Allen Ginsberg, in 1987, surveys his musical history.
A considerably edited version (incorporating some of these notes) was published contemporaneously, but the bulk of the interview has remained unpublished and is appearing for the first time here.
part two – a continuation (Allen discusses Buddhism, politics, poetry, and ’80’s zeitgeist), will appear in this space next week
[Allen arrives (only temporarily, happy to report) on crutches, explaining, “I took a spill on the pavement a few nights back”.]
AG: I did an album in 1968 Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake with tunes by Allen Ginsberg, on MGM. I had some very good musicians on that one, like Charlie Mingus, Charles Wright on bass, Julius Watkins on French horn, and Elvin Jones on one of the cuts, and Don Cherry on half a dozen others.
In (19)75, I did a whole album with David Mansfield from the Rolling Thunder Revue for John Hammond Sr He produced it at Columbia’s studios. In (19)81, I did another album with Hammond on Columbia, First Blues.
I also did a little work here in Denver with The Glu-ons – Birdbrain – do you know that? It was put out by Wax Trax! .That’s a classic, it’s really good, the thing I’m most proud of. It was the first time I was able to work with lyrics that weren’t rhymed, with irregular lines like my poetry, but with a definite dance beat . So I happened to have the e-las-tic sense of timing to lay the verses out within sixteen bars without interrupting the beat – with a refrain – “Birdbrain”. You never heard that? For a forty-five from Wax Trax! it did really good, sold three-thousand copies and was on most of the college stations across the country for about a year. As far as being dance-able, up-to-date & punkish, and, at the same time, classical, I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. And I think it cost fifteen-dollars-an-hour (not that anybody got paid for it)
I also did a whole album, (unreleased) with a band called Still Life with Mike Chapelle [of the Glu-ons] .We might do something more this year  while I’m here. I made another album with him that hasn’t come out . And I recently did something with Bugs Henderson, a Texas guitarist. In February, the revived Fugs are playing in New York & I’ll be their opening act. I’m also going to do a record later with Hal Willner.
I hit it big with a total hit number, heard by millions of people in Hungary in 1980, so I’m a minor but notable rock star in Hungary with the Hobo Blues Band. My first full-length albumcame out there about a month ago, in which they set music to “Howl”in Hungarian. I sing on one cut, a thing called “Gospel Noble Truths”, but the rest is all Hungarian translations by a very literate Hungarian rock band using great Eastern European poetry. I was there last Fall, in the studio, for three days, and it was fun being a Hungarian rock & roll character.
I worked with The Clash a little on the lyrics for the Combat Rock album, on three cuts, including the one I like most “Death Is A Star” did some background vocals and I’ve sung with them live a few times (including at Red Rocks in (19)82).
(Bob) Dylan taught me the three-chord blues pattern. I didn’t know that until 1971. Before that, I kept confusing everyone by calling something a blues when it wasn’t, it was just a ballad. I’ve never played much of my own stuff but I was always good at improvising (‘cause I used to wander under the Brooklyn Bridge with (Jack) Kerouac & make up poems or funny songs, nonsense blah-blah-blah rhymes). Apparently, that’s all Dylan does, spontaneous composition.
A lot of the rockers, like Dylan, began conceiving of poetry as a real and possible expansion of folk lyricism. So I got to know some of the musicians, like Jim Morrison, who I met through Michael McClure, his poetry guru. I later met Van Morrison who’s interested in (William) Blake,(as I am).
I don’t know enough about music because I’m not really a musician (I know five chords, maybe, enough to do rudimentary blues) but I think music is a sacred pursuit. I think any art is sacred if your attitude is sacramental. I’m also interested in photography from the same point of view – sacred moments, scared faces, sacramental awareness of the scene as you snap the photo, while time passes into eternity. It’s the same way with poetry or music.
The first music I heard as a kid was at grammar school. I used to go down to the spiritual churches on River Street (in Paterson)and hear black spiritual singing at revival meetings. In high school I would listen to a lot of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Lead Belly, Billie Holiday & the older jazz & blues people. In the (19)40’s, I was following the development of rhythm & blues, stuff like “Open The Door, Richard” – [Allen begins singing] – “Open the door, Richard/ Open the door and let me in” – You know that one? – To me, it was some sort of apocalyptic opening of the gates of heaven! – People like Fats Domino and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins too – (We) used to go out and listen to mambo.
Kerouac was interested. I always felt more like an intellectual Jewish poet rather than a down jazz musician but there was some kind of relationship between the kind of poetry I was writing & the free-form spontaneous jazz style. He used to listen a lot to bop, in the Village at the time, Charlie Parker was playing at a place called The Open Door, where they didn’t sell alcohol, (in those days the great jazz musicians were (all) illegal because of the cabaret license – if you’d been busted (even on something minor, like a little stick of grass, at a gas station in Delaware), you couldn’t get a license to play in cabarets. So people like Thelonious Monk. were forbidden to play & make money in the (Big) Apple.) In 1960, I had the chance to hear a lot of Thelonious Monk, night after night at the Five Spot, where I also met Lester Young. (I) went out one night and turned out the junk with Thelonious Monk. [sic]. In 1960, I delivered psilocybin from Timothy Leary to Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, to see what they’d say about it. Dizzy (‘s response) was – “Anything that gets you high, man” – Monk, when I asked him what happened, he said – “Got anything stronger?”
By historical lineage, there’s a connection, certainly. There’s a scene in Renaldo and Clara where (Bob) Dylan and I are improvising songs and talking over Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Mass., and Dylan reads a poem from (Jack) Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues”. When that scene was over, they were filming us walking out of the graveyard, and I asked Dylan, why he was so interested in coming to Lowell, and what his knowledge of Kerouac was. He said – “That was my first poetry. Someone handed me a copy of Mexico City Blues in St. Paul and it blew my mind”. I asked “Why?, and he said – “It was the first poetry that talked American, that I could actually understand & read. It meant something to me.
Their styles are certainly of the same mode, the improvisational, accidental rhyme, inspired connections made up out of lightning-bolt flashes. (Dylan once described his method of making a tune as going into a studio & jabbering into the microphone, then going back into the control room and taking down what he said, improving it a little, then going back in & singing it).
Making it up at the mike. That’s what we did in 1971. I have one manuscript ,(the first and only version of which is on tape, and it’s on First Blues), a little gay song, “Jimmy Berman”. They (sic) were playing “Jimmy Brown, the Newsboy”, and I didn’t understand what it was. I said, “What’s that, Jimmy Berman? I heard you drop his name” (that was the beginning line) – “What’s he got to say? What papers is he sellin’?/ I don’t know if he’s the guy I met or aint…”
[Allen “excuses himself to go to the bathroom. As he hobbles off on crutches, he sings – “Jimmy Berman does (some) yoga, smokes a little grass..“]