In the Museum
The wife and I were planning to see Allen Ginsberg’s photos at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, “Beat Memories,” but we had an argument and I went alone. I was thinking how appropriate it was, as Ginsberg and company were so often at odds with women. I had seen many of these black and white photos before, and liked how he would characterize a shot as so-and-so in infinity. The infinite isn’t somewhere else or occurring after we die, it’s here and now. However, I may have been projecting. I only found one or two shots where he refers to the eternal – including one of Neil Cassidy and his “love of that year” who were “conscious of their roles in Market Street Eternity.” They were standing near a movie theater showing “The Wild One.”
Many of the shots are from 1953 when he got a new camera. There is Burroughs on a sofa with Kerouac, warning him about the dangers of being tied to his mother’s apron strings until he is an old man (which is more or less what happened, with the alcohol accelerating the aging process). One thing about these historical documents, you realize how modern apartments look like hospital rooms with bare white walls. Back then the walls were hallucinating floral patterns and the sofas were embroidered like Persian rugs.
There is a classic shot of Cassidy at a used car lot, sizing up the prospects, with a sign in the background, DEPENDABLE DEALING. Ten years later he was driving a psychedelic bus called FURTHER.
Having captions on many of the photos was a nice touch (Ginsberg wrote them forty years after taking the pictures), and so was hearing his voice on a soundtrack in the background. Phrases from Howl were floating around, “… busted in their pubic beards.” While I was looking at people who were long gone, Allen was singing “Father Death Blues.”
On the down side, it was a sterile room with white walls. The museum itself is not well designed, even while much of it is hiding behind a pre-existing facade from 1907. “[W]hy… is there an impression of something unsettled and unsettling here, as if something crucial were missing?… Alienation rather than stability is suggested, despite the self-conscious symbols being grasped at.“
There was a long article on the exhibit in jweekly.com (“the Jewish news weekly of Northern California”) with comments by Steve Silberman, who was Ginsberg’s assistant for many years. He said, “I see his influence everywhere… there would be no Bob Dylan, there would be no ‘60s [as we know them]….” I had to pause for a minute for that to sink in.
When I was 18 I met a girl in the Yuba River who was naked and on acid. A few days later we hitchhiked to Mendocino where someone gave us a place to stay because I was playing the flute while walking by their house near the ocean. The next day we hitchhiked to San Francisco and went to City Lights. I saw a flyer about Allen Ginsberg appearing at UC Berkeley that night. This was around 1970. We went there and heard him chanting lines from William Blake, “Merrily, merrily, we welcome in the spring…” while everyone was snake-dancing around a large room. That was my first encounter with Ginsberg (aside from reading his poems).
In the late 1980’s I went to Fort Mason to hear him and Michael McClure. I was talking with Allen in the lobby, with him telling me about poetry and breath while ignoring my girlfriend. I like some of his writing, but was also impressed with his ability to get himself kicked out of foreign countries like Cuba. I spent more time with Gregory Corso, but Ginsberg still meant a lot to me.
However, the line in jweekly.com saying there would be no Bob Dylan without him is wrong. Dylan had gravitated to New York City in 1961 and made a name for himself as a folksinger and songwriter. He had recorded two albums by 1963, including “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” with songs like “Blowing in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” and “Bob Dylan’s Dream,” which has his name in the title in case there was any doubt of him existing as a real person with a guitar at that time. He didn’t meet Ginsberg until the end of 1963, coming out with another album in the first part of 1964, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It’s not that Ginsberg wouldn’t eventually have an influence on him (as did a number of people from Rimbaud to Chuck Berry), but to say he would not have existed without Ginsberg is sheer propaganda.
Silberman also says, “… there would be no ‘60s [as we know them]” without Ginsberg. I ran that line by a number of people and no one, Jew and Gentile alike, thought it made any sense. It’s rather insulting to the magnitude and seriousness of what was going on in the 1960’s – things like the Vietnam War, the anti-war protests, civil rights struggles, a few assassinations. If you remove Allen Ginsberg from the equation, what would be different? No war? No Rolling Stones? No pot? No free love – because no one would have known how to fuck without him telling them how to do it?
So why would Silberman be saying these things? Elsewhere in the article: “…those who knew Ginsberg well say that, while he dabbled in other kinds of religion and spirituality, Judaism was always an integral part of his identity… I don’t think he ever left behind his Jewish perspective on the world,” says (Jonah) Raskin…,” who then compares him to a rabbi. My experience of rabbis is limited, so I can’t say for sure if they like to take LSD and chant in Hindi while sitting in their underwear with a handsome goy who steals cars. However, there seems to be some revisionism going on here, as if some Jews are trying to reclaim him, pull him back into the fold after he spent most of his adult life with the goyim (see photos).
If Judaism was an integral part of his identity, why did he spend so much time on Buddhist and Hindu teachings, while being heavily influenced by non-Jewish writers like William Blake and Walt Whitman? To say he merely “dabbled in other kinds of religion and spirituality” is rather condescending to his many years of Buddhist practice. If you spend a year and a half in India looking for a teacher and studying, I wouldn’t say you’re dabbling. I don’t recall him spending that much time in Israel. What about his long association with the Tibetan lama, Trungpa Rinpoche? For that matter, what does it mean to have a “Jewish perspective?” I asked an older friend of mine who is secular Jewish. He wasn’t sure, when it could involve anyone from an Israeli who supports apartheid to Bette Midler.
There are other things in this article which don’t add up. Referring to Ginsberg being accessible to the public, Alan Kaufman says “You couldn’t call up Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, but you could always call up Allen Ginsberg.” Maybe that’s because Roth was a recluse, and both of them were accomplished novelists who had to work harder than most poets with their first-thought toss-offs which dribble halfway down the page and stop.
“The 1980s saw Ginsberg and the Beats attracting a new wave of interest from a new generation, with Ginsberg in particular beginning to work with young musicians like Patti Smith and Bob Dylan.” This is a little off – he began working with Dylan in the 60’s. When he met Patti Smith in 1969, he approached her because he thought she was a “pretty boy.” She dropped out of the music scene in 1979, had a comeback album in 1988 which didn’t do much, and dropped out again, so I’m not sure when she was collaborating with Ginsberg.
Also worth noting: the article in jweekly.com was posted on Facebook (more than once) by a local Zionist. Ginsberg wanted nothing to do with Zionism, believing it was synonymous with racism. In one interview he refers to the “brainwashing indulged in by the Zionist-oriented [New York] Times….” There is no mention of his anti-Zionism in the article.
What appears to be going on here, in an article which contains a few wrong notes along with complete falsehoods, is an echo chamber of ethnic bonding. Silberman is Jewish, as is everyone else who is quoted in the article, which appeared in a Jewish publication about a Jewish poet’s photos in the Contemporary Jewish Museum. The general tone is that of a circle jerk around the image of Allen Ginsberg – a man who probably spent more time on his man-boy love group than he did on anything specifically Jewish. It is strange to see him portrayed in this manner, a man who many believe was beyond the usual categories of race and religion.
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).