My moment with Allen Ginsberg resulting in a misunderstanding over the word “asshole.”

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Allen Ginsberg

I had grown up in the shadow of the 60’s.

Being born in 65, you could say that yes… I was a child of the era, but seeing that I would not be coming of age until well into the 80’s, what I picked up from that time period came directly from my older sister, Char, who was actually a senior in high school the year that I was born.

She spent my formative years raising me on the art, music, writing, pop culture of that time period and though I was so very small… it was not lost on me:

Being painted up with designs of psychedelic flowers and taken to the Griffith Park 1967 Summer of Love Love-in.

Studying the artwork in R. Crumb’s Big Yum Yum book; though my parents thought it was “inappropriate” for small children.

Going to the Glide church in San Francisco to get a hug from Reverend Cecil Williams and listen to the “Church of Rock n Roll.” And of course browsing in the City Lights bookstore (where on any given day) we could have a chance run-in with one of the numerous beat poets my sister taught me to emulate and admire.

It wasn’t really a normal childhood but… one that made me blessed with awareness of the greater world around me and the numerous possibilities that lay ahead.

And so… influenced by it all, I carried it with me over the years and hoped that someday… my path would cross with some of the greats of that time period.

So it was with profound joy, that in my early 20’s, just after finishing my first album with Hollywood Records, that I finally had my moment with Allen Ginsberg.

I couldn’t believe it.

I’d basically been waiting to meet the man since I was three and as luck would have it, he was signing books in Long Beach that week.

I couldn’t wait to see him.

I had no babysitter that day…

Joe, my husband was “on the road.”

I was broke and waiting for my advance to come in from just making my first record.

But I didn’t care… I grabbed my son, who was just a baby at the time, grabbed my vintage Ginsberg books, one of which was a rare photo diary of the Beat Poets in Tangiers only 2,000 copies ever made, and off I went.

When I walked inside, I found a decent, yet modest line, and I was surprised that he hadn’t drawn more of a crowd.

But I stood there in awe: watching every move he made until it was my turn to approach him.

And when I was finally next in line, he finished talking to the person he was with and turned to look at me.

I think now I must have seemed so young to him… standing there in cut off shorts, an old pair of chucks, an old worn wife beater, a baby with a baby slung up on my hip… some of his oldest books clasped tightly in my hand.

I looked at his large eyes… what was left of his graying hair… he seemed a bit removed… stone-like, a Founding Father of literature…. looking at me as if I were puzzling to him… without a smile on his face… and I was immediately intimidated by his presence.

In a small voice, I told him how much his writing had influenced my own, how I hoped that he would sign these books I had brought with me… and that as soon as my advance came in from my record, I would buy his new book, but barely had enough money today to pay for the gas to come and see him. And then, I pulled my cd from my pocket and asked him if he would accept it as a gift.

He took the books and the cd from my hands.

He paused as he looked over the two books I had brought, before looking up at me and saying, “These books are older than you are.”

I smiled as he flipped through the photos of him frolicking with Kerouac, Burroughs and the others down in Tangiers.

“And this?” he said as he looked at my cd. “Is this spoken word?”

“No,” I said.  Almost embarrassed that it wasn’t. But then I held my head up and bravely said,  “It’s music. These are my songs. I wrote them.”

He looked at the photo of me holding the baby on the cd cover and then back at me holding the baby in real life.

He didn’t speak again.

He opened both books… signed them… and handed them back to me.

I smiled… thanked him… and remained in a daze the entire ride home.

I didn’t need much.

I wasn’t necessarily “star struck” but I was silenced by the magnitude of his work and the influence it had had on so many.

When I got home I put Dylan down to play and sat on the swing to look at what he had written.

In each of the books he had signed his name… the date… and then had printed a large A and a large H inside of a circle.

I didn’t know what to think.

What did it mean?

Why A.H.?

What was with the circle?

I felt a bit uneasy suddenly about the whole exchange… I began to wonder if this was some secret code to distinguish me as one of the jerks that hadn’t bought his new book and then I realized what it meant.

“Asshole,” I whispered.

He totally got away with calling me an “ASSHOLE” for not buying his book. 

Suddenly my heart went cold.

I was embarrassed.

Furious.

Disappointed that he would do something so low.

I fumed about the insult all evening until my husband called me from the road.

“Did he really write the word asshole?” my husband asked.

“No,” I said. “But he put A. H. with a circle.”

“Yeah…” he said. “Sounds like code for asshole. Especially with that circle and all.”

I suddenly hated Allen Ginsberg.

How could he be so cruel?

Hadn’t he once been a young struggling artist?

I wanted to go find where he was staying in Long Beach and slap his old face.

But instead.. I sat down and wrote a vicious and scathing poem about him and then shoved it in a box, along with my bruised ego, and let the years brush the incident aside.

It wasn’t until Dylan, my baby boy, was in his early 20’s that the memory came back to me… when I found my son, in my writing room, looking at my signed copies of Ginsberg’s books, Dylan’s hands gingerly touching the pages, studying the faces of the Beat Poets in Tangiers.

“Did Allen Ginsberg really sign this for you mom?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “But he was a jerk.”

“How so?” Dylan asked.

And so I sat down and told him the story of when we met Ginsberg.

Dylan, obviously not as idiotic as his parents, listened to my story before looking at me and saying, “Yeah but how do you know he was being a jerk? You just assumed he was being a jerk because you felt bad you couldn’t buy his book that day.” He closed the books and put them back on the shelf. “Now that we have internet have you ever gone on line and looked to see if he wrote that in anyone else’s book?”

I stared at him.

Of course I had never thought to do that.

After I had been so humbled by the incident I tried to never think about it again.

“Come on,” Dylan said. “Let’s look.”

I sat down on the computer, beyond trepidacious, with my son standing behind me, and my hands on the keyboard.

I typed the words: Allen Ginsberg A H in books.

And a moment later… this explanation appeared:

From the Holy Soul Jelly Roll liner notes Ginsberg explains how he came up with “Ah”, “…[I] got in the middle of the group who were going off to blockade a highway and started chanting “Ah” after asking them to chant with me. Everybody sat down, then we discussed strategy calmly rather than as a hysterical mob. “Om” closes out at the end but “Ah” leaves the mouth open, breath goes out [see Ginsberg’s Mind Breaths poem for more]. On the 4th of July you see the fireworks and say “Ah”, or you recognize something and say “Ah!” When Trungpa said “Why don’t you try ‘Ah’?” he joined an American sound with Himalayan wisdom, and I’ve used it ever since. “Ah” for recognition, appreciation, the intelligence of speech joining body and mind and for a measure of the breath.”

Suddenly, I felt sick.

All of these years… all of this time…

He had died with me angry at him.

“Wow,” Dylan said. “That’s really cool and super sad that you thought you were an asshole all of these years when really he was showing you recognition for being an artist.”

I wanted to cry.

I wanted to shout, “I AM AN ASSHOLE for thinking Ginsberg was the asshole.”

I wanted to go back in time and rush back into the store and hug him until it felt like his old bones would break.

But I couldn’t.

That’s not how life works.

We make our mistakes.

We misjudge those we love.

We allow skewed perspectives to lead to rash judgements which get in our way.

I would never have a chance to meet with Ginsberg again… and the sting of that… painful.

“It’s okay Mom,” Dylan said. “He didn’t know what you thought all of these years.” And then hugged me hard. “Think about it…” he continued. “He might have been listening to your music this whole time… and glad that he inspired you to write it.”

And I was proud of my son.

Proud of his voice.

Soothed by the comfort he offered me… when I was unable to forgive myself.

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