Next time you sip espresso with an organic, gluten-free sesame muffin, and listen to an open-mic poet at your favorite local café, you’re in debt to a culture and a time long obscured by the flood of history. It’s way back when a typical evening at the café included a round or two of poets, bongo drums, and fellow beats sipping that espresso. You might have heard Stu Perkoff, one of the original Venice Beat poets, reciting his piece of a physically and spiritually complete life:
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. (formerly Los Angeles’ beach slum and now the high-tech Silicon Beach) and you’ll see the restored, now 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 in the Cadillac, at that time a low-rent boarding house.
This is the only Beatnik scene of the Fifties recognized by a City of Los Angeles historic marker. 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 even 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.
Though this was so and, too, that some of the heroes of the hippies (Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, and others), had their beginnings in the Beatnik world, I knew next to nothing about the Beatniks when I moved to Venice after graduating from UC Berkeley in the seventies. At the time, 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.
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, established in 1905, offered the burgeoning city of Los Angeles a beach fantasy land complete with canals, luxury hotels, amusements, and casinos.
Actually, Kinney and his partner, Francis Ryan, had planned an even larger project that went 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. Nevertheless, the final development by Kinney was, immediately, a big hit.
However, over the years, as most flashy scenes do, Venice faded. Its decline began in the twenties and, with the advent of Prohibition, a gang element took over. The Depression followed, then World War II and, 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 others are still in use today.
I’d read Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Snyder, and Ginsberg, knew little of their beliefs, values, and culture but, as an ardent participant in the hippie movement, I realized our antecedents were in the Beats. And so, after reading a historical summary of Venice West Café Expresso, 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.
In mid-1958, Stuart Perkoff and a partner bought 7 Dudley Place, former shul (a Jewish meeting house) and later bleach factory to capitalize on the growing trend in coffeehouses. They ripped off the plaster and exposed the brick walls. On the Café’s opening day, a hand printed sign announced Art is Love is God.
But soon thereafter, Perkoff, running short on funds and feuding with his partner, Lawrence Lipton, sold the Café. Lipton’s book, a firsthand account of the burgeoning Beat scene, The Holy Barbarians, was published the very next month, February 1959. It sparked widespread interest in the Beats and throngs of wannabees, weekend Beatniks, and tourists descended on the area. With this influx, and under its new ownership, the Café flourished. At times, a painter would use a blank wall for his colorful expressions, while a poet spouted his (they were almost always men) verse, often backed by a bongo player and/or jazz musicians.
But, as the late 50s turned into the early 60s there were years of complaints by uncool, non-Beat neighbors, and the equally obstinate protest of those complaints by its new owner. In 1964 the city of Los Angeles, through its Police Department, silenced the Cafe’s poets, and Venice West closed in 1965. (More can be read about when that battle began and how it was, finally, won, in the original LA Free Press!)
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 it the proprietor of the organic, gourmet restaurant who is today’s Beatnik?
Although of short duration and small in numbers, the Beat‘s influence has been surprisingly long lasting. In addition to its gifts to the vernacular and to coffeehouse menus, it has also left us the drum circle, one that can still be heard each and every Sunday 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 recognition 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 as 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-mic, you’re sampling a bit of Beatnik.