Accompanied by a jazz combo, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti gives a reading in 1957 at the Cellar in San Francisco.(Photo by Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO — If they’re starving, the best minds of this generation can order $19.50 lobster rolls at the former site of the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Today, it houses Tacko, where customers can pacify themselves by listening to Phil Collins or gazing at a wall map of Nantucket. Old framed copies of Yachting Magazine hang from the new walls.
Slightly more than 60 years ago, the debut public reading of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” consecrated this Marina District landmark. Now, you’ll find a bronze commemorative in front of the nautical-themed restaurant that serves New England-meets-“Mexican-street-style” fusion to baying tech bros and yoga mom Yelpers.
In previous incarnations, it was an auto-body shop, then an art gallery where anywhere from 25 to 150 people (the numbers fluctuate in every retelling) gathered on the night of Oct. 7, 1955, to hear poems read by Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia and Allen Ginsberg.
Jack Kerouac was famously present, wine-drunk on Burgundy. “Go! Go!” he kept shouting. The following morning, City Lights publisher and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti cabled Ginsberg: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?” That evening’s fallout led directly to the full flowering of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, the cultural revolution of the 1960s, mass liberations of sexuality and literature, and eventually, a James Franco film.
Late last spring, I drove up the coast from Los Angeles in search of surviving members of the Beat Generation. Interview times had been procured with the poets Ferlinghetti (now 98), McClure (84), Snyder (87), and Diane di Prima (82), as well as Beat-adjacent novelist Herbert Gold (93). When I told people about my plan, the most common response was, “They’re still alive?” After all, the loose collective’s three most famous avatars are long gone. William S. Burroughs and Ginsberg died within four months of each other in 1997. After chronic alcoholism, Kerouac’s organs finally burst in 1969.
Those three were the icons that later figured in Gap ads and a Kurt Cobain collaboration. They offered equal inspiration to geniuses including Bob Dylan and David Bowie, as well as every arrogant fool in your college creative-writing seminar that actually believed that “first thought, best thought” applied to him. I was one of those fools.
More than a half-century after their emergence, the Beats still offer up wild style, a sense of freedom and wonder for the natural world almost unrivaled in postwar literature. But their work has perhaps been more misinterpreted than nearly any literary group in history — partially because there was no consistent ideology binding them. As Ferlinghetti put it succinctly: “The Beat Generation was just Allen Ginsberg’s friends.”