Ginsberg and Gonzo, oh my! April 18 through 21, SF Jazz is presenting two new projects based on works by Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and poet Allen Ginsberg. Two very different San Francisco literary icons, two very different performances. Guitarist, composer and SF Jazz Resident Artistic Director Bill Frisell, actress/director Chloe Webb, Grammy winning producer Hal Willner, artist Ralph Steadman, and Academy Award winner Tim Robbins make up the creative teams for Allen Ginsburg’s Kaddish and Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby. Both events are described as multimedia projects: Steadman’s art, Webb’s direction and narratives pulled from the words of the authors and Frisell’s music together make a performance of both the theater and jazz worlds.
Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish is based on the poem Ginsberg penned upon the suicide of his mother. Frisell explores the poem musically while Webb brings the words to life on stage. Steadman’s art on screen vividly illustrated the poem’s imagery. Hunter S. Thompson’s The Kentucky Derby takes Thompson’s notorious essay and stages a live reading with Tim Robbins in the part of Thompson and director Webb in various other roles (including, she says, a Steadman illustrated horse). Frisell previously had set the essay to music last year with the “musical radio play,” The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.
I spoke to Webb (who first shot to fame as an actress playing the doomed Nancy Spungen to Gary Oldman’s Sid Vicious in the 1986 biopic Sid and Nancy) about the projects, Allen Ginsberg and Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo artist Ralph Steadman, working with Bill Frisell and SF Jazz and…mushrooms.
Allen Ginsberg and Hunter S. Thompson are such iconic figures in American literature. How did it feel tackling them both in Bill Frisell’s new SF Jazz projects?
The thing that’s amazing about Allen and Hunter was that they were both really singular people, kind of crazy who went kind of out of town and took as much space as they needed. They were outsiders, who eventually people turned around and saw things their way. They were indomitably devoted and changed whole genres. What Allen did for poetry, with Howl and Kaddish, still influences writers. Ralph took gonzo journalism with Hunter and it IS a genre now. What made them so iconic was a definite point of view. They both had a moral point of view, I know this might sound bizarre, but they were really about pointing out imbalance and injustice. I know who I am and I’m upfront about it, what are you? It’s so funny because a lot of young actors and filmmakers making independent films are making films about the Beats, there’s like five movies out about the Beats, while mainstream culture is obsessed with the conformity of Mad Men. That’s what the Beats were rebelling against. It’s a gift, season after season, kids coming into adulthood get to discover the Beats and Hunter. I think Hunter’s tricycle went on two wheels there toward the end. I guess if you’re going to ride a trike, you want to have on all three.
“If you’re going to ride a trike, you want to have on all three.” I’m going to start using that.
What I loved about Allen and the film that I made [for the SF Jazz performance] that goes in and out of Ralph Steadman’s paintings he did for us for Kaddish, for me… I was a punk; the punks and the Beats are so similar. Allen loved to watch people throw themselves at convention like the punks, but there was also something very openhearted, something about really feeling things should be different. Allen found a way to stay with his own joy and keep plugging back into keeping that alive. I think if you just keep throwing yourself at the wall you get disappointed. Both Allen and Hunter had really big hearts, but they could get tired. I think Allen kept a kind of hopefulness alive. I think that’s why there’s still food in his poetry to nourish you, it’s not just bitterness. When the crows come in to Kaddish, it’s such an amazing moment, dark but still something in the humanity rises.
Can you talk a little about working with Gonzo artist Ralph Steadman on the visuals?
The thing is Ralph’s portraits are very specific, all the images are taken directly from the text. It was shot slow with a sort of hallucinogenic feeling. We’re so used to cut-cut-cut now with editing that we sometimes spend a minute and a half in this on one image while the music goes on. His stuff is fresh, if you do it his way. Trying to be fresh makes you stale, trying to be true keeps you fresh.
Did you ever get to meet Ginsberg or Thompson?
I didn’t know Ginsberg. Allen and Hal [producer Hal Willner] were really good friends and I’ve heard all kinds of off-the-record tales of them. Also, I spent so much time with his life looking at family photos that the whole family is now familiar. I didn’t know Hunter either. I actually just read a book by one of his ex-girlfriends I found in a clearance bin… it was very pro Hunter, not just about the insanity. I think the difference between Allen, a gay man so conversant with his inner feelings, and Hunter, who was such a Marlboro man is… how do you get to know those guys? I think they were such different points on the spectrum. They were trains with different stops. When Hal and I went over to London to see Ralph, we petitioned him to do the paintings for Kaddish and to ask if it was okay for someone to play him in Kentucky Derby in San Francisco. We stayed in his wonderful house where every room is a different color and filled with art; just imagine an eccentric English country gentleman’s house. They had this little breakfast nook and sitting on a hook was this black hat… I knew it had to be Hunter’s. It was just such a presence; you knew! I’ve never been so intimidated by a hat. I couldn’t even ask Ralph if it was Hunter’s hat. Hal didn’t ask either… so I went down really early in the morning and I SMELLED it. It was Hunter’s hat.
I don’t know if I should ask you to describe the smell of the hat… I feel like I have a pretty good idea of what it smelled like.
Keep in mind, I smelled the hat before breakfast.
It gets even better; I was headed down to go swimming with Ralph. In Kent, in the English countryside where he has his house he has an in-ground, David Hockey, la-la-land pool that looks utterly like it belongs in LA. It’s all open, there’s a total risk a goat might fall in it. So, I was out to have my swim with Ralph in the middle of winter. It’s just the idea of an Englishman in January in his heated pool and passing Hunter Thompson’s hat on the way. There’s a through line here of just being relentlessly yourself and having a life that delights you. It’s the link between Ralph, Hunter and Allen. It’s difficult to be an artist, to stay inspired, but Ralph and Allen figured out ways to enjoy their eccentricities so they can keep their childlike sense of things. Sometimes people use really severe drugs to maintain that feeling or sense of that childlike feeling, you know?
Not personally Chloe, no. I saw a very powerful anti-drug film called Sid and Nancy and have left that kind of experimenting to minds other than my own. So, thank you for that.
[Laughing] Hey, I was twenty years old when I made that movie, it was a good example for me too!
What was it like working so closely with Bill Frissell and the musicians here at SF Jazz?
I’ve worked with Bill and most of his usual musicians several times before. When I would say things like: “at the end of Kaddish, when Naomi comes back as a crow in the percussion section,” he would know what I meant. We’re together in it. Bill and Hal and I have worked together so long we’re friends. There’s such a trust that you can fall off the back of a piano and someone will catch you. People always makes jokes that rock stars want to be actors and actors want to be rock stars, but I think we speak the same language. It’s rhythm, motion, in words, in text and in the beat. A great piece of literature or a great piece of music is pulled from the collective unconscious. You know those huge underground mushrooms that are under the soil that can stretch for miles under the surface?
YES! Actually, I’m a bit of an amateur mushroom forager. You mean that spongy root layer that mushrooms grow from?
Yes! Tony Bravo, I love you!
Chloe Webb and I are talking about mushrooms, I love you!
What I mean though is that both our disciplines are about: “How do you get yourself down to the spongy roots then channel it through your personality and make something of it?” That’s really what it’s about.