https://anchor.fm/detroit-richards/embed/episodes/They-Collected-All-The-Beats–Put-Em-In-A-Beat-Museum-e1akb3g Here is a link to the podcast for those of you who prefer to listen rather than read!
They might have paved paradise and p-p-p-p-put up a p-p-p-parking lot, but the Beat Museum in San Francisco is my idea of heaven. For a little more than a dollar and a half ($8) you can immerse yourself in the personal, journeying, creative and inner lives of the doyennes of the Beat Generation. I was taking a trip out to buy a few literary magazines from City Lights with a view of submitting some of my writing to them in the near future, when I realized that The Beat Museum was actually open. I had walked past it so many times in the pandemic year that I arrived in San Francisco, peered in, taken photographs of the iconic imagery of the exterior with THAT photo of Kerouac and Cassady, and wandered off down the road again in search of my own new path, now my old ones had been shut off to me, as the campgrounds and bathrooms had been shut up and down my west coast haunts.
City Lights only had a few copies of Granta, Zoetrope and The Paris Review from 2019. I picked them up anyway, and couldn’t help but be drawn to the black and white prints of musicians, beat boys and girls, movie stars, parties and dives that were carefully catalogued in neat displays in the entrance to the Beat Museum. Flipping through I almost picked up a collage of an adolescent Kerouac in his football gear (with Lou Reed’s plaintive Coney Island Baby cry of “I just wanted to play football for the coach” ringing in my head). My fingers lingered over Ginsburg smiling shyly but openly alongside Burroughs outside a cabin. A flashy set of negative contact sheet style images of a Dylan in full bloom almost enticed me. All of these prints were nicely presented and very reasonably priced. It was then I saw William Burroughs holding the conduits of a scientology auditing machine, intense in his attempts to ‘go clear’. Did he ever go clear? I can never hear those words without being reminded of Leonard Cohen and his famous blue raincoat, torn at the shoulder, in which he asks his ‘brother, his killer’ if he ‘ever went clear?’ William’s interest in scientology waned as the cult religioso status of the organization grew, of course, but seeing William in an austere bare room, just him, his psyche and a metallic interface is such a kick, a thrill. William came home with me. I was about to pay and leave after a very nice conversation with the guy who runs the place, when I decided to treat myself and go in and have a look around.
It is not a huge collection, just one floor, but it is so comprehensive, beautifully curated, and thoughtfully presented that it was a joy to walk around. It was a communing with the spirit of a time and a movement now in the recent past, barely within living memory, yet so far removed from this time of mob rule, the destruction of the individual caused by our cyber bonds that makes everyone linked to everyone, and therefore smooths the extraordinary out into an average, a median, crushing the freaks and the non conformers into approved set patterns of non conformity. I am more comfortable in their world than in my own time. It felt like going home. How I would love to be typing on an Underwood, not a microsoft run spy machine, but that is just not the way the world works any more.
It is the ephemera that makes the collection so interesting. First editions, personal belongings, the links to the real gold and silver of the movement: the people who lived the beat, created the art, and fueled the movement. Brandon, the Keeper of the Beat (he totally deserves a cool title) was interesting, well informed and clearly devoted to all things Beat and Underground, and more than happy to provide context that brought the collection alive.
The crowning glory of the Beat Museum has to be the ’49 Hudson. The actual ’49 Hudson that Cassady drove in On The Road exists only in the mind of the reader. There is no trace of the car to be found: no bill of sale, no registration documents, no way to track it or find it. It could be sitting in the collection of some rich motorhead, its provenance and history lost, or rusting away somewhere in a garage, or junkyard south of the border. This incarnation of the famous ’49 Hudson is the car from the movie, On The Road, donated by the great Walter Salles. It had a 5000 mile trip across America to make it to the museum, a christening of sorts, I guess. She had to earn her wheels to deserve a place in the Beat Pantheon. Having made it home to the museum, there she sits in all her glory, a veritable boat of a vehicle. A giant on wheels. A ’49 Hudson is something to see. This particular Hudson, taking the place of her lost sister, sitting there ready for Cassady to rock up and steal her, and drive Kerouac to Colorado to see a girl, or Mexico to visit the muse, feels like a sentry or a guardian. It is the heart and soul of the road. The engine of the beat. It’s that ‘go, go, go!’ that Neal embodied. It is the shelter from the storm and the vehicle to drive right into the creative heart of it.
If you are going to San Francisco, you might want to wear a flower in your hair, but a visit to the Beat Museum, to pay homage to the Road and those that travelled it and wrote about it, alongside perhaps the most interesting collection of books and images available to purchase that I have seen in a while is something that shouldn’t be missed. The ghost of the past still walks the Embarcadero buying clam chowder and sourdough, or Chinese food in paper cartons. It still sits drinking at Café Vesuvio. It still haunts Kerouac Alley where Dylan and Ginsburg took those photographs, but it goes home every night to the Beat Museum to tap on the keys of an Underwood and sit in a ’49 Hudson and plot the best route south and south and south again.