In 1955, Allen Ginsberg came like a banshee into the public eye with his poem "Howl." Filled with rage, honesty and raunchiness, the work immediately brought down the guillotine of U.S. censorship and made him a hero of the poetic underground.
In the late Forties, Ginsberg--along with pals Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs--came together in the movement which would become known as "Beat." It was arguably the most genuinely rebellious and experimental literary revolution since World War I. While some of the Beat writers were quieter than others, Ginsberg's outspokenness and anticonventional views on tender subjects like homosexuality, religion, drugs and politics made him an icon of the counterculture.
Icon though he may be, perhaps a lesser-known part of Ginsberg's legend is as that of a musician; Holy Soul Jelly Roll may change that. Holy Soul is a gargantuan helping of Ginsberg, a four-CD collection of the artist's poems and songs spanning the years 1949 through 1993. Produced with obvious love by Hal Willner over a four-year period, the Rhino/Word Beat release showcases Ginsberg's New York baritone, his spirit and phrasing that range from mantralike drone to jolly minstrelspeak to punk-politico bellowing.
No, it ain't Top 40, but the power of Ginsberg's words and music--with collaborators like Bob Dylan and the Clash--is undeniable. At 68, the New York native's creative juices are coursing stronger than ever. Ginsberg has just published a new book of poems, Cosmopolitan Greetings, is a distinguished professor of English at Brooklyn College, and is co-director emeritus at the Naropa Institute in Boulder (a Buddhist-oriented college that is home to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics). Now, on the phone from his Manhattan apartment, where he is eating strawberries, here's Allen Ginsberg.
New Times: The boxed set must be a sort of victory for you. Your work has been fighting censorship since 1957, and now here it is, all in one plop.
Ginsberg: Yes, I had been sort of piling up treasures in heaven. I didn't think I would live to see this in my lifetime, but I knew it was valuable in one way or another.
NT: The aim of the four CDs is to capture a different period of your work. Do you have certain feelings about each of them?
Ginsberg: Yes, definitely. For example, the first CD has the very first public reading of the complete "Howl," which is historically kind of amazing to me. We didn't have a recording of that, and then one floated into shore while we were putting the set together.
NT: How did you find all this stuff? It must have been overwhelming to go through 45 years of material.
Ginsberg: Well, I had it all archived so I could locate everything; for the last six or seven years, someone's been doing that for me. So then I got together all the records that had been published already, and some of the more interesting tapes that I remembered.
NT: Did works appear that you didn't remember existing?
Ginsberg: Um-hmm. One thing that came up was that first recording of "Howl" and "Sunflower Sutra" [both recorded at Berkeley's Town Hall Theater in 1956]. Those were the very first times I read them aloud. Recording history.
NT: It's interesting listening to the audience at the beginning of "Howl," how people are . . . Ginsberg: Hooting! I don't think they knew what they were getting into. But then again, I didn't, either.
NT: What else stands out for you?
Ginsberg: What I like is volume three, with all the William Blake. In '69, I put together an album interpreting Blake--he sang, you know. But the thing I like best is the "Nurses Song" [Blake's lyrics with Ginsberg's music], with Peter Orlovsky [poet, and Ginsberg's longtime lover] skipping along in his angelic, childlike yodel. I just laugh when I hear it!
NT: The Blake songs are almost childlike, melodically. Did you do the arrangements for them? Ginsberg: Yes, they were spontaneous. I made them with musicians in the usual way of jazz and blues. Once they have the chord structure and they've heard you do it a couple of times, they make up their own delivery. I made "A Dream" with Bob Dylan. But the "Nurses Song" is, I think, the best I ever did, one of the most shapely, and it was fortunately recorded by Dutch Radio on two tracks at the Cosmos Club in Amsterdam in '79. So that whole side is one of my favorites. Then side four has some blues with Dylan and a long, epic "September on Jessore Road" with Dylan playing.
NT: The box has a live version of your song "Capitol Air" with the Clash, recorded on cassette. Was that purely spur-of-the-moment?
Ginsberg: Yes, that was basically rehearsed in five minutes. I went to hear them at Bond's [Casino in New York] and the sound man took me backstage to meet them. [Joe] Strummer says, "When are you going to run for president?" I said, "Never." He said he had someone saying a few things at the shows about Central America, the CIA, Nicaragua, and asked if I had anything I'd like to say. I told him I have a punk song about those issues. So that is how "Capitol Air" was recorded. The sound man pushed my voice up so you can hear all my words. That is probably the only time that night you could hear any words.
NT: So how do you feel about the spoken-word movement now, the marketing of poetry? Ginsberg: Well, because the government and the media have been so censored--by Jesse Helms and the FCC, among others--everything we hear is plastic, basically. So there is the impulse toward the person-to-person communication of poetry, as there was in the Fifties, and there is a revival of the spoken word, coffee-house poetry, slams and all that. And, of course, some of it is commodified, commercialized, but the individual voices are so clear. There is a kind of genuineness and hope that goes beyond the commodity.
NT: It seems difficult for anything nowadays that is affected by the media to remain genuine.
Ginsberg: That is the thing, this is a compilation [the boxed set] of things done in solitude, like most of Kerouac's work. His early work--13 or 14 books--were written with no hope of ever being published.
NT: So where is your music going?
Ginsberg: Well, Dylan taught me blues.
NT: So what's a day in the life of a legendary poet like? Ginsberg: I read late, get up late, take care of my hygiene, cook my breakfast. Then I answer mail, make phone calls, write in my journal, if I have had an interesting dream, I write it down. I have a new book of journals coming out next year.
NT: Do you have any pets? You seem like a probable cat fancier.
Ginsberg: Well, I had a lot of cockroaches, but they're all gone now. And a couple of mice . . . I'm allergic to cats now, but I used to have them when I was younger. Burroughs has six cats, and when I go to visit and stay at his house, I manage to get through it.
NT: Do you have a favorite color?
Ginsberg: Blue! Blue like the sky. Empty sky, empty mind.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.