Near Greatness

My Howling Good Time With Allen Ginsberg

When we invited him to a screening of an art school film, we didn't count on the gracious, gregarious and sometimes-Gonzo poet who arrived

Cleveland, Ohio, 1982: My arty pals and I had made a 16 mm film called "Stealing Food" where we inserted narration borrowed from Allen Ginsberg's epic rant "America." Written more than 25 years before we discovered it, the signature line—"America, I gave you all and now I'm nothing"—still resonated with punked-out, art-school brats like us, even though we had yet to contribute anything substantive to country or Cleveland street corner. Weaned on Joy Division, John Lydon, the Clash, the Psychedelic Furs, we did know enough to surmise (as Paul Newman once said) that nothing could be "a real cool hand."

I can't remember quite how we arrived at our next bright idea, but we decided that our little film merited contacting Allen Ginsberg himself and inviting him to Cleveland to see our movie. We got his number from some frayed link in the Cleveland-to-NYC-underground chain rattling around in the cosmos. I dialed, and to my complete and utter shock, Ginsberg answered.

"Uh, Mr. Ginsberg?"

"Yes."

"Uh, we're art students from Cleveland and, uh … we made a film … uh, used your poem, and, uh … we'd like you to come see it."

"I'm boiling an egg," he said.

I wasn't sure if that was some Zen posturing to soften the blow of rejection that was sure to come, or if he was actually standing over pot and flame. He went on about the egg for a while, with the patience of a man experienced in fielding naive requests like ours, and after some collateral conversation about him trying to pass a kidney stone, we hung up on the vague promise we would resume negotiations in a couple of days when he was feeling better.

He was true to his word, and I followed up with a sweetener to our offer: The local Cleveland poetry society would help support the modest stipend and traveling expenses such a visit would entail. To my further astonishment, Mr. Ginsberg agreed.

Although ecstatic that we had bagged a poet of such distinction, we didn't count on the gracious, gregarious and sometimes-Gonzo Ginsberg who arrived. From the moment he rolled in from the airport, sporting crumpled suit and tie in almost beatific contradiction to the wild-eyed shaman we'd seen in all those 1960s photos, we left our preconceived notions at the gate.

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He was a formidable presence­—his unkempt hair and creased brow set off a blazing stare, with one eye drooping from an earlier mini-stroke, that beamed off-kilter like some hastily encased jewel. He brought his harmonium with him, and though we knew his words had influenced songwriters from Dylan to the Clash, we were blown away by the sense of combustible rhythm he brought to every personal encounter.

On stage, it was raucous odes to death and meditative sonnets to present-day trials, all set to his rollicking beat and delivered in seamless waves of what the poet himself has termed his "Hebraic-Mellvillian Bardic-breath." Offstage, at a cocktail party thrown by the Cleveland Poetry club, the stuffy hosts of the soirée kicked our rat pack out minutes after we arrived. It seemed we didn't meet their high-end ideals of culture. But Ginsberg came to our rescue, gently urging them to stand down. When they refused, he politely excused himself and split with us.

A night on the town ensued and we wound up at Cleveland's infamous club Traxx, where the punk and gay scenes rocked the night away in peaceful coexistence. As we tumbled back into the car for the ride home, he dubbed us a "friend gang," saying he had met other post-'60s co-conspirators just like us in his travels, musing how we might change the world if we could somehow all "connect" with each other.

The next morning, Ginsberg kept a promise made at the cocktail party and visited an ailing friend-of-a-friend laid out in a Cleveland hospital. His final gesture of kindness was to indulge our heightened sense of importance by inscribing "Thanks for making me a star" inside a tattered copy of "Howl." Also etched in his circular scrawl were the words of one of his shortest, but most prophetic poems.

As I write this now, I'm about the same age Ginsberg was when he thawed our senses for a couple October days in what seems like several lifetimes ago. I've never encountered anyone quite like him in the hundreds of interviews and encores I've weathered as a music writer ever since.

As for the poem he scrawled for us, it's my guess he knew, even then, only the passage of time could complete the circle:

Young I drank beer and vomited green bile

Older drank wine vomited red blood

Now I vomit air

   
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