Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Meet the Beatles . . . Mr. Ginsberg

Currently reading Jonathan Gould's Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America, which has received favorable reviews. It's pretty good, though not as good as expected. A little too much about the 19th century industrial history of Liverpool and not enough about the Byrds hanging out with the Beatles in 1965.

At the height of Beatlemania, the Fab Four wound up meeting several important cultural figures from the United States. Some of these encounters wound up influencing the group both artistically and personally.

In August 1964, Bob Dylan came to their room at Hotel Delmonico in New York City, where they shared a joint, the first time the Beatles had ever tried marijuana. Over the next year, John Lennon's songwriting became increasingly influenced by Dylan's work. And George Harrison and Dylan would go on to become lifelong friends.

In July 1965, the Beatles spent a week in Los Angeles, resting in a luxurious and secluded house in Benedict Canyon, off Mulholland Drive. Roger McGuinn, David Crosby and other members of The Byrds paid a visit to the group, along with Peter Fonda. John, George and Ringo tried LSD for the first time (though John and George had experienced LSD inadvertently earlier that spring when a dentist spiked their coffee with the drug at a party.) Lennon, in particular, became profoundly influenced by the drug, taking it "as often as twice a week" over the course of 1966. It also had a big impact on Harrison, though he became disillusioned with the whole drug scene after visiting Haight-Asbury in 1968. Ringo rarely took it again. McCartney didn't take the drug until a year and half later, though he would become the first Beatle to publicly acknowledge that he had turned on.

That same week, they were invited (after a year of arrangements) to the Beverly Hills mansion of their idol Elvis Presley. This encounter didn't go over as well. Gould says it was marked by "little warmth" between the group and Elvis, who obviously "resented" the Beatles. One of the guys in the Presley entourage couldn't tell the guests apart and kept addressing them: "Hey! Beatle!" George, however, "shared a joint and discussed Hindu philosophy with Elvis' hairdresser and spiritual adviser."

Allen Ginsberg reading at the Royal Albert Hall in London, June 5, 1965. Over 7,000 people attended the event.

I already knew those stories. The one I had never heard before concerns an astonishing cultural encounter between the Beatles and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, which also took place in 1965, only weeks before their journey to Los Angeles.

According to Gould, the birth of the countercultural movement in London, which came to be known as the Underground, "could be traced back to June of 1965, when a group of poets including Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Christopher Logue gave a reading at the Royal Albert Hall that attracted an overflow crowd of more than seven thousand people, most of whom had never imagined that there were so many other kindred spirits living in London at the time."

As it turns out, Ginsberg was staying at the the home of Barry Miles, whose book shop Indica (after cannabis indica) served as the hub of the counterculture scene. Miles, who was a friend of Paul McCartney's, "had developed at least a nodding acquaintance with every scuffling poet, writer, artist, filmmaker and avant-gardist in the city . . . [and] he began to serve as a kind of staff intellectual and librarian to McCartney and his fellow Beatles."

By this time, Ginsberg had already become good friends with Bob Dylan. It was an important relationship for both men, as well as for the broader cultural milieu of the 1960s, as it allowed Dylan to meet other important poets and artists, which gave him a certain intellectual cachet, while Ginsberg would have access to one of the key figures in the world of rock and roll, which helped bring his counterculture message to a broader audience. The two remained friends until Ginsberg's death in 1997, working on several projects together over the years. So, if the shape and feel of Rock and Roll and the Sixties were fashioned in large part by the connections - both artistic and personal - between Dylan and the Beatles, the Dylan-Ginsberg connection also played an important underlying role, fusing popular and intellectual culture.

Robbie Robertson (of the Band), poet Michael McClure, Dylan, and Ginsberg in front of City Lights Bookstore, 1965.

So, did a kind of triangle of influence develop between the Beatles, Dylan, and Ginsberg?

After the enormously successful Royal Albert Hall event, Ginsberg asked Barry Miles to invite the Beatles to a birthday party for himself.

It's interesting to note that the meeting with Ginsberg took place a few weeks before the Beatles took acid for the first time. Perhaps the outcome would've been different if they had met him after the trip to LA.

Here's Gould's report on the encounter between some of the 20th century's cultural giants - The Beat Meets The Beatles:

As it turned out, the meeting was very brief. John Lennon and George Harrison accepted the invitation and arrived at the party with their wives. . . .
So far, so good. John and Cynthia. George and Patti. A famous American poet. A swinging party in London. But . . .

[They] beat a hasty retreat
when they were greeted
by Ginsberg,
who was naked
except for
a "No Waiting" sign
that was hanging by a string
from his genitals.


crystal said...

Interesting how influencial people of a certain time seem to get together .... like Richard Burton the explorer and Joseph Smith :-)

LSD .... :-)

Jeff said...

Great album. :-)

Interesting. There have been so many books written about the Beatles, it’s hard to imagine that anything new is being found out about them

To me, this was one of the saddest things that ever happened. I hate how psychedelic and recreational drugs discredited the left and contributed to the collapse of the promising and optimistic social movements of the sixties, provoking the right-wing backlash and expensive “war on drugs” that still haunt us today. All the ugliness around drugs killed a lot of idealism. I wish some of that idealism still existed. The window was so small and it closed so rapidly. It's sad to me how drugs, and cynicism, and immaturity took down a moment in time that might have held great promise. It was so unnecessary. These musicians didn’t need drugs to create the art that they made. That impression was an illusion created by the drugs themselves. Maybe it would have been better if the Beat Generation guys had left the Rock and Rollers alone. I f’ing hate drugs.

cowboyangel said...


I thought Richard Burton got together with Elizabeth Taylor?

Ha, ha, ha.

How did a British explorer who spent most of his time in Asia and Africa wind up meeting the founder of Mormonism?

cowboyangel said...


I agree with you about the numerous damamging aspects of drugs. I had two friends, both beautiful and creative souls, wind up in the state hospital due in some degree to using too many drugs.

The musicians may not have needed the drugs, but in the case of the Beatles, the drugs did play an important role in their creative production. For better or worse.

And I wouldn't place the blame on the Beats - at least for that. (for a lot of sloppy, self-indulgent artistic work, maybe.) Rock and rollers never needed anyone to lead them to drugs. And not all Beats were into drugs.

This was supposed to be a funny post! Ginsberg meeting the Beatles buck naked. Ah well....

crystal said...

I think it was the polygamy that made Burton visit Utah .... he was the guy who first translated the Kama Sutra, after all :-). He even wrote a book about Smith - link

Jeff said...

Hi William,

This was supposed to be a funny post! Ginsberg meeting the Beatles buck naked. Ah well....

Hmmm. There's a picture. It puts me in mind of the hotel room scene in Borat... The only funny scene in the movie.

The Beatles and psychedlics? To a certain extent, I think that's overblown. Perhaps Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was just a picture that Julian was drawing, and not LSD.

Liam said...

I don't understand what their problem was... I always answer the door like that.

cowboyangel said...

Crystal, I didn't know any of this about Burton. He translated the Kama Sutra? Interesting.

Wonder if Mitt knows about his book on hte Mormons?!

cowboyangel said...

The Beatles and psychedlics? To a certain extent, I think that's overblown. Perhaps Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was just a picture that Julian was drawing, and not LSD.

I think the song really was about Julian's drawing. It's not so much that they were writing about their drug experiences, but that LSD affected them deeply and changed the way they saw the world, which had a huge influence on their music. Luckily for them, they realized - some more quickly than others - that drugs ultimately didn't lead anywhere.


It was like opening the door, really, and before, you didn't even know there was a door there. . . . It just opened up this whole consciousness . . . like gaining hundreds of years of experience within 12 hours. It changed me, and there was no way back to what I was before. It wasn't all good.

He pretty quickly gave up LSD to pursue his spiritual path.

cowboyangel said...


I've been meaning to talk to you about that. Can't you at least put on some slippers or something?