by Ben Simon,
My favorite of Bob Dylan’s legendary Basement Tape recordings is probably the most bizarre piece of the puzzle that is Dylan’s (and definitely the Band’s) discography: two takes of an improvised parody song known as See You Later, Allen Ginsberg. Later dubbed “reefer run amok” by Band leader Robbie Robertson, it’s easy to see why these laughter-heavy takes never joined the original versions of Tears of Rage and Too Much of Nothing on The Basement Tapes, Columbia’s decidedly Band-pampering 1975 compilation. For many, this jam would feel out of place everywhere but a Weird Al Yankovic demo tape recorded live during the waning point of a campfire. What I enjoy about this song is not the haphazard references to “crocogators” and “your bile,” but the haphazard reference to Allen Ginsberg, perhaps the one reference in the whole discography puzzle to one of the most prominent men in Dylan’s life.
In 1963, Allen Ginsberg returned to New York City from the Beat Hotel in Paris. Upon meeting Ginsberg in a Greenwich Village bookstore, Bob Dylan invited Ginsberg to join him on the Freewheelin’ tour. Ginsberg declined this invitation, but regretted his decision after Bob Dylan became a household name.
Besides the aforementioned See You Later, Alligator spoof and a flattering (though equally haphazard) mention in the liner notes to the Bringin’ It All Back Home album, Bob Dylan did not make as much of an effort to eulogize Ginsberg as he did for his previous idol, Woody Guthrie. There is no Song to Allen, no poem entitled Last Thoughts on Allen Ginsberg. He did, however, generously contribute to Ginsberg’s primarily spoken-word box set, Holy Soul Jelly Roll. While Dylan plays a minor role on the average track included on this box set, he does duet with Ginsberg on such underground classics as Vomit Express. As one Dylan scholar, poet James Cushing put it, “Ginsberg was a smart cookie: he knew that anything with the name ‘Bob Dylan’ on it sells.” But Ginsberg saw Dylan as much more than a franchise—he saw him as a friend.
Ginsberg would only have a handful of other collaborators in the music world. Paul McCartney contributes to Ginsberg’s swansong, The Ballad of the Skeletons, helping to raise it from the grave with a spooky melody to back Ginsberg’s meandering yet thoroughly pointed lyrics. Ginsberg makes a guest appearance on the Clash’s album Combat Rock, far more famous for its inclusions of Should I Stay or Should I Go, Rock the Casbah, and Straight to Hell, a lesser hit with a riff later jacked by M.I.A. for Paper Planes. Thus speaking, Ginsberg’s physical role in music is limited. Several artists do, however, pay tribute to him. They Might Be Giants’ I Should Be Allowed to Think, a satirical song which mocks the self-righteousness and pretentiousness of undergraduate English majors, parodies the opening lines of Howl. Rage Against the Machine have performed Ginsberg’s protest poem Hadda Be Playin’ on a Jukebox several times in concert.
In addition, there are hundreds of works by Bob Dylan, America’s most influential musician, in which Ginsberg is an influence. Dylan’s minor novel Tarantula, written in the same style as the liner notes to four of his early albums, contains his attempts to write as a junior Ginsberg. While Ginsberg himself appears in the background of Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues music video, that song’s text reads like vintage Ginsberg.
In these ways, I see Ginsberg and Dylan’s relationship as akin to the one between Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart: two free spirits, both too unique to play in the same band, but with a professional friendship resulting in a mutual sharing of influence and the occasional collaboration.