The Summer of Love: North Beach Inspirations
(Part 1 of a series)
When I’m taking guests on our Summer of Love edition tour of San Francisco, people seem to assume that the event—which marked the biggest migration of young Americans in history to this one spot, back in 1967—just, well, happened.
It didn’t. It kind of incubated. For years, even. As far back as the late 1950s, you had legends like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and John Coltrane all making their mark in San Francisco. I like to tell my guests that before the Summer of Love, there was the Spring!
There’s so much to this story. It’s great. In fact, it’s too much for one blog post! So I’ll split it up for you. Let’s call this one Part 1.
The early days
The Summer of Love can trace its origins to the North Beach community of SF. This is where the “Beats” (a.k.a. Beatniks [although they didn’t like that name] and hipsters) hung out. They felt oppressed by the conformist culture of the day, and pushed back… hard! They embraced poetry, jazz, mysticism, and even mind-altering drugs to articulate a different sort of society.
Using crates (really) and other makeshift stages, Bob Kaufman, Allen Ginsberg, Lew Welch, and Gary Snyder stood up and read aloud. And people listened! They were rock stars—and this is ages before YouTube, baby! From these pioneers, other innovators (like Bob Dylan and Janice Joplin) would naturally follow.
Here are some of the cool places where the “Spring” of Love (ha!) began to take shape. I’ll take you to all of them on our tour (hint: you should come! it’s great!).
City Lights Books
This place is one of a kind. It was home base for the Beats. Today, it’s still the ultimate hangout for poets and artists. You’ve got to see it.
It was founded by a guy named Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He’s best known for hosting regular poetry readings and also for publishing these cool new poets. His Pocket Book Series was the launchpad for Beats and their provocative (okay, sometimes out-and-out scandalous!) ideas.
Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh used to hang out at City Lights as a teenager, just before the hippie movement totally exploded in San Francisco.
Around the corner…
Just before I move on with my guests from City Lights, I like to duck into Jack Kerouac Alley. It’s right next door, between City Lights and Vesuvio (a hip Beat-era saloon). The ground and walls are decorated with plaques and artwork, most of which are about—you guessed it—the Beats.
BTW, North Beach was an early jazz scene, too. (Not surprising, given all the free-flowing ideas of the time!) Music was another form of expression being
liberated. So this is where lots of artists, like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk found inspiration. (I love saying “Thelonius Monk.” You even sound jazzy when you say it!)
Oh and there were others. Of course. Back in the day, you could poke your head into North Beach coffee houses and catch the music of Woody Guthrie… or the comedy of Lenny Bruce. How cool is that?
Washington Square Park
Waaaaaaaaay back before Saturday Night Live, there was San Francisco Mime Troupe. They were performers. They were innovative. And clever. And funny. And controversial! They satirized anything, no matter how sacred. We’re talking political repression, racism, sexism, and growing military intervention abroad.
Their first “stage” was right here. In the park. But not for long: In 1962, the city’s Recreation & Park Commission denied the Troupe a permit to perform. Know why? “Obscenity”!
This got big. It went to court. It was Prime Time Mime Time (sorry, couldn’t resist). But the case established the right of artists to perform—uncensored, baby!—in the city’s parks.
Footnote to history: Ever hear of the actor Peter Coyote? He won an Emmy for the PBS series The Pacific Century and was in Ken Burns’ documentary The Roosevelts. (He’s got a great voice.) He’s an SF Mime Troupe alum!
Caffe Trieste was the first espresso-based coffee house on the west coast… in your face, Starbucks! (They still brew some of the best java in town.)
Just as important, Caffe Trieste was a major hangout for North Beach Beats and musicians. Back in the early ‘60s, this was the place for Saturday jam sessions. It’s still a great place to jam… get an espresso… hang out… chill… commune with your inner vibe! The place is like a time machine.
Another not-to-miss place in North Beach is Tosca Café. On the south side of Broadway, it’s the third-oldest bar in the city. It was a favorite of the Beats. Get a house cappuccino (loaded with brandy!) or a hot chocolate. Ask to see the famous (infamous??) back room. And keep an eye out for the owner… because it’s Sean Penn! How cool is that?
The Coffee Gallery on Grant Avenue (now called Maggie McGarry’s pub) was totally bohemian, before the phrase “boho chic” was even invented. Back in 1963, a young country-blues hopeful sang a cappella here and made a name for herself. The name? Janis Joplin! Two years later, Grace Slick made her first public performance here, too.
When you think of how much things have changed since the 1950s, it’s pretty cool to know that some things haven’t. Look at these two pics from North Beach, taken 50 years apart:
The beat goes on!!
I told you there was a lot to cover here! Stay tuned for my next blog post. Or just sign up for the Summer of Love edition tour of San Francisco already! I’d love to have you in my next group!