San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



April 1963

The Debbil-Debbil Theory
Revolting Genet
Government and the Arts
A Monster Is Loose in the Human Heart
Protest of the Month Club
Superlative Ballet
John Handy
More Thoughts on Protest




The Debbil-Debbil Theory

One of the most unkillable myths of modern times is the debbil-debbil theory of politics, the notion that behind every act of social or international folly stands a wicked capitalist in a silk hat, puffing an oversized Upman and fondling a chorus girl the while he hands out thousand-dollar bills to his minions in the State Department, the Press and Congress. Would it were true, it would be so much easier to eliminate the evils man is heir to.

One aspect of this legend is the notion that the Bosses teach the Workers race prejudice on the principle of “divide and rule.” The simple facts are that the lower you go down the social ladder, the more prejudice of all kinds you encounter; that for many years, in the North, the main obstacle to equal job opportunity was the organized labor movement; and that, finally, it is quite impossible to run a modern business or industry efficiently if the workers are always quarreling over one another’s color.

So today, on one side are millionaires, in fact close to billionaires, like the Rockefellers, the Fords, the Kennedys, and on the other, the rednecks and gallus snappers of Greenwood, Miss. and way points.

The sociologist David Riesman and some of his friends have just completed a poll and survey of ordinary lower middle class opinion on war, civil defense, disarmament and related topics. They made a discovery that might well startle the optimists who believe that man is naturally pacific, and belligerent only when corrupted by ignorance and demagogy. It turns out that adequate information on the consequences of nuclear war has little to do with the belligerence of the respondents.

The belief that the next war will mark the end of civilization, if not of the human race, does not seem to exert a calming effect on the adrenals of the person holding it. In a significant number of cases it seems to have the opposite effect — as anyone might have guessed after a brief perusal of Sigmund Freud or Thomas Aquinas.

Some of our pro-war reasoning is actually rational, much of it is not, little of it seems to be inspired by the White House, the House of Morgan or the DuPonts. The curious thing is that we assume that the Russians, on the other hand, are rationally motivated, if not by themselves, man for man, at least by the schemers in the Kremlin. It never occurs to us that a survey of the dachas surrounding Moscow and Leningrad would reveal the same destructive forces sloshing around in the unconscious of the Russian specialists and administrators.

And last — the President no sooner gets home from gently knocking heads together in Central America than a military “revolution” breaks out in Guatemala. American policy, as expressed in the Alliance for Progress, is certainly committed to strengthening democracy and to drastic social and economic improvement. There is, obviously, no other deterrent to Communism which will work in the long run.

International forces stand behind these seizures of power by military juntas, but they do not originate in Wall Street or Washington or the Kremlin. They are called greed, ignorance and lust for power. They originate at home and nobody from abroad has to bribe them into existence.

[April 3, 1963]



Revolting Genet

One of the most popular delusions of recent years is the notion that revolting behavior is a sign of revolt. The petty criminality of the slums is equated with the Montgomery boycott or the sit-ins. The ancient country club sport of musical beds is identified with the sexual freedom or Free Love that agitated our Ibsen girl grandmothers.

A mess on the drawing room wall is supposed to fulfill the promises of Jackson Pollack, Mark Tobey or Clyfford Still. Just recently one of the country’s leading art critics referred to the childish Dadaism of the one of the leader Pop artists as comic satire and got an irate letter from the Pop in question, protesting that he was serious indeed and not satirical at all. This problem is always confronting me.

I tend to give the sonata of accidentally twirled radio dials, the compressed jalopy sculpture, the square canvas painted uniform glossy black all over, the barefoot dancer, the drama which consists of a tape recording of unbridled fustian delivered from inside a broken toilet stool, the benefit of the doubt. I am always writing or speaking of such capers as ironic — and so I make enemies. People who take themselves most seriously are mortally offended.

Not only do we have a well-established Academy of Alienation, an orthodoxy of revolt, but this sort of thing is enveloped in clouds of mystique, impenetrable to criticism. You don’t have the right to criticize, and the more you know what you are talking about, the more critical competence you have, the more hated and feared you are.

The two most disliked critics in jazz are Leonard Feather and André Hodeir, because they are musicians, and even worse, read music and can even transcribe the records they hear. Like they don’t dig.

If you object, you are against art. When the English show was here at the SF Museum one of the people connected with it asked me what I thought of it. I said I thought it was abominable. I got a lecture which was based on the assumption that my favorite painting was September Morn or The Stag at Bay. We not only have an academy, but an academy which protects its racket with religious sanctions of the most bigoted and superstitious sort.

It’s much as if the observation, “I think Father Mulrooney has a bad breath this morning,” was met with screams from the whole congregation: “Burn him alive! He’s a Unitarian!”

So — for what it is worth, I think the San Francisco Art Annual is one of the most academic and sterile collections of painting I have seen in a long time. It would be equaled by the Winter Invitational, which shares the museum with it, except that the latter show is full of gimmicky stunts which give it the cotton candy flavor of Disneyland and Santa Monica Pier.

Again, I think the current production of The Balcony at the Actor’s Workshop is a straight commercial operation, on a par with Getting Gertie’s Garter and Up in Mabel’s Room.

It’s just 40 years later, in a naughtier world. It is not satire, it is not the black comedy of ruthless social criticism — although the Workshop people, to their credit, try to read it that way.

It is just abuse of the powers that be in terms of a delinquent who sees society only as a heap of empty contenders for empty power. This is the reason the speeches of Genet’s characters are loud and windy, but say nothing. There are all sorts of things wrong with the Church, the Law, the Police, the Army, there are all sorts of things wrong with generals, judges, cops, bishops, some personal, some ex officio.

Genet doesn’t know what they are and he is incapable of knowing. To him, society with all its complex evils, and authority with all of its, are just the squares and the fuzz. Like he doesn’t dig them. Phooey! But there is nothing radical about this sort of reaction — quite the opposite. It is the reaction of any irresponsible person of any class — the lumpen intelligentsia, the lumpen proletariat, the lumpen rich — especially the lumpen rich and the celebrities.

You can find Genet’s rejection of society any warm night along the Via Vittoria Veneto, in the most expensive and exclusive night clubs, in Biarritz or St. Tropez or in a Grant Avenue pad.

Karl Marx long ago warned the anarchist Bakunin that the lumpen proletariat, the hoboes and petty criminals who he thought would be a revolutionary instrument to usher in the new society, were just unsuccessful parodies of their masters — bourgeoisie manqué, would-be embezzlers and robber barons who had missed the bus.

It’s still true, but, alas, since 1848 they’ve started to organize and, though they don’t breed, they multiply. Especially in the arts, where not one person in ten thousand knows what’s going on anymore.

[April 7, 1963]



Government and the Arts

Last weekend I was a panelist at the great culture bash at the University of California in Los Angeles. It was not until I was homeward bound above the broad Pacific in the Sunday sunset that it began to sink into me what I had been a party to.

White House art advisor August Heckscher kicked off Friday night and set the tone for the weekend’s proceedings. This was unfortunate, because it was not a good tone. He was insufferably patronizing in a very, very progressive way.

This laid him open to attack by that hoary unreconstructed rebel, Lawrence Lipton, who really is the Bernard Baruch of the Beat Generation. So the whole discussion was thrown into a universe of discourse of no contemporary significance whatsoever.

The problems discussed were the problems of the 30s. There were several people still bitter about the spanking Congress gave Hallie Flanagan, directress of the WPA Theater a generation ago. There was much talk of a Department of Fine Arts, of Government responsibility for the arts, of National Theaters and National Ballets and National Orchestras, of the reactionary academies and museums that kept artists from expressing themselves at the public expense and condemned them to death by starvation in cold water flats full of bedbugs.

As they say — general staffs always fight the last war but one. The problem today is restraining the Government in its interest in the arts, not encouraging it. I can’t think of many things the Government might do for the arts that would not result in more harm than good. I don’t think government has the slightest responsibility for the arts.

The Government’s job is to keep the streets clean and safe. In its civic planning functions it can provide a receptacle for the arts. It can pay for jobs. And that is all it should do. Similarly, the problem with the academy today, as I must bore my readers by constantly reiterating, is to restrain its now unbridled acceptance of anything that passes as dissent, experiment and revolt, no matter how silly and sterile.

However, there are a lot of votes down there amongst the liberal swimming pools. A generation removed from the tall corn of Iowa and the sun-kissed hills of Oklahoma, the exploding population is turning to abstract art, tuneless music, barefoot dancing and progressive ideas.

Also there are thousands and thousands of chronically unemployed TV actors, writers, directors, choreographers, camera men, art directors, not to mention The Industry several feet past the end of its rope. All these people of course think the Government should do something for culture, namely them, and will so vote.

I wish these people would go away — I’m getting tired of writing about this subject.

As the fellow said, “This is the White House, hurry up and color it white before somebody colors it chartreuse.”

[April 10, 1963]



A Monster Is Loose in the Human Heart

“How does this night differ from other nights?” the opening words of Seder, the ritual feast of the Jewish Passover, might well have prefaced the Pope’s encyclical, “How does this message differ from other Easter messages?” One of the main functions of the Papacy is to cry, “Wolf! Wolf!” almost every year down the centuries at Easter and Christmas.

When the Goths invaded Rome the Popes cried for peace, when the Byzantines struck back and ruined Italy, when Lombards came over the mountains, again when the Franks, again when the descendants of Charlemagne destroyed the possibility of a new Roman Empire by quarreling amongst themselves, again and again in the long wars with the German Empire, and so on down the centuries — there was seldom a year when a call for peace in a warring world has not been timely.

“Wolf! Wolf!” the shepherd cried, and in each case there was a real wolf harrying the flock, but nobody paid any attention. From the point of view of the Eskimos, Europe is one community, practically one nation. It is so, I should imagine, even from the point of view of the Chinese.

Certainly there is greater difference between the Tibetans, the Mongols, the Manchus, the northern Chinese, and the Chinese from Canton on south, than there is between the Swedes, the Italians, the Hungarians, the English and the Basques. As for the Russians and the Americans, everybody, even themselves, remarks on how much they resemble one another.

Yet this community of race and culture, so closely interdependent, has been characterized by 2000 years of civil war — a civil war which very possibly has never been totally interrupted for a single year. I suspect that careful scholarship could turn up at least one passage of arms for every year since the fall of Rome, somewhere in the community of Europe, between the Strait of Gibraltar and the Urals.

If a colony of termites in a laboratory started acting like this, the biologists would chloroform them immediately, before whatever disease had struck them got loose, and then dissect their minuscule nervous systems to discover what ominous disorder had caused them to go mad. Sometimes I wonder.

Maybe an intelligent filterable virus from Mars is destroying the human race in preparation for a takeover of the earth. If so, they have overreached themselves, those Martians. There isn’t going to be anything to take over if things go on the way they’re going.

That is the point of the message from the Vatican. “Wolf! Wolf!” this time again the wolf is real, but more than that, he isn’t just going to snatch a stray lamb here and there, or eliminate an old sick sheep — this time, unless the wolf in the heart of man can be controlled, there aren’t going to be any sheep, any shepherd, any wolf, or any Pope or any human race.

We are witnessing a peculiar moral crisis, and one of the most penetrating points in this encyclical is the analysis of its nature. Hitherto the natural evil in the universe has outweighed the folly of man, at least in its obvious, measurable aspects. It has also engaged his attention, more or less, and served at least a little to keep him out of mischief.

Disease, pain, suffering, earthquakes, fire and famine, the wastage of human values in the world has been like in kind to the waste of eggs by spawning salmon or the waste of mayflies in the summer air. No more. Perhaps three billion light years away whole universes are exploding, but here before our eyes the contrast is between the order of nature and the disorder amongst men and peoples. Man has substantially conquered nature and in doing so has revealed himself as potentially more destructive than the enemy he has struggled with since first he used a rock to crack nuts or a branch to dig for ant eggs.

Nature is conquered and a monster is loose in the human heart. But in every human heart there is another force, the same force that saves some salmon spawn, that redeems the ruin of the earthquake, that pushes life from dinosaurs to men. It speaks in the conscience as its speaks in the axioms of geometry or the laws of physics.

Unless it wins, and that soon, we have lost the game we’ve been playing since the first Ice Age. We do not need to appeal to any supernatural law of God for sanction against our folly — the ruthless laws of nature are saner and safer than the disorder that we seem to be unable to throw off. And that is how this Passover message differs from others — “Gird up your loins and escape from the house of bondage and death.” I wonder who listens? Who minds? Only the ineffective minority that listened in A.D. 663, or 1663, or 1863?

[April 14, 1963]



Protest of the Month Club

Larry and Chris Handelin of San Francisco have launched a unique experiment — Protest of the Month. “Once each month,’’ says their leaflet, “you’ll be notified of a protest.” They suggest that each following monthly protest be decided on the picket line of the ongoing protest, with notices sent out to all interested in joining the Protest of the Month Club.

What a splendid idea! Nuclear submarines, Cuban invasions, Jackie’s taste in lipstick or cultural advisers, Jack’s hairdo, Mac’s Common Market, Charley’s Common Market, Sedar-Senghor’s Negritude, Nasser’s Anti-Semitism, Ben Gurion’s Semitism, Barry’s Democracy, Gus Hall’s Democracy, Senator Eastland’s Democracy, Martin Luther King’s Satyagraha, Malcolm X’s Soul Force . . . take a position . . . grab a placard . . . march up and down.

How do you feel about Birth Control? Women’s Suffrage? Evolution? Edward Teller? Bishop Pike? Make your opinions known on the picket line. You haven’t got any opinions? Fine! Join the picket line, any picket line. Placards free, tattered jeans, holey sneakers and false whiskers at a slight charge.

Whither are we drifting? Certainly past the point of diminishing returns. Once Mort Sahl was a kid in a frayed sweater, sitting on a bar stool in The Eye, making bitter cracks about the newspaper he had before him. Nichols and May, Shelley Berman, Lenny Bruce, and after them the Deluge.

Now it has spread to Britain. The Establishment, a night club which books only satirical acts, is doing a land office business. “That Was the Week That Was” is on the hot spot Saturday nights on BBC. ITV’s “What the Papers Say” even managed to get sued off the air. “The Premise” and “The Second City” packed them in in London. As a critic in the Guardian points out, satire is significant to the degree that it is threatened; satire and safety are incompatible. If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t satire.

So with The Committee, newly opened on Broadway. The real heroes of the show are Hans and Ginny Kolmar, who did the publicity. Everybody who was anybody or whoever even thought he was anybody was there opening night and the papers had been full of breathless stories for weeks. So what happened? It was all so like charades in a Quaker Work Camp. The word is callow.

Just incidentally it was in every way far less witty and sophisticated than similar acts that have run in San Francisco for the last several years — the Macaroni Show, the Overplayers, not to speak of Davis’s Mime Troupe, which doesn’t speak. We need new subjects, new protests, Hemingway never brushed his teeth, I abominate plastic chopsticks and tissue handkerchiefs. Let’s go back to fundamentals and start over.

[April 17, 1963]



Superlative Ballet

What a pleasure it was, the opening of the San Francisco Ballet’s new season!

Each year the company seems to gain more polish, more ease and fluency, and more imagination. Partly, no doubt, this is due to the fact that they are now able to spend a lot more time on the stage than they did only a few years ago. It’s not just that direction, choreography, overall design and organization have improved, it’s that each dancer who has been with the company for any length of time is more inventive, more skillful, more confident.

Like they say, practice makes perfect. In this case it also makes for diversity and individual style, something that I for one did not expect to develop to such a degree out of the strict military regimen for which the Christensens have been noted.

I suppose it’s all like learning to play the piano. Once you’ve mastered all the scales and arpeggios you can begin to develop individual expression. Not so long ago Sally Bailey was, although an excellent dancer, essentially a projection of Lew Christensen’s ideas. Today the company has matured to the point where you can say, “This is Sally Bailey’s style, an individual thing within the context of the characteristic style of the company.” Possibly her Eve in Original Sin is now her best role. It is pure Sally, and it is not something you would have been able to prognosticate, watching her dance four or five years back.

This means, too, that dancers with an already developed style, like Jocelyn Vollmar, are now free to give everything they have to their work. Dancing the lead in Fantasma last week, she was never better. Furthermore, she was able to put into the role something new, or at least new with this company, of the essential Jocelyn that made the part seem written specially for her.

So with the new arrival this season amongst the étoiles, Sue Loyd. I have watched this girl since she first appeared in the Nutcracker. I am proud to have spotted her then as a highly individual dancer with great personal style, and I am delighted that she has been allowed to grow up into top billing, along with Virginia, Sally and Jocelyn, as very much Sue Loyd, sui generis.

Next one up, I prophecy, will be Cynthia Gregory if she continues to develop as she has been doing and doesn’t desert to MGM.

The company is growing because Lew Christensen is growing. Last year, A Jest of Cards, this year, Fantasma, each is a step forward into new, unexplored territory. I can see what happened as Lew began to turn over Fantasma in his mind — “I’ll show them gol-durned Bolshois, and I will do it with balletistic tours de force that dancers appreciate, not with sucker bait for the ignorant.”

The gallery did not cheer and stamp and applaud at the leaps and lifts and twirls in Fantasma, but I for one thought somebody was going to get killed before it was over. When Jocelyn sprang up off the ground, backwards several feet into the arms of Bob Gladstein who was just coming out of a whirl, I was forcibly reminded of The Perils of Pauline.

And finally, Variations de Ballet was perfect for a witty allegro dancer like Virginia Johnson, it’s what she does best and she did it superlatively.

I have one criticism and I hesitate to make it because I did a story for the company. What Lew needs in both Jest of Cards and Fantasma is a writer. The line, the story line, if you will, is too diffuse. Both ballets lack clear-cut continuity. After both, audiences will say, “Beautiful, beautiful, but what happened?”

I know all about Pure Dance and all that, but it’s the line of development of pure dance that I’m talking about. Plot in the conventional sense is just a skeleton on which to hang a naturally evolving structure, the conventional sonata form of the dance suite, or whatever you will. Fantasma is a superlatively beautiful ballet, but it unfolds with insufficient inevitability. I’d like to see the plot, the worldwide folk tale of the mortal boy in fairyland, fleshed out with the structures that give the ballads “Tam Lin” and “Thomas the Rhymer” their awesome resonance.

This would of course enrich the story, but of primary importance, it would organize the formal dance sequences.

[April 21, 1963]



John Handy

In my humble opinion the two best jazz musicians playing regularly hereabouts are Brew Moore, now at Off Broadway, and John Handy, who can be found at the Trois Couleurs in Berkeley on Friday and Saturday evenings. This Saturday afternoon, the 27th, Handy will be backing Mary Stallings at the jazz show at State College. This should be quite a bash, what with John’s group, Vince Guaraldi’s and Turk Murphy’s, all playing the same bill.

I only hope they blow themselves into a relaxed and convivial state and decide to do a few numbers tout ensemble. That should be something. Some years back I mixed up an assortment of modern jazz musicians and a batch of alumni from the Lu Watters band. It was quite a blow. It would be worth the trip to San Francisco State just on the off chance it might happen again.

I can’t plug John Handy too enthusiastically. I think he is just about 30 years old this year, and if so, he is, for my taste, the most interesting musician of his age group except Ornette Coleman. It’s strange how a really superlative artist like this can play around San Francisco for years with very little recognition indeed.

Jazz buffs almost always, and even some of the leading jazz critics all too often, don’t listen to music. They listen to the jazz mystique. If John were a notorious evil liver, talked broad “country” like a blackface comedian, told his audience the same old changes on “How High the Moon” was a sonata of his own composition, dedicated to W.E.B. Du Bois and entitled “Lynch the Lynchers!” took dope on television, had a hot scandal with a society girl, etc., etc., he’d be famous.

As it is, he is just a great artist, with at once both the dignity and the infectious friendliness of a man who knows he is good. Like square — so how could anybody like that blow alto or clarinet?

Some weekend when you’re passing the Congo on Fillmore St., see if Harvey Diamond and Doug Arrington are playing; they’re worth hearing, too.

There is a lot that’s going on you might miss because it isn’t extra conspicuous. The Actor’s Workshop production of The Underpants at the Encore is hilarious. Ignore the stuff about how it’s expressionistic theater and foreshadows the antitheater of Ionesco and Genet. It isn’t and doesn’t. It’s just a very funny sauerkraut version of a Mack Sennett comedy. You’ll love Jonason as Ben Turpin, and Tom Rosqui as that rare animal, practically extinct in San Francisco, an old-fashioned male husband.

It won’t be long now before they start running tourist busses to see such a curious beast in the flesh, like now they run them to Finnochio’s.

[April 24, 1963]



More Thoughts on Protest

Larry Handelin, organizer of the “Protest of the Month,” has written me a rather bitter letter. He is under the impression that I am making a mockery of him and his activities to interpose at least a few placards between humanity and nuclear extermination. Quite the contrary. The address of “Protest of the Month” is P.O. Box 5800. If you believe in the effectiveness of this kind of protest, here’s your chance.

I am very dubious myself. I think the days when basic changes were effected in society or in the course of history by street demonstrations, varying in intensity from the street corner soapbox audience to the barricades of revolution — those days are over. Even in Baghdad or Elizabethville it is obvious that this voice of the people is simply the voice of a manipulated mob. The real changes take place elsewhere, in small smoke-filled rooms crowded with men in sweaty shirts, pistols strapped to their belts . . . that is, if they don’t take place first in Moscow, Washington, New York or London.

At one time, all over the world, for an appreciable sector of the populations of the developed countries and the colonial ones as well, “Revolution” was a value in itself. People spoke of the Revolutionary Movement, anarchists, state socialists, syndicalists, Irish Republicans, Indians, even the violent Right: the groups that later became Fascists and Nazis, were united in their belief that total overturn of society was itself a good.

Furthermore, they were often united in action, especially in defense of each other’s civil liberties, their right to subvert the bourgeois democracy that made it possible for them to exist without butchering each other in the streets. For a very broad spectrum of French political life, stretching from the extreme left to well right of center, the tradition of the French Revolution is a final court of appeal something like the traditions of the Talmud, the Councils of the Church, or the traditions of Islam.

Today, Hannah Arendt, who is certainly a radical thinker if there ever was one, questions whether any major revolution except possibly the American, was not a waste of time, life, wealth — an historical setback and a cultural loss. I might argue points with her, but the significant thing is that such a question should be raised at all by such a person. Ultimately, the question is: What is the nature of enduringly effective social action?

The old-time IWW and the European syndicalists used to talk about “organization at the point of production.” Trotsky elaborated a tactical theory of revolution, an exact technique for striking at the heart, brain, and nerve centers of society. Today nobody knows what these terms mean. Authority is too diffuse. As you try to catch it, responsibility slips through your fingers.

Nobody is to blame for anything. You’ve got your placard, “Stop War.” Who are you going to picket? Secretary McNamara? But he agrees with you. Khrushchev? He agrees, too. Someplace there must be a nerve center. Where is it? It is remotely possible that it is you, whoever you are. There is no question but what, if all the individuals in the world picketed themselves, things would take a turn for the better.

Meanwhile, as it grows less effective, protest becomes more and more fashionable in the least effective sectors of the populace. Peace is not going to be won in night clubs or by the Teddy Boy and Beatnik contingents of the Aldermaston March.

Where the problem is of person-to-person responsibility, like racial discrimination, you can act. You can go in and sit down and order a hamburger, or you can actually have “some of my best friends” as members of another race. Even here, how many people act? Ever? There are 18 million Negroes in the United States. Are 180,000 engaged in the struggle for equal rights in any way? I doubt it. In the Bay Area the most liberal organizations, from the advanced theater to subscription radio, are lily white — out of sloth, indifference and ignorance.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Police Department has set up a Community Relations Unit under the leadership of Lieutenant Dante Andreotti, a dedicated man if ever I saw one. Its purpose is to stimulate community activity, integration and initiative at the grass roots, neighborhood by neighborhood. It’s a novel activity for the police, but nobody else has been able to do it, so more power to them.

Similarly, the only adequately equipped “Plan for Peace” organization in the USA seems to be the Navy’s Project Michelson. Maybe slow but sure we will evolve self-correcting mechanisms, like white blood corpuscles and antibodies in the body politic, and won’t have to decapitate society every time we want basic change. Maybe.

[April 28, 1963]


“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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