This text is excerpted from a much larger interview based around Allen's recording history, done June 29, 1993, that Willner conducted for the Holy Soul Jelly Roll liner notes released in 1994. An edited down version of this was published in Think of the Self Speaking: Harry Smith - Selected Interviews by Elbow/Cityful Press. Since we have the whole thing here, and space not being an issue, we thought we'd post it in its entirety. Huge thanks & shout outs to Randy Roark who did the transcription for this as well as many other Ginsberg projects.
...When I was in San Francisco I heard from a filmmaker --Jordan Belson -- about a fabulous alchemical magician painter-filmmaker, Harry Smith, who had been a student or descendant of Aleister Crowley and had Crowley manuscripts and had created the first materials for casting oil colors on a mirror through a projector and projecting it on the wall, and that grew into the light shows later on, the mixed media light shows with the technique for projecting on ... remember they used to have the sort of tie-dye colors moving together.
HW: In the Joshua Light Show.
AG: Yeah. Well that was Harry Smith's equipment originally, which he left to Jordan Belson and others in San Francisco, from the Berkeley Renaissance of 1948.
I saw this old guy with black and white beard....
HW: So what year is this again?
AG: Nineteen-sixty. [And he was] making little marks listening to Thelonius Monk and sort of notating something. For some reason or other from the description and from the concentration of his activity and his locale I decided maybe that's Harry Smith, so I went up and introduced myself. And he said, yes, that was his name. And I said, "Well, what are you doing there?" And he said, "I'm trying to determine where Monk comes in on the beat -- before or after. What are the recurrent syncopations, what is the pattern, the mathematical pattern of syncopations in his solos and how they vary?" And I said, "Why are you doing that?" And he said, "Well, I'm keeping track of his time because I'm using his music as background to films that I'm making frame-by-frame -- handpainting frame-by-frame, all collage drawings.
HW: After the "Heaven and Earth Magic".
AG: Well, by this time he'd already made all the films you can get on ...
HW: Mystic Fire.
AG: ... Mystic Fire: [his] early experiments. And he'd also, by this time, made the complete "Heaven and Earth Magic" film.
HW: Which was the first time....
AG: Animated college.
HW: How would translate in modern days with ... Terry Gilliam in Monty Python was basically big influence on him moving characters cut off from magazines.
HW: And so forth. Incredibly innovative also. He used to paint cells.
So one thing led to another and we listened night after night. Then Harry invited me up to his studio, and he apparently saw very few people there, but we had a common interest in Tibetan Buddhist imagery and in drugs, because I'd already had mescaline and ten years earlier....
HW: Where was his studio at the time?
AG: Well, I'm getting to that.
HW: Oh, I'm sorry.
AG: So he lived in a studio and it was [at] 401 1/2 East 70th, I think, off Lexington or something like that, in a little tiny building on the second floor. He had a crowded little apartment and it was covered on the walls with his paintings, which were these amazing cosmic monsters. Sort of like the idea of a giant city which looks like some kind of strange leviathan, but then within the city are all sorts of patterns and traffic patterns and eyes and people walking around and automobiles or strange machines or flying saucers. But the whole thing, maybe four feet by three feet, [was] very finely done and painted or watercolored, like Blake sort of. He made these huge anthropomorphic cities and many other things.
So I was really amazed he took me up to his little apartment. It was not a studio, it was a little apartment with very low ceilings. And [he'd] get me very high on grass and then turn on his little projector and show me these movies which he had hand-painted, frame-by-frame, some abstract and then moving on into animated collage and then moving on to Tibetan imagery and finally the "Heaven and Earth" movie, which was an hour and a half at the time.
What he had done was set a lot of them, certain ones of them, short ones, to "Misterioso" -- or I've forgotten what others. Certain of them. And I saw that his point was that the actual frames moved in relation to the music. And he had been calculating the frames to the Monk music. And in addition he had a theory that the time of movement would be a cross-current of the alpha rhythm, certain kinds of brain waves, the average heartbeat pattern, certain biological rhythms and crosscurrents in the human body and he was animating his collages and setting the time according to archetypal body rhythms. And his references to this were certain drumming patterns of the Australian Aborigines [and] Zulu music.
So it turns out he was a musicologist, and then he showed me this set of American Folk Music -- six records, [a] three box-set he put out way back in 1952, which was ...
AG: ... on Folkways. He [did] ethnomusicology studies here in America. He went all over the South buying up old records and collecting these blues, and apparently this box set was a historic bomb in American folk music because it turned on Peter Paul and Mary, turned on the whole folk music world at that time, including Rambling Jack Elliott and everyone else, because it was this treasure of American blues [and] mountain musics. Happy Traum, everybody, including Dylan, [were] effected by it up to Jerry Garcia, who learned blues from Harry Smith's records, according to Garcia.
So this is now eight years later, and he had gotten into making these films and had already passed through the mixed media projections that he had experienced. Because his field was visual art as well as ethnomusicology.
One day he had no money and he offered to sell me a rather dark version of the rather long "Heaven and Earth" movie for $100.00. Everytime we'd go up there he'd get me high and then he'd ask me for money, because he was starving. And apparently he went around and did that with everybody. He had no source but he was a genius, like Albert Pinkham Ryder or something like that. So I got to be scared of going up there because he'd get me trembling high on grass and he'd show me these amazing movies and I'd be totally awed and intimidated by the universality of his genius in music and painting and he could write mad long, long poems, rhymed. But he'd always hit me up for money if he could capture me and get me up there and hypnotize me with his films.
So I went visiting a lot of times. I took the "Heaven and Earth" movie and I didn't have any use for it, I didn't have a projector, so I brought it down to Jonas Mekas, whom I knew through Robert Frank. And Mekas had never heard of him and he played the film and said, "Who is this Harry Smith? He's an absolute genius." So Smith connected with the filmmaker co-op and archive and became with [Stan] Brakhage and Robert Frank and [Andy] Warhol one of the foundation fathers of underground film. And an influence on subsequent MTV. But he was a drinking fellow and he'd get very cantankerous and destroy his own stuff if he drank sometimes, if people weren't properly respectful and didn't give him money.
Around that time I introduced him to [Timothy] Leary who had an entourage of millionaires and they sank maybe $100,000 or $200,000 dollars in a giant film that Harry was to make called "The Wizard of Oz" of which eight minutes was made but it's a great eight minutes -- hardly ever been seen, but will be. And he'd already made that "Tree of Life" which you'll see in a brass frame in my living room. That was something he did in the late '40s, because he knew a lot of Cabala. And actually I believe he had come East the first time with Philip Lamantia, the poet. They'd come together crossing the country and sleeping on the floor of some esoteric Cabalistic son of a Rabbi, who was legendary on the Lower East Side.
So now ten years later, he was living in the Chelsea Hotel. I think at this time [he] was working with the money that Leary's friends had supplied, and already started another gigantic project which was "Mahagonny" --
[Tape Ends] [Tape begins]
HAL WILLNER: Okay.
ALLEN GINSBERG: What was I saying? Harry Smith. What was I talking about?
AG: Oh, yeah. [It was] to be projected simultaneously through [some stage frames] he had designed which would project onto a screen -- sort of Victorian-archaic frames. And through these frames -- four frames on a giant screen -- you'd have four projectors projecting different images -- moving picture images and color -- simultaneously in certain random combinations that he'd designed in advance. So you've got four going at once, and an infinite number of combinations of them.
He gave only one live exhibition of "Mahagonny" at the Filmmaker's Cooperative back in the early '80s or late '70s. But he was so drunk and angry at everybody that he actually destroyed some of the glass plate frames that he used with some of the materials. And the projectors. He had a tendency to destroy his own work very often.
HW: This was....
AG: I knew him from '60, but [in] '64 or something he was also the guy who recorded the first Fugs album.
HW: On ESP.
AG: Yeah. No. He did it on his own. And then they gave it to ESP.
AG: Actually, I think they gave it to ESP. Folkways first and then ESP, unless I'm mistaken. Because he was friends with Mo Asch of Folkways and Asch had constantly supplied him with money. Like if he wasn't near someone else he'd would always go hit up Mo Asch who dreaded his coming. Or Harry said he dreaded his coming. Asch was the guy who invented and subsidized and managed Folkways Records.
So, by 1970, at the Chelsea Hotel, I was working with Miles on this gigantic project of putting together all of my recorded poetries, and Miles was living at the Chelsea, so I was there listening to tapes. This was the point where Miles had assembled all the tapes, copied them and was playing me variant versions of "Howl" and "Sunflower [Sutra]" so we could decide which was the earliest, the best emotionally, and the best recorded in terms of sound. And Harry was down on another floor, or down the corridor, engaged in a long project recording called "Materials for the Study of Religion and Culture in the Lower East Side", which included murderers babbling on amphetamine in the streets, jump rope rhymes, bawdy songs, rap, [the] complete canon of Gregory Corso's early poetry, all of Peter Orlovsky's songs --which are still at Folkways -- at a time when Peter was absolutely great-voiced, and a project of recording all of my songs at a time when I was making up a lot of songs and still prolific in that area. Acapella, or just with my harmonium -- on the Benares harmonium as it says [on] the liner notes. And so he actually recorded every single song I knew several times, until we got the right one he liked. And he was a genius with the microphone because it was in the drab room in the Hotel Chelsea on his Wallensack that I think he'd gotten either from me or from Mo Asch. It cost a couple of hundred bucks, and he really used it. But he was a master of the microphone so that the entire first Fugs album, which is the classic one, was just recorded with one microphone on the Wallensack, also.
I remember that rubric: "Materials for Study of Religion and Culture on the Lower East Side", which is actually a great idea. For some institute. Because that was the period -- '68 to '75 -- when the Lower East Side was really cooking and bubbling.
HW: Well, I just remember these songs were basically the songs from the book First Blues.
AG: Yeah. Later I put them all out because is the first time I'd written songs.
HW: All songs that you wrote yourself, not every song you knew.
AG: All the songs I wrote.
AG: All the songs that I wrote myself.
I guess I was inspired to music, as I said, by first mantra chanting, then setting Blake, then Dylan put his hand in and got me interested. But then I guess meeting Happy Traum. But I guess at this point ... I don't know, what year was that, that we did this? Seventy-one?
AG: Let's take a look.
HW: Recorded '71.
AG: Yeah, that's what it says, but what does it say on the album? Unfortunately I don't think we have the liner. We took the album out, I think, didn't we?
HW: Yeah. It's on hold.
AG: Harry amassed this massive [collection of recordings].
HW: About sixteen reels or so. I have....
HW: Not sixteen, about a dozen, fifteen reel-to-reels.
AG: Harry's stuff?
AG: Yeah. Well, there're several versions of each.
HW: Yeah. How many over how many days did he record you?
AG: Oh, over weeks and weeks. I'd come every week or twice a week or three times a week and we did quite a lot, and in between he was recording Peter and Gregory and other people in the hotel. And all that material I believe I went to [the] Folkways archives, and so there's this great rich treasury of stuff from 1971-72.
HW: So were the records printed ... they're produced by Anne Charters. Edited by Sam [Charters].
AG: What happened was then Harry went into a funny kind of amphetamine tail-spin. He got really paranoid and got moved out of the Chelsea, I think, or expelled or something, and he couldn't pay his rent, and wound up in a series of other hotels, including the Breslin Hotel, by 1984, but wouldn't talk to anybody, wouldn't talk to me, maybe because I didn't supply him with money because I was broke at the time. But I remember going down 13th Street in a taxicab and seeing him pass by near University Place and I called out "Harry!" and he looked at me and turned away. High and sort of as if he'd seen the Devil. And I was a little relieved, because everytime I saw him he'd put the pressure on me for money. Although at some time around then I remember Harry was visited by Henry Geldzahler and Robert Frank, who were the judges for the New York State awards for film, and they were handing out $40,000 [or] $50,000 awards, and they gave one to Harry. And when he was asked what he did with it, I think he wrote on his official reply form that he shot it up and drank it up, or something like that. Cocaine or heroin. Not that he did, actually. But [the grant] funded "Mahagonny". He was making "Mahagonny" around that time, also, with film --cinema -- as well as making a lot of beautiful drawings.
HW: So Anne Charters made an album out of this.
AG: I think he dumped [the tapes]. When he got kicked out of the Chelsea, he probably brought all of his tapes up to Mo Asch and they were sitting more-or-less unlabeled in boxes or only partially labeled in the reel-to-reel boxes, and years later Asch approached Charters and said, "We've got all these material from Ginsberg and we always wanted to put out a record of his" -- Asch had -- since the '60s, actually. Because Asch was an old Lefty and I was reviving the spirit of the American Left Wing rebellion. [But] Harry I think was too tangled up on amphetamine, or whatever he was taking, to do anything with all the material he amassed, so Mo Asch gave it over to Sam and Anne Charters. [Anne] knew me well before because she had written a biography of Kerouac or was writing it and she had been present at the readings in Berkeley in 1956. [Sam] was also a specialist in jazz or blues and American folk music and [they] had already issued on their Portents album series the first recording of Scott Joplin's "Trimonisha" opera and she had done a very early recording of Joplin's rags. She's a good pianist. Before Joplin became popular again, she helped inaugerate that. So she was appreciative both from the musical, the folk, the blues, and literary angle and so was Sam. So they went through everything and put together this album which came out on Folkways. Do I have....
HW: Yeah, ten years later ... of your recordings.
AG: Yeah. It's Folkways. It was issued in 1981 as Folkways Records FSS37560, called "Allen Ginsberg Singing and Accompanying Himself on the Benares Harmonium". It had "4 AM Blues", "New York Blues", "New York Youth Call Annunciation", "Come Back Christmas" -- which is a really funny one.
HW: We used two pieces on our record. One is actually, though it's on the record, "Prayer Blues", the outtake. You once said that Harry always felt some of the wrong takes were used.
AG: Yeah. Now, Harry, of course, as usual, cantankerous, perfectionist, said, "Well, they got all the wrong takes of it." There's a much better one of "Prayer Blues" he kept saying, but I never had access to the tapes, so I don't know what he preferred.
HW: See, on this we do have some interaction between you and Harry ...
HW: ... on "Prayer Blues" and then take "Put Down Yr Cigarette Rag" ...
HW: ... from the record. That's the funny thing about these two pieces.
AG: Well, "Prayer Blues" is pretty amazing because it's kind of long but I had pretty good breath there and it was a thing where I started off a little bit on the wrong key or something like that and he had to stop me and correct me.
HW: Yeah. That's all there.
AG: One thing I remember he kept saying is, "It's alright" ... I was tapping my foot, and he said, "Do that heavier." And I said, "Won't it be sounding ... or won't the tape pick it up?" And he said, "Yeah that's what the old blues people used to do" -- bang. Make little drum notes on the guitars or bang their foot on the floor, so that's part of the rhythm thing. I was amazed at his openness to whatever happened. But he did have a good ear, better than me, so he got straightened out and started over again.
The interesting thing is that I had to take all the parts of the chorus and response -- the call and response -- on that and I seemed to have had the strength and breath to do that. So it's a pretty amazing performance when I hear it now. And pretty good ... I'm on pitch properly, I think. But nowadays it sounds like some old funny geezer folksinger actually doing this thing that he'd been doing for 50 years. Like you find [on] old folk records.
HW: No, another ... that foot deal, Jelly Roll Morton's Library of Congress tapes, one of the loudest things on it is his foot.
AG: In that series Jon Sholle came in only once, maybe did a "Prayer Blues" or something like that. The one thing that Harry liked most of all on that album was the "Bus Ride in Mount Suva" -- what is, it? "Suva Ballad"?
AG: He thought that was the most interesting song because it was a "Come-all-ye" and sort of a classical thing. Like Oh-Ho -- a chantey.
AG: And "Put Down Yr Cigarette Rag" -- that's an early, early version of it. I hadn't written it very much [earlier]. I wrote it around that time I guess. Probably that same year. I wrote it on the airplane on the way to Fiji, I think. Fiji, then Australia, for the Adelaide Music Festival with Ferlinghetti. And I don't know what inspired me to that.
HW: You do it a lot in concert right now, and talked about Jesse Helms.
AG: Yeah. But at the time, I realized it was a capitalist dope industry and that it was an official dope and I had maybe just kicked myself. But one great thing about this song is it's such a pleasure to sing that it's an incentive to quit smoking every time I get trapped again and start smoking, or did during the '70s, because I'd stopped definitively by the mid-80s. There was a period when after I'd written the song when I started smoking for a couple of months, and I couldn't sing the song. It was so painful not to sing the song that it was one of the strongest incentives I had to quit. And it's usually I start most of my poetry readings over the last few years with that, slightly amplified, larger, a few more contemporaneous lyrics, like "Communism's flopped, let's help the Soviet millions, sell 'em our coffin nails, and make a couple billions." Or "Smoke any other weed, get busted by government thugs...." I'll get the other lyrics.
AG: And also it's substantiated what I'm saying with the recent statistics that illicit drugs kill 20-40,000 people in America a year, alcohol kills 100,000 and legal coffin-nails nicotine cigarettes kills over 400,000 people in America every year, heart attack, cancer. So the really mindblowing realization that the most addictive and most deadly, dangerous drug is the official one, allowed, advertised and even subsidized by the government, while the mild weed, which is slightly psychedelic and gives you insight into mass reality, is hunted and forbidden. It's an amazing fact. And, in fact, I think for people who smoke pot, maybe high school kids, the first realization of the papertiger emptiness of the government and official law and morality is the realization that the experience is harmless and interesting and slightly metaphysical and totally the opposite of what the government tells you. And it seems like an attempt to suppress a refined consciousness and enforce a kind of official consciousness, and the party line, psychically, on the populace. Controlled addiction.
HW: Well, quick, you and Harry did make up.
AG: Oh, yeah, well.
AG: Later on. I didn't see Harry for a long while and began visiting and began [seeing him again] at the Breslin Hotel on 28th Street and Broadway. Same problem, still wanting money, but this time he had built up an enormous [library].
I had another thing with the music. I had this very expensive book I brought back from Australia by Strehlo -- S-T-R-E-H-L-O -- Australian Aborigine Poetics -- it cost me $50.00 and I brought it back and there were no more copies in the United States, and he had this extraordinary technical ethnological library and he borrowed it from me and he wouldn't give it back. And I only got it back after he died. Because [then] we got together an inventory of his books.
So in that room at the Breslin, he had these shelves -- the whole room was taken up with shelves of books and records and then a movie editing table, and then a tiny bed. I have some photographs of that of him pouring milk. The Alchemist transforming milk into milk. And in the bathroom he had a little birdie that he fed and talked to and let out of his cage all the time. And when his little birds died he put their bodies in the freezer. He'd keep them for various Alchemical purposes, along with a bottle which he said was several years deposits of his semen, which he was also using for whatever magic structures.
So finally he had to leave the Breslin for some reason or other, still drinking a bit, and finally wound up in 1984 or '85 ... I'd invited him to stay with me for a couple of weeks til he found a place, but the second week he was there a car backed into him. He had a compression fracture of his knee, and so he wound up staying with me for eight months. Eight stormy but amazing months. And during that time I asked him if he would design all the books. Design the covers I was using for my Collected Poems and White Shroud, so he did that, too. And I commissioned him to make one drawing for a poem that I had written when I first knew him. He got me high on grass in my kitchen, and so it's "Journal Night Thoughts". I think 1960 or '61. It's all politicals and serpents and ethnomusicology and a description of Harry staring at me and me high and sort of slightly paranoid in my own kitchen looking at Harry like a wizened old magician. A friendly one. So he was here eight months.
HW: He was living in the Bowery for a long time.
AG: Well, no. He came here first. Then he got an invitation to go to Cherry Valley with Claude Pelieu, a French poet, and Mary Beach, the niece of the great Sylvia Beach, of [the] Shakespeare & Co. bookshop in Paris of the '20s, a friend of [James] Joyce and Pound.
So [Harry] went up there and made this huge collection of old keys and country influence from the 19th century in Cooperstown, which is a historically old place. The Baseball Hall of Fame and a Farmer's Museum. But apparently he had some problems with them, or they had problems with him, and he came back to New York and [had] nowhere to live, and was going from house to house, and I wouldn't have him back because he was such a person to live with, drinking. But I supplied him with some money.
I didn't see or hear of him for awhile, and then Brian Graham, Robert Frank's assistant photographer who's a friend and was doing work with me in photography, said that he had seen Harry and Harry was living in a Franciscan flophouse on the Bowery, and he'd heard that Harry was ill. So one day I went with I think Peter and maybe Brian to go see Harry, and there was Harry sitting in this little tiny cubicle, piled with books, rare books, that he'd begged, borrowed, stolen. He used to go to Samuel Weiser's and Weiser would give him any books he wanted on credit, because he knew that Harry was a fantastic bibliophile and read everything, and had a photographic memory.
So Harry was sitting in there in a room that in order to get in and out he had to move books aside and so I couldn't get in the room with him, I had to talk to him from the half-opened door. And it turned out that he had gotten so weak from malnutrition that he couldn't very easily get out to go get food and he had no money anyway and he was starving. But he had all these books. So I told him he'd better come back and stay with me for awhile. And [he] recovered some since we had good food here.
But one problem was that he was toothless and his mouth was full of decayed abcessed teeth, and his friend, Dr. Joe Gross, was trying to arrange [a] mouth operation, but Harry was adamant. So he couldn't eat. Also one time when he had drank himself into a coma, maybe eight years before, probably the reason he left Chelsea, he was taken to St. Vincents. And when he woke up he found there were tubes in his mouth and down his throat feeding him and he ripped them all out, and tore some flap in the back of his throat so he no longer could swallow easily. So all he could eat was certain kinds of pea soup and mashed bananas. And then eating at the table with him he gurgled up all the saliva. It was horrifying to eat with him. This was all this long period I was staying with him. So by this point he could hardly do anything to eat. So we nursed him back to good health.
And then I had the occasion to go down the Mississippi, to the Southern Folklore Center to do a reading, and I had invited my stepmother, who was then 84 or so, and it suddenly occurred to me that that would be perfect for Harry, because it would take him to the Delta. And there was the Southern Folklore Center with the guy that runs it [who was a] musicologist, a specialist in blues, whom I had met and who was a fan of Harry Smith; one of the few scholars who knew who Harry was.
So we took a plane down and lived there for a couple of weeks. Harry stayed on, then came back, stayed with me, and I had to figure a way of getting rid of him. But then it was time to go to Naropa, so I invited him to Naropa and he came and stayed that summer with me in an apartment and liked it enough so we settled in a little clapboard house, twenty feet away from the Poetics Department, right on the campus of Naropa, and he had this marvelous role as the campus philosopher, gnome, tea-head place where brilliant young students can go and sit and smoke pot with him and talk about ethnomusic and strange patterns of behavior among the islanders and Zulu music rituals.
HW: That would be '88.
AG: That would be '88 til his death. And the amazing thing was that in the last year of his life he was awarded a grammy for the advancement of American folk music, and I saw a video of the Grammy award ceremony: He was dressed up in a tuxedo without a tie, and he stumbles trying to climb on the stage, he gets up there, he's given a moment to make a speech and says very briefly that he's happy to live long enough to see the American political governmental culture -- political culture -- affected and moved and shaped somewhat by American folk music, meaning the whole rock and roll Bob Dylan Beatnik post-Beatnik youth culture.
So it's a very beautiful speech, because it very briefly said that the philosophy of the American negro, as expressed in the music, the philosophy of the homeless and the Negro and the minority and impoverished, of which he was one, starving in the Bowery actually, and [after] all that while to see that experience alter the consciousness of America sufficiently to alter the politics. And the amazing thing that all during the period that he was with me and even in the Bowery, Francis House, he was recording the dying coughs and prayers of impoverished sick people in the adjacent cubicles. And when he was with me he made several hundred hours of recordings in the house and out the window of the ambient sounds of Manhattan Island. [He] put his microphone is such a way that it sucked in all the sounds from the Brooklyn Bridge all the way up and down from different windows. From the South and from the North. And the sequence of these recordings climaxed, of all times, on July 4th, with all the fireworks in the city exploding out.
HW: He taped the outside of your street, too.
AG: Well, what he did was he put the microphone, wrapped in a towel, positioned properly in a pot on the windowsill at East 12th Street across from Our Lady Mary Help of Christian Church, and somehow sensitive to suck in all the sounds from all directions. And around that, a little later when he came visiting, I made a film called "Household Repairs" with Julius [Orlovsky].
AG: Did you ever see that?
AG: And there's some of Harry playing. I think he was playing something. I think he went down to the Jamaican Festivals and the Trinidad Festivals in Brooklyn, and so he's got [this] enormous cache of records. I don't know where they are now. Probably at the Smithsonian.
HW: He had all these paper airplane collection and....
AG: And a collection of Ukrainian Easter Eggs. He apparently was a great practitioner of string figures and had a collection of very rare books on it and knew several hundred. And I have some photographs of him doing the string figures.
HW: So his last few years were happy for him.
AG: His last few years, except for physical ills, were when he was appreciated and when he had a chance to expand his knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism. He had a chance to teach and affect a great many younger people who were eager for his words and his grass and his music, and to slightly influence the culture of American Buddhism and to actually lecture and have his lectures recorded, and to have a number of students write down his words and take down his casual conversation and have his films shown in the university.
And the most affecting moment was when he was invited by Stan Brakhage, friends, and the guys that ran the film school at [the University of] Colorado, who worshipped his films and had been trying to get him there for years. [They] had a big showing of his films at a giant auditorium.
HW: And "Mahagonny"'s been shown again.
AG: But he was a little drunk, maybe [for the showing of his films at the University of Colorado]. He was kind of fragile --not feeble, but fragile. He had to go down this long stairway aisle to sit down and explain the films and speak a little and Steven Taylor accompanied him. Like an enormous [passage] of musical generations. Steven by then was so totally appreciative, seeing Harry as a grandfather wisdom teacher. Breaking out in such a nice final ripening.
So he died. He returned to get his Grammy, leaving his cabin filled with books and dead sparrows and mice in the refrigerator.
HW: And the log.
AG: And the log on which he sat. And some paintings, all his books. Came to New York. With his six cats lived in the Hilton for quite a while, and then moved to the Chelsea. Got back in the Chelsea where he didn't want to move out.
At that point someone at Naropa heard a radio broadcast of Jerry Garcia saying that he'd learned blues from Harry's Folkways albums, and so immediately we got in touch with Garcia, who had Rex Foundation, or the [Grateful] Dead had a foundation, and asked if we could get some money for Harry who was alive. Garcia said he was wondering what happened to Harry Smith, not realizing that he was a big figure in the New York art world. So Randy Roark had heard the broadcast and told me, so we wrote or phoned Garcia, or Dennis McNally, Kerouac's biographer, [who] was the Grateful Dead's historian and P.R. man. I knew him from Kerouac biography, and McNally didn't know who Harry was, so I explained a little bit, [and] said "Why don't you ask Garcia, because he mentioned him." McNally [later] said Garcia gave him a big 25-minute lecture on Harry Smith's importance, and said absolutely they would do something.
So they appropriated $5,000 a year. But that wasn't really quite enough to really see him through rent and everything. So I was in San Francisco and we went backstage at a Dead concert at the Warfield Theatre, with [Michael] McClure and [Gary] Snyder, whom Garcia had never met before. And he asked about Harry, and I said, "That's great that you did that. But we need a little more." And he said, "Well, how much?" And I said, "Well, double it. Maybe ten grand would take care of his room, rent and some food and he's already on S.S.I. and Food Stamps. So the last three years of his life they appropriated that, the last two years, and then posthumously another ten grand to create a catalog archive, and move everything to the basement of the filmmaker's co-op, and then I think another ten grand to continue Harry Smith's archiving project, which probably will help pay for an exhibition of "Mahagonny" that's going to go on. When is that?
HW: I don't know.
AG: Meanwhile, he built up a phalanx of assistants there, including one marvelous woman who sort of bullied him and mothered him and got him his Food Stamps and got his S.S.I. and got his checks taken care of. So she's taken on the job of supervising the archive.
So he died at the Chelsea. Rani Singh, the secretary, was with him all day trying to get him to go to a hospital, and he kept saying, "No, I'm dying. I'll die." And then Sandro Chia, his ex-wife, Paolo Igliori, came to see him, who was very upset. So she went out to get her car. [Or] Rani went to get her car. Paolo went to stay with him and suddenly he said, "I am dying" and he threw up blood and then fell over.
I went that night to the St. Vincent's morgue as soon as I heard about it. They'd already put him in the morgue. I got permission to go downstairs in the morgue and pulled him out of the wall on this giant drawer. His face was somewhat twisted up, there was a little blood on his whitish beard. So I sat and did the traditional Tibetan liturgy, refuge liturgy, and then spent an hour meditating. And there were several memorial services for him at St. Mark's Church, and the effort to get his stuff together. So that by the time this record is out, this CD set, there probably will be a big exhibition of Harry Smith's artworks, sponsored by NYU, and a giant Beat festival that they're going to put on in May, 1994. Along with material by other painters, like Robert La Vigne, whose works you'll see scattered in this booklet. Okay.
“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?”
— Howl Part II