Ah! Sunflower: Allen Ginsberg Recalled, Rebranded, Released

By Iain Sinclair

allen-ginsberg-4.jpgAllen Ginsberg

Ah, Sun-flower, weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun,
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the traveler’s journey is done...
William Blake

London’s true Dome. The People’s Palace that never quite happened. A brick yurt famed in tribal history: the Roundhouse in Camden Town. A lovingly constructed shell within a shell. Another mega-budget, architect-soothed vortex in which layer upon layer of memory traces engage in a Darwinian struggle to provide the defining image. The old industrial space with its accidentally elegant pillars, a light-streamed cavern in which steam engines could swivel and swing. The launch pad for the underground newspaper, IT, The International Times. Light shows, alien blobs projected over grinding musicians. Allen Ginsberg performing cover versions of William Blake and accompanying himself on finger cymbals and squeezebox. The Living Theatre: confrontational and newspaper-naked. Jim Morrison, late at night, according to one witness (the psychotherapist Chris Oakley), doing the expected: getting his cock out.

The filmmaker William Sinclair, fresh from a directorial assignment on EastEnders, was trying to explain to the public relations woman why he wanted to shoot a series of interviews in the prestigious (and high security) interior of the 2006 Roundhouse. What was this thing, The Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation for the Demystification of Violence? And what exactly was the 1967 documentary he was trying to resurrect? Emmet Grogan, Stokely Carmichael, RD Laing, David Cooper, Gregory Bateson, Allen Ginsberg: who they?

William was none too sure; he was, to be frank, winging it. His father’s past was a murky country, provisional and rarely visited. Although, of course, making this pitch, putting together a project on zero money, soliciting favours, he was doomed to re-live it, that period when we had a room on Haverstock Hill (occupied by camera boxes, crew, cast, passing strangers). The genetic print-out is a form of Russian roulette. It’s always there, with you, through the shifts of time, even when you know nothing about it: the uncompleted acts and unrevealed narratives of a previous and future city. Pepsi Karma. Bad sugars. Smells, tastes, degraded film clips invoking pleasures you never enjoyed.

Allen Ginsberg

And, suddenly, there it was. Running along the curving wall of the permitted atrium, a procession of nostalgic posters, blow-ups: the Roundhouse heritaging its back story. For the benefit, as we would soon witness, of crocodiles of mobile-phone brandishing school girls who were being subjected to the cultural tour. The nice thing was that they were taking cell-snaps of enlarged reproductions of events that happened generations before they were born: as this building anchored its identity by inventing a significant past. We become museums of ourselves or we move gratefully towards erasure and silence. One of the blow-ups, William points out, is a still from his father’s 1971 book, The Kodak Mantra Diaries. Stokely Carmichael, in demagogue mode, accusing finger reaching across a pensive Allen Ginsberg; while the Digger, Emmet Grogan, hunches in scornful detachment. The summer congress at the Roundhouse. The event around which the film, Ah! Sunflower, was constructed.

Now everything is clear. The interviews can be shot – in a different corridor, away from the blow-ups, which are part of the tour package. And I will be summoned, with Chris Oakley (a participant in counter-cultural events of the period and, later, an associate of David Cooper and Ronnie Laing), to explain ourselves, those times, the documentary I made with the Dutch cameraman (and producer), Robert Klinkert.

‘My first instruction then,’ wrote Stan Brakhage, ‘if you happen to have a light meter – give it away.’ Film, in 1967, was both the practice and the metaphor. A way of experiencing a fracturing world. Camera-pen, they said. Record it as you live it. A friend remembers attending a Godard presentation of his elusive film-essay, British Sounds, in Harvard. It was sound, a clashing, multi-layered cacophony, that undid them, disciples though they still were. Godard pronounced that public cinemas, as such, were redundant: the experience, which had been so much a part of the myth of his life, was now to be regarded as decadence. American imperialism. Viewings were no more than the excuse for discussion, debate. Filmmakers should attend every screening and engage with their co-authors, the audience. Student questions, respectful but persistent, harped on confusion, the difficulty of unmeshing that soundtrack. Godard, affronted, walked out.

allen-ginsberg-5.jpgAllen Ginsberg

At the moment when Indica, the gallery/bookshop, is being rebranded in a new location, in Soho, it seems permissible to dig out an invisible film and a long out-of-print book. The first magazines with which I was involved – stories by William Burroughs (airmailed from Tangier) – were brought over from Dublin, to be stocked by John Dunbar at the original Mason’s Yard Indica. Barry Miles at the Indica bookshop in Southampton Row gave me Ginsberg’s contact details. (While declining - the list of supplicants stretched around the block – to release Paul McCartney’s number. There was a fable at the time: that profits from the music business would be recycled to support a counter-culture. And this, somehow, justified the fact that rock stars didn’t rock the boat by taking political positions. Until, of course, that became fashionable – and indeed compulsory.)

In my early twenties, out of Brixton film school and four years as a student in Ireland, I was faced with the challenge I thought I wanted: to make a coherent documentary on Allen Ginsberg’s summer stop-over in London. Poetry readings – with Charles Olson, WH Auden, Ungaretti – on the South Bank. A drug rally in Hyde Park (you’ve seen the footage sampled in every retrospective trawl through the period). The conference, organised by Laing, Cooper and the Institute of Phenomenological Studies, held at the Roundhouse. When ‘young people,’ according to Cooper, ‘actually took to living in the building... and then took their seminars into local pubs, cafés and public places.’ This, and not the readings at the Albert Hall in 1965, was the transformative moment. Or so the memory men - with their packages to sell – argue. The anti-university in Hoxton was an extension of the Dialectics fortnight. London’s geography (and psychogeography) shifted east. Camden Town, Primrose Hill (the pillars of Blake’s Jerusalem), evolved into a hippie marketing exercise; a labyrinth of peddlers surrounding the fat brick tent of the Roundhouse. But regeneration (fortunes made by developers who chase squatting artists, vampire dope dealers) always gives way to degeneration, grunge-entropy: the historic site as a Xerox of itself. The laminate of nostalgia. The past, when you control it by fixing the imagery, is a tool for downloading an unknowable present.

Ah! Sunflower is an awkward, youthful exercise; a brightly coloured chart of discriminations of failure. But also a small historic record, glimpses that have some interest, despite themselves: we were there, we logged a piece of it. Fragments from which you could construct a larger and grander whole. Eavesdropped conversations. Staged whispers. Ginsberg at 40. Dead heroes of the counter-culture before they were packaged for the retail counter of Virgin superstores.

allen-ginsberg-2.jpgAllen Ginsberg

Editing the documentary in Amsterdam, I dragged Robert Klinkert, after work one evening, to the Hague, to view Chappaqua by Conrad Rooks. Underground figures could do the budget, finesse trust funds and capitalist leakage. Ginsberg was in the movie, as was Burroughs (he was in all of them, while remaining an invisible presence in the city). The photographer was Robert Frank. It shouldn’t work – and it didn’t that night – when detox paranoia is allowed to spread itself over 82 minutes of real time. But some forms of documentation, letting the camera run, hold up. In 1965, in London, very close to Blake’s Fountain Court, Ginsberg was brandishing the prompt cards for Bob Dylan in DA Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. And he is the headline performer in Peter Whitehead’s record of the Albert Hall readings, Wholly Communion. Whitehead, experienced in shooting newsreel material for Italian television, had considerable flair as a reporter/witness (in the tradition of Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers and Robert Frank). He also understood very well that the real trick was to build an archive. The man with the rights, the clips to sell, composes the story. Our cultural history is the residue of the best hustlers of the period. There is a postcard-portrait of Whitehead for sale at the current Indica show. ‘The story of Indica is inextricably linked to the story of Peter Whitehead,’ it says. And Wholly Communion is ‘England’s first “Cinéma vérité” film.’ The photo of Whitehead is by Mick Jagger. A nice Performance-anticipating signifier.

There were lessons here, in this apparent freedom to get fantasy pitches off the ground, and the opportunity to learn from our inevitable mistakes. I found that the commissioning process was a law of diminishing returns; that scripting documentaries was a fool’s errand; that editing was best done in camera. Show it or kill it. It was opportune to learn from Brakhage, David Larcher, the film diarists. A poetry of the incidental and arbitrary that echoed the written work of Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Frank O’Hara and Fielding Dawson. We began a modest 10-year project in Hackney, self-publishing and keeping a disjointed 8mm record of communal life. My first prose book, The Kodak Mantra Diaries, was an account of the Ginsberg film: all the material that couldn’t be shown. In 1967 diary films were very much in the air. Jim McBride’s canny fiction, David Holzman’s Diary, featured L.M. Kit Carson – who surfaced, years later, as co-scriptwriter of Chris Petit’s German feature, Chinese Boxes. Petit would also make a television essay on Rudy Wurlitzer, a Robert Frank collaborator – who scripted Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid for Peckinpah. A film featuring Bob Dylan. Hang around long enough and it all connects. Discontinued fables become the posters on the Roundhouse wall.

allen-ginsberg-6.jpgAllen Ginsberg

After introducing a Michael McClure reading at the London Review of Books shop, I was approached by the man from Coventry, Kevin Ring. McClure took part in the legendary ‘6 Poets at the 6 Gallery’ event in San Francisco, when Ginsberg’s Howl received its first public performance. He was also a friend and associate of Jim Morrison. And, in recent times, had made CDs with the Doors keyboard-player, Ray Manzarek. Kevin, inspired by the elegiac spirit of the McClure gig, offered to republish The Kodak Mantra Diaries as an issue of his Beat Scene magazine. I was delighted to have someone else do the typing. And to have that material in a more forgiving format than the long, thin, spiral-bound, Albion Village Press original. Resurrecting the book provoked me into doing something with the film. I wanted to make them both available, side-by-side, for the first time.

When we stood outside the Roundhouse, in November rain, to make the inevitable long shot cutaways, I studied the banners advertising coming shows. The package seemed to involve some strategic cultural archaeology, names you have to remember to remember. And there, in huge letters, was RAY MANZAREK. Still available, unlike most of the cast of our film: Ginsberg, Laing, Cooper, Bateson, Carmichael, Grogan, Paul Goodman. Definitively off-set, all of them. While Mazarek might be found, on stage, in that beautiful silvery forensic space, in person. A quotation of himself, still firing. Alive. And in London.

The Kodak Mantra Diaries is republished by The Beat Scene Press. It is available in the UK at £6.95 (including post; cheques to be made payable to M.Ring and sent to 27 Court Leet, Binley Woods, Coventry, England CV3 2JQ. Or see www.beatscene.net for more information & order online.

Ah! Sunflower is released on dvd in January. It will receive a special screening, alongside readings and discussion with Iain Sinclair, at London’s Renoir cinema, on Sunday 28th January (www.curzoncinemas.com)

Iain Sinclair is a writer and film-maker. His anthology London: City of Disappearances is now available. Thanks to William Sinclair for help with this piece.

From the Floating World

It is noon on a summer day and the weather is so hot that one does not know what to do with oneself. One keeps waving one’s fan, but there is not a breath of fresh air; then, just as one is hurrying to put one’s hands in a bowl of iced water, a letter arrives. It is written on a sheet of fine brilliantly red paper and attached to a Chinese pink in full bloom. Without thinking, one lays aside one’s fan (which was not doing much good in any case) and imagines how deeply one’s friend must feel to have taken all this trouble on such a suffocating day. – The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon