18 Jul North Beach nostalgia
When I was teenager, a guy on the 61 Sooke bus gave me a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels. He said I’d like it. I think we were both wearing bellbottom Levis corduroys. That book was the beginning of a serious obsession with the Beat Generation.
I idolized Kerouac. His jazz-prose. His wild cross-country adventures. His drunkenness. To me, On the Road was a cultural force of nature. Other Beat writers were equally revolutionary and revelatory. William S. Burroughs was a maniac, but a talented one. These books, and the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder became a window into a literary counterculture populated by creative misfits. Their particular brand of angst and beauty resonated.
So visiting the Beat’s North Beach haunts and City Lights Books for the first time, I did feel a little like a pilgrim arriving at some literary Mecca. City Lights, which was started by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin in 1953, isn’t just a store with an expertly curated selection of books; it’s also a publishing company and has been a purveyor of counterculture ideology since its inception.
Throughout the store are little handmade signs with slogans telling you to turn off your cell phone. Be in the moment. Sit down, read a book. The entire third floor of City Lights is dedicated to poetry, and the basement is crammed with books on politics, science, and culture. There is nary an Oprah’s Pick to be seen; instead, the shelves are stocked with books that aspire to educate, challenge, and expand the mind. Over 50 years later, City Lights is still selling the revolution, one book at a time.
Earlier this summer, I bought a copy of Lew Welch’s Ring of Bone, which has been recently reissued by City Lights Publishing. Last week, I attended a City Lights-organized tribute to Lew Welch at the San Francisco library. Gary Snyder hosted the event and read his introduction to the book, and a poem. Other Beat poets and friends of Lew Welch including Joanne Kyger, David Meltzer, Tom Killian, Peter Coyote, Steve Sanfield, and Huey Lewis (Lew’s stepson!) also read. For a poetry geek like yours truly, it was an awesome, inspiring, and humbling evening.