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In The Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture Paperback – November 6, 2012
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A fresh perspective on the seventies -- Alex Heminsley * Elle * An excellent new book of reminiscences by the counter-culture-mover-and-shaker Barry Miles... a reliable commentator on the hippie lore of that period... candid behind-the-scenes revelation and madcap humour... highly entertaining. -- Andrew Perry * Daily Telegraph * Miles was pivotal in London counterculture from the 1960s onwards ... his extensive memories of Burroughs captivatingly recreate the author's temporary life as a gentleman of St James's in London ... captivating -- Ben Felsenburg * Metro * Essential reading -- Roz Kaveney * TLS * What a long, strange trip it must have been. -- Liz Thomson * Independent * There's rarely a dull moment here. -- Mark Paytress * Mojo * Miles had an inside track on the burgeoning US scene, chronicling the impact of New York poets and punks... An engaging memoir -- Mick Houghton * Record Collector *
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Anyone familiar with Miles will know that he is an expert on the Beat writers and much of the beginning of this book involves his time with Allen Ginsberg and the assorted guests that visited his farm. Miles then relocated to the Chelsea hotel, after a brief (and terrifying) stay at Ginsberg's NY apartment. New York in the 1970's was going through one of the most violent periods in its history, but also one of the most vibrant and exciting times. Miles introduces us to the many interesting characters at the Chelsea, before going with Ginsberg to San Francisco and Arizona, amongst other places. Near the end of his travels, a farmer, on finding that Miles was British felt obliged to tell him of his concerns that he did not have the right to bear arms. "Ahh think that it's every man's right to own his own, person-aal, nu-cleeaar device!" he proclaims. Wisely, the author felt it was time to return home for a while.
Having completed his work with Ginsberg, Miles returns to London to compile a bibliography of the work of William Burroughs, currently living in St James in London. The author has done many great biographies of many beat authors and I highly recommend The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs & Corso in Paris, 1957-1963. This section also has much of interest for those who have enjoyed his previous works on these writers.
Returning to the US, Miles discusses subjects as diverse as the Austrian psychoanalyst William Reich, Harry Smith, who claimed to be Aleister Crowley's illigitimate son and the New York Dolls. He then comes back to London, where he worked on the literary magazine "Bananas" and wrote for the New Musical Express. He was involved in the punk explosion and nearly managed the Clash before, eventually (and I am grateful that he did), turning to writing as a full time career. Miles knows/knew everybody of note in the literature and music worlds of both New York and London. I am grateful that he has shared his memories and cannot praise this book highly enough. Such an interesting life but, more importantly, such an interesting man. Highly recommended.
As the book opens in March of 1970s, we find Miles in New York. He and his first wife Sue, tired after putting so much of themselves into the London scene, wanted something new. (It is remarkable how many of Miles' peers in the London counterculture also ended up in the United States in the years following.) One of Miles' close friends was Allen Ginsberg -- Miles had adored Beat literature since he was a schoolboy -- and Ginsberg invited Miles to catalogue his massive tape collection with the aim of eventually publishing a large set of Ginsberg's poems read by the poet himself. Thus Miles stayed for a few months at Ginsberg's farm in rural New York state, meeting there an array of other luminaries of the Beat generation who came to dry out or rely on Ginsberg's charity. He then visited San Francisco for a while in Ginsberg's company, and he describes a city where the hippie scene with its myriad communes and (this was pre-AIDS) free love was still strong.
For the rest of the Seventies, we find Miles going back and forth between the US and Europe. In London he helped organize the papers of William S. Burroughs, and he describes in depth this complex man. In New York, Miles lived for a time in the famous Chelsea Hotel with its huge array of famous tenants, and he offers a poignant portrait of folk-music collector/occultist Harry Smith. Back in Britain again, he worked for the short-lived literary magazine Bananas and describes encounters with Emma Tennant and Harold Pinter. Miles spent the second half of the 1970s as a rock journalist for Britain's music mag NME, and he witnessed the birth of punk. He describes Patti Smith gigs in New York (he had known her since they both lived at the Chelsea in '69), and he tells of being close enough to The Clash to be offered the position of their manager.
Miles is a curious narrator, as he is quite dispassionate and a seemingly uninvolved witness. He can be very frank about the character flaws of the famous people he met, noting how Hubert Huncke was a liar, while Gregory Corso was drunken and violent, but this disapproval is always put into gentle, analytical wording. We get little sense of Miles' inner emotions at the time. Did he feel a part of the communities he described, or did he feel himself to be a privileged outsider? He describes people doing enormous amounts of drugs and alcohol through the decade, but he never says if he partook himself and if so, if he regrets his youthful misadventures. We get little of the self-examination that one finds in autobiographies by other members of the counterculture.
The book could have been longer -- it may well be that Miles was asked by his editor to restrict the book solely to accounts of famous people, because those sell, even if it made it feel incomplete as a memoir. It is also a disappointment that the photographs are few, black-and-white and printed in dot matrix. I wish that the publisher had included more photos and printed them on plates. Still, I think that the book does have value as a chronicle of the era. Miles was close enough to the Beats to give us a fuller picture of their quirks alongside the other biographies.