Wednesday, July 14, 2010

J. Kordosh: The Incredible String Band vs. John Travolta (1999)

(As published at Beliefnet ... )

I did not write this piece, but I did have the privilege of soliciting it during my brief stint as Beliefnet's music point man in late 1999. The man who did write it, J. Kordosh, is one of the greatest rock writers of all time, a scribe who along with Dave DiMartino, Chuck Eddy, and John Mendelssohn made Creem ("The World's Only Rock & Roll Magazine!")( during its post-Lester Bangs years the magazine I most looked forward to reading every month (and in whose "letters" section I proudly made an appearance in 1986). Lucky for us all, Kordosh still writes ( Luckier for us all, this incomparable piece of his on the Incredible String Band is now available again for the first time.

by J. Kordosh

About eighty-three years ago, in the late 1960s, a British duo released a series of records that were simply fascinating. The guys--Mike Heron and Robin Williamson--called themselves the Incredible String Band, and they were.

Incredible, I mean. And a string band, too.

Heron and Williamson produced a charming blend of folk, pop, psychedelia, bluegrass and lots more. (The ISB played just about everything playable, including kazoos.) There was a transcendent quality about their work; they were post-Beatles minstrels plying mushroom-driven Folk. And, as they developed, many of their songs showed a decided Christian influence, especially those penned by Williamson.

(Williamson, if you remember the ISB, was the one who thought six minutes of music was nothing more than a succinct intro.)

By their fourth release, an ambitious double-LP with a wryly ambitious title (Wee Tam/The Big Huge), his musings on Christianity were in plain sight. "Job's Tears" starts with Christ's crucifixion ("The thieves were stealers, but reason condemned him / And the grave was empty where they had laid him") and ends with a description of heaven ("All will be one, all will be one.") "The Mountain of God" ends with "Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost / As it was in the beginning, is now and shall ever be / World without end, amen." And "Ducks on a Pond" has a line that positively gives me goosebumps: "Peacocks talking of the color gray/ Awaking soundly in darkest day / A howling tempest on a silent sea / Lovely Jesus nailed to a tree."

Back in 1967, that was not my dad's Christianity!

Not all of the ISB's work, nor even all of Williamson's, was as Christian-influenced as the songs mentioned. Actually, a lot of them simply oozed with good vibes, nature trips and magickal meanderings. Sort of like Donovan for the erudite. Or maybe the snobbish.

But the Christian element was certainly there. Nor were the ISB as obscure as you might think: their prior album, The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter, had hit number five on the charts. They recorded for the then-cutting edge Elektra label, and were one of only two British bands to play Woodstock, the other being the nonsectarian Who. (Unless you incorrectly count the Jimi Hendrix Experience as British.)

So whatever happened to these whimsical hippies?

In a word, Scientology.

Scientology (which means, literally, "Having nothing at all to do with science") was in a boom period in the late '60s. The ISB were pretty big into drugs by this time, and Scientologists were good at recruiting drugged-out hippies, Hollywood stars and drugged-out hippie Hollywood stars. After a gig at the Fillmore East in 1968, Williamson and his girlfriend were introduced to Scientology through a friend and enrolled at the New York Scientology Center.

(By the way, Williamson's girlfriend was named Licorice. No kidding. These guys really did have a lot going for them!)

Mike Heron joined shortly thereafter, and, voila, the ISB became the Really Pretty Adequate String Band. They sure never made anything as interesting as Wee Tam/The Big Huge again. In 1973, Heron was quoted in the New Musical Express as saying, "We were completely saturated in drugs and we realized we were screwing up and going out of our minds . . . I don't think the albums that came out immediately after Wee Tam were necessarily of the same stature." Good thinking there, Mike!

Things were grim. Starting with their 1972 album, Myrrh, the ISB's albums contained the liner note "Thanks to LRH," which refers to L. Ron Hubbard. Ron's the fellow who dreamt up Scientology. He went on to make millions of dollars, write a series of ridiculous science-fiction novels that will soon be a Major Motion Picture (Battlefield Earth, starring Church of Scientology poster boy John Travolta), and eventually die.

Incidentally, the grave was not empty where they had laid him. (Actually, I think he was buried at sea, but you get the idea.)

At the end of the spiral came three songs from a 1974 concert, a benefit for you-know-what. The album, which contained a pitch for Hubbard's Scientology bible, Dianetics, has been described as horrible. And correctly described, I might add. They were the last recordings of the Incredible String Band.

By all accounts, Williamson remains a Scientologist to this very day.



  1. British bands at Woodstock apart from the ISB and the Who; Ten Years After, Joe Cocker & The Greaseband, Keef Hartley Band.