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.
h/t WFMU on Twitter!