Hare Krishna SRO: Allen Ginsberg at the New School
Back in the sixties, I signed on with Allen Ginsberg to help him with his work for the legalization of marijuana. I have to admit I didn’t get much done; although I have always believed that pot should be legal, my main motivation was getting to hang out with Allen.
In going through my papers prior to turning them over to the New York Public Library, I came upon these notes about a performance Allen gave at the New School on February 20, 1969.
I walk into the auditorium of the New School and am assailed by the smell of incense. On the stage Allen Ginsberg and nine acolytes with rapt faces (some with the shaved heads of Buddhist monks) are chanting mantras and playing various instruments. I think, here is that sexy, sensual religion that the West is dying for. Being given to hero worship and tending to identify Ginsberg with Blake, Whitman, or God, or all three, I am shocked, as always, at the sight of him, to find that his hair is coal black, that it is only in my prophetic mind that he is a white-haired sage.
The event was mislabeled a lecture; it was a service. In informal eastern and homespun style, it did not begin at the scheduled time, but as soon as the sound equipment was set up. Outside there had been anxiety: Will there be enough tickets for me and my friend? Will there be enough seats? But inside there was the great antidote to anxiety: joy.
Without having any hangups about performing, Ginsberg is a great performer. Singing lessons? No time. Ginsberg has no time: he only has eternity. He has respect for time, wishes he had more of it. He capitalizes the word in notes to friends: “Nice you got Time to study I don’t dammit See you in Time in haste Allen.”
Oh, yes–on coming into the New School and finding the line of people waiting to buy tickets I realized: it’s the kids. Allen’s got the kids. I was conscious of being one of the few people there over thirty.
Allen was wearing a light blue Oxford cloth button-down shirt with beads and the same baggy black Jewish intellectual pants he’s been wearing for years. Horn rim glasses, shoulder length hair. Wicker drums. Kids in Asian bonze costumes with flowing trousers. Allen playing a thing that looked like an accordion called a harmonium. One of the kids told me that Allen always plays it before a performance to warm up. A girl with long hair and ripe features sat with crossed legs and ecstatic expression the whole two hours. Other acolytes went through the audience distributing brownish apple wedges from a big ironware tub. The cop assigned to the event was a big smiling benign Negro, undoubtedly known for religious tolerance and a peaceloving disposition. Rapt faces in audience, hippie couples holding hands.
In the warmup period before the official beginning of the “lecture,” I had time to meditate on Allen Ginsberg and schools. I was amazed at the thought of how many auditoriums he has been in. The halls where members of my generation used to file in by home rooms to the strains of Sousa marches to attend sports assemblies, services in honor of the gods of war, power, and competition – There are new gods in the schools today: love instead of war, ecstasy instead of power, respect for individuality (“doing your own thing”) instead of competitiveness. And this raggedy looking man on the platform whose shoulders shake with irrepressible glee, whose Jupiter finger wags portentously in delighted prophecy as he digs his own corny unassailable wisdom, embodies–as in many ways he has catalyzed–that change.
Allen explains that there are mantras for causing a city to tremble but adds that to be effective they require ten million repetitions. The mantra for purifying the site for the ceremony is actually a chant to exorcise a dissatisfied ghost; calculated to dispel the paranoia of singer and listeners. The same syllable repeated over and over–it reminded me of Cecil Bill, the character on Kukla Fran & Ollie, fifties TV show, who spoke an incomprehensible tongue consisting of the syllable toy delivered in an endless variety of tones and rhythms.
Allen, the internationalist, the breaker of barriers, who will roll up his trouser legs and wade into any strange waters, though reputed to be plague-ridden, and plumb the exotic to the essence. Thus his appeal to youth, because children are the peacemakers of the world: it is men who make war. Allen has helped to bring about a climate in which young men are allowed to retain some of their childhood sensitivity, need not buckle the soldier’s armor over their sentient skin.
Allen says that chanting AUM can produce a euphoric state similar to those induced by LSD. In Chicago at the Democratic convention in 1968 he chanted AUM for seven and a half hours, from 2:30 in the afternoon to 10:00 pm. After three hours an anonymous Indian sent a note asking him to please chant AUM more seriously. Allen and several hundred others were surrounded by the police and scared. After twenty minutes of chanting AUM, Allen felt “Reichian vibrations” in the extremities–orgone energy, muscle spasms. Trees looked like large friendly electrical dogs; so did the cops.
To get the audience to chant AUM too he told them, “It’s like fucking, you can’t get there unless you do it!”
Allen sang a group of twenty-one Blake poems from the “Songs of Innocence and Experience” which he has set to music. It was in two senses a return to the source. In a historical sense, because it was while reading Blake’s poem “Ah! Sunflower” in a room in East Harlem the summer of 1948 that Allen Ginsberg had his first spontaneous visionary experience, an experience from which his later activities, aesthetic and political, all follow as naturally as the sunflower follows the sun. It is no accident that it was through Blake that Ginsberg was first turned on to an awareness of the hand of God everywhere present in the universe. It was probably inevitable, Blake being our great visionary poet writing in English.
The second sense in which the evening was a return to the source was that Allen treated his audience to a glimpse into his own creative process. Allen has no formal musical training and has only been writing songs since this summer. He has taken the Blake lyrics and without altering the natural speech rhythms has created melodies to emphasize and enrich the meaning of the words. The result is sung poems, not songs; perhaps chanted poems would be a more accurate description.
As might be expected, one felt the influence of the mantras Ginsberg has been chanting for six years now with occasionally a hint of Israeli folk music; but in the melodies themselves and in the very oddity of the product–in its determined unmusicalness–there was something distinctive, innocent, and moving–as in the settings for “Piping Down the Valleys Wild,” “Little Lamb, Who Made Thee?” and the “Laughing Song,” which brought down the house.
Allen says that what he does is an “examination of the syllabic and musical intentions of Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” through singing. He believes Blake used to sing these poems in friends’ drawing rooms.
Allen was inspired to write melodies for these lyrics after touching the ashes of his friend Neil Cassady. On the bus on the way to San Francisco, Blake’s poems came into his head in musical form.
That evening I noticed for the first time a few strands of silver in his beard.