Ira Cohen: Writer, artist and publisher who devoted his life to his alternative vision of the world

Chris Salewicz
Monday 30 May 2011 00:00

Although others often grouped Ira Cohen with members of the Beat movement, he always firmly resisted any such classification. He was, he insisted, a "maximalist", a "party of one".

Not known for false modesty, Cohen defined himself as "the conscience of Planet Earth". He lived his life as art and was an innovative, prolific poet and publisher, a unique, celebrated photographer, and a revolutionary film-maker. Cohen also ran a non-profit corporation whose purpose was the preservation of "the hidden meaning of the hidden meaning". Very much a child of New York City, he was a catalyst, connected to such cultural legends as William Burroughs, Paul Bowles, Gregory Corso and Jimi Hendrix.

A sense of cosmic pranksterism pervaded his work; a line in one of his poems pronounces that "subtraction is only a special form of addition". He was the author of the underground hit volume The Hashish Cookbook, a collection of hash recipes written under the pseudonym of Panama Rose (a twist on Panama Red, a then popular type of marijuana), which was published, inevitably, in 1967 by his own Gnaoua Press. His Gnaoua magazine, started in Tangiers three years previously, ran to only one edition; significantly, a copy of it is visible in the cover image of Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home LP. Named after the Moroccan black African sect known for ecstatic dancing and possession trances, it was devoted to Beat poetry and showcased the work of Brion Gysin, William S Burroughs, and Harold Norse. "It had great Burroughs stuff, as well as Ian Sommerville talking about the dream machine, which he and Brion Gysin co-invented," the writer Barry Miles recalled. In Morocco Cohen also produced an LP of Moroccan trance music.

Ira Cohen was born in the Bronx, New York, to deaf parents, in 1935 – his father was from a New York rag trade family – and Ira learned sign language early on. "I grew up constantly surrounded by these wonderful, loving people with strange voices like doves cooing in the eaves of a country house," he later said.

Academically a child prodigy, Cohen began his literature course at New York's Cornell University at the age of 16; Vladimir Nabokov was one of his lecturers. "He had the ability to grasp information of all manner," said his friend and fellow student Lew Strauss. "He was quick-witted and sharp."

Cohen was no scholastic nerd, however. By the time he started at Cornell, said the author Ross Firestone, his room-mate, he was already an aficianado of marijuana. He was also a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, and developed a love of the jazz musicians Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker and Stan Getz. "He was interested in the highly regarded masters of jazz," Strauss said, "a kind of soft rebellion, something about which his parents looked askance. Ira was one of the first of us to understand great modern writers, who presented an alternate vision of the world, people like Kafka and Rimbaud. When we went to Cornell, he began looking at an alternate vision of the world, which became his life."

A pioneer of Manhattan loft-living, Cohen found a property on the then extremely rough Lower East Side, turning it into a kind of alternative salon. After the failure of his marriage to Arlene Bond, with whom he had a son and daughter, Cohen took a freighter to Morocco in 1961, following the trail of Jack Kerouac, and remained there for half the decade.

Back in Manhattan to promote his Hashish Cookbook, he found that his friend Gerard Malanga had become an art curator for Andy Warhol. Malanga introduced him to Warhol's Factory, which had been coated in reflective galvanised Mylar. Sensing the psychedelic possibilities of this shiny metallic material, used as insulation by the space industry, Cohen similarly built a studio using Mylar. Here he took photographs of Burroughs, the film-maker Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Jimi Hendrix; the resultant image, said the guitar god, was like "looking through butterfly wings".

The Mylar studio was used in a 20-minute film Cohen made in 1968, the defiantly non-linear The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, with an improvised score by Angus MacLise, the original drummer of the Velvet Underground; it was also employed by Cohen to shoot the sleeve picture of the final, influential album by Spirit, 1970's Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus.

Cohen then moved to Katmandu for almost a decade; here he set up Bardo Matrix, a small publishing company that sometimes employed handmade rice paper. Back in New York in 1982, he married Carolina Gosselin, with whom he had a daughter; they divorced seven years later.

During the 1990s Cohen had numerous photographic exhibitions around the world; poured out poetry; released the album The Majoon Traveller, which interspersed his readings with the music of Ornette Coleman, the Master Musicians of Joujouka and Angus MacLise; and in 1998 directed Kings With Straw Mats, about the annual mass Hindu pilgrimage to the Ganges. Weakened two years ago by a stroke, Cohen succumbed to renal failure.

Ira Cohen, artist, poet and publisher: born New York 3 February 1935; married 1957 Arlene Bond (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), 1982 Carolina Gosselin (marriage dissolved; one daughter), (son, from relationship with Jhil McEntyre); died New York 25 April 2011.

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