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Allen Ginsberg

by Johnny Depp
Interview Magazine
June 1994

Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and actor-on-the-beat Johnny Depp in a conversation that spans the nation and the generations . . .


ALLEN GINSBERG: Hi, Johnny. So you left New York a couple of days ago.

Johnny: Yeah. Yesterday morning, actually.

Allen: I taught that class I was telling you about.

Johnny: I wanted to come but I ran into weirdness.

Allen: Well, maybe it’s just as well. You probably would have gotten tangled up with all the students passing in and out who recognized you. Do you have much trouble in moving around freely?

Johnny: Not so much. People are pretty O.K. about stuff like that. I think they’re generally just kind of curious.

Allen: Yeah. I have a reasonably good situation. I’m semifamous, but not really famous, and the people who recognize me tend to be quite literate. So it’s usually a pleasure to meet them on the street. Sometimes you might even find someone to make love with! Years ago that used to happen to me occasionally.

Johnny: You’d just meet someone and begin talking, and then . . .?

Allen: I remember a kid came by St. Mark’s [Place, in New York City] and asked if he could help me get my harmonium box home. One thing led to another, and . . . we lived together and took a long cross-country trip together. This was in 1965. Now he’s a businessman and married. But we’re still in touch. I have a nice paternal role.

Johnny: The other day, when I came to the studio to do that bit, I was hoping that you were going to be there.

Allen: Well, I knew that you were going to be there. So I went and saw your movie, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

Johnny: I haven’t seen it yet.

Allen: I haven’t read my biographies yet, either. So why haven’t you seen the movie?

Johnny: With an actor, after your job is done and the director and editor step in, it’s none of your business.

Allen: That’s what I felt about my biographies.

Johnny: It must be an incredibly odd thing, though, having a biography written about you. On a much smaller scale, I have had articles written about me—most of which were completely false. I guess the difference is, the biographies of you are literate; I get the tabloid skewer.

Allen: So the question is what to do with fame. Weren’t we talking about that the other day in my kitchen?

Johnny: Yeah, we were bouncing it around.

Allen: Maybe I’m just reacting to a limited amount of fame, so that it doesn’t get to be a burden—like with Dylan, who is cursed with it. But if you have a Buddhist view, that life is somewhat like a dream as well as being real, then by turning the wheel of dharma fame can be helpful in enlightening people.

Johnny: It’s just an odd thing because I still feel like I’m this seventeen-year-old gas station attendant in south Florida, and that it’s other people who place this strange stigma on you. When you are in some ways a commodity, a product, people create an image that could have absolutely nothing to do with you, and they have the power to sell it and shove it down the throats of people, and . . .

Allen: Well, I always say, “Don’t get distracted in trying to fight the ocean.” Don’t give energy to that. Just go ahead and do what you want to do artistically, or spiritually, because the one thing you can control is your own behavior and your own action and your own mind.

Johnny: I guess the thing is to just keep walking forward.

Allen: Yeah. So what are you interested in walking forward into? What’s your spiritual ambition?

Johnny: I couldn’t begin to tell you. I can only say that in a weird way, walking forward seems to be it.

Allen: Do you believe in God?

Johnny: I believe in something. If it’s called God, I don’t know.

Allen: Have you ever had any sort of visionary or religious experience?

Johnny: I’ve had moments when I felt very calm about everything around me, about everything inside.

Allen: When was the last time you had a period of calm?

Johnny: I would say it was about two months ago.

Allen: Do you remember where you were?

Johnny: Yeah. I was in the south of France at a friend’s house. I was sitting on a couch out in this field with my girlfriend, surrounded by trees.

Allen: Do you remember what you heard in the moment when you were relaxed?

Johnny: There was this beautiful silence, and something very comfortable in that there was no need for us to say anything.

Allen: Any other sounds?

Johnny: Yeah, the leaves. Feeling her hand. Holding her hand.

Allen: Any recollection of smell?

Johnny: There’re a lot of flowers out there.

Allen: I don’t suppose there was anything tasty?

Johnny: Oh, the taste I remember is kissing. It tasted warm.

Allen: Well, when I write poetry, what I do is take a spot of time like that and try to recollect all the elements—the sight, the smell, the touch, the taste—and reassemble them, to see if they make a picture that can transmit the sensation in a work of art to others.

Johnny: It’s very, very similar to sense-memory exercises in acting. For instance, a song can sometimes take me back to when I was four years old, sitting in the backseat of the car, driving down the street with my parents.

Allen: Yeah, I have a number of songs that recall my childhood. You know, I’m sixty-seven, and singing the songs that I heard when I was eighteen or twenty now awakens a whole lifetime tremor of memories. [Laughs] It’s a very beautiful feeling, actually. But it’s also very strange, because when you get older, you realize, well, you’re coming to the end of your term, the end of your life, and now everything is speaking to you.

Johnny: Do you know the piece [William] Saroyan wrote at the beginning of The Time of Your Life? Hang on one second. I think I actually have it here. I carry this thing around with me. [Reads] “In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness, or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed.”

Allen: When did you first read that?

Johnny: Probably when I was about twenty. About ten years ago, I guess.

Allen: So you’ve had that for a decade now, more or less, in your formulation of how you’d like to be?

Johnny: Yeah, in a way.

Allen: You know, the basic Buddhist view is very similar to that, in the sense of alchemizing any situation and turning bricks to treasure, or shit to roses. How to use the energy of anger, fear, apprehension, as an aspect of wisdom.

Like I was with a student who came from a disturbed family, and it had made him very tolerant and understanding of other people’s troubles or phobias. A little bit like yourself. His father, I think he said, was an alcoholic and had some kind of chemical problem. Which was my experience with my mother. I found that it ultimately made me much more tolerant of wild behavior and more calm in emergencies, since I had to take care of my mother with the ambulance coming to take her away. You had some similar experiences with your own family, didn’t you?

Johnny: Yeah, growing up, definitely.

Allen: So in that sense, you draw the wisdom out of the ugly situation.

Johnny: When you were telling me before about the ‘40s and the ‘50s and how different things were then, it just seems like such a difficult time now to see goodness in things.

Allen: Well, it’s not so hard to see goodness in yourself. And the realization of pain and deprivation, and the realization of violence in the world, is another kind of goodness, because of your understanding that you’re actually open to messages from the outside world, rather than evading it and saying: “I want more and more. I want to own it all. I want to destroy it all. I want to eat it all. I want to master it all.”

But I wonder what’s happening to the whole world now. Recently a friend of mine in India sent me a very mean letter saying: “How dare you cut down acres of trees just to satisfy your ambition to be a poet and have your work printed. When the earth is in such a fantastic crisis, why must you be adding to it?” And I flashed on something Gregory [Corso] had said, that “no good news can be printed on bad news.” He was talking about The New York Times, but also about using paper. So the question is, what would be an interesting, skillful means to deal with this problem, rather than ignore it or reject it? I’m still puzzling over it. If you get any ideas, let me know!

Johnny: I remember we talked about using hemp.

Allen: Yeah, that was the best idea. Was that yours?

Johnny: Yeah, because they used to make everything, rope and paper, out of hemp.

Allen: That would certainly change the war on drugs a bit. [Laughs] Well, shall we continue this talk another time?

Johnny: Yeah, I would love to. Anytime, I’m around.

Allen: O.K. I love you.

Johnny: Hey, thank you, man. I love you, too.

Allen: Bye.

-- donated by Joni

-- additional photos added by Zone editors