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[The San Francisco Chronicle]

Friday, August 15, 1997 Page A21 1997 San Francisco Chronicle


[You Always Find the Best Adventures Along the Backroads.]

Ceremonies For Vanished Beat Poet
Lew Welch disappeared in foothills 26 years ago

Stephen Schwartz, Chronicle Staff Writer

A series of long-delayed memorials begins tomorrow for beat poet Lew Welch, a champion of cab drivers and waterfront workers who mysteriously vanished in the foothills near Nevada City 26 years ago.

Welch never rose to the same level of fame as that achieved by some of his North Beach contemporaries. But he wielded considerable influence in literary circles through his tightly crafted, muscular verse, which often seemed to imbue working- class San Francisco with the dignity and grace of a Greek classic.

Born in Phoenix, Welch described himself as a ``high school track star and pool hustler.'' He served in the Army before arriving at Reed College in Portland, Ore., in 1950. There he encountered two of the most influential American poets of his generation: Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen.

He became their roommate and poetic colleague. With them he also became, in time, a leading mentor to younger versifiers on the Pacific slope, the same way that the late Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan did.

``Although he is unknown to the broader public, he is greatly missed by the poets,'' said North Beach poet Neeli Cherkovski, a leading literary biographer. ``I never knew him personally, but I have always loved his work intensely.''

Welch came to North Beach soon after meeting Snyder and Whalen, and appears in ``Big Sur,'' a novel by Jack Kerouac, as the hard-drinking ``Dave Wain.''

He was never satisfied to be in one place for long. He suffered nervous breakdowns. In the early '60s he fled for a time to a cabin in the Trinity Alps, where he produced his ``Hermit Poems.''

His lovers included another beat poet, Lenore Kandel, author of ``The Love Book,'' which in 1967 became the last volume of poetry to be dragged into court in San Francisco for alleged obscenity.

Later, Welch lived with a Marin woman, Magda Cregg, and served as a stepfather to her son, Hugh Cregg, better known as rocker Huey Lewis.

Magda Cregg has just published ``Hey Lew,'' a volume of poems, reminiscences and photographs by and of Welch's friends. A birthday party for Welch -- he would have been 71 -- will be held tomorrow at 2 p.m. in front of the Bolinas Library.

``He was a great teacher,'' Huey Lewis said of Welch in an interview last year. Lewis recalled how, as a student at Cornell University during the peak of the hippie revolution, he sent Welch a letter ``filled with too many metaphors . . . an absolutely embarrassing letter.

``He wrote me back a letter about how eloquent it was and how articulate it was. He even pointed out this particular metaphor and just really made me feel like I had really written something,'' Lewis said.

Welch's writings have been issued in several notable books, including his collected verse, ``Ring of Bone,'' and volumes of criticism and letters.

But 26 years ago, in the middle of May, he wrote a bitter last note

--``I went Southwest. Goodbye,'' the note said -- and walked out of Snyder's rustic residence in the Sierra foothills.

His friends turned out to search through the peaks and gullies for him, but he was never seen again.

Although he was mainly known as a lecturer in such elegant venues as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the University of California Extension, he also earned his living as a dock clerk on the San Francisco waterfront. He was a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 34.

He was a ``two-card man,'' an ancient waterfront term for somebody who belonged to the mainstream ILWU and the ultramilitant Industrial Workers of the World, the fabled ``Wobblies'' who once, briefly, dominated the labor movement on the West Coast waterfront.

Tony Dingman, poet and confidant of both Welch and filmmaker Francis Coppola, echoed Welch's own words, borrowed from the tradition of American master poet William Carlos Williams, one of Welch's teachers.

``Quoting Williams, Lew said: `Write like you talk.' And he wrote like he talked. And when he talked you couldn't help but listen,'' Dingman said.

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