It’s an hallucinatory, almost trance-inducing experience, said underground film-maker, photographer and poet, Ira Cohen about his film The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda (1968).
It’s like going on an ecstatic journey to another planet, full of magical beings, animals and plants.
It’s certainly all that and more, and also has a soundtrack by The Velvet Underground’s original drummer Angus MacLise.
Cohen filmed this phantasmagorical short at his apartment in New York’s Lower East Side. Cohen called his home “The Mylar Chamber,” as its walls were covered with Mylar, and he used its distorted and reflective quality to photograph various artists, writers and musicians. It was also a key component to The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, where its wonderful ripple effect is like one long trip. But to Ira Cohen back in the 1960s, it was “just reality.”
I blogged here on Tuesday about the amazing looking Angus MacLise show currently on display at the Boo-Hooray gallery space in New York City. I’ve been told the opening party was amazing, with Lou Reed and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge in attendance.
Also included in the line-up this evening is the premiere of the late Ira Cohen’s Heavy Canon (also with an Angus MacLise soundtrack), early 70s video work by Marty Topp and three films by Piero Heliczer.
Angus MacLise (top left) with Sterling Morrison (top right), John Cale (front left) and Lou Reed (in keffiyeh) on Ludlow Street in 1965. One of the earliest known pictures of the Velvet Underground.
What looks to be a fascinating exhibit devoted to the life work of poet and musician Angus MacLise, opens tonight at the Boo-Hooray gallery space in Manhattan.
A bit of an avant garde Zelig, MacLise, who died in Nepal in 1979, is perhaps best remembered as the original drummer—well, tabla and bongos, really—for the Velvet Underground before Maureen Tucker joined the group in 1965. A fiercely bohemian type, MacLise quit the Velvets on the eve of their first paying gig, insisting that they’d “sold out.” No recordings of MacLise actually playing with the group have ever been officially released, although a version of “Venus in Furs” filmed for TV is included in the Caught Between the Twisted Stars Velvet Underground bootleg boxset.
In the late 90s, however, several CDs of MacLise’s home-recordings of his own distinctive drone/percussion music, and pre-VU early 60s collaborations with La Monte Young’s Theatre of Eternal Music (along with John Cale, Tony Conrad, Marian Zazeela and on occasion Terry Riley) were made available. They are quite extraordinary and difficult to categorize (somewhere between minimalism and the Residents’ Third Reich and Roll by way of world music). Ira Cohen’s film Invasion of the Thunderbolt Pagoda has also been released on DVD and features a soundtrack from MacLise. This too, is absolutely worth seeking out and a new, strictly limited edition DVD, will be on sale via Boo-Hooray. (Ira Cohen died last week in New York).
Putting a show together from the ephemera of a life lived so far outside of the margins cannot have been easy. .In fact if it wasn’t for a suitcase of over 100 hours of Angus MacLise’s recordings, artwork, publications and manuscripts that was left with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela over 30 years ago by his widow, Hettie MacLise, this show might not be occurring at all. The co-curator (along with Will Cameron) of the exhibit, noted pop culture historian and enthusiast Johan Kugelberg, told the New York Times, “When it rains, it pours. I believe that the stuff decides when it wants to be found.” Mr. Kugelberg has also referred to Angus MacLise as “the American Henri Michaux.”
From the New York Times:
But over the last decade a handful of musicians and historians have been exhuming tape after tape, document after document, to resuscitate MacLise’s reputation as a key participant in the underground culture of New York in the ’60s. The latest of these finds might be MacLise’s Rosetta Stone: a suitcase stuffed with his poems, drawings, photographs and other ephemera, lent to Mr. Young by MacLise’s widow, Hetty, and left in Mr. Young’s basement for decades.
The contents of the suitcase form the core of “Dreamweapon: The Art and Life of Angus MacLise (1938-1979),” which opens on Tuesday at the Boo-Hooray gallery in Chelsea. The show’s curators, Will Swofford Cameron and Johan Kugelberg, contend that it further bolsters MacLise’s status as a “human link document” connecting Beat poetry, the art scenes of Fluxus and Andy Warhol’s Factory, psychedelic film, rock and the classical avant-garde.
“This provides a completely different history of the ’60s and ’70s than we’re used to,” Mr. Cameron said.
Some of the pieces in “Dreamweapon” make a case for MacLise’s significance by association: a flier for an eight-hour happening in 1965 with Warhol, Burroughs, Ginsberg, the Fugs; a handwritten note to his friend Ira Cohen, the filmmaker who died last week at 76.
Others trace MacLise’s brand of mystical eccentricity through various artistic movements. Dead Language Press, which MacLise founded in Paris in 1958 with his high school friend Piero Heliczer, published early work by the Beat poet Gregory Corso and the filmmaker Jack Smith, as well as MacLise’s pamphlet “Year,” from about 1960, which lays out an alternative calendar, with new names for every day (“day of the smoking plain,” “diedricsday”); Mr. Young and Marian Zazeela, his wife and collaborator, still use it.
MacLise spent most of the 1970s in Nepal, where he printed his poetry in tiny editions and drew in a fantastical calligraphy of his own creation that resembles Arabic or Sanskrit. Mr. Kugelberg brushes aside the question of whether the symbols are a form of language. “It’s an inner poetry,” he said, likening MacLise’s process to the subconscious “automatic writing” of the Surrealists.
But if MacLise himself comes across as a cipher, a character to be interpreted through scraps of writing or in a few jarring photographs — like one taken near the end of his life, in which a Grim Reaper figure creeps toward him — it’s no accident. His friends and colleagues remember him as inhabiting some distant poetic plane and as being full of creative inspiration but also unknowably remote.
He might show up for band rehearsal or might not. If he did, he might begin playing before anyone else arrived and continue long after everybody had put their instruments down. Like plenty of others at the time he took copious amounts of drugs, but he seemed particularly neglectful of his own health. His death, at 41, was caused by hypoglycemia, exacerbated by years of drug use, his family said. (The cause has also been reported as malnutrition.)
DREAMWEAPON at Boo-Hooray, May 10th to May 29th, Opening Party: Tuesday, May 10th, 6pm - 9pm
Curated by: Johan Kugelberg and Will Swofford Cameron
Poet, musician, film maker, photographer, publisher, world traveler, spiritual seeker and cosmic New Yorker, Ira Cohen has died at the age of 76
Author of dozens of books of poetry and “The Hashish Cookbook” (under the pseudonym of Panama Rose), Cohen also published the works of his friends William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Paul Bowles, Brion Gysin, Jack Smith Harold Norse and many others.
Cohen made many pilgrimages to India and Kathmandu (where he ended up living for several years) and chronicled his journeys in extraordinary photographs. His travels took him to Morocco, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Spain, Japan…but all roads eventually lead back to New York City’s Lower East Side.
As a film maker, Cohen developed a style distinctly his own by photographing images reflected in Mylar plastic. The Invasion Of Thunderbolt Pagoda and Brain Damage were directed by Cohen in the late 1960s using this mirror effect. The Invasion Of Thunderbolt Pagoda was released in 2006 on DVD by the folks at the late lamented Arthur Magazine. Cohen conjured some of the same cinematic spirits as his peers Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger.
Jimi Hendrix photographed by Ira Cohen
In certain artistic and literary circles, Mr. Cohen was a touchstone. “Ira was a major figure in the international underground and avant-garde,” Michael Rothenberg, the editor of Big Bridge magazine, an Internet publication, said in an interview. “In order to understand American art and poetry post-World War II, you have to understand Ira Cohen.”
If you spent any time in downtown New York’s art scene during the past five decades you would have undoubtedly crossed paths with the open-hearted and wise gentleman who described himself as a “multi-media shaman.” Ira Cohen stayed relevant throughout his life, never square and never predictable. He was magic. His sphere of influence only grew larger as he grew older. His International reputation as a world class artist and wizard continued to flourish right up to his death on April 26.
Here’s an excerpt of The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda which features a score by the original drummer of the Velvet Underground, Angus MacLise.
A trailer from a film on Ira Cohen and scenes from his film “Brain Damage” after the jump…