Lawrence Ferlinghetti died last week. I can't say I was crushed by the news, because I thought he had died 20 or 30 years ago. But he was a hero of mine. I read his poetry. And mostly I loved his leadership in promoting freedom.
His obituary included the quote: "I'm just the guy who tended the bookstore."
The bookstore, and the publishing house that was associated with it, was San Francisco's City Lights Booksellers. It may be the most famous bookstore in America, so just tending it was a life well lived.
But Ferlinghetti was more than a bookseller. He was at the center of the Beat Generation that in turn was the spiritual core of the later counterculture. He was around doing his thing while Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were still on the road. City Lights published Ginsberg's "Howl," still one of the most controversial and dangerous poems ever written.
"Angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night …"
City Lights was sued for obscenity over the publication and won the case when the judge said the poem had redeeming qualities. The trial opened the door for other "questionable" works to see the light of day.
For me, a special memory of this angelheaded hipster was when he delivered the benediction for the Band's "The Last Waltz."
"For thine is the wigdom and power and glory, oh, man!"
It gave a little touch of class to the whole proceedings, and helped emphasize the connection between the Beats and the Hippies.
Ferlinghetti lived to be 101. Toward the end, some saw him as being a little cranky, especially about the transformation of his beloved San Francisco into a tech center. He said the new tech boomers arrived with satchels of money "and no manners."
His "Coney Island of the Mind" was almost required reading during the counterculture era, but I don't think he'll be remembered for his writing so much as for his role in letting geniuses like Kerouac, Ginsburg and many, many others flourish. He was a stage setter, an agenda adjuster.
He said that love and hate were both viruses. Hate infected the world with misery while love's infection caused the world to bloom. Ferlinghetti was the gardener in the background.
He was just that guy tending the bookstore.
Al Zdon lives in Mounds View.