The Back Story:
In 1983, I spent two days and nights with Allen Ginsberg, the famed Beat poet. The story below tells much of what occurred over a 36-hour period. What it doesn’t tell is that Allen was nice enough to sign (and draw flowers on) my copies of his books. That was right before he asked me if I wanted to stay over in his hotel room. “I’m kind of tired, I think I’ll go home,” I replied. (I was thinking of what he had told me earlier, about him sleeping with Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, which I had already known, of course. It’s legend.) He saluted me with two fingers and winked, saying, “O.K., Captain.” We still had a great next day. Six years later, the first day in my new neighborhood in Portland, Oregon, I saw a marquee that announced Ginsberg was going to read at Cinema 21. I bought a ticket, of course. And I went to Powell’s Book Store, to stand in line with others to get something signed by Ginsberg. I’d brought a record on which he reads his famous poem, “Howl.” When I got up to the table where Allen sat, I said the no-doubt-familiar-sounding, “You probably don’t remember me … but we spent a couple of days together in Tampa, Florida. And you sent me a postcard critiquing my newspaper story on that experience.” “Do you still have the card?” Allen asked. I handed it to him. He read it, took out his fountain pen, and corrected his punctuation on what he had written several years before. Allen was very conscious of everything he wrote and said having “legs” for posterity. To wit: I went online recently, and saw that my article on Ginsberg, and our correspondence, is collected with tens of thousands of other “papers” in the Stanford University archives in the Manuscript Division of the university. My stuff with Allen is in Box 301, Folder 30, if you’re curious. Or, you can just read the story below, and see the postcard (with a picture on the front of Lawrence Ferlinghetti standing before City Lights Books) that Allen sent me after the story ran.
On the Road with Allen Ginsberg
By Greg Tozian
Allen Ginsberg arrives in Tampa looking beat, but he does not sound tired.
He sounds off — loudly.
The 57-year-old bearded, balding radical poet laureate traveled Tuesday afternoon from his New York tenement to the press room of Tampa International Airport by jet, and by way of 35 years on the road.
On the road in the ‘50s with Beat god Jack Kerouac, who immortalized himself and other wow-house, counter-culture architects in “On the Road” and 10 other free-spirited prose poems. On the road and up all night rapping in San Francisco dives with speedy, hot-wire Neal Cassady. Off the wall and through the garden of Villa Mouneria with wigged-out, 15-year junkie-genius William S. Burroughs in Tangier. On LSD and digging Timothy Leary with kaleidoscope “I’s” across the Great Divide. Going directly to jail for fighting “the system” he has always fought on the road and at home. On the lam through the bloody streets of Chicago, while Mayor Daley’s swinging cops beat time with their clubs for the Democratic National Convention Blues. Off the high road and up the mountainside to bow to Buddha in the East. On the railroad tracks, blocking a train carrying nuclear-weapon waste through Colorado. On the road again in Nicaragua, scolding Uncle Sam for soldiering on. On the road in Tampa to — talk to college kids.
No TV stations show, only two small-radio station reporters and a newspaper writer.
“They obviously don’t think it’s important enough,” says Ginsberg matter-of-factly, dressed in crisp white shirt and tie.
Most of the room is filled with smiling, fresh-faced college women, who giggle each time Ginsberg tickles their fancy with his barbed political-poetical wit.
“Are you from journalism class?” the poet asks the women, who weren’t born when his slim-but-monumental, 1956 book, “Howl,” had to slug it out in the courts for the right to be published.
“Public relations,” they say in unison.
Ginsberg dubs them his “Greek chorus” and wades into a 30-minute mini-marathon, assailing U.S. policies in Central America and murder everywhere, and reading snatches of New York Times clippings and the poetry of his friend, longtime Beat writer Gregory Corso.
“Everybody in America is sleep-walking,” he says. “It’s as if there’s an inevitable growth of violence, from Lebanon through Central America. Nobody wants to be responsible for it. It increases and gets more murderous every day.
“Everybody’s spaced out,” he observes, “as if somebody put LSD in the water supply.”
Ginsberg whips out the Corso poem, a long, as-yet-unpublished work called “The Day After Human Kind,” which laments that, for most people, “ … the spirit of life is no big deal anymore.” The poem goes on to say, “ … (people are) untrustworthy, they got bombs, lots of bombs and the Big Wheels that got all these bombs shake fists at each other, call each other names. I mean, it’s more embarrassing than scary.”
Ginsberg loves that phrase. “It’s more embarrassing than scary.
“That’s a nice thought isn’t it?” he asks. The college women giggle.
Tuesday, 2:30 p.m.
The airline has “lost” Allen Ginsberg’s one piece of luggage.
The giant canvas bag only carries every possession the poet holds dear on long road trips: a rare, annotated copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead; assorted Buddhist philosophy books; daily journals of rambling thought and new poems (“one of them good”); Ginsberg’s “most traveling clothes”; a pile of clippings on burning issues; a blue blazer for his college appearances; the bottle of ink into which Ginsberg dips his fountain pen daily to draw out the lifeblood of his art; a pair of “new wave” neckties (“one gold and one silver”); high-blood pressure medicine “and opiates, in case I get a gallstone attack.”
Ginsberg gets a ride to his no-frills, north Tampa hotel room with people from the University of South Florida, where he will speak and sing poetic songs Wednesday night.
Tuesday, 7 p.m.
Ginsberg, who got only three hours sleep the night before, gets half an hour of rest in his room. He calls a number in nearby St. Petersburg, to talk to Kerouac’s mother. He’d like to visit her and talk about Jack. But someone on the other end of the line says that Kerouac’s mother is not there. She’s ill and staying with relatives out of state at the moment. Ginsberg hangs up, then reads some poems. He calls the airport to inquire about the missing bag (no luck). He meditates.
Tuesday, 8 p.m.
Ginsberg arrives at the comfortable old Hyde Park home of two USF associate professors: Myron and Judith Ochshorn.
Myron, a teacher of literature and poetry at the university for 20 years, cooks a “traditional Jewish meal” with matzo balls in chicken broth and fried latkes (potato pancakes) with sour cream.
“Don’t let them burn, those look a little carboned to me. I like mine about that brown,” Ginsberg observes over Ochshorn’s shoulder, as the oval-shaped patties crackle in the pan. “You’ve got sour cream? Good. How about apple sauce? That’s the way we eat them in New York,” the poet explains.
During dinner, the talk meanders, and Ginsberg appears interested when Ochshorn reveals that he was a student with Jack Kerouac at the New School in New York during the ‘40s. Kerouac once asked him to cut out on a merchant marine ship with him, Ochshorn says, adding that he declined.
Ginsberg tells many Kerouac stories, too, of how his Beat friend’s heart was broken by all the negative ink from the mainstream press poured on books like “Dr. Sax,” “Mexico City Blues,” and “Dharma Bums.”
While John Coltrane’s saxophone lilts from the stereo in the living room, Ginsberg and the Ochshorns talk about William Blake, Sylvia Plath, Francisco Franco, Bob Dylan, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, war, and the Ochshorn’s big, brown-eyed baby, Brigid, who is sleeping in the next room.
Tuesday, 10:30 p.m.
Because he wants to, Ginsberg is driven by an address in south Tampa that is not very far from the university professor couple’s house. “It’s the house of Santo Trafficante, the Mafioso,” says the poet, identifying the notorious mob boss (born in Tampa) who ran gambling operations in the U.S. and Cuba — doing time in both locations — and who was implicated but never charged in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “I just wanted to see his house,” says Ginsberg, staring in the dark at a large, low-slung white stucco ranch house. There are no visible signs of anyone guarding the place. It’s nothing like the compound that the Corleone family occupies in The Godfather. It looks like all the other houses on the block. “I got the address from somebody in New York. You think it’s his house?” The thought occurs that Ginsberg, if he had not wanted to be a poet, might have made a pretty good newspaperman.
In the car on the way back to the hotel, Ginsberg says, “That professor’s got a story there about Jack wanting him to go on that merchant marine ship. He’s got a piece of information to add to the Kerouac story.” Then, waiting a beat, he adds, “I slept with both Jack and Neal, you know?”
Tuesday, midnight: Ginsberg’s missing canvas duffle bag, all three feet and 95 pounds of it, finally joins him at the hotel.
Ginsberg reads poetry and sings songs at the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida. He covers work from the time he started rattling the cage of the establishment in the ‘50s up to today, when Ginsberg is recording music with punk bands like The Clash and “digging rock ‘n’ roll.”
Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.
About 600 students, teachers and others congregate in the Business Auditorium on the USF Tampa campus to hear Allen Ginsberg.
He walks on the long stage that, for almost two hours, he’ll share with a vase of roses, a microphone and music stand and a table topped with a thermos of tea, cup, and a pile of poems.
Ginsberg sits erect, a small harmonium on his lap, and starts the evening singing, “Gospel Noble Truths,” one of 24 songs on his recently released double album, “First Blues,” made with Bob Dylan and others.
The song starts with a sobering lyric:
Born in this world/You got to suffer/Everything changes/You got no soul/Try to be gay/Ignorant happy/You get the blues/You eat the jellyroll
But by the end of the song, through the skill of Ginsberg’s writing and hearty performance, “Gospel Noble Truths” ends with the ironically life-affirming, repetitive refrain: Die when you die.
From that moment, Ginsberg owns the crowd. He sings William Blake’s, “The Tyger.” He gives a rousing reading of his classic poem, “America,” from “Howl,” using his voice like an instrument and exaggerating the word “workers” to sound like “woy-kas.”
Ginsberg even updates and localizes “America,” published in 1956, to observe “retired … Mafia chieftains of gambling and drugs in Tampa are very serious …” The crowd loves that, but they also cheer when he demands, “(America) … when can I go into the supermarket and buy what I want with my good looks?”
Throughout the evening, Ginsberg plays the audience as easily as he does his warm-toned squeezebox. He sings the bittersweet, “Father Death Blues” and reads 10 touching short poems, called “Don’t Grow Old,” written for his dead father, the lyric poet Louis Ginsberg.
Ginsberg warns the FBI, the CIA and the KGB are “in cahoots.” He reads the long, fervent anti-nuke poem, “Plutonium Ode.” Ginsberg hates plutonium and plutocrats equally.
The Bell’s Palsy which has paralyzed the right side of the poet’s face causes him to continually wipe his mouth with a handkerchief as he spits out his ode.
Ginsberg ends his performance with a stirring rendition of Blake’s “The Nurse’s Song,” leading several hundred voices in uplifting song. The closing refrain, “And all the hills echo-ed,” is sung until it seems hypnotic.
For the first time during the night, the poet looks shy, in the face of a standing ovation.
“I thought it was a very good reading,” Ginsberg says of the event, afterwards. “They did really seem to enjoy it. Didn’t they?”