Posts Tagged With: hippies

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

 

brittin_west_4

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.

venice_west_and_stuart_z_copy

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.

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)

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

The Big Ditch and the Big Mash-up: Silver City, NM (adventure)

at his coffee  house Dale

Dale Rucklos, reinventor in Silver City, NM

 

“Hey, how are you today?” asked a tall, bald on top, long and curly on the sides guy perched outside one of the seven coffee houses in town as I approached.  Looking for a place to relax after touring around the town, I was looking for a coffee house and write.  Dale Ruchlos and Teresa were on duty at Yankie Creek Cafe and happy to talk about Silver City, how they got there, and their winding road, inner and outer.  Like I’d stepped into their living room, we talked for hours about the artistic and musical character of the town, the mix of transplants and college kids, and the mysterious road of life that led them there.  Very homey vibe in the place enticed me with announcements of  upcoming concerts, a weekly pinochle game, and original art on the walls.

replica of Billy the Kids house which was here

replica home of  Billy the Kid

When I drove into the historic center of Silver City,  I first noticed the Army Surplus store followed by a thrift shop and next to that a food co-op and then a micro-brewery and an art gallery.  A real hodgepodge of authentic, early 21sth Century Americana hip mixed with an old mining town whose original main street had turned into a ditch.

 

I rolled down the current main street, Bullard, and surveyed the scene.  Putting slowly like a typical tourist, I gazed all around for parking signs like back in Santa Monica.  You know the kind; street cleaning day, preferred parking permits, no high and long vehicles, and so on.  Seeing nothing of the kind, I slipped into a free spot next to a yoga studio.  Then a yahoo in a jumbo pick-up raced by and greeted me with a ‘Fuck you, asshole.’  Wow, not auspicious welcome, but it didn’t dampen my anticipation of discovering such a real place.  Turned out, that the rest of the afternoon proceeded with friendliness and warmth.  What else?  It was pushing 100 degrees that day.

civic preservation

saga of the Ditch

 

Trusting the word I’d gotten several years before, with no research, I left I-10 at Deming, NM crossed the freeway and faced the long, straight line of NM Hwy 180 to Silver City, NM.  Planning to get to Tucson and its cheap motels and uber-hip 4th ave, I had a lot of ground to cover.  Arrow straight mile after mile passed by the high desert scrub brush and saw only an occasional semi-truck and no other passenger vehicles.  I wondered, “What could be out here?  Hours from any real city?”  Turned out a lot.  After an hour on the road, shopping malls with the corporate chain stores interspersed with chain motels appeared on both sides of the four-lane highway, and I worried that I may find another Prescott, AZ.  Then the tell-tale brown and beige historic markers began to appear.  They pointed to the nineteenth century Palace Hotel which is located in the historic center across the street from a yoga studio.

Taking a self-guided walking tour, I stumbled upon the Ditch.  It looked like an old creek cutting through a forest of overgrown trees.   Something like an unholy union of the San Luis Creek in San Luis Obispo, CA and Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades.  Along the sides about 12′ above the creek, a neglected concrete walk-way offered benches and access into the ditch.  I put aside my desire for a steaming espresso and crossed the creek on the old steel suspension bridge, the kind you can look through to the water and rocks below.  On the other side, next to the replica house of Billy the Kid was the museum and tourist office.

get your dog's astrology

dogs & metaphysics

They call it the Ditch, because back in the early twentieth century regular floods (due to overgrazing the hills around the town) made a canyon of Main St eventually requiring bridges to get to the shops on the other side of the street.  Giving up on that futile effort, the commercial street was relocated to Bullard and Main Street was given over to the ditch.  But Bullard still maintains the old-time three foot high sidewalks from the old days before sewers.

 

Being the curious type, I investigated the ersatz log cabin poised next to the car bridge.  Like many historic structures in the old West, it is a replica of what once was there.  I’m glad to say, the rest of the town isn’t a replica.  As I later discovered in my wanderings.  But back to the historic park, in a fervor of civic pride or tourist aspiration, the cabin was built in the 1980s on the original spot of the home of Billy the Kid before he went on the rampage for a couple years in southern New Mexico.  Funny, how a good story and PR man can turn an outlaw and criminal into a cash cow tourist attraction.  I saw several monuments in the area dedicated to the weird, short career of William Bonney and wondered, “Is that the best you can do for heroes?”

almost destroyed for a parking lot

almost a parking lot

Silver city exudes an eclectic mix of Western New Mexico University students, bohemian city refugees, and old time ranchers.   Every street in the historic core offered surprises in architecture with totally restored art deco for the daily newspaper, an art museum gallery in the old armory, an eighty year old frame house turned into a cafe, all mixed in with hold-overs from over a hundred years.  You can find a boarded up old movie theatre, a thrift store, and an in process soda fountain conversion to micro-brewery all on the same block.

I had a funny encounter in the Army Surplus store:  A lot of original old army stuff filled the walls and I wanted to rummage around.  The proprietor asked me what I wanted and I responded, “I don’t know. I’m looking for it.”  Then I attempted to go in the stacks and he barked, “That’s not allowed.”  Well, I walked out to find more friendly attractions.

art stuff outside armory

Former armory, now art gallery

 

Back at Yankie Creek Cafe, Dale, the proprietor broke it down about the six other coffee houses each of which has its own loyal clientele and specialty.  He suggested I check out a place called the Lazy Cactus for its real espresso.  We parted company with an exchange suitable for old hippies of a creative bent, I gave him a copy of my book, Living the Dream Deferred and he gave me his new cd The Journey.  The cover art has a photo of him as a young man looking at mirror of him now.  I continued my perambulations  and went to the real espresso coffee house and enjoyed the groove with a patio facing the street, Tibetan tapestries on the walls, and Bob Marley on the sound system.
As groovy as it was, it was time to leave but not before one other anomaly.  Outside of the historic area, turning left to head out of town, with only infrequent traffic, I waited almost ten minutes for it to turn green.  Silver City proved to be quirkier than I imagined.  Again, proving my rules of travel adventures; plan lightly, don’t research too much, and walk around and be surprised.

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

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