Allen Ginsberg was an unlikely MTV star. In late 1996 the Beat poet was 70 years old and in declining health. He had less than a year to live. But Ginsberg managed to stay culturally and politically relevant, right up to the end. His last major project was a collaboration with Paul McCartney and Philip Glass, among others, on a musical adaptation of his poem, “The Ballad of the Skeletons.”
The poem was first published in 1995. The American political climate from which it arose bears a striking resemblance to the one we’re living in today. “I started it,” Ginsberg told Harvey Kubernik of The Los Angeles Times in 1996, “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.”
The skeletal imagery was inspired by the Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead, and takes a playful poke at the vanity of human desires. “It’s an old trick,” Ginsberg told Steve Silberman in a 1996 interview for HotWired, “to dress up archetypal characters as skeletons: the bishop, the Pope, the President, the police chief. There’s a Mexican painter–Posada–who does exactly that.”
In October of 1995, Ginsberg visited Paul McCartney and his family at their home in England. He recited “The Ballad of the Skeletons while one of McCartney’s daughters filmed it. As Ginsberg recalled to Silberman, he mentioned that he had to give a reading with Anne Waldman and other poets at the Royal Albert Hall, and was looking for a guitarist to accompany him. “Why don’t you try me,” McCartney said. “I love the poem.” Ginsberg continued the story:
He showed up at 5 p.m. for the sound check, and he bought a box for his family. Got all his kids together, four of them, and his wife, and he sat through the whole evening of poetry, and we didn’t say who my accompanist was going to be. We introduced him at the end of the evening, and then the roar went up on the floor of the Albert Hall, and we knocked out the song. He said if I ever got around to recording it, let him know. So he volunteered, and we made a basic track, and sent it to him, on 24 tracks, and he added maracas and drums, which it needed. It gave it a skeleton, gave it a shape. And also organ, he was trying to get that effect of Al Kooper on the early Dylan. And guitar, so he put a lot of work in on that. And then we got it back just in time for Philip Glass to fill in his arpeggios on piano.
The recording was produced by Lenny Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, who had put together a group of musicians for a performance of the song at a Tibet House benefit in April of 1996. One member of the audience that night was Danny Goldberg, president of Mercury Records and a fan of Ginsberg. He invited the poet to record the song, and it all came together quickly. In a 1997 article in Tikkun, Goldberg remembered Ginsberg’s giddiness over the project: “He loved that Paul McCartney had overdubbed drums on ‘Skeletons.’ He said, ‘It’s the closest I’m going to ever come to being in the Beatles,’ and giggled like a teenager.”
The recording features Ginsberg on vocals, Glass on keyboards, McCartney on guitar, drums, Hammond organ and maracas, Kaye on bass, Marc Ribot on guitar and David Mansfield on Guitar. Mercury released the song as a CD single in two versions, including one with the language sanitized for radio and television. The “B side” was a recording of Ginsberg’s “New Stanzas for Amazing Grace“ that did not include McCartney or Glass. The next step was to create a video. As Goldberg recalled, Ginsberg knew an opportunity when he saw one:
When Tom Freston, the CEO of MTV, bought five of Allen’s photos, Ginsberg promptly called me, not too subtly implying that if Mercury would fund production of a video, we might be able to get on MTV. Allen had an unerring instinct of how to mobilize his mystique for those who were interested. He regaled Freston with stories of the beatniks one night at our house, which made it almost impossible for MTV to reject his video despite the fact that he was decades older than typical MTV artists and audience members. A political satire of both generations, “Skeletons” received highly pubicized and much-coveted “buzz bin” rotation on MTV in the weeks before the last election–to the consternation of other record companies who were submitting artists with more conventional credentials. This made Allen the only seventy-year-old besides Tony Bennett to ever be played on MTV.
The video was directed by Gus Van Sant, who had ties to surviving members of the Beat generation. Van Sant had directed William S. Burroughs in the film Drugstore Cowboy, and had made short films–Thanksgiving Prayer and The Discipline of DE— based on writing by Burroughs. Ginsberg was happy with Van Sant’s work, despite a tight filming budget. “It’s a great collage,” Ginsberg told 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.”