October 30, 2008


Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography. By Dave Zimmer. Photographs by Henry Diltz. Da Capo. $19.95.

The Letters of Allen Ginsberg. Edited by Bill Morgan. Da Capo. $30.

     As baby boomers age into retirement, the nostalgia industry geared to them sees huge opportunities. Hence the release of such a book as the “40th anniversary, fully updated” version of Dave Zimmer’s Crosby, Stills & Nash: The Biography, which dates originally to 1984 (it is the group’s 40th anniversary, not the book’s). Amply illustrated with photos by Henry Diltz and others, this is the place to turn for a 1975 closeup picture of David Crosby and Graham Nash, or the official 1977 White House photo of Crosby, Stills, Nash and manager John Hartmann with President Jimmy Carter. A well-organized book, Zimmer’s biography includes each musician’s early years (with a discussion of Stephen Stills’ involvement with the Monkees and Buffalo Springfield), the way in which the three-man partnership came about, the way it expanded to four with Neil Young’s addition, and the breakup and solo and duo careers and re-formation and re-entry of Young and return to just Crosby, Stills & Nash…and more. Much more – to the extent of more than 400 oversize pages. The biographical details and juxtapositions of the musicians’ world and the world at large are everywhere: the same page that includes a nude photo of Crosby with then-girlfriend Christine Gail Hinton (who died in a car crash in 1969) discusses the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Crosby’s reaction to it (the song “Long Time Gone”). Fans of this group – the one and only audience for the book – will be thrilled by the inside information and exhaustive discussion of each musician, both within the group and outside it. The book’s updates will be a pleasure, too – such as a full-page 2008 photo of Stills with his wife, Kristen, and two youngest children, who are 3 and 11 (he has five others, the oldest being 36). Non-fans, and people obsessed with different music and other celebrities, will find this whole project bewildering and easy to ignore. But that’s really the point: target a niche audience of aging baby boomers with fond memories of a particular group, and let them bask in historical nostalgia created just for them. You either get it or you don’t.

     The Allen Ginsberg cult actually reaches back before the boomers to the Beat Generation of the 1950s, although Ginsberg’s continued popularity makes it at least possible for writings about him to reach a wider audience than fan fanatics. Still, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg – a selection of 165 from more than 3,700 assembled by his longtime literary archivist, Bill Morgan – is tough going for anyone who is not already thoroughly immersed in the Ginsberg world. Here is part of a 1955 letter to Jack Kerouac: “Guy Wernham the translator of Lautreament is in furnished room across street, comes over and translates Genet for me, Genet poetry, drinks tea and shudders dignified and lost like Bill, looks like a sort of Bill without Bill’s genius charm.” And this is part of a 1959 letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Leaving for Chicago next week to read several times to raise money for [Irving] Rosenthal’s independent magazine, he has almost enough now and the manuscripts are at the printers already. Mag to be called Big Table and that issue lovely, the Burroughs selection is very good.” More interesting in many ways are the letters Ginsberg wrote to journalists, discussing issues of art and life, and to newspapers and magazines, usually responding to criticism of his work and the work of others to whom he was close. There is often a pithiness and lack of self-pity in these letters that makes them easier to read than Ginsberg’s self-referential ones – but they are also less revelatory than his stream-of-consciousness writing, such as this small part of a long 1960 letter to Gregory Corso, written after Ginsberg used the drug mescaline: “I realized I was a God, I am the God I always longed for, I could make same babes in this dimension, or imaginary ones in others, wouldn’t let Peter blow me (till I came down) – was naked, saw star of Bethlehem like Giotto miniature outside New England window, realized all consciousness was waiting for me the Messiah to make a break, all were waiting for one to say I am One, and announced to all the new Birth of Millennial Union One Mass of Endless Consciousness….” And what is the point of all this? To Ginsberg fans and scholars, his letters provide insight into his personality, his creative process, and his works. To others, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg will be of minimal interest – a 468-page exercise in the presentation of self-important ramblings of little or no significance.

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