In 2016, Omnivore and producer Pat Thomas delivered the definitive issue of Allen Ginsberg's landmark First Blues
album under the title The Last Word on First Blues
. It coupled the original tracks with 11 previously unreleased cuts from at least two recording sessions that took place years apart. The same path is followed on this double-disc package. Much of the music on Complete Songs of Innocence and Experience: William Blake Tuned by Allen Ginsberg
pre-dates that on First Blues
by almost three years. Ginsberg began working on setting the visionary English poet's famous collection to music on a pump organ in upstate New York in the aftermath of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 "Tear Gas Chicago." Nineteen of the 21 recordings on disc one took place in June and July of 1969 in New York City. Produced by Barry Miles
, the sessions included Ginsberg on harmonium, finger cymbals, and piano, Peter Orlovsky
, Elvin Jones
, Don Cherry
, Herman Wright
, John Scholle, Bob Dorough
, Julius Watkins
, and others. In his atonal, old-angel midnight voice, Ginsberg and accompanists fearlessly render Blake
's poems with a musicality that that not only suits them, but fits them like a glove. You can hear the spirit of Blake bleating these out naked in his backyard. This disc also contains a pair of unissued bonus tracks -- an alternate take of "The Grey Monk" and the wonderfully bawdy "Brothels of Paris." While the original album appeared several times during the LP era, this is the first time it's been issued in another physical format.
As much of a treasure as this document is, it's disc two that holds the greatest revelations. Only half of its 14 tracks have been previously issued. Recorded in San Francisco between July and August of 1971, they were cut around the same time as those on First Blues
. They include more Blake songs, as well as three Tibetan prayer mantras. These recordings include Scholle from the first record, but also a young Arthur Russell on cello. (In fact, the source of these recordings was a tape in Russell's private collection.) These are less manic, warmer, deeper, and possibly more profound: Ginsberg had completely integrated Blake's work into his own aesthetic by that time and had climbed out further from under his imposing spiritual shadow. The three mantras at the end of the disc feature the mysterious Reverend Adjari & Buddhist Chorus, about whom little is known outside of Thomas' exhaustive, intensively researched liner notes. Of these tracks, the 12-minute homage mantra to guru-deity Padmasambhava alone is worth the set's purchase price. It's impossible to overestimate Ginsberg's influence on American culture; likewise, these recordings are nothing less than an integral, inseparable part of his oeuvre. It's obvious that while Ginsberg took great delight in making these recordings, he also took them very seriously; his intent is clear. As a whole, they are an inspiring, provocative, and life-affirming chapter in his legacy.