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The City Lights Bookstore: the Beatnik’s Mecca

There are few places around the globe that fully encompass all things Beat Generation in the same way as the City Lights Bookstore. Situated in the heart of San Francisco and owned by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of the most prolific Beat Generation poets there is, the City Lights Bookstore is a Mecca for all beatniks and book lovers. A visit to City Lights is enough to transport anyone back to simpler times where you can focus on words, lyrics and meanings rather than your groceries, prescriptions or health insurance renewal.

City Lights Background

The City Lights Bookstore champions independent publishers and first published a huge number of now legendary cult titles including Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The store exudes warmth and despite its cramped interior, it’s easy to see that every spare space is filled with the books that make San Francisco famous. Of course, to remain afloat, you’ll find the main floor stacked out with modern and contemporary fiction but also an astonishingly large collection of translated works from around the world, an area the shop’s founder Ferlinghetti has been said to be particularly interested in. The area we’re looking for however is found on the top floor. Book after book of poetry is stored up there and you can peruse the titles of your favourites and also indulge in some newer contemporary writers.

The store itself was founded in 1953 by Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, a close friend and the publishing company, responsible for so many of the classic Beat generation texts, began at the same time. This combination of both a publishing company, a bookstore and of course the name of a cult legend above its door has meant that City Lights is one of the most successful independent bookstores worldwide. When visiting City Lights, many pilgrims have even had the great honour of meeting Ferlinghetti, who still uses the store to read, write and relax. Since 2001, the store has been recognised as an official historic landmark thanks to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, due to its role in the literary history of the city.

City Lights Publishing House and the Pocket Poets Series

The publishing arm of the bookstore is also very popular. The instantly recognisable covers of the Pocket Poets Series included sixty books by Beat Generation poets as such as Kerouac, O’Hara, Levertov and of course, Ferlinghetti himself. The books were initially designed to make the poems of the Beats affordable and accessible to all and gave many people their first foray into an alternative, somewhat avant-garde area of poetry. Many of the collections originally published by City Lights Publishing in the Pocket Poets Series have gone on to be considered real classics such as Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara and Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters. In the late sixties the publishing arm began to operate from a different location but was nevertheless successful, continuing to publish works by alternative, off-beat authors, branching out to specialise in world literature too. Recent developments in the non-fiction political arm of the publishing house has meant that City Lights can now include Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn among the authors they’ve published.

City Lights Foundation: giving something back to San Fran

The development of the City Lights Foundation is also a testament to the influence of the store. The foundation works with the aim of advancing deep literacy which roughly translates as their desire to strengthen literacy skills but also those essential elements of knowledge which enable people to develop and evolve as individuals and community members. This all sounds pretty deep and a lot of the works published via the Foundation are non-fiction dealing with very sensitive topics including homelessness, prison life and social justice.

The City Lights Bookstore describes itself as a specialist in world literature, the arts and progressive politics and hosts readings from modern day new generation Beat-style writers and pioneers the work of independently published authors.

Any self-respecting fan of the Beat Generation has the City Lights Bookstore among their top five places to visit before they die and in reality, it does not disappoint. On just entering the building you can begin to understand and immerse yourself in the world that your idols once inhabited. The City Lights Bookstore is a beacon for all beat pilgrims and somewhere which continually revolutionises and seeks to enhance the modern readers’ understanding of literature.


Article by Izzy Woods

Photo by David S. Wills

Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan

Ginsberg and Dylan are frequently viewed as a Jewish father and son. Certainly, they were close, and Dylan has often cited Ginsberg as a massive influence on his life and work; however, they were only fifteen years apart by birth and five by seminal publication. Of course, this is merely an affront to the more literal connotations of the father-son description of their relationship, and does not take anything away from the momentous influence the Beat poet had on the legendary songwriter.

Dylan certainly viewed Ginsberg as a father figure, as evidenced in his film, Renaldo and Clara. Here, Ginsberg plays an advice-offering character known as The Father. He also appears, watching over Dylan, in the background of the singer’s Subterranean Homesick Blues.

However, if we are to force metaphors upon their relationship, then perhaps a more accurate one would as brothers, as although Ginsberg played the role of mentor, they were closer than such a closed view would suggest. They found in each other a shared genius, and collaborated on a few projects, praising each other over a long friendship.

Dylan would say, “I didn’t start writing poetry until I was out of high school. I was eighteen or so when I first discovered Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Frank O’Hara and those guys.” So clearly in the beginning it was a one way relationship, with Dylan inspired to write by the Beat Generation.

However, Ginsberg found in Dylan’s songs the same kind of spirit with which he infused his own poetry. The protest and mysticism he described in Dylan’s art as “chains of flashing images” are evident in the majority of Ginsberg’s volume of work.

The Beginning

Bob Dylan arrived in New York City in 1961, following in the footsteps of Woody Guthrie, and Allen Ginsberg returned there in December 1963. Through Al Aronowitz, the journalist and their shared acquaintance, the two poets met.

“I first met Bob at a party at the Eighth Street Book Shop, and he invited me to go on tour with him. I ended up not going, but, boy, if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have gone like a flash. He’d probably have put me onstage with him.” (New York, early 1960s)

“His image was undercurrent, underground, unconscious in people … something a little more mysterious, poetic, a little more Dada, more where people’s hearts and heads actually were rather than where they ‘should be’ according to some ideological angry theory.” (San Francisco, 1965)

Both excerpts from Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995, A. Ginsberg (Harper Perennial: 2001)

Ginsberg praised Dylan’s work as returning poetry to the human body through the medium of music. As well as appearing in Renaldo and Clara and Subterranean Homesick Blues, he wrote three poems in praise of Dylan and wrote the sleevenotes of Desire: “Big discovery, these songs are the culmintation of Poetry-music as dreamt of in the 50s & early 60s.” And according to Mel Howard, “Allen saw Dylan rightly connected to the whole tradition of the Beat movement, and through that to earlier poets.”

And on the sleevenotes of Bringing it All Back Home, Dylan wrote, “why allen ginsberg was not chosen to read poetry at the inauguration boggles my mind.”

Burgeoning Friendship

In November 1971, Ginsberg and Dylan collaborated on songs intended for an as yet unreleased album called Holy Soul Jelly Roll. The songs exist in bootleg form online, and most are available through the PennSound project. (Edit: They were released as First Blues in 1983 and released this year, 2016, as Last Word on First Blues.)

The songs, or album, consist of the jointly written ‘Vomit Express’, ‘September on Jessore Road’ and ‘Jimmy Berman’, as well as William Blake poems set to music and several poems written by Ginsberg himself.

Throughout, Ginsberg takes lead vocals with Dylan on guitar, harmonica and backing vocals. The songs were recorded at the Record Plant in New York.

The pair also performed five songs, including ‘September on Jessore Road’ and William Blakes’ ‘Nurse’s Song’ and ‘A Dream’, on PBS-TV, New York. The songs were recorded in the PBS-TV studios in October, and featured Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso on vocals, alongside David Amran and Happy Traum.

Such joint collaborations further blur the image of Ginsberg as Dylan’s father, and throws light on their mutual respect for one another.

However, another perspective of their relationship is that of Ginsberg doing as Cassady and Burroughs did and bridging the gap between the generations and movements of the latter half of the twentieth century. Whereas Cassady joined forces with the Merry Pranksters and the Psychedelic Generation, and Burroughs entered into experimentations with music and artists of later periods, Ginsberg moved from the Beat 50s into the Protest 60s, influencing and working alongside the epitome of protest culture and social change, Bob Dylan.

Indeed, after meeting Dylan, Ginsberg enter into a period of unrivalled social and political activism, joining forces with Norman Mailer to defend Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, testifying in support of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, supporting the movement for the legalisation of cannabis, demonstrating for freedom of sexuality and against capitalism. As Graham Caveney said, “If Dylan was beginning to provide the soundtrack for the counter-culture, Ginsberg gave it both a face and the networks which were essential in sustaining its momentum.”

Rolling Thunder Revue

In 1975 Dylan set out upon his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which he was to film and turn into Renaldo and Clara. The tour was one of small gigs, no more than three thousand people, blending theatre and music, and in between gigs the tour bus would see filming of scenes and actions that Dylan would later cut together. The whole film was intended to cut live concert footage with a story that was written by a scriptwriter, but diverged and took a life of its own. Originally it was a collection of images from Dylan’s life and dreams, told mystically and surrealistically, in the manor of his poetry.

According to organiser Lou Kemp, the original group of musicians “would go out at night and run into people, and we’d just invite them to come with us. We started out with a relatively small group of musicians and support people, and we ended up with a caravan.”

On stage, during the opening night, Ginsberg joined in singing ‘This Land is Your Land,’ and in subsequent shows he would act as both poet and harmonist. However, although Ginsberg accompanied the Rolling Thunder Revue for most of its run, many of his poetry readings were cut from the stage to keep the shows to reasonable lengths. One major exception was the performance in Clinton State Prison, where Rubin Carter, the boxer about whom ‘Hurricane’ was written, and whose defence case the tour was raising funds for, was incarcerated. During this show, Ginsberg’s poetry recitations were included.

Two of the film’s most well known scenes depict Ginsberg as mentor to Dylan – in Lowell, explaining the Catholic notion of the Stations of the Cross, and during their visit to Kerouac’s grave. These scenes explore Ginsberg’s religious views as a teacher, albeit a Catholic guide rather than as a Buddhist. And in other scenes Kerouac and Beat poetry are discussed, furthering the image of Ginsberg as a major influence upon Dylan.

So looking back upon the relationship between the two poets, it’s hard to stick to the conventional analysis of their relationship as that of a father-son, one-way influence. Rather they can be viewed as akin to brothers, or hell, why not just call them friends, as they in fact were? Sure, maybe Dylan learned more from Ginsberg, but they interacted and collaborated, and they respected one another. Dylan may have discovered the works of Ginsberg before Ginsberg discovered Dylan’s, but Beat poetry was far from his only influence, and Ginsberg learned much from Dylan, and together they helped bring the Beat spirit into the sixties and further a new generation of social activism and art.

Know Your Beats

A very brief guide to the players of the Beat Generation.

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