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The Plot to Turn on the World: The Leary/Ginsberg Acid Conspiracy

Over at his essential NeuroTribes blog, Steve Silberman—who knew poet Allen Ginsberg well for twenty years, and was his teaching assistant at the Naropa Institute in Colorado—interviews author Peter Conners about his new book White Hand Society: The Psychedelic Partnership of Timothy Leary & Allen Ginsberg, recently published by City Lights Books.

In November of 1966, the poet Allen Ginsberg made a modest proposal to a room full of Unitarian ministers in Boston. “Everybody who hears my voice try the chemical LSD at least once,” he intoned. “Then I prophecy we will all have seen some ray of glory or vastness beyond our conditioned social selves, beyond our government, beyond America even, that will unite us into a peaceful community.”

The poet had been experimenting with drugs since the 1940s as a way of achieving what his Beat Generation friends named the “New Vision,” methodically keeping lists of the ones he tried — morphine with William Burroughs, marijuana with fellow be-bop fans in jazz clubs, and eventually the psychedelic vine called ayahuasca with a curandero in Peru.

For Ginsberg, drugs were not merely an indulgence or form of intoxication; they were tools for investigating the nature of mind, to be employed in tandem with writing, an approach he called “the old yoga of poesy.” In 1959, he volunteered to become an experimental subject at Stanford University, where two psychologists who were secretly working for the CIA to develop mind-control drugs gave him LSD; listening to recordings of Wagner and Gertrude Stein in the lab, he decided that acid was “a very safe drug,” and decided that even his suburban poet father Louis might like to try it.

By the time he addressed the Unitarian ministers in Boston, Ginsberg had become convinced that psychedelics held promise as agents of transformative mystical experience that were available to anyone, particularly when combined with music and other art forms. In place of stiff, hollow religious observances in churches and synagogues, the poet proposed “naked bacchantes” in national parks, along with sacramental orgies at rock concerts, to call forth a new, locally-grown American spirituality that could unify a generation of Adamic longhairs and earth mothers alienated by war and turned off by the pious hypocrisy of their elders.

Ginsberg’s potent ally in this campaign was a psychology professor at Harvard named Timothy Leary, who would eventually become the most prominent public advocate for mass consumption of LSD, coining a meme that became the ubiquitous rallying cry of the nascent 20th-century religious movement as it proliferated on t-shirts, black-light posters, and neon buttons from the Day-Glo Haight-Ashbury to swinging London: Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.

Among those who took up the cause was the Beatles. John Lennon turned Leary’s woo-tastic mashups of The Tibetan Book of the Dead into one of the most profoundly strange, terrifying, and exhilarating tracks ever recorded: “Tomorrow Never Knows” on Revolver, which swooped in on a heart-stopping Ringo stutter-beat chased by clouds of infernal firebirds courtesy of backwards guitar and a tape loop of Paul McCartney laughing.

As the public faces of the psychedelic revolution, Ginsberg and Leary made a dynamic duo. The charming, boyish, Irish Harvard professor and the ecstatic, boldly gay, Hebraically-bearded Jersey bard became the de facto gurus of the movement they’d helped create — father figures for a generation of lysergic pilgrims who temporarily jettisoned their own fathers in their quest for renewable revelation.

By the close of the ’60s — which ominous stormclouds on the horizon in the form of violent debacles like Altamont, a Haight-Ashbury that had been taken over by speed freaks and the Mob, and Charles Manson’s crew of acid-addled zombie assassins — Ginsberg was already looking for more grounding and lasting forms of enlightenment, particularly in the form of Buddhist meditation.

The poet retained his counterculture cred until his death of liver cancer in 1997, but Leary didn’t fare as well. Subjected to obsessive persecution by government spooks like Watergate plumber G. Gordon Liddy, Leary launched a series of psychedelic communes that collapsed under the weight of their own ego-trips. Years of arrests, jail terms, spectacular escapes from prison aided by the Black Panthers, disturbing betrayals, and bizarre self-reinventions followed the brief season when the psych labs of Harvard seemed to give new birth to a new breed of American Transcendentalism that was as democratic as a test tube.

Read the interview at NeuroTribes.

Below, an early interview with Leary, before he started wearing the guru drag…

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats

I was a teenager browsing the shelves of Better Books in Edinburgh where amongst the imported copies of Grove plays—Pinter, Beckett, Behan, Arden, Delaney, and the City Lights’ volumes of Ginsberg and Corso—there was a small collection of Kerouac books. I picked up The Subterraneans and started reading:

Once I was young and had so much orientation and could talk with nervous intelligence about everything and with clarity and without as much literary preambling as this; in other words this is the story of an unselfconfident man, at the same time of an egomaniac, naturally, facetious won’t do - just start at the beginning and let the truth seep out, that’s what I’ll do -. It began on a warm summer night…

I was filled with “nervous intelligence” yet still “unselfconfident” I was hooked. And this is why Kerouac appeals best to the young whose lives are starting out, giddy with living, filled with a growing self-belief yet still filled with agononizing self-doubt—in need of someone to say, “it’s all right.” And here was Kerouac saying just that.

John Antonelli’s 1984 film Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats, tells Kerouac’s story through dramatized sequences, archive footage and interviews with the regular cast of players - William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. At times, it skates across, and avoids those cracks that’d reveal troubled depths, but it is still a reminder as to how and why Kerouac very much matters.


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
When poets were rock stars: 1965’s literary Woodstock ‘Wholly Communion’

British film maker Peter Whitehead chronicled London’s sixties counterculture scene in Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London and the seminal rock and roll of the decade in videos and documentaries for The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. What Whitehead did for pop culture, he did for poetry in the combustible Wholly Communion.

On 11 June 1965, the Royal Albert Hall played host to a slew of American and European beat poets for an extraordinary impromptu event - the International Poetry Incarnation - that arguably marked the birth of London’s gestating counterculture. Cast in the role of historian, as a man-on-the-scene, and massively elevating his limited resources, Whitehead constructed the extraordinary Wholly Communion from the unfolding circus. As Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Harry Fainlight, Alexander Trocchi and others took to the stage, Whitehead confidently wandered with his borrowed camera, creating a participatory and anarchic film that is as much a landmark as the event itself, and launched his career.

When poets were rock stars. Enjoy Wholly Communion in all of its delightful chaos.

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
Lee Harris - Foot Soldier for Counter Culture

Lee Harris is a playwright, poet, publisher and “foot soldier” of the UK’s counter culture. Born in Johannesburg in 1936, Harris was one of the few whites on the African National Congress, opposing segregation during the time of Apartheid, and was involved with the Congress of the People rally in Soweto in 1955.

Harris arrived in the UK in 1956, to study drama, after college, he had a small part in Orson Welles’ film Chimes at Midnight and later worked in theater. 

A major turning point for Harris came on the 11 June 1965, when he first heard Allen Ginsberg at the decade defining International Poetry Reading at the Royal Albert Hall in London.

We turned up in our thousands to hear some of the best poets of the Beat Generation. When Allen Ginsberg stood up to read his poems you could feel an electric charge in the air. There he was, like an Old Testament prophet, with his long dark hair and bushy beard, his voice reverberating with emotional intensity. Never before in that hallowed hall had such outrageous and colorful language been heard…..Hearing Allen that first time was a revelatory and illuminating experience.

That event and his presence in London that summer, helped kindle the spark that set the underground movement alight in the mid-sixties.

Harris began to write plays with Buzz Buzz and then wrote the critically acclaimed Love Play, which was performed at the Arts Lab in 1967 - a highly important venue for alternative arts, founded by Jim Haynes, where John Lennon and Yoko Ono exhibited and David Bowie performed. It was during this time Harris became acquainted with William Burroughs, Frank Zappa, Ken Kesey and toured with The Fugs.

Harris wrote for the International Times and in 1972 established the first “head shop” Alchemy in London on the Portobello Road, where he sold “paraphenalia” brought back from India and counter culture books.

“I’d started off in the West End before as an anarchist trader selling psychedelic posters in the late sixties you see because I did not know how to make a living. I ended up in the Portobello Road, making chokers, selling chillums, first because that was the in thing with beads.

I had traded at many festivals so it was natural for me and I started to be a sort of medicine head, with Tiger Balm, Herbs and I believed in cannabis as the ‘healing herb’.

It was here that Harris was famously prosecuted for selling cigarette papers. The shop was a focus for alternative culture, and it was here Harris began publishing underground ‘zines, including Jim Haynes, infamous drug-smuggler Howard Marks, and artist, journalist and activist Caroline Coon.

Part two of ‘Life and Works of Lee Harris’ plus bonus Lee Harris and the Beat Hotel, after the jump…

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William Burroughs home movie: Serenaded by Patti Smith, enjoying reefer and lounging with Ginsberg

William Burroughs at home in Lawrence, Kansas smoking dope and shooting the shit with his friends Allen Ginsberg and Steve Buscemi as Patti Smith serenades them in the background. Filmed by Wayne Probst in August of 1996.

It seems El Hombre Invisible didn’t learn his lesson regarding lethal weapons. He flashes a knife around with careless abandon. But no one gets hurt.

In part two of the video Burroughs shows off his blackjack while Patti sings “Southern Cross” and Ginsberg eats dinner. Not much happening here, but goddamn it’s William Burroughs in his lair which is more than enough for me. 

Part two after the jump…

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Allen Ginsberg doing Tai Chi in his kitchen
10:21 am


Allen Ginsberg
Tai Chi

Dangerous Minds pal Steve Silberman says, “A goofy and touching video of the late poet Allen Ginsberg, author of “Howl” and “Kaddish,” doing t’ai chi in his pajamas in his small kitchen on the Lower East Side. The voiceover is a poem he wrote for Bataan Faigao (, t’ai chi instructor at Naropa University.”
(via BB Submitterator)

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
Face to Face with Allen Ginsberg

This is a fine interview with Allen Ginsberg taken from the BBC series Face to Face, in which Ginsberg opens up about his family, loves, identity, drugs and even sings.

The series, Face to Face originally started in 1959, and was hosted by John Freeman, whose skill and forthright questioning cut through the usual mindless chatter of such interview shows. Freeman, a former editor of the New Statesman was often considered brusque and rude, but his style of questioning fitted the form of the program, which was more akin to an interview between psychiatrist and patient. The original series included, now legendary, interviews with Martin Luther King, Tony Hancock, Professor Carl Jung, Evelyn Waugh and Gilbert Harding.

In 1989, the BBC revived the series, this time with the excellent Jeremy Isaacs as questioner, who interviewed Allen Ginsberg for this program, first broadcast on 9th January 1995.

Watching this now, makes me wonder what has happened to poetry? Where are our revolutionary poets? Where are our poets who speak out, demonstrate, make the front page, and tell it like it is? And why are our bookstores cluttered with the greeting card verse of 100 Great Love Poems, 101 Even Greater Love Poems, and Honest to God, These Are the Greatest Fucking Love Poems, You’ll Ever Fucking Read. O, for a Ginsebrg now.


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
‘Chappaqua’: Conrad Rooks takes a trip with William Buroughs & Allen Ginsberg

What do rich people do when they have too much money? Get pissed. So, it was for Conrad Rooks, who by the age of 15 was a full-blown alcoholic. Money may give you many things, but apparently not self-control or a conscience.

Rooks’ pappy owned Avon. Ding Dong, no need to worry about quitting the booze or getting a job, instead Rooks started a new hobby - drugs. He jumped from booze to dope, to coke, to LSD, to peyote, to heroin, then decided to get clean. Off to Switzerland, where he was given a new treatment - the sleep cure.

This is what happened to Rooks, and his story formed the basis for a 1966 movie Chappaqua, which Rooks produced, directed, wrote, and starred in. It is a mess of a film, though it picked up a Silver Medal at the Venice Film Festival, and became a “legendary” underground hit due to its association with drugs and the Beat Generation. And this is where its importance lies today: in the appearance of William S. Burroughs as Opium Jones, the brief cameos from Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovksy, and the beautiful, quite stunning cinematography by Beat film-maker, Robert Frank, who made Pull My Daisy and went on to make Cocksucker Blues for The Rolling Stones. Add to this performances by Ravi Shankar, Ornette Coleman, The Fugs, and a score by Philip Glass, there is enough going on to keep interest, and the finger only occasionally on Fast Forward.

The whole of ‘Chappaqua’ with Rooks, Burroughs and Ginsberg, after the jump…

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Jaw-dropping woodcut paintings from Lisa Brawn

These are just stunning! Stunning! I certainly wouldn’t mind owning one of those fantastic Zappas. From the artist Lisa Brawn:

image I have been experimenting with figurative woodcuts for almost twenty years since being introduced to the medium by printmakers at the Alberta College of Art and Design. Recently, I have been wrestling with a new challenge: five truckloads of salvaged century-old rough Douglas fir beams from the restoration of the Alberta Block in Calgary and from the dismantling of grain elevators. This wood is very interesting in its history and also in that it is oddly shaped. Unlike traditional woodcut material such as cherry or walnut, the material is ornery. There are holes and knots and gouges and rusty nails sticking out the sides.

To find suitably rustic and rugged subjects, I have been referencing popular culture personas and archetypes from 1920s silent film cowboys to 1970s tough guys. I have also been through the Glenbow Museum archives for horse rustlers, bootleggers, informants, and loiterers in turn-of-the-century RCMP mug shots for my Quién es más macho series. Cowgirl trick riders and cowboy yodelers in their spectacular ensembles from the 1940s led to my Honky-Tonkin, Honey, Baby series. Inspired by a recent trip to Coney Island, I have been exploring vintage circus culture and am currently working on a series of sideshow portraits including Zip the Pinhead and JoJo the Dog-faced Boy. There is also an ongoing series of iconic gender archetypes, antiheroes and divas, which includes such portraits as Sophia Loren, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Jackie Onassis, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood.

Please visit Lisa Brawn’s website to view hundreds of amazing woodcuts.

(via Everlasting Blort)

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder: The Houseboat Sessions

In February 1967, just a few weeks after the first Human Be-In, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Alan Watts discussed how to “drop out” and radically change society in an hour-an-half interview recorded on Watts’ houseboat. In amongst the naive hippie shit, there are parts of this that are as relevant today as they were back then.


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Allen Ginsberg (and Harry Smith) slept here (and now you can, too)

I lived in Manhattan’s East Village from 1984 to 1991 and the sight of the great poet Allen Ginsberg around the neighborhood was a pretty common one, although it was still cool to see him each and every time, I must admit. Now the apartment where Ginsberg lived until the mid-90s has been renovated and come on the rental market. There is a link to the listing today—$1700 for the one-bedroom—on Gothamist:

Allen Ginsberg spent 21 years of his life (1975 to 1996) living in a fourth floor walk-up in the East Village, and now—following the death of his partner Peter Orlovsky, it’s on the rental market. Earlier this month, The Allen Ginsberg Project stopped by as it was undergoing renovations, and there’s little left of the poetic madman’s presence. For example, the bedroom that his pal Harry Everett Smith once resided in is now a bathroom (read an interview Ginsberg did with Paola Igliori in 1995, where the two discussed his one-time roommate)

Above: Harry Smith’s in the guest room, now a bathroom.
Above: Here’s how Wired’s Steve Silberman remembers the apartment:
Left to right: Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Louis Cartwright, Herbert Huncke, William Burroughs, Allen & Peter’s new apartment, 437 East 12th Street, New York City, December 1975. Photographer unknown. (Via)

Above: Allen Ginsberg on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line TV program in 1968.

There’s also a link on Gothamist to some photos of the converted YMCA on the Bowery where William Burroughs used to live, famously dubbed “The Bunker.” John Giorno, who took over the place when Burroughs left, kept his bedroom exactly as it was.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Independence: Allen Ginsberg’s “America” Interpreted

My college friend Alex Marshall surfaced this excellent montage (done apparently by a filmmaker named Azure Pepe Valencia) of Ginsberg’s classic 1956 poem to the country, the ideal, the situation. Hurrah for independence!

Posted by Ron Nachmann | Leave a comment
Beat Poet Peter Orlovsky dies (1933-2010)
02:33 pm


Allen Ginsberg
Peter Orlovsky
Steve Silberman

Photo of Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg by Richard Avedon.
I was saddened today, to hear of Beat poet Peter Orlovsky’s death. The longtime companion of Allen Ginsberg passed away on Sunday at the age of 77 from lung cancer. Wired’s Steve Silberman wrote a sweet, beautiful elegy for Peter that was published at Shambhala Sun titled Impossible Happiness, here’s an excerpt:

The night I met Allen Ginsberg in 1976, his lifelong companion Peter Orlovsky raised a handkerchief to Allen’s nose a fraction of a second before he sneezed. We were in a basement club in Greenwich Village commemorating the death of Neal Cassady, one of Allen’s great loves, and the muse of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road. The poet had a bad cold, and it was his second reading of the night.

Anticipating Allen’s need for a handkerchief was just one way Peter manifested what photographer Elsa Dorfman called his “unearthly sensitivity and caring” in an email to a friend after Peter died last Sunday. Kids, animals, and growing things adored Peter. Just before writing “Howl,” Allen pledged his love to him, recognizing in him a character out of a Russian novel: the saintly shepherd, a holy innocent. In Foster’s cafeteria in San Francisco in 1955, the two men grasped hands and vowed never to go to heaven unless the other could get in — a true marriage of souls. “At that instant we looked into each other’s eyes,” Allen wrote, “and there was a kind of celestial cold fire that crept over us and blazed up and illuminated the entire cafeteria and made it an eternal place.”

At Allen’s urging, Peter also became a poet. In 1978, City Lights published a collection of his work with the memorable title Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs. (The vegetables were those Peter grew with tireless enthusiasm on the couple’s organic farm in Cherry Valley, New York, bought as a respite from the grit and druggy temptations of their neighborhood on the Lower East Side.) While no one would have compared Peter’s creative output to Allen’s, his poems – sometimes only a single line – could be remarkably pure and surprising, even luminous.

Impossible Happiness: An Elegy for Peter Orlovsky by Steve Silberman (Shambhala Sun)

Anne Waldman on Peter Orlovsky’s death (Patti

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Beardless Allen Ginsberg
09:40 pm


Allen Ginsberg

Newly discovered photo of Allen Ginsberg (sans beard), Cherry Valley NY, 1980. By Cliff Fyman.

(via Steve Silberman)

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
RIP Lenore Kandel, Beat Poet, Counterculture Stalwart


The San Francisco Chronicle reports on the passing of poet Lenore Kandel, a SF beat and anarchist who provoked censorship furor with her graphic poetry compilation The Love Book:

Lenore Kandel hung out with Beat poets and was immortalized by Jack Kerouac, wrote a book of love poetry banned as obscene and seized by police, and believed in communal living, anarchic street theater, belly dancing, and all things beautiful.

Ms. Kandel, a lyric poet and one of the shining lights of San Francisco’s famous counterculture of the ‘60s, died on Oct. 18 in San Francisco. She was 77 and had been diagnosed with lung cancer two weeks earlier.

“I met Lenore in 1965 at a citywide meeting of artists opposed to the war in Vietnam,” said actor Peter Coyote. “Lenore was physically beautiful and physically commanding. She had this voluptuous plumpness about her and an absolute serenity.”

(Lenore Kandel via Arthur Magazine)

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