Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Patchen, Kandel, Waldman, Nordine and Young could have been a Supergroup
In 1948, Allen Ginsberg had what he called an “auditory hallucination” while reading the poem “Ah! Sun-flower (Weary of Time)” by William Blake (1757-1827). Ginsberg was, at the time, a troubled Columbia University graduate and unknown poet living in a Spanish Harlem flat. That vision, planted like a sunflower seed, took root over the years, alternately haunting and inspiring him. By the early 1950s, he began putting Blake’s book of poems Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience to music, and would continue to tweak his efforts for the rest of his life.
Ginsberg would, in addition to his huge body of poetry and letters, go on to have a surprisingly productive parallel career as a recording artist, working with the likes of Bob Dylan, Don Cherry, Elvin Jones, Philip Glass, Paul McCartney and The Clash, among others.
Here’s Ginsberg singing his poem/song “Vomit Express” with Bob Dylan and Friends.
Here’s Ginsberg performing “A Ballad of American Skeletons” with Paul McCartney on guitar at Royal Albert Hall in London, 1993.
Last year, Omnivore Recordings, true to their name, released a 3-CD box called Last Word on First Blues, featuring original songs Ginsberg wrote and recorded, many of which were his poems set to music. It seemed a fairly definitive statement at the time, but now Omnivore has upped the ante by releasing the original Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake, tuned by Allen Ginsberg, an indispensable addition to any Beat Generation library.
The music on this new 2-disc release was first improvised on pump organ (Ginsberg’s signature harmonium) at his farm in upstate New York in early September 1968, as a consoling antidote to the bloody Democratic National Convention that, only days before, he’d witnessed in Chicago. This was the so-called “Chicago Police Riot,” in which 23,000 police officers and National Guardsmen attacked 10,000 unarmed civilians in Grant Park, leading to the Chicago Eight, then Seven, Trial and a Senate Investigation that concluded the police were the real criminals on this occasion. At any rate, Ginsberg was clearly ready for something consoling and strong. Though he was not blessed with the smoothest of voices, the palpable joy and sincerity of Ginsberg’s singing comes shining through on every one of the 35 tracks on this new Omnivore release. And, compared to fellow Beat poet Peter Orlovsky—who can be heard warbling Yoko-like in the background—Ginsberg sounds like Pavarotti. Some of the tracks that were recorded later, in 1971 (sans Orlovsky, praise Vishnu), sound remarkably fresh. On these tracks, Ginsberg is accompanied by Arthur Russell on cello, Jon Meyer on flute, Jon Shole on guitar and Peter Hornbeck on violin. They could easily be mistaken as outtakes by the Incredible String Band.
Here’s a nifty trailer for the new album put together by Omnivore:
Allen Ginsberg was just the tip of the iceberg as far as Beat writers and music was concerned. Beat literature was, in general, inextricably linked with jazz, particularly the improvisational impulses found in the music of Charley Parker and John Coltrane. In his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” Kerouac wrote, “Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.” And, “No periods separating sentence structures already arbitrarily riddled by false colons and timid usually needless commas- but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases) – ‘measured pauses which are the essentials of our speech’—‘divisions of the sounds we hear’ -“time and how to note it down”. (William Carlos Williams).”
Kerouac often sat in with jazz musicians, to improvise to the sound of saxophones and drums. He also released two albums during his lifetime that are now collector’s items, and many of the remaining tapes of Kerouac improvising to jazz have seen the light of day since his death in 1969.
He was actually quite a good vocalist and, of course, his instinct for rhythm and word-sounds was unparalleled among writers. Here he is singing “Ain’t We Got Fun” live with a jazz band.
Check it out:
Michael McClure was one of the original six poets (along with Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Philip Lamantia, and Lew Welch) to read at the seminal Six Gallery event on Oct. 13, 1955. That event was hailed by Kerouac as “the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.” Here’s McClure, many years later, reading a tribute poem to Jim Morrison while The Doors’ Ray Manzarek plays piano behind him.
Lenore Kandel was a resident of Haight-Ashbury at the peak of flower power and is, like Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, a transitional figure between the Beats and the hippies. Carolyn Cassady called her “a fertility goddess” and Kerouac, who based a character on her in his novel Big Sur, said she was “a big Rumanian monster beauty, who knows everything.”
Here is Lenore Kandel reading “Joy!” at The Last Waltz concert in 1976.
Anne Waldman was raised in Greenwich Village and moved to the Lower East Side after graduating from college in 1966. She started an influential magazine, Angel Hair, and was director of the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, which has become a staple of the New York arts scene since that time. She was also a longtime member of the faculty of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder.
“Fast Talking Woman” has no instrumental backing but she choreographs her performance like a conductor.
The Bay Area had a rich history of poetry readings with jazz accompaniment. Lawrence Ferlinghetti (still alive at 97), Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen regularly performed with jazz backing at clubs in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti’s poetry, on the pages of A Coney Island Of the Mind and elsewhere, were clearly written to be read as jazz improvisations.
Ferlinghetti reading “The Statue of St. Francis” to musical accompaniment at The Cellar in San Francisco in 1957.
Here’s the full reading with Rexroth, released as the album Poetry Readings at The Cellar in 1957.
Of these elder statesmen, Kenneth Patchen has always been my favorite.
Here he is performing the haunting poem, “Do The Dead Know What Time It is?”
Seemingly produced without any Beat cross-pollination, was a fruitful project called Word Jazz out of Chicago in the late 1950s. This was the brainchild of a radio commentator named Ken Nordine (who is still alive at 97). Like Jean Shepherd, Nordine was blessed with the perfect radio voice, and he aired a series in Chicago called “The World’s Great Novels” then compiled them on an album called Word Jazz (Dot, 1957). It proved popular enough that he released follow-up recordings with the Fred Katz Group that featured Chico Hamilton on drums. Nordine, however, marched to the beat of his own drum, not always in line with what you might think of as Beat literature. Still, at his best, Nordine’s poetic musings are among the most fascinating of the era.
Here is Nordine exploring “Infinite O’Clock” with wonderful orchestrations.
In a future installment of “The Singing Beats,” I will venture into the world of performance artists like Slim Gaillard, Babs Gonzalez, Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley and Professor Irwin Corey.