See Patti Smith Give Two Dramatic Readings of Allen Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl”

We’ve brought you some choice tidbits recently from beat poet granddaddy Allen Ginsberg, including his first recorded reading of “Howl” and a glimpse of his annotated collection of photographs. And we’ve also served up a few delicious treats from godmother of punk poetry Patti Smith, like her recounting of William S. Burroughs’ advice to writers and a reading of Federico Garcia Lorca.

Today, we bring the two together, in two versions of Smith reading Ginsberg’s “Footnote to Howl,” the orgiastic coda to his 1955 epic. This makes so much sense I wonder why we haven’t featured it before, and yet, here we are. In the first rendition, above, from 2012, Smith is backed by Philip Glass, her own Incredible Band, and some saffron-clad Tibetan monks. The ensemble convened in honor of a visit by the Dalai Lama.

There are doubtless dozens of stories to tell about Ginsberg and Smith. My favorite is their first chance meeting in 1969:

It’s November 1969 and Ms. Smith is trying to buy a cheese sandwich at the Horn & Hardart Automat on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. When she finds herself a dime short, Ginsberg approaches her and asks if he can help. He offers her the extra 10 cents and also treats her to a cup of coffee. The two are talking about Walt Whitman when Ginsberg suddenly leans forward and asks if she’s a girl.

“Is that a problem?” she asks.

He laughs and says: “I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.”

“Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?”

“No, enjoy it. It was my mistake.”

Holy that sandwich! Watch Smith above in Florence, Italy forty years later, chanting a cappella from “Footnote to Howl” while the audience claps, and howls, along. It’s decidedly rough footage, taken with a handheld camera (cell phone?) from the crowd, but the audio is good, and it’s stirring stuff despite, or because of, the raw quality.

Head over to The Allen Ginsberg Project for a few more recordings of Smith reading from “Howl.”

Related Content:

Allen Ginsberg Reads His Famously Censored Beat Poem, Howl (1959)

“Expansive Poetics” by Allen Ginsberg: A Free Course from 1981

James Franco Reads a Dreamily Animated Version of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Poem ‘Howl’

Watch Patti Smith Read from Virginia Woolf, and Hear the Only Surviving Recording of Woolf’s Voice

Allen Ginsberg’s “Celestial Homework”: A Reading List for His Class “Literary History of the Beats”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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