Perfect Sound Forever


Material Wealth
Intro, book excerpt and interview by Pat Thomas

I first encountered Allen Ginsberg's writings when I was teenager in Western New York State in the early 1980's. At age 20, I exchanged a few letters with him - followed by interviewing him in-person in Rochester in 1984. Because I was a music fan (including my love of his own music recordings), I focused my questions on rock rather than poetry. Years later, I began organizing reissues of his performances on CD, adding previously unheard bonus tracks.

Those projects include 2016's 3-CD boxset The Last Word On First Blues which gathers Allen's 1971 to 1984 rock, blues and folk singing/songwriting and the 2017 double-CD The Complete Songs Of Innocence And Experience by William Blake, tuned by Allen Ginsberg - his 1970 album of William Blake poems set to music and sung by Allen with additional recordings of the era including Buddhist mantras.

Just now sees the publication of Material Wealth: Mining the Personal Archive of Allen Ginsberg published by Powerhouse Books (distributed by Simon & Schuster) - of which we're running an excerpt from here on Perfect Sound Forever.

The book is a visual treasure-trove of previously unpublished historical paperwork, vintage graphics, photographs, and ephemera that documents Ginsberg's life experiences as a breakaway poet, expansive spirit, curious intellectual traveler, and a relentless enthusiast of provocative yet spiritual pursuits of writing, art, music, and culture. Peter Hale of the Ginsberg Estate was my co-pilot for this journey.

More than just an exploration of Ginsberg's personal ephemera, it includes Allen's interactions with Bob Dylan, Jerry Rubin and the Yippies, Paul McCartney, Patti Smith, Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Arthur Russell, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, and even Henry Kissinger! Poet and close friend of Allen; Anne Waldman wrote the introduction to Material Wealth.

And you should also seek out, the compact disc soundtrack to the book: Material Wealth: Allen's voice in poems and songs 1956-1996 (Heyday Again Records). It features musical accompaniment from: Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Elvin Jones, Lenny Kaye, Philip Glass, David Mansfield, David Amram, and Arthur Russell.


By autumn 1971, Dylan had come under heat from the radical left because he hadn't recorded any political songs in years. They wanted something along the lines of "The Death of Emmett Till" rather than "Like a Rolling Stone."

Bob had recently returned to the Village after sitting out the tail end of the Sixties in Woodstock. He was now wandering the streets of Manhattan, interacting with political activists like Jerry Rubin, who was encouraging Bob to unite with the Yippies and John & Yoko for an anti-Nixon musical road show. Dylan ultimately decided to collaborate with Allen Ginsberg on some provocative recordings.

Born in 1930 and still going strong, multi-instrumentalist/composer David Amram is known in Beat Generation circles for several collaborations with Jack Kerouac, including scoring the 1959 film Pull My Daisy, narrated by Jack and starring Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso.

Amram recalled to me in 2016 that Dylan called him up in 1971 and suggested that they hit a reading by Allen and Corso at NYU. Allen pulled David aside and said, "I've wanted for 10 years to write and record with Bob, can you make it happen?" When Amram asked Dylan, the answer was an ambivalent "Yeah, why not?"

Just days later, Amram and Dylan pick up some fried clams from Nathan's and go to Allen's apartment. The minute they enter, Allen thrusts a guitar in Bob's hand. "Key of G!" Allen says, and proceeds to play a "B" on his harmonium. Allen immediately hits 'RECORD' on a home tape recorder causing Bob to yell out, "Turn that &#%!@?! off!" Steven Taylor remembers Allen telling him, "Dylan showed me some chords on the harmonium and that started the whole thing rolling."

Over the next two hours, the three men pulled it together, which led to a serious recording session, but not before a very shaky performance on a Manhattan PBS Channel 13 television show titled Freetime, where they were joined by Happy Traum, Arthur Russell, Jon Sholle and poet Philip Whalen.

On November 17, 1971, with Ginsberg as the primary vocalist, backed by Dylan on guitar (along with musicians such as David Amram, Happy Traum and poet Anne Waldman on backing vocals), they recorded Allen's topical song "Going to San Diego," with lyrics inspired by the announcement that the 1972 Republican Convention would be held in Southern California and calling for Nixon to "announce the end of the war." Earlier, on November 4th, Dylan had recorded the protest song "George Jackson," paying tribute to the Black political prisoner who'd been murdered by San Quentin Prison guards in August. Between the 9th and 17th, there were a handful of other songs recorded by Ginsberg accompanied by an old fashioned band of merry men.

In 1983, Ginsberg recalled that he and Dylan had worked quickly. Allen provided many on-the-spot improvisational lyrics, and although Bob was occasionally skeptical, he was equally adept at the process of first thought-best thought arrangements, telling Allen for "Vomit Express": "You sing verses, and we'll chorus, then after five verses Amram'll solo two verses, does that make sense?" Bob even participated in the making of an upbeat improv Gay Liberation song. Allen recalled: "I thought I heard Dylan talking to mustached folk-blues teacher Happy Traum about Jimmy Newsboy whilst they strummed and waited for the engineer [This would be Jack Douglas, who would later record Patti Smith, Cheap Trick, and John Lennon], so I asked in song, 'Who's that Jimmy Berman?' and Dylan said, 'Tape rolling?', engineer said, 'Yes, all along,' so what you hear titled 'Jimmy Berman (Gay Lib Rag)' is the one and only first draft."

After the November 1971 sessions were completed (there was some talk of getting them released by John Lennon on the Beatles' Apple Records imprint - he especially dug the anti-Nixon song "Going to San Diego"), Allen visited John Hammond at his office at Columbia Records with tapes in hand. Hammond was intrigued and after the mythological Rolling Thunder tour (led by Dylan and including Ginsberg, along with Joan Baez, Ronee Blakley, Mick Ronson and others) wound down in 1976, Hammond took Ginsberg along with Rolling Thunder multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield into the studio. Mansfield and Ginsberg had begun rehearsing these songs on the Rolling Thunder tour bus.

The 1976 sessions also included maverick Jon Sholle - who can play just about any instrument - and who had already recorded with Allen in 1969 for the MGM album Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake, tuned by Allen Ginsberg. Also along was a young guitarist named Steven Taylor, who would go on to perform with Allen all over the world for the next two decades, only ending with Ginsberg's passing in April 1997. David Amram told me in 2016 "Steven was a patient and wonderful teacher to Allen, helping him learn to be a better musician over the course of twenty years."


The first and only time I met Allen in person was in 1984 in Rochester, New York. I grabbed a quick interview with him by jumping up on stage after a poetry-music performance of his had just ended. He was happy to accommodate me, and I was elated to engage with him. Thankfully, a photographer captured it as well. I don't generally ask for photos with celebs, but this one happened without me knowing. I published this in my little local zine I called The Notebook and titled it: "Allen Ginsberg Speaks on The Clash, King Crimson, Kerouac, The Grateful Dead."

Q: How did you get together with The Clash?

Allen: I went to hear The Clash at Bonds when they had that seventeen-night run, and the guy who used to be sound man at CBGB's [Charlie Martin] was a friend of mine and was their sound man and got me in and invited me backstage and then Joe Strummer said, "Ah, Ginsberg, when are you going to run for President?" I said, "Never. I don't wanna go to diamond hell [vajra hell]." And then he said, "You got a poem to read onstage? We had somebody talking lectures about Vietnam and about El Salvador, people threw eggs at him, tomatoes." So, I said, "No, but I got a song with three chords, you wanna try it here in the dressing room, and then we can do it?" And he said, "Sure."

Q: And that song was?

AG: "Capitol Air", that I sung tonight. We went out and did it, an eleven-stanza version and we knocked that out right and the sound man turned my voice above the instruments, so it was the first thing that was heard that night with real words and so the crowd dug it, and so when they were at Electric Lady studios a year later, doing their Combat Rock album, they invited me to come down, and then when I came in Strummer gave me the lyric to "Ghetto Defendant" and said, "You're the greatest poet in America. Can you improve this?" I said, "Gregory Corso is the greatest, but I can try!"

Q: Did you improvise on Combat Rock?

AG: Yeah, they asked me to get on the mike and sing basso profundo (they wanted the voice of God), and then I started singing Sanskrit, and Mick Jones said, "More Sanskrit! More Sanskrit!" Then I ran into them again at Red Rocks [in Colorado] and sang with them again at Pier 84 [in New York] and sang with them one night there. We're supposed to make a single together, sooner or later, if they stick together [Editorial note - this never took place].

Q: What do you think of their political views?

AG: They're fine. They're alert and active and they're interested. And that's why they were interested in that song.

Q: People have been accusing them of selling out.

AG: Well, what does that mean? It doesn't mean anything. It's like an empty accusation. The wider spread they can get their message, the better, I think.

Q: How does the new wave/punk movement relate to Kerouac and the Beats?

AG: We were a continuation of the old Bohemian movement - the twenties and all that. I think the hippies and then punk and new wave and all that is just a continuation of the old Bohemian movement. Every generation is a little bit wrong, but it's mostly right in trying to break out and start over again and start at the ground and build something new and just not get smothered by the last generation's solidification of a fresh idea. I think it's great, that's why I was happy to work with The Clash.

Q: Yeah. Are you familiar with... have you heard the King Crimson album, Beat?

AG: Yeah, I did. I didn't think too much of the words.

Q: "Neal and Jack and Me."

AG: Yeah, I didn't think the words were very inspired. I think The Clash's words were. Strummer's a better poet. I thought it was nice King Crimson cared, but on the other hand... who was it?

Q: Adrian Belew actually wrote the lyrics.

AG: I didn't think the lyrics were that accurate or inspired. Did you?

Q: I did. I think he's genuinely into Kerouac.

AG: Yeah, but I don't think he got the magical rhetoric. He didn't get the Nazi milk of Kerouac. He didn't get the outrageous purple hippopotamus or something.

Q: I was really disappointed by Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band - "Kerouac." Now to me, that was really uninspired.

AG: I know him - Willie Alexander - from Gloucester. Yeah, it's a littler group. They didn't have a big deal to do. I don't know who did... Well, Ramblin' Jack Elliott has a song or two, and so does David Amram.

Q: What do you think of the song "Cassady" by Bob Weir?

AG: It's alright, they knew him. Actually, I never heard that until about a year ago. I went to a Grateful Dead concert and heard it. I hadn't been to any of their concerts since '67, 'til 1982 or so.

Q: What do you think about the Grateful Dead, the "Deadhead" movement?

AG: They obviously have a solid communal basis... [pause] ...They've lasted so long, like a good marriage. That takes stability and sensibility to do. The bands that I listen to at the moment: X, Dead Kennedys, I heard Black Flag.

Q: Are you familiar with The Dream Syndicate?

AG: No, I haven't heard of them. A little band called Start in Lawrence, Kansas, I sang with. I recorded with a band called Still Life and with The Gluons.

Q: And you worked with The Black Holes in Milwaukee.

AG: I worked with The Black Holes and The CD's in Toronto. I worked with The Job in San Francisco, wherever I can I work with somebody. I did meet this guy tonight [his accompanist on acoustic guitar at his Rochester performance], he was great.

Q: He was excellent.

Also see our previous article on Allen Ginsberg's music

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