The Late Allen Ginsberg and Beck in Conversation
A Beat/Slacker Transgenerational Meeting of Minds
Allen Ginsberg What I heard first of yours were funky things, very interesting rhymes, stanzas in blues, very old antique sound. I said, how'd this young kid get so educated? Because you're really young and coming from these classic roots. I thought, geez, something great is happening!
Beck: Yeah, That was my world. Still is. I found myself rejecting so much new music, everything that is part of our culture. Then a couple of years ago, I just spun all around and decided to embrace it all. Y'know, the machines, the rap, the loud guitars, every sort of emotional level. And just go with it all, and maybe somehow.
Ginsberg: It's working out.
Beck: I guess so. It's an experiment. I really have to plead innocent on knowing anything really about the "slacker" thing. At the time "Loser" was recorded, it was, y'know, hearing so much rap, where it's very self-aggrandizing. Like, I'm so dope, I got more this and that, I'm so bad. I was trying to be ironic by saying, I completely suck, I'm the worst. Well, the irony's not obvious to everybody. It got hijacked somewhere along the way.
Ginsberg: The whole Beat generation got hijacked at first, except the intrinsic merit of the work came through over and over again, generation after generation, because we all believed in the art.
Beck: But at the time wasn't it really annoying?
Ginsberg: You know what I did? I went to India and dropped out completely, and learned something new. I went to learn the whole Eastern thing. I came back and found Kerouac was famous. I was famous. But no money. So I said OK, now time to go on to greater triumphs of the mind....So you had a reasonably good education then?
Beck: I left high school at about ninth grade, but as far as ideas and looking at things in different ways, my grandfather was around a lot when I was younger. Did you know Al Hansen? Do you remember that name?
Beck: Yeah, and he did collage stuff. Hershey...
Ginsberg: I have one of them.
Beck: You have one?
Ginsberg: ...of those Hershey Bar things, or collages.
Beck: Yeah. He was amazing. I learned a lot from his speech. The way he talked. He had the whole sorta '40's jazz/hipster talk. He was a zoot-suiter in the '40's.
Ginsberg: I had no idea you came out of Hansen's he was one of the first of the great pop artists, because of the collage.
Beck: His stuff seems like garbage. And then after about ten years, it kind of...well, it is made out of garbage.
Ginsberg: This was one of the Hershey label series.
Beck: He did that for years. The other thing he used a lot were cigarette butts. And he did all the Venus figures.
Ginsberg: Made out of cigarette butts?
Beck: Yeah, the Venus figure made out of cigarette butts, or candy bar wrappers or match sticks or anything he found. The Venus of Wilendorf, I think.
Ginsberg: I have a little poem about her. Did you ever see her? It's pretty amazing. Round head, round body, round thighs and feet with three big circles. Perfect symmetry. Much more beautiful than anything I imagined, based on these circles. Very amazing art. Magna Mater.
Beck: I remember when I was about five I had a rocking horse, sort of a cheap plastic one, from the supermarket or a K-mart. It was sitting in the garage and I remember he gave me five bucks for it. 'Bout 2 days later, I remember going out in the backyard, and he had severed the head, covered it with cigarette butts, and spray painted it silver. So that opened a door for me. I also remember driving around in the car with him about that same time. I was just getting into words, just learning how to read, and I remember him teaching me how to rhyme. I thought that was the greatest thing. You could make words sort of lock together.
Ginsberg: Well, your rhymes are interesting. I grew up on that, too. See, my father was a poet, and a rhymer. A rhyming poet. So I could rhyme anytime, make it spontaneous. First thought, best thought, what comes into your mind, so you can rhyme in your gut. Did you ever see Harry Smith's Folkways records? Three boxes, two records each, American folk music?
Beck: Yeah, it's a collection of a lot of the field recordings...
Ginsberg: Actually a collection of his old '78's, so it has some very early musicians. Uh, Texas Alexander, Richard "Rabbit" Brown.
[sings:] Things ain't now nothing like they used to be
things ain't now nothing like they used to be
I'd have a much better time but the girls now are so hard to please.
I'll give you sugar for sugar, but you'll get salt for salt
I'll give you sugar for sugar, but you'll get salt for salt
baby you don't love me, you won't get nuthin' at all.
Sometime I think that you're too sweet to die
sometime I think that you're too sweet to die.
Other time I think you oughta be buried alive.
Beck: That's what I love about the blues. That a lot of those refrains were spread out in a lot of different people's songs. They would take verses from different things, assemble them with...
Ginsberg: Dylan took "Don't the moon look good shinin' through the trees." He took that from Charley Patton.
Beck: It's almost like you can't take those, though. They just sort of become a part of you and then they just come out. I've done that a few times. It just becomes unconscious if you're playing that music long enough.
Ginsberg: It's tradition anyway.
Ginsberg: Did you study music?
Beck: Not really. I just listened to the records. Like I said, I didn't go to high school. I just checked out one day. And just got really heavy into the old music, from the Carter family to all the blues stuff, and the field recordings. Became fascinated by it.
Ginsberg: What did you hear? The Alan Lomax Library of Congress stuff?
Beck: Whatever I could get my hands on. We'd just sit, listening for hours, trying to figure out how to do this stuff. And wrestled with it for five, six years and then I came out to New York, and hung around for a little while. New York kind of kicked me back out.
Ginsberg: Where were you living out here?
Beck: I was living on the floor. I was doing that for a long time. I had a lot of bad luck. The spirits didn't want me to be out here, I guess. I'd love to come back.
Ginsberg: One of the last times I saw Dylan, he said the best music in New York is being played in the subways, or on the street.
Beck: Oh yeah. Yup. That's where I was playing. Not really on the subways, but on the streets and the parks and down around Avenue A. There was this whole sort of folk scene happening, "Anti-Folk," right. There was a bunch of kids, a bunch of crazy poets. Really good poets.
Ginsberg: Yeah, I knew some of them, I used to sing with them sometimes.
Beck: Well, I was playing the traditional stuff and first I was really down with "Anti-folk." That's basically what the term was. It was separating themselves from all the new-age sounding stuff. The safe, watered down stuff. That charged me up, and I came onto the idea of taking the traditional music and come up with different words.
Ginsberg: That was my idea. Except I was too old to do it, and I didn't know how to play guitar.
Beck: I was fascinated with the whole early '60's folk revival. Did you know Dave Van Ronk, Jack Elliot, and those guys?
Ginsberg: Jack Elliot I know from 1950!
Beck: I just saw him about three months ago at McCabe's. And it was a great show. A lot of spaces. He has a lot of spaces. He just stretches those spaces out.
Ginsberg: I know him from 1950. I was in a bug house and I had a girlfriend.
Beck: He's the cowboy from Brooklyn.
Ginsberg: And he stole my girlfriend. I was in a bug house for about eight months. And I was getting out, and I had this girlfriend, trying that out.
Beck: He stole her away?
Ginsberg: An idyllic romance, and it was my first, she was my cherry. I was totally in love, and she liked William Carlos Williams, and was literate, but I was just this wimp from the nut house. Then he came along, and made out with her. So we know each other from then, Are you on Geffen?
Beck: Yeah. I have a thing.
Ginsberg: What's he like?
Beck: Uh, the man himself?
Ginsberg: Yeah, I met him once.
Beck: Same here. I met him once, and he told some long story about Barbra Streisand.
Ginsberg: I was invited to meet Geffen at a party in the Rainbow Room. I was eager to say, listen we have this double album which is gonna come out finally, after ten years on Columbia, and I wanted to make sure we can get it distributed and blah blah blah blah blah. So I went up to him and started talking to him. And he says, listen, I'm standing here talking to Harry Belafonte, and you're interrupting me.
Beck: Really, he said that?
Ginsberg: Yes. He said, who is this character? Because I'm older than both of them. I mean Belafonte, he's a great singer, sure, but I'm the Poet Ginsberg.
Ginsberg: They got to have some respect!
Beck: That's show biz, I guess.
Ginsberg: Although Gregory Corso says, those who demand respect seldom deserve it. It's enough not to disrespect.
The late Allen Ginsberg's most recent projects include Selected Poems 1947-1995, from HarperCollins, and The Ballad of the Skeletons, a maxi single CD with poem by Allen Ginsberg and music by Paul McCartney, Lenny Kaye and Philip Glass. Following last year's hit Loser, Beck's latest album is Odelay.