“Wholly Communion”: the Sixties Replayed as Farce Part One

Having just read a book on William Burroughs’ influence on rock music, I thought I’d revisit the director Peter Whitehead’s 1967 film of ‘Wholly Communion’, the supposedly epochal  Albert Hall poetry readings held on 11the. June 1965. Featuring several of Burroughs’ Beat poet mates, including the execrable Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Alexander Trocchi, the event has gone down in countercultural history as  representing “for a day, (a unification of) various London scenes, cultural, creative and drug taking”. For several commentators, this day was the start of London’s countercultural adventure, furthered in 1966 by the ‘Swinging London’ trope and reaching its apogee (or nadir?) in the ‘Summer of Love’ of 1967 (which was depicted more famously in Whitehead’s Tonight, Let’s All Make Love in London, a more ludicrous title of which would be hard to think of). A (very) rough USA equivalent would be the ‘Gathering of the Tribes’ in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in January 1967. (Ginsberg was equally smug, smirking and attention-seeking at that gig too.)

So, the whole parade kicks of with a Ginsberg ‘mantra’, with the bearded buffoon playing the spoons (or were they actually Tibetan bells?), and trying to come off as some kind of ancient seer from the pages of Doctor Strange? The audience, all-dressed up, preening and smoking artistically, many, laughably, (the first Velvets album was two years away) in sunglasses, look booored (and I don’t mean ‘fashionably’). The ‘look’ is very much high-Mod, pre-hippie, and is one of the most interesting aspects of this cultural petri-dish. There is even a prominent member of the Church of England in attendance (which just about sums it up). I have to remark, at this point, how much Gregory Corso’s delivery and diction reminded me of Trout Mask-era Beefheart. Anyone else agree? There is lots of Vietnam-agonising and USSR crypto-glasnosting here, as one might expect. Also, a lot of posturing and downright mediocrity, which cannot be truly appreciated without actually watching this 50-minute film: it’s all too easy to mock from a safe distance, but for those of us of a certain age, it does blow up (in both senses of the word) some of the pretentiousness and even unpleasantness of the time, which has often been downplayed by those who valorise the likes of Ginsberg, Burroughs and Kerouac. And it perhaps further demonstrates why the counterculture was never going to really work in practice.

Next up: the poets themselves in all their g(l)ory.

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The banner picture is by the late Mal Dean (1941-1974), which featured on the cover of the 1972 Incus Records vinyl release, Live Performances at Verity's Place, by two free improvisation pioneers, the English guitarist Derek Bailey and Dutch percussionist Han Bennink.