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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AL Letson, Penumbra: Live at Henrietta’s at 9th & Main, Jacksonville, FL (2005)

Al Letson, photo by Billie Anderson

Al Letson is a poet, playwright, performer, and radio and podcast host. This article first appeared on Bill Ectric’s Place in June 2005. Since that time, Letson has hosted and produced the show State of the Re:Union for National Public Radio. He now hosts Reveal, a podcast from PRX and Center for Investigative Reporting.

Top photo by Billie Anderson. Text and other photos by Bill Ectric. Except for the one of Al and me. Does anyone out there know who took that one?

For dedication to his craft, innate talent, and hard work, Al Letson deserves the title of consummate professional, and I don’t use those words lightly. His delivery is precise, the emotion is fresh – Letson never seems to be on autopilot.

“Penumbra,” Letson explained to a full house, means basically “in between.” This night consisted of a mixture of poems and performance pieces that he has done in the past from different shows, as a kind of pause before he begins to put out new work, and to introduce himself to those who have not yet seen him.

Al Letson with Drummers

Al Letson with Drummers

Letson’s live performance, which began at 9:00 PM, was a diverse and exhilarating selection of poetry, acting, and monologue, sometimes accompanied by three percussionists near the stage. Interspersed among the live performances were two of Letson’s videos on a large screen backdrop. I believe we will see more poetry & spoken word videos and Al Letson is already helping to set the standard. Following an intermission, we all reconvened in the theater for a big screen viewing of Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam – the 2nd episode of the season, featuring our man Al Letson as the first guest! He had recently taped the episode and this night was the first time he, or anyone had seen it.

My favorite piece of the evening was called “Eunice.” It’s about a young black girl, a child in 1943, playing her first piano recital after much practice. During the recital she is distracted by a disturbance in the audience. Her parents are being told to move to the back of the room to make room for a white couple. Through this debacle she must keep playing, as her father mouths the words to her, “you know what you suppose to do.” Near the end of the poem we find out that this is a true story and the young girl, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, later changed her name to become famous as the great Nina Simone.

When he wasn’t on stage, Letson was in great demand by fans, friends, reporters, and members of his crew, so I mostly had to ask him questions on the fly. “Who did your videos?” I asked him. “I do most of my own video work,” he said. “The two you saw tonight were filmed by Don Solomon from Jacksonville Beach, but I do all my own editing and effects. I know quite a lot about video production and I enjoy doing it.”

We watched a short film by Letson

Watching one of Al’s videos

I said that I could easily see him acting in films. Someone spoke up and said, “He writes good plays. One of his plays will be on Broadway someday!”

Al Letson and Bill Ectric

Al and me

I asked him, “If you could travel into the past, what historical figure would you like to meet?” As he thought about my question, a young woman approached us, saying, “Al, we need you backstage for a minute.” Turning to me, Letson said, “Excuse me, I need to see what they need,” but as he walked away with the lady, he looked back at me thoughtfully and said, “Kennedy.”

Watching an episode of Russell Simmons Def Poetry featuring Al Letson

Watching an episode of Russell Simmons Def Poetry featuring Al Letson

We got a special treat before watching Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry. Because of last minute complications, the local cable company refused to hook up HBO directly to the club (typical), so someone had to record the show and bring it to Henrietta’s for viewing. To fill in the time delay, Letson performed an electrifying, beat-filled theater piece from one of his plays, called Griot. He was joined onstage by Larry Knight and David Girard Pugh, two other performers from the play.

Larry Knight, Al Letson, David Girard Pugh performing a scene from Griot

Larry Knight, Al Letson, David Girard Pugh performing a scene from Griot

 

Letson was first up on Def Poetry. You can read more about this performance on Literary Kicks, which is reviewing each episode as they air.

Poetic Justice: Madison Cawein and T.S. Eliot

Spencer Cawein Pate stands beside a bust of his distant relative, Madison Julius Cawein in Louisville, Kentucky

Spencer Cawein Pate says, “For those readers who are not related to poets, rest assured that it is a unique and satisfying experience to learn that T.S. Eliot plagiarized from one of your distant relatives.  In my case, the relative was Madison Julius Cawein (pronounced “CAW-wine”), a prolific Kentucky poet who was acclaimed and popular in his day (b. March 23, 1865, d. December 8, 1914) but is now all but forgotten.”

click here to read the entire essay

G. M. Palmer – Renew, Dear Spring, the Beaten Path of Verse

G. M. Palmer

How well I remember the awe and exhilaration that possessed me upon first reading Shelley’s Ozymandias or Tennyson’s Ulysses, some thirty years ago. With the guidance of a good English professor, I witnessed the impermanence of power in Shelley’s vision of a toppled statue in the sand; my spirit soared with the irresistible quest for adventure of Tennyson’s Ulysses.

How quickly the gods of antiquity gave way to angel-headed hipsters and 20th Century everyman. And while these modern and postmodern incarnations are natural and inevitable, and very much my forte, I recently read a book that makes an excellent case for turning back to the classic forms.

Reading G. M. Palmer’s book of original poems, With Rough Gods, is like utilizing a precision slide rule or a pocket-sized handbook of knowledge. Palmer’s concise, confident verse is enhanced by the glossary of Greek mythology in the back of the book. For example, Before reading the selection on page 16, called “Apollo and Daphne,” I turn to the glossary and learn that Apollo is “the archer god of the arts and the sun” and, among other things, “his seductions of Amalthea, Coronis, and Daphne went poorly,” and that Daphne was “a nymph; when Apollo mocked Eros’ archery skills, Eros swore revenge. He shot Apollo with an arrow of love and Daphne with an arrow of hate…Daphne was pitied by Gaia who turned her into a baby laurel. Still infatuated, Apollo then made the laurel his sacred tree.” Now I understand more fully the lines in Palmer’s poem as, “My broken words return / in splintered shards of sound” and “With branches snapped and rough / Impossible to please”. It’s a fun way to read verse!

With so many modern poets eschewing rhyme and rhyme schemes (ABAB, ABBA, etc.), it’s refreshing to read verse that adheres to a specific structure. What makes it refreshing is that Palmer does it so well. I attended a reading by G. M. Palmer a couple of years ago. I remember him saying that poems were meant to be understood. David Yezzi, Executive Editor of The New Criterion, says, “In With Rough Gods, not only are the ancient dramas kept very much alive; they are made young again.”

The title of this blog entry is taken from the introductory poem to With Rough Gods by G. M. Palmer