Beat Generation Rollover of 1965

Caffee Trieste BackIt’s one of the lesser cosmic mysteries but still an interesting one. When did the San Francisco Beat Generation disappear?

Beat G was going strong in 1963. That was self-evident. By 1967, the hippie counterculture movement was everywhere in the City and the Beats were gone.

So, when did this rollover really happen?

It wasn’t a light-switch deal. But it also wasn’t a slow morphing. The change was farily swift by usual social standards, and the Beats were forever scattered, absorbed, whatever. Many of us geezers who are still around like to think of 1965 as the year the world changed.

In fact, we can even pinpoint the month and the day. It was Friday, December 3, 1965. The event was Bob Dylan’s San Francisco press conference at the KQED studio just prior to his five concert tour of the Bay Area.

Well, maybe this is a bit too precise for anal-retentive historians. But many of my fellow geezers will tell you that Dylan’s press conference was an hour of transition that stood squarely between Beat G and hippie counterculture. The seasoned Beats sometimes look at that event with swampy eyes. Beat G was morphing very fast, even before Dylan’s arrival in the City. After his press conference, Beat G seemed to vanish, forever.

KQED Studio

KQED was the City’s educational channel. It started broadcasting in 1954 from an old truck warehouse on 4th Street. The station was a completely volunteer effort, down to the second-hand furnishings. It also grew up with the Beat Generation and was an early, progressive voice for the arts of the time. If you were City Beat G, you knew and loved KQED because it gave you a voice and a vision. By 1965, the station was well established in the City, although it still struggled financially. It had become locally legendary for innovation in broadcasting and spoke to the artsy side of life in San Francisco.

Dylan was the musical voice of Beat G prior to his City press conference. But he also had a keen eye toward a future counterculture. His words were clear enough to those who would listen carefully. It was all about change, the same message that Beat G loved to hear and express. But it was just a little askew. Dylan’s album, Highway 61 Revisited, had a massive impact on Beat G as well as the new, still-forming counterculture movement. He spoke both languages and was constantly re-defining himself quicker than the rest of us could keep up. It was his December 1965 press conference that laid it all out most clearly, in plain English and in the City.

Dylan Press Conference

Looking at Dylan during the press conference paints the picture of Beat G, but just a tiny bit twisted out of shape. His music and words went beyond the aging message. It was clear that he was looking farther than the established limits, signaling something that transcended our localized art message. Dylan seemed to be calling for a more dramatic, universal view of the world that we had never envisioned. He was different, in nearly every way. Yet, for the Beat G folks, his message was also familiar.

Dylan was the essence of enigmatic, even for Beat G. He left us dangling, uncertain, and he seemed to thrive on the process. Was he just pimping the press or was he carving out a new direction? In December 1965, we weren’t sure. Within a year, we were all certain about it. Looking back, it seems obvious.

Check out a few of the press conference exchanges:

Press: Do you think of yourself primarily as a singer or poet?

Dylan: Oh, I think of myself as a song and dance man, ya’know.

Press: Why?

Dylan: Oh, I don’t think we have enough time to really go into that.

What! That was definitely not a traditional Beat G answer. Who was this guy who was not a poet yet wrote great poetry, was a lousy singer but created unforgettable music, and set himself up as a “song and dance man?” He was claiming a path that none of us expected, none of us could quite figure out.

Press: What poets do you dig?

Dylan Press Conference GleasonDylan: Rimbaud, I guess; W. C. Fields; The family, you know, the trapeze family in the circus; Smokey Robinson; Allen Ginsberg; Charlie Rich – he’s a good poet.

Wow! If you were Beat G, this came right out of left field. Who among us would have considered Smokey Robinsion and Allen Ginsberg in the same sentence? We were obviously hearing something very new here. We never gave much thought to the trapeze family, nor to W. C. Fields. In fact, we shunned the circus as much too square to be of consequence. W. C. Fields would never have been considered cool. That was pure heresy.

Press: If you were going to sell out to a commercial interest, which one would you choose?

Dylan: Ladies garments.

Press: Mr. Dylan, I know you dislike labels and probably rightfully so, but for those of us well over thirty, could you label yourself and perhaps tell us what your role is?

Dylan: Well, I’d sort of label myself as “well under thirty.” And my role is to just, ya’know, to just stay here as long as I can.

Dylan Press Conference PaperPress: Do you consider yourself a politician?

Dylan: Do I consider myself a politician? Oh, I guess so. I have my own party though.

Press: Does it have a name?

Dylan: No. There’s no presidents in the party – there’s no presidents, or vice presidents, or secretaries or anything like that, so it makes it kinda hard to get in.

Press: Is there any right wing or left wing in that party?

Dylan: No. It’s more or less in the center – kind of on the Uppity scale.

Uppity? My Lord of Beat! What is this guy trying to say here? Uppity is OK?

Press: Do you think your party could end the war with China?

Dylan: Uh – I don’t know. I don’t know if they would have any people over there that would be in the same kind of party, ya’know? It might be kind of hard to infiltrate. I don’t think my party would ever be approved by the White House or anything like that.

Press: Is there anyone else in your party?

Dylan: No. Most of us don’t even know each other, ya’know. It’s hard to tell who’s in it and who’s not in it.

Press: Would you recognize them if you see them?

Dylan: Oh, you can recognize the people when you see them.

Where is this guy heading? He’s a party of one! That’s about as anti-Beat G as you can get and still be a credible artist. Unheard of! So, the message is clear – art is about the individual, not the collective. Politics for one is good. Commercialsm has its place. Who needs Beat G anymore?

Press: Mr. Dylan, when would you know that it was time to get out of the music field into another field?

Dylan: When I get very dragged.

Press: When you stop making money?

Bob Dylan performing at St. Lawrence Universit...

Dylan: No. When my teeth get better – or God, when something makes a drastic – uh – when I start to itch, ya’know? When something just goes to a terrifying turn and I know it’s got nothing to do with anything and I know it’s time to leave.

OK, that’s the bottom line. There it is. You go your own way, on your own time, on your own dime. That’s a different message, for sure. No Beat G here, boss. It’s a world of one. Where have we been lurking all these years? Individualism was the word from this poet, and he had a loud voice.

By the time of this press conference, Dylan was already a prominent figure. He had influence, followers, Beat G’ers who gave him love. But he also embodied something that Beat G missed – unabashed, unashamed individuality. Dylan was going to go his own way, regardless. He was breaking new ground with each song, each appearance, each of his enigmatic one-liners. It was a zig-zag road trip, nothing familiar or comfortable. This was fresh stuff.

When Dylan spoke, it was with his own, unique voice. Willingly or not, he pointed out the fatal flaw with Beat G. We spoke mostly to ourselves, to our art, and not to the bigger world. For Dylan, it was all about finding his unique path and having no fear of playing it out in public throuh his art. He had walked away from the beloved folk music to folk-rock (although he denied it) and had a vision that could not be shared, or even understood at times.

By December 1965, it was clear enough that Beat G needed to move on, somehow. We each had to find our own path and could no longer live within the comfort of a small enclave, no matter how talented or ground-breaking its members.

Like Dylan, we had to change our game. There were no other options. Dylan finally broke our collective backs, probably without any awareness of the meaning. We had to be ourselves to be real, just like him.

Looking back, he did us a big favor. His legacy and his word-lessons were good.

You can read the entire Dylan press conference here, thanks to Rolling Stone. Thanks to Kripes ProBoards for the Dylan press conference images. Thanks to KQED for all they’ve done over the years, and for having the insight to bring Dylan to San Francisco.

A few other articles on San Francisco Beat G:

Soppy Writer Nostalgia and City Lights Books

The 1963 Novelist

Cool Beat G in 1963


49 thoughts on “Beat Generation Rollover of 1965

  1. The Phonyon staff does not hold Mr. Zimmerman among its favorites, though as your post reminds us, he was quite a transformative figure. Through the prism of 2013, his almost outsized influence seems all the more remarkable, especially given his “challenging” singing voice. One wonders if he would be even be a successful niche artist if he was born 40-50 years later?

    • That’s a great observation! I think he was at the perfect place at the perfect time for things to work out so well for him. At any rate, he was certainly a big part of the scene back then. Thanks, as always.

      • Perhaps successful, especially in the commercial sense, isn’t the right metric, but rather being “influential”, i.e. an artist’s artist with an enduring legacy.

        What do you think would have happened without Dylan? Any other candidates from the time who could have been such a singular catalyst, or would the nature of change have been roughly the same, with just different details?

      • Wow, another great question. I wish I had a great answer. I suppose there were others waiting in the wings. Nobody pops into this old mind at the moment, no one with the impact of Dylan. As you know from reading my other Beat G articles, I never saw it as a movement anyway. More of a personal journey. I suppose that kind of thinking could open the door to just about anyone, except W. C. Fields. Thanks.

  2. A great post – brought back lots of pleasant memories of the 60s era. Reading Dylan’s response to the questions, I get the feeling a lot of what he said was “tongue-in-cheek”. Dylan and Leonard Cohen are similar in their approach to music philosophy…neither one takes themselves seriously and this makes them stand out musicians. I would also add Willie Nelson to that list. They are one-of-a-kind!

  3. I am taking a nice little history of rock class on Coursera and this got my history/music senses all tingly to do some more further research. Thanks.

  4. You certainly stir up a lot of related questions.
    From the outset, you wonder where the beats went in relation to San Francisco (as if that was their only stronghold) and, by extension, neighboring Berkeley. But if we look closer, we can see many remained there, largely unseen as the spotlight shifted to Haight-Ashbury. The City Lights Bookstore, of course, has stood through all the changes.
    You also leave me wondering just what differentiates the beats from the hippies: an age divide, folk and jazz versus rock, choice of mind-altering substance, Zen versus yoga, liberal politics versus radical, even urban versus back-to-the-earth? The list goes on. Certainly many of us hippies idolized our beat models, and Gary Snyder, for one, returned the favor.
    To see Bob Dylan as the voice of either the beats or the hippie movement is problematic. His decision to go electrified was, of course, a shocking shot across the bow for those of us who thought of him as a folk music prophet, and his course since then has been highly erratic. In many ways, the KQED interview was one of several that made it impossible to take him seriously from that point on. Yes, he continued to produce remarkable work, but it was all over the map, leaving no clear message or map to follow.
    On top of it all, America has been in a state of psychological denial when it comes to the hippie movement and its legacy. It’s time to see both the beats and the hippies clearly, without the usual stereotypes.

  5. Pingback: Beat Generation Rollover of 1965 | bronxdailyblog

  6. What a great post.i adore pieces as this.I try to research so much of the 60’s.Missed my true era.And i learned a great deal from your writings.Thank you so very much

  7. What a fantastic post. Where my music obsession seems central to swinging 60’s London, the Beat poets drive my literary fascinations. This post begs the question; have you read the Bob Dylan Chronicles Volume 1? Dylan is apparently working on Volume 2 and personally I can’t wait to read it.

  8. Pingback: Beat Generation Rollover of 1965 | Politeknik NSC Surabaya

  9. Fascinating take on Dylan. I’d never thought of him as the bridge between the Beat Generation and Hippie Culture but it really makes sense!

  10. Quality post. I love reading about those times. I think I was born in the wrong era. I wish I could have been there and met Kerouac, Ginsberg, Kesey, Dylan, and the million other influential beat generation people.

  11. Well done. It was a fun interview, reminiscent of The Beatles’ interviews circa Hard Day’s Night. (Didn’t someone above quote the “Are you a mod or a rocker” question?) But of course, with a sharper edge.

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