The Pete Brown Interview

Morden Tower / Photo © Andrew Curtis (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Morden Tower / Photo © Andrew Curtis (cc-by-sa/2.0)

By Bill Ectric

On June 16, 1964, Pete Brown gave the first ever poetry reading at Morden Tower, now a literary landmark in Newcastle, England. The Morden Tower Readings, conceived and organized by Tom and Connie Pickard, went on to host readings by more poets than can be listed here, especially from the Beat and Black Mountain movements, including Allen Ginsberg’s first European reading of Kaddish. I have always found the connections and cross-pollination of different scenes fascinating, but in 1964, the only poetry I cared about was surrounded by electric guitars and drums. As the sixties progressed, I absorbed rock & roll, blues rock, acid rock, progressive rock, and heavy metal.

Pete Brown, Living Life BackwardsI did like to read, however, and I was one of those kids who not only listened to records, I read everything printed on the album covers: Music and production credits, liner notes, and even the ads on the inner sleeves. We didn’t have CDs back then, and those 12-inch wide phonograph disks had plenty of room on the packaging for text. Polydor Records used to promote various artists on the paper inner sleeves of their albums covers, and I remember the curious feeling of seeing my favorite rockers (Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and The Who) alongside artists that, to me, seemed arcane even then (Acker Bilk, Teagarden and Van Winkle, Len Novy). I remember wondering, who is this mysterious person named Pete Brown, listed in the credits on Cream albums alongside Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker? On the album itself, under each song title, the composer’s names appeared in parentheses: Sunshine of Your Love (Clapton, Bruce, Brown); White Room (Bruce, Brown); I Feel Free (Bruce, Brown).

Much later, I learned that he was none other than the same Pete Brown who gave the first reading at Morden Tower. Born on December 25, 1940, in Ashtead, Surrey, England, Pete Brown started writing when he was fourteen. He cites a jazz and poetry recording by Kenneth Patchen as a turning point in his life. He also names Dylan Thomas and Federico Garcia Lorca as important influences. By age 19, Pete was a professional performance poet and worked with Michael Horovitz to produce the New Departures magazine, which published early works by Samuel Beckett and William S. Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg saw the New Departure group as a counterpart to the American Beats. As previously mentioned, Brown co-wrote a number of songs with members of Cream, which, at the time, was considered an avant-garde band due to their extended improvisations and dedication to a psychedelic version of the classic blues form. After Cream disbanded, Pete Brown and Jack Bruce continued to co-write lyrics for  Bruce’s solo albums, including Songs For a Tailor, Harmony Row, and Into the Storm. Pete has been the producer and/or percussionist and/or vocalist for a variety of bands, including The Battered Ornaments, Pete Brown and Piblokto!, The Hamburg Blues Band (guest sideman), Back to Front, The Interoceters, and more. His books include Few Poems (1966, Migrant Press: Birmingham), Let ‘Em Roll, Kafka (1969, Fulcrum: London), and The Old Pal’s Act (1972, Allison & Busby: London).Pete Brown & Piblokto

I had the pleasure of asking Pete Brown some questions by email.

BILL: Being involved in both music and Beat poetry, did you ever meet David Amram?

PETE: Yes. I have done two gigs with David Amram, both under the name of LIPS Festivals. The first was a few years ago at the now-defunct Ocean in Hackney. He played piano and French horn. My bassist, David Hadley, jammed with him. The second time was last November when we did a 50 years of On the Road celebration at the new Marquee club, now, sadly, also defunct. Amram played on all three nights with various people including on a poetry/music set with me. I also had my whole band there one night and it was the last gig of that particular incarnation as I am now back with Phil Ryan and we are planning a much larger band to tour next year when the new record is out. Amram and I got on very well, incidentally- being a jazz fan of old I was quite aware of his work with Miles, and also saw Pull My Daisy when it first came out. He is extremely sprightly, and reminded me a little of Mose Allison, one of my idols, who also seems to go on forever. Would it were the same for me in ten years time!

BILL: I understand you were the first poet to read at Morden Tower. Was there any musical accompaniment during the readings?

PETE: I was definitely the first poet to read at the Morden Tower, and no, there was no music then.

BILL: Can you talk about some of the people you met there?

PETE: The most important person I met there was Basil Bunting, who Tom Pickard had coaxed out of retirement. What an incredible writer and a great bloke. I later took Ginsberg there and I think Robert Creeley, too. It was a terrific place, great atmosphere and the girls were very friendly!

BILL: How did you and Jack Bruce collaborate? Did one person write the lyrics while the other wrote the music?

PETE: When I worked with Jack, which I did for over thirty years, the music mostly came first. There were exceptions, such as Rope Ladder and White Room. As You Said was written almost simultaneously, Jack playing and me writing.

BILL: Did you ever meet or work with Alexis Korner?

PETE: I knew Alexis quite well, ever since Graham Bond and Dick Heckstall-Smith began playing with him. When I was doing the New Departures Jazz/Poetry thing we had a residency at the Marquee at the same time as Alexis’ Blues Inc., and we were allowed in free, so I was usually around. I did the odd gig with Alexis later on, one memorable festival in a muddy hole in the ground near Hannover in Germany. I think I also did at least one gig at Les Cousins folk club with him, it was when he was in a more experimental mode and had a violinist with him. We also had many musical colleagues in common over the years, for instance Danny Thompson and Zoot Money.

BILL: First I heard that Harry Shapiro was writing a biography about you. Later I heard that you are writing your own autobiography.

PETE: I’m writing an autobiography. It’s nearly finished – should be ready by the end of the year. I wanted Harry to do it with me but the publishers, having seen a couple of chapters I wrote, felt it would benefit from having my voice in it.

Pete Brown & The Interoceters

BILL: Any other news?

PETE: The only news is that, with luck, Phil Ryan and I will have finished recording the new album, which also features Arthur Brown, Clem Clempson, Jim Mullen, Richard Bailey, David Hadley, Bob Jenkins, John McKenzie, Mo Nazam, Taff Williams, Art Themen, Annie Whitehead, and possibly a cameo appearance by Peter Greene (the elusive founder of Fleetwood Mac). We are still waiting on a decision from Peter Greene. We hope to finish recording by the end of September and have it mixed by the end of October. That’s my main effort right now, and the book. There are mutterings of lyric and poetry books but we are still in negotiation. There also seems to be a plan for me to produce Peter Green again, but it’s just a plan right now.

BILL: Are you the Peter Brown mentioned in the song, The Ballad of John and Yoko?

PETE: No, the Peter Brown mentioned in that song was part of the Beatles management team and not me. Sorry to disappoint.

BILL: I guarantee you, I am in no way disappointed, having actually been able to interview a person who shines so mythical from my golden past.

More Interviews by Bill

Bill Ectric’s Place (blog)

Bill Ectric’s Website (Books and More)

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Jazz Man David Amram Talks About Charlie Parker, Willie Nelson, the Internet, and More

Beat jazz pioneer David Amram has collaborated with Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Willie Nelson, and Charles Mingus. He is a multi-talented musician, composer, conductor, world traveler, scholar, and on top of all that, the first time I phoned the 76-year young dynamo, he was outside fixing a tractor on his farm in upstate New York. Here is the interview I conducted with David Amram during two phone calls that took place on Saturday and Sunday, December 16 and 17, 2006.

Bill: How would you explain the term “orchestral colors”?

David: One of the first people who ever spoke to me of orchestral color was Charlie Parker, in 1952, in my basement apartment in Washington, DC. Parker asked me if I had ever checked out the music of Frederick Delius.

I said, “Bird, we were always told Delius was a minor composer,” because in those days, there was a lot lacking in American music studies, and most music teachers referred to Delius that way.

Bird said, “Check out his orchestration. Frederick Delius was a great orchestral colorist.”

Bill: But what does that mean?

David: Orchestral colors and the art of orchestration is like taking a series of black and white illustrations and filling them in with colors. In symphonic music, those black and white images are the actual notes played; how and who plays them is what you do when you orchestrate something. A composition is like a great painting in that it has contrast, form, takes you to places you’ve never been before, and keeps you wanting more.

Bill: What was Charlie Parker like?

David: Charlie Parker had brilliance and sophistication that the movie Bird didn’t capture. He was very knowledgeable and he was a lifetime student of ‘hang-out-ology’, always learning, open-minded, so he didn’t rank Delius as a “minor” or “major” musician. He heard the music of Delius for what it was. I talk about this is my book Vibrations .

Bill: Your song about Hunter S. Thompson, on the Southern Stories CD, is perfect. It captures Thompson’s life story so simply and yet, so completely. Did you ever meet Hunter?

David: Yes, I first met Hunter in 1959. I had a cabin in Huguenot, New York when Hunter Thompson was a reporter for the Middletown Daily Record. There was a little store I went to for my week’s supply of groceries, and the old man who ran the store hardly said a word, usually just a grunt for ‘hello.’ But finally, one day, the guy said to me, “I’ve seen ’em.”

“Seen what?” I asked.

“The saucer people,” he says. “The flying saucer people in the field across the street.”

“Oh …” I said. “Okay …”

He said, “I’ve only told two people about this. You, and that crazy writer up on the hill.”

Of course, the crazy writer was Hunter Thompson. Years later, when Ron Whitehead and Doug Brinkley organized an award ceremony for Thompson in Louisville, Kentucky, they asked me to be the music director. I had the chance to sit and reminisce with Hunter about the guy in the Superette who saw the saucer people and other, more serious things, as well. Hunter was more than just a crazy Gonzo character, he was first and foremost a serious writer.

Bill: There is another song on Southern Stories, ‘Alfred the Hog’, where you play a flute solo that knocks me out as much as any electric guitar solo. At one point, it sounds like you are playing two flutes at the same time.

David: Thank you, thanks a lot. That instrument is actually an Irish penny-whistle, and yes, on part of the solo, I’m playing two penny-whistles at the same time.

Bill: How did you learn to do that?

David: It just came naturally.

Bill: That figures.

David: The penny-whistle is a versatile instrument. Just as a violin can be used for either classical or bluegrass, the penny-whistle can be used different ways. Audiences in Kenya enjoyed it when I went there for the World Council of Churches and played African music in 1976. Dizzy Gillespie dug how I used the penny-whistle as a jazz instrument when I played with him in Havana in 1977.

Bill: You composed the soundtrack for the original version of The Manchurian Candidate in 1962. I read that Frank Sinatra, the star of the movie, was very pleased with the score you created for that movie. Did you meet Sinatra?

David: I met him in New York a few years after making the film. He said he liked the fact that I’m a jazz musician as well as a classical composer, and he was impressed that I write my own music, orchestrate every note myself, and don’t use ghost writers.

Bill: Frank Sinatra, Jr. said that the Manchurian Candidate score was an “ingenious combination of polytonality and jazz.” Can you explain what “polytonality” means?

David: Polytonal means using more than one harmonic pattern, or two separate tonal bases at the same time.

Bill: Yeah, Google says, “Using more than one key or tonality simultaneously,” but I still don’t quite understand it. I thought you could only play in one key at a time.

David: Well, for example, you can play a G7 chord and play a D flat against it.

Bill: No doubt, you can. I’ll have to work it. Moving on, I have to ask you this, because there’s a debate going on among some friends of mine. You know that famous black & white photo of Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac, you, and Allen Ginsberg, all sitting in the diner? Is that a spoon or a toothpick you are chomping on?

David: I think it was a spoon, as I used to eat yogurt there, but I really have no idea.

We didn’t know that the picture was being taken and it certainly never occurred to us that 48 years later, it would be on the cover of books, in articles, museums, and so on.

We were all smiling and having a good time, laughing and enjoying each others company, NOT a bunch of surly hating “Beatniks” as the Beats are sometimes portrayed.

Bill: It looks like a fun group.

David: None of us had on the “costumes” that Beat people were supposed to wear. There was no such thing as a “Beat movement.” We were all a group of friends hanging out. Especially Kerouac!

Bill: Who was the little kid in Pull My Daisy that played music with you?

David: The kid was Pablo Frank, Robert Frank’s son. A great little guy. All this is in my book Offbeat: Collaborating With Kerouac.

Bill: Did you ever meet William S. Burroughs?

David: Yes, many times.

Bill: I wondered why Burroughs was not in Pull My Daisy.

David: He was not what you would call a gregarious, fun guy. He was fun to listen to when he was talking but he was a very private person.

Bill: I saw you on MySpace recently. What are your thoughts on the internet?

David: My kids got me onto MySpace. Thanks to the internet, the generation of my kids have access for the first time in history to all that magnificent music from all around the world as well as the United States. A gifted army of people, who never get played on the radio and whose CDs you can never buy in record stores, now have a level playing field.

You know, the huge record companies are merging in a last desperate attempt to control the listening habits of people all over the world. But with the web and new means of broadcasting, we are now all pardoned from the solitary confinement of the penitentiary of the globalized entertainment industry. My own kids actually draw audiences for their music on the internet without being part of the music industry. Conversely, a lot of the more obscure stuff I’ve done downloaded. Right now, you can go to YouTube and find Pull My Daisy with Italian subtitles!

As artists, we want to share what we do with others. Of course, we have to pay our rent, buy clothes, take our kids to the dentist, so we have to pay bills. That doesn’t mean you have to ruin your art by trying to become a millionaire in two years.

Now days, in baseball, a batter won’t run out an infield grounder. A basketball player won’t make an assist and only want to score points. These players have been forced, by bad advice, to represent what is wrong in their world rather than what’s right.

That’s why I like playing Farm Aid. Willie Nelson and everyone else at Farm Aid share certain traits: Love of music, caring about other people, inspiring others, and a genuine love and respect for the audience. As a result, all of them are fun to be with.

Bill: Man, you really do play all kinds of music with all kinds of people.

David: Anybody can learn to play any style on whatever instrument they play. You just need to be patient, humble yourself to be with those who know more, and learn the basics. It’s a lifetime job. It’s like learning different dialects. Second generation Cubans, for example, have a different kind of Cuban accent than their parents. In the same way, music changes from generation to generation.

Bill: Do you ever compose in your head without score paper?

David: Oh, yeah. Sure.

Bill: Do you ever think something will sound good until you hear it played, and then decide you need to change it?

David: Not really. By the time I get it on paper, it’s pretty much right as far as the combination of notes. I may decide to change the tempo or things of balance, like soft or loud, to make it work the best.

Bill: Do you ever see musical sounds as geometric shapes?

David: No, I just hear it very clearly.