It’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 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.
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.
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: 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.
Press: 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?
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: