Vomit Express by Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. What’s it all about?

By Tony Attwood

Before I started doing any reading around this song I wondered how Dylan and Ginsberg could write a song together, both being lyricists.   And I was further puzzled when I noticed that Eyolf Østrem who knows a thing or three about Dylan’s music has this song noted in terms of composers as “Words and music Allen Ginsberg/Bob Dylan-Allen Ginsberg”

That seems to imply that the words are all Ginsberg and the music is a joint composition.

But the song itself is pretty much “Twist and Shout” written in 1961 by Phil Medley and  Bert Berns (although that second name is changed on some later recordings). The song was originally recorded by the Top Notes, later recorded by the Isley Brothers, and after that the Beatles had a go at it.

So did Dylan and Ginsberg really work together as composers and/or lyricists to create a re-run of such a popular song?  It seems to be stretching a point, which then makes me wonder if the joint credit is because Dylan had some input on the lyrics as well as the music.

The song was recorded on 17 November 1971 and appeared on Allen Ginsberg: First Blues in 1983.   It seems that the idea was to release this on Apple Records (which is slightly ironic given that it is a music adaptation of a song that many people mistakenly think was written by two of the Beatles).

Also involved in the recording besides Ginsberg and Dylan were Peter Orlovsky, Happy and Artie Traum, David Amram, and guitarist Jon Sholle. Bob Dylan is noted as playing guitar, piano and organ.

Allen Ginsberg wrote this about the recording:

“These 1971 sessions came about because Dylan had come to hear a poetry reading at NYU’s Loeb Auditorium, standing in the back of the crowded hall with David Amram. We were on stage with a gang of musician friends, and Peter improvised, singing, “You shouldn’t write poetry down but carol it in the air, because to use paper you have to cut down trees.

“I picked up on that, and we spent a half an hour making up tuneful words on the spot. I didn’t know 12-bar blues, it was just a free-form rhyming extravaganza. We packed up, said goodbye to the musicians, thanked them and gave them a little money, went home, and then the phone rang.

“It was Dylan asking, ‘Do you always improvise like that?” And I said, ‘Not always, but I can. I used to do that with Kerouac under the Brooklyn Bridge all the time.’ He came to our apartment with Amram and a guitar, we began inventing something about “Vomit Express,” jamming for quite awhile, but didn’t finish it. He said, “Oh, we ought to get together in a studio and do it,” then showed me the three-chord blues pattern on my pump organ. A week later in the studio Dylan actually did the arrangement, told people when to do choruses and when to take breaks, and suggested the musicians cut a few endings on their own to be spliced in.

“Vomit Express was a phrase I got from my friend Lucien Carr, who talked about going to Puerto Rico, went often, and we were planning to take an overnight plane a couple of weeks later, my first trip there. He spoke of it as the “vomit express” – poor people flying at night for cheap fares, not used to airplanes, throwing up airsick.”

All of which is fine, and who am I to doubt the great poets of the age, except that for me the phrase “showed me the three-chord blues pattern on my pump organ. A week later in the studio Dylan actually did the arrangement” really doesn’t ring true.  Any pop or rock or blues musician who has been in the business five minutes could tell you at once what the chord sequence is and how to play it.  It is so utterly standard.  I can’t see how Ginsberg could play an organ and not know the chords of this piece.

But, of course I wasn’t there and Ginsberg is the famous poet, so I’d better shut up.  Except to say that if you listened to the song all the way through and then decided to play it all again, I wonder how you feel.  I played it twice to write this review, but really didn’t need to play it again after that.  At least not for a long time. But that’s probably just me.

Here’s the recording.  The lyrics are below.

I'm going down to Puerto Rico
I'm going down on the midnight plane
I'm going down on the Vomit Express
I'm going down with my suitcase pain.

You can take an ancient vacation
fly over Florida's deep-blue end
rise up out of this mad-house nation
I'm going down with my oldest tender friend

I'm going down to Puerto Rico etc

We know each other now twenty years,
seen murders, and we wept tears
Now we're gonna take ourselves a little bit of free time
Wandering round the southern poverty clime

I'm going down to Puerto Rico etc

Start flyin' with all the poor, old, sick ladies
Everybody [in the plane] [drowded] and drunk, and they're crazy
Flyin' home to die in the wobbly air
All night long, they wanted the cheapest fare.

I'm going down to Puerto Rico etc

When we're down on the air field, I've never been there,
Except once walkin' around the air field in the great, wet heat,
Walk out, smell that old mother-load of shit from the tropics
Stomach growl [love], oh friends, beware.

I'm going down to Puerto Rico etc

Me and my friend, no we won't even drink,
And I won't eat meat, I won't fuck around
Gonna walk the streets alone, [cars] will blink and wink
Taxi's, buses and US gas all around.

I'm going down to Puerto Rico etc

Start [read] poetry at the university, meet kids,
look at their breasts, touch their hands, kiss their heads
seen from the heart, maybe the four buddhist normal truths
"Existence is suffering", it ends when you're dead --

I'm going down to Puerto Rico etc

Go out, walk up on the mountain, see the green rain
imagine that forest, finds, get lost,
sit cross-legged and meditate on old love pain,
watch every old love turn to gold.

I'm going down to Puerto Rico etc

See raindrops and the jungle rainbow, dancin' men;
brown legs walk around on the mud road
far from US smog, war, again
Sit down, empty mind, vomit my holy load

I'm going down to Puerto Rico etc

Come back to earth, walk the streets in shock
Smoke some grass and eat me some cock
kiss the mouth of the sweetest boy I can see
who shows me his white teeth and brown skin joy

I'm going down to Puerto Rico etc

At this point the chorus is sung out of time with the music.  Which is actually incredibly hard to do.

Go find my old friend, we'll go to the museum,
talk 'bout politics with the cats, and ask for revolution,
get back on the plane and chant high in the sky
Back to earth, to New York garbage streets and fly

I'm going down to Puerto Rico etc

I'm gonna come back with frighteneds in the hot
at New York's electrical eternity here
pull the air-conditioner plug from the wall
sit down with my straight spine and pray

I'm going down to Puerto Rico etc.


 

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6 Responses to Vomit Express by Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. What’s it all about?

  1. LarryFyffe says:

    See also: “Bob Dylan And Allen Ginsberg”

  2. Aaron G says:

    Strangely I’ve always really liked this track!!

    There is something about the feel of the music and words that I like. I also like that Ginsberg is clearly trying to sound like Dylan in the way he sings. I’ve read some commentaries on this track where the commenters actually think it is Dylan singing! I mean it’s obviously not, but it’s still almost cute how Ginsberg is doing his best Dylan impersonation!

  3. LarryFyffe says:

    Ginsberg saddles up Williams Carlos Williams’s technique of using simple diction to create complex imagery. Ginsberg takes it further down the Post Modernist road in a critic of modern society that still has roots in Romanticism. It’s left up to the reader or listener to harmonize the juxaposed incongruous imagery:

    Yacketyetyyakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and antidotes and eyeballs kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars
    (Allen Ginsberg: Howl)

    As also in:

    Far from the US smog, war, again
    Sit down, empty mind, vomit my holy load
    (Ginsberg: Going Down To Puerto Rico)

    Dylan’s songs show the influence of Ginsberg’s ‘beat poetry’, but Dylan tends to keep a firmer hold on the reins of the new pony.

  4. LarryFyffe says:

    *critique

  5. LarryFyffe says:

    *eyeball

  6. LarryFyffe says:

    Modernist poet TS Eliot, an American becomes a British citizen; Williams’ mother is Puerto Rican, and his father remains a British subject. Williams, like his mentor neoRomantic Transcentalist Walt Whitman, celebrates American individualism and technological innovation – rejects ‘highbrow’ poetry. Beat poet Allen Ginsberg takes his cue from Williams, goes farther, and vomits in Post Modern alleyways with Rimbaud. Bob Dylan, a song writer, looks out the basement window, and takes a good swallow of the poetic medicine.

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