London 1966: I.T., the Camel, and a Song Named Me

The camel’s unexpected appearance saved me. The raggedy texture of his fur, his massiveness, and his breath were all undeniably real, no matter how bizarre the setting and cast of characters. Snaking black power cords connecting reporters to brilliant artificial light, long-armed microphones and BBC television cameras did not trip his feet as they did mine. The night could not have been more multi-sensory and dramatic even if I hadn’t, an hour earlier, decided in a moment of bravery, foolishness, or spiritual bungee jumping, to take my first acid trip on the way to this monumental party.

LONDON, October 1966: Peter and I are walking from the Chalk Farm tube station to the Round House, a nearly-abandoned stadium-size multi-storied building in which horse drawn streetcars turned around in the late 19th century, suddenly transformed into an emerging venue for avant-garde artists, musicians, and movie makers. British writer Peter and I are housemates along with David, my American intellectual writer/director boyfriend. David and Peter both write for and edit the new hot underground newspaper, International Times. We call it I.T.

I.T. is in trouble. The paper needs funding. Without financial help, this groundbreaking counter-cultural near icon will go bankrupt. Defunct. So here comes the launch party. Writers range from Paul Bowles to William Burroughs, Charles Marowitz the playwright to Tom McGrath the Scottish poet and John Hoppe, major mover behind the scenes. Bright lights and the lesser known meander intellectually, emphatically, and ribaldly through its pages. There are juicy minds at work here and few boundaries, with Indica Books and Miles the impresario at the geographical center of it all.

International Times launch party flyer and debut issue /  image credit:
International Times launch party flyer and debut issue / image credit:

The acid has barely begun to take effect when we walk into the great hall. It is enormous and every sense is assaulted by bright lights and sound. Donovan stands on a platform in the center of the main floor, young, beautiful, and gentle-voiced, singing “Electrical Banana.” Sheets are stretched along the upper balconies, projecting Antonioni’s new film, “Blowup.” Large groups of people assemble, shift, re-form and move away from one another like fish in a small river. I see Paul McCartney drift through the crowd in his white flowing djellabah, an elegant barely disguised sheikh and number one fan/supporter of the threatened disrespectful entertaining weekly. My eyes and brain seem to be working butmy ears are not. I see David talking to a young woman and without a shred of doubt I know by the twinkly-eyed soundless laughter and body rocking that they are having an affair.

Walking away, I step over more cords and stare at the people in my path, the ones being photographed, bejeweled, silky, short of skirt. Their mouths move but I cannot hear their words. More frightening, their faces seem to be melting, distorted under layers of puddled make-up. The ground shifts beneath me, boat-like. There is no solidity here. The beautiful people’s natures are revealed. Only masks remain. I am in the middle of a carnival facing distorting mirrors with no friendly reflections but Peter’s.

That’s when the camel walks in. Maybe he is meant for Paul McCartney, part of his Sheikh regalia, but I think he is a gift for me. He comforts me with his chunky mammal nature. I touch him, smell his breath, and I can hear again.

David walks up to me with the lead singer from “Them.” We stand in a triangle. He is tickled with himself. “I’m I.T.,” he says, pointing to himself, “he’s ‘Them,’ she’s Gloria.” We start singing the group’s hit song “G.L.O.R.I.A.” The moment turns joyous. Donovan moves on to “Sunshine Superman.” Paul walks by, smiles and waves. The painted people go away. I give the camel one more pat and move out into the night with my housemates, wandering the cool early morning London streets, looking for something real to eat. We are laughing, talking, in love with the night and the brilliant auras around streetlights. Finally, an all-night grungy diner appears. Baked beans on toast for three please. The trip is winding down, a light and happy landing, though nothing will remain the same.

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