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White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns
- on the road with Ginsberg, writing for Clapton & Cream – An Anarchic Odyssey: Pete Brown, JR Books, London


Paul A. Green [Bro Paul]


Pete Brown went on the road at the age of twenty. It wasn’t the coast-to-coast highway that Sal Paradise rides in Kerouac’s novel – rather a maze of hitch-hikes around the British Isles that took him to coffee-bar readings or be-bop/poetry sessions in jazz clubs, and maybe a floor to sleep on afterwards. By 1961 Pete was surviving – barely – as an itinerant poet and emerging as a pivotal figure in the British Beat scene. His obsessive odyssey was to lead him into lyric-writing, most notably for Cream, rock quasi-stardom, record production and screen-writing, as well as lively encounters with everybody from William Burroughs to Martin Scorcese. En route, he became a creative catalyst for poets, musicians and artists. I was one of those he encouraged, which is why I’m pleased that Pete has finally unveiled his bildungsroman.

A Bohemian Half-Life

The opening chapters vividly evoke childhood in a London working-class Jewish community. His father ‘attempted to do commerce’ as the manager of a small shoe shop but the family had higher aspirations for their only son and sent him to a Jewish grammar school staffed by eccentric rabbis in the hope that he might become a great scholar or at least an accountant – and not follow the example of Uncle Morris who was a Communist and wrote poetry. When the adolescent Brown discovered jazz, movies, alcohol and art-school dances where girls were available (at least in theory if not in practice), rebellion was inevitable. After a series of suspensions and theological disagreements, he was finally expelled. In desperation, the family steered him on to a journalism course. Although he had no desire to be a sub-editor and soon left without a diploma, one of the tutors encouraged him to write and read widely. He began to develop a poetic voice inspired by the American Beats and the jazz-poetry recordings of Kenneth Patchen. Work was accepted by Evergreen Review, who published Ginsberg, Kerouac et al, and at the 1960 Beaulieu Jazz Festival, he encountered Mike Horovitz, Oxford-based founder of New Departures magazine and pioneer instigator of avant happenings.

Pete Brown: White Rooms & Imaginary Westerns


Pete Brown: New Departures

Blues for the Hitch-Hiking Dead

Horovitz’s contributors included William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso, while New Departures jazz and poetry gigs involved people like Stan Tracey, Bobby Wellins, Dick Heckstall-Smith and Graham Bond – rising stars of the UK modern jazz scene. The New Departures phenomenon pre-figured a cultural shift that would eventually transform the decade. For the baby boomers that came up through the state schools and the art schools were diving into dada and surrealism, all the modernisms that had been suppressed in the UK academy for so long, as well as rock and roll and film. Their political consciousness was shaped by nuclear apocalypse, so narrowly averted in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Poems like ‘Blues for the Hitchhiking Dead,’ a long work co-authored by Brown and Horovitz, often performed at CND benefits, caught the zeitgeist and also helped to create it.

An anarchic counter-culture was fermenting in London, Oxford, Liverpool and Edinburgh - and soon the peripatetic Brown was everywhere at once, often in an alcoholic daze, in and out of dead-end jobs, love and the beds of bemused muses. The 1965 Albert Hall Poetry Reading, where Brown read alongside his American beat heroes, and seven thousand flower-bedecked youths and maidens turned up, to the amazement of the organizers, was a key moment, when poets, mystics, and political activists realized their aspirations might be converging. To quote the late Jeff Nuttall: ‘...the Underground was suddenly there on the surface...’


The Sound of 65

I’ve come to know Pete via a mutual friend, Judith Earnshaw, who visited his chaotic pad in Oppidans Rd, NW 3, describing ‘a strange cluttered basement, the walls papered with odd newspaper cuttings, such as “Why is the Duchess of Gloucester so sure of lovely hair?”’ She invited him to read at a gig I set up at a small art gallery off the Charing Cross Road, featuring assorted poets and the Vincent Crane band. Highlights of the night included Judith’s incantatory prose poem evoking Pete’s ramshackle ménage of starving musicians and sinister junkies living in cupboards.

Now Pete has invited me to join a troupe of poets scrabbling on the Fringe of the Edinburgh Festival. We mingle in the bar of the Traverse Theatre, a tiny theatre club in the Lawnmarket, which is going to be our arena for the next few days. The building was formerly a doss-house and somehow the vibe lingers in the dingy furnishings. We swop little mags – ‘Underdog’ or ‘Residu’ - and eye each other up warily. Nevertheless, Pete negotiates amiably between the various poetic factions vying for slots, balancing the territorial claims of the native Scots, like the veteran Marxist Hugh McDiarmid, still celebrating ‘the eternal lightning of Lenin’s bones’ with the hedonist manifestos of the Children of Albion.

The readings are marathons. Audiences contribute small change and scattered applause. Sometimes there are more poets on the podium than there are listeners, although in the evenings more young people drift in and out, especially to catch the new Liverpool poets Roger McGough and Brian Patten, who fuse terse lyricism with fashionable Scouse wit. McCartney’s brother Mike McGear drops in. Libby Houston, an old flame of Pete’s, enchants everyone with her subtle surrealism. Local man Alan Jackson reads droll satires. The American Paolo Leone, one of the Alex Trocchi crowd, rhapsodises about LSD. And Pete sways to his inner jazz beats, ‘The New Used Jew’s Blues’...

I’m here with my friend Delaney from London, not so much a poet, more a stream-of-consciousness stand-up ranter, firing off gags about anything from British Rail to nuclear bunkers, interspersed with Fenian ballads. Pete usually puts us on together, so my faux-Ginsbergian theatrics are juxtaposed with Delaney’s energetic renditions of ‘The Wearing of the Green.’ Older audience members tend to barrack us. At one point in the week an over-excited man invites me to ‘come outside’ but fortunately we’re both too pissed to do each other much damage.

But generally everything’s mellow. In the Deacon Brodie on the corner, drinking pints of ‘heavy’ with Libby’s new man, artist Mal Dean, Pete jokes about his debut as a film extra in a ludicrous teen movie ‘Gonks Go Beat’ - ‘I get beaten over the head with a Stratocaster’... Later we’re racing down the precipitous streets to some other pub or reading, Helen from Liverpool beside me singing James Brown’s ‘I go crazy’, Pete mimicking Wild West shoot-outs with little kids in the alleys, acting out those old Budd Boetticher movies from his youth. I shall go home broke, hung-over, exhausted and love-sick. There will be other gigs with Pete; but this was my performance poetry initiation.

Pete Brown at the Albert Hall

Deacon Brodie Pub



Acid Fascism

As the Underground went overground, Brown’s poetic career picked up speed. Booze was supplemented by amphetamines, while hitching became more frenetic and perilous - and the girls kept coming and going. The years 65-67 are a blur of bizarre vignettes: Allen Ginsberg parading nude in front of the Beatles; a drunken Brown hurling shoes down a hotel lift-shaft; Eric Clapton in a gorilla suit; Brown writing a ‘cheesy poem’ for ‘the luminous actress Jane Asher’; a club in Marylebone where naked people swam in a giant aquarium; and gatherings with William Burroughs and his entourage, ‘all extremely polite, as if they had taken on a kind of English Victorian mode for the evening.’ It was also a period when creativity, social mobility and the flow of money all met in a churning confluence. Audiences were open to experiment, as were institutions and social structures. For a precarious moment, almost any utopian fantasy seemed possible.

But Brown acknowledges darker currents swirling under the euphoria, especially as LSD became voguish. In London’s ‘psychedelic dungeons’ like UFO and Middle Earth ‘acid fascism was rampant. You had to take it or you weren’t hip... I now seriously believe it was made attractive to the Underground by forces that sought to undermine it... acid and smack were a great way to neutralise the social and political competition.’

He’s also candid about his own indulgences, ‘ a trail of wasted time, lost opportunities, destruction, impotence and treating people like shit.’ He hit bottom in ’67 after a drink/dope binge that left him ‘paralysed and speechless, with hideous death visions of my brain coming out of my ears and mouth like mincemeat...’ Despite an aftermath of panic attacks and paranoia he never touched another drink or drug.

His deepening involvement with musicians over this period led to the formation of his First Real Poetry Band – ‘so enthusiastic that we turned up two weeks early for our first gig.’ Another significant pointer to the future was an invitation from ex-Graham Bond bassist Jack Bruce to write a lyric – ‘Wrapping Paper’ - for a new super-group, Cream, all for a massive advance of £25.


White Room

Gradually Brown morphed into a songwriter/singer. He wrote more material from Cream, notably ‘I Feel Free,’ ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ and ‘White Room’, the last referring to the new flat where he’d holed up, brooding on whether to prioritise poetry or music. When he ran through a lyric for Graham Bond, who also wanted to collaborate with him, the Great Beast of the Hammond organ told him he’d just become a vocalist.

It was a fraught transition. He had little musical training, except for some scratch trumpeting, yet most of the musicians he aspired to perform with were jazz/rock virtuosos like John McLaughlin, who was destined to work with Miles Davis. Eventually a semi-permanent nine piece line-up became Pete Brown’s Battered Ornaments, taking to the road in an ex-military ambulance. They played a fusion of avant-blues and psychedelia, Brown brandishing toilet brushes and a false hand as he sang ‘Politician’. Meanwhile he continued to write for Cream, a liaison that might have been even more productive if the band’s management hadn’t treated the lyricist as ‘ a necessary evil.’ However the creative partnership with Jack Bruce continued after the demise of Cream. Its triumphs (and tensions) are a recurrent motif in Pete’s story.


In May 1969, a day before the Ornaments were due to support the Stones in Hyde Park, Pete was fired by the band he’d created. Undeterred, he proceeded to form Piblokto! The name derived from an Inuit term variously interpreted as an itching disease or a brief orgy during a solar eclipse. This more rock-oriented band thrived for a while as ‘part of a middle area in the British music industry which no longer exists.’ They had the backing of the influential Gerry Bron agency, recorded albums and toured around the college circuit and Europe. Salvador Dali himself appeared at a French gig when the band were performing in a circus. ‘His handshake was a little on the limp side.’ Rock tours now tend to be disciplined corporate affairs, but the ever-changing personnel of Piblokto! seemed to encounter – or generate – chaos everywhere, especially on the Continent, where they faced haunted toilets, a bomb scare, and 20,000 drunken Finns.

Pete Brown & Piblokto


Graham Bond + Pete Brown

A Bond Between Us

When Piblokto’s recording contract with EMI wasn’t renewed, the band split and Pete was free to team up with his long-time associate and friend, Graham Bond. Bond and Brown only recorded one eponymous album, yet their fusion of talents could have created much more if Bond’s behaviour hadn’t created so many obstacles. Despite Graham’s unreliability, driven by his increasing consumption of acid, alcohol, and Dr. Collis-Brown’s Chlorodyne -and his conviction that he was Aleister Crowley’s heir to the Mysteries - it’s clear from both the music and from Pete’s recollections they had a special synergy going. Brown obviously responded to Bond’s prodigious musicianship on organ and sax, while Bond enjoyed Brown’s surreal wit and verbal invention, as demonstrated in songs like ‘Colonel Fright’s Dancing Terrapins’, a macabre evocation of First World War tank battles, or ‘Lost Tribes’, a Dadaist take on the rigours of touring. At the same time, their friendship was tested when the shambolic Bond and his wife Diane overstayed their welcome at Brown’s flat, straining the relationship between Pete and his girl friend Sue. Bond had also insisted on featuring Diane as one of the band’s vocalists, until the manager told Pete to fire her, creating more tensions. When Bond collapsed on stage once too often, Brown felt unable to carry on with his ‘clay-footed idol’ and regretfully disbanded his dream group.

Graham Bond’s biographer, Harry Shapiro, has called him ‘the Mighty Shadow’, a seminal figure in the development of British jazz and rock whose significance has been overlooked, a characterization that Pete would fully support. Brown also recalls another ‘Shadow’ aspect of Bond. Waiting to go on stage in Hamburg, Graham asked the promoter Klaus Schulz to identify ‘the most evil man in Germany’. Schulz nominated the media magnate Axel Springer. During the gig, Bond performed his song ‘Freaky Beaks’, which incorporated an ancient Egyptian mantra aimed at the destruction of one’s enemies. Next day, as Pete was walking past the Axel Springer building, three Red Army Faction bombs exploded, injuring seventeen of Springer’s staff - although not the man himself.

The episode was one of several sinister synchronicities in Bond’s career, which ended under the wheels of a tube train at Finsbury Park in 1974. Pete remains uncertain as whether his friend jumped or was pushed and is still haunted by the funeral, where Jack Bruce at the crematorium organ played ‘one of the most un-nerving improvisations I have ever heard’. Years later he had a vivid dream: Bond and Brown are doing an unpaid gig, solely for the glory of using The Two Golden Microphones. The whole band are then forced to share an enormous bed, where Bond reflects that they really need to start earning some bread...


End of the Hippie Era

During the seventies Brown continued writing with Jack Bruce, while diversifying into A & R work for Deram, Decca’s ‘hip’ subsidiary. His personal life had diversified too, involving children from previous relationships and a long-term relationship with Sue that was becoming problematic, owing to ‘ a greed for new places and faces, something that took a long time to control.’

The new places included the Hyatt House in Los Angeles, where Led Zeppelin had ridden motorbikes around the corridors. Brown had been tasked to work on Bruce’s album ‘ Out of the Storm’ at the Record Plant. But ‘there was an end-of-hippie era desperate party atmosphere permeating the place which undermined the work with drugs.’ Only Stevie Wonder in the studio next door seemed immune. Indeed, Malcolm Cecil, the UK synth pioneer who was producing Stevie, offered Pete the opportunity to write for him. Pete refrained because of his loyalty to Jack, then going through a narcotics crisis. It remains one of rock’s alternative histories, in parallel with another recurrent theme of the book, intriguing unreleased albums, like the big band jazz tracks that Mick Jagger was putting down in another part of the building. The Bruce album was eventually completed in the UK, despite Pete and Jack nearly drowning in a boating accident off the Aran Isles.

After the demise of another short-lived band, The Flying Tigers, he made more American trips. A meeting with Martin Scorcese, fortuitously a Cream fan, planted the notion of screen-writing, but he was still trying to cope with the excesses of the music business, exemplified by Ike Turner. ‘ There was a small ante-room before you got to his flat, where a tray of coke came out of the wall electronically, and you had to partake before he let you in.’ Another celebrated paranoiac was Sly Stone, who kept panthers and crocodiles on the premises to deter unwanted visitors.

Back in the UK by 1977, Pete put together another group, Back to Front, but the scene was changing. Record executives started telling him that his jazz-tinged music with its fondness for complex time structures and elliptical lyrics was dead in the water. Punk had arrived. The critical consensus about punk, expressed by writers like Jon Savage in ‘England’s Dreaming’, is that it was a spontaneous grass-roots phenomenon created by alienated working class youth who felt socially marginalized and excluded from the music industry. Brown however inverts the paradigm and sees it as a cynical strategy devised by the music industry – and the fashion business – to exploit desperate unemployed ‘scab labour’ and/or create fake working class bands ‘to invoke the sympathy of wealthier middle class punters’, betraying skill and talent in the process. It’s an interpretation that fits very neatly with the self-proclaimed nihilism of Malcolm McClaren and his protégé/victim Sid Vicious or the irony of Joe Strummer’s public-school background. One could also argue that the chaos of punk also created opportunities for new talents to emerge but that would have cut little ice with Pete at the time, who decided to make a strategic retreat and try writing for the screen for a while.

Road of Cobras

From the eighties to the present, Pete’s career has continued on its picaresque way, veering between cult acclaim and obscurity, random affluence and sudden fiscal crisis. Film credits have included the animated ‘Felix the Cat’ and the BBC TV drama ‘Railhouse Jock’, commissioned but never transmitted . Indeed many projects, like a documentary drama about Glaswegian rocker Alex Harvey, remain in development limbo. However he’s produced outstanding albums with ex-Bond saxophonist Dick Heckstall-Smith (now sadly dead), with Peter Green, Rory Gallagher (dead) and many others, often contributing as percussionist. There’s been a band, the Interociters – named after the alien machine in the old sci-fi classic ‘This Island Earth’ - and an ongoing partnership with keyboardist Phil Ryan, which recently produced the album ‘Road of Cobras’, an apt metaphor for the human condition, especially in the music business. Having survived a cancer scare and a heart by-pass, he’s still ready for the road and even does poetry readings.

Many books have exhumed the counter-culture of the sixties and the rock demi-monde, like the memoirs of Barry Miles. What makes ‘White Rooms’ so enjoyable is the vivid recall, the candour and the energy. To quote one of his favourite blues singers, Screaming Jay Hawkins: ‘ I don’t care if you don’t want me, I’m yours...’

Paul A. Green January 2012


Road of Cobras


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