San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



June 1962

Can-Can and Dizzy Gillespie
Creativity versus Subliteracy
The Persistence of Pseudoscience
Elusive Educators
The Poetry Festival
The New Frontier in Alaska
The Wealth of Alaska




Can-Can and Dizzy Gillespie

Once again in the Palace Court, this time to Can-Can. I guess this is the most popular show they’ve put on, and deservedly so.

It is not Cole Porter at his very best; in fact it is, playwise and songwise, flimsier than most musical comedies. But it serves as a scaffolding for directing, acting, choreography, dancing, singing that are all top notch and it is this teamwork that makes it the show it is.

Lilo, star of the Broadway show, is a type we don’t see too often in America. We are familiar enough with the more intimate girls, the chanteuses and diseuses of the small cafés. Lilo is really the first since Irène Bordoni to bring to America the grand flourish of the French music hall. It is easy to imagine her caroling amongst the elephants at the Châtelet. This is projection alright — like a French 75 [a French cocktail]!

The night I saw her, Allyn McLerie was dancing with a cast on her arm. It didn’t seem to make any difference — this is a girl who dances with authority, always in command of the situation, but completely.

In the last analysis, though, what makes this show, and all of Palace Court shows so far, is direction, a sense of showmanship and pace and modulation that infallibly captures the audience. This is the work of Oliver Cliff, a fellow whose talents never cease to astonish me.

One last Lot’s wife look, back at the Spring Opera — Chester Ludgin as Scarpia, in Tosca, was amongst the very best Scarpias I have ever seen and I have seen an awful lot of them. He was like somebody come to life straight out of the pages of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, evil with an ironic elegance that has long gone from the world. It must have been quite a place, 18th-century Rome. Just imagine if the Abe Ruef debacle or the Atherton investigation had uncovered capers like that! A police chief, indeed! The world is getting better, but grayer. In Chicago or Denver the police just steal refrigerators.

Dizzy Gillespie at the Blackhawk. Years ago Dizzy’s scampering around, blowing his horn lying on his back, wearing clothes that were a parody of the hippy’s uniform, all the rest of it, used to bug me. I put him down as a Tom, a Mr. Bones who happened to play a very good trumpet. Maybe I was younger and more intolerant.

Certainly what he is doing now is not just clowning around; he is a great clown, the real thing. The funny business is perfectly shaped and accurately timed to show off the music like the setting of a jewel. It all adds up to something like a harp concert by Harpo Marx if Harpo were a great musician. With Dizzy’s pianist, Lalo Schifrin, composing and arranging for him, he is doing things musically that compare more favorably with his full-dress classics from the days of Bop — “Emanon” or “Manteca.”

It is a thought-provoking experience to go from Walter Snelgrove’s show at the Palace of the Legion of Honor to Arthur Okamura’s show at the Feingarten Galleries in the same day. Both painters are leaders in the movement to bring back to figurative painting the bravura — the “action” — of action painting. There is no doubt but what they both do so very successfully, and without looking like Parks or Diebenkorn.

What they do look like is late-19th-century popular painters. Okamura carefully rehabilitates the gray-green tears and pale lavender languors of Art Nouveau and the Pre-Raphaelites, and this without too much ironic chi-chi. Walter Snelgrove paints the vast rainy mountain and seascapes of the Pacific Northwest with the awesome grandeur of the German-trained painters of the Old West. You miss the man killing the grizzly with an ax.

Is this good taste? Darned if I can tell, yet. It is certainly the painting of sentiment. It doesn’t stand up to Jackson Pollack’s Blue Poles, now at the Legion in the Heller Collection — but that is probably the finest painting by an American in the past 25 years.

But I would rather own, or at least hang on the dining room wall, an Okamura or a Snelgrove than the best work of the uglification school of social protest — say a Philip Evergood or a Jack Levine, or the empty paintings of the dead-end abstractionists.

One thing for sure, nobody can say that action painting destroyed the skill of its practitioners. These are amazingly skillful paintings. They may be skillful in the same way that Inness or Sargent were skillful, but skillful they are, and that’s beyond dispute.

[June 3, 1962]



Creativity versus Subliteracy

Once again Touchstone, the magazine of poetry and art work published by the students of Jefferson High School in Daly City, has showed up in my mail. This is one of several student publications of its kind in the Bay Area.

It is the best, but not by too wide a margin. It is amazing what truly devoted teachers can do to release the creativity which is so common a potential in adolescents and which is so seldom realized.

An enterprise like Touchstone does more to overcome juvenile delinquency than a drove of social workers. The new suburbs south of San Francisco, populated by young employe and working-class families reveling in the New Prosperity, are amongst the more serious delinquency areas. Here the problem is too much opportunity — empty opportunity. These children are characteristically not deprived, but indulged.

The indulgence is the indulgence of indifference. They can do anything they want, but they don’t know what they want. If you want to keep out of mischief, the best way to do it is to substitute civilized desires for vulgar appetites and do it early. If the material bases of civilization, leisure, prosperity, health, are not the foundations for more creative life, we are probably better off without them.

Creativity has often flourished in squalor, but it can hardly withstand blizzards of beer cans and hot rods.

Indulgence without values may frustrate creativity, and nowadays we hear a great deal about the problems of the superior child. They are serious enough, but they are obviously capable of solution. The real problems, involving vast numbers of youngsters who get into trouble, are those of almost complete cultural deprivation in the midst of the most opulent culture the world has ever known.

Eighty-five percent of all juveniles in correctional institutions in the United States are “subliterate.’’ This means they can read “Stop,’’ “Go,’’ “Danger,’’ and possibly “Poison,’’ and not much else, certainly not a passage of connected adult prose.

They are truly outsiders, effectually shut out from all real participation in the culture of modern America and unable to cope with its simplest elements, or even comprehend their meaning. When they try to cope, things go wrong. The tools break in their hands. Remember how mad you got, last time you hit your finger with a hammer? Imagine if that’s all that ever happened, all the time! Make you hostile, wouldn’t it?

So far our education system has only begun to start to commence to attempt to try to do something about this state of affairs. We have bales of reports subsidized by foundations, but only token action. Read Frank Riessman’s The Culturally Deprived Child if you want to know what is being done and what might be done.

Might? It’s jolly well got to be done. Action so far is not just a drop in the bucket — it’s just a sort of slight breath of warm steam.

[June 6, 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 asafetida 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.

[June 10, 1962]



Elusive Educators

Last week I was at Aspen for a seminar on “Science and the Citizen.” During the first day’s discussion we very soon came to the conclusion that the major bottleneck in the problem of wide popular acquaintance with the meaning and aims and achievements of science was the low level of scientific and mathematical education in grammar and high schools and that the bottleneck of this bottleneck was the teachers’ colleges and the educators’ educators.

We were going along nicely, having a politely concerned discussion, when one of the participants, himself an educator, said, manifesting the while a very considerable head of suppressed steam, “The trouble with education is that the administrators are pusillanimous, the instruction is incompetent, the curricula are absurd, the environment is frustrating and the students are disinterested.”

Perhaps it was an overstatement, but nobody was prepared to dispute it, and I must say, it cleared the air.

It is certainly curious that the theorists of education and the educators of our educators have managed, in this, our extremely “open society,” where everybody has to dodge brickbats all the time, to make themselves so inaccessible to public criticism — very inaccessible and even more, very, very impervious to criticism.

Two of our major problems are the juvenile delinquency I have been discussing the last few weeks and the almost total ignorance of the average man of the scientific age in which he lives, and which may either kill him or introduce him to Utopia within the next few years.

The two problems are in fact closely related. It behooves us to make scientific and technological careers attractive to as many young people as we can. By so doing, and by keeping open the channels to employment at all levels, we will be taking a big step towards overcoming that frustration of creativity and loss of life aim which is one of the causes of adolescent hostility.

Yet how many educators’ educators do you ever see at conferences of the sort I attended, or at conferences on juvenile delinquency? The answer is that you almost never see them except at the conferences they run, where they talk largely to themselves.

You don’t even see them out mixing in the general cultural life of the community. They are hardly conspicuous at popular events in the arts, music, scholarship, even sports.

I have no answer to this problem. However, I am sure that, if the people I would like to ask for answers weren’t so remarkably elusive, it at least would be easier to ask more relevant and illuminating questions.

[June 13, 1962]



The Poetry Festival

The event, culture-wise, of the coming week will be the Poetry Festival staged by the Poetry Center of San Francisco State College at the San Francisco Museum from Thursday to Sunday.

This is about the biggest poetry bash so far anywhere in the country, although no sooner had we started setting this one up than the effete East fell in step with bigger and better festivals to come of their own.

There are rumors that the indefatigable Bouvier sisters are dreaming of doing something about poets. You Know Where. Can’t you just see Allen Ginsberg in white tie and tails and the Great White Father saying, “I am so glad to see that you are expressing your opinions.”

Things ain’t what they used to be. One of these nights the news is going to come that Henry Miller has won the Nobel Prize and at the Opera the conductor is going to tap on his stand and Henry, guest of honor in the center box, is going to acknowledge the standing plaudits of Society.

Very smart of the Establishment, say I. Just think, if Karl Marx had belonged to two or three Good Clubs, we wouldn’t be having all this trouble. “If you can’t fight ’em, join ’em,” is an old saw that cuts both ways.

Anyway, at the Museum for four days we’ll be having all shapes and sizes, varieties and conditions, of poetry. Poetry with jazz, poetry with art music, poetry with dance, poetry with this and that, and just plain poetry with poets. Of which latter there is a large selection of Visiting Elks and Trained Seals.

Don’t think, from my levity, I look down on all this. Fact is, I am myself up to my ears in it. Never forget, San Francisco is the first city in modern times in which, after hundreds of years of ineffectiveness, poetry has become a perceptible social force. Maybe this might be almost a definition of the kind of city it is.

It is also a city so devoted to chamber music it is physically impossible to go to everything. As for instance, next Sunday there will be the California Wind Quintet at the Hall of Flowers in the Park in the evening and the opening concert of Music in the Vineyards at three in the afternoon.

I don’t know why they moved the Chamber Music Society series from Monday to Sunday, but they did; and I guess I’ll just have to scamper up from Saratoga and suffice with a couple of hot dogs for dinner.

Last Tuesday, by the way, was the Lennox String Quartet at the Museum. If you haven’t heard them, tie a G-string around your finger, because they are very well worth hearing. They are all quite young and they give the great quartets of the tradition, which we have heard so many times, a kind of animal vitality that makes you sit up and take notice from the first stroke of the first bow.

When this appears I will be up at Anchorage, Alaska, at another Festival. Yes, I know, what would Robert W. Service have said to chamber music, electronic music, serialism, modern poets and painters, all on the site of the Malamute Saloon? Out of the night, which was 50 below, there staggered a miner fresh from the creeks, who emitted a 12-tone row, Dangerous Dan McGrew was reciting “The Waste Land” with the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Lady Whose Name Was Lou was interpreting T.S. Eliot’s words in a barefoot dance on a stage decorated with torn stockings and junk sculpture. And nobody, but nobody, got shot. Life has become more orderly, more intense, perhaps, but less dramatic. N’est-ce pas, mon vieux? as they say ’neath the Northern Lights.

I was going to do this column about the seminar at Aspen on “Science and the Citizen” where I was all last week, but literature and music got in the way. Actually this is science and the citizen in action in fact — this is the world science is making for citizens, with Racine’s Phèdre performances on the shores of Lake Chad and exhibitions of Action Painting in Jakarta and musique concrète in Anchorage and health, education and welfare for all.

The question always is, can we cope with it? Are we really deserving of this brave new world all made of candy? Nobody dies of cholera, everybody loves Mozart, and one day, out we all go like a light. Maybe, if we just have lots of seminars, and all put our heads to it, we’ll straighten everything out.

After all, in the immortal words of Ed Teller, “Two heads are better than one.”

[June 17, 1962]



The New Frontier in Alaska

For the past week I have been up to Alaska, taking part in the Anchorage Arts Festival. I’ve never had a better time, or met more hospitable people. I hadn’t been there many hours before it occurred to me that the two contradictory forms of the community of the future are represented at opposite ends of the country — Los Angeles and Anchorage.

I never fly over that unbelievable sea of light, that picks up east of San Berdoo and continues west without interruption into the Pacific at Malibu, without thinking what Katherine Mansfield said when she first read James Joyce’s Ulysses: “This is the future, and I’m glad I’ve got tuberculosis.”

Under me the little old ladies in tennis shoes in their vine-covered cottages write poison pen letters about liberal clergymen, peroxided mamas push their peroxided Lolitas into the warm swimming pools and flaccid arms of tenth-string TV personalities (quoting the appropriate texts from Ezekiel, Daniel and Revelations the while), the PTA riots around the school yard, burning the UN flag, the anti-fluoridation forces storm the Health Department laboratories, cinema stars and cinema moguls are managed by Jungians and astrologers, and the harried intellectuals are under the impression that Socialist Realism is the latest thing from Paris, France.

This is certainly one form of the future — in the words of the elder Huxley describing the signs of the death of a species, “overspecialization, proliferation, gigantism, maximum heterogeneity.” That man was sure right, even though he was talking about big lizards and not Homo Babyloniensis.

On the other hand, I came in through a clear sky, over another unbelievable sea, but this time of thousands of square miles of snow and ice-covered mountains, like a dozen Himalaya ranges, circled a glacial trough of a valley, half drowned and bisected by a meandering marshy river — just like a geology textbook — and put down in a mushroom town, exactly like a scattered tract development lost in a gravel pit and spruce bog. The works of God were awe-inspiring enough for anybody’s taste, but the works of man didn’t seem very prepossessing.

What man was doing with himself was another matter. It wasn’t just the Festival. There are culture-hungry social matrons in provincial towns all over the world and always have been. “Ah! Moscow!” say Chekhov’s three sisters, lost in the boondocks.

Here in the real boondocks, in the midst of the tundra, under a midsummer sky that never grows dark, they aren’t very culture hungry, for the simple reason that they have provided themselves with surprisingly unprovincial nourishment.

It’s not just that they gave Ussachevsky three television programs to explain the technical intricacies of electronic music. It’s not just that I read to a full auditorium and an enthusiastic and informed audience. It’s not just that people gave me pots like those that win prizes at San Francisco art shows, but made of glacier mud.

(I also was given a marvelously taxidermed wolverine skin which now lies at the foot of my daughters’ bed. Assuming they really will grow up to be ballerinas, it’s the first step towards polar bear and tiger hides before an intimate fire.)

It’s not just that large attentive audiences seemed really to dig pretty demanding chamber music. It’s not just that the art shows had a lot of pictures by a local girl who is one of the better painters of the New Figurative School — and whose landscapes were alive with the light and mood of the subarctic. It was something of which phenomena like these were only reflections and symptoms — a new urbanity on a new kind of frontier.

California, north or south — let’s admit it — is not much of a frontier any more. In fact it is a kind of anti-frontier, the dead end, the jumping off place. Anchorage is only incidentally and geographically, or rather ecologically, a frontier of the old type. That is, it is set amidst glaciers and wolverines and dwarfed spruce and birch.

Geographically it is actually a new metropolis, a crossroads for the polar air routes of all the world, which scatter down from it all over the globe like a bursting rocket. But it is a city, grown up over night, on a kind of electronic frontier. Regardless of the military technology, civilized life of any sort would be pretty difficult without the most recent achievements of science.

This means that the true frontier in Anchorage is in the minds of its inhabitants. They are the exact opposite of the lost souls that throw themselves off Golden Gate Bridge or lie in Malibu on the couches of the Jungians. I don’t believe I have ever met such a large proportion of handsome and enormously competent women (proportionate, let me add, to very male males). It’s easy to see why — the place has its own processes of elimination. The spoiled darlings and the mom-ridden sad young men get out of the plane, bust out a-bawlin’ and go home as soon as possible.

[June 24, 1962]



The Wealth of Alaska

In case you haven’t been keeping up with my activities, last week I was up in Anchorage, Alaska, for their Music and Arts Festival.

The arts and music were expert and civilized, the people were wonderfully hospitable. In addition they were certainly every bit as urbane as people anywhere else. Setting, costumes, décor, dialogue — at the parties I went to I couldn’t tell but what I was in Presidio Terrace except by looking out the window at the snow-covered mountains and the long, dark blue drowned-looking sweep of Cook Inlet with the midnight sun over it.

There was one difference, though, and it was most important. The rooms were smaller, flimsier, cheaper by far in every way. But the homes cost a great deal more money.

I was taken for a drive along the town’s fashionable street. It was lined with houses indistinguishable from those in a minimum-cost development around San Francisco.

“Here is So-and-So’s house, it cost $95,000. Here is So-and-So’s, it cost $125,000.” And so on through all the So-and-So’s of the grand rich of Alaska. The best of them in the Old Country would have brought around $32,000 at the very most.

Then we rounded a bend and saw before us a Benedict Canyon job in oiled teak, with flying decks and carports and porte-cochères and swimming pool and clay court and everything running hot and cold mutton-chop-whiskered butlers. It looked like the palace of the Grand Duke of the Arctic.

“Gee whiz,” said I, “whose place is that?”

“That,” said my host, “is the home of the contractor who built the other houses.”

That’s Alaska. I was through Anchorage about 36 years ago and I don’t even remember it. At the beginning of World War II it was a very small town. Now 100,000 people live in the city and its environs. Prices aren’t what they were in the days of Jack London, but they are still pretty steep. Basic capital investment comes high, but it pays off enormously.

For all its youth, Alaska was an economic colony. Fishing, mining, a colonial extractive economy — Alaska’s wealth was taken out and reinvested in the States, and after the early entrepreneurs had made their pile, they retired to Seattle or Pasadena and put their fast bucks in blue chips and safe real estate.

It would be possible to go down the list of what a new country needs as basic equipment — aggregate plants, lumber mills (in the middle of a forest, it’s cheaper to import lumber from Japan), machine shops, small foundries, a chip-board industry, technical services, repairs and so on — something like the master plans for Persia or Afghanistan that were never put into effect. Invest your money cautiously, without over-extension, and make a lot more in the long run than all but a few people ever made out of the Gold Rush.

Meanwhile, the armed forces pour in money and it still pours right back out, except for what sticks fast in the $125,000 sheet-rock mansions.

[June 27, 1962]


“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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