Books: Wednesday, May 8, 2003
In the Sixties
By Barry Miles
Jonathan Cape Publishers
310 pages
Yeah, Baby!

Barry Miles recounts his days in England’s swinging ’60s.


Barry Miles is a name known to few Americans, except for the most rabid ’60s-era Anglophiles. In England, however, he was an influential background figure throughout many of that turbulent decade’s key events and is now a minor celebrity. In the Sixties, his account of those days, provides a fascinating read for anyone interested in that time and place.

Not bothering with his early life details, Miles opens the story right at 1960 with his art school experiences. (Given the inordinate amount of future rock stars who have attended them, art schools seem to be the British solution for dealing with directionless kids who are too smart for trade school and too unruly for university.)

Wisely figuring that readers would have little interest in his life, Miles, for the most part, concentrates on the colorful characters (both famous and not) that he encountered throughout the decade.

Initially, he has little interest in pop music, preferring instead the worlds of art, jazz, and literature, especially the beat poets and writers.

During an employment stint in a bookstore, Miles meets Allen Ginsberg, the American beat who shortly beforehand had been kicked out of Cuba and Czechoslovakia. Ginsberg had stumbled into England to accompany Bob Dylan on the troubadour’s famous 1965 tour.

Becoming fast friends with Ginsberg, Miles soon convinces the poet to stage readings in the bookstore, which soon leads to the biggest poetry reading ever in England, held at the Royal Albert Hall and featuring Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Gregory Corso.

In between, Miles relays the hilarious first meeting between Ginsberg and two befuddled Beatles and their wives. Ginsberg saw fit to arrive stark naked.

Though various writers loom large in the remainder of the book, the focus shifts more toward Britain’s rising rock aristocracy. The most ink is spilled on the Beatles, mainly Paul McCartney, with whom Miles was closest. (He later compiled Many Years From Now, Macca’s semi-autobiography.)

One priceless story involves a rain-soaked Miles entering McCartney’s abode and asking to borrow some dry socks. McCartney motions toward the dresser, and when Miles opens the drawer a small fortune in pound notes flies out, apparently forgotten by the not-yet-financially responsible Beatle.

Other pop notable appearances include those by the Rolling Stones — mostly Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful, though Keith Richards and Brian Jones show up sporadically — and members of the Who and The Pink Floyd (as the band was then known). Of the American stars, the sardonic Frank Zappa and the inscrutable and mysterious Captain Beefheart are discussed at length.

This being a fond remembrance, no real dirt per se is dished, save for the implied but never-stated feeling that Miles considered John Lennon to be difficult and a bit of a sluggard. Still, the stories remain rich and gripping, whether concerning stars or their managers and assistants. Miles also introduces a cadre of heretofore unknown yet vibrant characters. Like the unknown hippie who cannonballed through the bookstore’s plate glass, yelled, “Books must be free,” snatched a handful, and disappeared through the shattered window, never to be seen again. Then there is the rather incredible tale of poverty-stricken squatters poaching pigs on royal game preserves in a Rolls Royce.

It’s not all humorous. In one sentence, a stripper leaps to death from atop a building. Such a stark statement, standing alone without further elaboration, somehow states the tragedy better than any drawn-out narrative could have. Miles incorporates the same effective style to deal with the story’s many drug casualties.

Events, as much as people, shape the book. Miles played a part in the creation of England’s first underground newspaper, the International Times, and the founding of the Indica Bookshop and Art Gallery (where John met Yoko). He also helped found the UFO Club, where rock royalty mingled with the beautiful people of the burgeoning hippie culture. Here Miles does a wonderful job of bringing those days to life and nicely contrasts the British and American underground press and countercultural movements.

Toward the end of the story, Miles assumes leadership of the Beatles’ interesting but ill-fated Apple Records offshoot, called Zapple, which was supposed to release “disposable” albums of experimental music as well as readings and lectures by various writers and other luminaries. Although several albums were recorded, including a reading by Charles Bukowski, just two ever saw release before Beatle manager Allen Klein killed off the imprint.

If there’s a flaw, it’s that Miles’ writing, though interesting for the most part, occasionally hits dry patches. For some odd reason, he lists everyone’s street address. Should you inexplicably wish to jet to London one day and stare at these people’s former houses, I guess this is your guidebook. And, inevitably, with people and events this captivating, one wishes there were more stories. A last gripe: Rather than wrapping up nicely, the book ends as abruptly as a tv plug kicked from the socket.

Overall, however, In the Sixties is a mesmerizing look behind a now-almost mythological time from the perspective of a guy who was actually there and —more amazing — still remembers it.

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