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Passing Through: Allen Ginsberg & Peter Orlovsky in Copenhagen, January 1983.
As part of their reading tour through a dozen European countries, poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, and their musical accompanist Steven Taylor, arrive by train in Copenhagen in the chill dark of an afternoon in early January of 1983. Birgit and I welcome them with red tulips and after shaking hands help them to carry their baggage from the platform upstairs and through the station to a taxi.
Allen is hatless, bespectacled and balding in a coat and muffler. Beneath his coat he wears a tweed jacket and sports a flowered necktie. His forehead is furrowed, his graying beard neatly trimmed, his right eyelid and lip drooping with a palsy with which he had lately been afflicted. Peter – despite the winter cold – is dressed in a yellow t-shirt emblazoned with the Naropa Institute logo and light cotton trousers. His feet are bare in a pair of flip-flops, his abundant graying light-brown hair worn in a long ponytail. His arms are muscular, his belly prominent. Allen says that they have come up in the train from Holland, haven’t slept, and are very tired. They are going to be interviewed by a reporter from the Danish newspaper Politiken at their hotel and then in only a few hours hold their scheduled reading.
Peter walks the platform in a curious, crouching fashion, grimacing, groaning, grunting, but in a hoarse voice he politely inquires as to where I am from and what I do. We struggle together up the stairs to the main floor of the station bearing a large and very heavy cylindrical cloth bag. When we reach the top of the stairs, Peter suddenly lifts the bag in one hand and to the astonishment of onlookers begins to spin with it, pirouetting around and around across the floor of the railway station. From the outset, there is something in Peter’s manner and behaviour that calls to mind the figure of Kaspar Hauser, an innocent abroad in a harsh and sordid world.
The reading is scheduled to be held in Huset (The House), a hip cultural center established in a former factory. A venue for music, theatre and other performances, Huset also contains a natural foods restaurant and a cinema. This evening there is an unforeseen problem. Shortly after Birgit and I arrive to claim our tickets and gain admittance to the reading, the entrance to Huset is blockaded by members of the Youth Club Personnel Union in protest at some grievance. The picket line (a solid phalanx of young people) is physically denying entrance to Huset to any and all patrons. (This despite the fact that the personnel who work in Huset have voted not to support the strike.)
When I catch sight of Peter, Allen and Steven in a hallway of Huset, I apprise them of the situation. Allen is thoughtful, not wishing to violate a picket line but not wishing either to disappoint those patrons who have come to hear them perform. We ascend together in an elevator to the room where the reading is to be held, a cafe with a small raised wooden stage. As Allen enters the room, there is applause from the approximately fifty guests who (like Birgit and me) arrived before the picket line was established. Before Allen can speak, though, a tall, thin young man with a sparse, scraggly beard and a shaven skull stands directly in front of him, raises his arm in a Nazi salute and shouts: “Heil Hitler!” Allen calmly ignores him and addresses the audience. “There is the question of the picket line to be considered,” he says. He offers to go down to the entrance, attempt to reason with the pickets, and failing to persuade them to alter their course, he will deliver a brief reading for the congregation of about 150 aspiring, frustrated patrons who are waiting there in the winter cold. (Meanwhile, the madman continues to yell: “Heil Hitler!”) The audience encourages Ginsberg to do this and he leaves the room.
Orlovsky remains, still dressed in his Naropa t-shirt, and now with a blue denim cap on his head. He paces barefooted and stiff-legged around the room, grunting and groaning. He dances on tiptoe, he approaches an elderly man seated at a table, shakes his hand and kisses it. He begins to brush his teeth, then brushes his long hair. He picks up a brass megaphone, balances it on one hand, holds it in his mouth by the handle, places it on his crotch like a giant erection, falls to the stage, pretending to writhe in ecstasy. He uses it as a telescope surveying the room, then employs it to amplify a series of animal noises: a dog barking, a rooster crowing. The audience cackles at these madcap antics. Peter kisses the wall, grows ever more passionate in his kisses, pats it, humps it. He lights a cigarette, resumes brushing his teeth, takes a swig from a bottle of Carlsberg. He then begins to wipe the stage curtains with a paper tissue. Meanwhile, Steven Taylor, a bespectacled, sensitive and intelligent looking young man, unpacks a guitar and begins to strum classical chords.
At length, Allen returns to the stage, explaining that everyone, including the pickets, has been invited up to the reading, but the pickets have not accepted that solution, so there’s no more to be done. He unpacks his portable, hand-pumped harmonium and begins to chant in a baritone voice: Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh. The chant rises and falls in the room, expressive of an infinite sorrow, an infinite longing for solace and refuge. He is joined in his chant by a suddenly serious Peter Orlovsky and by Steven Taylor who plays guitar chords behind the drone of the harmonium. The chant finished, Allen opens a black binder and reads “Birdbrain,” a serio-comic poem condemning and lamenting the myriad manifestations of human selfishness and folly. The microphone is not working so he shouts the poem. The madman continues to shout at intervals and to applaud at incongruous moments. In response, Allen improvises lines incorporating the poor obnoxious man into the poem: “Birdbrain applauds at the wrong time.” He also alludes spontaneously to Peter now yodelling alone somewhere in the distance beyond the room: “Birdbrain yodels in the corridors of the Huset.” And he mocks his own reading of the poem: “Birdbrain keeps reading his poem no matter what interruptions there are.”
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