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David Amram on Gregory Corso

SOURCE: Published: 2013-03-28
David Amram David Amram [pictured] is one of the last surviving members of the Beat Generation scene and a forefather of the countculture movement of the '60s. Not only was the French hornist and composer there in the '50s, he was part of the Beats' inner circle. Yesterday—March 26—Beat poet Gregory Corso would have been 83 (he died in 2001). Recently, David was asked by Greek journalist Michalis Limnios for his recollections of Corso, which David included in his upcoming book David Amram: The Next 80 Years.

Here are David's thoughts on Corso...

“When I first met Gregory Corso [pictured above] in 1956, Jack Kerouac and I were already performing  together at bring-your-own-bottle parties in lower Manhattan. Allen Ginsberg, whom I met in 1955, when I was playing with Charles Mingus, had often talked to me about Gregory. 'He is the poet you have to read,David,' Allen said to me. 'I like his work even more than my own'

I hadn't read much of Allen's poetry, but I admired his devotion to Gregory's work, just as many of us today appreciate Allen's tireless efforts to get Jack Kerouac's poetic prose novels published. This wasn't easy over 60 years ago, but Allen was always there on behalf of anyone whose work he admired.

When I met Gregory, he Jack [pictured], Allen and I had a great time hanging out and talking for hours to one another about all the things we hoped to do—especially the ones that we were told were impossible. And Gregory always made it clear that anything was possible that he decided was worthwhile doing.

 It was always a treat to be with Gregory, because like Jack, he was always comfortable in the milieu of the early 1950's informal community of poets, painters, authors, bartenders, waiters and waitresses, moving men, checker and chess virtuosos,theater people, dancers and even budding classical composers and working jazz musicians like myself. Just as Jack was at home at any late night/early morning jam session, Gregory was always respectful of (and therefor respected by) the musicians who created spontaneous and sophisticated improvisations that soared beyond the restrictions of a conformist society, which we felt considered all of us to be schizophrenic nut-cases and terminal losers.

We all felt a common bond with Gregory's boundless energy, outrageous individualism and his ability to laugh when confronted by overly cerebral intellectuals who felt that all creative people in America should act like morticians. When I first heard Gregory read his poetry and began reading it on the manuscripts he occasionally gave me—like his 1957 Thanksgiving, which he signed to me and I will always treasure—I knew I had a kindred spirit. Like Kerouac, Gregory saw the beauty and poetic facets of everyday life, which most of America ignored.

Tiny fragments of conversations, whispered secrets, broken promises and soaring flights of his own imagination inspired Gregory to create a body of work which today shines brighter than ever, as clear and pure and as full of surprises as the classic jazz solos that enriched the lives of all of us who were lucky enough to be there at the moment of their inception, or which were captured on recordings.

Fortunately today, you didn't have to have been there to see or hear Gregory in action. While he was a spell-binding speaker and charismatic reader, he wrote his poems down on paper. So like the improvised solos that were recorded by the jazz masters, Gregory's poems are preserved. When you read them, they stand the test of time, remaining as fresh today to the reader as they were the day that they were created.

When Gregory was reading them for an audience, he was often so outrageous that the audience forgot to pay attention to his poetry. This was basically because he never wanted to be a performer. He often told me 'You can wear people out reading your poetry. It's a 10-minute shot. Get on and get off. Once the poem is written, I'm done with it.'

Like Kerouac, Gregory never sought the limelight. He wanted people to read his work. When he was alone in a room with you, he was a spellbinding reader of his poetry. But he was never comfortable in the role of being a performer. His real life-crazed antics exceeded any insult comic's most cherished routines. But he was just being himself at the moment, not following a planned routine.

In 1959, we appeared together in the Film Pull My Daisy. I played Mezz McGillicuddy, the deranged French hornist, and Gregory played himself, giving a bravura performance as the deranged sidekick of the even more deranged Allen Ginsberg. Gregory's unscripted antics and spontaneous raps kept the entire cast (as well as the constant stream of visitors who wandered in and out while we were filming) screaming with laughter for the three weeks we were together trashing Alfred Leslie's studio.

Leslie, the film's director, was like a great hostage negotiator, trying patiently to get Gregory to follow his directions. Fortunately, it was a silent film, with Kerouac's narration and my music added later, so no one ever got to hear Gregory's screaming at all of us as well as at the people passing by on the street below, when he invited startled pedestrians  to come up to the second floor and see him, the matinee idol known as Fabian Fongool, the greatest lady killer since Rudolph Valentino.

Somehow, Robert Frank [pictured] managed to film all of the scenes in which Gregory appeared without shaking his camera on its fragile wooden tripod, even when Robert was laughing so hard that tears rolled down his cheeks.

Unfortunately, there was no recording ever made of Gregory's endless stream of insults, jokes and  seethingly accurate criticisms of our non-performances.

Fifty four years later, Gregory's own admitted non-performance in Pull my Daisy still has a resonance as the antics of a crazed poet and visionary. Gregory knew that he didn't have to act. He was just being his irrepressible self. I still have the picture from a scene that was fortunately cut from the film, where I was dressed up in a cowboy outfit, and Gregory and Alfred Leslie are both looking like dapper young actors in search of a script. [Pictured above, from left: Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, David Amram, Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso—with back to camera]

As the years went by, no matter how tough the times were, Gregory continued to create gems, drawn from his life experience and his endless imagination. In November 1965, I bumped into Gregory, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky in San Francisco. where I was attending rehearsals of Let Us Remember—a cantata I had written with poet Langston Hughes. it was receiving its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera House.

'I loved the piece,' said Gregory, after the performance was over. 'You could understand every word of Langston's poetry, the way you set it for the solo singers, the chorus and the orchestra. But this social scene in the opera house is a drag. I borrowed this dumb jacket and tie, but I feel like I'm suffocating. Why do we have to wear a costume to go hear classical music? It's a beautiful work you wrote, man, but get rid of that white tie and tails you're wearing. You look like an out-of-work doorman or Count Dracula about to jump out of his coffin.You look like a penguin!'

After Jack died in 1969, we all felt a loss in our lives that we knew would always be there. But we knew that we all had to continue to do what we felt we were put here to do. And all of us kept in touch. We didn't consider ourselves to be charter members of the Beat Generation. We were friends for life and stayed that way.

In the '70s and '80s, Gregory always scraped up an old doll or a flower as a celebratory gift for each of my kids when they were born, and I always tried to do the same for his growing family. And even though he was sometimes barely hanging on, with kids of his own to take care of, he kept writing, and his work was becoming better known worldwide.

In the 90s, the renewed interest in Kerouac's work by a generation of young people numbed out by the corporate style of unentertaining entertainment began to discover Gregory's work, finding his poems to be a shining light in a creative era that was being rediscovered.

Just as his fellow poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bob Creeley, Gary Snyder, Bob Kauffman, Philip Lamantia, Howard Hart, Ted Joans, Phil Whelan, Michael McClure, Amiri Baraka, novelist Joyce Johnson and a host of other artists of all genres of our era, Gregory followed his own path and never gave up, sold out, tried to be fashionable or forgot who he was and what he wanted to express.

We managed to stay in touch until his last days with his daughter Sheri, when he left New York to be with her in Minnesota. When I visited him for the last time in Greenwich Village, when he was bed-ridden, and I brought my kids. He was still as much fun as always. And when Patti Smith and I were invited by his family to perform at his memorial service at the church where he went as a child, I expected during the service to hear his braying voice shout out some choice insults, telling us all to knock it off and lighten up.

Today, when young musicians, poets, painters, actors, dancers and people from all walks of life who love his work come up to me and say how much they feel his spirit by reading his poetry, it is always a special treat to share their appreciation. [Pictured: Gregory Corso at a party in 1959]

In a world of high-tech shlock, reality TV  and instant trash, it more than ever a joy to bask in the shining sunlight of Gregory's work. He had a voice of his own, and it still rings clear and true today.

As his fellow poet Keats said long ago 'A thing of beauty is a joy forever.'

Happy birthday Gregory."

—David Amram

JazzWax clip: Here's my favorite clip of Gregory Corso, in which he reads and editorializes on The Bill of Rights and parts of the Constitution.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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