Saturday, July 3, 2010
My Allen Ginsberg — Part Three of Four
I’ve often wondered why we think of some people as charismatic, how much of it rests in the eye of the beholder, or if the person so designated is broadcasting on some secret wavelength that the rest of us are not supposed to know anything about. I’m sure it’s not just their visibility—there was something about Bob Dylan’s voice in the early 60’s that jerked you right to attention, though he certainly wasn’t much to look at. The 1965 Pennebaker film was about as far as the image-makers ever got with him. Other charismatic people I’ve known – Suzuki-roshi at SF Zen Center or Stephen Gaskin, for example— could look at you sideways and you knew somehow they owned you.
AG in his prime lubricated everyone’s attention; even when he was silent and reflective, which he often was. Sitting alone in a corner, people gathered round him as if by instinct. I remember that a ceramics artist had a shop on Grant Avenue and displayed a pot in the window for years with a sign that said, “This Pot has been touched by Allen Ginsberg, Price $10,000,” or some such. One supposed the potter would never sell it at any price.
After the Wales Visitation reading, I saw Allen three more times, all in the late 60's or early 70’s. One evening in 1969 I entered the Capri, a favorite watering hole for young gentlemen in North Beach, and there was himself on a corner barstool playing with an electric yoyo that lights up in the dark. I bravely went up and introduced myself.
He was in a rather pensive mood, so it wasn’t much of a conversation. He told me how he got started by mimeographing his own poems, and we talked a little about Jack Kerouac. He also told me that his poetry royalties—he was at the time the biggest selling poet in the U.S. since John Greenleaf Whittier—weren’t enough to pay the $80 monthly rent on his slum apartment on the Lower East Side.
A year or two later there was a warehouse on Grove Street near Franklin that functioned as a gay community center. They had constructed a little theater upstairs, and Hibiscus and the Angels of Light were performing something preposterously complicated and very under-rehearsed. Allen appeared as a totally strange-looking “yiddische Mama,” playing his Hindu harmonium and performing self-composed songs to words of Wm Blake. One of these had the refrain – “and all the hills e-cho-éd”—which he chanted over and over for a good half-hour or more, to the point of mental stultification.
At that period in San Francisco’s cultural history, public life had become so absolutely silly that hardly anyone was surprised by much of anything. I took refuge instead in the traditional biological verities and went up on the roof to have sex with somebody. It was rumored that Allen was having an affair with Hibiscus at the time, but I thought personally it was rather unlikely—although I certainly wouldn’t have put it past Hibiscus.
Another time I saw AG at a reading he gave at Everett Jr High School (on Church Street near Mission High). It was during that peculiar period when hippies were emigrating from the cities and moving to the country. AG had bought a farm at Cherry Valley in Upper New York State and was growing organic beans or something, and running around in overalls. The encounter with him at Everett JHS I duly recorded in the following poem, which I’m sure is self-explanatory:
MEETING ALLEN GINSBERG IN THE BOYS' ROOM
AT EVERETT JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL
"Hello," he said, peering intently into
my face. "What happened to your leg,
Allen?" "I slipped on the ice in New York
and broke it." "Oh dear," I said,
as he hobbled on his crutch into
a stall, undid his farmer's overalls,
revealing a perfectly round tummy
half-enveloped by lemon-colored
Jockey briefs, like a soccer ball
resting in a vanilla pudding.
"It will be all right soon," he said,
lowering himself onto the crapper.
"Good," I said, and returned
to the crowded auditorium.
I showed my poem to Richard Baker-roshi at SF Zen Center, who said that he liked it. B-r said later he had shown it to Allen, who termed it “libelous.”
Photo: "Allen at the Cherry Valley Farm, upstate New York, Summer 1969," by Elsa Dorfman, from the excellent website The Allen Ginsberg Project.