Lionel Rolfe and the Rise and Fall of the L.A. Coffeehouses

Someone told the drunk to shut up. Actually, they did differ on that last score a bit. The lasting popularity of Literary L.A. It turned out Lennon had just published a book about Jarry — more an appreciation than a proper biography — illustrated by the cartoonist Bill Griffith. The Onyx may have been the little hole in the wall that actually started the mid-1980s explosion of coffeehouses across the country. “Why was it that Zionism, which is after all Jewish people’s nationalism, [was] not to be tolerated, and Arab nationalism or black nationalism was kosher?” he asks, and concludes: “I suppose that idealism always takes a back seat to a certain cynicism or even religiosity as one grows older.”
I remember going to several of Nigey and Lionel’s dinner parties at their apartment on Maltman Avenue, circa 1990, where their friends skewed toward the academic and musical. Well, maybe the cliché was right: L.A. “Standing on a street corner waiting for no one is Power,” the Beat poet Gregory Corso wrote in 1959. “I went to the Gas House in Venice, sure. “It was a good marriage,” he recalls with a sigh. Like the obscure phantoms that populate Henry Miller’s Book of Friends (1976), these were literary hangers-on, members of the Nigey and Lionel gang in Silver Lake: an eccentric coffeehouse proprietor named Monty Muns; John Harris, the owner of a hip bookshop in Santa Monica; and Gene Vier, a Times copyeditor. That’s what the Beats and bohemians like Lionel Rolfe still celebrate: the art of apparently doing nothing, exercising one’s “negative capability” (remember that?), simply taking the world in and inhaling “great draughts of space,” to quote another footloose bohemian, the great Walt Whitman. With his scraggly, bushy beard and a smile that was more like a toothy grimace, Lionel didn’t talk much about himself. premiere of Barfly (1987). “All these places are now Starbucks,” grouses Rolfe. For decades, one of the more threadbare clichés about Los Angeles has been its status as the site of the apocalypse. My friend, illustrator Jonathon Rosen, introduced us. This was back in dim and distant 1983, at the old Onyx Café on Sunset Boulevard, next door to the Vista Theatre. We talked about stuff like the surrealists and Alfred Jarry. Some of these stories have gone into his novels and memoirs: Last Train North (1987), Death and Redemption in London & L.A. Before then, all you had were, well, coffee shops, like Norms on La Cienega Boulevard. Nigey and Lionel came into the Onyx one night; they were finalizing an exhibit (upstairs) of Matt Groening’s early cartoon drawings. The old dreams of paradise, whether socialist, agrarian, or midcentury consumerist (not to mention the old racist “White Spot of America” boosterism of the 1920s), are mostly long gone. And the Xanadu, a coffeehouse on Melrose Avenue that was near LACC, where I’d meet up with Art Kunkin before he started the Los Angeles Free Press. Nigey moved to Cape Cod with a boyfriend and, surprisingly, spent the last years of her life badmouthing L.A. Lionel and Nigey’s marriage must have been great for a while. “Hey, I’m the guy they made the movie about! You shut up!”
Aside from Bukowski, the lineup of characters in Literary L.A. Then I learned that her husband wrote books too. “I’ve never seen a flophouse as empty and clean as that one!” he yelled during one scene. (Full disclosure: I have not checked out his quirkier titles, like Presidents & Near Presidents I Have Known [2009].)
The well-worn ruts inside a mind that sees the world through old-lefty spectacles have been scraped down to the bedrock, expressed in resentments against every variation you can imagine of that menacing old phantom, “the man”: Trump, capitalism, the current publishers of the Los Angeles Times, et cetera. It was amazing for me to meet someone in Los Angeles who actually wrote books, let alone interesting ones. I didn’t know at the time we met that the Onyx Café represented a dream come true for Lionel, a kind of return to the old Venice and L.A. “Between the late 1950s and about 1960 there were upward of a hundred coffeehouses in L.A.,” he told me recently. ¤
Anthony Mostrom, a former Los Angeles Times columnist, is currently a book reviewer and travel writer for the LA Weekly. into print just over a year earlier. Bukowski was drunk, yelling at the screen. is about as far from utopian as it’s ever been. The book was, like its author, nerdy, informed, comical. Although Lionel makes no great claims of friendship with Bukowski, he describes (in the book’s later, revised edition) a tag-along evening when he and Nigey joined “Buk” to see the L.A. But bohemianism (and its kindly grandfather, humanism) still implies reading, as in books. Other people in the audience were getting annoyed. Whether it was Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), or the alarmism of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (1990), Los Angeles emerged as a place of hollow desolation. of the 1950s. Indeed, though a frequent traveler, Rolfe has never lived far outside of L.A. An old L.A.-communist newspaperman named Lincoln Haynes, then in his 80s, once admonished me over the din: “We natives of San Peedro never pronounce it San Paydro.” Fun times. (1981, revised in 2002), and a recent book of think pieces and essays, The Fat Man Returns: The Elusive Hunt for California Bohemia and Other Matters (2017). “Perhaps the Communist Party was only a detour in my life,” he writes in his book Fat Man on the Left, describing himself as a “red” during his days as a student at Los Angeles City College (LACC). Lionel surely mourns these impediments to enlightened bohemianism, though he still publishes regularly online, and even tweets. Oh, well. There was much wine, no pot, and the room would get very loud. Nigey loved early Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, and was friends with both musicians. But to think that there was once an epidemic of poetry readings across Los Angeles in an endless array of funky, independent coffeehouses … maybe you remember them. “Hopeless. I can say anything I want to. is “fascist.” (It should be noted that Rolfe is one of those political people whose personality is nonetheless easygoing, though he does often seem worried.)
Two of Rolfe’s heroes are San Francisco–born novelist and pamphleteer (yes, that used to be considered an occupation) Jack London, a vigorous public promoter of socialism, and Mark Twain, a defender of democracy and science. is undoubtedly thanks, in some significant part, to the presence therein of Lionel’s onetime fellow Los Angeles Free Press columnist Charles Bukowski. There were maybe 50 I went to.”
This was Lionel’s intimate connection to a history that he and Nigey savored, and recorded for us younger folks, in books like Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles (1992, co-written by Rolfe, Lennon, and Paul Greenstein), which chronicles, among other things, the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910. JANUARY 10, 2018

AUTHOR LIONEL ROLFE is a retired Los Angeles journalist who has written for nearly every newspaper and magazine that’s existed in or near the city in the last 50-plus years. But he has decades of memories to turn over in his head, of experiences up and down the Pacific Coast with all kinds of people from his days as an itinerant newspaperman. I know now that he was basking in the satisfaction of having seen his book Literary L.A. Burroughs, Marshall McLuhan is now on full display on every street corner, in every car, on every person — that question mark–shaped body looking so puzzled, squinting into the little glass even in the glare of high noon, with plugged ears blocking out the world, not to mention approaching traffic. included many colorful-friends-of-the-author who might have otherwise died forgotten. These bogeymen haunt Lionel’s essays about the world as it is today, and the word he most often lobs at Trump et al. Even in London, where all the great ones used to be, all of them are now Starbucks.”
After losing touch with both Nigey and Lionel for many years, I learned one day that they had divorced. In that book you will find the couple’s utopian socialist dreams expressed in obvious nostalgia for the pre–World War I career of Job Harriman, a man who ran for mayor of Los Angeles and lost, thanks to guilt-by-association with the Times bombers. Importantly, both are true-blue Californians, who partly inaugurated what he likes to call “the California bohemian movement.” This is a term you come across frequently in Rolfe’s books, but nowhere outside of them; that’s because there never was any such “movement” per se, except maybe as something that was in the air if you happened to live in, say, Big Sur or Venice or Echo Park during the 1940s and ’50s. (2003), Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground (1998), Literary L.A. Nathanael West’s nightmare of the city exploding into fires and riots has occurred many times over. Lionel, a nephew of Yehudi Menuhin, preferred classical music. Living in leafy, boho Silver Lake, they wrote and published books together, their dreams of a California-coastal utopia dovetailing in a shared love of Twain, Jack London, the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, and music. There were many women in his life, many friends and enemies, many loves and many hates. He eventually came to recognize how tied politics were to deeper, more personal affiliations. Marilyn Monroe’s photographer Phil Stern was at most of these parties, years before his late-life rediscovery. Some of us will keep our heads in the clouds and our feet on the ground, with eyes open, as we wait out the plugged-in wave with peace and quiet — and a coffee, please. These days he lives in a small apartment in Atwater Village. titled “Cafe Au L.A.”
In fact, I first met Lionel and his then-wife Nigey Lennon at a coffeehouse. “I suppose money was the main problem.”
Lionel’s obsession with bohemianism seems, in the end, to be mostly autobiographical, a bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of the author, whose idea of utopia really consists of a Venice coffeehouse that’s filled with books and lustful young people who read communist plays and hate “the rich” because, well, just because. The electronic revolution once prophesized by such ’60s visionaries as John Cage, William S. Nigey was kind, nerdy-goofy, humorous, with a deep boyish voice. (See, for instance, Lawrence Lipton’s The Holy Barbarians [1959] and Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles [2007].)
Rolfe is actually on firmer ground, pun intended, when he writes about the Los Angeles coffeehouse scene of the 1950s and ’60s in the excellent, fact-filled chapter of his book Literary L.A. Nigey was really taken with Jarry’s “Père Ubu” character and was surprised to meet a younger person who had heard of the obscure French proto-avant-gardist. He’s lived alone for almost a decade, since his third marriage ended in divorce. Rolfe’s health is not good.