In the jumble room of my memory, two short fragments of poetry are always associated, although I can’t remember which I learned first. Both describe the emergence of a delicate paleness from a generalized darkness. The older of the two—in terms of composition—is Ezra Pound’s, the delicate “In a Station of the Metro.”
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
The second was penned by Mike Heron and forms the opening words of “Chinese White,” the first song on the Incredible String Band’s second album.
The bent twig of darkness grows the petals of the morning
Pound’s lines are surely the better poetry, but Heron’s prepare for a newly incredible string band. The 5000 Spirits Or The Layers of the Onion marked a significant departure from the folkish, Scottish feel of the ISB’s self-titled debut album. It set the tone and direction for their path for several years into the future, and it firmly established them as a strange and creative force to be reckoned with. The album was announced by cover art created by the Dutch team The Fool, who also painted Eric Clapton’s guitar, George Harrison’s Mini-Cooper, and John Lennon’s piano. Paul McCartney said The 5o00 Spirits was his favorite album of 1967. And Judy Collins had a hit with her gender-appropriate rendition of Robin Williamson’s “First Girl I Loved,” surely the only time that a String Band song became famous.
But for me, the first minutes of “Chinese White” have remained a quintessential String Band experience. Mike’s chiming guitar tuned to an open E-major chord, alternating quarter and eighth notes, prepares the way for Robin’s wistful sawing away on a sarangi, a kind of Indian fiddle, and then that opening line announces a new dawn. This was a beauty, exquisite in its strangeness, that I had not encountered before. I was moved by its evocativeness and originality; in what amounted to a personal Damascene conversion, Donovan was suddenly revealed to me as a fey impostor.
Of course things got lyrically weird within a few lines with “cloud cream lapping” and a “magic Christmas tree still shining gently all around.” But I learned—or accepted—that such was indeed the magic and the appeal of the String Band; they had the ability to project a childlike precocity that created startling new worlds for me to inhabit, even if they stumbled occasionally on the way.
The two songs that following the opening “Chinese White” have remained among my favorites of all the String Band’s compositions. They are emblematic of those early days when simple folk songs became journeys, tinged with psychedelia, into bracing new imagistic realms.
“No Sleep Blues” is by Robin Williamson and it’s musically straightforward: two guitars, some overdubbed flute lines, and Danny Thompson (sessionist and Pentagler) on stand-up acoustic bass. The lyrics tell the story of a man who can’t sleep, for reasons only hinted at by the strange assonance and alliteration of the lyrics.
Cracks rack the windows, howls hold the floor
Rains rot the rafters and do you just have to snore?
It’s a most inclement climate, for the season of the night
Is that mouse playing football, oh, I thought they didn’t like the light?
And the dawn comes sneaking up when it thinks I’m not looking
I am starting to grieve, man, I used to know but now I believe, man
They tell me sleep is a gas, I want to lay down
Well I’m sorry I woke you, I mean I’ve got the no sleep blues
Is that mouse playing football? Is that cause or effect? Is Robin tormented by visions that keep him awake, or is he hallucinating from lack of sleep? As the song unfolds it becomes harder to tell, but Robin never loses a puckish sense of amusement at the whole proceeding.
I mixed stones and water, just to see what it would do
And the water it got stoney and the stones got watery too
So I mixed my feet with water, just to see what could be seen
And the water it got dirty and the feet they got quite clean
Mike’s next offering, “Painting Box” probably tops the lists of favorite ISB songs for many more of their fans than just me. It’s lushly romantic in both words and music. Once again the lads’ guitars race and blend through scales and riffs, Danny Thompson provides the bottom, but for the first time Robin’s girlfriend, Licorice, enters the picture. Apart from her aromatic nickname, she sings in a sweet, childish falsetto and punctuates the lyrics with the delicate clash of finger cymbals. It’s terribly arty in a way that will characterize the String Band for years to come, and yet irresistibly charming at the same time.
For somewhere in my mind there is a painting box
I have every color there, it’s true
Just lately when I look inside my painting box
I seem to pick the colors of you
The remainder of Mike contributions to the album are fairly straightforward songs that might not have been out of place on the first album (“You Know What You Could Be” and “Gently Tender”) although the arrangements and instrumentation have moved into more complex styles. Two other songs adumbrate a delight in writing for children and Mike’s infatuation with Winnie-the-Pooh. “Little Cloud,” the story of a boy’s discovery of a lovelorn, “prettiest little chick cloud” who can’t quite be unhappy despite being supposed to rain, opens with a line stolen from Milne: “How sweet to be a cloud floating in the blue.” “The Hedgehog’s Song” is another smiler about a man prevented from ever settling down with one girl by the perennial reappearance of a hedgehog who both interrupts his wooing and chides him for his lack of commitment.
Robin’s songs likewise fall into two categories. Personally I find the “serious” songs less appealing and more pretentious. “My Name is Death” is a conventional address by Death to us mortals, reminding us of the vanity of our dreams. “The Mad Hatter’s Song” evokes nothing of Lewis Carroll, but is instead a sort of phantasmagoric autobiography that ends with Robin declaring “I am the Archer” (the Zodiac sign of Sagittarius is neatly inscribed above his name on the album’s back cover) “hooked by the heart to the Kingfisher’s line,” presumably attesting to his partnership with the Heron.
Other songs reveal Robin’s admiration of Bob Dylan. The energetic “Blues for the Muse” is a delightful romp that swings from the powers of Orpheus to the singer’s infatuation with his “sweet guitar lady” in a verse that evokes the long-rumored romance between Dylan and Baez. An even more demonstrative paean to Dylan, “Way Back in the 1960s,” ends the album. It’s a humorous look back from a post-apocalyptic 21st century (“when England went missing and we moved to Paraguay”) to the present-day cultural scene. Vocally parodying the unintelligible lyrical delivery of 60s singers, he tells us
His name was Bob Dylan
Apart from the laughs the songs offers, it’s always stuck with me for another reason. This will be the last time for many albums that the String Band, and especially Robin, will flirt with the mundane. From this point onward, the mythical and the mystical will take control of their songwriting, the musical arrangements will rely more and more on the importation of exotic instruments, and melodies will increasingly diverge from the conventions of the English folk song.
Yes, there is a parodic nod toward Gilbert and Sullivan on their next album The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, Mike will return to Christopher Robin on Wee Tam and the Big Huge, and Robin will whistle up a children’s song on the same set. But there will always be an otherworldly setting in which those traces emerge; they come not so much trailing clouds of glory as tinged by the last intimations of mortality.
The Incredible String Band will spend the next several years constructing their mythic universe on their own terms. And while they may not have changed the course of folk music with their investigations into Eastern and Arabic themes, and while the lore of their Scottish roots will never be entirely lost, they will remain distinct from the British folk traditions that Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span would be exploring. Theirs won’t be a modern re-interpretation of the past but an imaginative invention of a new future. Wasn’t that what it was all about, way back in the 1960s?