Michael Minzer and I had been trying to produce a Gregory Corso album for years. For our series that featured Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, as well as Kathy Acker and Terry Southern, Gregory was someone we needed to include - besides, he was always my favorite poet to listen to. He had a wonderful, romantic, and beautiful voice; his readings never lost the sense of the unexpected and dangerous.
Gregory was interested in doing the record, and had many musical ideas as well - mostly classical. but for many reasons, the project never got scheduled. Then one day in the spring of '99 Michael called and was very anxious. He didn't know why but he felt in his gut that something was going on with Gregory and that we had to record him immediately. I called Gregory's number for a few days with no luck. With a little probing, I was told that Gregory had advanced prostate cancer and was not expected to live much longer. Rani Singh and I visited him on Horatio Street, where he had been living with Roger and Irvyne Richards for a number of years. It was a hard visit. Gregory was unable to talk and his eyes were black. Two of his children, Sheri and Max, were there and everyone in the room took turns sitting with Gregory, holding his hand.
Honestly, I was always a bit afraid of Gregory. I felt intellectually inferior to him in knowledge and ways of the world - and that he would call me on it. But he really was always very kind to me, though I got yelled at a few times (all for good reason). It was very sad that day on Horatio Street, and I felt I had to help in some way, so I returned once more with a ghetto blaster and a stack of Mahler symphonies and Wagner's "Ring Cycle" which I knew Gregory loved to hear.
A few weeks later, Marianne Faithfull was in town. I had talked to her right after I saw Gregory, suggesting that she see him. They had known each other since the sixties and had a sort of unconsummated love/friendship.... The morning we went over, I was told that Gregory had a miraculous remission and was alert, talking, and looking good.... Incredibly it was true, and the visit with Marianne was utterly delightful. In the middle of the visit, Gregory turned to me and asked me, "When are we going to do my record?" A bit shocked, I told him whenever he wished. Sheri suggested recording him at her home in Minneapolis, where she was planning to bring Gregory to take care of him. Watching Gregory and Marianne talk old times, poetry, literature, and of course sex - and how Gregory seemed to respond to her, I saw the record in front of me. That involved talking Marianne into producing the recording with me - which meant going to Minneapolis. She immediately said, "Of course - we have to!"
Gregory went to Minneapolis a few weeks later, but not until he had a big poker playing party on Horatio Street. Scheduling became slightly complicated - Marianne was working all over Europe and I was trying to finish some commitments - but we managed to work it out for early that January. During this scheduling craziness, Marianne made a phone call to Gregory promising him that we are coming and literally pleaded with him, "Do not croak! Please DO NOT CROAK! We are coming!" Gregory promised that he wouldn't.
When Marianne, Rani, Michael, and I arrived at Sherri's home, it was obvious that Gregory had taken a turn for the worse. He was still very coherent but in a lot of pain and unable to move. Though it felt awkward a tape recorder and microphone were set up. Gregory seemed to want to work. He sat down and just talked about everything from old friends to having visions, about mythology, and read many of Gregory's poems. Gregory would read his favorites and Marianne read hers. It turned out to be a wonderful day. Gregory's readings of "For Homer" and "A Bed's Lament" seemed like they were written for this time of his life and brought all of us to tears - including the author. Marianne delighted Gregory with her reading of "No Arrangement Was Made." Gregory seemed to enjoy himself immensely and said he looked forward to the next day.
On arriving the second day, we discovered that Gregory was getting worse. The four of us decided to stop thinking about the recording and spend the remaining time keeping Gregory company, and helping out. We ate, talked, watched sports on television, and a few times played some archive recordings of Gregory from 1959 that he had never heard, including an incredible recording of "Bomb" and a tape of a very funny 1994 KCRW interview with Liza Richardson that he did with Allen. He enjoyed these recordings in small doses and we talked about using some of them on the record.
Occasionally Gregory would say he wanted to record a poem - we told him not to be concerned about the record, but he would bring it up - he even sang us the song that Nero sang when Rome burned. On our last day there, Michael Minzer and I were sitting in the house watching over Gregory who was sleeping. He woke and asked us to turn the tape recorder on, that he wanted to read a few poems. Before reading, he asked us about our ages, then told us about how he looks at his age. He then went into a lengthy monologue talking about his life in its different stages, religion, the future, and his death. He knew the tape recorder was on - it seemed like he wanted this to be heard.
Upon returning, we put the tapes that we recorded away to be revisited when we felt the time was right. A few days later, I got a message from Gregory and Ira Cohen (who was visiting in Minneapolis) wanting to talk about the CD's title. I was so sad from the trip that I knew it would take me a few days before I could have that conversation. But it wasn't to be. Gregory passed away about a week later.
It took a year before it felt right to examine what we had recorded. Upon listening we re-experienced both the joy and sadness of that visit in Minneapolis, but there were quite a few wonderful moments on tape - from both conversations and poetry readings. We went through and separated those sections, then went into The Village studio in West Hollywood to see what would happen. Adding minimal music to Gregory's readings of "For Homer" and "A Bed's Lament," and Marianne's readings of "Getting To The Poem" and "No Arrangement Was Made," we found that we had something quite beautiful, emotional, and strong. An observer remarked that it reminded him of "Wild Strawberries, " which to me was the best thing one could say. There was not only a "record" here, but also an important one to finish. We did another few sessions like that and then used the same technique on the archive recordings we had picked out. All the "pieces" were then sequenced, alternating between Gregory in January 2001 and Gregory in 1959, 1975, 1994. We included some of the conversations and also his "prophecy" - we have left that part of the CD unedited.
Somehow the record that emerged is (in my opinion) incredibly beautiful, moving, sad - but not depressing, and often funny. Not to sound silly, but I felt that we had help with this record from some unknown source that guided and directed. Just writing about how the record was made makes it even more amazing to me that it got done at all - and I'm very proud that it came together in this way.
As a final note, this is the sixth recording that Michael Minzer and I have made as a team, starting with "The Lion For Real" in 1989. Being able to make these records brought me into many new worlds creatively, and brought quite a few people into my life who have become some of my dearest friends. Michael feels that after Ginsberg, Burroughs, Poe, Acker, and Southern, it seems that his recording with Gregory has taken us, in a way, full circle, concluding the series. So thank you Michael, not only for your belief that these artists should make "real records," but also for actually making them happen.
I'll be seeing you.
Although he'd sometimes give his birth date as March 33rd, Gregory Nunzio Corso was actually born March 26th, 1930 in a Bleecker Street apartment in Greenwich Village, New York City to a pair of teenage immigrant parents. The following year Corso's mother abandoned her infant son and husband and returned home to Italy. Sadly Gregory spent most of his childhood shuffled in and out of orphanages and Foster homes. At age eleven his father remarried in hopes of creating a home for his son, who, it turned out preferred street life to the prospects of a "normal" family. Sleeping on rooftops and in subways, Gregory at thirteen, was literally starving when he broke into a restaurant one night to relieve his hunger. On his way out he swiped a radio and soon wound up in New York's dreaded Tombs, doing time for theft.
Upon his release from jail Corso was transferred to Bellevue for a series of psychiatric evaluations when he wound up in a straight jacket for three months after wounding somebody in the eye during a food fight. Three years later he was convicted again of robbery. In a 1974 interview Gregory vaguely recalled the circumstances of the big heist. Using WWII Army walkie-talkies to shake down a Household Finance office, Corso and his fellow delinquents made off with twenty-one thousand dollars. Unfortunately when his pals were nabbed in Manhattan, they ratted him out. Meanwhile down in Florida, Gregory was enjoying the highlife, boasting a new Zoot Suit and leaving generous tips in his wake until the cops arrived to haul him away.
Labeled as "dangerous" by the judge, Corso was sentenced to three years in Clinton State Prison where in the solitude of his cell he absorbed "books of illumination" by Dostoevsky, Shelly and Stendhal. Although Gregory never attended high school, he soon "became educated in the ways of men at their worst and at their best," as he later recalled. Barely beyond adolescence, he soon became the mascot of a band of noble Mafiosi doing serious time. Compared to the thirty and forty year terms they were serving, Corso's stint looked like summer camp. "Don't take your shoes off," they advised him. "You're walking right out."
Back on the street again, Gregory met Allen Ginsberg in 1950 at a lesbian bar called the Pony Stable on Third Street and sixth Avenue in the Village. Ginsberg, it turned out had been grooving some chic named Dusty in plain view of Gregory's window, inspiring Corso to indulge in nightly bouts of auto-erotic pleasure. Beyond the hilarious circumstance of their meeting, (Allen dug Gregory's wavy black hair, intense dark eyes and rugged good looks) their total obsession with poetry became the instant bond of a life-long friendship.
In 1954, Gregory moved North to Cambridge where he audited courses at Harvard and voraciously devoured the poetry section of the Widener Library. Corso's early poems soon appeared in the Harvard Advocate and with the help of a handful of devoted Harvard and Radcliff students, his first collection of poetry The Vestal Lady on Brattle, was published.
In 1956, a year after Ginsberg's legendary reading of "Howl" at the Gallery Six, Corso arrived in San Francisco where he was hailed by Allen as "a scientific master of mad mouthfuls of language." Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights Books would publish Gregory's Gasoline in 1958, described Corso as "handsomely dark heavy-browed often brooding like that savage landscape on the unshod boot of southernmost Italy swept with burning sun and storms. And he had its dark lyric spirit that could burst forth untutored and raw in great raves of poetry."
At the podium, Gregory's torrid "zingers of flashgenius" (as Michael McClure coined them) were delivered in a high-pitched New Yawk accent that Poet/journalist/collage artist Mikhail Horowitz described as a "corvid kvetch."
The beats were indeed a clubby bunch and although many were welcome at the movable feast there were only four chairs reserved at the head table - Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg, who invited Corso along for the ride, to play the irreverent tragi-comic jester to Allen's holy/political/poetic supernova.
If he hadn't been a beat (a term Corso never came to terms with) Gregory could've been a member of another exclusive club, one in which blood was the ultimate bond. If Harpo Marx spoke, he surely would have been Gregory Corso. But with Chico already working the anarchist Italian prankster angle, Gregory had to find another avenue of expression. Two Chicos would have been too much, even for the Marx Brothers' surreal circus.
But Gregory had no need for clever scriptwriters, or a Hollywood hotshot directing his movie (although he appeared in one Warhol film, Fellini would've suited him much better) his day to day life had plenty of bizarre twists. In 1965, years after McCarthyism came crashing Corso was ousted from a teaching post at SUNY, buffalo for refusing to sign a document claiming he was not a member of the Communist Party.
Somehow between nearly a dozen books of poetry and ping-ponging between New York, San Francisco, Paris, Mexico, Greece and Morocco, Gregory managed to have five kids and get married three times.
On January 17th, 2001 the last of the beats got his hat. Battling prostate cancer for the last few years at his daughter Sheri's house in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, nearly toothless, with a bloated body, which belied years of excess and abuse, Gregory got married once more, this time to infinity. He was seventy years old.
Corso's wake, which took place at Our Lady of Pompeii Church, across from the Bleecker Street apartment where he was born, completed a mad circle while not exactly round, was oddly connected somehow.
In death, Gregory was once again accepted into yet another prestigious boy's club. While a lone clarinetist played songs of the Spanish revolution, Corso's ashes were interred in Rome, at the same cemetery as the infamous bards Shelly and Keats. Now that's some poetic justice!
Bleecker Street, New York City