Lawrence Ferlinghetti has died in San Francisco. He was 101. Ferlinghetti is probably best known for three things: his Beat poetry, his San Francisco bookstore and small press, and his defense of the First Amendment in a famous court case.
I have to admit that I feel really bad about Tiger Woods’ car accident yesterday, but how long does it take to report the few known facts about it? Yet it took up twenty minutes on CNN – CNN! – yesterday, and it was being carried simultaneously by most of the networks at the top of the hour. I know, because I was at the gym, and could see the story playing out with the same images across most of the monitors.
I mean, I’m really sorry for the guy and all, but other things happened. There was plenty of political news. The networks didn’t even give us the full 360 degree view from the Mars rover. And I don’t recall any of them covering Ferlinghetti’s death.
He was 101 (!), and was one of the lesser lights of the Beats. He opened the still-operating City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl! Prosecuted for publishing obscene material, he fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. He claimed he wasn’t a Beat poet, but he certainly was a poet, publishing A Coney Island of the Mind.
I have to admit that I haven’t read his stuff (I have read, and loved, Ginsberg), but I certainly knew his name and reputation. One of the signs that the post-Animal House TV series Delta House was at least trying to transcend the network TV straitjacket was that they name-checked Ferlinghetti in their pilot episode.
I went to a poetry reading of his and thought, how amazing to be able to listen to this ancient figure from the distant past! Ferlinghetti was then 66 years old. Yep, that poetry reading was 35 years ago.
Count me as one who was surprised Ferlinghetti was still alive. I remember reading in Heinlein’s Grumbles from the Grave about Heinlein finding out that UCLA had a course titled “J. D. Salinger, Robert Heinlein, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Other Personal Gurus” - in 1968.
Before he opened City Lights, bookstores were typically boring businesses, open at 9, close at 5. He made it into a place to hang out late into the night; he created the environment where the Beats could flourish. He was still doing poetry readings and occasionally working at his store into his 90s.
City Lights is worth a visit if you’re in SF. The North Beach neighborhood has lost a lot of its charm in the last 20 years, but City Lights (and Vesuvio Cafe next door) still feel like old SF.
It never really recovered from the 40’ neon likeness of Carol Doda with blinking nipples being taken down by the Condor Club. Oh, for those halcyon days !
Used to hang out at Vesuvio across the street from City Lights because a friend liked to gather there. I was underage but thankfully looked much older than I was and was never carded (I also drank very sparingly to decrease the odds of potential embarrassment if I was).
I loved City Lights, and saw Ferlinghetti in there a couple of three times in the 1980’s. It was the apogee of the American Hardcore/punk rock scene with the Fab Mab and On Broadway clubs down the street. Used to go hit City Lights weekly and no matter how punk as fuck I might have been decked out in, I don’t think once the City Lights inhabitants ever batted an eyelid. Certainly not the jaded staff.
Yes, and who could have possibly missed the neon Carol Doda sign? The doorman would offer a “free look” and would happily give out postcards with Carol in her birthday suit if asked.
Would hit the Vesuvio in Jack Keroac alley occasionally when I was old enough.