Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco



Reveling in Cultural Diversity
Golden Gate Park
The Persistence of Pseudoscience
Last Stand of la Vie Méditerranée
In Praise of Live Music


Reveling in Cultural Diversity

One of the best things about living in America is the tremendous richness of the diverse cultures that still survive amongst us. With a little persistence you can still ferret them out, even though the immigrant groups that brought them here are now far more assimilated than they were a generation ago.

There is a congregation of Falasha, black Abyssinian Jews, in New York. The Polynesian colony in San Francisco still get together for pig roasts and hulas. On Burns Day you can stuff yourself with haggis and usquebaugh while the pipes skirl. You can learn to sit down with a mouthful of flaming daggers and flip your legs out with bona fide Cossacks. You can take up tumbling in a Czech Sokoj.

You can even, in an aggressively Low Church diocese like San Francisco, go to garden parties where ladies in flowered prints pour and children curtsey and the new vicar propounds slightly fast conundrums or takes eggs out of his ears.

In fact, be it ever so weird, if it’s a national custom, you can find it somewhere.

I have always been a tireless world traveler in the foreign quarters of America’s great cities. I learned to do that funny wiggle with my head and neck from a Cambodian girl I met in a Chicago speakeasy. Speaking of speakeasies — l also found that the safest drink during prohibition was oozo, moustike, or arak — the anise flavor grappa — served in Levantine coffee shops while the fiddles whined, the belly dancers wiggled and ululated, and the menfolk held handkerchiefs and bounded about on the dance floor like bears.

For me at least, this is the worst thing about living in a monolithic culture — say in Italy. After awhile you get tired of the 570 varieties of pasta and “Ciao, Ciao, Bambino” on the radio. There are only two public collections of Far Eastern art in all Italy, in Venice and in the Vatican, and they are pointless collections of bijouterie. No Swedes dance the hambo in the Pincio. Only more little beggar boys with trained sparrows.

And you remember how the Hasidim of Williamsburg on Long Island come out in the park and dance their unearthly akimbo dance, welcoming the new moon and showing her her own stigmata — the lunes on their fingernails.

For a time it looked as though all this cultural diversity would die out. The second generation was ashamed of the ways of their parents. But now the third and fourth generations have come along, and they are all for a return to their traditions.

We are all aware of this in the Jewish community and are inclined to put it down to the shock of the Nazi persecutions and the establishment of Israel. I think it would have happened anyway. It is happening amongst people of the most diverse ancestry — Greeks, Chinese, Armenians, Japanese.

This is all a preface to the news that Chinese opera is playing at the Great Star Theater on Jackson St. between Grant and Kearny. They will be there through the 22nd of February, the longest continuous run in years.

Most of the troupe are from Hong Kong, actors and actresses of first quality. The repertory is stunning, and includes many of the greatest classics of the Chinese theater. There will be a whole series of “military plays,” which means the most spectacular costumes and most acrobatic pantomime to be found on the stage anywhere on earth.

Going to the Chinese theater is my favorite indoor sport. I used to go at least once a week, back in the days when it cost only 35 cents after 10 o’clock. (Prices are now the same as other theaters.) I learned more about dramatic technique, playwriting, audience communication, than I have from all the Western plays I have ever seen. If these plays were put on under the auspices of a foundation, in a downtown theater, the audience would be full of enraptured highbrows and sensation shoppers. Here it is in its natural habitat, with an audience in total communication.

Go. You’ll get used to the noise in a few minutes. Much of the action is self-explanatory and you’ll find somebody near you only too glad to interpret.

Tonight, Sunday, there will be one of Mei Lan Fang’s favorite plays, The Legend of the White Serpent. On the 14th, 17th, 18th, and 21st, there will be a series of “Three Kingdoms” plays. The drowning army scene in the one on the 21st is one of the greatest moments in all theater. The 15th and 16th will be the two parts of the classic romance, Lady Precious Stream. On the 20th will be the episode of the cake peddler and his wicked wife Golden Lotus, from the novel of that name. Thursday will be another romance, The West Chamber.

This is the very cream of the Chinese repertory. See at least one. I’m going to everything, myself. And do my children love it!

[11 February 1962]


Golden Gate Park

Last Sunday I took the children bicycling in Golden Gate Park. San Francisco weather has only a vague relationship to the calendar. It was a full summer day. All the world was out. The cherry blossoms were blooming, everything was bright and new.

I never cease to wonder at Golden Gate Park. There are certainly no public parks in the Northern Hemisphere to compare with it. Kew Gardens, the Bois de Boulogne, the Pincio, look small, worn and starved in comparison. The great Chicago parks have size, but they are unimaginatively landscaped.

The mixing of dark and light, slender and round trees, the interplay of lawn and foliage and water, the long vistas and sharp details — these are unequalled by anything I have ever seen.

In my young days, bicycling through the park, I used to come on little John McLaren, only slightly larger in fact than his memorial statue, directing the sawing of a limb or the planting of a clump of bushes. What an extraordinary art his was. Music flows by in a continuous present. When the poem or picture is finished, it is there for all to see and enjoy, including its creator.

McLaren designed Golden Gate Park with visions of beauty in his mind that would not come into full realization until a generation after he was dead.

I often wonder if I am unjust, but it seems to me that the nobility of McLaren’s conceptions is slowly being eroded. Bit by bit civil servicitis and the itch of immediate demands gnaw at the integrity of what is, we too seldom realize, one of the world’s great works of art.

If highway engineers proposed to draw a narrow line of concrete across Rembrandt’s picture of his brother, there wouldn’t just be a frightful outcry. Everybody would agree they were demented and they would be put away.

I can’t imagine anything more absurd than sacrificing a park, of all places, to the demands of the automobile. A good many people would probably agree that we’ve allowed the highway engineers to destroy far too much of the park already, and we shouldn’t allow them any more destruction.

But how about no automobiles in the place at all? Last Sunday the traffic of cars was so dense that it seriously interfered with all the other uses for which the park had been designed.

Horseback riding has been made so complicated and expensive that it is hardly worth the trouble, and, for youngsters, who whatever their skill must ride in guided parties, no fun at all. Bicycling is forbidden on the paths, and on a clear Sunday, dangerous on the roads. The restaurants are gone these many years.

Maybe I suffer from old timeritis. Still, I’m glad I won’t live long enough for children, marching around some niggardly open space amongst 200-story skyscrapers, to get a breath of fresh air and be initiated into the delights of walking with one’s legs, to paused in their serried ranks and ask, “Grandpa, tell us what it was like before the population explosion.”

[11 April 1962]


The Persistence of Pseudoscience

Off to Aspen to take part in a seminar on “The Public Understanding of the Role of Science in Society.”

Meanwhile, another man has gone around the world in a great hurry, the Federal Radiation Council has issued a report characterized by ingenious ambiguity, and the Blue Chips — meaning in many instances public investment in the commercial exploitation of new scientific developments — have led the market way, way down, and then way back up again, and now are oscillating nervously.

Here are three recent and dramatic instances in which science impinges on the interests of the ordinary man. What does he understand about them, scientifically speaking? If by ordinary, you mean really, honest to goodness ordinary, the answer is — nothing.

For the vast bulk of the population, of however many years of schooling, the terms and procedures of science are as awe-inspiring and as incomprehensible as the dances and spells of a witch doctor, and the end of science is still magic, the coercion of fate by mystery.

My earliest memory of the public image of the scientist is the man in the white cost who used to subject a popular brand of canned beans to rigorous scrutiny in a test tube while a white coated colleague, his face alight with the glow that shone from Watt’s tea kettle, transcribed his discoveries in a notebook.

They are still doing it, but now beans seem to sell themselves and they’ve gone to work on deodorants, cigarette filters and lipstick. Otherwise, the public is acutely aware that a group of Bela Lugosis and Boris Karloffs were locked up inside a cyclone fence in the New Mexico mountains and cooked up something that blew up a couple of Japanese cities and now threatens to blow up the planet. Beyond this meager image lies only a vast, dim, frightening confusion.

You think I am kidding? One of California’s best educated candidates for Governor [Upton Sinclair] was a passionate supporter of the Abrams Electronic Diagnosis Machine. Another writer [Paul Goodman], perhaps the most trenchant social critic of my generation, and an excellent poet, dramatist and short story writer as well, is to this day a devout believer in the Orgone Therapy of the late Wilhelm Reich. Movie producers, major stock market investors, industrialists, as well as the Sage of Big Sur [Henry Miller], plan their daily activities with the aid of pulp magazines of astrology.

These are all educated men, some of them even learned, yet any Boy Scout who had passed his Science Merit Badge could expose their utter ignorance of the simplest scientific facts.

In the common meaning of the term, this is the Public. Far worse than their ignorance of matters of fact is their misconception of the nature of science. Most people, even in the civilized nations, still live in a prescientific age.

Abrams Machine, Orgone Box, astrology, cancer cures, trick diets, fake medicine, dianetics, cybernetics, pseudo-psychiatry, tiger’s milk, or the lost continents of Mu and Atlantis — in every case we are dealing with the manipulation of reality on the basis of unsupportable hypotheses for the purpose of easing the minds of the insecure. This is precisely what the Arunta in the Australian Desert do when they chop holes in themselves, fill the gashes with emu feathers and point sharpened sticks in the direction of their enemies’ village.

This is why the public will give its enthusiastic support to expensive and spectacular toys like space rockets and view with indifference the impending revolutionary breakthrough in the cheap desalting of seawater.

Space gadgets are reassuring precisely because they are spectacular and expensive. There is nothing spectacular about a glass of water, while an astronaut around the earth is as great a solace as a bag of asafoetida around the neck. When the Russians had two beeping balls and a dog aloft at once, the country was beside itself. We’d been out-magicked. Our shamen, on whom we’d spent all that money, had failed us.

I wonder if the hundreds of scientists who have taken part in the last few years in just such symposia as I am going to, realize what thin ice they are skating on? It is true that we need improvement in the science education offered by our schools; we need to close the gap between Sir Charles Snow’s “two cultures,” between the scientist and the humanist; we need to preserve the integrity of science in the face of the demands of Big Business and Big War; we need to cherish and nourish the informed lay public that does exist; we need to spend more money on research and less on “development” — that is, gaudy hardware; we need to rout the comic and/or subversive image of the egghead and the highbrow from popular mythology, and so on and on.

But these are all concerns of an elite, the scientists themselves and the genuinely informed laity. Both these groups live in and on the wider public. As long as this circumambient public is, scientifically speaking, living intellectually in the Stone Age, the scientists and their own small “public” are going to be as ill at ease as salt water fish who have been forced to adapt to life in fresh water.

[10 June 1962]


Last Stand of la Vie Méditerranée

Back when I was a young lad I had a job with one of Chicago’s red hot publicity men. We used to marry people in balloons and photograph judges in cowboy hats. It was a big day when we got pix on the back of the pink sheet of lady opera stars in the black panthers’ cage at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

This kind of PR still goes on. Nifty gents in bow ties still get paid substantial sums for setting it up, even though the papers seldom use it any more. I don’t just wonder if it pays. I wonder if, in this latter day, now that everybody is frightfully overcivilized, it is worth anything at all. I suspect it has a reverse effect.

One of the most remarkable examples of effective mid-20th-century public relations hereabouts is also one of the more enjoyable musical events of the year. I am not even sure if it was started with any public relations end in view. Knowing the people involved, I am inclined to think it was in fact a devotion to good music finding outlet in an act of gracious patronage. Whatever the intention, it surely must be good indeed for the business concerned.

As you may suspect, I am talking about “Music at the Vineyards,” the chamber music concerts which the Fromm brothers stage each summer at the Paul Masson winery above Saratoga. Last Sunday was an all Schubert day, with the Trout Piano Quintet and the Octet in F Major. The music is amongst the loveliest of its kind. It was played with a swinging ease that matched the setting. But it was the setting itself which, as always, was the star of the show.

The site reminds me of a place I stayed a few years back with my girls — the convent-pension of Monte Berico, perched on a shoulder of the Berico hills, overlooking the Veneto plain, above Vicenza.

This was as near to paradise on earth as I have ever experienced, but the site of the Masson winery must run it a close second. Palo Alto is not Padua, but it has its towers; Sunnyvale is not Venice, but there’s the dome of the old dirigible hangar, all shimmering in the midsummer haze.

What counts are those essential signs of civilization, the vine, the olive and the fig, falling away in terraces, high above the busy towns. The birds are not nightingales, but as the violins rise to the high notes and fall away, they sing just as madly in the pomegranate trees. Even the winery itself — it’s just a winery, though very old by California standards, but it looks much like a little Romanesque church perched above some Italian village, unknown to tourism.

What is really important is not that it is like Italy, but that it is like northern California. It’s ours, and it is we who are the last stand of la vie méditerranée, the life of the vine and olive around that slopping tideless sea which is all the civilization Western Man has ever been able to manage.

Barcelona is a haunted city. Even the Provençals say Marseille is “just like Chicago” — even though it isn’t, quite. Genoa and Naples are warrens of blood-chilling poverty. Athens, with all its joy of life, is today a provincial town. The light that shone on the Jerusalem of Solomon, and the Athens of Pericles, and the Rome of Marcus Aurelius has come to shine on us, half way around the world.

I suppose one of the signs of such a life is precisely a common talent for intimate patronage, personally concerned, in what might be called a domestic setting. Certainly back in the old days, one of the most San Franciscan things about San Francisco was the music presented to the public in her home by “Aunt Cora.” We haven’t any emperors or kings or city despots or grand dukes about, but how nice it would be if this habit would catch on again and a whole lot of Mrs. Koshlands and Senator Phelans would spring up.

It might even be very good business — I can’t imagine Mouton Rothschild or Chateau Lafitte giving public concerts and handing out free wine, but I do imagine that the Fromms have found that it sells more merchandise than getting photographed in a cage with a black panther.

[1 July 1962]


In Praise of Live Music

Last year somebody said, “Only you could write about a performance of the San Francisco Symphony solely in terms of the feminine beauty of its lead harpist!” Too true. And it’s the same way with chamber music. There is only one person as faithful as myself in attendance at all quartets, quintets, trios, madrigals and motets — the town’s handsomest model.

She’s the real reason I go, and sit there, gnawing my nails, washed over by the schwärmerei of Brahms and the glistening glissandos of Schubert. Who is Heifetz to me or me to Heifetz? Now Jo Heifetz, his daughter, is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met — but I didn’t see her at the concert last Sunday.

Seriously — it was a wonderful evening. What was wonderful about it was not that it was, as the menu said, a “musical summit meeting,” but that it wasn’t. It was, in fact, very domestic indeed, as chamber music should be.

My mind went back to childhood, and the Relic House on Lincoln Park West or the restaurant of the Nordside Turnverein on Sunday afternoons and people who worked at dull jobs all week dropping in with oboes and violas under their arms to steal a few hours of nobility from life. So, too, these great men, all of them great enough to be modest, managed to transmit to the audience a sense of participation in a chamber music jam session in Heifetz’s living room of an autumn evening.

I am an incorrigible addict of live music. I have a huge record collection and a hi-fi that, strung out along the side board, looks like the American Navy at Manila Bay. I hardly ever use it.

I’m all for pure music, but I like my pure music mixed with plenty of impurity — Leon Fleisher humming the lead strings as he plays piano — as well as acting out everybody else’s, part . . . the imperious face of Piatigorsky, like one of the Fathers of the Church (as Mary whispered to me, “All he needs is a cave, a book, a lion and a donkey!”) . . . Primrose, playing with that unbelievable intonation, equaled only by Casals in my lifetime, or turning pages for the others with a kindly aplomb, looking completely like what the British call “a very clubbable man.”

I am sure that if they put their minds to it IBM could turn out a pile of apparatus that could emit fugues electronically that would make Bach sound like a duffer, or Casals or Schnabel sound clumsy. Maybe someday they will and that’s all there’ll ever be forever after.

But I will remember De Pachman’s crazy eyes seeing Chopin standing beside the piano, or Paderewski’s storm-tossed beehive hairdo, or Harold Bauer with the dignity of an International Banker or an Anglican Bishop, or Heifetz, worn with years of spiritual discipline, or Piatigorsky, who really does look like St. Jerome.

And of course, that lovely model. Someday maybe I’ll write a book, “Women I Have Watched at Concerts.”

P.S. I did so listen. I liked the Schubert best.

[14 November 1962]


Kenneth Rexroth at Large in San Francisco (selected columns from the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Magazine). Copyright 1960-1975 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.