Lee Harris: Works
Lee's account of the events
leading up to the 1968
at the Royal Albert Hall
which featured John
Lennon & Yoko Ono.
It all started in the magic theatre in the mind of J. Henry Moore, a small bespectacled gnome-like character in his early thirties, sporting a shaggy beard and long hair. What Jack, as he was called, visualised as theatre, his great friend Jim Haynes would find a space for. It was part of the Jim and Jack show. In physical appearance and personality they could hardly have been more different. Jim was a tall, genial bear of a man, with trim-cut beard and neat dark hair, who warmly hugged you. Jack was secretive and evasive, avoiding the limelight that shone so brightly on Jim.They were part of the American expat crowd that made the counter-culture sparkle in the London of the late Sixties.
I first met up with them in the autumn of 1966 when they were part of the collective who brought out the early issues of IT, International Times, the voice of the seminal underground movement. We teamed up on my Theatre of Action idea, The Fletcher File, based on a transcript of a murder trial. Jim hired the vast cold and empty former railway shed in Camden, called The Roundhouse.This was the early days and it had only been used for two parties before. I edited and adapted the script (not for the stage) and the presentational supervision (not direction) was by J. Henry Moore. This event took place on Sunday the 5th February 1967. We called for the release of Roy and Alice Fletcher and the arrest of the Home Secretary. By the end of that year they were let out after serving six years of a life sentence, and the case became an underground cause-celebre.
At that time I used to visit them in the flat they shared in Long Acre in Covent Garden. Jim had come down to London from Edinburgh, flushed with success and adoration, having founded the Traverse fringe theatre club.He had brought Jack down with him and they had found an empty warehouse in Drury Lane and converted it into an experimental multi-media centre called The Arts Laboratory, containing a theatre, cinema, art gallery, restaurant and open space.
The chemistry was right, the scene was set, and Jim and Jack's dream warehouse became the centre where many avant-garde works took place. Jim was a catalyst that brought creative types together, an underground entrepreneur who could make things happen with shoestring budgets and the love and sweat of an army of devoted helpers. I was one of them. In its short hey-day it catered to the celebrity crowd and was the place to spend an evening with the Counter Culture.
In the autumn of 1967 I sojourned abroad. I travelled to South Africa to see my dying mother, then on to Kenya and Israel. I used the time to finish writing Love Play, an LSD-induced lyrical fantasy for the theatre. My characters had no life-careers, only life-rhythms; there was no exposition, only explosion, no narrative, only patterns. I was inspired by the mad visionary and surrealist Antonin Artaud, who wrote of the theatre as "the truthful precipitate of dreams."
I came back to London in the late summer of 1968. It was a strange time, altogether. The spirit of the time was rampant with discord and mayhem. Chairman Mao's little red book jostled with the embryonic reality of a cybernetic age. Angry anarchists vied with whacked-out weirdos; reality freaks versus space cadets. Pass the liberation and blow your mind. We were on a freewheeling roller-coaster veering from sexual liberation to spiritual upsurges; helter-skelter from drugs and rock and roll to macrobiotics and yoga.
It was the moment to smash the clocks and arrest time. Revolutionary fervour was running amok. Radical situationists were storming the barricades in Paris, students and the drop-out homeless were squatting empty properties. There were violent demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, in Europe and elsewhere. In the U.S.A. black power erupted into race riots At the end of August the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia laid waste to the dream of the Prague Spring.Wearing a flower in your hair and saying "Far out, man," as sure as hell didn't endear you to heavy political heads.
Nevertheless, it was so good to be back at the Arts Lab after all those months away and to see my good friend Jim Haynes. The lab had drifted towards being a people theatre, where we were all performing artists just by virtue of being there. The nice thing about the place was that all sorts of interesting people would pop in. Through Jim's largesse I worked as a make-up artist for Frank Zappa; went down to Stonehenge on a red double-decker bus with The Fugs and sat on the floor cross-legged rapping with Mama Cass.
That September, just a stone's throw from the Arts Lab, the hippy musical Hair opened and let the sun shine in with numbers like "Sodomy" and "Hashish". We would rush through the auditorium as the show ended and dance on the stage with the actors and audience. The Lord Chamberlain's powers of theatre censorship had just been abolished after hundreds of years.
Later that month I went to Amsterdam in search of a roving street-theatre group called The Human Family which was the creation of the "mother" of the family, my old friend Jack. They had just toured the hip capitals of Europe during the Summer creating their spontaneous happenings at festivals. I met up with them at the Fantasia in Prins Hendrikkade. It was like setting foot on some strange film set, watching a surreal movie being made of this new utopia where long-haired tourists lounge on carpetted platforms, sipping Mu tea and smoking dope. It was the first of its kind and Amsterdam was the magnetic centre of the new Stoned Age.
That night I joined them in their wood-beamed attic above some artists' studios, this troupe of ragged wild-eyed poets and gentle blissful dreamers in their faded hippy finery.We squatted in a circle eating quietly our beggars banquet of rice, fried beans, onions and carrots. We were a motley crew, some twenty of us from many countries, sleeping in our loused up bags and blankets.
Then it happened. Early one morning we were raided and bundled off to the central police station. One by one we were searched, our belts and personal belongings taken away and locked up in solitary confinement. After the initial outraged excitement, the perverse pleasure of an absurd situation, I felt calm and relaxed. The endless banging and prolonged screams of my brothers and sisters had subsided in exhaustion. Long hours of random thoughts and growing claustrophobia passed by. Then I heard Sandos, our Italian brother, banging against his cell door and letting out a strange terrible cry that ended up in uncontrollable weeping. Then there was a deep silence.
That night I was taken to the Hoek of Holland, where I was deported, without having committed a crime, nor being charged for one. "Dutch police deport London theatre group," was the headline in a Sunday newspaper. That was my rite of passage to The Human Family. I arrived back at the Arts Laboratory at the end of September.
As the cold winter loomed, the casualties of the Love generation mounted. The warm glow of The Arts Lab provided shelter for the shoddy array of the dispossessed and unloved. The walking wounded were turning this once derelict warehouse into a communal dosshouse. Its proximity to nearby Piccadilly Circus attracted the flotsam of the lonely streets. lost denizens looking for a place to go, to belong. The first devotees of the Hare Krishna movement arrived from America and set up a temple just around the corner. I remember the first ecstatic chanting sessions held at the Lab with Guru Das and Mukunda in their flowing saffron robes and shaven heads.
The magic of the place was that it often came alive with spontaneous events and the rich camaraderie of shared ideals. On one occasion, when we were sitting about and nothing in particular was happening, a white Rolls Royce stopped outside the entrance and in walked a sombre-looking gaunt young man wearing a Maoist style blue denim outfit and cap. This was the time of the Chinese Red Guard and the Cultural Revolution. At his side was a petite Japanese woman with long hair, draped in a ankle-length black cape. It was John Lennon and Yoko Ono. They joined us and crouched on the floor with their knees up. One of us went up to them and whispered. John nodded and they got up and went to a backroom. Later I asked my friend what had he said to Lennon. He replied, "I asked them if they would like to share a joint with me."
John and Yoko became frequent visitors to The Lab, the white Rolls would arrive and take Jim and Jack to their Surrey mansion, or they would go to the newly-opened Seed macrobiotic restaurant in Bayswater where they would dine sitting on cushions. Jack Moore was a wizard with gadgets and an early exponent of video technology. John was so interested in what they planned to do, that he had given them a gift of some video equipment.
At the Arts Lab all was not well. On November the 15th a notice was posted informing Lab people that The Human Family, comprising thirty people plus equipment, would be arriving on December 10th. The notice read: "They will stay at least until the day after Christmas. During this period Jack will make the schedule and policy decisions". It was signed by Jim Haynes and Jack Moore. It caused outrage and a group of artists broke away in an acrimonious split. I loyally stuck by my two friends and in a statement of support published in I.T., I said: " The Arts Lab is alive and well - evolving in a freer form. The space in the building is to be given over more to the people who use it." And I attacked "titular heads and control freaks".
The first intimation I got that something was afoot was when Jack told Jim to book the Royal Albert Hall, that vast circular space crowned by a dome, for a night in December. All we foot-soldiers were told was to say that Leonard Cohen, the balladeer and poet who wrote melancholic songs to commit suicide to, would be heading the bill. The event was to be called The Alchemical Wedding, a Celebration. A poster was designed by Jack and Bill Levy, another American underground mover. It was a medieval-type drawing of a head with the skin peeled back over the skull, denoting a blown mind, and a finger over the mouth making the sign to be silent.
To cap it all, one evening in early December, a group of heavy dudes, looking like wild-west frontiersmen, walked into the Lab. It was Ken Kesey and the Pleasure Crews, some Dead-heads and two bikers from the Hells Angel chapter in San Francisco. I spent the night sitting and rapping with them, and in the morning I rode pillion on one of their bikes to the Beatles' plush Apple offices in Saville Row. The group occupied an office suite, and we had a great party where all sorts of people popped in during the day. Time seemed to have slipped by, for it was late in the evening when a figure loomed at the office door. There was a silence as he calmly said, "It is nice of you to invite me to your home," reversing the situation. "Are you asking us to split"? said one of the Pleasure Crew. "Ying yang, yes, no", answered George Harrison enigmatically. At the time Ken Kesey had crashed out on egg-nog and was sleeping in the basement stair well.
The revolution is over and we have won, was the mantra. At last it was the day of The Alchemical Wedding. We foot-soldiers had rushed about beforehand doing all the little things that have to be done, like spreading the word and seeing that flyers were distributed all over the place. I slept at the back of the Lab when I could and one night I collapsed from exhaustion, puking up the Indian curry I had hastily eaten earlier. Nevertheless, here I was on the night of the 18th December '68, travelling in a taxi with Jim's secretary from the Lab to the Royal Albert Hall, resplendent in my paisley kaftan. We sat back and gave a sigh of relief as we crawled through the rush-hour traffic.
By the time we arrived backstage, the well of the large hall was beginning to fill up. Although nothing was, to my knowledge, planned, a couple of rock groups had set up in case they were asked to play. I could see John and Yoko sitting on the side of the stage. Ken Kesey and his merry crew were hanging around. There were the Hare Krishna devotees and about four thousand of the most beautiful heads that the underground could muster, waiting in anticipation for this most auspicious event to begin.
The hour had come, the crowd buzzed with excitement, but nothing happened. The audience started to fidget in their seats, there was an air of anxiety about. Then I noticed the small bedraggled figure of Jack Moore walking slowly through the crowded well of the hall, his finger to his lips beckoning silence. By the time he had reached the front of the stage there was a silence only broken by the odd nervous guffaw or raucous catcall from the back. The silence became long and deep and seemed to engulf us. Then, almost out of nowhere, someone banged a drum, there was an ecstatic cry of joy, the Krishna devotees began to chant and I found myself swept off my feet by the momentum. The space in front of the stage filled with swaying, swirling bodies high on the energy created out of the silence. It was J. Henry Moore's finest moment. This was the culmination of what The Human Family was about. Theatre in its highest form was an act of communal magic that could transcend earthbound reality.
Musicians played, poets ranted, and John and Yoko crept into their white sheet-like bag on the stage and stayed there out of sight for what seemed like ages. I watched a baby crawl slowly by. And that was the bag happening. All mayhem broke out when a young female member of the audience stripped off her clothes and danced in naked delight. When the police were called and attendants tried to remove her, groups of people started stripping off their clothes in solidarity. There was a retreat and a truce was worked out, and no-one was arrested. The nude girl incident, with accompanying photo, made the front pages of the London evening papers.
The Alchemical Wedding had a profound effect on many of us who were there that night. It touched our lives and helped bring about changes. There is a difference between what a person does and what happens by itself. You will set yourself a task with determination and tenacity and then, suddenly, a gust of wind will come from another world and everything changes. You seem to be used by the gods; and, in spite of yourself, you are part of the Myth.
(c) Lee Harris. Sept. 1999