Ira Cohen and Angus MacLise
Angus, a wild poet and drummer, died from malnutrition in Kathmandu during the summer of 1979, and to the end of his life Ira remained faithful to promoting Angus's recognition as an important and influential contemporary poet. Ironically, an exhibition entitled 'Dreamweapon - The Art and Life of Angus MacLise' opened at Manhattan's Boo-Hooray Gallery on May 10th of this year, just a few weeks after Ira himself died in New York City on April 25th. Then on 15th June this year Angus's widow, Hetty McGee, died in London. Ironically again, much new biographical material about Ira, Angus and Hetty can now be found on the Internet, especially Hetty's rambling and phasmagorical life-story, entitled 'Phantomly Oracula'.
According to legend Angus joined up with the trio of John Cale, Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison to form a group that eventually became known as the Velvet Underground, after Angus (or Tony Conrad) came upon a paperback book of this title in New York. But when they were offered their first paid gig Angus reacted by saying, "You mean we have to start when they tell us and stop when they tell us? I can't work like this." When he didn't turn up for the gig they fired him and replaced him with drummer Maureen Tucker instead.
In 1967 Angus drifted down to Berkeley where he met and began to work with Hetty McGee, and Timothy Leary married them at a hippy-wedding ceremony in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park during the same year. Eventually Angus and Hetty ended up in Kathmandu, where Hetty gave birth to a son, Ossian, who was soon to be recognized as a 'tulku' or reincarnate Tibetan Lama by the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1924-1981).
It was in the spring of 1973 that I first met Ira, Hetty and Angus in Kathmandu, and for a year we all lived in the same village of Kimdol, which is situated just below Swayambhunath - the mysterious Stupa of the 'Self-created Lord'. Then for a few months in 1978 Hetty and Angus lived in the same communal house as myself in Camden Town, London. But things went amiss when Hetty became way too demanding, while Angus repeatedly took to the streets in search of drugs, so they had to be evicted. A year later, on June 21st 1979, Angus died at the Shanti Bhawan Hospital in Kathmandu from a debilitating combination of tuberculosis, hypoglycemia (low-blood sugar), and malnutrition.
In this poem, 'The Ballad of the Gone MacLise', the drum, gamelan and cembalum refer to the percussive droning and trance rhythms of Angus's drumming techniques. The Snowman was a hippy restaurant in Kathmandu's famous 'Freak Street' area during the 1970's. The 'coat-hanger shoulders' refers to Angus's tall, thin and stooping frame. Konya refers to the abode of Rumi, upon whose calligraphic tombstone Ira once poured a vial of liquid mercury as a sunrise offering. The 'White Goddess' refers to the book by Robert Graves that Angus borrowed from Ira and then sold for opiates, and the one way non-transferable ticket alludes to Angus's continuing poverty. Ram and Krishna owned the busy shop in Kimdol bazaar that stayed open late every night, and Vidyswari Ghat refers to a cremation ground below the Vijeshwari Temple on the banks of the now polluted Vishnumati River where Angus was cremated.
Ballad of the Gone MacLise
(For Angus MacLise, died Summer Solstice, June 21st, 1979)
"In the fire is no end
but in the tall grasses
but on the riverbanks
but in the cool breezes urging
but in the long empty days."
(From Jaguar by Angus MacLise)
In the poem one can lay down
the heartline, the harp can bring the tears
muffled by the sound of the drum,
your gamelans cut by the Buddha's knife
Down at the Snowman I heard
them discussing your cremation:
"A dervish has fallen off the roof
the tall skinny one with the coat-hanger shoulders."
I know the way the pillars of the Vision
trembled before you in the sunlight.
You saw the door of Konya open in the slums
of Brooklyn where light shafted thru' abandoned
factories in the amphetamine dawn.
Now the shades of Mecca are drawn for you, Poet.
The five Dhyani Buddhas transcend your deep-freeze
and await your burning with cloths of the 5 wisdom colors.
Your unsatisfied cravings fly out of the pyre,
the blessings of your friends crackle with ghee
the white and black til seeds (sesame) burn in
the untrammeled day, and still you are wandering Angus,
passing thru the Bardo Keyhole -
Listen once more to those Tibetan horns,
they are calling you past Freak Street
where you sold the White Goddess for junk
Forget all your regrets and go now with the egret,
put on your robe of sky -
The Vagabond Maverick Poet MacLise
has left these burning halls,
the windtraps are wild with sound,
I see your hands beating a Persian rhythm
on suitcases of itinerant dreams,
I hear the droning of Beelzebub's flies
making clear the ghastly way,
an opera undone by a chorus of 108 Mahasiddhas
singing your discarded lists of cembalums,
symphonic poems, untold futures.
You bummed cigarettes from Ram,
borrowed time and change from Krishna.
Now that your balance is finally broken
go in peace to the Buddhafields,
nodding in to the sound of your tartan.
The bane is over -
A new wheel is spinning its song.
Tomorrow morning at nine o'clock
we will meet at the Vidyaswari Ghat.
For you it's free, this one way ticket
which is non-transferable,
Remember that before you try to come back.
May light mantle your shadow and
may you not see what is not to be seen.
Farewell, MacLise, thawing on the Riverbank,
I do not expect to meet your like again,
Farewell, brother, the shadow of Don Quixote
lowers its lance and you are overstood.
Ira Cohen - June 27th 1979. Kathmandu, Nepal.