Allen Ginsberg

Herbert Gold remembers Allen Ginsberg.

Published April 16, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

he said he saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, and
those first lines of "Howl" became the invocation for the cult of Beat which begat the religion Hippie; but surely Allen Ginsberg was too smart, playful and histrionic to believe what he claimed before a San Francisco audience. Those wasted hustlers were the best minds? No, he must have meant the cutest minds.

Like Jerry Garcia and Timothy Leary, other icons of the counterculture recently ushered by Brother Death into the wings, Allen was a charmer and a trickster. He was a tireless organizer, traveler, funmaker. Even during his last years, his body giving way, lashed to bourgeois routines of propping up his health -- he sent me a cartoon depicting his morning rituals of urine-testing, medicine-measuring, back-stretching -- his resonant baritone was still cajoling and powerful when energized by an audience.

The Beat movement, a few college boys like Jack Kerouac joined by a few old-timey bohemians like William S. Burroughs and a few happy or gloomy social castaways like Neal Cassady and Herbert Huncke, was a male cult that would have been a footnote to '50s conformity, not a herd but a boys' club of independent minds, without Allen Ginsberg's organizing fervor. It picked up elements of jazz, the drug culture, the normal rituals of adolescent seeking and even grudgingly admitted to its ranks a few young women (then called "chicks") if they came equipped with black turtlenecks and a willingness to take shit.

Eventually there were outposts of Beat everywhere. In my hometown of Cleveland, the Paris of northeastern Ohio, I spent a night in jail after the tragic bust of a coffeehouse. The charge seemed to be interracial checker playing and felonious guitar plucking while a local Ginsbergling moaned into the microphone: "Hart Crane was a poet who committed sigh-a-sood." The judges at my trial asked me why, if I was a decent person, I had a beard.

In fact, all this fun was serious business. The Ginsbergling of Cleveland was hounded into killing himself. The Ginsberglings of Denver, Salt Lake City and San Francisco fought their guerrilla actions against the ways things were until infantry hordes of flower children came to win some of the battles of the '60s. Throughout this time, Allen led the way, protesting limitations on drug experimentation, protesting the Vietnam War, getting himself crowned Queen of the May in places like Stalinist Czechoslovakia. He and Peter Orlovsky were the only all-male couple to be listed as man and wife in Who's Who. Allen liked getting naked when words failed him and also when they didn't.

Yet he was a loyal son, whose most moving work is the long poem "Kaddish," in honor of his lost mother, bludgeoned by shock treatments. In his father's last years he invited the old high school English teacher and dotty poet to tour with him. With his father, he visited my new wife and child, and what we saw was a kind man, a son, a gracious old friend. It seemed that his Jewish sense of duty on earth, to heal and nurture, had joined his Buddhist desire to accept what was his lot. When I heard he was terminally ill, I wrote him a long letter, sure that he would make the best use of the time remaining to him, reminding him of the Buddhist country rock song he sang to me over stewed eggplant at the Auberge Inn in Paris:

Talk when you talk

Cry when you cry

Lie down, you'll lie down

Die when you die

He was studying how to become an elderly gentleman, even willing to admit his past errors. He regretted smoking, chanting songs against tobacco. He even regretted his rage against the Shah of Iran because the mullahs are so much worse. He didn't expect to be always right.

We enjoyed 51 years of a quarreling and exasperated friendship. When he led frantic publicity-seekers like Jack Kerouac in raids on publishing and broadcasting offices, demanding attention and then more attention, I wrote about the Beat movement as a shuck. When Kerouac retreated into alcohol and paranoia, Allen kept vivid the image of the beautiful young man, the James Dean of literature, although the T-shirts didn't depict the bloated mama's boy hiding in Florida and occasionally emitting right-wing noises. When Jack died, Allen kept the cult alive. When Timothy Leary informed on his friends, denounced Bob Dylan in the National Review for corrupting the youth of America, Allen shrugged and said, "Well, that's just Tim, he's a rogue."

In public performance Allen was an Olympic-class ranter, but he was truest to himself and most moving when he loved. He attacked the obvious targets, such as the CIA in its role as corrupter of foreign governments, and defended the difficult-to-defend, such as men who ask for sex from boys. Because of Allen Ginsberg, along with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, David Meltzer and a few others, the Beat emblem is spoken poetry. (Wailing to jazz tended to cause throat problems.) The emblem of the hippie, flower-child, Aquarian epoch is rock music. The hyphen between the two periods, one rooted in the '50s, the other in the '60s, is Allen, the bard, apostle and mother figure. His beat passion for both public and private despair, public and private celebration, carried forward a long lyric tradition. He saddled up his hard-won sense of delight and spurred it on. Surely Bob Dylan is unimaginable without this predecessor.

Dissidence is as American as hemp brownies. Sherwood Anderson saw himself as "a little worm in the fair apple of Progress." The counterculture, the underground, whatever label it's given (New Wave, Punk, Slacker or Gen-X, Y or Z), the long tradition of American bohemia enriches, deepens, performs an act of rescue for an increasingly massified culture. Montana is colonized by Beverly Hills, but the East Village and the Mission District of San Francisco are still frontiers. Think back to Tom Paine and Thoreau, Walt Whitman and the Wobblies -- the American pot always bubbles, even if it doesn't always melt its contents. Probably no contemporary artist has been so needy, tender and ironic about his revolutionary fervor as Allen Ginsberg, who announced, "America, I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel."

Your queer shoulder, dear Allen, turns out to have been just what we needed.

Fifty-one years ago Allen and I, in our college-boy innocence, tried to propagandize each other at the West End Bar near Columbia University, he thinking to convert me to man-love by terrifying argumentation (the ancient Greeks) and I seeking to counter with my own fatal predilection (oh, so many men who loved women through history). A few decades later it dawned on us that we both had a point. People will make love as they make love, but they'll still go on talking about it.

Despite the fragility of words, they still matter desperately to some, and will never stop mattering, and "Howl," "Kaddish" and many other of Allen's incantations will go on mattering for a good while. Just now, alas, Allen's prophecy has come true: "Death is that remedy all singers dream of."

By Herbert Gold

Herbert Gold is the author of "Best Nightmare on Earth: A Life In Haiti."

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