Tonight is First Thursday, the monthly gallery walk when spaces across town (but mostly downtown and in the Pearl) throw their doors open and hope at least a few party-hoppers will drop back soon to actually buy something. There are lots of other openings as well, of course, but First Thursday is the marketing focus. And thanks to Photolucida, April is Portland Photo Month. We ran this incomplete guide in this morning’s Oregonian; check it out.
Maybe if your weekend started out, as mine did, listening to “Howl” and then winding its way toward the Portland Jazz Festival, you’d be figuring out a way to combine the two, too. Not that it’s THAT difficult. Ginsberg, we know from his early journals (“The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice,” edited by Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton and Bill Morgan), listened to jazz — it was unavoidable at Columbia College in the ’40s and Manhattan in the ’50s. His tastes were pretty broad. He lists Lionel Hampton and Glenn Miller. Billie Holiday and Pearl Bailey. Dizzy Gillespie and Artie Shaw. Coleman Hawkins and a bunch of classical stuff (Mahler, Bach, Beethoven).
“Howl” itself has some jazz references, though none more direct than in Ginsberg’s introduction. He says “Howl” was “built on a bop refrain” — “the ideal being, say, Lester Young in Kansas City in 1938, blowing 72 choruses of “The Man I Love” until everyone in the hall was out of his head.” Which leads us back to Billie Holiday. Who was NOT performing at the jazz festival, more’s the pity.
We did have Ornette Coleman on hand, of course (in the clip it’s Spain 1987 and he’s playing with Don Cherry, Billy Higgins and Charlie Haden), though it’s hard to imagine him blowing 72 choruses of “The Man I Love.” It would have violated his Prime Directive against repetition, for one thing. I imagine him exploding the first chord of the first chorus and then spending the rest of the evening picking over the debris field for sounds he hadn’t heard before. Which would have been hard to capture in a poem, at least one that made sense in a representational sort of way.
That’s what Ornette did on Friday night, and if it didn’t strictly “follow” (see below) in the way we’ve come to expect from our music, that’s our problem: He’s been blowing this way since 1960 or so. We’ve been warned. Sharp objects are involved and the sweetness of the sound means that projectiles coming your way may seem closer than they appear.
“Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse!” Ginsberg writes in the “Footnote to Howl.” And here he might have referred to the SFJazz Collective, which played after Ornette’s concert on Friday, but not really. They are smart, savvy, and they’ve dedicated their season to Wayne Shorter, who could groan, I suppose, but maybe not the apocalypse part. More quicksilver or thoughtful, even caring, which is how Joe Lovano played his 1964 “Infant Eyes,” a melting opening solo.
OK, the key jazz lines of “Howl,” at the end of Part I: “…the madman bum and angel…rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio/with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.”
Mercy! As carnivorous as The Bad Plus seemed Saturday afternoon, big and, well, hungry, hunting down big game with their covers of Ornette Coleman, Milton Babbitt (!), David Bowie and Nirvana songs, firing salvos of percussion (thank you David King) and a general lurching, staccato approach that re-loaded mid-song and emptied the clip — even as aggressive as they were (and in fairness, they could also be sweet as pie (thank you Reid Anderson and Ethan Iverson), and the audience loved them for it), Ginsberg’s naked desire for ecstasy and deliverance outstrips them.
Maybe not Ornette, though. You just can’t tell about Ornette.
So, Allen Ginsberg comes to Portland in 1956 with his friend Gary Snyder and they spend a couple of days at Reed College. He’s 29 and just about as full of desire as a human can be. He wants to touch the firmament and he wants to savor the most exotic pleasures of the flesh, he wants to be the greatest poet ever and he wants everyone to know it, he wants to drink with the gods and use the hangover to prove that he’s caroused with them. And what separates him from just about every other ambition-drenched artist out there is that in 1956 he is carrying “Howl” in his pocket, and all the contradictions, the spirit and the flesh, the yearning for desirelessness, the hunger to be both participant and observer at the same time, have been resolved, temporarily, on the page. After reading several shorter poems on the second night, he turns to “Howl.” And, well, you should check it out.
Reed College has now posted the audio tape of Ginsberg’s reading of “Howl” at the college in 1956. It’s offering a range of options (from the master tape unedited including several other poems and Ginsberg’s intro to “Howl” to an edited version of “Howl”). For the most concentrated dose, go straight to the edited “Howl.” He starts out slowly, deliberately, in a youthful version of the nasal tones that only became nosier as he aged. It picks up. Faster. Higher pitched. More intense. This isn’t the final published version of “Howl” (which wasn’t finally reached until 1986): If you follow along with the printed page, he skips around, changes the order, drops some phrases and adds others. But, after rather lackadaisically making his way through the other poems that preceded “Howl” that night (and available at the site, too), he is fully engaged with the text. He KNOWS it’s good, and tries to live up to it with his reading, even though the crowd is small (though responsive, laughing at some of the more delightfully over-the-top moments in the poem). And I was laughing too.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,/angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night… “
Man. Once you start quoting “Howl” it’s hard to break it off. You could read it every night for weeks, perfecting the flow of breath needed (inhale/exhale) to keep its phrases flying skyward, to the “starry dynamo.”
So, what are we to make of the news today that a tape has surfaced from 1956, a tape of Ginsberg reading Part One of “Howl” to a small gathering at Reed College, where his reading mate that night, Gary Snyder, had gone to school? My first reaction: Not much. We know Snyder and his connection with the Beats and Ginsberg. We know “Howl.” The priority of this reading over the one that was taped a few weeks later in Berkeley doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
But I haven’t heard the tape, either. And as I sit here scanning that first page (“who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall..”), I want to hear Ginsberg reading it. Young Ginsberg, hot on the trail, with Snyder, who’d been with him during its composition in San Francisco the previous year. Ginsberg digging into it at Reed, surrounded by 20… what? Students? Faculty? Early Portland Beats? I don’t know, but I want to hear them breathing in the background and try to imagine what they made of it all, huddled together against the Ice Age of mid-’50s Oregon.
Proximity matters. And some part of Portland still draws from the Beat past, maybe, the part that rejects the coercion that regulates us — whether it originates in the government or the economic system or our own minds. I want to listen to the freedom in “Howl” and the sorrow, too, and see if I can smell us in there somehow. Reed is going to deliver: We can listen to the tape on Friday at the Reed website.