Allen Ginsberg Teaches You How to Meditate with a Rock Song Featuring Bob Dylan on Bass

dylan ginsberg meditation

Image via Elisa Dor­man, Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

What­ev­er oth­er cri­te­ria we use to lump them together—shared aims of psy­che­del­ic con­scious­ness-expand­ing through drugs and East­ern reli­gion, frank explo­rations of alter­na­tive sex­u­al­i­ties, anti-estab­lish­ment cred—the Beats were each in their own way true to the name in one very sim­ple way: they all col­lab­o­rat­ed with musi­cians, wrote song or poems as songs, and saw lit­er­a­ture as a pub­lic, per­for­ma­tive art form like music.

And though I sup­pose one could call some of their for­ays into record­ed music gim­micky at times, I can’t imag­ine Jack Kerouac’s career mak­ing a whole lot of sense with­out Bebop, or Bur­roughs’ with­out psy­che­del­ic rock and tape and noise exper­i­men­ta­tion, or Gins­berg’ with­out… well, Gins­berg got into a lit­tle bit of every­thing, didn’t he? Whether writ­ing calyp­sos about the CIA, per­form­ing and record­ing with The Clash, show­ing up on MTV with Philip Glass and Paul McCart­ney…. He nev­er worked with Kanye, but I imag­ine he prob­a­bly would have.

For each of these artists, the medi­um deliv­ered a mes­sage. Kerouac’s odes to jazz, lone­li­ness, and wan­der­lust; Bur­roughs’ dark, para­noid prophe­cies about gov­ern­ment con­trol; and Ginsberg’s anti-war jere­mi­ads and insis­tent pleas for peace, free­dom, tol­er­ance, and enlight­en­ment. Ever the trick­ster and teacher, Gins­berg often used humor to dis­arm his audi­ence, then went in for the kill, so to speak. We may find no more point­ed an exam­ple of this comedic ped­a­gogy than his 1981 song, “Do the Med­i­ta­tion Rock,” record­ed in 1982 as a sham­bling folk-rock jam below with gui­tarist Steven Tay­lor, and mem­bers of Bob Dylan’s tour­ing band—including Dylan him­self mak­ing a rare appear­ance on bass.

As the sto­ry goes, accord­ing to Hank Shteam­er at Rolling Stone, Gins­berg was in Los Ange­les and “eager to book some stu­dio time. Dylan oblig­ed, and agreed to foot the bill for the stu­dio costs on the con­di­tion that Gins­berg would pay the musi­cians. The two met at Dylan’s San­ta Mon­i­ca stu­dio and, as Tay­lor remem­bers it, jammed for 10 hours.” Many more record­ings from that ses­sion made it onto the recent­ly released The Last World on First Blues, which also includes con­tri­bu­tions from Jack Kerouac’s musi­cal part­ner David Amram, folk leg­end Hap­py Traum, and exper­i­men­tal cel­list, singer, and dis­co pro­duc­er Arthur Rus­sell.

See Gins­berg, Tay­lor, Rus­sell, and Ginsberg’s part­ner Peter Orlovsky (med­i­tat­ing), per­form the song above on a PBS spe­cial called “Good Morn­ing, Mr. Orwell,” cre­at­ed in 1984 by Kore­an video artist Naim June Paik. As Gins­berg explains it in the lin­er notes to his col­lec­tion Holy Soul, Jel­ly Roll, the song came togeth­er after his own med­i­ta­tion train­ing in the late sev­en­ties, when the poet got the okay from his Bud­dhist teacher Chogyam Trung­pa Rin­poche (founder of Naropa Uni­ver­si­ty) to “show basic med­i­ta­tion in his tra­di­tion­al class­rooms or groups at poet­ry readings”—his goal, he says, to “knock all the poets out with sug­ar-coat­ed dhar­ma.”

Christ­mas Eve, I stopped in the mid­dle of the block at a stoop and wrote the words down, note­book on my knee. I fig­ured that if any­one lis­tened to the words, they’d find com­plete instruc­tions for clas­si­cal sit­ting prac­tice, Samatha-Vipas­sana (“Qui­et­ing the mind and clear see­ing”). Some humor in the form, it does­n’t have to be tak­en over-seri­ous­ly, yet it’s pre­cise.

You may have noticed the famil­iar cadence of the cho­rus; it’s a take-off, he says, on “I Fought the Law,” record­ed in 1977 by his soon-to-be musi­cal part­ners, The Clash. In the live ver­sion below at New York’s Ukran­ian Nation­al Home, the song gets a more stripped-down, punk rock treat­ment with Tom Rogers on gui­tar. Like many a wan­der­ing bard, Gins­berg changes and adapts the lyrics slight­ly to the venue and occa­sion. See the Allen Gins­berg Project for sev­er­al pub­lished ver­sions of the lyrics and his changes in this ren­di­tion.

Apart from the basic med­i­ta­tion instruc­tions, which are easy to fol­low in writ­ing and song, Ginsberg’s “Do the Med­i­ta­tion Rock” had anoth­er mes­sage, spe­cif­ic to his under­stand­ing of the pow­er of med­i­ta­tion; it can change the world, in spite of “a holo­caust” or “Apoc­a­lypse in a long red car.” As Gins­berg speak/sings, “If you sit for an hour or a minute every day / you can tell the Super­pow­er, sit the same way / you can tell the Super­pow­er, watch and wait.” No mat­ter how bad things seem, he says, “it’s nev­er too late to stop and med­i­tate.” Hear anoth­er record­ed ver­sion of the song below from Holy Soul, Jel­ly Roll, record­ed live in Kansas City by William S. Bur­roughs in 1989.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Allen Gins­berg & The Clash Per­form the Punk Poem “Cap­i­tal Air,” Live Onstage in Times Square (1981)

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

Hear All Three of Jack Kerouac’s Spo­ken-World Albums: A Sub­lime Union of Beat Lit­er­a­ture and 1950s Jazz

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

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