It’s cellist/composer Arthur Russell’s great triumph that his influence became so massively widespread, and his great tragedy that he never knew it. His AIDS-related death in 1992 happened before the world caught up with him, but his vision impacted genres as widespread as acid house, jazz, minimalism, ambient, folk, hip-hop, dub… this could go on, as a concise summation of Russell’s improbable career is just flat out impossible. DM’s Niall O’Conghaile did an insightful post on Russell about a year and a half ago, and frankly, I can’t touch it. If you want to know more, I strongly recommend you have a look at it. Now is fine, I’ll wait.
There’s a lot of GREAT personal and musical background on Russell here in this rarely seen video. It features his friends and collaborators David Byrne, Philip Glass, and Allen Ginsberg, and it was recorded in 1994 as a video press kit for the posthumous Another Thought, a collection of unreleased late-career recordings. Bonus: David Byrne’s heroic pony tail.
Granada Television produced this fascinating TV time capsule “It’s So Far Out It’s Straight Down” as a special part of their Scene at 6:30 series. The program focused on the young counterculture / hippie scene in London and features Miles, the Indica Gallery and the editorial board of The International Times underground newspaper. Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are seen at the International Poetry Incarnation and we are taken to The UFO Club where Syd Barrett and the Pink Floyd are playing a live version of “Interstellar Overdrive” (Also heard on the soundtrack is an early version of their “Matilda Mother,” then called “Percy The Ratcatcher” and “It Can’t Happen Here” by The Mothers of Invention).
Paul McCartney is a talking head interviewee (although not framed as such) in the studio, intelligently discussing the nascent underground scene. Macca was an active part of the London underground, financially supporting the Indica Gallery and bookstore—he even built the bookshelves himself—and IT. McCartney, the Beatle who soaked up cutting-edge culture and avant garde influences long before the rest of them did, is seen in four segments during the show, and as a wealthy, intelligent and well-respected person representing the counterculture to people who might fear it, as you’ll see, he knocks the ball straight out of the park:
If you don’t know anything about it [the counterculture], you can sort of trust that it’s probably gonna be all right and it’s probably not that bad because it’s human beings doing it, and you know vaguely what human beings do. And they’re probably going to think of it nearly the same way you would in that situation.
The straights should welcome the underground because it stands for freedom… It’s not strange it’s just new, it’s not weird, it’s just what’s going on around.
“It’s So Far Out It’s Straight Down” was broadcast in March of 1967, so it’s pre-Summer of Love. The time seems so pregnant with promise. This is the exact moment, historically speaking, when pop culture went from B&W and shades of gray to vivid color. If you put yourself in the mind of a kid from the north of England watching something like this on television during that era, it’s easy to see how this film would have brought tens of thousands of young people into London seeking to find these forward-thinking cultural movers and shakers to become part of “the happening” themselves.
Throughout his long career, Allen Ginsberg was keenly aware of the power of music—and an association with generationally key musicians, like Bob Dylan and The Clash—as the candy-coated bullet to see his poetry and ideas for social and political transformation reach the younger generation.
“The Ballad Of The Skeletons” with Philip Glass, Lenny Kaye, session guitarist David Mansfield, Marc Ribot and Paul McCartney (on organ, maracas and drums) was Ginsberg’s final 1996 release and in many ways, it’s probably the best of his recorded work. Even at nearly 8-minutes in length, the number never never gets dull—well with a backing band like that one...—as Ginsberg voices the lines of 66 skeletons representing American culture and hegemony. The poem was first published in the pages of The Nation in 1995.
Gus Van Sant directed a video for “The Ballad of the Skeletons” with a visually arresting Día de Muertos-style that saw the clip become an MTV “buzz clip.” Ginsberg told Steve Silberman:
“He went back to old Pathé, Satan skeletons, and mixed them up with Rush Limbaugh, and Dole, and the local politicians, Newt Gingrich, and the President. And mixed those up with the atom bomb, when I talk about the electric chair– ‘Hey, what’s cookin?’–you got Satan setting off an atom bomb, and I’m trembling with a USA hat on, the Uncle Sam hat on. So it’s quite a production, it’s fun.”
The Beat bard and Sir Paul perform “The Ballad of the Skeletons” at the Royal Albert Hall, October 16, 1995. During a visit with McCartney, Ginsberg mentioned that he was looking for a guitarist to back him during this performance. Macca said “What about me?” and below we can see the closest Allen Ginsberg ever got to being a Beatle. There’s more information about the song at The Allen Ginsberg Project.
When Hugh MacDiarmid died in 1978, his fellow poet Norman MacCaig suggested Scotland commemorate the great man’s passing by holding 3 minute’s pandemonium. It was typical of MacCaig’s caustic wit, but his suggestion did capture something of the unquantifiable enormity of MacDiarmid’s importance on Scottish culture, politics, literature and life during the twentieth century.
Hugh MacDiarmid is perhaps best described by a line from his greatest poem A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), in which he wrote:
‘I’ll ha’e nae hauf-way hoose, but aye be whaur
Extremes meet - it’s the only way I ken
To dodge the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt
That damns the vast majority o’ men.
It explains the contradictory elements that merged to make him a poet.
Born Christopher Murray Grieve, on August 11, 1892, he changed his name to the more Scottish sounding Hugh MacDiarmid to publish his poetry. He was a Modernist poet who wrote in Scots vernacular. One might expect this choice of language to make his poetry parochial, but MacDiarmid was a poet of international ambition and standing, who was recognized as an equal with T. S. Eliot, Boris Pasternak and W. H. Auden.
In politics, MacDiarmid had been one of the co-founder’s of the National Party for Scotland in 1928, but was ejected when he moved towards Communism. He was then ejected from the Communist Party for his “nationalist deviation.” He maintained a Nationalist - in favor of an independent Scotland - and a Communist throughout his life.
As literature scholar and writer Kenneth Butlay notes, MacDiarmid was:
..as incensed by his countrymen’s neglect of their native traditions as by their abrogation of responsibility for their own affairs, and he took it upon himself to “keep up perpetually a sort of Berseker rage” of protest, and to act as “the catfish that vitalizes the other torpid of the aquarium.”
In 1964, the experimental film-maker Margaret Tait made short documentary portrait of Hugh MacDiarmid, which captured the poet at home in Langholme, his sense of childish fun, his socializing his the bars and public houses of Edinburgh (the Abbotsford on Rose Street).
More on Hugh MacDiarmid, plus poetry and reading, after the jump…
Ginsberg’s ride on that wave has perhaps ebbed and flowed since his death 13 years ago, but it is cresting once more, with the recent publication of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters (Viking) and The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation (Free Press), by Ginsberg’s archivist and biographer, Bill Morgan; an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg” (with an accompanying catalog, published by Prestel); and the movie Howl, starring indie heartthrob James Franco, about Ginsberg’s most famous poem and the 1957 obscenity trial challenging its publication in the United States. That trial, along with the simultaneous publication of Kerouac’s On the Road, catapulted the Beats into literary and cultural history.
The intense, candid letters that Ginsberg and Kerouac wrote to each other capture the emergence of that literary and cultural moment when America, and American literature, would change irrevocably. The letters are often elated with aspiration, extravagant—even hyperbolic—with language sometimes soaring for its own sake; at other times, they plunge into despair: “God knows what oblivion we’ll wind up in like unpopular Melvilles,” Ginsberg ponders.
The correspondence begins in 1944, when the two young men met in New York City, where Ginsberg was an undergraduate at Columbia University and Kerouac a dropout living nearby, and continues until 1963, six years before Kerouac’s death, in 1969. Although they were greeted by American media as barbarous buffoons at the cultural gates—“I go rewrite Whitman for the entire universe,” Ginsberg boasted—the letters demonstrate a committed literary perspective. Allusions to Melville, Balzac, and Dostoevsky, Pound and Eliot, Joyce and Henry Miller establish the tradition they were committed to continue.
Some of the letters describe the daring literary ambitions they had for their friends, especially Ginsberg’s for William S. Burroughs, whom he regarded as a genius. Others, written from Mexico in the early 1950s, reveal how their views were deepened by living in a country “beyond Darwin’s chain,” as Kerouac put it. Fortified with tequila and peyote, Kerouac praised pastoral Mexico, and both men saw it as a foil to an American obsession with acquisition and consumption. Occasionally the letters crawl with dense Buddhist philosophy; inevitably they race again with reports of the latest recklessness of friends like Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso. Later letters, more ominously, are full of the hysteria that overwhelmed Kerouac after the notoriety of On the Road. As he reported to Ginsberg, with some of the cascading presumption that galvanized his prose—repeating what he had announced in a television interview—“I am waiting for God to show his face.”