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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 describing a physically and  spiritually complete life:

1960 Venice West Cafe, headquarters of LA beats

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

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.

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 fellow-traveler of 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.)  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.

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. 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.  After the beatnik era passed Lawrence Lipton had a weekly column in the Los Angeles Free Press in which he expounded on radical political topics.  He wrote frequently on freedom for the arts and anti- Vietnam War.

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.

The author on recent visit to the Osteria Venice West

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 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?

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 everyone  has 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 the freedom to create for 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.

Historical marker by the city of Los Angeles

Remembering Dick Gregory

I first met Dick Gregory when he asked me to interview him for The Realist in New York. I saw him again when I was in Chicago. He was performing at the Playboy Club and invited me to his show. Two years previously, Negro comedians performed only in Negro nightclubs, and Gregory was no exception.
But one evening the regular white comic at the Playboy Club got sick, and Gregory took his place. It made Time magazine, and he was invited to perform on the Tonight Show, but he declined unless, after doing his stand-up act, he would be asked to sit down and talk with Jack Paar. The gamble worked, and Gregory became an instant celebrity, breaking through the color barrier with humor.
Eventually we became friends and fellow demonstrators. Now he was performing at the Playboy Club, not as a substitute comic but as a star attraction. They had to supply me with a jacket, and a tie that was decorated all over with bunny symbols. Gregory was already on stage.
“How could Columbus discover America,” he was asking the audience, “when the Indians were already here?”
In his dressing room between shows, Gregory took out his wallet and showed me a tattered copy of his favorite poem, “If,” by Rudyard Kipling. I laughed and he looked offended, until I explained that I was laughing because it was also my favorite poem, and “the unforgiving minute” was my favorite poetic phrase.
Gregory visited me on the lower east side of New York. The entire side of one building on that block featured a fading advertisement for a cleanser personified by the Gold Dust Twins, a pair of little Negro boys. It had originally been painted right on the bricks.
When he saw it, he said, “They ought to take that whole wall and preserve it in a museum somewhere.”
* * *
On a work-vacation in the Florida Keys with Abbie and Anita Hoffman in December in 1967. I followed a neighborhood crow down the road, then continued walking to town by myself to use the telephone. First I called Gregory, since it was his city Chicago that we were planning to invade the presidential convention in the 1968 summer. He told me that he had decided to run for president, and he wanted to know if I thought Bob Dylan would make a good vice president.
“Oh, sure, but to tell you the truth, I don’t think Dylan would ever get involved in electoral politics.”
Gregory would end up with assassination researcher Mark Lane as his running mate. Next, I called Jerry Rubin in New York to arrange for a meeting when we returned.
At our counter-convention we all attended an Unbirthday Party for President Lyndon Johnson at the Coliseum, with Ed Sanders, leader of the Fugs, serving as emcee. The atmosphere was highly emotional. Dick Gregory recited the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence with incredible fervor. Fists were being upraised in the audience as he spoke, and I thrust my own fist into the air for the first time.
* * *
When my marriage broke up in 1971 I moved to San Francisco and I had my own talk program. Gregory announced on my show that, until the war in Vietnam was over, he was going to stop eating solid foods. I in turn announced that, until the war was over, I was going to eat all of Dick Gregory’s meals. Actually, my only real discipline was being silent one day a week.
When my young daughter Holly came out to stay with me that summer, she decided to join me on my silent day. We communicated with handwritten notes. Holly wrote, Does laughter count? Since we were making up the rules as we went along, I answered, Yes, but no tickling. Naturally she tried to make me laugh, but I held it in – and got a rush.
All the energy that normally gets dissipated into the air with laughter seemed to surge through my body instead. I decided to stop laughing altogether, just to see what would happen. The more I didn’t laugh, the more I found funny. And, paying closer attention to others, I refined my appreciation of laughter as another whole language that could often be more revealing than words. Sometimes I would get a twinge of guilt if I nearly slipped and laughed, and I remembered what I had always known, that children must be taught to be serious. When I mentioned my laugh-fast to Dick Gregory, still on his food-fast, it didn’t sound so far-fetched to him.
That’s two things people do out of insecurity,” he said. “Eating and laughing.”
“Well, what would happen to us if everyone in our audiences realized that?”
“Brother, we’d go out of business.”
* * *
I was invited to a Christmas party in 1977 by Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. Gregory was at the party, and Flynt asked each of us to perform, but first he would take the microphone himself. To my surprise-shock that he wanted me to publish his magazine beside The Realist while he traveled around the country to spread his (temporary) born-again Chrisianity.
On Thanksgiving Day, Gregory had been arrested in front of the White House for protesting the lack of human rights in South Africa. Larry Flynt had a premonition that there would be an assassination attempt on Gregory. Flynt contacted him a couple of weeks later, and they became friends. Gregory was now staying at Flynt’s mansion in Columbus, helping him change to a vegetarian diet. Flynt had already taken off forty pounds. On the day before the Christmas party, Gregory was in the middle of giving himself an enema when Flynt walked in.
According to Gregory, “Larry said, ‘Let me tell you about this fantastic guy I’ve got comin’ out, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do yet but I just wanna talk with him.’ And I said, ‘Well, who is it?’ He said, ‘Paul Krassner.’ And I just fell out, and said, ‘Are you serious? He’s one of the hippest minds in the whole world.’ Then he came back and said, ‘How long you been knowin’ him?’ and I told him, ‘All through the sixties,’ you know. And I said it was a fantastic idea.”
For the New Year Flynt flew Gregory and me to the Bahamas. Gregory was in the kitchen, diligently preparing a health drink for Flynt – this must have been the birth of his Bahamian Diet powder – and he was also feeding unfiltered conspiracy theories to his eager student.
At midnight, we all went out on the dock and stood in a misty drizzle as Gregory uttered truly eloquent prayers for each of us. When he finished, Flynt’s wife Althea whined, like Lucy in the Peanuts strip, “My hair’s getting all wet.” It was her way of saying “Amen.”
On New Year’s Day, we were sitting in the sand, just relaxing. Flynt had bought a paperback novel by Gore Vidal in the hotel store, but first he was reading the Sunday New York Times and worrying about the implications of juries with only six members. A moment later he was rubbing suntan lotion on my back.
“I’ll bet Hugh Hefner never did this for you,” he said.
* * *
Larry Flynt had been traveling around a lot, but he happened to be back in L.A. at the same time that my friend LSD guru Ram Dass was visiting, so I had the unique pleasure of introducing them. Larry, Althea, Ram Dass and I went to a health-food restaurant, where we discovered that we shared something in common: we were all practicing celibacy – Larry at the suggestion of Dick Gregory, Althea by extension, Ram Dass for spiritual purposes, and me just for the sheer perversity of it.
When Larry got shot down south by a racist nut because Hustler had a black naked model, Althea had transformed the Coca-Cola Suite at Emory University Hospital into her office, where she was now studying the slides of the irreverent “Jesus and the Adulteress” feature. Dick Gregory was there, and he said, “This scares me.” He was concerned about reaction in the Bible Belt, notwithstanding the fact that Hustler’s research department had already made certain that the text followed the Bible.
And now Althea was checking for any sexism that might have slipped past the male editors’ limited consciousness. The spread was already in page forms, but not yet collated into the magazine, and there was still a gnawing dilemma about whether or not to publish it.
The marketing people were aghast at the possibility that wholesalers would refuse to distribute an issue of the magazine with such a blatantly blasphemous feature. Althea and I voted to publish. Gregory and editor Bruce David voted not to publish. “I’m against it,” he said, “because we’re this is an issue that just simply will not be distributed.”
Faced with this crucial decision, Althea made her choice on the basis of pure whimsicality. She noticed a pair of pigeons on the window ledge. One of them was waddling toward the other. “All right,” she said, “if that dove walks over and pecks the other dove, then we will publish this.” The pigeon continued strutting along the window ledge, but it stopped short and didn’t peck the other pigeon, so publication of “Jesus and the Adulteress” was postponed indefinitely.
Of course Dick Gregory continued to spread his diligent activism until he died. He was a loss to me, and to this country and around the world, but his powerful inspiration remains.

Remembering Lenny Bruce by Paul Krassner

August 3rd, 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of groundbreaking comedian Lenny Bruce’s death from an overdose of morphine, while his New York obscenity conviction at Café Au Go Go was still on appeal. On that same day he received a foreclosure notice at his Los Angeles home.

But it wasn’t a suicide. In the kitchen, a kettle of water was still boiling, and in his office, the electric typewriter was still humming. He had stopped typing in mid-word: “Conspiracy to interfere with the 4th Amendment const”…constitutes what, I wondered.

Lenny was a subscriber to my satirical magazine, The Realist, and in 1959 we met for the first time at the funky Hotel America in Times Square. He was amazed that I got away with publishing those profane words for which other periodicals used asterisks or dashes. He had been using euphemisms like “frig” and asked, “Are you telling me this is legal to sell on the newsstands?”

I replied, “The Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity is that it has to be material which appeals to your prurient interest.” He magically produced an unabridged dictionary from the suitcase on his bed, and looked up the word “prurient.” He closed the dictionary, clenching his jaw and nodding his head in affirmation of a new discovery. “So,” he observed, “it’s against the law to get you horny.”

When we were about to leave the room, he stood in the doorway. “Did you steal anything?” he asked furtively. I took my watch out of my pocket since I didn’t like to wear it on my wrist, and without saying a word I placed it on the bureau. Lenny laughed one loud staccato “Ha” and kissed me on the forehead.

We developed a friendship integrated with stand-up comedy. In his act Lenny had broken through traditional stereotypical jokes about airplane food, nagging wives, Chinese drivers, annoying mothers-in-law. Instead he weaved his taboo-breaking targets–teachers’ low salaries versus show-business celebs, religious leaders’ hypocrisy, cruel abortion laws, racial injustice, the double standard between illegal and prescription drugs–into stream-of-consciousness vignettes.

In each succeeding performance, he would sculpt and re-sculpt his concept into a theatrical context, experimenting from show to show like a verbal jazz musician. Audience laughter would sometimes turn into clapping for the creative process itself. “Please don’t applaud,” he’d request. “It breaks my rhythm.”

Lenny was writing an autobiography–How to Talk Dirty and Influence People–which Playboy planned to serialize, then publish as a book, and they hired me as his editor. We met in Atlantic City, where he was taking Delaudid for lethargy, and he sent a telegram to a contact, with a phrase–DE LAWD IN DE SKY–as a code to send a doctor’s prescription.

At a certain point he was acting paranoid and demanded that I take a lie-detector test, and I was paranoid enough to take him literally. I couldn’t work with him if he didn’t trust me. We got into an argument, and I left.

He sent a telegram that sounded like we were on the verge of divorce. “WHY CAN’T IT BE THE WAY IT USED TO BE?” he wrote. I agreed to try again, and in 1962 I flew to Chicago. Lenny was performing at the Gate of Horn, where he was asking the whole audience to take a lie-detector test.

Lenny was intrigued by the implications of an item in The Realist, an actual statement by Adolf Eichmann that he would have been “not only a scoundrel, but a despicable pig” if he hadn’t carried out Hitler’s orders. Lenny wrote a piece for The Realist, “Letter From a Soldier’s Wife,” namely Mrs. Eichmann pleading for compassion to spare her husband’s life.

Lenny had been reading a study of anti-Semitism by Jean-Paul Sartre. Now, on stage, giving credit to Thomas Merton’s poem about the Holocaust, he requested that all the lights go off except one dim blue spot. Then he began speaking with a German accent:

My name is Adolf Eichmann. And the Jews came every day to what they thought would be fun in the showers. People say I should have been hung. Nein. Do you recognize the whore in the middle of you–that you would have done the same if you were there yourselves? My defense: I was a soldier. I saw the end of a conscientious day’s effort. I watched through the portholes. I saw every Jew burned and turned into soap.

Do you people think yourselves better because you burned your enemies at long distance with missiles without ever seeing what you had done to them? Hiroshima auf Wiedersehen. [German accent ends.] If we would have lost the war, they would have strung Truman up by the balls, Jim. Are you kidding with that? Not what kid told kid told kid. They would just schlep out all those Japanese mutants. “Here they did; there they are.” And Truman said they’d do it again. That’s what they should have the same day as Remember Pearl Harbor. Play them in unison.

Lenny was arrested for obscenity that night. One of the items in the Chicago police report complained: “Then talking about the war he stated, ‘If we would have lost the war, they would have strung Truman up by the balls.’” The cops also broke open Lenny’s candy bars, looking for drugs. They checked the IDs of audience members, including George Carlin, who told the cops, “I don’t believe in IDs.” Then they arrested him for disorderly conduct, dragged him along by the seat of his pants and hoisted him into the police wagon.

“What are you doing here?” Lenny asked.

“I didn’t want to show them my ID.”

“You schmuck.”

Lenny was released on bail, but the head of the Vice Squad warned the Gate of Horn manager: “If this man ever uses a four-letter word in this club again, I’m going to pinch you and everyone in here. If he ever speaks against religion, I’m going to pinch you and everyone in here. Do you understand? You’ve had good people here. But he mocks the pope–and I’m speaking as a Catholic–I’m here to tell you your license is in danger. We’re going to have someone here watching every show.”

And indeed, the Gate of Horn’s liquor license was suspended. There were no previous allegations against the club, and the current charge involved neither violence nor drunken behavior. The only charge pressed by the city prosecutor was Lenny Bruce’s allegedly obscene performance. Nobody’s prurience was aroused, but that made no difference. After all, there wasn’t any law against blasphemy.

“Chicago is so corrupt, it’s thrilling,” Lenny said.

Chicago had the largest membership in the Roman Catholic Church of any archdiocese in the country. Lenny’s jury consisted entirely of Catholics. The judge was Catholic. The prosecutor and his assistant were Catholic. On Ash Wednesday, the judge removed the spot of ash from his forehead and told the bailiff to instruct the others to do likewise. The sight of a judge, two prosecutors and twelve jurors, every one with a spot of ash on their foreheads, would have all the surrealistic flavor of a Lenny Bruce fantasy.

Since he often talked on stage about his environment, and since police cars and courtrooms had become his environment, the content of Lenny’s performances began to revolve more and more around the inequities of the legal system. “In the Halls of Justice,” he declared, “the only justice is in the halls.” But he also said, “I love the law.” Instead of an unabridged dictionary, he now carried law books in his suitcase. His room was cluttered with tapes and transcripts and photostats and law journals and legal briefs.

Once he was teasing his ten-year-old daughter, Kitty, by pretending not to believe what she was telling him. “Daddy,” she said, “you’d believe me if it was on tape.”

Lenny’s jazz jargon was gradually being replaced by legal jargon. He had become intimate not only with the statutes concerning obscenity and narcotics but also with courtroom procedure, and his knowledge would be woven into his performances. But as clubs became increasingly afraid to hire him, he devoted more and more time and energy to the law.

In less than two years, Lenny was arrested 15 times. Club owners were afraid to book him. He couldn’t get a gig in six months. On a Christmas day, he was alone in his hotel room, and I brought him a $500 bill. With a large safety pin, he attached it to his denim jacket. When he finally got a booking in Monterey, he admitted, “I feel like it’s taking me away from my work.”

Lenny lived way up in the hills. His house was protected by barbed wire and a concrete gate, except that it was always open. He had a wall-to-wall one-way mirror in his living room, but when the sun was shining you could see into the room instead of out. He was occasionally hassled by police on his own property. One evening in October 1963, we were talking while he was shaving, when four officers suddenly appeared, loud and obnoxious. He asked them to leave unless they had a search warrant.

One of the cops took out his gun. “Here’s my search warrant,” he said. Then Lenny and the cops had a discussion about the law, such as the rules of evidence, and after half an hour they left. Lenny tried to take it all in stride, but the encounter was depressing, and he changed his mind about going out that night.

When everything was quiet, we went outside and stood at the edge of his unused swimming pool. Dead leaves floated in the water. Lenny cupped his hands to his mouth. “All right, you dogs,” he called out. “Bark for the rich man!”–thereby setting off a chain reaction of barking dogs, a canine chorus echoing through Hollywood Hills.

We ordered some pizza, and he played some old tapes, ranging from a faith healer to patriotic World War II songs. “Good-bye, Mama, I’m off to Yokohama, the Land of Yama-Yama…”

Back at the Café Au Go Go arrest in New York, Lenny had told a fantasy tale about Eleanor Roosevelt, quoting her, “I’ve got the nicest tits that have ever been in this White House…” The top of the police complaint was “Eleanor Roosevelt and her display of tits.” At the trial, Lenny acted as his own attorney. He had obtained the legislative history of an Albany statute, and he discovered that back in 1931 there was an amendment proposed, which excluded from arrest in an indecent performance: stagehands, spectators, musicians, and–here was the fulcrum of his defense–actors. The law had been misapplied to him. Despite opposition by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the amendment was finally signed into law by then-Governor Roosevelt, but to no avail.

“Ignoring the mandate of Franklin D. Roosevelt,” Lenny observed, “is a great deal more offensive than saying Eleanor has lovely nay-nays.”

On October 13, 1965 (Lenny’s 40th birthday), instead of surrendering to the authorities in New York, he filed suit at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco to keep out of prison, and he got himself officially declared a pauper. Two months before his death in 1966, Lenny wrote to me: “I’m still working on the bust of the government of New York State.” And he included his doodle of Christ nailed to a crucifix, with a speech balloon asking, “Where the hell is the ACLU?”

After he died, at a séance, his mother brought his old faded denim jacket. That large safety pin was still attached to it. And at the funeral, his sound engineer friend dropped Lenny’s microphone into his grave before the dirt was piled on. Lenny’s problem had been that he wanted to talk on stage with the same freedom that he had in his living room. That problem doesn’t happen to stand-up comedians any more.

You Can’t Keep a Good Dream Down: Jerry Brown’s Practical Idealism

Jerry Brown, Linda Ronstadt, LA musicians 1970s

I usually keep my back story on the down low with acquaintances. Most people make up enough stories just by appearances, so I don’t like to give them more fuel with biographical details that can be used to pigeon-hole me. But one afternoon last fall, I happened to make a comment about the presidential debates to a fellow gym rat getting dressed next to me. A fit guy in his early sixties, he works in community housing. I’ve known Loren for a dozen years in that passing small talk way. He responded with an informed opinion. Sensing a deeper connection I asked, “What was your major in college?” He said, “Political Science at Stanford. I smiled knowing I’d met one of my tribe,  and replied, “That was my major at Berkeley, with a focus on Marxist ideology and its application,” said with a dose of irony.

An intense twenty-minute discussion ensued in the men’s locker room—comparing notes and opinions about the current political scene and its players from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Jerry Brown to Donald Trump. The variety of provocative topics elicited smiles and comments from other guys with gray-flecked hair in the room. A public forum exposed lifelong political interests, sparked by growing up during the Vietnam War and eventually graduating from UC Berkeley in the seventies. Submerging my radicalism into a pragmatic career in public education, I’ve never relinquished my vision of fairness, justice, and peace. Now retired into the senior phase, I am again looking to publicly cheer on those who, in an overt fashion, seek to improve society. As has Jerry Brown.

So the locker room discussion became all that more interesting to me when it centered on current California Governor Jerry Brown and his previous administration in the seventies. We agreed he has done an excellent job governing, even better this time around at the age of 79. In his first terms as Governor, Brown was ridiculed with the label ‘Governor Moonbeam’ for his radical, out-of-the-box ideas such as renewable energy, a state space academy satellite, and declaring a era of limits. Jerry Brown in the seventies expressed the idealism of the time. Ahead of the mainstream, Brown attracted derision from the older established politician/ reporter class. His lifestyle from his sleeping on a mattress on the floor to globe-trotting with Linda Ronstadt to his rejection of the new governor’s mansion invited criticism.

Brown’s ‘out there’ thinking proved to be too much for the conservative backlash led by his predecessor as governor of California, Ronald Reagan, who had catapulted his police-state treatment of the student radicals of my school, Berkeley, into the Presidency. Reagan stood for the old school Hollywood values of looking good, constant smiling, and hypocrisy. He promoted traditional values, even though he had divorced his first wife, his daughter basically disowned him and changed her last name, he denied his second son was gay, and his wife retained a staff astrologer. Among Reagan’s most egregious crimes against the white working class that idolized him was union busting which, directly, contributed to lower wages for the Nixon labeled ‘silent majority.’

With his campaign’s populist We the People slogan, Brown polled well but fell well short in his three presidential campaigns. Brown was ahead of the times as seen in last year’s presidential election with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both tapping grass roots, anti-establishment sentiment. But Jerry didn’t quit. He wentMayor of Oakland, CA, a medium-sized city across the bay from San Francisco. While mayor he lived in a converted factory and loft, which ignited a downtown revival in the city whose police brutality against its majority black population in the sixties had birthed the Black Panther Party. Now, Oakland is a jewel of urban renewal with the bucolic buzz of Lake Merritt and the tony Jack London Square on the previously abandoned Embarcadero.

Jerry Brown practiced the adage ‘all politics is local’ and honed his skills as a politician. Not resting on his laurels and famous name to lay back and give expensive speeches, he went to work. Contributing to the greater good, Brown practiced and lived his ideals—government can be a tool for social justice and life enhancement. Re-energized after Oakland, he ran for and served as Attorney General and then Governor.  Now in his fourth term, Jerry Brown will be termed out when he is 80. Old age doesn’t limit him. Although in recent years he’s battled cancer, his vigor and mental clarity exceed the great majority of politicians half his age. He has every reason to kick back, retire, and cash in on his name. But why quit when you have something to give, something to learn, and unfulfilled ideals? I ask myself that question regularly—why should I? I don’t need to prove myself, and neither does Brown.

But then my Berkeley Boomer core wakes up and yells, ‘You’re not done yet.’ At the locker room discussion, I mentioned that I still stand by youthful ideals of community, free expression, individual rights and justice, adventures, and personal growth. Boomers were not all hippie radicals, but Sixties values have influenced our society from new age religions, to yoga, health foods, and alternative health systems mass acceptance. In fact, the notion of the personal computer came out of the edgy, psychedelic consciousness of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak back in the seventies. Our youthful ideals, tempered with realistic appraisal of the slow pace of change in the world have changed the world.

The political life of Jerry Brown demonstrates the successful marriage of ideals and experience. He went back to the basics (Mayor of Oakland), polished his craft and worked his way back up the ladder of California government. Still an idealist, but heavily tempered with realism and compromise. He applies decades of experience to real problems and gets results. His approval ratings dwell in the high seventies, virtually unheard of with high level office holders. Even the LA Times, his former nemesis, gave him a B+ rating with the potential of achieving greatness in this term.  At the same time, he still works from his early, progressive principles. For example, he has taken leadership in the US to support the Paris accords on global warming. And he has never changed his opposition to capital punishment, even in the hard on crime 90s.

Brown still working for progress

Experience counts for Jerry Brown and can count for all of us in the fall of life. Youthful optimism for quick transformation may be gone, but I attempt (as Jerry does), to take my experience and skills and marry them to ideals perhaps half-forgotten in the mists of time.   Although today I may disagree with his wheeling and dealing, he gets stuff done.  One of the greatest gifts of aging is the dignity of surviving and working with the inevitable setbacks.  The Sixties/ hippie ideals of expression, justice, community, and love still make sense, it’s  a great time to bring experience and patience in the struggle for progress.   And as a non-Boomer friend says, “You got nothing to lose.”  Keep up to date and find inspiration in the Los Angeles Free Press, reborn because truth wants to be FREE.


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