Graded on a Curve:
Allen Ginsberg,
The Complete Songs
of Innocence and Experience

Allen Ginsberg remains a towering figure in the annals of freedom, but his musical output has suffered varying levels of neglect over the decades. The recent emergence of The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience helps change that. It finds Ginsberg adapting the writing of William Blake to song, and features such participants as Bob Dorough, Don Cherry, and Elvin Jones. In a case of unexpected added value, noted avant cellist Arthur Russell contributes to a bonus session from 1971; it’s all available on 2CD with informative notes by Pat Thomas through Omnivore Recordings.

Of the three main points comprising the Beat Generation triangle, Allen Ginsberg was easily the most culturally adaptive. Kerouac couldn’t hang with the hippies he’d helped spawn; tormented by inner conflict and addled by booze, he was dead before the end of the ’60s. Yes, Burroughs eventually settled into a niche as an outlaw godfather of punk, both musical and cyber, but he did so by essentially just being himself; he obviously engaged with those inspired by his art and life, yet it’s also quite clear they largely sought him out, rather than vice versa.

But it was Ginsberg’s diverse activism for free speech and protest of war, intolerance and discrimination, plus his sheer curiosity into post-Beat youth movements, interacting along the way with hippies, punks, and even the subsequent ’90s Alternative generation (by request, he gave the Blake Babies their name and guested on Cornershop’s When I Was Born for the 7th Time), that positioned him as more than just one of the 20th century’s greatest poets.

Instead, he was elevated to an ambassador for free thought, open-mindedness, and nonconformity, joining Burroughs (whose own collabs with the Alt scene include Ministry, Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, and Kurt Cobain) in a twilight renaissance. During the same period Kerouac’s posthumous stature hit something of an all-time high.

One facet all three writers shared was an interest in public performance, deviating from the writer’s norm that literature is best served on the page. Sometimes, like when one feels the need to exit the coffee shop as the slam-style poetry open mic is starting up, this precedent for live reading is not such a good thing, but the impulse has also produced quality results. This is verifiable through recordings, which is another mutual interest of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg.

Burroughs is probably the most prominent in this regard, as there are bunches of folks who might know of him as a groundbreaking writer but are exclusively seduced by his audio output, and specifically that voice. But the common thread extends to interaction with music; Kerouac got there first through the influence of jazz on his writing, but for Ginsberg and Burroughs, their initial LPs Howl and Other Poems (from ’59) and Call Me Burroughs (from ’65) consisting of spoken words only, the lit-music connection was all but inevitable.

However, Omnivore’s expanded reissue of Songs of Innocence and Experience (and last autumn’s splendid 3CD Last Words on First Blues, which collects a string of ’70s-’80s sessions featuring Bob Dylan) makes the case that Ginsberg is the only one of the three that can be accurately tagged as a musician. Those who can’t abide his singing will likely take issue, but the contents here underscore his output as methodical and not nearly as eccentric as it might at first seem.

Frankly, the singing of Ginsberg (and to a lesser extent his friend and lover Peter Orlovsky) is key to Songs of Innocence and Experience’s success, steering the record, which was cut in NYC in ’69 and issued by MGM the next year, far afield of sterile politeness in the setting of Blake’s words to music. Others may not dig the lilting flute and harpsichord ambience that helps to shape the album, but the results are impressively non-affected, conjuring period flavor without strain and imbuing the whole with the spark of imagination that produces an enduringly engaging listen.

Obviously, some of this derives from the players involved, which includes Ginsberg on harmonium, piano, and finger cymbals. Along with keyboardist Dorough and trumpeter and percussionist Cherry, the credits offer drummer Elvin Jones, bassist Herman Wright, and French horn man Julius Watkins, all from the jazz scene of the era, but don’t mistake this as an ill-advised jazzin’ up of Blake’s writing.

If safely beyond the placidity of veneration, the proceedings do possess respectfulness and consistent good sense, and as the cuts unwind the direction productively lingers on the edges of psychedelia and drone, mainly through Dorough’s organ (“The Sick Rose”) and especially Ginsberg’s harmonium (side two’s opener “Introduction,” “Ah! Sun-Flower,” and “The Human Abstract”).

On the appropriately riotous “Laughing Song” and the immediately following “Holy Thursday,” Cherry (it’s gotta be him) gets the opportunity to blow some strong lines, and with repeated listens the various instrumental threads become more pronounced as the unusualness of the endeavor fades somewhat into the background. Omnivore has added two unreleased tracks (an alternate of “The Grey Monk” and “The Brothels of Paris”) on disc one, deepening the effect without distorting the original album’s shape.

The second disc unveils a return to Blake-song from ’71 San Francisco; retaining only guitarist Jon Sholle from the earlier recording, the presence of Russell on cello, Peter Hornbeck on viola and violin and the lack of any horns save for the flute of Jon Meyer gives the 11 cuts a decidedly deeper chamber tone; it’ll be no surprise if some prefer it.

Seven of the selections were unveiled on Rhino’s Holy Soul Jelly Roll: Poems and Songs 1949–1993 Ginsberg box set, but four are previously unreleased, and their retrieval further illuminates what the man was up to musically just prior to making the initial recordings found on First Blues. Three Tibetan mantras, also captured in San Fran in ’71 and strengthened by a legit Buddhist chorus, help to complete the picture as they round out this set.

The listenability and verve of these final tracks reinforce that Ginsberg was no shallow dabbler. Not every aspect of the guy’s vast oeuvre was gemlike, but he was always sincere and never stagnated, and that’s surely a major reason for his lasting relevance. Along with the writing, obviously. And as The Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience illustrates, the music as well.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

This entry was posted in The TVD Storefront. Bookmark the permalink. Trackbacks are closed, but you can post a comment.
  • SUPPORTING YOUR LOCAL INDIE SHOPS SINCE 2007


  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text
  • Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text Alternative Text