In 1965, when I was fifteen, I started hanging around at the Venice West Cafe. It was so classic as to be almost a cliché — a dank little hole in the wall, with wooden bench seats and tables. Of course, they served espresso, and the place was always full of (to me at that age) coolly romantic hipsters, complete with shades, turtlenecks — yeah, even berets. The radio played modern jazz — Monk, Coltrane, Mingus, Bird, or folk — Dylan, Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, as well as old and obscure (at the time) stuff like Bill Munroe, Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie. Poetry readings were frequent. The place was like a Mecca to me at that point in my life.
At that time, it was run by John and Anna Haag, who had taken over from Stuart Perkoff who had started it. They, too, struck me as almost impossibly romantic – for one thing, they were stylish and attractive people, and that only served to amplify their general hipness. More importantly, they defied authority, got away with it, and sometimes even won. And to a fifteen year old boy feeling trapped in the web of adult authority (as most do) that right there is the Holy Grail.
So I spent a lot of time there. I heard a lot of good music, heard a lot of good (and execrably bad) poetry, and learned …well, a great deal more about life than I knew I was learning at the time. I got to rub shoulders with people like Taylor Meade, Claire Horner*, and a whole menagerie of creative, edgy people who were pushing toward the next thing – and there was almost a tension in the air, a compelling sense that something exciting and world-changing was about to happen. And I think I was a lot better off there than I would have been in a “youth soccer” program.
Sometimes, I worry that parents overprotect their kids these days. The typically obsessed, terrified, “helicopter” parent of today wouldn’t consider letting their teenager hang out with a bunch of degenerates such as infested the VW. And I fear that a whole lot of kids are going to suffer poorer, shallower lives because of that.
I’m just very, very fortunate that I had the chance to experience the things I did growing up in a community such as Venice was then. I hope those kind of experiences will always be there for kids – there is no substitute to be found in Disneyland.
* To be mentioned later.