Drugs, literature and the British Beatnik-Underground scene.
1. SOHO: The cradle.
A beacon of bohemianism and modernity with a flourishing artistic culture, Soho pulsed like a neon beacon of warm and wild beckoning light, beaming broadly up and down the country in the two-tone twilight world of post-war fifties and early sixties. A musical magnet, drawing teenagers from all over the country to the spot where the nucleus of the Island’s avant-garde music scene gathered, and a cross-current of new, live, raw musical streams could be seen and heard.
‘Modern Soho came into being towards the end of nineteenth century, when it began to be settled by various immigrant groups, especially Italians. The immigrants simply by bringing some of the flavour of their native countries to London – particularly as so many opened restaurants and bars; gave Soho a reputation amongst those who cared for such things as the exotic and the unusual. It was a village in the city where you could feel a sense of urbane life on an essentially human scale. This fact, coupled with its Cosmopolitan quality, is what has given it its continuing appeal’.
Spot-lit throughout the fifties, it beckoned as a neon promise of luscious and promiscuous, urbane delights, exuding the mildly seedy glamour and excitement of a back street Las Vegas and down-town Greenwich Village combined. Its reputation glamorized through films and books, depicted a world of black leather clad cosh boys, criminals and racketeers, prostitution, pimps, pickpockets and thieves, and down and outs mixed with gangsters and politicians.
As such it was also a thriving literary and artistic haunt for artists and writers, painters and poets, as well as other non-conformists through the twenties, thirties and forties and in general it attracted a more bohemian and artistic atmosphere and lifestyle. Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, T S Elliot and the great social reformer like Karl Marx lived and worked and held court in the coffee bars, clubs and restaurants. It continued on through the fifties and sixties, up to the angry young men of literature and the existential outsiders of Camus and Colin Wilson. Though literature would soon be subsumed in the rhythmic tide and sonic boom of throbbing guitars and the poetic utterances of folk, blues and rock and roll singers.
A place where lonely women and furtive men in long stained raincoats loomed in and out of toilets in Piccadilly and Leicester Square and sulked and skulked in lonely decrepit doorways hiding soiled copies of continental nude magazines displayed in the windows of glittering lit porno shops.
And where pleasure, soon to be freed from the idea of sin, slowly creeps out from under the covers of fifties bedrooms and sex, sneering behind the torn curtains of convention and soon to explode, walked the streets; where the element of danger and chance existed into the night, that might perhaps offer you a fortune, land you in the lap of pleasure or at very least offer you a midnight post-war, postcard full of cheap, throw away thrills.
Roll over Beethoven and so on; in and out of the myriad social convulsions and change, amid whatever other nefarious goings on in the sleazy underbelly of night existing there and that perhaps, have always gone on, though of no real concern to us here but simply added to the legend and the attraction of the place.
But perhaps most of all back then, to the teenage baby-boomers and restless music hungry youth on the advance, roosting and calling out from the legendary ‘Two I’s’ coffee bar –Soho was hailed as the cradle and birthplace of British rock and roll.
As such, Soho, amongst many other claims to fame, plays a very unique, important and historical role in the development and dissemination of the Island’s musical talents. Something that had been germinating since the turn of the century.
2. Drugs, literature and the British Beatnick-Underground scene.
Morphing in the cultural breeze that ran through the decade, endemic and integral to those pantheistic times, fast descending through parlour and pad, as if set to explode, the alluring fin-du-siecle, demi-monde world of drugs, literature and the expanding British underground counter culture.
Now, inhaled along with the hot steaming vapours billowing out from the espresso coffee houses of Soho’s clubs and cellar bars – the first sweet scented flowers of marijuana and hashish perfumed the atmosphere and marinated in the cultural broth of the times.
And where, fuming at the flickering flash-point, lighting up, unseen and unheard, running parallel to the music and the blossoming folk revival, hatching in shadowy groves and smoky candle lit corners – situated at the far outposts and gathering steam, London’s nascent underground scene burrowed and wove alternative realities and where apocalyptic discussions raged through the night into the pre-revolutionary dawn.
Here we are poised at the prickly precipice, so to speak of that daemonic and turbulent time and, as if clutching dynamite, light up the long slim torch of illumination , inhale, take a deep breath and descend further, stepping lightly over the hot coals and fiery embers, still burning in the pantheistic caverns of the labyrinthine underground.
The confluence of influences here is varied and complex.
Besides the beat writers and poets circulating around, were writers like Le Roi Jones, Kafka, Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Colin Wilson, Colin MacInnes, John Braine and John Osbourne, who were widely read and discussed and considered mildly subversive and revolutionary, and whose works, by the mid to late sixties, thrived alongside the works of Blake, Kafka, Nietzche, Herman Hesse, Soren Kierekeguard, Albert Camus and Fyodor Dosotyevsky. Aldous Huxley, DH Lawrence, George Orwell, and Karl Jung and RD Lainge. Scattering psychological insight and spiritual nuggets into the rich stream of metaphysical ideas, that flowed like lava through the era.
A literature that co-existed alongside French and Italian Avant-Garde cinema, and the philosophical and artistic ideas of the surrealist, absurdist , symbolist and Situationist and Dadaist movements, adding cutting edge style and modernity to the widening and swirling gene-pool.
Interestingly enough, Freud was, by then, mildly discredited and rejected by the underground for his over instance, his fixation that the sex act was the basis of all motives, actions and behaviour, and was seen as mechanistic and reductionist – as well as ultimately pessimistic. A view scorned by the more mystical underground, who veered more towards Jung and the collective unconscious, mysticism and UFO’s and of course, drugs. An underground that grew louder, bolder and more vociferously spectacular as the decade swerved into the widening curve of the psychedelic sixties.
Indeed, as it sped towards psychedelica, many British and American musicians and artists would soon be drawn to its alternative fires and magnetic pull and would soon join its spreading, radical ranks as the decade smouldered, smoked, fizzed and popped its hydra headed intoxicants, a tail spinning psychedelic cock-tail swirling in a diabolic decanter, galloped, gulped and gorged in a pantheistic frenzy of pill popping acid dropping grass toting, speed splurting fountain of dangerous and delicious delights, dispensing a massive dose of mischief, mysticism, madness and mayhem.
By then the scene also involved swallowing massive does of LSD and a whole variety of new and exiting exotic plants and substances; extolling the virtues of altered states of consciousness, and books on that subject abounded on the shelves of every counter-cultural convert. An illustrious scroll that included the works of G.I Gurdjieff and PD Ouspenskey. Madame Blavatsky, Krishnamurti, Rudolph Steiner, Lao Tze, Timothy Leary and The Tibetan Book of The dead, The I-Ching, Meyher Baba, Baba Ram Das, Ken Kesey, Carlos Castenada, Telehard de Chardan , P D Ouspenskey and R D Lainge.
A rich canon of philosophical, psychological and metaphysical ideas that piled up and in turn served the prophets, poets and pamphleteers on the ramparts of the revolution with principles and blue-print for a new age, a merry tinkling psychedelic band rolling in and rolling up on the underground express that suddenly arrived over ground, overnight.
Kicking down the establishment doors and opening the psychological doors of perception, as it magic mushroomed and cracked open, boomed and cascaded around the boosted minds of the heads who journeyed there and, depending on how you view it, lubricating and liberating, the expanding counter-cultural bloodline, that now stretched from London to Khatmandu.
Wild, deep and diverse it plunged, ploughing through the British cultural vineyard, gathering many on the journey of expanding utopian dreams. A broad spectrum that included people like Herbert Marcuse R D lainge, Jim Haines Trochi, Michael X, Michael Horowitz, Germaine Greere,
Richard Neville, Dave Tomlin Suzy Cream Cheese, Joe Boyd , Donovan ,Neil Oram, Barry Miles, Paul Mc Cartney, John Dunbar – R D Lainge, Joe Berke and the legendary Doyen of the psychedelic counter-culture, John Hopkins ‘Hoppy the Hippy’ waving the magic lantern of LSD in the psychedelic cavern of club UFO.
Mouthpieces of the psychedelic revolution, who stood at the forefront of the acid fountain, now mushrooming and LSD-ing to and fro across the Atlantic, flying trans-love airways via San-Francisco and pulling a paradigm shift in consciousness and a glittering pantheon of musicians and rock stars, film stars and many more in its fierce psychedelic wake. A world-wide cast of glittering mouthpieces with blissful, singeing tongues, flapping on gilded psychedelic wings, chanting the world is one.
As if the morning of the magicians had arrived, the parallel universe appeared and the spring of youth bubbled and bathed in the warm blissful psychedelic strokes of the golden dawn. Amongst them, prominent in the Zeitgeist, splashing about in the cosmic paint-pot were some of the decades prime movers and shakers.
London in the sixties was the blazing capital of the world and the innovative ‘Arts Lab‘, ( laboratory ) was one of its buzzing alternative centres. There, along with its founder, Jim Haines, – agent – provocateur, sexual liberationist, entrepreneur and co-founder of the trail-blazing underground magazine IT (International Times).
Together they would often meet there for rousing all-nighters, carousing till day-break and gulping a heady mix of psychology, music and metaphysics, film and drama and large doses of mind- fizzing, multi-coloured psychedelic cocktails.
Including, prominent amongst them and in particular the pioneering anti-psychiatry rebel and celebrity counter cultural Guru RD Lainge (1927 -1989). A seminal and provocative figure in the sixties counter-culture. Over the years Lainge would explore the subjects of neurosis, psychiatry, analysis and the origins of schizophrenia and the divided self.
Additionally and not least, Michael Horvitz, anti-establishment Poet, beat anthologist, jazz troubadour, artist and promoter, who launched the ground-breaking New Departures poetry magazine in 1959. A pivotal underground figure, pillar and bastion of those halcyon days and still broadcasting from the barricades.
3. THE ALBERT HALL HAPPENING.
Then there was Alexander Trochi. (30 july 1925 -15 April 1984) Eminence Gries, smack evangelist, underground icon and arch junkie rebel author of ‘Cain‘s Book‘, a British equivalent to William Burroughs ‘Naked Lunch’ novel about heroin.
Alexander Trochi played a powerful role in the emerging Beat-Underground scene and it was he who compeered the famous counter-cultural gathering of the tribes at the Albert Hall in 1965. The famous heraldic concert of the bards where thousands suddenly and unexpectedly appeared all together in an upsurge of poetry, political protest and Dionysian revelry and a land-mark occasion in the historical annuls of the British underground. The programme included an international cast that comprised the cream of the British and American beat and continental poets and some of the leading minds of the emerging counter-culture. Altogether, howling from the barricades there was Alan Ginsberg exhorting people to ‘Be kind’, telling them, ‘you are not alone‘ and ‘let’s make love in London tonight‘!
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gergory Corso, Paolo Leon; Christopher Louge, and Simone Vincenoo from Holland, enthusiastically mouthing through the microphone ‘these drugs are wonderful’ to a packed Albert Hall. Jim Haines, Barry and Sue miles, Jeff Nuttal , Dave Tomlin, Neil Oram, Pete Brown, Michael Horowitz and Adrienne Mitchel reciting his galvanising and cathartic poem ‘Tell Me Lies about Vietnam’ was considered a heraldic and tonic high point in the event. R D Lainge abandoned Kingsley Hall with his patients for the evening in a pre-‘One flew over the Cuckoos nest’ spree – taking real schizophrenics along for a cathartic night out, and were given a little space at the front of the stage, where they ran around, cut loose, jabbering and swooning as if at a ‘Nutter’s Ball’ as someone said – and the closest thing to a Baccanalian, pagan, orgiastic celebration of life, love and madness and ecstatic communion if ever there was one – and christened thereafter, going down in Underground history as The legendary ‘Wholly Communion‘.
‘Everybody said the same thing, enthused Jim Haines afterwards and pinning the awakening insight and prevailing mood: ‘I never realized we were so many. It was the realisation that ‘God , I thought it was just me and a few friends but this many thousands (7, 400)… that was the revelation of the evening . There were lots of people out there like us‘.
A realisation that captured the turning point and the prevailing feeling of liberation, optimism and the surging swell of cultural revolution and change. An event that was also a transitional peak – at once a bohemian rhapsody, as much as the bonfire of the Beats, as up it flared up, consumed in the kaleidoscopic waves of psychedelic flower-power and the hippies.
Where, incidently, amongst and alongside 17 poets of different countries Davy Graham was the last act to play and the only musician to perform there. Trochi introduced him on stage. He played ‘Better get it in your Soul’, a Charlie Mingus composition, a jazz number played in ¾ rhythm.
Back then, these were the famous front-line anti-establishment outlaws, bad boy pioneers and celebrity Gurus of the frothing counter-culture. Outsiders, rebels, cultural provocateurs at the cutting edge, living up to the famous ‘enfante terribe’ poet Rambou’s maxim to the full.
‘One must make oneself a seer by a long and prodigious and rational disordering of the senses – every form of love, of suffering, of madness until he reaches the unknown – and during which he becomes the great learned one – the seer’.
4. THE PRICK OF THE TIMES.
Icy torments from the prick of the times. Cold sweats, needles, jabs, icy pricks. Heroin, like a burr beneath the but of a Burro, icy talons sunk deep into the fevered flesh of the time. Like a carrion bird of prey perched on the arse of a braying donkey, a mule laden donkey, screeching like a demented parrot, whining up the woeful tracks of heroin addiction and carried to the melting snow capped peaks of oblivion and then dropped.
From the long dark train, a howl went out, a blue howl of black notes. A lament, a moan, emanating from the abysmal and a sick note of helplessness injected and shot into the bloodstream of contemporary life .
Back then, before the deluge, the climate was different, and in pre – psychedelic sixties, drugs were then at a pivotal point. Indeed, many outlawed drugs were readily available on prescription and sold openly as medicinal remedies from chemists, and these included heroin, opium and cocaine and Mary-Jane(marijuanna) concoctions.
It’s now a fairly well known and documented fact that Hashish and Maryjane were widely smoked and used across a wide cultural spectrum then, though still a more or less hidden and discreetly enjoyed phenomenon, though spreading. Back then, they still had the capacity to shock and alarm and the first one to gain any real notoriety was heroin.
However, well before the sixties Britain had already acquired a pantheon of opium swilling devotees, whose adventures and intoxications spilled onto the pages of literature and poetry, from the romantic tradition of the lakeside poets on, dabbling with laudanum and the opium eaters of De Quincey and on to the massive drug consuming, brilliant and perverse, debauched and tragic Victorian scholar, mountain climber and monster heroin addict Alister Crowley – a phantasmagorical embodiment of the daemonic consuming itself if ever there ever was one.
Here in Britain , from the fifties on, it really began to surface through the oratory of the beats, particularly with people like Burroughs and Trochi, who bathed in its opaque glory and pale nihilistic fire. The bloodless bandana of futility and despair knotted into a tourniquet of pessimism and defeat, strung out and detached over the abyss, at the edge of emptiness and eternity, self-destruction and despair, lurking in the bleak nihilistic outposts of the waste-land.
Strangely enough, in a weird, twisted, strung out way, back then it collected and gathered around it, a certain perverse awe and kudos and was seen and admired in literary beat circles, providing it with a seedy glamour, edge and sex appeal – you were considered a hip heavy weight, scaling the savage snow capped peaks of experience and around you gathered a dangerous troubling mystique, a dark and doomed romanticism of alienation and suicide, sprinkled through the ephemeral mists of celebrity, that was attached to the bohemian backside of the existential outsider position, that almost validated it as a credible option to an indifferent, pointless and meaningless universe.
The deluded utterances of a self-pitying, self -destructive martyr and anti-hero that has witheringly lingered since the pale faced Sorrows of young Werther first went on page. A degraded version of the existential philosophy of nihilism as defined and foretold in the great works of people like Dostoievsky and Nietzche.
It was rejected by the more intelligent, seeker types and the holistic and hedonistic movements of the hippies and never entered the main stream consciousness craze of the Psychedelic Sixties. It was around at the extremes but seen on the whole as a downer.
© James Hamilton. 2016.