Allen Ginsberg: An Interview
A Conversation with Allen Ginsberg
By HARVEY KUBERNIK
I interviewed Allen Ginsberg at length one late afternoon in Rhino Records’ conference room in Westwood, California, in 1996 and by telephone from his New York City apartment.
This interview first appeared in 1996 in HITS Magazine and a shorter edited version appeared in The Los Angeles Times Calendar section on April 7, 1997 when the daily newspaper asked me to pen one of the tribute stories on Ginsberg when he died.
In 2002 I was interviewed for the liner notes being done by writer Mitch Myers for the re-release of Allen’s First Blues album that Ann Charters originally produced, and Harry Smith served as engineer on. In 2007 I wrote the liner notes to the first-ever CD release of Ginsberg’s Kaddish for Water Records.
At the time of our HITS Magazine interview, Allen Ginsberg had just released a recording “The Ballad Of The Skeletons.”
Harvey Kubernik: Tell me about your new recording.
Allen Ginsberg: Well, the whole project has been a collaboration with a lot of geniuses, really. When you get Philip Glass and Paul McCartney along with (guitarist) Marc Ribot and (producer) Lenny Kaye and (mixer) Hal Willner, and David Mansfield. There’s a seven minute version, as well as an edited, clean four minute version for radio.
Q: What was the genesis and development of “The Ballad Of The Skeletons” poem and printed context?
A: It was published in “The Nation.” I started it because all that inflated bull shit about the right wing and ascend, and the family values, contract with America, Newt Gingrich and all the loud mouth stuff on talk radio, and Rush Limbaugh and all those other guys. It seemed obnoxious and stupid and kind of sub-contradictory, so I figured I’d write a poem to knock it out of the ring.
Q: Unlike most of the things you write, were there any inherent music or melodic rhythms in the poem when it was first written?
A: Yes. I had a riff, “Dum. Dum. Dum.” “The New York Times…” I first thought of singing it, but then I thought better to speak it with that riff behind it. I had the riff. It got printed in “The Nation” with illustrations by Eric Drooker, and it came out in a book I did “Illuminated Poems.” The next stage was a benefit somewhere in a club at a reading I did with Amiri Baraka in New York and I ran into guitarist Marc Ribot there. I had worked with him before on an album, “The Lion For Real.” Mercury is bringing it out again. I asked Marc if he would accompany me and I sang him the riff. He added a little instrumental in between. But he made it dramatic.
The next step was a benefit I did for Tibet House at Carnegie Hall that Philip Glass organized. I called David Mansfield, who I’ve recorded with before, with John Hammond, and he’s a friend of mine. So, he was going to accompany me at Carnegie hall, and Lenny Kaye was there with Patti Smith, and he asked Lenny if he could play bass, and he did a knockout job with David. And it was a big hit of the evening ‘cause it was the one rocker, and Carnegie Hall was a benefit for Tibet House, and everything else was classical or softer.
Then I went to Princeton to give a reading by myself with my harmonium. When I got picked up by the limousine at theater there was (director) Gus Van Sant. He had done a lot of work with (William) Burroughs and met him many times. When we got out of the hotel, he pulled out a guitar and I said, “Do you play guitar?” And he replied, “I have a band in Portland.” So I said, “I don’t have an accompanist tonight. Can you accompany me, after your lecture and during my reading?” So he said “yea.” We rehearsed it and played it.
Then I had a gig at Albert Hall in London. A reading. I had been talking quite a bit to (Paul) McCartney, visiting him and bringing him poetry and haiku, and looking at Linda McCartney’s photographs and giving him some photos I’d taken of them. So, McCartney liked it and filmed me doing “Skeletons” in a little 8mm home thing. And then I had this reading at Albert Hall, and I asked McCartney if he could recommend a young guitarist who was a quick study. So he gave me a few names but he said, “If you’re not fixed up with a guitarist, why don’t you try me? I love the poem.” So I said, “It’s a date.” It was last November. We went to Paul’s house and spent an afternoon rehearsing. He came to the sound check and we did a little rehearsal there, again. And then he went up to his box with his family. It was a benefit for literary things. There were 15 other poets. We didn’t tell anybody that McCartney was going to play. And we developed that riff really nicely. In fact, Linda made a little tape of our rehearsal. So then, we went on stage and knocked it out. There’s a photo of us on the CD. It was a very lively and he was into it.
Linda likes my photos and she likes Robert Frank, who is my mentor. And I had taken some photos of them in Long Island where they have a place and were saying goodnight to me when I was going back to New York. Good photos of them. We traded some photos. Paul was into poetry, and publishing his poetry. So he asked me to look at his poetry and critique it. We got onto haiku and Linda liked the form so she used those 17 syllable forms for her book of photos.
Paul is also a painter and had published a little book of his paintings. I also wrote haiku to a book of water paintings. One hundred and eight of them, to which I had written a haiku for each one, describing the painting. I showed it to him in Long Island and he was knocked out, and liked the form so he began working with that, also. So he had a rapport about technical things. I had done an album, recordings with (Bob) Dylan back in 1971 and the idea was that it was going to be put out by Apple (Records). But at that time, (John) Lennon had encouraged it and I paid for the thing, and they were going to pay me back but it turned out, that I had made this album, paid for it myself, which was quite expensive. I had the money from poetry readings and actually it was a great idea because I had all the stuff with Dylan which later came out.
In the late 60’s or early 70’s I visited McCartney in London. I was on TV that day, a “Pro Pot” rally in Hyde Park, and the cops had stopped me from playing a harmonium or talking on a microphone. So I came down from my ladder from where I was talking and gave the cop a flower. That was kind of a knock out for everybody in London at that time, rather than getting mad. And I was watching that on TV with Mick Jagger at McCartney’s house. And McCartney was painting a satin shirt and he gave it to me as a “performance shirt.” We talked a little. We met each other over the years and then we met again when he did “Saturday Night Live,” and he greeted me like an old lost buddy.
Q: Didn’t you see The Beatles play, and there’s some poem you wrote about the event?
A: Yes! I saw them in Portland, Maine. I was up there with Gary Snyder, probably 1965, 1966. In my “Collected Poems” it’s dated by a poem describing The Beatles playing in Portland. I was with a couple of little children. I had gotten tickets and was sitting way out in the bleachers, and John Lennon came out and said, “We understand that Allen Ginsberg is in the audience. So three cheers. So now we’ll have our show.” He saluted me from the stage, which amazed me and made me feel very proud with all these young kids at my side. Then I knew Lennon and Yoko Ono lived in New York and visited on and off. I was involved in some political things with them occasionally.
Q: What did Paul McCartney add to your recording of “Skeletons?”
A: He reacts to the words in an intelligent way. You can hear it on the tape. Like if I say on the recording, “What’s cooking”, all of a sudden he brings in the maracas to get that really funny excitement. When I say, “Blow Nancy Blow”, he blows on the Hammond organ. He added a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of interpretation. And sometimes when I made a flub, he covered it. He left his lead sheet in his guitar case, so we had to share my lead sheet (at the gig), which was fun. Then I did the poem at Carnegie Hall for the Tibet House that followed the Albert Hall show. And then, Danny Goldberg, (President of Mercury Records), was in the audience at Carnegie Hall, called up my office and ‘cause he heard it and liked it and said “Do you want to record it?” I got together Marc Ribot, who I had played it with first, Lenny (Kaye) and David Mansfield. And Lenny was the session- maker..
We made a basic track and McCartney had said, “If you record it, I’d like to work on it. It would be fun.” So we did a 24 hour overnight mail to him, and he got it and listened to it after a few days. He spent a day on it. He put on maracas, drums, which was unexpected, which we needed, and organ, Hammond organ, trying to sound like Al Kooper. And a guitar which was very strong. Then the day it arrived, Philip Glass was in town and he volunteered because he thought it was my hit, so he wanted to do something with it. He added on piano, very much in his style, and fitting perfectly onto the rest of the tape. Then Hal Willner wound up mixing it and brought out McCartney’s role and the structure that McCartney had given to it, ‘cause he gave it a very nice, dramatic structure. I had planned that after “Blow Nancy Blow” you would have four consecutive choruses of instrumentals. McCartney and I had planned the breaks the first time, and varied it a little and I’m understanding the recording process more. I’m basically the poet. I have tunes I got up with. I have ideas but I still can’t make a song with a bridge (laughs). As far as recording, I had to supervise my own recordings at first, and it was very simple minded, the “William Blake’s Songs Of Innocence & Of Experience Tuned by A.G.” on MGM Records. I thought there were good musicians on it, and it may be coming out again. I’ve also done a new book of poetry from HarperCollins, and did a reading to celebrate it in New York at St. Mark’s, which included members of Sonic Youth.
Q: You also did a re-written version of “Amazing Grace” on “Skeletons” flip side?
A: About three years ago, Ed Sanders asked all of his friends to write new verses of “Amazing Grace” for one evening of “Amazing Grace” in St. Mark’s. A lot of people from the Naropa Institute wrote. Anne Waldman, Tuli Kupferberg and I heard of a Zen master who was working with the homeless, who had a sitting meditation on The Bowery with a lot of his students, including Anne Waldman. And they reported in mid-winter that it was terrible finding cardboard boxes to sleep in. The worst thing was that people would pass them by and not acknowledge their existence. Shutting them out. The sense of alienation and helplessness, and being ignored. No eye contact. People were scared of them. And that’s what turned me on. Acknowledge them. That was the inspiration. Keep them in human contact. The verses I wrote seem to be full of heart, to the point, compassion.
Q: And now something you began as a poem, “Skeletons” has evolved into a recording collaborative. Do you consider the projected expanded audience?
A: Yea, but when you write a poem like that, you run through in your mind, who is going to listen to it? President Clinton is going to hear this. I’ll send it to Stephanopolous, who I know. Dole will probably hear of it, or someone around Dole will hear it. Rush Limbaugh will probably hear it because it’s me and it’s nasty to him. Young college kids will hear it. I wonder what (Bob) Dylan will think? I wonder what McCartney will think? So all those people are present in my mind, inevitably, ‘cause I know them. My father. My mother. My brother. What is Robert Creeley gonna think? What is Gary Snyder going to think? What is “People Magazine” gonna think? What is God gonna think? What’s Buddha gonna think? But literally, What will my Tibetan Llama teacher think? Is this too aggressive, or is this helpful? Things like that. I was fed up with the inflation of the right wing contract with America double cross hypocrisy, basically. And it didn’t seem to me that anybody was responding. “The Nation” asked me for the poem. I waited about a half a year and completed it. I originally called it “Skeleton Keys.” Poet Carl Rakosi made some suggestions for me to edit and add “Ballad.”
Q: Is there a reason you used skeleton as a metaphor throughout the poem?
A: I’m Buddhist, and you look at these issues through the grave, and also setting them up as skeleton puppets, setting up the military people, the advertising people, the network people, the talk show junkies, Big Brother. Setting them up as skeletons, as puppets. Setting them up as transparent phantoms, and looking at the issues out of the grave. The idea of putting all the present factions and seeing them from the grave as walking skeletons.
Q: Do you feel the music people coming to your work now? Fans as well as musicians who have enjoyed your books and previous records?
A: All that, and a lot of these musicians have grown up on my poetry, or are younger and off set me now. So some, like Marc Ribot, once heard me read, and liked it. It’s just an accumulation of experience with my poetry, and it seems at this point I’m able to work with any musician who I’d like to. I did a collaboration 3 months ago with Ornette Coleman for French television. They sent a limousine, and I did it with Gregory Corso and the late Hubert Hunke, and we went to Ornette’s studio.
Q. Wait. Did Hubert Hunke check out?
A: Hunke died at the ripe old age of 81. He died the way he wanted. He was surrounded by friends and he was full of morphine from the doctors.
It was a thing on the beat generation. I read some poems and Ornette punctuated it with saxophone. We did a mono chordal chant ending in three chords. Ornette was totally great. and listened. It has showed up in Europe already. Gregory would read a poem, would get up and make some comment, and Ornette answers with sax. They were talking back and forth.
Q: Lenny Kaye produced your latest recording that Mercury is distributing. Obviously, you have been aware of his production career and his 25 year collaboration with Patti Smith.
A: Lenny has worked with Patti, a poet, and he has worked with Jim Carroll, a poet, and John Giorno, a poet. So he’s very literate and encouraging. And I didn’t know if he’d pay attention to me, but at the Carnegie Hall benefit we all did together. . .when he stepped in, he was right on the spot, and helpful. Then we did it again at a benefit out in Ann Arbor, Michigan with Patti Smith. He (Lenny) was there and we did it again with a local bassist, and he played a fantastic solo. Since he knew how to get things together, and the people at the label, and he knew Danny Goldberg, who is a friend of Patti, so he was the natural person to take over.
Q: I’ve noticed some alternative and college radio stations will often pair you up with Patti Smith.
A: Patti is coming from the St. Mark’s Poetry Project and Anne Waldman as a mentor, and Burroughs, who she loves a lot, so our paths have crossed that way quite often. I think I first really saw her at The Burroughs Nova Convention in 1978, in New York. I really picked up on her there. Her improvisation on stage, and her vulnerability and her sort of informality and at the same time, her bravery. That was real interesting. And I’ve been watching her since. We’ve done a few shows together to raise money for a heart center. A big theater which holds 4,00 people, and we filled it. We’ve done it three years. So she’s inclined toward a Rimbaud kind of Buddhist thing, and I was interested in her Rimbaud connection and her Rimbaud behavior when, she retired from the whole thing. That was very interesting, that someone could drop the whole theme and passion to take care of her children, and have a family, and come back renewed. And when she came back, she was friends with a friend of mine, (an advisor), who had a T-shirt connection, and introduced her to Oliver Ray, who is now playing with her.
Q: What about poetry readings and performances? Is it different reading with a musician next to you or now a bunch of people sharing the stage?
A: I have to focus on my text. I’m still pointing toward the tornado.
Q: You still read from text on stage, from a book or typewritten. Do you ever read from memory?
A: I rarely read from memory. I sing from “Father Death Blues,” and can sing “Amazing Grace” from memory, but I don’t know what lines are coming, so I have to refresh myself. I’m not particularly interested in memorizing perfectly ‘cause I think it’s distracting from interpreting the text differently each time. I think you have to have all the dimensions at once, the book thing, the poetry thing, plus the performance, plus the musical accompaniment, and if you have all of them, and they’re all in a good place, that’s fine. But the reason I don’t try to memorize, I guess I could, but I’m too busy, and I like to re-interpret the poem each time. Certain cadences are recurrent and certain intonations are recurrent, but on the other hand, if I don’t memorize it, there’s always the chance that somebody noticing something, and empathizing puts it a little differently, and bringing out meaning that I didn’t realize before. So I prefer to have the score in front of me and interpret it new each time.
Q: Artists from new generations, alternative rock bands, still keep discovering your work and acknowledging your influence.
A: It’s fun. You always learn from younger people. I learned a lot from William Carlos Williams, and the elders of my generation. People who were much older than me when I was young. And that inter-generational amity is really important because it spreads myths from one generation to another of what you know, and all the techniques and the history. At the same time, Williams learned connection with Corso and myself and (Peter) Orlovsky. Renewed his lease, so to speak. And the advent of The Black Mountain Beat Generation Poetry Renaissance, San Francisco, really renewed his poetic life, in a sense, brought him out to the public and his mood of poetry. . .as the mainstream, rather than as the eccentric jerk from New Jersey.
All of a sudden, with the phalanx of younger people following his lead, he became the sage that he was. And I think it gave him a lot of gratification to realize he had been on the right track, and that it wasn’t in vein. And I get the same thing whenever I get to work with younger people. And I learn from them. I don’t think I would have been singing if it wasn’t for younger Dylan. I mean he turned me on to actually singing. I remember the moment it was. It was a concert with Happy Traum that I went to and saw in Greenwich Village. I suddenly started to write my own lyrics, instead of Blake. Dylan’s words were so beautiful. The first time I heard them I wept.
I had come back from India, and Charlie Plymell, a poet I liked a lot in Bolinas, at a “Welcome Home Party” played me Dylan singing “Masters Of War” from “Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” and I actually burst into tears. It was a sense that the torch had been passed to another generation. And somebody had the self-empowerment of saying, “I’ll Know My Song Well Before I Start Singing It.” There’s a young poet now, Jeffrey Manaugh, a senior at Chapel Hill (North Carolina), and he’s about 20, and he’s a great poet, I think. I sent Ferlinghetti some of his pamphlets and Ferlinghetti asked him to send a manuscript to consider for City Lights. At the age of 20, that’s rare. So there’s always, every generation, somebody comes along and knocks your heart open.
Q: Are you aware there’s sort of a re-evaluation of Dylan’s film, “Renaldo and Clara?” I mean, I first didn’t understand a lot of it when I saw a rough cut before release, and later in limited release. Now it’s garnering new acclaim in the U.S. and around the Dylan collectors.
A: Dylan delivers. It’s going to be a marvelous picture when people begin appreciating it. Well, first of all, it’s Dylan extending himself to the extreme, and including all his friends and all his inspirers, and all his workable companions in a big circus going through America. A musical circus. His mother was along at one point. His kids were along at one point. His wife was along. Joan Baez’s kid was along. So it was this great family outing trying to hit all the small towns, originally, like in Kafka’s “America.” The traveling circus in Kafka’s “America.” For me it was great, and to hear Dylan so often, I was able to hear backstage, in the audience, from the side, in the wings, and go out to the furthest seats with a pass. He was at a peak of musicality and energy and inspiration. Like “One More Cup Of Coffee” and “Idiot Wind,” which is one of my favorite lyrics. A national lyric with its great “Circles around your skull . . .” Really quite manic. It was great to see a band on a rock n roll tour. Rolling Thunder Review on a grand tour, and see all the work that went into it.
“Renaldo and Clara” was a great artistic film that was mocked when it first came out, although it was a hit in Europe, or it was very much appreciated in Europe. Now, when people see it now, I think people will realize it was a great treasure. At first people were screaming “4 Hours”! “What a big egotist.” But actually it’s 4 hours of Dylan exploring the nature of identity of self, and pointing out there is no fixed identity. It was making a huge movie in an interesting way. I did an interview with Dylan for ”Telegraph.” Dylan requested me to do it, and he explained the technique and construction and structure of the film. Specifically that they went through all of the footage and isolated everything that seemed to astound them. Then they divided it up into various topics, like marriage, rock and roll, children, God, poetry, politics, war, peace and all that. Then they made card files with those topics, and the primary colors, and the hooks in between, he composed it like a tapestry, not a linear composition, but a composition by artistic elements. You’ll find the rose travels from hand to hand, throughout the film, along with the hat.
Q: Why has there been a beat generation literary renaissance and 80’s/90’s new appreciation now of audio/video “Beat” writing and performance activities?
A: Audiences now are really interesting. It’s about a quarter young kids from the ages of 14-18, due to the retro renaissance of beat interest. Maybe it’s the actual expression of emotion that interests people who have been deprived of emotion, and not really been able to express their erotic joy of grief for a long time, under the Reagan and Bush repression era. Also, in the 80’s, the renaissance might have been a reaction against the mid-70’s disco music, which was totally mechanical, and characteristic of that retreat from feeling. The later generation now feels a sense of alienation, voidoid, Generation X, grunge, Kurt Cobain, enemy, so what is really needed is another shot of emotion, or a renaissance of people being able to express their emotions in music or in poetry. And, that’s one thing that I think my new recording collection is really useful for is musically as well as verbally. So, I’m glad to show my heart. People now want to say what they really think because they are faced in every direction by plastic, corporate protrusion of fear, and the substitution of violence, kitsch, stereotype, discontinuity, and no sense of ground. But, there is a real ground in everybody, and there is longing and desire. Desire for affection, desire for tenderness, desire for love, desire for security and safety, desire to be cuddled. And that was mocked for so many years by the Malthusian idea of “I’m all right.” “Dog eat dog” “I got mine, Jack” cutthroat, ya know, The Darwinian competition as the keynote, until that collects of its own weight of both moral and economic bankruptcy. And debt. Trillions of dollars in debt that we will never climb out of. Spending, S&L’s, the military wasting the money to show off.
People are now more receptive to candor, cheerfulness and some kind of openness and reality against the pessimistic, negative FBI in the closet, J. Edgar Hoover secrecy then, when we were proposing a better world. In fact, I remember when (Jack) Kerouac was asked on “The William F. Buckley” TV Show in the 60’s. “What Beat Generation meant?”, Kerouac said, “Sympathetic.”
Q: With the release of your box set, the vinyl-to-CD reissues, new audio recordings by local and national writers, my own spoken word productions, as well as TV product advertising, utilizing beat slogans and phrasing(s), is this further proof of the literature living and breathing, and the era for once being displayed correctly, or at least an influence in commercial view?
A: The actual texts however, have not been re-written, and are now coming up to more public notice like Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch”, and Kerouac’s new, unpublished poems, and for the first time, my actual voice available on a bunch of CD’s, going all the way back to 1949 and stretching up to 1993, with the very first original reading of ‘‘Howl’, which is sort of a standard anthology piece, that has never been heard, or a poem like “Sunflower Sutra” or “America”, which was standard in the Norton anthologies in high school.
Q: On a recent radio interview on KPCC-FM, National Public Radio, you again stressed then and now the beat writers were always candid in feelings and observations.
A: The renewed interests stems from the fact that we were being more candid and truthful than most other public figures or writers at the time. We were switched over to writing a spoken idiomatic vernacular, actual American English, which turned on many generations later. Dylan said that Kerouac’s “Mexico City Blues” had inspired him to be a poet. That was his poetic inspiration.
Q: I know that Burroughs introduced you to some key books in the mid -40’s that were influential to your thoughts and writing, and Kerouac, around the same time, when you were attending Columbia University, maybe around 1950, had been into some form of Buddhism and spontaneous prose, but an older generation of writers had an impact on your eventual voice. I joked when we were setting up the equipment as far as New Jersey goes, it’s you, Bruce Springsteen and Frank Sinatra, but you added, “William Carlos Williams,” whom you met around age 20.
A: I knew him from my home town of Patterson, New Jersey. I’d seen him in 1948. He actually innovated the idea of listening to the way people talked and writing in that way. . . Using the tones of their voice and using the rhythmical sequences of actual talk instead of dat dat dat dot dot dot. “This is the forest…” Instead of a straight square metronomic arithmetic beat, there’s the infinitely more musical and varied rhythmic sequences of conversation as well as the tones. “‘Cause if you notice, most academic poetry is spoken in a single solitary moan tone that maybe doesn’t have the variety of when you are talking to your grandmother or baby.
It happens every 100 or 150 years. It did in the days of Wordsworth, who in his preface to lyrical ballads, suggested that poets begin writing in the words and diction of men of intelligence, or talk to each other intelligently, instead of imitating another century’s literary style. So, I think what happened is that we followed an older tradition, a lineage, of the modernists of the turn of the century continued their work into idiomatic talk and musical cadences and returned poetry back to its original sources and actual communication between people. That was picked up generation after generation up to people like U2, who are very much influenced by Burroughs in their presentation of visual material, or Sonic Youth , or poets, like Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo are interested in poetry. I actually am working with them now.
Q: “Holy Soul Jelly Roll” is a very comprehensive survey of your recorded (audio) life. Poems, songs, musical collaborations.
A: It includes about a half hour of music with Bob Dylan, and songs of William Blake that I’ve set to music, some of it is uproarious and funny ,and very hilarious, joyful yodeling involved, in that, and a live cut with The Clash.
Q: I know you worked with The Clash on “Combat Rock.” How did “Capitol Air” come together, incorporated in this box set? I debuted it on KLOS-FM when I did a radio interview two years ago on Frank Sontag’s “Impact” shift and the phone lines lit up as if somebody won the lotto.
A: Well, it’s an accident. I wondered into a place called Bonds, which at that time was a big (couple of thousand people) club in New York. The Clash at the time had a 17 night run, and I knew the sound engineer, who brought me backstage to introduce me and Joe Strummer took one look at me and said, “Ginsberg, when are you going to run for President?” And then he said there was some guy that we’ve had trying to talk to the kids about Sandinistas and about Latin American policy and politics, but they’re not listening. They are throwing eggs or tomatoes at him. “Can you go out and talk?’, I said, “Speech, no, but I have a little punk song that I wrote that begins, “I don’t like the government where I live. . .” So, we rehearsed it for about five minutes during their intermission break and then they took me out on stage. “Allen Ginsberg is going to sing.”
And so we improvised it. I gave them the chord changes. It gets kind of Clash-like good anthem, like music about the middle, but they trail off again. The guy who was my friend in the soundboard, mixed my voice real loud so the kids could hear, and so there was a nice reaction, because they could hear common sense being said in the song. You can hear the cheers on the record. I wrote “Capitol Air” in 1980, recorded with The Clash live, in 1981 or ‘82. “Capitol Air” was written coming back from Yugoslavia, oddly enough from a tour of Eastern Europe, realizing that the police bureaucracies in America and in Eastern Europe were the same, mirror images of each other finally. The climatic stanza “No Hope Communism, No Hope capitalism”. Yea, “Everybody is lying on both sides.” We didn’t play the whole cut because we didn’t have enough time, but they built up to a kind of crescendo, which was nice when the whole band came in.
Q: Can we talk about record music executive, John Hammond, Sr., perhaps the A&R man of the century?
A: I visited him in the hospital, on his deathbed, years ago, and our final conversation was about Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan. Well, I think I ran into him in the early 60’s. He knew my poetry quite well. But it was around The Rolling Thunder Review with Dylan that we got more intimate. I had already made one recording, William Blake’s “Songs Of Innocence And Experience,” in 1969, with some very good musicians, including Julius Watkins on French horn, Don Cherry, Elvin Jones and . . .used them. And also Herman Wright, a bassist that was suggested by Charles Mingus. Mingus encouraged me to do the Blake. So I had something to play. It had been put out by MGM Records, but disappeared out of circulation when Mike Curb bought MGM and denounced all the dope fiends who were on his roster and wanted to ban them, so then re-issued it with a beautiful cover, with a picture of Judge Julius Hoffman on their archive series. I was on The Rolling Thunder tour, doing a little singing, and I had a whole bunch of new material I had done with Dylan in 1971. In 1971 Dylan and I went into a studio and improvised. I had 40 minutes of music with him. So I brought that to Hammond in 1975, after the tour. I had a bunch of new songs and he said, “Let’s go in the studio and make an album.” I had some musicians who had been with me since 1968 or 1969 since the Blake. David Mansfield from the Rolling Thunder tour, and a wonderful musician, Arthur Russell, who Philip Glass has just put out posthumously on Point Records. Arthur Russell lived in my apartment building, upstairs, and had accompanied me across country on tours, and managed The Kitchen in New York. We had a good little group of musicians.
Dylan made a record in the Columbia Studios. It was the first time I didn’t have to pay! Then, Columbia wouldn’t put it out because of dirty words, they said in those days. The anti-smoking, “Don’t Smoke” poem.” So things were in a stasis, but I continued recording myself in 1981, did a whole series of recordings with David Amram, by this time I was working with Steven Taylor, now the lead guitarist of The Fugs. He’s also the lead guitarist for The False Prophets, a punk garage band.
So we got together at CBS Studios and did another 40 minutes of music, and later, John Hammond put the two together. He had left Columbia and started his own label, John Hammond Records, to be distributed by Columbia. So he not only put out what he did with me, he put out a double album, and he got Robert Frank, who had done the (Rolling Stones) “Exile On Main Street” album cover, whose an old friend, to make a composite for our cover, and there was a really good play list inside, and the text was a good deduction. However, the record didn’t sell. Before I had a chance to rescue the further 10,000 copies they (Columbia) had, they shredded them, so they were gone, and a rarity now.
So what this four- CD box set is, is a summary of all the studio recordings I did, plus a lot of other stuff that was never done in a studio, but done in readings, plus another album with Blake, including Dylan on Blake, and a duet with Elvin Jones, including some work with Dylan out in Santa Monica in 1982 in his studio, the live Clash cut, and an excerpt from the opera I did with Philip Glass. So the range runs from a cappella up through folk, punk, dirty blues, classical, collaborations with Dylan, some rap, percussion and vocal with Jones. David Amram was on it as well.
Q: You know, I originally felt when you first started writing in the 40’s, there really wasn’t any musical influence or instrumentation behind or around your words. Yet the first track on this box set recorded in the late 40’s in Neal Cassidy’s pad, actually has the radio playing in the background on the tape.
A: The first cut has a jazz background, because the whole atmosphere from 1940 and on was permeated with be-bop and (DJ), Symphony Sid.
Q: What does music and beat due to voice and text?
A: Well, a whole mish mosh. First of all, I grew up on all blues, Ma Rainey and Leadbelly. I listened to them live on radio station WNYC, back in the late 30’s or early 40’s. So I have a blues background. There’s some sort of Hebraic cantalation relation to the blues that I’ve always had. So the first thing on the collection is “When The Saints Go Marching In” that I made up a cappella when I was hitchhiking, and recorded in Neil Cassidy’s house a year later. Then things like my mother taught me. “The Green Valentine Blues.” Just coming from everyone who likes to sing in the shower. Then there was the poetry and music, King Pleasure, and the people who were putting together be-bop, syllable by syllable, like Lambert Ross and Hendricks. I knew them in 1948. We used to smoke pot together in the 40’s, when I knew Neal Cassidy, around Columbia when I was living on 92nd Street.
Q: Hey, I met drummer Freddy Gruber last week. Buddy Rich’s main man. He told me you tried to hit him on once.
A: (laughs). I had a crush on Freddy. I saw him recently. Around 1944, ‘45, Kerouac and I were listening to Symphony Sid, and I heard the whole repertoire of Thelonious Monk, “Round Midnight,” “Ornithology” and all that. I actually saw Charlie Parker, weekend after weekend a few years later at The Open Door. And in the 60’s, went night after night to The Five Spot to hear Thelonious Monk, and actually gave Thelonious Monk, “Howl”, and got his critique on it two weeks later when I saw him again. “What did you think of it?’ He said, “Makes sense.” In 1960 I delivered some psilocybin from Timothy Leary to both Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. And Monk said later on, “Got anything stronger?” Later on I spent an evening with him on what is now Charlie Parker Place around 1960. Also in San Francisco, in the mid-’50’s, there was a music and poetry scene. Mingus was involved with Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen. And Fantasy records documented some of that. The Cellar in San Francisco. By that time, I didn’t know how to handle it, so I never did much of that myself ‘cause I was more funky, old fashioned blues. I couldn’t cut the mustard with free jazz.
So then in the 1970’s, I began turning on to Dylan. I knew him in the 60’s. He taught me the three chord blues pattern. So he was my instructor. I began singing in India, Mantra, and in the great 60’s, I began transferring the sacred music idea to Blake, and began transferring that to folk music, and then got together with Dylan in the early 70’s. Influences by Happy Traum and Rambling Jack Elliot, whom I’ve known since the 40’s, and Darrol Adams. So finally, the amalgam got together and it was very simple minded blues, or adjective about a blues. Also, improvisation which was important. Finally, Hal Willner had the idea of going back to the old jazz poetry thing.
Q: What happens when the beat, or the music collides with your words and voice?
A: Elvin has a very interesting attitude. He feels that he’s not there to beat out the vocalist. He’s there to put a floor under them. He’s there to support and encourage, and give a place for the vocal to come in, not to compete with the vocal, but to provide a ground for it. He’s very intelligent as a musician. We did it once together in 1969 on the “Blake album; there was military type drum, and then this recent rap song. I’ve got some other stuff we haven’t put out with Elvin. I’ve rarely found opposition to the music because the musicians were very sensitive, and built their music around the dynamics of my voice.
Q: Subject specific answer required: You write something on a piece of paper. Other people, musicians, come invited to participate and collaborate. Does the original intention become a different trip once there is music and other elements involved?
A: Well, it widens it into a slightly different trip, but the words are pretty stable, and they mean what they mean, so there is no problem. The interesting thing is adjusting the rhythmic pattern and the intonation to the musician’s idea of what there is there. That’s pretty good, because I’m good as an improviser, I can fit in, as you can hear on “Birdbrain.” Where I can take a long line or a short line and fit in sixteen bars without worrying about spaces and closed places.
Q: Steven Taylor has been playing guitar on tours and recordings with you since 1975. What are his strongest assets as a musician, guitarist, collaborator?
A: He can play funky blues and can improvise. He was born in England, so he has this Beatles-Manchester. . .and came to America when he was 10. I invited him to the Hammond sessions in 1976. We toured Europe together with Peter Orlovsky, and in 1982, we ended up in Dylan’s studio in California with David Mansfield. We played together at Woodstock around 1980. Ed sanders saw us and said, “You’ve got a fantastic accompanist. Get yourself a band and go around the world.” He’s very supportive. Two years ago, he dropped out of The False Prophets to go to Brown University to get his PhD in Ethnomusicology, influenced by the great ethnomusicologist, Harry Smith who he is very close to. Harry Smith, before he died, came out to Naropa, where he was the resident ethnomusicologist and philosopher. He won a Grammy in 1991, the year he died. Harry recorded me for Folkways, which was edited by Samuel Charters. So for a blues pedigree, that’s pretty good. “First Blues.” It’s still in print through the Smithsonian Institute.
Q: What kind of impact did FM Radio have on you as a writer and reader/ performer?
A: By the time I got around to getting on the radio, it was actually an AM station in Chicago with Studs Terkel; recorded the complete reading of “Howl” in Chicago, later used for the Fantasy record. It was broadcast censored. ‘59. KPFA in the Bay Area then started broadcasting my stuff in San Francisco, a Pacifica station. Fantasy put out “Howl” and that got around. Then, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, put out “Kaddish.” It was radio broadcast from Brandeis University.
Q: Was there ever a conflict of written page origin then into audio land?
A: We wrote, and we were in the tradition of William Carlos Williams spoken vernacular, comprehensible common language that anyone could understand, coming from Whitman through William Carlos Williams through be-bop. We were built for it. I can talk. I’m an old ham.
Q: Does the vision change once it leaves the paper?
A: No. It doesn’t make much difference. The method of my writing to begin with is that I’m not writing to write something, is that I catch myself thinking; I suddenly notice something I have thought of when I wasn’t thinking of writing, and then I write it down if it is vivid enough. And as far as the choice of what to write down or not, the slogan is vividness, is self-selecting. So in a sense, the method is impervious to influence by the audience because I’m just thinking to myself in the bathtub.
So even if it’s the most private, it’s the most public, because as Kerouac said in “Pull My Daisy,” “Everybody is interested in their secret scatological doodlings in their private notebooks.” I mean, what do people really think about?
Q: As far as performance and poetry readings, when you read before a house, aren’t you trying to keep the same original birthplace word vision and not really expand or bring in heavy theatrical elements?
A: I like to stick to something that is grounded in anything I could say to somebody, that they wouldn’t notice I was really saying it as poetry. Intense fragments of spoken idiom, with all the different tones of the spoken idiom, which is more musical than most poetry. Most poetry by amateur poets is limited to a couple of tones, a couple of pitches, instead of an entire range, so that the poetry we do fits with the music because it has its pitch consciousness. The tone reading the vowels up and down.
Q: You document by date. Page and performance dates, calendar time and year attached to the writing. I produced a poetry CD a couple of years back with the poet Harry E. Northup. Harry is a date freak like yourself. In the studio, on tape, he would read a poem written in 1989, but we were recording it in 1992. And we’ve just done a new recording in 1995 but we still listed the birth poem dates in the liners, but not on the tape this time. I’m in conflict about this exact documentation. He was reading things in 1994, written from 5-10 years earlier. I’m still on the fence on this one.
A: Wouldn’t it be interesting if you went to a concert by Dylan and he dated each piece. . . .
Q: Explain the use of chronology in the 90’s, reading original work written and created decades earlier?
A: My background was William Butler Yeats. Seeing the sequence of his development, maturation and growth over the years was really interesting as a novel. How he began as a vague, misty eyed young 1890’s devotee of Irish Mythology, and how he wound up, this tough old guy who put a skin on everything he said. So I like the idea of seeing the development of the mind, or of the voice, or of the thought, or of the poetic capacity, and I want to leave that trail behind for other poets so they could see where I was at one point, or where I was at another. My oration, my pronunciation or my singing, my vocalization differs, and it builds.
A: As I get older it gets more interesting with more and more tones, and more and more breath, and deeper and deeper voice and higher and higher voice. But still the original rhythms and the original ideas are from the original text, so you’ve still got a chronology going. So people could see the development of the mind. I’m not writing about the external world. I’m writing about what goes through my mind. So, at a certain period I’m interested in this kind of sex, another period, this kind of politics, another period, this kind of meditation, and I like people to be able to dig there’s a development, and not a static process.
Q: Let’s see. . .I saw you read in the late 60’s, early 70’s, maybe when I was in college in San Diego. San Diego State University. I do remember going with Leonard Cohen to see you read at The Troubadour in 1975. A year later or so, we all ended up singing on Leonard’s “Death Of A Ladies Man” album that Phil Spector produced; yourself, Dylan, Rodney Bingenheimer.
A: I like Phil. Get me a tape of that album. Dylan tried to get him (Phil) to work with me. At that session, Dylan said, “He’s got words! He’s (Allen) got words!”
Q: Hey, Phil really doesn’t want words unless he owns them. You know that. I haven’t seen him in a few years. I really love him. I’m still amazed at your readings, not just the impact you have on the audience, but your paper trail, book catalogues, albums, vinyl, first edition printings, out of print classics people want signed. Old money. New money. No money. It’s like “This Is Your Life” on parade.
A: Not quite. It’s my mind on parade. That’s what the mind is for, to show other people.
Q: It’s obvious that people want to be writers again. I feel that.
A: They want to express themselves. Not just to be a writer to be a writer, but they want to be able to say what they really think.
Q: For years, and it’s still evident today, there is still restriction on the radio airwaves, and a limited window when you can be heard. 6:00 p.m. Most of the material on my four CD box set might be banned from the air 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Q: What do you want from FM radio?
A: I’d like for some FM station to play all four CD’s one night, announced in advance so everybody could listen to it, and I think it would change not only heads, but expand people’s emotional range. “All the time in eternity in the warm light of this poem’s radio.” That was 1953. So I was aware. I was laying out treasures in heaven, basically. I knew that after I was dead my stuff would slowly seep up, so I’m really glad I’m alive to put this (box set) recording together.
Los Angeles native and music historian Harvey Kubernik has been an active music journalist for over 40 years and is the author of 5 books, including This Is Rebel Music (2002) and Hollywood Shack Job: Rock Music in Film and on Your Screen (2004), published by the University of New Mexico Press.
In 2009, Harvey wrote the critically acclaimed Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon, published by Sterling. In summer 2012, the title was published in a paperback edition.
With his brother Kenneth, he co-authored the highly regarded A Perfect Haze: The Illustrated History of the Monterey International Pop Festival, published in 2011 by Santa Monica Press. They have also teamed up for a book Big Shots with photographer Guy Webster for Insight Editions, due in October.
Otherworld Cottage Industries in February 2014 published Harvey Kubernik’s book It Was Fifty Years Ago Today: The Beatles Invade America and Hollywood.
During April 2014, Kubernik’s Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956–1972 was published by Santa Monica Press garnering national and international acclaim.
On September 9, 2014, Palazzo Editions will publish Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, a coffee-table-size volume with narrative and oral history written by Harvey Kubernik.
This century Kubernik penned the liner notes to the CD re-releases of Carole King’s Tapestry, Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish, the Elvis Presley ’68 Comeback Special and the Ramones’ End of the Century.