COLUMN TWENTY-ONE, MAY 1, 1997
(Copyright © 1997 Al Aronowitz)
PART 1: THE BEAT PAPERS OF AL ARONOWITZ
(Photo courtesy of Myles Aronowitz.)
Introduction: Allen Ginsberg, One of My Giants
Allen Ginsberg became one of my heroes some 40 years ago after I was assigned by the editors of the New York Post to do a hatchet job on him. That's when I first recognized Allen as someone who would become one of the giants of our time. He quickly disarmed me of the hatchet my bosses had given me and became an important part of my life, just as I became an important part of his, although I can hear him screaming his denials to that latter assertion from the grave. Like me, Allen saw things the way he wanted to see them. But that's right, he doesn't have any grave to scream from, does he? Allen's body has now been reduced to ashes, but energy can never be destroyed and the gigantic energy of the gigantic Allen will continue to enlighten the earth for as long as humankind can read. People already have long been into Allen in many languages around the world.
Although he lived to the wizened but often cranky age of 70, Allen died much too soon for my money. Did it take his death for the world to become fully aware of Allen's gigantic stature? Like the passing of a prominent head of state, Allen's death made front-page headlines around the world. From the front page of that gender-neutral bastion, the Village Voice , Allen's kindly visage loomed at us as if he were God Himself. Isn't that what Allen had in mind from the very start? Some 40 years ago, Jack Kerouac told me:
"Allen and Gregory--Gregory Corso--they come up to me at midnight and say" -- and Jack mimicked Allen with an excited half-whisper--"and say, Look, we've done all this, we've made great literature. Why don't we do something REAL great and take over the WORLD!"
From the beginning, Allen was determined to amass that kind of personal power. He knew he was going to leave his mark on this planet. Allen was maybe one of the world's best self-promoters since Jesus, but that doesn't detract from the fact that he was also an idealist who wanted to save humankind from evil. Allen wanted to be a force for goodness, for compassion, for healing, for gentleness, for kindness, for generosity, for tenderness and for peace but never for smug self-satisfaction and never for atrophying complacency. And he was just such a force! Allen's voice not only could be soothing and tender but it also was a voice that had the capability of resonating with fire and brimstone in its judgements. Allen was the equivalent of an Old Testament prophet. His message? If humankind, blinded by its own greed, continues to rape the earth, humankind will ultimately render the earth uninhabitable and itself extinct. That's too powerful a message for the greedy to agree to, but Allen demanded that he be heeded.
Until his death in the sad early hours of April 5th, Allen was without question America's greatest living poet. I wrote a piece saying so back in 1980 in Boulder, Colorado, at the 25th anniversary celebration of the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road . America's Greatest Living Poet , I entitled the piece. That's when Allen put me on his shit list.
In the end, I was getting so pissed off at Allen that I told Aram Saroyan's creative writing class of graduate students at USC that I thought he had turned into a pompous old queen. Now I'm biting my tongue for ever having said that. At this writing, not much more than a week after his death, I still find myself breaking into tears thinking about him. Yes, I miss him. I began missing him years ago, when, suddenly But I'll let you read all our correspondence so you can see for yourselves.
Otherwise, I know I wasn't the only one of Allen's old friends who started getting fed up with his holier-than-thou hauteur. Those friends commiserated with me about Allen's growing impatience, his increasing crankiness, his tyrannical outbursts and the fact that he was no longer as much fun to hang out with as he once had been.
"Allen's very busy being famous!" I remember one of them snapping some years ago. That comment came from someone close enough to Allen to have been one of those Allen telephoned from his deathbed and actually visited with in his last days. But now, like me, they are all biting their tongues. They and I together all know that Allen had successfully achieved gianthood, that he deserved his fame. They all loved Allen as much as I did. One of them even phoned to tell me how appalled he was at the iron wreath thrown on Allen's grave by antediluvian right-wing syndicated newspaper columnist George Will. Like a gnat trying to shit on a giant, Will celebrated Allen's death by dumping on him as a "literary deadbeat." Allen was too much of a visionary to be judged by so short-sighted and notorious a fossilized apologist for the greedy ruling class.
Yes, I was on Allen's shit list when he died but I'd always looked forward to what I believed would be our inevitable rapprochement. Allen'd been too much a part of my life. He'd been like a member of my family. He was one of my elder, wiser brothers. We'd known each other for too many years to let any friction put callouses between us. I was proud to know him, proud that I had been so much a part of his life, proud that he was so much a part of mine. But, as I've previously tried to tell you, my romance with cocaine helped me alienate just about everyone I ever knew. Like too many other old friends, Allen had given up on me. Now he is gone and I'll never be able to show him how wrong he was to write me off.
To become one of the greatest men of our century had been Allen's intention from the start. Almost to the day of his death, he was a driven man. According to David Gates, who did an excellent job of trying to sum up Allen's life in three-quarters of a Newsweek page:
His last, longest talk was with William Burroughs, now 83, who'd introduced him to druggy-gay-hipster lowlife back in the '40s, and whose novel "Naked Lunch" Ginsberg had coaxed out, edited and promoted: He said he had expected to be afraid of death, but instead was exhilarated. He wept from time to time, but mostly seemed at peace---he even wrote a zany letter to Bill Clinton, asking for a medal of recognition "unless it's politically inadvisable. Maybe Gingrich may not mind." And he made a last request to his agent, Andrew Wylie. "My ' Selected Poems' weren't reviewed in the New York Times Book Review. Can you do something about it?" On Thursday night, he slipped into a coma. At 2:39 Saturday morning, his heart stopped. He was 70 years old.
Even on his deathbed, Ginsberg remained the compulsive poet and the equally compulsive self-promoter---as he himself cheerfully acknowledged. "I want to be known as the most brilliant man in America," he wrote in his 1974 poem "Ego Confession," "who sang a blues made rock stars weep who called the Justice Department & threaten'd to Blow the Whistle/Stopt Wars distributed monies to poor poets & nourished imaginative genius of the land." This comic self-aggrandizement suggests the true range of his career. Ginsberg, the son of a New Jersey schoolteacher and minor poet, entered Columbia University intending to be a left-wing lawyer, then became a protege of two heavyweight literati, Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren. But he soon fell in with a bad crowd---Burroughs, the young novelist Jack Kerouac, the proto-hipster Neal Cassady---and out of the literary, cultural, political and sexual mainstream. In 1956, his incantatory poem "Howl" made him notorious: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, staring hysterical naked/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix." At the time, "Howl" seemed to be a Dantesque tour of the Eisenhower era's scary, repressed subconscious: buggery, blasphemy, Benzedrine, be-bop and the bomb. In retrospect, it seems a prophecy of the hell---and the heaven--that was to break loose in the '60s, the Big Bang after which American culture has continued to break apart and mutate in appalling, energizing directions.
My compliments to David Gates. I couldn't have said it better myself. Or more succinctly. The truth is that Allen did help effectuate a change in America's consciousness and has even made a dent in the world's consciousness. He certainly helped change my consciousness. Poet Miguel Agarin, among those reciting at a memorial staged by The Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church a week after Allen's death, said that Allen left no closet
he was destined
door closed. Candor was another of Allen's messages to the world. Allen's openness certainly won me over. I felt an immediate alliance with him. I was still in the grip of my middle class mentality but, as a journalist, I felt obligated to truthfulness. My contact with Allen' helped me arrive at the belief that secrets are the tools of tyranny and that knowledge, like air and sunlight, belongs to everyone.
Yes, Allen was a driven man. Driven to the end to achieve even greater greatness. He knew the size of his gianthood. He knew that his every little chicken scratch would become a historical relic. One of the first things he did when he came home from his last trip to the hospital was to put on a Ma Rainey recording, See, See Rider . With little more than a day left to live and with his last remaining energy waning fast, Allen looked forward to appearing in that MTV show. He talked enthusiastically about it to photographer Robert Frank, another of America's giants, who once filmed Pull My Daisy , starring Jack Kerouac and, of course, Allen Ginsberg, with music by David Amram.
"It was the second of April in the evening," Robert told me. "I went there and he had come back from the hospital. He was pretty weak but he was in a good mood and showed me all his apartment. I had never been there. And he was really proud and happy to show it to me. And he discussed what he wanted to do before he would die, which was a concert with Dylan and Ornette Coleman. The whole plan, very, very. . . the way he is, you know, the whole plan for his monument, for his immortality. But he was nice, he was very gentle and spoke with a very, very soft voice. Obviously, he didn't have much energy. He was very calm about this sickness. And Peter was there and he took a photograph of me or tried to. Peter took some photographs. Allen sat there. Two women were there, Bob Rosenthal's wife and another one, maybe Rosebud Pettet. And then he said did I have this book and this book and also this book? He walked very slowly through the apartment showing me books, 'You know this one and this one?' and so on. And finally, he said 'This one, I don't know. It's a book called Making It Up by Kenneth Koch and Ron Padgett,' and he took this book and wrote in it in very shaky writing, he wrote, 'Allen Ginsberg for Robert Frank, first visit to my new home, where I am inspired to expire. ah.' A H at the end. A H with a circle around it. And the next morning, they called me and said he had an attack and he's unconscious, he's in a coma. I went over there and it was over. It made me sad. It made me terribly sad. It made me terribly sad because of the night before. Just to see the end. He was very generous to me, very caring about me, always asking me about my health, telling me to go to see his doctor. So I was very sad for two days. I didn't think it would be that sad. Because he was so gentle that night. Maybe he knew. But he told me he thinks it's another two or three weeks. But it was the next day."
Even as his enormous energy waned on that, his next to very last day, Allen remained a workaholic. He always had too much to do and he wanted to do it all. Yes, I'm kicking myself in the ass for having lost the close friendship of one of the greatest men of our century.
Although Allen had been determined almost from the very beginning to trod in poet Walt Whitman's footsteps, Allen long ago ran out of Whitman's footsteps in which to trod. That was because Allen long ago outdistanced Walt. Beat scholar Gerry Nicosia, another victim of Allen's later life tyranny, once paid homage to Allen in this way:
That such a literary giant---a man who performs his works to standing-room-only crowds on every continent, and whose work has influenced other writers in almost every language---should have grown from the boy Allen Ginsberg in Paterson, New Jersey, is surely one of the more astounding feats of our century.
I thought Gerry's likening Allen to Harpo Marx with his jingling, jangling coat full of causes was especially apt because, in his own way, Allen was something of a Harpo Marx. In Jack Kerouac's On the Road , Allen appeared as Carlo Marx, not in honor of the founder of Communist dogma but in honor of Harpo, the most clownish of the Marx Brothers. In On the Road , Jack portrayed Allen as a comedic figure. Allen was fun to hang out with because he made a joke out of everything, even his homosexuality, just as he did in that poem in which he once told America he'll "put my queer shoulder to the wheel."
One of the underlying reasons Allen had for wanting to get famous was the same as one of the underlying reasons I had for wanting to get famous. In my case, I thought getting famous would improve my sex life. I knew Allen well enough to know he thought the same thing. He used to come on to everybody I introduced him to. Coming on was part of his comedy routine. Allen used to be quick and easy to laugh about his sex life. Except, when I tried to put Allen together with Brian Epstein, then the Beatles' manager and a paradigm of high British swish, Brian was immediately turned off by both the unkempt Allen and Allen's Lower East Side tenement flat. Brian hadn't been there more than a few moments when he announced he suddenly remembered a previous appointment and he walked out the door.
The night I introduced Allen to Bob Dylan, Allen was immediately smitten. All night, he kept coming on to Bob. Finally, when the night is over and I pull my station wagon up outside Bob's West Fourth Street pad in the Village, Allen makes one last stab. Bob gets out of the station wagon, Allen gets out of the station wagon and I get out of the station wagon. The three of us are standing on the West Fourth Street sidewalk and Allen won't stop coming on. He keeps going through his same old routine. Finally, I laugh and tell Allen to cut it out. I tell him it's unbecoming for a famous poet like him to carry on like this. Let the poor guy go upstairs and go to sleep. At that, Allen starts jumping up and down on the West Fourth Street sidewalk like a kid throwing a tantrum to demand that his mommy buy him candy.
"What's the use of getting famous if I can't come on like this?" Allen says.
What was the use of getting to be Allen Ginsberg if it didn't put him in a position to come on to his young, gorgeous heroes? Or to his armies of young, gorgeous admirers? In his poetry, Allen never stopped proclaiming his promiscuity. But age catches up on all of us, doesn't it? After both Allen and I had reached our 50s, he once visited me when I was living in Woodstock.
"Have you been getting laid lately?" he asked me. It must have been in the early '80s. Not lately, I told him. "Me, neither," he said.
It was after I introduced Allen to Bob that Allen added music to his readings. He came back from India with a harmonium. In those days, Allen used to call his poems songs and Bob called his songs poems. I knew Allen was going to become a giant just as I knew Bob was going to become a giant. I wanted to become a giant, too, but in those days I was invisible, wasn't I? Did Allen want me to stay invisible? It was when I started trying to make myself visible that he started getting pissed off at me.
Yes, Allen used to be great fun to hang out with. It was only in his later years that Allen started taking himself seriously. When you become as famous as Allen, more and more demands are made on your time. But your body keeps telling you that you have less and less time to give. Your impatience is easily tried. You become crotchety. You have too many things to do and not enough time to do them all. There are too many unwanted interruptions. You start barking maybe without even noticing that you're barking.
Despite all the impatience and grumpiness Allen showed me in his later years, I know him to have been one of the kindest of men. My elder son, Myles, who is making a name for himself as a photographer, is another one insisting that Allen had a heart of gold. Myles photographed those famous portraits of Allen which decorated the altar at Allen's funeral and which, as part of Allen's fabled Gap ad, appeared in publications around the world. Grumpy as Allen might have become, Allen sweetly posed for the pictures, giving Myles all the time and consideration that the painstakingly meticulous Myles needed.
Myles has known Allen since Myles was a little kid. When Myles' mother was stricken with cancer, Myles, with his sister and brother, spent their summers with Allen and his entourage at Allen's Cherry Valley farm in upstate New York. When Myles' sister, Brett, learned of Allen's death, she sent me this Email from California:
"Do you know all your letters?" he asked me. I was probably no more than five.
"Yes, I think so," I answered. I wonder now where could my parent's have been?
"Okay," and then he spelled the letters for me. "A-L-L-E-N..." I remember we got to the "G" in Ginsberg and I forgot what a "G" looked like. Allen continued: "I-N-S-B-E-R. . ." He said we would get back to the "G."
"Did you remember how to make a G?" he asked. Letters and language made this man very patient.
"No," I answered.
"Well, let me see if I can describe it for you. It's like a 'C' with a line drawn through it." I think my message was probably very cryptic and I'm not sure if it was the capital G or both g's that I'd forgot how to form. But that is my first memory of Allen and I feel my body welling up with sadness at his passing. He was a warm man and very soulful. Like a nurturing uncle. I was blessed to have known this man and to have been so close and, at the same time, so obviously far away.
It was a vegetarian farm and I remember we ate wheat pilaf almost every night. I hate wheat pilaf. I hated it the first time I tasted it probably as much as my older brother hates kasha.
The dirt road to the farm wound down to the house within about a quarter of a mile. The house was white and must've been over a hundred years old. Did they tell us before we got there that there was no running water or plumbing? I don't remember. That meant we had to use an outhouse. It was disgusting. Every week or so someone would be elected to clean the outhouse. I am surprised none of us got hepatitis.
There was a large green pump in the kitchen and we would pump water. Lots of people and poets came to the farm that summer. Lots of Beats. Allen's longtime lover, Peter Orlovsky was there. Peter was tall and unexpectedly handsome. His brother Julius had been a mental patient who stopped talking for years and when he suddenly began talking was asked why he'd stopped. His reply was, "Because I didn't have nuthin' to say." Well that's the story my father told us.
There was a woman named Belle and her daughter. Belle was in a relationship with Gregory Corso. Gregory was the person who told us that my father was lying when he said he was smoking Turkish tobacco. "It's marijuana" he told us as he seared a steak on a grill outside the house in deliberate rebellion to the vegetarian effort.
"See this steak, I'm not sharing it with any of you kids," he taunted, and he kept his word. We couldn't believe his cruelty. It smelled delicious, this steak.
Herbert Huncke showed up for a time. I remember finding him endearing at my pre-adolescent age and used to tease him and call him Hunky-Dory.
There were all kinds of mysteries that summer. Fears about ghosts were so strong that to face the pitch blackness of the night to pee was so terrifying that for the first time in my life I remember wetting my bed, which was just a mattress in the attic. We all slept up there. My brothers, myself and Barbara, who was in charge.
Barbara had shaven her head and taken a job at the nearby Yeshiva. Once she brought the girls from the Yeshiva to the farm, where men were walking around bare-chested. Some of the girls were so devastated! They'd never seen any part of a man's anatomy exposed and they ratted on Barbara, who almost lost her job. I think Barbara was there to learn Cabbalah. Perhaps the original Yentl?
I heard many years later that she died during childbirth and I wondered for years whether that was even a true story. Nobody dies during childbirth.
There was a hermit named Ed that lived on the farm or close by It was probably on his own property which was alongside Allen's. Ed lived in a shack and I can only vaguely remember seeing the outside. Never the inside.
I remember Gregory Corso found a baby raccoon which he tried to domesticate. A cow gave birth. But I was away either on a road trip with Belle and her daughter or back in the city with my parents.
My mother heard our desperate pleas for meat and in spite of her illness, one weekend brought us her famous chicken soup in what must've been a gallon sized, salmon-colored thermos jar. It was great when we ate it after she arrived and then later we tried it and it had gone bad and I remember drinking chicken soup that had turned. But I don't remember getting sick. I think I had enough just to know it was bad.
There were African Geese on the farm. Two of them, a male and female, would walk as if they were Siamese twins, never going anywhere without the other. Aggressive animals these geese were and they would march right up to you and sqwack. They terrified me. So someone, either Peter or Huncke, told me, "If they really bother you then just grab their neck and squeeze."
Tell that to an eleven year old One day this goose was really bothering me and chasing me and scaring me and I got fed up.
"Leave me alone," I remember shouting. And then with all the nerve I could muster from every cell in my body, I reached out and grabbed the neck of the goose and squeezed. Maybe this was Corso's idea. I squeezed and squeezed and it felt weird because this goose was suddenly so vulnerable and it's neck didn't seem strong at all but fragile and I could see that I was hurting and scaring it. Now for all that time to pass with me thinking and squeezing and thinking this goose was pretty pissed off. Now what do I do? I wondered. So I let go. But when I finally did let go, I turned around to run away and the goose chased me and latched on to the right cheek of my ass. His wings were a-flapping as I was running and screaming for help with him attached. My brothers sat on the porch laughing.
The next day or so we put the geese into pillow cases, threw them into someone's trunk and took them back to the farm where they had been purchased. They were too dangerous even for Allen's farm.
It was because of the outhouse that I hated to visit Allen at his Cherry Valley farm. Supposedly, everybody had to take a turn emptying the pail beneath the hole in the outhouse seat. That was the pail into which we all had to shit and I wasn't the only one of the bunch who refused to empty the pail. It was usually Allen who carried the pail to dump its contents I forget where. Allen was never above doing the dirtiest, meanest task, just as he was never above living among the roaches and pullchain toilets of the Lower East Side,
Gregory Corso could
write a poem about flyshit
and make it sound beautiful
with its hallways stinking of urine and littered with turds. I remember how proud he was when he told me he had sold his papers to a library for a million dollars and had used the money to purchase painter Larry Rivers' loft on 13th Street. Some of those papers he sold were ones I had sent him from my research for my New York Post Beat Generation series. They turned up again on display in the Whitney Museum's recent Beat Generation exhibit. When I visited the Whitney, I found Allen admiring the exhibit.
"Fancy meeting you here!" I said.
"Fancy meeting you here!" he answered.
That was the night of David Amram's performance at the Whitney, and Allen and Gregory talked loudly all through David's show. Although boasting a well-earned reputation for being rude and asinine, Gregory writes some of the most gorgeous lyric poetry I've ever read. I remember Ray Bremser, one of the Beat Generation's jailhouse poets---in fact, Allen helped get Ray out of prison---telling me that Gregory can write a poem about fly shit and make it sound beautiful.
Allen's good friend and fellow poet, Amiri Baraka, another giant of our times, testified as to Allen's heart of gold at Allen's Buddhist funeral service, so hastily arranged that they were still putting decorations on the shrine after the rites were well under way. No sooner had Amiri arrived at the funeral when he was asked to speak. Amiri's been a friend of mine for almost 40 years so I know I'm prejudiced, but I think Amiri stole the show.
The rites, held in a Buddhist meditation room of the Shambhala Center on the sixth floor of an office building at 118 West 22nd Street in Manhattan, were supposed to be "private," but the overflow crowd filled the adjoining rooms, the hallway and the sidewalk below. An accomplished and inspirational orator, Amiri got up and talked simply but forthrightly, telling how Allen had phoned him from Beth Israel hospital on the Wednesday before his death to ask if Amiri needed any money. Allen was well aware that Amiri wasn't brimming with cash. Although Allen himself had started out taking a vow of poverty, Allen in the end was a millionaire. He wanted to spread some charity to Amiri while he was still around. But how could Amiri take money from a dying man? Amiri quoted Allen as saying that the doctors gave him four months to a year but Allen said he knew death was going to come sooner. Amiri and Allen had been friends for some 40 years and gave many poetry readings together. Amiri told how he met Allen after first sending Allen a letter written on toilet paper. Responding on toilet paper also, Allen wrote that he was sick and tired of being Allen Ginsberg.
Even before we got to the funeral, Amiri complained that the Shambhala Center would be too small to hold all of those who would show up at Allen's funeral services no matter how "private" the services were supposed to be. Obviously, he was right. Amiri said Allen deserved an observance of his death in a place where all his followers and admirers, even those from the general public, could gather. Currently, Amiri is organizing a committee of poets, painters, musicians, writers and others in the arts to see if such a celebration of Allen's life can be held, perhaps in Central Park this summer.
Yes, I, too, can attest to Allen's golden heart. When I went broke after having been kicked out of journalism by my so-called colleagues at the New York Post , Allen was one of the first to send me money: a check for $500, an enormous sum to both of us at that time. Unhappily, I can also attest to instances I witnessed when Allen showed his golden heart to be unexpectedly but exceedingly hardened. But my intention here is to honor Caesar, not to bury him. Don't all our gods stand on clay feet? We're all so very human. Otherwise, Allen could be one of the kindest, gentlest, most loyal and most considerate human I was once fortunate enough to regard as a brother.
The news that Allen had untreatable liver cancer broke on Thursday, April 2. Allen suffered many years from hepatitis C, which led to a cirrhosis of the liver that was diagnosed in 1988. Allen had lately been stricken with severe fatigue and jaundice and underwent a biopsy at Beth Israel. That was how the cancer was discovered. But Allen had been sick on and off for years. He had suffered a lung embolism only a year or so earlier and was being treated for a bad heart. Constantly on the road giving readings and speeches and making personal appearances, Allen was unable to stick to a proper diet. He loved to schmooze over something to eat and nearby Second Avenue had all the international restaurants he needed. Allen loved life. As I've already said, he had gigantic energy.
No sooner did the doctors tell Allen that he had between four months and a year to live when he methodically began to wind up his affairs. He knew he wasn't going to last even four months. Somehow, he viewed his impending death with a resigned and brave cheerfulness. "I've led a good life," he said toward the end. A member of his staff, Bill hale, described his last days to me:
"He'd been really sick at least a month. He'd been seeing his cardiologist up in Boston, but he didn't really know. He was calling it hepatitis at that point. He also had diabetes and he's had congestive heart failure. But you can control that. His lung embolism was caused by his congestive heart failure. That condition coarsens the inner wall of the heart and that was collecting blood and causing clots and at one point in 1995, one of those broke loose. And that really knocked him down. It's a good thing it only went to his lung. It coulda been worse. In congestive heart failure, you have to control the fluids building up around the heart and if you can control that, you can live for a long time."
It wasn't until March 28, when Allen got the biopsy results, that he learned he had inoperable liver cancer. His liver wasn't functioning any more. Still he thought maybe he had a couple of months to live.
"He was really weak," Peter Hale told me. "He could only maybe stay up for two hours at a time, twice a day. That's all he had energy for. So he stayed in the hospital through that following Wednesday, the second of April and on that date he was actually up about six hours walking around the loft. He must have been excited to be home or something but it was almost as if he wasn't sick. He was back to his old doing everything. Robert Frank was over for dinner later that night. Peter was there. Other people say they got calls from him at twelve o'clock and twelve-thirty at night. When we got back in Thursday, he had breakfast and then he was just flat-out tired. Couldn't even get up at all that day. Except he went to the bathroom once and then he was throwing up late that afternoon. Couldn't get out of bed at all. Peter and I held a hand up to his chin while he was retching. And then he just rolled right over and went to sleep. He said, 'I'm just too tired.' Whatever transpired through the night, Bob Rosenthal was here till about 10 and then Peter was here for the rest of the night. Bob got in at 9 Friday morning and Allen was in a coma. He'd had a stroke. The doctor from Beth Israel came over. Confirmed he'd had a stroke and that he was in a coma. And said it would only be a matter of hours, maybe a few days. It was a hospice setup, which means they don't administer life support, only just oxygen to help the breathing. They can't intravenously give him water, fluids or food. So throughout that day, people started to find out. A lot of visitors came by and sat by him and held his hand and said their goodbyes. His Lama flew in from Ann Arbor and started a whole series of Buddhist practices and chants. And by midnight, everyone had left, except for about 10 of us, me, Bob, Bill and a few other friends plus his cousin, Dr. Joel Gaidemak. His brother, Eugene Brooks, had come through during the day. He left about 11:30. He had to go home because he'd left some medication there. And Allen's stepmother, Edith, came by in the daytime. This was on Friday. By 2:15 Saturday morning, his breathing started to change dramatically. He had a few seizures. He was struggling with breathing and his body shifted a few times. It must've been something like 2:20, 2:25, he then opened his eyes, looked at everybody in the room and he closed them again. And his breathing got quieter and quieter until shortly after about 2:30, when he stopped breathing. In his last week he had said quite often that he had led a good life. I came in Monday afternoon, saw him at the hospital and he was talking to a friend on the phone,. He said, 'Tootle-oo!' He was tearful. He was saying, 'I'm gonna miss you! But I feel happy!' He was really surprised that he wasn't afraid. He kept saying, 'I'm so surprised! But I think I'm really ready!' At the same time, he was making all these plans to do all these recording projects. His list of things to do was doubling every day. Was going to try and do this and sign a hundred prints of this and make copies of that and make a recording with so-and-so. I think a lot of the people he was talking to, that's basically what he was saying. He was saying goodbye, he was saying, 'I'm not afraid.' As soon as we faxed the New York Times that Allen was dead, the phone started ringing. In 20 minutes, we started getting calls from as far away as places like Italy."
As I've said, Allen and I at one time felt part of each other's family. I still count Allen's brother, Eugene, and Eugene's wife, Connie, to be friends of mine. Allen's late father, Louis, was also a friend as is Allen's stepmother, Edith, now in her 90s. Edith was at the funeral. It was no more than a year or so ago that I ran into Allen in Manhattan's Port Authority Bus Terminal, where he was catching a bus for Paterson to go visit Edith. Allen's habit of traveling as if he were one the lowly is one of his endearing qualities that always kept me loving him. I asked Eugene to describe his last glimpses of Allen.
"I got word from Bob Rosenthal Friday morning about 10 o'clock," Eugene said. "I was getting dressed. I had expected to visit him Saturday. I've been trying since he got to his house Wednesday, but every time I called up he was either not feeling well or I just wanted to give him rest. Then I got this call and I went in there with my wife and I guess we stayed there till about 10 o'clock and alternately we went up to his bedside, stroked his head, talked to him and was advised by the nurse that the last thing he could do was hear. So I told him I loved him, as everyone else was gonna do, and I talked to everybody else. Of course, he was with his head on the right side and breathing spasmodically, apparently a final situation. It's unfortunate I couldn't see him. However I had seen him in the hospital that prior... a week before on Thursday. We had a long talk then. So I feel comfortable about that. We talked about his situation. About how he had canceled everything except the Dylan thing that they were gonna do. That he'd been very tired and had been to the doctor. He still thought---he'd been to Boston and the doctor had prescribed some kind of penicillin. We talked about family things, about ongoing things. He asked me whether I was doing any writing. He did speak about this..
"Prior to that I'd visited a week before in his house. and he read some notes, sort of a pyramid of people who he'd want to think about, who he would hope would think about him if he died, starting with I'm not sure, but I guess close friends, Peter and so forth, lovers, and down to his family. Then we went to the restaurant and I guess he had pirogi, I had borscht without beets that I was very disturbed about. Then I went to Christine's for real borscht. Then he took off and then I say about a week later, Tuesday or Wednesday, we saw him at the hospital. That was the last time I saw him alive. I looked back and he waved and that was it. But he was kind of enthusiastic about doing some poetry books. And getting out. So he had no idea Till he got . The next day, I think he was given the results of the biopsy. Then he started calling everybody up "
At the Poetry Project Memorial for Allen at St. Mark's Church, Eugene broke down in tears while reading a poem he had written for Allen. He had to ask Bob Rosenthal to finish reading the poem to the audience for him. He has given me permission to publish it here:
POEM FOR ALLEN GINSBERG
BY EUGENE BROOKS
(Copyright © 1997 Eugene Brooks)
Wherever you hover, Spirit, mind-deep in space
Where God signs his name in hydrogen italics
Among Oort cloud comets that brought water to Earth
For our throats' thirsts and tears for our eyes,
Or drifting over mountain crags west of Boulder,
Where you touch ethereal fingers to wingtips of eagles,
Or under the world's oceans admonishing sharks
To clamp their teeth into little fish more thoughtfully,
Or lounging among Cherry Valley ferns, watching with daisies' eyes
Through a lattice of tree twigs a red sun sliver
Slide below the horizon's rim, nightfall crickets chirp
The compact epics of their lives, or sitting with us
Invisible in the 13th Street Fifth floor eyrie
As church bells toll the heartbeat of time into song,
Now you know all, Allen, while earthbound our senses fail.
You can see time gone and time to come, how the Cosmos started and ends
How the rose builds its lovely carbon body out of photons and rain.
You watch the girl in her bedroom cursing the face in the mirror,
You watch the long legged high school stripling toss
Basketballs through hoops---move on, you're past all sex
Well, hardline Capitalism triumphed in your time,
It had to, crushing your outcries in a torrent of plastic,--
So, shower your pity on the nation you scolded;
Pity our soldier dragged in Kigali's dust,
Pity the homeless in their cardboard chapels,
Pity the neck-slashed girls and the death cell halfwit,
Pity our midnight soul fears and dark dream tremors:
Pity our workplace gouging of each other
That our children not fall under the spiked wheel of poverty,
Pity the comrades you wordlessly deserted,
Pity your brother's self pity, the vanity of his grief.
Pity the human race its illusion of permanence
There were many other highlights at the Poetry Project's memorial program. Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky sent a poem describing Allen as having a "face amidst a horrendous beard like an egg in a wrong nest." David Amram, as per usual, delighted the audience by improvising a rhymed rap for the occasion (his specialty!) while accompanying himself on the piano playing Pull My Daisy . In my opinion, Rosebud Pettet, who has known Allen for almost as long as I've known him and who is one of Allen's most dedicated disciples, provided one of the most touching moments of the afternoon by reading her poignant story of Allen's last days. With this reading, Rosebud marked herself as an expert and immaculate writer from whom a creditable literary output can be expected. After she held the St. Marks Church audience transfixed, I approached her to congratulate her and asked her permission to print her manuscript here. She said yes, but changed her mind a few days later, saying it was too personal to put on the Internet.
As a matter of fact, Rosebud's account of Allen's last days is very personal. "Suddenly then a remarkable thing happened," she wrote. "A tremor went though him, and slowly, impossibly, he began to raise his head. He weakly tried to sit up, and his left arm lifted and extended. Then his eyes opened very slowly and very wide. The pupils were wildly dilated. I thought I saw a look of confusion or bewilderment. His head began to turn very slowly and his eyes seemed to glance around him, gazing on each of us in turn His mouth opened, and we all heard as he seemed to struggle to say something, but only a soft, low sound, a weak "Aaah," came from him. Then his eyes began to close and he sank back weakly onto the pillow. The eyes shut fully "
In the end, what possibly pained me most about Allen's death is that I was not among those he called to say goodbye. I know that I would have been in the old days. Although he would deny it in his later life, I know I used to be important to him. I guess what pained me most was that I was important to him no longer.
He used to hate it whenever I characterized him as any sort of publicity hound, but I called them as I saw them, and Allen was a prototypic publicity hound. He would never shrink from asking me to get something into print about him. I suppose it was after I was blacklisted from print that I ceased being so important to Allen. Although I always sidestepped Allen's invitations to share carnal knowledge, we had such an affection for each other that we used to greet each other and say goodbye by kissing on the lips. This was back in the early '60s, when it was highly unfashionable for men to be seen kissing each other on the lips, but Allen and I felt like family. We continued greeting each other and saying goodbye with a kiss on the lips even after Allen put me on his shit list. Except, toward the end, he began to find excuses for not kissing me. He had a cold, he would say, or he was otherwise sick. But, although he greeted me coolly the last time I saw him, in St. Mark's Church at the memorial for Herbert Huncke, he grabbed me before we parted and planted a big, strong smack on my lips. I now cling to that memory.
I could go on and on about Allen and I will in future columns. For the present, let this be part of the first installment of The Beat Papers of Al Aronowitz . I know I promised you A Movie For David Geffen this trip but the movie will have to wait for another time. Allen has taken over my consciousness and I have dedicated this column to saluting him and initiating my serialization of The Beat Papers of Al Aronowitz , which will include all the correspondence between me and Allen, including exhibits showing how our friendship deteriorated. The Beat Papers of Al Aronowitz also will include the full text of my 1980 piece, America's Greatest Living Poet , which has never been published. When Bob Rosenthal and Bill Morgan of Allen's staff put together an anthology called Best Minds to celebrate Allen's 60th birthday, they asked me to contribute a piece. I gave them America's Greatest Living Poet , but Allen hated that piece so much that Bob and Bill were forced to rewrite it. After putting it through their washing machine and then squeezing it dry, they put my byline on it and put it in their Best Minds book. I was appalled. Allen never would have stood for an editor fucking around with anything he wrote. Why should he expect me to?
You can consider what you're reading more or less an introduction to The Beat Papers of Al Aronowitz . For a preface, you can read COLUMN ONE. My serialization of The Beat Papers of Al Aronowitz in subsequent columns will also include a 90-minute interview I taped with Allen in 1994, which was really an attempt on my part to resuscitate our friendship. I'd like to include the audio of that interview as well as the transcript in my BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST column and I'm going to try to raise the funds necessary to enable me to do so. I found some of Allen's words inaudible or indecipherable, so I'd like to let you figure them out for yourselves.
In addition, The Beat Papers of Al Aronowitz will include the chapters I wrote for a book based on my original 12-part series about the Beats published in the New York Post in 1960. I never finished writing the book and, with maybe a few exceptions in seldom-read magazines, none of these chapters has ever been published. Below, you'll find Chapter One, "BEAT." These chapters were written more than 30 years ago, when I was still learning how to make a typewriter sing, so you can be as critical as you like.
In addition, Kerouac scholar Dennis McNally years ago wrote a commentary for these chapters which I will put in these columns as soon as I can collect the funds to have Dennis' commentary scanned onto a disc or retyped electronically. They were written long before the Age of the Computer. Dennis, until recently the press agent for the Grateful Dead, is now writing a book telling what he couldn't tell about the Dead when he was the band's press agent. You can read all about Dennis in COLUMN FIVE. ##
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