The Last Word on First Blues is all the Allen Ginsberg, musician, you could ever hope to have and more.
More revered for his contributions to 20th century American poetry, status within a handful of significant underground movements, and voice for gay rights, Allen Ginsberg managed to enlist the help of a number of famous friends along the way to flesh out his musical inclinations. That his name is not synonymous with his musical output should come as little surprise given the significance of the other facets of his public persona. But that they’ve been somewhat overlooked does a disservice to the man himself and his artistic inklings. By no means as vital a musician as he was poet, Ginsberg still managed a number of impressive musical feats (not to mention collaborations with significant figures from Bob Dylan to Arthur Russell), nearly all of which are compiled here on the newly-issued The Last Word on First Blues.
Consisting of the original 1983 album First Blues, this three-disc set contains material ranging from the last vestiges of the 1960s into the Reagan-dominated 1980s. From a cultural standpoint, the difference between the collection’s start and end point is unfathomably vast. And yet Ginsberg proved to be well ahead of his peers as early as the first years of the 1970s with his celebratory themes of homosexuality in “Vomit Express”, “NY Youth Call Annunciation”, and “Jimmy Berman (Gay Lib Rag)”, to name but a few. Only the recently reissued Lavender Country album dares touch similar thematic material at the height of the gay liberation movement. These are straightforward depictions of a lifestyle entirely foreign to the vast majority of the listening public, and yet the music itself remains within the folk tradition of Dylan with a mix of the Fugs and Holy Modal Rounders for a slightly subversive feel.
Somewhat fittingly, the first voice you hear sounds not like that of Ginsberg but Ginsberg protégé Dylan. Backing the revered Beat poet, Dylan here serves as a clear influence on his influence as Ginsberg adopts Dylan’s timbre, pacing, and singing style wholesale for the Republican convention baiting “Going to San Diego”. It’s an affectation that wears off as the collection progresses, but remains nonetheless jarring given the undeniable similarity. And given the time period in which these recordings were made, it’s as though the socially conscious torch was passed from Dylan to Ginsberg, the former no longer wishing to serve as the perceived mouthpiece for a generation.
And while Ginsberg as a musician may not have managed the same level of influence, his thematic explorations of culturally sensitive issues in explicit terms places him in a more accessible sphere than Dylan. It’s a somewhat ironic swapping of roles, the poet eschewing the abstract for the concrete and the songwriter the concrete for the abstractly poetic. “NY Youth Call Annunciation” in particular, delivered in a Pete Seeger-aping style, may well be the most explicit pro-gay clarion call ever committed to record. It was clearly designed to rally the proverbial troops, but by the time of its eventual release great strides had been made in terms of cultural acceptance, the sentiments expressed sounding more like quaint platitudes than revelatory radical ideology.
Throughout, Ginsberg gives it his all, more times than not doing his best Dylan, attempting to make his words fit against the straightforward folk arrangements. “Jimmy Berman (Gay Lib Rag)” in particular finds Ginsberg taking more than a few liberties with phrasing and lyrical structure in order to make all the words fit within the unbending confines of the song’s musical structure. Yet given the fact the song was apparently wholly improvised on the spot, it’s all the more impressive Ginsberg manages to hang in as he does.
These are truly shambolic, throwback folk performances, each of which feels as though it could come completely off the rails at any time and running the gamut from blues to bluegrass to calypso to abstract folk. Yet this is the most invigorating part of the sessions—the feeling that anything could happen, the music existing wholly in the moment and retaining thrilling vitality. Like Dylan crossed with Shel Silverstein, less the latter’s penchant for histrionics, Ginsberg is an anti-singer looking to get his point across in song rather than using the song to get his point across (though what he was looking to get across on “You Are My Dildo” is anyone’s guess).
And though these recordings span more than a decade, there is a coherence that speaks to Ginsberg’s consistency in both thought and approach to everything he laid his hands on. Cut through with humor and social commentary, it’s an alternately amusing and troubling collection of ideas. Ultimately, The Last Word on First Blues is an exhaustively comprehensive collection featuring the original album and, on the collection's third disc, live and other period recordings. It’s all the Ginsberg, musician, you could ever hope to have and more.