Gus Van Sant gears up for the success of Good Will Hunting by directing this oddball music video for Buzz Bin newcomer Allen Ginsberg. “Ballad of the Skeletons” (aka “A Ballad of American Skeletons” or “American Ballad of Skeletons”) is a poem that Ginsberg wrote during the weeks leading up to the 1996 presidential election, largely inspired by the unavoidable hubbub surrounding certain right-wing media personalities of the day.
“Ballad of the Skeletons” is an all-around bizarre assemblage of talent. After completing the poem, Ginsberg presented an accompanying riff he came up with to musicians Marc Ribot, Lenny Kaye, and David Mansfield (best known for their collaborations with Tom Waits, Patti Smith, and Bob Dylan, respectively), who laid down basic tracks for the song. Their work was then tinkered with and fleshed out by former Wings frontman Paul McCartney (who performs with Ginsberg at the end of this video.) The finishing touch? Piano overdubs by Philip Glass. Gus Van Sant’s low-budget visual interpretation of this material preserves the political dimension of the poem, but it is also silly enough for MTV audiences circa 1996, with the 70-year-old Allen Ginsberg looking curiously like Dr. Demento and unlike a pop star of any sort. Here’s the writer himself describing Van Sant’s work:
“He went back to old Pathé, Satan skeletons, and mixed them up with Rush Limbaugh, and Dole, and the local politicians, Newt Gingrich, and the President. And mixed those up with the atom bomb, when I talk about the electric chair–‘Hey, what’s cookin?’–you got Satan setting off an atom bomb, and I’m trembling with a USA hat on, the Uncle Sam hat on. So it’s quite a production, it’s fun.”