At times this event seemed more like a reunion for ex-punks and hippies, as guest Barry Miles recalled story after story from an amazing life, the hotspots being the time he spent with Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs in the 1970s.
The legendary music writer was in town primarily to promote his latest book, In The Seventies: Adventures in the Counter-Culture, but as the audience started chipping in with their own hazy reflections, I began to feel like I’d perhaps been born 20 years too late.
Still a Soho regular, Miles has lived the rock star life, regularly referring to the running joke of how he could possibly stay sober and translucent while all the madness of sex, drugs and rock and roll went on around him. “I’m originally from the Cotswolds,” he joked. “That pretty much guarantees you a strong constitution.”
Miles first recalled the 18 months he spent on Allen Ginsberg’s U.S. farm cataloguing his tapes. “It was a mammoth job,” he said. “Only 8 or 10 of Ginsberg’s total body of work hadn’t made it onto tape so we recorded it with him to complete it. It was once released in a CD box but there are no plans to ever do so again. You can probably get it all on the internet for free now anyway, but some of it was quite remarkable to listen to.”
18 months with Ginsberg surely led to some form of drug taking, asked chair Iain MacWhirter of The Herald. “Ginsberg didn’t take many drugs,” said Miles. “He did some pot like everyone else and dropped some acid every year… just go keep his hand in, you know. He was too busy for it.”
Back in London and Miles became involved with the Gentleman of St James, William Burroughs. “He wanted, and did his best, to be as anonymous and invisible as possible,” said Miles. “He got some advice from a Mafioso pal of his, and from then on began to walk, talk and dress a certain way so he could achieve this.”
“Burroughs loved his guns,” said Miles. “When he died ten years ago it was discovered he had 28 guns in Kansas, just outside Dodge City. He had one for every occasion, even for going to the hairdresser.”
Miles soon became part of punk scene as it exploded in London but remained in the large alongside it. “Punk was a reaction to the political scene at the time but it had its roots firmly in the hippy movement, despite the fact it was marketed as a ‘hate the hippy’ thing, both hippies and punks had a lot in common. Johnny Rotten was massively influenced by Hawkwind and you can’t get much more hippy than that!”
“Self harm was the bad side of punk,” he recalled. “Take Sid and Nancy—that was just over the top. He used to slash his chest on stage and things—not good.”
According to Miles, “punk lost its edge in ‘77 because the clubs were all closing by then and the bands had all signed up to record companies. The only thing was the producers never realised that the bands were all on speed while on stage, and when they got them in the studio none of them could play.”
These days everything has changed claimed Miles, even down to the so called young British Artist (YBA) movement. “Their whole m.o. was to make money not to reflect society; there’s no real sense of self-expression any more,” he said. “Hurst and Emin set out to shock for commercial reasons, which to me is a side effect of coming from the greedy Thatcher era.”