Christmas was approaching during my final year of high school. One Saturday evening a group of my art-school-bound friends and I went off to a nearby college campus for a lab theater production . (It was either Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape or a double bill of Terrence McNally’s Botticelli and Israel Horovitz’s RATS!; either way a good evening of theater.) But the most memorable and important moment of the night came before the house lights even dimmed.
There was music playing over the PA system in the small theater, something that I didn’t recognize at all, but something exciting that pulled my attention away from my friends’ conversation. Finally I asked if anyone knew what we were hearing, and Karen told me it was the Incredible String Band’s new album (it was Changing Horses, released in November 1969). She owned a couple earlier records by them, and would be happy to let me borrow them if I wanted to. The following Monday Karen caught me at my locker before classes began, handed me the double-release Wee Tam and The Big Huge, and changed the course of my personal musical history forever. The ISB became an obsession, an inspiration, a lasting influence on how I heard music and what I listened to.
Over the course of a nearly decade-long career, the Incredibles were a band that was always essentially of its time, and at the same time weirdly out of the mainstream. At the core they were a duo, Mike Heron and Robin Williamson, who wrote all the songs, but never collaborated on a single one. They came out of the mid-sixties Edinburgh folk scene. After their initial, eponymous album, they produced four extraordinary releases that infused folk with psychedelia and musical influences and instruments from around the world. Around the time I became aware of them they chagned horses, quit taking drugs, joined the Church of Scientology, and discovered electric guitars. By the end of their career they’d expanded into a fully amplified rock band that still occasionally would unwind a long raga-like composition on stage. More often, they introduced theatrical high jinks ranging from mime to pantomime.
Never a huge commercial success, the Incredible String Band were nonetheless deeply admired. They met Judy Collins at the Newport Folk Festival and it wasn’t long before she covered “First Girl I Loved” on an album that also featured songs by Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Sandy Denny, and Ian Tyson. Dylan himself admired Robin’s “October Song” from the debut album. They performed (disastrously) at Woodstock. They refused to go on stage during the Friday night folk schedule during the electrical storms and rain, got lodged instead on Saturday in the late afternoon between the Keef Hartley Band (who?) and Canned Heat, and bombed.
Even before they started dabbling with electricity and drum kits, rock n rollers were openly enthusiastic. Paul McCartney praised them; the Rolling Stones invited them to tour as an opening act, and Williamson claimed that Their Satanic Majesties Request owed something to the String Band’s sound. Led Zeppelin openly credited their influence on the creation of songs like “The Battle of Evermore.”
Their concerts were always unpredictable, mesmerizing events. At a time when bands drew their set lists from their latest album coupled with a sampler of greatest hits, the String Band rarely played songs anyone in the audience had heard before. I saw them at the Fillmore East in 1970, and some of the numbers they played that night didn’t appear on albums until two or three years later. The only tune I knew, all night long, was “Log Cabin Home in the Sky.” Most of what they played in concert never made it onto a album, or surfaced only decades later when a series of live recordings was finally released. But the concerts were family affairs; that night at the Fillmore the audience interrupted the set to sing “Happy Birthday” to Robin and shower the stage with bouquets. If the band graced us with jigs and reels, we danced. Stan Lee, who played bass late in their story, was a house manager at the Fillmore in the band’s early days, and he relished their appearances there, for the audience was always polite, and picked up their own trash on the way out. When I saw them at Lincoln Center in 1973, Stan stepped up to a mike between songs to say hello to his grandmother, who was in the audience.
A few weeks later, after a gig at Skidmore College in upstate New York, after dancing to the jigs they performed as an encore, I dropped back into a seat, sweating, unwilling to leave. When most of the crowd had thinned out, the redoubtable Janet Shankman-Williamson emerged from the wings and began handing out autographed postcards to those of us who were still in the auditorium. When I gushed with gratitude, she invited me and half a dozen other die-hards to come backstage and meet the band.
I spent the next hour sitting cross-legged on the floor with Mike Heron and a couple other fans. I was awed; we were all speechless until Mike broke the ice by bumming a cigarette and telling us how the band recently been invited backstage to meet Procul Harum after one of their shows, and found themselves equally tongue-tied in the presence of celebrity. When the evening finally broke up, the band offered me a lift back to the New York State Thruway so I could try to hitchhike back to my apartment in Albany. I think a couple of the female fans got a lift back to the band’s motel.
The word that’s most often used to describe the String Band’s music is “eclectic,” and that was a large part of the appeal for me. Robin’s song structures were unusual, rambling, diffuse. Mike usually stuck more to the verse-chorus-and-bridge model, but he could drop Christopher Robin into a song right next to the Lesser Doxology without batting an eye (“The Mountain of God” on The Big Huge). The instrumentation was exotic and always unexpected, with guitars, harps and whistles regularly augmented by string and wind instruments imported from India and Arabic Africa. Mike or Robin often overdubbed three or four parts each on a track; at times a single song could have eight or ten instruments layered on. The orchestration for Robin’s epic dream of the Great War, “Darling Belle,” has the four Incredibles of the moment (Robin, Mike, Likky, and Malcom) playing guitar, oboe, flute, banjo, bass, piano, glockenspiel, harmonica, clarinet, and a church organ. “Talking of the End,” from the same 1971 album, Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air, featured oud, violin, whistle, cymbals, organ, sitar, harmonium, small hand drums, harpsichord, and pedal steel guitar. Elsewhere on the album the Band played electric guitars, cello, mandolin, kazoo, swanee whistle, drums, bass and tenor recorders, bazouki, spoons, autoharp, and bodhran.
An acquaintance I met years later, a British folkie and folklorist himself, offended me by stating that the String Band played dozens of instruments, none of them well. And I will admit that there are moments when their escapades, especially some of the vocal tricks they tried, verge on the excruciatingly embarrassing. But the point was never really proficiency, and it certainly wasn’t sophistication, despite the innovative instrumentation. Their failures, if you want to call them that, were always rooted in a kind of very un-sophisticated, naive sense of play and attempted innocence, a willingness to try almost anything if it turned out to be fun.
That eclecticism appealed to me hugely, as did their general appearance of sublimely dressed artistic hippies. I was searching for ways to differentiate myself from everyone around me—a common striving for late adolescence but one that had a special urgency for me as I began to realize that I really was fundamentally different from even my closest friends. So in some ways, the String Band became my badge of difference. I learned to play copious amounts of their music on my guitar, to great effect. Friends who listened to me play would be charmed by the whimsy of “The Hedgehog’s Song” or blissed out by “You Get Brighter.” In college when I’d show up for auditions at a dorm’s Sunday night “coffee house” my repertoire of String Band classics, which nobody had heard before, got me a gig or two when most everyone else was doing stuff from Sweet Baby James or Crosby, Stills & Nash.
Last year after the release of Live at the Fillmore 1968, I threw all the live albums I own (additionally, First Girl I Loved: Live in Canada 1972, Across the Airwaves, BBC Radio 1 Live in Concert, and the rarities compilation Tricks of the Senses) onto my iPod shuffle, mixed up the tunes, and had a glorious time reliving the strangeness of the Incredibles. When I was done with that experiment, I loaded up all twelve of the studio albums released during the band’s active years from The Incredible String Band in 1966 through Hard Rope and Silken Twine in 1974, along with the two solo albums, one each by Robin and Mike, that came out during those years. I ran through them in the sequence they were recorded/released. I’d never heard them like that before. Now I’m thinking of doing it again.
I hate to burden the String Band with intellectual freight, and am almost reluctant to bring Proust into the mix again, but that retrospective review of their career had something Proustian about it for me. When I started listening to the first album this time around, I already knew where the river would take me. The songs throughout are more than well-imprinted in my brain: I know all the lyrics, the instrumentation, even many of the chord changes. I carry the memories of leading my high-school friends through a long, long improvisation on “White Bird”using a borrowed, upside-down guitar (I’m left-handed) and whatever could be pressed into service as percussion instruments, and playing “No Sleep Blues” at 5:30 in the morning slot during a telethon. I have a lifetime of reactions and speculations and insights, and I may try to get that all writ down. I hope it will be an incredible journey.
The steps so far: