june 2009

The Vision Thing, Per Ambassadors From the Mythico-Fantastic World

'Should you want someone to imbue the line 'Next week a monkey is coming to stay' with an air of total creeping menace, Robin Williamson's your man'

By Christopher Hill

Tricks of the Senses
The Incredible String Band
Hux Records


The first cut on Tricks of the Senses is taken from a rehearsal tape ca. 1966. By way of introducing himself and his Incredible String Band partner Mike Heron, Robin Williamson gives their names, and then adds, "We are songwriters and players and prophets from the North; also seers extraordinary by appointment to the wonder of the universe."

I guess you'd have to have lived a little bit of the '60s life to understand how this might not sound completely risible. Listen again. There's not a hint of preciousness or acid mysterioso about Robin's comment. It's thrown away. Instead of a petal-strewing fool, he sounds like a cheeky 18-year-old Scots elf lord on Adderall. He may be bragging a bit but it hasn't occurred to him to care whether you believe him or not. Or put it this way—Williamson and Heron were talented actors who stayed in character through most of the late '60s. The complete but lightly worn conviction they brought to their roles was what made them for a time the toast of the London pop scene. To their fans, the String Band weren't just performers. They carried a world around with them, they were ambassadors from the mythico-fantastic world, and for a while there were a lot of people who wanted to come in and spend some time there.

That was the thing about the String Band. They could take you to some of the strangest places imaginable, and it all seemed credible because they never acted like they didn't belong there completely. By the last few years of the '60s, rock 'n' roll musicians by the dozens were exploring fantasy scenarios and dabbling with ethnic instrumentation—what we now see as the seeds of world music. And when they went through that door, lo and behold, here were these two Scotsmen who seemed to have a deed to that territory, genuine natives of a kind of British Empire of the psyche, stretching from the Celtic fringe to the Indian subcontinent.

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The Incredible String Band, 'All Writ Down'

Heron and Williamson fashioned a visionary environment out of odd and ends of Tolkien, Blake, Celtic folklore, Western occultism, Romantic poetry, British children's literature, The Golden Bough and The White Godddess, the Bible and the Bhagavad Gita. And that was just the lyrics. They were gifted, if highly eccentric songwriters. They were deeply versed in British folk music, having come up on the coffee house scene during Britain's own version of the American folk boom. They were versed to that degree where your music no longer formally resembles your influences, but it conveys your intimacy with them at every note; and they were boggling multi-instrumentalists, who seemingly couldn't pick up an instrument from Andalusia to Mumbai without getting something interesting out of it.

But to say they were merely "influenced" by these things is to miss the special excitement of the String Band. It wasn't that they would read a poem by Yeats, and set about trying to create something to have a similar effect. No, it was quite different. It was like they had the ability to park their consciousness and imagination for extended periods in the same place where those other artists and visions came from, and spin from them spontaneous strands of musical and lyrical ideas cryptically suggesting dozens of hauntingly familiar but strangely twisted mythologies.

I.e., they could write something called "A Very Cellular Song" that was, at one movement, a lysergic reverie on life at the microbic level;

If I need a friend I just give a wriggle
Split right down the middle
And when I look there's two of me
Both as handsome as can be
Oh here go slithering and squelching on

And within a moment or two, in the same song, be singing in two-part a cappella a traditional Bahamian lullaby:
Lay down my dear sister
Won't you lay and take your rest
Won't you lay your head upon your saviour's breast
And I love you but Jesus loves you the best
And I bid you goodnight, goodnight, goodnight.

And somehow when you were in their world, it made a sort of sense.

People like the Beatles, the Stones and Led Zeppelin were intensely interested in what the String Band were up to, followed their career closely, and helped themselves to an idea or two (see Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head). Like most other '60s artists, these musicians were interested in consciousness generally, the varieties of states of consciousness particularly, and the String Band struck them, as they strike all their fans, as speaking with great consistency from their own highly distinct corner of the mind. While other bands might have their specially trippy songs or albums, the String Band seemed to dwell permanently Somewhere Else. They inhabited the mythopoeic strata of the mind in the same way that the Band inhabited rustic Americana. And they seemed to offer ancient cultural roots for the new psychedelic vision. It felt for a time that they could validate the alternative vision in a way that even Sgt. Pepper's in the end could not.

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The Incredible String Band, 1968: 'The Half-Remarkable Question'
'Many of their cuts can be called songs only by playing with semantics.'

The String Band were the ultimate expression of the fantastic and spiritual wing of the counterculture, as opposed to the political side, and as such they were the ultimate hippies. And so when the clock struck midnight on the '60s and the inevitable reaction set in, people projected onto them everything they thought was soft and silly about hippie-dom. But what people forgot, then and now, is that what made the String band stand out is that at the same time that they were an air-headed hippie-dippy folk band, they were, seen from another angle, an avant-art band, testing and challenging listeners, the way a Joanna Newsome CD challenges listeners today.

The pride of the MC5 was in their claim that they would "make you feel it or leave the room." This was a dynamic that the String Band would have been OK with, too. They could test your stamina and cool the way "Sister Ray" did. Sure, the Velvets would probably never have written a song called "Puppies," but I defy you to crank "Swift as the Wind" from The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter without provoking a classic "turn that shit down" from roommate, spouse, friends, etc.

Charming melodies, sing-along choruses, catchy hooks—they do turn up, not with any predictability, but the patient listener is usually rewarded by moments of piercing loveliness or darkly scintillating magic that, as with all art song, you have to work for to appreciate. But should you want someone to imbue the line "Next week a monkey is coming to stay" with an air of total creeping menace, Robin Williamson's your man.

Many of their cuts can be called songs only by playing with semantics. The happy alacrity with which they would break into another song distinct from the one they had started singing confused many an already puzzled listener. Instead of statement-development-restatement, the String Band's idea of song structure was to wander through fragments of three or four distinct songs, possibly wandering so far they lose the home theme completely—before they arrive, if they do, at any kind of resolution that makes sense out of the forgoing.

As a singer Robin's interest in anything that would allow him to melismatically leap enormous scalar distances dramatically put people in mind of Irish sean nos singing, Medieval plainchant, or Muslim muezzin calls. His character eristic technique (sometimes mistaken for gratuitous eccentricity) was to back up and approach the desired note from a couple of miles away and, after many wanderings and unlikely adventures, finally land on it a split second before all sense of song structure began to give way.

But down to cases. The occasion for these musings is the release of two CDs full of previously unreleased String Band rarities. Or we might more accurately call it String Band trivia. Sorry guys. I wish Robin and Mike the most comfortable retirements that two Bards of Britain ever enjoyed, but I can't tell someone who doesn't own The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter or Wee Tam and The Big Huge to buy this. To be fair, I'd guess that they intended this as a treat for longtime fans, because it's surely not the introduction the String Band deserves, nor is there much in the way of buried treasures here. The selection does span the important points of their career, starting with the aforementioned '66 rehearsal session that resolves into "Relax Your Mind," which is interesting if you want to hear two very pale young men from Britain cover Lead Belly. The peak period is represented by alternate versions of "The Iron Stone," "Douglas Traherne Harding" and "Maya." Williamson's epic "Maya" here is just a sketch for its magisterial realization on Wee Tam and The Big Huge. The unadorned version of "The Iron Stone" does offer something new. On The Big Huge, the more elaborate arrangement makes this story about the repercussions of idly picking up a meteorite on the beach sound like an extended metaphor. The plainer reading on Tricks feels more like straight narrative and so raises more goose bumps as the otherworldly begins to intrude.

The String Band have been accused of indulging their musical whims at the expense of their art. I think that's mostly an ideological argument from those for whom the String Band are already a symbol of hippy preciousness. But the 16 minutes and 26 seconds of "Queen Juanita and Her Fisherman Lover" will only give them more ammunition. The downside of living so fully in their own imaginative world was that eventually Heron and Williamson lost their sense of what people outside of it liked to listen to. The String Band were not immune to the late-'60s inflation of ambitions, which started with Sgt. Pepper's, and led to double albums, concept albums, rock operas and a whole school of kitschy pomposity that wasn't fully worked out of the system until Punk delivered the death blow in the late '70s. The String Band's great clunking white elephant is the allegorical pageant, U, which was performed at London's Roundhouse Theatre in 1970. The String Band at the height of their popularity were able to finance a full theatrical production and a troupe of singers and dancers to create something like a psychedelic version of a traditional British Christmas pantomime. It had its magic moments, like everything the String Band did, but it presaged the end of their most creative era. "El Ratto" is an excerpt, and "Queen Juanita" while it wasn't in the show, typifies the mood.

Tricks of the Senses is really of value only to String Band completists. But it would be a shame if the gaucherie of releasing two CDs of distinctly B-grade stuff was a stumbling block for anyone who hasn't sampled the String Band at their best.

To mitigate that chance, I offer one fan's String Band playlist. A baker's dozen of their most compelling visions. Like a lot of artists whose art is both brilliant and eccentric, they have affected more people than have actually heard them. So listen to where psych-folk begins:
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, often thought to be their best album, is mostly about childhood, but perhaps that of a child who sees more than one world...
1. "Koeeoaddi There" (Williamson) —4:49 The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
A child's eye view of strange goings-on in a big old strange house, with lots of curious visitors: "Born in a house where the doors shut tight, Shadowy fingers on the curtain at night..."
2. "Witches Hat" (Wiliamson) — 2:33 The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
"Certainly, the children have seen them, in quiet places where the grass grows green..."

3. "Waltz of the New Moon" (Williamson) — 5:10 The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
A mad celebration of the orb that rules the night, a swirl of half-remembered mythologies, while an exuberant Phantom of the Opera plays harpsichord.
4. "Three Is a Green Crown" — 7:46 The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
A visit to Sufi country; a hymn to a desert goddess; flying across vast desert distances at night.

5. "Swift as the Wind" (Heron) — 4:53 The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
Maybe their most remarkable composition, juxtaposing a child having ecstatic visions in his room (and they are not at all gentle nursery visions) with the prosaic calls from his parents to come downstairs to dinner.

6. "The Half-Remarkable Question" (Williamson) — 5:01 Wee Tam
"There's something forgotten, I think you should know, the freckles of rain are telling me so..." A glimpse of eternity in rain on a window pane leads to a curious reverie.

7. "Air" (Heron) — 3:12 Wee Tam
Mike imagines sex as not only the intermingling of organs but of whole bodies and bloodstreams in this hushed, tender song.

8. "The Iron Stone" (Williamson) — 6:33 The Big Huge
The aforementioned song about finding a stone whose magical provenance becomes vividly apparent.

9. "Douglas Traherne Harding" (Heron) — 6:15 The Big Huge
Inspired by the obscure 17th century Welsh priest and visionary, Thomas Traherne, whose verse was ahead of its time then and now.

Finally, four big statements from Robin, shattering old mythologies and folklores into glittering shards, then setting the fragments into strange new mosaics. "Creation" goes over the top in a late String Band way, but to hear Robin exultantly re-telling the creation story for a chorus of circle-dancing maenads in the court of an ancient Middle Eastern king is too much fun to miss.

10. "Job's Tears" (Williamson) — 6:40 Wee Tam
11. "Ducks on a Pond" (Williamson) — 9:17 Wee Tam
12. "Maya" (Williamson) — 9:24 The Big Huge
13. "Creation (Williamson)—16:05 Changing Horses

In his recent study of William Shakespeare, Soul of the Age, Jonathon Bate talks about what he calls "Deep England," an alternate country that exists where human imagination encounters the spirit of the landscape. If we broaden the idea to include all of Deep Britain, we're in the place the String Band sang about and where they sang from.

Now the String Band have themselves become part of the visionary tradition that originally inspired them. They're part of the landscape of Deep Britain, and any traveler there will find a world colored by their work.

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'My name is Robin Williamson, genius of this parish. How do you do?'
Excerpt from Tying the Knot, a BBC documentary about the Incredible String Band.

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