The dedication to Allen’s Cosmopolitan Geetings volume (1994) reads -“To Steven Taylor” followed by that echoing line of William Shakespeare – “If music be the food of love, play on” – Steven, most definitely, did and has. It is a major omission that we haven’t focused on him before, here on the Allen Ginsberg Project – (altho’ we have – see for example here, here, here, here, and here).
But this weekend, a special focus, a spotlight, on the invaluable Steven Taylor.
ML: Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
ST: Now, because I have the memories and lessons of past experience and also have the uknown future. Also, I’m getting older now, and can see the breakdown of the body to some extent, so now may be as good as it gets.
Here’s Steven, around that time, in his guise as a Fug (now a venerable Fug), speaking to Vanity Fair
“Starting about 1986, I toured and collaborated on music with the poet Allen Ginsberg and it was Allen who introduced me to The Fugs. Allen was, as always, touring around colleges, and what had happened was that Bob Dylan had taught Allen how to set chords to a melody, and he was very sort of hyper-, not hyper-active, but a very active and hard-working guy, and he immediately wrote a book of songs. As soon as he could figure out how to harmonize a tune, he wrote a bunch of tunes. He wrote a little book of songs called “Rags,Ballads & Harmonium Songs”.
And so he came to my college, and asked the English professor who had organized the reading if there was a guitar-player, And I was the only guitar-player Doctor Haba knew. And so, I was suddenly.. I found myself, with a sandwich in my hand, being introduced to Allen and being told to get my guitar!
So we played a show that night and it went off pretty well, and what happened is I started to sing. And he’d never had that.. He’d picked up a lot of musicians, and guitar-players from college, you know, who used to sit in and watch what he was doing and play along, but I started to sing! – And it kind of blew his mind (or he got inspired), and, (that’s on tape, actually, that would have been in May of 1976).. We moved to the city eventually (soon, actually), and started touring around with Allen. We toured once or twice a month… I mean, once or twice a year, for up to three months at a time, five shows a week, mostly traveling by train – Allen and Peter Orlovsky, his partner, who played the banjo, and myself. And we were the Three Stooges or., you know.. Allen was the rock-star, Peter did the heavy-lifting, and I was the secretary, the accompanist, and, whatever else, music-scribe and accompanist. And the three of us traveled around and did these low-budget tours all over Europe. It was life-changing, to say the least…..”
A further 2011 video shows him at work on his own music. (dig the “active and hard-working” sensibility too)
Bringing it more up-to-date, here’s Steven at The Poetry Project, from 2016, with his own composition, “This Is Not A Love Song”
“I wrote this in the churchyard in Spring. Allen Ginsberg used to teach that.. you know..poetry as observation of the mind, and so, just make a record, a catalog, of the sensual impressions, and so.. that was the assignment”.
Here’s Allen & Steven performing Blake
Here’s Steven (at the Howl Happening Gallery) on Allen Ginsberg’s birthday last year performing more
From his remarks on that occasion:
“One of the first things that we played together was some of Allen’ settings of the Songs of Innocence and Experience of William Blake. William Blake published The Songs of Innocence in 1789 and The Songs of Experience in 1794, combining them into a book called “The Songs of Innocence and of Experience – Showing the (Two) Contrary States of the Human Soul. So I’m going to sing a couple of tunes from “...Innocence“, as set by Allen.
In 1969. ’68, I should say, 1968, after the Democratic Convention, Ginsberg was taking a bus back East, and he said that he was horrified by the revelation of the bare skull of state violence that he had witnessed, and he heard a little voice in his ear singing (he was given to auditory hallucinations, particularly coming from William Blake, but.he heard a little voice singing ‘”Vain the sword and vain the bow/They never can work War’s overthrow”.) And he went back to his farm in Cherry Valley and sat at the harmonium, and spent two nights setting songs of “The Songs of Innocence and of Experience to music.
And I’ve been now doing this. I told Allen… He’d be… When Allen was dying, he did a very Ginsberg-ian thing – he phoned everybody, he phoned all his friends and family, to say that he was dying. And he said, “They tell me I have about three months, but I feel it’s about three months” – and he was right. And he said, “Finish the Blake! Finish the Blake!” – I had been talking about doing his Blake songs for so long, and so now twenty years, twenty-one years, after the fact, I’m finally getting around to doing something with these Blake songs. So.. something like this.. This is the “Introduction to “Innocence” followed by “The Shepherd”.”
Updated news – Steven has recently completed the recording for this project. Stay tuned for more news in the coming months
Here’s Tuli introducing Steven in 1992, Steven singing “I Was Much Mistaken”
More Steven Taylor tomorrow. It’s a Steven Taylor weekend.