Purple Night

[April 10 2015]

Hal Willner presents: A celebration of the 60th anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL, Los Angeles

The last time I saw Allen Ginsberg alive I was 24 years old and a student of his at The Jack Kerouac School (yes, this is a real place). Allen was by that time a distinguished poet and professor, and because of the controversy surrounding his life, attitude and especially one poem, a cultural icon. A founding-father of the Beat movement, inspiration and often participant of the Hippie movement and even moved through punk, No Wave and Grunge until his death in 1997. When I found out about Hal Wilner’s production for the David Lynch Foundation of HOWL in Los Angeles, now my home, I was intrigued. When I saw a bill that included Courtney Love, Peaches and Nick Cave, I wondered aloud to friends, “so what do these people have to do with Ginsberg, or HOWL for that matter?”

Maybe they were doing a round-robin reading of the poem, maybe they were each doing a poem, maybe it was more or less “inspired by” because to me NONE of the artists on the poster could have existed without HOWL. Not one. The poem itself was the subject of an obscenity trial in San Francisco circa 1955, with it’s publisher and City Lights Bookstore proprietor Lawrence Ferhlingetti looking at many years in prison if he lost. The poem was found to have “literary merit” and a major win for the freedom of speech we now take for granted in the US. It’s literary merit was often blown-off by “straight” establishment types and it’s paratactic relationships to sex, drugs, death, freedom, gay sex, straight sex, cocks, cunts, balls, the atom bomb, politics, and Molach – a Hebrew demon that essentially represents capitalism in it’s ugliest form – were periodically bashed over the years, and the poem itself holds one of the records of the “Most Banned Book” in the US. Not an honor to take lightly.

Thinking of HOWL and Allen, it made me wonder what would a 21st century poetic terrorist, bumbling generous Buddhist bodhisattva like Ginsberg look like? I’m going to be honest in saying I don’t know. Could it be Courtney Love, in her lovely insanity and beautiful forwardness? Nick Cave, who’s recent biopic 20,000 Days on Earth layed out his quite poetic process for all to see (No one could get away with such a surrealist lyric like, “Hannah Montana does the African Savannah”). Or would it be one of the Gen Y notables that took the stage for Allen and HOWL and a little Lynchian Transcendental Meditation for those with PTSD?

The United Artists Theatre is an amazing space, majestic in it’s early 20th century Hollywood grandur – reminiscent of a time when downtown Los Angeles was filled with a particular brand of top-shelf entertainment. The architecture is suited for theatre and music that one will never forget. This night, no matter how eclectic or whirlwind, would be safe in this space.

One of the highlights for me was Petra Hayden’s rendition of Ginsberg’s “Father Death Blues”. I had heard Allen perform this numerous times both at the Kerouac School and in New York, and she both reminded me of the elegiac power of the poem, often sung with Ginsberg’s harmonium, and of the final scene in 2010’s HOWL where the real Allen closed the film after James Franco’s depiction of him reading the poem. Nick Cave did a fascinating solo piano version of “Mercy Seat”. Two surprising bits were Devendra Banhart’s rendition of Ginsberg’s “Vomit Express” with a suitable gaggle of hipsters prancing in the background, and Peaches with Will Forte killing it with the Ginsbergian porto-punk anthem “BIRDBRAIN”.

Hal Wilner, who produces the music for SNL, also had a few comedians on the roster. “Battle of The Skeletons” which originally aired on MTV with Sir John McCartney as the guitarist, was done round-robin style by Amy Poehler and Chris Parnell. There was a very straight stand-up act while the stage was being broken down between performers, and it was disconcerting, in fact many of the audience decided to leave at this point. For the die-hards that stayed they were in for a treat, as Courtney Love – one of the only personages that mentioned Allen by name in her introduction – belted out “Letter to God” with a half-orchestra behind her. Courtney is fascinating to watch, this is not her first foray into Beat canon. She played Burrough’s wife Joan Vollmer Burroughs in the 90s film BEAT next to Keifer Sutherland as William, and of course Kurt was a die-hard fan of the Beats. He even collaborated with Burroughs on an album, “The Priest They Called Him.”

There was a lot to digest; Nick Cave, Courtney Love, Beth Orton, Sam Amidon, Macy Gray, Lucinda Williams, Tim Robbins, Van Dyke Park and a reading of HOWL by Chloe Web and Hal Wilner, that received a much deserved standing ovation. The last act of the night was Beth Orton and Nick Cave duet of “The Ship Song” and it was something to hear, hopefully there will be a recording somewhere.

The finalé was peculiar. Everyone was brought back on stage and in a very haphazard fashion certain personages stood out. Love tried to energize the audience into participating in the last song the group “sang” – some evidently didn’t know the lyrics – and at a few points Cave and Love were very much the focal point of activity. Not sure what this had to do with HOWL or Ginsberg, but then maybe it did.

Allen Ginsberg brought people together. He also sought them out. He was the force majure that quietly promoted and invented in a way the Beat Generation. He inspired Bob Dylan’s America, and divested the poetic prowess of now four generations of writers, poets and even comedians and musicians. Talking to Hal Wilner on the rooftop of The Ace after the procession he said it pretty succinctly, “Allen knew it was part-showbiz, part-life-affirming, and that is what this was. They all have something to do with HOWL, even if they don’t know it.”

Text and photo Bil Brown


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