the beats

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The Story of the Gaslight Café, Where Dylan Premiered ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall’

This week, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.

MacDougal Street where once was the Gaslight Café (© Kasper van Laarhoven)

MacDougal Street where once was the Gaslight Café (© Kasper van Laarhoven)

Bartenders with beards and tattoos serve $15 cocktails to a sharply dressed, late-20s public at what is now the Up & Up. The menu instructs: “Gentlemen will please refrain from approaching ladies. Ladies are welcome to start a conversation or ask a bartender to introduce you.” What would Kerouac have thought of that? “Refrain” is not much of a Beat chorus.

It isn’t hard to imagine the place as it was. Strip away the 2016 fanciness, insert a small stage and there you are: the legendary subterranean Gaslight Café of half a century ago.

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Howl’Ya Honor Ginsberg? By Going to This Beat Poetry Fest

Police cadets reading "Howl" (Photo: Gordon Ball, courtesy of Howl!)

Police cadets reading “Howl” (Photo: Gordon Ball, courtesy of Howl!)

If Allen Ginsberg were still croaking around today, he would’ve just celebrated his 90th birthday. I can see it now– the old man and his expansive beard, its gnarls wafting gently at the rims of coke-bottle glasses. He’d invariably be rocking sandals (whatever to the people locking eye-to-fungi) while boy servants fan him with palm leaves, gently though, so he can still roll those double-sized fatty spliff-spliffs from pages ripped out of On the Road and intermittently flash people from underneath his dashiki. Inevitably, James Franco would be VJing a Howl ft. Grimes remix and everything, everything would be lost.

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Paradise Alley Was the Beat Generation’s ‘Oasis in the Middle of Chaos’

501 East 11th Street ca. 1940 (photo: New York City Municipal Archives) and today (photo: Frank Mastropolo).

501 East 11th Street ca. 1940 (photo: New York City Municipal Archives) and today (photo: Frank Mastropolo).

The senior housing complex on the northeast corner of Avenue A and East 11th Street hardly looks like a landmark of Beat culture. But there, at 501 East 11th Street, three buildings shared a courtyard where residents gathered to talk, eat and drink wine. Fifties-era hipsters called it Paradise Alley.

The complex first drew attention in 1958 when Jack Kerouac published The Subterraneans, inspired by his affair five years earlier with black poet Alene Lee. The original version of the short novel was set in Paradise Alley, where Lee lived, and used her real name. For legal reasons, her character was re-written as Mardou Fox, one of the novel’s jazz club crowd; Kerouac’s character pursues an affair with Fox at her tenement apartment in what was changed to Heavenly Lane in San Francisco.
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