Tue 29 Apr 2008
Fifty years ago this month, the late columnist Herb Caen of The San Francisco Chronicle coined the word “beatnik.”
As it happened, a recognized Beat Generation — epitomized in literature by poet Allen Ginsberg and novelist Jack Kerouac — had made its presence known over the previous decade, and six months earlier, the Soviet Union had begun the “space race” by launching Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the globe. With his typical whimsy, Caen in April 1958 blended the two names into beatnik.
This much of what I remember I can confirm. What I can’t confirm is my vague recollection of why Caen did it. I welcome any correction, but if my memory is accurate, it was in reference to an otherwise-not-bad Beat who one day lost it and ended up destroying property in North Beach.*
On this mostly unnoticed but nonetheless historic anniversary, it would seem appropriate to comment on Sausalito’s No Name bar. It too began five decades ago, but its connection to the Beat Era runs deeper.
“When the bar first opened, it was a beatnik bar,” Michael Aragon, drummer and bandleader, told me last week. (Seen here performing with Aragon are Rob Roth on sax and Pierre Archain on bass.)
“Lots of folks like Jack Kerouac, [actor] Sterling Hayden, Allen Ginsberg, and the like hung out there and played chess, read poetry, wore lots of berets and horned-rimmed glasses, and played bongo drums,” said Aragon, who schedules the music at the No Name. “And how can we forget the cigarettes?”
In the No Name’s protected garden where smoking is still permitted, Michael Hall plays chess four times a week, as he has for 20 years. Hall, an electrical contractor who lives on a houseboat, is but one of the bar’s regular chess players.
Along with chess and smoking, cool jazz and bebop from the Beat Era are alive and well and living in Sausalito. “I have been blessed with the opportunity to keep jazz music alive at the No Name for the past 25 years,” Aragon said. “This is the longest-running, continuous jazz gig in Marin County.
“This in itself is a miracle, considering that most people believe that the only way to survive in the club world is to constantly inundate the mind with tremendous amounts of decibels.”
Trombonist Mal Sharpe, who heads the Big Money in Jazz Band, has played Dixieland jazz Sunday afternoons at the the No Name for roughly 15 years, he told me this week. Thanks to YouTube, Sharpe and his band can be seen and heard playing at the bar by clicking on The Sunny Side of the Street or St. Louis Blues.
“The bar is a unique place,” Aragon remarked, “because on one side of you there could be sitting a homeless person and on the other side, someone that owns a $50 million yacht. What I have tried to do over the years is make sure that no matter what, everyone is treated the same.”
There is music at the bar seven nights a week. On Friday and Saturday, jazz groups play from 9 p.m. to 12:30 a.m., and on Sundays, there is Dixieland from 3 to 7 p.m.
On Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, the No Name features blues and folk music from 8:30 p.m. to midnight. On Tuesdays, an open microphone is held from 8:30 p.m. to midnight.
The bar is now under its fifth ownership, Aragon told me, and as the sign out front reveals, No Name is not really the bar’s name. It literally is a bar with no name. Check the phone book; you’ll find it listed as “no name 757 Bridgeway Sau.”
There’s also no cover charge, and the audience is always a mix of oldtimers who were around for the Beat Era, tourists, and fans of live-music, especially jazz.
* Over time, the term “beatnik” came to refer anyone with the supposed trappings of Beat writers and artists: berets, dark glasses, dark clothing, and a propensity to use hipster slang. For Ginsberg and Kerouac, “Beats” were down-and-out wanderers who also were visionaries. Both writers resented their quixotic outcasts’ being confused with “beatniks.”