Counterculture guru Lee Harris talks about the Underground, Beat generation, Ken Kesey, and “Stay high”

"My hopes for the future are for world peace, love and compassion for all sentient beings and forms of life on this planet." 

Lee Harris: The Underground Alchemist

Lee Harris was born in South Africa and arrived in England in 1956, is a playwright, publisher, and spoken word artist. He was one of the few white members of the Congress movement, where he helped with the Congress of the People and met Nelson Mandela. He acted with Orson Welles, wrote for the British underground press including International Times, helped found the Arts Lab and has been an instrumental figure in the British Counter Culture movement since the seventies when he published the legendary Brainstorm Comix and Home Grown magazine, which he also edited.

Lee Harris in Ladbroke Grove, London. Photo by Tony Ishola

He studied acting at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Lee worked with Frank Zappa and traveled on tour with The Fugs. During this time Harris also wrote various articles and reviews for many underground publications including an interview with beat poet Michael McClure and he also wrote various pieces for magazines Oz and Frendz. In 1972 Harris opened a shop in the Portobello Road, called Alchemy. Lee was reporting on psychedelic happenings and Home Grown magazine included work from Timothy Leary, Harry Shapiro, Mick Farren, Bryan Talbot and Peter Tosh. In 1995 Harris organized ground breaking poet Allen Ginsberg’s live performance in club Megatripolis.

In 2005 he decided to release a celebration of his thirty years of counter culture. During this period he met Hicham Bensassi, a few years later River Styx invited him to record something for a project he was working on. His book "Echoes of the Underground: A Foot Soldiers Tale" is a unique collection of ‘underground’ writings by Lee Harris, the majority of which were originally published in the ’alternative press’ of the 60′s and 70′s. The collection includes writings on the ‘Beat Generation’, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, the 60′s theatre revolution, and the South African apartheid era.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Do you believe counter culture has seen justice?

Counter culture in its many facets has permeated and filtered through to the wider society over a period of decades. What was once new avant-garde or alternative has had a powerful and meaningful influence not only on society at large but also on many young people in a life-changing way.

"My first live jazz concert was at the city hall to listen to Dixieland traditional jazz and I loved the “Penny Whistle” and African township jazz. Then there was Elvis with Rock ’n’ Roll and I loved to jive to the music."

Do you feel betrayed or satisfied of underground culture?

I feel positive about the changes in perception and the active movements and lifestyles that found root in the alternative culture of the sixties. The awareness of the importance of the planet earth that we inhabit and its ecology and environment, whole foods and organically grown produce, the embryonic roots of activism for peace, equality for race and gender and social justice, the world wide movement to legalise cannabis, the journey to the mystical east in search of esoteric knowledge from ancient religions whose gurus and spiritual masters, gods and goddesses would transform our being and inner life, the prescient reality of a cybernetic age, music, painting, comix, poster art and literature that change the way we understand things and opened up abstract patterns to the ear, eye and soul. These are some of the positives that came out of that period and influence our daily lives up to the present time.

Since 50s & 60s – what has changed towards the best – for our civilization and culture and what has gone wrong?

We have not been able to abolish wars, inequality or racial and gender prejudice and the advancement of global corporations that are more powerful than nation states.

What are your hopes and fears for the future?

My hopes for the future are for world peace, love and compassion for all sentient beings and forms of life on this planet. I know they are utopian dreams but I believe that the human spirit will rise to the occasion.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

As I am now an elder in my late seventies and I’m still running my shop Alchemy in the Portobello Road in London and meeting people two days a week, I have contact with new and old friends.

I am deeply touched by the love and warmth I receive in the area, as I’m a familiar figure who has been around for over forty years.

Through my websites on the internet I am now getting to know many interesting people from many parts of the world who Google the shop when they are visiting London and come by to purchase something and have a friendly chat and laugh. I feel humbled by the affection and respect shown to me and I appreciate it.

Lee and Allen Ginsberg at poet's last live performance in Megatripolis, 1995. Photo by Steve Teers

How the arts can liberate the human spirit and mind?  

I have been a creative artist interested in the avant-garde and the experimental for most of my life. I started off in the theatre as an actor and award-winning playwright, I wrote for the underground press in the late sixties; I became a publisher and editor of underground comix and a dope magazine and recently I have done spoken word performances with musicians and electronic sounds, some of my early writings and interviews are now in my book ‘Echoes of the underground’, which has just been published. The arts have lifted my spirit and have given expression to my creative impulses and in so doing I have influenced, touched and inspired quite a few fellow beings over the years. I like to work with younger artists encouraging and nurturing their potential talents, I find that rewarding.

What were the reasons that made Paris, Greenwich Village, San Francisco and Notting Hill to be the centers of the artistic and social conquests?

Every city has its quarter where bohemian artists both live and work and new ideas flourish.

Paris and its left bank has been the seedbed of avant-garde art for over a century and has a rich tradition of rebellion and social revolutions. All the modern art movements in painting, music, theatre, film and literature have roots in Paris.

Greenwich Village in New York was the quarter where poets, writers and folk singers hung out. In the fifties a group of young vibrant writers and poets influenced and inspired through their work and lives countless young people and became known as the beat generation.

San Francisco and the Haight Ashbury area was the epicenter of the hippy movement and the summer of love of nineteen sixty-seven. With the help of mind expanding psychedelics new art forms, music and social protest movements emerged. There were underground comix, poster art and west coast music and the Diggers, a radical community action group was formed that mixed the underground theatre scene with new left ideas, civil rights and the peace movement and distributed free food. Their slogan was “Do your own thing” Men grew their hair long, wore multicolored garments and passed joints around.

Notting Hill Gate in West London with its Portobello “village” in Ladbroke Grove is the heart of the area for alternative enterprises. Whole foods, reggae music and underground magazines came out of this multicultural melting pot, where I published the legendary underground comix ‘Brainstorm’ and Europe’s First dope magazine ‘Home Grown’ and started Alchemy now London’s oldest Headshop.

"I would put in a time capsule a set of the six issues of Brainstorm comics, the ten issues of Homegrown Magazine and the two albums I’ve done recently." Photo: Homegrown Magazine Issue 2 front cover, published 1977 and Brainstorm Comix issue 1, published in 1975.

How important was music in your life?

Music has always played an important role in my life; I bought my first long player (LP) when I was seventeen and still living in Johannesburg in South Africa. It was a Duke Ellington album and I got into Jazz. My first live jazz concert was at the city hall to listen to Dixieland traditional jazz and I loved the “Penny Whistle” and African township jazz. Then there was Elvis with Rock ’n’ Roll and I loved to jive to the music.

When I came to England in nineteen fifty-six, rock music had taken hold and there was skiffle and trad-jazz. The early sixties saw the mods and rhythm and blues, the coming of soul from Motown, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and a new generation of blues musicians. A great moment for me was seeing Pink Floyd at one of their first gigs in a church hall with a light show in Notting Hill in nineteen sixty six. Psy-folk and acid rock were with us.

One of the greatest artists of the time was the folk singer Bob Dylan who caught the zeitgeist and his songs became anthems for the anti war and civil rights movements. During the seventies I went to most of the great outdoor festivals and listened to many of the now legendary rock bands. I loved the reggae music of Bob Marley and was inspired by this “Ganja prophet”. Latterly and at first reluctantly I got into psy-trance and electronica and attended a cosmic trance-dance party on a Goa beach in India. I’m also a fan of Hip Hop music too.

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

There were many interesting periods in my life; Joining the congress movement in South Africa and having a personal and political awakening and dealing with the realities of living in a racist state. I was at the Congress of the People in nineteen fifty-five with three thousand mainly African delegates when we were surrounded by two hundred armed policemen; exploring the all night dives and dens of vice in Soho in the early sixties with its low life of junkies, drag queens and hustlers. I wrote my second play ‘Love Play’ based on this scene; being part of the hippy movement in its heyday during that magical, fickle summer of love in nineteen sixty-seven; the seven years in the seventies when I published ‘Brainstorm Comix’, ‘Home Grown’ and worked with so many graphic artists and writers; living in a country cottage with my German wife Brigitte and raising my three children; working in the theatre with Orson Welles as a young actor in ‘Chimes of Midnight’ in Dublin, Ireland in nineteen sixty and many other wonderful experiences.

"Counter culture in its many facets has permeated and filtered through to the wider society over a period of decades." Photo: Lee and Brigitte Harris on their wedding day in November 1975

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

My best moment of many is to have reached this age and still be active, healthy and doing interesting things. I am a survivor. The worst moment of my career is when I was busted for selling cigarette papers and other items in my shop and was sentenced to three months in prison. I was bailed and my sentenced was quashed on appeal.

What are your vivid memories from Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and William Burroughs?

All the artists you mentioned, I came into contact with in the sixties except for Timothy Leary, whom I never met.

I met Michael McClure the San Francisco beat poet in nineteen sixty-eight when he came to London, where his play ‘The Beard’ was performed at the Royal Court Theatre. As an underground theatre critic, I went to the opening night and reviewed the play. I was at his poetry reading at the arts lab and later did an in depth interview with him, which appears in my new book. He was the first person I met who spoke about the ecology.

I first heard Allen Ginsberg recite his poems at the beat poetry event at The Royal Albert Hall in nineteen sixty-five. I was inspired by his passion and he left a profound impression on me. I saw him on many occasions over the years and I had the honour of introducing him on stage at the Megatripolis club thirty years later in nineteen ninety-five, one year before he died.

I met William Burroughs briefly at the opening night Michael McClure’s play ‘The Beard’ and a few years ago I did a performance in Paris on the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Naked Lunch.

My best motto that I’ve said since the Seventies is “Stay high”. Photo: Lee Harris and Ken Kesey at Stone Circle in Cornwall, England.

Are there any memories from John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Ken Kesey and The Fugs, which you’d like to share with us?

I came into contact with John Lennon and Yoko Ono at the arts lab in nineteen sixty-eight and soon after at the Alchemical Wedding at the Royal Albert Hall, where they did their fluxus art performance ‘bag act’.

I worked for Frank Zappa as a make up artist for two performances at the Royal Festival Hall in nineteen sixty-eight.

At about that time I met Ken Kesey and his merry crew at the arts lab and spent the night rapping and joking with them. The next morning we went to the Beatles plush offices in Saville Row where they had been given some space. That night after a hectic day we were politely told to leave by George Harrison. Three decades later I was to meet Ken again on his Magic Bus at an ancient stone circle in Cornwall after the total eclipse and we reminisced about the arts lab.

I went to Stonehenge with ‘The Fugs’ travelling in the red double-decker London bus.

Why did you think that the comix culture continued to generate such a devoted following? What are the differences of Brainstorm from the American comix like: Last Gasp, Zap etc.?

Underground comix emerged out of the San Francisco scene of the mid sixties with artists like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton and Rick Griffin, legendary comix Zap and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. British comic artists like Bryan Talbot of Brainstorm were influenced by their American counterparts but did their own unique work a few years later.

 

"The arts have lifted my spirit and have given expression to my creative impulses and in so doing I have influenced, touched and inspired quite a few fellow beings over the years." Photo: Lee Harris and Hicham Bensassi

How started the thought of the River Styx project?

I first met Hicham Bensassi a.k.a River Styx, a young poet and singer/songwriter from Ladbroke Grove in 2002 when he helped put on the launch party and did the flyer for the album ‘Alchemy: 30 Years of counter culture’ in a club on the Portobello Road. In 2005 he invited me to do an intro for a hip-hop album he was working on. I did a spontaneous spoken word poem called ‘The spiritual kid’ which we recorded. Thus began the making of ‘Lee Harris meets River Styx – Angel Headed Hip Hop’ an experimental coming together of counter culture ideas and electronic sounds. We did many live performances in pubs, clubs and festivals with various musicians and electronica. Since then we have worked on the ‘Echoes of the underground’ project, which includes a DVD, a website, a sound collage which was broadcast live on an experimental radio station and an eBook containing my published writings and interviews from the sixties and seventies, which he compiled and edited. Working with Hicham Bensassi has been one of my most creative periods and brought together many of the artistic strands that have been woven into the mosaic tapestry that is my life’s path.

What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

A set of the six issues of Brainstorm comics, the ten issues of Homegrown Magazine and the two albums I’ve done recently.

What is your favorite motto of life?

My best motto that I’ve said since the Seventies is “Stay high”.

"We have not been able to abolish wars, inequality or racial and gender prejudice and the advancement of global corporations that are more powerful than nation states." Photo: Lee Harris with Dr Albert Hofmann on his 96th Birthday in Heidelberg, Germany in 1996.

What is your dream…and nightmare? Peace of mind is… Happiness is…

In time of terror, in time of strife

My inner soul bequeaths life

To flow and grow and overthrow

The dark forces that beckon and threaten

My vibrant existential equilibrium

There lies the warm glow in the dark

That feeling of calm as the brightness banishes

The ebbing tide of negativity and downside

Giving it a berth far and wide

Be calm; don’t set off the bells of alarm

Radiate the gracious beam of light

That illuminates the black holes that blow away

There lies the warm glow in the dark

Like a spark at the dawn of the rising sun

Shimmering and glimmering tremulously so

Shining into the zone of love

Just above the parapet to be

Untouched by the nebulous forces

That disappear in the twilight

To turn darkness into light as day follows night

Guided by the goodness of the heart and mind

Who else but you to be kind,

Forgiving and living in the hear and now

My compassionate soul brother

Will lead you to that place where

There’s a warm glow in the dark

That shines from my open mind

To a terrain that is serene and sublime.

 

Shine on

Lee Harris & Alchemy - official website

 

 

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