Jul/Aug 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

Ginsberg's Farewell to London

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Allen Ginsberg: Live in London.
Dream/Diva Pictures Ltd. 2005.
DVD format. Color. Mono. 53 min.

On October 19th, 1995, after a week of high profile events which included a joint appearance with Paul McCartney, Allen Ginsberg gave his final London reading at Heaven, a small nightclub in the Charing Cross section of London. The reading was introduced by Lee Harris:

As you can imagine, it is a great privilege for me to help bring Allen Ginsberg to megatripolis in Heaven and introduce him to a new younger audience, here in the heart of London, a short distance as the crow flies from the street where his beloved William Blake wrote "Songs of Innocence" two hundred years ago.

Harris hustled the London streets for more than a decade during the 60s and 70s, selling far-eastern and other counter-culture items and building a minor reputation as an actor in alternative theater productions. He was active, in various respects, in the movement to legalize cannabis, and he remembered Ginsberg's involvement in one of the major marches toward that end:

I next saw Allen Ginsberg in London during the "Summer of Love" in 1967, when the flower children were in full bloom, at two memorable events. The Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, and at the Legalize Pot Rally in Hyde Park, where a policeman stopped him chanting and playing his harmonium, as it broke park by-laws.

In 1972, Harris opened the Alchemy headshop, long a regular stop on the alternative London tour, and three years later, helped create Brainstorm Comix.

Steve Teers attended the evening at Heaven, with his Hi-8(mm) video camera in hand, and recorded the reading. Ten years later, 53 minutes have been formatted for DVD by Diva Pictures and released under the title Allen Ginsberg: Live in London.

If Teers recorded Harris's introduction, it did not make the final cut. The Diva production begins with Ginsberg seated and making the final adjustments before his program. He is wearing a blue shirt with red suspenders and a red and grey striped tie; one pair of coke bottle thick, medium distance glasses are perched on his nose and another pair for closer reading is attached around his neck with a lanyard. At his elbow is a leather-jacketed body guard who will also turn the pages on the music stand when the poet launches on his performance pieces.

What follows is vintage Ginsberg, albeit with the energy of a 68 year old. He has read in hundreds of such venues before. Decades of such performances have left him notably comfortable and unflappable on stage. His first piece is a Tibetan chant accompanied by harmonium. Like all of the works that will be read or performed through the 53 minutes, it is simple and easily grasped by an audience packed together like sardines in a small, smoke-filled hall. Jostling and fidgeting audibly fade away as the chant drones on.

Not one for dwelling on the past, the pieces that follow are not among his best. But they are well chosen for the venue. His anti-Vietnam War poem, "Hum Bom!" is revived for the first Iraq War, which is the big news of the time, and it is the highlight of the show. Poems such as "Put Down Your Cigarette Rag" and "Excrement" have their moments, and their sophomoric "look, Mom, I'm yelling out naughty words" aspect is perfect for a club filled with teenagers and middle-aged Beat wannabees. Two selections of seventeen syllable, haiku-like "sentences" are surprisingly effective in their own right. Throughout, television cameras and their various handlers circle the stage in hopes of getting a swatch of top-end footage for the evening news.

Live in London owes its success as much to the feel of the club experience as it does to the poet. The grainy quality of the DVD only enhances the effect. As the reading progresses, the crowd grows too big for the hall, and we watch the wings, previously the domain of the various handlers, begin to fill up with the good natured laughter of nouveau bohemians of every stripe and the intent, furrowed brows of (presumably) tweedy college professors. For much of the reading Ginsberg is accompanied by a heckler.

Happily, Teers frequently pans across the audience. The crowd is dressed predominantly in jeans and tee-shirts. The youthfulness of it is brought home via Ginsberg's presentation as well. He introduces the poem "Written in My Dream by W. C. Williams" by explaining who William Carlos Williams was. The poem "New Stanzas for Amazing Grace," he informs the audience, has recently been written at the behest of Ed Saunders, and he can only smile when the heckler yells out "The Fuggs!" "Yes," he confirms, "of the Fuggs." Surely, few present besides Ginsberg and his trial-for-the-evening knew the least thing about Saunders or the alternative performance band he created. While all of this is going on, mild-eyed girls and skinny-armed guys smoke, smile, and exchange whispers.

As finale Ginsberg chooses William Blake's "Nurse's Song," teaching the audience the final line and calling upon it to repeat it when the moment will come. Rhythmically pumping his harmonium, he sings the song with obvious love. When it is time to sing the final line, the audience mumbles it without enthusiasm and Ginsberg deftly coaxes it until "And all the hills echoed" is gently resounding again and again through the hall.

While the grainy quality of Allen Ginsberg: Live in London may be a positive, the sound quality at times is not. The viewer whose volume can be turned up sufficiently, however, will hardly notice a problem. From the first harmonium note to the final standing ovation, she, he, and whomever they have invited over to share the experience, will have nothing to do but enjoy participating in an intimate and historical moment.


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