Rexroth’s San Francisco
San Francisco Magazine
A Turning Point in San Francisco History
Some months ago I started to use this column for a series of reminiscences of San Franciscos past. Then current events and other events got in the way. This month Ill pick up where I left off and well see how far we get in succeeding columns.
The turning point in San Francisco history in the 20th century was not World War II but the great strikes of the middle 30s, which changed the City from a low-wage, open shop town with a low degree of mechanization and capitalization, few industries and a very conservative banking policy. Until 1934-36 San Francisco was one of the cheapest places to live north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Today it is one of the three most expensive large cities in the United States. But it also may have the highest median wage for all grades of labor from dishwashers, whose work is commonly automated and who usually belong to the culinary workers union, and common laborers who belong to the laborers union, to highly skilled engineers and technicians in the new industries that have sprung up around the Bay, manufacturing the capital goods for a computerized and automated age. Even retail clerks and unskilled office workers get more here than most anywhere else. The only class of skilled workers who make on the whole less money than in New York are in, curiously, advertising, publicity, editorial, publishing and certain categories of radio and television and the communications industry generally (except for the printing trades, which are tightly organized and in which wages are extraordinarily high).
The reason for this, of course, is that New York, although it is certainly not the center of the country, is still the center of communications, and its rivals San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles are still provincial in these fields. This is due solely to the convenient concentration of all aspects of communication, which is an inheritance from the past. For example, a New York bookseller can obtain for a customer any book in print in a few hours, or less if necessary, from either the wholesaler or the publisher. Just try and order an out-of-stock book from a San Francisco dealer. The single sale is not worth the trouble, so youre usually told that the book is out of print. This curious anomaly has all sorts of ramifications. New York cultural life is strongly influenced by Madison Avenue, only too well known as Mad Alley. Not only are its denizens purveyors of culture, they make up an appreciable percentage of its customers. In San Francisco on the other hand, the majority of what might be called high level cultural consumers are members of the technical and professional intelligentsia, ranging from physicists in the new industries to the old professions of law, medicine, and the like.
We are inclined to forget that San Francisco, like Switzerland, enjoys a favorable balance of trade due to the huge input of tourist dollars. High wages, high prices, high rents, high loans in spite of high interest ever since the beginning of Roosevelts rearmament, theres always been lots of money, and there has been a steadily rising educational level, at least among whites. This has made all the difference. It once was a sleepy, provincial city whose leading writers were Gertrude Atherton and George Sterling, whose leading painter was the cowboy artist Maynard Dixon and whose symphony orchestra under Papa Hertz sounded like nothing so much as a herd of sick elephants stumbling over a field strewn with leaking, half-inflated truck inner tubes. (My first experience of this orchestra was in 1927. My wife and I came late, and stood in the corridor listening in utter disbelief to the belches and eructations of the Flying Dutchman Overture.) Now it is a city which for at least twenty years has been one of the cultural hotspots of the world, a leader in poetry and painting in the 50s and 60s, in abstract and experimental movies and tape and electronic music in the same period, and now at last even with an orchestra of which it need not be ashamed, and one of the most creative opera companies in the country.
Its true that in the past four or five years there has been a distinct decline in the quality of San Franciscos culture. The extremely vital little theaters are gone, to be replaced by a plastic imitation. The painters have mostly moved East to the marketplace (San Francisco is without question the worst painting market, for its size, in the whole country). The world-famous San Francisco poetry Renaissance has become diffused. It is no longer giving birth to poets of international importance, but I have been told that there are two hundred and fifty poets living in Bolinas alone, and it is impossible to keep track of all the little magazines, small presses and poetry readings.
This cultural leveling off and diffusion is a worldwide phenomenon. The extremely original Polish theater of the 50s and 60s is a thing of the past, and its movie directors have been co-opted by what is still called Hollywood. The great Italian film directors now produce super-sensational corn. Just so, San Franciscos experimental filmmakers, like the Whitney brothers and James Broughton, have been replaced by the Mafia-controlled porn industry in which, I guess, San Francisco still leads.
Golden Ages and Renaissances dont last forever. Between Giotto and Raphael stretches little more than a lifetime of an aged man. In the chilly economic, political and cultural weather of 1975 we are beginning to realize that we have lived through a Golden Age and it is now behind us.
Elitism is now a dirty word, like Negro, girl, Oriental and even woman, according to a contributor to Ms. magazine. Nevertheless, the determining factor after the economic one, and closely linked to it, was the change in the elite that took place in San Francisco in the decade around World War II. The old elite was worn out or had died off (its curious to think that its leading spokesmen had been Jack London, George Sterling and Upton Sinclair, socialists all, who would have repudiated furiously the suggestion that they were members of an elite). The culture consumers were totally provincial, completely cut off from what was happening in literature and the arts in the rest of the country, much less in Paris, London or Berlin. When I came to San Francisco there was no book by T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore in the public library and the one book of poetry by Carl Sandburg was missing from the collection, although they had his Lincoln biography. The still abominable library remains a relic from those days. Everywhere else the change was not just sweeping, it was a total overturn the first emergence in the country of a new cultural climate, a new historic style. And San Francisco was to hold that leadership for almost twenty years.
The San Francisco Renaissance
Just as London under the buzz bombs enjoyed a literary renaissance and a profound change of social relationships unparalleled since Queen Victoria married the Prince Consort, so San Francisco during the War woke up from a long provincial sleep and became culturally a world capital. The reasons were somewhat the same.
London was full of exiles and governments-in-exile from the Continent, and attracted all sorts of radical intellectuals charged with hope for a new, revolutionary Europe after this Last War for Democracy. At the same time, hundreds of leading English intellectuals who had been pacifists before the war, intensified rather than abandoned their pacifism. Many of them had become pacifist anarchists, having become disillusioned with Communism during the Moscow Trials and the Spanish Civil War. Poetry was published in a half dozen languages. The theater suddenly became a moral critic as it had been in the days of Shaw. English painting took a complete turn to what might be called Abstract Romanticism, independently paralleling a development in America. The previous generation of world-famous poets (always joined together as one creature, a Siamese triplet known as Auden-Spender-Lewis) suddenly found themselves without an audience under forty years old and were dismissed as members of the Stately Home Weekend Soviets.
Something of the same thing happened in San Francisco. As early as 1939, somnolent, out-of-date Bay Area industry began rapidly to change to an industrial complex of the new technology a complex that would soon almost circle the Bay. Highly trained civilian administrative and technical cadres came with it, and soon military and naval personnel with similar training began to arrive, as the buildup for Pacific war accelerated. This buildup was a response to two possibilities. If Americas part of the war was fought in the European theater, San Francisco was safely far away. If war broke out with Japan, San Francisco was Johnny-on-the-spot with Americas most easily protected harbor. When Pearl Harbor did explode, Roosevelt got the war that interested him most, and San Francisco became the capital of a world stretching from New Zealand to Persia to the Aleutians a refuge for whoever had been able to escape from the countries overrun by the Japanese. I would not say that all of our refugees were as culturally stimulating as those in London. I will never forget the high officers of the Dutch navy who, at the first confrontation with the Japanese, had fled precipitously across the Pacific with as much of the portable wealth of Indonesia as they could carry, as well as a number of spectacularly beautiful Indonesian camp followers I think the naval term is sea gulls.
There were, however, plenty of highly civilized people pouring into the City. The first time I ever saw any of my own books on the shelves of a private library in San Francisco was in the studio of a young WAVE officer. She not only had all of mine but those of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound as well as a whole shelf of sex books Havelock Ellis, Krafft-Ebing, Sacher-Masoch, Fanny Hill. She was very pretty in her trig uniform and cocked hat. What do you need with all these books, Peggy? I said, pointing to Havelock Ellis et al. Well, she replied, at the end of my freshman year at New Jersey College for Women, I and two girl friends got an apartment in Greenwich Village for the summer and we thought theyd come in handy. It was a charming picture of three eighteen-year-olds, almost maidens, threading their way through the tumbled sheets of Bohemia with Krafft-Ebing for a guide.
It just so happens that in San Francisco her studio had once been occupied by San Franciscos leading (cowboy) artist who twelve years before had said to me, Waal, waal, I see you been experimentin with abstract art like Matissey and Picassio. It is more than a funny story; it is precisely indicative of the change that took place in San Francisco socially, culturally, artistically, and sexually.
The mountains of California began to be dotted with the concentration camps for conscientious objectors. These were young men, most devoid of ideology, who were simply opposed to war in any form (quite unlike the majority of the Vietnam objectors). Many of them were beginning writers, artists and actors. On their leaves, just like the G.I.s, they came down to San Francisco for their own variety of R. & R., where they met a similarly motivated young generation of San Francisco intellectuals. These were mostly from the East and had fled New York precisely because it was the literary marketplace and stronghold of the Old Left and the Old Right.
By the end of the war San Francisco had become the center of an entirely new cultural synthesis and out of the combined efforts of these two groups came: three little theaters; a poetry center, as well as numerous smaller poetry readings; and a Poets Follies which would soon have overtaken and surpassed the famous Greenwich Village Follies of the 20s if its inspirer and director, poet Weldon Kees, had not had a nervous breakdown and jumped off the Bay Bridge. Abstract Expressionism began at the California School of Fine Arts in its great days under Douglas McAgy and swept the world.
By 1955, a large school of San Francisco poets who had rejected all connections with the pre-War establishment was making its influence felt throughout the world. Some of the most important were: Philip Lamantia, still in his early twenties, but certainly the best of the third generation of Surrealists anywhere in the world; William Everson (later Brother Antoninus); Ferlinghetti, who had recently arrived from Paris; Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and the young people who began to show up from around the country Lenore Kandel, Michael McClure, Lew Welch, David Meltzer, Ron Loewinsohn and many others. They remain to this day unknown to the San Francisco Establishment the people who support the opera, the symphony or A.C.T. (At a cultural conference, Jack Shelley and I had to prevent San Franciscos self-appointed cultural leader from having Ferlinghetti arrested he had simply wished to speak.) News of what was happening in San Francisco was causing somersaults in Barcelona, Prague, Warsaw and Moscow. At last, dim rumors penetrated the halls of Columbia University, and two young Columbia delinquents arrived in San Francisco to dig the scene, man! Ginsberg and Kerouac had arrived.
Last time I ended my vest-pocket history of San Francisco’s Renaissance with the arrival of Ginsberg and Kerouac. The next five years or so were known as “The Beat Generation,” which was alleged to be a San Francisco product. It was almost entirely the construction of Time and Life magazines. All the cultural activities of the San Francisco Renaissance were already well under way, and none of the writers or artists, many of whom had already gained considerable fame, could be considered “beat.”
The poet Walter Lowenfels, an old friend of mine from the great days of American Paris between the Wars, showed up in San Francisco (he is Jabberwohl Cronstadt in Henry Miller’s Black Spring). Walter was indicted under the Smith Act as a Communist and was touring the country speaking in his own defense (he was subsequently acquitted). I asked him if he would like to give a poetry reading. He was a leader of the older generation of Modernists, then unknown to young writers and readers, and has since undergone a literary rebirth. He agreed, and I tried to find a place. No one, including the San Francisco Poetry Center, would touch him. I called the Six Gallery, a cooperative of six painters who are now leading artists and members of the New Establishment themselves. Far from Communists, indeed, they nevertheless agreed enthusiastically. Lowenfels packed the place — to the amazement of the local Red bureaucrats. One of whom, an aged anachronism of pseudo-proletarian literature, said to me in awe, “My God, he has the youth!” “You bet,” I said.
A couple of weeks later the Six Gallery asked me to arrange another reading. Most of the poets of the already well established San Francisco Renaissance read. Ginsberg read Howl, and left a stunned audience, who realized they had witnessed a drastic breakthrough of the crust of custom and the launching of a literary epoch.
Ginsberg had been a conventional, witty poet; Kerouac, the author of a very conventional first novel. Gregory Corso had published a book financed by the smart alecks of the Harvard Advocate, who were under the impression that they were committing a hoax. Bob Kaufman had just arrived in San Francisco. William Burroughs was decaying somewhere south of the border. This is all the Beat Generation of writers there ever was, and none of them were San Franciscans or had ever lived in the City for more than a few months. Nevertheless, because they fitted exactly the Luce publications’ stereotyped image of révoltés and Bohemians, they were turned into celebrities overnight, and within the year had become national and eventually international cult figures. Soon, all the high school ice-cream parlors in Keokuk, Ocanomowoc and Cle Ellum were emptied of their problem children, who had thumbed their way to North Beach and started crops of sparse pubescent whiskers or clad their recently virginal thighs in black stockings. They swarmed like bees or herring for perhaps two years, and then they were gone. Herb Caen named them “beatniks” and soon flourishing crops of them were appearing in London, Berlin (where they were called Gammler), Tokyo and Moscow (where they were called stilyagi) where, to this day, youngsters can be found reading translations of Kerouac’s On the Road under the impression that it is still a New Testament.
Now the curious thing about all this furor is that, after the first five writers, it produced nothing. Nothing at all in literature or the arts or anything else. The far-out cultural developments of the period were quite independent, for the obvious reason that any of the arts requires work, and being a beatnik takes up all your time. The hippies and their leaders and spokesmen in poetry, song and music did produce, but that’s a later story.
Meanwhile San Francisco’s own culture continued to mature and consolidate itself. This growth extended from establishment to avant-garde activities: the San Francisco Ballet, the Opera and the Actors’ Workshop (but not, alas, the Symphony), a series of extremely creative little theaters (the best of which was the Playhouse under the direction of Kermit Sheets), dozens of little magazines, the Tape Music Center, considerable activity in films (although the leading abstract filmmakers remained the Whitney brothers and the leading representational fantasy artist the poet James Broughton), the revival of poetry and jazz, and even a new kind of show business in the hungry i — what Variety called “The Freak Gig, Frisco Style,” which they applied to me and even to Peter, Paul and Mary when they first appeared.
There are all sorts of legends about the poetry and jazz revival. The facts are these: Langston Hughes, Maxwell Bodenheim and I had recited poetry to jazz at the Green Mask in Chicago in the ’20s, and the band had included people like Teschemaker, Dave Tough, Bix Beiderbecke and others later to become world famous. I had suggested reciting to Dave Brubeck, but the trouble with a successful group is that they never stay still. They’re traveling all the time, and poetry and jazz, to be any good (contrary to popular opinion), requires a great deal of rehearsal. You have to have a house band. The Cellar in North Beach was owned by two jazz musicians, so it was possible to work with a permanent, resident group, and Ferlinghetti and I inaugurated a series of jazz-poetry concerts. Soon, everybody was doing it. We were celebrities, with our pictures in Life, and agents, and were “on the road” separately making a great deal of money, playing to packed audiences, and were in great danger of becoming cult figures. At the same time Kenneth Patchen, then living in Palo Alto, was working with a group of his own who played a rather Brubeck-y type of jazz full of classical reminiscences. It was very polished and competent and except for Modesto, a great baritone sax player, very far from funky.
Being an entertainer is terribly hard work, and with the exception of about five jazz rooms around the country in those days, night club owners were a very low breed indeed — the off-scourings of the Mafia. I got out of it and so did Ferlinghetti at about the time jazz-poetry became a craze. By that time, every petty imitation beatnik was “blowing words” to pawn shop saxophones mended with scotch tape — blowing weird, mistaken cross-fingerings through blubbered embouchures in every Greenwich Village joint for nothing or at best a glass of wine. And of course, the enthusiastic availability of the still swarming black-stockinged high-school dropouts. The days of a grand a gig were gone. It was time to quit. The curious thing is that abroad, poetry and jazz is still popular and I could make a very good living at it.
NOTE: For more Rexroth discussion of the Beats, see Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation.
Last month my vest-pocket history of the San Francisco Renaissance touched on the ’50s and the Beat Era. To continue:
As the ’50s drew to a close, the City seemed to have achieved a cultural synthesis on a very high level. It was unique in the country, had worldwide influence — and promised a steady increase in quality and depth of values. The six or seven little theaters were certainly the most interesting in the country; they were widely differing, but each was radical in its approach to the art of drama. One of them, the Actors’ Workshop, was grudgingly supported by the younger members of the Establishment, who hoped it would become a civic institution like the San Francisco Ballet.
Out of San Francisco had come post-bop modernist musicians like Charles Mingus. The painters who had studied under Clyfford Still and Rothko were becoming known around the world as a second generation of Abstract Expressionists and would soon themselves become an Establishment. The poets of the San Francisco Renaissance were publishing with New York commercial publishers, New Directions, Grove Press, and in Ferlinghetti’s Pocket Poets, and were even beginning to show up in anthologies. During the following decade, they would become subjects for innumerable doctoral theses. (Doctoral candidates with tape recorders still show up to interview me on the average of once every three weeks.)
The San Francisco Renaissance had become an industry like the Henry James Industry, the D.H. Lawrence Industry, the Ezra Pound Industry. By 1960, in the words of an M.C.A. agent, “Revolt is the hottest commodity on the Street,” the “Street” being Madison Avenue and its extension, Hollywood Boulevard.
It certainly looked like a period of stabilization, moving steadily forward to the day when white-whiskered portraits of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti would replace Longfellow and Whittier on the walls of the dusty corridors of small-town grammar schools.
Suddenly, there occurred a new bouleversement or somersault. To understand what happened, you have to understand a law that has operated in the history of the arts since the end of the Modernist Epoch in 1929 — the Donkey’s Tail Law of modern art history. From Manet to Mondrian, the development of painting had been a natural growth out of the merging traditions of a world civilization. If you wanted to see Picasso, or even Salvador Dali, all you had to do was frequent the Louvre, and in a month you’d see both of them, carefully studying a Tintoretto, an Egyptian bas relief or an African sculpture. Modern painting was painters’ painting, highly skilled and deeply learned, but to the public, as Khrushchev said, “It all looked as though it had been painted by a donkey’s tail dipped in paint.”
In each generation, artists sprang up who accepted the public’s evaluation, and approved of it, and being donkeys, they obediently turned their tails to the canvas and created — until, by the last quarter of the century they had come to dominate all the arts. Over ten years ago, I was in a symposium with one of America’s “leading” painters, a professor at one of the universities of California, who was famous for his portraits of hamburgers and ice cream cones. He announced that he was going to Venice on some sort of grant. “That’s great,” I said. “You’ll love the Tintorettos.” I discovered that he thought Tintoretto was a dish like lasagna or tagliarini. Conversely, since he probably lives on the subjects of his paintings, I could have told him that lasagna and tagliarini were great Renaissance painters he shouldn’t miss.
Whatever the Beats may have thought of their work, it is a scathing portrayal of a society in accelerated disintegration. The next generation would enthusiastically embrace this portrayal as a “life style,” to use their own slang. At the same time, two external factors intervened. The war in the Indochinese peninsula, which had been going on for a hundred years, heated up. The French were defeated and driven out, and the Americans were mad enough to assume responsibility, and begin massive intervention, which would eventually become the longest and most unpopular war fought by the United States. The revolt of youth was as massive as the intervention, and escalated proportionately. Eventually, it spread beyond the United States to the youth of the world. The second outside factor, which in the final showdown would prove to be closely related to the American presence in Indochina, was dope — specifically heroin.
The sterile materialism and hypocrisy, especially sexual hypocrisy, of the American Way of Life had alienated a large proportion of young people, who turned to various forms of Indian and Far Eastern mysticism, voluntary poverty, sexual freedom, and a kind of instinctive, inarticulate, idealistic anarchism. It was a quest, not unlike Whitman’s, for the Community of Love — which, up to the Civil War, had given promise of becoming the American way of life. Since these young people had been raised in families and in a social context devoid of all interiority, they hoped to blast their way into the locked vaults of their own interior lives with chemicals.
For a short time, it seemed to work. The Haight-Ashbury became a dream world of love children ruled over by Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, who bore a remarkable resemblance to Ozma of Oz without any clothes on and with skyrockets coming out of her head. Everybody went about trying to feed roses to policemen’s horses which, not being goats, they don’t like.
I visited an old friend in Kyoto that year, who was fresh from a visit to the States and participation in the first great love-in (called the Human Be-In) in Golden Gate Park. He was then convinced that the revolution would come with a combination of love and pharmacy. He’s not very musical. A local jazz critic added rock to this revolution formula and agreed with the Beatles’ self-estimate, that they were more important than Jesus Christ, let alone Karl Marx. My response to all this was “B.s. Wait till the Mafia takes over.”
At the very Be-In itself, there circulated amongst the crowd strange characters from Los Angeles peddling at cut-rate prices, or even for free, a wide assortment of powerful mental stimulants. During the course of a year, speed replaced acid (LSD), and a kind of crazy anger — the anger of blown minds — crept through the Haight-Ashbury. Suddenly one day, and lasting about a week, there was a famine. You couldn’t connect anywhere, not even for marijuana. Then there appeared on the streets, peddling the stuff like newspapers, dealers in heroin, who for a short time were almost giving it away.
The Haight-Ashbury and out of it the worldwide hippie movement was certainly a cultural phenomenon, but its affect on the arts except for music was minimal.
In 1960 rock and roll was nothing new. In fact, it was coming to the end of one of its greatest phases. In one of those classic statements (like “If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know,” which seems to have been said first by Fats Waller) someone once said, “Jazz is black music for white audiences.” This idea goes back a long way, possibly to the King Oliver band, and has been attributed to Louis Armstrong, but it sounds more like his intellectual, classically-trained wife of those days, Lillian Hardin. (In passing, it should be pointed out that the King Oliver Band did not spontaneously blow sounds off the tops of their heads. Their music was written, note for note, by Lillian Hardin and exhaustingly rehearsed.) The Sunset Cafe in Chicago, where they became famous, was not a place for ordinary black people, but a white gangster-owned and operated “black and tan” joint for black celebrities and well-to-do drunken whites. So was the boxer Jack Johnson’s place across State Street. So was the Cotton Club in New York, where Duke Ellington reigned cool and oblivious to the disgustingly racist show numbers and jokes. Black people and the very few hip whites went to places like the Fiume on State Street in Chicago, where the owners were too poor to change the sign from that of the previous tenant — an Italian spaghetti parlor.
Jazz records were already distinguishing themselves from race records, as they were called, with stars like Georgia White and Cow Cow Davenport. Race records changed names several times as the sensitivity of the race increased, but they remained characterized by heavy rhythm, an insistent and relentless sock; rather simple musical virtuosity that sometimes verged on plain antics; scooped embouchure trumpet (that was often modeled on the very straightest white performers like the vaudevillian soloist Del Steigers); and a relentless 2/4 beat, with an underlying shifting duple-triple rhythm modulated usually by the piano (which after Jimmy Yancey, who came out of the black speakeasies and ran one himself, came to be called boogie woogie); and almost exclusively blues harmonies.
This situation changed little through all the years of my life. It began in Congo Square in New Orleans, the South Side of Chicago, the Mississippi River towns, the East Texas cities, and Kansas City — always in the ghettos, and most important, always danced to — and it lasts to this day. Half the Motown list could be played on the crank phonograph in the old Fiume and only puzzle people a little, but the Modern Jazz Quartet has “come a long way from St. Louis.” Swing was still danced to but bop was not, and after the bop revolution jazz musicians detested “Rhythm and Blues,” “Rock and Roll,” “Roll and Bump.” Jazz became chamber music, played in “clubs” which every year became more and more expensive to audiences who, off the West Coast where their music was taken seriously, were usually drunk, didn’t listen, talked at the top of their lungs, and didn’t know a bass clef from a glockenspiel. Jazz played itself out of the youth and priced itself out of the reach of ordinary people, while the Mafia ran the clubs and forced heroin on the musicians who didn’t have the guts to resist.
Meanwhile, all over the country, following the massive immigration of blacks into the northern war industries, black radio stations sprang up everywhere playing rock and roll between “A Dollar Down and a Dollar a Day” (that’s a black rock and roll song of the ’50s) commercials. White high school kids tuned in because they wanted to dance, and eventually bought the records. The stars of those days, Dinah Washington, Lloyd Price, Johnny Ace, all except Fats Domino, are forgotten except by modern white rock and roll and folk rock stars. Bob Dylan periodically mentions Johnny Ace, certainly as modernist a musician as ever was Charlie Parker, and every rock group which is really with it owns large collections of records and tapes of the genuine rock and roll groups which they mine continuously. “Blue Suede Shoes” is a good example of an entire number lifted bodily but with some of the old gizmo missing, and there are thousands of others.
Among my friends in jazz everybody raised hell with the union when sent out on a rock and roll gig — “That damn sock!” — and electric guitars were looked on as instruments for the destruction of musical taste. Jazz guitar was Charlie Christian or Barney Kessel. Jazz was supposed to be “like Bach.” In fact cool jazz was like Debussy, and the principal influence on Los Angeles “Pacific jazz” was Debussy’s “Sonata for flute, viola and harp.”
At this very moment young musicians were listening to what the kids were listening to, and within a year, in concerts at the Longshoremen’s Hall and at two clubs near Fillmore and Union Streets, a revolution comparable to Ginsberg’s reading of Howl took place. Band music returned to the people with a vengeance. If you couldn’t dance to the Jefferson Airplane you were a paraplegic. Even so you rocked and rolled your wheelchair. In Liverpool the same thing was going on. The Beatles are only one of many groups of very young men who happened to come out on top. Soon the San Francisco sound and the Liverpuddlean had swept the earth. It all took less than a year after the appearance of the Airplane, the Sopwith Camel, the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Mamas and the Papas and all the rest, for the rock revolution to be institutionalized by Bill Graham in the Fillmore Auditorium — in a brave, legal defiance of the police.
Soon every little town in America had its resident rock group, most of them about the age of high school seniors. Go back and play the records. Psychedelic rock in its youth is still profoundly shaking music. Like all good things, it couldn’t last. The combinations of the world are unstable by nature, said Buddha. The last new band of that type I heard was a group of high school kids from Antioch, Ohio — not Antioch College — called Mad River. The drummer gave a three quarters of an hour solo that made Max Roach’s “History of the Black Race” sound like keyboard exercises from the Anna Magdalena Bach Notebook.
That was six years ago. Fillmore West and East are long gone. The great groups are dissolved, worn out, or coopted and commercialized like the Rolling Stones. San Francisco is musically dormant but showing the first signs of a renaissance of modern jazz, possibly stemming from the teaching and example and hard work of John Handy, the City’s leading musician. For a while, we shook the earth.
NOTE: For more extensive Rexroth discussion of the new rock music and the folk and blues traditions that led up to it, see Subversive Aspects of Popular Songs.
Unless I think of something very important that I’ve neglected, this column should be the last of my little serial history of the San Francisco Renaissance. I have written it because most all newer arrivals to the City know very little about San Francisco’s special culture, so different from the rest of America. You quickly discover that if you travel abroad and tell people where you’re from. The world divides the United States into two parts — the USA and San Francisco. The first elicits scowls; the second only smiles. There must be a reason.
About ten years ago, however, signs began to appear that things were changing. The City had been overwhelmingly Democratic in state and national politics but Republican in its choice of mayors. It elected a mayor who during his years in the House of Representatives may have done less than any congressman in the 20th century. Broadway, which had been the cleanest and most reasonable entertainment district in the country, with real alcohol in the drinks, and dozens of Italian, French, and Basque family restaurants of the sort you’d find in a village in the old country, was invaded by the — what shall we call it? — international entertainment industry.
Topless and eventually bottomless joints owned by people from elsewhere mushroomed all over the place. Prices doubled and quadrupled. Enrico’s three businesses, the sidewalk cafe, Dante’s Billiard Parlor, and the hungry i, which had made show business history for years, were subject to various harassments, official and unofficial, with continuously rising bids to buy them out. The most powerful clergymen in the neighborhood began to fulminate against the most legitimate entertainment in the neighborhood — the Jazz Workshop (which was run at a loss by a young lawyer who loved music) — as a place where white women consorted with Negroes, as well as Enrico’s, and of all places, Finocchio’s, the district’s most popular tourist stop. To anyone who had lived through Chicago it was obvious what was happening. This invasion and its resulting corruption are the principal cause of the change in North Beach and eventually in the entire City.
At this very time the country’s two big foundations decided to stop subsidizing small, independent cultural enterprises unless they were academically sponsored; whereupon one cultural field man, who had just given a speech advocating exactly the opposite, resigned. The Tape Music Center was forced to move to Mills College. In one year the principal experimental theaters of the City had all closed. The Actor’s Workshop’s directors and most of the cast moved to Lincoln Center in New York, where they underwent a long, agonizing flop. They were replaced by one of the most vital young directors in the country, who so outraged his board that he quit in a year, to be replaced, after endless wrangling, by A.C.T., an accurate reflection of the taste of the board.
The wild young men and women of the Six Gallery and the Dilexi had grown older and when they succeeded to the art school and the art association, they proved to be more conservative and more power hungry than the Impressionists and American Scene Painters of two generations before — of course in a strictly neo-Dadaist sense.
Dance did not succumb completely. There were many groups of many widely differing styles but of equally widely differing skill and merit. The San Francisco Ballet, however, was defeated in its long struggle to become a civic institution, while on the other hand, Ann Halprin’s most far-out group became, without her being aware of it, institutionalized.
In literature things were a little different. A large number of successful novelists, and what are known in literary circles as “money writers,” migrated to San Francisco or Marin County, but this they had always done throughout the 20th century, and their presence made little difference in the cultural life of the City. However, it would seem that every high school senior who thought he or she could write poetry hitchhiked to the Bay Area immediately upon graduation — or flunking out. This was not all to the bad. If you’ve got enough milk some cream is bound to rise to the top — unless the milk is homogenized. Unfortunately the counterculture was busy homogenizing itself, so there was less cream than might be expected.
The Twenties are supposed to be the time when little magazines of experimental verse flourished. There are probably more such little magazines being published in the Bay Area in recent years than were published in the entire country and Paris-America in the decade of the Twenties. Are they in fact magazines of “experiment and revolt”? With very few exceptions they are not. They are conventional and conservative, but like the art school, conservative of a convention — the convention of experiment and revolt.
Something had happened to the preceding generation who had broken the fetters of the conventions before them. They had become the Establishment and they don’t know it to this day. They had also become celebrities and cult figures. They sold more books of poetry than were sold by all living poets between the wars except for Robert Frost and Edna Millay. (Editions in those days numbered a thousand copies or less.) They drew enormous audiences who dutifully absorbed whatever they were given — except for those who walked out in anger. It is unbelievable that Allen Ginsberg could force an audience in North Dakota, who had traveled to hear him from all over the central Northwest, to chant “Ah-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-h-” for three quarters of an hour followed by “singing” by his friend Peter Orlovsky. This certainly defines a cult figure.
The Maharishi and Maharaji-Ji never had it better. Since telling an audience what it wants to hear, and knows by heart already, is the opposite of poetry, the quality of the verse written by these people, who only a little while ago changed the course of world literature, has in most cases declined. Ferlinghetti has held steady, as have younger people like McClure and Meltzer, but the only two of the old group who provide any guidance towards a bridge to the future are Snyder and Whalen.
A generation has passed and it is time for a generational revolt. Unfortunately there are few signs of one except amongst those people who are provided, for better or worse, with an extra-literary stimulus — the women’s movement, militant blacks, Chicanos, Third Worlders, and even Gay Liberationists, amongst whom, but sparsely, are to be found the bulk of the best young writers today.
It was a Golden Age and great fun to have lived through, but that Golden Age is out and it’s time to begin a new one.
Rexroth’s San Francisco collects all of Kenneth columns and articles from the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967), the San Francisco Bay Guardian (1967-1972), and San Francisco Magazine (1967-1975). Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.
NOTE (February 2017): With this webpage, ALL of Rexroth’s columns and articles for those three San Francisco publications are now online here! I hope you enjoy them. Meanwhile, I will be moving on to other things (including other things by Rexroth). Ken Knabb