An Interview With Rose Simpson of the Incredible String Band
It's not every day you meet an ex-Incredible String Band member turned ex-Lady Mayoress and find yourself picturing her with a paraffin stove perched on her head."
Serendipity. It's my favourite word. It sounds like something magical. Which it is. It's a happy accident. A magical happy accident. Like life.
And now I'm taking you back again to that Welsh village on the coast. I'm rewinding the tape. You see, something happened there which was like serendipity. Another happy accident.
I'd sit in the room with butterfly wings, drinking tea all day and letting my mind wander. It was as if my mind had butterfly wings scattering round it, idling, stirring, then chasing round again when a breeze caught the crystal.
In the evenings I'd go to the pub where I'd meet the man who was going to fix my computer for me but who never did and his wife, a social worker, both witches. Mid-Wales is full of witches. Witches and hippies. Witches and hippies and Welsh people. The Welsh people would sit in the bar, where a pair of crotchless panties dangled above the till, listening to maudlin Welsh anthems on the jukebox, while the witches and hippies and computer buffs would sit in the back room discussing local politics and the tourist trade. Local politicians are corrupt, it seems, and the tourist trade is all but dead. No one was making any money any more.
Aside from the witches and hippies and computer buffs there was also the ex-Lord Mayor and the ex-Lady Mayoress, ex-hippies too, no doubt, and certainly into computers. We talked about the Internet. Everyone talks about the Internet. Then my friend, the witchy computer buff, took me to the side and, in a conspiratorial whisper, told me that the ex-Lady Mayoress was also an ex-member of the Incredible String Band. And I couldn't help it. I kept glancing over at this glum-looking pixie, who seemed to only come alive when she had the ex-Lord Mayor as an audience, and found myself singing the words to an Incredible String Band song silently in my head:
If I was a witch's hat
sitting on her head like a paraffin stove
I'd fly away and be a bat
through the air I would rove
stepping like a tightrope walker
putting one foot after another
wearing black cherries for rings"
I wondered if the lyrics might not have been prophetic in some way. The traditional Welsh hat does bear a remarkable resemblance both to a witch's hat and a paraffin stove. And here she is, all these years later, in an obscure Welsh village, drinking halves of lager in the same pub as me. I took this to be a significant moment. After all, it's not every day you meet an ex-Incredible String Band member turned ex-Lady Mayoress and find yourself picturing her with a paraffin stove perched on her head.
I was talking about spirituality. In fact The Incredible String Band were the spiritual band of the late sixties and early seventies. They played whimsical folk-rock tunes but became progressively more po-faced as they began to see themselves as spiritual gurus. One more coincidence. Steven - the old friend I was going to meet in Cardiff in a couple of weeks - is Robin Williamson's secretary. Robin Williamson is one of the founder members of The Incredible String band. At this point I wasn't aware that I would be meeting Steve later, but it all adds up to something. Time is an ocean. It can't be measured with a ruler.
So I'm sitting in a pub in the nineties with a woman who was in a band in the sixties, which I listened to in the seventies, when I'd spent a lot of time with a guy who is now the secretary for one of the band, and whom I would soon meet, by accident, on a back street of a city I hadn't been in for nearly twenty years, in a couple of weeks' time. And who knows when you'll be reading this? Look at the clock and take note. It may be a Significant Moment.
I'd been sworn to silence by my witchy friend. "She doesn't like to talk about it," he told me, but I couldn't hold on to it. I had to talk to her.
I arranged a meeting.
Her name is Rose.
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter
There's a photograph on the front cover of one of The Incredible String Band's LPs, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter. That's the kind of title they went in for. The photograph shows a lot of people, wearing tapestry clothes with baggy sleeves, hanging round under an oak tree with a couple of Irish wolfhounds and a number of grubby-faced kids. It looks like a scene out of a Bruegel painting. It was the medieval-troubadour look. Very fashionable at the time, in a backward-looking sort of way.
So I asked Rose about it. Was it a deliberate attempt to construct an alternative lifestyle. I wanted her to give me the beef on what it was like to live like that.
"That was how we lived," she said simply. "A rural idyll. No one did anything they didn't want to. We were victims of various ideologies, as were others at the time. There were a lot of people trying to live an alternative lifestyle. It wasn't self-indulgent in any way."
I asked her about acid. It seemed to me that the String Band (as they were affectionately known) were the archetypal acid band. I had a picture of riotous acid parties where everyone took their clothes off and communed with nature under the stars.
"Acid was seen as a philosophical/experimental tool," she told me. "It was seen clearly in ideological terms. We took drugs as a psychedelic experience, not for fun. Of course, we enjoyed them, but we enjoyed them as a result of a better vision of the universe. Everyone's vision was regarded as limited by conditioning. Drugs were a way to throw off the constraints. We used other methods, too. It was about growth and development, rather than escape. Drug culture was one strand of a myriad strands - minor, as it happens."
I was already beginning to realise that everything she said was wrapped up in philosophical terms. She used the word "ideology" a lot. No matter what questions I asked, she merely philosophised the answers. There was no attempt to get through to the spirit of the age. It was as if she were covering up something. Not a scandal, nothing like that. Just an unpalatable truth. That she had been that person. That she and the band had taken themselves that seriously. Everything she said represented everything I hated about the era. All that philosophical jargon. All that po-faced, gelatinous, meaningful, life-enhancing gobbledegook.
She was insulted that I thought the lyrics were acid-inspired.
"I wouldn't see them as drug songs," she said. "I'd see them as part of the reality of the time. I'm sure Robin and Mike would not have wanted people to see the songs as drug songs.
"Between 1969 and 1970, other things were more significant. Scientology, for instance. It was a progression from Eastern religion to Maharishi to Scientology. That was the worst influence. It pandered to the worst elements, to people's weaknesses. It made people feel important, but it was facile. It aimed to be a philosophy, but it was on a nursery--rhyme level. It allowed you to think you could buy your salvation."
I was beginning to understand the reasons for the cover-up. There was a bitterness. Rose simply didn't like those times any more. She didn't even like to talk about them and, when she did, it was from a distance.
"Everyone wants salvation," she said, "life, health, etc, etc. Scientology appeared to give the answers.... if you're weak enough or deluded enough. You don't have to work hard. It's very supportive. It makes simple people appear clever and weak people feel strong. It turned nice people into not very nice people.
"Cults are dangerous," she continued. "More dangerous than drugs. Cults lift you out of known contacts so that you lose your sense of balance in the world. You need to make changes knowingly and thoughtfully. You can't be an influence if you're outside, if you lose contact with the majority of people. It's about changing the world. Most people want to change the world in a social way. Cults, on the other hand, become exclusive, and cultists have a superior attitude to the rest of us."
I asked he why she joined. She was forced into it, she told me. It was either "join the Church of Scientology, or leave the band". There was no other choice.
I tried to get some sort of understanding of what Scientology entails. It has something to do with the Immortal Soul, she told me. This is infinitely powerful in its pure form, but it is snarled up in our bodies. There are indelible blocks on the soul. If you remove these blocks, if you take the soul back through lifetimes, you can end up with a free spirit once more, eternally powerful. Something like that.
There's two electrodes, like a lie detector, that you hold in your hands. The aim is to make the needle float. When there is pain or anguish, the needle will be stuck. When the block is cleared, the needle will float. Rose told me that it was the easiest thing in the world to make the needle float. She simply pretended to be going back through all those lifetimes of pain and anguish. Anything to get them off her back.
In the end she left the band and took a job cleaning in Camden. Later, she worked for the DSS in KentishTown.
"At least it was honest," she said. "I felt clean. We were only a bunch of twentysomething-year-olds who had set ourselves up as saviours."
In this entire conversation I never detected one glimmer of affection for the period. She'd been in her twenties, remember. She should have been having a laugh, having fun, going out with people, dancing all night. They were well-off, a bunch of internationally renowned pop singers. They could have done what they liked and had a good time. Instead of which it was all po-faced worthiness and dreary philosophy. This went on. Maharishi Yogi, TM, Buddhism, Sufism, I-Ching, Zen, Macrobiotics and Meditation. Reading, reading, reading: philosophy, philosophy, philosophy. And they didn't seem to have made any friends.
"They never knew what they were good at," Rose said, referring to the rest of the band. "They wanted to be what they weren't and they never knew what they were."
The only faint moment of pleasure came when she told me that she'd once played bass with Keith Moon of The Who.
"He was a good drummer," she said, with a brief smile.
© 2014 Christopher James Stone