Obituaries: Dick Higgins

DICK HIGGINS'S first book was entitled What Are Legends: a clarification. Higgins was himself a bona fide legend, for the books he published rather than wrote.

A seminal figure in the Sixties avant-garde, in that astonishing decade of innovation and experimentation whose legacy seems dimmed today by a return to formalism, he was typically protean: poet, performer, composer, visual artist and filmmaker. Yet it was as founder, designer and publisher of the Something Else Press that he remains best known.

Between 1964 and 1975, based in Manhattan and Barton, Vermont, Something Else published over 60 books by an improbably wide range of creative eccentrics, not to mention a veritable avalanche of posters, newsletters and flyers. Something Else's chief importance was not the richness of their list, nor the elegance of the books, but the ambitious scale of their dissemination.

Higgins was the first publisher in the arcane realm of alternative art presses who as well as being an expert in the history and practice of printing and typography was also a genius at distribution. Something Else books thus turned up in the most mainstream bookstores or even on supermarket shelves. This was very much in tune with the revolutionary cultural ideas of the era, in opposition to the traditional livre d'artiste, whose exclusivist preciousness was the antithesis of Higgins' aesthetic.

Higgins reprinted at random and aimed for print-runs that were outrageously optimistic, with the result that Something Else titles can still be found in bookstores today and are notably inexpensive compared to most such publications. Indeed the 1966 Something Else edition of Daniel Spoerri's Anecdoted Topography of Chance can be found in catalogues for $10, whilst the Atlas press edition of the same book republished in 1995 costs $25.

Such crude issues of costing were of course anathema to Higgins and his cohorts. As with all the best publishers Higgins's own choices were firmly backed by family money. His wealth came from Wooster Press Steel of Massachusetts (a rather grittier "Press" than his own). He was in fact born in England, in Cambridge, in 1938, and was impeccably educated at New England private schools before Yale and Columbia, where he took a degree in English literature.

He also attended the Manhattan School of Printing, and most importantly John Cage's classes on the Composition of Experimental Music at the New School of Social Research, the Summer of 1958 class which included Higgins, Jim Dine, and a host of figures in the nascent performance scene such as Allan Kaprow and George Brecht. The courses were the playground for a generation of American experimenters and flowered into a variety of movements from Fluxus and free jazz to improvisational dance and Concrete poetry.

What Are Legends was published in 1960. By this time Higgins was fully involved in New York's SoHo downtown set, performing in "Literary Evenings and Musica Antiqua et Nova" with the first minimal composer, La Monte Young, and the renowned choreographers Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer.

The first Something Else book was also by Higgins, two titles bound back- to-back, Postface/Jefferson's Birthday, an edition of 1,200 copies whose dust-jacket carried a manifesto and order form for the press on its verso. The jacket photograph of a crazed Higgins was taken by Wolf Vostell, inventor of video art, and was later a source for Jack Nicholson's performance in the film The Shining (1980).

Higgins's own most influential work was the 1969 compendium foew&ombwhnw (freaked out electric wizard & other marvellous bartenders who have no wings) which was disguised as a leatherbound prayerbook and contained his key essay on "Intermedia", artworks "between" media, beyond the traditional "compartmentalised approach" to art or life. Other authors Something Else published included Gertrude Stein and George Herbert (whose 17th- century pattern poems predated Concrete poetry), Charles McIlvaine's One Thousand American Fungi, a 1971 Anthology of Fantastic Architecture, Claes Oldenburg's famous Store Days (1967) and early work by Ian Hamilton Finlay.

There were also books by Marshall McLuhan, Brion Gysin, Henry Cowell's New Musical Resources (Higgins had studied with the composer) and the groundbreaking Aesthetics of Rock by Richard Meltzer. Higgins was a founding member of the Fluxus movement - the first genuinely multi-media art movement, and many books were related to that group, such as Robert Filliou's Ample Food for Stupid Thought (1965), Al Hansen's Primer of Happenings & Time/Space Art (1965) and Cage's Notations (1969) along with his How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse), published in 1967.

There is a thorough Something Else bibliography by Peter Frank (1983) and a charming memoir by Barbara Moore, entitled Some Things Else About Something Else (1991).

Dick Higgins was involved in every nook and cranny of underground creative activity for three decades and constantly updated his 50-page CV which contained sections such as Visual Art, Music & Sound Art, Movies & Videotapes, and Conferences. It was at a colloquium in Quebec City, having performed his composition Danger Music No 3, in which he lit incense in the dark, that Higgins died of a sudden heart attack. Perhaps an appropriately random, foreign end for a guru of international "hazard".

Richard Higgins, artist, writer, composer and publisher: born Cambridge 15 March 1938; died Quebec City 25 October 1998.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test