DVD Reviews: The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs: A Man Within

Review by Michael Hendrick; Photo by Jerry Aronson

A look around at the landscape of today’s world reveals cultural melee and sexual malaise.  Everybody looks the same – and not in a good way.  To paraphrase Fran Lebowitz, we have been recycling the same culture for the last thirty years waiting for something new.

Where do we find not only something new but something that is helpful and healing, a balm for the new age of psychic sores?  Where do we look for hope and help in what is new in 2011? Flip a coin. One side comes up Lady Gaga, the other side reveals Justin Bieber with his new tattoo; two very different sides of the same coin.  After all the techno-info-socio-revolution we weathered during the last century, this is the best we can do?

Prior to this recycling, people did things to achieve change, whether it was rain/reign dollar bills on the cashnivorous New York Stock Exchange to watch brokers crawl on the floor in a comic display of true greed, or whether it was getting shot in the back on campus by our own National Guard.  We had our own heroes, we did something.

In the face of such world-moving counter-cultural events, our Heroes stepped up for youth.  These were well-established men, like Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer and William S. Burroughs, they faced the tear gas, nightsticks and rubber bullets to back up their young compatriots; with a lot to lose, they literally put life on the line to defend our Right to ‘Freedom of Speech’.

Life was put on the line.

Today life is lived online.

Men like these were part of the American Dream, no matter how much they railed against it and the conformity which deadened the world until the late-1950s.  They demonstrated how the dream worked…how it could work for us.  Recently, two biographies were released which shine a light on the lives of a pair of these men.

They are the re-release of The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg and the February 2011 debut on PBS’s Independent Lens series of the Yony Leyser film, William Burroughs: A Man Within.

If you saw Jerry Aronson’s documentary on Ginsberg when it was first released, you see an inspiring and devoted, loving but truthful account of the life of the Poet. If you saw it in the theatre, bought the DVD a few years ago or watched it on streaming video on Netflix, you haven’t seen the half of it…in fact you have seen perhaps a quarter of it.

With the re-release of L&T, Aronson treats us to six and a half hours of previously unseen footage, all stored on two discs imprinted with the jubilant, Krishna-dancing, hippie-era version of the man. This is the original documentary restored to ‘director’s cut’ with tons of ‘extras’ thrown in. Some of these can be found, at times and in parts, on video-sharing sites.  Like the 1965 appearance with Neal Cassady at the City Lights Bookshop or the tender reading with Bob Dylan at Jack Kerouac’s grave, these clips are usually seen in choppy renderings, the 1965 City Lights footage, for instance, is often found cut into four or five sections, one of which is invariably missing.

Here, Aronson puts it all together…Ginsberg with Cassady, with Burroughs, with Dylan, reading selected poems, guiding us through a collection of his photos, making the music video A Ballad of the Skeletons, his own photo gallery and Jerry Aronson’s own wondrous photo gallery. Sadly, we also see the 1998 memorial for him as well as excerpts from Jonas Mekas’s Scenes From Allen’s Last Three Day’s On Earth As A Spirit.

The menu on Disc One presents Allen reading his Howl over the contents, while Disc Two’s contents are scored by a very touching version of Ginsberg’s New Stanzas for Amazing Grace, performed by Paul Simon at his own request.
Tacked on for good measure are the interviews. Joan Baez, Beck, Bono, Stan Brakhage, William Burroughs, Johnny Depp, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Glass, John Hammond Sr., Abbie Hoffman, Jack Johnson (who foregoes the interview but performs a song dedicated to the inspirations handed down by Ginsberg and Dylan), Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary, Paul McCartney, Thurston Moore, Yoko Ono, Gehlek Rimpoche, Ed Sanders, Patti Smith, Steve Taylor and Andy Warhol are among the many who give insight and inspiration in their memories and anecdotes about Ginsberg.
Aronson worked for 25 years to edit over 120 hours of Ginsberg footage for this effort. It is hard to find fault in… usually tributes like this are marred by being too short. This seems like a perfect crystallization. Since much of the original release has been seen and a lot of scraps of film have leaked onto YouTube and other places, we focus mainly on the Extras we have not seen, the memorial – Planet News: A Tribute to Allen Ginsberg and the interviews, which together paint a loving portrait of a great man.
The tribute, filmed in May, 1998, at The Cathedral of Saint John The Divine in New York City presents an uplifting and righteous ‘howl’ back to Allen, from those left here to love and remember him.
Ed Sanders related how the Poet had arrived at Columbia University with the ambition of being an attorney who could help the world’s wronged.  Although he never made it to the Bar exam, Sanders pointed out that he was “a bardic attorney for the betterment of the human condition,” at once “chanting to us, singing to us, exhorting us to save and heal the spirit of America.” You have to admit that no matter how badly the government treated him, it took strong moral fiber to keep believing in America the way he did.

Anne Waldman recalled from the Boulder, Colorado, Rocky Flats protests that, in the beginning, a sense of “Am I gonna stop that?” prevailed but was overcome by Allen, who “knew that regular folk, when properly informed could enact and force regulation and legislation.” Something we still need today. She said he “inspired students summer after summer during his 23-year tenure at the Jack Kerouac School (of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder). He inspired them to stay engaged.  He talked to the enemy.  He took on (their) poison…”

After Waldman spoke, Steven Taylor, who purchased the Late Poet’s famed harmonium at auction, used it to play New Stanzas for Amazing Grace as he harmonized with other celebrants.

Pianist Philip Glass, a longtime Ginsberg-collaborator on Hydrogen Jukebox worked with Patti Smith to present a version of On Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa Vidyadhara. Glass and Ginsberg performed this together often… Patti took the stage unsmiling, uncharacteristic for her, but before launching into the composition, she giggled and thanked all those present “for sacrificing (seeing) the last episode of Seinfeld to be here tonight”. Near the end, lost in the words, she broke into tears but never missed a word of his message.

After the number, she emotionally told the gathered, “When I lost a loved one, Allen said to me… (he) gave me the words that his teacher had given to him… ‘Let go of your loved one and continue your life’s celebration’, and so, of course, we must let go of Allen but in continuing our life’s celebration, if we are active, if we speak out, if we are unpassive, if we open our hearts, if we cry out, if we spit upon injustice – we are still holding Allen a bit with us”.
Again the message to move, to do, to be…in the words of a dead Poet.

The rest of the Patti Smith Group joined Glass and Smith to perform A Footnote To Howl, a selection which has popped up in Patti Smith Group setlists for a few decades. After a heartfelt performance of the piece, she again brought the Message of Allen to the living.

“I am not ashamed to admit that I, myself, am not a politician and am not politically articulate… not even a very good activist… but we all do what we can… if you feel that you can do more, remember that that one man, just think of all the shit that one man did and we can’t forget. We don’t even have to remember him… remember his energy… Everybody, the time is now. Do what you can. It’s time to wake up. Wake up once again. Wake up again.”

As a finale, Ed Sanders and the Fugs performed Sanders’ Song For Allen, an uptempo number which puts to music a partial list of famous literature and poetry Ginsberg had committed to memory and was known to refer to when the situation lent itself.  The Fugs lent a purposeful, joyous moment to the occasion as the lyric He was my hero hung heavy on the cathedral air.  In the ‘Interviews’ section of the extra features, An emotional Sanders remembers interactions with Allen over the years, from San Franscisco to the Chicago riots…he speaks of the Pied Piper of Ohm, who developed  “ohmitis” from “over-ohming”. He went on to discuss the grieving process, “This thing about closure…we really don’t want closure with him.  He is very alive and still a big influence…

“In law school there is a course called What Would Jesus Do? and lawyers take it to test (their) ethics… my own personal course is What Would Allen Do?… refuse to get painted into a corner, be cordial to your opponents, never give up on anybody and demand a better world.”

The names of the diverse group of subjects who were interviewed about Ginsberg show the scope of his activities and interests and most importantly, his humanity.

We hear the great, booming, drawling William Burroughs’ unmistakable voice, “I first met Allen at Columbia…” and it is a joy just to hear the narrative. Burroughs does let on that “Allen did regard me as a teacher. I remember he said that he would follow me around with questions until I turn around and bite him with the information… Kerouac did more to encourage me in my writing but when it came down to the actual things that were done to help me, it was Allen… (he) was instrumental in getting Junky, my first book, published through Carl Solomon… He was also the one, more than anyone else, who was instrumental in getting Naked Lunch published.”

Burroughs saw Ginsberg’s work as part of “a sociological movement of great importance.” When Burroughs fell on hard times in London, it was Ginsberg who got him a job at New York University, an event which changed his life direction.

“That’s what he does,” said Burroughs, “When some friend of his is in a difficulty, he will go to any length to help him.” He admitted the move back to New York was “a major turning point in my life and I owe it all to Allen”.

Hunter S. Thompson weighed in, too. “He was always fun. He was always interested. He was always a participant. Whatever was happening, Allen wanted in…He has always been an ally. I got him involved with the (Hells) Angels. I wouldn’t have done that on my own, ‘Here, Allen, I got some people I want you to meet.’…He insisted on it. We’re all outlaws. All of us.”

There is almost too much good material here to write about and fit into a single essay. The interviews present a diamond-mine of accolades. Musician and pop star Beck, whose grandfather had Beat connections and whose mother was part of the Warhol scene, had quite a bit to say about the Beats and their influence on him but pegged it quite succinctly when he regarded the volume of Allen’s collected work in his hands and commented, “I’m glad he spewed!”

Johnny Depp recounts meeting Ginsberg via telephone, when the Poet called to interview him. He likened it to being on the phone with Walt Whitman. He speaks of driving around with Allen, holding hands, for an hour or a half, or so, admitting it would be a strange event with most people but that with Allen, it felt perfectly normal. Ginsberg called him to let him know his prognosis of cancer and that he had little time left. Depp told him that he was taking it very well, that he seemed calm for a man so close to death… to which Ginsberg replied, “It’s just a ripple in the sea of tranquility.”

Activist and Outlaw Abbie Hoffman spoke on what Howl meant to him, “The world of nuclear bombs, of witch hunts, of plastic society – seeing it in its proper perspective and offering us a choice. It was also a ‘call to arms’. He was saying we could change this. We don’t have to accept that world. That is what the Beats gave us…a choice”.

Professor and LSD advocate, Timothy Leary, who brought us the message to turn on, tune in and drop out, reveals that a visit by Ginseberg and Peter Orlovsky to the “rather straight Harvard professor” put him on his path of proselytizing. “To know Allen, ” Leary said, “to spend an hour with him, changed my life right then… I knew I was never going to be… part of the system after being exposed to the historical power of a liberated, avante garde… artistic mind.

“He instigated, in my mind, the politics of ecstacy – the notion that we had to go around the country turning on influential artists, writers, poets, philosophers…then pass onto the world the benefits of their trips.”

His former ‘knitting buddy’ from the Rolling Thunder Review, Joan Baez, said, “Allen could be such a goof and ‘do insanity’ and I was jealous of that in him. I couldn’t ohm and get naked on somebody’s front lawn and get myself arrested. There was something very liberating about it and something very liberating about him. He could behave like a nut but he was serious about something…about other people…about ending the war in Viet Nam. Allen took risks and was serious at the same time and was very colorful and very crazy and we need that!”

Irish rocker Bono spent quite a bit of time with the Bard. “He was a kind of a Muse and it’s a strange thing to be both artist and Muse.  One of his kicks was setting fire to people’s imaginations along the way, whether they were his students or whether they were people like Joe Strummer…or Bob Dylan…or, indeed, me. He got kicks out of setting fire to you. You saw the world differently after spending time with him. He had this still-childlike view of the world, where anything was possible, if approached in love. It’s hard to be around that and not be influenced.”

Yoko Ono recalls hanging around with Ginsberg during her split with John Lennon, visiting museums and galleries and generally passing time. “The reason people why love Allen is because he had a very genuine love for life and for people and he was very open about that,” she said. After reading one of Allen’s poems on dying, written in 1948, she describes being safe around “the big mountain of a person” and of his affect on her son, Sean. “It’s hard to believe that he’s gone. In a way he is not gone…whenever they read his powerful words, he is there.”

Aronson includes interviews from before and after Ginsberg’s death, such as the aforementioned comments by Depp. Most show the same love and affinity for Allen. Bono related story about hearing that all of Ginsberg’s possessions were to be put up for auction after his death. “I went through the catalogue and saw a copy of Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and I thought, ‘I used to have a copy of that and I lost it somewhere.  I’m gonna try and get it back.  Wouldn’t it be sweet if I could buy it out of HIS library’…so I bid for it and I got it. I was thrilled. It arrived by post. I thought, ‘Wow! I’ve got this back from Allen Ginsberg.’ I opened it up and written in it was ~ to Allen, from Bono ~ and then I realised that I had given him the book that I was then buying back. I could hear him laughing at that.”

Ken Kesey spoke a little more generally about the Beats before getting to Allen. “I think nothing affected this nation like On The Road in… maybe fifty years. It got people moving around and gave people a new way to look at America and it stirred us up.

“Allen was the Great Leveler. He brings us together in some way. He’s like a sponge; he can sop up all our poisons and never gets sickened by them…Burroughs is a powerful writer but there’s a distance that you never cross and Kerouac…I never got to know Kerouac…there was that great distance that, with Ginsberg, was never there.  You feel very close to him always.” [The Life & Times of Allen Ginsberg is available at www.amazon.com and also from www.allenginsbergmovie.com. The complete set, with all the extras, is not available in streaming video.]

While Yony Leyser’s William S. Burroughs: A Man Within presents us with many of the usual suspects as actors, his documentary shows a man who is more engaged with self than society. When he is so engaged, it is with snarl and pith that cut to the core.

“I bring not peace but a sword,” he says leering into the lens to start the action.

Andy Warhol, who seems vaguely bored with ‘beatniks’ in the Ginsberg biography, shows much more warmth when speaking of Burroughs and photos show that the pair spent quite a bit of time together.  One can only wonder if it was an ‘alien attraction’ – both of them being so far ahead and so far out of society that only they could begin to understand each other. This is supposition but it is hard not to notice when you see both documentaries. There is also the warm conversation between the pair, recorded at a dinner party. You can feel how close they were.

“Do you want to be loved?” asks Ginsberg, in one of the bits of conversation between the two which are presented in the film.

“Mmmmm, not really,” answers Burroughs, “It depends – by who or what? (laughs) By my cats, certainly.”  A bit later, Marcus Ewert, ex-boyfriend, goes back to an interview he read, in which Burroughs sobs when asked about nuclear war. “It was really hard for me to picture him sobbing, period, but what he was sobbing about is… he was…thinking about nuclear war and then he was struck by this horrific thought of ‘what would happen to my cats, my six cats, if I died.’ That just wrecked him. You could just see that cats were this kind of pure spirit beings for him… I think that was just a safe place for his love to flow.”

Filmmaker and author John Waters, no stranger to alien territory, appears, noting. “Everybody is enamored by William because he was famous before anybody else and he was also famous for all the wrong things. He was the first person who was famous for things we’re supposed to hide. He was gay. He was a junkie. He didn’t look handsome. He shot his wife. He wrote poetry about assholes and heroin. He was not easy to like.”

A little background on the documentary…narrated by Peter Weller, star of David Cronenberg’s 1991 film treatment of Naked Lunch and scored by Patti Smith and Sonic Youth, the work is a break-out accomplishment for Leyser, who dropped out of film school to devote his energy to the film. Leyser moved to Kansas to be close to his subject and the resulting footage comprise the base of the documentary.

While Ginsberg made us wake up, Burroughs gave us the reasons not to go to sleep in the first place – his dreams splayed out naked on the page.  Leyser shows how Burroughs planted his nasty, little worms in our heads, recorded in ‘cut-ups’ and extended them towards us, luridly petitioning us to experience them. He embarked on the project upon being ejected from film school for an act of student rebellion, aimed at the Dean of Students. The impressive list of interviews includes Weller, Laurie Anderson, Regina Weinreich, Amiri Baraka, Anne Waldman, Gus Van Sant, Jello Biafra, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and others who point out the influence Burroughs had on their lives and work.

The footage is juxtaposed so that film clips and footage from the writer’s later years dominate, while the less-prevalent linear progression of his life story is interspersed with scenes from his last ten years. There is touching, personal footage of him feeding and talking to his beloved cats. We also see the celebrated ‘marksman of odd targets’ shoot off a lot of rounds at the range, as well as creating ‘art’ by discharging firearms at containers of paint which are placed so as to catch the splatter on pieces of old wood or boards placed behind the paint. In older footage we see another kind of shooting…we are treated to the vision of Burroughs injecting himself with a syringe but the camera fades before we get to see the effect which the rush of drug has on the recipient. It does take courage to allow yourself to be filmed while shooting up. You have to hand it to him for not hiding his head and habits, rather showing them to the world, warts and all… like the close up of the finger he cut off above the second joint to show the pain of an unrequited love.

Death is among the many ugly things in all lives and A Man Within begins and ends with death, from the writer speaking on the smell of death as the camera shows the weathered map of his face, a map of years and continents and living on the edge. It draws to an end with him in his casket, the familiar, ever-present fedora placed on the lid of the box which holds him.

Scenes with Allen Ginsberg give us the two great men discussing the meaning and sociological importance of the Beat Generation but we do not see not much interaction with any of his other compatriots… Kerouac, Cassady, Corso, etc, in fact, it seems conspicuously absent. Author Victor Bockris, as well as Patti Smith, shine a light on the influence of his words in 1960-70s pop culture, noting phrases he coined, such as steely dan, soft machine, blade runner, heavy metal and others.

“Burroughs once said to me”, Bockris explains, “If one man stands up and rejects the bullshit of society, it makes it possible for everyone else to follow on… and he was that man to some extent.” This seems opposed to Weller recounting a press conference, where Burroughs responds to a question regarding the gay rights movement. “I have never been gay a day in my life and I’m sure as hell not a part of any movement”, he quotes the writer as saying. Obviously, this had more to do with his hatred of being labeled or put in a box than with sexuality. Burroughs was a “deconstructor of labels,” Weller says.

Brion Gysin, said to be the true love of Burroughs’ life, is shown at work in the studio, producing the cut-ups which were the basis of three of William’s novels. His description of Gysin, read over close-ups of Gysin’s hands at work and Gysin’s ‘dream machine’ in action, paint a portrait of an almost impossibly omnipotent artist.

While there is not much new ground broken, the film is rich in footage of the Man in his last years, mostly shooting guns of various calibers. Anybody who is a collector or has a strong interest in William S. Burroughs will find the DVD of this documentary to be an essential piece of property to own. The non-linear jumps may throw someone not already versed in Burroughs life, however, the excellent editing by Ilko Davidon make the jumps easy to absorb.

One odd touch is a 1989 interview, in which Burroughs’ voice is heard over film of a cassette tape with the date of the interview handwritten on it. While it does give insight into his thoughts about the creative process of his gunshot art, the method of presentation is as unusual as the subject.

In the end, as the opening chords of Patti Smith’s Beneath the Southern Cross play like a hymn, we see the last entry in his journal, written before his death on 1997…

“Love? What is it? Most natural pain killer what there is. LOVE.”

Despite the distance, despite the outward show of being aloof, the one truth the documentary makes most evident is that William S. Burroughs WAS loved and still is.

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Author: Michael Hendrick

Michael Hendrick, activist, capitalist, poet and writer, has been published in newspapers and magazines since 1972. Editor of the literary journal, Beatdom, he is currently finishing his first novel, Egypt Cemetery, the first volume of a Proustian effort he refers to as 'A Remembrance of Things Crass' (with apologies to Marcel Proust). A survivor of five bookstores and two libraries, his two cats are his most prized possessions. He likes Irish ciders and organic foods and never misses a Bob Dylan tour!

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