The Poet Speaks: Homage to Allen Ginsberg - Playhouse, Edinburgh, 13 Aug 2013
Heartfelt tribute from two figureheads of modern American culture
This article is from 2013.
The festival is awash with two-for-one deals, but you’d have to go some to surpass Tuesday night at the Playhouse: not just one colossus of modern American culture on stage but three – classical composer Philip Glass on piano, punk poet and singer Patti Smith on vocals and the late Allen Ginsberg, poet, revolutionary and leader of the Beat Generation, everywhere.
Outspokenly communist and gay at a time when either could get you lynched, Ginsberg’s poems seethe with pain, rage and desire. His influence has been immense, as both Smith and Glass would attest. The pair, friends for decades, also shared a close friendship him, and this evening was their chance to pay homage, using his poetry along with works of their own that he inspired.
The collaboration works well, the waves of music giving a shape to the torrent of words, keeping them on track when they threaten to spill over, and elevating them into something extraordinary. Smith can barely restrain herself from singing some lines. It’s powerful stuff.
The biggest cheers of the night, however, are reserved for the principals’ solo performances. When Glass takes a break, Smith treats us to a rollicking version of ‘Dancin’ Barefoot’. The crowd bay for more, and she obliges with a sweet rendition of John Lennon’s ‘Beautiful Boy’, accompanied by Tony Shanahan on guitar. She also reveals a love for Robert Louis Stevenson, reading several of his dreamy poems for children that were a mainstay of her own childhood.
Then it’s the turn of Glass. The composer plays three sublime pieces, ending with his hectic, agitated Etude No.10. An International Festival audience could scarcely wish for more, and they roar their delight.
Smith returns and it’s back to the poetry. Swirling, opaque and impressionist, Ginsberg’s writing isn’t always easy to grasp. Reassuringly, Smith admits as much: it’s complex, she tells us, but exciting and rewarding.
Projected onto the giant background screen, images from Ginsberg’s life scroll past: a laughing teen, a dapper intellectual in thick-rimmed specs with William Burroughs. Then, as his hair thins and his beard grows, he’s a seeker of enlightenment at a temple on the Ganges, an Indian mountainside, an eastern shrine.
At one point, Smith turns round to salute a portrait of him in middle age. Visibly moved, it takes her a minute to gather herself. The piece that follows, ‘On the Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa, Vidyadhara’, was written by Ginsberg on the death of his teacher, mentor and friend, and is given greater poignancy when Smith tells us that she and Glass performed it together at Ginsberg’s funeral.
The night ends with a thumping performance of ‘People Have the Power’, Smith’s rousing call to arms. “You have the power to make a difference,” she implores us. “Don’t forget to use your voice.” Ginsberg, the old revolutionary, would surely approve.