I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
Dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix...
It was with these immortal words, more or less fifty years ago to this day, that the poet Allen Ginsberg first burst onto the American literary scene. The event was the ‘Six Poets at the Six’, a poetry reading held at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. The poem was ‘Howl’, a harrowing epitaph for a disaffected youth and intellectual underclass savaged by the repression and paranoia of Cold War America.
‘Howl’, alongside Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ and William Burroughs’ ‘The Naked Lunch’, is now considered one of the most important works of the ‘Beat Generation’.
For the uninitiated, or those who haven’t read ‘On the Road’ (Shame on you!), the ‘Beats’ started out as a loose collective of writers and friends who met in 1940’s Manhattan. Seeking a ‘New Vision’ for American literature, they found their inspiration amidst the hustlers and junkies of New York’s Times Square, integrating the lifestyle of these restless outsiders with their own desire to look for a deeper truth and spirituality amidst the bland consumerism of the time.
Ginsberg was unique amongst the Beats, however, in that he transcended the movement and managed to remain a permanent fixture of American counter-culture throughout his life, influencing and drawing inspiration from the ‘Hippies’, the Anti-War Movement, Eastern philosophy and the Gay Rights Movement. So, long after Kerouac lay dead on some bar room floor, a sad bloated alcoholic, destroyed by guilt and self-loathing, Ginsberg remained lodged in the American subconscious, shouting loudest about inequality wherever he found it.
It seems fitting that fifty years on from the reading at the Six, we have the DVD release of Allen Ginsberg: Live in London, his last ever UK performance filmed on October 19th 1995 at the Heaven night-club, just eighteen months before his death.
This fifty-three minute film shot on a single Hi-8 Camera, sees the sixty-nine year old Ginsberg reading poetry and performing songs, with material ranging from Tibetan chanting, to a poem about sphincters (called ‘Sphincter’ funnily enough).
What stands out from watching the performance is the incredible warmth and sense of humanity that radiates through his work. There is also a simplicity to his turn of phrase that illuminates his subject matter, stripping away unnecessary metaphorical baggage or the pretentious wordiness that can often overburden poetry. A great example of this is the series of one-line, seventeen syllable poems that he reads which are one of the highlights of the performance:
"I can still see Neil’s twenty-three year old corpse when I come in my hand."
"Put on my tie in a taxi short of breath, rushing to meditate."
And our favourite:
"The midget albino entered the hairy limousine to pee pee" (??????????????).
The common theme of the work on offer here is unsurprisingly that of growing old and death, though Ginsberg’s lightness of touch ensures that it never seems maudlin or self-pitying, a quality often overlooked when people talk about his life’s work.
For all Ginsberg’s status as a protestor and campaigner, it has to be remembered that he didn’t take himself too seriously. Humour played a massive part in his work, particularly satire, best illustrated here by ‘Put Down Your Cigarette Rag’; an hilarious anti-smoking song that wouldn’t sound out of place on an episode of ‘South Park’.
Though the film does offer that rare opportunity to see a genius in action, albeit a genius who’d seen better days, it’s not without its faults.
The sound quality lets things down and Ginsberg’s voice can seem lost at times amidst the heckling morons sharing their herbal jazz cigarettes. What’s more, if there’s a prize for ‘Most Annoying Heckler Ever’ it should definitely go to the pissed up imbecile who insisted on embarrassing himself throughout this performance.
At any other event he’d have been dragged out by his ears and left face down on the pavement outside, but because the audience is made up of pacifists and hippies, he’s just left to get on with spoiling it for everyone else. That’s without mentioning the person who has a coughing fit while the great man is speaking.
‘Pass the joint’? More like ‘Pass the bloody Benlyn’!
In summary, this is a worthy document of an important event, although one for fans and completists only. For anyone else we’d recommend that you get yourselves a copy of ‘Howl’, then find a busy doctor's surgery somewhere in Central London. That way you can settle down to read one of the greatest poems of the 20th Century, while enjoying your own live coughing accompaniment absolutely free.