Nearly 60 years after its first public reading in October 1955, a concert was held in downtown Los Angeles to honor “Howl,” Allen Ginsberg’s epic, zeitgeist-channeling poem that wrestled with sexuality, creativity, drugs, capitalism and the contradictory forces that were shaping midcentury America. Although not as consistently revelatory as the poem itself, A Celebration of the 60th Anniversary of Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ could be as demanding, playful, funny, moving, defiant, overwhelming, exhausting and proudly idiosyncratic as its namesake.
“This isn’t highbrow,” host and Broken Social Scene frontman Kevin Drew explained early in the evening, welcoming the crowd on a rainy Tuesday night to the Theatre at Ace Hotel. “A Celebration” — which was a benefit for the David Lynch Foundation, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker’s organization that provides scholarships to instructors of Transcendental Meditation — featured musicians, actors and comedians who drew from Ginsberg as inspiration for their performances, but not always in any obvious way. The man’s poetry and songs were covered throughout, but the assembled acts — everyone from Courtney Love to Van Dyke Parks to Amy Poehler — opted for a warm, relaxed vibe that left room for casual accidents. For proof, look no further than Lucinda Williams, who, after gingerly launching into a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Pale Blue Eyes” near the end of the three-hour-plus show, admitted to the crowd, “We’re winging it.”
That’s the vibe one expects from a star-studded concert curated by Hal Willner, the venerable music producer and frequent tribute-show organizer whose events tend to feature a varied list of performers and gigantic running times. (Audiences never leave a Willner show, such as his salutes to the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music compilations from 15 years ago, angry that they didn’t get their money’s worth.)
But if more than a few bleary-eyed audience members had already fled the theater by the time Nick Cave and Beth Orton came on to perform a sad-eyed piano-and-strings rendition of “The Ship Song” to cap off the night — and that’s not even factoring in the all-star sing-along to Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” encore — Willner and his acts’ generosity and loose-limbed performances paved the way for plenty of memorable moments.
Some of the night’s strongest sets attacked Ginsberg’s volatile, scabrous texts from fresh angles. Poehler and her former Saturday Night Live castmate Chris Parnell teamed up with laptop wizard Mocean Worker to transform the poet’s spoken-word-with-instrumentation “Ballad of the Skeletons” into a frenzied hip-hop track. Petra Haden dedicated Ginsberg’s organ-centric eulogy “Father Death Blues” to her own father, remaking the dirge as a lovely country ballad. And bracingly, Last Man on Earth star Will Forte joined electronic musician Peaches for a shout-y, dissonant take on Ginsberg’s punk-rock “Birdbrain” backed by Mocean Worker’s muscular beats and a wayward saxophonist following his own rhythm. Some in the crowd happily yelled out “Birdbrain!” at irregular intervals, adding to the song’s apoplectic sense of corrupt power run amok.
But “A Celebration” turned out to be more than a tribute to just Ginsberg. Parks honored Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the longtime proprietor of the Ginsberg haunt City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, by adorning one of his 1958 poems, the endlessly searching “I Am Waiting,” with a four-piece string quartet, adding extra layers of yearning to the writer’s hope for “a renaissance of wonder.” Meanwhile, actor Tim Robbins strapped on an acoustic guitar to play Warren Zevon’s 2000 song “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” a paean to people’s capacity to discover their best selves while they still have time.
In between, there was blues, rockabilly, classical, jazz, roots-rock, folk, even a little stand-up comedy. (At one point, John Mulaney came out to keep the crowd engaged while roadies quickly switched up instruments between acts. Identifying himself as a comedian, Mulaney joked that if his impromptu set bombed, “Then I’ll say I’m a poet.”) Devendra Banhart took a stab at Ginsberg’s folk-y “Vomit Express” (co-written by Bob Dylan) by turning it into a goofy sing-along, complete with backup vocals from those hanging around the stage, including someone wearing an oversized bull’s head mask. Love went full torch singer with her smoky, snarling rendition of Hole’s “Letter to God,” while Drew’s performance with pop oldie Andy Kim (with whom Drew has made an album, It’s Decided) was so freewheeling that Drew stopped the song at one point because he’d screwed up a transition: “Let’s take it from the whoooos,” he instructed the backup band before they dove right back into the tune.
True, “A Celebration” meandered and dawdled on occasion, but the evening’s clear highlight brought the focus back to the man (and the poem) of the hour. Willner came on stage with actress Chloe Webb a little more than halfway through the night to perform excerpts from “Howl.” (“Don’t worry, they’re not gonna do the whole thing,” Robbins said before Willner and Webb’s arrival, quickly adding, “although I know some of you would love that.”) Backed first by strings and upright bass before drums, pedal steel and guitar slowly entered the mix, Willner and Webb read Ginsberg’s infamous poem, letting the timeless power and mad swirl of his words create a panoply of dazzling mental images of a nation hurtling toward an exciting, uncertain future. By the time the two performers had gotten within spitting distance of the conclusion—”The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!”—there was a palpable energy in what was otherwise an often laidback, polite crowd. The marriage of music and words, even words that are 60 years old, made the room feel stirringly alive, random audience members letting out whoops of pleasure and approval throughout the reading.
Suddenly, “A Celebration” lived up to its name, honoring a community of artists profoundly altered by the work of Allen Ginsberg. In a different way, the moment was echoed by Williams, who invited musicians in the wings to join her band for the finale of “Pale Blue Eyes,” a loving sendoff to Lou Reed. One by one, string players, guitarists and drummers stepped on stage and started playing along. Williams looked very pleased. “That’s what it’s all about,” she said, approvingly.