The Beats in 1959 Venice

By Bill Fleeman

Long hair, beard, looking like Raskolnikov ‘bout to kill his landlady, back in Baltimore I didn’t fit. I read “On the Road” in ‘58, “The Holy Barbarians”early ‘59. Then I read a U.S. highway roadmap. Broke, no car, I bummed money from a friend and a ride out of town to I 94 West.

My friend said, “Why you wanna go to California, man? Get a job at the Chevy plant. Finda girl, get married, buy a house, have some kids. We could visit back and forth, go on Sunday picnics, get drunk together.”

I didn’t say I’d rather die.

My friend dropped me off at a good place to hitch a ride, drove up the road a ways, made a u-turn, then tore passed about eighty in a blur of teeth and a roar of wind. Then I turned my back to the morning sun, turned my face away from the city of my birth, away from my family, my friends, and my home, and set my eyes on the long, long road that vanished to a point in the west. 9:30 AM, August, 15th, 1959. I was nineteen years old, had forty dollars in my jeans. In the bottom of my battered suitcase, under my socks and shorts, lay my sketch pad, some pencils, a journal and a pen. Standing thumbout waiting for a ride, I thought of Thomas Wolfe. Inside my head I heard, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” and felt sad because I knew it was true.

Two rides got me to Chicago, where Route 66 began. Four days later, three nights at the weed hotel, I landed in L.A., then rode the bus to Venice.

At Pacific Avenue and Market Street, the bus squealed its air brakes, belched smoke, gave one final lurch, and opened its doors. I hauled my suitcase down the aisle and stepped out. Walking along the sidewalk under the plaster arches that held up the facades of the buildings along Market Street, I saw the crumbling genius of Abbot Kinney. Reaching the Promenade, I sat down on a bench to rest. Picking up my suitcase, I walked across the sand and stopped and stood at the edge of the surf—the edge of the continent, the end of the road. I saw the sea rising and falling like a living thing breathing in and breathing out, heard the roar of the waves crashing on shore, smelled the salty-sweet odor of kelp scattered on the sand in the sun, felt the steady west wind blowing from a thousand miles away, tasted the salt spray coming in off the tops of the breakers rolling in. The suitcase fell from my hand. I fell on my knees, and wept.

In 1959 the Venice West Expresso Café was at 7 Dudley Avenue. It was, to us, a holy place, where the Muse hung out, where we went to say our sacred poetry. It was where some of us slept when the cops rousted us off the beach, or it was too cold to sleep on the sand. Stuart Z. Perkoff, greatest basso poet reader ever, created the Café. Tony Scibella painted the sign, Wally Berman the first graffiti: “Art is love is god.” John Kenevan was proprietor when I arrived, then John and Anna Haag till the Nazi council closed it down in ‘65. Deep-felt thanks, Sponto for resurrecting the place and keeping the spirit alive.

Standing outside looking in, this is what you saw through the window: Long, narrow room. Paintings hanging on lath and plaster walls. Mis-matched tables and chairs either side of a narrow aisle. Coffee-stained table tops, butt burned, candle dripped. Indefinable things embedded in the wax. School house lights shining down through smoky air thick enough to cut. Gleaming copper espresso maker standing on the counter, hissing and steaming like some kinda Jules Verne doomsday machine. Hi-Fi squatting on a high shelf bolted to the wall. There were almost fistfights caused by the tuning knob. Would it be jazz blaring full tilt boogie out of the box, would it be classical played down low? Jazz won because most wrists that twisted the knob liked Monk, hated Mozart.

John Kenevan, shrapnel-scarred painter poet pacifist hero of the Korean war, leaning elbows on counter willing to stake any beatnik landing broke on Venice Beach craving freedom, friendship, longing for a home, to a burger or one free night at the Grand Hotel. I made the scene same year, same month painter poet computer genius John Thomas appeared. Saw him one night at the Café sitting at a table alone, big as a lumber jack, brooding, bearded, chin in hand, staring into the candle flame. Back in Baltimore he’d helped build UNIVAC. When he saw they were going to build another one called MANIAC and make bigger bombs with it, he hitchhiked to Venice West. People played plastic chess late at night by candle light.

“Shush!” the Muse told me back then “You’re too young, don’t know nothin’ yet. Listen. Watch.” So when the poets read on Friday nights, that’s what I did. I listened, I watched. There was Stuart Perkoff, John Thomas, Frankie Rios, Tony Scibella, John Haag, Jimmy Morris, Maurice Lacy. Other geniuses too, but I don’t remember their names. Some came later, after I hitchhiked back East August ‘63. Philomene Long came later. Ex-nun poet movie maker genius, Philomene busted out of the convent and landed on Venice Beach in time to nurse Stuart Perkoff through death by cancer. She held Stuart’s hand till the Lady came to claim him. Then, only recently, she helped beloved husband John Thomas finish his earthwalk poet path. Reluctantly, she let go his hand. After reading, the poets passed the hat. People put in quarters and dimes. Instead of applauding, we snapped our fingers so the LAPD wouldn’t close us down for making noise. Curtis Smith, a.k.a. Tamboo, made poetry on his conga drum. Larry Lipton all in gray wearing a laborers’s cap sat in back and grinned.

John and Anna Haag took over the café in ‘62. Anna, sweet, sweet Anna. “Ciao! Bill. Ciao!” Coal black eyes, candlelight glitter. The night John Haag first read his poem “A History Lesson,” ‘59 or ‘60, the seed that grew the Beachhead and the Peace and Freedom Party was planted in apolitical beatnik soil. Unlike Dos Passos, John Haag didn’t turn sharp right at mid-life and disappoint us all. And Stuart’s Lady the Muse who gave him words and moved his hand is still Queen of Bohemia, dressed in black like Philomene Long.

Except Frankie Rios, all of those Venice Beach Beat poets who didn’t know they’d mentored me are all gone now—gone the way of all flesh like Butler said. But you’ll hear the echo of their words bouncing off the brick wall of the Cadillac across the street from Venice West. You’ll see their spirits moving like shadows down Promenade foggy nights.

Categories: Culture, History, Poetry, Venice

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