Interview with poet, musician and artist Daevid Allen of psychedelic rock groups Soft Machine and Gong

"Across the whole planet, populations are dividing into futurists and conservatives. Obviously a peaceful revolution which celebrates humanistic change at the expense of small power elites will make this world a better place."

Daevid Allen: From Another Planet

Christopher David Allen was born in Melbourne, Australia, sometimes credited as Divided Alien, an Australian poet, guitarist, singer, composer and performance artist is co-founder of psychedelic rock groups Soft Machine (in the UK, 1966) and Gong (in France, 1970). In 1960, inspired by the Beat Generation writers he had discovered whilst working in a Melbourne bookshop, Allen travelled to Paris where he stayed at the Beat Hotel, moving into a room that had recently been vacated by Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. After recording just one album with the Soft Machine, he became the founder/leader of Gong, which he left in 1973 to begin a solo career (though his first solo album, Banana Moon, 1971).

"I seek to promote fresh ideas on all levels of society from the political to the spiritual. But I have learned that to promote these ideas directly and seriously is to make oneself more important than the ideas. To avoid this I use absurdist allegory and esoteric symbolism as a camouflage."

Allen explored his quirky, folky take on rock throughout the '70s and '80s on albums like Good Morning and Alien in New York. His solo work also included collaborations with underground rock impresario Kramer like 1993's Who's Afraid? and 1996's Hit Men. Allen returned in 1999 with Money Doesn't Make It, followed a year later by Stroking the Tail of the Bird. Nectans Glen also followed in 2000. In 2003 Allen formed a new version of Gong with members of the Japanese collective known as Acid Mothers Temple, as well as playing and releasing material with his California-based band University of Errors. He continues to release numerous live sets and one-off collaborations in limited editions on various independent labels under his own and various group names. A best-of, Man From Gong (2006), which only scratches the surface of his lengthy discography. In 2013 (Devon, UK), Daevid Allen performed solo material and poetry at a special event entitled 'Up Close with Daevid Allen'. He also joined The Invisible Opera Company of Tibet (UK) on stage to perform a number of songs.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How important was poetry and Beats in your life?

It changed my life completely. My first hit of beat poetry came with my discovery of the Beat literary magazine: EVERGREEN REVIEW in the Melbourne University Bookshop in 1958.  Prior to this, my idea of what poetry could be had been revolutionized by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and my discovery of the American typographical radical, E.E. Cummins. But the idea of poetry and jazz grabbed me immediately. I already had my own Jazz group and the idea that poetry could be sung or shouted like a sequence of sax riffs set me on fire.

After I read Kerouac's "On The Road" I took off from Melbourne, hitching rides 3000 kms north to the Gold Coast where I painted murals for food and beer money and wrote poetry nonstop.

What has been the relationship between music and poetry?

In the late fifties, young people like myself were either drawn to Rock n Roll or Jazz. At this time R/R lyrics were shorthand for illiterates whereas with Jazz anything could be said without fear of censorship. So the music could be used to carry revolutionary new ideas.

William Burroughs gave me excellent advice. He said: "Keep your bags packed and ready to go at all times".

How do you describe Daevid Allen sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

I cannot describe myself because I cannot taste my own tongue but my philosophy is clear. I seek to promote fresh ideas on all levels of society from the political to the spiritual. But I have learned that to promote these ideas directly and seriously is to make oneself more important than the ideas. To avoid this I use absurdist allegory and esoteric symbolism as a camouflage.

Which is the most interesting period in your life?

Now is always the happiest and most interesting time of your life.

Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I don't see myself as having a career. Music is not my job description; it is my way of life.

I have never felt money to be particularly significant. I live on the minimum amount of money possible.

My worst moments are always after what I perceive to be a bad gig.

My best moments are after a good gig.

Life is only as good as the last gig.

Why did you think that the Beat Generation continues to generate such a devoted following?

Romantic nostalgia for the first 20th century rebellion against the church of capitalism. It was the pre-echo of the Hippy movement although it was still quite primitive and unrefined, particularly in relation to women's roles.

What's been your experience from the Beat Hotel? Which meetings have been the most important experiences?

Brion Gysin who was my next door neighbor was a strong influence. His experiments with loops and the cut-up technique influenced me hugely and his use of sound poetry set me on my own path resulting in a 30minute program of my sound poetry being broadcast on the BBC 3rd program in 1967.  When the Dream Machine was being developed by Burroughs and Brion Gysin they tried it out on me with spectacular results. I experienced psychedelic visions that anticipated the light shows created for Soft Machine by Mark Boyle in 1966.

Are there any memories from William S. Burroughs and the other Beats which you’d like to share with us?

Burroughs hired my jazz trio to participate in a dramatized excerpt from his book, The Ticket That Exploded performed at a club in Montparnasse managed by Bud Powell's wife Maribel.  He was dressed in a nun's costume and jumped from gigantic syringe to begin the show.

What do you miss most nowadays from the past?

Obviously the much greater significance of releasing a new album. New albums were often significant and ground breaking art with philosophical/political agendas of widespread influence and across the populations. Good recording studios were very hard to access so new albums were important artistic events.

I am happy that recording has been made accessible to the wider public but the impact of the new release been totally diluted of course.

What are your hopes and fears for the future?

Across the whole planet, populations are dividing into futurists and conservatives. Obviously a peaceful revolution which celebrates humanistic change at the expense of small power elites will make this world a better place.

"When the Dream Machine was being developed by Burroughs and Brion Gysin they tried it out on me with spectacular results. I experienced psychedelic visions that anticipated the light shows created for Soft Machine by Mark Boyle in 1966." (Photo: Soft Machine -- Robert Wyatt, Daevid Allen, Kevin Ayers, and Mike Ratledge)

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?

William Burroughs gave me excellent advice. He said: "Keep your bags packed and ready to go at all times".

Which memory from Soft Machine and Gong makes you smile?

Kevin Ayers biting me savagely on the arm for playing a wrong chord behind his vocal.

What's the legacy of Soft Machine and Gong?

Soft Machine: Thinking people who take themselves too seriously.

Gong: Twinkling people who know the situation we live in is much too serious to be serious about.

What are the lines that connect the Beat generation with the music and art general?

The chaotic pointillism of post bohemian lifestyles.

What means to be Beatnik?

To be or not to be an ego-centric self-destructive alcoholic misogynist with a great sense of humor and an anarchists aesthetics..

If you could change one thing in the world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would like war to be successfully replaced by football.

"My first hit of beat poetry came with my discovery of the Beat literary magazine: EVERGREEN REVIEW in the Melbourne University Bookshop in 1958.  Prior to this, my idea of what poetry could be had been revolutionized by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas and my discovery of the American typographical radical, E.E. Cummins."

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the world and music circuits?

I can laugh at everything but the jokes of professional comedians.

I have never been so emotionally touched as when I listen to Robert Wyatt's 'Rock Bottom' album.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

To Berlin in the twenties when DADA was at its peak.

Daevid Allen & Planet Gong - Home

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