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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

 

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.

Venice West Aug '16

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.

venice west outside

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)

Categories: Community, Creative Expression, Discover / Adventure, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Falling to Earth in New Mexico

 

panorama White Sands

coolio

picnic benches all in a row 102 degrees

David Bowie’s recent passing prompted tons of commentary on his unique contribution to pop culture.  More than a rock star (he never won a music Grammy), and not quite a movie star, his variety of personae invited the public to observe the variability of our personal identities.  His first film, The Man Who Fell to Earth established him as an actor (he studied acting before becoming a pop star) and as a shape-shifter.  Not unlike how we saw him shape-shift in public and musical life.  In it  Bowie portrays an alien who crashes to earth alone, a stranger in a strange land.  He soon finds ways to capitalize on his advanced knowledge and becomes an international economic power.  But his character always seems out of sorts, not fully present even as he takes on human characteristics and relationships.

During the film Bowie gets homesick and remembers his wife and kids and we see footage of their hollow faces and chapped skin.  Their world had dried up, gotten too hot and they sent Newton (Bowie) out to our water planet on a scouting mission.  We never really learn what he intended to do, because  while using his special knowledge and  powers to build  the world’s greatest corporation, the authorities catch on and he gets grounded on earth  and can’t go home to his dying  planet.

Released in 1974, it predicted the global warming, we’re grappling with now.  Directed by Nicholas Roeg  with many hard camera angles and cuts and populated by sharp-edged, one-dimensional characters, the message is clear: We’re too dumb to do what’s  good for us.  That contrasts with 2015’s trite,  all-American solution,  to earth’s drying up, Interstellar—planets are disposable, build on a new one.

wadda you see

I can see for miles and miles

The Man Who Fell to Earth uncovered the emotional nuance of  losing or leaving one’s home and its preciousness— where ever it is. Bowie played the role so well, as in most of his personae,  one can barely distinguish the character from  him.  In the film he slips into various guises, never ages, but ultimately falls into futility, wry cynicism, and drunkenness.  He fell to earth and found out we too were barren, but we hadn’t yet faced a reckoning.

Bowie is famous for his variety of characters and styles in music.  So good at it he convinced most of us that those roles were actually him.  The popular perception was that he had changed and become the Diamond Dog, the Thin White Duke, the alienated Brit in Berlin, and finally just disappearing until his recent album was released two days before his death.   Bowie kept us guessing all the time, but we put on him more than he really was, or perhaps he revealed something inside all of us that we didn’t know existed.  I attended his show at the Universal Amphitheater in LA during the Diamond Dogs tour.  And like most concerts it started late. Eventually, from  stage left, he floats down in some kind of a crane in full space costume, and if I’m remembering correctly singing ‘Uncle Tom  to ground control.’  So, Bowie.  He  proceeded to blow our  minds with staging that referenced the dystopian novel 1984 (mind the actual date loomed ominously in the near future in  those days).

alcohol in season

Beer allowed in summer.

Thinking about Bowie and the film, my recent trip to south-western New Mexico’s White Sands National Monument came to mind.  Driving through the gates I felt like I had fallen to another world.  Whiter than Vail in a good snow blizzard, even the road was a white out. Wary of striking out into the desert alone, I stopped and had a beer since  it was in season according to a sign.

Hot and tired after driving for five hours through some of the  most empty land in New Mexico, and eating an astro burger in the  military-oriented town near the park.   Sipping on the beer, I decided to stay close to the  car and shade in  this heat and did a few sand slides utilizing the technique I picked up in 2014 in Swakapmund, Namibia. Big fun,  but not so much fun to climb the hill in the heat.  I later learned that a German couple and their son died not far from the road the month I was there.  I guess Germans aren’t used to such heat, and the precautions required thereby.

Unexpected, unusual, and uncomplicated, White Sands feels like another dimension.  Totally unlike any other  place I’ve seen, expect  for the red sands of Namibia.  I felt Bowie-esque, alone,  a stranger in a strange land.  But that’s what I travel for,  the thrill of discovery of unique, beautiful, mind-blowing, heart-opening, experiences.

zen info board White Sands

A blank white board invites the visitor to the empty world

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Discover / Adventure, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Old Songs, Young Souls, & a Final Flight for the Airplane

twilight concerts

Spectators sit on the beach during the The Santa Monica Pier Twilight Concert Series 2015/ photo credit Corsair

“Take another whiff of fresh air,” the gray-bearded bear of a man whispered from the stage.  An authentic, original San Francisco hippie, David Freiberg (Quicksilver Messenger Service) fronted the 21st century version of a rock institution on a late summer evening in 2015.  The usual motley crowd of several hundred free entertainment seekers milled around the Santa Monica Pier, while the classic guitar riffs of an old Jefferson Airplane tune cut through the cacophony of music and chatter.

Almost 50 years since the Summer of Love in San Francisco, their original incarnation proclaimed, ‘When the truth is found to be lies.’  Well the truth of 2015 is that they are a mere shadow of the Airplane.  But those riffs were just enough to provoke grins of recognition between me and an old friend from college days at Berkeley.  He had made a special pilgrimage to LA to see the last surviving member of the iconic group that epitomized the San Francisco hippie sound in the sixties.

Known back in the day under a pseudonym of Jack, he is one of those rare Boomers who now in our later days still follows music.  Loves it so much he seeks out new bands as well as celebrating the classics.  We shared many great music adventures back in the day with weekly visits to the Fillmore West and Winterland in San Francisco to hear bands like Van Morrison (who we saw twice in one week) and the Grateful Dead, hit a lot of local venues.  Live music seemed to be everywhere and Jack led our cadre to the best vibes in town.  I recall his mastery of air guitar singing ‘Everyone Knows This is Nowhere’ by Neil Young, while walking around the student residential co-op where we lived.  One time he led the gang to downtown Berkeley to a free concert by the Youngbloods in the central park, which the kids had named Provo Park.  Not like Jack whose real name I now know but don’t use, I still don’t know the official name of the park.

NBSJeffersonAlas, on that balmy Santa Monica night, after two songs the small guy, with wispy blonde hair who played those distinctive licks disappeared from the stage.  The music continued, but Paul Kantner couldn’t continue, he’d made an appearance, but that was about it—a recent heart attack had taken its toll.  Sadly, Kantner died this week at the age of 74 after another heart attack.

At the pier, the band consisting of four young musicians and Freiberg carried on with the classic band’s tunes.  Although they were essentially a tribute band, competently covering the old songs, when I closed my eyes I heard Grace Slick singing White Rabbit and Miracles.

Those old songs evoked the vibe, like a time-tunnel to the mood, spirit, excitement, and freedom, of the original hippie times.  Like an invisible virus music from our formative years rummages around in the memory banks and finds the young soul that lurks deep within the ever-aging mind and body.  A remembrance, more than nostalgia, it’s like a secret, authentic self that is hiding in a closet coming out for a cameo.

Oldies music is not new, but the attitude about it is.  In 1969 I attended a wild concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco, Sha Na Na came on and drove us young hippies wild with their fifties cover songs.  In those days a heavy dose of camp and sarcasm fueled our enthusiasm.  We thought we had evolved so much that oldies music from ten years before was corny and hilarious.

That doesn’t happen now with oldies music.  Now, even millennials like and respect music from the sixties and seventies.  The generation gap that was so glaring back in the day has closed.   That night on the Santa Monica Pier all ages swayed to the classic rock of Starship/ Airplane.  Cruising through the time-tunnel, I recalled a free concert I saw by Jefferson Airplane at the Los Angeles’ Griffith Park Merry-go-round area in 1969.  The impromptu show happened because somehow a planned concert at a real venue was cancelled by the ‘Man’.  The word spread through the hippie underground and hundreds converged on the spur-of-moment show.   A grand time was had by all and no sign of ‘The Man.’  Radical politics of the time inspired their new album, Volunteers, and the kids shouted out in unison with lyrics that confronted the ‘system’ with words like ‘Up against the wall motherfuckers’ and ‘We can be together.’  Reminiscent of the spirit of millennials today in  their support of Bernie Sanders.

For us Boomers the music was often more than entertainment, our lives organized around it.  Like today’s smart phones, it was our social media sharing political views, clothing and artistic styles, in addition to entertainment. Even today forty plus  years later, those same performers and songs can resuscitate the old spirit of community, justice, and freedom.  Well-proven neuro-science states that our minds are still forming into the mid-to late twenties, so it makes sense that the imprints we experience at that age stay with us and continue to excite us.  It might even be a clue to the strange black hole of the age of 27 for many rock stars flare out via drugs.* (I’ll save that for another column).

Reunited old hippies

The Who on  stage at New Orleans Jazz Fest 2015

My friends and associates, except for the few hard-core music aficionados like Jack, listen to the old music from our formative twenties. Especially, the original bands like the Who, Stones, or Starship, who replicate the originals with new players.  At the 2015 New Orleans Jazz Fest, the Who’s two remaining original members, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey performed the classics like ‘Won’t  Get Fooled Again,’ with gusto, but what blew me away was how the replacement drummer (Zake Starkey, son of Ringo Starr) didn’t miss one of Keith Moon’s original licks.

Experiencing tribute or classic bands (even in the disguise of one original member like the Starship) opens that deep mine of soul, freedom, and adventure hidden by by the march of time.  It still resides inside somewhere and the music can bust into Rumi’s wine house and imbibe the sweet grape of freshness and spontaneity.  After getting drunk on this strange elixir from the past, something wakes up in me and I want to, ‘bang a gong, get it on.’  Who hasn’t felt that from a cherished oldie?

Discovery and adventure are integral to my post-work philosophy of Living the Dream Deferred, but the old hippie music satisfies in a way that new can’t.  Like a fine pair of old jeans and tennis shoes and scratchy 45s, they’re well loved.  We’ve known it for forty years and like an old friend, it awakens the spirit of youth regardless of who is playing it.

Sadly, Paul Kantner didn’t return to the stage that night at the Pier, but his daughter by Grace Slick, China Kantner sang harmony on Somebody to Love.  The lineage received due honor.  Paul Kantner reportedly never renounced his Summer of Love principles of peace, love, and a positive future.  A stalwart icon of the hippie movement, his vision lives on in the music of the Airplane/ Starship and in the souls of the older ‘kids’ who took a breath of that fresh air of a Utopian generation.

*Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons (almost 27), Alan Wilson (Canned Heat), Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, and many others.

Categories: Boomer Ideals/ Remembrance, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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