It is Saturday, August 16, 1969. As the helicopter whirs in the smoky grey sky above the farmlands of upstate New York, U.S.A., a small group of musicians huddle inside in anticipation of another festival. They peer hesitantly through the large hole in the side of the copter. The machine suddenly turns and dips sideways. The musicians grip each other, momentarily startled…not just from the sudden turn, but also the ground below. The kelly green farmland has changed. It is now a massive multi-colored tapestry. A very large mosaic, a blanket of miniscule, colored dots on the earth’s canvas. Could tha’ be the same festival c’rowd?, the musicians undoubtedly wonder. ‘Tis a bit lairger!
The blanket below, indeed, is a crowd of people. They’re gathered for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair Festival, in White Lake, Bethel, New York, and road gypsies are still arriving. The merry little foursome from the British Isles, who squirmed through traffic jams for a sneak preview the day before, and are now returning by air for its Saturday performance, has no way of knowing that the three-day event, which will climax at a then-record half million people—whom it will soon sit in front of—will become a defining moment in cultural history.
Who are the musicians? They are two confident and prodigiously talented Scotsmen; a liquid-eyed, slightly detached Scotswoman who is missing a front tooth; and a slender, raven-haired English sprite with a mild overbite and a glowing smile. They are accompanied by a hip, young, Harvard-educated American manager/producer. The musicians are, collectively, The Incredible String Band. The Englishwoman, formerly a student at the University of York—where she was head of the mountaineering club—has only recently learned how to play bass guitar. Her name is Rose Simpson.
In a few months, it will be exactly fifty years since Woodstock. There will be facsimile festivals, with musicians and concert-goers unborn when the original occurred, many of whom will be clueless as to the 1969 event’s significance, and its repercussions (positive and negative). There will be, and already are, retrospectives, tributes, nostalgic paeans, and a few critics lobbing grenades at something that still eludes, confuses, or enrages them. As that American manager, Joe Boyd, aptly told Scotland’s The Herald on the festival’s 40th anniversary: “Right-wing politicians still turn purple with rage when we talk about the Sixties. So we must have been doing something right.”
One of those right things is the music of the Incredible String Band (ISB). This band recorded twelve albums between 1966 and 1975. More esoteric than their British folk-rock peers, with serpentine arrangements and weird, off-key phrasings, their early records on Elektra are undefinable, showcasing a potent concoction of original songs imbued with Celtic balladry, English folk, Indian raga, American blues and country, Middle Eastern flourishes, Middle Earth imagistic lyrics…and often with a sly humorous sheen. And sometimes all in one song. The ISB influenced Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, who occasionally dabbled in folk. Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney praised them, and Judy Collins and Jackson Browne covered them. The ISB were antecedents of the World Music trends made popular by Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon, but offered a rich lyricism.
The Incredible String Band’s most fruitful years were 1966 through 1971. This fertile period produced the highly regarded folk-psychedelic relic, The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion (1967), and two aural masterpieces: the evocatively titled The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter (early 1968) and the sprawling Wee Tam and The Big Huge (late 1968). The core group were just two people: string wizards Robin Williamson and Mike Heron. But from ’68 to ’71, two others were official members, coloring the tunes with percussion and rhythm, providing ringing vocals, and mesmerizing audiences with their woodland-witch charm: Williamson’s girlfriend, Christina McKechnie (try “K’dist-INE-a Mc-CAKE-nee”), who went by the name “Licorice,” or “Liccy,” or…well…”Lic”; and Heron’s partner, Rose.
In most of the photos and videos I’ve seen of ISB, Rose practically jumps out. It’s not only her dark beauty. It’s also a look that appears to say, “I’m here accidentally, but I’m having a groovy time!” Intrigued by her, I recently got in touch. She is now writing a memoir tentatively called Scattering Brightness, and was kind enough to share her insider, fly-on-the-wall story of ISB with me, including their moment…This Moment, “different from any before it”…at Woodstock.
Here, then, is longitudes’ interview with the Rose of Woodstock.
longitudes: Rose, until you met Mike Heron of the Incredible String Band in early 1968, you were leading a fairly conventional life in northern England. You were studying English at University of York, and headed the school mountaineering club. How did you become acquainted with ISB, which at that time consisted of Mike, Robin Williamson, and Christina “Licorice” McKechnie?
Rose: I went to Scotland to do some snow climbing on the mountains. The snow was avalanching, so we stayed with a climbing lady, Mary Stewart, and spent time there. Robin and Lic were living there, and Mike was visiting.
longitudes: Mary Stewart’s children are pictured on the sleeve of the ISB’s third, acclaimed LP, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. And I believe you’re one of the older “forest hippies.” Did you participate in any of the music on this record?
Rose: I think I maybe joined in on a chorus or two as one of the various people who were around, but certainly not in any formal way.
longitudes: But after a while, you did become a regular band member, contributing vocals, bass guitar, and more. How did this occur?
Rose: Mike bought me the little silver Syrian drum, and I played that at home alongside him. I’d learned violin a bit—badly—at school. Mike and Robin were playing a gig at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Lic and I were with them, and we just sort of joined in, wandered on the stage with them, and carried on just as we would back home. Then, one day, Mike appeared with the Paul McCartney bass and suggested I play that, too. That was a major delight for me! Vocals were more problematic, because I was not tuneful. Joe Boyd and careful mixing helped that out. I did improve as time went by.
longitudes: ISB manager/producer Boyd, in his revealing 2010 book White Bicycles, said that “One of the most remarkable acts of pure will I have witnessed was Rose’s evolution into the ISB’s bass player.” How long did it take you to learn to play bass?
Rose: I can’t remember, I just enjoyed doing it, and it just happened along the way. I like learning new stuff. Still.
longitudes: Robin and Mike wrote incredibly exotic songs and were extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalists. Since you were so close to them, how did they create their amazing music? Did they crawl into a hobbit hole, cast spells, then woodshed for months on end?
Rose: They were both very different, and circumstances changed (their) techniques. Robin was more fluid and automatic. Sometimes he dreamed songs, he said, and they came complete and finished. He didn’t really spend hours repeating and reworking, but enjoyed the spontaneity. Mike was more of a craftsman, and he did want the space and silence to work. But for both, the music was their language, and that’s how they talked through the days. They didn’t need to make spells, it was just them. Very rarely they deliberately sat down and made new music, and then it usually wasn’t their best. Obviously, working a song out together was more planned and deliberate, but the original songs flowed from their days.
longitudes: You, yourself, progressed musically as well, and for the band’s fourth record, the double LP Wee Tam and the Big Huge, you play a delightful fiddle on the Cajun-influenced song “Log Cabin Home in the Sky.” Can you recall any details about participating on this song?
Rose: I could play it tomorrow! The songs became so automatic. I always loved that, because it was so much a celebration of home and a homely relationship that had a spiritual dimension, too. I also used to enjoy how Robin’s fiddle playing spun and danced around my own. So I ended up sounding much better than I was because of his skill. It also reminded me of a holiday we took together in log cabins in New Mexico one time between gigs.
longitudes: Speaking of band social dynamics, manager Boyd says you and Liccy—Robin’s girlfriend, a percussionist, and the other backup singer, who had a languid soprano—had very different personalities. Liccy seems very mysterious. How close were you to her offstage?
Rose: Very close in daily living and the physical proximity of touring. Very far away in understanding and personality. But I admired her, too, and never did manage to break through her mystery.
longitudes: You earlier mentioned joining ISB on stage at the venerable Royal Albert Hall. ISB concerts were, from what I’ve heard, intimate gatherings, and you had a devoted following, including at Bill Graham’s Fillmore ballrooms in the states. Audience members sometimes left gifts onstage, and Boyd said they especially adored you. Can you describe a typical ISB concert?
Rose: (They were) like an evening at home, with all our stuff around, talking to each other and the audience, laughing, sometimes crying together, colour and lights all making magic around us. We were closer onstage than off it, really. I so adored their music, and watching them play, that I felt also part of the audience in some ways. And I had a great fellow-feeling with the audience, because I was pleased and happy they were there. It was the highest high, I used to say. I always felt, in the good times, that being onstage you saw the best of us all, with the daily nonsense stripped away. And it was natural for all of us, not a performance of someone else, but a projection of the people we would have liked to be all the time. But then, life gets in the way of utopias.
longitudes: “Utopia” is a key word. Younger people today, or those who might have more traditional backgrounds (both then and now), might have trouble understanding the appeal of Eastern spiritualism, mysticism, TM, organic and communal living, casual nudity and sex, and, of course, hallucinogen use. The ISB—one of the most hippie of all the hippie bands, on either side of the Atlantic—was at the vortex of all of this. But it wasn’t all youthful naiveté and hedonism, was it?
Rose: It was naiveté, but informed naiveté. We all knew very well what a tough old life it was. But if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, then it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.” We had read all the poets, etc., inspired by (what you listed) above. We understood the theory of it all, in a vague way, and we were already influenced by a post WW1 generation who had also been faced with world chaos and destruction, and saw the way forward through the same things as we did. We didn’t think through where that had taken them.
It definitely wasn’t hedonism for us, not when ISB was what we all now think of it as. We took drugs to enhance visions and learn universal truths. Sex was the way to union with the physical forces which moved the universe, as well as affirming human bonds. Nudity was unashamed closeness to each other and the physical world of nature. Communal living should realize the theories. OK, it didn’t work, and the glory fell victim to the outside world, but we did mean it and did believe it.
longitudes: You verbalize this well, and it’s a good preface to my next topic. On August 16, 1969, ISB performed at the Woodstock festival. (You may have been the only Englishwoman there!) You were slotted to perform with the acoustic acts, such as Richie Havens and Joan Baez, at 11 pm on Friday. However, due to a threat of rain that night, and the fact that Mike and Robin wanted to plug in, ISB insisted on performing Saturday, and ended up sandwiched between two raucous blues bands, Keef Hartley and Canned Heat. Boyd says one of his life regrets is that he didn’t force ISB to perform on Friday, when you might have made the cut for the soundtrack or film, which would have reinvigorated your career. Do you agree with his thoughts?
Rose: Yes, definitely. But also “reinvigorated” is a good choice of words. We were getting worn out by touring, fame was influencing the way we were, spoiling us and our relationships with each other and the audience. So, if we had gone back to ISB as it was when I met them, willing to try anything, and happy with acoustic, we could have done it. For that one time, and on that unique occasion, we could have lived again how it was…So it wasn’t Joe’s fault that Mike and Robin wouldn’t bend to circumstance and throw themselves on the kindness of the unknown masses. “Career” isn’t a good word. We had lives, not careers, but by then that was changing/changed, and soon it began to alter the whole nature of the band.
“It was naiveté, but informed naiveté…if you don’t have shining visions of what could be, it’s “Goodbye Cruel World.”
longitudes: A few of the six songs you did for Woodstock are now on the internet. The music isn’t as strong as on ISB records, but I thought the performances had a sweetness, and showed a gentler, more pleasant side of the hippie counterculture, which at the time was such a threat to so many people. What is your remembrance of your time on stage that hot August day in 1969?
Rose: As a group, we just wanted to get it over with. We knew that it wouldn’t work with all the audience hyped up on volume and power and superb musicianship, after a (Friday) night of chaos and confusion. We had another gig in New York that night and had to get out and away. We did sort of recognize that this was special, and that the New World was dawning in some ways, but we, too, had had an awful sleepless cold and miserable night. As a group, we weren’t doing drugs to get over that. But still, to see that audience and hear a bit of what they were achieving was wonderful and amazing.
We were also sweet and gentle most of the time, and that was how we saw the hippie culture. We always worked, were not parasitic, and cared for our immediate environment and each other. We hoped for an end to war and the outrageous exploitations of capitalism, for equality amongst all people and genders, and care for the natural world as part of ourselves. As well as seeing ourselves as part of the eternal cosmic flows, etc. The time onstage was just another gig, bigger audience, but that didn’t make much difference. We didn’t get the fellowship and affection, but then that was our fault.
longitudes: Despite the difficulties ISB had, do you have any anecdotes about being backstage at Woodstock, such as meeting other musicians, which readers are probably curious about?
Rose: Not really, apart from spending the night in a wet tent with loads of people. I was told John Sebastian (of Lovin’ Spoonful) was one of them, but can’t confirm. There are anecdotes, but I don’t have time right now to think it out! We didn’t, in general, hobnob much with other bands when we were on tour.
longitudes: A couple years after Woodstock, you played bass on Mike’s 1971 all-star solo LP, Smiling Men with Bad Reputations, and accompanied drummer Keith Moon of the Who. Moonie is considered one of the greatest and most flamboyant drummers in rock. That sounds like it might have been a rattling experience.
Rose: I remember him playing, but don’t think I played with him on that LP. I did play with Dave (Mattacks) from Fairport (Convention, another Boyd-managed band), I know, and I was at the Keith Moon session, but his drumming was a solo effort with earphones, not a group effort. If I did play that track, it would have been separate, anyway. He was totally out of it when he came in, dragged through the door almost. But at the drum kit it was like a switch threw, and he was absolutely there, and as perfect and creative as his reputation confirms.
Rose: I wasn’t a competent enough musician and Joe knew it. Joe put him off, not me, but I was grateful.
longitudes: Going back a bit…at the end of 1968, the band, always spiritually inclined, became converts to L. Ron Hubbard’s controversial Church of Scientology, which eventually had a profound effect on the group and its music. Could you please touch on this experience?
Rose: I can tell you I was never a convert. I went along with them for a while, because it was that or leave ISB. I never wanted to do that. In the end, I could stand it no longer and left. I didn’t and don’t have any time for cults, and that was not a good one in my eyes. It is also uncomfortable to say these things publicly, because it does bring repercussions…and that’s not ungrounded paranoia.
longitudes: Thank you for your candor with this delicate subject. Then you left ISB in 1971, after the Be Glad for the Song Has No Ending album?
Rose: Yes. They had changed in a direction I didn’t find OK, and they couldn’t accept my non-compliance with Scientology. I was running fast and loose for a while, before.
“ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives…The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay.”
longitudes: Today, Robin and Mike continue to make music, separately. But Liccy disappeared mysteriously around 1990, and even her family has been unable to locate her. Mark Ellen of Mojo magazine wrote (probably apocryphally) that Liccy was last seen hitchhiking across the Arizona desert. Robin thinks she’s a happy mother of three, with her cult of choice. What are your thoughts?
Rose: Could be any of those. I tend to think it ended unhappily and that it did end. Lic was a musician in her way, and would have taken the opportunities that have arisen since to resurface and pursue that life. So I think she probably fell apart under the pressures of a life she was unsuited for. She was not one to accept compromises and would find an ordinary life where she couldn’t pursue her own ways (to be) a difficult one. Years with ISB probably didn’t help that, either. But she definitely could be living in some corner somewhere as a different person. Only trouble is that you need money to stay alive, and that means social contact on their terms, not yours, which was not her forte.
longitudes: Since leaving ISB, you raised a daughter, earned a PhD, became fluent in French, German, and Welsh, and were Mayoress in the seaside, university town of Aberystwyth, Wales. A staggering journey. You’re now writing a memoir with the working title Scattering Brightness. Without revealing too much, what can we expect from this book, and—pardon the pun—is the hippie bloom still on the “Rose” that once flowered with a group called Incredible String Band?
Rose: My whole aim in writing the memoir was to make the record straight. Other people write me as part of their lives, but I did have one of my own, too, and that was different from theirs. ISB was all the good things that people remember happily, but we were also real people and led real lives. For a girl, at a time when women had very limited freedoms of expression unless they had some social privileges—which I didn’t, at first—it was a strange life to be part of a famous band on tour. I worked it out for myself one way or another and enjoyed it a lot. I can’t see much hippie bloom on a woman my age, but I’m not going to paint it on, either.
Just as then, I value authenticity and what I think is truth (as opposed) to physical experience. I also know that memories are constructed from imaginative interpretation of events, too, however much I try to get it straight. I guess I have written what I would want my granddaughter to know if she ever decided to run off and join a band. It isn’t a magic life, although it may be a wonderful and exciting one. The people shimmer and shine, but they also have feet of clay. I don’t want to concentrate on that or destroy lovely dreams or illusions, but I just want to make us real. That should bring people closer, not distance them. They should know us better and see the weaknesses as well as all the strengths they generously attributed to us. And I don’t usurp any of the creative talent and charisma that belonged to Mike and Robin. They were the music of ISB, but Lic and I were part of the band, and we earned our keep.
longitudes: Thank you, Rose, for your time.
Rose: You’re welcome.
(I’d like to also thank Joe Boyd, for helping arrange this interview…dedicated to Licorice.)