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Tag: RW Klarin

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

Strawberry Alarm Clock Is Right On Time in 2017


1967

50 years on

One minute I’m a 17 year old kid in the high school gymnasium listening to the coolest sound of the year, the next I’m on Venice beach with mike in hand interviewing them—50 years later.   Out of the mists of history and the utopian haze that enveloped our generation reappeared this summer.  Wearing the flowing kaftans with brightly swirling flower and paisley designs, the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s sound hasn’t changed.  Rare among old rock bands that do the legends thing, the majority of its members were there at the beginning.  But more importantly, they sound the same.  Even the new songs are in the pocket of Incense and Peppermints their number one hit.

This year all over the San Francisco Bay Area 1967’s Summer of Love is  being celebrated with numerous art exhibits, concerts, and tours.  Heavily supported by the local political establishment, weekly reports of happenings are published in the San Francisco Chronicle.  Notables from that era have been so heavily interviewed that Peter Coyote (one of the original Diggers) has said, no mas.  But down here hardly a whimper is heard.

But being a local Venetian and life-long counterculturalist, I can verify we had a  scene and we are celebrating the LA hippie era.   The epicenter of LA hippie was Venice/ Ocean Park with local faves; the Doors, Canned Heat, Spirit, Chamber Brothers, Love, and many more.

Venice hasn’t forgotten.  For the past twelve years the Venice Music Festival has hosted hippie era performers the Chambers Brothers (‘Time Has Come Today’), Country Joe and the Fish’s Barry Melton and this year the Strawberry Alarm Clock headlined.  As the sunset and a marine chill settled in, I smelled patchouli and herb in the air.  It felt like we’d taken the magic carpet ride back in time fifty years.

2017 Strawberry Alarm Clock with the LA Free Press Reporter, RW Klarin, holding a copy of the LA FP ad announcing them as Headliners at the Venice Beach hotspot, The Cheetah, in 1967

Before the show, representing the legendary LA Free Press, I interviewed the band.  Friendly and natural, they could have been your local BMW sales agent or fish store owner (which are the day jobs of a couple of the guys).  In response to my inquiry on changes to their music, Greg Bunnell (the bassist) said it is the same.  I can vouch for that— flute and organ highlights and ethereal harmonies replicate the sound of fifty years ago.   New songs contained a gentle social commentary just as the old songs were played with passion and fidelity.

The Alarm Clock insists that psychedelia lives and they do a great job of maintaining that vision of flowers, peace, and love.  At least for a couple hours in Venice time-travel was possible.

In search of hippie, I’ll be on the look-out for revivals of the hippie vision and report on these pages.  If you know of an event you think might fit, please send me a line.  Upcoming is a video report of the 50th anniversary of the Griffith Park love-ins.

 

 

Old Songs, Young Souls, & a Final Flight for the Airplane


Santa Monica Pier Twilight Concerts

“Take another whiff of fresh air,” the gray-bearded bear of a man whispered from the stage. An authentic, original San Francisco hippie, David Freiberg (first of Quicksilver Messenger Service) again fronted the 21st century version of a rock institution on a late summer evening in 2015. The usual motley crowd of several hundred free entertainment seekers milled around the Santa Monica Pier, while the classic guitar riffs of an old Jefferson Airplane tune cut through the cacophony of chatter.  Almost 50 years since the Summer of Love in San Francisco, their original incarnation proclaimed, ‘When the truth is found to be lies.’ Well the truth of 2015 is that they are a mere shadow of the Airplane. But those riffs were just enough to provoke grins of recognition between me and an old friend from college days at Berkeley. He made a special pilgrimage to LA to see the last surviving member of the iconic group that epitomized the San Francisco hippie sound in the sixties. Known back in the day under the pseudonym of Jack, he is one of those rare Boomers who, now in our later days,  listens to current music as well as the classics.

Unfortunately, on that balmy Santa Monica night, after two songs the small guy, with wispy blonde hair who played those distinctive licks disappeared from the stage. The music continued, but Paul Kantner couldn’t, he’d made an appearance, but that was about it—a recent heart attack had taken its toll. Sadly, Kantner died in early 2016 at the age of 74 after another heart attack.
After Kantner left, the band consisting of four young musicians and Freiberg, carried on with the classic tunes. Although they were essentially a tribute band, competently covering the old songs, when I closed my eyes I heard Grace Slick singing White Rabbit and Miracles. Those old songs evoked the vibe, like a time-tunnel to the mood, spirit, excitement, and freedom, of the original hippie times. Like an invisible virus, music from our formative years rummages around in the memory banks and finds the young soul that lurks deep within the ever-aging mind and body. A remembrance, more than nostalgia, it’s like a secret, authentic self that is hiding in a closet coming out for a cameo.

Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Starship

Oldies music is not new, but the attitude about it is. In 1969, I attended a concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco, Sha Na Na came on and drove us young hippies wild with their fifties cover songs. In those days, a heavy dose of camp and sarcasm fueled our enthusiasm. We thought we had evolved so much that oldies music from ten years before was corny and hilarious.  That doesn’t happen now with oldies music. Now, even millennials like and respect music from the sixties and seventies. The generation gap that was so glaring back in the day has closed. That night on the Santa Monica Pier all ages swayed to the classic rock of Starship/ Airplane. Cruising through the time-tunnel, I recalled a free concert I saw by Jefferson Airplane at the Los Angeles’ Griffith Park/ Elysian  Park area in 1969. The impromptu show happened because somehow a planned concert at a real venue was cancelled by ‘The Man.’ The word spread through the hippie underground, mostly via the Los Angeles Free Press. A crowd of thousands appeared, peace and love permeated the scene, without a sign of ‘The Man’ seen. Radical politics of the time inspired their new album, Volunteers, and the kids shouted out in unison with lyrics that confronted the ‘System’ like ‘Up against the wall motherfuckers’ and ‘We can be together.’

Grace Slick and Paul Kantner ‘Volunteers’ era

For us Boomers the music was often more than entertainment, our lives organized around it. It was our social media where we shared political views, clothing and artistic styles, in addition to entertainment. Even today, fifty years later, those same performers and songs resuscitate the old spirit of community, justice, and freedom. Well-proven neuro-science states that our minds are still forming into the mid-to late twenties, so it makes sense that the imprints we experience at that age stay with and continue to excite us.

My friends and associates, except for the few hard-core music aficionados like Jack, listen to the old music from our formative twenties. Especially, the original bands like the Who, Stones, or Starship, who replicate the originals with new players. At the 2015 New Orleans Jazz Fest, the Who’s two remaining original members, Pete Townsend and Roger Daltrey performed the classics like ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ with gusto, but what blew me away was how the replacement drummer (Zake Starkey, son of Ringo Starr) didn’t miss one of Keith Moon’s original licks.

The author catches the Who at New Orleans Jazz Fest, 2015

Experiencing tribute or classic bands (even with one original member like the Starship) opens that deep mine of soul, freedom, and adventure hidden by the passage of the decades. It still resides inside us somewhere and the old music can bust out of the miasma of sameness and into freshness and spontaneity. After getting drunk on this strange elixir from the past, something wakes up in me and I want to ‘bang a gong, get it on.’ Who hasn’t felt that from a cherished oldie? Novelty through discovery and adventure feed the soul, but the old music satisfies in a way that new can’t. Like a fine pair of old jeans and tennis shoes and scratchy 45s, they’re well loved, like an old friend, it awakens the spirit of youth regardless of who is playing it.

Sadly, Paul Kantner didn’t return to the stage that night at the Pier, but his daughter by Grace Slick, China Kantner sang harmony on Somebody to Love. The lineage received due honor. Paul Kantner reportedly never renounced his Summer of Love principles of peace, love, and a positive future. A stalwart icon of the hippie movement, his vision lives on in the music of the Airplane/ Starship and in the souls of the older ‘kids’ who took a breath of that fresh air of a utopian generation.

[Ed.’s Note:  In his first book of essays, Living the Dream Deferred, RW Klarin explored the uncharted domain for Baby Boomers– -retirement. Combining a journalist’s eye for detail with a teacher’s need to learn, he invited readers into the inner and outer journey of his reinvention.
His new project is an exploration of the Sixties counterculture influence on our world. As he visits significant, though not always famous places and persons of that tumultuous period, in this column, each Wednesday, we will join him as he recalls their past in the ‘era of the hippie’, assesses their present state, and talks with us about what it might mean for our future.]

 

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