Over his 101-year life, the poet and activist created spaces for artists to thrive — but he also helped transform the sound of American poetry
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died last month just 30 days shy of his 102nd birthday, lived a life of fascinating contradictions. From a Dickensian childhood — his father died before he was born, and his mother was institutionalized when he was only two years old — Ferlinghetti eventually landed with wealthy foster parents who nurtured his love of literature and art. He was a World War II naval officer who went to Normandy on D-Day and Nagasaki six weeks after the atomic blast, but was forever afterwards dedicated to anti-war writing, activism, and publishing. He was a counterculture icon whose sartorial style included button-down shirts and a bowler hat; and an Ivy League-educated intellectual who wrote poetry that was intentionally populist, in the truest sense of that word: written for the many rather than the few.
But one contradiction stands above the rest. The man who cofounded City Lights bookstore and press and wrote the million-selling poetry collection Coney Island of the Mind, a seminal text in the Beat canon alongside classics like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, did not consider himself a Beat. As he told an interviewer in the 2013 documentary Ferlinghetti, “I never was a Beat. It wasn’t until City Lights published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 that the Beats arrived.” Ferlinghetti famously overcame obscenity charges after publishing Ginsberg’s Howl & Other Poems when the Supreme Court acknowledged the book’s “redeeming social value.” The ruling has provided context for First Amendment battles ever since — from Vladimir Nabokov to N.W.A — and attracted left-leaning writers, musicians, and young people to San Francisco in droves. Today, although Ferlinghetti is justly praised for helping the Beat Generation and hippie counterculture find a place to thrive, that legacy has overshadowed his reputation as a writer.
Sixty-five years since Howl, the muscular Beat and Beat-influenced style of the young writers Ferlinghetti published — like Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Diane DiPrima — remains a staple of lit classes and anthologies, while Ferlinghetti gets less credit for his gentle manifestoes (“The state of the world calls out for poetry to save it. / If you would be a poet, create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic,” he wrote in “Poetry as Insurgent Art [I am signaling you through the flames]”).
While Ginsberg’s long-lined, incantatory declarations spotlight the speaker and require impressive lung power, Ferlinghetti’s jazz-inspired poems read like a conversation, leaving plenty of space to breathe and reflect. They invite the listener to respond. No wonder, then, that his work is beloved by so many musicians, who considered him both an influence and a peer.
David Amram, the genre-crossing multi-instrumentalist and composer of film scores including The Manchurian Candidate and Splendor in the Grass, was a longtime friend and collaborator of Ferlinghetti’s. In 1995, Amram composed and played music to accompany Ferlinghetti’s new project, a recording of his earliest book, Pictures of the Gone World.
“Playing with Lawrence, you couldn’t go wrong,” Amram tells Rolling Stone. “In all of Lawrence’s poetry, he manages to put it in the context of telling a story, so that you feel he is speaking to you in the poem. And then of course like great music of all genres, it not only tells a story, but you see how the story is told. And when you look at his work, it seems deceptively simple, but actually, when you read it yourself, you can read it over and over, like hearing Beethoven or Charlie Parker, and you see that there’s something else there — a sense of structure and time and pace.”
Amram, a key innovator in adding instrumentation to the genre of “jazz poetry” in performances with Jack Kerouac dating back to the 1950s, described his collaboration with Ferlinghetti this way: “The good thing about Lawrence is, he was able to approach it spontaneously, and allow me to try to do my best. I think he knew I was going to try to do something that would hopefully fit into his poem and leave space — rather than having music grinding away as if you were in an elevator or supermarket, trying to have it on occasion and having it be something that would be part of the whole story.”
IN RECENT days, I was in touch with a journalist with strong Beat interests who was heading out to meet one of that generation’s legendary survivors, jazz musician and film composer David Amram.
I was pleased to know that the 90-year-old, one of the few individuals still alive who knew Kerouac well as a friend and made music alongside him, was continuing to take visitors at his home in Beacon, New York State.
Then, shazam, a little nugget of extra news. Personally, I try to use Facebook in a discerning fashion – I don’t go looking for new Friends and vet with some care those who ask to link with me – but, when Amram himself requested the honour yesterday, I was more than delighted to accede! Amazing the way social media can re-connect you with your heroes.
Amram’s achievement runs through the American cultural 20th Century and beyond: a multiple instrumentalist though the French horn was his principal device of choice, he moved easily from orchestral composition to movie soundtrack creation to jazz improvisation.
He would work alongside Leonard Bernstein with the New York Philharmonic and collaborate with a glittering array of jazz figures, from Dizzy to Monk and Mingus. But it was when he started mixing in the Greenwich Village circle the Beats in the mid-1950s, his vision of the world was truly expanded and enriched.
He talked and talked and partied with Kerouac and co – he would make impromptu music at social gatherings with the On the Road author – and, eventually, in 1957, the two would join forces at the Brata Gallery in Manhattan to concoct one of the first jazz poetry performances.
Amram became a recognised figure in that remarkable artistic community when its powers were at its height. In fact, in 1959, he was a key player in the seminal Beat short, the Kerouac-penned Pull My Daisy, when he provided the music.
He received a acclaim for his soundtrack to the Oscar-nominated The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 and by the start of the 1970s was in recording studios with Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan working on some celebrated collaborations between those two giants of literature and popular music.
Later, amid a multitude of projects and a plethora of albums, Amram would add his considerable weight to the 1999 venture Jack Kerouac Reads On the Road, a record that would see the composer conceive fresh settings of Kerouac poetry and include a notable track by Tom Waits and Primus.
Amram gathered his burnished memoirs in three very readable memoirs – Vibrations, Offbeat and Upbeat – and, when I was working on my book Text and Drugs and Rock‘n’Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture, I set out to connect in person with this éminence grise of Jewish American letters.
In 2004 on a gleaming July day, my partner Jayne Sheridan and I headed out of Grand Central by train to his upstate New York farm (see picture below). He met us at the station and drove us to his rustic home. Our meeting with the man was memorable indeed: the hours we spent with him were full of energy and ideas, memories and anecdotes, firm views on the Beats and strong takes on his first love, music.
As anyone who has encountered him will know, his spirit is irrepressible and it was thrilling to then also join him in a journey back into the city, where a new version of The Manchurian Candidate – with some of Amram’s original score intertwined – was receiving the red carpet treatment, and continue our three-way interchange.
The interview I conducted became a chapter in Text and Drugs, eventually published in 2013. A few years after that, my journalist colleague Pat Thomas interviewed Amram again for my edited 2018 collection Kerouac on Record: A Literary Soundtrack.
It is heartwarming now to hear that, quite a number of years on, David Amram is still communicating his fund of fun tales and serious insights. As his 10th decade unwraps, long may this musical maestro bring melodic interpretation and critical insight to the Beat Generation debate. I look forward to responding to his Facebook posts!
Read the original article in Simon Warner, Substack.com