IN THE SIXTIES, by Barry Miles (Jonathan Cape)

IN THE SIXTIES, by Barry Miles (Jonathan Cape)

 

In Swinging London of the 1960s, Barry Miles was always in the right place at the right time. He was like that character in Woody AllenÕs Zelig, always present at pivotal moments in history, off at the edge of the picture. ItÕs a wonder his face isnÕt among those on the cover of Sgt Pepper because Miles was at the photo shoot. Paul McCartney was one of his best friends – Miles ghost-wrote McCartneyÕs autobiography Many Years from Now – and Miles co-owned the hip Indica Gallery where Yoko Ono pursued John Lennon. (ŅPursuedÓ because although Yoko claimed to have never heard of the Beatles, thatÕs how Miles observed it.) In the pre-Yoko period when Lennon was living in the woody stockbroker belt outside London, Miles was introducing McCartney to avant-garde music, underground theatre and politics, counter-culture literature.

 

But the inside stories about the Beatles are only a small part of what makes this such a fascinating memoir. Miles also befriended William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, writing several books about them and other Beat authors. He co-founded the legendary underground newspaper International Times, and was involved in the UFO – LondonÕs first psychedelic venue, where Pink Floyd got their start – and most of the other watershed events of the period, almost anything at the cutting edge: drugs, rockÕnÕroll, high art, pop culture, banned books.

 

When the Õ60s began Miles was a teenage art student in Cheltenham, living in squalid flats that were centuries old, throwing parties in which bohemians fought off teds, bopping to jazz and smoking pot. By the end of them heÕs living in New YorkÕs Chelsea Hotel working for the Beatles Zapple Records (the short-lived avant-garde wing of Apple), hanging out with Leonard Cohen, Charles Bukowski, Richard Brautigan, Timothy Leary, Frank Zappa and a teenage Patti Smith.

 

But it is London that he writes most evocatively about: when dissolute heirs of the aristocracy and art world shared the sacraments of rockÕnÕroll, hashish and LSD with pop culture ratbags such as Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull. When establishment barriers on sexuality, drugs, and freedom of speech meant the streets literally became a battleground. (ŌStreet Fighting ManÕ? Miles talked with Mick on the topic the night before the song was written.)

 

Although Miles played his part in history, he doesnÕt make himself the hero of his stories; he is a humble recordist, matter-of-factly sharing his memories rather than indulging his ego. (Being a good listener probably helped him befriend such notorious ego-maniacs.) So engrossing is his account of this world that I got out my London A-Z map to follow his path through this fabled psychedelic universe. 

CHRIS BOURKE