

The umbrella in the photo was optional gear. Not many of us had one. After all, everyone knows it never rains water in San Francisco. The umbrella was mostly to keep square doo-doo off your head. Long hair was not yet the style. That came later. We were shaggy because we were always broke. Broke was cool back then.

OK, off to a major stop for the night, at the heart of Beat G.

Caffee Trieste Back

This is the back corner of the Caffe Trieste. It was the epicenter of cool in the City, if you were of the Beat inclination. Trieste was opened in 1956 by Papa Gianni Giotta. The sanctum was basically across the street from City Lights, so it made a natural gathering place after serious poetry readings. What made it so special was Papa Gianni himself. Papa loved music, the arts, his customers, us Beats, and everyone else he met. He was one of those rare people you instantly liked and never forgot.

Papa Gianni

Here’s a picture of Papa Gianni pulling a shot back in the day. He also had an endless zoo of interesting Italian sweet treats. All fresh, all good, all very cool.

Like City Lights Books, Caffe Trieste went on to be a huge success. The original location on Vallejo Street is still open and going strong. Papa and his family have added several other locations and even sell coffee online. You may never catch up with the Beat Generation again but you’ll find its soul at the Caffe Trieste. Lots of lasting words were given birth at the back of Papa’s place.

Did I mention that Papa was fond of music? He would let us sit in the back corner and entertain his endless flow of customers. Very cool. Very Beat. Take a look.

Guitars, bongos, flutes, horns and, yes, even the occasional squeeze box. If it made music, it was Beat. Folk and free-form jazz came first. Blues was a close second. No need for sheet music. That was for squares.

Trieste music

We would park the Vespa in front of Trieste. From there, we could easily haunt the three vital stops for the night, City Lights, Caffe Trieste and this place — Coffee (a)N(d) Confusion:

Coffee-Confusion

There just aren’t any decent photos of CNC floating around. That’s too bad. But I remember it well.

The place was narrow, dark, and always over-populated. Small, round tables for two or four, mostly. Standing room only was common. The stage was at the far end, stuck in a corner. Three people on the stage sent it creaking and groaning for relief. This was an essential stopover.

Janis JoplinIt started out as the Fox and Hound, then changed up to CNC. This was ground central for Beat music, public readings and all kinds of interesting entertainment. There was some major talent passing through those old doors.

If you were a regular, you would have seen Janis Joplin as a headliner in 1963, well before her Big Brother days.

Yep, that’s Pearl herself, right around the time she was bluesing her way through North Beach. Man, I sure miss her.

Steve Martin is said to have launched his career at CNC, although I don’t remember him. Lots of great musicians came and went. CNC had an open mic night that usually surprised everyone. We would play from time to time, for tips. Since we weren’t very good, we didn’t get very good tips. It was usually just enough to pay for more coffee.

Mostly, we would hang-out, listen, get in the beat and the Beat.

There were a few other haunts, a couple of non-papal conclaves that mattered. These two were always at the top of our schedule, though. But we’re gonna pull the plug for tonight, man. You’ve got to take Beat in small doses. If you don’t, you can’t ever be cool.

Here’s something to keep in mind.

If you have a bucket list and a fondness for the Beat G, you might want to put these places near the top. Sadly, Coffee N Confusion is long gone. City Lights Books and Caffe Trieste are still going strong, still holding on to those ghosts. Here are the links to the real deal:

Caffe Trieste

City Lights Books

Thanks to PBS, Papa Gianni and family, City Lights Books and the Beat Museum for the photos and memories. You guys are cool.