I was born in 1949 and so I came of age in the 1960s, but it was the 1950s that informed and coloured so much of my early life and tastes. A year ago this week, we lost two of the most influential figures of that time: the Beat poet Michael McClure, and Little Richard, one of the true originators of rock and roll.
McClure was one of the organizers of the Six Gallery reading in 1955 that introduced us to Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia and Kenneth Rexroth, gave us Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, and began what is called the San Francisco Renaissance. In his semi-fictional account of that night published as Scratching the Surface of the Beats in 1982, McClure recalled:
“The world that we tremblingly stepped out into in that decade was a bitter, gray one. But San Francisco was a special place. Rexroth said it was to the arts what Barcelona was to Spanish Anarchism. Still, there was no way, even in San Francisco to escape the pressure of the war culture. we were locked in the pressure of the Cold War and the first Asian debacle — the Korean War. My self image in those years was of finding myself — young, high, a little crazed, needing a haircut, in an elevator with burly crew-cutted, square jawed eminences, staring at me like I was misplaced cannon fodder. … We saw that the art of poetry was essentially dead — killed by war, by academies, by neglect, by lack of love, and by disinterest. We knew we could bring it back to life.”
““It was the critical moment for the Beat Generation, the grouping together of five young proto-anarchists and Buddhists,” said McClure of the Six Gallery Reading. “As we spoke, we realized from the results that we were speaking for the people. We were saying what they needed and wanted to hear, and that encouraged us. We drew a line in the sand and decided not to back off that line.”
I only learned of that event many years later when McClure became a key part of the late 60s revolution, reading at events such as the Human Be-In, the Band’s Last Waltz concert, writing Mercedes Benz for Janis Joplin, and his later close association with Ray Manzarek of the Doors. I wolfed down huge amounts of McClure and it has stayed with me.
He published more than 30 books of poetry and plays. He died at age 87.
And then there was Little Richard. In just three years, 1956 to 1958, Little Richard created both a sound and a bravura that would mark rock and roll for ever. His squealing, his heavy gospel-inspired piano pounding, his quasi-erotic lyrics, his pompadour and flashy clothes, and his androgynous sexuality set the style from which almost all pop and rock has followed to this day. “I heard Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, and that was it,” Elton John told Rolling Stone in 1973. “I didn’t ever want to be anything else.”
He had already retired and become a preacher by then time I was really listening to music, but his songs — Long Tall Sally, Tutti Frutti, Good Golly Miss Molly — were covered by the Beatles and just about everyone else I followed in the early 60s. He and Jerry Lee Lewis gave us excitement.
Little Richard was also 87 when he died.