‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’: Allen Ginsberg’s 1996 Collaboration with Philip Glass and Paul McCartney

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.”

via @WFMU

by | Permalink | Comments (4) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (4)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.