When we think of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, we don’t immediately associate them with Berkeley. Yet – they were here, among us, in the 1950s. Let’s listen to Natalie Merchant and the 10,000 Maniacs sing about them and review the images.
Allen Ginsberg lived in Berkeley from September 1955 until August 1956. Here he is in Berkeley:
When Steven Finacom of the Berkeley Historical Society saw this photo he almost instantly identified it as being on Durant. I trust him.
And this photo from 1957 which is clearly Durant verifies that Steve was spot-on.
Ginsberg lived in a back cottage at 1624 Milvia Street. I have never found a photo of what it looked like then. This photo shows the two houses immediately north of his house. 1622 has been razed, but 1620 stands.
This is what it looks like now:
This photo purports to be of Ginsberg in the backyard.
This photo purports to be of him on his Milvia Street front porch:
Jack Kerouac described the place as a “rose-covered cottage.” He wrote, “The old rotten porch slanted forward to the ground, among vines, with a nice old rocking chair that I sat in every morning to read my Diamond Sutra. The yard was full of tomato plants bout to ripen, and mint, mint, everything smelling of mint, and one fine old tree that I loved to sit under and meditate on those cool perfect starry California October nights unmatched anywhere in the world.”
Ginsberg wrote “A Strange new Cottage in Berkeley” about the place, impressed more with “bramble blackberries” on the fence than the mint. The one fine old tree mentioned by Kerouac is possibly the tree “with its rotten old apricots” mentioned by Ginsberg.
Ginsberg also started his poem “America” while in Berkeley.
In it he writes of reading Time magazine in “the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.” He wrote “A Supermarket in California” on Milvia.
In 1956, literature professor Thomas Parkinson organized a reading recreating the first reading of “Howl” at the Town Hall theater in Berkeley. The first known recording of “Howl” is from that March 18th Berkeley reading.
On the morning of the reading Ginsberg climbed a tree in his backyard on Milvia with painter Robert Lavigne and an unidentified woman.
Ginsberg was no stranger to Berkeley afterwards.
For example, on November 5, 1965, he appeared at the Life Sciences Biulding (LSB) on campus with Country Joe and the Fish (their first show away from the Jabberwock where admission was charged) and the Fugs, a hard-edged New York band. The sponsoring organization – the Pretentious Folk Front – did not exist.
In 1971 Ginsberg was back i Berkeley for an anniversary celebration at People’s Park.
The Barb was a little bit snarky about Ginsberg’s gravitation towards eastern religion and meditation.
And then there was Jack. He had spent six weeks at Ginsberg’s cottage in 1955, spending most of his daytime at the cottage of Gary Snyder at 2925 Hillegass Street, absorbing Snyder’s knowledge about Buddhism. Nights were parties at Ginsberg’s, Bach and jazz, marijuana and wine and women and sex.
Two years after Ginsberg’s time on Milvia, in the spring of 1957, Kerouac brought his mother out to live in Berkeley. On May 6th, they got on a Greyhound bus in Florida and three days later were in California. They survived the trip on a diet of Coca Cola, aspirin, and bourbon. Special!
Poet Philip Whalen helped them to find a house, an apartment not far from what had been Ginsberg’s rose-covered cottage that Kerouac remembered so fondly, and was now Whalen’s rose-covered cottage. The apartment was at 1943 Berkeley Way. This is what it looked like:
Joseph and Irene Young owned the building. The apartment had three spacious bedrooms. Now this is what is on the spot:
Kerouac wrote his first letter from Berkeley on May 15, 1957. He wrote his agent, Sterling Lord, reporting that he and his mother had found a furnished apartment and that they intended “to stay here for good are both very happy.” On May 24th he wrote Gary Snyder, speaking of the flowers – “out one window red flowers, out another white.” He described the apartment as “a fine furnished pad ground floor” but confessed to boredom: “I am bored in Berkeley because our stuff, typewriters, manuscripts, clothes, ain’t a com in so fast.” He painted and attended lectures on Buddhism. He ate at the Fuji Inn on Telegraph.
It was here, at 1943 Berkeley Way, that Kerouac received his first copy of On the Road. Neal Cassady and his first wife Luanne Henderson dropped by the apartment as Kerouac was unloading the first carton of copies of On the Road, which celebrated Neal Cassady, named in the book Dean Moriarty.
Kerouac caroused in Berkeley and North Beach, at times with his old friend Neal Cassady, at times with his new friend Hubert “Hube the Cube” Leslie, a North Beach fixture whom Kerouac brought home to meet his mother.
On June 7th he wrote Ginsberg and other friends in Tangiers about Hube: “I met the magnificent Hubert Leslie who is just like Du Peru (who I saw also, he still the same) and Hubert in fact is even coming to visit me at my house in Berkeley. Imagine Hube the Cube and my mother in the same room!”
His mother didn’t like Berkeley and by July, 1957, Kerouac had moved her to Orlando near the home of his sister, Nin Blake. The last letter he wrote from Berkeley was on July 5th. The plan to “stay here for good” lasted less than two months. By August 9th Kerouac was in Mexico, his mother in Orlando.
I showed the photos to my friend. He has a special place in his heart for Allen and Jack, and a big old crush on Natalie Merchant so he has all-in for listening to “Hey Jack Kerouac.” He put down the Lucha Libre magazines that he was perusing and took a trip down memory lane with Allen Baby and Hey Jack. His verdict on Allen and Jack in Berkeley?