Musician and writer John Kruth met with Allen Ginsberg two months before the great poet’s death. He was there ostensibly to talk about Rahsaan Roland Kirk while researching a book on the jazz musician. But in going through old files, Kruth found the never-published interview transcript and realized it contained some real gems of wisdom and honesty. Facing imminent death, Ginsberg did not hold anything back. Kruth shares the transcript for the first time with PKM.
It was Valentine’s Day, 1997, less than two months before his death on April 5. I was sitting at the kitchen table of Allen Ginsberg’s Lower East Side loft, as he sliced a piece of cherry pie, plopped it on a plate and handed it to me. I had been interviewing a lot of people for my first book, Bright Moments, about the brilliant, blind jazz multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Hal Willner had given me Allen’s number after I’d backed the great poet with a group of Moroccan musicians for his reading the previous October, at the St. Mark’s Church.
The interview began by discussing Rahsaan and the psychedelic pioneer/author/cow farmer Ken Kesey’s Poetic HooHaw. The HooHaw was an outdoor concert held in the summer of 1977, which featured Rahsaan Roland Kirk (following his stroke) along with Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Anne Waldman, Wavy Gravy, the Flying Karamazov Brothers, and Charles Lloyd. Bill Murray was the emcee, keeping the medicine show rolling with his goofball antics.
Kesey, a big jazz fan, had previously written a fantastic passage describing the experience of hearing John Coltrane for the first time in his second novel, Sometimes a Great Notion. He loved Rahsaan, recalling; “I had a few Roland Kirk tapes on the bus with us back when we rode around the country [with his band of space cowboys, the Merry Pranksters].” Not surprisingly Kesey had slipped Kirk some acid one night back in 1966, after seeing him perform in San Francisco. Years later, Kesey queried Kirk, ‘“Did ya ever get high?’ He said, ‘Man, I never have come down! I been high ever since that trip to Le Honda. It changed my life! I never came down off that trip and I never felt like I had to repeat it either!’”
Allen Ginsberg: I met Roland Kirk in Eugene, Oregon, at one of the Kesey Trips Festivals in the early Seventies. He was sure blowin’ his head off with those toodle-sticks! I was astounded by his facility. I had been in Australia and have a didgeridoo, but can’t use it because I can’t do the circular breathing. He was the first Westerner I knew of who could do it, although there are others.
JK: Yeah, Harry Carney of Duke Ellington’s band was one of the first. He turned a lot of people onto it. Had Rahsaan had his stroke yet? [Kirk had a stroke in 1975 which paralyzed half of his body and only temporarily impaired his ability to play.]
Allen Ginsberg: Yeah, he was having some problems… It was the only time we met. There wasn’t much conversation.
I momentarily found myself at a loss. I was enjoying our dialogue and the cherry pie, and Allen had just showed me a copy of an Oscar Wilde book, signed by the author, given to him only a few minutes before I arrived, by his previous guest, Bono. I didn’t want our meeting to last for a mere ten minutes and had to think fast…
JK: Do you know Genesis P’Orridge?
Allen Ginsberg: Yes, from Throbbing Gristle?
JK: Yeah, I told him… uh, her about this dream I had, that I was going to interview you about Rahsaan. But we mostly talked about Brion Gysin.
Allen Ginsberg: Oh? Well, I’ve done several of those…
When the subject of Brion Gysin arose, Allen momentarily seemed more guarded, a bit uptight. They had had a strained relationship over the years. Here’s a bit of background on Brion:
Brion Gysin (1916–1986) was a Renaissance man in a century with a 15-second attention span. In a world where people are known for doing one thing well, Brion mastered a variety of disciplines which he employed to express himself at any given moment. Gysin was a painter, author, editor, musical anthropologist, inventor, philosopher, mystic and restaurateur. And wore each of those hats with ease and remarkable panache. Surrealist ringleader AndréBreton, Beat novelist William S. Burroughs and Rolling Stone Brian Jones all recognized his brilliance, yet Brion’s life work, for whatever reason went virtually un-noticed by the public. As an artist, Gysin painted otherworldly figures that danced around the canvas like cryptic Arabic and Japanese calligraphy. He was embraced and was then quickly expelled (for vague reasons) by the Surrealists. In truth, Brion just wasn’t the type to espouse the party platform, no matter how bizarre the doctrine. (Although he’s been associated with the Beats through his connection to Burroughs, Gysin would never claim to be a member of that exclusive club either. For those that didn’t get it, or couldn’t accept one man producing novels (The Process, The Last Museum) paintings, recordings and a device which induced a trance-like state called The Dream Machine, he let William Burroughs do the talking: “Brion was incapable of fakery!” the gentleman junkie once said.
JK: I’m curious why do you think Brion fell through the cracks….
Allen Ginsberg: Of what, fame?
JK: Yeah… fame. Most people aren’t aware of his work. [Soprano saxophonist] Steve Lacy said that Brion craved attention, but there was a lot of jealousy and intrigue going on in Paris, when he was part of the surrealists.
Allen Ginsberg: Brion was a monster. I was a little afraid of him when I first met him, and a little repelled by him. Partly because he was so cynical, annihilative and anti-romantic! Where… I am a sentient… liberal, a pushover. [Laughs]
JK: Where did you meet him and what year was it?
Allen Ginsberg: About 1960-ish, on my second trip to Tangier… It must have been earlier… I’m a little discombobulated. Brion was living in Paris, at 9 Gît-le-Coeur [later known as the Beat Hotel]. That must have been 1961. Bill [William Burroughs, who also lived there at the time] had become totally suspicious of everyone. His demeanor had changed a lot. He became much more aloof and distanced. He looked at me and said, ‘Who are you an agent for?’ Meaning, in his terminology ‘Who is your sender?’ Or ‘Who has imprinted you, without you knowing it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know… [writer/critic] Lionel Trilling… my father?’ [Allen’s father Louis was an English teacher and wrote traditional rhyming poetry].
[Dr. Timothy] Leary came, who I was leery of at the time. I’d met him before in Massachusetts and knew him. He had some psilocybin and came to my house and turned on Kerouac and was introducing psychedelia to the intelligentsia – Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Barney Rosset [editor/publisher of Grove Press] Robert Gover [author of the controversial novel The One-Hundred-Dollar Misunderstanding]. I went to visit the Living Theater at the festival in Cannes, then went on to Tangier and came back to Paris. Gysin had the Dream Machine in Tangier, which was just a cylinder with a certain number of cuts in it. You placed it on a phonograph [turntable] and it spun around at seventeen to twenty cycles a second, creating a flashing effect like the strobescope. But the Dream Machine didn’t have the same punch. It was a toy compared with the real strobescope at Stanford [University]. That was all part of the LSD experiment at Stanford in 1959. [At the same time, Allen’s cousin, psychotherapist Oscar Janiger had been a professor at UC Irvine investigating the effects of LSD, giving it to Aldous Huxley and Cary Grant among others]. They aligned the strobescope with my Alpha rhythms. But the feeling was horrible. I was beginning to get physical headaches. Something felt wrong physiologically. It was like my soul was getting sucked.
JK: Wow! So what was the scene like in Tangier?
Allen Ginsberg: Leary came to Tangier to meet Bill. Gregory [Corso], Peter [Orlovsky, Allen’s longtime companion] and myself were all there, and would see Tennessee Williams and Francis Bacon. There’s a lot of photos of that time. We’d occasionally all go to the beach. But Bill got kind of paranoid after taking Leary’s psilocybin and became very withdrawn. We went to knock on his garden gate, but he didn’t want to see anybody when he was high. Then he went off to Sweden with Leary to an LSD conference, with the idea of going to Newton, Massachusetts with him to be part of the LSD experiments at Harvard. But when he got there, he didn’t find any of the big scientific things he’d been expecting, like strobescopes, rat mazes, and electronic equipment to measure R.E.M.’s and all that. It was just a social situation, a big party really… Leary was a horse’s ass. Later on, they got friendly again. Bill was the last person Leary talked to on the phone.
JK: What was Gysin’s influence on Burroughs?
Allen Ginsberg: He seemed to make him more paranoid and suspicious. Who are these people and who was imprinting Bill?
JK: But he did turn Bill on to the cut-up.
Allen Ginsberg: There were many kinds of cut ups, other than stroboscopes and newspapers… There were also photographs… taking a photo of the sky and then taking a photo of the photo of the sky, to get to the alchemical essence of blue. There was a photo of Bill in his room, sitting at his desk, looking at a photo of himself in his room, sitting at his desk, looking at a photo of himself. But the point of the cut up was a way for Bill to liberate himself from his own sentiments and feelings… in sort of a Zen way. In Buddhism you don’t kill your ego, you make a pet of it. You live with it. You wouldn’t kill a pet! Killing your ego is [akin to] killing your body, your self, the phenomena that is you. The idea of killing your ego is a weird Marxist/ Catholic/ascetic thing…. Bill was going through that from another point of view, trying to purify his consciousness by specifically cutting up his own emotional nostalgic attachments… to music, history… ‘The boys are sitting next to each other on the park bench yearning for each other. Suddenly there’s a snap in time. The boys are old men and look at each other in horror.’ ‘Blue Movies’ in Naked Lunch is a series of cut-ups of a porno film, acted over and over and over. At the end the characters appear to take a bow with a little semen on their lips… and are weary of the whole thing, hung multiple times, until they are sick of it. [According to Bob Rosenthal, Ginsberg’s secretary of many years: “An often-used image of William’s is men ejaculating while being hung I asked James G. [Grauerholz] about this image once. He told me William saw strange live sex shows when he was in Germany as a young teen.”] That was partly based on Bill’s study of Scientology which he completed later in Queer, in which you re-run your emotional obsessions over and over and over until they lose all emotion, glamor, power… electric charge.
Leary was a horse’s ass.
JK: What role did Gysin play in creating Naked Lunch?
Allen Ginsberg: There was a marriage of minds there… They were in Paris, at the Hotel. Brion encouraged Bill, helping him to get it organized and brought some of it to [Maurice] Girodias [editor/publisher of Olympia Press] who rejected it. Brion suggested that Bill didn’t have to build it into a linear structure, with episodes that were related. Bill did add one structural thing that was very good – in the beginning where the detectives come to arrest him [the narrator, William Lee]. And at the end when he kills the detectives. The whole book was a nightmare, a dream, a big hallucination enclosed within that parenthesis…
JK: And your part in all of this was….
Allen Ginsberg: The manuscript was sent to me in New York, early on, as the chapters flew from the typewriter, Bill sent them to me. Then he’d re-write, do another take on it. So, I read it in the order that it was written. It was like one continuous movie. It was more of a juxtaposition than linear, which was alright with me. So, do you present it chronologically as it was typed or edit it? But it was Burroughs! In any order it would still have been Burroughs! There was a genius there and Brion encouraged him. He helped unlock Bill’s editing. He was un-linear and worked from the classic European model of cut-ups like [Dadaist Tristan] Tzara, pulling words out of a hat. [Tzara would also cut up sections of linear writing or and organize them, creating works of fresh energy and often inscrutable meaning]. Burroughs really admired Brion so much because he’d given him this formula… Writing was fifty, a hundred years behind painting at the time! But it made a kind of impersonality in the writing which, I think, led to a dryness.
So, we took the trip to Tangier in ’57, with Peter [Orlovsky] and [Jack] Kerouac to edit and type the book. It took a bit of time. I left in ‘58 and brought the manuscript to Girodias.
JK: I know Gregory [Corso] had a hard time with the concept of the cut-up.
Allen Ginsberg: Gregory said that poetry was a natural cut-up! Which was true! The mind is a cut-up already! To be cutting up your mind, would be like cutting out the organic, spontaneous part of the mind. But Bill wanted to go beyond that, to a vibrating open space, where there was no personality and nobody there – like John Cage with his Aleatoric [often referred to as “chance” or “dice” music] method. I always found it to be so impersonal as to be somewhat not human, But I think that’s what they were looking for.
But the point of the cut up was a way for Bill to liberate himself from his own sentiments and feelings… in sort of a Zen way. In Buddhism you don’t kill your ego, you make a pet of it. You live with it. You wouldn’t kill a pet!
JK: Speaking of music, Brion was very passionate about the Master Musicians of Jajouka [a swirling tribal trance music from the Rif Mountains of Morocco, played on drums, wooden oboes and flutes] Did Bill like their music at all?
Allen Ginsberg: Bill had a tin ear. He liked sentimental, songs, like ‘Danny Boy.’ He was tone deaf, sadly. He was really nostalgic for [Richard Strauss’ three-part comic opera] Der Rosenkavalier, which I believe he made a version of in Robert Wilson’s Magic Bullet [better known as the avant-garde musical fable The Black Rider – the Casting of the Magic Bullet – partly inspired by William Tell. Wilson’s Casting of Burroughs (who wrote the script) in the play was uncanny, as he’d killed his wife, Joan Vollmer at a party in September 1951, while attempting to shoot a glass that was balanced on her head] But he did go up to the mountains a few times. I went once to see the dancing boys with Paul Bowles.
JK: Brion had a troubled relationship with Paul. They got into some argument over the Jajouka music. [While the group was originally Bowles’ discovery, Brion had presented the musicians at his Tangier restaurant, the 1001 Nights.] At times it seemed like Brion was his own worst enemy.
Allen Ginsberg: Brion was a little bit jealous of Bill’s friends, and other’s fame. Bill’s… mine… He wasn’t a good businessman. He was disdainful of [art] dealers…but not hostile. There are a lot great painters who can’t deal with being charming. He was very proud and disdainful of dealers. You need to be charming to have a successful public career. He made fun of people’s feelings. Brion was suspicious, and he hated women, and influenced Burroughs in that way.
JK: Brion had some heavy attitudes about women. He even insinuated they were a genetic mistake! Which leads us to “the monster’s” mother… Didn’t you meet her?
Allen Ginsberg: Brion Gysin’s mother was very fond of her son, a nice, affectionate mother who was proud of her son. I called her up and said I knew him she was so delighted to hear from a friend of his. She’d invited me over when I did a concert with Phil Ochs – sometime in the late 60’s. But at the same time, Brion had pushed Bill away from his old friends, made him more isolated. So, I was a little upset. Later on, I went to visit him on the Seine and he’d changed. Before he died, he wrote me and asked to make sure his book [The Process] was published. I think he had an over-exaggerated idea of my power. I mean, he could have gotten it published himself, but I think he was suspicious of agents. So, we finally got reconciled. And he couldn’t believe it. He was so grateful that I went to see his mother!
So, how did you get into all of this? With the Moroccans?
JK: Well, Brion Gysin took Brian Jones up the mountain to Jajouka, and he made that record The Pipes of Pan at Jajouka [originally spelled JouJouka on the album cover] in 1971, which I bought when I was 16. It was otherworldly, like nothing I ever heard before. Recently I was walking past a little shop called the Gates of Marrakesh on Prince Street [in Soho] and they had one of their horns [an oboe carved from an apricot tree, called a ghaita] in the window. Pretty soon I started playing it well enough to jam with the musicians who hung out there and we started a band called Jeel Salaam [Tribe of Peace] One night Hal [Willner] came by so I could interview him for my book on Rahsaan, heard us and then called a few nights later. He said, ‘I have a beautiful idea,’ and asked us to play behind you while you read your poetry at St. Marks Church, last October.
Allen Ginsberg: Yes, it all worked out quite well.