Joining the Dots

Barry Miles, In The Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture

Serpent's Tail, 272pp, £14.99, ISBN 978184668900

reviewed by David Renton

This book, Miles’ memoir of the 1970s, begins and ends with narratives of two relationships. The first is his friendship with the poet and countercultural icon Allen Ginsberg and in particular a year Miles spent in America collecting records of the poet’s public performances; the last is his employment from 1976 as a journalist on the New Musical Express, as a result of which he witnessed the birth of punk.

At its best, the book offers compelling descriptions of celebrated figures within the counterculture. William Burroughs is captured in London in 1972, dressed in his understated Jermyn Street finest, returning home to talk obsessively about guns (Burroughs had infamously, of course, shot and killed his own wife). Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith have sung about the Hotel Chelsea; Miles lived there too, and conveys something of its domestic economy through his memories of the occultist, collector and long-term Chelsea resident Harry Smith. Another lively chapter describes a short trip Miles made to Wilhelm Reich’s home Orgonon: concealed, narrow roads leading to a perfectly-maintained mansion with neatly clipped lawns. Amateur Freudians may make of that what they wish.

Near the end of his book, Miles describes the starting point of his journey as his decision in 1960 (when he was a schoolboy living in England) to send off to City Lights Book in San Francisco for a copy of Ginsberg’s poem Howl. He was not the only young Englishman to have followed that connection. David Widgery, briefly an editor of Oz, also made a pilgrimage to America, returning in 1965. Widgery, like Miles, was a hippie who became a writer and then an important figure in punk. Yet while Miles was always only a journalist, Widgery grew into something different. He was one of the guiding minds of Rock Against Racism, a milieu of designers, artists and musicians, who intervened in punk, pulling it decisively to the left.

The comparison with Widgery draws attention to perhaps the most surprising omission from this book. Miles’ account opens with an explosion in Greenwich Village in 1970 which turned out to be the accidental self-destruction of a Weathermen bomb factory. Miles was in the vicinity, reporting for International Times. In its aftermath Miles observed Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, two celebrities of the anti-war left. ‘They really did think they were revolutionary leaders’, Miles writes, ‘but they represented no-one, they were not in any organised political party, they had no constituency. They were leaders only in their own eyes…’ It is odd that in a book about the 1970s ‘counterculture’ this is the sole reference to politics. Elsewhere Miles appears to have been utterly content with the standard sixties conflation of vegetarianism, anti-capitalism and Tantric sex.

A different conflation can be seen in Miles’ (or perhaps his publicist’s) insistence on the back-cover of his book that ‘the spirit of the sixties didn’t die on 31 December 1969.’ Now the capacity of idealists and 68-ers such as Miles and Widgery to find roles for themselves in the epoch of punk suggests that there was more continuity between the two summers of 1968 and 1976 than is often thought. But Miles’ notion of the punk aesthetic as one of ‘wonderfully creative ... geometric shapes’ suggests that his writer’s eye was by now beginning to flag.

The counterculturalism of the 1960s was a politics of affluence. Its innovations were in what Widgery termed ‘the politics of everyday life ... the world of the cultural, the emotional and the sexual’ which would otherwise have fallen ‘to the Right’. The politics of the 1970s were shaped by austerity. Yes, punk had its student participants, but it was chiefly a movement of young workers, sceptics not utopians. Reading Miles in the year of the London riots, I could not help but wish that rather than annexing punk to the long 1960s, he had just let it speak on its own terms. Energetic, partisan, destructive: our own times demand a similar cultural politics of resistance.
David Renton is a barrister and the author of CLR James: Cricket’s Philosopher King.