It was an unusually wet evening in Los Angeles, and soggy Allen Ginsberg fans lined up outside the Theatre at the Ace Hotel to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the publication of Ginsberg’s legendary poem, “Howl.” They chatted excitedly about the show while glaring at the sky. Drought be damned, they were taking the sudden appearance of weather personally. “I looked outside 10 minutes ago and decided it wasn’t going to rain anymore,” one gentleman sniffed. “Look at this!” Once inside, the mood seemed to soak into the walls. Blue lights pulsed like opals in the walls as the crowd settled into their seats. Their conversations ran the gamut from claiming to see God’s face in the architecture of the scaffolding to telling stories of hiding cocaine from bouncers in nightclubs in Brooklyn — all subjects that Ginsberg probably would have approved of.
The evening was a benefit for the David Lynch Foundation, raising money to teach Transcendental Meditation to veterans, at-risk youth, and the homeless. There had been an event in the same theater a week earlier to celebrate the music of David Lynch’s films, which had been seamlessly programed. This evening proved to be the opposite. Instead of a well-choreographed homage to Ginsberg’s greatest work, it was more like a slapdash, call-your-friends, grab-a-guitar, throw-something-together sort of evening. Rehearsals are for chumps.
Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene acted as a kind of master of ceremonies for the night, welcoming the crowd and doing his best to make sure everything ran smoothly. To his credit, when the performers stuck to what they had rehearsed, it ran smoothly. The young folk singer from Vermont Sam Amidon sang a beautiful version of the Irish standard “As I Roved.” In her low, lovely voice, Beth Orton sang her ballads “Call Me The Breeze” and “I Wish I Never Saw The Sunshine.” Eric Mingus belted out Sonny Boy Williamson’s blues standard “Eyesight To The Blind.” Lucinda Williams sang her hits “Unsuffer Me” and “When I Look At The World,” and a cover of Lou Reed’s “Pale Blue Eyes.” Nick Cave showed up in a dark suit and sang “The Mercy Seat” and “Love Letter.” John Mulaney and Will Forte did stand-up while the sets were changed.
When the performers branched out and did something out of their comfort zone, things really got interesting. Amy Poehler and Chris Parnell, who introduced themselves as former SNL cast members and current lovers (they’re not actually lovers), did a wonderful rendition of Ginsberg’s last song, “Ballad Of The Skeletons” which turned the ditty into a rap battle, while photos of the Bronx from the 1980s flashed up on the screen. Forte and Fred Armisen performed Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket In California.” Well, Armisen performed the poem and Forte assisted by drinking a beer. Devendra Banhart got on stage — with 15 of his best friends/people he just met (and one fuzzy-headed bull) serving as back-up singers — and sang a song that Ginsberg had co-written with Bob Dylan called “Vomit Express,” about flying to Puerto Rico. And for no real reason that comes to mind, Andy Kim sang his hit “Sugar Sugar” with Courtney Love, Kevin Drew, and Eric Mingus singing back-up.
What was abundantly unclear was why the anniversary of “Howl” had been chosen to be memorialized at this event at all. Why this poem? What did it have to do with David Lynch? Was there some underlying connection between the two? As far as I could tell: No. As the night drew on, the only tangible thing I could assess was: The event was put on by Hal Wilner, and Hal Wilner really likes “Howl.” He took to the stage with actress Chloe Webb and read a big portion of it in the middle of the show. It was Wilner’s birthday. I will wildly speculate that Wilner really just wanted to throw a birthday party, so he got all of his buddies to show up and donate their time for charity. It sounds a lot nicer than buying a sports car.
The evening closed with Orton and Cave singing the Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds number “The Ship Song.” The world is really missing out on a Nick Cave/Beth Orton duets album. Somehow, this needs to happen. Their voices are so good together. An encore was insisted upon by Drew, despite the lack of applause or enthusiasm from the crowd, or the fact that most of them were headed for the door. Drew had all the singers come back on stage and give their best rendition of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” With only some of them knowing the lyrics, it turned into the karaoke number at your office party when the bar is about to close down. Loud. Unwieldy. Full of good intentions. The devoted faithful in the crowd pushed up to the front of the stage to sing along, so there was a circle of smiling faces all belting out the lyrics. One can only imagine that Ginsberg would be delighted that his poetry was being celebrated with such messy, joyful exuberance.