Last Thoughts on Ginsberg
by Michael Hendrick
I have not reached the point where I will pay for a ring tone on my cell. Just the words “ring,” “tone” and “cell” in the same phrase pisses me off.
Once somebody bought me a vanity license plate permit as a gift. I had a 1967 Mustang and she thought it a good idea for me to pick a name for the car as its registration. There are several problems with vanity plates. First you have to think of something clever in seven characters that nobody else has come up with, like when Kramer got the ‘ASSMAN’ plate on Seinfeld. Another, more annoying, aspect is that it makes your license easy to remember.
When somebody is filling out the police report, they will remember that ASSMAN was driving. Very obvious.
The plate was never purchased and I beat the Mustang into the ground.
So, when I was researching some facts about Allen Ginsberg and popular musicians and was offered a ‘Kaddish’ ring tone for my cell, I blinked! Maybe ‘Sunflower Sutra’ or a cover of ‘Pull My Daisy’… But ‘Kaddish’???
A vision of me trying to sneak out of someplace dangerous, unnoticed, perhaps behind the counter at the pharmacy,
‘‘Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets and eyes…,’’
in Allen’s voice as the white-shirt tablet-bull jerks his head towards me and pills fall to the floor… caught!
(Strange Musical Mental Interlude)
But this is about Ginsberg and where he stopped to wet his beak on the tunes of the times surrounding him. ‘Howl’ may be the first linear place where Beat meets beat, with several verses of the epic poem written in imitation of a chorus-on-chorus jazz progression in which the succession of verses creates rhapsody and ecstasy. The standard ‘Lady Be Good,’ in the particular styling of Lester Young, was an inspiration to both Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
Ginsberg kneeled before Young in the kitchen of NYC jazz den The Five Spot after a show and recited a piece of poetry to him, to Young’s confusion. He also enjoyed Thelonius Monk there as often as he could, as well as taking in Dizzie Gillespie and Charlie Parker, who he cited as an influence on his poem, ‘Witchita Vortex Sutra.’
While ‘traditional’ jazz nosed its way into the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was at the Beat Hotel in Paris or traveling extensively in India with Peter Orlovsky. Things remain quiet, in that respect, until 1965 when Allen spent the summer in London, doing poetry readings, especially of note, the Poets Of Our World/Poets Of Our Time presentation of literary greats at the Royal Albert Hall.
During this time, enough ‘buzz’ was created to instill a new underground scene in London, centered on The UFO Club. Two influential rock groups formed over drinks at The UFO Club were Soft Machine and Pink Floyd. I am no longer surprised to find that Pink Floyd is a staple for many of today’s youth. It seems like it has become a generational rite of passage to listen to them.
Bob Dylan arrived to perform at the celebrated Isle Of Wight Festival, where he was famously booed and called “Judas” for playing electric instruments during parts of his act. He and Ginsberg were familiar with each other from the East Village and were mutual admirers. Dylan invited him to his suite at the Savoy Hotel to stuff towels under the doors and smoke pot with the Beatles.
Later that summer, a party was held to honour the celebrated poet’s birthday. The Fab Four were invited. Lennon, Harrison and their wives arrived to find him naked but for the underwear on his head and the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign hanging from his penis. Reportedly, Lennon balked when the others hesitated to stay, in fear of soiling reputations.
(The relationship between Ginsberg and Bob Dylan is discussed in depth by David Wills in Beatdom Issue Two. I will add two things I found interesting which were not in the article – He had recurring dreams of T S Eliot throughout his life. Later in life, he dreamed of Bob Dylan. They were good dreams… The other is that when the pair visited Kerouac’s grace, he handed Dylan a copy of Jack’s Mexico City Blues, Dylan remarked that the book was the first poetry he read which spoke to him in his own language. Since his influence on singer/songwriters of the late 20th Century is indisputable, the effect of Kerouac deserves citing.)
The same year, Dylan released Subterranean Homesick Blues, which could be considered as the proto-rap song, were it not so directly descended from Chuck Berry’s rocking Too Much Monkey Business. The song was used as the opening for D.A. Pennebacker’s documentary, Don’t Look Back, with Ginsberg and Bob Neuwirth haunting the background in the alley behind the Savoy.
Donovan, then billed as “the English Dylan,” helped paint those signs. Ginsberg’s visit with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, spiritual mentor to numerous 1960s cult figures and subject of Lennon’s Sexy Sadie, is noted in Donovan’s 1967 song, ‘Sunny South Kensington.’ By 1968, Ginsberg returned to the USA with roughly the same attitude Lennon had for the Maharishi but he continued to meditate and chant throughout the rest of his life and incorporated meditational breathing techniques into his poems.
Another popular 1967 song, ‘I Am The Walrus,’ featured him as the “Elementary penguin.” Coincidentally, when Lennon first heard Ginsberg on radio, he thought he was listening to Dylan. That year, Ginsberg also made an unaccredited appearance on the Rolling Stone’s single, ‘We Love You,’ singing backup vocals with Lennon and McCartney. He also sat in on the Lennon/Jagger collaboration ‘Dandelion Fly Away,’ recorded at Abbey Road Studios.
Ginsberg admired Jagger for his version of shamanism and as the years passed it became more and more apparent that he looked more to modern song, as opposed to the works of his literary godfathers, for inspiration and as a more effective way to deliver the Word. He maintained this attitude until his death.
The fact that, on his only visit with poet Ezra Pound, Ginsberg played ‘Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and ‘Blond On Blond’ for the famed scribe, speaks volumes.
1969 saw the famous ‘Bed In For Peace’ in Montreal, where he was present and vocal in the recording of ‘Give Peace A Chance’ in Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. During that session, a spirited version of ‘Goodnight Irene,’ Ginsberg provided the most solid vocal as well as punctuating the song with his finger-cymbals.
In the early 1970s he poured a lot of his energy into traveling to Calcutta to make poetic record of collateral damage visited on India via the Viet Nam War (on a trip funded by Keith Richards and using recording equipment courtesy of Dylan), while also putting together a group of songs for his first musical LP, First Blues. This appeared first in book form in 1975, the year he joined Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue but was not released for musical consumption until 1983, when it surfaced as a two-LP set. It was written simultaneously with his book, The Fall Of America.
The early-1970s were a petri dish for a plethora of musical styles but the decade ended with corporations co-opting artists and the dreaded disco music taking the industry while the spirit of rock and roll took to the streets in the garb, sound and attitude of punk. While vilified by many as a dirty, theatrical fad, punk rock had an underlying penchant for literacy, which can’t be disputed. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso and others embraced and were equally embraced by the movement, mostly owing to a closely shared set of sensibilities and distain for the norm.
In America, punk grew out of the Lower East Side of New York, spiritual home to Beats, Folkies and counter-culture icons like Lennon and David Peel and the Lower East Side, dropping it squarely into the laps of Ginsberg and Burroughs, who still clung to Gotham.
The seminal moment of creation of the genre seems to point to poet Patti Smith reading spoken word poems to a crowd assembled to see the wonder of The New York Dolls, a revolution in their own rite, at a NYC club in 1973. This was two years after she first performed her work at the St Mark’s Poetry Project.
The old Beats haunted CBGB, at Bleecker and Bowery, just steps away from the Burroughs ‘bunker.’ The punks engaged and celebrated these familiar visages, now cohorts in a new style of anarchy.
The first noticeable collaboration was Ginsberg’s contribution to a song on the Clash’s Combat Rock LP.
‘Ghetto Defendant’ – his unmistakable voice reading lines which serve to run like a bassline beneath the reggae beat and also in response to Joe Strummer’s plaintive cries. This partnership led to the Clash recording music for the poem ‘Capitol Air,’ which was released eventually on Ginsberg’s four-disc collection, 1994’s Holy Soul Jelly Roll, which also included the songs from First Blues.
In the bleak musical landscape of the 1980s, he was still on the scene, doing some minor work with the Hobo Blues Band and working with Philip Glass on an opera which was produced from ‘Witchita Vortex Sutra’, and performed at New York’s Schubert Theater in 1988.
He made an appearance in a 1993 TV special, put together by U2’s Bono, performing two pieces to an audience spanning Europe and the United States.
In 1995, while in London to perform at the Royal Albert Hall, he visited Paul McCartney and the pair discussed haiku. Ginsberg mentioned that he needed a guitarist to work with him at the Hall and McCartney offered to play on ‘The Ballad Of The Skeletons’ that evening. It was a unique enough pairing to end up on a 1996 MTV video which got a good amount of airtime.
Also, in 1995, he proved to be a valuable mentor. Patti Smith is the most visible and logical artist to capture the spirit and timbre of the Beats without it seeming like a nostalgia act. Her songs employ the same chorus-on-chorus succession of rhapsody that fueled the rhythm of ‘Howl’ and the chops of Lester Young. As recently as three months ago, she read from Walt Whitman to her audience and in the past year paid homage to him as she read his poetry to the music of Philip Glass on the anniversary of his death and also at a show in tribute to William Blake, who Ginsberg had tried to press on the Beatles.
At a time when the punk music movement, the safety-pinned sea on which her career floated, was growing stronger than ever, she fell from the stage during a performance in January 1977. She broke several neck vertebrae on a concrete floor and had to make lifestyle changes to recuperate and work through physical therapy. Two successful albums followed but Smith opted out of performing, in favor of family life.
Shortly after a series of personal losses (death of spouse, sibling and friend) befell her, she was scheduled to read poetry with her old friend, Ginsberg, in Ann Arbor, MI, in April 1995. He encouraged her to return to the stage after 17 years of semi-retirement. It is very likely that he was somewhere behind Dylan asking Smith to join him on tour later that year. He had asked her to join the Rolling Thunder Revue and she turned him down but this time – with Ginsberg and Michael Stipe of REM urging her, – she hit the road running and shows no signs of slowing down as she works through her 60s.
Ginsberg considered Smith to be “one of the pioneers of spoken poetry music, spoken poetry going into song… to the point where a lot of older folks like myself learned from her how to put the two together” and he gave her one of the highest of honours by comparing her to Rimbaud.
He died two years later. He still inspires and those he has influenced continue to inspire others.