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San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

(Kenneth Rexroth’s complete columns from the San Francisco Examiner)



May 1964

Planned Laissez Faire
Alcoholism and Poverty
Ideas for Replanning the City
Skid Row
A Backward Glance at the Season’s Arts
Charles Mingus
A Cultivated Congressman
Spring Opera




Planned Laissez Faire

Today before I sat down to write this column, I read over the paper. Race riots were at a minimum, and except for Laos, there was a momentary stillness fallen on the saber rattlers.

What took up the most space? Creeping socialism, Rumford Acts, Rezoning Ordinances, FEPCs, Billboard Ordinances, Municipal Birth Control Clinics, Anti-Block-Busting Ordinances, Redevelopment Projects, Freeways. And Woodside found itself condemned by the AEC for refusing to let itself be defaced by progress.

Except for a murder or two and a prowler, this was the hard news. Over on the financial page were bits about price fixing prosecutions and the rediscount rate and a hassle between Lyndon Johnson, Walter Heller, and Henry Ford II over the price level. Sports and Society were uncontaminated for once, but the government will be back. Ever since the Black Sox scandal it’s been prowling about boxing rings, race tracks and baseball fields seeking whom it may devour. And as for television — remember back when?

Pandit Nehru gives the hard-shell free enterprisers fits, yet, as a matter of fact, the United States has a larger proportion of its economy in what Nehru calls the public sector than does India. Today the NAM, in solemn convocation gathered, discusses without choler proposals for which rioters were clubbed in the streets in 1931.

What is really wrong with our planned society is that it is inconsistently planned. Partly this is the inescapable price we pay for democratic process. Partly it is due to our overall, long-range planning organizations with power to implement their recommendations. Mostly, it is because we adopt the widest variety of social controls as the result of innumerable littles battles between contending pressure groups.

What we get is planned laissez faire. In the theoretical free economy of the classical economists of the last century, buyers and sellers competed unrestrained on a completely open market and the private loss resulted in the public gain. This state of affairs never actually existed except in the imagination of small-town newspaper editorial writers. It is what scientists call a “model,” a carefully structured hypothesis. As a model it has been discarded long since.

Today we are approaching a condition where thousands of organized special interest groups compete for slices of the power of the state. Furthermore, much, perhaps most, of this struggle goes on in sectors of the state structure which are not accessible to the public will — that is, they result from what could be called, politely, administrative lobbying, rather than legislative.

The resulting chaos has produced creeping capitalism, not creeping socialism. We now have all the preconditions for a genuine society of abundance and leisure, yet our growth rate falls behind European nations which were still in ruins 15 years ago, our economy is sluggish, our gross national product is leveling off, our balance of payments is akilter. At the bottom of the society is a vast market of people who would spend all sorts of money on the necessities of life if they could, but who don’t have the money. They are just people, hangovers from before the technological revolution, and as such, irrelevant.

For generations the trade unions were a progressive force — in capitalism. They took up the slack in the belt of production, acted as the governor on the steam engine, the carburetor that saw to it there was a proper mixture in the source of power. That power was pure, unadulterated labor power, and, only secondarily, skill.

Today, as labor power comes less and less from men’s muscles, and as dozens of skills go out of date, much trade union activity consists in invoking the power of the state to defend — not lost positions, but positions that have ceased to exist in late twentieth century economic reality. The progressive unionists today are technocrats like Hoffa and Bridges who sell needed skills, in terms of a developing economy, to the employers — on a stabilized market.

The reactionary leaders are the progressives like Reuther who are defending the obsolete skills of an industry which has gone out of date from end to end. We don’t need the production line of Chaplin’s Modern Times today. For a while military expenditures kept it going, but now even that artificial outlet is slowly closing. Soon there will be no escape from the insistence of complete automation.

What we need today is not more or less planning and state interference. We need a different kind, a radical qualitative change. We need planning devoted to the furthering of a different kind of free enterprise, planning that will really free enterprise to explore the possibilities of a technology which science has freed from all but the confusedly struggling power blocs we have inherited from another age.

As it is, the machines have become not just more powerful than the men — this is becoming their society. The 1968 presidential election may well be fought not by men but by Mr. Cadillac running against Mr. Thunderbird on the slogan, “Forty-lane freeways and four garages for every car! Vote with a sharp blast of carcinogens from your exhaust!”

[May 3, 1964]



Alcoholism and Poverty

One of the symptoms of alcoholism, of course, is chronic nausea. As San Franciscans we have heard about our championship in the field of alcoholism ad nauseam, till we are sick to death of it. We know we are considered the most alcoholic city on earth.

We are not proud of it, as middle-class milquetoast Chicagoans are of their gang killings, but we shrug our shoulders and put up with it. We think of it as another example of the End of the Trail psychosis that brings people to The City and thence off the bridge. We also think of it as self-limiting. Is it?

It is the contention of this little series that poverty is not self-limiting, that it is a reservoir of infectious social diseases of an economic and psychological character at least as harmful as the venereal diseases. Alcoholism is certainly important both as a cause and an effect of poverty.

Year by year cirrhosis of the liver is the fifth or sixth, one time the fourth, cause of death in San Francisco. Yet cirrhosis of the liver is only one of the terminal forms of alcoholism. Others are pneumonia, hemorrhage of the bowels, fits, delirium tremens, and just plain death from alcohol poisoning.

Cirrhosis of the liver accounts for only a large minority of alcohol deaths. Three or four attacks of DTs, if they don’t kill, leave a man incurably dimwitted, disoriented for time, place and person, full of foolish good humor, always ready to make up a tale to please a listener, and unable to apply himself to any activity for more than a few minutes. In other words, a hopeless institutional case.

But the effects of alcohol on the individual are less important than their effects on the family, and from thence on the whole of society. As a great victimizer of the innocent, alcohol ranks with lack of birth control.

Of course those two evils feed each other. I have given you case histories of what used to be called “the worthy poor.” Clean, decent, pious families, the father with a trade of some sort — yet with nine or 14 or whatever children, they just can’t make it. What happens when half of daddy’s check is gone before he ever gets home on payday? How about Planned Parenthood with a drunken, brutal husband? Or, for that matter, with a drunken, brutal wife?

It is not just semi-skilled workers with great passels of kids that destroy their families and reduce them to poverty with booze; plenty of highly skilled and professional people manage to do so as well. There are families on welfare whose head might be making $20,000 a year if he would, as they say, straighten out.

One of the worst things about dealing with an alcoholic is the soul-wearying frustration that makes so many social workers, nurses and doctors bitter. It’s like trying to run on a broken leg. I spent the war years working in San Francisco General’s psychopathic ward, and I know. And there’s no end to it — here I have come to my wordage limit and I haven’t even mentioned Skid Row. That will be next.

[May 6, 1964]



Ideas for Replanning the City

The music goes round and round oh oh oh — the Mayor, the Planning Commission, the Board of Permit Appeals, the Board of Supervisors. Meanwhile The City falls apart at the seams. Soon you won’t be able to tell San Francisco from a combination of Harlem, Park Avenue and the concrete wildernesses of the Jersey mudflats.

What we need is a master plan and detailed neighborhood plans, all with teeth. Instead, we are marching into chaos under the banner “Let Everything Go!” while the man with the fife plays “Let Charlie Do It” and the boy with the drum thumps out “Who? Me?”

What could be done with San Francisco staggers the imagination. After the Fire and Earthquake the great architects Burnham and Willis Polk sat in a bungalow high on Twin Peaks — in that little coppice that only recently was developed away — and planned a new city of extraordinary grace and efficiency. Everybody would have made money by giving way to the community good, but the totality of small-minded small property owners won out and rebuilt the old disorder.

In Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, millions of homeless people are flooding to the cities and breaking down the structures of law, order, and both public and private property. Once the belt of the Green (agrarian) revolution, the tropics and subtropics are today the scene of a revolution of the slums, of those who have nothing to lose, not even chains. Even when they are not rioting in the streets, this revolution goes on, quietly eroding the foundations of civilization. From Palermo to Durban, around the earth there have sprung up vast cities in which the majority of the populations are without proper domicile.

Marxism, socialism, capitalism, free world, neutralist, pro-Russian, pro-Chinese, it doesn’t matter — they’re all in the same barrel together, drifting towards the head of Victoria Falls.

Marx, a good bourgeois, never tired of pointing out to the more romantic revolutionaries that the lumpen proletariat, as he called them, was the most dangerous element in society, whether socialist or capitalist. What is going to happen when the whole middle region of the planet is populated, not by citizens in cities, but by huge conglomerations which have even less organization than mobs?

Places like Leopoldville represent the terminus towards which we are heading every time we take a step away from a carefully planned community structure. This is not little old Frisco of the days after the Earthquake when we could still afford disorder. Today we are playing with social dynamite. Laissez faire and planlessness will overwhelm us with chaos, yet mistakes in planning may set in train processes which eventually will prove just as fatal.

I simply do not agree with Larry Halprin at all about the proposed freeway. The basic assumption seems to be that park land, as public property, is expendable. Otherwise why this route at all? Why not Anza Street? This is the same sort of thinking as “Let the government do it, then it won’t cost anything.” I think the argument that the Panhandle-Golden Gate Park-Park Presidio route won’t hurt, will improve the park, will be unnoticeable, is disingenuous to a degree. The fact is that entrances, exits, changes of level, will completely destroy the entrance to the park. The Venus de Milo may be improved without arms, but the park will not be more beautiful if it is beheaded.

Furthermore, the present proposal is only an entering wedge. After it will come the really outsize concrete boa constrictor to take the traffic from the Panhandle freeway to the south and west — for whose benefit? That’s right, like the monster now building along San Jose Avenue, for the suburbanites.

Why not start with a thoroughgoing radical master plan and trim it only to unanswerable and irresistible objections? What is wrong with San Francisco, as all city planners know, is first of all Market Street. Here is a diagonal slot, dividing two gridiron patterns which are not only diagonal to each other, but which do not match, which, in other words, do not communicate.

Why not put the basic freeway of The City under Market Street, above the rapid transit tunnel, and out into the Sunset through an enlargement of the present street car tunnel? This would solve the famous bottleneck at one blow.

As for local traffic, why not make every street within the denser traffic area one-way — or, for that matter, what’s wrong with all streets in town, except thoroughfares like Geary and Van Ness, being one-way? Some day we are going to have to ban all parking in the congested areas. Eventually we are going to have to ban cars themselves downtown. Why not begin now?

A few parking buildings along Oak and Fell Streets would make it possible to add four more traffic lanes. This is more than the projected freeways would have, the cost is but a small proportion of the expense of the freeways, and the project would be self-liquidating.

[May 10, 1964]



Skid Row

Skid Row was originally Skid Road, a lumberjack’s term for a path along which logs were skidded, out of the woods or down to a hot pond. Another term for it was The Slave Market — here were the employment agencies for migratory labor, harvest hands and pickers, lumberjacks and gandy dancers, kitchen help of all kinds, construction workers and hard rock miners. The IWW soapboxed nights and Sundays, getting themselves beaten and killed for teaching frontier capitalism to rationalize itself.

Today lumberjacks live at home and drive to work. Road work and earth moving generally has become a province of the American Indian. Almost everybody except the field hand belongs to a union and is hired through its facilities or through government agencies. The frontier is gone and with it the lice-infested bunkhouse and the Red Card. Even the field hand has left the bigger cities and, if he works a day-haul job, works out of places like Stockton or Fresno. He can no longer make enough money for a winter stake; he is lucky if he has fed himself through the harvest season.

There are still slave markets on Skid Row, but they are vestigial remnants, like the appendix, and reading over their blackboards is a curious experience for an old-timer like myself, who first came West on a freight in 1925. Most of the denizens of Skid Row today are winos. Most, but not all, are single men, and a small proportion are still migratory workers, in town to tank up, or conversely, to dry out.

The majority are simply rejects. They are alcoholics, but they are more than alcoholics; there are plenty of those in Sea Cliff. Two-bit wine, rot-gut, smoke (canned heat) — these are the chemicals with which society eliminates those it cannot use anywhere.

The men on Skid Row are from all walks of life, but now they walk only one road. They are amazingly alike, simply because they are able to do little else than exhibit the terminal stages of chronic poisoning. A few can be “rehabilitated,” but usually only for a short period. Hardly any are accessible to the only cure that works — Alcoholics Anonymous — because of its peculiarly middle-class, square religiosity.

When I was working in the Psychopathic Ward at County, I turned up a man who had been a successful short story writer and one of the most important Washington correspondents. He was covered with three kinds of lice, hallucinating, had frequent epileptoid fits, black stools, constant fine tremor, painful neuritis.

The AAs and a couple of good head shrinkers and a good woman put him back together and he won a prestigious literary award. One day I saw him staggering down the street in Sausalito. “There goes —,” I said. “He’ll be dead in three months.” I was wrong — he only lasted another three weeks.

The bitter fact about the wino is that, as a mass social problem, he has no solution. We will have to change our society far more profoundly than economically before it will not produce rejects. Personally, individually, yes. (My friend had 10 years of happiness and productivity added to his life.) And at the worst, the wino can be fed, washed, sheltered.

As the great priest in Subways Are for Sleeping said, “When we pass a filthy man, covered with blood and vomit, lying in the gutter in the sun, my friends on the Catholic Welfare Council say, `You can do nothing for him.’ What they mean is, they can’t make him like themselves. You can do something for him. You can move him into the shade.”

[May 13, 1964]



A Backward Glance at the Season’s Arts

San Francisco’s long spring season is drawing to a close and this is a good time for a backward look and judgment of what we’ve been doing.

First, of course, stands the startling improvement in the Symphony. We have acquired, in almost no time at all, exactly the opposite kind of symphony than the one we had under Jorda — or for that matter, under Monteux or Hertz. It has been both bad and good in the past 35 years, but its virtues have never been precision, ordinance, clear voicing, smooth cadence and phrasing. We’ve had other virtues, but not those. Now we have them.

The next step is programming. Maybe the theory was that the boys should start over on what they were sure to digest with ease — all the well-roasted chestnuts. However, the San Francisco Symphony is not Stockton’s University of the Pacific Music Camp Junior Symphony. That is an estimable institution. My daughter plays in it and I love to listen. But as an adult, winter-long diet, I want more roughage, vitamins and minerals than are to be found in even the most exquisitely roasted chestnuts.

As long as the orchestra was a reborn child, it was good that it spake as a child, because it thought as a child. Now it has become a man — or sufficiently so — and let it put away childish things. We, the audience — we aren’t children.

The Ballet made a great leap forward. Last year it looked both incoherent and overtrained and the boys were nowhere. This year everybody was, metaphorically speaking, on his toes all the time, and the gentlemen’s section was showing signs of careful polishing, besides coming up with some individual stellar dancers.

The Seven Deadly Sins was interesting as a museum piece, and worth it for the introduction of Cynthia Gregory in her first leading role. The Brubeck number — The Set — was just what the doctor ordered. It was a flat-foot ballet, something we’ve needed in the repertory. The choreography by Ron Poindexter was fresh and ingenious. Everybody had great fun doing it, and so restored that youthful élan which has been the distinguishing characteristic of the San Francisco Ballet in its best years.

The Actor’s Workshop seems to have decided to take some months out to win friends and influence people in the lower echelons of middle-brow taste. This is okay, but they’ve got their foot in the door, let’s hope they break out the kit of brushes. As a matter of fact, so they have. The jazz-modern dance version of Aristophanes’s The Birds is the sort of thing they can do and the commercial theater can’t. Furthermore — it has all the elements of genuine popularity. This is what people want in the theater. The other stuff they can get better in the movies or on TV.

The San Francisco Annual, still at the S.F. Museum, seems to have annoyed some of my colleagues, as well as droves of artists. I think the answer is a series of annuals, like Paris. Certainly we have the space. I do think this one, in its very strictly limited way, is both good and portentous. Fact is, and nobody else seems to have noticed it, it represents a return to painting on the part of a leading sector of our most important artists.

These are pictures, not manifestoes or demonstrations. Although most of them are abstract, they are even “pictures of” something. That is, they require the spectator to enter an imaginary picture space. They are not “paint as such,” as the critical apologists for the action painters used to say.

Not only that, they are even traditional, although they may not seem so to a layman. Deborah Remington, in her girlhood one of our best strong-arm, paint-direct apostles, has come up with a series of pictures of ominous objects she may have seen on her last trip to Mars. “The return to the object” preached in the ’30s by Helion and Léger, may not seem like tradition to the Society of Western Artists — but it is.

Matt Galvin is showing a small collection of large tondos, circular paintings which look very like the abstractions that Turner did after reading Goethe on color and which have been put on exhibition by London’s Tate Gallery only in recent years. For that matter, they look not unlike ceilings by Tiepolo as seen by an astute critic who had lost his glasses.

Fooling aside, this is painting as we have always known it. These are not conversation pieces for rich and idle women, to be discarded after their shock value has worn off — or given to a museum with a whopping tax write-off and consigned forever to the cellar. In fact, I’d be glad to hang one on my own wall — or ceiling.

So it goes, the whole show, from our resident old master, Diebenkorn, to the youngest debutant, they are all pictures, painted by genuine picture painters. Nobody else seems to have noticed this 180-degree turn.

[May 17, 1964]



Charles Mingus

Sometimes I wonder. Maybe Spengler was right and the time for Art has passed. It certainly seems impossible for Americans to write “serious” music.

We were talking about the Greenwich Villagers who got thrown out of the Washington Square Open Air Art Show for advocating Mom Art and marching about amongst the Pop exhibits singing “Mom goes the weasel!” when my secretary suggested that we should start the Not Art Movement and exhibit in lonely magnificence on museum walls the canceled checks paid to artists for agreeing not to paint pictures. I think this is a wonderful idea — and attuned to the necessities of the Keynesian economy, too.

Not Art would be a most hygienic movement in modern music, that’s for sure. The world press is all upset about Roger Sessions’s Montezuma, a sort of latter-day Aida that laid a vast egg — a moa egg, as it were — at its premiere in Germany. You wonder how he could lose. The subject is shooting fish in a barrel: all you have to do is put Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico to music and you’ve got it.

But, alas, unless you are a college music teacher, Roger Sessions is guaranteed to bore you if he whistles three bars of “Yankee Doodle.”

So with the recent Spring Opera production of Susannah. I would go to hear Lee Venora sing the telephone directory. She is one of my favorite people. All the other principals in the show worked like dogs — to what? — to sell the audience a dog. Yet I looked on the crowd around me, and what did I see? They were enthusiastic. Next day all my colleagues thought it was wonderful. Were they kidding? Except for trivialities like Aria da Capo and Four Saints, I have never seen an American opera that I didn’t think it would have been better, for this man at least, if it had never been.

The same goes for practically all other “serious” American music. Maybe the Supreme Court, dedicated as it is these days to creative sociology, might be prevailed upon to enjoin Americans from writing music.

The unserious music is a different matter. Tuesday night we went to hear Charles Mingus open at the Jazz Workshop. Not only is Mingus one of the two or three most important jazz musicians in America, he is one of the three or four most important musicians and composers of any sort. In jazz only he and Thelonious Monk never tire me or bore me. After one set of Ornette Coleman, I’ve had enough, he’s wearing. Also, he is a young man and the iron has yet to bite as deeply into his heart as it has into Mingus and Monk.

The Modern Jazz Quartet neither bores nor tires, but John Lewis is not in deadly earnest either, as are Monk and Mingus. The MJQ is not, as has been said, salon music, but it is light chamber music. There’s nothing wrong with that — so was Vivaldi.

It is not just that Mingus is both musically profound and enormously facile, he, like Thelonious, thinks in wholes. Each piece begins to build the minute it starts. It grows organically, in form and meaning, like a child grows into a man. Not only that, but the meanings are clear and cogent. Sometimes you wonder about Thelonious Monk. What are the complex ideas he is talking about as a composer at the piano? Something he read in a book he found in Lost Atlantis? Mingus is much less an uncommon man; his insights and his pain are something everybody can share.

It is tragic music, with a tragedy that far transcends current American conflicts that have come to obsess so many jazz musicians. I never sit and listen to him, now that he is famous, without my mind going back to the Black Cat in the last years of the war, long before it was a gay joint, with young Mingus spinning beautiful self-supporting structures of sound out of his bull fiddle while some clown made a jazz-like racket on the piano and somebody else blurted and bleated on a pawnshop horn.

He used to carry that big fiddle around with him as though it were a piccolo, everywhere he went. I remember late one winter night, coming on Mingus leaning against a lamp post, dense fog whirling around him, bowing softly to himself a long wandering melody, infinitely sad, rather like the Gregorian chant once sung in time of plague, “Media Vita,” or like some desolate Russian church music. My girl and I stopped short with a start and stood listening to him for a long while, till at last he returned and looked at us and said, “Rexroth. Peggy.”

The other night it happened again. In the midst of a similar, but wiser, more mature, more complex passage he looked up again and grunted like Lionel Hampton and said, “Rexroth.”

I almost burst out crying.

[May 24, 1964]



A Cultivated Congressman

Congressman John Brademas, from my birthplace far away in the Middle West, was here over the weekend and had Sunday breakfast with us. He was a most enjoyable lad, full of beans and high principles, a genuinely dedicated man.

One of the most startling things to happen in my lifetime is the emergence of a few rare members of the House of Representatives who are socially acceptable. I know an indefinite number of MP’s and French deputies and Canadian politicians whom I have met in the ordinary course of life amongst civilized people, remote from political circles. Only in recent years have such turned up in American life.

I first visited the House in the Harding or Coolidge administration. It was then a low-grade burlesque show. I used to explain to people who had never witnessed one of its performances, “Go down and meet the boys who hang out in the back room of the saloon by City Hall or the Courthouse. Then imagine the types that hang out in similar saloons in Fargo, Mineral Wells, Ocheecumquee, Bonner’s Ferry, multiply by 435, and you’ve got the U.S. Congress in solemn session.”

That is no longer an accurate description. In fact, it is precisely from out in the weeds that the young, dedicated, educated, urbane, genuine public servants are coming.

Some time ago I met just such a congressman from one of the more unwholesome Colorado industrial towns up at an Aspen seminar. He may have been a small-town politician and under 35, but he was at ease holding his own amongst heads of giant corporations, White House think tanks, directors of illimitable research organizations, scholars and scientists. He was a far cry indeed from the clowns who used to give Mencken fits.

My young landsman was another — but even more so. He not only had been a Rhodes scholar and, something too few of those are, a genuine scholar as well, but he’d been everywhere and knew everybody who was determinative, and he yet had that good old professional’s common touch. It was a pleasure to hear him ask directions from a passerby. He too could pull beagles’ ears and make the SPCA love it.

He was interested in all these Government in Art and Art in Government bills that are moving slowly through the hopper. Maybe I disappointed him. I wasn’t at all enthusiastic. I am far from convinced that he and his kind are swallows that bring a spring, much less the full summer of our content. After all, the head of the committee that will be handling this stuff is Adam Clayton Powell, and the still hyperactive Senator from my home state is Everett Dirksen, the relentless persecutor of the Federal Arts Projects in the Thirties.

If the artist has to choose between the fleeting enthusiasms of rich, foolish and idle women and the anti-brain malevolence of the typical politician, maybe he’d ought to stick to the women. You can have more fun with them than with Adam or Everett, that’s for sure, at least from my point of view.

But it is a great comfort to know that there are now people in the pillared halls of public policy you can stand it to eat Sunday brunch with. Makes you feel civilized, the citizen of no mean country. May their tribe increase.

[May 27, 1964]



Spring Opera

Whenever I say anything cross about the Spring Opera I spend days thereafter in a blue funk of purple penitence.  They take it so to heart. I’m afraid to go out in the lobby. Bill Kent or Charlotte Erickson will be there and they’ll look at me and I’ll feel like going and hiding.

I can’t help it if I couldn’t stand Susannah, can I? I could have said it was better than Blood Moon, but that way madness lies. Edmund Wilson tells about how he quit a job as a movie critic the day he saw coming up on his typewriter “On the whole, Hearts Aflame is a better picture than Flaming Hearts.

As a matter of fact, this has been a very good season indeed. Der Freischütz or Der Hasenpfeffer Oper was a wonderful romp, a kind of glorification of Cuckoo Clock Land, delivered with great zest.

Had they done it with the seriousness of Grove’s Dictionary of Music, all about how Weber was the trail blazer for Wagner, or Mahler, or Schoenberg or Stockhausen or whoever, it would have been absurd. As it was, they gave it just a soupçon of the absurd as they served it up and so redeemed it.

Lee Venora was a very dream of Mimi. I suspect that Puccini took a brief trip into the fourth dimension and wrote La Bohème just for her. It’s the greatest of all barbershop quartets, with the greatest of all female auxiliaries — and what auxiliaries these were! Puccini was a lovely man. When I was young I thought he was dreadful corn. Now I realize he was a master of the strict economy of means. He knew how to make every stroke tell against the heart strings.

The Spring Opera’s production was in exquisite taste. Taste in a singer is hard to explain. Like swing in jazz, it is easier to demonstrate by comparing records. Jennie Tourel has it superlatively. Lee Venora, who started out with some of the fuzziness of a popular singer, is gaining more and more of it every year.

The Pearl Fishers is an extraordinary reverie to have come from the pen of the man who wrote the most efficient of all operas — Carmen. Nothing quite as dreamy would show up in music again until the latest Debussy. I think Bizet thought he was being authentic. I think he thought the melodies sounded like Indian ragas.

Maybe life really is like this, far away in the sleepy seas, on the Seychelles or the Maldive Islands. “Feed me with flagons, stay me with perfumes, for I faint with love!” The other night, Mary Ellen Pracht, stepping into the role sung here last by Venora, measured up to the comparison very well indeed. Howsomever, I could do with a more convincing actor in the tenor role.

All of which is just to say that Spring Opera is, at mid-season, going stronger than ever. Next week Faust, with another favorite girl of mine, Nancy Williams, singing Siebel. Somehow I always miss this girl when she’s singing ladies. Every time I hear her, she’s in pants; I wish sometime I’d see her when she wasn’t, if you know what I mean. In The Italian Girl in Algiers she is going to be Zulma, the faithful attendant of the Beyess, and I suppose she’ll be in Turkish trousers. Oh well, she’s pretty and she can act and sing, so I’ll go, even if she’s in chain mail.

No city on this continent has a more lively second opera season. We are getting people when they are still young and fresh and warble like birds, and incidentally look their roles. Nothing is worse than an overstuffed Mimi and a cachetic Rudolpho.

And we are getting fairly imaginative programming, though I do wish they would be really rash and adventurous once in a while. The program for the fall season — the “regular” opera — certainly has some startling novelties, at least for the USA. In the spring season I thought we were supposed to be able to afford to take a chance.

Don’t miss the show of Indian art at the De Young. This is the most comprehensive collection ever to leave India. It includes everything from the prehistoric Mohenjo Daro civilization to miniature paintings from the petty princedoms of the nineteenth century. Since we get a chance to see comparatively little of it, we are inclined to forget that India is the home of one of the truly major provinces of world art. Unless you go to India, or travel about America and Europe visiting everything from Kansas City and Philadelphia to the British Museum and the Musée Guimet, you will never get a chance to see anything like this again.

So go, and take the children. It is a stunning and unforgettable experience.

[May 31, 1964]


“San Francisco Fifty Years Ago” is an ongoing project of posting all of Kenneth Rexroth’s columns for the San Francisco Examiner (1960-1967). Each of the columns is being posted on the 50th anniversary of its original appearance. Copyright 1960-1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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