Barry Miles – adventures in the counterculture

By Clive Jennings

Photograph of Barry Miles.

Barry Miles. Chronicler of London's counterculture.

Miles, for nobody calls him Barry, has devoted his life to both creating and chronicling the countercultural life of London. Doyen of the underground, he co-founded International Times, the first English underground newspaper (which I remember as an essential prop, ostentatiously poking out of my bag, when I was a provincial 16-year-old school boy and aspiring hippie); set up Indica, London’s first alternative bookshop; helped organise the legendary 14 Hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace; wrote for NME and co-edited Time Out.

Amongst his 49 published books are biographies of personal friends: William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Paul McCartney, Frank Zappa. In the 60’s he hung out with the Beatles (so much so, he was referred to as “the albino beatle”), Mick Jagger and the American beat poets; in the ‘70’s the Clash; and in the ‘80’s the Blitz Kids and proto YBA’s.

The prospect of profiling a man who has known and interviewed some of the most influential cultural icons of the second half of the twentieth century was both daunting and exciting. His first subject was Paul McCartney for International Times, in 1966 at the Beatle’s suggestion, to raise the readership, as the publication carried no advertising and desperately needed more sales. To keep it simple, Miles wrote it up in question and answer format, which is very common now, but was quite revolutionary then, and was later adopted as the house style by Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine. McCartney offered to call his friend George, who came over for dinner, and that led to an interview with Mick Jagger. Later subjects included Pete Townsend and Graham Nash, and he was the first to interview The Ramones, The Talking Heads, The Clash and Patti Smith.

GINSBERG’S FARM

Miles recommended to me the strategy of “the pregnant pause”, but this proved unnecessary as his urbane manner and courteous charm made the experience a pleasure as he reminisced over the course of an afternoon, and, lubricated by a glass or two of red wine, we meandered from Blacks across Dean Street to the Groucho, in Soho “the cosmopolitan centre of London”.

Apart from occasional sojourns to more exotic locales over the years – time spent living at Ginsberg’s communal farm in upstate New York, the Chelsea Hotel in New York City and a medieval monastery in the French Pyrenees – Miles has lived in the same building in Hanson Street since 1965, initially on the first floor with his first wife Sue Miles, and later moving to the basement where he still lives with his partner, travel writer Rosemary Bailey. To peruse his walls and bookcases is to take a trip through the history of Cool: a photo of an ursine Ginsberg gurning into the camera with his arm round a skinny young Miles; an enigmatic Jim Dine drawing of Brigitte Bardot showing only her eyes and her lips; a series of photos of Burroughs, blurred by movements that probably accurately reflect the subject’s fuddled chemical state; a trio of dark paintings by Derek Jarman; a photo of Miles sharing a drink with underground cartoonist Robert Crumb on a sunny French terrace.

Then, there are the books, from floor to ceiling: everything from pulp fiction to first editions. Miles is a lifelong bibliofile: buying them, collecting them, selling them, publishing them, not to mention writing them. He recalled how prior to the opening of Indica, he stored his stock in the basement of Peter Asher’s parents’ house in Wimpole Street. Also living there were Asher’s sister, the actress Jane Asher, and her boyfriend, one Paul McCartney, who would pop down, and take his pick, leaving a note of what he had taken, thus making him Indica’s first customer. John Lennon would later buy books from Indica Books, and famously met Yoko Ono at Indica Gallery, run by Miles’ partner, John Dunbar.

Miles moved to Hanson Street, in 1965 at a weekly rent of £5, from Gilbert Place, in Bloomsbury, partly because both his flat and the street were stuck running on gas, and he was desperate to play his jazz records. He fondly recalled that the street was an almost totally Jewish rag trade enclave, and his block was owned by two retired ladies who lived in Bexhill-on-Sea. Many of the buildings had sweatshops and there was a kosher butcher, a greengrocer and a dairy on Hanson Street – some of the shops were very basic with no shelves and goods stored on the floor. The whole garment district around Hanson Street would be littered with remnants of fabric and ends of rolls, put out for the rubbish collection. Miles remembers how hippies walking through the area from Camden Town en route to the “Goings On” Club in Archer Street, Soho, or the “Spontaneous Underground” at the Marquee, would pick up these scraps and fashion fantastic hats, sarees and all manner of bizarre clothing from them to wear at the clubs.

JOHN LENNON

In his history of the ‘60s “All Dressed Up” Jonathon Green claimed of Miles that “everyone who was going to be anyone passed, or claimed to have passed, through his door”.  Had he kept a visitor’s book at Hanson Street, it would have been a veritable Who’s Who of luminaries from the worlds of rock music and literature.  Marianne Faithfull and John Lennon visited, and Allen Ginsberg always stayed there when in London, until he de-camped to more palatial quarters in a cottage in the grounds of the American patron of poetry and the arts Panna Grady’s Regents Park mansion. Richer than Peggy Guggenheim, her parties were legendary and attended by the cream of the literati, including Tom Driberg and William Burroughs.

HASHISH FUDGE

In 1965, the year that Miles met him, Paul McCartney was treated to his first taste of Hashish Fudge, prepared by Miles’ wife Sue to the original recipe from the “Alice B Toklas Cookbook”, passed on to Toklas by artist and poet Brion Gysin. Though this was not McCartney’s first partaking of the weed, Miles eruditely informed me, as he was turned on by Bob Dylan in 1964, and subsequently wrote “Got to Get You into My Life” about his love of Marijuana.

Group of people standing.

Left to right Barry Miles, John Dunbar, Marianne Faithfull, Peter Asher, and Paul McCartney in 1965 at Indica. From “London Calling”, by Barry Miles, published by Atlantic Books, 2010.

In 1977, Mick Jones of the Clash, was a visitor there after he had performed at The Rainbow, and Miles spotted him at a bus stop, as the Clash’s manager, Bernie Rhodes, drove off in his car, registration CLA5H. He and Miles sat up and talked all night, but Jones was insulted when his host played him the Frank Zappa track “Hey Punk” as he “disliked hippies”.  Not so Mr Zappa himself, who knew Miles from ’66 when he used Indica as his London base. Bumping into each other many years later in Zanzibar, the bar a few doors down from the Blitz in Great Queen Street, Zappa came back, accompanied by his bodyguard, and they spent the night going through Miles’ record collection trying to find “the world’s worst psychedelic guitar solo”.

Ginsberg used to favour the One Tun on Goodge Street as his pub of choice as he would meet young poets there, and it was the base for the Peanuts Poetry Group. It was very popular with beatniks, being close to the skiffle club on Cleveland Street, and hippies.

BEATNIKS

Donovan was a regular and famously evokes the period in his “Sunny Goodge Street”, which contained one of the first non coded references to drugs in a pop song and predates the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset” by two years. Beatniks, who would dress in ex-service greatcoats and dashing white scarves, and hippies alike found it convenient to use the pub as a poste restante when hitching around the world. A few doors away on the corner of Goodge Place (now the Oxfam shop) was the timber merchant, Philip Wiesberg. When setting up the Indica premises in Masons Yard, St James (now home to the White Cube gallery) Paul McCartney would let Miles use his Aston Martin and driver to collect timber from there.  Apparently McCartney, one of the venture’s backers, was happy to put up shelves and fill holes, and even designed the wrapping paper.

Historically the home of outcasts, bohemians and the “boozy literati” of London, Miles has recorded many examples of experimental and avant garde activity in Fitzrovia in his books “In The Seventies” and “London Calling”.

KEITH MOON NAKED

In 1966 the Dutch designers Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger, set up their first boutique in Gosfield Street, selling exotic flowing robes, made from multi-coloured Moroccan fabrics, and psychedelic posters. They went on to form “The Fool” embellishing John Lennon’s piano and George Harrison’s Esher home, and creating stage outfits for Marianne Faithfull and Procul Harem.

An unlikely venue for the famous UFO (Unlimited Freak Out) club was the Blarney Club, an Irish dance hall located at 31 Tottenham Court Road, while the more affluent punters went to the Speakeasy, a basement at  48 Margaret Street, where you might see Keith Moon of the Who walk naked across the tables or listen to Jimi Hendrix play a thirty-minute version of “Auld Lang Syne”.

The poisoning of William Burroughs by a cheesecake in the Moka Bar

In the 70’s, Miles worked closely with William Burroughs, creating an inventory of his archive, which appeared in random boxes and suitcases from friends around the world. Apparently Burroughs had a penchant for eating in empty restaurants, one his favourites being the famously bleak and uninviting Icelandic Steakhouse on Haymarket. He had also had a falling out with the Church of Scientology, and decided to mount a pseudo scientific  “sound and image” attack on their headquarters at 37 Fitzroy Street, to “tamper with their actual reality”. He took photos and made tape recordings, returning week after week, then played back the recordings and took more photos. Amazingly it seemed to work and they moved out to 68 Tottenham Court Road, where they still are today. Sadly, the same technique didn’t work on their new premises, though he did have some success when he tried the same technique on the Moka Bar in Frith Street, where he claimed to have been served poisonous cheesecake. In the 80’s art group, the neo naturists, including Grayson Perry and Wilma Johnson, occupied a squat at the corner of Great Titchfield Street and Carburton Street, with Boy George and Marilyn on the ground floor. They proceeded to annex the adjacent former Lewis Leathers premises as a café/cabaret, where Perry made his first appearance in women’s clothing.  They later moved to a squat in nearby Warren Street, which they shared with filmmaker John Maybury and artist Cerith Wyn Evans.

Man standing reading in bookshop.

Miles at Indica, when it moved to 102 Southampton Row, in 1966.

“If you can remember the 60’s you are probably Miles” was the paraphrase used by the Sohemian Society recently of the blond, bespectacled, bookish figure, who appears like Zelig in many group photos. In fact it was Ginsberg who encouraged Miles to record his recollections, when he insisted on hearing all the gossip and blow by blow accounts of Miles’ meetings with remarkable people, which inspired him to commit them to paper. His extensive first hand experiences combined with intellectual rigour, astute observation, knowing analysis and well paced narrative have made him the Archivist of the Alternative.

Although encouraged by the thriving gallery scene, and hopeful that it will be consolidated by restaurants and bars that become the haunts of artists again, we were pushed to think of any examples of counterculture in Fitzrovia today. Gone are the Communist Club and the ANC, and the cheap run down flats and bohemian pubs and clubs; and Felix Dennis, publisher of Oz magazine, is more interested in planting trees than underground magazines these days. The only interesting venue we could come up with was the gay bar on Whitfield Street. The underground has moved east to the cheaper areas of Hackney, Bethnal Green and beyond, and the counter culture has gone global with such groups as Wiki Leaks. We both admire the imaginative programme at the Horse Hospital in Colonnade, Bloomsbury and its bold claim to be “Providing Space for Underground and Avant Garde Media since 1993”. Perhaps it was always this way, as neighbouring Soho, which still retains its raffish air, was described by “Absolute Beginners” author Colin MacInnes thus, in New Society, 52 years ago: “Soho, at one time, owed its reputation to its people: now the area bestows a bogus reputation on almost anything.”

London Calling: a countercultural history of London since 1945, by Barry Miles, 2011. Published by Atlantic Books.

Clive Jennings runs The National Print Gallery.

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