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Pete Brown: White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns, Part 1

Pete Brown: White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns, Part 1

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Poet, lyricist, rock musician, producer and scriptwriter—Pete Brown has covered a lot of bases in his six decades in music and literature. His career embodies that era that began with the Beatles' "Love Me Do" in October 1962 and ended in January 1969 with the band playing live on the roof at Apple Corps in Savile Row. For a brief moment anything seemed possible and, in many ways, Brown has continued to cross artistic boundaries like they didn't exist. A working-class, Jewish lad with roots in London's East End, Brown's life joins the dots of that era and later, connecting with fellow poets like Michael Horovitz, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and musicians such as Stan Tracey, John McLaughlin, Graham Bond, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker.

His teenage years were fired by youthful rebellion and, unlike so many others, in Brown's case that anarchic spirit never left him. The life of accountancy, the law or the Talmud was not for him and, despite the warnings of parents, teachers and the like, Brown has followed his star into adulthood, through the middle years into the "third age."

His story is beautifully told in his delightfully meandering, honest and self-deprecating memoirs—White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns—on the road with Ginsberg, writing for Clapton & Cream—An Anarchic Odyssey (2010). The book tells that on leaving school and with little evident sense of ambition, his family, in increasing desperation, encouraged him to study journalism at Regent's Street Polytechnic. As he explains, the attraction was less a career in Grub Street than a broader desire to write.

"The interesting thing about that course was not that I wanted to become a journalist," Brown says. "It was the English lecturer, David Waldo-Clark. He wrote Shakespearean criticism but also pulp westerns. He was also an expert on modern writing, back to its beginnings. The English side of it was based on Hemingway, Greene and Evelyn Waugh and he gave readings after college time. He had a big influence on me and helped me understand a lot about writing technique."

Already writing poetry, this became Brown's focus and, aside from various day jobs, he eventually made a career out of writing, which eventually led him to become a songwriter and musician.

"I was at first turned on by Dylan Thomas, then Lorca and then the Beats," he admits. "It was rubbish for quite a while until I came out of the journalism thing and started writing the stuff that became what I did. I was first published in America in Evergreen Review -the bible of the counterculture at the time. I've often had more recognition outside Britain than at home."

From the early sixties into the middle of the decade, Brown was part of that group of new British poets that included Horovitz, Adrian Mitchell, Roger McGough and Brian Patten. It was certainly not a movement but these poets did connect through shared interests and the subject matter of their poetry -jazz, literature, leftist politics, live performance, love and sex—and an emphasis on vernacular language.

"For Horovitz and myself," he tells me, " the poetry scene had been dominated by posh voices and academics. I used to hitchhike round Britain giving readings in pubs and cellars and it was such a rich place regionally and vocally and, with the influence of the Beats, all these poets were coming forward with strong regional voices, which I thought was fucking wonderful. For me, poetry was a lot about the voice. It didn't matter to me, if you went to private school. If you were a great poet, I didn't give a fuck so long as you were delivering something that was real but there was almost a ban until we broke that down with real voices."

Brown met fellow poet and soon to be jazz-poetry conspirator Michael Horovitz in 1960 at the Beaulieu Jazz Festival. "It was like a Stanley and Livingstone meeting," he tells me. "We had a lot in common. We loved jazz and liked a lot of the same writers." Horovitz had just graduated from Oxford and had just started the magazine, New Departures—a British counterpart to the Evergreen Review. "I'd sent him some stuff after seeing the first issue," he says, "and he replied saying that he liked what I was doing. I remember I first did a reading with him in a library with Ed Jones on bass. We did a thing at the ICA that actually had Dudley Moore on piano. And then, we hitch-hiked to the Edinburgh Festival together, did some readings and began writing Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead."

Brown discovered jazz in his early teens and it remains a passion. Back then, however, it became the soundtrack of his life through the fifties and sixties, as he explains,

"I was always fairly eclectic. The first two records I bought were Sidney Bechet and Gerry Mulligan. Subsequently, with the reissues of early jazz, I dived very deep into twenties jazz with King Oliver, Luis Russell and Henry "Red" Allen. I still think Luis Russell's band was totally unique. Then, of course, I got into the early Duke Ellington stuff and Fletcher Henderson. For years, I loved that period more than anything and people that came out of it like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Carter. Then, I got into Charles Mingus and bebop. I love it all. I am a total jazz fan."

Brown and Horovitz decided to form a band, which could range from a quartet to a big band and they christened with Horovitz' Live New Departures' moniker. Eventually, they settled on a core personnel of pianist Stan Tracey, Bobby Wellins on tenor, Jeff Clyne on bass and drummer Laurie Morgan. John Mumford regularly played trombone and others like saxophonists Dick Heckstall-Smith and Graham Bond passed through its ranks. Laurie Morgan was, according to Brown, a catalyst in bringing poets and jazzers together.

"Laurie Morgan and Dick were working together quite a bit," he says. "What you might call the modern jazz establishment weren't interested to start with but the ones who were on the fringe welcomed the work. Also, they had the right attitude which was very open. Laurie and Dick were always very forward-thinking."

For Brown and Horovitz, Morgan was in some ways their musical axis. Heckstall-Smith brought in Bond -this was before the formation of the Organisation—and then Bobby Wellins, who helped recruit Tracey to fill the piano chair.

Back then, there were two jazz and poetry camps in Britain. The first, Poetry and Jazz In Concert, was led by poet Jeremy Robson and pianist Michael Garrick. Robson and Garrick used a revue format that tapped into a broader cultural stream -musicians and poets shared a stage but performed separately. Though there was a degree of overlap -Adrian Mitchell and Stevie Smith performed with both—Live New Departures was very different.

For some years, Horovitz had been organising happenings in Oxford where he was studying, combining all the performance arts. He and Brown wanted the two art forms to come together in performance and tapped into a different, more counter-cultural stream. After all, prior to the emergence of the rock music, jazz and rhythm and blues, played by guys like Heckstall-Smith, Bond, Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker provided the soundtrack for the young intellectual crowd. Poetry and Jazz in Concert performed over 250 concerts and released three LPs during its six year existence. Live New Departures performed less frequently. In fact, until the release of Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead (Jazzpoetry Superjam #) on the Gearbox label in 2013, there was no recorded evidence of what the Live New Departures Jazz Poetry Septet sounded like to those who saw them live. Asked how many gigs the group undertook, Brown replied:

"We didn't do that many but we had the residency at the Marquee Club for quite a while in 1963. We did the quiet Tuesday night. That was when Alexis Kornerwas doing the very busy Thursday nighter. We did St. Pancras Town Hall a few times. We did that once with the big band. The second time was for CND. That was when we did the Blues for Hitchhiking Dead."

The two LP Gearbox boxset features a concert from Southampton in 1962. Packed with memorabilia and information, it delights in every respect. The sound is fine, the performances from poets and musicians are excellent and, most importantly, the architecture of the long, co-authored title track works successfully with the jazz, as Brown and Horovitz trade verses like saxophonists trading choruses. Indeed, one of the inspirations for both poets was the Wardell GrayDexter Gordon track "The Chase." As Brown explains, "We listened a lot to that record. That was a template for Horovitz in particular. I knew that stuff but then I looked at it through his eyes. What they were doing, they would do a long solo each, then trade eights, then fours and then twos."

The bringing together of poetry and jazz began in the twenties with Kenneth Rexroth in Chicago and Langston Hughes and others in Harlem. However, the concept really took off in 1950s San Francisco, firstly with Ruth Weiss, then with Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen and Ferlinghetti. I asked Brown how aware he and Horovitz were of those experiments.

"Patchen we loved," Brown says. "I'm a big fan of his. I had tea once with Mose Allison, one of my heroes and an old-time American socialist. He said his favourite book of all time is Patchen's The Journal of Albion Moonlight. That blew me away. And I heard Langston Hughes' The Weary Blues early on. I think it's great. It's also interesting because it's got a Mingus group and a group with Henry 'Red' Allen and Vic Dickenson. Henry "Red" Allen is another of my all-time absolute heroes he was way ahead of his time."

Though aware of these developments, Horovitz and Brown followed a different path, as Brown explains:

"Put it this way, none of the poets in America were into jazz as we were. Maybe Patchen to some extent and Langston Hughes but they weren't trying to do it in any regular way. Nor were they really influenced by the techniques of jazz. We were using techniques taken from jazz and hardly anybody did that in America."

The words of Blues for Hitchhiking Dead describe an autobiographical and metaphorical tour of a Britain living in the shadow of/aftermath of the bomb. Dark and surreal, it has few parallels in music or literature. Though all five musicians play extremely well, Tracey is incandescent, as Brown notes: "He was right on it. Stan was one of the most consistent musicians. He always gave a great performance. Sometimes, as you say, he was just really great and solid and relatively inventive. At others, he would excel himself and go way beyond whatever else was happening."

Brown and Horovitz continued to do solo readings. In fact, Brown gave the first reading at Newcastle's infamous Morden Tower venue founded in 1964 by poet/film-maker Tom Pickard, a key figure in the British poetry revival of the sixties.

"I did quite a few up there," Brown told me. "The poetry thing was very interesting at the time. Being a young man and very interested in the opposite sex, it was very good for that, which I found very gratifying, especially in places like Liverpool and Newcastle, some of the further bastions of the poetry empire. Obviously, that was before the poetry bonanza that occurred after the Albert Hall thing in '65."

That was the Poetry International Incarnation. Serendipitously, a coincidence of internationally renowned poets were in London UK at the same time. Prompted by Allen Ginsberg, Horovitz, Scottish novelist Alexander Trocchi and filmmaker Barbara Rubin booked the Royal Albert Hall at incredibly short notice. Three weeks later twenty-one poets from North America and Europe performed to a packed house.

Amongst those reading were Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, the Austrian soundpoet Ernst Jandl, the great Finnish poet Anselm Hollo and, from Britain, Brown, Horovitz, Mitchell and Christopher Logue, Documentary filmmaker Peter Whitehead filmed the event for posterity. The film, Wholly Communion, does more than document what took place. It offers tantalising, and sometimes unfavourable, glimpses into some of the personalities involved. Ginsberg's preening antics and behaviour, notably during Adrian Mitchell's reading of his anti-Vietnam incantatory "To Whom It May Concern," do little for the man's reputation.

We asked Brown how the event came about:

"It was Trocchi and all these peripheral figures like Dan Richter and John Esam," Brown says. "Somebody ran away with the money. I don't think any of us ever got paid. It was insanity. Everyone was taking ridiculous amounts of drugs and booze, including me, though I avoided acid because I knew that that way lay madness. There was this American girl with a car that didn't work properly. I remember her driving me very fast the wrong way down a street with me feeling quite anxious. And she was helping organise the event. I thought this organisation is going to get me killed. (laughing)"

How important was it for him personally and for poetry?

"Very. Because it was huge and our names were all over it. After that, people would call you. There wasn't a lot of money but with three or four gigs a week you'd make £30 a week, which was good in those days. I was living modestly. It was only a year away from when I started writing songs."

At the time, Brown had been drinking heavily, smoking dope and using speed for years—though avoiding psychedelics and heroin. By 1967, he was in transition from performance poet to lyricist, most notably in partnership with Jack Bruce then with Cream, but was in a bad way.

"I knew a lot of people who were junkies and a lot who took LSD," he tells me. "Neither drug had a place in my life. They looked much too frightening. From what I was doing, I was having blackouts and shit. It came to a climax when I overdid it or possibly got spiked. Either way, that was the horrible climax to the whole thing. I was very traumatised and it became obvious I just couldn't do that anymore."

Full recovery took a long time but Brown packed up booze and drugs and has been abstinent ever since. As to precisely when Live New Departures came to an end, Brown is unclear:

"There was a transitional period after I left Horovitz and I had a couple of bands. One was called Brown's Poetry, with Henry Lowther, Danny Thompson and Laurie Morgan. That mutated into an electric band with John McLaughlin, first with Danny and then Binky McKenzie on bass and Laurie Allen on drums. A lot of opportunities were starting to surface. It was semi-psychedelic and we worked those clubs quite a bit."

At this point, Brown had grown accustomed to playing with musicians of the highest calibre and he was conscious of his own musical limitations.

"The poetry itself wasn't going to land a decent record deal," he says. "I was supressing my fear of taking the step towards being a musician. I had worked with the best from Stan, Bobby and Laurie to John McLaughlin, one of the greatest guitarists in the world, and that was very daunting. I thought I can't just sing with these guys."

The demos he recorded at the time did little to build his confidence. However, he had begun to test the waters and would soon form The Battered Ornaments, of which more in Pete Brown 2: The Rock Years.

Brown continued writing poetry, however, though his last volume -until the recent Mundane Tuesday & Freudian Saturday (2016)— appeared in 1972. He did, however, record a spoken word record for Decca subsidiary Deram, for which he was working as an A&R man. The Not Forgotten Association (1973) features Brown both solo and with musical backing and is well worth your attention.

Mundane Tuesday & Freudian Saturday is a welcome return to print for an important British poetic voice, that gives important insights into Brown's use of imagery that in turn crosses over into his work as a lyricist. The decision to publish a volume of poetry after an absence of forty-four years was not taken lightly, as he explains:

"I was writing lots of songs but ten years ago I felt that there were some personal things I could only say through poetry -things in different shapes. So, I started writing poetry again and have done since. When I got the chance to do the book I did it and now I'm doing another."

From poet to lyricist to musician to record producer, Brown has packed several lives of creativity into his sixty year career. And there is still more to come.

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