San Francisco Fifty Years Ago

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



August 1966

Revisiting Oregon
More on Oregon
A Heavenly Resort
Yet More on Oregon
And Into Washington
A Renaissance Symposium
Portland and Seattle
The Cultural Northwest
A Lot to Say Before Leaving
Unions Behind the Times
As Foreigners See Us
San Francisco, Not Hollywood
What Is Immoral?




Revisiting Oregon

In 1927 the highway down the Oregon coast was just being built, and the Redwood Highway in California had not yet been completed. My first wife, Andrée, and I decided we’d better see it all before it was spoiled, so we walked along the beaches down the coast from Astoria to the Rogue River, hitching rides sometimes where there was a road, but doing an immense amount of walking as well.

There were few bridges across the mouths of the rivers, many of which were still crossed by rather primitive ferries, and if I remember rightly, it was from Gold Beach, or maybe Coos Bay, that we got a ride on a fishing boat to Crescent City. I never went back, but I have always remembered it as one of the most spectacular trips I’ve ever taken. So this summer, since I had some lecturing to do at colleges in the Northwest, I decided to drive once again through country I hadn’t seen in almost 40 years.

The Oregon coast has been built up here and there, in a few small towns, and the giant forest of fir and Port Orford cedar no longer comes down to the sea. It is still one of the finest drives in the world, along a coastline that compares favorably with the west coast of Ireland, the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia, and, for that matter, is almost equaled by stretches of our own California coast, in Big Sur and Mendocino County at least. There’s a great deal more of the spectacular stretches in Oregon.

I discovered that it has another virtue, probably unequaled anywhere in a civilized country. The State of Oregon has made sure that one of its prime assets is available — often and to everybody. I have never seen such a string of campsites, picnic grounds, state parks, lookout points, and similar public facilities. You can get down to the sea almost everywhere. I never saw a single No Trespassing sign. The camps are excellently cared for and equipped with all the usual facilities, and beautifully sited.

This summer the National Parks are packed with tourists. By August the campgrounds are outdoor slums. The Park Service tries to get the dudes to break it up, move around the country a bit on foot, camp in some of the new sites away from the most congested areas, but it is hard to make them mind.

It is 30 years since I’ve camped on the floor of Yosemite Valley in summer, and at least 10 since I’ve done so in Giant Forest.

Meanwhile, a long day’s drive north of San Francisco, there starts a series of uncrowded camps, one every few miles, in scenery as beautiful as anybody could imagine, in a cool climate, with the sea there to play in, even if you find it too cold or rough for real swimming. When lunch time comes, there are even more picnic sites, with tables, water, fireplaces, and most of them are in breathtaking locations. That is probably the reason they are not campsites, which are more sheltered.

Roadside restaurants in Oregon are not very good, even for Oregon, which is not noted for its high cuisine, so even if you are staying in motels it’s probably best to picnic at lunch. There is only one trouble with this country — it rains. Not all the time, but a good deal of it. July and August they call the dry season. It is not as dry as Death Valley then, but it seldom rains more than it does in San Francisco in May or June. I’ll tell you more come Thursday.

[August 2, 1966]



More on Oregon

Tuesday I started writing about our trip to the Oregon coast, and this is some more. As I said, I know of nowhere at all where the sea is more accessible, or where a state has provided more beautiful places to camp or picnic.

The stretch between the California border and the mouth of the Rogue Rive seems to be the least used of the whole coast. There are fine campsites in wild and lonely country, some near the beach, most of them high above the sea. It’s a little like the Big Sur coast in the early days, before the highway went through — only here there’s a highway.

The first sight of civilization after such grandeur is quite a shock. Gold Beach is at the mouth of the Rogue, with a wide sweep of mingling sea and river, but man has turned it into a slum. There is a good motel at the edge of town as you come in, but it fills up early and we missed it. There are other accommodations which are fair to middling, but the town itself is what’s awful, a tawdry shambles of ugliness. We certainly wished we’d stayed back in the wilderness.

Trouble is, it’s the place you naturally aim for, one day’s long drive out of the City, the beginning of the trip as it were.

The contrast between public and private enterprise along the Oregon coast is enough to make a socialist out of you. The state has planned, and its planning pays off. Most towns are not only utterly planless, they seem to have been designed to make the very worst of their opportunities. Just a little planning, just a little control of greedy uglification, just a little intelligent cooperation with nature, and these places could be charming at least, even if they didn’t want to spend any taxes on becoming beautiful. And how it would pay off!

“Send us men to match our mountains.” The men have yet to show up. Don’t misunderstand me. Exploitation of the Oregon coast has been no more barbarous than that of those beauty spots in California not protected by being in natural parks. Things are nowhere near as bad as Lake Tahoe.

We talk a lot about city planning, but we seldom mention that most of the small towns in the West are blight spots on the earth’s face.

Most of the towns along the Oregon coast are still very small. They can start over. Here is somewhere Johnson the Second’s highway beautification scheme (or Mrs. Johnson’s) should go to work. Not in planting wild flowers on embankments, or screening auto graveyards.

Will it ever happen? Not if shortsighted petty interests have their way. There is a lot of serious interest in Oregon in solving this problem and they may yet show the West the way out of the mess it has made of its heritage. Sunday I want to write about a single development which does make the most of the Oregon coast.

[August 4, 1966]



A Heavenly Resort

In my Tuesday and Thursday columns I wrote about the auto trip we are taking up the Oregon and Washington coast. I spoke about the shambles that cheap commercial exploitation of the country was making out of what could have been, with very little care, beautiful seaside villages and towns.

In contrast, the Oregon State program of the beaches and state parks is certainly a model for all the world. All the beach is accessible, there doesn’t seem to be the term “No Trespassing” in the Oregon language. The camp and picnic sites are superbly located and carefully tended. A welcome relief after the congestion of our national parks and resort areas in July and August, they are also, at least as yet, uncrowded, especially south of the midpoint of the state’s coastline.

There is one stunning exception to the generally unintelligent and planless private exploitation. Before we left San Francisco, I spoke to a gentleman, Alex Murphy, who introduced himself as manager of Salishan Lodge and who recommended his hostelry very highly. He seemed a man of taste and culture, but after a couple days’ observation of taste in hostelries along the way I wondered.

“Well,” I told the girls, “if we arrive at the right time, we’ll stop and see. But I think we will be going from Newport to Tillamook about 3 p.m., so we will probably pass on. One place is much like another.” Immediately south of Siletz Bay the honky-tonk seemed to get worse, so at 3 o’clock we had decided to go on to Astoria that night. Then we saw it.

Goodness gracious, what a place! I am not accustomed to using this column to pass out resort publicity, I can assure you. I don’t know where to begin to describe, praise and recommend this place. It is certainly one of the most beautiful modern hotels I have ever seen anywhere in the world.

It was started by an Oregon capitalist, John D. Gray, who made a fortune manufacturing saw chains and who decided to do something for the state, preserve the beauty of the stretch of coast where he was accustomed to take his own vacations and maybe to make some money while doing it.

He seems to have hired a regular planning commission, presided over by Alex Murphy, his manager-to-be, John Storrs, the architect, Barbara Fealy, the landscape architect, the general contractor and the engineer.

There is a central lodge, with restaurants, conference halls, billiard room, pool, sauna, art gallery, cocktail lounge, playground and other facilities. The guest houses are oriented for view, privacy and quiet — and for adjustment to the landscape. And they really are — the claim is not just propaganda. They communicate with each other by covered walkways, very like those in the oldest Japanese palaces.

The whole effect is very Japanese, without being at all derivative. All the scene needs is Alan Watts and Gary Snyder padding about in kimonos and a few deer to look like some glorified, ultra-modern Zen temple.

Yet the architecture is not only extremely Oregonian, it is a style of modern wooden construction and organization of profiles and masses that may well become a special contribution of the state to the history of architecture.

There are other single buildings very like Salishan, but nothing on this scale, except another — what should you call them? — “motel” seems a most inadequate word, in the Willamette Valley which I hope to stop in on the way home.

Salishan is more beautifully sited and more adventurous in both architectural and landscape design. How can I describe the architecture? Imagine if Louis Kahn and Ian MacHarg had been commissioned to remodel the temples at Ise and then had themselves decided to break with most of their own previous ideas. I have never seen comparatively simply wood construction so sumptuously used, so daring, nor so completely wedded to the surroundings. The whole complex of buildings looks like a natural phenomenon, something emitted by the Oregon forest and hills and seas themselves.

The landscaping is as impressive as the architecture, every tree and rock has been subjected to prolonged meditation before it was used, moved, or rejected. The slopes have been carefully remodeled and give a sense of mysterious swell and sweep, like the surface of an immense sculpture.

There is an 18-hole golf course which provides lawns and lakes and clumps of trees like big bonsais, and patches of rough. Again, I have never seen a resort where the golf course was an integral part of the overall design. It counts as a major factor in the beautiful frame of every window. And it sweeps around, crosses the road, and performs the same functions for a homesite development on the peninsula which closes Salitz Bay to the south and which is part of the same project, and which is equally carefully planned and controlled.

The place has already become a major center of Oregonian cultural activities. There was a fine art exhibit when I was there, and the walls are decorated with a permanent collection of outstanding modern artists of the state.

The Portland Civic Theater has a summer theater there, and had just given Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

After dinner, I was talking to Governor Hatfield. He said, “Isn’t this a place for Oregon to be proud of?” It sure is. Gee, I realize I’ve used up my space without saying anything about the food, the service, or Alex Murphy. They are all perfect. We had dinner and toured the entire project with Murphy. Nothing, but nothing, escapes this man. Yet he is quiet, courteous to guests and help alike, a man utterly in love with his job and a perfect host.

I’m all for reviving the dormant Dining and Talking Society and all going up there for a week. In fact, I’m sorely tempted to buy one of those lots. Please believe me, I never go all out like this about any place, not even Aix-en-Provence, Ludlow, or Vicenza, those places where I love to be.

One final moral to end with. Yes, Salishan is a place for the comparatively well-to-do, although it’s no more expensive than any first-rate hotel — but the same care, planning, adventure, sense of beauty, could make just such a place out of any of the honky-tonks along the coast.

[August 7, 1966]



Yet More on Oregon

Still writing about our trip up the Northwest coast. North of Salishan the landscape changes. The mountains are lower. The land has been settled longer and much of the forest has been cut away permanently.

Along the Northwest coast, if you turn your back on a vacant lot in a city for a couple years, it grows up to trees.

There are many Mennonite, Brethren and Quakers amongst the dairy farmers, and their farms are lush and green and beautifully tended. Once in a while you pass a meeting house on a knoll looking out over the Pacific Ocean.

I thought of Friends at First Day Meeting, sitting in silence, with folded hands and calm faces, during a winter storm, while the illimitable water roared outside, like George Fox, founder of the Quakers, when he sat silent under the temptation of a vision of all the turmoil of the universe — 300 years ago in a country kitchen, in the Vale of Beaver. And lo, the name of the Oregon town was Beaver.

This would be a wonderful place for me to come and grow old, but I think you’d have to be born in it to ever adjust to the almost continuous winter rains.

Lewis and Clark considered the Oregon winter the worst thing they experienced on all their trip. Yet Alex Murphy, the host at Salishan, when I asked him what they did with the place in the winter, said, “Oregon seems to be well supplied with storm watchers. Every time bad weather is announced, people drive out from Portland or the Willamette Valley and sit in the windows and watch it rip, or bundle up and walk along the beach.”

We discovered that, if you hunt, you can find richer and riper cheese in the small town groceries than is sold in stores in San Francisco under the Tillamook name. Some of it is as good as Herkimer County New York cheddar at its best, except that it is exceptionally heavily salted.

The coast from Oregon to Alaska is berryville. Small fruits are as delicious as they are in Scandinavia, and they are larger even than in California. Unlike California, raspberries not only taste like raspberries, they taste like double-concentrated raspberries, and the blackberries are the sort that Smokey the Bear dreams of in happy dreams.

Unlike the raw beach towns to the south, the resort areas hereabouts are very old-timey, like New York’s Far Rockaway 50 years ago, or Venice, Calif., before the beatniks came. There are still state parks and public campgrounds, and the beaches are always accessible. There must be more ocean frontage permanently set aside for public use than in all the rest of the shores of the USA put together.

The contrast with California is startling and instantly apparent. You feel the state of Oregon is a unified community, and a truly conservative one — conservative of humane values.

I discover there are plans to do just what I suggested in last week’s column — underwrite or even subsidize the reformation of the worst eyesores and start turning the hideous jumble of billboards, neon, and hot dog shacks that constitute a typical resort village into planned communities where the works of man do try to match the setting of nature. But the plans are far from materialization.

[August 9, 1966]



And Into Washington

Another column about our drive up the Northwest coast. We crossed the mouth of the Columbia by the old ferry. When this column appears, it will be no more.

I had expected to see something spectacular in the new bridge. It is disappointing, more of a causeway than a bridge for most of its length, and at its two high points resembles the east end of the Bay Bridge.

It’s been over 40 years since I was in southwestern Washington. When I was last there the country had only recently been cut off and people were buying stump land and converting it to farms at much labor and expense. The land itself sold for almost nothing. 75 cents an acre in many cases.

I had expected to see flourishing farms and pastures, but almost none is left. South and west from Aberdeen and Olympia stretch hundreds of square miles of tree farms, the new growth already of respectable size.

Towns like Raymond and Aberdeen seem just as busy as ever they were in my youth, with sawmills filling the air with acrid smog and the streams and hot ponds full of a second crop of timber. It made me feel very old.

As everywhere in the world, like France where the peasants have left the rocky farms and villages of the Vaucluse and gone to Paris, and the bohemian artists and writers have come from Paris and taken over their former homes, so many of the declining coastal fishing and lumbering towns in Washington have become artists’ colonies of a sort.

A rather disheveled and grubby sort, mostly. People were always telling us to be sure and see some place that turned out to be a tiny slum with some bad pottery in an unwashed store window. One place we found very beautiful and genuinely declining, undisturbed, into quiet old age. This was South Bend on the vast Willapa Bay a few miles south of smoky Raymond.

Let’s hope this column doesn’t lead the beats, the soluble potters, the barefoot dancers, the unwashed nymphomaniacs to discover it. It’s an unspoiled relic of northwestern America of 50 years ago, and would be a fine place for a genuine writer or painter to go and get a lot of quiet work done.

On to Seattle, where we spent a long weekend, and then up to Bellingham for some lectures at Washington State College. Up country from here is where I first worked in the western mountains, as patrolman for the Forest Service at the head of the Skagit River and the next year as cook for a pack outfit.

Although it never rained all the way up the coast, the mountains above us were perpetually socked in — we never so much as got a sight of Mt. Baker.

I lectured, Katherine swam in the motel pool, Carol took a trip to Vancouver. She was impressed by the beauty of the site, the cleanness of the city and the politeness and genuine friendliness of the people.

Most Americans who travel abroad are prepared to discover that they don’t live in a very civilized country, but few are prepared to discover that Canada is more civilized in the sense of having a generally more humane population. But so it most certainly is.

And so back down to Portland, more lectures, and home. Next Tuesday I’d like to write a bit about the contrasts between Seattle, Portland and San Francisco in the way they handle their cultural life, and that will be all for the Northwest.

[August 11, 1966]



A Renaissance Symposium

Back home in the City in time to take part in the symposium on Rabelais, Cervantes, Ben Jonson, called “Liberty and Laughter,” at USF. This is the second, last year was “Freedom and Authority” on St. Thomas More, Erasmus, Luther. Next year will be the 50th anniversary of the Russian revolution, and Father Monihan hopes to have a discussion of two centuries of revolutions and what they have meant to civilization.

These intellectual shows promise to become an important and enduring part of the cultural life of San Francisco.

Walter Paepke thought he could humanize the power structure of America with similar symposia at Aspen. Today greedy and ignorant petty exploiters of Aspen as a summer and winter resort have reduced the place to such a shambles that it is unpleasant to so much as leave the grounds of the Aspen Institute.

Furthermore, the petty politics of the resort business has, unperceived by the members, penetrated to the very heart of the Foundation. In my opinion, the entire complex of music, symposia, music school, poetry center, art school, the whole embodied dream of Walter Paepke for the realization of a new Plato’s Academy, would be well advised to pack up and move.

The best site would be in a National Park or National Forest wilderness area where private enterprise could be kept out altogether.

Foreigners, most especially Russians and ilk, have a quaint idea that American policy and American culture are planned, propagated and enforced by the interlocking directorates of 60 great corporations. The Aspen seminars were for precisely those directors, and an appreciable number of them have attended to spend two weeks discussing Sophocles and Marx, Jefferson and Shakespeare, all as bearing on the social responsibilities of power.

There is something comic about the Power Elite besieged in their intellectual Shangri-La by the operators of honky-tonk saloons, garbagy restaurants, call-girl services, gifty shoppies and miscellaneous clip joints. Comic, but sad. Man is hard to improve. Maybe what Original Sin is really is an inbred tendency to incurable vulgarity.

The Jesuits are a hard bunch to corrupt. I should think Father Monihan’s symposia could continue on the same high level, or even higher, indefinitely in the environment of USF. Significantly, at the same time as the symposium on liberty and laughter, there was another going on there about the new theology of social responsibility.

The American church, both Catholic and Protestant, and Jewish too, for that matter, seems to be taking on the middle class.

Certainly what has always been wrong with American religion is that it has too often not been religion at all but a collection of social superstitions and rituals designed to bolster covetousness and vulgarity, the characteristic sins of the American middle class.

Although the churches have on their side the God of Job, Kierkegaard, Pope John, they are going to have a hard time. Vulgarity and covetousness are very powerful deities and worshipped with blind adoration by millions.

Discussion of Rabelais brought out the problem clearly. The spokesman for middle-class morality thought Rabelais, though a great writer, wrote pornography and would, apparently, be improved by expurgation of his dirty words — the ordinary terms for the processes of elimination.

Against this point of view were arrayed most of the clergy and nuns, all the young people, and about half the rest, middle class or no. They seemed to think the covert lewdness of modern advertising and the double talk of sexual hypocrisy, including the attack on Rabelais, lewd and lascivious if not downright pornographic.

Rabelais of course remained unmoved. He was one of the most religious of Western writers, a man who, like Teilhard de Chardin, believed all things were holy because creation itself came from the superabundant joy of God.

Besides French, English and Spanish banquets to go with the subjects, we had French, English, Spanish music of the Renaissance, with Margaret Fabrizio on the harpsichord, Louis Le Roux on the oboe, and Gwen Curatilo singing some of my favorite songs, notably the lovely “Douce Dame.”

Margaret Fabrizio is one of the most important musicians in the community, capable of beautifully modulated and phrased interpretations of early keyboard music, very unlike some of the tense, clashing renditions of more famous harpsichord players. I do hope somebody does her playing of Bach’s Art of the Fugue on records soon. This was what they call a major musical event and should be repeated before far larger audiences than have so far been able to hear it.

[August 14, 1966]



Portland and Seattle

On our recent drive up the Northwest coast to Vancouver I was once again impressed by the falseness of the notion, widespread amongst American intellectuals and Europeans, that all American cities are alike.

True, they don’t differ as much as do Port Said and Stockholm, but typical American cities are less alike than many British ones, for instance. San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle — all you have to do is name them over and their sharply distinct characteristics spring immediately to mind. It is small-town life in America which seems to be growing ever more uniform in one nationwide pattern of drab affluence.

We are all concerned about San Francisco’s challenged eminence as The City, the cultural capital of the West Coast. Certainly it is here that new differences are showing up most conspicuously. Seattle and Portland are maturing, growing ever more firmly anchored as regional cultural capitals.

There are more music, more drama, more art exhibits, every year. Seattle used its world’s fair to acquire a civic center with a whole nest of facilities for the arts.

It was sad to visit their handsome theater for their local repertory company and think that San Francisco could not even find the money to pay the wages for one of the most vital companies ever to perform in America.

More important far than buildings in both Portland and Seattle is the broad effort to bring culture to the people. Portland has one of the most extensive programs of this kind in the world. The repertory theater performs great drama in all sorts of public buildings and in the parks, and there are similar music activities, concerts of all kinds, diffused out into the community.

In both cities there is a remarkable support for and pride in local artists. Painters like Morris Graves and Mark Tobey are still civic figures of almost legendary proportions, though both have left Seattle. The poet Theodore Roethke is taught in schools and was before his recent death.

Seattle has gone through three different booms since the Alaska gold rush, and today has something of the character of a boom town still due to the airplane industry. This results in a certain amount of vulgarity and jimcrackery. The potentially beautiful civic center is inconspicuously a center for the arts, it is very conspicuously a honky-tonk overgrown county fair and carnival. That’s okay, the cotton candy will pass and the paintings of Tobey and Graves will stay.

Portland is a far more mature city. The Oregon policy seems to have always been one of slow, sure, enduring growth — a remarkable attitude in a community based largely on the extractive industries of lumber and mining. Although the shadow of the big three lumber companies is long on press and politics in Portland, they too never cease saying, “The forest is a crop, not a mine,” a slogan coined, I think, by the great conservationist Gifford Pinchot.

If you travel about Oregon you cannot fail to be impressed by the tremendous potential still waiting growth and development of the state. This is as true of Portland, which has an utterly unimproved park stretching beyond the city for miles, held in reserve for the citizenry of the future, to the lush Willamette Valley, with an old-time Wild West cattle ranch as big as most in Texas smack in its most fertile part, to the John Day canyon, still hardly changed from the years I worked there as a boy.

[August 16, 1966]



The Cultural Northwest

To go on with Tuesday’s discussion of the differences between Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. Most important is the social cohesion, homogeneity, of the Northwest cities, as compared with the sharp and growing conflicts in San Francisco’s cultural life.

Many years ago UNESCO broadcast a series of concerts representing all the symphony orchestras of the capitals and major cities of all the countries of the world which had such institutions.

Before the Seattle concert began, the Mayor spoke briefly and at the end of his talk said, “I want to take this opportunity to introduce our two world-famous Seattle artists, of which we are very proud, Mark Tobey and Morris Graves.” Then, after they had taken a bow, “Now I want you to meet our great poet, Theodore Roethke.”

No other city in the world did this, least of all San Francisco, which didn’t even bother to play a San Francisco composer.

Portland provides ample facilities for the performance of plays in the parks and other public places. San Francisco arrests Ronnie Davis. Portland has had for years at least one, sometimes three, large Negro nightclubs, with big bands and all the top stars from the Redpath Circuit, headliners from Harlem’s Apollo Theater. No place of this kind has ever been permitted to operate in San Francisco, although several have flourished in Oakland.

The Tape Music Center left San Francisco and nobody except a few people the Establishment considers beatniks so much as noticed. Yet the Rockefeller Foundation, which financed its move to Mills College, considers it one of the most vital musical activities in not The City, not the Bay Area, not America, but the world.

John Handy is invited to play in the Hollywood Bowl. The very idea that he would ever play in the Opera House is hilariously sad. The proposal to give a jazz concert at Stern Grove precipitated a moral crisis in the Establishment.

I could go on like this for pages. Worst of all, of course, is the situation in painting, where San Francisco’s leading artists have New York, Los Angeles and Paris dealers, but do not bother with San Francisco ones, and where the local museum refused to share with five others the cost of printing a catalog for one of The City’s two most famous painters.

One of the funniest notions now going round is that, now we’ve got rid of first Blau and Irving and then Hancock and Estrin, the Establishment will set up a revived and purified Actor’s Workshop under the direction of William Ball and he will do nice warrantied non-Communist plays, with no dirty words, like Charlie’s Aunt, Rosemarie, East Lynne, and Getting Gertie’s Garter.

I hate to be a naughty little boy and tell, but the most shocking thing about our Elite is that they have no idea Ball is at least as experimental and controversial a director as Blau or Hancock ever was.

The reorganized angels of a reformed Actor’s Workshop should get a clipping bureau to send them clips of the world’s press on the closing of the Workshop this spring. San Francisco has disgraced itself in the eyes of the world, which responded to the news with disgust and incredulity.

My advice is, “Dear William Ball, If you take this job without five years’ salary and expenses deposited in the bank, you’re out of your mind.”

[August 18, 1966]



A Lot to Say Before Leaving

In a couple weeks we’ll be heading for Europe for a stay of several months. The columns will be going on as usual. I will be traveling about, observing art, music, theater, politics, food and wine in a variety of countries, several, I hope, inside the Iron Curtain. My television and radio book programs will continue, too, and I hope to do some additional radio commentaries. So, via airplane and air wave I will continue to have what the Pentagon calls a “presence” in San Francisco.

This column is going to be a miscellaneous roundup, there are more things going on right now than I have extensive space for.

Ballet 66 is drawing to a close. Today is the last day to see Carlos Carvajal’s Voyage Interdit, a psychedelic ballet designed by John Patterson, one of the most talented persons ever to be a member of the San Francisco Ballet. Every ballet Carlos has done this summer has added something to the vocabulary without violating the form. This may not sound like much to anyone who has never been in ballet, but it is a really extraordinary achievement.

What the company needs next is a corps of writers who they can call on for scenarios of greater maturity, depth and dramatic structure. Why not ballets by Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder?

Next, it needs to overcome the roadblocks put in the way of new music and scene design by the unions. It is shocking that the fine music for Carlos’s Kama Sutra, on which he and the composer Robert Hughes had worked so hard, was kept from being performed by a most unenlightened decision of the Musicians’ Union. And when will we get a breakthrough that will permit important modern painters to design for ballet and opera?

The best music festival west of Aspen is now in progress under the leadership of my favorite conductor west of most anywhere: the Cabrillo Music Festival, Gerhard Samuels, conductor, in Aptos. If you missed it this weekend, try to make it next, the 26th to 28th. It has certainly become northern California’s most important musical event.

This summer, at last, one of the world’s great musicians has been teaching in the Bay Area — Ali Akbar Khan, at the American Society of Eastern Arts Summer School in Berkeley.

He is the master of the sarod, a kind of archlute with 25 strings and no frets on the neck, like a violin. His next concert will be at the Esalen Institute at Big Sur Hot Springs on the 3rd and 4th of September, and his final one at the Masonic Auditorium on Sept. 30.

He is accompanied by his wife, Rajdulari Khan, as vocalist and on the tamboora, a lesser lute, and by Mahapurush Misra playing the tabla, a pair of melodic drums. Hearing them is an exciting, in fact intoxicating, experience, and they have already caused excitement, intoxication, and a deeper comprehension of music amongst every variety of musician who has heard them or studied with them in the past two years. Ali Akbar Khan has eight records readily available from the better record shops, so if you don’t believe me, try one. I’m sure you won’t want to miss a concert.

Next Sunday the Atheneum Society will present Duke Ellington in the Mt. Tamalpais amphitheater in their third “Jazz on the Mountain” concert, along with other groups, notably a new one — the Atheneum Jazz Quartet, one of the first local groups to use electronic music as a ground or frame. Duke thrives in an atmosphere of serious attention like the Mt. Tam audience provides.

Sept. 1 at 8:30 p.m. at the Veterans Auditorium Shinichi Yuize and his wife Yasuko will give a concert. He is one of Japan’s most celebrated koto players, and certainly the best known outside the country.

He is a composer who has done so much to wed the idiom of modern Western music to the traditional styles of Japan, has studied with Henry Cowell and played with a variety of non-Japanese musicians, from Menuhin and Oistrakh to Ravi Shankar.

I heard him first with the rather middle-brow Azuma Kabuki Theater, a decided vulgarization of the finest Kabuki tradition. He was certainly the star of the show, an artist of great subtlety and power who shone out above the “improved” actors and actresses.

And last, in answer to many requests, the post office address of that splendid place in Oregon is Salishan Lodge, Gleneden Beach, Ore. It is not on most maps, they have rearranged the names of the resort villages thereabouts recently. Salishan is 20 miles north of Newport; 629 miles from San Francisco via U.S. 101; 649 miles via U.S. 99.

A letter from H.B. Lawson, president of Dohrmann Co., points out that they outfitted, and their designers worked with, Gray and Storrs to make Salishan the beautiful place it is. Most of the furnishings and equipment was designed and made or built specially. My compliments to them, they did a good job, for sure.

[August 21, 1966]



Unions Behind the Times

The Artists’ Liberation Front proposes to replace all the present non-artist members of the Arts Commission with practicing artists, and they have started by nominating Virgil Gonsalves to take the place left vacant by the death of Pops Kennedy.

My initial reaction to this was wonder. Who wants it? As James Baldwin says, “Who wants to be integrated into a burning house?”

The Arts Commission is the least effective of all the civic bodies set up under a charter which was designed to make everybody as ineffective as possible. A musician member who did not represent straight, across-the-board union politics of the crassest bread-and-butter sort would find himself mercilessly whipsawed.

Virgil Gonsalves must know all this, so if he thinks he can do good for the community by getting on the Arts Commission I’m all for him. He is certainly highly qualified for the job — if the job meant anything. But does it?

One of the worst failures of the Arts Commission is its tolerance of the ridiculous town bands, which are devices for consolidating a loyal political machine in the Musicians’ Union. The one that plays in the park is poor, the other is disgraceful. This is exactly the point at which the Arts Commission brings art to the people, and what a farce it has made of it!

The trade union movement cannot comprehend the turn away from organized labor which is characteristic of young people, and even of the New Left, except for the doctrinaire Marxist organizations which have emerged from a generation of hibernation. This is why. Was it Gompers who said the slogan of the AFL was very simple — “MORE”?

That “more” has never included culture, humane values, improvement in the quality and meaning of life, the abolition of prejudice, bigotry, vulgarity and discrimination.

There are a few exceptions, notably the International Ladies Garment Workers and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, but their educational and cultural programs were a reflection of their exceptionally civilized immigrant membership, first German and then Jewish.

As the ethnic makeup of the membership has changed, these activities have declined proportionately.

Today, however, any Puerto Rican garment trades union official in Manhattan is sure to be more interested in such matters than the average leader of the old-line craft unions.

The Musicians’ Union is, alas, an old-line craft union. Today the red hot battle lines of social change lie along areas which are precisely those in which the trade union leaders are least interested — civil rights, world peace, the cultural revolution.

So the young Berkeley rebel looks on the unions, except for rare dramatic strikes like Delano, as essentially part of the Outworn Establishment, and the unionist looks on the student rebel as a freak, a beatnik, a hophead.

Dear Virgil Gonsalves, I look on you as a friend. Do you really want to step into the meat grinder, take arms against a sea of troubles? I’m all for you, let’s hope it doesn’t break your heart.

[August 23, 1966]



As Foreigners See Us

I’m always getting scooped. Recently we’ve run a number of stories, mostly from European correspondents, about how the rest of the world is beginning to get scared of America. I’d been planning to take up this subject again at some length. I’ve mentioned it before, but scoop or no, I’d like to underline my previous remarks.

I probably do as much entertaining of foreign visitors, mostly, but by no means all, literary people, as anybody in town. The various hostesses of the State Department and private agencies who arrange such things send us somebody almost every week.

I’m glad to do it. I like feeding and wining civilized people, and I profit from the continuous living contact with informed foreign opinion. In some ways I learn more than if I were living abroad.

Most notably in recent years is an almost unanimous response which reveals itself once the guest is relaxed — “What’s this country coming to?” to use a good old Americanism.

To an outside observer seeing it fresh, American life seems saturated with violence. TV, fiction, movies, nothing seems to entertain Americans unless it is lewd or violent or better, both.

By careful dialing, especially in the summer, you can be pretty sure to see somebody killed on TV at least once an hour, not for real, just pretend, of course.

But now, with out improved on-the-spot coverage, you can be sure to hit bingo every few weeks with a genuine real-life killing. I’m not beating the old dog of TV violence — it is everywhere.

I have not met a foreign visitor who approved of the Vietnam war. Some agree with the general American policy of containing China, but all have seen countless pictures of violence, cruelty, napalm bombings and all the rest of it, terribly accentuated by the contrast in size between the American GIs and their tiny, malnourished captives.

These pictures, with very few exceptions, have been taken by American cameramen. It is what the war is doing to the human beings involved which horrifies Europeans.

In some ways this is a good thing. This is the first war where the civilian and neutral had their noses rubbed in the hideousness which has always been common to wars, everywhere.

What shocks foreigners especially is the impression they form that the American audiences accept this with complacency or even pleasure. I don’t think this is true of all but a tiny perverted minority, but it is obviously true of them.

With the recent epidemic of mass killings, Europeans are beginning to wonder if America is going crazy. The United States is the most powerful nation in history. Dallas, Austin, Chicago, the Bay Area, Pennsylvania — on and on — can a nation that manifests such symptoms be trusted with power?

Astute observers, watching the ever-increasing sado-masochism in Germany in the early thirties, first in brothels, then in nightclubs, then in movies, then in human relationships generally, prophesied the victory of Hitler.

Back in an old loose-leaf binder of the early prose of Kenneth Rexroth is just such a piece as this written in the last hours of the Weimar Republic.

Let me remind you that despite all the subsequent deprecation, the Weimar Republic was also a very civilized country, where all the best minds thought there was hope of establishing a Great Society.

[August 25, 1966]



San Francisco, Not Hollywood

The Establishment has suddenly come up with a scheme for an Academy of the Performing Arts as part of the California educational system. As might be expected, there are already heavy, in fact irresistible, pressures to set it up in Los Angeles. And, as might be expected, the Establishment presents it as an idea they thought up all by themselves.

Then too, of course, lurking in the background, seeking what they may devour and certain to take over as soon as any loot becomes available, are the boys with the Phi Beta Kappa keys, ready to set up an unending series of surveys at a couple of hundred grand per survey. (Survey is contemporary slang for boondoggle, a term which has passed out of use since nowadays most everybody’s doing it, doing it.)

I thought the academy up. I proposed it in one of these columns several years ago, and have mentioned it periodically ever since. Today there is a strong group of parents of Poly High students who would like to start off there. A southern California location would kill what we have in mind. We don’t need any surveys; it is perfectly obvious what needs to be done and why and what the resources are.

I am getting sick of this sort of nonsense. Every creative idea that comes up out of the community naturally is being seized on and turned into a political gimmick. We need a strong Arts Commission in the state, with money at its disposal, and power to act. Many people like myself have been advocating this for years.

We know that if we don’t take big steps to improve the quality of life for the citizens of California, we’ll have Watts after Watts after Watts, until we learn Watts Watt. So Watt, I mean what, do we get? Pat Brown and Big Daddy for once get together and set up a California cultural commission which is a farce. It was planned to serve as a prestigious sop to the $200-an-hour bohemians who contribute to the Democratic treasure chest, but even they, or the best of them, turned it down. The frontispiece of their expensive report — of minimal activity — shows them all together. They sure look cultured, but only in an anthropological or biochemical sense.

The Hollywood psychosis is the pustule on the body of American society which shows how sick we are within. It is the concentration of all the malignancy of a prostituted mass culture. All the phoniness, all the predatory commercialism in America drains southwest into an abscess inhabited by gold-eating decerebrated ex-artists.

I cannot imagine a worse place for an academy of performing arts. The town of Northeast, Maine, might be the best, because it is farthest away. But mark my words, if the politicians have their way, that’s where it will go, and it will simply be a feeder to The Industry, as they call it in Cuckooland. Why? Because that’s where all the campaign contributions come from.

It would be so simple to set up a curriculum, beginning in first grade and running through college, which would prepare youngsters for the performing arts. It should be kept simple, so students could drop out and choose something else without loss of credits, anywhere along the way, and other students could enter the program at any point short of second year in college.

However, it should most certainly start early. Classes in pre-ballet, in art, music, dramatic play should be available at the very beginning of school.

I know the stupid American prejudice against “prodigies” and the notion that the child should choose his own career. The fact is that almost every important performing artist of any sort was a “prodigy.” And this means the parents chose early how the child was to be educated. Nowadays children raised according to these free-choice principles are still looking about for a career to choose at 45.

The reason for the choice of Poly High is that it has one of the best drama directors in the city, in the schools or out in the little or big theater.

Furthermore, it is in the heart of an integrated neighborhood with a concentration of such talent amongst the youngsters. So located, frequent public shows of student work in drama, dance and music could make a tremendous differences in the community life of The City. This is what is important — not providing the cannibalistic movie and television industries with fodder.

San Francisco State already has a vital and adventurous Creative Arts Department which could, with a little adjustment, absorb the San Francisco Ballet School, or at least its advanced classes. I, for one, believe that the San Francisco Conservatory would be greatly improved by such absorption.

What is needed then is a grammar school and junior high to which performing arts majors from all over town can be bused. They should probably be as near to Poly High as possible so the students can attend some classes there. Who needs to spend $250,000 each on five different surveys over the next 10 years before we do anything?

[August 28, 1966]



What Is Immoral?

The rumpus over Mike McClure’s The Beard reveals so clearly the schism which divides our society and divides it specially along the line of age.

Young people, and a lot of old ones, think the ancient words for the processes of elimination, procreation and recreation, what Aristotle called “coming to be and passing away,” are clean, and n—r applied commonly to black people, and w—p to Italians, and J—p to Japanese, and k—e to Jews are filthy words.

They believe that a great deal of modern advertising is pornography, hard core pornography in the strict sense of the word. They believe that the typical behavior of Southern deputies or Chicago mobs is actionable as an obscene public performance and an incitement to obscenity. They believe that innumerable TV shows glorifying brutality and murder are demonstrably contributing to the delinquency of minors.

They cannot understand the mind of authority that sends Ralph Ginsburg to jail for five years for putting out a handsome magazine (incidentally at a price only very affluent adults could afford) devoted to glorifying a joyous and eminently normal sexuality, and allows the most pernicious and perverse racist and rabble rousing reactionary publications to circulate unmolested, and even have articles from them mailed broadcast under Congressional frank.

The rest of the world is turning away from America, not because they think it is “capitalist” but because they feel it is immoral. The immorality they object to is not the publication of girlie magazines or the performance of shows of a sort that have been commonplace in Paris for a hundred or more years.

It is immoral to deliberately destroy a redwood forest to prevent it becoming a National Park — and don’t think for a minute that people aren’t reading about that in their papers from New Delhi to Montevideo to Hammerfest.

It is immoral to spend millions to corrupt politicians and to influence votes to keep automobiles unsafe, to preserve the God-given right to pollute the air and water, or the right to sell, at enormous prices, dubious drugs, still in the experimental state, to the unsuspecting public.

It is immoral to package commodities in lots of “7/9th of a pound and .09 ounces,” or other quantities that demand that the shopping housewife be an expert on the slide rule before she can tell what she’s buying.

It is immoral to hate people because they are younger than yourself, wear different clothes, have beards or black skins, and like music you can’t understand. It is, in fact, immoral to hate people who like plays like The Beard which you can’t understand, and lock up actors who think it is beautiful. After all — you don’t have to go nor is it being performed in the public parks where you might see it unwittingly.

Who is obscene? McClure and his actors and audiences think the play is art. The authorities think it is lewd. Honi soit qui mal y pense. What constitutes authority in this case?

[August 30, 1966]


“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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