Written by: Dave Cantrell
Anyone that grew up (as your correspondent did) in the Bay Area during the 60s-slash-70s that also happened to be possessed of an artist consciousness or, more pointedly, that of an aspiring writer, could not escape the fevered backyard presence of the ‘Beat Generation’ and the fearless iconoclastic fervor that served as their eternal legacy. Not that their influence was confined to that particular West Coast Babylon – the nation as a whole was in its grip for a brief if everlasting moment in the late 50s (witness Kerouac intoning naked jazz riffs of the cerebral godhead kind on Steve Allen’s primetime variety hour) – but the City by the Bay, serving as a kind of de facto headquarters via Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, was the place where the original energy metastasized and became the guiding light it’s continued to be for burgeoning writers in the late teen, early twenties clutches of doomed American romanticism. And while not himself a San Francisco son (Jersey, baby, Jersey), no one commanded more of a transcendent perch inside that entire mythos than Allen Ginsberg.
Unapologetically both gay and openly spiritual in a way that unavoidably made nearly all of straight vanillan America squirm with discomfort, Ginsberg was also avidly unshy in his use of the English language and the spiraling infinity of polyglot potential it offered to any poet unabashedly adventurous enough to take up that mantle and dance with it into the center of consciousness. A miasma of cosmic beat-driven Upanishads and proto-queer confessionals while being über-hip enough to bring the weighty rhythms of shamanic influence deep into the insular Camp Dylan during the amphetamine bard’s mid-60s blaze with all its thin wired mercury energy and the lyrical astonishment to match, Ginsberg was like the slightly unhinged free-spirited uncle that could stun the family dinner table into silence with a single stanza. Even though he was weird and challenged your precepts at every turn, as a writer you wanted, at least in terms of prowess, to be like him.
Like some accidental guru of the national psyche, not to mention a tireless champion of the poor and trampled, Ginsberg, straddling as he did the most transformative decade of this country’s cultural/political development, was so much an icon it nearly overshadows his work as poet extraordinaire, a writer of Dantean magnitude minus the overt classicism and biblical baggage (though make no mistake, the man was as well-versed in the perversely-called ‘Good Book’ as any poet of his stature at that time should be). An intensity swanned from the man in waves of abundant, verdant, rule-smashing verbiage that so overwhelmed any critical approbation that reflexively accompanies that ‘V’ word as to dwarf – and silence – critics and fans alike.
All of which, every word and syllable, makes clear why, of all labels, it would be Kramer’s revived – and, like the Beats themselves, unkillable – Shimmy-Disc label that would bring the original 1989 Hal Willner-produced album The Lion For Real back to remixed, remastered life and do so in its usual inimitable style which in this case means a 2-LP package that attaches a “, Re-Born” to the back end of the title while adding eight original unreleased pieces from the original sessions (which, by the way, included contributions from Ralph Carney, Bill Frisell, Arto Lindsay, Marc Ribot, Steve Swallow, Prairie Prince, Gary Windo among a host of others).
As apparent from this track and video (and yet not heretofore brought up in this piece), Ginsberg was not shy with the personal even as he reached, with great dexterity, toward the universal. Inversely, perhaps even perversely, the universal was fine and all so long as it was soaked in the intimate and there it goes, the turning of the perpetual conundrum, the one is the other is the other is the one. That is of course the province, the very job, of a poet but vanishingly few were able to take all those confusing tools of consciousness and sketch that bridge with as much verve and clarity as this man did.
While “The End” is not a Kaddish per se, it could persuasively be argued that everything toward which Ginsberg spoke reached for and most often touched that level of magnification, a glance at least (and most often a look more akin to piercing) toward the great manifestations of spiritual mystery. It’s that that makes his work not just timeless but deathless, and why we celebrate the perpetuation via media spoken, written, or visual of Mr. Ginsberg’s immutable spirit. Long live Allen Ginsberg, long live Shimmy-Disc, long live anything that, like both of them, deserves to be long-lived. And with that, here’s the clip. Click it and dig…[album cover photo credit: Macioce; 1984, the poet at his East Village NYC home; pre-order The Lion For Real, Re-Born here]