1968 Year of Revolutions
It’s been said that if you can remember the 60s you weren’t there. I’ve got the opposite problem. I can remember so much I can’t see how I managed to fit it all in. This is particularly true of 1968. I have lots of separate memories of things but I have a job working out the chronology. I do know that this was the year that I started doing gigs. Mick Pini was an inspiration to me. He had an electric guitar and was the first person I knew who had a Marshall “stack”. This is a powerful amplifier and a separate speaker cabinet for those who don’t know. The result is a very loud sound and the ability to create distortion. I went back to Mick’s house and he demonstrated it to me. As he played the house started shaking and I thought the window frames were going to fall out! It was monumental!! Even at that point Mick had the talent to create a really expressive sound and he was later to become one of the best blues guitarists in the country.
From my point of view I had a problem. Although my vocal skills were improving I hadn’t started playing the guitar yet. At that time my favourite group was The Doors. I had a passing resemblance to Jim Morrison and I could imitate his voice quite well. This proved quite popular with the girls! I could sing every song on the “Strange Days” album from beginning to end and remember all the words. This ability to learn and remember lyrics eventually caused me to be called “The Human Juke Box”.
I became influenced by avant garde jazz. In Leicester, a dedicated music library opened called Goldsmiths where you could borrow records for a small fee. It had mainly classical music but they also had a folk and jazz section. I was impressed by recordings of Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler and particularly John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Archie Shepp’s “The Magic of Juju”. I decided to dust my clarinet off that I hadn’t played for a while and start playing free jazz. I found that I could make it sound a bit like an electric lead guitar and I also used it to create weird screaming noises. I got really experimental!! Poet Terry Wilford recently reminded me that I played the clarinet under water in the Town Hall Square fountain on one occasion! I was also writing strange apocalyptic poems influenced by William Blake and the language of the King James Bible and I would perform these interspersed with free jazz improvisations. My reputation as a performance artist increased and I began to be invited to perform at gigs and jam sessions. I think I was seen as a bit of a novelty act but at least I was out there doing it.
It was at this time I got my first paid gig and had my name advertised in The Leicester Mercury. A giant step for me! It was at a place called Raynor’s, a slightly seedy 50s style night club tucked behind the Grand Hotel. It was rumoured that the owner was associated with the Kray Brothers (an East End gangster family who were literally carving out a criminal empire at the time). This could be true because Charlie Kray (the one who wasn’t a total psychopath!) lived in Leicester for a while in the early 70s. I met him in the Town Arms once. The club had decided to have a hippie night every Monday evening called “The Crocodile Club” which featured live bands, DJ Stuart Greasley (who called himself “Gensian Sprunt”) and the best light show outside of a Pink Floyd concert. The light show was created by dripping different coloured inks on to a slide projector and it bubbled and moved as it heated up. As you can appreciate, it wasn’t the best thing to do to a projector and they had a fairly short life! Stuart had a crash helmet covered in wire wool and as a finale he covered it in lighter fuel and set it on fire, while he was wearing it! He was a bit of a prat but very entertaining! He got the idea from The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and he would play their record “Fire”. No health and safety then, but I imagine it contravened fire regulations! When I finished my gig it went down so well they invited me back the following week. However, the doorman hated me so much he refused to let me in until the organisers intervened. OK! I wasn’t exactly playing middle of the road, easy listening music!
Leicester University and Leicester College of Art (now DMU) put on lots of gigs. Saw the Who, Pink Floyd, Incredible String Band, Marsha Hunt and countless others at these venues. Also there were gigs at the Corn Exchange and of course the Il Rondo on Silver Street. Mick and I (especially Mick) got quite friendly with Fleetwood Mac who played in Leicester quite regularly. Mick actually stayed with Peter Green in London and it has been said that he carried Peter’s style forward into the 70s and 80s. He was certainly a big influence and a superb guitarist. Julie Driscoll of the Brian Auger Trinity, who made one of the best covers of a Dylan song ever “This Wheel’s on Fire”, was known to be emotionally volatile and would occasionally throw her mic into the audience. On one occasion it landed squarely on my forehead nearly knocking me out!! I’ve suffered for my art!!
Poetry was undergoing a major revival. In 1965 Allen Ginsberg had crossed the Atlantic and was part of a big poetry event at the Royal Albert Hall. This event was a triumph of grassroots organisation, done at the last minute, that helped to create a self confidence and creative surge that epitomised the age. Filmed by Peter Whitehead (“Wholly Communion”) it was a brilliant success and by 1968 there were many live poetry events around the country. Penguin Books released a series of modern poetry books and many poets were becoming popular. These included Roger McGough (who formed a group called Scaffold with Paul MaCartney’s brother Michael and had significant hits with “Lily the Pink” and “Thank You Very Much”), Adrian Henry (who also performed with a group called Liverpool Scene) and probably the best of all, Adrian Mitchell whose poem “Tell Me Lies About Vietnam” is pure genius.
Here’s a film of Adrian Mitchell reading his poem filmed by Peter Whitehead:
Leicester had a vibrant poetry scene mainly due to the efforts of poet Boyd K. Litchfield. Boyd came from “down south” and was the epitome of the Romantic Poet. He was prolific and looked the part. He was also a brilliant organiser of events. The main venues for poetry readings was the Town Arms on Pocklington Walk and the Chameleon Coffee Bar on King Street. There was also a lot happening at Leicester University presided over by G.S.Fraser who was a published author and professor at the University. The chairman of the more conservative Leicester Poetry Society, Alan Bates, was a frequent visitor to the Town Arms and would hold civilised gatherings at his house on West Avenue for poets, artists and intellectuals. He had the most amazing collection of books I’ve ever seen. Another interesting character at the time was Charles Hickson who was a brilliant poet, an incredible raconteur, and looked like a caricature of George Bernard Shaw. He still holds the record as the only person I’ve ever known to have read all of the novels by Proust!
My first real success as a musician was to be invited by Boyd to form a band with him. I had already performed with him on several occasions creating a musical backdrop to his poems. We were later joined by a musician known as “Antique” John ( we loved nicknames in those days!) who played a dulcimer-like instrument called a Chinese Banjo. This created a kind of shifting drone which gave a rhythmical base to the performance. All the music was improvised and spontaneous. It never sounded the same twice. We ended up playing all over the country including legendary venue The Roundhouse in London, on the same stage as the likes of The Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd, all leading lights at the time. Heady stuff indeed!
At the same time as all this was happening my days were spent hanging out with Mick Pini. We spent much time wandering around town, especially the New Walk area. We also went to the Chameleon and a cafe at The Art Centre on Cank Street which was on the top floor of the building. This contained garish, commercial prints that no one, unsuprisingly, seemed to buy. They seemed to do better on the picture framing side of the business though. They were very nice and let us sit there for hours over one cup of tea which they even sometimes gave us for nothing. It was like a social club for hippies and misfits and they played some really good records. I remember hearing “I am the Walrus” by the Beatles for the first time there. Eventually they started putting folk concerts on there at night with candlelight. Very nice.
It was at the Chameleon that I really got into playing chess. There were some really good players there and it was months before I won a game. My game improved no end, though. It was a hip place where you could drink real coffee and listen to cool jazz. It was here that I really got into the music of Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk. Legendary local singer/guitarist Maurice Coleman used to play there regularly. At the time his gentle jazz ballads seemed incongruous compared to the psychedelic scene I was part of but he was a truly great performer who I grew to love.
It was at this time also that we met Hank. Hank was amazing! He was a student at Leicester University but he didn’t seem to attend many lectures. I think eventually he was expelled! He played the guitar and harmonica and sang in a gloriously mournful, out of tune voice. He sounded a bit like Tom Waits but many people thought he couldn’t sing. I thought he was brilliant! He was before his time! It was from him that I learnt my first chords on guitar. He also sold me my first guitar, an old jazz guitar with f holes. It cost me a pound! He had a brilliant repertoire of songs, many of which I still play now. It was from him that I also learnt the basics of blues harmonica and how to bend notes and this became a new string to my bow or rather a new blow to my harp!
Chameleon Dreams by Kenny Wilson This is a recent song of mine about this period using a sample of the voice of Jack Kerouac.
There were many parties in those days. Highfields had become the bohemian area and people often opened up there flats and bedsits for gatherings and events. The “King of the Hippies” in Leicester was Dave Brooks. He was a painter of weird, exotic fantasies that he would bake in an oven so they looked really old. He had a book by Laurence Lipton called “The Holy Barbarians”. It was like a manual of how to live the hippie life based on the community at Venice Beach, Los Angeles. This became a kind of blueprint of how to furnish your room with Indian tapestries,rugs and low key lighting with different coloured bulbs. Very atmospheric! His girlfriend caused quite a stir when she posed nude in the shop window of a newly opened boutique on Silver Street.
At one party I was near the record player looking through the record collection. I came upon what looked like an interesting record called “The Velvet Underground & Nico”. I put it on the turntable and was immediately struck by the dissonant qualities of the music. It was a track called “Heroin” and it fitted in well with the kind of music I had been making using drones, feedback and extreme lyrics. After a short while the party host rushed up to me and told me to change the record. He hated it even though he had bought it. I told him I thought it was great and he gave it to me on condition that he would never have to listen to it again. I thanked him and that became my favourite record of 1968. I played it so much I virtually wore it out. When the follow up “White Light, White Heat” was released I bought it straight away and that also became a favourite. It made a big impact on my performances especially the track “Sister Ray” which mixes a monotonous beat with dissonant improvisation and feedback. It became a template for many of my own pieces.
The Town Arms was a centre for acoustic and folk music as well as traditional jazz which still had a big following with an older crowd. Russ Merryfield, a stalwart of the folk scene, started a jazz band there and continued to do a regular Friday slot for at least twenty five years after that, maybe more. He gets my award for the longest running residency of all time! Local promoter Tony Savage also ran a club there which featured some of the best folk singers in the country like Alex Campbell and Bert Jansch. They were paid well and you could make a good living in the folk clubs. They earned more in a night than most people earned in a week! It gave me ideas for a future career! Regulars at the Town Arms were bluegrass musicians George and Thadeus Kaye. They sometimes had impromptu jams in the bar downstairs. They were incredibly good technically and I picked up lots of tips from them, especially George who sang, played guitar and became an expert fiddler.
A place of note at that time was a club called the Nautique (also known as the Nocturne) on Wharf Street. There was a room at the back where Leicester group Family practised. At that time Family became Leicester’s most commercially and artistically successful group. Their album “Music In a Doll’s House” stands up to this day as a seminal piece of psychedelia. Several years later I would play and write songs with Rick Grech who was the bass and violin player and had a subsequent successful career with the likes of Blind Faith, Traffic and several others, perhaps most notably, his collaborations with Gram Parsons. Sadly, he died in 1990 at a comparatively young age.
1968 was a time of great political upheavel. In May of that year Paris erupted into riots and there was a general strike in France that toppled the government. Not long afterwards Britain had it’s first major riot since the 1930s. This occured at Grosvenor Square, London outside the American Embassy. There was a massive demonstration against the war in Viet Nam. Police, who were untrained and unused to dealing with this type of event decided to attack the demonstration with a charge of horses. This resulted in total chaos and a riot ensued which was controlled very badly by the police with innocent people being caught up in the violence. The images on TV were quite shocking! The revolution was being televised!
Leicester had it’s own anti-war demonstration that passed quite peacefully although there were scuffles on the junction of London Road and Charles Street where I ended up being pushed into a cordon of police. Scary!! The situation in America, however, was far worse. The war in Viet Nam had escalated and the draft had been extended and many young people were being forced into the army. Demonstrations in America were dealt with in a far more brutal fashion than even here, culminating in the Chicago riots outside the Democratic Party convention where many people were injured. Things got even worse later on when National Guardsmen opened fire on student protesters in Ohio killing several of them (Neil Young wrote a song about this: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, We’re finally on our own, Last Summer I heard the drumming, Four dead in Ohio” recorded by CSN&Y). On top of that public opinion in America was turning against the war. It is the most televised and photographed war in history and many of the images were profoundly disturbing especially the photograph of a child running down a road screaming, covered in napalm (a particularly vicious weapon that stuck to the skin and burned constantly). There were reports of massacres and high levels of drug abuse amongst soldiers most of whom didn’t want to be there and didn’t know why they were there. The use of defoliant Agent Orange was destroying the rain forests and causing skin diseases. It’s doubtful if anyone with any sense could possibly support the war. As one of the chants went at demonstrations “LBJ, LBJ, how many kids have you killed today!!” It’s a shame, really, because LBJ came to power with a liberal agenda which never really found expression. Many young Americans found ways of avoiding the draft by going to Europe or Canada or faking psychological problems and illnesses. This is the background of what became the “counter culture”. People started looking for different ways to live that didn’t harm the planet or themselves. To his credit British prime minister Harold Wilson refused to let Britain be drawn into the conflict even on a token level, an historical precedent that Tony Blair should have studied before he took Britain into two equally pointless wars as an ally of George Bush!
Recently, Terry Wilford reminded me that one of the places we went to on a regular basis was the Chaplaincy Centre on Newarke Street. This had a coffee bar and was open late at weekends. There was a room with a piano on the top floor where we had weird jams and improvised dance sessions. It was a great place that was there until the mid 70s when the Art College became a Polytechnic. After that it became part of the Phoenix Theatre.
By 1969 the dream was over. A friend of mine committed suicide shortly after having a bad acid trip and the “best minds of my generation were destroyed by madness”(from “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg but applicable to a number of people I knew). People seemed to be either getting religion or joining extreme left wing political parties. Personally, I had no desire for spiritual salvation or replacing a bad system with something even worse. The year of the Woodstock festival seemed to be the end of an era for me.The good times didn’t seem so good. I spent the summer in Folkestone staying with a friend and in September went to Middleton St. George College of Education, County Durham to train as a teacher, main study Music. 1968 remains to this day the period I remember as my “Golden Age”, a time and a feeling I have constantly tried to get back to and I think, in recent times, I have begun to achieve that!