Ginsberg on Life’s ‘Skeletons’
Allen Ginsberg, who died Saturday in New York at age 70, continued to influence pop culture through the last few months of his life. Last fall, Mercury Records released “The Ballad of the Skeletons,” a collaboration among Ginsberg, Philip Glass and Paul McCartney. The song was produced by Lenny Kaye, longtime guitarist for Patti Smith, and an accompanying video--which was frequently played on MTV’s “Buzz Bin"--was directed by Gus Van Sant (“To Die For,” “My Own Private Idaho”). As the project was released, Ginsberg discussed it with Harvey R. Kubernik, a Los Angeles-based record producer, poet and longtime friend of Ginsberg.
Harvey Kubernik: What was the genesis and development of “The Ballad of the Skeletons”?
Allen Ginsberg: I started it because [of] all that inflated bull about the family values, the “contract with America,” Newt Gingrich and all the loudmouth stuff on talk radio, and Rush Limbaugh and all those other guys. It seemed obnoxious and stupid and kind of sub-contradictory, so I figured I’d write a poem to knock it out of the ring.
HK: Were there any inherent music or melodic rhythms in the poem when it was first written?
AG: Yes. I had a riff, “Dum, dum, dum. The New York Times.” I first thought of singing it, but then I thought, better to speak it with that riff behind it.
It got printed in the Nation with illustrations by Eric Drooker, and it came out in a book I did, “Illuminated Poems.” The next stage was a benefit somewhere in a club, a reading I did with Amiri Baraka in New York, and I ran into guitarist Marc Ribot there. I had worked with him before on an album, “The Lion for Real.” I asked Marc if he would accompany me, and I sang him the riff. He added a little instrumental in between. But he made it dramatic.
[And there was a] benefit I did for Tibet House at Carnegie Hall that Philip Glass organized. I called David Mansfield, who I’ve recorded with before, with John Hammond, and he’s a friend of mine. So, he was going to accompany me at Carnegie Hall, and Lenny Kaye was there with Patti Smith, and he asked Lenny if he could play bass, and he did a knockout job with David. And it was a big hit of the evening, ‘cause it was the one rocker.
Then I went to Princeton to give a reading by myself with my harmonium. When I got picked up by the limousine, [there] was Gus Van Sant. When we got out [at] the hotel, he pulled out a guitar and I said, “Do you play guitar?” And he replied, “I have a band in Portland.” So I said, “I don’t have an accompanist tonight. Can you accompany me?” So he said yeah. We rehearsed it and played it.
Then I had a gig at Albert Hall in London. A reading. I had been talking quite a bit to [Paul] McCartney, visiting him and bringing him poetry and haiku, and looking at Linda McCartney’s photographs and giving him some photos I’d taken of them. So, McCartney liked it and filmed me doing “Skeletons” in a little 8-millimeter home thing. And then I had this reading at Albert Hall, and I asked McCartney if he could recommend a young guitarist who was a quick study. So he gave me a few names, but he said, “If you’re not fixed up with a guitarist, why don’t you try me? I love the poem.”
So I said, “It’s a date.”
We went to Paul’s house and spent an afternoon rehearsing. He came to one sound check, and we did a little rehearsal there, again. And then he went up to his box with his family. It was a benefit for literary things. There were 15 other poets. We didn’t tell anybody that McCartney was going to play. And we developed that riff really nicely. In fact, Linda made a little tape of our rehearsal. So, then, we went onstage and knocked it out. There’s a photo of us on the CD. It was very lively, and he was into it.
HK: Didn’t you see the Beatles play, and there’s some poem you wrote about the event?
AG: Yes! I saw them in Portland, Maine. I was up there with Gary Snyder, probably 1965, 1966. I was with a couple of little children. I had gotten tickets and was sitting way out in the bleachers, and John Lennon came out and said, “We understand that Allen Ginsberg is in the audience. So three cheers. So now we’ll have our show.” He saluted me from the stage, which amazed me and made me feel very proud with all these young kids at my side. Then I knew Lennon and Yoko Ono lived in New York and visited on and off. I was involved in some political things with them occasionally.
HK: What did Paul McCartney add to your recording of “Skeletons”?
AG: He reacts to the words in an intelligent way. You can hear it on the tape. Like if I say on the recording, “What’s cooking,” all of a sudden he brings in the maracas to get that really funny excitement. When I say, “Blow Nancy blow,” he blows on the Hammond organ. He added a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of interpretation.
And sometimes, when I made a flub, he covered it. He left his lead sheet in his guitar case, so we had to share my lead sheet [at Albert Hall], which was fun.
Then I did the poem at Carnegie Hall for the Tibet House--that followed the Albert Hall show. And then, Danny Goldberg [president of Mercury Records], who was in the audience at Carnegie Hall, called up my office and said, “Do you want to record it?”
I got together Marc Ribot, who I had played it with first, Lenny [Kaye] and David Mansfield. And Lenny was the session-maker.
We made a basic track and McCartney had said, “If you record it, I’d like to work on it. It would be fun.”
So we did a 24-hour overnight mail to him, and he got it and listened to it after a few days. He spent a day on it. He put on maracas, drums--which was unexpected, which we needed--and organ, Hammond organ, trying to sound like Al Kooper. And guitar, which was very strong. Then the day it arrived, Philip Glass was in town and he volunteered because he thought it was my hit, so he wanted to do something with it. He added on piano, very much in his style, and fitting perfectly onto the rest of the tape.
Then Hal Willner wound up mixing it and brought out McCartney’s role and the structure that McCartney had given to it, ‘cause he gave it a very nice, dramatic structure.
I had planned that after “blow Nancy blow” you would have four consecutive choruses of instrumentals. McCartney and I had planned the breaks the first time, and varied it a little. I’m understanding the recording process more. I’m basically the poet. I have ideas, but I still can’t make a song with a bridge. [He laughs.]
HK: You also did a rewritten version of “Amazing Grace” on “Skeletons’ ” flip side?
AG: About three years ago, Ed Sanders asked all of his friends to write new verses of “Amazing Grace” for one evening of “Amazing Grace” in St. Mark’s [Poetry Project, in New York City]. A lot of people from the Naropa Institute wrote. Anne Waldman, Tuli Kupferberg. And I heard of a Zen master who was working with the homeless, who had a sitting meditation on the Bowery with a lot of his students, including Anne Waldman. And they reported in mid-winter that it was terrible finding cardboard boxes to sleep in. The worst thing was that people would pass them by and not acknowledge their existence. The sense of alienation and helplessness, and being ignored. No eye contact. People were scared of them. And that’s what turned me on, that was the inspiration: Keep them in human contact. The verses I wrote seem to be full of heart, to the point, compassion.
HK: And now something you began as a poem, “Skeletons,” has evolved into a recording collaborative. Do you consider the projected expanded audience?
AG: Yeah, but when you write a poem like that, you run through in your mind, who is going to listen to it? President Clinton is going to hear this. I’ll send it to [George] Stephanopoulos, who I know. Dole will probably hear of it, or someone around Dole will hear it. Rush Limbaugh will probably hear it because it’s me and it’s nasty to him. Young college kids will hear it. I wonder what [Bob] Dylan will think. I wonder what McCartney will think.
So, all those people are present in my mind, inevitably, ‘cause I know them. My father. My mother. My brother.
What is Robert Creeley gonna think? What is Gary Snyder going to think? What is People magazine gonna think? What is God gonna think? What’s Buddha gonna think? But, literally, what will my Tibetan lama teacher think?
Is this too aggressive, or is this helpful? Things like that. I was fed up with the inflation of the right wing, “contract with America” double-cross hypocrisy, basically. And it didn’t seem to me that anybody was responding. The Nation asked me for the poem. I waited about a half a year and completed it.
HK: Is there a reason you used “skeleton” as a metaphor throughout the poem?
AG: I’m Buddhist, and you look at these issues through the grave, and also setting them up as skeleton puppets, setting up the military people, the advertising people, the network people, the talk-show junkies, Big Brother. Setting them up as skeletons, as puppets. Setting them up as transparent phantoms, and looking at the issues out of the grave. The idea of putting [in] all the present factions and seeing them from the grave as walking skeletons.