Yesterday we saw the film Kill Your Darlings on DVD, which stars Daniel Radcliffe as the beat poet Allen Ginsberg. It was a good movie, fantastic performance by Daniel (amongst many others), and it was good for me to see, as a reminder of all kinds of things. Ginsberg has been one of the lights of my life, and the beats in general are an inspiration for me, doing all they did in the 40’s and 50’s, the kind of rebellion and creativity they embarked upon (the 50’s actually appear to me now as an extraordinary time of experimentation and innovation), something which I found a comfort during the 1980’s, and again in the 2010’s we are still making our way through. I remember very clearly the first time I took notice of Allen Ginsberg, it was a picture in the NME of him sitting next to Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder tour in 1975, when I would have been 16. I found Ginsberg really sexy, and I knew from somewhere that he was gay, and it really hit me, because it wasn’t often I saw an out gay man that I actually found attractive, let alone a gay man who was a counter cultural hero.I saw him again in the music press along side Patti Smith (I was a big fan) in 1977, at the reissuing of William Burroughs’ “Junky“, a book which I of course went out and bought as soon as I could, and read in my bedroom. There is Ginsberg, between Smith and Burroughs, looking absolutely gorgeous to me. I had found my cultural gay mentor (though we would never correspond or meet physically), which was enormous for me, because there was really almost nothing to encourage a gay boy in 1975, despite Stonewall having happened. Gay Liberation was awesome, but nothing seemed very human to a boy that just wanted a man to love and be loved by. Ginsberg could be crazy clowning for a cause, but his form and his wooly face emanated a tenderness and an earthiness that seemed to say to me “yes, here I am, see?”. That was a life line for me. Through him I learned of Walt Whitman, and one way or another Edward Carpenter, and in one landslide I had a history, we had a history. Ginsberg brought not only protest and gay liberation with him, but also a lot of spirituality. He was one of a whole bunch of people that introduced Buddhism to the hippie counter culture, and that made him a very healing influence. It never seemed like a “square Buddhism” that Ginsberg was talking about though. I remember in an interview he did with Gay Sunshine Magazine, he talked about how he had found that if you had a deep desire, and you could coexist with that desire without attachment, then the desire would often, eventually be fulfilled. There was that left handed twist to the problems of desire, embodiment, attachment and fulfillment, which just seemed very honest to me, and which many of us wanted to know about. He was curious about life, even where he was serious about spirituality. And his poetry broke the banks of the river for so many people, from Howl onwards. I had loads of those little black and white, City Lights editions of his books, as well as Indian Journals, the Gay Sunshine interview, Iron Horse, Straight Heart’s Delight (I still have the naked picture of him and Orlovsky together, framed in our bedroom). When Punk happened he engaged with it just as Bill Burroughs did, and in fact I remember having a conversation no later than 1979 where it really hit me that punk was almost a way back to The Beats. Ginsberg himself was a fan of the Clash and Patti Smith.
To return to the film we watched last night, you see the pre-beat Allen, the geeky, shy kid, the boy who “doesn’t want to be who people think I am”, and you see him move through what I would think was a pivotal point in his life. There is a very good film about Allen called “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg” which I really recommend if you want to learn about Allen’s life. I found that film on video in the 90s, when I was diving back into his influence, and the roots of a lot of what I cared about. What I really remember about Allen was his being there for so many of us. He seemed to have the most extraordinary, crazy, clowning courage, and a capacity to act for peace, and also for individuality. He really learned stuff from other people. I remember his sayings: “candor ends paranoia” and “it’s never too late to do nothing at all”. And he was candid in his love and his desirousness, his sincerity about meditation and spirituality, his fallibility, the world weariness of compassion.
Well, while I’m here I’ll
do the work –
and what’s the Work?
To ease the pain of living.
Everything else, drunken
from “Memory Gardens” 1969
I could not get enough of Allen, and the joyful fact was there was so much of him. I felt like I was being taught to walk and play all over again, in a re-flowering world.
In April of 1997 I went to a workshop to experience holotropic breathwork, which I had been reading about for some time. It is a breathwork therapy which was built on psychedelic research, after using psychedelics became illegal in the 60s. It was an intense experience that took many months to integrate, but which really did free me to move on with my life. When I got back to my room I lit a candle and was writing in my diary when the whole area blacked out in a local power cut for hours.
Either the next day, or the day after, I learned that Allen Ginsberg had died. I was so shattered from the breathwork that I couldn’t really feel anything, but I phoned people to let them know. About a week later I was downstairs in the common room watching TV and there was a program dedicated to Allen. I just sobbed.
He gave us so much and passed on so much. I can’t remember him without celebrating him, reliving his road trip satori and supermarket visions, and the sense of walking into a garden of peaceful wish fulfillment. And it would always catch a fire for you, whatever your own, crazy, beautiful, honest thing might be.
No being embarrassed anymore, no worry, no denial or unkindness. What is that anyway, that won’t come and go on the breath like a dream? Beautiful freedom.