Album Review: Allen Ginsberg - The Last Word on First Blues

By , Contributor

“Allen Ginsberg is not only one of the world’s best poets, but one of its finest citizens as well,” wrote legendary producer John Hammond, when he released the First Blues double LP on his own label in 1983. “Long impressed with his musical abilities—I recorded Allen in 1976 but Columbia Records refused to issue the results, considering the songs obscene and disrespectful—I am thrilled to finally be able to present Allen... I will present ‘disrespectful’ music like this as often as possible.”

Hammond—who also championed such diverse artists as Dylan, Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, and Robert Johnson—was right, as usual. So it’s good to finally see a rerelease of First Blues, which has been out of print for years and has sometimes been difficult to find. This lavishly packaged collection delivers all of the original album on two CDs, plus a bonus disc of previously unreleased rarities, including outtakes from the 1983 set, a couple of 1984 live performances, and a session with Bob Dylan. A booklet presents extensive new commentary on the recordings plus Ginsberg’s handwritten and typewritten notes, some lyrics, and an assortment of photos. This really does seem to be the last word on First Blues that the title promises.

What to expect? Basically, the same quirky and consistently fascinating Allen Ginsberg that emerges from poetic works like Howl, Kaddish, and Wichita Vortex Sutra, only with likable folk- and blues-influenced instrumental accompaniment and—on certain tracks—a beat. He is funny, idiosyncratic, rebellious, profane, political, and profound, often all in the same song. The titles—which should give you a sense of the turf here—include “CIA Dope Calypso,” “Stay Away from the White House,” “Do the Meditation Rock,” “Come Along Vietnam,” and “You Are My Dildo,” Clearly, this is not a guy who was looking to break into the Top 40.

The album, which sounds charmingly homespun throughout, frequently delivers more musical pleasure than you might expect. And while it holds up pretty well today, it also does a great job of conjuring up the era of Nixon, Watergate, hippies, Yippies, and Vietnam. It’s not for everyone, but then again, it never tries to be.

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Jeff Burger (byjeffburger.com), a longtime magazine editor, has written about music, politics, and popular culture for more than 75 periodicals. His books include Lennon on Lennon: Conversations with John Lennon as well as Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches and Encounters and Leonard Cohen…

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