[Another blog moved from Myspace. This was originally posted May 11, 2007.]
Sal Mimeo Revolution, San Francisco, April 2007
Vesuvio’s before the reading
During our weekend trip to San Francisco I kept a little travel notebook and scribbled quick impressions before they faded. I’ve found that if I wait too long — even a couple days — I forget things, both details and whole events, and the order of events gets jumbled. So I write down everything I want to remember, with no concern for style or quality of writing. The travel notebook is unedited personal observations and thoughts, and not something I would type up and throw out to the world. It’s mainly for me.
After we got back home, I decided to write a short piece on the highlight (for me) of the trip — Sal Mimeo and the Revolution at the Beat Museum — for public consumption — something I will post here. I broke it into two parts: Part 1, the gathering of poets at Vesuvio’s before the reading, and Part 2, the reading itself. I wrote up the Vesuvio’s gathering the first week back (last week), but have not yet written about the reading. I better do that soon before the glory of it ebbs away. Meanwhile, I thought I should post Part 1 before any more time goes by. This is not polished, it’s a draft, but what the hell — I can clean it up later. So here is Part 1:
I met up with the “Sal Mimeo and the Revolution – Rebels Without Applause – Tour of Words 2007” group at the famous Beat hangout bar, Vesuvio’s, in San Francisco, last Sunday afternoon. What we’re talking about is four excellent poets — John Dorsey, S. A. Griffin, David Smith and Scott Wannberg – along with editor/Bottle of Smoke publisher, Bill Roberts. They’d just arrived in from Sacramento, where they’d spent all day Saturday, April 28, printing an entire book of poems (many written on the spot) by the four plus other attending poets, on a mimeograph machine brought by Bill. Bill told me it had been a long but exuberant day. They’d printed for hours, then did a reading at the Book Collector shop in Sacramento, printed for hours more, did a second reading, and the mimeo machine was giving them a lot of trouble, pages wouldn’t print, and a few poems had to be scratched from the line up in order to complete the book. I would love to have been at the “All Day Book Making Party,” as it was billed, but our plans were to spend the entire weekend in San Francisco, and a side trip to Sacramento didn’t seem to be in the cards. The tour’s schedule included the Sunday April 29 reading at the Beat Museum in S.F., then a long ride back down to the L.A. area for a May 1 reading at the Gypsy Den in Santa Ana.
My first time in Vesuvio’s, which is right across Jack Kerouac Alley from the equally famous Beat hang-out, City Lights Books. I’ve been in City Lights several times but never wandered into Vesuvio’s. It’s 12:30 PM, a sunny day, and Vesuvio’s is nearly empty. The place is perfect. Cool old photos of writers and artwork all over the walls. Upstairs, at the end of the narrow room, at some tables overlooking Columbus Street, I spot them. It’s my first meeting with Bill. We’ve been friends via the Internet for maybe 10 years, and he’s the one who invited me here. I always said if he came out west to San Francisco from his home in Delaware, I’d come down from Oregon to meet him, and here I am. Bill had said in an email that legendary poet and small press publisher A. D. Winans would likely be there (he is, at a table signing just published broadsides of his “Poem For Harold Norse”), and maybe – just maybe – another legendary Bay Area poet and biographer, Neeli Cherkovsy. Neeli’s not there at first, but later he shows up, and I am blown away. And the poets themselves are an amazing group of brains, talent and personality. More incredible poets and writers show up. It’s just a fantastic scene, and I can hardly believe what I’m seeing and hearing. For about five years I’ve had this mental image of somehow meeting Winans in S.F., at some writer hangout bar or café. I didn’t know how it would come about, but I envisioned it, and now it’s reality. Unreal, but real. And they are all friendly. And they all know me from my writing, or have at least some idea of who I am. I actually feel that I belong there in that rarified atmosphere. I am completely and totally stoked.
Well, that’s where I left off. More to come, hopefully soon. I have some photos posted of both Vesuvio’s and the reading to help you picture what I’m talking about. San Francisco is an amazing place — one of my favorite cities, along with Chicago.
The Beat Museum reading
Sal Mimeo Revolution, San Francisco, April 2007
So there I am, in what is the coolest situation I can imagine: at Vesuvio’s in San Francisco, hanging out with a big group of talented writers and editors, listening, talking, watching them, hardly believing my eyes (Neeli Cherkovsky, who wrote HANK, the first major biography of Charles Bukowski, wears a hat like he was born in it; his eyes radiating literary wisdom). Suddenly, out of the blue, I realize that I’m very hungry, and go downstairs to the bar to order a sandwich and a beer. The barkeep says they don’t serve food, just snacks like pretzels and peanuts. Disappointment. I don’t want to drink early in the day on an empty stomach – that’s not wise. I go back up and tell Judy and Joyce. And then I do something that I still can’t explain, it’s so dumb. I decide the three of us ought to break away from the group and go find a quick lunch. Dumb! I should have gotten the pretzels and beer and toughed it out for the rest of the afternoon. But I’m on this stupid mission to get a real lunch. I tell Bill we’re going out to find burgers or pizza, and we’ll be right back, AND WE WALK OUT OF VESUVIO’S AS THE PARTY WARMS UP! What the hell was I thinking? This moment will never return. I spent hundreds on airfare and hotel to be here, just for this special scene, to hang with these exceptional people in this exceptional setting, and I’m willingly leaving it all to go find a $5 hamburger! What an idiot I was! I’m still beating myself up over that one, two weeks later.
Ten minutes later, we’re sitting in an empty Italian restaurant, waiting for a pizza to cook and watching two bored waiters who wait for business to pick up. I’m going nuts, wondering what’s happening over at Vesuvio’s, beginning to doubt the wisdom of leaving the bar. It’s just like me to make a dumb move like that. When our pizza comes (they made it fast, I gotta hand that to them), I wolf down two slices and race out, back to Vesuvio’s with the camera, leaving Judy and Joyce to linger over their lunch. I plan to take some photos of everyone gathered around at the tables. Walk in and buy a glass of white wine to get me in the mood for the reading. Come up the stairs and approach the group, ready to take some photos, but they all get up as I come in, and someone says they’re heading over early. I could have asked them to wait a second while I shot pictures, but I don’t think of that. Damn! I’m panicked. Bill says he’ll hang around while I finish my wine. I want some photo, any photo of them all in Vesuvio’s, and I have the sudden inspiration to shoot a long shot, from above, over the balcony, looking down as they walk out. They are spread out, it’s dark, and I can’t really tell if I am getting them properly, but I take two shots – all I have time for – and then they are gone. Bill and I and a couple others stay there a while talking, and then we head over too. The Beat Museum is only a half block away. We run into Judy and Joyce on the way.
The Beat Museum is an amazing place. Display cases full of rare books, old black and white photographs and artifacts of the Beats. Normally, I would have poured over this stuff, but I ignore it because the people there and others just arriving are so amazing. Lots of great conversations – some I’m part of, some I just listen to. And I’m taking photos, as are several people. It’s all relaxed, friendly, calm, but there’s a charge in the air of excitement and importance.
The reading is one of the very best I’ve ever witnessed.
S. A. Griffin is masterful, strong, in control. Crackling with brilliance and dry wit. He does this Bill Murray thing when people clap, saying softly, “Ah shucks,” “Cut it out” – that sort of thing. He sings a wistful jazz song, and he’s got a great voice.
John Dorsey is visionary, Blake-like, but funny as a crutch (sorry — an old politically incorrect expression from my childhood in the 1950s.) His poem about God envying Bob Dylan is dead on. He reads with such energy that his long hair keeps flipping up at the end of every line when he expels a burst of breath in emphasis. He’s highly original, highly talented, and yet unpretentious, a bedraggled angelic urchin. His voice is unlike any I’ve ever hear, and the words burn into my brain.
David Smith is new to me; I don’t think I’ve known of him or his work before, but I’m impressed. He’s another extremely funny and intelligent poet. He teases S. A. a bit, but kindly, gently. And then he reads a scorcher of a poem about the fall of New Orleans, leaning on the name violently each time it come up: “New Or-Leans!” It’s powerful, expansive. The guy is a master.
Scott Wannberg is up last. At Vesuvio’s, when we met, he reminded me that we’d known each other way back in Long Beach, 1978, but neither of us can recall the specific circumstances under which we met – probably a reading. Well, he’s grown up. He’s become this uncanny pop dadaist, invoking Frankenstein’s monster and Wolfman in searing social criticisms and acutely observed takes on life, and he’s funny too (as another crutch – I can say that because I have a gimpy ankle), and totally in charge. Sings a John Prine song, all of the verses, and the crowd sings along with him. It’s a moment none of us will ever forget.
More gabbing afterwards, and we all move down the street to a bar that’s got a big celebration going with free food, but it’s too crowded, we can’t get inside, so we hang out in the sunny courtyard and trade pleasantries, it’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, and all too soon the poets and Bill have got to leave, hit the road back to L.A., everyone says goodbye, and it’s over so suddenly, and I stand there in the courtyard smiling like a jackass, amazed, thinking, knowing that this has been one of the very best days in my life, and thankful for every second of it. All I can say is, Damn, you should have been there! Catch these guys sometime. I gather that they tour a lot under different banners (the Sal Mimeo Revolution label was just for this weekend, I think). They are unique, and they give poetry a good name.