For three decades, Daevid Allen has cast eccentric spells on prog rock, conjuring flying teapots and pothead pixies with such groups as Gong and Soft Machine. By Mitch Myers
Examining musician/poet/psychedelic survivor Daevid Allen’s uncommon life, the infamous premise of Brion Gysin’s cut-up method immediately comes to mind. In 1959, painter/writer Gysin cut newspaper articles into sections and rearranged them at random. Some of Gysin’s guerrilla art emerged as coherent, meaningful prose without the slightest bit of editing. Why does Gysin’s alien collage strategy bring to mind Allen, an aging renaissance man who most folks have never heard of? Three reasons. One is that Allen still shares Gysin’s appreciation for the French surrealist movement of the ‘20s. Second, Allen became friendly with Gysin while staying at the Beat Hotel in Paris in 1963. And finally, Allen himself is a cut-up, a merry prankster who repeatedly reminds us not to take life too seriously. When art consistently goes against the grain, it can be upsetting, revelatory, offensive, inspirational or just damn funny. In Allen’s case, it’s often all of the above.
Consider the four recordings Allen has released in the past year: the new San Francisco psychedelia of his University Of Errors album, Money Doesn’t Make It (Innerspace); an ambient-styled, “glissando guitar” collaboration with Harry Williamson, 22 Meanings (Gliss); a record of Allen singing jazz standards, Eat Me Baby, I’m A Jelly Bean (GAS); and The Children’s Crusade (Shimmy Disc) by Brainville, an art/prog supergroup featuring Allen and some of his talented contemporaries. Each album represents a different aspect of Allen, a bold persona sustained by total nonconformity. Taken together, these records paint a compelling portrait of a fringe artist devoted to the premise of absolute self-expression. Despite his anti-commercial leanings, Allen has established a myth-laden tradition that’s simultaneously anarchistic, new age/old hippie, extraterrestrial and, of course, stoner-friendly. Spanning four decades, a number of discreet musical styles, a legion of major talents and minor players, sex, drugs and surprisingly little rock ‘n’ roll, his career is remarkable for its diversity as well as its sheer durability.
While Allen has had numerous encounters with the rich and famous, his present career relies heavily on the kindness of strangers. With just a handful of worldwide fans that revere him as the founder of celebrated music groups Soft Machine and Gong, Allen is always struggling to make ends meet and spends a great deal of time far away from his home in Australia. Yet, as he sips tea in the comfort of a patron’s apartment in San Francisco, it’s clear that money doesn’t make it with Allen.
“I’m a third-generation Australian,” he explains. “My great-great-grandfather was brought out from England because he had a reputable wood-cabinet business. He was a drunken maniac and would burn up all his money and then go out and make some more and burn it up again. The family never recovered, and our motto has been, ‘Oh God! No money!’ We’re all very good at spending money, that’s for sure.”
Although he is arguably the godfather of art rock, space rock, English techno and the quirkier manifestations of prog rock, Allen claims to have avoided the seductive trappings of the music industry. “When I was a teenager, my father put me in as a [junior] executive in this department store,” says Allen. “All that did was show me that the whole commercial system is a complete illusion. My survival kit has always been to stay away from any big-business organization. If I received all the money that I’ve earned according to my contracts over the years, I’d be a millionaire instead of having no house and only half a car. People say, ‘Oh, you’re afraid of money.’ Wrong. I know exactly what I’m doing. Whenever fame comes too close, I vanish, sabotage, whatever. For this reason, I’m known in the business as a very bad bet, and this suits me fine.”
Allen started off in the late ‘50s as a poet and musician in the surprisingly fertile Melbourne jazz scene. It all came together in 1958, when he discovered Sun Ra. “I suppose you could say that Gong was based loosely on that whole Sun Ra myth,” says Allen. “He was our ancestor.” As an Australian expatriate, Allen traveled to England in the early ‘60s. For a time, he rented a room from a liberal couple in Canterbury and became close with their son, Robert Wyatt. Allen’s relationship with Wyatt was significant, as together they formed Soft Machine a few years later.
“When I walked in the Wyatts’ door, there was this kid who was 16 and had the same record collection as me,” says Allen. “But Robert was still in school and I was 21, already established in my errant ways. Once I moved out of there, I went up to London. Shortly after, Robert, Hugh Hopper (another future Soft Machinist) and I started the Daevid Allen Trio, which was a free-jazz outfit. When we’d play, everyone would leave except for Malcom Cecil and two jazz musicians. I was playing free jazz on rock ‘n’ roll guitar, Hugh was using an electric bass, which in those days was unheard of in jazz, and Robert was banging on cardboard boxes and dustpan lids. We lost the job immediately but gained some notoriety.”
Allen soon left London and relocated to Paris, where he lived at the Beat Hotel. “One of the first people I met was (William) Burroughs,” says Allen. “I moved into the room that Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky had just vacated, and Burroughs was looking for a jazz band to play while he performed dramatic versions of (his cut-up book) The Ticket That Exploded with Ian Somerville and Brion Gysin. My room was right next door to Brion’s—he was doing interesting tape loops similar to Terry Riley, who was around, too. Burroughs invited me up to his room and said, ‘Well Dave, there’s two ways that I can communicate this information to you. One way will take 30 years and the other will take five minutes. Which way you do want it?’ Anticipating instant sodomy, I said, ‘I think I’ll take the 30 years.’ He was happy with that and told me, ‘I’ve got this job and I want you to play.’ We put on the show and there was the weirdest collection of people in the audience. Burroughs had one scene with nuns shooting each other up with huge syringes. Terry Riley came, and we ended up playing together outside in the street with motorscooter motors, electric guitar and poetry. It was wild.”
The ‘60s were obviously a heady period for Allen, and many of the friendships he developed then have withstood the test of time. “Daevid is very influential on everyone that comes into his life,” says Riley, one of the founding fathers of modern minimalism. “He does it in a soft-yet-powerful way, and people are very charmed by him. I really feel like his is one of the most important directions in pop music. Daevid has great theater in his music, and it’s done without a lot of props.”
While in Paris, Allen became involved with an extraordinary woman named Gilli Smyth, who became his life partner for many years. This occurred around the same time that Soft Machine was born. Moving to Spain in 1966, Allen became motivated to form a rock group after a Canterbury lad by the name of Kevin Ayers turned him on to the Yardbirds’ “Still I’m Sad.” Although Allen founded the group and his relationships with Softs alumni continue today, his tenure with the premier art-rock ensemble was actually quite brief.
Ayers still acknowledges his artistic debt to Allen. “In the pre-Soft Machine days, Daevid was influential in being a free thinker, a musician, a poet and general wild child,” says Ayers. “He was unlike anybody we’d ever met, and he overturned all of the things that Robert Wyatt and I had learned at school. He was a very energetic and charismatic figure—certainly someone to look up to and very important in my own life.”
Thanks to the benevolent financing of an acidhead businessman from Oklahoma, the Softs soon found themselves at the top of the pops. During Allen’s short time with the band, they played at a party thrown by Brigitte Bardot in St. Tropez and became one of the most popular rock groups in France. They also were busy jamming and socializing regularly with Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney and the rest of London’s swinging rock elite. Due to a problem with English border authorities concerning an expired visa, Allen was forced to abandon Soft Machine in 1967. Allen and Smyth reluctantly returned to France, where they quickly bounced back and formed Gong. Soon, things started to get trippy and musically further-out, with the band’s lifestyle turning communal and cult-like.
“The curious thing about Gong is that I had a very powerful dream vision of the entire episode about two years before it happened,” Allen says nonchalantly. This claim, if true, is doubly impressive since Gong has found a way to survive for three decades. With reunion tours successfully celebrating the 25th and 30th anniversaries of Gong under Allen’s belt, his earnest description of the all-encompassing “Planet Gong” now approaches biblical proportions. Spouting an involved and esoteric cosmology that includes “Flying Teapots” and “Pothead Pixies,” a “Radio Gnome Trilogy” and a series of Gong manifestations (including Planet Gong, Mother Gong, New York Gong, Gongmaison and the Magic Brothers), the Allen/Gong collectives claim countless ex-members and real potential to carry into the next century. As Allen succinctly puts it, “The visible side of Gong started off as a band and gradually grew into a circle of bands with the classic Gong as a central jewel.”
From Allen’s perspective, the Gong phenomenon has spiritual implications that go far beyond entertainment. “Gong has this supernatural quality for me,” he confesses. “I’ve had this communication from somewhere else that’s been giving me instructions. The instructions say that in the year 2032, there will be a bunch of people from the Planet Gong dimension appearing on [Earth’s] physical plane.” Allen smiles as he discusses this, but he’s not kidding around. “One thing about Gong is that there’s a great deal of playfulness. Usually, with spiritual things, everyone is very solemn, but the whole point about Gong is that we maintain this aura of silliness to get rid of the people who are too serious. However, Planet Gong does exist and they run on the laws of music. Everything they do derives from notes, intervals, scales and octaves. It’s very real for me because every day I meditate for hours, and during that period they connect with me and tell me what to do.”
In terms of his musical legacy, Allen insists that he and the other architects of Soft Machine and Gong take no responsibility for art-rock’s transformation from a free-form/hippie/political/surrealist encounter into an unwieldy prog/fusion aesthetic emphasizing virtuoso musicianship and the dreaded Dungeons And Dragons mentality. “My objection to prog is that it’s gotten drunk on details, techniques and form,” he says. “That’s what usually happens to any movement. The originators are into the creativity, and when new people come in, all they observe is the form. That’s why I keep infuriating the prog-rock people with my silliness and crazy lyrics. I’m trying to throw them off the form. With prog, it’s better to sound good than to feel good.”
In the past two decades, Allen has worked with fervent musical admirers like bassist/producer Bill Laswell and infamous sonic architect Kramer. In fact, the 1980 edition of New York Gong turned out to be the beginning of Laswell’s incumbency with jazz/dub/rap/fusion collective Material, a groundbreaking ensemble that continues to this day. Allen and Kramer have worked together frequently; besides producing Allen solo albums, Kramer has collaborated with his idol on contemporary duet albums like Hit Men and Who’s Afraid. A devout fan of Allen’s early incarnations, Kramer also had a big hand in the art-rock supergroup Brainville, which features the two men jamming along with Soft Machine bassist Hopper and Gong drummer Pip Pyle.
More recently, Allen befriended rock archivist/musician Billy James (a.k.a. Ant-Bee). On Ant-Bee’s forthcoming album, Electronic Church Muzik, James emulates Allen’s trademark glissando guitar sound and adds Smyth’s inimitable space-whisper for a remarkably precise, Gong-like performance. “Daevid is a unique and interesting character who has a lot of different personalities,” says James. “He’s always very friendly and full of light. Oddly, a lot of times I’ll have a dream about Daevid and then I’ll hear from him. He dream-trips; I know it’s bizarre, but it’s the truth.”
This past July—33 years since the formal inception of Soft Machine—Allen’s University Of Errors performed at a small club called the Starry Plough in Berkeley, Calif. The University Of Errors is made up of Bay Area musicians who also go by the name Mushroom. For the past year, they have provided Allen with yet another opportunity to extend his psychedelic legacy without sacrificing the significant aspects of his musical past. “The thing about Daevid is that he brings out the best in his musicians, and he also lets us play whatever the hell we want,” says drummer Patrick O’Hearn. Capitalizing on Mushroom’s penchant for art-damaged instrumentals with a ‘70s prog/fusion edge, Allen has found yet another ideal vehicle for his extra-musical communiqués. With one University Of Errors album already out and two others in the can, Allen is making some of the most exciting and cogent music of his long, strange career.
On this Berkeley night, there was no chance of an overly serious prog attack. Allen and his San Francisco sidemen joyfully embraced vintage tunes by Soft Machine, Hugh Hopper and Gong as well as some original material and a version of Miles Davis’ “So What.” In the middle of the show, the group launched into an outrageous Allen composition called “My Penis is Aging.” After checking off a list of various physical complaints, the 62-year-old singer finally whipped out his member, examined it closely, put it back in his pants and exclaimed with mock relief, “No, it’s OK. My penis is not aging!” The show went on—complete with a six-foot, gyrating female dancer—and the bacchanalia passed into the city’s musical apocrypha. The concert illustrated that the main difference between art rock and prog rock is actually sex, not musical technique. Predictably, the Starry Plough audience was filled with intelligent, beautiful women who were there to hear Allen play.
“For me, the most important thing is the spirit and the spark,” concludes Allen. “I’m trying to do something unusual, but the actual spirit of what’s happening is consistent. From beginning to end, there’s that silver line of Gong’s spirit that I represent. It remains unchanging, but the clothes do change. I’m all for respecting the inner being rather than getting hung up on the clothes.”
Upon finishing this article, I ran the text through my computer’s spell-check device. When the program encountered Allen’s first name, it instructed me to replace “Daevid” with “teapot.” Somewhere in Silicon Valley, a very intelligent Gong fan is laughing hysterically.