The Museum of Modern Art here in Nu Yawk has a small exhibit on Manhattan’s downtown music scene during the late seventies and early eighties up at the moment, and I found myself strolling through it with various family members last week.  Some interesting materials are to be found in the show, particularly on the video side, though it has a little bit of a cobbled together feel – there’s a copy of a Hanuman book by Richard Hell under glass with no information at all about the book available other than the name of the donor (Hanuman books are gems, and, at 4” x 2” with spines, make the books in the Pocket Poets series look like atlases). At any rate, one of the video pieces installed (that word has a creepiness to it, for my part) at this show is by the director Beth B. and it’s actually a music video for the song “Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight”, an underground dance hit in the early 1980s. The song has a clear S/M theme playfully rendered by the video, which is very well done and highly amusing. But what truly astonished me while watching it was the realization that I’d seen the video several times when I was twelve on public television (I just read that MTV refused to play it; “Girls on Film” yes, “Dominatrix Sleeps Tonight” no), due to the brief existence of a UHF all-music-video channel known as U68 (see: for further, uh, info).

I was somewhat baffled by the things I found on U68 back in 1984 – The Rapping Duke, for instance: a dude who rapped entirely in a John Wayne voice imitation ­– and I probably didn’t register a number of bands that I wound up getting into some years later. U68 was, I think, a video equivalent to a college radio station with an emphasis on the eclectic and a red carpet laid out for very low budget operations.  But I do remember one night the unannounced procession of three videos in a row by poets: a totally warped rap by Bob Holman, an anti-nukes song by Anne Waldman that I think is called “Uh-Oh Plutonium!”, and a really lovely rendition of “Father Death Blues” by Allen Ginsberg. They were all songs, now that I think of it, but I can’t find any trace of their existence on the web but for a reference to them in the Holman archive at NYU’s Fales Library under the heading of PTV. I do have this image in memory of Ginsberg riding what may have been the Staten Island Ferry and otherwise walking around town while the song played. I could have it wrong. But if anyone has any further information out there on the videos, I’m interested in tracking them down for a repeat viewing. There are at least two other videos available at You Tube of Ginsberg performing “Father Death Blues”, a song he wrote in the wake of his own father’s death and a piece that might be useful to look at in conjunction with his poem “White Shroud,” a longer, intensely precise reconstruction of a dream visit to see his mother some two decades-plus after she died.

So the moral of this post is: go to modern art museum on free pass, stop by punk rock exhibit, watch irrepressible S/M dance video, flashback to childhood tv experience, hear Allen Ginsberg’s voice in head, ponder depths of AG’s later work, go public.

PS – in conjunction with the comments box under John’s blues post from a few days ago, there may be something to comparing the Blind Willie McTell-Bob Dylan-Johnny Cash progression through the song “Delia” and the movement from Petrarch’s Sonnet 189 through Wyatt’s translation (“My galley charged with forgetfulness”) into Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster”. You could look it up, as they say, if interested.

Originally Published: November 25th, 2009

The son of poets Alice Notley and the late Ted Berrigan and stepson of poet Douglas Oliver, Anselm Berrigan earned a BA from SUNY Buffalo and an MFA from Brooklyn College. His collections of poetry include Integrity & Dramatic Life (1999), Zero Star Hotel (2002), Some Notes on My Programming...

  1. November 25, 2009
     Matthew Zapruder

    Anselm, wow. You really make me miss New York, both NY now which I am far away from and NY in the 80's which I hardly knew (only as an awed occasional visitor) but clearly has been eaten by Epcot NY. Thanks for this awesome and somehow sad post, it seems appropriate for this elegaic manic time of year.

  2. November 25, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    New York? You can't handle New York!\r

    I knew New York in the 1960's, and the '70's...back when Dylan was there, and Phil Ochs, and Warhol, and Ginsberg and the Fillmore East, the Cafe Wha?, the Bitter End and Jackson Pollock, de Kooning, Mark Rothko, John Lennon, Billy Joel, David Peel and the Lower East Side and well, it never ends, just everything and everyone!\r

    Ahhh...Manhattan. The center of the Earth.

  3. November 27, 2009
     John S. O\'Connor

    Anselm, \r

    Interesting post on what sounds like an interesting show. Makes me think of the Chicago punk scene in the early 80's and the sometimes uneasy relationship of poetry and avant-garde art.\r

    BTW: I took your suggestion of tracking Delia from McTell to Dylan to Cash. It's all I played in my kitchen on Thanksgiving. (Folks worried a bit, but I felt it struck just the right tone for the holiday: Before anyone could tell me my turkey wasn't juicy enough, they heard "One more round and she's more round and Delia's gone.") \r

    Do you know the book The Rose and the Briar? It's a history of rock ballads that includes a very cool cultural history of Delia by Sean Wilentz. The song has a basis in reality (whatever that is) and has been most recently performed by Eric Bibb with an incredibly pretty guitar riff accompanying the plaintive lyrics.

  4. November 28, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Oh... I almost forgot Paul Simon and Arlo Guthrie and Robert Rauschenberg and, at least, a thousand others. Sorry.\r

    God bless New York.\r

    But you do know who else lives at "The center of the Earth", don't you?

  5. November 30, 2009
     Anselm Berrigan

    Evil Kitty, I presume.

  6. November 30, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    LOL! :-D