Shig Murao: The lightning soul of San Francisco’s Beat scene / An Interview with Richard Reynolds, Shig’s website creator and longtime friend.

"His philosophy was to live his life that way he wanted to live it, and nothing was allowed to get in the way of that." 

Shig Murao: The Soul of the Rising Sun

Shigeyoshi "Shig" Murao (December 8, 1926 — October 18, 1999) is mainly remembered as the City Lights clerk who was arrested on June 3, 1957, for selling Allen Ginsberg's Howl to an undercover San Francisco police officer.  In the trial that followed, Murao was charged with selling the book and Lawrence Ferlinghetti with publishing it. Murao and Ferlinghetti were exonerated and Howl was judged protected under the First Amendment, a decision that paved the way for the publication of Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, William Burroughs, and many other writers who offended puritanical elements of society.
Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin, the co-founder of City Lights, hired Murao as a clerk soon after the store opened in June 1953. Murao worked without pay for the first few weeks, but eventually became the manager of the bookstore, and his genial personality set the tone for the bookstore. He continued in that position until 1976, building friendships with many of the Beat icons, including Ginsberg, who became a close friend and would stay at Murao's Grant Avenue apartment when visiting the Bay Area.
Murao was not himself a poet, but he played a key role in the San Francisco Beat scene and had a large circle of friends, including Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Richard Brautigan, and many other literary and Beat-era figures. After his separation from City Lights, he held court in the Caffe Trieste and published a photocopied zine called Shig's Review.
The first three issues of Shig's Review, published in 1960 and 1969, were printed and bound. Beginning in 1983, Murao revived the review as a photocopied zine. He would take a collection of poems, photos, poetry reading fliers, or his own collages to a copy shop and make twenty or thirty copies. He would then staple them in the corner, put his hanko on the cover in red ink, and walk down to the Caffe Trieste, where he would give them to his friends. Murao published about eighty issues of the quirky review before his death.
Richard Reynolds is Shig’s website creator, and longtime friend of Murao’s. Richard talks about Shig Murao and his experience with him.


Interview by Michael Limnios

All photos are from Shig Murao's website
Collage by Janet Richards, circa 1970 courtesy of Charles Richards


Was there a motto that Shig lived by? Something you would like preserved?
I’m not sure there was a motto that Shig lived by, but he coined many phrases that stick in my mind. He seemed to have a different bit for each friend. There’s a great story in the “10:00 a.m at the Caffe Trieste” chapter about a greeting he and Tony Dingman shared for a time.
After I put the site up, someone, and I can’t remember who it was, told me that whenever he would run into Shig and ask him how it was going, Shig would reply, “Only the flies are different.”
In my case, whenever I would express an opinion on a subject he suspected I didn’t know that much about he would look at me and say, “Is that your professional opinion?”  I used the phrase for years. It was only when I sat down to write his biography that I realized it was Shig who used to say that to me.

 

How do you describe Shig’s philosophy of life? What characterized Shig’s bohemian way of life?
His philosophy was to live his life that way he wanted to live it, and nothing was allowed to get in the way of that. His siblings were quite disapproving of his lifestyle, and while he attempted to maintain a connection to them, he was not about to change anything to please them. He was not interested in money, but in expressing his creativity, whether through creating the feel of City Lights, playing his shakuhachi, or producing an issue of Shig’s Review.

 

Which is the most interesting period in Shig’s life and why?
I guess I’d have to say the period between 1953 and 1975, when he was managing the bookstore and making it into the unique institution it remains today. While Shig did not write poetry, he was at the center of everything in the San Francisco Beat scene; was close to Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Richard Brautigan, and many, many others. He did not seem to view the bookstore as a business but, rather, a kind of clubhouse where poets, artists, and all sorts of creative people could read, talk, or just hang out. He served as postman for those who didn’t have a regular address and banker for those who were down on their luck.

 

Which memory from Shig Murao makes you smile?
There are many, but one that stands out is my wedding day. My wife and I were married in a small park in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco. It was a very small gathering—just family and a few close friends. After the ceremony I saw Shig standing alone and asked him how he had gotten there. He told me he had taken the bus. I asked him how he was getting back to the reception at our North Beach flat, and he said he would take the bus. “You’re not taking the bus,” I told him. “You’re coming with us.” Our car, of course, was covered with “Just Married” signs, and there were cans tied to the back bumper. Shig hesitated when he saw this, but we ushered him into the back seat, and the three of us had a wonderful drive across the Golden Gate Bridge in our old Toyota, with people honking at us all the way.

 

Are there any memories from Shig Murao, which you’d like to share with us?
There are many, but I’ll pick a couple more:
One day when we were sitting in the Caffe Trieste, he asked me if I knew the Beatles song, “Number Eight, Number Eight.” I looked at him and said, “What are you talking about? It’s Number Nine.” But Shig was already laughing. He was putting me on. When I tell people the story they kind of look at me with a confused expression. It’s not exactly funny, but it is Shig all over. As I looked back on the experience, I realized that it was the first time he had put me on and that it signified his acceptance of me as a friend.
I didn’t witness this personally, but one of my favorite stories is the night Shig, Allen Ginsberg, and Gordon Ball (who edited Ginsberg’s journals) made a late night visit to a Chinese restaurant called Wooey Louie Gooey. A German shepherd walked in with them. The waitress, not pleased to see the dog in the restaurant, asked, “Is that your dog?” Shig paused and anounced, “You may take it to the kitchen.”

 

What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from Shig Murao? What advice Shig has given to you?
I don’t know that he gave me much advice directly, but he definitely served as a model to me, saying by his own lifestyle that I should do as I pleased with my life, not worry about making a lot of money, and express my creativity. I have suffered some very difficult medical issues, and here too I took a lesson from Shig. As a series of strokes forced him to abandon the bookstore, his shakuhachi, and other things, he continually reinvented himself, finding a new ways to express his creativity. Through my own medical difficulties I have attempted to do the same thing. One of the most rewarding things I have done in my life was to write his biography and create the website devoted to him.

Photo by Mark Green, Shig in his vest. 

 

Which was the best moment of Shig’s life and which was the worst?
I can’t say what the best moment of his life was: Perhaps his 1986 visit to Japan with his nephew John. I think there’s little doubt the worst moment of his life was after his first stroke, when Ferlinghetti told him he felt they needed to bring in a “businessman” to oversee the finances of the bookstore. Shig was a proud man and a stubborn man. He was deeply hurt by Felinghetti’s decision and walked away from the bookstore that had been his life. Ferlinghetti paid him off for the third-interest in the bookstore that he had given Shig for his sweat equity, but Shig never again set foot in the bookstore and never again spoke to Ferlinghetti.

 

Do you think that Shig’s “Thinking” comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?
I suppose a combination of heart and soul. He certainly had an excellent mind, but I see him as an intuitive sort of person who acted on his impulses.

 

Why did you think that Shig Murao’s story continued to generate such a devoted following?
I don’t know that his story has generated a devoted following. In fact, that’s why I chose to write his biography and create the website. He has been largely forgotten, except by those whom he accepted into his circle of friends. He never did anything to ensure his place in history. He would routinely turn down requests for interviews, and if I had told him I planned on writing his biography he would have laughed at me and said he didn’t matter. But for those who were fortunate enough to know him well, he was unforgettable because of his wit and the way he remembered little things about you. He loved nothing more than a good verbal exchange and it was always a challenge to keep up with him.

 

What was Shig’s DREAM…and what was his nightmare?
His dream was simple and humble. I am reminded of his study of the shakuhachi. His teacher told him that it would be ten years before he would learn the instrument well enough to perform in public, and he used to say that when he felt he was ready to perform he would become a street musician in order to make enough money for “a cappuccino, pastry, New York Times, and a piece of fish from Chinatown for my supper.”
I suppose his nightmare would be folding to family or societal pressure to conform or to compromise his values in order to achieve “success.”

 

For Shig: Happiness was…  Peace on Mind was… The BEATS was…   Zen was…
As I said above, happiness and peace of mind for Shig had to do with living a life that was uncompromised by the expectations of others. I don’t know that he would have called himself a Beatnik; he disliked many of the Beats. Zen is interesting. I’m not aware of him studying Buddhism as Gary Snyder or even Kerouac did, but I think it guided his life in a basic way; he believed that life should be built around pursuing one’s calling, without regard to possessions, status, or financial gain.

 

What's the legacy of all these Shig’s adventures? Mostly spiritually.
As for adventures, nothing in particular stands out, but I do know that he loved taking road trips. He owned a Citroen and a Saab during his time in San Francisco, and several people spoke of taking road trips with Shig to Seattle, to Gary Snyder’s place near Grass Valley, CA, or south to Big Sur. He would decorate his cars with dried flowers, and loved his road trips. I took him on a couple of short car trips during the time I knew him, by which time he no longer drove, and found him delightful company. He seemed to relax and open up in a car.
I guess another adventure that was key to his life was after the war. His family regrouped in Seattle, and he enrolled in Roosevelt University with his twin sister. But he didn’t take to academia, left Chicago without a word to anyone in the family, and made his way to Miami, New Orleans, Reno, and, finally, San Francisco. I don’t believe he had a car and assume he made this trip by bus. This period was very difficult to pin down. I don’t know how long it took him to get from Chicago to San Francisco or exactly when he made the trip. But he told David Amram (see the Updates page) that he was very poor and unhappy at the time, and that when he arrived in San Francisco he had to sleep on park benches for a time. I never spoke with him about this time of his life, but I’ve gotten the impression that he took this trip in search of a bohemian culture he had heard was beginning to happen and that he found that culture in San Francisco.

 

This Arnold Newman photo appeared in the March 1970 issue of Holiday magazine. It accompanied a Herb Gold article called “Culture, Counter Culture", or "Barbaric Intrusion, There’s Something Going on in San Francisco."

 

Do you remember anything interesting from Shig’s records collector and his friendship with Bill Graham?
Shig’s nephew tells of a concert in the eighties when Bill Graham reopened the Filmore West. By the time of the concert Shig was in a wheelchair. John drove him up to the hall and says Graham virtually carried Shig up the stairs by himself, wheelchair and all.

 

How does the music affect Shig’s mood on the road?
Don’t really know, but in her memoir Common Soldiers, Janet Richard tells of a car trip from Sacramento to San Francisco when Shig sang song after song in a “pleasing tenor voice.” The songs he sang in the car, I assume, were ones he learned when he was interned.

 

How did the idea for Shig’s Review come about?
I assume the first two issues, which were printed and bound, came out of Shig’s wish to publish poets he enjoyed but were not among those favored by Ferlinghetti. Shig’s Review #3, also printed and bound, was essentially a joke. It promised poems and photos by Shigeyoshi Murao, Yoshi Murao, Yoshi Murao Shigi, and other variations on his name. Inside there was nothing but a single photo of Shig cropped in various ways.
In 1983, after his second stroke left him unable to play the shakuhachi, I assume he revived Shig’s Review as a creative outlet. All of the issues from #4 on were simply photocopied and given away to his friends.

 

What did Shig do in his spare time? Could you describe how Shig might have spent a typical day?
It would depend on what period of his life we were talking about, but after he left City Lights the day would begin with coffee, pastry, and conversation at the Trieste or another cafe. When he was playing the shakuhachi and practicing shodo (Japanese calligraphy), he would go back to his apartment and practice the two disciplines for several hours. After that he might get on a bus and visit one of the many used bookstores he frequented, either buying or selling first editions. He also listened to music quite a bit . It could be anything from jazz to opera to classical. He had a good sound system in his apartment and would listen both via speakers and earphones.

Photo: An example of Shig’s shodo (Japanese calligraphy)

 

If Shig’s “was going” back to the past what things he would do better and what things would a void to do again?
What would he do differently if he could go back and do it again? I really don’t think he would change much. It seems to me he always lived the life he wished to live. I’m sure he would wish that the split with Ferlinghetti and City Lights had not happened, but I don’t see him operating the bookstore any differently than he did for any reason.

 

How important was the role of Shig played in the case of Buddhism in BEAT generation?
I don’t know that he played much of a role in Buddhism. I think the basic precepts of Buddhism helped guide his life decisions, but I don’t think he studied it seriously, nor did he talk about it much. As for the role he played in the Beat generation, I’m temped to say he played the role of “bullshit detector.” He had a strong nose for pretense, and no one put anything over on him. But he played this role quietly. He did not go around announcing his belief that so-and-so was a phony, but I suspect that those he considered phonies knew  exactly what he thought about them from their interactions with him.

 

Difficult question but, which of the beats do you consider was the best friend of Shig?
That’s easy: Allen Ginsberg.
Shig used to say that despite his homosexuality, Allen was the only “man” among the Beats. Shig worshiped Ginsberg, and his friendship was very important to Shig, especially after the break with City Lights. Their friendship, it should be noted, was not a sexual one. Shig would say he and Allen were “buddies,” not “butt hole buddies.”

Photo: Polaroid of Allen and Shig at the Trieste. Photographer unknown

 

How he would spend a day in Caffé Trieste, nowadays?
I don’t see any reason to think a day spent in the Trieste today would be any different than a day spent there in the seventies or eighties.

Shig Murao: The Enigmatic Soul of City Lights

 

Richard Reynolds, worked at Mother Jones magazine for thirty-two years, mainly in the role of communications director, and retired in 2010. In addition to his work at the magazine, he is a professional French horn player and has written numerous articles on music, food, and coffee. His writing has been published in The New York Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, Gourmet, Saveur, Salon.com, Gastronomica, Imbibe, Fresh Cup, and other publications. He and Shig met in 1976 and remained friends until Shig’s death in 1999. Reynolds created and operates ShigMurao.com


 

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Tags: Beat, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Interview, Limnios, Murao, Reynolds, Richard, Shig, Shigeyoshi

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