Two razor-sharp minds and a riveting discussion. The full interview (very much worth listening to) may be accessed here
We take up the talk in media res, when the subject turns to Allen.
Raymond Foye: Sigmund Freud once said, “Every time I get to a new place, I find a poet has been there first.”
Steve Silberman: Oh, interesting.
Raymond Foye: Speaking of poets, I guess this is a good way to segue into your early relationship with Allen Ginsberg, because he was a formative person in my life and in your life as well. What were your earliest experiences of Allen and the Beats growing up? Was it the City Lights books and the Fantasy record of Howl? These were signposts to a completely new way of living and behaving. What did Allen mean to you growing up, and how did you come to get to know him personally?
Steve Silberman: My parents were anti-war activists, so I remember seeing some guy with a beard, in a white schmatte, who would go to rallies. I knew he was important, but my sense was that my parents – who were very serious, buttoned-down, cigarette-smoking Marxists – thought he was a frivolous hippie or something. But I had an uncanny experience when I was very young that foreshadowed my later life. One day in 1967 or so, I found a bunch of older kids – who seemed like adults to me, but they were probably in their early twenties – camped out in the backyard of our apartment building in Queens. I went back the next day and was amazed to see they were still there. Years later, I realized that they were probably taking LSD. They were lying around on blankets, cutting leaves out of construction paper and putting them in the trees and stuff. They seemed really cool. At the end of the day, I brought them up to meet my parents, which was kind of hilarious. Right before they left, I asked them, “Where are you guys from?” They seemed to come from some enchanted place or another planet. And this woman said to me, “We’re from a place you’ll never see: the Haight-Ashbury.” That turned out to be such a fateful remark: I’ve lived in the Haight-Ashbury for forty years. I’m here now.
My first literary interest in elementary school was science fiction. It was the golden age of mind-expanding science fiction. I would say that my later interest in poetry as a means of transforming consciousness, and psychedelic drugs as a means of transforming consciousness, came out of that early interest in science fiction. I would later find out that was also true for many of the musicians I loved, like David Crosby of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, who co-wrote “Wooden Ships”, and were inspired to form early communal households by the writings of Robert Heinlein.
So I started reading Allen Ginsberg’s poetry in English class in junior high school – probably the oft-anthologized pieces like “Strange New Cottage in Berkeley.” I related to his sensibility; he seemed heartbreakingly earnest in the same way that I felt myself to be heartbreakingly earnest – in the same way that probably every teenager feels himself or herself to be. Then eventually, once I started reading his stuff about his friends, like Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, in which he would manifest his love for them, I was figuring out that I was gay myself, and loved my friends that way. Allen’s descriptions of those loves always had a note of sort of hopelessness about them, like they would never reciprocate his feelings with the intensity that Allen wanted. I related to that too.
So eventually I went to Oberlin College and had my first relationship. One night me and my first boyfriend, Ed Power, decided that we had to get away from school, so we got on a Greyhound bus and went to New York City. We saw that Allen was reading that night at Queens College and went to that reading. We sat in the front row, Allen came out, and the first thing he does is sing Blake’s “Nurse’s Song” with Steven Taylor, a young man who was not much older than me, and very much my type — a sensitive longhair, like my boyfriend sitting next to me. It was obvious that they loved each other though Steven is straight — the nonverbal communication between them was absolutely electric and beautiful. I had never seen a middle-aged man who seemed so completely awake in his body, completely awake to his surroundings. It was like seeing an older man who was not a robot for the first time in my life.
While I was watching Allen and Steven, I had a very profound, kind of inexplicable experience – as they say in Tibetan Buddhism, I recognized Allen as my guru, basically; he was the guy. I couldn’t explain it. But I knew that I needed to be around him for some reason, so I said to myself, “Wherever that guy’s going to be next summer, I’ll be there too. If he needs somebody to go out and get cat litter at the bodega, I’ll be that guy.” And as it turns out, I was that guy. When I got back to Oberlin, my poetry teacher, David St. John, said, “Oh, you’re in luck, Ginsberg teaches every summer at a place, called Europa Institute!” Because there was no such thing as the Internet or Google yet, it took me a month to figure out that it was actually Naropa, not Europa. So I sent away for a catalog. There was a class with Gregory Corso called “Socratic Rap,” there was a class on screenwriting with William Burroughs, there were courses from Zen psychotherapists, dancers, and stuff. It was like getting a brochure from a better universe.
So I wrote a note to Allen to apply for what was called an “apprenticeship” with him, as the catalog told me to. I never got an answer. But on a chance that I could actually study with him, I sold everything I had and went to Boulder, to Naropa registration, and found Allen. The image of him in my mind was this lonely, lovelorn guy, writing poems in Berkeley, but he was surrounded by admirers. He was a rock star! So I waited until everyone else had left and said, “Hi Allen, I’m Steve Silberman,” and he said, “Oh yes, you wrote me that very nice letter. I haven’t decided who my apprentices will be yet, but where are you staying?” So I told him. By the time I got back to this dorm I was staying in, there was a note on my door that said, “Mr. Ginsberg would like to offer you an apprenticeship.” So I went to his apartment, and my life as an adult began.
It was actually Allen who introduced me to you, Raymond, because he told me, “You should know this guy, Raymond Foye.” I think he was trying to set us up as a date, which didn’t work out — but something much better worked out. I walked into your room at the Chelsea Hotel and you were playing David Crosby’s solo album, If I Could Only Remember My Name. I remember saying to you, “Wait a minute, who put this on?” And you said, “I put it on.”
Raymond Foye: On vinyl, of course.
Steve Silberman: Exactly. So I said, “Do you realize what this is?” And you said, “Yes, the best record ever made.” And I completely agreed. I’d been obsessed with that record for years. By now, you and I have even affected that album, because later, you introduced me to Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and I ended up putting a bonus track on the album called “Kids and Dogs,” so it was a very karmic meeting when you and I met.
Raymond Foye: We also managed to get Robert Hunter to write a set of lyrics to it. When I played it for him he said, “I was always hoping I could get a crack at that song.” I hope somebody records the whole thing someday. I think we’ve always taken popular culture very seriously. We’ve always thought about people like Dylan, or Neil Young, or Robert Hunter, in the same way we thought about Emily Dickinson, or Poe, or Whitman: as great artists, similar in that their works are exemplary expressions of our culture and humanity. and very finely crafted. who deserve to be listened to and enjoyed. We were born in the same year, 1957, so we have a strong hit of the 60s, but we were too young to catch a bus to Haight-Ashbury, though we wanted to. I remember watching Allen Ginsberg on the Merv Griffin Show when I’d get home from school as a kid, and he introduced Peter Orlovsky as his husband. I remember having a big black-and-white poster in my room of Allen marching with a sign that said “Pot is Fun.” I think one of the things that the establishment realized they made a big mistake on in the ‘60s was letting the cat out of the bag in terms of countercultural messages. Later on they made sure that never happened again. I remember sitting at home, watching Walter Cronkite on the evening news with my parents, and there was a broadcast piece about LSD in San Francisco in Haight-Ashbury. I was probably ten years old. I watched it with such interest, when it was over, my mother turned to me and said, “You’d better never do that.” And all I remember thinking was, “How can I do that?”
By contrast, these are such conservative times today. But I think that the role of the counterculture is a very important one to cultivate, promulgate, and preserve — that’s something that Phong Bui is doing with The Brooklyn Rail and Allen did with Naropa. These are all parts of the counterculture, which is a stream going in the opposite direction to mainstream culture, and that’s extremely important.
There’s an incredible diversity to the Beat writers. Even the so-called ‘minor’ Beat writers are extremely important — fine writers like Howard Hart or Kirby Doyle or Carol Bergé. There’s diversity with black writers like Amiri Baraka, Bob Kaufman, and Ted Joans, and great women poets like Diane Di Prima, Joanne Kyger, and Lenore Kandel. It’s a remarkable congregation.
Steve Silberman: Absolutely.
Raymond Foye: I actually don’t like the category of “Beat,” it’s become too limiting. It was a remarkable group of people. To me, it always represented the alternative to what I considered to be the meaninglessness of mainstream American literature, for the most part.
Steve Silberman: Absolutely. Diane di Prima said something in a class at Naropa that really struck me. She was talking about the notion of “cool” and what that word meant to the early Beat people. She said that the mainstream culture around them was full of fake sentiment. You would turn on the radio and there would be these hysterical voices moaning about some very shallow version of love. She and her friends said, “No, we’re gonna turn that off. We’re going to turn off the fake sentiment and just talk about what’s real.” That really impressed me.
One of the biggest things I learned from Allen was to take what I was doing very seriously, as a professional. That’s something nobody ever talks about in relation to Allen. Sure, in some ways his life was a mess, but whenever I saw him engaged with media, he was very serious about what he was doing. He had his trip together. As many people know, Allen had these file cabinets where he kept all his research about the CIA and global heroin trafficking. He figured out that the CIA was involved in global heroin trafficking long before anybody admitted it and people thought it was a wacky conspiracy theory. But Allen “had the receipts,” as they say now on Twitter. Allen was very, very serious.
I ended up learning to meditate because Allen told us to in his course at Naropa called “Literary History of The Beat Generation.” It was suggested that we all sign up for meditation instruction, but it was a bunch of kids, so, you know… But one day Allen said, “OK, how many of you have signed up for meditation instruction?” Only a few hands went up, and Allen said, “Argh, you’re all amateurs in a professional universe.”
Raymond Foye: Wow!
Steve Silberman: I did not want to be an amateur in a professional universe, so I signed up for meditation instruction from Maezumi-roshi, the founder of Los Angeles Zen Center, who was a visiting teacher that summer. In a lot of ways, my interest in dharma and Buddhism and sitting meditation was a way to be a professional in a realm where most people were just kind of vaguely mystical. I really wanted to get serious.
to be continued (tomorrow)