When most people envision the Beat Generation, they probably start with a vision of Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, stumbling into a bar in New York City, rambling on about Nebraska and staring into the electric religion of the American plains. Or perhaps people think of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, printing copies of Gasoline or Howl and handing them out to the citizens of San Francisco.
Well, it's easy to forget a group of Southern California Beats were creating a renaissance right here in Venice. And in celebration of the Beats, the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA will be performing a live staging of Ginsberg's Kaddish at Royce Hall on Wednesday, in the midst of many other Beat-related events UCLA is putting on.
We put together a list of 10 essential Beat landmarks in Los Angeles to celebrate the tradition. Thanks to William Mohr, Mike “The Poet” Sonksen and Pegarty Long for their help.
10. Francisco Letelier Mural at 512 Rose Ave, Venice
Venice was the epicenter of beat culture in the 50s. In the mural above (painted by Francisco Letelier) two legends, Stuart Perkoff and Philomene Long, of the Venice West Renaissance are depicted. They were husband and wife, and Perkoff was the quintessential “Beat” poet in Venice. He was renowned for his book, Voices of the Lady, but he was loved for his public readings.
9. Sunset and Vine
Jack Kerouac famously thought L.A. was a terribly lonely city, but he also wrote a couple excellent passages in the City of Angels. And it might be unfair to claim Sunset and Vine as strictly “Beat,” but Kerouac in On the Road wrote: “We went to Hollywood to try to work in the drugstore at Sunset and Vine. Now there was a corner! Great families off jalopies from the hinterlands stood around the sidewalk gaping for sight of some movie star, and the movie star never showed up…Handsome queer boys who had come to Hollywood to be cowboys walked around, wetting their eyebrows with dirty fingertip. The most beautiful little gone gals in the world cut by in slacks; they came to be starlets; they ended up in drive-ins.”
8. Beyond Baroque
A legendary literary institution located in Venice, Beyond Baroque was founded in 1968. So it wasn't technically around during the heights of the Beat Generation, but it did turn into one of the leading institutions in the Los Angeles literary scene, becoming a spring board for post-Beat writers. And even today it embodies the spirit of the Venice Beats.
7. Danny's Deli
The mural above depicts John Thomas, one of the main players in the Venice Beat movement, located on 23 Windward in Venice. According to Pegarty Long, Philomene Long's sister, the mural is blocks away from the old Gas House and painted by the well known artist and muralist Rip Cronk. As for Thomas, he was a large man with a deep voice and another indelible member of the Venice West scene. According the San Francisco Chronicle, Bukowski called him the best unread poet in the country. In the mural, John Thomas is holding a piece of paper that reads: “Don't Get Hung Up On Anything. But Stand Above, Pass On and Be Free.”
6. South Main Street
Not sure where on South Main Street Kerouac was talking about, but he does give the stretch a compliment in On The Road: “South Main Street, where Terry and I took strolls with hot dogs, was a fantastic carnival of lights and wildness. Booted cops frisked people on practically every corner. The beatest characters in the country swarmed on the sidewalks — all of it under those soft Southern California stars that are lost in the brown halo of the huge desert encampment L.A. really is.”
5. Lawrence Lipton's House on Park Avenue
According to Pegarty Long, the above house is on Park Avenue and was owned by Lawrence Lipton in the late 50s. Lipton wrote one of the first accounts of the Beats in a book called The Holy Barbarians. This house was the site of many gatherings of the Beats, including poetry readings. Basically, it's where they hung out and shared ideas. There's a great story in the book that recounts a time when a drunk tried to fight Gregory Corso during one of his readings in Venice. To diffuse the situation, Ginsberg got up. “All right,” he said, “all right. You want to do something big, don't you? Something brave. Well, go on, do something really brave. Take off your clothes!” The drunk didn't know how to react; Ginsberg stripped, and the man who was picking the fight just left.
4. Venice Canals
“[Stuart Perfkoff] really did live a very outlaw life,” said William Mohr, poet and professor at California State University, Long Beach. “Where you would find him would be on the streets. He was very much a street poet.” Mohr describes Perkoff as a notorious walker, and he often wandered around the streets in Venice. He adds: “If you asked me where you would find Perkoff, I would say you would find him at night, walking around the canals.” In Perkoff's poetry, the canals became a powerful image.
3. Los Angeles Jazz Concert Hall
It's difficult to find a picture of the Los Angeles Jazz Concert Hall in Crenshaw, and it's hard to substantiate who actually performed there. During my interviews, I heard that Ferlinghetti read poetry at the LAJCH and Chet Baker performed. Sometimes, when it comes to the Beats, it's impossible to know the difference between myth and truth. According to Lawrence Lipton in The Holy Barbarians, Jack Hampton was a booking agent who had a half interest in the Hall. One particular night, Hampton and Lipton put together a jazz concert with poets. Lipton writes: “I ended up with a movie actor who reneged at the last minute and had to be replaced with a little theater actor a disk jockey and three poets, Stuart Perkoff and Saul White of Venice West and Kenneth Rexroth, whom I brought down from San Francisco for the occasion.” Beat poetry was about improvisation, being in the moment, and first thought best though; so naturally, a jazz hall and poets like Perkoff are a natural fit. In San Francisco and New York, similar jazz/poetry readings were happening, but many of the critics thought they were a gimmick.
2. Gas House
In John Arthur Maynard's Venice West: The Beat Generation in Southern California, the Gas House was “a converted bingo parlor at the corner of Market Street and Ocean Front Walk.” The building had many different functions — “an art gallery, members-only coffeehouse, a glorified flophouse for artists and poets, and all purpose community center” — and it especially provided shelter from the storm. On special evenings, there would be poetry readings, jazz and philosophical conversations. According to Maynard, “Al Matthews, one of the earlier hip lawyers in Los Angeles had put up the money.” For a while, John Thomas was a cook at the Gas House.
1. Venice West Cafe
Like many great art movements, the spirit was cultivated and recognized in a coffee shop. The long-gone Venice West Cafe (originally 7 Dudley Ave.) was Southern California's equivalent to La Rotonde or the White Horse Tavern. The cafe hosted poetry reading and jazz concerts. According to Bill Mohr, “Stuart Perkoff, beat poet, was also the founder of the Venice West Expresso Cafe…A couple months after he sold it, the Beat fever broke out big time in the nation, and people were flocking to the cafe in Venice in hopes of seeming hip.” Venice West Cafe might not be where the spirit of the Beats started, but it's sure where it was all labeled and recognized as a movement in Southern California.