“He died several years ago, but I had a very interesting dream, a very brief dream,” says Allen Ginsberg when asked about his early mentor, Carl Solomon, the man to whom his most famous poem, Howl, was dedicated. Solomon originally wanted to publish the works of Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac before his New York publishers told him he was crazy. Like the young Ginsberg, Solomon was no stranger to the inside of a mental hospital.
Ginsberg was happily chatting at his New York apartment less than a month before his sudden, but not totally unanticipated, death aged 70 on Saturday April 5. He had suffered from chronic hepatitis that eventually led to cirrhosis of the liver.
A diagnosis of terminal liver cancer was made eight days before Ginsberg’s death, with initial media reports suggesting that the poet and activist had between four and twelve months to live. Ginsberg slipped into a coma the day of the news. The day prior he had written about a dozen short poems, one of the last being entitled On Fame And Death.
Ginsberg was no stranger to the media circus but had done few interviews with the Australian media over his career and had only visited the country once. In this encounter what had started out as a brief twenty minute interview to coincide with his musical performance The Ballad Of The Skeletons, which had recently been voted number 8 on the Top 100 songs of the moment as voted by listeners to youth radio network Triple J, turned into an hour and a half encounter with Ginsberg ranging over his poetry, the infamous Beat Generation, contemporary poetry, his feelings about Buddhism, Aboriginal musicians, Chinese politics, blues music and his love life.
“I met him in the afterworld and I said, ‘well, how is it there?'” Ginsberg continued, speaking about Solomon in a manner which, in hindsight, seems rather prophetic. “And he said, ‘it’s OK, you get along just like in the mental hospital if you obey the rules’ and I said ‘what are the rules?’. He said there are two rules: ‘ First, remember you’re dead; second, act like you’re dead.’
“And I woke up laughing. He said two days before he died ‘I have life insurance but I’m dying’. It was a very courageous death, I must say. He was very much with it, even with his cancer. So we had a memorial service for him.
“The funny thing is that most of us are all together after thirty years. I see Gary Snyder, who has just finished a huge project that he’d begun working on some 30 or 40 years ago, so we had a big banquet together in San Francisco. I saw McClure and Philip Whalen and I see Diana DePalma at Naropa, and Gregory (Corso) here and Kenneth Copeland and I have John Ashbury’s job at Brooklyn College. Peter Orlovsky is just around the corner. We have supper every three nights. (John) Giorno is further downtown.”
Aside from a vigorous social life, right till the end Ginsberg maintained an astonishing work schedule. A volume of Selected Poems was released earlier this year, as was his The Ballad Of The Skeletons which was recorded with a variety of musicians including Paul McCartney and Philip Glass. This year has also seen a book called Illuminated Poems, Ginsberg’s mid-1950’s Journals and at the time of the conversation he was working on a book of essays from the ’60s through to the ’90s and was about to edit a collection of selected interviews. And as if that wasn’t enough Ginsberg was planning an MTV ‘Unplugged’ musical performance to capitalise on the success of The Ballad Of The Skeletons.
“Next year they’re bring out The Lion For Real from 1990,” Ginsberg continued. “Then I have a book of photographs over the last ten years. There are a whole bunch of photos from India in 1962, the negatives of which were lost for many years and have now been returned to me. There’s also a lot of ’50s and ’60s photographs that have never been seen. There’s quite a lot of stuff to do. I’m working with Philip Glass. We had an opera out you know called Hydrogen Juke Box. There’s also a new version of Howl coming out with classical music accompaniment.”
And it didn’t stop there. After the interview Ginsberg was heading out to sign copies of his astonishingly large photo collection. In fact Ginsberg maintained arguably the most comprehensive literary archive of at least the last fifty years with some millions of photos, letters, journals, poetry and paraphernalia sold two years ago to an American university for in excess of $US2 million.
If Ginsberg knew that his days were numbered it wasn’t obvious. Certainly he’d had periods of illness over recent years but aside from his myriad of projects he was already committed to returning to Australia early in 1998 for the Adelaide Festival Of Arts.
His last visit to this country had been for that festival in the early ’70s when he did a variety of readings and performances including the one he recalled most where he appeared at the Adelaide Town Hall with a group of Aboriginal singers and musicians, something he appeared to remember with absolute clarity some 25 years later.
“I met (Russian poet) Yevgeny Yevtushenko in Adelaide and there were other poets from around the world but they had ignored completely Australian Aborigine’s songmen,” he said. “Some professors in Australian Aboriginal lore had invited a few Aboriginal song men to the university to sing in their class, to sing to the children and to see if the children would respond to the songs that they sang. But then the Aborigines didn’t have enough money to get back home. So I said that I was happy to share my evening session at the Town Hall and they could have my receipts. That was so successful that we did another one at Port Adelaide Town Hall.”
Surprisingly these readings were amongst the few things that weren’t preserved in Ginsberg’s archives, the poet being delighted when I offered to send him copies of the tapes I had of these occasions. There was a genuine delight that, albeit rough, these recordings existed and could be added to his collection.
It’s an understatement to suggest that Ginsberg was the most influential American poet of his generation, possibly of the last century, but something that separated him even further from fellow wordsmiths was that, like Burroughs, he was an astonishingly accomplished and powerful reader of his work. That’s best heard on the four CD collection Holy Soul Jelly Roll – Poems And Songs 1949 – 1993 which was compiled by Ginsberg and producer Hal Willner and released in 1994.
The collection contains many of Ginsberg’s classic readings, but peppers them with lesser known performances, particularly a reading of Howl that, whilst suffering in quality by comparison with the original, completely impassioned version released in the late 1950s on Fantasy Records reinforces that Ginsberg was frequently very, very funny, something that’s often not so apparent on the printed page.
“I don’t read it that often, maybe one or two times a year when there is a special occasion,” Ginsberg explained of his most famous work. “I have developed a certain technique and dynamics for its intonations so it’s pretty interesting.”
Equally amusing are early readings of such landmark poems as Supermarket In California and America.
“Those are the very first readings of America and Sunflower Sutra,” Ginsberg said of the performances on Holy Soul Jelly Roll. “And it’s the very first reading of the complete Howl. It’s from a Berkeley reading just a few months after the first reading. The first time I read it I only read Part 1. Then we got together the same poets in Berkeley in a little theatre and (Beat Generation historian and Kerouac’s first biographer) Anne Charters was Peter Orlovsky’s date. While there she met (blues historian) Sam (Charters). They got married after that. So that was a big day in our minds.”
So, did Ginsberg perceive the poem’s as being humorous?
“I thought America was humorous,” Ginsberg continued. “Well, there is a kind of exuberance in poems like Sunflower Sutra. When you say ‘the cunts of wheelbarrow’s and the milky breasts of cars’, I mean, it’s funny. It’s sort of verbally surrealistic. But it has an exuberance and a kind of joy in it. The whole thing is about joy, about self recognition. . . ‘You were never no locomotive, Sunflower you were a sunflower’. The critics of the day dismissed it because they were so busy nit-picking about dirty words. And Howl itself is very funny. You know, there’s this kind of racid impetuousness. Also again that hyperbolic: ‘Starving hysterical naked, starving hysterical naked, starving hysterical naked.'”
At the time when Howl was written Ginsberg was, with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, a third of the unholy trio that became known as the Beat Generation. They were intertwined with the likes of Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Hal Chase, Lucien Carr, John Clellon Holmes, Michael McLure and an array of fellow travellers, some of them phenomenally talented, others grabbing on the coat-tails of what was not then but later to be perceived as a significant sub-genre of American poetry and prose of the late 1940’s and ’50s.
Kerouac died in 1969, Corso’s output is increasingly sporadic, Snyder became a committed Buddhist and maintained a low profile whilst the majority of others are notable predominantly for their presence in photos with The Big Three. Now, with Ginsberg gone, only Burroughs remains of the essence of the Beats. Until the end the two maintained an enduring friendship.
“I was with Burroughs a couple of times this year,” Ginsberg said.” I stayed with him in his house. I cooked breakfast for him. We’d talk over the newspapers. Sometimes I’d take a lot of pictures of him and keep the tape recorder on for a couple of hours at a time. I see him all the time.”
Given Ginsberg’s candid approach to the conversation I decided to take a chance and ask about whether he thought Burroughs deliberately shot his wife Joan in the head in Tangiers in the mid 1950s. This infamous incident involved Burroughs supposedly displaying his marksmanship at a party, putting an apple on his then-wife’s head, William tell style – but ending up shooting her through the head.
“I don’t know,” Ginsberg hesitated when asked about Burrough’s possible pre-meditation in the killing. “It was just the gun shot – but she was very suicidal. I had been with them, with her, maybe ten days before. I spent about ten days with her and she was in a bad way, drinking and driving cars in a way that scared the kids and me in the back because we were all there, so there was already a kind of dread there.”
Then there’s Corso who I’d spoken to a year before in a belated attempt to get him to tour Australia with poet Anne Waldman. Corso was frightened about the length of the plane trip to Australia and wasn’t in possession of a current passport. I’d suggested to him that I’d try and get Ginsberg to accompany him on the trip if it would make him more comfortable but even that wasn’t enough to drag him out of his shared lower-East side abode in Manhattan.
“Oh, he’s very busy,” Ginsberg said. “He’s been writing all these years but is neurotically refusing to clean it up and prepare it. I think he’s the poet’s poet.”
In some ways, despite his lack of literary output, the other famous member of the Beats was Neal Cassady, a veracious writer of sub-Kerouacan prose (little of which has been published) and at various times the lover of both Kerouac (who made him, as the character Dean Moriarty, the hero of On The Road) and Ginsberg.
At the time, thinking about Cassady’s personality and Ginsberg’s ongoing involvement with rock’n’roll (he recorded or performed with Bob Dylan, The Clash, Leonard Cohen, Phil Spector, and obscure punk band The Gluons, to name but a few), I posited that there was possibly some implicit connection between the Beat Generation and the punk and post-punk generation that Ginsberg realised and had tapped into. I suggested that maybe there was a comparison between the restless spirit of Cassady (who died from heart failure alongside railway tracks in Mexico in 1968) and the suicidal Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. Ginsberg didn’t totally buy the idea.
“I don’t think that Cassady was a suicide,” he said. “And I don’t think he was so pained as Cobain. Cassady was very exuberant and had a good time. The problem was towards the end . . . the L.S.D. didn’t do him any harm. He smoked grass very strongly but I think with all his all-night cross country driving with the psychedelic bus – (Ken) Kesey’s (Merry) Pranksters – that he took a lot of amphetamine and he went down to Mexico to calm the nerves and went out walking. I think he passed a Mexican wedding where they plied him with some other things and the combination did him in. He was quite vigorous guy but not so neurotic really.
“But Cobain was a marvellous singer. I hadn’t heard much of him until towards the end of his life. I heard his unplugged version of that Leadbelly song and it was such a perfect vocal that I was really moved. It’s one of my favourite songs but I only knew Leadbelly’s version.”
Ginsberg went on to reminisce about hanging out with Bob Dylan, meeting Phil Spector at his home in Los Angeles on a visit with Lenny Bruce and teaching the producer the Hari Krishna song which later evolved into George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord and spending time with jazz great Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot club in New York. Throughout Ginsberg was totally unpretentious. His was simply a life lived in the spotlight and these were his friends, acquaintances and inspirations. Nothing more, nothing less.
At the end of the conversation Ginsberg welcomed the option of continuing talking. We exchanged addresses and he asked how my love life was. I told him it was okay, thanked him for asking, and questioned how his was.
“My love life is OK too,” he laughed. “I can hardly get it up but when you’re 70 it’s hard . . . unless you have somebody being helpful.”
So was Ginsberg in that situation?
“I’ve found some younger chaps or lads quite helpful,” he laughed. “There is life after 60.”