Allen Ginsberg

Ballad of the Skeletons

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Allen Ginsberg understood as well as anyone that, in the latter half of the 20th century, rock & roll would be the medium through which poetry and social commentary would reach the young and hungry masses. He eagerly hopped a ride on the bandwagon, collaborating with Dylan, the Clash, and Cornershop; setting William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience to music; and teaching "Eleanor Rigby" to his English classes at Brooklyn College. The boxed set Holy Soul Jellyroll proves that Ginsberg made himself, by sheer force of will, a highly effective though hardly conventional singer/songwriter. Apparently, however, he saved the best for last. The single The Ballad of the Skeletons, his final recorded release, is his musical masterpiece and deserves to be considered one of the most passionate, powerful, and articulate performances in the history of rock. Backed by a gang of high-profile pals (Philip Glass on keyboards; Lenny Kaye on bass; Paul McCartney on guitar, organ, and drums (!); plus crack session guitarists David Mansfield and Marc Ribot), Ginsberg intones the words of 66 skeletons, each of which represents some aspect of global (particularly American) society's cultural and political landscape. The skeletons snipe at each other and declare their own interests in a pageant that is both comic ("Said the Family Values skeleton/My family values mace") and macabre ("Said the Underdeveloped skeleton/Send me rice/Said Developed Nations skeleton/Sell your bones for dice"). In each verse, he cuts straight to the heart of the phenomenon in question with razor-keen perception, brutal simplicity, and deep wisdom. "Said the Middle Kingdom skeleton/We swallowed Tibet/Said the Dalai Lama skeleton/Indigestion's whatcha get." Perhaps most impressive is the way he deploys startling juxtapositions: "Said the Mirror skeleton/Hey good-looking/Said the Electric Chair skeleton/Hey what's cooking." Ginsberg never just reads. He cleverly varies the tone of his rich, electric voice to best suit each skeleton as he invokes it. The band follows suit, finding many opportunities to mix things up and thus keep the listener engaged over the song's eight minutes. The B-side, a brief plea on behalf of the homeless set to the tune of "Amazing Grace," is big-hearted but somewhat trite. It only serves to emphasize, by way of contrast, how amazing a piece of journalism/art "The Ballad of the Skeletons" is. Even in death, Allen Ginsberg remains the outraged, outrageous aesthetic and social conscience of our lunatic times.

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