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Ginsberg, Allen

Perhaps the most noted American poet of the 'beat' generation, he first met Dylan in December 1963 and they have remained friends ever since, recording together in 1971 and 1982. He was also a member of the 1975-6 Rolling Thunder Revue.

Clinton Heylin:"Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades, a Biography"

Allen Ginsberg died April 5th, 1997, at the age of 70.

Date: Fri, 18 Apr 1997 09:40:08 -0700
To: Karl Erik Andersen (
From: (Stephen Scobie)
Subject: Re: Ginsberg

Karl Erik,

Here is the piece on Ginsberg I wrote for On the Tracks.

All the best,

The relationship between Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan was often portrayed, not least by Ginsberg and Dylan themselves, as a father-and-son relationship. Most notably, in Dylan's film Renaldo and Clara, Ginsberg appears as a fictional character called The Father, and several scenes show him offering religious instruction to Dylan as Renaldo. Of course, these scenes are ironic in many ways: two Jewish poets playing out motifs from Christian theology; the whole joke (a friendly, and entirely non-homophobic joke) of the notoriously gay Ginsberg being portrayed as a progenitor. But beneath the irony there is an entirely serious tribute to the depth and commitment of the friendship between the two.

Chronologically, they are in fact somewhat closer than "father and son" would suggest. Ginsberg (born in 1926) was a mere fifteen years older than Dylan (born in 1941). Moreover, Ginsberg was a slow starter in publishing his work; his first book, Howl, appeared in 1956, a mere five years before Dylan's first record. As far as the dates are concerned, it might be more sensible to see Ginsberg not as a father but as an elder brother. And as the two got older, the distance between them must have shrunk even further.

Even so, Ginsberg was clearly a predecessor. It is hard to overestimate the importance and impact of Howl, as the book which really jolted America out of the somnolence of the 1950s and declared the possibility of a vital, colloquial, contemporary poetry. Ginsberg, always the selfless promoter of other people's works, insisted that the really important influence on Dylan was Jack Kerouac's Mexico City Blues (1959). Maybe so: but Howl came first, and it's hard to conceive of how the cultural climate which surrounded Dylan in the early 1960s could ever have been possible without the impetus of Allen Ginsberg.

Dylan's first reading of Ginsberg dates, in all probability, from his brief university career in Minneapolis in 1959-60; and Ginsberg had certainly listened to the early Dylan recordings. They met for the first time in late 1963. In one interview, otherwise unsubstantiated, Ginsberg claimed that they actually met on the same evening as Dylan's disastrous appearance at the Tom Paine award dinner of the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, when he made his stumbling confession of identity with Lee Harvey Oswald. If so, it was a traumatic evening, and the circumstances might well have sealed the friendship as a special emotional bond.

Whatever the date, it is clear that there was an immediate rapport between the two, and that they remained close friends for the following 34 years. Of course Ginsberg was sexually attracted to Dylan, and made no secret of the fact; equally clearly, the attraction was never reciprocated. But what is most important, and most admirable, is that neither one of them let these facts interfere with their friendship. Ginsberg could accept Dylan's lack of interest without rancour; even more remarkably, Dylan could live with Ginsberg's attraction without feeling threatened or defensive. In the wake of some of the viciously homophobic comments which followed Ginsberg's death, it is important to stress these facts.

Throughout the mid-1960s, there were a series of contacts between Ginsberg and Dylan, too many to detail here. Dylan fans will remember the highlights: the photographs of Ginsberg on the back cover of Bringing It All Back Home; Ginsberg's presence in the background of the card-flipping rendition of "Subterranean Homesick Blues" in Don't Look Back; the obviously "planted" questions by Ginsberg at Dylan's television press conference in San Francisco in December 1965.

Around the same time, late 1965, Dylan gave Ginsberg a gift of money which Ginsberg used to purchase a portable tape-recorder. Ginsberg used the machine to tape a Dylan concert (thus becoming one of the pioneer bootleggers), but primarily to record his own stream-of-consciousness observations as he and Peter Orlovsky travelled across America in their Volkswagen van. These tapes became the basis of Ginsberg's major work, The Fall of America, the definitive poetic chronicling of the Viet Nam years. The poem evokes Dylan at several key points, notably in "Wichita Vortex Sutra," which I would regard as the most important American poem of the decade.

After Dylan's motorcycle crash, when he was recuperating in Woodstock, Ginsberg visited him, bringing as a gift "a box full of books of all kinds. All the modern poets I knew. Some ancient poets like Sir Thomas Wyatt, Campion. Dickinson, Rimbaud, Lorca, Apollinaire, Blake, Whitman and so forth." It must have been a very large box!

In 1971, in New York, Ginsberg and Dylan collaborated on a series of remarkable recordings, in which Ginsberg was attempting to set to music not only his own work but also poems by William Blake. If Ginsberg had been, to some extent, Dylan's teacher in the field of poetry, here the roles were reversed; Ginsberg regarded Dylan as his musical "guru," and deferred to him for advice and assistance. There is a long and tangled history of these recordings and the problems in releasing them. Eventually, the most impressive result is the much re-edited version of "September on Jessore Road" which appears on Ginsberg's 4-CD boxed set Holy Soul Jelly Roll (Rhino records, 1994).

As is well known, Ginsberg travelled with the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. As the Revue developed, Ginsberg's actual appearances on stage were few but memorable; however, his presence was a vital part of the ambience of this, the most remarkable of all Dylan's tours. It is documented in two locations: in Ginsberg's quite wonderful journals (as yet unpublished), and in Renaldo and Clara.

Perhaps because his contributions to the concerts were so limited, Ginsberg flung himself with even greater enthusiasm into the improvisational atmosphere of the making of the film. He was certainly much more at home in the free-floating, slightly crazy process of improvisation than was the more script-oriented Sam Shepard. Ginsberg was a continual fount of ideas for the film (not all of them used), and he appears in some of its most memorable sequences (not least the homage to the grave of Jack Kerouac). In his turn, Dylan, in the editing of the film, paid his most careful, considered, and deeply felt homage to the poetry of Allen Ginsberg. The soundtrack of the film includes an intricate collage of excerpts from Ginsberg's reading of "Kaddish," which Dylan has acknowledged as his own personal favourite among Ginsberg's poems.

Renaldo and Clara marks the high point of the collaboration between Dylan and Ginsberg. At the time that the film was released, Ginsberg conducted a series of interviews with Dylan, and did his best to promote what he saw (I believe correctly) as Dylan's masterwork. Though the two of them remained friends, they never worked together as closely again. There was a brief recording collaboration in 1981, with Dylan, typically, taking the modest role of bass-player. Ginsberg frequently attended Dylan's concerts in New York, and tells one nice story of visiting Dylan back-stage, with Dylan asking him the source of an obscure image in William Blake. The night after Ginsberg's death, Dylan, touring in the Maritimes, dedicated to his friend a performance of "Desolation Row."

Both Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan had to cope, from very early in their careers, with the demands of fame, with being seen as the poetic spokesmen of their generations. In his definitive biography of Ginsberg, Michael Schumacher suggests that the two of them were fascinated by each other's very different responses to these demands. Ginsberg was almost compulsively open, laying himself bare (sometimes quite literally), making himself vulnerable to all sorts of attacks, allowing himself to appear foolish or naive, but always, with heroic honesty, bearing witness to his beliefs and convictions. Dylan has tended to protect himself more, taking refuge in secrecy, isolation, and disguise: preserving within himself a private place which none of his fans has been allowed to enter. Like Schumacher, I believe that their friendship was to a large measure based on their respect for each other's positions. I'm sure that Ginsberg often wished he was Dylan; I'm not so sure that the converse is true.

What they did share, ultimately, was a conception of the poet as prophet. Both of them saw the poet's role as far more than the expression of purely personal feelings, but rather as a public statement of a morally responsible position. Ginsberg's three greatest poems are all elegies (and an elegy is, by definition, the public statement of a private grief): Howl was an elegy for his friends, the pioneers of the Beat generation; Kaddish (which the very private Dylan saw as his greatest poem) was an elegy for his mother, and for his own childhood; The Fall of America was an elegy for his nation. Put them all together, and what you have is what Bob Dylan has been singing about all his career, from "Hard Rain" to "Lone Pilgrim": a world gone wrong. Within such a world, the only voice that is possible is the voice of the prophet: Jeremiah or Blind Willie McTell; Allen Ginsberg or Bob Dylan. More on Ginsberg (The old page on my site)

Serge Mironneau's site.

Ginsberg Web site

Allen Ginsberg page at (SF bookstore)

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