When Gregory Corso passed away on January 17, 2001, the sole surviving member of the real core of the Beat Generation, the last great literary movement of the past 50 years, was gone. Along with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady (Cassady was more of an inspirational figure than a writer), Corso was a key figure in the movement, which was in its heyday from the early 1950s to the early 1960s, but which still has a lasting effect today. These young writers, who were vastly different from one another, both stylistically and philosophically, questioned McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the Military industrial Complex, searched for an America that had long since died after World War II, and lampooned authority, but most importantly, searched for enlightenment on a spiritual level. Whereas Kerouac was the self-destructive romantic, Ginsberg the overtly political, Burroughs the dry, sinister elder statesman, and Cassady the Dionysian, Corso, on the surface, seemed like the court jester, but hidden beneath the fantastic, Surrealist humor that peppered his poetry, lurked a classically-inspired poet of the highest order, and now, veteran spoken word producer Hal Willner has put out a new CD that reminds us of Corso’s own greatness.
Born in 1930, Gregory Corso was the youngest of the group of four writers; when a 20-year-old Corso first met Ginsberg in a Greenwich Village bar in 1950, Ginsberg was 24, Kerouac 28, and Burroughs 38. Abandoned by his Italian mother as an infant, Corso grew up in several foster homes, quit school after sixth grade, and turned to petty crime, eventually getting caught when he was 16, and sentenced to three years in prison. It was in prison where Corso turned to poetry, and found great inspiration in the likes of Marlowe and especially, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Aided by his new friend Ginsberg (ever the relentless promoter of his friends’ work), Corso went on to put out several important volumes of poetry in the mid-to-late 1950s, including Gasoline in 1958. Not as prolific as his other three friends, Corso still amassed an admirable body of work by 1970, until he was beset with drug problems, which bogged down his career for years. He didn’t put out very much work at all in the last decade of his life, but one poem, which he read at a tribute shortly after Ginsberg’s death in 1997, perfectly encapsulated his trademark humor and heart. His poem simply stated, “Toodle-oo”.
The posthumous Corso spoken word CD, Die on Me, is a beautiful, loving tribute to a stalwart poet. In 2000, Hal Willner, who has produced spoken word albums by William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (including Ginsberg’s monumental Holy Soul Jelly Roll box set), decided it was about time that he put together an album strictly devoted to Corso, who at the time was dying of prostate cancer. Arrangements were made, and Willner, along with his good friend (and Corso admirer) Marianne Faithfull (who is credited as co-producer), visited Corso at his daughter’s home in Minnesota, recording his voice as he lay in bed. He certainly didn’t have much time left, but little did Willner know that Corso would pass away just over a week after their final visit.
Ten of the tracks on Die On Me feature readings of Corso’s poetry, spanning 40 years. The earliest recordings come from 1959: the hilarious “Hair”, excerpted from Corso’s appearance on a radio program with Studs Terkel, has Corso satirizing the importance society puts on appearance (made all the more ironic by the fact that Corso always had a full head of hair), saying, “Bald! I’m bald! / Best now I get a pipe / And forget girls.” Both “Ode to Coit Tower”, Corso’s poem about San Francisco’s most famous phallic symbol, and his masterpiece “Bomb”, were both recorded at the Library of Congress in early 1959. “Bomb” is especially powerful: Corso reads in a dry, deadpan, thick New York accented voice, reciting his “love poem” to the H-bomb (“Bomb I love you / I want to kiss your clank / Eat your boom”), while Willner’s addition of tolling bells and subtle accents of ominous orchestra footage adds an undercurrent of doom beneath Corso’s dark humor. In a reading from 1975, Corso recites Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”, a brilliant reading, nailing perfectly the rhythm of the poem.
The readings and conversations with the ailing Corso are the album’s real treats. Cantankerous, yet always on his toes and full of humor, Corso, with his ancient-sounding voice, sounds like a half-crazy, half-wise, Buddhist hermit. He reads “For Homer”, the simple, pretty “Inner/Outer Rhyme”, his gorgeously sad “A Bed’s Lament”, “Don’t Shoot the Warthog”, and “Last Night I Drove a Car”, poems that are obviously favorites of his, as you hear the pride in his voice, as well as the odd chuckle at a funny line. Willner adds very subtle musical accompaniment, making it sound like you’re sitting in on an intimate conversation with the old guy. When the recordings were made, Corso didn’t have enough energy to read everything, and both “Getting to the Poem” and “No Arrangement Was Made”, two bittersweet, self-referential poems, are both read by Marianne Faithfull at his bedside, her smoky voice sounding magnificent, with Corso adding commentary (“Oh, that’s a funny one”) and chuckling often.
The four tracks of Corso in conversation, though, are wonderful. One track, a priceless 1994 radio interview with both Corso and Ginsberg, has the two old friends trading verbal jabs. When Ginsberg mentions a young poet he admires, Corso hilariously interjects, with perfect timing, “Were you after his ass?” The other three tracks come from the 2001 sessions; you hear Corso and Faithfull quarrelling over whether it’s his bedtime or not, then Corso going on about Greek mythology, prophets, singing the song that Nero sang as Rome burned, his thoughts about his rapidly approaching death, and his own vision of the future.
Willner, whose production never distracts from Corso’s poetry and monologues, provides excellent liner notes that describe the final recording sessions. The only disappointing aspect of Die on Me is the fact that three of his more famous poems were left off the collection: his virtuosic, and most famous poem, “Marriage”, the Surrealist comedy of “The Whole Mess . . . Almost”, and his tribute to Kerouac, “Elegaic Feelings American” (surely, recordings of those poems do exist), but that’s only the nitpicking of a fan. The fact is, this album is wonderful, a fitting tribute to Corso that serves as an excellent introduction to his work (most of the poems read can be found in the Corso anthology Mindfield), and an absolutely essential album for Beat Generation devotees. Poetry, Beat poetry especially, is best heard from the poet himself, and both Corso’s voice and his words are unforgettable.