Ginsberg tribute doesn’t miss a Beat

It takes a degree of audacity to organize a musical-literary tribute to poet Allen Ginsberg, then rail against the excesses of the Beat aesthetic Ginsberg epitomized.
Chicago singer-poet Kurt Elling is nothing if not audacious, which may explain why he drew some howls of protest from the audience Monday night at Steppenwolf Theatre, during a key segment of “Encounter Without Prejudice: An Open Tribute to Allen Ginsberg.”

The capacity crowd in Steppenwolf’s mainstage auditorium may have expected a gushing homage to the poet and social activist who died last April, but Elling offered something richer and more probing than that. In this bold, if somewhat flawed, installment of Steppenwolf’s innovative Traffic series, Elling dared to take on the social cost of the beat poets’ celebration of drugs, rebellion and narcissism.

The provocative moment occurred just past the program’s midpoint, after Elling and colleagues had traced the origins and artistic triumphs of the Beats. Through a series of poetic recitations, song performances, instrumental obbligatos and slide presentations, the program had said a great deal about the repressive era that produced the Beats.

America in the 1950’s, after all, was not exactly a safe place to openly declare one’s homosexuality, Jewish identity or singular artistic vision.

But writers such as Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and others declared their individuality with writings that bristled with language and imagery considered shocking at the time.

Surely they helped set the stage for the social revolution of the ’60’s, an era that may have led to the drug dependency and social nihilism that debilitate the United States to this day.

“We live in a society where it’s cool to be criminal,” said Elling, citing a litany of social ills, Larry Flint, violent pornography, the National Man-Boy Love Association- Elling named names. To this list he might also have added “gangsta” rap lyrics that celebrate misogyny and racism, and draw huge sales and critical praise in the process.

No sooner had Elling finished his look at the dark side of the Beats, however, than several members of the audience began to jeer him. Nevertheless, Elling’s commentary turned a fairly predictable survey of Beat literature into a more balanced view of a key chapter in American cultural history. Here was an evening poetry and music informed by a sense of morality, as well as an aversion to politically correct points of view.

Still, there were problems, most notably artist Ed Paschke’s earnest but numbingly dull reading of Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” and an utter lack of motion and energy on the Steppenwolf stage.

Viewed as a work in progress, however, Elling’s Ginsberg tribute shows promise. With a more dynamic account of “Howl” and more expressive staging, it could shed much-needed light on a Beat culture that’s widely misunderstood to this day.