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

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:


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.

The 1963 Novelist

beat generation

It’s a blessing that the old days are behind us. Back then, writing was strange, life-altering, completely crazy and not very healthy. I think today’s writers have found a better way. Still, it’s fun to remember.

Do not try this silliness at home. Ever.

I’m thinking 1963 or so. Near the end of the Beat Generation. I’m remembering how it all worked, the protocols, the habits and customs for chasing the muse. Looking back, it seems bizarre and downright alien. I’m surprised so many of us survived it.

The protocols were known to most writers, adored by many, but mostly useless to real creativity. They served a purpose unique to that generation and time.

The Beat Generation

Get loaded. Step one was critical. Get stoned, drunk, flocked, strung-out, zipped, flayed, and buzzed. At least one of those was necessary. The great writers, the real inspirations, did several at once. It was a regular ritual. Of course, we all knew we would never die, so why not let it all loose? The point was to unleash the muse so you could a-muse yourself and stun all your writer friends with unanticipated feats of creativity.

Get together. After the zipping came the get-together. There were haunts. Secret places that only writer-artists frequented. Well, there were a few artists on the scene. The rest of us were wannabes. But that didn’t matter. We could talk the talk, walk the walk with the best of them. Coffee houses were primo spots. Similar hangs. Anywhere the muse would gather with intensity. It had to be dark, flooded with cool music, and stand apart from all tourists and normal folk.

Bitch about the world. You had to be dissatisfied to be a real writer. There was no point in being happy about the Universe, except when you were super-duper-loaded, which was considered uncool. Bitch, moan, groan, grumble and mumble. It was the secondary fuel to get your writer friends talking. Since talking didn’t come naturally, the zippy state of mind and the secret haunt would always do the trick, if you could whine effectively. If you didn’t have a stick up your posterior, you just weren’t cool. If you weren’t cool, you weren’t an artist. The key was to be dissatisfied. You could never be an important writer unless everything was wrong.

The Beat Museum on Broadway Street in San Fran...

Get a little higher. Now that everyone was gathered, time to refuel. Whatever it was that got your high going, it was time to do more of it. That usually meant drinking. We weren’t all that experimental back then. That came later, when the hippies took over and gave us all the boot. Forget wine. Go right to the hard, and do it hard. If you used water or ice, you were a wimp. Wimps could never be real writers.

Spew crappy ideas. This was key. Throw out some really stupid writing ideas. The crazier the better. There was a twofold purpose here. First, you didn’t want to give away the real thing, that special story line you knew would change the world. So, you threw out pure doo-doo. Second, it was a special test of artistry. Back then, really dumb ideas could become really popular, overnight. Sometimes they actually weren’t so dumb. Sometimes they were innovative and ground-breaking. So, throw it out there and see who bites. But always keep the really good stuff in your back pocket. This was not yet the Love Generation. It was Beat or get eaten.

Destroy the crappy ideas. You guessed it. Next was the Roman-style death of all ideas. Each one had to be addressed. Each was torn apart, ridiculed, dissected and usually impaled. If the idea wasn’t all that dull, it got the slightest head nod from the group just before it was put to death. That didn’t happen often. It was usually a feeding frenzy. Nothing was spared.


A little more juice. Time for refills, all around. Getting late now. Gotta keep the muse alive and jumping. The desperate group-search for the next extraordinary idea has, once again, fallen on its backside.

Out come the notebooks. Everyone scribbled for a few moments. Nothing was legible but it was vital to scribble, to seal the deal by doing what all important writers were known to do – take notes. Everyone had these little blue notebooks, the kind that could easily slip into a jacket pocket. If you didn’t have one of those, you were an outcast, unclean, never destined to be a successful writer. So they all scribbled. Never show your notebook to anyone. Never.

Weed time. The bold ones go around the corner and smoke. The others order one more from the well. A huge act of defiance out there with the weeders. They were bold, avant-garde, the real deal. Inside, the last round for the rest of us, so go out with mucho gusto. The muse is somewhere else, trying to get sober.

Back to bitching. Just for a few moments.

Getting drowsy.

Getting bored.

Time to go home and write something.

See you tomorrow.

Soppy Writer Nostalgia and City Lights Books

City Lights BeatNostalgia 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.

Ferlinghettin at City Lights in 2007Perhaps 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.

Allen GinsbergI 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.

City Lights BookstoreMostly, 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.

City Lights InsideStill, 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?