The Journey of Angus MacLise, from Bridgeport to Nepal

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Dreamweapon: The Art and Life of Angus MacLise (1938-1979)
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If, as Brian Eno once suggested, everyone who bought a Velvet Underground album started a rock band, it stands to reason that the musicians who shaped that revolutionary sound are household names. And yet, beyond Lou Reed, John Cale and Andy Warhol — who only lent the band the imprimatur of his name as "manager" — an essential ingredient got short shrift. He was Angus MacLise of Scotland, where his roots lay; Nepal, India and the Middle East, where he traveled extensively; and Bridgeport, Conn., where he was born and partly grew up.

Think of MacLise as the Pete Best of the Velvet Underground, who were inducted in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Like Best, he was the band's original drummer. But, unlike Best, he was an essential part of their sound. At the most basic level, MacLise provided the band its electricity, literally. That is, he lived next door to the Lower East Side flat where Reed and Cale were squatting in 1964; because his apartment had juice they used it as a rehearsal space. MacLise also, like Cale, had a downtown art scene pedigree, having played extensively with experimental composer La Monte Young in his Theater of Eternal Music. It was through MacLise's connections that the earliest incarnation of the Velvets (then known as the Warlocks) began playing live soundtrack music to screenings of experimental films by such avant-garde legends as Jack Smith, Stan Brakhage, Barbara Rubin and Piero Heliczer. Indeed, this was how they came to the notice of Warhol, who did little more than transfer what they were already doing to his multimedia event at The Factory called "The Exploding Plastic Inevitable."

Finally, and most importantly, MacLise brought a unique hybrid of musical influences to the table, playing bongos, tablas and all sorts of exotic gizmos. Unquestionably, he shaped seminal VU songs like "Heroin," "Venus in Furs," "Waiting for my Man," and "Black Angel's Death Song," and played on early demo versions of the songs the band circulated to record execs. He also may have provided the band its name when he brought to their attention a paperback about illicit sex in the suburbs by that title found on a Bowery sidewalk by a mutual friend. In Transformer, his biography of Lou Reed, Victor Bockris wrote that, as a drummer, MacLise was "intuitive and complex, pounding out an amazing variety of textures and licks culled from cultures around the world." He "believed in listening to the essence of sound and relating it to one's inner being."

La Monte Young went further. In a New York Times interview on the occasion of a May 2011 exhibition of MacLise's notebooks called "Dreamweapon: The Art and Life of Angus MacLise (1938-1979)", he claimed, "Angus was one of the greatest drummers of all time and one of the greatest poets of all time."

For those who did not make the pilgrimage to Greenwich Village to pay homage to MacLise, the Boo-Hooray Gallery has kindly posted a plethora of treats from the exhibit at boo-hooray.com.

This trove includes films by and about MacLise, snippets of recordings and many of the artifacts from the exhibition. Now, for the tragic part of the story.

Of MacLise, Bockris wrote, "He was a lovely, whimsical, gnomelike man inspired, inspirational and a serious methedrine addict." He, according to Bockris, introduced Reed to meth. The two speed freaks even collaborated on a 1964 essay called "Concerning the Rumor that Red China Has Cornered the Methedrine Market and Is Busy Adding Paranoia Drops to Upset the Mental Balance of the United States." While drugs were nearly the undoing of Reed, they hastened MacLise to an early death. After he left New York, MacLise settled in Nepal, where he continued to compose and play music … and take drugs. The Nepalese sojourn had some good news: he and his wife Hetty had a son, Ossian Kennard MacLise who became a Buddhist monk at age 4. And some bad news: MacLise was enamored of Alistair Crowley, even writing a film script for Crowley's Diary of a Drug Fiend. Years of drug use, however, took its toll. In 1979, he died in Kathmandu of a combination of hypoglycemia, tuberculosis and malnutrition.

The reason he quit the Velvet Underground (and was replaced by Maureen Tucker) is telling: Like Maynard G. Krebs, he feigned artistic purity. On the eve of the Velvets' first paying gig, Bockris said that MacLise asked, "Do you mean we have to show up at a certain time — and start playing — and then end?'" When the answer came back "yes," he quit the band.

"Angus was too idealistic for Lou Reed," said Gerard Malanga.

 

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