“Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.”
I recently had the rather mystical pleasure of attending a preview of the Contemporary Jewish Museum‘s new exhibition, Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg. This show, guys, is just what San Francisco needs right now. The photos are sometimes gritty, sometimes serious, and sometimes casual, but always intensely intimate.
What makes them so? Well, each and every photograph is inscribed with a caption, handwritten by Ginsberg himself, describing the moments with his friends as he remembers them. It takes some work to fully read through the captions, but it’s so worth it. You really get a personal glimpse into Ginsberg’s thinking.
The 79 photos include scenes and people from Ginsberg’s life in NY and SF, from the ’50s and ’60s, and again in the ’80s. It’s basically two different generations. One minute you’re like, “Jack Kerouac in 1953… why, how historical,” and the next minute you’re all, “Oh hi, 1990-era Bob Dylan, what are you doing here?” The experience is not unlike when I saw photographs of William Burroughs hanging out with Kurt Cobain.
I have to point out that Beat Memories, on the whole, is quite a lot of… bohemian man life. Man-tribe, if you will. Of the 79 photos, there might be one or two with women in them. I guess it must be an accurate representation, it just leaves me wanting to do more research on the women of the Beat Generation, personally. That said, I appreciated that CJM offers visitors a space to explore the Beats through supplemental books and photos, and they definitely made an effort to include women there. The content of the exhibition itself, however, is specific to Ginsberg’s life, so you just won’t find a ton of ladies.
It’s hard to choose a favorite photo, but my favorite caption was a decidedly simple the one that Ginsberg wrote under the photo of his lover, Peter Orlovsky, visiting James Joyce’s grave in Zurich in 1980: “We climbed up to the cemetary and found Joyce’s statue snowcovered, brushed it off his head.”
The romanticized lifestyle of these guys in the ’40s and ’50s, is I think, what a lot of visitors will be expecting from Beat Memories. Unfortunately, you sort of have to know about those lifestyles through reading Howl, On the Road, Naked Lunch, etc. to appreciate that aspect of the Beats. Sex, drugs, bohemian parties and exotic travels certainly aren’t captured in these photographs. Still, what’s lacking in wild debauchery is made up for in intimate human affection.
A lot of the intense themes of the Beat Generation are still implicitly visible too- mental illness, censorship, society’s suppression of (especially queer) sexuality, hedonism, long-term human connection… and I mean, these themes are totally pertinent to today, right? One of my favorite things about the Beats (and let’s face it, a ton of other historic countercultures) is the stories of how they would constantly meet up in bars, cafes, and each others’ apartments to muse, work, (maybe take some drugs,) and share artistic ideas. Who really does that anymore- meeting face to face with friends and truly encouraging one another’s creativity? I think it’s why their relationships spanned decades.
Perhaps it’s my gothness, or perhaps it’s my knowledge of many of the twisted lives (and even more twisted deaths) of many of the Beats, but I definitely had a heavy, dark reaction to a lot of the photography. Not that that was a bad thing. Like I said, it’s just what San Francisco needs right now. A reminder of why we’re a city of weirdos, activists, performers, intellectuals, artists… it’s not because Pride weekend is “hella cray.” It’s not because Facebook-checking into a strip club in North Beach is hilarious, or because #carnavalsf yields cool-ass photos on Instagram. It’s because of our human connections, and our willingness to actually get out there, in person, to stand for whatever the hell it is we stand for as individuals. That’s where the magic is.
Amazingly, the last time, I really, truly felt that kind of magic happened to be at historic Beat-hub City Lights Bookstore, at an evening of music, poetry-reading, and conversation to benefit the Pussy Riot cause. I wrote about that here, by the way.
So I guess this is my takeaway. Genuinely work on nurturing relationships with fellow subversives, and show your friends and allies the tenderness they deserve. Don’t try to hide your madness- capture it, write about it, look for meaning in it, and share your memories of it with future generations.
Oh, and CJM has some kick-ass programming to go along with this exhibition. An Allen Ginsberg Festival (!) is going down on July 11-July 14th, but what I’m MOST excited about is a panel discussion about how the Beats influenced underground publishing in San Francisco. That’s happening on August 8th, and has a totally punk-rock line-up including V. Vale (of Search and Destroy and RE/Search), reps from Maximum RockNRoll, and the folks from Last Gasp. Check it all out at Jewseum’s website, obvs. The show runs through September 8.