The Ginsberg-Dylan Express: Tangled Up in Vomit and Blues
By Brinda Bose
Was Allen Ginsberg a singer-songwriter? Is Bob Dylan a poet? Could each have been both when they met and made poems and songs together – capricious, frenzied – across two decades in the 1960s and ’70s?
Allen Ginsberg in Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues Video, 1965
Not without offending the purists, of course. But then in their lives and in their art, Ginsberg and Dylan have been anathema to purism and conservatism, characterized by an immense restlessness, courting audiences and disasters in the same breath. Indeed, in our imagination, we can think of the poet Ginsberg and the singer-songwriter Dylan in the same breath, though they were not exactly contemporaries in age. It is hardly surprising that they influenced each other strongly, vividly, for an impressive stretch of time. After they first met in New York in 1963, they sporadically collaborated on projects till the early ’80s, in which they exchanged their (primary) hats and donned others – writing, singing, listening, performing, filming – as they stomped around together and separately on a haphazard, passionate beatnik trail of music, poetry, experiment, hedonism. Ginsberg, as we know, sang and arranged music apart from writing poetry, and Dylan’s lyrics have long sparked controversy among literary purists for being considered worthy of a Nobel nomination in literature.
Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Barbara Rubin, Bob Dylan and Daniel Kramer, 1964, Photo c. Daniel Kramer
In multiple ways, this was a poetic-musical match that was made in proverbial heaven, if heaven could be defined by an excess of pot, sex, rock and roll and immense reservoirs of maverick talent. But irascible since they were in their inimitable modes of living and working, it is not really shocking that Ginsberg and Dylan neither sustained their artistic partnership nor produced work together that was necessarily their most memorable. Perhaps it is in these sometimes faltering, sometimes blustering efforts at fusing their not inconsiderable individual talents – as well as their overwhelming idiosyncrasies – that the memorability of their logical yet difficult collaboration lies. Logical because the overlaps in their aesthetic and political inclinations are easily identifiable – and difficult for the very same reason, that having two of this kind was probably one too many for such a mix to hold for long. It is also said that Ginsberg fancied the young Dylan sexually when they first met[i], but Dylan’s complete disinterest in this romantic inclination did not cause any trouble to their odd, fond, collaborative friendship, such as it was.
Robbie Robertson, Michael McClure, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, San Francisco, 1965, Photo c. Larry Keenan
Ginsberg recalled their early acquaintanceship a few years after they met in New York in 1963, “I first met Bob at a party at the Eighth Street Book Shop, and he invited me to go on tour with him. I ended up not going, but, boy, if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have gone like a flash. He’d probably have put me onstage with him.”[ii] Over a decade later, in 1975, Ginsberg did go on tour with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and Dylan named Ginsberg as one of the first inspirations for – mark the word – his poetry, “I didn’t start writing poetry until I was out of high school. I was eighteen or so when I first discovered Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Frank O’Hara and those guys.”[iii] It was almost inevitable that they would attempt to make words and music together. In 1971, Ginsberg and Dylan collaborated on a proposed album titled Holy Soul Jelly Roll which featured their jointly composed songs ‘Vomit Express’, ‘September on Jessore Road’ and ‘Jimmy Berman (Gay Lib Rag)’ along with poems of William Blake set to music and recitations of Ginsberg’s own poems.[iv] It is curiously fitting, of course, that the Beatniks adopted Blake as an inspiration, a lead worth pursuing to understand the poetic inheritances of both Ginsberg and Dylan. Ginsberg reported that Blake appeared to him in a vision in 1948 when he was reading ‘The Sick Rose’, ‘‘I was never able to figure out whether I was having a religious vision, a hallucinatory experience, or what, but it was the deepest ‘spiritual’ experience I had in my life, and determined my karma as poet. That’s the key pivotal turnabout of my own existence. That’s why I was hung up on setting Blake to music.’’[v]
William Blake’s poem addressed to ‘The Sick Rose’, which triggered this karmic turnabout in Ginsberg’s poetic existence, is an unalloyed dirge, describing the destruction of innocent beauty and love by the rapacious ‘worm’:
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
Short and sharply desolate, it is of a mood similar to Ginsberg’s apocalyptic vision of contemporary life catalogued in ‘Howl’, for example, a poem in which Blake is acknowledged as an influence on the ‘best minds’ of his generation “who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war…”[vi] In Holy Soul Jelly Roll, Ginsberg and Dylan, in a team that included Ginsberg’s lover Peter Orlovsky as well as Gregory Corso, put the Blake poems ‘A Dream’, ‘Nurse’s Song’, and ‘The Tyger’ to music. Ginsberg’s fascination for Indian music, especially the mantra, is heard in the way he creates a sound aura for Blake’s visions in sequences like the end of ‘Nurse’s Song’ – “The little ones leapèd and shoutèd and laugh’d /And all the hills echoed” – in which ‘And all the hills echoèd’ is repeated in a chant, echoing and re-echoing, a brief sublime moment in which poetry and music coalesce while other hidden meanings and memories resurface through echoes. What they capture through the slow-fading, echoing chant of the last line about echoes could be either transcendental or hallucinatory, or both in alternation, a supra-naturalness that Ginsberg may have found in Blake’s everyday picture of children gamboling on the green while their happy sounds echoed blissfully, and yet with a tinge of ominousness, in the surrounding hills.
The three songs that Ginsberg and Dylan collaborated on – ‘Vomit Express’, ‘September on Jessore Road’ and ‘Jimmy Berman’ – represent almost unerringly three of the most urgent concerns of the Beatnik generation of the 20th century: poverty, sexuality, the war for political liberation. ‘Vomit Express’ is something of an anthem, a jaunty rhythmic song that takes a miserable experience – of “poor people flying at night for cheap fares, not used to airplanes, throwing up airsick”[vii] – and turns it into an animated protest song which injects vigour just where there is need of it. The refrain –
I’m going down to Puerto Rico
I’m going down on the midnight plane
I’m going down on the Vomit Express
I’m going down with my suitcase pain.
– is evocative of resolve in the glare of adversity, ‘going down’ fighting amidst vomit and poverty, and carrying pain as luggage: ‘suitcase pain’ is a picturesque poetic compound, a suitcase entirely filled with pain, identified only as pain and nothing else, thus never escaping it. An image of weariness and suffering, tightly packed.
Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, 1975. Photo c. Elsa Dorfman
Ginsberg wrote his poem ‘September on Jessore Road’ in 1971, to commemorate throngs of refugees from the Bangladesh War who walked miles toward the distant promise of Calcutta, a long and arduous journey from the ravages of what was then East Pakistan:
Millions of babies in pain
Millions of mothers in rain
Millions of brothers in woe
Millions of children nowhere to go…
Ginsberg employed the anaphora effect here as he did in ‘Vomit Express’, a poetic figure of speech that deploys a rhythmic repetition of a word or phrase in successive lines for dramatic boldness and emphasis. The anaphora has been memorably used by poets through the centuries, including Ginsberg’s inspiration William Blake in ‘The Tyger’ (1794):
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
– and of course by his collaborator Bob Dylan in one of his most popular songs, ‘Blowing in the Wind’ (1962):
How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, and how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
In ‘September on Jessore Road’ (1971), Ginsberg, too, made use of the evocative ‘How many…?’ in a series of stanzas like this one before he came to the answer with ‘Millions of…’:
How many souls walk through Maya in pain
How many babes in illusory pain?
How many families hollow eyed lost?
How many grandmothers turning to ghost?
How many loves who never get bread?
How many Aunts with holes in their head?
How many sisters skulls on the ground?
How many grandfathers make no more sound?
Ginsberg and Dylan made a song out of this poem for the Holy Soul Jelly Roll 4-CD set. Notes in Dylan’s Copyright Files offer an interesting insight into how the collaboration shaped itself to go public, “SEPTEMBER ON JESSORE ROAD. Performed by Allen Ginsberg. Dylan played as a guest artist for Ginsberg on this track…” While Dylan is not given credit as a co-composer, Ginsberg clearly gave him the arranger’s credit when he wrote, “He went over and put in another guitar and organ part and then started dropping piano bombs, percussive punctuations underlining different phrases…”[viii]
‘Vomit Express’ and ‘September on Jessore Road’ are probably the best known of Ginsberg-Dylan collaborations. ‘Jessore Road’ was revived by singer Moushumi Bhowmik in a moving Bangla translation and rendition for the documentary film, Muktir Gaan, on the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, made by the late Tareque Masud in 1995 – proof of how a powerful poem can travel back and forth between generations, locations, forms, and languages to be born over and again.[ix] However, Ginsberg and Dylan also co-wrote a song for the then fledgling gay liberation movement, titled ‘Jimmy Berman (Gay Lib Rag)’ – and the attempt is equally fledgling, though it deploys the same anaphora effect as their earlier two collaborations. ‘Jimmy Berman’ apparently enshrined Ginsberg’s romantic yearning for a young newsboy:
Jimmy Berman what’s your sex, why you hang ‘round here all day?
Jimmy Berman what’s up next, oh what do you play?
Who you wanna sleep with night, Jimmy boy? Would you like come with me?
Jimmy Berman, O my love, O what misery
Though weak in lyrics as well as tune, this song was included in Ginsberg’s First Blues album (first released in 1981), in which Dylan played the piano, guitar and organ for three songs. ‘Jimmy Berman’ is proof, as I see it, of how collaborations between talented artists fail as easily as they succeed, of how the intensity of making art together wanes despite the impulsion of a potent social cause such as gay liberation. It may also be proof, however, of how it was impossible, for the kind of radical artists Ginsberg and Dylan were, to be consistently committed to ‘causes’ that compelled their shared generations, or even to working together. Bohemian malcontents as both were, maverick collaborations could only result in unpredictable successes and failures.
Original poster for Renaldo and Clara, 1778
Perhaps it was their flamboyant and volatile non-conformism that continued to draw them together even when they were not quite clear about how they could best participate in each other’s projects. Ginsberg had rued early that he had not accompanied Dylan on tour when first invited to do so in 1963. In 1975-76, Ginsberg joined the Dylan entourage that included a host of glorious names starting with Joan Baez for the Rolling Thunder Revue tour across America, even though at most of the concerts there was never enough time for Ginsberg to recite his poetry. His presence was perhaps best recorded in the film that Dylan co-wrote (with Sam Shepard) and directed while on this tour titled, Renaldo and Clara, which starred Dylan himself, Sara Dylan and Joan Baez. It released in 1978 to poor reviews and never made any impact, despite its many elements of interest and intrigue: its hall-of-fame actors (albeit from the world of music and not cinema), its stylistic experiments with cubism, its medley of narratives (documentary, fiction, interview) and symbols (whiteface, a woman in white, a recurring flower). One of the few sequences from the film that continues to circulate, however, is Ginsberg’s guest appearance in the film – and it is poetic justice, surely, that it is one in which Ginsberg and Dylan read poetry together at Jack Kerouac’s grave.
For if there is an umbilical cord, twisted and hoary, that ties Bob to Allen, its blood is in the Beats.
Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave, Edson Cemetery, Lowell, Mass., 1975. Photo c. Ken Regan
[vii] Ginsberg described how he hit upon the name ‘Vomit Express’: ‘a phrase I got from my friend Lucien Carr, who talked about going to Puerto Rico, went often, and we were planning to take an overnight plane a couple of weeks later, my first trip there. He spoke of it as the “vomit express” – poor people flying at night for cheap fares, not used to airplanes, throwing up airsick.’ http://dylanchords.info/00_misc/vomit_express.htm
Brinda Bose teaches English literature at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her research interests are in modernisms, gender/sexuality and visual studies, south asian literatures and humanities studies. She is currently teaching and thinking about the avant garde in particular. And she agrees with those who think that Dylan is a poet, too.
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