Paola Igliori interviews Allen Ginsberg on Harry Smith

Paola Igliori interviewed Allen to include in her book American Magus Harry Smith: A Modern Alchemist for her now defunct Inanout Press. American Magus is unfortunately long out of print, and the few copies out there are fetching upwards of $75. It’s definitely worth it for anyone seriously interested in Smith, as it includes interviews with & stories by Lionel Ziprin, Folkways Records’ Moe Asch, Rosebud Pettet (Harry’s spiritual wife), Robert Frank, Bill Breeze, and many others.

Allen Ginsberg & Paola Igliori, 24 September 1995

Paola: What’s the first memory you have of Harry?

Allen: I heard about him before I met him, from Jordan Belson, who lived on Montgomery Street up the block from me in San Francisco, a filmmaker who had learned a lot from Harry. Harry originally came from Seattle, then in Berkeley as part of what was called “the Berkeley Renaissance” in 1948 around Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer, and other poets studying medieval history. I don’t think Harry was matriculated, but I think he had worked with Kroeber, I’m not sure—the anthropologist. While we were sniffin’ ether, Jordan told me about Harry, this polymath brilliant fellow who’d invented the machinery for making light shows and had left that behind when he left San Francisco. The people working on rock concert light shows developed their multimedia Fillmore West wall-collage projections from Harry’s equipment, including the idea of mixing oils or colors on a mirror which was then projected on the wall: liquid psychedelic flowing moving images.

He told me enough about him so that when I was in New York later in 1959 I went to the Five Spot to listen to Thelonious Monk night after night. The Five Spot was then on the Bowery—a regular classic jazz club where once I saw Lester Young, and Monk was a regular for several months. And I noted there was an old guy, with a familiar face, someone I dimly recognized from a description, slightly hunchback, short, magical-looking, in a funny way gnomish or dwarfish, same time dignified. He was sitting at a table by the piano towards the kitchen making little marks on a piece of paper. I said to myself, “Is that Harry Smith? I’ll go over and ask him.” And it turned out to be Harry Smith. I asked him what he was doing, marking on the paper. He said he was calculating whether Thelonious Monk was hitting the piano before or after the beat—trying to notate the syncopation of Thelonious Monk’s piano. But I asked him why he was keeping this track record of the syncopation or retards that Monk was making, never coming quite on beat but always aware of the beat. He said it was because he was calculating the variants. Then I asked him why he was interested in Crowley, magic, in numbers, in esoteric systems, Theosophy, and was also a member of the O.T.O. He had practical use for it. He was making animated collages and he needed the exact tempo of Monk’s changes and punctuations of time in order to synchronize the collages and hand-drawn frame-by-frame abstractions with Monk’s music. He was working frame-by-frame so it was possible for him to do that, but he needed some kind of scheme.

I see. Also I read somewhere that his observations led him to notice that the heart beats seventy-two times a minute and we breathe thirteen times a minute and so he, kind of, created a rhythm playing around with the two.

There is a complex of body cycles. For instance, the vision is of thirteen to twenty pulses or blinks. I’m not sure the number of breaths per minute. But there are some other neural cycles. There was a formula that seemed to fit the basic complex of cycles. It may be that he has it recorded somewhere, written his formula.

He’s mentioned intertwining these two as rhythm for his films in one of the interviews. [Another of the interviews included in American Magus -Ed.]

There are some lectures that he gave at Naropa, now transcribed, where he might’ve talked about this.

Did you see any of the paintingsthat I guess were earlierof the music?

Yes. I had a lot of curiosity about his work and we met a few times at the Five Spot. Then he once invited me to his house, about which he was very secretive. He was very reclusive at the time—and he had me swear that I wouldn’t tell anyone where he lived, and it was 300 and 1/2 East 70th, I think, off of Third Avenue or Lexington. I went there with him, it was a little tiny brick building, two stories high. The downstairs was some kind of store and the upstairs was some tiny apartment. He lived there a number of years and the bedroom was in the back. The front room was all full of equipment and paintings and I was bedazzled by the paintings. I have never seen them since those years. They were rather large . . . maybe 3 × 5, 2 × 3 feet, and they were of large animistic creatures representing the cosmos that had eyes and mouths and wombs and sort of like gigantic god-like worms . . . or Ouroboros. They were byproducts of a funny kind, of formulaic triangulations, or Pythagorean calculations, and at the same time freestyle doodles. And then they were water colored and painted in . . . very beautiful. So, looking at them was like seeing each a funny, hunking, animist cosmos.

That’s wild!

So, there were these creatures and there were other paintings including the “Tree of Life,” which I had here—you’ve seen it.

Yeah, actually I would love to use it as the cover for the book. 

Mine is on loan now to the Whitney Museum—they’ll be showing some of the works of Harry.

Oh, that’s wonderful

That will be a big part of the Beat show.

Oh, when is it?

November 9th.

Oh, that’s great. I didn’t know about it. And did you ever see any of the paintings which I heard he did with the dots, of Dizzy Gillespie . . . Miles?

All sorts of things, yes, there were kind of punctuations and dots, and commas, and odd little animate miniature marking or musical notations or little figures running along the canvas or paper. I’ve got a very fine memory of those. Then he showed me his films. He would get me very high on hash, or grass, in this little tiny room. Then put on the phonograph while we smoked—”Round Midnight”—whatever music he was using. And then he showed me these beautiful films, which are now out on Mystic Fire Video. But he had a lot more. And then one day he showed me the entire Heaven and Earth Magic and that was really amazing.

Was this in color then?

No, black and white. It took place underground and the first scene was the 19th century opening of the London subway; and a woman in dentist chair, high on laughing gas. This was the elevator going high up and coming back down—ending in the London subway, at the inauguration of the London subway. But if you notice, there is a dentist chair and the lady in the dentist chair going higher and higher and higher—pumped up high like a barber’s chair—and it goes way, way up into an elevator shaft, ascending into the sky.

Is that the one where there is the scene with the two lovers going by in a brain-boat looking at the moon?

Well, it’s an hour and a quarter film. Every time I went there he’d get me very high, sort of hypnotize me with the grass and film! And then he’d hit me up for money! . . . twenty dollars . . . thirty dollars, fifty dollars . . . and I had a little money so I gave it to him whenever I was there. But I was beginning to resent it. But one day when I was there he said he needed a hundred and ten dollars and he would give me a copy of Heaven and Earth Magic—the entire movie—if I would give him that cash. Which I did. I bought it, I don’t know what for. I didn’t have a projector to use it. I’ll put it away or I’ll keep it safe. It wasn’t a great copy, it was dark, but it was an extra one. I took it to Jonas Mekas—told him that I met this fellow who made the remarkable animated collage cartoon, frame by frame. And Mekas had never heard of him. So I left this film with Mekas and then Mekas got in touch with me and said this is an amazing colossal genius! So they got together and Mekas began showing his films. Harry was very reclusive and seemed to be very reluctant at first of going public. He preferred to go around cadging money off his friends, collecting here and there. It was a small amount of money, maybe a few thousand dollars a year, and many friends in different worlds.

Strange how he seemed to have a real openness to randomness and parallel patterns

That’s the key to his work.

But at the same time an almost maniacal precision for all the possible alternatives that could come out at that one random moment.

His interest in randomness was sort of an interest in chance—in actual linkage and synchronicity. But it’s pretty much in the ethos of people like Cage or Burroughs or modern MTV. In a way much of MTV music videos comes out of this randomness. There is a direct lineage, I think . . . graphics . . .jump-cutting randomly or juxtaposition . . . a funny way of putting it together.

Then, later on, he went to Florida, at some point, and began collecting Seminole patchwork. While he was gone—I think it was during that period, I’m not sure—the landlord, who hadn’t been paid for some months, threw out all of his paintings, everything that was in the apartment, Harry said. But he was very mysterious about it, so I don’t know what remained or what didn’t remain, but apparently the great paintings that I was just describing don’t exist any longer. I don’t know what else was lost. He said that the landlord threw it all in the garbage.

Then he was in the Chelsea Hotel for a little while at a very interesting time: 1970-1972, when Barry Miles, my biographer, was living there, putting together my 20 years’ tapes for Assembled Poems Vocalized. And Jacques Stern was there, a friend of Burroughs and Harry’s at the time. He had polio, was in a wheelchair, was a reputed member of the Rothschild family, he had some money. We’d known him from Paris; he thought Burroughs and Harry were the great geniuses of the age. He was making plans to have a magazine feature them, but was also very temperamental when he’d get drunk or high on coke or whatever. Throw temper tantrums, smash things in the room. So there was Harry, Miles, and Jacques Stern all living in the Chelsea. And I visited a lot. At that time Harry recorded my compete collected songs, First Blues, which came out later, many years later, edited by Ann Charters, on Folkways Records, lately available on cassette. [Allen Ginsberg, First Blues: Rags, Ballads and Harmonium Songs, The Smithsonian Institution, Folkways Cassette 37560] Harry had also issued the green three-box, six-record set of American Folk Music that you also know about. That was one of the first things that I got ahold of. He gave me a copy first, then I bought another set when it was still available. And then the boxes collapsed on the crowded bookshelf. I don’t know if you know the effects of the American Folk Music collection, an anthology of rare old records he’d rescued from oblivion. Have you heard that?

The effects? No.

The after effect. He put it out in 1952 and it was largely responsible for the 50s folk music revival wave in America, Peter, Paul, and Mary did much of it, the Almanac Singers, Pete Seeger, New Lost City Ramblers. But one of the people who studied it most closely was Bob Dylan. And Dylan took many of his tunes—”Ain’t Gonna Work On Maggie’s Farm No More”—from that. Dylan’s early education in blues was supplemented very strongly by Harry Smith. Everybody in the later white blues, art blues, including Jerry Garcia, said they learned blues from Harry Smith’s albums. And that was why many years later The Dead’s Rex Foundation granted Harry ten thousand dollars a year. Because Garcia knew who he was, he was grateful mysterious Harry Smith was still on earth. So, Harry had this exquisite impact on American music, and in the last year of his life he was brought from Naropa to New York and presented with a Grammy for his contribution to the preservation and promotion of folk music.

Oh, I remember a beautiful line he said on that occasion: “I’m glad I lived long enough to see one of my dreams realized. I see America changed by music

“. . . and music changed by America.”

Yeah . . . I remember you once telling a story about Dylan coming to the apartment when Harry was staying there and Harry getting pissed because the music was too loud and not wanting to come out and meet Dylan.

They didn’t meet. Harry wouldn’t come out of the bedroom; he was sleeping. Dylan was playing me a tape of Empire Burlesque and he wanted me to suggest an alternate title—I complained I couldn’t hear the words. It was about one o’clock in the morning.

How long did Harry stay here?

Ok . . . So, wait a minute. Then on the way—let’s see . . . the Chelsea . . . then he went on this trip to Anadarko, Oklahoma—and he always had some young kid as apprentice with him.

Is that the time when he spent a lot of time with the Kiowa?

Yeah . . . and he did the record of Kiowa peyote rituals, made while in jail for drinking, along with the Indians who knew the ritual songs! Also during that period, when he was at the Chelsea, he recorded all of Peter Orlovsky’s songs, and Gregory Corso’s early poetry. He was doing a series of recordings called Materials for Study of the Religion and Culture of the Lower East Side. That’s anything that happened out there—like children’s jump-rope rhymes, Gregory Corso, me, Peter, people talking, junkies talking, amphetamine babble, the noise of Tompkins Square Park, city songbirds, he recorded it all.

Did it ever come out anywhere?

No, the only thing that came out was my album, the one that Ann Charters edited for him. A lot of it may have been delivered to Folkways—maybe not—I don’t know where all his tapes are . . .

There was a story that he drilled a hole in your window to put the mike out.

No, no, he didn’t do that. I wouldn’t have allowed it. Then in mid-70s he began drinking, so he got quite paranoid and he broke off with me and he wouldn’t talk to me and a few other people—maybe ’cause I didn’t give him money, or something, but anyway he got very paranoid—cut off complete with most of the people he knew. Once I remember passing him in a taxi on 13th Street, seeing him and yelling, “Hey Harry!” and he took a look at me and hurried away. Then he moved—for lack of money, I think—he was moved out of the Chelsea and moved to the Hotel Breslin on 28th Street and Broadway. There he slowly softened up, quit amphetamines and got back in contact. Now at the Chelsea he was doing a gigantic, final project, which was Mahagony, again to the rhythm of the changes of the music. He was shooting in color with a camera, maybe a 35mm, I’m not sure. So I’m in that a lot—he was shooting whatever was going on in the Chelsea, around the city—carnivals—anything—a collection of images—an image bank. He had made some frames through which the film would be shot and/or projected onscreen. So he had these very beautiful Moorish or Greek outlines—comedic or tragic masks—Baroque theater proscenium. He built a machine, which would coordinate four projectors at once shooting through these various different frames—custom-made frames—proscenium-like theater squares. So there could be four cameras projected simultaneously with the images coming at random, and I think once, by hand. He broke glass plates of the frames in anger—in a tantrum—after the first performance. They’ve been reconstructed—some of them. There were some paper cutouts—cardboard cutouts of the frames that are left. They are in the archives.

When was it shown?

Rani would know. The first showing was probably some time in the mid ’70s.

It’s kind of a step after Late Superimpositions [No. 14] [an earlier Smith film] in which four or more films are printed on top of each other.

No, no—there was a lot of that too (superimpositions), but basically it was four projectors, four squares, four different images projected simultaneously and the combination would never be the same, because if you used amphetamine, there is no particular order. At that time, with drinking and amphetamine, he was very bad tempered and would smash some of his own work too. So, finally he was moved out of the Breslin—which was a hotel where a lot of the Africans who sell their stuff on the street would stay—because they were refurbishing the whole hotel and he had nowhere to go. He packed up his stuff and brought a lot of his stuff to the Filmmakers’ Cooperative. And a lot of his films and paintings he had given to Jonas Mekas in exchange for money, or put down like in hock on a loan. So when he paid the money back, he would get back the paintings. He never paid the loan. Apparently there’s a lot of it here now. Somebody just reported opening up a box and finding a lot of his paintings. But they’re not yet included in the survey of materials. So he had to move from the Breslin, but he had nowhere to go. So I said, “While you’re looking why don’t you stay with me a couple of weeks until you find another place?” He moved in and within a week a car had run into him. A compound fracture—the bone was crushed—broken—like shattered inside. Did you ever see the play The Man Who Came to Dinner? When this old curmudgeon comes to dinner and ends up staying a year! (laughs.) He ended up staying eight months. He was still drinking beer.

He made all sorts of drawings and constructions, particularly toilet-paper tubes and the cardboard tubes that are inside a roll of towels. He would set them up on a flat surface and glue them down, and cover them with a kind of glue to make them permanent and they looked like futuristic cities—round buildings—and he would draw on them a little bit. One day—angry at me for some reason or other, or angry at something—he smashed them—four month’s work. So I took a lot of photographs.

Oh, you have them?

Yeah, they’re all in my office. I’ve shown them. One of them, “Turning Milk into Milk”—him pouring milk—it’s from his last days at Hotel Breslin. I don’t have any earlier pictures. At the Chelsea he’d met Mary Beach, translator of Burroughs . . .niece of Sylvia Beach, a Parisian friend and publisher of Joyce. . . of the Shakespeare & Company bookshop (not the new one, the old one).

I think I might have heard from Lionel about that.

Oh, Lionel Ziprin. Apparently, Harry first came to New York to visit Lionel, who was part of the hermetic group connected with Jordan Belson. Not to forget “Hube the Cube” from San Francisco, a bearded guy who had a newspaper stand, also hermetic, amphetamine head. There was Harry and then there was Jerry Joffen, son of a rabbi, and Lionel Ziprin. Do you know him?

Yes, I do. What other kinds of things was Harry taping while he was there?

Then he began taping the ambient sounds of New York City. I had this kind of machine, Sony Pro-Walkman (points to a tape recorder on the desk), and he exhausted two of them—or over-used them. If he’d see a machine of mine he’d grab it for his studies, so I gave him one, but he got the other off of me too. He put the microphone out the window, wrapped in a towel, and just sucked in all the sounds of the city for miles around with the microphone. Sort of like Cageian music. And it climaxed on July 4th when you get all the fireworks. That’s mostly what he was doing. He did it hour after hour, day after day. Also he’d take the machine to Brooklyn and tape Haitian street fairs, or Hispanic celebrations, concerts in open parks. He was very good friend with Rosebud, who knows a lot about him—a spiritual wife—Rosebud Pettet. She knows a lot about him; she has a lot of stories . . . she knew him from way back—before he moved to this apartment—from 1969. Rosebud’s sister was going out with Peter.

Oh, I didn’t know that.

Yeah, Rosebud’s sister, Denise Mercedes. She stayed with Peter Orlovsky on the farm, late 60s, and lived here to the late 70s. I think Huncke was living at the Chelsea as well then, in the mid 70s.

And Gregory too!

And Gregory was there. Gregory—yes, it was very explosive—I think that was the reason he left, because things were getting kind of murderous there. Somebody got killed at the Chelsea—related to Harry or drugs or something. So that’s why he left I think—it was getting dangerous. He was paranoid. Forward to the mid-80s: so, because I couldn’t keep him in this apartment all the time—the Beaches had moved out of town to Cooperstown, New York—and they offered to take Harry to the country, and take care of him for the rest of his life. So, they took him up there and things worked out well. He started a collection of old, rusty farm keys, country implements of all kinds, 19th-century, antique, common, farm equipment, locks, etc. But he drank as they drank. And so he was living upstairs in their town farmhouse. They got really upset with him for leaving shit—shitting in a bag or something—because it was hard for him to get up and down the stairs. They finally insisted that he leave. He wound up in a Franciscan flophouse down on the Bowery, a few blocks down—Third Street or Second—collecting books. All the money he gained went to book collecting. I remember I once visited him there in this narrow little cubicle and he was making recordings of people coughing and praying on their deathbeds. His cubicle was so crowded with stacks of books he had to move sideways and shift a stack to open his narrow door.

Oh, God.

You could hear sounds from all the other cubicles; they were paper-thin cardboard or wood walls. So he listened a lot, and it was always people at the end of their lives groaning to God—including people dying—coughing all night. Sounds of death as well had a synchronicity—he observed synchronicities there—like when the birds would begin singing—apparently at dawn they all sang or at sunset they all sang. He began noticing the movement and cycles of natural objects. But Brian Graham (who develops my film, a photographer) reported that Harry was getting thinner and thinner from malnutrition and he was getting too weak to go out. Brian went there with Peter, I think. And we asked Harry to come back here to my apartment for an interim. By then he quit drinking, because he was so sick. He was here three or four weeks till summer, when I had to go to Naropa. So I brought him out to Naropa and he was in residence there from ’88 on—campus Philosopher-In-Residence. And there he began making tapes of the ambient sounds of The Rocky Mountain Front Range—same thing—including climaxing on July 4th, with all the fireworks (laughs).

He had a little house there right on campus—a little clapboard house. It was all his own. The custodians supposedly let him cheat on the rent and he kept buying books—but Rani Singh became his guardian-secretary and got him food stamps and SSI. He was loved by all the inspired poets and gardeners at Naropa, till he was called to New York in 1991 to receive the Grammy, plucked from obscurity . . . though famous everywhere underground.



  1. There may have been an announcement about this earlier but The Getty Publications has just brought out "Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular," edited by Andrew Perchuk and Rani Singh.

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