24 November 2011

On the trail of the Beats

Picture the scene; spontaneous prose and a flurry of improvised jazz carried on plumes of smoke in underground New York clubs. The Beat Generation of 1950’s post-war America has got that timeless two-fingers-up-yours appeal. Now with poster boy for the Beats, Jack Kerouac’s novel ‘On The Road’ being made into a film starring Sam Riley and a never-before-seen Kerouac manuscript ‘The Sea is My Brother’ recently published, our love of the Beat Generation is just being reignited.

But it’s their notion of romanticised travel, spontaneity and outright bohemian hedonism that gets us – it just sucks us in to a time when travel inspired thought and that common thought of a few, galvanised the actions of many. Never mind the beautiful novels and poetry, the Beat Generation has given us The Beatles (the ‘a’ in their name a nod to the movement), overturned censorship and is often hailed as being the catalyst for sexual liberation and the hippy culture of the 60’s.

Although The Beats – namely Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady – made New York’s East Village their initial home, they were an adventurous lot. The group travelled extensively across the globe to get their ‘kicks’ or simply in the hope they would find God along the way. Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’ – largely autobiographical – charts several spontaneous road trips criss-crossing the United States. From New York, San Francisco, Tangiers, Paris, London, Denver and New Orleans – the Beats certainly got around. Take a look at some of the old haunts of a generation of unassuming revolutionaries. Their heady lust for wandering is infectious.


Now beautifully refurbished and renamed Relais Hôtel du Vieux, in the 50s and 60s this site became known as the ‘Beat Hotel’. Less than salubrious, this place became a spot for poets and thinkers to join forces (amongst them Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg) drinking and smoking weed into the small hours. Just think what went on between these four walls.


This independent book store in San Francisco’s North Beach was a beacon of hope to the Beat Generation. The store and its founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti became famous during the obscenities trial of Allen Ginsberg after publishing his controversial poem ‘How and Other Poems’. Mooch around the store, wall to wall with beautiful books and think of a world before the owner radically shook up censorship laws.


Opening in 1950 as a laidback independent Greenwich Village bar, this place has history dripping from the walls having hosted the likes of Jack Kerouac and the other Beat writers as well as musicians such as Bob Dylan. It is also the place where Andy Warhol and Bob Zimmerman are said to have come to blows.


Undoubtedly the place where The Beats became more active socially and politically, San Francisco’s North Beach area is home to The Beat Museum. Dedicated to ‘spreading the spirit of the Beat Generation, defined as tolerance, compassion and having the courage to live your individual truth’, the Beat Museum houses an extensive collection of original manuscripts and personal letters.

A little closer to home, Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘On The Road’ starring Sam Riley will be released in 2012. And a little further afield, if all this talk of road tripping and a-wandering is sparking a little light burning inside telling you to head out on the Californian open road, get in touch with Black Tomato.

Words by Rebecca Shay


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