“The Cream legacy continued to haunt me in various ways …” writes Pete Brown near the end of his autobiography, White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns: on the road with Ginsberg, Writing for Clapton and Cream – an anarchic odyssey (JR Books, 2010). This is such a bad thing that the paperback edition has been freshly titled as Eric, Jack, Ginger and me; Oh! And Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs and Ferlinghetti too … (Clarksdale, May 2013). The main title of the hardback at least only alludes to that connection – interestingly there actually was a white room in Chalk Farm that was the Brown abode before it became White room the Cream song, while the Jack Bruce track Theme for an imaginary western is in fact in part the story of “pioneers and outlaws” saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith and Graham Bond, two of Pete’s friends – though both hardback and paperback books might well fall foul of the Trades Descriptions Act; the pages on which Ginsberg and the Beat poets are mentioned can be counted on one hand, and Eric Clapton is easily the least mentioned of the musicians in Cream.
I had high hopes of this book because it’s Pete Brown. I’m not sorry I read it, but it should have been a more satisfying read. Anyway, the man’s own words, from the opening paragraph of the introduction:
I think I’ve had quite an interesting life […] However, I’m not a book writer [… ] Originally, perhaps in a fit of musician’s laziness, I wanted Harry [music biographer Harry Shapiro] to write it; but [publisher and friend] Jeremy liked my sample chapters ‘because they had my voice in them’. That gave me a signal – I would not try to do beautiful writing (which would have added several years to the project) but tell the story more or less as if I were speaking it.
Which, sad to say, is a shame, because Harry might have pulled a few of the themes of this undoubtedly interesting life together and given the book some sort of shape rather than the chronological litany it is, and probably not slipped so often into pub bore – inconsequential, repetitive and self-serving – or sour raconteur mode that I’m pretty sure is not the man at his best. I hate to say it, but Peter Cook’s E.L.Wisty even sprang to mind at one point.
But it’s not Pete Brown‘s fault that he didn’t write the book I wanted (which was, rest assured, not more Cream stories). No, it was the poet I wanted more of, and there’s not a line of poetry to be had in the whole book, so if you didn’t know his work before you’d be none the wiser after reading this; hardly a song lyric either, for that matter. I think this important because if it wasn’t for the beat poetry scene, the pioneer performance poetry gigs with Mike Horowitz and the jazzers who were part of that (including the 2/3rds of Cream for whom claims of deity were not made) then the invite to help with those song lyrics would not have arisen. And to be honest, when assessing Cream’s success, I don’t think the lyric content actually counted for much (which is not an exercise in lit crit, I hasten to add). Towards the end he says he’s writing and performing poetry again; we are vouchsafed not a hint, not a line, of its nature. Shame.
So. War child, Jewish parents’ bombed out East End shop, safe Surrey abode. Bus spotting, boys’ high jinks. Fails English Literature O level. Jazz, beat poetry. Early ’60s beatnikdom, hitchhiking to poetry gigs all round the country, booze to obliteration. With partner in lyrical crime Oxford drop-out Mike Horowitz. Edinburgh, Albert Hall Poetry Incarnation, Ginsberg et al (as previously blogged about here at Lillabullero). Somewhere in there giving up booze leading to an improved sex life. A guarded welcome to the Summer of Love, Cream, growing musicianship, own band, blowing hot and cold with Jack Bruce (employee? friend?), often being the only sober drug free bloke in the vicinity. Money comes, money goes. Session work, producing, writing for films; true love, dodgy health scare but surviving, unlike some of his big chums; new work, autobiography. It’s a life all right.
Shame too about the sneering: Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen are “so-called poets“; Dire Straits and Elvis Costello’s “musical efforts” are not to his taste (efforts?); Keith Richards is “grossly over-rated” – all with no explanation. And then there’s punk:
I believe that nearly all the Beat poets … had musical aspirations. Unfortunately, it was their punk disciples such as Lou Reed and Patti Smith who later had such a destructive and counter-musical influence.
He has a real problem with punk (but he was a punk poet ahead of his time!) courtesy of which he was made by the music industry to feel like “a fossil“. So even the telling of the impact of the coming of skiffle gets a welcome with a proviso: “British amateurism […] was born, and it would reach its ultimate ghastly flowering in 1976 with the horror of punk.” Never mind the gig that – legend has it – sowed the seeds for so much creativity in the city, “In Manchester we played in a place where the Sex Pistols had preceded us, and punters who had gone to see them out of curiosity had been appalled at how bad they were.” I’d love to know what poet Pete thinks of John Cooper Clarke but he’s not mentioned at all. “Most artists harbour some kind of desperation,” he generously grants, “but the punks, having no skills, would do anything for money. They were, in effect, scab labour.” What can you say to that?
There’s candour and honesty aplenty about personal and professional failures along the way, but little of the humour that was a major characteristic of the poetry – after all, Let ‘Em Roll, Kafka was the title of one of his slim volumes. There are flashes: in the East End of his youth there’s a “nearby family of rampant greengrocers“; there’s the friend of a friend who, “took it upon herself to gradually dismantle my virginity.” The Edinburgh Festival one year was, “a mixture between a holiday, an emotional trauma, an alcoholic binge and the Paris Commune,” while at the legendary Albert Hall Incantation, “It was great to see so many spectators at the poetry zoo.” Pete Brown‘s White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns is certainly some sort of document of its times. His music, with Piblikto and beyond, is worth a visit to Spotify too.
- our hero can be spotted in the ’60s cash-in-now-cult-classic movie of awfulness Gonks go beat – “there’s trouble brewing between the rock and roll loving residents of Beatland and their ballad-singing neighbours on Balladisle” says the Amazon blurb – which has now become a must-see item for me
- and he also appears in Alasdair Gray‘s epic cult novel Lanark. (There are cults and cults).
- Oh how I wish I hadn’t let go that The Not Forgotten Association vinyl album of Brown reading his early poems with occasional accompaniment from an impressive roster of muso pals. Not because it sells for a packet on eBay these days, but because I fancy hearing it again and it’s nowhere to be found (apart from occasionally for silly prices on eBay).
- this is the second book running I’ve read – the other a novel not yet blogged about – that mentions Sidney Bechet in glowing terms. He’s one I’d somehow missed; no longer – thanks, chaps.