In the late Sixties, the great and the groovy gathered at Barry Miles’s gallery. He revisits his revolutionary times with Mick Brown
The Telegraph, 16 Oct 2002
In 1965, a young bookseller named Barry Miles decided to throw a birthday party in his London flat for his friend, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who was visiting from New York. Miles was acquainted with the Beatles, and Ginsberg was insistent that they be invited, too.
At the party, Ginsberg got completely drunk and stripped off his clothes, putting his baggy underpants on his head and hanging a hotel “Do not disturb” sign around his penis. It was at that moment that two of the Beatles arrived: John Lennon with his wife, Cynthia, and George Harrison with his girlfriend, Patti Boyd.
Taking in the scene, they swiftly downed their drinks and headed for the door, where Miles intercepted Lennon and asked why he was leaving so soon. Nodding his head towards America’s greatest living poet, gambolling, naked, in the middle of the living room, Lennon hissed: “You don’t do that in front of the birds!”
“There was a lot of chippiness about John,” Miles remembers. “An awful lot of his ‘rapier wit’ would have been just old-fashioned rudeness if it had come from anyone else.”
It was to be another three years before Lennon’s Liverpudlian working-class decorum finally succumbed to the libertarian spirit sweeping through Sixties Britain, and he let it all hang out himself – in public – posing naked with his new wife Yoko Ono on the cover of their album Two Virgins.
Miles can claim to have played a small part in that, too, for it was at his bookshop/art gallery, Indica, that Lennon and Ono first met.
In fact, reading Miles’s memoir, In the Sixties, one is tempted to think that there was hardly an event or happening in the London counter-culture with which he was not in some way involved.
More than just a bookshop and gallery, Indica, which Miles founded in 1965, became the catalyst for the burgeoning underground scene, a parish pump for poets, revolutionaries, drug messiahs and avant-garde artists.
Miles also co-founded IT, Britain’s first underground newspaper, which in turn gave birth to UFO, London’s first psychedelic venue, where the Pink Floyd got their start, and to the sundry happenings at Alexandra Palace and the Roundhouse which truly signalled the emergence of the British counter-culture.
Shaggy-haired and bespectacled, with a bookishly preoccupied manner, Miles, who is 59, still lives in the West End mansion block where Ginsberg once danced naked in his living room. But, nowadays, he is on his third marriage, with an 11-year-old son and a mortgage. It comes to us all.
His personal journey through the Sixties epitomises the decade that, as he puts it, “began in black and white and ended in colour”.
The son of an ambulance driver, Miles arrived at Cheltenham Art College in 1959 “wanting to live in a garret and dedicate my life to painting”, and quickly fell into what then passed as a bohemian existence, listening to jazz, smoking pot and marching with CND.
He arrived in London in 1963, gravitated to Soho and became the manager of Better Books, where he began to stock the work of the American Beats, radical broadsides, and poetry and literary magazines.
He also became the first bookseller to import the novels of Henry Miller, at a time when he was liable to be prosecuted under the obscenity laws. Taking delivery of a consignment of Sexus, Miles would sell half for 10 shillings in his shop, and deliver the remainder to a dirty bookshop a few doors away, where they would be sold for £5 each.
“This way,” he writes, “Miller fans could have the thrill of buying it as an expensive dirty book or they could buy it from us as literature at the published price.”
In 1965, he co-founded Indica, with John Dunbar – an art dealer who was then married to Marianne Faithfull – and Peter Asher, one half of the Sixties pop duo Peter and Gordon.
Asher’s sister, Jane, was going out with Paul McCartney, who was living at Asher’s Wimpole Street home, and the Beatle was quickly drawn into the orbit of Indica.
As well as being the shop’s first paying customer, McCartney helped out by putting up shelves and painting walls. And when, the following year, Miles launched IT, McCartney was the first to put his hand in his pocket to support the venture.
While the popular picture today is of McCartney as the anodyne, cheeky Beatle – the cuddly counterpart to Lennon’s blazing radical – Miles says that, in fact, the opposite was the case.
“When Paul came down to London he was the one who very much had his antennae out, as he put it.
“The other Beatles all had their country houses and their chauffeurs. Paul was the only one who lived in London, and he was just sucking up everything like a sponge.
“John’s attitude was ‘avant-garde is just French for bullshit’. He was very suspicious of it all, and very scared of anyone putting something over on him. Although, of course, he embraced it all with a vengeance when he met Yoko.”
The celebrated meeting took place at the Indica Gallery, where Miles and Dunbar were staging Yoko’s first London show. Lennon came in, and Yoko handed him a card which said “Breathe”. He panted like a dog. “John was obviously very impressed with her,” remembers Miles. “And she was very taken with him.”
Yoko has always maintained that she had “no idea” who Lennon or the Beatles were before that night. But that, says Miles, is not true.
“She knew exactly who they were. She’d already approached Paul for some John Cage manuscripts she wanted. He wouldn’t give her anything, but suggested she go to John. But she told John she’d never heard of the Beatles and he believed her.”
Yoko, he says, methodically pursued the Beatle for the next 18 months, bombarding him with postcards. “John always assumed she was after sponsorship. But it all changed when Yoko visited him at home while Cynthia was away on holiday.
“John had called a meeting at Apple to announce to the other Beatles that he was the reincarnation of Jesus – I think it was the only thing on the agenda – and, that night, Yoko came over, and they stayed up all night and made the tape that became Two Virgins, and then made love as dawn was coming up.”
For Miles, the defining impulse of the counter-culture was libertarianism. “I think it was always about personal freedom, that you should be free to have whatever sex life you wanted, take whatever drugs you wanted; that there should be no such thing as a crime against yourself, and that the state shouldn’t have any role at all in your personal life. And that immediately put you in conflict with any number of laws in Britain at the time. Homosexuality was illegal. And, of course, a lot of people were smoking pot, which automatically created a closed society of people who were outside the law.”
As his book suggests, the underground scene in Britain always had a decidedly parochial flavour. In America, the underground was a soi disant revolutionary movement, giving rise to violent campus demonstrations and the radical group, the Weathermen; the British underground, Miles suggests, was more akin to a cottage industry. “The Americans thought they could change the world, the sky was the limit; in England, the horizon was very low indeed – if we kept our heads down, with a bit of luck, the authorities wouldn’t see us.”
London did have a “White Panther” party (modelled on a hippy-revolutionary group in America of the same name, which, in turn, was modelled on the infinitely more exotic Black Panthers), founded by Mick Farren, the singer with a band called the Deviants. “But I don’t think it ever had more than 10 members,” says Miles.
“I do remember, one evening, being at Mick’s flat in Shaftesbury Avenue, having a very earnest discussion about the suitability of the balcony for a machine-gun placement. But even at the time, it seemed ridiculous . . .”
Certainly, Miles never saw himself as a putative Che Guevara. “My personal agenda was much more one of promoting ideas, and I was very much opposed to censorship. I didn’t see why people shouldn’t be able to read whatever they wanted.
“Indica brought in an awful lot of books that weren’t necessarily radical, but were about changing minds; counter-culture as opposed to mainstream culture – the notion that ideas make people free.”
Nor did he have much time for drugs. “It takes two days to have a good acid trip, or that’s what everybody said, and I never had more than two hours off work.”
By the end of the Sixties, Miles was spending much of his time in New York, where he lived in the Chelsea Hotel and attempted to launch the Beatles’ Zapple label, producing spoken-word recordings by such writers as Charles Bukowski, Richard Brautigan and Allen Ginsberg. The label was scrapped when Allen Klein took over Apple and decided it was unprofitable.
Indica finally closed in 1969, the victim of customers endlessly “liberating” the books. “I still meet people who say: ‘I used to steal books from you’. I say, ‘Well it’s thanks to you we shut, and it’s not too late to pay for them now.’ They never do, of course.”
IT was in a state of perpetual financial crisis almost from the day it launched. Most of its sales – which at one stage reached 48,000 copies – came from street vendors, few of whom bothered to pass on the money, and the paper finally folded in 1973.
By then, Miles had left England, and was living on Allen Ginsberg’s farm-commune in upstate New York, where he worked as the poet’s archivist and produced spoken-word recordings. He went on to write biographies of Ginsberg, his fellow beat authors Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and of Paul McCartney.
But he is modest about his own contribution to the Sixties and his influence on people’s lives. “I meet people even now who tell me how much they loved Indica, and I think it inspired many people to write themselves. I’ve had all sorts of funny books sent to me from people I’ve never heard of – ‘If it wasn’t for your fucking bookshop, I’d have a nice semi-detached, but here I am starving in a garret somewhere’.”
He smiles, contentedly: “Utterly corrupted them all.”