Creative Expression

Venice West: No Longer Beat Down

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

               we sang

& spoke languages & poems

offered worship & love

mixing the birds of passion & the swords of God

in our beautiful young eyes

 

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The  Beat scene 1959 at Venice West

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.

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Original Venice West

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.

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The author on  the  scene 2016

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.

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Osteria Venice West Cafe today

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.

plaque Venice West

Giving respect to  the  tradition (on the wall at the site)

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Categories: Community, Creative Expression, Discover / Adventure, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Getting Called Out at Little Beach, Maui (creative expression/ community)

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Descent to Little Beach

“Hey man, why you reading the paper?  It’ll bring you down,” said a young man at the weekly celebration at Little Makena Beach on the Hawaiian Island of Maui. Awoken from miasma, his words blasted me back to the present.  I came all the way here from LA, to change my routines and attitude and after only two days, I fell into my pattern from home:  Distracting my ‘here and now’ with reading.  In front of me a crowd of 20 free-spirits danced, drummed, twirled batons and hula hoops and surrounding them a 100+ multi-generational crowd mostly indulged in the clothing optional-custom of this hidden beach.

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Wild ones on the Beach & a stray old hippie

 

My accuser was a skinny guy, about 23, with long, blondish hair wearing a headband and glistening smile.  He moved easily and quickly from one group or individual to another like he was the host of the event.  Of course no one leads this neo-hippie scene, the whole event emerges ad-hoc.  But this man, Joshua, played the maitre de of Little Beach, first drumming, then pulling a six-pack of beer out of a cooler and passing one to whoever he meets, myself included, then stopping for a hit off a joint and talking with a group of three young women, and then prancing down to the beach for a chat with an older guy with a long,  gray beard.  No generation-gap here.

The tropical sun blazed down on the revelers and I desperately sought some shade.  Back home I enjoy hot, sunny days, but this was too much and I hid in the shade of trees on the periphery of the beach.  That’s when the young host zapped me with the lightning bolt—‘Be here now.’

After miles and miles of jumble of big condo developments and tourist shopping centers in Kihei, the road goes through the antiseptic, planned community of Wailea with  its luxury hotel resorts and golf courses and the speed limit ratchets down inexplicably to 20 mph.  Not surprisingly hiding around corners and in  the bushes police wait for the celebrating Little Beachers.  I’ve been coming to Little Beach for decades on my many trips to Maui.  As in most cool places I’ve visited all over the world, the original tip came by word of mouth.  Someone in the tourist center said, “You might like Little Makena Beach.  You get there by driving past the luxury Makena Resort to Makena Beach State Park south of Kihei and park at Makena Beach State Park.”  Makena Beach offers a wide comfortable beach and some basic facilities, but  you have to know that somewhere over a lava outcropping lies a hippie haven.

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Carefully edited view of the Beach

 

Back in the day the original hippies crawled over the rocks and in the secluded cove let go of clothes and inhibitions and ‘cleverly’ named it Little Beach. The word spread and the Sunday afternoon bacchanal grew into a tradition and legend in the hippie world.  Nowadays one sees mostly younger folks like the young man who woke me up that day, but mixed in the crowd are many gray-haired celebrants.

Maui is like that now.  My first visit in 1976 etched the placed in my soul as a tropical idyll.  Beautiful scenery ranges from volcanoes to deserts to rain forest to tourist beaches , while at  the same time it is a typical American small city with all of the conveniences from Home Depot to Costco. But in those days for us Maui was a nature adventure.  A company called Beach Boy Camper Holidays rented converted pick-up trucks that we parked at any beach park and camped for free.  It was the anti-tourist tour of Hawaii.  That freedom of movement combined my priorities, freedom of movement and comfort.  Stop where and when you feel it and relax.  Maybe that underlies the appeal of the RV culture of today, freedom and comfort.

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Firesticks and dancers at sunset

 

Of course, the whole world is a lot more packaged these days.  Finding and participating in the free expression of Little Beach revived the part of me that is still 25. But it is difficult to find, since I just don’t travel in those globe-trotting young peoples’ circles these days.  No hitch-hiking, not much hanging out in bars, and needing a bit more comfort (bed and warm shower).  Stoked I stayed til almost sunset, and as I left groups of people were just arriving with their drums and batons and ice chests.  The night  brings on a wild fire dance I’m told.

On this trip to Maui I had the good fortune to drop into a group of free-spirited young people.  I rented a room via AirBnB, because I wanted to stay in a locals’ neighborhood.  The room and the house provided what I needed, plus the unexpected benefit of hanging with free-spirited youth.  As it happened, the owner was out of town and he had a friend stay to supervise the rooms.

About 24, she quickly invited her new boyfriend to stay.  About 22 with long hair with an occasional penchant for wearing long dresses, he had recently left a work/ stay arrangement at an organic farm and now was looking for work as a waiter.  Another day, a friend of his from home (Grand Rapids, MI) arrived who worked as a tree-cutter.  Finally a third guy who is a medical marijuana care-giver came from Michigan for a short visit.  So, we had an instant communal crash pad, just like I experienced in the seventies.  Someone scored a place to stay in a cool place, and the crew showed up.

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Pondering the ephemeral aspect at Buddhist cemetery

 

Like me, they had come to Maui searching for something different from home and its routines.  My Venice home serves me well, but it gets old after awhile, more so since I jumped out of the rat race.   Some older, retired people share this with young people:  We’re both free of most responsibilities and the adventurous ones break out:  The world calls, wanderlust hits and at the slightest hint or suggestion, it’s off to on a new adventure.  Even in touristy Maui.

Maui hit the spot for an easy break from the mainland routine.  The weather is almost always perfect, spectacular natural sights await, and has all the comforts of home.  For me as an adventure traveler it takes some adjusting, because the edginess that appeals to me is hard to find. But the revelry, expression,  and connection of Little Beach made it for me.  Don’t miss it, even if you weren’t a hippie.  Fun can be infectious.

Categories: Community, Creative Expression | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Is This All There Is? Nope! Courage, Creativity, & Commitment (reinvention)

Most people have hidden in their souls—“I always wanted to…”

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Formula One race at Spa in  the  Sixties

When I was fourteen, while living in France with my parents, we attended a Formula One championship automobile race at Spa, Belgium.  The roar of the cars, the beautiful girls, and the international jet set congealed into a full-fledged teenage fantasy for me.  I wanted to grow up to be a race car driver.  I eventually outgrew that dream and many others along the way to adulthood, career, and now ‘retirement.’  Most, if not all of my childhood dreams turned out to be fantasies, not grounded in the real world. How many people can actually be an NBA star or have a hit record?  Like it or not optimism and hope can only take you so far, after all the hard work and discipline as noted entrepreneurial expert, Joe Robinson says, “Luck always factors in.”

Most people give up those fanciful dreams and accept the received values, tastes, and activities of society to define their life.  They find a tribe or group to identify with (often sold by the media) and then emulate those opinions, tastes, and values.   But they don’t renew or inspire, because they can’t.  They came from someone else.  Renewal later in life compels shifting goals from the extrinsic (money, status) to the intrinsic.  Unless some kind of lightning bolt from the Pollyanna’s Secret hits me, I probably won’t write a number 1 best seller, so it behooves me to focus on inner goals for satisfaction and achievement.  But inner goals are inherently squishy, so I look for metrics to confirm I’m succeeding, but not for fame or money, but to confirm I reach people.  I still want achievement, just like back in the career days, but of a different kind.

Occasionally, a certain mood descends on me.  Recently, I woke up at 3 am and stared at the ceiling.  Thoughts bombarding the stillness:  What is the point in writing and publishing?  Who really cares?  Later that day, I went to my local non-chain coffee house and looked out the big picture window and watched people in business attire scurrying around.  I once played that role and quit when the suit became too small for my soul.  I don’t want to go back, but keeping on the path of renewal and reinvention isn’t easy either.

I’ve achieved a lot of my inner and outer goals since retiring (art exhibition, publishing three books, Victoria Falls, getting up late every day, and more), but not all.  Some goals elude me. I either don’t have the perseverance (learning guitar) or the courage to start over (move to the tropics).  I still have a bucket list, but at times the will to pursue disappears.  Then it is time to renew and like this season, autumn, let the dead bury the dead.  As this season demonstrates, leaves fall and a new cycle begins.

Reinventing takes work and like a job requires time, effort, and maintenance to sustain it.  I chronicled my initial reinvention journey in Living the Dream Deferred and at times it was tough, at least as tough as advancement in my original career in education.  Now that I’ve been into it for a few years, I can report that real re-inventors are few. Most retirees settle into some long time leisure interest and occasional volunteer work, traveling, or continue their original career.  For brave or crazy few that strike out into the brave, new world, it is an on-going process.

Real reinvention demands courage, creativity, and commitment–courage to take risks, creativity to find your own path, and commitment to mission.  But different from the first half of life, my goals have become more intrinsic, less extrinsic.  The extrinsic markers, (in my case; sell a few books, get some hits on the website) don’t sustain without an underlying purpose or mission.

Courage is not about being fearless or getting rid of fear.   It takes heart to pursue a dream and look silly, stupid, bad and then get up and do it again.  As the renowned teacher Osho says, “Courage does not guarantee you get what you want, but you WILL grow.” In my life, I’ve always welcomed the excitement of the unknown whether traveling to foreign countries or transferring to a new job—the novelty effect.  Courage opens the door to learn new stuff, meet new friends.   In other words—grow.

 

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Expression Is Liberation Reception 2009

Creativity works symbiotically with courage.   We’re all creative all the time, albeit usually unconsciously.  But a consciously creative life fulfills a deep longing.  I never knew how much I wanted to express myself creatively, until on a whim I took a painting class and experienced the joy of thought-free expression.  After a few years of painting abstracts, I was invited to have a show of my work.  (Don’t get too impressed, the venue was a hair salon).  Rummaging for a title to the show it hit me, what does painting do for me?  Liberation.  When painting I break out of my constant stream of thoughts, and give form to feelings without words.  I called the exhibit Expression As Liberation.  If I can do it anyone can.  I have zero natural talent in painting.

 

Creativity provides an intrinsic reward.  When I focus on writing or painting, time flies.  Neurotic fears and anxieties fade and the muse/ creative flows.  And once awakened, the muse doesn’t like to go back in the bottle.  The muse can be a jealous lover.  At times inner resistance arises and I miss several days writing and my mood goes south.  On the other hand, when the muse has had her due; the traffic doesn’t bother me so much, the cloudy day doesn’t seem so dreary, and I expect good news from those I encounter.

Sustaining creative endeavors at any time takes commitment, but even more for older individuals who learn slower.   After the thrill of ‘beginner mind’ expression wears off, even minor intrinsic goals of progress often elude the older learner. How does one persevere through the inevitable doubt and failure?  I found it helps, when the form of expression lies embedded in my early years.

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Former high school principal seeking  freedom

 

In my twenties, I wanted to change the world through writing investigative exposes like Woodward and Bernstein, but quit writing (except for the occasional barroom poem) due to the profession’s inherent instability.  Five years ago I picked up my poetry again, did some open-mikes and eventually published.  The creative wheels greased, I then pontificated on local politics from my blog SM Babylon.  My blog exploring reinvention, Living the Dream Deferred, followed.  Now, when my commitment fades, I remember my young and idealistic self who wanted to change the world through writing, and then put hands to keyboard.

As a youth I imagined freedom would be behind the wheel of a Formula One car.  The road course of life has taken me through many detours, dark tunnels, and box canyons, even now in post-career life.  Dead-ends may slow me down, but I don’t stop.   Freedom is an inside job with outside activities.  If a roadblock appears then I make a pit stop for support and recovery, then get back in the race.  The power to persist comes from deep seated, sometimes unconscious passions, desires, and talents.  I regularly ask myself:  Can I self-validate?  What are my intrinsic goals and values?  How do I detach from external pressures?

Retirement from the career world is a chance to reinvent, maybe take on a new identity, and rekindle the flame of life.   Dig down and release your creativity, find the courage to experiment, and make the commitment to cross the river to renewal.

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Creative Expression Pops Up in Retired Teacher (creative expression)

LivingtheDream-p175“I wanted to be a rock drummer before I finally settled into teaching for a career. And when I retired I realized that dream was no longer feasible.” An old friend on the path of personal/ spiritual growth recently shared this insight from his home outside of Portland, OR. I met this guy back in the 80s at a zen sesshin at Mt Baldy, CA. We instantly recognized in each other kindred souls on the path and over the years frequently shared, argued, and discussed our youthful ideals and how to apply them in our thirties and beyond. A peripatetic sort, he was raised in the East Bay of San Francisco, attended college in San Diego, completed an MFA in Boulder, and ultimately settled down to a high school teaching career in Oregon and stopped writing.

Our tumultuous friendship has always offered the quality I need in close friendships—inquiry and truth telling. Not an easy skanking connection, but the kind that pushes me to think deeply and honestly about work, relationships, and life. Zenman (not his real name) doesn’t have time for superficial small talk. He digs for the deeper story, meaning, and feeling. A facile, but sometimes cranky, practitioner of what Daniel Goleman calls narrow and big focus, he has little patience for lazy thinking and societal shibboleths. He gets down, present, and authentic in every conversation and yet concurrently maintains awareness of how it all fits into a systemic big picture.

In a recent typically wide ranging and rambling conversation, he mentioned that he had picked up writing again because he couldn’t go back to that youthful dream of rock drumming. After retiring with the psychic and time demands of work gone, something called him to create again. These days he is writing and sharing new and old pieces. I said, “Right on! That is it!” The urge to express was always there and now he has the time to do it. Updating the dream (dropping the rock drummer fantasy) opened the space for living a new/ old dream. Now, Zenman writes regularly and soulfully.

What is this urge to create? I experience it as the impulse to drop my awareness from my head to my heart, in other words dropping analysis. Once I get going, it resembles a dam that is filled with water that must be drained. A little stream of water relieves the pressure, but draining the reservoir of water reveals a lot of detritus that has clogged the system. When I practice my creative arts, a flood of unexpected feelings, memories, and ideas are revealed. Letting the water out by writing a poem or making a painting satisfies me in a way that reading another book or going to a music concert or playing tennis can’t. It happens differently in painting from writing poetry. Regardless the creative flow and energy satisfies my soul. At times procrastination prevails with the Resistance that Steven Pressfield describes in The War of Art and blocks expression til I take that first step and start. Then the old maxim —The hotter the battle, the sweeter the victory—spurs me on. Today I won the battle with my old friend procrastination, but tomorrow is another day.

Categories: Creative Expression | Tags: , , , ,

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