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Allen Ginsberg

The greatest poet of the Beat movement and one of the most renowned American writers of the 20th century, Allen Ginsberg transcended literary and intellectual barriers to exert a profound influence on the culture at large. His accomplishments are too numerous and his oeuvre too large for a music reference resource to do them justice; many other sources exist that offer more complete perspectives on his life and work. Ginsberg made sporadic recordings of his work, both formal and otherwise, starting in his heyday of the late '50s and continuing into the '90s. Most of them were poetry readings, naturally, but Ginsberg also experimented with songs, often accompanying his singing on the harmonium.

Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926, in Newark, NJ, and grew up in nearby Paterson. His father Louis was a published poet, a teacher, and politically a socialist; his mother Naomi was a Communist radical, but unfortunately her bouts with mental illness (mostly severe paranoia) consumed much of Ginsberg's childhood. He began writing in a journal at age 11, around the same time as his mother's suicide attempt, and discovered his major poetic influence Walt Whitman in high school. He enrolled at Columbia University in 1943, originally planning to become a labor lawyer, but soon fell in with a literary crowd that included Jack Kerouac (a fellow student), Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs. Ginsberg began writing seriously around 1945, and around the same time he began to experiment with drugs, and had some of his first homosexual experiences. He graduated from Columbia in 1948 and began traveling, visiting Burroughs in Texas; there he was arrested as a reluctant accomplice in his roommates' burglary ring, and voluntarily committed himself to Columbia's mental hospital. He attempted to renounce homosexuality and took a job as a market researcher upon his release, but hearing the poet William Carlos Williams at a reading drew him back into literature, and he gave up trying to fit into mainstream society.

Ginsberg moved to San Francisco in 1954, and that year met artist's model Peter Orlovsky, who became his lover; their relationship, though nonmonogamous and marked by periods of separation, would prove to be lifelong. Though he'd written quite a bit of poetry by this point, very little of it had been published, and he was better known as an advocate of fellow Beat writers like Kerouac and Burroughs. That all changed in October 1955, when Ginsberg read parts of his new epic poem "Howl" at the Six Gallery. An impassioned, defiant critique of American culture that served as something of a Beat manifesto, it was an immediate sensation. The local City Lights bookstore, which had just started its own publishing arm, released Ginsberg's first book, the seminal Howl and Other Poems, in 1956. The following year, City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges for selling copies of the book; authorities objected mostly to its homosexual content. A judge ruled that the book was not obscene, and the attendant publicity helped make Ginsberg a household name. He recorded his first album of poetry readings, also titled Howl and Other Poems, for the Fantasy label in 1959.

Over the next decade, Ginsberg became a leading countercultural figure. He spoke out in favor of the First Amendment and against the Vietnam War; he was turned on to LSD by Timothy Leary and to Buddhism by Kerouac; he traveled a bit with Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters; he traveled all over the world in search of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment; he appeared in the background of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" music video; he took part in the famed antiwar demonstrations in 1968 that resulted in the arrest of the so-called Chicago Seven; he was, unsurprisingly, the subject of a massive FBI dossier. Of course, he also continued to write prolifically. In 1961, he published another lengthy signature poem, "Kaddish," which explored his relationship with his mother (she'd passed away in an institution in 1956). Five years later, Atlantic Records issued a recording of the work titled Allen Ginsberg Reads Kaddish: A 20th Century American Ecstatic Narrative Poem. Ginsberg's next album was William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, which set the works of one of his favorite poets to jazzy musical backing; it was issued by Verve in 1970.

As time passed and his lasting impact became clearer, Ginsberg was increasingly accepted by the literary establishment, culminating in his winning a National Book Award for The Fall of America: Poems of These States in 1974. He recorded with John Lennon and Leonard Cohen, and undertook several song-oriented sessions of his own during the course of the '70s, including a collaboration with Bob Dylan. The best results of these efforts were finally released in 1983 as First Blues: 1971-1981 on former Columbia executive John Hammond's own label. Additionally, Ginsberg performed the song-poem "Capitol Air" in concert with punk rockers the Clash, and appeared on the track "Ghetto Defendant" on their hit Combat Rock album. He abandoned singing on his next album, 1989's The Lion for Real, a set of spoken word pieces with musical backing. That same year, he teamed up with composer Philip Glass to transform the antiwar poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra" into a musical theater piece; the collaboration worked well enough that they reteamed for a full album, 1993's Hydrogen Jukebox. In 1994, Rhino Records issued an exhaustive four-CD box set of Ginsberg recordings titled Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs 1949-1993. Sadly, Ginsberg contracted liver cancer as a complication of hepatitis, and passed away at his New York City loft on April 5, 1997. Fantasy reissued Howl and Other Poems on CD the following year, and in 2002 the Locust label assembled the compilation New York Blues: Rags, Ballads and Harmonium Songs. ~ Steve Huey
full bio

Selected Discography

x

Track List: First Blues

Disc 1

1. Goin To San Diego (Feat. David Amram, Perry Robinson, Bob Dylan, Happy Traum, Jon Sholle, Surya, Moruga, Peter Orlovsky & Anne Waldman)

2. Vomit Express (Feat. Bob Dylan, Peter Orlovsky, Anne Waldman, David Amram, Perry Robinson, Jon Sholle, Happy Traum, Surya & Moruga)

3. Jimmy Berman (Gay Lib Rag) (Feat. David Amram, Perry Robinson, Bob Dylan, Happy Traum, Jon Sholle, Surya, Moruga, Peter Orlovsky & Anne Waldman)

4. NY Youth Call Annunciation (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Steven Taylor)

5. CIA Dope Calypso (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Steven Taylor)

6. Put Down Yr Cigarette Rag (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Steven Taylor)

7. Sickness Blues (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Steven Taylor)

8. Broken Bone Blues (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Steven Taylor)

9. Stay Away From The White House (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Steven Taylor)

10. Hard-On Blues (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Steven Taylor)

11. Guru Blues (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Steven Taylor)

Disc 2

1. Everybody Sing (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Steven Taylor)

2. Gospel Noble Truths (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Steven Taylor)

3. Bus Ride Ballad To Suva (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, Steven Taylor & David Amram)

4. Prayer Blues - 1972 (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, Steven Taylor & David Amram)

5. Love Forgiven (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, Steven Taylor & David Amram)

6. Father Death Blues (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, Steven Taylor & David Amram)

7. Dope Fiend Blues (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, Steven Taylor & David Amram)

8. Tyger (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, Steven Taylor & David Amram)

9. You Are My Dildo (Feat. Peter Orlovsky & Jon Sholle)

10. Old Pond (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, Steven Taylor & David Amram)

11. No Reason (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, Steven Taylor & David Amram)

12. My Pretty Rose Tree (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, Steven Taylor & David Amram)

13. Capitol Air (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, Steven Taylor & David Amram)

x

Track List: Holy Soul Jelly Roll

Disc 1

1. Walking At Night In Key West

2. A Mad Gleam

3. The Green Automobile

4. A Supermarket In California

5. Howl (For Carl Solomon)

6. Footnote To Howl

7. America

8. Sunflower Sutra

9. Green Valentine Blues

10. Death To Van Gogh's Ear

Disc 2

1. Kaddish (For Naomi Ginsberg)

2. To Aunt Rose

3. Kral Majales

4. Guru

Disc 3

1. Wales Visitation

2. The End (Feat. Marc Ribot, Bill Frisell & Michael Blair)

3. I Am A Victim Of Telephone

4. The Echoing Green (Feat. Herman Wright & Bob Dorough)

5. The Lamb (Feat. Janet Zeitz, Cyril Caster & Bob Dorough)

6. (A) Little Boy Lost (B) Little Boy Found (Feat. Janet Zeitz, Cyril Caster & Bob Dorough)

7. Laughing Song (Feat. Janet Zeitz, Cyril Caster, Bob Dorough & Don Cherry)

8. The Sick Rose (Feat. Jon Sholle & Bob Dorough)

9. Nurse's Song (Experience) (Feat. Peter Orlovsky, Jon Sholle & Herman Wright)

10. City Midnight Junk Strains (For Frank OHara)

11. A Cradle Song (Feat. Arthur Russell, Peter Hornbeck & Jon Meyer)

12. Infant Joy (Feat. Arthur Russell, Peter Hornbeck & Jon Sholle)

13. The Fly (Feat. Arthur Russell, Peter Hornbeck, Jon Meyer & Jon Sholle)

14. Voice Of The Bard (Feat. Arthur Russell)

15. School Boy (Feat. Arthur Russell & Alan Senauke)

16. A Dream (Feat. Peter Orlovsky, Bob Dylan, David Amram, Arthur Russell, Perry Robinson, Jon Sholle, Happy Traum & Moruga)

17. Who Be Kind To

18. First Party At Ken Keseys With Hells Angels

19. Pacific High Studio Mantras (Om Ah Hum Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum) (Feat. Jon Sholle, Arthur Russell, Alan Senauke, Jon Meyer, Peter Hornbeck, Reverend Adjari & Buddhist Chorus)

20. Wichita Vortex Sutra Part 3 (Feat. Philip Glass)

21. Nurse's Song (Innocence) (Feat. Steven Taylor, Gregory Corso & Peter Orlovsky)

22. Pull My Daisy

Disc 4

1. Capitol Air (Feat. The Clash)

2. Written In My Dreams By W.C Williams (Feat. Ralph Carney, Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot & Steve Swallow)

3. CIA Dope Calypso (Feat. Steven Taylor, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Arthur Russel)

4. Vomit Express (Feat. Bob Dylan, Peter Orlovsky, Anne Waldman, David Amram, Perry Robinson, Jon Sholle, Happy Traum, Surya & Moruga)

5. Please Master

6. The Little Fish Devours The Big Fish (Feat. Rudolph Grey & Elvin Jones)

7. Prayer Blues

8. Birdbrain (Feat. Gluons)

9. Gospel Noble Truths (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle, David Mansfield & Steven Taylor)

10. Hum Bom

11. Airplane Bllues (Feat. Bob Dylan, Steven Taylor, David Mansfield & Arthur Rosato)

12. On Neal's Ashes

13. September On Jessore Road (Feat. Bob Dylan, David Amram, Jon Sholle, Steven Taylor & Mondrian String Quartet)

14. Father Death Blues (Feat. Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle & Steven Taylor)

15. Do The Meditation Rock (Feat. Steven Taylor)

16. After Lalon Shah

x

Track List: Wichita Vortex Sutra

1. Turn Right Next Corner (Feat. Christian Marclay, Stephan Smith & Art Baron)

2. Thy Sins Are Forgiven, Wichita! (Feat. Lee Ranaldo)

3. Approaching Salina (Feat. Art Baron)

4. Thrills Of Fear (Feat. Michael Blair)

5. II Face The Nation (Feat. Lee Ranaldo, Lenny Kaye & Elliot Sharp)

6. A Black Horse Bends Its Head To The Stubble (Feat. Marc Ribot & David Mansfield)

7. Stop, And Eat More Flesh (Feat. Elliot Sharp)

8. N B C S U P A P I N S L I F E (Feat. Lenny Pickett & Steve Shelley)

9. Here's Marysville (Feat. Lenny Kaye & David Mansfield)

10. I'm An Old Man Now, And A Lonesome Man In Kansas (Feat. Philip Glass)

11. Cars Passing Their Messages Along Country Crossroads (Feat. Christian Marclay, Art Baron & Hal Willner)

12. Future Speeding On Swift Wheels (Feat. Lee Ranaldo, Art Baron, Hal Willner & Christian Marclay)

Comments

Report as inappropriate
Allen Ginsberg is a true genius. I prefer his literary works to his music, and that's not to put him down in any way, because Ginsberg is truly either a raving madman, and one of the greatest writers I've ever read. I think the former. He astounds you and disarms you with his words and that's something that I truly love him for.
Report as inappropriate
hawkinsdanie l s 1 8 0 1 1 5
Allen Ginsberg changed my world and gave me direction I'm sad I never met him before his passing

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