It took me a long time to write the piece and I did it independently. Ginsberg is still controversial, and it is probably best that the work developed over a period of 3 years at its own pace and without any interference. It was originally scored for a small orchestra comprised of string quartet, contrabass, two percussionists, and flute. The three singers are a baritone, with the role of Allen, and his two muses (I created the roles based on his writing) Freedom and Compassion, performed by a soprano and a Gospel singer.
Strangely, composition of Waking in New York coincided with the death of Allen (April 97), and the death of my own father, jazz composer Errol Parker (July 98). The circumstances in which I met Allen Ginsberg were also extremely unusual. In 1973, I was working on some music with actor Jean-Pierre Kalfon, who brought me to New York at Blue Rock Studio on Spring Street - I was 22 and it was my first recording session. Soon after, I looked at the Village Voice ads and noticed an interesting ad describing a women's band. I went to the audition and banged out a couple of songs on the out-of-tune upright, along with some of my wildest Ono-style vocal improvs and got into the band with guitarist Denise Feliu, protégé of Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg. She lived at their little apartment on 10th St and Avenue C. We became really good friends and spent many hours hanging out listening to soul music, studying Aretha, Marvin Gaye and Al Green, playing the records over and over and learning all the chord changes and the lyrics. I was looking for a place to stay, and she said, why don't you move in with us. And so I did. All I had was a suitcase and a microphone.
The first time I met Allen Ginsberg, he was on crutches with a broken leg but nevertheless, incredibly cheerful, and we all sang this song he had made up, ŒBroken bone', along with him. There was a harmonium in his room that I would play it occasionally. Sometimes I would hear Allen chanting Indian songs with it. My contribution to the band included accompanying Allen in various appearances, and he extended his encouragement and kindness by providing me with a Farfisa organ he bought from his friend Ed Sanders. I was forever grateful to Allen for introducing me to electronics in this way - that was my first non-acoustic keyboard. I was writing songs for the band now, lyrics and music. After we had a couple of gigs, a friend of ours named it Flaming Youth.
Peter and Allen traveled a lot. He appeared at universities, went to the Naropa Institute. They would stay in town for a few days and go away again. When they were expected we'd do the house cleaning, and I'd bake apple pie for Allen. He really liked my home-made apple pie. We were like a family. I remember Peter telling Denise and I to brush our teeth - not a bad idea when we were staring at a picture of Keith Richards with a few missing molars. Peter was trying to put things in perspective for us.
We got involved in a protest movement, a meat boycott, and became total vegans. Peter brought big cases of tomatoes from Allen's farm upstate. Sometimes we went up to the farm and made jars of preserves - natural and organic - and we would live on those with the addition of avocados, plantains from the neighborhood, and - of course - lots of bananas, still one of the least expensive and most nutritious foods you can find - remember the cover of the Velvet Underground album by Andy Warhol, with the banana on it ... they must have known.
At Allen's apartment I also met a young cellist, Arthur Russell, who later on became of my best friends and collaborators for many years until he died of AIDS in 1992. I learned a lot being around Allen, in a non-traditional, practical, down-to-earth way, most importantly how to keep myself creative and unblocked, and to appreciate New York and its diversity, it multiplicity, embrace it.
Allen was incredibly humble and simple as a man. I was impressed by his being Œreal' as opposed to a lot of the celebrities I had met, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, who had a glamorous gloss about them. He did not behave like a celebrity and I trusted that was the Way. There was nothing phony about him, nothing done to impress in the way of clothes, in the way of talk. He made me realize that celebrity is a way a mirage, an optical illusion. I learned to appreciate the flavor of New York from the little apartment in the Hispanic Alphabet City now referred to as the more noble Loisaida. I learned to avoid being full of myself, a simple member of the megalopolis, along with all other ethnic varieties, and to respect other people's cultures and learn from them. I learned that there was a spiritual side to life that was not connected to any particular religion or faith. Coming from the utterly laic culture that was prevalent in the post-1968 Paris, that was a major discovery. There was actually more to life than rationalism and left-right politics. It was a new inspiration.
When Denise and I came out of the building running down the three flights of stairs, we'd always try to catch a bus (the fare was only 35c then) otherwise we had to walk past all the Hispanic men hanging out on the street, some sitting on chairs and playing cards, some drinking, and calling at us. It was a dangerous neighborhood then. I took to wearing a leather jacket and not dressing up mod, glitter-style but to no avail. Denise warned me to avoid certain blocks in particular around Tompkins Square Park, which was really dangerous then, and the locale of ongoing gang fights. I took the bus to 14 St to Union Square then walked over to Max's Kansas City on 17 St where I could just hang out, never ordered a drink, never could afford one, never wanted one, and it never was a problem.
From my French college education, I was schooled in Sartre, Descartes, Freud and Marx. In Descartes, there was the stark rationalism summarized in his famous phrase, "I think therefore I am". With the new spirituality, as I realized later on, thinking is only one level of consciousness, there are more powerful ones: beyond the thought and the self, I am one with the universe and all sentient beings. Freud is the perfect complement for Descartes: whatever does not fit with the rational mind can be attributed to the unconscious or subconscious, a kind of garbage disposal of the mind. This dichotomy, this manichean vision, splits the personality in a Jekyll and Hyde of the self, the good conscious mind and the evil subconscious with its uncontrollable impulses. Added to that was the revolutionary spirit that has been one of the most visible trademarks of French philosophy, a type of thought that lives only through criticism and negation. This can sometimes be politically correct, but can lead to a doubting and bitter attitude. Existentialism has an interesting take on nothingness, which is an important Zen concept as well, but the oriental nothingness is full whereas Sartre's nothingness is empty. His vision is grim and hopeless. The Zen vision is more uplifting: nothing and everything are the two sides of the same coin as summarize in the famous saying "Things are not what they seem - nor are they otherwise".
The most amazing revelation for me at that time was the discovery of what the cultural revolution really was about. When I was a student, right after May 68, we were all under the impression that Mao Tse Tung was the god of freedom. I even took up Chinese at the Sorbonne for about a year. We were fooled by communist propaganda and totally unaware that what the so-called cultural revolution was about was to eradicate any creative, spiritual or intellectual thought to replace it by a one-dimensional mass ideology. What the cultural revolution really meant was cutting the thumbs of innocent Tibetan monks so they couldn't use their prayer beads, and sending the intellectuals to clean toilets. (Incidentally, I am not a snob, I do all my own cleaning and I even enjoy it).
In New York, early seventies, my French mental landscape was really put to the test as I experienced the relativity of all philosophies, and pretty much felt like the carpet had been pulled from under me, until I was able to rebuild some sort of viable philosophy of life, around the idea of self-realization and personal liberation based on non-attachment to material things, people and above all, thoughts.
Non-attachment does not mean that you can't love. You love but you do not possess, you are not possessed. If people leave you, you do not get in their way. You let go. You strive to have a total compassion for every living being ... Easier said than done! You aim to master and transcend any feelings of resentment or bitterness towards others. There is no revenge possible even in thought. You embrace change. Everything that is considered good ultimately can turn into its opposite. Any negative energy that you send may come back threefold and bite you in the tail. That is the only law that I see in this chaotic interplay of conflicting forces that we call our world. This reevaluation process took many years of thinking, of psychoanalysis, of meditation, of reading and, I hate to admit, pain and laughter. And the encounter with Allen Ginsberg is what started it.
Allen Ginsberg's example helped. He was practical. He didn't get caught up in the beautiful people scene or the illusion of glamour. He was fabulous but low-key. He didn't mind living in a funky neighborhood. His values were deeper. They had to do with collective consciousness and love of humanity.
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