In the Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture, By Barry Miles

Reviewed,Liz Thomson
Tuesday 11 October 2011 00:00
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Ten years have passed since Barry Miles took us back to the 1960s, and that moment, somewhere around the Beatles' first LP, when the dull grey Fifties gave way to an era of Technicolor. In the Sixties ended with Miles "tired, stressed", his groundbreaking Indica Bookshop insolvent, despite the efforts of Paul McCartney, and International Times falling apart. He happily accepted an invitation from Allen Ginsberg to join Cherry Valley, his hippy commune in upstate New York.

Since then there have been books on Frank Zappa and a countercultural history of London, adding to a backlist that includes Burroughs and the Beatles. Miles was an assiduous note-maker and each of his books could be said to employ a version of his friend Burroughs's "cut-up" technique. This volume opens in New York in March 1970, as the explosive activities of the Weathermen brought home "the grim reality" of Nixon's America.

Cherry Valley was a haven of sorts, but electricity was in short supply, which made Miles's task of cataloguing Ginsberg's poetry recordings a challenge. He decided the job was better done from Manhattan, where he decamped to the Chelsea Hotel before heading to San Francisco and Berkeley.

There, "it was as if the Sixties revolution had actually happened!" Staying at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Big Sur cabin, he was taken to the Esalen Institute but declined to get in the hot tubs after Ferlinghetti told how "Jack freaked out at seeing sperm floating on the water". Back in London, he recalls having no time to brush his teeth between an all-nighter and a morning interview with the Clash.

Such detail is revealing, but much is not. Rather too many "minor characters" wander through the pages of a memoir that ends with Miles writing for the NME, editing Time Out and, finally, working for Music Sales. By then, rock had been commodified: market-place capitalism in its purest form. "I found it hard to imagine a viable musical or social revolution coming from a Chelsea dress shop," Miles writes of Malcolm McLaren's Sex Pistols. What a long, strange trip it must have been.

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