Writer, filmmaker, arts agitator Joe Ambrose talks about William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, and Irish Beat scene

"Free your mind and your ass will follow – the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Life should be about freeing oneself but, mostly, it never works out that way."

Joe Ambrose: Irish Dreamachine

Irish writer Joe Ambrose works as a DJ with art hip hop combo Islamic Diggers, He has lived in Marrakesh, Morocco, since October ‘07, hanging out with The Gnoua Brotherhood of Marrakesh, Sufi mystic trance musicians. Ambrose previously produced the group for the William Burroughs tribute CD, 10%, which also features John Cale, Paul Bowles, Marianne Faithfull, Herbert Huncke, and The Master Musicians of Joujouka.

While Ambrose was out of circulation in Africa, Islamic Diggers, dubbed “boho dissidents” by avant electronica bible The Wire, have been busy. Their track William Burroughs Don’t Play Guitar has just appeared on a new Burroughs documentary, Words of Advice, which also features Patti Smith, Hal Willner, and Bill Laswell. Another Diggers track, Hashishin, was included along with work by Stockhausen in a January ’08 sound installation, Cut Up, curated by Copenhagen’s Karriere in conjunction with the Danish Museum of Modern Art. Ambrose has previously worked with Anita Pallenberg, Richard Hell, Chrissie Hynde, and Herbert Huncke. He is Literary Editor of LA-based magazine, outsideleft.com. In 2007 he was asked by Iggy Pop to write the sleeve notes for Escaped Maniacs, the Iggy and the Stooges DVD package.
Chelsea Hotel Manhattan is the last Joe’s book. Extreme living in New York's Chelsea Hotel, from the Beats through Punk, and on into the present day. Ambrose is currently editing an anthology of writings by the Fenians, the 19th Century Irish revolutionary brotherhood. An experienced broadcaster and a lively commentator on cultural affairs, he has worked with BBC Radio 4; BBC World Service, BBC Radio 2, RTE Radio 1, Lyric FM, and Channel 4 TV.

Interview by Michael Limnios


How do you describe Joe Ambrose’s philosophy about life and what characterizes Joe’s progress?
Politically an anarchist, have been since age 15. Also supportive of armed struggle in a number of different arenas. People should free themselves.  Free your mind and your ass will follow – the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Life should be about freeing oneself but, mostly, it never works out that way.  I was brought up a Catholic, have nothing much against the Catholic Church. It’s done a great deal more good than harm. I find it possible to lead my life the way I choose in places like Tangier or Berlin.


Which is the most interesting period in your life?
There are very interesting times. When I was hanging around with Eamon Carr, the drummer from Horslips, a formidable Irish band who were the iconic voice of Irish youth culture in the 70s. I’m writing a book right now about my adventures in the William Burroughs Industry. That period in my life was full of intrigue and celebrity. That was when I came to work with Hamri the Painter of Morocco, Joujouka, Marianne Faithfull, and Lydia Lunch.  Through Lydia, I met the American writer Gene Gregorits. Hamri showed me Morocco, as did my partner in Islamic Diggers, Frank Rynne. I was happy as a pig in shit when I stayed in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. I was happy as a pig in shit walking through Soho with Anita Pallenberg.


What experiences in your life make you a good writer, filmmaker, arts agitator and musician?
It’s up to others to say if I’m any good. What makes an artist great is a unique perception of the world around us. I just can’t tell about myself. My efforts in music don’t rely on any musical talent on my part. I worked with great collaborators like Frank Rynne, Ed DMX, Paul Schroeder, and One Way. First met Tiago from One Way years ago when he was working for a Porto promoter who imported Islamic Diggers – which is Frank and me. Tiago showed me around his intense and double-edged city. Porto deserves a Simenon.  I enjoy filmmaking more than anything else – it’s a medium which suits me.


When did you first become interested in the early 60s Dublin literary scene?  What does Ireland's answer to the Beat Generation mean to you?
I think you’re referring to my period running the Irish Writers CoOp, where I met several veterans of the Irish literary bohemian scene of the postwar years. One of the leading lights within the CoOp was Anthony Cronin, who was close pals with Brendan Behan and JP Donleavy.  There were a gang of people like him in the CoOp; their pals included Patrick Kavanagh and that Irish Attorney General guy who ended up flat sharing with a serial killer. Leland Bardwell, Sammy Sheridan (who wrote as FD Sheridan and was the mother of Steven Ryan from The Stars of Heaven), and the younger ones like Ronan Sheehan, Des Hogan, and the playwright Bernard Farrell. Also, I worked extensively with Eamon Carr, a counterculture veteran who’d been in public action since he helped found the iconic Tara Telephone in the late 60s. They were a poetry performance scene bongos and poetry kind of hippy scene. I admire Brendan Behan and Shane McGowan, who represent a kind of Irish Beat scene.


Do you have any amusing tales to tell from “The Here to Go Show”?
The Show happened 20 years ago this year – it launched on September 29th, 1992. Most of the members/associates of the Beat Generation who attended (Ira Cohen, Hamri, Felicity Mason) are now dead. Most of the 2nd and 3rd generation Beat disciples – the likes of Terry Wilson, Frank Rynne, Ramuntcho Matta, and Hakim Bey – are still alive and kicking. Certainly kicking! Usually me. And the Master Musicians of Joujouka, who dominated the festival and gave it a personality and a purpose – are still very much in action. Frank runs a festival in Joujouka every year and told a mutual friend that I would not be welcome at his event. I was in Joujouka recently and told the Masters about this. They said I was welcome any time – and some other things. So it’s amusing that I’ve been written out of the history of the Musicians.

Why did you think that William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, continue to generate such a devoted following?
Burroughs has a following because he was a great and significant artist. He was also something of a character – to put it mildly. His rock star status was enhanced by his manager James Grauerholz. This worked out pretty good but did little for his serious reputation as a writer. We could have done without him collaborating with U2 or reciting Jim Morrison’s doggerel. Gysin was a more dubious character and I regret, to some extent, my own association with him.


How did the movie Destroy All Rational Thought, the book Man from Nowhere, and the album 10%; File Under Burroughs, come about?
All three of these projects arose from The Here To Go Show, the purpose of which was to celebrate the collaborative work between William Burroughs and Brion Gysin. The ambition was to make Brion Gysin a better-known artist. When we met Hamri, we also wanted to support him. William Burroughs backed the thing wholeheartedly. Man from Nowhere – Storming the Citadels of Enlightenment with William Burroughs and Brion Gysin – to give it its full name – was a book published in conjunction with the show, a sort of elaborate catalogue written by me, Frank Rynne and Terry Wilson.  In addition to the main text, we got contributions from Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull, John Giorno, Paul Bowles, Bill Laswell, and more. Burroughs sent us a hand written Introduction. When the dust from the Show settled we found we had a number of video recordings of the events so Frank and I, in cahoots with a media expert called Stuart Maclean, put this stuff  together as the movie Destroy All Rational Thought. After a while, we were approached by Fred and Guy Marc from Sub Rosa records, who wanted a kind of Destroy All Rational Thought soundtrack album. That expanded into 10%, a double CD with an elaborate package – it featured Marianne Faithfull, Burroughs, Joujouka, John Cale, Scanner, Your Nemesis, our own group Islamic Diggers, and more.


William Burroughs is more a ghost or a human? Which memory from William makes you smile?
Like all iconic artists, Burroughs was just a human being trying to make the best of it, when you get right down to it. I only spoke to him the once, on the phone when I got involved in a book called Flickers of the Dreamachine in 1996. He sounded nothing like the hardboiled/Jimmy Cagney/Humphrey Bogart character we know from his spoken word work. He seemed extremely mellow and patrician. We talked about Dreamachines and Hamri.


Do you remember anything interesting from The Master Musicians of Joujouka?
The Musicians are great fun to be around. I’ve known them since 1992. I don’t see much of them right now.  Like all musicians, their chat is taken up with swaggering, blue stories, moans about money, and food. Their silence is intense and concerned with the preparation to make music. One of the most interesting things about them is that, while they’re probably the best-known Moroccan musicians in the world, they’re virtually unknown within the country. People in Ksar el Kebir, the nearest city to Joujouka, know all about them of course. That’s where Hamri, their “founding father” in terms of there being a recognizable band putting out records and doing gigs, came from. They’re known to a certain extent in Tangier, mostly within the tiny European community due to Blanca Hamri (Hamri’s widow), Gysin, Cherie Nutting, and others. The Tangier tourist hustlers claim to know all about Joujouka but don’t. It’s just part of their Rolling Stones-in-Morocco routine. I had lunch with a very senior and well-connected member of the Moroccan Royal last year. This individual made it clear to me that Joujouka was not part of the Moroccan cultural heritage. I argued otherwise to no avail.


What are some of your most memorable tales with Johnny Cash?
Frank and I had first worked together when I managed his band, The Baby Snakes – a Gun Club-ish blend of good songs and bad attitude. Frank wrote or co-wrote most of the songs – which were impressive. The Snakes made an EP of Johnny Cash songs. I got a copy of this to Cash. He agreed to meet with the band and to film the meeting. We went to a show he was doing in Wales. Our pal Ian Gilchrist filmed the thing with a crew. Cash was intense and had searching writer’s eyes. Snake eyes too. He had the air of a druggie – got very jumpy when I mentioned a certain music industry individual of ill repute in the drugs department

Of all the people you’ve met with, who do you admire the most?
Stanley Booth, Anita Pallenberg, Hamri, Victor Bockris, Paul Bowles, my mother, Herbert Huncke, Michael Hartnett – an Irish poet and family friend, Joey Ramone, Johnny Cash.


What are some of the most memorable interviews you've done?
Bill Wyman, an asshole. Liam Clancy, renowned folk singer.  Victor Bockris I talked to for my Iggy Pop book – a fantastic man and a superb writer. James Ellroy was like a cornered rat. Paul Bowles I went to see with Frank and I filmed the entire conversation. Nick  Cave, a capable media whore. Charlie Haughey – always good to interview a Prime Minister, especially a notorious one. Herbert Huncke I didn’t actually interview but I filmed Spencer Kansa interviewing him and, subsequently, I hung out with him lots.


Which memory from The China White Show makes you smile?
The Here To Go Show happened in ’92. It was funded by the Dublin businessman Gordon Campbell – a major patron of the arts in Ireland. We met him through Terry Wilson. They had a mutual pal in the Irish drug smuggler and art terrorist Jim McCann. The next year we went back to Dublin and did a totally unfunded show – The China White Show. It centered around the artworks of China White who was, in real life, one of the people who’d worked on The Here To Go Show. His work was original and influenced by the time he’d spent in New York Alphabet City. Part Pop, part graffiti, part ska. Other aspects of the show derived from the anti-copyright movement and the photocopy art scene, both of which I was interested in. That gave rise to an artzine, Radio Alamut – which is the thing about the China White Show that really makes me smile. Contributors included Stanley Booth, Lydia Lunch, Patrick McCabe, Negativland, Allen Ginsberg, Genesis P Orridge, and Hakim Bey. I still got some copies. If anyone wants one, they should get in touch via my website.

What are some of the most memorable tales from stage or backstage with Lydia Lunch, John Cale John Giorno, Howard Marks, Tav Falco, and The Master Musicians of Joujouka?  
What happens backstage stays backstage. Most of these people except Howard Marks came together at Festimad in Madrid in ’96. Tav Falco is one of the most cultured performers.  I’d been listening to him for years when I got to meet him in Madrid. Since then we’ve had memorable encounters in Paris and London. We had a great afternoon at Maison Bertaux in Soho where we talked about our mothers and the lives of artists. I hope I can now count him a friend. I think Festimad was the first time I met Lydia Lunch too, though we had more exhilarating adventures subsequently when Islamic Diggers toured Europe the same time as Lydia and Gene Gregorits. And we did a show in London with her and Kirk Lake. We met with John Cale to give him copies of  10% File Under Burroughs, which he contributed to. Howard Marks, drug smuggler supreme, came into my life via Gordon Campbell’s friendship with Jim McCann. It’s a long story. Backstage after Howard’s first theatrical one-man show at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire I met the gangster Charlie Richardson, and that was the real deal. If you don’t know who he is, go check him out. A man you don’t meet every day.


Participate in an interesting project Flickers of the Dreamachine. Where did get that idea?
It was a lovely book about Dreamachines and flicker experiments edited by a very nice scholarly man called Words – a close affiliate of Genesis P Orridge, who contributed to the book, along with Gysin, Ira Cohen, and the usual suspects. Words real name is Paul Cecil.


What is the “feel” you miss most nowadays from the Chelsea Hotel of past days?
I’m utterly opposed to nostalgia and which none for the Chelsea, which is just bricks and mortar, admittedly elegantly put together. But the iconography surrounding the hotel fascinates, and that’s what my book Chelsea Hotel Manhattan is about.


How would you spend a day with the Dreamachine?
I’ve spent many days and nights with the Dreamachine. At one stage I had a machine in my bedroom in London. It later got smashed by somebody else’s landlord in poor circumstances


What would you say to John O'Mahony and Michael Doheny if you met them?
These two men were Fenians and, therefore, founding fathers of the Irish armed struggle movement. I’d say to them, “Come back and give our people some dignity. They’re a gang of vulgarians, phonies in leprechaun costumes, and lumpen traitors. Most of them deserve, utterly deserve, the hard times they’re having right now. We also need a renewed Fenian spirit with which to drive the English out of our country. I edited a book of Fenian writings and Michael Doheny’s piece is a thing I put a load or work into and am proud of.


What would you like to say to Bridget Cleary?
Burn, baby, burn.

Photo Credit: Joe Ambrose in Marrakesh by Robbie Ambrose

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