Q&A with poet, musician, ethnomusicologist Steven Taylor - deeply knowledgeable about the music and poetry works

"As far as we know, in ancient times, poetry and music were the same thing. And of course we still speak of the music of poetry, in terms of meter, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, repetition, and so on, even when the poetry is read silently from a page. If literature is defined as fine writing, it is always musical to some extent."

Steven Taylor: Notes Sutra, Notes Mantra

Steven Taylor is a poet, musician, songwriter, and ethnomusicologist. He has published two books of poems and the musical ethnography, False Prophet: Field Notes from the Punk Underground. He has composed music for the theater, film, radio drama, and dance and has made more than a dozen records with various artists. His articles, reviews, essays, and poems have appeared in anthologies and zines. From 1976–1996 he collaborated on music and poetry works with Allen Ginsberg. Since 1984, he has been a member of the seminal underground rock band The Fugs. He has toured and recorded with Anne Waldman, Kenward Elmslie, and the New York hardcore band False Prophets. From 1995–2008 he was on the faculty at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University.

Steven Taylor, Tibet House, NYC 1995 / Photo by Allen Ginsberg

Steven Taylor, Ginsberg’s friend and collaborator for 20 years, is deeply knowledgeable about what Ginsberg called Secret History — the true but often hidden stories about the roots of our culture. He’s also an accomplished author, poet and musician, and ran the writing program at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University. As a guitarist, he’s performed with everyone from Patti Smith to Marianne Faithful to Don Cherry and Philip Glass. In 22019, Ace Records released definitive versions of William Blake’s Songs Of Innocence and Of Experience: Shewing The Two Contrary States Of The Human Soul. The album features twenty-nine tracks being tuned by Allen Ginsberg and Steven Taylor (and Tuli Kupferberg). Arranged and Performed by Steven Taylor.

Interview by Michael Limnios                   Steven Taylor, 2012 Interview @ blues.gr

How has the music and literature influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I was always a singer and a reader. Literacy was basic. This would seem to go without saying, but literacy, by which I mean reading as a daily habit, is no longer a societal priority. Now we hear talk of a “post-literate generation.”  

When I taught for ten years at the City University of New York, I knew that the majority of my undergraduates only engaged in reading when it was required to pass a class. So much is lost. I think of Frederick Douglass, a man born enslaved, who read his way out of slavery and into a career as a major abolitionist. After the Civil War, he held jobs in the administrations of four US presidents. In a very real sense, his engagement with literature made all that happen. 

Literacy has been a life line and a road to better conditions for many millions of people. Millions of enslaved people in America lived and died in ignorance of a world outside of the plantation. Something of that condition prevails today. The new plantation is the commercial media. I’m afraid that masses of young people are no longer stepping out of that territory. 

When I was a child, singing was something we did naturally, because this was working class culture in the north of England in the 50s and 60s. Everybody I knew was a singer one way or another. We sang in school every morning, we sang in church and at parties and in pubs and at football matches. In America, singing is not so common in the mainstream. It’s all been subsumed by television. Kurt Vonnegut said that American culture is a TV commercial.  

With regard to your question about the journeys I’ve taken, the easiest answer is to speak of actual travels rather than a metaphoric sense of a journey. Literature and music enabled almost all of the traveling I have done. All of my visits to Europe, and almost all of my travels within the US have been in order to make music, with Ginsberg (70s-90s), with the Fugs (80s-2000s), and with the False Prophets (late 80s early 90s). 

So to answer your overall question, literature and music have always been part of my daily life. They made me. I can’t imagine a life without them.

How important was/is the activism in your life? If you could change one thing in the world/people, what would that be?

I wouldn’t change anything. This might be understood as a Buddhist position, or a matter of existentialist ethics. What is important is the choices one makes going forward. 

Activism has always been part of my life. I have marched with antiwar protestors. I have performed at rallies on various human rights issues. As a writer, I have published essays and opinion pieces. I have made songs on social issues. As a musician, I have worked with bands that express a political range from democratic socialism to anarchism. I also consider my teaching as a form of activism.

(Peter Orlovsky, Allen Ginsberg, Steven Taylor, 1983 / Photo by Elsa Dorfman)

How does music affect your mood and inspiration? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music? 

Music is healing and empowering. I’m not worried about the future of music. In my first year of college, I studied with a composer, Joel Thome, who said that musicians were going to save the world. Maybe he didn’t mean that literally; maybe it was meant to inspire us to take our musical studies seriously, but that has always stayed with me as a kind of ideal. Sing as if the fate of humankind depended on it. It’s not a heavy thing, but it’s a good basic stance. 

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experiences with Allen Ginsberg?

Allen said, “Write your own history. No one is going to do it for you.” And he taught that poetry is observation of mind. “Catch yourself thinking,” he wrote. Observation of mind, or the ability to detach oneself somewhat from one’s thoughts, to regard one’s thoughts as objects, is important well beyond the realm of poetry. We are victims and oppressors to the extent that we do not understand that we can examine our own thoughts. This goes back to the decline in literacy. I am afraid we are producing generations of people who lack self-understanding. 

What has made you laugh from Gregory Corso and what touched (emotionally) you from William Burroughs? 

Gregory didn’t inspire laughter in me. He caused surprise at times, and he could be charming and certainly inspiring, but he never made me laugh. Allen sometimes laughed at his antics, but I was more cautious. Gregory was deeply needy; his whole presentation, his persona, was a kind of desperate act. His talent was the main impression. He was a great poet.

When I first saw Gregory, Allen and I were on stage at a club in New York. Gregory was in the audience. He was drunk, and he was heckling. [Do you understand this expression? To heckle is to shout from the audience and interrupt a performance. It happens most in stand-up comedy venues.] I remember Allen yelling, “Gregory! Go home and take care of your baby!” Max Corso was an infant at the time. This would have been 1976 or 77.

The first time I met him was at Ginsberg’s apartment. I had a key to Allen’s place, and would just let myself in. One day I entered and Gregory was standing in the home office, which was at the end of the hallway. He said, “Oh look, it’s the milky boy.”

I took this to be a reference to the English term “milksop,” meaning a person without courage.  

He assumed a boxing stance and said, “Show me your hands!” I held out my hands, palms up. 

He said, “You looking like fucking Saint Francis. You’re gonna get your ass kicked.”

This was a reference to Bellini’s painting “St. Francis in Ecstasy.”  

Then he put his hands down and said “Are you a poet?” For a moment I hesitated. He said, 

“Are you a poet or not? If you are a poet, say so.”

“I am a poet.”

“So tell me a poem.”

I hesitated again. “So you say you're a poet, but you can’t tell me a poem! Listen to this:

A star is as far as the eye can see, and as near as my eye is to me.”

Later we toured together. I talk about that in my memoir-in-progress. 

It’s strange to think of William Burroughs in terms of emotion, because he was such a cool character. He didn’t inspire any particular emotion in me, except admiration for his writing. The emotional vibe I got from William himself was that he was shy and self-protective. His gun fetish was surely an expression of this, as were his formal manners. He was cool but not cold. William was kind. A person of conventional sensibility might say that he had beautiful manners. I admired his philosophy, which was basically existentialist. 

What is the relationship between the Beat Generation on the political, spiritual and socio-cultural implications?

Big question. The politics of the original Beat group were split. Kerouac was a conservative Republican and Ginsberg was more or less a socialist. The political impact of the Beat movement trended left, because Ginsberg was their major spokesman, and because the popular trend of the time was leftward, driven by the youth counterculture, the Civil Rights movement, the multiple crossovers between Black and white cultures, and in the 60s, opposition to the Vietnam War. Kerouac was actually horrified by being associated in the press with rebel youth and with hippies. He hated that. 

I don’t know about Burroughs’s politics. He was more like a Libertarian, or perhaps an anarchist -- opposites so far apart that they turn with the curvature of space until they have some things in common.

There’s a section in my book Don’t Hide the Madness where Allen is visiting Burroughs in Kansas, and they are looking at a survey William got in the mail from the Libertarian Party. It’s basically party propaganda. The survey is a list of statements on various social issues, and you respond with “agree” or “disagree.”  Allen reads the statements, and William responds.

AG: "Military service should be voluntary, no draft." Yes or no.

WSB: Yes.

AG: "The government should not control radio TV or the press."

WSB: I agree. Yes.

AG: "Repeal regulations of sex by consenting adults."

WSB: No, that is yes, there shouldn't be any.

AG: "Drug laws do more harm than good, repeal them."

WSB: Yes.

AG: "Let people immigrate and emigrate (in and out) freely."

WSB: Yes.

AG: Now on economic issues. "Farmers should farm without quotas or subsidies."

WSB: Well I...that's a pretty elaborate question.

AG: So that's yes maybe or no?

WSB: I would say maybe, 'cause I'm not sure, I don't know enough about that.

AG: OK. "People are better off with free trade than with tariffs."

WSB: Probably.

AG: OK so we have yes. "Minimum wage laws eliminate jobs, repeal minimum wage laws."

WSB: I wonder about that.

AG: OK, maybe.

WSB: I'd say maybe, that is, with these economic things I don't know enough.

AG: "End taxes. Pay for services voluntarily."

WSB: What you say?

AG: (repeats)

WSB: Mmmmaybe.

AG: "Europeans and Japanese should pay for their own defense." 

WSB: Well, well, yes I have to say they should. Now...

AG: You want the Japanese to rearm?                (Steven Taylor / Photo by Allen Ginsberg)

WSB: No I don't want them to rearm.

AG: But pay for their own defense.

WSB: Pay for their own defense, yes, more or less, yes. Or ‘maybe’ for that one.

AG: Well you pass as a 100% Libertarian on personal issues. You pass as a 20% Libertarian on economic issues. And an 80% maybe.

The survey gives you a “score,” like in a sports event or exam. The message is that you are more of a Libertarian than you thought you were. 

So that’s the personal politics of the main players. As far as the Beats’ impact on national politics or the larger culture, I don’t know.

Culturally, the Beats were part of a larger synthesis of Black and white cultural practices in, for example, language and music, and international cultural phenomena, such as Buddhism, and alternatives to American capitalism from European democratic socialism to primitive communism or utopian socialism (which had been a feature of 19th century American alternative social practice). There’s a vast webwork of persons and phenomena in which the Beats are a particular constellation. 

Allen talked about “the democratization of the culture,” meaning there was a general breakdown of boundaries between “high culture” and popular culture. You know, Jackie Kennedy dancing at the Electric Circus. Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. An early instance was Apollinaire’s publication of forbidden books from the Paris archives. Low culture becomes literature. Apollinaire said the art of the future was the kiosk, meaning that advertising would be art. Warhol was an instance of that. And of course the Beats were indebted to Apollinaire. In America, particularly for Ginsberg, demotic poetry comes from Whitman. Also it was the do-it-yourself thing. You don't have to be a banker pretending to be English to write a poem. Just do it.

If you include in the larger Beat matrix people like Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, and Amiri Baraka, you get many of the major countercultural trends of the mid-20th century -- environmentalism, feminism, Black power, etc.

Spiritual implications would be the role the Beats played in raising interest in Buddhism and other eastern religious traditions. Allen was perhaps the first internationally-known artist to go to India and adopt Indian clothes and religious practices. He was doing it five years before the Beatles met the Maharishi. 

Steven Taylor, Allen Ginsberg & Lawrence Ferlinghetti, New York City, 1985 / Photo by Hank O’Neal 

What is the impact of the music on the literary tradition? 

As far as we know, in ancient times, poetry and music were the same thing. And of course we still speak of the music of poetry, in terms of meter, rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, repetition, and so on, even when the poetry is read silently from a page. If literature is defined as fine writing, it is always musical to some extent. 

Allen was influenced by Ezra Pound and Louis Zukofsky. Pound tells us “to compose [poetry] in the sequence of the musical phrase.” Zukofsky said in his poem “A-12,”: “I’ll tell you. / About my poetics— / music / speech / An integral / Lower limit speech / Upper limit music.”

Music in language introduces ambiguity. I think it was the linguist Roman Jakobson who said “music multiplies meaning.” The extreme of music in literature would be some of the poems of Dada, the Russian Futurists, and the sound poems of Kurt Schwitters, which are a kind of musical nonsense. The linguist and psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva says that in times of social upheaval, poetry goes toward music. Dada was World War One, Russian Futurism was the Bolshevik Revolution, Schwitters was making his poetic/musical pieces between the world wars. Sound poems are pure music without any kind of coherent meaning, and they happened at a time when society in general did not exhibit coherent meaning. 

So the impact of music on the literary tradition is revolutionary, in a sense.  

What do you love most about the act of writing poetry and music? 

I love the sense of watching things emerge. In his Chronicles, Bob Dylan talks about looking into a mist, and seeing things emerge from it. It’s like that. The poet Robert Duncan used a similar metaphor. He says to write is to look at an empty field or meadow -- which is a state of mind he is sometimes permitted to enter -- and notice the things that appear there. The idea of permission, of course, describes the poem as not coming from oneself. Art is not self expression. Art is a suspension of self, or it is getting the self out of the way. The most overt instance of this is the music of John Cage. 

Part of the pleasure of writing is in the struggle to see or hear what is emerging. When you know you have something good, but it hasn’t all arrived yet, that is the greatest thrill, because you know you are going to get it. In my personal experience, when something is coming to me, I get a feeling of deep sadness. That’s when I know something good is coming. 

In spiritual terms, it would be Epiphany for a Christian, or for a Buddhist, the vision of the sufferings of all sentient beings. 

(Founding members of the Fugs, Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders, with Scott Petito and  Steve Taylor in New York, 2003 / Photo by Stephen Chernin / AP)

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