Read Your Book And Lose Yourself… ‘You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into The 1960s’

Renowned psychedelic historian and fervent Stringhead, Andy Roberts, reviews ‘You Know What You Could Be: Tuning Into The 1960s’ by Mike Heron & Andrew Greig…

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The Incredible String Band; L-R Clive Palmer, Robin Williamson, Mike Heron, 1966

Words by Andy Roberts

The Incredible String Band were, I’d suggest, unarguably, the Ur-psychedelic folk band. Following Robin Williamson’s sojourn in Morocco and Clive Palmer’s overland odyssey to Afghanistan in 1965, they became early adopters of ancient and arcane instruments, mixing oud and shenai from the east with fiddle, guitar and whistle from Britain and the USA. Then, as dope smoke began to curl round the edges of their minds and LSD opened the doors of perception, Mike Heron took up the sitar and for a few years they more or less defined psychedelic folk and were the vanguard of world music and experimental folk.

Much has been written about the Incredible String Band, as each generation discovers their musical mysteries, but very little by the band members themselves. A Robin Williamson autobiography would be the Holy Grail but he seems uninterested in writing one, so when it was announced Mike Heron was working on his memoirs an anticipatory thrill ran through the vibrant online ISB fan community.

Wisely, instead of just hacking out a straight autobiography Heron chose to collaborate with poet and novelist Andrew Grieg to create a book of two halves. Mike’s portion of the book is a thing of wonder as we follow the young Mike through his childhood and teenage rock band years to his meeting with Clive Palmer, erstwhile beatnik folk musician and part of the ISB’s DNA. Mike’s early ‘career’ as an accountant soon falters as his balance sheet comes down more on the side of hash, girls and music, than profit and loss. Before long, Mike’s hanging out at the legendary Clive’s Incredible Folk Club and auditioning with Clive and Robin Williamson as, almost imperceptibly, the Incredible String Band came into being and with it a new synthesis of musics and cultures. A synthesis of such potency that it still echoes through music today.

I won’t spoil the story Mike tells, save to say it’s full of fact and detail even the most hardened Stringhead will be ignorant of. Fundamentally it’s a tale of friendship, music, curiosity, and sensory and mystical exploration. Joe Boyd of Witchseason was savvy enough to appreciate just how innovatory the String Band were and carefully brought them to record. But Mike ends his story on the cusp of the String Band’s recording future, just as they are beginning to hang out at Mary Stewart’s Temple Cottage mixing with climbers and bohemians of all persuasions. There are many useful insights into the early Edinburgh folk scene and that period where beat was merging into hippie. One ‘secret’ not in the book but one which will enhance your reading experience is that you can see Mike and Robin playing “October Song” live in Joe Boyd’s London flat during the winter of 1967/68:

Andrew’s Grieg’s portion of the book provides the counterpoint from a devoted ISB fan’s point of view as he and his friend form Fate & Ferret, an ISB like band. They achieve fame with the String Band when Joe Boyd uses some of their fictional ISB tales in the insert that came with ‘Wee Tam and the Big Huge’. Grieg’s reflections on his time as an ISB fan weave through his life and ending up where he, a one-time fan, is now part of Heron’s autobiography and he appears at gigs with Heron, reading his own poetry and stories of his interactions with Mike and Robin throughout their careers. Grieg is sharply perceptive and poetic and his account of growing up String will resonate with many readers. His ‘At The Loch Of The Green Corrie‘ is highly recommended for its many references to the String Band but as a marvellous meditation on life, friendship landscape, music and poetry.

Sadly YKWYCB is far too short, stopping before the ISB’s psychedelic years and the acid influenced songs such as “A Very Cellular Song” (written by Heron coming down from a trip) or “Painted Chariot” (the painted chariot being the coloured acid tab, the lyric “Then you got high, wonder why, much more where’s the door”  almost haiku-like, nailing some varieties of the psychedelic experience), but another volume will follow soon wherein we will discover Mike’s view on these matters as well as the baleful influence Scientology had on the band, their Woodstock performance and, ooo, at least 5,000 other things! isbn9781784293017

If I have a couple of cavils it’s that there is no index and far too few photographs. But other than that, it’s an indispensable read for the String Band fan or indeed anyone interested in the early psychedelic folk scene. It’s also got the best dust jacket art for a psychedelic book I’ve seen in a very long time and I urge you to buy the hardcopy rather than the kindle version for that alone.

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