An Elusive Utopia By The Sea
By LIONEL ROLFE
Venice, CA: A City State Of Mind by John O’Kane. Hard cover edition is $26.95.
The traditional happening places for the arts in Los Angeles are two–and it’s been this way since the ’20s and earlier. One is Echo Park near downtown and the other is Venice by the sea. But Venice has captured more of the romance, perhaps because its history has been rich and porous enough there’s this terrible tendency to want to sum it all up, to say what exactly it means.
John O’Kane’s at times rambling but nonetheless intriguing book length essay sums up the history, the observations, the artists and writers and poets great and famous and obscure who have lurked among the dark shadows of this Nirvana by the sea. O’Kane has lived long enough in Venice to know a lot of the characters personally, and he describes walking the famed boardwalk or supping at coffeehouse tables with many of them in engaging and vivid terms.
O’Kane is offering a portrait of the community not just by its well known physical appearances such as the canals modeled after the Venice in Italy by Abbot Kinney near the turn of the last century, but also the back story about the more abstract and thus unseen forces that molded its unique state of mind.
O’Kane takes us on a tour of works like Norman Mailer’s 1957 “The White Negro,” Herbert Marcuse’s writings about the counter culture in the ’60s, and Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” to lay the foundation for the weltanschauung–the world view–of the Venice community.
It’s true that Venice was always second to San Francisco in the Beat firmament. San Francisco, of course, produced Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and writers and poets such as Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. San Francisco eclipsed Los Angeles, still out of Venice came Larry Lipton’s “The Holy Barbarian” and such important poets as Stu Perkoff, John Thomas and Philomene Long. The term “Beatnik” came directly from San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen, who also later invented the term “hippy,” of whom there were many in Venice. Both San Francisco and Venice suffered from a great many poseurs, who swelled the ranks of the counter culture in both places.
I particularly enjoyed O’Kane’s take on Lipton, whose house I hung out in for several days when I was first hired as a writer at the old Los Angeles Free Press. Art Kunkin, the proprietor who I knew from the coffeehouse scene of the ‘60s, felt that I wasn’t quite sufficiently counter culture, so he sent me to Lipton to get counter culture lessons.
I wasn’t very taken with Lipton, who wrote a rather turgid and shrill column for the old Free Press called “Radio Free America.”
Still, as unappetizing as Lipton was, “The Holy Barbarians” brought people from across the country to the new beat paradise on the Pacific. O’Kane paints a picture of a place suddenly overrun with hundreds of folks who looked counter culture, but were essentially tourists and poseurs.
And that’s what O’Kane is trying to explain in this book–the true state of mind of Venice. Even in the mid-50s when as a young teenager I used to bicycle from my West Los Angeles home to hang out in the old Beat coffeehouses, the place only tangentially seemed a part of Los Angeles.
O’Kane argues that of the hundreds of poseurs and faux beats who moved into Venice, there may have been no more than 50 real artists and poets at any one time. You couldn’t really tell the difference who were the wannabes and who were the real thing just by how they looked.
What there was was the very genuine intensity in the community’s state of mind. And yes, perhaps it was as much illusion as reality, but the illusion took on a lot of reality.
And besides, there was considerable talent in Venice, even if there were also a large number of poseurs. Among the talented denizens was, as we’ve mentioned, Philomene Long, who lived in the area around Dudley Avenue where the Venice West Café was long gone, but still strongly remembered. She raised some ire by cultivating the many pigeons who landed on her window sills, because their ancestors had been imported from Italy by Kinney for the American Venice.
Long wasn’t completely enamored of the old beat scene. She described the ’50s Venice beats as “a womanizing boy’s club.” Philomene was a former nun.
O’Kane knew her well, and knows some of the less celebrated but still talented residents such as Gerry Fialka, who carries on the tradition by his classes on James Joyce at the Venice library–and his love of Marshall McLuhan, the media guru of the ’60s. O’Kane describes often running into Fialka who is a regular around the “Dudley corridor,” where the beats initially were. Sometimes he’d find him daydreaming along the boardwalk.
Venice’s heyday at the height of the mythology making was from 1905, but when the Great Depression set in the ‘30s and War came along in the ‘40s, Venice was providing an increasingly seedy backdrop. It was at the height of this decline in the late 50s that Orson Well’s filmed his “Touch of Evil” there. The decaying canals, the forest of oil derricks, provided a bleak landscape indeed that stamped the film a great classic from the beginning. An odd touch–the main hotel in that film was a reproduction of a famed hotel in Venice in Italy created during the Kinney years. It’s shabby grandeur molded the film as well.
In the contemporary times we’re in, Venice is being yanked away from the original Kinney version by extreme gentrification, which is pushing out almost every body but the rich. That means the spirit of rebellion against authority is under threat. The boardwalk gives a harmless hint of earlier, grander times–by the presence of barkers, the flamethrowers, animal trainers, writers and artists. It’s a kind of great freak show which has made Venice’s boardwalk a wonderful tourist mecca. But it is really only tangentially related to Venice of yore, and hence to its true state of mind.
Don’t assume that these things are innocent. O’Kane describes how the official Venice history tried to bury the counter culture years, and yet in the American and European culture more people know Venice for that than anything else. There’s nothing really that threatening to the established order on the boardwalk today, and the last of the oil derricks disappeared in 1974.
When I was writing for the Los Angeles Free Press in the early ‘70s I lived in the Windward Hotel on the Boardwalk, next door down the alley to the national headquarters of the Satan Slaves outlaw motorcycle gang. My neighbors in the hotel were mainly heroin addicts who broke down my door one time to steal my sound system.
Today’s establishment in Venice tend to lump the counter culture as just part of the place’s seediness, which they are dedicated to eradicating. There was a bit of truth to this, which O’Kane documents in several places in this book.
But he also contrasts the image of two of the greatest writers of the 20th century, Aldous Huxley and Thomas Mann, strolling down the beach just south of Venice, discussing ultimate meanings. Nowadays you’re more likely to find strolling screenwriters, talking about their latest scores in real estate..
And the great film director Jules Dassin hung out in the home of a violinist friend of my mother’s, Rachel Pickard, in Venice, before he escaped the McCarthyite blacklist by going to Europe where he made such movies as “Zorba The Greek” and “Never on Sunday.” .
O’Kane points out that the buildings around the Dudley corridor were built in the Kinney era. A lot of the folks living homeless now in Venice were proud tenants in the pre-gentrification era. Most of the newer stuff–the gleaming, gated towers on the beach–are beyond the means of old bohemians.
Some people just left when they could no longer keep it together. One of them was poet John Haag, who was proprietor of the Venice West at 7 Dudley. Folks like Alan Ginsberg hung and read there. Haag was a major force in the beat scene.
The bohemian remnants and the hip developers were locked in eternal conflict. For the few bohemian remnants left over from “The Holy Barbarian” days, it would come down to this. They liked it when the real estate bubble broke and the arrogant landlord types had to go on the lam.
Of course the dreams of the counter culture and the gentrifiers was bound to be significantly different. So you can visualize it, O’Kane puts it this way. Talking about the paranoia that sometimes grips Venice’s counter culture remnants, he notes that “since gossip tends to grow like mold on the bathroom ceilings of our dozer-ready hovels, whispers reach a crescendo…”
O’Kane notes that the Venice story includes a lot of the spirit of the emancipated surfs who became known as the Diggers in England in the 1680s. The Diggers were battling for the land that was freed up in the transition from Feudalism to the Industrial Age. Ultimately they lost, and perhaps the last real bohemian will finally be vanquished from the scene, but something of the Diggers remains among the last genuine Venice haunts that O’Kane inhabits.
O’Kane’s book is all about the fragile state of mind of Venice by the sea. It’s a state of mind that exists in many minds, but our minds are frail. We all have a tenuous hold on reality–yet the hold of a vision that has molded the citystate of Venice is still potent, as this book shows.
Lionel Rolfe is the author of “Literary L.A.” along with several other books, available on Amazon’s Kindlestore and elsewhere.