Howls in San Francisco, Leeds mark the birth of Beat

It was a defining moment in 20th century culture—a fat, bearded scruff got to his feet in a San Francisco art gallery and electrified his audience with an epic poetic assault on American values accurately titled Howl.

Within months, Allen Ginsberg was in front of an obscenity court (which eventually cleared him) while Jack Kerouac and the rest of the nascent Beat Generation joined him in the most radical literary and musical movement the US has seen.

This week, the birth of Beat half a century ago will be marked by twin celebrations in California and Britain, where Ginsberg became an icon for rebellious youth in the late 1950s and ‘60s. Ten hours before San Francisco launches a “Howl at 50” event, centred on the site of the Six Gallery where the poem made its debut, a recital and concert in Leeds will hail the lasting power of Howl.

Starting with the line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”, the poem will be read to an accompaniment of specially commissioned musical pieces at Leeds University.

“That evening, on October 7 1955, had an extraordinary resonance,” said Simon Warner, a former rock musician who lectures in popular music at Leeds. “It woke up a generation dulled by McCarthyism and the repressive conformity imposed by the Cold War.”

Its return coincides with renewed tension at the grip of “American values” and growing unease over the lone superpower’s dealings with the world.

Ginsberg, who died in 1997 aged 71, was a textbook outsider: Jewish, gay and the child of socialist parents.
He worked as a seaman, dishwasher, spot-welder and night porter before his poetry brought him fame, notoriety and royalties.

Veterans of the original recital, which saw the poet sing his lines like a synagogue cantor as his confidence grew, while Kerouac chanted “Go, go, go” from the front row of the audience, still recall a sense of taking part in history. The feeling that youth and nonconformity were at last striking back engulfed the Bay area, then the US and much of the western world.

“Ginsberg never lost his power and appeal,” said Warner. “He influenced the Beatles and the Stones, then a new generation with the likes of Patti Smith and the Clash. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana drew on his work, too.” - Guardian Unlimited Â

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