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Ginsberg on Life's 'Skeletons'

Interview: Last fall, the poet linked his work with rock music, movies and more.

April 07, 1997

Allen Ginsberg, who died Saturday in New York at age 70, continued to influence pop culture through the last few months of his life. Last fall, Mercury Records released "The Ballad of the Skeletons," a collaboration among Ginsberg, Philip Glass and Paul McCartney. The song was produced by Lenny Kaye, longtime guitarist for Patti Smith, and an accompanying video--which was frequently played on MTV's "Buzz Bin"--was directed by Gus Van Sant ("To Die For," "My Own Private Idaho"). As the project was released, Ginsberg discussed it with Harvey R. Kubernik, a Los Angeles-based record producer, poet and longtime friend of Ginsberg.

Harvey Kubernik: What was the genesis and development of "The Ballad of the Skeletons"?

Allen Ginsberg: I started it because [of] all that inflated bull about the family values, the "contract with America," Newt Gingrich and all the loudmouth stuff on talk radio, and Rush Limbaugh and all those other guys. It seemed obnoxious and stupid and kind of sub-contradictory, so I figured I'd write a poem to knock it out of the ring.

HK: Were there any inherent music or melodic rhythms in the poem when it was first written?

AG: Yes. I had a riff, "Dum, dum, dum. The New York Times." I first thought of singing it, but then I thought, better to speak it with that riff behind it.

It got printed in the Nation with illustrations by Eric Drooker, and it came out in a book I did, "Illuminated Poems." The next stage was a benefit somewhere in a club, a reading I did with Amiri Baraka in New York, and I ran into guitarist Marc Ribot there. I had worked with him before on an album, "The Lion for Real." I asked Marc if he would accompany me, and I sang him the riff. He added a little instrumental in between. But he made it dramatic.

[And there was a] benefit I did for Tibet House at Carnegie Hall that Philip Glass organized. I called David Mansfield, who I've recorded with before, with John Hammond, and he's a friend of mine. So, he was going to accompany me at Carnegie Hall, and Lenny Kaye was there with Patti Smith, and he asked Lenny if he could play bass, and he did a knockout job with David. And it was a big hit of the evening, 'cause it was the one rocker.

Then I went to Princeton to give a reading by myself with my harmonium. When I got picked up by the limousine, [there] was Gus Van Sant. When we got out [at] the hotel, he pulled out a guitar and I said, "Do you play guitar?" And he replied, "I have a band in Portland." So I said, "I don't have an accompanist tonight. Can you accompany me?" So he said yeah. We rehearsed it and played it.

Then I had a gig at Albert Hall in London. A reading. I had been talking quite a bit to [Paul] McCartney, visiting him and bringing him poetry and haiku, and looking at Linda McCartney's photographs and giving him some photos I'd taken of them. So, McCartney liked it and filmed me doing "Skeletons" in a little 8-millimeter home thing. And then I had this reading at Albert Hall, and I asked McCartney if he could recommend a young guitarist who was a quick study. So he gave me a few names, but he said, "If you're not fixed up with a guitarist, why don't you try me? I love the poem."

So I said, "It's a date."

We went to Paul's house and spent an afternoon rehearsing. He came to one sound check, and we did a little rehearsal there, again. And then he went up to his box with his family. It was a benefit for literary things. There were 15 other poets. We didn't tell anybody that McCartney was going to play. And we developed that riff really nicely. In fact, Linda made a little tape of our rehearsal. So, then, we went onstage and knocked it out. There's a photo of us on the CD. It was very lively, and he was into it.

HK: Didn't you see the Beatles play, and there's some poem you wrote about the event?

AG: Yes! I saw them in Portland, Maine. I was up there with Gary Snyder, probably 1965, 1966. I was with a couple of little children. I had gotten tickets and was sitting way out in the bleachers, and John Lennon came out and said, "We understand that Allen Ginsberg is in the audience. So three cheers. So now we'll have our show." He saluted me from the stage, which amazed me and made me feel very proud with all these young kids at my side. Then I knew Lennon and Yoko Ono lived in New York and visited on and off. I was involved in some political things with them occasionally.

HK: What did Paul McCartney add to your recording of "Skeletons"?

AG: He reacts to the words in an intelligent way. You can hear it on the tape. Like if I say on the recording, "What's cooking," all of a sudden he brings in the maracas to get that really funny excitement. When I say, "Blow Nancy blow," he blows on the Hammond organ. He added a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of interpretation.

And sometimes, when I made a flub, he covered it. He left his lead sheet in his guitar case, so we had to share my lead sheet [at Albert Hall], which was fun.

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