Ram Dass and Allen in conversation in the early 1980’s discuss the ‘Sixties and lessons learnt – the dangers of polarization, the challenges in breaking out from social norms. This transcript will be presented (via seven short videos) in two parts. The first today, the second, concluding part, tomorrow.
AG: I did get a reputation of being a wild-eyed Beatnik, so I thought it would be funny to just (put on a suit)
RD: But I think you were a wild-eyed Beatnik, even from your intellect, even then
AG: Why, thank you!
Well I don’t know if you should say thank you or not, for saying something (like that)…
AG: I like to be “a wild-eyed Beatnik”?
AG: I like to be “a wild-eyed Beatnik”
RD: Yeah, I understand.
AG: The difficulty is, it does, apparently, create problems of communication, sometimes, like, in the middle-class, and on this kind of television. So therefore, sort of as a way.. It goes back to something that Swami Satchidananda said to me(I think we were all together), the night we met Swami Muktananada in New York about eleven years ago
AG: I said, “How do you deal with your big beard ?” and he said, “Well, if you’re going to have a big long beard, keep combing it neatly, so people don’t get frightened. And then, I had had trouble with (Jack) Kerouac’s mother, who kept saying, “Oh, he’s a horrible, bearded old letcher”..
AG: And it turned out that she had an allergy (to), or psychic fear of, beards, and I hadn’t heard, hadn’t understood, the message she sent, and that was the reason I never could go over and visit Kerouac in his later years. And then, once I shaved, after he was dead, they invited me over..She said “You look so nice without your beard. I had an uncle, who was very mean to me as a younger (girl), who had a beard…”
RD: Far out. Well, one of the things that a lot of us learnt was that we didn’t need the external trappings to have the internal freedom. We were using the external symbols to show the break-away and the freedom. And that’s one of the things that was interesting about the shift from the (19)60s into the (19)70s, was the going from the kind of faddish quality of clothing, hair-styles, and all that stuff…as to who we…so we’d know each other, like, “are you one of us?” and there was much about “us” and “them” – that was one of the things that was uninteresting about the ‘Sixties, in retrospect, was the kind of polarization that we all fed into, alternative economics, alternative communities, alternative life-styles, dress, clothing, mores..
AG: I think that build-up during the Sixties (existed) excessively and was also fed into a Frankenstein build-up by commercial interests..
AG: Like, beginning (19)58, in North Beach they were selling Beatnik kits..
RD: Beatnik kits! – What, did you get, a false beard?
AG: Kits! Yes! They had one in Life magazine.
RD: Dirt to put under your finger-nails?
AG: No. A fake beard. A pair of eye-glasses, maybe a hook nose or a goofy nose, a wig of long dirty hair, and a beret, and a long cigarette-holder.
RD: Oh I wish I had,..
AG: And there were also Rent-a-Beatniks for parties…
AG: ..which was, which was actually a collaboration of sort of jerky Beatniks, lower non-literary Beatniks, Big Daddy Beatnik-types, people going around saying, “I’m a Beatnik”, and the local newspapers who saw a funny story and actually spread it so that high-school kids thought that that was the point – until maybe they went down to North Beach and got into some tragic-comedy and learned something funny.
RD: It’s hard for me to grasp that you.. see, you have lived out a whole other alternative culture dealing with society in the (19)50’s…
RD: ..when I was being straight establishment, see I was…
AG: (19)40’s .My nursing period in that area was (19)45 to (19)55.
RD: When did you break away from established society..I mean from established.. a model of yourself as somebody who’s going to be a Columbia student, who’s going to be a good member of the cultural..
AG: When I got kicked out of Columbia in 1945..
RD: How old were you then?
AG: ..at the age of ..nineteen, for having had Kerouac sleep over in my room (at a time when I was a virgin!), and when the Dean called me into his office and said, “Mr Ginsberg, I hope you realize the enormity of what you’ve done”.
And I suddenly realized I was surrounded by mad-men!’
RD: The culture took much.. a far more powerful hold of me, because I wasn’t until I was in my..like twenty-nine, when I even started to realize that something was wrong. I just assumed everybody was supposed to be like this
AG: Yeah. My breakthrough, though, I think, was a little jejeune in those days, still. I mean, it was so.. (it) didn’t do any good. I also wish I might have been a little more riper already.
RD: Yeah, because.. it’s interesting, because you are..you are trusting your own intuitive sense of what was truth compared to the conspiracy around you. I mean when the Dean says something, that’s real.
RD: And you even then questioned that. That’s pretty far-out..
AG: But I had a guru, (William) Burroughs, who was a total cynic at that point
AG:. And he was a..Burroughs was a… I was living with Burroughs and (Jack) Kerouac very soon after – and Bill was just absolute mature and straightforward and clear. (he is no different now than he was then), he was just straight as an arrow, kind of very clear – because he came from the upper-class and he had had money at one time or another..
RD: So he could afford to be very…
AG: And he’d been around, and he’d been to Europe..
AG: ..and he just had this sharp, incisive, tender, cynical, humor. So when I came back and told him what the Dean had said.. (when I told my father, my father wept, when I told Burroughs, he burst into laughter!)
RD: Well you were lucky you had that.
AG: Yeah, oh yeah.
RD: I would have rejected someone like that out of hand. I mean, I couldn’t have handled somebody like Burroughs (or that at all)
AG; Well, I was homosexual and (was a) virgin.
RD: Well, I was too, but I went underground. I just treated it as if I was sick and society was right. You were one of the first lights that came along, that suggested to me the possibility that I could be, you know, just what I was and (that) it was ok
AG: Well, from fourteen to eighteen, I was in the closet. So, but I think it was after meeting Kerouac, who gave me permission, as, like, this kind of macho guy, to.. what he admired in me was my sensitivity, and melancholy, and sense of mortality, and a sense of, not hurt but (a) vulnerability (and that’s what I liked in Bill (Burroughs), who, though he seemed very cynical..
RD … Soft..oh god, for me, he’s all heart. I mean, he might not like hearing that, but..
AG:.. but Kerouac was.. No, no. My image of Burroughs is like a… the.. Gainsborough Blue Boy
AG: You know, like a big, tall, slightly-overgrown kid with a (kind of) blue demeanor and sweet melancholic face.
RD: Right on. Very sweet, yeah..
AG: Okay..so what were.. so we have… for the (19)60’s we have the excess of outward show, what (Chogyam) Trungpa calls “spiritual materialism”, I think, a collection of beads, bangles, pictures, prayers…
RD: And also polarization in the..revolution(ary).. in the political activist movement too.
AG: Yeah.. and when it went beyond the political, then it got bad. When it went beyond the literary and got polar (and there were certain by-products).
RD: The fact that people were so unconscious in their anger and in their zeal to be holy, that impurity, the impurities of that system, are what created (the) (Ronald) Reagan of now
AG: Self-righteousness (You see that)in Reagan.
RD: I feel that.. yeah, it’s a kind of a polar thing that leads to..like the college-kids today feel like they’re rejecting what all of that was about because they reject the impurities of it. Is that true?
AG: In the late (19)70’s that was so I think. In the (19)80s, there’s.. that’s all been sifted out and what was permanently changed in America – and in the world, actually, in terms of the world perspective..
RD: Yeah a lot changed..
AG: .. I think, is now some surfacing and coming back into understanding. The American situation is very special because it was the crucible for a lot of this, but in Europe, and in Russia, and in both sides of the Iron Curtain right now, there’s a huge interest both literary, artistic and social-political, in not only the (19)60’s but like the (19)4o’s (19)50s (19)60s…the whole..the whole literary change and the change of consciousness.
RD: I find it, it’s interesting.. I find it in Japan. I find it in Australia and New Zealand, (which is, like twenty years back, just coming up into the scene, just awakening in that way – they’re like the ‘Sixties now, I mean, that kind of feeling), but in Europe, I still find (it) very heavy, (and)..there’s no.. lightness in the.. there’s not that spirtual curiosity yet.. and so that was partly economic, partly..
AG: No, I’ve been now, since (19)78, going to Europe several times a year
AG: What there are is something we don’t have in America – it’s like poetry “Be-In’“s, involving, like, twenty thousand people at a time [Editorial note – Allen appears to be referring here to the 1979 gathering at Castelporziano, Italy] , in Amsterdam, in Rotterdam, in Cambridge (England) at the Cambridge Festival ( (on a) smaller scale)
RD: That doesn’t say much about consciousness necessarily, tho”, Allen. I mean, don’t equate poetry and consciousness, to me..
AG: I always do
RD: I know you do. Well, that’s your occupational hazard…
AG: Art, art.. Well I’m…
RD: Well, there are a lot of people that are poets that are very lost in Romanticism, there’s very little awareness in there, in that dance at all
AG: Well the European poets have been lost in the hyper-intellectual trip
AG: Structuralism..and language-studies – the kind that dries out the heart thing – and the European tradition, since the beginning of the twentieth century, has lacked the vocalization that’s in the American tradition, the presentation of the body, putting the body into it – and the feelings, and the emotions. So what’s being picked up on right now, in Italy, France, Russia, Hungary, Yugoslavia (sic), Czechoslovakia (sic), and Germany has been the spontaneous mind aspect (rather than classical, written-down), music-relation, the relation(ship) between poetry and music (involving the body again – that is, words, and then music, involving song and breath (through) the body), and the original hip thing, which was rejection of all political models, Communist or Capitalist (after a long period of Communist-Marxist intellectuality, the Europeans are beginning to emerge beyond that and to some exploration of consciousness). In the art worlds..
RD: In the art world?
AG: And in the punk worlds, and in the rock n roll worlds, the new wave world has gotten so…
tape breaks off here – Allen, circa 1980, discourses on punk rock, on youth rebellion and other matters.. Ram Dass-Ginsberg conversation continues tomorrow