The performance of the Grey Monk at the Garden of Love musical evening in the Glastonbury William Blake Festival involved layers of complexity that demonstrate the extent of the mysterious and exhilarating dynamism that drove the whole event.
I knew from the moment that I started writing my book William Blake and the Glastonbury Gnosis that Allen Ginsberg would be featured due to his importance in championing Blake in the sixties and I was fairly clear about how I was going to do that. The full extent of his inspiration was something I could not have remotely anticipated.
I began writing and reading about Ginsberg on June 3rd. The next day I realised that it had been his birthday. This is the kind of sign I take as indicating that I have connected to the inner core of a writing project. Strong proof of this soon followed.
The three days of our event were determined firstly by the availability of a venue for our intended finale, a musical evening. August 10th was our Friday option. The previous week had been considered but was already booked. With this in place, the previous night was secured for my book launch lecture in the Town Hall, which in turn changed my pace of work to ensure it had been finished in time to be delivered for that date. The Wednesday was set aside for an afternoon public poetry recital around Glastonbury Market Cross.
I started to investigate videos of musical performances of Blake poetry in the hope of inspiring our musicians. Allen Ginsberg had recorded a whole album of them. I was aware that he had memorably sung a version of the Grey Monk during the legendary Democratic Party Convention protests of 1968 that had been met with what official reports later described as a ‘police riot’. When I looked into it further for the purpose of what I believed to be simply getting some details for a brief account in my book, something very striking made itself known.
The Grey Monk is a very interesting poem with the usual Blakean multiple levels of meaning. It is a consideration of tyranny. One of the most powerful of the poet’s responses to the revolutionary agitations of his time, in the USA, and particularly France, was his warnings concerning how idealism can be corrupted into tyranny. This cycle might take a long time. His feelings concerning the USA have considerable contemporary resonance in this respect. The monk himself is a personification of the victims of this idealism gone wrong.
A definite stirring of these negative aspects had been in the late sixties and Ginsberg, as a great Blake enthusiast, recognised this. His performance of the poem was perfectly timed. It has often been suggested that the behaviour of the police in Chicago that day was a prefiguration of the flavour of the imminent Nixon administration and a period of considerable darkness in American politics.
The poem also deals with the major issue of how to resist tyranny. This had been important to the counter-culture as it organised protests against the Vietnam War and attempted to find new political forms of discourse. Armed revolt against tyranny readily becomes what it has resisted. For Blake, the French Revolution was the great example.
There are slightly different versions of the poem, one included in a kind of interlude in the long multi-form Jerusalem. It was born out of one of the few real dramas in Blake’s life, the time he appeared in court after an altercation with a soldier and stood a real chance of receiving the kind of punishment that would have comprehensively ruined his life. The poem depicts a tortured pacifist who will not recant. The broader backdrop sees the recent horrors of the French Revolution as failing to accomplish their stated aims and ending up repeating the strategies of tyrants down through the ages.
The version of the poem in Jerusalem features in a kind of interlude between sections after a short essay to The Deists. ‘Those who Martyr others or who cause War are Deists, but never can be Forgivers of Sin. The Glory of Christianity is, To Conquer by Forgiveness. All the Destruction, therefore, in Christian Europe has arisen from Deism, which is Natural Religion.’ The eighteenth century rationalists, Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, and Hume, are deemed responsible for the intellectual climate that could distort the revolutionary impulse into terror and repression.
“I die, I die!” the Mother said,
“My children die for lack of bread.
What more has the merciless Tyrant said?”
The Monk sat down on the stony bed.
The blood red ran from the Grey Monk’s side,
His hands and feet were wounded wide,
His body bent, his arms and knees
Like to the roots of ancient trees.
His eye was dry; no tear could flow:
A hollow groan first spoke his woe.
He trembled and shudder’d upon the bed;
At length with a feeble cry he said:
“When God commanded this hand to write
In the studious hours of deep midnight,
He told me the writing I wrote should prove
The bane of all that on Earth I lov’d.
My Brother starv’d between two walls,
His Children’s cry my soul appalls;
I mock’d at the rack and griding chain,
My bent body mocks their torturing pain.
Thy father drew his sword in the North,
With his thousands strong he marched forth;
Thy Brother has arm’d himself in steel
To avenge the wrongs thy Children feel.
But vain the Sword and vain the Bow,
They never can work War’s overthrow.
The Hermit’s prayer and the Widow’s tear
Alone can free the World from fear.
For a Tear is an intellectual thing,
And a Sigh is the sword of an Angel King,
And the bitter groan of the Martyr’s woe
Is an arrow from the Almighty’s bow.
The hand of Vengeance found the bed
To which the Purple Tyrant fled;
The iron hand crush’d the Tyrant’s head
And became a Tyrant in his stead.”
Ginsberg had clearly chosen to express his feeling of closeness to Blake in this intense situation where he himself could easily have been arrested. America was now the Empire. He left an account that told of the circumstances and the date when he got the tune in his head. He was returning from the funeral of his friend, the Beat Generation legend, Neal Cassady, who had inspired Jack Kerouac to write On the Road. It was August 10th 1968. Exactly fifty years ago to the day from our musical evening. It was immediately obvious to me that the Grey Monk simply had to be performed that night to Ginsberg’s tune. Now I had to inspire someone with the same enthusiasm I felt to actually do that.
There is a recorded version of Ginsberg’s rendition on a later album of Blake songs. I have to admit that his vocals are not always to my liking and I can only listen to so many of his Blake performances in succession before having to stop.
At the end of June I was present at an event celebrating the 70th birthday of local musician and prog-rock legend Judge Smith (a founder member of Van der Graaf Generator). I found myself chatting with another local legend, Michael Tyack, also a man with prog credentials as presiding genius of the band Circulus. I told him the Ginsburg 50th anniversary Grey Monk story and he enthusiastically affirmed that he wanted to perform it. I knew that he could make something from Ginsberg’s tune that would be worthy of the occasion.
I felt that something quite powerful and mysterious was going on and assembled some photos of Ginsberg from that period, and particularly Chicago ’68, with the intention of projecting them during the performance.
A free-floating musical combo assembled that occasionally appear in different forms as the Mystics of Avalon. Most of the musical evening featured the performers, with Grey Monk seeing them all come together with Michael Tyack to perform what he had arranged. Accompanying him were Brakeman on balalaika, guitar and vocals, Judge Smith and Tim Gallagher on percussion, and Violet on tampura and vocals.
The Grey Monk performance was the final piece of the evening. I’m very happy that our recording of it makes clear how fantastic it was. Michael Tyack’s wall of sound, created through his cosmic dulcimer, a Turkish instrument called a Saz, and ably assisted by the other musicians was, to my ear, incredible. Hearing Ginsberg’s tune set to a backdrop far better than his own version on that special anniversary night was really something.
There were profound frustrations however. The light show projections had worked fabulously all through the evening. I had supplied some imagery I had used in my book launch presentation and created a few fresh visuals as well. This had all been woven in with our projectionists stock of effects and imagery very well. Now, for reasons unknown, he was simply unable to access the black and white photos he had stored separately in his device. There was virtually no imagery projected at all. It was also later found that the camera that had filmed the whole evening had gone repeatedly out of focus throughout the performance. It did have a tendency to do this, and there are examples in other numbers and in the recording of my lecture but, in this case, it was doing it throughout the performance.
I was left with a feeling of sadness that it could have been so much better. At least we had a record of how good the musical performance had been. A memorable fancy took hold to explain the mystery of why things hadn’t quite gone a hundred percent. I recalled the story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s frazzled mind-state during the attempt to record the follow-up to Pet Sounds. Smile became the great lost album of the sixties.
Wilson had conceived of an Element Suite featuring sections inspired by Fire and Water etc. The Fire music was recorded in a typically eccentric manner by musicians dressed in fireman hats. A bucket was brought in containing burning wood so that everyone would be aware of the evocative smell. A few minutes of the original recording remain and it’s pretty damn strange. Recurring fire alarm noises feature throughout, set against hypnotic drumming. It can be placed alongside the Beatles Revolution 9.
A huge mythology has grown up around this episode with variant details. A nearby building caught fire the same night. Or a few fires broke out in the local area within 24 hours. Wilson freaked out and felt that his music had pyro-kinetic qualities. The tapes were placed in a vault. Extreme versions have attempts to literally destroy them by setting fire to them failing. A muted rendition did appear but it took decades for Wilson to process what had happened and the piece was finally performed live as part of his presentation of a finished version of the original Smile project in 2004.
As a full-blown Glastonbury mystic, I was willing to believe that, if our presentation of the Grey Monk had fully manifested as intended, we would have somehow helped to stir up tumultuous events that would have been dangerous, too much to handle, and might have messed up our minds for years to come.
Glastonbury has its darker side and I am well aware of it, having catalogued murders and deaths redolent with occult strangeness in a number of my books, primarily Glastonbury Psychogeography. The tropical summer of 2018 helped to up the edginess here. A group of boozers and druggies who larged it in the High St were erupting into violence on an almost daily basis. There had been a stabbing in St John’s churchyard whilst an event was occurring inside. This had happened on June 22nd, right in the middle of the solstice period and a few days before the feast day of the saint the church is dedicated to.
I wrote of the Gordon Riots in my Blake book. In the UK a Street Fighting Man vibe was in the air. I was aware that, in the USA, intense tumult was ‘just a shot away’ and in our Garden of Love event I preferred to affirm that love was ‘just a kiss away’.
We had in fact been saved to return with a larger scale Blake Glastonbury event that would morph in with the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock on August 15th to 17th 2019. There would be no getting away from the accompanying big Manson 50 that will just precede it. We would have plenty of opportunity to become part of bigger agitations in the Body of Albion that will no doubt accompany the deepening of the Brexit process. Who knows what the state of play might be in the USA by then? We had a year to prepare ourselves. I recognise that this is not a normal way of considering how reality might function but neither was the whole conception behind the event. Whatever the case, the Grey Monk performance on that 50th anniversary night was a richly satisfying experience.