San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



October 1964

Rapport at the Opera
Ghettoized Youth
Opera and Early Music
Compulsive Demonstrators
Repressed Issues Coming Out
Dealing with Social Problems
The Fall of Khrushchev




Rapport at the Opera

The other night at the Opera I was talking to a visitor from the East, a long-term visitor, in fact a colleague who will be out here for the winter. We spoke of the community identification with the Opera, not just with the enterprise as a whole, but show by show, the close rapport between audience and performers. This is a most gratifying experience for anybody in show business. That’s why people go into it, those brief periods and rare places when everybody is with it, all pulling together.

Stage and pit relations with the audience at the Met are as remote as television. New Yorkers think anything resembling community is strictly for the weed monkeys. It’s square there to repair the streets. Here at the Opera House they are a close family affair.

We were talking between the acts at Die Frau ohne Schatten. This is one of the silliest things ever written. It’s another of those dreadful Teutonic bits about redemption by the Eternal Feminine, but in the style of the Redemption Number of Mad Magazine. Musically, it is mildly interesting as a showcase of bygone fashionable soul music, today it is as unmoving as Scriabin, which it somewhat resembles. In addition, Richard Strauss, like all soul-musickers, never knew when to say, “Hold! Enough!” so it is frightfully tedious.

But it is our own. San Francisco’s production is famous as having made a purse of sorts, not silk, but still a purse, out of a pickled sow’s ear. It is quite a production. It is in the same bad taste as the music, but it makes the music, and even the plot, effective. The audience identifies with it. For better or worse, we did it and we’re proud. And the audience has pets — especially women — Schwarzkopf, Venora, now Reri Grist and apparently next Pilar Lorengar, and of course, toujours Mary Costa.

All this creates an ambience like a glorified picnic and pageant at an English country parish church. No other American community has responded to its opera in this way since Mary Garden’s days at Chicago. It is common enough in the smaller first-class cities of Europe, and it is one of the reasons singers prefer such places to their American counterparts.

I gave as an example a bad opera well done, simply because that is the one we were at when the subject came up. Verdi’s Otello is one of the great human thoughts. The other night when it was beautifully performed the rapport was like an electric charge in the air.

Howsomever that may be, I have discovered, by talking around — at that very opera, for instance — that there is one place we fail badly. Most people who read the columns sensed behind the flippancy how rudely I was being treated this summer when I was writing from Milwaukee. I believe those were the most unpleasant weeks of my life and they were due entirely to brutal refusal of minimum hospitality. Alas, I discover we aren’t much better hereabouts. Visiting notables at S.F. State and Berkeley are treated pretty much like the man who comes to wash the windows. We have no efficient housing organization, no adequate guest accommodations, and no one to assume the responsibilities of general hospitality at either place.

Believe me, this is an oversight of the utmost importance. A visitor to either school should not suffer inconvenience or delay in obtaining satisfactory housing, whether transient or for the semester or year. It should be tailored in advance to his needs; for instance, a musician should not be put in a paper-walled apartment with doors that won’t admit a piano. The piano, just turned, should be there to greet him.

Secondly, and even more important, there should be a regular host and hostess service. A boy and girl, both with cars, should be assigned to each arrival and should devote themselves to seeing that he gets oriented, adjusted and settled. This is in itself a valuable educational activity. You’d learn more, for sure, chauffeuring T.S. Eliot around town for a week than you’d ever learn in all the poetry courses ever given.

I wonder if columns like this ever have any effect whatever. Gentlemen Deans, I wish you’d take this sermon to heart. Surely you must realize how much difference a little action could make, to the guest, to the school, and to the city.

[October 4, 1964]



Ghettoized Youth

Beatles in the Cow Palace, rape in Monterey, riot in Berkeley. Young ones ain’t what they was in my day. Indeed they are not, but those particular capers are as old as civilization and can be paralleled amongst savages or even animals. Something is happening to American youth, something very serious, but it only incidentally finds expression in high jinks or low.

Somebody took me to task for using the word “ghetto” of the Negro district. It is true that it isn’t all that difficult to escape from. But we are ghettoizing our young people into a strictly delimited way of life that is very difficult indeed to escape.

Certain primitive people, notably in New Guinea, have organized their societies into strictly closed, antagonistic age groups. We are beginning to do the same thing. As the need for labor declines, we retire the elderly and prohibit adolescents from productive labor by law. Ever since the Russians shot up that dog we have been overloading our students with work. My daughter is in the ninth grade and brings home four hours of homework, much of it in subjects she will never use after she’s through school.

We are trying to force feed our way to Mars. Other nations accuse us of overindulging our youth. In fact we indulge them only with infantilisms that cost nothing but money. We want them out of the way. The last place in the world we want them is alongside of us, learning about life by living it.

I don’t want to sound like grandpop, but my own life would be utterly impossible today. I was educated at home until my mother died when I was 10. When my father died four years later, I left school within a year. That’s right, I have five years of education. At 16 I was a reporter of sorts on the Chicago City News Bureau. Before that, from 13 on, I worked in drugstores and supported myself. I speak a number of languages, some of them dead. I have written 18 books, painted hundreds of pictures and written, long ago, some ultramodern chamber music. I’ve seen much of the world, every state in the Union before I was 19. I early learned to quote a Chicago gangster friend, “Keep your nose clean and don’t volunteer,” and “Only customers gamble.”

Such an adolescence is inconceivable to people in their teens today. It’s illegal. The students at the University of California are not children. They are in the full flesh of their powers, physically, mentally, sexually. Our society closes the doors of responsibility to them. At the best they are permitted to mimic a few adult activities. Theirs is a sort of 4-H Club kid culture for the squares who can prove they are defused. Otherwise there is nothing to do except homework, spending your parents’ money, or goofing off in fraternity houses, coffee shops, or motorcycle clubs.

Do you wonder that the best of them decide the adult world is pure fraud and revolt against it, any way they can?

[October 7, 1964]



Opera and Early Music

Thoughts at Carmen. — This is one of the few operas which is also a major drama. I have never seen it played straight, without music, but I would surely like to. Also, I have never seen an extremely realistic production, though it might well be called the first of the “verismo” operas.

Still, you seldom see those very operas so performed. Our own production of Pagliacci, strongly influenced by La Strada, is startlingly refreshing for that very reason. How many of the arias of Carmen are not just tunes the workers can whistle, but actual songs, in the layman’s sense of the word. Could that be one of the reasons critics call it the perfect opera? What heresy!

At The Marriage of Figaro: Reri Grist is rapidly becoming San Francisco’s darling. What a lovely, lovable girl! These operatic soubrettes are so fetching when they are at this stage of their careers — but then what? Reri Grist has certainly had plenty of choice parts this season, and seems to be learning from them. She still needs to learn. She has a fine-spun, delicate voice, but it lacks bottom and volume. She often finds herself outsung in duets, trios, quartets.

There is a richness of timbre that comes usually only with age and bosom. It is impossible to imagine her, for instance, in any part in Carmen. Another thing she needs is careful coaching in dramatic posture; she is still too abrupt and akimbo. Graziella Sciutti, one of the greatest scene stealers of all time, was far more fluent in the same roles. The maids of Mozart should flow like honey, but only a masterful director knows how to achieve that result.

Without an essential fleshiness, opera lacks conviction. This is why even all those heroines that die of consumption have to look more as if they had just finished a regimen of bed rest and high caloric diet. Of course there is a point of no return. There is one diva in particular I simply refuse to see anymore. Poor woman, she insists on roles of girls who would in fact be emaciated, with results that to me are not comic, but embarrassing. I don’t care how beautiful her voice is. If that’s what is of sole importance, let her make records. Unlike some lovers of vocal acrobatics, I just won’t sit through an opera with my eyes closed.

On the other hand — there is Alfred Deller. I thought the Deller Consort were the special favorites of the college girls who had outgrown the Beatles and Joan Baez. They certainly didn’t get the audience they deserved last Wednesday. Lots of males don’t like Deller, or any countertenors. “Sounds like a sissy,” they say. It’s not so. Sissies don’t sound that way. Deller has one of the most etherealized voices I’ve ever heard. All flesh has been pared away. This very etherealization makes him convincing.

He could sing Euclid and move you. As it is, he sings some of the finest music ever written, music you couldn’t hear when I was a youngster, except in a few British drawing rooms.

In my adolescence I read the oncoming volumes of Fellowes’s English Madrigal School and English Lutenists as though they were detective stories. Andrée Rexroth and I picked them out on the piano and warbled over the four and five parts to the best of our ability. The massive tomes of Tudor Church Music were beyond us, but at least we could play the “reduced” piano score at the bottom of the page. How excited we were when we brought home the first record album of the English Singers — pressed by Elbert Hubbard, the Roycrofter, of all people. I can imitate perfectly their special bouncy rhythm and their Bloomsbury accents to this day.

Now there are hundreds of records of pre-Bach music, many of them of composers that were only footnotes in the works of learned musicologists like Riemann, and that I never dreamed I would hear.

Why isn’t this stuff sung in San Francisco churches? The most moving Good Friday Mass I’ve ever heard, and one of the great experiences of life, was the William Byrd Gospel of St. John and his five-part Mass, which I stumbled on quite by accident once in St. Louis. It is still living music, not only modern in its strange tonalities, but with an undying vitality and the power to evoke a profound sense of communion to its listeners. It has, preeminently, that glamour of holiness that anthropologists call “maya,” uncanny and transcendent.

What keeps our local choirmasters and organists confined to a fare of the banal and florid?

[October 11, 1964]



Compulsive Demonstrators

As is sufficiently obvious to anyone who bothers to look over a succession of demonstrations hereabouts, there has grown up a small but conspicuous flying squad of compulsively addicted demonstrators.

One week they are Youth, next week they are Negroes, next week they are the Hidden Poor, next week they are the Free Speechers, or for Peace or against the Atom. The beards, duffle coats, bare feet, jeans, dirty hair, remain the same.

It so happens that I am for free speech, the poor, Negroes, peace and against war, freeways, atoms and de facto segregation. I am for not just the right, but the act of mass petition and demonstration for these objectives. I think part of the educative process should be the right of students to raise all the Cain they want for social objectives they deem important, the only limit being public safety and their own. Beards and bare feet are all right with me, for those that enjoy them.

I don’t think any cause is aided by people who have made parasitism on protest a way of life — who live to rumble. It would make sense if they were Communists, acting out a plan to raise every focus of social pathology to fever heat and so bring about the eventual collapse of the capitalist system. You can respect such a consistent and canny enemy.

But these people are not Communists. Far from it, they are voluntary outcasts who identify their own personal alienation with the actions of others protesting to achieve definite goals within society.

I recently asked a conspicuous demonstrator in the sit-ins of last summer (not Tracy Sims, but an older white woman), “Do you have any idea of how many Negroes have in fact been employed by the Palace, the Lucky Markets, the Cadillac agency and the Bank of America since the sit-ins?” She gave me a look of withering contempt and said, “I couldn’t care less.”

I don’t know what the answer to this is. It is one of the oldest problems facing any organization trying to change society. It is certainly not a problem to be solved from outside. It does no good to tell teacher or call the cops. It is very hard to turn away anyone who seems to sincerely want to help.

An older generation, the Russian Populists or the leaders of an American strike, always put such characters down as stool pigeons and provocateurs. Usually they were just, as today, neurotics (the stool pigeons and provocateurs were more often on the Executive Committee in those days) but the important thing is — they fulfilled that function objectively.

Whether it is a job in a bank, no atoms on Bodega Head, or the right to solicit funds for voter registration in Mississippi on a college campus, these are vitally important objectives to the people genuinely concerned. Frivolous adventurers are only a distraction and may become a menace.

[October 14, 1964]



Repressed Issues Coming Out

Is the world coming apart at the seams? In Sweden they stage a conference on pornography, with showings of pornographic movies and exhibits of obscene books and pictures; they pass resolutions advocating what I guess you can euphemistically call unbridled public eroticism.

The leading homosexual organizations meet in conference in Washington and pass resolutions in defense of their rights.

Narcotics officers meet in conference in San Francisco and are lectured by a representative of Synanon who tells them they have vested interests in the present ineffective set-up of narcotics control. Ex-Chief Anslinger shows up and goes down fighting — he said, as he has said for a generation, that what we need is more severe penalties and stricter enforcement.

Meanwhile, we no sooner get through with marijuana picket lines and smoke-ins than the cops pick up a character who says he is head of a new religion that uses heroin  instead of communion wafers, a sort of paleface peyote cult. I don’t know what’s happening at the seams except that the seamy side is certainly getting organized.

If you ask the typical members of the beard and sandals set at S.F. State what they think of Henry Miller, they either haven’t read him, tried and can’t read him, or struggled through and think he is a fusty old square. As for bygone leaders of emancipation, Emma Goldman, Ellen Key, Edward Carpenter, Margaret Sanger, people would burst out laughing if you tried to read them to a junior high school class. Whither are we drifting, or rather, rushing?

I don’t think anything really terrible is happening. We may be living through the decline and fall of Western Civilization. This is something the participants of a dying social order mercifully never can know. The contemporaries of Theodoric the Ostrogoth thought things were definitely improving in the already dead Roman Empire. But if we are declining and falling it is not because of open discussion of facts of life, of procreation, recreation and plain vice.

It is possible that the airing of subjects formerly kept hidden in the cellar will cause some people to go astray into silliness or self-destruction, but the probabilities are they would have done so anyway, only more secretly and with more harmful social consequences. It is also true that the serious struggle for any cause attracts swarms of nuts who strive to escalate it into absurdity. The nobler the conception, the more certainly will it accumulate a lunatic fringe.

News stories of this sort, and there are ever more and more of them, cause acute distress to the conventional and sheltered, who still make up a large percentage of the population. They are quite unable to discriminate and are angered and outraged by both wholesome frankness and cheap exhibitionism. What open discussion of all these matters should do is teach discrimination — at least to those who can learn, some people can’t.

The narcotics issue is simplicity itself.

Dozens of scientific reports have pointed out that marijuana, considered purely pharmaceutically, is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco, and is not biochemically habit forming. However, they have also pointed out that marijuana functions as “high school” and graduates its users to the destructive and certainly and very painfully habit-forming hard narcotics. What is wrong with marijuana is the hipster social syndrome which surrounds its use. These are not matters of dispute, no serious authority disagrees. It is significant that it is precisely the deleterious aspects of marijuana use which come to the fore in the hipsters’ agitation.

Nobody mentions the far more serious, ever mounting use of modern drugs, hallucinogens and hypnogogues which some doctors hand out across their office desks. LSD, lysergic acid, is a runaway fad amongst all the former Zen Buddhist Beats, especially of the grey flannel variety.

It is worse than a runaway fad amongst a small group of very rash psychiatrists. Yet the medical profession makes only the feeblest attempts to exercise its passionately defended right to police itself in this matter . .  . although the consensus of scientific opinion is that we are proceeding quite blindly in our use of these drugs.

We literally don’t know what we are doing.

[October 18, 1964]



Dealing with Social Problems

Things are going on hither and yon so much that this column has had to take on the character of a serial. I started to make some observations about the multiple explosions of hard news last Sunday, but had to break off in the middle of remarks on dope.

As I started to say, the narcotics problem is simplicity itself. All you have to do is take the profit out of it. There is no narcotics problem in Britain or Scandinavia. Of course if you say, “The addict should be treated in free clinics under medical, and medical only, supervision, and the wholesale distributor should be ruthlessly policed out of existence,” the Radical Right of the AMA set up a cry of “Socialized Medicine!” and the Beatniks go on TV advocating free dope.

Addiction is a public health problem. It is a social disease and social diseases are socialized by nature. We don’t, unless we’re very odd, object to socializing the treatment of small pox, syphilis or malaria. We socialized the immunization against polio in three 24-hour periods.

The addict bears no relation at all to the dope fiend of popular mythology and he is only a criminal, in most cases, because dope costs more than anybody can afford honestly. On the other hand, today the majority of prostitutes, and a large percentage of thieves are in the grift to feed the monkey of addiction on their backs. Only a doctor can get rid of that monkey.

The police, however, can, if given the power, stop the international traffic in narcotics at its sources. But this involves very important people, people at the very top of the power structure in the countries of origin and in the places, like Sicily, where it is processed. And it involves people of considerable political power or influence here at home.

Back to the beginning of last Sunday’s column. The simplest social problems, like dope, are the most difficult of solution. It doesn’t help, when you are seriously concerned with the onerous job of solving such, to suddenly find a lot of weirdies have crawled out of the woodwork to lend their assistance. A man who makes the public statement that heroin is harmless, non-habit forming and should be as easy to obtain as chewing gum may be demented, but whether he is or not, he is a grave public menace.

Homosexuality is a similar problem of public order, if not of public health. The San Francisco police don’t talk much about the corpses they find in the bushes in parks and in the back seats of cars on dark roads. Everybody knows the town has become a Mecca for homosexuals. It has also become a Mecca for the criminals who prey on them. This has become a serious problem indeed, fully as grave as the security threats due to homosexual blackmail in government.

What is the answer? It is the answer of the Wolfenden Report of the British Parliament and of leading churchmen, both Catholic and Protestant. Sexual relations between consenting adults which do not involve bodily harm or public scandal may be sins, but they should not be crimes. If there is nothing to blackmail such a person about, obviously spies or rascals will not be able to blackmail.

If there is no reason why such relations should be furtive, clandestine, promiscuous and ridden with crazy guilt, these aspects will slowly die out. As it is, it is this kind of behavior that results in brutal, shameful murder. It is not just that an important public official who collects citations for lewd and lascivious conduct in public conveniences like some people collect traffic tickets may betray the secrets of his country — he also stands an excellent chance of dying an extremely nasty death.

Here again, this is a problem for the doctor and the clergyman. The police problem is with the criminal who preys on another kind of addict, a criminal almost as bad as the big narcotics dealer. The police should be free to devote their attention to the most socially destructive end of this dilemma of society.

Again, it doesn’t help when cranks agitate for legalized marriage between homosexuals, or when the unscrupulous embark on various scandalous “gay” enterprises. One of the most dubious of these is the sudden appearance of a number of joints openly catering to the Sadie-Mazie (sado-masochistic) trade, sick people who have got their sexual pleasure mixed up with pain.

This can become pretty serious. I have neither time nor inclination to investigate. I recommend it to the attention of the City Desk.

[October 25, 1964] 



The Fall of Khrushchev

With almost no exception the Kremlinologists as well as the pundits have discussed the fall of Khrushchev entirely from the viewpoint of world politics. If they have turned their attention to the internal affairs of Russia, these have been considered as reflecting greater or less resistance to assumed tendencies toward “free enterprise.”

As a matter of fact the Russians have about all the geopolitics they will be able to digest in the foreseeable future, more lebensraum than they know what to do with. Capitalist restoration is impossible in the country and has been for 30 years. There is simply nothing left to restore.

There exist, however, strong pressures from trust and factory and even state farm managers for greater local and regional initiative and more flexible, decentralized market mechanisms in the purchase of raw materials, the planning of production and the sale of final products.

This does not mean that the Russian entrepreneur is going to suddenly become a capitalist rugged individualist. It does mean that he has found, in his drive toward localized responsibility, powerful allies. These are peasant Socialist forces which seem to be indigenous and unkillable, natural products of the agricultural ecology of the U.S.S.R., and nationalist movements of the constituent republics, led by Ukranians.

When Trotsky started writing about Ukrainian nationalism in the last years of his life, most people thought he had finally gone out of his mind. Yet after the Second War the Russians battled Ukrainian and White Russian guerrillas for at least three more years. These two Soviet Republics vote as “nations” in the U.N. not just as a balance to the votes of the British Commonwealth and Latin America, but as a sop to the nationalist aspirations of their constituents.

All through the lunatic purges of imaginary Trotskites and Bukharinists (left and right Bolsheviks) two powerful undergrounds existed in fact — the Socialist Revolutionaries (the peasant Socialists) and the various nationalists, most especially the Ukrainians. Pressures from the Ukraine accounted for the strategic position of Khrushchev after the death of Stalin. He was the front man, the “Butcher of the Ukraine,” behind him was the Big Boss of the Ukraine and the most powerful single figure in the party after Stalin, the almost invisible Manuilsky.

It is significant that today Brezhnev stands in one pair of Khrushchev’s shoes and behind him in those of Manuilsky stands the equally inconspicuous Podgorny. Not only is Brezhnev not a butcher of the Ukraine, he is in fact a Ukrainian and a highly specialized technocrat, the first man to point out that Khrushchev’s agricultural adventures were ecological folly.

Nor is Podgorny a “Marxist-Leninist theorist of the National Question.” He, too, is Ukrainian, the most powerful member of a national minority ever to reach the top of the power structure — except Miloyan and Stalin. As an Armenian, Mikoyan was what Stalin used to call a cosmopolitan, and Stalin himself — well, nobody ever thought of him as a good Georgian. Podgorny is always careful to at least speak like a good Ukrainian. Don’t forget, the Ukraine is potentially the most wealthy of the constituent republics of the U.S.S.R.

Maybe there are “historical materialist” reasons for this shift, old-fashioned “Marxist economic interpretations.”

[October 28, 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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