For the October, 1982 issue of High Times, Larry Sloman and George Barkin interviewed Allen Ginsberg. In honor of the beat bard’s birthday June 3, we’re republishing it below.
Surely we don’t have to tell you about Ginsberg. The labels roll facilely off the tongue: elder statesman of the beats, poet of our generation, radical activist, gnostic Jewish Buddhist, spokesman for the counterculture. Everyone knows his friends (Burroughs, Kerouac, Orlovsky, Dylan, Kesey, Cassady, Leary, Hoffman) and almost everyone knows his work (“Howl,” “Kaddish,” Planet News, The Fall of America and “Plutonium Ode”).
More than anyone we can think of, Ginsberg rode the waves of exploration and dissent in the ’50s and ’60s and emerged with his psyche and credibility unscathed, ready for the ’80s. Recently, he’s recorded with the Clash (on their latest LP, Combat Rock) and Dylan (for Allen’s first rock album, due soon on Hammond/CBS) and was the impetus behind a counter-cultural conclave at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, the occasion being the 25th anniversary of Kerouac’s On the Road. We caught up with the accessible bard on a hot summer day on New York’s Lower East Side, where he’s lived on and off for two decades now.
High Times: How did you wind up rewriting Clash lyrics on their new album?
Ginsberg: They asked for them. Strummer handed me the lyrics and said, “You’re the greatest poet in America, can you improve this?” Look at the words to “Ghetto Defendant.” Two lines ended in “city.” That’s no good. So I changed it to “iron pity.” Walk in iron pity. Then he said it’s “heroin pity.” So it was just up-leveling very slightly the little blanks in their imagery to make it a little more surrealist.
High Times: How’d you meet the Clash?
Ginsberg: Their sound man brought me backstage at Bond’s in New York. I had listened to their music so I was familiar with them. And when I walked in Strummer said, “Ah, Ginsberg, when are you running for president?” So I said, “I can’t. My guru said I’d wind up in Vajra hell if I did.” Then Strummer said he had a guy that was going on giving lectures about El Salvador and the people in the audience were throwing tomatoes at him and he asked me if I had a poem. I told him I had a rhyme poem with chord changes and that I knew how to sing a little. So Strummer and Mick Jones ran over it and they brought me out at the beginning of their encore set and introduced me as President Allen Ginsberg. It was pretty successful. I think they were surprised I was able to get up and belt out a song. They’re all good musicians—Mick Jones particularly—and they’re very sensitive and very literate underneath all the album-cover roughneck appearance. I don’t know any other band that would, in the middle of a big heavy concert, be willing to risk going on with a big middle-age goose like me who might or might not be able to sing in tune for all they know.
High Times: It must have been a different experience than doing a reading.
Ginsberg: There’s three thousand people in there. But the real challenge is to be so clear and so definite and so courageous and so authoritative to lay down the story in front of three thousand screaming new-wave heads that they actually listen to it because it makes sense.
High Times: Did you have a sense of the power, in a Hitlerian sense?
Ginsberg: Absolutely. If the power is grounded, it’s unlimited. By grounded, I mean if there’s some common sense to it, if it has some basis. If it has no basis then it’s sheer power and that could likely go anywhere and hit anywhere.
High Times: Like Altamont?
Ginsberg: Well, yeah. But I wouldn’t be surprised if underneath the Altamont tragedy there was some secret direction, that the government was in there somewhere.
High Times: But in terms of Jagger—
Ginsberg: He wasn’t well grounded. As soon as he saw what he was into, having command of mantra or command of vocalization of a certain kind of calming, he could have cooled the whole scene out by mass chanting.
High Times: What do you think of rock ‘n’ roll?
Ginsberg: Basically blues, and that’s basically Afro-American philosophy singing, which is to say lamentations of the sufferings of existence and lamentations over human injustice and complaint.
High Times: What about the energy and force of rock?
Ginsberg: What it seems to me is everybody picking up telepathically on the social communication of a common shared emotion of suffering and wanting it to go beyond the suffering into some kind of social triumph together, like all the raised fists and all the lit matches. The emotion of wanting a community and a democracy, the emotion of wanting an end to injustice, the emotion of wanting a breakthrough into the future. The emotion of hope and the emotion of a shared consciousness of the transcendence of the political blackout and the social blackout and the sexual blackout and the dope-consciousness blackout. It’s the emotional triumph over the police state. Every time they light the matches or lift their hands that’s what it is—triumph over the oncoming police state.
As it was used historically, we could take the blues back to African village ceremony drumming and dancing and chanting. It was sacred communal communication.
High Times: How do you reconcile your interest in poetry and in today’s rock?
Ginsberg: I get the same thrill. I get it to the point of weeping, listening to Leadbelly’s “Jim Crow Blues,” one of the rare things that’s total politics, total blues. Or Skip James. Or Dylan’s “Idiot Wind”—that makes my hair raise on my scalp. But I get that from Hart Crane’s “Atlantis” and Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind.” Those are the great rock ‘n’ roll numbers of poetry, the inspired. The inspired means you take a big breath; great exhalations of spirit in poetry.
It all boils down to one simple thing, one common rhythm, which is why you could take “Love in Vain” from Robert Johnson and then transform it electronically into gigantic form with the Rolling Stones, but it is basically just that one body rhythm which is universal, the one rhythm common in music and in poetry.
High Times: Speaking of Shelley—he said the poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
Ginsberg: They are because they expand the actual breath so they make people realize that they are in their bodies in space. The effect of their verse is to make people realize they are awake in the bodies breathing in infinite space. Spirit awakened in space; in space meaning in the recognition of consciousness, the infinite, the openness of space, literally the looking outside the window over New York, on the clouds of the planet, here we are in the universe right now. Endless space woken up. Wakened mind, wakened spirit, wakened space, that’s the function of poetry. It’s also the function of music partly through dance and partly through the breath.
High Times: Who are your favorite poets?
Ginsberg: I think ultimately for meaning and analysis, Blake; for tears and schmaltz, Reznikoff; for hard common sense, Williams; for expansive good nature, Whitman; for learning and elegance, Pound; for mouthings and wit, Shakespeare; but for all-around personal humanity, Kerouac. He’s the only one that combines all the elements. I’ve been teaching him and I’m amazed how brilliant his prose is.
High Times: Do you miss Kerouac a lot?
Ginsberg: No, not really. He’s dead. But his intelligence is so pervasive to me. I still laugh with Kerouac in the sense that I address a lot of my thought and my poetry to his intelligence, to his basic sense of life and sense of mind, and I use it as a touchstone because there’s such a volume of his mind left in his writing that it’s possible to instantly have a conversation with him or get some input from him by simply just picking up a book and finding an amazing paragraph. Like that one sentence in Maggie Cassidy where he says, “It was as sad as a dog act or men singing.” You have his whole soul there. You could apply that to almost anything. Sad as going out to see your mother in Paterson. Sad as giving an interview with High Times. Sad as looking out the window of a tenement. There’s some all-pervading primordial wisdom in his work that’s contactable by recollecting a phrase. In that way, I miss him a lot. I wonder what he’d think of some of my work. Like the line in one of my new songs: “I’m alone in the sky because there’s nothing to lose, the sun is not eternal, that’s why there’s the blues.” That’s a line I pitched toward his mind.
High Times: So you wanna be a rock ‘n’ roll star, Allen?
Ginsberg: Well, no. It’s the same thing whether you’re a poet or a guru or a rock star. You’re locked into a role which you take on as a cross, in which you either bare as a cross of Christ and do it, as the guru does it or the Zen master, or you fight against it and commit suicide or refuse the responsibility. But it’s a tremendous responsibility to be Beethoven or Dylan.
High Times: Or Ginsberg.
Ginsberg: Ginsberg. Anybody that finally has an art. Because what that means is that you have to give your life to the art, no longer seek your own betterment but only seek the benefit of others. I used to think it was romantic to be a Zen master; you get all this romance and power, but as it turns out, a Zen master means you’re a slave to the dharma, to the teaching of Zen and to your students and to the organization. You literally abandon your own life and take a new name and shave your head and give yourself to that. And it’s the same thing to be a rock star. It’s not just a job—it’s the ultimate job of art-song communication if you’re great like Dylan or Lennon.
High Times: Have you talked to Dylan about that?
Ginsberg: No. His idea in 1978 was the idea of stopping time. Saying something that got into time, was so much in connection with time that it stopped time. That was his goal. It sounded exactly like what he did when he was younger. Like “Sweet Marie,” there was something so ancient, so familiar about that rhythm, that tinny trumpet. That mercurial, celestial sound. Getting across that sensation of presence in the universe, wakened presence. That’s the ideal rock ‘n’ roll star. Lennon, Dylan, maybe Jagger approaches it. Certainly the great black blues musicians do, Skip James or Leadbelly, Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith; they attained something of that sublimity in terms of communicating their own inward selves and simultaneously communicating with the inward selves of large masses of people. Certainly when Dylan gets up and sings “I’ll know my song well before I start singing” and “It’s a hard rain that’s gonna fall,” he unites the inward world of subjective desire and feeling and prophecy, and the external world of politics and social appreciation.
High Times: Were you surprised by his embracing fundamental Christianity?
Ginsberg: I was a little surprised when he embraced fundamentalism, but on the other hand it seems to me he was looking for, should be looking for, the absolute. He was embracing an absolute there. To my mind as a gnostic Buddhist, it was a mistaken absolute, but I thought it was a healthy sign to be embracing an absolute, that he was still out there trying, fighting his ego and trying to get rid of his ego. In this case by force, which is never successful. But he always had an inclination to the spiritual. I figured that he must have had some visionary experience of some kind.
High Times: Do you think there’s any more of a religious fervor going on now than there was in the ’20s?
Ginsberg: Yes, I think there is. And Spengler refers to it as a second religiousness; after the culture reaches its climax, comes to its limits, the main techniques sort of turn to ashes like science turns to the atom bomb. There have been mechanical rational sciences reaching their limits, or people realizing limits. Then Spengler says culture turns into civilization, high civilization, more refined, more sophisticated; but also the second religiousness comes on, where people drop out and go to monasteries and drugs or whatever… art.
In 1920, 1930, nobody ever thought of the end of the world. Or a few thought of the literal end of the world. Now you have seven hundred and fifty thousand people marching in Central Park saying, “Listen, don’t blow up the world. Let’s make the choice not to blow up the world.”
High Times: The image of the junkie is central in a lot of your writing.
Ginsberg: I used to know a lot of junkies.
High Times: Now in the art and punk scene it’s almost chic to take heroin.
Ginsberg: I hope I didn’t encourage it. That’s a big drag and they’ll cut their career short unless they’ve got the stick-to-it-ness of Burroughs or Huncke, and that’s only two people out of six million. Do you think I glamorized it? Actually, there was one line that I glamorized, which I’ve changed, in “Howl.” “Peace and junk and drugs,” but that was more antipolice than projunk. But heroin seems to me like a big drag in every direction. My own life has been wrecked and ruined by junk and junkies, junkie scenes, for years, in a really bad way. Living with Huncke, getting all my friends’ books ripped off, living with Huncke again, getting busted, going to jail and winding up in the bug house. Having to deal with Burroughs during the junk years.
High Times: Were you ever shooting junk regularly?
Ginsberg: No, I shot a lot of junk in my day but I started shooting junk at the same time Burroughs did—so it was prehistoric. And I watched him develop a habit, and I saw that it was a mechanical matter: If you shoot twice in a row, week after week, you will wind up with a habit, so you can’t take junk more than once a week or once every two weeks. I did that for many years. I was in India, smoking opium once or twice a week with access to it every day. And after a while I tapered off, I couldn’t stand it. And the reason was that I had a lot of other things I wanted to do that required energy, alertness and not being on the nod. I ain’t got time to goof around. Frankly, I think, except for scientific personal researches, junk, speed and coke are all equally a drag, and I don’t drink either; I don’t like alcohol.
High Times: What do you think of the middle-class coke phenomenon?
Ginsberg: It’s the crassest, materialistic, power-seeking, snow-blind desire for thrills, and it’s a baseless thrill, it’s an ungrounded thrill. We got a police state coming with the guys like Podhoretz and Haig and Midge Decter and the Moral Majority. Whether they know it or not, they’re building a police state and the military is building up for a little apocalypse with the bombs, and ten thousand people were killed in Lebanon so far. So there’s too much suffering in the world for a few to be amusing themselves with silly kicks like coke or knocking themselves out of action with junk and becoming another problem to everyone else. Cokeheads and junkheads are problems, just like the Palestinian refugees: somebody else you’ve got to worry about and take care of and figure out where you’re going to put them. As for dope, I still toke quite a bit of marijuana whenever I have an idle moment. That’s still very pleasant, but I find it’s more pleasant if I don’t smoke as much, maybe a couple times a week.
High Times: Do you smoke sinsemilla?
Ginsberg: I don’t know the difference after all these years and I don’t care. Nobody’s ever given me anything called sinsemilla and said “Try it out.” I can’t tell.
High Times: What was your reaction the first time you smoked grass?
Ginsberg: The first time I got high, not the first time I smoked, but the first time I appreciated it, stands out in my mind like a red-letter day in my life. I was with a Columbia friend, Walter Adams, and he had this car, so we started driving around Broadway and Ninety-first Street, and we got lost. We didn’t know north from south from west, which direction was which, and all of a sudden we were in a universe of blinking lights and automobiles going up and down the streets very slowly and traffic jams and people walking between the cars, cops with whistles, people walking dogs, and restaurants and strange-looking streets in the middle of this giant megalopolis. I forgot it was New York. I was in the middle of the universe, with all this activity going on like in some kind of vast robot city inhabited by human beings also.
So we finally got the car turned in the right direction, finally figured where Broadway was. A block from my house and I couldn’t figure out which direction to go. I got a little scared, wondering if this was what it did to your sense of time and space. So we finally put the car away, and we went into a corner restaurant and sat down at a round table in a brightly lighted old-fashioned ice cream parlor. It was old-fashioned, but modern style with Formica tables. I sat down and ordered a black and white sundae, and this great plate came up. A huge, round, beautiful, creamy, white ice cream and this giant dishful, this great mound of snowlike ice cream, but absolutely sweet and pure and clean and bright, and some thick, great-tasting, hot—almost steaming—chocolate syrup on top of it which, when touching the cold ice cream, formed a kind of hard chewy candy. And I remember putting a spoon into it and putting it into my mouth and saying what an amazing taste it had. I had never really appreciated what an outstanding invention a black and white ice cream sundae was—and how cheap it was, too! How giant and filling it was, but also what an amazing contrast of hot chocolate and moist, cool ice cream, and I was really fascinated by the whole ice cream culture.
Then halfway through I realized the whole place was swaying back and forth, and the lights were dazzling. The sky was infinitely extensive and spacious, the plate-glass windows of the restaurant showed people walking back and forth with their dogs, smiling and chattering or weeping. And it was a grand moment of synchronicity; everything was joyful and gay, and it was the first and only ice cream sundae I’ve ever enjoyed in my life; everything else has been anticlimax.
There was one month when I was first smoking grass once or twice a week on elegant and selected special occasions, and it made the whole universe swing. I was then studying Cezanne, and I made an arrangement to see some watercolors stored at the Museum of Modern Art. So I took a couple of sticks of grass before the show, sat down and smoked it in the garden.
And when I saw the Cezannes, I discerned his use of space, understanding his use of hot colors advancing and cold colors receding. “Eyeball kicks” I called it in “Howl”—optical consciousness.
So it was a beginning of the exploration of the senses, which actually is the first scratchings of the Buddhist meditation exercises we would learn. In Buddhist meditations you sit, actually observing how the senses operate, and explore the wall of the senses: sight, smell, sound, taste, touch and mind. Marijuana catalyzed the same kind of observation without the Buddhist terminology or discipline. I began to realize “the eye altering alters all” that’s Blake, and taste sensation, taste buds, gave me a sensation of the enormous awe of space I was in.
Our original use was for aesthetic study, aesthetic perception, deepening it. I was somewhat disappointed later on, when the counterculture developed the use of grass for party purposes rather than for study purposes. I always thought that was the wrong direction, that grass should be used with mindful attentiveness, rather than just for kicks—that’s silly. In fact, that’s probably where Kerouac and others began separating themselves as artists from the hippie-dippy movement, so to speak. That aspect of the hippie movement was hippie-dippy, you know: “Let’s get high.” ‘Cause it was ridiculous just to get high to do nothing. To get high and look at something, yes.
High Times: Beyond just study purposes, did smoking grass in the ’40s change your political consciousness at all?
Ginsberg: When I smoked grass I suddenly realized how amazing it was that on the evidence of my own senses, which I did not doubt, here was a very mild stimulator of perception that led me into all sorts of awes and cosmic vibrations and appreciations of Cezanne and Renaissance paintings and color and tastes. And here was this great government plot to suppress it and make it seem as if it were something diabolic, Satanic, full of hatred and fiendishness and madness, and so the difference between the official story and the personal consciousness I experienced catalyzed a complete reexamination of all my consciousness in every direction.
In relation to the state, to the media, to teachers, high-school mythology, in relation to patriotic mythology, government. It was the first time I ever had solid evidence in my own body that there was a difference between reality as I saw it myself and reality as it was described officially by the state, the police and the media. And from then on I realized that marijuana was going to be an enormous political catalyst, because anybody who got high would immediately see through the official hallucination that had been laid down and would begin questioning, “What is this war?”
And I think that happened in the ’60s with the kids. The kids were first opened up, they were square, they believed in the war, and then they smoked some grass and everything was a little funny. The cops were after them, and they began to reexamine everything; they reexamined the war and reexamined capitalism, and I think that was a universal experience.
High Times: What were your early experiences with psychedelics?
Ginsberg: My first experience was with peyote back in 1952. There was a guy who was getting it from Magic Gardens in Laredo, Texas, and selling it by the basketful from his store on Second Avenue. At the time, I’d take some and listen to music, particularly ecstatic music, which was mambo. And Johnny Ray. And then I sat in the backyard in Paterson, New Jersey, and looked at the space around in the sky and the solidity of the air. And the menstruating cherry tree which was in blossom and the family arguing in the house.
High Times: How about acid?
Ginsberg: I first took LSD in ’59 in San Francisco under the auspices of various people who were CIA contractees, like the Stanford Institute of Mental Health, which had various government grants. The LSD experiment was curious because it was a bummer. I was in the hospital with white tile walls all around and electric wires in my head to take EEG responses and tubes coming in and out of the air and tape recordings going on. And actually, I was literally being recorded by someone connected with the CIA and Army Intelligence and I had this uncanny feeling that Big Brother was listening at the time and I got rather paranoid, because my head and my nervous system was being interconnected to some kind of Big Brother machine. And the paranoia vibe of that was precisely accurate.
High Times: What happened in the ’60s?
Ginsberg: In the ’60s so many people were awakened by acid, psychedelics and by their own sexual experiences or grass or politics, political absurdities of the Vietnam War and the Algerian War and the French/Algerian War, and various different wars that took place in the ’50s. And by McCarthyism, and by the nuclear explosions and by the ecology movement and by their own self-awakening and by the excessively heavy-metal process on the planet that it became a mass movement which could have political ramifications because enough people were woken enough that they could form a political party or hold big be-ins. And also the Marxists, who had a social revolutionary program, were softened up and psychedelicized a little bit and the entire Left became the new Left, which was much hipper than the old Stalinist Left or the CIA or Trotskyite anti-Stalinist Left. Then I think the overlay of political rage betrayed the original beat spiritual heart, and that’s when Kerouac cut out of it, because he felt that the hippies were looking for new reasons for spitefulness—that was his quote. “Allen Ginsberg, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman are looking for new reasons for spitefulness in the protests of Chicago.” And that was true, as Jerry Rubin now says. Kill your parents was the wrong mantra. We misunderstood, we didn’t mean it literally, kill the authority figure inside of you, but it was ill-expressed definitely and Rubin says so. It offended the older folks, who didn’t need to be offended; they were already against the war, they needed to be brought into it.
High Times: Never trust anyone over thirty—
Ginsberg: Yes, so there was a failure of imagination on the part of the youth movement in imagining what further development would be like and a kind of apocalyptic anger and intensity, which had some functions but in the long run was not politically useful and not socially useful and not spiritually useful. So it took all through the ’70s to recover from that and to get more internal and to meditate a little bit and deepen and become more spiritual again and recover that spiritual part. And I think that’s somewhat recovered by the ’80s, the spiritual part which the beats offered most usefully and most valuably, especially in Kerouac, which was heart.
So, a sense of sacred heart. Or as Kerouac said, the hard gemlike flame, rather than the cool hippie. No, he said the cool hippie, politic manipulator, rationalist got too much of the dominant command in the ’60s in political terms. And there was a lot of self-manipulation and hypocrisy. I think it perished to a great extent during the ’70s by self-reflection.
High Times: And now… the ’80s?
Ginsberg: Well, by the ’80s I think you’ve got a large movement, where you’ve got people aware of themselves being on a planet, and aware of the possible death of the planet and aware of the oddity of themselves on the planet and able to assemble maybe a million strong in Central Park to at least manifest some kind of community of understanding and maybe by this time form a nonviolent and intelligent political movement.
High Times: On the other hand you have the ruling class becoming more and more repressive and working towards a police state, completely throwing out the Constitution. Take the latest Supreme Court ruling on being able to search cars for drugs.
Ginsberg: Yes, and I think the CIA is going back into the business of using reporters. I always thought that one basic aspect of the beat movement was an anti-police state movement and antifascist movement in the sense of setting a standard of individual conduct and of literature and of art which was decentralized and personal rather than authoritarian and centralized. And that the great value of the beat movement was that we had spread so many copies of Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch throughout all the attics of America, that it would be impossible to impose complete thought control again, because you’d always have this window on the classic past, the bohemian humor. You’d never be able to burn all the copies of Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn and Naked Lunch and Ulysses and On the Road. My ambition was to get “Howl” in the high-school textbooks and get a few words like fuck or cocksucker or fucked in the ass by sailors who screamed with joy, in the high-school textbooks or the college textbooks so that no kid would be unhip forever. Therefore, it’s no accident that now the Moral Majority in one of its mopping-up operations is trying to censor all the books in the libraries and in the schoolbooks. And trying to rewrite the college textbooks.
The Moral Majority is actually specifically aiming at our work. There’s a big report by the Heritage Foundation attacking me, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Peter Orlovsky particularly. We were just refused a grant by the National Endowment for the Arts for Robert Frank to do a film on the Kerouac festival, and I would have thought that would have been an easy grant. So it’s become controversial to give money to poets who formerly were sort of considered perfectly all right.
And all of a sudden, you get this overtone of a fascist police state here, you can’t crack a joke anymore. You’ve got to be real serious. The beats were a literary movement that documented basic American human, humane individualistic, Thoreauvian, anti-police state tendencies, exhibitions, manifestations which, once settled permanently into public consciousness, would make it impossible to go back to complete totalitarian thought control. I don’t mean Kerouac was thinking in those terms. I think Burroughs is very definitely thinking in those medicinal terms now, you know, like Dr. Benway, and factualist descriptions for deconditioning; in his analysis of the political parties and factualist liquidationalists and divisionists in Naked Lunch. And his exhibition of deconditioning means of the third mind, the use of the cutup method as a method of deconditioning from thought control. Plus Bill thinks in those terms. I always thought in a funnier way, that you take the old classic bohemian literary mentality, Beethoven, Schubert, Picasso, Dadaism and Albert Einstein, and you put it together in such utopian aesthetic art form—beautiful language, Shelley and Blake—and put it in the middle of the American middle-class and youth minds, and you have an artifact that will be irreversible, that would prevent a police state by creating a set of mental reference points, and sexual reference points, reference points of consciousness that are in variance with the kind of homogeneity and rigidity and squareness and overrationalistic mania that a police state requires, the double-talk that a police state requires.
So drug use in the sense of herb use, like marijuana or the psychedelics, mushrooms, peyote, always seem to me part of that attack on police-state armament. Now the Birchers very early, back in the early ’60s, picked up on that and began talking about LSD and rock ‘n’ roll as brainwash music. As music for disturbing the nervous system and unsettling it, so that young kids would lose sexual mores, lose their sense of reference point and solidity, clearly the Moral Majority’s idea, or the Bircherite’s idea.
High Times: Do you have much interest in the occult? For example, do you relate to an occult history of the world—Illuminati conspiracies?
Ginsberg: Not quite. I think it’s simpler than that. I think there’s always been a strain of peasant bohemianism and there’s always been a strain of authoritarianism, lords and majesty and the police state and the hierarchy trying to stamp it out. Some of the best bohemians have been the kings and some of the worst of the stamper-outers have been the peasants. And certainly there are tantric or occult or hermetic secrets which can only be known by meditation or practice or art or love and some people are shut out because they don’t love and they’re afraid to. Oral sex is an occult practice to some people, a horrifying occult practice to some people.
High Times: On the other hand, you have all these stories of these amazing S&M subcultures in official Washington and among—
Ginsberg: Among the Nazis.
High Times: Among the Nazis, right, and drug taking.
Ginsberg: Well, from what I understand, there’s a new book coming out called Bully, about bullies. About the Moral Majority saying that a great many of the fund raisers are gay.
High Times: How do you relate to that whole scene, I mean, you know, that part of the gay scene?
Ginsberg: Those are closet gays. Closet gays that aren’t happy. I think it’s overcompensation.
High Times: Well, how about the whole scene like the Anvil, the fist-fucking.
Ginsberg: Well, I’ll tell you, I myself am a closet sadomasochist, with tremendous fantasies about being spanked and being fucked by big cocks to the point where I say… oh, spare me…
High Times: Spear me or spare me?
Ginsberg: Both, so I think everybody’s got a little bit of that in them, it’s like W.C. Fields said, everybody’s got a little larceny in them. And I think it’s all right to explore, you know, as long as you’re mindful of what you’re doing, it’s acting. I think that it’s universal, actually. In fact there’s as much heterosexual involvement in freakery as there is in homosexual, so I think that runs across the board. The ugly part of it, the ugly S&M, I think is a byproduct of the dominance of organized crime over the porno industry. ‘Cause organized crime is heavily into the porno industry.
They own most of the gay clubs, the baths, because, it’s just like the junk scene, they’re the only ones that have the power and the money to pay off the police and make an arrangement. Women against pornography: I think they’ve got it wrong. They should be women against organized crime, rather than women against pornography.
Porn is fine, organized-crime porn is generally degrading, degraded and a drag.
High Times: Can you see a continuum between the beats and the punks?
Ginsberg: First of all, the continual upsurges of individually humorist perception and a radiant consciousness. People waking up in the middle of space and realizing it’s a big, funny groove. The appreciation of oddness of self which actually goes back to Whitman. Appreciation of person with a capital P. It starts from Whitman and goes to W.C. Fields onward. Fields is one of the saints that Kerouac hagiographed in his book The Origins of the Beat Generation.
So the self-mythologization, self-mythification, is common, I would say, from beat people through Dylan, through the Beatles, through maybe even the Clash or certainly through punk and new wave where the self-mythification goes to the extent that theatrical cartooning and exaggerated names like Suicide and Sex Pistols and Blondie or whatever—the humorous making of archetypes out of one’s own private life. So that’s a strain that comes from Whitman through Kerouac or through the beats anyway—that was Kerouac making a myth of his own life and his own friends, and being the reporting angel of his own life, and seeing his own life as sacred and seeing his friends in Lowell, Massachusetts, as sacred, sacred archetype pals. So it’s seeing the world as sacred, rather than as cynical or as empty or as legalistic or as heartless or as evil. The Clash demonstrate or manifest that by—in the midst of a cynical period being the big political idealists, in the midst of a commercial period—trying to sell their records cheap and give three times as much for cheaper money. Trying to experiment with poetry, trying to have Salvadoran revolutionaries exhort the public from the stage, so there’s a kind of sacred ambition to save the world.
High Times: How do you reconcile those noble goals with the dark side of new wave —the heroin, the nihilism?
Ginsberg: See, there’s two groups. There are the Frankenstein beatniks that were created by Time magazine that had big beards and wore cockroaches in their hair and had scabies and lived with unwashed dirty dishes because they read in Time magazine that’s what it was supposed to be. Now there are the new-wave people who read in Time magazine, that in the 1970s everybody had turned against the hippies and the beats. Everybody’s going to go back to American values and the Me Too generation and take heroin and cocaine. Me Me generation. I’m all right, Jack, fuck everybody else, make a lot of money, get rich and do war work and take heroin.
And that’s sort of like the right-wing, CIA version of what you’re supposed to do. What’s cool. It’s cool to put down the antiwar movement of the ’60s, it’s cool to put down psychedelics and grass and take heroin and cocaine, which is ridiculous. So their interpretation is sort of the Time magazine, right-wing, oversophisticated syndicate conservatives as to what’s cool. And what’s hip has always been some kind of a death trap. Then there’s another group, another kind which is deep wave, deep new wave. The Clash are an example of this. They seem to be acceptable. But punks were supposed to be antibeatnik and antigrass.
High Times: They were wearing the swastika…
Ginsberg: Yes, but the Clash smoke grass like I’ve never seen, giant bombers, and they’re totally appreciative of poetry, they dig Gregory Corso, they’ve all read Kerouac. I once ran into Iggy Pop. We did some singing together at a party and then we sat down and he said very bitterly, you blew it. You guys blew it. He was representing punk and new wave. Then I ran into him again in San Francisco this year. We had a long talk. Now he’s married and he’s got a kid and he’s sick of rousing anger in the audience and getting adverse reaction and we actually got into a long conversation about meditation. So we actually sat together. And he said, “Remember that conversation we had? I was wrong.” ‘Cause he had to grow up.
Portions of this interview previously appeared in Reefer Madness: The Social History of Marijuana in America by Larry Sloman (Bobbs-Merrill, 1980).