At the end of his relatively somber 1992 poem "After Lalon," Allen Ginsberg--usually the sunniest of the beat writers--cautioned his readers:
I had my chance and lost it,
many chances & didn't
take them seriously enuf.
Oh yes I was impressed, almost
went mad with fear
I'd lose the immortal chance,
One lost it.
Allen Ginsberg warns you
dont follow my path
But tracing Ginsberg's path is exactly what Kurt Elling--the beat-inspired, newly Grammy-nominated jazz singer and poet--plans to do. To celebrate the writer's life and pay tribute to his death last spring, he has coproduced an unusual and wide-ranging program this Monday, presented as part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's "Traffic" series.
Ginsberg's path had its bumps, which became all the more visible after his death when his critics joined in the postmortem analysis. But Elling does not intend to whitewash the proceedings. "It certainly won't be just 'rah rah Ginsberg,'" he says; rather, he envisions "an argument" about the poet's work, one that he hopes will foster a discussion that will continue after the evening ends.
The program will feature recordings of Ginsberg and fellow beats Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso; Ginsberg poems and writings about him read by Elling and Steppenwolf actors Martha Lavey and Tim Hopper; music, both in the spotlight and the background, performed by pianist Laurence Hobgood and a group that includes percussionist Kahil El'Zabar; rare slide photographs from the Ginsberg estate; and, just to get everyone in the right mood, a handful of Chicago poets in the lobby declaiming from soapboxes in the best Bughouse Square tradition.
One surprising element is the participation of artist Ed Paschke, who will appear not with a paintbrush but with book in hand: Elling and his coproducer Irving Zucker have entrusted him with the reading of Ginsberg's epic "Howl," published in 1956. Elling had wanted a reader who would confound expectations and bring something novel to the work. Paschke admits to a slight nervousness about his new role. "But I have the security of the words to comfort me," he says. "I first became aware of the poem when I was in art school. Ginsberg was doing a reading somewhere in the city, and I saw the publicity. Then I read 'Howl' and On the Road, and it helped form a viewpoint or philosophy for me about how one approaches life as a creative person--that everything is potential subject matter, nothing is off-limits, and that the name of the game is to embrace life as fully as possible."
The tribute has its roots in an event originally scheduled for last spring. Elling and Zucker had planned to celebrate Jack Kerouac's 75th birthday, with Ginsberg slated to take part in the festivities. Two weeks before the production, Ginsberg pulled out because of poor health, forcing the cancellation of the event as well. Elling had hoped to reschedule it after Ginsberg recovered, but 12 days later Ginsberg was dead. A few months after that, Elling and Zucker started putting the pieces back together to honor Ginsberg instead.
Moving from Kerouac to Ginsberg didn't pose much of a problem for Elling. He's always been drawn to "the transcendental side of the beat writers. I find very moving Allen's belief in humanity and his sincere attempt to make the world better through poetry and his personal example of gentleness and kindness." Evidence of that--along with the exuberant circus of Ginsberg's life and imagination--should find ample voice in this sprawling presentation.
The "Tribute to Allen Ginsberg" takes place at 7:30 PM Monday at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. Tickets are $30; call 312-335-1650. --Neil Tesser
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Allen Ginsberg photo by Marc PoKempner.