Features & Columns

Tech Bros Forget Beat
Generation's Imprint

Turns out the museum is currently angling to raise a cool few million
so it can buy a new facility up the street.
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page (left) recently wandered into The Beat Museum to reminisce with Jerry Cimino. Photo courtesy of the Beat Museum

Last week, I slithered back into the Beat Museum in San Francisco, arriving by sheer chance. Turns out the museum is currently angling to raise a cool few million so it can buy a new facility up the street.

Within minutes, director Jerry Cimino and I found ourselves venting—er, contemplating—the current generations of tech in San Jose, San Francisco and everywhere between, especially how they seem clueless to the counterculture history of these parts.

"Silicon Valley, as we know it today, wouldn't exist without The Beat Generation," Cimino said. "In many ways, Beat Generation values became Bay Area values. One of the reasons so many young people want to live here is because the Bay Area is the leading edge and the Beats made it hip."

Decades ago, Cimino worked at IBM on Cottle Road in San Jose. After he was finished with the corporate world, he launched the first incarnation of the Beat Museum in Monterey in 2003, before relocating it to North Beach a few years later.

However, one doesn't have to look very far to find local vibes and flavors these geniuses left behind. For example, Jack Kerouac first discovered Buddhism by stealing a book from the San Jose Public Library. That was the early '50s, when he often visited Neal and Carolyn Cassady, who lived on East Santa Clara Street, in a house that still exists. In addition to Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg briefly lived in a detached flat out back. Cassady also bopped around Los Gatos and other backwaters of the South Bay, along with Ken Kesey and several troublemakers from the same circles of free spirits. In fact, Cassady's son, John, still lives near these parts, as does Al Hinkle, immortalized as Big Ed Dunkel in Kerouac's On the Road.

And then there's Steve Jobs. When Steve and Dan Kottke tripped around India in the early '70s, one of the books they carried with them was Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. The influence of Eastern perspectives on the psyche of Steve Jobs is more than well-documented.

This may seem like free association, but there really wouldn't be a Silicon Valley without counterculture, mind-expansion and Eastern mysticism. Twenty-somethings and their blasted UX startups don't realize this. Certainly, each 12-person party of obnoxious tech bros ordering glorified slurpee drinks that take five minutes to make, and then asking for separate checks and not tipping, don't know their roots lie in compassion, altruism, Zen, poetry, green tea, antiestablishment intellectualism, ecological movements, bisexual orgies and everything else the Beats exemplified.

Which brings us back to the Beat Museum, chock-full of memorabilia, artifacts and former belongings of all the heavyweights, so much that even Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin also recently wandered in by chance. According to Cimino, the guitarist gushed over the museum's authenticity. Alas, due to grotesque Bay Area rents, the only way to effectively operate such a museum is to own a building. So that's the grand plan.

Thus the museum's plight is a familiar one, but it should inspire the rest of the Bay Area if Cimino's plan works out. Luckily, just a few blocks away sits an abandoned bank, two stories but zoned for four. Since the building is empty, no tenants would be displaced. As a result, Cimino has now orchestrated an elaborate network of outreach to celebrities, philanthropists and politicians, all of whom understand the massive historical significance and influence of the Beats on the Bay Area. Everyone involved is hip to the gravity of the gig. The goal is to raise five million smackeroos.

"The next group of people I want to approach are Silicon Valley movers and shakers," Cimino said. "Because so many of them are following the same dream. They came out here, probably many of them not even knowing why they love this place. And I submit the reason the Bay Area is so magnificent to so many people is because the Beats made it what it is."

Surely there must be some potential heroes here in the South Bay, maybe some Valley entrepreneurs or corporate donors, with a stash to spare. What a great way to give back.

Find more info about The Beat Museum at www.kerouac.com.