“Oh, will your magic Christmas tree be shining gently all around?”
-Chinese White (Mike Heron)
The String Band weren’t the inspiration, nor the Beatles. I lay the juggernaut straight to Madison Avenue’s Time Magazine. It was late Spring, 1969, the year I turned 15, and got out of the ninth grade. Time made the psychedelic world sound so beautiful, and a lot of us had become filled with anticipation and desire.
My friend Jeff and I were feeling its power, for the first time, in the yard outside his parents split-level tract home, in the middle class Forest Glen housing development sub-division of Hamburg, New York. I was lying on the lawn along the side of the house, and my girlfriend, Mary Anne, came riding up the sidewalk on a purple Sting Ray bicycle with a white Banana seat. “The little long haired girl,” one of my pals used to smirk and call her, when she first transferred in from the Jesuit school in Buffalo. Now she was wearing cut-off mod striped shorts, some kind of teenage short sleeve blouse, and her straight brown hair spilled over her back and down both sides of her face. She rode right up to me, across the grass, then stopped and peered at me through tiny wire rim glasses, looking very sad. And she was angry with me. I was stretched full, flat out on the ground, face toward the sun, and I couldn’t stop laughing. She stayed for a minute or two, but we weren’t communicating, so she rode off, shaking her head. “You always said you wouldn’t do this” she said, right before she split. She looked like she was gonna cry.
Me and Jeff decided to pull ourselves together and began the trundle into town, walking down a long and busy high road called Sunset Drive, then over to Mike Bannister and Jon Duffett’s place, known to all the kids in town as “The Apartment,” the first and only hippie pad around, where we all used to hang, the grey garage apartment behind a two story house on well-named Pleasant Avenue, a few doors from the old brick school building, right in the center of town.
Bannister and Duffett were my heroes. They were several years older, and had seen the world, surviving on their own terms. It seemed to me like they lived on Mount Olympus. I’d see them walking around the village, in a crowd, with long hair, looking like gypsies, scarves and sashes, and beautiful girls by their sides in likewise colorful clothes, all in rag tag hippie wear, especially Duffett, though Western dapperness was Bannister’s thing, and with cigarettes dangling from all lips beneath shades. Seeing them was like sighting an outlaw version of the Beatles walk by your house, on their way crosstown for some kicks. Just watching them going by was sort of a high. I was sitting on my parents steps as they passed, so I got their attention by blowing some train licks on the blues harmonica, and the procession stopped. Hello. We all became friends, and soon found out we listened to the same music.
“Oh Lord, live and learn
I see your face and know you”
These were the first other Incredible String Band fans I’d met. Mike Bannister was a true rolling stone, and so was Duffett. They were 19 and 18, respectively. Mike was a drummer, and looked like a cross between Brian Jones and Eyore. He had played for a while in a popular and loud, local garage band called the Novas, and was a founding member of a rebellious high school gang called the Fountain Club, which really pulled off some insane and locally legendary hijinks. Once, using jump-ropes they tied an abusive gym teacher to the lockers. I loved that story. Mike also belonged to a dirty-water street-fraternity called ‘Club 69′ who built their own patchwork clubhouse in the woods by the Eighteen Mile Creek, a shack covered with tar paper complete with beds and a refrigerator for their beer. There was nothing too bright about that place, it was a teenage Punch and Judy show, but Mike had picked up some subtlety since then, and jettisoned that crowd. He had a more thoughtful manner now. Maybe it was Jon’s influence. Jon was a folkie, kind of a young beat-generation type and a teenage wino, a slim dark haired handsome kid, who had travelled the breadth of the country already, hitching rides, and jumping empty boxcars, all the way [to through ]and from California in 1967. He played an ancient beat[-]up Martin guitar somebody had laid on him, and was a fan of Dylan, Donovan, Van Ronk, and Memphis Slim. I knew and loved all these artists too, and at 15, tho’ I was a lot younger than him, and pretty green, soon after our meeting we started writing songs together, and performing around the area at basement coffeehouses, freaked out parties, and even liberal church group meetings.
Their place was quite small, and seemed even smaller when it was packed with stoned kids making out and listening to records, the usual story in 1969 and ’70. I spent some of the most formative hours of my youth in that pad, in various attitudes and mental states, and while some of those hours went by in a second, others seemed to last an eternity. The local police had the place under surveillance, and shakedowns were common, along with the occasional full sheriff’s raid.
“‘Whatever you think, it’s more than that”‘
-Job’s Tears (Williamson)
Mike Heron and Robin Williamson were Scottish, from Edinburgh. They looked like gypsy time wanderers from the the 19th century, and played exotic musical instruments no one in rock had ever seen before. They were called the Incredible String Band and every record had a different line up. They’d started out playing Uncle Dave Macon and Carter Family songs, and immediately began to create their own style. After their first album was released the trio became a duo, as legend has it, after their banjo-man made a trip to Afghanistan and disappeared for 10 years. One of the guitarists, Robin Williamson also vanished—took his advance money and, with his girlfriend Licorice, set off for Morocco. He came back months later playing an instrument he’d found there called the Gimbri, a fiddle with a mystically insinuating whine and they used it all over the next records, as well as the sitar and tablas from India, the Arabian oud, the Irish pennywhistle, thumb pianos from Nigeria, and good old funky guitars played in tunings, with banjos and harmonicas grounding and rounding out the sound. Robin, who described himself as feeling at the time more like a “Celtic Barge” than a bard, as they packed this boatload of weird sound makers around the world on tour, was a virtuoso Irish pennywhistler, and a top-drawer a cappella balladeer in the traditional Scottish fashion. He had perfect pitch and a unworldly voice, capable of soaring leaping or spinning on a driven nail. He spoke more than a few languages fluently, and told stories that’d make a bear hold his breath. His partner Mike was a psychedelicized Beat Combo refugee, and together they were magical because they were fearless, and had a great appreciation of chance events. They were courting ancient wisdom, unravelling the mysteries of music, and shooting high dice with pop music and epic poetry, something Bob Dylan recognized and mentioned at the time.
-Bob Dylan quote in Sing Out:
Q: Do you think [The Beatles] are more British or International?
They’re British I suppose, but you can’t say they’ve carried on with their poetic legacy, whereas the Incredible String Band who wrote this “October Song”…that was quite good.
Q: As a finished song–or did it reach you?
As a finished song it’s quite good.
It was their aspirations that characterize their music as something that could soon be called ‘progressive’ in other quarters, though it was a word they never used. They were on a higher, more creative track than nearly anything else in music, and were shattering audiences reliance and expectation on the common forms of song. Verse bridge chorus went bye bye… form was directed purely by content, and, in other words, they did what ever they felt like doing whenever they felt like doing it! And it was powerful good.
Already a big chart hit in the UK, with their third LP, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, they were introduced to American teenagers by the writers of Hit Parader Magazine, which, way back in the 1960’s, was probably the first great rock magazine ever, delving deep into music way off the beaten track,( and I’ve been waiting in vain for years to see reprints.) Their pictures showed them to be charismatic and intense looking attractive “stars” in their own way… they were completely different from anything else on the scene, and, I’d say, completely original (within what we know are the limits of that word.)
All of the mad music was in pursuit of something high and strange and I think it can be pretty well defined in this description of Emmanuel Swedenborg, “the wonderful Restorer of the long lost Secret” (from a book I read recently about William Blake):
“‘there were ancient truths to be revealed, … that which for many Ages has been lost to the World…’ And what was this long lost secret? It is the opening of the gate. It is the sure knowledge that nature and the material world are the vessels of eternity.” (1)
Ok, maybe I was so ripped I didn’t know what they were talking about.
And, on the first day of Summer, as me and my friend Jeff walked along the road shoulder, deep-breathing poisonous exhaust fumes and nearly getting run down by trucks, I was mesmerized by the sight of the flowers at the side of the road, all red blue and yellow, glowing brighter than neon signs. And the trees were breathing, waving above us, the green leaves swirling in a mass, inhaling and exhaling as we walked by below. And the lyrics to these songs kept playing in my head.
“For rulers like to lay down laws,
And rebels like to break them,
And the poor priests like to walk in chains,
And God likes to forsake them”
-October Song, (Robin Williamson)
But by the end of that Summer, I was pretty much out of my mind. I began to experience a lot of problems. Somehow I’d lost my depth perception. It was just gone one day. I could be overcome at any time by strange feelings and huge terrors. And I felt like I was emotionally ripped open all the time, not angry or anything simple like that, but more like ablaze in my chest, and a rollercoaster feeling in the pit of my stomach. My heart hurt from just contemplating the quotidian details of life. All feelings were extremely intense. The fact and idea of death was making me sick. I was in despair, and not just a little bit. I felt like my tongue was hanging out, black. It was then that a seemingly wise and older friend, who was all of 23 years ancient, and had just come back from far away, and a college down South, suggested that I was having a spiritual awakening, and all my mad symptoms were a good sign. I’d never thought of that! He said that people who went through spells like I was having were often destined to be truly religious people. Not like organized religion, he said. He said my sub-conscious was kicking off the fetters of my repressive up-bringing, the look-but-don’t-touch, absurd and lonesome dues and don’ts of my schooling, and suggested that I read, for companionable knowledge and entertainment, the 18th century English poet William Blake. So I started to do just that, and found it helped, and even though I couldn’t understand vast sections of it, I kept feeling drawn in. The poetry was exciting at times, and also could be very soothing. And Wee Tam and The Big Huge by the ISB was on the crummy old record player in the corner of the joint, and it was on A LOT.
I dropped out of the tenth grade that Fall. By then, I could barely function, even amongst the freaks. When I first heard the String Band’s “Changing Horses” LP it was on a trip to the country with friends. They were taking turns walking me about out in the gardens, and then we returned to the house and listened to this record, the ISB, now a four piece on the cover, with their girlfriends Licorice and Rose, all singing a goofy psychedelic boogie woogie about a pig named Big Ted.
I lost track of them after that, and for while in the 70’s. Life got better for me, after it got worse, but it took long time, and I didn’t even hear of them again for several years.
“… if you let the pigs decide it,
They will put you in the sty.”
“No Sleep Blues (Williamson)
As it turned out, the ISB and the popular culture developed in opposite directions– the String Band were literate, melodic, and insanely inventive. Heron, coming from a beat-combo background, was the tunesmith who crafted most of the catchiest songs, while Robin Williamson’s best numbers were like spells. All the arrangements were magical and floating, at times spinning upside down, and often springing loose like a mad music box, with two guitars carooming off each other, while pennywhistles dixielanded insane counterpoint, and backwards grooves were pounded out on bongos, congas and woodblocks, until the whole thing seemed to deny gravity. And Robin’s mastery of his voice and language were no joke, however hippy-dippy they appear at first 21st century perusal.
They were Incredible alright, wowing and charming audiences in the UK and across the US. And they were aspirational, seeing themselves as the first purveyors of what would become known as world music, as wells as lyrics composed along the lines first laid down by the Beats, a philosophy summed up in the idea “First thought, best thought,” a concept later popularied by Allen Ginsberg and Chogyam Trungpa.
Said Robin in an interview:
“It Struck me that you could write a spontaneous, free- form lyric, a la Jack Kerouac. And then you could link it up with spontaneous free form music, drawn from the various regions of the world.”
Form followed content, so, wherever you dropped the needle on the record, you’d be lost for a time, and similar to later progressive groups like Pink Floyd or KIng Crimson, you had no choice but to follow the melodic bread crumb trail out of the enchanted sound forest. And it was wonderful.
But the one thing String Band didn’t have was the BIG BEAT, the hard and fat Dionysian noise on the two and four with the passionate screaming voices and noodling electric guitar solos–the evolutionary development in sound that came to dominate all rock and pop music at that moment, and for the next several decades.
America was being submerged in violence, both on its streets and from it[‘]s foreign policy, Great Britain was going along for the ride, and even the gentlest citizens on both sides of the water were losing their attention span. Did that have something to do with the evolution of the people’s tastes? The U.S. was being led by a man who was busy telling the world he wasn’t a crook. The Beat was King, and the drugs and sounds kept getting heavier.
As Bob Dylan had noticed several years before, the ISB had a true poet in Robin, who could tell you of the world close to your nose in rhymes that led you to see it in a fresh way. Robin could prophesize, telling the present and the future with mythological eyes, but if the public wanted words, they demanded their singers be confessional. And as the sixties hit the end of its road, all the heros died or disappeared, most either shot by assailants with three names, or choking to death while on pain killers. And it was hard for the culture to recognize their poets when words were used all day, everyday, across the radio, television, and in the newspapers, to confuse the populace about its actions products and programs.
“Now there comes a time to every man
When he must turn his back on the crowd
-Log Cabin Home In The Sky (Heron)
But I loved the Incredible String Band anyway, because they went so far the other way, away from the common fixations on celebrity, away from music as sex tonic, away from teenage rock and roll problems, or even the Beatle’s Taxman-type rock-star anxiety musings, and they blazed their own trail, into dreams, to strange hidden valleys of countryside and memory, to isolated hilltop villages, in the gaps between mountain tops, to places where they were bringing their own music, and poetry, and pursuing the quest they felt couldn’t wait, the one for God, while all the time remaining a couple of Scottish wise guys with an outlaw attitude. The String Band enacted a true rejection of the culture, were actual full-service rebels, and always did things at their own speed, in their own style. They had an original sound, and their own voices. Their songs were pitched lighter and lower than what anyone else was or is doing, and much of what we’re used to, far away from the usual bump and grind of the rock of any period. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good bump and grind. But I learned to dig these guys early and it stuck with me. They were psychedelic Woody Guthries, Blakean men of the people, and in fact Wee Tam concludes with a tune Woody popularized: on the end of the song/suite called Ducks On A Pond, they bust into a rousing version of “Ain’t Got No Home In This World Anymore,” and its not precious, but nuts, with stomping feet, caterwauling voices, an overblown harmonica, raucous…. and comparable to Woody and Leadbelly’s rockin’ team-up with Sonny Terry and Cisco Houston on the Stinson sessions.
There are problems, railroad gates you got to jump if you want to dig them, traces of precious cuteness, excesses of the diminuative, the little clouds, little hedgehogs, and caterpillars for cousins. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer may be the worst song the Beatles ever recorded, but the ISB have a couple as bad as that in their ouevre.
But basically, a couple rambling ragamuffin folk singing guitar players from Scotland introduced what’s now called World music into Pop. While doing this they broke nearly every rule of musical arrangement while somehow maintaining a rootedness in the music that kept it plugged into the earth, to true feeling, spaced but somehow with a foot in traditional forms. They exploded folk music while somehow keeping it alive far beyond its time.
“When I was born I had no head
My eye was single and my body was full of light”
-Douglas Traherne Harding (Heron)
I saw them soon after my arrival on the west coast in 1973. I was on the run from my disastrous teenage life in New York, had said goodbye to my pals Banister and Duffet, and made the bus-and-train journey to California myself. I was at the start of a bold new Western Adventure, the one I’m still on. And there they were, the week I got into town, playing at San Francisco’s elegant Palace Of Fine Arts, to a more than half-empty theater. I was surprised to see they were electric, now, with bass and drums, but found the show to be dynamic, and Robin and new ISB member Malcolm spoke at length between songs, and were very funny, talking spontaneously about America and the coast they’d travelled the length of just the day before. One hilarious rant was a satire of Los Angeles all-night television, including an impression of “Movies ’til Dawn” sponsor, cowpoke- turned-used-car-salesman par excellence, Cal Worthington, walking ‘his dog Spot’ (an elephant) through the lot. This was followed by a rocking fiddle reel version of ‘Black Jack Davy” and when I heard that I knew they were still great.
So the next day, I went to a record shop and purchased the new album, “No Ruinous Feud” took it back to the house where I was staying, played it about twice, and completely lost interest. It wasn’t terrible or anything, but the magic from the night before couldn’t be found in the grooves, nor the songs.
18 years later, I saw Robin play for a full house at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, one of the great folk clubs in the world. He played celtic harp and guitar, sang and told stories, and was brilliant throughout. He had completely turned into the magician-poet he’d always evoked. I met him upstairs after the show. I had a baby asleep on my shoulder, and Robin said, after taking a good look: “You have a very beautiful daughter there.” He was wearing red converse low tops. I went out and bought a pair.
Dedicated to the memory of friends Jon Duffett, 1952-2011, Michael Bannister,1951-2008, Story Bannister, 1993-2015, and Mary Anne Shifferli, 1954-1974.
(1) from Blake: A Biography, by Peter Ackroyd
This piece originally appeared in 2013, in the anthology Yes Is The Answer, published by Rare Bird Books.