You know what you could be: tuning into the 1960s
Mike Heron and Andrew Greig, riverrun, 2017, ISBN 978-1-78429-3-000, 376pp
You know this book is about the 1960s the instant you see the cover. For those of us who were there we recognise psychedelia in an instant. There were several reasons why I picked this book apart from the cover. The first was that Macman (a.k.a. Neil MacIntosh; listen to him “Trip the Light Fantastic” each Wednesday between 4pm and 6pm on 2EARFM) recommended it (entirely based on the title, I later discovered). The second reason is that I am fascinated by almost anything about life in the 1960s because I was there and never noticed. The last reason was that Mike Heron was part of The Incredible String Band (ISB) whose 1967 albums “The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion” was judged by Paul McCartney to be the best album of 1967. One of the tracks on the album is The Hedgehog’s Song and this is the only piece of music that I have ever played percussion on before a live audience. If you haven’t listened to The Hedgehog’s Song then your life is the poorer in consequence.
Above: The Incredible String Band - The Hedgehog’s Song
The book is in two parts: the first is a short memoir written by Mike Heron. It traces some of the background to the formation of his psychedelic folk band in Scotland in the mid-sixties. But Heron I think is a songwriter rather than a book writer. The second (and larger) part of the book is by Andrew Greig. Greig is a Scottish poet and novelist and he is a joy to read. He was a schoolboy when he first heard the songs of the ISB and he formed a band, called Fate & ferret in homage (the lower case “f” in ferret is deliberate). He tells a story of his quest to break into the 1960s world of pop music. The story is of a world that is far less sophisticated and protectionist than our world today. He manages to wander backstage at an ISB concert, he makes tapes and sends them to agents, he invades the agents’ offices and he gets into see them.
Greig is good at pointing out some key philosophies of life that perhaps we have all learned. He says in the book “not getting what you once dreamed of is the story of most lives. What you do get is your actual life - which, looked at closely, may turn out to be what it is because of the way that your hopes, ideas and delusions did not come to pass.” I wish I could have made this observation because I know it to be true. It is an observation both hopeless and full of hope at the same time. We cannot spend too much time worrying about what we did not achieve because our failures meant that we achieved something else. Perhaps that’s what Bob Dylan means in “Love minus zero / no limit” when he sings “there ain’t no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all”. Later in the book he talks about meeting old friends and notes that they are “still a bunch of old hippies, basically - goofy, generous, good company. Hair has turned grey or disappeared, but the levity and spark remain. The years have aged but not soured them.” I find that this sort of observation leads me to introspection. Have the years soured me? I hope not for I am an old hippy whose hair has disappeared.
I consider myself lucky to have come of age in the sixties. I was brought up on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, on reading Russian novels, on protesting the Vietnam War. This is a book about the innocence of the sixties. We thought peace and love were the answer; we were naïve in the extreme but there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing at all. Read this book if you have any interest in sixties music and you like to feel good. And you won’t need to smoke anything.