Tom McGrath: Writer and musician under whom the ‘International Times’ defined the Sixties counter-culture
Monday 27 July 2009
Tom McGrath, who has died of liver cancer aged 68, was a prolific poet, playwright, jazz innovator and arts activist of benign personality and wide-ranging influence.
He was born on the outskirts of Glasgow in 1940 to workingclass Scottish-Italian-Catholic parents. During his schooldays and late teens he emancipated his mind via Glasgow music hall and slapstick comedy, the Goons, modern poetry, the European avant-garde, and the US folk, blues, bop and rock innovations that were priming the new internationalist popular culture of the early 1960s.
In 1962 he met his future wife Maureen in a late-night jazz club he and some fellow musos were running called The Cell. She was a student at Glasgow School of Art and he at the Commercial College. They married in June 1963, and in September moved to London, where the first of their four daughters was born two months later. After discovering that Alexander Trocchi's existentialist-hipster chronicles Young Adam and Cain's Book were rooted as deeply in Glasgow as New York, McGrath contacted and befriended Trocchi. He also fell in with another revolutionary ex-Glaswegian, R.D. Laing, together with other catalysts of the anti-establishment impulses burgeoning at the time.
McGrath had been publishing experimental poems in magazines from 1962 on and - a dedicated CND supporter - was features editor of Peace News for two years from spring 1964. He was one of the 17 poets from eight countries who read at the First International Poetry Incarnation which packed out the Albert Hall in June 1965. I featured a substantial selection of his poetry in various issues of New Departures over four decades, and in my anthology of then emergent voices, Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain (Penguin 1969). His first collection of verse, My Love Stop Rain Stop, also appeared in 1969 from Ambit Books.
Tom was a jazz troubadour-playwright par excellence. Like Laing, the trumpeter and bandleader Shake Keane, Ivor Cutler, Roy Fisher, Jeff Nuttall, Barry Fantoni, Pete Brown and other early British performance poets, he was also a seasoned and versatile musician, whose contributions at the multimedic gigs which gradually proliferated in London and round the country were always spontaneously inventive and resourceful were always spontaneously inventive and resourceful. His piano playing revelled in the effervescent freedoms conjured up by Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and their ilk. In his written and oral poetry McGrath was an authentic renewer and extender, in his own Scots vernacular, of what Allen Ginsberg observed in Kerouac as 'bop prosody' and what the Black Mountain College magus Charles Olson termed 'Projective Verse... in which one perception leads immediately to the next'.
McGrath frequently returned to a weekend conference of 'like minds' convened by Trocchi and Laing in spring 1966 at Brazier's Park, a house owned by Quakers in the Oxfordshire countryside. The would-be worldchanging minds included Laing's fellow anti-psychiatrists Sid Briskin and David Cooper, the combative American radical journalist Clancy Sigal, Beba Lavrin, who had co-founded the Centre 42 arts-into-factories movement, the anarchist conceptual artist John Latham, the polymath Jeff Nuttall who recalled the gathering in his Bomb Culture (1968), and their respective buddies, lovers and spouses. Tom and Maureen were among the youngest participants, at first in some awe of the high-sounding aspirations of Laing's Kingsley Hall community of regenerative insanity, and Trocchi's Project Sigma (supposedly for 'the invisible insurrection of a million minds', though this remained largely invisible due to Trocchi's lifelong heroin evangelising).
In the Edinburgh Review 70: Trocchi Number (1985), and also in the revealing 300-page Riverside Interviews 6: Tom McGrath (conducted and edited by Gavin Selerie, Binnacle Press 1983), McGrath remembered how 'The basic idea of the conference was that an élite would seize the means of communication and then liberate the working classes. I had been infected by Marxism and thought of myself as a Communist. However, I couldn't stomach this brand of revolutionary talk. I shouted out, ‘This room stinks of élitism,' and everyone went quiet. Suddenly I found myself the focus of interest of all these men who were much older and had much more status and confidence... Laing impaled me with his analytical eyes and declared, ‘The trouble about you Tom is that you're essentially an innocent person. In many ways I envy you that innocence, but you're innocent nonetheless, and don't ever forget it'. My lower brow started going pulse, pulse, pulse and I said, ‘What right have you got to say that to anybody?' Yet it haunted me and became a kind of defining sentence. I did a lot to try to destroy my innocence, using junk, for instance. It was something to do with manhood. There was a directness of vision they seemed to have and I didn't. It didn't bother me that it was a vision of - in Laing's case, madness, in Burroughs's case, paranoia, and in Trocchi's case, heroin... Now I'd reckon it stupid and mannered'.
Apart from getting hooked on smack himself, which McGrath soon acknowledged was a disaster ('Heroin is a beautiful kick: it fills you with longing - for more heroin'), his five years in London encompassed a gradual demystification regarding the 'kind of tyranny about... the gurus of the Underground. If you come from Glasgow there's a gremlin in you that is liable to undercut solemn behaviour at any given point. On the other hand, it was exciting to see people shaping a different reality. The Albert Hall reading rather sums up that mid-60s exuberance. The energy released a tide of mass communication. It brought poetry closer to drama. A lot of different streams of dissent and alternative living were brought together'.
He maintained a humorously sceptical stance amid the euphoria, mysticism and gathering hippie hype; witness the close of his poem 'Before you Sleep': 'Move closer and I'll tell you about the poet/who was always writing love poems about his marvels/with his angel woman in bed://you know, all the time he was writing/she was making it with a store detective.'
Tom gave up on Peace News, and moved his young family to an idyllic cottage in North Wales, gradually 'getting into Zen'. But in autumn 1966, Sue and Barry Miles (founders of Indica gallery and bookshop), John 'Hoppy' Hopkins (London underground spadeworker, photojournalist and video pioneer), and Jim Haynes (alternative bookseller and theatrical impresario) persuaded McGrath to return to the smoke and edit International Times (IT), Britain's first counter- cultural newspaper. He insisted on being paid £25 a week which, as Miles recalls in In the Sixties (2002), was 'a huge amount for those days - all the other staff were getting £10 a week. It turned out this was to pay for heroin'. IT initially proved a remarkable clearing-house for the growing 'alternative society'. There was green and anti-war politics, feminism and eroticism, pop art and new musics, high spirits and good laughs aplenty (in regard to the latter Nuttall, with a punchy cartoon strip, and McGrath himself, were particularly instrumental). Miles remembers Tom's sense of humour as 'spot-on: when he laughed his whole face screwed up in amusement, his nose pinched at the nostrils, his eyes reduced to two slits, his balding pate shining'.
McGrath's IT featured diverse mid- '60s illuminati including US and UK beats, the Beatles and The Who, Yoko Ono and Jean-Jacques Lebel, the dodgy chameleonic Michael X and the comic genius Dick Gregory. But 15 years later Tom recalled: 'I never participated fully in the hippy dream. I put out a lot of opinions, stirred things up, and took a particular stance on issues. But I was actually living with a nuclear family in Bermondsey. The contrast was ridiculous'.
Miles recalls how one day, 'Tom suddenly disappeared, taking the newspaper's only typewriter with him. It was many months till we discovered he had returned to Scotland'. As Maureen (now Shantishri) McGrath remembers it, 'During that time our lives were spinning out of control as he got more and more embroiled in heroin use. On a visit home to Scotland with the children in spring '67 I decided not to return to London. Tom agreed to join me back in Glasgow'.
The McGraths' new home soon became a drop-in pad for young Scottish writers, encouraged by Tom with readings, pamphlets and constant open-ended communality. This helped foster uncompromising experimentation on the parts of such audacious poetry voices as Lindsay Cooper, Tom Leonard and Alan Spence. In 1968 McGrath kicked his junk habit and embarked on an English & Drama degree at Glasgow University. A family retreat to the fishing village of Inverallochy was cut short when the Scottish Arts Council commissioned him to set up an Arts Centre in Glasgow. Tom took over a large empty storefront on Sauchiehall St, one of the city's main drags, where he ran the wondrously multifarious Third Eye Centre from 1974-77 (it has passed on the boogie to this day, under the Centre for Contemporary Arts rubric).
Glasgow thrilled to concerts by jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Stan Getz and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, courtesy of McGrath. He himself continued foraging musically, and was the piano-playing musical director of Billy Connolly's Great Northern Welly Boot Show, which transposed the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders' work-in to the 1970 Edinburgh Festival – and also brought the conjoined talents of street poet Tom Buchan, Kenny Ireland, Bill Paterson and many others to the fore. Theatre work was to hold centre stage throughout Tom's remaining 39 years.
His own first play, a probing vaudeville exploration of the old age of Laurel and Hardy, swiftly transferred from Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre to London in 1976. His second, The Hardman, was co-written with Jimmy Boyle prior to the latter's release from jail after serving part of a life sentence for murder. The play reprised Boyle's early life and examined the mania for violence so disastrously attractive to so many Glasgow males. Tom continued with playscripts of extraordinary diversity – Sisters and The Android Circuit in 1978, the autobiographical The Innocent staged by Howard Davies for the RSC, and the near-wordless, ape-heaving Animal, in 1979. In 1980 he became writer-in-residence at the Traverse, where he wrote 1-2-3 and Moondog.
In 1981 McGrath co-founded Glasgow's Tron Theatre Club, and then worked as the Scottish Arts Council's Associate Literary Director, based in the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. His assistant there, Ella Wildridge, became his soulmate and professional partner for his last 20 years. McGrath adapted her translation of Tankred Dorst's mythic Merlin for a spectacular Lyceum production, and he went on writing, directing and touring with show after show, including The Nuclear Family and Blowout for BBC TV; City for Tramway (1989); The Flitting (1990) for Cumbernauld; and The Dream Train (based on Bach's Goldberg Variations, 1999) and My Old Man (2005) for Nicholas Bone's Magnetic North company.
After suffering a stroke in 2003, Tom continued working with Playwrights' Studio Scotland et al, and also came round more thoroughly to the moral, pastoral, aesthetic and broadly Buddhist quests which had preoccupied him on and off since childhood – often charmingly articulated in his writings: 'brown thrush/in its beak/a blue bus ticket'; 'grey morning light/across the loch:/i am fast asleep'. Faith Liddell of Festivals Edinburgh mentioned in her funeral eulogy how 'His spiritual search returned him in the end to the Catholic faith, with a sense that he had spent his life seeking something that had been there from the beginning'. Ella Wildridge told me that, towards the end, he often repeated that he wanted 'a lucid death'. He had spent many hours meditating, but was more erratic than Maureen at staying the course with their teacher, Sri Chinmoy. She observes that he 'found it hard to reconcile the theatrical lifestyle with the discipline of Chinmoy's path'.
The friends he made all over the world are not going to quickly forget his easy-flowing improvisations, which regularly provoked the recognition, upon imbibing them, of 'What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed'. Thus: 'For seventeen years/all I ever wanted to do was/have it//Now I have had it/god knows how many times/and all i want to do is/have it again'.
Thomas McGrath, poet, journalist, editor, jazz pianist, playwright, arts administrator: born Ruthglen 23 October 1940; married Maureen Herron (four daughters); died Kingskettle, Fife 29 April 2009.
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