pete edler

les beat sont faits

Anthropologically, it’s quite possible that humans on our planet evolved in two or several places simultaneously. similarly, during the 1950s, the beat underground in San Francisco developed simultaneously with existentialist bohemia evolving in Paris. the common seminal denominator for these two cultural phenomena must have been World War II and its aftermath, causing disillusionment among the young and the not-so-young.

In Les Jeux Sont Faits, Jean Paul Sartre posts two principal reasons for dying and death – loyalty compromised and love betrayed. He suggests death as the inability to love. In American beat culture these spiritual premises manifested as a rejection of post-war materialism with its rampant, wasteful consumerism. However, while beats rejected the values and practices of the American consumer culture, they adopted its overabundance as the foundation for their own survival. As for a philosophy, they never formulated one.

Living on the fringes of what they defined as the straight or square society, they lived in low-rental housing, bought their clothes in thrift stores. With the dollar strong and stable through the 50s and 60s odd jobs provided sufficient income for modest living. Lack of ambition as defined by the American consumer society was an obvious beat characteristic, tolerance of diversity another. San Francisco bohemia was a naturally integrated culture that thrived happily below the poverty line as defined by the consumer society.

At the height of the flourishing beat culture Big Daddy Eric Nord, known as Father of the Beats, organized a bus tour for North Beach beats. These denizens of bohemia were ferried to the epicenter of San Francisco consumerism around downtown Union Square, then taken on a guided tour through high-end department stores like Neiman-Marcus, I. Magnin, Joseph Magnin and Saks Fifth Avenue, to be acquainted with the - to them - exotic marvels of high-price shopping. The walking distance between Washington Square in the heart of North Beach (where the sightseeing tour started) and downtown Union Square is 15 minutes max, driving there took all of 7 minutes – it might as well have been a trip from the moon to Earth.

With this in mind, there’s a spooky twist – evolution come full circle. Today, half a century after that beat safari into King Mammon’s Mines, the Beat Museum in North Beach is offering a guided nostalgia tour to spots where beats used to hang out. Like traveling back to the moon to look for the human footprint.

Apropos space travel - soon after the Soviets launched Sputnik in October 57, the San Francisco Chronicle’s star columnist Herb Caen coined the term beatnik, providing a convenient handle for media and public perception. For North Beach bohemia the word had a derogatory connotation, the nik alluding to Soviet-style communism, thus assigning an un-American element to those so labeled. Later, the suffix was used to fashion other unflattering labels, such as peacenik, nogoodnik, etc.

Calling people with a bohemian life style beatniks also made them more targetable for police attention. From the late fifties to the mid-sixties (when attention shifted from North Beach to the Haight-Ashbury district with its emerging hippie culture), so-called beatniks were categorically and systematically subjected to harassment by police, with rogue cops like Messrs Bigarimi (or was it Bigarami?) and Buckman fiercely overzealous in pursuit of their duties. To be fair it should be said that casual use of marijuana was widespread among San Franciscans with a bohemian or bohemianate lifestyle, which latter included thousands of people from all walks of life in the straight world of the traditionally freewheeling city Herb Caen liked to call Baghdad-by-the-Bay.

In media view beatniks were lazy, dirty and poor, not necessarily in that order, spending much of their time smoking marijuana, drinking wine and playing bongo and conga drums or listening to music. Note how closely these clichés resemble the stereotypical view white society in those days held of black Americans – the media had created an identifiable white underclass on a par with blacks. Nor did North Beach bohemia show much solidarity with those they might have considered kindred spirits. Comments like "I’m not a beatnik!", "You think I’m some kinda beatnik?", "Damn beatniks!" were frequently heard, though often delivered with an ironic edge that implied an awareness of kinship. Still, a semantic wedge had been driven into the beat community.

The picture of 50s and 60s San Francisco bohemia that has evolved through the decades is not simply a spurious media hype but incorporates what writers Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti and a handful of others have defined of beat culture. However, it should be remembered that Kerouac, Burroughs and even Ginsberg, who spent relatively long periods in the Bay Area, related much more to the East Coast than to California, which meant they were visitors passing through rather than resident members of North Beach street bohemia. The two works of fiction that best exemplify this distinction are Kerouac’s ‘The Subterraneans’ and Jerry Kamstra’s ‘The Frisco Kid’. With a few simple changes, ‘The Subterraneans’ might be set in existentialist Paris – indeed the Hollywood movie based on it stars Leslie Caron (and George Peppard) – while ‘The Frisco Kid’ powerfully and unalterably recreates day-to-day life in bohemian North Beach. Kamstra, of course, has been a distinctive resident fixture of North Beach and California beat culture and lore since the fifties.

To say Jack Kerouac with ‘On the Road’ initiated beat culture would amount to saying Mark Twain initiated slavery with ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’. However, as the ultimate road novel of the 50s, ‘On the Road’ glamorized an adventurous, transient lifestyle that was of tremendous appeal to young readers. Its innovative narrative flow and casual tolerance of sexuality and drugs sent a seductive message to young America – so seductive that the book, and its author, were perceived as subversive by the media. Like Henry Miller before him, Jack Kerouac was treated as an eccentric drifter, a freak, rather than a great American writer in the tradition of Twain and London.

Meanwhile, existentialism - conceived and led by Jean Paul Sartre - had become a powerful cultural phenomenon and motivational force in Paris. Its impact on Parisian lifestyles was tremendous. The great city took to existentialism like a duck takes to water – de Beauvoir, Piaf, Greco, Brel, Aznavour, Belmondo, Sagan - literally dozens of names in literature, cinema, music and the arts happily added existentialist gloss to their images. Some say French philosophy never recovered from Sartre, but existentialist thinking profoundly affected French art and popular culture, not just in the 50s and 60s but to this very day. The same can hardly be said for the beat spirit.

Unlike existentialism, which grew out of Sartre’s writings, to encourage new lifstyles, beat was the result of a new lifestyle, a word that defined a lifestyle rather than creating it. And beat as an active dynamic was rather short-lived, spawning the hippie culture as it began to fade. The hippie phenomenon of course has proved much more tenacious, probably because it in turn spawned a new musical culture, introducing acid rock and featuring the original San Francisco bands – Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Sopwith Camel, Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Amplified Om and others.

Brief (some 10 years) as the dynamic phase of beat may have been, it can be seen as a tremendously creative, stimulating, culturally innovative phenomenon. Its greatest merit beyond innovation in poetry and prose perhaps was to introduce California-style laissez-faire lifestyle into regimented post-war America. Its stimulants of choice were wine and marijuana. With the introduction of LSD on a broader scale in the mid-60s, scope and direction of the beat impetus morphed into hippie culture whose communal drive and innovative musical talent made it immensely attractive to young people. In biblical parlance one might say that San Francisco Bohemia begat Beat and Beat begat Hippie …

So what of beat today, what remains? Well, there is memory, media history, a niche in poetry, fiction. There are archives, the iconic marquee headliners – Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti et al. Remember that most of those who were young in the 50s, most of adult beat bohemia then, passed through the hippie era, acquiring a hippie patina, to say nothing of the short-lived yippie and the longer lived yuppie patina. A 71-year old like myself, who lived in San Francisco through the 60s and most of the 70s, is a lot of other things beside still being beat or thinking of himself as beat. He may feel a twinge of nostalgia now and then, yes. However, the one thing that remains from that period of his life, the most important thing, something that involves a modicum of pride, which in turn requires watering and tending now and then is – roots!

They say Once a beat always a beat. Or, as you’re likely to hear in the Great Casino Bohemia in the Sky, called out in a loud, clear voice that curiously resembles Sartre’s: "Mesdames et Messieurs, faites vos jeux – rien ne beat plus!"

©Peter Edler 2006


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