Allen Ginsberg Recordings Brought to the Digital Age. Listen to Eight Full Tracks for Free

Today marks the release of the final vol­ume in the Allen Gins­berg box set Holy Soul Jel­ly Roll: Poems & Songs 1949–1993, a col­lec­tion of pre­vi­ous­ly released and unre­leased record­ings. For what­ev­er rea­son, Gins­berg Record­ings decid­ed to stag­ger the dig­i­tal release of the set over the month of Sep­tem­ber, begin­ning with Vol­ume Four (Ash­es & Blues), fol­lowed by Three (Ah!), Two (Caw! Caw!), and final­ly, today, Vol­ume One (Moloch!). The last vol­ume “con­tains the stun­ning 1956 Berke­ley Town Hall read­ing of Ginsberg’s sem­i­nal poem ‘Howl,’ as well as oth­er impor­tant his­toric ear­ly poems.” You can pre­view and buy all four vol­umes on iTunes, but you needn’t pay to hear some full tracks: Gins­berg Record­ings made the “8 song sam­pler” avail­able on Sound­cloud for us. Here is the track list­ing:

1. A Super­mar­ket In Cal­i­for­nia
2. Green Valen­tine Blues
3. Kral Majales (King Of May)
4. CIA Dope Calyp­so
5. Laugh­ing Song
6. First Par­ty at Ken Kesey’s With Hel­l’s Angels
7. Vom­it Express

Lis­ten­ing to these poems brings a cou­ple things to mind. One, the real­iza­tion, too often lost, that “There was a time when not every moment of our lives was record­ed, pho­tographed, tweet­ed, face­booked, or oth­er­wise made instant­ly avail­able to the glob­al bil­lions of the con­nect­ed,” in the words of Gins­berg friend and archivist Stephen Tay­lor. In those ancient days, record­ings mat­tered and the things peo­ple chose to put on tape or film or what­ev­er medi­um they chose were pre­cious because of their rar­i­ty and their frag­ile phys­i­cal­i­ty. Two, these record­ings under­score the per­fect pitch of the collection’s title, which takes in all at once the com­ple­men­tary natures of Gins­berg the holy fool—mystic, trick­ster, and sen­su­al “white Negro” (to take Nor­man Mailer’s snide 50s term for hip­ster bohemi­ans).  Gins­berg was all these things, usu­al­ly in the same poem. His voice can slide in sub­tle or star­tling turns from bathos to pathos, from the fan­tas­tic imag­i­nary to keen­ly-observed social cri­tique.

In the first record­ed poem above, “A Super­mar­ket in Cal­i­for­nia,” Gins­berg imag­ines him­self shop­ping for gro­ceries at night with Walt Whit­man, an elab­o­rate extend­ed excur­sion into the poet’s process. In an intro, he calls this a “com­ing down” poem after writ­ing “a lot of great poet­ry.” Rem­i­nis­cent of Wal­lace Stevens’ “The Man on the Dump,” Gins­berg describes “shop­ping for images” in a “hun­gry fatigue… dream­ing of your enu­mer­a­tions.” The “you” here is Whit­man, and in the poem the two stroll down store aisles, sam­pling the “neon fruit” with­out pay­ing. In a fun­ny image, Gins­berg asks his muse, “which way are we going? Which way does your beard point tonight?” Maybe Gins­berg thought it a minor poem, but I’d call it a tiny del­i­ca­cy next to the sprawl­ing mon­ster “Howl.”

Anoth­er short auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal poem above—well-stocked with images as pre­cise, but not so neon, as “Supermarket”—is “First Par­ty at Ken Kesey’s with Hell’s Angels.” I can only imag­ine this is an accu­rate account of events not much embell­ished but per­cep­tive­ly edit­ed to give us an ellip­ti­cal suc­ces­sion of loose­ly con­nect­ed vignettes. None of the images sur­prise so much as con­firm exact­ly what one expects to find at Ken Kesey’s (with Hell’s Angels): “Cool black night through the red woods,” “a few tired souls hunched over in black leather jack­ets,” “a yel­low chan­de­lier at three a.m.,” “twen­ty youths danc­ing through the vibra­tion in the floor,” “a lit­tle mar­i­jua­na in the bath­room,” and, of course, “four police cars parked out­side the paint­ed gate.” It’s not a mas­ter­piece, but it’s a lit­tle show­case of Ginsberg’s tal­ent for com­pres­sion and, to use the word he applies to his hero Walt Whit­man, “enu­mer­a­tions” of jazz-inflect­ed lines that pop into focus with pleas­ing imme­di­a­cy.

“CIA Dope Calyp­so” is also true to its title, an upbeat island-style dit­ty with con­gas, gui­tar and maracas–a song about the South­east Asian hero­in trade  (alleged­ly!), Gins­berg sings, “sup­port­ed by the C‑I-A.” Nev­er afraid to hurl ver­bal Molo­tovs at his impe­ri­al­ist foes, Gins­berg does so here with strained and sil­ly rhymes and a good deal of tongue-in-cheek in-jok­ing. It’s a “jel­ly roll” performance—wickedly sub­ver­sive.

All of these record­ings are great fun, but Gins­berg seems best known for the “Holy Soul” part of his per­sona, the thun­der­ing prophet mys­tic war­rior of “Howl,” and that’s here in the box set too, with “Howl” and oth­er poems. We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Ginsberg’s riv­et­ing 1955 read­ing of the epic “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery, dra­ma­tized in Rob Epstein and Jef­frey Fried­man’s semi-biopic Howl, with James Fran­co as Gins­berg. Below, see the poem’s apoc­a­lyp­tic “Moloch” sec­tion set to some ter­ri­fy­ing ani­mat­ed images from the 2010 film:

If Holy Soul Jel­ly Roll does­n’t ful­ly sate your taste for Gins­berg’s voice, nev­er fear: there is much more to come from Gins­berg Record­ings.

Josh Jones is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Eng­lish at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty and a co-founder and for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of Guer­ni­ca / A Mag­a­zine of Arts and Pol­i­tics.


by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

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!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.