H e a r t S o n s & H e a r t D a u g h t e r s of A l l e n G i n s b e r g
N a p a l m H e a l t h S p a : R e p o r t 2 0 1 4 : A r c h i v e s E d i t i o n
As a child, I could not go to sleep until I heard WLS Chicago disk jockey Art Roberts’ 10:00 p.m. rundown of the top three most requested songs of the day on my white leather case transistor radio. I lived for those nightly recordings. The first lines of any song that really intrigued me were from a performance of “I’m Down” by The Beatles, recorded August 14, 1965, for the Ed Sullivan Show:
You tell lies thinking I can’t see.
You can’t cry cause you’re laughing at me.
I was as taken by the inquiry of mind as I was by the cheerful, frenetic music, especially John Lennon’s playing a Vox Continental Organ with his elbow. The juxtaposition had a profound impact on me as an artist. I was twelve years old. The music I heard made me decide to record. It wasn’t just something to admire. Growing up, I thought of myself as a pianist. I listened to Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk, Otis Spann, H-Bomb Ferguson, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Piano Red––any jazz or blues piano virtuoso I could find on record. Music saved me more than once. I didn’t realize I was a poet until I was in my late twenties. Not until I studied with Anne Waldman in 1976 did I even know there was poetry written and being written that was worthy of theft.
I got my sense of tone from Keith Richards. I loved his use of distortion since that Gibson Maestro fuzzbox on “Satisfaction.” I’m interested in vocal distortion. It was on my mind during my first self-produced recording, Unspoken Words. Producing that record from start to finish, I learned I could do things as a poet in the studio I simply couldn’t do elsewhere. I was taking part in things greater than myself. Writing, even when it’s accomplished around others, is always out of time. Reading poetry gives me the feeling that I’m a phantasmagoria. Being produced by somebody else, even somebody gifted, is an excellent education in why art should not be done by committee.
I completed six original recording projects and a seventh compilation double CD set from 1998 to 2008. Rock Garden Studios, where I recorded, was in the basement of an unassuming suburban home in Boulder, Colorado. Dave Moss’ home studio was a creative and spiritual refuge for me, immediately. It was always surreal going there to work. The house cast a spell. Sequestered, as I was during that period, the only way I could find my personal power was by going straight into the audio vortex. My sound is based on not knowing what’s happening. Within the context of any arrangement, I have to hear the mood of the poem and then move that feeling out front. This aural emanation is my sound.
My sound is driven by different forces than I hear in others. The driving force behind my sound is legibility. Most poets and lyricists seem confined to some established style. It might be a Beat sound. It might be a Puertoricano sound. It might be a feminist sound. It might be Black Elk dancing his Making Relatives Vision to a Native American sound. It might conjure the road to freedom and recognition of slavery as a part of the history lesson of each child and be an African-American sound. It might elicit the struggle of ancient empires and contemporary nations and be a Middle Eastern-American sound. Whatever is encountered is brought to the path. This is the meaning of my sound.
Recording is my practice. For me, there’s always a lot of experimentation going on. You have to know what isn’t working and what is. I go with the initial craziness and sit with all the confusion that comes up. I conduct my body without hope or fear of completion and I long to make an offering. Recording, as a practice, is like placing yourself in the mouth of a demon and having the demon vanish like a rainbow. The sophisticated technological precision of sound design doesn’t mean much to me. People hear things on systems no mastering can fully anticipate. I was resigned early to this. You have to take things beyond the dials and displays. Even though I’m engaged in the fabrication of appearances, the speaker and the spoken are both empty.
Surrender is a key part of recording as is no-surrender. You can fight the way things are and hold up a mirror of your duality or you can pursue the illusion of whatever arises without losing your nondual nature. This perception began to really take a hold of me around the making of my sixth record, homage, after my mother Lois died. The sessions took place in August 2006, a month before her death. In two days we had all the songs tracked, including “When Skeletons Make Love.” Lois had led an exemplary life. The song “Green Dress, White Shoes” is a literal image. For several hours, I sat with my mother alone in the chapel, casket open, frozen corpse laid out in formal wear. She’d come such a long long way. Green dress, white shoes were my final image of her in the flesh.
The July before recording began on homage, I was living outside the town of Crestone, CO. It felt like everything was falling apart. The house was overrun with mice. I would spend my days with my daughter painting birdhouses, hunting for raspberries, visiting the UFO observatory and alligator farm on Highway 17, stupas built along western foothills Sangre de Cristo Range, Great Sand Dunes National Monument. Rewritten versions of “Higher Power,” “Down Here,” and “Mark Of Deeds” were done with my mother’s imminent death weighing heavily upon me. The lyrics to “Slips Away” were written while listening to Willie Nelson’s Teatro. I wrote the last line to “Susannah” watching the Robert Rodriguez film Once Upon a Time in Mexico. “Lois” captures a lot of the feeling I associate with my mother. She had a tenacious love of life.
A recording situation presents endless opportunities for deviation from preconception. One time, the lead guitar player arrived empty handed. He had no money for strings. That’s how I feel in the studio. Although I have an intrinsic sense of metrics, I do not impose it. Anyway, I’m operating in a different universe. When I am tracking, there’s a commitment underway between the poem and the ensemble. Things just start happening, all on their own. Since I don’t know what the music is going to be, I don’t even bother considering which poem or how a stanza might be formulated. It could be a sentence and that one sentence is all that was needed to be said. I don’t like to intrude on creative freedom and vice versa.
I’m a vocalist of merit. I hear sounds in my head. They possess me. There are feelings that linger in a song or a poem that go back thousands of years. I’ve spent my life measuring the endurance of feeling in a line. Sometimes it’s a whispered conversation I cannot possibly hear and words come to me. I’m also having my own vision of the space that’s being made. When everything is turned on, something else takes over. Nobody brings the poems I do and nobody has my speech. When I record, I make what’s in my head transparent. To do that, I use my voice as an instrument, subject to effects. I want to make my voice correspond to sacred outlook. I see myself in a role of clarifying what everybody already knows.
I had no intentionality toward recording. I didn’t seek to show anyone anything on Unspoken Words and every recording I made thereafter. I trust my own jewel-eyed inner critic. It didn’t matter if I was working in open field jazz forms such as “Meditation At A Stoplight In The Rain” or closed lyric forms like “Odessa (The Mime)/My Funny Valentine” or “Rewrote The Book.” I set out a number of distinct musical genres I considered after the Beats. I wasn’t putting words on tombstones. What I was doing was investigating musical and poetic vectors specific to distinguishable moments of preserved affection. For me, it’s music from my early teenage years in Cleveland, OH, like the American Strangeness captured by The Band.
There was very little convention in the music created by The Band. When I first put The Brown Album on my record player in 1969, I thought that these people seemed to have no contact with the rest of the world. They had unconventional ideas about everything at a time when most U.S. pop music was engaged in a renaissance of extreme mental ideas and elaborate auditory fantasy. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” had a tremendous impact on me. The song sounded like it’d been made by people locked up in an insane asylum. The lyrics went back a century to the War Between the States. The song embodied the Confederacy with compassion. Robbie Robertson was a seer. Underneath it all, one had a feeling that what was being spoken of was American Karma.
I had two apprenticeships that directly led to me recording on my own. One of my closest friends was the musician, songwriter and sound designer, Mark Rennick, a man of great verbal largesse and artistic wisdom. The most beautiful thing about our friendship is we truly believe in what we are doing and each other. The worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion never interfered in our search for authentic creative results true to history and true to our vision. Years back, Mark sent me a song he’d written called “The Great Alone” which knocked me out. As The Abolitionists, we recorded one album, The Road, and kicked it off with “The Great Alone.” The making of The Road at Mark’s Prairie Sun Recordings in Sonoma County, CA, was one of the most exhilarating periods in my life. The chemistry and stars were all aligned.
The choice of the name “The Abolitionists” for our collective was not arbitrary. Being from central Illinois, the Lincoln presidency was a living subject for Mark. People still talk about the Lincoln-Douglass Debates in his hometown. When Rennick writes, plays and especially when he sings, he does so with total conviction. We named ourselves The Abolitionists because we honor the anti-slavery contribution The Abolitionist Movement made. We acted in their memory. Anybody who heard The Road was blown away. The sessions were marathon, the energies meticulous, the production heroic. I think Mark saw my early poem “Prairie Falcon” as a strand of abolitionist tradition because he arranged it with orchestral powers to include on the record.
I also worked with Allen Ginsberg as a teaching assistant in 1980 at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. We had been talking about Sapphics. When Allen mentioned that he thought Bob Dylan must have some useful example of hendecasyllabics, an eleven-syllable line, I quoted the opening of “The Lonesome Death of Poor Hattie Carroll”––“Wil/liam/Zan/
Zin/ger/killed/poor/Hat/tie/Car/roll.” Later, Ginsberg said to me, “Ok, as my TA, now you have direct access to me. If you could do anything, anything you’d ever dreamed of doing, what would it be?” And I replied something about I wanted to get into his musical Vault and hear anything he’d done but hadn’t release. So, Allen gave me a cassette of his songs with Dylan to study and turned me on to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music.
The summer of 1996 I invited Ginsberg to record a new version of “Lay Down Yr Mountain” and he said yes. Allen came in with Paul McCartney’s rough mixes of “Ballad of the Skeletons” just arrived from England. In failing health and less than a year away from death, he nevertheless quickly established voice and harmonium levels and called to roll tape. At the end of the session, I wanted to know more about the origins of the song. He explained that it’d been written at Plymouth Rock while on the legendary Rolling Thunder Review tour. It was written to Dylan. Allen said Dylan could go up to the mountaintop, but he couldn’t just stay there. He had to find a way back down. He said the song was about simultaneously proclaiming and renouncing ego. “Lay Down Yr Mountain” was the first piece of music I ever produced. It was a real introduction to what I would do on my own.
I listen to a lot of poetry. I watch a lot too. My body is sensitive to how poetry decommissions conventional media algorithms of talk or doesn’t. I’m interested in what somebody can fit into a line that actually relates to people alive right now and how a song might haunt the living. Today I was looking at Andy Clausen performing in black and white video “Neal Cassady was a man,” front of cabin, sovereign in a way, like John Wesley Hardin. I’m a student of speech acts. I study meaning and I’m also a student of what is not meant. For me, recording brings all the dynamics of verbal disturbance face to face with loving-kindness, bodhicitta, the arousal of compassion. There’s always a non-linguistic context for anything having to do with mind.
I contemplate things said in ordinary uninhibited vernacular conversation. One of the most important lessons about documenting voice is seeing how fast you can get lost in false delivery––some overly precious or amped up craziness, some stubborn fixation. I’ve spent many hours confronting disingenuousness––my own as well as others. If not for loss, people just go on believing the fictions of life. This became more central to me when I made my second record, Antenna. The centerpiece of Antenna is a long forty-minute piece, “Treasures For Heaven.” It was in the recording of “Treasures” that I was able to give expression to the sense that I did not wish to participate in a mass culture that is only a fallacious parade.
On my third record, Emergency Juke Joint, I gave more latitude to what was going on musically around me––blues in “Skyology,” fusion in “The Dharma Club,” rock & roll in “Where The Road Disappears,” girl band jam in “Dragon Tracks,” funk in “Fancy Ray.” I enjoyed creating sound scapes in which a listener might forget they were listening to poetry altogether. “Ghost Dance,” “Allz Well” and “Begin Anew” form a trilogy of works related to September 11, 2001. The musical production of “Ghost Dance” radiates a feeling of human disbursement. “Allz Well” drills into the aftermath. “Begin Anew” reveals a character seeking a way to rebuild all the shattered lives.
Trashtalking Country, my fourth album, begins with “Roadrunner.” The song opens with an observation about men missing urinals around the world. I wrote “Wiretaps” in the tradition of Walt Whitman’s “Drum-Taps.” While waiting for a plane out of O’Hare, “Beat Up Limo” just came to me all at once. “Q Street” was a walking poem written one summer day going around Georgetown. Solid gold lines like “Why don’t all Gods admire the good free works of all other Gods?” run through “If Every God.” “Notes To A Young P-Borg” is actually a section from a long poem about a futuristic poet-borg who comes to the conclusion that humans would be wise to meditate on the emptiness of mind as it is. “Because,” a poem for my daughter, was not slated to have happened at all.
I recorded for reasons that have nothing to do with personal validation. I didn’t exist any more or less than I did for having done it. I didn’t do it to sell clothes or merchandise. I wasn’t interested in necessarily making “songs” and I really had little intention to make a songbook of music and poetry. I wasn’t trying to replicate anything. I wasn’t trying to cover Gene Autry or imitate Patti Smith or fold myself into spoken-word genres established by Ken Nordine or Amiri Baraka or make tribute to Billy Holliday or Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show. What’s been done to art in the name of music in my lifetime is nothing short of repugnant. Most people listening to music today have no idea who or what they are listening to. The maze is deep and wide. Nothing right stays wrong forever.
Creating an auditory entrainment is similar to the disappearance of water during boiling. Things under observation, including recording, change consciousness. The underlying purpose of such benevolent trance induction is, as the Prophecy of the Maitreya Buddha states, “No longer will they regard anything as their own, they will have no possession, no gold or silver, no home, no relatives! But they will lead the holy life.” What I did repeatedly was arrive at sessions without any idea of what was going to happen. I was curious how that approach might influence doubt related to becoming. Each track was like a room painted in a particular color and I just had to sit in this or that colored room until it was time to leave it. The time I spent living in each room was the time it took to complete a given track. It could be minutes, hours, days, weeks or years.
Nothing was extraordinary about the process. There was leakage, headphone bleed, instruments that could not be isolated, failed machinery, things out of tune. That was acceptable. For me, recording served as a method of holding back from entering some discarnate state of joy or ecstasy in order to stay around and help others. My recorded words neither evaporate nor do they dominate. There’s just a human voice at work, resonating applications more about the spirituality of crises, the episodes of spiritual emergency, than your run-of-the-mill hit parade junk. Putting words to music is more about transcending notions and concepts of self. This is why I titled my double CD compilation Impermanence.
Disc 1 of Impermanence begins with “Padre Trail,” a poem about going to meet my father after thirty years. This piece was originally on the Abolitionist recording The Road. Rennick’s music on “Trail” is strikingly original, not only on bass, but also on keyboard. I can still see him to this day channeling the feeling of the poem throughout the track. Steve Kimock’s lead guitar works itself way into the heart, conveying an emotion that the vocals only allude to. The piece is spooky. It was produced the way the voice was. The vocal is incomparable in its absence of melodrama. After writing “Padre Trail,” I knew what finality was. It is a certain ugliness and liberation. The ugliness is in the pain. The liberation is also in the pain.
“Where The Road Disappears” grabs you and never lets up. From the first line, “I understand that I was only invited to be human,” there’s a desolate crossroads of words and music. Getting there took patience. Every detail of production is a microcosm of dealing with moving on to a whole new set of circumstances. Eventually, the poem became something I could speak for. At times, I’m telling a story that takes you behind the clouds. My marriage had ended. We had a one-year old infant. The voice sounds distracted. The line “Rolling blackouts of sunflowers tattooed to alchemy” refers to the immutable nature of true love. Interplays of changing self-interests jack people up as much as they jack them around. Looking down the road at darkness coming in, you know why these things are happening.
As “Ghost Dance” begins, I am copping my best Al Kooper chops for David Young’s traditional version of the Lakota Ghost Dance Chant. I saw September 11, 2001 unfold differently than I saw reported. I saw “The dead, circling, above ambulance drivers.” I saw the living “...looking up, seeing nothing. In disbelief, looking up again.” I had seen ghosts dancing above the World Trade Center plume. Around the same time, all the “axis of evil” talk that emerged out of Washington really bothered me. I wrote “Trashtalking Country” about that. I was ashamed to be using the same language as the crackpots who thought that one up. How can people of faith believe political ravings against people from different faith orientations anyway? They violate the theistic Golden Rule in doing so.
I re-recorded the vocals for “Rewrote The Book” ten years after first cutting the track. I wanted another shot at it. There are so many undiffused situations, so many chances to be the cradle of a new dawn. A poem can influence the coincidences that make up cause and effect. The song was included to give a glimpse of my earlier work. “Dragon Tracks” featured the Denver punk band Ezmeralda. I wrote the lyrics over a bottle of absinthe with Rene Fancher, the lead guitarist. Thunder signifies the dragon. It has the power of complete communication. By listening, one may awaken from delusion. That’s what I was thinking about the title. The music has hypnotic or psychedelic atmospherics running throughout it. It’s like you’ve entered into an ayahuasca ceremony.
“Susannah” is about absolution. The poem was written for my daughter’s mother. The song is a little funk number that just bolted off the laboratory table like Frankenstein. The line “Strips of film hang down in mourning” says it all. Reconciliation transcends the meeting and parting of inseparable companions. The lyrics point out the intoxicating aspect of voices and how we are attracted to the people that have them. Then comes “Lois.” I placed my mother in the context of teachers and poets with whom I’d studied: “I had my teachers, over the years, exceptional, profound teachers. She was all of them rolled into one and then a little something extra.” I wanted to describe how someone dies and comes all the way inside of you as an internal refuge.
“Because” was written for my daughter, Isabella. She could be the reincarnation of Genghis Khan for all I knew. I had never felt happiness until she came into my life. The track appeared like the moon coming out from behind the clouds. Michael Matheny, who played guitar and wrote the music, had dropped by to hear what was going on. A major Rocky Mountain snow storm blocked the scheduled session player’s arrival. The ballad “Slips Away” points to feelings of going onward with only what is. There are songs that mark turning points in a person’s life and this one was mine. I couldn’t escape the transitory nature of things, even as I found myself supported by “spirits without decay.” The music has a dignified and gentle kindness to it.
Disc 2 contains two longer selections: “When Skeletons Make Love” and “Treasures For Heaven.” “Skeletons” was conceived when Susannah came home one night during a month long retreat and on the back steps of the house we were renting began to tell me about a vision she’d had while meditating. The image of the skeletons making love carried great virtue, unborn truth. With nothing to abandon, these corpses hold neither acceptance nor rejection. Even in death they are without restriction. It occurred to me after recording “Skeletons” that the piece had echoes of The Doors, a group I saw more than any other during my teenage years in Cleveland. Years later, I was asked to introduce the poet Jack Hirschman at a Naropa Summer Writing Program performance. I reminded guests that Hirschman was Jim Morrison’s poetry teacher at UCLA.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, the title “Treasures For Heaven” came before the poem. The title was a line Allen Ginsberg used to describe how a person, an artist, might keep her best work, her treasures, for after she’s gone as a kind of surprise gift from the Other Side. Profoundly and mysteriously, in the hands of the greatest of artists, such works do seem to be from heaven. The song begins acapella. Bob Schlesinger composed the structure from a brief sketch he’d devised, but none of the musicians had any idea where “Treasures” was going to go or how we would get there. When I hear the piece today I am especially fond of the unrehearsed jazz quintet and the chain of events that led to its cinematic permutations. There are dangerous bridges and passages. There is thought-occurrence and naked insight.
With recording, I never know if I’m going to be on the same wavelength with what I’ve been thrust into. All I know is what comes out of that will not be contrived. The secret is not to worry about what falls on your head when after a bad night or a few you start fretting about the money or how the process is looking like pure folly. My voice is strung for pretty heavy gauge utterance. I don’t go for volume because I don’t need it. A microphone doesn’t read volume. I don’t need three trillion watts to cut through horns or the character of guitars or drums. I’ve always been comfortable with having to go deeper and deeper. If there is no effort––no pain of strings digging into your fingers––then you cannot even get close to The Unprovable. My recordings are soaked in contemplation.
My poems are like omens in a dream free from any habitual patterns. They are not simply jammed together disparate images or the rantings of some kind of vernacular postmodernist. The poems that make it onto recordings are the ones that can enter spoken word mediums at will. For me, it’s chance insight. It’s all Crystal Skull moments. I want to make the poem heard in its natural state. The natural state of the poem being heard is nothing I cling to. The natural state of the poem being heard is neither dream or real. The natural state of the poem being heard is a form of recognition that all desire, all friends and companions are illusion. The natural state of the poem being heard, in my work, is not of any particular time or space.
If there’s any poet whose work I would put to music, it’d be Whitman, the first great American National Affairs correspondent. I’ve heard Kurt Elling’s take on “Song of Myself” and that’s not what I would do at all. If there was ever a famous band I wanted to been in, it was Buffalo Springfield. I remember how knocked out I was by “Broken Arrow.” I liked how the song was put together with all these disparate, unusual sounds and historical references. The song taught me what recording could be. I felt a deep kinship with the “empty quivered” Indian on the banks. The song was such a novel way to approach peace. Neil Young employed a distinctive sense of materials. I loved all the opportunities for variation that were taken. Each was like a guru to the other.
Recording is all about diffusion. Things can always be different, even the more they appear to be the same. The apparition of a line may sound right or wrong at any given moment. In either case, any attempt to perceive the “I” recedes into affirmations of babble. In making audio recordings nonstop for a decade, I reached a point where I needed to allow spontaneity to take over even if it meant facing heightened questions about the validity of what was going on. I had to live with what I’d manifested and without what I manifested. It’s commonplace today for an artist to record without criticism or praise. In the emptiness of identity, I would lose or find my balance. At times I felt like the act of recording proved there was no existence at all. Other times, that the essence of it is beyond interpretation or elaboration.
17 April 2010
[Originally published in NHS 2010, http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs10/index.html.]