The Weight of the World
Allen Ginsberg & His Love Buzz
In 1954 a twenty eight year-old Allen Ginsberg wrote a little poem in his notebook while he was just chilling in San Jose. Actually, it started off as just some open and honest thoughts on life. He was a little high on weed, I believe, but straight enough to be insightful and open-hearted. A few days later, remembering the advice of his mentor William Carlos Williams, Allen re-arranged his sentences into a formal poetic structure. After a little bit of what his friend poet Gregory Corso called “tailoring,” Allen was done. He titled his work “SONG” and it is perhaps his first truly great short poem. It begins:
The weight of the world
Under the burden
under the burden
the weight we carry
About twelve or so years later, singer-songwriter Mick Jagger would echo thes lines himself only a little cooler and with a back beat: “I can’t get no / satisfaction.” But it was Allen Ginsberg who kicked open the saloon doors of perception enough so people like Mick and Keith Richards or John Lennon and Paul McCartney—as well as Bob Dylan, of course—could walk into a slightly altered universal cultural space and finally write about real feelings instead of just bubble gum pop sentiments.
Allen Ginsberg, along with his spiritual brothers Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, helped create a Love Revolution of their own in America that spread throughout the entire world. The press called it the Beat Generation; but I like to think of it more as a writers’ crew, much the same as the Wu Tang Clan of my youth in the 1990s. These guys, the Beats, way back in the 1950s, encouraged each other to go to places where most artists would prefer not to ever even approach: deep dark primordial zones of consciousness, mad tripped out visionary states: as Kerouac quoted his pal Allen in The Subterraneans: “Smart went crazy.”
In 1989 I was lucky enough to meet Allen Ginsberg on the Bowery at a small club called (back then) the Continental Divide. Over the years, while I was still in school, however, I was a part-time guest at Casa Ginsberg at 437 East 12th Street in New York City’s East Village. It was a heady time to be nineteen and then twenty-something. I learned a great deal about life, to say the least—and about growing old. The most amazing thing about Allen, I found, was his indefatigable faith in candor. By 1993, Allen was kind enough to allow me to live full-time in a small room in his apartment, thus saving me from post-collegiate homelessness. I got my own place on Sixth Street between First and Avenue A eventually in late 1994; but he was cool with me slowly finding my way out his door. He was my first official guest in my first official NYC crib. He brought with him a whole refrigerator’s worth of food as a house warming gift. As singer-songwriter Marianne Faithfull said to me and many others: “Allen was everybody’s old Jewish Grandmother.”
With a cheery enthusiasm, Allen tried to stay as in touch with so-called youth culture as best he could. He used to call me his “rock n roll informant.” I introduced him to guitarist and poet Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth. I played him the Beastie Boys’ Check Your Head the day it came out. I told him about how important the Smiths were to me when I was sixteen clumsy and shy. I tried to explain Method Man once to him too. To his credit, Allen was always sincerely curious. I remember him crying the night I played him the Beck album One Foot In the Grave.
“Wow” he said, “Beck knows the blues.”
I told him that Beck’s grandfather was Al Hansen, the fluxus artist. Not only did Allen know him pretty well, but one of Al’s Hershey collages was actually hanging on the wall next to his little walk-in library. Allen also wept when he heard Kurt Cobain cover Leadbelly for his MTV Unplugged session. I played the CD for him while we sat in his kitchen. Cobain was dead only a few days. Allen drew a picture of a sweaty dragon for me in a copy of his latest book. We discussed Cobain and Ma Rainey and Leadbelly—and the general sadness and suffering in the universe.
A few months before his suicide, Kurt had visited Burroughs in Kansas. William was devastated by the news of the young man’s demise. He called Allen at home and I just happened to be there that night. Allen was in the bathroom so I picked up the phone. Although I didn’t know William all that well (I only spent a few days with him in Kansas around New Year 1993 and then had a dinner with him in NYC), he often talked with me on the phone over the years since I had first started spending increasingly more and more time at Allen’s crib. Burroughs confided in me that Kurt seemed to be in so much pain when he had visited him in Lawrence, Kansas. Whether psychic or physical, William was rather empathetic his young admirer’s wounded soul.
“I feel just awful about it, “he told me—and then asked me to put Allen on the phone. The two life-long friends commiserated for about an hour. They were survivors, at heart, but saw their fair share of poetic casualties over the decades for sure. For all his hard-boiled persona and junky rep, I found it fitting that the last thing William Burroughs ever wrote was: “Love? What is it? Most natural pain killer what there is. LOVE.”
Walt Whitman loved America and believed in what it could be. He saw love, openness and candor as a way to cut through the bullshit paranoia that American politicians muddied themselves in. He lived through the greatest crisis in U.S. history: the Civil War. Yet he never faltered, at least in his verse, in his faith in a nation built on love. Whitman’s vision for America inspired Allen Ginsberg—but Allen was a bit more pragmatic than dear old Walt. Guided by his serious study of Tibetan Buddhism, Ginsberg took the Bodhisattva Vow in the 1970s; basically, he promised to try and help enlighten all man kind. This was no joke. An impossible task, yes, but Allen took to it with gusto and compassion—and with his odd sense of humor. Allen could be very funny. Gregory Corso once told me: “Jews have humor, man; they just don’t have a sense of humor.” It took me years to figure that one out. But Gregory never doubted Allen’s sincerity: especially when it came to love.
As Allen Ginsberg lay dying in the early hours of April 5, 1997, Gregory Corso asked me what to do: the classic should I stay or should I go question. I told him it was up to him. He downed half a bottle of Wild Turkey and left.
“Call me if anything happens,” he instructed me.
“I knew something was happening. I just woke up before you called,” Gregory explained.
Allen approached his own death with a surprising sense of wonder and enthusiasm. As Gregory said to me: “He didn’t teach me much how to live, but he sure taught me how to die—Allen slipped through death like a hot knife through a stick of butter.” Surrounded by some of his former lovers, dear friends and family, Allen Ginsberg certainly did have a beautiful death. The last thing he told me was: ” I feel exhilarated.”
And his actual last words to me were quite simple: “I love you.”
Well, unlike Gregory, Allen did teach me how to live—better and more openly. He encouraged me to embrace love in all its various forms. He saw sex or as he liked to refer to it, Eros, as something sacred. And he really had a disliking for closet cases. As I write this, the news of a certain U.S. Senator’s resignation just came on-line. The old politician just a few days ago said over and over that he was not “gay.” Of course, he mentioned nothing of whether or not he enjoyed gay sex. The way I see it, you got to really love sucking dick if you are cool with doing it in a smelly public bathroom. Allen would have laughed a bit about this whole controversy, but then, I figure, he’d get all serious and say something to the effect that if our culture wasn’t so hung up on defining and confining love, the poor old Republican closet case from Idaho would have been so much happier and humble in his life—and perhaps, less likely to spread such nasty self-righteous hypocritical ideology throughout this potentially great land.
After all, as Allen put it so eloquently:
THE WEIGHT OF THE WORLD IS LOVE.