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Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Secret BAMlife of Allen Ginsberg

Ginsberg at the Hydrogen Jukebox premiere
Everyone’s favorite 20th century Whitman progeny was quite the scenester during his 70 years on this planet. From Eastern spiritual leaders like Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche to downtown transgressives such as Arthur Russell, Allen Ginsberg was a key ally to dispossessed visionaries, hopeless outsiders, and the über-chic. Everyone knew him, and everyone had an opinion on him.

During his expansive globetrotting Ginsberg collected many friends, enemies, and admirers—and he made a few stops at BAM along the way. Below is a timeline with Ginsberg’s key BAM moments. If readers are aware of any other Ginsberg-BAM connections, please chime in and let us know.

1969. Poetry reading in the opera house with musical sets by The Band and Joy of Cooking.

1971. The Chelsea Theater Center’s production of Kaddish, a dramatization of Ginsberg’s second book of poetry, which dealt with the mental breakdown and eventual death of his mother, Naomi. Ginsberg was particularly impressed with Marilyn Chris’ performance of Naomi. So were the critics: she received an Obie, as well as awards from the Drama Desk, a Variety Best, and a Drama Critics Circle Award.

1969 ad from the Village Voice

1973. Ginsberg, along with Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre, attended the opening of Robert Wilson’s The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, which began at 7pm and ended at 9am. “We all stayed for the whole thing,” Ginsberg recalled. (They were three of about a dozen people who stayed for the entirety of the premiere.) This was Ginsberg’s introduction to the world of Robert Wilson, with whom he would later collaborate on the apocalyptico-musical theater piece, Cosmopolitan Greetings.

It has been rumored (though not confirmed) that Ginsberg attended BAM’s production of Einstein on the Beach with none other than Andy Warhol…

1989. Ginsberg was a host at the Next Wave Festival Gala Benefit, which celebrated the 10th anniversary of New Music America with musical performances from the Kronos Quartet and Moondog, who guest-conducted the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra. Other hosts included Steve Reich, the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, and Laurie Anderson.

1991. Hydrogen Jukebox, an operatic collaboration with Philip Glass and stage designer Jerome Sirlin, is performed during BAM’s spring season just a few months after the Persian Gulf War. Made up of poems from Ginsberg’s vast body of work, the libretto for Hydrogen Jukebox circles around many of Ginsberg’s key themes, such as alienation and the longing for community:
Too late, too late
the Iron Horse hurrying to war,
too late for laments, too late for warning—
I’m a stranger in my country again.


  1. In the late '70s, Allen Ginsberg participated in a concert in the Lepercq Space (now the BAM Cafe). It was a 'Meet the Moderns' program, presented by the Brooklyn Philharmonic, entitled 'Repetition and Meditation.' Ginsberg led the audience in a meditation. (I know, I was there.)