Allen Ginsberg on the Conan O’Brien tv show

After the heady interview last week, here’s a somewhat lighter one, a  May 1994 appearance on the late night American talk-show “Late Night with Conan O’Brien
We’ve already run his performance of “Put Down Yr Cigarette Rag”, but here’s the whole segment.

CO: We’re back, folks. Okay, my next guest tonight is considered among the most important American poets of this century. He’s been part of the Beat Generation, the Yippies [sic], and currently [1994] he’s released a collection of poems called Cosmopolitan Greetings. It is a real pleasure to welcome Allen Ginsberg

[Allen enters]

CO: How are you?

AG: Well, alright, (I’m) listening..

CO:  Yeah, all good. We..  Something caught my eye. It was known for a while that I was going to talk to you, and the other day someone brought it to my attention that you did a Gap ad.

AG: Right..

CO: …which I think we actually have (do we have that? can we see? and dissolve to it? – there you are – [“Allen Ginsberg wears khakis”]

AG: You can’t see on the left it says, “All proceeds for this image go to the Jack Kerouac School of Poetics in..Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado.”

CO: Oh, that’s great. This goes to the Jack Kerouac School…

AG: I’ve got my alibi

CO:  Oh that’s good, that’s a good cause..

AG: I have my alibi for not selling out.

CO; No, that’s good..not many people do!  Let me ask you…

AG: Not many people sell out or have the alibi?

CO: Ah well, the latter, I’m afraid. I think plenty of people sell out. you mentioned Jack Kerouac. I wanted to just very very quickly just paint the background picture. You, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, part of the Beat Generation.

AG: Gregory Corso, another great poet, also

CO:  uh-huh.. back in the “Fifties..

AG: ‘Forties!

CO: It started in the ‘Forties?

AG: Yeah, it’s the fiftieth anniversary this year, actually..

CO: Well, now, how do you know exactly which year it started?

AG: Because I remember the first time I met (Jack) Kerouac and (William) Burroughs was ..was Christmas (19)44, I guess it was

CO: (19)44. Okay, now were you aware at the time that something was happening or were you guys just living your lives, writing what you wanted to write, and were you oblivious that you were doing something that was going to be this important?

AG: Just living our lives but at the same time we felt that.. we liked each other, and had some sense of sacred friendliness about it, and sympathy with each other, and we’d all had  (a) similar background – We’d all read (Fyodor) Dostoyevsky, we all thought we were crazy..

CO: So that brought you together!

AG: And so that brought us together, in a sense of respecting each others’ madness, so to speak.

CO: It is a.. I think what a lot of people of my age don’t appreciate. I came of age – I’m thirty-one – and I came of age, you know, watching the Watergate hearings and growing up with all the unrest, and I just think of dissent as part of the American fabric, but it really wasn’t. I mean, in the ‘Forties and the ‘Fifties..

AG: You have to remember in those days we had censorship, in books. In those days, you couldn’t print Henry Miller, even classics like Catullus or The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter. They had to be printed in Latin. You couldn’t.. You weren’t allowed to read them in English. You couldn’t get Jean Genet and (Jack) Kerouac’s early books, Burroughs’ books were censored. Even my work…

CO: You had a problem, didn’t you, you had a problem with Howl when that first came out, is that right?

AG: Yes.. the Customs held it up when it came in from England and then the..the.. some idiot juvenile Vice Squad tried to bust City Lights and (Lawrence) Ferlinghetti, the poet, who was the editor and put him on trial – But we won the trial.

CO: You were on the FBIs “Dangerous” list, weren’t you?

AG: “Dangerous to Security”, they call it. I think I wanted to go to Cuba to check it out – and I got kicked out of Cuba – for objecting to (Fidel) Castro’s anti-gay policy. He put all the homosexuals in the theatre school into a work camp. So I protested that, so I got kicked out of Cuba, and the day I arrived from Cuba by plane to Czechoslovakia, I found later, (that) I was put on the “Dangerous to Security” list by the old queen, J.Edgar Hoover! (laughter)

CO: There’s some irony! – Well, that’s interesting. You’d think that they would admire that you’re kicked out of Cuba.

AG: Yeah, you’d think so, but..listen.. (it was) something I found out later – that the police, the secret police behind the Iron Curtain and the secret police in America have a kind of understanding. It’s one international mucous membrane network

CO: They just..  they just understand, oh well…

AG: Yeah, they understand each others needs  (or they did in those days, in any case).

CO: Now, one question I wanted to ask is..a lot of.. you’re a survivor, Jack Kerouac, for example, is not here today and you are. Why is that?

AG: Well, I think the problem was.. I smoked a little pot (as friends did) – Kerouac drank.

CO:  “..but you didn’t inhale!” – that’s the important (point)

AG: Oh , I inhaled.. but Kerouac drank – and drink is the killer. You know, every year, a hundred thousand people in America die of alcohol, four-hundred-and-thirty thousand people a year die of cigarettes. And maybe twenty-to-thirty-thousand, a tenth of that, die of illegal drugs. So the real drug problem in America is cigarettes and alcohol, actually. The whole rest of the “War on Drugs” is a scam, because, after all, the CIA was involved and so was (George H.W) Bush with (Manuel) Noriega for years, all the way back to (Richard) Nixon‘s time. Everybody knows that anyway. So what are they making all that noise about? It’s a lot of hot air.

CO: They just knew about it all along.

AG: Well, it was convenient for them not to know about it publicly. Now..  Then it got to be convenient to know about Noriega publicly when Noriega double-crossed Bush on the Panama Canal treaty..He wanted to carry out the treaty that (President Jimmy) Carter had signed and take over the Panama Canal. I think that was the reason nobody mentioned…

CO: Sure

AG:  ..for the invasion of Panama.

CO: Now, in a lot of the work that you do, there is a lot of politics. You’re obviously someone who pays attention to politics and feels strongly about it, but that’s not the real thrust of your you use that. .? –  You’re talking about bigger things in most of your work, and you’re using that as an example..

AG: Yeah, I’m talking about my own heart, or what goes through my mind. What I’m interested in is – “What do I really think?” (as distinct, from what you can see in the boob-tube, or can see from Congress, or can see from the President). We all have a private life and we all know what goes on in our own lives, but what we see in the papers is not like our real lives. The media is not like our real lives, with all the warts-and-all, and all the..loves, the feeling of sacred world, the peaceableness, meditation, or eros (or, for my case, homosexuality). I don’t see any real life out there in the media that is anything like the life that I know about and lead with my family and my friends…

CO: ..that you’re in touch with?

AG:  Yeah – so the poetry is just the expression of “what is (what are) my real feelings?” (as distinct from packaged, canned, plastic..)

CO: Right. Alright, listen, we have to step away for one second. We’ll be right back. We’ll have more Allen Ginsberg after these messages

[Allen and Conan return after a commercial break] 

CO: Yes we’re back, we’re here with Allen Ginsberg, and, sir, you’re going to read something for us, is that correct?

AG: Yeah, chant or sing – but I need an A (from the band) – [Allen then performs, accompanying himself on Australian songsticks”,  “Put Down Yr Cigarette Rag”]

CO: Thank you very much – but how do you feel about cigarettes! ?

AG: There’s lots more, lots, lots more verses, but they can’t be performed on television. Remember, we have censorship, just like we had on books in the ‘Fifties and ‘Forties, you have censorship on television.

CO: Right..

AG: So don’t forget it folks!
CO: Well listen, you can, see..   but you can find it in this book, Cosmopolitan Greetings

AG: Uncensored.

CO: Uncensored in Cosmopolitan Greetings and, listen, thank you very much, thank you for coming.

AG: We’re all set?

CO:  We’re all set, yeah, we’re all set.  Allen Ginsberg, everybody. Thank you very much .

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