Allen Ginsberg – The Ballad Of The Skeletons (1996)

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Throughout his long career, Allen Ginsberg was keenly aware of the power of music—and an association with generationally key musicians, like Bob Dylan and The Clash—as the candy-coated bullet to see his poetry and ideas for social and political transformation reach the younger generation.

“The Ballad Of The Skeletons” with Philip Glass, Lenny Kaye, session guitarist David Mansfield, Marc Ribot and Paul McCartney (on organ, maracas and drums) was Ginsberg’s final 1996 release and in many ways, it’s probably the best of his recorded work. Even at nearly 8-minutes in length, the number never never gets dull—well with a backing band like that one…—as Ginsberg voices the lines of 66 skeletons representing American culture and hegemony. The poem was first published in the pages of The Nation in 1995.

Allen Ginsberg was an unlikely MTV star. In late 1996 the Beat poet was 70 years old and in declining health. He had less than a year to live. But Ginsberg managed to stay culturally and politically relevant, right up to the end. His last major project was a collaboration with Paul McCartney and Philip Glass, among others, on a musical adaptation of his poem, “The Ballad of the Skeletons.”

Sticker.jpgThe poem was first published in 1995. The American political climate from which it arose bears a striking resemblance to the one we’re living in today. “I started it,” Ginsberg told Harvey Kubernik of The Los Angeles Times in 1996, “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.”

The skeletal imagery was inspired by the Mexican holiday, the Day of the Dead, and takes a playful poke at the vanity of human desires. “It’s an old trick,” Ginsberg told Steve Silberman in a 1996 interview for HotWired, “to dress up archetypal characters as skeletons: the bishop, the Pope, the President, the police chief. There’s a Mexican painter–Posada–who does exactly that.”

In October of 1995, Ginsberg visited Paul McCartney and his family at their home in England. He recited “The Ballad of the Skeletons while one of McCartney’s daughters filmed it. As Ginsberg recalled to Silberman, he mentioned that he had to give a reading with Anne Waldman and other poets at the Royal Albert Hall, and was looking for a guitarist to accompany him. “Why don’t you try me,” McCartney said. “I love the poem.” Ginsberg continued the story:

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He showed up at 5 p.m. for the sound check, and he bought a box for his family. Got all his kids together, four of them, and his wife, and he sat through the whole evening of poetry, and we didn’t say who my accompanist was going to be. We introduced him at the end of the evening, and then the roar went up on the floor of the Albert Hall, and we knocked out the song. He said if I ever got around to recording it, let him know. So he volunteered, and we made a basic track, and sent it to him, on 24 tracks, and he added maracas and drums, which it needed. It gave it a skeleton, gave it a shape. And also organ, he was trying to get that effect of Al Kooper on the early Dylan. And guitar, so he put a lot of work in on that. And then we got it back just in time for Philip Glass to fill in his arpeggios on piano.

The recording was produced by Lenny Kaye, guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, who had put together a group of musicians for a performance of the song at a Tibet House benefit in April of 1996. One member of the audience that night was Danny Goldberg, president of Mercury Records and a fan of Ginsberg. He invited the poet to record the song, and it all came together quickly. In a 1997 article in Tikkun, Goldberg remembered Ginsberg’s giddiness over the project: “He loved that Paul McCartney had overdubbed drums on ‘Skeletons.’ He said, ‘It’s the closest I’m going to ever come to being in the Beatles,’ and giggled like a teenager.”

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The recording features Ginsberg on vocals, Glass on keyboards, McCartney on guitar, drums, Hammond organ and maracas, Kaye on bass, Marc Ribot on guitar and David Mansfield on Guitar. Mercury released the song as a CD single in two versions, including one with the language sanitized for radio and television. The “B side” was a recording of Ginsberg’s “New Stanzas for Amazing Grace” that did not include McCartney or Glass. The next step was to create a video. As Goldberg recalled, Ginsberg knew an opportunity when he saw one:

When Tom Freston, the CEO of MTV, bought five of Allen’s photos, Ginsberg promptly called me, not too subtly implying that if Mercury would fund production of a video, we might be able to get on MTV. Allen had an unerring instinct of how to mobilize his mystique for those who were interested. He regaled Freston with stories of the beatniks one night at our house, which made it almost impossible for MTV to reject his video despite the fact that he was decades older than typical MTV artists and audience members.

A political satire of both generations, “Skeletons” received highly pubicized and much-coveted “buzz bin” rotation on MTV in the weeks before the last election–to the consternation of other record companies who were submitting artists with more conventional credentials. This made Allen the only seventy-year-old besides Tony Bennett to ever be played on MTV.

The video was directed by Gus Van Sant, who had ties to surviving members of the Beat generation. Van Sant had directed William S. Burroughs in the film Drugstore Cowboy, and had made short films–Thanksgiving Prayer and The Discipline of DE– based on writing by Burroughs. Ginsberg was happy with Van Sant’s work, despite a tight filming budget. “It’s a great collage,” Ginsberg told Silberman. “He went back to old Pathé, Satan skeletons, and mixed them up with Rush Limbaugh, and Dole, and the local politicians, Newt Gingrich, and the President. And mixed those up with the atom bomb, when I talk about the electric chair– ‘Hey, what’s cookin?’–you got Satan setting off an atom bomb, and I’m trembling with a USA hat on, the Uncle Sam hat on. So it’s quite a production, it’s fun.”

What a great statement !

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Personnel:
Allen Ginsberg (vocals)
Philip Glass (keyboards)
Lenny Kaye (bass)
David Mansfield (guitar)
Paul McCartney (guitar, organ, drums, maracas)
Marc Ribot (guitar)

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Tracklist:
01. The Ballad Of The Skeletons (Ginsberg/Glass/McCartney) 7.48
02. The Ballad Of The Skeletons (Edit) (Ginsberg/Glass/McCartney)
03. Amazing Grace (Traditional) 2.51
04. The Ballad Of The Skeletons (Clean) (Ginsberg/Glass/McCartney) 7.49

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*
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Said the presidential skeleton
i won’t sign the bill
said the speaker skeleton
yes you will
Said the representative skeleton
i object
said the supreme court skeleton
whaddya expect
Said the miltary skeleton
buy star bombs
said the upperclass skeleton
starve unmarried moms
Said the yahoo skeleton
stop dirty art
said the right wing skeleton
forget about yr heart
Said the gnostic skeleton
the human form’s divine
said the moral majority skeleton
no it’s not it’s mine
Said the buddha skeleton
compassion is wealth
said the corporate skeleton
it’s bad for your health
Said the old christ skeleton
care for the poor
said the son of god skeleton
aids needs cure
Said the homophobe skeleton
gay folk suck
said the heritage policy skeleton
blacks’re outa luck
Said the macho skeleton
women in their place
said the fundamentalist skeleton
increase human race
Said the right-to-life skeleton
foetus has a soul
said pro choice skeleton
shove it up your hole
Said the downsized skeleton
robots got my job
said the tough-on-crime skeleton
tear gas the mob
Said the governor skeleton
cut school lunch
said the mayor skeleton
eat the budget crunch
Said the neo conservative skeleton
homeless off the street!
said the free market skeleton
use ’em up for meat
Said the think tank skeleton
free market’s the way
said the saving & loan skeleton
make the state pay
Said the chrysler skeleton
pay for you & me
said the nuke power skeleton
& me & me & me
Said the ecologic skeleton
keep skies blue
said the multinational skeleton
what’s it worth to you?
Said the nafta skeleton
get rich, free trade,
said the maquiladora skeleton
sweat shops, low paid
Said the rich gatt skeleton
one world, high tech
said the underclass skeleton
get it in the neck
Said the world bank skeleton
cut down your trees
said the i.m.f. skeleton
buy american cheese
Said the underdeveloped skeleton
we want rice
said developed nations’ skeleton
sell your bones for dice
Said the ayatollah skeleton
die writer die
said joe stalin’s skeleton
that’s no lie
Said the middle kingdom skeleton
we swallowed tibet
said the dalai lama skeleton
indigestion’s whatcha get

said the world chorus skeleton
that’s their fate
said the u.s.a. skeleton
gotta save kuwait
Said the petrochemical skeleton
roar bombers roar!
said the psychedelic skeleton
smoke a dinosaur
Said nancy’s skeleton
just say no
said the rasta skeleton
blow nancy blow
Said demagogue skeleton
don’t smoke pot
said alcoholic skeleton
let your liver rot
Said the junkie skeleton
can’t we get a fix?
said the big brother skeleton
jail the dirty pricks
Said the mirror skeleton
hey good looking
said the electric chair skeleton
hey what’s cooking?
Said the talkshow skeleton
fuck you in the face
said the family values skeleton
my family values mace
Said the ny times skeleton
that’s not fit to print
said the cia skeleton
cantcha take a hint?
Said the network skeleton
believe my lies
said the advertising skeleton
don’t get wise!
Said the media skeleton
believe you me
said the couch-potato skeleton
what me worry?
Said the tv skeleton
eat sound bites
said the newscast skeleton
that’s all goodnight

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