In The Seventies
By Cathi Unsworth.
Barry Miles, In The Seventies, Serpents Tail, 2011
When Malcolm McLaren said, ‘Never trust a hippy’ it might have been Barry Miles he was thinking of. Miles definitely had Talcy’s number: ‘McLaren’s hero was Larry Parnes, the fifties and sixties manager known as Mr Parnes, shillings and pence,’ he neatly surmises of the man who claimed to have invented punk. And as for The Clash’s manager: ‘I was struck by the fact that after they played three sell-out nights at the Rainbow Theatre, I saw Bernie Rhodes pull away in a car with personalised number plates reading CLA5H, while Mick Jones was waiting for a bus outside.’ Never trust a hippy — because they just might know too much?
Miles would certainly make a formidable intellectual opponent, as the wealth of detail on everything from tape editing techniques, obscure magickal tomes, DIY electricity generation and sinister Scientology practises crammed within these pages makes clear. He has also managed to live a life right in the centre of every counter-cultural storm to blow back and forth the Atlantic in the latter half of the twentieth century. But his particular genius is not just in being in the right place at the right time and with all the right impulses – but just how entertainingly he retells it. From making repeat trips to the lavatory to scribble down William S Burroughs‘ ribald anecdotes to being probably the only person who would have been able to explain to Dee Dee Ramone how it was that Paul McCartney derived his Paul Ramon alias from fifties hairdresser extraordinaire Mr Teasy Weasy, Miles has an irrepressible curiosity and ear for detail that keeps his stories vivid and exciting.
In this follow-up to his similarly autobiographical In the Sixties – wherein hipster Miles founded both the Indica bookshop and International Times while hanging out with Beats, Beatles, stoners and Stones – the times they are a changing… but not all that much. ‘The sixties as a period of definably cultural history ran from 1963 to 1977’, the author posits in his introduction, adding that: ‘if there ever was a golden age of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, this was it.’
However, the tone of the seventies that comes through this memoir is altogether of a darker hue. The alternative society of the sixties is turning into a dangerous, paranoid place, shot through with hard drugs. As the decade dawned, America was doing its best to incarcerate its counterculture – MC5 manager and White Panther party leader John Sinclair was doing a ten-stretch in Detroit for possession of a joint; LSD guru Timothy Leary was in the Vacaville State pen facing a similar sentence, and Black Panther Bobby Searle was paraded in front of a Chicago judge bound in chains and gagged. Riots erupted in protest, during which UC Santa Barbara students burned down a branch of Bank of America, prompting the then Governor of California Ronald Reagan to comment: ‘If it takes a bloodbath, let’s get it over with’. A month later, National Guardsmen opened fire on unarmed students at Kent State University, killing four of them. The big payback for the party of the past decade had begun.
Miles landed in New York early in 1970, having closed the Indica and ended his work at The Beatles’ spoken word label Zapple, to start a new job, cataloguing Allen Ginsberg’s tape archive. As he arrived at a friend’s on Fifth Avenue and 11th Street, an explosion ripped apart a brownstone apartment ten doors away. It was being used as a bomb factory by The Weathermen, the radical breakaway cell of the Students for a Democratic Society. Miles cannot remember if he was actually present when Terry Robbins accidentally ignited the six sticks of dynamite he was wiring up, or if it was just the carnage of the aftermath he witnessed. When Ginsberg suggested he move to the commune he had set up in Cherry Valley, upstate New York, Miles didn’t take much persuading.
Yet life here proves less than bucolic. Armed with a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog, Miles enthusiastically sets about building a windmill to generate enough electricity to edit the 300 tapes of Ginsberg’s recorded poems – which one of the commune’s many drop-ins then blows playing Bob Dylan records for hours on end. Ginsberg is besieged by junkie and alcoholic ‘friends’ intent on drying out at the poet’s financial and emotional expense. A predatory Herbert Hunke rifles the rooms for things to steal and a menacing Gregory Corso threatens to kill his host. Miles is woken one night by the farm manager offering him his bleeding cock to inspect. A typical morning begins with the English poet Nathaniel Tarn serenading the assembled housemates with a rendition of ‘The Raspberry Song’ performed naked while washing his arse with a hose.
Frankly, the mean streets are looking more attractive at this point, and Miles finds sanctuary at the Hotel Chelsea back in New York. He will return to this venue throughout the course of the decade, rubbing up against Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, the artist Alphaeus Cole – who knew Gustave Doré and Victor Hugo and lived to be 112 – the composer Virgil Thompson and ‘perhaps the only genius I have ever met’, gnome-like Crowleyite and complier of the Anthology of American Folk Music, Harry Smith. He catches The New York Dolls at the Mercer Street Arts Theater shortly before the entire building collapses, killing four people, and travels back to London just as the fuse of punk starts to ignite. And it is here that the clash of ideals between Miles’ generation and the next becomes most rancorously apparent.
Miles gets freelance work at the NME thanks to the connection of his old IT friend Mick Farren, and is there to witness Tony Parsons throwing his fists in Farren’s direction in a spat over the 16-year-old Julie Burchill. Miles doesn’t think that editor Nick Logan’s employment of either of the ‘hip young gunslingers’ is a good idea. The swaggering Parsons attracts scorn for lying about being a teenager; while Burchill, on the other hand, is ‘still too young to vote’. Seeming to forget how old he was himself when he began his musical forays into Soho, Miles considers this a tender age to be working with ‘a staff of mostly stoned, cynical, macho journos’.
Still, he has enough concern for Parsons to save him from a potentially savage beating at the hands of Mink de Ville’s roadies (‘Several of my fellow journalists were sorry to hear that the planned action was called off.’). For Burchill, he attempts to set up a meeting with her idol and his old friend Patti Smith at a press conference. Unfortunately, Patti is in a bad mood, wound up by the taunts of the assembled hacks. ‘I’m the Field Marshall of rock’n’roll!’ she declares, jumping on a table. ‘I’m fucking declaring war! My guitar is my machine gun!’ Burchill’s reaction to this, as recorded by Miles, is surprising.
‘Julie was horrified and burst into tears,’ he says. ‘It was the shattering of a fantasy, one of the reasons she came to London in the first place.’ He takes her next door for a brandy, ‘which seemed to calm her down’ and then ‘put her in a cab’. Being decidedly un-macho himself, I doubt Miles intended this passage to come across quite so patronisingly. But I wonder if Burchill would recall the incident in quite the same way.
Miles is not at all impressed by Patti’s transformation from the poet he knew in the Chelsea. He prefers to hang out with The Damned – ‘Theirs was the humour of the Dadaists and Surrealists, designed to shock and make people think twice. They did not expect everyone to get it and were not surprised when they didn’t’ – The Adverts and, Bernie Rhodes notwithstanding, The Clash.
Miles is most intrigued by Joe Strummer. The conflicts that existed between The Clash singer’s background and demeanor reminded him of an old friend: ‘…he hid his undeniable middle-class origins with a slurred working-class London accent even less authentic than that of Mick Jagger,’ while adopting an enthusiasm for football and flick knives. Miles clearly does not trust this punk.
‘Strummer was only nine years younger than me, a hippy child of the sixties, like it or not,’ he says, adding the further damning evidence that Strummer, ‘cast the I-Ching to decide whether or not to join the band’. He considers The Clash the most interesting of the British punk bands; their concerns for their audience and left wing causes most closely chimed with his own. For a while, he considers becoming their manager. Yet his disappointment in Strummer is compounded when, on Rhodes’ advice, the singer sacks Mick Jones, ‘the only musically talented member of the band’ and turns the band into a parody of their younger selves.
It seems a shame that his understandable distrust of the self-satisfied McLaren prevented Miles from speaking to the much younger, genuinely working class John Lydon, who was no simple creation of his manager’s Parnes act and who, for many, summed up his generation’s feelings more potently in the lyrics of ‘God Save The Queen’ than anyone else. Miles might at least have been pleasantly surprised to discover that Johnny shared his enthusiasm for Krautrock.
But Miles’ view of the Pistols as violent morons is only enhanced, when, back in New York in 1978, he espies the Hotel Chelsea’s most infamous resident, Sid Vicious, hitting Max’s Kansas City on $50,000 bail for the murder of Nancy Spungeon. ‘Sid fitted right in,’ he recalls. ‘In New York the punk scene was, for the most part, an incoherent scream of rage from a bunch of middle class kids trying desperately to find an identity… They had the petulance of a spoiled child.’
And so his decade ends, reunited with the older, and apparently wiser Beats, having dinner at William Burroughs’ ‘Bunker’, an abandoned YMCA building on the Bowery. Poor Allen Ginsberg, kicked from one end of the seventies to the other, arrives just in time to witness Burroughs demonstrating the effectiveness of a mace gun on the assembled guests. ‘What have you done?’ demands the horrified and bewildered Ginsberg. But Burroughs can’t reply; he is overcome with mirth at the panic and extreme discomfort he has caused for all the others.
It’s the last clash between hippy and punk before the dirty business of the eighties can begin.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Cathi Unsworth is the author of three pop-cultural crime fiction novels, The Not Knowing, The Singer, Bad Penny Blues, published by Serpent’s Tail. She lives and works in London.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 6th, 2011.