PCC Vintage Interview [1994] with the Poet/Cultural Icon


Seeking food for thought? Try "Allen Ginsberg: Holy Soul Jelly Roll Poems and Songs (1949-1993)," an elaborate box set containing 52 tracks, 30 of them previously unreleased.

Even if you're familiar with Ginsberg's daring efforts as a poet and political activist, you may be surprised to discover that he was also innovative and influential in music.

The range of material in this meticulously assembled, four-volume package includes rock, folk, jazz, classical and Eastern sounds, as well as spoken word.

"Poetry and music have always gone together," the bearded, effusive Ginsberg says, brimming with factual information and volatile opinions. "I grew up listening to old, black blues like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. I heard Leadbelly's weekly radio program. I knew Josh White. I've always sung the blues. I also listened to a lot of Vivaldi, Beethoven and Schubert.

"After I went to India, I began mantra chanting and brought that back to a poetry conference. After the Chicago police riot of 1968 (at the Democratic convention), I was in a state of shock and began dealing with it by setting William Blake's `Songs of Innocence and Experience' to music. In 1969, I began listening to a lot of Happy Traum and other folk music."

Bob Dylan, impressed by Ginsberg's ability to improvise songs, contributed backup vocal and instrumental work on several cuts, including "Vomit Express." "For that song," Ginsberg recalls, "Dylan showed me a three-chord blues sequence, which I hadn't known before. I had done the blues on one chord or two at most."

The punk song "Capitol Air" is a collaboration between Ginsberg and the Clash, recorded live. "We rehearsed for five minutes in the dressing room during intermission of their concert at Bonds Club in New York," Ginsberg explains. "Joe Strummer had asked me, `When are you going to run for President?' I said, `Never.' He introduced me to the audience as `President Ginsberg.' "

The energies and rhythms of Ginsberg's poetry provided him with a natural segue into rock. The box set covers nearly half a century of his explorations into poetry. "Poetry was the family business. My father was a poet. I was scared of getting up every morning and going to a job. I couldn't stand the idea. So I chose a 24-hour-a-day job of scanning my mind and making notes."

Included in the set is a 1956 recording of "Howl," the first time the unconventional poem had been read aloud in its entirety. The work crackles with rage. Ginsberg recalls that he wrote it after a colleague had criticized a previous poem for being too formal.

"I thought, `I can't write poetry. I'll just write whatever I feel like!' So I began typing away. Because it got into delicate sexual areas, I didn't want my father to see it, even though he already knew about my homosexuality. So I thought, `I'm not going to publish this, so I can write anything I want. I'm free!' It's like in Russia or China, there's a thing called `writing for the desk.' You can say what you want, then put it in your desk. If it was published, you'd be sent to a concentration camp.

"But I sent a copy to Jack Kerouac," Ginsberg continues, "because I knew he would understand it. He said, `That's far better writing than you've done before. It's a great poem.' I said, `Is it a poem?' He said, `Of course, why not?'

"If you're inventing a new form, you'd better not have any fixed ideas. You have to be completely open. After a couple of months, having ceased to be embarrassed by it, I decided to send the poem to my father. He said, `That is a great poem . . . but did you really need to use all that blue language?' "

Another emotion-packed poem, "Kaddish," delves into Ginsberg's complex relationship with his mother, who died after years of struggling with mental illness. This rendition was taped in 1964. "If any young person may be moved to tears, as Dylan was when he first heard it decades ago, it would (prove to) be good medicine for a new generation that's stereotyped as void, alienated, full of enmity, world-weary, end of empire, end of millennium. It shouldrefresh the memory of varied emotions, which everybody has. This might catalyze a whole wave of real feeling again."

In the '50s, Ginsberg, along with Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and others, founded the Beat movement. Zen, Buddhism, mind-expanding drugs, the black culture and jazz helped fuel this art form.

"Our intent was a liberation of the spirit, of the imagination," Ginsberg says. "With the invention of LSD and the atomic bomb, the planet changed. A non-linear, spontaneous, more open-minded view of writing arose. Changing the mode of poetry from closed form to open form was like splitting the atom. You split the stanza, and all of a sudden, all this energy comes out. You could talk about anything."

The effect of the Beat writers was widespread. "The Beat literature was a catalyst of hip new views, leading to a variety of social changes, such as sexual liberation, gay and women's liberation, liberation of the word, the end of censorship in films and books.

"It also influenced music," he says. "In the late '50s, Bob Dylan read Kerouac's `Mexico City Blues' and decided to become a poet. He said that's what inspired him. He told me, `That's the first poetry that talked to me in my own language.' "