New York’s 92nd Street Y has just uploaded this vintage performance – February 26 1973 – Allen reading, in the company of his father Louis, and in the face of some pretty extraordinary heckling by (well, no big surprise here) Gregory Corso.
This is the first recording in a proposed series of recordings – The Dave Nolan Poetry Series (in recognition of the late audio engineer/archivist, poetry- (and also serious Grateful Dead-aficionado!), David Nolan.
Thom Donavon, who also worked, alongside Nolan, at the Y, has noted that, of all the remarkable readings that they became familiar with, “Dave and I both appreciated the anarchic spirit of (this particular) reading, rare among recordings of the Unterberg Poetry Center for its breaking down of the fourth wall”.
The wall between performer and the audience, between stage and auditorium is, thanks to Gregory, pretty unequivocably shattered. Allen does his heroic best to maintain (and succeeds in maintaining) an equilibrium, including (even indulging) Gregory, at the same time getting the poems (and songs) delivered, his poetry heard. The reading spotlights, among other things, his extraordinary skill at improvisation (and incorporation).
The reading begins with a poem composed just a few weeks before, “What would you do if you lost it?” (subsequently included, in a considerably revised form, in Mind Breaths) – “What would you do if you lost it/said Rinpoche Chogyam Trungpa Tulku in the marble glittering apartment lobby/looking at my black hand-box full of Art. “Better prepare for Death”…”
There follows, then, a litany of what he would thus have no further use for – “worthless” possessions, all transience, loss. Corso comes in, first, around, approximately, the five-and-a-half-minute mark, berating Allen, but later declaring that he’s “just the igniter for the dynamite”, and acknowledging (the accomplishment of the poem) – “that’s good, Al”.
Chastised, he even debates with Allen’s father. (Louis: “We have a dense crowd here, but where you are (Gregory) it’s most dense”)
Allen exasperated recognizes in Gregory, a modern Maxwell Bodenheim (incorrigible misbehaving). He takes up his harmonium and attempts to continue, with a loose, improvised version of “Prayer Blues” (Louis can be heard muttering in the background), following it with “Broken Bone Blues”.
“Your father and I made up”, Gregory declares – but, notwithstanding, remains unrestrained – “Charlie, leave him alone..” (Charles Plymell seeks to restrain him) – Allen, the pacifier – “all that happened was that my harmonium got wet..” – (and, on Gregory’s instigation) “don’t touch the angel” – Allen continues to improvise, and morphs into the Pranaparamita mantra – gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha – much to the scorn of Gregory (“You’re a Western man!..what’s a wise Western?)
Allen (inspired and improvising): “Three chords and the form of the blues is a Western wisdom if you’d be quiet/ but therefore I have to sing blind as if I were in the midst of a holy night/ It was better to interpret the occasion as angelic rather than as demonic otherwise we’d all be benighted/ It is best to pray from the heart when the angry voice or the fearful voice arise/ I’ll end my song and finish with blues and say goodnight unto your eyes/ O Gregory, now the term is over for you and me, the night is finished for the poetry/ We’ll start again May 7th, if you will be at the New School then you and I will have a bout/ but we need not, at this or that time, scream and shout/ So therefore I will say in silence ending all my song, goodnight ((to) Gregory, and (to) my father, most of all).