Muse, Odalisque, Servant; A Girls Life in the Incredible String Band
Muse, Odalisque, Handmaiden – A Girl’s Life in the Incredible String Band by Rose Simpson
Heavily illustrated in B&W and 16 color pages, with many unpublished images from the author’s personal archives.
Published by Strange Attractor Press – now available
Before we begin, a few things to settle – first, the “O-word” in the title. I thought it was some kind of ornate exotic statue, but no, the word has a similar meaning to ‘concubine’ – ‘A woman who lives with a man but is of lower status than his wife…’ (OED) . This very careful choice of words gives some indication of the origin of the book and the author and should dispel any fears that this is an uncritical eulogy of the sixties.
And of course, anyone who follows LTW’s punk and post-punk remit might wonder what the Incredible String Band is – surely the epitome of the soppy, whimsical end of the hippie scene? – do here. The band made a name for themselves with their incredibly original mix of folk, blues, world music and everything else that helped sound, all seen through a kaleidoscopic psychedelic lens. Originally started by Robin Williamson and Mike Heron in the mid-60s, they quickly moved from traditional folk to writing their own material and exploring different musical styles and instruments. Mike Heron was explicit in stating that taking LSD was the key, opening up his creativity and leading to a very 60s spiritual mix of I Ching, Zen Buddhism, meditation, gurus and ashrams. Add a few more things like living in a commune and making your own clothes and you’ll see we’re not talking about Emerson Lake and Palmer here. While all of that was, it also translated into big-selling albums like The 5000 Spirits, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and Wee Tam and the Big Huge. Additionally, they toured and sold out concerts all over the world, especially in the United States, where they were revered as the epitome of counterculture.
Rose Simpson had been a student at York University and also an avid mountaineer. A trip to Scotland led to a chance meeting and meeting with Mike Heron, and she never returned. Soon Robin Williamson’s partner, the ethereal and rather mysterious Licorice, also became involved in the band’s show – although, in the spirit of the times, both relationships were decidedly open, which the author approaches in a non-sentimental style. . It’s a theme that runs throughout the book and demonstrates Rose Simpson’s ability to write clearly thought out prose, examining complex issues without judgment and showing sensitive insight into changing times and personal growth.
Along the way, there are many fascinating stories and characters that pop in and out of the narrative or make fleeting appearances before drifting away in suitably enigmatic ’60s style. Fairport Convention’s Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and Dave Mattacks, even Crosby Stills and Nash (including an affair with the Cros), as well as regular stays at the Chelsea Hotel.
There are frequent references to Joe Boyd, a Zelig-like figure in the early days of the London underground scene (starting the legendary UFO club with John Hopkins and overseeing much of the classic pink label era at Island Records) . Boyd White’s book Bicycles is a fascinating account of the early stages of the scene in its own right, but it’s worth reading a more nuanced account by Rose Simpson. Unlike many “heads” at the time, Boyd was highly driven, energetic and ambitious. She felt that her initial passion for the band – and her in particular – fluctuated once he signed the most marketable (in theory) Nick Drake, then moved to Elektra Records in the United States. He was also a key player in their involvement with the Woodstock Festival. This could or should have been a real watershed moment. She describes the total chaos caused by the weather and the vastly underestimated crowd. The group arrived to find a half-built stage, lights and sound towers flickering dangerously in the relentless wind and rain. Soon, bad drugs (the infamous Brown Acid) are thrown into the mix. Much against Joe Boyd’s wishes, they refused to play, eventually returning to a sunny crowd that wanted to party and boogie. Even then, Robin Williamson and Mike Heron were determined to play new material and largely ignored audiences who wanted to hear some old favorites. She regretfully recounts how bands like Who, Santana and Ten Years After boosted their careers, particularly in the United States, after their involvement in film.
From then on, the story changes as the group undergoes a drastic change with their discovery of Scientology. According to Rose, it was first Mike Heron whose curiosity was piqued when he was given a flyer while the band were staying at a hotel near the Tottenham Court Rd headquarters. very straight, harmless-looking guys with clipboards prowling the West End, as numerous as the Hare Krishnas. All very innocuous and discreet at first – come to a meeting, chat, take this to read. Considering their earlier pick ‘n’ mix psychedelic spirituality, it’s amazing how quickly the band succumbed. Apart from Rose Simpson, of course. Initial, open-minded curiosity soon led her to question all aspects of L Ron Hubbard’s organization, pseudo sci-fi parables, emphasis on material success in the mainstream world and, above all, the treadmill of having to pay one course after another in order to reach the next level. For a group of people whose initial motivation was to find a way to escape all the materialism 9-5 working to pay a mortgage and 2.1 kids, this was a big change and would eventually lead to his departure.
Crucial to this new direction was that Robin and Mike decided that henceforth their songs should carry the message of Scientology, whether the public wanted it or not. Once the songs became subordinate to ideology most of the spark went out of their music, that was definitely enough to end my interest in them almost overnight and things didn’t only got worse. Robin Williamson always wanted the band to be more of a multimedia event than just playing their songs on stage like everyone else. Nothing wrong with that either, there were a lot of people then looking to go beyond the standard concert experience, and a lot of talk about the “Rock Theatre” of Bowie, Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd, but his fixation with the dance/mime troupe Stone Monkey was a disaster for the group, which continued despite a disastrous (but amusingly told) joint venture on a ruined Welsh farmhouse.
It all came together in the shape of ‘U’, which was to be Robin Williamson’s grand vision of the fusion of music, dance, film, lights and drama – and of course a double album that would take him there. accompanied. All of this led to growing disenchantment with Rose Simpson. Now she was playing bass on stage, as she and Licorice became more involved in the music. Incredibly, none of the women were ever hired as full band members, with all monies going to the men to get by without them as they wished. Exposing how this kind of jingoism coexisted with all the psychedelic/spiritual excess is one of the strongest aspects of the book.
She recounts how she began to enjoy kicking against the group’s Scientology party line, developing a taste for black leather and wild times away from others. In the end, she decides she’s had enough and leaves the row of Highland cottages where the group lived with Stone Monkey’s entourage. I’m sure the resemblance to the testimony of cult survivors is intentional. A brief coda describes his initial struggles adjusting to “normal life” before raising his family and a stint as mayor of Aberystwyth.
I hope I have made the case for this book to be a truly well-written and closely-observed account of one woman’s experience in the music and counterculture business, for better or for worse. , showing along the way that it’s not always the ‘straight’ who have rigid gendered attitudes and that for many spiritual adventurers the old attitudes were never so far away. Plus, the book is beautifully produced and packed with photos and illustrations.
Learn more about the book and buy here:
Lyrics by Den Browne, you can read more reviews on his author profile here: