Jay Meehan: "HOWL" at 60
In the beginning were the words and they were so exquisitely ordered and the style and rhythm and feelings and ideas therein so profound that we wanted to commit them to memory and include them in ritual.
Early on came portions of Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and others that, although memorized as assigned "homework," were discovered to contain more joy than tedium.
Then came high school with modest references to Whitman and Pound and Eliot and they and their kind would stick to our ribs for as long as we roamed, and Lord, didn’t we roam. Even a hitch in the Army added to, rather than diluted, the pure pleasure of words. And afterwards, while traversing North America by thumb, they were kept close at hand.
Paperback editions of Walt Whitman’s "Leaves of Grass" and T.S. Eliot’s early works, including "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," continually appeared at the bottom of rucksacks and "bolsa" bags, the "dorm rooms" of autodidactic bohemians on the lam from the ordinary.
They were seldom lonesome, of course, usually keeping company with "Snicker" bars, old school canteens, and an ever-evolving collection of works by the seminal "Beat" writers of the day.
Dog-eared copies of Jack Kerouac’s "On the Road" and "The Dharma Bums" shared "stash" with William Burroughs’ "Naked Lunch" and Allen Ginsberg’s "HOWL." That’s the poem that changed everything and the one whose 60th anniversary of its first public reading will be celebrated this Friday October 9, in the auditorium of the Salt Lake Public Library.
And it is very much the opinion of your humble scribe that no one does HOWL as well as Salt Lake City! Not even North Beach in San Francisco where the work was initially published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his City Lights Bookshop.
This is due, in the main, to the fact that they don’t have poet and "Sonosopher" Alex Caldiero and his sidekick Ken Sanders to show them the way. As one who has possessed myriad recordings of Ginsberg renditions of HOWL from vinyl to cassette to CD (the malicious 8-track rumor is categorically untrue), I can safely state that Caldiero’s live performances are from an exponentially higher plane.
Ten years ago, Ken Sanders Rare Books and the Utah Humanities Council joined forces during the 8th Annual Great Salt Lake Book Festival to sponsor a 50th-Anniversary HOWL "happening" featuring the vocal art of Alex Caldiero. We really didn’t know what we were in for.
That evening, the Library auditorium stage found itself transformed into San Francisco’s Fillmore Street "Six Gallery," site of the original readings back in 1955. Replete with the late Will Lovell’s fine jazz quintet and a scattering of café tables filled with Utah poets, the only things missing were thick columns of cigarette smoke and gallon jugs of red wine.
That night, Alex entered the realm of the ecstatic! Interpreting the text with inimitable vocal dynamics, he ushered the packed house from the now-familiar "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked " through the "Holy, Holy, Holy" mantras of the "Footnote" section. Rapturous is what it was! Suffice to say, the joint erupted!
That brings us to the 55th anniversary 5 years ago when Alex and Ken productions brought us HOWL as a "Neo-Bop Opera in Five Acts." You can’t make this stuff up! Incorporating the famous obscenity trial along with fleshed out and choreographed sections of the poem, the "ranters" and background "chanters" had the angel-headed hipsters a-howlin’ for more.
Now, as yet another anniversary approaches, once again Alex Caldiero along with guest poets and jazz musicians are set to cast their spell. Billed as a "60th anniversary transmission of Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL featuring the sonosophy of Alex Caldiero and friends," the "open and free to the public" performance will no doubt transcend what has gone before.
But don’t let that scare you! It’s only words and sounds that want to be words soaring ecstatically about as perfect a venue as words could imagine. It’s such a glorious poem and no one gets to its heart as quickly and deeply as Alex Caldiero. Once again, thanks to Ken Sanders Rare Books and the Utah Humanities Council. Word!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.