O clouds, unfold!

From Jah Wobble to Johnny Depp, by way of Mike Westbrook and Allen Ginsberg, interest in William Blake and his works is at an all-time high. Roger Clarke surfs the legacy of our first multi-media artist

The poet William Blake, who died a pauper in 1827 with his genius largely unrecognised, would be astonished at the industry that has grown up around his life's work in the late 20th century. New and revived projects connected with Blake continue to proliferate. This week at the Salisbury Festival Mike Westbrook's Brass Ensemble give their perennial outing of Brightest Fire, a musical tribute to the poet that grew out of Tyger, an NFT collaboration with the poet Adrian Mitchell in the early 1970s. Last year, experimental pop musician Jah Wobble released an album of Blake songs and Johnny Depp played a version of the poet in Jim Jarmusch's sublime film Dead Man (the poet was also recently impersonated by Globe supremo Mark Rylance in Jack Shepherd's play In Lambeth). Iain Sinclair's nod to the spirit of Blakean mysticism, Lights Out for the Territory, is one of the books of the year. And in the past month Tim Heath, owner of the Blake House in London's South Molton Street, has announced the receipt of an Arts Council grant to create the definitive Blake Website on the Internet.

It almost goes without saying that the Internet lends itself naturally to Blake - he was, in the words of artist Stan Peskett, "the world's first multi-media artist". The spirit of dissent and eclecticism that characterises the Net would surely have appealed to his anti-establishment tendencies.

As things stand now, a visit to the various (exclusively American) Websites connected with Blake proves them to be a bizarre combination of batty mysticism and dry academic research, with an especially large Blake project currently under way at the US Library of Congress. Every image and word Blake wrote, etched or drew is available for downloading. "We're still exploring him," says Adrian Mitchell, who has just staged a re-write of Tyger in Boston. "He's centuries ahead of us."

The poet Michael Horowitz has written on several occasions about Blake's technical innovations being rediscovered in 1960s San Francisco and, even today, the curator of the Blake collection at the Tate Gallery will tell you that expert opinion remains divided over exactly what it was that Blake did to achieve some of his more striking chromatic effects in such prints as Isaac Newton. Referring in a recent Spectator review to hippie fanzines, Horowitz has noted that "overlapping with inventive graphics and multiple colour-screening being introduced to record and book cover design... [were] anticipated by W Blake 200 years ago." A self-publisher who worked from home, a political subversive and songwriting polemicist, a multi-media artist, Blake was developing what was, in effect, the first Website in history 200 years before the technology was available.

Blake's enthusiasm for the American Revolution knew no bounds and he has always been popular with Americans. The late Allen Ginsberg, in particular, helped to introduce him into pop-culture in the Sixties, where he remains, rather like Ginsberg himself, an icon of counter-culturalism. On Ginsberg's final visit to London last year, the guru of Beat was thrilled to discover that the church of St James's, Piccadilly - where he was giving a reading - was the very building where the infant Blake had been christened. As usual, Ginsberg finished off his reading with a sung version of a Blake poem, the final line of which - "and all the hills echoed" - he repeated happily over and over again (the more reprises, generally speaking, the more successful he felt the reading had been).

Ginsberg famously had a vision of Blake in a New York tenement flat in 1948. Ginsberg, in some kind of trance, "heard the voice of Blake" intoning several poems, including "Ah! Sunflower!" (later reworked by Ginsberg into his "Sunflower Sutra"). Ginsberg was always a bit vague about the voice of Blake, with its sonorous timbre. Of course, many people would like to know what he sounded like. "Did he have a Cockney accent?" asked Blake biographer Peter Ackroyd cheekily, when told of Ginsberg's epiphany.

On his first visit to England in 1958, improbably lunching with Edith Sitwell at her "ladies' club", the youthful Ginsberg was shocked to discover that his idol was "not considered 'mature', so to speak, by the wits of Oxford". But this only confirmed Blake's status; Blake was still overlooked by the arbiters of taste, dismissed as a peddler of children's ditties and mad, god-infested versions of his nefarious hallucinations. Things have changed since those times; Blake can now be happily quoted on the 1995 Glastonbury Festival poster, yet can spawn more PhD dissertations than any comparable writer. Billy Bragg can glottal-stop his way through "Jerusalem" (for a century mistaken as a paean to Empire that raised the rafters of public school chapels) and Van Morrison can pay obeisance to his godliness; yet, at the same time, Dmitri Smirnov, a Russian emigre composer who came to England specifically to live in the country of Blake, can write heavily mystical Blakean operas like Tiriel, staged to rapturous applause in Freiburg in 1989. According to figures compiled by Donald Fitch, of the University of California Press, between 1970 and 1979, a total of 636 Blake poems were set to music and given public performances. The American composer William Bolcom has set to music the complete Songs of Innocence and of Experience, a work that lasts some three hours in performance.

In the materialistic Eighties, interest in Blake dwindled, but it has now come galloping back to the fore. A number of venerable Blakeans like Adrian Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg and Mike Westbrook have simply been rediscovered. Others, like the artist Stan Peskett, have come to Blake late in life. Peskett has recently been painting Blake-influenced murals in public areas of Peckham where Blake lived (and saw angels) as a child. But Blake has always remained a presence in the life of jazzman Mike Westbrook. "As you get older, Blake seems more and more relevant," he observes. His former collaborator, Adrian Mitchell, has re-written his Seventies play Tyger as Tyger Too. He has sharpened some satiric aspects to attack the likes of "Damien Hirst and other glorifiers of death" in the sepulchral new figure of Gloat, who manages to "pickle Blake and his wife, though they come back to life".

Mitchell is drawn to the childlike, sunny-side-up aspects of Blake, but Blake is not all nurses' songs and flower power. Some of his darker poems and more striking prints have a disturbing quality; his image of the spirit of a flea has an almost Kafkaesque tinge to it. The whole notion of "cleansing the doors of perception" is a Blakean adage taken up and partially distorted by drug culture. Tim Heath, who has set up a design company in Blake's former dingy lodgings (now in a street full of expensive designer-wear stores) to finance a "centre for the dissenting imagination", occasionally turns over his business premises for exhibitions of specially-commissioned pieces. One exhibition - of artists' genitalia (Blake was particular in his pursuit of sexual liberation) - caused a furore among the more staid Blakeans, and a planned next exhibition of "the gift of depression" is hardly likely to endear him to Mitchell and his "I think some art is harmful but I'm not into censorship" stance.

Last year, after releasing his album of Blake songs, Jah Wobble made a pilgrimage to the Blake House - a journey that Ginsberg never got around to making himself. Ginsberg had talked about Blake with his friend Johnny Depp and it was therefore no surprise to find Depp cast as "William Blake" in Jim Jarmusch's film Dead Man, in which a 19th-century Native American becomes convinced that the listless Depp is the fettered soul of the great bard, whom he must help to die. Jarmusch, too, was a friend of Ginsberg and the Dead Man Website has directed a legion of teenagers towards non- schoolroom Blakean culture.

From anti-establishment rockers The Fugs to the former chairman of British Rail, Sir Peter Parker (patron of the Blake Society), the admirers of Blake are varied indeed. But "Blake's wings are broad enough to stand it," says Adrian Mitchell, using a suitably angelic metaphor.

Stan Peskett is perhaps the most eloquent of all when it comes to Blake's modern appeal in the age of Baudrillard ("culture is the consumption of symbols"). "We're living in similar times to Blake, with a new industrial revolution about to kick in. He was a media frontiersman long before people could even imagine it, and he would have been there on the Net, devising metaphors and symbols."

But would Blake really be on the Net or would he be down a hole with Swampy? "He would certainly find plenty of things to be angry about right now," muses Peskett.

'Bright as Fire: The Westbrook Blake' is at the Salisbury Festival tomorrow, 8pm. Booking: 01722 320333

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat