Allen Ginsberg & Arthur Russell in Suburbia: Read an Excerpt from Kevin Killian’s Fascination
Author: Edit Team
December 11, 2018
This month, Semiotext(e) released Fascination, a new collection from acclaimed author Kevin Killian. With cameos from Arthur Russell and Allen Ginsberg, the book is a painfully honest and witty portrait of youthful longing.
From the publisher:
Fascination brings together an early memoir, Bedrooms Have Windows (1989) and a previously unpublished prose work, Bachelors Get Lonely, by the poet and novelist Kevin Killian, one of the founding members of the New Narrative movement. The two together depict the author’s early years struggling to become a writer in the sexed-up, boozy, drug-ridden world of Long Island’s North Shore in the 1970s. It concludes with Triangles in the Sand, a new, previously unpublished memoir of Killian’s brief affair in the 1970s with the composer Arthur Russell. Fascination offers a moving and often funny view of the loneliness and desire that defined gay life of that era—a time in which Richard Nixon’s resignation intersected with David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs—from one of the leading voices in experimental gay writing of the past thirty years.
I met musician Arthur Russell courtesy of the poet Allen Ginsberg in 1978 at SUNY Stony Brook, where I was grinding through the PhD program, the English Department, sigh. Our campus was a wooded “Colonial” suburb about sixty miles outside of Manhattan on Long Island’s North Shore. In this privileged sector of Long Island, the university sat like a blight, its sixties buildings Bauhaus craters in what had once been the world’s largest, most idyllic meadow. The Gay Student Alliance took up one and a half rooms, largely glass and carpet, in the hideous structure that the campus guidebook called the Student Union. From any direction on campus you could turn around and point at the Student Union, the ugliest building of them all, the one distinguished by a “post-modern” feature—a bridge leading from the building’s rooftop to—well, it didn’t lead anywhere, just broke off halfway through, thus lending the new building a touch of the “folly.” Visitors looked at it blankly, while student guides explained either that the money ran out to complete this bridge, or that it had been intended this way all along, a whimsical extravaganza in the bleakest of gray concrete. We took it to be allegorical, it was the “bridge to nowhere,” and there was a student literary magazine with the same name. I was 25 and pretty vacant, and I had been trapped in suburbia my whole life. All of us in the Gay Students Alliance felt the same, even the actual New Yorkers who had come to us from Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx.
We all of us went aflutter, like yellow moths surprised by a hummingbird, when anyone “famous” visited us on campus. Like the ambitious stenographers in The Best of Everything (Twentieth Century Fox, 1959), we were all waiting for our main chance, trading on our youth and beauty to land Mr. Right. For me, Allen Ginsberg was going to be my ticket out of my papiermâché nightmare of whiteness and blankness and hollow meaningless suburban living. I had gone through a long period of enslavement to David Bowie and was only now waking from my dream and realizing that I would never meet him in real life: but now the older, shorter, schlubbier Ginsberg was in fact almost within the realms of possibility.
I got this idea from a fellow gay student, William, a boy I’d gone to high school with. Two or three years my junior, Will was humiliatingly enough so much hipper about gay life. I’d gone trawling for a lot of sex, and that part was cool, but I didn’t know how to date, and Will was infinitely at ease with romance and relationships. He had an easy, flirtatious way about him, and he mentioned casually that he had slept with Allen Ginsberg several times. It was sort of gross, Will said, but on the bright side he had never had so much first class attention paid his ass. And since he, Will, had been put in charge of the entertainment committee of the Gay Students Union, he could bring in whoever he wanted as speakers. In this way, in fact, I later got to meet the poets Eileen Myles, Michael Lally, and Tim Dlugos, for they came to entertain us gay and lesbian students. Tim eventually succumbed to AIDS, I saw Michael Lally last month at an old timers party in New York, though we never grew close. I’m still friends with Eileen. Just the other day we were talking about how gay money brought us together, but the committee must have spent a bundle to get Allen Ginsberg and Arthur Russell to come all the way east to Suffolk County.
Ginsberg was perhaps not the household word he had been ten years before, but he was still the most famous poet in America and possibly the most famous gay man, outside of Paul Lynde and Bayard Rustin. And during the ’70s Ginsberg was particularly active and prolific as he sought new ways to deliver his message to the people, including a then-shocking shedding of his hippie clothes and aura to adapt three-piece suits, shorter hair, and a series of professional gigs that would culminate in a professorship at Brooklyn College, and the awards began to roll in; while he was growing closer to his guru, the wild man of the east, Trungpa Rinpoche, who played on Ginsberg’s well-concealed attraction to obedience and blind devotion.
This was mid-May, 1978. A driver brought them out from Manhattan in a town car, to the university campus off of Long Island Expressway Exit 62. And that’s a lot of exits. Even my own little town, Smithtown, was Exit 56. And as the Chrysler Imperial pulled up the driveway, Will was there to open the door and embrace Ginsberg, but the poet seemed to me to be avoiding his kiss for some reason. This was my big moment, I had humbly pleaded with Will to be allowed to be there at the greeting ceremony. Another GSA member stood nearby with some paperwork, but I clutched the flowers I had begged Will for the chance to present. The bouquet was what today you would call artisanal. There were two or three red roses threaded in it, but it was otherwise comprised of the native plants of Long Island— milkweed, goldenrod, violets, false indigo, verbena—messy plants, kind of RFD thrift store. A few feathers from the robin and the gull gave it even more Suffolk County humility: standing there to present my thoughtful, poetic gift, I must have looked like Lorine Niedecker, like the girl from the north country Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash sang about.
“Can somebody help my musician?” Ginsberg called out, in a brusque tone, the tone you would use were your wishes being ignored instead of catered to slavishly which was verifiably the case. Naturally we GSA guys tripped over ourselves trying to entangle Arthur Russell’s limbs from his cello and the Imperial and get everyone out of the car and onto the outdoor stage safely. I still had the flowers in my hands so I couldn’t really assist, but I caught his eye, the musician. He was awfully young, exactly my age I think, maybe a few months older. My mind dismissed him on one hand, but on the other something registered in another part of itself, an impression of a withheld energy that seemed very urban and refined, but not a giving nature. And also: he’d be good looking except for that complexion.
This was the first poetry reading I’d ever been to held outdoors, but it suited Ginsberg right down to the ground, he looked splendid and fit, while Arthur Russell, standing behind him about ten paces, like the wife of a Mohammedan leader, wore a pained scowl and always seemed in danger of toppling the straight-backed chair behind him right off the rear of the stage. Students crowded in a ring, it was a reading “in the round,” but in practice Ginsberg delivered most of the work to the portion of the crowd gathered directly in front of his microphone. We stood on a lawn to the north side of the complicated Student Union, almost directly in front of the glazed portieres behind which lay our GSA office. To my mind Ginsberg was like a god come among us from Olympian heights, like those fifth acts in Shakespeare’s late romance plays, as if he was going to resolve all the plots we tired and tormented humans had brought down upon ourselves. Was it just charisma I was responding to? He wore a white long-sleeved shirt and a large silk tie with diagonal stripes—it was an age in which men’s ties could get really flared as they neared the navel, then cut back sharply approaching the home plate of the belt buckle. Overhead spring leaves splayed from maple branches, fluttering in the breeze like green and yellow pennants, and beyond the leaves, the late afternoon sky glowed pale gold and blue, like the inside of a Faberge egg, His reading brought down the house, or whatever the outdoor equivalent is for the house. His musician listened intently, tall and willowy, in a yellow and black flannel plaid shirt, untucked. From time to time he was called upon to apply his cello to Ginsberg’s intonations in call and response format. Few could see his face, he seemed determined to hide that scowl under a mane of thick curtains of brown hair—though while playing, his expression changed into something less conscious of the suburban kids all around him. Restless, longing, I realized I still had my ignored bouquet in my hands, and this discovery embarrassed me so much I wanted to stow the thing into one of the green institutional trash cylinders featured everywhere on the campus; but a little bit of mad Ophelia infected me and, in time with the singsong poetry, I plucked a flower at a time and sailed them wildly over my head as if practicing for a new heaven and a new earth. Afterwards, I imagined, the boys and girls of the Gay Student Alliance would ask themselves, “What was Kevin muttering when he threw those hideous flowers up into the air?”
And one would report, one who stayed closest to me as I tore at my clothes and drooled and sang, “First he said there was fennel for you, and columbines. ‘There was rue for you, Will, and here was some he would hold on to.’ On Sunday, he said, it was a herb of grace.”
“But it was only Tuesday.”
“I know, that’s what made him so scary and uncanny! He told me I should wear the rue with a difference.”
“Like a gay difference?”
“I don’t know, just a difference.”
“I saw him toss some grody violets right at Allen Ginsberg’s head.”
“Yes! And he cried out, ‘I would toss you some violets, Arthur Russell, but they withered, all of them did, as my love for Ginsberg crumpled and died.’”
Afterwards the question rose about how Arthur Russell—cello packed away in sturdy case—was going to get back to New York, since Ginsberg planned to stay in our neck of the woods visiting with the elderly poet Louis Zukofsky, who lived in Port Jefferson, the next town past Setauket, and Allen would need to keep the car. Surely that was all right with the Gay Students, who were paying for it? I could see my plan for charming Allen Ginsberg by having sex with him slipping away, like a drop of mercury. Was I surprised? Yeah! Was I surprised, no, not at all. “Anyone from the Times here?” Ginsberg shouted to the crowd, but the photographers were from Newsday and other Suffolk County papers. Click click click.
Hearing this non-response, Allen fixed his sad beautiful eyes on me, though, and kept them there. Then in a lower voice he asked if I had a car. Instantly my imagination bubbled and spouted, a geyser of new love dreams. Suddenly a beautiful evening loomed before me, the restoration of my hopes. I could see myself walking a pace behind my new boyfriend, Allen Ginsberg, to pay a visit to Port Jefferson to Louis and Celia Zukofsky, my hand grasping his as thoughtfully he held it out to me behind his back. Click click click, the world would see us together in the Times. Well, in the Stony Brook Statesman. And then, well, he’d come back to my place surely, or—“Yeah, I have a car!” I exclaimed. “That’s great,” he said, rising and wiping the remains of gay snacks from his lap. “Then can you give Arthur a ride back to the East Side?” “East side of what?” I responded, like an idiot. I felt sort of tricked into this and resented it, especially since my young twink friend Will said he would go along with Allen and the driver to Port Jefferson. (We didn’t have that word “twink” then, so that’s not quite right.)
I couldn’t suss out how Arthur Russell felt, but all the way to New York I peppered him with questions about Allen Ginsberg. It was rather an effort for him to act chatty, but at some point on the L.I.E. he must have decided, if you have to ride with them, you might as well be nice to them. On stage, his severity worked with his music, and his strong, lean fingers flew up, then down, the neck of the instrument, and I was already thinking, he’d be kind of sexy if it wasn’t for his acne. On the numbers in which he wasn’t asked to play he sat there in what might have been a haze of Buddha, but supple and alert, and in the Blake duets he jumped up and his fingers worked that cello faster than I could see them. Was he an ideal collaborator with Ginsberg? Can’t tell. I only saw Steven Taylor play with AG once, and he was more deft (and played different instruments, and provided a harmony vocal), and it seemed to me that Ginsberg cared for him more than he had Arthur Russell. But who can say? Anyhow what was the alternative, Allen alone with that horrid harmonium perched on his knee, never in tune? So when I dropped Arthur outside his building on the Lower East Side, I swallowed my pride to mumble, “What’s your number?” And he slid the padded case from the backseat, rotated it to sit on the curb near a hydrant, leaned down and spoke to me through the passenger window. “I was just about to say,” he began. “I don’t know, we could hang out.” Nodding I gave him the thumbs up sign and put on my blinker. Dark was coming on and I had a class to teach in the morning. He had one more thing to say. As I left East Twelfth Street he called after me, “You’re a good driver.” First and last compliment from him. And maybe the only time anyone’s ever said that to me.
I drove home in the dark, morose, to my crazy apartment in Port Jefferson. I was grumbling and talking to myself like a Tom Waits character, and drinking from a little bottle of rock & rye. Do they even make rock & rye today? I wonder—since I stopped drinking in the ’80s I don’t keep up. But this was the ’70s and I was a full-time lush and I was hurt I’d gotten the brush from Allen Ginsberg, and received the short end of the stick, as I saw it, an introduction to his cellist—his hired hand, his servant really—I was indignant as a mean Jane Austen character. I had gone to the reading with such hope, and now what did I have, nothing. Well, I had Arthur Russell’s phone number, and maybe we would hang out. He had a dark Byronic look to him and big pillow lips, well, the lower was large, and great hair, but when I tried to call his face to memory I saw a hundred, two hundred, scars on it, so he was always in shadow. Hard to typecast such a man.
In New York Arthur Russell and I hadn’t much in common, as I was soon to discover. He knew so much about music he made me feel dowdy and square, like all my experience listening to Hunky Dory and Diamond Dogs counted for nothing, not to mention the Rosemary Clooney and Bing Crosby duets my mom and dad had filled our house with growing up. He’d known Terry Riley and Robert Wilson and Yvonne Rainer and all these people I had never actually even heard of, whereas I was from Hicksville—literally, that’s the town I was born in. That was all right because I was still better looking than he was—or so I thought then, and maybe that delusion saved me from an utter ignominy. But delusion is what it was.
I can only remember knowing one thing about music that he didn’t already know. But we did share some enthusiasms. We both liked ABBA and their weird, jolly English, “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” “Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo,” “Fernando.” We would repeat those lyrics as though they were keys to a deeper understanding of some far-off thing—not just Scandinavian studio mastery, but instructions from another world—an Austin Osman Spare world. “The judges will decide/ the likes of me abide.” If you could figure out the turns of phrase you might be on to a different mentality, as might one who would know the sex of angels.
In silly moods we would play like we were Frida and Agnetha, proffering hands drawn up as though they were clawed, and paw the air, singing in unison, “I am behind you, I’ll always find you—” paw, claw, —“I am the tiger! People who fear me, never go near me—” growl, claw, —“I am the tiger!” I don’t know why any of Abba’s songs are still popular, all these years later, because they were so juvenile, and yet I suppose, like this tiger number, they not only partook of human suffering but there was maybe something eerie, unheimlich, about them. He and I were just two guys, neither of us gay or so he said, we just liked to hang out together and to parody the way couples felt—gay or straight—the extravagances of emotion one had come to the Lower East Side to avoid or to sample, like going to a Jack Smith performance, experiencing feeling only through the excess of performance or emotion, as parody. Is there something of the sort going on in Arthur’s lyrics? As I listen to them now I think I hear it.
They too, some of them, sound written right on the very edge of English.
Arthur liked the wall of sound, or perhaps the super producer in general, so not only Phil Spector and Bo Michael Tretow (he of ABBA fame) but Jack Nietzsche, Joe Meek, Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, Mickie Most, Shadow Morton—the guys who didn’t know when to stop. He was very hip to the un-hip, people like Juan García Esquivel, or the super un-hip Charlie Calello, who had produced the famous Lou Christie falsetto singles “Lightning Strikes” and “Rhapsody in the Rain” but also the Four Seasons, The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto,” Neil Diamond: “Sweet Caroline.” Laura Nyro’s Eli and the Thirteenth Confession
LP; we both had the original record that had come packaged with mauve lyric sheets, drenched in patchouli oil. Calello again! Extravagant, even kitschy, at a time when kitsch reigned except among the cool. But Arthur’s tastes were unpredictable, for much of the time he had that subtly Buddhist tendency towards stripping down, unplugging, making things simpler. But I don’t know much about music and I wonder if carrying these two opposing tendencies with you in a life of music is perhaps common? Commoner than in poetry maybe? Though he knew American poetry quite well, a couple different strains of it, as those who know his lyrics will conclude. I remember him as one of the very few admirers of the poet John Wieners who enjoyed equally both the spare, bleak epiphanies of Wieners’ early Hotel Wentley Poems (1958), and the manic, Ludwig-eccentric wordtangles collected in Behind the State Capitol or Cincinnati Pike (1975).
He would turn to me, tragedy brimming over in his lambent eyes, and ask me, “Where are those happy days? They seem so hard to find.” I would reply, from a steely defensive crouch, “I tried to reach for you, but you have closed your mind.” By then we would be giggling, like schoolgirls. “Whatever happened to our love?” (with that strange beat on the proposition, “to”). “It used to be so nice,” he said. I replied, “It used to be so good.” I was one to whom he could unveil these maybe queeny desires, to be one with Agnetha and Frida, to paw at the air, in a way that Allen—or, I don’t know, David Byrne or Cecil Taylor—would not. But outside of that we weren’t real attracted to each other, and we were both pretty broke all the time. Arthur would moan that he had to break this or that studio date (in which he had planned to record something of his own) because he had to eat. And one time I remember I gave him forty dollars to save such a date and it seemed like an inordinate amount of money to spend on a guy one wasn’t even fucking . . .
He acted straight, spoke of having girlfriends, and he danced with the few women who showed up on the floor at the Paradise Garage, seemed to prefer them in fact. It was a shame, then, that I was growing fond of him. He played me a record he had made, a single, sung by a woman, called “Kiss Me Again,” and it was fairly tantalizing. I asked him, when you wrote it, who were you speaking to, who did you want to kiss you? Was it Allen? He broke into a grin. “No way, man. Maybe Ronnie Spector.”
Matt Wolf ’s documentary Wild Combination emphasizes Russell’s background—the past he’d known before I met him. He’d grown up in Iowa, in inhospitable country, flat and hot, and music was an escape, mentally, emotionally. In high school he had listened with all his intensity to the radio hits and low ranking LPs of the art-rock ensemble The Left Banke; once in New York he’d spent some time trying to track down the guy who had written the group’s best songs back in the mid-’60s. (I can’t remember if Arthur actually met him or not, but Michael Brown was one of his idols.) The cello floating up and around such tracks as “Desiree,” “Walk Away Renee,” “Ivy Ivy” and “Pretty Ballerina” always calls Arthur Russell to my mind, for I have a mental image of him listening to these songs, as a teen, in a plowed pasture—like the Children of the Corn. Or Cold Comfort Farm, all lamentation. Maybe I’m just projecting but my sense is that he really wanted out of there. When I heard he had passed on, I wrote a poem for him, named after his song “Is It All Over My Face?” In it random snippets of Left Banke lyrics came rushing onto the paper in splash after splash, “Was I surprised? Yeah! Was I surprised? No, not at all.” [Pretty Ballerina.] “Everything returns again; both the laughter and the rain.” [Desiree.] Also the image of looking “beyond the sky,” finding or at any rate fishing for something beyond the visible.
When you’re a 25 year old drunk like me, with nothing much on your mind but getting laid and trying to be hip, it’s disconcerting to run up against a guy who has something going for him. He was quiet sometimes—thinking or feeling deeper than I could. Or than I then wanted to. He got lost in himself easily— just slipped away when you were talking to him. I didn’t know how much I ran my mouth till I met him. We’d have long conversations in which, I figured later in blushes, I’d talked in great jags of jokey but earnest bullshit, while he nodded or once in a while interjected a “Yeah,” or “No kidding.” One afternoon we talked about leaving behind everything and taking a holiday in Hawaii, and it grew so intense for me that I was sure he had agreed to our plans: we were to leave on a week from Sunday, and then it turned out later that he had never registered that I was making a plan and that we were talking about going to Hawaii for that Dennis Wilson feeling of love, love, love.
“It’s supposed to be tomorrow,” I stuttered. “I’m all packed with like my sunscreen and shit.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said flatly.
“I know that now, but I don’t know why. You said you wanted to see Mauna Loa.”
“Mauna Loa,” he snorted. “What would you know about Mauna Loa, I met you at the Gay Student Union at Stony Brook.”
“Oh and that’s right, you’re not even gay!”
“All I’m saying is that I would never agree to go to Hawaii with—“ He stopped himself from saying, “with you.” Instead he said, “With anybody, because I hate tourists and I hate Hawaii.”
And there was always his face to convince you. In most lights he had the raw look of Artaud in those stills from The Passion of Joan of Arc, and half of it was his hair, and the other his bad skin. He looked like he had been scraped by clamshells, that’s how messed up his profile looked. That was the shallow thing that held me back, that gave me the delusion that of the two of us, I was the fairer maiden.