Author Museum Interviews: The Beat Museum in San Francisco

And the Beats Go On: A Conversation with Jerry Cimino of the Beat Museum in San Francisco, CA

I saw the best minds of the Beat Generation with houses destroyed or neglected or in private hands.

It seems shocking, but it is true: America has no Jack Kerouac house museum. There isn’t one for Allen Ginsberg either. Father of the Beats William S. Burroughs is museumless as well. Same for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for Gary Snyder, for Gregory Corso. Most have graves you can visit, if you’d like to pay your respects. Kerouac has a memorial in a park named after him in his hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts. Various homes Ginsberg and others lived in over the years in NYC and elsewhere have historical markers, but surprisingly none have been converted into museums for the public.

Luckily, the Beats haven’t been entirely overlooked on the museum front: thanks to a man named Jerry Cimino, there’s a lovely little museum dedicated to all the writers of the movement around the corner from City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s iconic Beat bookstore. Inside there are various artifacts related to, and information on, the many members of the Beat generation—including the oft-overlooked women in the movement.

I sat down with founder Jerry Cimino on the couch in the center of the main room upstairs in the Beat Museum, as guests wandered around us perusing the great stuff the museum has on display.  Many soon stopped wandering the museum and began to huddle around us as Jerry told the tales of the Beats and his museum dedicated to them.

 —Tyler Malone

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INTERVIEWER

How did you first get interested in the Beats?

CIMINO

I’ve always been a fan of the Beats. I’m 60 years old now, but in 1968, I was 14. An English teacher back then, in the eighth grade, read to us from Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. If you lived through it, or you know your history, you know 1968 was a moment when everything was happening. From a 14 year old kid’s perspective, our world seemed to be on fire. My friends and I would look at each other and wonder what the hell kind of world we were inheriting. You had the Vietnam War raging, and we thought we might have to go and fight in it. Martin Luther King had just been shot. Bobby Kennedy had just been shot. There were protest in Paris. Russian tanks were invading Czechoslovakia. The “Summer of Love” was the previous year, 1967—the whole hippie scene (which was interesting to witness, though I was too young to really be a part of it). So in the midst of all this, this English teacher comes in with a poem mimeographed that starts out: “Sometime during eternity some guys show up and one of them who shows up real late is a kind of carpenter from a square-type place like Galilee and he starts wailing and claiming he is hip to who made heaven and earth and that the cat who really laid it on us is his Dad.” I was raised Catholic, and at the time I was thinking, “How do you write about the crucifixion like that?” It really struck a chord in me.

I went off to high school, off to college, and at some point after college, I was in a bookstore in Baltimore. I was looking through a book of poetry when—bam!—the poem just jumped out at me. And I thought, “Oh my God! This is that poem from when I was 14 years old!” So I buy the Ferlinghetti book with my last dollar, and then I go back a week later and with another dollar I buy the book of poems that was right next to it by this guy named Jack Kerouac. I didn’t know who Kerouac was; I didn’t know he knew Ferlinghetti; I didn’t know Ferlinghetti published Kerouac’s book Scattered Poems. All I knew was that they were both black and white covers, and that intrigued me. Then I wound up getting into Kerouac’s poetry, and after that I read Desolation Angels, and that got me into his novels. At the same time, I met a young girl—a girl who later became my wife, who helped start this museum with me—and she was asking me: “Why do you like these guys? They’re a bunch of jerks. They get different girls pregnant all over the country. They leave kids in New York to go find another woman in California. They can’t hold jobs. They’re a bunch of idiots.” Obviously, she’s afraid that I’m going to want to emulate it. So I got her to read Maggie Cassady—it’s Kerouac’s sweet little book about high school sweethearts—and once she read that she said, “Okay, I get it, this guy’s compassionate, this guy’s soulful.”

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INTERVIEWER

So then how did you and your wife get involved in creating the Beat Museum?

CIMINO

Well, years later we ended up moving to Monterey. I had worked for IBM and American Express, and I had made a lot of money, but I felt an itch to do something that would have an impact on the world. I found myself looking for a mission. So I remember on a trip to Amsterdam, my wife and I were walking by the Hemp Museum, and I thought: “If they can have a museum for marijuana, why can’t we have a museum for the Beats?” I had a number of inroads in the Beat world by this point because my wife had opened a bookstore and we had a lot of Beat authors in there. Two years later, we took my own personal collection out of my garage in Monterey. We put it all in a small 12×12 retail space, and we called it a museum. Then we stood around and waited to see if anyone would show up. Immediately people did—it was shocking to me how quickly it caught on. I then decided to take the museum on the road, so I created The Beat Museum on Wheels where I went around with Neal Cassady’s son John Allen Cassady to colleges and high schools talking to kids about the Beats. We went all over the US: Maine, Florida, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, everywhere. After doing that for two semesters, I realized it was time to bring the Beat Museum to San Francisco.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about that transition from Monterey to San Francisco.

CIMINO

The guy who helped to build The Steinbeck Center was a big help. Kim Greer was his name; he’s since passed away. I called him up one day, and explained who I was and what I was doing, and he was nice enough to offer help and advice. So we had lunch about half a dozen times. Around the last time we had lunch, he looked at me conspiratorially. He said to me, “You know the Beat Museum really ought to be even bigger than the Steinbeck Center.” I said, “How do you figure that?” He said, “Look, I’ve got one guy. Sure, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but you have multiple great writers: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, etc. You not only have all of them, but you’ve got jazz music, you’ve got rock-n-roll, you’ve got the ‘60s, you’ve got the Vietnam War, you’ve got non-conformists throughout the ages. It could be huge. Especially if you take it to San Francisco.”

I had no money to do it, but I had a dream and a desire. I came up and subleased a place for three months to try it out. Instantly it was a hit. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. Serendipitously, Carolyn Cassady was in town, and she agreed to be my guest of honor for our grand opening. Just before the opening I found out that Kerouac’s On the Road scroll was coming to San Francisco at the same time. They were having an exhibition in the main library, so I rang them up and offered to have Carolyn Cassady come to their event before we went to the grand opening of my museum. Because of that, the Chronicle tied the two events together: Kerouac scroll starts exhibition tomorrow at library and Beat Museum opens on Grant Avenue. Since then, I won’t say it’s been easy, but we’ve had a continuously decent turnout and people have been really great to us, donating stuff to us, loaning stuff to us, helping us out in various ways.

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INTERVIEWER

There’s a sort of claim dispute over the Beats between New York and San Francisco. Would you say both cities were equally important to the development of the so-called Beat Generation or was one more important than the other? And how did each influence the group?

CIMINO

I live in San Francisco. The Beat Museum’s in San Francisco, so you know how I’m gonna spin it. But both New York and San Francisco were very important to the Beats. They met in New York–they met at Columbia–so they got their initial encounters in that city. But they got famous in San Francisco. Also, a lot happened in San Francisco that pushed the movement forward that probably wouldn’t and couldn’t have happened in New York, or anywhere on the East Coast for that matter.

One of them is: Allen Ginsberg came out of the closet here in San Francisco. He was in his shrink’s office. He was explaining that he was making a lot of money in advertising, but he’d rather write poetry. He said he was dating a lot of women, but he’d rather date men. His shrink said to him: “If you want to date men, date men. You want to quit your job and write poetry? Do that. You can do anything you want to do.” It was like an authority figure in the guise of a shrink basically telling him it was okay to live an authentic life. Next thing you know, Ginsberg quits his job, writes Howl, moves in with Peter Orlovsky. That happened here, two blocks away from where we are now. I’m not sure all that happens if he stayed in New York. When your family is in New York, and you’re all the way out here on the West—it’s not like they had Facebook in those days, so he had some freedom to be who he wanted to be without worrying.

INTERVIEWER

What are some of the items that you have here at the museum that you find the most interesting?

CIMINO

We have a jacket of Jack Kerouac’s on display. Downstairs we have a shirt that Neal Cassady wore when he drove the bus for Ken Kesey and the Pranksters. This organ over here is pretty cool. When you say you have Allen Ginsberg’s organ in the Beat Museum, after first responding, “Eww,” people realize you’re talking about a musical instrument and they think that’s pretty cool.

The car that was used in the making of the film On the Road is one of my favorite things we have here on display. The 1949 Hudson that Neal Cassady bought in December of 1948 that becomes almost a character itself in the novel—that car is lost to posterity, because there’s no record of it. Neal only owned the car for three months and then it got repossessed—he never made a payment on it. We were long looking for any 49 Hudson to display here, just so you could get a sense of the car, the car as character. So that’s one item I treasure because the director Walter Salles offered the one they used in the film because he felt that a 49 Hudson belonged in the Beat Museum.

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INTERVIEWER

Speaking of the Salles movie, it seems like there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in the Beats, especially with Hollywood making On the Road and Howl and a few other Beat-inspired or Beat-centric films in the last five or six years. Have you seen a new influx of interest among a younger audience who may have not been as exposed to the writers before the films?

CIMINO

Absolutely. Our visitors have gone up dramatically. Our sales of the books have also gone up dramatically. The On the Road film has definitely had an influence on that. We could tell because it started first with the French. Tourists from France came in droves after the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and then released in France. It was released there first, before anywhere else. I noticed instantly, within days of the film being released in France, that a whole lot of French people were showing up. Then every country the movie opened in, soon after we’d get an influx of tourists from that country. But beyond the influx of tourists, there has also been an uptick of just younger people interested in the Beats, as you say. That is obviously driven in some part by the films, because these movies are small indie films, so they’re hip. Young people like hip artistic things. The other thing that drives young people here is the influence the Beats have had on others. It goes all the way back to Dylan and the Beatles. Young kids say, “Oh, I’m into this band,” and they look into it, they trace back that band’s influences, and see that a lot of it all goes back to Ginsberg and Kerouac. The themes of the Beats are timeless. They speak to youth; they speak to rebellion; they speak to questing and searching; they speak to the idea of living an authentic life. Those things never go away, they’re universal and timeless—which is why influence can often be traced back to these writers.

INTERVIEWER

What Beat figure do you think gets overlooked much more than he or she should? And why do you think that is?

CIMINO

Well, everyone else basically. If you’re not Kerouac, or Ginsberg, or Burroughs, nobody knows your name. Gregory Corso had a really great line: “Three people do not a generation make.” Because he would probably be the fourth most famous, but most people, in the general public at least, don’t even know his name. Every city had its own Beat scene. So there are underrated Beat figures from all over, from all different places, scenes. Not just in San Francisco and New York, but Denver, LA, etc.

Especially a lot of the women of course are overlooked. You have ruth weiss—she was just here a few days ago. She was the first person to get up and start reading her poetry to jazz; she did that before Kerouac did it in New York. Diane di Prima. Denise Levertov. Unfortunately, the women didn’t get published like the men did—there are a lot of reasons for that. The main one, of course, being that in the 50s, if you were a man, you could be a rebel. Your parents may not have liked it, but there wasn’t a lot to be done. If you were a woman though, your parents would literally come take you home, or they would have you locked up or institutionalized.

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INTERVIEWER

What are some of your favorite works by the Beats?

CIMINO

I really do love Kerouac a lot, because of his compassion, his sympathy. The thing I love most about his writing is that his characters, who were his friends, could be doing the most dastardly things, but he always paints them in a sympathetic light. My favorite will always be Desolation Angels. Maybe it’s because it was the first novel of his I read, but I don’t know, I love that it has the energy and drive of On the Road mixed with the spiritual quest of Dhrama Bums. It’s got both angles. I love Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl.” I love “America.” I love a lot of the work of the more overlooked writers too, but of the main two Beats, those are probably my favorite works.

INTERVIEWER

What other sites that are relevant to the Beats exist in San Francisco for avid readers to go check out?

CIMINO

For the Beat experience, after coming to the Beat Museum, you have to go to City Lights Bookstore, you have to go to Vesuvio Cafe, and you have to go to Caffe Trieste. You’ll want to walk Grant Avenue. It’s pretty much the same as it was when the Beats were here—all these buildings were built after the earthquake of 1906. Even the sidewalks look the same. The only thing really different are the cars parked at the meters. You’ll want to walk by 29 Russell Street, which is where Neal and Carolyn lived. Kerouac stayed there with them for a while. There’s a book out by Bill Morgan called The Beat Generation in San Francisco which is basically a walking tour of this neighborhood: Gary Snyder lived here, Michael McClure lived here, and here’s a restaurant where such-and-such happened.

INTERVIEWER

Lastly, for visitors thinking of coming to visit, what other points of interest (not necessarily related to the Beats) would you recommend in the Bay Area?

CIMINO

It seems obvious, but you have to do the big landmarks: Coit Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf, Lombard Street. You have to see the beaches at Land’s End and the Sutro Baths. San Francisco’s a magnificent city; it’s shaped like a thumb. You have the ocean on one side, the bay around the other side, so it’s just this magnificent peninsula. Your thumbnail’s the city, and that small area is filled with so much great stuff to see.

If you’re going to get beyond the city, you can go up to Muir Woods, you can go see Wine Country if you’re into wine. If you have the chance, go south to Big Sur. It’s the most breathtaking place in the world, in my opinion. It’s just so stunning—you have the ocean, and then you have the mountains, and they literally fall into the ocean. It’s easy to see why Kerouac wrote a book about it.

 

For more information, please visit: http: //www.kerouac.com/

Tyler Malone is a writer and teacher. He has contributed articles, reviews, and interviews to various literary magazines including The Millions, Full Stop, Tottenville Review, and Literary Traveler. He was once known as “the Reading Markson Reading guy.”

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2 comments

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  2. Michael DeFrancesco

    Great interview. I had the fortunate opportunity to meet Jerry Cimino the second time I visited the Beat Museum. Nice guy and a great place. It is very inviting. When I got home I began to read not just Kerouac but everything else by and about the Beats. I was surprised to find out from this interview that Jerry Cimino’s first experience with Beat literature was similar to my own. Like Jerry I first read Ferlinghetti when I was in the 8th grade in 1968. I still had “A Coney Island of the Mind” but I couldn’t find “Starting Out From San Francisco” so I bought a copy at City Lights … where else?

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