I didn’t want to stay anymore, but I couldn’t go just yet. So I lingered for a few minutes by the elevator. The undertakers were about to wheel him out and I wanted to avoid seeing the body bag. When the shiny metal doors sprung open I stepped in, pressed the button for the lobby and left. I didn’t say goodbye to anyone. I had already said all of my farewells to him.
Allen Ginsberg, one of the best known and best loved American poets of the 20th Century, was now dead. He had passed away a little less than twenty-four hours before in a hospital bed placed by a window in his recently acquired loft on 14th Street in New York City’s East Village. I was there at his side along with ten of his closest friends, old lovers, relatives and associates. I had made a promise to him to be there at the moment of his passing. We talked about it years before; and I was grateful to be able to keep my vow.
He had been in a coma for about a day. After an all-night vigil, suddenly he arose. At around 2:30 A.M on April 5, 1997 Allen briefly opened his eyes, let out one last silent “AH” then peacefully slipped into eternity.
Allen Ginsberg and a few of his Beat cohorts were my friends—or in some cases, extreme acquaintances. They were all wild, wounded and at times wonderful souls, who I knew exclusively as old men. Some of Allen’s “best minds” of his generation were: Gregory Corso, Peter Orlovsky, Herbert Huncke and William S. Burroughs. Along with the ghost of Jack Kerouac, who didn’t seem to have the same resolve regarding self-preservation as his brothers-in-arms, they had been dubbed “beatniks” by the media in the late 1950s. The literary establishment grouped them together as the Beat Generation, the heirs to the Lost Generation of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. They inspired Bob Dylan; and it’s been suggested, that John Lennon named his band after them—or perhaps just changed the spelling of Beetles as a sly homage to both Buddy Holly and the Beats. The line that’s often been repeated is that the Beats birthed the Hippies. The Hippies, in turn, spawned the Punks, who then segued towards New Wave, No Wave, and eventually, though it gets kind of fuzzy, the Slackers of Generation X. I'm supposed to fit neatly into this last collective, yet I always felt more at home being a Transcendentalist or something. Maybe I missed my moment by about a hundred years.
Regardless, I saw the Beats as friends in the service of their Muse. As a hopeless Romantic, I'd like to think of them as a great rock band—only they didn't really master any instruments other than their voices. But what voices they had…and the things they said. As a teenager I would come to devour their books: Ginsberg’s Howl, Kerouac’s On The Road, Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, Corso’s The Happy Birthday Of Death and so many more. I saw these writers as belonging to the grand tradition of American literature that followed logically from the Transcendentalists of the Nineteenth Century. They were all part of a Renaissance in contemporary writing, a Century removed. In high school, when I had developed a somewhat peculiar obsession with Henry David Thoreau, I made visits to Walden Pond and read his journal entries every day for about a year. One particularly obnoxious kid in my honors English class incessantly referred to me as a hippie Thoreau-back.
To me the Beats were spiritual descendants of Whitman, Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson and Thoreau. They were literary brothers who banded together like outlaws or intelligent gangsters. As I read more of their work and more about them, something of their self-destructive reputation didn’t seem to quite fit. I was convinced that this supposed “bad boys club” had a prevailing survivalist instinct at heart. These best minds may have been “starving hysterical naked” but at least they had a loyal and compassionate friend in Allen, who offered a warm bed or a shoulder on which to cry. Something in the back of my mind told me that these guys would be more than a passing teenaged fascination for me. Even in high school I knew somehow that my path of self-exploration was destined to cross with at least one of these greats. Or I hoped it would anyway.
Within two years of discovering Ginsberg’s poems, I found myself living out my own beat adventures with the actual man in his Manhattan apartment—as part-time companion and de facto protégé. Although exciting and magical at times, I quickly learned how difficult it could be co-existing with this little old guy who cast such an enormous shadow. Life with Allen Ginsberg also included an ever-shifting cast of characters, who occupied his mind, his devotion and many times his living room. Along the way, I started to meet some of my own best minds: poets, painters, musicians, actors, directors and even a few pop stars. Some were famous. Some were infamous. A few didn’t endure for very long. In all honesty, I was a fortunate kid who kept copious notes. My scraps of paper, poems, essays, postcards, drawings, journals and photographs are all tucked away in boxes or stuffed into in a large steel file cabinet. These artifacts survived…and I'm still alive.
When I first met Allen Ginsberg I was a lonely eighteen year-old college student who longed to be a serious poet or, at the very least, a rock star. When he died I was a twenty-six-year-old poet and songwriter who had almost completely abandoned poetry and was generally fed up with the New York City downtown music scene. The years I knew Allen sometimes seem like a blink of an eye—a flash of consciousness: my misspent youth, my late teens, my twenty somethings. As a good kid from New Jersey, I had my head in the hazy shade of an urban cloud and my heart in an awkward but right place. The bits and pieces of poetry, lyrics and prose I’ve quoted here are like fragments of a diary from another century. In fact, they are from another century. The guy who wrote these things seems to me sometimes as remote as some teenage foot soldier scribbling letters home from an American Civil War battlefield.
Everything described, everything I’ve written is, to the best of my recollection, true. I haven’t changed anybody’s name. There is very little innocence to protect.
That night seems like it happened last night, unfolding in slow-motion black and white like the opening scene from some golden oldie you suddenly wake up to at four AM. The television still flickering, a montage of street lights, store front windows and serenades of taxis racing down a city street. Shiny wet asphalt all dark and drizzly in December. The soundtrack is faint. Just a few stray strums on an acoustic guitar and I’m there, back in that little club where it all began—the night I first met him, the poet Allen Ginsberg.
I sat a few seats away from a tiny stage, waiting to see him perform. The air felt heavy and historic. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I sensed it was important. I was scared—at what I might find and what might find me. As I waited, I got increasingly drunk on cheap Mexican beer. I was lonely, lovelorn and eighteen. The date was December 3, 1989. The club, the Continental Divide, was situated around the corner from St. Mark’s Place on the Bowery in New York City’s East Village.
I’d like to say that I was drawn to go there by fate, but in all honesty, we just took the New Jersey Turnpike. This girl Christine drove. She had to practically drag me out of my college dorm room. After that, there was really no ever going back again, even though I did, for three and a half more years in fact. I stayed in college and eventually graduated. But something in me changed forever that night.
It was my first semester at Rutgers University and until then it was relatively uneventful. Christine had become the closest thing I could find to a best friend. She looked like a younger prettier Gertrude Stein with short brown hair in a bob and dark sympathetic eyes. She fancied herself something of a writer. I cast myself as the Young Poet. Together we played out our self-created literary roles and wandered around campus feeling slightly removed from everybody else. We were artists…or so we figured. College was just a temporary holding pattern for us, a rest stop on a wild road trip to parts unknown. Christine was a little older than me and seemed worldlier. Therefore, when she burst into my room demanding we go to see Allen Ginsberg in the City, it was hard to say no. At that very moment I was reading The Fall of America. His book. Christine was of the belief that I should get my head out of the book and experience the real deal. To me it was much easier to be enraptured by a particular poet abstractly. The idea of meeting the actual Allen Ginsberg face to face was bewildering. But before I knew it we were off in her little hatchback barreling down the New Jersey Turnpike heading for New York City—and if I want to get all dramatic about it, my destiny.
I had begun carrying around a copy of Howl and Other Poems in my coat pocket, the mad little book that made Allen Ginsberg famous. I was just one in a long line of teenagers who’d discovered its magically hypnotic power. As we motored on through the orange and gray industrial mist I looked out the passenger window and thought about when I first discovered Allen Ginsberg.
In my junior year of high school I first stumbled upon his face. I was drawn to his image on the television screen while watching a PBS documentary on Walt Whitman. There was just something about the way he rhapsodized about the Good Gray Poet sitting cross-legged with a dramatic view of lower Manhattan behind him that turned me on. His voice sounded so tender and so wounded. And he looked a little like Whitman too. Below the graphic of his name there was only one indication of who he was: the singular word POET and his name. I was instantly intrigued. Allen Ginsberg, the poet, seemed vaguely familiar to me, but I didn’t know why. I hadn’t realized it then, but I had heard his voice before.
In the sixth grade some kid played the Clash album Combat Rock for me. One of the songs, “Ghetto Defendant”—a mystical reggae tinged dirge about the destruction of heroin addiction—caught my attention. The track has a sort of call-and-response element with Allen Ginsberg serving as the disembodied voice of God. Lead singer Joe Strummer evokes an urban “Prince of Gutter Poets” while Ginsberg expands the song’s general focus with specific historical references to the French poet punk of the late 19th Century, Jean-Arthur Rimbaud. The narrator’s vocals have an eerie presence. When the song begins to fade out, Ginsberg starts chanting ohm bodhisattva ohm, the ancient Sanskrit words from the Heart Sutra section of the Prajnaparamita, the Buddhist scripture of The Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom.
“Ghetto Defendant” must have embedded itself into my subconscious, but I didn’t immediately make that connection to the guy I saw on television. Regardless, I quickly got myself over to the public library to take out any and all of his books. As chance would have it, I grabbed Howl and Other Poems off the shelf and his most recent White Shroud. I checked the books out and headed across the library parking lot to sit, as I so often did, by the little man-made pond, surrounded by a family of geese. Periodically I’d look up to see if I was being watched. Reading these poems felt subversive, like it was all some secret act of revolt. Ginsberg’s verse induced excitement as well as subtle paranoia. I’d get a dull heaviness in the pit of my stomach, just like when I was a little kid and I’d sneak a peek at one of the novels my mother would read. I knew that I was looking at something that was meant for adults and I desperately wanted to know what all that was about. Her paperbacks had a lot of “throbbing members” and “full bosoms” but their language didn’t sustain my attention for very long. Now, a few years later, here was something that could induce a similar feeling yet completely captivate my mind. His poems seemed both dirty and inspired. The poem “Howl” at first glance seemed too overwhelming, like some ancient text that I was not yet worthy enough to read. I gravitated towards the newer of the two, White Shroud. The work there was more streamlined and naked. His eroticism had tenderness at heart. There was an overriding sense of sympathy for his object of love. He seemed to transcend what easily could have been creepy, with an inherent compassion for the confusion of adolescence. I found an erotic sense of paternal guidance.
As I sat in the grass beside the little man-made pond, a strange vision came to me. In a daydream like a déjà vu from the future, I saw myself climbing a dusty staircase in an old dilapidated tenement building, carrying a bunch of plastic shopping bags while a hunched over skinny legged old man shuffled on up a few steps ahead of me. I had an overwhelming sense of purpose, accompanied by a dull pain in the center of my chest, like a vague heartache.
Ginsberg’s poems awakened feelings in me that had lain dormant for years. I had developed a remarkable ability to just push aside any sensual longing that didn’t fit neatly into the suburban conventions of normalcy that I grew up under. It was an unwritten law of the land that I was expected to follow without question. I tried in earnest to live up to these expectations and to a certain degree I did. I had a girlfriend. I took her to the prom. I fooled around with her by the same pond at the library. But then, I also felt drawn to her younger brother—with a mixture of eroticism and familial affection I could never fulfill in real life.
All this was racing through my mind as Christine and I drove down the New Jersey Turnpike toward New York City. I felt a rush of childhood nostalgia. This trip always gave me the sensation of being in the middle of a Bruce Springsteen song. The best of the Boss’s songs are often about getting the hell out of New Jersey in one way or another. It seemed like I had spent my entire lifetime so far avoiding the inevitable. I too had to get out of Jersey.
That night seems to stretch out endlessly in shades of gray. We arrived at the Continental about an hour early. When Ginsberg finally took the stage I was drunk and heavy-hearted. There he was, the poet Allen Ginsberg, with his little squeezebox harmonium ready to sing his versions of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. A tiny roar and a sprinkle of handclaps made their way gently from the back of the club towards center stage. A lone pink light illuminated Ginsberg’s iconic head, sparkled in his eyeglasses and cascaded down to his gnomic face, lending a splash of color to his gray beard. He was dressed rather professorially in a gray tweed jacket, white oxford button-down and a navy blue and maroon striped silk tie that looked as if it had once belonged to a prep-school kid. He quietly surveyed the small crowd, placed his hands together as in devotional prayer and bowed toward us. It was a simple gesture, yet it had an enormous effect on the situation. With the slightest of movements, he was able to transform a potential spectacle into an almost religious experience. Ginsberg evoked a solemnity that transcended the old beatnik clichés.
For me, a literary kid, seeing Allen Ginsberg perform at a downtown New York City club was like an old Roman Catholic lady from the Bronx attending a mass given by the Pope at Yankee Stadium. Looking back, it seems kind of funny viewing that whole night as a pilgrimage, but that’s just what it became for me. I was hoping to attain a kind of spiritual guidance from the great poet, to receive some eternal message. I’m not exactly sure what I was looking for, but I was eager to find it. And I believed Allen Ginsberg was the man who had it.
After lighting an incense stick and tapping a meditation gong, the poet straightened his back and started to play his harmonium. With each phrase and accompanying squeeze, Ginsberg rose in excitement and appeared to pop out of his seat. It was like an awkward sort of levitation. His singing was off-key and flirted with a vaudevillian approach to melody, but something kept him from reverting to shtick. In fact, with all of his strong-willed enunciation, his singing became cathartic and otherworldly, as if some greater spirit had possessed him. William Blake’s lines seemed to be channeled through Ginsberg. Even though he was speaking in tongues, I could still grasp the twisted language. He was a mad monk, chanting away in an altered state of consciousness, intoxicated by the language of another century and yet able to breathe new life into it, to change the context for me. While I was drawn to this utter abandon, it also was bewildering. I never doubted if he was for real or questioned his conviction, but I wanted to know why he went to such a wild place. I wondered what secret passion he possessed. The sheer force of his presence took me aback. There was definitely some instant attraction to his person, as there had been to his poems. And along with my attraction came a sort of misty fear.
I know he read some poems that night too, but I can’t recall which ones. What impressed me most was his voice. It was deep, almost primordial and yet as it rose in pitch it could become adolescent and fragile. He could emote so much by just varying tones. And while his singing voice would often go off-key, his speaking voice was completely confident. He’d introduce songs and poems as a professor would a new topic for discussion.
I had been carrying Howl with me constantly, like it was a kind of bible and he the Messenger of a hip, new God, one who understood the confusion and pain of adolescence. He was the Elder Statesman of the Underground, a guru for generations of disenfranchised youth. Yet, some of my friends at school called him a “hack.” One even suggested that he was a has-been washed-up poser who got lucky with one poem and miles of media hype. I hadn’t realized until I got to college how the mere mention of his name could arouse such fiery opinions. When I was still in high school, I assumed Allen Ginsberg was somewhat of an obscure poet. I know I didn’t really discuss him with anybody besides my girlfriend. I used his verse to test her, reading the most far-out sex shit, to keep her guessing or maybe turn her on. She seemed pretty unimpressed with all the ass fucking, cock sucking and please mastering. As long as I kept her satisfied, I could recite anything my little heart desired.
After his performance, Allen commenced with the obligatory book signing. My trepidation was matched by an overwhelming need to meet him. I hovered in the back of the line, hoping I’d be the last to speak to him and therefore he’d feel freer to linger with me. My strategy eventually paid off. Meanwhile, while I was on line I tried to engage him somehow. I could sense him looking over at me. With all of my teenaged intensity, I would throw back a hard stare and then quickly look away. This cat and mouse flirtation went on for a while. He’d look at me and I look away, only to look back again when I knew I’d make the most impact.
I needed this kind of attention from a man like Allen Ginsberg, but I also somehow instinctively knew that I would never be able to fully dictate the terms. When I finally got to the stage to hand him my copy of Howl to sign I told him my name. Instantly, he began to engage in light and curious conversation. He asked and answered his own questions:
“So you’re a poet?”
I shrugged a yes. I must have offered at some point that I went to Rutgers. Immediately he mentioned Eliot Katz, a poet from New Brunswick, New Jersey. While still in high school, I frequented this little used bookshop just off the Rutgers campus, Old Yorke Books, run by a chain-smoking old German woman named Cecile who became an odd matronly mentor for me. It was at her bookshop that I had discovered Gregory Corso’s The Happy Birthday of Death. I was more fascinated by the book’s large foldout “Bomb” poem inside than what was written on the outside back cover about Corso’s role in the Beat Generation. Cecile gave me used books at ridiculously low prices, including a first edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems. In addition, she introduced me to the local ‘famous’ poet Eliot Katz, a sweet yet disheveled guy in his late twenties, with shaggy black hair that hung over his bespectacled Semitic face. I bought Eliot’s little self-published chapbook. I empathized with some of his poems—especially the ones addressed to dinosaurs and those engaged in a semi-spiritual dialogue with Walt Whitman.
I murmured hesitantly “yes” to each of Mr. Ginsberg’s inquiries. He wished me good luck and told me to say hello to Eliot Katz for him. He drew a little sunflower underneath his signature and handed me back my copy of Howl. I had some sense that there was a complex subtext operating beneath the pleasantries of our initial meeting. Although I couldn’t articulate it, even to myself, I sensed that the time was ripe for us. He was lonely and losing faith in his youthful love ideal; I was confused and needed to feel needed. I hoped to somehow see him again, to talk longer, to give him some of my poems, to make more than a fleeting connection. But there was no way for me to really predict that first night how our lives would ultimately become intertwined.
This initial contact took on a magical quality. On the surface though, things hadn’t really changed. Christine drove us back to New Jersey. I returned to my dorm room later that same night and wrote a little poem:
Eyes like Buddha’s
White inviting beard
casting a spell over me