Interview: Daevid Allen, musician
AS DAEVID ALLEN strokes his wispy white whiskers and remembers his first encounter with William Burroughs, I'm already assuming the psychedelic musician and the psychedelic author must have got on famously, that it was a true meeting of minds, albeit altered ones. "Well," laughs Allen, "there was some awkwardness. Basically, he fancied me."
The 71-year-old majordomo of incorrigible hippy space-rockers Gong had fled the conservatism of his native Australia in search of wild adventure and beatnik cool, pitching up in Paris where Burroughs was holding court in the Beat Hotel. "It was 1961 and I was more than a little intimidated by him," says Allen. "But he wanted me to play music at his poetry readings – I was a jazzer back then – so he suggested we first go up to his room where he got behind this desk like some Brooklyn insurance salesman. 'Well, Daevid,' he said, 'there are two ways of doing this. One way will take ten minutes, the other will take the rest of your life.' I assumed the first way might have involved sodomy so I opted for the latter.'"
That run-in was indeed a signpost for the long, strange trip that lay ahead for Allen, during which he founded two semi-legendary bands – before Gong there was Soft Machine – and fathered four children by three different women. He continues to espouse the virtues of commune-living and LSD, even though his last trip was five years ago. "They've changed the recipe for acid; it's not as strong as it used to be," he sighs.
For the best part of five decades now he's had strange meetings with remarkable people and remarkable meetings with strange people, Brigitte Bardot among them. "After getting to play at her birthday party I could have retired happy. I'd formed Soft Machine by then and we were invited to this weird little construct on a beach in St Tropez which was supposed to be a psychedelic club. We played so loud they could hear us ten miles away and we got shut down. We had no money so Brigitte took pity on us and hired us for her party. We played one song, We Did It Again, over and over for a joke. We did it again and again for an hour and the next day we were the darlings of France's hip set and that enabled me to go off and form Gong."
Allen is chuckling again. "Imagine if I'd played the same song ad nauseum back in 1950s Melbourne – I've have probably been deported." Then he recalls he was chucked out of both Paris and London. "In London they said my passport had lapsed but I think they were looking for an excuse to get rid of my type: long-haired, dope-smoking, likely to teach the daughters of the gentry bad habits – all perfectly true. But I sneaked back in for the first-ever Glastonbury Festival with a photo of the Buddha in my passport – that was good revenge.
"Then in Paris I got caught up in the 1968 riots but when I turned up on the barricades to confront the armed paratroopers with a teddy bear, I managed to anger both sides – the paras and the humourless left-wing students."
The trip is ongoing and Allen is still preaching his pot-head pixie philosophy and singing about flying teapots. This weekend, his band travel from Planet Gong to Scotland, a place he holds dear.
"I've been all sorts of things – poet, performance artist, musician – and Gong have been all sorts of things, too. The one constant has hopefully been the sense of the absurd I learned from Ivor Cutler."
Before the Canterbury Scene which begat Soft Machine, Allen and Robert Wyatt bonded over the lugubrious Glasgow humorist Cutler's weekly three-minute radio broadcasts for the old BBC Home Service. "Later, we like to think we introduced him to a wider audience by having him perform on stage with us. Ivor's humour wasn't victim-based, which I approved of; it was more about laughing at yourself and the follies of humanity. My favourite piece of Ivor? How about, 'If your breasts are too large, wear a rucksack otherwise you'll fall over.'"
During his Scottish stopover, Allen will be looking up members of his vast extended family. His second wife, Maggie, hails from Edinburgh and still has relatives in the capital. He says this particular clan have "owned castles, spent millions on German art installations – most eccentric", which is a bit rich coming from someone who claims to be guided by alien intelligence.
All three exes and the children live near Allen in Byron Bay, the New South Wales resort that attracts New Agers and neo-hippies and is as close as he can get to the spirit of the old communes he established outside Paris and near Oxford. "They're all nice to each other, bless their hearts. Of course they all have other partners and I'm no longer involved with them in the deeper sense, but I've always believed in communes and always will. They can be a tightrope walk sometimes and it's an art form, collecting the right people, but when there's no rivalry and jealousy they can be illuminating and really quite wonderful."
These days Allen – the spelling of his first name is an affectation; he likes how "a" and "e" look together – says he can explore as many "other dimensions" through meditation as he ever did through LSD. Yoga and ginseng keep him youthful and presumably his 28-year-old girlfriend also helps in this respect. "Oh sure," he says. "Stephanie and I met through poetry. She came to one of my readings and made all the running. I only do poetry in Australia; they've never really got my music."
Thankfully for Allen, three generations of crusties, conspiracy theorists and counter-culture revolutionaries have got it. Gong in various forms have made 35 albums, none selling a million but enough to keep the leader in ginseng. But you can't put a price on his experiences – under the influence and above the clouds – or the people he's met.
I ask for a few more names. "Well, I was a friend of Jimi Hendrix. The first time I met him, in the London office of the manager we shared, I didn't believe anyone could play electric guitar so loud without an amp. The last time I saw him was in Paris swamped by limpet-like hangers-on and barely able to wave to me. Let me see … I made a film with Yoko Ono, pre-Beatles – all you saw in it was my derriere. And I was lucky enough to get to hang out at the home of the poet Robert Graves in Deja on Majorca. Visitors that summer included Ken Tynan, Idries Shah and Spike Milligan, another radio hero of mine." Tuning in to The Goons in Oz kept Allen insane.
An early appreciation of madcap comedy should have prepared him for his dealings with nascent record mogul Richard Branson. "But there was Richard, just a kid out of uni, perching on a window ledge and threatening to jump unless we signed to Virgin! He was important to Gong; he slashed the price of one of our albums to 69p and declared it a better bargain than three joints. The first guy to sell our music in Britain was Bruce Findlay, who ran the Bruce's record-shop chain out of Edinburgh. He took out an advert in Melody Maker on our behalf and was a great champion. I'd love to meet him again this weekend."
Gong play the HMV Picture House, Edinburgh, on Sunday.