Ah Roma! – Gregory Corso.
Lyrics by Gregory Corso. Music by Francis Kuipers. Published by Red Records, Milan, Italy, 1988 (from the album, “Poesia e Musica – Gregory Corso and Francis Kuipers”))
From an interview with Michalis Limnios in Blues and Gr(eece)
(for the fascinating full interview see here)
ML: Tell me a few things about the story of “Poesia e Musica – Gregory Corso and Francis Kuipers”, how that came about?
FK: I discovered the poem ‘Oh Roma’, the first track on the LP, scrawled in chalk, in Gregory’s unmistakable and florid hand-writing, across a fashion poster near a wine-bar we liked to frequent. It looked as though it had been written recently and in a rush. Knowing Gregory, and presuming it was unlikely that he had a record of the poem, I copied it in my notebook and later suggested to him that we make a song out of it
To introduce ‘The Moose’, which I sing in Italian on the LP, Gregory had me say: “Lord Byron said: Never Explain The Explanation. This song ‘The Moose’, however, needs explanation!” (He was referring to the great English Romantic poet Byron (of course) who died in Greece.)
Gregory insisted that we only did quality shows. “First find out what it is, then where it is, then at the end you talk about the money!” He instructed me before I set up a gig for us. Unless it was Allen Ginsberg or some other Beat Generation big shot, Gregory avoided artistic collaboration. People were always trying to involve him in their self-aggrandizing schemes. We were even offered money by rich part-time poets to be on the same bill as us! Gregory had an answer prepared for that: “OK, but on one condition, that we go on first!” That usually ended the affair, as no one dared follow him as the audience would be following him out of the hall.
“Lady Poetry came to me!” Gregory would say. “Allen and the others grew up with books around them, their parents had books in their libraries. They searched out poetry, but Lady Poetry came to me, in prison, to save me!” Abandoned by his mother and thrown out on the street at the age of 16, Gregory had spent part of his younger years in jail. “People do terrible things!” He would say, glancing nervously over his shoulder
It has been pointed out to me that Gregory must have trusted me a great deal to make our historical recording. Legendary Argentinean percussionist Louis Agudo, whom I have also played with, put me in touch with Sergio Veschi of Red Records in Milan who produced the LP.
The interview continues
ML: What are some of the most memorable tales with Gregory Corso?
FK: Unlike musicians, used to touring and waiting around before gigs, saving their energy for the show, Gregory did not (act) like them. Once he was in front of an appreciative audience, he had a great time but, on the whole, he only accepted gigs when he was desperate for money. The main motive for Gregory’s reluctance to perform was that it took a lot out of him and he was now in his late 60’s. His official public appearances were not just mega-events but also poetry marathons. They often went on for hours and hours. His performance started the instant his train arrived at the station or when he descended from a car, and finally ended when he left town. Appearing on the scene, Gregory was immediately besieged, usually by groups of women “Ciao bella donna!” he would exclaim, as they dragged him off to a series of bars, where he would entertain everyone present with his startling energy and superb wit, between reading poems and even writing them on the spot. When he finally made it to the theatre and the gig he might be quite exhausted, although he soon recovered. At our jam-packed performance in Pisa, with every city notable and their wives dressed-up in the front row, he joined me on stage half an hour late, staggering in with a bevy of prostitutes from the nearby seaport of Livorno. Having extra seats placed on the stage for the ladies, Gregory included them in the show, having them translate poems he had just written. Once they got used to it, most of the audience enjoyed the show but, judging by the way a number of Pisa residents got up and left with their nose in the air, the broad and vulgar Livorno accents of the ladies evidently upset them.
Habitually not having a fixed abode, Gregory spent a lot of time reading and writing anywhere he could – in parks, in bars, clubs and café’s.
One day – he told me – a young man passed by, shyly handing him a handwritten piece of paper containing a poem called “The Times They Are A-Changing”. “It was Bob Dylan before he got famous!” Gregory explained.
ML: What is the “thing” you miss most from Gregory? Which memory from Corso makes you smile?
FK: Many memories of Gregory make me smile. Just thinking of his smile makes me smile. “I don’t tell lies because I don’t remember them.” He said once. A few months ago, years after his death, I found a message for me that he must have placed amongst my papers to warm my heart.
One of our unrealized projects was an opera on Giordano Bruno, the philosopher who was burned for heresy. We planned to have chorus lines of dancing cardinals etc.
ML:What advice has given Corso to you? What kind of a guy was Gregory?
FK; Gregory had the power to light up a room; he could be full of luminous grace, like a winged messenger bringing news of extravagant fun-loving Gods. On occasion, he could also be terrible like a William Blake angel. You can’t mess around with poetry or playing the Blues, you need to get to the truth or they don’t work.
ML: Are there any Blues memories from Gregory Corso, which you’d like to share with us?
FK: You got a good deal paying a ticket to one of our shows. Gregory could emanate charisma like Marlon Brando and he was masterful at handling an audience. He could put you through a gamut of emotions for your money. They could range from wonder, marvel and glee, to horror and even disgust and rage. Gregory touched on big subjects – death, love, every essential human argument, and he delighted in surprise. His appearance was no muscle-relaxing, mainstream event for sure! We never rehearsed. Every show was spontaneous and different; (for me it was sometimes like walking on a razor). Gregory stripped peoples’ minds naked and touched their souls. When this became unbearable for them and the atmosphere became explosive, he had the ability to suddenly make the entire theatre collapse into relieved laughter
Sometimes, matters could go horribly wrong as well. I can recall times when the audience was hostile and we had a few narrow escapes. Once, we left in a hurry through the lavatory window of a venue in a provincial town. For hours I had to drive my ancient VW through a thrashing rainstorm with police following us with menacing flashing lights. It was pitch dark. I had my face glued to the windscreen, struggling to see the road through the rain and the wipers. Gregory was in the back seat singing Italian opera and waving a bottle of whisky.