Bohemia by the Bay: Looking Back on the Beat Generation - Page 2

Non-conformist spirits of the mid-century and their San Francisco haven

Musician Larry Vuckovich showed up on the same scene after emigrating with his family from the Montenegro region of the former Yugoslavia. Studying music during the day at San Francisco State College, Vuckovich became a night owl in North Beach, where he could dig the jazz jam sessions and rub elbows with his college teacher, John Handy, and his private tutor, pianist Vince Guaraldi, who was a resident of the neighborhood.


Though still acquiring a new language and not that attracted to poetry, the young bebopper could understand the mutual attraction of musicians and wordsmiths.

"The poets were hip, they wanted to be current with creative development—so sure, they went to jazz," says Vuckovich, now 72 and living in Sonoma County. "And of course you had great literature, films, and everything. They all were trying to express the feelings of life."

Vuckovich also enjoyed what he recalls as "the great experience" of interpolating jazz sets with appearances by Lenny Bruce, one of the quick-witted, confrontational comedians booked in the '50s and '60s at North Beach's legendary venues Off Broadway, the Jazz Workshop, and the hungry i.

For those who experienced it or wish they had, the elements of Beat style have in our present day taken on the nostalgic glow of artifacts, celebrated and exhibited in a much-changed North Beach—at City Lights Books, the Columbus Avenue shop established in 1953 by poet and mentor Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and at the much younger Beat Museum, which opened in recent years around the corner.


At age 90, Ferlinghetti still lives in the neighborhood, not far from his shop and from several extant Italian delis and cafes that still provide him with "stuff that you can't get anywhere else." City Lights continues to publish a periodic Review and both new poetry and verse from Ferlinghetti's long-ago Beat buddies, many of whom are now deceased.

Vuckovich and weiss revived the classic form of jazz-poetry fusion in a recent joint performance at Kimball's East nightclub, in the East Bay. With Ferlinghetti, they are part of the ongoing excitement of the Bay Area, whose musical, literary, and other artistic expressions have expanded well beyond North Beach, continuing to challenge and change aesthetics and attitudes around the world.

From the Bay Area base line, let's revisit a dozen of the most prominent road markers of the Beat Generation—special people, places, and things that, a half-century ago, helped to inspire and sustain San Francisco's Beat identity.




In Larry Keenan's cover photo for the erstwhile 'City Lights Journal,' proprietor Lawrence Ferlinghetti is pictured standing in front of the North Beach bookstore of the same name, brandishing an oversized umbrella above some of San Francisco's Beat and post-Beat cognoscenti. No matter that it isn't raining; the photo symbolizes the tall, mannerly Ferlinghetti's protective and supportive attitude towards the city's creative souls, persisting more than half a century to the present day.

Studying in Paris in the 1940s, Ferlinghetti, an expatriate New Yorker, had acquired an interest both in literate, user-friendly bookstores and in the city of San Francisco, as it was represented to him by older poet Kenneth Rexroth. Early in the following decade, Ferlinghetti relocated to North Beach and, with pioneering pop culture magazine editor Peter Martin, opened City Lights Books, in 1953, as the nation's first paperback bookstore.

city lights book store

After Martin sold out to Ferlinghetti in 1955, the latter expanded into publishing with a book of his own verse, like him measured and elegant, that launched City Lights' 'Pocket Poets Series.' A year later, he published 'Howl and Other Poems' by Allen Ginsberg, which bourgeoned both his and the poet's fame. The paperback, flying in the face of establishment propriety with its unabashed use of language and images, landed Ferlinghetti in a nearby municipal court, as a defendant against obscenity charges.

City Lights Books continues its functions as a center for readings, publications, book sales, and the cordial continuation of the best of the Beat spirit.