Tag Archives: Sausalito

Books, Beats and City Lights

ginsberg-dylan-mcclureWriting in the 1950’s but projecting “to Posterity” , Irish poet Louis MacNeice, envisioned a time when reading and even speaking would be replaced, “By other less difficult media.”

Today bookshops are vanishing, the internet rules and knowledge is too often submerged by a flood of information. However, in San Francisco, still standing out as a major source of mind-energy is the famed City Lights bookstore in North Beach. Its principal founder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, defined his endeavour as a “finger in the dyke holding back the flood of unknowing.”

ferlinghetti-1Presenting itself as a literary meeting place since 1953, City Lights now at 60, both a bookshop and a publisher, places itself firmly “where the streets of the earth meet the boulevards of the mind.”

Placards in the windows proclaim “Open doors, Open books, Open minds”. Ferlinghetti, self-styled as an earlier bohemian, enabled the Beat Generation by publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl ( ‘’ I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”) following the ground breaking live reading at Gallery 6 in 1955.

Behind the poets, the new approach was marked by the train-of-thought writing of Jack Kerouac adding a new dimension to the easy going City-on-the-Bay. In his seminal novel “On the Road” the hero, Dean Moriarty, asserted that “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who…burn, burn, burn, like fabulous roman candles.”

Many had experienced that feeling of jazz music “splitting the earth” and Kerouac was delighted that “Everybody in ‘Frisco blew. It was the end of the continent, they didn’t give a damn.”

d5271702lDefense of free speech, liberation of the word from censorship became another rite of passage to the developing counterculture. Obscenity trials involving the publishing of Howl by City Lights and presenting Michael McClure’s “The Beard” on stage were eventually won. They made possible other publications such as the first printing of Henry Miller’s provocative novels in the United States, and drew much attention to the writers on the Bay.

Above all, it was knowledge escaping from the academy, and for the poets a revival of the oral tradition with the writer as performer ; Kerouac demanding that we “ Shout Our Poems In San Francisco Sreets – Predict Earthquakes”.

By 2001 City Lights was established as an official landmark. Ferlinghetti had become the first Poet Laureate of San Francisco and a street, Via Ferlinghetti was named in his honor.

Jack Kerouac Alley materialised as a pedestrian precinct behind the bookstore while the Gallery 6 poetry reading is remembered on Fillmore Street with a bronze plaque outside the site of the former building. All very formal and official and yet the voice of the Beats continues to resonate .

Among the many to acknowledge their influence was Stuart Brand whose work did so much to make technology liberating. He considered meeting the Beats to be his great transforming moment and an antidote to corporate brain-lock. It led to Haight-Ashbury, LSD and the psychedelic revolution, where poets talked and musicians listened.

“My words man, my words” exclaimed Jim Morrison of the Doors, while the coming of Bob Dylan was seen to disturb the peace and discomfort the powerful.

jobs_stewart_brandFinally Steve Jobs , whom Stuart Brand defined as a total hippy ( “I was an early hippy and Steve Jobs a late hippy, we were paying attention to the beatniks”), expressed his admiration for the way Brand had linked various ideas together in his Whole Earth Catalogue to provide the tools to “change civilisation”. Brand still offers controversial ideas on TED conferences and lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.

Each generation rediscovers the vitality of what became known as the San Francisco Renaissance. Charismatic actor of our times, Johnny Depp, when advised how to read Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues for a film protested “ I’m not reading as him, I’m reading it as me. It’s my interpretation of his piece.” Depp insisted, however, that without On The Road or Howl there would never have been a Bob Dylan or “The Times They Are-a-Changin”.

tv-poetry-9609-1In tribute to the indispensable collections emerging from City Lights, Johnny Depp emphasizes that “the riches I was able to walk away with from these heroes, teachers and mentors are not available in any school that I’ve ever heard of.”

City Lights Bookstore remains a shining beacon in San Francisco, a reason in itself to visit the city.

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San Francisco – An Island on the Landdata:text/mce-internal,%3Cimg%20class%3D%22alignleft%20size-full%20wp-image-899%22%20src%3D%22https%3A//lonelygiraffe1.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/th.jpeg%22%20alt%3D%22th%22%20width%3D%22300%22%20height%3D%22261%22%20/%3E

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Despite having a a population of less than a million, much smaller than nearby San Jose, San Francisco has become the richest of cities. It has the youngest population, the least children and the highest i-phone use in the country.

Surrounded by water on three sides , like Manhattan, but located on 74 hills, it is said there is an “island mentality “ to San Francisco. It was described by poet laureate Laurence Ferlinghetti as being “indeed an offshore province, not really part of mainland America”.

The City’s exudes a liberal feeling not found in many other cities in the US – years ago, the American poet Kenneth Rexroth explained that its liberal traditions reflect the fact that it was the only city that was not settled by the westward spreading puritan tradition. Instead, San Francisco has thrived as a place of great contrasts ever since the days of Levi Strauss stapling rivets into working clothes to make his, bphoto 2y now eponymous, creations.

There may be 400 banks, 20 universities and some of the most valuable property in the country, however, at the same time, it has the least home ownership and the highest rental population. Much of this due to a policy of strict rent control that is strongly enforced in San Francisco. In older properties (anything built before June of 1979), landlords may only increase the rent by a token annual percentage (1.9% in 2013-2014), so although an average 1 bedroom apartment may rent for $2,700 per month, many pay only $700 or less. It encourages tennants to stay, some for a lifetime.

I recently toured the city with my brilliant colleague, Craig Smith, city guide and authentic insider, who explained that centuries ago there were virtually no trees here when the Spanish arrived but that years of careful cultivation and a suitable Mediterranean-type climate transformed the landscape. Everything grows in this idyllic environment including many exotic shrubs and plants.

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Only the eucalyptus is avoided because the dry leaves and bark are a constant fire hazard. Redwood, disliked by termites,was particularly popular in constructing the many huge Victorian and Queen Anne style houses while the windy climate meant few insects, so no need for nets or air-conditioning, making elegant bay windows a prominent architectural feature.

Facing the bay, the fabled Pacific Heights on the northern side of the city has some of the most valuable real estate in the United States. The major attraction for many are the world’s most beautiful urban views with a panorama from Alcatraz to Sausalito and the Golden Gate Bridge. It is also firmly anchored on bedrock, so many buildings survived both the 1906 earthquake and the fire that followed.

I asked Craig if, like so many others in San Francisco, Pacific Heights would be his location of choice assuming money to be of no object but he instantly answered  “no, Sausalito”.

g_47_WaterviewHorizonsThe former home town  of  Zen master Alan Watts and actor Robert Redford, Sausalito, has a relaxed style, warmer temperatures and proximity to both the scenic Marin headlands and wine producing NapaValley. It would certainly make a great choice!

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