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.
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
Read more of The Velvet Unknown, Now Emerging (The New York Times)
Thank you Jeff Newelt!