They made it there, going to school in town, finding a first rush of excitement and a first blush of success on the never sleeping streets of postwar New York City. Then, like so many young men, they went west. In the Bay Area, that well-watered garden of hipness, they seized greater notoriety in fact, became branded by the town, as seminal works they created while there became, for their millions of followers, anthems. The 1950s became the '60s, and their arts and minds expanded. Both got into drugs, both got into Blake.
The 1960s belonged to a generation younger than their own, but since they were smart, concerned, engaged men, they attached themselves. One boosted Buddhism well before it entered the Zeitgeist, the other went south and marched with Martin Luther King. As the decade progressed and gave way to the next, they found themselves in and out of fashion. They were back in New York now, soldiering on, wondering at times if the times had passed them by.
Each of them enjoyed a marvelous, millennium's-end renaissance, with retrospectives of their life's work bringing fresh applause and new celebrity. Books and box sets sold in quantity, gigs were sold out. A generation beyond the Boomers came to appreciate these aging hipsters, these ever-cool cats.
One of them died two years ago in New York City at age 73. The other celebrates his 75th birthday today at his Central Park apartment.
And who are these two men, so precisely alike? The late Allen Ginsberg, and his soulmate Tony Bennett.
Yeah, me too: I thought it was pretty weird when I figured it out, this bizarre parallel-universe situation involving the shaggy Beat poet and the suntanned, silk-suited singer. But it's all true and, yes, there was a summit meeting. I'll tell you how I got on to this.
It is a happy misery in the magazine business to sometimes have assignments pile up, even land atop one another. A few years ago I was under deadline on two profiles, one on Bennett, the other on Ginsberg. As a middle-of-the-pack Boomer, the kind Joe Queenan detests, I was interested in both men, my tastes in music having aged to a point where I owned several Bennett CDs, but my world view still informed by an education that had included lots of Kerouac, Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg. I remember being introduced to blank verse by Miss Cusick, a cool English teach at Chelmsford High. I remember further that I and colleagues on the school paper took Miss Cusick to Caesar's Monticello nightclub in Framingham, Mass., in 1971 to thank her for serving as our advisor. She chose Caesar's because her favorite, Tony Bennett, was performing. We kids weathered it; it's a measure of how highly we regarded Miss Cusick. A couple years later, I saw Allen Ginsberg and his partner/colleague Peter Orlovsky perform at my college, and a few years after that I saw Ginsberg play tambourine, or some odder instrument of percussion, when Dylan's Rolling Thunder Review rolled through Lowell.
Anyway, I had these deadlines to do these comeback-kid pieces on these guys I had seen long ago, and the deadlines were tight. Figuring my calendar, I realized there was nothing to do but schedule the Bennett interview for Monday afternoon and the Ginsberg session for Tuesday evening. This I did.
SUSAN RAGAN/AP, TIM SHAFFER/AP
I met Tony Bennett and his companion, Susan Crowe, in midtown and we rode in the stretch limo up Madison, then across to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the chauffeur parked in a reserved area. Tony was impeccable and upbeat, as he is routinely. He had a "Hiya" and a hand clasp for any museum worker or adoring fan who approached with a smile. We were escorted up to the elegant Trustees' Dining Room and seated at a table near a large window that overlooked the park. It was winter, and the four o'clock slant of light flared, then faded, as streetlights came up like footlights. Bennett, as I say, was resplendent he's resplendent always, he's resplendent at the ballpark and at breakfast and as we chatted, candidly, about his remarkable life son of a tailor, singing waiter in Manhattan, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco," Rat Pack irregular, alongside Martin on the Freedom Marches, yesterday's news, MTV icon, Sinatra heir, American institution I reflected that the long afternoon, now a cozy evening, had been nothing short of bespoke.
Tony, as he insisted I call him, played the gallant host throughout the session. But even as winning a conversationalist as he cannot carry the ball forever, and there came a lull. Searching to fill dead air, I offered irrelevantly, "Tomorrow I'm seeing the poet Allen Ginsberg."
"Allen Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg," Bennett said, that voice of his full of sand, his narrow eyes all but closed. "Allen. Very interesting cat, Allen. I like him very much. Met him long ago at a party in the Village for Franz Kline. We hit it off. I had been looking for this art book and Allen told me where to find it.
"Allen was into Blake. We talked about Blake. I was trying to put some Blake poems to music, and so was Allen.
"Tell Allen I said hi. Interesting cat, Allen."
As the limo drove south through Central Park, past the twinkling lights of Tavern on the Green, Tony was humming a tune. What a lovely afternoon it had been, I reflected, as I prepared to shift mental gears to the quite different subject of Allen Ginsberg.
It was bitter cold as I walked against a gale from my Greenwich Village apartment to the lower East Side brownstone where Ginsberg had lived for years. My fingers were frozen as I pushed the button and heard a voice bark something through the crackling. The front door was broken and open, and I beat the buzzer as I made my way in, then up several flights of stairs. Steps needed fixing and walls needed paint; the place did not feel safe.
Ginsberg's apartment door was open. I knocked gently and heard him mumble something. I entered and saw the poet seated at his mean kitchen table eating a bowl of soup. Dishes were piled in the sink; the place was thoroughly cluttered. But of course it was interesting: Books were everywhere. Stuff was everywhere, junky furniture, posters, strange pictures. On one wall was a framed copy of Blake's "The Tyger" and on another was a Buddhist prayer wheel.
"Sit down," Ginsberg ordered. I knew that he considered the interview an artform, a competition, a duel, and I knew we had begun. I sat as he ate, declaiming while he did so about one outrage or another the CIA and Nixon came up, I remember then, finally, pausing to see if I had been provoked. Whether I might flinch.
I realized that of all the world's interview subjects there were few less vulnerable to being softened up by small talk than Allen Ginsberg. Yet, I had an assignment.
"Tony Bennett says hi."
"Tony Bennett," said Ginsberg in that acute staccato of his. "Tony Bennett. Tony Bennett. I met him at a party for Franz Kline." Remarkable, I thought. "He was very much into Blake. Do you know Blake visited me in a vision in 1948? In Harlem? He did.
"Tony Bennett said he was putting Blake to music and I told him there was no need I'd already done it myself." I suppressed a smile as I mused that Ginsberg's chanting might not fill the void for Bennett's fans.
I said: "Tony said thanks for the book. He found the book through your friend. . . ."
"Bill " Ginsberg remembered the name, but I don't. "Well, I like Tony Bennett. Very interesting man, Tony Bennett."
We proceeded to talk about his extraordinary journey the son of academicians, survivor of his mother's insanity, lieutenant in the Beats, Berkeley, City Lights Bookstore, "Howl," the Summer of Love Be-ins, the forgotten years, the recent sale of his archive to Stanford for $1 million, his status as an American institution and then he gave me a brief tour. We finished by the prayer wheel and Ginsberg, polite now, patiently explained it to me. He talked about interconnectedness, transcendence, and how nothing was circumstantial.
After the Greatest had made America great but before the Boomers took over, this country was a land of overabundant possibility and opportunity. It was democracy exploding. There was, for a moment, nothing but paths diverging in the woods, nothing but choice. Dreamers from across the nation's many rivers could opt for this, that or the other without getting arrested. They didn't have to conform, they weren't forced to wear uncomfortable clothes. There were bankers and lawyers and doctors and punks and rebels and rockers and Beats and saloon singers, all making a living, all dancing together, all dancing separately, all being just as hip as they wanted to be.
And America was still a melting pot. There were people graduating from teachers' college who would, a few years on, lecture about Allen Ginsberg by day while listening to Tony Bennett by night. And maybe that's not such a strange bird, after all.
Ginsberg used to chant Blake over and over at the end of a performance: "And all the hills echoed/ And all the hills echoed/ And all the hills echoed. . . " They echoed your name, Allen. Yours too, Tony. Happy Birthday, you cats.