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Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg

Biography

"I would prefer to read without . . . sound effects and without hip static." Poet laureate of the Beat Generation, Allen Ginsberg wrote some of American poetry's best-known lines. Most notably, in "Howl," he "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, angel-headed hipsters burning for he ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night . . ." His singular vision helped birth not only a 1950s counterculture phenomenon, but also the subsequent convulsions of hippie and punk; his influence on rock can be measured by his associations with Bob Dylan (who appeared on an album of Ginsberg songs, First Blues; employed Ginsberg for the film of "Subterranean Homesick Blues"; and commissioned him for liner notes on Desire) and the Clash (Combat Rock's "Ghetto Defendant" turns on the poet's stentorian contribution).

Born (1926) and raised in New Jersey, Ginsberg took inspiration from Walt Whitman and saw himself as a descendant of Whitman's American individualism. ("I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel," he vowed in another early classic, "America.") A trickster who incorporated poetry, blues and Buddhism in his performances, Ginsberg helped invent the '60s concept of "happenings." As an outgrowth of this persona, Ginsberg recorded frequently, offering not only the belated release of First Blues in 1983, but also an album of William Blake poems set to music (Songs of Innocence and Experience) and a stack of spoken word discs, including Allen Ginsberg Reads Kaddish: A 20th Century American Ecstatic Narrative Poem for Atlantic and The Lion for Real on Great Jones. (On the latter, producer Hal Willner matched Ginsberg with such jazz musicians as Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot. Willner later compiled the ultimate Ginsberg aural document, Rhino's four-CD Holy Soul Jelly Roll.)

Ginsberg's last years featured more musical collaborations. He teamed with composer Philip Glass for the album Hydrogen Jukebox and a theatrical production of "Wichita Vortex Sutra." (A 1994 recording of the latter was issued on Artemis in late 2004.) He and Glass also collaborated with Paul McCartney on the anti-war "Dance of the Skeletons." Although he died in 1997, Ginsberg's commitment, playfulness and deep seriousness live on.
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