Monthly Archives: April 2014

Syd, psychedelia, If…. and the Olympics: an interview with Kevin Whitney

I have a piece in the current issue of Uncut about Psychedelia,  a film made in 1969 and featuring Syd Barrett. The film has been sitting underneath Kevin Whitney’s bed for 40 years, but will be shown in June 2014 at the ICA ahead of its sale. Whitney was on the fringes of the psychedelic movement in the late-1960s and later became the first official artist of the Olympic movement. ‘In my work there are still hints of psychedelic imagery,’ he tells me. ‘But using beautiful athletes instead of mad freaks.’ 

Psychedelia can be seen at Room&Book: ICA Art Book Fair, ICA, 6-8 June. 

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‘I was at art school until 1970 and during I was making the film. I was inspired by psychedelic light shows, which I’d screen on the front of Chelsea Art School  at underground pop shows at the Roundhouse. Chelsea Art School was a modern building off the Kings Road. It was the only building built in the 20th century to be used as an art school. It’s now a hotel. It was very anarchic. Art is now geared towards corporate success and Saatchi but then that sort of thing was frowned upon, you weren’t supposed to make any money out of it. You did conceptual things, it was against the system. Now it’s the opposite and has no balls. We were very privileged to be around then. We took art into the streets.

Chelsea Art School on Manresa Road, built in 1963

Previously, I’d been at art school in Ipswich with Brian Eno. We smoked our first joint together at Christchurch Park in Ipswich. We did a thing where about 12 of us would get on a bus and we’d have these sheets of Perspex the size of a newspaper. We cut out the title of the paper and glued it to the Perspex and then sit next to people on the bus pretending to read the stories from this empty sheet of Perspex. Everybody thought we were bonkers.

UFO Club flyer

I never did light shows at the UFO Club. I went there but they had some Americans, Joe’s Lights, who got the contract and nobody else could do it. I knew them and admit I was influenced by their ideas but I also showed them some of my tricks. One was fabulous. You’d get two pieces of Perspex and put in some olive or vegetable oil, then drop some vegetable dye – bright blue, red or yellow – and then close the Perspex together. You’d put that in the projector, which had a very powerful light and would heat up the dye and send it shooting to the edges of the Perspex. It was like going through a timewarp. Joe’s Lights liked this and used it at the Roundhouse for the big Jefferson Airplane/Door show in 1968. [Editor note: I think that while Joe’s Lights did the Roundhouse gig, the Boyle Family did projections at UFO.]

In 1968, I began making my film, Psychedelia. Syd was part of the scenario. Well, he was the scenario. Anybody that would agree I got to appear in the film, which was done at this basement on Old Church Street in Chelsea in a house owned by Antonia Chetwynd [regular visitors included Donald Cammell, David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Anita Pallenberg]. One day I went to Wetherby Mansions to pick up Syd. I was going to take him to the art school to this red and green painted studio I had in the annexe where I was making the film.

Syd Barrett in Wetherby Mansions

On the way, Syd offered me half a Mandrax. It’s like a sleeping pill that makes you very randy. We took half each. Then we got to the art school and I realised my camera didn’t have a cassette in it and all the shops were closed. So I said we’d do it tomorrow in Old Church Street. In the evening I called Duggie Fields [Syd’s flatmate, still resident at Wetherby Mansions] to check Syd had got back okay and Duggie told me he’d gone to Ibiza. He had a passport with him and he’d just gone to the airport and taken a flight to Ibiza.

When he got back we went to the basement and did the filming. I just had the camera with this psychedelic lighting. It was very amateur and everyone was very stoned. I’d sit people down and tell them to do whatever they wanted. Some took their tops off, some stared at the camera, talked, had a cup of tea… and I just filmed it because they were fabulous people. I filmed so many. In the scene I shot with Syd was Geoffrey Cleghorn, who was a friend of the Who and the Stones. I’d met him at art school in Ipswich and he’d followed when I moved to London and got involved in the whole scene. He’s an amazing guy. There was another chap called David Crowland. There’s a chap called Rupert [Webster], who was the very pretty boy in “If….”.

 

I screened it while playing Velvet Underground’s Sister Ray. I also use them on the other film I made Red And Green, when they are actually on the soundtrack, the Syd film was silent though I would have been playing Velvet Underground in the basement when making it. I was obsessed with them. It was all very Warholesque.

 

I gave my camera to Derek Jarman, I was living with the artist Luciana Martinez and she said, ‘You’ve finished with films and Derek’s a lousy painter, so why not give him your camera.’ He’d just finished making The Devils with Ken Russell, doing the sets. I did that and the rest is history. I then got totally into paining, film was an art student fling. In 1982 I got involved with the Olympis and been there ever since.

“Female gymnast”, 1984

I knew Syd as well as anybody could know Syd. He definitely wasn’t on this planet but he was lovely, very charming, and he seemed to like my paintings. He liked to paint himself and because I was pretty good he warmed to me. Also, I don’t hold him in awe, I was the same with Bowie, they were friends and I’d talk to them like that. I’d ask to draw them but treat them as I would anybody. People can treat pop stars in a different way and they can get very isolated. Most people were too much in awe of Syd to ask to film him and I think that comes across in the film. He was a very troubled mind and this wasn’t a great time. He’d been eased out of the Floyd and Dave Gilmour had taken over. But people who knew him said he looks so happy.’

 

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Mama Cass in London: drugs, towels, Michael Caine and Charles Manson

I have a piece about Mama Cass Elliot in the current issue of Uncut. One area I didn’t have space to cover was Cass’s arrest in London in 1967 when The Mamas & The Papas were travelling by boat to England to play a show at the Albert Hall. They had arrived at Southampton when they were told police were waiting with a warrant for Elliot’s arrest. The band frantically tried to destroy their stash of weed and then went on to the dock where they were supposed to meet label boss Lou Adler and his friend Andrew Loog Oldham. They were instead greeted by six of the Met’s finest, who bundled Elliot into a police car and drove her to Scotland Yard.

Cass

Elliot was stripsearched and questioned, then denied bail and held overnight. The police said the charges related to a stay in London six months previously at Queen’s Gate Terrace, when she had absconded with an unpaid bill and several towels. Outside the police station, The Mamas & The Papas – Denny Doherty, John Phillips and Michelle Phillips – were joined by Scott McKenzie, brandishing FREE MAMA CASS placards while they waited for Elliot’s release. The Albert Hall concert was cancelled.

Elliot escorted to the police station in Waterloo.

Elliot escorted to the police station.

Elliot told the press she had been treated well, but not been given enough blankets. ‘Believe me,’ she said, ‘One blanket doesn’t go far round this chick.’ After a trial at West London Magistrates Court, at which no evidence was offered for the prosecution, she was released without charge and left the courtroom munching on a hash cookie that she found in her handbag. That may account for the big smiles in the photo below, taken shortly after her release.

Elliot on release.

Elliot on release.

The Mamas & The Papas with Scott McKenzie after Elliot's release.

The Mamas & The Papas with Scott McKenzie after Elliot’s release.

The Mamas and the Papas with Scott McKenzie in London.

The Mamas and the Papas with Scott McKenzie in London.

While such heavyhanded treatment by the authorities of rock stars was fairly common at this time, it later emerged that Elliot’s arrest actually had more to do with her occasional boyfriend, Pic Dawson, who the British police believed was involved in a major drug-smuggling operation. According to Michelle Phillips, this was the only subject the police in London were really interested in.

Pic Dawson and Cass Elliot at Whisky A Go Go.

Pic Dawson and Cass Elliot at Whisky A Go Go.

Dawson, who died of a drug overdose in the 1980s, was certainly an interesting figure with connections to the underworld. Numerous rumours circulate about him partly thanks to his peripheral involvement in the Manson Family murders.

Dawson, left, and Elliot, right, at Mama Cass’s house with guests including David Crosby and Eric Clapton

Dawson knew several of the victims – basically, he supplied them drugs – and after the murders John Phillips is said to have told the police that the bloody PIG daubed on Sharon Tate’s wall actually said PIC. The LA police were also informed that Dawson, along with another of Elliot’s drug-dealing boyfriends, Bill Doyle, had been ejected from a party at the Polanski house shortly before the murders. Dawson was subsequently arrested, questioned and cleared, as was Doyle.

These were not Elliot’s only connections with the Manson murders. Dave Mason recalls, “One of the freakiest parts was that at Cass’s I saw a lot of Abbie Folger and Wojciech Frykowski until the Manson crew slaughtered them” and she knew all the victims well. But she also knew the murderers – in his autobiography, Michael Caine of all people recalls attending a party in Hollywood with Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate, where Mama Cass introduced him to a ‘scruffy little man’. His name was Charles Manson.

‘Last time I went into central London I needed a lie down’: life on London’s floating bookshop

An interview with Paddy Screech, a floating bookseller, for a piece I wrote for Time Out in June 2013.

Paddy Screech, 47, Word On The Water

‘By terms of the continuous cruising licence I have to move to a new mooring every two weeks. In the winter I try and stay around the urban bits and in the summer I stay near the parks. We try and stay north-east because my business partner has a little girl at school in Stoke Newington. We go to Paddington, Camden, Angel, Broadway Market, Mile End Park, Victoria Park and Springfield Park. We can’t go much further because our supply lines start to get stretched as we have relationships with five or six charity shops in this area. These are our friends and were we get our stock and also this is where our boating friends are. If we move to far afield we don’t have a world there.

What’s the appeal? Well, on a day when I have a carpet wrapped around a broken propeller and I have to have my boat towed in a strong wind, I can’t quite recall. Generally, I love the freedom and the less regulated life. London can be a chilly place. On the canal, people behave like they are living in the country even though you are only four metres from the road. As soon as you put a towpath there, people start talking, being friendly. It’s true of everybody, boaters and passersby. It’s very strange, like magic. On the other side of this fence there is a different culture.

It’s like a village. There are a lot of boats in London but if you put them all together you’d have a village, but a village where you can get away from people if you want to just before you start annoying each other. I have a little world in each place I stop: I usually know some of the other boats, I have a favourite coffee shop, I know how to get to the launderette. I like Springfield Park the best. Everybody makes the book barge feel welcome, whether they are permanent residents or not.

I’ve been on this boat for two years, running it as a bookshop, and I’ve been on the canal for six years. I try not to leave the canal. Last time I went into central London I needed a lie down. I lived in Upper Clapton for seven years. In all that time I met one of my seven neighbours once, as I sat rotting in front of a computer and seeing one of my dozen friends each week. Now I have about 300 friends, only look at the computer for an hour a day and never watch TV. I spend most of my time trying to stop the barge blowing away, or trying to light a fire.

The boat is called Diante, which means diamond in Italian. She’s a 1920s coal barge from Amsterdam and was converted into a houseboat in around the 1960s. She’s beautiful, but has a very thin bottom so will need replating. The engine is very old and just about clinging to existence. Every four years you need to take a boat drydock for a bigger service but if you do that properly a boat can last for decades. I’m not very practical but am much better than I was seven years ago. Anything that requires expertise or tools I need to call in favours. The fun thing about a Dutch barge is that it has no weed hatch so I have to put on a wet suit and get in the canal with all the urine and clear it with a knife.

I have a sea toilet which can’t be used on the canal so I visit the local establishments when I need the loo. There are lots of pubs and cafes that are sympathetic. It’s a simple life, I have no hot running water. I had a gas boiler but took it off because it wasn’t going to pass the safety certificate. It seemed a bit of luxury. My shower is now used for book storage. I wash with landlubber friends. Thanks to the kindness of friends I get a bath every other day. Working boats come up and down the canal delivering coal and diesel to all the moorings.

I have no mains electricity but a substantial amount of solar panelling that runs the lights and a 12v PA. There’s also an alternator on the engine, which creates electricity when you run the engine. It means there’s one less corporation in your pants. I do all my electronic stuff on my smartphone. Some boats have widescreen TVs and generators, but I’m not interested. Boats take up a lot of time and so I’m always pottering around doing something, I’m done with sitting on my arse watching bad television.

My business partner is John Privett, we started the shop about two years ago. We survive against overwhelming odds, but our costs are low and in the winter we live like feral water rats. We don’t get much custom when it is raining so in the winter we contract our horns and live on less. For our stock, we get given donations but mainly we select the best from charity shops.

The main expense is the licence and safety certificate. The business license for a trading boat is the same cost as a residential one as long as you are making less than £60k a year. There are around 15 trading books in London now, including a hat boat, a sandwich boat, a cocktail barge, a vegan cake barge, a herbal practitioner and a Slovak restaurant. We are hoping to find a permanent site for a floating market. It’s nice to move every two weeks but we might do better if we could stay in the same place.

I have absolutely no interest in going back to dry land. As long as I can borrow a friend’s bath every now and then there’s nothing about land life that appeals to me. I’m in the city now but when I wake up tomorrow I’ll be in  park underneath some trees and I’ll still have my coffee and my cats [Queenie and Skitty]  around me. To take your house and plonk it into the countryside after 24 hours is pretty special.

I don’t wish for more space. Boats change your expectation about how much space you need. I got rid of four-fifths of my items when I moved aboard and I don’t miss them. You just learn not to accumulate things. Except books. I can usually find something to read.’