Philosopher Of Punk: Gary Lachman

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A rather interesting article on Gary Lachman, in Hampstead And Highgate Express.

Crowley gets a mention…
Philosopher of punk

04 March 2005

A CHANGE has come over Gary Lachman. Look at him posing with Deborah Harry or on stage with Blondie and he is every bit the quintessential punk rocker.

Now take a look at him today outside the British Library in St Pancras and he looks as if he could front any postgraduate philosophy class.

Sure, age might have something to do with it, but when you hear him speak about his research into the occult (as in secret, hidden knowledge rather than devil worship and the like), you realise he’s more academic than strutting guitarist.

Sex, books and rock ‘n’ roll may be the best way to sum up the life of the man who wrote some of Blondie’s early hits who launched three books last year, either as writer or editor and has written about his life on the road in New York Rocker, under the name Gary Valentine. He is already busy working on his next book.

It’s been a long and winding road for Lachman from 1960s New Jersey to London, where he has been a resident of Camden Town for more than six years.

In between, he has been a founding member of Blondie, guitarist with Iggy Pop, had his own band in London, been a formal student of philosophy in Los Angeles and an informal and lifelong student of the occult, leading to what seems a flood of books over the past couple of years.

He left his home in New Jersey (the state that looks at Liberty’s backside) at 18 in 1973 and moved to New York with the idea of becoming a poet – not the first the person to tread that well-worn path – and he arrived just in time to become part of the revival of the local poetry scene that seemed to meld with the onset of punk.

“I had expectations of becoming a poet, none of which survives,” he says, with little regret for loss of those youthful thoughts. “From that I got mixed up in the New York music scene, which I write about in New York Rocker.”

He made his home in the East Village with a couple of other people and it didn’t take long before he was thrown centre stage. “A friend of mine from my hometown, Clem Burke, had answered an ad from a band looking for a drummer. It turned out to be Debbie Harry when she was putting Blondie together. He ended up drumming with them and then a fella named Fred Smith quit to join a band called Television.

“Their bass player, a guy called Richard Hell, invented punk rock. People here in the UK will disagree with that.”

This left a vacancy with the fledgling Blondie – then without a record deal – alongside Harry and her partner Chris Stein that Lachman was happy to fill.

“I sort of played. I looked the part, anyway. I wore dark glasses all the time. I was working on Johnnie B Goode so I went for an audition…” And the rest is rock and roll history. He joined Blondie in spring 1975, stayed with them for two years, and managed to channel his poetry into successful lyrics that led to the band’s first hits.

“The songs have survived so I’m glad about that. There was a whole poetry scene going on in New York at the time, what with Patti Smith, Richard Hell and the Television bass player Rick Verlaine. So there was a real meeting between poetry and punk rock. I don’t think anything like that had happened before and I don’t think it’s happened since. It was a really fascinating time. I was just 18 so it was great for me.

“I wrote some songs in Blondie, one of which Ex-offender, basically got us the record deal.”

Then in 1978, the song called I’m Always Touched By Your Presence Dear was a top 10 hit here and in Europe and still turns up on all of the Best Of Blondie compilations. “When I look back on it it’s been on about three records that have gone gold so it gotten a lot of mileage.”

But it all turned sour and a falling out led to Lachman leaving – or being asked to leave – the band. His musical career continued with a new band, Know, which had a following in New York and Los Angeles, but it disbanded in 1980.

“My interests then were moving away from music. I always wanted to be a writer, basically. I played with Iggy Pop for a year and went on two North American tours. That was the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll tour. I well and truly retired after that, and I just dropped out of music in 1982 and moved to LA.”

While on tour with Blondie he carried around his own little library – as opposed to the chemistry sets of others. “It was philosophy, psychology, magic… flying saucers. I was just constantly reading all this stuff. I had been reading books since I was a kid.

“This was the tail-end of the 60s. I was reading a real grab bag of stuff, including the Beats, Alan Watts, Carlos Castaneda. When I moved to New York and got involved with Blondie, Chris Stein was into black magic, voodoo and satanism, but more the aesthetic of it. It was then that I first heard about Aleister Crowley. Another book I read about that time was Colin Wilson’s The Occult, a brilliant work. It wasn’t weird and whacky stuff, it was in context of thinkers such as Sartre and Nietzsche.”

And the hit Touched By Your Presence Dear made it easy to follow his reading as some leisure. “I got a lot of money from it, basically. It allowed me to do nothing for a few years. And I just spent all that time reading. While I was doing that a friend asked if I’d ever thought about going back to university. I guess I was what you would call a mature student. Actually, I wasn’t that mature but I was older.”

He completed a degree in philosophy, during which time he worked in a new age bookshop, the Bhodi Tree, which put him in touch with even more writers of the occult.

“I was doing a joint degree at USC in philosophy and literature, but didn’t go on because I just felt the academic world would have been too constrained. Once you get into the postgraduate study it starts to get professional and constrained. You have to specialise too much.”

Again the royalties from the Blondie hits appeared. “It was from another compilation CD and I got another huge cheque out of nowhere. I just decided to drop out of the PhD programme. So I worked on an occult thriller, a good versus evil sort of thing.

“I got about halfway through it and gave a bunch of readings in this coffee shop revival. It went over very well but I never finished.”

And then in 1995, just as he was about to turn 40, his marriage broke up at the time that his articles on the Western esoteric tradition were starting to be published. One of them led to him being invited to the Czech Republic for a conference on the Rosicrucians.

“It was an absolute turning point for me going to the conference. There were a few people from London there and we got on really well. They said that if I needed a change of scenery, to come to London.

“I suppose it was one of those early middle age crises. I sold everything I didn’t want and everything else I put in storage and arrived in London on January 6 1996. I thought I’d only be here for a few months but here it is nearly nine years later.

“It was tough when I first got here, but I wrote something for the Fortean Times and the Guardian, and bit by bit everything fell into place.”

Just as he arrived he received a call from Chris Stein, who was trying to put the original Blondie back together for a US tour.

“I hadn’t heard from them in 15 years. I wound up going back to New York and taking part in the early tour. I did some recording with them. So for about a year I ended up back in Blondie. I think I’m the only person to ever get chucked out of the same band twice, 20 years apart. The same personality clashes came out.

“One of the good things that came out of it was I wrote a long article for Mojo about my time with Blondie and being in the band again and that article was the beginning of the book New York Rocker”

By the time he returned to London in 1997 he was writing a book about the 60s, Turn Off Your Minds, managing and playing in his own band, writing songs, looking after his first child and writing articles for various magazines to bring in the money just got too much.

“Something had to give and that was the band.”

The music stopped in 2002, just as all that reading and research was about to pay off, but first he was asked to write a book about his time with Blondie and Iggy Pop.

“So from no books I had a two-book deal – incredible.

“It all seemed to open up after that and then I wrote a Secret History of Consciousness for a spiritually oriented American publisher. So, three books in no time. Since then I have spent about two-thirds of my time at the British Library.”

And when an approach to Eric Lane at Dedalus about doing a book on the occult turned into a deal for two books, he found he was not just an established author but one with an extensive bibliography.

Lachman now writes for most of the major dailies and various music and esoteric magazines.

“While researching the books on the occult I pitched the idea about doing a biography of the Russian philosopher PD Ouspensky to Quest Books in the US.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Ouspensky but he’s always been overshadowed by his relationship with Gurdijeff – he’s brilliant in his own right. And he’s a real London figure. He lived here for 25 years from 1922 until his death. People like Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood, JB Priestley, Malcolm Lowry were all influenced by his work. I think he deserves to be known better as a writer and thinker in his own right.”

All of this has been part of a quest because Lachman found nothing in the established religions that spoke to him, while science failed to excite him.

“The scientific view of the universe didn’t really satisfy me. But by groping through this occult literature I went on my own search for meaning that I couldn’t find in any of the established religions. I think I have a religious sensibility in the sense that I think there is something behind our lives and life in general.

“I’m not advocating the occult but I think it’s important to recognise that it’s a very fertile and important cultural tradition. I’m interested in how these marginal interests become part of the mainstream and become transmuted. It has become part of our everyday lives now, whereas 20 years ago it would have seemed strange and threatening.”

His next book will be on Rudolf Steiner, mostly known today for the alternative schools and biodynamic farming.

“I’m so happy I have the opportunity to do this. He was a fascinating figure. People vaguely know about him through the schools [his two children go to Steiner school in Islington].

“He wrote a great deal but there really is no popular biography. He had a social regeneration plan for Europe after the First World War.

“What I’d love to do is a book about politics and the occult. So if there are any publishers reading this…

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