INTERVIEWER: Could you tell me how you personally experienced the restrictive Cold War atmosphere that came through the Fifties?
ALLEN GINSBERG: Well, part of that atmosphere was the sort of anti-Communist hysteria of McCarthyism, but culminating in '53 or so, with the execution of the Rosenbergs. It was a little harsh. Whatever they did, it wasn't worth killing people, you know, killing them. I remember sending a wire to Eisenhower and saying: "No, that's the wrong thing." Drawing blood like that is the wrong thing, because it's ambiguous; and especially, there was one commentator on the air, called Fulton Lewis, who said that they smelt bad, and therefore should die. There was an element of anti-Semitism in it. But I remember very clearly on the radio, this guy Fulton Lewis saying they smelt bad. He was a friend of J. Edgar Hoover, who was this homosexual in the closet, who was blackmailing almost everybody.
But that year, '53, I was living with William Burroughs in New York, and he was conceiving the first routines of Naked Lunch, which were parodies of Cold War bureaucracy mentality and police state mentality. And I remember that year very vividly, that Mosaddeq was overthrown in Iran, in Persia, because it was suspected that he might be neutral, or left, though he wasn't, but he really wanted to nationalize the oilfields, which the Shah later did anyway. And I remember the CIA overthrew Mosaddeq, and he wept in court; and we've had karmic troubles and war troubles with Iran ever since. That was the seed of all the Middle Eastern catastrophe we're facing now.
[At the] same time, in 1953, the Arbenz government in Guatemala was overthrown, and I was much aware of that, despite the neutrality of the American papers and the lack of real reporting. The actual event was that Allen Dulles was running the CIA, I believe; John Foster Dulles was Eisenhower's Secretary of State; they both had relations to the... I think it was the Sullivan and Cromwell law firm. The Sullivan and Cromwell law firm were representing United Fruit, and so, for the United Fruit's interests we overthrew a democratically elected leader ... Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. And that was followed by... well, what is it?... 30 years or 40 years of persecution of the Guatemalan indigenous peoples, with the death of 200,000 of them - at least so the New York Times says - particularly under the later leadership of General Ríos Montt, who turns out also to have been a disciple of Pat Robertson, the right-wing moralist, Bible-thumping Christ announcer, assuming for himself the morality and ethics of Jesus.
So many, many seeds of karmic horror: mass death, mass murder, were planted in those years, including, very consciously for me - I was quite aware of it - the refusal of John Foster Dulles to shake Zhou Enlai's hand at the Geneva Conference which ended the French war in Indochina, or was supposed to end it. Now the Americans had been sending France $40 million a year to pursue that war, and then the Americans cut off the funds, so the French didn't have funds. But as Bernard Fall points out, and many others, General Salan and others maintained the war through the proceeds of the opium sales in Chelon, the Chinese section of Saigon, and the war was funded for a while by them. Then, when the Americans finally took over, with a puppet president, Diem who had been cultivated in the Merinal Academy in the East Coast by Cardinal Spellman... another flaming faggot, who in disguise was a sort of a war dragon and one of the instigators of the Vietnam War... so Diem was a Catholic, and we had installed him as the puppet in a Buddhist country. So, when I arrived in Saigon in 1963, coming after several years in India, I was astounded to find that this Buddhist country was being run by a Catholic American puppet. And, in sitting down with David Halperstam and I think Charles Morer and Peter Arnett and others, who were reporting for the American newspapers, I got a completely different idea in the early Sixties, '63, May 30th '63 to... oh, June 10th or so... completely different idea of what was going on in the war than I'd had reading the papers abroad or in America. They all said that the war could not be won; there was no light at the end of the tunnel; and Ambassador Lodge's reports to the President were false, or hyper-optimistic and misleading; and that they were getting flak and criticism for reporting what they saw on the spot there. But to go back to the Fifties, what was ... it felt like in the Fifties - given all these karmic violent errors that the CIA was making in Iran, in Latin America, the real problem was that none of this was clearly reported in the press. It was reported with apologies or with rationalizations or with the accusation that Arbenz was a communist, or that Mosaddeq was a communist. Mosaddeq was mocked, especially when he wept in court, with tears that were tears, and very tragic, both for America and Iran. And he was considered ... you know, in Time magazine, which was sort of the standard party line, like the Stalinist party line, he was considered the... you know, some kind of jerk.
Of course, in those days Walt Whitman was considered a jerk, and William Carlos Williams was considered a jerk, and any sign of natural man was considered a jerk. The ideal, as you could find it in advertising in the loose organizations, was the man of distinction: actually, a sort of British-looking guy with a brush moustache and a tweed coat, in a club library, drinking - naturally - the favorite drug, the drug of choice of the Establishment. And this was considered and broadcast as... advertised as the American century. Well, you know, Burroughs and I and Kerouak had already been reading Oswald Spengler on the decline in the West and the cycles of civilizations, and found this proclamation of the American century a sort of faint echo of Hitler's insistence on his empire lasting 1,000 years, or the Roman Empire's neglect of the central cities. And we were thinking in terms of the fall of America, and a new vision and a new religiousness, really, a second religiousness, which Kerouak spoke of in the Fifties, and exemplified, say, with his introduction to Eastern thought into the American scene, from the beginning of the 1950s through his book Mexico City Blues, poems which were Buddhist-flavored, through his open portrait of Gary Snyder in The Dharma Bum(s), the book The Dharma Bums - a long-haired rucksack revolution, a rebellion within the cities against the prevailing war culture, and a cultivation of the countryside and the beginning of ecological considerations and ecological reconstruction.
So you had McCarthyism, you had a completely false set of values being presented in terms of morality, ethics and success: the man of distinction. You had to put down the most tender parts of American conscience, Whitman and Williams. You had the aggression of the closet queen J. Edgar Hoover and the alcoholic, intemperate Senator McCarthy working together. You had a stupid Post Master General, Arthur Somerfield, who presented the President, Eisenhower, with Lady Chatterley's Lover on his desk, with dirty words underlined; and it was reported, I think in Time or in Newsweek, that Eisenhower said, "Terrible - we can't have this!" And so there was censorship, particularly censorship of literature towards...it was not... like, unconsciously or inadvertently, the things that were censored were the anti-war, anti-macho, anti-imperial texts, whether the beginnings of Burroughs's Naked Lunch in the Fifties, Kerouak's Visions of Cody, which could not be printed in those days, Lady Chatterley's Lover, Henry Miller. So we had D.H. Lawrence banned, Catullus banned; the Satyricon and Petronius' Arbiter couldn't be printed completely in English, it had to be printed in Latin in the Modern Library editions.
So we had electoral censorship, literary censorship. You had a large-scale electoral censorship on a much more subtle, vast wave, with the CIA, bankrolling the Congress for Cultural Freedom and a number of literary magazines, like Encounter, Truth, (We Won in?) Africa, Demonat, and others. Stephen Spender, I remember, used to complain to me that he'd bring in articles critical of the American imperium in Latin America, and somehow Laskey, or whoever was working with him, or Arnold Beichman, I don't know - somehow, when he left their office, they would... it was rejected and nothing but anti-Communist, anti-Russian screeds were there. Very good reporting in that aspect, very good, but on the other hand there was no balance in reporting the horrors of American imperial invasion and overthrow and CIA subversion - all over the world, actually - much less CIA invasion of the intellectual body politic, with the funding of the National Student Association, Congress for Cultural Freedom, all those magazines; even the Pen Club was tainted with that for a while. So there was this invasion of subsidy for a somewhat middle-right-wing party line. And the interesting thing is, most of those people that were working in the CIA, that worked that out, were ex-commies; they had the same Stalinist mentality: they just transferred it over to the right wing, and it prevails to this very day. But it was... ex-radicals, or even Marxists, who, disillusioned by the show trials of 1937 and the anti-Semitism of Stalin, went all the way over to the to the extreme right and began suppressing their understanding of the trouble with the American capitalism and imperialism, and didn't strike a good balance, as did a few intellectuals, like Irving Howe, an American who had explored the World of Our Fathers, Ian McGuint... the first-generation of Slavic, Russian and Jewish geniuses that rose out of the American soil after the great immigrations of 1895, which is part of my family too, because my mother came over from Russia in 1895.
So, to summarize: in the Fifties you had invasion of the intellectual world, subtly and secretly, by the CIA. You had invasion of political worlds in the Middle East, in Central America and Africa, I presume, and in Asia, again with secret police. I believe it was Wesley Fischel, the professor at East Lansing, Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin, who trained President Diem's secret police and brought them over intact to Saigon, under the auspices of the CIA, back in the early Fifties, when Diem was installed, '56 or so. You had a subversion of student activity and a blanketing of student protest. That's why you had the extreme rise of SDS, and later (Prairie Fire?) in the early Sixties, because normal student investigation and rebellion against the status quo had been suppressed by CIA funding of the National Student Association, with the presidents of the Student Association quite witting.
You had a literary atmosphere where there was censorship, where there was very little vigor, where an Eliotic conservative attitude was dominant in the academies, which excluded then Whitman as canon or Williams as canon or Minna Loy, or Louis Nightecker, or Cobracussi or Charles (unclear), or the whole imagist/objectivists' lineage which came into prominence in America in the Fifties and transformed American poetry to open form. So you had a closed form in poetry, and a closed form of mind, is what it boils down to.
INT: So how did it feel for you as an individual, with writing in a very different way about very different subject matters, to be coming through that period?
AG: Well, it was fun. (Laughs) First of all, I was gay, and once I came out of the closet in 1948, all during the Fifties I was astounded at the cowardice or silliness or fear of the rest of the gay literary contingent, although I think one or two writers had been up front, like André Gide or Jean Genet, of course, and Gore Vidal in America, who broke some ice.
But between Burroughs and myself, we were (Laughs) completely out of the closet, and thought it was all funny or, you know, absurd, the repression and the persecution of gays in those days. I remember I got kicked out of Columbia for... I had hosted Kerouac overnight - he slept in my bed, and I was a virgin at the time, and this is back in the Forties, '46 or so... and quite chaste; we slept together because it was too late to go home to his mother on the subway - and somebody found out about that he was staying over, and when I came downstairs there was a note: "The Dean will want to see you." And I went to see Dean Nicholas McKnight of Columbia College, and he looked at me and said, "Mr. Ginsberg, I hope you realize the enormity of what you've done." (Laughs) And I took a look and I realized I was surrounded by madmen (Laughs) - they were completely nuts, you know, and, you know, thinking something horrible was happening.
So that was the atmosphere late Forties, early Fifties, actually. And then I think probably by '55-'56 in the... I'd sort of given up on New York 'cause it was too restricted and too much in the closet, and too academic; there was no way of getting anything as wild as Kerouac's writing or Burrough's routines or Burroughs's novel Queer, which we put together in '53, or In Search of Yahe, 1953, though we had managed to publish his book Junkie, which is a realistic account of the stupidity of the war on drugs, and the troubles of drug(s) too.
But the literature we were producing just for ourselves, without any intention of publishing, just for the pleasure of writing and amusing ourselves and extending our imaginations, and each others' imaginations, you know, I think in the dedication of (.?.) in 1956, I mentioned Kerouac's 13 novels and Burroughs's Naked Lunch and Neal Cassady's First Third, and saying "All these books are published in heaven." I didn't think they'd be published in our lifetime; things seemed so closed. And it's that closed mind, I think, that was responsible for the ineptness of the Cold War. Certainly, a cold war of some kind was necessary, but I think probably rock'n' roll, blues, blue jeans, the counter-culture, did as much, if not more, to undermine the authority of the Marxist bureaucracy, certainly in Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland - probably in Russia, too, and the internal corruption within Russia did as much to undermine it as all the trillions of dollars that we went into debt for military hardware which was never used, or rarely used.
INT: What was your assessment of the Russians during this period?
AG: Well, very mixed, you know. My mother was a communist and my father was socialist, so I grew up with knowing the fight. And I never was a communist - I was more apolitical in a sense, until I went to Saigon in '63, and saw the... But that wasn't it, because I did make mockery of some of the McCarthyite Cold War straightness. I think my poem America says: "Them Russians, them Russians and them Russians, and them Chinese and them Russians, they're after us, they want to take our cars from out of our garages." And I said, "OK, America, I'll fight them - I'll put my queer shoulder to the wheel." They still don't let gays in the military in America, so...
I was sort of neutral in the Cold War, since it seemed to me a balance of aggression on both sides; a preponderance of heavy, heavy police state in Russia, and not so heavy in America at all, though a police state for junkies, certainly, and it has grown and grown and grown, where we do have a generic police state for people who are committing the political crime of smoking grass, or the illness ... or involving the illness of addiction. We have more people in jail now than anywhere else. But in those days, the Government was also spreading all sorts of mythological nonsense about marijuana, despite the Guardi report giving it a clean bill of health.
So there was a little element of police state here, and certainly in areas that I was familiar with. There was an enormous element of the American police state in Latin America and in Iran and so forth. So, Americans did not take that in account. It's almost as W.E. Dubois, the great black philosopher, said, that the problem was not merely race, but that people who were prosperous were willing to enjoy their prosperity at the expense of the pain, suffering and labor of other people. Like, I understand that we withdraw, from Africa hundreds of billion of dollars of raw materials every year, and then complain when they want some foreign aid. (Laughs) Or that, as of those days to these very days, we'll lend them money to expand their coffee plantations, but not to make their own coffee factories and sell it abroad. So we've been sucking the blood out of our client and undeveloped nations like vampires, and that's why America has this prosperity; and people are not willing to recognize that - not only America, but Western Europe. I mean, I was quite aware of that and thinking in... thinking in those terms in the late Forties, early Fifties.
But by '65, I'd had several very interesting incidents. I went down to Cuba and, complaining about Castro's treatment of homosexuals, found myself after a month under arrest and expelled from the country, to Prague. In Prague, I found I had quite a bit of money from royalties, and so took a tour of Russia and saw what was going on there in terms of police state and bureaucracy; came back to Prague, was elected the King of May by the students, and immediately expelled by the Minister of Education and the Minister of Culture, as an American homosexual narcotic hippie - a poor role model for Czechoslovakian youth. At that time, I think it was May nineteen-ninety... And in '65 I ran into Havel as a student, an acquaintance which we renewed when he became President, and he reminded me that we'd met. If you ask Havel, or see his interviews with various jazz figures who influenced him, you'll find that the inspiration for the rebellion in Eastern Europe was very much the American counter culture, and the English counter-culture: the Beatles, Dylan, Kerouac, Burroughs, Soft Machine, the Fugs: a very important rock group singing 'Police State Blues' and 'River of Shit' (Laughs) in the early Sixties in America.
So I found I was kicked out by the Prague police and the Havana police. Then, when I got back, I took part in various anti-war manifestations. But I found that the day I'd arrived in Prague, I had been put on the dangerous security list of J. Edgar Hoover, as a crazed, violent, or ... I don't know what he thought I was. And that he should talk, I must say... (Laughs) Maybe he thought my homosexuality was a threat to America or something.
But anyway, on April 26, 1965, the day I arrived in Prague, to be kicked out two weeks later, I was put on the dangerous security list here. Then I found that... in '65-'66, that the Narcotics Bureau was trying to set me up for a bust, partly for my anti-war activity, partly anti-war on drugs, anti-police corruption activity, and so they tried to set me up for a bust, several different people busting people and threatening to throw the book at them unless they went to my apartment and planted marijuana. So I complained to Robert Kennedy and to my various Patterson, New Jersey representatives in Congress, and New York. And years later, when I got my papers from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act - because you can get your papers after 15-20 years - I found that the FBI had translated a denunciation of me by the Prague youth newspaper (Lada Fronta?), saying that I was a corrupter of youth and alcoholic - which I'm not - and not to be trusted, and had sent it over the Narcotics Bureau to send to my representative, Congressman Jolson, wanting him not to answer my questions and request for protection and complaints about the set-ups, the entrapment procedures of the Narcotics Bureau, because I was irresponsible, as is proved by this communist newspaper (Laughs), and that anything I said might be turned to embarrass him. So I realized that the Western police and in certain areas, the Western police and the communist police, by 1965, were one international mucous membrane network (Laughs) - there was hardly any difference between them.
INT: Very good answer. Can we go back to the emergence of the counter-culture? Some of your writings hit a very popular vein and you became very, very popular...
INT: Could you describe to me a little bit about why you think that happened, what they were and why that happened, and what the elements of this... what your philosophy was, if you like, that emerged from this period?
AG: Well, the main themes, actually, of a whole group of poets - that would be Gary Snyder, myself, Philip Wayland, Jack Kerouak, William Burroughs, Michael McLure, Philip Lamonti of the surrealists, the San Francisco group, and the New York group, the beat group, as well as to some extent the Black Mountain group - one: spontaneous mind and candor, telling the truth in the public forum, completely difficult during the time of censorship and party-line mass media, moderation and... well, deceptiveness, deceptiveness in terms of the American violence abroad. And...
(Interruption - change tape)
INT: So, we were talking about...
AG: Yes, the counter-culture.
INT: ... the counter-culture and new revolutionary (Overlap) (.?.).
AG: (Overlap) What were the tenets or themes of the counter-culture, as I know them from the Forties and Fifties, meaning the beat group and some allied friends.
AG: First of all, open forum in poetry, rather than a closed forum. It's like when you split the atom, you get energy. So we were following Whitman and William Carlos Williams and the imagists and objectivists in technique, rather than the academic folks who were having a metronomic beat. That happened in painting, poetry, music and all the arts. And that involved candor and spontaneity, spontaneous composition, a classic thing from Tibet, Japan, China, not recognized here as classic because people weren't scholarly enough, so they thought it was some home-made spontaneous prosody, but it was the great tradition of Milarapa, the Tibetan poet.
Candor, arising from that, meaning if you're saying what's really on your mind spontaneously, you might say things that people would object to or censor. Thus Burroughs's Naked Lunch, which couldn't be printed in America until after many, many legal trials.
An interest in ecology and restoration of the planet, particularly on the part of Kerouak, who said "The earth is an Indian thing," or Gary Snyder who's a famous ecological poet, or Michael McLure whose specialty is in biology, or Philip Lamonti as a surrealist, using surrealist means to go back to the indigenous mind, so to speak.
Then there was also an interest in breaking the bonds of censorship, which we did, and being able to speak freely. There was an exuberance in art rather than any sort of a wet blanket, some sense of exuberance that... as Blake said, "exuberance is beauty", and even some visionary element. There was the introduction, along with that, of Eastern thought, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, from the early Fifties on, through Kerouak and specifically through Gary Snyder, who was studying Chinese and Japanese in the early Fifties, and then went to study in a Zen monastery in Kyoto, where I joined him on that trip from India through Saigon to Kyoto to Vancouver. So meditation practice and exploration of the texture of consciousness was central, meaning exploration of our own aggression, and some way of relating to our own aggression rather than it run wild over the world as the American diplomacy was allowing: American fear, aggression dominance, macho delusion, to destroy other cultures.
We had a real strong interest in African American culture and in the arts of African American culture, which have never been fully recognized as the great American contribution to world culture. So, the entire program of Kerouak's writing is really related to the new sounds and the new rhythms of beebop, with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk and other musicians whom he visited and heard directly in Harlem during the late Thirties, early Forties.
So there was an interest in both Asiatic culture and African American culture, The Tibetan Book of the Dead... so an expanding of the American horizon of what was canon, what was the canon: not merely the Judeo-Christian but also the Deists, Buddhists, and let us say animists or indigenous, worship of stocks and stones, as the Catholics would say, who came to America and burned all the Mayan goddesses, despising the pagan cultures. So we were actually checking out the pagan cultures, and finding a refinement, both artistic and intellectual, that we didn't have in Western culture, a Western culture based on some kind of either logical Aristotelian... a thing is either A or not A, or there's one single monotheist center, as distinct from the old hermetic tradition of Heraclitus through Blake and the Eastern tradition of no center, or emptiness, or ku, or shrwinyatah, that things are real but simultaneously no inherent permanent nature. That's a big intellectual distinction, and we were beginning to absorb that question through the Highest Perfect Wisdom sutra, which is chanted every morning in Zen and Tibetan rooms.
So there was a complete change of mind, and also a rediscovery of America itself and the indigenous land, people, folk tales, folk music, urban folk arts like beebop and dozens, rather than a looking to Europe for sophisticated models only. This is part of an old American tradition from Whitman through Williams, of trying to find things that were in the American grain - not a nationalism, but an attempt to use the local virtues, and use them artistically and enrich the ground, rather than reject our own ground, to use our own speech, our own speech rhythms, our own diction, rather than an inherited 19th century English diction speech and so forth. And Williams's argument with Eliot was that by going English, Eliot basically set American poetry back 25 years, which I think was quite true, because it took a long time to recover from the elegance and intelligence of Eliot, but to come back to native grounds. So there were books like On Native Grounds or The Bridge, that celebrated the American style, and finally you get something as brilliant as Kerouak's On the Road, Visions of Cody, which actually celebrate American ground, American character, and go back to the tradition of Whitman.
INT: This hit a hugely popular vein, though, didn't it? By the time you come into the Sixties, this was taken up...
AG: By the time you come to the... oh, I forgot the Sexual Revolution, gay liberation - yeah, you've got to add that in! So if you have complete change in view of the function and texture of consciousness, complete change in sexual tolerance, complete opening of artistic form, complete acceptance of human nature as is, as the fit subject matter, including the chaos of human nature, as your ground, naturally any young generation finds that exciting, 'cause they can reclaim their own bodies, their own speech and their own minds, they can use their own bodies, they can use their own speech, they can use their own minds, as the basis for their art or for their love-making or for their business. Naturally it caught on, because the whole older thing was censored, stultified, secret, secretive. The whole point of the Cold War, of the nuclear matter, was that it was all done in secrecy. From whatever proclivities they had in bed, through whatever proclivities they had in the war room of the White House or the Pentagon, through the creation of the single greatest political decision of the century: to make the bomb and drop it, you've to got realize it was all done undemocratically and in secret. And people had to hide their emotions sexually, hide their personal feelings, disguise themselves as men of distinction, and create a world-ravaging Frankenstein, the nature of which they could never put back in the bottle, or... to mix my metaphor, a genie that they couldn't put back in the bottle, or a Frankenstein that they couldn't stop, because we still don't know what to do with the wastes, the nuclear waste. So, boasting intelligence, they made a half-assed science that did not take into account its own results, and the complete equation was not resolved, yet they had the pride of billions and billions and billions and trillions of dollars of investment, trillions of dollars of war materials, secrecy, perquisites, pride, an incredible conspiracy of silence surrounding what was supposed to be a democratic nation. We were never consulted on the creation of the bomb; and people are so blind to the horror of that situation, they don't get it, that there was a dozen people in secret that took the decision that shakes the world, in what is supposed to be a democracy. This is Stalinism at its worst, or Hitlerism at its worst. People are not used to thinking of America or the West in these terms, but you really have to realistically look and see how we have poisoned the world.
There is the further problem that, because of conspicuous consumption, we are maybe more responsible for the garbage on the planet than anyone else, and for setting models of garbage ... of disposable planets, so to speak.
INT: So what was it like, in that case - come to '67, for example, when you have this huge explosion, expression of personal freedoms, what was it like to be part of the be-in (Overlap)...?
AG: Well, I must say, one other question we haven't covered, which was the introduction of the drugs which alter consciousness very slightly, like marijuana, which had a bad rep from the Government, but which actually, when one tried, one found that they were quite mild, like marijuana certainly. You know, I remember my first experience was that it made my vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup Sunday delightful to eat, like a totem I'd never... an icon I'd never experienced before. And this was supposed to be the drug that sent Algerian dogs frothing at the mouth, mad. (Laughs) So actually, that was one reason that the US Government lost its authority, all the way up to the levitation of the Pentagon in 1967. (Laughs) It was simply that the authority of the "government" word was deconstructed, the authority of the Pentagon was deconstructed by one good-looking kid putting a flower in the barrel of the gun held by another good-looking kid in uniform. Everybody realized the Pentagon is an arbitrary authority. You know, it's like in Blake "old Nobodaddy". So... much less LSD, of which Blake might say "The eye, altering, alters all" - i.e. a change of consciousness that's experienced for, say, 8-10 hours, and that actually gives some perspective to the entire structure of social consciousness, the social arrangement, that you begin to see... X-ray, a little X-ray view of that; and particularly during a wartime, the realization of... people would get high, and I think that LSD was likely enough that psychedelics may have been a great catalyst to the anti-war movement. That was my guess at the time, and still is. So there's another element.
OK, so what did it feel like? It felt like we were walking around in a large mass hallucination, sustained by all the politicians, but particularly Lyndon Johnson and later by Nixon, extremely, based on lies and secrecy, sustained by the media, who were not able to... or couldn't conceive that the whole structure of the United States mentality could be so wrong and so disastrous and so Earth-destroying, because they participated in primping it up all the time. So, in a sense it was a piece of cake. You know, (Laughs) all these madmen walking around in a dream, and all you had to do is make some common sense. You know, all I had to do is say was... say, "I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel," (Laughs) or, you know, "I here declare the end of the war - I here declare the end of the war." Lyndon Johnson never even declared it: he just sent soldiers over. OK, if he's going to have that chutzpah, that brass, OK, I can undeclare it. And not only that: my word is going to outlast his. (Laughs) So it was sort of both a play, and at the same time a serious attempt to communicate to people, to transmit information that came from experience and self-knowledge, from wider travel, from maybe a deeper heart understanding, than was being displayed in the official media party line. And I'm using that word, "party line", with the overshadow echo of the Communist Party line. We definitely had a party line, The Times had a party line, and they've still got it.
I remember doing a lot of research in 1971 on CIA involvement with opium trafficking in Indochina, working with Alfred McCoy, who put out a very great scholarly and reliable book on it, and The Times simply couldn't accept it. I even debriefed Richard Helms, the head of the CIA, and got that story in the newspapers, but The Times really wouldn't... it was too shocking; it would have unseated the reason of the country. And it was not until 1993 or '4 that the The Times finally said in an editorial: "Yes, the CIA was involved with opium trafficking in Indochina," and that was one of the black marks against the CIA. At the time, I was in correspondence with their editors and with C.L. Salzburger, who was a foreign correspondent, of the family... part of the family that owns The Times, and he thought I was just full of beans. But then I got a letter from him in '77 or '8, when he was resigning, saying that in going over old dispatches, he owed me an apology, he felt, 'cause he thought I was full of beans at first, but he'd found out I was quite right. But you still can't get The Times to really do an investigation in 1996 of the Contra-cocaine connection. They make believe they're doing it, and instead they investigate the story, you know, the media treatment of the story, as they did in the previous days.
So you had an establishment party line which, after all, is part of the power structure, and worse and worse from those days to this, as it gets more and more concentrated. But the beginning of that concentration of power in so few hands was back in the Fifties, when the networks and the few newspapers of record - Times, Washington Post - were in a state of what the Alcoholics Anonymous people would call "denial" of both scandal, error, and treason even.
INT: This was a tremendous period of explosion...
INT: ... not just in poetry, but in music...
INT: ... so on and so forth. Could you describe for me a little bit about the music that was going on there, the work of Phil Oaks, Joan Baez and so and so forth? A lot of it was anti-war-orientated as well.
AG: Well, I think the major thing was that, first of all, there was this counter-culture in music from the late Thirties, early Forties, the black counter-culture, beebop, which was attaining a music that could not be imitated for white co-optation; it was too complex and exquisite and somewhat intellectual, but emotionally very powerful, as with Charlie Parker. And that influenced almost all American writing, through Kerouak, as Kerouak influenced American writing, and as I did also.
Then, in painting there was a similar new move from the Thirties on, toward abstraction, or abstract expressionism, as they called it. And many of the poets and painters of that time were friends - and musicians - like Morty Feldman, who opened up... or John Cage, who opened up music to many new forms; De Kooning and Klein and Pollock; or at the Seater Bar where I was, was (Miriam Barraca) the great black poet, then Leroy Jones; or you could find John Weaner who's a great gay poet from Boston, or Robert Creely, Frank O'Hara of the Museum of Modern Art and another great New York poet, mixing with John Ashbury and Kenneth Coake; Kerouak coming in from his mother's house at weekends and getting drunk in the Seater and talking to Pollock.
So there was an explosion in almost every direction, including social studies, a reconsideration of what was America's past, relation to the Indians, relation to blacks, relation to women, relation to gays. So a reconsideration of the myths of history that had been established; even a reconsideration of the canon, with the beginning of, let us say, why at Columbia University, a freshmen humanities course, which begins with Herodotus and goes up through St Thomas Aquinas... why is there no King, why is there no Mahabharata, why no Diamond Sutra, why none of the international classics, why no Ramayana, why no (Gassiers Lut?) from Africa? Why are we restricted to the white Protestant or Catholic central macho canon, when actually I got to be more interested in Eastern thought, and more and more into African thought? And with the expansion of the arts, particularly since Picasso and others, African forms and African thought became more and more interesting, with the explosion of jazz, which is after all an African American origined art form, the poly-rhythms and the improvisation and the boasts and the toasts and the warriors, Lut -(Gassiers Lut?) that Pound talked about also, the renunciation of power in favor of art. That had an enormous effect on Western thinking, on the vanguard of Western thinking, and slowly on the general populace, so that now young kids are interested in meditation practice, let us say, or in African shamanism's or American Indian relation to the ground and American Indian relation to the commons, let us say.
I forgot what the question was.
INT: I was asking you as well about later on, about the music of people like Dylan and Baez and so on.
AG: (Overlap) Oh, yes, yes. So... in 1952, a very important time, there was an avant-garde ethno-musicologist, painter and cinema collagiste in Harry Smith, who began to make films of animated collage, using Eastern and American Indian themes, and he collected a great archive of American folk music, which was issued in 1952 on Folkways Records, a three-box set: blues, folk mountain music and what not. That influenced the entire development of folk music in America and indigenous music. Like, I think in Dylan's first album, four of those songs are drawn from Harry Smith's collection. Jerry Garcia said he learned blues from Harry Smith's collection. All of the... Ralph Rinsler, who was in charge of folk music at the Smithsonian and formerly a part of a folk music singing group in the Fifties, credits Harry Smith with having instigated the entire folk revival of the Fifties, through archival restoration of the music that had been lost commercially. That would mean Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton and all the great blues singers, and (unclear name), Elizabeth Cotton and so forth. Then there were groups like New Law City Ramblers in the Fifties, or the Almanac Singers or others, folk singers, that began carrying this message of indigenous folk music, that Dylan heard as well as, at the same time that he was hearing Kerouak's Mexico City Blues, and Dylan seemed to combine the folk radicalism with the literary sophistication of the beat writers, because he always found that Kerouak was a great inspiration, and as he said, the first poet that made him interested in poetry. I remember asking him why, and he said "It was the first poetry that spoke to me in my own American language." So, by 1960... when he came to New York, or '61, where he went was to the Gas Light Café, which is where the poets had been having poetry readings, because he thought of himself as a poet-singer, and immediately began singing at the Gas Light on McDibble Street. The Gas Light has been a gay bar, the McDibble Street Bar, then the Gas Light Coffee Shop, a poetry-folk-singer venue downstairs in the cellar on McDougal, in the middle of Greenwich Village. So Dylan came there, having read about readings that had been held by Leroy Jones, myself, Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso, Ray Bremser and others in the Gas Light; Kerouak reading around the Village too. Apparently, that strain of poetic intelligence shot through Dylan into the entire folk music scene, combined with Harry Smith's great research, and that influenced... according to Paul McCartney, that influenced the Beatles also, as well as influencing all the British blues singers, Jagger and everybody else. The revival of classical American blues is the lineage through which you have Eric Clapton and Mick Jagger and... "I went down to the station..." - that's Robert Johnson.
So there was this recovery, like in On the Road, a recovery of the indigenous American intelligence, folk wisdom, folk wisdom and folk energy and folk exuberance and folk suffering, basically.
INT: Now I've seen film of you with people Joan Baez and Phil Oaks and so on, going down to the Oakland Draft Center. Can you tell me, in your (Overlap) protest...
AG: (Overlap) The first protests that I knew of were organized by the Living Theatre and the Catholic workers, back in the... probably late Fifties, early Sixties, against a Governor Rockefeller-decreed nuclear alert in which everybody was supposed to go and get of their houses and go down underground into the subways. And they chained themselves to the fence at Union Square and refused to go underground and be intimidated. You know, "To help prepare for a nuclear holocaust?" they said, "No way!" (Laughs) That's the earliest. Then I remember the War Resisters' League invited me and Peter Orlovsky to do a circumambulation around New York, covering the area that would be devastated by a bomb - you know, circumambulate that whole area. Then, by 1963, when I got back to [sic] Saigon, the first big peace protest that I took part in was a visit by Madam Nu, President Diem's wife - who, incidentally, was quite much involved with the opium trafficking - to the... I guess the Century Club or something like that, to give a speech in San Francisco, and we picketed her hotel, and I remember carrying a sign saying "Madam Nu and Mao Tse Tung are in the same boat of meat?" (Laughs) So it was a poetic way of getting at it, rather than anger.
By '65, there were big Berkeley war protests, organized by a group of people - I think Jerry Rubin, and many others... There was one specific guy, whose name I forgot, that was quite moving in Berkeley. So we organized large-scale mass parades which were supposed to go through the black sections of Oakland, and the police blocked our way. They didn't want blacks rising up like that. And the Hell's Angels were sort of like induced to attack the march by some right-wing Birchers.
Around... in the early year, I think Joan Baez, Dylan, Phil Oakes and others, including Abe Hoffman, had gone down South to get the vote for blacks, '63, Birmingham. I remember Hoffman said that he brought a copy of On the Road with him when he went down to Birmingham. So there was this direct action, originally for black voting rights. Then, in '64, there was like a big caravan of folk that went down to the Atlantic City Democratic Convention, for Fanny Lou Hammer and the Mississippi black caucus, who were shot out of representation by the white Missouri or Mississippi - I've forgotten. I remember Peter Orlovsky, the poet, and myself going down and picketing there, as being one of the first actions.
Then there were a series of marches in California and New York. And there were two things that emerged: the idea of a march as a spectacle or theatre, rather than angry violence, but as a way of communicating ideas. After the Hell's Angels attacked the march, we had to figure out a strategy. There were these old-line Marxists, perhaps some agents provocateurs among them, who said we should go down with bicycle chains and beat up the Brown Shirts. I made a manifesto saying: the march is a spectacle and theatre, and we should have masses of flowers, grandmothers, troops of (trained fairies?) to go and take down the Hell's Angels' pants and give them blow jobs (Laughs, floats with Lyndon Johnson and Mao Tse Tung and President Diem and Zhou Enlai and, who was the head of Vietnam? - I've forgotten...
AG: The head of North Vietnam...
(Talk about time left, etc. Cut.)
INT: So shall I just start? We're just going to carry straight on here. If you could...
AG: One thing I would like to emphasize is that we had a series of very interesting theatrical marches. In New York, a yellow submarine march, after the Beatles song, instigated by the Vietnam Veterans Organization. And many of those marches, which were peaceful and intelligent, were invaded by counter-double agents, double agents from the FBI under their counter-intelligence program. And the most loud-mouthed, violent people, screaming "Bring the war home!" or waving Viet Cong flags, or creating chaotic conditions on the march, or provoking the police, or screaming "Pigs!" were very often double agents planted by the police to disgrace those marches, and there are many, many, many files in the FBI cabinets which have been released to the public, outlining those specific capers or projects or manipulations. I remember specifically one time: there's a very famous photo of me in an American hat, an Uncle Sam hat; that was for a march that began on Bryant Park, near the Public Library in 42nd Street, and went all the way up to the Band Shell in Central Park. And although it had been organized by Women Strike for Peace and the War Resisters' League and the Vietnam Veterans, it was invaded by a group of what looked to be extreme left radicals waving Viet Cong flags, getting up in front of the march, getting all the publicity, with all the newspapers collaborating, and then, when we got to the bandstand, taking over the microphone and not letting the originators and organizers of the march speak; until after a long, long while, an hour of arguing, the police intervened, or the marchers intervened. So the folks who don't have that historical memory should remember that very important thing: the sabotage of the Government during the political conventions, during the large be-ins, during the anti-war marches, the deliberate sabotage of the left, which was more extensive than just on the street: it was like secret manipulations to discredit and make misinformation campaigns about them.
AG: One of the interesting things was... you know, we had a sort of non-political Buddhist be-in in San Francisco in February, I think it was, 1967, organized by the poets McLure, myself, Gary Snyder. Snyder had conceived of the levitation of the Pentagon to begin with, (as a) just traditional Eastern-Western white magic; and we'd had a very successful group of about 20-30,000 people meeting in the park in San Francisco. At the end, we had asked for (unclear), that everybody clean up after them, and we chanted mantras - I think it was (Chants) "Om shree maitre-ea, om shree maitre-ea," as the sun sank, and people cleaned up after themselves. And Suzuki Roshi, the great Zen master, who was sitting on the platform with us, with Snyder and myself and McLure got up and folded his robes and went home, after being with us all afternoon silent. That very night, there was a police sweep down Haight Ashbury, and the police busted everybody that had had any psychedelics or any grass; and within two weeks Haight Ashbury was flooded with amphetamine and heroin. That should be understood. It's not very well known, but you know, ask anybody that was around at the time, or read the newspapers, you'll find that kind of sabotage of the community that had been built, both in the anti-war movement and the be-in. (Clears throat) And the whole point of the be-in was not to protest anything, but just to be there. (Laughs) You know, a be-in, not a sit-in, which is a take-off on the idea of the southern sit-ins or anti-war protests later on, but just a be-in: everybody be together as a sign of - what? - equanimity ... meditation, equanimity and poetry, art.
INT: Wonderful. I'm glad you said that. So why did the whole movement go to Chicago in '68, and what was your personal experience of being there?
AG: Well, there was going to be this... what Abe Hoffman called the "Death Convention": they were going to prolong the war, maybe. At that time, Madam Nu... no, let's see... Madam Anna Shenault, a right-wing fundraiser for the Republicans, was telephoning South Vietnam President Thieu to hang on, and if Nixon got elected, he had a secret plan to end the war, but it wouldn't involve compromise with the Viet Cong - we'd destroy the Viet Cong - so he shouldn't accede to the importunities of Johnson and Humphrey and the State Department of that time, to allow Viet Cong to come to the peace table and negotiate an end to the war, as Robert Kennedy had recommended in 1966, February. That fact, that she had made those phone calls at Nixon's behest, came out during Watergate, when defending his own wire-tapping. Nixon said, "Well, President Johnson wire-tapped Madam Nu," so it was official. The secret plan to end the war, according to Daniel Ellsberg, who was working then for Kissinger... was that Nixon was going to nuke North Vietnam; and it was only prevented by the fact that they thought it would tear America apart because of all the protests in the streets that had taken place till then. By 1968, February, the Gallup polls said 52% of the American people always thought the war had been a mistake, or 52% of the American people thought the war had always been a mistake. 1968, February, Gallup poll. We organized... I think Abe Hoffman, Johnny Mitchell, David Dallenger, Jerry Rubin and myself and, most importantly, Ed Sanders of the Fugs, the rock group, intellectual rock group, and a poet, had organized a group of yippies - ay yippie! Good feeling - to have a festival of life in Chicago during the Convention, have a lot of rock 'n' roll people come and overwhelm the Democratic Convention which might support the war, with some kind of exuberance and anti-war glee that would affect the voting or the tone of America. There was a lot of sabotage of that by double agents, there was a lot of unconscious sabotage of that, I think, by some of the organizers, like Jerry Rubin, who did believe in violence but forswore it for that occasion, but it was unconscious, I think, in his mind. Later, Ed Sanders said he would never again work with anybody who believed in any kind of violence, 'cause he found it was disastrous. My role was to introduce some Eastern thought, meditation practice, and to form groups of mantra-chanting innocents, if there were any problems with the police, to, you know, create areas of calm, little islands of calm - which worked, actually; and also to be there, like with William Burroughs and Jean Genet and Terry Southern and some of the editors of Grove Press, like Richard Seeger, and David Dallinger and others, and to give moral support to the younger people. I remember I went... I was a little... I had a little trepidation, fear about it, and I went to an elder in San Francisco, the grandson of President Chester A. Arthur - Gavin Arthur was one of the sort of elders of (the mind?) in the Bay area - and asked him what he thought. And he said, "Well, if I were a young" - because he was an elder, like 65-70 - "if I were a young man, I'd consider it my obligation to go and oppose this infernal war and protest." So that sort of decided the matter - that makes sense: you know, that kind of old British honor, or something like the aristocratic honor, presidential honor. So I went, and that was my function. And the police were quite brutal and just angry... I don't know... you know, and were loosed on the protesters, who were in a relatively orderly scene. The Mayor refused to give permission for camping in the park and for the speech-making that was necessary. The police ... I think it was... The most vivid and dramatic moment to me was one evening: I was standing with Jean Genet and Burroughs, and the police cars at night began bursting on to the scene and going through barriers and pushing people away. And all of
(Interruption - Cut)
INT: So if you could start now.
(Ginsberg sings - not transcribed)
INT: Wonderful. Thank you very much.