Album Review: Allen Ginsberg – Material Wealth

I will admit right up front that I approached this album with some trepidation. Strictly speaking, Allen Ginsberg was a poet, not a musician. And where his work did cross over onto the musical realm – or so I had (unfairly) assumed – it was of a piece with the music of The Fugs. You know, the guys who gave us “Coca Cola Douche” and It Crawled Into My Hand, Honest. That is to say: grimy, confrontational, not terribly tuneful, and just plain weird-and-arty.

For those reasons, I didn’t expect to find a great deal to appreciate on Material Wealth, a new title billed as the soundtrack of the book of the same name. Not really being immersed in the world of poetry as such, I assumed also that I wouldn’t have much of value to add to the conversation about the album. And as I’ve mentioned before, that metric is a fundamental one I apply when deciding what to review (or not).

But I had been encouraged by a friend to check it out anyway, and to bring an open mind to the experience. This I did, and I am very glad I did. Because Material Wealth is much more appealing than I might have expected.

The album opens with 1984’s “Hum Bom,” a track that – to the uninitiated – might initially call to mind Bob Denver’s Maynard G. Krebs character. It’s Ginsberg declaiming poetry while a drummer provides percussive accompaniment. But give it a moment and it’s much more than that. First of all, the drummer is no less a giant than Elvin Jones. And the declamatory recitation is an anti-war poem with a questioning message that (sadly) is timely no matter when one listens to it. It’s vintage Ginsberg: serious in its message, yet playful in its execution.

“Birdbrain” dates from 1981, and features the poet backed by The Gluons. It’s a slice of melodic indie rock a la the Batman theme, with tight vocal harmonies, and Ginsberg serving up some topical/historical social commentary. Even those with a limited knowledge of poetry will know what “Howl” is. This recording is a 1983 recitation of the 1955 work, and the poem has lost none of its power in the intervening years. It’s great to hear its author reciting the work.

The jaunty Americana of “Going to San Diego” dates from 1971, and it sounds like what it is: Ginsberg and Bob Dylan with a rickety-but-right Americana ensemble. The recording is of a piece with The Basement Tapes. The poet sounds remarkably like Dylan as he – yes, actually – sings. “Grey Monk” is a 1969 recording of Ginsberg reading the William Blake poem. The music is a kind of Western take on Ravi Shankar; here the music does in fact recall The Fugs. Tough sledding, but worth a listen.

John Sinclair passed away earlier this week, so Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky’s “Prayer for John Sinclair” takes on a deeper meaning. It’s a meditation, and demonstrates that while Ginsberg isn’t most people’s idea of a singer, he can sing in tune and hold a note while delivering his poetry. “Put Down Yr Cigarette Rag” is more of that rickety jug band folk, this time from ‘76. It features some nutty lyrics that – if you listen closely – have a serious message. “Do the Meditation Rock” features Ginsberg backed by Dylan again, and it’s a jaunty, catchy tune.

One of the oldest archival recordings on the set, the poet’s reading of “America” dates from 1956. “Kaddish” is a reading from a decade later. It demonstrates that nobody reads Ginsberg like Ginsberg. A brief reading about Ken Kesey finds the poet sounding more relaxed than on any of the other tracks; it’s a tone and delivery one might not readily associate with him. Too bad it’s not longer.

“Raghupati Raghava” is bleating vocals and eastern instrumentation in a Beatles-in-Rishikesh vein. “The Ballad of the Skeletons” is the fruit of a remarkable collaborative effort involving Paul McCartney, Philip Glass, Lenny Kaye and Marc Ribot. For all that talent, it’s a spare affair best characterized as three chords and a poet.

A heartfelt tribute to Neal Casady, 1971’s “On Neal’s Ashes” is a brief yet moving spoken word piece. The collection concludes with a 1984 folk tune in a campfire style, “Gospel Noble Truths.” Taken as a whole, Material Wealth stands as a useful survey of the breadth of Allen Ginsberg’s many gifts. It certainly isn’t pop music, but it shows that in some ways his work isn’t all that far away from that of Woody Guthrie. In his own way, Ginsberg was more than a poet: he was an American troubadour with weighty topics on his mind.