Audio Literature

A strange kind of anxiety can occur when attending a concert by an artist like Bob Dylan. I was struck by a sense of this anxiety as I stepped into Constitution Hall in Washington DC last night. I began to worry that it would impact my enjoyment of the show.

This can happen. A few years ago I attended an amazing Ralph Stanley show in a smoky nightclub in Virginia. All night long, I felt so overwhelmed by the fact that I was sitting there staring at one of the very inventors of modern bluegrass style, the small craggy old man calmly shredding his banjo strings in front of my eyes, that I forgot to tap my feet.

I think of this sensation as a form of anxiety because it's a self-disturbance, an unwanted reaction. When I have the privilege to hear a musical genius in person, I want to simply sit there and enjoy the music. I want my brain to be quiet while the sound waves soak in. Instead, I sit there pondering the significance to musical history. This happened to me in an especially bad way in 2006 where I luckily found myself at the famous Jay-Z concert in New Jersey where Nas came out to end his beef with Jay, and to share the mic with him on "Dead Presidents".

I was already very pumped at this point in the show, especially since Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, P Diddy, T.I., Freeway, Young Jeezy and Kanye had already been on stage -- so when Nas showed up, what did I do? I pulled out my phone and texted Caryn, and since this was 2006 and I wasn’t very handy with texting yet, this ended up taking a while, which distracted me from living in the moment itself. (Caryn later told me that she never saw the text anyway, as she had already gone to sleep).

But here's the strange thing about last night's Dylan concert in Washington DC: I wasn't feeling this anxiety myself at all. I had already seen Bob Dylan fourteen times. But last night's concert came 24 hours after a shocking judgement from Ferguson, Missouri which had caused an impassioned protest around the world. Emotions were high on November 25 all over the United States of America. I wondered if this would affect the mood of the crowd.

I knew it was unlikely that Bob Dylan would say anything spontaneous this evening, as his onstage demeanor tends to be opaque. He does not engage with audiences, and he does not strive to put on a crowd-pleasing show. As we all entered the hall -- people of all ages, and many parents with children -- I had a strong sense that this crowd would be expecting a sermon, or maybe a rendition of "The Death of Emmett Till".

Well, that's not how Bob Dylan runs his show, and I have seen him enough times now now that I always set my expectations at "whatever" before I walk in the door. Happily, he put on a wonderful show in Washington DC last night, exceeding expectations for both Caryn and myself.

He had selected a bunch of songs with a narrative thread vaguely about sweet love, tragic heartbreak and eventual peaceful reconciliation: "Things Have Changed", "She Belongs To Me", "Waiting For You", "Pay In Blood", "Love Sick", "High Water", "Spirit In The Water", "Scarlet Town". He changed the words to "Tangled Up In Blue" and "Simple Twist of Fate". He closed the show with a beautiful and melodic performance of a Frank Sinatra song, "Stay With Me", that seemed to hush the crowd with the same power as "Forever Young" or "To Make You Feel My Love".

Dylan plays with a crackerjack blues/country band including a standup bass, a pedal steel guitar, and a lot of hollow-body six-strings. His voice is in fine sandpaper-y form, and he even seemed to be attempting to dance at some points during the evening's second set.

The show was more rehearsed than the looser sets of recent years, which can be both good and bad. He's moved away from the jamband concept of rotating setlists, but in exchange is providing a coherent and meaningful arrangement of songs that actually tells a story.

"Workingman's Blues" and "Early Roman Kings" provided some of the heavy messages for the night, and a pre-closer encore of "Blowin' In The Wind" was the closest thing we had at Constitution Hall for the Ferguson, Missouri moment of recognition many of us in the audience frankly felt we needed. I'm glad Bob Dylan played that song.

This was my fifteenth Bob Dylan concert, and easily one of the very best. I do recommend his shows to others, even though I am cautious about this after having heard from many people (including several close friends and family members) who saw Bob Dylan in concert and absolutely hated it. You have to show up for a Bob Dylan concert with an open mind, and it helps if you can sit and simply enjoy some hard-hitting country jamming and blues shoutin', because that's the main thing a Bob Dylan concert delivers.

Bob Dylan has matured very well, and in his later years he seems to be affecting a gentle, Hank Williams-like affability on stage, even as his bitter lyrics to songs like "High Water" and "Scarlet Town" undercut the sincere smile. The more he manages to escape the anxiety of influence, the prison of expectation, the better a performer Bob Dylan seems to become.

Why do we come to Bob Dylan concerts so overladen with expectation, only to allow it to interfere with our enjoyment? Well, I think it’s because Dylan’s historical significance really is that impressive that we can’t help but be disappointed when he shows up as a mere human. We don’t want to be this close to genius. If any of us were to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we’d be happy to look at an exhibit of Bob Dylan’s boots inside a glass case. But when you go to a Bob Dylan concert in 2014, you are standing there looking at Bob Dylan’s boots, and Bob Dylan is in them. Sometimes that’s too much Bob Dylan.

Last night's concert, I'm happy to say, was Bob in top form, a night to remember. Here's the setlist, and here are some more detailed reviews of the show I saw.


Bob Dylan and his traveling band delivers a powerful performance at Constitution Hall in Washington DC on November 25, 2014.

view /DylanDC2014
Wednesday, November 26, 2014 09:50 am
Bob Dylan concert in Washington DC 2014
Levi Asher

(This blog post about my lifetime of Lou Reed concerts from 1979 to 2011 is the second of three parts. Here are part one and part two.)

It's Sunday morning, exactly one week since Lou Reed died. I've been touched by many tributes since then, and as I publish the final part in my three-part reminiscence of my 32 years of Lou Reed concerts, it occurs to me that my first two installments have been soundly negative about Lou Reed's musical career from 1979 to 1989 (roughly, his Chuck Hammer period and his Robert Quine period). I suppose I'm wallowing in the disappointment of his mediocre 1980s as a literary device, to set up the happy surprise of his return to form in that decade's last year. His work improved suddenly, almost magically, in 1989, and stayed good (even occasionally great) from that point on.

Lou Reed's career began with a 12-year run of amazing, anarchic, uneven, impossibly brilliant and beautiful music -- from the first Velvet Underground album in 1967 to Take No Prisoners in 1978. This 12-year run forms the core of Lou Reed's classic body of work. In 1979 he radically changed his style, suddenly establishing a mood of sobriety and rigid control in concert and in the recording studio. He now seemed intent on subverting the anarchy and spontaneity of his earlier works. Some people love his tightly controlled, emotionally searing 1980s albums, from The Blue Mask to Mistrial. I find them suffocating and depressing, but that doesn't mean I begrudge Lou Reed the right to have created the work he wanted to create at this time.

In fact, he was probably saving his own life, because his ten-year period of artistic sobriety corresponded to a more personal form of sobriety. Several of his songs from the 1980s tell a stark tale of recovery from alcoholism ("Underneath the Bottle", "The Power of Positive Drinking", "Bottoming Out"). Though I criticize most of the music Lou Reed produced during the 1980s, I would never criticize his personal sobriety, and I'm simply thankful that Lou Reed did what was necessary to get his act together during these years. His successful and apparently permanent recovery from various substance addictions must be inspiring to many others who suffer through the same bleak trials.

I don't dislike the music of Lou Reed's "sober decade" because I dislike sobriety. I dislike it because I don't believe a sober artist must be a boring artist. The true purpose of Lou's difficult recovery became apparent in 1989, when a miraculous change seemed to occur in his style and demeanor on stage. The gauze began to fall off the mummy's face. Smiles began to crackle on Lou Reed's lips, and an artist was reborn -- now as a middle-aged adult, but, oh, with new stories to tell. Starting with the album called New York that dropped like a giant raindrop in a drought in January 1989, Lou Reed seemed to be enjoying himself again.

New York was funny, and transformative. A song called "Romeo and Juliette" kicks the album's door open with a punchy beat, itchy, infectious guitars.

I'll take Manhattan in a garbage bag
with Latin written on it that says
"it's hard to give a shit these days".
Manhattan's sinking like a rock
into the filthy Hudson, what a shock.
They wrote a book about it, they said it was like ancient Rome.

For the first time in over ten years, Lou Reed was writing about topics other than his own neuroses. After a decade of looking inward, he was looking outward again. In the songs on New York he cursed out corrupt New York City politicians by name, paid tribute to Andy Warhol with Mo Tucker on kettle drums, came out of the closet as an ecological-minded liberal with a song about saving the whales, belted out rockers like "Busload of Faith" and "Strawman" and "Hold On" with a joy in his voice that we haven't heard since he shouted "DO THE DOOG!" on "Head Held High" on Loaded. He even got in touch with his Jewish ethnicity (finally) and forgivingly called out Jesse Jackson's anti-semitism to the tune of a head-spinning guitar jelly backbeat on the truly weird and wonderful track "Good Evening Mr. Waldheim". New York gave Lou Reed his first hit single in years, the rocking three-chorder "Dirty Blvd". The album was fresh, and it was fun.

He had completely shed his old band and was back with a new gang, featuring a skillful and delicately melodic guitar player named Mike Rathke. Rathke was not a bombastic electric shredder like Robert Quine or Steve Hunter, but rather a throwback to the gentle Sterling Morrison of the Velvet Underground, who laid down lovable, country-tinged, Buddy Holly-esque solos on songs like "Pale Blue Eyes" and "Oh! Sweet Nuthin". For the first time since the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed had a guitarist who could play sweet.

This meant that Lou could now play rough again. With Robert Quine in his band, it had been Lou Reed's task to play the softer solos in his songs, because Robert Quine surely was not going to play a soft solo, and Lou Reed really wasn't very good at it either. Now, with Mike Rathke in the band, Lou Reed could play "ostrich guitar" again. It was the nicest sound we could possibly hear.

Though New York presented the ecstatic image of a dormant artist springing back to life, the album doesn't completely wear well today, since it contains so many topical political references to New York City politicians. It's a "newspaper album", like Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' or John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Sometime in New York City. Well, every album doesn't have to be timeless, but there are at least a few timeless songs on this one. Even better, just at the same time that New York came out, Lou Reed was working on something else.

Yeah -- when Lou Reed is on, he's on. The songs from New York began to leak out to the radio stations in early January 1989 (many rock radio DJs have good taste in music, which means they were also very thirsty for good new Lou Reed in 1989, so New York got a lot of instant radio play). Just around this time, a strange short bulletin announcing a preview presentation of a musical tribute to Andy Warhol by Lou Reed and John Cale appeared in the New York Times and the Village Voice. Which was why I was now standing in line outside St. Ann's Church on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights.

Montague Street is the street immortalized by Bob Dylan in “Tangled Up In Blue”, which only added to my sense of musical anticipation as I waited outside an old church in what felt like a vain hope that Lou Reed and John Cale were about to reunite, and that I would be there to see it.

This was rather too good to be true, since they hadn’t worked together since Reed kicked Cale out of the Velvet Underground in 1968. Twenty-one years ago. That’s why everybody standing in line outside the church was buzzing with questions, questions that none of us knew the answer to.

Some of us on line recognized the rock critic Dave Marsh a few steps ahead of us in the crowd, and I thought of asking Dave Marsh what he thought Lou Reed and John Cale were up to, and if they were even going to perform together or maybe just read a press release or play a record or show a painting. Who knew? I considered asking Dave Marsh, but he looked like he didn’t know either. The newspaper listings had told us exactly three things: 1) John Cale and Lou Reed had written a tribute to Andy Warhol, 2) it was called Songs for Drella, 3) they were going to preview it here today. Beyond this, nobody had the scoop.

In the Velvet Underground, John Cale had been Lou's artistic opposite pole: a cool, ironic Welshman with classical training, a dignified bearing, an affection for feedback and noise, and a wicked interest in dark subjects. Like Lou Reed, John Cale established a solo career after the Velvets broke up, though he lacked Lou's ability to write fetching pop songs and did his best work with other artists like Nico, Iggy Pop, Phil Manzanera, Patti Smith and Brian Eno.

John Cale was built to collaborate, whereas after firing Cale in 1968 Reed had never once collaborated on equal terms with another artist. Since the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed always played with the Lou Reed band. This is why it was so surprising to hear that Reed would be appearing with double billing with another artist. The fact that the other artist was John Cale pushed this to a further realm of unbelievability.

I could barely believe I was standing in this line for this event, and until the doors of the ornate church opened and our long line began to slowly shuffle inside, I was figuring 50-50 odds that a guy with a clipboard would come out and tell us the show was cancelled. "Sorry, Lou and John got in a fight backstage. Show's not going to happen." Even after we made it inside and clamored into tight wooden pews, I could barely believe this was going to be real.

There’s something rich and moving about the inside of a church. Even so, we could have been seated in an airplane hangar or in the food court of a shopping mall and a hush would still have fallen over this crowd when, finally, two skinny, clean cut, black-clad men quietly shuffled into position on stage and nodded politely to the audience. There they were: Lou Reed, looking slightly astral and spooky, on stage left, equipped with an electric guitar and a mic. John Cale, sporting a quaint Prince Valiant haircut and a calm smile, behind a simple electronic keyboard on stage right. Beguilingly, an electric viola stood on a stand at his feet.

There was no rock band set up, no drums, no bass, no colored lights, no roadies, no introduction from a promoter to fire up the crowd. The crowd waited in silence until Cale began to play a fast, choppy sing-song piano figure, and Lou began the recitative “Small Town”. Lou didn’t touch his guitar. The song appeared to be about young Andy Warhol, a child in Pittsburgh:

When you’re growing up in a small town
Bad skin, bad eyes, gay and fatty
People look at you funny
When you’re in a small town

A strange thing happened after the song ended. This was a rock concert -- wasn’t it? The song stopped and the crowd clapped, and we then fell back into total silence. Classical music silence. Church silence. I had never seen this happen before at any concert, much less a Lou Reed concert. The crowd was awed into a complete hush.

The second song was “Open House”. John Cale’s keyboard figure brought forth a deep, smooth moodiness, punctuated by heavy echoing notes. Lou Reed sang the lyrics, and during the chorus he finally hit a chord on his guitar, and just let it ring. I was starting to feel a tingle of … hmm, this is pretty good. Lou was singing in the voice of young shy Andy Warhol after arriving in New York City, scrounging for work as an advertising artist, and starting to make interesting friends:

You scared yourself with music
I scared myself with paint
I drew 550 different shoes today
It almost made me faint

By the time this song ended – again to enthusiastic clapping followed by complete awed church silence – I was starting to notice that this church silence was having a positive side effect. It seemed to me that Lou Reed and John Cale appreciated the audience's respect. They must have been nervous themselves, debuting what appeared to be a rock opera with only two instruments and no rhythm section. But it was going over, in a big way. They must have noticed this, and it must have given them heart as they began the next set of songs, which were harder, louder, more guitar.

Cale and Reed were both tuned into a precisely minimalist vibe. Cale played repetitive, vaguely Shoenberg-esque multi-tone figures. Reed seemed to be feeding off the same idea as Cale, scratching out hard repetitive guitar rhythms, sometimes ringing, sometimes choppy, that bounced off the sonic surface of Cale’s tonal washes. The pure two-instrument equilibrium was unlike any sound I had ever heard before.

The sound recalled the Velvet Underground, but the Velvets always aimed for a muddy mix, sonic chaos, and Reed and Cale tonight were locked in like clockwork, completely attuned to each other’s rhythms. The lack of bass and drums made a huge difference. "Negative space" as visual artists say. The silence in the church became the third instrument in the room.

It's unusual to hear an entire album for the first time in concert, and when the songs are this good it's a revelation. There were several aggressive, angular hard rock numbers built around repeated themes -- “work”, "images”, “starlight” -- all of which featured Lou Reed's powerful voice. There were a few gentler songs, mostly featuring John Cale's lilting voice, including an enchanting number called “Style it Takes”. After every song, the crowd burst into happy applause and then fall back into awed total silence. I looked around at one point and saw Dave Marsh the rock critic grinning. We all couldn’t believe our good luck to be present at this event.

There was so much I instantly loved about Songs for Drella -- the affectionate tribute to artist Andy Warhol, who had been the Velvet Underground's earliest sponsor, the sharply rendered lyrical portrait of Andy's improbably life and career, the smart instrumental work of John Cale.

But what I remember most is Reed’s guitar playing -- guttural, decisive, deliberate. Many of the wailing bends he reached were atonal, yet just close enough to the notes they hovered around to sound exactly right. At one point during the song “Forever Changed” Lou hit a note of some strange cosmic mid-tone that sustained and fragmented visibly in the air for several seconds, before he blasted it away with an E chord. He chopped and dug at his strings, and then he let chords ring for four measures, eight measures, sixteen measures. The sounds echoed off the walls and harmonized with the next chord he hit.

They did the entire album-length song suite that would eventually be released as the album Songs For Drella, and that was it. There was a big standing ovation, of course, and Reed and Cale acknowledged it gracefully and silently before ducking away. It was a short show, no greatest hits, no "Rock and Roll" encore. We didn't need to hear anything more.

Ten years earlier, I had sat with the noisy, jaded crowd at My Father's Place in Roslyn listening to Lou Reed play my favorite album Berlin and bitterly resenting the fact that the band was playing it wrong, that Lou was singing in a distant monotone, that the crowd around me was noisy and inattentive. I felt like I was seeing Lou Reed but I wasn't.

Now, I was in a church with the most attentive and awed concert crowd I had ever seen, and now Lou Reed wasn't singing his words like he was reciting them from memory but rather like he was feeling them in the moment as he sang. This was my fifth Lou Reed show, but I was pretty sure it was the first time I had found Lou Reed.

Two months later Lou played New York City again, this time in a Broadway theatre, the St. James, with Mike Rathke and Rob Wasserman and the new New York Lou Reed band. It couldn't have been quite as amazingly great as the St. Ann's Drella show, but it wasn't far from that peak. He opened with the awesome "Romeo Had Juliette" from the latest album, followed by the touching "Halloween Parade", a tribute to Lou's friends who had died of AIDS, and then by the hit single "Dirty Blvd.". I don't remember for sure, but I'm pretty sure the show's first set was the entire new album, more or less in order. The second set was older songs, but he only did a couple of his most classic numbers -- "Sweet Jane", of course, and "Rock and Roll" and "Walk On The Wild Side".

I vastly preferred the new songs, because Lou was a singer who could never hide his boredom with old lyrics. He sang the new songs like he'd just written them over breakfast, and that made all the difference. I also dearly loved his new band with Mike Rathke and Rob Wasserman, though I was slightly disappointed that Maureen Tucker didn't come out to play kettle drums on Dime Store Mystery, as she had on the record. Well, I guess a Velvets fan can't have all his dreams come true.

I had a few chances to see Lou Reed after March 1989, but I passed on them, mainly because I was truly satiated. I didn't think any other concerts would equal the two great shows I had seen. I was also now in a different state of mind myself regarding music. I had recently been listening obsessively to hiphop and gangsta rap (a genre that has a few things in common with Lou Reed: vignette-style storytelling, urban attitudes, lush rhythm tracks, complex beats).

I didn't see Lou again until February 1997 when he played a club I really wanted to hear him in: the tiny and acoustically excellent Knitting Factory, a showcase club for jazz and experimental music in Tribeca. I showed up for the night's early show, intending to hang out for the late show too if the earlier one passed my inspection and if the bouncers didn't kick me out and make me buy a second ticket.

Lou Reed was now in his mid-50s, but seemed to be having yet another recent surge of popularity due to the popular movie Trainspotting which had featured his early song "Perfect Day". I'd always liked "Perfect Day", one of many excellent tracks from Transformer, but the song wasn't really well known until Trainspotting. Lou opened with "I'll Be Your Mirror", an unexpected surprise, and followed it with "Perfect Day" and then a stirring "The Kids" from Berlin.

I stayed, of course, to see the later show. This is the complete setlist of the last Lou Reed concert I would ever see:

I'll Be Your Mirror
Perfect Day
The Kids
Romeo Had Juliette
Busload of Faith
Dirty Blvd.
Set the Twilight Reeling
Doin' the Things That We Want To
Hang On to Your Emotions
Finish Line
Egg Cream
White Light/White Heat
Satellite of Love
Walk on the Wild Side

The Knitting Factory sets were far from perfect -- I still don't think Lou ever managed to reproduce the sonic greatness of the Berlin album onstage, and he still suffered a bad tendency to recite his older lyrics in emotionless syncopated monotone. A couple of years later, this tendency would mar a series of Velvet Underground reunion concerts, which I only caught on video but was not sorry to have missed. Lou didn't rise to the occasion as a vocalist at all. He only does, it seems, when his songs are freshly written. Lou Reed was no method actor; if he wasn't feeling the lyrics, he clearly had no ability to pretend.

In 2011 I went to a Yoko Ono concert, a charity event to generate funds to help the victims of a terrible recent earthquake in Japan. I was mainly excited to see Yoko Ono with her reformed Plastic Ono Band, and it was a night of powerful music. Cibo Matto delivered a delightful "Aguas de Marco". Sean Lennon played MC and host for the entire evening, and he played bass for his Mom in a cathartic screaming set, and then introduced moving sets by Patti Smith and Anthony Hegarty, aka Anthony, an unusual vocalist I'd first heard of when he sang "Candy Says" on the worthy late live album Animal Serenade with Lou Reed. Then Lou Reed came out to jam one vocal performance with Yoko Ono.

What can I say about my last glimpse of Lou Reed in person, as he sang onstange with Yoko Ono, another of my musical heroes? It was a late moment in a great, ear-pounding concert, and I honestly can't even remember what Lou and Yoko sang. If I knew at the time that Lou Reed would die two years later, and that this would be my last look at him, I would have paid closer attention.

This was my last glimpse of Lou Reed, who I first saw when I was 17 years old, 32 years before. Lou Reed was now much older. I was now much older. He was also much better, and I hope I am also much better.

Maybe this is why the findings of my 32-year stalking of Lou Reed in concert may be valuable. It shows that a visionary artist can maintain great inspiration and dignity in older years, and can even regain lost inspiration and lost dignity. (Interestingly, yet another of my other musician/songwriter heroes, Bob Dylan, is also a rare example of this story. Like Lou Reed, Dylan also mostly sucked during the 1980s, and also managed to become relevant again after that dispiriting swale of a musical decade.)

Also like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed didn't validate his late career by returning to the styles and customs of his early years. Lou's work after 1989 is totally unlike anything he did before. He never returned to the crazed, unpredictable musical approach of his early masterpieces -- and likewise his early albums lacked the easy-rolling mirth and humane wisdom of his mature work. Lou proved that perpetual innovation is possible, that an artist can remain vital and relevant through the course of his entire life.

I believe Lou Reed lived a very happy and blessed life. It was an honor for me to sit in the audience nine times and bask in his performance art. (Iincidentally, I had a few other in-person glimpses of Lou Reed that I'm not writing about here, including a tribute to an Allen Ginsberg memorial event at St. Mark's Church in 1997, a concert celebrating Harry Smith's Anthology of American Music in which he performed alongside Nick Cave and David Johanssen in 1999, and one encounter on a street corner right outside St. Mark's Bookshop one summer day, in which I suavely stood there and gaped and said nothing.)

From 1979 to 2011, I went looking for Lou Reed on stage. When I was young, I went to his concerts looking for his masks -- the bright yellow mask of Transformer, the olympically miserable vocalist of Berlin. I was furious when I found that Lou Reed had taken these masks off.

Later, I was able to go to concerts without heavy expectations of what the artist would bring ... and later Lou was also able to relax onstage and deliver much of the musical beauty I had come to demand.

During my first Lou Reed concert, when I was 17, I bemoaned the fact that the show I was at sounded nothing like Rock and Roll Animal. Well, I ended up seeing a couple of shows that were maybe even better than Rock and Roll Animal, or at least equally great, and totally different. In the end, I found the Lou Reed I had gone looking for. And he found me.


The glorious rebirth of Lou Reed's musical career in 1989, when he was 47 years old, is an inspiration not only to recovering addicts but also to fans of great music and lyrics.

view /NineConcertsInSearchOfLouReedPartThree
Sunday, November 3, 2013 08:25 am
Lou Reed with Mike Rathke on guitar in 1990
Levi Asher

(This blog post about my lifetime of Lou Reed concerts is the second of three parts. Here are part one and part three.)

I guess it was good news that Lou Reed had cleaned up his lifestyle and gotten sober sometime in early 1979, just before I went to my first Lou Reed concert. But something about his demeanor onstage had also radically changed. Through the 1970s, he'd been legendary for wildly unpredictable concerts, manic and petulant behavior, deviant transformations. Now, he was subdued and professional. From the late 1970s on, Lou's mask was off. The psycho show was over.

Lou would eventually release a song called "Average Guy", which perfectly describes Lou's onstage persona after 1979. Through the course of the long career that followed, he would remain bland and remote in front of audiences. Not only was the psycho show over -- it was over for good.

My musical interests had expanded beyond Lou Reed by the summer of 1979. This was my last summer before going upstate to college, and whenever I could scrape enough pocket change together I would catch the Long Island Railroad in to New York City to browse at St. Marks Bookshop or Gotham Book Mart during the day, eat a dollar knish at Washington Square for dinner, then see a band like the Mumps or the Fleshtones or Dead Boys or Richard Hell and the Voidoids at CBGBs or Max's Kansas City or Irving Plaza. This was my idea of a perfect day.

I caught many shows by the Voidoids, which featured not only the expressive Richard Hell on bass and lead vocals but a weird old guitarist who looked like a shady businessman: shabby jacket, collared shirt, sad bald head, bad posture, dark glasses, permanent scowl. This was Robert Quine. He played his guitar like he was ripping a tree apart with a chain saw. The sound he invented was completely distinctive and unique.

I don't know exactly what technique he used to create streams of notes like sheering walls of noise, but it must have been a pretty good trick. I'm pretty sure he was striking droning open strings (allowing them to intone like the sympathetic strings on a sitar) while also bending and slurring two-finger chords, or something like that. Whatever it was, he managed to maintained a constant wall of dissonant feedback during his melodic solos, enabling a bombastic sound that was a perfect match for Richard Hell's howling poetry.

I sometimes wondered why Robert Quine wasn't famous and playing in Madison Square Garden instead of grinding it out with a punk poet in Bleecker Street nightclubs. His style clearly had a lot of potential, and yet he was unknown outside of downtown New York.

I brought my record collection with me to Albany State, including several Lou Reed favorites, but by this point Lou wasn't even at the top of my pile. Those were the albums by the rising punk bands: "Blank Generation", "Rocket to Russia", "Never Mind the Bollocks", "Easter", "More Songs About Buildings and Food". I still listened to Lou, but I knew he wasn't cutting edge anymore. At one point I'm pretty sure I imagined how cool it would be if Lou Reed were to freshen up his image by finding a powerful and emotive guitar player like Robert Quine.

We had a cute little record co-op next to the food co-op at the Albany State campus center, and I used to browse the paltry shelves between classes. The "New Releases" chalkboard began to list an upcoming new Lou Reed album called The Blue Mask, his follow-up to Growing Up In Public, and one day I found the album there. I read the back cover and nearly passed out from shock right there in the campus center record co-op floor.

The guitar player on Lou Reed's new album was Robert Quine.

I didn't even know that Lou Reed had ever heard of Robert Quine. I didn't know that anybody had ever heard of Robert Quine. I rushed the record back to my dorm room, where some of my suitemates became equally excited, because I had spread my affection for the Voidoids' Blank Generation to several of my friends. We put the new record on the turntable.

We listened. And waited. Then, finally: "Hmm". "Kind of interesting."

Yeah. Lou Reed had an incredible way of ruining good things in his late 70s/early 80s period, and it was clear that The Blue Mask was another musical dud. Like Growing Up in Public, the album was bursting with fascinating psychological self-analysis, but it was a severely talky record, musically simple and dull. Lou's voice was mixed loud in every track, Quine and Lou strumming gentle wallpaper chords. It had a hypnotic effect ... but it was as if Lou had hired Robert Quine just to ask him to play folk guitar.

The Blue Mask was actually a pretty good album of spoken word poetry. The verses were touching, painful, honest. But a good spoken word poetry record is something you'll listen to maybe three times. A good Lou Reed record is supposed to be something you'll listen to maybe a million times.

The album contained a few attempts at hard rock, and a couple of very short Robert Quine guitar solos, but any single minute of Robert Quine on Richard Hell's Blank Generation was more exciting than this entire record. It wasn't just me who felt this way -- I could see it on the faces around the dorm suite after the phonograph needle reached the end of side one. We all looked at each other and sighed and agreed to take a break. "We can listen to side two later."

On February 26, 1983, I managed to make it down from Albany to New York City to catch a rare Lou Reed concert, my second, at the Bottom Line in Greenwich Village. Lou now had a brand new album out, a follow-up to The Blue Mask called Legendary Hearts, with the same band and the same talky, boring kinds of songs. Well, I thought, maybe the Lou Reed/Robert Quine band will find their mojo when they jam on the old tunes.

The show opened with "Sweet Jane", just as my first Lou show four years ago had (it's unusual to open a concert with one of your most popular songs, but I guess Lou likes a strong kickoff). The band kept up a good beat. It was fun for me to see Robert Quine standing there to the left of Lou, just as I'd seen Quine standing to the left of Richard Hell so many times, and I liked the way he and Lou traded grungy, crunchy chords that laid a gripping foundation for "Sweet Jane", and then for "I'm Waiting For My Man", in which Robert Quine finally did a one-verse solo, though it was so short you'd think somebody was charging him money by the note. They then did a third rocker, an intriguing new song called "Martial Law", and I was pretty happy with what I was hearing.

It was a very even and controlled performance -- powerful yet still not exactly thrilling. I was still put off, as I had been at my first concert, by a sense that Lou Reed was failing to project himself into the lyrics, that he had lost his inability to inhabit his characters. Some of the songs he was singing were highly emotional, like the cathartic "Waves of Fear", or the piercing and obviously personally painful song "Kill Your Sons", which tells of the electroshock therapy his parents had forced on Lou Reed as a teenager because they suspected he was gay. And yet, even as he sang these songs, I did not sense that Lou Reed was fully there. His expression rarely changed -- at most he would emote with a tiny convulsive shudder of the head, or by bulging and squinting his eyes, but the emotion would rarely connect with his voice, which was consistently monotonous, flatlined, stripped of nuance.

Seeing the new Lou Reed band in person helped me understand something else that I didn't like about his current sound. Lou's bass guitarist since The Blue Mask was a guy named Fernando Saunders, and I now saw that Fernando played a fretless bass. A fretless bass is great for jazz or lead bass, because it allows a wide range of voicings and microtones. But a fretless bass has a twangy sound, and very poor attack.

Unfortunately, a fretless bass was a terrible sonic match for Robert Quine's guitar, which is all attack. The combination doesn't work, though it might have sounded intriguing in theory. Maybe Lou Reed was trying to achieve some kind of free-jazz elasticity by bringing in Fernando Saunders, and maybe this would have even been a great idea if he had matched Saunders with a guitarist in the band who fit his style. But a wobbly, querulous jazz bassline didn't create a solid backbeat for the power-guitar duo of Lou Reed and Robert Quine. Maybe Lou knew that, and was trying to subvert the potential capability of his band. Or maybe it sounded great to him, even though from the reaction in the crowd around me I wasn't the only one in the room who found the entire musical equation of the new Lou Reed band simply puzzling.

Here we had two truly great lead guitarists on stage, blasting through the classic Lou Reed songbook ... and the only one whipping out a solo in every song was Fernando Saunders. He was adding jazz syncopation to straight-ahead bar-chord slab-rockers like "I'm Waiting For My Man" and "White Light/White Heat", which never needed it at all. I got to the point where I felt like if I heard another boingy "twang" where there wasn't supposed to be one I was going to bang my head into a pillar.

Well, at least Lou Reed was playing guitar again. A nice moment occurred as the show was ending, as the band was raving up the final encore of "Rock and Roll". I suddenly heard a change in the song's rhythm, and a shift to a unusual but strangely familiar rhythm, a beat even more primal and simple than the square measures of "Rock and Roll". I also noticed a few others in the audience nearby perking up their ears, as if they'd picked up on the same odd rhythmic change too. What was happening? Then Lou stepped up to the mic and intoned, "Rockin' Sally inside ..."

Now a lot of people in the room were perking up. Lou was playing "Sister Ray".

Well, well, well ... I had never expected to hear Lou Reed play "Sister Ray" no matter how long I lived. The 17-minute Velvet Underground epic song had never been part of his setlist before. Quine looked pleased at the crowd's reaction and almost revealed a rare smile, the energetic drummer smashed his tom-toms in happy time, and even Fernando Saunders stuck for once to the primal song's heavy two-note bassline without popping any more twangs.

"Sister Ray" was a hell of a way to end a pretty good show, and as I crept sleepily back that night to Port Authority and finally fell asleep on a Peter Pan midnight bus back to Albany, the song's majestic rhythm pounded happily in my ears.

I saw Lou's band with Robert Quine and Fernando Saunders again on September 21, 1984 at Stony Brook University on Long Island. (I had now graduated after five years from Albany and was back at home with a starter tech job.) I saw that Lou was playing and figured, "sure, I'll go see him again."

By now I had really lost interest in Lou Reed, though I humored him by buying his boring albums whenever he released another one. They seemed to come at a steady rate of one a year. I'd just bought the latest, New Sensations, and I hated it.

New Sensations was a little more light-hearted than Legendary Hearts or The Blue Mask, but it still lacked any trace of the intense musical spark that had fired up Lou's classic works. Even the spoken word poetry felt weak -- the songs were about going to the movies with his wife, going shopping at the store. The cover artwork was dumb and seemed to strain for MTV-era relevance.

But New Sensations featured a limp attempt at a hit pop single, the bouncy "I Love You Suzanne", and I guess Lou was touring college towns like Stony Brook to pump the single. He'd added a keyboardist to the band, so now they sounded like Elvis Costello's Attractions (if Elvis Costello's Attractions had Robert Quine on guitar and a fretless bass). I enjoyed the Stony Brook gymnasium show -- but only because at this point my expectations that I'd ever experience the intense Lou Reed concert of my dreams were thoroughly damped.

Then I found out that Lou was swinging up to Albany the next month on the same college tour, and I went up to visit my alma mater and see the show yet again. At this point, well, me and Lou Reed concerts were getting pretty comfortable with each other. The experience was barely exciting anymore, though it was always pleasant. After the Albany show in October 1984 I had a feeling I wasn't going to be seeing Lou Reed again for a while. I'd wrung the sponge dry. There was no point to it anymore.

I didn't even buy Lou's next follow-up album, Mistrial (and I've still never heard the whole thing, though I know it includes an awkward attempt at hiphop called "The Original Wrapper").

Four years later, something miraculous happened, some kind of spontaneous awakening. Maybe it was triggered by a random event in a single neuron in the center of Lou Reed's brain. Or maybe he had planned his reemergence to take place in exactly this way, after a decade of dormant self-isolation. Whatever triggered it, the outward change appeared suddenly to Lou Reed's patient fans in the form of a new record album and a new musical project. A door closed, a door opened.

At this point in my life, I was a computer programmer working for a robotics laboratory in Hauppauge, Long Island, and taking fiction writing workshop classes at the New School in Greenwich Village at night, trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing as an adult in this world. I wasn't listening to Lou Reed at all these days. There was a lot of Joni Mitchell and Neil Young in my Walkman around this time, or when I needed a faster beat I'd pop in a Guns 'N' Roses or Beastie Boys cassette. Lou Reed? Yeah, I remember that guy, I used to listen to him when I was younger.

Then an album called New York came out.

Yeah, this album called New York. It was January 1989. Word was out that Robert Quine had finally stormed out of Lou's band, and Lou wisely decided to fire the rest of the band, and now he'd found a whole new band and a whole new sound.

And word was out that this new album was like "wow". Like really wow. Lou Reed had sprung back to life. And my own lifelong mission of trying to finally experience the great lost Lou Reed concert in the sky was about to go off in a whole new and different direction.

This three-part memoir's happy ending will be posted on this blog tomorrow.


Part two of Levi Asher's memoir of a 32-year span of Lou Reed concerts ... from "The Blue Mask" to "New York".

view /NIneConcertsInSearchOfLouReedPartTwo
Thursday, October 31, 2013 06:35 pm
Lou Reed and Robert Quine at the Bottom Line
Levi Asher

it seems strange, like yellow smoke
pushin' up against the window panes
and ain't a damn thing changed
i know, cause i been trying to find an antidote
while women come and go
talking of michelangelo

What! These lyrics wafted past me this weekend during a family gathering, and stopped me in my tracks. Has somebody finally turned my favorite poem ever into a hiphop track? And if so, what the hell took them so long? The track is Homework by Yak Ballz, a rapper from Flushing, Queens. The mermaids are slinging crack, and it's all good.

Yak depicts a scattered literary mind here, and I can relate, since I've been scrambling to catch up on my pile of urgent new fiction while also grappling with several history books about the Vietnam War and Watergate that recently assaulted me. I'll be writing about my history research project soon, and I also regretfully gave up on a novel I was impressed by, Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel. but ultimately couldn't finish because the frenetic pitch of the narrative confounded me completely (why is the undercover agent ex-wife of the gentle-souled religious cult leader wearing a fat suit and what does this have to do with North Korea?) even though I was attracted to Maazel's hard-edged satirical voice as well as to the book's obvious references to a classic novel about loneliness, Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut.

I persevered lightly with this work of hysterical realism for weeks but ultimately had to free myself, and I also gave up on reading Taipei, the latest Tao Lin, even though I always like Tao's sweetly vulnerable style. I'm now beginning a novel I know I'll love, Sparta by Roxana Robinson, because I've dearly loved every novel Roxana Robinson has ever written.

Then I've got an advance galley of Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker to contend with (this is a sequel to The Anthologist, a rare case of a Nicholson Baker novel I didn't like, but I do like the title Traveling Sprinkler, so I'm pumped for a mixed reaction). I still haven't found a copy of another new novel by a favorite author, The Childhood of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee, which was released around the world but not yet in the USA. Till then, at least we've got him on Twitter.

Tech-wise, I'm still fooling around with this site's new Facebook feed (now visible on the front page, a work in progress) and considering doing more with Facebook integration. I'm also grappling with twelve years of archived Action Poetry content, which I'll hopefully be presenting in a newly organized format soon, and we'll kick off the summer Action Poetry next week. There's my hurried report ... now listen to Yak.


Queens rapper Yak Ballz ponders J. Alfred Prufrock, and other news from Litkicks Central.

view /YakEliot
Tuesday, June 18, 2013 08:20 pm
Queens rapper Yak Ballz
Levi Asher

I saw Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors who died today, at a poetry show with Michael McClure at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York City a few years ago. I was awestruck by both legends on that stage: McClure for being a Beat Generation poet and Ray Manzarek for being the most exciting keyboard player in the history of rock, the architect of the "Light My Fire" sound, a key literary/avant-garde scenester of the hippie and post-hippie era, and the enabler of Jim Morrison.

I wasn't actually blown away by the Bottom Line poetry show, maybe because I like Michael McClure and Ray Manzarek too much individually for the tastes to go together. But, looking for a YouTube video with which to pay tribute to great Brother Ray today, I skipped the obvious Doors selections and settled instead on a McClure/Manzarek performance uploaded in 2008. Manzarek plucks shimmering riffs from "Riders on the Storm" while McClure says stuff like this:

i am my abstract alchemist of flesh made real

The luminescent celestial canvas of "Riders" is a good example of Ray Manzarek at his best. It's good to see in this late-career video that maturity did not dim Manzarek's spiritual major key brightness, nor slow his tempo. He died of cancer at the age of 74. As McClure says: O Muse!


I saw Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors who died today, at a poetry show with Michael McClure at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York City a few years ago ...

view /RayManzarek
Monday, May 20, 2013 08:33 pm
Ray Manzarek and Michael McClure performing
Levi Asher

For those who appreciate contemporary poetry, the re-release in digital format—by Ginsberg Recordings, a new collaborative partnership between The Allen Ginsberg Estate and the Esther Creative Group—of the most comprehensive of Allen Ginsberg’s recording projects, the 4-volume set, Holy Soul Jelly Roll (originally released as a box set 18 years ago by Rhino Records), will come as welcome news.

We live in an era in which the clamor for, and urgency of, progressive social change has become widely apparent, as evidenced by the rise of democratic protest movements across the globe, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street—, and on the coin’s other side by the growing and Life-on-Earth-threatening danger of climate change, whose already-significant impact was once again just demonstrated in the widespread and destructive power of Hurricane Sandy. And yet, we also live in an age in which it is sometimes difficult to know whether people’s time-consuming efforts “to make a difference” can really make a difference. After all, the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt has thus far been followed by the rise of an oppressive Muslim Brotherhood government, and the gradual decline, at least temporarily, of the U.S. Occupy movement has thus far been followed by ... well, that answer is not yet clear.

Compared to the frightening alternative of a President Romney, I believe that the re-election of President Obama should bring a deep sigh of relief. But now we will need to see whether President Obama will continue to be the mostly centrist president of his first term—who disappointed many progressives on a wide range of issues from civil liberties to drone strikes to pro-corporate economic policies—or whether grassroots activists can push him to be the more progressive leader that many had hoped to see when he was first elected in 2008. For me, it was at least somewhat encouraging that President Obama mentioned global warming in his post-election acceptance speech, after he had sadly failed to bring up the issue of climate change even once during any of the three widely viewed presidential debates. While we are still waiting for relief efforts to arrive in many apparently forgotten parts of post-hurricane New Jersey and New York that remain without power or heat even going into the freezing-cold second week of November, it would bring some long-term relief to know that Hurricane Sandy may have helped to open the eyes of our elected officials. But it may be a long time before we see whether opened eyes can translate into much-needed, wide-scale environmental policy changes.

Amid such an array of real-life uncertainties, one of the potential roles that enlightened art can play is to shore up people’s spirits and imaginations, to give people hope that our individual and collective actions might one day lead to a more just and sustainable world. One of those artists who has helped inspire people’s political imaginations for over half a century now is the late Beat Generation poet, Allen Ginsberg. In his willingness to dig through, with unfiltered lenses and uncensored language, the political and cultural exploitation and hypocrisy of his time, and to offer Coming-Attractions glimpses of a more compassionate planet, Allen Ginsberg, in his best poems, captured so well on Holy Soul Jelly Roll, still seems as crucial for American and international consciousness-raising as ever.

It is odd looking back to realize how many of Ginsberg’s earliest critics, in the 1950s, found the poems in his first City Lights book, Howl and Other Poems, overly pessimistic or destructive. After all, here was a young poet who—during an era of Cold-War fears and conformity--could end "Footnote to Howl" with one of the most exhilarating lines of human optimism in 20th century American verse: "Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!" What some of the early critics mistook in "Howl" for negativity was, I think, mainly Ginsberg's unwillingness to offer blind faith to Establishment institutions that dehumanized or exploited, or that attempted to drape room-darkening sheets of denial over society's many ills. For Ginsberg, a direct and unflinching look at society’s many problems was a necessary precondition for addressing and transcending them.

As a record of Allen Ginsberg's trailblazing poetry career, from his youthful pre-"Howl" years up until four years before his death in 1997, Holy Soul Jelly Roll! -- Poems and Songs (1949-1993) is a masterful four-volume CD or digital set, in whichever format one chooses to buy it, that deserves to be etched into the planet's cultural memory. To come up with his final selection, which was originally released in 1994, producer extraordinaire Hal Willner, who is widely known for his eclectic tribute compilations and for serving many years as the music supervisor of Saturday Night Live, sifted through hundreds of hours of Ginsberg recordings, and re-mixed many of the individual tracks. Before Holy Soul Jelly Roll, 30 of the 52 tracks on this CD box set were previously unreleased, and many others had been unavailable for years.

Since Allen Ginsberg, ever since his first reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery, was one of the main poets responsible for re-popularizing poetry as an oral art form—later inspiring both the "spoken word" poetry scene as well as the far more widely influential world of hiphop—it seems crucial to continue to be able to hear many of Ginsberg’s classic poems: including, to name a few on this 4-volume CD, "Howl," "America," "Sunflower Sutra," "Kaddish," "To Aunt Rose," "Death to Van Gogh's Ear," "Kral Majales," "Wichita Vortex Sutra (Part 3)," "Who Be Kind To," "September On Jessore Road," and "Father Death Blues."

Of course, Ginsberg was always concerned with both the spoken and written word. With artistic merit of its own, Holy Soul Jelly Roll comes complete with a 64-page liner notes booklet, filled with Ginsberg's own social and literary commentaries, poetry-world anecdotes, photos, and memorabilia. The booklet also contains tributes from friends and cohorts, including Bob Dylan who writes that "Ginsberg is ... probably the greatest single influence on American poetic voice since Walt Whitman."

Ginsberg's poems, throughout the 44-year trail covered by Holy Soul Jelly Roll, are characterized by a risk-taking personal candor, one of our era’s most provocative and wide-ranging poetic imaginations, an uncanny rhythmic ear, a unique mixture of humor and information, a principled and radical social engagement, and an inventive use of a deep well of poetic techniques and traditions. His themes consistently express energetic yearnings for healthier personal, political, and ecological possibilities.

In the political arena, which particularly interests me as a 55-year-old longtime democratic-left poet and activist deeply influenced by much of Ginsberg's work, as well as a one-time student of Allen’s (at Naropa Institute in the summer of 1980) and a friend thereafter, Holy Soul Jelly Roll offers a unique opportunity to hear these four decades' worth of poems, most of which were written during the Cold War, from a post-Cold War perspective. With political principles consistently upholding basic notions of social justice and democratic freedoms, Ginsberg unwaveringly opposed repressive policies (often, murderously repressive) of both Western capitalism and Eastern Europe's Soviet-era "actually existing socialism." In "Kral Majales (King of May)," written in 1965, Ginsberg turns a spotlight on the poverty and militarism all too prevalent in the West, as well as the authoritarian repression of civil liberties in the East: "and the Capitalists proffer Napalm and money in green suitcases to the Naked, / and the Communists create heavy industry but the heart is also heavy / and the beautiful engineers are all dead."

When Holy Soul Jelly Roll was originally released in 1994, Ginsberg’s principled critique of the Eastern Bloc's oppressive version of socialism seemed quite striking just a few years after many of us around the world had watched celebrating youths helped shake down the Berlin Wall, and after some of Ginsberg’s old literary friends and allies, like Vaclav Havel, began to assume prominent roles in difficult new political reconstructions. For Ginsberg, the Cold War seems to have functioned both as an historic cause of real-life suffering and also as a compelling symbol of the propagation of false dichotomies in all areas of life—restrictive choices that can cause violence on a mass scale and emotional neuroses at the level of the individual.

"Howl" was Ginsberg’s breakthrough poem that envisioned healthier alternatives to such reductive Cold War mentalities, and that also, of course, went on to change the international landscape of poetry. The recording of "Howl" on this CD is from a previously unreleased tape made at Berkeley's Town Hall Theater in 1956. With the early critics in mind, Kenneth Rexroth introduces the reading with just the right understated touch: "Now with all the misery and unhappiness in the world, read something nice." No matter how often we may have read or heard the poem's famous opening line, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked," hearing it in one of its earliest public readings still brings a fresh visceral rush. The thunderous applause at the poem's end on this recording enables us to comprehend the startling surprise felt by 1950s audiences upon hearing such original and groundbreaking verse.

In "Howl," taking up the Blakean poet-prophet tradition, as well as incorporating 20th century models of psychoanalysis, Ginsberg dives head-first into the contemporary social madness in order, first to explore it, then to define it (the Moloch section), and finally to redeem or transform it. After identifying the day’s social ills as stemming from a set of interconnected and oppressive aspects of religious, sexual, familial, political, cultural, and economic institutions and naming this multi-layered beast Moloch—after the Canaanite fire god who was worshipped by the sacrifice of children—Ginsberg’s act of imaginative transformation is accomplished in the poem’s third section through an expression of spiritual solidarity with Carl Solomon, a Dadaist poet who was at the time living in a psychiatric hospital, which in the poem is called Rockland: "I'm with you in Rockland ... imaginary walls collapse ... O victory forget your underwear we're free."

Ginsberg’s belief in spiritual solidarity (“I’m with you in Rockland”) and his belief in the power of the poetic imagination to create change (“walls collapse”) help to highlight the radical character of Ginsberg's work. In the Blakean poet-prophet tradition, what can be imagined can one day be made real—so that, for instance, if people imagine that the Berlin wall can be torn down, then one day the Berlin wall can be torn down. Indeed, in the recording’s liner notes, Ginsberg acknowledges his debt to William Blake on the matter of poetry's public capabilities: "Blake was the catalytic poet who turned me on to the idea that poetry could awaken people's consciousness." Elsewhere in the Liner Notes, Ginsberg writes that he learned from Blake the poetic technique of taking "political details," and "magnif[ying] roles into cosmo-demonic figures"—for example, "Moloch whose blood is running money!"

As Ginsberg learned from Blake, the poetic technique of turning a current event or situation into mythic language can potentially create a sense of literary timelessness that might enable the power of a poem to long outlast any particular historical moment—or, again in the words of “Howl,” it can make a poem “good to eat a thousand years.”

Adding to the thematic sense in "Howl" of creating social and personal alternatives are the poem's formal elements, especially the use of surrealist imagery and modernist juxtaposition, which Ginsberg describes in the Liner Notes: "I wanted a surrealist shorthand adaptation from Williams' naturalistic description & Whitman's catalogs, syntactically condensed to get phrases like 'hydrogen jukebox' or 'winter midnight streetlight smalltown rain.' The gap between 'hydrogen' and 'jukebox' is filled in by the mind interpreting a sense to it." In other words, readers of modernist poetry are, in a sense, invited to be democratic participants by playing an active role in helping to create the meaning of the poem by filling in the blanks. The European philosopher Ernst Bloch insightfully called these instances of modernist poetry, including juxtapositional phrasings, "anticipatory illuminations," since the poet attempts to create images that do not yet exist in the actual world, and the reader is therefore urged to think about better future alternatives.

The first CD of Holy Soul Jelly Roll collects other remarkable readings of poems from the "Howl" years. Ginsberg’s poem, "America," is punctuated by bursts of live audience laughter, again reflecting this poem's utter originality for its time. That poem ends with the memorable assertion of gay identity against a mechanizing culture: "America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.” Challenging the influence of the earlier New Critics, who generally preferred poems portraying ambiguity and paradox, "America" helped to make it okay once again in American poetry to say directly what one felt and thought; and also okay to use wit and humor to keep radical ideas alive, despite mainstream culture's subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to close the history books on such progressive activists and groups as the Wobblies, Scott Nearing, Mother Bloor, and Paterson's silk strikers.

In "Sunflower Sutra," another one of Ginsberg’s best poems from Howl and Other Poems appearing on Holy Soul Jelly Roll, Ginsberg expands on the pastoral tradition in English-language poetry by rescuing both Nature and Self from industrial decay, or from what the literary critic, Leo Marx, has called the machine-in-the-landscape: "We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all golden sunflowers inside."

The second CD on Holy Soul Jelly Roll centers around "Kaddish," the long poem for his mother, Naomi, which has by now entered the pantheon of literature’s greatest elegies. The 60-plus minute, full-length reading on this CD was recorded at Brandeis University in 1964. About the poem's rhythm, Ginsberg writes in the Liner Notes: "So the cadence all through the poem's based on davening rabbis do to move the spirit and body when chanting the mourner's Kaddish, somehow connected with the near-Aramaic cantillation of Ray Charles." His mother's death had propelled Ginsberg to delve into childhood and family memories, revealing how a 12-year-old boy was forced by circumstance to make profound adult-like, caretaking decisions for his mother, who had been experiencing intense psychological trauma. Those years clearly left a long-lasting mark in the poet's belief in candor as necessary for psychological healing. They also do much to reveal the origins of Ginsberg's dedication to compassion and forgiveness. And politically, as the poem details his upbringing—by a Communist mother and an anti-Stalinist, Debsian-socialist, lyric-poet father—, “Kaddish” reveals how the deeply personal grew inevitably intertwined with the worldly social.

While the poem views the psychological breakdown of Naomi—who when healthier had read Communist fairy tales to mentally disabled children—in relation to the social oppression of Hitler's Nazi Germany, Stalin's ideals-destroying Russia, and the repressive domestic policies of the U.S. during the Cold War, Naomi's redemption in the poem can be read in part as a refusal to let the dream of a better and more-progressive world die. For there is that celebrated key in the window, whose secret Naomi passes down to her son, and which is available to all of those with open, exploring minds:"to the living--that can take / that slice of light in hand—and turn the door—and look back see / Creation glistening."

The third CD on Holy Soul Jelly Roll comes from the Vietnam War protest years, in producer Hal Willner's words, "reflecting the highly visible period in Allen's history when posters of a bearded, long-haired Ginsberg dressed in flowing robes and beads adorned the walls of college dormitories, and many of his poems and activities reached the homes of middle America." My favorite piece on this third CD is the amazing version of Ginsberg’s anti-war poem, "Wichita Vortex Sutra" (Part 3), with a piece of piano accompaniment written by Philip Glass and performed by Alan Johnson. "Wichita Vortex Sutra" again uses the poetic technique of modernist collage—stringing together various observations, thoughts, dreams, and newspaper headlines that flashed through Ginsberg’s mind while he was traveling across the country beginning in late 1965. It juxtaposes international Buddhist concepts with traditional American ones, stylistically bringing the two sides of the war together to negotiate. As noted above, with modernist montage, readers are left responsible to fill in the blanks, and to complete the meaning of the collage, which again makes it possible for both the poet and the reader to imagine a new possibility. In this case, that new possibility is the war's end, which Ginsberg famously declares in one of those high moments of Holy Soul Jelly Roll that listeners will not easily forget: "I lift my voice aloud, / make Mantra of American language now, / I here declare the end of the War!" (After Ginsberg’s death, a tree was planted in the courtyard of New York City’s St. Marks Poetry Project, where a commemorative plaque was engraved with these three ever-relevant, anti-war lines.)

Since, in the Blakean poet-prophet tradition, it is assumed that what the poet can imagine can one day be made real, in these lines Ginsberg is testing the potential of poetry to help bring a speedier end to the Vietnam War. And “Wichita Vortex Sutra” did help to inspire the then-growing anti-war movement. Influenced by this poem, protest rallies were subsequently held in places like New York City’s Grand Central Station where demonstrators ran around announcing the end of the war, and well-known songwriters like John Lennon and Phil Ochs took up Ginsberg’s mantle and wrote widely played songs with lines like “war is over if you want it” and “I declare the war is over.”

For those interested in poetic forms and traditions, it may be interesting to look at how "Wichita Vortex Sutra" inverts some previously practiced ideas of writing poetry about wars. Whereas prior war-related poetry, Wilfred Owen's for example, had often described the direct perceptions of soldier-poets on the battlefield’s bloody front lines, Ginsberg describes the direct observations of a political activist experiencing the war through mainstream media accounts in his home country and through his personal involvement in the anti-war movement. While Ginsberg had mythologized current social reality in the “Moloch” section of “Howl,” here in “Wichita Vortex Sutra” he adopts the opposite poetic strategy of demythologizing dominant culture's false renditions of, or myths about, the war.

Younger readers and listeners should be able to easily relate by thinking of the ways in which America’s mainstream media mostly cooperated with President George W. Bush’s false claims about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction during the prelude to the 2003 war against Iraq. These false myths about Iraq had helped to create a climate for at least some degree of public acceptance for that unwarranted invasion. In "Wichita Vortex Sutra," Ginsberg asserts, in a line that continues to seem especially pertinent again, ever since 9/11, that "almost all our language has been taxed by war," and the poem uses humor and alternative information about history and current events in order to restore meaning and historical context to our language, as a way to try to bring the country’s foundation of public discourse back to a more sane, honest, and peaceful place.

The third CD in the packet also includes several recordings of William Blake songs that Ginsberg had put to music. One piece that will be treasured by those who are fans of both Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan is a recording of Blake's "A Dream," with Bob Dylan on guitar and vocals. That performance of “A Dream” also includes the musicians David Amram, Happy Traum, and Perry Robinson, as well as poet, Anne Waldman, and Ginsberg’s longtime partner, Peter Orlovsky. There is also a spirited rendition of William Blake's "Nurse's Song" including a chorus sung by Ginsberg with fellow poets, Gregory Corso and Orlovsky, and with his longtime musical collaborator, the guitarist, Steven Taylor.

The fourth and final CD of Holy Soul Jelly Roll! contains some of Ginsberg’s later-years musical collaborations, along with some of his most important personal poems from throughout his career. Among my favorite pieces here is "Father Death Blues" (1976), a song about the death of Allen’s father, Louis, which ends with the poignant tercet that has since been etched onto the gravestone where a portion of Ginsberg’s ashes are buried in Elizabeth, New Jersey, near his father’s burial plot: "Father Breath once more farewell / Birth you gave was no thing ill / My heart is still, as time will tell."

“Gospel Noble Truths" (1975) and "Do the Meditation Rock" (1981) put Buddhist philosophy and meditative practice into witty and compressed verse form. "After Lalon" is a 1992 poem that comically and earnestly revealed many of Ginsberg's fears about aging, death, and unfulfilled ambitions. The British political punk band, The Clash, appears here in a recording of Ginsberg’s "Capital Air" (1980). "CIA Dope Calypso" (1972-76) shows Ginsberg as an investigative poet exposing CIA involvement in drug trafficking in Southeast Asia, putting difficult-to-find, but accurate, information into a super-condensed rhymed-verse form for the consumption of a wider literary readership.

"The Little Fish Devours The Big Fish" (1982) includes the magnificent drum accompaniment of jazz musician, Elvin Jones, while "Birdbrain" (1980) is rendered as a catchy punk-pop song performed with the Colorado-based Mike Chapelle and The Gluons, who I had the pleasure to see play at a Denver rock and roll club during my first trip to Naropa Institute. (On the way back to Boulder from that Denver concert, the car that I was riding in was smashed by another car into a telephone pole, which was far less enjoyable than the concert.) "Airplane Blues" (1981), recorded with Bob Dylan on bass, contains the poignant and melancholic admission of a poet moving through his middle years: "Hearts full of hatred / will outlast my old age."

Finally, "September on Jessore Road” (1971), recorded here with Bob Dylan, David Amram, and others, is, I believe, one of the most heart-wrenching poems that Ginsberg ever wrote, a poem describing in rhymed quatrains his direct observations of poverty on the main road between Calcutta and Bangladesh. In the Liner Notes for "Jessore Road," Ginsberg says that he wanted to write "something to astonish Dylan," a long poem like Dylan’s song, " 'Sad-Eyed Lady of The Lowlands,' but W.C. Williams-like natural reportage, and spiritual." The Liner Notes report Dylan saying that he wept upon reading it. For this version of "Jessore Road," Hal Willner has seamlessly pieced together two performances actually recorded 12 years apart. It's the kind of production magic that typifies Holy Soul Jelly Roll and that helps to make this four-volume CD such an important and timeless cultural document.

Aside from a few conservative critics couching their ideological disagreement with Ginsberg in literary terms, today almost all readers of American verse readily acknowledge the historic importance and influence of Allen Ginsberg's poetry. Politically, the legacy of his poems seems to me at least fourfold: they offer sharp and visionary criticisms of existing political, religious, economic, and cultural institutions; they raise social consciousness by offering alternative ways of thinking and alternative information, and by insisting that spiritual qualities like compassion, forgiveness and creativity be ever-present in progressive politics; they support the notion of poet as a participant in organized activist movements; and, significantly, they present current world reality as mutable, dependant on human actions and subject to change, while offering highly imaginative glimpses about elements that ought to appear in a better world.

These last two items seem particularly important legacies for our contemporary culture, where, as I noted at the beginning of this piece, it is sometimes difficult to be sure whether our individual or collective actions will really bring improvements. Even though we have seen a host of depressing political trends—such as the growing threat of climate change, the persistence of widespread hunger and poverty, a continuing over-reliance on a hawkish foreign policy by presidents of both major U.S. political parties, the recurring repression of free expression in post-Soviet Russia, and a Middle East that far too often seems on the brink of escalating warfare in one country or another—, we have also seen so many positive, large-scale historical changes in recent decades that we know humans working together can indeed create improved social conditions. From a 2012 perspective, it seems both clear and simple: the future is uncertain and will depend largely on human actions from here on. As a tonic to any overriding pessimism that might creep at times into our hearts and minds, Allen Ginsberg's poems do not reveal social change to be easy, but they do energetically envision the possibility.

On the poetic level, Ginsberg has created a body of work, both written and oral, that has surely earned a warm place in international literature's long-term memory. Inventively expanding, and sometimes inverting, a wide range of literary traditions, Allen Ginsberg developed one of the most unique written and spoken voices of the 20th century. And as we have recently seen by the presence and popularity of Ginsberg’s books in the Occupy Wall Street free library at Zuccotti Park, Allen Ginsberg’s work continues to inspire young people and to help move the nation’s consciousness forward. Holy Soul Jell Roll provides an important and comprehensive oral documentation of his valuable contributions, as well as a fun marathon listening experience.

* * * * *

(Eliot Katz is the author of six books of poetry, including Unlocking the Exits, and Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America's Skull. He is a coeditor, with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Clausen, of Poems for the Nation, a collection of political poems that Ginsberg was compiling in the mid-1990s. Katz’s poems are included in many anthologies, including: Poetry after 9/11: An Anthology of New York Poets; Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, 2nd ed.; and Blue Stones and Salt Hay: An Anthology of Contemporary New Jersey Poets. His essay on “Howl,” “Radical Eyes,” is included in the prose collection, The Poem That Changed America, edited by Jason Shinder. Katz has also worked for many years as a political activist for a wide range of peace and social-justice causes.)


New Jersey poet Eliot Katz explores Allen Ginsberg's music and recorded poetry, collected in "Holy Soul Jelly Roll:.

view /HolySoulJellyRoll
Tuesday, December 11, 2012 10:51 pm
Holy Soul Jelly Roll Volume 1: Moloch by Allen Ginsberg
Eliot Katz

Efrat Ben Zur, a talented young Israeli singer with a forceful style that reminds me of a lot of Natalie Merchant and just a little bit of Sinead O'Connor, has released an entire album of songs based on Emily Dickinson poems. Here's her spin on "I'm Nobody", a short, fascinating enigma from Dickinson's found works, rendered here into powerful rhythm and melody:

The album can be downloaded here.


Efrat Ben Zur, a talented young Israeli singer with a forceful style that reminds me of a lot of Natalie Merchant and just a little bit of Sinead O'Connor, has released an entire album of songs based on Emily Dickinson poems. Here's her spin on "I'm Nobody", a short, fascinating enigma from Dickinson's found works, rendered here into powerful rhythm and melody ...

view /EfratDickinson
Sunday, November 11, 2012 07:35 pm
Efrat Ben Zur singing the words of Emily Dickinson
Levi Asher

The final episode ever of the long-running literary podcast series The Bat Segundo Show, hosted by Ed Champion, will be recorded live on Wednesday, October 3 2012 at the McNally Jackson bookstore in New York CIty. The event is an interview with J. Robert Lennon, author of the new Familiar: A Novel, a book I'm looking forward to checking out (I've enjoyed his short stories in the past).

The Bat Segundo show has survived for many years as a labor of love by a dedicated literary journalist (who works harder at the art of the author interview than I ever could). Ed Champion walks us through his decision to close down the show and move on to other things in this honest appraisal of the kinds of financial, temporal and personal tradeoffs that every serious independent online writer must eventually weigh. Here's the good news: other literary activities over at Ed's place will continue.


The last episode of the Bat Segundo literary podcast series will be a live interview with J. Robert Lennon, author of Familiar, at the McNally Jackson bookstore in New York City on Wednesday, October 3.

view /SegundoOut
Tuesday, October 2, 2012 10:36 pm
Bat Segundo (Ed Champion) at the mic
Levi Asher

1. Michael Stutz recently shared his theory that a diner in Jack Kerouac's hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts might have been the inspiration for the name of Sal Paradise, the On The Road narrator. In a follow-up conversation, Michael told me more about the Paradise Diner: it opened in 1937 (when Jack was 15 years old) and can be found on Google Maps here.

2. The poet Adrienne Rich has died. Jamelah Earle has written about this.

3. My younger daughter compelled me to read Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games last year, and we were both fairly blown away by the movie (as was Benoit Lelievre and many, many others). The Atlantic has published a good list of the story's mythological and pop-culture sources. (I'm only surprised this article doesn't mention Gone With The Wind, since Katniss's richly layered love triangle with Peeta and Gale strikes me as a clear echo of Scarlett O'Hara's tortuous confusion over Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes).

4. "What happens when a downtown New York poet of the hip hop and slam persuasion discovers that the roots of spoken word go back thousands of years and span the globe?" A linguistic spirit journey by good ol' Bob Holman.

5. Sick of books called The _____'s Daughter? So am I, and so is Emily St. John Mandel.

6. Thomas de Wall explores how the great literature of 19th Century Russia can help us understand 21st Century post-Soviet politics. (Example: Ukraine as Chekhov's Cherry Orchard).

7. "The Coffin Factory" is a damn good name for a new literary magazine publishing folks like Justin Taylor, Aimee Binder, Roberto Bolano and Pablo Medina.

8. Nicely done: if you live in London or New York City, you can select a short story to match your commute time. I hope they padded the time estimates for the occasional staring off into space that is a requisite part of commuter reading.

9. Beautiful! letterheads of the greats, from Noel Coward to Charles M. Schulz to Sigmund Freud.

10. Hamlet, diagrammed.

11. A database of metaphors.

12. Sensitive Skin, a long-running magazine from New York City's Lower East Side.

13. Screenshots of Despair.

14. New letters published by the John F. Kennedy Library show how much Ernest Hemingway loved his cat. Still unclear how much he liked people.

15, Jimmy Chen on tone -- literary, that is.

16. Steve Martin has published a book of tweets, The Ten, Make That Nine, Habits of Very Organized People. Make That Ten.: The Tweets of Steve Martin.

17. Here are some of expressionist painter Carl Kohler's images of a few favorite writers, from Charles Bukowski to Antonin Artaud to Joyce Carol Oates to Samuel Beckett.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2012 05:36 pm
Levi Asher

I'm still on vacation. But here are some links:

1. The image above is from a teaser promo for a new movie based on Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis. I don't know what to think. You be the judge.

2. It was fifty years ago that Ernest Hemingway took his own life. David Ulin has some thoughts about Hemingway's impact (and lack of impact) today. Also, the FBI really was spying on him.

3. Words Without Borders' July issue is about The Arab Spring.

4. In the New York Review of Books, Geoffrey O'Brien considers Terence Malick's new film The Tree of Life in light of the philosophical writings of William James.

5. Cormac McCarthy: Are We There Yet?. Fyodor Dostoevsky: Rent Was Too Damn High. John Knowles: I Hate You, I Love You, No Homo. A website called Better Book Titles was funny the first time I told you about it last year, and it's still funny today.

6. The telephone logs of Robert Creeley, always a digital culture pioneer, as found art.

7. Remember when I published my memoir of the Silicon Alley boom and crash, one chapter per week, in 2009? Brad Lisi of the Nervous Breakdown is now beginning a similar weekly memoir experiment, consisting of curated cut-ups from his younger writings. It's tentavely (very tentatively) titled "Possible Title". I don't know if Listi's experiment s in any way inspired by mine, but I'm glad he's doing it, and I'll be reading it. I hope more writers and bloggers will try similar things. I remain convinced that everybody has a good memoir inside them, if they'd only take the trouble to write it. Everybody.

8. Novelist Colson Whitehead will be playing in the World Series of Poker.

9. The truly great guitarist/songwriter Trey Anastasio of Phish may be starting to get the intellectual respect he deserves. An extensive interview with Ross Simonini in The Believer.

10. Some folks are kickstarting a movie about Nelson Algren.

11. HTML Giant: What are your favorite tricks in literature?

12. Art About Books.

13. More art: very appealing covers of Jazz-era Chicago Magazine, which never equalled The New Yorker in reach or reputation, but sure tried, and now seems like a bizarro version of it.

14. A strange published anecdote about a teenage prank committed by Ann Beattie may not be as interesting as the negative reaction it's getting.

view /Vermin
Wednesday, July 6, 2011 08:51 am
Levi Asher