By Marty Liboff
YOU ARE ALL UNDER ARREST!! John Haag started our beloved Beachhead newspaper in 1968. He had run the legendary Venice West Cafe at 7 Dudley Ave. in Venice from 1962 to 1966 with his wonderful wife Anna. Believe it or not, you could be arrested back then just for reading a poem with a 4 letter word or displaying a painting with a naked woman! No matter that our museums are full of naked Roman statues and Ruben’s paintings of large nude women – back then the moral police could harass and arrest you for this!
In the mid 1950s the North Beach in San Francisco and Greenwich Village in New York had like a crazy new movement called the Beats. Man, like people would like write poetry and sometimes beat like cool bongo drums. Jazz music, beards, drugs, sandals, and sex were all part of the beatnick counter-culture. They believed that each of us has his/her inner artist that can come out in painting, poetry, dance, music, ceramics, photography, writing and sculpture. They invented their own hip lingo. Dig it man, it’s far out! Many had come from affluent families and had good educations but had rebelled against the excess consumerism that Americans were sold into after WWII and the Korean wars. They thought of themselves as cool hip cats and everyone else wearing suits and slaving for the almighty dollar were squares.
The Venice West Cafe Expresso was started in 1957 by the bearded and man like crazy Beat poet Stuart Perkoff. Another older writer and poet, Lawrence Lipton had moved to Venice and had successful poetry readings at his house and other homes around Venice. Alan Ginsberg, Anais Nin and other famous poets of the day had come there. Lawrence had become the shaman of the new Venice West Beats and a mentor to the younger Stuart. Lawrence thought maybe he could start a Beat movement in our like cool town by the sea. Venice was a nice, but run down mostly Jewish neighborhood. The rents were cheap and a few artists already lived in the many turn of the century cottages and cheap hotels, some that were built by our town’s founder Abbot Kinney. Stuart Perkoff saw how successful Lawrence Lipton’s Beat poetry sessions were and thought a coffee shop with poetry and maybe some jazz and paintings by new Beat artists would be fun. He borrowed some “bread” otherwise known as a few bucks from his parents and rented the little store at 7 Dudley Ave. and turned it into a coffee shop. Little did he know such a seemingly innocent venture would cause a moral fire storm!
Stuart proclaimed, “Men & women of Venice, lovers, children, holy citizens of the heavenly city, all around you there is the sweet air of love!” The cafe opened and became a family hangout for the artists of Venice and Perkoff”s kids and pals. It had bare brick walls that were decorated with new art and poetic sayings. A mixed lot of old tables and chairs filled the room. There was an old fridge and stove behind a counter and you felt you were sitting in Stuart’s living room or his pad. There was a chess set and usually a conga drum. Splattered on one wall was the saying, “Art is love is God”. There were only a couple dozen or so regular Beats around Venice and how could they drink enough coffee and sandwiches to keep it going? Many of the Venice regulars like had no bread or were broke anyway. Right away the city came down on these beatniks with any health violation they could think of. Poor Stuart was disillusioned by a lack of paying customers and the city’s harassment and sold the business in 1959 for $200 to John Kenevan.
Lawrence Lipton and others of the hip Beat movement had gone on radio and TV. Lawrence declared that, “Venice West is to Los Angeles what the Left Bank once was to Paris!” Books were being written about the Beats like Lipton’s very popular book, “The Holy Barbarians”. His book and talks sometimes mentioned the Venice West Cafe. Soon the cafe was booming with tourists and would-be beatniks. Tourists came with cameras. Tourists walked the Ocean Front Walk searching for someone that might look like “Maynard G. Krebs”, the funny beatnik on the “Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” TV show, so they could take their picture. TV and radio reporters came to show these wild “barbarians”. Beatniks were suddenly so popular that Stuart Perkoff even got on the Groucho Marx TV show, “You Bet Your Life”!
Down near Windward Ave. Eric “Big Daddy” Nord rented an old Abbot Kinney building on the Ocean Front and called it the Gas House. “But it’s alright now, in fact it’s a gas!” It was a haven for the beatniks and their art and music. “Big Daddy” was a bearded giant daddy-o at 6 foot 8 inches and up to 400 pounds! He left the San Francisco beatnik scene after failing with a Beat joint there and tried his luck in Venice. Suddenly there were two cool Beat hangouts in Venice.
Almost immediately some local realtors and developers tried to rally the square community to close them down and throw these worthless bums out. They got our local bureaucrats and the LAPD to join in the harassment. They complained about weird people, drugs and noisy music. They screamed that beatniks were lowering property values on the beach. Sound familiar today? They had undercover agents hang out at the cafe and Gas House and they reported nudity and drinking. Some ranted about immorality like Black men kissing White women! The police declared that you needed an entertainment license to read a poem and closed them down. The health department came up with any excuse to shut them down. Lawyers for the Beats kept the Gas House open for a while but they couldn’t have poetry shows or allow the beatniks to live there anymore. In 1963 the city forced the closure and demolition of the Gas House and the beautiful old Saint Marks Hotel next door. The city began condemning many of the old buildings around Windward Ave. They figured if they demolish the cheap housing then these “undesirables” will have to go away. “Big Daddy” returned to San Francisco.
In around 1960 a young, good looking John Haag and his beautiful wife Anna came to Venice. He wanted to be a Venice West poet. John was born in 1930 in N.Y. He was a well educated Harvard man. Anna was born in 1937 in Italy. In the early 1960s they rented a small space next door to the cafe and called it the Venice Music and Arts Center. They figured this tiny spot would have music, art and poetry. They became activists in several civil rights groups. In 1962 they took over the Venice West Cafe next door from John Kenevan. Kenevan, like Perkoff, had been constantly picked on by the police, the health department, city hall and some prudish neighbors. Kenevan was happy to turn the cafe over to John and Anna Haag.
In 1964 John Haag sounded a cowbell in the cafe and a poet came up and read a poem. Immediately four plain-clothed vice officers planted in the audience and at least four more regular cops arrested John for entertainment without a police permit. Soon after our Venice city councilman tried to outlaw playing drums along the public beach. Mayor Yorty talked about bulldozing all of Venice and starting over!
John and Anna didn’t go down without a fight. They got lawyers and kept having poetry. The city council went ahead and outlawed drums on the beach at that time and continued to harass John and other beatniks. My mother ran a bakery in the Cadillac Hotel a few feet away and I hung out by the cafe often. I remember well one incident where John was arrested and his wife Anna began screeching like a mad lioness at the cops! She and John were both awesome people. We thought of them as the King and Queen of Venice! John began orchestrating demonstrations at city hall. He got radio and TV to cover some of the proceedings.
I used to go and hang out sometimes at the cafe. John and Anna were good friends with my mom, Ruthie in the bakery. I was 14 ½ when they took over the cafe. After they opened I liked to go and read the magazines and books. They put some free newspapers by the door and there were reading copies of books and magazines by the window. There were new books and magazines by the counter. I loved to look through them for cartoons but John would get mad at me for soiling his new books. “Go read the free books!” he would tell me. I would always tell him I had already looked at all the free stuff. He knew I wasn’t going to buy anything! Maybe once I bought a magazine? A cheap one…
Anna ran the cafe. She took food orders, made coffee and sandwiches, served the food and ran the cash register. When it was busy she had another worker help. John would shmooz with the Beats and customers. Sometimes he would get up and read his newest poem. They would often have jazz playing on their stereo or radio in the back while you sat on a junky chair or old couch writing your newest poem. The music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie “Bird” and Mingus were playing in the background while people with berets and goatees sat and sipped coffee. John and Anna and many of the Beats smoked cigarettes in those days and smoke wafted about the room. Most smoked the sacred herb but they usually did that outside in a pagoda or on the sand for fear of the cops. Back then pot was a serious offense. Usually they were opened from dusk to morning. When the sun began to fall the Beat werewolves with bushy beards would begin to like howl their poems to the moon. Usually you would go up to Anna or John and tell them you had a poem and they would ring a bell and you would “blow” your thing. I really loved Anna like a second mom. John and Anna knew me as “Ruthie’s son”. I’d love to go back there now…
Some summer weekend nights when I went to the cafe the place was packed. There were wild eyed bearded men and dancing women even outside. There was the smell of funny cigarettes in the air. Sometimes it was so crowded you couldn’t get in. I remember a couple nights I just stood by the door to try and listen to the poets or a folk singer. I heard that a young unknown poet by the name of Jim Morrison used to come there and listen to poetry. Many times there was someone playing a drum with the poetry. Tamboo the conga drummer had used to be a regular.
In 1966 the owner of the property who hated commies tried to evict John and Anna. Once again they tried to rally support for their cafe. John and Anna had been battling in the courts and from jail and at city hall since they opened the first day! After a dirty battle in court by the owner, the judge gave the Venice West Cafe a temporary stay. However, John and Anna had enough. John had originally come to Venice to be a poet, not to be involved in courts, demonstrations and jail. Sadly, soon after the court battle they gave it up. Business had slumped also. Several bigger and prettier clubs had opened around L.A. The times were also a changing. The beatnik hipsters were transforming into hippies. Jazz and folk music was eclipsed by rock music. Reading poetry wasn’t as cool anymore as listening to rock ‘n’ roll. Jim Morrison began putting his poems to rock music instead of just bongo drums. His music became his poetry.
The civil rights movement in the early 1960s had gotten many people organized politically to fight racism in our country. The war in Vietnam had begun to stir anti-war sentiment. John Haag had written poems even in the late 1950s that were against war. The war began to have more and more killings on both sides, and John and Anna began to put more of their energy into the growing anti-war movement. Their experiences with city hall and the cops while running the cafe made them even more politically aware. He traveled up north to Washington State and a local group called the Peace and Freedom Party was supporting local anti-war candidates from both the Democrats and Republicans. He dreamed of a real Peace and Freedom Party that would have its own candidates. He returned to Venice and began to organize a new political party with his local pals. He liked the name Peace and Freedom Party and it won out over several other names. So the real Peace and Freedom Party was born in Venice in 1967. They had a terrible time getting the party on the ballot because both Democrats and Republicans didn’t want another political party to take away their votes. John and his new group needed 68,000 people to register in the new party. This meant you had to change your party affiliation from Democrat or Republican to Peace and Freedom. They had to battle all sorts of obstacles. With plenty of hard work they got 105,000 people to register to the new Peace and Freedom Party. He had stopped me walking on the boardwalk many a time to bug me to help him get signatures or to go to some rally or demonstration. I went once or twice but I usually tried to think up some excuse! I wasn’t very political. I spent all my spare time playing basketball. I told John on their first try with their own candidates that he should run for President. He told me that nobody outside Venice knows him and they needed someone with name recognition. He said maybe he might run at some later time and he did run for President later on. The Peace and Freedom Party ran Eldridge Cleaver who was well known at the time. During the war years the new party got quite a few votes. More recently, in 2012 they ran the comedienne Roseanne Barr for President.
John thought they needed a voice for the new party and their anti-war ideals. They thought of having a radio or TV show, but John figured they could start with a local newspaper. In 1968 the Free Venice Beachhead began. “This paper is a poem” was his idea to have poetry, art and political and local news that is ignored or misreported in the other newspapers. When asked what “Beachhead” meant John said, “It’s a military term describing the initial phase of an invasion. But of course I had in mind that we were all beach heads!” He didn’t want to run the paper himself and thought a collective of people who care could run it. He worked on the first couple of issues, but he was spending more and more time on the Peace and Freedom Party. John reminisced about the Beachhead, “ Of course it was all volunteer. Nobody got paid or anything. The personnel in the collective changed from time to time, and sometimes fairly rapidly, but there were always people to come in and put the paper out. I think it was some kind of miracle!” He tried to let the collective run things on the Beachhead. I wanted to be a cartoonist and had done some cartoons in college newspapers. The Beachhead printed a few of my cartoons in 1978 and ‘79. At one point some new collective members began editing my cartoons and I went to whine to John. He told me that the collective decides on the content and he didn’t want to interfere, although he enjoyed my cartoons. I quit, but later I still occasionally submitted a cartoon. Here I am again writing for the Beachhead! I feel I owe John and Anna much for their contributions to Venice. John’s poems and the poets at the coffee house had inspired me and still inspire me now!
Everyone was devastated in Venice when our King and Queen, John and Anna broke up. This was a major tragedy because together they were such a powerful force. Anna once said, “I might love a man, but I love Venice more!” John and Anna continued to work on politics and civil rights until they passed away. John still wrote poems until the end. Anna died in 2003 and John in 2006. Today the Peace and Freedom Party continues the fight against wars. Despite many not believing our Beachhead would ever work, our paper still continues on while most newspapers of that era are long gone. Let us hope and pray our Beachhead will go on forever… Well all you groovy chicks and hip cats, I blew my like crazy thing! It’s time for me to cut out and split until the next cool time. Far out man, ya dig it?
A Short Beat Glossary:
“BLOW” To sound off either with music, poems or words.
“CAT” A sexy cool male beatnik.
“CHICK” The male beatnik’s Beat girlfriend or any cute gal.
“COOL” Anything you like a lot is cool; cool jazz, cool painting…
“CRAZY” Anything that is kind of wild or new
“CUT OUT” To take one’s leave. To leave.
“DIG” To understand.
“FAR OUT” It really sends you or impresses you. Also, way out.
“GAS” The best, or greatest of times.
“GROOVE OR GROOVY” With it. In the (record) groove. Playing with the beat. Something nice.
“HEAD” Someone smart and also someone who smoked pot.
“HIP” To know. Knowledgeable. In the new style.
“JOINT” A place like a cafe. Also a marijuana cigarette.
“LIKE” To make sense of. Comparative reality.
“MAN” Giving greater emphasis to. Also the police, “The Man”.
“PAD” Your apartment or home.
“SPLIT” To leave or go.
“SQUARE” A conformist to society and culture who can’t drop his suit and tie.
“SWING” Uninhibited. Able to swing with music.
Beachhead, Dec.2003 article by John Haag. ‘Venice West’, 1991 by John Maynard. ‘John Haag Speaks’,YouTube, 2002, posted by Jim Smith. ‘Bohemians’, 2000 by Elizabeth Wilson. ‘Holy Barbarians’,1959 by Lawrence Lipton. Beachhead interview of John Haig, 2002 by Suzy Williams. ‘Venice California Coney Island of the Pacific’, by Jeffrey Stanton. Various -Wikipedia, etc.
This Paper is a Poem
By Marty Liboff
This paper is a poem
We laugh and cry
In joy and sadness
We recite, read and sing
Poems of the world gone wrong
Poems of the world gone right
Beauty and hell
Good and bad times
The changes, the years
The tears, the fears
The misery of the masses
The pain and happiness of an individual
Mankind cursed by society
Money mad developers and corporations
Banks, police, judges
Picking on the poor and helpless
And also the blessings…
The blessings of our Mother Earth
The beauty of a seagull flying by
And the simple kindness of good souls
We laugh and lament
To the passings and new births and new beginnings
The Muses recite and sing to us
The 9 Sisters tell us everything
In adversity we learn and gain strength
For hope for a better future
A poem of life
A song we sing
Sing, sing your song
Of liberty, freedom and love
This paper is a poem…