Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ashbery, Ginsberg, & the Velvet Underground

[Tony Scherman & David Dalton, in Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol (Harper 2009), describe the opening night of Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable (a multimedia spectacle centered on the Velvet Underground) at the Dom in the East Village, 8 April 1966:]

A reporter from New York University's newspaper, the Washington Square Journal, corralled Ginsberg in the opening-night audience. The poet was in tiptop rhetorical form: "We're living in an expanding universe," he said, or shouted, to the young reporter. Ginsberg loved the show, whose "multiple association symbolically represents the LSD experience, but we need some flesh orgies and copulation on the stage." In the coming weeks, Barbara Rubin would arrange for Ginsberg to join the Velvets onstage and chant Hare Krishna while [Gerard] Malanga did his whip dance. (It may have been shortly after this that [Paul] Morrissey finally drove Rubin out: she "left the Factory one day screaming, never to return.")

Few incidents better illustrate the shift from New York's fifties artistic subculture to the new sixties version than the reaction of Ginsberg's fellow poet John Ashbery, recently returned to New York after almost a decade in Paris. Standing in the midst of the strobe lights and guitar feedback and biomorphic slide-projected shapes, Ashbery was traumatized. "I don't understand this at all," he said and burst into tears.


dan visel said...

One remembers that Adorno hated jazz.

This anecdote gets cited a couple times in the intro to Steven Moore's The Novel: An Alternative History (excerpt here), where it rubbed me the wrong way - there, Moore is using it to single out Ashbery as being unreceptive to the new. This seems counterproductive: certainly a case can be made for Ashbery's importance to the avant-garde novel (he brought Raymond Roussel to an American audience, for example).

There's also a certain amount of coded homophobia in here: Ashbery is behaving like a sissy. The authors have carefully protected themselves against this by bringing up Ginsberg immediately before. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Mark Scroggins said...

The anecdote bears a lot of unpacking, it's clear. There's the explicit contrasting (which does indeed I think carry a homophobic charge) of effete "Paris" and gritty, noisy "New York." And the setting in opposition of an "old" avant-garde (JA), literary & cultured, with the new, noisy, multimedia "pop" scene. Or the contrast between an art/literary world that places a high value on "technique," study (JA), with a new DIY regime of simply throwing as much shit as possible at the viewer.

I'm not at all surprised that Ashbery didn't enjoy the show; but I can think of any number of reasons for his bursting into tears that don't imply -- as Moore & Scherman/Dalton do -- an unreceptivity to the new, or an intimation that his own brand of experimentation had somehow been displaced.

What's at least as interesting is Ginsberg's total misreading of the event as just another station in the LSD lovefest, no different perhaps from a Quicksilver Messenger Service show.

Vance Maverick said...

Indeed, it's Ginsberg who at that point was staking his own success, career if you will, on being in tune with the mass cultural moment. Ashbery, by contrast, was interested in writing poems -- and did quite well at that, thank you -- so it's not clear why we should care either way whether he "got" the event. (Assuming of course that we're correct in our own understanding of it, and his reaction was correctly reported.)

Somewhere David Antin tells an anecdote of Ashbery at a poetry reading in the late '60s involving the Fugs. JA comes off badly in a different way, as I recall, but again it's hard to care (except in the literary way one cares about anecdotes in Antin, or Cage).

Archambeau said...

I'm less interested in the tears than in the statement of incomprehension. "I don't understand this at all" is a completely rational response.

Of course a rational response isn't what an essentially Dionysian event seeks to solicit. It wants to break the boundaries between the understanding observer and the participant losing himself or herself in the events. If you want to analyze and understand, you're worshipping Apollo when Dionysus is in the house.

Since a Dionysian experience is all about the melding together of our distinct selves into a whole, I could see an argument being made that those who didn't feel at ease with a kind of aggressive hetero masculinity would be put off from participation, and one could build an explanation of Rubin and Ashbery's discomfort from this.

But I really don't think that would work here, the way it would work at, say, a Manchester United rally. I mean, Ginsberg and Warhol aren't just token homosexuals in a hetro scene, here: they are presiding spirits. And the whip dance business, along with the whole Velvet Underground polymorphously perverse vibe, mitigates against any kind of simple application of this kind of thinking to the event. (Although this doesn't necessarily speak to some possible homophobia in the construction of the anecdote).

Feeling the Nietzsche groove today,