The Difference between Beatniks and Hippies:

© 2010 by William V. Raney
All rights Reserved

Dear Editor:
I enjoyed Jonah Raskin’s recent book article about Richard Brautigan and North Beach, and about the two San Francisco counter-cultures, “one of them was literate,” as Ferlinghetti put it, “the other didn’t care about books or reading and just wanted to listen to rock and roll and watch movies, stoned.”  As a former beatnik who lived in the heart of North Beach for ten years, from 1957 to 1967, I would like to try to dampen a too common misconception that has often led to mischaracterizations of what was going on in San Francisco during the 1960s.  Ferlinghetti’s words are probably accurate as far as they go, however the counter-culture that embraced his books and bookstore was the beatnik counter culture, not the hippie counter culture.  The beatniks were a North Beach phenomenon; the hippies came later, out in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.

When I landed in North Beach in 1967, Ginsburg’s Howl had just been published by Ferlinghetti’s City Lights, and Kerouac’s On the Road was about to be.  North Beach was a literary magnet, drawing artistic and rebellious types from all over the country.  The place to be back then was Leo Krikorian’s The Place, a popular beatnik dive on upper Grant Avenue.  That’s where the action was, and at the Vesuvio, across the alley from City Lights.  Richard Brautigan used to hang out at The Place.  I often ran into him there, seated at the first or second table on the left as you came in, with bartender Paul Naden behind the bar on the right.  I talked with Brautigan once or twice, briefly, but he never seemed very talkative, at least not to me.  I remember him mostly just sitting there with his woman, “making the scene.”

Things really got jumping at The Place on Blabbermouth Night.  Once a week, anybody who wanted to could get up on the soapbox and read poetry—or just harangue and harangue.  You always knew your time was up when people started jeering at you and throwing wadded-up napkins and paper at you.  Beer bottle projectiles not allowed, on penalty of getting eighty-sixed.  I remember well, Pale Fred Bryant getting up on the soapbox one night and bravely facing the Blabbermouth crowd.  It was just before Christmas.  From memory, Fred began reciting Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales.  Fred had an amazing memory for Irish poetry.  Instead of having to duck paper balls that night, the crowd began to still.  Gradually it settled down, and by the time it was over, the guy on the barstool next to me had tears in his eyes.  Single-handedly, Pale Fred had tamed the savage beast.

I don’t remember ever having heard a thing about the Haight-Ashbury, not at that time.  When the beatniks were in flower in North Beach, the Haight was just another one of San Francisco’s many neighborhoods, and the word “hippies” had not yet been invented.  We did have “hipsters” in North Beach, however.  That word was used mostly by jazz musicians, and by fans of progressive jazz.  It denoted someone on the cutting edge of coolness.

The word “beatnik” was coined by then popular “Mr. San Francisco,” Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, in the April 2, 1958 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.  Caen, or one of his many stringers, came up with the word “beatnik” after the Soviets had recently launched “Sputnik,” the first artificial satellite, which at that time was being covered extensively by newspapers all over the country.  Like the word “sputnik,” “beatnik” caught-on, and soon entered the lexicon of American usage.  San Francisco’s beatniks were always good copy, nearly all of it negative.  In the imagination of the general public, beatniks were thought to be dirty, unkempt, wandering around aimlessly in sandals and berets, hanging out in North Beach bars and coffee shops, forever arguing and generally being obnoxious.  To this small town former mid-westerner, it was music to my ears.

Tabloid journalism soon discovered another burgeoning North Beach phenomenon: The Topless.  The burlesque halls, or “burlicues” as they were often called, soon moved out of their traditional San Francisco home in the International Settlement, on Pacific Avenue between the old produce district and the North Beach district, into the heart of North Beach, at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenues.  The topless quickly exploded into an industry, drawing tourists from all over the country.  “Come see the Nudie-cuties and the Beatniks,” was the refrain of the barkers in front of the Broadway strip clubs.  Whatever little parking there still was at night in North Beach, soon vanished under the assault of crowds of tourists.

Most responsible for the throngs of tourists jamming the area was Carol Doda and her Twin Forty-Fours, at the Condor Club.  The cornerstone of her act was her grand entrance, all laid out in all her glory on a grand piano, slowly descending through a hole in the ceiling, to wild applause, and to the accompaniment of the Condor Band.  She would do her act for the gawking tourists and then slowly rise back up, majestically, all the while blowing kisses to the audience. before disappearing through a hole that had been cut in the ceiling.

One night after the bar closed, the story is, Carol and one of the bartenders were going at it on top of the piano, when something happened that caused one or the other of them to jerk and hit the control lever on the piano, which, unbeknownst to the probably inebriated and hopefully spent pair, caused the piano to start rising back up to the ceiling, crushing the guy against it and killing him.  The newspapers had a field day.  There’s no business like show business.

The Haight-Ashbury’s rise to fame in the mid 1960s was largely fueled by the increasingly rampant use of psychedelic drugs, and by concert impresario Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium.  Beatniks were mostly into jazz, rather than Rock n’ Roll.  Some of them were also into folk music, witness the popularity of The Kingston Trio’s many North Beach performances at Enrico Banducci’s Hungry I , and, if I remember right, at Bud Steinhoff’s The Purple Onion, too.

Lenny Bruce played Ann’s 440 up on Broadway, between Kearney and Montgomery Streets, for a while, and then later did his act at the Off Broadway, when no one else would hire him after he’d been convicted of obscenity in New York.  During his prime, in the mid 1960s, he was one of the main spearheads of the rebel movement. Between acts, he used to wander over and talk to my wife at the time, JoAnne, who was always behind the box office at The Movie.  They became friends.  Lenny Bruce never performed in the Haight.

We beatniks tended to look down on the hippies.  Pot was fine—it had jazz musician roots—but not many of us really got into LSD and became part of the psychedelic drug craze.  That was a hippie thing.  It came later.  The beatniks and hippies were not of the same generation and had differing values, as Ferlinghetti’s remark well illustrates.

After a few years, North Beach beatniks came under assault from the three major newspapers, the San Francisco Examiner, the San Francisco Chronicle and the News Call-Bulletin, in concert with the San Francisco PD and with Officer Bigaroni, the nemesis of the beats.  Between the topless craze and increasing police harassment, North Beach’s beatnik population began to go into decline, as many of the beatniks began to drift away to such places as Sausalito, Muir Beach, Bodega Bay, and to other places, mostly in Marin County.  A few ended up in the Haight-Ashbury.

The death knell of the North Beach artistic and literary movement probably began in 1967, The Summer of Love, when teen-age runaways from all over the country began flooding into Golden Gate Park.  Before long, this new generation of rebels moved on again, most of them into the Haight-Ashbury, where getting stoned on cheap LSD and other psychic drugs became the hip thing to do.  Psychedelia soon became the trademark of the Fillmore Auditorium and of The Grateful Dead.

By 1967, Officer Bigaroni and the San Francisco fuzz had chased many of the beatniks out of North Beach.  Some of them stayed, and a few are still there today, but by the end of the1970s the beatnik era had pretty much spent its course.  A while later, the hippie movement out in the Haight-Asbury largely self-destructed, too.  A few of the leftovers morphed their way down to Santa Cruz, for its beaches and to visit the Hip Pocket Bookstore.  Later-on, one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, Lee Quarnstrom, who used to write for the San Jose Mercury News, lived in Santa Cruz.  Beatnik Bill from Telegraph Hill and JoAnne and Zerky moved here in 1968, to start the Nickelodeon Theatre.