University of the streets
At 69, Thomas Rain Crowe feels pretty good, considering.
“I’m not looking forward to 70, it’s kind of a psychological thing with a lot of people,” he chuckled. “But, I feel great, except for that my body is starting to do what it normally does as it gets older. Certain things start to go down, go out — I’m slowing down.”
Crowe rocks gently in his chair one recent sunny morning, in an old farmhouse he and his wife have owned for decades. Estimated to be around 140 years old, the humble abode is tucked in a valley just a stone’s throw from the intersection of N.C. 107 and 281 in rural Jackson County. Crowe glances out the window onto a large garden filled with flowers and creatures in his backyard, in the shadow of a mountain ridge reminiscent of his childhood growing up in Robbinsville.
As the crow flies, his Tuckasegee home is about 2,607 miles from the legendary City Lights bookstore (owned/operated by iconic poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who is still kicking at age 99) in the heart of San Francisco. But, in Crowe’s mind, that location, and the wild, wondrous writers and artists that once inhabited it, are a lot closer in his memory.
“Everybody has always told me I should write a book about San Francisco in the 1970s,” he said. “Well, I kind of have, if you look at all my books that I’ve written, that deal with that in one way or another. That story is really there, but I’ve never really written a complete narrative.”
A lifelong writer/poet, and one of much notoriety, Crowe just released Starting From San Francisco: The Baby Beat Generation and the Second San Francisco Renaissance (Third Mind Books). The book chronicles the literary (and other artistic) circles roaming the city following the counterculture movement that was created in post-World War II by the Beats and lasted through the late 1960s with the hippies who took over.
“The whole renaissance that went on in the Bay Area in the 1970s? This country has never seen anything like that, never, not even close,” Crowe marveled. “It was huge, all these different factions. And we all interacted in one way or another from time-to-time, all aware of what each other was doing. This made Paris in the 1920s look like small potatoes.”
Though most folks may be aware of the hippie movement of the 1960s, many might not realize that was a direct result of the seeds planted by the Beat Generation, a widely-scattered group of college students, societal dropouts and military veterans following World War II.
Who were the “Beats”? We’re talking the sorrowful poetry of Allen Ginsberg (most notably the poem “Howl”), the wildness Zen works of Gary Snyder, fringe writer William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch and Junky), the spiritually wacky wanderlust of Neal Cassady, and the “King of the Beats,” Jack Kerouac, with his seminal 1957 book On the Road.
That literary masterpiece, as close to earning the title of “The Great American Novel” since the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, launched a million dreams in the adolescent and young adult hearts of those wanting something more than the 1940s/1950s societal norms, plastic suburban expectations and material standards. That lifestyle was seen as neutering the creative free spirit, and it was the Beats who were saying as much for several years until the counterculture explosion of the 1960s.
And one of those millions of dreamers was Crowe. In the early 1970s, at age 21, he took off from Robbinsville, from Graham County, from Western North Carolina, and from the United States, with his eyes aimed at France, seeking to claim the romanticized writer’s paradise so many American exiles have sought across the pond for the better part of a century.
Thomas Rain Crowe and Neeli Cherkovski at the Proposition 15 Rally in Union Square Park in San Francisco, 1976. Pam Mosher photo
But that endeavor quickly faded, with Crowe hearing that the “real deal” was not in France at that time, but back in California, San Francisco to be specific. There resided the remaining members of the original Beat Generation, with troves of new faces relocating to the city every single day. So, he figured why not try his luck on the West Coast and set sail, arriving in 1973, only to immediately find himself right in the mix of the rapid change overtaking the city.
“I ended up in San Francisco and all my heroes (Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima) were hanging out, and available, and anxious to talk to all of us younger poets,” Crowe said. “There was nothing going on for [the remaining original Beats] in the early 1970s, the hippie movement and rock-n-roll did away with the Beats. They were just hanging around with nothing to do. And we got the idea to resurrect Beatitude magazine, and that really excited Ferlinghetti. That really lit the fire — it just got bigger and bigger.”
Establishing himself in and around the Bay Area, Crowe was now immersed in the what would become the Baby Beat movement, the second generation of the original Beats. But, that name would come from, perhaps, an unexpected person — Richard Brautigan. A haphazard, bull-in-a-China-shop character — in his writing and daily interactions — Brautigan (author of Trout Fishing in America and In Watermelon Sugar), considered a pillar of the Beat Generation, didn’t take too kindly to these new kids in town sniffing around his old stomping grounds, especially one evening when Crowe and his cronies rolled into Specs’ bar in North Beach.
Thomas Rain Crowe at the San Francisco International Poetry Festival, 1976. Pam Mosher photo
“[Baby Beats] — it’s just a convenient moniker, but it’s true. It was Brautigan, it was an epithet he threw at us one night in a bar,” Crowe reminisced. “‘You don’t want to mess around with these guys, they’re just a bunch of Baby Beats,’ [Brautigan chastised the young writers]. [Then we all] went to Brautigan’s apartment, sitting in his living room, drinking beer, where he then got in a fight [over his literary credibility].”
But, no matter the outcome of another wild night on the town. Crowe and his peers felt welcomed, and were in many respects.
“How lucky I was, and how much timing plays into everything in your life. It’s all about timing, and my timing just happened to be right,” Crowe said, “It was timing and luck, and how open and accommodating all these older guys were to us younger guys. They didn’t have to be, they were famous.”
And the Baby Beats would find themselves in cafes and dive bars, late at night or early in the morning, all sharing ideas, poems, artwork and optimism aimed in pursuit of whatever it took to evoke and nurture the creative spirit in an era of anti-Vietnam protests, environmental protests, women’s rights and gay rights marches, all amid uncertain times in the post-Nixon/pre-Reagan years.
“We used to call it the ‘university of the streets,’ because it was all going on in the cafes and the bars,” Crowe said. “You’re literally getting your education being in the aura and the presence of these people — it’s not classes and they’re not giving lectures.”
By 1979, some six or so years following his arrival, Crowe began to grow weary of the scene, ready for the next step, a new chapter. At the time, Crowe found himself living in a teepee in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California. The impending, harsh winter was upon him. He decided to head back to Western North Carolina and stay in the cabin of a now deceased old mountain man Crowe had befriended years earlier — an experience Crowe chronicled in his book Zoro’s Field, a throwback to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond.
“[The Baby Beats all] scattered in the late 1970s,” Crowe said. “But, I’ve been in touch with all of them ever since then. They’re not only family to me, they’re my literary tribe. They’re the most important group of people in my life, and I’m even including my biological family.”
When he returned to Western North Carolina, Crowe launched New Native Press, an independent publishing company (poetry, literary books, broadsides, recordings), one which was created in the same mold as Ferlinghetti’s City Lights. New Native is still pushing ahead in the digital age of the 21st century, sporadically releasing works from friends and colleagues of Crowe’s, mainly those from the Baby Beat circle.
In recent years, the idea for Starting from San Francisco came from a happenstance interaction. A summer resident in Cashiers, originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, started to read all of the works of renowned local authors (Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, David Joy), only to come across the works of Crowe.
“[And that summer resident and I] become good friends over the last couple of years. He went back to Ann Arbor and told this rare book dealer [there about me] whose specialty is the Beat Generation,” Crowe said. “[The book dealer has] got one of the biggest Beat collections of anyone in the world. And he told this guy about all the stuff that I had. The rare book dealer, Arthur Nusbaum of Third Mind Books, called me and asked me about my collection. I wrote it all out and sent it to him. He looked at it and got back to me right away, ‘I’d like to buy this collection.’ We’re talking a lot of stuff.”
Nusbaum made Crowe an offer for the collection he couldn’t refuse. Crowe could use the money, all while Nusbaum would preserve the collection where it would remain good hands. It was a win-win. Crowe sold the numerous boxes of documents, photographs, posters and trinkets. But Nusbaum wasn’t done. He would soon attend a yearly Beat Conference, and wanted to present Crowe’s collection, a way to introduce many Beat Generation freaks who might be in the dark about the subsequent Baby Beats.
“[Arthur] sent me 20 pages of questions [for background information], and he wanted me to answer all these questions. So, I started off with the first question, and next thing I knew I answered all of his questions — 90 pages of stuff I had written, because once I got in that space, the memories, getting back in that place in the 1970s, I just kept writing and writing,” Crowe said. “[Then Arthur called] with follow up questions to the questions. We talked for four hours on the phone. I’ve never talked for four hours on the phone. I’ve never even talked for an hour on the phone. Then, they transcribed the entire phone conversation. ‘We’re thinking about doing a book. We have so much material, we think it’d make a good book.’”
Thus, Starting From San Francisco was born. Part anthology of Crowe’s personal collection, part Q&A from Crowe’s conversations. This past summer, Crowe traveled back to San Francisco to the Beat Museum for the book launch.
“This book is not about ‘me’ — it’s all about ‘us.’ It’s all about what went down in the seventies in San Francisco,” Crowe said. “This book is history. It’s about the Beat tradition, now in its third generation. It’s been passed down hand-to-hand. And all of us Baby Beats are now hanging out with younger people who are from that tradition or identify with that tradition.”
And yet, as he’s knocking on the door of 70, Crowe doesn’t come across as a man of his age. His mind, heart and soul are a timeless source of creativity, curiosity and compassion.
“I believe in destiny. I think there’s something going on that we don’t understand. People talk about souls, but I think there’s more physics involved in it than we know about,” Crowe said. “Destiny, whatever it is, and I think it was kind of written that this is the way I was supposed to live my life. Apparently, there’s nothing you can do to avoid that. You can try, but I think you still end up where you’re supposed to be, in the end.”
Want to know more?
Anyone interested in purchasing a copy of Thomas Rain Crowe’s Starting From San Francisco: The Baby Beat Generation and the Second San Francisco Renaissance, can go to www.thirdmindbooks.com and click on the “Browse” tab for the “New Arrivals” section.