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Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Allen Ginsberg and Julian Beck on Reagan, Recordings & Resilience

Allen Ginsberg: Press the red button to record. Press the stop/eject button to stop...

David Gerlach: This is Blank on Blank. Where lost interviews come to life. Presented by the Public Radio Exchange. PRX.org. I’m David Gerlach.

Allen Ginsberg: Press the green forward button to play.

David Gerlach: That voice, poet Allen Ginsberg.

Allen Ginsberg: Volume control you have for playback.

David Gerlach: He defined the Beat Movement.

[Clip of Ginsberg reading “Howl”: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness]

David Gerlach: And what we’re listening to is a rare recording from the summer of 1984. Only a few people have ever gotten to hear it. It was actually found in a box in New York City just a few years ago. And on tape we hear an intimate audio glimpse inside a decades old friendship that cancer will soon cut short.

[Music: Phil Ochs - “When I’m Gone”]

David Gerlach: Here’s the story. Allen Ginsberg loved to record things for posterity, whether it was his poems or his photographs. And he had decided to bring a tape recorder to his old friend, Julian Beck. Beck was back in a hospital. Mt. Sinai in Manhattan. His stomach cancer had returned. And the next time the recording begins, we hear Allen Ginsberg at Beck’s bedside.

Allen Ginsberg: Well in case you want to write a book, here’s a machine to write it on.

Julian Beck: Oh, very good. How wonderful.

Allen Ginsberg: And it plugs in. I put fresh batteries in. I’ll show you how to work it.

David Gerlach: I won’t say much more as we listen in. The tape stops and starts as the two friends catch up. We hear bursts of hope and resilience. It’s just regular conversation about upcoming plans, film, politics, what old friends are up to. It’s banter with barely a whiff of mortality in the air. So for this episode of Blank on Blank, it’s on the theater of living, and we’re dividing it into three acts in honor of Julian Beck who literally lived a life of drama. He was co-founder of The Living Theatre in New York City.

[Clip of Beck: “Revolution!”]

David Gerlach: Now this was an avant garde group that brought social issues, politics and an audience literally to the stage.

[Clip continues: “I name you Someone Who Would Free Us.”]

David Gerlach: So here’s Act One: Really, I’m Fine. Julian Beck begins the scene:

Julian Beck: And I said, gee, this morning I’m not going to use that electric shaver. I’m going to make a nice clean shave. And the cold water, and the feeling. And in 10 minutes I said I don’t want that tube back in. I feel good. I feel wonderful. I couldn’t believe it. And then all day long yesterday I became livelier and livelier and livelier and livelier.

[Sounds of beeping medical equipment continue in the background throughout Act One]

Julian Beck: The swelling has gone down about a third already of what it was.

Allen Ginsberg: The swelling was in the paraternium or something like that?

Julian Beck: It was in the whole abdominal area, it was like a basketball. They don’t know what to do. They don’t know whether to do surgery. They don’t know whether to do chemotherapy. Feed me and keep me happy and see how it goes for a while. And of course they also keep saying to me, “If you don’t want to anything, you don’t have to do anything.” And I just feel myself getting better by the hour. They’ve gone through test after test after test after test. They been saying, as you know, this is an invasion or a spreading of cancer, and yet the tests don’t seriously confirm what they believe. So I’m the mystery man.

Allen Ginsberg: That’s good, and you’ve got a view of Central Park with it, too.

Julian Beck: And I got a great view of Central Park with it, yes.

David Gerlach: This brings us to Act Two: Back to The Movement. Ginsberg picks up a copy of what I can only assume to be the famed Village Voice.

Allen Ginsberg: This is the new Voice.

Julian Beck: This is the Voice, yes.

David Gerlach: Now Ginsberg’s voice gets a little muffled here, but he’s taking issue with a recent review of one of Beck’s plays that The Living Theatre has put on.

Allen Ginsberg: This just isn’t correct. “The great failed experiment of the 60s is that they failed to make theater, politics and life continuous.” That’s what Reagan and Nixon are doing.

Julian Beck: That’s exactly what they’re all saying. It’s the perfect conservative position.

Allen Ginsberg: No, Reagan he’s the actor and he’s making theater and politics continuous. It’s just whose theater do you want to go to? Whose theater do you like? Because everybody’s acting.

Julian Beck: Yes, surely.

Allen Ginsberg: That is what Abby Hoffman said years ago: We have a right to shout “theater” at a crowded fire.

Julian Beck: Yes.

David Gerlach: And now the final act. Act Three: Getting It On Tape. And here Ginsberg returns to the meaning of his gift. Of this tape recorder.

Allen Ginsberg: This is the microphone. This stops it. You have the strength to?

[Sounds of the recording stopping and starting]

Julian Beck: Now I have started it. And now it is recording. Now I have nothing more to say so I press this grey button.

Allen Ginsberg: The other thing with that is that it’s tricky in the sense that I used those until about 1969. Then one day when I went out into the field and wrote this great epic about stars and crickets at night. I came into the house to transcribe it and I hadn’t pressed the right button. And that was the last time I depended on one of those. It’s so funny.

Julian Beck: I understand that very, very, very well. Two or three of the very best talks I ever gave just didn’t come out on the tape. Some of the worst ones where I fumbled and couldn’t follow my own thoughts are recorded as distinctly as...

David Gerlach: Ginsberg and Beck are together on tape here for another 23 minutes. The phone rings. The stream of visitors continues. Ginsberg talks about an upcoming adventure.

Allen Ginsberg: He and I are going to do a thing on peace and meditations, on dharma politics.

David Gerlach: The next time the recording begins it’s Beck, alone.

Julian Beck: Sunday morning, June 24th...

David Gerlach: Awake at dawn.

Julian Beck: It’s 5:30 a.m. and I’m just finding my voice.

David Gerlach: He’s chasing his thoughts on theater. His art. His life.

Julian Beck: The objective must be a returning to, a facing again of, an embracing again of our own humanness...

David Gerlach: He continues freeform for almost an hour. And then the very last line we hear him speak.

Julian Beck: Attaching us always more firmly through the mistakes, the mistakes, the mistakes....

David Gerlach: After that it’s just the tape hissing.

[Sounds of tape hissing]

David Gerlach: As we were putting this piece together, we came across something fitting that Allen Ginsberg once said. Quote: “Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does.” Remarkably, Beck did bounce back from this latest stay in the hospital and for close to a year he was back working again. After decades focusing on the theater and avoiding overtures from television and from Hollywood, he hit the screen. He played a ghostly character in Poltergeist II, and he was a kingpin of sorts on an episode “Miami Vice.”

[Clip of Beck on “Miami Vice”: Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. Miami Vice.]

David Gerlach: But on September 17, 1985, Julian Beck lost the fight. He died at age 60.

[Music: Phil Ochs - “When I’m Gone”]

David Gerlach: Many, many thanks to The Living Theater in New York City for allowing us to bring you this intimate lost recording. Be sure to check out livingtheatre.org to learn more about their new productions. A huge thanks, as well, to Libby Walker and Amy Drozdowska. Both of them helped produce this Blank on Blank with me. It was one big puzzle putting this together. Well done everybody. For more lost interviews and conversations that you can hear nowhere else, head to blankonblank.org. And if you enjoyed this podcast, please go over to iTunes and rate Blank on Blank. Give us a thumbs up. Even better, write a review. Reviews and reactions on iTunes will help more and more people discover our lost interviews. That’s all for now. I’m David Gerlach. Keep listening.

[“When I’m Gone” continues until end]