Variety in its announcement notes the background:
“The tape went forgotten until 2007, when author John Suiter found it in a box at Reed’s Hauser Memorial Library while doing research on another poet who read at the college that day, Gary Snyder. Its discovery made the news after being verified the following year. But it was to still go unheard to the general public until a Hollywood-Oregon connection made its release inevitable.
Reed named Dr. Audrey Bilger its president in 2019. Bilger happens to be married to Cheryl Pawelski, the Grammy-winning co-founder of Omnivore Recordings, who had moved to Oregon herself upon Bilger’s appointment. Omnivore already had history with Ginsberg, having released The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience in 2017 and The Last Word on First Blues in 2016. Using her existing connections with the Ginsberg estate, Pawelski sent the tape to Grammy Award-winning engineer Michael Graves to have it transferred, restored and mastered.”
Chris Lydgate in Reed Magazine tells more:
Its first public reading took place at San Francisco’s famous Six Gallery in October, 1955. Along with Ginsberg, the evening included readings by Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, and Michael McClure. Poet Kenneth Rexroth was the emcee; Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Neal Cassady were in the audience. Unfortunately, no one thought to record this historic moment. Ginsberg was recorded reading the poem at Berkeley a few months later in March, 1956, and for many years literary historians thought that recording was the first. But they were wrong. Earlier in 1956, Ginsberg and Snyder went hitchhiking through the Pacific Northwest, and arrived at Reed, where they decided to hold a poetry reading in the common room of the Anna Mann dormitory. On February 14, Ginsberg read the first section of “Howl,” still very much a work in progress. And this time, someone brought a tape recorder.”
John Suiter, also in Reed Magazine, back in 2008, provides the essential account:
“Before launching into “Howl” itself, Ginsberg pauses to briefly prime his listeners for what’s to come. “The line length,” he says. “You’ll notice that they’re all built on bop—You might think of them as built on a bop refrain—chorus after chorus after chorus—the ideal being, say, Lester Young in Kansas City in 1938, blowing 72 choruses of ‘The Man I Love’ ’til everyone in the hall was out of his head—and Young was also . . .” (This was pure Kerouac, straight from the prefatory note to Mexico City Blues, wherein Kerouac states his notion of the poet as jazz saxophonist, “blowing” his poetic ideas in breath lines “from chorus to chorus.”)
(He) then begins with his now-famous opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness . . .”—delivered in a rather flat affect. First-time listeners may be surprised at how low-key Ginsberg sounds at the outset of this reading of “Howl,” though this was typical, and soon enough his voice rises to what he later called “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath.”
“I still hadn’t broken out of the classical Dylan Thomas monotone,” Ginsberg later wrote of his early readings. “—the divine machine revs up over and over until it takes off.”
The Reed recording of February 1956 is superb, faithful in pitch and superior in sound quality to any presently known 1950s version. Allen is miked closely, so his volume is even throughout. His enunciation is clear, his timing perfect; he never stumbles. His accent is classic North Jersey Jewish, intelligent and passionate. The poet-as-saxman metaphor comes demonstrably true as we hear Ginsberg drawing in great breaths at the anaphoric head of every line. It’s a recording to be breathed with as much as listened to…..”
From the Omnivore Recordings web-site:
“Reading “Howl” out loud in front of an audience is an exhausting and emotional experience, so Ginsberg warmed up by reading several shorter poems first. The Reed recording includes these shorter selections and most of Part I of “Howl.” The restored recording is crystal clear; you can not only hear Ginsberg turning the pages, but taking breaths after each long line. The audience is pin-drop quiet except for a few places in the reading, for instance, one moment when someone in the audience says something that can’t be heard that elicits laughter, to which Ginsberg responds, “I don’t want to corrupt the youth.” Other lines generate laughter, but the audience is attentive and respectful, allowing for a present-day fly-on-the-wall listening experience. In testimony to how emotionally draining it was to read the poem two nights in a row, as Ginsberg launches into Part II, he stops after four lines saying, “I don’t really feel like reading any more, I haven’t got any kind of steam. So I’d like to cut, do you mind?” Thus ends the first known recording of “Howl”… and now begins its 21st century access for all to hear.”
Rare photos, early draft pages and a detailed and informative essay from Reed Professor of English and Humanities, Dr. Pancho Savery, (“Allen”s Valentine – Reading “Howl” at Reed”), plus original calligraphy from Gregory MacNaughton of the Reed Calligraphy Initiative in Honor of Lloyd J Reynolds (Philip Whalen’s old teacher) make up the package.
Savery’s notes trace the poem’s history and inspiration and highlight differences in this early, work-in-progress version to the final published text.
Reynolds was commissioned to create an album cover in the style of what a poster for the event might have looked like hanging on the Reed campus in 1956. He’s done a fine job.
The recording will be officially released on April 2nd, 2021. It will be available in various formats (including a limited edition in red vinyl, available only from the Omnivore Recordings web-store and from the Reed College Bookstore (while supplies last)).
It can be pre-ordered directly from here
Who’s that sitting lotus position dead center at the bottom of the new Rolling Thunder Revue DVD from The Criterion Collection? – why, Allen, of course!
See our earlier postings on that movie – here, here and here
Gregory Corso‘s Collected Plays is now out (January 4 pub. date) from Rick Schober’s Tough Poets Press. For Alan Bisbort‘s illuminating interview with Schober about the book and about Corso’s ongoing legacy – see here