“Allen Ginsberg Changed My Life” declares Bryan Myers in a memoir of gratitude on Beatdom –“I don’t know where it was that I first read Allen Ginsberg, but strangely enough, I wanted to follow in his footsteps…. Ginsberg had plenty to say. And the best part about it was that he wrote it all out, he got it down. And that impacted me greatly…Each time I’d read Ginsberg, he transported me to another realm. Another realm of possibility that I hadn’t seen before … and he had left me the keys. So whenever I walked away from Ginsberg’s poetry, I always came back somehow to his words, his persona, his attitude toward life and living it.”
In stark contrast to novelist, Sadie Jones – “I lied about Allen Ginsberg to win an argument” – “I said I’d read William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, for instance, to win a point about the Beat generation, when I’d only ever read On the Road, and been a bit bored.”
Marc Ribot, the musician, had the considerable good fortune to witness Ginsberg at an early age. From a recent interview: “I don’t know about the Beat Generation as a whole, but when I was 16 I went to a poetry reading in West Orange, N.J., at the Jewish Y. Ginsberg read “Kaddish,” and it was one of the strongest performances of any type that I was present at. Years later I spoke to him about it, and he said it was heavy for him, too. It was the first time he read it for his family, and the poem is about his mother’s insanity, lobotomy and death. When he finished reading, nobody clapped or moved. Everybody just sat there for a long time.
Ribot gives a fascinating and detailed account of his subsequent first-hand involvement (working with Ginsberg on commissioned recordings for “ The Lion For Real“) – in a wide-ranging discussion with scholar Anna Aublet – here.
Among the highlights:
Interviewer (Anna Aublet): How did the recording, “The Lion for Real”, happen? Could you go back on the process?
Marc Ribot: I was contacted by Hal Willner, the producer who put the project together. I had worked with him on a number of circumstances before this, he knew many people on the scene, he had done records for John Zorn, I worked with him on the score for a Robert Frank film before. [Candy Mountain] He did a lot of projects with so-called “downtown musicians”. Hal mentioned a number of other people who were going to be on it—musicians I hadn’t at that time yet worked with—but who I really admired, including Bill Frisell and a lot of other artists. I think we went to an initial meeting with Allen, who I had never met before, at which we were given copies of a book containing all of the poems to date, a large collection of poems. And we were basically told “go ahead! pick a couple, and if there is any one you want to set, let us know”. I chose three. There were so many poems to choose from, that there wasn’t any overlap in the different musicians’ choice. And interestingly enough, I think people stayed away from the most famous ones, nobody did “Howl”….
Anna Aublet: So you were familiar with his work when they asked you to record with him and you had already “heard” him…
Marc Ribot: Yes I was familiar with his work. I read later on “Howl” and the famous stuff. I was very happy when Hal called me for this project because of the poetry and because the other musicians who were on it were all great. And when I got into reading the works, I chose a bunch of really early stuff. I was very surprised and happy to get more fully acquainted with what he had done. I thought that there was a kind of middle period with which I had grown out of touch, in those intervening years when he got into automatic writing stuff – I guess in the late 70s – I just didn’t feel that much connection with it. I associated it with several drugs I had given up. I wanted to avoid the drugs and the related writing. But I was really happy to find that the early poems were really fantastic, naturalistic, like “To Aunt Rose”, which is one I chose for the set, and “The End”. “
You know Allen was completely accepting, he gave no criticism, didn’t criticize a single musician’s choice of setting. He was a great live reader, no matter what the musicians presented, he made a really strong effort to go with. You could just say ‘well he was a nice guy’, but I think that there were a couple of other things at play there: part was a Buddhist acceptance of what musicians brought in and part was that not only Allen but other poets of his generation just had a mystical admiration —I don’t want to use the word ‘worship’— but at least admiration, of jazz musicians, and I think that as poets they aspired to the conditions of jazz musicians. So there was sometimes maybe too much respect! Allen met a lot of musicians over the course of his career, and well, some of the collaborations were more successful than others.
Anna Aublet: I was wondering actually to what extent the poems themselves inspired the music. For. “Aunt Rose”,for instance, it is classical guitar that you chose as a background. I was wondering how you made these choices after reading the poems.
Marc Ribot: It was kind of intuitive. But also now if I think about it later, I felt like the kind of repetition, the repeating practice of a classical music phrase was sort of consistent with the character of Aunt Rose. You know, her repeating her ideology, like kind of a broken practice, a practice that had become emotionally deep.You know, Allen was critical of them but actually he wrote about his characters with some affection.
Anna Aublet: You said you chose three poems, I think “The Shrouded Stranger” as well, which is also an early poem and so when you read them, did you choose them because they were your favorite or because you thought that the music was coming to you as you read?
Marc Ribot: Yeah, more of the latter you know. There was always the love of the poems but these suggested something and I think I love them! I think they’re great.
Anne Aublet: Did Ginsberg give you any indications as to what he wanted for the poems in terms of music?
Marc Ribot: You know Allen was completely accepting, he gave no criticism, didn’t criticize a single musician’s choice of setting. He was a great live reader, no matter what the musicians presented, he made a really strong effort to go with. You could just say ‘well he was a nice guy’, but I think that there were a couple of other things at play there: part was a Buddhist acceptance of what musicians brought in and part was that not only Allen but other poets of his generation just had a mystical admiration —I don’t want to use the word ‘worship’— but at least admiration, of jazz musicians, and I think that as poets they aspired to the conditions of jazz musicians. So there was sometimes maybe too much respect! Allen met a lot of musicians over the course of his career, and well, some of the collaborations were more successful than others.
The whole interview (we’ve quoted at length here but there’s plenty more) is well worth reading – as is Anna Aublet’s lucid introduction and contextualization – Don’t miss it.
Jack Kerouac (whose birthday it was yesterday) is the subject of some extraordinary sleuthing by Brian Hassett (another must-read!) – “Kerouac in Provincetown – How History Could Have Been Different, Kerouac’s and Otherwise” (it actually appeared at the end of last year, don’t know how we missed it). Hassett takes off from a remarkable discovery – “the only photo known to exist of Kerouac actually writing at a typewriter”
Equally remarkable is another parallel article – on Beat legend, Bill Cannastra – “Bill Cannastra & Joan Haverty’s Loft – The Home of The Scroll & The Girl” – more illuminating Beat research from Hassett
and, while we’re at it, a shout-out for his 2015 volume – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac – The Adventure of the Boulder ’82 On The Road Conference – Finding Kerouac, Kesey and the The Grateful Dead Alive & Rockin’ in the Rockies
Gregory Corso, (whom we featured last week – and we’ll be featuring again shortly) has a must-read poetry broadside taster available – here – Melted Parchment – a bi-lingual presentation in English and in Greek (translated by Yannis Livadas) of four previously unpublished poems from his final manuscript “The Golden Dot”. Cover photograph is this portrait of Corso by Allen
Friday the 13th? – huh? – don’t worry!