I once saw Allen Ginsberg leaning on wall in front of Lincoln Center watching legendary jazz xylophonist Lionel Hampton’s apartment go up in flames.
It was January of 1997. My office colleagues and I were evacuated from the 3rd floor of the ASCAP Building, the location of my then job at The Children’s Television Workshop. There was a fire above in one of the luxury apartments and we were told to get the hell out. It was freezing cold that day. Grey skies. Post Christmas dead zone weather. We were stranded on the street for hours.
Looking up at the apartment window, I could see the ceiling of his home, the glow of the flames licked at the last of the white panes. I looked away for a few moments and then looked back to see the ceiling taken over by thick black oily smoke. The smell was an acrid, electric smell – one I had never whiffed before but would again four years later on September 12th, 2001 – the day after that horrible day when the winds shifted and the aroma of death and destruction fogged over my apartment and neighborhood near Riverside Park.
Mr. Hampton lost his awards. He lost his instruments, including a piano I could only imagine was a sleek black shiny Steinway. All gone. Poor man lost everything in that place.
In the midst of this chaos, I strolled across the street, past the Empire Hotel over to the bottom steps of Lincoln Center, and I saw him. The Beat Poet. That familiar Jewish bearded face – those doleful eyes I had seen in so many beat photos in books about the counter culture. Little did I know at the time – he was an ill man, under the throes of heart failure. It’s been reported that during this time, he was saying his goodbyes to friends through farewell phone calls (Johnny Depp apparently wept) and gifts of money to friends in need. * (Source: Wikipedia)
On this cold day, Ginsberg was looking up at the last billow of smoke rising. What was he thinking? Was this a pyre for the living, or a symbol of the end? Was he looking at the past going up in flames? Was he worried about a legendary genius with whom he may have shared late night discussions in the glow of candle light in dark clubs downtown? Did he remember the cool wooden succession of notes and scales playing off a turntable on days when he made love to his lover, or wrote “Howl”? Was he infused with the muse while under the spell of a Hampton track the day or night he wrote, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”?
Hampton lost everything. But dignity doesn’t go up in flames.
Ginsberg died about four months later.
Hampton followed in 2002. What he lost in that fire doesn’t matter now.
What he and Ginsberg left behind – does.