Beat Soundtrack #7: Steven Taylor
In which prominent Beat figures, writers and critics, historians and academics, fans and followers, talk about the relationship between that literary community and music
Musician, writer and teacher, Steven Taylor spent 20 years as Allen Ginsberg’s guitar accompanist. Born in Manchester, England, Taylor joined his family as emigrants to the US in the mid-1960s. His life took a surprising course when Ginsberg visited his New Jersey college and invited the young player to support him in poetry readings. He continued to do so until the writer’s death in 1997. In the early 1980s, Taylor became a member of the legendary Fugs and he remains a participant in that radical rock and poetry project. He now lectures in New York City having spent many years teaching at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. In 2018, he was the editor of Don’t Hide the Madness: William S. Burroughs in Conversation with Allen Ginsberg.
What attracted you to the Beats? When did you first encounter them? Are you drawn to a particular text, novel or poetry?
After we came over from England in ‘65, my father got a job at Dell publishing. He would occasionally bring home a large envelope with a book in it. When I was 13 or so, he brought me an anthology called Poet’s Choice. The premise was that each poet had selected a piece and included a short essay about it. Allen Ginsberg’s submission was ‘Howl Part II'. ‘What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?’ In his comments he described how he had arrived at ‘Moloch’. I still have that book.
That was all I knew of Ginsberg for some time, probably because I was then mostly reading fiction. We should note for anyone under 30 that if I had seen that poem excerpt today and had been mildly interested, I could have quickly located the rest of ‘Howl’ on my phone, along with the poet’s bio, net worth, and run-ins with the law, but to find a poem then, one had to be seriously moved, literally out of the house and into town to buy the book from a shop.
Kerouac got to me first, with The Dharma Bums. I must have read it around the time we took to hitchhiking, which had become a thing again, a generation after the great collapse. At 15, I met a girl a few years older than I who had a devotion to the Massachusetts coast, Cape Cod, Plum Island, Cape Ann. She later had a career as a water scientist there. We did a pilgrimage. I am forever grateful to her. That region came as a relief because I had been so unhappy, as Springsteen sang, ‘somewhere in the swamps in Jersey’. New England made sense. There’s still a deep nostalgia there for me, and it’s tied up with Kerouac. At one point, we were picked up by a young guy driving a VW bus. No lie. CSNY ‘Déjà Vu’ on the radio and everything. I learned how to drive stick shift in that van.
He took us out to Provincetown and then to his home near Lowell. His people were French Canadians who had come to America to work in the cotton mills. He could have been Kerouac. Mémère was in the kitchen. So that’s the start of the Beat romance for me. We went north but the more adventurous kids were going to California. That was the true hajj. Kerouac surely had something to do with that literal youth movement. He had a huge influence on my cohort.
I later read The Subterraneans (and met ‘Mardou Fox’), Satori in Paris, Mexico City Blues, Some of the Dharma, and, several times, On the Road. After connecting with Allen in ’76, I met and read Carolyn Cassady and Jan Kerouac. Jan was lovely. Happenstance: today the Ginsberg office posted a photo of Jan standing in Allen’s kitchen on that day in ’88.
Jack’s prose wore me down but I never tired of Burroughs. He is the only one of the Beat affiliates beside Ginsberg who I have read entire. Gregory’s verses are in my ear from many hearings: ‘A stowa is as fowa as moi oi kin see, and as neah as moi oi is ta me’ (‘A star is as far as my eye can see, and as near as my eye is to me’)
As far as a favourite text, I would have to say ‘Howl’. There’s nothing else so concentrated and important, and it is foundational. It’s like, what’s the most important Futurist text? The manifesto of 1909.
What is the relationship between the Beat writers and music? How do you think that literary scene and musical sound connect(ed)?
Beat was part of a larger crossover of African and European cultures in America whose major music was jazz. Jack and Allen and the rest came of age at the end of a brief, peculiar window in popular culture when a serious art form was pop music. The war ended jazz as a mainstream medium, and the Beats entered on that transition.
Benny Goodman’s 1935 gig at the Palomar Ballroom in LA is sometimes credited with launching swing for the mass market. Goodman exulted that the new ‘hot’ arrangements caused half the crowd to stop dancing and gather around the stage to listen, but Philip Ennis cites this as prophetic of the end, a decade later, of jazz as a mass medium. When the kids stopped dancing, the end was not far off.
Wartime gasoline and rubber rationing killed the bus tour circuit. A couple of hundred bands had crisscrossed the country playing in dance halls until they could no longer get tyres and fuel. Overall costs were up. Musicians had been conscripted, instruments were hard to get, and record production was down 30% because lacquer was used for armaments. The ensuing shift from dance halls to clubs and big bands to small ensembles wasn’t all due to rationing and rising costs, but to multiple factors, including radio and television, the increasing synchronisation between the labels and the broadcasters resulting in the homogenisation of popular styles, the mob (who had been in jazz since it went up river from New Orleans), the modern microphone and the ascent of the crooner, and white flight to the suburbs.
Between 1942 and 1944, the American Federation of Musicians went on strike against the major record labels over royalty payments. Union musicians were allowed to play live shows or on the radio, but were to boycott recording sessions. The labels delayed the damage for some time by releasing a backlog of new recordings and issuing from their back catalogs. Meanwhile, they began to replace the union bands with vocal groups. The effect was to speed the demise of the big band and the rise of the singer. It also fostered the emergence of small ‘specialty’ labels using musicians unaffected by contracts or working under pseudonyms. Finally, in 1944, the ‘cabaret tax’ levied a 30% charge on places that allowed dancing. These circumstances ended the dance craze that had made jazz.
The music had been both devolving and evolving. Glenn Miller, a top pop artist of the day, could barely be said to be jazz; Ellington went classical; and in the clubs, virtuosic solo improvisation went front and centre. Now the song becomes a mere harmonic frame for a set of variations improvised in real time. Players moved to replace song adaptations with original frames. Bird studied Ravel, Debussy, Prokofiev and Hindemith, and copped lines on the fly from Stravinsky, who wrote a piece for Woody Herman’s band. For most Americans, music became something to be consumed at home. Jazz went from dance music to listening music. The new jazz was bop. And, as Ted Gioia notes, bop was a reclamation of jazz by Black musicians. Time-wise, that’s when the Beats came in. In December of ‘46, when five of the top big bands in the country folded, Ginsberg was 20.
I recall Allen telling me that suddenly radio switched from jazz to white pop, and that it had to do with the mob. He said the same thing about drug culture in San Francisco. One day it was young locals selling joints on the street, and then suddenly it was older guys nobody knew selling junk. And junk played a role in the shrinking of jazz. Families, who had hosted touring players because hotels were closed to them, stopped it when the valuables went missing. My high school music teacher started out writing for a New York song mill, and he had a hit with the Four Seasons, but when he asked for songwriting credit, unpleasant references were made to the health of his legs. The Fugs’ manager had a similar experience early on, when requesting payment after a club date. ‘What do you want?’ ‘I’d like to get paid.’ ‘How would you like your legs broken?’
When Harry Smith died, Dave Van Ronk said, ‘Until ‘52, I thought American music was Frank Sinatra and Doris Day’ (This in reference to the impact of Harry’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952 on Folkways Records). By the '50s the big labels and the broadcast networks had everything sewn up.
Allen told me that he and his friends listened to bop, jump blues, and R&B, ‘extensive jazz.’ He clued me that jazz was Black speech. Kerouac presented his Mexico City Blues poems as a series of saxophone solos (‘choruses’). Ginsberg was heavily into the blues. He had a small library of books on the subject, and turned me on to Lead Belly and the country blues guys and the great ladies, particularly Ma Rainey.
Jack recorded with sax players Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and read with pianist TV host Steve Allen. An older generation of poet-mentors – Langston Hughes and Kenneth Rexroth – had read with jazz players. I don’t associate Burroughs with music. I was at his house a couple of years ago, and there was no evidence of interest in any media other than print. Corso was into the classics when I knew him.
The downtown poetry and music scenes were connected by proximity: they were both Village phenomena (‘The Village’ here refers to Greenwich Village on the west side and the East Village or Lower East Side. I’m using Village to cover the whole downtown south of 14th Street and North of Houston Street). If you were hanging out with poet-playwright LeRoi Jones, sooner or later you were hanging out with Charles Mingus (And of course Jones was also a scholar/critic of jazz whose first job out of the Air Force was handling subscriptions for a jazz magazine in the Village). In the 70s, Ginsberg introduced me to Muddy Waters on Bleecker Street, and to Dizzy Gillespie when we were booked on the same night at the Village Gate. We played with Don Cherry when he was in town.
Everyone knew one other. In the East Village in the '60s, the poets, dancers, musicians, painters, photographers, actors, playwrights and designers knew each other because they all went to Stanley’s Bar on Avenue B. Coltrane got his egg creams at Gem Spa on St. Mark’s Place where, a decade later, I got my morning newspaper. Among my upstairs neighbours were Arthur Russell and Richard Hell. Waves of artists settled in the city, generation after generation, and overlapped. Allen was there for 50 years, and always networking.
Ed Sanders has a play about a storefront. At the start, it’s a Jewish anarchist collective, then it goes through various manifestations, a beatnik coffee shop, a hippie place, and finally a performance art space. And, from one generation to the next, there is always someone who is a holdover sitting at the bar telling the tale. My mentors taught me to think of myself as being in a lineage. Allen said you have to write your story, because you are living history.
I had this conversation with a faculty colleague who had been a dancer in the '60s and '70s on that scene: We knew artists from every field because we all lived downtown, but, in the academy, it’s all carved up into fiefdoms. So that’s a major connection. Time and place.
As a musician were you shaped or influenced by Beat experiences?
I knew the Beats were into jazz, but I didn’t get the extent of the music-poetry connection until I met Allen in '76. From then on, the Beat matrix was a huge influence. I knew all the survivors, travelled and/or performed with Corso, Ferlinghetti, Baraka, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, McClure, Snyder, Whalen and the San Francisco poets. Don Cherry called me ‘the poets’ musician’. My music theory professor came to one early gig in the '70s and afterward told me to loosen up and go with the poet’s rhythm. That was important, a Beat experience with music.
I can't separate the Beats from jazz and African America because they copped the language, and because the scene was so mixed. Free jazz and underground rock had the same label. The Fugs' first label, ESP, had Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and LeRoi Jones's New York Art Quartet. They all played the same showcases.
Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg came from that downtown poetry scene and took poetry to rock with the Fugs in ‘64. I joined that band early 80s. Forty years later, last week, I sent Ed a tune for his new lyric on a Beckett verse. What is Beat if not Beckett? Kupferberg summed it up in a short poem:
Ah that Beckett/there’s a bitter man/if the truth can’t wreck it/Beckett can
Which musical artists from whichever era seem to connect most with the Beat Generation – and how?
Well, to literally connect – Allen shot skag with Monk. Met Lester Young ‘and got down on my knees’. Mingus was a friend. Attending jazz clubs uptown in the '40s while going to university and then moving downtown within a few blocks of the Five Spot in the '50s: what a time to be looking for a bar with cheap beer and a band! You could see top players every night of the week and ask Franz Kline to pass the peanuts.
As for the connection going the other way – Beats influencing musicians – there is Dylan. In his Chronicles he mentions On the Road, ‘Howl’, and Corso’s Gasoline. He says that before arriving in New York, On the Road had been a bible to him, and he knew Allen from '64. You could connect the Beatles to the Beats from their initial London period. Barry Miles was a connection there. Allen knew Lennon and McCartney. John had all of Allen’s poetry books (he had requested them in ’76). He had one or two of Paul’s paintings, and discussed photography with Linda.
Allen wanted to be where the action was. He was a disciple of the American objectivists and imagists, Williams, Zukofsky, Reznikoff and Pound, and was friends with, and active among, the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, part of which was a return to the voice and to performance. Allen spoke of an ‘aural renaissance’. Also he was a devotee of William Blake who, he never tired of insisting, sang his verses. Crossing over to jazz, the folk revival, and rock was a natch. He recognised Dylan as the next torch bearer, the bard to hand-off to.
André Breton claimed that Heraclitus, Dante, and Shakespeare were Surrealists. That's an extreme example of what I'm talking about. Beat was a wave made of many currents. It came of the Atlantic Passage.
I tend to think of a whole constellation of influences that everybody got in one combination or another, with the background of the African diaspora. Surrealism and Existentialism, Beats, Beatles, Brit Invasion. The Stones thought they were a blues band. The Beatles shared early gigs with Acker Bilk when blues and rock were replacing ‘trad’ jazz in the clubs. From generation to generation, everyone wanted the Black style. Whites doing Black had a hundred-year history in popular music by then. The first international hit song, ‘Jim Crow’, was brought from New York to London by a white actor in blackface in 1836. Lennon’s grandad was a minstrel.
In some of the literature on minstrelsy, there is the idea that it wasn’t racist mockery until it went mainstream in the middle-class theatres, where it was received as such. It came of a shared language of speech and gesture among the multi-racial urban poor and it mocked the masters. Perhaps this is wishful thinking.
I tend to agree with Christopher Small that the African influence is irreducible: '60s-'70s innovators went back to the wellspring, listened to blues, R&B, and Caribbean sounds. Many started as poets or visual artists. Lou Reed, Suicide, Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, Patti Smith, Talking Heads and later Sonic Youth. Kim Gordon painted and Thurston Moore collected poetry pamphlets as well as records. Most of them knew Ginsberg personally. We were at Electric Lady (the studio Hendrix built in the West Village) with the Clash because they wanted ‘the voice of God’ (see ‘Ghetto Defendant’).
One of the reasons we can talk about a few downtown writers in the 50s as having an influence on transnational culture is that they were part of a syncretic Afro-Euro mix that broke globally.
And then there is the sheer joy of it. Allen used to object that Beat wasn’t protest so much as joy (Journalists and critics had a tendency to spin Beat as anger, delinquency, protest, etc). He told me that when the Beatles’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ first came on the jukebox at Stanley’s, the joint exploded in dance. He called it the revenge of Africa, getting the whites to shake their ass, the return to the body after centuries of hyper-intellectual, hyper-industrial mind-body split. It changed everything. Then there is always the question of appropriation. Baraka said, ‘If Elvis is the King, what is James Brown? God?’
Who are your own favourite singers, musicians and bands? Do they represent Beat ideas or attitudes in their lives and art?
This is a difficult question. It’s embarrassing in a way, because I’m supposed to have a scholarly specialty in North American popular music, but my listening for pleasure and inspiration has always been pretty narrow. The early key figures for me were John Lennon and John Coltrane. No other (non-classical) musicians have affected me as much. Then there is anybody who can really sing or play in the way that the respective Johns sing and play. There is a desperateness to the music that’s coming from old roots, Africa and Ireland coming together, poor and ruined in the colonies.
John Leland writes about the linguistic convergence in his book Hip: The History. Black American English had major roots in poor London and Ireland. And my generation adopted that hip talk through the Beats and the music. The blues never stops. Hendrix’s ‘Machine Gun’ is the electric guitar’s finest ten minutes. I remember my father calling me into the living room, 1967, where he was watching TV, ‘Have a look at this lot!’ It was the Cream doing ‘Sunshine of Your Love’. A new revelation. The early influences tend to stick. After Jimi and Janis died and the Beatles dissolved, I went back pretty much exclusively to jazz and the classics until somebody took me to see the Ramones at a strip club in Jersey.
As a kid, I by chance picked up a side of Mississippi Fred McDowell that went through me like electricity. What the hell is that? Motown was huge, and the British Invasion. All of it Beat, in the sense of coming from the dark end of the street. Remember James Carr’s song ‘The Dark End of the Street’? It’s about a forbidden love. The subtext is interracial union. Maria Damon wrote a book of that title that traces American avant-garde poetry to the margins. Black, queer, outsider, forbidden things. The same could be said of the music.
One night in '88 I stood in the wings at the Palladium in New York waiting to go on, and standing alone centre stage was a small woman in a kilt, bare feet, no instruments, no hair, just killing it. 3,500 people stopped breathing. After my band’s turn I went looking for her but she was gone. I love her still. She’s been very important for me. She should quit smoking. Sinead is a punk with a centuries-old musical consciousness, in the lineage of the Sean Nós. All of my main musical influences might be said to represent Beat ideas in that they came through the Afro-Euro fusion and major social tides such as the Civil Rights movement. All of these artists have some sense of politics, but Coltrane only went there once, with ‘Alabama’, and then went to God, which is also very Beat. Kerouac thought On the Road was about two apostles. Rock is religion and Patti is the pope. Sinead is the imam.
If there is a Beat sensibility, I think we have to speak in terms of what Beat became, and that’s due to Ginsberg. He wanted legal weed, gay rights and to stop the war; Kerouac wasn’t into any of that; he was a Goldwater Republican. Burroughs was only Beat by proximity and a peculiar iconoclasm. Corso was Beat in the sense of orphaned, beaten down, did jail time, did junk for most of his life, but his politics were personal. He thought of himself as a poor Shelley. In a sense, Ginsberg was the only Beat; most of the others disavowed the tag. Kerouac named it, but Ginsberg sold it.
I’ve been listening again to Ray Davies lately. It’s a kind of music hall. One can imagine ‘Waterloo Sunset’ at the Hippodrome, with striped blazer, straw boater, and the old soft shoe. My old man is in the balcony, on dinner break from the railway office, learning tunes for his pub turn. When the Fugs played Meltdown in 2011, Davies was the Friday headliner and we were Saturday. The recorded music they played in the theatre before Ray went on was all George Formby, who is dear to my heart. It was a lightbulb moment. McCartney has that strain too. Lennon was doing something else. But it all carries a sense of the outside, whether by race or class.
I’m mindful that I’m talking about old music. Making music is time consuming, and I mostly listen to my friends. There’s a woman across the street who’s more interesting as a writer and singer than any new pop diva. There’s another one tending bar on the corner (Well, this is Brooklyn). Patti used to say something like, if you’re playing for thousands of people, that means there’s not enough people doing it for themselves. That’s Beat. At the risk of sounding stuffy, any interest I have in most of what’s current in pop is largely anthropological. When I put on a record, it’s almost always a generation or more back and usually R&B, reggae, jazz. The most interesting contemporary music to me is from Africa. Yesterday, Judy and I spent a rare afternoon listening to music for hours on end. It was all '60s-'70s R&B. Some of the new rap is cool and interesting for its minimalism, but don’t ask me who it is. I catch it in the cafeteria between classes. Anyway, the African diaspora lay down the Beat ethos and it still does, whatever the new cats call it.