Here’s another side of Bob Dylan even serious Dylanites might have overlooked. Beat poet/activist Allen Ginsberg’s collaboration with Dylan provides a through the looking glass glimpse at the scruffy heart of protest, 1970’s Greenwich Village style.
Best known for his ’54 opus “Howl,” Ginsberg became a figurehead for freedom of speech when a California Superior Court judge ruled in ’57 that his poem was not obscene. The poet’s outspoken views on politics, sex and most everything else are reflected on this three-CD set in a style similar to R. Crumb’s Cheap Suit Serenaders, if a bit rougher melodically.
Recorded in three sessions in 1971, 1976, and 1981 and released in ’83, Dylan provided vocals, guitar, piano, and organ as well as co-arranging on the ’71 sessions only. Although he immediately agreed to work with Ginsberg, Dylan was less than pleased when Ginsberg called out the key of the first song in the session then proceeded to play in a different key on his harmonium. After a brief tutorial from Dylan, the session resumed and got laid down on tape.
“Going To San Diego” is not a travelogue, but a vow to go to the ’72 Republican National convention in San Diego where president Nixon was the nominee for a second term and “tell the politicians stop acting like a whore.” Ginsberg was the principal vocalist here as well as on most of the material, his ‘singing” more of an off kilter sing-song which was more or less appropriate for the rattly, jug band sound.
You can hear Dylan’s nasal snarl on the Samba-fueled “Vomit Express,” one of the most melodic of the initial sessions. Although “CIA Dope Calypso” has an upbeat Calypso beat, the lyrics are damming, accusing the CIA of being dope merchants “Pushing junk down down Thailand way” and “pushing junk in Bangkok today. ”
“Everybody Sing,” on the second disc from the ’76 sessions, is not your typical singalong. Although it sounds bluegrassy with the banjo accompaniment of Jon Sholle, (David Grisman Quartet, Bela Fleck, Vassar Clements,) the lyrics “Everybody’s just a little bit homosexual whether they like it or not,” ensure you probably won’t be hearing this one at MerleFest any time soon.
The music is much better on this later session, and even Ginsberg’s singing seems to have improved, or perhaps sweetened in the mix. “Dope Fiend” sounds like early Dead, but Ginsberg and company are bragging about using something stronger than LSD for their journeys. “I’m a dope fiend,/shoulda seen me use the main line,” Ginsberg proclaims, backed by David Mansfield’s (Dylan, T-bone Burnette, Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams) rockabilly guitar.
On the third disc, comprised of outtakes and previously unissued cuts, Ginsberg exercises his free speech privileges with “You’re My Dildo,” with with the aid of some falsetto from his longtime partner Peter Orlovsky.
“Slack Key Guitar” is an authentic ode to old Hawaii, but in a way nobody else now or then would have the nerve to put out. Over long time Ginsberg guitarist Steven Taylor’s gorgeous slack key, Ginsberg drones ominously about the “old Hawaii buried under steamboat museums, sugar hell” referring to the pillaging and exploitation of the islands by early Christian zealots and agriculture barons.
From the title, you might think Ginsberg’s “Meditation Rock” is gonna poke fun at his Beat past, but instead it‘s a step-by-step tutorial on how to get to om nirvana. Even if “You’re an old fraud like me or a llama who lives in eternity,” Ginsberg instructs would-be devotees to “follow your breath right out of your nose, follow your breath as far it goes,” concluding that “it’s never too late to tell the superpowers to stop and meditate.”
Even though it‘s raunchy in places, most of Ginsberg’s stuff is still entertaining, and considering the current political climate, makes more sense than anything that’s happening in that arena right now. Take a deep breath, sit up straight and howl along with the Beat.