The beat goes on for ex-hippie Lee
Being a Suffolk pensioner doesn't stop you collaborating with an urban hip-hop artist nearly a third your age, though it's certainly more unusual than carpet-bowls and afternoon tea-dances.
Being a Suffolk pensioner doesn't stop you collaborating with an urban hip-hop artist nearly a third your age, though it's certainly more unusual than carpet-bowls and afternoon tea-dances. But, then, Lee Harris's life has always run counter to the norm. He tells Steven Russell about meeting Nelson Mandela and John Lennon and those idealistic days of the 1960s
LEE Harris slides a copy of his new CD across the kitchen table: the fruit of his alliance with the West London producer and rap poet River Styx. The album is billed as a mesmerising journey of psychedelic soundscapes. Lee - ex-beatnik, former hippie and adopted son of Suffolk - can't quite get over his involvement with the 21st Century scene and the technological magic that goers hand-in-glove with modern music-making: the de rigueur MySpace site and a two-hour internet broadcast, say.
“At 72 it's very strange coming into that field!” he grins. “When I Googled ReverbNation” - an online showcase of creative talent - “I couldn't believe it: I'm 19 in the national hip hop chart! It's quite interesting . . .”
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He might be a child of the '60s, essentially, but his involvement with non-mainstream culture has never stopped. In the mid-1990s, for example, Lee got involved with a techno club called Megatripolis and organised speakers such as the beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who gave his final London performance.
There's been a CD compilation with electronic artists, too. “I ended up doing spoken word in the chill-out rooms to ambient sounds: giving people moods and atmospheres of forests, for instance, and Eastern philosophy.”
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There have been performances at universities and clubs, and Sunday morning broadcasts on a pirate radio station where he was given the moniker MC Skinz.
And then came the first meeting with River Styx - real name Hicham Bensassi - who asked him to do an intro to a new album of hip-hop. That was about three years ago. Styx, then 24 and living with his parents, wrote the music and they brought in guest artists. “We started a new genre, which we call angel-headed hip hop.” The name borrows a phrase from Ginsburg's poem Howl. “I'm an elder from the counter-culture and he's a fresh young person living with the youth who say 'Hello bruv,'” smiles Lee, who lives with his four cats in a “cold old cottage” near Stowmarket.
His technique involves words spoken over electronic beats, rather than rap. The duo had more than 20 dates in the first part of the Don't Hate, Create tour - which went to places such as Cardiff and Paris and finished at the Out of the Ordinary Festival near Eastbourne in September.
Meanwhile, the new CD, Angel-Headed Hip Hop: Tales from The Grove, is “a rather personal album”. Its production was very much bound up with the illness and death of wife Brigitte, the sheepskin coat-wearing German backpacker he met in Portobello Road on St Valentine's Day, 1975, and would soon marry at a Buddhist ceremony featuring five Thai monks. Brigitte was due to return to Germany at the end of the weekend, but she didn't - sacrificing her job and university studies.
“She'd got a flat and a car, which a doctor friend had to clear up. It was a life-changing thing. She was just finishing her degree, she was 28 and was teaching English,” says Lee, who admits the year since her death in February, 2008, has been “like a mist in some ways”.
“She was a great reader, had a wonderful intellect, and was a gentle and lovely lady.”
One of the tracks on the album is called Butterflies and was played at her Buddhist funeral ceremony. “She had a vast knowledge of nature: knew the Latin names of all the plants and animals and butterflies in the wild garden we have here.”
Brigitte, he explains, had encouraged him to make the album, “as long as it's done for love and not for money”.
LEE Harris was born Eli Harris in 1936 in Johannesburg, South Africa, of Lithuanian Jewish parents, and was raised “in this quite-closed white minority community”.
The apartheid system was officially enforced after the National Party government came to power in 1948 and he became one of the few white members of the congress movement opposing racial segregation.
It struck him as a dreadful regime. “It broke all my white conditioning. I'd only met black people as servants, and knew them only as Martha or Boy or Girl, or something like that. I soon found I was involved in this big political movement. I was selling political newspapers, which were soon to be banned.”
Lee helped with arrangements for the Congress of the People gathering in the summer of 1955 - held at
Kliptown, Soweto, to establish a vision for the nation. The Freedom Charter emerged and became the African National Congress's manifesto. “I was a young foot soldier,” he recalls. “I was involved with the preparations, and licking the envelopes, and going with people to the townships.”
At one time he had to go to a lawyers' office. On the door was the sign Mandela and Tambo - anti-apartheid activists Nelson Mandela, then in his late 30s, and Oliver Tambo. They gave free or cheap legal advice to many black people who could not otherwise afford a lawyer.
“I sat in their office for an hour and was awestruck. I was only 18 and I dared not open my mouth!”
At the Congress of the People, the crowd of thousands found itself surrounded by 200 armed police. “It was terribly exciting and emotional because when the police chief walked towards the rostrum the whole crowd started singing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika, which is God Bless Africa. It was one of the most powerful moments of my life.”
It was tempting to stay in his native land but, having turned 19 later that summer, Lee decided he'd better branch out and see the world. As 1956 dawned he headed for London, where he became a drama student at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art. Contemporaries included Terence Stamp, Penelope Keith and Steven Berkoff. “They're the ones that did well!”
The first thing he did was change his name from Eli to Raymond Harris: a symbolic new beginning. Later, when he found there was already a Raymond Harris in the acting union Equity, he became Lee.
It was lonely early on, and he spent six evenings a week washing dishes for money in the West End, or working at the Haymarket Theatre. His first acting job was in summer theatre at Hunstanton, Norfolk: Sailor, Beware!
In 1960 Lee won a role in the Orson Welles Shakespearean adaptation Chimes at Midnight, in which the great man both acted and directed.
Lee was assistant stage manager as well as having small parts. “I had to arrange all the taxis and sit and prompt him [Welles]. He once said 'If this kid prompts me once more I'll leave the stage.' So I was frightened! He didn't know his lines and kept us all up one cold January, all night, on a rehearsal. Volatile . . . an interesting man . . . it was actually nice working with him.
“We did five weeks in Dublin. Nothing came of it. I came back to London, and then back to South Africa for 18 months. I worked as an actor, touring. I worked then with Dame Flora Robson in The Corn is Green, understudying the lead and playing a small part. I learned to play Scrabble with her!”
Back in London, the 1960s were starting to swing. “It was an exciting time, with the Christine Keeler scandal. The permissive society was coming, and the era of the mods and rockers, and the coming of the Beatles - all of that. It was very exciting.”
In June, 1965, he was among the thousands at the Royal Albert Hall to hear some of the best poets of the beat generation. Allen Ginsberg was there - “like an Old Testament prophet, with his long dark hair and bushy beard”. The reading helped set the underground movement alight, he says.
“It was an extraordinary event. I gave up my job - I was working in a remand home - and was so inspired (that) I wanted to be an artist or a poet.” Lee wrote plays. One, a psychedelic look at folk in a dive in the West End, earned an Arts Council bursary in 1966. It enjoyed a dozen “underground” performances and proved “my brilliant successful failure”.
Thus Lee became part of the avant-garde crowd of writers, musicians and artists that included long-haired Yoko Ono, who before she met John Lennon was a familiar sight sitting quietly at the bottom of the stairs at the UFO Club, where Pink Floyd played in the early days. He wrote for underground magazines such as Oz and International Times.
In 1967, during the Summer of Love, Lee could be found at a rally in Hyde Park as one of the beautiful people: sporting a droopy Zapata moustache, a caftan and flowers in his hair. Ginsberg was there, too. Archive footage in which Lee features is sometimes aired on TV.
Hugely influential was the Arts Lab, which Lee helped counter-culturalists Jim Haynes and J Henry Moore found in Drury Lane in 1967. It brought aspects of the arts - film, music, performance theatre and so on - under one roof. “People would come from all over to spend time there and watch Bob Dylan or Andy Warhol films, for instance, or new plays. It was a seedbed for lots of experimental ideas.”
The magic of the Arts Lab, which brought all kinds of people together, saw Lee work as a make-up artist for musical polymath Frank Zappa, travel to Stonehenge on a red double-decker bus with folk rock group The Fugs, and sit cross-legged on the floor, rapping with Mama Cass.
There were some very famous visitors.
“We were sitting there one Sunday and a while Rolls-Royce pulls up outside and in walks this guy with a Maoist Chinese cap and a Maoist jacket - it's the period during the cultural revolution - and this Japanese girl with long black hair and a cape. They sat on the floor with us and it was John [Lennon] and Yoko, of course. We knew who they were, but most of us were too scared to speak! We were in awe of them.”
The end of the 1960s was a heady period indeed.
In the December of 1968 Lee was up all night at the Arts Lab with Ken Kesey (who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), two bikers from the Hells Angel chapter in San Francisco, and several other arty folk. He rode pillion on one of those motorbikes to the Beatles' Apple Corps offices in Savile Row, where the group decamped to an office suite and enjoyed a great party, with all sorts of people dropping in during the day and folk baking banana-bread in the kitchen.
“At 9pm we were buzzing and then suddenly it was quiet and George Harrison came through the door and he obliquely said 'Well, thank you for inviting me to your home.' Someone said 'Are you asking us to split?' And he said 'Ying, yang, yes, no,' enigmatically. Ken Kesey was drunk on egg-nog at the bottom of the stairs. It was quite embarrassing to be told to leave by George Harrison. He was telling us to cool it: its nine o'clock at night and these are offices. He handled it very well.”
This was just before “a chaotic” but influential event he helped prepare: The Alchemical Wedding at the Royal Albert Hall on December 18. About 4,000 children of the sixties, including London's first Hare Krishna devotees, packed in for a “happening”. Nothing much was planned, apparently - gofers like Lee were told to say that melancholic balladeer and poet Leonard Cohen would be there - but after a while musicians played, poets spoke and people did their thing.
John and Yoko were there, “and crept into their white sheet-like bag on the stage and stayed there out of sight for what seemed like ages”, says Lee, himself resplendent in a paisley kaftan.
It might have been a loosely-arranged happening, but “to me it was an extraordinary event; it affected a lot of people's lives”.
Those of us who didn't wear flowers in their hair might struggle to understand how these apparently metaphysical happenings in the Royal Albert Hall could be termed “life-changing experiences” . . .
“In a sense, you had to be there. There was a communal atmosphere. The Congress of the People [the 1955 political summit in South Africa] changed my life. It's about hearing influential people at big events. Life-changing might be something where you stop what you're doing and do something else. Musical concerts can do this: listening to Bob Dylan or Van Morrison at a certain time, perhaps.”
As the '70s got into their stride, Lee wasn't sure what to do to earn a crust. In 1972 he ended up opening a shop in Portobello Road, London, called Alchemy - named after The Alchemical Wedding - selling items from the East, such as jewellery and incense. It's still operating.
In the mid-1970s he published underground comics and writing by Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons while they were still on New Musical Express and before they became well known as edgy columnists and authors.
Today, Lee splits his time between London and Suffolk, where he'll work in the garden or write.
Looking back, what labels would he pin on himself?
“I was a weekend beatnik in my youth,” he smiles. “We used to wear a T-shirt and jeans and a goatee beard. And definitely a hippie, with long hair. I don't know how I'd describe myself now. I'm just an older person - and lucky at 72 to have some of my faculties!”
Were those eras full of false optimism or have they left a valuable legacy?
“There was a definite feeling we could rearrange the world, and maybe in some ways we did change the world. Beliefs from those times have influenced society: the whole eco-movement, concern about the climate, respect for the environment, the eating of natural food. A lot of the things we believed in - respect for nature and animals - all that is now part of the culture.
“The word organic was so new then. When anyone wanted to laugh at it in the '60s they'd say petrol was organic! It's so big and commonplace now, but it was almost unheard of then.
“The first time I heard the word ecology was in 1968. So the whole movement came from counter-culture. There were some things that weren't so good. There was the whole flurry of the psychedelic experience, which I think maybe blew some people's minds but also changed people's lives.”
“I regret, most probably, not making a lot of money! It's not been my interest to acquire possessions or material things. But, on the whole, I've been lucky. I've had a loving, long-term relationship and three children, and lots of friends. I've been in harmony with nature. On the whole, I feel all right.”
Money wouldn't fit the whole counter-culture ethos, though, would it?
“No, no,” he smiles. “I suppose not.”
Lee Harris Meets River Styx - Angel-Headed Hip Hop can be ordered through HMV shops and on Amazon.
LEE Harris has lived in East Anglia for three decades, though he admits he tends to keep himself to himself and doesn't actually know many of his not-so-near neighbours in rural Suffolk. And, he admits, it's been a bit lonely since his wife died of cancer just over a year ago.
Brigitte loved the countryside and they moved here in 1978. “We'd been on holiday the year before, to the Norfolk Broads, and liked this region,” says Lee. He had a friend who knew of this cottage near Stowmarket, available to rent, and the move from London was made. The couple had one daughter at that stage (now a clothes designer). There followed a son - working in a Dorset hospital as a respiratory physiologist - and a daughter of 20 who's at art college in Norwich.
Brigitte spent 16 years working at a playgroup for children with special needs, starting as a volunteer, and was also a volunteer librarian at a local high school.
Lee smiles at the strangeness of life as he remembers meeting his wife-to-be in the Portobello Road for the first time. “I'm Jewish and her father had been a soldier in the German army during the war . . .” He comments on it in his tribute song Butterflies: “I wondered if my dead mother had sent you to me . . .”
The couple renewed their Buddhist vows on their 32nd anniversary.
“Brigitte was a good wholefood cook, an avid science fiction and fantasy reader, and an Earth Mother. She had respect for nature. She had a vast knowledge: knew the Latin names of all the plants and animals and butterflies in the wild garden we have here.”