New Old Allen Ginsberg
Rocks, Rolls & Sings the Blues
Review/ Essay by Jonah Raskin
Beat poet Allen Ginsberg gave birth to Bob Dylan and Bob Dylan helped to turn Allen Ginsberg into a lively performance artist who recorded nearly all his words and all his music. His tape recorder was always on.
It was on when he and Dylan went on the road together in 1975-1976 as part of the Rolling Thunder Revue that crossed much of the U.S.A. The two performers made milestones in musical history and the Revue revved up audiences from Plymouth, Massachusetts to Orlando, Florida and Austin, Texas.
Musicologist and cultural historian, Pat Thomas wasn't around for Rolling Thunder, but he has put together The Last Word on First Blues, (Omnivore Recordings, $49.98) a three-disk set of some of Allen Ginsberg's best songs -- 35 altogether, from 1971 to 1983 -- and they're a real treat.
Indeed, The Last Word on First Blues is as essential to an understanding of Ginsberg as his Collected Poems, and just as much fun. The set also shows that those who only know Ginsberg as a poet of the printed word and not also as a performer of the spoken word know him merely by half.
Dylan accompanies Ginsberg on seven of the cuts, including "Going to San Diego," "Vomit Express," "Jimmy Berman" and "Do the Meditation Rock." The package includes a photo of Dylan holding a guitar in his hands, as Ginsberg watches his fingers on the strings. The caption, in Ginsberg's handwriting, reads, "The Music Lesson."
Some of the topical songs have lost their edge and Ginsberg's sex talk isn't as shocking as it might have been 35 years ago. But the music still has the power to carry listeners along. It might encourage fans to sing along and even to dance to the sounds of the studio musicians, most of them members of Ginsberg's boy gang: Ed Sanders, Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky and Happy Traum.
The Last Word on First Blues takes Ginsberg/ Dylan fans on a musical tour from folk and rock to the blues and calypso, and from funny to funky.
"Going to San Diego" was written to lure protestors to the Republican Party convention that was scheduled there in 1972. The site was changed to Miami. "Vomit Express" recounts a bumpy airplane ride to Puerto Rico. "Jimmy Berman" honors a gay New York City newspaper boy. "Do the Meditation Rock," the last cut on the third disk, brings the show to a rousing crescendo.
Ginsberg is almost always proselytizing and propagandizing, though the music makes the medicine go down easy. On "Put Down Yr Cigarette Rag," he urges smokers not to smoke and on "CIA Dope Calypso" he aims to undercover the wrongs of the Central Intelligence Agency. Occasionally, Ginsberg veers toward humor, as in "Stay Away from the White House," in which he invites a plague on all political houses.
On "Guru Blues," the last cut on the first disk, he offers a personal ad for his own queer sexuality.
Mostly, though, Allen Ginsberg is sad on these recordings. Mostly, he sings the blues, as in "Sickness Blues," "Broken Bones Blues," "Hard-on Blues," and "Father Death Blues."
Few if any modern American poets have been able to make death, disaster and doom as lyrical as Ginsberg, who appears in Kerouac's On the Road as the thinly disguised fictional character, Carlo Marx, and as himself in D.A. Pennebaker's cinematic homage to Dylan, Dont Look Back. For much of his life, he was in the shadow of Kerouac, Dylan, or the Beatles.
Born in 1926, Ginsberg died in 1997, and, while he never won a major literary award in the U.S., he was one of the most popular poets in U.S. and around the world the twentieth century, his work translated into more than two dozen languages.
Not surprisingly, the best poetry on The Last Word on First Blues
isn't Ginsberg's, but William Blake's "Tyger" and "My Pretty Rose Tree." Both cuts sound as though the English romantic poet himself might have performed them. It's hard to compete with Blake; Ginsberg claimed that he once experienced an auditory hallucination of Blake reading his own work.
By 1971, when many of the songs in this compilation were recorded, Ginsberg had written his best poetry -- including Howl and Kaddish -- but many of his best performances, including those with Dylan and also with fellow Beat poet, Anne Waldman, were still ahead of him.
Pat Thomas spent years at Stanford, rummaging through Ginsberg's archives, listening to hundreds of hours of recordings. He picked out what he felt were eleven of his best unreleased songs, including two that were taped at Folk City, the New York City club that opened in 1960, closed in 1987 and that hosted nearly everybody on the music scene: Peter Seeger, Dylan, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix.
Ginsberg had to play there and did. All of the eleven songs that Thomas unearthed at Stanford appear on the third disk in this package, and while they're not as strong as the songs on the first two disks they provide listening fun.
The author of Listen Whitey! The Sounds of Black Power, Thomas insists that "every revolution needs a soundtrack," though record company producers tend to be more interested in the bottom line than in making political and social revolutions.
Case in point: John Hammond, the legendary record producer, taped Ginsberg in 1976. Columbia refused to release the finished product on the grounds that the lyrics were obscene. Indeed, some of them are, at least by Puritanical standards.
In 1983, Hammond took matters into his own hands and issued a two-LP set called First Blues that drew rave reviews from Ginsberg and Dylan fans. Then it sank beneath the waves. Thomas thought that the set was well worth re-releasing, He's done just that on The Last Word on First Blues. No doubt Ginsberg would be pleased.
Indeed, The Last Word on First Blues shows that Ginsberg embraced the blues and made them as contemporary as sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. It also shows that he was one of the grandfathers of rap.
Jonah Raskin is the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation as well as a performance poet who has published seven poetry chapbooks, including Rock 'n' Roll Women: Portraits of a Generation.