CELL FROM WHICH A PRISONER ESCAPED
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The federal prison on Alcatraz Island in the chilly waters of California’s San Francisco Bay housed some of America’s most difficult and dangerous felons during its years of operation from 1934 to 1963. Among those who served time at the maximum-security facility were the notorious gangster Al “Scarface” Capone (1899-1947) and murderer Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud (1890-1963). No inmate ever successfully escaped The Rock, as the prison was nicknamed, although more than a dozen known attempts were made over the years. After the prison was shut down due to high operating costs, the island was occupied for almost two years, starting in 1969, by a group of Native-American activists. Today, historic Alcatraz Island, which was also the site of a U.S. military prison from the late 1850s to 1933, is a popular tourist destination.
In 1775, Spanish explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala (1745-97) mapped and named rugged Alcatraz Island, christening it La Isla de los Alcatraces, or Island of the Pelicans, due to its large population of sea birds. Seventy-five years later, in 1850, President Millard Fillmore (1800-74) signed an order reserving the island for military use. During the 1850s, a fortress was constructed on Alcatraz and some 100 cannons were installed around the island to protect San Francisco Bay. Also during this time, Alcatraz became home to the West Coast’s first operational lighthouse.
By the late 1850s, the U.S. Army had begun holding military prisoners at Alcatraz. Isolated from the mainland by the cold, strong waters of San Francisco Bay, the island was deemed an ideal location for a prison. It was assumed no Alcatraz inmate could attempt to escape by swimming and survive.
During its years as a military prison, the inmates at Alcatraz included Confederate sympathizers and citizens accused of treason during the American Civil War (1861-65). Alcatraz also housed a number of “rebellious” American Indians, including 19 Hopis from the Arizona Territory who were sent to the prison in 1895 following land disagreements with the federal government. The inmate population at Alcatraz continued to rise during the Spanish-American War (1898).
During the early 20th century, inmate labor fueled the construction of a new cellhouse (the 600-cell structure still stands today) on Alcatraz, along with a hospital, mess hall and other prison buildings. According to the National Park Service, when this new complex was finished in 1912 it was the world’s largest reinforced concrete building.
In 1933, the Army relinquished Alcatraz to the U.S. Justice Department, which wanted a federal prison that could house a criminal population too difficult or dangerous to be handled by other U.S. penitentiaries. Following construction to make the existing complex at Alcatraz more secure, the maximum-security facility officially opened on July 1, 1934. The first warden, James A. Johnston (1874-1954), hired approximately one guard for every three prisoners. Each prisoner had his own cell.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) viewed Alcatraz as “the prison system’s prison,” a place where the most disruptive inmates could be sent to live under sparse conditions with few privileges in order to learn how to follow rules (at which point, they could be transferred to other federal prisons to complete their sentences). According to the BOP, Alcatraz typically held some 260 to 275 prisoners, which represented less than 1 percent of the entire federal inmate population.
Among those who did time at The Rock was the notorious Prohibition-era gangster Al “Scarface” Capone, who spent four-and-a-half years there during the 1930s. His arrival on the island generated headlines across America. Capone was sent to Alcatraz because his incarceration in Atlanta, Georgia, had allowed him to remain in contact with the outside world and continue to run his criminal operation in Chicago. He was also known to corrupt prison officers. All of that ended when he was sent to Alcatraz. According to the biography “Capone” by John Kobler, Capone once told the warden, “It looks like Alcatraz has got me licked.”
Other famous (or infamous) Alcatraz inmates included George “Machine Gun” Kelly (1895-1954), who spent 17 years there on a kidnapping conviction. Gangster Alvin “Creepy Karpis” Karpowicz (1907-79), listed as “Public Enemy No. 1″ by the FBI in the 1930s, spent over 25 years behind bars at Alcatraz, reportedly more time than any other prisoner. Murderer Robert Stroud, also known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” was transferred there after three decades at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Stroud arrived on the island in 1942 and served 17 years there; however, despite his nickname, he was not permitted to keep birds at Alcatraz as he had while locked up at Leavenworth.
Over the years, there were 14 known attempts to escape from Alcatraz, involving 36 inmates. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that of these would-be escapees, 23 were captured, six were shot and killed during their attempted getaways, two drowned and five went missing and were presumed drowned.
The most famous escape attempt resulted in a battle, from May 2 to May 4, 1946, in which six prisoners overpowered cellhouse officers and were able to gain access to weapons, but not the keys needed to leave the prison. In the ensuing battle, the prisoners killed two correctional officers and injured 18 others. The U.S. Marines were called in, and the battle ended with the deaths of three of the rogue inmates and the trial of the three others, two of whom received the death penalty for their actions.
The federal penitentiary at Alcatraz was shut down in 1963 because its operating expenses were much higher than those of other federal facilities at the time. (The prison’s island location meant all food and supplies had to be shipped in, at great expense.) Furthermore, the isolated island buildings were beginning to crumble due to exposure to the salty sea air. During nearly three decades of operation, Alcatraz housed a total of 1,576 men.
In 1969, a group of Native Americans led by Mohawk activist Richard Oakes (1942-72) arrived on Alcatraz Island and claimed the land on behalf of “Indians of All Tribes.” The activists hoped to establish a university and a museum on the island. Oakes left Alcatraz following the death there of his stepdaughter in 1970, and the remaining occupiers, whose ranks had become increasingly contentious and divided, were removed by order of President Richard M. Nixon (1913-94) in 1971. The island became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972 and was opened to the public a year later. Today, some 1 million tourists visit Alcatraz each year.
Its fascination for the public remains though, as millions travel to San Francisco Bay to take in a glimpse of the cells which held the country’s most dangerous criminals such as – Al Capone, George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Alvin ‘Creepy’ Karpis.
And on Thursday, The National Park Service celebrated the 50th anniversary of Alcatraz Island’s closure as a federal penitentiary with an exhibit of newly discovered photos of the prison’s final hours.
In this March 21, 1963 photo taken by Leigh Wiener and provided by the National Park Service, prison guard Jim Albright, (second from left), leads out the last prisoners from Alcatraz federal penitentiary
On that day in 1963, prison guard Jim Albright led the Navy-coat clad prisoners — considered the nation’s most dangerous — to waiting boats as cameras clicked and hundreds of reporters chronicled The Rock’s last hours as a prison.
Albright wasn’t deterred by the ruckus, keeping his eye on his wards and his focus steely.
The ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the closing was attended by former guard Jim Albright, who can be seen in the photographs in a light gray suit and dark tie, walking the shackled prisoners past reporters.
New discovered photos show the last prisoners depart from Alcatraz Island federal prison in San Francisco. The National Park Service on Thursday celebrated the 50th anniversary of Alcatraz Island’s closure with an exhibit of the photos
He had been a guard during two escapes, including the one made famous in the movie ‘Escape from Alcatraz,’ and was keeping an eye open for any funny business involving the prisoners and reporters.
‘What I was worried about was that one of these god-darned fools was going to give the inmates something that they could get out of their cuffs with,’ Albright, now 77, said. ‘These were all the worst bad guys. If you messed up somewhere else you came to Alcatraz.’
Alcatraz started as a fortress and became an Army disciplinary barracks before the Bureau of Prisons took it over in 1934 to house America’s most notorious criminals.
U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy signed an order in 1962 to close the prison due to its expensive upkeep and its prime location in the bay.
A flag flies on a ferry as it approaches Alcatraz Island on the day The National Park Service marked the 50th anniversary of the closure of the notorious Alcatraz federal penitentiary with an exhibit of newly discovered photos
Tourists view an exhibit of photographs documenting the last day of Alcatraz federal penitentiary on today on the island prison
Former Alcatraz Island prison guard Jim Albright looks on while viewing an exhibit of photographs documenting the last day of Alcatraz federal penitentiary today.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2297271/Alcatraz-final-days-revealed-new-photos-released-50th-anniversary-prison-closing.html#ixzz3oUc9SOA6
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dave and myself in San Francisco
Live guitar music still warbles from street corners, tie-dyed t-shirts are hawked by the handful, the smell of pot permanently wafts, colorful peace signs adorn windows of businesses like the Red Victorian Bed & Breakfast — institutions better suited to an earlier time.
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But said nostalgia is often overshadowed by the sad realities of a neighborhood that has long since evolved from the remnants of a revolution: the wayward teenagers, the tourist traps, the vagabonds, the $6 corporate ice cream cones sold at precisely San Francisco’s most famous intersection.
During its heyday, which culminated in 1967’s infamous Summer of Love, young dreamers converged in the Haight by the thousands. Historians deem the neighborhood the birthplace of the hippie movement, marked by peaceful protests and psychedelic experimentation. The era’s greatest luminaries, from Jerry Garcia to Allen Ginsberg to Jimi Hendrix, all lived nearby.
Then the movement waned, and the area began to decay along with it. “By the fall of 1967, Haight-Ashbury was nearly abandoned, trashed, and laden with drugs and homeless people,” blogger Jon Newman wrote in his essay Death of the Hippie Subculture. “With the Haight in ruins and most of its residents gone, it was simply unable to operate as a hub for music, poetry and art.”
Of course, the Haight still has a certain appeal. There’s no better jazz-and-pizza combo in the city than at Club Deluxe, Amoeba Music offers a truly epic collection, a parklet just popped up in front of Haight Street Market and the 12-piece band that assembles in front of American Apparel on Sunday mornings always move crowds to dance in the street.
Yet we can’t help but heave a sigh while pushing past gaggles of gawking tourists or stepping over the man sleeping on the sidewalk at noon. While a stroll down Haight Street today certainly evokes nostalgia, it also makes us yearn for a place that was once the epicenter of peace and love and youth in revolt, a place we never had the chance to experience ourselves but will be forever engrained in San Francisco’s complex, progressive history.
Social Activism and the Counterculture
|Musician Judy Collins performing at anti-Vietnam War rally, Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, 1967|
In the 1960s, Lisa Law and thousands of other Americans were moved by the Vietnam War, racial injustice, fear of nuclear annihilation, and the rampant materialism of capitalist society. Many were inspired by leaders such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Small groups staged sit-ins at schools, local lunch counters, and other public facilities. Masses gathered in the nation’s cities to protest what they saw as America’s shortcomings.
Many members of the counterculture saw their own lives as ways to express political and social beliefs. Personal appearance, song lyrics, and the arts were some of the methods used to make both individual and communal statements. Though the specifics of the debates were new, arguments for personal freedom, free speech, and political reform go back to the foundations of American society and the arguments of 19th-century social reformers and founders of new communities.
|Artist Liberation Front meeting, San Francisco, 1967. This group of artists presented alternatives to “official” art in the form of street fairs that featured live music, mimes, puppet shows, and participatory painting.|
|Victor Maymudes, Bob Dylan’s road manager, with a mandala, a symbol of life, Monterey International Pop Festival, 1967. Maymudes carried this mandala made from burnt doll parts to protest the U.S. dropping of napalm in Vietnam.|
|Coretta Scott King, anti-Vietnam War rally, Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, 1967|
|Paul Krassner (center), editor of the underground publication The Realist, and Harvey Kornspan (far right), a member of the Diggers, the Panhandle, San Francisco, 1967. The Diggers were political activists and performers who distributed free food and clothing and staged theatrical events in the streets of San Francisco.|
|Tony Price playing the atomic gongs, El Rancho, New Mexico, 1970. Price made musical instruments out of materials salvaged from the U.S. atomic bomb research facility at Los Alamos, New Mexico.|
|Black Panthers, anti-Vietnam War rally, Kezar Stadium, San Francisco, 1967. The newly formed Black Panther Party, frustrated with the status quo, called attention to the purportedly disproportionate numbers of black men bearing the burden of combat in the Vietnam War.|
|“General Hershey Bar,” San Francisco, 1967. Antiwar demonstrators used street theater and satire to make political commentary. Gen. Lewis B. Hershey headed the Selective Service (Draft Board) in the Vietnam era.|
|New Buffalo Commune, Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, 1967|
Some children of the sixties counterculture dropped out and left the cities for the countryside to experiment with utopian lifestyles. Away from urban problems and suburban sameness, they built new lives structured around shared political goals, organic farming, community service, and the longing to live simply with one’s peers.
The Laws lived in several groups of poets, musicians, artists, and idealists. These communities experimented with redefining family structure, the relationship between work and leisure, and the role of their community in the world. Their degrees of success varied, however. Many men and women struggled to balance personal and political freedom with individual responsibilities and commitments, and to develop the farming and building skills needed to sustain the community.
|Caravan, including Lisa and Tom Law’s bus “Silver,” en route to Love-In protest at Los Alamos atomic proving grounds, New Mexico, 1968|
|Horse trainer Tommy Masters teaching Prince to harness, Truchas, New Mexico, 1970|
|Building the communal house at the New Buffalo Commune, Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, 1968. The Laws traveled to New Mexico to have their first child at a facility that practiced natural childbirth. They helped build the New Buffalo commune and decided to move to New Mexico to live among a group of friends.|
|Rick Klein and Steve, Jenna, and Carol Hinton, New Buffalo Commune, 1967. Rick Klein and other benefactors sometimes bought the land and founded communes, enabling members to implement their ideals.|
|Ben Marcus and Little Joe Gomez of the Peyote Church, Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, 1967. New Buffalo Commune members interpreted the ways of nearby American Indians to model a new life of self-sufficiency and tribal community.|
|Lisa Law writing birth announcements and breast-feeding newborn daughter Dhana Pilar, Embudo, New Mexico, 1967. Lisa Law and Steve Hinton made the cradleboard. Photograph by Tom Law|
|Miles Hinton, New Buffalo Commune, 1967|
|Hog Farm Commune members and friends, Spence Hot Springs, Jemez Mountains, New Mexico, 1967|
|Musician, New Buffalo Commune, Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico, 1967|
|Ken Kesey, aboard his bus “Further,” Aspen Meadows, New Mexico, 1969. Author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey and his troupe, the Merry Pranksters, celebrated both spontaneous street theater to engage a mainstream audience and the use of psychedelic drugs.|
|Indian Sikh Yogi Bhajan teaching Kundalini yoga class, summer solstice, Tesuque Reservation, New Mexico, 1969. As part of a spiritual reawakening, some members of the counterculture rejected drug use in favor of mind and spiritual expansion through yoga, meditation, and chanting.|
|We stopped smoking marijuana and started getting high on breathing. Enough of being potheads. Now we could be healthy, happy and holy.
-Lisa Law, 1987
|Hog Farm leader Wavy Gravy, Llano, New Mexico, 1969. Spontaneity, playfulness, and openness were cherished elements of commune life.|
|Commune members Laura and Paul Foster’s wedding at the Hog Farm’s summer solstice celebration, Aspen Meadows, New Mexico, 1968|
|Barry, Patty, and Ever McGuire with Don and Cindy Gallard watching the sunset, New Mexico, 1967. Barry McGuire, formerly of the New Christy Minstrels, recorded the hit protest song “Eve of Destruction.”|
|Pilar Law and yoga altar at New Buffalo Commune, 1969|
|Fifteen of us lived together, one room per family, and a kitchen and a communal room. I can’t say that I enjoyed that kind of living. It always seemed that women ended up doing a lot more chores than the men. The men played music, smoked the herb, chopped wood and repaired vehicles. The lack of privacy was a test.
-Lisa Law, 1987
|Lisa and Tom Law with children Solar Sat and Dhana Pilar on Law farm, Truchas, New Mexico, 1970. Seeking more independence and privacy, the Laws moved into their own house, farmed, and raised animals.|
|Planting first garden on Law farm, Truchas, New Mexico, 1970|
|Hog Farm members in free kitchen, Woodstock, 1969|
The Woodstock Music and Art Fair made history. It was, depending on one’s point of view, four days of generosity, peace, great music, liberation, and expanding consciousness, or four days of self-indulgence, noise, promiscuity, and illegal drug use.
In 1969, Lisa Law and eighty-five experienced commune organizers were asked to assist with the medical tents, security, food services, stage activities, and information booths at a music festival near Woodstock, a little town in upstate New York. Seven months pregnant, with a toddler in hand, Law managed to take photographs of the festival, help run a free kitchen, and film an hour of home movies. She captured images of an event that remains one of the most powerful symbols of the decade.
Woodstock enabled thousands of middle-class young people to experience the communal spirit. For the first time, these young people felt empowered by their numbers. Politicians and manufacturers in the music and clothing industries took note of the potential of a growing youth market.
|Hog Farmers arrival at John F. Kennedy Airport en route to the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Woodstock, New York, 1969. The Laws and others in the counterculture saw music festivals as “purveyors of consciousness and peace.”|
|The musical group Quill on stage, Woodstock, 1969|
|Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Woodstock, New York, 1969|
|Dennis Hopper, director and co-star of the film Easy Rider, New Mexico, 1970. The New Buffalo Commune served as a model for Hollywood depictions of communal living.|
Just as increasing numbers of people were coming to the communes looking for answers, the Laws’ final back-to-the-land experiment at Truchas, New Mexico, was faltering. In 1976, Lisa Law moved to Santa Fe, where she eventually made her living as a photographer.
The counterculture movement, greeted with enormous publicity and popular interest, contributed to changes in American culture. A willingness to challenge authority, greater social tolerance, the sense that politics is personal, environmental awareness, and changes in attitudes about gender roles, marriage, and child rearing are legacies of the era.
Today Lisa Law lives by the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico in a solar-powered house. Her tepee is pitched beside her organic garden. Law continues to use her camera to document social issues, including efforts to end nuclear arms testing, the struggles of the young and elderly of New Mexico, and issues of Native American sovereignty.
|Janis Joplin and Tommy Masters at Law farm, Truchas, New Mexico, 1970. In 1970, Joplin and fellow musician Jimi Hendrix died of drug and alcohol abuse.|
A Haight-Ashbury Museum of Psychedelic Art and History is in development in San Francisco, but former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen has beaten them to the idea. In June, Kaukonen will officially open the Psylodelic Museum, a collection of Haight-connected artifacts, at his Fur Peace Ranch in southeast Ohio.
“It’s a window of the time,” Kaukonen says. “To use a mixed-metaphor song title, it’s about the way we were.”
Housed in an old silo on the grounds of the ranch (hence the punny name), the museum currently includes donations from Kaukonen and longtime San Francisco-related friends. From his own personal collection, Kaukonen contributed concert posters from the Fillmore and Winterland (featuring Love, Muddy Waters and Moby Grape) as well as a rug from the famed Jefferson Airplane house. His old friend Wavy Gravy donated the sleeping bag he used at Woodstock. Jack Casady, Kaukonen’s former Airplane bandmate and ongoing partner in Hot Tuna, donated a custom-made tunic he wore at Woodstock and some of his old eyeglasses.
“You look at this stuff and think, ‘What were we thinking?'” Kaukonen says with a chuckle. “Jack had some of these unbelievably large glasses – like Elton John’s but without the jewelry.”
Casady credits his late wife, Diana, who recently passed away from cancer, with helping him salvage his vintage wardrobe. “I would say to her, ‘I’ll just rid of these clothes,’ and she would say, ‘No, we’ll find a place for them,'” he says. “So years ago I had them all dry-cleaned and hung and stuck in a closet. The clothes went along with the whole scene back then. It wasn’t about your image. It was just a hoot getting involved in designing your own clothes and guitar straps.”
In a sign of how far the musicians pushed the fashion envelope at the time, Casady remembers once trying to wear an outfit made from furniture upholstery: “The material was fantastic, but it was too hot to play in, so it was almost unusable.”
Although the posters and milieu bring to mind the heyday of the Airplane and theGrateful Dead, Kaukonen says tie-dye will be in short supply at the museum (which has so far raised just over $25,000 on Kickstarter); “A lot of people think of hippies as tie-dyed, but my memory of what I consider to be hippies is the people who dressed in Edwardian clothes or things from the American West,” he says. In that vein, Kaukonen donated some of the Native American-based jewelry he bought at the time, including a necklace that unintentionally resembled the Nazi symbol. “I wore it for a number of years,” he says. “Obviously, many people saw the Hakenkreuz [the Nazi party symbol], not the spiritual item I saw.”
Many items from the era didn’t survive those heady times. Kaukonen says his own patch-covered bell bottoms are long gone (“mercifully,” he says), as are Casady’s legendary headbands. The bassist’s own set of Fillmore concert posters also bit the dust. “When I shared a flat with Marty Balin in the Panhandle in San Francisco, I had every poster pinned to the wall,” Casady recalls. “So when it was time for me to get a house of my own, I just left them all on the wall. And there you have it.”
For future exhibits, Kaukonen is hoping to reach out to old musical friends like David Crosby and Paul Kantner, as well as Grace Slick, who retired from music years ago and now concentrates on painting. “She doesn’t do email,” he says, “so when I called her last year and got her answering machine, her outgoing message is her blowing a huge raspberry. Grace is still so funny.”
Founded in 1989, Fur Peace Ranch hosts guitar workshops and concerts (Steve Earlerecently played there), and Kaukonen admits that pulling in additional tourist revenue is another goal of the museum. “Even though we’re non-profit, we’re only non-profit by accident,” he says with another laugh. “My wife, Vanessa, thought we should have something of interest, like roadside America. All I know is that it’s going to be more interesting than the world’s largest ball of twine in Kansas.”
A TOUR OF THE BOOKSTORE
The Oracle of the City of San Francisco, also known as the San Francisco Oracle, was an underground newspaper published in 12 issues from September 20, 1966, to February 1968 in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of that city. Allen Cohen (1940–2004), the editor during the paper’s most vibrant period, and Michael Bowen, the art director, were among the founders of the publication. The Oracle was an early member of the Underground Press Syndicate.
The Oracle combined poetry, spirituality, and multicultural interests with psychedelic design, reflecting and shaping the countercultural community as it developed in the Haight-Ashbury. It was arguably the outstanding example of psychedelia within the countercultural “underground” press, noted for experimental multicolored design. Oracle contributors included many significant San Francisco–area artists of the time, including Bruce Conner and Rick Griffin. It featured such beat writers as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure.
Every movement creates its own primary sources, and the hippies of 1967 San Francisco had a psychedelic one: The San Francisco Oracle. Published in 12 fantastic issues from 1966 to 1968, the Oracle is a fascinating artifact of the times.
With theme issues like “Youth Quake,” “The Aquarian Age,” “Psychedelics, Flowers, and War,” and “The Politics of Ecstasy,” the newspaper spoke directly to young people’s imaginations and concerns. Whimsical, hand-drawn ads touted bookstores, concerts, health food stores, coffeehouses, shops selling hippie fashions, and music sellers. And the publication’s wild page layouts, drawings, photo-collages and other graphics became icons of hippie culture.
Hippies sold the Oracle on Bay Area streets to support themselves, and the newspaper made its way around the world by subscription. Print runs grew to nearly 125,000 by issue #7. The editors estimated their circulation topped half a million when taking into account the number of people who shared each copy.
The Oracle’s articles, interviews, letters, commentary, and poems explored hippie consciousness in a variety of ways. For example, in issue #6, Tom Law wrote a piece called “The Community of the Tribe” that obliquely referred to Fifties consumer culture, the Cold War and the war in Vietnam, contexts in which hippie attitudes had emerged:
“We are all — squares and the psychedelically enlightened alike — involved in our world of now. To take up the call, to respond to the cosmic forces, we must be the hard-working, harmonious, respectful, honest, diligent, co-operative family of man. Our words are inspired. Our feeling is deep and complete. Our devotion is strong. The precious revelations which have come through us with increasing magnitude must be fathomed until we are one with each other and can extend our awareness beyond the tribe to our entire planet.
What is the natural karmic duty of a generation whose brothers, neighbors, and childhood friends now promote hate by killing innocent human beings around the world? It is to balance their jive and immature actions with the light of intelligent goodness; fearlessly to deal with the money-mad machine in order to release its hold on our bowels — the bowels of mankind.
Practically, this means that all excess profit is turned back into the community. That means all money, material things, food, etc., which are beyond the basic necessities of a happy, healthy, human existence…”
Read this reminiscience by Oracle co-founder Allen Cohen about how he first imagined a “rainbow newspaper,” or go to Regent Press to learn more about the Oracle (both links are to pages not on PBS.org).
Many thanks to Regent Press for the use of some of the original Oracle graphics on this Web site. Others provided by Ana Christy.
click on picture
O Poets! Shamans of the word! When will you recover the trance-like rhythms, the subliminal imagery, the haunting sense of possession, the powerful inflection and enunciation to effect the vision? Throw off this malaise, this evasion, this attitudinizing and sickliness of urbanity. Penetrate to the discord in yourself, the rootlessness, and induce the trance that will heal the rift within. Shamanize! Shamanize! The American destiny is in your hands.
–William Everson, Birth of a Poet
From the swinging confluences of jazz and rap in Mission nightclubs, to the reinvigoration of poetry as bearer of the news among young people from slams to ‘zines, to the warp-accelerated potlatch of ideas in online communities like the WELL, the “vibrations of sincerity” (as Jack Kerouac put it) championed by the writers of the Beat Generation have fired up a new generation of best minds in San Francisco.
This is poetic justice, for it was here that the Beats made themselves known to the world as a public force, on the night of Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery on October 13, 1955.
When Ginsberg stepped up to the podium, he had only lived in San Francisco a short while, but the cultural pot had been simmering a long time before he brought it to a Beat boil. The Bay Area in the late ’40s and early ’50s was a nexus of collaborative innovation, inquiry, and radical experiment in many arts, and “Howl” wouldn’t have been “Howl” without Ginsberg’s immersion in the local scene during the year preceding the poem’s composition.
San Francisco was the perfect stage on which the Beats could happen.
In 1954, Allen Ginsberg turned 28 while visiting his mother’s relatives in Los Angeles. “For the first time,” he entered in his journal, “I am older than I’ve dreamed of being.”
The poet felt saddled with his identity, his “character with its childish core” lurking behind an unattractive goatee. The first electric days in Manhattan of the core group that became the Beats (Ginsberg himself, Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr and others) were over, comrades and lovers dispersing to various locations and other relationships.
Ginsberg had just returned from Mexico, an odyssey which opened his senses to the vitality of another culture. “The town so noisy, dirty, streetfulls of wild boys all night…. Big halls for restaurants and music, painted crudely with monolithic donkeys… little gardens below bounded by the uptown hip cliff,” Ginsberg scribed in Mexicali, his eye for detail honed by the example and criticism of his mentor, the poet and general practitioner William Carlos Williams, who flashed verbal snapshots on his prescription pad between house calls.
Ginsberg knew he was at a crossroads in his art between apprenticeship to academic models of literature, and breaking through to a personal voice which could sing of experience beyond the bounds of what was permissible — by ’50s academic standards — to speak of in poetry. “To break with that pattern entirely,” he wrote, “Must find energy & image & act on it.”
Planning to enroll in graduate school at U.C. Berkeley, Ginsberg moved to North Beach, taking a room at the $6-a-week Hotel Marconi on Broadway where Al Sublette — a friend of Kerouac’s — lived.
The most lively literary salon in the Bay Area in those days was a circle that met on Friday nights in poet Kenneth Rexroth’s apartment over Jack’s Record Cellar, at Page and Divisadero. Rexroth grew up in Chicago, where he owned a tearoom called the Green Mask, featuring jazz and poetry, with a whorehouse on the floor above. Moving to San Francisco in the ’30s, the young Rexroth exhorted dockworkers to unionize in a mimeo sheet called The Waterfront Worker, and applied his efforts in the League of Struggle for Negro Rights and the Fellowship of Reconciliation, ladling out pea soup to young Catholics held in detention camps as Conscientious Objectors to the Second World War.
Rexroth loved jazz and knew the guys who played it, and translated poetry and drama from several languages, including classical Greek, Provençal French, and Japanese. He prided himself on reading the Encyclopedia Brittanica cover to cover each year, and published more than a dozen books in his lifetime, including an autobiographical novel, and books of criticism on subjects ranging from contemporary poetry, to Hasidism, to Anarchism, to Zen.
Rexroth’s earliest poems sound remarkably like the work of the ’80s “Language Poetry” school, abandoning photographic realism in an attempt to shed cliché and sentimentality. His mature poems, however, speak in language that is colloquial, sensual without being sentimental, calling forth the High Sierra granitescapes that Rexroth liked to make love in, with a crispness of image, a classical sense of balance, and elegiac gravity. Rexroth’s apartment on Page Street was a library, its shelves lined with the heartwood of the classical literatures of East and West; and Rexroth had a caustic wit, and an ego, to match his erudition.
One of the young poets who attended these salons was Philip Whalen, who would appear in Kerouac’s novels as Warren Coughlin and Ben Fagin — “a quiet, bespectacled booboo, smiling over books.” Whalen had been invited down from his job as a firewatch on Sourdough Mountain in the North Cascades by Gary Snyder, with whom Whalen had shared rooms at Reed College.
For over a decade, Rexroth’s weekly “at-homes” brought together geniuses in diverse forms — from Helen Adam’s contemporary ballads, to James Broughton’s bawdy nursery rhymes and experimental films. Whalen (who now teaches Zen at the Hartford Street Zen Center in the Castro) recalled the atmosphere at these Friday night conclaves: “It was always very interesting, because there were young poets there, and older ones, visiting luminaries from different professions and arts. People said it was boring because Kenneth talked all the time. But Kenneth was a marvelous talker, so I didn’t mind if there was anybody else famous there or not.”
It was at one of these salons that Ginsberg first heard Rexroth read his scathing blast, “Thou Shalt Not Kill”:
You, The hyena with polished face and bow tie, In the office of a billion dollar Corporation devoted to service; The vulture dripping with carrion, Carefully and carelessly robed in imported tweeds, Lecturing on the Age of Abundance; The jackal in the double-breasted gabardine, Barking by remote control, In the United Nations... The Superego in a thousand uniforms, You, the finger man of the behemoth, The murderer of the young men...
Through Rexroth, Ginsberg met Robert Duncan, whose essay “The Homosexual in Society” brought dialogue about homosexuality in America into the open. Duncan was a master poet and teacher in his own right, and a generative influence on many contemporary Bay Area poets, like Thom Gunn and Aaron Shurin.
Though one prevalent myth is that the Beats were a lone wake-up call in ’50s America, that summons did not come from nowhere. Laying the intellectual foundation for the Beat breakthrough, the Rexroth circle was a ground of opposition: well-read and international, homosexual and heterosexual, poets and artists from several generations of revolt.
Ginsberg showed Duncan his manuscript Empty Mirror, poems influenced by his apprenticeship with Williams. Duncan didn’t like the poems much, but was impressed with a list of slogans that Ginsberg kept over his desk:
Blow as deep as you want — write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind…. Nothing is muddy that runs in time and to laws of time — Shakespearean stress of dramatic need to speak now in own unalterable way or forever hold tongue — no revisions … write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion … tap from yourself the song of yourself, blow! —now! — your way is your only way….
Ginsberg explained that the author of these “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” was a friend: Jack Kerouac.
In December of 1954, Ginsberg — distraught over an argument with his girlfriend, and slightly drunk — walked into Foster’s Cafeteria, and asked Robert LaVigne, a young painter, about the whereabouts of Peter DuPeru, a North Beach eccentric. LaVigne didn’t know where Du Peru was, but the two began a conversation about art, and LaVigne invited Ginsberg back to his apartment. There Ginsberg was transfixed by one canvas depicting a naked young man with a frank, open gaze. “Who’s that?” Ginsberg asked.
“Oh, that’s Peter. He’s here,” was the reply, and the young man walked into the room.
Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky became lovers, taking vows to each other a few weeks later in Foster’s Cafeteria at 3 a.m., their promise being “that neither of us would go into heaven unless we could get the other one in,” as Ginsberg recalls.
Ginsberg had maintained a correspondence with Kerouac, who was living in New York. Kerouac had published his first novel, The Town and the City, and was looking for a publisher — with frustratingly little success — for On the Road, The Subterraneans, and Visions of Cody. Ginsberg was showing to editors and friends the manuscripts of Kerouac’s Dr. Sax and San Francisco Blues, a volume of poems written while sipping tokay and staring out the window of the Cameo Hotel, a South-of-Market flophouse. Rexroth was unimpressed with Visions of Cody, which is a jam (less “mythic,” more naked and experimental) on themes and characters from On the Road, but Duncan was encouraging, recognizing in its rhapsodic, meticulous descriptions the mark of genius.
It was an exciting time to be in San Francisco. Dylan Thomas came through on a tour in 1952 that included a meeting with Henry Miller and a reading on KPFA. His performances hardly resembled the staid affairs of academic poetry readings, with the poet often drunk, chanting his lyrics in oracular tones, and people crowding to get into the room.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin opened the City Lights Bookstore in June of 1953, the first all-paperback bookstore in the United States, as a way of financing Martin’s magazine City Lights, which published poems by the surrealist Philip Lamantia and many others, as well as the first film criticism of Pauline Kael. Next door to City Lights was (and is) the Vesuvio, then run by Henri Lenoir, who prided himself on the musicians, painters and poets who socialized at his establishment, attracted, as Lenoir put it, “by the non-bourgeois atmosphere created by the avant-garde paintings I hung on the walls.”
Ruth Witt-Diamant founded the San Francisco State College Poetry Center in 1954, with a dedicatory reading by W.H. Auden. The Center became a place where representatives of the different poetry subcultures of the Bay Area could be exposed to each other’s work, and be accountable to one another, and endures to this day.
At the Cellar Bar, Rexroth was crooning “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and “Married Blues,” while a band riffed on “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be.” Jack Spicer hosted “Blabbermouth Nights” at a North Beach hangout called The Place, featuring performances by Richard Brautigan and John Wieners, with few prepared texts — the idea, as in jazz, was to burn — with the poets competing for door prizes and free drinks.
The California School of Fine Arts appointed a new director, Douglas MacAgy, whose invitations brought Abstract Expressionist painters like Clyfford Still to the City, and their exhibitions resulted in an explosion of new forms on the canvasses of local artists. The poet and playwright Michael McClure came to San Francisco to paint, but found himself discussing William Blake with Ginsberg at theopening of the Poetry Center. The two became good friends.
James Broughton was making some of the first “underground” films in America, like The Potted Psalm — greeted, at its 1946 premiere, Berkeley-style, by outraged hissing. Other filmmakers like Harry Smith, Kenneth Anger and Jordan Belsen were also at work, energized by a showcase for independent films that had been organized at the San Francisco Museum of Art by Frank Stauffacher. The showings brought in acclaimed directors and photographers like Man Ray and Hans Richter, and gave young filmmakers a chance to show their first films to a packed house of cognoscenti.
Harry Partch, the composer who built his own instruments with names like “Cloud Chamber Bowls” and “Surrogate Kithara,” had a houseboat in Sausalito that was a gathering place for students of composition. There was a series of new-music concerts called Vortex at the Planetarium, the Cellar hosted an exhibit of Joan Brown’s paintings accompanied by the jazz of Brew Moore and Pony Poindexter, and students from the School of Fine Arts were congregating at The Place for “Dada Night.” Collaboration — between painters and poets, poets and musicians, filmmakers and poets — was cranking up the creative heat.
Ginsberg, however, was becoming increasingly depressed. He and Cassady were unable to speak heart-to- heart as they once had, owing partly to Neal’s ravenous intake of marijuana and speed, and Neal and his wife Carolyn’s infatuation with Edgar Cayce, the trance healer who influenced Neal to burn most of his literary efforts, to Ginsberg’s dismay.
Ginsberg consulted a psychiatrist at Langley-Porter to ask him if he should be trying to be heterosexual. In Ginsberg’s telling of the tale, the psychiatrist asked Ginsberg what he really wanted to do. “I really would just love to get an apartment, stop working and live with Peter and write poems,” was Ginsberg’s reply.
“So why don’t you do that?” asked the doctor.
“What happens if I get old or something?”
“You’re a nice person. There’s always people who will like you.”
Ginsberg felt he had received a blessing. He arranged his own layoff at the market-research firm where he had been working by replacing himself with a computer, ensuring himself unemployment benefits for six months. He bought an armful of Bach records with the first check. Orlovsky and Ginsberg moved into an apartment at 1010 Montgomery Street which allowed them separate rooms, and Ginsberg wrote a poem telling of his happiness to Kerouac: “I’m happy, Kerouac, your madman Allen’s/ finally made it: discovered a new young cat,/ and my imagination of an eternal boy/ walks on the streets of San Francisco,/ handsome, and meets me in cafeterias/ and loves me….”
One afternoon in late July of 1955, Ginsberg wrote a line in his journal, “I saw the best mind angel-headed hipster damned,” thinking of his friend Carl Solomon, who had survived a gauntlet of insulin shock treatments at the New York Psychiatric Institute. A week or so later, Ginsberg sat down in his apartment to jam at his typewriter.
I sat idly at my desk by the first floor window facing Montgomery Street’s slope to gay Broadway — only a few blocks from City Lights literary paperback bookshop. I had a secondhand typewriter, some cheap scratch paper. I began typing, not with the idea of writing a formal poem, but stating my imaginative sympathies, whatever they were worth. As my loves were impractical and my thoughts relatively unworldly, I had nothing to gain, only the pleasure of enjoying on paper those sympathies most intimate to myself and most awkward in the great world of family, formal education, business and current literature.
Ginsberg expanded on the line from his journal, changing it to a second draft of the best-known line in 20th Century poetry: “I saw the best minds of my generation/ generation destroyed by madness/ starving mystical naked.” Ginsberg continued for seven single-spaced pages. The lines were short, Williams-like, but the phrases already soared like the Charlie Parker riffs the poet had in mind as he typed. “I knew Kerouac would hear the sound,” said Ginsberg later.
At first, Ginsberg thought that “Howl” was too personal for publication, but he did begin revising it almost immediately, combining the short lines into expansive out- breaths, and dropping out more diffuse language (“who stumbled by billboards with 6 cents and broken glasses and a bloody nose and stomach full of guilt metaphysics and metaphysical lightning blasting through the icy skull”).
Ginsberg titled the poem “Howl for Carl Solomon,” and posted it to Kerouac, who responded enthusiastically. Ginsberg told Kerouac that “Howl” was the product of Kerouac’s own method of spontaneous writing: “It came out in your method, sounding like you, an imitation practically. How far advanced you are on this.”
It was as if Ginsberg had rediscovered America — an America that was all around him in the alleys and espresso bars of North Beach, but unrepresented in poetry:
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz ...
By the fall of 1955, Ginsberg was scouting for a venue where he and Kerouac and Cassady could read together. He had written a second part to “Howl” after eating peyote, seeing the lights of the Sir Francis Drake hotel burning in the fog as the mask of Moloch, the Biblical devourer of innocents. Painter Wally Hedrick asked Rexroth to organize a reading at the Six Gallery at Fillmore and Greenwich, and Rexroth asked Michael McClure and Ginsberg to read.
Rexroth also suggested that Ginsberg add to the bill Gary Snyder, a graduate student at Berkeley who was translating the poems of Han Shan or “Cold Mountain,” a Zen poet of T’ang-era China. Snyder told Ginsberg about Whalen, and Ginsberg told Snyder about Kerouac. The bill was set: Ginsberg, Snyder, McClure, Whalen, and Philip Lamantia, with Rexroth as M.C. Kerouac declined to read.
Ginsberg put up signs, and inscribed a hundred postcards with the following advertisement:
6 poets at 6 Gallery. Philip Lamantia reading mss. of late John Hoffman — Mike McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder & Phil Whalen — all sharp new straightforward writing — remarkable collection of angels on one stage reading their poetry. No charge, small collection for wine and postcards. Charming event. Kenneth Rexroth, M.C.
The reading drew a larger crowd than the poets hoped for, with the gallery — in an old auto-repair garage — packed with over a hundred people. Kerouac brought jugs of burgundy, which were quickly empty, and the reading was delayed while Kerouac passed the hat. For a podium, there was an upended fruit-crate, and Rexroth cracked, “What’s this, a reading stand for a midget? Somebody gonna come up and read a haiku version of theIliad?”
Lamantia read the poems of John Hoffman, a friend who had recently died in Mexico. Then McClure read “Point Lobos: Animism” and “For the Death of 100 Whales,” written in protest of the thrill-killing of a pack of whales by NATO troops. Whalen followed.
After an intermission, Ginsberg took the stage. His delivery of “Howl” gained force as he was urged on by Kerouac, who capped each phrase with a whap at the wine jug and a shout, “GO!” “It was very exciting,” recalls Whalen, “and Ginsberg getting excited while doing it was sort of scary. You wondered was he wigging out, or what — and he was, but within certain parameters. It was a breakthrough for everybody. The mixture of terrifically inventive and wild language, with what had hitherto been forbidden subject matter, and just general power, was quite impressive.”
When Ginsberg finished, both he and Rexroth were in tears.
“We had gone beyond a point of no return, and we were ready for it,” McClure recalled in his memoir, Scratching the Beat Surface. “None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective void — to the land without poetry — to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.”
Snyder closed the reading with “A Berry Feast,” an invocation to the spirit of Coyote the Trickster, for whom plump berries grow in the skeletons of dead cities. Afterward, the readers headed off to Sam Woh’s to celebrate.
Kerouac congratulated Ginsberg, telling him his poem would make him famous in San Francisco, but Rexroth went further, assuring Ginsberg that “Howl” would ensure his fame “from bridge to bridge.” Ferlinghetti went home to compose a telegram that echoed Emerson’s praise of Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”
The reading was followed by readings by each of the poets at the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Center, and a repeat of the Six Gallery bill at the Town Hall Theater in Berkeley, on March 18, 1956. Local luminaries like Alan Watts were in the audience, along with Neal Cassady and the young editor Anne Charters.
That night’s reading is the version of “Howl” on Ginsberg’s Rhino collection, Holy Soul Jellyroll. A contemporary listener might expect the second reading of “Howl” to have been received with a respectful hush, but there were jeers and titters in the first minutes, including a scream after the line about “saintly motorcyclists.” It’s only after Ginsberg finds a voice of passionate, unshakable conviction – “rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head” – that the audience absorbs the poem in silence.
The success of these readings fired Ginsberg up to his greatest period of productivity, during which he wrote “America,” “Sunflower Sutra,” and “A Supermarket in California.” “Howl”‘s obscenity trial — which would indeed publicize Ginsberg’s name from bridge to bridge, and alert the world that a renaissance of poetry as a popular art was underway in San Francisco — was still months off, as was the “beatnik” hype that would hasten Snyder’s pilgrimage to Japan, and Ginsberg’s flight to Tangiers. Whatever sea-changes in global culture were precipitated by the events at the Six Gallery could never have been foreseen by the poets sharing steaming platters of chow fun at Sam Woh’s.
That night, they drank tea.
A version of this article first appeared in the SF Weekly.
Copyright © 1995
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