Next time you sip that espresso with organic, gluten-free sesame muffin, and listen to a open-mike poet at your favorite local café, you’re in debt to a culture and a time long obscured by the flood of history. A typical evening at the café included a round or two of poets reading accompanied by bongo drums, while fellow beats sat around sipping espresso. At times a painter would use the blank wall as a canvas for his colorful expressions. You might have heard Stu Perkoff reciting his piece about a physically and spiritually complete life:
Feasts of Love, Feasts of Death by Stu Perkoff
sitting on the benches, bodies warm & throats filled with joy & love
we offered worship
sitting warm, eyes & skin touching, love flowing
we offered worship
& spoke languages & poems
offered worship & love
mixing the birds of passion & the swords of God
in our beautiful young eyes
If you’re in the LA area, the direct line to your coffee place, the Osteria Venice West, faces the boardwalk in Venice. Look across Dudley St. from Osteria Venice West in Venice (formerly Los Angeles’ beach slum and now the high-tech Silicon Beach) and you’ll see the restored, chic Cadillac Hotel. In that beachfront block, where tourists, inner city visitors, homeless drunks, street vendors, and occasional locals like myself mix in a bouillabaisse of humanity, it’s not hard to imagine LA’s fifties counter-culture congregating here 55 years ago. Like today’s eclectic crowd, the beatniks, refugees from “squaresville,” hunkered down in this space then known as Venice West Café. Some lived across the street in the Cadillac, at that time a low-rent boarding house.
This is the only site from that era recognized by a city of Los Angeles historic marker of the Beatnik scene of the Fifties in LA. Other Venice Beat locations such as the Gas House (now a vacant lot filled with weekend vendors of tourist paraphernalia) and Lawrence Lipton’s house on Park Ave don’t get that modest respect. But Osteria Venice West houses the spirit and vibe of the beatniks that begat the hippie culture, which in turn continues to impact our world through the counter-cultural ideas of yoga, organic food, classic rock, environmental concern, and global community.
Although some of the heroes of the hippies in the sixties and seventies had their beginnings in the Beatnik world (Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, and others), I knew next to nothing about the Beatniks. As a former history teacher and an original Hippie, soon after I turned 65 I began to look backwards to hippie’s forbears—the Beats. (There’s something about reaching that magic number, which I’ll go into on another occasion.) After graduating from UC Berkeley in the seventies, I moved to Venice: At the time the vestiges of what had been a slum and refuge for artists, hippies, and other low-income individuals still lingered. Funky (a word coined by the Beats) and casual, I felt right at home in Ocean Park/ Venice.
Alienated and not just a bit lazy, most of the Beats were young men who landed in Venice initially because it had fallen on hard times. Once a bold and glorious real estate development, Abbott Kinney’s Venice of America offered the burgeoning city of Los Angeles a beach fantasy land complete with canals, luxury hotels, amusements, and casinos. Kinney and his partner Francis Ryan had planned a massive project from Ballona Lagoon on the south to Santa Monica Pier to the north. But due to a business conflict, they split and the northern piece, Ocean Park, went to Ryan and was eventually annexed by the city of Santa Monica. Kinney established Venice of America in 1905. It was an immediate big hit, but over the years as most flashy scenes do, Venice faded. Starting in the twenties and with the advent of Prohibition a gang element took over. Followed by the Depression and then World War II, by the forties Venice’s former glory was just a memory with the old hotels turned into rooming houses for the elderly and poor.
Perfect for artists and bohemians with its cheap rents away from meddling by the power brokers of LA, it soon became a magnet for alienated young men and women who wanted to drop out from the mainstream. To distinguish themselves from the squares, a slang developed that would assist a beatnik in determining a wannabee square from a fellow beat. Many of their terms, ranging from “cool” to “cop-out” to “funky” to “turn on” to “shack-up” and many others are still in use today.
On the contrary: The counter-culture known as hippie, which grew out of the beat subculture, although also anti-establishment, had a vision more idealistic, hopeful, and celebratory. Rather than sitting around in black turtlenecks and goatees reading Howl and listening to introspective jazz and hitting on “horse” or heroin, Hippies wore colorful costumes and grew long hair and convened love-ins in parks where they danced, painted faces, and tripped on mind-expanding drugs. The Hippie movement caught on with millions in the sixties and its’ lifestyles and principles spread through out society, attracting young and young-thinking people world-wide with an optimistic vision for the future.
As an ardent participant in the hippie movement, I knew our antecedents were in the beats. And I’ve lived in Venice/Ocean Park for over forty years, but I knew very little about them. Sure, I’d read Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Snyder, and Ginsberg, but knew little of their beliefs, values, and culture. After reading a historical summary of Venice West, a visit to the seminal beat location seemed appropriate. It would be a kind of pilgrimage to my cultural ancestors, akin to visiting Gethsemane in Jerusalem or Trieste Cafe or City Lights Books in San Francisco or CG Jung’s tower near Zurich. Everyday places now, but sites of cultural significance.
Venice West Café Expresso was established by Stuart Perkoff in mid-1958 to capitalize on the growing trend in coffeehouses. He and a partner bought 7 Dudley Pl, former shul (a Jewish meeting house) and later bleach factory . They ripped off the plaster and exposed the brick walls. On opening day a hand printed sign announced Art is Love is God. Perkoff, one of the original Venice Beat poets, had recently broken with Lawrence Lipton, whose January 1959, firsthand account of the burgeoning Beat scene, The Holy Barbarians, attracted national attention to the area. Feuding with Lipton and running short on funds Perkoff sold the café in Janaury 1959, just before Holy Barbarians‘ publication in February, 1959.
The book sparked widespread interest in the beats and soon throngs of wannabees, weekend Beatniks, and tourists descended on the area and Venice West Café. At times a painter would use the blank wall as a canvas for his colorful expressions. Often one could hear a poet spouting his (they were almost always men) verse backed by a bongo player and/ or jazz musicians. The café flourished, but eventually after years fighting closure by the city due to complaints by uncool, non-Beat neighbors, Venice West closed in 1965.
On my visit to the site of Venice West, I noticed how much and how little has changed in Venice. Within 50 feet of the now luxury café, Osteria Venice West, the homeless population congregates and hits up city day-trippers with crafts and sullen stares. Recently next door at the Candle Café, I attempted to have a calm conversation with a friend while a rag-tag crew of ‘musicians’ played amplified instruments and passed the bucket. Is it fair to say they are the descendants of the Beatniks? They still play music, create “art,” and take a lot of drugs and alcohol. Or is the proprietor of the organic, gourmet restaurant?
The borderlines of counter-cultures are never sharp and constantly shifting as ideas get absorbed and co-opted into the mainstream. But in exploring the roots of bohemian Venice, I discovered that alternative values such as free-love, creative expression and individuality don’t belong to any one “movement.” Like the flowing garb of the Hippies and the free verse of the Beatniks, the counter-culture is constantly shifting and not limited by any label. Once the site of an innovative tourist attraction, followed by decay, poverty, Beatnik drop-outs, Hippie idealists and today by Silicon Beach techies, Venice has always offered a break from the cookie-cutter, ersatz world of consumer culture.
Although of short duration and small numbers, the beat influence has been surprisingly long lasting. In addition to its gifts to the vernacular and our coffee tastes, it also left us the drum circle which continues to this day on Sundays on Venice Beach. And like many counter-cultures, it encouraged sexual liberation, eschewed ethnic bigotry, and advocated an anti-war creed. Its’ embrace of cool jazz and cannabis predicted the wide dissemination of such tastes. And most importantly, the Beats recognized that mindless consumerism was a hamster-wheel, which research psychologists have confirmed does NOT lead to greater happiness or life satisfaction.
A key feature of Beat was the acceptance that anyone is a creative soul. One didn’t have to get an MFA to spout poetry or write a novel or throw paint on a canvas. What mattered was your authenticity and soul. The Beat movement was the first counter-culture to practice and encourage that the freedom to create is available to everyone. Their vision seeded today’s creativity explosion seen in the availability of on-line video, print-on-demand books, blogs such as this, and sound clouds, where anyone with the courage and the urge can be an ‘artist’ and publish their creations.
More than a trend or a style, the Beats demonstrated that ‘living in society and not of it’ is possible. So, when you down an espresso or attend an open-mike, you’re sampling a bit of Beatnik.