Most of Allen Ginsberg’s recorded music consists of the poet chanting to the accompaniment of his harmonium. While I enjoy the mantras, original folk songs (particularly “Father Death Blues”), and interpretations of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, my favorite Ginsberg tune is “Birdbrain,” a six-and-a-half minute punk novelty record made with a Denver band called The Gluons. As friends, relatives, lovers, neighbors, passengers and passersby will attest, I’ve been known to listen to this thing for hours on end.
“Birdbrain” fits Ezra Pound’s definition of literature as “news that STAYS news.” While some of the references to current events are now 33 years out of date, “Birdbrain” remains fresh if only because I don’t know of another song that treats the subject of human stupidity so sweetly. Of course we’re all one, the song says: we’re all the same drooling moron. In the same way “Birdbrain” balances its misanthropic theme with an attitude of compassionate loving-kindness, the record works as a hybrid of punk and poetry. I prefer it to “Ghetto Defendant,” Ginsberg’s 1982 collaboration with The Clash.
Recorded in Denver while Ginsberg was teaching at Naropa, “Birdbrain” was distributed by Denver’s Wax Trax! record store (a separate entity from the Chicago store and label). A dub version appears on the scarce 1983 LP Allen Ginsberg with Still Life, produced by Gluon Mike Chappelle. According to the Diamond Sutra, if you play this loud enough in your office cubicle, you will achieve Buddhahood.
“Birdbrain,” the single
I can’t find a clip of the B-side, the Gluons’ “Sue Your Parents,” but here’s a Lounge Lizards-y live version from 1981:
Allen Ginsberg and the Job play “Birdbrain,” San Francisco, November 1981
This intimate 1959 footage of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and his wife Francesca (with their three sons, Simon, Caleb and Ethan), and artist Mary Frank (and her children Pablo and Andrea) is fascinating for a couple of reasons. First of all, there’s just something captivating about seeing so many legends (especially the incredibly underrated Mary Frank) in such a domestic setting. You’d expect to see them drinking at the Harmony Bar in the East Village, you just don’t picture Kerouac with a kid on his lap while they do it. It’s hardly the louche atmosphere associated with the Beats.
Secondly, if I had to guess, I’d say this footage was probably taken by The Americans photographer Robert Frank—Mary Frank’s husband. I say this partially due to Mary’s presence, and partially because the crew’s amazing short film, Pull My Daisy was made the same year, directed by Robert Frank. You can a see similar stylistic approach in the filming, but unlike Pull My Daisy, the mood is totally organic, warm and endearing.
Along with being a poet, Beat writer, radical, teacher, diarist, singer, musician, photographer and Buddhist, Allen Ginsberg was also the pioneer of the selfie. Long before everyone was posting their self-portraits on social media, Ginsberg was out there taking snaps of himself in front of every hotel mirror. He snapped himself crossed-legged, naked, half-dressed, fully dressed, vulnerable, confident, unwashed, washed, smiling, squinting, happy-face, ugly-face, old-man-tired-and-going-to-bed-face: the Ginsberg selfie captured it all.
But above all that, Ginsberg was a brave man who challenged and changed (sometimes half-in-jest, most times seriously) our perceptions and unquestioning acceptance of the world as it’s presented to us. The documentary No More To Say And Nothing To Weep For - An Elegy for Allen Ginsberg examines the poet’s life and work, with archival interviews with Ginsberg (including his last) and his many friends, admirers and critics (including Paul McCartney. Peter Orlovsky and Patti Smith) and also includes footage of the poet’s death. It’s a beautiful film and one you’ll have to find a quiet hour in the day to watch.
The title of The Art of Tripping, a documentary about the visionary uses of narcotics that aired on Channel 4 in the UK in 1993, has a slippery double meaning. The surface notion is the idea of a guide to tripping well, of tripping with style, but that’s not what it refers to. More literally, the documentary addresses the artistic uses of drugs, art produced by tripping.
“Devised and directed” by Storm Thorgerson, well known as one of the members of the legendary Hipgnosis artistic team, The Art of Tripping is a satisfyingly intelligent narrative that brings the viewer through two centuries of the effects of mind-altering substances on highly creative minds. Hail Britannia: I’m trying to imagine CBS coming up with a program like this, without success. Even PBS wouldn’t likely go out of its way to praise the salutary uses of mescaline, although I’d be delighted to be proven wrong on that point. The narrator is Bernard Hill, who does an excellent job of imitating a certain kind of louche academic type who might plausibly have created the documentary you’re watching (even though he didn’t).
The documentary takes you from the days of Coleridge more than 200 years ago up through De Quincey, Rimbaud, Modigliani, and Picasso before getting to the golden age of chemically enhanced literature and painting following World War II. Be warned: this is a high-minded documentary, and the focus is entirely on authors and painters. You won’t hear anything about Jimi Hendrix here. The doc has a highbrow bias but is no less witty for that: many interviews are digitally fucked-with in appropriate ways, including a Picasso expert whose bit is presented in a cubist style and a commentator on LSD whose outline is briefly replaced with footage of an underwater vista, and so forth. In the familiar effort to make sure everything stays amiably “visual,” there’s also a metaphor in which the narrator ascends a creaky elevator to the rooftop of a building—the resolution of that metaphor could not be more cheesy or perfunctory.
Most notable for the purposes of DM is its lengthy succession of prominent talking heads, from Allen Ginsberg and J.G. Ballard to Hubert Selby Jr. and Paul Bowles. Where such personages were unavailable for reasons of death, Hill “interviews” De Quincey, Edgar Allan Poe, Anaïs Nin, Andy Warhol, and a few others who are embodied by actors who quote diaries and other literary works in order to “answer” the questions.
All of the great druggie classics of the postwar era are explored. Allen Ginsberg reads some bits of “Laughing Gas” from Kaddish and Other Poems, while Paul Bowles discusses the practice of ingesting kif in Tangier and reads a druggy bit from his book Let It Come Down. J.G. Ballard calls Naked Lunch “a comic masterpiece … a kind of apocalyptic view of the postwar world.” Amusingly, Ballard later says that “taking LSD was probably one of the biggest mistakes I’ve ever made in my life.” Of course, a few years after this documentary aired, Ballard wrote Cocaine Nights, which would obviously have fit this show to a T.
The show is chronological, so if you’re looking for Aldous Huxley or Ken Kesey or Jay McInerney, it won’t be too hard to find. My favorite bit comes towards the very end, when Lawrence Sutin, author of Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick, describes Dick’s disturbingly high intake of amphetamines:
At his peak, in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, by his own testimony he was taking a thousand amphetamines a week. White crosses and whatever speed, street drugs he was taking. The testimony of the roommate who I interviewed was that he would go to the refrigerator, in which was a large jar of white crosses, and simpy dip his hand in, take a handful, and swallow them, so if you ask how he fared with all this, the answer was: badly.
This is a fine interview with Allen Ginsberg taken from the BBC series Face to Face, in which Ginsberg opens up about his family, loves, identity, drugs and even sings.
The series, Face to Face originally started in 1959, and was hosted by John Freeman, whose skill and forthright questioning cut through the usual mindless chatter of such interview shows. Freeman, a former editor of the New Statesman was often considered brusque and rude, but his style of questioning fitted the form of the program, which was more akin to an interview between psychiatrist and patient. The original series included, now legendary, interviews with Martin Luther King, Tony Hancock, Professor Carl Jung, Evelyn Waugh and Gilbert Harding.
In 1989, the BBC revived the series, this time with the excellent Jeremy Isaacs as questioner, who interviewed Allen Ginsberg for this program, first broadcast on 9th January 1995.
Watching this now, makes me wonder what has happened to poetry? Where are our revolutionary poets? Where are our poets who speak out, demonstrate, make the front page, and tell it like it is? And why are our bookstores cluttered with the greeting card verse of 100 Great Love Poems, 101 Even Greater Love Poems, and Honest to God, These Are the Greatest Fucking Love Poems, You’ll Ever Fucking Read. O, for a Ginsberg now.
The thing I enjoy most about reading published journals and diaries are those wee gems of anecdote and information that often fail to be included in biographies and memoirs.
Take for example this (possibly apocryphal) tale from the author of The Magus and The French Lieutenant’s Woman, John Fowles, which is included in volume one of his Journals:
”...[A]n amusing story about Allen Ginsberg, one of the new American literary clique—the Beat Generation—who came to Oxford to lecture to the Jesus College Literary Society. Ginsberg started his lecture by saying that he had landed in Ireland before coming on to England.
‘Soon as I landed, I felt a kind of weight pressing on the top of my head. And I knew what it was. I knew what it was. It was the Church. And you know what I did? I went straight into the first church, and I went straight up the aisle of that church, and I stood before the altar. I stood right there in front of the altar. And you know what I did? I masturbated, right there. And that was good. That was real.’
The Literary Society, said Podge, rose to a man and hurled him gently out of the room.”
The “Podge” who told Fowles this story was Fred Porter, a university friend and later a respected Marxist and teacher at Magdalen College School, Oxford.
”...[Ginsberg] pushed on to Oxford University. There he gave a reading to a small group of about twenty enthusiastic students. Since he hadn’t read in quite a while he was a little hesitant, but once he began speaking it felt great to be in front of an audience again. He wept as he read Howl, and then recited some Creeley, Whalen, and Levertov poems to the students. Triumphant afterward, he walked along a quiet stream near the college towers and listened to the bells ringing peacefully as they had for hundreds of years.”
I prefer Podge’s version to Morgan’s, as it was possible that Ginsberg may have read his poetry before recounting his activities in Ireland, and then being ejected. Morgan’s version reads like the description to a closing scene from a cliched Hollywood biopic.
Anyway, for those who love Ginsberg, here he is talking about The Beats, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac and censorship. Alas, he makes no reference to his onanistic protest against the Catholic Church.
Ah, Borscht—a soup of Ukranian origin that has been popular in many Eastern and Central European countries for centuries. This is Allen Ginsberg’s version of the recipe.
COLD SUMMER BORSCHT
Dozen beets cleaned & chopped to bite size salad-size Strips
Stems & leaves also chopped like salad lettuce
All boiled together lightly salted to make a bright red soup,
with beets now soft - boil an hour or more
Add Sugar & Lemon Juice to make the red liquid
sweet & sour like Lemonade
Chill 4 gallon(s) of beet liquid -
Serve with (1) Sour Cream on table
(2) Boiled small or halved potato
on the side
i.e. so hot potatoes don’t heat the
cold soup prematurely
(3) Spring salad on table to put into
cold red liquid
1) Onions - sliced (spring onions)
2) Tomatoes - sliced bite-sized
3) Lettuce - ditto
4) Cucumbers - ditto
5) a few radishes
for Summer Dinner
The Burning Ghat is a strange, yet revealing short film that reveals something of the relationship between original Beat, Herbert Huncke, and his long-time companion and room-mate, Louis Cartwright.
Huncke was a petty crook and junkie, who hustled around Times Square in the 1940s, where he met William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. It was Huncke who originally introduced these 3 young writers to the “Beat Life,” and became a major inspiration on their writing.
Who is Herbert Huncke? When I first knew him I saw him in what I considered the ‘glamorous’ light of a petty criminal and Times Square hustler who was experienced in the ways, thoughts, and activities of an underground culture which is enormously extensive. The attempt to dismiss him because of his social irresponsibility is something that I was never able to conceive as truthful or productive. I saw him as a self-damned soul—but a soul nonetheless, aware of itself and others in a strangely perceptive and essentially human way. He has great charm. I see that he suffers, more than myself, more than anyone I know of perhaps; suffers like a saint of old in the making; and also has cosmic or supersensory perceptions of an extraordinary depth and openness.
The Burning Ghat was directed by James Rasin (Beautiful Darling: The Life and Times of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar) and Jerome Poynton, and was filmed in Huncke’s apartment on Henry Street, New York.
Allen Ginsberg wrote of the film, “O Rare Herbert Huncke, live on film! The Burning Ghat features late-in-lifetime old partners Huncke & Louis playing characters beyond themselves with restrained solid self-awareness, their brief masquerade of soul climaxing in an inspired moment’s paradox bittersweet as an O’Henry’s tale’s last twist”.
Harry Smith said of the film, “It should have been longer”.
The Burning Ghat was featured at the 53rd Venice Biennial, and included in the Whitney Museum’s “Beat Culture and the New America” show of 1996. It won the Gold Plaque Award for Best Short Film at the 1990 Chicago International Film Festival.
Made the same year Huncke published his autobiography Guilty of Everything, this was to be his only on-screen, acting performance.
In 1964, The British Labour Party was elected into government with a slim majority of 4 seats. Such a small majority made governing the country difficult for canny Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. Therefore, after 17 months in power, Wilson called a second election. In support of winning re-election, the Labour Party’s magazine, Tribune asked a selection of writers and artists who they would vote for in the 1966 General Election. In response, sensing Labour might not hold to their socialist ideals, poet Christopher Logue wrote the poem “I shall vote Labour.”
I shall vote Labour
I shall vote Labour because
God votes Labour.
I shall vote Labour to protect
the sacred institution of The Family.
I shall vote Labour because
I am a dog.
I shall vote Labour because
upper-class hoorays annoy me in expensive restaurants.
I shall vote Labour because
I am on a diet.
I shall vote Labour because if I don’t
somebody else will:
I shall vote Labour because if one person
everybody will be wanting to do it.
I shall vote Labour because if I do not vote Labour
my balls will drop off.
I shall vote Labour because
there are too few cars on the road.
I shall vote Labour because I am
a hopeless drug addict.
I shall vote Labour because
I failed to be a dollar millionaire aged three.
I shall vote Labour because Labour will build
more maximum security prisons.
I shall vote Labour because I want to shop
in an all-weather precinct stretching from Yeovil to Glasgow.
I shall vote Labour because
the Queen’s stamp collection is the best
in the world.
I shall vote Labour because
deep in my heart
I am a Conservative.
Christopher Logue was a poet, writer, journalist, dramatist, screenwriter, actor and performer. Born in Portsmouth, in 1926, Logue was an only child of middle-aged parents. After school, he served in the Black Watch regiment, from which he was given a court-martial for selling stolen pay books, and given a 16-months’ jail sentence.
‘It was so drab. There was nowhere to go. You couldn’t seem to meet any girls. If you went up to London in 1951, looking for the literary scene, what did you find? Dylan Thomas. I thought that if I came to the place where Pound flourished, I might too.’
In Paris, Logue met writer Alexander Trocchi (who saved Logue from an attempted suicide), and the pair set-up and edited the legendary literary magazine Merlin, which premiered work by Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Chester Himes, as well as Logue and Trocchi. The pair also wrote pornographic novels for Maurice Girodias’ Olympia Press, and briefly met William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso in the late 1950s.
George Whitman, propietor of Shakespeare and Co., described the pairing of Trocchi and Logue as:
‘True bohemians, Beats before Beats officially existed. Christopher was the scruffy poet, quite down and out most of the time. He definitely fancied himself as Baudelaire or somebody like that.’
In Paris, Logue toyed with Marxism, and was once famously put down by the author Richard Wright.
‘You’ve got nothing to fight for, boy—you’re looking for a fight. If you were a black, boy, you’re so cheeky you’d be dead.’
But Logue lost none of his mettle, or his socialist convictions and he continued to be a gadfly throughout his life. In the 1960s, he collaborated with Lindsay Anderson, giving poetry readings at the National Film Theater between features. He was a pacifist and a member of Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, taking part with Bertrand Russell on the marches to Aldermarston.
He appeared at Peter Cook’s club The Establishment and wrote songs for jazz singer Annie Ross, and had one recorded by Joan Baez. He also appeared at the Isle of Wight Rock Festival, and contributed the wonderfully bizarre “True Stories” to Private Eye magazine. He acted for Ken Russell in The Devils, wrote the screenplay for Russell’s Savage Messiah, and acted in Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky. Logue’s poetry was incredibly popular, even appearing in posters throughout the London Underground. His most famous works were Red Bird, a jazz colaboration with Tony Kinsey, and War Music, a stunning and critically praised adaption of Homer’s Illiad. He was awarded the 2005 Whitbread Poetry Prize for his collection Cold Calls.
Logue died in 2011, and Wilson won the 1966 election with a majority of 96 seats.
This is Christopher Logue reading “I shall vote Labour” in 2002, as filmed by Colin Still.
And of course there are those times when so much is happening—the emails to be read, the dog to be walked, the work to be done, the ‘toothpaste to be squeezed’—that a story occasionally slips by unnoticed, unacknowledged. So, it was with this piece from the Tampa Bay Times that was posted in March.
..visited several times with Jack Kerouac at Kerouac’s home on 10th Avenue N for this story, which was published Oct. 12, 1969. Kerouac died nine days later, on Oct. 21, at St. Anthony’s Hospital.
According to Kevin Hayes, author of the book Conversations With Jack Kerouac, McClintock’s interviews were Kerouac’s last.
Kerouac was unlike the imaginary Beat writer that millions venerated. He was a maudlin drunk, who clung to his childhood beliefs, spoiled by drink, a bitter Republican, who was dismissive of the hedonistic culture his work had inspired. It’s sometimes inevitable that the youthful firebrand will evolve into the tweedy curmudgeon. Often this phase of an artist’s life is dismissed or edited out (look how Allen Ginsberg tirelessly ignored or defended, as somehow ironic, his friend’s homophobia and anti-semitism). Still, I find such phases as interesting and as valid as the sunny, glory days—in the same way “fat Elvis” is as compelling a narrative as “Sun Records Elvis,” but for wholly different reasons.
McClintock went looking for Kerouac wanting to know what happened to the Beats in the “Age of Aquarius?” After a week of no-shows, McClintock at last saw a recognizable face with “grizzled jowls and red-rimmed eyes under spikey, dark tousled hair.”
Kerouac? The face said, “Yeah,” and then: “You want to come in?”
Although the sun was two hours from taking its evening dip into the gulf 10 miles to the west, the house was dim inside. A television set in the corner was on, soundless. The sound you heard was Handel’s Messiah blaring from speakers in the next room.
“I like to watch television like that,” Kerouac said.
“You ain’t going to take my photo are you? You better not try to take my photo or I’ll kick your ass.” A threatening leer, then a laugh.
“Stella. Hey! Turn the music up!” Stella went and turned the music up. Her feet were silent on the floor.
Kerouac dragged up a rocking chair for the reporter, then slumped into another one in the corner.
He was wearing unpressed brown pants, a yellow-and-brown striped sport shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbow. The shirt was unbuttoned and beneath it the T-shirt was inside out. He pointed to his belly, large and round.
“I got a goddam hernia, you know that? My goddam belly-button is popping out. That’s why I’m dressed like this … I got no place to go, anyway. You want a beer? Hah?” He picked up a pack of Camels in a green plastic case. “Some whiskey then?”
Kerouac has a hernia, his gut swollen over his pants, “My belly-button is popping out,” he said. McClintock wanted to know what Kerouac was working on:
“Well, I wrote that article,” he said, a trifle belligerently. His agent was busy selling a piece Kerouac had written, entitled “After Me, the Deluge,” his reflections on today’s world and what he might have contributed to it.
“Well, I’m going to write a novel about the last 10 years of my life …
The conversation moved onto the Beats, Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and Ken Kesey (“I don’t like Ken Kesey…He ruined Cassady”) before Kerouac began his drunken ramblings about the Mafia, the Communists and “the Jew,” and talking about his experiences with drugs:
“I smoked more grass than anyone you ever knew in your life,” Kerouac snorts. “I came across the Mexican border one time with 2½ pounds of grass around my waist in a silk scarf. I had one of those wide Mexican belts around me over it. I had a big bottle of tequila and I went up to the border guard and offered him some, and he said, No, go on through, senor.”
Kerouac laughed, remembering how that was.
“It should be legalized and taxed. Taxed. Yeah, ‘Gimme a pack of marijuana!’ But this other stuff is poison; acid’s poison, speed is poison, STP is poison, it’s all poison. But grass is nothing.”
By the end of the interview, Kerouac revealed a spark of his old self, his essence, his enthusiasm for writing:
“Stories of the past,” said Jack Kerouac. “My story is endless. I put in a teletype roll, you know, you know what they are, you have them in newspapers, and run it through there and fix the margins and just go, go – just go, go, go.”
McClintock has written a powerful and memorable portrait and the whole article can be read here.
Create the most “liked” caption, as determined by our readers in the comments, for this photo of Allen Ginsberg, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones and you’ll win a collectible Allen Ginsberg figurine from the fine folks at Aggronautix.
Awesome six inch tall figurine of the king poet of the Beat generation, Allen Ginsberg. Comes with Uncle Sam top hat, glasses, beaded necklace, a groovy coat plus a CD of Allen live at the Knitting Factory in 1995! The CD includes five previously unreleased spoken word pieces. The perfect addition to your shrine to the awesomeness that is the Beats! Figure designed by Archer Prewitt of The Cocktails and The Sea and Cake!
To enter the contest, you must first be following Dangerous Minds on Twitter or Facebook. Post your caption in our comment section and Dangerous Minds’ readers (the most discerning readers on the planet) will pick the winner by clicking the “like” button. The caption that gets the most likes, wins!
The contest will run through Memorial Day weekend and the winner will be announced on Tuesday, May 29. Good luck and have fun.
UPDATE: Bay Area Gooners has the most “liked” caption: “Count ‘em boys, 112 lines and not a goddamn one of them rhymes. Now, THAT is punk rock!”
Filmed in Philadelphia during the first Earth Day in April of 1970, Circuit Earth is a fascinating glimpse at the roots of the ecology movement and a sad reminder of how little things have changed when it comes to humanity’s relationship to our planet in the 42 years since the film was made. The environmental crisis continues and is getting worse as we continue to not learn from our mistakes.
Circuit Earth The idea behind “Circuit Earth” was to draw connections between concern for the environment and spiritual impoverishment manifested by war, overpopulation, mindless consumption, and drug addiction. This “underground” documentary raised issues that are now in the mainstream, including the impact of warfare, climate change, and population growth on the environment. It focused on concerns that are as true today as they were then, such as the dependence on fossil fuels, which is at the core of the energy debate today. Circuit Earth anticipated the need for a holistic and global approach to the environment that requires an informed citizenry as well as knowledge-based political leadership. This film underscores the global nature of technology and the environment, and the complex interaction of natural and human systems.
Featuring Allen Ginsberg, Sen. Ed Muskie, the Broadway cast of Hair, Jerry Rubin, Alan Watts, Redbone and Ed Sanders of the Fugs.
Circuit Earth was shown in 1971 and at a few conferences, but was never in distribution and has not been released on video.