October 14, 2016

Less than a week after Cheltenham, I attended the Manchester Literary Festival where Iain Sinclair and I were in conversation, chaired by Doug Field, on the subject of the origins of the London sixties counter-culture, with a particular focus on the work of Jeff Nuttall. It was held in the extraordinary Victorian Gothic cathedral-like John Rylands Library and had mounted an exhibition of manuscripts and publications of Jeff’s there, including a hilarious letter by Jeff to poet Harry Fainlight and a few issues of his My Own Mag, the first cut-up magazine to be, itself, damaged and cut-up [holes in the page, burned edges, and one issue cut into eight and stapled to a backing page so you could read all the pages in cut-up form. It was important because William Burroughs was a regular contributor and ran a three-column newspaper-style text in many of the issues. In the end, Iain and I sort of agreed that Jeff was more of a precursor of the underground scene than an actual member of it: for a start Jeff hated rock ‘n’ roll, couldn’t see the rebellious or revolutionary value in it. His music was the trad jazz of twenties New Orleans and he sometimes honked away on a battered cornet to prove it. He also was opposed to drugs. He liked to sup his pint in a public bar surrounded by drinkers in flat caps. As he put it, ‘I’m for physiodelics not psychedelics’ and he hated the advocates of LSD and marijuana. The conversation was stimulating, as it always is when talking to Iain and we had a full house. Next day I saw my sister Jen for lunch who took me to Canal Street, the wonderful gay neighbourhood that I had not previously visited.

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October 5, 2016

After not returning to Cheltenham for 50 years, where I was born and went to art college, I did an event there at the Literary Festival last year. It went well and they kindly invited me back again. This year I did three events: a panel on San Francisco, which included my old editor at Mojo, Barney Hoskyns, and a panel on New York where, in addition to participating, I was also the chair. That was interesting because the two panelists were both novelists whom, I must confess, I had not heard of. One was Megan Bradbury, whose Everyone is Watching explored New York through events in the lives of a number of important historical characters beginning with Walt Whitman. There was an interesting portrait of Robert Moses, who initially wanted to provide parks and recreation space for the city’s poor, but became a megalomaniac who displaced thousands in his grand building schemes and was only really stopped by Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities who stopped him from running a super highway straight through the Cast Iron District and the centre of Greenwich Village. I liked the book because one of the characters was Robert Mapplethorpe, who I used to know when I lived at the Hotel Chelsea in 1969 and 70, and who, though not a close friend, I saw on and off until his death. I told a short anecdote about Robert: I was walking down the West Street one day, when the trucks were still parked underneath the elevated highway. When I reached Christopher Street a row of rubber and leather clad figures were leaning against the west wall of the Ramrod or whichever gay bar it was on that corner, catching a few rays of the afternoon sun despite all wearing rubber bondage masks. It seemed hilarious to me. As I drew near, the one in the middle pulled out the stopper covering his mouth – pop – waved and called out, ‘Hi Miles!’ It was Robert. One of the things I always liked about him was that, although he was immensely ambitious, he also had a sense of humour about the heavy rubber and bondage scene that he was so involved in.

The other participant in the New York panel was Teju Cole, born in America of Nigerian parents, who in fact grew up in Nigeria. I would highly recommend his book, Open City about an alienated psychiatrist who takes long psychogeographical walks in Manhattan. He uses this device to slowly reveal different facets of both his protagonist’s character and the city itself. It reminded me of Nadja by Andre Breton, one of my favourite books. In walking from one part of the festival to another we passed a row of typical Cheltenham regency houses. He asked who they were built for and I explained that Cheltenham was very much the town where retired colonial administrators came to retire. He made a few wry comments. It gave me great pleasure to see a celebrated Nigerian novelist walking the streets and staying in the best hotel in town, something that would have been inconceivable when I was a child. Maybe things have actually improved, despite the terrible state the world appears to be in today.

I also did an event on Charles Bukowski with the poet Salina Godden, chaired by Lyndsey Fineran. I had not realised that there was such an energetic contemporary poetry scene in Britain; she had the power and delivery I have only previously seen with poets like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Her subject matter is similar to that of Bukowski – drinking, sex, drinking – whom she obviously adores. I had a thoroughly good time.

Saline Godden

Saline Godden

Once again I walked around those familiar streets but I am not sure that I would want to go there again. Here is a photograph of the famous statue of King Edward exposing himself to a little girl, or that’s how local legend always had it when I was at art college there.

King Edward

King Edward

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Wednesday 14 September, 2016

chatterjie-show tip-of-the-iceberg


I went round the Nimai Chjatterji Collection show at Tate Britain with Andrew Wilson who worked on the show with Adrian Glew. Adrian was responsible for acquiring the collection from Nimai, which has been a long time in cataloguing – maybe a decade, but given that there are 3,000 boxes of material in the collection, it is a miracle that it is now done. The show features highlights from the collection, including a full range of Fluxus objects, something Adrian is particularly keen on. Nimai bought a great deal of his collection from Indica Books, the bookshop I ran from 1965 until February 29, 1970. In the case of Fluxus objects, we usually received two copies: one I reserved for the counter-culture and avant garde collection of the German dentist Hanns Sohm in Markgröningen whose collection finished up in the Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. His brother, who lived in London, came in every month to collect all the objects I put aside for him, including all the underground newspapers and mimeo poetry magazines that had come in. He was very particular about condition and insisted that the papers be stored flat. Everyone dreaded the brother’s arrival because he was a Holocaust denier and kept trying to bring the subject up. His brother, who was buying the things, but only managed a couple of trips a year to London, seemed to be the exact opposite: Hanns was large and jolly, his brother thin and depressed. Maybe they were half-brothers or related by marriage.

The other copies of Fluxus usually went to Nimai, but he had often obtained a copy from the artist involved and so we had a few to sell to the general public. It was noticeable that no English institution was interested in collecting this sort of thing, nor any English collectors. (The Tate didn’t start an archive until 1970). I met Nimai again, decades later, at a Tate Turner Prize party. He immediately asked if Jeff Nuttall had produced any more copies of George. It was if we had seen each other only the week before and I was still behind the counter at Indica.

It was terrific to see all the wonderful objects that had once passed through my hands: obscure German language concrete poetry magazines; John Furrnival’s Openings/Unfoldings poetry cards – John was one of my teachers at art college – Bob Cobbing’s Writer’s Forum mimeo poetry chapbooks; a run of Situationist Internationale (including a first printing of the second issue!); the first edition of Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit and so on. There is a letter from Guy Debord; manuscripts; photographs of Jean-Jacques Lebel’s happenings including the first ever conducted in Europe; wonderful documentation. I was particularly pleased to see a poster for the Domain Poetique, organised by Jean-Jacques Lebel at the American Centre in Paris, where William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Ian Sommerville presented their mix-media performances. This one is from May 1963. Bill did much more cutting edge work when he was living in Europe. If you are in Tate Modern do go and see the show, it’s where the café used to be.


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Monday 5 September

Rosemary and I went to the “So You want a Revolution?” dinner at the V&A, to celebrate the opening the show in a couple of days time. We arrived early, but fortunately so did Jon Savage and Charles Saumarez-Smith who runs the RA, who was very jolly and we passed the time pleasantly until someone finally opened the doors. Had a chat with Bob Geldof who had an in depth knowledge of the period; something I had not expected as I associate him with the next generation; in fact he’s only eight years younger than me. He said how he had always hated the hippies, mostly for their passivity. I sort of agree with him as I always preferred the Velvet Underground to any of the San Francisco bands. He said it was the aggression of bands like the Who that he got off on back then and I can see that that the appreciation of psychedelic rock would not translate very well beyond the confines of the UFO Club and the Notting Hill hippie scene. The Who were, in fact, an interesting transitional band in that respect: Pete Townshend and Karen were regulars at the UFO Club, Pete in his Afghan coat and Karen in a tiny mini-skirt, danicing to the Pink Floyd and yet retaining a Who fan-base of short haired mods.

At the dinner I was sat next to broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, whom I hadn’t seen in several years. I knew him from the seventies when Omnibus Press published his Paul McCartney in His Own Words, in 1976 when I was working there as a free-lance editor with Pearce Marchbank. There is no question that Paul has been unfairly demonised by the BBC and the police, in their unfounded allegations that he was a sexual abuser; by the latter in order to encourage more victims of sexual abuse to come forward. I hope he wins the case that he is bringing against his tormentors.


Two days later, at the morning press launch, I did some of the press interviews for the show along with Jim Haynes, Joe Boyd and others. Vicky Broackes and Geoff Marsh, the curators, naturally did the most. After the launch party that evening, where virtually everyone from the sixties that I knew, who is still alive, turned up, James Birch and Claire, Rosemary, Glen Matlock and another couple all went for a Polish meal where Vickie and Geoff joined us. The show had taken two years to put on and the initial responses were all favourable. Here they practice their John and Yoko double act with James.


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2 August 2016

I have never felt that Britain was my country. When I was a child, growing up in the Cotswold countryside, everything was owned or run by Earl Bathurst, Colonel Bowley, whose family built the Bowley almshouses in Watermoor, where my primary school was located, or some other aristocratic family. Earl Bathurst, also called Lord Apsley, owned 15,500 acres of countryside surrounding Cirencester and the home park of the family seat, Cirencester House, cut a 90 degree slice from the town centre making it impossible to cross the west side of the town as the house was only one street from the central market place and its attached park was ten miles long. The Bathursts appeared to control everything; no-one I knew, my parents, my friends’ parents, had any say over how Cirencester was run. All my aunts and uncles, on both sides of my family, had spent the early part of their lives in service, working as servants in the mansions and large country houses of the West of England. They knew whose country it was; and it wasn’t theirs. I felt no connection to it at all. It was nothing to do with me.

Things were not much different in London: back then, when old-Etonian Harold Macmillan was elected prime minister he famously filled 35 government posts with members of his own family, seven of them sitting in Cabinet (six of them Old Etonians). It was not until I first went to New York, in 1967, that I realised what was wrong. I felt that an enormous weight had been taken from my shoulders. My accent counted for nothing, I felt equal to everyone I met; no-one asked which school I had gone to. No-one commented “Ah, Gloucestershire. Jolly good hunting country,” which happened to me on more than one occasion in London. It was wonderful to feel free; free of the Daily Mail-reading middle-class who think they have the divine right to dictate how everyone should live; free of the brain-washed yobs who swallow the Sun’s lies whole; free of the Hooray Henrys, free of the toffs, free of Britain.

Nothing has changed in Britain. The class system will survive as long as Britain has a monarchy; by definition. The “Nasty Party” as Theresa May accurately called it back in 2002 still treats government as its own plaything, and the recent squabble between a bunch of privileged, right-wing, public school twerps has now accidentally, almost casually, destroyed the future for young people in Britain. I am not going to make the best if it, or try to deal with the situation. They fucked it up. It is their country, not mine. Let them fix it. Let them sail around the world in their nuclear submarines waving their stupid little flag which – I hope for the Scots’ sake – will no longer feature the cross of St. Andrew. I would like to see every talented young person abandon Britain, leaving it to sink into the mediocrity and obscurity it so richly deserves.

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Sunday 26 June 2016

Well, now the lunatics are fully in control of the asylum and there’s nothing much we can do about it except wait to see which gormless public school boy takes over next. The only positive thing about Sunday was the Pride In London march. As usual it was mostly young people, who, despite just having their futures destroyed by a squabble in the tory party, showed they have energy and enthusiasm, humour and good-will. Most appeared to head for Soho afterwards and I couldn’t get across Old Compton Street because it was so packed. The atmosphere there was fabulous, despite the scattered showers and drizzle.

The start of the march on Regents Street

The start of the march on Regents Street

I was at the original Stonewall back in 1969. I missed the first riot, which happened pretty late at night, but later that day, Allen Ginsberg received a phone call, telling him that there was a big gay demonstration in Christopher Street and he should come down. I was producing a record of Allen singing William Blake at Apostolic Studios on East 10th Street. We had just about finished that day’s work so we walked down to Christopher Street in the humid summer heat. The police had sealed off the Stonewall Bar with wooden crowd control barriers, but people could still pass through. A few hundred people, some in drag, stood outside heckling the cops, singing and chanting slogans, but there was no violence when we were there. Allen and I went inside but it was virtually empty. Allen danced with one of the customers ‘like a galleon in full sail’ as he later put it, while I stood at the bar and had a beer. The action was all outside. As soon as we appeared one of the policemen asked Allen for his autograph. This seemed to defuse some of the tension and Allen chatted amiably to the cop and several others came and joined in the discussion. Then some of the demonstrators joined in. The cops were defending themselves in the usual way: they were just upholding the law, they didn’t necessarily agree with it but it was their job to prevent same sex couples from dancing together (the reason for the frequent raids). I stayed for about an hour while the discussion continued, sometimes veering into heated argument, then being calmed by Allen in his usual peaceful way. I headed back to Hotel Chelsea and left him there. He apparently picked someone up so he was well pleased with the evening. Without looking it up, my memory is that it was the next day that the first gay march happened, with a parade down Christopher Street – the first of the gay parades that grow bigger each year, and have been taken up by other cities and are now held in other countries. We saw a huge one in Vienna a couple of years ago.

This year’s parade in London – its 43rd year – was spectacular – many of the people there mainly to show their support in the light of the Orlando massacre. Up to a million people were expected and I’m sure that was a correct estimate. London Mayor Sadiq Khan was there, several policemen proposed and were excepted, the rainbow flag flew from Westminster and the Red Arrows, of all things, flew past. There were representatives from virtually every trade, profession, or special interest group. I was rather hoping that the LGBT division of the feared London Mob would be there, carrying the freshly severed heads of Farage, Gove and Johnson on pikes, but it was not to be. Maybe next year.

Formation dancing

Formation dancing

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Friday 24 June 2016

Rosemary and I were in Paris for the opening of the The Beat Generation show at the Centre Pompidou on June 20th. I had initially hoped that, because of the show’s location in Paris, it would show the Beat Generation as an international movement, not the insular group as depicted by the terrible Whitney Museum show some years back. That one, by arranging its exhibits according to East Coast or West Coast, virtually left out William Burroughs who wrote all his books abroad in Mexico City, Tangier, London or Paris until the age of 60. I remember going round it with Allen Ginsberg who said he had never heard of half the West Coast painters whose work was heavily represented there. I’ve rarely seen him so angry, and he had even been consulted on the show.

The Pompidou show was ill conceived from the start as one of the curators – who pulled out early on – thought that the Beat Generation was a Los Angeles art movement centered around Bruce Conner, with an outpost in the Fillmore (not the North Beach) district of San Francisco (there were a few small galleries there.) This of course was the same mistake as the Whitney show had made, only more-so. The remaining curator, Philippe-Alain Michaud, brought in Jean-Jacques Lebel, who had known the Beats back in the late fifties at the Beat Hotel, and Rani Singh from the Getty, to try and salvage the show. A group of us are preparing unofficial reports at Jean-Jacques Lebel’s request and once they have been delivered and discussed I will put a detailed criticism of the show up online and on the Reality Studio website where more people will see it.

Jean-Jacques and Rosemary

Jean-Jacques and Rosemary

In brief, I think the show is a terrible missed opportunity and only really worth seeing if you know something about Beat Generation history already. In that case there are some fabulous things there, but there’s also a lot of irrelevant stuff, often displayed large, that is nothing to do with the Beats. The original manuscript of Howl is there, on public display for the first time, but most people missed it because it is hidden away in a corner with some irrelevant movie playing next to it. That’s worth seeing. The original scroll of On the Road is there, in Paris again. The scroll has been on the road more than Kerouac ever was. I’ve seen it before in both London and New York. Still it is great to see, particularly the end which was chewed off by Lucien Carr’s dog. Other beatnik items include Kerouac’s sneakers, Brion Gysin’s jumper, and a bunch of old typewriters who belonged to no-one in particular but are there to confuse you.

Lucien Carr's dog ate the end of On The Road

Lucien Carr’s dog ate the end of On The Road

Kerouac's sneakers

Kerouac’s sneakers

Jean-Jacques seemed exhausted by his efforts and so, no doubt were the others, as it is a very large show. I didn’t get to see Philippe-Alain, but Rani Singh was there and Yuri Zapancic who handles Bill Burroughs’ visual output for the William Burroughs Estate was there, representing James Grauerholz. Peter Hale, who runs the Allen Ginsberg Estate, flew in and out on a busy schedule looking as fresh and filled with energy as ever. Frank Rynne and Yvonne, Regina Weinreich, all the usual Beat Generation suspects were there. There is a big fat catalogue, in French, with some great illustrations. The show is travelling to Germany where there is a plan for ZKM to do a revised catalogue in English, so it might be better to wait for that if your French is non-existent like mine.

Peter Hale

Peter Hale

Yuri and Pauline

Yuri and Pauline

The saving grace of the show is the audio-visual side. There are some fine films and interviews there. Though, again, not well displayed – the best Ginsberg presentation in Paris is the in the Velvet Underground show [see below] – but there is an interview with Allen by Jean-Jacques Lebel that I liked.

Miles listening to Allen Ginsberg

Miles listening to Allen Ginsberg

Never mind, maybe a major US museum, or the British Library can be persuaded to do a proper overview history of the Beats in a few years time. At least there were two other great shows on in Paris. Apollinaire at the Musée de l’Orangerie (till July 18), and the Velvet Underground at La Villette out by the Peripherique. Apollinaire’s friendship with Picasso was illustrated with endless drawings, postcards and items of ephemera. The show contained much of Apollinaire’s art collection, a fabulous copy of his book Alcools with the cloth jacket painted by Sonia Delaunay, the marionettes Alfred Jarry made for use in Pere Ubu; a bust by Zadkine; wonderful early work by De Chirico, Braque and so on. The drawings and letters were the best part for me; I could have stayed there all afternoon.

As we were in the Orangerie, we saw one of the world’s greatest treasures, Monet’s Water Lilies: eight enormous panels in two rooms, one on each wall. It had been years since I’d seen them but they are breathtaking. The paint is so roughly applied that any five foot section of it would look like an abstract painting: a Philip Guston or Joan Mitchell. At a distance the paintings come together on the picture plane to recede in space, with the water lilies taking their place in perspective. He prefigures Rothko and Twombly and soars above them both. No contest.

Studying the waterlilies

Studying the waterlilies

The Velvet’s show (31 August) is big on context; perhaps too big. You walk in the door and are hit by a wall of videos all showing sixties icons: JFK, Castro, Monroe, familiar footage flipping by on scores of screens. After only three or four steps you are IN the sixties. The next room consolidates the effect: underground newspapers – including International Times and Oz – have been enlarged into banners and posters, vitrines are filled with underground papers and magazines, the walls covered with photographs of the period: McDarrah’s photographs of Beat Generation Greenwich Village, for instance; Allen Ginsberg smiling out and being interviewed. The presentation of Ginsberg is possibly better here than at the Pompidou where they have inexplicably buried him in a dark corner. Another video shows a concert by The Fugs with Ken Weaver taking one of the lead vocals and Ed Sanders another. There are art books, Fluxus documents, the full history of Piero Heliczer’s Dead Language Press, an overload of information about Andy Warhol and the Factory, until, at last in the next room you get your first glimpse of the Velvets.

Who would have known there was so much documentary evidence of their every move? Posters, flyers, interviews. Each phase of their career is dealt with chronologically, with headphone sockets everywhere and a listening/viewing pavilion where people lay back on mattresses and watch the band. Whereas the Beat show suffers from too little information and too few information panels, this show overdoes it. Every character – from Barbara Rubin to Taylor Mead – has its own information booth with a biography posted in the form of a newspaper with photographs. I can see how the design was inspired by Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable: a true sensory overload, but for a museum show it is a bit too much. However, it is possible to stand back from the context a bit and concentrate on the band, even if it means avoiding studying all the proof copies of album sleeve notes or out-takes of photo shoots. It is still a terrific show.

JB's pyramid instalation

JB’s pyramid instalation

How the photo should be

How the photo should be

We naturally went to see JR’s installation at the Louvre Pyramid. It was raining, but still fun though the rain made it less tempting to find the exact angle so that the pyramid fits exactly over the Louvre and disappears. Rosemary took a better one of me than me of her.



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9 June 2016

I’ve always been a bit of a hoarder: I’ve always kept manuscripts, letters, photographs as well as tear-sheets from magazines, proofs and so-on. I was never as bad as my friend Felix Dennis, who was a complete pack rat and even kept the corks from the thousands of bottles of wine that he – and his thirsty friends – consumed over the years but I still sent duplicate copies of Mick Jagger In His Own Words in both Serbian and Croatian into deep storage rather than bring myself to throw them away. Over the years this stuff builds up and I have slowly divested myself of archives: first of all my sixties correspondence with people like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, as well as my correspondence from the time I was managing Better Books, went to the Butler Library of Columbia University. No-one in Britain was interested at the time. Naturally I kept back the best stuff and those items I was fond of – tickets to the Royal Albert Hall poetry reading in 1965, my artwork for magazines, postcards from Paul McCartney, and material like that as well as copies of all my articles and the magazines they appeared in. At Allen Ginsberg’s request, all the paperwork concerning the Annotated edition of Howl, that I edited, went to his collection at Stanford University. However, I was still left with 40 or more boxes of material which, a few years ago, I catalogued and sold to the British Library. Now, astonishingly enough, they are running a blog about it: Here’s the link: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/english-and-drama/2016/04/from-poets-to-punk-who-is-barry-miles-.html

I have grown used to seeing copies of IT and other sixties material presented in vitrines, though it was surprising at first, but to find an old airline napkin, with some scribbled notes about visiting Tim Leary, up on line is quite surrealistic. It’s astonishing that I kept it in the first place, I was obviously intending to type it up as notes. So here we all are, part of history. It does feel like an honour, but also a bit weird.

Paris Stories

Paris Stories

Another honour: yesterday I received a copy of Paris Stories, in the Everyman Pocket Classics series. Everyone you would expect to find is there in the 27 short extracts: Rabelais, Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Zola, Celine and Colette but what knocked my socks off was to find myself represented between Djuna Barnes and James Baldwin. Now that IS an honour. The editor Shaun Whiteside has chosen a section from The Beat Hotel with some of the funniest stories of bad behaviour by Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. I grew up with the Everyman series, so to be in one is fantastic. It is the same feeling I had when my Allen Ginsberg biography was first published in this country in Penguin. I had grown up reading Penguins: Orwell, Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence; everyone was published by them, so to have my own book on the shelf with the same distinctive orange spine, was just terrific.



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30 May, 2016

Marcia Resnick - Bad Boys

Marcia Resnick – Bad Boys

This winter has been one of reading, hunkering down and not venturing out into the London pollution too much. I am a fast reader, and read about a book a day. I’m not going to write a book column here but one of the books given to me at Christmas was A House in St. John’s Wood by Stephen Spender’s son, Matthew Spencer. It is a sad book: clearly Spender was a useless father, in complete denial that he was working for the CIA in editing Encounter, and only really happy when he was with his boyfriends. Matthew’s mother was almost equally difficult. One of the most amusing stories is about Spender’s great friend W. H. Auden coming to dinner. Auden told them about a speech he’d given recently to a group of scientists in Stockholm in which he’d said that he believed we were all placed on earth by God for a purpose, but that we were neglecting that purpose. Matthew reports:

‘A purpose given to us by God?’ I asked doubtfully.

‘Yes. We have a duty towards the molecules and we are neglecting that duty .’ […]

‘I’m sorry Wystan, but I don’t understand,’ I said. ‘Do you mean that the molecules which are in the marble of a sculpture by Michelangelo are happier and better molecules than the ones that are still in the marble up in the quarry?’

He shut his eyes and smiled ecstatically. ‘Yes,’ he said.


Marcia Resnick kindly sent me a copy of her new book of photographs Bad Boys. Marcia, who I’ve known since the seventies, was central to the downtown New York scene: no matter how out of it she, or anybody else seemed to be, she was still taking the photographs. And here they are, and it’s a magnificent achievement. Bad Boys: Punks, Poets and Provocateurs 1977-1982, with a text by her old friend Victor Bockris who was just as central to the scene as Marcia. I first saw it on her computer screen several years ago and worried that it might never be published but here they all are: falling about, shooting up, hugging and kissing, talking talking talking: Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, David Byrne, Sting, Johnny Rotten, Debbie Harry, Mick Jagger, Johnny Thunders; beautiful colour shots of William Burrroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Terry Southern, even Brion Gysin demonstrating how to suck his own toe, a degree of levity not normally associated with the rather grand Gysin but an indication of how relaxed everyone was around Marcia. This sounds like a puff for the book, and I suppose it is because I really think it’s a terrific achievement. She’s put John Belushi on the cover because she did the last, extraordinary, 48 hour drug-fuelled photo-session with him before he died, beginning at 6:00am (they kept late hours in those days in New York). The Gysin picture, among others was at the Photo London exhibition at Somerset House alongside work by Gerard Malanga and Nat Finkelstein, who did for the sixties what Marcia did for the seventies. It is all receding into the past: goodness, it’s hard to imagine that it is 40 years since young Johnny Lydon serenaded us with his fine Irish tenor.

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27 March 2016

Stones in Havanna

Stones in Havanna

Cuba is in the news these days with visits from the Pope, Barack Obama and the Rolling Stones, all of which I hope will loosen up the one-party state and pave the way for truly democratic elections (something which few countries actually have in the world, certainly not places like China or Saudi Arabia.) However, there was something about the current media coverage that reminded me very much of the old cold-war disinformation about Cuba that used to be pumped out by the Americans, appearing last week even in papers like The Guardian and the Evening Standard, hardly hard-line anti-communist rags. One wonders where these stories actually originate. Here’s The Guardian for 25 March 2016:

In the heat of Cuba’s revolution from the 1960s to the 1980s, foreign bands such as The Rolling Stones were considered subversive and blocked from the radio. Cubans listened to their music in secret, passing records from hand to hand.

And here’s the Evening Standard from the next day:

The band’s music was banned in Cuba for many years because it was considered subversive and blocked from the radio. Cubans listened to their music in secret, passing records from hand to hand and the band built up a huge fan base on the isolated island.(26 March 2016)

Maybe the Standard just copied the story but it was the same on TV. My point is that the neither The Stones nor rock ‘n’ roll were banned when I was there in September 1974, the middle of the period described by The Guardian. Nor were they at any other time. Cubans could pick up American radio stations and even television if weather conditions were right. I was there to cover a conference on Puerto Rican Independence, ostensibly for the Village Voice, and wrote some journal notes when I got back to New York:


The conference was funded by the World Peace Council, the Soviet equivalent of the American Congress for Cultural Freedom, both of them the propaganda arms of their respective intelligence services, it was obvious that the whole thing was a propaganda exercise, paid for by the Russians that would come to whatever conclusions the Russians and Cubans had previously worked out, and that the deliberations of the conference were irrelevant. I had, however, jumped at a chance to visit Cuba even if it meant sitting through a few boring speeches. […] It was a delight just to walk the shabby Spanish streets and I often wandered around looking at the peeling buildings, getting the feel of the place. One day I was walking down Vedado, with Martin, a fellow delegate from the north of England and journalist for the Morning Star, past rows of beaten-up mid-fifties Chevrolet Impalas and Ford Galaxies in what would probably be regarded as a slum anywhere else, when three teenagers called out to us from a doorway.


Cubans say that both attract your attention and to make you shut up. When I first heard it at a Cuban theatre, it sounded as if they were hissing the villain of a melodrama when in fact it was a call for silence when Puerto Rican superstar Roy Brown came on stage.

‘Psssst! Alemán?’

‘Certainly not! We’re British!’

‘Ahhh…’ The speaker turned and explained this information to his two compeneros sitting on the stoop who also said ‘Ahhh…’

‘Deep Purple. War.’

We stood there, out in the midday sun, pondering on the meaning of these curious English words. He gave us a clue…

‘Eric Burdon.’

We spent a few pleasant minutes trading the names of English rock groups. The young men politely asked for cigarettes, gum and if they could buy our clothes. We courteously refused their offer, gave them cigarettes, shook hands and continued on our way. Apparently Deep Purple were very big in Havana.

One of the conference delegates was Peter Snape, the Labour MP for West Bromwich East. He was my age, and was somehow representing the Railwaymen’s Union at the conference. Four of us, including Peter, were strolling one evening after dinner in the park next to the Habana Libre (The liberated Hilton – where we were staying) at Calles L and 21. As we approached the ice cream pavilion a young man introduced himself. He was Fernando and he spoke English, in fact he had only recently read the Guardian newspaper of July 28th, two months old. Foreign newspapers were eagerly retrieved from waste bins or vacated hotel rooms and passed around. We asked him where we could go for a drink.

He took us to the Karachi Club where we spent about £16 on a bottle of Havana Club rum and a dozen Canada Drys. ‘You drink half the bottle, I charge you half. You drink all and I charge you for all,’ the proprietor said. It was a very straight forward sort of place. The club was very dark and hot and was decorated with palm leaves. It was hot inside and the doorman, sensibly, sat on a folding chair out in the street. Taped music was played very loud: the Rolling Stones, Barry White, Love Unlimited and Suzie Quatro, interspersed with salsa and other Cuban music.

Fernando was terribly pleased to meet people from England as visitors to Cuba at that time tended to be from East Germany and points further east. This was his chance to tell us his musical preferences: Alvin Lee, ELO, Black Sabbath, Blood Sweat & Tears, Chicago … ‘Tell me, from which country come Uriah Heep?’ He liked Zappa and the Pink Floyd and had recently paid ten pesos (£7.50) for a poster of Alice Cooper. Led Zeppelin 4 had cost him 20 pesos. I promised to send him a poster of Robert Plant. I don’t know if he ever got it. He regarded Flowers as the best Stones album, and named all the tracks, and said he was a great Brian Jones fan.

After a scholarly discussion of the Platters, Presley and Buddy Holly, he inquired ‘And what of the bomber from Liverpool?’ Up until that point I had successfully decoded the clues to his preferences, to the admiration of the rest of the party, but this time he stumped me. It turned out he was referring to Tom Jones, but overall, he did pretty well given the difficulties in obtaining information about English language music. In fact he didn’t like Tom Jones, nor Carlos Santana – ‘He is a Mexican, no?’ – nor, amusingly, did he like John Lennon. Fernando twisted his finger around his temple in the universal symbol for stupidity. ‘He tries too hard to be like us. How can he, for he is petit bourgeois?’ That cracked us up.

The Cubans heard all their rock ‘n’ roll from powerful stations in Texas, Florida and Little Rock, Arkansas. With a good antenna it was possible to even pick up Rock Concert on ABC-TV most of the year round. No-one stopped them and the tapes used in the night clubs were mostly taken from American radio stations and edited into programmes. Rock seemed to co-exist nicely with the indigenous salsa and Latin music of the island that issued from every shop and window.


The Cubans love music and though Latin music naturally dominated when I was there, as I hope it still does, we heard plenty of rock ‘n’ roll coming from people’s windows, just walking down the narrow streets. It is true that in the early days of the Revolution, the government associated rock ‘n’ roll with the values of imperialist America, and discouraged it, particularly after America both invaded Cuba and attempted to assassinate Castro, but no official attempt was ever made to prevent people from listening to American radio and TV stations. The Stones and the Beatles were never officially banned though the radio stations rarely played them. The breakthrough came in 1966 when Radio Perogresso began broadcasting the occasional Beatles record; a situation that continued throughout the sixties. By 1971 Radio Rebelde had a Beatles hour every Monday morning and evening. The Rolling Stones were played but they never entered the Cuban hit-parade as the Beatles did (with “Anna”).

The Guardian has fallen for US propaganda when it says that the Rolling Stones were ‘blocked from the radio’. It is just not true. (source: Rockin’ Las Américas: The Global Politics of Rock in Latin/o America edited by Deborah Pacini Hernandez, Héctor D. Fernández l’Hoeste, Eric Zolov. U of Pittsburgh Press, 2004).

Incidentally the Stones were by no means the first western rock band to play Cuba: Steven Stills, Weather Report, Rita Coolidge, Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joel played the Havana Jam in 1979 and The Manic Street Preachers played there in 2001. Quite likely there were more foreign players, for instance Billy Joel also did a solo gig there in the late 90s.

That’s not to say all is well on the island. When Obama flew in more than 60 people were rounded up including members of the “Ladies in White,” a group made up of relatives of political prisoners, the rapper Angel Yunier Remon, known as “El Critico,” punk rocker Gorki Águila, and the artist Danilo Maldonado, alias “El Sexto”—who spent 10 months in detention without charge in 2015 for staging a public art performance. There is still a way to go before freedom of speech and artistic expression prevail in Cuba, but they are on their way and deserve as much encouragement as possible without mindlessly parroting American dis-information.

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