Travels With My Aunt: Part I
You will think, perhaps, that I am too confidential and communicative of my own private history. It may be so. The fact is, I place myself at a distance of fifteen or twenty years ahead of this time, and suppose myself writing to those who will be interested about me hereafter; and wishing to have some record of a time, the entire history of which no one can know but myself, I do it as fully as I am able with the efforts I am now capable of making. -- Thomas De Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822).
In the spring of 1976, I chanced to sit in as accompanist with Allen Ginsberg at a poetry performance. We went on to live, work, and travel together periodically until his death in 1997. A couple of years ago, as I was finishing a book accounting my travels on the anarcho-punk scene, I began making notes toward a memoir of Ginsberg and his milieu.
The project really goes back to our first meetings, when Allen urged me to write my own history. This was the mission he had shared with his first writer friend, Jack Kerouac. The Beats made careers writing about themselves and their scene. In his middle years, when I came to know him, Allen was still pushing the same project: you are living history, you have to write it down.
At the time, I kept a diary, but this writing is not a diary in the strict sense, it is rather a series of scenes sketched from memory and presented in a more or less random sequence, unstuck in time, like Billy Pilgrim.
I was twenty-one his fiftieth year. We met, two young men in the Jersey
barrens. I got sick, too much marijuana, he held my hand.
It's December 1980. Half way through a long tour, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and I are seated in the hanging tram that circles the German city of Wuppertal. I'm writing in my diary.
--What you writing?
--I'm writing a book about us.
--What'll you call it?
--Travels With My Aunt.
There was a touch of meanness in my answer. On long tours, nerves fray. Nevertheless he approved. You have to write your own history. No one's going to do it for you.
I didn't know it at the time, but my years of traveling with Allen did mirror Graham Greene's fictional account of an Englishman who doesn't venture much beyond his town house garden until he meets an aunt who shows him her world; I was an English immigrant who hadn't ventured much beyond the Garden State until I met an older man who showed me his.
Peter has gone down to the far end of the platform to smoke. Not dressed for Germany in December, Allen and I pace and shuffle in the swirling snowfall, collars turned up against the cold. A train roars in.
--Frankfurt, it's going to Frankfurt.
--We're not going to Frankfurt.
He flushes, yelling.
--It's going to Frankfurt! It's going to Frankfurt!
--We're not going to Frankfurt!
A few commuters straggle out. The train pulls away.
The snow stops. Stars appear. We pace, smoke, shuffle some more.
As our train arrives, an old man approaches and introduces himself. He has recognized Allen. He says he is a professor of literature.
The prof takes a window seat, I sit to his right. Allen sits opposite me, arranging his book bag, winding a mic cable around his cassette recorder.
--You have been traveling. You must not have heard the news.
--John Lennon was killed last night.
Allen crumples forward and weeps an eerie, wordless dirge into the machine.
At the start, our respective realities were worlds apart, but our differences kept us engaged, and we came to know each other well. We began with a few things in common. We were both, in various ways, outsiders: he the queer son of a refugee mother, I an immigrant having difficulty adapting. We both knew what it was to struggle to get by. Our taste in literature and music was the same, though he had a more intricate knowledge of the one and I of the other, and that made us a match. He used to say he was my poetry teacher and I his music teacher. What struck me most during our first conversations was that although he was older than my father, he spoke as I and my friends did. Allen had pioneered the argot and attitude that I had adopted as my own. He had played a key role in disseminating the synthesis of white boy gossip and Harlem street jive that my generation assumed it had invented.
He seemed strange, except in his intelligence and his art. That I understood. But the temper, for one thing, the roaring rage of it, was something the like of which I had not experienced before. I remember being in a downtown bar at some kind of party. The place was packed and, somewhat oddly for a bar, brightly lit. There he encountered a man a bit older than himself, and they exchanged barely a word and he flew into a deafening rage. I'd never heard anything like it. It vibrated one's whole being like some catastrophic event, like an avalanche. The whole room rumbled with it, then went silent, and the guy fled, and Allen was instantly back to normal, and the bar chatter started up again as if nothing had happened. Allen told me the guy had been part of a plot organized by the mayor's office, under the Lindsay administration, to get him arrested on trumped-up drug charges, a plant and bust scheme.
The temper was a real problem for me, though I never got a full-on dose of it. I did get brief shots. We'd be on stage somewhere in the early days, and he'd want Peter to do a couple of poems, and me to do a song part way through the show. And I just didn't want to do it, but I'd sing because he'd bark at me if I refused. --Speak, poet! The strongest dose I ever got was in the spring of 1989, when my girlfriend was having heroin withdrawal, and I went to him to ask for codeine, which I knew he had in his medicine kit. "On your knees!" he roared, "Suck my cock for your dope!" It was part anger, part laughter, part despair. And he immediately went calm and said, "you'll only get her back on, using, you know." He was right, of course.
Whatever strangeness there was about him for my own strange kid sensibilities, we worked through it. I loved the guy for half my life. The novelty, the disjunctions were what was fresh about the relationship. So what was he like? Or, as he would say "give me a for instance." He was fearless, let's start there.
We're coming out of a restaurant in Kassel and suddenly he yells "NOOOO!" and flings himself into a crowd of men. They are about to beat a guy up -- a queer bashing -- he'd seen it and understood in a flash what was about to happen and he didn't hesitate. The gang is stunned stock still. They disperse.
Fearlessness doesn't really describe it. It was faith in his own experience and moral intelligence, exacerbated by a fascination with death. This was not a guy with a lot of self-doubt. And it wasn't blind faith. He had tremendous clarity. He understood himself because he'd worked at it and paid for it in spades. He'd seen his mother go mad and had feared for his own sanity and had spent a year in the bug house and been analyzed to hell and back and had taken every drug under the sun and come through it all wiser. He'd been wrong, in the sense of not fitting the standard mold of American manhood, in so many ways over so many years, that he'd had to come through it or die, and he did come through it. In his poem America, he said "you made me want to be a saint." He had to become a saint. It was that or go mad.
He was frugal. his father kept two sons and a mad wife in a series of cheap apartments on a teacher's salary. The money, such as there was, went to doctors. When Naomi was in the various hospitals, her men worried together in the same bed. I see Louie comforting the boys. Ruth Etting is on the radio singing, "Poverty may come to me it's true, but what care I, say, I'll get by, as long as I have you."
Everything is saved. Plastic shopping bags are stashed in the pantry, saved to wrap books, photographs, manuscripts and files for goings too and fro. Brown paper sacks are kept to preserve bread. The tin box on the counter is full of small brown bundles; you don't throw bread away. Shopping lists, laundry receipts are archive material. You have to write your own history.
We go to Eastern Europe. Our gigs are booked through the US Information Service, a cultural exchange agency run by the State Department. I call it CIA lite. Our American contacts in Warsaw are all embassy officials. One, a pleasant, gray-haired guy who wears tennis sweaters and loafers, is a spy -- it's a standing joke. At one point the embassy throws a party and we are introduced to various persons of importance -- the head of state radio, the head of state television, the head of state publishing. Next day, a US official asks if we want to meet "the underground." We are driven to a vacant apartment and told to wait. We are picked up and driven to another vacant apartment across town and told to wait. Finally we are driven to a loft in the center of Warsaw. Here we meet the underground. They are the same people we had met the day before at the embassy, plus a few fugitives who live at the loft. A couple of years later, the revolution was announced because it was no longer possible to present the system and the underground as opposing entities. The black market had become the economy.
Allen is a member of the PEN Club's Freedom to Write committee. While traveling, he investigates situations of censorship. We have heard that the editor of the Solidarity newspaper has been jailed, is ill, and is not receiving proper care. We march into the military prison, present our PEN credentials, and demand to see the prisoner. The officer in charge is furious, red faced, beside himself. We are not admitted.
arrive at Allen's, let myself in, and meet Gregory Corso. He
strikes a boxing stance and says, "show me your hands!," the words bent
into a peculiar music by his toothlessness. I hold out my hands, palms up. He
says "you look like puckin Saint Prancis. You're gonna get yr ass kicked!"
This is the standard greeting. You just have to ride it out. His follow-up routine is
--Are you a poet?
The young respondent typically hedges.
--Are you a poet or not? If you are a poet, you should say so.
--Yes. I'm a poet.
--So tell me a poem.
--You're a poet and you can't puckin tell me a poem? Listen to this. A star is as far as the eye can see and as near as my eye is to me.
Owsley comes by the apartment and drops off a large jar of clear liquid. Over a period of months, once a week or so, we open the fridge and stand there, looking at the jar on the top shelf among the left-overs.
--Are we going to do it?
Are we going to do it in a 100-square-foot slum kitchen in stifling New York August? No thanks. Been there done that. We parcel it out to visitors.
I play a string of gigs in Scandinavia with the Fugs, and then fly to Macedonia to meet Allen at the Struga festival. They're going to give him this year's laurel crown. The flight from the capital into the mountains is all nervous men with moustaches. As the plane taxis for takeoff, they all light up. They smoke all the way to Struga and applaud when the plane lands. At the luggage claim, I am approached by two beautiful young women and an older man, presumably their father. He asks if I am Steve from the United States. I say yes, and am warmly welcomed by all. Follow me, he says. Just then, two young men introduce themselves as the festival guys come to pick me up. Apparently there was another American Steve on the flight. I sometimes imagine how it might have been to drive off into the mountains with pops, marry one of the girls, and spend the rest of my days tending a vineyard. As it happened, I was driven to a hotel on a lake where, strangely, I find the lower east side poet crew in the bar. Alan Ansen is in from Athens. His luggage has been lost and he spends several days ripening in a frayed, too-small black suit.
We are mindful of the recent nuclear accident at Chernobyl, but I have the sense of the helplessness of the people to avoid contamination, and let my guard down. What, not swim in the lake, not eat and drink? We are told that the nuclear contamination will wash off this year's produce, but will be inside next year's. Berries, mushrooms, and deer meat are off menus all over Europe.
Suomo, a drum maker, tells us that he and his children had been in the yard of his house in eastern Poland. It was a warm, clear day and the children were playing naked in the grass. Suddenly, he said, he felt a fine drizzle coming from a cloudless sky and, looking up at the treetops, saw the leaves curling up like clenched fists. He hurried the children inside and called various authorities, but no one could explain what was going on. Within a couple of hours, medical teams were going door-to-door handing out iodine tablets. Later, Allen and I sit in the airport writing a song about nuclear melt down as sullen police deconstruct our luggage.
We have an afternoon off in Philadelphia and decide to go to the movies. Woody Allen's got a new film out. Al laughs at odd times. An ordinary scene of a guy getting into a taxi is somehow hilariously funny. It's as if he's operating on a different frequency from everyone else. There's something child-like about it, like I'm there with my seven-year-old son and have to explain the jokes. Later, we go to see a new movie of La Traviata, and he sings the overture, waving his arms about, punching the air. He can't contain himself.
I take him to meet my parents. On the bus out to Jersey, I tell him that the local iron mines produced cannon balls for Washington's artillery. He begins to write the poem Garden State. After dinner, he puts his cigarette out on his plate. I see my brother think, "the barbarian American." We pile into my mother's enormous blue Plymouth and drive the couple of miles to Greystone mental hospital. Inside the gate, we cruise up the long smooth blacktop between acres of perfect lawn. He says, "this is where I used to sit with my mother," and he breaks down, the sensitive kid picnicking with mad Naomi, smiling, trying to act like everything is fine, and the great man weeping in the back seat of the absurd vehicle.
Generosity. That night, we are to give a performance at the local county college. My whole family is in the audience. I'm afraid he'll read his new poem about dirty sex, but backstage, as we're preparing to go on, he hands me his books. --You pick the program tonight.
Generosity again. I have a series of recording sessions in Chelsea. One night, after a fourteen-hour session, about 2 a.m., I'm taking the A Train uptown to my place in Washington Heights. Next to me, leaning against the seat are two gig bags -- my bass and my guitar. On the seat is my briefcase. Like an idiot, I have my face buried in a newspaper. At 125th St., a kid comes out of nowhere, grabs the bass and dashes into the next car, I stand up to take off after him as another kid comes from the other direction and runs off with my guitar. I turn to pursue him and someone shouts "your briefcase!" In a flash I know the charts for the sessions are worth more than the guitars and I hesitate. The train stays in the station, doors open, and I know I'm not going to get in a fight with a couple of kids in the middle of the night in Harlem.
Next day I tell Allen what happened. He says, --The only way you're going to get over it is to replace the instruments. What'll it cost? --About a thousand. --OK.
This is not a guy who makes a lot of money, and he's replacing my instruments. Next day I go to Manny's and feel a lot better.
His voice on the message machine: Allen Ginsberg Beth Israel Hospital. Important. Please call back as soon as possible. If this is the wrong number, please leave a message for Steven Taylor at Naropa, at the poetics office, thank you.
I call back and he says --liver biopsy, hepatitis C, cancer untreatable with chemicals or surgery. I feel equanimity, I guess all those years of Buddhist practice paid off. The doctor says four five months but I feel maybe one or two.
He says carry on! I always loved you. He says I'll miss you, and I register how odd that sounds. I'll miss you too, I say.
Three hours later in a synagogue basement in Denver I crack a dusty old volume untouched for generations and read.
There is nothing under heaven, saving a true friend unto which my heart doth lean. And this dear freedom hath begotten me this peace, that I mourn not for that end which must be, nor spend one wish to have one minute added to the uncertain date of my years.