This morning I met a friend at the local Caffe, and fueled our conversation with several fat-headed comments. Here's the most bloated of the bunch: "The last great moment on Saturday Night Live was the night Kurt Cobain and Co. destroyed their kit." (I ought to have added, "But Will Ferrell experiencing motion sickness while singing It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year atop a spinning platform runs a close second!")
My friend just introduced his 13-year-old daughter to Nirvana (still a favourite at the sock-hops!), so we teased apart some of Cobain's particularly personal significance. Early in his ascent, Cobain acknowledged the impact that spectacular rock albums had had on him -- Aerosmith Rocks, Back In Black, Led Zeppelin II were all named -- hard rocking albums with absolutely no weak links in their movement from song to song to finale. These albums meant the world to him, but gradually his ardour for them cooled, basically because they all boiled down to the same thing: misogynystic "Cock Rock". He couldn't relate to it, so he wrote music he could relate to.
I don't think you could possibly overstate the impact Nevermind had on my g-g-generation. Consider also the ridiculous dress Cobain wore to the Headbanger's Ball (frilly and frou-frou, not at all the leering drag of the New York Dolls and their snarling progeny), the astonishing power of Unplugged In New York and the grimly predictable news of Cobain's suicide, and I hope you can understand why Gen X hasn't produced any memorable rock & roll since then. Cobain correctly identified the limits that rock had reached -- the wall it had (ahem) erected against itself. Then he forged his hammer and knocked it down with one well-placed shot. (Kids, "emo rock" is this generation's wall -- have at it!)
So what does this have to do with Allen Ginsberg and Howl? Well, it's been 50 years since Howl was first published, and we've yet to see a poetic opening that is as memorable as "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked..."
There's a blessing and a curse here. It's pretty fine to be present in that moment when lightning strikes and changes the cultural landscape. It's not so fine to watch successive generations try to re-bottle the same magic. Nabokov famously sneered that Eliot's free-verse compositions were akin to "playing tennis without a net", but the pretenders attempting to succeed Eliot quickly put paid to that superficial analysis. There was something of undeniable substance here. Similarly with Ginsberg -- only it's now been 50 years and counting.
Poetry and culture -- it is what it is. Misogyny doesn't seem to be going anywhere, and it would be mighty nice to see someone take a hammer to hip-hop before my daughters develop an ear for it. As for poetry on the page, I'm still hopeful. Any day now. Any day...
Re: Howl: here is Greil Marcus's analysis for the NYTBR - provocative, if not particularly insightful. If you want better, you'll have to go here for Stephen Burt's erudite and tidy analysis of Ginsberg's precise cultural moment. And did you ever want to host an icon of the Counter-Culture in your own home? Just be sure to stock up on Pine-Sol and keep the mop handy!
Tags: Allen Ginsberg Howl